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A TEACHER TELLS US WHY
Question: Why does Buddhism place so much emphasis on the mind?
Answered by Jampa Jaffe
In emphasizing the mind, Buddhism is stressing that when we look to a person, a thing or a situation for the solutions to our fundamental problems, we’re projecting outside what can only be found within.
In our everyday living, we too often behave like the person who has lost his keys along a dark street and yet searches for them beneath a streetlight on the corner, thinking it much easier to see them there. However, the reality is that no matter how long and hard he searches, he will never find what he’s looking for, because he’s looking in the wrong place.
There’s a simple story based on a verse from Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that illustrates Buddhism’s emphasis on the mind.1 There was a king in ancient times who took great pleasure in strolling about the countryside of his kingdom. One day, while out walking, he stepped on a thorn, injuring his foot. Returning to his palace in great pain, the king called together his ministers. “Look,” he exclaimed, “Look at my foot! This cannot be allowed to happen again! You must find a way whereby I can walk freely about my kingdom without the danger of hurting myself!”
His ministers thought and thought and, finally, one declared, “I have it! We’ll cover all the roads in your kingdom with leather and in that way your majesty’s feet will be protected from thorns and stones and all manner of sharp and rough objects and you’ll be able to walk safely throughout your kingdom.”
“Excellent idea!” exclaimed the king. But immediately the king’s treasurer interrupted, “No, no, it won’t work. First of all, there aren’t enough cattle in the kingdom to produce that much leather and even if there were, to purchase that amount would bankrupt the treasury. It won’t work. It’s not practically possible.”
There was a long silence and after some time an old and wise minister spoke. She said, “I propose that we cut two small pieces of leather to the shape of the soles of your majesty’s feet and we bind them there with thongs. This, I suggest, would serve the same purpose as covering all the roads in your kingdom with leather. Wherever your majesty goes, your feet would be protected from sharp and rough objects and you will be able to walk safely throughout your kingdom.”
This story is meant to stress an obvious but often overlooked fact of life: we cannot control the world. That is, we cannot order the world about us to comply with our endless list of wishes or demand that it somehow fulfill our every need. Nevertheless, we do. And when we do, we experience either a sense of frustration and rage because the world isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, or else we experience a sense of powerlessness and failure because we cannot do the impossible.
The story also points to a not so obvious fact of life: though we cannot control the world, we can control our experience of it by changing the way our minds relate to it. Changing just one thing – our own minds – can achieve the same intended purpose as all our various futile attempts at controlling the world.
The mind is the measure of all things, the determinant of all things. “The mind is in its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”2 The people we interact with, the things we make use of, the situations we find ourselves in, each in their own way has the potential to serve as either a source of happiness or a source of suffering depending on our understanding of them, our attitude towards them, our own mind’s skill or lack of skill in relating to them. If we are dissatisfied, the world is not at fault. It is we who are accountable.
Losing sight of that, we inevitably look to someone or something outside of ourselves for our happiness and blame someone or something outside of ourselves for our suffering. But, really it is ourselves – the images, values, beliefs, and stories within our own minds – that finally determine both.
We can easily argue about so many things, but it’s difficult to argue against the fundamental fact that we all want to be happy. None of us want to suffer. However, each of us uniquely defines what happiness and suffering mean for us. With its emphasis on the mind, Buddhism encourages us to look where the primary causes of both can actually be found – within our minds – and find there what it is we’re all searching for.
Jampa (Gendun) Jaffe is American by birth. He was a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for 17 years and studied for over 14 years in India at the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives and the Buddhist School of Dialectics. This was followed by a year of meditation in various monasteries in Thailand. He has been teaching Buddhism for over 20 years. From 1987-1995, Jampa taught at Buddha House in South Australia, where he also served as Tibetan interpreter. In 1996, he was at Chenrezig Institute in Queensland. From 1997-2004, Jampa served as the teaching assistant for FPMT’s Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy. In 2005, he completed a solitary one-year retreat. He then returned to Buddha House as resident teacher and remained there to May 2009. He now lives in New South Wales and teaches regularly at the Vajrayana Institute in Ashfield and the Kadam Sharawa Centre on the Central Coast.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche recorded the following conversation with a student directly on his iPad in November 2013. The student was sharing the news that gold was being offered to the spire of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, and Rinpoche was telling the student to rejoice, as jealousy only causes suffering, not happiness.
