Our thoughts arise mechanically. You don’t want these thoughts to arise but they just pop up; and then we do something very interesting: some thoughts we allow just to arise and pass away, while others, we get hold of them, we identify ourselves with them. They can overwhelm us, they can control us. So this is one of the things that we can discover with awareness, that when thoughts arise, without getting hold of them, if you can just allow them to go away then there is no problem. This is one aspect for us to learn about and explore.
Another is the connection, the relationship, between thoughts and our state of mind. So as I said, when we get hold of our thoughts, when we identify ourselves with the thoughts, then our state of mind changes. That is why I have been suggesting that we learn not to react when thoughts come.
I would like to suggest we might try to practise with our thoughts, to work on our thoughts. There is always a connection between thoughts and emotions. An interesting question to reflect on is: Can there be suffering without a thought? Can there be emotion without a thought? So I feel that in our practice we should really understand, penetrate, and work with our thoughts. From the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep there is this continuous thinking going on in our mind.
See the connection between thoughts and emotions; and then try to make discoveries about our thinking, especially concerning the area of giving plusses and minuses. So if you catch yourself giving minuses, observe it, catch it as soon as possible.
Just find out what you are thinking. It is a very interesting exercise, that during the day we ask ourselves: Now what is the thought I am having? Let us make an effort just to know, just to understand, just to explore, just to learn, just to discover about our thoughts, about our concepts.
The society might have harmful, destructive values but we should try to cultivate these virtues, these values that might be contrary to what is happening in society. This is why in the Buddha’s teaching meditation is compared to going upstream, that it is not easy; most people just flow with the stream. So living in a society where these negative things are prominent, where they are given power, it is not easy to do this, it is difficult, but this is where we have to make an effort. This is where the practice is important. This is why a group of spiritual friends is important, that at least we are as a group trying to practise these virtues, these qualities, though in the country, in the society, something else is happening.
There are four qualities mentioned in the Dhamma. They are called Sublime States or Divine Abodes. The first one is loving-kindness, metta. The second one is karuna, which means compassion, when you see someone suffering you try to help that person. The third quality is very interesting, mudita: when other people are happy you rejoice in their happiness, and I would say that you can also rejoice in your own happiness. So this quality of mudita is something very important we need to cultivate. A meditation master has put this very clearly. He said that we have a tendency to see what is wrong in ourselves, but we never look for what is right in ourselves.
For some reason everywhere in the world there seems to be too much emphasis, too much power given to the mistakes, to the negative things, and that the good things are taken for granted. This happens very often in relationships. You do good things, and with so many good things you make just one mistake and that one mistake becomes more important than all the good things that you have done. So people will be talking about that one mistake but not at all about the good things that have been done by that person.
So it brings up the interesting question: Why do human beings give so much power to the mistakes, to the negative things, and the positive things are taken for granted?
As we realise that this is something common to ourselves, we should in our own life try to practise in a different way. One suggestion I would like to offer is that whenever we see someone doing something good, I think we should make it a point just to mention it, to appreciate it. For parents who bring up children this is a very common problem, that the parents tell the children only when they make a mistake. When they do something good, that is not mentioned! So a child is brought up with the idea: I’m always doing wrong.
When a similar discussion took place in a foreign country I was in, in the audience there was a teacher who had been counselling parents. She told us she gave an exercise to the parents. They were told to draw up a list of all the naughty things, bad things, the children would do. So without a problem they drew up a long list. Then the parents were told now please draw up a list of the good things your children are doing. It was very difficult for them to do that! They had to think very hard about what were the good things that the children were doing. Isn’t that interesting?
And this also happens in relationships. Sometimes in Sri Lanka I have to counsel husbands and wives who have problems. It’s a big joke amongst my friends. They say this man has no experience in married life and he is counselling married people! One complaint of the wives is that when the cooking is not so good the husband would be critical and make a big fuss about the food, but when the food is good they tell me that the husband practises noble silence!
There is a very interesting discussion in the Buddhist texts about spiritual friends. So what a real spiritual friend does is that when someone does something wrong he points it out in a very friendly way that you are doing something wrong; and when they do something good, when they do something right, he points out that you are doing something good, something right.
