Discovering Your Personal Ethics – An Exercise

An excerpt from a teaching called Walking the Talk – Ethics by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

We are going to be talking about ethics, our lives and the structure of our lives.  I want you to think about this for a minute and really see if you can come up with a correct answer, not the one you think I would want to hear.  What I would like you to do is write down the three most important, and most visible ethical principles that you hold dear. Please spend some time thinking about this.  What are the things that you try not to let yourself get away with too much?  What is really precious to you?  Try to be as honest as possible.

Some of you may have ethics that sound like broad, sweeping statements about something.  And some of you may have ethics that are very simple and they apply directly to your life, and both of them are correct.  We’re not testing your ethics.  We are testing your ability to hold to them.  Whatever you say is OK.

Write down how you have upheld your ethics in the past week. Write down three answers – one for each of the three ethics. If it was not this week, because the circumstance did not come up, but was two weeks ago, you can write that down.

When you are finished write about sometime in the recent past when you did not hold fully to your ethics or perhaps even held to the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law.  In other words, when you fudged on your ethics.  Write down one for each of the three ethics you have chosen.  For those of us that say, “I always keep to these ethics and I never fudge,” my suggestion is to go back and re-examine, because I guarantee, particularly if your mind is that rigid, that you have held to the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law.  Just look for it. I can assure that it is in there.

Not everyone’s ethical system looks like the next person’s.  Of course, there are fundamental ethical structures that we all have to adopt or we cannot live together as a community, as a world or as a society.  Yet, many of us have different ethical slants, if you will.  Sometimes it depends on the circumstances of our lives.  The ethics that a person holds dear, if they were born poor in a third world country might be different than the ethics we were taught to respect here.  One is definitely not better than the other; they are simply different.  In asking these questions I am not asking you to feel that your ethics ought to be a certain way. Ethics teach us how to live in our world. So they may look different.  There are certain fundamental ethics that we should all adopt but what I am asking you to do is to look at your ethics, the ones that you hold dear, the ones that you really wholeheartedly agree with and hold precious.  So, they may not look like the next person and that is all right.  That does not matter for the purposes of this request.

Once you have written down some particular ethics that are precious and meaningful to you, ask yourself how you came to the conclusion that these are ethics that you want to hold?  What did you notice about your life? Be honest with yourself.  What made you arrive at these conclusions and when in your life did it happen?

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

Walking the Talk

Kapala relic from Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo

An excerpt from a teaching called Walk the Talk – Ethics by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, June 8, 1994

There is a direct relationship between a person’s ethics and their stage of development, spiritually.  If a person has a very loose, wobbly and insufficient ethical system, you can count on the fact that they have not trod very far on the spiritual path.  I think that is very clear.  However, before you make such a judgment it is not a good idea to get into the habit of evaluating people spiritually. Different people have different kinds of ethical responses according to their development.  What you want to see is whether the person walks their talk  – not necessarily what their ethical system is.

An extreme example might be if a person lived a very simple life and was very poor and the circumstances of their life were very cut and dried, such that when they milked the cow they got the milk.  There are many, many cases of great bodhisattvas that, for whatever reason not only manifest as the farmer that milks the cow, but sometimes manifest as the cow.  In any case, when you see someone who has developed enough spiritually to have a set of ethics that they simply do not transgress, then you know you have got something to work with there.  Or, at least the person has a set of ethics that they try hard not to transgress and they are mindful of that whole situation.  That is important. To the degree that a person keeps their commitments, to that degree, you are looking at spiritual advancement, spiritual development or distance on the path.

I gave you the ‘simple person’ extreme example. What about in the case of a lama? The one that comes to my mind immediately is the first Ahkön Lhamo.  Generally speaking, the stories specifically about her are about when she would be sitting in her cave doing whatever and people would come to her with some life threatening illness or something like that, and she would beat them with sticks to remove their obstacles.

Now, most people think, particularly if you are a nurse, that if a person comes to you with a life threatening disease, beating them may not be the best thing!  Did Ahkön Lhamo not hold to her ethics, whereas the simple person held to their ethics more strongly?  Well, of course not.  In the case of Ahkön Lhamo, she was removing obstacles to their lives and that was her method.  That was simply her method so that in the case of a very advanced bodhisattva or lama, you cannot look at the ethical system – you cannot even understand it, really.  They will hold to a different view.  It is as though you were looking at the world from a street corner – from the world on a street corner, you can see the street and you can see stoplights and you can see the cars coming from different directions.  You can see the buildings going up.  But the Lama might be looking from the top of the building, or maybe even up in a helicopter somewhere, looking down, and the lay of the land is quite different.  Where the person on the street may think that the big thing they have to do right then is to buy a loaf of bread on the way home, the one who is looking from the helicopter may be seeing that the big thing they have to do right then is stop a tragedy that is about to happen three blocks away and they might forget the bread.

It is a question not necessarily about determining what the ethics are or making a judgment according to that, but rather looking and seeing that whoever you are looking at is able to walk their talk, is actually able to live in such a way as to obviously display that they have a strong ethical system.  That is what you want to look at.  And in the case of sentient beings, there is often a very huge distance between our ethical systems that we have through even our own simple logic to understand and our performing of the ethics and holding and sticking to them.

