What’s the relationship between blessings and inner peace?

rainbow-heart in sky

A guest article by a long-time Kadampa practitioner

Buddha of lightVenerable Geshe Kelsang has said that the function of Buddha is to bestow blessings continuously upon living beings and cause them to experience inner peace. Often I take these words superficially without relating them to my daily experience; but on those rare occasions when I do …

My experience of peace now, at this time, is arising from the blessings or inspiration of holy beings affecting my mind here and now!!! …

… a completely new world opens up before me.

Such a difference between words to the ear understood by the intellect, and wisdom from the Spiritual Guide experienced, even just for a moment, within daily life.

A beautiful piece of advice that Kadam Morten gave in the New York Festival was to learn to recognise the presence of blessings in our lives. Whenever we experience some degree of inner peace, we should recognise that experience as moments of blessing, to enjoy those moments with an understanding of the deep and close connection we have with enlightened beings. As he said (according to my recollection, so please forgive mistakes):

When you experience inner peace, right there is your Buddha nature, right there is Buddha and Buddha’s blessings.

Often when we experience some inner peace (and I can only speak for myself) we can easily take these moments for granted and let them pass without noticing what is actually happening. When those fleeting moments pass and the clouds of disturbing conceptions have rolled back, covering the pure inner sky of our mind, we are once more unhappy and wondering where we can go to, what can we hold on to or push ourselves away from to return to that pure space. When the mind is peaceful – and thus blessed – it is easy to feel connected to holy beings and develop our relationship with them. By contrast – again I speak for myself – when the mind has no peace it is hard to develop faith in, or even remember, our connection with Buddhas and their unobstructed power to bless and transform our mind. The instinct is to immediately search outside the mind… and so journey further into suffering.

To me this shows a lack of deep understanding of where peace and happiness really come from. We need to take Geshe Kelsang’s teaching to heart – to develop a deep understanding and belief in the non-deceptive dependent relationship between Buddhas’ blessings and our own inner experience of peace and happiness.

rainbow-heart in skyThe more I think about this dependent relationship and, more importantly, the more I learn to experience it in daily life, the more I start to realise that we are not the independent entities we normally perceive – unrelated to, and separate from, everything else in the universe. Normally it feels like our state of mind just is what it is, from its own side, existing as a discreet entity whose qualities of peace or disturbance do not come from anywhere but are simply inherent characteristics of our mind itself. However this feeling is mistaken. Just as a rainbow arises entirely from the gathering of different necessary conditions and cannot be separate from them, so our peaceful mind arises from the blessings of Buddha.

For me, learning to let go of my sense of independence and separateness goes hand in hand with learning to become more open and receptive to blessings. While on the one hand we long to feel more connected to Buddhas and be nourished by their blessings, our grasping at an independent self creates the illusion of a big gap between our self and these beings, undermining our receptivity. Our mind that we wish to change feels “in here” while Buddhas and their benevolent power seem “out there”. These two, which we yearn to experience as deeply related and connected, are held by our ignorance to be truly separate, different, unrelated. While we try to feel ever closer to our Spiritual Guide and develop powerful faith so as to receive the blessings of all the Buddhas, our inner ignorance always holds us at a distance, weakening the power of our faith. The ignorance in our heart doesn’t really believe we can change, let alone “be changed”, by the influence of a pure being so “different” and “other” to ourselves.

With faith we make sincere requests but ignorance makes it feel as if our prayers are telegraphed across a big existential gap and that blessings are received from some distant Dharmakaya or holy space.

blessings 2Through contemplating the dependent relationship of our own experience of inner peace and blessings we begin to realize that we already have a deep, profound, powerful, and intimate connection with enlightened beings. That relationship is already there – we do not need to create it. But we can learn to recognize it and increase our trust and reliance upon this relationship as a dynamic and vital source of refuge and transformation.

When I recognize (on the basic level that I am able) that all that I am and all that I experience is entirely dependent on other factors, that every moment my mind and my self are being re-created and transformed by many conditions, I let go (however slightly) of my sense of existing independently, permanent, and separate. Instead I can begin to experience my self as a dependently arising be-ing, in connection with the universe and receptive to conditions of transformation. There is no real gap between myself and Buddhas, no space between my mind and their blessings. This wisdom opens the heart more and more to the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, which in turn further awaken our Buddha nature.

Likewise there is no real gap or difference between ourselves and all other living beings. We already have, right now, a profound, powerful and intimate connection with all the countless mother beings of the universe. We do not need to create this relationship. It is already there. Just by recognizing this relationship our heart begins to open with a natural, uncontrived love and compassion, through which the blessings of Buddha can pervade and transform the entire universe.

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For more articles on blessings, click here.

Prostrating to the Buddha of Compassion

1000-armed

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is coming up on April 15, and I, along with a lot of Kadampa Buddhists in places around the world, tend to celebrate it with two days of Drop of Essential Nectar, sometimes known as Nyung Nä. This is a purification, prostration, and fasting retreat in conjunction with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

It’s the only time of the year that we seem to engage in some physical asceticism — for two days, starting at dawn, we observe the eight Mahayana precepts, which include not eating after lunch and, for those who do the full fast, not eating or drinking at all on the second day. The hunger pangs are helpful for reminding us about the gazillions of people who don’t get enough to eat or drink on any day, ever.

1000-armed Avalokiteshvara

1000-armed Avalokiteshvara

I do like Nyung Nä, with its emphasis on keeping compassion and bodhichitta in our heart all day long, and the transcendent power of Avalokiteshvara, his thousand arms reaching out to everyone without exception. Also, I find prostrations fun. I do, I’m not making that up! So I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been doing today in case you are under the impression that prostrations are just hard work. (If you haven’t read pages 116 onward in the book Great Treasury of Merit, by the way, there is a beautiful explanation of prostrations in there.)

Compassion and the lower realms

Whenever I am developing compassion and/or doing prostrations, I get myself out of the way first by remembering that the self I cherish doesn’t even exist. I am not my body, and I am not my mind — but take these away and I disappear (thankfully). That means I am free to lay down my boring burden of self-fixation and move into the vast expanse of everyone else.

Today during precepts I was meditating on the lower realms. I personally cannot tolerate even the slightest headache without popping two Advil, and am currently preoccupied with trying to navigate the bureaucracy of Obamacare before the looming deadline of April 15th as I fear any manner of human illnesses and accidents might empty out my bank account if I do not. However, human sufferings like these are a walk in the park compared with the unbearable sufferings of people in the hell realms. I read in some Lojong (mind-training) text recently that being stabbed 30 times in the hand with a spear does not even compare with a minute of suffering experienced by those in the black-line hell.

I know I don’t spend enough time thinking about people who have ended up in the hell realms, which is a shame because, when I do, it instantly gets everything into perspective. All rebirths are impermanent, and the realms of hell are nightmarish appearances to mind that have no more existence from their own side than this current life. But, and it is a big but, once someone lands up in hell, it takes an unfathomably long time to get out. The countless karmic appearances from lifetimes of negative actions don’t disappear overnight, and there is no refuge or chance to purify them; so it is like an interminable nightmare from which we cannot wake up.Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha

Meantime, people in the hungry ghost realm are perpetually hungry, thirsty, sad, and exhausted. Moreover, we know close up and personal what a bad time animals have from the struggles and powerlessness of the thousands we can see around us, and there are tragically far more animals in their own realm.

What “prostration” means

The Tibetan word for prostrations is “chag tsel” – ‘chag’ means sweeping away delusions, negative karma, and obstructions, and ‘tsel” means requesting all good qualities. I don’t think prostrations work if we are holding ourselves as unworthy or at a distance from enlightened beings – they work best when our faith recognizes our own Buddha nature clear light, and connects to the holy beings’ clear light Dharmakaya, knowing we will become just like them.

