Although our living conditions today are much better than in the past, mentally we tend to feel empty, restless, anxious and inadequate, now more than ever. Distress from being destitute can end a life while mental suffering can be equally deadly.
According to a report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are currently more than 100 million people in China with mental illness, 287,000 suicides and two million attempted suicides annually, plus anxiety disorders, manic depression and various other types of mental disorder. We can attribute this alarming situation to the high pressure from work and everyday life, but the fundamental cause, in Buddha’s words, is the three poisons—desire, aversion and delusion.
Money may have something to do with certain negative mental states, but money is no solution to those mental problems. Although medication is effective to a certain degree in alleviating the symptoms, its side effect should not be underestimated. Then, the safest and the most effective way to overcome difficulties of the mind is spiritual practice.
The focus here is on how to handle desire, one of the three poisons.
I. The harm of desire
There are many kinds of desire – money, fame, love, etc. When desire is not under control and allowed to grow freely, it becomes insatiable, making us all slaves to its command. This short lifetime will then be spent in pursuit of illusive targets and wasted in striving to satisfy desires. Looking back when life nears its end, one painfully discovers that happiness is a real scarcity with unhappy moments scattered throughout one’s lifetime. Uncontrolled desire can destroy not only this life but also next life, not only oneself but also other beings. Robbery, for example, is basically caused by desire—desire to take what one lacks and others have; in so doing, one not only destroys this and future life but also disrupts the life of others.
Everyone wishes to have a happy life, including animals. But many are unhappy, and their unhappiness comes mainly from a causal relation of the mind. When we wish to own more material things, such desire will drive us to give more time and energy to fulfill that wish, resulting in bigger pressure, busier pace, less free time in life and eventually depriving us of any sense of happiness. Although the original intention of desire is to gain happiness for ourselves, it ends up destroying our happiness. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to properly manage our desire.
The Buddha said that the nature of samsara is suffering, but he did not repudiate totally the idea that there is relative happiness in samsara either. The Buddha often said that one can enjoy the karmic reward of celestial beings and humans if one refrains from killing, stealing, cheating, etc. and engages in virtuous actions as much as possible. The blessed reward of celestial beings and humans signify relative happiness, not suffering, in samsara. However, such happiness is only on the surface, temporary and relative; it’s neither lasting nor ultimate happiness. This is why the Buddha exhorted us on many occasions to be mentally prepared so that we can garner enough courage to face every phase of life.
People think that desire motivates growth and development of mankind, a point that is not rejected by Buddhism either. It is said in the Mahayana scriptures that there must be self-grasping as great as Mount Sumeru in order to attain Buddhahood. Normally, self-grasping is condemned in Buddhism because it can cause greed, anger and delusion to arise. But here, it becomes the impetus to seek liberation; to certain extent, this is also a kind of desire. When desire to attain Buddhahood is absent, aspiration to learn Buddhadharm, to achieve enlightenment and to benefit sentient beings will not happen either. Genuine Dharma practice is a big, demanding and time consuming project that needs sufficient courage and drive to achieve its goal, and the source of this courage is the desire to attain Buddhahood. Arhats, lacking such desire, do not have the motivation to reach Buddhahood and hence seek only liberation for themselves.
Desire can be good or bad. Good desire is a driving force for Dharma practice and gaining enlightenment. Worldly desire, if unrestrained, can ruin a person.
Naturally, we cannot hope to give up all desires right from the outset, which is impractical and also unnecessary. Mahayana Buddhism is a system of ideas very much in tune with human nature. It does not demand all practitioners to become ascetics; rather, it advocates a middle way approach in the way of living, meaning not overly extreme. For example, due to a mistaken belief that hardship can lead to liberation, one deliberately endures hunger and wears shabby clothing when in fact one can easily afford a comfortable life. Rather than being helpful, such behavior may even become an obstacle to one’s practice sometimes. Conversely, choosing to live extravagantly and be unappreciative of anything in hand is another extreme. The right way, that is, the middle way, is to keep our desire properly under control.
