In the UK of late, the news headlines have often been filled with stories and pictures of those appearing to not be complying with the lockdown rules, covidiots as the press brand them, and the actions of some have created a storm of much wrath and heated debate.
In the face of an overwhelming crisis it seemed as if we were able to join ranks and put our differences aside for many weeks, but now our divisions and tendencies to be judgemental are starting to show again.
When you follow a Buddhist practice it is clear that you must not hold or cultivate hateful, critical, or judgemental feelings; yet when someone comes across as awful, self centred, and unrepentant about their errant behaviour it seems easy to justify our lapse in an otherwise good practice as ‘being understandable under the circumstances.’
Yet these are exactly the situations where we should be doubling our efforts, on these most difficult of people to spontaneously generate kind thoughts for.
Our practice is about being able to maintain a sense of calm and peacefulness in ourselves regardless of situation, circumstance, or the personalities of others, so we always have to find ways to keep ourselves on an even keel when it is otherwise so easy to become annoyed and aggrieved by the actions of others.
Even with a good practice it is easy to find yourself having strong opinions, but just because someone has done something that we perceive to be wrong it doesn’t allow us a free pass; we have to let go of that point of view if it blocks us from being peaceful and kind.
If having strong opinions is really important to you then Buddhist practice is going to be a challenge, but one that you will certainly benefit from. Sometimes people think that the Buddhist practice of not holding onto fixed views, and letting go of opinions means that you have to find a way to accept or condone any and every kind of behaviour, or that you need to become a perfectly poised fence-sitter on every matter. Holding no opinion isn’t the same as having no opinion, and it doesn’t mean that you cannot or should not evaluate information and make a judgement on it.
But we need to recognise that we have tendencies to view the world in certain ways, certain biases, and these shape what ultimately become our opinions. We all have opinions, they come with the package of being a human; trying to deny your opinions is just another blind spot. If we convince ourselves that we don’t have opinions then we can avoid all the hard work of learning to let go of them. So while we accept the presence of our opinions, we also recognise that these opinions are not real, they are just thoughts like any other, so we remember to not take them too seriously.
So if we pick up a paper or we read something online, we need to keep things in perspective; no matter how strong those opinions and reactions feel, they are just thoughts like all the rest – they arise, they cease, they are not me, they are not who I am.
We also need remember to have our priorities in order. In a Buddhist practice some things take precedence over others, and the need to maintain kindness and compassion towards all beings trumps righteous indignation; in fact it is even more important than being right at all. Being kind is more important than being right, so that puts the onus on us to somehow find ways to bring kindness, or at the very least non-hate to any situation.
Most of the time we need a multi stranded approach to these kinds of knotty issues; different perspectives and ways of thinking about it will help us to safely navigate the upsurges of strong feeling while maintaining our calm and caring attitude.
On a very basic level we can reduce all of our experience down to the perception of sensation, so when you watch that news conference and feel your blood pressure starting to rise you can just acknowledge it as a sensation and let it go there.
As simple as that approach sounds, in reality we all know that it can be very difficult to maintain such a clarity of view when the situation feels so inflaming. Often some time later when we reflect on it we can see that was ultimately what was happening, but in the moment it is something that we struggle to remember.
As I said, being kind is more important than being right, and kindness towards all is the immutable rule; there are no circumstances in practice that condone holding hateful views towards someone. The Buddha makes this clear throughout the teachings, and the Simile of the Saw gives us one of the most direct and startling expositions of this:
Simile of the saw
Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions. If that happens, you should train like this: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate. We will meditate spreading a heart of love to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart full of love to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’ That’s how you should train.
So even if we were having our arms and legs sawn off the Buddha states that even this is no justification for harbouring hateful thoughts towards anyone; he clearly wouldn’t have been impressed with us getting annoyed about our neighbours inviting their friends over for a barbecue.
This is challenging passage from the suttas, and clearly a difficult teaching to manifest. But it is achievable; we need to have trust in the practice and work diligently at our sticking points from as many angles as possible until the strong viewpoint finally comes loose.
