Blink, and it’s a new world

too much to do today

too much to do todayWhen we feel overwhelmed with busyness it is usually because all our activities are bleeding into each other. With thoughts of impermanence, they don’t. We can focus on the here and now. We have walls up (as described in this last article). We can still plan — put the things we need to do in a Google calendar or excel spreadsheet or regular to-do list — but then we don’t need to think much about it again until we need to do it. Tomorrow is plenty of time to take care of tomorrow’s business. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

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

So in the interactions we have today, we bring as much love and kindness into them as we can. We try to keep our mind peaceful, free from anger. We put our energy into these things as they are inside the wall. And because we are not spending so much time outside the wall, we have a lot more energy to do that, we’re a lot more successful. Living in the moment is very much to do with cultivating the habit in our mind of staying here, in the present, not going off.

I’m not getting angry ever again!?!

As Gen Samten puts it, what is harder, not getting angry for a lifetime, or not getting angry for a day? “I could never do the former!” we might think. But can we avoid anger today? Yes, probably, with a bit of effort. So that is all we have to do. Within this wall I’m not going to get angry.

We realize we can do a lot of spiritual practices that may have daunted us previously. “I could never have universal compassion for all living beings!” But could we contemplate universal compassion just today?! Yes, we could give it a try. It might take a little effort and work and by the end of the day we might feel tired — but good tired, not todaybad tired, because we have used our energy wisely. Then we can rest, and wake up in the morning – a new day, a new wall. If we screwed up, we start again.

Etch a sketch. Every moment, let alone every day, is brand new. Geshe Kelsang said that when we close our eyes and then open them again, everything has changed. Blink, and it’s a new world.

Shorter periods of time

In this way we can build up a really helpful mental habit – if we are determined to build this wall, we’ll do it. And we’ll find that this habit begins to apply to shorter and shorter periods of time. For example, if we’re having breakfast with our family and have a hard day at work ahead, we can think: “I’m not going to worry about work, it is outside the wall around breakfast”, and instead concentrate on having a good time with our family, bringing kindness and love into that. When we get to work, that’s a new situation, and one I will be involved in then.

This will overcome basically all our worry. The habit of worry is the habit of thinking about things outside the wall. By remembering subtle impermanence and that we may die today, we build a wall around today.

I’m going to add here what Tim Larcombe just said in the comments as I think this could be a very practical reminder throughout our day:

We can be reminded of “the wall” when people say “Have a good day” to us. And we can wish for them to be worry-free when we say it to them :-)

Necessity vs meaning

Our emphasis begins to shift from what is meaningless to what is meaningful. If we just focus on things like career, wealth, a good social life, relationships, a hot body, etc, when we get to a certain age we experience a crisis. If we make these the compelling narrative of our life, sooner or later, and certainly by the end of our life, we’ll find them to be hollow. Sometimes people despair, they don’t know what they’ve done with their lives. There is even a delusion all of its own about this, called self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development. ~ How to Understand the Mind p. 155

It’s a bit like trying to scoop the foam off an ocean, I think, and trying to make it last. And while we are preoccupied with doing that, we are ignoring the limitless potential of our mind for lasting happiness and freedom, and the vast and profound ocean of Dharma practices that will give us this.

time is running out 1Acquainting ourselves with the thought “I may die today” connects us with the real meaning of our life. It stops us focusing on things that are completely banal, unnecessary, even negative. If we spend the hours not already working surfing the internet or watching Netflix, for example, and it’s not so hard to do, does this bring any real happiness?

What about the things we do need eg, food, clothing, health insurance, etc? Buddha taught four necessities of life: food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. These may be necessary, but if make them the meaning of our life, we will neglect cultivating our inner qualities.

Our outer wealth is our possessions, friends, etc, and our inner wealth is our compassion, patience, and so on. Outer wealth may be a necessity of life, but it doesn’t enrich our life. It is our inner wealth that enriches our life. Without love, for example,  no matter how many possessions we have, we feel poor. But with a mind full of love, regardless of whether we have many or few possessions, we feel like the richest person in the world.

Magic pill

magic pillIf you have any problem at all, see what happens if you apply those four words: “I may die today”. If you are worried about something, try saying this to yourself for a couple of minutes – see how you are brought back into the present and recalibrate, focusing on what is meaningful again. If you’re getting angry, repeat these words, and think, “This may be the last time I ever speak to this person! I want it to be a good conversation.” When we are angry with someone, we are assuming on some level that they’re going to be there tomorrow. (Which is why we are angry!)

