The End of My School Year

Śāntideva has taught innumerable life lessons that I will cherish so long as I live, but upon submitting my final and finishing my freshman year of college I am filled with new perspective due to this class. Attachment leading to suffering is an idea that is stressed frequently in Buddhism. It was difficult for me to understand in the beginning of the year as I feel attached to many things that bring me only joy. My friends, my family, my animals, etc. However, what I see now is that we need to control our attachments. In this time of quarantine where it is so essential to stay at home, people are blindly following their attachment to the chagrin of American society. People who are having difficulty staying at home are giving in to their urges too often and have caused this country to suffer worse than it should have. This, combined with our current administrations lack of a proper/timely response, has led to devastation of our economy and fellow citizens. What I have learned from my time at home, from the end of my first year in college, is how to make the best of a situation. This will be a memorable year for me, ironic as this year has been so heavily associated with boredom. I appreciate that this experience has given me the time to pursue my hobbies and studies unobstructed by previous attachments. Would I prefer to be outside with friends? Of course! Am I not allowing myself to think this way in order to stay at home and make the best of my situation? Yes. Upon finishing my first year, I will never take college for granted as the few months I had experience were amazing and I would never want to miss out on any more. Thank you for a great class!

The Power of Aspiration

The final chapter of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra is filled with grandiose aspirations ranging from transforming the regions of hell into “glades of delight, with lakes scented by a profusion of lotuses,” chorused by a variety of water fowl to helping “all those in the world [who are] women make progress, becoming men” (10.7; 10.30). My initial reading of this chapter was frankly dismissive; Śāntideva’s aspirations felt empty and unachievable. However, after discussing these verses in our last class, I have come to the realization that my interpretation – or misinterpretation – of these aspirations more so highlight my own naiveté instead of Śāntideva’s shortcomings.

After rereading the “Dedication,” I saw striking similarities between Śāntideva’s aspirations and Microsoft’s mission statement. Under Satya Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft aims “to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more,” and while their mission statement is equally grandiose as Śāntideva’s aspirations, Microsoft’s mission statement is incredibly inspirational, and perhaps that is most central to what an aspiration is. The “Dedication” read on its own makes little sense, but in context with the preceding chapters, it becomes an inspirational mission statement for the Bodhisattva ideal and the preceding chapters are instructions on how one should achieve this grand vision.

Aspirations are not meant to be tangible; their central function is to inspire. When someone devotes their life to becoming a Bodhisattva, they do so out of compassion, and I now see that Śāntideva hopes to inspire this compassion through his “Dedication”. While many of us may not go on to become Bodhisattvas, I think Śāntideva’s aspirations serve as an inspirational reminder to live with compassion and reduce suffering where we can, especially in these difficult times.

Dedication

Paul Williams points out in the General Introduction to Crosby and Skilton’s translation of The Bodhicaryāvatāra , that “to heed so many of Śāntideva’s wonderful verses” requires only “that one is human, living an ordinary human life.” Śāntideva’s ends the Dedication chapter with verses 57 and 58 which make clear the fact that the path laid out is accessible to all that are willing to dedicate themselves.

57. The sole medicine for the ailments of the world, the mine of success and happiness, let the Dispensation long endure, attended by support and honor.

58. I bow down to Mañjughosa through whose inspiration my mind turns to good. I honor the spirtitual friend through whose inspiration grows strong.

The opportunity of simply being human is revealed as exceptional. The privilege to participate is extraordinary. And everywhere you cast your gaze, you will find inspiration.

This fellow was limping badly, but nearly ran to feed these strays in the toughest part of the Bronx.

Emptiness and Compassion

On Thursday, our last class, we discussed about the link between emptiness and compassion whether or not the understanding of emptiness creates a sense of compassion. I was particularly interested in this topic, so I did some research and found out that compassion could be divided into three types. The first is compassion that focuses on sentient beings; if we look closely at the painful situations that sentient beings experience, we feel compassion and want to change their miserable conditions. The second is compassion that focuses on ignorance as the root of all suffering; everything is impermanence and constantly changing, but due to ignorance, sentient beings grasp and cling to their lives as if they will last for aeons. Finally, the third compassion is compassion without any focus/ objectless compassion. It is the deepest level of compassion; it is the meditation on the absolute state of equanimity. This compassion arises from the realization of emptiness and is free from all desire and duality. According to the article, this level of meditation is achieved gradually, and it is not as easy to understand as the first two types of compassion. Thus, when you practice virtuous actions of love and compassion on the relative level, you spontaneously realize the profound nature of emptiness, which is the absolute level. On the other hand, if you focus your meditation practice on emptiness, then your loving-kindness and compassion will spontaneously grow.

Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches stated “these two natures, the absolute and the relative, are not opposites; they always arise together. They have the same nature; they are inseparable like a fire and its heat or the sun and its light. Compassion and emptiness are not like two sides of a coin. Emptiness and compassion are not two separate elements joined together; they are always coexistent.”

The lotus eaters: The flower at the heart of Buddhist tradition ...

Isolation as an opportunity

Shantideva’s discussion of the importance of viveka, or isolation, for meditative absorption in Perfection of Meditative Absorption particularly resonates with me. He describes mediative absorption as being ‘born of isolation,’ and it made me think about how conducive our current lifestyles of being socially distanced are to isolating the mind (78). According to Shantideva, this isolation leads to “distracted thoughts being calmed” (96). I actually took a meditation class from Geshe-la Lobsang last semester, and the main obstacle I encountered during the meditations was always in calming/ignoring these “distracted thoughts,” whether they be of my surroundings or things going on in my life. I think Shantideva’s ideas regarding isolation as positive can help us reframe this period of isolation that we are in right now as an opportunity to work on cultivating skills like compassion that we can develop through meditation. 

Dedicated to Smiling

I have meditated for years, and many meditations have ended with dedications. A dedication of merit sparks a gracious feeling within oneself, and I always found it to be a wonderful way to end a meditation—reflective, thankful, compassionate. I, however, had never questioned its purpose. Thursday’s class, however challenged my understanding of a dedication. Do dedications do anything? 

After attending Buddhist club on Thursday, I caught myself reflecting upon our dedication and rereading Chapter 10 of Śāntideva’s The Bodhicaryāvatāra.it is filled with what can appear to be nonsense —i.e., dedications lacking apparent purpose. For instance,  

(35) May the ground in every place be smooth and level like the palm of a hand, free from grit and stones, and made of beryl.  

How can one justify the importance of a dedication like this? Is it possible? My science-based mind makes me want to say no. I do not believe a dedication does anything directly. My psychological-based mind, however, is inclined to say that they can indirectly affect oneself. A dedication forces one’s perspective toward the other. As mentioned in class, I feel like a dedication works like a forced smile. It is capable of slowly transforming one’s perspective, and oddly enough, I feel like a lot of people are partaking in a common forced smile during these days.  

As we focus our attention to loved ones, strangers, and people we pass in the grocery store, we are wishing them the best. In these times, our thoughts are extending outside of oneself, and I find the world to be filled with more selfless acts and thoughts than ever before.  

A dedication, like a forced smile or a forced change, can transform one’s perspective and cultivate selflessness.

Seeking suffering

In reading the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, I have noticed that Shantideva has a unique perspective when it comes to dealing with suffering. I think that most people including myself try to avoid situations that could potentially lead to suffering at all costs, but Shantideva seems to instead “seek” out such situations and see them as opportunities for growth (59). This attitude is reflected in verse 100 from the Perfection of Forbearance chapter in which Shantideva questions how “[he can] hate those who liberate [him] from the shackle” and are “a door closed to [him] as [he seeks] to enter upon suffering” (59). I found this verse to be useful because it demonstrates how the people who make us angry are actually giving us an opportunity to learn a lesson and to practice forgiveness. Especially now with COVID-19 creating so much stress in everyone’s lives, it can be easy to become frustrated or angry at others, whether it be the people we are quarantining with or the politicians who we feel are making incorrect decisions. However, I think that maintaining Shantideva’s mindset of suffering and anger can ease this stress tremendously.

Dedication to Happiness

Śāntideva opens his “final lesson” with a sense of praise and a blessing. He blesses those who seek/achieve the power of awakening and he wishes that their happiness will last forever. Furthermore, he wishes their happiness will spread throughout the world. I really enjoyed this chapter because Śāntideva shows that there is a reward for the hard journey. Many texts in Buddhism seem to give instruction, but do not necessarily explain what will happen if one abides by them. Śāntideva explains in his teachings what someone must do to achieve enlightenment, and now he displays the rewards. It makes for a much more convincing “sell” on Buddhism as I feel that people search for happiness above anything else. I really enjoyed his philosophical teachings, he was obviously a very wise and humble man. I hope that I can connect his passion for achieving happiness to my current issues with COVID-19 and how it has temporarily halted my college career.

Understanding that life is suffering

“Just like the one who dowses himself with water again and again but must each time re-enter the fire again, so they consider themselves fortunate, though they are also extremely wretched. As people live like this, pretending they will not grow old or die, horrific misfortunes approach, with death the foremost of them” (132)

One of the central teachings which have gained from this class is that life is filled with immense suffering due to the impermanence of all things and the fact that people try to cling onto that which they think is permanent which ends up hurting them in the end.

In the wake of the drastic changes in routine and life which I find myself in now, I have begun to realize my own attachment to the normality which my life had just a few months prior, and I find that wishing to go back to that time is what is causing me the most suffering.

Only by beginning the process of acceptance and embracing the idea that life is full of change and that horrific misfortunes will happen to me as well as understanding that the current way I live my life is dooming me to a type of inevitable suffering does it seem that I can begin to take the first steps into truly leaving the fire and understanding the teachings on emptiness and no self.

Cultivating compassion by recognizing interdependence and No Self

I think this week’s in-class discussion was particularly beneficial to me in that it got me thinking about how the doctrines of interdependence and No-Self can contribute to a compassionate attitude. In the wake of the COVID-19 situation, it seems more important than ever to cultivate this attitude of compassion for everyone, from the workers putting themselves at risk for the sake of the functioning of our society to those who have actually been infected with the virus. I had never considered these Buddhist ideas as leading directly to the cultivation of compassion, but the discussion made me realize otherwise. In terms of No-Self, the idea that things/people don’t have an inherent nature leads to the realization that a person cannot be inherently bad and that everyone is therefore deserving of compassion. Keeping this in mind could potentially allow someone to maintain an attitude of compassion when confronted with a situation or a person that he or she might otherwise label as being “bad” or undeserving of compassion. In terms of interdependence, I think recognizing this theme can lead to the realization that every every action we take has a ripple effect and holds a lot of weight. This could make someone more mindful of the importance of our actions, and ultimately make us act more compassionately.