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focus on may 2024

"Ethics and Gratitude as a Path to Happiness" by Ven. Thubten Chodron

Changing our perspective on life to one of kindness really helps us feel gratitude. Gratitude is a wonderful feeling to have because then you see how rich your life is and how much you’ve received. You see how much people have benefited you and how good you have it.
MSA Etica e gratitudine Thubten Chodron
a detail of Andante (around 1928), Karl Wiener (Austrian, 1901-1949) artvee.com

Special thanks to Meg Wilson for the English transcription

Keeping an ethical focus
When we look at scientific discoveries, we need to call forth our sense of morality, our sense of ethical conduct. We shouldn’t be so entranced with what we as human beings can discover about the natural world. If we don’t think about what these discoveries can be used for, and if we don’t have ethical conduct in place in our societal institutions, then these magnificent discoveries will be abused and will damage people. If we’re talking about happiness in the long term, which involves everybody’s happiness, then we have to think about the consequences of what we’re doing in science. Then the question comes up of “Why should we care about everybody’s happiness?”

Having grown up in the middle of the Vietnam war where we were told we were killing people so that we could grow up free of communism, as a young person I thought that didn’t sound right. We were harming people so we could be happy. What? How does that work? When we harm people then we live surrounded by people who are miserable, and people who are miserable let us know they are unhappy. As a society, when we don’t take care of the most vulnerable people, and those people are miserable, we live in a society where we are influenced by those unhappy people. And that infringes on our own happiness. That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, “If you want to be selfish—if you really think that self-centeredness is the way to happiness—the best way to be selfish is to take care of others.” Why? Because then we live near people who are happy. They help us, we see happy faces, and there is peace in society. When we take advantage of people then we live near people who are unhappy.

My point in discussing all of this is that when we act with a sense of ethical conduct, a sense that our actions influence others and therefore we care about others and act accordingly, then we do things that can bring peace in other people’s lives. Then just in terms of this life only, we’re better off. And in terms of the karma we create and future results we will experience, we have a sense of peace in our own hearts because we will know that what we’ve done is good, and we’ve connected with others. There’s a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that doesn’t need other people’s applause and awards in order to be felt. So, helping others also helps ourselves. That sense of happiness is much more significant than the giddy happiness of “I got what I wanted!” That’s something for us all to think about.

Gratitude leads to happiness
Changing our perspective on life to one of kindness really helps us feel gratitude. Gratitude is a wonderful feeling to have because then you see how rich your life is and how much you’ve received. You see how much people have benefited you and how good you have it. So, it’s a change of perspective from “What am I missing” and “I want more and better” to “Wow, I have so much” and “What did I do to deserve this?”

When I was born people fed me and clothed me, turned me over and changed my diaper, and cleaned me up when I made a mess. And I didn’t appreciate anything everybody did. I just thought about myself all the time: “What I want, what I feel like doing, what benefits me.” That perspective makes us profoundly unhappy because we can’t control the rest of the world and what other people do. When we see kindness there’s a feeling of gratitude, and when we feel gratitude the whole world looks beautiful. And then when we approach any person—even those who have harmed us—we can see that the people who have harmed us have actually benefited us. When you can do that, then you really can change your circumstances.

I had an experience of doing that when I was teaching at DFF (Dharma Friendship Foundation) many years ago. It was my birthday, and the people at the Center were doing something for my birthday. One of the people who was really instrumental in the operation of the center didn’t come that night and instead somebody else brought me a card that he had written that said basically, “I’m having some issues with Buddhist teachings, and I’m going to stop coming.” I was really shocked because he was instrumental to operations, and I thought, “Now I have to do more work. Nobody else is going to step up to the plate. And anyway, we had worked in tandem and then he just quit without even talking to me.” I was really upset. Needless to say, I was also quite angry. “Poor me!”

This went on for a while, and I was totally miserable. And then I went into retreat, and during retreat you’re meditating and looking at your mind and thinking about the teachings. I came to realize that the problem was not that this person had stopped doing what I wanted them to do. The problem was that I had unrealistic expectations. If I had not had these unrealistic expectations then what he had done would not bother me because sentient beings do what sentient beings do. And sometimes volunteers sometimes need a break or things come up in their minds and they need space to think and process stuff. So, I realized the problem was not him. He was just doing what he needed to do. The problem was my unrealistic expectations. That’s when I realized, “Wow, the people that harm you actually help you.” Because for me, starting to look at my unrealistic expectations really changed my outlook on life. I now had a way to prevent harm: don’t expect people to do things they haven’t agreed to do. Don’t expect people to never change their minds or to never have problems. That has really helped to prevent a lot of problems and unhappiness with other people in my life, and I have to look back and thank him.

