Thank you for being there

noodles

I just finished an Annie Chun’s All Natural Asian Cuisine noodle bowl, bought not inexpensively at the local Whole Pay Packet, I mean Whole Foods (who went and put such a money-sucking store right next to my house?!) It was kind of untasty to tell the truth, seriously it looked nothing like the picture on the packet, but it only took three minutes to make, and has kept me fed for another couple of hours so I have the energy to write this. So far in all the days of my life I have been kept alive by mountains of food already, all provided to me by the kindness of others – at least, I sure didn’t have anything to do with my noodle bowl other than buying it with dollars given to me by others, warming up the water in a kettle provided by others, using water from goodness knows where coming out of a faucet whose plumbing I had zero to do with, and putting it in my mouth (provided by my parents) with a fork manufactured by others. And of course that is just scratching the surface of all the causes and conditions that went into my supposedly “instant” dinner and my ability to eat it.

kindness of others Buddhism

Just in the last ten minutes I have been entirely dependent on others, and I could take any ten minutes in my day and never get to the bottom of it. As Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness, we are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves.

Mountain reflections

Buddhism home is where the heart isI saw a “Colorado Native” bumper sticker recently in the Rockies (where I live now!) Where am I native to, I thought? I seem to be a bit of a nomad. But I think I may be indigenous to the land of others’ kindness. We are all indigenous here. We are born into it naked, with nothing, and then supported by it. It is quite a big world. Can feel at home anywhere if we remember.

I was marveling at the feats of human ingenuity – the roads, tunnels, and bridges carved goodness knows how through the mountains next to the rivers, rocks, and frozen waterfalls, past Glenwood hot springs and the place called No Name, a Starbucks (yee haa!) in every wild west town. I watched the wheels of vehicles rotating on the highway as a moment by moment testimony to other people, each inch of the meeting of tire and asphalt coming from their kindness – I didn’t pay for even an inch of the journey between Denver and Grand Junction.

Buddhism in ColoradoI glanced at the driver – on the surface it looks like a driver is in charge of turning the steering wheel, but in fact the wheel has to turn in dependence upon the curving road, which is entirely dependent on others – not even the coolest driver has any autonomy. Driving, like any of our activities, merely reflects off a vast narrative of causes and conditions, karmic and environmental, just carved into the scene as a whole – the driving in this instance not other than the mountains, and the mountains not other than the drive. So with no inherently existent driving in all that, no findable driving, where is the inherently existent driver? Our constrained and seemingly findable self, whatever we are doing, is just an hallucination of self-grasping and self-cherishing.

These kinds of contemplations on our complete dependence on others and on our environment, which we can do anywhere, help us feel closer to others — more in our heart, and less fixated on a heady, dualistic sense of me and them. (Funny how the more in the heart we are, the more we feel connected with the whole wide world.) They also increase our wisdom understanding emptiness, that nothing exists from its own side.

There was a gold rush out here once. Didn’t amount to much (though I believe they found some silver). But as Buddha pointed out, if we were a pauper living our whole life in a hovel, we’d be pretty delighted if someone showed us that we had a gold mine right beneath our feet. The gold of our Buddha nature has always been inside us, we simply haven’t known. And we can mine these seams of limitless wisdom and compassion through contemplations on the interdependence of ourselves and others.

(As you are probably guessing, I might have had too much time to think on that journey – ten hours in a car, caught in a blizzard, my thoughts meandering along with the winding roads … surely I am practically a native of the Western Land of the Snows myself now?!)

Buddhism and meditation in the Rockies

Is anyone not kind to us?

I think that is what Thanksgiving is about, remembering the kindness of others. I suppose it is customary to remember the kindness of our nearest and dearest as we gather around the laden dining table, but we can also remember the kindness of strangers, and why not even of enemies?

Attentive friends and family are obviously kind to us in ways we can recognize (at least, if we notice in the first place). When we meditate on our dependence on all living beings, we realize that strangers are very kind too, eg, Annie Chun and co, the road and railway company, etc.

What about people who annoy us or even set out deliberately to harm us? They are arguably the kindest of all as they allow us to practice patience and unconditional love, qualities we need for lasting happiness and freedom.

We watched the Life of Atisha in Cascais, Portugal, at the Kadampa Buddhist Fall Festival the other day – a truly insightful script and well executed production directed by the talented Olivier. There was a lot of good acting, but Atisha’s cook arguably stole the show. Atisha took this rude, obnoxious servant all the way with him to Tibet and, when the Tibetans asked him why, replied:

Without this man, there would be no one with whom I could practice patience. He is very kind to me. I need him!

Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

Atisha understood that the only way to fulfill his deepest wish to benefit all living beings was to achieve enlightenment, and that to do this he needed to perfect his patience. For Atisha, his bad-tempered assistant was more precious than material possessions, praise, or any other worldly attainment. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

We don’t need to have a servant to practice patience, there will probably be someone willing to fit the bill amongst our parents, partner, or children over Thanksgiving, or our boss and co-workers back at work next week. If anyone tries to start an argument over the holiday, you could try just playing about with offering them the victory and see what happens. I think it is often not the content of an argument that is the issue (especially when we’ve overeaten and feel grumpy)–it is the emotional luggage and inappropriate attention. Diffuse this and the content can often take care of itself.

Kind just because they’re therekindness of others in Buddhism

Shantideva says that others are kind just because they are other – because they are there, really! If they are there, we can cherish them, and if we cherish them we experience happiness both now and in the future.

As Mark Twain put it:

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

I borrowed a cat this morning, here in Denver, called Bella. She is a cuddly little grey fur ball, who sat on the fire escape crying to be let in my attic window, and then lay peacefully next to my leg as I meditated. In Buddhism, we never meditate alone – we don’t have to have an actual cat (or human) sitting next to us, but we always think we’re surrounded by countless living beings. It takes us out of ourselves, makes the meditation flow better.

kindness of others ShantidevaFor as long as there are people around you, or even just one person, we can be cherishing others and making our life meaningful and happy. Big heart translates into big action. One analogy Geshe Kelsang uses is that even if all we are doing is putting crumbs on a bird table, if we do it with great compassion our action is far more powerfully beneficial than giving a diamond ring to someone out of attachment.

This next bit is old news, and wide rivers have flown under the bridge since then; but it is when I became 100% convinced of the advantages of cherishing others in times of crisis, so I’ll share it. When I was fired from my very enjoyable long-term job several years ago, I relied upon those around me to bring me out of it – not by expecting them to do anything, but simply by serving as my immediate objects of cherishing to take me out of myself, to help me keep moving onward and upward. I would not just survive, in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I was determined to thrive. I remember the moment I received my firing letter. Immediately I had perspective as it was the same morning that my dear friend Trish died of cancer, died most beautifully I might add, with a smile on her face and with the faint euphoric words over the phone the night before: “L, this is all just appearance! Geshe-la is everywhere!” News travels fast, but not that fast, and before she found out another friend came to me in tears of guilt about losing a precious gift a friend had given her, and then another friend came to me in tears seeking advice on how to communicate better with her husband. Later they both said words to the effect: “So sorry to dump on you, I had no idea you’d just been fired!” but they didn’t know they were being the kind ones, allowing me think about others in my hour of need.