The sky is the limit

When prostrating, we don’t need to be small-minded, thinking that it is just me in one meaty body making one feeble little distracted prostration onto the carpet (oooh, look at that dust! … at least I’m getting some exercise …) in front of some image of Buddha. No, there is a great deal more going on than that! The sky is the limit! The higher sky of the Dharmakaya, that is.

First thing we are encouraged to do, along with our mind of faith and respect, is to think that from every pore of our body we manifest another body, which in turn manifests countless more, until the whole universe is filled with our bodies all making prostrations. Already some mind-expansion is going on and you’re going to have more fun. It is inspiring to think that you are already in a very pure space, as you are in the company of all enlightened beings, and you are prostrating to all of them.

Avalokiteshvara by Graham Dyer

Buddha Avalokiteshvara painted by Graham Dyer

I like to think that I am also in the company of everyone in all six realms, and that they are all prostrating along with me – and it can be helpful to start by focusing on specific people in my life who are currently experiencing suffering, believing they are next to me prostrating. For example, today I thought a lot about an old university friend and Buddhist artist Graham Dyer, who was just saying, “Those treacle tarts look nice” to his best friend in Grange bakery last Thursday when he dropped to the floor and died. (Please pray for him and his wife and two sons).

I also thought about the kittens I am fostering, who are going to have to go back into the smelly crowded shelter, which they will not like at all, to wait for a home. They are trapped in their bodies and environments — they cannot even open the door — and are always at the mercy of humans being nice to them. So I imagine them prostrating along with me, in human form or even in the aspect of a Buddha, purifying all their negativity and accumulating vast good karma and blessings, also emanating bodies from every pore of their bodies for maximum effect.

These human beings and animals are in turn are surrounded by all the other human beings and animals in the universe, also prostrating. And so on. This takes the same amount of time as making one corporeal prostration on the carpet, but the outcome in terms of good karma and purification is altogether more extraordinary.

Prostrating all the way home

I find it blissful to feel as though I am prostrating directly into my Spiritual Guide’s actual heart, which is his clear light Truth Body or Dharmakaya. This feels like going home, finally going home – a profound relief. Everything is completely purified and transformed, and when I arise from the prostration I can do so as an emanation of my Spiritual Guide, inseparable from the Dharmakaya, to help others. I also imagine that everyone is doing the same as they prostrate with me, gathering into the clear light and arising completely purified and blissful.Buddha and lake

The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye said (and I’m sure it could apply to O People of Denver, Ulverston, etc too):

O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go. To repay his kindness, offer your faith. ~ Great Treasury of Merit p. 116

Geshe Kelsang comments on this:

If we wish for a human rebirth our Spiritual Guide will lead us there, if we wish for liberation he will lead us there, if we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land he will lead us there, and if we wish to attain enlightenment he will lead us there.

To my mind, this means my Spiritual Guide is here to take me home, where I belong, as I don’t feel I really belong in samsara, and nor does anyone else. And with this faith, I can prostrate my way home.

Mount KailashI have always been inspired for some reason by people who prostrate all the way up Mount Kailash and/or around Lake Manasarova, believing these mountains and lakes to be completely pure, part of the mandala, the home of enlightened beings. I’m quite sure that if I actually had to do it, my enthusiasm would wane, as it is not exactly carpeted and there are no hotels en route; but, still, I like the idea, and can emulate it in the comfort of my room. It is a pilgrimage — prostrating all the way to your actual home, the heart of the Buddhas, the heart of the mandala.

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! May you all swiftly realize your full potential and become enlightened too.

 

 

Being Buddha Tara

stargazer
Who is supposed to be looking after all these animals?

stargazerMost of the animals we can see are in our human realm, of course, because that is where we are. But there are countless more. According to Buddha’s explanation of the six realms of samsara, the vast majority of animals are packed together in the animal realm. In Washington DC a few weeks ago, at the Smithsonian museum, I watched a short documentary showing the outlandish creatures not long ago discovered right at the bottom of the ocean, under the seabed, all stacked one upon the other, much like the scriptural description of the animal realm.

And we don’t have to look far to see that most animals inhabit a terrifying and hostile world. In the summer of 2009 I went to the aquarium in Plymouth with my good friend Kelsang L, and I wrote at the time: “I need to remember these images. A large flat fish with a distinct face is flailing out of the water at L, perhaps some part of him recognizing her robes, who knows, and working his mouth as if to cry “Help me!” Tiny sea horses, the size of a fingernail, have no future to write home about. Sharp-teethed sharks move incessantly around a large tank above our heads, avoided for dear life by the terrified fish forced to share their space. L and I didn’t realize we had come across the tank for fighting crabs until we spotted their body limbs strewn all over the ground, all the remaining crabs lying on top of each other in exhaustion. Limpets and other crustaceans are stuck fast to the rocks, with such settled ignorance of their surroundings that they could be the very epitome of self-cherishing. Enormous salamanders and eels are confined in cruelly tiny spaces. Unsuspecting prawns are dumped in the tanks with the anemones, to serve as their supper.

Dumbo octopusThe “HOMES” display is a poignant reminder of how every creature in the sea desperately wants one – they try to make their homes on rocks, under rocks, under the sand, even in the waves of the water itself. In samsara, we all have attachment to places, enjoyments, and bodies — but real estate in the Ocean is hard to come by, and most people down here are not able to keep their home even when they do manage to find one.

“Who is looking after these living beings?”, I find myself asking, as thousands of mouths open and shut in a Munchian scream for help. “How am I going to get you out of this lower realm?”

Buddha Tara, you are needed

Tara is the embodiment of swift compassionate action, so it seems to me that to become more like her we need to ripen our potential for this by taking on others’ suffering both in and out of meditation. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook:

We should alleviate others’ suffering whenever we can and happily accept our own suffering as a method to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way … the power of our compassionate activities will strengthen.

Tara 5

Taking away everyone’s suffering is Tara’s very nature. As a Buddha, she has already exchanged self with others, imputed her I on all living beings, including the prawns; so living beings’ suffering IS her suffering and she has already happily accepted it, purified it, and transformed it into bliss. We can do that too, generate ourselves as a Buddha, purify everyone through imagination that becomes reality. Everything starts and ends in the imagination. We need to be part of that creative solution if samsara is ever to stop.

During meditation, we mentally take on the suffering of others upon ourself, using imagination. Having gained deep experience of this meditation, we shall then be able happily to accept our own suffering in order to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way, we are physically taking the suffering of others upon ourself. ~ The New Meditation Handbook

Tara’s legs remind me that it is pointless rushing around like a headless chicken – one of her legs is out, showing her readiness to leap up to help, but the other is drawn in, showing that she can help others precisely and only because  she is an ever-present manifestation of bliss and emptiness. In fact, she only ever need take one step.

Please give me that!

To be like Tara, we can learn to take on others’ burdens, first mentally, then physically — “Hey, let me carry that for you!” “Give me your suffering!” Walking one day up one of those notoriously steep hills in San Francisco, and seeing an old hunched woman trying to ascend an even steeper set of stairs to her front door carrying two huge shopping bags, I ran up and carried them the rest of the way for her. However, although it worked that time and she seemed relieved, a friend’s similar but different story reminded me that we need to be happy to help others in the way that they want, without imposing our ideas of what that may be. In his case, seeing a homeless man pushing a trolley with three wheels that got stuck on the tarmac he also ran up, only to be greeted with outrage: “I don’t know you! I don’t want your help!” It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.Tara picture

Suffering sticks to a real me – ageing, sickness, death, and so on – and it is hard to stop obsessing on that for long enough to focus on others. To develop a depth of compassion, we need to realize that the self we normally see and cherish does not even exist, so we can get it out of the way.