For those of us that feel that we have strong ethics and feel that we always hold to them, then I have to say, unless you are a living Buddha, either you are lying to yourself, or you are not deep enough and not sufficient in your search of your own mind, which you should know better than a book by now.  I would say to you that you have not searched your mind and your heart, that you have not really observed yourself truly.  I would say that you are fundamentally being dishonest and you may not know it.  It is not possible for sentient beings to keep closely and truly their commitments easily. It is not that it cannot be done, but it is not easily done.  Generally when people do, they hold the commitment up like a shining bauble and they find circumstances that match up easily with their commitment and they are able to fulfill them and say, “See, I’ve done this” and they wear it a bit like jewelry or some sort of gaudy bauble.  In that case, you would say that that person is maybe, in a few cases, holding up the letter of the law about their ethical equation, but not the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law is much deeper than that.  The spirit of the law requires you not only to be happy when your life situations easily match up with your ethics, but rather in every circumstance.  When you practice your ethics deeply you look for a way to display your ethics in every circumstance. When that begins to happen, you are also going to look at your ethics and think they are not big enough, because you want to live a bigger life than that and you will be hungrier as you develop; hungry to live a bigger, broader spectrum of spiritual development.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

A Courageous Life

An excerpt from a teaching called Dharma and the Western Mind by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

I think a difficulty that Westerners have is so much input and so many different kinds of teachings.  Do you remember the first time you ever heard anything metaphysical? I don’t care if it was about flying saucers or about ghosts or whether it was the first time you picked up the Ouija board or did something weird like that. The first time you did anything that was metaphysical, you thought, “Hey I am on to something, this is it” and you got really excited and that excitement was a real joy to you. But haven’t you noticed that as you continued to go on this path in this direction you became less and less excited each time and finally you became a little cynical, and then suddenly you are just cool, “I’ve heard this before.”  When you start getting to the point where you say I am cool and I have heard this before, you are dead.  That is real cool.  That is about as cool as you can get.  But the problem is that most Americans are like that.

I find that when I teach new students the first thing that I have to do is a little razzle dazzle. Why? To get their attention.  We have heard so much stuff and everybody has got a sales pitch.  Of all the nations on earth this has got to be the nation with the most salespeople.  Of all the nations this has got to be the only place where everything gets sold, no matter what and you get to pick and choose no matter what and there are four different varieties.  It is almost a sickness.

It is a problem because now we are presenting Dharma, which is an ancient path, it is a path that describes supreme enlightenment, it is a path, which lays out the technology of supreme enlightenment, and it does it very well.  It does it consistently, and it does it purely.  It has done it in the same way for such a very long time and it has had proven results.

We even have stories of people who have practiced Dharma who have achieved what is called the rainbow body and have incredible miraculous signs at the time of their death. We think,  “Make me a believer, I dare you.”  We think like that and we act like that and we hope that someone will convince us.

I have found that another problem with Westerners is that we become a little hard.  I love you desperately, this is not an insult but we are a little cynical, a little hard to please. We have to have a certain percentage of entertainment value while we are being taught the Dharma.  I understand that but it’s a hard row to hoe.

Finally when we get this fire, this incredible love, this feeling that we only want to live this courageous life in order to benefit beings then we are okay but it is hard to get our attention and so this is another thing that I wish you would examine: how much you have been exposed to many different kinds of spiritual thought, and how many things you have been excited about that if you went back and examined, you would find were a puff-ball.  How many different systems have you thought, “Wow, this is exciting, this sounds right” and then you go back to it and you ask and find, “Who is it invented by, nobody; nobody that knows anything.” And nobody that got anywhere, anyway. Where did it come from, you can’t trace it back, you can’t figure it out.  Did it come from the mind of supreme enlightenment, maybe not?  If you go back and see the things that you got excited about you may find that from time to time you have been a little duped.

Mom told us that we would be happy if we did this and this and this.  The old idea about being rich, marrying a doctor, having children and dressing them nicely and wearing Polo shirts and Carter’s underwear; if you get all these things right then we will be happy.  We have become disappointed because we did everything correctly.  We got educated and we got a little prosperous. We have a Crock Pot; there is a chicken in it that, even as we speak, is overcooked.  We did all of these things and in mid-life we have a crisis.  It is so normal in our society that we write books about it.  The ‘Mid-Life’ crisis, the one you are bound to get to. It is weird if you think about it.   We tried all these things and we are not happy any more and we never were happy and it didn’t work. Basically what has happened is that we have become cynical and we are afraid to try.  We are one culture that has a particular problem: we are not believers actually, we are afraid to try. We say, “I have heard this and I have tried this.  I am not going to do anything hard.  I am going to get by and then I am going to die and that is how I am going to work this thing out.”

I find that Westerners have a tremendously hard time with the idea of making a real commitment with their lives, saying “Okay I get it.” I see that everybody is suffering, I see that there must be an end to suffering, I see that desire may be the cause of suffering, I see all of these things and I now understand the nature of emptiness.  Maybe it isn’t so dark and bleak and horrible.  Finally I can see where practicing Dharma would be right, I can see where this is what you should do with your life.”  But that moment at which you say, “Let this life only be a vehicle in order to practice Dharma, let that be the value of this life, let that be what I do” and be really courageous about it; that is hard for us.  We have a hard time. Understanding that the real value of this precious human rebirth is that we can accomplish a path to supreme enlightenment is a little difficult for us to get inspired about in that way.

If we could devise a way to help us to be less in love with what we should collect in our society, and how to be prosperous and have meaning in a material society, if we could become less involved with that idea and more involved with understanding the really important factor – the way in which we cultivate our minds and practice a proper technology to accomplish a pure and awakened mind state.  The point is to be of benefit to beings, to be awake as the Buddha was awake so we can bring about the end of suffering for ourselves and for all sentient beings.  The moment that which we discover this and it becomes meaningful to us we also need to divine a way to accomplish it.

©Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Emptiness = No thingness

An excerpt from a teaching called Dharma and the Western Mind by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

I like Dharma and I have a Western mind. I feel that this is something that I need to talk about a great deal.  I also feel that there have been certain challenges that I have become aware of in speaking to Westerners, and that these things need to be addressed, brought out in the open where we can examine them, see what they mean and how they affect us.  In doing so we will derive some useful answers that will help us to remain firm in our practice and keep us on the path of Dharma.

There are certain ideas and kinds of conceptualization that are natural for each culture.  Each culture formulates its own specific ideas about reaching conclusions, and accepting ideas and conceptualizations as their own.  We reach our own conclusions about norms and what is right, what is normal and what is appropriate. When you bring a system or a teaching to a culture, it is necessary to address the peculiar way in which that culture listens.  In order to do that you have to understand the way in which that culture hears.

