Being a modern-day Bodhisattva

six perfections

This is the 3rd of 4 articles on our precious human life.

In Breathing for Peace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

six perfections

Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

We could do something truly radical by using our life to become a friend of the world, a modern-day Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by universal compassion, wants to help everyone without exception find lasting freedom and happiness. Compassion fuels their entire spiritual progress. They understand that the most far-reaching and satisfying way to help others is to keep increasing their own good qualities of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom – the so-called six perfections – until they become an enlightened Buddha able to help everyone all the time. This motivation is called bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment.

A Bodhisattva is a rare being, a special person, an actual hero or heroine who gains victory over our real enemies of anger, greed, despair, discouragement and so on. Someone who wants to become enlightened for all living beings is uncommon, but just because it is rare doesn’t mean we can’t become one. There are people throughout the world working selflessly for others, in ways obvious or hidden. Sometimes we stumble across their stories and are inspired.  

Rick Chaboudy modernday Bodhisattva

Rick Chaboudy, modern-day Bodhisattva, savior of too many animals to count

If we decided we wanted to help others with surgical procedures, we would understand the need to train as a surgeon. We wouldn’t march around with a carving knife announcing, “Anyone care for some heart surgery? Or perhaps a little amputation?” Wanting to help everyone, a Bodhisattva knows they first need to improve their own motivation, skills and capacity. They have a way to make every single day meaningful and are a great role model for how to live in the world.

How can we live a meaningful life?

How does someone become a Bodhisattva? Simply through daily practice, one step at a time. You may be thinking, “Well this is a bit fanciful isn’t it?! I started reading this article just out of curiosity, and possibly to help me get through this stressful day without killing someone, and now you’re suggesting that I aspire to become a fully enlightened Buddha!” But it is far closer than we may think. We can tell that we already have the seed of bodhichitta because we already want to help others at least a bit more than we can right now, and we already want to improve ourselves at least a bit. Take both of these to their logical conclusion and we have bodhichitta – the wish to help everyone without exception by improving ourselves until there is no further room for improvement.

Modern Buddhism free book

We want our life to have some meaning, don’t we? Pleasure alone is not enough, it feels hollow, because it has no lasting value. True happiness and meaning go hand in hand. If we use our life to travel the spiritual path, we can be in the position of helping not just ourselves but infinite living beings. We can become real heroes.

Spreading a little happiness everyday

A friend of mine sent me this anecdote:

“Straight after university I spent a year working in television in London as a production runner for the Channel 4 comedy series The National Theatre of Brent. As a lot of my time was spent in gridlock, “driving” the company car on errands in London traffic, I had plenty of time to examine road rage. So frustrated by their lack of movement, drivers in front of me would honk their horns continuously, forcing their way into whatever gaps presented themselves. Yet an hour down the road, despite all their aggressive heart-attack—inducing attempts, I would see them again – a whole five cars further ahead!road rage

I decided to conduct an experiment. Whenever possible, I would allow a trapped car into the space ahead of me. When I did this, I was greeted by a smile and wave from the surprised driver, and that car would often play it forward, repeating the gesture of kindness to another car ahead of it. Traffic seemed to flow more easily as a result. My journeys did not take any longer, and they were a great deal more restful and entertaining. This is just a simple illustration. We have these kinds of opportunities to practice loving-kindness every day.”

By improving our love and compassion and the wish to improve ourselves for the sake of others, and by gradually engaging in the Bodhisattva’s way of life, our life approximates that of a Bodhisattva and we become more and more like one. With this good and big heart, even if we improve ourselves only a little bit each day by, for example, patiently resisting the temptation to get angry with someone, and even if we only slightly help one or two people each day, by, for example, helping a little old lady cross the street, every little bit counts a lot because right here and right now we are already making strides on a cosmic spiritual journey.

In praise of integrity

Integrity dictionary

I recently re-read a good article on Heart of Compassion on honesty and keeping it real, well worth reading twice. It has also prodded me to finish writing down some thoughts on integrity that I’ve had up my sleeve for a while.

Integrity definitionThe dictionary definition of integrity is:

Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

One of the things I love most about the old Kadampas is their integrity. They seemed to practice Dharma as if no one was looking, totally for its own sake, with no side-tracking worldly concerns. (The 8 worldly concerns are attachment to praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and fear of or aversion to their opposite.)

A few years ago, when I was about to go on quite a long retreat, a friend said: “You’ll be setting a great example!” I remember thinking, and replying, “I don’t want to set an example, though. I just want to practice as if no one is looking.” I don’t know if that thought was a cop-out or not, but I know at the time it helped me enjoy the retreat a great deal.

integrity and Understanding the Mind TharpaAlthough it can obviously be helpful to set a good example, it is counterproductive if there is pretension or concealment involved. (Perhaps it is better to be a good example than to set one?)  If I look to someone for inspiration or advice, for example, I am not worried about their faults per se because we all have those. What will destroy my confidence in their ability to help me is if they don’t seem to be doing anything about these faults, particularly if they don’t seem to believe or care that they have them, and even more so if they are trying to cover them up or being prideful. (Others probably evaluate our advice using similar criteria.)