“Tell people this: hell, enlightenment, samsara, nirvana, every day happiness and suffering, come from one’s own mind. Thinking this way leads to hell, thinking that way leads to enlightenment. Every day happiness and suffering as well as samsara and nirvana all depend upon what concept we generate.
So therefore, it becomes so important to always generate positive concepts, positive ways of thinking. This is Dharma practice.”
In a new book, B. Alan Wallace and Brian Hodel tackle the ancient question – what is the mind? From the moving narrative of Alan’s own life through the fallacies of scientific materialism, the authors take us to the heart of the Buddhist science of consciousness. Here is an excerpt:
Historically in the West, the existence of negative emotions has been taken for granted.
In Darwin’s view, aggression served the survival of the species. Freud believed that psychotherapy could do no more than make the mentally disturbed patient ordinarily happy – that is, subject to the normal flux of negative and positive emotions. Western philosophers have viewed aggression and hostility among humans as natural and permanent. And although we are often encouraged to “think positive,” we view those with a permanent positive attitude toward life – “optimists” – as a rare breed. Such exceptional people are frequently highlighted by the media in “human interest” stories. What makes them interesting is that they are so unusual, at least in Western culture.
Yet evolutionary theory has never satisfactorily explained the origin of such highly valued positive emotions as empathy and compassion. According to Buddhism, our fundamental motivation in life is the quest for happiness. Love (the wish that others have happiness and its causes) and compassion (the wish that others be spared suffering and its causes) are also considered basic to human nature. Thus, from this point of view we are essentially altruistic, contradicting the generally accepted Western view that negativity is the norm. On the contrary, according to Buddhism, negativity derives from a misunderstanding of the mind and the universe we inhabit. For Buddhism the unenlightened mind is dysfunctional. According to this view, one of the greatest errors in thinking is the belief that happiness derives essentially from one’s outer circumstances. …
It seems easy if you have a good intellect. Just follow the arguments by the great trailblazer, Chandrakirti, about how a chariot – well, let’s say a car – is neither inherently its whole, nor inherently one of its parts, nor some combination of whole plus parts, or even none of these. Therefore the chariot/car cannot exist from its own side. It is empty of existing from its own side, which is what we Buddhists mean when we say it is empty of true existence. Not too hard to understand, so why then, are we not quickly enlightened? What is wisdom? Surely when we refer to wise people, we do not mean people who can hold a clever argument. Ven. Tenzin Chönyi (Dr. Diana Taylor) explains1 …
Wisdom is a mental factor, meaning it is part of our functioning mind. It is a mental factor which looks at some thing, or some idea, and gets to know its nature, its attributes, and any other characteristics. In other words, it analyzes things. Its purpose is to counteract doubt.
There are two types of wisdom: conventional wisdom and higher wisdom. Conventional wisdom is about being clever, cunning, making good decisions. Shakyamuni Buddha said that what we need is a higher wisdom, a sound philosophy for life. This means that we need, in the first place, a wisdom which distinguishes what brings happiness, and what does not. Secondly we need a wisdom which shows us the actual nature of things, their being empty of existing from their own side.
What brings happiness? We begin to see that it comes from understanding that ordinary life, samsara, is undermined by chronic dissatisfaction. At the same time, it is possible to achieve something better – nirvana – which is free from this dissatisfaction. We begin to develop renunciation, wanting nirvana. So we begin to investigate what it is that brings nirvana. We begin to see that we need more time, so a good rebirth will help. We start to understand how looking at death teaches us how to live life.
So we start from a position of living a good life, which means, at the least, not harming others; this means that wisdom begins with ethics: how to avoid harming others. How do we do that? The answer is not always clear, which means we need some more conventional wisdom too. Why am I chronically angry, or depressed, or jealous? Western psychology can help with these answers, but Buddhism brings an extra dimension. We learn about how, from beginningless time, we have been craving to protect our ego, because we thought that this would bring happiness. Buddhist wisdom teaches that our ego is a myth we have created. …
1This article is an adaptation of a keynote address by Dr. Ian Coughlan (Jampa Ignyen) – “Developing Wisdom: How to Achieve Understanding and Realization” – given at the conference Mind and its Potential, Sydney, 2006. Interested students can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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It’s the foggy mind, the mind that’s attracted to an object and paints a distorted projection onto it, that makes you suffer. That’s all. It’s really quite simple.
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