The Buddhist World View

5 07 2006

“The Thirty-seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, by the Tibetan monk Gyalsay Tiogme Sangpo, is a text popular in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Studied by old and young, monastics and lay followers, it decribes, in thirty-seven short verses, the essential practices leading to enlightenment. Gyalsay Togme Sangpo (1295-1369) was renowned as a Bodhisattva in Tibet and revered for living in accordance with the Bodhisattva ideals and practices that he taught. He continuously practiced exchanging oneself with others and transforming adverse circumstances such as sickness and poverty into the path to enlightenment, and in this way inspired not only his direct disciples but also generations of practitioners up to the present day.


The teaching on the four noble truths is set against the backdrop of the Buddhist notion of the mind. Here the term “mind” does not refer to the brain – for that is part of the body – nor merely to intellect, but to all the conscious aspects of us. The mind is formless, unlike the body, which is composed of atoms. Yet, it is an existing phenomena, and its presence or absence marks the difference between a living being and a dead body. The mind is what experiences, perceives, thinks, and feels. In other words, our mind or heart perceives objects through our senses, thinks conceptually, feels emotionally, experiences pleasure and pain, and so forth.

Interrelated, our mind and body affect each other. When our health is poor, it is easy to be in a bad mood. When we are depressed mentally, our physical health may also decline. However, the body and mind are two different continuums, the body being physical, the mind being formless and conscious. Life occurs while the body and mind are interrelated, while death marks the separation of these two continuums. The body becomes a corpse which is buried or cremated, and the mind, being formless, goes on to take another rebirth. Which rebirth we take is influenced by our actions, or karma.

Thus, our present life does not exist in isolation from the past and the future. Just as our body has causes – the sperm and egg of our parents – our mind at the time of conception also has a main cause, the previous moment of mind. Habits and imprints from actions we did in previous lives influence our present life, and our present thoughts, choices, and actions create habits and imprints which will influence what we will experience in the future. Thus, events and experiences are not predetermined or fated to happen. They simply arise due to causes and and conditions. Knowing this, we can pay attention to our choices, actions, and the causes we create.

In the four noble truths, the first two – suffering and its causes – describe our present situation, while the last two – cessation and the path to it – describe our vast human potential. The Buddha emphasized that we must understand both our present situation as well as our potential. If we gloss over and ignore our present experience, our spiritual practice will not be grounded. On the other hand, if we ignore our potential and think that our present circumstances are unchangeable, we become like a beggar who does not recognize that the stone in his pocket is actually a jewel.

With the first noble truth, the Buddha pointed out that we have numerous problems in life. We age, fall ill, and die without choice. Though we seek pleasure, fulfillment and success, we remain dissatisfied even when things seem to be going well. When we get what we want, fear of losing it often sets in, preventing us from enjoying what we have. Although we try to protect ourselves from undesirable experiences, we cannot control everything that happens to us. We fear not having enough or not being good enough, and so never find lasting happiness or security. This is the human condition. It is the situation in which we all live. This is usually called the truth of suffering, but here the word suffering has a wider connotation than its usual meaning in English. It refers to the fact that we have difficulties and encounter unsatisfactory circumstances in that we cannot control our body, our emotions, our life experiences in the way that we would like.

With the second noble truth, the Buddha asks us to search for the cause of these unsatisfactory experiences. Although happiness and suffering seem to come from external objects – our environment, our society, other people – if we examine our lives more closely, we realize that our attitudes greatly influence how we experience what we encounter. Mental states such as clinging attachment, anger, arrogance, jealousy, and confusion disturb our mind and life. Clinging attachment makes us think that we cannot be happy unless we have the right relationship, job, or house. We then want those things so desperately that what we do to get them often creates more problems for us later. Anger makes us think that our preception of a situation is the only right one and may lead us to see harm where there is none. It impedes our ability to listen and discuss solutions. Attempting to hide our insecurity, our arrogance causes us to see others as inferior. We thus become isolated, and the connections which we seek with others elude us. With jealousy we compare ourselves negatively to others, and thus become unable to rejoice at the happiness and goodness in the world. Confusion inhibits our ability to understand things clearly and make wise decisions. Choices made under the influence of these disturbing attitudes further complicate things and often make us act in ways that harm others or ourselves. The effects of these thoughtless actions are many. For example, later we may experience deep remorse or even guilt. In addition, our choices and actions – or karma – influence the situations we will find ourselves in and our experiences in the future.

The disturbing attitudes – clinging attachment, anger, arrogance, jealousy, confusion, and the rest – are rooted in ignorance, which misinterprets how we, others, and all phenomena exist. Ignorance makes us see everything as solid and existing in its own right and under its own power. Seeing ourselves, others, and all phenomena as concrete prevents us from understanding that things are fluid and dependant, and we forget that change is possible. Fortunately all these disturbing attitudes can be eliminated because they arise from ignorance’s misconstrual of reality.

