How do I get rid of problems? Buddha’s advice

problems outside the mind

problemA million-dollar question. If we could answer this, we could get finally be free of the wretched things. In fact, this would be priceless information.

Buddha did answer this. The whole of Buddhism, or “Dharma”, is supposedly a method to solve all our daily problems, and not just temporarily but FOREVER! This might seem a bit far-fetched. Unless …  unless we realize what our problems actually are and where they are all coming from. At which point the Dharma method suddenly make a lot of sense. And if we gain some actual experience of how this works by trying it out in practice, it makes increasingly more sense. At least, that has been my experience over the past 33 years. I think Buddhism is supercharged common sense.

In his Medicine Buddha teachings of 2004, my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

Buddha’s teachings are the actual method to solve human problems. To understand this, firstly we think, “What is the real nature of our problems?” Secondly we think, “What is the main cause of our problems?”

The nature of our problems
Medicine Buddha 1

Medicine Buddha helps us cure our inner problems

Have you already had a problem today perchance? What was it? A work problem, a relationship problem, a health problem, a family problem, a computer problem, an ageing problem, an existential problem?

Whichever it was, there were two things going on if we check. For example, if someone said something to us like, “You are not a priority in my life,” and we felt disappointed, there was the outer problem presenting as the thing they said and the inner (actual) problem of our unwished for sad response to that. These are not the same. If that person had said the same words and we hadn’t given a monkeys, we wouldn’t have had an actual problem. And in some cases, like if you happen to be a celebrity and that person a stalker (and I don’t know who reads this blog), those same words might even be a source of relief.

Our problems do not exist outside our mind. Their real nature is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind. Normally we conflate outer and inner problems. Yesterday during a phone call my friend cursed, “Oh darn, I have a problem,” when Avast antivirus disabled his Yahoo toolbar. To be fair he got over it right away – his own unpleasant feeling, his actual problem, passed quickly. Then he sorted out the outer problem by fiddling about with his computer. (Or maybe he didn’t, I didn’t check.)

No unpleasant feeling = no problem. As my teacher says:

 “The computer’s problem exists outside. Our problem exists inside.”baby Rousseau

We can solve external problems as and when necessary by external means, eg, taking the computer to a computer whizz who understands the causes of the problem and can therefore fix it. To fix our inner problems, however, we need to understand their causes, which are not the same at all.

The cause of our problems

Geshe Kelsang continues:

problems outside the mindNow, what is the main cause of our problems? The delusions. All our problems, our unpleasant feelings, come from the delusions of our attachment and ignorance. Therefore, these delusions are the main causes of our problems.

To show how this works, he goes onto explain the role that uncontrolled desire or attachment to our own wishes plays, and you can read about this in How to Solve our Human Problems pages 3-4.  (I recommend having that book on your bedside table and dipping into it every day or whenever you are having a problem —  it is a treasury of practical advice.) I have also written several articles on delusions here.

So I won’t go into more detail here — I just wanted to share the simple logic of figuring out (1) what is the nature of our problems ie, unpleasant feelings, and (2) what is the cause of our problems ie, delusions. Once we can see this, problems becomes so much more easy to handle.

 

What is the Meaning of Life?

meaning of life 42
meaning of life 42

Ermm …

Everyone reading this most likely has a precious human life at the moment. Even comparing ourselves with other human beings, we are really very lucky. Today, if the whole world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would apparently look something like this

  • 80 would live in substandard housing;
  • 67 would be unable to read;
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation;
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply;
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation;
  • 24 would not have any electricity;
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet;
  • 1 would have a college education;
  • 1 would have HIV;
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death;
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US.

Where do you fit into all this? Also, in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study on religious freedom in the world. According to the results, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom. But us? We can read spiritual books, go to meditation classes, go to church, go to the temple, go to yoga classes, practice at home… No one is stopping us from training our mind, fulfilling our true potential and becoming completely happy, except perhaps ourselves. That’s why this meditation on our precious human life comes first in the Lamrim cycle.

So, what is the meaning of life?!

The trillion-dollar question, but one I think we really need to have some kind of answer to if we are to have a meaningful life. ‘Course, meaning depends also on what we want and what we think we can get out of life.

meditating BuddhaBuddha explained how our life can be precious in three ways: from a temporary point of view, from an ultimate point of view, and in every moment. All the things we like doing to experience pleasure and purpose are only possible because we were born as a human being, and we can create the cause for more human life in the future. Not only that, but human beings can make enormous spiritual progress. We can reduce and even totally abandon our delusions, and increase our love, compassion and wisdom as much as we want, if we learn the methods. According to Buddha, within this short life we could even develop all our good qualities to their highest level, enlightenment. From that ultimate point of view, we are also incredibly lucky. Also, right here and now, and in every moment, we can learn to enjoy everything, as well as create the causes for future happiness. You can read all about all of this in the big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Enlightenment

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says:

When we attain enlightenment we will have fulfilled our own wishes, and we can fulfil the wishes of all other living beings; we will have liberated ourself permanently from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives, and we can directly benefit each and every living being every day.

