Sometimes, doing the right thing is hard. For example, I really struggle with being on time. Other things are easy, like washing the dishes. I am not used to checking my watch, and I have to force myself to check calendars all the time. Just like an ex-smoker struggling to be a non-smoker. But I know that’s what I have to do so that I benefit myself and others. Buddhists talk about benefiting beings all the time, after all, it is one of the core practices in Mahayana Buddhism: Bodhichitta or Mind of Awakening, which refers to the intention to benefit all sentient beings. In my first years as a Buddhist I pushed myself to act wholesomely as much as I could to benefit people and myself. But as time passed, this struggle I felt sometimes when trying to do the right thing, made me wonder if I was doing it in the right way.
If there is struggle, I thought, it must be a sign of inefficiency. Theravadan buddhist master Thanissaro Bhikkhu talked about this problem in his essay The Integrity of Emptiness, when he mentioned the Buddha’s way of evaluating how wise we are: Those words led me to think: if the intentions and actions to benefit beings are effortless and natural, it could be said it is wise bodhichitta. If not, then we can say it is unwise bodhichitta, at least in the sense of efficiency.
For all the subtlety of his teachings, the Buddha had a simple test for measuring wisdom. You’re wise, he said, to the extent that you can get yourself to do things you don’t like doing but know will result in happiness, and to refrain from things you like doing but know will result in pain and harm.
How can one get to an effortless exercise of the Mind of Awakening? As I continued nurturing the Tibetan preliminary practices I had received from my lama teacher, I noticed that the intention to benefit was linked to the practice of taking refuge in the Buddha. As I mentioned in my previous post, taking refuge is like dying but in a good way, I meant that this particular practice involves surrendering my will to something wholesome. I also said that by giving away myself to the Buddha, I would generate an open space in my being where serenity is accumulated. Surely being serene seems like a beneficial aspect of the Mind of Awakening.
When we examine the practice of taking refuge in the context of my tardiness, if I give up my will, this would also mean I give up my resistance to check the time. The open space rises again, but perhaps we can see this space as an opportunity to reconnect with the sense of time. All this seems obvious but when it comes to reconnecting with this dimension, the previously surrendered will actually makes a difference for me. After refuge, I feel less resistance to do the right thing and actually benefit others with less struggle. If refuge is done properly, wise bodhichitta rises.
Now, the word wise here does refer to the teachings of emptiness as well. If you read the rest of Thanissaro’s essay, you’ll see he analyses emptiness in terms of an absence of stress, and a lack of disturbances in our perception. He speaks of purification of harmful actions, so that wholesome actions remain. I see the surrendering of ill will as a cultivation of emptiness, that is, a being empty of ill will. Herein lies the key to efficient, wise bodhichitta: we must empty ourselves of all types of ill will.
We can make a list and write down all the other wholesome actions that don’t flow as easily as the actions we enjoy doing, in order to identify those particular intentions or sub-wills that oppose an efficient practice of bodhichitta. In our list we can write daily tasks like:
- Cleaning the house.
- Getting up early
- Do the taxes
- Go to the gym
- Check my expenses
And we can also write down the usual opposing desires and intentions that come up when thinking about doing the right thing:
- I don’t want to clean the house
- I want to sleep more rather than get up to go to work
- I want to do the taxes later
- I want to stay at home and watch TV
- I can check the receipts later
Just by writing down our true intentions, we begin to surrender them, we begin to see them as they are. Moreover, if we take these intentions to our practice of taking refuge, we begin to let them arise and cease. Suddenly, the ill intentions do not appear anymore and the remaining space where wholesome action can flow is felt as willingness to do wholesome action. That’s the sign we are doing it right: inside ourselves there is open space to act differently. This of course takes a lot of practice and time. Our harmful habits have momentum and it takes a while to see permanent change. But it does happen. This is the beauty of the Dharma: it works because it is all based on sound and logical foundations.
So once again, the process to get to a natural, effortless bodhicitta is: 1) Write down the wholesome tasks you have trouble doing. 2) Confess and write down your true desires or intentions, whenever you think about doing the right thing. 3) Surrender to the Buddha and contemplate the desires and intentions that oppose bodhichitta, until you feel a willingness to do the right thing. Now get back to the mat and practice some surrendering to give rise to the empty space where wholesome action can happen.
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