Training the Mind to Transform Adversity into Awakening

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche explains how obstacles can be brought to the spiritual path and become opportunities for awakening.

Traleg Rinpoche
1 May 2007

We have been born into an imperfect world, characterized by unpredictability and adversity, as finite human beings who have foibles, make mistakes, get confused, and think irrationally. There is much to contend with, and our ability to prevent or circumvent difficulty is quite limited. We aren’t omnipotent beings, and while we try to protect ourselves and maintain order in our lives, we simply don’t have the ability to safeguard ourselves from its disasters.

It is self-evident that the natural world doesn’t behave in a predictable way or do our bidding. We can see this in the recent examples of the Indian Ocean tsunami and the hurricane that decimated New Orleans. Natural disasters have occurred repeatedly in the past and are likely to continue to do so in the future. Millions of people have lost their lives, are losing their lives, and will lose their lives to disease: the typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and bubonic plagues of the past; the HIV epidemic of the present; and so on. Even at a personal level, many things go awry, and our efforts to complete projects are constantly thwarted and disrupted by sickness, mental distress, and all kinds of deception and mistreatment by others.

Adverse circumstances and situations are an integral part of conditioned existence. They tend to arise as sudden interruptions, so we shouldn’t be surprised that natural calamities and upheavals occur in both our private and our public lives. Buddhists do not believe in divine authorship or omnipotent governance of any kind; things just happen when the proper conditions and circumstances come together. As Shantideva tells us in his chapter on patience in the Bodhicharyavatara, “Conditions, once assembled, have no thought / That now they will give rise to some result,” but our ignorance about this process doesn’t change the fact they are interdependent. The importance of understanding dependent arising cannot be underestimated, because we have to be realistic about what we can and cannot do. As Padma Karpo (1527–92) writes:

If you look closely at your normal activities
You will discover that they do not deserve the trust you accord them.
You are not the agent in power but the victim of your projections.
Don’t you think you should look closely into that?
Please turn your mind within and reflect on this.

We can’t tailor the world to suit ourselves, nor force it to fit into our vision of things. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to make things better. The bodhisattva ideal specifically recommends trying to improve our world to the best of our ability, but that ideal is based on a realistic recognition that the world is imperfect and likely to remain that way. Things may sometimes work a little better, sometimes a little worse, but so long as there is ignorance, hatred, jealousy, pride, and selfishness, we will all be living in a world that is socially and politically imperfect. Shantideva counsels equanimity in the face of life’s changing circumstances:

If there is a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for despondency?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being sad?

If things are interdependent, as Buddhists say, we can never expect to protect ourselves against unexpected occurrences, because there is no real order to existence apart from the regularity of certain natural processes. The fact that anything and everything can and does happen would then come as no real surprise to us. The question then becomes not so much why these things happen, but what we can do about them once they do. We cannot control the environment in any strict sense, so we must try to change our attitude and see things in a different light. Only then will we be able to take full advantage of our situation, even if it happens to be a bad one. While it often seems there is nothing we can do in the face of insurmountable obstacles, the lojong, or mind training, teachings tell us this is not true. The imperfect world can be an opportunity for awakening rather than an obstacle to our goals.

Sometimes things just happen, and there may be nothing we can do to change that, but we can control our responses to events. We don’t have to despair in the face of disaster. We can either continue to respond in the way we’ve always done and get progressively worse, or we can turn things around and use our misfortune to aid our spiritual growth. For example, if we suffer from illness, we should not allow despondency to get the better of us if our recovery is slow. Despite seeing the best doctors and receiving the best medication, we should accept our situation with courage and fortitude and use it to train our minds to be more accommodating and understanding. No matter what situation we encounter, we can strengthen our minds by incorporating it into our spiritual journey. A text on mind training known as The Wheel-Weapon Mind Training states that our selfish actions create a sword that returns to cut us. This text advises us to accept adversity as both the repercussions for our own negative actions and the method for removing the self-obsession that caused them. As the text says:

In short, when calamities befall me, it is the weapon of my own evil deeds turned upon me, like a smith killed by his own sword. From now on I shall be heedful of my own sinful actions.