I personally think that does sound impossible to beat. Plus, I believe it is entirely possible for you and me to attain enlightenment. So, I agree with my teacher:

The attainment of enlightenment is therefore the real meaning of human life.

Same actions, different outcomes

As mentioned in this article, we “remain natural while changing our aspiration.” We still do what we do as humans, and we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by running off to live the rest of our life in a cave (if that were even possible). But at the same time we are using this life to journey to liberation and enlightenment by changing our view and intentions. In Kadampa Buddhism, we try to transform everything into the spiritual path. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang says:

Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems…. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.

We can even keep enjoying the things we like enjoying, probably more if we can find a way to make them meaningful and not a cause of attachment and disappointment/aversion. I just watched my new team, the Denver Broncos, being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t understand the game at all, but even I could see they were being massacred. I am now seriously having to consider going back to supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs. Or… Geshe Kelsang was once asked by a diehard football enthusiast how to transform watching football into the spiritual path. Geshe-la replied:

Rejoice for the winners, and have compassion for the losers.

Those are actually the two main practices of a Buddha — if we managed to do that, instead of staring sadly and disbelievingly at the telly, even watching the Super Bowl could be meaningful. Could be. Depends. (I am not in fact a football enthusiast myself, but was invited to a gathering near South Park in the snow-capped Rockies, and want to get to know my new neighbors; plus I do like the snacks. We left at half-time, full of compassion …)

A star in the midday sky

Not only is our current opportunity really precious, it is also exceedingly unusual – according to Buddha, as rare as a star seen in the midday sky.

rabbit in the moonIf we think about all the daily ways in which we can make our life meaningful, we’ll come to realize that we are very lucky – this deep experience stays with us all the time and changes everything. Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon? Funnily enough, it was the rabbit I always saw as a kid, never the man in the moon. Years later I discovered that the Tibetans call the moon the “rabbit-bearer” because they also see the clear shape of a rabbit on its surface. You may have glanced up at the moon for many years and not seen it, perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. Then, one day, “Got it!” From that moment on you’ll always see the rabbit whenever you see the moon. I think realizations are rather like this. Once we have realized our good fortune we are uplifted – never separated from the happy mind that appreciates and wants to make the most of it.

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(This article is a continuation from this one … and your comments are very welcome.)

Live life lightly, live it well

photo_11.jpg

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park

View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best way to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters

This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life :-)

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!

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.

Celebrating Mother’s Day

mother's love 2

To celebrate all kind mothers everywhere on Mother’s Day (USA), including you, since a bunch of flowers is a bit hard to pull off, Kadampa Life offers you instead a double billing. Two fabulous guest articles, one on the Buddhist meditation of seeing everyone as our mother and the other a story of a mother’s love.  

Happy Mother’s Day
by Sona Kadampa

mother's love 2If you’re a mother, I hope your family is spoiling you today. As kids, we used to give our mum the works – a lie-in, breakfast in bed, fresh flowers, home-made cards, gifts, and Sunday lunch out.

It felt good to appreciate what she did for us, year after year. And now my own friends and family are having kids, I can see the quantities of love and hard work that go into mothering.

Buddha’s teachings, Dharma, teach us to use that feeling of gratitude as a powerful seed that can, over time, blossom into a vast, unconditional mind of love that encompasses everyone.

It’s a big seed to swallow if you’re new to Buddhism because it builds on an understanding of past and future lives. However, it’s worth the effort, and even if you’re still on the reincarnation fence this beautiful practice can be of great benefit.

In Joyful Path of Good Fortune Geshe Kelsang invites us to consider how our consciousness existed in the moment before mum and dad ‘made’ a brand new body for us to live in. He says:

Where did that mind come from? It came from the mind that existed before conception, the mind of the previous life. This mind itself came from the previous life, and so on without beginning.

In that earlier life we could have been an animal, an insect, or a different kind of being entirely, living in a realm unknown to us. Or, we might have been the next-door neighbour. Whatever kind of existence we had, we definitely had a mum. Maybe we had a butterfly-mum, maybe we had an elephant-mum. Maybe we had a mum very similar to the one we have now. Whoever she was, where is she now? Where are all those mothers now?

Buddha’s answer:

I have not seen a single living being who has not been the mother of all the rest.

Whether you believe in rebirth or not, I think this meditation can change your life. Even attempting to view everyone in the way you see your mother at her best, with an attitude of gratitude, appreciation, and unfettered love – opens up a new, loving pathway in the mind.

Every living being – the swimming ones, the flying ones, the many-legged ones, the irritating ones, the peaceful ones, the famous ones and the notorious ones – were once, in a different time and a different form, our mother, and we’ve had a close, loving relationship with them all. How cool is that?

