What’s really going on in New York City?

Halloween 1

Halloween 1We stumbled into a metamorphosized New York on Halloween, a veritable charnel ground, when we decided to watch the parade down in the Village. The altered reality started for me on the subway, people dressed in outlandish costumes and behaving larger than life, but I was not expecting the sheer torrent of ghouls, torture victims, skeletons, Playboy bunnies, Spidermen, Spiderwomen, Clark Kents, bananas, skyscrapers, and slices of pizza with eyes we encountered from the moment we exited a 6th Avenue subway and were herded in some strange dream down the sidewalk by a (genuine) New York cop. I saw another cop standing commandingly on a bench, and flinched as he turned to point his gun at me – turned out to be plastic, of course. (Thought you weren’t allowed to impersonate police officers?!) I saw a homeless person in a doorway – only he turned out to be “real”. I saw someone with folds of flesh hanging from his face – he sadly turned out to be “real” too. So did a couple of dogs, visitors from the animal realm, who were looking around in absolute bewilderment.

Halloween 2But although all appearances are deceptive all the time, sometimes it is even harder than usual to tell what is “real” and what is “pretend”. Wave after wave of vampires, bubbles, jellyfish, cuddly tigers, drag queens, schoolchildren, footballers, skeletons  – the sidewalk every bit as outlandish as the parade. We walked for miles with no let up, Gotham simply teeming with strange creatures, like some kind of Star Trek convention, only weirder. Me and my companion were wearing jeans, woolly hats, thick jerseys, and Patagonia overcoats (it was freezing, though try telling that to the Playboy bunnies and gay prostitutes) – the party-goers were probably guessing we were dressed up (maybe a bit too) convincingly as boring, straight, middle-aged friends from somewhere (anywhere) other than the coolest city on the planet, if they noticed us at all.

There is nothing fixed about us at any time. We tell stories about ourselves to ourselves and then believe them as the gospel truth, even though our sense of self changes from day to day, from hour to hour, and perhaps especially on Halloween, America’s favorite holiday.  So who were these New Yorkers? Who did they think they were for that one night only?! And could you really say that they were the “same” people we saw in their macs and umbrellas the following grey morning? Did they believe their own new identity, or after a few minutes were they having “normal” conversations based on their normal personas, forgetting they were Halloween 6supposed to be the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man? We did witness quite a few arguments, one ballerina screaming, “We were trying to have a good time, and you RUINED it! You ignored me! You are totally different with your friends!” (I wonder whether his friends are also Yetis.) Is she always high-strung, or was she relating to herself as a beautiful but half-starved neurotic dancer?! Is it easier or harder to have a good time in samsara when you are masquerading as some other samsaric being? Or are all worldly appearances deceptive and, sooner or later, painful? Is there happiness to be found as any being in any realm in samsara, from the scary denizens of the hells, to the spirits and ghouls, to the leopards, to the Hollywood royalty? I didn’t see anyone dressed up as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. Now, that might have worked. But I have to say that me and my friend were not finding it too hard in this surreal scene to self-generate as undercover Heruka and Vajrayogini in the charnel grounds of the Tantric mandala, and as a result had a pretty blissful, meaningful evening.

Halloween 3Appearance vs reality, I was thinking (amongst other things). Where were we?! Where are we?! What is really going on? Where is New York? Totally unfindable! The New York of Friday 31st bore no resemblance to the New York of the following morning, but what actually changed? Like a dream, Halloween minds ceased and their appearances simply disappeared, coming from nowhere, going nowhere. Where are you right now? Who are you? There is nothing actually there, which means we can be anyone and we can be anywhere, as long as we don’t grasp at any of it.  When we understand how all conventional truths are created by the mind of self-grasping, as Geshe-la explains in The New Heart of Wisdom, we know not to fully trust our senses or even what our gross conceptual thoughts are telling us. Appearances are deceptive … unless they are appearing as not other than emptiness. We are constantly hallucinating to a greater or lesser degree. We have gross or subtle inappropriate attention going on pretty much 24/7.

Halloween 4For ordinary beings, our minds and their objects deceive us, are more trick than treat. In which case, what can we trust? I think we can trust: faith in the possibility of transcendent, pure worlds, beings, and minds; renunciation for the samsara created by the hallucinatory minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing; compassion for dream-like suffering; love; bodhichitta; the first 5 perfections — any of the so-called “method” practices. We can rely on these states of mind, even more so if we are gradually imbuing them with the wisdom understanding that nothing is really there, meaning that trying to fix things just “out there” is like trying to move objects around in a dream or on a movie screen.

One day our direct realization of appearance and reality as being one truth will mean we can stay single-pointedly absorbed in the ultimate nature of reality while simultaneously emanating countless appearances to help others, vis-a-vis we will have attained enlightenment. But for this to happen, I think now is a good time to understand that the only object Halloween 5which exists exactly as it appears, or in other words is 100%  trustworthy, is the emptiness of inherent existence. (This is the absence of things existing from their own side, as anything more real than dream-like mere appearance.) Moreover, although love is essential, compassion is indispensable, and so on, the only mind we can trust completely is the very subtle mind of clear light, in which all the things we normally see have disappeared and to which emptiness/reality is always appearing.

Halloween in New York reminded me of all this, and how important it is to train and purify my mind, to break through all the phantasms and disguises, until I see the truth directly.

 

Tantra: Transforming enjoyments

pure potential

In this fifth article on Tantra, following on from this one, I’m going to describe a meditation I like to do on transforming my enjoyments into the spiritual path. This method is derived from Buddha’s Tantric principles rather than his Sutra teachings, but anyone can do it – you can do it, and you’re anyone. This is a simple exercise that can be practiced even without an empowerment, and that shows something both profound and liberating: we have the power within us to generate bliss. We don’t need another person, a physical act, or any external object to create it. pure potential

Why? Because our mind is naturally peaceful. It is only our delusions and distractions that prevent us from experiencing this. As it says in Introduction to Buddhism in the chapter What is Meditation:

When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arise from within.

As our mind becomes subtler and less distracted, as dualistic appearances slowly subside, our mind becomes even more peaceful, nay blissful. The most blissful mind of all is our very subtle mind, our root mind — it is even called “the clear light of bliss”! It is our actual Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment. We cannot access this properly without engaging in profound Highest Yoga Tantra practices, but we can get an idea of it straightaway and start to identify with it.

The meditation

We begin by simply sitting comfortably, getting into a good meditation position, keeping our back straight but not rigid, relaxing our shoulders, and resting our hands in our lap or wherever is comfortable. Our head is tilted a little forward and our eyes lightly closed or, if we prefer, slightly open to allow a little light through our eyelashes. Our mouth is closed, with our tongue resting on the roof of mouth.

We relax into this posture and forget about everything else. We come into the present moment, into the here and the now.

We drop from our head into our heart chakra, the center of our chest, our spiritual heart. We feel our awareness centered there, it is where our root mind is.

Already we are aware of a sense of spaciousness and peace, with less conceptual activity or thoughts.

To overcome our distractions we now think that everything outside our body melts into light and disappears.

Then, like a mist lifting, this light gradually dissolves toward our body into empty space, leaving nothing behind. Everything disappears, including the past and the future, what we did today or have planned for tomorrow.

All that remains is our body suspended in empty space.

Now to relax our body we briefly scan it from head to toes to become aware of any tension, tightness, or indeed pain that we are holding onto. We bring a gentle awareness to these parts.

We think, “I don’t need to hold onto any of this physical stress or tension, I can let it go.” We let all the heaviness fall away from our body, as if we were dropping heavy luggage that we have been carrying around too long.

Every muscle relaxes, our whole body melts into light, with just its merest outline remaining.

We think: “My body is hollow like a rainbow, light as a feather, and so comfortable that I am hardly even aware that it is there.” We enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.

