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Lions Roar : May 2007
Adverse circumstances and situations are an integral part of conditioned existence. They tend to arise as sudden interruptions, so we shouldn’t be surprised that natural calamities and upheav- als occur in both our private and our public lives. Buddhists do not believe in divine authorship or omnipotent governance of any kind; things just happen when the proper conditions and circumstances come together. As Shantideva tells us in his chap- ter on patience in the Bodhicharyavatara, “Conditions, once as- sembled, have no thought / That now they will give rise to some result,” but our ignorance about this process doesn’t change the fact they are interdependent. The importance of understanding dependent arising cannot be underestimated, because we have to be realistic about what we can and cannot do. As Padma Karpo (1527–92) writes: If you look closely at your normal activities You will discover that they do not deserve the trust you accord them. You are not the agent in power but the victim of your projections. Don’t you think you should look closely into that? Please turn your mind within and reflect on this. We can’t tailor the world to suit ourselves, nor force it to fit into our vision of things. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to make things better. The bodhisattva ideal specifically recommends trying to improve our world to the best of our ability, but that ideal is based on a realistic recognition that the world is imperfect and likely to remain that way. Things may sometimes work a little better, sometimes a little worse, but so long as there is ignorance, hatred, jealousy, pride, and selfishness, we will all be living in a world that is socially and politically imperfect. Shantideva coun- sels equanimity in the face of life’s changing circumstances: If there is a remedy when trouble strikes, What reason is there for despondency? And if there is no help for it, What use is there in being sad? If things are interdependent, as Buddhists say, we can never ex- pect to protect ourselves against unexpected occurrences, because there is no real order to existence apart from the regularity of cer- tain natural processes. The fact that anything and everything can and does happen would then come as no real surprise to us. The question then becomes not so much why these things happen, but what we can do about them once they do. We cannot control the environment in any strict sense, so we must try to change our atti- tude and see things in a different light. Only then will we be able to take full advantage of our situation, even if it happens to be a bad one. While it often seems there is nothing we can do in the face of insurmountable obstacles, the lojong, or mind training, teachings tell us this is not true. The imperfect world can be an opportunity for awakening rather than an obstacle to our goals. Sometimes things just happen, and there may be nothing we can do to change that, but we can control our responses to events. We don’t have to despair in the face of disaster. We can either continue to respond in the way we’ve always done and get progressively worse, or we can turn things around and use our misfortune to aid our spiritual growth. For example, if we suffer from illness, we should not allow despondency to get the better of us if our recovery is slow. Despite seeing the best doctors and receiving the best medication, we should accept our situation with courage and fortitude and use it to train our minds to be more accommodating and understanding. No matter what situ- ation we encounter, we can strengthen our minds by incorporat- ing it into our spiritual journey. A text on mind training known as The Wheel-Weapon Mind Training states that our selfish ac- tions create a sword that returns to cut us. This text advises us to accept adversity as both the repercussions for our own nega- tive actions and the method for removing the self-obsession that caused them. As the text says: In short, when calamities befall me, it is the weapon of my own evil deeds turned upon me, like a smith killed by his own sword. From now on I shall be heedful of my own sinful actions. We grow more quickly if we are open to working with dif- ficulties rather than constantly running away from them. The lojong teachings say that when we harden ourselves to suffering, we only become more susceptible to it. The more harsh or cruel we are toward others, the more vulnerable we become to irrita- tion or anger that is directed at us. Contrary to our instincts, it is by learning to become more open to others and our world that we grow stronger and more resilient. It is our own choice how we respond to others. We can capitulate to the entrenched habits and inner compulsions deeply ingrained in our basic conscious- ness, or we can recognize the limitations of our situation and ap- ply a considered approach. Our conditioned samsaric minds will always compel us to focus on what we can’t control rather than questioning whether we should respond at all. However, once we recognize the mechanical way in which our ego always reacts, it becomes possible to reverse that process. The great strength of the lojong teachings is the idea that we can train our minds to turn these unfavorable circumstances 38 SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2007 Compassion is not just about alleviating the suffering of others; it is also a powerful tool for effecting our own spiritual transformation.