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The Buddhist Practitioner and Emotions

Ven. Dr. Am Koe Beighley Su

May 25, 2022

Buddhism and Emotions

In this post, we are going to spend some time talking about Buddhism and Emotions. This is both a very simple and a very complex teaching with a myriad of moving parts. From the very beginning of this post, I would like us to keep several things in mind:

1. Throughout beginningless and endless time, sentient beings have struggled with thoughts and emotions.

2. Every sentient being is subject to thoughts and feelings.

3. Feelings can either precede or follow thoughts.

4. Feelings, by their nature, are automatic, autonomic responses to some stimulus and will occur whether we want them to or not. The analogy I typically use is this one: “If you punch me in the face, it’s going to hurt whether I want it to or not.” And immediately following that incident I AM going to have thoughts about it. The same would be true if you bought me a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup simply because you knew I liked Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. There would be an immediate accompanying thought and feeling.

5. The issue here is not whether or not we are going to have thoughts or feelings…the issue is what we choose to do with them when they occur, our reaction to them, and the decisions we make about them.

6. In the West, the most predominant feeling that occurs when we encounter something we see as or think of as negative or threatening to us is the feeling of anger, however anger is not a singular emotion…there is another emotion, a metta-emotion, an emotion about the emotion, that lies just below the surface of anger 100% of the time. What is that emotion? FEAR. We fear that something is going to happen to us or not happen to us, so we get energized to fight or flee…all out of fear. And, then, we have the impulse to act and react according to those feelings. We’re in what I call the, “READY…FIRE…AIM…Oops” mode.

7. Then we have to remember the Buddha’s teachings about thoughts and feelings:

a. All phenomena are empty.

b. Everything is created by mind alone.

c. There is nothing more dangerous than an untamed mind. (that is a paraphrase).

d. There is the clear reality of the moment, a pure reality that is untainted by our biases and judgements, and then there are all the stories we create in our heads and the feelings that accompany them…and in that moment, we get to choose which direction we will go…reality, raw, clear, and primordial…or with the fantasies we create in our deluded minds.

e. The Buddha was talking to some people who lived near his home country. These people, the Kalamas, were confused by the multiplicity of teachings that they were hearing. Many teachers arrived, who extolled their own teachings and disparaged the teachings of others. And the Kalama wanted to know, “Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

f. The Buddha responds: “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”

g. A paraphrase of that teaching goes as follows, and is a popular saying in our time: Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who says it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.

h. The Buddha’s reply is very full, but it’s clear he says that “reason” (logical conjecture, inference, analogies, agreement through pondering views) and “common sense” (probability) are not sufficient bases for determining what the truth is. It’s not that these things should be discarded, but ultimately it’s experience and the opinion of the wise that is our guide.

All of us are subject to thoughts and feelings when anything occurs within our spheres. It could be what we consider to be good news, bad news, or neutral news. We somehow find it impossible to be indifferent toward something we see having an impact on us, the people we love and care about, people we might consider to be enemies, and as Buddhists, toward ALL sentient beings. Nor do I believe that indifference is the answer. Previously, I used the phrase “take pause”, and it applies here, as well.

Taking pause before doing anything or reacting in ways that will set karma into action, allows us the opportunity to examine our thoughts and feelings. If all phenomena are empty, then what is this thought or feeling about? Where does it originate? If everything is created by mind alone, then what is it that I am creating, IN THIS VERY MOMENT, that has the potential to do damage?

It is imperative that at the moment we have a thought or feeling, regardless of the source, power, or nature of the phenomenon, that we take pause, return to the source of the Buddha’s teachings, and tell ourselves, “This deluded mind that I call “mine” is the source of attachment to thoughts and feelings, and a great source of suffering. I will continue to look beyond my thoughts and feelings, into the clear nature of my mind as if it were a mirror which reflects everything, but possesses nothing. Then I can maintain peace and diminish suffering.”

It is in this way that we, as Buddhist practitioners and students, can engage the process of having natural thoughts and emotions, while simultaneously not being swayed or controlled.

May you be well, may you be at peace, and may you be safe from harm...

As always, I invite your feedback or questions about this post.

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