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Meditation and Other People

by Kamalashila

Meditation and other people
11/22/2006 02:26 PM
Wellington Buddhist Centre, New Zealand, 30/1/91

This talk is about one of the most basic aspects of human life, and in fact it is probably the most
important of all the vast range of topics to which Buddhism addresses itself. This topic, this question,
this issue, is the issue of relationships. By relationship I mean the relationship which exists between
ourself, as subject, and the rest of the universe, both individually and collectively. That is, our
relationship to all the objects that exist in the environment around us, and to all the individual people
that exist in that environment, ranging from those we actually know personally, to those we have only
heard about, and in the end ranging all the way out to all those people, all those billions of people, that
we only know about in theory, existing in the rest of the world. And we can't really exclude the
animals and other creatures that our world includes, for we also have a relationship to them. We have a
relationship to everything we encounter, to all these living beings - and we do so even if we have never
met them physically, for even if they exist only as abstractions, as data, as population statistics, we at
least know about them, and it is in that form that we encounter them. Even if we have never been to
India, and even though our conception of the millions of beings in India might only be a somewhat
abstract one, yet we still experience a certain kind of relationship to them. We may hear about the
goings-on in the Middle East, and even though there may be no concrete connection with the people
there, yet we will still be responding, in some way or other, to their situation. So in that way we
really do have a relationship with all these people - it's a distant one, but nevertheless it exists, and it is
obviously one we are affected by.
But of course, most of our relationships are rather more immediate than that.
However, before we go any further into our more immediate relationships I would like to stay with the
broad perspective for a little longer. My talk is entitled 'Meditation and other people', and the title has
been chosen partly because I know that many people do not have the impression that Buddhism is about
other people at all. Surely, one tends to think, Buddhism is all about developing yourself - Buddhism
is about you developing the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment, Buddhism is about you becoming a
monk or nun, and living a monastic lifestyle. Or at least Buddhism is about you doing something about
yourself, about your states of mind. It's about you becoming a better person - and this of course is fine,
it's a very good thing. Buddhism is recognised as a good thing in our society, on the whole. Generally
speaking, Buddhism seems to have a good 'image' in our society, a good reputation - but nonetheless we
don't, I think, usually see it as being, particularly, about other people.
In this conection we sometimes hear of Buddhism being contrasted with other religions which very
much emphasise work in the world - work to help others, work to relieve the poor, to relieve the
sufferings of others. In this sort of comparison, the Buddhists are sometimes seen as rather introverted
individuals, who probably prefer to contemplate their inner mental workings rather than simply getting
on with an honest day's work. They are perhaps seen as people, well-meaning enough, who tend to get
rather obsessed with their own psychology: in short, seen as emotional hypochondriacs, seen as
somewhat inadequate personalities who are concerned more than anything else with 'sorting themselves
out' - and doing so in a spirit of avoidance of the more objective realities of the modern world.
Now this, of course, is a dreadful distortion of the facts, certainly with no correspondence, that I've
seen at least, with the Order members, mitras and Friends here in Wellington. They all seem extremely
hard-working, positive, friendly and concerned for everyone involved in the activities here at the
Centre. And just to set the record straight, Buddhists do, in fact, engage in social work. In the FWBO,
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Meditation and other people
11/22/2006 02:26 PM
Centre. And just to set the record straight, Buddhists do, in fact, engage in social work. In the FWBO,
just to give one example, we are engaged in a great deal of social work amongst the ex-Untouchables in
India. But that having been said, when we have refuted the more extreme distortions, there seems to be
a grain of truth remaining in the assertion that we Buddhists tend to be a shade narcississtic.
Someone once said that each religion has its besetting sin, its darker side. The besetting sin of Islam
was said to be fanaticism, of Christianity intolerance, of Hinduism inhumanity - and in the case of
Buddhism, I'm afraid, it's laziness. Now perhaps the kind of laziness that is Buddhism's b ˆ te
noir is somehow connected with that tendency I mentioned just now, the tendency to over-identify
with one's personal psychology. In a way this is a quite understandable sort of laziness. On the surface,
it might seem that Buddhists have rather a daunting task on their hands in their quest for
Enlightenment. Because Buddhism stresses, far more than any other religion, that the responsibility for
our personal development lies with no-one else other than ourselves. As Buddhists, we can't really
accept the notion of a personal god that we can pray to for our salvation. It's up to us, it's our individual
effort to grow and develop that counts.
In support of this, we can describe Buddhism in a rather tight little nutshell by saying that it consists
of what are known as the four Right Efforts. Firstly, there is the effort to eradicate any negative
mental states which already exist in our mind; then secondly there is the effort to prevent any new
negative mental states from arising. Then there is the effort to
maintain the positive mental states that already exist in our mind - three - and finally to develop
any positive mental states that do not yet exist - four. So - eradicating and preventing the negative,
maintaining and developing the positive: that's Buddhism. 'Cease to do evil; learn to do good; purify
the heart: this is the teaching of all the Buddhas', was the answer given to the Emperor of China, when
he asked a famous Buddhist teacher for the deepest, most esoteric teachings of Buddhism. He was
rather surprised - he was expecting something much more erudite, at least somewhat unusual, and
possibly rather bizarre. But - "why, any small child can understand something as simple as that!", he
complained, with a sniff. "Yes", came the answer, "it is so simple that a small child can understand it,
that's perfectly true. But though it is simple, it is also so difficult that even an experienced adult like
yourself cannot put it into actual practice". Which brought the Emperor down to earth with rather a
And Buddhism can have the same effect upon us. It isn't so easy, practising the Dharma on our own,
even though for many people it is the emphasis upon the individual that is its main attraction. New
practitioners of Buddhism will tend to lay great stress upon their own practice, their own states of
mind. They haven't yet learned that they can't really practice Buddhism, can't effectively practice it
that is, without reference to other people. That is the real key to Buddhism. Even though we make the
effort individually, personally, nevertheless the context for that effort has to be the great universe of
living beings.
This theme is stated again and again in Buddhist literature and teaching throughout all the many
traditions of Buddhism. The Mahayana Sutras, for example, are always mentioning the infinite
numbers of beings that exist throughout limitless space - for of course they think not only in terms of
this planet, but of countless inhabited world-systems. There is that poetic reference to the Bodhisattva,
the being who is said to postpone his own Enlightenment, or her own Enlightenment, so that he can lead
all other beings to it first. We can't quite take that literally, because anyone who actually has that kind
of motivation is going to be more than half-way to Enlightenment already - you can't really postpone
your own Enlightenment - but it isn't meant to be taken literally. The point is that the Bodhisattva lives
the spiritual life for the sake of the development of others - not just his personal development alone.
And this sentiment is not limited to the Mahayana form of Buddhism - that is, the form of Buddhism
that encourages everyone to develop the Bodhisattva way of life. It is also implicit in the Pali
scriptures; and it is implicitly stated in the Buddha's own life.
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Meditation and other people
11/22/2006 02:26 PM
In fact the life of the Buddha is a good illustration of how one can make an enormous personal effort,
on ...

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