tackling the ups and downs in life | Daily News

tackling the ups and downs in life

Pictures by Saman Sri Wedage

We learn that much of our life, we can’t control or do much to change it. Our health, the way people speak to us... The only thing that is in our control are our reactions to the ups and downs in Life.

We can’t control the world, but we can control our mind. We can train our mind. To perceive something useful in whatever we do. Taking Buddhism to a Western country like Australia, one has to make the timeless teachings relevant so they can be helpful to all walks of life.

The role of being a monk in a Western country is very different from in a Buddhist country like Thailand. There, you have to earn respect, you can’t take it for granted. You also get in situations you won’t be put in Thailand. There is a different lifestyle in being a monk in the West. So you have to cope with some difficulties. For example, I was once invited to go on an Australian phone-in radio show.

Turns out the radio programme was a sex hotline. Imagine a Buddhist celibate monk having to answer questions on sex and relationships! Even though I was put in a difficult situation in life, my meditation training helped me out. The few questions I answered in the beginning so impressed the audience, I ended up fielding most of the questions being asked.

The insight you gain from meditation is so powerful, you can answer questions in all subjects. Even if you are put in an uncomfortable situation, you can use your experience and insights into the ways of the mind to cope with whatever happens. No matter what you experience, you can always do something about it.

The monastery in which I live we had to build ourselves. I recall an occasion where we monks were mixing concrete. When you do that, you get cement dust all over you. My robes and under-robes got all dirty with concrete and water. When I was on my way back to my hut, I met a visitor, a Sri-Lankan lady who was well-dressed and seemed to be upper-class. “I’m looking for the Abbot,” she said. “Do you know where he is” Well, I was the Abbot.

So I said , “If you go up to the hall, he’ll be there in fifteen minutes. I quickly went to shower and changed my robes, and became what a good monk should look like.

When I met her in the hall, she was very polite and inspired. As she was leaving, she said, “I saw a monk in your temple who was very poorly dressed. Please tell him to dress properly.”

Appreciate humour

No matter what you do, you can always make fun of it and enjoy it.

A lot of my life as monk is spent in the ditches shoveling sand or mixing concrete.

But here’s an experience on the other end of spectrum. Last March, the Commonwealth Games were held in Melbourne. For the occasion, Queen Elizabeth visited. I was invited – not to participate in the Games – but to a couple of ceremonies with Queen Elizabeth. I was asked to represent the Buddhist community of Australia, which makes up 2 percent of the Australian population, at a state dinner held at Parliament House. The invitation card included a “dress code” – black tie, military uniform, or long dress. I figured my robes qualified for “long dress.”

So I went, and saw Queen Elizabeth, as well as Prince Andrew. I noticed he’s getting bald, so I said to him, “If you lose any more hair, you can become a monk! (Laughs)

Prince Andrew laughed. Because no matter who they are, people always appreciate humour. Dinner brought another problem. Buddhist monk can’t eat after noon, so that means no dinner. But this was a three-course dinner. The first course was soup. Now, monks are allowed to eat a few things in the afternoon, like cheese. So for my first course, I was served Camembert. It was very delicious. The second course was fish.

My second course Cheddar. The third course was dessert, pie with nuts and other Australian goodies. For me: Dark chocolate. (note: monks are allowed to eat chocolate that does not contain milk after noon).

Adapt in all situations

So you can adapt in all situations, which is how you deal with the ups and downs in life. As a monk you have all sorts of different experiences. But you can deal with it so you can make use of whatever happens in your life.

When you’re walking home from the office, sometimes unfortunately you trip in dog poo.

Whenever you tread in dog poo, never scrape it off your shoes.

Always take it home with you. Because once you get home, you may have an apple tree in your garden, and you can dig that dog poo into that tree. One year later, the apples from your tree will be sweeter. When you taste the sweet apples -- that’s dog poo transformed. So, even when you face difficult experiences in life, which you must from time to time, like treading in dog poo, you can always dig it in. If you know how to use the dog poo of life, it always grows sweeter apples in your life.

If you have a down in life, a difficult period, never think it is something you have to get rid of straight away.

Never allow the mind to get into depression. Surely you can’t change the situation you’re in. But you can change your attitude towards it.

Control your attitude

You can’t control the world, but you can control your attitude - how you regard the dog poo and what you do with it.