And as we can impute whatever we want — choose how we discriminate the world as Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind — we can impute that others are our mothers, that they are kind, that they are more important than me, that they ARE me. We can make that work, as Buddha Tara does.

Once we share her realizations, we will also be completely free from any mistaken appearances or hallucinations (and hallucinations don’t get much weirder than those to be found at the bottom of the ocean or in the Plymouth Aquarium). We will be able to bestow blessings/peace on each and every living being every day, including every forgotten sea creature in existence. They need this. We all need it.

Happy Tara Day!

Rewriting the story of my life

Vajrayogini face

One day in mid-February 2010, a friend, H, shot himself after his car was repossessed. He had also recently emerged from a messy divorce, but his financial woes pushed him over the edge that day. However, he also had many close friends who loved him and thought he was larger than life, who were shocked and devastated at his surprising self-harm.

self-image in BuddhismIt seems to me that H must have had an abysmally out of whack self-image if he hated himself enough to blow his own head off. The demon self-cherishing –  exaggerated disappointment at my wishes not being fulfilled, seeing them as the most important thing in the world – contributed to that sad, needless tragedy. Certainly it was not love or wisdom. Self-grasping ignorance and attachment caused him to create and believe a mental fiction about who he was, ie, a failure, someone whose life was not worth living. Yet all his friends knew that he was a lovely sweet engaging man and had everything to live for — he could have been a Bodhisattva if that was the story he had told himself instead on that day in February. There was a lesson in this for all of us who knew him. We have to be wise about who we believe we are and what we need, or, one way or another, slowly or quickly, we will self-destruct.

Dealing with a broken heart

When painful feelings arise, it is wise not to resist them – what you resist persists – but see them as passing bad weather in the mind without repressing or indulging them. Further to this I have thought: (a) my thoughts don’t have to be that scary, they are bubbles arising from the root mind, they won’t kill me if I don’t buy into them and they disappear if I stop thinking them, and (b) those feelings and thoughts are empty — even within them is a non-conceptual wisdom and peace if I allow myself to experience it. A very wise person once gave me this advice to cure my broken heart:

Vajrayogini faceWhen bad feelings come, and the whole body and mind ache, instead of resisting it, it is good to let the suffering arise in the mind, become one with it, and look at it so closely – it dissolves into emptiness and beyond this there is nothing. Where is it, what, why? It dissolves into emptiness. Don’t be afraid of the feeling of suffering. It is just imputation, just label.  See that there is nothing there, only the mind of clear light, which is bliss and emptiness. Then feel love for everyone. Be Vajrayogini.

A friend told me that when she was once suffering from heavy and unrequited attachment, her perennially down to earth mother told her that it is like trying to quit smoking – the cravings come and the cravings also go. Which got me thinking about how to relate to ourselves in such a way that we are able to give up attachment – all forms of dependency and heavy sadness. How if H had related to himself differently, none of the above would have happened, and today we could all be having a laugh with him. I had had a lovely conversation with him the previous summer at Madhyamaka Center – he had Tantric empowerments, he was really loving his Vajrayogini retreat. So why didn’t he keep believing he was a blissful, wise, free enlightened being instead of the ordinary dead-end fiction of being a lonely, financially incompetent, rejected man? In truth, both are fictions, both are mere thought or labels, but so is everything; and there is a world of infinite possibilities in the clear light of our limitless Buddha nature, the seed of enlightenment, the seed of the Dharmakaya.

When we try to give up smoking, we have to identify with being a non-smoker who occasionally has manageable cravings (which can even be a useful teacher) as opposed to a smoker who unnaturally has to give up something that is part of them and is ending up in a state of need and loss. No one will live like that for long, in need and loss – we would sooner cave in to the attachment. But in the invisible world of our boundlessly creative mind, especially moment by moment, if we think wisely we can see that we need nothing more, we have lost nothing, we have nothing to fear from the future.

Mental fictions and self-image

planets 1We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and what we need all the time. They are all mental fictions. There is no reality behind those hallucinatory empty thoughts. We can think anything we want in the invisible world, the world of the mind, of which this manifest physical world is simply like a mirror reflection. Mind is formless. Mind is invisible (also we can’t hear it, smell it etc.). Working at the level of our subtlest mind, dropping our awareness from our head into our root mind at our heart chakra, is far more effective too; and we can do that through belief to begin with. Close your eyes, drop into your heart, and think about who you are, where you are, what you are. This world of the mind – of experience, of feelings, even of physical sensations – is the only world there actually is. Can you point to any world or body or self outside of your experience of it? (And even the mind is empty of existing from its own side, dependent on its reflections or perceptions to exist.) Close our eyes, and we can think that we are jumping from planet to planet. Someone told me that when she closes her eyes she can think that she can walk — and she has always been in a wheelchair. Someone else told me that in her mind, and her experience, she thinks she is whole, even though a truck left her unable to stand up straight without feeling compression and pain.

We can think we are a smoker, dependent on cigarettes for our happiness. Or we can think we are a non-smoker. When the craving arises, it is just some habit we got into, and we are not a smoker, so it is natural to not seek the cigarette and just see that habit as a temporary cloud in the vast expanse of sky. One of my favorite Geshe Kelsang quotes is:

We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking. ~ Meaningful to Behold, p. 190

When we are attached to someone, we can and often do make up this mental fiction: “I am dependent on them for my happiness. I need them. I am weak without them. If they seem uninterested, I behave like a bumbling idiot around them to get their attention. I am in a state of loss when they are not in my life or when they reject me. I miss them, they are missing. The future is empty without them. Only they understand me, really. To give them up will leave me in a state of lacking, it will leave me incomplete, needing something I no longer have. Even if I know I have to give them up, or they have died, it is unnatural, as it is going to cause me to be shadow of my former self, and the life they breathed into me will be gone.” Etc etc.

live in the momentIf we check, this is not a pleasant self-image and does not give rise to any genuine feelings of joy, only relief on the occasions that they call us and say, “Everything is alright, I love you, marry me, I’m not really dead”, etc. Until the relief passes, as by nature relief does. Relief is so-called changing suffering, only a temporary release of, or distraction from, underlying need and want and suffering, like scratching an itch according to Nagarjuna. Also, we hold on tightly to the supposed source of our wholeness, which is perceived as out there not within, and get rope burn as the rope must inevitably slide through our fingers due to impermanence. We condense the whole universe into one person so that it must crumble when they disappear.

Whereas we can make up any fiction we want anytime. And we can believe it, if it is helpful, while knowing that it is empty of inherent reality. Our self-image changes all the time anyway, and we can change it ourselves far more easily than we might have thought possible. In the invisible world, there are infinite possibilities (whether you want to look at this spiritually or quantumly or both). Everything begins in the mind, in the imagination. What will happen if instead of thinking I have lost everything I held dear, I think instead: “I have everything I need for my happiness right here and now. This moment is perfect. I am strong. I am able to experience love, compassion, renunciation, faith, wisdom, joy and bliss. I am a Bodhisattva. I am a Yogini in a charnel ground, fearful of nothing and no one, transforming everything, surrounded by the corpses of my own and others’ fake suffering self-images. I am a Buddha.”

We don’t need to think “I want to be Buddha” or “I will be Buddha in the future”. Wanting or hoping creates a gap between who we think we are now (some deluded being with big problems) and who we might be in some la la land future. And how will we bridge that gap?  If we can’t bridge it today, why will we be able to tomorrow? Instead, we already ARE, and we relate to that and happily create all the causes for it in the here and now – meditations on love and compassion, the six perfections, bliss and emptiness, the central channel, and so on. Or, simply put, we can start with a thought like, “I am a loving person who has everything I need”, and let our belief in our good qualities get bigger and bigger over time, as our imagination and wisdom appreciating the nature of these good qualities improves.