This thought is like a magic pill — we can use it many times each day whenever we’re unhappy, and find that we naturally come back to this peaceful feeling, centered in the present moment, on what is meaningful.

This magic pill is also very helpful for meditating. If our mind is distracted, we can think, “I may die today, I may die in this meditation”, and see what happens! We build boundaries around that meditation, keeping our thoughts inside the meditation, not outside. This mental habit can greatly improve our concentration.

Meditation

And here is a bit of meditation to bring this together.

We’ll think there is a wall around today and I’m not going to worry about anything outside that wall.

woman meditating under treeWe sit comfortably, and allow our mind to become centered through breathing meditation. We can drop from our head into our heart and feel the peace and potential of our Buddha nature.

We can contemplate the truth, “I may die today, I may die today.” As we do this, we can allow two things to happen. The first is that a boundary begins to form around today – we’ll begin to feel that since I may die today I don’t need to think about tomorrow, and I am not going to let my thoughts wonder outside of this boundary. And we can just enjoy the feeling of peace and happiness that comes from that.

And secondly we will begin to develop a strong determination to focus on what is meaningful, on what makes us truly human. To bring as much kindness, love, patience, and wisdom into all the situations that we encounter today.

Then we remember this for the rest of the day!

(Thank you again to Gen Samten for all his valuable input into this subject. Next installment is here …)

No time like the present

boundary
First, a little anecdote

stop and smell the rosesI wrote this about a dog and me a few years ago. “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.”

Why the emotional resistance?

Knowing about subtle impermanence (carrying on from this articlecan in fact make life fun, full, and vibrant. To begin with, however, thinking about all this constant changing can make us feel a bit insecure, like there is nothing to hold on to. “I want something to hold on to!” We may feel a little threatened, even though it is such a beautiful truth, which makes it hard to open our heart to this teaching. How can we overcome this emotional resistance?

See the beauty

Gen Samten says that the secret, he feels, is to approach these teachings from point of view of seeing their beauty. If we see them as threatening, we’ll have resistance, but if we see them as beautiful we’ll naturally open up to them. It’s a bit like loving poetry or a work of art. My mother has an always open poetry book on her kitchen counter, and can quote reams of the stuff by heart. She finds the poems beautiful and so reads them in a certain way — enjoys contemplating the nuances and drinking them in (and all while cooking the supper …)

dew drops 1It’s the same with subtle impermanence (and indeed any teaching). If we can see it as beautiful, we will want to explore it and drink it in and see its subtle implications in our life. This all comes down to seeing the beauty in it. That’s our job. Not to force ourselves to meditate on it as an onerous task, but to let ourselves discover the beauty (even while we are busy doing other things).

This, basically, is faith, particularly what is called “admiring faith”. Society may be a bit confused in general about faith, and even see it as contrary to wisdom (it’s not, they are mutually compatible). But in reality faith is one of most basic human emotions and is intrinsic to inner transformation. Buddhism teaches believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Here, we come to believe in the truth of the teaching, that everything changes moment by moment, and this is believing faith. Then we appreciate it, finding beauty in its special qualities, and this increases our admiring faith. As a result we wish to practice this truth in our lives, and this is wishing faith.

Another little anecdote

Not unusually for this blog, I am writing this article on a plane – this one from Denver to London via Charlotte. Just now I was waiting outside the restroom and trying to make the most of each moment by looking at the rows of heads in front of me, thinking: “What is their life like?” And then the verse on equalizing self and others/developing affectionate love from Offering to the Spiritual Guide:

In that no one ever wishes for even the slightest suffering,
Or is ever content with the happiness they have,
There is no difference between myself and others;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings joyfully to make others happy.

That way I was having that pleasant feeling that I was no more important than anyone else on the plane, including the person taking a rather long time in the restroom. Ten minutes later he came out, a young man with a huge beam on his face, carrying the book “The Power of Now”. So make of that what you will.

We’re all gonna die!

Buddha taught that there are two levels of impermanence – gross and subtle. For example, with respect to a house, its subtle impermanence is the moment by moment changes that happen continually for the duration of its existence; and its gross impermanence is when it falls down, finishes. We can see this everywhere – a tree grows and changes constantly, which is subtle impermanence; and then it dies, gross impermanence.

To live our lives in the moment, in the light of subtle impermanence, we have to learn to live it in the light of gross impermanence, which means living our life with an understanding of the truth that we are going to die.

death awarenessThis thought, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most liberating and beautiful understandings we can cultivate.