Now we remember that we are in our heart and become aware of the thoughts, sensations, and so on arising from our root mind. There is a constant stream of awareness arising as thoughts, feelings, ideas, images, physical sensations, and so on, and we watch these as they arise and disappear again into the clarity of the mind. We don’t have to follow them, think them, judge them, or react to them in any way — just let them come and go, rise and fall. We enjoy the space oceanbetween our thoughts, and finally feel the thoughts dissolving into the boundless clarity of our root mind, like waves dissolving into a boundless ocean.

We think: “This is my mind. This is where I am happy or sad, wise or confused. This is the source of creativity, the source of all thoughts and other mental activity. This is awareness. This is where everything happens, where everything begins and ends.”

Now we can change the energy of our mind by using our desire or attachment energy. We either remember or imagine the thing we’d most like to be doing right now, bring to mind the thing that would give us the most positive pleasure. This can be a sense pleasure or an internal meditative feeling, it’s up to us. (No one will ask you what it is afterwards :-)) It could be eating pizza, holding someone’s snow in Coloradohand, watching an exquisite sunset, skiing down a mountain, or something more X-rated. (As desire realm beings, we probably have plenty of things to choose from, so choose your favorite!) It could alternatively be a spiritual bliss we are familiar with, such as meditating on love or dissolving a Spiritual Guide or Buddha into our heart. Whatever we know gives us bliss, we remember or imagine it at this point

We notice how the energy of the mind completely changes… our mind is clearer and more relaxed, more alert and concentrated, more awake and blissful. Waves of bliss energy arise in our root mind at our heart.

We allow ourselves to bathe in this bliss energy in our heart.

Then we forget or let go of whatever it was we were imagining or remembering. We let it dissolve away, and focus entirely on the bliss waves, allowing ourselves to bathe in this ocean of bliss energy in our heart.

We feel that this bliss is our root mind at our heart.

If and when the bliss fades, we remember or imagine whatever stimulated it, and then when the bliss comes back we let it go. We can meditate like this for a few minutes.

Buddha Shakyamuni 1(Even if we do not think that we are experiencing much of anything, we still believe or imagine that we are going deeper within, absorbing into a blissful inner peace. Sometimes we just need to believe something for it to actually happen because this belief, if correct, creates the cause for the actual experience. Buddha described this as “bringing the future result into the present path.” Don’t under-estimate the power of conception; with our thoughts we create our world.)

We feel that we are absorbed into an ocean of bliss at our heart, the clear light of bliss. And with this blissful mind we can now understand something very important. This bliss is actually coming from within the mind, not from without. If we have concentration and mindfulness, we could keep this bliss going endlessly. Understanding this, we already have some wisdom.

The other thing we can understand now is that while our mind is blissful, everything appears blissful to it. Everything is a reflection of our mind.

So whatever understanding we have of this, we focus on it for the last few minutes of the meditation.

This bliss at our heart, however slight, shows our potential for limitless bliss and happiness — it is our Buddha nature. When this subtle mind of bliss is mixed with emptiness, the ultimate nature of things, we quickly destroy our ignorance, and other delusions and obstructions. Through this we fully purify our mind and become a Buddha.

Just like Buddha Shakyamuni, whom we can now believe, if we want, is appearing right in front of us. And with a determination quickly to realize our potential for the lasting peace of enlightenment, and understanding too that everyone has this potential, we can, if we like, recite the Liberating Prayer.

More next time on why this meditation is so good.

 

Tantra and attachment

OK magazine

I am just overlooking my neighbor’s magazine, as once again I cross the Atlantic. (You can’t blame me; these US Airways flights don’t have video screens. OR power sources for our gadgets. Seriously! How are we supposed to stay stimulated non-stop for 8 hours?! OK magazineSurely they are not expecting us to rely on our own inner resources or read an old-fashioned book?) An article entitled “Kim and Dan turn up the heat” is followed by a possibly redundant explanation (given the scantily clad beach shots of them stuck together), “It is clear that they are both totally into each other.”  Turning the page (my neighbor, not me), I see this is followed by more articles on the same, “Jamie enjoys a night out with his new girl” and, ahhhh, Chris and Gwyn are reunited! This is OK magazine after all, and meanwhile my neighbor’s daughter is reading Hello magazine, Hello!, and I know they have a couple of other magazines stashed away to tide them over this long flight to Charlotte South Carolina, so this might even solve the lack of entertainment problem providing they don’t notice me. (Might be difficult, I spilt coffee on the mom earlier – she took it well and now we are co-travellers. She can look over my shoulder and read this once she’s exhausted her reading supply.)