If there are infinite possibilities and no constraint on thought, if I can be anything, why not be a Buddha? The previous holy beings have paved the way for this and shown the best possible self-image in their Tantric revelations. How could we possibly come up with something this deep, sophisticated, or blissful without their input?! Therefore, “I am a Buddha, such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara, or Heruka and Vajrayogini, manifesting all the infinite bounty and good qualities of the Dharmakaya in every moment and leading all living beings to that state.” Also: “I can accept any unpleasant feelings/emotions/sensations — they are just clouds drifting in the endless blissful expanse of my mind, useful for teaching me about renunciation and compassion and wisdom. Like pleasant feelings, they are also just manifestations of the empty sky of the basic Dharmakaya. I can welcome and embrace them, and in doing so they miraculously have no more power to hurt. They also dissolve away, as all thoughts do sooner or later, because nothing lasts even a moment.” space goer

Well, who is there to contradict that? It is just as real or unreal as “I am useless without you.” Who says? Also, when we think of others looking at us pityingly, “Poor thing, she is useless without him”, (a) it is unlikely that they are in fact wasting much time thinking that – people tend to relate to us as far more of a whole individual than we do ourselves when we’re suffering heartache; and (b) when we change our view of ourselves, people will follow suit, sooner or later. With love and compassion, we don’t care or take seriously what people project on us in any case, we mainly want to help them – there is no need for their approval of us, we are more interested in their view of themselves.

Of course it is more “realistic” as in closer to reality to view ourselves as whole, as complete, as loving, as a Buddha, because our real nature is our Buddha nature. Our wisdom understanding that nothing is fixed is what enables us to change into whatever we want to change into, to transform; and that wisdom is the ground of our new experience. This is as opposed to our self-grasping ignorance, which is the ground of our attachment and aversion to real things and people, including our own depressing self-image. “It must be real because it appears to me that way!!! I’m not moving until the reflection in the mirror moves!”

Telling ourselves the same old stories and clichés about our own and others’ lives will never liberate us from suffering. We will simply live the clichés again and again and again — birth, ageing, sickness, death, disappointment, lack of fulfillment, dissatisfaction, birth, ageing, etc. Cyclic existence (Skt. samsara) just is one big cliché. The other day when I was complaining about getting older and uglier, looking I think for sympathy or reassurance, my friend effectively shut me up by saying this instead:

“The story of samsara has no answer.”

How long do we need?

There is a lot of talk these days about “manifesting”, eg, The Secret, a Course in Miracles, so called ‘new thought’. From a Buddhist point of view, manifesting a favorable reality depends not only upon our way of perceiving reality but also upon the karmic appearances created by our good and kind intentions. And, from a Buddhist point of view, if we can manifest reality, we may as well skip the ordinary samsaric manifestations of wealth, companionship, sex, a good reputation etc. “Be careful what you wish for!”, as the saying goes, partly because a large number of our desires are contradictory eg, pizza and a great figure, excitement and security, a long life and eternal youth, etc. Instead, we can go for the blissful enlightened reality that will always help both ourselves and others. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We can gradually come to identify with every pure, enlightened quality as explained in the Sutras and manifested in Technicolor in the Tantric Deities and mandalas, and progress will be swift – we can even gain enlightenment in one lifetime. Buddha

One lifetime?!?! You sure?! Well, given the infinite possibilities of the Dharmakaya, the extraordinary and fortunate reality that Buddha himself has appeared in our life and consciousness to introduce us to these, and the reality that all the methods exist and have always worked, why not?! Why would it take more than one lifetime if we really believe it? If we come to know that nothing is really out there, how long do we need to dismantle it? If we come to know that our thoughts are empty, invisible, with nothing really behind them, how long do we need to change them?

Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

path to enlightenment

enlightenment pie in the skyI was remembering the other day what happened when I first encountered Buddhism. A new friend at college happened to mention that there was a talk on that evening by a Tibetan Lama in York – he was not Geshe Kelsang, who became my teacher, but a visitor who was being hosted by the Buddhist Centre. I took another nice, new friend, M., along with me, not having a clue what to expect (this was 1981 in the North of England when meditation was an alien concept to most people.)

To be honest, I hardly understood a word this Geshe said. But during the course of the evening, I couldn’t help thinking: “Whatever it is you have, I want it.”

He said a couple of things I sort of got, the words at least. The first was a comment about how we have radiators in the West, followed by his falling about laughing – something he seemed to be doing most of the evening. I suppose for someone who grew up in Tibet, radiators and other Western technology must have seemed quite amusing. (This was in the days before SmartPhones, which he would doubtless have found hysterical.) M. told me later that I was laughing uproariously and a little crazily at everything, which seems strange given that I didn’t know what this happy Tibetan was saying; but clearly this stuff was infectious.

The other comment I remember from that evening was:

 “We are all on the airplane to enlightenment!”

(Followed by even more laughter.)

path to enlightenmentWe’re what??! I thought. What is he talking about?! I knew I still liked it, I probably laughed along, but I wasn’t sure what it was I liked. And, when I stopped to think about it, enlightenment or Buddhahood sounded rather pie in the sky. As far as I was concerned, I’d be lucky to just get through the day without getting annoyed with someone. If Buddhist meditation could do that for me, I’d give it a shot.

And so M. and I did, the following week at the regular introductory meditation class at our nearest Buddhist centre. That was almost 32 years ago. The rest is history.

Although I well remember how pie in the sky enlightenment felt back then, since then I’ve decided that it really is not that much of a culturally alien concept, let alone an impossibly idealistic goal. Indeed, it is within the reach of every one of us; we just have to get going, starting with wanting it.

The other day I asked some friends if they wanted to improve. They said yes. Then I asked them what would happen if they did improve a bit and became a bit kinder and wiser, for example – would that be enough, or would they still want to improve? They said they would.

Interesting, I said. No wonder Buddha says we all have Buddha nature or Buddha seed, which is our natural potential for improvement; we clearly feel it on some level. We have this potential because our mind is not inherently existent, or fixed, which means it can change. If you really want to improve, then your Buddha seed has already sprouted into the beginning of a Bodhisattva’s mentality because a Bodhisattva is someone who has taken that wish to its logical conclusion and wants to keep improving until there is no further room for improvement.

Then I asked them if they would like to be able to help more people than they are helping at the moment. They said yes. So I asked them what would happen if they were able to help, say, 3 more people than they are helping now due to being kinder and wiser (see above), would that then be the end of it? No, they replied, they’d want to help even more people.

And there you have it, I said. You’re already just like a baby Bodhisattva, who has taken this wish to its logical conclusion and wishes to help all living beings without leaving anyone out. That wish is part of our compassion, also our Buddha nature. We are naturally kind because when our delusions are not functioning we default to being peaceful and free from self-centeredness, connected to others.

bodhichitta airplane to enlightenmentA Bodhisattva is someone who wishes to help all living beings without exception by attaining enlightenment aka becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is someone, anyone, who has perfected all their good qualities and got rid of all their faults, viz, improved until there is no further room for improvement.

What is so pie in the sky about that? We just have to train in our natural wishes and let our mind expand. We are all on the airplane to enlightenment; we just have to get it off the ground.

Relaxing in your heart

bird freed color

This is the third and last part of Is Heaven real?

