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Confidence to Change the World
By Lorne Ladner with Lama Zopa Rinpoche
A few years ago, I began working with Lama Zopa Rinpoche on a book about how people can overcome negative self-esteem and can develop the self-confidence to make the world a better place by helping others. Part of the reason why I thought this would be an interesting subject is that Rinpoche’s own confidence in taking on so many vast projects to help others is so unusual.
In our very first dialogue formally working on the book, I said, “For me at work, at first I wasn’t very confident. But, now I’ve been working as a psychologist for more than ten years, so gradually, my confidence improved based on experience. Based on past experience at doing something, I see how confidence can increase. But, in Rinpoche’s case, with big projects like building the Maitreya statue in India, Rinpoche cannot develop confidence based on past experience because Rinpoche hasn’t done something on that scale before – at least not in this lifetime! How does one develop the confidence or bravery to attempt such big tasks that oneself hasn’t done before and that one hasn’t even see someone else do?”
Rinpoche laughed for some time and then said, “You see, I’m not sure…” I was aware that Rinpoche generally avoided topics that seemed to be focused on his own good qualities, so I pushed further, asking “Rinpoche really doesn’t know why?”
Rinpoche laughed again for some time, obviously aware of what I was doing, and then said, “Sometimes you can just have a natural feeling.”
I asked, “Yes, but even the natural feeling must come from someplace. Where does that feeling come from?” … Still seemingly somewhat uncomfortable talking about himself, Rinpoche said, “Generally speaking, you can have a natural feeling. When it comes to something like building a statue of that size, of course it depends on karma. The cause of that is good karma. When you collect good karma, then the result completely happens. So far, it’s not easy and there is a lot of patience needed, but the main thing is good karma.”
I asked, “Rinpoche does so many other projects to help others, building so many different holy objects, initiating social projects, and so on. Is it that the confidence comes from good karma or the ability to accomplish things comes from good karma?”
Rinpoche explained, “I think it all comes from good karma. The determination to accomplish things and also the ability to do them both depend on good karma. Without enough good karma, even with determination you cannot accomplish what you set out to do. One must have confidence in one’s heart and much courage and determination. Then also one must collect good karma. Basically, that’s how it works.”
One theme that I naturally became interested in exploring with Rinpoche was the Buddhist view on what specific sorts of karmic actions would lead to the results of healthy self-esteem, courage and strong self-confidence to be able to succeed in progressing along the path to enlightenment and making the world a better place for oneself and others.
Rinpoche’s first and strongest focus was on “compassion, compassion, compassion – you know, bodhichitta. The more you generate kindness for others, the more you see their suffering and develop compassion, the more this gives you courage and high self-esteem. The ultimate answer, the clearest answer, is that for high self-esteem you must change your mind from cherishing ‘I’ to cherishing others – from the selfish mind to the mind that cares for others. When you do that, the low esteem is gone and high self-esteem comes.”
… I asked Rinpoche what other sorts of karmas led to high self-esteem. Rinpoche noted, “Other than practicing kindness towards others, I think also that praising the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha also causes high esteem. Also, praising other sentient beings – praising their good qualities.” These points clearly made sense. If low self-esteem is a result of thinking negatively about oneself, which often comes along with having gotten negative input from others and also being critical of others, then karma to change that would include praising the good qualities of the Three Jewels and also of other people.
Then, Rinpoche brought up a special kind of karma that is particularly effective in bringing about high self-esteem. Rinpoche noted, “In the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo), Lama Tsongkhapa very much emphasizes that if you can achieve the special qualities of a uniquely qualified precious human rebirth, then this allows you to achieve enlightenment very quickly. Here, I’m discussing the last one of the eight qualities described in the Lamrim: having a powerful body and mind which can bear hardships. Having such a body and mind means that you have much confidence and courage and so can bear hardships to complete the path of ceasing all the disturbing emotions and obscurations – the gross ones and even the subtle defilements so that you can complete the entire path to enlightenment. Through this you can be like Milarepa and the other great yogis who achieved enlightenment in one brief lifetime or even in just a few years! They were able to accomplish that due to having a powerful body and mind, which includes having strong confidence and self-esteem. The essential karmic cause to have such a strong body and mind is to take on difficult tasks – taking on work that other people find difficult. What you do is you check up in daily life and see what jobs or tasks other people find difficult, and then you take it on yourself. You do it! Whatever things that you notice other people seem to find difficult, you take on the responsibility to do and complete those things. There is no question – definitely this leads to high self-esteem. That is certain. By practicing the kindness of taking on difficult tasks for others – you definitely develop high self-esteem and a strong body and mind that will allow you to accomplish high attainments, complete the path to enlightenment, and then be able to liberate numberless sentient beings from the sufferings of samsara. In general, any sort of kindness to others helps with self-esteem. But, then the lam-rim teachings show how this unique practice of taking on the responsibility for tasks that others find difficult is especially effective.”
Of course, Rinpoche’s description of the benefits of taking on tasks that others would find difficult made me think of Rinpoche’s own activities, as he so often takes on tasks that others would find impossible to manage. However, as we discussed these points in some detail, Rinpoche emphasized how anyone can begin practicing kindness, praising the good qualities of co-workers or family members, or taking on even small tasks in daily life that others around you find difficult or overwhelming. Whether you begin by helping carry in the groceries, being kind to an angry peer at work or school, cleaning the bathroom, or volunteering at a local charity or Dharma center, the essential point is that any of us can take on difficult tasks, thereby beginning a positive cycle of gaining greater and greater confidence, allowing us to take on bigger and bigger challenges to improve ourselves and improve the world around us.
From a forthcoming book on confidence and self-esteem co-authored by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lorne Ladner. The working title is Infinite Confidence. Lightly edited for Mandala Magazine.
Lorne Ladner is center director of FPMT’s Guhyasamaja Center near Washington, D.C. He has been studying with Lama Zopa Rinpoche and other Tibetan teachers since the late 1980’s. He works as a clinical psychologist in private practice. He’s written numerous articles and books which include The Lost Art of Compassion and The Wheel of Great Compassion.
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