Desire also means greed which can be defined in a broad or narrow sense. Broadly speaking, it encompasses desire for money, fame, love and even liberation; while in a narrow sense, it only points to desire for money, fame, status and the likes. Desire needs be properly managed lest it should cost us much suffering, especially when directed toward a person of one’s desire, the suffering can be even more damaging. For example, if a husband or a wife has an extramarital affair, his or her other half will usually suffer a tremendous blow mentally as it is most difficult to accept the fact and let go. The ensuing effect ranges from experiencing depression to taking one’s own life. In such case, it is even more crucial to control the desire to grasp—what is the point of hanging on to a person who no longer feels enamored with you? Therefore, the Buddha said 2500 years ago that breaking up other people’s family is a very serious misdeed, with sexual misconduct being one of the ten non-virtues. Although marital problems were not as notable or serious then, they have become a very common and critical social issue today.
Of course, it has never been easy for worldly people to just let go, but it may not be that difficult if one can adopt the Buddhist way to handle it. Many people choose the extreme method to end their suffering because they don’t know any other way. However, letting go is not so hard if one knows how to do it. When a relationship comes to an end, just let it end naturally, like all other conditioned phenomena. The important thing is to control one’s desire or attachment and face the change rationally. To be able to keep desire, aversion and delusion under control is not only very helpful in real life but can also guide us to liberation.
Many people used to think there is really no need to learn Buddhadharm or uphold traditional culture since living conditions have improved and material goods are plentiful.. But we realize now we need help to maintain our spiritual health and soothe the soul more than ever before. Humans are different from animals. A pig after being fed will happily go take a nap, with nothing else on its mind. Humans have additional and higher aspirations after their basic needs are met. When these aspirations are not fulfilled, suffering ensues. Neither money nor superstitious beliefs can end this suffering. Only through practice can we hope to find the solution; the method we use must also be wise and reasonable.
II. The cause of desire
For a seed to germinate, the right temperature, humidity and space must all be in place. These are the internal causes. The arising of desire also has three causes.
1. Everyone has the seed of desire, except bodhisattvas of the first bhumi and arhats who have destroyed the seed. For ordinary people, the seed of desire is always stored in the mind even when there is no thought of wanting anything or in deep sleep, just not that obvious. This is the primary cause.
2. External cause. For example, upon seeing your neighbor with a nice car, a thought comes up: I must buy a car better than that one. The thought wouldn’t have come up if you did not see the neighbor’s car in the first place. So, seeing the neighbor’s car is the external cause for this desire to arise.
Psychologists have reported that if we watch an hour of television every day, our weekly expense will go up by US$4. This is because the advertisements on television can induce us to buy things we don’t need. Also, shopping with a credit card often results in spending more than what we would with cash. As a credit card is not real cash, one tends to pretend that no money has actually been paid out. It is however a different matter when we feel our wallet get lighter and lighter. This is all just psychological.
Once there is an external cause and condition, all kinds of defilement may arise.
3. Irrational idea. Defilement or negative emotions generated due to external cause is termed irrational or illogical idea, a Buddhist terminology. This is also the most crucial cause.
If one is in control of one’s own mind and able to rein in one’s desire, even watching television all day long should not be a cause for concern.
III. Ways to avoid negative emotions
Once the above three causes are in place, negative emotions will manifest. What can we do then?
1) Uproot the seed of negative emotions from the source, which we are incapable of at the moment.
2) Avoid the external cause and condition.
For example, avoid exposure to various advertisements or setting sight on the neighbor’s new car or new gadgets. This can help reduce the arising of desire and avoid certain suffering that comes with excessive desire. It is therefore advised by the Buddha that the monastics or real practitioners stay at remote and quiet places to do their practice, as there are fewer material goods there to stir up one’s desire and cause defilement to manifest. But this is not the best way.
3) Banish irrational ideas.
