Posts tagged "religion"


At present, I write here infrequently. You can find my current, regular blogging over at The Deliberate Owl.

_Prayer flags hung in a bare-limbed tree_

At the Tibetan monastery retreat I attended last month, Ani Kunga led a meditation session for the group about compassion and anger. I said I'd talk about it more: here goes.

Positive > Negative

I'm going to make two assumptions. First, that positive emotions are, in most circumstances, better ones to be feeling. I've never considered anger and its cohorts--hate, irritation, stress, jealousy, and so on--to be very useful emotions, per se: they solve far fewer problems and make a person feel far less happy than any number of positive emotions. This isn't to say that some amount of anger or related emotions isn't ever beneficial--e.g., when down 1-4 in a fencing bout, as motivation to come back and win--just that, overall, I find positive emotions to lead me to be happier and more productive than negative ones. Surprise, surprise.

Second, that people have some amount of control over their emotions. By 'some amount,' I mean that a person tends to have at least some control over his or her environment, as well as some control over what he/she is actively doing in that environment, both of which influence emotions.

Given these premises, and given the choice, why wouldn't a person pick positive emotions over negative ones?

Patience & Anger

As the group of us relaxed into our meditation cushions, enjoying the sunshine and the spring weather, Ani Kunga shared a statement underlying many of the Tibetan Buddhist approaches to dealing with anger:

"If there's something you can do, why are you unhappy? Just do it. If there's nothing you can do, why are you unhappy?"

She proceeded to explain a few methods for dealing with situations involving angry people:

  1. Get away from it. Often, removing yourself from the situation can help diffuse it. E.g., physically leaving the room, or mentally removing yourself: watching TV, losing yourself in a book, a drink to take the edge off. This method doesn't always work. Sometimes, ignoring a problem situation only makes it worse.

  2. Pretend you're dealing with a sick person; i.e., that the angry person you are dealing with is not mentally all there. This is more to remind you to be patient. Act as if the angry person is your patient and you the doctor, as if he/she is a child and you the parent, or as if you are a student and he/she is your teacher. Yes, that's right: Dealing with angry people is a lesson in patience.

She also explained a core Tibetan Buddhist concept. Patience, Ani Kunga said, is the main antidote for anger. Anger should be turned into compassion, and fear should be turned into love. She led our group through a meditation session to demonstrate a technique for developing compassion. It involved picturing a person you know, imagining his/her happiness and suffering, and then imagining drawing his/her suffering away such that he/she can be happier.

Bottom Line

Although I may not agree with everything Ani Kunga told us, I do (unsurprisingly) like the core message: be proactive. If there's something you can do, just do it. And if there's nothing you can do, well, why not try to spend your time doing things more useful than worrying?


_several gold shiny buddha statues stacked in front of a set of box shelves_

I said I'd return to discuss a sutra that Khenpo Kalsang translated during the Tibetan monastery retreat I attended. Here's the scoop:

The self is a delusion

Khenpo Kalsang translated a sutra called Advice to a king for the group of us who were staying at the monastery. The sutra told the story of a king who encountered the Buddha and wished to kill him. The Buddha asked the king, "Conflict and fighting and killing cause exhaustion and suffering in this life. Why would you enjoy this?" The king, considering this, responded that he enjoyed fighting because he always conquered his enemies. The Buddha said, "Great king, these are very minor enemies--insignificant! There are much greater enemies that you should fight." He explained that the greatest enemy was not another man, or another country, but the clinging of self. He explained how one could fight this enemy with the six perfections and with selflessness. The king is convinced, and instead of killing the Buddha, becomes devoted to him.

The clinging of self, or self-cherishing, is one of the defilements. This means it is a cause of suffering (recall that if you manage to become free from suffering and the causes of suffering, you'll eventually reach nirvana). Simply put, one develops an attachment to the five aggregates (body, mind, feeling, perceptions, activities), and one fears losing the parts of the self through death, illness, hunger, cold, and so on. This is a problem. The way to triumph over self-clinging is to realize that the self, the "I," does not exist in reality.

The gist of the argument presented in this sutra is this: the self is a delusion because it is a construct based on the aggregates. We have names: names are labels, and so the name is not a self. The body is also not the self, because the flesh and blood are just like the walls of a house: that is, a combination of elements that are, if you break them down enough, no different than the elements that make up the walls of a house. The mind is not the self, because it has no matter form. Because self-clinging is based on these three things (name, body, mind), through this analysis, the personal self cannot be found. It's a delusion.

Something is missing here. Simply being unable to pinpoint the exact location of the self doesn't mean it's entirely a delusion. I'd agree, based on other readings, that there is no one physical thing responsible for the sensation of selfhood. There is no single structure in the brain that we can point to and say this is where "I" am. This is the where consciousness happens. But that's all the argument can say: that no one thing is responsible. The self could just be an amalgamation of things: the body, the mind, the interactions of these with the world. The five aggregates that compose a person. The agent and the environment. The self could just be the name we give this combination of things.

