Saturday, April 01, 2006

Imperfection

Being a Buddhist is not about being perfect; it's about the willingness to challenge your imperfection.

Many teachers have taught this, in one form or another. But it really came home to me recently when reading this talk by Ven. Thubten Chodron on the Four Opponent Powers. (Link is to Google's HTML version; PDF version here.) Her talk addresses the purpose of purification, which is our way of addressing mental imbalances throughout the day. Instead of looking at our actions as right and wrong, she stresses seeing them in relation to whether they cloud or uncloud our mind. Instead of thinking, "Wow, look at what a dumbass I was today!",
[w]e can think, “This is an opportunity to learn something about what’s going on in my mind. This is an opportunity to stop for a minute and check up what’s happening and to get myself balanced again, because if I don’t get balanced, I’m going to get further and further out of whack.” You can see how this happens. Something happens in our life and we get a little bit angry, but we don’t take care of our anger. So then every situation we meet, we get angrier and angrier, because everybody starts appearing to us as if they’re harming us and bugging us. Or we get a little bit jealous but we don’t recognize it. We don’t take care of it. So then everybody starts appearing in a very competitive, threatening way to us. And then we start acting our jealousy out, and then other people get more and more apprehensive around us.
The key, in my mind, is not to use this as an excuse for bad behavior. If you are in the act of doing something you know contradicts your ethics and training and just shrug and say, "Well, I'm only human, what can I do?" - that doesn't cut it. That itself is an unskillful act, another kind of mental imbalance.

A key goal for me is to apply this rigorously to other people as well. When I see others acting out of anger or selfishness, I try to remind myself that they're "just like me". At various points in my life, I've been all of the things other people around me are: hostile, inflexible, dogmatic, frightened, petty, vindictive, arrogant, etc. When I'm not mindful, I still slip into these habits, in spite of my better intentions.

But even this isn't enough to keep me from judging others, or thinking myself as superior to them. It's because I'm still looking at their actions in terms of right and wrong, not in terms of skillful and unskillful. This isn't a mere terminological switch, mind you. When viewing other's actions as right and wrong, I'm judging their impact to me. When judging them as skillful and unskillful, I'm evaluating their impact to them. As Shantideva laid out eloquently in the Bodhicaryavatara, another person's anger is an opportunity for me to practice patience - but they're still mired in the suffering of a wild mind. Looked at this way, another person's anger "bad behavior" becomes a deep cause for sympathy and compassion within me, because it's doing nothing but buttressing that person's belief in their illusory "independent self".

I'm not sure if any of this is insightful to others. This all hit me in an "a-ha!" moment while reading Venerable's talk. "A-ha!" moments don't translate well verbally to others, and I'm sure they seem even more tepid and self-serving when reflected into the Buddhasphere. Hopefully someone, somewhere, will benefit from it, and from Ven. Chodron's wonderful teaching.

(For you Seattleites: Ven. Thubten Chodron will be giving a teaching at Sakya Monastery on April 28th at 7:30pm. Her talk is on Dependent Arising. Tickets go on sale to the general public starting April 17th. Based on what I've read of her teachings, this promises to be an excellent talk. Be there if you can!)

Comments:
Hey Jigdral - I think you'll really enjoy her talk. I studied with Chodron for a while and found her teaching style to be so practical. She does a marvelous job of taking Dharma out of the text and applying to our everyday life. Right now I'm going through my third pass of Shantideva's text. Obviously a wonderful and profound text but, like you, I find myself having difficulty actually living that in my daily life. There needs to be a translation and that's where teacher's like Chodron come in. Plus her website is outstanding, one of the best out there, wouldn't you agree? I had the opportunity for a brief time to edit some of her teachings and post them to the site, but it was too hard for me to keep that commitment. I just mailed backed tapes and cd's that I had been working on or was going to. bummer. Anyways, I'm glad someone else is pointing to her site and hope many will get benefit from the teachings.
 
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