What is compassion?

help everyone escape
help everyone escape

Have to help everyone escape 100%

Compassion fills our life with meaning. So, what is it? It is not just being nice, though it will lead us to being good people. If we have compassion, we want something for others. If a friend has tripped over a drain and broken their leg, we want them to be free from physical pain. If a friend is suicidal, we want to protect them from mental suffering.

We already have some compassion—it may be a bit limited and biased, it may come and go, but we do have it. It is our Buddha nature. And don’t you find that those times you have felt a deep genuine compassion for another person with no thought for yourself have been very precious? Something good happens to your perspective? You feel more in touch with the truth of things?

Actual compassion is defined as the mind wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes. It’s the other side of the coin from wishing love, wishing others to have happiness and its causes.

Feeling sad and bad about others?
dog helped by Bodhisattva

Click on this picture for a story about a very kind man.

Though compassion can be hard sometimes, it is still more than worth it. (Delusions such as selfishness and anger are always hard, and they are never worth it!) And compassion, unlike delusions, is not a painful feeling. At its most qualified, it is blissful. I tried to start explaining this already in this article. But for me, I find that this quote from Eight Steps to Happiness puts it most beautifully:

Pure compassion is a mind that finds the suffering of others unbearable, but it does not make us depressed. In fact it gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we shall come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.

One practical way to develop compassion starting here and now

It is good to keep it real, not abstract, by starting with our immediate circle. We can contemplate the situation of those under our noses at home or at work, for example, as opposed to a mass of unknown humanity living in China. We find a way in, and then draw more and more people into that orbit of love and compassion at our heart. Make meditation work, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says.

I’ll give you a recent example of how I try to do this.

Dexton 2I was fostering a kitten recently called Dexton and we bonded like crazy. A woman had swerved to avoid him as he crossed the intersection on 53rd street and Pearl. She got out of the car to see him lying upside down with his paws thrown up above his head. “OMG,” she thought, “I’ve killed him!” But of course she hadn’t, that is just Dexton’s favorite posture, even, it seems, when he is in the middle of the highway. And she bought him into the shelter.

Given that it was already easy to love him, I found him a perfect candidate for compassion that I could then spread out to all the other cats and humans etc. But whenever I found myself worrying about him, for example how betrayed he would feel when I gave him away later, or when my friend P and I thought he’d jumped out of a second-storey window as we couldn’t find him anywhere (he was in a shoe), I found it very helpful to remember that it is not just that suffering I want him free from, but all wretched cat sufferings forever. And all other sufferings. And therefore all the causes of that suffering.

And then it was not too much of a stretch to remember that he is just one small furry person amongst countless others who need exactly what he does — complete freedom from suffering and its causes. It may seem counter-intuitive to our normal way of (avoiding) thinking about suffering, but worry starts to subside in the course of this contemplation, and an initial heartfelt concern for one kitten’s sore paw, for example, or a baby’s colic, or a friend’s heartbreak can be a trigger or way in for compassion wanting to remove everyone’s suffering and its causes. Because everyone is suffering and no one wants to.

Anyone can develop compassion for one suffering at a time – May this person be free from their migraine! May this family living in poverty receive a windfall! May this dying person consumed with anger quickly find peace! But only if we understand the actual origins of suffering – delusions and contaminated karma – can we develop genuine compassion wishing others to be free from all suffering and its causes.

How can I help everyone?!

kind BuddhaTo help everyone we have to become a Buddha first, but every day we can go in that direction by paying attention to suffering or “opening our eyes” as Geshe Kelsang has put it. Wishing, “May you be free”.

So, how does it work that a Buddha’s compassion has the power directly to protect others from suffering? The answer is profound, but this is one way to think about it. If you are experiencing some pain in the presence of someone, even an ordinary person, who genuinely and respectfully wants you to be free from that suffering, how does that make you feel? It’s at least a little bit better than being entirely neglected, is it not?! The Bodhisattva Vow describes Buddha Shakyamuni:

His purified mind abides eternally in the tranquil ocean of reality, seeing all phenomena as clearly as a jewel held in the hand, and suffused with an all-embracing compassion.

Buddha’s minds are everywhere, infinitely powerful, and a constant source of blessings.

The 2 ingredients of compassion

Are (1) love and (2) seeing suffering. Both wishing love (the wish for others to have happiness and its causes) and compassion come from cherishing love, thinking that others matter and that their happiness and freedom are important. If we don’t care about someone, we might think “Who cares” or even “Yeah!” when we see them suffering. But if we love our brother, say, and care for him, and see that he’s in pain, naturally we want that pain to go away. That will in turn lead to behaviors that help us help our brother – but compassion itself is what we are thinking, not what we do, it is a state of mind.

Compassion increases our opportunities to help
In the safe hands of the Bodhisattva who runs the shelter in Florida

In the safe hands of the Bodhisattva who runs the shelter I worked at

The more compassion we have, of course, the more likely it is that we are going to be kind, care for others, look after them, and protect them. But just the wish “May they be free” is compassion, and in itself is a powerful mind. So we don’t ever need feel inadequate, “Oh so and so is helping SO many more people than me, I’m useless …” Mental actions are more powerful than physical and verbal actions, according to Geshe Kelsang.

Not only are we good to be around when we have a heart filled with compassion, even without our having to lift a finger, but one encouraging thing is that if we do have the compassionate intention to help others, opportunities to help others will arise more and more. As the great teacher Nagarjuna explains in one of my favorite quotes:

Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ Universal Compassion

Compassion increases our capacity to help

compassion 4Our capacity to help others will also increase because compassion purifies our mind and leads to many other good mental qualities, while at the same time decreasing our delusions. As it says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.

For example, if you really want someone to be free from their cancer, and you’re in their shoes, you’re not irritated with them at the same time, are you? You find quite a reservoir of patience! And in that way you can help more. Here is a short anecdote from an old friend of mine to illustrate this point.