With the third noble truth, the Buddha guides us to see our potential. The nature of our mind is pure and clear, like the open sky. The disturbing attitudes of ignorance, anger, clinging attachment, arrogance and jealousy are like clouds, obscuring that pure nature. Anxiety, fear, and self-preoccupation are not our inherent nature. Just as the clouds and the sky are not the same nature and the clouds can be dispelled, our real nature is not the disturbing attitudes, which can be eliminated. Therefore, it is possible to end all unsatisfactory experiences and the disturbing attitudes and negative actions which cause them. We can arrive at a state of lasting happiness because the basic, deeper nature of our mind is untained. Knowing this gives us a firm basis for self-confidence and hope.

The fourth noble truth is the path leading to this happiness. The Buddha provided a road map to develop our potential and recognize inner beauty. Since ignorance and self-centeredness are the two chief causes of our ills, we must develop attitudes which counteract them. Ignorance is remedied by becoming wise and understanding the reality of how we and all things exist. This involves realizing emptiness, the lack of independant existence of all phenomena. Whereas ignorance makes things appear solid and insurmontable to us, the wisdom realizing emptiness knows that things do not exist in that way. Emptiness does not mean total non-existence. Rather it means that things arise dependently, and thus are flexible and changeable. The development of this wisdom is assisted by meditative stabilization, the ability to focus our minds on constructive objects for as long as we wish. Meditative stabilization, in turn, is facilitated by ethical conduct, which involves living in a way that avoids harming others and ourselves. These three – ethical conduct, meditative stabilization, and wisdom – are known as the “three higher trainings”, which lead us to liberation from cyclic existence, the cycle of constantly recurring problems that we currently experience.

Love, compassion, and the altruistic intention

Along with ignorance, another obstacle we encounter on the path to full enlighenment is self-centeredness, or self-preoccupation, which makes us believe that our happiness and our suffering are more important than anyone else’s. Obscuring our love and compassion, self-preoccupation, in its gross form, imprisons us in a lonely, alienated mental state, making us immune to seeing the kindness all around us. In its subtle form, self-preoccupation makes us concerned with only our own spiritual practice and liberation and inhibits our ability to be of greatest benefit to all beings.

To dissolve self-centeredness we cultivate compassion and love. The former wishes that all beings be free from suffering and its causes, the latter wishes them to have happiness and its causes. Buddhism contains many meditation techniques to help us gradually cultivate genuine patience, love and compassion which extend impartially to all beings. Herein lies the key to mental peace.

For example, when faced with harm, we often react with anger and hatred, which in turn breed physical and verbal violence against others. This incites others to retaliate, and we find ourselves trapped in a spiral of unkindness and cruelty which destroys the happiness of all concerned. To react wisely when confronted with harm or suffering, we need a clear mind, free from the turbulence of resentment and rage. While anger certainly gives us a lot of energy, we cannot use that energy wisely. From a Buddhist prespective, compassion can be an even more powerfull force than anger to motivate wise action. A compassionate person is patient – undisturbed in the face of harm or suffering – and yet is powerfully engaged in the situation. For example, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, has remained firm in his compassionate and nonviolent approach to the occupation, repression, and destruction his country and his people have undergone in the last four and a half decades. Yet, he is not seen as weak and his cause has gained attention worldwide; his compassionate approach has saved thousands of lives.

When we brood and hold on to our resentment, who suffers – ourselves or the other? Forgiving our enemies simply means letting go of our hatred and anger towards them. We do not need to forget the harm, but we can react to it with compassion for everyone concerned – victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. In this way, we are able to clearly seek solutions.

We cannot dispel our anger and resentment simply by telling ourselves not to be angry. However, if we can look at the situation in a different way, the anger will dissolve by itself. Thus, Buddhism encourages us to realize that our enemies’ harmful behavior stems from their own internal pain and chaos, which lead them to use harmful methods in an attempt to secure their happiness. By seeing the situation from the other’s point of view, we automatically can have more understanding and compassion. This does not mean that we respond passively, but that our minds are clear and can actively choose appropriate methods to stop the harm.

Learning to understand and work compassionately and wisely in real life is one purpose of the Buddha’s teachings. That is, the Buddha’s teachings and our own spiritual practice are not divorced from our daily experiences. The Dharma is not to be merely intellectualy understood, but actually applied so that it transforms the quality of our life.

Although the Dharma certainly applies to our daily life, it covers much more than our day-to-day interactions and emotions. Both scientists and the Buddha talk about the vastness of the universe and things existing in it that we do not or cannot preceive at this moment. Thus, it is also important to stretch our minds and consider other realms and states of existence.

Sentient beings and their worlds

In the Buddhist view, life is not restricted to the planet Earth, nor is existence restricted to what we can perceive through our five senses, which are indeed limited. For example, dogs can smell some odors that we cannot; birds can see some things that we cannot. Thus, it is incorrect to think that things exist only if we perceive them and that they do not exist simply because we have not experienced them directly.

