"Though one should conquer a million men on a battlefield, yet he, indeed, is the noblest victor who has conquered himself." Shakymuni Buddha, from the Dammapada.
"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:v16
Maybe at first glance these two quotes seem to point us in different directions. The Buddhist quote points to an inward victory and the Christian one to a persuasion of men through outward action. Historically it may seem that while a Buddhist's practice is one of inward exploration and evolution through study and meditation, the Christian focuses on prayer and/or good works. But what we have in these two quotes, I think, is an instruction for a practice to fulfil our complete human potential, regardless of what spiritual path we follow.
We all want happiness and don't want suffering. Even the smallest insect wants this - interfere with it and see how it tries to escape, to avoid what it perceives as the threat to its peace. And this is a valid aim, we know that people or beings who are generally peaceful and joyful live much more full and rich lives than those who caught up in negativities like anger, hatred, selfishness, pride, greed and so on. Having a happy mind results in better physical and mental health and an ability to cope with anything that come along be it positive or negative. Whereas a constantly unhappy mind finds difficulties and problems everywhere and may lead to depression, an inability to cope and even suicide, murder, etc. If we look around us we see that the world is full of suffering, dissatisfaction, conflict and misery. We only have to look at our own experience to see that although in New Zealand we have every amenity and comfort we require, there is much dissatisfaction in our lives.
The question then arises; "Is there a way to totally overcome all our dissatisfaction and attain the long lasting happiness we so instinctively search for?" To answer this question we first have to look for the cause of our dissatisfaction and suffering. Usually we look for this cause in the world outside ourselves. For a gross instance, the Palestinians think that the Israelis are their biggest problem and the Israelis bomb the Palestinians. Or George Bush sends a hail of metal onto the Taleban and then plans to do the same with Iraq. In less dramatic vein, when someone zips into a car park I've had my eye on, I bring down hell and damnation on the offending head. We place ourselves in a position of righteousness and create an outside 'axis of evil' which encompasses all those things that thwart us or counter our view of how things should be.
In the example of the car park, say I voice my complaint to my passenger who then says, "Don't worry, there's another park over there. Just take that one." I may take that park but still in my mind I curse the 'thief' who knew I wanted the other park and deliberately stole if from me. I may fume over it for hours or days. Compare the two outlooks - that of me, the driver, and that of my passenger. To me the driver of the other car is a devil, but to my passenger the other driver was just a bloke who was faster than I was - no big deal. Who is right? Such an example shows that the real problem lies not on the outside circumstances but on the way we view and react to them. The problem lies in our mind.
After all, the world is full of problems and has been since life appeared here and nobody, not Jesus, not Buddha, has been able to fix them completely. But if we can fix our minds then we can fix the problems of the world as far as we are concerned. So if this is true then, it seems that if we want to solve our problems and difficulties we have to work within our own minds. We have to transform our attitudes so that when we meet up with difficult circumstances we can cope with them in the best way possible.
A great Indian Buddhist scholar, Shantideva, in his text called The Bodhisattva's Way of Life says that if a problem can be fixed then there is no reason to worry about it. And if it cannot be fixed then there is also no reason to worry about it. What we have to do is find the best way to deal with it, that is all. This is what Buddha meant when he said that the best kind of conqueror is a person who conquers himself. Buddha showed how it is possible to transform all the negative attitudes and emotions in which we so frequently indulge into positive ways of thought, which will then bring much more contentment and peace to our lives, as well as those with whom we interact.
What do I mean by the 'negativities'? Generally they are all those emotions which result in suffering for ourselves and others, such as anger, pride, arrogance, hatred, attachment, selfishness etc. I think you are very familiar with these through the teachings of Jesus. These can all be grouped under three - attachment, aversion and ignorance.
Attachment is defined as that which one wants to be close to and not to be parted from. We can see the faults of attachment in relationships that go wrong when people don't live up to their partner's expectations, arguments occur and totally irrationality may result - like the boy in Feilding who killed the policeman because his girlfriend had broken up with him. Aversion is that which one wishes to be parted from and not to have close. The Palestinians and Israelis are good examples. By ignorance I mean wanting happiness and not knowing how to create it, not wanting suffering and continually creating it Particularly I mean the ignorance that ignores how reality exists and creates fantasies by which we try to live. Most of us are good examples of doing this.
