What is the point of training the brain!? ~ rebirth part 4

then what

My grandfather lived to 100. He was a spiritual person, and he probably could have lived to 110 as he was immensely fit, but unfortunately he was run over by a car. During his last 6 weeks, spent in hospital, he went through a lot of stuff, going in and out of pain, in and out of lucidity, and having some moments of great insight. One day he said to my brother:

“In the light of eternity I can see very clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.”

then whatWhen we get to the end of our life, it is like last night’s dream upon awakening — however long it felt at the time, it’s barely a moment. There is no difference between a dream of long duration and one of short duration, once it’s finished. So whether we live a long life or a short life, it’s still insubstantial, it’s not who we really are. It’s just who we think we are at the moment. In fact, if we’re imputing ourselves on the body of this life, the people of this life, the jobs of this life, the money of this life, the surroundings of this life, and so on, then we are not relating to ourselves as who we really are.

As mentioned in previous articles on rebirth, we are actually a traveler who has come from countless previous lives and is going to countless future lives. That sense of being a continuum of awareness is immensely mind expanding. If we don’t have it, we limit our self to superficial, fleeting appearances.

It is like getting in a train carriage and putting up the curtains, marrying the person in the next seat, settling down forever, complaining about the neighbors in the next row. When we get to the end of the line and the conductor says, “All disembark!”, we panic, “Oh no, you can’t make me get off! This is who I am, this is me and my friends on this train. This is my real world. This is where I belong.” But it’s not. train tracks

We do ourselves a great disservice because of identifying so strongly with the things of this life. We are upset when things don’t go our way. Instead of getting any perspective on them, we grasp at everything as being very important; and also we do not set our sights on spiritual training because in fact we’re not identifying ourselves as spiritual beings. To become interested in our spiritual nature entails understanding the nature of consciousness. I don’t think there is any other way around it. If we understand the nature, function, and continuum, or cycle, of consciousness, and if we know that this body will eventually perish, we know that our mind will continue past the duration of this body.  From that we’ll conclude that it is extremely important that we take care of purifying and training it so that we experience happiness and freedom not just now but forever.

If we get interested in Buddhism, we find that we can train to overcome our anger, for example, and our attachment, our addictions. We can overcome our fear, we can even uproot our ignorance. During this life we can purify our mind of all its negative actions and pathways to suffering. We can develop universal love and compassion. We can develop bliss and omniscient wisdom. Perhaps we hear these things and we think, “What a great idea!”, but then at the same time, if we’re going to be dead in a few hundred months, and if our mind is the brain, then at that point the candle is going out. If that’s what we think, that the mind is finite, then what’s the point really of training it? Of course it will make us happier and so on, and increase our gray matter, but what is the real point? There’s not much point really, is there? If our mind is just a piece of shriveling soft tissue headed for annihilation, we might as well sit this one out. Just wait for it to pass. Wait for extinction.

Of course that’s not what happens. The whole point is that the mind and the body are not the same.

I have a story about my grandmother too. When I was younger and became interested in Buddhism, doing jobs in Buddhist centers and so on, I got paid a pittance. (Working for Buddhist centers is not a career move by the way ;-)) And my grandmother noticed this and thought, basically, that I wasn’t taking enough care of the things of this life. She would say, “You’re not working hard enough to make money! What about your pension? What’s going to happen when you get to my age and you’ve no money?” One Christmas party she also cornered a good family friend of mine, Pagpa, a Buddhist monk, and spent over an hour telling him the same things …

samsara attachment to homeThese were valid points; it is not like what she was saying didn’t have any reality. However, she felt that everything was wrapped up just with who I was in this life and that I was therefore badly letting myself down. And I was trying to explain to her that, regardless of what happens when I retire, my death and future lives may come sooner and I needed to prepare for those.

As my grandmother got old, on one of my visits to see her at her house in the south of England she said, “You know, as I am heading now towards my death and looking back on my life, all these things, such as having money, feel hollow to me. They don’t feel like who I am.” And we talked about this and she asked me, “What can I do? What does Buddhism say about this? What will happen when I die and afterwards?” I showed her the book, Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, which I had on me. She read the title out loud and then said, sadly, “It is too late now to make that blissful journey. My life is almost over.” It was very poignant, actually, the way she said it. But anyway I tried to encourage her; I said it is never too late to get interested in spiritual life. Which I think is true, as long as we do get interested when we hear about it.

Later on, my grandmother suffered from dementia and needed full-time care. From having a big house with lots of books, she went down to having whatever could fit in one small room in a nursing home. When I visited her there, I success 1saw that on her book shelf she had just two books. One of them was Transform Your Life.

Many people do have this kind of experience as they get older. As they get close to death they don’t really know who they are anymore. This is because all the things that were propping them up, everything they thought they were, is no longer working. The career is over, they’re retired, the children are grown, health, energy, and looks are failing, and it is clear now that money can’t buy happiness All those measures of who we are and what constitutes wellbeing or success in life are becoming increasingly hollow. But in fact they’re always hollow. It’s just that sometimes as we get older it becomes more evident.

More coming soon.

