"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha
Q&A with Ven. Upasanti
Posted on December 11, 2015
Question: Ven. Upasanti, with so many wars being declared in the name of religion, can you explain why His Holiness hasn’t encouraged Tibet to take a more violent approach towards attaining freedom?
Ven. Upasanti:First, I believe that humans are basically kind and gentle and that the use of violence goes against our fundamental nature. Second, it is difficult to find in human history examples of military solutions leading to lasting resolution of whatever the problem was. Furthermore, these days, national boundaries are becoming less important; for example, in the modern economy, there are basically none. Moreover, information technology and tourism are turning the world into a single human community. Therefore, the concept of independence has less meaning these days.
Things are highly interdependent. The very concepts of “we” and “they” are becoming irrelevant. War is out of date because our neighbors are part of ourselves. We see this in economic, educational and environmental issues. Although we may have some ideological differences or other conflicts with our neighbor, economically and environmentally we share essentially the same country, and destroying our neighbor is destroying ourselves. It’s foolish.
Basically, violence is obsolete. In the case of Tibet, whether we like it or not, we have to live side by side with our Chinese brothers and sisters. Tibetans have had relations with China for almost two thousand years. Sometimes they have been happy; sometimes not. Right now we’re going through an unhappy period, but regardless of this, we still have to live together as neighbors. Therefore, in order to live peacefully, harmoniously and with friendship in future, it is extremely important that while carrying on our struggle for freedom, we avoid using violence. This is His Holiness’ fundamental belief.
Another thing is that to find a solution to the problems between China and Tibet, the support of the Chinese public is essential. There is growing support and solidarity for the Tibetan cause among Chinese people and this is very encouraging. But if we resort to violence and cause Chinese people to shed blood, even those Chinese who intellectually recognize that Tibet’s struggle is just and that the Tibetan people have really suffered during the so-called peaceful liberation of Tibet will withdraw their support because their own brothers and sisters are suffering. Therefore, it is extremely important that throughout our struggle we continue to rely on non-violent means.
Question: How does someone maintain a spiritual diet or spiritual nourishment in such a busy world? Is there a very quick and simple mantra one can say when first arising or something to focus on during the day to feel calm?
Ven. Upasanti:You can do this through training your mind. Start by getting up early in the morning. Most elder monks get up at 2:30 in the morning and go to bed at 7:30 in the evening. My schedule begins an hour or two later; I get up at 3:30 and go to bed at 8:30-9:00pm. So, you need to be able to sacrifice staying up late. If you really enjoy that, maybe you can do it once a month.
Then, once you are able to get up early, examine your daily life. Examine and analyze. This is the proper way; I don’t know any simpler method. Furthermore, I’m very skeptical of those who claim that problems can be solved just by closing your eyes. Problems can be solved only through developing your mental attitude properly, which takes time and effort.
Question: In this materialistic and consumer-driven society, how does one overcome the desire for and attachment to material goods?
Ven. Upasanti:If you think deeply in terms of the spiritual practice of cultivating modest desires and contentment, I would say that in some respects there are more opportunities for people living in materially affluent societies. People in less materially developed societies haven’t had the opportunity to really experience the limitations of material conditions and facilities. If you live in a materially affluent society, it is easier for you to see the limits of material facilities in terms of providing satisfaction. So I would say that in a materially enriched society, there are, in fact, more opportunities for spiritual practice. Of course, it all depends upon the individual’s own attitudes and thoughts.
However, this deeply embedded idea of the West being a consumer-driven, materialistic culture may contain an element of imagination. People make these categorical differences between Eastern and Western cultures and then, as Westerners, you start to believe in them. You think that your lives are driven by materialistic values; you project a certain image of your own culture and begin to believe in it, perpetuating a certain mindset.
Among my friends, I know individuals with a tremendous commitment and dedication to the practice of Buddhadharma. They also have quite a high degree of experience based on prolonged meditative practices and live according to the experiences they have gained. We can find such people in both the East and the West. The basic nature of all human beings is the same.
Question: Earlier during the teaching, you said that emotional afflictions are the causes of suffering. Can we remove our afflictions without removing our emotions?
Ven. Upasanti:Definitely. For example, one of the antidotes to emotional afflictions is meditation on emptiness. As we deepen our experience of emptiness, we get a powerful surge of emotion, which itself acts to counter the negative, or afflictive, emotions. We also find in Buddhist practice specific antidotes to specific problems. For example, we meditate on loving kindness to counter hatred and hostility, and on impermanence to counter strong attachment. In other words, the emotion of love is generated as an antidote to anger and the experience of impermanence as an antidote to attachment.