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

Over to you: More thoughts on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, your feedback and comments are most welcome. How do you generate compassion?

Dealing with suffering

flicking off a rock

BAMHappy Vajrayogini Day :-) This transcendent Buddha of Wisdom is all about helping us destroy our suffering at its root, in the course of one short lifetime.

We don’t like suffering, at least I don’t. Strange how much time we spend, then, dwelling on our own suffering each day.

Geshe Kelsang has said it is meaningless to think about our own suffering unless we want to develop renunciation, the wish for permanent freedom from all suffering and its causes. Dwelling on our own problems out of the context of renunciation can just lead to more self-cherishing. We tend to bat away one problem at a time, which is a bit exhausting and overwhelming. This is one reason why we need genuine renunciation, a compassion for ourselves that wants to be free from the whole ocean of samara, not just one wave at a time.

My friend K went to ER on Wednesday morning – waited 7 hours to be seen, all the time experiencing attacks of agony from kidney stones. She said the main thing she learned was that temporary cessations from particular sufferings, as Geshe Kelsang puts it, were indeed not good enough. In between the bouts of vomiting she’d experience temporary relief, and for the first few hours she though each time, “Phew, that’s it.” She said she even forgot quickly about the pain, thought she was free. But by 11 at night, experience had shown her that this short respite was just the precursor to another pain attack, and that she needed permanent freedom.

Keeping suffering in context

prison and freedomInterestingly, we can be overwhelmingly sad about any given daily mental or physical suffering, but when we manage to view that in the bigger existential context of the four noble truths and develop renunciation our mind becomes lighter and happier, already on the side of liberation, on the side of the solution.

Imagine you’d been born in a prison but had no idea, and you spent your life complaining about the prison food, the bars on the window that ruined your view, the rough and annoying people around you, the cold showers …. You tried to fix these problems as they arose, with greater or lesser success, but generally the whole experience was frustrating. Then someone comes along and says, “Your actual problem is that you are in prison. Until you get out, you are going to experience prison problems, whatever you do.” Buddha was like that when he pointed out the truth of suffering, the first of the four noble truths, likening samsara to a prison. It was not to depress us that he explained how we suffer from mental and physical pain every single frigging day of our lives, but to energize us to break out of the prison of suffering, whose walls and prison guards are our own delusions and negative actions.

hunger gamesWe’ve been enslaved by a master race of delusions since beginningless time. Katniss may be cool, but never mind the Hunger Games (a nod to the 4 nieces who told me to read/watch it) – that’s small fry. It’s time for us all to really rebel, shooting the flaming arrow of wisdom into our ignorance by realizing the ultimate nature of things, the mere absence of all the things we normally see.

Life is short

As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Understand the Mind p 275:

“Normally we believe that solving the suffering and problems of our present life is most important, and we dedicate our whole life for this purpose.”

But the problems of this life are very short-lived – if we die tomorrow, those problems end tomorrow.

I was talking with a friend over Xmas who was saying he wanted to win the lottery. I replied, “Don’t we all, but all the same it won’t solve our problems for very long.” He disagreed, regaling me with the varying levels of debt he and his family are in, and how much more wonderful life will be when those debts are paid off, how they’ll be free. Yes, perhaps, (I might have said if I’d thought of it at the time) — but not if you pay your debts off on Tuesday and then die on Wednesday.

Springboard to freedom
flicking off a rock

Quick, learn to fly!

Far more serious are the problems we are carrying deep inside us in the form of delusions and negative karma, as these undercurrents will flow into our countless future lives, constantly churning up new sufferings. If we use this short, very precious human life just to bat away at our immediate problems, I was thinking it’s a bit like using a million dollars to pay for a bag of salt & vinegar crisps at the airport because we feel peckish and happen to like Walkers. Precious human lives packed full with opportunity don’t come out of nowhere – we may not remember, but we must have spent a huge amount of time and effort in previous lives creating all the causes for this one, our potential springboard to freedom. Do we want to squander all that trying to solve the problems of just this life when we can use it in advance to solve the problems of all our future destinations?

Same for others

I think we can use a similar line of reasoning for developing compassion. Let’s say someone we love has been diagnosed with a horrible perhaps incurable illness. We can’t bear it, and we want them to be free from it; but we are not a doctor and, even if we were, we cannot cure them. So we are unhappy, the suffering seems overwhelming, seems to be just there, just sitting there. If however we transform that simple wish for them to be free from this particular illness into actual compassion for not just this sickness but all their sicknesses forever, already our mind is lifting.

Vajrayogini

What would Vajrayogini do?!

Because it is true, isn’t it, that if we want our mother, say, to be free from her neck pain today, we would also like her still to be free from it next week, and the week after, and the week after that … and, if we stop to think further, we want her to be free from ANY physical illness and mental suffering now and forever too. And if we understand that for her to be free from suffering forever she needs to be free of the causes of suffering, and we develop that wish for her, our mind becomes the very peaceful, solution-oriented, pure, even blissful mind of genuine compassion. Try it and see, and report back in the comments if you would. (Doesn’t mean of course that we don’t also try to alleviate her immediate neck pain eg, with Tiger Balm patches.) 

Spread that out to all our kind mothers and our mind gradually becomes vast and powerful, developing first into universal compassion and then the compassion of a Buddha, like Vajrayogini, that actually has the power to protect living beings from suffering.

 

 

 

Being Buddha Tara

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

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

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

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

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

Buddha Tara, you are needed

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

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

Tara 5

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

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

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

Please give me that!

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

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

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

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

Happy Tara Day!

Buddha and the Hidden Universe

Buddha

BuddhaToday, September 22, is Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, one of my favorite anniversaries of the Buddhist calendar. This is why I like it:

“On this day we celebrate Buddha’s return from the desire god realm called Land of the Thirty-three Heavens, where he had been to visit his mother who had been reborn there.

Traditionally this day also marks the end of the summer retreat. Every year, during the summer months, Buddha did a three-month retreat with his disciples. His reason for doing this was to avoid harming insects and other animals.

If we go out a lot during the summer months we will naturally kill more insects and other animals than at other times of the year. The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.” ~ From a talk by Geshe Kelsang in 1991

It is so easy to get caught up in an insular world of just a few people, often human, perhaps a couple of cats… Buddha returning to heaven to avoid stepping on insects reminds me of how important it is to remove our blinkers as often as possible and expand our mind. In this way, interest grows, some understanding or empathy can emerge, and we can develop universal compassion that takes in everyone, not just a few.

Buddhism talks about six realms of samsara, each with an infinite variety of forms and experiences. We can find it hard to believe in the existence of hidden realms, such as the hell realms, yet we are surrounded by a hidden universe of insects and animals, most of whom experience unbelievably intense suffering. Every now and then we may become aware of the existence of this realm, due to some nifty camera work, and our eyes open.

microcosmosI chanced to see Microcosmos yesterday evening with my friend M, who watches it regularly to remind her of the existence of other beings. It is a great movie, I really recommend it. The beetle we named Sisyphus tried valiantly to move the ball of dung up the hill despite it rolling down on top of him and getting stuck on thorns – the camera panned out to show a hill that we wouldn’t even notice as a groove if we were walking along that path. The exotic, colorful, ugly, bizarre, bug eyed, narrow eyed, legless, multi-legged etc. collection of little people (little from our perspective, perfectly big from theirs) grooming themselves, getting to work (insects all business all the time), having sex (man, those snails really liked each other!), reproducing, fighting their corners for no apparent reason that we could see … And all the while looking entirely sentient, as they are. Their tiny, personal worlds consuming them as our own personal world can consume us with its seeming importance, even when we are all just busy moving things around. I think it is Woody Allen’s character in the movie Antz, a soil relocation engineer called Z, who says:

I’ve got to believe there’s something out there better than this. Otherwise I’ll just curl up into a larval position and weep.

I watched this movie with Daka also, one of my foster kittens, who is M’s cat now, along with soft Kini, and who has developed into a very funny character full of affection and curiosity. If I had the same tenderness for all cats, stag beetles, stick insects, and ants as I have for Daka and Kini, I would probably be enlightened by now. Starting with our karmic circle and spreading that love outward is the way to get there. Alternatively, we can bring others into our circle of love, which will then expand naturally because love is like digital data, infinitely replicable. But to love others we have to remember first that they even exist.Daka

Right now I can hear the cicadas—it’s a bit like tuning into a radio frequency from another realm. Thousands upon thousands of mother living beings in the tall fir trees surrounding my forest hut, all trying to be happy and free from suffering. I have been trying to remember them in my meditations here, for, despite the noise they make, it is too easy to ignore their actual being.

When people get to know an animal closely, and perhaps for the first time, their views on that type of animal often change. Dog owners seem to have a respect and affection for the other dogs they meet, they often smile genuinely at the dog and at each other in recognition. If someone raises a chicken from a chick, and gets to know that chicken as a pet, it is far harder, if not impossible, for them to kill and eat it, because they have “met” it and know it is not just a piece of meat. I read a story in the wonderful book Random Acts of Kindness by Animals about a trapper who came from England to America a few centuries ago, and at his Iroquois wife’s urging adopted two beaver babies whose mother he had killed. This changed his view of animals and he decided never to hunt again, writing these evocative words:

“Their almost childlike intimacies and murmurings of affection, their rollicking good fellowship not only with each other but ourselves, their keen awareness, their air of knowing what it was all about. They seemed like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not quite understand. To kill such creatures seemed monstrous. I would do no more of it.”

cockroachAnimals are folk, they are people. And so in fact are insects. During one retreat some years ago, I saw a cockroach being eaten alive by ants. I blew the ants off and put the cockroach on my shrine in a box with grass and water, and said prayers and mantras. I meditated with him every day for a week, but he didn’t die — he lay there and sometimes he wandered around a bit. And during that week I came to know him and love him.

The day came for me to leave and I thought I might leave him there in his box in front of a picture of Buddha, as surely he was not far from death now and he would be peaceful and unmolested. I got in the car and drove a mile. Then I turned back, picked him up, and took him home.

My view of cockroaches completely changed after that encounter. They are no longer creepy looking beetles (well, they still look a bit creepy sometimes, but so can I). They are sentient beings who need love, like us. Issa’s words evoke this for me:

“Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.”

There are a lot of insects to love so we better get started. As Z says in Antz:

Z: I think everything must go back to the fact that I had a very anxious childhood. My mother *never* had time for me. You know, when you’re – when you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention. I mean, how is that possible?

Geshe Kelsang says in the same talk mentioned above:

In fact, we should have stronger compassion for animals than for human beings because animals suffer more. Human beings have better conditions and are more fortunate than animals. Because animals have so much suffering and no freedom, out of compassion Buddhists should try not to kill or disturb them. So, for three months during the summer, Buddha advised his disciples to retreat, staying always inside and living carefully and conscientiously.

bugEverything about Buddhism speaks to animals and for animals. Most obviously, as many people with even a passing understanding of Buddhism are aware, Buddhists are aiming at enlightenment, part and parcel of which is universal compassion — the mind that wishes to protect each and every living being from suffering and its causes. This really does mean not just our friends and family, not just human beings, not even just our pets, but each and every living being. We sit on our meditation seats and meditate on this every day. We meditate on the sufferings of all six realms of samsara to develop compassion for all living beings.

But in fact already in the initial scope teachings we are wisened up to the status of animals and insects, and in particular we see how we ourselves are not inherently human beings but can be reborn in other forms. From the get-go we understand that we have a precious human life, which means amongst other things that we have not had to take an animal (or insect) rebirth this time, but this situation is rare. In other words, we COULD have taken an animal rebirth and we can still take one again in the future. If we understand the teachings on karma and delusions, we will understand how easy it is for someone in samsara to take an animal rebirth –in fact it is far easier to be born as an animal than as a human being. That alone might give us pause. If you know you might end up in a dark and frightening world, you presumably would not want to alienate its inhabitants before you get there. But every time we willfully harm animals, we are creating the causes to be willfully harmed ourselves in the future.

In the intermediate scope teachings, we are taught to meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop the wish to be free from samsara altogether, once and for all. For as long as we remain trapped by delusions and contaminated karma, we are never free from the threat of lower rebirth – which means that at any time we could be reborn as a lobster and someone could be picking us out to be boiled alive for dinner.

bug 2In the great scope teachings we meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop compassion wishing to free everyone from samsara altogether, once and for all. The only way to do this is to become fully enlightened. Animals and insects are very kind to act as the sources of our growing concern, love, and compassion. I am glad that Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day is here again to remind me of this, of them, and hope this mindfulness remains with me. But I may do what M did and buy Microcosmos just in case …

More on Buddhism and animals can be found here.

Man’s best friend

IMG_0427

Frodo Buddha dog

You may have got the impression that I am a cat person, but that is because you never saw me with Frodo, and he was a mini-Schnauzer. Actually, he was a Buddha emanating as a human in a mini-Schnauzer body, but whatever… the point is, he was not a cat.

Frodo appeared exactly when I needed him. In 2009, I had lost my job, my house, my income, my community, and was staying at the mercy of Frodo’s mom S in the Hamptons (why not! What better place to hang out when you’re penniless?!) for a few months, doing retreat. I was at first a little discombobulated, wondering how to make my life meaningful with only my own mind for company, adapting to a new reality. And along came Frodo, giving me his unadulterated, unconditional adoration. It was some strong karma ripening as he wanted to follow me around everywhere, and I happily let him. His mom was very good about it; she said it was not his fault as I had bewitched him.Frodo on walk

Frodo was always happy to go for walks with me. He was always happy to sit next to me, beside me, on top of me, as I read my Buddhist books in between sessions. He was a little too happy to sit right next to me staring at me whenever I ate — really he did love his (anyone’s) food! And, marvelously enough, he was always happy to join me for any number of 2-hour meditation sessions, his paws reaching under the door if I shut it, scrabbling to be let in. He would sit very quietly on the bed behind me for about an hour and three quarters (and sometimes I could feel him staring at me) … then I would hear a small whimpery noise, and I’d tell him to shoosh. He would shoosh for about ten minutes, and then that little attempt at communication again, this time a little louder and more determined. If I looked behind me at that point, his face would generally be right next to my left shoulder. That is if he wasn’t upside down on the bed entirely blissing out, which is how he spent most of the sessions. We enjoyed our Heruka retreat very much, Frodo and I.

Buddhism and dogsI wrote a few things down about Frodo at the time, so here are a few random snippet memories of getting to know a dog, and a sometimes challenging but beautiful retreat.

A meeting

“Frodo jumped unexpectedly onto my lap today, and stayed there for hours, mainly staring at me. He is very sentient. S was not looking for a dog, but when she popped into the pet store to visit her favorite puppy, he was gone. With a shock, she realized he was her dog, but it was too late, he had been crated away for euthanization (at 5 months deemed too old to be cute.) Luckily, she managed to get him back in the nick of time. I am doing no justice to this story, let her tell it to you.”

Cure for boredom and loneliness

“I’ve never felt bored before, really. However, I felt a little bored and out of sorts after lunch, so I took Frodo for a walk and cheered right up. I was out of sorts about the lack of job or clear future, no community, tinged with loneliness, thinking, “What am I doing?” I examined that I, the one that needs distraction and the suffering of change, and dissolved it away. Everyone has it – the sufferings of boredom and loneliness and the sufferings of change are horrible. There is even a TV series called “Bored to Death” — I saw the billboard when I was in New York. I developed compassion from exchanging myself with those who experience boredom, and it was “real” as it was based on my own experience of suffering. I developed real concern for the suffering of Frodo, and everyone else.Buddhism and boredom

At this stage I dissolved my Spiritual Guide into my heart. If he feels this much love and compassion, he must be desperate to dissolve our suffering away, so I went with that and spent time feeling the bliss. There is no need for the grasped-at-I, including the I that is more concerned about its own boredom than the suffering of those born as animals, in a tsunami, etc. I did a meditation fusing exchanging self with others and emptiness, deciding to become an emanation of Guru Buddha and forget all about my limited sense of self, a self that doesn’t even exist. Then I can spread my sense of self over everyone, starting with Frodo, and dissolve them into my mind of bliss and emptiness. I generate others as Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, which means that I am never separate from anyone (and therefore never lonely.) This, I find, is the perfect cure for feeling lonely and isolated.”

I want you. I need you.

“Frodo came along at a good time. In a few self-pitying moments I would think that no one seemed to want me or need me any more, but Frodo told me with his eyes: ‘I want you to attain enlightenment for my sake. I need you to attain enlightenment for my sake.’ Frodo is my new BFF and how wonderful it is if he can be representative of all living beings, as my object of love. This is such an uncomplicated relationship! I can’t bear to see him hurt, even though it is usually momentary e.g. when I threw the yellow tennis ball for him and it landed on his back and he yelped. I have to get him and everyone else out of the lower realms and out of samsara.”

A dog’s life

“Frodo is powerless – all he can do is whine or bark, he cannot open a door himself, or get himself his favorite treats, and he’s always at ground level having to look up. He cannot read or otherwise really entertain himself. Who owns Frodo’s body? It’d be good to love all living beings as much as I love Frodo. He is an emanation dog for my retreat. He is whimpering ‘Please hurry up and get enlightened!’

“Frodo is not worried about human problems like losing a job. My teacher Geshe-la makes the point that animals are temporarily free from human problems, just as we humans are (only) temporarily free from animal problems. If you pay close attention to people’s lives, naturally empathy and compassion will arise as they are all experiencing problems every day.”

dog is man's best friend

Wake up!

“This morning, Frodo was whimpering in his sleep. I wanted to wake him up. It occurred to me that if you’re going to free someone from a nightmare, you can’t buy into that nightmare yourself. Buddhas see that we are suffering but they also see that it is dream-like suffering, so they try to wake us up.”

Best gift

“It is Frodo’s birthday today! I gave him all sorts of goodies, but my main gift to him, and indeed his back to me, was to exchange myself with him and all other animals all day long. On the beach where S and I took him for his birthday run, we saw a poor fish flapping on the sand, the fisherman oblivious.”

Upside down dog

“Tsog day was lovely with self-initiation and Offering to the Spiritual Guide and an upside-down dog on the bed behind me.”

Mala

“I was with Frodo earlier today when a white labrador bounded up to me on the beach, seemingly with no owner. She followed me for about a mile, until I came across a woman sitting on the beach with her dog, a black labrador. For some reason, she called out “Mala!” and both her black lab and my new white lab bounded up to her. We didn’t think too much of it, but when we looked at the white lab’s collar, her name, too, was “Mala.” And I’m doing a counting retreat.”

Stay here now

“I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.” (Postscript: I often think of this walk when I need a reminder to experience the vibrancy and fullness of the present moment, not dwelling futilely in the non-existent past or distracted by the non-existent future.)

If I ever wanted to tune into love, I could think of Frodo, it worked instantly every time. He was there during my Heruka retreat, and Heruka is the nature of love. At the time I used to reckon that if I loved everyone as much as I loved that dog, I would be enlightened by now. I think that may be true.bodhichitta or bears

Why am I telling you all this? Because Frodo died today.

Please pray for Frodo. May Buddha Tara, whom he loved, take him straight into her heart. Please pray for Dharma, my friend’s brave cat, who also died a few days ago after a long illness. Please pray for Bear, who died recently. Please pray for all our precious animals, who teach us so much, who open our hearts. May they all be happy. May they all be safe. May they all be free.

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?

“Love hurts.” Or doesn’t it?

love hurts

(Part of the series Is compassion happy or sad?)

The main reason why thinking of others’ suffering hurts is due to our self-cherishing. This is not always obvious. In fact it’s quite subtle.

A dumb but destructive mind

self-cherishing

Self-cherishing believes that our self that we normally see (an inherently existent me) is supremely important, and that its happiness and freedom are supremely important. That inherently existent I is in fact non-existent, so self-cherishing is a really idiotic mind, which has nonetheless managed to pull the wool over our eyes since beginningless time! For us, self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing are almost the same, as Geshe Kelsang said in Summer Festival 2009. They are both aspects of our ignorance and, as such, the root of all our misfortune and suffering. To be clear, self-cherishing is not the same as caring for ourselves.

How can I bear this?

love and desire

In Modern Buddhism, page 78, Geshe Kelsang explains how with self-cherishing we find our own problems unbearable, and this makes us suffer, and how with cherishing others we find others’ suffering unbearable.

Why, one may wonder, would I then try to cherish others – it is bad enough cherishing just one person, me! Surely if I cherish others and then find their suffering unbearable too, I’ll just collapse in an agonized heap?

No. The interesting and profound thing about it is that if we don’t have self-cherishing, we don’t experience any mental pain. Ever. Cherishing others, we find their suffering unbearable, but it doesn’t hurt! It is compassion, which is by nature a peaceful, positive mind and leads to the everlasting happiness of enlightenment. Geshe Kelsang explained this in 2009, pointing out that we can see from this that it is self-cherishing alone that is making us unhappy. (Implicitly this seems to suggest that it is not contemplating others’ suffering, or even our own, that in itself makes us unhappy.)

Exchanging myself with others

equalizing self and others loveIf this is true, it has far-reaching consequences because it really does mean that all we need to do is change our views and intentions by removing self-cherishing from our minds and cherishing others instead (also known as exchanging self with others). According to Kadam Lamrim, this is the actual way to become a Buddha, and it is devastatingly simple – anyone can do it through the force of determination and meditation. It may take a while at first to get going with it, like anything, and we’ll have to review the reasons a lot more than once; but with familiarity it becomes easy. If we believe this, we will gradually lose all resistance to contemplating others’ suffering and generate compassion, enabling us to attain the bliss of enlightenment.

Does it really work?

To believe it, I think we have to “suck it and see”, as they say. Does it really work? If I reduce my self-cherishing, and then contemplate my loved ones’ suffering, will it really not hurt my mind? I tried to apply this to one specific scenario, the swelling of Rousseau’s third eyelids. (I have of course many other scary examples I could use, such as friends with serious illnesses, but the same principles will apply.)

What is happening when I look at Rousseau’s eyes at the moment? His eyes appear unsightly and unpleasant to my mind and various things are going on if I’m honest:

Rousseau the catThe good bits:

(1)    I love this cat, feel for him, and want him to be free from sore, itchy eyes and having to stay inside all day long, which he loathes.
(2)    I will do anything it takes to make him feel better.

The not-so-good-bits:

(1)    Those swollen eyes mean expense at the vet. This is his second infection in three months and I cannot afford to keep paying for his treatments.
(2)    Pushing and grasping – if his eyes aren’t completely better after 5 whole days, someone’s gotta do something! This is desperate. Panic.
(3)    I am guilty that I allow him to roam free outside so he can pick up infections, even though I feel even more guilty keeping him cooped up inside in prison his entire life. I can’t win. It’s frustrating.
(4)    It is more urgent to get rid of his suffering than that of all the other cats in the neighborhood, nay in the world.
(5)    I feel woefully inadequate at protecting him from sickness and suffering even though he is my responsibility. I am a failure.

Yes, the good bits are all about him. And if I can stick to the good bits, no matter how much I consider his sickness, I feel no mental pain at all. I’ve been trying it, it is true. Good bit (1) is also a basis for wishing better things for him, like complete liberation from all sufferings, and good bit (2) is the basis for my determination to become a Buddha as quickly as possible to help him become one too. That is actually bodhichitta, a most blissful state of mind. I can even think: “What would a Buddha do in this situation?” and then approximate it. (For one thing, Buddha would be giving him mental peace through blessing his mind – something we can do somewhat ourselves already, especially if we identify with being a Buddha right now — perhaps a subject for another day. Meantime, see Joyful Path pages 60-61 and page 116 for how to self-generate as Buddha Shakyamuni out of bodhichitta, and bless others, even without an empowerment.)

what to do about depressionThe 5 not-so-good bits are all about me, and they are what are actually causing my pain and worry. They are also the basis for all inappropriate attention and getting stuck down grimy mental cul de sacs, such as (1) dwelling on his eyes in an unhelpful fashion, and then on how little money I have to fix him, and then moving on to all the things that can go wrong, requiring money; (2) not letting things run their karmic course but trying to force all the issues ahead of time, impatiently grasping at results, not seeing the mere (mistaken) appearance of the situation; (3) guilt, which is an entirely useless, cracked-record state of mind; (4) finding Rousseau’s suffering to be more important than the suffering of a gazillion other cats in the world, just because he is my cat, instead of having equanimity and universal compassion; and (5) identifying with my current limitations as opposed to figuring out that I need to, and I can, swiftly get into a position where I can help EVERYONE by practicing Kadam Dharma – going down the open road.

I have been reading both too much into Rousseau’s eyes (with inappropriate attention, causing worry) and too little (not recognizing them as a symptom of needing to get him and all of us out of samsara altogether).

“Question ourselves and give ourselves the answer”

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Summer Festival 2009You can try doing something similar with the person you are most worried about right now, including even your own child – what is going on in my mind, the good bits and the not-so-good bits. As Geshe Kelsang suggested in 2009 when analyzing whether or not self-cherishing is indeed the root of our suffering, we can “question ourselves” and “give ourselves the answer.” (No doubt we’ll have to do this a number of times before the answer sticks.) Please let us know in the comments what you discovered.

Jennifer, my neighbor, also loves Rousseau and often has him to visit, but she is not over-dwelling on his problems – she is not worried about him, and is simply efficiently helping me put in his eye drops, confident that he’ll feel better soon. And although we sometimes want other people to worry about our loved ones with us, for misery loves company, in fact it is far more uplifting when they are not worried, but simply care.

Finally, exchanging self with others is primarily a mental training — we change our thoughts, and our physical and verbal behavior naturally follows suit. Which leads me to a question I have for you, which I’ll ask soon.

Your turn: Do you think your self-cherishing is responsible for all your mental pain or not? Please share your experiences.

Compassion v. attachment to the status quo

gesheturtle

This article is part of the series: Is Compassion Happy or Sad?

We are not aiming impossibly high even when we aim for great or universal compassion — the wish to protect all living beings without exception from their suffering — because we already have all the ingredients within us. Compassion is our so-called Buddha seed or Buddha nature, the birthright of every living being. Have you ever felt overwhelming love for someone who is very sick, and the strong wish to scoop them up from suffering? For example a sick child, parent or pet? If you have, this is your Buddha seed at work. Even animals have it — there are umpteen inspiring stories on the Internet about animals unselfishly caring for human beings and each other.

With some understanding of samsara, we can deepen that compassion so that we wish to scoop them our dear friend up not just from this particular sickness, but from samsara in general. Then we can imagine feeling that for everyone, and this gives a wonderful glimpse of what a Buddha feels like, such as the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, with his 1000 arms reaching out to everyone.

However, there is some stuff in the way of our universal compassion at the moment, obstructing its growth. Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar (p. 20):

“We all have some compassion, but the compassion we have for our friends and relatives is often mixed with attachment and so is not pure. The scriptures warn us not to mistake attachment for compassion. Pure compassion is unmixed with attachment.”

Compassion is necessarily a virtuous or positive mind, a peaceful, happy mind, and, when we gain Tantric realizations our compassion actually becomes bliss! If our compassion for others doesn’t feel very pleasant at the moment, let alone blissful, the chances are that some sort of attachment is at work. We need to see how the attachment is functioning so that we can root it out.

Attachment is an ignorant, self-centered mind that does not understand where happiness actually comes from and thinks that it is to be found outside the mind, in people or in objects, and so it desires or needs these things to make us happy.

Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love and a sense of responsibility are in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. I think this is worth thinking about.

Attached to the status quo

In her youth, my friend and animal-lover Mal had a Hindu Guru and spent some time in India. The plight of the stray dogs broke her heart and she couldn’t stop worrying about them. One day her Guru told her: “You have too much attachment to those dogs; if you’re not careful you will come back as one.” He was a loving person, and she didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time. However, the meaning dawned on her over time, especially, she said, when she met Geshe Kelsang and his teachings.

This comment got me thinking too – what does it mean to be too attached to the animals or human beings we love and care about? How does that obstruct our ability to really help them, let alone cause us to worry unduly and uselessly?

I think part of it is that we are attached to that person in their current form. For example, today I went to the vet with Rousseau, who has inflamed third eyelids, and Dr Smith said: “He may be getting these infections due to having leukemia, caught from your other cat.” I waited ten agonizing minutes for the results, during which time I realized that I still want Rousseau to be beautiful Rousseau, just without inflamed third eyelids and leukemia. And when it comes to beloved children?!….  Parents sometimes say things like “I wish they could stay small forever!” — of course they don’t really mean it, but it perhaps indicates that we do have a wish for the things we like to stay the same.

Are we just wishing people more samsara?!

This attachment to permanence and to impure, or samsaric, bodies results in our being attached to far too small and inferior results for our loved ones at the expense of seeing the larger picture. Spending all our mental energy in preoccupation with each individual suffering as it arises is a distraction if we are not seeing these in the grander scheme of things — as part of a pattern of samsaric suffering that they have been experiencing since begininngless time and will continue to experience if they don’t get out of their samsaric bodies. As I have often heard Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say:

“Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough”.

It seems to me that we have to want far more for them than just the alleviation of the individual sufferings of this samsaric life as they arise – these sufferings are just some of the never-ending waves on the ocean of samsara. We want the whole ocean of suffering to dry up. We have to desire so strongly for our loved ones to have lasting liberation from all sufferings that each individual suffering motivates us to become a better person, even an enlightened being, so that we can bring this about. We have to keep an eye on their potential for lasting freedom and happiness at all times, even if they are just a small feral cat or a stray Indian dog.

Buddhist compassion works very well as it has within it the solution – even if this solution is big and radical. In fact it has huge implications as we basically want NONE OF IT. All solutions in samsara have to be seen as temporary.

Also, with attachment to samsara we try to patch it up, make it work. Samsara can never be made to work – we’ve been trying to improve it for countless lifetimes and still the waves of the seven sufferings roll in upon us without cease.

Bandaids are useful but they are also just temporary solutions for someone with a constantly erupting skin disease. We need to go deeper and uncover the causes of our loved ones’ suffering – delusions and karma – so we can really help them destroy these causes to bring an end to their suffering. As Kelsang Tsondru said on Facebook, “Hopeless compassion (i.e., which does not see an end to suffering) is a sad mind, whereas hopeful compassion (i.e., which understands the end of suffering) is a happy mind.”

(The same reasoning also goes for dwelling upon our own individual problems one by one, as opposed to using these as a motivator to escape entirely from this prison of samsara while we have the chance.)

Compassion and love are not the same as worry and relief

Click here for Daily Lamrim article on changing suffering

I know I feel relieved when I see, for example, that my cat’s eyelids have slightly improved. But relief comes from tension in the mind, and that is also what has got me thinking — actual compassion is free from tension etc, and love is therefore not that feeling of relief that comes from tension being released. There is nothing wrong at all, of course, with being happy to see others’ free from suffering, quite the opposite, but we can check to see what that happiness consists of and so improve on it. The happy feeling that Rousseau’s eyelids are slowly going back to normal may be partly due to my love wishing him happiness, but also due to changing suffering (arising from attachment) – that brief respite between anxiety about the swollen eyelids and relief about the non-swollen eyelids. This brief respite is only brief – to be replaced with some other worry sooner or later.

Next time, we’ll analyze how self-cherishing fits into all this.

Your turn: do you agree? Do you have any examples?

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Is compassion happy or sad?

ostrich head in sand

Compassion is the fuel of spiritual progress, but is it a sad or a happy state of mind? The Buddhist scriptures all say it is a peaceful, happy mind, but how does it feel in our own experience? How is it even possible to be happy or calm when caring about the horrible suffering of others? It seems crucial to know this if we are going to put any energy into contemplating suffering as opposed to digging our heads into the sand or switching channels.

I first decided to explore this subject when I was with Ralph the kitten. This is what I wrote down at the time.

After Ralph’s death:

Today, two days after his death, tears still spring to my eyes when my mind alights upon any details of his final hours. I even miss meditating with him (nothing like having a helpless kitten on your lap to help you meditate.) I managed to meditate for 30 years without him, but today I missed him all tucked up in my overalls.

But this sadness, though moving, is not unhappy, if you know what I mean. I am not averse to it. It is mixed with a sort of smile.

There is a part of me that misses him out of attachment, but I also know that this is looking backward rather than forward, and the past does not even exist. I am missing a non-existent kitten. There is no point in that. There is no point in even wanting him to still be a kitten, healthy or not. Better to think of him in the present, wishing him all happiness wherever he is, with any luck out of his limited cat body and in the Pure Land.

Two days earlier, in the ER waiting room:

I don’t know if I want any cats now. (I was planning on rescuing a couple in the Fall). Where is that coming from? A friend of mine lost her beloved cat recently in a nasty freak accident and it crushed her. Right now I understand why she said she didn’t ever want another cat. My mother always resisted our having pets and would say it was because her beloved guinea pigs were eaten by rats when she was a kid. (The more obvious reason was that we were continuously traveling around the world, but for some reason she’d usually play the guinea pig card). It slightly irked me when she did this, as I really wanted pets and had to make do with collecting ants and cocoons; but I understand her reluctance better now.

But cats still need homes. So do guinea pigs and other animals. American comedian George Carlin said that getting a pet is a tragedy waiting to happen, as they always “go away”, unless we are 80 and get a tortoise. But we do it anyway. And as they say:

“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Everyone “goes away” — we’ll have to watch all our loved ones go away, if we don’t go away first. I think we have to be brave enough right now to accept a certain amount of sadness when the people we know are suffering. This is part of our training. One day our compassion will be bliss, but even if it is now mixed with minds that cause some sadness – such as fear, worry, and attachment – it is still better not to shrink away from getting involved with others.

Back to today:

However, at the same time we can work on removing the sad and worried part and increasing the happy and blissful part, and, starting in this article, that’s what I want to look at (with more help from you and my Facebook friends!)

Waves of worry

We worry about ourselves (and loved ones) all the time. Parents can worry about their children every single day. In samsara, worries are waves on an ocean – there is never an end of things we can worry about because everything can go wrong. We think short-term: “Oh it’ll be alright if he just gets a job! Or if his sickness is cured!”, but it still isn’t alright. Perhaps a brief respite, but then a new worry rolls onto the shore.

So we have to go deeper for both our own and others’ sake. We have to want us all to have real, lasting freedom. Where does this come from? Only from peaceful and controlled minds. If we wish that for them, in this wish we discover there is peace. There is also some peace to be had in accepting that we cannot control their minds for them, nor their karmic path.