We grow more quickly if we are open to working with difficulties rather than constantly running away from them. The lojong teachings say that when we harden ourselves to suffering, we only become more susceptible to it. The more harsh or cruel we are toward others, the more vulnerable we become to irritation or anger that is directed at us. Contrary to our instincts, it is by learning to become more open to others and our world that we grow stronger and more resilient. It is our own choice how we respond to others. We can capitulate to the entrenched habits and inner compulsions deeply ingrained in our basic consciousness, or we can recognize the limitations of our situation and apply a considered approach. Our conditioned samsaric minds will always compel us to focus on what we can’t control rather than questioning whether we should respond at all. However, once we recognize the mechanical way in which our ego always reacts, it becomes possible to reverse that process.

The great strength of the lojong teachings is the idea that we can train our minds to turn these unfavorable circumstances around and make them work to our advantage. The main criterion is that we never give up in the face of adversity, no matter what kind of world we are confronted with at the personal or political level. When we think there is nothing we can do, we realize there is something we can do, and we see that this “something” is actually quite tremendous.

Slogan: When beings and the world are filled with evil, transform unfavorable circumstances into the path of enlightenment

Mind training enables us to utilize adversity instead of allowing misfortune to drive us into a corner with no answers. This tendency to adopt a defeatist attitude in the face of evil is the biggest obstacle to our everyday lives and the greatest hindrance to the attainment of our spiritual goals. We need to be vigilant about the acquisition of more skillful ways to deal with our difficulties and thereby circumvent the habit of waging war on ourselves. Responding with fortitude, courage, understanding, and openness will yield a stronger sense of self-worth and might even help to mend or ameliorate the situation. This is also how we learn to face unfavorable circumstances and “take them as the path” so that we are working with our problems rather than against them. Because fighting with others and ourselves only exacerbates our problems, we continually need to examine our negative responses, to see whether they serve any real purpose or whether they’re capitulations to the unconscious patterns that habitually influence us.

It is not only when things are going our way and people are kind to us that we can benefit from others. We can also benefit from them when they’re not treating us well. This is a very delicate point, especially in the West, where people are quite sensitized to the notions of abuse and victimhood. People sometimes misconstrue this slogan to be promoting a form of exploitation, as if the victim were being told to participate willingly in the continuation of his or her abuse, but that is not its intent at all. This purpose is actually to strengthen our mind, so that we can step outside our solipsistic state and freely enter into the wider world.

If we are skillful and precise about generating love and compassion, it will make us a person of significance—with integrity, dignity, depth, and weight—rather than someone who adds to another’s sense of self-inflation or advances his or her own reputation by eliciting a positive response from others.

This slogan is about the development of compassion. In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is identified with “skill in means” (upaya) rather than self-sacrificing or self-serving acts. It is altruistic motivation merged with insight, as John Schroeder, a scholar of early Buddhist studies at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland, explains:

Very generally, upaya refers to the different pedagogical styles, meditation techniques, and religious practices that help people overcome attachments, and to ways in which Buddhism is communicated to others. [It] arises from the idea that wisdom is embodied in how one responds to others rather than an abstract conception of the world, and reflects an ongoing concern with the soteriological effectiveness of the Buddhist teachings.

The cultivation of bodhichitta, or an enlightened heart, has two aspects and two associated sets of skillful means: absolute and relative. You could define absolute bodhichitta as the wisdom mind and define relative bodhichitta as the cultivation of a compassionate heart. While relative and absolute bodhichitta are ultimately inseparable, it’s important that we first learn to distinguish them. The lojong teachings are predominantly concerned with the cultivation of relative bodhichitta, but we should never forget that absolute bodhichitta is the main frame of reference and therefore the basis of our training.