With this in mind, let’s look at the Buddha’s description of the six realms of sentient beings – beings who have mind but who are not enligh tened Buddhas. In addition to human beings and animals, there are gods (celestial beings), demigods, hungry ghosts and hell beings. How do these various realms come into existence? They arise due to the functionning of cause and effect. Specifically, our actions, or karma, create the causes for us to be attracted to these various types of rebirth, and our actions influence what we experience and encounter during these lives. From the Buddhist prespective, there is no external creator either of the universe or of the beings in it, nor is there a supreme being who determines what happens to sentient beings. Acting under the influence of disturbing attitudes, we remain trapped in cyclic existence, being born again and again in the six realms. Acting wisely and compassionately, we create the causes for happiness, both the temporal happiness of fortunate rebirths and the ultimate happiness of liberation and enlightenment.

Cyclic existence means being caught in the cycle of uncontrollable rebirth, taking one body after another under the influence of disturbing attitudes and karma. Liberation, or nirvana, is the ceasing of this unproductive and suffering cycle, and one who attains liberation is called a foe destroyer or arhat. There are two vehicles leading to arhatship: the vehicle of the hearer (Skt. shravaka), one who hears the Buddha’s teaching and then passes them on to others; and the vehicle of the solitary realizer (Skt. pratyekabuddha), one who attains liberation at a time when no Buddha is present in the world. To attain the liberation of a hearer or a solitary realizer, one must eliminate the deluded obscurations which cause cyclic existence. However, there are still subtle imprints on the mindstream, called obscurations to omniscience, and when they are removed, full enlightenment is attained. The determination to be free motivates us to seek liberation and the altruistic intention (Skt. bodhichitta), which is concerned with the welfare of all sentient beings, motivates us to attain full enlightenment. One who attains enlightenment is called a Buddha, and as a Buddha, one has unlimited abilities to benefit others.

All sentient beings can become Buddhas because each of us already has the Buddha nature, the factors which allow us to become a Buddha, as the nature of our mind. Thus, underlying whatever pain or confusion we may experience, there is always reason for hope. Those who have entered the path to Buddhahood are called Bodhisattvas, people who are deeply motivated to attain enlightenment in order to benefit others most effectivekly.

A Buddha is omniscient and has unlimited abilities to help others. However, Buddhas are not omnipotent; they cannot control all that happens in the world, nor can they control the minds of sentient beings. They teach, guide, inspire and help us in a variety of ways, but we must engage in and accomplish the spiritual path ourselves. We cannot hire someone to do it for us. That would be like asking someone to eat for us and thinking that we would be full afterwards! Because of this the Buddha encouraged personal responsibility. On the other hand, we are not alone in a cold universe, devoid of help. All of those who have traversed the path before us and accomplished its goals can help us. Thus, we can rely on (or take refuge in) the Three Jewels: the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddhas are the fully enlightened beings who taught the path; the Dharma refers to the last two noble truths, true cessations and true paths. These two are the real refuge, for once our mind has transformed into these, we will experience suffering no more and will have incredible opportunities to benefit others. The Sangha is any person who has understood reality directly, and is thus engaged in removing once and for all the various levels of disturbing attitudes which cause cyclic existence.

How to approach the path

The Buddha emphasized that we need to develop discriminating wisdom and not accept the path he has outlined on blind faith. Thus, we are encouraged to question, research, reason, and most importantly, apply the Dharma teachings to our own life and see through our own experience whether or not they work. When we have examined them and then tried them out and found them effective in transforming our mind and life, our faith or confidence in these teachings will be based on solid evidence, not fanciful belief.

Thus, it is essential for us to think deeply over a period of time about what we read here. In teaching the Dharma, Buddhist teachers do not expect students to understand everything immediately. Learning a spiritual path is different from studying subjects at school. It involves much introspection, and we need to give ourselves time and space to digest the information, contemplate it, test it out, and integrate it in our lives. Merely knowing the teachings is very different from living them. Since many aspects of the Dharma may be opposite to our habits and usual ways of thinking, time and patience are essential. For example, we may intellectually understand the chapter on transforming unfavorable circumstances into the path, but when we come in contact with a disagreeable person at our workspace, we may forget the teaching. Or we may think that this teaching is nice, but it does not aply to our situation because we definitely are right and therefore our anger is justified!

We also need time and patience to gain an understanding of emptiness, the ultimate or deeper nature of existence. The vocabulary and concepts used to explain this are generally unfamiliar to us at the beginning, and we may be tempted to say, “This doesn’t make sense, so forget it”, or “This is too difficult, so I won’t bother”. It is helpful to remember that knowledge, wisdom, and internal transformation occur gradually and that we must presevere with joy, knowing that we can make progress. When a child in kindergarten gets frustrated because he cannot yet read after only a few days of school, we tell him that this is normal. He must practice over time, and then he will be able to read and understand easily.

The Thirty-seven Practices of Bodhisattvas describes methods for dealing with our disturbing attitudes and for developing our inner potential, love, compassion, and wisdom. Although this text was writen many centuries ago in Tibet, it contains instructions that are relevant to our modern lives, for human nature and human potential are basically the same no matter the time or place.”

by Thubten Chodron,  extract of the introduction to “Transforming the Heart”, by Geshe Jampa Tegchok.




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