Sometimes you have good times in life. The biggest problem in human beings is that they are very concerned with the downs, the difficulties. But they neglect paying attention to the up side of life.

What I mean by this is well-illustrated in a story from Ajahn Chah.

I was very privileged to spend nine years with Ajahn Chah. He became very famous because his teachings were down-to-earth – you can understand it if you’re a westerner, if you’re a farmer in the provinces, if you’re a politician or from the elite class in Bangkok. Whatever he taught, there was always something you could laugh was an Army base in Ubon. Ajahn Chah told a story about an American soldier who was working at the air force base. He wanted to go into town and took a rickshaw cycle, driven by a poor man.

On the way, halfway between the base and the town centre, they passed a shop selling liquor. Many of the driver’s friends were drinking whiskey and getting drunk. Because they were drinking, they had that drunken bravado and pointed to the American soldier, and said to the driver in Lao (the local dialect), “Where are you taking that filthy dog to” The driver of the rickshaw looked back and saw the GI was just smiling. Obviously, he didn’t understand Lao. So the driver said, “I’m taking this dirty mongrel to the river for a wash.” When they got to town, the soldier got off the rickshaw and started to walk away without paying. The driver said, “Sir, pay my fare in dollars.” Then the soldier replied, in fluent Lao,

“Dogs don’t have money.”

Don't let people control you or your happiness

It doesn’t matter what people say to you or do to you. Why do people throw scorn on you anyway They do it to try to make you upset. They’re trying to control your emotions. Why do you allow people to control you so much

Why do people allow their happiness to get destroyed in this way

If you’re wise, you say your peace and ease is under you power. You don’t have to let people control you or your happiness. They can say what they like, do what they like.

You can choose to just let it go and make peace with it.

A Chah said, if someone calls you a dog, you should look at your bottom to see if you have a tail. If you don’t find a tail, you can’t be a dog. End of problem.

Sometimes there are problems, especially between relationships between the Muslim world and the Western world, because of terrorism and other issues. We try our very best to create harmony between different religions, and do pretty well in Australia, but there are always problems. Someone once put me on the spot because of lots of articles in the newspaper about an incident where some Americans were accused of flushing the Koran down the toilet. I was giving a talk two nights later in Perth, and someone asked the question, “If someone flushed a Buddhist holy book down the toilet, as a Buddhist monk what would you do”

What would I do Call a plumber.

I’m very practical.

I’ve made a distinction between the container and the contents. You can destroy the container, but you don’t need to destroy the contents. Please maintain the contents. By which I mean: books are containers. It’s what the book says – peace, harmony, forgiveness, moving forward rather than remembering the bad of the past. The dhamma – the true teachings that make people peaceful and harmonious, that’s what is important. It’s the contents of the books.

In the same way, when the Taliban destroyed the Bamyan statues, they never destroyed Buddhism. Just its container, the statues. Buddhists didn’t allow themselves to get angry or seek revenge. If Buddhists sought revenge, then the Taliban would not only have destroyed the statues but also destroyed Buddhism, the contents. It’s the contents that are more important than any container. You can blow up statues and burn monasteries and kill monks, but don’t allow anyone to destroy what those monks are all about.

If we can do that, we don’t mind when people try to upset us by destroying our symbols. Symbols are secondary, it’s what they represent – peace, harmony, love between people, and freedom of the heart. That’s what’s important.

We have the opportunity to make a different response to the ups and downs in life.

We can make this difference. We can.

Inner strength to find a way out

In my experiences as a monk, you can see how people are able to make these changes in their lives. An extreme case came up when I went to Malaysia to teach. There was a girl who had had a big trauma in her life, and I was asked to give her some counselling. Buddhist monks are often sought after for counselling. Because we’re free! But also because we give good advice. She had a big problem. She had been to many counsellors and nothing had worked. She’d been raped violently. For her, it was affecting her whole life. She was in a mess. As a monk, what I did was not to use psychic powers or anything like that. I simply sat opposite her.

You make your mind very peaceful, and feel the person in front of you. You develop a sensitivity to understand where they are, how they feel.

Through silence, you understand her. It’s not something you need a whole lot of meditation training to do. I found that the woman had an amazing inner strength. This is the only time I’ve said to someone in her situation, “What happened to you is wonderful. You are very fortunate.” It shocked her.

I took a great risk to say that. As a monk, as a man who’s never been in her situation. I risked trivializing or misunderstanding what she was going through. But I needed to say something out of the ordinary to shock her and open her mind to a different way out. When she was silent, I could really talk to her. I said, “I mean, I think you have it in you, some spiritual qualities, some inner strength to find a way out of this pain and humiliation and guilt.” You know, people who have been raped feel they are somehow culpable and feel guilty for getting into that situation. It seems irrational, but they do. I said,

“You have the strength to do something. The reason I said you are fortunate is because I think this is your journey, to learn how to move away and climb out from this big hole. I can’t really help you because I haven’t experienced it, so I don’t know what it’s like. But I think when you’re through this, your great gift will be that you’ll be able to hold the hand of another woman who’s been through it and do what I can never do.

“You can say, ‘I know how you feel.’ More than that, not only can you hold her hand and empathize, you can tell her you know the path out. Your own experience can lead her step by step out of despair, out of pain and fear. You can give her life back. Show her her freedom. That is why it’s very fortunate for you. Not now, but when you’re through his. You’ll be an amazing woman. You can really help others in way few people are privileged to do.”

What I gave her there was hope. What I gave her there was a vision of life after the pain. What I gave her there was encouragement. It worked. This is actually an extreme case. When a person has been through such a down, such a trauma, it can scar them, emotionally cripple them for the rest of their life. I said “There is another way. This is your way. When you’ve found it, share it with others.”

That was an understanding of how during the downs in life, you do not need to allow the pain and despair to overwhelm you. There is something useful to gain no matter what has happened to you. The downs in life are the dog poo of your life. That’s where you learn. That’s the fertilizer. That’s the stuff of growth. That’s the Growing Pains.

Learn to give and take

As for the beautiful ups in life - that’s your reward. But the ups also help you to grow happiness. We should always remember to. One of the great downs in life are relationships. Marriage. Partnership. Very often, I see the difficulties my disciples have figuring out how men and women can live together in peace and harmony. How to have a relationship with someone that won’t descend into bitterness and divorce. Some people’s marriages are very dysfunctional.

Sure, they live together, but they aren’t happy together. What a strange thing that is.

If you have children, you love the children no matter what they do, who they are, or what their character is like. Now, when you choose husband or wife, you spend more time than you do selecting car. You take them out, check them out, have your friends and parents check them out. Sometimes these days you even test-drive them before you commit. Why is it that after you go through all these tests, you can’t love your partner the way you love your child

Why can’t you love them unconditionally

If men and women can live in harmony, if we learn how to stop conflict, learn to give and take, in our own house, then people in the country, in the region, in the world may be able to.

How can we learn to do that

So much of conflict starts with a fault-finding mind. When you look at a partner during your first date, you think he’s the most wonderful person in world. But at the time you divorce, you think he’s the most horrible person.

Actually, he’s pretty much the same person. What has changed is your attitude towards him.

Love is blind at first. And if love is blind, then marriage is an institution for the blind. But after a while, you become blind not to the faults, but the good. You need to open your eyes to see the good. Don’t just look at the faults.

Actually, they had them from the beginning. Look at their beauty as well. Too often in life, when we don’t look at another’s beauty, we get angry.

If you have an enemy, say a person in the office or next door or a family member, a great way of overcoming the problem is to look for beauty in the enemy.

Something you can respect, something you can find endearing. I was once at a funeral ceremony of an old man who had died.

In Australia, at funerals there is the tradition of giving a eulogy. Close relations stand up and say something about the person’s life, encapsulate who they were, and recall the good things. “Eulogy” literally means “good words.” This time, the deceased’s wife came up to say something about her husband. She told a story which her husband had told her about an experience that had affected his whole life.

Hard times in life

One time when he was in grade school, children in the class were having an argument. There was about to be a fight when the schoolteacher told them all to sit down immediately. He said, “Get out a plain piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle. At the top write down the name of another boy in the class whom you hate the most. On the left-hand side, write down why you hate him. All the rotten things he does. Unkind words he says. Write it all down.” All the kids in class started busily scribbling about their enemy, the one they hate the most. It took only a minute to fill the whole of the left side. Then the teacher said, “Now, on the right-hand side, write down something you respect about that person. Some kindness you’ve seen them do.” This time, it took them a while to get the first thing down. But soon they thought up the right-hand side. “Now,” said the teach er, “carefully fold the piece of paper in the middle and tear it in half. Put the left-hand side in the waste bin. Keep the right-hand side. Then get up and go give it to the person.” So every child received a list of what their enemy liked about them. That changed the whole dynamic of that class. It changed the life of her husband. Because for his whole life, he kept that piece of paper in his wallet. His wife took out that piece of paper, and showed it to the people at the funeral service. She continued, “Whenever he was upset, he would look at this piece of paper – this is what his enemy thought of him. Imagine what his friends would say. So he’s not such a bad person. It took him through some hard times in life. Because his enemy could see beauty in him, he learned to see beauty in himself.”

