by Tonia Shoumatoff
"Hurt not others with that which pains yourself."
“If your mind and heart are filled with love and compassion for all sentient beings you don't have time to indulge in selfish thought or feelings of depression. I see this as the ultimate method for realizing no self. No-self makes one compassionate toward others and compassion toward others negates self."
“Are you a good Christian? Then you're a good Buddhist.”
“Human life, lasting an instant, like a dream--it might be happy, it might be sad. Not wishing for joy, not avoiding sadness, may I truly practice the sublime teachings.”
The word for Buddhist in Tibetan is “nagpa” which means someone who looks inward. All Buddhist practices help the individual to work with unraveling negative repetitive patterns of behavior and thinking that causes difficulty and conflicts. Many people think that Buddhism is depressing because it addresses the issues around suffering and most people find it quite painful to look at the root causes of their mental and physical malaise. But Buddhist thought presents practical advice for dealing with the fundamental truths of our existence. By carefully looking at which attitudes and behaviors bring more suffering into our lives, Buddhism presents helpful methods for actually getting to the root of suffering and overcoming it. These techniques are not austere but gradual and balanced so that the individual can eventually achieve inner and outer harmony and can generate aspirations for the universal well being for all that lives.
A Buddhist friend of mine, Evelyn Ruut, recently responded to a question about whether Buddhism could offer any help in combating depression: “There are a good many Buddhist practices that I know of which seem to have a good effect on depression. I for one would recommend some of the visualized practices such as that of Chenresig, or Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Why Chenresig? because, in particular, this practice removes the focus from oneself. You are visualizing and sending out great compassionate love and imagining that you are giving all living beings what they need. It is very hard to remain self-focused and dwell upon your own miseries when you are seeing to the happiness of all beings. This is a practiced, planned, specifically organized time when you take the focus off yourself.”
This practice contains a good many other helpful things which can offset depression. First of all it is a purification, in which you literally make yourself empty of all your negative characteristics, everything that has depressed or stressed you, everything that makes you feel bad about yourself, literally seeing it all pouring out, and leaving you transparent like a rainbow. Just visualizing that helps you to forget that you are depressed.
Then you see the bodhisattva sending you kindness and loving compassion and you acknowledge it. Then after that, you, in turn, send that compassionate energy out to all living beings, and imagine that everyone is sending out whatever everyone needs to everyone else. It is actually a very wonderful mental exercise and what I am describing here is only the smallest part of it.
Just think that somewhere there are tiny babies who are hungry and wet, people who have no homes or food, animals who are chained up in cages, people in horrible, inhumane prisons. There are those dying in hospitals whose illnesses have no hope of cure. Victims of war who have lost their families. As part of your visualization you can picture all of these beings receiving food, shelter, healing, peace, whatever they need. You can be as specific as you want; after all it is your mind and your practice.
The most important thing is that at the end you dedicate any merit you may have gained from generating this attitude to all living beings, and prays for this to continue to happen. Also, for the rest of you day you envision that when people see or speak to you they are speaking to the little bit of Chenresig that you carry in your heart. When you are carrying that idea with you, you are also keeping that idea and the memory of the attitudes you generated during the practice alive in your heart and mind.”
Buddhism is one of the world's major religions and was inspired by the enlightenment experience of the son of a king, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived on the border of Nepal and India from 557-477 BC At the age of 29, after having been immersed in luxury throughout his life and prevented from seeing the horrors of the real world by his overprotective father, he was devastated by seeing the ravaging effects of sickness, poverty and death. He then renounced his princely kingdom, became a wandering yogi and ascetic and dedicated his life to finding a way to eliminate suffering.
After spending six years in extreme asceticism he sat down under the famous Bodhi tree, conquered the maras (or human defilements of ignorance, anger, lust, greed, jealousy, ignorance, etc.) and discovered the “Middle Way,” which found a place in the mind between extreme asceticism and extreme self-indulgence. He developed techniques, which demonstrated to his followers how to live a life of balance and compassion in the world.
There are many schools of Buddhism but the three major branches are Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Hinayana, literally the narrow path, puts an emphasis on the enlightenment and liberation of the individual through purification practices, meditation and applying the original teachings of the Buddha. To this branch belong the practitioners of the original Pali Canon, the teachings of the Buddha in its original language. Most of the members of this school of Buddhism reside in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma. This school puts an emphasis on following the original sutras or teaching of the Buddha and slowly purifying one's body, speech and mind. Theravadin Buddhism is part of this school, with an emphasis on monasticism. The individual or arhat presents the inspiring example of one who attains liberation from birth and death through his own personal efforts but is not necessarily imbued with the intention to help liberate other brings through his realization.
The Mahayana or “wide path” shifts the emphasis from personal liberation to the universal salvation of “all sentient beings.” Perhaps a better way of putting it is that all beings already have Buddha nature and that it is just a question of shifting their awareness to their intrinsic Buddhahood. At any rate, the Mahayana schools gave birth to the concept of the Bodhisattva who declares his or her intention to benefit all beings through his spiritual practice and eventual enlightenment. By understanding that all beings have been one's mothers in a past life there is an essential feeling of connection and unity of all that lives within the fabric of life. Thus, the Bodhisattva realizes that if he attains Buddhahood for himself alone it would be limited without extending it to everyone.