The circle of life ~ rebirth part 3  

time is empty

time is emptyIf we do the meditation described in the last article on rebirth, we get a sense of the flow of our mind – what it is, where it’s coming from, where it’s going. This helps us understand rebirth.  There are 5 different ways in general to understand rebirth, and understanding the continuum of consciousness is in some ways the best because, if we can meditate on our own mind, we can come to see in our own experience how our mind is continuously forming, becoming, evolving, flowing. It never stops. It is beginningless and endless. It is impermanent but never-ending. But this body we have right now, the physical body, although also impermanent (ie, changing moment by moment) is highly temporary. It arises in dependence on its physical causes, the sperm and egg of our parents, food, etc.; and when those causes deteriorate and disappear, this body vanishes. It has a very limited shelf life.

Which means that this life that we’re in at the moment is very temporary as well, and will not last for more than a few hundred more months, at most. Luckily, this is not who we are.

skeleton in mirrorIf we never give any thought to the nature of our consciousness, if we don’t understand its function or its continuum, then we will inevitably identify with this body very strongly, and with its infrastructure. We’ll identify with the things of this life; they will become what is most important to us. We’ll think that our job is most important to us, our career, our house, the amount of money we have in the bank, what restaurants we frequent, the friends around us. We will continually be externalizing the causes of our happiness and the sense of who we are. We think: “This is who I am.”

Me, for example, I’m 25 years old (yah!). I’m a Buddhist. I’m either American or English (depending on how I feel). I currently live and work in Denver, Colorado, I don’t have a lot of money in my bank account, but luckily or foolishly I don’t care too much. My mother is called Sally, my friend is called so and so. I am currently looking after a foster kitten called Dexton. I do a bit of editing. I like walking in the Botanical Gardens. Etc. I used to live here, there, everywhere. This is who I am.” But of course that’s not who we are! (Certainly not who you are – but also not who I am!) Nowhere close. We don’t really know who we are unless we understand our mind.

As a friend of mine put it the other day, we need to embrace the consciousness that is at the heart of life.  For our life is our mind, our mind is our life. If we think about what life is, it is animation, isn’t it? It is awareness, it is experience, it is mind. It’s not body. Shantideva goes so far as to say that we are animated corpses! When we see a dead body, especially if it belonged to someone close to us, it is clear that it is not them, that they’ve left.

Our life, our mind, is continuously becoming, continuously flowing. From life to life we go through stages of consciousness — we’re alive, then we go through the death process, then we go through an intermediate state or “bardo”, which is like a dream state, after which we “wake up” in another life. You can read about this cycle of consciousness in the chapter on Understanding the Mind in Introduction to Buddhism. With powerful mindfulness and concentration we can be cognizant of this cycle of consciousness and remember past lives – without mindfulness we can barely remember what we had for lunch last Wednesday. Based on his first-hand experience, Buddha Shakyamuni and many other realized meditators since his time have had a lot to say about the cycle of life. For example, Clear Light of Bliss gives a very detailed description of what happens during the death process from the subjective point of view of the person who is dying rather than the onlookers. (This is very helpful for us and also helps us help others who are dying.)

Does anyone remember their dreaming last night? I dreamt that I was about to crash in an airplane. I’m happy to sayShantideva leather that on this occasion I managed to go for refuge and not be alarmed. (I am not always so sanguine.) In our dreams we enter a different reality, we even have a different body, a dream body. And then we wake up from that in this meaty body again, in our bedroom. Constantly our mind is throwing up different appearances, but whatever is going on, dreaming or waking, we are thoroughly invested in it. When we’re dreaming, our dream world is our world at that time. When we wake up, this is our world. During deep sleep, everything disappears except emptiness. In the same way that we fall asleep and wake up every night and day, so we die and take rebirth life after life. Buddha said sleeping, dreaming, and waking are like a microcosm of dying, bardo, and rebirth. Our next life — months, weeks, or even days away — will be like waking up in a new life, with a new body, new parents, new environment, and so on.

time is running outOur mental continuum is perpetual, a ceaseless cycle of consciousness; whereas our physical bodies are exceedingly fragile and impermanent. Buddha says we are travelers bound for our future lives. This world is not our eternal home; there’s nothing eternal about it at all. So it is not who we are.

If we understand and identify our life as our mind, and if we understand that our mind is beginingless and endless, we start to get a very, very different understanding of who we are, do we not? We understand we are travelers, that this life is a detail — to be honest it’s got no more substantial reality than last night’s dream. It feels endless while it’s going on because of our permanent grasping. We think that this is all that there is. It’s me and this body and these friends, this job, this house, etc. It feels like it is really going on while its happening, doesn’t it?  But, when we die it disappears like last night’s dream. Sometimes a dream seems to go on forever – but the moment we wake up it has gone. This life is like that. As we approach our death, we’ll see that this life was a completely fleeting dream-like appearance. It feels real because of our ignorance, because we’re grasping it as real, not because it is real. We’re also grasping it as if it is permanent, but that doesn’t mean that it is. We need to question appearances more deeply if we are to figure out who we are and what is going on.

samsara's oceanWe have had innumerable dreams in this life, and each of our countless previous lives is also a dream-like mere appearance to our mind. We will continue to dream forever — and those dreams will be out of our control and full of suffering until we overcome our inertia, our attachment to the status quo, and realize the ultimate nature of things, that they have no more reality than a dream. Then, as Buddha Shakyamuni and countless others have done, we will wake up from the sleep of ignorance to experience the lasting happiness of liberation.