Consider these two possibilities in relation to yourself: “I will die today” and “I won’t die today”. Seems to cover all options!

Now if we ask ourselves which of these applies to me …? We can’t say. All we can say is “I may die today. I may not, but I may.” Both those statements are true.

However, if we go around assuming “I won’t die today”, our life doesn’t do anything special. If somebody gives us something valuable and we treat it as worthless, we will waste it, of course. Our life is so valuable, but if we treat it as something mundane or never-ending we will waste it. However, if we think “I may die today”, we extract the meaning and the preciousness of our life. We will treat it as valuable, and we will stop taking it for granted.

It’s a wonderful life

One great benefit from understanding that I may die today is that we stop worrying about tomorrow. Instead we wake in the morning and think, “I want to live today in a way that is very meaningful, show kindness to others, make today special, without worrying about tomorrow.” It’s like our only mission is to make today a wonderful day.

drop of waterSometimes we think that making our life meaningful means making some mega changes. But on a day to day level, and on a mind level, perhaps, our life doesn’t change. We don’t change.

So what is a meaningful life, a wonderful life? Is it not made up of meaningful years, months, weeks, and days?

On the one hand, we can stop dwelling on the past because it has gone — every day is a new day. And on the other hand we can stop worrying about the future – I may die today. All that is real for us is today. And then we just focus our energy on today. Then, day by day, naturally our whole life will be meaningful.

Create a boundary

Boundaries can be useful for protecting our minds, and perhaps one of the most useful is a boundary around today. Gen Samten uses the example of food that is vacuum packed to keep it fresh — we can keep today new and fresh, not contaminated by worries of what might happen tomorrow. Through the power of our determination we can think:

I’m not going to worry about what might happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I may die today. All I will focus on is enjoying today in a meaningful manner.

It is like we need to build a wall around today and focus our mental energy within it. Otherwise, worry is a big problem for us and one we have little control over – our thoughts are running around in a non-existent future: “How will I be able to cope if that happens?” If we focus just on today, our mind will be peaceful. This is such a good habit to build.boundary

The wall goes behind us as well — I’m not going to dwell on the past. Maybe I screwed up terribly yesterday but that is outside the wall. I am not going to recreate that today. And then we are freed from the burden of all the mistakes we have made because they are outside the wall and we just focus on what is inside.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t learn from our mistakes or make plans for the future, but it does mean that we spend most of our energy on today. Reverse that original percentage — spend 10% of our energy thinking about the past and future and 90% concentrating on today! Building any wall takes time – we can’t just throw it up, it takes time to build up this mental habit. But it is very do-able.

Today is your first day. It may also be your last…

Next installment is here.

Does time heal?

Letting Go 1

Letting Go 1“Time heals” because over time we forget. But why wait to forget?! Waiting passively for things to happen to us is not much fun, we don’t much like waiting in line for example. Some people take months or years to get over a broken heart, and it is agony. They are waiting to forget. They are waiting to think differently about things. They are waiting for the penny to drop, “It is all gone, it is really over”, so they can move on. But it has gone already, it was gone the moment it started; and by bringing that wisdom into our hearts we can move on far, far more quickly. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

The past is no more substantial than last night’s dream. How many dreams have we had in this life, let alone in countless previous lives? (And I refer here to dreams when we are sleeping and dreams while we are awake.) In samsara, all our dreams are broken in the end, as Geshe Kelsang says. We have forgotten the vast majority of them, and if we wait long enough we’ll forget whatever dreams we are holding onto now. But rather than just wait it out, why not cultivate an understanding of subtle impermanence and live by it? It will save us so much sorrow.

We can keep repeating that sentence to stop grasping:

I will stop grasping at past me, people, and situations because they do not exist.

Combining our wisdom with determination, our mind will begin to change and we will experience an enormous feeling of liberation and joy. We will let go of our emotional baggage. This is an amazing experience to have and it is possible for all of us, whatever our past. We don’t have to do anything unusual, we don’t have to change our external situation or our job or whatever; we just change the way we think, and remain natural while changing our aspiration, as the old Kadampa saying goes.

Meditation

Here is a little meditation to help us do this.

We sit comfortably with our back straight and relaxed, our eyes closed, and imagine that deep in our heart we feel quiet and peaceful.

And from that quiet and peaceful place we simply focus our attention single-pointedly on the sensation of our breath within the nostrils — the cool air as we inhale and the warm air as we exhale.

