What am I so attached to?

emptiness take care of the housework
emptiness take care of the housework

Fire of wisdom?!

Back in this article I was surmising that the reason we don’t go for a realization of emptiness more passionately seems to be because we are so attached to inherently existent things, particularly if they appear nice. That seems to me to be our deep laziness of attachment. There’s a contemplation I do to combat it, so I’ll share it here in case it is of some practical use to you.

(1)    First of all, I ask myself, “What or whom am I most attached to at the moment?” Then I ask myself, “Do I want this person or enjoyment to be real?”

For example, if you’ve fallen in love with someone, do you like the idea of them really being there, existing from their own side, ready at any moment to send you flowers and texts? Or really waiting there for you at the train station, really wanting to see you, really making plans with you, etc.? Or not?!

Sure, it is nice to meditate on the emptiness of difficult conditions like annoying co-workers and ageing bodies, but is it so nice to dissolve our loved ones away into emptiness, to realize they are mere projections of our own mind with no power from their own side to make us happy!? And what about that delicious pizza that’s just been delivered, or that show we’ve really been looking forward to watching  this weekend; what is so fun about those not existing from their own side?

And, in any case, what’s the alternative to inherently existent or real things?! If we get rid of those, what do we actually have left to enjoy?

Anyway, these are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves. And if we’re honest, we might have to reply that we do want our objects of attachment to be at least a bit real.

(2)    So then I ask myself, what is so wrong with wanting nice things to be real? It seems innocuous enough.

Which is why we need renunciation, or non-attachment, from knowing the faults of attachment. Without this, we’ll never get around to realizing emptiness, even if we’re an intellectual giant.

What is wrong with attachment?

Attachment does not make us happy either now or in future lives. As Geshe Kelsang says in his new book How to Understand the Mind:

“It is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.”

There are a gazillion things wrong with attachment to inherently existent things, and at this point in my meditation I think of some of these, specifically relating them to whatever is my current object of attachment. For example …

attachment vs loveReal nice things and people seem to be over there while real me seems to over here, trying desperately to pull them toward me, to keep them with me, to stop them from getting away. With attachment, we feel moreorless bereft or on the verge of being bereft in every moment. It is impossible to get enough of our objects of attachment – if they send us roses and say I love you one day, we’re happy for a moment, but then we wonder why they don’t do it again the next day, or even the next hour. Perhaps it’s because they no longer love us?! But we need them to! If we set ourselves up in need for reassurance, no one can ever possibly reassure us enough. Attachment causes our mind to become like a yo yo of excitement and nerves when it is reciprocated, and makes us feel like attention-seeking idiots when it is not. Attachment is a desperately insecure state of being. It gives us zero control over our mind. It burdens people the world over. It has done this since beginningless time. We have set ourselves up in need through our own deluded thought processes or inappropriate attention. We have given away the key to our own happiness — now dependent on the behaviors of others or the freshness of the cupcakes. Why we may wonder are serials or on-going TV shows now so much more popular than movies? Perhaps because we can never get enough of the storyline, we need it to go on and on, generally feeling cheated in the last episode.

We can’t be happy with our objects of attachment out of the underlying anxiety that they’re about to end or leave us, and we can’t be happy without them as we miss them, feel hollow, out of sorts. In short, we can’t be happy with attachment at all.

With attachment, it is hard to stay in sync with another person for very long. It is love that puts us on the same wavelength, not attachment.

“Attachment is the principal cause of dissatisfaction. It never causes contentment, only restlessness and discontent.” ~ How to Understand the Mind

Attachment puts our life on hold. Look around at people not suffering from strong attachment right now who are just getting on with having lives, concentrating on whatever it is they are doing without having to watch the clock or feverishly tap into their smartphones every 10 minutes in hope for a sign of reassurance or affirmation from their beloved. Without attachment, and if they have love and wisdom, not only are they having a life, but they’re having a good life, even a great one. And we can too if we recognize that the pain or dissatisfaction or fragility or uncertainty we feel come not from a lover or a lack of a lover, a place/home or lack of one, a job/position or lack of one, etc, but only from our attachment to these. We don’t need it.

functioning adult attachment in BuddhismAnd our attachment, or uncontrolled desire, also causes us to act in odd, sometimes undignified ways that lead to future suffering too. We desperately seek to fulfill our wishes day after day, week after week, year after year, and life after life but, like the donkey chasing the carrot on the stick, we never quite succeed. And in the meantime we create a lot of bad karma, including the karma to continue to feel separated from beautiful things.

Moreover, we are not making any effort to escape while we are attached to the objects of self-grasping ignorance–inherently existent things. And, given that we’re attached to many nice real things, this is clearly sticking us down to samsara. Ignorance for sure is what traps us in the prison of samsara, but attachment is like the chains binding us to the wall.

Emptiness is naturally beautiful

Ironically, we think we want real things, but in fact what we are attached to are the hallucinations of our self-grasping ignorance. Inherently existent things don’t exist at all. How can being attached to an hallucination ever work out for us? It is, as Geshe Kelsang says, like chasing a mirage, desperate for its water. If we want reality, we need to understand that the true nature of all things is emptiness – that’s the only reality. And, as it says in Vajrayogini Tantra, emptiness is naturally beautiful.meditation and reality

Empty things and people seem to be naturally beautiful too. We can enjoy anything endlessly if we realize that it’s the nature of our own mind, mere name, mere imputation. That full satisfaction, union, or non-duality is infinitely preferable to the gulf that inevitably separates us from all those nice inherently existent things. Not always grasping, which is inevitably accompanied by some kind of tension in the mind – a tension we are sometimes not even aware of until we are not grasping and it blissfully disappears. And it feels so good to be in control of our own happiness, not dependent on the vagaries of hallucinations.

(3)    So, all that being said, I prefer to have non-attachment for inherently existent objects and the self-grasping ignorance that apprehends them. This non-attachment itself is renunciation. We are already relatively free.

(4)    So, how can I be completely free from self-grasping (and its deceptive objects)? By slicing it with the sword of the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence, which is its direct antidote. Therefore, I’m going to practice wisdom today and every day. Nothing exists from its own side. Enjoy without grasping.

(5)    I then try to come up with a practical plan to remember to practice wisdom in all the remaining hours of the day. And one of the most fruitful ways is to notice when attachment is arising, be aware of its painful nature, and let that remind me!

old machineryWe were at the Science Museum in London recently and saw a lot of huge industrial machinery down the ages, accompanied by tales of sweat, effort, and immensely hard labor. It was reminiscent for me that a lot of heavy cranking of metal is required to try and get real things to work for us. We toil very diligently to get the external world to cooperate, we spend most of our days doing that. But it seems that life becomes a whole lot less hard work if we can also remember that everything is mere projection of mind. Rather than get the results we seek by tinkering around with the projection, which is as much an exercise in futility as trying to move the frames around on a movie screen, we are better off fixing the projector itself.

Postscript: Nothing wrong with being in love

BTW, there is nothing wrong with being in love. It’d be nice to be in love with everyone! Love is great. Attachment is a delusion whose only function is to harm us, so don’t be alarmed that you’ll lose anything special by letting it go. We can transform our relationships through Buddha’s teachings on the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra so that we can keep and increase the love, the passion, the bliss, and keep and transform even the desire … but jettison the attachment.

Over to you … What ideas do you have for doing this?

Essential issues for consideration in a study of world religions

cropped-denver-airport.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you feeling? Musings on karma continued…

karma painting

(You may want to read this article first to get up to scratch. I’ve divided the article up into two parts to make it easier to read in a coffee break.)