More next time.

Where were you before you were born? ~ rebirth part 2

stones

We are travelers. Here’s a Buddhist meditation we can do to help us gain a feel for this.

stonesWe can begin by simply sitting comfortably, back straight, shoulders level, hands resting in our lap, right hand on top of left, palms upward, thumbs slightly raised and touching. (If you’re used to putting your hands in a different position to meditate, that’s fine also.)  Our head is tilted slightly forward, mouth closed, tongue on our upper palate, breathing through our nose. Our eyes are also lightly closed or ever so slightly open. We can take a few deeper breaths than normal as we settle into this position, focus on how we’re sitting, and forget about everything else.

The world around us in all directions melts into light and disappears. Everything before this moment evaporates, like last night’s dream. Everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. We are in the present moment, the here and the now. There is no other place or time to be.

We feel all the weight and tension of our body fall away, every muscle relaxes, and our body melts into a light like a hologram. We could pass our hand through it without obstruction.

We encourage ourselves to concentrate on this meditation, thinking:

“Through meditating on my own mind I can come to understand who I am. If I understand who I am, I can change who I am. This understanding will expand my horizons, open me up to extraordinary spiritual possibilities. For this reason I will focus on this meditation happily, not following distractions.”

To help us overcome mental distractions directed outward, and to rest and relax the mind, we can spend a couple of minutes focusing just on our breath as it enters and leaves our nostrils. We let all other thoughts go. (We can also feel our subtle inner energy winds that “carry” our minds change direction from going out to coming in.)

As our mind is settling, a natural feeling of peace, space, and contentment arises in our heart. We feel that we are centered in our heart, the center of our chest, our so-called “heart chakra” where our root mind is located. We drop from our head into our heart. We absorb inward.HUM

From within this space we can now spend a couple of minutes watching our thoughts or awarenesses (sense or mental) arise and dissolve away. We don’t follow our thoughts or think them – just observe them as they appear and disappear again. Whatever ideas, daydreams, awarenesses of sounds, memories, etc. that appear to the mind, we allow these to arise in the present moment and subside, without reacting to or intruding on them.

After a little while we can ask:

“What is this thought? Where is it? Where does each thought come from? Where does each thought go? What is that space between the ending of one thought and the rising of the next?”

Each thought is clarity, is formless. Each thought arises from the deep inner clarity of our root mind at our heart and dissolves back into it. We now let all our thoughts dissolve into a clarity at our heart, a boundless clear awareness, like an inner empty space.

This is my mind. My mind is clarity, which is formless, empty of shape, empty of size. It has no color, no touch, no taste, no smell, no physical properties whatsoever. We meditate on this clarity which is empty of form.

The function of my mind is to cognize, to know, to experience, to be aware. My mind also has the power to create everything — everything comes from our mind, with our thoughts we create our world.

If it helps, you can think of your mind like a boundless clear ocean and any distracting thoughts that arise are like bubbles – bubbles have nowhere to go, disregard them and they will dissolve back into the clarity of your mind at your heart.

Everything has dissolved into a crystal clear and peaceful or even blissful awareness at our heart — all thoughts and their objects have dissolved.

This awareness is impermanent, constantly changing moment by moment, always clarity, always cognizing, but never staying the same. We get a sense now of how our mind is a becoming, a moment by moment transformation, a mental continuum. This moment arose naturally from the previous moment of mind in an unbroken continuum, and the mind of this moment will transform into the mind of the next moment, a never ending flow.

time is empty 3And where did today’s mind come from? We can trace it back to the mind of last night’s dream. And that came from the mind of yesterday, which came from the mind of the day before, and so on. If we had good mindfulness or memory we would be able to trace back our mind to the moment of our birth. And where did that mind come from? It came from the mind of the baby in the womb. Where did our mind as a baby in the womb come from? Mind is caused by mind, not by physical objects. The mind in the womb came from the mind of our previous life.

Death is the permanent separation of body and mind. This meaty body skids to a halt, but formless mind continues in an unbroken continuum. When the body perishes, what will happen to the last moment of the mind of this life? It will be the cause of the first moment of the mind in the bardo, or intermediate state. And that mind in turn will transform seamlessly into the mind of our next life.

As Buddha Shakyamuni explained, our root mind is beginningless and endless and, when fully purified and transformed, will become the mind of a fully enlightened being, a Buddha. This is who we are, this is who we can be.

Whatever understanding we have gleaned of the nature, function, and continuum of our mind from our own experience, we now focus on it single-pointedly.

(See also pages 26-7 of Meaningful to Behold for more on this meditation and subject.)

What are the implications of all this?! More coming soon. Meantime, your comments are welcome.

Tantra: bliss and emptiness

follow your bliss

In the previous article on Tantra, I explain a meditation derived from Buddha’s Tantric methods that some people call “the bliss boost”. Now I want to say a few things about why I think this meditation is so helpful, practical, and profound.

follow your blissBliss improves concentration

As the experience arising from this meditation is so pleasurable, naturally our mind likes it. When we are experiencing bliss, it is easier to stay concentrated because our mind naturally wants to stay put, to absorb. Ordinarily, it is the opposite – our mind wants to wander. Distractions are overwhelmingly interesting to our monkey mind (even paradoxically when they’re boring or anxiety-provoking), and so concentration is difficult. Now concentration feels easier and distractions relatively powerless.

Buddha understood very well that we like bliss – we love to be ecstatically happy. Our problem is that our bliss is very brief. Ordinarily, we achieve bliss through stimulating ourselves with sense pleasures, from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching beautiful things, and this bliss is fleeting. Yet, we build our lives around it. We chase that high, which is about as successful as trying to grab onto a mirage. If we can give the mind pleasurable feelings, or even bliss, by itself, the attachment within us becomes redundant. We have what we want, so we no longer crave external objects to get us there. Who wants to go chasing after a pizza or a yacht or a boyfriend when we already have it all? The bliss can last. It can cause us to enjoy everything that appears to our mind.

Bliss is in fact in the nature of concentration and a state of mind ­– so the source of our bliss comes from within the mind, not from grasping at external objects.

photo 2Use a blissful mind to meditate on other objects

We can then use that blissful concentration to focus on any object of meditation that we choose. For example, we can generate bliss through this method and then meditate on love for all living beings: “May everyone be happy.” And naturally we’ll be able to hold that mind of love much more easily than with an ordinary, crunchy, distracted, non-blissful mind. Most of our objects of distraction are in fact objects of attachment — we want to be somewhere else. What’s for supper? The mind is going somewhere else so we have to keep reining it back in, even when meditating on something as beautiful as love. It is much easier with bliss to stay on our object.

The object that we mainly use bliss to meditate on is the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness, the actual dreamlike nature of things. There are many levels of bliss and, at its deepest most qualified level it is free from mistaken or dualistic appearance and utterly undistracted. Buddha taught how to use this concentrated mind of bliss to meditate on emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, so that we experience the union of bliss and emptiness or Mahamudra. This mind of the clear light of bliss and its main object emptiness mix together like water mixed with water, they go together very well, they belong together. In fact, once you receive a Highest Yoga Tantra empowerment we have the commitment to generate bliss six times a photo 2day and then use it to meditate on emptiness. I have wondered what is there not to love about a tradition that obliges you to feel blissful six times a day?!

You can find out more about this essential practice — perhaps the ultimate meditation of the Buddhist Kadampa tradition, the meditation to which all other meditations lead — in the incredible book Mahamudra Tantra.

Even more benefits next time…

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.

Tantra: Bringing the result into the path

Imagination 1

I’m carrying on from this article on Tantra, and how we can use the power of bliss, wisdom, and the creative power of our imagination swiftly to switch our sense of being stuck and limited with the sense of being liberated and enlightened.

imaginationOf course we cannot say we are ACTUALLY a Buddha, but we can’t say we are ACTUALLY a neurotic person either. Identifying with our good qualities, identifying with future perfection, will actualize that result far more quickly than if we are thinking, “I am generally quite hopeless at this, and I’m not a very loving person, in fact I’m a bit of a grumpy git; but nonetheless here I am trying to become a Buddha.” There is always a gap then between whom we think we are and whom we are aspiring to be, isn’t there? Enlightenment is somewhere over there, my future attainment is far away from me, and I am over here – the gap will always be there for as long as we identify with being limited, ordinary, deluded. So we want to bridge that gap by thinking, “I’m already an enlightened being,” and then from that vantage point we can quickly increase our qualities.

It’s a bit like tying shoelaces

tying shoelacesHere’s a simple illustration. Do you remember once upon a time learning to tie your shoelaces?  You once had no clue, but then some kind person showed you, “This is how you do it.” I remember my mom teaching me, “This is how you do it, darling”, and I remember  the self-doubt, “Oh come on, that’s impossible! What do you expect from me!? I’m only five!” Tying these wiggly strings together in some strange formation, struggling, fumbling – on one level I remember trying, but on another level I was thinking, “Seriously? How am I supposed to do this!? I am not the kind of person who is lucky enough to tie shoelaces. Others may be able to. Maybe I’ll be able to when I’m 18 or something. Meanwhile I’ll stick with Velcro.” My mother was patient, “You can do it!”

Buddha is similarly very kind and patient, painstakingly pointing out to us that we can do it, he did it, others have done it, we have the potential, and the teachings and methods exist. The only thing stopping us is us. “This is how you do it!” And we think, “Noooo, I can’t, it is too tricky, other people can do it.” Or, “Maybe I’ll get enlightened in a future life or something, at some distant point in the future; I’ll just create some good karma in this one – after all, you can sow seeds for a happy future while going around being totally miserable, can’t you?! Can’t you?!” There is some discouragement going on.

Imagination 1But, going back to the shoelaces, I remember thinking one day while my mother was showing me (again), “Well, maybe I can actually do this.” And that was the day I could. Before we know how to tie our shoelaces, there is the thought, “I can tie my shoelaces. And I will.” There is that moment. It is the same for driving a car, using a computer, any skill – a point when we think “I can do this!” even though technically we can’t yet. And that is when we find we learn how to do it.

That is bringing the future result into the present path. “I can do this. I am already arising as a Buddha in an enlightened Pure Land, helping all living beings.” As soon as we can already imagine doing it, that is the point when it starts becoming a reality. And everything is sped up.

Sutra in Technicolor

Sutra are Buddha’s teachings given openly, his exoteric teachings; whereas practicing Tantra requires empowerment or initiation, and are Buddha’s more esoteric teachings for disciples who have some feeling for and commitment to renunciation (the wish for permanent mental freedom), bodhichitta (the compassionate wish to become a Buddha for the sake of others), and the wisdom realizing emptiness.

technicolorI sometimes think that Tantra is like Sutra in Technicolor. Tantra is what brings Sutra alive in some ways. Everything comes alive — you let go of your ordinary, limited, deluded sense of yourself by dissolving it into emptiness, and arise as the person you want to be out of your renunciation, bodhichitta, and wisdom.

Now you can believe yourself to be a Buddha who is eternally free, loving, kind, and wise. This so-called “correct imagination” based on the wisdom realizing that nothing is fixed, everything is mere imputation or conceptual label, is just as “realistic,” indeed far more so, than the limited, hallucinatory sense of self projected and fixed by the ignorance of our self-grasping. It also works a great deal better. Regarding ourselves as stuck, ordinary, and suffering keeps us exactly that way, whereas every moment of regarding ourselves as free, enlightened, and blissful draws us into liberation and enlightenment.

 

Stop grasping

letting go 5

letting go 5To me the spiritual path seems largely a process of letting go – first of the expectations that this life is the be all and end all of existence, then of the expectations of samsara working out, then of the expectations that our happiness comes first, then of the expectations that everything is as really happening as it appears, then of the expectations that everything is as ordinary and impure as it appears.

If we want to feel free, it is time to let go. Stop elaborating. Stop grasping. And when I think these thoughts, I feel tremendously relieved as I don’t have to make something unworkable work, and can instead abide in the beautiful, relaxing Dharma minds of love, compassion, wisdom, bliss and emptiness, Tantric pure view, hanging out with holy beings who are already here day and night. This is what refuge really means to me.

One of life’s little challenges

stuck at airportHowever, I wrote this first bit after a peaceful meditation, and now my plane to Heathrow has been delayed indefinitely, possibly even cancelled — so I need urgently to think it out in the field as well…

For right now I am feeling rather attached to the happiness of this life wherein planes are supposed to go on time, in which case this delay is very annoying.

I am attached to samsara working out  – “All those other lucky people whose planes are not delayed, ‘Zones 1, 2, and 3 now boarding for Salt Lake City!’, they must be feeling great around about now, life is working for them, why not for me, why didn’t those airplane people figure out they needed this part earlier?!”

I am attached to my own happiness over and above the happiness of the people waiting (surprisingly patiently) around me, who didn’t even seem to raise an eyebrow when the announcement was made, whereas I was thinking, “Oh b****** hell, poor old me!”

I am attached to the idea of a real plane missing a real part that is being flown in on another real plane from a real city called San Francisco, and then real people have to replace this real part in monotonous real time, all of which real time I am really having to wait around, not able to just rest and be, really wanting to leave this crowded airport and go to real England NOW.

Plus, this place is grimy, it is not a blissful Pure Land at all – full of fast food, tired looking people, stuffy air, screaming kids, grubby carpets, and no Tantric Deities or celestial mansions in sight.

stuck at airport 2

I’ll let you know if and how I turn this around in the next several hours. I know I can and will probably have to because it is no fun being stuck here otherwise. That’s the whole point. The grasping is what is causing the pain, not the situation, which has no existence from its own side. Only the grasping is the problem.

Refuge is deep, deep relaxation. We can let the Three Jewels take over. We can surrender to Dharma experiences that are guaranteed to lift the mind and make us happy; to omniscient, blissful, unchangingly supportive friends, the Buddhas; and to Sangha, many of whom have already figured these things out and would be very cheerful waiting here in the airport.

Two hours later: Thoughts so far …

As I was walking around this ever-changing, dreamlike terminal, I remembered that this is all coming from my own karmic seeds and doesn’t exist outside my mind; there is instant relief in that thought. Why would I expect anything different, I created the causes for these appearances to my mind, no one else did. Also, whatever they are, they are not inherently any more good or bad than any other appearances, it just depends what I make of them.

stuck at airport 3And I’m already getting thought aid from suspected emanations functioning as Sangha Jewels. A couple of tweens have been hogging 3 out of the 4 precious plugs for the last 3 hours playing a mindless video game so I was in danger of (a) running out of computer juice and (b) getting annoyed with them, also not conducive to the happiness of this life. But then a charming young couple offered me one of their chairs and their plug, “That’s got to give you some peace of mind, right!”, and we have all just agreed that “it is what it is”, and, as the bloke said, “There is no point grumping about it, it won’t change anything. And there’s definitely no point getting angry with those poor guys at the counter.” A kid just said, “Dad, I’m bored”, and his dad replied, “Things go wrong, you have to get used to it.”  A South American Catholic nun was asking me what had been said in the announcement and she looked serenely full of patience when I told her, even though she is now going to miss her connecting flight. A lot of people are finding solace in their gadgets, some in their books, one guy chuckling opposite me at a comedy show, others chatting and joking around – the kindness of others keeping them entertained. Maybe this is the best hangout in town!?

We were given a $19 voucher for food and, samsara’s pleasures being deceptive, that free money burned a hole in my pocket as I felt I had to spend it on a rather large pizza, the only place that was still open, and I really don’t need pizza right now, I already had potato wedges while waiting earlier. But in the line I met an enthusiastic British Airways plane technician who told me that last week the same thing happened and people were put in hotels for, get this, TWO days, while they waited for their aircraft to be fixed with a landing light. Our broken part is more complicated, something to do with the nose (not) going up; so he cheerily told me that he hoped it wasn’t even longer a wait this time as people are missing connecting flights, missing cruises, missing big events … and he is quite right. I can afford to “miss” two days in England, I can spend them in a hotel if needs be. I am not exactly in Iraq right now fleeing for my life from ISIS. Looking around, I can see an old man trying hard to get his head comfortable, and the woman opposite me said, “I wish he had a pillow.” My compassion is kicking in and that is protecting my mind.

Buddha nature goldAnd this is a perfect opportunity to practice that experiment explained here. In Eight Steps, it says that we can focus on the gold of people’s Buddha nature, their limitless potential, rather than their faults, which in any case are the faults of their delusions, not them (including those tweens! Their real nature is limitless compassion and freedom, not adolescent self-absorption!)

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, because no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold… Whenever we meet other people, instead of focusing on their delusions we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique but will also help bring out their good qualities. ~Eight Steps to Happiness p. 82

Not focusing on others’ faults for me also includes the faults of people seeming just ordinary. If we know about Tantra, we can see their Buddha nature as already actualized. I am therefore surrounded by very unordinary Heroes and Heroines, Tantric Buddhas, and am a Space Goer myself.

no baggage to claim

No baggage to claim!

Latest announcement (now shortly before midnight): the plane with the part has just left SF (just left?!!!) and will be here at 1am. Heigh ho. Then it has to be fixed. People actually chuckled — they must be Heroes and Heroines.

Learning to meditate in 2014

happy new year 2014

calvin and hobbes new year's resolutionDeciding to learn meditation is a really great new year’s resolution. Anyone can learn, if they want to.

Meditation means becoming familiar with positivity and wisdom, both on the meditation seat and off it in our normal daily lives; and it is a powerful way to become a happier, more fulfilled person. It also helps us to help others. Life is short, our time is passing, and meditation helps us get the most out of our remaining years, months, weeks, or days, as well as prepare for the future.

We can meditate anywhere and anytime, together with all our daily activities, as meditation simply means, for example, thinking kind thoughts instead of unkind ones, complimentary thoughts instead of snide, gossipy ones, peaceful thoughts instead of angry ones, generous thoughts instead of grasping ones, wise thoughts instead of blinkered ones – understanding that this is our choice and freedom. There are many accessible ways to think positive and stay positive if we want to. We can become a relaxed, kind person whom we like and respect. new year's resolution to meditate

And we can also meditate in so-called meditation sessions, where we can begin by sitting down and closing our eyes, gathering within, and doing some relaxing breathing meditation. We can let go of all troubling, neurotic, anxious, self-disliking thoughts and touch on, then dwell in, the peace and clarity that is the natural state of our mind.

“Are you sure my mind is naturally peaceful?!”

My aunt is over here from France at the moment, and yesterday she asked me how to meditate. When I explained something along the lines of what I just wrote above, she wanted to know why it is that our mind is naturally peaceful as opposed to naturally anxious and unpeaceful. It is a very good question.

get rid of delusions and find peaceWhenever we don’t have a delusion functioning, we can observe that our mind is naturally peaceful. When our mind is roiled by a bunch of negative, unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts and emotions, it is as if a vast, deep, boundless ocean is being churned up. We cannot see below the surface, below the huge, terrifying, disorientating waves, to the endless clarity and depth below. We are stuck on the surface just trying to stay afloat. We identify with that even, thinking that it is all that we and life are about. But whenever the waves die down, we can tell that the ocean is clear, vast, and very deep – this is the nature of an ocean. In a similar way, when our mind settles and those wave-like thoughts die down and disappear, we can sense immediately that our mind is vast, clear, and deep, and naturally peaceful. It is far better to identify with the natural peace of our mind (our Buddha nature) then with the adventitious neurotic unhappy thoughts that come and go and are not who we are.

ocean like clarity and peace of mindStress relief

How can you begin meditating? It is good to think about why you might want to do it. One of the main reasons people turn to meditation is to relieve stress. They want to find a way to turn off the anxiety and find a measure of calm and relaxation. They’re fed up with being fed up.

Stress kills happiness stone dead. I’ve recently met a hamster called Patch. He is the luckiest hamster I’ve ever met because instead of having just one or two plastic balls and connecting pipes to run around in, his kind mom has pretty much bought up the entire hamster shop for him. Still, although he is a relatively lucky little guy, as hamsters go, he is not without his problems, just like the rest of us. I was watching him running on his wheel the other day, trying to go fast enough to avoid falling off. When we’re stressed out, we’re a bit like that. No matter how hard we work to solve the stress-inducing problem, it never seems to get any better. We can reach the point where we are so burnt out that we cease functioning productively at all, spending our days pushing pencils across our desk. treadmill of life

Stress arrives at any income bracket. If we’re earning $200,000 a year but our overheads, including for example alimony and kids’ education, is costing us $300,000 a year, it can be just as stressful as earning $50 a day but having $75 a day in expenses.

