The Realization of Life
Have you ever wondered: with all the suffering in life is happiness achievable? It is through suffering that happiness is possible. Suffering provides an opportunity, a chance to rediscover our essential self. You will find the answers you seek in Buddhism only if you begin to recognize the suffering in life.
“Through this journey in life we achieve the realization of life at different levels. It is common sense that the realization of life can bring us freedom and happiness. When we reach the highest level, however, there is no distinction between happiness and unhappiness; no distinction between freedom and bondage, such that everything abides in its own nature as self-liberated. This is the ultimate realization of life.”
The Realization of Life: Four Noble Truths
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. As host for this event I’d like to welcome you to the Realization of Life Forum, the Sharing Session of Khenpo Sodargye’s teachings. A warm round of applause, please, as we welcome Khenpo Sodargye.
Thank you. Please be seated.
First of all, we’d like to express our gratitude to the students and everyone who has gathered here at the Guild House of the National University of Singapore to hear Khenpo Sodargye’s views and explanations on suffering and life.
This platform provides a very valuable opportunity for students like us to broaden our horizons, find our values, and take advice from others to help ourselves and, with deep understanding of that advice, arouse our sense of responsibility and sense of mission and enable us to make meaningful contributions to the development of society. I hope at the conclusion of Khenpo’s speech everyone here will have a new view of life.
Now, allow me to introduce our honored speaker Khenpo Sodargye. Khenpo Sodargye Rinpoche was born in 1962. In 1985 he was ordained at Larung Gar Five Sciences Buddhist Academy, Sertar, with His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche as his root guru. As early as the 1990s, prompted by a fervent wish to make the precious Tibetan Buddhist teachings available to Han Chinese disciples hampered by language barriers, Khenpo began translating volumes of Tibetan texts into Chinese, and teaching them in an easy, accessible way. During the past thirty years, Khenpo has devoted himself tirelessly to his work. He has not only fostered many qualified Buddhist teachers but written many books. His works and teachings are impressive, amounting to 120 books.
Since 2010 Khenpo Sodargye has been invited to speak at George Washington University, Columbia University, the University of Göttingen, the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Beijing University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Zhejiang University and many other prestigious universities. He has initiated and organized the World Youth Buddhist Society as a platform for scholars around the world to exchange views on Buddhist truths and their relevance to modern science and so enlighten people on many life issues such as study, jobs and relationships.
In recent years, Khenpo has been keen to explore in depth his visions on environmental protection, world peace, ethical issues and interpersonal relationships with scientists both at home and abroad. Khenpo has initiated a movement called ‘Promoting a Loving Heart’, in which he encourages Buddhist practitioners to cultivate love, kindness and compassion in daily life and not to ignore the needy. He has built elementary schools, middle schools and centers for senior lay practitioners. In the hope of extending blessings to all sentient beings, he has reached out to help impoverished college students as well as those who cannot afford medical care for cancer and other grave illnesses.
After 18 years, we are fortunate to invite Khenpo Sodargye to again visit the Lion City and to share his teachings at this top-notch university in Asia, the National University of Singapore. We hope all students will be inspired by Khenpo Sodargye’s Lecture. Once more, thank you again Khenpo Sodargye and all of you who have come here today. I would now like you to welcome the chairman of the organization committee, Mr. Chuqiao Wang, to deliver the opening address.
Honored Khenpo Sodargye, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. On behalf of the organization committee of the Realization of Life Forum, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Khenpo Sodargye and our heart-felt gratitude to all those present.
In 2012, when I was a student at the National University of Singapore, my team and I organized an international event for the first time in our lives. Thanks to the combined efforts of our members, after the event, our budget showed a profit. We donated this money to the Singapore Management University, Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore.
Some people couldn’t understand why we donated our first pot of gold instead of spending it on ourselves. Why didn’t we donate just part of it? Why didn’t we wait until we’d made more money? My answer is simple. Although I agree that in poverty, one only needs to sustain oneself and in success, one can benefit others, we hoped we could try to benefit society as early as possible, even if our efforts were humble.
In his book, Cruelty is Youth, Khenpo Sodargye talks about gratitude. When I recall the six years I spent studying in Singapore, the most important lesson I learned was gratitude. Thanks to the encouragement of my family, the support of my teachers and the help of my friends, today I am able to repay society with gratitude. I’m grateful to the high school, St. Francis Methodist School in Singapore, because it taught me the right values and view of life. I am grateful to the university I attended, the National University of Singapore, because it allowed me the opportunity to freely pursue my dreams. Although over those six years I experienced periods of confusion, uncertainty, helplessness, disappointment and loss, I am nevertheless grateful to everyone I know, because it is you who makes my life wonderful.
Today, I welcome someone who holds special meaning in my life. He is a messenger of culture, a bestselling author, a special guest on TV programs. I refer to the distinguished Khenpo Sodargye. Khenpo has worked tirelessly visiting Thailand and Cambodia and now comes to Singapore on the third stop of his Southeast Asia tour.
I feel honored to have this opportunity, along with the 200-member audience here, to listen to Khenpo’s teachings on the nature of suffering, what is life, what is success, what is youth. Let’s give him the full attention and respect he deserves. Thank you all. I’m sure all of you can’t wait to meet Khenpo. Let us please welcome with a warm round of applause our distinguished speaker, Khenpo Sodargye. He will give a speech that will enlighten us with new insights. Welcome!
Thank you, everyone. This is my third visit to Singapore. The first time I came here was with His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche in 1995 and now he has left us. Listening to our host speaking, I feel a little heavy in my heart. When I arrived in Singapore yesterday I experienced an indescribable feeling. My guru was very good to me. I owe everything I have today to my venerable guru. All of you students here should remember that you owe all the knowledge you have to your teachers. When our teachers leave us, we cannot express our feelings in words and cannot repay them our debt of gratitude.
When in Singapore I saw the beautiful flowers in the gardens, I couldn’t describe the feelings I had. I was very young when I came here with my guru. We spent about one month with scholars and Buddhists, exchanging views and giving speeches. But now my guru has left this world. No matter how hard I try, I cannot put my feelings into words.
The second time I came to Singapore was in 1999. It’s been 14 years since then. No matter where I go, no matter what high-ranking people I know or associate with, it is, for me, a life experience and an opportunity. Today, the sharing and exchange with you is also a precious opportunity for me. Although I may not iterate any profound truth, what I’m going to talk about are my own opinions and experiences. I hope that they can be of benefit to some of you.
My topic today is the Realization of Life. In fact, for every one of us, from the time we come into this world until we depart, there are some wonderful and meaningful experiences in life. Whether we can understand and make use of them is very important. Ever since I began to study Buddhism, my life has experienced a great many changes. I cannot say that I have attained supreme enlightenment, but I do comprehend many truths of this world. I hope that the young people here will think more about what religion brings us in the pursuit of our life goals.
There are different levels in the realization of life. In this mundane world, there are different understandings and ways of achieving liberation, freedom and letting go; while in the supra-mundane world, there are deeper understandings and better ways.
For example, in Buddhist teachings, one who really achieves the realization of life knows the Four Noble Truths. This is the realization of an Arhat or a Bodhisattva. As such, we mortal beings can hardly touch these deep meanings. More than 2500 years ago in India, Shakyamuni Buddha set in motion the Wheel of Dharma. You must know that very well. I shouldn’t talk in too simple a language since I believe that in the National University of Singapore, which ranks first among all Asian universities, the common language we use in the mundane world is familiar to you.
All of us here should make an effort to understand the Noble Truths of Buddhism and what they mean. Shakyamuni Buddha taught us 84,000 Dharma-doors which can be summed up in the Four Noble Truths.
When Shakyamuni delivered his first sermon in the Deer Park in India, he said:
This is suffering; it is oppressive.
This is the cause of suffering; it beckons.
This is the cessation of suffering; it can be realized.
This is the Way; it can be cultivated.
He pointed out the truths in life. All of the kinds of suffering we experience have their own causes and conditions which can be known and eliminated through Dharma practice. He described the fact of the truth.
When he delivered the second sermon, he said:
This is suffering; you should know it.
This is the cause of suffering; you should cut it off.
This is the cessation of suffering; you should realize it.
This is the Way; you should cultivate it.