I feel it is very important in life to understand our limitations. This doesn’t mean that we justify our limitations, but that it is a fact: I’m doing my very best but my very best does not correspond to what others think of as best, so what can I do? Actually, these are the real challenges we have in life: how to face them?
Another aspect of such situations – I don’t know if what I’m going to say makes sense to you – some of these setbacks, some of these difficulties, some of these problems you have in such situations can later on prove to be a blessing. This is also very interesting.
I’m reminded of a Chinese tale that I would like to share with you; perhaps you already know the story. In a particular village there was a very wise old man and he had some beautiful horses. So one day one of the beautiful horses was missing, it had run away. So the whole village came to this man and said: Oh, how unfortunate it is that your best horse has run away. It seems you are very unlucky. Maybe in Buddhist terms we would say it is bad kamma, and so on. He said: No, it is merely that my horse has run away. What you are saying is an opinion, a judgement, about what has happened. My horse has run away, that’s all, no need to give a minus about this.
Then after some days this horse came back with another beautiful horse. Then the same villagers came and said: Oh, you’re very lucky, you’re very fortunate, you lost one horse, now you have two horses. He said: Stop all this, I now have two horses, that is all, no need to give a plus.
This old man had a son, and the son was trying to train this new horse, and in training the new horse he fell from the horse and broke his leg. So his friends came and said: Bad kamma again. And then there was a war and so soldiers came to the village to take away all the young people in the village to fight in the war, only the old man’s son was saved from this because of his broken leg!
This is a very good story to learn to see things just as they are, hopefully without plusses and without minuses. I suppose the wise old man did not have any image of what should happen and what shouldn’t happen. Has anyone heard of this story? Everybody.
One thing we have to learn is how to act with responsibility but without the pressure. So you are doing your best but doing your best is done in a relaxed way, not with tension, not with stress. This is one thing we need to learn. And then when you do your best and still you have made a mistake, then you can be very clear and honest in your own mind: I did my best, but my best was not good enough for the other person, so what can I do? At least it makes your mind very clear, it makes your conscience very clear, so that it will not give rise to any inner conflicts.
This is all we can try to do; and when we have tried, if it succeeds, it is good. If it fails, it is also good. And then in such a situation, if you have made a mistake and then some problem arises, what is also important for us to learn is that when a wound has been created, to heal that wound as quickly as possible rather than just hold onto the wound and suffer for your whole life because you have made some mistakes.
In cultures and in countries where things work perfectly, without any problems, this gives a kind of sense of security because everything is happening perfectly, no problems, everything is under control. Living in countries like India or Sri Lanka, you have to be open to uncertainties.
I will give a practical example which I experienced myself. When I was in Europe I was on a train and they made an announcement in the language of that country and people were very anxious, looking at their leaflets and there was lots of talk about it, lots of disappointment, so I asked them what the announcement was about. They said the train was going to be seven minutes late. In Sri Lanka, if there is a train at all you’ll be very fortunate!
So this is a very good training. Most of the time unexpected things happen. You go to the bus stand and then they say: No bus today. You want to go by train, they say: Now there is no train, it is one hour late.
So living in cultures where things work perfectly, naturally you tend to be conditioned to do things perfectly. You fear to make mistakes because no mistakes should happen! So with this idea of perfection, this is why you like other people to accept that you are perfect, this is why you fear maybe they are giving you minuses, because your model of perfection is affected.
This is why I often emphasise this being open to our humanness, open to our imperfections, so that when we become more and more open to our humanness, our imperfections, then if you are getting minuses from other people then you are not surprised. You realise, well, that’s part of our conditioning. I’m still human, so it’s okay.
What we are doing is making demands about how we should behave, we are making demands about how others should behave, we are making demands about how life should be. If these demands are met life is okay, life is wonderful, it is beautiful. If these demands are not met there is suffering, frustration, disappointment, hurt; most of these emotions can arise as a result of that. So I would suggest that an enlightened human being goes through life without any images, and because of that he or she can never suffer.
Another aspect related to this is, if you can really understand the nature of life, then you realise it is not possible to form any conclusion about how life should be. In the Dhamma there is something very deep, which is to be open to the uncertainty of life. But we hold onto this idea of certainty because we assume things can be controlled. But when we think deeply we realise that in actual fact we have no control.