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Training the Untrained Mind
An Excerpt from The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton
Mind training is essential to Buddhism. In essence, it is the path the Buddha advocated in his Fourth Noble Truth. And yet, as I’ve said, mind training is not necessarily a religious or spiritual practice. It does not rest on accepting certain religious beliefs or adopting particular terminology. It can be used successfully as an entirely secular practice, or it can be incorporated as a deliberate spiritual practice within any religion, whether you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or something else. You can be a businessperson, schoolteacher, or a stay-at-home mom or dad and still practice mind training. Naturally, the ideas behind mind training, or the explanations of mind the Buddha presented in his first three Noble Truths, are equally essential no matter our place in life. Training and theory go hand in hand. So, as you read the rest of the book, keep practicing the mind training methods this chapter describes, and as you practice, keep reading to steadily improve your understanding and success.
As we begin, I want to share a wonderful and amusing historical anecdote that captures what the practice is all about and how transformative it can be. From the seventh century, Buddhism flourished in Tibet, but in the ninth century, it declined as a result of a ruthless Tibetan king who aimed to destroy Buddhism in his country. Then, in the early eleventh century, Tibetan Buddhism began a regeneration. This was marked by increased travel between Tibet and India, as key Tibetans traveled to India for instruction, and many Indian masters were invited to Tibet. Foremost of these Indian masters was Lama Atisha, a well-known scholar and practitioner who was one of India’s principal teachers of mind training. Lama Atisha was invited personally by the current king to spearhead the reestablishing of Tibet’s rich Buddhist cultural and religious tradition. Initially, Atisha committed to staying in Tibet for three years, but he was so well-loved by Tibetans that he remained for a total of twelve years, finally passing away in Tibet.
One reason for Atisha’s long initial commitment was because travel from India to Tibet was not easy. You had to negotiate hot, disease-infested jungles, eighteen-thousand-foot Himalayan passes, and inhospitable tribes and bandits. The trip took months to prepare and months to complete, involving dangers and hardships we can barely imagine today. Among the party traveling to Tibet was Atisha’s personal cook, who was known as a very difficult person to get along with. And indeed, the Tibetans found him rude, crass, and unfriendly. But even worse, the cook’s terrible behavior did not merely extend to the Tibetans but even to Atisha himself. The Tibetans just could not understand why Lama Atisha would keep such an unsavory person as his cook. Wasn’t travel hard enough?
However, Atisha never showed any sense of intolerance, anger, or embarrassment over his cook’s behavior. Then as now, traveling can sometimes bring out the worst in people, and the Tibetans were impressed that Atisha showed only affection for the cook. Finally, though, they couldn’t stand it, and they asked Atisha why he did not fire the man and send him back to India. Lama Atisha replied, “He is not just my cook; he is my teacher of patience.”
With that one simple statement, Lama Atisha demonstrated to the Tibetans and to us the entire concept of transforming one’s inner experience through mind training.
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