Celebrating Je Tsongkhapa Day Je Tsongkhapa and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

First of all, Happy Je Tsongkhapa Day! Today, October 25th, Kadampa Buddhist centers worldwide celebrate this great Buddhist master and Yogi, and what he has done for us. Geshe Kelsang’s Kadampa Buddhist books are commentaries to Je Tsongkhapa’s texts, and I find the two authors share an uncanny economy and lucidity of words, combined with profundity and transcendence. So I can’t resist pointing out some of Geshe Kelsang’s books in this article to celebrate, sort of like an extended ad!, and maybe you’ll get to sit down with one of them this cool October evening.

How to switch off

Our bodies come and go, but our mind is a beginningless and endless continuum of awareness. We can learn to switch off different thoughts, including anger, attachment, selfishness, and ignorance; but it will never be possible to switch off this continuum. From waking to sleep, and from life to life, it continuously cycles — from gross, to subtle, to very subtle, back to subtle, back to gross. I sometimes think of it as a bit like H2O cycling from ice, to water, to water vapor, and back again.

Introduction to Buddhism

All this explained here.

When I die, my very subtle mind (associated with my very subtle wind that is currently located in my heart chakra) is all that will go with me to my next life. Buddha taught that it is the very subtle mind, or “root mind”, that I’ve had in all my lives which will transform into omniscient wisdom, not my grosser levels of consciousness that come and go like clouds in the sky.

water as example of mental continuum A problem most of us have at the moment is that we cannot use our subtler levels of mind whenever we feel like it … Even though you dream most nights, can you even remember, let alone use, your own subtle dreaming awareness for example? Our very subtle mind only awakens when our grosser minds have disappeared, in deep sleep or death when, unless we are deeply trained in meditation, we can’t use our mindfulness or memory at all.

Even the scientific equipment in the lab seemed to pick up that Dr. Eben Alexander’s sense consciousness and other grosser levels of consciousness were not functioning during the shut-down of his brain (brought on by a potentially life-threatening encounter with meningitis.) Advanced meditators can cause their gross minds to dissolve away without having to wait for sleep or death or comas or NDEs. One way they train in this is through imagining going through the death process and transforming the very subtle mind or so-called “clear light” of death into the clear light of bliss. Then later they are able to manipulate their subtle inner winds and minds to replicate the death process but without actually dying, experiencing an authentic clear light. We can also get to the clear light through the six-stage Mahamudra meditation, which we can fortunately study in Mahamudra Tantra.

The significant problems we face…

Through learning these tried and tested meditation practices, we can access our deepest level of consciousness at our heart chakra, which is unrelated to our brain, and use it to meditate; and, once we have this ability, we have a blissful non-dual mind and can experience blissful Pure Lands at will. This clear light mind itself does not support dualistic conceptions, and it is also mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena, emptiness of inherent existence, like water mixed with water; so self-grasping and mistaken appearances no longer have any leg to stand on. This “inner science” is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings and the works of many advanced meditators, including Volume 2 of Modern Buddhism, available for free right now if you want to read it.

So, we cannot destroy our self-grasping, selfishness, and ordinary minds completely with our ordinary, dualistic levels of consciousness — we need to meditate on emptiness with the clear light mind of bliss. This reminds me of Einstein’s dictum:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Good examples

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso meditatingI think my own teacher spends a lot of his life in the clear light. If you’ve ever seen him meditate, which he can do for many hours and days at a stretch, you’ll see an extraordinary stillness and absorption. It was the same apparently with his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, and his teacher’s teacher, Je Phabongkhapa.  Geshe Kelsang also spent 18 years in meditative retreat in the Himalayas and 3 years of retreat in Tharpaland, when it was in Scotland.

A good friend of mine once travelled with Geshe Kelsang to the US to set up his first Center. As they were taking off, he smiled: “We are going to Vajrayogini’s Pure Land!” He then closed his eyes and meditated for the entire 8-hour flight, opening them just once to take a single fork’s worth of food.

You can tell upon reading Geshe Kelsang’s books, including his Tantric teachings, that he has first-hand experience, that he is describing what he sees directly. I think this is why his words have the power to inspire results in the reader or listener.  

Lamrim, the stages of the path

In the last article, I talked about Dr. Alexander’s description of non-duality. And I find that the 21 Buddhist Lamrim meditations seem to draw us closer one way or another to non-duality, to a lessening gulf between subject and object. If you’ve been doing this incredibly helpful cycle of Kadampa Buddhist meditations for a while, as this Kadampa has, (recording his experiences in Daily Lamrim), you may have your own conclusions about this, in which case please share them below.

The New Meditation Handbook

The cycle of 21 Lamrim meditations

For me, with the meditations on the initial scope, starting with precious human life and death, I see how this current situation I’m in is dependent on many causes and conditions, and once any of these is removed and I die all the appearances of this life will dissolve away like last night’s dream. With some mental space from worldly concerns, I stick my head above the parapets and get a vast view of reality, of the different possible appearances to mind of all my future lives. Like new dreams unfolding – the realms where I may be reborn are not outside the mind, they cannot be found in any geographical location. The main object of refuge or protection from future suffering is then emptiness itself, the only non-deceptive object, as taught to me by Buddha and practiced by my fellow Sangha. Also, by observing the law of karma I am focusing on inner cause and effect, the other side of the coin from emptiness, seeing how all my thoughts, actions, and experiences are interconnected, and so taking responsibility for them.

With the meditations on the intermediate scope, the main thing I develop renunciation for is self-grasping ignorance, grasping at inherent existence, as well as attachment to happiness existing outside the mind. With the wish to be completely free, I try to practice the three higher trainings of moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom to cut this root of suffering away. When I have finally stopped grasping at things existing independently of the mind — “that’s got nothing to do with me!” — I will be master of my own reality. I’ll be completely free. Nirvana.

With all the meditations on the great scope or Mahayana, I become closer and closer to other living beings (including animals) by contemplating our interdependence and so on, identifying with them, feeling they are also “me”, closing the chasm ‘twixt self and other. Then with tranquil abiding concentration and the wisdom of superior seeing, I focus on emptiness itself until one very happy day I will have removed all dualistic appearances from my mind permanently and can help everyone all the time.

To do all this, I mix my own mind with the blessings or enlightened mind of my Spiritual Guide, Buddha, which is already free from dualistic appearances and permanently blissful.

Messengers 

When someone has fully purified their mind and perfected all good qualities, they have attained enlightenment. Even enlightened beings are projections of our mind, but they exist. In his experience, Dr. A had some experiences of being guided – I wasn’t there, so I have no idea who his “angels” were, but I am happy to accept that they were significant to him and that they existed. I really enjoyed a couple of his descriptions, his description of the heavenly sounds are redolent to me of mantra, or the nectar of enlightened beings’ speech:

“The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet.”

Dakini in Kadampa Buddhist Temple for World Peace in England

Detail from the Kadampa Buddhist Temple for World Peace in England

I was also moved by his description of the person who guided him – she reminded me of a Dakini, or “Space Goer”, a female Tantric Buddha or a woman who has attained the realization of meaning clear light. Dakinis are also sometimes called “messengers”. I don’t know who his guide was, but I liked to be reminded of mine.

What now?

Dr. Eben Alexander has written his book to inspire others because:

“The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already.”

Hopefully, Kadampa Buddhism will be able to help break the mold as it already has plenty to say on the subject.

Susan Grober said on Facebook in response to Dr. wish to educate others:

“He has a hard task, especially given the new stats on fewer people in US identifying with a particular religion. I hope his experience lets people living too much in their heads, and not enough in their hearts, entertain, even for a minute, that “this” isn’t it. Hopefully the degree and Harvard credentials will help this “good cause”!”