At the end of her speech, three or four people stood up – his former classmates – and took out a similar piece of paper. They had also kept them. It meant so much to know your enemy can look at you and see something beautiful.

So the next time you have an argument with your partner, get out a piece of paper. Write down all the mean, spiteful, lazy things they do. Then write down why you fell in love with them in the first place – all the beautiful things. Then go give it to your partner.

Do you understand what we’re doing here Through this exercise we’re forcing people to see something beautiful in the enemy. Because I’m a monk, I’ve been trained in this for long time. It’s really incredible.

When you see someone in a bad mood, don’t look at the scolding. If you look at their beauty, it’s amazing. They change.

Metta (loving-kindness) meditation

One disciple in Sydney, Judy, was a businesswoman. She ran a very good import-export business. There was a very lucrative contract with a big firm in London that she really wanted to get. So she flew all the way across the world to London from Sydney. If you’re a businessperson, you don’t have time to get over jet lag. As soon as she got off the plane, she went to meet the board and CEO of that firm. The board directors met her, and said, “You’ve wasted your time. The CEO is a very hard man even in best of times. Today he’s come in a terrible mood. He’s been shouting at us all morning. There’s no way in the world he’s going to sign your contract. Go back home and come back next month.”

But fortunately she knew a bit of Buddhism. So she decided to do a bit of metta (loving-kindness) meditation. She only had five minutes, but did it quietly in the corner of a room. When she heard the CEO was about to come in, she went out and met him. He was indeed in a foul mood. Murderous! Psychopathic! But here is what this disciple did – I’m so proud of her. She said she hadn’t planned it, it just came out of her mouth, but she told the CEO, “You’ve got such beautiful blue eyes, just like my daughter Holly.” The CEO melted. All the anger drained out of him and he said, “Oh, really” The contract was signed in half an hour. All the directors said, “Teach us how you did this. What’s the secret” It was amazing what she did. The CEO was so stressed out, but she saw something beautiful in him. Something so simple. Just blue eyes.

Because she was looking for beauty, she saw it. And when she saw beauty in him, he saw it in himself. So whatever you look for, the other person shows you that. If you look for faults. They’ll show you faults. And more faults.

If you look for their beauty and kindness, they will show you that back. And more.

As part of my life as a monk in Australia, I teach in prisons. They’re great places to teach dhamma because lots of violent and evil men are in jail. Sometimes you see murderers and rapists. There is one very famous criminal – he’s such a nice guy, because I’ve trained myself to see something beautiful in him. Instead of saying, “Wow! He’s raped people! Maybe he could rape me!”

I went to one jail which had installed a security system. Because people like me actually have been raped. Some people in jail have such long sentences that they know they’re going to die in there anyway, so there is no field for punishment.

One day, the prison doctor gave me a ballpoint pen. Or something that looked like a pen, but was actually a security alarm. He told me that on the ceilings in the jail rooms, there were things that look like smoke detectors, but were actually alarms. “If you get attacked, press the top of the pen and an alarm will go off, and we’ll know where you are. Be very careful. Don’t let the prisoners know what the pen is.”

I then went to teach a meditation class to 30 or 40 people. One of the leaders of the group said, “Ah, you’ve got one of those pens yourself. Do you think that you can press that button at the top before I got to you and raped you ” I looked at him, and said no. “You’re right, I could get to you. But you don’t need to worry, because we like you. If someone tried to jump you, I’d jump him first.” Because I’d been kind to them, they were good to me. That prisoner was my security system. So that’s the ups and downs in life. Some stories of how we can change our attitude to life.

Life is not what happens to us, but the way we look at it, ourselves, our partner, our messes in life. Remember that dog poo is fertilizer. Say, “I’m so lucky!” when you step in some. Scrape it off, dig it in, and grow from it. But remember you learn more from your successes.

Whatever worked, repeat it. Never underestimate what you can learn from your successes. 


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