If losing weight or quitting smoking seems hard enough for most of us, practicing the Buddha’s teaching can actually turn out impossible for many. Sure, we can all attend a buddhist initiation, take refuge, and call ourselves Buddhists afterwards. But true practice involves changing thick habits of our body, speech and mind. Sounds simple when you say it. It even sounds romantic and heroic: I will transform my thoughts, words and deeds to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings. A hardcore dharma practitioner soon realizes that this particular resolve is hard. Very hard.
Our being is so used to not doing the right thing, that actually doing it feels like the biggest mistake in the world. If you ever wondered why you haven’t been able to get rid of that unwholesome habit, just remember that what feels natural to you will always be preferable. New habits are foreign and thus are perceived as not beneficial. Precisely for this reason, Tibetan Buddhists use common or outer preliminaries to open up the conversation. These practices are a method to help the mind open up to change and become interested in the Dharma. They are called The Four Thoughts that turn the mind. Before reflecting on these ideas, it is very hard for the mind to be willing to practice the Dharma. The four thoughts are:
- Thinking about the freedoms and advantages of a precious human rebirth.
- Reflecting on impermanence and the change of all things
- Analysis of the law of karma, cause and effect.
- Acknowledging the suffering of living beings within samsara.
By reminding oneself that it is hard as hell to have the right conditions to practice, that all things change, that we cannot escape karma and that it is impossible to be happy in the cycle of rebirth, we should be able to feel interest and find motivation to engage in Buddhist practice. After all, just thinking about these things is painful enough to do something about it. To a certain extent, reflecting on these things over and over starts the engine.
But lately I’ve been thinking about another thought that could also turn the mind towards the Dharma: Reflecting on our harmfulness.
If we don’t actualize Buddha Nature through Dharma practice, we will become harmful. In fact, no matter how much progress we make in science, technology, philosophy, medicine or psychotherapy, we will continue to generate suffering for others. No matter how many times we vow to act for the benefit of all sentient beings, if we’re not in contact with our enlightened state, we will hurt someone again. I call this samsaric bodhichitta: the ability to harm through actions that seem beneficial.
Here are some examples:
- Every single political ideology that we have been able to create, has had a noble aim. But all have been tainted by our basic selfishness.
- Every single product that has been invented to improve our human condition becomes in a few years a commodity that few are able to use, and that is sold to some consumers over and over at high prices, causing concentration of wealth and inequality.
- While social media has opened up portals into endless amounts of information, ways of interaction and connecting with people, it is evident it is also used in very bad ways: stalking, bullying people, earning self-esteem and marketing the hell out of everything.
- Lately, when I read or hear about some sort of activism, it is usually full of anger. The right causes and right motivations are used to channel rage, and many are affected negatively by this.
In brief, before studying and actualising the Dharma, our motivation to benefit is always samsaric: it mostly generates pain.
So going back to the 5th thought that turns the mind, we urgently need to reflect on our ability to harm. No one is exempt from being harmful. The truth is we cause more pain than what we’re actually aware of. Before engaging fully in the Buddhadharma, every single thing we do will be tainted with selfishness and it will eventually hurt someone else. Even if all our actions are based on the right causes, ego will be fed and then unconsciously harm. It is unavoidable.
For example, if we were animal savers, the moment we conclude not enough people are saving animals, we will get angry. If we don’t see enough people liberating animals we might feel enraged. How about race issues? Gender issues? Have we asked ourselves why we feel so much anger when the racist discriminates or when the misogynist devalues women? Our answer might be something like: well duh, the reason is because they hurt people. And yes, that may be true. But the problem is the moment we feel rage, we instantly become harmful. Just like the racists, the misogynists and all the other people we label as harmful. This takes time to sink in. Here it goes again: Before Dharma, we are mostly harmful towards others.
If you notice, the previous 4 thoughts seem to focus only on our own suffering. But today, we can’t afford to merely end just our personal suffering. We have to practice to stop becoming harmful. It is not enough to vow to practice the Dharma for the benefit of all sentient beings. We have to practice to transform our harmfulness into assertiveness. Our discontent can be transmuted into wholesome action. Our anger can be changed into balanced perseverance. But this can only happen if we turn to the Dharma and engage fully with it. We need to actualise Buddha Nature and not just talk about it. Mass harmfulness is a bigger problem and Dharma can definitely help solve it.
Share this Post