Facebook and meditationThe same Newsweek magazine also carried an article on the insidious influence that Facebook could have on children under 13 if FB allows them to join, with general alarm at what the supersonic rate of sensory stimulation and instant distraction available 24/7 might be doing to all of us, including reducing our empathy (feeling of connection?) Certainly, I think we can tell that it is keeping us in our heads, and Dr. A’s article, to me, in notable contrast, was giving another example of what is available if we allow ourselves to connect with our spiritual hearts.

Part 1 of this article: “Is heaven real?”
Part  2 of this article: “Moving from the head to the heart

That’s it from me on the subject. Over to you!

The New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union celebrates NKT Day

The New Kadampa Tradition International Kadampa Buddhist Union NKT

Today I asked the question on Facebook “What, if anything, does NKT day mean to you?”

The New Kadampa Tradition International Kadampa Buddhist Union NKTA lot of you reading this have never heard of NKT Day, so it means absolutely nothing to you :-) If the rest of you are anything like me, you might give it no thought until the actual day is upon us, unless you’re in charge of organizing events around it. (In fact, at times when I’ve not been living near a center, say on solitary retreat, it has not been unknown for NKT Day to pass me by completely… ) But it is a day that people who like Kadampa Buddhism celebrate on the first Saturday of every April, and is in its own way as important as Easter or Christmas is to Christians. I like celebrating holy days, even those in other traditions (the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned – “holiday” after all means “vacation” in British English.) So I thought it might be good to do a short article* on what it is people are actually celebrating this Saturday, with input from Facebook friends and others.

In brief, NKT day commemorates the founding of the New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in 1991. Kadampa Centers worldwide hold all sorts of enjoyable celebratory events.

The centers, the 22 genius books, and so on all originate from the kindness and skill of this physically tiny but spiritually gargantuan man who arrived in the West 35 years ago with nothing except his robes, his rosary, and two texts.

Through his inner experiences of Buddha’s teachings, his powerful wish to help, and the blessing and permission of his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe-la has created something truly epic. The Kadampa Buddhist tradition was close to extinction in Tibet and through his (and others’) efforts there are now over a thousand centers in the West, and some thriving monasteries in the east.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's booksWhy is it that these books are so effective? Why has Modern Buddhism been downloaded over 150,000 times in the last 10 months, for example? Why have millions of people now read his books? Here are just a few of my ideas on that.

These teachings come from someone who, you quickly figure out, has complete experience of what he’s talking about. All of them are based on a 2500 year old tradition that has been tried and tested by many generations of meditators, including him. They are not just someone’s new idea.

Geshe Kelsang is an expert. He has consistently been discovering better and better ways to introduce the entire teachings of Buddha to a worldwide audience without diluting them down, and I think it is fair to say that it has never been done on this scale before. (The NKT is supposedly the fastest growing Buddhist organization.) I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time so I could help prepare a lot of these books, and have taught most of them at some point or another, so I’ve read them all many times. But I still find new and spine-tingling insights in them whenever I pick them up to read them again.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso happyGeshe Kelsang is happy. I think it is very rare to find someone so happy, or to find a book written by someone who’s always happy. Other books can do a lot for us, but not necessarily make us so happy.

The books cover the entire array of Buddhist teachings and practices, from A to Z. Some of them are like thick text books, containing extremely detailed investigations on, say, Buddha’s teachings on ultimate truth or the profound creative practices contained within the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings. Geshe Kelsang has explained absolutely everything with a clarity, skill and practicality that I can barely fathom. And he has done this all in our own language(s).

Geshe Kelsang has managed to explain vast and profound topics in increasingly accessible books, the latest being Modern Buddhism. This manages to contain every single meaning of Sutra and Tantra within its 400+ pages without it becoming incomprehensible, in fact quite the opposite. It is so rich, and yet so simple at the same time. No one could pull this off unless they had direct experience of all the subject matter combined with a skill formidable enough to be able to relate it to a new audience.

I could go on and on about the books. Don’t get me started. In truth, I cannot imagine my life without them.

NKT study and meditation programs

NKT study and meditation programsBased on the books, Geshe Kelsang has arranged three study and meditation programs that are proving to be a very effective way for people to take Buddha’s teachings to heart and make continual, steady progress. He has laid the foundations for modern-day Buddhist practice on whichever level people choose to participate, and without contradicting their culture or politics. Based on these programs, the NKT has been able to establish many centers worldwide in response to demand.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso on retreat in India

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s background

Just the briefest potted history for now… Geshe Kelsang was born in 1931, auspiciously or suspiciously enough on Dharmachakra Day, or Buddha’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day. He entered the monastery aged 8 and, according to accounts by his classmates, was a very kind child who also spent a lot of time meditating on Lamrim, even meditating through the night on many occasions. He studied and meditated on all Buddha’s teachings.

In 1959 the Chinese invaded Tibet and he fled to India with nothing but his robes and a couple of texts, but he apparently stayed happy, transforming adverse conditions into the spiritual path. He entered deep meditative retreat for 18 years until his teacher, the great Trijang Rinpoche, asked him to teach in the West. So he came to Manjushri Institute in 1977.

When he was flying over the sprawl of greater London he asked his translator: “How many people are down there?!” When the answer came back “about ten million,” he replied in surprise, “There are only five million people in Tibet!” And it looks like he is trying to help them all and more — I and many others are a product of that.

Geshe Kelsang has helped bring Buddhism into the modern world stripped of its cultural overlay and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso at Madhyamaka Centreseparated from politics. He learnt English as quickly as he could, discreetly got British citizenship so he was free to do what he wanted, and started to help people through his teachings, books, example, and personal advice. To begin with, his audience was small – we could all fit comfortably in the so-called North Wing gompa of Manjushri Centre. Now, of course, it is rather large. In Portugal next year, I have no idea how everyone is going to fit.

Geshe Kelsang from Day One has trained equally four types of teacher – lay, ordained, male, female – in a radical departure from the male- and monk-centric way things were done in Tibet. As you may know, the current General Spiritual Director of the NKT is a nun. So, in fact, is the Deputy Spiritual Director! The tradition is run by women! Generations of monks are turning in their graves…

When I got interested in the early 1980s, I thought it was a bit of a stretch when Geshe-la asked me to begin teaching a branch in Bath, South England, considering we were based in Yorkshire (and was foolish enough to tell him so) – but luckily my own complete lack of vision did not make a jot of difference. Down to Bath I went each week, and branches were started all over England in response to requests. Nowadays Geshe Kelsang is bringing Buddhism to the entire world – the corpus of all Buddha’s teachings are being translated into many different languages, and, because Geshe Kelsang has emphasized the training of qualified modern teachers, this looks set to continue. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

As someone (whose name I have misplaced) put it a few years ago:

“The real genius is for someone steeped in the Buddhist tradition that arose in a completely different culture and time to be able to translate that perfectly so that it is accessible to those raised in a completely different culture, a modern culture. And to do this without in any way diluting it or losing its profundity and lineage. That’s the genius. And I think we can say that Geshe-la has pulled it off rather masterfully.”

Why does everyone call him “Geshe-la”?

Kadampas regularly refer to Geshe Kelsang as “Geshe-la.” This is like an informal title, or a term of endearment. “Geshe” is short for the Tibetan Ge way shey nyen, which literally means “spiritual friend,” and “la” denotes affection or respect.