And as our mind begins to settle, we enjoy the feeling of clarity and peace that arises in our heart.

Now we can spend a bit of time reflecting upon subtle impermanence in general. We can think about the things in our own life and try to cultivate some insight and wisdom realizing that the past no longer exists. We can start big and then make the chunks of time smaller and smaller, eg, we can think “The person I was when I was a child no longer exists, and then the person I was a year ago no longer exists, and then the person I was a week ago no longer exists. The person who had coffee this morning no longer exists. The person who started this meditation no longer exists, is completely different from the person who is meditating now.” By taking examples like this in meditation we begin to cultivate some insight into this subject. We just reflect on it.

We can now move on in our meditation to bring to mind a situation where we are recreating the past in the present. It could be one that is related to people, either ourself or others. It could be one that is related to a particular situation or event that happened in the past. It could be one that is related to certain possessions we had in the past. And we say to ourself strongly:

I will stop grasping at past people, situations, and possessions because they no longer exist.

Thinking of this situation, we keep repeating this statement strongly, and imagine that we gradually begin to let go. We just enjoy the feeling of being a completely new person and meditate on this.

Then we arise from our meditation, keeping this special feeling in our heart.

No room for the past in the present

letting go 3In this way we can try to deepen our awareness of impermanence and the realization that the past, including the recent past, even just a few seconds ago, no longer exists; and then stop grasping at it because we can’t hold onto something that isn’t there. In this way we can stop recreating the past in the present moment. There is no room for both; one of them has to give.

We can lay down our heavy burdens. Stop feeling melancholy. I also find it helpful to ponder how we decide what to grasp at?! The past is endless! Which me, which person, which situation do we choose to have inappropriate attention about?! To grasp at the permanence of?! There is nothing and no one that we haven’t grasped at, and where has that got us since beginningless time?

The truth will set us free

In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (page 20) Shantideva expresses this beautifully:

And yet my friends will become nothing
And others will also become nothing.
Even I shall become nothing;
Likewise, everything will become nothing.

Just like an experience in a dream,
Everything I now enjoy
Will become a mere recollection,
For what has passed cannot be seen again.

Yeah, you could read this when you are in the throes of attachment and find it a bit depressing or scary – but what is being said is not that we don’t enjoy ourselves and each other moment by moment, but that we stop clinging to things that no longer exist. We need in fact to stop clinging even right now to things that do not exist in the way that they appear to exist, outside our mind, or we will inevitably experience the suffering of separation and loss.

time lapse 1Living in accordance with the reality of impermanence, on the other hand, can bring us nothing but joy and freedom. The truth sets us free.

When he was on his deathbed, aged 100, having been hit by a car on one of his long walks, my grandpa said to my brother:

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

Not abandoning anyone

Someone wrote to me the other day to say that since the death a year ago of her young son she did not feel she had permission to move on as that would be traitorous to his memory; so she was still suffering a great deal. However, it is not very helpful to hold to a painful memory of someone who no longer exists. Embracing change does not mean we forget or abandon the people we loved who are now gone. In a way, it’s the opposite. This is because in fact they are not really gone, they are just somewhere else; so we love them strongly wherever they are, whoever they are, in the present.

Bubbles

I was in Cheesman Park the other day, along with some fellow park-goers, enjoying a show of gigantic soap bubbles. When each big beautiful bubble burst, I didn’t hear anyone groan, “Awww! I was enjoying that! The bubble’s gone!” I didn’t hear anyone speculate, “I wonder what bubble she will create in ten minutes time?”, completely missing out on the bubble she was creating now. I also didn’t overhear anyone distractedly saying, “Do you remember that bubble she made a little while back, that was cool/ugly.” No, we were all just enjoying the bubbles in the present as they arose and almost immediately evaporated. Why? Because we know the nature of bubbles, and their beauty is not divorced from their impermanence. This can be the same for everything if we familiarize ourself with the momentary nature of all things.

When a bubble is burst, what is left? Is it the same basic bubble that transforms? No, the bubble has gone completely. Rousseau for Donna 4So we can spend our time dwelling on past bubbles we have blown, those lovely or traumatic soap bubbles I blew a couple of weeks ago; or worrying about the soap bubbles we might blow in the future — what if it is too small? what will my friends think of me? Or we can get with subtle impermanence and enjoy the bubble we are blowing now.

There’s a difference between me and a soap bubble, surely?!

