If you wanted to study Buddhism, practice Buddhism and understand the basic tenets of Buddhism you could do a lot worse than study, and practice, the advice pema chodron gives in her book, ‘the places that scare you’ – a guide to fearlessness
pema is a well known buddhist and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
pema begins by introducing us to the Three Noble Principles:
– good in the beginning,
– good in the middle,
– good at the end.
That’s enough really, if we could follow those principles for every day and for every relationship and every task we do, then we would need no more. When you begin to consider these principles you realise that we often concentrate on one aspect, say of a day. Maybe we make an effort at the beginning but fall off later on. There are many jokes about working weeks but there is probably a little truth in them – the jokes suggest we start slowly on Monday, peak on Tuesday, are fed up on Wednesday, perk up a bit on Thursday and spend Friday planning our weekend.
A sad reflection on our society, on the way we spend our lives and on our ability to be happy. So let’s embrace those principles and see where they bring us.
“Live your life as an experiment”, advised Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Pema tells us of great advice she got from an old lady when she was still a child of about six year old, “don’t you go letting life harden your heart”. Now that’s a challenge – embrace life and don’t let it harden you.
Pema then introduces us to the principle of the Three Lords of Materialism, which are methods we use to shield ourselves from the world and which prevent us from growing. These are:
– Lord of Form; we look to externals, things like drugs, drink, shopping, the internet, etc. to help us avoid reality. But experience tells us that we can’t get any lasting satisfaction no matter how hard we try or how much we abuse these substances.
– Lord of Speech; this refers to how we use beliefs of all kinds to give us the illusion of certainty about reality. When, if we think about it, we know that there is certainty about reality, never was and never will be. Pema advises us that if we begin to bristle with righteous indignation, then we have gone too far – we have fooled ourselves into assuming certainty exists and it is time for a wake up call.
– Lord of Mind; this occurs when we attempt to avoid uneasiness and unpleasantness by seeking special states of mind. This can include spirituality, religion, drugs again, sex, sport and so on; meditation even. If you feel that you are escaping from humdrum life you probably are, escaping. Come back, come back and deal with it.
There is many a pitfall on the road to wisdom. How then are we going to spend this brief lifetime we have been afforded? pema suggests that we train to be warriors and aspire to the natural flexibility of our beings and, further, to help others do the same.
The Buddha taught that there are three principle characteristics of human existence;
Impermanence we can understand, though it too is worth contemplating on. It’s not just our life but our emotions, our feelings, our beliefs, the weather – especially in Ireland, our relationships – everything in fact. Knowing it is one thing, realising it and accepting it is another step. Living it indeed would bring us along the Buddhist path. Most of us have a problem with egolessness, we either reject it and assert our ego or we accept that we should be egoless but are adamant that we cannot achieve it. Pema tells us that the Buddha meant that the fixed ideas we have of ourselves are limiting, they hold us back, make us fearful. She makes a beautiful comment, “It is possible to move through the drama of our lives without believing so earnestly in the character we play” – acknowledging it is only a play and we are only a character in it, is the first step for many. She tells us, “That we take ourselves so seriously, that we are so absurdly important in our own minds, is a problem for us.
Suffering we all know about; pema asks us “Do the days of our life add up to further suffering or to increased capacity for joy. That’s an important question”?
Pema then introduces us to meditation, sitting meditation. She tells us that sitting meditation is the foundation of bodhichitta training, it cultivates love-kindness and compassion. I have neglected my meditation in recent months as my life has been turned upside down in a variety of ways and i have failed to bring any routine to it. I have noticed that i have become bad tempered and grouchy and in spite of my best efforts – which usually entail regret, i.e occur after i lose my temper, i am failing to control it. It seems like i don’t see it coming and then it ambushes me, bang, i’ve lost my temper and even though it only lasts for a few seconds, the damage is done. I am re-committing myself to meditation and hoping that it will help me retain my equilibrium.
Pema tells us that meditation can help us achieve maitri, the complete acceptance of ourselves as we are.
I’ve just discovered a Youtube link to Pema chodron explaining maitri so here it is – i hope this works; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s-rRMUl04I
In ‘the places that scare you’ pema describes the four qualities of maitri which are cultivated when we meditate, these are;
- clear seeing – which has to be based on compassion
- experiencing our emotional distress, and
- attention to the present moment.
Of course, all things come with a caveat and pema informs us that there is no guarantee that sitting meditation will be of any benefit to us.
It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves that meditation becomes transformative.
Then pema introduces us to the warrior slogans and the advice, “in all activities, train with slogans”. The slogans she refers to are those of Atisha Dipankara, an 11th century buddhist who travelled from India to Tibet. The slogans can be found here; https://thebuddhafultao.wordpress.com/2012/…/the-59-slogans-of-lojong… i am excelling myself with links today.
One of my favourites is, “Don’t expect applause”
Crunch time says pema, “We can spend out lives cultivating our resentments and cravings or we can explore the path of the warrior – nurturing open-mindedness and courage”. What’s it going to be?
