Life, Frame by Frame

Gabriele Esposito

Gabriele Esposito

Much of the time, life is like watching a movie: we suspend disbelief and lose ourselves in the story. On the bodhisattva path, says Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, we see the illusory nature of these appearances, and in doing so discover a boundless compassion.

These days, we need to attend to so many different aspects of our lives, such as family, work, and various social situations. Instead of viewing these as obstacles to our spiritual path, we can see them as opportunities to develop wisdom and bodhicitta. Our lives can become like field trips for continually progressing on the path of the bodhisattva.

Viewing one’s life as a field trip is not a new concept. Arhats and bodhisattvas have been doing this for ages. For example, centuries ago in the noble land of India, arhats would meditate for a long time in the forest. Then, once they felt peaceful, they would take a field trip into the village or town to see if their mind really had been tamed. In the midst of all of the village activity with its many distractions, they could clearly see how well they had been able to overcome their normal confusion and reactions. If they could maintain their state of peace and equanimity in the village, they could decide whether to live in the forest or stay in the village to benefit others.

Bodhisattvas have always viewed their births in the human world as field trips. Like these bodhisattvas, we can also view this world as a field trip for increasing our wisdom and skillful means.

The integrity of the bodhisattva’s way of life depends upon bodhicitta. Cultivating and nurturing bodhicitta in turn depends upon our intention and on developing a good heart. Since these don’t come easily to most people, there is a need for dharma, a need to cultivate hearing wisdom, contemplative wisdom, and meditative wisdom. These wisdoms teach us that as sentient beings, we are endowed with a mind naturally possessing the potential to love and be compassionate. This is how we define ourselves as sentient beings. Love and care are already an innate part of our mind, which shows that we all have buddhanature. Yet at the same time, because of our ignorance and confusion, we have unwittingly become self-centered. The overwhelming presence of me and mine is so strong that we have lost many opportunities to truly develop ourselves as bodhisattvas and become enlightened.

In order to make any progress toward becoming free or benefiting others, we must first reduce this presence of me and mine. The way to do this is not through our old self-centered habits. When we think, “I am a father, therefore I love my child; I love my family; I love this or that person,” we are expressing care, but since we view these people as extensions of ourselves, it’s as if our care is directed toward ourselves. This is a form of self-indulgence. In the practice of the bodhisattva’s way of life, even though there is the same love and care, and the same kind thoughts and feelings, the basis is totally different. We don’t allow the basis for our relationships to be me and mine. Instead, we make sure that the basis is respect for the other person, another sentient being longing for happiness and freedom from suffering, just like us. This is how we relate even to our own children or family members, and to others with whom we are karmically linked and have a natural bond. This recognition becomes the basis for extending our care, love, kindness, and compassionate thoughts and feelings. We still appreciate the connection and the bond that karma has created. We acknowledge that we more readily experience care and love toward those with whom we have these karmic connections. But we use this understanding as a platform to transform our self-centeredness and the neuroses it leads to.

As your capacity to express love and care grows, you don’t stop with your own family but try to reach out further—as much as possible. You learn to strike a balance, avoiding stretching too far so you don’t get hurt in the process. After a while, it doesn’t really matter whether someone comes into your life with karmic connections from a past life or as a stranger. If you could treat both equally, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

But even when you can’t accomplish that, at least recognize there’s a problem. In bodhisattva practice, not being able to treat a stranger with the same care and feelings that you afford to someone close to you is a problem, since they are both sentient beings. When your loving-kindness, compassion, and care are not based on me and mine but rather on seeing your child, spouse, or parents as sentient beings who long to be free and happy, your motivation becomes pure. The purity of your motivation in any relationship depends not on how closely related you are but on your intention.

This is how we can become little bodhisattvas, little lamps, in our immediate situations, and light up our own small island. We don’t need to wait for a whole new karmic field to provide us with a situation where we can actively function as a bodhisattva. That might never happen. There’s a saying, “As much as possible, with what you can see, with what you can touch—if you can be effective in that field as a bodhisattva, that’s where you will grow.” From that platform, we grow and extend ourselves. We strive to make our intentions in our existing relationships more pure and precise, based on nonattachment and genuine love and care, truly respecting the other person as a human being. Then we extend our love, care, kindness, and compassion by the methods of the bodhisattva’s way of life: seeing ourselves and others as equal, exchanging ourselves and others, and caring for others more than for ourselves.

Implementing the paramita practices in the field trips of your immediate life situations will help you greatly. Generally we speak of six paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. All of a bodhisattva’s wisdom and skillful means are included within these six practices. Normally we begin by discussing the paramita of generosity. If you can train yourself to be generous, to be less attached and more openhearted, it’s easier to be morally disciplined—not harming others, benefiting them, and thereby accumulating virtue. If you’re a disciplined person, it’s easier to become patient. If you’re patient, then it’s easier to be diligent in whatever you do, on the spiritual path or elsewhere. And if you are a diligent person, it becomes easier to concentrate. Once you have good concentration, it’s easier to contemplate deeply and develop wisdom. Therefore, since the first paramita helps the second one and so forth, the order was established and taught in this way. But we don’t have to practice them in this order. In any particular situation, it’s likely that all of the paramitas are required.

It can be helpful to begin with the paramita of wisdom, which I think relates poignantly to our personal field trips. Nagarjuna stated in his Letter to a Friend that the Buddha’s most important wisdom teaching is the view of interdependent origination. You have to relate this view to your own life and see how this wisdom is meaningful in the context of your specific problems. When you perceive a problem, determine where you have attachment, aggression, jealousy, or arrogance—in your mind, your emotions, your speech, or your physical activity. Realize that your mind must be operating in a state of confusion and ignorance. Why? Because at the moment of defining someone or something as a problem, you are seeing the person or situation as singular, permanent, and existing objectively on its own.

If you see that a person or situation is not singular—that it has many parts to it—which part will you become attached to? Which one will you become aggressive toward? Which one will you be jealous of? Which one will cause you to feel arrogant? It helps to investigate this and understand that nothing in this world is singular.

Everything is made up of parts. If you’re going to get angry at someone, you need that person to be a singular person. If you focus on the person’s head, neck, shoulders, chest, tummy, legs—all separately—you won’t discover a “person” to get mad at. If you divide the person into trillions of atoms, which atom will you choose to get mad at? You can’t even see an atom. This is the reality.

Perhaps you think it’s the person’s mind you should be angry with. But that mind has many aspects. There are thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Which will you choose to get mad at? If you get mad at their thoughts, consider that thoughts come in chains. The past thoughts have vanished, and the future thoughts haven’t arisen. Only the present thought is there. But the present thought also has a beginning, middle, and end. Which part are you going to be angry with? There won’t actually be anything to get mad at. Also, when you examine any situation, you will find it has many parts. You can’t find a single thing without a center and edges. Center and edges go together: the center creates the edges, and the edges create the center. Even an atom has a center and edges. So everything can be broken down. This is not something that you cause; it’s just how things are. You’re only becoming aware of it through your analysis. By investigating, you discover that things are not as singular as you perceive. In other words, you find no fixed object to react to emotionally, and this helps you tremendously.

We also think that things are more or less permanent, that somehow yesterday’s person was the same as today’s, or yesterday’s situations and problems were the same as they are now. But actually nothing remains static. Everything is changing. Since yesterday, this person has changed a million times over. So has this situation. Every split second is a fresh moment. Therefore, yesterday’s problem and today’s problem could never be the same. They only appear the same based on our holding the situation to be permanent in our mind. If we can recognize how things are changing moment to moment, we won’t find anything to get upset about. In order for something to be upsetting, it has to be singular and permanent. Without these properties, there is no object to upset us.

In addition, we think things exist independently, from their own side. That’s why we’re convinced they’re intrinsically real, and we react to them emotionally. But if you examine this assumption, you can see how nothing in the world exists from its own side. Everything is the effect of causes and conditions. No effects arise through their own volition. Furthermore, each cause and condition has its own prior causes and conditions. If you try to trace back all of the causes and conditions, you can’t find a beginning to this sequence. So of all of the causes and conditions, which one will you hold on to? It would be arbitrary to choose one instead of another to react to. And for any effect that you observe, you are also one of the causes and conditions. You play a major role in bringing it about. Knowing this, you can’t reasonably respond to effects as if they only occur outside of you.

Since nothing has inherent nature nor any singular, permanent qualities, it is as if all phenomena are magically produced by causes and conditions coming together—just like a rainbow, in which sunshine, rain, and moisture in the atmosphere produce arching colors in space. Like the rainbow, every phenomenon and experience is insubstantial, with nothing to grasp and hold on to; it is also essenceless, with nothing we can pinpoint as something to react to. It’s all as unreal as a movie. “Realness” is not out there at all. Nor is it here in the mind. It is merely a product of ignorance, an imputed quality imposed by ignorant mind onto objects and subjective experience.

If you understand this, then you see the twofold character of everything that happens: the background and the foreground. In the background, shunyata (emptiness) is present all of the time. In the foreground are the various appearances that rise and fall because of causes and conditions. The background is like the screen. The foreground is like the movie projected on the screen. They are not one and the same, nor are they separate. If they were one, while seeing the appearance of the phenomena, we would also realize their emptiness. Nor are they separate, since what is happening in the foreground is only possible because of emptiness as a background. Emptiness is the essence of everything that happens; it is the essence of this dreamlike life and dreamlike experiences brought about by causes and conditions.

Emptiness is the unfabricated state; appearance is the fabricated state. The unfabricated and the fabricated work together. From an unfabricated state, fabrications happen. All that is fabricated is impermanent and generated by causes and conditions. Conditions and appearances are always changing, moment to moment. If you look deeply, you see that the past is gone, the future has not arisen, and the present is just this very moment of appearance arising and dissolving simultaneously.

If phenomena didn’t arise and dissolve simultaneously, then the universe would become static. If something continued, however briefly, then there would be no room for anything to arise in its place. If the next moment didn’t arise, then nothing could actually change. If nothing could change, then nothing could evolve, grow, or become different. Arising could no longer happen. Ceasing could not happen. So everything arises and ceases at the same time, moment to moment. This is the condition of the universe and the condition of our own mind, perceptions, and experiences, without exception. But because it is so subtle and the movement so rapid, because each moment is so similar to the one that just vanished, we make up a continuum. Just as we do when watching a movie, which is actually twenty-four frames flashing each second on a screen, we create substantial appearances. Since we don’t see each of those twenty-four frames separately, we think the house we see on the screen is the same as it was five minutes ago. But the house or character we’ve been watching changes twenty-four times per second.

In the case of a movie, we know it’s a movie. If we didn’t have some sense that we were seeing a movie, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. It wouldn’t be much fun to watch real people doing all sorts of things such as killing each other. We’re conscious that it’s a movie, at least in the beginning. Yet within minutes of watching all of that magical interdependence on the screen—even knowing it’s not real—we can still sink our subjective mind into a state of ignorance, a deliberate state of confusion. Then we regard the unfolding drama as real. We make this character good, that character bad; we side with one against another. Though there’s nothing real on the screen at all, the subjective mind can create something “real” out of it, imputing this reality so we can work up our emotional responses. Samsara is no different from this. It operates in the exact same way. So being able to see how it’s all created interdependently, with different causes and conditions coming together to create each effect, is very helpful.

Another way of looking at interdependence is to notice how the creation of the objective world depends on the subjective mind. The subjective mind, in turn, depends on the objective world. Right depends on left. Left can’t exist without right. Top depends on bottom, and vice versa. The center only exists in relation to the edge. Good/bad, right/wrong, man/woman—no characteristic has independent reality from its own side. Everything is dependently created. Any reality that we project comes from the subjective mind steeped in ignorance and confusion. So we must strive to see the ways in which the world is magical and dreamlike, a mere appearance having no reality. This applies to the world and other beings as well as to our own mind and emotions. A bodhisattva who wakes up to this notion, seeing interdependent origination as appearance and emptiness as the nature, also sees why we suffer so much. All of the sufferings of our mind come from holding appearance to be real where there’s no reality, producing false characteristics of permanence, singularity, and independence. If we can use this wisdom to analyze any person, any problem, any situation—noting how it’s created interdependently, how impermanent and illusory it is from moment to moment—then it gives our mind freedom and space to work with.

With this understanding, you can also ask others about a problem you’re experiencing. What are its causes and conditions? How have they come together to put you in a bind? Asking for the perspective of others who have been in your situation can give you helpful hearing wisdom. Then, instead of leaving this as mere hearsay or opinion, contemplate it deeply. Decide whether it’s true, and whether it corresponds with your experience. When you’re finally convinced of how the problem manifests or the situation has developed, then you have both hearing and contemplative wisdom to support your understanding. This is all based on the philosophy of how everything is interdependently originated—in general, as well as in your specific situation.

Whenever you confront any situation or problem, or anytime you want to move forward, please think first about your intention. If your intention is to benefit only yourself, broaden it to help at least one other sentient being. Whatever you do in your life, whether it’s going to your job, taking care of your family, or attending a retreat, try to enlarge your vision. In your spiritual practice, your vision must be one of eventual enlightenment.

With a selfless intention to benefit many beings, together with a vision that everything you do will lead you closer to enlightenment, relate to your life’s problems not as problems but as opportunities to advance with the paramita practices. How can I employ the wisdom of interdependence here? Based on that wisdom, how can I increase my concentration? How can I apply more diligence with this? How can I cultivate more patience here? How might I develop more discipline? How can I be more generous? What is lacking? What needs to be strengthened? What needs to be brought out more or made clearer? What should the main effort be, and what else is needed as support?

Always think in terms of the paramitas. Don’t try to be a solitary genius all of the time. Consult others. Gather hearing wisdom and contemplate it. Gather contemplative wisdom, and apply yourself in going forward and relating with your problems. In this way, as the method of paramita practice becomes second nature, samsara will no longer feel as it once did. You won’t feel like there’s such a problem with your life. It’s not that there won’t be any problems, but you won’t feel stuck. You can sail forward on the path of dharma, using your own life and situations as field trips for progressing along the spiritual path.


Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche is the spiritual director of Mangala Shri Bhuti (MSB), based in Crestone, Colorado, and the author of Light Comes Through and Uncommon Happiness. This article is adapted from a set of teachings he gave on the modern-day bodhisattva, which were published in MSB’s magazine, Crucial Point.