Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Decision making is hard, but when we consider the welfare of others, it becomes very simple, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
The reason it’s so hard to make decisions, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is that we’re confused about what we really want. If we’re motivated by the happiness and welfare of others, we’ll have no trouble making clear and wise decisions.
People sometimes come to me hoping I’ll make a decision for them. The odd thing is that after I give them advice, they often can’t decide whether or not to take my direction. The problem is not that they don’t know what to do with their life. It’s that they don’t know how to make a decision.
Decision-making is hard, not so much because of the options we face but because we have to deal with our own mind. We’re confused by indecision. That agitation comes from opposing thoughts. We are uncertain about what to do and we are thrown off balance. Which thought should we follow? Which line of reasoning is best? We haven’t developed a clear motivation for our life, or a standard for sorting through the options.
In order to make a decision, we must know what we are seeking. Most of us want longterm happiness, but we can’t decide how we would bring that happiness about. It may feel as though life is moving so quickly that we are not really deciding-we are just reacting. We are constantly being swayed by short-term pleasure or pain.
One of the great texts on rulership recommends that the king or queen carefully contemplate every decision based on how it will benefit others. This is a shortcut to the path of virtue. In the Tibetan tradition, “virtue” doesn’t have a heavily moralistic or religious overtone. It is a process of developing the wisdom to see clearly how the world works, and the compassion to hold the welfare of others always in mind.
The path of virtue is not a meaningless form of etiquette. The Buddha didn’t become enlightened by being polite. He saw how life works and respected the guiding principles of the universe. He learned how to use the law of karma to everyone’s advantage by engaging in virtue.
The word karma means “action:” Every decision we make creates action, and every action creates a reaction. Whatever we decide to do will have some kind of effect. The outcome is sometimes obvious and immediate-we knock over a glass of water and the floor gets wet. Other effects may take longer-we gossip about somebody and later, people gossip about us. With other actions, it isn’t clear when the result will come about.
Karma works in two basic ways. If we act virtuously, the effect is happiness. If we act unvirtuously, suffering results. If we’re at the cosmic bank and we give a couple of nonvirtues to the teller, what they give us back is based on the currency of pain. If we are self-obsessed and angry, the currency is suffering. If we give the teller virtue, what we get in return is in the currency of happiness. The happiness we get in exchange for virtue could happen on the spot or in the future.
When we’re making a decision without a clear motivation, we get confused. We don’t know what kind of karma we’re creating. Contemplation teaches us through experience and technique how not to be swayed off the path of virtue. It is a way to sharpen our ability to selfreflect. Looking at our options with the question, “How does this benefit others?” widens our perspective and gives us a barometer to discern what we should cultivate and what we should discard. In Tibet, this ability to discern is called payu.
Payu is the beginning stage of wisdom. It is a moment of reflecting on the results of what we do before we do it. “Will this action take me in the direction that I want to go?” That moment is the first step in taking charge of our life. With payu, we become like a tiger who moves through the grass in a confident, disciplined and careful way. When the tiger places its paws, there’s an element of respect. What is it that the tiger is respecting? The law of karma.
With payu, we begin to develop prajna, which literally means in Sanskrit “the best knowledge:” What is the best thing to know? Ultimately, the best thing to know is how reality works. Knowing that life operates according to the principles of cause and effect, we don’t have the luxury of being cavalier. We can’t blindly engage in negative activity, expecting it to turn out well. We need to know how to short-circuit this process and do the right thing.
Sometimes we know what to do, but we lack the strength to do it. The small-minded perspective of “me” is holding us back. What takes us beyond ignorance, self-centeredness and anger? Payu reveals to us what to cultivate and what to discard. When we see the best thing to do, we get some perspective and let go of our small-mindedness. We can make a clear choice. Having made our decision, we move forward without doubt.
The text on rulership tells us to sit with our options and contemplate them, and certainty will begin to arise. Having made a decision, stick with it; don’t look back. Changing our decision sets up a bad habit. It reinforces decision-making as an expression of bewilderment and ignorance, instead of wisdom and freedom. Lack of certainty then thickens our consciousness, and decision-making becomes even harder.
Our decisions have karmic power. With payu and prajna, we can learn from our mistakes. We see that when we make decisions based on cultivating excitement or desire, things don’t work out so well. When we decide to solve our problems by getting angry or greedy, we become trapped by those actions. Our decision results in an ongoing argument or crippling attachment. On the other hand, when we make decisions with others in mind, we are cultivating compassion, patience, generosity or forgiveness. Peace and harmony result.
The more we practice decision-making according to these meditative principles, the more we understand how they move us forward. We see that deciding to expand our minds, put others before ourselves, and engage in life with compassion and wisdom is a powerful way to live. Following virtue causes happiness for us as well as others.
I once heard His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, one of the great meditation masters of our time, advise his monks and nuns that it is important to have big plans. If we do not think big about how we can help others, then we will not be able to accomplish very much. Even if we aren’t able to accomplish what we decide to do, if we’re thinking of others instead of ourselves, we will have cultivated our enlightened qualities in making that decision.
A person who has decided to put others before themselves is becoming a buddha, which means “awake:” We are awakening to the best thing to do with our lives-using compassion and wisdom to move forward on the path of virtue. Once we are in tune with life in this way, making decisions isn’t so difficult. Our concern becomes how to express what we’re sure of-that we can accomplish our own happiness by choosing activities that will bring about happiness for others.