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The humility of learning

For the first time ever, HH the 17th Karmapa has visited the UK. He spoke in Battersea, London. And fantastically I managed to buy a weekend ticket to hear him teach. If you are kind enough to read this and if you take anything positive away from doing so you can be assured it didn’t come from me but from HH Karmapa and somehow survived my foggy, unqualified retelling of it.  I only want to write about one part of what he said here. He said much more than just this on the day.

There was one verse His Holiness explained that immediately struck me. He was talking about respecting other people. Instead of just a normal moral school assembly style ‘treat others as you would like to be treated – golden rule’ type thing, he explained why if it is done properly seeing others in this way, cherishing them even, benefits for us as well. The particular verse he was teaching is

“Wherever I am, whomever I’m with,

May I regard myself as lower than all others,

And, from the depths of my heart,

May I hold them as supreme and cherish them.”

Instead of merely going with a bland idea of respecting all beings or people, we can additionally try to be humble. If we have no humility then our inflated sense of self can get stuck on how great we are and how we are better than everyone else. HH Karmapa likened it to pouring water on a ball. No matter how much water you pour the ball is going to capture none of the liquid. Similarly, if we approach people whilst full of pride and see ourselves as better than them, then we cut ourselves off from opportunities of improving and of developing ourselves. I love this logic. It makes perfect sense. If we are looking down on someone then we won’t even consider the possibility they have any positive qualities that are better than we possess ourselves. So even when interacting with them there will be this barrier and we will learn nothing from the experience or from them. In effect we will be living in a bubble where at best we could stay as we are or, more likely become more negative and embittered with the world around us.

However if we approach people openly, looking for their attributes whilst admitting we are not the best thing going ourselves then our days, our individual moments and conversations will enrich us.

So far, so secular. HH Karmapa then looked at this argument from a Buddhist perspective. Firstly, he said it is important to realise too that ‘seeing ourselves as lower’ does not mean we should live in a permanent state of self degradation, having jettisoned our own self esteem. Misinterpreting it like this is called in Tibetan Buddhism ‘the laziness of self deprecation’ where we do nothing because we think we aren’t good enough to improve.

Secondly, a Boddhistattva (a person who works for the benefit of all living beings, who puts their welfare before her own) would therefore see no end to learning. Because a Boddhisattva sees himself as lower than others there is no end to their learning; no matter where they are or who they are, they would be open to their environment and the people around them.

Sounds a great way to be alive to me.



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When work feels pointless ….

I grew up in a commuter town and when I was 11-18 years old walked passed the train station on my way to school. There on the platform stood a few hundred besuited men (and a sprinkling of women) all holding suitcases waiting for the train to London. As a teenager that was everything I didn’t want to become. To me these people seemed to hand in their happiness in order to have their well paid job.

Of course if work was fun and enriching and fulfilling then they wouldn’t have to pay us to do it. But if you are ONLY there for your own benefit – to earn money to get a promotion, to gain status –  then such a narrow view will smother any value your work might have.

I worry that in my profession, teaching, we are drifting away from what makes the job valuable. Performance targets for individuals, departments and whole schools means our worth is continually analysed and judged by what grades our pupils are achieving. We are forced to constantly check how each child’s progress against a set of targets. Then, at the end of the year we are judged on that. Consequently teachers have allowed themselves to narrow their outlook on what constitutes the core of their job. In the staff room you can hear phrases like “Last year I got 85% A* to C’s in my class” or “I got all level 2b’s and above in my group” This language is all wrong. This perception of the job is all wrong. We did not get those grades or levels, we did not sit the exam or write those sentences in that assessment. The children did.


By accepting this accountability as a measure of us personally, by seeing our job as a means to gauge our own worth, teachers are devaluing themselves and their work. It becomes less of what Buddhists would call “Right Livelihood” and more a self centred pursuit. We all know that the real joy in teaching is when we see someone in our class understand a key concept or break through a barrier that was holding back their learning. The reason this is a joy is because the teacher has cherished the child’s well being and not because the performance target is now one ticked box closer.

All the positive parts to this short post were taken from what HH The Karmapa said on this topic. (click here for a link to the book) His advice about when work feels pointless and where to find the “real worth lies” in your job is

“Giving rise to a single moment of cherishing others can bring us much deeper satisfaction than making money. Our own positive qualities can be rich sources of joy for us. Even if we have just one altruistic thought,this is a cause to be deeply happy. We have ample resources for happiness in the bounty of our own mind.”