What does that mean? We should know that all the kinds of suffering we experience are caused by our own attachment and ignorance, which should be eradicated. So how do we eradicate them? It is through Dharma practice. Then what do we achieve in the end? We achieve enlightenment. The second sermon tells the methods of practice.
When he delivered the third sermon, he said:
This is suffering; I already know it.
This is the cause of suffering; I have already cut it off.
This is the cessation of suffering; I have already realized it.
This is the Way; I have already cultivated it.
These teachings were based on the perceptual experiences of Shakyamuni Buddha. Likewise, the Arhats, Bodhisattvas and siddhas’ teachings are also based on their own experiences. They have known suffering and with that have found the cause of suffering and eliminated it through practice which has led to the cessation of suffering and enlightenment. These are truths taught by the Buddha in the third sermon.
If all of us here look more deeply into our lives, it is suffering we should see first. Many of you may think that rather than suffering, you are living a happy life. However, in this world, where science becomes more and more developed and economic and social conditions become more and more demanding, the pressure we feel becomes greater and greater.
When I came here 18 years ago, the Singaporeans also had worries and pressures, but they were not as busy as they are now. Prices were not as high as now. Now they have reclaimed a large area of land from the sea and built taller buildings, but somehow people seem to feel more upset, exhausted, pained and worried. Why? Because everything we experience in our life has the quality of suffering. It is important to realize this truth and not to regard life as full of happiness. If you believe life is full of happiness, when you encounter setbacks, you will feel unhappy and find them difficult to accept. On the other hand, if we know that life is full of suffering, we will readily accept that what little happiness we experience is probably an illusion, since it will change very soon.
Some people say, ‘My life is happy and sweet, so why is samsara described as full of suffering?’ In fact, if we use our wisdom to observe the three planes of existence, we’ll see that the hell beings suffer from intense cold and heat, the hungry ghosts suffer from hunger and thirst, the animal beings suffer from being exploited and eaten by each other, the Asuras suffer from wars, the heavenly beings suffer from indulgence and being reborn in one of the lower realms and human beings have three forms of suffering and eight types of suffering.
There are different levels in the realization of life. In this mundane world, there are different understandings and ways of achieving liberation, freedom and letting go; while in the supra-mundane world, there are deeper understandings and better ways.
Human Beings Experience Three Forms of Suffering
You may know something about these sufferings. Human beings experience many obvious sufferings which are called ‘suffering of suffering’. What does that mean? I’m happy but suddenly my parents die and then my business is in trouble and I find out my health is poor. One suffering is piled upon another; one suffering comes after another. This is what is meant by ‘suffering of suffering’.
What is suffering of change? We are living happily as if in heaven. Then suddenly there is a tsunami, such as what happens in Japan or the Philippines. I asked some people whether there had been any tsunami activity recently in Singapore. Many said no but the future is hard to predict. They live at the seaside and tsunamis are unpredictable. I asked if there had been any political conflict. They said no, but again it’s hard to see into the future. Food here is imported and people here are immigrants. It’s difficult to ascertain what the future holds. People here are friendly now but given this mundane world it’s hard to know if they can maintain harmony in future. Maybe now we’re having good relations with our loved ones, but it’s hard to tell what may transpire in the future. Changes may happen suddenly. This is the suffering of change. We suffer when we try to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
There is also the all-pervasive suffering of conditioning. We may not recognize it as suffering but in fact it is. Today we live happily. The happiness is made possible by many people’s hard work. The buildings here in Singapore are so high that they amaze me. When I saw the surrounding areas of the Singapore River yesterday I had a strong feeling that Singaporeans are smart and brave and they have very advanced science and technology. In an underdeveloped area, such achievements would be hard to imagine. However, behind every high-rise and skyscraper are the painstaking effort and suffering of many people. This is the all-pervasive suffering of conditioning.
So please do not think life is full of happiness. Why is my book called Living Through Sufferings? I hesitated about calling it that because many people believe life is happy and happiness is life. This has been repeated so many times by so many people. It may sound good but in fact people from every walk of life have their own sufferings, such as high-ranking officials, wealthy people, students, teachers, ordinary officials, beggars, etc. So we know in fact that life is full of sufferings.
In this mundane world, we experience sufferings associated with birth, old age, sickness and death. When a person is born he suffers greatly. Why do we say that? If we are truly happy to come into this world, why do all babies cry when they are just born? No baby was ever born laughing. It’s never happened. This tells us that birth is suffering. After we’re born, we inevitably age. Many people who worry about aging end up using cosmetics and health care products. However, none of these can keep you young forever. As time goes by your face will become more wrinkled and your hair whiter.
I feel the Singaporeans are pretty optimistic. This morning, I saw a 70-year-old man working in the hotel. I asked him how many more years he planned to work. He said he felt good and that he planned to work for some more years and was confident he could. I said this was great. In Tibet, when people approach 60, they say they are old. Actually, how we feel about ourselves is important. Some of my former classmates are in their fifties and are already thinking about retiring, stopping work altogether. I don’t think this is good for them.
Nevertheless, it is true that aging is an inevitable process. Many people go to Korea to have facelifts and other cosmetic surgeries but after a few years the wrinkles come back. Cosmetic surgeries cannot help; somehow their ads are aimed at making money. We should face the fact that getting old is a law of nature; none of the famous beauties in history could do anything about it. We often say no flower can bloom forever and good times do not last forever. Neither beautiful flowers nor good times last for very long. Everything in this world is as transient as the fleeting clouds and keeps changing constantly. When we think about this we can understand the teaching the Buddha taught us a long time ago.
When we become old we experience suffering. When we are dying we experience even worse suffering. Many people are afraid of death, especially those who hold no religious beliefs and dare not mention the word ‘death’. In fact, death is not so scary. We should make preparations for our death. People leave this world in different ways. Some leave without any preparation while others are fully prepared. Some die young, some die old. Death may come in many different ways. Therefore, we should be aware of these sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death.
In Singapore, most people have medical insurance. The government may provide all kinds of assistance. You live in a high standard society, however, there are still many people who are afraid of becoming sick because they cannot afford medical treatment. Such problems exist in almost every country of the world. When you become sick, you feel that being healthy is the greatest happiness. Neither wealth nor social position compares to physical and mental health. Health is the greatest happiness. So when you are healthy you should really enjoy it. Otherwise, when you are seriously ill or when you’re dying you’ll regret that you didn’t cherish your health. These are examples of the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. You should think seriously about them.
There’s also the suffering of losing loved ones. Your loved ones are not always with you. Your parents, family or friends may leave you. There is also the suffering of meeting hated enemies. You do not desire a certain person’s company but very often have to be with him.
Nowadays people have poor interpersonal relationships. I hope students can develop good interpersonal relationships in university. If one can’t get along well with the people around him, no matter what academic degrees he achieves, no matter where he is, poor relationships could compromise his ability to do anything. You could be in an unsatisfying love relationship, under pressure from your job or from other aspects of life, but they do not last forever. However, poor relationships with parents, family members or friends will stay with you and bring suffering.
In many colleges and universities in China, poor interpersonal relationships have led to horrible crimes. Many years ago in a university in Beijing, a student named Zhu Ling was poisoned and ended up in a vegetative state. This case, as we all know, gave rise again to a lot of discussion last year. Again, in 2004, a poor student from Yunnan province named Ma Jiajue killed his four roommates for no apparent reason. Today’s students may easily become unhappy and this can strain their relationships.
I’m not clear about what it is like here. A couple of days ago I heard that education here emphasizes morality and humanity in every aspect of life. This is very good. Among these personal qualities, keeping a healthy relationship is more important. For many people, knowledge is important, but morality is even more important than knowledge. Without morality, it is impossible to associate with anyone.
I heard that a fellow Buddhist found associating with others so difficult that he almost had a nervous breakdown. But if he had prepared himself with an open mind, he would not be so helpless. In this world there are many good and many bad people. When we encounter bad people, we should not feel frustrated or have a nervous breakdown or commit suicide.
In Singapore last year, more than 480 people committed suicide. These days, many young people choose suicide. This is not a wise decision. The suicide rate in the world keeps climbing. Last year, the suicide rate across the globe was about one million. This is tragic. The GDP may rise in some countries, but while the economy is striding forward, our morality, compassion, wisdom and confidence is slipping backwards. We need to solve this spiritual crisis. We may not now encounter an economic crisis, but a spiritual crisis can come at any time.