Kadampa Buddhism in ColoradoAnd I continued as I meant to go on, deciding that the only way not to go doolally would be to firmly and stably put myself in everyone else’s shoes. Self-cherishing is like trying to keep your balance on high pointy (just focused on one person, me) Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos; loving others is like wearing solid flat (focused on lots of people, others) Doc Martens. When you find yourself navigating uncertain terrain, lumpy, full of potholes, treacherous in places, believe me you’d far rather be wearing Doc Martens. It worked every time I did it (which was a lot due to desperation); and I know I’m more stable and confident now thanks to it.

Thanks, in fact, to others.

Do you even like yourself?!

self sabotage

This is the fourth in a series of articles on overcoming discouragement.

The last article looked at how the laziness of discouragement comes from ignorance. I think it can also have a strong relationship with anger directed inward.

dislikeHave you ever been in a situation where you’ve noticed that someone really doesn’t like you? (‘Course you have!) And you don’t really understand why they are so cross with you, but you suspect it’s because they don’t really get you. Yet their idea of you seems so fixed that there is no point in trying to change their opinion – in fact, everything you do seems to validate in their eyes what a b****y awful person you are. They don’t give you a chance. They have fixed you with the super glue of their dislike, you’re not going anywhere.

Well, that may be bad enough, but I think it is even worse when we are doing it to ourselves because then we really can’t get away! In the case of the other person who dislikes you, some projection is going on that has more to do with them than with you, but they believe it to be the truth. In the same way, when we put ourselves down with negative self-talk, “You can’t change! You’re basically an irritating old (put favorite derogatory noun here)”, we are projecting an image of ourselves that says way more about our delusions of ignorance and dislike than about who we actually are. But we believe it anyway and then we’re stuck.self sabotage

To change, therefore, we have to drop those limited ideas of ourselves and identify entirely with our potential and pure nature instead. All our meditations need this as their starting point. See this article for how this can apply to the first 2 stages of the path meditations, for example. I’ll explain another way in which we might do this, once I’ve given you some more examples.

The only thing that seems to work when someone hates us with no apparent reason is to have patient acceptance. We can stop focusing on their faults in a problematic way and instead accept them warts and all, without judgment. We can focus on something good about them, and let this gradually melt away the negativity — changing the atmosphere to allow both of us to change. Freedom.

Likewise, a way to counteract being heavy on ourselves is also to change the atmosphere by making an effort to focus on our good qualities instead of exaggerating our faults, so we can accept and love ourselves. Even more freedom.

Still smoking?!

smoking analogy for giving up bad habits in meditationI started smoking at school, and was still doing it at university. I tried to give up several times, but it was too hard – as soon as someone offered me a cigarette I would take it because I thought of myself as a smoker. Smoking was my natural default — I was a smoker trying hard not to smoke. There was a disconnect there, a contradiction. It was painful! It was unnatural.

One day, however, perhaps due to some blessing, I literally just woke up thinking of myself as a non-smoker. “I’m a non-smoker! I realize this now. I’m a non-smoker who has picked up this bad habit of smoking. I’m going to pack it in.” In the student bar later that day, when a friend offered me a cigarette, I declined: “No, thanks, I’m not a smoker.” “Course you are,” they laughed, but I no longer believed them. I never smoked again.

giving up smokingIf we identify and grasp onto ourselves as being deluded, deluded we’ll stay. “See, I’m deluded! I can’t help it. I want to give up but I can’t.” If we identify ourselves as pure, generous, full of potential, and so on, we can give up our delusions because we are no longer grasping at them as who we are. They are no longer our natural default. They are just habits, just thoughts. Let them go. Think different thoughts instead.

In the next article, how to quickly dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves with some out of the box thinking.

Being realistic

captain sparrow quote about problems

ice cream makes you happyMore on delusions and how to get rid of them.

Just before any delusion develops, we have an inch of space to change things around. For example, we have the seed of attachment in our mind, and let’s say we have an attractive object, such as a donut. This does not guarantee a delusion. Why not?

The advertising agency in our mind

For attachment to arise for the jelly donut, we have to think about the jelly donut — how yummy it’ll taste, how it’s capable of giving us pleasure, how it’ll go really well with our coffee, and so on. We conveniently edit out all the things it won’t do for us – how it’ll rot our teeth causing pain at the dentist, how it’ll make us fat and flabby, how no one will fancy us any more, etc. The mind of attachment exaggerates the good and edits out anything unpleasant about the object, like an advertising agency in our mind.

When I first went to America decades ago for a visit, I discovered the most extraordinary invention, one that in my mind had Americans living up to their reputation for being innovative and smart. Anyone who could take chocolate, which is good from its own side, and then combine it with peanut butter, also good from its own side, and then combine them…. well, Mr. Reese must have been a genius.

things are not as they appear

Things are not as they appear

I developed a very strong liking for his peanut butter cups—and I would share them with others, my bags full of them whenever I returned to England. I tried to turn everyone else on to them, for their sakes. This went on for about three years! But you already know the end of this story. One day I ate one too many (“just one more wafer-thin mint!”), and I was struck with the thought: “I cannot put another one of these in my mouth!” I realized that whoever invented this sickly thing was an idiot. Now when I think about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I simply can’t stand them. I could talk about their bad qualities for a long time… Yet I have to concede that the manufacturers haven’t changed anything in them at all. I cannot blame them for letting me down.

Unrealistic attention

The way I was thinking about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups was not appropriate because it was not realistic. Inappropriate attention, which was introduced in the last article, is like unrealistic attention. We’re paying attention to something in a way that is not going to work because that peanut butter cup for example is not capable of giving me the pleasure it pretends to give me. It can temporarily satisfy an itch, the hungry or bored craving for something both sugary and savory, and that’s about it. We can do a lot better than that.

It is the same with objects of irritation, such as the example of someone who walks into our room while we’re peacefully reading, and “annoying” us, as described in this article. We’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let it go. “He’s ignoring me again! He is always ignoring me!” That song in Guys ‘n Dolls that goes something like this:

“You promise me this, you promise me that…. when I think of the tiiiiimes gone by, I could honestly die.”

We’re mentally writing a shopping list of all their failings while conveniently editing out all the nice things about them, like the fact that we’ve been married to them for 20 years and borne their children.

once you realize we're all mad And the next thing we know, we’re mad. Literally mad. We say, “I’m mad at you.” I think that we do go a little bit mad, sometimes very mad. It’s the same with “I’m mad about peanut butter cups.”  We are actually mad when a delusion arises, why? Because of this inappropriate or unrealistic attention. We’ve honed in on the object and we have totally exaggerated either its good qualities (in the case of attachment) or its bad qualities (in the case of anger.) We do something similar with jealousy, pride, and miserliness — they’ve all got unrealistic attention in them, they wouldn’t be here without them. If we didn’t pay that inappropriate attention, the delusion could not get a foothold and our mind would stay peaceful and happy.

We wouldn’t feel so helpless. We would stay in control of our minds and our lives. Sounds good to me.

An inch of space

So, there is an inch of space we have with every delusion before inappropriate attention gets going. For example, in the case of the irritating person, we have a choice. We may not take the choice, but we do have it. (1) We can follow the path of least resistance and start itemizing the laundry list of their faults, leading to a negative, uncontrolled mind, and a hundred clever, barbed comments to say to them next time we meet. This is the easiest thing to do because we are so used to doing it, it’s a bad habit. Or (2) we can choose to stop that train wreck before it starts, and with that inch of space we have before the inappropriate attention starts, catch ourselves as we’re about to get annoyed, and take our mind away from the object and put it somewhere better and more enjoyable.

