Achieving inner peace depends on mastering outer aggravations

by Murray Gordon, The Seattle Times, April 1, 2006

Seattle, WA (USA) -- The car that just cut in front of you on the freeway has you broiling. Perhaps a customer or someone from work has given you a bad time. You feel like there is a smoldering coal inside your chest that's bursting to get out. You take this coal home, criticize dinner, yell at the kids, and argue with your partner. There is major damage.

<< Murray Gordon is a teacher, docent, and recently was an educational program director for the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle.

With our lives getting busier and more stressful by the moment, it's not difficult to see how negative emotions get out of hand. They affect us on every level from the personal to the global — evidenced by the anger, misunderstanding and conflicting agendas among countries.

Buddhism teaches that it is up to us to learn to be mindful of negative emotions at the moment when they occur. It's not an easy skill to master. For the most part, we are accustomed to reacting rather than reflecting. Although we cannot change our behaviors in one day, it is possible to make small but significant changes over time.

Just as a farmer cannot produce a bountiful crop with the snap of a finger but must learn to control the conditions: soil, water, seed, fertilizer and so forth, we cannot cultivate a happier, more peaceful life without first learning to control our minds.

The Buddha was a human being who lived and taught in northern India 2,500 years ago. He developed the enlightened mind, which is characterized by omniscience and is free from all negativity. He is likened to a doctor who prescribes the medicine or a teacher who shows us the path to liberation from our mental and physical ills. I began to practice Buddhism 20 years ago and through study, meditation and reasoned faith, I've discovered that it provides an alternative to the dissatisfaction, suffering and confusion in life.

An eighth-century Buddhist monk, Santideva, addressed negative emotions in "A guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life," one of the most well-known works in Buddhist literature. In his guide, Santideva identifies the core of our discontent when we succumb to negative emotions and asks us to consider how such emotions get such a powerful grip on us — to study them as we would a human enemy: Does this enemy employ weapons? Does it exhibit bravery? What are its strategies? This lesson and its insight are as alive and meaningful today as they were 1,300 years ago.

Enemies such as craving and hatred are without arms, legs, and so on. They are neither courageous nor wise. How is it then that they have enslaved me?

— Chapter IV, Verse 28

When anger, hatred, greed and jealousy overcome us, we need to identify what is happening within ourselves. What is it that destroys our peace and happiness? By identifying the real enemies, we can go about confronting and transforming them.

We tend to believe only things outside of ourselves are our enemies. However, we can find ways to change these enemies into friends — for example by communicating, negotiating, understanding, etc. On the other hand, the more we attempt to make friends with our internal enemies, the stronger they become. When we have the mind-set of craving and hatred, there will always be external enemies. That is our enslavement!

Think of times when you were filled with anger and resentment. Did your actions and decisions at those times bring well-being for yourself and others? Or did they bring confusion and disharmony?

There are many practices and meditations in Buddhism, as well as in other spiritual traditions that are able to transform negative qualities into positive ones.

Some of these practices and meditations in Buddhism are: to cultivate a stable mind, to train in ethical behavior, to develop wholesome motivation, and to exercise patience, compassion and wisdom.

If you can achieve one small step to gain inner strength and transform negative emotions, then the next time someone cuts in front of you on the freeway (or gives you a hard time), you have the opportunity to separate the person from the behavior: That driver's behavior is dangerous.

There is no doubt of that. Instead of cultivating anger, you can have the wish that he or she drive safely. With this, we will have cut a thread that binds us to our own enslavement.

Murray Gordon is a teacher, docent, and recently was an educational program director for the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle. He is also a published poet.