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BUDDHISM FOR BEGINNERS Also by Thubten Chodron Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley CA) Choosing Simplicity by Venerable Master Wu Yin, ed. by Thubten Chodron (Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca NY) Interfaith Insights (Timeless Books, New Delhi) Open Heart, Clear Mind (Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca NY) Taming the Monkey Mind (Heian International, Torrance CA) Transforming the Heart: The Buddhist Way to Joy and Courage, by Geshe Jampa Tegchok, ed. by Thubten Chodron (Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca NY) BUDDHISM FOR BEGINNERS by Thubten Chodron CONTENTS Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama 7 Introduction 9 1. The Essence of Buddhism 13 2. The Buddha 19 3. Love and Compassion 27 4. Meditation 33 5. Impermanence and Suffering 39 6. Selflessness 45 7. Science, Creation, and Rebirth 51 8. Karma: The Functioning of Cause and Effect 59 9. Dying, Death, and the Intermediate State 67 10. The Buddhist Traditions 75 11. Vajrayana 79 12. Steps Along the Path 85 13. Working with Emotions 87 14. Dharma in Daily Life 95 15. Social Activism and Ethical Issues 101 16. Women and the Dharma 113 17. Monks, Nuns, and Lay Practitioners 117 18. Spiritual Teachers 125 19. Family and Children 129 20. Shrines and Offerings 137 21. Prayer, Ritual, and Dedicating Positive Potential 143 Glossary 151 Further Reading 155 Resources 159 FOREWORD I am happy to know about this book, Buddhism for Beginners, by Thubten Chodron. This book is written mainly for people wanting to understand basic Buddhist principles and how to integrate them into their lives. It might be useful if I mention a few words here about what should be their approach to Buddhism. In the beginning one should remain skeptical and rely on questioning and checking the teachings based on one's understanding. One can then have trust and confidence in the teachings. Buddha himself suggested this approach when he told his followers to accept his teaching after due analysis, a; nd not merely out of respect and faith. Hence it is important to know that the main cause of faith is reflecting on reasons. This promotes conviction and helps develop actual experience. As one thinks more and more upon reasonings, one's ascertainment increases, and this in turn, induces experience, whereby faith becomes more firm. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama INTRODUCTION I had been in Singapore just a few days when a young man appeared at my door. "Can I ask you some questions about Buddhism?" he queried. We sat down and began to talk. Some of his questions were those also asked by Westerners new to Buddhism. Others were unique to Asians who had grown up in societies where Buddhism and the old folk religions were often mixed, at least in the minds of the general population. As I began teaching in Singapore, I noticed that many people had the same questions. Soon thereafter, another man came to see me, and in the course of our discussion he said, "We need to hear about the Buddha's teachings in everyday English, a clear explanation without a lot of Pali and Sanskrit terms that we don't understand. Please write a book that will help us. I'd be happy to help you." The idea for this book came from these two people: Lee Siew Cheung and Robert Gwee. It was initially printed privately in Singapore by Amitabha Buddhist Centre in 1988 and was entitled I Wonder Why. As people read it, they sent me more questions, which are included in the present edition. Asking questions is healthy. It enables us to clarify doubts and gain new information. Many people have similar questions, and asking our questions is generally appreciated by fellow students who were too shy to ask! However, I believe that spiritual practice is more about holding questions than finding answers. Seeking one correct answer often comes from a wish to make life-which is basically fluid-into something certain and fixed. This often leads to rigidity, closed-mindedness, and intolerance. On the other hand, holding a question-exploring its many facets over time-puts us in touch with the mystery of life. Holding questions accustoms us to the ungraspable nature of life and enables us to understand things from a range of perspectives. Thus, although answers are seemingly given to questions in this book, we must contemplate both, turning them over again and again so we see them from many sides and integrate them into our lives. This book is designed for people who are interested in Buddhism as well as those who have studied or practiced it for years but are still unclear about some points. The way some of the initial material on Buddhism was translated in the West decades ago has led to misinterpretations even among those who teach Buddhism at the high school and college levels. I hope that this book will help those teachers and their students. You can read this book from cover to cover or go directly to the sections that interest you. This book is not designed to be a comprehensive introduction to Buddhism, but to clarify points, provide Buddhist perspectives on modern issues, and stimulate the curiosity and questioning minds of the readers. Appreciation My deepest respect and gratitude are offered to the Buddhas. I would like to thank all of my teachers, in particular His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, and Zopa Rinpoche, for their teachings and guidance. I appreciate the members of Amitabha Buddhist Center in Singapore and Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle for their inspiration and help in writing this book. Special thanks go to Monica Faulkner for her help in editing the manuscript. All errors are my own. Technical Notes "He" and "she" are used interchangeably for the third person pronoun. "Mind," "mindstream," and "consciousness" are used interchangeably to refer to the part of us that perceives and experiences. This includes what we call "heart" in the West. In Buddhism, one word encompasses the meaning of heart and mind. "The Buddha" refers to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, who lived in India over 2,500 years ago. "Buddhas" refers to all enlightened beings, of whom Shakyamuni is one. I have tried to define Buddhist terms as they arise in the text. A glossary at the end of the book is also provided. Thubten Chodron Seattle, WA June 16, 2000 Chapter One THE ESSENCE OF BUDDHISM What is the essence of the Buddha's teachings? Simply speaking, it is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible. Another way of expressing this is the oft-quoted verse: By abandoning negative actions, such as hurting others, and destructive motivations, such as anger, attachment, and closedmindedness, we stop harming ourselves and others. By creating perfect virtue, we develop beneficial attitudes, such as equanimity, love, compassion, and joy, and act constructively. By subduing our minds and understanding reality, we leave behind all false projections, thus making ourselves calm and peaceful. We can also speak of the essence of the Buddha's teachings as they are explained in the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and its causes, and the path to that cessation. When Buddha spoke about suffering, he meant that we have unsatisfactory experiences. Even the happiness we have does not last forever, and that situation is unsatisfactory. The causes of our problems lie not in the external environment and those inhabiting it, but in our own mind. The disturbing attitudes and negative emotions, such as clinging attachment, anger, and ignorance are the real source of our unhappiness. Since these are based on misconceptions about the nature of reality, they can be removed from our mindstream. We then abide in the blissful state of nirvana, which is the absence of all unsatisfactory experiences and their causes. A path exists to realize reality and increase our good qualities. The Buddha described this path, and we have the ability to actualize it. The path is often described by the Three Higher Trainings: Ethical Discipline, Meditative Stabilization, and Wisdom. First, we must become a good human being who functions well in society and lives harmoniously with others. The Higher Training of Ethical Discipline enables us to do this. Because our actions and speech are now calmer, we can proceed to tame the mind by developing single-pointed concentration or the Higher Training of Meditative Stabilization. This leads us to cut the root of suffering, the ignorance grasping at inherent existence, and for this we develop the Higher Training in Wisdom, so that we can perceive reality as it is. The Three Higher Trainings can be subdivided into the Noble Eight-fold Path. Ethical Discipline includes: 1) right speech: true, kind, and appropriate speech; 2) right activity: actions which do not harm others; and 3) right livelihood: obtaining our subsistence-food, clothing, and so forth-by non-harmful and honest means. The Higher Training of Meditative Stabilization includes: 4) right effort: effort to counteract the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions by meditating on the path; 5) right mindfulness: counteracting laxity and excitement in our meditation; and 6) right samadhi: the mind that can remain fixed one-pointedly upon virtuous objects. The Higher Training of Wisdom includes: 7) right view: the wisdom realizing emptiness, and 8) right thought: the mind that can explain the path clearly to others and is motivated by the wish for them to be free from suffering. The essence of the Buddhist path is also contained in the three principal aspects of the path: the determination to be free, the altruistic intention (bodhicitta), and the wisdom realizing reality. Initially, we must have the determination to be free from the confusion of our problems and their causes. Then, seeing that other people also have problems, with love and compassion we will develop an altruistic intention to become a Buddha so that we will be capable of helping others most effectively. To do this, we must develop the wisdom that understands the true nature of ourselves and other phenomena and thus eliminates all false projections. What is the goal of the Buddhist path? The Buddhist path leads us to discover a state of lasting happiness for both ourselves and others by freeing ourselves from cyclic existence, the cycle of constantly recurring problems that we experience at present. We are born and die under the influence of ignorance, disturbing attitudes, and contaminated actions (karma). Although all of us want to be happy, and we try hard to get the things that will make us happy, no one is totally satisfied with his or her life. And although we all want to be free from difficulties, problems come our way without our even trying. People may have many good things going for them in their lives, but when we talk with them for more than five minutes, they start telling us their problems. Those of us who are in this situation, who are not yet Buddhas, are called "sentient beings." The root cause of cyclic existence is ignorance: we do not understand who we are, how we exist or how other phenomena exist. Unaware of our own ignorance, we project fantasized ways of existing onto ourselves and others, thinking that everyone and everything has some inherent nature and exists independently, in and of itself. This gives rise to attachment, an attitude that exaggerates the good qualities of people and things or superimposes good qualities that are not there and then clings to those people or things, thinking they will bring us real happiness. When things do not work out as we expected or wished they would, or when something interferes with our happiness, we become angry. These three basic disturbing attitudes-ignorance, attachment, and anger-give rise to a host of other ones, such as jealousy, pride, and resentment. These attitudes then motivate us to act, speak, or think. Such actions leave imprints on our mindstreams, and these imprints then influence what we will experience in the future. We are liberated from the cycle of rebirth by generating the wisdom realizing emptiness or selflessness. This wisdom is a profound realization of the lack of a solid, independent essence in ourselves, others, and everything that exists. It eliminates all ignorance, wrong conceptions, disturbing attitudes, and negative emotions, thus putting a stop to all misinformed or contaminated actions. The state of being liberated is called nirvana or liberation. All beings have the potential to attain liberation, a state of lasting happiness. What are the Three Jewels? How do we relate to them? What