Suppose there were a place we could go to learn the art of peace, a sort of boot camp for spiritual warriors. Instead of spending hours and hours disciplining ourselves to defeat the enemy, we could spend hours and hours dissolving the causes of war.
Such a place might be called bodhisattva training — or training for servants of peace. The methods we learn at the bodhisattva training might include meditation practice and they might also include the six paramitas — the six activities of the servants of peace.
One of the main challenges of this camp would be to avoid becoming moralistic. With people coming from all nations, there would be many conflicting opinions about what was ethical and what was unethical, about what was helpful and what was not. Very soon we'd probably need to request the most tamed and awakened people there to lead a course on flexibility and humor!
In his own way, Trungpa Rinpoche devised such a course for his students. He'd have us memorize certain chants, and a few months after most of us knew them, he'd change the wording. He'd teach us specific rituals and be extremely precise about how they should be done. Just about the time we began criticizing people who did them wrong, he'd teach the rituals in a completely different way. We would print up nice manuals with all the correct procedures, but usually they were outdated before they came off the press. After years of this sort of training, one begins to relax one's grip. If today the instruction is to put everything on the right, one does that as impeccably as one can. When tomorrow the instruction is to put everything on the left, one does that with one's whole heart. The idea of one right way sort of dissolves into the mist.
When we are training in the art of peace, we are not given any promises that, because of our noble intentions, everything will be okay. In fact, there are no promises of fruition at all. Instead, we are encouraged to simply look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. We learn that what truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.
The first five transcendent actions are generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, and meditation. The very words generosity, discipline, patience, and exertion may have rigid connotations for many of us. They may sound like a heavy list of "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts." They might remind us of school rules or the preaching of moralists. However, these paramitas are not about measuring up. If we think they are about achieving some standard of perfection, then we'll feel defeated before we even begin. It is more accurate to express the paramitas as a journey of exploration, not as commandments carved in rock.
The first paramita is generosity, the journey of learning how to give. When we feel inadequate and unworthy, we hoard things. We are so afraid — afraid of losing, afraid of feeling even more poverty-stricken than we do already. This stinginess is extremely sad. We could look into it and shed a tear that we grasp and cling so fearfully. This holding on causes us to suffer greatly. We wish for comfort, but instead we reinforce aversion, the sense of sin, and the feeling that we are a hopeless case.
The causes of aggression and fear begin to dissolve by themselves when we move past the poverty of holding back. So the basic idea of generosity is to train in thinking bigger, to do ourselves the world's biggest favor and stop cultivating our own scheme. The more we experience fundamental richness, the more we can loosen our grip.
This fundamental richness is available in each moment. The key is to relax: relax to a cloud in the sky, relax to a tiny bird with gray wings, relax to the sound of the telephone ringing. We can see the simplicity in things as they are. We can smell things, taste things, feel emotions, and have memories. When we are able to be there without saying, "I certainly agree with this", or "I definitely don't agree with that", but just be here very directly, then we find fundamental richness everywhere. It is not ours or theirs, but is available always to everyone. In raindrops, in blood drops, in heartache and delight, this wealth is the nature of everything. It is like the sun in that it shines on everyone without discrimination. It is like a mirror in that it is willing to reflect anything without accepting or rejecting.
The journey of generosity is one of connecting with this wealth, cherishing it so profoundly that we are willing to begin to give away whatever blocks it. We give away our dark glasses, our long coats, our hoods, and our disguises. In short, we open ourselves and let ourselves be touched. This is called building confidence in all-pervasive richness. At the everyday, ordinary level, we experience it as flexibility and warmth.
When one takes a formal bodhisattva vow, one presents a gift to the teacher as a focal point of the ceremony. The guidelines are to give something that's precious, something one finds difficult to part with. I once spent an entire day with a friend who was trying to decide what to give. As soon as he thought of something, his attachment for it would become intense. After a while, he was a nervous wreck. Just the thought of losing even one of his favorite belongings was more than he could bear. Later I mentioned the episode to a visiting teacher, and he said perhaps it was the opportunity for that man to develop compassion for himself and for all others caught in the misery of craving — for all others who just can't let go.
Giving material goods can help people. If food is needed and we can give it, we do that. If shelter is needed, or books or medicine are needed, and we can give them, we do that. As best we can, we can care for whoever needs our care. Nevertheless, the real transformation takes place when we let go of our attachment and give away what we think we can't. What we do on the outer level has the power to loosen up deep-rooted patterns of holding on to ourselves.
To the degree that we can give like this, we can communicate this ability to others. This is called giving the gift of fearlessness. When we touch the simplicity and goodness of things and realize that fundamentally we are not stuck in the mud, then we can share that relief with other people. We can make this journey together. We share what we have learned about taking down sunshades and unlocking armor, about being fearless enough to remove our masks.
To dissolve the causes of aggression takes discipline, gentle yet precise discipline. Without discipline, we simply don't have the support we need to evolve. What we discipline is not our "badness" or our "wrongness". What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality. In other words, discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment.
It's not the same as being told not to enjoy anything pleasurable or to control ourselves at any cost. Instead, this journey of discipline provides the encouragement that allows us to let go. It's a sort of undoing process that supports us in going against the grain of our painful habitual patterns.