The bodhichitta practices are ways for us to sow the seeds of well-being, for us, for those close to us and for all others. We should learn the Four Limitless Ones Chant – as follows:
“May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness
May we all be free from suffering and the root of suffering
May we not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering
May we dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression, and prejudice” – the four limitless ones chant.
pema provides further advice and then introduces us to the concept of ‘tonglen’ or exchanging oneself for others. We take in suffering and send out happiness. The process includes, “breathing in what is painful and unwanted with a sincere wish that we and others could be free from suffering and we drop the story line that goes along with the pain and just feel the energy. Then, breathing out we send out relief from the pain in the hope that we and others may be free from suffering”. As with the other practices, pema gives further guidance into the practice of tonglen.
Now, here’s some good news; pema tells us, “As we train in the bodhichitta practices, we gradually feel more joy, the joy that comes from a growing appreciation of our basic goodness” In the next few chapters, pema gives us additional advice about how to put these ideas into practice in our everyday lives, lives where we are busy, impatient, lives where we lose our tempers, with others and with ourselves. Eventually though, pema gets to one of our long-term interests – laziness. Yes, our old friend laziness makes a cameo appearance.
This is what pema has to say about laziness, “Unfortunately, it inhibits wakeful energy and undermines our confidence and strength” She tells us that there are three types of laziness;
- comfort orientation – this is based on our tendency to take a break, to avoid inconvenience but, of course, this can become a habit so that we live our lives avoiding exertion, avoiding putting ourselves out. pema points out that this type of laziness can result in feelings of entitlement and then of rage if we don’t get what we think we are entitled to. I remember getting enraged once at the rain when it lashed down on me in just the few minutes of a day that i had to venture out- i don’t suppose the tongue lashing the rain received that day had any particular impacts upon it.
- loss of heart – this is where we feel so put upon, so down, so poor-me that we don’t have the energy to do anything about it. Sometimes we make a gesture of breaking through the laziness, we give ourselves a good shake and say “Right now, from now on” but of course we only slip back into our apathy.
- ‘ couldn’t care less‘ – this, pema tells us, is characterised by resentment – we refuse to do anything in a defiant way. We believe that the world is messed up and there is nothing we can do about it so we don’t bother to try.
And we have three strategies, futile strategies pema refers to them as, for dealing with our laziness, just in case one of them doesn’t work. These are;
- attacking – this is where we condemn ourselves, where we wallow in guilt but we stay lazy,
- indulging – this is where we applaud and justify our laziness and, of course, stay lazy,
- ignoring – this is where we disassociate ourselves from our behaviour, totally ignoring it for as long as possible.
pema tells us that it is only by examining our behaviour, by questioning the rationale behind it, that we can face it and then it will change itself.
At this stage, pema encourages us to become bodhisattvas, to work for others, not just for ourselves and she lists six paramitas, ways of compassionate living, virtues, a bodhisattva will train in. These are;
- meditation, and
- prajna – unconditional wisdom.
As you will see by now, Buddhism has a lot of lists but i guess that’s what happens when you break things down and try to get to the truth.
pema quotes that other great zen teacher, charlotte joko beck, as follows; “The ‘secret of life’ that we are all looking for is just this; to develop through sitting and daily practice the power and courage to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment – even if it is a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, of unfairness”. This is so important, we have talked before of the circle of life, of returning to where you started and yet it being so different, even though it is the same, when you get there.
A few more words of wisdom from pema will summarize her book and complete our introduction to the practice of Buddhism. pema warns us that we don’t gradually and consistently become more open and flexible but it doesn’t work like that. In fact, she tells us that “everyone who ever set out on the path of awakening” experienced what they call heightened neurosis, i.e. our failings become more pronounced – at least to ourselves. Then pema gives us some fundamental advice on our warrior journey – “practice not causing harm to anyone – yourself or others – and every day do what you can to be helpful” and she gives us four methods to help;
- not setting up the target for the arrows – don’t attract trouble and relax the anger,
- connecting with the heart –
- seeing obstacles as teachers –
- regarding all that occurs as a dream.
Then pema advises us all to get a spiritual advisor – this is something i have tried but failed. I have never managed to have sufficient confidence in the advisor to trust myself to them. I am afraid of being lead down the wrong path and wasting years and ending up further from where i should be. I accept the advice that a spiritual advisor is essential but finding the right one is not that simple and, in fact, pema talks about not rushing into it. Hopefully when the right teacher comes along i will recognise them.
pema concludes, and so will i, by recommending the in-between state where we recognise the futility of much of the world’s coping strategies but where we still haven’t achieved that state of equanimity we are seeking. She advises us that the crossroads is “an important place in the training of a warrior” and that we should embrace the paradoxes we encounter. I’ve told you before how i love paradoxes so that should suit me.
And so we leave you – at the crossroads – where you should be.