does it mean to take refuge in the Three Jewels? The Three jewels are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. A Buddha is one who has purified all the defilements of the mind-the disturbing attitudes, negative emotions and their seeds, the imprints of the actions motivated by them, and the stains of these disturbing attitudes and negative emotions. A Buddha has also developed all good qualities, such as impartial love and compassion, profound wisdom, and skillful means of guiding others. The Dharma is the preventive measures that keep us from problems and suffering. This includes the teachings of the Buddha and the beneficial mental states that practicing the teachings leads to. The Sangha are those beings who have direct nonconceptual understanding of reality. Sangha can also refer to the community of ordained people who practice Buddha's teachings, but this sangha is the conventional representation of the Sangha Jewel, and is not the one we take refuge in. Our relationship to the Three jewels is analogous to a sick person who seeks help from a doctor, medicine, and nurses. We suffer from various unsatisfactory circumstances in our lives. The Buddha is like a doctor who correctly diagnoses the cause of our problems and prescribes the appropriate medicine. The Dharma is our real refuge, the medicine that cures our problems and their causes. By helping us along the path, the Sangha is like the nurse who assists us in taking the medicine. Taking refuge means relying wholeheartedly on the Three jewels to inspire and guide us toward a constructive and beneficial direction in our lives. Taking refuge does not mean passively hiding under the protection of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Rather, it is an active process of moving in the direction that they show us and thus improving the quality of our life. When people take refuge, they clarify to themselves what direction they are taking in life, who is guiding them, and who their companions are on the path. This eliminates the indecision and confusion arising from uncertainty about their spiritual path. Some people window-shop for spirituality: Monday they use crystals, Tuesday they do channeling, Wednesday they do Hindu meditation, Thursday they do Hatha Yoga, Friday they have holistic healing, Saturday they do Buddhist meditation, and Sunday they use Tarot cards. They learn a lot about many things, but their attachment, anger, and closedmindedness don't change much. Taking refuge is making a clear decision about what our principal path is. Nevertheless, it is possible to practice the Buddha's teachings and to benefit from them without taking refuge or becoming a Buddhist. Must we be a Buddhist to practice what the Buddha taught? No. The Buddha gave a wide variety of instructions, and if some of them help us live to better, to solve our problems and become kinder, then we are free to practice them. There is no need to call ourselves Buddhists. The purpose of the Buddha's teachings is to benefit us, and if putting some of them into practice helps us live more peacefully with ourselves and others, that is what's important. Chapter Two THE BUDDHA Who is the Buddha? If he is just a man, how can he help us? There are many ways to describe who the Buddha is. These various perspectives have their sources in the Buddha's teachings. One is as the historical Buddha, a human being who lived 2,500 years ago and who cleansed his mind of all defilements and developed all of his potential. Any being who does likewise is also considered a Buddha, for there are many Buddhas, not just one. Another way is to understand a particular Buddha or Buddhist deity as all the enlightened minds manifesting in a particular physical aspect in order to communicate with us. Yet another way is to see the Buddha or any of the enlightened Buddhist deities as the appearance of the Buddha that we will become once we have completely cleansed our minds of defilements and developed all of our potential. Let's examine each of these in more depth. The Historical Buddha The historical Buddha Shakyamuni was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama in an area near the present border between India and Nepal. He had all that life could offer: material possessions, a loving family, fame, reputation and power. Soon after his birth, a soothe-sayer predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great spiritual leader. Wanting him to be a great political leader, his father protected him from any contact with unpleasant situations. However, the young Siddhartha sneaked out of the palace and on his forays in the town witnessed first a sick person, then a old one, and finally a corpse. He became disillusioned with things that brought temporary, worldly happiness but did not solve the basic human predicament. On another excursion into town, he saw a wandering ascetic and learned that this person was seeking liberation from the cycle of existence to which he was bound by ignorance and karma. Siddhartha then left his princely life to become an ascetic, searching for truth. After six years of severe physical austerity, he realized that extreme self-denial was not the path to ultimate happiness. He gave up his extreme ascetic practices, and sitting under the bodhi tree, near present-day Bodhgaya, India, he entered into a deep meditation in which he completely purified his mind of all wrong conceptions and defilements and perfected all of his potential and good qualities. He then proceeded to teach with compassion, wisdom, and skill for forty-five years. In this way, he enabled others to gradually purify their minds, develop their potential, and attain the same realizations and state of happiness that he had. Thus, the word Buddha means "the awakened one," one who has purified and developed his or her mind completely. How can such a person save us from our problems and pain? The Buddha cannot pull the disturbing attitudes of ignorance, anger, and attachment from our minds in the same way as a thorn can be pulled from our foot. Nor can the Buddha wash away our defilements with water or pour realizations into our minds. The Buddha has impartial compassion for all sentient beings and cherishes them more than himself, so if he could have eliminated our suffering by his actions, the Buddha would have done so. However, our experiences of happiness and pain depend on our minds. They depend on whether or not we subdue our disturbing attitudes and contaminated actions (karma). The Buddha showed us the method to do this, the method that he himself used to go from the state of an ordinary confused being-the way we are now-to the state of total purification and growth, or Buddhahood. It is up to us to practice this method and transform our own minds. Shakyamuni Buddha is someone who did what we want to do-he reached a state of lasting happiness. His example and teachings indicate how we can do the same. But the Buddha can't control our minds; only we can do that. Our enlightenment depends not only on the Buddha showing us the way, but also on our own efforts to follow it. To use an analogy, suppose we want to go to London. First we find out if a place called London actually exists. Then we look for someone who has been there and who has the knowledge, capability, and willingness to give us all of the travel information. Following someone who had never been there would be foolish, because that person could unwittingly give us mistaken information. Likewise, the Buddha has attained enlightenment; he has the wisdom, compassion, and skill to show us the path. It would be silly to entrust ourselves to a guide who had not reached the enlightened state him or herself. Our travel guide can give us information about what to take on our trip and what to leave behind. He or she can tell us about changing planes, the various places we'll pass through, what dangers we could encounter along the way, and what resources are available. Similarly, the Buddha described the various levels of the paths and stages, the progression from one to the next, the good qualities to take with us and develop, and the harmful ones to leave behind. However, a travel guide cannot force us to make the journey-he or she can only indicate the way. We have to go to the airport ourselves and get on the plane. Likewise, the Buddha cannot force us to practice the path. He gives the teachings and shows by his example how to do it, but we have to do it ourselves. The Buddhas as Manifestations The second way to think of the Buddhas is as manifestations of enlightened minds in the physical forms of various Buddhas and Buddhist deities. Buddhas are omniscient in that they perceive all existent phenomena as clearly as we see the palm of our hand. They achieved this ability by fully developing their wisdom and compassion and thus eliminating all obscurations. But we cannot communicate directly with the Buddhas' omniscient minds because our minds are obscured. For the Buddhas to fulfill their most heartfelt wish to lead all beings to enlightenment, they must communicate with us, and to do so, they assume physical forms. In this way, we can think of Shakyamuni Buddha as a being who was already enlightened, and who appeared in the aspect of a prince in order to teach us. But if Shakyamuni was already enlightened, how could he take rebirth? He didn't take rebirth under the control of disturbing attitudes and contaminated actions (karma) as ordinary beings do, because he had already eliminated these defilements from his mind. However, he was able to appear on this earth by the power of compassion. Similarly, high-level bodhisattvas-beings who have the constant and intense wish to become Buddhas in order to benefit others-can voluntarily take rebirth, not out of ignorance as ordinary beings do, but out of compassion. When thinking of the Buddha as a manifestation, we do not emphasize the Buddha as a personality. Rather, we concentrate on the qualities of the omniscient mind appearing in the form of a person. This is a more abstract way of understanding the Buddha, so it takes more effort on our part to think in this way. In the same way, the various enlightened Buddhist deities can be seen as manifestations of the qualities of omniscient minds. Why are there so many deities if all the beings who have attained enlightenment have the same realizations? Because each physical appearance emphasizes and communicates with different aspects of our personality. This demonstrates the Buddhas' skillful means, their ability to guide each person according to his or her disposition. For example, Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin, Chenresig, Kannon) is the manifestation of the compassion of all the Buddhas. Although possessing the same compassion and wisdom of any Buddha, Avalokiteshvara's particular manifestation emphasizes compassion. Enlightened compassion cannot be seen with the eyes, but if it were to appear in physical form, what would it look like? In the same way that artists express themselves symbolically through images, the Buddhas express their compassion symbolically by appearing in the form of Avalokiteshvara. In some drawings, Avalokiteshvara is white and has a thousand arms. The white color emphasizes purity, in this case the purification of selfishness through compassion. The thousand arms, each with an eye in its palm, express impartial compassion in looking upon all beings and reaching out to help them. Avalokiteshvara's body itself demonstrates compassion. By visualizing compassion in this physical aspect, we can communicate with compassion in a nonverbal and symbolic way. The deity Manjushri is the manifestation of the wisdom of all the Buddhas. Manjushri has the same realizations as all the Buddhas. In the Tibetan tradition, Manjushri is depicted as golden in color, holding a flaming sword and a lotus flower upon which rests the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. This physical form is symbolic of inner realizations. The golden color represents wisdom, which illuminates the mind just as golden rays of the sun light up the earth. Holding the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra indicates that to develop wisdom, we must study, contemplate, and meditate on the meanings contained in this sutra. The sword represents wisdom in its function of cutting through ignorance. By visualizing and meditating on Manjushri, we can attain the qualities of a Buddha, especially wisdom. These examples help us to understand why there are so many deities. Each emphasizes a particular aspect of the enlightened qualities and communicates that aspect to us symbolically. That does not mean, however, that there is no