Many people seem to feel happy, but actually feel unhappy deep in their hearts. But many unhappy things are just like fleeting clouds. We shouldn’t keep them in our minds forever. We should understand that in our life there are many things that we don’t want to accept but must face in any case. This is the suffering of meeting hated enemies.
There is also the suffering of not getting what one wants. Having been to many universities, I can imagine the pressures students face with job searching, love, study, family etc. I asked many teachers yesterday about job opportunities here in Singapore. They said the job market was not so bad and students could find jobs, though maybe not always the most satisfying one. But what is a satisfying job? We cannot expect too much. I don’t know if it’s the case here but in many places people are somewhat lazy. They expect to be well-paid but don’t want to work hard. They want to rest on Saturdays and Sundays and maybe weekdays as well, while still expecting a lot from their jobs.
In actual fact, we need to put in hard work. Without hard work, you cannot expect to reap rewards. It’s the same with monks. We can’t just eat and sleep every day. Although we have no pressure from family or work, if we sleep all day maybe we won’t starve but that’s not the aim of our lives. Therefore, I believe for most of us, the fear in life should not be that we have too many things to do, but that we have nothing to do. The ants and bees are very hard working. There are stories about them in Buddhist scriptures. They seldom rest from their hard work. That’s why they are highly successful in their lives.
So for each of you here, finding a job should not be aimed for making money. This is not a good life goal. Instead, you should find a job that can make you both physically and mentally healthy. And meanwhile, what you are doing should bring benefit to society, to your country and to all humankind. These elements will make a job meaningful. Maybe this kind of job does not give you good pay, but in terms of the value of life, it is more important.
Many people work only to make money and nothing else. This is what Einstein called ‘the ideal of a pigsty’. If we were to have nothing but money, how depleted our morals would be. Not every problem can be solved with money, be it of a personal or a social nature. We see that many rich people fail to pass the test of money. In the interest of money, they come to their death, are imprisoned or commit suicide. This is something that happens everywhere. It’s not unfamiliar to us. So we should be aware of these sufferings in our lives.
The last type of suffering is called the suffering of the flourishing of the five aggregates. Under the constraints of the five aggregates, everything in our lives can be the cause of suffering, the fundamental root of suffering or the causal condition of suffering. Nevertheless, some may argue that they enjoy their lives and are not suffering at all. Actually this point has been well analyzed in Buddhist teachings. A famous Abhidharmika named Aryadeva once wrote,
The impermanent is definitely harmed,
What is harmed is not pleasurable.
Therefore, all that is impermanent
Is said to be suffering.
This is an important teaching that tells us all good things we experience in life are impermanent. There is no never-ending feast in the world. Our families, our lives, our relationships, none of these can provide us with lasting happiness.
Yesterday, I went sight-seeing in the city of Singapore. On the one hand, I feel the city is like heaven. What a beautiful and cosmopolitan city! On the other hand, it came to me that all of the people here today would not be alive a hundred years from now and would become others. So the owners of properties will change and we’d better not hold the view that once we own something—for example a building—it belongs to us forever, because we never know how many years we have left.
These days there are lots of people whose personal assets may amount to thousands or hundreds of thousands of RMB. However, the ownership of those assets may change from to time. It is just that the owners may not notice this fact, and this may cause them confusion and anxiety. Indeed, any good situation is impermanent, and when it is about to change, we may experience pain.
This is why in Buddhism we say all phenomena are impermanent and all impermanence brings suffering. This is a very insightful teaching. So please do not think that Buddhism lacks enthusiasm for life or that life is only full of sweetness and happiness. Since youth is full of joy, why is the metaphor of a burning house used in Buddhism to describe life?
The teachings of Buddhism have already elaborated the truth of life and such truths should not be replaced by any external image. I have noticed that there are lots of Buddhist followers in many countries, both from colleges and universities as well as other walks of life. Whenever there is a Dharma event, tens of thousands of people will attend. This is good because religion is a great way to purify human minds. However, many people simply treat Buddhism as a ritual, considering it a money-making tool, a way to keep them safe or as a type of ‘medicine’ to maintain health. Given this, they can barely taste the deep meaning of Buddhism or make the effort to study the vast and profound Buddhist teachings. This is to be regretted.
Some dharma masters and scholars try to appease these peoples’ taste by simplifying or vulgarizing Buddhism. As a result, divorced from profundity, many people just see it as way to make money or to keep fit and stay healthy. For those people with limited and narrow insight, the only reason for taking refuge is to keep themselves and their families safe and sound. Indeed, this is a rather diminished goal.
You will find that Buddhism offers knowledge of aspects from the macroscopic to the microscopic and in particular, the subtle knowledge of the mind. You can find and learn all of these valuable truths in Buddhism. If you doubt this, and think I am bragging about Buddhism because I’m a Buddhist, you will find proofs in the Tripitaka, which has a history of more than 2500 years. This has convinced many scientists and scholars these days. Likewise, a great number of people throughout history achieved great wisdom through these teachings. In Eastern cultures, Buddhism offers an amazing fund of wisdom which has been maintained up to this day. This precious treasure of human thought deserves both our study and investigation.
But many people do not study Buddhism in a systematic way. Rather they regard it as a simple ritual to be followed and to bestow upon them what they want. For example, Buddhism can ensure my health and bless me so that I am safe while driving. That’s my purpose for taking refuge. The other day I met someone who had just taken refuge with a guru. He was a college professor. I asked him, “why did you take refuge?” He said he wanted to feel safe driving, since he drove a lot and always worried about traffic accidents. That was his reason for seeking out a guru and taking refuge with him. If this is the motive of a college professor in taking refuge, we may need to think more about it.
In Buddhism, it is taught that life is full of suffering but this is not just a Buddhist view. In the book Happiness: A History, the author, an American professor, after spending six years studying the evolution of happiness over 2000 years of Western thought and culture, drew a similar conclusion. In the book, he argues that the idea of happiness is actually a human expectation without any solid basis. I completely agree with him. Today, many people pursue what they hope is the ultimate happiness, but when the moment finally comes, they often want more than that. The reason is because desire drives us to pursue happiness and since desire is endless, our pursuit is endless.
For instance, you may think that a happy family is all you want. You keep pursuing that goal, but once you do have a happy family, you may start to desire something else, like making more money and so on. Different desires will follow one after the other. It is just like trying to catch a rainbow. Each time you get closer, you will find it has moved a little further away. Once you have a house, you may wish for a better one. Once you earn 1 million SGD you want 2 million. Once you have 2 million you may want 3 million. If you possess 3 million SGD, you may want 3 million American dollars. Your expectation keeps getting higher and higher. When you’re about to leave this world, you still may not be able to satisfy your desire and attain happiness. You just keep running after happiness.
So does the happiness we pursue truly exist? We do experience temporary happiness. Schopenhauer described such happiness when he wrote that life is essentially suffering, but there are different levels of happiness that people can pursue. For instance, the creative ideas of modern artists and the contemplations of philosophers are fascinating, but happiness obtained through them is due simply to a temporary state of no-ego.
I see your university is building an art center. This is very nice. When an artist visits, he may be so deeply enchanted that he temporarily forgets himself. However, under different circumstances with different causes and conditions, his ego will again emerge and bring him suffering. The same can happen with philosophers. When contemplating, philosophers may be completely immersed in their thoughts and forget about their lives, money or anything else and thereby reach a state of no ego. Nevertheless, their ego will emerge sooner or later.
That’s why Schopenhauer paid special attention to the Buddhist Nirvana. If we analyze the state of Nirvana, we will find that the so-called ‘I’ who seeks happiness does not exist and that the nature of all phenomena is emptiness. When we deeply understand the truth of emptiness, we will realize it cannot be refuted or overthrown by any other theory. At such time, we will fully accept the fact that the so called ‘I’ or self-attachment is baseless and cannot stand up under analysis or investigation. However, we are lost in our illusions and cling to nonexistent things as real. The sooner we realize the truth, the sooner we will achieve everlasting liberation and happiness.
In fact, the turning point in our lives may come with a good mentor, a good book or even a brief conversation. A few words can change one’s life and there are examples throughout history to prove it. The experience of going through suffering, although it seems unpleasant, indeed may prove a great opportunity to change one’s life.
