Everyday Buddhadharma with Linda V. Lewis
Atisha’s Lojong Mind-Training Slogans:
“Three objects, three poisons, and three virtuous seeds.”
The first two slogans previously discussed, “Regard all dharmas as dreams” and “In the post-meditation experience be a child of illusion.” are called absolute awakened-heart slogans because they point to, and arise from, the meditative experience of openness. Out of that fresh, non-territorial state of mind our actions manifest as generosity.
The slogan discussed in this article is “Three objects, three poisons, and three virtuous seeds.” This is a relative slogan associated with discipline because it involves the rigorous post-meditation practice of seeing our habitual beliefs about others arise, but not acting on those erroneous beliefs.
First, to unpack the slogan, what are the “three objects”? Whether we are aware of it or not, we tend to categorize people into friends, enemies, or neutrals and we react with corresponding emotions to these categories as if they were fixed and unchanging. Consequently, the “three poisons” are a passionate attachment toward those we consider friends; aggression—passive or active—toward those we consider enemies; and ignorant indifference toward neutrals—those people we do not know, strangers or newcomers, people we pass by daily without a nod or a smile, people whom we do not bother to get to know.
Yet in reality there are no fixed categories. “Friends” sometimes disappoint, “enemies” sometimes pleasantly surprise, and “neutrals” need not remain so.
So…what are the “seeds of virtue” that can reverse the rigged, narrow-minded way of perceiving? Clinging, unreasonable expectations and demands, the desire to possess—these forms of passionate attachment smother friendship. Seeing these arise and letting go allows the space for genuine, deep friendship to flourish. For when we let go of clinging, our friends are no longer seen as props, reinforcements, or our personal confirmation society and we are able to appreciate them so much more.
I have a friend who demonstrates this well. Tommy is dying of both cancer and pneumonia. He is very frank and matter of fact about his condition. I went to visit him yesterday just as another friend was picking him up with his wife. As I walked to the waiting car with them, I heard Tommy say to his tall wife, “You sit in the front seat, honey.”
Tommy is so self-less and spacious. Even facing death, he is more concerned with his wife’s long-legged comfort.
If letting go of clinging and allowing space reverses selfish attachment, what about the “poisons” of anger and aggression? It is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to someone’s hurtful remarks or to hold a grudge against someone who has harmed us in the past. Verbal or physical reactions typically manifest as anger; but they also arise as passive-aggressive avoidance, not responding when greeted, purposefully turning away from someone at a party, and basically shunning someone.
But if we are practicing meditation with every morning and evening, there may be a wise gap, a pause before our habitual reaction. We may be irritated, shocked, or stunned by a hostile remark—but if we endeavor to practice awareness post-meditation, these are the opportune moments in which to do so. In fact, irritation is wakeful, like early morning sunlight waking us from a deep sleep. Post-meditation practice is not a lullaby. By practicing non-aggression with difficult people or situations in our life, we may even find ourselves grateful for the chance to practice discipline, self-restraint, and patience. Since we have glimpsed the truth of selflessness in meditation, post-meditation we don’t have to defend what isn’t there. But we need to ground ourselves in daily meditation. There is, after all, no post-meditation without some meditation preceding it!
Furthermore, this slogan, “Three objects, three poisons, and three virtuous seeds” may help us be shock absorbers or air-conditioners when we occasionally walk into a room or meeting that is heavily laden with the black air of tension. We can take in that tension and give out our best when we remember that there are no real “enemies.”
In the same way, by becoming aware of “neutrals,” they may become friends. At work I like to get to know the ever-changing cast of mailmen. Because of this they have all become friends, going the extra steps to come inside and plop the mail right onto the front desk where I work as receptionist. This is a big help, as I like to sort and deliver the mail upstairs as soon as possible to my co-workers who may be anxiously awaiting important documents, bills, payments. A month ago, just as the inauguration of President Obama was taking place, Mike the Mailman came in and lingered to watch the ceremony, joining Yo Yo Ma, Isaac Stern, and Aretha Franklin in my memory. Somehow, it made it a real celebration, sharing the inauguration with someone from outside my circle.
It is so worth being interested in the people in our lives. It doesn’t take much time or energy to stick our neck out a little, lean into the unfamiliar. Our heart soon feels more expansive and alive—something we all want.
This slogan really captures the discipline of aspiring to act with compassion. We practice with this aspiration until there is no longer a felt separation between self and other—in other words, for a long time! We are bodhisattvas or awakened beings in training, knowing that we will make mistakes and back slide into self-centeredness. Still, it is helpful to remember that each time we see that we have fallen back into ego’s stubborn habits, we should not lose heart. We can instead encourage ourselves by identifying with the act of seeing, rather than with the selfishness seen. At least we see and acknowledge and intend to reopen.
In so doing, we simultaneously practice loving-kindness towards ourselves as well as aspiring to practice compassion with others. By not giving ourselves a hard time for having a hard time, we relax and can enjoy the training and discipline more, perhaps even developing a sense of humor along the bumpy road. Giving up goal orientation also helps, because this is a moment-by-moment practice.
We can be free of the “poisons” or disturbing emotions, for when we dissolve the mind-made object of aggression, when anger has no target, it self-destructs. Likewise, when there is nothing to cling to, be angry with, or to ignore, the three poisons are cut at the root and the “virtuous seeds” may grow and bloom.
~ Linda Lewis