‘Tough Cookies’ Tathagata Style

03 March 2022

Two thousand five hundred years ago, Prince Siddhārtha – who was later labelled ‘Gautama Buddha’ but referred to himself as ‘Tathagata’ – emerged as one of this world’s great revolutionaries. Yet, Prince Siddhārtha’s revolution had nothing to do with overturning a political regime, resolving a family feud or reacting to ethnic violence. His revolutionary ideas were triggered by what some might see as rather mundane, but nevertheless down-to-earth hard truths, like ‘change is inevitable’ and ‘nothing is certain’. No matter how strong our powers of make-believe, no matter how much cement we pack around an idea in an effort to make it permanent and unbending, the reality is that whatever we stack up will eventually topple over, whatever we gather will at some point be scattered to the winds, whatever we raise high will be brought low, and whatever arises will one day vanish.

Prince Siddhārtha also realized the raw and simple truth that nothing, not a single thing in existence, can give us absolute satisfaction – even when he was being entertained by palace beauties. He realized that however positive a phenomenon appears to be, it always has a flip side that is anything but desirable. He knew that everything we perceive is a self-created projection and that, no matter how explicit the label we give it, that projection is about as real as the mirage a man dying of thirst creates for himself.

Once he had seen and recognized these truths, Gautama Buddha began to share them with his illustrious followers, all of whom begged him to tell them how they could be like him. Traditionally, Buddha is said to have given 84,000 teachings during his lifetime, but I have a feeling this is a gross underestimation. If I were to focus on just one drop from this vast, ocean-like body of teachings, it would be the statement that each of us is our own master. “Who else could be your master but yourself?”

Today, in our modern world, being a ‘master’ is now an obsession – how ironic in this age of the democrat. Visit any bookshop and you will find shelves laden with titles that promise to teach you how to be a leader, a manager and a boss. As modern people seem to worship the supremacy of the individual, shouldn’t we therefore be in awe of a man who, some 2,500 years ago, spoke not merely about becoming a master but about how to become your own master?

Unlike the self-help books, Gautama Buddha was not remotely interested in teaching anyone how to master others, or how to manage and lead them – all of which lead to narcissism and megalomania, and enlist yet more adherents to the selfie-culture. Buddha’s ‘be your own master’ has nothing to do with making sure that no one can dictate to or rule over you; it goes much deeper than that. Buddha’s ‘be your own master’ is the epitome of a style of self-leadership that prevents your own hopes, fears, pride, prejudice and greed from dominating or dictating to you. Thus, by learning how not to be vulnerable to your own projections, opinions and bias, you become your own master.

The Year of the Ox has been anything but easy. With lingering uncertainties about the pandemic and war breaking out in Europe – not just a trade war but a full-blown war fought with deadly weapons – as one anxiety eases, the cause for new anxieties pops up in all directions. I hope and pray that the Year of the Tiger will bring us some much-needed solace and the space to breathe more freely.

More importantly, I wish and pray that each one of us fosters a genuine interest in learning how not to be vulnerable or gullible, and that we develop the skills we need to become our own masters – to be ‘tough cookies’ who are strong, tenacious and determined. Tough cookies who are not easily excited or discouraged and not easily convinced, but who have the confidence to accept ‘extraordinariness’. Tough cookies who learn how to share but never impose; who are universally compassionate, yet constantly aware of the wiles of vested interests; and who master the ability to enjoy both the New York Times and Pyongyang Times while, at the same time, recognizing that the stories they spin contain more fiction than most novels. Because it is only by learning how to be our own masters that peace, harmony and prosperity will be possible this new year and in all the new years to come.

— Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse