Over the weekend of 23th – 25th February, Annie welcomed a dozen or so of us into her cosy front room to hear Tsering Paldron give a teaching on Patrul Rinpoche’s text entitled ‘The Nine Considerations and Criteria for Helping Sentient Beings’, referring also extensively to Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s teaching commentary on the text, given at the Purelands Retreat Centre at Samye Ling in 2007.
Tsering’s style was open and inviting, and our little group responded readily to her invitation to interrupt, ask questions, make comments, and there was an easy to and fro among participants.
The text is aimed at bodhisattvas, but Tsering assured us that we were all potentially bodhisattvas, whatever we thought of our attainment level! The text is directed therefore towards us.
As is suggested in its title, the ‘Nine Considerations…’ are rooted in action, and the choices we have to make in order to be most effective in the samsaric realm in which we operate.
The first of the ‘Considerations’ therefore directs us to examine ourselves. We must accept that we are ‘trainee bodhisattvas’, not even yet at the stage of the ‘First Bhumi’, and protect ourselves as one might protect a tender plant, from over-ambitious notions of ‘helping others’. Thus, if an action might be good for others but not good for ourselves, we should refrain, as in our frail state we might well not be able to withstand the consequences.
The second Consideration concerns the status of beings. The implications of this were a surprise to many of us, imbued as we are with notions of the absolute equality of all beings. But no, in the traditional view of these teachings, we are told to privilege ‘higher beings’, so that if an action would harm these but benefit lower ones (their life-span also comes into play here) we should not act. Humans versus mosquitoes and bed-bugs.
Several of the Considerations presented a real conundrum to a Western way of thinking. How do we know that an action will benefit (or not) ourselves or others in the next life? The ‘Consideration of vows and non-virtue’ sets us out on the lonely road of deciding for ourselves whether a certain negative action (stealing, killing, sexual misconduct, uttering falsehoods, for example) can be justified in the name of the higher interest of benefiting other beings. The scope for simply feeding the ego and self-deception is obviously very great.
Likewise, generosity is not as simple as giving away what one has. We should always be asking ourselves how, or even if, this is going to benefit other beings. A further complication is the question of long- or short-term. If we give to a drug-fuelled beggar in the street, might we not simply be putting off the day when the addiction will be squarely faced?
And so on and so forth. It soon became obvious in the course of the weekend that this apparently simple text was strewn with pitfalls and that, most especially, what it was doing was confronting us with our responsibilities in the sphere of action. Buddha never told us what we should do in such-and-such a situation; he knew in his infinite wisdom that the cultivation of a pure and compassionate heart was the key to right action. There are no ‘Commandments’ in Buddhism, no ‘Thou shalt’, ‘Thou shalt not’. Every act is unique, and draws on reserves of discrimination and ethical thinking cultivated over numerous lifetimes. It is for us to use these reserves, even though we are not at the level of seeing that is informed by Emptiness. At the same time, every being is unique, and each must learn to know him- or herself before ethical conduct is possible.
Tsering negotiated this forest of sometimes apparently impenetrable complications with skill, knowledge and unfailing good humour. We thank her warmly for sparing the time in her busy schedule to come and give us this profound yet eminently practical and rooted teaching, while regretting for her sake the snow episode that closed down Dublin Airport and prevented her from returning for her next engagement! We thank also, and equally warmly, Annie, for her hospitality and indeed for making the visit happen.
Tsering will be teaching next weekend in the UK, to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Bodhicharya Kent on 22nd April, at the Heugenot Museum, Rochester.