However old we are, we are no more permanent than a soap bubble. We are just as fleeting. Some things seem to last longer than others — mountains and the sky for example — but they are still just as momentary, completely new. The 100,000 year-old rocks in the Science Museum may seem more permanent, but we are seeing them newly in each moment, and they are as fleeting/changing as anything else. It’s just that related to our life span they may seem to last longer. 100,000 year-old rocks can appear in dreams too, with a seemingly eternal past and rock solid future; but how long are dreams?

Continued here.

Over to you. Comments and feedback very welcome :-)

Who do you want to be when you die? ~ rebirth part 6

ripples from one drop of water

to see the world in a drop of dewWhen we gain insight into the continuum of our mind — and that death is the permanent separation of the mind and the body, not the death of consciousness — this realization expands our horizons and is very joyful, liberating.

People say that they don’t want to think about death, “I don’t want to think about leaving everything!” But we won’t even notice that we’ve left everything! Do you even notice that last night’s dream has come and gone? Do any of you miss last week’s dream? Do any of you miss any of your past lives at the moment? Attachment is all about, “I’ve got to keep having it, I’ll not be happy without it.” But as soon as attachment has gone, there’s nothing there to hang on to — it’s gone and we’ve forgotten it.

We all want to be happy and free from suffering, all the time. In which case, the only thing to do is to train the mind. Tweaking this body is a fool’s game — no matter how much Botox we inject into this thing, it is not going to last. It’s not going to look any prettier as we get older. It’s not going to serve us any better as time goes by. Despite years and years of devotion to our body – giving it pizza, washing it countless times, worrying about its slightest wrinkles, spending days and weeks (if you add it up) in front of the mirror, lugging it around all day, buying it expensive plane tickets – our body will betray us in the end.

Our body is an object of so much inappropriate attention. So much attachment, so much aversion, so much self cherishing, so much angst, worry, obsession, and time wasted goes into just thinking about these bodies. At the end of the day this body completely lets us down, becoming an inanimate lump of flesh that others cannot wait to get rid of. If we are relating to our body as ourselves, what does that make us – a lump of meat?!

Shantideva

Shantideva

As Shantideva, a great Indian Master who never minced his words, said, we are not so different to an animated corpse. Why is my body animated right now? When I die it will just be laying there and people will go, “Yuck.” When someone we have loved for 50 years dies, and we see them lying there, we know it is not them, at that point it is obvious. Why? Because they have gone. The body they inhabited is there the same as when they were alive, but it is now missing an essential ingredient. What animates the body? It is awareness, it is consciousness, it is life. When we die, this body that we invest so much energy and angst into, becomes “What was all that about?!” So much wasted time.

I’m not suggesting you all stop showering, by the way — we look after our body, of course, but rather as an ambulance driver looks after his ambulance the best he can, even when it is the worse for wear, seeing this body as a vehicle in which we can make a lot of spiritual progress and help others.

There is a powerful parallel scene in the movie Schindler’s List that has always struck me as the Bodhisattva way to look after our own body. Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth are both grooming themselves meticulously for a party, preparing to impress. But Goeth is seething with pride and self-absorption, whereas Schindler is making himself presentable with the view only to save others.

At the moment our mind and body are connected. Our body is like our vehicle or, if you like, our overcoat, so we need to keep it healthy and presentable; but it’s not where the real action is. Infinitely more important is the life of our mind.

Also, don’t take this to mean that you have to always forget that your body is there! It will remind us often enough. I’m talking about not relating to the body out of inappropriate attention and delusions that come from identifying with it as being who we are, when it is only part of who we are. As it inevitably gets older, and the bodies around it get older, we will experience nothing but loss and suffering for example, if we exaggerate its importance. We can enjoy it and its sense pleasures without grasping. We can learn not to cling so tightly to it when it is sick. We don’t need to worry so much about what others think when they look at our body.  This is a work in progress but starts with the recognition that we are not just bodies.

If we understand the nature of consciousness then we really get a sense of who we are. Then we get a sense of who we can become.

seeds are no small thingAs we go through the teachings of the Lamrim, or the stages of the path, we start off with this special initial scope, setting our sights beyond the vanishing appearances of this life, thinking about countless future lives. Within this we also understand karma, that everything we do resonates into the future as seeds and potentials carried in our consciousness from life to life, the only luggage we are going to take with us. Therefore, we need to practice pure behavior and pack the causes for happiness, not suffering, for our future lives.

As we journey further along the path, we understand that we need to be in a state where we never taken any uncontrolled rebirth ever again. We start thinking about the problems of our delusions and particularly how to get rid of our ignorance, which is what is keeping us trapped in the uncontrolled cycle of life. At this point we are identifying with a being of intermediate scope, or middling scope. That is who we are.