As it turned out, months and months went by, and he contacted me and apologized. To this day, he makes donations to the Abbey. So, labeling somebody as an enemy when they don’t do what you want is really ridiculous. Change the perspective and learn from the situation, and then that enemy becomes a teacher. Who knows, that enemy may even become a benefactor like in this situation. 

Another cause of happiness is reflecting on the kindness of others and feeling gratitude for them. Right now in our society, we have so much of a sense of grievance. This is the popular theme and the result of identity politics: “I am a this..... [fill in the blank with whatever you want], and other people are biased against me.” Everybody can feel this right now. Even if you are a rich white male, there’s this feeling that “Everybody is prejudiced against me, and I can’t get into school because of affirmative action.” So, there’s this whole sense of grievance. 

That mind looks at others and doesn’t see kindness. It sees that people are taking advantage of me. They get more of the goodies than I do—whatever the goodies are that we want. This is a perspective on life. This is our lens, our little periscope, through which we see the world. It’s a periscope of ME, I, MY and MINE. It’s that periscope of grievance: “I’m in competition with everybody, and they’re winning. And it’s unfair.” It’s that whole idea that life is unfair, and I’m a loser.

That whole perspective brings misery. We’ve all had that thought that the world is not fair and I feel sorry for myself because it’s not fair. But what the Dharma teaches us is to have a different perspective where what we see is kindness instead of competition. It teaches us to see the world as kind and to see others as helping. I know for myself when I started doing this meditation consistently, it really changed my internal feeling towards life. It was a whole new perspective, and a lot changed inside of me.

In my case, a lot of my unhappiness when I was younger came from the feeling that, “My parents don’t understand me. I want them to understand me, but they don’t, and I’m miserable.” When I encountered Buddhism I started meditating on the kindness of my parents, and I realized that for my whole life I had taken their kindness for granted. Instead of gratitude, I had that feeling of, “I didn’t ask to be born. You had me, so you’re supposed to do everything you can to make your child happy. That’s the definition of being a parent.” I never stopped to realize how kind my parents were. Once I started doing that and thinking of what my mom went through to have me and what my dad went through to support the family, when I started thinking about everything I had received from my education—when I saw how much the world and my family had benefited me—it was really shocking. I began to switch from this grievance mentality of “The world doesn’t understand me” to “Wow, look how kind the world is and how much I’ve received!”

It’s the same with looking at my teachers in school. I remember when I was a freshman in college, one of the requirements was to take an English class. In that class we had to write papers with a topic sentence in each paragraph, and we had to play by all the grammar rules and give oral presentations in front of the whole class. My papers always came back totally marked up with red ink and notes that I had to rewrite it because of grammar and what have you. I really didn’t like the teacher. She was a TA, and why are you a TA? It’s because you need money to do your graduate work. Now I look back on that class, and I can’t even remember her name, but I’m really grateful to the TA who taught it. Look what I have been able to do because of all that rewriting of papers and outlines and learning how to present something in a clear fashion! I’m really grateful to that person.

In the same way, when I was growing up there were lots of opportunities to do things that I didn’t want to do. My parents would say, “You should go and do this. You’re going to enjoy it.” And I would complain: “I don’t want to do this.” The notice came for the opportunity to learn musical instruments, and I didn’t want to do it. I just wanted to play the drum—bang, bang, bang. I didn’t think I would be any good at it, but they made me do it. There were lots of instances where I didn’t want to do things, but they made me do them and told me I would enjoy them. And there were many times that I did actually enjoy them. And even if I hadn’t enjoyed it, what I learned from that experience of doing things that I didn’t want to do has been something that has really helped me in life.

As you go through life, there are many instances where you have to do things you don’t want to do. If every time you don’t feel like doing something you stomp your foot and refuse to do it then you’re going to be miserable. So, they really helped me to see that I could do things I didn’t feel like doing, and I could try things I didn’t think I’d be good at, and it all worked out. It’s really important to have that ability to do things that you don’t want to do in life. 

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focus on may 2024
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