The Path to End Suffering
So where shall we start? First, we need to recognize suffering. Then we should know where suffering comes from. It originates from karma and afflictions, which are the cause of suffering. In other words, suffering arises from a variety of afflictions such as desire, hatred, ignorance, arrogance and so on which need to be recognized and eliminated step by step. If not, these afflictions will bring us great harm. Although they are usually illusions, we cannot recognize this reality while we are controlled by them.
According to a koan from Theravada Buddhism, there was once a king who greatly loved his queen. One day, the queen passed away. The king was inconsolable in his grief and day and night could not stop remembering her beauty and kindness. He refused to dispose of her body and was plunged into sadness. Later, he learned there was a Venerable so he went to ask where his queen had been reborn.
The Venerable gave him an answer that many of you may find unbelievable. The Venerable led the king to a cesspit in a garden, pointed at a worm and told him it was the re-born queen. The Venerable used his supernatural powers to let the worm speak. Then the queen said she remembered the king who was her husband from her past life. The Venerable sage asked if she still loved him. She said her life had changed after the rebirth and while she could remember him as previous husband, she was not in love with him anymore. Her dearest lover in this life was another worm in the cesspit. She said even if the blood in the king’s throat were spread on the feet of her worm husband, she would not love him. When the king heard this, he realized his attachment to the queen was just an illusion and at that very moment all his desires ceased.
The story may have a surreal flavor, but the same kind of attachment exists in today’s society. In many countries now, the divorce rate keeps increasing. I’ve read it is about 50% in the USA and has reached over 30% in China. Although re-birth won’t happen within this current life, when someone falls in love with another person, he may not have any feelings for his old love. Such love is, in fact, a temporary attachment, and after a certain period, a person may find it ridiculous and unreliable. This is exactly like the attachment a child has for his toy. Once he grows up, he won’t take it seriously.
All kinds of afflictions such as hatred and greed can be eliminated and this is the process of cutting off the cause of suffering. This is essential and only through practicing virtuous actions can we eliminate afflictions. These days we talk of positive energy which has great meaning. It reminds us that, on any occasion, we should practice virtuous actions as much as we can. This era is rather special in that it provides lots of opportunities to accumulate all kinds of bad karma. These bad karmas may not be obvious but in fact, they will just naturally bring all kinds of bad things to our bodies and minds and cause us to suffer. If we can fully devote ourselves to practicing virtuous actions, we will naturally experience happiness and joy. In Buddhism, generating a mind of renunciation, practicing the Six Paramitas, cultivating Bodhisattva qualities are highly recommended when it comes to achieving true happiness. Instead of praying and beseeching, it is better to personally engage in virtuous deeds to obtain favorable outcomes.
Some of you may know of Kazuo Inamori of Japan, who is a highly successful entrepreneur and an acclaimed Buddhist practitioner. How did he start practicing Buddhism? When he was still young, his uncle developed tuberculosis, which at that time was as serious as AIDS and cancer are today. It was incurable due to the limited medical treatments available. When his uncle fell ill, his father and his brother were attending to him every day. In spite of the danger of contagion, they put all their effort into helping him. Inamori was so afraid of catching the disease that he hid away every day so as to avoid caring for his uncle. Ironically, it turned out that while his father and brother didn’t catch it, he developed the disease when he was 13. After he got sick everyone thought he would die. He, himself, lay in the sun everyday just waiting for death.
At that time, Buddhism was somewhat popular in Japan and his neighbors were all Buddhists. One of his neighbors gave him a book entitled The True Image of Life and encouraged him to read it to cheer him up. Through that book he learned that just as a magnet attracts metal, the mind can develop all kinds of attachments, some being improper thoughts which could bring bad karma and suffering and some being good thoughts which could bring happiness.
When Kazuo Inamori read these teachings he reflected upon and fully accepted his experience. He reflected that his father and brother had attended his uncle every day and never contracted the disease. On the other hand, when he tried to avoid contact with his uncle for his own sake, he could not successfully escape from it. So he decided to face reality bravely and instead of clinging to his ego and worrying about himself, he would make every effort to help others. With such strong determination, after two years, without receiving any treatment, his tuberculosis completely cured itself. So that was how he started his Buddhist practice at the age of 13. A book changed his life.
In fact, the turning point in our lives may come with a good mentor, a good book or even a brief conversation. A few words can change one’s life and there are examples throughout history to prove it. The experience of going through suffering, although it seems unpleasant, indeed may prove a great opportunity to change one’s life.
I’m not sure if you are familiar with the famous novelist Jin Yong. In his dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda, he talked about his Buddhist experience. In October 1976, his eldest son committed suicide at Columbia University at the age of 19. Upon hearing the news, he was distraught. It came like a bolt out of the blue. He wanted to die just in order to follow his son. Due to this incident, he started to study Buddhism and read books about Chinese Buddhism. He developed a deep respect and admiration for many Theravada scriptures, and the Agamas, in particular. Eventually, his life attitude completely changed.
You can read about Daisaku Ikeda. He is one of the great figures of our time and shared a wonderful dialogue with Dr. Toynbee, which contain many valuable insights that today’s youth would find worth learning.
Many young people today spend too much time on TV and games and their entertainment is confined to eating, drinking, playing and gossiping. This is not a good attitude for life. Some while away all their time on trivial matters, and can’t be bothered to strive for those things in life that are of great value and actually matter. But to properly face life, it is essential to have the right attitude and good approach. All of us want to lead our own lives and fulfill our dreams. But whether one’s life dream is good or bad depends on oneself. Even when you are experiencing a nightmare; somehow it enables you to enrich your life.
Throughout history, many great writers and successful figures encountered ups and downs in their lives. But tribulation inspired their determination instead of dragging them to self-destruction, or in other words, digging their own graves. In fact, during those times they strengthened their resolve. Similarly, in Buddhism, inner strength is highly recommended and is crucial to practitioners.
Then how can we develop our inner strength? It is through the path of dharma practice. In dharma practice the first aim is to liberate oneself which is called renunciation mind. It may sound familiar or it may be completely new to you. It is the aspiration to liberate oneself from the samsara of the three realms. Based on this, we should cultivate bodhicitta, which is the aspiration that I will not only liberate myself from samsara but also would like to help all sentient beings to achieve liberation with all my power and resources.
The attitude of helping others is a very inclusive mindset and what I see here is a culturally and racially inclusive and open-minded university. So each individual should cultivate the concern of helping others which is in accordance with Mahayana Buddhism. A good person should not just focus on his own benefits.
Some university teachers, even some well-known professors, can be narrow minded about a trifle that would not bother an elementary school teacher. And some college students are also like this. He brags about the university he graduated from and comes across as so great that people are hesitant to speak with him. But after being with him for a few days or weeks, they see that he is a stickler about trifles and they feel pained and sad for him. So there are university students who cling to trivial matters that those who never attended university may not. This is rather puzzling.
I believe that for all of you today’s society is good, because there are economic and political exchanges in an open and free manner. On the other hand, it is essential for those with ideals, especially young people, to embrace and explore the ancient wisdom such as Mahayana Buddhism. This is not so common in today’s society. Why are many people attracted to Tibetan Buddhism? In the Himalaya mountains, under blue skies, they learn to be both inclusive and tolerant. If you’ve learned to be like this, all the difficulties in life would seem not worthy of your attention and they would not be obstacles to you. When challenging and hostile conditions arise, you can face them with a smile and an optimistic attitude. This is what I believe.
As for the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, I cannot say I have mastered all of them. Neither can I say I know nothing about them. Sometimes I feel I’m not too bad, because those things that many people mind a lot may not mean a lot to me. But sometimes, I also notice that I cling to things and wonder how I can teach other people. It makes me feel ashamed. Sometimes I do feel a little lost and confused as was mentioned by our host right now. So you see I have my weak points and you have your strong points. We can learn from each other.
What I can share with you is Mahayana Bodhicitta. It is worth cultivating. It has similarities with all the world’s different religions, sciences, humanities and moralities: within all of them can be found theories similar to Bodhicitta. Because of this, many scientists in the West and religious figures in the East can nowadays participate in successful dialogues. Many intellectuals pay great attention to Bodhicitta because it is able to withstand scientific investigation and theoretical deliberation and observation. This is very important. If the philosophy of Buddhism breaks down under analytical scrutiny—such that Buddhists themselves cannot answer these challenges, then it is not worthy of belief. But this is not the case. When we meet students and professors we feel very confident about expressing our views.