We don’t stop there. Thinking,

“I am just one person, one traveler. Everybody is a traveler forced to cycle through death, bardo, and rebirth over and over again. My friends my dog, everybody is caught and I need to help them.”

Our samsara's cagemind gets even bigger. Our sense of being, of self, of who we are, is growing bigger and bigger. Geshe Kelsang uses this word “growing” – we grow from a being of initial scope, to middling scope, to great scope, namely the Mahayana. We become a Bodhisattva, literally an “enlightenment being” – someone who has decided to realize their complete potential for enlightenment so that they can guide all the other travelers to the same state.

So that’s the spiritual path. It all hinges on our understanding of who we are, which in turn hinges on our understanding of what life is, which in turn hinges on our understanding of our own beginningless and endless consciousness.

(This is the last part of the articles on rebirth — all of them can be found together here.)

Time traveler ~ rebirth part 5

recycle wasted time
recycle wasted time

A few days ago I was in the English Lake District, walking in Tarn Haws, contemplating water flow – sometimes gushing fast down a waterfall, sometimes collecting briefly in pools created by rocks in the river, but always, always moving. Even in the stillest parts of the stream, the water did not remain the same even for a moment. Our consciousness too may pool in one world for a time, with the relatively superficial swirls and eddies of change — perhaps we will move around, or change friends, or raise a family, or advance in our careers, or retire. But one day it will inexorably exit through the rocks to move on.

We deny impermanence at great cost to our peace of mind. If we do not go with the flow – if we think our current companions and infrastructure are moreorless permanent and the be all and end all of our life, thus investing us and them with self-grasping ignorance, attachment, aversion – it’s like trying to stay the water of a river. As Heraclitus put it, we can’t step in the same river twice. In fact he said we cannot step in the same river once – but, either way, living within an understanding of impermanence is vital to our spiritual and emotional well-being. Our mind is a constant flow, a constant becoming. We need to purify and transform our river-like mental continuum in the now – immersing it in the Dharma of compassion and wisdom. Mixing it with the blessings of the Guru, Buddhas, and Sangha, with their mental continuum, flowing into the vast and profound ocean of bliss and emptiness.

So, that is what I was thinking as I watched the river flow. I recommend that walk in Tarn Haws sometime :-)

Expanding the mindkill time injure eternity

At any given moment, we are a being who is identified with this time traveler — that is our sense of who we are. Through coming to understand the continuum of our mind and that it is our life, as explained in these articles, this particular human life we have now becomes very meaningful.

Sometimes when people hear about future lives and how important it is to work for their happiness, they assume that this one short life is not important, that happiness must be deferred. But this is not true – this life becomes immensely important because we understand that it is a crucial part of this journey, in which we can prepare for the entire journey ahead. If we want to be happy in the future, we need to learn to be happy now. And we currently have all the conditions we need for spiritual practice. We have all obstacles out of our way. If we want to purify, liberate our mind, and so on, we can do so as much as we want with this precious human life. This is not the case with everyone — not everyone has this opportunity that we have right now. These conditions are very temporary, but at the moment we have them.

Our sights expand. If you have spent your life living in a castle, even a big one, and have never been outside, and one dawn you go up to the keep and peek your head over the parapets, you may think, “I never knew! There is a vast world out there!” I think that these meditations on the nature and function of the mind, on death and impermanence, on rebirth, on the cycle of consciousness, the cycle of life — these meditations are the dawning of spiritual awareness.

Geshe Kelsang, my Spiritual Guide, has said that we grow when we develop these understandings. We grow from what is called a “small initial scope being” to a “special initial scope being”. This means that our “being”, or who we are, has grown as our understanding and capacity has increased.

you grow to heavenTo explain a little … within Transform Your Life, for example, is contained all the stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim for short), the whole journey to enlightenment with all its increasing scopes of growing capacity. The first scope is called “initial scope”. Within initial scope are small initial scope and special initial scope. Small initial scope is where we’re at before we start getting interested in the continuum of consciousness, who we are, where we’re going, where we came from — we’re just interested in the things of this life. That’s who we are, that’s what we want, that’s all we are coping with.

Then, through understanding these teachings of Buddha, we grow from a small initial scope being to a special initial scope being, which means we have become someone who is actually interested in spiritual awareness and spiritual development. We are no long just stuck inside the castle, but looking over the parapets and seeing the vast wonder of the continuum of mind and its possibilities. Our mind is opening. Our awareness is expanding and we start getting interested in spiritual training.