My own mother died when I was a child. I missed her fiercely as a teenager, and feel her absence to this day. This meditation brought a special ‘mum’ feeling back for me, 20 years after her death. Rather than focusing on my personal loss, it taught me to contemplate what Mum gave me – a deep, unshakeable feeling of being cherished and protected. By using my memory to access that feeling, I can turn anyone into my mother. I can ‘remember’ what they did for me – even when, just as my mum sometimes did, they’re having a bad day. Then, I naturally feel close to them, appreciate them and want to do something kind for them. Just like we used to do on Mother’s Day.

mother's day in BuddhismNext, Geshe-la gets us to go into those kindnesses in some detail. It’s very extensive and well worth a read.* From her pregnancy to this day, our mother has loved, worried about, and watched over us. We wouldn’t be able to walk, talk, or even think straight without what she gave us. She dedicated her whole life to striving, with no time off, to turn us from a helpless, frog-like creature into a fully functional human being.

You can add your own personal memories to the list. As a single mother, my mum worked harder than anyone I know, giving up so much, just so we could have the things we wanted.

I thought I appreciated this at the time, but I realised years later that my appreciation was still pretty self-centred! One year, on the anniversary of my mother’s death, a Bulgarian friend told me their custom would be to eat her favourite meal on that day. I decided I would do this – but then I realised I had no idea what my mother’s favourite meal was.

Of course, I knew what mine was. Mum cooked a mean macaroni cheese, and her fish fingers and parsley sauce were mouthwatering. But I had to ask a family friend what Mum loved – and got a surprise. She loved steak, with grilled banana on top. I’d have remembered such an unusual meal if she’d ever cooked it – but we kids were not steak fans, so we never ate my mum’s favourite meal at home, in all those years of macaroni cheese and fish fingers.

Still, it’s never too late to show some appreciation, even if your mum of this life is gone. Six months after I met my partner, also a Kadampa Buddhist, his mother died of a long-term illness. In her last days, as the family gathered, I had the chance to promise her I’d look after her son, and to tell her that he was using his life in an amazing way. It meant the world to be able to tell her this.

It’s hard to say these things to a loved one when they’re in the full flush of health, but you can show appreciation in quiet ways, too – for example, by engaging in a gentle, regular process of reducing your delusions. I discovered, a little late in life, that a relationship without the delusion of attachment is well worth having.

As an adult, I acquired a stepmother, and with her I seem to have a quieter, more accepting relationship than many of my friends have with their own mothers.

It took me a long time to work out why our relationship was so easy-going, but I have a theory on it now. We do not ask each other to make us happy. For example, she isn’t particularly invested in or critical of what I do with my life, and my expectations of her unquestioning support, forgiveness, and a share in her resources are – compared to the expectations I had of my mum – moderate.

mother's kindness

In Buddhist terms, our relationship benefits from less attachment. That’s a delusion that is often mixed with love and features a lot in families. When we’re demanding, disappointed, or unsatisfied with our loved ones, usually attachment is at work, and it can be squarely blamed for many family arguments and schisms.

I’m nowhere near controlling my attachment, but the natural situation with my stepmother has shown me how peaceful and fulfilling a loving, attachment-free relationship can be. So, to help mothers everywhere, including my own – all of them – I’ll be working to replace attachment with appreciation this Mother’s Day.

We can’t give breakfast in bed to every mum in the world this Mother’s Day, nice as that would be. But we can appreciate the contribution every single living being has made to our wellbeing, now or in the past, and meditate on that warm, gentle feeling of ‘thank you’.

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*Editor’s postscript: If, as sometimes happens, your mother suffered from strong delusions and/or bad habits and was not there for you, it can help to recall that she did give you your body, and apply these contemplations instead to your principal caregivers as you grew up.

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A Mother’s Love
by Eileen Stead

It is said in Buddhist teachings that a Mother’s love is the closest we can get to pure love in samsara, where most experiences of love are contaminated by the deluded mind of attachment.

I once asked for a definition of love, and the answer came, “Love is wishing for the happiness of others without expecting anything in return.” A totally selfless love without a thought of one’s own happiness or comfort. This is why a Mother’s love is said to be the paradigm of love, for what kind Mother would not leap into freezing water to save her child from drowning?

This is the story of one such Mother, but it was not the freezing water of a fast flowing river but the “dark satanic mills” of Huddersfield from which she rescued her two children. When she was a girl, she had a dream, or should I say a passionate wish, to be a singer. She did have a lovely pure voice, and was sometimes called upon to sing the Soprano solos in the “Messiah” at the local church. But alas, her destiny was to work in the clattering environment of the Mill, which she hated.

Reggie and Vera SteadAt the age of twenty six, Carrie Brogden (a good Yorkshire name!!) married, and soon became pregnant. Now in those days — 1908 — there was a paucity of prenatal care, and when she went into labour early on a Whit Monday morning nobody had suspected that the young couple would be blessed with twins. But that was it–first a big healthy boy followed by a diminutive but equally lively girl; and from that moment, Carrie Brogden made a vow that her children would have the opportunity she never had. They would become musicians. How she would achieve this, she had no idea, but she had planted the seed in her heart.

