Turning Adverse Circumstances into the Path of Awakening
I recently heard the Buddhist story of Devala the Dark, who was being cursed by seven Bramhans, ‘but the more they cursed him, the more beautiful, good-looking, and inspiring he became…’
This reminded me of the Tibetan Buddhist Thought Training practice, called changing adverse circumstances into the path to enlightenment. One analogy they use is that of the Peacock in the Poison Grove. They say this mythological bird eats poison, and his plumage becomes brighter, and even more beautiful. The more difficult things are, and the greater the need, the stronger these practices become. In some ways, this is the ideal practice for our times.
If we’re not going to be overwhelmed by the news of worsening conditions, of the pandemic, of racial injustice, or environmental destruction, we’re going to need a way of holding these difficult truths. Most of the time we can go just so far with reports of oppression, or corruption, or our destruction of the natural world before we shut down in one way or another, but there is another way to be with what is tragic, or suffering or oppressive that is found in these precious Tibetan Buddhist Thought Training teachings.
The essential principle of Thought Training is to meet all the most difficult conditions, such as those we are living with now, and to use them as powerful motivation to respond skillfully. Through this alchemy, the awareness of suffering itself becomes the remedy to suffering.
The Thought Training Teachings and practices are known as the expression of compassion, especially in difficult times. If we understand fully what is meant by compassion in Buddhism, then we can understand and effectively practice Thought Training.
From its inception, Buddhist teaching has always been about liberation from suffering. The central motivating principle then in Mahayana Buddhism is compassion, and the dedication to bringing every single being to freedom and ease. It’s said that When we hear the cries of the world, we must be engaged…
Compassion as we usually think of it here in the West in these times often has this soft quality to it. It can also feel like sadness. True compassion though is powerful, illuminating, and inspiring. It is the most powerful force we can harness to endure, to bear witness, and to solve problems on deeper levels than ever before. Compassion leads us to seeking resolution, through insight, beyond the emotional reactions, and rising and falling of events. In Buddhism, the understanding of how suffering can be brought to an end is essential. Without such wisdom, problems are potentially endless. Compassion is then essential food for the journey. It brings light and health, peace and strength.
The Assalayana Sutta doesn’t say what practice Devala was doing that caused him to become even more lovely and inspiring when attacked and insulted, but this is exactly the way that Thought Training works. The worse the conditions become, we can see, the more powerful this practice is. That is the secret of Thought Training. It becomes even more powerful in especially dangerous times such as the ones we are living through now, in 2020.
At the end of one text on The Seven Point Mind Training, called ‘The Great Path of Awakening’, there are a few additional verses that compare compassion in the most difficult times as being like a strong wind that makes a fire grow more and more. These very conditions can be a kind of fuel.
A Tonlen – Taking and Sending Poem
Again and again take to heart what others are going through
and let it become who you are, and what you aim to do
Uncover your hidden sources of strength, and ease,
and then give yourself away, today,
the clean breath, the warmth of love…
With the way things are in our world right now, I imagine that if we could be strengthened by compassion it would be a very great thing. If we could change what would otherwise be oppressive conditions into a source of strength and courage and greater love and freedom, that would be wonderful, the best we could hope for, really. The more we take up these practices, the more everyone benefits.
Whatever Practice We are Doing – Compassion Empowers All Virtuous Activity
There are so many practices in Buddhism, and in other Spiritual Traditions, and non-traditions. They all aim to improve our lives, and the lives of those around us. Whatever practices we are doing, of taking refuge, of prayer, or mantra, calm abiding, or insight, purification, and social engagement- all of these can be strengthened by having greater compassion. Compassion connects us with others and with our deeper resources. It awakens a wealth of qualities in our lives – such as courage, patience, and foresight, humility, endurance, and wisdom.
The Thought Training Teachings highlight this activity. They say that when challenged, it’s exactly times like these that we can unfold our strength and hidden virtues.
With the extensive sufferings these days, of illness, poverty and economic insecurity, and given all the materialism, the immaturity, the endless distractions of consumer culture, all that is meaningless, there’s a great need now more than ever for conscious, dedicated, truly healthy and wise people. When conditions rise up as menacing enemies, we can become stronger, more clear and compassionate as a response, and we can take quiet joy each day in engaging and uplifting each other, and our world. This is the message of the Thought Training Teachings.
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For more on Thought Training, called ‘lo-jong’ in Tibetan, the following texts and their commentaries are recommended.
The Seven Point Mind Training – commentaries by Jamgon Kongtrul, Geshe Rabten, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama, and others;
The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, commentaries by the Dalai Lama, (available online), and Geshe Sonam Richen; and,
The Thirty Seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva, commentaries by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, the Dalai Lama, Dilgo Khyenste Rinpoche, and Geshe Gyalsten.
See also The Empowerment of Compassion,
A Practice That Thrives in Difficulty by this author, from Great Circle Publications, 2017.