Diverse Spiritual Traditions
Buddhists believe that we are responsible for the quality of our lives, our happiness, and our resources. In order to achieve a meaningful life we must transform our own emotions, as this is the most effective way to bring about future happiness for ourselves and for all others.
No one can force us to transform our minds, not even the Buddha. We must do so voluntarily. Therefore Buddha stated, "You are your own master."
Our efforts must be realistic. We must establish for ourselves that the methods we are following will bring about our desired results. We can't merely rely on faith. It is essential that we scrutinize the path we intend to follow to establish clearly what is and what is not effective, so that the methods of our efforts may succeed. This, I believe, is essential if we wish to find any true happiness in life.
I hesitate to tell you about a spiritual tradition that is not your own. There exist many fine religions that have, over centuries, helped their followers attain peace of mind and happiness. There may, however, be aspects of Buddhism that you could bring to your spiritual practice.
Also, some of you have put your religion aside and are looking elsewhere for answers to your deeper inquiries. You may have an inclination toward Eastern philosophies with their belief in karma and past lives. A few young Tibetans have similarly discarded their Buddhist origins, finding spiritual solace in Christianity and Islam.
Unfortunately many of us from the various traditions of Buddhism, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Sri Lankan, simply call ourselves Buddhists without really knowing the meaning of Buddha's word. Nagarjuna, one of Buddhism's greatest scholars and practitioners, wrote many explanatory works on Buddhist thought and practice that reflect the need to know Buddha's teaching well. In order to develop our understanding we must study those teachings. If deep understanding were not so crucial to our practice of Buddhism, I doubt that the great scholars of the past would have bothered to write their important treatises.
Many misconceptions about Buddhism have arisen, partic-ularly around Tibetan Buddhism, which is often depicted as mysterious and esoteric, involving the worship of wrathful, bloodthirsty deities. I think that we Tibetans, with our fondness for ornate ceremonies and elaborate costumes, are partly responsible for this. Though much of the ritual of our practice has come to us from Buddha himself, we are surely guilty of some embellishment. Maybe the cold climate of Tibet became a justification for our sartorial excesses. Tibetan lamas-our teachers- are also responsible for misconceptions. Each little village had its own monastery with a resident lama who presided over local society. This tradition has mistakenly become identified as Lamaism, suggesting that ours is a separate religion from Buddhism.
In this time of globalization it seems to me particularly important that we familiarize ourselves with the beliefs of others. The great cities of the West, with their multicultural flavor, have become veritable microcosms of our planet. All the world religions live side by side here. For there to be harmony between these communities it is essential that we know about each other's beliefs.
Why is it that there are such diverse philosophies with so many varied spiritual traditions based upon them? From the Buddhist point of view we recognize the great diversity in the mental inclinations and dispositions of human beings. Not only are we humans all so very different from one another, but our tendencies-which Buddhists consider to be inherited from past lives-vary greatly as well. Given the diversity this implies, it is understandable that we find such a vast spectrum of philosophical systems and spiritual traditions. These are an important heritage of mankind, serving human needs. We must appreciate the value of philosophical and spiritual diversity.
Even within the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni we find a variety of philosophical positions. There are times when Buddha explicitly states that the physical and mental parts that constitute each of us can be likened to a burden carried by a person, suggesting that the person exists as an autonomous self-"me"-possessing and ruling over "my" parts. In other teachings the Buddha refutes any objective existence at all. We accept the diversity of the Buddha's teachings as a reflection of his skillful ability to address the great variety of mental inclinations of his diverse followers.
When we examine the spiritual traditions extant in the world, we find that all agree on the importance of ethical practice. Even the ancient Indian Charvakas-nihilists who denied any kind of afterlife-stated that since this is our only life, it is important to lead it morally, by disciplining our minds and trying to better ourselves.