For example, when there is a new electronic product on the market, one may either feel upset if one can’t afford to buy or conceited if others can’t buy the same, thinking “only I have this bag, this luxury watch, the latest version of…; no one else in the office does.” This mindset breeds arrogance so that one is blind to others’ strengths and one’s own weaknesses.
Although some products can really make life easier and are indispensable in some cases, whether they are name brand products is very often a matter of face or vanity, not necessity. When dealing with the issue of not losing face, it is important to keep a close watch on irrational ideas.
Attachment to a person can be handled the same way. For instance, when one is going through the painful situation of falling out of love, one can visualize the other person in the front and reflect calmly: Is he or she really as lovable as I imagined? Why do I like him or her so much? Is it his or her looks, talent, money, power, fame that I like or something else?
IV. The practice to handle desire
To confront desire, there are two practices: 1) of the relative truth; 2) of the ultimate truth.
Practice of the relative truth
There are two methods: contemplation on the impurity of the body and contemplation on impermanence.
1. Contemplation on the impurity of the body
There is quite a selection of teachings on this method in the Theravada tradition, which offer ways to restrain desire. Here is a simple explanation of this practice.
First, calm your mind and then contemplate: The root of all the pain that I feel from a failed relationship is nothing but desire. My desire for the other person makes me suffer; without this desire, I won’t be so heartbroken. It is actually my mind that’s making me suffer. I am the one who hurts me the most, not somebody else.
What we usually like to do is to dump all the responsibilities on the other person—my depression or despair is due to his or her infidelity, when in fact it is our own stubborn attachment that should take the blame.
When people fall in love, they are basically in love with the other person’s appearance. It has always been like this since time immemorial that as long as the first impression is good and we like what we see, we won’t examine much further, just trust our eyes. But please think more deeply what appearance represents.
What the eyes can see is just the skin. It is also said in the Buddhist texts that everyone will be grossed out if the eyes can see directly what’s wrapped inside the skin. Nobody likes to see raw flesh, bones, blood, etc. and the skin is just a very thin layer that covers all of these. Is this so-called body something you really want to give your love to? Having observed this way, one really can find no love interest at all in the end.
2. Contemplation on impermanence
On our greed for money, one can contemplate this way: This person may be rich now, but who knows how the money was made? It’s also possible that this person may become poor by next month or even go to jail, which are not exaggerations at all as such stories get reported quite regularly in the news media.
On attachment to a person, one can contemplate: This person may look great now, but his or her looks will also fade in time.
The Buddha’s approach is always logical rather than dogmatic. The Buddha told us that underneath the skin, there are thirty six kinds of impure elements such as bacteria, microbes and parasites, among others, operating in an environment that’s both chaotic and unclean. Moreover, the notion of being beautiful or ugly is just a matter of meeting the expectations of most people. In the eyes of an extraterrestrial or a person of different race, a woman we consider beautiful may perhaps be deemed ugly. Even a real beauty will lose her appeal from overexposure or with age.
Through these observations, we come to realize that there is neither a thing nor a person that has genuine and absolute beauty. At this point, our minds can relax a little bit, no longer being so obsessed and anxious. Then with further observation and contemplation, we can slowly abandon our old attachment.
It is of course not necessary to practice this on our family. After all, we are still living in the secular world and need not give up all our relations in this life. However, if lay people can practice this properly, it will not lead to divorce or disharmony in the family; instead, their desire and tendency for grasping can be kept seemly under control.
The master of happiness and suffering is not god but our mind. Once you think this through, you can be happy all the time. By then, a broken love affair or divorce won’t matter so much anymore; some may even feel more carefree and relaxed as a result.
The specifics on how to meditate on impermanence according to Miphom Rinpoche’s teaching can be found in the discourse on the Four Dharma Seals in the book series Wisdom Light. There is also a clear explanation in the Theravada teachings on how to meditate on the impurity of the body. At the beginning, you may be unwilling and tend to resist these practices. But you must convince yourself to undertake these practices in order to take control of your own mind.