Right now everything depends upon our mind, whether we are sad, happy, non-deluded, deluded, etc. Tomorrow everything is still going to depend upon our mind; next week it’s the same story. In ten years’ time our life is going to entirely depend upon our mind, just as it does today. When we die our life is still going to depend upon our mind. In the intermediate state, in our next life, everything is still going to be created by our mind and dependent upon our mind. Now if that’s the case, small problem filling mindif our mind is of such profound importance, is in fact the creator of everything, indeed it is our life, then it makes a lot of sense to realize its full potential through spiritual practice.

If we think that our mind is just our body, if we never explore these things and never meditate on them and never come to understand them, then there does not seem to be a huge incentive to practice a spiritual path. Then we’re just a lump of lard. If it’s just the things of this life that are important to us, then we sell ourselves incredibly short.

Sixth and final installment is here.

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.

Part 5 is here.

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?! Part 3 is here.

A storm on Belleair Beach

struck by lightning

When I first met Phyllis Kalinowski, she was already dead.

She had a hole above her left eye, where she had just been struck by lightning.

And, lightning notwithstanding, I had just been intending to stroll along that beach and swim in that ocean. Instead, I crouched by her and did transference of consciousness (powa) until the first responders arrived. Phyllis Kalinowski struck by lightning

This is a beach I have never been on before. It was several miles from where I normally swim. We only chanced upon it because there was a big storm. When we were walking onto our normal beach, everyone else was walking off it, even though it wasn’t raining yet; and two women warned us rather sternly: “Don’t go out there.” So we didn’t, as they seemed to us like Tara. But still we felt strangely impelled to drive around looking for another beach, and it looked a bit less dark and thunderous further south.

You can probably tell from my wandering around in a storm that I always assumed the whole “you can get struck by lightning” thing was grossly exaggerated. But, as one of the first responders told me:

“It happens all the time around here.”

The most dangerous time is before the rain starts – once you’re wet, the lightning apparently glances off you.

Nowhere is safe. Phyllis was feet away from the idyllic Gulf of Mexico where, like us, she clearly thought she could get away with a stroll. She wasn’t yet headed toward shelter – and she unfortunately happened to be the highest lightning conductor on the beach. She had fallen flat on her face. Her friend, finding her like that, turned her over onto her back. Then, I imagine, her friend screamed – and when we first saw her she was hurrying away as fast as she could, wailing. She was being comforted by an older stranger, and I was wondering at the incongruity of someone dressed in a swimsuit on a beautiful beach being this stricken. Why did she go to the beach in the first place if she was this distraught? And, if something had upset her since she got to the beach, what could it possibly have been? Seeing us approach, she said in an odd echo, “You don’t want to go down there!”, but then said not another word as the woman led her away.

We expected to see something as we walked over the sand bank, but we were not expecting Phyllis. Another stranger, a man, had offered to guard the body while waiting for the first responders. He looked very uncomfortable and stood at some distance away. Other than that, no one else was on the beach. I felt very sorry for Phyllis – her friend was hysterical and this man clearly didn’t want to be there. She needed some peace around her, so we went close to her to meditate and pray.

Her arms and hands were flung out, relaxed. Despite the big hole in it, her face did not look scared. It must have been instant death. Mysteriously, her sunglasses had not fallen off. This did not look like someone asleep though. Her consciousness had clearly departed, hopefully through her upper chakras, leaving just her flesh. There is literally all the difference in the world between a dead body and a live one. I could tell from her face that she was not much older than me. According to the news reports the following day, she was 51. Her body had strong tan lines so I assumed she was a Florida native – it turned out she came from Brandon and had gone to the beach that day with her old friend to shell and swim.

Phyllis 2

These guys came after the first responders to take the body away.

The flashing lights and sirens heralded the approach of the first responders. They felt her pulse, nothing. She was already cool to the touch. They opened her eyelids, and her eyes “looking” at me were hazel brown and quite, quite unseeing. They cut her swimsuit off, with a view to restarting her heart. This is nothing she was expecting when she woke up that morning. It was nothing she was expecting even twenty minutes earlier. The indignity of her flesh, cherished and guarded throughout her life, now laid bare; I looked away then. Their efforts did no good anyway, she was still dead. They covered her with a yellow plastic sheet. Professional, swift — they were used to dead bodies, this much was clear, though a couple of the younger paramedics couldn’t disguise a look of surprise when they first saw her wound. 

