The following is excerpted from The Buddha Walks Into a Bar: A Guide to Life for a New Generation, available from Shambhala Publications.
You can help the world. You, you, you, you, and you — all of you — can help the world. You know what the problems are. You know the difficulties. Let us do something. Let us not chicken out. Let us actually do it properly. Please, please, please! –Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
In 2003, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche called forth the young people of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition for a weekend retreat. Two hundred people showed up, eagerly anticipating what advice he might have to impart to us. Some of us were hoping he would tell us what we should do for a living. Others were figuring out what sort of relationship they wanted to have with their lovers. Others just wanted general guidance on how to live a good Buddhist lifestyle.
After waiting what seemed an eternity, the Sakyong took his seat, looked out at the crowd, and instead of giving us an instruction manual for our life, he said, “I am going to create an enlightened society. And you are going to help me do that, right?”
The crowd, not surprisingly, sat mute, blown away by the implications of his statement. He leaned in farther and very pointedly said, “Right?”
To which we all replied “Of course!”
Creating an Enlightened Society
The notion of an enlightened society is not some magical community wherein everyone has attained nirvana, or even has the perfect job or relationship. An enlightened society is actually very practical: it is a society based on having an open heart. During the Buddha’s lifetime, King Dawa Sangpo approached the Awakened One and said, “I need help governing my kingdom. I want to pursue a spiritual life, but I can’t take on robes and leave my subjects behind.”
The Buddha sent his monastic attendants out of the room, and bestowed what are now known as the Kalachakra teachings on Dawa Sangpo. After receiving these in-depth instructions from the Buddha, King Dawa Sangpo knew how to rule in a benevolent and kind manner. He returned home and governed his kingdom in a way that inspired his subjects. They were encouraged to shift their attention away from their own concerns, and instead to think about the good of the society as a whole. The kingdom, which came to be known as Shambhala, was a land where everyone lived in a sane and compassionate manner.
To have a high spiritual teacher such as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche turn to you and say, “I’m going to work to build that kind of enlightened society. Are you in?” can be mind-blowing. Many of us come to meditation just because we are stressed-out or want to take better care of ourselves. Yet at a certain point in your spiritual journey, you can no longer ignore all the suffering that surrounds you. Compassion blossoms naturally as you start to recognize the suffering in the world, and then one day you realize that your path is not just about your own situation, it’s about creating a difference in our world. You are inspired to follow in the footsteps of the citizens of Shambhala by turning your attention toward helping others.
I don’t think it is just meditators who are interested in changing the world for the better. We all want that. Even political nut jobs want to make the world a better place; they just want the world to resemble their personal vision of it. When you slow down and ponder how to make the world a bit better, you may come to the same conclusion that so many Buddhist masters in the past have come to: we cannot base the change we want to see in speed and aggression, but rather on compassionate wisdom.
It’s hard to find a way to do that, particularly given the fact that our role models are few and far between. The remarkable thing is that as our society currently stands, famous people are often famous for all the wrong reasons. It is not that they are talented in a given field, but rather that they are rich or they film themselves having sex. Between the tabloids and gossip websites, these people get promoted to an almost godlike celebrity status. The celebrity heirs and heiresses of the world are looked up to by the masses, who envy the celebrities’ lifestyle while simultaneously taking pleasure in their countless humiliations.
Meanwhile, the local hero serving in the military overseas is left to his own devices once he returns home. The family that volunteers each weekend at the homeless shelter in their neighborhood rarely receives the recognition they deserve.
The single mother can’t get someone to watch her kid for free so that she can go to the movies once a month. People who work diligently on humanistic fronts rarely receive so much as a thank-you, and there are no websites tracking their everyday activity and no eye-catching headlines: oliver buys homeless man a sandwich: homeless man says thank you.
I have to believe that anyone interested in pursuing spirituality, even if they are somewhat attracted to the celebrity culture of our times, ultimately wants to live in a world where the priorities are different than what they see in that culture. If current polling data is correct, most Americans do want to volunteer more, to offer themselves and their hearts to the community in which they live. Our society seems to just keep getting in the way of that aspiration.
Throughout the world, countries use a very particular marker for their success: the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In other words, the more your nation produces, the more successful it is. As citizens of these countries, we naturally use similar markers to judge our own status. If we have a good job, a nice house or apartment, a luxury car, and a beautiful spouse, we think we are successful. Yet many of us say we are unhappy.
In 1972, the king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, instituted a different marker for success for his country: the Gross National Happiness (GNH). The four pillars of the GNH are cultivating sustainable development, preserving cultural values, taking good care of the environment, and establishing a benevolent government.