What people are saying on Facebook so far in response to the question above

From my point of view, NKT is a representation of Geshe-la’s kindness to present Buddha’s teachings to our modern world. His teachings captivate the western audience and encourage us to finally put Buddha’s teachings into practice. ~ Geronimo Esparza-Dykstra

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso imageNKT is a buffet of small bites that allow me to fill my life to capacity with digestible portions of wisdom catered to the Western world. ~ Toby Tullis

Yes, a MUCH happier mind thanks to Geshe-la. Buddha was right, pass it on! ~ Sara Pitt

Well, NKT has meant to me a much calmer mind to allow me to be who I truly am. ~ Rita Marie Loy

It means balance. ~ Gail Dyson

The practice of universal love for all living beings (seen and unseen). ~ Brenda McI

NKT Day means a celebration of the path towards mental freedom and more compassion in the world, one heart at a time! ~ Ike Lichtenstein

To celebrate our good fortune of having such a wonderful tradition and web of kindness. Thanks Geshe-la! ~ Kelsang Chokyi

As time goes by the meaning goes deeper and is less easy to express in words. I’ve always liked the idea though… as I learn to relax and be natural, how more & more the warmth of my Guru’s blessings seep in, and slowly each one of the 1,000 petals of the lotus of my heart start to open. ~ Kelsang Lekpa

Wisdom and compassion. ~ Francesca Gallo

Appreciation for these wonderful teachings, teachers and Sangha… off and online. ~ Bill Purchase

NKT: giving Westerners a rare access point to the precious Buddhadharma since 1991. ~ Thomas Ythan Jones

I think NKT Day is like King Yeshe O day. It reminds me of the effort and sacrifice made by Geshe-la and many others to keep pure Buddhadharma alive in the world. ~ Sally Carter

Every day is NKT day for me. Every day I thank Geshe-la and request him to keep me in his service for as long as space exists. ~ Hank Ford

I didn’t have space to put everyone’s comments, but you can find them on the Facebook pages (including Luna Kadampa’s.)

What others have been saying elsewhere…

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso quotationsGeshe Kelsang’s life and deeds are a powerful example of how tremendous the effect even just one person’s pure practice can have.

I live in a small town in the UK that has very little culture or religious diversity. There is a beautiful New Kadampa Tradition centre in the town with 2 shrine rooms. Other than this there is no sign of Buddhism or Buddha’s teachings nearby, so I feel very grateful for Geshe Kelsang’s hard work in spreading Dharma in so many places in this modern world. Without his efforts there would be no Dharma in this area.

Geshe Kelsang must have gone through a lot of difficulties in the beginning when he first arrived in the western world. It was a completely different environment for him, the weather, the food, the culture, the language etc. Despite the difficulties he faced, he managed to spread the Dharma so far and wide.

NKT have grown from strength to strength and become so much of an inspiration for so many other centres around the world. My own Lama and center refers often to the works of Geshe-la and use his books as study materials. So it’s not just the people who are his direct students from NKT. I hope people know that it is also many other Buddhists around the world, like my own little Sangha, who are benefitting from his teachings and compassion.

There’s a lot more where this came from.

*Okay, I know, “short” is relative :-)

Here is a recent tribute I found to Geshe Kelsang, a brief sketch of some of his life and deeds so far.

Your turn: What, if anything, does NKT Day mean to you?


In praise of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s presentation of modern Buddhism

Click on the image for your free gift of Modern Buddhism eBook!

Click on the image for your free gift!

(I guess this particular article is directed mainly at Kadampas, though I hope the rest of you find it a bit interesting too.)

Have you had a chance yet to download your gift ebook of Modern Buddhism?! It’s wonderful that it is completely free, because reading and practicing all the instructions in this book is, I think, like reading and practicing all of Buddha’s essential teachings on Sutra and Tantra.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has presented Kadampa Buddhism with mind-boggling skill. For example, in the “old days” (circa early 1980s), we all practiced the long sadhanas (prayer booklets) that took hours because that is all we had; also we arguably had more time as we had less aggressive distractions. Now Geshe Kelsang has provided his students with short practices such as Heart Jewel, Prayers for Meditation or, most recently, The Yoga of Buddha Heruka, which nonetheless contain absolutely everything. In his books and live teachings, he has encouraged us to dive straight into the very essence of Buddha’s teachings from the beginning, and then unravel it all backward.

From the get-go, practitioners are now encouraged to meditate daily on bliss and emptiness, which is the ultimate Buddhist meditation and actually contains every meaning of the spiritual path (included in the so-called “five seeds” of renunciation, bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, and generation stage and completion stage of Highest Yoga Tantra). We truly learn to sow all five seeds together and reap their results together, as advised by Geshe Kelsang’s teacher’s teacher, Je Phabongkhapa. This is the real union of Sutra and Tantra as taught by the Kadampa tradition’s founder Je Tsongkhapa

But at the same time we are encouraged to learn and deepen our experience of all these five seeds (and their components) by gradually receiving teachings on all the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra, which are taught in authentic and practical detail in 22 outstanding books and on the three study programs worldwide. This is skilful (a) because it shows a complete understanding of how little time (and patience!) we have, and how we cannot and will not wait for years to get to the essential point, and (b) because starting at the end and working backwards is the very best way for us to practice! It truly brings the future result of our spiritual practice into the present path, making it happen now, not some time in the ever-receding future. (See this article for how simply to relate to our best and purest potential whenever we practice.)

Whenever we are connected to a peaceful mind we are connected to Buddha’s mind. It is connecting with our Buddha nature. We need to associate with that potential, get there, and stay there. We want to liberate our peace, our love, our compassion, our wisdom so they expand and pervade the universe. We are removing the obstructions from our Buddha nature.

I think of Modern Buddhism as being our modern-day Kadam Emanation Scripture. It is a magical, blessed book as it can be read on so many different levels. If you are just getting interested in Buddhism, you can download the book for free and find out all about Buddhism in general and bliss and emptiness in particular. Then, if you wish, you can slowly but surely gain a more extensive understanding of all these subjects through more reading and meditating on the other books. And people who have been around for a while say they find Modern Buddhism exceedingly helpful in presenting the very essence of everything they have already learned.

“We need modern ideas, but we also need ancient wisdom. If we deny ancient wisdom we are making a big mistake.” ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

It is possible to take Geshe Kelsang’s presentation for granted if it is all we have known. However, just from my relatively short experience of how things have evolved in the past 30 years, let alone taken in the historical context of the presentation of Buddhism over the past 2500 years, I am aware that it is uncommonly skillful. Geshe Kelsang is a spiritual genius, wielding Manjushri’s wisdom sword to cut through the labrynthine complications of modern living and modern mind-sets — all the more miraculous given his entirely unwired background (it’s safe to say there was no Tweeting in Tibet…).

But do you agree that each of us could do with thinking about how to keep these teachings alive ourselves by figuring out how to practice effectively in our own modern wired life? Can we, the Smartphone generation, learn to meditate?! Can we gain all the same realizations as our predecessors?! Geshe Kelsang has done everything in his power to help us, so what do we need to do from our own side? If we can figure this out together, then we can repay the kindness of Geshe Kelsang’s and of his teachers all the way back to Buddha, and make sure there is hope for future generations.

Your turn: In the comments, I would love to hear if and how you are all using modern-day methods to stitch Buddhism into the fabric of your daily life and make actual progress.

Preparing for the Pure Land

the best way to get to heaven

(Apologies in advance for the relatively esoteric nature of this article! I’ll attempt to give some background at the end for those of you who are interested.)

While I was staying with Sue Hulley in November, it was becoming apparent that the chemotherapy was not working to reduce the tumor – she could feel a lump growing daily in her side, and later tests confirmed this. When I first asked her how long she thought she had left to live, she speculated two years, but within a week she had revised that down to a matter of months. Not long after, it was only weeks. She accepted her rapidly shrinking lifespan with her characteristic calm and good humor.

Sue was all about cherishing others, and in very practical ways. Something I wrote at the time gives a glimpse: “On Sunday morning I woke at 7am to find Sue attempting to bake for the Tuesday night meditation class. She couldn’t stand up, much less reach things, so this was going to take all day… instead I offered to be her hands and we made a rather nice cake. If anyone has an excuse to beg off baking duties and be unhelpful, it is Sue. But cherishing others is what she does – she is going to die as she lives and live as she dies.”

