Printed in the Fall 2015 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Boyd, Tim. "Viewpoint: Applying the Principles" Quest 103.4 (Fall 2015): pg. 128-9.
By Tim Boyd
Many years ago I had the good fortune to spend some time with an old and highly regarded Tibetan Buddhist monk. He had come to the Chicago area to give some teachings on the core Buddhist concept of love and compassion. He was a Rinpoche, which in Tibetan Buddhism means that he was recognized as a reincarnation of a previous high teacher, and he was one of the dwindling number of high lamas who had received their education and training in pre-Chinese Tibet. During his time in Chicago he and his attendant were staying at my home. Even though his English was little and my Tibetan was none, we would talk. He would share mantras, and show the various ways they were sung in the different monasteries. He was known for his kindness, directness, and unshakable conviction. When he gave his teachings, through a translator, he shared some of his personal story.
Because he was not among the thousands who fled with the Dalai Lama when the Chinese occupied Tibet, he was imprisoned and at one point sent for “reeducation” by the Chinese. A frequent feature of his reeducation process was that he would be walked around a circle of people where he would be publicly humiliated, beaten, ridiculed for his “feudal superstition,” and provoked to renounce his faith.
Although it was a harrowing story of continued abuse, Rinpoche was able to describe it quite dispassionately. He viewed it as an opportunity to apply the teachings he had been practicing over his lifetime. But which teachings could be effective in that situation? First he said that he tried the approach of experiencing it all through the mind of one of the enlightened beings. He had received many initiations and part of the ongoing practice was to take on the spiritual character, to “arise,” as the deity itself. So he tried it. On one occasion he arose as the wrathful deity, Yamantaka — a powerful being, literally a “terrifier,” filled with an energy that destroys all ignorance and limitation and conquers death. Yamantaka is said to be so fierce that even the other gods run when he appears. So as the people in the circle slapped, kicked, spit on him, and jeered, it was not Rinpoche but Yamantaka who faced them and passed through the experience.
After repeated attempts arising as different deities, Rinpoche decided that it was not effective. He tried meditational techniques to withdraw his consciousness during the hazing sessions, but that only had a limited effect. As a result of all of his experimentation he arrived at a profound conclusion: the teaching that was most effective was the least elaborate, most fundamental of all. He found that it was only when he embraced the mind of love and compassion that he was able to pass through the ordeal inwardly undamaged.
The basis for this mind of love and compassion is expressed in a twofold way, but really it is just one thing. The basic idea is that (1) everyone wants to be happy, and (2) everyone wants to avoid suffering. For committed practitioners, their role in life becomes to behave in such a way that their actions and thoughts lead others to happiness and freedom from suffering.
As an aid in developing this all-embracing attitude, from early childhood monks are encouraged to think about the “fact” that because the process of reincarnation is so all-encompassing, at some point every person has been in the position of being a great source of kindness to you. The teaching goes so far as to say that every person has been one’s mother in some past life. As a teaching tool one is encouraged to dwell on the idea that whatever the relationship may be in this life, at some point in the past the person in front of you has cared for you selflessly; has sacrificed greatly to support your growth; has tried to provide every circumstance that would lead to your happiness.
Using this view, how do you respond when in this life someone treats you badly, even deliberately causing you pain and suffering? That was Rinpoche’s dilemma in attempting to apply the teaching during his imprisonment and torture. The way he described it, as they walked him around the circle, he looked at his abusers with genuine pity. Their disconnection from their higher potentials, their ignorance of their true nature, and the karma that they were creating for themselves moved him profoundly. Much like the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, in the midst of what was thought to be suffering inflicted on him, what he saw was the suffering they were creating for themselves, and his prayer was “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Rinpoche asked us to imagine how we would respond if suddenly your own mother became abusive and hateful toward you. Would you hate her for it, and try to fight and destroy her, or would you feel that something had gone wrong in her mind — that for some reason she was temporarily insane, and as a result was more in need of love and compassion than ever?
I found myself captivated by Rinpoche’s story. Whether one is a Buddhist, a humanist, a capitalist, or a Theosophist, we all need values that we can live by — truths that can be applied to the ever fluctuating, often demanding conditions of daily life. Hopefully the circumstances that we face in our daily lives are not so dramatic as Rinpoche’s, but regardless of the particulars, the conditions of our daily life provide the testing ground for the truths we have encountered.
One of the distinguishing features of anything that can be called “truth” is that it must necessarily be true in every situation. It is universal. Yet in our day-to-day interactions we find ourselves enmeshed in a world of dualities. There seem to be at least two sides to every issue, but only glimmers of truth on either side. How do we choose to act in this setting? In the rush of daily life there is a tendency to resort to a kind of “situational truth” — something that works for a given situation, but has clear limitations.
In the Bhagavad Gita this same problem faced Arjuna and formed the basis of his conversation with Lord Krishna. For Arjuna the setting was as clearly drawn as possible — two sides about to go to war. As a leader of one side, but with friends, teachers, and loved ones on the other side, how do I act? From the situational point of view, Arjuna’s actions would either lead to destruction of life, families, and community or to rejection of duty (dharma), continuation of wrong, oppression in the world, and a denial of values. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Arjuna sought Krishna’s advice.
Albert Einstein once made the poignant observation that “no problem can be solved on the level of consciousness where it was created.” Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna began with shifting the level of the conversation far above Arjuna’s point of view. At the human level a paraphrase of Krishna’s advice might be, “Arjuna, you are looking at this in the wrong way. This is not about taking lives or destroying bodies. This is about the soul, the ‘dweller in the body,’ which is not born and doesn’t die. Lift your mind up and look at this from a different point of view. Let’s start with that.”
Sir Edwin Arnold’s poetic rendering of the Gita, The Song Celestial, presents this portion of Krishna’s advice thus:
Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never;
Never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams!
Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit for ever;
Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it seems!
This initial counsel formed the basis for the profound, and practical, advice that followed on action, duty, liberation, and yoga.
Those who have embraced the wisdom teachings in Theosophy find themselves in the same position as Rinpoche and Arjuna, seeking and finding those truths which are sufficient to address the problems of daily life. In my next Viewpoint article I will explore some of the practical and transformative Theosophical teachings that embrace every phase and experience in life.
Theosophy must not represent merely a collection of moral verities, a bundle of metaphysical Ethics epitomized in theoretical dissertations. Theosophy must be made practical . . . It has to find objective expression in an all-embracing code of life thoroughly impregnated with its spirit — the spirit of mutual tolerance, charity and love. (H.P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 7:169)