Teaching Spotlight: Stop Complaining and Learn to Love the 405

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

The following teaching was given by Lama Cliff on February 18, 2011, at the Mahasuhka Center. The talk was later adapted and given to an audience at the Black Dog Yoga Studio in LA. To see the archived video of this teaching please click here .


With his characteristic humor and insight into today’s culture, Lama Cliff Spencer showed us how we can use the 405 as a path to Enlightenment, rather than simply a road to get across town. Lama Cliff was inspired to give this talk because he feels that complaining has become a national past-time. “Its not always mean spirited,” he said, “but it’s a default mode to complain and criticize”. He sadly noted that, for many of us, it’s actually easier to complain than to compliment! Proclaiming that “Complaining has reached epidemic proportions!” he urged his audience to do something to change this.

Many American’s today follow the teachings contained in The Guide to the Complainer’s Way of Life. Key teachings from this world view include: being stingy, coveting other’s people stuff and being dissatisfied with everything. Do whatever it takes to feel good and avoid feeling bad, no matter whom you have to squash. Forget morality. Blame others for your problems. Get angry when it feels right. Be cranky all the time. Always go for the easiest solution. Be happy about your complaining and criticism, especially if you can do it with skill. WATCH A LOT OF TV…like all day long. Go ahead and entertain yourself to death! NO quiet in contemplation allowed, don’t get to know your mind as this will weaken the cranxious attitude. Finally, the one with the BEST stuff wins. Mantra: Om I need more ahum.

While the audience laughed at the absurdities contained in this made-up text, it is less funny to admit that we all fall into this way of thinking. Lama Cliff noted we have mental afflictions and we act on them. For example, when we want something and we don’t get it, we complain. Of course this action is going to have results. That one complaint, which is actually based on a misperception or a misidentification, creates a cycle of complaints. What is the cycle of complaints? It can start with something as simple as complaining that I had a bad date, which leads to complaints about the city we live in (with its bad traffic!), to bemoaning that our entire society is messed up, to believing I’m in trouble! Time is passing and I’m doomed to nothing but unhappiness and death.

So how do you stop complaining? What is the counterpoint to the complainer’s way of life? Lama Cliff presented the answer: The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

Buddhist mind training is used, in part, to have a positive outlook on life. Texts like the GBWOL teach that nothing is good or bad or neutral from its own side. Although it seems like the world is objective, especially to the complainer, everything is subjective. In looking at the 405 (or the 401 or the Dan Ryan or any other freeway of choice), we can understand this important Buddhist concept. We think that we wake up in the morning, have breakfast, and then leave our homes to go out and deal with the world out there. We experience the world of 405 and its traffic, its construction, its frustration as out there, independent from ourselves. But it can’t be. It is coming from us; it is our perception of our world.

Since this is the case, the 405 and every other object has a condition of possibility. We can interpret it as good or bad or neutral. So, while we are forced by our karma at this moment to see the object out there as freeway or concrete or awful place to be stuck in traffic, we can change how we see this object in the future. We can note the current interpretations we have and determine they aren’t too helpful; they’re actually full of negativity and complaints. The best thing to do would be to start changing the way we understand the 405 so it can be a source of goodness and satisfaction.

The next portion of Lama Cliff’s talk focused on a sweet story that teaches us exactly how to do just that, how to love things that are difficult. This story, which dates from about the year 1200, was told by a master Tibetan translator that travelled to India to learn the latest teachings. At the end of his travels, this lama noticed a beautiful woman dressed in red walking around a temple. She sometimes appeared to be walking off the ground, which of course piqued his interest! He overheard her give this advice to a woman who was saddened by the conditions of this world. She said, “Once you’ve learned to find satisfaction in whatever happens to you, you will find happiness in everything. Your problem is you’re never satisfied. Once you learn to leave your mind in one place, you can go wherever you want. Your problem is you never leave your mind in one place. Once your mind is sunk into the Dharma, even dying is an easy thing to do. Your problem is your mind is never sunk into the Dharma. Once you realize the mind is beyond all beginning there is no death at all. Your problem is that you’ve never realized your mind is beyond all beginning.” These are the four keys of how to live, the ways to be satisfied. Complaining doesn’t do any good in and of itself. Anything we have is a reflection of where we’ve been. Be satisfied with what is there, and be happy in the knowledge that we can make it even better through an understanding of emptiness and karma. Happiness is available in all situations and all objects because there is no self-existence.

Lama Cliff’s message was clear. Stop thinking that stuff and people and objects out there have the ability to make us happy. Learn to see the emptiness in all things, sink yourself into the teachings, and become a truly happy and wise person.

“So where did the 405 begin and where does it end?” Lama Cliff asked rhetorically at the end of the teaching. “Where you say it does. There is no point where the 405 begins or ends. It is a projection from your mind we can change it at anytime.” Start cultivating a mindset in which every moment is infused with love and joy, every moment as a path to experience happiness. Start with the things that are difficult in your life, because those of the things that can teach us. Let the 405 bring you on the path to Enlightenment. Go out and be happy!

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