All spiritual traditions aim to overcome our temporary and long-term suffering and to achieve lasting happiness. No religion seeks to increase our misery. We find compassion and wisdom to be fundamental qualities of God described in the various theistic traditions. In no faith tradition is the divinity conceived as the embodiment of hatred or hostility. This is because compassion and wisdom are qualities that we humans naturally and spontaneously regard as virtuous. Intuiting these qualities as desirable, we naturally project them onto our conceptions of the divine.
I believe that if we are truly devoted to God, our love for God will necessarily be expressed in our daily behavior, particularly in the way we treat others. To behave otherwise would render one's love for God futile.
When I spoke at an interfaith memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, in September of 2003 to commemorate the victims of the tragedy suffered on September 11, 2001, I felt it important to express my fear that some might view Islam as a belligerent religion. I warned that this would be a grave mistake because, at its core, Islam has the same ethical values as all the other great world faith traditions, with a particular emphasis on kindheartedness toward others. I have always been impressed with Islam's attention to social justice, especially its prohibition of financial exploitation through charging interest and its injunction against intoxicants. According to my Muslim friends, there is no way for a true practitioner of Islam to justify inflicting harm on another human being. They emphasize that anyone who harms a fellow human being in the name of Islam is not a proper Muslim. It is important to ensure that we not fall into the temptation of criticizing Islam for the faults of individuals who have so misrepresented one of the world's great religions.
It heartens me to have met devoted Christian monks and nuns, as well as Jewish rabbis, who, while remaining profoundly faithful to their religious tradition, have adopted certain Buddhist practices they find beneficial. When Shakyamuni Buddha first taught Buddhism, introducing a new philosophy and spiritual practice to the world 2,500 years ago, it was not without incorporating helpful elements that had their origins elsewhere. In doing so he included many existing beliefs and practices, such as the acceptance of past lives and the cultivation of a single-pointed mind.
In our quest to learn more about other faiths and the ideas they hold, it is important that we remain true to our own faith. In my opinion it is much safer and wiser to remain within one's own faith tradition, as we often become overly excited about a new possession, only to become dissatisfied with it later. There is a danger that we approach our initial interest in Buddhism with the enthusiasm of a novice and then become disenchanted. On my first visit to India, in 1956, I met a European Buddhist nun who seemed particularly devoted to her practice of her newly adopted religion. After returning to India as a refugee in 1959, I asked about this person and was told that though she had initially been fervent in her practice, upon returning to her home country she had become extremely critical of Buddhism.
I also remember a Polish woman who had become a member of the Theosophical Society in Madras in the 1940s. She was very helpful to my fellow Tibetans in setting up an education system for our refugee children. She became deeply interested in Buddhism and at some point appeared to have become a Buddhist. Later in her life, however, when she was in her eighties and approaching the critical time of her death, the concept of a creator being seemed to consume her, causing her much confusion. I therefore advised her to think of God, to feel love for God, and to pray to her idea of God. It is for this reason that I stress the importance of keeping to our own traditions. Changing religions without seriously analyzing what we are adopting will not lead to the happiness we all seek.
What Is the Meaning of Life?
Though wealth may be important to our happiness, I do not believe that it is supremely so. Mere wealth fails to bring us deep inner satisfaction. We are all aware of the unhappiness that often accompanies affluence. I also believe that good companions are secondary. Though a spouse may provide temporary solace from the pains of life, I don't think that family and friends can ultimately provide the true inner happiness we seek. Loved ones often bring more anxiety to our lives, while a calm and peaceful mind imparts a profound happiness that can even affect our physical state.
An intelligent mind, with a certain quality of calm and compassion, has the potential to be developed into a truly peaceful mind, one that brings happiness to us and to those around us. How can we bring about a calm, peaceful mind? Intoxicants are not the answer. We may think that simpleminded animals have the solution, but their mental state is limited and cannot be further enhanced.
I consider compassion to be a mental quality that can bring us true lasting inner peace and inner strength. We cultivate it by using our intelligence to transform our emotions. We reduce our selfishly induced destructive emotions and increase our selfless constructive ones, bringing about happiness within ourselves and others.
We are born with a basic potential for compassion that is essential for our continued existence. Though emotions such as fear and hatred can also be vital to our survival, our sophisticated minds are easily swayed by a false confidence that anger can instill in us. We neglect our more positive emotions and overlook our sense of respect for others, our civic responsibilities, or our wish to share others' problems. With such false feelings of independence we feel that we have no need for others. This inflated sense of self leads away from the inner peace and happiness we seek and affects those around us in an equally negative way.
What Is Distinct About Buddhism
Buddhism can be distinguished from other faith traditions and philosophical schools by four "seals." These are the marks or characteristics of Buddhism.
The first of these states that all conditioned things are impermanent and transient. This is something we know intimately as we watch ourselves grow older. We can also see reflections of impermanence in the physical world around us as it changes from day to day, from season to season, and from year to year.
Impermanence is not limited to the eventual wearing out and disintegration of things; it can be subtler than this. Things exist only momentarily, each moment of their existence causing the next, which then in turn causes the next. Let's take an apple. For the first day or two it may remain quite similar in appearance and ripeness to the apple we initially consider. Over time, however, it will get riper and riper, and eventually rot. If we leave it out long enough, it will disintegrate into something that we no longer identify as an apple. Eventually, when it has decomposed totally, there will be no apple at all. This is a manifestation of the grosser aspect of impermanence.
On a more subtle level, the apple changes from moment to moment, each moment serving as the cause of the next. As we recognize this momentary nature of the apple, it becomes difficult to claim that there is an underlying apple possessing these moments of its existence.
This transient quality is also a characteristic of ourselves. We exist momentarily, each moment causing our next moment of existence, which then causes the next moment, a process that proceeds from day to day, month to month, year to year, and maybe even lifetime to lifetime.
This is also true of our environment. Even the most seemingly concrete and enduring objects surrounding us, such as mountains and valleys, change over time-millions of years-and will eventually disappear. Such grosser transformation is only possible because of the constant process of change occurring moment by moment. If there were no such momentary change, there could be no great changes over an extended length of time.
The seventh-century Buddhist logician Dharmakirti stated that "all phenomena arising from causes and conditions are naturally impermanent." This suggests that whatever has come into being due to the aggregation of various causes and conditions is by its very nature subject to change. What is it that brings about this change? We Buddhists hold that the very causes that brought something into being in the first place are responsible for its evolution. Therefore we say that things are under the power of other causes and conditions-they are other-powered.
Some Buddhist thinkers accept the impermanence of our apple to be merely that it comes into being, endures, and then decays, finally ceasing to exist altogether. Most Buddhists understand the apple's impermanence to be its momentary nature: its existence moment by moment by moment, with each moment of our apple ending as the next moment begins. They would consider that the very causes and conditions that bring our apple into being-the apple seed that grew into the apple tree from which our apple was picked, the earth in which the tree grew, the rain that irrigated the tree, the sunshine and fertilizer that nurtured the growth of the seed into a tree-are the same causes and conditions that bring about our apple's disintegration, no other cause being necessary.
What are the causes and conditions of our own individual existence- yours and mine? Our present moment of existence is caused by its immediately preceding moment, going back to the moment of our birth, and further back, through the nine months in our mother's womb, to the moment of conception. It is at conception that our physical bodies are caused by the union of our father's semen and our mother's egg. It is also at conception that-according to Buddhism-our mental aspect or consciousness, not being physical, is caused by the previous moment of that consciousness, the momentary stream of which goes back, through the experiences between lifetimes, to our past life and to the life before that, and to the life before that, over infinite lives.
Excerpted from A Profound Mind by The Dalai Lama, Edited by Nicholas Vreeland, Afterword by Richard Gere. Copyright © 2011 by H. H. the Dalai Lama. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.