When the children were six and a half, the First World War broke out and life changed dramatically for everyone. The young men were hastily conscripted and shipped off to the battle fields of France and Belgium. The horrors of that war — the fighting in the trenches, the loss of limbs, having to survive in the waterlogged ground with your dead buddies lying beside you – provided endless agonies.

Carrie’s husband did come home eventually, but he was a saddened man. He was suffering from angina, and, worse than that, he had been gassed and found breathing difficult. You may be thinking “What has all this got to do with Carrie’s ambition for her children?” But wait! There was to be a small War Pension. Not a lot, but, she thought, just enough to pay for music lessons. Bravely, she announced her plan to the family. The Pension would pay for the Music Lessons, and not be used for anything else. She herself would become the breadwinner.

Having found an excellent violin teacher for the boy and piano teacher for the girl, she started her life of selfless dedication to earn the money she needed to fulfil her promise. Being an excellent cook, she would rise at some unearthly hour to start cooking; and then would sell her homemade “pies and peas” from the kitchen window. She became well known in the neighbourhood and did good business. Later, her husband, who had recovered a little from the war, began to make ice cream, which was also very popular.

This they did for a number of years. The young teenagers were by now progressing well in their studies, particularly the boy who, according to his teacher, was the best violin pupil he had ever taught. At only sixteen, he was asked to lead a small orchestra in the one and only silent cinema boasted by the local town.

Reginal Stead MBE lead violinist BBC Northern OrchestraAs was the custom in the North of England in those days, anyone in work brought home his or her pay packet on Friday and placed it unopened on the kitchen table. The mother then took charge, opening the envelopes and handing out a meagre amount of pocket money to each member of the family, keeping the rest for household necessities. At least that’s what the young man thought, but all the money he earned at the cinema was put secretly away in a box while she continued to slave away in the kitchen.

When the young man was eighteen, fully grown and winning first prize in violin competitions amid glowing reports, his teacher said, “To continue to be a success, he must have a good Italian violin. I’m taking a trip to Cremona and will bring back a couple of instruments for him to try. They will be expensive, I’m afraid, about two thousand pounds.” The young man was aghast and looked at his Mother in consternation, but she coolly replied, “Yes, we can afford that.” I‘m sure you must have guessed, dear reader.  She had saved every penny he had earned in the Cinema, and in that box was exactly the right amount of money to buy the Italian instrument. I remember its name. A Joseph Gagliano. A fine violin.

From there on his career blossomed, and after the Father died of a heart attack at the age of sixty Carrie Brogden attended every concert of her now famous son. She felt great pride and knew in her heart that she and she alone had made this possible. Of course, without his dedication and natural ability it could not have happened, but she understood that, without her, he would most likely be working in the dreadful clattering atmosphere of the mill.

This is a story of a Mother’s love, but being in samsara, as we are, did attachment creep in? A little pride perhaps? Who would begrudge her a little of that? I think the holy beings would understand, and forgive her.

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Editor’s postscript: Reginald Stead MBE become a member of the Hallé Orchestra in the 1930s and went onto become the leader of the BBC Northern Orchestra from 1945 to 1971. The BBC conductor, Edward Downes, later stated that Stead was “one of the finest leaders in the country and could play all the solos beautifully.” Eileen first heard him when she was six and he was eighteen; she was bewitched by his violin playing while on holiday with her father. Years later they met again and married.

 

Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?

Tom Tom and Zia's new home

Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.

In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)

My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.

kitten finding forever home

See below for (ir)relevance of kitten photos.

There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering.  If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others.  We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.

It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happiness pages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.) cat going to his forever home

Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.

I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.

My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.

In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.

Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?

As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.  

On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.

So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)

(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)

Relaxing in your heart

bird freed color

This is the third and last part of Is Heaven real?

Celebrating Je Tsongkhapa Day Je Tsongkhapa and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

First of all, Happy Je Tsongkhapa Day! Today, October 25th, Kadampa Buddhist centers worldwide celebrate this great Buddhist master and Yogi, and what he has done for us. Geshe Kelsang’s Kadampa Buddhist books are commentaries to Je Tsongkhapa’s texts, and I find the two authors share an uncanny economy and lucidity of words, combined with profundity and transcendence. So I can’t resist pointing out some of Geshe Kelsang’s books in this article to celebrate, sort of like an extended ad!, and maybe you’ll get to sit down with one of them this cool October evening.

How to switch off

Our bodies come and go, but our mind is a beginningless and endless continuum of awareness. We can learn to switch off different thoughts, including anger, attachment, selfishness, and ignorance; but it will never be possible to switch off this continuum. From waking to sleep, and from life to life, it continuously cycles — from gross, to subtle, to very subtle, back to subtle, back to gross. I sometimes think of it as a bit like H2O cycling from ice, to water, to water vapor, and back again.

Introduction to Buddhism

All this explained here.