such being as Avalokiteshvara. On one level, we can understand the Buddha of Compassion to be a person residing in a certain Pure Land-a place where all conditions are conducive for spiritual growth. On another level, we can see Avalokiteshvara as a manifestation of compassion in a physical form. In Tibet, Avalokiteshvara is depicted in a male form and in China in a female form. An enlightened mind is actually beyond being male or female. The various physical forms are simply appearances to communicate with us ordinary beings who are so involved in forms. An enlightened being can appear in a wide variety of bodies. If it is more effective to appear in a female form for people of one culture and a male form for people of another, an enlightened being will do that. The nature of these various manifestations is the same: the blissful omniscient mind of wisdom and compassion. All of the Buddhas and deities are not separate beings in the same way that an apple and an orange are separate fruits. Rather, they all have the same nature. They only appear in different external forms in order to communicate with us in different ways. From one lump of clay, someone can make a pot, a vase, a plate, or a figurine. The nature of all of them is the same-clay-yet they perform different functions according to how the clay is shaped. In the same way, the nature of all the Buddhas and deities is the blissful omniscient mind of wisdom and compassion. This appears in a variety of forms in order to perform various functions. Thus, when we want to develop compassion, we emphasize meditation on Avalokiteshvara, and when our mind is dull and sluggish, we emphasize the practice of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. These Buddhas all have the same realizations, yet each one has his or her specialty. The Buddha That We Will Become The third way to understand the Buddha is as the appearance of our own Buddha nature in its fully developed form. All beings have the potential to become Buddhas, for all of our minds are innately pure. At the present they are clouded by disturbing attitudes and negative emotions (klesa) and contaminated actions (karma). Through constant practice, we can remove these defilements from our mindstreams and nourish the seeds of the beautiful potentials we have. Thus each of us can become a Buddha when this process of purification and growth is completed. This is a unique feature of Buddhism, for most other religions say an unbridgeable gap exists between the divine being and the human being. However, the Buddha said that each being has the potential to become fully enlightened. It is only a matter of practicing the path and creating the causes to reach enlightenment. Thus there are many beings who have already become Buddhas, and we can become one as well. When we visualize the Buddha or a deity and think of him or her as the future Buddha that we will become, we are imagining our now latent Buddha nature in its completely developed form. We are thinking of the future, when we will have completed the path to enlightenment. By imagining the future in the present, we reaffirm our own latent goodness. The future Buddha we will become is the real protection from our suffering, because by becoming this Buddha, we will have eliminated the causes for our present unsatisfactory conditions. These different ways of understanding the Buddha are progressively more difficult to understand. We may not grasp them immediately. That's all right. Various interpretations are explained because people have different ways of understanding. We aren't expected to all think in the same way or to understand everything at once. If there are people alive today who have attained Buddhahood, why don't they tell us who they are and demonstrate their clairvoyant powers to generate faith in others? Why do the great masters all deny having spiritual realizations? One of the principal qualities of an enlightened being is humility. It would be out of character for Buddhas to boast about their attainments and to egotistically gather disciples. By their genuine respect for all beings and their willingness to learn from everyone, great spiritual masters set a good example for us. We ordinary beings tend to show off our qualities and even brag about talents and achievements that we do not have. Advanced practitioners are the opposite: they remain humble. The Buddha forbade his followers to display their clairvoyant or miraculous powers unless circumstances deemed it absolutely necessary, and they were not allowed to talk about them. There are several reasons for this. If one has clairvoyant powers and displays them, one's pride could increase and this would be detrimental to one's practice. Also, others might get superstitious and think that clairvoyant powers are the goal of the path. In fact, they are a side effect and are useful only if one has the proper motivation of impartial lovingkindness for all. In addition, if a Buddha, with a body made of radiant light, suddenly appeared on the street, people would be so shocked that they couldn't pay attention to that Buddha's teachings. It is more skillful for those who have attained high levels of the path to appear in ordinary form. We may notice that they have exceptional qualities, but the fact that they look just like us allows us to feel closer to them. It gives us the confidence that we too can develop the same enlightened qualities that they have. What does "faith" mean in Buddhism? Can we receive grace from the Buddhas? Buddhism encourages us to learn the Buddha's teachings and to try them out, and in that way develop faith, confidence, and trust in them. Buddhism speaks of three types of confidence: 1) Pure or admiring confidence. We admire the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha by knowing their qualities. 2) Aspiring confidence. By recognizing the qualities of the Three Jewels, we aspire to become like them. 3) Confidence from conviction. By examining the teachings and applying them in our lives, we develop the conviction that they are effective. Buddhism does not use the word "grace" per se, but there is a similar concept, which is translated as receiving the inspiration or the blessings of the Three Jewels. This means that our minds are transformed as a result not only of the influence of the Three jewels, but also of our practice and openness. Chapter Three LOVE AND COMPASSION From a Buddhist view, what are love and compassion? Why are they important? Love is the wish for all sentient beings (any being with a mind who is not yet fully enlightened) to have happiness and its causes. Compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering and its causes. We work over time to cultivate these feelings towards all beings equally-ourselves, those we know and those we don't. Love and compassion benefit ourselves and others. With them, we feel in touch with and connect to all living beings. Feelings of alienation and despair vanish and are replaced with optimism. When we act with such feelings, those in our immediate environment benefit from being near a kind person. Our family feels the difference, as do our colleagues, friends, and people we encounter during the day. Developing love and compassion is one way we can contribute to world peace. In addition it leaves many good imprints on our mindstream so that our spiritual practice progresses better and we become more receptive to realizing the path to enlightenment. Buddhism talks about loving all beings impartially. Is this possible? Yes, it is. This involves looking beyond superficial appearances into others' hearts and recognizing that each sentient being wants to be happy and to avoid suffering as intensely as we do. In this way, all sentient beings are equal. Continually familiarizing our mind with this view deflates the judgmental, critical mind that loves to pick out faults in others. For example, when we are waiting in a line, we comment to ourselves about the people around us, "This one is too thin. Why does this one dress like that? This person looks aggressive. That one is showing off." Such self-talk is based on superficial appearances and false assumptions, and it only serves to reinforce prejudice and make us feel alienated from others. If we train our mind to look deeper and to recognize that each person is just like us in wanting happiness and not wanting pain, then we will feel a common bond with everyone and will be able to wish everyone well equally. Needless to say, such an attitude must be cultivated over time. We cannot simply think this a few times and expect all our biases to instantly disappear! We are creatures of habit and need to put effort into pulling ourselves out of habitual judgments, emotional responses, and behaviors towards others. Each moment of our life is a new one with the opportunity to experiment and do things differently. Each time we meet someone we have an opportunity to connect, to give and exchange kindness. If only we would wake up and take advantage of each opportunity, for so many exist each day! If we love everyone equally, wouldn't normal social relationships break down? Love is an emotion in our heart that we want to cultivate towards everyone. But that does not mean we treat everyone in exactly the same way. For example, we still recognize children's limitations and abilities and relate to them as children, not as adults. Clearly, we treat people we know differently than those we don't because conventional socially accepted roles still hold. If someone is upset with us, we must listen, communicate, and try to resolve the conflict. We don't treat them as if no conflict existed, as that would make them feel we weren't hearing them. Nevertheless, no matter what type of relationship we have with a particular person at a certain moment, we can still care for everyone equally in our hearts. What is the difference between compassion and pity? Compassion is the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and its causes. Like love, this is generated on the basis of seeing everyone's happiness and suffering as equally significant. Whereas there is a power differential in the case of pity, none exists when we have compassion. With pity, we see ourselves as being superior and with condescension and false care, have pity on those who we consider inferior to us. Compassion, on the other hand, is very direct and equal. Suffering is to be removed no matter whose it is, and if we have the opportunity to help in a small or large way, we will. For example, when we step on a thorn, our hand reaches down, pulls it out, and bandages the foot. The hand doesn't say, "Foot, you're so stupid! I told you to watch where you're going, but you didn't. Now I have to fix you up. Don't forget that you owe me a favor!" Why doesn't the hand "think" like this? Because the hand and the foot are part of the same organism, and they help each other naturally and without thinking. Similarly, if we consider ourselves part of the same organism of all sentient life, we will reach out to others as if they were us. That is the type of compassion we try to develop through practice. What about loving ourselves and having compassion for ourselves? Caring for ourselves is important. Buddhism doesn't talk about neglecting ourselves in the name of compassion so that we become a burden on others and they have to take care of us. Rather, we have to love and take care of ourselves in a healthy way, not an obsessive way. We must keep our body clean and take care of our health. We must keep a happy attitude, so that we can, in turn, give to others with good will and cheerfulness. Loving and having compassion for ourselves doesn't mean indulging our every wish or holding ourselves first. If we care about every small thing that happens to us and make a big deal about every emotion we feel, we will become too sensitive and too easily offended. This will make us more miserable. Self-obsession and self-love are very different. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "If you want to be selfish, be wisely selfish. Care for others!" If we are self-centered and ignore others' concerns or place them second to our own, others will be unhappy. We, then, will live in an unhappy environment, which will impede our own happiness. If we care for others, they are happy and then where we live has a good feeling, which in turn helps us to be happy. In addition, actions motivated by self-preoccupation plant negative karmic seeds on our mindstreams, ripening in unpleasant experiences for us, while actions motivated by genuine care and concern for others create good karmic seeds, which will bring about happiness for ourselves. The determination to be free from cyclic existence and to attain nirvana, which is the first of the three principal aspects of the path (the others being the altruistic intention and the wisdom realizing emptiness), means having compassion for ourselves. Not wanting to continue suffering in cyclic existence, we develop the aspiration to be free from it. That type of compassion for ourselves is necessary for our own spiritual progress. It also is a prerequisite for generating compassion for all other sentient beings. What is the difference between being attached to other people and loving them? Why is attachment problematic? In Buddhism, attachment is defined as an attitude that exaggerates other people's good qualities or projects good qualities that aren't there and then clings to these people. With attachment, we care for others because they please us. They give us presents, praise us, help, and encourage us. With love, we want sentient beings to have happiness and its causes simply because they are living beings just like ourselves. When we are attached to others, we don't see them for who they are and thereby develop many expectations of them, thinking they should be like this and they should do that. Then, when they don't live up to what we thought they were or should be, we feel hurt, disillusioned, and angry. When we love others, we don't expect anything in return. We accept people for who they are and try to help them, but we aren't concerned with how we'll benefit from the relationship. Real love isn't jealous, possessive or limited to just a few near and dear ones. Rather, it's impartial and is felt for all beings. If we stop expecting things from others and give up our attachment to them, isn't there danger of becoming cynical and losing trust in people? As a society we expect certain manners and behavior from others according to the situation. For example, we expect to be greeted by our co-worker when we greet him or her. We expect the people with whom we are working on a project to do their share. Such expectations are normal. The difficulty sets in when we get angry or hurt when someone doesn't fulfill our expectations. We may think, "Okay, I just won't expect anything from anyone," but such an attitude is cynicism, which is just another negative emotion and should not be confused with giving up attachment. The attitude we want to develop still hopes that others will be reliable, but does not expect them always to be so. We still have a basic trust in people being kind, but we can accept it when they aren't, for we remember that they, just like us, are sometimes overwhelmed by negative emotions or confusion. If we're detached, is it possible to be with our friends and family? "Detachment" isn't an accurate translation of the Buddhist concept. "Non-attachment" may be better. Detachment implies being uninvolved, cold, and aloof. However, in the Buddhist sense, nonattachment means having a balanced attitude, free from clinging. When we are free from attachment, we won't have unrealistic expectations of others, nor will we cling to them out of fear of being miserable when they aren't there. Non-attachment is a calm, realistic, open, and accepting attitude. It isn't hostile, paranoid, or unsociable. Having a balanced attitude doesn't mean rejecting our friends and family. It means relating to them in a different way. When we aren't attached, our relationships with others are harmonious, and in fact, our affection for them increases. Buddhism emphasizes cherishing others before self. Can this lead to codependent relationships in which one person constantly sacrifices his or her own needs in order to please the other? No, not if it is properly understood. Taking care of others can be done with two very different motivations. With one, we care for others in an unhealthy way, seemingly sacrificing ourselves, but really acting out of fear or attachment. People who are attached to praise, reputation, relationships, and so forth and who fear losing these may seemingly neglect their own needs to take care of others. But in fact, they are protecting themselves in an unproductive way. Their care comes not from genuine love, but from a self-centered attempt to be happy that is actually making them more unhappy. The other way of taking care of others is motivated by genuine affection, and this is what the Buddha encouraged. This kind of affection and respect for others doesn't seek or expect something in return. It is rooted in the knowledge that all other beings want to be happy and to avoid pain just as much as we do. In addition, they have all helped us either in previous lives or in this present life by doing whatever job they do in society. By steeping our minds in such thoughts, we'll naturally feel affection for others and our motivation to help them will be based on genuinely wanting them to be happy. Codependence doesn't arise from one person in a relationship being manipulative, dependent, or demanding. It evolves when two or more people's attachment, anger, and fear mutually feed into each other's in unhealthy ways. If one person has cultivated non-attachment and acts with genuine love and compassion, even if the other consciously or unconsciously tries to manipulate him or her, the person with a clear motivation won't get hooked into a pattern of unhealthy interactions. Chapter Four MEDITATION What is meditation? Nowadays meditation is sometimes confused with other activities. Meditation is not simply relaxing the body and mind. Nor is it imagining being a successful person with wonderful possessions, good relationships, appreciation from others, and fame. This is merely daydreaming about objects of attachment. Meditation is not sitting in the full vajra position, with an arrow-straight back and a holy expression on our face. Meditation is a mental activity. Even if the body is in perfect position, if our mind is running wild thinking about objects of attachment or anger, we're not meditating. Meditation is also not a concentrated state, such as we may have when painting, reading, or doing any activity that interests us. Nor is it simply being aware of what we are doing at any particular moment. The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. This has the same verbal root as "to habituate" or "to familiarize." Meditation means habituating ourselves to constructive, realistic, and beneficial emotions and attitudes. It builds up good habits of the mind. Meditation is used to transform our thoughts and views so that they are more compassionate and correspond to reality. How do we learn to meditate? What kinds of meditation are there? These days many people teach meditation and spiritual paths, but we should examine them well and not just excitedly jump into something. Some people think that they can invent their own way to meditate and don't need to learn from a skilled teacher. This is very unwise. If we wish to meditate, we must first receive instruction from a qualified teacher. Listening to teachings given by a reliable source like the Buddha is to our advantage, because these teachings have been studied by scholars and practiced by skilled meditators who have attained results throughout the centuries. In this way, we can establish that the lineage of teachings and meditation practice is valid and worthy of being practiced. Such a practice was not merely concocted according to someone's whim. First, we listen to teachings and deepen our understanding by thinking about them. Then, through meditation we integrate what we have learned with our mind. For example, we hear teachings on how to develop impartial love for all beings. Next, we check up and investigate whether that is possible. We come to understand each step in the practice. Then, we build up this good habit of the mind by integrating it with our being and training ourselves in the various steps leading to the experience of impartial love. That is meditation. Meditation is of two general types: stabilizing and analytical. The former is designed to develop concentration and the latter to develop understanding and insight. Within these two broad categories, the Buddha taught a wide variety of meditation techniques, and the lineages of these are extant today. An example of stabilizing meditation is focusing our mind on our breath and observing all the sensations that occur as we breathe. This calms our mind and frees it from its usual chatter, enabling us to be more peaceful in our daily life and not to worry so much. The visualized image of the Buddha may also be used as the object upon which we stabilize our mind and develop concentration. While some non-Buddhist traditions suggest looking at a flower or candle to develop concentration, this is generally not recommended by Buddhist traditions because meditation is an activity of our mental consciousness, not our sense consciousness. Other meditations help us to control anger, attachment, and jealousy by developing positive and realistic attitudes toward other people. These are instances of analytical or "checking" meditation. Other examples are reflecting on our precious human life, impermanence, and the emptiness of inherent existence. Here we practice thinking in constructive ways in order to gain proper understanding and eventually go beyond conceptual thought. Purification meditations cleanse the imprints of negative actions and stop nagging feelings of guilt. Meditating on a koan-a perplexing puzzle designed to break our usual fixed conceptions-is done in some Zen (Ch'an) traditions. Some meditations involve visualization and mantra recitation. These are a few of the many types of meditation taught in Buddhism. What are the benefits of meditation? By building up good habits of the mind in meditation, our behavior in daily life gradually changes. Our anger decreases, we are better able to make decisions, and we become less dissatisfied and restless. These results of meditation can be experienced now. But we should always try to have a broader and more encompassing motivation to meditate than just our own present happiness. If we generate the motivation to meditate in order to make preparation for future lives, to attain liberation from the cycle of constantly recurring problems, or to reach the state of full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, then naturally our minds will also be peaceful now. In addition, we'll be able to attain those high and noble goals. Having a regular meditation practice-even if it's only for a short time each day-is extremely beneficial. Some people think, "My day is so busy with career, family, and social obligations that I cannot meditate. I'll leave it until I'm older and my life is less busy. Daily meditation is the job of monks and nuns." This is incorrect! If meditation is helpful to us, we should make time for it every day. Even if we don't want to meditate, having some "quiet time" for ourselves each day is important. We need time to sit peacefully and reflect upon what we do and why, to read a Dharma book, or to do some chanting. To be happy, we must learn to like our own company and to be content alone. Setting aside some quiet time, preferably in the morning before the start of the day's activities, is necessary, especially in modern societies where people are so busy. We always have time to nourish our bodies. We seldom skip meals because we see they are important. Likewise, we should reserve time to nourish our mind and heart, because they too are important for our sense of well-being. After all, it is our mind, not our body, that continues on to future lives, carrying with it the karmic imprints of our actions. Dharma practice is not done for the Buddha's benefit, but for our own. The Dharma describes how to create the causes for happiness, and since we all want happiness, we should practice the Dharma as much as we can. Some Buddhist traditions use visualization and mantra recitation during meditation while others discourage these. Why? The Buddha taught a variety of techniques because different people have different inclinations. Each technique may approach a similar goal but from a different vantage point. For example, when doing breathing meditation, emphasis is placed on developing concentration on the breath itself. In this case, visualizing something would distract us from the object of meditation, which is the breath. However, another meditation technique uses the visualized image of the Buddha as its object of meditation. A purification meditation could involve, for example, visualization of the Buddha with light radiating from the Buddha into us and all the beings who we imagine seated around us. This meditation takes the natural tendency of our mind