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Transforming Adversities
Spiritual Growth

From the public talk by Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche
Seattle, September 1998

It is said that all temporary and absolute happiness comes from the good heart that seeks to benefit others, and all sufferings come from thinking only about oneself, aiming only for one's own happiness. All sentient beings in the different realms have happiness as their exclusive concern. Since none of them want to suffer, they spend their whole life aiming for their own happiness and trying to get rid of suffering through various methods.

According to the teachings of the Dharma, if we really want to accomplish happiness for ourselves we should accomplish the cause for that happiness. Likewise, if we don't want any suffering for ourselves we should reject the cause for that suffering. As the great Indian Buddhist master Shantideva said: "Even though beings want nothing but happiness they volunteer for the causes of suffering. And even though beings don't want suffering they don't give up the causes for their suffering." For instance, sentient beings, in trying to secure happiness for themselves and driven by desire, jealousy, and so forth, steal and kill others. Completely caught up in these negative emotions, seeing someone who has a higher status, jealousy arises so strongly that they might kill that person. Not only would that result in the long term suffering of the hell realm, but the temporary results would be that they would be put in prison, loose their possessions, get a bad reputation, completely loose their social status, and so forth. So, through that wrong idea of jealousy and desire we can create an extremely unfavorable condition.

Such unfavorable conditions only come about by holding on to ourselves as very important, considering ourselves as more important than others. That idea is the enemy of the mahayana motivation. For instance, the proper attitude in the mahayana is to consider that since beginningless time, each sentient beings has at one time or another been our kind parent. Considering that all these mother sentient beings want nothing but happiness and none of them want any suffering, we should try to change that self importance idea and train in considering others as being more important.

The wishes of oneself and those of all other sentient beings are completely the same. Since all want nothing but happiness like we do, we should endeavor to make others happy and give up harming them. Generally, if we ourselves generate a good heart and treat everyone according to our unbiased good intentions, others naturally like us, treat us well, see us as good persons and easily respect us. So, the temporary results of wanting to benefit others are that people will treat us well and respect us. If we regard these positive actions according to the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, it is not the outer aspect itself that is of primary importance. For example, if we commit a very small virtuous action but our intention is pure and genuine, then the results will be very great. If we do a very great positive action with an intention that is mingled with the eight worldly concerns, then a very great positive action can actually change into a negative action. It is not the outer aspect but the motivation that is important, according to the teachings of the Buddha.

Shantideva said that when some people during a war see a lot of blood, they get upset and become so frightened that they run away, while others who see bloodshed feel their courage increase. The motivation of a bodhisattva is a commitment to work for the benefit of others until samsara is empty. That attitude is such that no matter how many hardships and sufferings are endured for the sake of others, it would just be perceived as happiness. Since whatever good can be done for others fulfills the bodhisattva's wishes, those hardships and sufferings are seen as an accomplishment, as a joyful accomplishment. Likewise, bodhisattvas would give to others whatever possessions and wealth they had and it made them very happy to do so. Physically they were able to go through numerous austerities and even give up their own body and life with no attachment. Rather, they would rejoice in doing so because it accomplished the wishes of others.

Among ordinary worldly people, the experience of a lot of sufferings in this life might very well increase their courage and cause them to be able to endure more and more suffering. Others, when they experience even the slightest discomfort, can 't bear it. How we experience suffering depends on our mental attitude. For instance, when we treat others in a very good way and in response they hurt us and become our enemies, we get very angry with them. We may feel like we want to harm or put them down in some way. When we do that, the result is that we get more and more enemies. There is no way we could subdue all the enemies we would get in this world. Generating anger in our mind against someone who harms us causes us to experience great mental suffering. Some people become so upset they have a heart attack or commit suicide. If such a circumstance occurs that we feel intense anger towards somebody that treats us very badly, criticizes us and so forth even though we have treated them well, we should first think that there always is a cause for that to have come about. And the cause must have been that we have done the same to that person in some other lifetime, we somehow hurt that person. We now are experiencing the result.

In Chamdo, East Tibet, where I met my root teacher, Tulku Orgyen Chemchok, my work in the prison was to cut wood. When the Chinese were not looking I would just hang out and not do anything. My teacher once said to me, "You are deceiving the Chinese, aren't you?" I answered, "Well, isn't that the right thing to do?" But he didn't answer. The next day when we got together again he told me that he never did anything to deceive others and that the reason why we were in that prison and had to work for the Chinese was because we had the karma for it. For instance, even if all the beings in the billion-fold universe would turn into our enemy, if we didn't have the karma to be harmed then none of them could harm us. We did have the karma to be harmed by the Chinese and be stuck in that prison due to having accumulated negative actions through countless past lifetimes. So we should see it as an opportunity to accumulate merit and purify our obscurations.