Why do both the Christian and Buddhist teachings put so much emphasis on patience, tolerance, love and compassion? Because these are the antidotes to anger and attachment and they lay the best foundation for the development of wisdom, and especially that wisdom of the nature of self and reality which Ian Lawton referred to in his article Buddha and Christ: A New Synthesis. And also with these emotions as our mainstays our lives become so much more happy and peaceful. Even when we are beset by problems, when we are ruled by these positive qualities, such problems never bring us depression or misery but in fact are excellent motivations for enlightened activity. (Examples: Sister Theresa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Saint Francis of Assisi.) Thus there is very sound reasoning in developing these qualities - while those negative qualities such as anger are merely instinctual - but if we examine them closely we can see they just bring us and others suffering. So if our mental attitudes are the cause of our problems, how can we go about transforming them?
Anyone who has been involved in a problematical situation like an argument knows how difficult it is to control the mind in the middle of the situation. When we are in the grip of anger, it is very difficult to be calm, positive and tolerant. This indicates that we must take steps before the situation arises. And it is not good enough just to think over such a situation, arrive at a conclusion and then think we have the solution. When the situation arises again we will just give rise to the same old habitual reactions of anger. We have to train the mind so that when the situation arises we automatically make the best response.
In Buddhism we have the practices of study, contemplation and meditation which make very powerful tools for transforming the mind. First one has to study the reasons for transforming the mind and the ways to do so. Then one contemplates on these to see whether they fit with one's experience or not and if so, one makes them firm in one's mind by examining them every which way. Then in meditation we go over them again and again soaking the mind in the experience that comes with the reasoning until the mind has a strong experiential knowledge. Only then can one be sure that when the adverse situation arises, one is ready to meet and solve it in the best way possible.
In Tibetan Buddhism meditation means making the mind familiar. By cutting out the usual distractions that make our mental power so weak, we can focus on an object or topic and go through it thoroughly until it brings an strong emotional experience. Meditation in the Tibetan tradition is divided into three kinds analytical, placement and visualisation. In analytical meditation we use reasoning to explore a topic until the reasoning brings a strong emotional response. Then we stop analysing and stay on that response, letting the mind soak in it until it fades. Then we may once again resume the analysis until the mind reawakens the emotional response. Once again we place the mind on that experience assimilating its full force. So, for instance, to cultivate tolerance and patience we will go through the reasons why anger and intolerance are detrimental to ourselves and others. Apart from the reasons given above, as a Christian you might think that as all of us are God's creatures, for me to develop anger and bring suffering to another is contradictory to God's will and harms His creation. Therefore I should develop tolerance and understanding. Then, understanding that other creatures are just like myself and suffer just like me - just as I don't want suffering so they don't want suffering - so why do I bring them harm through my anger?
This is an especially good method to use to develop love and compassion for one's enemies. Although Jesus said "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that spitefully use you and persecute you," we all know how difficult this is to do when someone gives us even a small harm. How quickly and easily the mind of aversion and vengeance arises! When the person harming us is someone in whom we have put all our trust it is doubly difficult. But if we can prepare our minds through study, contemplation and meditation - seeing that the enemy is just another like our self who wants happiness and doesn't want suffering, reacting in the way they think is appropriate and giving us an excellent opportunity to develop our own spiritual qualities - we can eventually deal with this situation with compassion and understanding. Very rarely do the people we like give the opportunities to develop tolerance and compassion that our enemies do. So really, our enemy is our best spiritual teacher.
Tibetan lamas have spoken of their experience of being tortured in Chinese jails. They found their greatest fear in these situations was that they would lose compassion for their torturers. This is what Buddha meant when he talked about conquering oneself. It is also what I think Jesus was talking about when he talked about one's light shining through one's works. For if we can so train ourselves to be like Jesus, like Buddha and be able to approach every situation with tolerance, understanding compassion, love, understanding and wisdom, we don't have to look to the skies for the Kingdom of Heaven or Nirvana for our happiness. It will be right there in our hearts and without any effort our lights will shine forth through our every deed and indeed the kingdom of the Father will be glorified.