While some of these markers are an attempt at gauging the happiness of the populace, many of them point to the idea that in order to be truly happy, you have to take care of other members of your society and the environment in which you live. In the United States, we are surrounded by people who have bought into the idea that “success” and “happiness” can be obtained by having a luxury vehicle and a penthouse apartment. We constantly try to meet those markers of joy by searching for one more thing that we can tack on to who we think we are. We are always focusing on external factors with the belief that they will lead to true and everlasting happiness for “me.”
Worrying solely about “me” gets tiresome after a while. In other words, in order to really create positive change in the world, we need to shift our focus away from only thinking about ourselves. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche wrote:
“We think, ‘Will this food make me happy? Will this movie make me happy? Will this person make me happy? Will this new sweater make me happy?’, ‘What about me?’ becomes the motivating force of our activity.”
In order to create a society that is based on bravery and kindness, we need to transition away from always thinking just about “me.” Currently many of us wake up in the morning and say, “I hope I have a good day.” We get to work and say, “I hope I get the praise I deserve. I hope this work I am doing will make me richer. We get home and say, “I’m exhausted and I need to take care of myself. I need to have a beer and watch TV and zone out to feel better about this day I’ve had.” Day after day of looking out only for ourselves can be exhausting. Creating this cocoon of always thinking about “me” can be exhausting.
Imagine what it would be like if one day everyone woke up and decided to shift the focus of their day away from always holding themselves at the center of the universe?
What if each of us made our day about benefiting others? Turning your attention from only taking care of yourself to taking care of others is the subtle distinction between the Hinayana (narrow vehicle) teachings and the Mahayana (greater vehicle) teachings. The distinction lies between the Hinayana view of being concerned only with our own path to awakening, and the Mahayana view of taking others’ happiness as that path.
The more we become familiar with our own emotional ups and downs, the more we begin to see them in others. Previously we felt a deep anger for our coworker Brett. He took credit for our efforts, spread office gossip, and generally did not do any real work. Because we have trained ourselves on the cushion to recognize our strong emotions, acknowledge them, and come back to the present moment, we begin to see ourselves take the same gentle approach to our emotions at work. We take some space from our anger when we are confronted by Brett’s meddling. When we are not so caught up in our own inner turmoil, we begin to see Brett’s turmoil as well. Since we are no longer shooting daggers at Brett with our eyes, our gaze rests on his desk and we notice that the picture of his wife has disappeared. Because we are not focused on thinking up rebuttals to whatever he says, we begin to hear a slight sadness and desperation in his voice.
Soon enough, we find that Brett has been going through his own emotional upheavals: he feels trapped in his job, his wife just asked for a divorce, and he suffers from panic attacks. We have gone through similar experiences in the past, and all of a sudden we feel our heart opening to Brett. Our coworker may be acting in a spiteful or jealous manner, but it is only because he is suffering, just like us. When we see Brett not as a threat but as a fellow suffering human being, our heart breaks for him.
When we encounter difficult people, we often do not naturally experience this heart-opening quality. In that case, it may be helpful to engage in a contemplation practice.
Contemplation Practice for Relating with Difficult People
First, take a good meditation posture and practice shamatha meditation for at least five minutes.
Now, think of a time when you acted in a manner similar to the way the difficult person in your life is acting. It may be a time when you felt underprepared, heartbroken, or so frustrated you couldn’t even sleep. Rouse a memory that is juicy, and sit with whatever visceral feeling arises.
Once you have something potent to work with, begin this fortune cookie contemplation. A fun game many people engage in when they break open a fortune cookie is to add “in bed” to the end of their fortune. For example, “You will soon have great success . . . in bed.” In this fortune cookie contemplation, though, you take on the feelings that arise around the difficult people in your life, and add the phrase “just like me.” For example: “Brett sometimes will lash out for no reason . . . just like me.” Or “He will try to promote his ideas so he can get ahead . . . just like me.”
Stay with the scenario you originally began contemplating. After a little while exploring some of the seemingly negative things you and Brett have in common, you might find yourself moving on to more general assumptions about Brett: “He is trying to be happy . . . just like me.”
Notice whatever inclination comes up in terms of discovering what you and Brett might share. Over time, you may find that you have more in common with this difficult person than you previously thought. While you may have different points of view or take different tactics at work, his motivations for doing what he does are not that different from your own.
Developing compassion for another person in this way is not a patronizing activity. It is not “I am so enlightened, and you suffer so much, so I will have pity for you.” It’s the realization that we’re not better than anyone else. Actually we’re all the same, because we all want the same thing: joy.
As discussed in the section exploring the tiger, true joy does not come from acquiring new gadgets or starting another steamy romance, but from being present with your life. It comes from turning your attention away from always thinking about yourself, and opening to the world around you.
The heart that yearns to connect with your world and to help others is known in the Buddhist tradition as bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “awake heart.” Through slowing down and being present with your world, you are more open to the suffering around you. Your heartstrings can be pulled by the simplest things: a puppy waiting to be adopted or a beautiful flower just beginning to blossom. While you may previously have walked right by these things, now you are open and available to your world. You feel an inherent richness and tenderness.
This is bodhichitta.
Bodhichitta is inherent to who we are. It can be thought of as our unique “soft spot.” We have all touched it before at some point in our life. Bodhichitta is our capacity to love and be loved.
However, just because we have been practicing and might occasionally feel our heart opening does not mean we can constantly rest in that feeling. All too often, the awakened heart can become shrouded by fear, or by a cocoon of opinions. Whenever we put ourselves before our fellow human beings, or tune out from our world because we don’t want to deal with it, we are forming protective layers around our heart. We are creating a cocoon of fear and “me”-ness. Thus, bodhichitta is not just an openhearted state, but something we continuously cultivate through our meditation practice.
Contemplation Practice on Opening the Heart
Take a few minutes now to sit where you are. You don’t necessarily have to practice shamatha meditation, but just be present. It doesn’t matter if you are on a crowded train, at work, or just sitting on your couch. Just be present with your body and your environment.
After settling your mind a bit, contemplate the question, “What is my experience of an awakened heart?” Let the question roll around your mind a bit. See what comes up. Are there images or memories that come to mind that inspire this feeling in you?
After sitting with this experience for a few minutes, just relax. Drop the question itself and just return to your breath. Particularly focus on the out-breath and the sensation of your breath moving out from your body into space.
Remaining Open in the Face of Aggression
Bodhichitta may be the most important thing in the entire Buddhist canon. Without opening our heart to others, we become rigid meditators, only looking out for “me.” At the weekend retreat where the Sakyong invited us to join him in creating an enlightened society, he went on to teach about bodhichitta. He taught that an open heart is the primary tool for creating a better world and an enlightened society.
Some people try to create positive change in society through engaging in protests or signing petitions. Other people try to support charities they believe are doing good work, or find a job in a field they think is beneficial to others. However, the simplest and most direct way to create positive change in the world is through connecting with our own awakened heart.
Our current society has told us that in order to be successful, we need to buy into the Gross Domestic Product mindset. We have been taught to believe we need to have lots of money and nice objects in order to be happy. Yet we have found that these things alone do not bring us joy. Simple acts of being present and compassionate bring us happiness. We find joy in being openhearted.
All too often we try to cover over this vulnerable heart in an attempt to not get hurt. It’s only natural to want to shrink away from being open and genuine all the time when the world is filled with aggression. However, developing a willingness to be vulnerable is no different than developing a willingness to be alive. If we continually try to protect ourselves, if we always attempt to avoid embarrassment, challenge, or chaos, we will find ourselves trapped in a prison of our own defenses. Although nothing can get through to threaten us, we cannot feel anything, either. It is the path of the warrior to poke through their cocoon of defenses and share their heart with the world.
I once heard a story about a Catholic priest who wanted to have his last words recorded. This is what he said: As a young man, he had an aspiration to change the world. Yet the more he struggled, the more confused he became as to why he could not create positive change. Then as a middle-aged man, he thought that the road to changing the world was to encourage good behavior in his friends and family. After toiling away on that front for years, he again became discouraged.
Only when he was an old man at the end of his life did he realize that in order to create change in the world, he first needed to create change within. Having connected with his own vulnerable heart, he infused his friends and family with positive influence, and from there touched many people.
Similarly, in 2003, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche looked out at the audience of two hundred young meditators and said, “A lot of times people think that they have to be enlightened to make a big difference in the world. They say, Well, I can help out when I’ve meditated a lot more, and studied more, and done many more retreats.’ We can get very old doing all that. We have to make a change now. It has to be now.”
You may not have spent years meditating or received instruction from all the best teachers in all the various philosophical schools. That does not mean you can’t open your heart to the world and make a difference. You don’t have to wait until you’re enlightened. You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. You just have to offer yourself, as you are, and allow your vulnerable heart to transform the world.
Teaser image by Wonderlane, courtesy of Creative Commons license.