The following is my adaptation of a teaching I received in 2006
Because we are so concerned with avoiding or overcoming any physical or mental discomfort or pain and achieving physical and mental comfort and pleasure, we spend a lot of our time trying to identify the causes and conditions of things happening in our life. We want to know what will give rise to pain and pleasure, and what we can do either to stop such causes and conditions assembling, or to help them assemble. We do this all day long: trying to manage things, adjusting, moving around, pushing, pulling, trying to keep control. It’s so important for us. We need to know what are the causes and conditions leading to certain effects that are taking place in our life, we need to know so that we can maintain some control over our life, so that we don’t have to experience so much suffering, so that things don’t go wrong.
Sometimes it doesn’t work: we’re eating really really healthily, we have a good diet, we exercise, and yet we get sick. Maybe there is something in our diet, we change that and still we get sick. Or I take medicine because the doctor says this medicine works, other people have taken it and say that it works, so I take the medicine . . . and it doesn’t work for me. I want to accomplish a particular result and everything is perfectly in place but the result doesn’t occur, something goes wrong – that doesn’t make sense! There’s some frustration in our mind: “that’s not supposed to happen”. We’ve checked, and it’s still not happening. Why? We don’t know what to do. It’s like when you’ve lit a firework and you leave it and nothing is happening and it doesn’t make sense . . . it’s got the guarantee on the box . . . and you’re afraid to go there . . . is it going to work or is it not? It’s not making sense. What am I going to do?
When we experience suffering or misfortune we look outside for the cause. We may suffer from bad headaches, and we conclude they are caused by eating sugar. We’ve done that haven’t we? “I must cut down on the sugar, I must cut down on the chocolate, I must cut down on the coffee” But if eating sugar was the main cause of headaches, everyone who eats sugar would suffer from headaches, but they don’t. Why is it that some people suffer from headaches if they eat a little bit of sugar when other people don’t even though they have three teaspoons of sugar in their tea every day? Headache arises from the potential for headache. Where is this potential? Is it in the sugar?
When we are experiencing suffering, either physical or mental, when we are experiencing difficulties, when things are going wrong, the first thing we must do is ask ourselves “why?”. Normally when we experience suffering, when things are going wrong we respond or react so quickly, in order to make some changes so that the suffering ceases, so that what is going wrong changes into what is right. Instead, rather than go straight in and sort it all out like we normally do, we wait a minute . . . wait . . . wait. Why is this happening? Where is this suffering coming from, where is this situation coming from? “Now is the time to purify my mind, to purify my soul, now. I accept this suffering, I accept what is happening right now with a grateful mind.” This patient acceptance itself is so purifying, and we can take this practice a little bit further by not just patiently accepting suffering, not just happily accepting things going wrong, but by even allowing these things to take place.
We need to think about the difference and the relationship between acceptance and allowance. It’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that we are practicing patient acceptance when in fact we are not. Imagine something happens that we don’t particularly like so we are quite patient, we experience some suffering, but still we make some changes. There may be some patience in our attitude, but not much. We make changes because we know we can make them. This is typically what we do. We are managing, and we are managing very well; we’re controlling, and we are controlling very well. This indicates that we haven’t given up on the idea that things should be different than they are. In our heart we not only feel they should be different, we believe we should make them different. All I have to do is say something or do something, and things will be different. I’m still working with causes and conditions: removing some, adding some and, hey presto, I’ve got what I wanted, sometimes without having to practice any patience at all. It looks like we have some patience . . . maybe. We know in our own heart if there is patience or not. If there is some difficulty we can change it straight away, so there’s no problem! Patient?
If a fly lands on my head I can just ‘patiently’ flick it away. So you tell me, if I was to do that, would you think that I was patient? I look like I am patient, I can just carry on talking, patiently, as the fly lands on my head, and I just flick it away ‘patiently’. “That fly shouldn’t be on my head”. I’m not accepting it. I know that if I act then the change takes place: where once there was a fly on my head, now there is none. How much do we really allow to take place in our life? Not very much. One way of dividing patience is into accepting that which we can do nothing about and accepting that which we can do something about. We would not say “I’m allowing it to rain”, but you can allow that fly to remain on your head. I would say that patient acceptance in general is very purifying, but allowing things to happen when we could actually do something about them if we wanted to is immensely purifying. We feel so often there is something we can do about what’s happening. What I’m suggesting here is that we don’t do anything, rather we allow whatever is taking place to take place, having given up the idea that things should be different from how they are. I’m allowing something to happen when I could, if I wanted, prevent it from happening or stop it from happening. It’s an acceptance, but I think it’s a very powerful kind of acceptance, allowing something to happen. It is both purifying and difficult.
For example, in respect to mental discomfort, mental suffering, don’t be in such a rush to free yourself from it. If someone is criticising us and there is a bad feeling in our mind, it actually feels quite painful. What we would we normally do is stop that person from criticising us, as if the person criticising us is the main cause of our mental suffering. (Where is that suffering really coming from?) Instead, with a deep breath we just accept that suffering. We allow that painful feeling to remain, and eventually it will go. Normally, because we cannot bear that feeling, we have to do something, we have to say something to that person, we don’t allow them to continue. In fact we should accept that suffering, allowing it to remain in our mind and allowing that person to continue. It’s so purifying. Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourselves the time to discover where these feelings actually come from. When painful feelings arise in our mind there is no need to panic. We can patiently accept them, experience them – and we can only do that if we allow them to remain in our mind – we experience them and investigate their nature and where they come from.
So when things go wrong I’m going to allow them to go wrong. Why don’t we want things to go wrong? What does ‘wrong’ mean anyway? Things are going wrong, and I’m just not allowing that. What does that mean, “something is wrong”? Why is it wrong, what makes it wrong, and why are we in such a rush to put things ‘right’? If you think about it, we’re doing this all the time because mostly things are not right, and things are never perfect, and we want things to be perfect. So we will keep doing something to make things better in the hope that actually they’ll be perfect. We don’t stop. “It’s wrong that the fly lands on my head.” What’s wrong with that? Let’s ask the fly: “Do you think what you’re doing is wrong?” “No I think what I’m doing is right”! Why is it wrong for me, why do I have to do something?
It’s not very often that we just accept or allow things as they are, because we think that we can make them better. We’re given a meal, great! We taste it, “where’s the salt?” We put a bit of salt on. “That’s better.” Because it’s not quite right, it’s not perfect. “That’s better, but still not perfect, a bit of pepper.” And so it goes on and on and on. All day long we’re doing it: an itch. “that’s unacceptable, I’m not allowing that”. It’s gone. The itch has gone now. “That’s better”. We don’t stop do we?
So now you’re thinking: “You’d end up doing nothing”. It’s impossible. You’re always doing something, you can’t stop, but it is what we’re doing and why we are doing it. So please think about just allowing things to happen. We’ve got to be sensible, we don’t need to go to any extreme, of course. If allowing something to happen is going to be harmful in any way then of course we don’t allow it to happen. Our foremost concern should be that neither ourselves or others are harmed either directly or indirectly if we allow something to happen. We have to think carefully about this: if it’s clear that either ourselves or others will be harmed in some way then of course we shouldn’t just allow that thing to happen, instead we should make some changes with a good motivation and a patient mind.
part 2 will follow soon
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.