When I die, my very subtle mind (associated with my very subtle wind that is currently located in my heart chakra) is all that will go with me to my next life. Buddha taught that it is the very subtle mind, or “root mind”, that I’ve had in all my lives which will transform into omniscient wisdom, not my grosser levels of consciousness that come and go like clouds in the sky.

water as example of mental continuum A problem most of us have at the moment is that we cannot use our subtler levels of mind whenever we feel like it … Even though you dream most nights, can you even remember, let alone use, your own subtle dreaming awareness for example? Our very subtle mind only awakens when our grosser minds have disappeared, in deep sleep or death when, unless we are deeply trained in meditation, we can’t use our mindfulness or memory at all.

Even the scientific equipment in the lab seemed to pick up that Dr. Eben Alexander’s sense consciousness and other grosser levels of consciousness were not functioning during the shut-down of his brain (brought on by a potentially life-threatening encounter with meningitis.) Advanced meditators can cause their gross minds to dissolve away without having to wait for sleep or death or comas or NDEs. One way they train in this is through imagining going through the death process and transforming the very subtle mind or so-called “clear light” of death into the clear light of bliss. Then later they are able to manipulate their subtle inner winds and minds to replicate the death process but without actually dying, experiencing an authentic clear light. We can also get to the clear light through the six-stage Mahamudra meditation, which we can fortunately study in Mahamudra Tantra.

The significant problems we face…

Through learning these tried and tested meditation practices, we can access our deepest level of consciousness at our heart chakra, which is unrelated to our brain, and use it to meditate; and, once we have this ability, we have a blissful non-dual mind and can experience blissful Pure Lands at will. This clear light mind itself does not support dualistic conceptions, and it is also mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena, emptiness of inherent existence, like water mixed with water; so self-grasping and mistaken appearances no longer have any leg to stand on. This “inner science” is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings and the works of many advanced meditators, including Volume 2 of Modern Buddhism, available for free right now if you want to read it.

So, we cannot destroy our self-grasping, selfishness, and ordinary minds completely with our ordinary, dualistic levels of consciousness — we need to meditate on emptiness with the clear light mind of bliss. This reminds me of Einstein’s dictum:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Good examples

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso meditatingI think my own teacher spends a lot of his life in the clear light. If you’ve ever seen him meditate, which he can do for many hours and days at a stretch, you’ll see an extraordinary stillness and absorption. It was the same apparently with his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, and his teacher’s teacher, Je Phabongkhapa.  Geshe Kelsang also spent 18 years in meditative retreat in the Himalayas and 3 years of retreat in Tharpaland, when it was in Scotland.

A good friend of mine once travelled with Geshe Kelsang to the US to set up his first Center. As they were taking off, he smiled: “We are going to Vajrayogini’s Pure Land!” He then closed his eyes and meditated for the entire 8-hour flight, opening them just once to take a single fork’s worth of food.

You can tell upon reading Geshe Kelsang’s books, including his Tantric teachings, that he has first-hand experience, that he is describing what he sees directly. I think this is why his words have the power to inspire results in the reader or listener.  

Lamrim, the stages of the path

In the last article, I talked about Dr. Alexander’s description of non-duality. And I find that the 21 Buddhist Lamrim meditations seem to draw us closer one way or another to non-duality, to a lessening gulf between subject and object. If you’ve been doing this incredibly helpful cycle of Kadampa Buddhist meditations for a while, as this Kadampa has, (recording his experiences in Daily Lamrim), you may have your own conclusions about this, in which case please share them below.

The New Meditation Handbook

The cycle of 21 Lamrim meditations

For me, with the meditations on the initial scope, starting with precious human life and death, I see how this current situation I’m in is dependent on many causes and conditions, and once any of these is removed and I die all the appearances of this life will dissolve away like last night’s dream. With some mental space from worldly concerns, I stick my head above the parapets and get a vast view of reality, of the different possible appearances to mind of all my future lives. Like new dreams unfolding – the realms where I may be reborn are not outside the mind, they cannot be found in any geographical location. The main object of refuge or protection from future suffering is then emptiness itself, the only non-deceptive object, as taught to me by Buddha and practiced by my fellow Sangha. Also, by observing the law of karma I am focusing on inner cause and effect, the other side of the coin from emptiness, seeing how all my thoughts, actions, and experiences are interconnected, and so taking responsibility for them.

With the meditations on the intermediate scope, the main thing I develop renunciation for is self-grasping ignorance, grasping at inherent existence, as well as attachment to happiness existing outside the mind. With the wish to be completely free, I try to practice the three higher trainings of moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom to cut this root of suffering away. When I have finally stopped grasping at things existing independently of the mind — “that’s got nothing to do with me!” — I will be master of my own reality. I’ll be completely free. Nirvana.

With all the meditations on the great scope or Mahayana, I become closer and closer to other living beings (including animals) by contemplating our interdependence and so on, identifying with them, feeling they are also “me”, closing the chasm ‘twixt self and other. Then with tranquil abiding concentration and the wisdom of superior seeing, I focus on emptiness itself until one very happy day I will have removed all dualistic appearances from my mind permanently and can help everyone all the time.