I think realistically that our wish for them to have real freedom by overcoming the delusions and impure karma is more attainable than our wish for them to be free from one samsaric problem at a time! The waves of suffering cannot end until the ocean of samsara — created by delusions and impure karma — is dried up. Focusing on this doesn’t mean that we don’t take the cat to the vet, but it does mean we keep things in perspective, which helps a great deal.

dry up the ocean of samsara

Getting practical

A practical thing to do on a daily basis is to catch those worries as they start to roll in and transform them into bigger and better non-worries! For example, a friend of mine lost her job quite a while ago and is still finding it hard to get another, despite great efforts. I feel sad for her every time I think of how disappointed she feels. (And she is not alone, of course — finding someone who never has any financial concerns is almost impossible.) However, if I go deeper and wish for her to have complete freedom from this and all worries by drying up the entire ocean of samsara, immediately there is some mental peace. The same goes for worry about a loved one’s cancer results, or a cat’s infected eyes. “May they be free from ALL suffering and its causes. I will make this happen.” This wish galvanizes us and we have some control again.

More ideas coming in the next article.

Your turn: In your own experience, do you find compassion to be happy or sad?

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“If you do not help us, we will be killed.” What can we do about large-scale sufferings?

A young boy holds up a sign during an an

Some time has elapsed since I wrote this article on Homs, Syria; but the question “What can we do?” seems just as relevant to what’s going on today — which at the time of writing (June 13 2014) includes violent humanitarian disasters in Iraq and Ukraine, and atrocious slavery that has come to light in the shrimp industry in Thailand.

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This sign held by a child trying to reach the world was the first thing I saw about the slaughter taking place in Homs, Syria, a few days ago. Then a newspaper today had the headline: “Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents.”

“We are seriously dying here. It is really war,” Waleed Farah told the Guardian, speaking via satellite phone. He said: “It isn’t war between two armies. It’s between the army and civilians. You hear the rockets and explosions. You feel you are at the front. The situation for civilians is pitiful.”

What, if anything, are we supposed to do, as individuals in a country far away?

This question comes up again and again and again. Daily. With your help, I looked at this subject at the time of the Japanese earthquake. We decided there is never nothing we can do.

This time I wanted to examine how hard it is not to look away when we hear news like this. How tempting it is to turn away, or even close our heart, thinking “It is too awful, it is too far away, it is not part of my life, and what can I do anyway?”

But this suffering is part of my life. It is part of my suffering world. It is appearing in my world. I turn away at my peril.

I often come across links to footage I’d really rather not see, such as starving humans and skinned cats. Where does my squeamishness come from though – does it come from compassion or is there something else at play? After all, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas never shy away from following Buddha’s advice to know suffering (the first noble truth). How can we know something without looking at it? Can we? How am I going to go about removing myself and others from hellish situations if I can’t or won’t look at them? What do you think? (I’m not advocating we all start watching horror movies, perhaps there is a balance to be had here; but I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.)

A lotus grows from mud

One thing I do know, I cannot conveniently box away all seemingly irrelevant or unworkable suffering without increasing my own dullness or carelessness.

Back to the case in point, what did I try and do to help today? Here is a quick summary of my meditation. This is not the only way to do it, of course, it is just the way I did it today (and I always like to begin and end with bliss and emptiness!) Meditation is very creative, and you can do whatever works best for you.

  • I invited all the holy beings into my heart and mixed my mind with theirs like water blending with water, experiencing bliss. I knew I wanted to start from a peaceful, blessed place, or I would have nothing to bring to others, and I definitely wouldn’t want to focus on their gruesome pain.
  • With my mind of bliss I dissolved me, them, and our whole world into its ultimate nature, emptiness. There is no inherently existent world, “out there”. There are not even any inherently existent suffering beings in Homs. (See this article for why this is not escapism but holds the solution.)
  • I meditated on how I’m deeply connected to all living beings in my world, including those in Homs – we are all waves rising from the same ocean, each wave containing elements of all the others, entirely dependent related.
  • In that context, from my heart, I invited the residents of Homs inside. I exchanged self with others.
  • Then I thought about what they are experiencing right now. Beheaded people lie in the street, there are no ambulances to take away the dead, and people are cowering in their houses waiting for bombs to drop on them. And “the problem is that no one can get out”, as one resident put it. I usually prefer to start with an individual, for example I imagined what it must have been like to be this mother before, during and after the militiamen broke in: “The shabbiha (Assad’s militiamen) broke into three houses overnight and slaughtered a family of five — the father, wife and their three children…” And where are they now?
  • I developed a wish for them to be safe and free.
  • I did some taking and giving and imagined that they were safe and free, now and always.
  • I prayed to all the holy beings to bring this about swiftly. It is impossible to overestimate the power of completely pure minds. We can act as a conduit for blessings to flow from holy to ordinary beings, transforming them. There are no inherently existent suffering beings – we would all be doomed if there were, and there really would be no point in thinking about their suffering.
  • I brought everyone in all six realms into my heart to stay with all the enlightened beings, in bliss and emptiness. I stayed here as long as possible.

That much I owe them at least. If I was in their position, I would want to know that the world was at least looking at me, that the world cared. If we are in a position to do anything practical, then we do it, just as it suggests in the Bodhisattva downfall:

Not going to the assistance of those in need.

We can call upon our own government, wherever we are, to step in on behalf of the civilians, or sign a petition. I just donated to Avaaz here. And mainly, unless we have a direct line to the Syrian government, we can develop compassion and we can pray, knowing that these actions do make a difference.

One more point: although it is tempting to become angry at those who are attacking them, we can remember that the deluded and karmic causes of suffering go much deeper — the wheel of sharp weapons swirls round and round, perpetrators and victims continuously changing places. Michael said it this way in this article about his murdered brother-in-law:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

Over to you: What are you doing about all these massive-scale tragedies? I look forward to your comments.

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