A Bodhisattva promises to work for the welfare of all living beings without pretension or deceit. Here are some useful definitions from Understanding the Mind (where you can read all about them) that have helped me understand what integrity is and aspire to it, since it seems free from these faulty attitudes.

The definition of pretension is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to pretend that we possess qualities that we do not possess.

The definition of concealment is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to conceal our faults from others.

If we have wealth or reputation, we have to be particularly careful because we have the grounds for attachment to arise every day – trying to hold onto our wealth or popularity, fearing their loss. Our behavior will no longer have integrity if it is motivated by these concerns and results will not be as good as they could be, even if we are ostensibly helping a lot of people.

Here’s another good one, self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth, or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development.

If we count among our “other good qualities” the fact that everyone right now loves us, praises us, and does what we ask, we develop a spiritual smugness that means after years of supposed practice and example we have not taken an actual step forward toward liberation or enlightenment.

Crabs in a bucket

If you put a crab in a bucket and it can climb out of that bucket, it will climb out. But if you put two crabs in the bucket, when one of the crabs tries to climb out, the other will pull it back in. (Apparently. I’ve never tried this.) Neither will ever escape. It doesn’t matter that it is possible to escape; the crabs will hold each other back from doing so.

Atisha

Atisha, founder of Kadampa Buddhism

Sometimes we may not believe in the idea of our own limitless potential and instead have a jealous or insecure sense that someone else’s success somehow diminishes our own. With that mentality, even if we are not fully aware of it, if we see others improving we will naturally if unconsciously reach out to hold them back, or at least experience that most ignoble of  feelings, schadenfreude, when we see them fall back.

However, we don’t only hold each other back by criticizing each other, putting each other down, or rejoicing in their misfortune. Actually, I think we are more effectively held back in samsara when people shower us with praise, power, and gifts, especially if we take it seriously and buy into it. Words of fame and praise do nothing to advance us spiritually, especially if we become dependent on them for our self-image and self-esteem. As Venerable Atisha says in his quintessential Advice for all wannabe Kadampas:

Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.

Profit and respect are nooses of the maras, so brush them aside like stones on the path.

Geshe-la in Tibet

Geshe Kelsang in Tibet

I was once on a little pedestal by dint of my position – not a huge pedestal like Nelson’s in Trafalgar Square, more like one of those plastic pillars a foot high in a MacDonalds playground, but still not quite on the level playing field. When I was pushed off my pedestal (as we all are sooner or later), I took incredible inspiration from the old Kadampas, and still do. The real Kadampas would hide their best qualities in plain sight. On the outside they were a pure example by observing moral discipline motivated by non-attachment and contentment, on the inside they were motivated by a fiercely kind bodhichitta, and, even more deeply and secretly on the inside, they were relaxing in the bliss and emptiness of Tantra. 

It is not what you do but why you do it. There is no such thing as ordinary activity without an ordinary mind. With an ordinary mind, even seemingly pure activities will have ordinary results.

Part 2 coming soon to a blog near you. Meanwhile, over to you, do you agree with this or not?

Can ageing be worthwhile?

kindness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Carrying on from where this article left off.

The power of the Bodhisattva’s mind 

When a Bodhisattva experiences pain, they regard this pain as an example of the pain experienced by countless other living beings. They do not possess the pain or identify with it. Ordinarily, pain destroys our happiness because we grasp it tightly as our own and it is all-consuming for us. But for a Bodhisattva, their pain induces more compassion for others. Strong compassion, in turn, lessens the feeling of pain, mentally for sure, and also physically. Therefore, a Bodhisattva has nothing to fear from pain.

kindness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

If a Bodhisattva experiences a moment of loneliness, for example, they observe it in their mind. They don’t think, “I am so lonely”; instead they think, “Here is an example of the loneliness experienced by countless other beings right now.” Understanding directly how horrible this is, they decide, “How wonderful it would be if I could help alleviate the suffering of loneliness in this world.” Bodhisattvas transform their experience of any sickness or pain into a positive spiritual realization.

We can see examples of this in everyday lives. If parents lose their children to incurable diseases, they sometimes establish foundations in their children’s honor that are specifically dedicated to helping find a cure for this disease, and in doing so find meaning and relief. Or consider Lance Armstrong – whatever you may think of his cycling “performance”, his experience of the pain of fighting and surviving cancer led to his creation of the Livestrong Foundation and the ubiquitous yellow wrist bands that have raised so much awareness and money for a cancer-cure.

love is all you need in Buddhism

As we get older, we tend to experience more physical pain. If instead of focusing on our own pain and thereby making it feel worse, we can manage to think of others who are suffering in a similar way and generate strong compassion, this compassion helps protect us from our pain and fears and motivates us to help others.