When I first began to teach Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist ideas, I found that there was a tendency for Westerners to hear certain ideas in a particular way otherwise it turned them off. However, if these Westerners were given the idea in a different way it would be all right and appropriate.  They would understand it and it would not be distasteful to them.  I found that it was a particular challenge to speak to Westerners in this way. I would like to express some of what I learned about that to you.

When you speak to a Westerner about the Primordial Wisdom State it must be done very carefully.  I discovered that trying to convey to Westerners the idea of self-nature as being inherently empty is a very difficult thing for Westerners to deal with.  We hear emptiness and we think about something that we don’t like.  We hear “empty” and we think empty pocketbook, empty stomach, empty, dark, cold, lonely, and no good.  That wasn’t the emptiness that Lord Buddha was talking about.  That was not the idea to be conveyed.  When we think of emptiness we think of the opposite of fullness and that is not what Lord Buddha is talking about.  When we think of emptiness we think of something that is bereft of any comfort, of any meaning, of any glory and of anything beautiful. We are an emotional people and we like our ‘glory’ and our ‘beautiful’ and all that stuff, so we think that emptiness is not good.

Actually when the Buddha spoke of emptiness, he spoke in such a way that he was delivering his message from a state that does not distinguish between emptiness and fullness; a state that actually understands emptiness and fullness to be the same taste, the same nature. When we speak of emptiness we actually don’t speak of emptiness as nothing and cold but rather we speak of “no thingness.” In this case nothing doesn’t mean gone, it doesn’t mean black, it doesn’t mean terrible, it means no thing, just what it is supposed to mean.

The Buddha spoke of a state that was actually free of conceptualization.  For the most part all that we perceive, everything that we have ever known in fact, is conceptualization. We know nothing then of that underlying nature which is empty of that conceptualization.  We think that to not have that conceptualization is simply not to have – that there is an absence rather than a fullness.  This is very difficult for us.

One of the reasons that it is so difficult is first of all we have not become awake to the Primordial Wisdom State and we have never had a taste of it.  And that taste is important; it is important to sense the reality of it.  Also, we are a materialistic society.  We are a society that is based on ‘thingness’ and all of the things that become important to us, all of our goals, are so much a part of our pattern of thought.  There is a tendency to wrap our minds around ‘thingness,’ it is all that we know, all that we are aware of.

© Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

I WON! A Precious Human Rebirth!

An excerpt from a teaching called Dharma and the Western Mind by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

When the Buddha speaks of the reasons why we should practice, he speaks primarily of the fact that all sentient beings are suffering and that they experience this suffering in one form or another every moment.  Even when they are extremely happy, sentient beings experience the suffering that is inherent within that happiness.  The happiness is impermanent and will soon be over: we have all experienced that.  We have all been afraid of our really good moods because we know that they will end.  And there are some times we are not willing to give ourselves over to a wonderful experience of wholeness, or happiness or love because we know that there will be a day when the mood swing will go in the opposite direction and then ‘kurplunk’ – there we are again.  So we have difficulty in relating to that kind of concept.  We also have difficulty in relating to the fact that we should be motivated to practice because the conditions of cyclic existence are unpredictable.  There is something about our culture that is pretty regimented.

Here in this country we know that if we are born, probably we will get to eat.  We know that there are people who are hungry but we don’t get to see them very often.  Most of the public knows that it is going to eat.  They may eat on welfare or caviar and pâté but they will eat.  We know pretty much that if we are sick, there is a place that we can go to get help.  Even if we have to get free help; still we can get help.  It’s true there are exceptions but I am thinking of the greater population.  The greater population has a certain regimentation that it is accustomed to things upon which it can rely.  We really don’t see too many people dying very young.  Proportionally there is less infant death and death by disease in young people than elsewhere.  We see it but somehow it is not a major part of the fabric of our lives and so we find a way to work around that.  We think that it is not a good reason to practice because the chances are good that we will scoot through it okay and even though we really do know that we might not be okay.  It could be that we could die young or experience some suffering; still we think that the chances are that we will be okay.

We have also been shielded from some of the more gruesome forms that suffering can take.  We don’t see a lot of gross deformity or retardation.  We don’t see a lot of things that are kept away from us, really for our protection, so it will be more pleasant.  We don’t like to think about the poverty that other people experience.

The way that our society works is that there is enough option for change. If we are aware that some people are suffering because there is a prejudice against them or some people are suffering because they are lonely, there is enough movement within our society that we can stay away from that.  We don’t have to look.  That isn’t the same in other societies, you have to look, and it is there.  Unless you close your eyes when you are crossing the streets, there is no way that you can deny it, because it is there.  So you are not particularly motivated by the fact that suffering if you do not develop the skill through the technology of practice (of insuring that you have a positive rebirth) that you could be reborn in conditions that are unbearable.  We don’t accept that as being true or we don’t think about it.

We also have certain ideas that we have grown up with and these ideas are part of our culture: they are sort of children of religious systems that are inherent in our culture.  They are part of what was handed to us.  There is an idea that so long as we do our best and consistently stay good and improve that predictably the next moment will be a little better.  I am not exactly sure how that happened but I think that it has to do with the fact that this is not, generally speaking, a culture that believes in cyclic death and rebirth.  It is not a culture that understands that you have had many lifetimes before, and unless you achieve supreme realization, you will have many lifetimes yet to come.

Instead we look at the fabric of our lives and we see that children eat and they get a little bigger and they eat some more and they get a little bigger and they get a little smarter and then there is a period of decline at the end of our lives, but we don’t think about that too much.  We think that things improve.

Even if you have come to accept the idea of rebirth, and that it is important, still the idea is that somehow I won’t get worse than I am.  We tell ourselves it is not going to get worse than it is right now.  It’s only going to improve because I am going to continue to do well and I am going to be good spiritually.  I am going to be a good person and if I have already become a human being and I have these fortunate circumstances then this is all that there is so it is just going to get better.