The cultivation of compassion is the veritable heart of the lojong teachings. Compassion is not just about alleviating the suffering of others; it is also a powerful tool for effecting our own spiritual transformation. We must learn to be compassionately concerned about others, because that concern is what enables us to go beyond our discursive thoughts, conflicting emotions, and self-obsessions and break down the barriers created by ignorance, prejudice, fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Absolute bodhichitta, on the other hand, is our authentic and original state of being, and therefore relates to the wisdom aspect of enlightenment. Despite the fact that sentient beings experience a multitude of delusions and obscurations, an element of the mind remains uncorrupted. There is an open, empty, clear, spacious, and luminous clarity of mind that is beyond concepts, ideas, or sensations. It does not come and go because it never enters the stream of time and is beyond both experience and intellectualism. Alternative terms for this supreme aspect of bodhichitta are emptiness, the natural state, buddhanature, the nature of the mind, the ground of being, ultimate reality, and the primordial state, depending on the context. They all refer to an innate wakefulness that is present even when the delusions and obscurations of the mind are at work.

The Skillful Means of Relative Bodhichitta

When we suffer from events that are beyond our control, it makes our suffering infinitely worse if we regard ourselves as victims. Since most of our emotional experiences are the direct result of how we interpret and personalize the events in our lives, the real factor in determining how things affect us is the skill with which we handle our own responses. It is easy to see that no two individuals ever respond the same way to a given situation, so we need to ask ourselves how one person can remain largely untouched by an event when someone else is completely devastated by it.

The explanation lies in their respective responses. For example, while it is quite common to experience some envy at first when hearing of another’s success in an area where we feel ourselves weak, that experience will affect us even more profoundly if we continue to dwell on it, for it is really our fixation that intensifies any negative impact. That’s why it is so important to investigate the real causes of our suffering rather than assume that our initial responses are always undeniably true and correct. As Chandrakirti claims:

Attachment to one’s own belief,
Aversion for another’s view: all this is thought.

A life without challenges and difficulties would hardly be worth living. While we know this to be true, we all still tend to drift into laziness rather than approach life with a courageous and expansive attitude. However, even when we manage to pamper ourselves, it never seems enough; we continue to rail against our misfortunes and find fault with what we have, focusing on what we don’t have. People who have experienced a few knocks and difficulties and have learned to handle them effectively usually survive much better than people who have been spoiled from the beginning. It is only when we tame our egoistic drives that we can disrupt our ingrained behaviors and develop real character.

Handling difficulties and coming out of them a better person are the whole purpose of the lojong teachings, but we can only do that if we aren’t constantly defending our egos. Because the ego is unable to face difficult situations, preferring to indulge instead in emotional dramas and negative states of mind, it blames everyone else for its problems. And it is in that sense that the degree to which we experience pain and suffering depends on us rather than on the external circumstances themselves. When we blame others, we are really only giving them power over us, and completely disempowering ourselves as a consequence. Taking responsibility for our own lives, on the other hand, empowers us and cures our tendency to victimize ourselves in any given situation. The following two slogans address the way in which we handle adversity by dealing directly with our self-obsession; the first relates to ourselves, while the second relates to others.

Slogan: Drive all blames into one

As ordinary sentient beings, we are governed by our own selfish needs. Our history books are filled with well-known personalities who ended in ruin as a direct result of the lying, cheating, murder, and theft they engaged in to serve their own perceived needs and desires when their extreme lust, greed, jealousy, and hatred failed to deliver the good fortune they were hoping for. If we examine our own lives, we’ll see that our egoistic drives have actually attracted the difficulties that beleaguer us, a fair indication of the foolishness of our behavior. We might stay in an abusive relationship or exhibit a shameless and reckless disregard for everybody including ourselves. Some people even place their own lives at risk in the pursuit of their selfish desires. The more we become self-absorbed, the more we become entangled and confused. These delusions are actually self-deceptions, because at a certain level we mislead ourselves into thinking they are good for us. Shantideva clearly states:

O my mind, what countless ages
Have you spent working for yourself?
And what weariness it was,
While your reward was only misery!

Even though we don’t possess the kind of influence that ultimately makes people change their behavior or attitudes, an awareness of our own egoistic drives can help eliminate the obsessive fixations that cause us, and other people, so much harm. Our egoism endlessly promises satisfaction but never gives us any real return. We invest, we try hard, we do all the things it directs us to do, but the return is not there.

Many people take this teaching the wrong way at first, thinking, “Now I have to blame myself for everything!” However, the lojong teachings condemn only our egoistic, deluded mind, not the totality of our being. Blaming the ego is not the same as blaming the whole self. If that were all we were, then once that mind was transcended, we wouldn’t be able to function. But we are also in possession of unborn awareness, or buddhanature, and we don’t annihilate ourselves when we turn away from self-regarding attitudes. Buddhism acknowledges a structural formation of self-identity, with many different types of identification based on various levels of consciousness and distinctive levels of being, but it doesn’t endorse a separately existing “self.” When we blame the egoistic mind for our misery, we are just blaming that particular aspect of our identity. We need to understand that it’s possible to think independently of our ego. It is not essential that the ego assume the role of commander-in-chief. As Dharmarakshita says:

Since that’s the way it is, I seize the enemy! I seize the thief who ambushed and deceived me, the hypocrite who deceived me disguised as myself. Aha! It is ego-clinging, without a doubt.

If we regard ourselves as a unity, we might mistakenly feel that it is useless to try to effect any change. When we come to understand the destructiveness of the ego, we sometimes believe that we are simply wretched creatures. However, this is an incorrect view and will only interfere with our mind training and spiritual goals. We are wretched in one way only, and that is in our egoistic self-obsession. When something undesirable happens, rather than blaming somebody or something else, we should look at how we might have contributed to the event. Because our perceptions are not always correct and may not be a genuine reflection of what has taken place, we should always ask ourselves, “Maybe this isn’t how things really are. It might just be my own biased, egoistic mind projecting something onto the situation.”

If we examine how we constantly personalize everything, we’ll see that the real source of our misery is this failure to manage, educate, and transform our mental states. Whenever something goes wrong, we look for someone or something external to blame, and become completely outraged by whatever we decide is responsible for our discomfort. That is really no solution to our predicament, for even if we do find someone or something to blame, it only inflames our anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We might think that the act of blaming others releases us from unfair responsibility, but it really only disempowers us. We’ll have to spend our entire lives trying to stop other people from causing problems for us, something that realistically can never be done. In order to cure an illness, we need to make the correct diagnosis. The lojong perspective is the correct diagnosis for our samsaric condition and is the exact antidote to the incorrect diagnosis, which is thinking that other people are to blame. As Shantideva points out, dealing with our own reactions to things is a far more practical way to mitigate our suffering:

To cover the earth with sheets of hide—
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But simply wrap some leather around your feet,
And it’s as if the whole earth had been covered!

When the lojong teachings say that we should look at our own egoistic mind, and blame everything on that instead of blaming everybody else, it is not denying that other people influence us. In fact, this is why the lojong texts say that we ourselves will become great if we consort with great beings, whereas consorting with evil people will ensure that we are contaminated by evil. The Mahayana teachings use the myth of a gold mountain and a poisonous mountain to make this point. In this myth, the gold mountain turns the surrounding area into gold, while the poisonous mountain turns everything to poison. As Gyalsay Togme Sangpo advises:

When you keep their company your three poisons increase,
Your activities of hearing, thinking, and meditation decline,
And they make you lose your love and compassion.
Give up bad friends—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

We’ll never gain insight into the real source of our suffering until we truly understand our existential condition. The ego always adopts some kind of defensive posture; however, this will guarantee a certain level of paranoia by always trying to determine whether a situation is for or against it. In fact, this is another way in which there is a clear link between negative states of mind and our experience of suffering and pain. On so many levels, our habitual way of thinking is very taxing and undermining. This is why we need to train in the mental strengthening of lojong and stop thinking that every time we have a painful experience it is someone else’s fault. If we don’t critically analyze things, we become lost in a world of make-believe that has very little correspondence with reality. Shantideva compares self-obsession and its attendant conflicting emotions to a demon:

All the harm with which this world is rife,
All fear and suffering that there is,
Clinging to the “I” has caused it!
What am I to do with this great demon?

