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Learned Helplessness

The four separations that Sakya Pandita received from Manjushri point the way.

“If you are attached to this life, you are not a spiritual person.

“This life” means the life defined by society and culture — success and failure in the conventional sense. The primary practice for separating from “this life” is meditation on death and impermanence. When we know clearly we are going to die, we focus on what is truly important to us, not what we have been told is important.

“If you are attached to the cycle of existence, you will not be free.

The cycle of existence (samsara) is the technical term for the whole collection of habituated patterns that confine us. As long as we are attached to any of those habituated patterns, we will never experience freedom. The primary practice for separating from such patterns is meditation on suffering and how it arises.

“If you are attached to your own welfare, you are not an awakening being.

When our lives are based on protecting and defending our self-identity, we can never wake up to the totality of awareness and experience. An awakening being (bodhisattva) is one who is determined to wake up. So we have to separate from being concerned solely with our own welfare. The primary practice is taking and sending. It embodies the four immeasurables (loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity).

“If you are attached to a position, you can’t see things as they are.

When we hold anything as real, we adopt a fixed position and can only see things in terms of that position. To see things as they are, we need to remove attachment to any position, particularly the notion that “I” exist is some fundamental way. The primary practice is meditation on insight, using attention to see into the way things are.

Finally, a more succinct formulation comes from the Korean master Seung Sa Nihm:

First kill the Buddha.
Then kill your parents.
Then kill your teacher.

In other words, we remove any idea that there is an ideal such as enlightenment or buddha that is going to save us. Then we remove all the habituations that we acquired from our family. Finally, we remove even the habituations we acquire as a student. Then we can stand in awareness and serve what is true.


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