Some people may think Buddhism is only practiced by elderly persons or those who burn incense in temples. If this is what Buddhism is all about, I would call it a superstition. In fact, it is an honest faith, a positive energy and a spiritual goal worth achieving. For anyone in college or university, such a spiritual goal is worth having and pursuing. If we have no spiritual goal, and spend all our days running after material things, we can’t be mentally healthy or even physically healthy. Our health and intelligence are not separated from our mind and rely only to a small extent on material things. So it is necessary to adjust ourselves within our own minds. This is the best and healthiest therapy for everyone. This is what I mean by the truth of the way to the cessation of suffering.
Lastly, I’ll talk about the truth of the cessation of suffering. When we reach a certain state of mind we will achieve everlasting happiness that ordinary mortal beings may not be able to experience. A Zen master was once asked how he dealt with them when fairies, devils and ghosts appeared. The master answered that he would regard blue as blue, yellow as yellow and he would listen to and see what could be listened to and seen. It means that having certain realization as described in Zen and Vajrayana, we find that every phenomenon in this world displays its own nature and does not constrain anyone. Masters in Tibetan Buddhism have also said that appearances do not constrain you, but when you cling to them, they will. Before we reach that state of realization, we do not know; but once we reach it, we will know.
There is this Zen story. A frog that lived in the water climbed onto the land to enjoy the blue sky and green grass. When she returned to the water, her children, the tadpoles, asked her to tell them about life there. But since the tadpoles had never been on land, no matter how their mother described it, they couldn’t understand. When the tadpoles grew up and came onto the land, they understood what their mother had told them.
Likewise, when we are mortal beings we do not understand the Arhat or Bodhisattva’s state; but when we reach that state of realization, we will know it to be exactly the liberation from afflictions. We come to that sudden realization on our own.
Therefore, I hope that we can first know we are sick and treat ourselves like patients. Second, that we should consult with the doctor to determine the causes. To know we are sick is to know the truth of suffering. To find the causes is to know the cause of suffering. To take medicine is to follow the way to the cessation of suffering, which is a process we must go through. When we have eventually recovered, we reach a state of the cessation of suffering.
Through this journey in life we achieve the realization of life at different levels. It is common sense that the realization of life can bring us freedom and happiness. When we reach the highest level, however, there is no distinction between happiness and unhappiness; no distinction between freedom and bondage, such that everything abides in its own nature as self-liberated. This is the ultimate realization of life. Thank you.
Is Buddhism Pessimistic?
We know you have translated a lot of works, mostly about Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhist texts. What kind of thoughts or what kind of conditions motivated you to write Cruelty is Youth, Living Through Suffering and other easy-to-understand books?
I began translation work in 1997 or 1999 and continued on for about 10 years. Till 2009, I mainly put my efforts on translation and translated quite a number of works. Then I gradually realized the insufficiency of translation. The reason is, first of all, I cannot make my translations suit popular tastes. If I did that, the wisdom of the ancient siddhas could not be fully conveyed. However, by way of being faithful to the text, the original words of the authors may not be easily understood by modern people. I translated a lot of books, but many publishing houses had no intention of publishing them, because the majority of people couldn’t understand them.
This led me to think that modern people may prefer reading short stories with practical wisdom. If some simple issues and some social problems that people care about could become topics of my books, they would probably benefit modern readers. So I wrote a series of popular books, including the ones you just mentioned.
We know you have proposed the “Promoting a Loving Heart” Project to encourage people to protect animals and show concern for disadvantaged groups. Since you have visited many countries, met many people and experienced many things, do you have any special experiences related to this project?
Actually I have been freeing captive animals for a long time. It is very important to protect animals. Nowadays, a lot of people consider living beings’ flesh as nothing more than a kind of food and seldom consider the great pain that animals experience when they are being killed cruelly. People eat a lot of animals every day without ever thinking of those animals’ feelings. Perhaps only when we human beings are eaten by other living beings can we realize that life is precious.
Then later I thought that not only animals suffer from pain and need our help, but many human beings need care and love too. A person with great wealth and power may live happily and have money to burn for his entire life. But he may have neglected those who cannot afford food and clothing or education. Yesterday, I asked some people here if there are Singaporeans who can hardly afford a university education. They told me that those who can enter the university will not have such a problem.
Unfortunately, I have seen such difficulties in many other places. I can never forget that I met a boy who couldn’t go to school about five years ago, because his family was very poor. With a helpless and sad look, he sobbed out his difficulties to me. I helped him with the tuition and he’s now found a job. What happened so many years ago has always stayed in my memory. When a person needs help, the look in his eyes expresses something beyond description. But except for a few people, no one notices this. We focus so much on our own success that we seldom have concern for others.
When we were in Cambodia a few days ago, we visited some slums and orphanages. I have been to many big cities, but have no special feelings for them. But when I went to the poor places, I had a strong feeling and was so astonished that such poor people lived in this world and I wondered what we could do to help them. I do hope that those present will care about the animals as well as the poor people in the world.
Hello, Rinpoche. We students will have to find jobs, raise families and face choices and problems in life. As you mentioned just now, aren’t these all kinds of sufferings in life? When we pursue material comforts and better jobs, does it mean we’re undergoing suffering? Should we take pains to pursue these life goals and then let them go, or should we avoid this detour and pursue a free life, letting go of everything and going after our ultimate goal in life?
As a matter of fact, we should understand sufferings and we should also have pursuits in family, work, and life in general. Are these desires? Should we let them go? Not necessarily. We let go of what the Buddha defined as excessive greed or desire which is actually ignorance or unhealthy mentality. Healthy pursuits are necessary and can be the driving force for social advancement and a necessary part of family life. You university students will have your own families and your own jobs, which will be indispensable to you. After all, everyone in the world must make a living in an appropriate way.
What I’m saying today is not that you should give up all your pursuits because the reality of life is suffering. It is not the case. Excessive desires, vanity, luxury goods, and any kind of competition for fame and money are all unnecessary. What is necessary is a normal life. So you’d better know what a normal life is.
In today’s society, there is a so-called Herd Behavior. When one buys branded clothes, others do the same, no matter how much they cost. It seems as if money can be the solution to anything. People pursue too many luxurious things, too many things that are beyond their ability to pay. Each of us has different intelligence and ability. Some people are very smart, while others are not, despite their great efforts; some people are well-to-do, while others are not, however hard they try. Let our abilities and the circumstances we’re in determine what life goals we should pursue. I think this is important.
Respected Khenpo Sodargye, your talk makes me strongly feel that life is full of sufferings. However, I wonder whether your explanations of suffering in life will bring to Buddhism a degree of pessimism. With such an understanding that life is full of sufferings, how can we get rid of this pessimism?
If life is naturally joyful but a philosophy tries to cover its original nature with sadness through all kinds of exaggeration or fabrication and tries to force people to have a pessimistic attitude toward life, then such a philosophy is against reality and truth. In fact, Buddhism reveals the reality of life, which is suffering, and helps people recognize these sufferings. Such philosophical teachings are not against the truth. Today, I have been telling you that life is full of sufferings associated with birth, old age, sickness, and death, which are quite different from the so-called happiness that people usually feel. So when people are exposed to these teachings, many may feel puzzled that life has seemed beautiful, but suddenly Buddhism makes everyone’s heart heavy.
Does it mean that in life there is no optimism, there is no hope? It is not so. There’s a Buddhist text called the Sigalovada Sutra which describes a lot of happiness that we can enjoy in life. However, we cannot deny the fact that every day from morning to evening, the time period that one feels happy is much shorter than the time that one feels unhappy. You may complain about society and feel sad about many things. You don’t have to turn to other people or Buddhism for the answer. From morning to evening, from today to the day after tomorrow, you can spend three days observing your own feelings. You’ll find out whether you are happy or unhappy most of the time. Alternatively, you can figure it out by spending even 20 years observing yourself.
According to some Chinese universities’ surveys of college students, their pet phrases seldom carry kind or optimistic messages. They like to say, “Oh bother!” “I doubt it.” “So sad!” “Such a drag!” “It sucks!” Such kind of phrases indeed reflect a lot of complaints. If life is happy, we should more often say, how happy, how grateful, how comfortable! If happiness is the background color of life, when the weather is hot, we would say, “what a wonderful hot day!” When it rains, we would say, “What a happy rainy day!” or “How nice that we have air conditioning.” We should say these things, but many people don’t. They complain that the weather is too hot or too cold, or the air-conditioning is so bad for one’s health. They keep complaining about this and that.
You local people may complain about the government that allows so many immigrants into the country, or that there are not enough immigrants to cause the economy to boom. You may complain about families, friends and so many things. Regarding these complaints, you may ignore teachings in Buddhism, which is no problem at all, but you’d better use wisdom to analyze objectively your daily feeling. Do you use more positive words or negative ones? Are your feelings mostly positive or mostly negative? If they are mostly negative, then you will understand that Buddhism reveals such a truth.
Hello, Rinpoche. We know that we can find profound truth and wisdom in Buddhism. I feel that as students, we do not have a lot of opportunities to get to know this truth and wisdom. Only when we feel unhappy, when we do not do well in exams, when we quarrel with friends, when we want comfort, will we try to find truth and wisdom or seek positive energy. However, when we feel happy, we seldom think of these things. I guess this is quite a common problem that we face. Could you give us some suggestions on how to motivate ourselves to learn about these things, not only when we feel pain, but also in our everyday lives? Thank you.
I’ve been thinking about this myself. Nowadays, many young people, when they have the opportunity to seek wisdom, they don’t cherish that opportunity. If people encourage them to study Buddhism, they sniff at them and say this is a kind of superstition. They feel they’re still young and it’s not time to pursue it.
In Thailand and Cambodia, however, I find people consider studying Buddhism to be a noble act. Buddhism is their state religion. For this reason, in schools and universities, people who believe in and study Buddhism are respected by others and even their nation’s kings believe in Buddhism. Buddhism has become a part of their daily life. On the front pages of magazines, they can see pictures of Buddhist monks and they can learn about Buddhism on TV too. It’s quite different. With this kind of education, even if they do not study Buddhism, they know that Buddhism is a profound religion.
However, in many other countries, Buddhism is not promoted in schools. Especially in this day and age, the development of the economy has a great impact on our lives. Not only college students, but also some monks and nuns use cell phones to entertain themselves instead of studying Buddhist texts. There are a few such cases. In light of such circumstances, when life goes well for us, when we have the ability to seek wisdom and especially when we are young, we should grasp the opportunity to learn something other than art and philosophy, which is a higher level religious practice.
We should follow certain practices to increase our wisdom. In a sense, as some teachers have told me, many students think it is a waste of time to attend a lecture on religion when they have to prepare for exams. But those teachers believe that students take exams quite often, which are just some tests for a short period of time, but religions help them to adjust their mentality much better than exams or entertainment. In a word, our value system, the social environment and the whole education system are all closely related. Many wise people can certainly adjust themselves accordingly. I believe as the world’s economy develops, people will finally want to seek spiritual wealth.
My partner and I are running a pet food company. I myself am a vegetarian, and I have been a vegetarian for more than 8 years. But the pet food I sell contains meat products. Do you think that, as a vegetarian, doing such a job will incur any contradictions with my life? Thank you.
To a certain point, there might be some contradictions. l believe that a vegetarian diet is very good for health in this world. Due to some wrong views and habits, some people think living without meat is impossible. In modern medicine, nutrition and various related research fields in the West, there are studies that clearly show that if the human body takes in too much meat, actually our life can be greatly harmed. Since ancient times, thanks to their vegetarian diet, vegetarians such as Zen masters enjoy long lives and very good health. Speaking of your job, whatever company, enterprise or project you are running, I’d like you to analyze it with your wisdom and make the best choice.
Thank you. My second question is about setting goals. We often say that plans can never catch up with change. Another saying is that living without an aim is like sailing without a compass. So do you think we should set goals or take things as they come.
In my opinion, setting goals is crucial, although some of our plans might change soon. I mentioned just now that transience and uncertainty are very common in life. However, if you lead a life without a goal, it is neither good for you nor good for others. No matter what I do, I always think about it very carefully in every aspect and then based on my analysis, I set a proper goal. Even if I do not achieve this goal, I have no regrets.
When it comes to setting a goal, I’ll consider both the positive and negative aspects and often pay more attention to the negative aspects. Many people may become too optimistic when setting goals, because they only think about the positive aspects. For example, many businessmen talk about making money or making profits a lot. However, if your company loses money, what will that loss bring to you? What negative impacts will that loss have? It seems that people don’t think about these very often. Sometimes the conversations between businessmen make me feel that they may need more wisdom. Why do I say so? No matter what we do, we must have a proper and realistic goal and consider both positive and negative aspects. When encountering unexpected difficulties and obstacles, what are you going to do? It is important to have this answer in your mind.
In a similar way, many young people nowadays only think about the positive aspects and neglect the negative aspects. This might be caused by a lack of life experience or knowledge in their lives. When you reach a certain age and have accumulated enough life experience, you will begin to realize that life is short. Some of you might think life is long. Looking back to the first time I came here, it seems that in a flash, 18 years have gone by. It is impossible to go back to the past. It is the same for many of you here today. At the beginning, setting goals for life with great hope is necessary. But you must be ready to deal with negative aspects. I think this is essential.
Hello, Khenpo Sodargye Rinpoche. My question is about interpersonal relationships. As you said, they are very important to all of us. I wonder how I can apply Buddhist teachings in our study and life to better deal with interpersonal relationships? Thank you.
Talking about interpersonal relationships, I want to mention my guru, His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche. In the People’s Buddhism Study Society, he gave teachings about the Great Perfection Practice of Peaceful Manjushri and made speeches on related topics. In his speeches, there are recurrent points, one of which I want to emphasize here.
There are three important things in interpersonal relationships. First, you should respect your superiors and boss instead of looking down on them. Second, you should show kindness to your equals, because when you associate with them, these people may become your competitors and cause you to be jealous and arrogant. You should get to know colleagues, communicate with them properly and get along well with them. Third, to those who are inferior, whether in terms of wisdom, ability or any other aspect, you should take care of them with love and compassion. I believe these are insightful words.
Some people are good to their superiors and please them all the time. Even if they don’t want to, they always smile in front of them. Even though his boss doesn’t need to be pleased, he directs all his attention and kindness to him. However, they don’t get along with those equal or inferior to them. This is not good.
Some people do not get along with their superiors and don’t respect them, but they get along well with their equals. If the boss is not happy with you, it’s possible that on occasion, he can make things very difficult for you. One word or gesture from him may cause you to lose your job. Especially in today’s society, he can do that easily. Many laid-off workers are not good at getting along with their bosses. We’re not asking people to please the boss blindly, but it is necessary to report to him regularly and to talk to him with respect. He is your boss and deserves your respect.
As a student at school, you should respect your teachers; at home, you should respect the elderly. In a company or any work place, you may have many bosses, big bosses and small bosses. If you are only good to some people but not others, the time may come when these people make unexpected troubles for you. Your life will change for the worse. This is quite possible.
Some people only treat their equals and superiors well, but treat people who are their inferiors badly. I’ve met some who are somewhat successful and treat their housekeepers, drivers and disadvantaged people with disrespect and do not even treat them as human beings. They make their life difficult and actually this is unreasonable. If you were one of them, you would not want to be treated like this.
In Buddhism, we believe some people are kings, because they respected people in their previous lives and are rewarded in this life. Those inferior people used to have power and influence in their previous lives, but they had deceived, looked down upon or threatened others, so in this life they become inferior people.
Therefore, to enjoy a good interpersonal relationship, I believe you should remember His Holiness’ three points. In today’s world, whether you are young or old, or no matter what social status you have, you should show respect to your superiors, show kindness to your equals and take care of your inferiors. If you put these words into practice, you will enjoy a very good reputation among the people around you. Even if you’re not on good terms with a few people, you know you’ve already made efforts.
Hello, Rinpoche. My question is why is Buddhism your first choice? I wonder whether you had compared Buddhism to other religions, such as Christianity, before you chose Buddhism.
Honestly speaking, my choice of Buddhism is probably due to the karmic connection of my previous life. I was born in a place where almost everybody believes in Buddhism and I was born a Buddhist. When I first opened my eyes, I was surrounded by a Buddhist world. Including the conversations and behaviors of my parents, everything was relevant to Buddhism and immersed in an atmosphere of Buddhism. So when I first opened my eyes, I was in a Buddhist world and it could be my previous karma rather than my own choice.