We think this way because we don’t understand how awesome the components of the phenomena that we experience are.  We think that things are so stable, that the circumstances that we experience now are the sum total of all the learning that we have ever done and all of the goodness that we have ever been involved in: all of the good and bad, it’s all been worked out.  It’s only uphill from here.   Basically I think that this belief is the result of an absolute marriage with the idea of linear progression.  Therefore we are not motivated to practice.  But this is inconsistent with what the Buddha teaches.

The Buddha teaches us that we are here through a miraculous set of circumstances because we must have done something wonderful in the past.  In order to hear the Buddha’s teaching, in order to even have a shot at enlightenment, in order to not be suffering so much that it is possible to practice, to have a shot at listening to Dharma, to be able to think of helping others, we must have had an extremely fortunate past.  We must have had wonderful circumstances and really have done some good.  What they call good karma.

However, according to the Buddha we have lived incalculable eons.  From beginningless time we have been doing this.  We have experienced so many lifetimes that the causes that were begun during those times, many of them have not even actualized themselves.  They are still seedlings within our mind stream.  We have so many under the belt, that we literally have accumulated the causes for rebirth in the highest and most fortunate state and we have also accumulated causes for rebirth in the lowest and most difficult realms.  We have all of these circumstances and somehow, almost like a gambling wheel going around we stopped at a precious human rebirth and here we are experiencing this precious human rebirth.

What makes it precious is that we have all of our faculties; we have the opportunity to practice the Buddha’s teaching.  What makes it precious is that we have a shot at attaining realization and we aren’t suffering too much to do it.  We have the leisure to practice.  Understand that finding this precious human rebirth is, as the Buddha taught, very similar to finding a precious jewel while sifting through garbage.  It is that rare.  Finding this precious human rebirth with these fortunate circumstances is as common as dust on the fingernail compared to dust on the earth.  That’s how many more options you had of other kinds of rebirths.  If you understand how rare this birth is, you will find motivation to practice.   But Westerners have a tremendous difficulty with that.

Feeling that there is only linear progression Westerners have a certain pridefulness that unfortunately says, “Well if I have what it takes to get to this point where I can think as I do and practice as I do and be as wonderful as I truly am, then surely I can keep that stuff going somehow and it will remain stable in that way.”  The Buddha says not.  The Buddha says that there are specific reasons that you are here and if you utilize this life to increase your merit, good karma, virtue and value inherent within your mind stream, and if you purify your mind, thereby increasing its beauty and luminosity, then you will proceed on a path that will lead to supreme enlightenment.

But think about how many people here in the West kid themselves about this.  We feel safe in a life that is ever changing.  We feel permanent in the midst of impermanence and we feel that we have got it knocked and we go up and down every day and then we don’t do anything to improve our state.  Maybe we change a few things as a token gesture, we try to live a good life, we are nice to our kids.  We are good upstanding people, but in the end we find that we have been sitting on top of a precious jewel and a fantastic opportunity, and at the end of our lives we come to a realization that we have wasted it. What has happened is that it takes such an enormous amount of good qualities, virtue, good karma and merit to have gained such a life as this and when we could have done something, when we had an opportunity to accomplish the Dharma we didn’t.

©Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

The Eightfold Path

An excerpt from a teaching called The Eightfold Path by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

The Buddha taught that the end of suffering is possible.  That’s very important.  Many times in our society, we go to church, make lots of prayers, do what is required in our respective religions, but perhaps we have never been told that there is an end to suffering, and there is something that we can do rather than just wait on the rapture.  There is something that we can do to pacify our suffering, purify our karma, get relief, and begin to dispel desire, attachment, and its hold on us.

The Buddha taught that the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path. The Buddha teaches that by following the Eightfold Path we will move towards nirvana.  If we follow it diligently and accomplish it diligently, we will pacify suffering, and achieve nirvana.

I feel that no matter where you go in Dharma, you must understand the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  Without understanding these, there is no result.  Even if you are doing the highest levels of Vajrayana, you must understand these fundamental teachings.  So, what is this magical Eightfold Path?

The Noble Eightfold path is: (click on the links below to learn more)

  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Sometimes if you look in a book, it may use a slightly different word.  It’s just because the original language was translated slightly differently, but this is the right stuff.

The Eightfold Path is basically divided into three sections. The first section is wisdom, the second is ethical conduct, and the third is mental development.  All of these must happen at the same time, and so it is essential to understand all of the Eightfold Path, and not simply rely on one angle and think you’ve really got it.

In the wisdom section there is right view and right intention.  In the ethical conduct section there is right speech, right action, and right livelihood.  In the mental development section there is right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  The wisdom section explains how to apply right thinking and gain wisdom.  The ethical conduct section shows how to construct an ethical way in which to gain merit and do no harm. The mental development section is the actual meat and bones of the path.

We should never think of the Eightfold Path as a sequential, linear path. It isn’t that first you do right view, and then you go for right intention, and then you go for number three – right speech.  It isn’t like that.  It must be considered like the petals of a lotus in the sense that it is all one flower, and it opens up together.  It should be thought of as interdependent because it gives rise to an interdependent method and it helps one to understand the many different factors of the path in a concise way.

This level of the Buddhist practice does not lead to enlightenment in one life.  It takes lifetime after lifetime of consistent practice of the Eightfold Path in order to achieve some realization.  So, that’s the slow route.  Mahayana is a bit quicker, and Vajrayana is the one method in which you can achieve realization in one lifetime or at the time of death.  We want liberation in one lifetime, but in order to do that you must train your mind according to the Eightfold Path.  There is no doubt that this is the foundation of the Buddha’s teaching, and by itself will produce tremendous result.

© Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

Right Effort

An excerpt from a teaching called the Eightfold Path by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

Right effort is the blood of the Eightfold Path.  It is the sort of like a precursor, because you have to establish right effort and there has to be effort for the path to work.  To engage on the path, you have to be rightfully making that effort to engage on the path.

Now, there is no shortage of effort in our lives here in the US.  Contrary to what struggling people might think.  In other countries where survival is an issue, one works very hard from dawn to dusk, and probably most days of the year, but for Americans survival is not so difficult and so it looks as though we have a lot of leisure time.  In fact we do have a lot of leisure time relative to other unfortunate sentient beings.  And that’s why we have the opportunity to practice.  But there is no shortage of effort in our lives.

We are actually very hard at work.  We have determination.  Americans have a lot of ingenuity.  You know?  We can be a strong people. So, right effort is something that we have to understand.  Its not that there is a shortage of effort, but you have to determine what is the right effort?

On this path, nothing will be achieved if we do not contemplate, study and practice right effort.  What is behind right effort is our own mental energy.  Everything that we experience is from mental energy.  Everything that we interpret is about our mental energy.  The lens of our mind, the habitual tendency of our mind controls how we experience.  For those of us who are habituated to living in a certain way, we have to take very specific steps and efforts.  A great example of this are the steps that recovering alcoholics must take, because the seduction of alcohol is so all-pervasive and the habit so strong and reinforced by the drug alcohol itself.  People use alcohol in a self-medicating way. As far as I’m concerned, getting sloppy drunk is very unattractive, and not that much fun, and the next day it’s not very fun either.  So I don’t think that’s what draws people.  I tend to think that they are self-medicating.  That they are suffering in some way, and they think, “This will do it.”  Sometimes we are depressed, and we self-medicate.  I’ve known people that have mania who self-medicate.  And they use whatever they can get their hands on.  Some people just have pain in their hearts, and are too thin skinned for the world.  I’ve known alcoholics like that who underneath it were very vulnerable, very pure, delicate people who just can’t take it.  And so they drink.  They don’t know that there’s another answer.

It takes a lot of effort to drink that much.  It takes a lot of effort to self medicate.  It takes a lot of effort to do the things we do to cope, get to work, get home, take out the garbage, send the kids to college.  All this stuff is so effortful, and we know exactly how to do it, because society trains us to do it.

Right effort invites us to train differently.  We are always exerting effort.  Right effort brings us fulfillment, peace of mind, and certain contentment.  Unwholesome effort leads to mental confusion.  If you want to be mentally confused, just keep right on with the ordinary efforts without any guidance and you will keep spinning around in samsara like a bee in a bottle.

Let’s say a person leaves the path.  For whatever reason they find dissatisfaction with the path.  Heads up on that.  That tells you something right there. If you leave the path, if you find dissatisfaction with the path, it is because you haven’t done it right.  The path is the path.  It leads to liberation if you work it right.  If you don’t’, you just look stupid because you haven’t done it right.  And so most people that leave haven’t done it right.

Having done some right effort in order to travel on the path and do some practice, they maybe gained some benefit, but karma ripened. They didn’t quite get it right.  Didn’t keep themselves inspired on the path.  Didn’t really keep Vajra confidence when they were moving forward on the path.  And now all that attention and energy that they used to put into meditation and the path, they now put into gossip, wrong-headed and harmful activities such as speaking ill of others, or trying to destroy others, or trying to destroy another person’s path or trying to destroy an organization or something like that.  The person who is doing it feels in their mind right.  They feel self-righteous.  Of course you know that there is no room for self-righteousness on the path because there is no self, and the attachment to righteousness is something that we should be working on right now.  Being right.  Being in charge.  Being on top.  All that stuff is just attachment and desire, and that’s something that we should be working on right away.

Lets say that this person is doing all of these negative things, and they feel righteous.  They feel they have the right to do this.  If they didn’t get anywhere on the path, they make the path wrong.  And they say, “Well, the path is just nothing.  It doesn’t help, and I’m not happy in it, and therefore its wrong.” Once they make that decision they go off and try to seek happiness in another way.  At first, if they have a lot of anger, maybe vengeance, maybe they just let their anger rip?  After trying to work with it for many years, they just let it rip.  Letting the monster out of the closet that was always in there, and probably was the problem in the first place.  So, this person is now engaged in unwholesome activity and what will happen to this person?  If a person like that wants to do some harm, if they get a punch in, they feel a kind of satisfaction.  Does anybody know what that kind of satisfaction feels like?  It’s an evil, dark, stinky, smelly kind of satisfaction.  Not wholesome.  Not helpful.  Not going to make the world a better place.  Nothing but harm doing.  And when that person has that feeling of unwholesome, victorious satisfaction, their mind then becomes more aroused and inflamed, like a giant mental zit – inflamed, pussy, and nasty.  That’s how the person’s mind becomes.

If a person has manic-depressive disorder, in the state of mania, it is very hard to be kind.  It is very hard to have good judgment and it is very hard not to be raging and angry in mania.  It is very hard.  You don’t have any kindness when you are manic.  You are just too enraged.

Psychiatrists will tell you that if you are a manic person, a bipolar person you tend to go up and down.  What happens if you are not treated is that your mind, which is like a muscle exercising, learns how to go up and down, up and down, up and down. It habituates to being all over the place.  No steadiness there.  No stability.  It’s up and down, up and down.  Some people with bipolar disorder can cycle through moods in a day.  Other people go through seasonal cycles – manic in the summer and then lower in the winter.

What I’ve learned is that if manic-depressive disorder, because there is so much rage in it, goes untreated, then over the years it tends to make the mind toxic, and it leads to dementia.  It is not because there is a direct correlation, and it won’t be a strict dementia like old age dementia that tends to have certain parameters, but it leads to a kind of discombobulation.  What happens is that the mind is so filled with stress hormones, so filled up with the inflammation of rage and anger, and in mania tends to go round and round and round and round with no solution.  If untreated, then as a person ages, the mind becomes so toxic that even if a person goes for treatment in their older age, the first thing that has to be done, is treat them for this brain toxicity, before you can even treat them for the bipolar disorder, which is the disorder. A lot of times you have to backtrack by using anti-psychotics.   You have to backtrack and detoxify the mind until you can get to where you can treat it.  And that’s the main reason why when I see a person who I recognize as having the symptoms of bipolar disorder, I beg them to go get treatment because I see what happens to people who are untreated for such a long time and what happens to their mind.  At that point the mind becomes unreachable.  When the mind is toxic, it is unreachable.  Anger is the king.  Inflammation is the queen, and running around is the baby.