to imagine things and transforms it into the path to enlightenment. Instead of imagining a holiday with our boyfriend or girlfriend, which just incites our attachment, we imagine the serene figure of the Buddha, which inspires a balanced and peaceful state of mind. Similarly, reciting mantras takes the natural tendency of our mind to chatter and transforms it into the path. Rather than continuing our internal dialogue about what we like and what we don't, we use that inner voice to recite mantras. Mantra recitation helps us to develop concentration and can have a purifying effect on the mind. Is it better to do just one type of meditation or a variety? This depends on the specific Buddhist tradition we follow and on the instructions of our spiritual teacher. Those in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition train in several different types of meditation because many different aspects of our character need to be cultivated. Thus, we may do breathing meditation to calm the mind, loving-kindness meditation to generate compassion and altruism for others, visualization of the Buddha or a deity along with mantra recitation to purify negative karmic imprints, and analytical meditation combined with concentration to develop the wisdom realizing emptiness. When we have developed a general overall view of the gradual path to enlightenment, we'll understand the purpose of each meditation and where it fits in along the path. Then we can gradually develop many different abilities and sides of our character. Can one develop clairvoyant powers through practicing Buddhism? Is this a worthwhile goal to pursue? Yes, one can, but that isn't the principal goal of Dharma practice. Some people get very excited about the prospect of having clairvoyance. "Wait until I tell my friends about this! Everyone will think I'm special and will come to ask me for advice." What an egotistical motivation for wanting to be clairvoyant! If we still get angry and are unable to control what we say, think, and do, what use is running after clairvoyance? Desiring clairvoyant powers because we want to be famous and well-respected is not only a distraction to our practice, but antithetical to it. Becoming a kind and altruistic person benefits both ourselves and others much more. Once a child asked me if I had clairvoyance. Could I bend a spoon through concentration? Could I stop a clock or walk through a wall? I told him no, and even if I could, what use would it be? Would that lessen the suffering in the world? In fact, the person whose spoon I ruined may suffer more! The point of our human existence isn't to build up our egos, but to develop a kind heart and a sense of universal responsibility working for world peace. Loving-kindness is the real miracle! If one has a kind heart, then developing clairvoyant powers could be beneficial for others. However, sincere practitioners do not go around advertising their clairvoyance. In fact, most of them will deny they have such abilities and will be very humble. The Buddha warned against public displays of clairvoyance unless they were necessary to benefit others. Humble people are actually more impressive than boastful ones. Their serenity and respect for others shine through, and this gladdens our heart. People who have subdued pride, have loving-kindness toward others, and are developing their wisdom are people we can trust. Such people are working for the benefit of others, not for their own prestige and wealth. Can meditation be dangerous? Some people say you can go crazy from it. Is that true? If we learn to meditate from an experienced teacher who instructs us in a reliable method, and if we follow these instructions correctly, there is no danger at all. Meditation is simply building up good habits of the mind. We do this in a gradual fashion. Thus, doing advanced practices without proper instruction is unwise. If we build up our capabilities gradually, we will be able to progress to more advanced practices without difficulty, and one day will become a Buddha. Chapter Five IMPERMANENCE AND SUFFERING Buddhism talks a lot about impermanence, death and suffering. Isn't such an approach to life unhealthy and pessimistic? The word "suffering" is not an accurate translation of the Pali or Sanskrit word diuklha. Dukha has the connotation of unsatisfactory experiences. It means that everything isn't completely wonderful in our lives. While most of us don't feel we are suffering all the time, we would agree that not everything in our lives is perfect. Even when we're relatively happy, there's no guarantee that things will continue to go well. One small event can change our entire experience. This is what is meant by unsatisfactory experiences, dukha, or suffering. The Buddha merely described our present situation. Therefore he was being realistic, not pessimistic. His motivation for describing this was to help us seek the means to free ourselves from it. The purpose of contemplating impermanence, death, and unsatisfactory experiences isn't to become depressed and have the joy taken out of life. Rather, the purpose is to rid ourselves of attachment and false expectations. If we become emotionally afraid or depressed when thinking about these things, then we are not contemplating them correctly. Meditating on these subjects should make our minds calm and lucid because it decreases our clinging attachment and the confusion that attachment causes in our lives. At present, our minds are easily overwhelmed by the false projections of attachment. We see people and objects in an unrealistic way. Things are changing moment by moment but they appear to us to be constant and unchanging. That is why we are upset when they break. We may say, "All these things are impermanent," but our words aren't consistent with our innate view, which mistakenly considers our body and our loved ones to be unchanging. This unrealistic conception causes us pain, because we have expectations of things and people that cannot be fulfilled. Our loved ones cannot live forever; a relationship doesn't remain the same; the new car will not always be the shiny model just off the showroom floor. Thus, we are perpetually disappointed when we must part with the people we care for, when our possessions break, when our body becomes weak or old. If we had a more realistic view of these things and accepted their impermanence-not just with our words but with our heart-then such disappointment would not come. Contemplating impermanence and death also eliminates many of the useless worries that prevent us from being happy and relaxed. Ordinarily, we become upset when we are criticized or insulted. We are angry when our possessions are stolen and feel jealous if someone else gets the promotion we wanted. We are proud of our looks or athletic ability. All of these attitudes are disturbing emotions that leave harmful imprints on our mindstream and bring us problems in our future lives as well as in this life. However, if we contemplate the transient nature of these things, we accept that our life will end and that none of these things can accompany us at death. Understanding that, we will stop exaggerating their importance, and they will no longer be so problematic for us. That doesn't mean that we become apathetic towards the people and environment around us. On the contrary, by eliminating the wrong conception of permanence and the disturbing attitudes that stem from it, our minds will become clearer and we'll be able to enjoy things for what they are. We'll live more in the present, appreciating things as they are now, without fantasies about what they should be or might become. We'll worry less about small matters and will be less distracted when we meditate. We will not be so touchy about how others treat us. By reflecting on impermanence and unsatisfactory experiences, we can deal better with all the unpleasant events that occur because we are still in the cycle of constantly recurring problems. In short, by correctly contemplating these truths, our mental state will become healthier. Thus the understanding of our mortality inspires us to think deeply about what is important in life and to set clear priorities. If we do so, our life will be more vibrant and when the time of death arrives, we will have no regrets. For example, no one dies thinking, "I should have worked more overtime." But people do die regretting that they mistreated others or did not tell those they loved that they loved them. People die regretting that they did minimal spiritual practice. By reflecting on death in advance, we will do what is important while we are alive and will avoid such regrets at the time of death. Why is there suffering? How can we stop it? Unsatisfactory experiences occur simply because the causes for them exist. One cause is our disturbing attitudes, such as ignorance, attachment, and anger. The other is the harmful actions we have engaged in, such as killing, stealing, and lying, which are motivated by disturbing attitudes. By developing the wisdom realizing selflessness, we will eliminate the disturbing attitudes and the contaminated actions they cause, thus stopping the source of our problems. As a result, the painful consequences will not follow, and instead, we'll abide in nirvana, a state of lasting happiness. In the meantime, before we generate this wisdom, by doing purification practices we will impede the ripening of the results of our previous destructive actions. The Buddha also taught many techniques for mentally transforming difficult circumstances into the path to enlightenment. We can learn about these and practice them when we have problems. Do we have to suffer to attain liberation (nirvana)? Must we renounce the world to become a Buddha? Practicing Buddha's teachings brings happiness, not pain. The spiritual path itself isn't painful, and there is no special virtue in suffering. We already have enough problems, so there's no sense in causing ourselves more in the name of practicing religion. However, that doesn't mean that we won't have any problems while practicing the Dharma. While we're on the path, previous destructive actions that haven't yet been purified may ripen and bring problems. When this happens, we can transform the situation into the path to enlightenment by using the various techniques the Buddha taught. Sometimes our anger, attachment, or jealousy may arise strongly and be very disquieting when we're trying to practice. This happens because our disturbing attitudes haven't yet been eliminated. After all, we don't become Buddhas after practicing the Dharma for just a short time! We can apply the Buddha's teachings to subdue these unpleasant emotions while being patient with ourselves and recognizing that purifying our minds takes time. Although the English word "renunciation" is often used in Buddhist translations, it doesn't convey the precise meaning. It is more accurate to say that we must develop the determination to be free from cyclic existence and to attain liberation. We don't need to renounce people and things. Rather, we need to give up our clinging attachment to them. There is nothing inherently wrong with the world; the real problem lies in our disturbing attitudes. For example, money isn't the problem; it is merely sheets of paper. However, our clinging to and craving for money cause big problems. These erroneous and harmful attitudes are to be given up. Of course, if we are very attached to something, it's a good idea to distance ourselves from it for a while to calm our clinging. If we're attached to ice cream, it's better not to go to an ice cream parlor! Later, when we've developed a more balanced and altruistic motivation, we can actually use the objects of our previous attachment to benefit others. Buddhism talks about accepting our suffering and also about freeing ourselves from suffering. Are these contradictory? No. Accepting our difficulties doesn't mean becoming apathetic and resigned to suffering. Rather, our experience at a particular moment-whatever it is-is the reality of that moment. When we refuse to accept this, we find ourselves in conflict with reality. On the other hand, we can accept our present unhappiness and still work to free ourselves from future unsatisfactory experiences. For example, if we accept the transient nature of our world, we will cease trying to control things that, by their nature, are out of our control. We will be at peace with whatever life presents and simultaneously work to benefit others with an altruistic aspiration that appreciates every being's potential to transcend suffering and become enlightened. Chapter Six SELFLESSNESS Do "selflessness" and "emptiness" have the same