Sue was not sentimental about her death. Her last email to her fellow Teacher Training students, people she had been close to for 15 years, was factual, let everyone know that she could no longer receive visits or phone calls, and ended simply with: “I look forward to studying with you in Keajra. Love Sue.” She also wrote some Christmas cards not long before she died, on which she wrote messages like: “Merry Christmas. Have a great rest of your life! Love, Sue.”

Our conversations

The most important thing we talked about during my ten-day visit was preparing for her death and next life. Our conversations started in the car, like this:

Me: Where are you planning on going when you die?

Sue: Hmmm, well, I was talking about this with someone the other day, and we concluded that we would like to go wherever Geshe-la wants us.

Me: Where do you think that is?

Sue: I suppose Keajra? (the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini).

Me: Are you feeling a bit vague about this?

Sue: I suppose I am.

Me: I think if we want to go to Keajra, we have to start believing that we are in Keajra now. I don’t think it works to assume that we’ll just suddenly go there if we haven’t gotten used to being there ahead of our death.

Sue: (goes very thoughtful). Yes, I have been thinking of it more along the lines of “I’ll keep my nose clean and then with any luck go to a Pure Land. It is a bit dualistic. I’m putting it off.”

Me: That dualistic view is quite natural for us, and perhaps it is like some people’s idea of a Christian heaven. But in Buddhism we have to put our mind where we want it to be – it is not a question of being rewarded sometime in the future.

We have to have no reservation either. We have to really want to be there, more than anything else. (This point is at least implicit in the first of the so-called “five forces”, aspiration – we do have to know clearly what we want and actually want it!) If Buddha was to appear right now and say to you: “Sue, I am going to give you a choice. You can stay in Marin for another twenty years and then die and go to Keajra, or you can be in Keajra right now without delay”, which would you choose?!

Sue: (laughing) Good point. I would want to hang out here with my friends for another 20 years and then go! But I have to want it MORE than this.

Me: Yes, and the only way that’ll happen is if we’re thinking about it all the time, and what it actually means to be in the Pure Land. As you know, it is not a real physical place with lovely fountains and whispering trees (looking a bit like Marin!) that we are going to magically turn up in sometime in the future if we create some vague aspirations and causes for it now. It is, of course, primarily a state of mind. We have to practice being there until we are.

Then, there will be no contradiction between being in Marin and being in the Pure Land :-) For example, when the great Tibetan Yogi Milarepa was asked in which Pure Land he attained enlightenment, he pointed to his empty cave.

We can describe the Pure Land as like heaven, but it is not really the same as many Christians’  or Muslims’ notion of heaven (depending, I suppose, on what they mean when they say “heaven on earth” ?!)  We are not buying into this human life and using it to garner a reward, or a “promotion”. We want the Pure Land now. It seems to me that if we don’t want it now, it means we still have attachment to a more ordinary life, and these are stones around our feet that will prevent us from leaving samsara. Do you agree? To go there, we have to want it more than this. And we have to want it now. There is only now.

Sue and I then had several discussions about what state of mind Keajra or the Pure Land was, and Sue spent a lot of time focusing on this. As a result, she said that death no longer felt like such a “big deal” to her, more of a seamless transition, and she found a deep peace with it. There is a description of sincere Tantric practitioners in the Root Tantra of Heruka:

For such practitioners, death is just mere name –
They are simply moved from the prison of samsara
To the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka.

Death is smoother if we are already living as if we are in our next life. Less “bells and whistles”, less of a “razzmatazz and production”, as Sue put it, with accompanying wand gestures. Our friend Marsha Remas had been telling us about the title of a book she was reading, “This IS your next life!” Sue loved that.

There need be no contradiction between living this life and preparing for the future if we are now putting our mind where we want it to be in our next life.

I think that a Pure Land has basically three ingredients: faith, motivation, and view. This will mean different things to different people, including those in other spiritual traditions. For me, in brief, and for Sue, faith means a profound feeling of closeness to my Spiritual Guide, the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha, holding them all in my heart. Motivation means renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom) and bodhichitta (the wish for enlightenment for the sake of all living beings), which keeps me very close to others, free from attachment, also holding them all in my heart, even when the fleeting appearances of this world and body dissolve away. View means the wisdom realizing the empty dream-like nature of all phenomena, inseparably mixed with the clear light mind of bliss. (Tantric practitioners can combine these three with self-generation, you can find out more about that in Modern Buddhism).

It seems to me that this is the best way not to be separated from those we hold dear. With faith, motivation, and view, we lose nothing when we die. There is nothing to fear. We are where we want to be, for our own and others’ sake.

When Sue and Bill dropped me at the airport, in what turned out to be Sue’s last “outing”, she said: “This was not a dead flower visit. This was very ‘real’.”

When Sue died, her family stayed with her for an hour and a half, and then left her alone for another hour and a half. When they returned, her left hand, which had been by her side, was over her heart, and her mouth, which had been open, was now closed in a peaceful half-smile.

Your turn: Where are you planning on going when you die, and what are you doing now to get there?

Some background information

We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we water.

According to Buddhism, the “Pure Land” is the experience of a purified mind, whereas “samsara” is the experience of an impure mind that is still contaminated by the inner poison of delusions. Here is a short description taken from Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully:

In a Buddha’s Pure Land everything is pure; there are no sufferings, no contaminated environments, and no impure enjoyments. Beings born there are free from sickness, ageing, poverty, war, harm from fire, water, earth, and wind, and so forth. They have the ability to control their death and rebirth, and they experience physical and mental suppleness throughout their life. Just being there naturally gives rise to a deep experience of bliss.

The Pure Land could be considered similar to the Christian idea of heaven (or other religions’ idea of paradise), but in Buddhism a Pure Land is the experience of a pure mind — there is no external creator who rewards us with it (or who, alternatively, can send us to hell.) The mind is the creator of all. To attain a Pure Land primarily involves purifying and controlling our own mind. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.

From Garvan Byrne to Christopher Hitchens ~ a broad spectrum of belief

christopher hitchens

When someone linked to this video a few days ago on Facebook, I watched it once, was mesmerized, and had to watch it again. My thoughts keep returning to this child. I’m not alone — tons of people have commented on this video. Have a look and see what you think, and I’ll resume this below.

Recently I did some articles on blessings, and Gavan is a shining example of what I was trying to get at, even if we are in different religions and have somewhat different beliefs.  Since time immemorial, people have had the experience of communing with holy beings, in all traditions.  Either we are all quite mad, or we are all quite, quite sane! You decide.

Children can be quite amazing sometimes. My friend Julie told me recently about a little boy who attends Kadampa Meditation Center NYC in Manhattan (which has just signed the contract for a beautiful new space on 24th Street :-)) In school, his teacher was showing the kids diagrams of everything inside the human body. When she’d finished, the four-year-old put his hand up and said: “You’ve forgotten something.” “What is that?” she replied. “The Buddhas. They are in here too.”

Meantime, on the other end of the spectrum, I confess that, although I don’t subscribe to his atheistic world view, I’m going to miss Christopher Hitchens a little! He spoke truth to power, and reminded me that none of us, whatever position we hold, can afford to get caught up in hypocrisy or use any part of our religion as a justification for unkindness and discrimination.

I’m pretty sure that Garvan didn’t.

Two more to go…

So, this is article #97 on Kadampa Life! Thank you for helping me get here. If you still like this blog, please feel a warm fuzzy invitation to subscribe! That way, you don’t have to keep coming back here, because every four or five days the articles will drop conveniently into your inbox.

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