Three good things

captain sparrow quote about problemsUntil we’re trained in this, we may even want to go to the restroom or something to get away from the object and steer our mind in a different direction. We can do a little bit of breathing meditation to forget the object, that’s very helpful, and then we can think, “Okay, this person is appearing really annoying to me right now, but I’m not going to get annoyed — I’m actually going to think about their good qualities.”

One of my good friends has a wonderful, practical method for staying positive that has stood him in good stead for decades, so I use it too. He comes up with, for example, three good things about this person. Or, if he can’t do three, if that is too much of a tall order, he does one! Anything that takes our mind away from inappropriate attention toward appropriate attention will do. And there is always something. Perhaps Mister Annoying has a dog they rescued who loves them — focus on that! How nice! We avert the irritation, and our mind stays under control and peaceful.

These three—the seed, the object, and inappropriate attention–are the main causes of delusion, and the stage of inappropriate attention is the weakest link and the opportunity to change things around. We can do this through learning meditation, slowly but surely putting it into practice in our daily lives. This is definitely possible. It is how people learn to control their minds to actualize their potential for lasting peace, happiness, and fulfillment.

My choice

We have the choice. Right now it may seem we don’t have much choice because our habits are so strong, but they are just habits, they are not us; and if we understand the causes of delusion, then we know that we do actually have a moment of choice there. We can continue to follow the same old frustrating rigmarole, taking the path of least resistance, or we can change; and the choice is ours for the taking if we understand how delusions develop.

Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

path to enlightenment

enlightenment pie in the skyI was remembering the other day what happened when I first encountered Buddhism. A new friend at college happened to mention that there was a talk on that evening by a Tibetan Lama in York – he was not Geshe Kelsang, who became my teacher, but a visitor who was being hosted by the Buddhist Centre. I took another nice, new friend, M., along with me, not having a clue what to expect (this was 1981 in the North of England when meditation was an alien concept to most people.)

To be honest, I hardly understood a word this Geshe said. But during the course of the evening, I couldn’t help thinking: “Whatever it is you have, I want it.”

He said a couple of things I sort of got, the words at least. The first was a comment about how we have radiators in the West, followed by his falling about laughing – something he seemed to be doing most of the evening. I suppose for someone who grew up in Tibet, radiators and other Western technology must have seemed quite amusing. (This was in the days before SmartPhones, which he would doubtless have found hysterical.) M. told me later that I was laughing uproariously and a little crazily at everything, which seems strange given that I didn’t know what this happy Tibetan was saying; but clearly this stuff was infectious.

The other comment I remember from that evening was:

 “We are all on the airplane to enlightenment!”

(Followed by even more laughter.)

path to enlightenmentWe’re what??! I thought. What is he talking about?! I knew I still liked it, I probably laughed along, but I wasn’t sure what it was I liked. And, when I stopped to think about it, enlightenment or Buddhahood sounded rather pie in the sky. As far as I was concerned, I’d be lucky to just get through the day without getting annoyed with someone. If Buddhist meditation could do that for me, I’d give it a shot.

And so M. and I did, the following week at the regular introductory meditation class at our nearest Buddhist centre. That was almost 32 years ago. The rest is history.

Although I well remember how pie in the sky enlightenment felt back then, since then I’ve decided that it really is not that much of a culturally alien concept, let alone an impossibly idealistic goal. Indeed, it is within the reach of every one of us; we just have to get going, starting with wanting it.

The other day I asked some friends if they wanted to improve. They said yes. Then I asked them what would happen if they did improve a bit and became a bit kinder and wiser, for example – would that be enough, or would they still want to improve? They said they would.

Interesting, I said. No wonder Buddha says we all have Buddha nature or Buddha seed, which is our natural potential for improvement; we clearly feel it on some level. We have this potential because our mind is not inherently existent, or fixed, which means it can change. If you really want to improve, then your Buddha seed has already sprouted into the beginning of a Bodhisattva’s mentality because a Bodhisattva is someone who has taken that wish to its logical conclusion and wants to keep improving until there is no further room for improvement.

Then I asked them if they would like to be able to help more people than they are helping at the moment. They said yes. So I asked them what would happen if they were able to help, say, 3 more people than they are helping now due to being kinder and wiser (see above), would that then be the end of it? No, they replied, they’d want to help even more people.

And there you have it, I said. You’re already just like a baby Bodhisattva, who has taken this wish to its logical conclusion and wishes to help all living beings without leaving anyone out. That wish is part of our compassion, also our Buddha nature. We are naturally kind because when our delusions are not functioning we default to being peaceful and free from self-centeredness, connected to others.

bodhichitta airplane to enlightenmentA Bodhisattva is someone who wishes to help all living beings without exception by attaining enlightenment aka becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is someone, anyone, who has perfected all their good qualities and got rid of all their faults, viz, improved until there is no further room for improvement.

What is so pie in the sky about that? We just have to train in our natural wishes and let our mind expand. We are all on the airplane to enlightenment; we just have to get it off the ground.

Creating space in our minds

perspective and meditation
perspective and meditation

Depends how you look at things

Until Konstantin the Russian tenant showed up, my yard in America was overgrown with prickly thistles and ugly weeds. My ultimate plan was to get rid of the seeds and roots of those unwanted plants, but how was I supposed to dig those up if I couldn’t even get to them? I first needed to create space by weed-whacking (actually, I asked Konstantin to do it, but all analogies break down sooner or later…) In the same way, my ultimate spiritual plan is to dig out the seeds of my delusions by realizing emptiness, but at the same time I can be preventing delusions from growing wild in my mind by weed-whacking their other five causes, especially the object and inappropriate attention. (Sadly, neither Konstantin nor anyone else can do this job for me.)

For example, if I wrote something really annoying right here:

“Get off this computer and get a life, you loser.”

you might become angry with me. If so, this would be because you’ve still got the seed or potential for anger right now, even when your mind is peaceful, which means there is always the danger of anger arising. However, anger does not actually arise until the other causes of anger, such as a rude comment and inappropriate attention, come together.

Cause of delusion # 2, the object
a Lambanana in Liverpool

Is it a lamb or is it a banana?
(A Lambanana in Liverpool)

Delusions cannot arise without an object. Without perceiving an attractive object like Walker’s Salt and Vinegar Crisps, I cannot develop attachment, and without perceiving a disagreeable object like a dentist’s drill grinding into my teeth, I cannot develop aversion.

This means that the fewer objects of delusion I encounter, the fewer delusions I will develop. However, it is a tall order to never again run into another object of delusion. I need a replacement crown and two fillings, for example, no way of getting around that. When I wimpily asked the dentist whether it would be painful, he smirked at his assistant and said: “Not for us.” Adding insult to injury, I even have to pay for the pain. Moreover, anything can be a disagreeable object for us if we continue to keep our disagreeable states of mind.

art and meditation in Liverpool

An elevator crashed in Liverpool

However, conversely, nothing is a disagreeable object for us if we keep agreeable states of mind. I am in Liverpool at the moment. Two nights ago, a new friend called P, born and bred in the ‘pool, was walking down a street nearby when she was mugged for the first time in her fifty-something years. Someone grabbed her handbag containing all credit cards, iPhone, and cash, and ran off into the shadows. The nice policeman commiserated with her: “You must be very angry!” Friends sympathized with her: “You must feel violated! How awful for you.” But over lunch she was all smiles and told me that she was pleased to notice that she didn’t feel any anger. Indeed, she had no mental pain over the incident at all. And, most surprising of all to her, she found she had the entirely unironic thought, “That poor guy didn’t get away with very much cash!” She said she kept those thoughts to herself, or the policeman might have thought her quite mad.