To do all this, I mix my own mind with the blessings or enlightened mind of my Spiritual Guide, Buddha, which is already free from dualistic appearances and permanently blissful.

Messengers 

When someone has fully purified their mind and perfected all good qualities, they have attained enlightenment. Even enlightened beings are projections of our mind, but they exist. In his experience, Dr. A had some experiences of being guided – I wasn’t there, so I have no idea who his “angels” were, but I am happy to accept that they were significant to him and that they existed. I really enjoyed a couple of his descriptions, his description of the heavenly sounds are redolent to me of mantra, or the nectar of enlightened beings’ speech:

“The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet.”

Dakini in Kadampa Buddhist Temple for World Peace in England

Detail from the Kadampa Buddhist Temple for World Peace in England

I was also moved by his description of the person who guided him – she reminded me of a Dakini, or “Space Goer”, a female Tantric Buddha or a woman who has attained the realization of meaning clear light. Dakinis are also sometimes called “messengers”. I don’t know who his guide was, but I liked to be reminded of mine.

What now?

Dr. Eben Alexander has written his book to inspire others because:

“The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already.”

Hopefully, Kadampa Buddhism will be able to help break the mold as it already has plenty to say on the subject.

Susan Grober said on Facebook in response to Dr. wish to educate others:

“He has a hard task, especially given the new stats on fewer people in US identifying with a particular religion. I hope his experience lets people living too much in their heads, and not enough in their hearts, entertain, even for a minute, that “this” isn’t it. Hopefully the degree and Harvard credentials will help this “good cause”!”

Facebook and meditationThe same Newsweek magazine also carried an article on the insidious influence that Facebook could have on children under 13 if FB allows them to join, with general alarm at what the supersonic rate of sensory stimulation and instant distraction available 24/7 might be doing to all of us, including reducing our empathy (feeling of connection?) Certainly, I think we can tell that it is keeping us in our heads, and Dr. A’s article, to me, in notable contrast, was giving another example of what is available if we allow ourselves to connect with our spiritual hearts.

Part 1 of this article: “Is heaven real?”
Part  2 of this article: “Moving from the head to the heart

That’s it from me on the subject. Over to you!

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!

Want peace of mind? Get rid of your delusions.

love is the nuclear bomb that destroys enemies

We already have within us our own source of peace and happiness, as Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life. It is our birthright, our Buddha nature, who we actually are. Sometimes we know this, when the dark clouds of discontent disperse and the sun naturally shines through. So if we have the constant potential for happiness, and we work very hard at it in various ways, why, we may well ask ourselves, is it so hard to stay happy 24/7?!

delusion negative emotionThe answer is “delusions.” We hear this word all the time in Buddhism. I know I’ve mentioned delusions umpteen times on Kadampa Life, and we’ve looked a bit at some of the main ones (ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, self-cherishing). Since identifying and removing our delusions is, one could say, the bread and butter of a happy life, I’ve been meaning to write something about delusions in general for a while. (Also, you can find out everything you’ve ever needed to know about them in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and Understanding the Mind.)

What is a delusion?

According to Buddhism, any unpeaceful, uncontrolled state of mind  is a delusion. All delusions are unrealistic minds arising from so called “inappropriate attention”, or thinking about things in a false way. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Delusions are distorted ways of looking at ourselves, other people, and the world around us–like a distorted mirror, they reflect a distorted world. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 7

what is a delusion, negative emotionOur experience of the world is only distorted and messed up because it is reflected in the messed up mirror of our minds. Our delusions see things that aren’t really there. You know the House of Mirrors at fairgrounds, where we are all bendy, then nine feet wide, then suddenly fourteen feet tall? We know not to get taken in because we know the nature of mirrors. But we get taken in by our delusions, even though it’s the same thing – they are reflecting something that is not there and then believing that it IS there.

Distorting reality

The deluded mind of hatred, for example, views other people as intrinsically bad, but there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad person. ~ Transform Your Life, p.7

When we don’t like someone, they’re just bad, almost as if they had a neon sign above them flashing, “I’m BAD” (and not in a cool way …) Hatred apprehends other people to be bad from their own side, intrinsically bad, having nothing to do with the way we’re looking at them. But of course there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad person. If they were bad from their own side, then everybody would see that neon sign, but they don’t. Their mother comes along and for her the big neon sign says, “I’m cuddly”, doesn’t it?

A dying soldier

I once saw a picture of a woman cradling a wounded man. She was weeping. I looked more closely and didn’t know who this man was, and I wasn’t weeping. I read the caption — it was a mother with her dying son, who had been shot during some fighting. Someone had looked at that man and thought, “This man is my enemy. He is bad, so hateful in fact that I have to shoot him to death.”

I looked at that man and saw a stranger. The man who shot him looked at that man and saw a repugnant enemy. The mother looked at hatred versus love, mother's lovethat man and saw a child, a beautiful, loveable person now destroyed. One person. Who is right, me, the person who shot him, or his mother? Actually, all of us and none of us. It just depends. How that person appears to us depends entirely on how we’re looking at him.

