The story of the Indian Buddhist master Atisha and his insulting cook sheds light on the practice of indicting the self. When Venerable Atisha took Buddhism from India to Tibet he also took a rude cook with him who was in the habit of insulting Atisha. The Tibetans, who held Atisha in high esteem, were astonished at the cook’s behaviour and offered to find a replacement but Atisha told them that he needed this man. Everyone else was so polite and respectful to Atisha that this rude, contemptuous cook was a precious resource.
Atisha was a practitioner of training the mind, a special branch of Buddhist practice that subsequently became known in Tibet as lojong. Practitioners of training the mind are very skillful at transforming adverse conditions into the spiritual path – at making positives out of negatives. The heart of this practice is indicting the self. This is what Geshe Chekhawa means when he says “gather all blame into one” in Seven Verses of Mind Training. Atisha and his followers, known as the Kadampa Geshes, recognised that all of our problems, suffering and unhappiness are caused by our false sense of self-importance. Therefore it is appropriate to indict or blame this false sense of self.
Atisha’s cook was a valuable resource because he reminded Atisha of the negative aspect of himself while everybody else was busy venerating and respecting him. Because Atisha was a humble spiritual practitioner he would not have lightly dismissed the cook’s insults, thinking “I will accept these insults patiently but really I know that they are false.” Instead, Atisha would have considered the insults carefully, examining his own self for faults. If the cook accused Atisha of arrogance, heartlessness, or fakery then Atisha would have scrutinised himself, suspecting that the cook may be right. This is why the cook was such a precious resource. Atisha advised us not to think about our own good qualities but instead to think about the good qualities of others, and not to think of the faults of others but instead consider our own faults and purge them as if they are bad blood.
If we do not indict our false sense of self-importance it will inflict misery on ourselves and others. The Koran calls the self (Arabic: nafs) in its raw state “the self that commands to evil” (Sura 12:53). The next state is the “self-accusing self” (Sura 75:2). This corresponds to the Kadampa practice of gathering all blame into one. The self-accusing self is our conscience, which is able to objectively see our own faults. Objectivity is key, because it is important not to turn the practice of indicting our self into a process of beating ourselves up, causing low self-esteem. We should identify and analyse our own faults, skillfully turning negative situations into opportunities for personal growth, but we shouldn’t invent faults that aren’t there. Atisha would have taken his cook’s insults seriously, and checked to see whether he really had the faults he was being accused of. However, if he concluded that the fault wasn’t present then he wouldn’t have engaged in caustic over-analysis or self-berating.
By gathering all blame into one through indicting the false sense of self, we reach the stage the Koran calls the self “at peace” (Sura 89:27). We achieve a happy and peaceful mind and are no longer subject to misery and fear, because we have eliminated its root cause, our false sense of self-importance.
A Buddhist monk once asked me to comment on a particular retreat center in Spain. I said that in my opinion it was “fantastic and crap”, which made him laugh. It was fantastic because there was a palpable, magical spirituality about it. it was crap because it had many of the tedious problems associated with human communities such as poor communication, wasted effort and resources, project delays etc. Little did I know at the time that I was later going to build my joke into a whole philosophy — but here goes!
The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is the truth of suffering, the unsatisfactory nature of life. The entire realm of existence is said to be pervaded by unsatisfactoriness. Even our moments of pleasure and happiness have an unsatisfactory quality about them. The third Noble Truth is the truth of cessation. It is possible to achieve a True Cessation of suffering. This True Cessation is Nirvana, and only Nirvana is peace. This fundamental teaching of Buddhism describes a yawning chasm between our current state of suffering – samsara – and the holy state of Nirvana. The fourth Noble Truth is the path to get from samsara to Nirvana.
In his deconstruction of all conceptual categories, including the four Noble Truths themselves, the 2nd century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna showed how neither samsara nor Nirvana exist inherently, from their own side. They are both empty of inherent existence, which means that they are dependent-related phenomena. They both depend upon mental imputation.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on the Tibetan Lojong tradition imply a way in which we can see this world as both faulty and perfect. At the heart of the Lojong tradition is the teaching on Exchanging Self with Others, which is described in detail in the article A Place Where We Cannot Be Harmed. If we fully exchange self with others then, although there continues to be suffering, we are no longer be harmed by it. From this point of view we have achieved Nirvana while remaining in the world.
In his oral teachings in 2008 Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explicitly stated that even for the trainee Lojong practitioner this world is like a Buddha’s Pure Land, because it enables us to experience the perfect conditions we need in order to advance on the path (to generate renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom realizing emptiness). From the point of view of the Lojong practitioner the world is both perfect and faulty at the same time. It is faulty because there is suffering in it, but it is perfect because if we exchange self with others then we are able to transform suffering into the path to enlightenment. For Lojong practitioners whatever conditions we encounter are perfect for our practice. As Geshe Chekhawa says:
“Do not rely upon other conditions. Apply the principal practice at this time.” (quoted in ‘Universal Compassion’ by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).
In theistic religion there is a similar gulf between the perfect state of the Creator and the faulty, suffering state of the creatures. Because of this gulf many mainstream Muslim scholars insist on God’s transcendence rather than immanence with regard to the created world. They say that to argue that God is immanent in the created world is to deny both God’s unity and perfection.
On the other hand, the great Sufi Muslim scholar Ibn ‘Arabi argued that we need to investigate reality with two eyes: reason and imagination. With reason we will, as the other scholars say, discover God’s incomparability (Arabic: tanzih) with his creation and therefore we will understand the truth of transcendence. But if we explore with imagination we will discover God’s similarity (Arabic: tasbih) to his creation, and so we will understand the truth of immanence.
“Ibn ‘Arabi’s contribution was to stress the need to maintain a proper balance between the two ways of understanding God.” (Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld Publications, 2005, p19).
By viewing the world with the eye of reason we see that it is crap! By viewing the world with the eye of imagination we see that it is fantastic! But we don’t want to suffer from double vision. We want to develop a unified vision which is able to handle conventional and ultimate reality at the same time.