this works moisturizer

(It doesn’t really …)

It’s everywhere! Attachment is everywhere! And along with it are the inevitable stories of heartbreak: “Dismayed Will after photo of ex’s kiss in nightclub”, “Is Dan cheating on Camilla?” (Don’t bother googling all this, I made up some names to protect the famous.) On a related subject, “Your anti-wrinkling solution” – we’re all gonna need some of that.  And the lesson never learned, “I’m open to dating again, I am not daunted.” That is, until next time.

Attachment is constant craving for objects we feel we need in order to experience pleasurable feelings. We have to learn to control our attachment or for sure it’ll control us. If we are not careful, we could end up with our whole life gone — spent scheming/fantasizing, indulging, and recovering with nothing to show for it.washing clothes

Buddha identified 3 root or principal delusions that afflict living beings: attachment, anger, and ignorance. He likened getting rid of anger and ignorance from our mind to washing dirt from cloth, and getting rid of attachment to washing oil from cloth because it is so deeply soaked into our minds (although it is still not part of our essential nature). No wonder Buddha also called us humans “desire realm beings” — we never forget our objects of desire.

Attachment therefore is a sticky delusion, and a deeply conditioned bad habit, so how are we going to get unstuck? Luckily Buddha Shakyamuni taught us a very special way to do this … Tantric practice.

Ordinarily, with respect to objects of attachment we are like moths to flames. An object of attraction appears, then, Boom! We want it. Yet most times we can’t have it, or we don’t have it in the way we want it, or it doesn’t deliver the goods, so there’s an instant feeling of agitation in the mind. Ideally, in the world of moths, there’d be a flame education program… “Listen guys, when you next see that bright shiny thing, fly around it and not into it. Discover how to enjoy its warmth and beauty from a safe distance and you’ll be happier – trust me!” Similarly, with Tantric practice, we can learn how to enjoy the mere appearance of attractive things, and use the desire energy they arouse to create blissful satisfied feelings, rather than falling into the flames of attachment, craving, or addiction and experiencing a world of hurt. moths to flames

By indulging our objects of desire, instead of finding satisfaction we ironically stimulate dissatisfaction. Instead of quenching our thirst, we find ourselves ever thirstier. As it says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We may think that if we keep travelling about, we shall eventually find what we want; but even if we were to travel to every place on the globe, and have a new lover in every place, we would still be seeking another place and another lover.

In Buddhist Tantra we discover a way to use our attachment energy to create satisfaction and even bliss. Tantric meditation is like surfing – mastering our desire energy to our best advantage, transforming our enjoyments into the spiritual path. If we do not learn to surf, we will be crushed by the huge ocean waves; but, if we become a skilled surfer, the energy of waves can become a source of bliss and liberation.

surfing life's waves 2In the next article, I’ll explain a straightforward method for transforming enjoyments that is derived from Buddha’s Tantric teachings but does not require an empowerment. This is not a difficult practice. All we’ll need to do is to remember (or imagine) a particularly happy or blissful moment. This can be anywhere or anything – enjoying an idyllic scene, listening to music, being together with a favorite person, or, alternatively, a feeling from a meditation, contemplation or prayer. Anything beautiful and inspiring that makes us happy will work. If we have faith in Buddha, we can dissolve Buddha into our heart and imagine our minds have mixed like water mixing with water, and meditate on the bliss that arises from this. People of other faiths can do something equivalent. Then we will do something interesting – but I won’t spoil the plot …

Till next time!

(This article is the fourth in a series on Tantra. The previous one can be found here.)

 

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!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,534 other followers

%d bloggers like this: