Our minds can be wonderful, but at the same time they can be our worst enemy.
In this article especially written for Rigpa’s VIEW magazine, Sogyal Rinpoche shows us how to understand doubt and suspicion and recognize wrong views.
THE BUDDHA once told a story about a young man who was a trader and had a beautiful wife and baby son. Sadly, his wife fell ill and died, and the man poured all his love into his little child, who became the sole source of his happiness and joy. Once while he went away on business, bandits raided his village, burned it to the ground and captured his five-year-old son. When he returned and saw the devastation, he was beside himself with grief. He found the charred corpse of a small child, and in his desperation, he took it for the body of his son. He tore at his hair and beat his chest, and wept uncontrollably. At last, he arranged a cremation ceremony, collected up the ashes, and put them in a very precious silk pouch. Whether he was working, sleeping or eating, he always carried that bag of ashes with him, and often he would sit alone and weep, for hours on end.
One day his son escaped from the bandits, and found his way home. It was midnight when he arrived at his father’s new house and knocked on the door. The man lay in bed, sobbing, the bag of ashes by his side. “Who is it?” he asked. The child answered, “It’s me, daddy, it’s your son. Open the door.” In his anguish and confusion, all that the father could think of was that some malicious boy was playing a cruel trick on him. “Go away,” he shouted, “leave me alone.” Then he started to cry once more. Again and again, the boy knocked, but the father refused to let him in. Finally, he slowly turned and walked away. The father and son never saw one another ever again.
When he came to the end of his story, the Buddha said, “Sometime, somewhere you take something to be the truth. But if you cling to it too strongly, then even when the truth comes in person and knocks on your door, you will not open it.”
What is it that makes us cling so strongly to our assumptions and beliefs, so strongly that we miss the truth and ignore reality altogether, like the father in the Buddha’s story? In the Buddhist teachings, we speak of ‘One Ground, and Two Paths’. By this, we mean that, even though the 'ground' of our original nature is the same, the buddhas recognize their true nature, become enlightened and take one 'path'; we do not recognize, become confused, and take another. In that failure to recognize, that wasteland of unawareness, we invent and construct a reality all of our own. We make what is in fact a wrong view into our view, the view that shapes our whole lives, and colours our entire perception of everything. Wrong views, according to the Buddha, are the worst, and the source of all those harmful actions of our body, speech and mind that trap us endlessly in the cycle of suffering known as ‘samsara’.
In his very first teaching, the Buddha explained that the root cause of suffering is ignorance. But where exactly is this ignorance? And how does it display itself? Let’s take an everyday example. Think about those people, we all know some, who are gifted with an intelligence that is remarkably powerful and sophisticated. Isn’t it puzzling how, instead of helping them, as you might expect, it only seems to make them suffer even more? It is almost as if their brilliance is in fact directly responsible for their pain.
What is happening is quite clear: this intelligence of ours is captured and held hostage by ignorance, which then makes use of it freely for its own ends. This is how we can be extraordinarily intelligent and yet absolutely wrong, at one and the same time. This is how we can find such certainty in taking something wrong as right, and yet go through the most appalling suffering, often without even realizing it. Surely one of the most heart-breaking aspects of our lives is that we cannot recognize the fundamental cause of our suffering. Isn’t it curious how we can not detect ignorance at work? But, you see, this lack of awareness is exactly what ignorance, 'ma rigpa' in Tibetan, is.
There could be no bigger mistake than to think that ignorance is somehow dumb and stupid, or passive and lacking in intelligence. On the contrary, it is shrewd and cunning, versatile and ingenious in the games of deception, and in our wrong views and their burning convictions, we find one of its deepest, and, as Buddha said, most dangerous, manifestations:
What do you have to fear from the wild elephant
Who can only damage your body here and now,
When falling under the influence of misguided people and wrong views
Not only destroys the merit you have accumulated in the past,
But also blocks your path to freedom in the future.
Using our intelligence, then, we fortify our wrong view and construct around us a carefully tended, impregnable defence system. Once we have doubts, then everywhere we find allies to help us doubt. We raise a protective dome of doubt about us, which must at all costs be tight and seamless, with no fatal cracks to let understanding filter through.
Wrong views and wrong convictions can be the most devastating of all our delusions. Surely Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot must have been convinced that they were right too? And yet each and every one of us has that same dangerous tendency as they had: to form convictions, believe them without question, and act on them, so bringing down suffering not only on ourselves, but also on all those around us.
On the other hand, the heart of Buddha’s teaching is to see ‘the actual state of things, as they are’, and this is called the true View. It is a view which is all-embracing, as the role of spiritual teachings is precisely to give us a complete perspective on the nature of mind and reality. The teachings are said to have two effects: first, to eliminate ego and, second, to give us the wisdom of discernment, to know what is appropriate and just. This is why it is so vital to have a firm grounding in the teachings, for it is only this that will bring a breeze of sanity and wisdom into our confusion, and sweep away the distortion and suffering of wrong views.
Of course, people are different, and for some it will take longer than others truly to hear the teaching, so that it ‘clicks’ for them somewhere deep in their hearts and minds. But when that happens, then you really have a View. Whatever difficulties you face, you will find you have some kind of serenity, stability and understanding, and an internal mechanism - you could call it an 'inner transformer' - that works for you, to protect you from falling prey to wrong views. In that view, you will have discovered a ‘wisdom guide’ of your own, always on hand to advise you, support you, and remind you of the truth. Confusion will still arise, that’s only normal, but with a crucial difference: no longer will you focus on it in a blinkered and obsessive way, but you will look on it with humour, perspective and compassion.
Let’s look deeper into wrong views, because the fact is that many people do not have this sturdy grounding in the teachings. And without it, we can be convinced or persuaded, so easily, of almost anything. Once we are wrongly convinced, then we find no end of doubts, distortions and misconceptions to feed our wrong convictions, night and day, to prove how right we are. Whenever we cannot understand something, or we feel in a negative state of mind, we cast around to find reasons to justify our confusion and negativity. Like a demented lawyer, we obsessively marshal our arguments, weighing all the evidence in our favour, and suppressing any other explanations, especially the truth.
We find that we only dare mix with people and speak to those who will fuel our false convictions. For although we keep up the appearance of seeming open, we can not allow ourselves to risk being exposed to other points of view, and we are anyway too proud ever to admit that we could have made a mistake. Our memory becomes selective, choosing to recall only the darkness, pain and confusion, and erasing anything that is awkwardly uplifting or constructive, or could point towards happiness or truth.
By now, our wrong views and convictions have a power and energy entirely of their own. We can no longer recognise the truth if it stares us in the face or hammers on our door. We are locked into an endless loop of self-destruction, systematically rejecting and destroying anything positive or truly beneficial because it might jeopardise the fragile creation of ignorance and ego. How many of us go through life turning our back again and again on what may even be the most precious opportunities we will ever know, denying all that is good or helpful, choosing whatever is destructive and harmful, and attracting suffering like a magnet? Trapped in a prison of our own design, all we can do is complain that we are impotent and helpless, and put the blame on circumstances, or our lives or other people.
Why do such things happen? This is a very complex question; there could be so many reasons. Of course, it might be when a distant memory of some agonizing, half-buried childhood experience is triggered in our mind, and that memory mixes and becomes confused with reality. Or it could be for no apparent reason that abruptly we are faced by a seemingly illogical psychological crisis. It can also happen that when we see too much truth about ourselves suddenly mirrored in front of us by the teacher or the teachings, it is simply too difficult to face, too terrifying to recognize, too painful to accept as the reality about ourselves. We deny and reject it, in an absurd and desperate attempt to defend ourselves from ourselves, from the truth of who we really are. And when there are things too powerful or too difficult to accept about ourselves, our arrogance and false pride refuse to let us acknowledge them, and we project them onto the world around us, usually onto those who help us and love us the most—our teacher, the teachings, our parents or our closest friend.
How can we possibly penetrate the tough shield of this defensive system? The very best solution is when we can recognize ourselves that we are living duped by our own delusions. I have seen how for many people a glimpse of the truth, the true view, can bring the whole fantastic construction of wrong views, fabricated by ignorance, tumbling instantly to the ground.
Yet this is so very, very difficult. The more we fortify ourselves behind our wrong views, the less chance there is for transformation. We are often so stuck in our minds, in our own little individual worlds of emotional and psychological suffering. We may turn to spirituality or to therapy, but instead of bringing us freedom and purification, they are neutralized, conscripted by ignorance, and end up as weapons in our own hands, turned against us. And if we call them ‘helpful’, it is only because they ‘help’ us reproduce and prolong our patterns of delusion. They can not truly help us if somewhere we do not recognise or admit to ourselves that we are going wrong.
As we follow the teachings and as we practise, we will inevitably discover certain truths about ourselves that stand out prominently: there are those places where we always get stuck; there are those habitual patterns and strategies which are the legacy of negative karma and which we continuously repeat and reinforce; there are those particular ways of seeing things, those tired old explanations of ourselves and the world around us, which are quite mistaken yet which we hold onto as authentic and so distort our whole view of reality. When we persevere on the spiritual path, and examine ourselves honestly, it begins to dawn on us more and more that our perceptions are nothing more than a web of illusions. Yet simply to acknowledge our confusion, even though we cannot accept it completely, can bring some light of understanding, and spark off in us a new process, a process of healing.
