Whenever I recite the Golden Chain during our Services, I have ambivalent feelings when I say the words "I will be kind and gentle to every living thing..." Although I'd like to be that way, I know I am not, and feel a little like a hypocrite. To be such a person, I would have to possess compassion, to respect and want to help others, even those I might not like or agree with. To be kind and gentle to every living thing, a person cannot be judgmental, cannot look at someone else and declare them stupid, or wrong, or say things like, "I was doing fine until you did this or that to me." However, as much as I'd like to be kind and gentle, I've learned that I cannot just "decide" to be that way. In fact, the harder I try, the more I seem to go in the opposite direction.
I used to think I could just listen to the Sunday sermons, read the books, attend the retreats, and then go out and live it, putting into practice whatever the lesson was. In my mind, I was becoming a "better person." This usually happened after attending a retreat, or reading this or that book. Just as soon as I'd thought that, however, I'd inevitably find myself doing something selfish, hurtful, judgmental, etc. I can say emphatically that Buddhism has not made me a better person. At times, I feel like the rabbit chasing the carrot on the stick.
In fact, rather than becoming a better person, something of the opposite has taken place: The experiences of my life and my reflection on the teachings have made me see and accept that I am more self-centered and self-righteous than I thought I was. I don't mean to say I'm now a "worse" person, just that I "catch" more of my self-centered, arrogant, judgmental actions and thoughts than before. This makes me seem, at least to myself, to be getting worse.
But is there a positive side to this? If there weren't, I'd have to be a masochist to continue studying Buddhism (the thought has occurred to me). If there is a positive side, it is that before I encountered Buddhism, I wouldn't have thought twice about making judgments left and right about this person's worth or that person's mistake or someone else's stupidity. Since becoming exposed to the teachings, however, I constantly find myself questioning whether I have any right to say or think such thoughts about others. I also sometimes actually think a little deeper about why a person might do certain things and the circumstances that affect their behavior. As much as I hate to admit it, if I were in those circumstances I'd probably do the same (terrible) thing. Of course, after giving the person this benefit of the doubt, I'll still go ahead and judge "this person's worth, that person's mistake or someone else's stupidity!"
I realize that the mistake I am making is thinking of myself as being separate from others. I am distancing myself from others. How easy it is to set myself up as judge and jury for the "rest of you." It is this "distance" that allows me to be judgmental, and makes me tend to see things only my way. It is however, a mistake.
The truth that began Buddhism was Shakyamuni's insight into the impermanence of life, that everything is constantly changing. We try to ignore this truth because it is painful. Instead, we attempt to hold on to our youth, our loved ones and our wealth. This creates suffering because it goes against the truth, against the Dharma. When we forget this truth, we also forget the fundamental humanness we all share, which is our human condition. Instead of looking inside and seeing that we are basically all the same, we avoid the unpleasantness and try to keep busy with jobs, families, etc. Unfortunately, without the inward reflection, and caught up in our hectic lives, it is all too easy to create that distance and be self-centered and judgmental.
All of these mistakes we make are due to our being human. To be human means to be fallible. Further, the truth is, (though I'll never admit this to you in an argument), we are all equally flawed. The goal of the Buddhist is to awaken to the truth that we all share the same fundamental humanness: We all make the same mistakes and all share the same short, fleeting life. All of us, old or young, rich or poor, are suffering or will suffer. Honestly accepting the fundamental humanness we all share is in fact the Buddhist awakening, and can lead to many wonderful things, not the least of which is to be kind and gentle to every living thing.
I'll continue to recite the Golden Chain, but I'll try not to get too upset if you, me, or anyone else for that matter doesn't always practice it. I'll try to remember that such is the nature of life and of being human. I'll also try not to arrogantly believe that just because I attended this or that retreat, or read this or that book, that I'm a "better person," or that I am enlightened, awakened, etc. I am not a better person, nor can I enlighten myself, no matter how many retreats, etc. I attend. Only the Dharma - Truth or Life - can do that. Whether it does or does not is beyond my control.
However, there is a way you and I can help ourselves. We can develop a willingness to honestly face the Dharma when we do encounter it in our lives. In this way, we may "help" ourselves awaken to its truth. If it is enlightenment or awakening that we seek, then we must trust in the Dharma because only the Dharma can transform us.
We cannot awaken ourselves, but we can become seekers of the truth, and possess a willingness to face and accept the fundamental truths of our lives. This is the best self-help there is for the practicing Buddhist.
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