When we feel stressed, we see the stress as something that is happening to us and not in any way as a reflection of our state of mind: “My situation is so stressful! That selfish person is causing me so much stress! The ghastly noise my neighbors make day in day out winds me up!” We feel stress is intrinsic in our situations, but stress is not out there, external to the mind – it is a troubled way of responding to what’s appearing to our mind. For example, two people can be in a traffic jam and one can be very calm not really minding at all, whilst another can be hugely upset. If we react every time in a troubled way, then stress builds up and leads to unhappiness, a growing inability to cope, and related physical problems. dealing with stress

According to CNN.com, 43% of adults suffer from stress-related problems or illnesses. Even children are increasingly stressed these days. Doctors say that for 90% of patients their conditions are either caused by or aggravated by stress. Stress has been implicated in six major killers, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism and addiction often arise from or are exacerbated by stress.

Documented medical benefits of meditation

benefits of meditationMany medical studies now show how effective meditation is in combating both stress and sickness, including one by Dr. David Eisenberg and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School that lists an increasing number of medical benefits from the practice of meditation:

  1. Reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow to skeletal muscles, perspiration and muscle tension, as well as improvement in immunity.
  2. Women with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) who meditate regularly reduce their symptoms by 58 percent. Women going through menopause could significantly reduce the intensity of hot flushes.
  3. In a study of a 10-week group program that included meditation (along with exercise and nutrition changes), women struggling with infertility had significantly less anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and 34-percent became pregnant within six months.
  4. New mothers who use meditation with images of milk flowing in their breasts can more than double their production of milk.
  5. Patients with coronary-artery disease who meditated daily for eight months had nearly a 15-percent increase in exercise tolerance.
  6. Patients with ischemic heart disease (in which the heart muscle receives an inadequate supply of blood) who practiced for four weeks had a significantly lower frequency of premature ventricular contractions (a type of irregular heartbeat).
  7. Angioplasty patients who used meditation had significantly less anxiety, pain and need for medication during and after the procedure.
  8. Patients having open-heart surgery who meditated regularly were able to reduce their incidence of postoperative supraventricular tachycardia (abnormally high heart rate).
  9. Medical students who meditated regularly during final exams had a higher percentage of “T-helper cells,” the immune cells that trigger the immune system into action.
  10. Nursing-home residents trained in meditation had increased activity of “natural-killer cells,” which kill bacteria and cancer cells. They also had reductions in the activity of viruses and of emotional distress.
  11. Patients with metastatic (spreading) cancer who meditated with imagery regularly for a year had significant increases in natural-killer cell activity.

Just recently, a study published in Psychiatry Research by Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with stress stress was reduced and there was a noticeable increase in empathy and memory. The New York Times also wrote an article recently called “How meditation may change the brain.”

Our mind and body are closely connected. This mind-body connection is not so mysterious, we instinctively understand it. Why else would we say things like, “I worried myself sick,” or, “My head’s about to explode.” According to Dr. William Collinge, the WebMD on CNN.com, there is mounting medical evidence to support the role of mind/body medicine in promoting health:Buddha and meditation

At the heart of mind/body medicine lies the age-old practice of meditation, a quiet, simple technique that belies an almost extraordinary power to boost disease resistance and maintain overall health.

Two approaches to dealing with stress

As explained here, there are two types of problem. This means that there are two main approaches to dealing with stress: working to resolve the practical “outer” problems causing it as far as is possible, but, more importantly, keeping our mind positive to solve the actual problem, the “inner” problem. Maintaining a positive mind, even if it is challenging, will help us deal with our practical outer problems. Meditation overcomes stress by enabling us to cultivate relaxed, peaceful, happy states of mind.

happy new year 2014So, why not get started!? Learning to meditate is not as hard as you may think, and you’ll never regret learning. Wherever you go, whatever you do, meditation will become your own tool for discovering peace and happiness in 2014. You could resolve to meditate ten minutes a day, every day this year. You will be taking matters into your own hands, and feeling a great deal better for it.

Here is a recent article on breathing meditation that you may find helpful.

Please share this article with anyone you think might like to learn meditation this year.

Comments etc welcome.

Essential issues for consideration in a study of world religions

cropped-denver-airport.jpg

denver airport I met with a delightful Professor recently here in Denver, Dr. Don Maloney, who is both the eastern and world religions teacher at Metro State University and University of Colorado in Denver (both share the same large hip campus). He showed me the five core questions that students are asked in these university courses, the “essential issues for consideration” as they embark on a study of the history, beliefs and central practices of world religions; and I couldn’t resist sharing a Buddhist take on them. Don was a Jesuit priest for 30 years, and has an open enquiring mind, so we and his students had some pretty good conversations!

Thought I would jot down some of the ideas here.  You are welcome to contribute more in the comments.

  1. How does one define “religion”? Is the notion of a “God” necessary for a religion? If not, how might one define religion?