The Buddhist definition of a demon is something harmful. In fact, self-obsessive emotions are listed as one of the “four demons” (maras) of the Mahayana tradition. Self-obsession is not an isolated experience that only takes place in our own mind: it drives us to do all kinds of very unwise acts. Thus the Mahayana teachings advise us that if somebody completely loses control, “blame the poison, not the person,” because the poison is what is driving him or her to that extreme behavior. If we understand this, we can cultivate a different perspective in the way we respond to others. We will cease to be provoked by their actions and stop thinking the worst or expecting the worst from other people, or we can at least give them the benefit of the doubt. Aryadeva states this clearly:

Just as a physician is not upset with
Someone who rages while possessed by a demon,
Subduers see disturbing emotions as
The enemy, not the person who has them.

Some Western Buddhist authors have presented this slogan with a slight twist: They play down the need to relinquish our fixation on our personal stories, anguish, and resentments, claiming that Westerners have fragile egos and thus need to build a healthy ego first before they can deconstruct it. That sort of logic is total nonsense. The lojong approach has nothing to do with weakening the part of us that helps us function. Only people with a genuine belief in themselves could work with adverse circumstances and situations in this way. Westerners need to give up overfocusing on their personal desires and problems, because they have a tendency to dwell on their own stuff far too much. It is easy to misunderstand the Buddhist notion of egolessness. Put simply, Buddhism makes the radical observation that there is no fixed, unchanging, singular, separately existing entity, and that applies to all phenomena, including the ego. It is quite true that, in the relative world, we cannot just casually get rid of our ego, for the ego is a vital part of us that has a function. However, we can train ourselves to harness the ego’s energy on the spiritual path, and in the process of doing so, we transform a problematic aspect of our lives into something transcendent and inspiring.

Slogan: Meditate on the great kindness of everyone

From the cradle to the grave, other people do things for us, even if we think we are neglected and unloved. If they had not helped us, especially when we were babies, we would never have survived. We continue to survive because other people are still helping to maintain our world. Whether we think our upbringing was good or bad, people provided us with some kind of education and made sure we didn’t go hungry. Practically all of the pleasure, joy, and happiness that we experience come to us because of the presence or activities of others. The food we eat is available to us because many thousands of people are involved in producing, packaging, and distributing it. The same applies to the water we drink, the clothes we buy, the electricity and gas we use, and any number of other things. Waiters bring us food in restaurants, hotel receptionists greet us, sometimes even by name, and bus drivers take us to our destination and exchange pleasantries with us. We must rely on others if we are to have any quality of life. It’s not only those near and dear to us toward whom we should feel grateful, although the kindness of our loved ones often goes unrecognized the most.

Our habituated responses are disempowering, because they make everything look and feel as if it were working against us. If we can shift our focus from our rigid, narrow, and habituated points of view, we will empower our ability to embrace situations in a new way so that every situation will start to seem more workable. Because we tend to think other people are taking advantage of us whenever they get the opportunity, we become unceasingly self-protective and suspicious. We need, therefore, to remind ourselves, over and over again, not to take anything for granted and to appreciate the kindness of others.

There will always appear to be circumstances, situations, and people that create difficulties and obstacles for us. This slogan specifically instructs us to think about the kindness of others when we are confronted with negative situations, remembering that we only mature spiritually and psychologically when we are tested. We should endeavor to think good thoughts about people who have in fact made our lives quite difficult at times and try to turn these negative situations to our own spiritual advantage, so that we become wiser and stronger. As Shantideva says:

So like a treasure found at home,
Enriching me without fatigue,
All enemies are helpers in my bodhisattva work
And therefore they should be a joy to me.