To meditate regularly on the impurity of the body and impermanence can be very helpful. At the least these practices are effective in preventing desperate measures being taken in times of distress, as even Buddhists who are not trained in meditation practice may likely hurt themselves when in despair; burning incense and making offering to the deities alone won’t help very much in this kind of situation. In fact, there are some who know the importance of doing meditation practice but just cannot muster sufficient resolve to go ahead. It is a sign that their overall effort in Dharma practice is still somewhat lacking.
Practice of the ultimate truth
This practice uses the notion of emptiness to overcome defilement.
1. The first method -- Visualize in front of you the person that you are attached to and contemplate: ‘What do I like about this person? Although my eyes see this person, he or she does not actually exist. Just like a car which is assembled with all its parts, absent the parts, there is no real car. The so-called car is only one’s illusion. Likewise, humans are composed of skin, muscles and bones. When every component is broken down, including even every cell and neuron, what I see will be the same as that in the charnel ground. If these broken down parts can represent a person, so can those in the charnel ground. Obviously, the body itself is not the person I like. Then, do I like that person’s mind? No, I never know what that person is thinking, so what’s there to like. Apparently, what I like, or what I’m attached to, is only an illusion.’
Going through this analysis may not help one gain realization of emptiness, but it does serve to greatly reduce attachment.
Furthermore, contemplate this: ‘What I need to do now is to cool my attachment. Otherwise, I can’t live or work normally; worse, I may even hurt myself. It is ironic to waste my life for someone who doesn’t like or care about me, a useless exercise that only proves how silly I am.’
To continue analyzing along this line can slowly but surely see some good results, making it easier to let go and allowing a new life to begin.
Psychotherapy can only help us take control of moods and feelings temporarily; it does not solve our problems. It is like taking a pain killer to temporarily chase away a headache. The Buddhist way, however, is to rely on theories that are both logical and convincing to cut to the root of the problems. Once the theories have been thought through and fully understood, the agony will never come back again.
The Theravadins have succeeded in controlling desire by way of this method, which proves the method is right and effective.
2. The second method is also the most important. In the midst of highly painful time, calm down and ask yourself, “I feel such unbearable pain, but what is pain anyway?” Of course we will all say, “It’s my heart, my mind, in pain.” What is mind then? At this point, we will discover that mind and pain are inseparable, that mind has become pain. If we look further at the nature of mind itself, we may suddenly realize that it’s like looking at empty space. At that moment, all of mind’s suffering instantly disappears; the so-called mind and suffering do not exist at all.
Now, the one who is heartbroken may thank, not hate, the ex-lover because the separation affords one the opportunity to learn more about oneself or to take up spiritual practice that probably would not happen otherwise. There is one other good thing about suffering, and that is, it makes one more sympathetic and understanding of others’ suffering and more willing to share one’s own lesson to help others out of their difficulties as well.
Before making the afore-mentioned observations, one may experience all sorts of suffering, not unlike experiences in a nightmare. After going through the examinations, everything ceases to exist; all vanish into thin air, like waking up from a big dream.
There is of course a pre-condition for reaching such state, that is, to do the preliminary practice which may seem very boring to some people. But if you like the fruit of the practice, you must go through the process to get it. This is what causality means. To reap the fruit without sowing the cause is only a fantasy at best. It is the same as farmers work hard in the field in order to have a bumper crop. The hard work is the necessary process to get to the aim. So, if the aim is to be awakened one day, don’t ignore the process of getting there. Be diligent, do not omit any part of the practice and satisfy the respective requirement for each practice. Then enlightenment can be possible.
It is not uncommon for the same circumstance to be a positive condition for some but negative for others, such as divorce, falling out of love, being sick, among others. In the book series Wisdom Light, there are several discourses, for example, How to Face Happiness and Suffering, Transforming Illness into the Path, that tell us specifically how to deal with such circumstances. Whether one gains enlightenment or descends to the hell realm depends on how the few decades of this life is lived. Only with the help of the Buddha’s wisdom can one maintain equanimity in both good and bad times.
