Transforming Adversity

A key Mahayana Buddhist approach to eradicating problems is the practice of Thought Transformation (Lojong in Tibetan). This practice, when viewed without some understanding of Buddhist ideas, can seem quite bizarre and even counterproductive. It is a practice and theory where one uses problems, difficulties and challenges as an actual practice to overcome unhappiness. It is actually quite an advanced strategy and was, historically, taught to only a few adepts and was kept as a “secret” spiritual practice.

I believe Lojong was taught secretly not so much because of it being some esoteric, mysterious or elitist training but because the context for the practice was, and is today, paramount in understanding Lojong’s application. You see, to read without context or explanation that one should “Give up every hope of reward”, or “Take on all the sufferings of others and give away all your happiness to them”, or “To cherish your enemy as your kindest friend”, will likely lead to a misinterpretation and some serious negative effects.

When the great Buddhist scholar and contemplative Langri Tanpa advised:

Whenever someone out of envy
Does me wrong by attacking or belittling me,
I will take defeat upon myself,
And give the victory to others.

One can only be left scratching one’s head in confusion or disbelief. How can this possibly make sense when in Buddhist teachings it is taught that the goal of spiritual pursuit is the attainment of happiness for oneself and others? The answer, of course, is in understanding psychology and the causes of happiness.

Happiness in the Buddhist approach is equated with mental health or mental well-being. The more a person cultivates mental health then the happier he or she is. It is simple. Happiness is not derived from any outer circumstances such as wealth, friendship, and status, although these things may be more advantageous than their alternatives, they nonetheless have little to do with true happiness – mental well-being.

So, what is “mental well-being”? At its most basic level it is a balanced mind. That is, a mind that is not whipsawed by the various disturbing emotions such as fear, insecurity, craving, irritation and so on. Also, as the mind settles into balance, manic states are seen as a disturbance to happiness, balance.

As one develops his or her mental balance one notices more and more subtle disturbances. This is what happens as one trains the mind. Unfortunately, I guess sadly, the mind does not become healthy just by wishing it to be so. Just like one cannot run a marathon just by wanting or thinking for it to happen. It takes training to run and it takes even more training to control the mind so that the mind is not controlled by the disturbing, untamed emotions, thoughts and feelings. These disturbing thoughts have never been really trained and they rebel at any approach to tame them now. It takes time. It takes persistence. It takes education as well. We need to study the nature of the mind, the nature and causes of the disturbing thoughts and emotions, and the interventions to subdue these afflictive mental states and then arise the remarkable positive qualities of the mind.

There are many methods to subdue the unhealthy aspects of the mind. But in the end we need to understand the actual nature of the mind, the afflictions, reality. The view of reality is the ultimate solution to all of our problems. When reality is understood then a practice such as Lojong makes complete sense as a means to subdue the unhealthy mind. The misunderstanding we have is that if we can just look after our own needs and wants and attempt to satisfy this sense of self, this identity called “me” or “I”, then happiness will be fulfilled. In fact, by understanding the nature of our identity, and the false identity that is tricking us into believing in a formula that does not work, we then become truly healthy and happy. It is by standing up to the wrong messages this false sense of identity is feeding us day after day that we can then truly be healthy and break free of this false sense of self. When we say, “Give up every hope of reward”, or “Give the victory to others”, we are standing up to the false idea of our identity and bringing it into the spotlight. At that point we apply our wisdom, the wisdom that understands the false way the self-identity shows up (there is a correct identity, of course, but this one tends to hide in the shadows) and by exposing it’s tricks then the false sense of self evaporates and leaves a stainless, radiant quality of the healthy mind.

As we continue to cultivate this quality of mind, a mind that is accompanied by the wisdom of reality of who we are, we find that the mind becomes progressively balanced, peaceful, caring, joyful. By subduing, eliminating the unhealthy, unbalanced, states of the mind we allow for the healthy, lucid, and even blissful qualities of the mind to become progressively dominant. At this stage we just continue to awaken to our true nature. Becoming familiar with the false view of reality is the actual practice of Lojong, thought transformation.