At the heart of all approaches is the recognition that the whole of our world is within us, and while outside influences can appear to be the cause of how we feel, the reality is that the way we feel only ever comes from inside us. So no matter what anyone else is doing, we need to work on it from the inside.
We always need to start with ourself, just what is it that keeps stoking the fire for us? Take time to investigate what the story is that you are telling about the situation.
Do you think it is unfair? Do you feel that it’s not right? Do you feel like a person should be punished for it? Do you feel like its not fair that you stuck to the rules and missed out, while someone else didn’t stick to the rules and could do whatever they wanted? Do you feel it is wrong that other people got punished and this person didn’t? Are you outraged that the person was unrepentant, that they couldn’t accept they had done anything wrong?
Whatever the story is and however clear cut the evidence is, at the heart of it is just a mirage – the contents of your mind are just thoughts. But the feelings that come up for you because of these thoughts come with a health warning – they won’t do you any good. In MN 18 the Buddha tells us that mental proliferation is the source of self identity, which once we attach it to something becomes the cause of us to have views and opinions.
The Buddha tells us that ending mental proliferation will not only free us from having views and opinions, but also that the ending of it is the end of conflict, both physical and verbal. So he is suggesting to us that ultimately the cause of conflict is mental proliferation.
If we reflect on this we can find endless examples of how trivial differences of opinion can escalate into hated and violence after people have spent time brooding over it. We can probably think of numerous times that we have whipped ourselves into an furious frenzy just mulling over what someone has done or said to us too, so we have direct experience of how proliferation leads to conflict.
MN 18 The Honey-Cake (or Honey Ball)
Madhupiṇḍika Sutta MN 18 MN i 108
So we can’t ever turn a blind eye, or excuse as reasonable, any unwholesome, hateful, mental activity because it is the seed of conflict. Like the weeds on your driveway, if you allow the seeds to settle they will eventually germinate; and seeds are easier to brush off than weeds are to pull up. If we find ourselves drifting into negative thoughts then we need to intervene and pull our minds back to something more wholesome, brush those thoughts off before they have a chance to take root and grow. And actually if we can’t engage with a thought without it setting us off, sometimes we need to just stop thinking about it completely.
Dwelling on negative and critical thoughts has the power to create conflict, but also reinforces our sense of self. Pouring over newspaper articles and tweets can become compulsive when there is a really juicy story unfolding, but the more we feed our opinions the more opinions we will have – and they become harder to let go of, because the more time we spend building them, the more we have invested our sense of self into them. Often the wise thing to do is to disengage ourselves from the things that pull us into this compulsive loop.
It sounds simple enough, but it feels really hard to do when there is such a clear case that an injustice has been done. But can help to reflect on the idea that justice is just a concept, another thought like all the others.
Practice is about seeing the world and its mechanisms for how they really are, and in this conditioned world there is no absolute thing as justice or fairness. Justice only exists in places where people work hard to introduce it and maintain it, it doesn’t exist or spontaneously appear on its own. While it is created by good and noble intentions, and is generally a positive condition, it is not a law of nature.
So every time we find our minds gripped by the thought that something isn’t fair, we need to remember that ‘fairness’ doesn’t really exist. It is a concept, an idea about how we would like the world to be. And it is a value judgement, it is down to each person’s opinion to decide what is fair and what isn’t; fairness doesn’t exist as an absolute or universal metric.
Tying yourself in knots about something that doesn’t exist isn’t wise or skillful, it’s like getting upset about the Loch Ness monster, yet these are the kinds of illusory experiences that we allow to upset us all the time.
What is real though is the thought that is in our mind, and the feelings and actions that arise because of it. We are responsible for our actions, so it is up to us to figure out how to respond appropriately to the feeling of injustice or unfairness.
There is a famous quote which is attributed to Ajahn Brahm, “why seek revenge? Karma is going to get the bastards anyway.” It is a little bit blunter than we usually hear from our teachers, but it makes its point very clear, and it has certainly been a useful reminder to me at times. Karma, or kamma as it is in Pali, is as close to justice as we get in the Buddhist understanding of the processes of the universe. The Buddhist world operates on laws of cause and effect, and kamma is one of these universal laws.
Kamma simply means intentional action, and the mechanism of the law of kamma is that we will eventually receive the results of our actions. There is no divine intervention or comeuppance involved, we simply inherit the outcomes of the conditions we created.
When we take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha this means that we stop leaning on worldly ideas like justice and fairness, and instead trust in the laws of cause and effect. If someone has done something wrong then at some point kamma will catch up with them, regardless of our opinion on the matter. Under those circumstances why would you waste time and energy being angry about what people have done?
But wait a minute, you might be thinking, what if this person has already gotten away with it? Where is the kamma? Ah, but that is the illusion, while it looks like they have gotten away with this particular action, they are still stuck with the conditions that created it – their mind.
Think about what kind of mindset you would need to have to ignore the rules, to think that they didn’t apply to you. If you can get inside the head of the person you can see that this mindset is 100% certain to cause them no end of problems somewhere down the line. You break and disregard all kinds of rules all the time, and with that kind of attitude it is likely that one day your rule breaking will get you in a whole heap of trouble. That is how kamma works, you don’t get your just desserts for the individual action, you get what comes from having the kind of mind that instigated the action.
Sometimes this kind of thought can be enough to raise a bit of compassion for the person; they might think they have gotten away with it but we can see that they are in for a whole lot of trouble at some point down the line. Perhaps we can even see how their ignorance is going to cause them suffering in the future, and we can wish them well, because frankly they are going to need it.
When we can turn our own harsh feelings into compassion and wisdom this is a very skillful way to work with our experiences. And just as other people are subject to the laws of kamma, so are we. If we allow a negative, hateful, opinionated mindset to be cultivated in us, then we will get the results of that in time. It becomes our habit, our way of responding spontaneously, and at some point in the future we may find ourselves in a situation where our habit of responding negatively will cost us dearly.
We don’t ever need to excuse what a person has done, but that doesn’t mean that we just condone everything either. You can dislike an action without disliking the person. I’ve talked before about people thinking they need to become Buddhist door mats and passively allow life to trample all over them, but that isn’t skillful. We can still make a judgement, we can still evaluate a situation and come to a conclusion. What we won’t do is make it a fixed opinion.
2 + 2 = 4, that doesn’t require opinion, likewise we can say ‘the rules say X, the person done Y, therefore the rules were not followed’. That approach isn’t personal, it just takes the information and considers whether the conditions were met or not. It’s not an opinion, it’s an evaluation, and unlike opinions we can change it easily when we are given new information.
To stop it from becoming an opinion we recognise its limitations, and we don’t cling on to it and build an identity out of it. We can even say ‘though I have come to this conclusion, I won’t allow it to cause any disturbances in my peacefulness and calm. Even though I have come to this conclusion I will not allow it to lead me to have arguments with anyone.’
This is a truly wise and benevolent response to strong opinions, we never need to repress these thoughts or to undo them, we only ever need to keep them in perspective. Yes I have strong opinions, but kindness is more important to me than those, so I will put them down for the good of all beings, including myself.
While it can feel invigorating to have something dramatic playing out in front of us, and admittedly lockdown has been quite samey for a while, we need to take time to remember to stay centred and true to our practice. Everything that happens in the world is an opportunity for us to see the Dhamma, there is a deeper teaching available to us if we can put down the excitement of a scandal and look for something more profoundly transformative.
In the heat of the moment strong feelings and opinions can erupt, but when you remember that your practice is your priority you can learn to let these be no more than a few moments of irritation, then centre your mind and let them go. This is how we can use our opinions, which normally would bring conflict, to bring peace to our lives; and by doing that, bring peace into the lives of others.