Feelings

Going back to the discussion in the last article, as there are three types of object, there are three types of feeling that experience these objects – pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings.

“It is impossible to cognize an object without experiencing it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.” ~ Understanding the Mind

photo 3Feeling that things are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is part and parcel of living beings’ subjective experience, whether we are a baby, an old person, an animal… Right now my cat is pursuing pleasant feelings by trying to get real comfy on the sofa next to me, with a choice view of the birds outside — birds who luckily are safe right now from experiencing unpleasant feelings to do with his murderous paws, the “same” paws that give me the warm fuzzies.

Again, if you check your own feelings or experiences, have you ever had a feeling that is not pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad) or neutral? Even during your dreams?!

So why, if my friend and I are both given a bowl of Haagen Daaz’s vanilla ice cream, does he experience it to be yummy whereas I would have preferred chips? It is mainly due to our karma. Understanding the Mind says:

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma.

Karma gives rise to all our pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Feelings and experiences are the same. In other words, all our feelings or experiences come from karma, which are the intentions or mental actions we created in the past. Pleasant feelings come from positive actions, unpleasant feelings from negative actions, and neutral feelings from neutral actions. Pleasantness and unpleasantness do not exist from the side of the object, but depend entirely on our karma. Therefore, as it says in Understanding the Mind:

Two people might eat the same food and one find it delicious while the other thinks it is revolting. 

Milarepa

Have you heard of Milarepa? He was one of the most beloved Tibetan saints or yogis because he gained incredible, deep realizations, in fact actual enlightenment, and then sang beautiful songs of realization that became known and sung throughout Tibet. There were no CD players back then, let alone MP3s or Spotify, so these songs passed down orally through the ages and he became very famous. He lived many years ago (1452-1507).

Milarepa's caveMilarepa spent many years in retreat as an ascetic living in caves and isolated places. Wherever he went, it seemed there would be an abundance of nettles. (These are a green plant with stingy bits on their leaves, and there are, arguably, way too many of them in the English countryside.) One famous fact about Milarepa is that he ate these nettles. He was miles away from anywhere and so he’d have nettle soup, nettle tea, nettle sandwiches… (maybe not, no bread). For him, nettles utterly nourished his body and sustained his spiritual practice. He ate so many nettles that he turned green. But he was perfectly healthy.

So Geshe Kelsang once asked how anyone living on nettles could be healthy? It would appear to be impossible. Frankly, even though, as mentioned, there are plenty of nettles in England, if I had to live on them I would not be healthy. I would be complaining vociferously; this would not be a 5-star hotel in my opinion. Milarepa was living in a 5-star hotel because everything he needed was in those nettles. Geshe Kelsang explained that this was the ripened karma of his practice of generosity, which meant that he had everything he needed to sustain his life and spiritual practice.

We can share a similar set of external conditions and yet have radically different experiences. Our karma does not ripen, therefore, as external conditions, so much as our experiences of those conditions. Whether those experiences are good or bad depends on whether our karma is good or bad. For Milarepa, eating nettles was good karma ripening – he was nourished by them and able to gain profound spiritual attainments, and even being green proved to be no problem. For me, having to eat nettles would be horrible karma ripening as I haven’t created that same karma of generosity. This is one example Geshe Kelsang uses to show how the quality of our experience doesn’t depend on the object but on our previous karma.

We can do something, everything, about causes, but once an effect is ripening it is too late to change it. Therefore, it is futile to run after pleasant feelings with attachment or to try to avoid unpleasant feelings through aversion. We need either to enjoy the pleasant feeling without attachment, or be patient with the unpleasant feeling. If we want to create the life we want, we have to pay more attention to improving the numerous intentions or karmic causes we are creating on a daily basis than to our ripened feelings.

(Funnily enough, just after writing that last paragraph I went to a nearby greengrocer to buy some fruit. On the way back I overheard a young man advise his girlfriend: “You should do the right thing, even if it seems a bit inconvenient and doesn’t immediately deliver you results.” Apropos, I thought.)

Back to the case in point, the blue bike …. 

karma paintingWas it F’s karma, as technically the bike had been given to him by N, or was it N’s karma? And if so, what kind of karma – good, bad, or neutral? My guess is that N won’t give a hoot, unless he gives into nostalgia for the fun in the sun he used to have with that bike when he lived here (and that in turn would depend on him finding out about his old bike, which may never happen). Some might argue that it was no longer even his bike, so all his karma related to that bike has gone. I don’t know if that is true or not. For example, if I give my cat away and then something happens to the cat, will I or will I not be experiencing the ripening of karma?

Also, F probably won’t give a hoot because (1) he never gives much of a hoot about anything; and (2) it is not directly affecting him as he has moved to New York. But any neutral feelings he may have are still the result of neutral karma ripening.

Was it my other friend’s karma, then, the person who always used the bike? He professed to feeling a “little disappointed” and, although he quickly got over it, one could argue that the unpleasant feeling was a result of some negative karma ripening, even if he didn’t own the bike. Or else, as he managed quickly to overcome his disappointment and be very positive again, was it good karma ripening overall?!

Or was it my karma, as the custodian and lender of the bikes? And if so, given my relative calm on discovering its theft, was it neutral, good, or bad karma ripening!? And what exactly did I or the others all do for this to happen? And did we do it at the same or at different times?!

As for the person who stole the bike, well, I can’t judge his karma because I have no idea of his intention, and karma depends entirely on intention. He might have needed the bike to go visit his mother on her deathbed, for all I know. We figured he probably needed it a lot more than we did, so we mentally gave it to him, which protected him from incurring the full karma of stealing and created good karma for more bikes to come our way later. In fact, the very next day we sold our old car for a couple hundred more dollars than we were expecting, and were able to go ahead and buy another bike!

See, karma is a curious thing! It is far from being fatalistic or simplistic but is a constantly changing, complex play of causes and effects. The immensely mind-boggling interdependence of all conventional appearances hinges on karma, individual and collective. Karma is the other side of the coin from ultimate truth, the emptiness (lack of inherent existence) of all phenomena.

Keep it simple

karma 5Still, however much fun we can have discussing whose karma and what kind of karma it all is, when it comes to actually observing the law of karma on a daily basis it helps to keep it simple. When I want to put good into the world, that’s what I’ll get out, one way or another. Same for my bad and neutral intentions. We can understand the general principles of karma (such as explained in Joyful Path) and leave most of the detailed, subtle stuff for once we’ve fully realized the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth. At that point we’ll be omniscient and can see exactly which actions lead to which effects while simultaneously seeing their emptiness.

I learned a couple more interesting things from this bike situation, which I might as well share now.

No bike 

When we first came off the beach, we both saw it, a rather significant absence, a space where the bike had been. “No bike!” In the meditation on emptiness, we are also seeking a significant absence — lack of inherent existence. That absence is filled with rather cosmic meaning. It means that nothing exists from its own side, so nothing is fixed, and everything depends entirely on the mind. As the great Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible.

Perspective = reality

While I was using the restroom before our long walk home, my friend happened upon a police aide and mentioned the theft of the bike. He was a jovial elderly Mid-Westerner with a moustache, who drove his blue and white cart up and down the beach all day, just waiting to help people like us, so he took it more seriously than we expected and called it in. Another police aide, his boss, a young friendly Latino turned up, and we chatted about all sorts of things while we waited the hour for the actual police officer to show.