The third branch of Buddhism, is Vajrayana, or the “Diamond Vehicle,” which migrated from India to China, Tibet and Japan, uses esoteric yogi practices to attain enlightenment “in one lifetime.” One Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche abbot of the Woodstock, NY Karmatriyana Dharmachakra Tibetan Buddhist monastery, said that the difference between the sutrayana (Hinayana) and the tantrayana traditions are that in one you are trying remove the mud around a gem in order to be able to reveal it and in the other you leave the mud there and just reach in and grab the gem. Tantric practice entails visualizations of oneself as a deity who is the embodiment of such enlightened qualities as compassion, wisdom, healing and so on. By meditating on the deity, you come to understand yourself as being the deity. You then understand the ultimate purity within yourself and that in fact there are no defilements to be removed. In Tantrayana everything is transformed into purpose, the outer realm is imagined as a pure heavenly realm, each being is seen as a buddha, each sound is mantra and every object is seen as if emanating the rainbow light of the sacred world. If you view all beings as being composed of the constituent elements of Buddhahood then there is no need to develop anger and you can develop effortless compassion.
These three paths or branches of Buddhism are not to be regarded as different or “better” than each other, they just represent varying interlocking levels or stages of development along the path, all necessary for the evolution of Buddhist spiritual development. In spite of the many teachers, sects, and branches of Buddhism the ultimate emphasis in all of them is on the capacity of the individual to be able to work with his or her mind to achieve enlightenment. The Buddha said: “Be a lamp unto yourself” and did not require his followers to have faith in him as some kind of savior.
Each being is believed to have Buddhanature and the ability to attain nirvana or enlightenment through spiritual practice. Even though the Buddha is definitely venerated through art and images he is not worshipped as God or a Supreme Being but rather is seen as one of three sources of “refuge” from the tribulations of life in this world or samsara (the repetitive rounds of rebirth). The Buddha is understood to have been a man who through his own efforts became fully “awake” and was therefore able to guide others. The other two sources of refuge are the dharma or the teachings that guide one along the path, and the sangha, or the community of fellow Buddhist practitioners.
Another helpful tool for working with the mind is meditation. One form of meditation is Shinay or calming the mind. This is basically a meditation on the breath which allows the thoughts that arise in the mind to be observed without interacting with them which causes the mind to settle down so that the spaciousness or clarity of the mind can be experienced. One teacher said Shinay meditation is like placing a muddy glass of water on a table; eventually the silt settles to the bottom and the water becomes clear.
As the practitioner goes deeper in working with the mind he can work with what arises through Vipassana or Insight Meditation. When the practitioner starts to experience the nature of impermanence-- an understanding that everything is constantly arising and dissolving--the mind can start to soften and open rather than tighten and grasp. One starts to understand, as Jack Kornfeld says: “The thought of a friend is not the friend: it is a thought. How many life scenarios have we created, directed, and starred in and, for those moments, taken to be the experience itself?
We also may get carried away by the intense energy of our emotions, swept up in a typhoon of the mind and body. To be lost in emotions is to not be mindful of their energy; and when there is a strong identified involvement with them there is no space in the mind for seeing clearly what is happening.”
As wisdom starts to replace suffering in the practitioner's life, compassion for others starts to arise and one desires to help others to be liberated from their suffering. Unless our hearts are open to feeling our own pain then we cannot be open to the suffering of others. As compassion becomes a sincere response the Buddhist can then start integrating spiritual practice and everyday life embarking upon paths that are of service to others. As patience, kindness, sensitivity, generosity, courage, integrity and perseverance arise then the practitioner can start truly being of benefit to others. When those who practice Buddhism start to let go of their egos and stop imposing their own personal agendas on the world they start to realize the true interdependency of all beings which allows an essential healing relationship with others and the very Earth itself to take place.
Many think that Buddhism is depressing because of the emphasis that it puts on suffering, but realistically acknowledging our suffering is the first step toward finding a way out of our tendency to cling to the false materialistic hopes and dreams propounded by our society that ultimately are ephemeral and leave us feeling disappointed, empty and unfulfilled.
The Four Noble Truths state the Buddha's understanding of our human situation:
- Our existence is by its very nature filled with unhappiness; disease, decay, death and separation from what is desired causing continual pain and suffering (dukha).
- This suffering is caused by selfish craving. The blind demandingness of our nature leads us to act in ways that cause suffering.
- This craving or demandingness can be gotten rid of
- The way to bet rid of these cravings is to understand the nature of the mind and to practice dharma or “the true path” whose stages include: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
What the Buddha was telling the world here was that the mere fact of being born restricts us to finite conditions that cause problems and suffering. We only have to look at the news to be aware of the immensely painful events in the lives of those around us and to understand the misery that pervades existence. But the Buddha said that rather than be overwhelmed by our continual problems and often self-created suffering that we need to recognize the source of our sufferings: dualistic mind which causes us to cling to a false sense of separate self. This mind gives in to the delusion of self-interest, putting a priority of self over others and gives rise to the six “poisons”; ignorance, anger, attachment, greed, jealousy and pride which cause beings to become lost in the ocean of repeated rebirths into what is called “samsara.”
But the good news is that every being also has the innate potential for Buddhahood or “basic goodness”, and can achieve liberation from samsara. The process of achieving this liberation entails clearing away the obscurations of the mind and recognizing the absolute and omniscient nature of the mind which is beyond any concept of self or other. We can eliminate the capricious promptings of our minds by gradually reorganizing our lives along the lines of the eight-fold path, which re-orients the mind. The eight-fold path helps us understand the problem of life, accept a purpose or goal toward which we are working, and builds upon that by reinforcing moral conduct, careful use of words, ethically correct livelihood, spiritual practice, consciousness of ourselves and others and ultimately enables one to experience a sense of inner peace which emanates from the awareness of the oneness of all beings.
Tonia is a writer, producer and media specialist. She has served as a Communication Director for a range of non-profit organizations.Tonia lives in Wassaic, NY.