Our minds can be wonderful, but at the same time they can be our very worst enemy. They give us so much trouble. Sometimes I wish the mind were like a set of dentures, which we could take out and leave on our bedside table over night. At least we would get a break from its tiring and tiresome escapades. We are so at the mercy of our minds that even when we find that the teachings strike a chord inside us, and move us more than anything we have ever experienced, still we hold back, because of some deep-seated and inexplicable suspicion. Somewhere along the line though, we have to stop mistrusting. We have to let go of the suspicion and doubt, that are supposed to protect us but never work, and only end up hurting us even more than what they are supposed to defend us from.
When we are feeling in a negative frame of mind, it is only natural to doubt rather than to believe. From a Buddhist point of view, doubt is a sign of a lack of a complete understanding, and a lack of spiritual education, but it is also seen as a catalyst in the maturing of faith. It is when we face doubts and difficulties that we discover whether our faith is a simplistic, pious and conceptual one, or whether it is strong, enduring and anchored in a deep understanding in the heart. If you have faith, sooner or later it may well be put to the test, and wherever the challenge may come from, from within you or from outside, it is simply part of the process of faith and doubt.
Imagine that you had gone all your life without ever washing, and then one day you decide to take a shower. You start scrubbing away, but then watch in horror as the dirt begins to ooze out of the pores of your skin and stream down your body. Something must be wrong: you were supposed to be getting cleaner and all you can see is grime. You panic and fling yourself out of the shower, convinced that you should never have begun. But you only end up even more dirty than before. You have no way of knowing that the wisest thing to do is to be patient, and to finish the shower. It may look for a while as if you are getting even dirtier, but if you keep on washing, you will emerge fresh and clean. It's all a process, the process of purification.
So when little obstacles crop up on the spiritual path, a good practitioner does not lose faith and begin to doubt, but has the discernment to recognise difficulties, whatever they may be, for what they are—just obstacles, and nothing more. It is the nature of things that when you recognize an obstacle as such, it ceases to be an obstacle. Equally, it is by failing to recognise an obstacle for what it is, and therefore taking it seriously, that it is empowered and solidified and becomes a real blockage.
Whenever doubt arises then, see it just as an obstacle, recognize it as an understanding that is calling out to be clarified or unblocked, and know that it is not a fundamental problem, but simply a stage in the process of purification and learning. Allow the process to continue and complete itself, and never lose your trust or resolve. This is the way followed by all the great practitioners of the past, who used to say “there is no armour like perseverance”.
The teachings tell us what it is we need to realize, but we also have to go on our own journey, in order to come to a personal realization. That journey may take us through suffering, difficulties and doubts of all kinds, but they will become our greatest teachers. Through them we will learn the humility to recognize our limitations, and through them we will discover the inner strength and fearlessness we need to emerge from our old habits and set patterns, and surrender into the vaster vision of real freedom offered by the spiritual teachings.
So, again and again we need to appreciate the subtle workings of the teaching and the practice, and even when there is no extraordinary, dramatic change, to persevere, with calm and patience. How important it is to be skilful and gentle with ourselves, without becoming disheartened or giving up, but trusting the spiritual path, and knowing that it has its own laws and its own dynamics.
Then we need, above all else, to nourish our true self - what you could call our buddha nature - for so often we make the fatal mistake of identifying with our confusion, and then use it to judge and condemn ourselves, and feed that lack of self-love so many of us suffer from today. How vital it is to refrain from the temptation to judge ourselves or the teachings, but to be humorously aware of our condition, and to realize that we are, at the moment, as if many people all living in one person. And how encouraging it can be to accept that from one perspective we all have huge problems, which we bring to the spiritual path, and which indeed may have led us to the teachings, and yet to know from another point of view that ultimately our problems are not so real or so solid, or so insurmountable as we have told ourselves.
For us to survive on the spiritual path, there are many challenges to face, and there is much to learn. We have to discover how to deal with obstacles and difficulties, how to process doubts and see through wrong views, how to inspire ourselves when we least feel like it, how to understand ourselves and our moods, how really to work with and integrate the teachings and practices, how to evoke compassion and enact it in life, and how to transform our suffering and emotions.
On the spiritual path, all of us need the support and the good foundation that come from really knowing the teachings, and this cannot be stressed strongly enough. For the more we study and practise, the more we shall embody discernment, clarity and insight. Then, when the truth comes knocking, we will know it, with certainty, for what it is, and gladly open the door, because we'll have guessed that it may well be the truth of who we really are.
Reproduced from 'The Future of Buddhism' by Sogyal Rinpoche, with kind permission of Rider Books, Ebury Press.