Why didn’t they show sooner? Because they had things like murder and home break-ins to deal with – it seems fair enough. In fact, just as I was wondering whether I should perhaps be a bit more upset about the theft of this fine $700 bike, a crackling message came over the first police aide’s radio: “Woman distressed, male intruder in her house, over.” Yikes. Then this police aide told us that just the previous day his son, a police officer, had been called to a homicide – the victim had been shot in the back of the head for the $400 drug money he had just collected from the shooter.

The theft of our bike and the prospect of the long walk back home were becoming less and less significant the longer we hung out with our friends in blue, and indeed we were beginning to feel really rather lucky! If perspective can change in the light of other thoughts and/or events, it shows there is no “real” situation out there to begin with.

The kindness of strangers

Yet despite our trifling complaint, the police were still attentive and courteous to us, as if they had nothing better to do, and this in turn reminded me of the kindness of strangers and increased my love. So, all in all, a good day’s meditation work …

Postscript: I wrote this article months ago, and, apart from the Buddhism in it, pretty much all my personal circumstances have changed since then, showing the unpredictable nature of karma and how you never know what karma is going to ripen next.

Over to you: Have you been in any situations recently that particularly reminded you of karma and/or emptiness?

Where is that sound coming from?

Chisato Kusunoki reflection

Chisato Kusunoki reflectionA couple of weeks ago, in London, N and I were invited to a piano recital by an old friend of my parents, who is sponsoring the Japanese pianist Chisato Kusunoki. The elegantly attired audience were seated casually around tables in a dark and stylish lounge, though actually we were in the new (by London theatre standards) St. James Theatre; and Kusonoki’s virtuoso performance included works by Bach, Schumann, Medtner, Moszkowski, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff.

So, as you can see, I am a very cultured person ;-) But the real reason I am writing this is that the performance reminded me of the story of Sadaprarudita told in Heart of Wisdom, and how his teacher Dharmodgata explained emptiness to him using sound as a basis.

The Times said about Kusonoki’s performance: ‘wonderfully fleet and supple fingers, quick to locate the music’s inner voices, able to dapple and perfume.’ I don’t even know what that means, but I like it! Still, how are her fingers able to ‘locate’ the music?! How are they able to produce it? Where is it?

Chisato Kusunoki meditation pianoTo me, it sounded as if she had at least 20 fingers, there was so much noise coming from the piano, or wherever it was coming from, or, for that matter, ending up. But I could never point to the music even if I tried. Perhaps I could try pointing at it, but where would I start? I could point at her left forefinger, or her thumb, or the thumping key of the piano reflected in its shiny lid, or the waving of her elegant hands over the keyboard, or the smile on her face perhaps reflecting her inner enjoyment or astonishing creative memory, or to the composer’s mind, or the microphone, or the sound waves, or my ears, or the space traveled between the piano and the audience’s ears, or our ear consciousness (if it was physical), or… . For the music to appear to our mind, all these components, and more, are essential. Not one of them individually is the music, and yet take even one away and the music vanishes.

Where does each note come from? And where does each note go? What is that space between the notes? Where did one note end and the next begin? Trying to figure this out in St. James Theatre led me into a lovely reverie on the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of the music. The music was not ‘out there’ anywhere.

There is no real coming or going

Each elaborate piece was imputed on a stream of sounds, each sound coming from nowhere and going nowhere in order for the next sound to arise, and our minds imputing some kind of continuum on that, to end up with the haunting mellifluence of Chopin’s Nocturnes or the grandiosity of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. (Ha ha, that’ll have to do for description, I’m not paid to be a music critic. You’ll have to read the fancy reviews for that. I watched a bit of Strictly Come Dancing for the first time yesterday evening and was mainly astounded by the florid verbosity with which the judges described each dance. I could just about come up with ‘That’s nice!’) But the point is, we describe a ‘thing’ as if it were really out there being a thing, we try so hard to label it and itemize it and make it even more of a ‘thing’ — when in fact it came from nowhere and went nowhere, and is completely empty of existing out there or from its own side.

rainbow and meditation on emptinessOn the train down from Liverpool yesterday there was a rainbow appearing out of the space of the sky. The reason it was appearing to me was because of the atmospheric conditions and the position of me, the observer. One moment of rainbow only appeared to cause the next moment of rainbow; that continuum was only imputed by mind. Moment by moment the rainbow was arising in dependence upon causes and conditions that were NOT it. So although it seemed as if the rainbow had a continuum from its own side, each moment of rainbow giving rise to the next moment of rainbow, that seeming continuum was projected only by my mind – in truth, each moment of the rainbow was appearing newly in dependence upon other causes, such as the sun and the moisture and me sitting in the train. None of these things was the rainbow, yet remove one and the rainbow would vanish. It is the same for the music. It is the same for EVERYTHING, even mountains and stars, even you and me. There is no inherently existent coming and going. We impute or project continuity on things with our mind, like perceiving countless still frames of a movie and projecting on them movement.

Where is everything?!

Dharmodgata asked Sadaprarudita:

Where does the sound of the lute come from and where does it go to? Does it come from the strings, from within the lute, from the fingers of the player, from his effort to play, or from elsewhere? And when the sound has stopped, where does it go?

Because Kusonoki’s music depends on things outside itself for its existence, it is empty of inherent, or independent, existence and is a mere imputation or projection of the mind. You cannot find it existing anywhere outside the mind, however hard you try. If you cannot find something existing outside the mind, or from its own side, you can know it doesn’t exist there. For example, we cannot find a dream existing outside the mind or from its own side, so we know it doesn’t exist there. So, where does a dream exist? Where does music exist? Where does anything exist?

Chisato Kusunoki

Where does she keep that vast memory?!

The power of effort and concentration

Everything depends upon the mind. Including of course, as N said during the interval, Kusonoki’s impressive mind. How amazing, he said, that she had managed to memorize every note of the composition and play it flawlessly for over two hours, oftentimes with her eyes closed. The sound flowed effortlessly from her fingertips (or wherever!); she didn’t need to ‘think’ it, more just ‘be’ it. It also made us think how, with familiarity, something beautiful that in reality has taken a great deal of effort and practice become entirely spontaneous and effortless – just like cherishing others or meditating on emptiness if we do it enough. Practice indeed makes perfect. Plus she was enjoying herself so much, even though we knew (from what her sponsor confided to my mother) that she had a head cold. Concentration gets us to this state of effortlessness too, reminding me of one of my favorite TS Eliot quotes:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

A virtuous spiral

Although music is empty of inherent existence, it can still appear in dependence upon many causes and conditions and, when they cease, it can no longer appear. Therefore, there is nothing solid or objective about music – it is a manifestation of its emptiness, with no more concrete existence than yesterday’s rainbow appearing from the empty sky.

Understanding this makes listening to music all the more beautiful and blissful. And in general, the more blissful the mind, the more blissful the music becomes, proving again that the object depends on the mind. (Even without necessarily contemplating emptiness, I could tell that as the audience gradually got into the music, becoming more concentrated and relaxed, they enjoyed the music more and so it sounded better, even though it hadn’t improved from its own side.)

Emptiness and bliss in fact go together very well, like water mixed with water, enhancing each other in a virtuous spiral. But that’ll have to be the subject for another day.

At the end, I thanked Chisato Kusunoki, and said I hoped she’d be able to bring the joy of her music to many thousands of people. She smiled enigmatically. I made a secret prayer that everyone who listens to her accomplishes the realization of bliss and emptiness, and therewith complete mental freedom.

Meanwhile, to test this out for yourself, please do an experiment if you can: next time you listen to music, see if you can find it, and report back.