Other sutras and other pieces of the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy may better explain this delusion. But even if they do, I may still just fundamentally disagree with pieces of the philosophy. (E.g., that dualistic bit about the mind having no matter form.)

The take away message may be this: Whether or not the self is a delusion depends on your definition of "self." Go figure.


_Strings of prayer flags stretch out from the top of a pole in front of the temple with a sunset sky behind them_

Faded squares of fabric, strung together in repeating blue-white-red-green-yellow chains, crisscross the branches of bare-limbed trees. The gentle wind makes them flutter. Orange-gold light filters into the grassy meadow, touching a row of canvas tents and the temple house beyond. Tsechen Kunchab Ling: Temple of All-Encompassing Great Compassion. This is the seat of His Holiness the Sakya Trizin in the United States, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery established nine years ago.

I spent the past weekend there. The field work office at my college arranges this retreat every semester. Everyone I've talked to who has previously attended says wonderful things about it; this semester, one of my friends told me she was going: I should join her! I like learning new things, so I signed up. A good decision: I didn't return all chill and zen, as one friend told me his roommate had, but I certainly gained a few new ideas and approaches to mull over, and dipped my hand into a previously unfamiliar piece of the world.

Medicine for one's mind

The first evening, the twenty-something students--most from my college, four from another--gathered in the shrine room, sitting cross-legged on cushions as we listened to Khenpo Kalsang introduce Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. He began by telling us, "Do not take any of what I say on faith. Take it through analysis, if there is some benefit in it for you." Religion, he said, is like a drugstore full of medicine. You do not go to the drugstore and buy everything in it--you just buy what would be beneficial to you now. You believe the other medicine may have just as much value, but in other situations, not this one.

We discussed the foundations: the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma; the four noble truths; karma; defilements; the six perfections. When we talked about the giving, and how one should try to give what one could to other sentient beings (in the form of material items, kind words, protection, and so on), Khenpo Kalsang shared a story of the Buddha, and how the Buddha had given his flesh so that a family of hungry tigers could eat. "So," a fellow student asked, "Giving one's life for another being is the ultimate gift?"

Khenpo Kalsang, he smiled, and shook his head. "Only if you feel no regret," he said. "If you feel regret, it destroys the merit." Until then, preserve your own life, and do not give away anything that would cause you regret. This struck a chord. Self-preservation above all else, unless the right situation arises.

_the shrine room in the temple: five rows of cushions on the carpet leading up to altars and statues at the front of the room_

Knowing and understanding

Later, I talked to the resident nun, Ani Kunga, about psychology and cognitive science. She had studied psychology for a while in grad school, but now holds the view that psychologists are going about understanding the mind and understanding the knower and what knowing is the wrong way. "Psychologists," she said, "study the brain and the self externally. Ever since the 1920s, their science has been about observation of behavior, questionnaires, recordings of electrical brain activity. But the mind can only be known by you, the person whose mind it is." She said philosophy and epistemology were doing it right: looking at experiences from the inside.

A big overlap exists between Tibetan Buddhism, psychology and cognitive science. All three examine the distinction between the self and others, between the observer and the observed, between knowing and the knower. I agree with Ani Kunga to some extent--only so much can be known about the mind from external observation. But this doesn't mean that there isn't merit to such studies, nor that nothing of use can be learned in that way.

Tibetan Buddhist philosophy also approaches the mind and the self from the inside. During a second philosophy session, Khenpo Kalsang translated a sutra about a king who received advice from the Buddha. This sutra delved into some questions about the nature of the self, whether the self is a delusion, and how the clinging of self is a defilement. I intend to discuss it in more depth later, so stay tuned.

Compassion training and prayer flags

In the afternoon, a group of us gathered outside for a meditation session with Ani Kunga. Sunshine melted lazily through the tree branches above, a breeze animating the branches' shadows so they danced between our cushions. Compassion and anger were the session's topics. The key message:

"If there's something you can do, why are you unhappy? Just do it. If there's nothing you can do, why are you unhappy?"

Ani Kunga explained several off-session and one on-session technique for dealing with negative emotions (anger, hate, irritation, stress, jealousy, and so on). All the methods built off the idea that you are in control: anger is an emotion, and you can change your emotions. Stay tuned for a more in-depth post on the topic.

Another of the day's activities was making prayer flags. As Ani Kunga explained, "Prayers, wishes, hopes, aspirations--someone, many people, may share those with you. Hanging the prayer flag shares your prayer with everyone else in the world. This may do no good at all, but it may--if everyone hopes and wishes and dreams and aspires, perhaps it will do good. It may not. But if no one shares their prayers, it will certainly do no good. So on the off-chance that it will help, why not?"

Never done

This weekend reminded me that I'm not done learning. If I stay still long enough, if I've achieved a relatively constant level of happiness and satisfaction, I forget that I can and should continue to seek out new ideas and approaches, and incorporate beneficial ones into my life. A person is never "done," and so, I'll continue to observe and discuss and study, trying to pick the directions in which I'll change, and trying to make tomorrow better than today.

Ever onward and ever upward.