Karma strikes again

Phyllis and us had the karma to be on that beach at (almost) the same time. How did we come to this moment? We clearly had some connection with her—strange, fleeting, but hopefully helpful as it led to a transference of consciousness and many prayers being made. When and how did we meet in the past? How did she create the causes to have so many Buddhists praying for her?

According to all the papers and news shows, Phyllis was a great person. “She was just wonderful, she was so giving to everybody’. “Those who knew the wife and mother of two described her as an energetic, outgoing and compassionate woman.”

Do you ever wonder why we have chance meetings, and what is their meaning? How many people are there in our karmic circle, whom we share life with every day – 5, 10, 20, 100? How many family members, friends, and colleagues? Then how many millions of people do we meet for one minute or two minutes during the course of our lives, nodding at each other on the street, or having a momentary conversation about something that may or may not be meaningful to both of us? Yet at the same time we have entwined karma and a deep connection with each one of them, dating back lifetimes.

Our meetings, however brief, need never be superficial or insignificant. There is always something positive we can do with our mind when others cross our path. As P said on Tuesday, as we watched the people walk by in Liverpool One, “People-watching is so meaningful if you use Dharma!” There is a beautiful verse in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Therefore, in whatever I do,
I will never cause harm to others;
And whenever anyone encounters me,
May it never be meaningless for them.

I am so sad for Phyllis and her family and friends, but I am glad we were there that surreal day. She helped me deepen my experience of the truth of Dharma and I hope, thanks to the Buddhas and other friends, that I was of some use to her.

Brief encounters

A lot of people saw my Facebook posting about Phyllis and were praying for her even before her strange death hit the news the following morning.

Oscar the kitten in Kadampa LifeThat same evening, my first foster kitten Oscar died of FIP, just over a year old. I coincidentally had the chance to say goodbye to him when I arrived at Orlando airport a week earlier, as his mum and dad live nearby. Oscar was a beautiful little fellow inside and out and no cat could ever want a more perfect, loving home, so it was very sad. Oscar however created the causes for many Facebook friends to care and pray for him too. 

A few days later, Dianne Elliott also died, of a heart attack that was not unexpected given years of poor health, but sudden nonetheless. Dianne was a long-term Buddhist practitioner and a beloved woman, and her funeral (in Barrow last Wednesday) was by far the best one I have ever been to. Although she will be very missed, I think we all felt she had gone to the Pure Land, in keeping with her foremost and most constant wish:

At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines, and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ Quick Path to Great Bliss

DianneI first met Dianne in Florida too, but we go back many years and share many experiences and good friends, and so the connection is clear. The day before her death, oddly enough, I had ridden her old bicycle and driven past her old apartment, and was thinking of her. I heard the news by text message, but most people heard about her death within hours of it being posted on Facebook, and powas and prayers were made for her worldwide.

A week later, little Losang Tenpa died. Although he had spent his whole short life in Nepal and India, there were hundreds of Westerners who loved him, rooted for him, and prayed for him. All this also through the collective karma of Facebook, where big Losang Tenpa posted moving accounts of the last few hopeful, heroic months and then his sudden, tragic passing. Good article about it here, on the Heart of Compassion blog. 

Collective karma

Facebook seems to have increased the number of daily encounters we can make — friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, or the people (including animals) whom we are asked to help and pray for every day… (It seems everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to Facebook…)

All in all I find that Facebook can be pretty meaningful–or as meaningful as I want it to be–if I log on to increase my love, Losang Tenpacompassion, and sense of connectedness with a wide world web of living beings. Though it can of course be a huge exercise in distraction, it seems in some ways to be the result of good collective speech karma. Dianne’s husband said he felt a bit strange about announcing his wife’s death on Facebook, but the fact is he knew it would do the trick. When I die, I hope to have the good karma to be posted on Facebook too. It is through Facebook, after all, that thousands of people were able to tune in and make strong prayers for Dianne, Phyllis, little Tenpa, and Oscar, within short days or even just hours of their unscheduled departures from this life.

Related articles

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

A temple for this place and time

Preparing for the Pure Land

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?

Please share these articles if you find any of them helpful, on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever (there are some useful buttons for doing this below).

Preparing for the Pure Land

the best way to get to heaven

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

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

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

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

Our conversations

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

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

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

Me: Where do you think that is?

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

Me: Are you feeling a bit vague about this?

Sue: I suppose I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some background information

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

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

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

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

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