Nevertheless, I truly respect other religions such as Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism and so on, and would like to learn from them. Indeed, what religions bring to human society is beyond what law can provide us. The reason is that religions have provided effective ways to tame and purify human minds over such a long history of human society. Such tangible and accessible benefits that religions have brought to human society are worth knowing and studying and we should be aware of them.
I believe if we have an open mind, we can easily resonate with other religious sentiments of truth, virtue and beauty. Taking Mother Teresa as an example, I read her biographies and stories a lot. Working for leprosy sufferers without any fear of being infected by leprosy, she cared for so many patients. She had such a firm determination. As a Mahayana Buddhist myself, I have been learning and teaching the Mahayana doctrine of altruism, but I still have doubts whether I could really sacrifice myself and go to a group of leprosy sufferers to help them. I may not reach such a state of altruism. So is this due to her religious faith, or her personal spiritual strength? I’m also searching for the answer. Likewise, in other major religions, there is much valuable wisdom worth learning and great persons who have made amazing contributions to society and mankind. There will be such people from time to time. As for me, I was destined to be a Buddhist from the very beginning when I first opened my eyes.
Hello, Rinpoche. I used to be a student of NUS. Thanks to my alma mater for giving me this opportunity to enjoy such a wonderful talk. My question is about emotions. My current work gives me tremendous pressure, since I have to deal with many matters every day and they are all required to be completed within the shortest time. So I very often enter into a state of anxiety, which may continue for a long time. I feel I become more and more intolerant and may easily lose my temper toward my colleagues or even myself. A sense of frustration or irritation sometimes arises in my mind. So could you please give me some suggestions on how to change my current situation? Thank you.
Here is my thought. Many people feel they are facing high pressure in their lives and to some extent, it is true for today’s people, because the pace of life is getting faster and faster. Just now, we asked where the pace of life is faster, in Hong Kong or in Singapore? Some said it is faster in Hong Kong than in Singapore. Then we asked about the pressure of life, whether it is also greater in Hong Kong. Some think Singaporeans take on more pressure.
From my point of view, we should be able to transform such pressure into a driving force. Why? As young people, although you face some pressure, if you can maintain good health and a good mood, you can easily deal with many matters in your daily life and work. No matter what you do, you should enjoy it as a pleasure rather than to feel pain. Indeed, it is your inherent gift that relates you closely to your current work, so you should really cherish this opportunity. For example, if you were a bus driver, you could drive every day and meanwhile enjoy the beauty of the city. You could also pick up what passengers talk about as a way of learning.
Once I read about the descriptions of people of this age. It is said that finishing many things in a short period of time is a special aspect of today’s people. So you fit exactly into this description. In this modern age of science, people can exchange information and build connections through the Internet instead of meeting face to face as people did in the past. So this is a quite different age, because everyone uses computers and mobile phones to text messages and to get many things done. A variety of ideas and cultures are accessible in our time. So today’s people are following a competitive and fast pace which is just like the fastest tempo in a movie. If we can adjust our pace as quickly as possible, we will not fall behind this age and meanwhile benefit both our minds and our bodies.
Yesterday, I went to Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum which has six or seven floors. Instead of taking an elevator, I walked down very quickly and considered it physical exercise. It kind of gave me a sense of the fast pace of modern Singaporeans, since I almost ran down from the top to the bottom floor. Actually I felt quite comfortable after running down, which was good exercise for my knees. Therefore, just as our bodies need exercise, our minds also need to be trained. Sometimes you may feel too busy but please do not regard that as a kind of suffering and complain about your work all day.
As I mentioned just now, ants and bees have regular work every day and they might be even busier than we are and buzz around at a stunning speed. Yet they feel happy and successful in their lives. Therefore, it’s better to change our attitude and understand that it is our minds which make up this story. We’d better accept the reality that we have to work in this modern time, but such a lifestyle won’t necessarily bother us. I myself am also travelling around to different places. I regard my travelling as learning experiences and enjoy it a lot.
I want to find out the meaning of life in this world. I have been looking for the very purpose of my life every single day. I can breathe, walk, eat and sleep, and is this all there is to life? Sometimes I set a specific goal for myself, but as soon as I achieve it, I feel there’s no more meaning to my life and I need another goal. So I don’t know how to fulfill my life or what kind of goal would suit me. If the goal is too high, it may even throw my life into chaos. This is my question. Thank you.
Yeah, it’s a hard question. Sometimes I also have the same feeling. If a goal is too easy, we may not have too much chance to make progress. As your national anthem is Onward Singapore, in order to make progress, you may set a higher goal. Yet you may have to go through a certain amount of pain to reach a higher goal. From my point of view, if a goal is valuable and beneficial, you may set it higher, such as those things related to the purpose of life which is meaningful for your future life or for other aspects of your life.
You should evaluate whether your goal is valuable or not. For instance, suppose your goal is to be a teacher, it’s better to be an excellent teacher. That is what you should aim to achieve. Based on that, you can have an even higher goal and move forward toward it. However, if your aim is driven by personal desire and competition, it won’t bring benefits to the individual or society. Today, this kind of aim is quite common and I don’t think it needs to be very high, if you cannot completely go without it. Otherwise, during the process of satisfying your desires, you will probably lose yourself and cause harm to both self and others. It could happen like this. Therefore, we need to evaluate our aims with intelligence. Sometimes, you may think it is perfect for yourself, however, such an aim may have adverse effects on individuals and on our society in particular.
Indeed, it’s quite essential for each of us to develop altruism and to cultivate concern for the wellbeing of our society. Even if you don’t achieve your goal of benefiting others, your motivation and efforts would still have positive effects. This is very crucial. Nowadays many people only live for themselves. What are the life purposes of the majority? I always think the purposes of life can be classified into three types. Noble people live for benefiting society and helping others. Ordinary people live for their families and friends. The selfish ones can only live for themselves and care for themselves. So the purpose of life can vary from person to person.
Respected Khenpo, I very much appreciate you giving us such a profound teaching in simple words. Since I am a senior this year and I’m going to graduate in one or two months, I’m facing a rather significant decision in my life. Should I go to work or continue my study? This makes me wonder how I should face the significant moments in my life, since they will come up very often. Some tell me I need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages from every aspect of the specific situation before making a decision. Whereas, some tell me I should just follow my heart and do whatever I want and just go for it. So I wonder, what is your view about it? When we are about to make an important decision, what kind of guidance can we follow? Thank you.
I am a Tibetan. In Tibet we have an old saying about how to make a decision. It is said, “The best way to help others make a decision is to put oneself in the others’ shoes.” In other words, if one asks me to give advice on some personal issue, I should think about it from his or her point of view.
Regarding your question, you are standing at the crossroads of your life and not sure which way to go. At this point, if I were you, I would analyze the current circumstances and all the causal conditions. If it is possible, I believe for anyone living in this world, learning is the most meaningful thing to do. It is full of joy and happiness and is the best way to achieve self-realization. So I would choose to continue to study. However, if my situation is such that I have to get a job and studying is not realistic for me, then it is a different situation and needs to be reconsidered.
As for myself, perhaps it is because of my personal interest. I won’t completely give up worldly affairs, but I attach more importance to learning, which I consider the most valuable thing in my life. No matter whether you are a student, or a working professional, you need to keep learning. But if you have the opportunity to study as a student, then to a certain point, you won’t be bothered to find a good job. If I were you, if everything were possible, I would continue my study to improve my intelligence and ability in every aspect.
Hello, Khenpo. I am full of hope and yearning for my youth, so when I saw your newly published book Cruelty is Youth, I didn’t understand why youth is cruel, thanks.
You do not understand it for now, however, when you are in your 20s, if you still remember this comment, you may begin to reflect upon whether your youth is full of hope or cruelty. Currently, you just follow what you expect in your life. At a certain point, on the way to fulfilling your dreams and seeking happiness, you will have to stay strong to face all kinds of difficulties. At that time, you may start to understand the meaning of this book.
Respected Rinpoche, I’m a PhD candidate at Nanyang Technological University. My research is about environmental protection and mainly focuses on wastewater treatment. My question is about a famous poem written by Tsangyang Gyatso. In the poem, it is said, “Going along with my bright girl’s heart, I’d be cutting off my chance to practice dharma in this life. Wandering in the lonely mountains goes against her heart.” Although this poem expresses love and relationships from another perspective, it tells us worldly dharma and world-transcending dharma cannot be followed at the same time.