While we worked outside cutting wood, even if we had to go pee we would have to ask permission from the soldiers who were watching us. Tulku Orgyen Chemchok said that even when there were no Chinese around or if they weren't looking, he would still go to the soldiers and ask them permission to go and pee. He would see all the activities there in the prison as a source of purification. He told me not to get angry with the Chinese but to reflect on why we were there in the first place and see it as purification. He also told me to especially focus on those Chinese guards as the main object of compassion. Due to not understanding the difference between positive and negative actions they caused so much suffering to all us Tibetans. Since they would definitely go to the hell realms I should take them as the main object of my compassion. He told me not to get angry but to meditate on patience and loving kindness. I especially should practice this way because I had the name of a Tulku. After he told me that, I got some understanding of the right motivation in working for the Chinese. Any work for them that I did, by having the right motivation I could turn it into an accumulation of merit and purify obscurations. Since the reason that I ended up in prison in the first place was negative karma, by following those instructions from my teacher to purify my store of negative actions, I came to see my work for the Chinese as being no different from making circumambulations, prostrations and so forth. Through that oral instruction I really saw the benefit of repaying with loving kindness the harm that others did to us. If we don't use the methods of meditating on loving kindness towards those who harm us, then who is there to meditate loving kindness towards? Whatever physical hardships I went through, by understanding those instructions of my teacher, I just saw it as a purification of my obscurations. From then on I didn't have any more mental suffering about the extremely difficult work I had to do for the Chinese. All those nine years I spent in prison became very meaningful. I actually began seeing Mao Tse Tung as a very kind teacher and as my main object of compassion. So in that way I was able to use unfavorable circumstances as the path and to consider my guards and oppressors as friends. It was a little bit like doing a retreat in prison, even though the whole day was nothing but working for the Chinese.

So, whether the results of negative actions give rise to suffering or not depends on our attitude, our state of mind. Through one's own motivation, one can actually perceive a hell realm as a pure land. Working for the Chinese in those days, some people, due to their attitude, created bad karma, while some people, due to their wholesome motivation, created a lot of good karma. The instructions of my teacher made that become very clear to me. Whatever may appear negative outside can be very positive, and whatever appears very positive on the outside, depending on our motivation, can be something very negative. All suffering and happiness is merely a way of perceiving, which, in turn, depends entirely on our own attitude.

For instance, if we reflect on people in this world, even those who have the greatest power or wealth, they still go through incredible suffering. They sometimes will loose their position or millionaires might loose all their wealth. We will find that none of these people who have such great power or wealth have found any true happiness from it. But, if we regard bodhisattvas, those who have generated the supreme thought of enlightement, we will find that they will try to transform all their actions so as to benefit others without partiality. Like my teacher Tulku Orgyan Chemchok said, if we generate the right attitude we can turn every action into benefit for others. Every harm we receive we can be turned to benefit others. No matter what circumstances arise, like illnesses and so forth, we can actually turn it into happiness if we have the right attitude.

There was one yogi in the area where I was born called Nyima Tsultrim. He spent ten years living in caves practicing what is called chulen, where one survives on the essences of the elements. When the Chinese finally found him they put him in prison and gave him the task of guarding flower seeds. One time I went to see him and asked him what he had been doing. He said that his whole life he had been praying to be reborn into the Buddha field of Amitabha, a pure land called Sukavati, and now all his aspirations were accomplished. His perception of that Chinese prison was of the Buddha field of Amitabha.

I would like to emphasize that no matter what conditions you encounter on your path, try to change it into a practice. Apply the precious thought of enlightenment, generate bodhicitta, and train your mind. Use all circumstances as the path and especially have confidence in the law of cause and effect that says whatever negative circumstances you experience are nothing but the result of your negative actions.

Q: Rinpoche, did you truly feel love and kindness toward your guards, I know you are suppose to say you did, ...laughter from the audience ..., but, did you really?

A: Because of the clear oral instructions of my teacher, Tulku Orgyan Chemchok, I really started regarding those prison guards as my Vajra brothers. I saw them as being very kind. Because of them, first of all I got to meet my teacher. Then, because of his instructions I was able to use my anger as the path and really meditate on loving kindness that actually arose in my ongoing experience. I really regarded those prison guards as my teachers who truly taught me about death and impermanence, the law of karmic cause and effect, and so forth.

Q: Did the change occur suddenly or did you notice changes in your attitude over the years?

A: When my teacher, Tulku Orgyan Chemchok, gave me those instructions on how to change my attitude, at first I didn't quite believe it. I didn't share that same view of my situation at all. But as I reflected on it, I began to see that I was completely mistaken and that my teacher was right. In turn, my motivation, my attitude, gradually changed also. But, it wasn't just suddenly one day to the next. I really analyzed that teaching and then found it to be true... Rinpoche laughs... By analyzing it I found it to be true and my own previously held view was defeated.

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