You might imagine that we can reach a level of understanding or serenity where we are excused the unpleasant feelings which may have been the aim of our undertaking a meditation practice. It can be a disappointment, but also a relief, to know that we can forget about that wish. And we don’t have to sugar-coat our lives to give an impression to others that Buddhism provides constant bliss. The saying that the road to enlightenment is long and hard is quite right. So why do we undertake it? Because the truth is that any other road is ultimately longer and harder.
The enlightened activity which bodhicitta promotes is characterized by selflessness. True selflessness is easier to understand and to describe than it is to practise. Mind you, even understanding it is trickier than you might expect. The roots of selfishness go very deep, and it takes a lifetime of study to penetrate them fully. And that’s where the small steps, that are our daily practice, really bear fruit as they are the means we have of clarifying and resolving the problems selfishness create.
An example of how we can apply this has become evident to me in recent years, it being a key measure of our wish for enlightenment, and that is in the way we react to criticism or correction. When we are challenged or even disagreed with, what most of us want to do is to defend our position, deny the charge, retaliate even. This is often an automatic, unconsidered, habitual response and is usually fuelled by anger. I have come to characterize this phenomenon when I observe it (in myself of course!) as indignant self-justification. When put in those terms it is rather stark but even when it is not expressed as vigorously as that description would imply, it lays bare what we’re dealing with.
Why is there such a strong feeling – what these days is called a ‘pushback’?
Criticism hurts us because we have an ego-self. Where there is no, or less, ego-self there, any such hurt is either absent or much reduced.
Is there any alternative to acting angrily when we are challenged? Yes. In the monastery we are regularly advised that we are doing things the wrong way, especially when we’re new to the practice. One would hope that this corrective advice would be given gently and compassionately but of course we cannot insist on how the teaching comes. There can be a strong urge to protest, to put our side of the story, to make excuses for or justify our actions. Blame others even, especially if we are already under pressure. Most of us realize that this reaction is not helpful. The better response is – right there – to practice acceptance, and selflessness. To let go of the urge to react angrily, and just make our self sit still. Going through this experience is a vital event in our training. It is a breakthrough, an introduction to a different, more enlightened way of facing life’s challenges.
And then what? Conflict is obviated. Any argument is postponed, possibly indefinitely. The way forward can be found with the anger taken out of the situation. We can actually listen to the substance of the criticism – or shall we call it ‘teaching’ – rather than responding from the feeling that we’re under attack, or being slighted. We just sit still and listen.
Note: I was personally touched by this talk and saw the benefits others are likely to derive from visiting his words, published here on Jade over several days. Thanks to the Reverend for permission to do this. Listen to the talk.