How meditation overcomes negative thoughts and emotions

how to get rid of delusions

A bit more on the subject of delusions and how to get rid of them.

Nothing is as it seems

If it is true that

“The things we normally perceive do not exist”

it means that nothing is really out there, and everything is free of being real and fixed. This means we can change everything by changing our mind. As Nagarjuna says:

“For whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible.”

If we fall into the trap of thinking that the causes of our problems are out there — independent of our perceiving consciousness, existing from their own side — it’ll make us focus all our time and energy into solving them out there; when all this time it has been the delusions inside our own mind that are actually wrecking our happiness.

the things we normally see do not exist

Things are not as chunky as they seem.

Meditation is designed to tackle these enemies within, having understood that we’re not doomed to suffer from their attacks forever, unless of course we do nothing about them. They’ll never go quietly away forever on their own – but if we learn what they are, how they function, and how they arise, we can identify and get rid of every last one of them.

Delusions are just thoughts; we don’t have to let them rule us forever. They are not an intrinsic part of our mind — they are like clouds in the vastness of our sky-like mind, which will not manifest without the appropriate atmospheric conditions. So, devastating as they can be when they do arise, they’re not here to stay, any more than Superstorm Sandy stuck around. If they were a permanent and intrinsic part of our mind, we might as well just curl up in a ball and give up. But we know that even without doing anything about them our delusions come and go. This explains why right now you probably don’t feel like yelling at anyone, but the conditions could come together and then you might, only to get over that and regret it later. Or why you are lovesick today but will probably feel pretty cheerful again later. delusions

This is why we can say “Time heals”. Of course, if we do do something about our delusions, time heals a darned lot faster.

Making positive habits stick

Wisdom realizing that things don’t exist from their own side is the ultimate antidote to all delusions, and each delusion also has its own temporary opponent. Love, for example, is the opponent to hatred, giving is the opponent to miserliness, patience is the opponent to anger, non-attachment is the opponent to attachment, humility is the opponent to pride, rejoicing is the opponent to jealousy, and so on. Every deluded mind has an opposite, positive, peaceful mind, and to the extent that we become familiar with that, to that extent we are opposing our deluded mind. That’s what meditation is, familiarizing our mind with positivity, both on and off a meditation seat. We build up positive habits of mind to directly oppose our negative habits of mind, and over time we make these positive habits stick. We are reducing the overwhelming waves of painful thoughts in samsara’s ocean to small manageable ripples.

i want to change the worldSay for example you want to decrease your dislike, irritation, intolerance, etc — the whole cluster of delusions associated with the inner enemy of hatred. Well, first of all you could identify the mind of hatred, see what’s wrong with it, see how it’s causing you and people around you to act and suffer, and in this way develop the determination and will power to get rid of it. You can then meditate on its opponent, which is love — finding others likeable, holding them dear, wishing them to be happy.

As human beings, we are uniquely able to do this. Rousseau, the Russian Blue, has of late been coexisting peaceably with Monkey, the Bengal Tiger, much to we humans’ relief. These cats are both adolescent alpha males who were at each other’s throats so regularly that Monkey’s parents and I had to come up with a schedule of when they could each go out. (For those of you who say they should stay inside, you may be right, and I tried it, but it was like living with a caged panther, actually in the cage…) Anyway, of late our schedule was set aside as the two cats have been seen lying near each other on the same sidewalk, even looking at each other without growling, an uneasy but welcome truce settling on the neighborhood.

meditation overcomes negative thoughts and emotions

Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

Yet two days ago I was once again forced out of my house with my water gun (range 25 feet!) when I heard the awful noise of two cats fighting. The water gun was not even sufficient this time – I had to wade in there and pull them apart. Monkey had narrowly missed scratching Rousseau’s eyes out, those same eyes that I find so beautiful and want to preserve, because he hated Rousseau at that moment due to the cloud-like delusion obscuring his mind. Who knows what exactly provoked them on this occasion, but I’d be prepared to bet that their reaction was over the top with inappropriate attention, not worth losing one’s eyes over, let alone one’s life. Later that evening I read about the latest fighting in some part of the world – one day young men neighbors on the sidewalk, the next day tearing at each others’ throats, the next day (or year) regretting it.

If, unlike Rousseau and Monkey, we generate the mind of tolerance and love through contemplating and meditating on instructions we have heard, and then hold that love at our heart and familiarize ourselves with it, it’s like turning up a dimmer switch in our mind. As we increase the light of our love, automatically the darkness of our hatred diminishes because they are polar opposites – they cannot both arise in the mind at the same time.

how to get rid of delusionsSo creating the atmosphere of love inside the mind means that hatred cannot get a foothold. That bad habit starts to get weaker and weaker through lack of use, and that good habit of love becomes stronger and stronger through the power of our mindfulness and our concentration. As we gain familiarity with it, it becomes more natural and more powerful, and sticks with us for longer and longer periods of time. We find that in situations that would have aggravated us before, instead of an automatic, uncontrolled response of dislike, we respond with liking, and then love. This really does happen.

Check out this Onion article for a great example of inappropriate attention :-)

There is no boogey man under the bed

realizing emptiness of the self we normally see

self-grasping ignorance destroyed by wisdom realizing emptiness According to Buddha, the way to attain true and lasting mental freedom is to realize ultimate truth, emptiness. What does this mean? We have to stop what binds us to suffering — our self-grasping, which is a deep ignorance grasping at a real or inherently existent self in objects and people, including ourself. We do this by cultivating a wisdom that realizes the lack (or emptiness) of inherent existence of everything that exists.

All that can sound a bit complicated or technical, but over the last few decades Geshe Kelsang has been making Buddhism more and more accessible to Westerners, and a few years ago I believe he put a realization of emptiness within reach of many people with the surprisingly simple but radical description:

The things we normally see do not exist.

This includes ourself. He also says:

The self we normally see does not exist.

That’s because the self we normally see or perceive is the inherently existent self. But it is also the self we normally perceive, the living, breathing, neurotic, sad, or happy “me” of any given moment, ie, it is not some abstract concept. “The inherently existent self” can be harder for us to get our heads around, it can feel a bit theoretical.

The mere absence of the self we normally see is the way our self actually exists. The self we normally perceive, grasp at, and cherish does not exist at all. The non-existence of the self we normally grasp at is the emptiness of our self, the true nature of our self.

(This is not the same as saying that the self does not exist at all. Emptiness is not nothingness. Things do exist as mere imputations or projections of the mind, like objects in a dream.)

Who are you?

The first thing to do when meditating on the emptiness of our self is to identify the object of negation, which means we have to figure out what it is exactly that does not exist – what is the inherently existent self as seen in our own experience, not in an abstract way, and how are we grasping at it.

Before Geshe Kelsang came up with his brilliant way of describing it, it was only too easy to be theoretical rather than practical about it.

For example, after receiving my first teaching over 30 years ago on identifying the inherently existent self based on the instructions in Meaningful to Behold, the resident teacher asked us to describe what we thought it was. The instructions had been good and entirely accurate, but it was hard to equate these with the self that I normally relate to, and nor did I really know I was supposed to. The self is a slippery thing when you try to pin it down, and when, as advised, you try to think about how it would look if it was inherently existent, it is only too easy to start making things up. Nonetheless, in meditation I thought I had found what might be it, so I put my hand up. Although it took longer than a sentence to describe, more like a rambling paragraph or two, this was the jist of what I said:

“If I think about it, my “self” feels like something in my heart, like something small, dark, and solid.”

Not the right answer. My teacher replied: “So, you’re a piece of coal?”

realizing emptiness of the self we normally seeIt may sound daft, but I know from talking to many people over the years that they too basically make up the negated object, and then try to realize its non-existence, which means they don’t end up focusing on emptiness at all. Then meditation on emptiness is no fun and doesn’t feel liberating, and they prefer to stick with seemingly easier meditation practices instead. If you find this happening to you, it probably means you have not yet identified the self you normally perceive clearly enough to get rid of it in meditation. In traditional parlance, you have not found the target, so any arrows of logic you shoot toward it, however sophisticated, will miss their mark.

It’s easier than you think

What I think is that once you have identified the self you normally perceive, the rest of the meditation on emptiness is not hard at all – with even just one or two considerations, such as trying to find it, you can see that it does not exist. This understanding is wisdom, and directly opposes self-grasping. It is exceedingly liberating, and on the spot pulls the rug out from under a host of regular, everyday problems coming from self-grasping (and also self-cherishing, which piggy-backs on self-grasping). Do this meditation enough — let the non-existence of the self you normally see become clearer and clearer — and in time you will dissolve away all your own samsara, which after all is only a product of your own self-grasping and self-cherishing.

Ocean of Nectar teachings at KMC NYCIt is my go to meditation when things come up (which is daily). Without any personal experience of seeing that the self we normally grasp at does not exist, teachings on emptiness can sound to us like dry, arid, logical arguments at a remove from our everyday reality, even though they are not. But when you do get it right, there is nothing better. And you can get it right early on, avoiding the mistakes many early students made before we had it explained in ways that were much easier for us to understand. Once you get it right, all the teachings you hear on emptiness, however seemingly complicated (such as those on Ocean of Nectar currently being received by those lucky students in New York City) are like butter soaking into hot toast. They click. They enhance our existing experience in very profound and exciting ways.

When Geshe Kelsang wrote Modern Buddhism, he proffered some encouragement to read the chapter on realizing emptiness:

I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta.” Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.

I personally think there is no better chapter to read on emptiness, and hope you get a chance to read it lots of times, each time getting more out of it. The book is a free gift from the author.

Turn on the light

While we’re on the subject, I just wanted to say something more about how much Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of Kadam Dharma, stressed identifying the negated object, using our conceptual mind, as opposed to finding liberation by stopping conceptual thoughts altogether. realizing the lack of the self we normally see with Je Tsongkhapa's reasoning

If you think there is a boogey man under your bed, how are you going to overcome your fear of it? The only really effective way is to turn on the light and see if the boogey man is really there. It might take a bit of courage, but when you discover an absence of boogey man, you can really relax. You have to start with an idea of what you are looking for, and how it makes you feel, or you won’t know when you haven’t found him and have that incredible relief.

If instead you decide to stop thinking about anything at all in order to overcome your fear of the boogeyman, you’ll gain a temporary release from fear at most. But you’ll never be convinced he isn’t under the bed still – as soon as conceptual thoughts arise again, so will your fear.

This is why the Kadampas emphasize Nagarjuna’s view over other views that suggest meditation is just the absence of conceptual thought.

Turning on the light of wisdom by meditating on the emptiness of ourself, we see the absence of the boogey man “self” we normally see – we will see that it doesn’t exist at all, not under the bed nor anywhere else. If we do this over and over, we will gain more and more freedoms from the deep habit we have of grasping onto the boogey man self. It is like turning up the light in our room brighter and brighter until we cannot fail to see with our very own eyes, directly and vividly, how that boogey man simply is not there. Then all our samsaric fears shrivel up, never to return.

Is Heaven real?

Heaven is Real Newsweek October 2012

Heaven is Real Newsweek October 2012Scanning the magazine rack at LaGuardia, wondering whether I could be bothered to buy anything to read, I spotted Newsweek’s announcement: “Heaven is Real.” I snapped it up. This out of left field article was too tempting a contrast to the politicking of this election season, and the general Us and Them unrest around the world. Judging by the thousands of comments online, the article is provoking strong reactions, as I daresay Newsweek predicted it would. For some, it is a breakthrough – an eminent man of science, brain science no less, saying that he now has proof of heaven (the name of his book) and the existence of consciousness beyond the brain. For others, it is annoyingly unscientific; the guy was clearly tripping out and has no proof whatsoever of anything, and they are cancelling their subscription forthwith. Here’s an example:

“It’s all a bunch of anecdotal malarkey. The only difference between this article and all the same BS I’ve heard from other people that believe in mythological deities is that this guy used the word “cortex” more frequently.”

For me, I read it on the plane above the clouds, and found it both fascinating and utterly unsurprising. I couldn’t help scribbling in the margins of my magazine, as Buddha had a great deal to say on the subject of the nature and types of consciousness and its relationship to the body, the survival of consciousness after death, the existence of different realms and what and where these are, the existence of divine beings and what and where these are, the ontological status of ourselves and our world, and so on. He taught all these to show that there is a path to freedom and happiness, and, like everything else, it begins and ends in the mind.

By relaying some of my scribbles here, I’m hoping to provoke your thoughts and experiences on the subject in the comments below, as I can be by no means exhaustive on the subject (exhausting, maybe! It has ended up longer than I anticipated! I’m now realizing it was an ambitious topic for one blog post, so I’m breaking it into 2 parts …)

The story

In 2008 the neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander contracted a rare bacterial meningitis and his entire cortex shut down.

“For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline…. There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in a coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well.”

He then describes journey full of very peaceful, non-dualistic, and cosmic appearances, the like of which he cannot recall ever experiencing before.

“According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”

I suppose I want to look at this from two angles – from the point of view of the object, or what is appearing to the mind, and from the point of view of the subject, the mind itself.

So, is heaven real?

the best way to get to heaven is to take it with youThat depends on what we mean by real. (And, I guess, what we mean by heaven!) Perhaps it’s better to ask “Does heaven exist?” It is not real in the sense that it is findable or inherently existent, independent of the mind. We cannot go visit it some place outside the mind. But appearances of peace, goodness, and bliss etc do exist as projections of a peaceful, good, and blissful mind.

Some terminology: in Buddhism we talk about six realms of samsara, and the highest of these are the god realms, sometimes called heavenly realms. We can create the necessary concentration and good or virtuous karma to be reborn as a god (though it is in point of fact more useful from a spiritual point of view to be reborn as a human.) If we are reborn as a god, although we have some lovely heavenly experiences while the rebirth lasts, we are not permanently free from suffering, and will once again take rebirth in painful realms.

Pure Lands exist outside of samsara and are not subject to samsara’s rules. Once we have purified our mind sufficiently, we are permanently free because we no longer have the delusions and negative karma that throw up our suffering. I wrote an article about Pure Lands here.

However, both the god realms and the Pure Lands are equally projections of mind, like illusions, like dreams. So is our current life, for that matter.

I came across this expression once, and have found it very helpful:

I am not in the world; the world is in me.

I add to that the fact that I too do not exist from my own side, any more than the world does.

Heaven and hell worldwide

heaven and hell are projections of our mindA majority of cultures and religions have concepts of heaven and hell. Is this all a bizarre coincidence? Or could there be something to it? Dr. Alexander is by no means the first person to have had this kind of blissful experience–while awake, or dreaming, or having a near-death experience–or the first person to talk about it. He says himself:

“I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history.”

Skeptics may put these experiences and resultant beliefs down to a massive collective hallucination. In a way they are right, because all of us are always hallucinating to a greater or lesser extent for as long as things keep appearing to exist from their own side, independent of our mind, and especially when we grasp at those appearances as reality. But whose hallucination is more “accurate” or non-deceptive – someone experiencing an ordinary, mundane world full of problems and a crunchy sense of duality, or someone experiencing heavenly beings, love, and communion?