meaning? What is the advantage of realizing selflessness or emptiness? In general, these two terms are synonymous, although when studying philosophy in depth, there are differences between them. By realizing emptiness, we will be able to cleanse our minds of all defilements and obscurations. At the moment, our minds are obscured by ignorance: the way we perceive ourselves and other phenomena as existing is not the way that they really exist. It's similar to people who wear sunglasses all the time. Everything they see appears dark, and they think that is the way things are. In fact, if they took their sunglasses off, they would find that things actually exist in a different way. Another analogy for the view of ignorance is an audience who watches a movie and thinks that the people on the screen are real. The viewers become very emotional and involved in the fate of the characters. Being attached to the hero, they are antagonistic towards the characters who threaten him. The audience may even cry out, cringe, or jump up in their seat when the hero is harmed. In fact, these reactions are out of proportion, for there are no real people on the screen at all. They are only projections, which are dependent on causes and conditions such as the film, the film projector, and the screen. Realizing emptiness is analogous to understanding that the movie is empty of real people. However, the appearance of the characters does exist, dependent on the film, actors, screen, and so forth. If we understand this, we can still enjoy the film, but no longer go up and down emotionally as the hero experiences various events. By generating the wisdom that directly realizes emptiness, we will perceive the mode in which we and other phenomena exist: they are empty of our fantasized projections on them, most importantly the projection of inherent existence. Having this wisdom realizing reality, we'll gradually free ourselves from the bonds of the ignorance that misconceives reality. Familiarizing our minds with emptiness, we'll gradually eliminate all ignorance, anger, attachment, pride, jealousy, and other disturbing attitudes and negative emotions from our mindstream. By doing so, we'll cease to engage in the destructive actions motivated by them. Freed from the influence of ignorance, negative emotions, and the actions motivated by them, we'll be liberated from the causes of our problems, and thus the problems also will cease. In other words, the wisdom realizing emptiness is the true path to happiness. What does it mean to say, "All persons and phenomena are empty of true or inherent existence?" This means that persons (like you and me) and all other phenomena (tables, etc.) are empty of these fantasized qualities that we project onto them. One of the principal deceptive qualities that we project onto persons and phenomena is that they are inherently existent, that is, that they exist without depending on causes and conditions, parts, and the consciousness which conceives them and gives them a name. Thus, in our ordinary view, things appear to have some true or inherent nature, as if they were really there, as if we could find these real, independent entities if we searched for them. They appear to be there, independent of the causes and conditions that created them, independent of the parts of which they are made, and independent of the mind which conceives and labels them. This is the appearance of true or inherent existence, and our minds grasp it as real. However, when we examine things analytically to discover if things exist in the independent way they superficially appear to, we find that they do not. They are empty of these fantasized projections. Still, they do exist, but they exist dependently, for they rely on causes and conditions, on the parts which compose them, and on the mind which conceives them and gives them a name. If all people and phenomena are selfless or empty, does that mean that nothing exists? No, phenomena and people still exist. After all, I am still here typing and you are still reading! Emptiness is not the same as nihilism. Rather, people and phenomena are empty of our fantasized projections upon them. They lack what our wrong conceptions attribute to them. They do not exist in the way they appear to us at present, but they do exist. That is, they don't exist independently, but they do dependently exist. For example, someone wearing sunglasses sees dark trees. There are no independent dark trees, but we cannot say there are no trees at all. The trees exist: they just do not exist in the way they appear to the person with sunglasses. Is realizing emptiness the same as having a blank mind, free from all thoughts? No. When emptiness is directly realized, the mind is free from thoughts and concepts. However, just removing all thoughts from our mind-peaceful though it may be-is not the realization of emptiness. After all, cows' minds are pretty blank-they do not have many conceptual thoughts-but they haven't realized emptiness! Realizing emptiness involves first understanding what things are empty of-inherent existence-and then realizing that inherent existence is a hallucination that has never existed at all. Sometimes people feel that their lives are empty. Is this the same emptiness spoken of by the Buddha? No. In everyday language, we say people feel empty when they lack goals or close relationships with others or lack a sense of meaning in their lives. This is a lack of external relationships, clear personal goals, or internal tranquility. It is resolved by developing self-confidence, setting priorities in life, and letting go of unrealistic expectations. The emptiness that the Buddha spoke of, on the other hand, concerns the mode of existence of phenomena. It is the absence of inherent existence. That is, things do not exist under their own power, from their own side, independent of all other things. Understanding this emptiness leads to a feeling of fullness and meaning in our lives because we will be free from all restricting misconceptions and disturbing emotions. This emptiness is realized through studying, thinking about, and meditating on the Buddha's teachings. Psychologists tell us that a strong sense of self is essential to be psychologically healthy. But it seems Buddhism says there is no self. How can we reconcile these two views? When psychologists speak of a sense of "self" they are referring to the feeling that oneself is an efficacious person, someone who is selfconfident and can act in the world. Buddhists agree that such a sense of self is both realistic and necessary. However, the sense of self that Buddhism says is unrealistic is that of a very solid, unchanging, independent "I." Such a self never has and never will exist. To understand this is to realize emptiness. Strange though it may sound, someone may have a psychologically weak sense of self that in Buddhist parlance would be considered strong self-grasping. For example, a person with poor self-esteem may focus a lot on himself and have a strong feeling of the existence of an independent self that is inferior, unlovable, and a failure. From a Buddhist viewpoint, such a independent self does not exist, although a conventional self does. What is the best way to realize the emptiness of inherent existence? This realization is difficult to gain and is attained at advanced stages of the path, so we must develop our understanding slowly. The path to liberation and enlightenment is a gradual one that is practiced in steps. First we train in the elementary aspects of the path, such as impermanence, refuge, the determination to be free from cyclic existence, love, and compassion. Then we listen to teachings on emptiness from knowledgeable and compassionate spiritual masters. As we think about and discuss these teachings, our understanding will become clearer. Once we have a clear idea of the subject, we can begin to integrate it into our mind through meditation. One meditation on emptiness of the person is called the four point analysis. The first point is to identify the negated object, that is, the inherently existent thing that does not exist. To do this we recall a time when we had a strong negative emotion, for example, when someone unfairly accused us and there was a strong sense of an independent "I." The second point is to determine that if such an independent "I" existed, it would have to be either totally the same as either the body or mind or completely unrelated to the body and mind. Then, keeping one part of our attention focused on the sense of that independent "I" , we investigate to discover if we can find it. We examine our body to see if any part of our body is our self. We examine our mind to see if any mental state or consciousness is our self. That is the third point. In the fourth point, we investigate if the self is somewhere else, totally separate from the body and mind. Determining that such an independent self cannot be found anywhere, we then conclude that it does not exist at all. That absence of an inherently existent self is the emptiness of the person. We then focus on that single-pointedly. In doing the meditation on emptiness, we must be careful not to fall to the extreme of nihilism, thinking that no self at all exists. While an independent self does not exist, a conventional, dependent one does. Chapter Seven SCIENCE, CREATION, AND REBIRTH What is the relationship between Buddhism and science? They have many points in common: for example, both depend on logic and investigation to ascertain the nature of phenomena. Both discourage blind faith and encourage free inquiry on the part of the student. Buddhism does not contradict current scientific theories about the origin of this universe or the physical evolution of the human species. In fact, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that if scientific findings contradict what is written in Buddhist scriptures, then Buddhists must accept that new information. However, if science cannot actively disprove what is stated in the scriptures, there is no need to abandon that concept. For example, although scientists have not yet proven the existence of rebirth, they have not been able to disprove it. Both science and Buddhism use the theory of cause and effect to explain how things function. Science investigates cause and effect as it functions in the physical, material world, whereas Buddhism explores it in terms of the mind. Both emphasize the dependent nature of phenomena. Things rely on causes, the parts of which they are composed, and the consciousness that observes and labels them. Quantum physicists are becoming increasingly aware of the latter when doing experiments. They recognize that the experimenter is not an independent entity who objectively observes external phenomena. Rather, he or she influences the results of an experiment simply by observing it. This relates to the Buddha's teaching on the emptiness of inherent existence, which emphasizes the dependent relationship between consciousness and the objects it perceives. Many scientists believe it is impossible to find the smallest partless particles from which all matter is created. Buddhism agrees that isolating these smallest independent particles is impossible. Yet at meetings with scientists, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has mentioned a dependently existing "space particle," which contains the potentials of all other elements in the universe. What precisely is meant by "space particle" and how it relates to scientific theories and discoveries needs to be explored further. The Buddhist concept of dependent arising can also be applied in the area of neurology, where perception is seen not as an isolated phenomenon, but as the coming together of various factors. Just as scientists say it is impossible to set apart one particular cell or chemical-electrical process that constitutes perception, so Buddhists say that cognition is dependent on a variety of factors, none of which constitutes perception in and of itself. More scientists are becoming interested in Buddhism, and some Buddhist scholars are learning about modern science. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has attended several conferences with scientists that have been fruitful for everyone concerned. In addition, he encourages monks and nuns to learn about science and to incorporate scientific views into the debates they hold. How was the world created? Everything that is created arises from the causes that produce it. Something cannot be created out of nothing. The physical world of forms that we see around us was produced by previous moments of form. This is the field investigated by scientists. At present, many scientists agree on the "big bang" theory, in which all forms of our universe were once tightly condensed. But even the matter that existed before the big bang had causes. It was a continuation of subtler physical elements that, in turn, were a continuation from universes that existed before ours. In this way, the continuity of form is traced back infinitely. What is the mind? Our mind is all of our emotional and cognitive experiences. It includes not only the consciousnesses that perceive sense objects-colors and shapes, sounds, odors, tastes, and tactile objects-but also the mental consciousness, which thinks and which has the capacity to directly perceive more subtle objects, such as emptiness. The word "mind" in a Buddhist sense also includes what in English is referred to as "heart," as in "he has a kind heart." To emphasize the continuity of consciousness, we also use the word "mindstream" to refer to our mind. Each person has a separate mind, or mindstream. The mind is formless, while the brain is part of the body. Our body and our mind are separate entities. While the mind is immaterial, the body is material, composed of atoms. What is the relationship between the brain and the mind? The brain is a physical organ and is atomic in nature. The mind is formless and is characterized by clarity and awareness. While we're alive, our brain and mind influence each other. The brain provides the physical support for our sense consciousnesses and gross mental consciousness. If the brain and central nervous system are damaged, the functioning of the mind is affected. Similarly, our mental state-be it peaceful or agitated-affects our physical health and our nervous system. There are subtler levels of mind that, according to Buddhism, do not rely on the physical body as a support. The subtlest mind, which continues on to the next life, is an example. Thus, skilled practitioners can meditate with their subtlest consciousness even after they are brain-dead. Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama's senior tutor, did this for thirteen days after his breath ceased. Scientists are very interested in studying this, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has given his approval for them to measure great practitioners' brain functions at death and afterward. The problem is that scheduling this is difficult, because the scientists must be ready with their equipment in India when a great practitioner dies! What is rebirth? Rebirth refers to a person's mind taking one body after another under the power of ignorance and contaminated actions. While we are alive, our body and mind are linked, but at death they separate. Each has its own continuum. The body becomes a corpse, and the mind continues on to take another body. This process of rebirth under the control of ignorance and contaminated actions is cyclic existence, the cycle of constantly recurring problems that we experience. In cyclic existence, sentient beings take rebirth in any of six types of life forms. Some of these life formshellish ones, hungry ghosts, and animals-experience more suffering than happiness. Other life forms-humans, demi-gods, and gods-are considered relatively happy births. Beings repeatedly take rebirth in all of these life forms until they free themselves from ignorance and attain liberation. How did our mind begin? Who or what created it? Each moment of mind is a continuation of the previous moment. Who we are and what we think and feel depends on who we were yesterday. Our present mind is a continuation of yesterday's mind. That is why we can remember what happened to us in the past. One moment of our mind was caused by the previous moment of mind. This continuity can be traced back to childhood and to being a fetus in our mother's womb. Even before the time of conception, our mindstream existed. Its previous moments were linked to another body. Our mind has no beginning, and its continuity is infinite. This may be difficult to grasp initially, but if we use the example of a number line, it becomes easier. From the "0" position, looking left, there is no first negative number, and looking right, there is no last, highest number. One more can always be added. In the same way, our mindstream has no beginning and no end. We all have had an infinite number of past rebirths, and our mind will continue to exist infinitely. In fact, it would be impossible for our mindstream to have a beginning. Because each moment of mind is caused by its previous moment, if a beginning existed, then either the first moment of mind had no cause or it was caused by something other than a previous moment of mind. Both of those alternatives are impossible, for mind can only be produced by a previous moment of mind in its own continuum.By purifying our mindstream, we can make our future existence better than our present one. What connects one life with the next? Is there a soul, atman, self, or real personality that goes from one life to another? Our mind has gross and subtle levels. The sense consciousnesses that see, hear, smell, taste, and feel tactile sensations, and the gross mental consciousness, which is busy thinking this and that, actively function while we are alive. At the time of death, they cease to function and absorb into the subtle, and finally the extremely subtle, mental consciousness. This extremely subtle mind bears the imprints of our actions (karma). After death, the continuity of the subtle mind, which is neither static nor an independent entity, leaves one body, enters the intermediate state, and then takes rebirth in another body. After the subtle mind joins with another body at the moment of conception, the gross sense consciousnesses and the gross mental consciousness reappear, and the person again sees, hears, thinks, and so forth. This extremely subtle mind, which goes from one life to the next, is a constantly changing, dependent phenomenon. For this reason, it is not considered to be a soul, atman, self, or real personality. Thus the Buddha taught the doctrine of selflessness-that there is no solid, independent, findable thing that can be isolated as the person. Do plants have minds? Are they sentient beings? Could a computer ever become a sentient being? In general, according to Tibetan Buddhism, plants are not sentient beings. They are biologically alive, but that doesn't mean they are conscious. Plants may react to music or to people talking to them, just as iron filings react to a magnet placed near them, but that doesn't indicate that they have minds. However, in some rare cases, due to one's past actions, a person's mind may be attracted to a tree, for example, as its habitat. When asked whether computers could ever have consciousness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded that if at some point computers had the ability to act as a physical support for consciousness and if a person had created the karma to be reborn inside one, then a computer could become a sentient being! Is there one universal mind that we are all a part of? According to Buddhism, no. Each of us has our own mindstream. However, when we purify our minds and become Buddhas, we will no longer have the feeling of being separate, isolated individuals. We will each be an individual Buddha, but we will have the same spiritual realizations. We won't feel cut off from each other. Where did ignorance come from? Were we once enlightened and then became separated from that state? No. Once someone is enlightened, there is no cause to again become confused and ignorant. If the cause for imperfection exists in the mind, the person is still ignorant. Thus from a Buddhist viewpoint, we weren't once enlightened and then fell from that state. Such an occurrence is impossible because there's no cause for it to happen. Although all sentient beings have Buddha nature or Buddha potential, their minds have been clouded over by ignorance since beginningless time. Each moment of ignorance was produced from the preceding moment, without beginning. No external being created it. However, although ignorance has no beginning, it does have an end. It can be removed through the wisdom realizing emptiness, the lack of fantasized ways of existing. Once we perceive reality, our minds can no longer ignorantly misconceive things. What is Buddha nature? Buddha nature or Buddha potential is the potential that all sentient beings have to become fully enlightened. This is an inseparable part of our mind, and awareness of it gives us a firm foundation for selfconfidence and hope. Our Buddha nature is compared to the open expansive sky that is always there. Clouds may temporarily obscure it, but since the clouds and the sky are not of the same nature, the clouds can be removed. Similarly, the deeper nature of our mind is pure, but it is temporarily obscured by circumstantial defilements of the disturbing attitudes, negative emotions, and subtle stains. When these are eliminated through practicing the path, we become fully enlightened Buddhas. Why can't we remember our past lives? At the moment, our minds are obscured by ignorance, making it difficult to remember the past. Also, many changes occur in our body and mind as we die and are reborn, making recollection difficult. However, the fact that we don't remember something doesn't mean that it does not exist. Sometimes we cannot even remember where we put our car keys! Nor can we remember what we ate for dinner a month ago! Some people can remember their past lives. The Tibetans have a system of recognizing the reincarnations of highly realized masters. Quite often, as young children, these people will recognize their friends or possessions from a previous life. Some ordinary people have also had past life recall, sometimes in meditation or through hypnosis. For example, as a child, a woman in Britain remembered the village in which she lived in her previous life and would draw pictures of it. She also recalled her family there: she was the mother of eight children. When she was an adult, she went to that village and met her son from the previous life who was now in his seventies. He was able to validate many of her previous life memories because he remembered the same events from his childhood. Is it important to know what our past lives were? No. What's important is how we live our present life. Knowing what we were in past lives is useful only if it helps us to generate strong determination to avoid negative actions or to free ourselves from cyclic existence. To try to find out who we were in past lives only for curiosity's sake isn't useful. It could even lead us to become proud: "I was a king in my past life." "I was so famous and talented." "I was Einstein!" So what? Actually, we have all been and done everything in our infinite past lives in cyclic existence. The important thing is to purify our previous negative actions, avoid creating more, and put energy into accumulating positive potential and developing our good qualities. There's a Tibetan saying: "If you want to know about your past life, look at your present body. If you want to know your future life, look at your present mind." We received our present rebirth as a result of our past actions. A human rebirth is a fortunate one, and we created the cause for it by living ethically in our previous lives. These good causes were probably created in a fortunate rebirth in the past, because creating such virtue is difficult in unfortunate rebirths. On the other hand, our future rebirths will be determined by what we think, say, and do now, and our mind motivates all these actions. Thus, we can get an idea of the kind of rebirths we will take by looking at our present attitudes and emotions and examining whether they are constructive or destructive. We don't need to go to a fortuneteller to ask what will become of us. We can simply consider the imprints we are leaving on our mindstream moment by moment by our thoughts, words, and deeds. If everyone has had previous lives, how do you account for the population increase? All the people alive now weren't necessarily human beings on planet Earth in their past lives. Their previous lives could have been as another life-form or in another universe. Earth is a tiny speck in the universe, and Buddhists believe that there is life in other places. Also, an animal, for example, could die and be reborn as a human. Chapter Eight KARMA: THE FUNCTIONING OF CAUSE AND EFFECT What is karma? How does it work? Karma means action, and refers to intentional physical, verbal, or mental actions. These actions leave imprints or seeds upon our mindstreams, and the imprints ripen into our experiences when the appropriate conditions come together. For example, with