It matters so much how you structure your inner mental life.  Many people think that as long as their behavior is good, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in their mind.  For instance, you can think about kicking puppies in your mind but on the outside you are really kind to puppies, and think that it’s okay.  It’s a silly example, but the actual truth is that it’s not okay.  The actual truth is that one will bring the other about.  Eventually, if the mind stays in that condition without changing, then the outer behavior will change.  And so it is imperative that we make the correct effort, the right effort, and that is to study, contemplate, and understand, to begin to look at the nature of your perception and your mind, and to actually put in the time and the effort to study.

You practice Right Effort by preventing unarisen unwholesome states from arising, abandoning unwholesome states that have already arisen, arousing wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and maintaining and perfecting wholesome states that have already arisen.

1.  Prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states So, through good contemplation and right effort, you can prevent the arising of new habits by simply not engaging in them.  You make an effort not to engage with an unfortunate habit.

2. Abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen With right effort examine your mind, examine your life, examine your habitual tendencies and see what needs changing.  To begin to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen can happen through antidoting behavior.  For instance, if you are extremely selfish, you have to practice little by little learning to give. Practice little by little even if it’s just a flower or a dollar or a gift or even something of your own that you treasure very much.  Right effort would be learning to give that joyfully.  So abandon already unwholesome habits.

3.  Arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen  What would that look like?  It would be practicing generosity.  If you are that person who is selfish, then practice generosity in everyway that you can.   If you are not nurturing and kind and you really admire people like that and want to be that way, then you can practice five minutes at a time.  You put the right effort into stepping outside of yourself and looking at the other being to see what they need, what would make them happy.  To think of others before yourself.  It’s a practice that’s very simple but no one does it.  To put others in front of you and say, “How can I support this person?”  Rather than always being the one whose getting support and needing support, and wanting support.  That’s not really a wholesome habit.  That’s a dependency habit.  If you were to practice and realized that you’re like that, there’s no shame in realizing that.  You have to realize that you’re like that.  But then little by little you begin to act differently.  And at first its baby steps.  And then eventually those baby steps become habits.  And eventually those habits become recognition and awakening.  And even on the simplest level, lead to a better life.

4.  Maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen You examine them and you find that you have certain good qualities.  Like lets say, you feel yourself to be very interested in the Dharma,  interested in a real way.  It excites you.  You really like the thought of it. You like the practices, you like the atmosphere, you like everything about it.  That’s a wholesome condition because if you’re going to have an attachment, then have an attachment to Dharma because if you’re practicing it right, it will take care of itself.  Lets say that you have that habit and you really like Dharma, and you decide you’re going to use that to help others to like it.  Lets say, you want to become a chopon (person who handles the spiritual substances in puja) or an umdze (practice or chant leader).  You become really practiced at that.  That would be taking a natural wholesome habit and bringing it up to the next level.

Lets say that you basically like animals. You like dogs.  That’s a good habit, as long as you’re not too attached to them and you’re not like an animal hoarder or something.  But say you like dogs.  What would you do about that?  Your next step would be, “How can I help them?”  How can I alleviate their suffering?”  Same thing with the birds.  You know, I love that birds are so beautiful.  We love them but do we take the next step, which is to make their lives less horrible and more wonderful?  That’s the kind of habitual tendency that you constantly invite yourself to take and go over and make firm in your mind. It’s so important to understand that on the pat.  That’s really the basis of everything.   To be on the path and not make any effort, one is not on the path.  One is simply along for the ride.  And it won’t last.

A person who is on the path and makes no effort to correct their mind habits and is still mean and hateful and angry, and makes no effort to correct that, is not practicing the Buddhadharma, even if they are wearing the robes, even if they have got the beads.  No matter what, they are not practicing the Buddhadharma, because the Buddhadharma is about making one’s mind wholesome.

© Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

Right Concentration

An excerpt from a teaching called the Eightfold Path by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

The eighth principal on the path is right concentration. Right, concentration occurs in all of us.  Have you ever gone without a meal?  You get really hungry, and suddenly you visualize cake.  It’s stronger than any deity visualization you’ve ever had.   I’ve always told people that if you say you can’t visualize, the best thing to do is go on a fast.  You will visualize night and day!  You’ll not be happy about it, but you’ll see hotdogs.  You’ll see chicken, and it will be right there!  So, I don’t buy that you can’t visualize.  That kind of concentration is very strong.  If you’re really hungry, and you’re about to sit down to a big meal, don’t let anybody get between you and that meal because there’s going to be trouble. That kind of concentration is very powerful.  That is our natural capacity.  We use it all the time.  The problem is we use it wrongfully.  We don’t use it in a way that is beneficial at all.  If your concentration is going into visualizing food, or new cars or sexy women or men, then you are wasting and using wrongfully a talent, a capacity that is uniquely human.  Even when a dog is starving and it runs for its food, its not concentrating in the way that we concentrate.  For a dog, it is more of a knee jerk reaction.  It knows to go to the food.  We do use concentration and visualization all the time.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to think or act.

The point of right concentration is to begin to dismantle the reaction, the heavy reactionism, the construct of our own perception, and to create a mind that is firm and strong and not out of control.  Our minds get out of control when we habitually are very emotional.  So we learn to do that.  And one of the wonderful techniques that’s given is to concentrate.  Its called single-pointed concentration or one-pointed concentration.

One of the first techniques that you learn in Buddhism for instance, is to take say an image of the Buddha and to concentrate on that, and let everything else go.  Let your perception go completely. You sit there in meditation and you just watch the image, are filled with the image and take note of the image.  You look at the finest parts of the image, and when the “I left the toaster on or I left the iron on” thoughts start to come, then you simply use a technique of just dismissing them and going back to the concentration.  For people that really have trouble dismissing the thoughts, you can even use a visualization of cutting them with scissors and throwing them away.  But you always return to your single-pointed concentration.  It’s extremely relaxing.  Extremely healing.  I don’t know why it isn’t done more.

Another thing that you can do is focus on a candle.  Just simply see the nature of that flame.  See what it is. Perceive only that.  Let the mind rest on it.  Let the mind rest on the image of the Buddha; rest on the image of a flower or on the image of a candle.  Just let it rest.  When something comes to interrupt you, you simply toss it away, cut it out, move it, and come back to rest. Come back to that.

You can also watch your breath.  One way to do that is to take very uniform relaxing breaths, such as four beats in, the hold one, then four beats out.  Like that.  A real relaxed kind of breathing, and just let your mind rest on the rhythm and the feel of your own breath. For a person whose mind is too active and too angry, it’s very restful, very peaceful, and lovely to do that. It’s completely different from watching TV, which actually gets your mind stirred up.  I know when I watch the news, I get stirred up.  I’ll tell you that.   I start talking back to the TV.  “Hey!”  I get really stirred up.  Then I go look at my candle.

It’s that single-pointed concentration, that right concentration.  It’s wholesome concentration.  Your mind is not filled with scattered B.S.  We review all the stuff that happened to us, and ruminate on it.  We fight battles that we had last week.  Two weeks later I thought of a smart come back in the middle of my meditation.  You know?  So you fight that by using single-pointed concentration and even if you do that, just laugh at yourself and come back.  Always drop it, come back.  Drop it.  Come back.  Pretty soon you’ll be able to do it for longer and longer.

Once you learn to apply single-pointed concentration on a candle or an image, the mind then has more control.  You have more muscle.  And really the mind is almost like a muscle.  You have to build it.  It’s flabby.  In the same way that you work out to keep your body strong, it’s the same with your mind.  Your mind has to be kept in shape.  It isn’t just there, and you just deal with it however it is, because in that case your mind tends to act like a monkey.  It’s all over you.  It rides you rather than you riding it.  Its like the master is not riding the donkey, the donkey is riding the master.  And that’s what happens when the mind is too agitated and too wild and too out of control.

Single-pointed concentration that kind of meditation is beautiful.  Lord Buddha, who was born a prince, he was a noble being but still he was a prince – had a life that said that ran the gamut of the very best most sensual almost hedonistic life to asceticism.  And Lord Buddha said that from his whole life what he really loved, his favorite practice was just the gentle watching of his breath.  You might want to try it yourself.  It’s a beautiful, healing practice.  If you’re sick or depressed or manic then you may not be able to do it without some sort of treatment or medication but it behooves us to try.  To calm the mind, to center the mind, to develop single-pointed concentration to the degree that eventually when you die and pass into the bardo, you actually meditate in the bardo without any distraction.  And that’s the fundamental, underlying truth of the bardo.  The bardo is as busy as our lives are or more so with loud noise, bright lights, and stuff you are not used to.  And stuff you will interpret according to your mind.  You will see your own mind in the bardo.  Doesn’t that scare you a little bit?  It should.  Rather than that, you learn the single-pointed concentration.

Eventually you can learn Phowa, but the single-pointed concentration if one can do that at the time of death and not let the experiences of death take you this way and that way, if you are already so strong in your concentration that you can meditate like that to the moment of your death or to the moment of losing consciousness, the bardo will be so easy for you.  Comparatively speaking, very easy.

© Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

Right Mindfulness

An excerpt from a teaching called the Eightfold Path by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

Right mindfulness has to do with cognition.  Everybody perceives.  We all have perception.  If you took any two people and asked them what their perception of a certain situation was, or even to describe a certain situation, it would be radically different.  And it’s not that they remember differently, it’s that they saw differently.  That’s the interesting thing.  The cognitive process begins with the impact of phenomena and how it meets our habitual tendencies.  It’s that meeting which is our perception.  If we were able to perceive something, such as a person, without moving forward in cognition and having opinions, and concepts and ideas about that person, life would be beautiful.  If we could just meet each other metaphysically naked and accept one another and let it go at that without hatred, greed or ignorance. Oh mani pedma hung.  What a wonderful world that would be.

But that’s not our habit.  Our habit is that when we see a person, we decide, “I don’t like what he’s wearing.  That’s not my color.  I don’t like that haircut.  I don’t like him.  I don’t like the way you wear your robes.”  You know?  We have all these opinions.  And of course we keep them to ourselves and smile but it’s those opinions rattling around in our brains that are causing us so much trouble.  We never stay with a mere impression and leave it wholesome.  It never happens unless we are practicing right mindfulness.  It takes a supreme effort to practice like that.  We conceptualize.  We write our own inner script for instance.  We have an original perception and we react toward it.  Reaction is the name of the game of the five senses.  Whatever that reaction is we build a story about it.  And then you have a whole house of conceptualization wrapped around that person.  And it has nothing to do with them.  But you projected your whole brain onto them.

What we do is we interpret according to our own thoughts and experiences.  And here’s where the conundrum is.  If we haven’t practiced proper view for instance or engaged in proper effort, then when we come down to mindfulness, its going to be really hard to unscramble things, and what we are going to have left is our usual habit.  And that is conceptual proliferation.  Two people can have exactly the same experience and react 180 degrees different.  And it’s all because of our previous habits, our previous judgments.  Judgments don’t go away.  They pile on top of each other.  And pretty soon, you have a formula, and once you have a formula, it’s over.  So, the mind then posits concepts.  Joins concepts into constructs and weaves those constructs into complex interpretive schemes. Its what we do.  We can get all turned around and wrapped up in our little mental conflagrations, and somebody can come up and say, “Well, I saw it this way, boom, boom, boom.”  And suddenly your whole game is down.  What do you do now?  Another person has a completely different view about it.  But you’re still circling around the path.