The blinkered mind of hatred however does not see the other ways in which that person could be perceived; it just sees “enemy”. Our own minds of dislike just see disagreeable people, dislikable people, and so on. They project an enemy, and then think that the enemy is really there.

Ninja the Rat

We can see this from our own ever-changing experiences. When our feelings and perceptions change toward someone, they appear totally different, even to our sense awarenesses. They are different people for us. I was once friendly with a rat. Generally humans and rats don’t get along too well, and when I first met Ninja the pet rat, whom I was to look after for a few weeks, I confess that although I didn’t exactly dislike him, I didn’t want to get that close to him either. His tail looked a bit creepy, for a start. However, as I got to know him, I came to find him entirely adorable. He had a strokeable tummy, bright eyes, and sensitive whiskers, and he was intelligent, inquisitive, brave, and friendly. He hung out under my desk in San Francisco in one of those plastic balls and chewed through my trouser leg when I was absorbed in my work – I still look at the hole with affection.

cute pet rat, loveWhich view of this rat was correct? Ninja felt he was just Ninja throughout, but I had the experience of a completely different rat. There was no rat outside of my experience of the rat. That rat I first met didn’t exist outside of my experience, and nor did the sweet rat. If you had come to tea with me, for example, you might not have found him quite so sweet.

So there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad rat or bad human being. There is so much more to a person than the obnoxious person we are projecting, but when we’re angry we’re convinced that all they are is nasty.

Even if they are behaving in deluded ways, this is still not all there is to them – in fact they are not their delusions at all.

Our anger is a delusion because we are distorting reality — exaggerating their negative aspects, and then pouring mental superglue over them so they cannot change. While the mind of hatred or anger is functioning, it has no choice but to perceive an enemy. That delusion has to subside for the enemy to disappear. This is why Geshe Kelsang famously remarked during one teaching, to a rare round of applause:

Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys enemies.love is the nuclear bomb that destroys enemies

It is not just our anger — all our delusions are projecting and then believing something that is not there. In the next article on delusions, I’m going to look at this some more.

Your turn. Do you ever project things that are not there and then get taken in by them?

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Getting older and uglier by the year, who voted for this?!

plastic surgery pig


When I was in my early thirties, and looking moreorless good still, I recall complaining to my hair stylist that I was starting to go grey. He replied that many of his clients complained of ageing, as they sat there staring at themselves and him in the mirror, and he would reply:

“We are all going in the same direction at the same speed.”

Wise man. As far as most of us are concerned, even if we have managed to escape a serious illness up ‘til now, just getting older and uglier is calamitous on a personal level. We don’t like losing our looks, our muscle tone, our smooth skin, our shiny thick hair, etc. We don’t like the effects of gravity on our body. But, as Buddha taught and we can easily observe, getting older and uglier is also entirely universal – it happens to all of us who are lucky enough to remain enough years in a human body. So why are we so fussed just about ourselves?  When it is this inevitable, why do we allow ourselves to get this fussed at all?

If I were any good at drawing graphs, I could draw one to represent the rise and fall of our looks that went something like this… the line would go up gradually starting at birth, peak in our late teens and twenties, go down slightly in our thirties, and then start to drop precipitously in our forties. From then on, it would all be downhill ‘til our body is disposed of entirely.

We might as well accept it happily. Otherwise, regardless of how much increased effort and money we put into looking good, we are in for decades of diminishing returns.

On a flight to San Francisco a few years ago, I was standing behind three teenage Californian girls on the walkway to the plane. This is what I overheard. The first girl remarked: “I saw your mom the other day. She looked good. How did she manage that?” The second girl replied: “She does Botox. Yeah, and she really works at keeping in shape, it’s like she thinks about it a lot.” The third girl asked: “How old is your mom?”, and the reply was “She’s like forty already!” There was a collective shudder as they took that in, then the first girl said: “I’m soooo going to have Botox if I get that old. It’ll be better then. I’ll never let myself go.” A pause as they thought ahead to the dismal day when they would turn forty and ugly. Then the third girl decided against it, to head nodding all around:

“I’m soooo not going to get old.”

I couldn’t help smiling, but I had to relate. I remember in my teens and early twenties thinking that middle-aged people had somehow  just lazily let themselves go — how with just a little more attention to what they ate and a little more exercise (and how hard is that for goodness sake?!) they’d look far better and younger. The grey hair, the pot belly, the wrinkles — it all felt somehow optional. I figured I’d follow my own advice and thus escape the trap they’d fallen into, that I’d look very much the same at their age as I did now. But, guess what. I do eat pretty well and I do still exercise, but I look nothing like I did when I was nineteen. Those girls on the plane did not throw me a second glance – as far as they were concerned, I had clearly failed. One part of me wanted to butt in and say, “Just you wait…!” but of course I didn’t.

Which reminds me of another time after I first moved into Madhyamaka Centre in 1986. A bright, healthy, relatively shapely young twenty something, I was sauntering down the beautiful driveway and, it being a Sunday, there was a local couple up ahead of me, walking very, very slowly. As I got closer to them, I could see that they were both entirely old and decrepit, and I remember this ignoble thought popped into my head: “I’ll never let myself get like that!” At which point, the old man turned around, looked me straight in the eye, and said, not without kindness: “You think you’ll never be old like us. You think you’ll always be able to walk fast down this road. I thought that too when I was your age. But you wait.” I had to chalk that one up to an emanation of Buddha. Despite years of studying ageing, sickness and death already, even teaching about them in branches and on Foundation Programme, this old man’s simple words struck home

And I didn’t have to wait long, at least before the process of ageing got well underway. Now it has got to that point when every peek in the mirror yields seemingly another wrinkle, grey hair, crevasse, or jowl. It would be scary if it wasn’t funny. (Or funny if it wasn’t scary, I’m not sure which.) Are you at that point yet when you cast around for photos that are several years old for your Facebook page, or at least photos that were shot in dim lighting?! Well, just you wait.

It makes much better sense to focus on improving the beauty of our mind through developing love, compassion, patience, wisdom and so on. This beauty will never let us down either in this life or in any future lives.

Apparently Americans per capita spend more on skin care each year than they do on education. Yet someone I know working in the skin care industry told me the conventional wisdom is that even the best creams and surgical procedures will take only a few years off someone’s looks.  Of course, if we try too hard, at some point it backfires — we end up looking unnatural and off-putting, the opposite of what we signed up and paid so much for.

There's only so much we can do with our meaty bodies!

We are attached to an image of ourselves, not accepting who we are and where we are at. Talking of this body image, though, have you noticed how on some days you think you look hot (still) and on others you can’t quite believe how much you’ve aged – yet a casual observer would not be able to tell the difference between these two you’s (and probably couldn’t care less if they could?!) It is all in our mind.

Have you ever seen those pictures of the most attractive people on our planet, the movie stars, when the Enquirer has got hold of them at an unguarded and un-photoshopped moment? Like those stars, we generally don’t allow that to happen. We approach our bathroom mirror deliberately and with certain preconceptions, and this usually determines what we see – “Look, I still look quite nice!” We add our own photo-shop: We angle our head in a certain complimentary way, perhaps smile seductively at ourselves, hold our stomach in, and stand up straight (don’t tell me this is just me!! I’ve seen you…) But how often have you heard someone relay how they were travelling up an escalator in a mall the other day when they caught sight of a middle-aged overweight grey-haired person with terrible posture in the mirror, only to realize with horror that it was their own reflection?!  And you wonder what others see sometimes. The other day I wandered down to an open-air blues concert in my town and an ancient man (who was probably my age) tried to pick me up, as if he stood a chance! I felt I was way too young for him, but he probably thought I was just the same age.

When we’re young, we take it in our stride when someone says: “You’re gorgeous!” But the most we can hope for as we get older is: “You’re looking good for your age.” The Buddhist scriptures talk about “the mask of youth”. That smooth flawless skin must fall off sooner or later, even if we try to resist it like some kind of Dorian Gray making a pact with the devil of self-pre-occupation. We can be the opposite of Dorian Gray – becoming more beautiful on the inside, even as our face and body succumb to the years and gravity. (Of course I’m not suggesting we entirely neglect what we look like, just that we don’t exaggerate its importance.)

Why am I saying all this? Only to encourage everyone, or perhaps just myself, to not worry about getting uglier because it is inevitable, at least superficially at skin level. We can cut mold out of an orange, but it is still only a matter of time before the whole orange succumbs. And though there may be more oranges in the fruit bowl, we only have this one body, so our ageing is an indicator that it is time to get out of samsara, the cycle of impure life, by focusing on what we can control, our mind.

If you are beautiful inside, you’ll never be ugly. People will always find you attractive and want you around – that is one of the main benefits of patience, for example. So we could save ourselves a lot of time and heartache by taking Buddha’s advice on board. And sooner — learning to see it coming while we’re relatively young — rather than waiting until the last minute, when we really can kid ourselves no longer but have left ourselves little to fall back upon. Luckily, we are not our bodies so we don’t have to identify with them so desperately. There is a great deal more to us. Our body has a limited shelf life, but the continuum of our mind does not.

Finally, we don’t even have to focus on our bodily age if we are interested mainly in the inner life of our mind, for our mind is ageless. I always find it fascinating how, from a Buddhist perspective, all of us are the same age because our mental continuums have existed since beginningless time.

Over to you: Do you agree? And have you ever met anyone who is more beautiful as their body grows older? What is their secret?

p.s: Ageing happens to everyone who lives long enough, even George Clooney, who claims to be scared of getting old and dead. The London Times quoted him last week:

“There’s only a certain amount of time” (about 10 years he thinks)—“when you get the keys to the kingdom. I’m terrified of the moment when you’re the guy who goes to the studio and says, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ and they’re like, ‘Thanks for stopping by,’ and you walk out and they roll their eyes.”

Please share this article with all the old geezers you know, if you like it.

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