Conquering the self is not easy. The thirteenth-century Japanese priest Nichiren had this in mind when he said that we should teach our selves instead of allowing our selves to become our teachers. Teaching the self means overcoming it; allowing it to be our teacher means giving in to it.
Examined closely, overcoming the self can be interpreted to mean showing true love for the self and striving to realize our greatest and deepest wishes. People today are very much concerned with their health and physical well-being. To keep their bodies strong, they make an effort to avoid harmful foods, even those they are fond of. They restrict their intake of alcohol and caffeine. Indeed, without these measures, they cannot hope to achieve good health.
Similarly, triumphing over the self entails keeping a goal in view and exercising self-discipline to attain it. By allowing oneself to be obsessed with the petty desires of the moment, adopt a hedonistic attitude, or flee from difficulties, one loses to the self.
Buddhism teaches that resolving to attain enlightenment is equivalent to actually attaining enlightenment. In other words, making up one's mind to reach a goal is of the utmost importance. Deciding to attain a goal and attaining it are inseparable.
In our modern society with its diverse values, setting goals can be difficult. But as Buddhism teaches, deciding on a goal can greatly alter life's meaning. For instance, we can see that overcoming the self means attaining selflessness. This can be illustrated by some simple comparisons.
Training in ken do, Japanese fencing, demands a kind of self-conquest. Sometimes, however, especially in cold winter weather, fencers have no desire to train. Yet if they neglect practice, they cannot achieve their goals. When ken do practice seems hardest and least appealing, fencers must avoid being obsessed with their own wishes, must overcome self, attain selflessness, and devote themselves wholeheartedly to training. If they do this, they will reach the lofty state of triumph over self.
The Dhammapada (Verses on the Law) says that a person who single-handedly conquers a thousand adversaries in a thousand battles but cannot conquer the self is unworthy to be called a victor among victors. Like becoming a hero, overcoming the self demands all one's strength. The enemy in the mind is more fearsome than the enemy in the mountains. As this Buddhist scripture indicates, conquering the self is extremely difficult; however, only by doing so can one make progress in attaining one's ideals and goals.
Endeavoring to realize your greatest and deepest wishes enables you to make the fullest use of your abilities. Any hardships encountered in this effort can be regarded not as difficulties but as reasons for living. People who ardently pursue ideals look neither to the right nor to the left but move diligently ahead toward their goal. Though perhaps difficult to duplicate, this is the attitude we should all strive for. To summarize, it is important first to decide to reach a goal and then, while exercising control to overcome the self, advance toward its achievement.
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A famous Buddhist teaching says that nothing is permanent, that all things in this world are always changing and coming into and going out of being. Just as the human body changes ceaselessly as its cells die and are replaced, so human existence occurs in a cycle of constant change.
Nonetheless, human beings are conservative and tend to be attached to their accustomed surroundings, in which they wish to live undisturbed. Changes in their setting cause anxiety and fear. It takes great courage and mental preparation to abandon a familiar environment and embark on a new course in life, but resting content with the status quo cannot lead to genuine improvement. We should all strive to take a positive view of life's constant changes and use them as springboards for self-improvement. Doing this gives life true meaning. In other words, we should fully understand and apply in daily life the Buddhist teaching that nothing is permanent.
Despite the many honors the American professional golfer Jack Nicklaus has received and the comfortable life he is able to enjoy, he displays an inspiring determination not to be satisfied with things as they are but always to seek fresh challenges. Cultivating the ardor to break out of established patterns and seek new realms for oneself is extremely important in life. It is all the more important for people devoted to religious faith-people who are enlightened to the great worth of human nature and strive to improve their own personalities and bring about world peace. In all our daily religious training we should diligently aim to cultivate a spirit of ardor.<
In the past, a noble personality was valued in Japan, and people cultivated themselves sincerely and studied industriously to attain wisdom. Recently, however, the Japanese seem to have lost sight of that ideal. But we must always bear in mind the great difference that having goals and ideals can make in the meaning of life.
Having firm ideals changes our attitude toward everything--physical and mental discipline, scholarly pursuits, and everyday activities. Having definite goals keeps us young and enables us not only to avoid being disturbed by changes in our environment but also to live each day with enthusiasm and hope.
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Frequently unwilling to do things that we know are good for us or failing to avoid things that we recognize as harmful, we human beings are reluctant to undertake disagreeable tasks, however much they may contribute to our well-being. But it is impossible to avoid the disagreeable and the painful throughout life. This is why perseverance is indispensable.
Perseverance is one of the practices conducive to enlightenment that Mahayana Buddhists call the Six Perfections. Yet perseverance and the ability to endure hardship seem to be very lightly regarded in this age material abundance. Nonetheless, we must remember that accepting unpleasant challenges enables us to improve ourselves.
People who feel compelled to do something against their will remain passive, and activities undertaken unwillingly are painful rather than pleasurable. Nonetheless, such activities are not without meaning. For instance, as many undoubtedly know from experience, some people dislike making speeches. When called on to address a group, they do so unwillingly at first, merely out of a sense of obligation. Gradually, however, as they repeat the experience, they become used to making speeches, and eventually they can do so with relative ease.
Instead of avoiding tasks because they are disagreeable, we must address them boldly for their very disagreeableness. We must carry them out despite our reluctance, because making such efforts is important in determining whether we grow as human beings. This is the meaning of discipline.
Because they fear embarrassment and want to show themselves in the best light, young people are especially eager to avoid exposing their inabilities. People who feel this way are able to improve, since they work hard and prepare themselves well to avoid embarrassing themselves.
In difficult situations demanding decisiveness, young and old alike must face their problems with determination to do the best they can. This is why the desire and the effort to avoid being embarrassed or making a poor showing are important to improvement.
Since everything in nature is in flux, human beings must not become set in their ways, refusing tasks at which they have never been skilled or at which they have failed. Yet self-consciousness makes it difficult to achieve this flexibility, inhibits the sincere desire to improve oneself, and can lead to cowardice. Thus it is important to take the first step, no matter whether it may lead to success or failure, no matter whether you are good or bad at the task you undertake. If you should fail, reflect on the causes of your failure and, with the intention of succeeding the next time, start over again.
Remaining content with success ends in no improvement. Human beings do not live for results. We must learn from each mistake and make each success the starting point for further growth. Without fearing the outcome, we must accept difficult challenges and in this way overcome our self-consciousness. We should always be willing to meet the challenge of all the hardship and unpleasantness we encounter in daily life.