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Finding Peace and Happiness by Confronting Inner Disturbances

Venerable Tenzin Gephel

Venerable Tenzin Gephel

Resident Namgyal Monastery Monk
Cornell University Buddhist Chaplain

Edited by Pat Connor and Dianne Fox. Lecture originally given at Sage Chapel, Cornell University, on May 9, 2004.

I was asked to preach today about my beliefs. I am honored to have this opportunity. I thank Ken Clark, Janet Shortal and all the people at Sage Chapel and Anabel Taylor who have helped make interfaith services available to the community. I am very happy to be here today.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that the life stories of the great masters exemplify practices that are meant to guide those who come after. The life stories of two Tibetan Buddhist masters of the Kadhampa School, Geshe Tonpa and Sungbu Wa, illustrate two different approaches to the search for spiritual guidance. Geshe Tonpa was very careful to seek teachers with whom he could have a healthy relationship leading to complete spiritual transformation. For him, a limited number of teachers worked best. Geshe Sungpo Wa, on the other hand, preferred to seek many guides for his spiritual journey. Therefore, he listened to teachings from virtually anyone who gave them. His disciples were not altogether happy that their great master went to listen to so many other teachers. One day when he was returning home from Eastern Tibet he encountered an ordained layperson wo was giving a teaching and stayed to listen to what was being said. Some of his disciples pleased with him not to go to listen to every teacher. The great master Sungbu Wa replied, "Don't ask me to do that, because today I learnt two things that are of great benefit to me."

Hopefully you too will learn a few things that are of benefit to you, when listening to today's sermon titled “Finding Peace and Happiness by Confronting Inner Disturbances.”

A Reminder of the Purpose of Life

The purpose of our life is to live happily and peacefully. We do not go to a store to purchase the idea that we want happiness and do not want suffering. The motivation that makes us willing to seek happiness and avoid suffering is innate. There are many simple things in our lives that indicate that the very purpose of our life is happiness. We are motivated to work for a living in order to ensure that we have happiness in our life. We may rest for two days after five days of a workweek. We take vacations and sometimes move from one place to another in the hope that our lives will be better. Some people are careful with diet and exercise as ways to achieve happiness. Even the little movements we make in order to get more comfortable stem from our innate desire for happiness. The success of our life is measured by our ability to live happily and die joyfully, not by mere accumulation of wealth, fame and possessions.

In Buddhism, we can evaluate the quality of a person's life by three types of mental states of peace, at the time of dying. If the person is filled with a true sense of joy at the time of death, he or she is regarded as the best practitioner of Buddhist principles. If people go through the death process feeling satisfied with the life that they have lived, they are seen as better than average followers of the Buddha. If one is not successful in achieving a totally happy and peaceful life, but one has tried one's level best and does not feel regret at all, then the person is regarded as a good follower of the Buddha. In general, if we can live happily and peacefully, we will die happily and peacefully. This further reveals that the purpose of our life is happiness.

Our Minds Need to be Trained

In our lives we often fail to pay attention to key factors or actions that bring happiness. It is our minds that need to be disciplined and trained with compassion, patience, and calmness. In the Buddhist faith, we believe it to be a fact that by subduing our minds we will be guaranteed happiness. If we do not try to discipline and understand our minds, we will be guaranteed happiness. If we do not try to discipline and understand our minds, then we will experience no end of difficulty in our lives, no matter how much we may wish to avoid suffering. Buddha said in a sutra in verse, and I quote:

“Do not commit any evil deeds
Try always to perform virtuous acts
Subdue your own mind
This is my teaching

The first line advises people to avoid all negative physical and verbal deeds, including killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, use of harsh words, and meaningless gossip. The second urges us to learn, intentionally, how to engage in virtuous acts by respecting the lives of others, their belongings, and their right to freedom from abuse. With respect to lying, there is no point in expecting others to be trustworthy. We must first be trustworthy ourselves. To prevent slander, it is wise to encourage friendship and harmony among people. We can prevent harm through the use of harsh words by being careful to watch what we say when we speak to others. By always respecting the preciousness of human life and the preciousness of time -- both our own and that of others -- gossip can be avoided. These are fundamental practices, both verbal and physical, that enable us to begin subduing the willful mind with success.

The third line of the sutra -- "subdue your own mind" -- suggests that the most critical and essential practice of all in Buddhism is to discipline one's own mind. This requires heartfelt sincerity, which issues from the mind. Here I'd like to tell you a story. Once there was a butcher. He had been slaughtering sheep. One day after he did some slaughtering he took a break for lunch. He put his saw down on the ground. The saw was near the sheep that was going to be killed next. While the butcher was having lunch, the sheep understood that it was going to be killed right after the butcher was done with his meal. The sheep was watching both the saw and the butcher. There was no one that the sheep could ask for help. The poor creature was terrified. Tears fell from its eyes. With its forefeet, the sheep then dug a hole in the earth, put the saw into the hole, and covered the saw with dirt. The butcher noticed that the sheep was terrified because it was trembling and also because he saw the sheep burying the saw in the earth. These signs of the animal's terror really moved the butcher profoundly. They caused the butcher to feel strong regret over what he had been doing throughout his life, namely slaughtering many sheep. Knowing that he had done wrong, he went to a nearby cliff to commit suicide. Because in his heart he was so sincere, his misdeeds were purified instantly. So when he jumped from the cliff, he did not fall down. Instead he began to fly. People below looked up an exclaimed, "Look, the butcher is flying! What on Earth is this world coming to?"

Not far away there was a hermit, or life-long meditator, living in a cave. He heard about the butcher flying and thought, "Well, I have practiced my whole life, so if the butcher can fly, why not me?" When the hermit jumped from the cliff, he fell down and died on the ground. The point of this story is that the hermit's mind was stained by pride and envy while the butcher's motivation to stop killing and the sincerity of his regret were pure. The training of our own minds is the most important practice urged by the Buddha. The butcher's change of heart was a decision made in his mind. Now we can understand that we must learn to control our own minds if we are go fulfill the purpose of life. "This," the Buddha said, "is my teaching."

What is Mind?

What is this thing called mind? What is its nature? Mind is like pure and clear water. When we disturb the water in a pond we no longer see the clarity or purity of the water, but that does not mean that cloudiness or dirtiness is the nature of the water. Like water, our basic mind is clear and totally free from mental afflictions. The mind can be characterized by its luminosity and by its capacity to know. These aspects of mind cannot be shown - they must be experienced. Afflicted emotions reside in our minds temporarily, but they are not innate. This is very good news because it demonstrates that our delusions can be eradicated and or suffering diminished. Lasting peace and happiness are always available if we guide our own minds.

The bad news is that our minds are extremely difficult to discipline or subdue. It is the most difficult job on the planet. We fail to make the connection that our difficulties in life are products of our untamed mind. We usually view peace and happiness as coming only from sources outside ourselves. Thus, it is extremely important for us to understand the mind.

Many centuries ago, a great Indian master wrote, and I quote:

“No one can bestow enlightenment upon us;
Neither can one be the owner of enlightenment.
Only when one thoroughly understands one's own mind
Can that person be designated a Buddha or a fully enlightened one.”

Just as there is no one who can offer us enlightenment, there is always no one who can provide us with happiness as if it were a gift. There is no one out there who is the owner of our happiness. A true sense of happiness and peace will arise when we examine and guide our minds.

How can we train or discipline the mind?

How can we most effectively confront the untamed mind? A 10th century Kadhampa master, Chakawa, in a treatise known as as The Eight Points of Mind Training, wrote, (and I quote):

"As soon as mental affliction arises,
Endangering myself and others,
By facing it I shall strictly avert it."

First we must examine which afflicted emotions have had the most profound influence on us throughout our life. The heaviest delusion is the one that causes the most lasting difficulties and destroys our peace and happiness. That affliction is the first one we must counteract by working within our mind. These are five poisonous delusions: clinging attachment, anger, pride, ignorance and jealously. Although all these delusions co-operate with each other to create misery for us, the very first step we must take is to deal with the one that is the strongest, the most dominating one that is within us. This is the best and most sincere way to help ourselves as well as others. That is why another Tibetan master, Lungri Tangpa, said in a treatise known as the Seven Point Thought Transformation: "Purify first whichever affliction is heaviest." For example, if anger has been dominant throughout our life, begin mind training by dealing with anger. Anger includes resentment, hatred, hostility, harmful intention, jealously, malice, and outrage. There are many antidotes to counteract anger. Three basic antidotes are love, compassion, and patience.

Let us choose training our minds with patience. How should we do that? We should first calm down the mind by practicing mindfulness of the breath -- by simply observing the breath. Then we should look consciously at the destructiveness of anger. This will help us gain the genuine realization that we must no longer indulge in anger. Next we should reflect upon the benefits of patience.