This is also true in relation to bad situations in general. Every time we overcome an obstacle or an adversity, we become that much more intelligent and resilient, for it’s the accumulation of diverse experiences that enriches our lives. Both Christian and Buddhist masters emphasize the importance of dealing with difficulties, instead of allowing them to get the better of us. This may be expressed in different ways and with different recommendations, but they all say that it’s through difficulty that we grow. Saint John of the Cross describes what he calls the “dark night of the soul,” exhorting people not to give in to the darkness but see it instead as a portent of light. In the same way, our difficulties shouldn’t be viewed as something that will automatically destroy us. The metaphor used in the lojong teachings, again and again, is that the manure of experience becomes fertilizer for the field of bodhi (enlightenment). Dharmaraksita says in The Poison-Destroying Peacock Mind Training:

If we don’t put on the armor of the bodhisattvas who willingly embrace others’ ingratitude, happiness will never come to those in cyclic existence. Therefore, willingly accept all that is undesirable.

If we see that it is our response to difficulties that determines what kind of impact they have on our lives, we’ll naturally begin to move toward a more meaningful engagement with our lives as they are. For example, blaming ourselves about our negative habits and mistakes often causes more unhappiness than the actual situation. It is also important to learn from the mistakes of others, so that we don’t repeat their errors and compound our own confusion. If we think somebody has done something reprehensible, rather than blaming that person, we should pay attention to our own behavior and resolve not to imitate such actions. We may be constantly enraged by other people’s behaviors, but if we examine our own responses, we’ll often find that we’ve acted in the same way ourselves, but with a more lenient explanation of our own behavior.

Keeping things in perspective through honest introspection is the way to heed the lojong emphasis on refraining from fixation on others. We’ll then view the behavior of others more objectively and open up the possibility of learning something positive from them. Each of us has our own karmic history and has to suffer the karmic consequences of our actions—nobody gets away with anything. It is fruitless to set ourselves up as the arbiters of other people’s actions, making judgments about what they do. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take an interest in social issues, only that we should maintain our spiritual perspective. The only thing we really have any control over is our own experience, and this control is reinforced by learning how to deal with difficult circumstances and situations without anger or bitterness. Chandrakirti states:

If you respond with anger when another harms you,
Does your wrath remove the harm inflicted?
Resentment surely serves no purpose in this life
And brings adversity in lives to come.

The Skillful Means of Absolute Bodhichitta

Sometimes we generate too much emotion in our lojong practices and run the risk of being overwhelmed. We become so absorbed in our feelings about others that we are swamped by sadness and helplessness and end up thinking, “There’s so much suffering out there; I just can’t do anything about it.” If these negative feelings become too strong, they might become injurious to our lojong practice, so we have to counterbalance that tendency by focusing on the perspective of absolute bodhichitta. This equilibrium between absolute and relative bodhichitta underlies the lojong teachings and is the framework for Mahayana Buddhism in general. As Atisha points out, skillful means and wisdom are the two essential ingredients for overcoming conditioned existence:

Wisdom without skillful means
And skillful means, too, without wisdom
Are referred to as bondage.
Therefore do not give up either.

In the Buddhist teachings, the notions of both love and compassion are infused with the qualities of detachment and equanimity. If we lose sight of that relationship, we may begin to think that equanimity and compassion are completely different states of mind, or that it’s impossible to have loving feelings when we are dwelling in a state of detachment. Detachment doesn’t equal indifference, and equanimity doesn’t mean we don’t experience any emotion at all. We are simply

Traleg Rinpoche

Traleg Rinpoche

The Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (1955–2012) was president and director of the Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in Melbourne, Australia and established the E-Vam Institute in upstate New York. He is the author of The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice.