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CHAPTER TWO - Handling Power Skillfully

When something upsets you, when something happens that is not to your liking in your family or your community, you want to change it right away. You are tempted to use the little power that is available to you, as a father, a mother, a teacher, somebody, to change the situation. This is exactly the moment to stop and contemplate. Practice looking deeply into the nature of what upsets you to see what the most mindful and compassionate response may be.

When I see one of my students not practicing

mindfully, I am not happy, because I always want my students to practice well. But if this student doesn’t practice well, what should I do in terms of power? I might be tempted to shout at him, to punish—to use my power and authority as a teacher aggressively. And of course a teacher always makes mistakes, especially in the first part of his career as a teacher. But to help my student, I must learn to be patient. I first need to offer him my love and insight. Using this kind of power, you are safe from misusing or overstepping your authority.

You can help your student, you can help your son, your daughter, your employees without creating suffering for yourself or others.

There are many ways to share our guidance, our advice. If we share out of compassion, we will be effective and helpful. We may be unskillful in our guidance, but in the process we will learn how to share in a way that doesn’t create suffering, that doesn’t turn others away from us. We need to constantly check if we are guiding or teaching for the sake of fame, wealth, or a superficial kind of power.

If you cultivate the five powers mentioned in the previous chapter, you naturally begin to acquire another source of power, the power of leadership, as people turn to you for advice and influence. Three virtues are required if we are to be true leaders: the virtue of cutting off, the virtue of loving, and the virtue of insight.

The first virtue you need to use your power skillfully is the virtue of cutting off. Cutting off what?

You cut off your anger, your craving, and your ignorance. Another way of saying this is “letting go.” You gradually transform your craving, anger, fear, and delusion. If you don’t have this kind of self-mastery, you can cause yourself and others great suffering, and people will not respect you. We only need to remember the many politicians and leaders whose careers were ruined by sex scandals to see the importance of cutting off the craving for meaningless sex. This is why cutting off brings power. When you encounter someone who has the virtue of cutting off, who is free from her afflictions, you have respect for her and you listen to her. The virtue of cutting off brings liberation and lightness to body and mind. We can’t buy it in the supermarket. We must attain it through our own practice.

A good leader also has the virtue of loving. You have the capacity to be affectionate, to accept, forgive, and embrace the other person with loving kindness and compassion. When you have this power, you are happy and people respect you—not because you shout at them or scold them, but because you offer care and compassion. People who lack compassion, love, and forgiveness suffer a lot. When you can forgive, when you can accept, you feel light, you can relate to other living beings. Without compassion, you are utterly alone. That is why compassion is the ground of happiness. If our political and business leaders can cultivate this virtue, this power of loving, they will not misuse other kinds of power: money, fame, and position in society. They will not make themselves and others unhappy.

A good leader also has to have the virtue of insight.

Knowledge is not the same as insight. There are people with numerous PhDs, who know a vast array of scientific, philosophical, and literary discourses by heart, who can give eloquent commentaries on the Buddhist Canon, but they don’t have insight, they don’t have wisdom. Wisdom or insight is born from looking deeply. A genuine leader has the wisdom to show us the path out of suffering. You may be in a difficult situation, caught in confusion, and without direction. When you come to a true leader, he can show you the way. Very quickly you see a way out, because he has wisdom.

When we have insight, we can easily take care of difficulties, tension, and contradictions. If we don’thave it, we just go around in circles, haunted and controlled by our suffering, fear, and worries. So the third virtue is to be able to look deeply to gain insight, so we can resolve our difficulties and help other people.

If you lead with the three virtues of cutting off, offering love, and cultivating insight, you have real authority. Simply having the title of leader is not enough. Titles do not give true power. When you practice mindfulness well and you radiate joy, stability, and peace, you acquire a much deeper authority. When you speak, people listen to you, not because they have to but because you are fresh, serene, and wise. A good leader is one who exercises only this kind of authority.

She doesn’t strive for it or want to use it, but it comes naturally. She inspires people by her way of living, and people listen to her because of her authenticity.

You can evaluate the quality of your authority by looking deeply to see if compassion is the foundation of your leadership. See if your authority comes to you because of your spiritual insight rather than your wealth or your position in the community. Even if you are the pope, if you don’t have that spiritual life, that loving kindness and compassion, you don’t have real authority. You might give orders that people follow because they are afraid of you, but this is not true authority.

If you don’t practice the five powers and the three virtues of a true leader, the power you hold in your hands can turn against you, because without spiritual authority, we are always at risk of being seduced by the power we possess and abusing our power. Suppose you are an employer or a teacher. Because you are in a position of authority, you may be tempted to impose your will on your employees, your students. As a parent, you know that it can be hard not to use your power as a parent to control your children. But if you do that, you create a lot of suffering for your children and for yourself. Many people resent their parents because their parents misused their power and authority. If there is a fight between a parent and a young child, it cannot be a fair fight because the parent always has more power. Even if we have only a little bit of power, without spiritual authority, there is always a temptation to misuse it. But if we cultivate the five kinds of spiritual power, they will grow in us and we will have the capacity to transform and protect ourselves and those we love from suffering and despair.

When you have a strong desire to cultivate this power, you do everything you can to find an environment where you can be doing that all the time. I became a monk not because I wanted to be different from others or to cut myself off and live in a hermitage, but because I wanted to devote all my time to helping other people.

Imagine a president who relied on the five spiritual powers instead of political force. He would then be able to use the means available to him to bring reconciliation, peace, and happiness to people in his country as well as in other countries.

Before he left his family to become a monk, Siddhartha, the man who became the Buddha, saw that his father the king, who was politically very powerful, still felt helpless much of the time. His father saw corruption around him but wasn’t able to stop it. He was still caught in fear and craving. With fear, anger, and confusion controlling us, the exercise of political power can bring only suffering to us and the people around us.

One of the main reasons Siddhartha left his family and renounced the throne was his understanding thatpolitical power by itself couldn’t help him or his country to be happy. Siddhartha was determined to discover another kind of power, a spiritual one.

If we look below the surface, we see that the rich and powerful still suffer a lot and create a lot of suffering around them, in spite of all their privilege. Although they have a lot of power, they often fall into the abyss of despair and suffering. Our political and economic leaders relish their power, but they also suffer because of it. It is time for us to reconsider the meaning of power and change our direction in life. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.” Power will be challenged by those with less power if it is seen as illegitimate. But when power is seen as legitimate and comes with spiritual authority, it is appreciated and even revered.

When there are some who are too powerful and others who don’t have any power at all, there is always a tendency to revolt. Vast inequality between people and groups makes power unstable. Even if people appear to accept those in authority, their power will always be insecure. But when power is based on spiritual authority and is a manifestation of love, wisdom, and freedom from afflictions, it can establish justice, maintain order, and withstand challenges peacefully, without resorting to violence or oppression.

Business leaders, stockbrokers, and politicians seek financial and political power. And it seems like there is never enough. Buddhists and many other spiritual seekers also want power, but they seek the powers of faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

These powers are unlimited, and they never do any harm to anyone, including oneself.

Many people think of money as a source of happiness. They work in part to make money. It’s true that money is a kind of power. With money you can buy anything you want. Politicians promise to help you get more power and more money. People believe that a good politician can give people more buying power.

Being able to buy things and choose what to buy makes people feel powerful. After all, with money you can buy not only material things but people to clean your house, care for your children, and cook your meals. You ease people’s financial difficulties and then they areindebted to you; they are caught and you have more power. With your power, you can manipulate them and force them to do what you want.

With enough money, you can also buy whole nations by offering trade and special treatment. You may promise that if they take your side in a war, they will get your support in developing their economy and so on. When you have money, you have this kind of power to buy others. You have the power, but if you misuse your power you will make yourself suffer and you will make others suffer.