Just now, Khenpo also mentioned the purpose of taking refuge should not be just keeping ourselves safe and sound, like driving safely on the road. The proper motivation of taking refuge should be seeking liberation in our future life and ultimately achieving the supreme Buddha fruit. So my question is when we notice the existing contradiction, how can we make a balance between worldly and world-transcending dharma? We just talked about the question of setting a goal. If I set a worldly goal for myself, will it hinder my aspiration for liberation? Thanks.
The meaning of this poem by Tsangyang Gyatso has two aspects regarding worldly and world-transcending dharma. The first aspect is how people usually understand it. His poems describe love and relationships that people cling to desperately. In his poems, there are beautiful and touching words that describe love stories from his time.
Meanwhile, however, he also mentioned the relationship between Buddhism and society. We can analyze this issue at two levels. The basic level is that one must set a life goal and really work for it. Although it belongs to the secular world, Buddhism tells us that in the process of pursuing a secular goal, one needs to be a good person in the way of refraining from all bad deeds and performing all virtuous deeds. The genuine teachings of Buddhism are to avoid all evil and to cultivate good, which are basic requirements for everyone.
These days, some people think that Buddhism suppresses people’s freedom. Actually this is not true. In Buddhism, there are different levels of requirements. Like in a university, for example in the NUS, there are unique rules to enhance morality that can be different from other universities. The same goes for Buddhism. The rules for worldly and non-worldly life for our beginners do not conflict with each other. For senior practitioners who reach a high level of realization, they are not confined by the secular world and will naturally abandon worldly things, since they don’t have strong attachments as normal people do. Also they need to avoid certain things for further realization, just as one needs to meet certain requirements to go to college.
I heard that all male Singaporeans are required to enroll for national service and the disciplines of the military are certainly quite different from the rules in other situations. For the same reason, in Buddhism, if you are ordained and ready to be a serious practitioner, your behavior cannot be exactly the same as those of worldly people. This is not allowed in the Sangha, just as in the secular world, the behavior of a soldier cannot be exactly the same as that of ordinary people. So we shouldn’t consider these two to be opposed to one another. Indeed, they share both differences and similarities and all of these can be together.
I am a media person working for Lianhe Zaobao. My question is quite similar to that lady’s question. She asked why you chose Buddhism among Buddhism, Christianity and other religions. My question is why among different Tibetan Buddhist traditions, such as Nyingmapa, Sakyapa and so on, you chose to follow the Nyingma tradition? Could you please explain briefly the main differences among the Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug, Kagyu and Jonang traditions? Thank you.
I didn’t intend to choose the Nyingma tradition. Actually, your question is similar to that lady’s question, so I have to give you the same answer. As I came into the world and first opened my eyes, everything was related to Nyingmapa and also my parents were followers of Nyingmapa, so I naturally follow the Nyingma tradition. I didn’t intend to find a Nyingma master, a Nyingma family or a Nyingma monastery. This is not the case. It is due to my previous karma and the environment in which I grew up.
There are many different schools in Tibetan Buddhism and mainly eight of them are the most well-known. Among them, Nyingmapa is the oldest tradition and is referred to as the old school. Gelugpa is referred to as the new school. Sakyapa is named for the place where the Sakya monastery was built. There is also Kagyupa and Kagyu simply means oral transmission. And there are also Jonangpa and other schools.
In terms of the main differences among them, Nyingmapa mainly emphasizes the Dzogchen practice. Sakyapa considers Lamdre as their summum bonum. Jonangpa places great emphasis on the tathagatagarbha which is elaborated in the Kalachakra Tantra. Kagyupa considers Mahamudra as their essential practice. Thus the main practice of each tradition is quite unique. Also, the founders of these traditions lived in different periods of history and their living environments were quite different. Nyingmapa was the first one that was founded in Tibet. At the very beginning, Guru Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to the land of Tibet from India. Therefore, Nyingmapa is referred to as the old school.
So these major traditions can be different in many aspects. However, they all have the same essence of the Dharma. It can fall into three stages. At the beginning, one needs to arouse Bodhicitta; in the middle, one has to accumulate merit and in the end, one will attain Buddhahood. Likewise, in Chinese Buddhism, there are also many different schools, such as the Pure Land school, the Huayan school, Zen and Tangmi and so on. Moreover, not only in Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism, but also in Southern Buddhism, there are different schools. Although these schools vary from each other, their teachings and practices have no conflicts at all, but rather complement one another.
Hello, Khenpo. I am a staff member at NUS. You just mentioned the teachings of avoiding all evil and cultivating all good. So how do we maintain awareness and mindfulness, when we need to make important decisions in our life? How can we distinguish good deeds from bad ones and figure out what we should or should not do? To what extent, can we say that we have tried our best? Could you give me some advice?
So what constitutes good and bad deeds? We need to distinguish them through learning. To be specific, as categorized in Buddhism, good conduct includes no killing, no stealing and no improper sexual activity in terms of the body. In terms of speech, it includes no lying, no harsh words, no slandering and no gossip. With regard to the mind, it includes no coveting, no aversion and no incorrect views. These are known as the ten virtues and the opposite of the ten virtues are the ten non-virtues. Therefore, in Buddhism, people’s actions can be categorized into ten virtues and ten non-virtues in terms of the body, speech and mind. Some of you may be familiar with these concepts.
So why are there such categories in Buddhism? I always tell people, in fact more than 2000 years ago, the Buddha already taught the ten virtues to discipline people’s speech and action. Nowadays, although many countries tend to promote virtues and moral ethics, many phenomena and all sorts of crisis are actually rooted in the ten non-virtues, such as corruption, excessive greed and so on. If we deeply reflect on them, we can see that the ten virtues categorized in Buddhism are indeed the generalized disciplines of speech and action. We can simply note this point. If we want to further study these virtues in a more extensive way, we can refer to Buddhist texts which have detailed descriptions of virtues and non-virtues.
Other religions also have their own descriptions of virtues and non-virtues. Although some of those teachings may not be exactly the same, the basic meaning is to strengthen positive energy and to remove negative energy of not only mankind, but also all sentient beings. I always use the terms, positive energy and negative energy to describe virtues and non-virtues, as they sound familiar to today’s people. In my opinion, positive energy is sort of equivalent to virtues. Whether regarding oneself or others, positive energy is the best term to summarize the virtues of body, speech and mind.
I am a researcher for an institute in Singapore. I feel that people are different in the way that we were born in different environments and with different levels of intelligence and that we received different educations. With all these different conditions, we hold different values of good and bad which lead to different thinking modes. So I want to ask Khenpo, based on your own experience, what shall we do to advance ourselves? What is the most efficient and effective way?
In a Buddhist scripture, the Agama Sutra, the Buddha taught that sentient beings were different in terms of intelligence, wealth, life span and appearance. So what are the causes of these differences? Indeed, all sentient beings carry their own karma and have karma that ripens upon themselves. The ripened karma comes from previous lives. The effects of karma can be noticed through many facts. For instance, persons who went to the same college have different ways of life, and persons who were born in the same family may end up with different standards of living. Even twins cannot have the same life and achieve the same happiness. It is not a surprise that with the identical effort, one succeeds while the other fails. It is the law of karma, in which I firmly believe that all sentient beings carry their own karma.
Therefore, from my point of view, in order to better oneself, one needs to decrease the thoughts of benefiting oneself and to increase the concern for others’ benefits. In this way, one can promote life motivation and better oneself in all aspects. On the contrary, if one cares only about oneself rather than others’ well-being, with this kind of attitude, whatever benefit one gains can probably cause a loss of ethics and morality.
For this reason, in order to improve ourselves, we need to have an altruistic mind and benefit others unconditionally. If we are not able to achieve this currently, we should at least try to help others as much as we can in our daily life. Based on that, all our behaviors as well as our lives will make a difference. Otherwise, a narrow and selfish mind can only bring all kinds of sufferings to our family and friends. Therefore, with an open, inclusive mind and a sincere intention to help others, even if we have to face sufferings caused by others, we can be much stronger and braver. Moreover, all kinds of complaints from others indeed can become favorable causal conditions for our practice and will be the best way to lead us to success in our lives.
This is a good place to wrap up our Q&A session. Thanks to all for your challenging questions and Khenpo’s enlightening answers. I believe that most of you have been inspired and received satisfying answers.