The practice of patience does not cause us to suffer; rather, it is a way to develop relaxed calmness, a state of peace that we can maintain even though we may be experiencing mental storms within or disturbances from our surroundings. When we realize consciously the benefits of patience, this will lead us to engage in the practice of patience more happily. There are very detailed explanations of the practice of overcoming anger through patience in chapter 6 of Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, and in the book Healing Anger by the Dalai Lama.

But how does one actually engage in the practice of patience? First we must acquire a strong sense of the disadvantages of anger, of the benefits of patience, and a genuine willingness to practice patience. At this point, according to the great Fifth Dalai Lama, we must now deliberately imagine those people who are mean to us. We must look at how they treat us, at how they are disturbing us, and at whether they are likely to continue to trouble us because of their firm dislike and resentment.

Now at this point we should look consciously and sincerely at all situations that generate the burning fire of anger. Now we need to reflect upon the fact that people who are mean to us are not a product of anger or other afflicted emotions. Just like anybody else, deep down they do not like harming others or getting angry. But they are not yet able to begin to control their anger or prevent acts of hostility. According to Buddhist belief, this is because that person has been caught for many lifetimes in the iron net of anger; such a person has been suffering a lot, not only within this lifetime, but also in many previous lifetimes. There is a way to overcome such a predicament, but the person suffering from this affliction has yet to find a way to solve the problem. Because of numerous lifetimes given over to an addiction to anger, many seeds of anger have been sown within the mind-stream of such a person. Thus when certain causes and conditions gather around these seeds of anger, the anger is automatically provoked and is then followed by an action harmful to others. From this we can learn that the person who appears mean to us is not the sole cause of the harm that we receive; it is anger itself. No one first thinks, "I should generate anger within me and then I will harm the person who offends me." The harm is primarily caused by an illness called anger, which forces the person to become mad and cause suffering. We tend to see such a person as all bad, and may wish to retaliate, but if we think carefully, with full wisdom, we will see that the person being mean to us is not as bad as we project him or her to be. Such a person deserves our compassion. If everybody had complete freedom of choice, no one would ever get angry, or, by extension, get sick, age or die. But this is not the case. There is a Tibetan Buddhist saying which goes something like this:

"Up there, up there in the so-called heaven above,
Things may not be so happy or pleasant,
Because there are not many people going up there.
Down there, down there in the so-called hell below,
Things may not be so terrible,
Because everybody is rushing to get there.“

This saying indicates that one does not choose whether to go to heaven or hell. Everything is determined by our karma; that is, by previous actions that were forced out by delusion. Only by subduing our minds can we definitely improve our future.

We and the person who is mean to us are all consciously aware that we love ourselves as well as the friends and relatives who are close to us. We all want happiness and all of us have the right to pursue happiness. But when anger takes over the minds, people may sometimes harm their friends and relatives and even themselves. They may also be compelled to harm us. This is entirely possible, and we shouldn't make a big deal of it in or minds. It is better to learn how to maintain our own peace and happiness.

We can also reflect upon the uncertainty of the concepts of friend and enemy. The person who has been mean to me can easily turn into my heartfelt friend or become a great teacher who can be a source of true happiness. This is because the concepts of enemy and friend are not fixed. Today two nations may be at war. Yesterday they were friends. The same principle applies to individuals. Enemies and friends are constantly changing.

Genuine practice of patience should not just rest on words. If we announce unwisely that we are practicing patience or if we engage in the wrong practice of patience, we will suffer. I would like to share this story common among Tibetans.

A man was sitting under a tree in the perfect meditation posture. Another man wandered by and asked, "What are you doing?" The seated man replied, "I am meditating on patience." The man who happened by said, "Well! If you are really practicing patience, then you should eat shit." The seated man then retorted angrily, "You should eat shit."

To practice patience genuinely we must first be provided with knowledge of patience. Then we must experiment with putting this knowledge into effect in our daily life. Just like eating food for the body, providing food for the mind in a consistent manner is very important if we are to fulfill our wishes for happiness. Practicing patience will gradually transform us. Practicing patience will help us develop a true sense of peace and happiness within ourselves. Finally, practicing patience will enable us to pursue the purpose of our life, which is to achieve peace and happiness, even when we are experiencing the worst of difficulties.