Money can create fame, it can buy a name, it can buy prestige. You can write a book and become well known even if you don’t have much talent. Or you can pay someone else to write a book but take credit as the author. There are things like this going on in the world; that’s how money can buy fame. When you are famous, you can make even more money. If you are a television personality, your image becomes familiar and others want you to do advertisements for their companies.

You get a lot of money for just a one-or two-minute commercial. You say something good about a product, and people listen to you and buy it. Money bringsfame, fame brings money, and both of them can bring other things, like sex. Because it easily corrupts us, having power can be very dangerous.

Money and fame are not evil in and of themselves.

But if you don’t know how to handle them, they become evil. The way you use money, the way you use your fame can lead you and many other people to suffering. If we are wise and have spiritual power, then money and fame will do no harm. In fact, they may be helpful. It is possible to use money and fame with wisdom to relieve suffering and create happiness.

Whether money and fame are helpful or destructive depends on how we handle them.

Spiritual and political power are not mutually exclusive. Emperor Ashoka, who reunified India in the third century B.C., adopted the teachings of the Buddha and became a wonderful king for all of India. He recognized in the teaching and practice of the Buddha the possibility of creating a new kind of society. He limited the number of animals killed to what was necessary for all to eat. He urged people to practice compassion and understanding, refraining from killing and stealing. Emperor Ashoka had the power of amaharaja, a great king, and he used that power to help people.

In the Middle East, Israel is a superpower. Israel has sophisticated nuclear technology and a large army.

Everyone knows that it has the power of striking and punishing and that it is supported by the United States.

But this power is not enough to keep Israel happy and safe. That is why Israel must cultivate other kinds of power. Political leaders need to be aware of the power to be calm, the power to use loving speech, the power to understand the suffering and difficulties of other nations, the power of talking to them with love and compassion. If Israeli leaders learn how to cultivate the five spiritual powers, they will not misuse their political and military power and create more suffering within and outside the country.

If you strike out at others, they suffer, and they will strike back at you one way or another. If they cannot do it officially, they will do it unofficially. If they can’t bring a bomb on an airplane, they will use bombs in other ways. Misuse of power is the primary cause of suffering for many of us. The way power is used is not just a matter of spirituality; it is a matter of life anddeath for a whole nation.

Business and political leaders are powerful in our society. In many ways they decide our fate. We must find ways to help them learn to use their power with wisdom. They are caught in suffering, fear, and anger, and without enough understanding and compassion, they can misuse their power. They proceed with decisions that the majority of people in their own country and around the world don’t support. We shouldn’t let them misuse for purposes of destruction the power we have entrusted to them. We can channel our wisdom and compassion to these political and business leaders, so a balance can be restored in them.

Their spiritual power can act as a check on their political and economic power.

During the Buddha’s time, there was a monk, Bhaddiya, a former governor of the Sakya kingdom.

When he became a monk, he gave up everything. One day, while sitting in meditation at the foot of a tree, he said three times, “O my happiness!” Another monk overheard it and thought Bhaddiya regretted losing his power as a governor, and he reported this incident to the Buddha. The Buddha summoned Bhaddiya and asked why during the night he had pronounced “O my happiness” three times. Bhaddiya replied, “Noble teacher, when I was governor I had a lot of power, a lot of money. I had many units of soldiers guarding me. I could buy anything I wanted. But I wasn’t happy because I was always fearful. I was a victim of fear, jealousy, hatred, and greed. Now I no longer have any fear or any afflictions. I don’t have anything to lose. I am not afraid of being assassinated anymore. I don’t need a bodyguard. I have a lot of freedom and peace.

That is why I said ‘O my happiness’ three times. If I have disturbed the sangha, I beg for pardon.” This is a beautiful story. It shows us clearly the limitations of financial and political power, and the true power of liberating ourselves and helping others do the same.

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