Buddhists don’t believe in a creator God, an omnipotent God who created us, because we believe that everything is created by mind. But we do believe in holy beings, and we pray to them for inspiration and guidance. Everyone has Buddha nature, the potential to become a Buddha or fully enlightened being; and there are already countless people who have realized this potential and become Buddhas. They are omniscient, and perhaps we can even say from their own side omnipotent in so far as they have complete control over reality or truth due to their realization of emptiness or the ultimate nature of reality. However they are constrained in the help they can give the rest of us by our own minds and karma. If we want to help someone, and know we can, and indeed have everything required to help them, but they are in no mood or position to be helped, we know how that goes … If we want the Buddhas’ help, it is there for the taking – it is their job, their enlightened deeds, to send blessings, emanations, and guidance our way each and every day, that is part of the definition of enlightenment. So that is why Buddhists pray to them, requesting to become like them by realizing our own pure, transcendent potential. We can tune into their complete purity and, as it were, download it because our minds are not by nature impure or unworthy, but pure. Buddha's blessings

When we experience even slight peace through our delusions subsiding, either naturally or through the force of our effort, we can understand this peace to be our Buddha nature, or Buddha seed, the pure potential of our root mind; and it is not separate from the enlightened mind of all the Buddhas. Our mind is like a boundless clear ocean but most of the time we are entirely unaware of the profundity, clarity, and deep purity we have within – instead we identify with the waves and the froth on the very surface as we spend our lives and thoughts directed outward, not inward, in a massive play of distraction from our source. One etymology for religion is to link back, bond, or connect – return to the truth or source of inspiration. When we connect with our own Buddha nature, the profound clarity and purity of our own mind, this is the source of our inspiration, this is the truth of whom we are; and it is not separate from the inspiration and truth of a Buddha. Continue to grow our Buddha seed and it will become the omniscient wisdom and compassionate bliss of a Buddha.

The only real truth in Buddhism is that nothing is fixed, everything is empty of existing in a solid, substantial, inherently existent way, because everything is imputed or created by mind. Change the mind, and literally change our reality. We don’t just change the way we look at the world, we change the world itself. The Buddhist “religion” links us back time and again on every level, from the simplest to the most profound, to that only truth — the truth of the emptiness of things existing from their own side. The truth which means that everything depends upon the mind — from whether we are happy or sad depending on our mood rather than on what is “going on”, to whether something is ugly or beautiful, to whether something is a problem or not a problem, right up to the ontological status of the tiniest quark of existence that has no power to exist from its own side. (Even the mind depends upon the mind, is projected by the mind!) The truth which means that we can change completely from an ordinary ignorant being into a sacred wise Buddha by changing our mind.

I’ll get to the remaining four essential considerations in the next article … meanwhile, over to you.

Enemy or victim?

Winston 5

Yesterday J and F bought Winston for a visit. He has been scratching himself a lot recently, due to fleas, and J has been applying anti-histamine cream out of great concern for his discomfort. Apparently, I was informed, he no longer has fleas. But sitting at the dining table, stroking Winston, F looked up suddenly: “Oh, here’s a flea.” Then he added, perhaps somewhat in defense of his beloved pooch, “You must have fleas in the carpet!”

Winston 5 Now, not wanting to quibble, but I did feel the need to point out that I have thus far never had any fleas in my carpet, and Winston is the one who has been scratching like crazy, so I was coming to an entirely different conclusion… my carpet (and cat) were now at risk from Winston, not the other way around!

And I caught myself developing a split second of aversion toward this usually adorable fellow, “Oh, Winston, as if it’s not enough that you chase my cat, I wish you hadn’t bought fleas into my house”, as if the fleas were all his fault, and somehow part of him. But of course it was not his fault. He is a poor little dog plagued by flea bites, not an annoying flea-dog at one with his fleas.

This got me thinking some more. If I had the constant, unconditional love for Winston that J and F have, I would not assume for a moment that the fleas are somehow his fault, nor ever identify him with his fleas. I would distinguish between Winston and his fleas, seeing the faults of being bitten by fleas without seeing a single fault in Winston.*

You know how, if we encounter a co-worker with a huge head cold and then develop symptoms ourselves, we can easily think: “Oh it is their fault I feel so ill, they are the one who gave me this” (as if the head cold was part and parcel of them as opposed to something victimizing them.) Think about the panic, aversion and vilification that used to surround people with cancer, for example, or more recently AIDS, as people conflated the victims with the very enemy who was drawing the life out of them. They were not distinguishing between the person and their illness, and this caused hard-heartedness and even cruelty.

Yet when a mother sees her child with a head cold, she is not thinking about herself but about him, so she never identifies the child with the illness or develops aversion out of selfish concern for her own welfare. Instead she distinguishes between her child and his illness and tries her best to free him from this enemy, to make him feel better.

mother childThe common denominator here strikes me as being love. When we have love for someone, we seem to naturally focus on their pure nature and potential and don’t mistake them for their temporary faults, even if we see that they have them. We don’t think “Oh, all you are is a flea-carrying cur, get out of my house!” or “You are just one big head cold, get away from me!” We think “Oh, you poor thing, let me help you overcome your problems and feel better.”

This reminds me of that quote I mentioned here:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish. ~ Transform Your Life, p 131

It strikes me that this goes both ways, in a virtuous cycle. If we don’t identify people with their delusions, we can keep loving them; and if we love them, we are far less likely to identify them with their delusions.

*By the way, I have nothing against fleas per se. They are sentient beings and as such are not enemies at all. But I won’t get into all that right now.

What do you think?

Postscript: I wrote this some time ago too. Winston has since moved to New York and I am about to move to a place with another carpet.

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