a kind heart we help someone. This action leaves an imprint on our mindstream, and when conditions are suitable, this imprint will ripen as our receiving help when we need it. If an action brings about pain and misery in the long term, it is called negative, destructive, or nonvirtuous. If it brings about happiness, it is called positive, constructive, or virtuous. Actions aren't inherently good or bad, but are only designated so according to the results they bring. All results come from causes that have the ability to create them. If we plant apple seeds, an apple tree will grow, not chili. If chili seeds are planted, chili will grow, not apples. In the same way if we act constructively, happiness will ensue; if we act destructively, problems will result. Whatever happiness and fortune we experience in our lives comes from our own positive actions, while our problems result from our own destructive actions. The seeds of our actions continue with us from one lifetime to the next and do not get lost. However, if we don't create the cause or karma for something, then we won't experience that result: if a farmer doesn't plant seeds, nothing will grow. Is the law of actions and their effects a system of punishment and reward? Did the Buddha create or invent it? Definitely not. According to Buddhism, there is no one in charge of the universe who distributes rewards and punishments. We create the causes by our actions, and we experience their results. We are responsible for our own experience. The Buddha didn't create the system of actions and their effects, in the same way that Newton didn't invent gravity. Newton simply described what exists. Likewise, the Buddha described what he saw with his omniscient mind to be the natural process of cause and effect occurring within the mindstream of each being. By doing this, he showed us how best to work within the functioning of cause and effect in order to experience happiness and avoid pain. The misconception that happiness and pain are rewards and punishments may come from incorrect translations of Buddhist scriptures into English. I have seen some translations that use terminology from other religions. This is very misleading because terms such as heaven, hell, sin, punishment, and judgment do not correspond to Buddhist concepts. Appropriate English words that convey the meaning of the Buddha's teachings must be used. Does the law of actions and their effects apply only to people who believe in it? No. Cause and effect functions whether we believe in it or not. Positive actions produce happiness and destructive ones result in pain whether we believe they will or not. If a fruit drops from a tree, it falls down even if we believe it will go up. It would be wonderful if all we needed to do to avoid the results of our actions was to believe they wouldn't come! Then, for example, we could eat all we want and never get fat! People who don't believe in past lives and cause and effect still experience happiness as a result of their actions in past lives. But by denying the existence of cause and effect, and consequently not attempting to practice constructive actions and avoid destructive ones, they may create few positive potentials and recklessly create many negative ones. On the other hand, people who know about cause and effect will try to be mindful of what they think, say, and do to avoid hurting others and to avoid leaving harmful imprints on their own mindstreams. What does karma affect? Karma can affect our future rebirths, that is, the kind of life-form we will adopt. It also influences what we experience during our lives: how others treat us, our wealth, social status, and so forth. In addition, karma affects our personality and character: our talents, dominant personality traits, and habits. What kind of environment we're born into is also influenced by karma. Why do some people who act destructively appear to be successful and happy? Why do some people who don't believe in the functioning of cause and effect have good lives? When we see dishonest people who are wealthy, or cruel people who are powerful, or kind people who die young, we may doubt the law of actions and their effects. This is because we are looking only at the short period of this one life. Many of the results we experience in this life are the results of actions done in previous lives, and many of the actions we do in this life will ripen only in future lives. The wealth of dishonest people is the result of their generosity in preceding lives. Their current dishonesty leaves the karmic seed for them to be cheated and to experience poverty in future lives. Likewise, the respect and authority given to cruel people is due to positive actions they did in the past. In the present, they are misusing their power, thus creating the cause for future pain. Kind people who die young are experiencing the result of negative actions done in past lives. However, their present kindness is planting seeds or imprints on their mindstreams for them to experience happiness in the future. The Buddhist scriptures outline general guidelines about the results of various actions. However, only a Buddha's omniscient mind can completely understand the specific details of the ripening of karma. For example, the scriptures tell us that killing causes a short life and generosity results in wealth. But we ordinary beings aren't capable of knowing for certain who our friend Susan was in a past life, to whom she was generous, and what she gave that resulted in her being rich in this life. There is flexibility in the functioning of actions and their results. While we know that insulting others, for example, brings an unfortunate rebirth, just exactly what body we're born into can vary. If the action was very heavy-for example, with strong anger we repeatedly abused many people and afterward felt gratified that we had hurt their feelings-the result will be more unpleasant than if we casually teased someone once and later regretted our insensitivity. The conditions present at the time that karmic seed ripens will also influence what specific result it brings. Do we create karma together as a group? Yes. Karma may be either collective and individual. Collective karma are the actions we do together as a group. For example, soldiers use weapons, a group of religious practitioners pray or meditate. The results of these actions are experienced together as a group, often in future lives. Yet each member of a group thinks, speaks, and acts slightly differently, thus creating individual karma, the results of which each person will experience him or herself. Do we necessarily experience the results of all of our actions? When seeds, even small ones, are planted in the ground, they will eventually sprout-that is, unless they do not receive the necessary conditions for growth such as water, sunshine, and fertilizer, or they are burnt or pulled out of the ground. The ultimate way to uproot karmic imprints or seeds is by meditating on the emptiness of inherent existence. At our level, this may be rather difficult, but we can still stop the harmful seeds from ripening by purifying them. This is similar to preventing the seed from receiving water, sunshine, and fertilizer. How can we purify negative imprints? Purification by means of the four opponent powers is very important. It not only prevents future suffering, but also relieves guilt. By cleansing our minds, we will be more peaceful and will be able to concentrate and to understand the Dharma better. The four opponent powers used to purify negative imprints or seeds are: 1) Regret 2) Determination not to do the action again 3) Taking refuge and generating an altruistic attitude toward others 4) An actual remedial practice First, we acknowledge and regret that we have acted destructively. This is different from self-recrimination and guilt, which are useless and keep us bound up in anxiety. With sincere regret, on the other hand, we simply acknowledge our mistake and regret having made it. Secondly, we make a determination not to do the action again. If the action is habitual and frequent-for example, criticizing othersit would be hypocritical to say we will never do it again for the rest of our lives. It's better to resolve that we will try not to repeat the action again, but will be especially mindful and make a concerted effort during a realistic, set period of time, such as a few days. In this way, we will also develop confidence that we can do what we promise to. The third opponent power is to take refuge and generate altruism. Our destructive actions are generally in relation to either holy entities such as the Buddhas, Dharma, and Sangha, or other sentient beings. To reestablish a good relationship with the holy objects, we seek their guidance by taking refuge in them. To restore our good relationships with other sentient beings, we generate an altruistic attitude towards them by aspiring to become a Buddha so we can best benefit them. The fourth opponent power is remedial action. This may be any positive action: listening to teachings, reading a Dharma book, bowing to the Three Jewels, making offerings, reciting the names of the Buddhas, chanting mantras, making statues or paintings of the Buddhas, printing texts, meditating, and so on. We may also offer service in the community, aiding those in difficulty by doing volunteer work in schools, hospitals, or environmental organizations. Or, we may offer service to a Dharma center or temple. The most powerful remedial action is to meditate on emptiness because nonconceptual wisdom uproots the negative imprints so that they can never bear fruit. The four opponent powers must be done repeatedly. We have acted harmfully many times, so we cannot expect to counteract these seeds at once. The stronger the four opponents powers are-the stronger our regret, the firmer our determination not to do the action again, and so on-the more powerful the purification will be. It's especially effective to purify ourselves using the four opponent powers every evening before going to sleep to counteract any destructive actions we have done during the day. If people suffer because of their own negative actions, does that mean that we cannot or should not do anything to help them? Not at all! We know what it's like to feel miserable, and that is exactly how others feel when they are experiencing the results of their own destructive actions. Out of empathy and compassion, we should definitely help! Their present predicament was brought about by their own actions, but that doesn't mean that we should stand by and say, "Oh that's too bad. You poor thing. You shouldn't have done such destructive actions." Karma isn't inflexible or cast in concrete. It doesn't mean fate or predetermination. People may have created the cause to experience difficulties, but they also may have created the cause to receive help from us! Even more than that, we all know how we would feel if we were in such a situation. We are all alike in wanting happiness and trying to avoid pain. It doesn't matter whose pain or problem it is, we must try to relieve it. For example, to think, "The poor are poor because of their own miserliness in past lives. I would be interfering with their karma if I tried to help." is a cruel misconception. We should not rationalize our own laziness, apathy, or smugness by misinterpreting cause and effect. Compassion and universal responsibility are important for our own spiritual development and for world peace. They are the cornerstones of all Buddhist practice. Does karma influence whom we will meet and the relationships we'll have with them? Yes, but this doesn't mean those relationships are predetermined. We may have certain karmic predispositions to feel close to or to have friction with certain people. Nevertheless, these relationships may not continue along those same lines. If we are kind to those who speak ill of us and try to communicate effectively with them, the relationships will change. We'll also create positive karma, which will bring happiness in the future. We are not karmically bound to others. Nor are there "soul mates," special people who are the one and only one for us. Since we've had infinite past lives, we've had contact with every being sometime before. Also, our relationship with any particular person constantly changes. Nonetheless, past karmic connections can influence our present relationships. For example, if someone has been our spiritual mentor in a past life, we may be drawn to that person this lifetime, and his or her teaching the Dharma may have a very strong effect on our minds. Can understanding karma help us to understand the events in our lives better?