My grandfather was a skeptical man of science too until he had some experiences that changed everything for him. I wrote about that here. Someone very close to both me and my grandfather emailed me a fortnight ago about her cataract operation:

“During the op it was v. beautiful as I think I was in heaven – I was in the most beautiful white, silver coloured clouds floating in eternity, quite amazing.  It was either heaven or it might have been Mars as I had heard on the radio on Monday that US scientists have sent some scientific equipment into space to land on Mars for a breakthrough research project.”

After we have had such experiences, we can conceive of them in different ways, depending on our belief systems, backgrounds, and so on. As Mike Hume said on Facebook about Dr. A:

“He is seemingly interpreting his experiences from a Christian perspective, despite the fact that he has stated he has never really believed in God. I guess this isn’t surprising, though. I think if he had investigated other ideas and concepts of mind and consciousness he might have interpreted it differently.”

But if we have these experiences and appearances, it shows they are possible, doesn’t it?! If these three people’s stream of consciousness is capable of experiencing such joy and peace once, who is to say they do not have the potential for experiencing something similar for a very long period of time again in the future, even forever? And would that not be some kind of heaven?

Cautionary tale

We also have the potential or karma for a great deal more suffering, which we need to take steps to purify and remove. A friend messaged me on Facebook:

“I worked in hospice during my graduate studies and there was more than one person who had horrible, horrible appearances at the approach of death. One elderly woman had burning bedsores and hallucinations, and she kept screaming for Grandmother to put out the fire on her body shortly before she went unconscious before death. I prayed hard for her not to die with that mind and take rebirth in a hell realm. So looking at the two sides of people’s experiences I find hope AND a cautionary tale.”

Not testable?

If people ask for physical, scientific proof of heaven (or hell), they may not get it, as science does not use the right tools for measuring the dimension of non-physical mind, and in fact has a self-confessed “problem” over what consciousness even is. Particle physics is now pointing the way to a non-objective universe, however, some modern scientists agreeing that there may be no objectively testable universe.

Jason Mandella says on Facebook:

“Science can assert that consciousness is merely a product of activity in the brain, and it can measure and predict that brain activity accurately with various instruments and practices. But it cannot “explain” lived, conscious experience: what is the nature of it? As Michael, Duane and Pawo are suggesting, Buddhist practice starts from the lived experience of consciousness. Living meditation masters from Buddha to now, present instructions which can be practiced by us. We verify from our own experience if what is being presented is true. That sounds like a science of consciousness to me. Does it need to be validated by conventional science if its working? Not that I have gotten much further than setting up the laboratory; but I have a little faith and some good reasons–like any scientist.”

Clearly, it is hard to do any fact-checking on Newsweek’s article! I don’t think Dr. A’s experience proves that heaven exists objectively. It doesn’t prove any universal truth “out there”. Dr.’s experience was subjective. Kelsang Lekpa says on Facebook, and I agree:

“His spiritual experience doesn’t prove one bit that an actual physical heaven or hell – exactly as he describes it – exists outside of his brain, after death.”

And:

“If I dream of unicorns, does it make them real?”

But what his experience does indicate is that anything can appear to mind.

we project our world with our mindsIt is subjective – would I have those exact experiences in similar circumstances? Probably not. My thoughts might not even be blissful to begin with – if negative karma is ripening, I could experience hell. My appearances will depend on my own thoughts and karma — I will project a different movie, which may or may not share some of the same elements. Appearances are infinite. Due to emptiness, anything can appear. If everything is a projection of mind, and nothing exists objectively or from its own side, it stands to reason that we can project anything, and we do. We have already had infinite projections in life after life since beginningless time (there is no beginning or end to our consciousness.)

When I read this, it reminded me that there are different levels of consciousness and that what we experience depends entirely upon our own mind; in fact experience IS mind. The Mahayana Buddhist goal is to remove all delusions and dualistic appearances from the mind through wisdom and perfect all good qualities through compassion. My wisdom and compassion already exist as part of my Buddha nature, I feel that my main job in life is just to increase these each day until I attain enlightenment. Unlike the random, chance encounter Dr. A had with his own potential for peace and bliss, not easily replicable unless he contracts meningitis again, through spiritual practices we will one day be able to experience bliss continuously at will, and appear or project whatever we want to our minds. If we are prepared to put in the time and training, these results are replicable, and have been replicated by countless meditators including Buddha and many of his followers.

As Robert Thomas said on Facebook:

“For me this account, whilst meaningful for the individual concerned, and others, adds nothing by way of proof. Even the Prof’s conviction that all this occurred whilst his cerebral cortex was inactive is impossible to verify. I prefer to rely on the accounts and insights of accomplished mind trainers who approach the more and more subtle levels of consciousness whilst maintaining mindfulness and clear discrimination.”

And as Mike Hume put it:

“I hope that I can have similarly vivid experiences through meditation, rather than having to nearly die.”

If you asked me to replicate the results of an experiment proving the existence of quarks, say, I would be hard put to do it as I do not have anywhere near the necessary training or experience. Similarly, without the necessary mental training and experience it is hard for each of us individually to replicate the results of generating at will a blissful, non-dual mind mixed inseparably with the ultimate nature of phenomena to prove that it exists. But I trust quantum physicists that quarks exist and have a function in my universe, and I also trust Buddha and his followers that these profound states of mind exist and have a function in my universe.

(In the mind of bliss and emptiness, we can find true commonality (as opposed to objectivity). But that can be left for another discussion on another day.)

Part Two of this article: “Moving from the head to the heart
Part Three of this article: “Relaxing in your heart”

Over to you!

A Temple for this place and time

New York city meditation KMC NYC

I have been in New York City for the last ten days, on the occasion of attending the city Temple opening for Kadampa Meditation Center NYC and the North Eastern Dharma Celebration in upstate New York.

The new Buddhist Temple in Chelsea is a three-dimensional peace-space, refuge from the busy streets and lives outside. An enormous

Buddha Shakyamuni and Tara at KMC NYC

Buddha Shakyamuni and Tara

Buddha Shakyamuni seems to float in mid-sky, surrounded by the most ethereal looking statues I have yet seen in the New Kadampa Tradition. I loved seeing a blissful Great Mother Prajnaparamita next to a knowing, smiling Tara. There are a lot of women in this city, and a lot who attend the Buddhist center, and it seems timely and inspiring to have these female enlightened beings in pride of place, perfect role models both.

I love being in New York City. It keeps me on my toes. New York is full of intelligent, creative people who actively decided to come here. I don’t always get that sense in other places I’ve lived and visited – people perhaps end up there by accident, or because their communities and families are there, or because they are relatively content with their lifestyle, or because they have not got a sufficiently strong desire to get up and move away. In New York, it seems people are dedicatedly pursuing their dreams. People come here to ride the formidable energy, but the challenge can be a loss of a sense of privacy or space.

New York and samsara and meditationIn a way, although people everywhere are trying to get a foothold in samsara, in New York many seem to be attempting an ascent of the entire mountain. They have come here to do just that, to become masters of their universes, or at least scale greater heights, harnessing their often formidable intelligence, creativity, energy, or modern derring-do. How, this has been making me wonder, do New Yorkers interested in Buddhism most skillfully relate to and use the teachings on renunciation, on giving up on samsara? (I’m still getting to the bottom of this – so, New Yorkers, please tell me what you do in the comments.)

Waves of humanity

I have been really enjoying practicing Dharma in New York this week, particularly trying to unite the wisdom practice of seeing the wave upon wave of humanity (and their dogs) as mere appearances to my mind, with no depth other than their emptiness, with the method practice of understanding that I have a long, rich, deep history with each and every one of them that goes back through countless lives. According to Buddhism, they are not inherently friends, enemies, or New York city scene and KMC NYC templestrangers – what they are depends on how I look at them, and there are many ways to do this, some helpful, some not. One helpful way of looking is to remember that they have all been my own caring mother, another is to understand that they are always exactly the same as me in wishing to experience happiness and freedom so we have a lot in common. I have microseconds to develop a connection of love and/or wisdom with the people I pass or see, before they are gone – in Florida I like to contemplate the ocean waves of impermanence, here it is the people waves. If I don’t succeed in using those precious seconds — distracted by what they are wearing perhaps, or buying into their apparently alien differences — whoof, they’ve disappeared, and I remain surrounded by anonymous strangers.

Right now, for example, in 56th street below this apartment there is an ear-splittingly loud revving of Harley Davidsons as thousands of people with red and white flags take to 5th and 6th Avenues to celebrate Polska Day, hundreds of whom seem to be on motorbikes. Now there is loud Polish music pounding in through the windows, even though I’m on the fifth floor. We’re having a Polish PARTY!! So, today, how do I feel connected to an anonymous Pole on a Harley? How much do we have in common? It is so easy to see how, without a concerted effort to view each person, not just the mess of humanity, through the lens of love or wisdom, people can end up feeling most isolated in the places where there are the most people. But with a little bit of effort, the opportunities to make spiritual progress around here are as endless as the lovable human beings coming and going all around us all the time.Polska Day NYC Buddhism and meditation

On my way in on the bus from La Guardia last week, I sat next to a young actress who was returning to New York from San Diego for a wedding. She was excited to be home. Just as we were driving up 37th Street, she pointed at (to me) a total stranger crossing in front of our bus, and exclaimed: “I know that girl! I was at school with her!” She was beaming as she turned to me and said: “What are the chances of that?!” She felt connected, I could see it in her eyes, even though her friend had come and gone already; and the remembrance made her happy. Later on the subway, I thought that it would be wonderful if we could have that happy shock of recognition of the past we share with all coincidental strangers, including the Coptic Christian sitting next to me absorbed in a religious book, and the woman with two young children sitting opposite.

It’s a start

Last Wednesday I climbed eagerly onto a half-empty car on a full subway, only to smell why people had moved swiftly on up the carriage wrinkling their noses. There was a poor woman bent over herself, head between her knees. She had soiled herself and seemed to be attempting to rock herself into some comfort. Throughout the ride I wondered what to do, how I could help her, where I could take her. I am still wondering. Sometimes, practically, it is really hard to know what to do, and that can cause an inertia not wanting to do anything, just wanting to move on up the carriage. But I could still start somewhere, mentally at least, by sitting as close to her as I could stomach, and trying to put myself in her shoes by using the contemplations on equalizing and exchanging self with others and taking and giving, the kinds of things taught at the new Temple. There is always something I can do, and even and especially if it did not seem enough at the time, it incentivized me to hurry up along my spiritual path to Tara’s enlightened state.New York city meditation KMC NYC

Super samsara, super nirvana

The beautiful new temple seems to be entirely in the right place at the right time, a symbol of modern Buddhism. “Super samsara, super nirvana”, I once heard a Buddhist Lama say. This city thinks big, so, by New Yorkers learning to transform its world-renowned, energetic activity into ever-increasing compassion and wisdom, I think amazing things might be on the verge of happening and spilling out to other places.

Next time you come to New York, try this for me. Take a square block and walk around it, and see how many people are still there by the time you get back to the beginning and start to walk around it again. It feels like it is changing at the speed of a dream and, guess what, maybe it is a dream? And, guess what, even slower-paced places may be a dream too. Even the quietest suburb in middle America may be a dream. A good friend of mine says there is nowhere he feels closer to the dream-like nature of phenomena than in the Big Apple. Its very speed reveals its impermanence, and its impermanence reveals its emptiness. Hence, in all the potential claustrophobia, there is only space, and therefore, paradoxically, being in the middle of 8 million people living on a rock is where he feels at greatest peace.

Life is stranger than fiction

water bubble and reflection

On a recent Saturday evening, I was invited to the birthday party of a dear old friend, a party filled with amiable characters from all parts of the world.

Among me and my friends were S the ebullient New Ager, J her elegant French mom, I the dear Danish healer, H the kind Texan host, A the Dutch retiree with a twinkle in her eye, P her mischievous ex-Nato husband, I the calm Floridian Braille teacher and observer, B the liberal Unity churchman, C the cheerful Puerto Rican grandmother, and L the British Buddhist. We ate lots of tasty food, conversed loudly, sang happy birthday twice, watched the space station go by outside in the sky 17,000 whole miles away, got tipsy on champagne or sugar, and laughed a lot. And only one person texted the whole evening, as far as I could tell, perhaps because the youngest person there was 43.

A few scene snippets: S is talking animatedly about her recent trip to the Philippines and her shock at returning to affluent white man’s land where people cannot distinguish between ‘needing’ and ‘wanting’. She makes a good point, and also adds that unfortunately the shock is fading fast. Elderly P asks her what she does, and S replies, “I cannot answer such an old world question. I can make up an answer if you like.” He volunteers that he also spent time in the Philippines and when I ask him “what did YOU do?” he replies straight-faced, “The usual. I was a hired killer.” I’ve only just met him; I have no idea if he is pulling my leg. Then his wife sings for us a Brazilian song in a strong Dutch accent, after which the conversation turns to chelation and why brown rice (the main thing I eat!) is now bad for you, and the differences between Europe and America (in Europe people have more acquaintances, in America more friends, but are they really the same thing?), and some safe conversation about grandchildren. Then we all went our separate ways home and the evening dissolved.

There, with these few words and labels I have given you a tiny bit of a handle on just one of countless Saturday night scenes, but we’ll never find anything behind those labels if we look!

What was really going on that evening?! Who there can say? We can each only describe our experience and these are all bound to be quite different to everyone else’s – we came to the house with our own karmic background, states of mind, discriminations and feelings, which entirely colored, nay, created, the whole evening. Yet we still thought WYSIWYG – what we each saw was what was actually there.

Life is fleeting and empty

However, like a dream, there was nothing really happening at that party. It was merely a dance of fleeting appearances projected by our minds – some appearances collective, e.g. we could all agree there was vegetarian sushi served – but probably most not. It was empty of being ‘real’ – it lacked objective existence. If we check, nothing in any situation exists ‘out there,’ or from its own side.

Everything is mere reflection of the mind, and its only depth is emptiness.

Thoughts about thoughts

While enjoying the party, and in general enjoying life, these thoughts crossed my mind:

(1) It is best not to take refuge in any of it, or believe it too strongly, as there is nothing there to grasp at or be attached to. Instead we can enjoy the mere appearance of it, like a butterfly flitting from one flower to another, and not get more sucked up in our ignorance believing all this to be true.  Toward the end of the evening, the elderly Dutch lady said to me: “I was watching you when you were over there laughing and smiling, and I wanted to come and join you.” Thinking about the dream-like nature of things makes us very happy.

(2) These appearances are pleasant enough right now, but can and will change on a dime. We need to scratch this random dream while we have some control over the projector of our mind, and project a meaningful, blissful world from wisdom and compassion.

(3) The only safe thing to rely on, apart from not getting drawn into appearances, is tolerance, compassion and love because these always work to bring about happiness, and they always create good karma for more pleasant appearances and experiences to manifest in the future. At some point old P says to young S: “You’re weird, and I’m a bit far out, and B is eccentric, and H is OCD, etc., but we still accept each other even if we don’t understand each other.”

S also said that when she doesn’t understand someone, she puts herself in their shoes, but this sometimes has the effect that she finds them totally weird. I reckoned that if she was actually succeeding in putting herself in their shoes she would not be thinking “I am weird” about herself… we rarely do. It is everyone else who is weird.  She agreed. The Tea Party find the liberals weird. The liberals find the Tea Party weird. Jocks find nerds weird. Nerds find jocks weird. Dogs find cats weird. Cats find dogs weird. You name it.

(4) Tread lightly, on our way out of samsara, with renunciation for mistaken appearances and the wish for a completely non-mistaken mind, the mind of bliss and emptiness, and the ability to bring every lovable person in the room and everywhere else to that state. Geshe Kelsang says:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and its function is to bestow mental peace on each and every living being every day. ~ Modern Buddhism, p. 26

To truly overcome ordinary mistaken appearances, our grosser levels of mind have to subside and we have to manifest the very subtle clear light mind by bringing our inner energy winds into our heart chakra (you can find out what all that means in Modern Buddhism if you like.) But even before we have that advanced realization we can feel more in the heart and less ‘all over the place,’ more centered and settled through the practice of decreasing the distractions of all our busy, manic conceptual thoughts and labels. How? All meditations have this as a side effect, and you can use breathing meditation or meditation on the clarity of the mind or OM AH HUM meditation to great effect. A clear, settled mind sees reality more clearly, and deep meanings can soak into it like butter soaking into hot toast.

Life is stranger than fiction

Life IS stranger than fiction because most fiction inevitably pins things down, labels things, creates a narrative from generally just one or a few perspectives. And anything we can imagine in fiction can and does happen in ‘real’ life – as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says, “We can appear anything due to karma.” If we can imagine it, it can appear, because our world begins in conceptual imputation.

You know that song Piano Man by Billy Joel? He sets a vivid scene. If you put any group of people together in a bar or anywhere else you are going to have a situation, a play, sometimes a drama. There is always going to be a story there. But it is important to know that there is nothing there to grasp at, the story is not just highly shifting and impermanent, but also entirely imputed, labeled or made up by all our minds. We can change the story once we understand this; write a better one for ourselves and others.

A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

If you’ve ever made the mistake of sitting through an entire run of the series 24, as I have, you’ll know that it is a lot of sound and fury, as the bard would say, signifying nothing. A whole bunch of delusions are projecting all sorts of weirdness and violence, and the hero Jack Bauer is trying to make sense of it so he can sort it all out. The suspense kills you all the way through, and then it still ends in tears and on a cliff hanger, with most people dead.

I think samsaric life is rather like that – 24 may be a sped up version, but still… we’re addicted to drama, suspense, excitement, action, relief!! I would get up and stroke the cat in the most hairy moments (about every five minutes, the cat didn’t know what had gotten into me), and in the same way in life it is very helpful to settle our minds if we are to cope with all the drama. But that alone is not enough. The end of 24 left me deflated, nothing was resolved – no, and it never can be. Samsara is like that. How extraordinary it would be if we could switch off the projector of our deluded minds, absorb into the clear light of bliss and emptiness, and then project a whole new movie or dream, but one we are in control of this time.

Your comments are welcome! And please share this article if you like it.

Lessons learnt from Thanksgiving 2011

thanksgiving old people

Hello dear reader, I hope you enjoyed giving thanks somewhere yesterday, officially or not…

I had three invitations in the end, so took up the first offer, which was a slap-up meal in the clubhouse at the old people’s mobile home park where my good friends Iben and Harlow live. I say “old”, but anyone who is over 55 can live here, and as I am creeping toward that venerable age myself I might have to revise my notion of it to a “mature (and wise) people’s mobile home park”. Iben has done a top-notch job doing up a second mobile house, previously home/storage to an interesting hoarder I wrote about here, where her son Morten and his girlfriend Julie are staying.

We three turned up a little late after a long bike ride, all mixed up about the time. But we were still welcomed to lots of food and smiles. We discovered that there are several very nice things to be thankful for when being entertained in a mature people’s clubhouse:

I felt so YOUNG! Like, the second youngest person in the whole place! One of only three people without white hair!! This doesn’t happen very often any more. I have a little game I make my same-aged friends play with me, which is to look around the subway carriage/restaurant/street and see how many people are older than us. Often it is no one! Morals from this tale: life goes by astonishingly fast (it feels like I was 30 just a week ago and yet I’ll be old enough to join them all in the twink of an eye!), and old age is relative. Even amongst the white-haired crowd, there was a large enough diversity if you looked carefully enough (I think I rarely do look at groups of old people carefully enough) – some were sitting very still on oxygen, some were charging around socializing, for example.

The food was GREAT and plentiful! Which is what you’d expect from fifty ladies of that generation, who still actually know how to cook. (The elderly gentlemen seemed to be mainly in charge of providing the wine, which added even more jollity and flushed cheeks to an already rather friendly occasion). The food was also FREE! Moral of the tale: kindness of strangers.

We had DESSERT followed by DESSERT! 90 percent of the dishes were sweet: sweet potato, sweet corn, marshmallows and yam, pineapple upside down bake, ten varieties of cranberry sauce … all followed by apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, rice pudding, ice cream, chocolate peppermint brownies, etc. I tried to label or impute “main meal” on my first course, but it wasn’t happening. Even the salad was sweet. So I decided that I’d happily go with dessert followed by more dessert as a special pre-diabetic-coma treat. Moral of the tale: “main course” and “dessert” are mere imputations of the mind with no existence in and of themselves.

from our bike ride

We got an amusing, in-your-face lesson on IMPERMANENCE AND EMPTINESS! Like I said, we were a little late, but we were still not expecting our meal to be cut short in quite the way it was. We were in full-on eating mode, tucking into copious amounts of food, with all the time in the world, when several ladies came to our table and started to hover right over us, leaning across the table to point out their crockery and cutlery. “That’s my plate, do you mind if I take it, you have finished haven’t you?” grabbing at the plate currently supporting Morten’s small mountain of food … Julie diplomatically transferred M’s food onto another side dish nearby, and off his plate was whisked, followed shortly thereafter by Julie’s…. Some more speedy negotiations and re-arrangements on that side of the table, and then they came for me… they wanted my fork mid-bite, so I transferred to another one, but someone else wanted that, so I transferred to a third, and then three rushed mouthfuls later someone else wanted that too, so I realized the game was up. I had clearly eaten enough apple pie for the time being. Meanwhile, Iben transferred her coffee into no fewer than three mugs, ending up with a paper cup to be on the safe side. The food, once spread splendidly all over the table, was now all squashed into an odd assortment of side plates and paper cups, with just a couple of plastic utensils to eat it with! Moral of the tale:We realized the impermanence of all good things, watching everything dissolve away into emptiness before our eyes… (though I’m still waiting for my big belly to dissolve away into emptiness …)

Julie, a film-maker, took many superb pictures of Rousseau

(Careful what you wish for… I just this moment received a text message inviting my cat and me to a late Thanksgiving feast at another friend’s house tonight … not necessarily what I had in mind when I called the last article “Let Every Day be Thanksgiving”! My diet will have to wait…)

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