At the outer level, we could think of discipline as a structure, like a thirty-minute meditation period or a two-hour class on the dharma. Probably the best example is the meditation technique. We sit down in a certain position and are as faithful to the technique as possible. We simply put light attention on the out-breath over and over through mood swings, through memories, through dramas and boredom. This simple repetitive process is like inviting that basic richness into our lives. So we follow the instruction just as centuries of meditators have done before.
Within this structure, we proceed with compassion. So on the inner level, the discipline is to return to gentleness, to honesty, to letting go. At the inner level, the discipline is to find the balance between not too tight and not too loose — between not too laid-back and not too rigid.
Discipline provides the support to slow down enough, and be present enough, so that we can live our lives without making a big mess. It provides the encouragement to step further into groundlessness.
The power of the paramita of patience is that it is the antidote to anger, a way to learn to love and care for whatever we meet on the path. By patience, we do not mean enduring — grin and bear it. In any situation, instead of reacting suddenly, we could chew it, smell it, look at it, and open ourselves to seeing what's there. The opposite of patience is aggression — the desire to jump and move, to push against our lives, to try to fill up space. The journey of patience involves relaxing, opening to what's happening, experiencing a sense of wonder.
A friend told me how, in her childhood, her grandmother, who was part Cherokee, took her and her brother on walks to see animals. Her grandmother said, "If you sit still, you'll see something. If you're very quiet, you'll hear something." She never used the word patience, but that is what they learned.
Like the other paramitas, exertion has a journey quality, a process quality. When we begin to practice exertion, we see that sometimes we can do it and sometimes we can't. The question becomes, How do we connect with inspiration? How do we connect with the spark and joy that's available in every moment? Exertion is not like pushing ourselves. It's not a project to complete or a race we have to win. It's like waking up on a cold, snowy day in a mountain cabin ready to go for a walk but knowing that first you have to get out of bed and make a fire. You'd rather stay in that cozy bed, but you jump out and make the fire because the brightness of the day in front of you is bigger than staying in bed.
The more we connect with a bigger perspective, the more we connect with energetic joy. Exertion is touching in to our appetite for enlightenment. It allows us to act, to give, to work appreciatively with whatever comes our way. If we really knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure — how that was making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence — then we would practice meditation as if our hair were on fire. We would practice as if a big snake had just landed in our lap. There wouldn't be any question of thinking we had a lot of time and we could do this later.
These actions become the means of shedding our defenses. Every time we give, every time we practice discipline, patience, or exertion, it's like putting down a heavy burden.
The paramita of meditation allows us to continue this journey. It is the basis for an enlightened society that is not based on winning and losing, loss and gain.
When we sit down to meditate, we can connect with something unconditional — a state of mind, a basic environment that does not grasp or reject anything. Meditation is probably the only activity that doesn't add anything to the picture. Everything is allowed to come and go without further embellishment. Meditation is a totally nonviolent, non-aggressive occupation. Not filling the space, allowing for the possibility of connecting with unconditional openness — this provides the basis for real change. You might say this is setting ourselves a task that is almost impossible. Maybe that is true. But on the other hand, the more we sit with this impossibility, the more we find it's always possible after all.
When we cling to thoughts and memories, we are clinging to what cannot be grasped. When we touch these phantoms and let them go, we may discover a space, a break in the chatter, a glimpse of open sky. This is our birthright — the wisdom with which we were born, the vast unfolding display of primordial richness, primordial openness, primordial wisdom itself. All that is necessary then is to rest undistracted in the immediate present, in this very instant in time. And if we become drawn away by thoughts, by longings, by hopes and fears, again and again we can return to this present moment. We are here. We are carried off as if by the wind, and as if by the wind, we are brought back. When one thought has ended and another has not begun, we can rest in that space. We train in returning to the unchanging heart of this very moment. All compassion and all inspiration come from that.
NOSTALGIA FOR OLD HABITS
Sometimes we feel tremendous longing for our old habits. When we work with generosity, we see our nostalgia for wanting to hold on. When we work with discipline, we see our nostalgia for wanting to zone out and not relate at all. As we work with patience, we discover our longing to speed. When we practice exertion, we realize our laziness. With meditation we see our endless discursiveness, our restlessness and our attitude of "couldn't care less".
So we simply let that nostalgia be and know that all human beings are going to feel like that. There's a place for nostalgia, just as there's a place for everything on this path. Year after year, we just keep taking off our armor and stepping further into groundlessness.
This is the training of the bodhisattva, the training of the servants of peace. The world needs people who are trained like this — bodhisattva politicians, bodhisattva police, bodhisattva parents, bodhisattva bus drivers, bodhisattvas at the bank and the grocery store. In all levels of society we are needed. We are needed to transform our minds and actions for the sake of other people and for the future of the world.
Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
There is a fundamental opportunity for happiness right within our reach, yet we usually miss it—ironically while we are caught up in attempts to escape pain and suffering. Drawn from traditional Buddhist wisdom, Pema Chödrön's radical and compassionate advice for what to do when things fall apart in our lives goes against the grain of our usual habits and expectations.
About The Author
Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun and one of the foremost students of Chögyam Trungpa, the renowned meditation master. She is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners. She is also the author of "The Wisdom of No Escape" and "Start Where You Are" and numerous other books. Artcile originally from