The notion that all phenomena are without self nature and illusory like dreams has been extensively elucidated in the Chan Buddhist scripture The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch and various Vajrayana tantras, particularly in Dzogchen. There is a chapter in Ratnakuta Sutra on the discussion between Kasyapa and Sakyamuni Buddha, which is missing in the Chinese translation of the Sutra but available in the Tibetan version. Kasyapa asked the Buddha what mind is like. The Buddha told him that mind of the past has gone, that of the future not yet born; neither exists. And mind of the present is emptiness, not existent either. Even though this is a Mahayana sutra, the explanation is incisive and crystal clear. It is also said in the Diamond Sutra, “Mind of the past is unobtainable; mind of the present is unobtainable; mind of the future is unobtainable.” When the fifth patriarch of Chan Buddhism said this, Huineng, the sixth patriarch, instantly realized that mind does not exist. If one can suddenly come to this realization, all the heartbreaks from falling out of love and divorce are worth it.
It doesn’t mean that one must have the experience of breaking up in order to attain realization. Start with the preliminary practice, learn the theory of Madhyamaka and then proceed further to train in meditation. Even not having to sustain any emotional blow, one can still gain realization of emptiness following these steps. Wouldn’t it be even better this way?
In real life, we often try to escape from difficult and painful situations. The Buddha taught us to confront not escape from difficulties and suffering. The best way to train our mind is to attain realization of emptiness. Mind will become super strong once realization of emptiness is attained; it will not be moved by any external factors. Afterwards we should also consider this: Although I have made myself strong, so many others are still in the dark without knowledge or training. I want to help them. This is how we can actually practice, not just proclaim, the maxim of “deliver sentient beings from samsara.”
We are living in illusions. When we believe these illusions, they can give us temporary happiness as well as pain, fear and some more. But the root of all these is the mind, nothing else. Once we know all phenomena are just illusions, we will not so fixate on our attachment and be able to slowly let go. At the least, we won’t worry so much about gains and losses as to make our life miserable.
There is a story in Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara): Once in a kingdom there was a very good fortune teller. He told the king it would rain seven days later and the rain water would be toxic. Whoever drank the water would become insane. After hearing this, the king covered his well but didn’t let others know. Seven days later, it rained as prophesized. Everyone in the kingdom drank the rain water and lost their minds except the king and a few people around him. As only these few were not affected, all the others turned around to accuse them of being mad. The situation became so unbearable that the king finally gave in, drank the rain water and became crazy like all the others.
This is what our world is like today. The seven billion people in the world all follow more or less the same worldview and outlook on life. If anyone were to have a different point of view, many would rush to tag him or her as being abnormal or mental. But in fact we are the ones who are afflicted. When all the people have the same affliction, this mental condition becomes a standard by which others are judged. This is the case with all the rules in the human world since time immemorial. Because Sakyamuni Buddha broke the rule, many people cannot comprehend and thus accuse Buddhism of being misinformed, passive and pessimistic. How and why it comes to this, the story is an indication.
The Buddha understood us and knew early on that we would oppose him. That’s why he said in the scripture, “Whatever people uphold to be true, I do too. I won’t argue with them, but they will argue with me.” It means we ordinary people indulge ourselves in illusions and hence mistake illusion for reality. We suffer tremendously as a result but stubbornly hold on to our mistakes, thinking instead that Buddhism is wrong and not proactive. This is why we remain far from liberation.
Please don’t always blame others for your suffering. There is no suffering in the world that is purely caused by other people and that has nothing to do with our own doing. We are also responsible to a certain extent. Even if it is not due to the mistakes made in this life, those committed in previous lives may also be the culprit. So learn to accept one’s own responsibility, practice Dharma diligently, transform suffering and help sentient beings to liberation from samsara. This should be the best route for us.