Recently I got into a discussion with a friend about whether Buddhism is a religion or not. He insisted it was and I insisted it wasn’t. My argument was that Buddha’s expertise was the mind (or consciousness), and that meditation isn’t some strange mystical practice you do to levitate or dissolve into rainbow light but rather a set of sophisticated psychological techniques that enable you to know yourself.
I’m sorry to say I didn’t make much headway in the discussion but then I don’t explain things nearly as well as Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher conference. The question she specifically asked was how do Buddhist teachings and practices help us work with the mind’s disturbing emotions in everyday life?
In the first part of her answer, Venerable Robina defines what the mind is, namely “the cognitive process. But it goes to much deeper levels. We’ve got the intellectual, the emotional, feelings, unconscious, subconscious, instinct, intuition.” She then points out that everything we do and say – both good and bad – comes from the mind. In other words, the mind “runs the show”.
Buddhism defines good and bad actions, whether we commit them with our body, speech or mind, as those that are either beneficial or harmful. Therefore the whole point of embarking on a spiritual (Buddhist) path is to cultivate the former and eradicate the latter so that we experience more happiness and less suffering in our lives.
In fact, the Buddhist term ‘nirvana’ which many mistakenly believe means some kind of external heaven describes a quality of mind. “Nirvana is a word that refers to the mind of a person who’s done this job that Buddha says we can do of identifying the negative emotions (depression, anxiety, jealousy, fear etc.), unpacking them, unravelling them, deconstructing them, and actually changing the cognitive processes that go on inside (i.e. the thoughts themselves) that are the basis of these emotions,” says Venerable Robina.
Which is where meditation comes in, a conscious turning of our attention inward in order to examine up close and personal the very contents of our mind. Venerable Robina explains that if anger, for example, is your poison, then that entails “first the emotional level and then the cognitive level beneath it, the bare bones of the emotion, you get down to where you can see [anger is] an elaborate sea of thoughts; it’s a very vivid and powerful story that you believe is absolutely the truth.
“So to have the courage to go into that and unpack it, and learn to see how it isn’t always true, and then learn how to see you can actually change it, that’s the point. It’s the most courageous thing we’ll ever do.”