That’s how sentient beings do.  And on the path the job is to bust that game.  Really bust that game.  Very difficult to do but its possible.  And does it take a short time?  Can you do it in a weekend?  No!  It will take the rest of your life and then some more lives, if you don’t go to Vajrayana, and then achieve liberation in the bardo.  If not, you have to practice the Eightfold Path for lifetime after lifetime after lifetime.  That’s how long it takes.  Nobody is being mean to you.  That’s how long it takes.

We make up all these complex constructions.  Most of it happens only half consciously and for some people it is completely unconscious, but for some of us, its only semi conscious.  I’ve come to understand that sometimes a person acts oblivious.  They act like they do not know the effect that they’re having on another person, and you corner them.  You break it down with them.  You find out that they actually know.  But they don’t want to deal with it.

You know on some level.  It can be a very subtle level, and maybe somebody like a friend or a therapist has to help you bring it out or point it out for you, because it may be so subtle that you didn’t catch it.  It’s not that you don’t see it, it’s that you don’t catch it.  That’s why it helps to work with your Vajra brothers and sisters and be willing to receive their thoughts about you.  For instance, the ordained practice sojong, and sojong is wonderful because you really open up in front of the other ordained and you become metaphorically naked in front of your brothers and sisters.

Sometimes it helps when someone points it out, but really if you sat down and honestly little by little practiced self-honesty and looked at yourself, you could get a long way ahead.  Be willing to love yourself through seeing how naughty you can be.  What an absolute jerk you can be from time to time. “Oh God, I can’t stand that I did that!”  But you have to see it. It helps.

So, when we practice right mindfulness, we become aware of the conceptualization part because in order to practice right mindfulness, you have to study your own reaction.  Play this game with a friend.  Have somebody brought over that you’ve never met before.  Bring them into the room when everybody’s eyes are closed, and then open your eyes and look at the person.  And watch what your mind does.  Don’t obsess about the person.  Watch what your mind does.   Your mind is going to run all over that person from the shoelaces to the hair barrettes.  You’re going to notice how they dress, how they smell, how they look, what their expression is.  And all of these things are going to form into a pattern for you that means something for you, and probably is your projection on that person that has nothing to do with that person.  It’s really interesting.  I think one of the most fascinating parts of the path is when you really get to know your own perception and you can see how it works, and then you can move on.  You can forgive yourself for it, and move on.

What we are trying to do is practice mindfulness, which is a clear perception.  A perception, which is free of all these constructs.  A perception that’s more naked.  Where you just behold a person.  If you could manage not to engage in all that impression stuff, and construct stuff and story making and all of that, you could actually see that person’s true face.  You could actually behold their capacity, their Buddha nature.  Nothing would stop you from loving them.  What’s not to love in the primordial wisdom nature?  The fact that we don’t have that kind of love is because we are stuck in wrong mindfulness.  We are literally wrong-headed because we let our minds run away with these concepts and ideas, even to the degree that we say, “This person’s really got it in for me.” Even your own child, you think, “God, this is a plot.  This kid is plotting to drive me nuts.”  What parent hasn’t thought that? Of course we all have, but that’s crazy thinking.  That’s your human projection.  So, when you catch yourself with that, back up. Ask yourself, “What do we have here?  We have a child.  A child that does what children do.”  Or if it’s an adult human, “What do you really here?  Well, you have a human being with all that amazing potential and that capacity to be Buddha.”  Wow!  What if you could look at everyone and perceive that?  What a joyful state to be in.

If we give rise to right mindfulness, we become aware of our process of conceptualization and the way that we can construct it into scenarios and stories and use that as the foundation for mindfulness.  Just as I’ve been saying.  You use it to examine every reaction that you have.  You look at it from a distance.  You say, “Oh, that’s me having that reaction again.  Oh.  Interesting.  Where does that come from?  Wonder about that?”  The very act of stepping back from an instant reaction gives you something that’s called spaciousness in the mind.  The very act of just stepping back.

Most creatures have no space in their mind at all.  I don’t mean literal space.  I mean metaphorically there’s no relaxation.  Everything is automatic reaction.  Take for instance, a snake. A snake is like a reaction machine.  If you stick a rat in front of it, it’s going to act predictably.  And if a snake in the wild is frightened, it’s going to act predictably.  Species wide, you can predict how a snake is going to act.  There’s no space in that’s animal’s mind. It doesn’t even have enough space in its mind to say, “I’m hungry.  I’m going to catch me a rat.”  It doesn’t do that.  It just goes.  It goes and does what it does as a response to feelings.  And the response is bam, bam bam!  It’s like a nerve firing.  Almost plant like in the sense that a plant will react to stimulus.  Too much sun, it will go down.  Too much cold, it will go down, but it is an automatic thing, like a Venus Flytrap.  Did you ever see one of those when you were a kid? Do you think the Venus Fly Trap says, “I’m hungry.  I want a fly!”  It doesn’t.  It doesn’t even have that capacity.  If anything touches it, it could be a toothpick, and it will grab it.  So, that’s having no space in the mind.  Plants don’t have any mind, but a snake is a being that has a brain but has no space.  When you are able to practice being able to step back and say, “Oh.  Look at that reaction.  Wow.  Well, that’s a whole load of horseshit I had connected to that.  My goodness.  Well let’s back that up and unpack it, shall we? “  When you start thinking like that, you start to develop some spaciousness in your mind, and you have a little bit of time between perception and reaction.  That’s when you start to practice!  That’s it!  Once you have that going, and not every practitioner does, that’s when you’ve got it.  Stepping back from reaction is a real milestone in practice, and it comes by right mindfulness.  By perceiving, and catching your perception.  What’s your perception?  What’s the trigger?  What’s going on here?  What do you perceive?  What’s the story that you are living?  Step back and see what’s really happening.

© Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

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