P is not mad though, she has just been meditating on patience for twenty years, and so it kicked in when needed. Meantime, she was still able to do all the practical things like cancel the cards and put a stop on the phone.

P and I were having this conversation over the best vegetarian sausage I’ve ever tasted, in the Moon and Pea, Lark Lane. The café’s name reminds me of Buddha’s analogy for our spiritual potential – the amount of mind we are currently using compared to the amount of mind we could be using is like a pea compared to a planet.

Sefton Park Liverpool meditation

A friendly swan in Liverpool

So-called Foe Destroyers or Arhats (in Sanskrit) have destroyed all the inner foes of the delusions and their seeds through their direct realization of emptiness, which means that even if they are surrounded by objects of delusions, and even if they try to, it is impossible for them to develop a delusion. Such a person has attained so-called nirvana, or liberation. Their mind is completely at peace all the time, happy and free.

It is possible to accomplish these things because there is no such thing as an object of delusion that exists from its own side. If someone was an inherently disagreeable object of anger, then everyone who saw that person would get angry; but of course they don’t – it is not just Foe Destroyers, their pet dog also loves them to bits! So objects of delusion depend upon our deluded minds. If we have a mind to get deluded, we’re going to find an object of delusion with no difficulty. But if we overcome our delusions by developing patience, compassion, generosity, and so on, the object of delusion transforms into something entirely different – eg, from a thug into an unfortunate soul who really could do with that money.

That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?

(I need to practice it on the dentist next month. Tips welcome.)

Trust v. personal responsibility

He has doubled his size on solid Russian food!
Trusting holy beings…

I recently renamed the feral cat Korska “Nelson”; I figure it might help him to be named after one of my great heroes, Nelson Mandela, who triumphed over adversity just as I want this little guy to do, in his own way.

Nelson is coming along, albeit very slowly and in fits and starts. Sometimes he is interested, sometimes he is standoffish and hissy, and sometimes he doesn’t show up at all. Currently he has an open sore on his forehead and a swollen right eye which concerns me, he is way too skinny still, and at some point I’ll have to freak him out by capturing him to neuter him and give him his shots. But I’m set on my course to make him as tame as possible, and will overcome the obstacles en route one way or another, taking any opportunity he gives me. I can see I’m going to need a lot of patience and a lot of persistence/effort, but he’s worth it.*

As it was pouring with rain at his breakfast time this morning, I managed to lure him into the kitchen for a few precious moments while he ate, and was even able to dab a blob of Neosporin on his forehead with a wooden spoon. He actually purred as he rubbed up against the door, and he sniffed my leg and reluctantly let me stroke his back while he was eating. But although he is lonely and clearly likes my company in a funny kind of way, after he’d eaten he still didn’t stick around in my nice dry kitchen, let alone avail himself of the comfortable sofa, soft carpet, squashy cushions and other cat-friendly offerings in this potential cat-palace that awaits him. Instead he curled himself up on some damp leaves under a few inches of shelter, which did nothing to stop the raindrops dripping on his tail. I was cajoling him, “Hey, Nelson, sweetheart, why don’t you stick around with me for a while in here, it is so much nicer than out there in the wilderness!! I will never hurt you – in fact I will make sure you reach your full cat potential and that you are as healthy and happy as possible, and I will not curb your freedom, you can still go outside whenever the urge takes you if you do decide to be tamed.”

And then it struck me. I sounded like the Buddhas, and especially our Spiritual Guides, trying to get through to us… The Tibetan word for disciple, “dul wa”, literally means “one to be tamed”. It is so obvious to the kind and wise holy beings what we need to do to be happy and safe, but, even if we intellectually know what they are after, it seems we don’t trust them enough to follow their suggestions, or at least we are in no hurry about it. Instead of gladly escaping into the heart of the Buddhas, including the Tantric mandala palace, we stubbornly, fearfully, and proudly insist on staying outside in the wilderness of samsara, subject to being attacked by wild animals, mange, bitey insects, loneliness, mental pain, physical discomfort and all manner of other sufferings.

No trust, no progress. (If you’re in another tradition and rely on God, Jesus, Mother Mary, etc, I imagine the same principle applies.)

At least Ralph was cooperative. Because he understood somehow that he needed help, he really bonded with me, which turned out to be the best move of his short life. I really would like Nelson to cooperate with me consistently, but all I can do is blast him with love until I get through, and try and be as patient and persistent with him as the Buddhas undoubtedly have to be with me.

… while also taking responsibility for our own spiritual journey

There is an element of surrender in trust, so how does this square with taking personal responsibility? I put “v.” in the title, but it is not really trust versus personal responsibility, they get along just fine, and have a dynamic ever-deepening relationship. Genuine trust entails believing also in our own potential to progress and genuine personal responsibility entails understanding that we need to make progress, which involves trusting others who can lead us, just not trusting them blindly.

This seems to be borne out by the Lamrim teachings on refuge. Simple refuge is just the call for help. As our refuge progresses, we assume more and more responsibility for our own spiritual journey, and with Mahayana refuge we actually rely on Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to fulfill our greatest spiritual potential for the sake of everyone, which involves a rather huge amount of personal responsibility!

…And avoiding institutionalization

Meanwhile, upstairs with the Russian tenants lives Roberto the baby possum. They found him half-dead while I was away and have been feeding him up prior to his release. They love him!

He has doubled his size on Russian home-cooking!

They’ll be sad to see him go. And right now he shows the manner of being tamed (albeit slightly reluctantly) – unlike Nelson he does not object to being held, cuddled, stroked, and kept indoors. Yet in a way you can tell from his eyes that he is not tamed; he is just doing what he is told because he has little choice in the matter. It is certainly better than nothing; in fact it has saved his life. But in a week or so we must drive him to a large patch of woods and release him into the wild, at which point he will revert to his instinctive/habit-formed wild behavior to survive.

This has been reminding me that we can tame ourselves or even others physically by forcing ourselves to behave, but that won’t be enough. For example, we can follow the rules in a workplace, monastery or spiritual center not out of our own volition but just because we are told to, expected to, or scared not to — like children or baby possums. However, genuine moral discipline is based on our own discrimination of what to do and not to do, and our own resultant adult decision/intention. Just falling in with the crowd doesn’t guarantee that we are tamed on the inside or for very long, and when thrust back in the “outside world” we may just revert to our old wild samsaric habits.

It can be enormously supportive to have the external discipline provided by spiritual centers — and I would not have traded my 14 years living at Madhyamaka Centre for anything, nor the other 14 years I spent closely associated with other centres. Also, check out this article about this nun leaving her monastery for the first time in 84 years to meet the Pope — look at her alert face at 103 years old! In the book, titled “What is a girl like you doing in a place like that”, she is quoted as saying:

‘Who can spend 84 years in a convent without being happy? Of course I’m happy.’

Look at that face! Aged 103

I believe her and think that she probably has a very rich inner life. If we are in a spiritual center but are not becoming genuinely happier and more open as the years go by, we can check to see if we are voluntarily taking responsibility for training our mind or whether we have fallen into institutional modes of thinking and behaving. We need integrity to avoid being like a leaf in the wind, carried away by whatever happen to be the current gusts of the institutional zeitgeist.

How do we know if we’ve become a bit institutionalized I wonder? Is it if the small world of our school, office, workplace or spiritual center seems to be the main place where it’s at? When we become preoccupied with concerns that would seem petty to anyone “outside”? When we are cowed by authority because we are too attached to, and fearful for, our position in the pecking order, or our job, or our status within the organization? How do we overcome it? Your suggestions are welcome.

In any event, whether we are currently inside or outside of an organization, Roberto is a reminder that we need to take responsibility for ourselves and change our minds, not just our behavior.

Faith v. fanaticism

(Here, the “v.” is justified.) Arguably blind faith is not faith at all but fanaticism as it possesses no degree of personal responsibility – what do you think? Blind faith can manifest as a childish wish to please a holy being in order to be rewarded, or fear of displeasing them in case we are punished; and that is abnegating responsibility. Also the outcome of our actions depends on our karma, not on any external law-maker or law-enforcer. Nor does blind faith really trust, because to really trust a holy being I think we have to know their actual nature — unconditional love.

Fanatics of all stripes notoriously end up acting in irresponsible, dangerous ways with respect to themselves and others, whereas actual faith is necessarily flexible, including the flexibility to doubt and question. I would argue that extreme fanatics such as suicide bombers have no actual faith at all but are simply holding false views as supreme, which is a type of ignorance.

Buddha taught that all virtuous minds are pervaded by faith. Faith can never be in contradiction, therefore, to love, compassion, wisdom or any other virtuous mind.

If you have any relevant experiences you’d like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.

*Update Sept 2011: Nelson tested positive for both feline leukemia and feline AIDS, a double whammy. I recently got another rescue cat, Rousseau, and have to keep them separate to avoid infection; so I look after Nelson outside and on a friend’s porch next door. Ironically, since he was fixed and I obliged him to recuperate on that porch for a week — with us doing meditations and prayers together every morning — he has become a very friendly little guy who now follows me around and actually wants to come in the house!! Another of samsara’s sick little jokes.

*Update 2: Nov 2011, Nelson is currently doing really well, fattening up and becoming friendlier by the minute! I even let him inside when the other cat is outside… He loves to be cuddled. He has learned to trust :-)

*Update 3: Feb 2012, Nelson is now the cuddliest, sweetest cat in the world and joins me for many of my meditation sessions. Who would have thunk it?! There is hope for us all.

Update 4: April 2012, Nelson has just been diagnosed with a large cancerous tumor in his stomach, along with anemia and some dehydration. He stopped eating a few days ago. Now I am focused on making sure he is as comfortable and blessed as possible for his remaining time in this cat body, and my main wish for him is that he has a wonderful rebirth, hopefully in the Pure Land. He totally deserves it. p.s. I adore this person.

Update 5: April 14 2012, Nelson died in my arms.

Kung Fu Panda and the Secret Ingredient

Po 4

Buddha teaches that everything is projected by our mind; and of course this is clear when it comes to movies! But we like to be drawn into them as we like a good story, just as we usually allow ourselves to be sucked up by the drama of our own lives even if we know it is not real.

For me movies can be a time-wasting distraction or they can be helpful. It depends on whether I’m watching them out of some delusion/unpeaceful mind such as attachment or laziness, or out of some positive motivation such as the wish to expand my horizons to empathize with others.

Nothing is completely untransformable if we have the wish, capacity and methods to do it – even violent movies could be seen as a battle against delusions. Of course, it is risky to watch movies that may engender unpeaceful, uncontrolled reactions such as hatred or anger in us, so it is worth being honest to ourselves about our level of mindfulness and our ability to transform appearances to stay peaceful. It is worth protecting ourselves by not straying over certain boundaries (as in the practice of moral discipline).

If we’re going to watch a movie, some movies are probably easier for us to transform and derive meaning from than others, and I personally count Kung Fu Panda as an example. I watched it on the airplane and found a lot of uplifting Buddhist teachings in it. So I thought I’d share a few seeing as Kung Fu Panda 2 is coming out on May 26 and no doubt some of you will be watching it, especially if you have the excuse of kids!

Masters and students

My favorite theme is the transformative relationships between the Masters and their students. The Panda Po says to Master Shifu, “You are not my master!”, but that changes when he believes he can learn to be a great Kung Fu warrior and that Master Shifu can teach him. Similarly, we only need a Spiritual Guide if we decide we want to follow in his footsteps along a spiritual path.

Shifu maintains great devotion to his own Master Oogway, even when he seems to be behaving erratically and appointing a very odd choice for the Dragon Warrior. He questions his Master but listens carefully to his replies and is inspired by them. “Obeying the master is not a weakness” says Shifu to the snow leopard Tai Lung. Tai Lung shows the treacherous contrast of what happens if we let our pride and self-cherishing run out of control, and how feeling superior to our own teacher inevitably ends up sooner or later in hubristic disaster.

What can we control?

Master Oogway says we have to accept that we cannot control everything. Shifu replies that we can control some things and shows this by hitting the Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom to get the peaches to fall and planting a peach seed from which a tree will grow. Master Oogway points out that we can only get a peach tree not an apple tree from that seed, teaching the definite relationship between cause and effect (karma). But then he shows the manner of passing away into the Dharmakaya Truth Body by dissolving into emptiness, showing that for whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible, as the famous Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna said.

Just believe

Po is lumbering and clumsy, at least for as long as he identifies with “me”, a limited self, in his case a big fat lazy Panda. But he doesn’t want to be “me” any more, he wants to change. And Master Oogway gives both Master Shifu and Po the confidence to believe in Po’s ability to do it, and believing is what we need to do if we are to let go of our ego, fulfill our potential and make spiritual progress. (However, unlike in the movie, we are all “chosen”). And Master Shifu also realizes there can be no cookie cutter approach to teaching one’s students, especially these days. The teacher and student sometimes need to think out of the box and find other ways, even if these are unconventional (and involve dumplings).

Humility

Po’s humility is what enables him to succeed. He has an ingenuousness and zest for life that is very refreshing for the five great and good warriors who have gotten slightly institutionalized and by the book in the Jade Palace. Po is down to earth and unobsequious but at the same time entirely and humbly in awe of Kung Fu and its masters. For me he was an example of staying fresh on our spiritual path, devoted to the teachings, teachers and living beings but not rigidly going through the motions, becoming sycophantic and/or developing a superiority complex in an ivory tower. We need discipline, but we also need lightness of touch and the ability to respect each others’ differences.

Even at the end when Po has defeated Tai Lung and the whole valley are prostrating to him and chanting “Master”, he doesn’t develop a trace of pride or identify with that praise. That word simply reminds him of his own master, so he turns around and rushes back up the steps to see him.

What is the secret ingredient?

And the other thing is that Po realizes something very important when he enters the mystery of the dragon scroll – he does not need to add anything at all from the outside to fulfill his potential. As his father, the goose Mr. Ping, finally confides about his Secret Ingredient Soup, the secret ingredient is …. that there is no secret ingredient! We don’t need a secret ingredient. We don’t need to be someone “special”. We all have the potential already to be great. This is our Buddha nature.

Movies and us

Okay, I know, I have read far too much into this movie! And a cartoon to boot! But I guess that’s the point; we can and do see anything anywhere because nothing is really out there, it is all projection of our own minds. I cannot find a world outside of my experience of the world, and when I change my mind, my world itself automatically changes. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, my own Master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:

Milarepa said that he regarded everything that appeared to his mind as a Dharma book. All things confirmed the truth of Buddha’s teachings and increased his spiritual experience.

So, if we are going to watch movies, we might as well make them into spiritual teachings!

Have you got a favorite example?

By the way, if you want a free Buddhist meditation book from a world-renowned Buddhist master and author, you are in luck! Click here: www.eModernBuddhism.com

What just happened?!

The vows

I was woken at 4am this morning by my mom in London: “Oh sorry darling, I didn’t mean to wake you.” (Funny how a loud ringing noise in your ear can do that). “It’s just that I was watching the royal wedding and I wished you were here.”

Today something is happening. No one can deny that. Two billion people have tuned into watch this happening, both live and recorded, and plenty more are trying to ignore it. But what is it exactly?!

In the last article I explained that when we wake from a dream it is clear to us that our dream objects do not exist independent of the mind… we don’t go searching for them as we know we will not find them. But it is the same when we are awake! Where was that wedding? What was it?! If it existed as it appeared to, out there, independent of our minds, then we should be able to find it, either within its parts or somewhere else. So was the wedding in the milling swarms of people? In Kate’s ring? In the vows? In the buildings of Westminster Cathedral or Buckingham Palace? No, none of those things were the wedding either individually or collectively – they were just parts of the wedding. But if we take the swarms, the ring, the vows, the buildings etc away, the wedding vanishes, proving it does not exist other than its parts. So it is not in its parts nor anywhere else, meaning we cannot find it anywhere, we cannot point to a “royal wedding”. It therefore does not exist as it appeared to, independent of our minds.

In dependence upon various parts appearing to our mind, we imputed or labeled “royal wedding”, and voila it existed for us. The royal wedding was therefore no more than mere label or mere name, imputed by our conceptual thought. [For a perfect explanation of all this, consult the teachings on emptiness given in Heart of Wisdom or Modern Buddhism.]

Due to our collective karma we experienced moreorless a similar appearance, and shared a conceptual label. We can say that from this point of view there was only one royal wedding – it took place in London, not Beijing for example, the main protagonists were Will and Kate, and the Queen wore a canary yellow dress. But we can also say that everyone experienced their own royal wedding — I reckon that if you were to interview every one of the two billion people they’d be telling different stories, let alone if you interviewed all those who boycotted it! And the stories they’d be telling would depend entirely upon their own individual karmic appearances and their minds. Yet they’d probably all agree that it really did happen, they really saw it or missed it.

I alone watched three royal weddings simultaneously – I don’t have a TV so I watched one on the YouTube Royal Channel to get some commentary, one on CNN to get it live (the Royal Channel was 20 seconds behind), and one on CNN mobile on my iphone as my computer kept crashing due to a virus, and in fact has now died altogether [that’s another story – I originally wrote this article on there and it was better, but its lost…You have only my word for it ;-) ] Which of the three was the real wedding?

I decided to write this article partly as I was wondering how Kate felt at having two billion people watching her every dimple. Did she feel like a fairytale princess arriving in Cinderella’s glass car and leaving in a horse-drawn carriage with her Prince Charming, with loads of black horses and marching men wearing black fuzzy hats all just for her?! Planes flying over, and her mouth could be seen saying “Perfect formation!”, and yes, all for her! People practically swooning in anticipation of that first blissful kiss, camping out all night for this?!

I know there are a lot of republicans reading this and I have no trouble respecting your point of view. Also, in a casual chit chat about the wedding, someone who shall remain nameless was heard to say “Who are Charles and Diana?”, proving conclusively I think that we live in parallel universes! But whether you’re a royalty lover, a royalty hater, or a couldn’t care lesser, there is no real wedding happening out there today. Our dreams show the power of our mind to create a whole world, with temporal and spatial coordinates all intact; and then to mistakenly believe that it has nothing to do with us. Due to our ignorance we project a wedding out there within its parts, which we believe is real, and feel annoyed, in love, or blasé about it. But to live in a pure world, and experience happiness, we need to purify our mind, whether republican or royalist. As Buddha Maitreya puts it:

Because living beings minds are impure, their worlds are impure.
When living beings purify their minds, they will inhabit aPureLand.

To fully purify our mind we need to realize the part we are playing in creating everything so we can create something better. It is hard to over-emphasize how important this is.

I was wondering however why people the world over do like adulating other people? It is not just the royals – just think of the magazines devoted to movie stars, or have you been to rock concert or a football match recently?! And do you remember President Obama’s inauguration?! He wasn’t just waved to his oval-shaped office and told to get on with it. We love all that pomp and circumstance, don’t we, even republicans, come on admit it, even just a little?! The question is why?

I don’t really know! But I will hazard a guess. We like to worship something we consider bigger than ourselves, larger than life, to get out of ourselves. (The sermon seemed to be somewhat about that, about cultivating a love and devotion that is bigger than ourselves and bigger than just the two of them/us as a way of transcending self and becoming a better human being.) Focusing on others in this all-absorbing way gives us a temporary respite from being stuck in self.

And it is interesting how in Buddha’s teachings (and other religions) a lot of worshipful royal symbolism is used – today is also Protector Day, for example, and I recited a prayer to Manjushri “Your princely body is…” Dorje Shugden is the “Great King”.

And what, I was also musing, are the statistical chances of a “commoner”, like Kate, marrying into a royal family in a rare ceremony that only takes place once or twice in most people’s lifetimes? (My mother has reminded me more than once that Kate and I went to the same high school – though at somewhat different times!) By developing bodhichitta we become a son or daughter of the Conquerors, a princely or princessly Bodhisattva. This is rare. And the odds of a “commoner” or ordinary being encountering the Tantric empowerments and entering the mandala palace are even rarer.

Kate and Will could have gotten married in a small church followed by fish ‘n’ chips, and still be just as married. But two billion people wanted to buy into this elegant ceremony and feel the noble tradition and lineage of the ages, even if time also is imputed by mind. People were happy to feel part of this BIG thing. Perhaps this is a promising sign that we seek transcendence? And it doesn’t have to be escapist, especially if we understand our role in creating this reality.

After all, who knows who anyone is really?! In Tantra we train in pure view, trying to see everyone as a pure holy being. Even in Sutra we try to focus on the pure potential of others, and their kind natures rather than their faults. Why?! One main reason is that mind and its objects are dependent related. If we train in viewing pure objects, our mind becomes pure by relation because our mind depends upon its objects. And as our mind becomes purer, objects appear more purely to it, because objects likewise depend upon our mind – like clear reflections will appear in a pristine mountain lake. And on it goes. According to Buddhism, this is the spiritual path leading to liberation and enlightenment.

I want to tell a short story that has a lot of meaning… I don’t even pretend to understand its full meaning, but it has made me think over these years about the nature of reality, of pure view, of what things are really. It has helped me loosen up. Things are clearly not as fixed or ordinary as they appear! Buddhas have delusion-free and obstruction-free minds so they see pure worlds full of pure beings – and this is not to discount our suffering (or they wouldn’t be trying to help us of course), but also not to buy into it so that we are forever stuck. Only our delusions deserve the name “enemy” for they deceive us grievously into thinking that what we see is what we get, that we live in a concrete and impure world independent of our mind: Enter Stage Left! Suffer a Bit or a Lot. Exit Stage Right! We don’t though. And as Geshe Kelsang has often said, “Anything can appear to mind.”

When my teacher Geshe Kelsang gave a course in London back in the early nineties, he invited the students and teachers of the new London and Bath centres for tea.

I am sitting next to Geshe-la on his left, all of us in a circle daintily sipping tea. Geshe-la suddenly asks out of the blue: “Why is London so important?” He looks at me for the answer and I think, “Well, that’s an easy one!”, and reply “Because it is the capital of England, Geshe-la.” Not the answer he wants at all. So I try again, a bit more tentatively: “Because it is one of the financial centres of the world?” Again, he shakes his head. Me, more desperately: “Because it has so many people?” Now he is looking almost disappointed. Pause. Then Geshe-la says something that I don’t think anyone was expecting:

“London is important because it was emanated for the Queen.”

“Ah” we all nod knowingly. Another pause. What?!!

“The Queen is not an ordinary woman” he continues and, casting his eyes heavenward, “She comes from higher realms.”

I’ll leave you to ponder the levels of meaning Geshe-la was trying to teach us in that moment. I will just say that it was no ordinary tea party.

What do you think about all this? Is all the hype best ignored? Or is it possible to transform even a royal wedding into the spiritual path?!

Was it in fact Disney who imagined the Royal Wedding into existence?!

How to avoid stress and burn-out at work

burnout bang head here

This is related to the article, Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness.

Do you or any of your friends have any of the following symptoms of chronic stress or burn-out?

  1. Do you have to drag yourself to work and, when you get home, do you have no energy left to do much other than flop in front of some entertainment?
  2. Have you become irritable or impatient, critical or cynical?
  3. Do you feel emotionally or physically exhausted?
  4. Do you feel disillusioned, discouraged or dissatisfied with your job?
  5. Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

In this article I’ll try and explore an effective solution based on Buddhist meditation practice. There are also external triggers for stress and burn-out that you can find solutions for elsewhere on the web.

Symptoms of stress and burnout

Everywhere, working people sometimes suffer from long-term stress and burn-outs. They push too much, overdo it, and find themselves running on empty. Some hallmarks are that they feel inefficient, unenergetic and useless — their sense of accomplishment and interest wasted — and they feel emotionally and physically exhausted. Sometimes people get ill, sometimes they have to quit for good, never is it a pleasurable experience. The results can last for years. And it can happen anywhere, in any job, even in a non-profit or Buddhist Center.

We can also become a less nice person when we are burning out. Our tolerance and flexibility diminishes — we want everyone to do things our way because we think that’ll make our life more manageable. Sometimes we hold others at a distance out of a misguided self-protection but then feel isolated, as if we are doing all the work and no one is stepping up to help us.

Snowball delegation

Not to get too sidetracked from the main point of this article, but this ties in with our (in)ability to delegate and empower others. When we are stressed it seems we tend to delegate less rather than more, trust others less rather than more; but we still might get heavy with them and make them feel guilty because we don’t think they’re doing enough. Overly controlling our job and the people helping with our job is a bit like trying to push a snowball all the way down the hill ourselves — not letting go of it or giving it a gentle push and letting it just roll for a while so it picks up momentum and snow on its own. A snowball doesn’t actually grow bigger that way.

Solving the problem

Luckily this counter-productive syndrome can be averted. If we are practicing Buddha’s advice, we can stay relaxed and centered even in the midst of the busiest or most responsible job. We can maintain joyous effort, the fuel we need for both the short and the long-haul, and bring out the best in others too.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is a perfect example of this. Even retired, aged 80, he still accomplishes more in any given minute than the rest of us accomplish in a day ;-), yet he is always entirely relaxed, blissful, and patient, and of course the master of instigation and delegation.

Over the decades of being in various positions and jobs, I and others have tried to observe how Geshe Kelsang does it so we can emulate him. In discussion with a good friend and successful long-term meditation teacher (who like me has had any number of “responsible” jobs and positions within the New Kadampa Tradition in the last 30 years), we have come up with the following suggestions.

Identify with your potential, always

The key is to feel centered and happy in the heart, and identified with our potential rather than our limitations.

This entails relying upon at least a little meditation practice, not neglecting it however busy or responsible we feel. Even ten to fifteen minutes sitting quietly before we start work is immensely helpful if we do it properly and take refuge in it. Even a few five-minute breaks through the day can be the difference between a joyful, balanced, creative day and a day that is just stressful and draining. (Make the restroom live up to its name if you need to, go meditate in there!) And even a ten-minute unwind and let-go meditation between work and settling in for the evening or weekend (or whatever little downtime you have) can help you disengage and relax such that you enjoy your time off from work and it rejuvenates you.

You can start with some breathing meditation, such as the simple meditation taught here. If you like, you can combine this meditation with visualization: examine your mind to see what stress, problems and limited self you’re holding onto and then breathe these out in the form of dark smoke, feeling that you’ve completely let them go. Breathe in the peaceful light of wisdom and compassion blessings into your spacious heart. Then spend a bit of time simply enjoying that peace with a still mind, however slight or relative it is. Give yourself permission to be happy.

This is the important part: We need to recognize that this peace is our Buddha nature, that this slightly peaceful mind represents our actual nature, our potential for vast peace and happiness; and that therefore we are not stuck in our unhappiness or frustration, but rather we can change. We identify with this.

Meditating skilfully

The main point here is that we don’t need to be great meditator to discover our potential. In truth, even if we are just able to stay with the breath for three consecutive rounds, our mind will become slightly more peaceful than it was. If we give ourselves permission and a few moments to abide with that slight peace, to savor it with a still mind, to enjoy it, we will discover that the actual nature of our mind is peaceful. It is only the delusions that produce agitation.

If we have time to go onto other meditations, the rest of our meditation, whatever it is, happens from that peaceful, happy place onwards. It is easy to develop any Lamrim mind when we are connected to our happiness and our potential. It is actually impossible to generate any Lamrim mind when we are identified with the self that we normally perceive, in other words when we are identifying with our limitations.

In fact when we “try” to generate a mind of renunciation, for example, while grasping at ourself as an inherently angry, unhappy or unlovable person, we end up relating to liberation dualistically, as something other than and outside of our own mind.

I am always here, freedom is always there, never the twain shall meet.

Consequently our meditation gives rise to tension or guilt, rather than an authentic and deeply joyful and relaxing peace.

We don’t need to give ourselves a hard time – our delusions do a very good job of that already, that’s why they’re called our “inner enemies”. Don’t let them. They are no match for our pure potential, any more than clouds are a match for the sky.

Try an experiment

To see if this is true, those of you who know the Lamrim cycle already, try this experiment. Meditate on your precious human life while not identifying with your potential but identifying with your limited, faulty self. What happens? Do you feel guilty for not doing enough, do you start giving yourself an even harder time? Meditate on your impending death with a mind of not identifying with your potential and what happens? Do you feel doomed?!

But meditate on your precious human life from the vantage point of being naturally pure, and what happens? You feel very joyful and lucky, your effort increases. Meditate on death from this vantage point and what happens? Your joyful effort increases even more, you know you can make the most of the time you have, everything falls into perspective and your worries and negative thoughts diminish. You can try this experiment with any of the Lamrim or Tantric meditations!

Back to work

When you rise from a meditation like this, I promise you’ll feel far more ready for what comes next, you are ready to be productive at work again. It is amazing how much burn-out will be averted if we actually experience the restorative powers of our own pure natures. And when we are happy, we naturally engage with the world, feel involved, and are efficient.

And when you start to stress out again later in the day, because it is a bad habit, take yourself off to rest in that room for five minutes! It is always going to be worth it.

Please let us know in the comments section if this method works for you and/or if you’ve had other successful ways of overcoming stress and burn-out.

Please like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do!

Anyone can try!

(Anyone who is stressed out can learn to do five or ten minutes simple meditation a day and hopefully get something out of this article. I met someone in the ocean just yesterday who has never meditated and knows nothing about Buddhism, but he is experiencing stress at work due to new bossy middle management, so I gave him advice based on this article and he seemed very ready to try it out.)

What can we do about tragedies, including the Japanese earthquake?

Japan earthquake 2

“What did you feel when you heard about the colossal tragedy in Japan? Powerless or not? What are the best ways you think you personally can help?”

I asked these questions on Facebook and share some replies below.

I just saw three fish struggling for their lives, inevitably losing the battle. One was big, one was medium, one was small. Their mouths were gasping and their silver bodies thrashing about, eyes wide with fear, drowning in the air. I felt sick. There was nothing I could do. They were surrounded by fishermen who would neither understand nor appreciate my wish to throw them immediately back into the silky water, their home. I said prayers for them as I walked slowly back home.

And they reminded me of how ghastly the drowning deaths of so many thousands of human beings in Japan has been. Again, what can I do about it? I am many miles away. I can’t even directly help one of these poor scared people as they transition so abruptly and alone to their next life.

One of the first things I did was donate some money to the Red Cross, as that seemed practical and obvious; but I am not rich and know my contribution will not go terribly far, maybe it will provide the survivors some clean drinking water or a blanket. Still worth it, of course.

But the truth is, from a Buddhist point of view, we don’t need to feel helpless. There are things we can do. Every suffering we see is a reminder and an incentive to progress quickly from an ordinary limited state (of someone who cares but feels relatively useless) to that of a trainee and then real Bodhisattva with universal compassion and an enormous joyful confidence to help, and then an enlightened being with the power to bless everyone’s mind each and every day forever.

As people pointed out on Facebook, we can meditate on any or all of the following spiritual thoughts, and in this way make spiritual progress and become increasingly able to help others: our precious human life, the certainty of death, future lives, refuge, renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom, from which all other practical freedom arises), love, compassion, taking and giving, bodhichitta, wisdom realizing the way things are

Buddha Shakyamuni

If you’re interested, what I do when I sit down to do these practices (as opposed to doing them on the fly) is believe that Buddha and all the holy beings are in front of me and that the world is transformed into a Pure Land – all those who are in pain are seated around me, and they too are coming under the protection, love, and influence of all pure, compassionate, powerful beings. This instantly makes everything less helpless, bringing the future result of spiritual practice into the present, imagining it is so, right now.

If I am meditating on compassion, I will focus on one person in particular to make the love and compassion real. For example, one story was told of a woman who was my mother’s age and looked a bit like her. The day of the tsunami, she was hours away from an eagerly anticipated birthday celebration; instead she instead found herself fleeing for her life, her family and friends disarrayed, her livelihood destroyed. I put her next to me in my meditation. If that was my mother of this life…?! And I take it from there, focusing on and then spreading that wish for her to find happiness and be free from all this pain to more and more people in her situation, and then to other situations (remember those in Haiti) …

You know, even in the short term we can alleviate suffering through the power of prayer. It is good not to underestimate prayer – by tuning into the minds of all enlightened beings, and acting as a conduit between them and those who are suffering, we can bring about enormous change, individually and collectively. At one Festival my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

“Our main job is to pray”.

Study upon study shows the power of prayer to heal, to comfort, to transform. Anyone in any tradition can pray – if you have any belief in the existence of holy beings or transcendent forces, you can simply ask them to protect the people who are suffering. Whenever we see someone suffering and there is nothing obvious we can do, we can immediately pray: “Please help them. Please help me to be able to help them.”

In this instance, even if we cannot be there in person to help, there is so much opportunity also to rejoice and feel happy about others’ incredible qualities and actions. People everywhere are bending over backward to help, and the rescue workers are all far out of their own comfort zones. The Japanese in general are behaving with such integrity, there is no looting, people are looking after each other… And what about those 50 faceless workers who have sacrificed their health and their lives to protect their fellow citizens by staying behind at the nuclear plant? Kindness, unselfishness and good karma are alive and well in Japan.

If we feel there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing, what will happen? After the initial shock, eyes glued to the appalling but sensational footage, we will feel guilty, we will make ourselves feel indifferent, we will change the channel, we will quickly forget… already the news of the earthquake and tsunami are fading on the front pages, to be replaced for sure by the fear of nuclear catastrophe over there, and also of other disasters such as Libya. But with the slow fade out in the news, have we also forgotten the people who are suffering so badly? How often do I remember Haiti? How often do I remember anything that happened even last year?

So here is how people answered those questions:

Powerless, but…

One person replied to my question: “It makes me feel powerless, grateful to live in England where we are relatively free from such dangers. It makes me aware of death — that it can arrive at any time. It also makes me aware of my laziness. This should help me increase my compassion & bodhichitta but rather I just think “what can I do?” This is very sad. It also seems rather unreal – like in a movie.”

Another said “i feel powerless…..but send loving thoughts through meditation.”

And another said: “I saw these pictures, first thing this morning, and almost couldn’t leave the house. I did make it to Prayers for World Peace, and the topic was Refuge, which helped. But truthfully I’m kinda wrecked by this. This magnitude of devastation is unfathomable. I must remember refuge and prayers. And I must find some way to help in a material way.”

Incentive to improve ourselves

“Remember that death can arrive in any moment, and make our precious life  meaningful!”

“This event certainly provides motivation for renunciation, which frankly can be hard to generate in beautiful Sonoma County. It’s a heckuva wakeup call to get off my complacent tush.”

“I think we can’t stop all external problems like these directly, but the causes of most of what you hear in the news is delusions. E.g. pollution, reccession, broken families, heavy consumerism, debt and war. If we overcame these delusions even… superficially the environment would become clean, families happier, the soil richer and undepleted, nature would increase and everything would become more beautiful, fresher, and this depressing pessimism about the future and feeling doomed would be replaced with feelings of hope for happiness for living beings.”

“It is the impetus for me to renounce samsara, generate bodhichitta and gain wisdom realizing emptiness; also, to set a beneficial intention towards all suffering sentient beings.”

“This is just the most recent event motivating us toward Buddhahood — where we can really do some good.”

“Automatically having much compassion for all the victims of this Japanese apocalypse and also having in mind all the others suffering great problems at the burning points of conflict on our entire globe.”

“Every day in your garden is like Japan except in the garden most die quickly so I suppose it isn’t 30 years of struggling with a disability from an earthqquake for example.”

“We can work on our compassion and wisdom! The vast and the profound – developing a good heart and try to reduce our negativity; and worry as little as possible.”

Taking and Giving in particular

“Taking the suffering and giving peace, calm (in Lojong)”

You can read about how to do this powerful practice in Transform Your Life. It instantly increases our love and our compassion and makes us feel we are doing something that counts (which is true). I think it may be the best antidote to feeling powerless, along with prayer.

Importance of prayer

‎”Our main job is to pray.” Didn’t Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say that at a festival? We are so not powerless when we can pray for the welfare of others.”

I’ll conclude with something Geshe Kelsang has often said:

“Try, and don’t worry.”

Your comments are welcome.

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