One difference between the destructive, negative emotions on the one side and constructive, positive emotions on the other is that constructive, positive emotions have a strong grounding in valid experience and reasoning. In fact, the more we analyze these positive emotions, the more they are enhanced. Negative, afflictive emotions, by contrast, are usually quite superficial. They have no grounding in reason and often arise out of habit rather than reasoned thought processes.
Question: Does love dilute pain and suffering in the same way that light dispels darkness?
Ven. Upasanti:Perhaps the parallel is not that close, because light dispels dark directly and instantaneously; darkness vanishes the moment you switch on a light. The effect of love on pain and suffering is more complex and indirect. When we cultivate love and compassion, they promote within us strength and courage, allowing us to be more tolerant and able to bear hardship. This is how love helps us deal with and overcome pain and suffering. It’s an indirect relationship.
Question: Many texts describe the practitioner’s goal as that of buddhahood itself, yet among seasoned Western Dharma teachers there seems to be a trend towards accepting partial results, as if buddhahood is unattainable. This new attitude is that of accepting a samsaric mind punctuated by spiritual phases and seems to be based on those diligent teachers’ inability to achieve complete liberation themselves. Is seeking buddhahood in this very lifetime still a viable goal in what the Buddha declared would be a dark age for Buddhism?
Ven. Upasanti:If you understand the process of attaining buddhahood from the general Mahayana perspective, the attainment of buddhahood within the period of three countless eons is actually said to be the quick version. Some texts speak about forty countless eons! However, according to the general Vajrayana teachings, practitioners with high levels of realization can prolong their lifespan and attain Buddhahood within a single lifetime. The Highest Yoga Tantra teachings recognize that even within this short human lifetime, the possibility of full enlightenment exists.
There is also the idea of someone being able to attain full enlightenment after a three-year retreat …..the shorter the time period of your expectation, the greater the danger of losing courage and enthusiasm. Leaving aside the question of whether it takes three or forty countless eons to reach enlightenment, when you cultivate deeply such powerful sentiments as those articulated in Shantideva’s prayer,
For as long as space exists,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world,
Time is totally irrelevant; you are thinking in terms of infinity. Also, when you read in the Mahayana scriptures passages pertaining to the bodhisattva’s practice of what is called “armor-like patience”, again time has no significance. These are tremendously inspiring and courageous sentiments.
Question: Ven. Upasanti, although my meditation experience is very shallow and weak, when meditating on the lack of inherent existence of self, I become scared at the dawn of that understanding. Is this normal? Is there an antidote?
Ven. Upasanti:There are two possibilities. One is that perhaps your understanding of emptiness is not deep enough, in which case there is a danger of your sliding into a nihilistic interpretation of the meaning of emptiness, where emptiness almost becomes a concept of nothingness or non-existence. This can then cause some kind of fear of non-existence. Under such circumstances, it is important to reinforce your conviction in the efficacy of the law of cause and effect, and particularly in the teachings of dependent origination, because the true meaning of emptiness has to be understood in terms of dependent arising. The antidote to this fear is reinforcing your understanding of the dependent origination of things, their cause and effect nature, how they come into being what kind of conventional, or relative, status they possess.
However, it is also possible that your understanding of emptiness is correct. When you deeply reflect on emptiness, it is not impossible that some kind of fear or anxiety might arise in you, because what we normally take for granted and hold to be unquestionable….this solid, concrete reality and independently existing self….has been shown to be false. This kind of realization can cause a sense of fear, but this fear gradually diminishes as you deepen your understanding of emptiness more and more.
Question: How can the law of dependent origination explain the continuity of mind? Is the mind an independent phenomenon?
Ven. Upasanti:It is possible to misunderstand the ever-present continuity of consciousness as being some kind of eternal entity, but just because something retains its continuum does not mean that it is an eternal, unchanging, permanent phenomenon. For example, when we look carefully, we see the tremendous complexity of the world of experience. It is this very complexity, in fact, to which we refer as consciousness, or mind, and it is on the basis of this continuum that we describe states of mind as being of particular types.
Also, we know from our personal experience that our thoughts, emotions and attitudes can change. If the mind were permanent and independent, there would simply be no room for such changes to occur. The fact that there is room for change and transformation suggests that consciousness is a dynamic, ever-changing phenomenon. We can understand consciousness only in terms of a continuum, but this continuum can only be understood in relation to the succession of many events. This already suggests that we are talking about a composite phenomenon and that consciousness is dependently originated.
When we look at things and events, we can see that there is a relationship between the whole and the constituents that come together to compose it. The fact that something is said to be whole immediately suggests its relationship with its constituent parts. The constituent parts are not independent or separate from the whole, nor are they identical to it. There is a relationship between the two.
Question: What question would you ask us that we might each answer within ourselves?
Ven. Upasanti:Do you examine yourself to see whether or not you are dedicated to your spiritual practice? This is so very important.