My dad had to undergo some very uncomfortable medical treatment last year. He told me that he was feeling sorry for himself in the hospital one day, when something made him notice the other people around him. Focusing his attention on them, he realized that they were in a worse way than he was, and he felt very sorry for them. This totally took his mind off his own painful predicament, and for the first time, but not the last, he felt strangely all okay again.

It might be a good idea to start training in this now!

Growing old gracefully

Do you agree that being confident and being attractive are closely related? When people find a way to retain and cultivate their inner confidence, their engagement with others, their ability to laugh at themselves, they don’t cease being attractive whatever age or however doddery they are. I think a lot of confidence comes from having a clear sense of who you are, what you love, and a zest for life. My Grandfather loved life until the day he died aged 100, and so he was always fun to be with.

growinggracefullyAs our physical enjoyments and reputations diminish through ageing, instead of getting bitter or nostalgic we can increase even further the value we place on our experience of inner peace. If we become more peaceful, positive, and even blissful in our mind, people will enjoy hanging out with us, regardless of our age. This is certainly the case for my friend Eileen, who I’m visiting next weekend :-) Buddhist meditation practice can engender great self-confidence.

Upon turning 80 last year (on the same day as my teacher!), my quasi father-in-law wrote to me:

I must admit that yesterday I woke up with a sense of amazement. Wow! I had thought it was only other people that get old, and an octogenarian is old. One is treated with a certain reverence (though whether this might be covering a degree of pity and disdain, I don’t know). Physically, I feel ancient. I used to boast a degree of dexterity but for some years I’ve felt clumsy. I’m learning to be more careful but I dropped and broke the lid of one of P’s casseroles the other day. Walking has become more of a thought-about action, particularly since I slipped on the ice early this year. My memory is getting very poor. There are embarrassingly long pauses in my speech as I search, not for the right word, but for any word that will do! I’ve also lost a little confidence in walking and driving. 

However as far as attitude is concerned, I haven’t felt much change. I am OK as long as I feel I’m still in control of how I’m reacting to what is happening around me. I can visualize a time when this may not be so any more. As long as I find my absent-mindedness amusing, I’m happy. I imagine that most thinking geriatrics feel something similar to this. The sad thing is when one of us “wrinklies” does not notice the control slipping away and they drift into senility. Then all their bold statements along the lines of, “I don’t want to lose my dignity, to become dependent on others; I’d rather die with my independence intact,” and so forth, count for nothing.

Senior-MomentAs our body starts to let us down, we are compelled to rely more deeply on inner resources. Even if we do become more forgetful of words and phrases and where we left our keys, and our brain is seizing up, we can still feel love and compassion in our heart-mind, especially if we have started our training in this. In the end, the journey within is the most interesting journey we can ever take, and ageing is a constant motivator to travel it well.

Your turn: Do you have inspiring examples of people you know who aged or are ageing well?

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.

First you, then me ~ the Bodhisattva’s attitude

first you then me

I hope you’re having a happy holiday season. Just before Christmas I wrote a couple of articles about becoming more generous, and I have a few more things to say on the subject. We’ve no doubt bought and given all our presents by now, but we don’t have to wait a whole ‘nother year before we go crazy giving again! Generosity is the first “perfection” of a Bodhisattva, an essential part of their way of life leading to enlightenment. The more generous we become, the happier we’ll be.

What is a possession?

We have a strong sense of ownership, which if you check is a strong sense of mine. And where does a strong sense of mine come from? It actually comes from a strong sense of me — I in the possessive mode. Of me. The stronger our sense of mine, the stronger our sense of me. Our possessions are mine, which is like me in the possessive mode, me apostrophe s, me’s. It’s all about me. This shirt is my shirt, it is of me, get off it, you can’t borrow it! My shirt!

I had this experience, actually, I will confess. After the marathon we ran in Sacramento some years ago, we were given these fantastic red shirts with the logo: “Run for World Peace” and this great quote, “Without Inner Peace, Outer Peace is Impossible.” My shirt fitted me perfectly. And I loved it, and was so looking forward to just wearing it.

But then somebody said sadly, “Oh, I only got a large, I can’t wear a large, I’m a small,” and this thought came into my head, “Oh, crikey, I’m going to have to give them mine, aren’t I, show a good example?” So I did, and there was a pang – “Ugh. I’ve got a large shirt now, a large red shirt saying, “Without Inner Peace, Outer Peace is Impossible.”

It is so useful when things like this happen, you just see this childish, pathetic mind. I was happy to make her smile, truth be told, but at the same time I had attachment to this shirt, I had already labeled it “mine”, and as a result there was a bit of a pang. And then of course I had to give away the large shirt too as it didn’t fit.

So in reality this mind of holding onto things, it’s painful. Miserliness is a painful mind. It’s a tight mind, there’s no joy in it. That’s something we can check – “Do I derive any joy from holding tightly onto my things?” The part of me that did manage to give the shirt away and see the happiness she got from it felt great! It was such a better feeling!

Happiness is a state of mind, and we can’t find it in our shirts (especially when we already have a bunch of shirts!) There is no long-term security in any of our things, there’s not even any short-term security in them, for they cannot actually protect us from suffering, which is also a state of mind whose causes lie within.

Why do we feel so insecure that we have to bolster ourselves up with possessions, people, money, and so on? That insecurity is coming from our exaggerated sense of self, trying to protect that self, when in reality that’s counter-productive. The way to protect ourselves and find happiness is in loving others and letting go of that strong sense of self.

The weight of the world

Also, we are going to be dead within a few hundred months (but you knew that already, right?!) At that point, everything’s ripped away from us – our things provide us with literally no security whatsoever at the time of death.

In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, my Teacher says that if we’re very attached to our possessions throughout our life, then when the time of death comes we’ll be like a bird trying to fly with weights tied to its little feet. The bird cannot move, and, in the same way, if we die with miserliness still in place, we’re in big trouble when it comes to future lives. We’ll be weighed down in samsara, this cycle of impure life. From Buddha’s point of view, it is very dangerous to have strong self-cherishing and miserliness at the time of death. We definitely don’t want to be weighed down.

And miserliness already weighs us down now. It is such a heavy mind. Giving is such a light mind. It is such a free-ing and flexible mind.

SCHLURP

Self-cherishing is like a big black hole. It doesn’t matter what you throw into a black hole –  SCHLURP! It sucks it all up, doesn’t it? We have been throwing things at our self-cherishing our entire life, let’s face it. We’ve been trying to protect our precious selves, nurture ourselves, give ourselves things, help ourselves, humor ourselves, grasp at happiness non-stop throughout the entire course of our life, but have we in fact succeeded in giving ourselves that lasting happiness or freedom from problems, or has our self-cherishing simply sucked it all in so we just have to go feed it again the next day – SCHLURP?!!!

When we learn to cherish others, then we naturally want to protect them, nurture them, and so on. We want to give them things when it’s suitable. We want to give our time, our advice, our encouragement, our love, our protection — like a radiating sun. That’s the difference. Self-cherishing and miserliness are a big, black hole, whereas cherishing others and giving are like a sun shining, radiating blissful energy towards everybody. We ourselves are so happy, and the people we’re with are happy.

Letting go

We will experience happiness both now and in the future. In his Friendly Letter, the great Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna says:

There is no better friend for the future
Than giving – bestowing gifts properly
On ordained people, Brahmins, the poor, and friends –
Knowing enjoyments to be transitory and essenceless.

There are a lot of deserving people we can give to – those who need help, those who’ve been very kind to us, those who are dedicating their lives to helping others, and so on. We can give, knowing that in any case our enjoyments are transitory and essenceless, so why hold onto them? They’re all utterly temporary. If we have some understanding of the dream-like nature of things, we also know that we cannot even find anything outside of our mind, so why would we want to hold onto it? It is about as satisfying as trying to grab ahold of objects in a dream.

At its deepest, the practice of generosity is very close to the practice of wisdom, because it is a profound sense of letting go of that sense of mine, which is so close to our sense of me. Giving up a sense of owning things is an amazing practice with profound results.

I would love to hear your own stories and observations on giving v. miserliness. Please give this Article #99 to anyone who might like it! And like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you want to discuss these kinds of things there as well.

Buddhist advice for worrywarts

choose your thoughts Seuss

We probably all worry unduly sometimes, which makes us all worrywarts according to the dictionary. Here are some more practical solutions for this unpleasant state of mind.

Stop paying inappropriate attention

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.  ~Mark Twain

You’re not inherently a nervous Nellie, no one is. As mentioned earlier, all habits are made to be broken. Delusions, including their inappropriate attention, are not intrinsic parts of mind, they are just thoughts that arise and have no ability to exist if we don’t think them. And they are certainly not us.

A lot of you may have come across this quote somewhere ‘cos it’s a good one:

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

If we are not careful, our thoughts think us rather than the other way round. Shirley Austin on Facebook says: “The first fault of delusion identified by Shantideva is “delusion give us no choice”. This is so true. Once we start to follow a delusion we become hooked and it is hard to let go of it. It is so juicy!” We need constructively to replace inappropriate attention with appropriate attention as soon as we notice we are beginning to dwell on our problems. Take away the oxygen of inappropriate attention, and worry (a type of delusion) will quickly expire. Adam Head agreed we need to be creative: “Move forward, make something new, make something happen! This creative/constructive energy doesn’t really tolerate worry and hand-wringing, where the mind can repeatedly chundle on and on about stuff without realising how futile it is.”

It is very helpful to understand how inappropriate attention is running the show. Look and see what you’re focusing on — I bet you are accentuating the negative and editing out the positive. Start doing the opposite, see what happens. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. It is so true.

Feeling responsible for others without the guilt

Feeling solely responsible for another’s welfare makes us worry if we’re not careful, and as mentioned above can wrap us up in guilt, which is an even heavier mantle to remove. Superior intention is the noble, compassionate mind that feels entirely responsible for every living being throughout space and time, but the person who possesses it has no worry at all in their minds. So where are we going wrong?!

One reason I decided to write these articles is because of late I have felt more immediately or physically responsible for the life, health and safety of dependents than usual. Perhaps because I am out of practice at that, I find details strangely worrying when normally I never worry about much at all. This is proving useful because I thought I had the whole not worrying thing under control, but clearly I have more work to do! I enjoy the challenge of looking at what is going on in the mind when I worry and getting to the bottom of it once and for all. (This sort of reminds me of when I first got interested in Buddhism – after a few months I was quite sure I had equanimity down as I thought I liked everyone equally, “Hey, this is really EASY guys!!” Then a boyfriend materialized and I realized my attachment had just been on the back burner for a year.)

I’m finding this whole process of being responsible for various animals, starting with Ralph and Nelson, good training for being a Bodhisattva and even a Buddha. I can view each one of them as an example of all the animals and other living beings in the world who need help, and train in taking on the personal responsibility while freeing the mind from worry or guilt. I meditate on superior intention regularly, and now is my chance to apply it, without turning into an over-protective mommy while I’m at it! This situation is helping me see the difference between compassion and worry, and how compassion itself is not a sad mind, although worrying and guilt are horrible.

Parents of human children (especially in these challenging times), I take my hat off to you – you surely have worry and guilt licked to stay sane for even a day?!

Here is one random example of a run-away train of thought traveling from worry to guilt and back again. “What can I worry about today?! Oh, I know, Nelson’s bad cheek, it is more swollen than ever. Oh, so now that reminds me that I can worry (again) about how I’ve already brought his vet’s appointment forward by four days, but maybe he won’t be alright for another two whole days? It is Saturday morning and they are not open til Monday. Oh, that reminds me, I have to CATCH him! I’m dreading it, he will hate being in lock-down all night. Or maybe I won’t be able to catch him?! But I need to because of his cheek. And what is actually wrong with his cheek? It looks scary. Cancer? A mysterious abscess that might go to his brain?!” Then comes the guilt: “Oh I’m not doing enough for him! I’m so useless at this!” Then more variations on a theme — fraught scenarios complete with everything that could go wrong. etc

Just one illustration today amongst gazillions in the minds of living beings: trains of undesirable thoughts that we have inadvertently boarded, which are taking us from Worry Station right through to Panic Stations! We have to get off!!

Stop worrying right into the future

We allow our thoughts to run riot and way into the future. Chewing over the various possibilities of something that hasn’t even happened is the cause of much of our anxiety and stress.

You know, tomorrow really does take care of itself. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

He has a point. We worry far more if we worry ahead. John Newton (not sure who he is, but I like this quote) says:

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.

What were you worrying about a year ago today?! Can you even begin to remember?! Will you have the worry you have today a year hence? I find these thoughts useful too.

We can make a plan, for sure, for example to get the cat to the vet; but then, in the inimitable words of my brother, something can be time-consuming without being mind-consuming. Make a plan, be prepared to see it change, and meantime stop thinking about that plan and just live. The best is if we can keep our thoughts focused on today or even this hour or even just now, having the very best experience and creating the very best intention in every moment. Then the future tends to take care of itself!

I don’t know who he is either, but Oliver Wendell Holmes said, and I agree:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

But just to get a bit philosophical on you for a moment: actually, there are no past things and future things, only pasts of things and futures of things. That sense we have of linear time stretching behind and ahead like train tracks is an illusion. All (functioning) things are necessarily present. This means that “our past” and “our future” are entirely dependent on our present state of mind, rather as a rubber band being twisted in one spot alters the entire rubber band. Past, present and future are only imputed by mind and have no existence from their own side. We cannot point to where the past ends and the present begins. So we can take it moment by moment and go with the flow. I hope to write more on this, a favorite subject, in another article. See Ocean of Nectar for the explanation of the emptiness of time.

This is the fourth article in an occasional series on how to worry less using Buddhist techniques. The first three are Don’t worry, be happy, How to stop worrying about anything, everything and nothing and DON’T PANIC. (All of the anti-worry articles can now be found here, when you have a spare half hour or so to read them.)

It’s your turn. What methods have you used to overcome worry (especially about the future) and guilt? Please use the comments box below. And please share this article if you like it.

What can we do about tragedies, including the Japanese earthquake?

Japan earthquake 2

“What did you feel when you heard about the colossal tragedy in Japan? Powerless or not? What are the best ways you think you personally can help?”

I asked these questions on Facebook and share some replies below.

I just saw three fish struggling for their lives, inevitably losing the battle. One was big, one was medium, one was small. Their mouths were gasping and their silver bodies thrashing about, eyes wide with fear, drowning in the air. I felt sick. There was nothing I could do. They were surrounded by fishermen who would neither understand nor appreciate my wish to throw them immediately back into the silky water, their home. I said prayers for them as I walked slowly back home.

And they reminded me of how ghastly the drowning deaths of so many thousands of human beings in Japan has been. Again, what can I do about it? I am many miles away. I can’t even directly help one of these poor scared people as they transition so abruptly and alone to their next life.

One of the first things I did was donate some money to the Red Cross, as that seemed practical and obvious; but I am not rich and know my contribution will not go terribly far, maybe it will provide the survivors some clean drinking water or a blanket. Still worth it, of course.

But the truth is, from a Buddhist point of view, we don’t need to feel helpless. There are things we can do. Every suffering we see is a reminder and an incentive to progress quickly from an ordinary limited state (of someone who cares but feels relatively useless) to that of a trainee and then real Bodhisattva with universal compassion and an enormous joyful confidence to help, and then an enlightened being with the power to bless everyone’s mind each and every day forever.

As people pointed out on Facebook, we can meditate on any or all of the following spiritual thoughts, and in this way make spiritual progress and become increasingly able to help others: our precious human life, the certainty of death, future lives, refuge, renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom, from which all other practical freedom arises), love, compassion, taking and giving, bodhichitta, wisdom realizing the way things are

Buddha Shakyamuni

If you’re interested, what I do when I sit down to do these practices (as opposed to doing them on the fly) is believe that Buddha and all the holy beings are in front of me and that the world is transformed into a Pure Land – all those who are in pain are seated around me, and they too are coming under the protection, love, and influence of all pure, compassionate, powerful beings. This instantly makes everything less helpless, bringing the future result of spiritual practice into the present, imagining it is so, right now.

If I am meditating on compassion, I will focus on one person in particular to make the love and compassion real. For example, one story was told of a woman who was my mother’s age and looked a bit like her. The day of the tsunami, she was hours away from an eagerly anticipated birthday celebration; instead she instead found herself fleeing for her life, her family and friends disarrayed, her livelihood destroyed. I put her next to me in my meditation. If that was my mother of this life…?! And I take it from there, focusing on and then spreading that wish for her to find happiness and be free from all this pain to more and more people in her situation, and then to other situations (remember those in Haiti) …

You know, even in the short term we can alleviate suffering through the power of prayer. It is good not to underestimate prayer – by tuning into the minds of all enlightened beings, and acting as a conduit between them and those who are suffering, we can bring about enormous change, individually and collectively. At one Festival my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

“Our main job is to pray”.

Study upon study shows the power of prayer to heal, to comfort, to transform. Anyone in any tradition can pray – if you have any belief in the existence of holy beings or transcendent forces, you can simply ask them to protect the people who are suffering. Whenever we see someone suffering and there is nothing obvious we can do, we can immediately pray: “Please help them. Please help me to be able to help them.”

In this instance, even if we cannot be there in person to help, there is so much opportunity also to rejoice and feel happy about others’ incredible qualities and actions. People everywhere are bending over backward to help, and the rescue workers are all far out of their own comfort zones. The Japanese in general are behaving with such integrity, there is no looting, people are looking after each other… And what about those 50 faceless workers who have sacrificed their health and their lives to protect their fellow citizens by staying behind at the nuclear plant? Kindness, unselfishness and good karma are alive and well in Japan.

If we feel there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing, what will happen? After the initial shock, eyes glued to the appalling but sensational footage, we will feel guilty, we will make ourselves feel indifferent, we will change the channel, we will quickly forget… already the news of the earthquake and tsunami are fading on the front pages, to be replaced for sure by the fear of nuclear catastrophe over there, and also of other disasters such as Libya. But with the slow fade out in the news, have we also forgotten the people who are suffering so badly? How often do I remember Haiti? How often do I remember anything that happened even last year?

So here is how people answered those questions:

Powerless, but…

One person replied to my question: “It makes me feel powerless, grateful to live in England where we are relatively free from such dangers. It makes me aware of death — that it can arrive at any time. It also makes me aware of my laziness. This should help me increase my compassion & bodhichitta but rather I just think “what can I do?” This is very sad. It also seems rather unreal – like in a movie.”

Another said “i feel powerless…..but send loving thoughts through meditation.”

And another said: “I saw these pictures, first thing this morning, and almost couldn’t leave the house. I did make it to Prayers for World Peace, and the topic was Refuge, which helped. But truthfully I’m kinda wrecked by this. This magnitude of devastation is unfathomable. I must remember refuge and prayers. And I must find some way to help in a material way.”

Incentive to improve ourselves

“Remember that death can arrive in any moment, and make our precious life  meaningful!”

“This event certainly provides motivation for renunciation, which frankly can be hard to generate in beautiful Sonoma County. It’s a heckuva wakeup call to get off my complacent tush.”

“I think we can’t stop all external problems like these directly, but the causes of most of what you hear in the news is delusions. E.g. pollution, reccession, broken families, heavy consumerism, debt and war. If we overcame these delusions even… superficially the environment would become clean, families happier, the soil richer and undepleted, nature would increase and everything would become more beautiful, fresher, and this depressing pessimism about the future and feeling doomed would be replaced with feelings of hope for happiness for living beings.”

“It is the impetus for me to renounce samsara, generate bodhichitta and gain wisdom realizing emptiness; also, to set a beneficial intention towards all suffering sentient beings.”

“This is just the most recent event motivating us toward Buddhahood — where we can really do some good.”

“Automatically having much compassion for all the victims of this Japanese apocalypse and also having in mind all the others suffering great problems at the burning points of conflict on our entire globe.”

“Every day in your garden is like Japan except in the garden most die quickly so I suppose it isn’t 30 years of struggling with a disability from an earthqquake for example.”

“We can work on our compassion and wisdom! The vast and the profound – developing a good heart and try to reduce our negativity; and worry as little as possible.”

Taking and Giving in particular

“Taking the suffering and giving peace, calm (in Lojong)”

You can read about how to do this powerful practice in Transform Your Life. It instantly increases our love and our compassion and makes us feel we are doing something that counts (which is true). I think it may be the best antidote to feeling powerless, along with prayer.

Importance of prayer

‎”Our main job is to pray.” Didn’t Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say that at a festival? We are so not powerless when we can pray for the welfare of others.”

I’ll conclude with something Geshe Kelsang has often said:

“Try, and don’t worry.”

Your comments are welcome.

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness

Kadampa Geshe Chekawa

Geshe Chekawa 1102-1176

Geshe Chekhawa, famous Kadampa master, told us how we could measure our success in training our minds:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

This has many layers of meaning. But one thing I think it reveals is the best perspective for approaching our spiritual practice in the first place. If we can get that right, our meditations flow, and we make easy progress. If we don’t get it right, meditation and spiritual practice seem like more hard work, more duty, and one day we might just pack it in.

Discouragement naturally leads to the laziness of indolence and attraction to meaningless activities too...

Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen umpteen people start off enthusiastically, as they glimpse the infinite possibilities of developing the mind; but then the sky clouds over and they become discouraged. Sometimes, people who have been supposedly “practicing” Buddhist meditation for years just stop. That makes no sense to me because meditation gets better and better if we do it right. I love meditating. So I’m sharing some ideas in the hope that they might help a few people keep relying on a happy mind alone instead of giving into the laziness of discouragement. After all, do we get discouraged or stop doing something if we are really enjoying ourselves?

Happiness-training

Buddhist meditation or Dharma is designed to make us happier and more free. We talk about “practicing Dharma”, or “training in meditation”, which means that we are practicing or training in becoming happier and more free. “Practicing” or “training in” implies we already have the potential for happiness and freedom, otherwise we would have to say something like “adding happiness” instead.

To borrow my friend’s gym analogy again… There is no point in going to the gym unless we have a muscle. We go the gym precisely to train our muscles, so we need to have at least some muscle, however weak, in order to train it. Well, Dharma is happiness-training. In other words, we need to have some happiness for us to train. We can also say Dharma is love-training or compassion-training or wisdom-training, and similarly we need to have some love or compassion or wisdom in order to train.

This is why it so important to identify and abide with our natural good qualities of happiness, wisdom, compassion etc., however feeble they may be at the moment. Then we naturally approach our training with such faith and optimism — regarding realizations as natural, even inevitable.

This will give you actual meditation experience.

Where are you starting from?

Buddha said our true nature, our Buddha nature, was like a clear sky and that our faults are not our intrinsic nature but adventitious or temporary defilements, like rain clouds scudding across the sky.

To see if we are approaching our spiritual practice from the best and indeed only useful perspective, we can ask ourself :

“On a daily basis, how much time do I spend identifying with my pure potential for happiness and freedom? And how much time do I spend identifying with being deluded e.g. irritated, worried, diseased, insecure, lonely, ugly, unhappy, addicted? When I do meditation or prayers or go to a teaching or remember spiritual advice in my daily life, where am I starting from? From the standpoint of being a limited, dark cloudy being who is a million miles away from where I want to be, or from the standpoint of being right now a spacious-sky-like blissful Buddha or Bodhisattva or good person, just temporarily obscured by the clouds of delusions?

Am I slogging away at this because I know it is supposed to be good for me, or am I enjoying myself every step of the way?”

What is enlightenment?

In Mahamudra Tantra, my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

“Enlightenment is defined as an omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings.”

Nothing is being said here about adding anything. By freeing ourself permanently from mistaken or dualistic appearances, and by ripening our Buddha nature, we will naturally possess omniscience and universal compassion. We will then have the power to help each living being every day by bestowing our blessings on them, teaching, and emanating.

Love and all non-deluded minds are our Buddha nature — our innate potential for complete purity and bliss — which is never separate from any living being. This means that to increase our good qualities of love, happiness, wisdom and so on, we do not need to add anything. In fact, to go all the way to becoming an enlightened being we do not need to add anything. We simply need to (1) remove all cloud-like delusions and obscurations from our mind through the practice of wisdom and (2) ripen our potential for all good qualities with the so-called method practices of contentment, faith, renunciation (the mind of liberation), love, compassion, bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment), and so on.

No time like the present

Our Buddha nature is like a jewel wrapped in rags

Anyone at all can tune into their spiritual potential, starting right now, if they know how. When you feel some peace from doing simple breathing meditation, for example, identify this as your true nature, your Buddha nature. Disbelieve or ignore all the ordinary cloud-like thoughts you have of yourself as a limited, deluded being, and in this way leave the space for the naturally pure, positive, loving thoughts to arise instead. Actually, the Pure Land is right here, right now – we are just not looking at it.

This is one of my favorite quotes:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

~ William Blake

The more we grasp at things as real, the more out of touch with reality we are. Delusions (our unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds based on mistaken appearance and exaggeration, such as anger, greed and ignorance) grasp the most tightly, and their objects do not exist. Anger, for example, grasps at and wants to push away an inherently unpleasant person or situation; and there is no such thing. Attachment does the opposite — grasping at and pulling toward us something or someone out there that we feel is necessary for our happiness, when in fact our happiness is within, a state of mind. When any delusions are functioning, our life feels precarious, out of balance, somehow lacking.

Love, compassion, wisdom are in touch with reality and offer us transcendence – we can feel it, and it is why they make us feel good. When our love is arising in our mind, for example, it feels spacious, peaceful, and wholly connected with a wider reality. It also feels as if the elements of our life are in balance as we are in a state of not lacking anything — so it is impossible, for example, to feel guilty or worried about all the things we “should” be doing but are not…

Avoiding burnout at work

In this article, I try to explain how to use this understanding to prevent stress and burnout at work.

Your comments are very welcome. And please share this article if you found it helpful.

Missing Life?

All that happens is here and now. If we are elsewhere, we are in fact missing out.

Or, as John Lennon put it:

Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

We are told this a lot. But how do we come into the here and now? And, perhaps more to the point, how do we stay here and now?!

We have to pay attention. The best and perhaps easiest way to do this is to pay attention to the people around us. There are always people around us, including animals. Cherish them. Buddhists are aiming to love everyone, but we start with those right under our noses, thinking: “This person is important. This person’s happiness matters.”

As we develop this skill, our life develops an extraordinary richness and happiness.

As my Buddhist Teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness (page 56):

Whenever we are with other people we should be continuously mindful that their happiness and wishes are at least as important as our own. Of course, we cannot cherish all living beings right away, but by training our mind in this attitude, beginning with our family and friends, we can gradually extend the scope of our love until it embraces all living beings. When in this way we sincerely cherish all living beings, we are no longer an ordinary person but have become a great being, like a Bodhisattva.

Meditation helps me be a better social worker. And vice versa.

kadampa social work

Here is the article I promised from the friend I quoted:

Being a social worker makes me a better Buddhist. Being a Buddhist makes me a better social worker.

Someone wrote me on Facebook to say they thought this was a good Kadampa motto. Replace “social worker” with your job title.

And ask: Does my meditation practice help my job and does my job fuel my meditation practice? (If yes, you’re all set, as you probably spend most of your waking hours at work… ) Here is how one person is doing it:

“For almost three years now I have been training to be a social worker.  It’s been difficult, challenging and very busy but I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

I feel I have been on quite a journey, developing as a person and as a social work practitioner.  Throughout my time Kadampa Buddhism has helped me cope, stay calm and transform difficult situations for myself and others.

My daily meditation practices have helped me keep a good motivation at the beginning of the day and allowed me to off load any stress at the end of day when I have got back from work or study.

I have found that the Buddhist values and way of life are not dissimilar to that of a social worker. Social workers have a code of ethics which include: human dignity and worth, social justice (e.g. equal treatment without prejudice or discrimination), service (e.g. enabling people to develop their potential), integrity and competence.

Compassion and love for others is an integral part of Kadampa Buddhism and of becoming a bodhisattva.  My kind teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in Meaningful to Behold says a bodhisattva is someone who wishes to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings and that they are motivated by the desire to benefit all living beings (p95-96).

I aspire to be like this and find with practice it can become natural to want to help those who are around you whether that is at home or at work.

In one of my placements I helped people staying in a mental health hostel with their daily living.  I helped and advised them with their shopping and budgeting, encouraging them to go to social activities or work and engaging in therapeutic activities with them such as making pizzas, cookies and playing pool.  This work seemed natural for me from the intentions, minds and values I have discovered through Kadampa Buddhism.”

Part Two, Where is a problem?

Part Three, Mind-training and social work

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