When I discovered that my spiritual teacher was not who I thought he was—some of his close students exposed him by writing a letter attesting to his abusive behaviour—I was reminded of a very pertinent Tibetan story that this teacher had told me, one that warns of the danger of thinking we have some kind of realisation when we might not.
The illuminating story with a warning for us all
Lama is the Tibetan word for spiritual teacher.
Once a yogi lived in a cave above a village and practiced meditation for many years. He often looked down on the village and wondered if he should give teachings there. One day, he decided that because they were ignorant, it would be a compassionate act to teach the Buddha’s teachings, so he walked into the village and sat until a crowd gathered around. Then he began teaching.
At first he talked about Buddha nature, the open clear state that is the true nature of everyone’s mind. He told the villagers how everyone has this Buddha nature and how once realised one transcends suffering and lives in peace.
Then he talked about the ego and how our holding onto this false sense of ourselves obscures our Buddha nature. He told them about how mistaking our ego for our true nature leads to negative emotions which lead to negative actions which lead to suffering.
At the end of the talk, he asked if anyone had any questions or needed clarifications, and an old woman who had been sitting at the back stood up and said, “It seems, Lama, that even for me, this old woman, there is hope, but even for you, Lama, there is danger.”
Realisation of our true nature is the point of Buddhism, for that realisation when fully embodied is the same state as the Buddha attained, that of enlightenment, of nirvana, a state of peace free from suffering and the causes of suffering. As he says in the Tathagatagarbha Sutta:
“Good sons, when I regard all beings with my buddha eye, I see that hidden within the kleshas [negative mental traits] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity there is seated augustly and unmovingly the tathagata’s [Buddha’s] wisdom, the tathagata’s vision, and the tathagata’s body. Good sons, all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of kleshas, have a tathagatagarbha [Buddha nature] that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different from my own.”
We can have glimpses of this state in our meditation, that’s how a Buddhist knows this is true, we can experience it directly. Some can sustain resting in that state for longer than others, and at the point where you remain in this state all the time and cannot be removed from that state then you are enlightened. This means that there is hope that we can reach this state of great peace, but there is also great danger for those who have had glimpses of this state, or can experience it for prolonged periods of time, the danger of thinking that they are enlightened when they are not.
“Some people know deep down that they are not enlightened, but still they pretend. I have no doubt that some people sincerely believe they are enlightened. It makes me feel very sorry for them because they blindly trust it and don’t know my simple finger-in-a-flame to test it.” Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Fearless Simplicity.
The finger-in-a-flame test is that if you stick your finger in a flame and it hurts, then you aren’t enlightened. And that’s most of us.
We are all deluded but some of us are more deluded than others
The ignorance spoken of in Buddhism as the basis of our suffering and dissatisfaction is that we mistake the combination of our body, our sensations, our perceptions, our thoughts and our consciousness for our true self, our Buddha nature. Unless we are enlightened, this delusion is the basic human condition, but we can experience freedom from this delusion in meditation and in the moments in our life when we remember to look directly into the nature of our own awareness.
Even on the level of those of us who do not claim enlightenment, or even don’t care about it, there is still the danger that we may think we are acting wisely, that we are acting from our wisdom mind [Buddha nature], when actually we are simply following the desires of our ego. Inspiration and insight naturally arise from the open clear state of the true nature of mind and if we follow that inspiration then we are acting wisely. However, it’s easy to think that an urge comes from one’s wisdom mind when it may come from the ordinary desires of our ego. So how do you tell?
How do you know if an action is unwise?
The way to check is to look at whether or not negative emotions are driving the action and to check the motivation for the action. It’s actually not that difficult to check, you just have to be honest with yourself.
An action does not come from your wisdom mind if it is motivated by hope or fear. Buddhism mentions eight of these: Hope for gain and fear of loss, hope for fame and fear of being ignored, hope for praise and fear of blame, and hope for pleasure and fear of pain.
An action does not come from your wisdom mind if it is driven by attachment to something or by aversion to something, or by a desire to ignore something. These motivations can manifest as the negative emotions of anger or hatred, prejudice or condescension, jealousy, greed, and close-mindedness.
I check, because I know I’m not enlightened, but even when I feel I’m clear on the motivation front, I’m still aware of the fact that I might be deluding myself and I watch to see what the results are. If my actions cause harm, then they are not skilful actions, or at least not done as skilfully as they could have been.
How do you know when an action is wise?
When your mind is clear and open, unafraid and free of discursive thoughts, when you have no negative emotions but rather feel compassion for all, and, perhaps most importantly, when there is no attachment to outcome.
At least that’s how I work it out.
What about you? How do you know when you’re acting wisely? Do you check?
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