Meditation versus action … more from our social worker

article 5.1

This is the fifth article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. The others can be found here.

In this article, he is asking significant questions about the relationship between Buddhism and social action, important to address, especially in our modern age.  Please share your understanding in the comments box below, particularly if you work in any of the caring professions!

Continuing on my reflections on working for a mental health charity as a student social worker, I found that being mentally prepared for the work I did was essential.

Meditation on compassion

I tried to make universal compassion my main practice throughout these months, making sure I started the day with a meditation on compassion or at least incorporating compassion into my meditation e.g. having a compassionate motivation/intention at the beginning of the meditation and a compassionate dedication at the end.

I always dedicate my meditations for the enlightenment of each and every living being, but I feel it is ok to include people you know who have a particular suffering (which could include service users) and pray (without attachment) for their liberation from their present suffering.   In fact this makes my meditations and virtue more personal and more powerful.

At work, most of the time I was able to remain unnerved and at ease with service users, with love and compassion (being relatively free from my own self-cherishing) protecting my mind from any negativity in the working environment.

Tackling stigma and leading by example

Another aspect of working for a mental health charity can be tackling the stigma and discrimination there is against people with mental health distress. It has been encouraging to discover this year that mental health charities are beginning to make progress in this area, but there is still a long way to go.  I found that talking openly about my own past and present mental health distress has helped service users and their families considerably.  It can be so beneficial to open up and talk about your difficulties and, once you do, and there is some acknowledgement, difficulties can be shared and reduced, and as a society we can all become more aware of mental health distress.  You do have to check, however, how much you can self-disclose and such practice is more accepted in social work than it is in healthcare.

This placement experience reminded me that it was my own stress, anxiety and depression that led me to Buddhist meditation; and it is this medicine for the mind that I keep on taking several times a day for the rest of my life, gradually improving each year.  People can be relieved and less frightened too when they realise that you are human and experience similar difficulties.  They become more open to your help.

Meditation v. action

Trying to lead by example is the main way I help people, but there are times in social work where you have to act as an advocate, representing a group of people or to politicise a little.  You can become very passionate about this and feel justified in becoming angry.  On my course at university I was a student rep as I felt sorry for the younger students struggling with the course.  It felt good and beneficial to encourage them to stand up for themselves, but I struggled with representing groups of people who were angry or upset; and I realised that the Buddhist belief in personal responsibility doesn’t mix with trade unionism.

These are areas where I can have difficulties, and I am interested in what any of you have to say.  Are your own meditation, prayers and example enough, or could we do more for our society? Could the products that Kadampa Buddhism offers such as the meditation CD’s, teaching in schools, chaplaincy and any other act of public service be more offered and marketed to areas of our society that need it?

I often found that in the academic training in social work, my use of my knowledge and experience of Buddhism wasn’t appreciated, and perhaps there is danger of mixing Dharma too much into our worldly work life and that it is best to quietly lead by our own example? What do you think? If I was to train as some kind of mental health practitioner I would have to study practices that are similar but different to Buddhism.  Could and should Kadampa Buddhism offer more to the care industries in our societies?

Perhaps you would be willing to help me by letting me know what you think below.

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Our job as a parent is to become irrelevant

child making a decision

Another guest article from our Kadampa working dad. The rest can be found here.

I believe our job as a parent is to become irrelevant!

What does every parent want for their children?  We want our children to become fully capable individuals that make wise decisions on their own.  A wise decision is one that leads to true happiness.  Everything we do as a parent should lead to this final result, and we should use this final result as a guide to know how to respond to every parenting challenge and as a litmus test to see whether what we have done as a parent is mistaken and needs to be corrected for.

When our children are born, they are incapable of anything and make all the wrong decisions (put your finger in an electrical socket, anyone?).  In the end, we want them to be capable of everything and to be able to make all the right decisions on their own.  So in the beginning, they need us for everything, but in the end we want them to need us for nothing – in short, we want to become irrelevant (or more precisely, no longer needed). 

So how does this work in practice?  There are no fixed rules, rather general principles we can follow as a parent.  When it comes to helping our children become fully capable, I try to use the following principles:

1 For things they are not yet capable of doing: don’t expect them to be able to do it.  I would say 90% of the problems we have as parents in the early years of our children’s life come from being upset when our children don’t live up to our expectations.  We expect them to already be able to do things, and then when they don’t, we become upset at them.  When we get upset at them for not doing something, we create serious obstacles to their ability to joyfully learn the new skill themselves.  They will reject what we have to say because for them it comes as a punishment and a control, not a helping hand.  For the things they are not yet capable of doing on their own, just do it for them with an excited attitude of “one day you will be able to do this all by yourself.”  Think potty training!  This attitude makes them want to do things on their own in the future.

2. For things they can learn to do:  help them learn how to do it on their own.  This takes tremendous patience.  Usually as parents we are very rushed.  We feel we don’t have time to indulge our kid in spilling the milk bottle 20 times so they can learn from their mistakes, rather we figure it is just quicker and easier to do it ourselves.  But why are we so rushed?  We are rushed because we have to do everything ourselves.  Why do we have to do everything?  Because our kids don’t know how to do anything yet!  So while it is true in the short-run that it takes more time to help our kids do things on their own than for us to just do it for them; in the long run, we are actually saving ourselves time by taking the time now to teach them how to do things on their own.  It is crucial at this stage to instill in them the excitement of “me do it”, where they want to do it on their own – how liberating for them to become capable of doing things for themselves.  If you get this attitude correct at this stage, you avoid the pitfalls of the next stage.

3 For things they are already capable of doing:  don’t do it for them.  It is very easy for the ‘compassionate parent’ to fall into the extreme of becoming their child’s slave.  While this may seem compassionate, there is no wisdom to such an approach.  Yes, we are supposed to serve others and all the rest, but we must do so with wisdom.  We are not helping our children by teaching them laziness and manipulation/exploitation of others.  So if something comes up that they are capable of doing on their own that they want you to do for them, just say “sorry, you are capable of doing that yourself.”  They will say you are being mean, but you will know you are being a wise parent.

If we check carefully, we will see that what we want as a parent for our children is exactly what a qualified Spiritual Guide wants for their disciples, the only difference is the scope of ‘capable’ and the extent of ‘wise decisions’ involved.  The Spiritual Guide wants us to become as capable as all the Buddhas and to develop an omniscient, compassionate wisdom.  As a parent, we would generally be happy with our children being able to get on in the world and to make good decisions in this life.  While much smaller in scope, it is a start and a prerequisite for the capacity and wisdom the Buddhas want for our children.  So we can view our job as a parent as preparing the ground to hand our children over to higher paths (if they so choose).

In the next part of this series, we will look at three key wisdom minds we should try help our children cultivate so that they can make “wise decisions” on their own!

Are you a parent? Have you tried these methods? Please share your ideas and experience in the comments box below.

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Five ways to deal with criticism, part 3

criticism 4

This is the final installment. For the first two installments, see Five ways to deal with criticism and Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2.

How about us criticizing others?

Most of you agreed that it is best avoided. This is because our criticism can hurt others and is often not that helpful. If we can’t take it (and even if we can), perhaps we need to avoid giving it, unless we are quite sure of our motivation :-) As Nicola Bear Davis said on Facebook: “I know how I feel when I’m criticized, so if tables are turned I will advise someone with enthusiasm and compassion.” We have to know who we are talking to and be free from delusions such as aversion or pride.

If you have some belief in karma, it’s worth remembering that harsh words (motivated by delusion) are one of the ten non-virtuous actions identified by Buddha Shakyamuni as being karmic pathways to immense future suffering. As Jas Varmana put it: “Minds being paths, do we choose the malicious speech path to suffering realms, or the loving-kindness path to higher rebirth? (Both when giving and receiving criticism?)”

A good time to remember karma is when we are on the the receiving end of hurtful criticism — we wouldn’t be hearing this if we hadn’t created the causes through previous criticism of our own. Time to catch the ping pong ball; it stops here.

Cindy Corey said: “I think most of us don’t quite have the skill or non-attachment that would allow non-harmful criticism. I would almost define criticism as trying to use negative feedback to get someone to do something our way and that’s a failure — as people are different and why should people do things our way? I was just doing some reading today with regards to happiness and better relationships and criticism was certainly in the list of 7 deadly habits that create more problems and unhappiness. I think we can help people see or discover what is not working for them through caring and encouraging dialogue, but our interior dialogue is so negative already that I don’t think judgments from others are helpful. In the end, what is important is the intention — to help someone or control them?” Eileen Quinn agrees: “Motivation is key, isn’t it? If someone is criticizing you through irritation/dislike/anger, you will be more likely to put up walls/dig your heels in/get angry etc. I remember a key incident now when this happened to me a few years ago, I didn’t react positively, well more with bemusement than anything, but then the criticizer’s words did seem to me to be from a position of personal dislike and irritation.” Maria Tonella chipped in: “How can you say ‘I don´t like the way you are doing something’ without hurting any feelings…?”

Most of us prefer criticism of us to be indirect (ideally prefaced by some praise?!), but some brave souls do prefer brutal honesty. JB Christy said: “I wish I would get more honest feedback. Mostly people seem to just stop talking to me rather than speaking honestly about what’s going on for them. If they’d talk to me I’d have a chance of doing better. As it is I have to guess what happened. I’m apparently a terrible guesser.” Eileen agreed: “I deal best with directness. If someone is indirect with me I can tell they’re ‘beating around the bush’ and find that kind of frustrating. I would rather someone honestly and straightforwardly said something to me.”

So, if we do decide we really must go ahead and give those invaluable words of advice out of a pure motivation, it seems we need the skill to know whom we are speaking to as well – some people might be okay with the direct approach, but others would prefer us to beat about the bush, giving constructive comments in an accepting context.

Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas

The ancient Kadampas were experts when it came to criticism, flourishing on it as the peacock flourishes on hemlock. And luckily all their advice has survived to this day.

As Neil Toyota pointed out: “Remember Langri Tangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind in Geshe-la’s Eight Steps to Happiness, which includes liberating methods to deal with criticism and view/cherish all living beings as spiritual guides.” Wong Tho Kong agreed: “All Vajrana Buddhism practices the Eight Verses of Training the Mind. Criticism is a welcome teacher. It depends on how much you are ready to let go.” And as Isabel Golla reminded us: “Remember Atisha’s advice: praise binds us to samsara so in order to overcome pride we don’t hold on to praise and instead practice non-attachment to reputation.”

Atisha and Geshe Langri Tangpa were old Kadampas and fully realized Lojong (training the mind) practitioners. I love reciting Eight Verses of Training the Mind regularly, including the verse:

When others out of jealousy
Harm me or insult me,
May I take defeat upon myself
And offer them the victory.

The Lojong teachings on exchanging self with others are probably the most powerful methods in existence for helping us to accept and even enjoy criticism, and thereby make rapid spiritual progress.

The emptiness of the self we normally see

When we are criticized it is a great time to check and see how our understanding of emptiness is doing — how sharp still is the pain of self-grasping? If we are still becoming angry or anxious in these situations, and blaming the other person and trying to get free from them, we can make a mental note that we need to improve our understanding of the object emptiness. These are signs that although we may have an intellectual understanding of emptiness we are not meditating on it.

The emptiness of the self we normally see every day is what we are trying to meditate on and realize. Being criticized gives us an enjoyable challenge — the bigger or closer the target, “How dare they criticize ME!!”, the easier and more fun it is to knock it down, and the deeper the understanding of emptiness and resultant joy. We can therefore use specific difficult situations that cause this inherently existent self to appear strongly to deepen our understanding of its utter non-existence. I find this the most blissful and liberating method of all, and it means no criticism (or problem) need ever go to waste!

Summary: Five ways to deal with criticism

To summarize what everyone has been saying:

(1) Ask yourself, “Is it true or not?” Follow Geshe Kelsang’s advice above.

(2) Identify with your pure potential, not your faults, and then you can accept and use criticism without feeling bad about yourself.

(3) Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas, who were the experts.

(4) Use criticism to realize the non-existence of the self we normally grasp at, and destroy all your delusions once and for all.

And last but not least …

(5) Avoid criticizing others unless you really have to!

Your comments are welcome on any of these three criticism articles, and please share and rate (press the stars on) the articles if you find them helpful. Thank you.

New Kadampa Tradition Gatherings

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso teaching

My teacher, Geshe Kelsang, started a tradition of Festivals and Celebrations in the New Kadampa Tradition many years ago, calling them “spiritual vacations”, and explaining their contribution in keeping the New Kadampa Tradition community and tradition strong. The Summer Festival — held at the mother ship Manjushri Centre in the first Kadampa Temple for World Peace — is two weeks long and attracts the most visitors from all around the world. I think of it as the equivalent of the Great Prayer Festival (“Monlam Festival”) founded in 1409 by Je Tsongkhapa in Tibet, also two weeks long and comprising teachings, meditations, inspiring company and other good stuff.

Although Geshe Kelsang did not teach at this year’s Festival (he will with any luck teach in Portugal in 2013), the show went on! And this year there has been a very nice new development – blog articles written from the unique perspectives of Festival goers from all over the world, some new to Festivals, some old hands. I’ve enjoyed reading these because they contain some real gems and show that Kadampa Buddhism can be and is being practiced by a large diversity of modern-day people at all levels and for all sorts of reasons. For reasons explained on this page, Where are the Kadampas?, I reckon the more bloggers the merrier :-)

Angela from England

Just to add to the mix, here is an article of my own that I wrote about Festivals some years ago. Of course this Summer Festival is almost over, but not to worry if you missed it, there will be more than enough Festivals, courses and retreats all over the world in the years to come. Pick your vacation spot — there will probably be a Festival there sooner or later ;-)

Arthur from Ireland

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that many of these benefits of a Festival apply to any meditation retreat we might do, even on our own. People always seem to love it when they can take a day or two, or a week, or even longer to recharge their spiritual batteries by focusing on meditation and reading. That is why it is called reTREAT!

Here is the original article:

Why go to a Festival?

Irving from South Africa

Anyone whose life is full of irritations, stress, and pain, whether physical or mental, needs a vacation from time to time. Just getting away from the usual routine and surroundings alleviates stress, promotes relaxation, and gives us some mental space with which to establish more positive attitudes.

However, thinking about it, what do we have now to show for our last vacation, other than a few souvenirs, a depleted bank account and a fading tan?! It seems, unfortunately, that the effects are almost always pretty fleeting. The temporary escape ends, but the same problems still seem to be there waiting for us when we get home to our unmowed lawn and back to work. What has changed? Have we come up with new behavioral strategies or spiritual insights, or are we thinking and feeling the same old things? How much impact has our investment of time and energy actually had? If it is back to business as usual, we are in danger of becoming so reinvolved with the details and hectic busyness of everyday living that we forget the deeper meaning and experiences of life.

Joelle from Scotland

Kelsang Menla from USA

That is why Festivals are so welcome – because they give us our well-earned break, but they also set us up for months, years, even lifetimes to come. This is because a Festival is designed to be a “meaningful vacation” or a “spiritual vacation”. It represents a chance to go to an exciting new place and to relax and unwind, for sure, but it is also far more satisfying and productive than being a passive sightseer. It gives us the opportunity to find a deep and lasting mental peace by working on our minds, which is the essence of the Buddhist way of life. It gives us more knowledge and skills to deal with our problems in the present, as soon as we get back to work and home. We learn to live life in a more comfortable, healthy and meaningful manner. It provides long-lasting spiritual benefits and blessings that continue long after the vacation is over.

Marcus from Germany

Catherine from France

Last but not least, during a Festival we can make friends with inspiring people from all round the world who can provide us with support and encouragement. (Update to this article 2011: Then we can continue to meet up with them the rest of the year on Facebook… ;-)

Alice aged 4

Update: This latest one, just in, is my personal favorite:

“I wished to have the stabilisers off my bike and Tubchen wished for everyone to be happy. And then we took Tsog back to Mummy and had a midnight feast. I felt grown up.”

Festival Play Co-director

Also just in, the co-director of The Life of Buddha, Julie, gives some fascinating insights into acting and directing and its relationship with practicing Dharma. (For more on Kisogatami’s moving story, see the death article, Preparing for Something?)

5 tips from a Buddhist dad on making time for a daily practice

family sleeping

This guest article from our Kadampa Buddhist dad, who has five young kids and a very busy job, is a continuation of Advice from a Buddhist dad on making practice a priority.

Making time for our daily practice

In the last posting we saw that establishing a consistent daily practice consists of two things: (1) making our daily practice a priority; and (2) making the time to do our daily practice.

We have already looked at why our daily practice should be our priority, now lets turn to the second question of  how do we actually ‘make the time’ to do our practice?  The following are some basic tips that have worked well for me.

1 Do your practice when everyone else is asleep 

Family life in particular places tremendous strains on our time.  In the end, the only way around this problem is to just do our practice when everybody else is asleep.  For me, I do it first thing in the morning because at the end of the day the only thing I can do is collapse.  How do you wake up earlier to do your practice?  Well, the easiest way of doing that is to go to bed earlier.  If that is not possible, then you will have to make trade-offs between hours of sleep and hours of practice.

For example, let’s say you have an 8 hour block of time for sleep.  Instead of sleeping all 8 hours, sleep for only 7 and do your practice for the other hour.  I have found that I am more rested after 7 hours of sleep and one hour of practice than I am after 8 hours of just sleep.  The reason for this is it is not enough to rest our body, we also need to rest our mind.  Only meditation enables us to really relax our mind.

2 Have the only thing you ask for of others be the time necessary to do your practice

In any relationship, there is give and take.  When your practice becomes your number one priority in the day, the only ‘take’ you will ask for of the others you live with is the time necessary to do your practice.  The only thing I ever ask of my wife is she gives me the time to do my practice.  If you waste your ‘relationship capital’ on other things, like seeing the movie you want to see or going to the restaurant you want to go to, then you won’t have any left over for your practice.  Just as we have finite money and must spend it on our top priorities, we also have finite things we can ask for in a relationship and we need to save it for our practice.

3 Understand that habits take time to form 

We need to make doing our daily practice a habit.  Habits are initially formed through applying consistent effort over a sustained period of time.  In my experience, it usually takes a good three months of forcing ourselves to do our daily practice before it becomes a habit.  But once it is a habit, it is very easy to maintain.  So if you can persevere through this initial three month period, you will establish a practice for life.  If you can’t, you will probably never establish a consistent daily practice no matter how many times you try get it started.  I think the reason for this is our practice has a cumulative effect where it is only after doing it for several weeks that we start to feel its effects.  We need to overcome our mental inertia, and unfortunately when we miss even one day it can be like having to start all over again.

4 Once you make it to cushion, choose to let go of everything else and allow your mind to focus on your practice

It is not enough to get our rear-end in the right place, we have to bring our mind there too.  We have worked so hard to create the space to actually meditate, so it would be a shame to then mentally not show up and actually do it.

One of the biggest obstacles to actually allowing ourselves to focus on our practice is attachment to immediate results from our practice.  We meditated for five minutes, how come we are not blissed out yet?  We measure the success of our practice against the feelings we generate as opposed to the causes we create.  A pure practitioner is happy simply to try.  It is by trying that we create causes, and it is by creating causes that results will come in the future.  As Ghandi said, full effort is full victory.  Full effort itself is our victory.

5 Finally, stop making excuses

We all think we are so busy and our lives are so hard that we don’t have time to practice.  But the reality is it is because we are busy and that our lives are hard that we must find the time to practice.  The reality is everybody is equally busy, just in different ways.  Everybody’s life is equally hard, just in different ways.

The good news is once we get started in our practice, it becomes self-perpetuating.  Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have goals we are working towards.  Perhaps our goal is to simply ‘do as little as possible’, but as we practice the Lamrim we start to develop higher spiritual goals (avoiding being reborn in the lower realms, escaping from all suffering forever for ourselves, becoming a fully enlightened Buddha so that we can lead all beings to permanent freedom).  Engaging in our practice functions to make these goals more and more central in our life.  As these goals become more central, the ‘need’ to engage in our practice will only grow because we will see how it is only our practice that will enable us to accomplish these higher spiritual goals.

So in short, it is very simple:  make a consistent daily practice a priority, then make the time to do it.

Free Buddhist meditation book ~ the gift of Modern Buddhism

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writing

The author of Modern Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a world-famous Buddhist master who has written 22 highly acclaimed books, wants to give away a free electronic version of his new book, Modern Buddhism ~ The Path of Compassion and Wisdom, to everyone in the world who wants one!

If you are interested in practicing meditation, I think you will find something you like in this book. Just click on this link for your copy: Free Modern Buddhism eBook.

(If you are new to meditation, and are interested in simple easy getting-started instructions, you might like one of these articles.)

Geshe Kelsang says:

“Through reading and practicing the instructions given in this book, people can solve their daily problems and maintain a happy mind all the time.”

I cannot help but feel rather happy about this cosmic no-holds-barred act of giving Buddha’s teachings, especially as I think Modern Buddhism is a spiritual masterpiece. It contains every Buddhist meditation and is a wealth of practical advice for living a happy, positive, and meaningful life.

So what can I do to help give it away? I can help to spread the word amongst family, friends and others. I also feel I can join in helping this come about by the sheer mental act of wanting it enough! Aspiration is the source of joyful effort and of all good results.

I have been doing this special tailor-made visualization on giving Modern Buddhism to everyone for some time now. It only takes a minute or so. I base it on the meditation on giving that Geshe Kelsang explains in Modern Buddhism itself, in a fabulous section called “Training in Giving in Conjunction with the Practice of the Six Perfections” (search for it in Volume One of your brand new eBook!!)

“How do we meditate on giving? In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:

… to accomplish the welfare of all living beings
I will transform my body into an enlightened wishfulfilling jewel.

We should regard our continuously residing body, our very subtle body, as the real wishfulfilling jewel; this is our Buddha nature through which the wishes of ourself and all other living beings will be fulfilled.”

If you prefer, you can visualize your regular body as the wishfulfilling jewel. (Just so you know, any words you are not familiar with are explained clearly in the book. For example, according to Buddha’s Tantric teachings given in Volume 2, our very subtle body or subtle energy wind is our actual body, as opposed to this gross meaty body with a limited shelf life. Our very subtle mind and body travel never-endingly from life to life and, once fully purified through the practice of meditation, will become the mind and body of an enlightened being.)

With love wishing everyone to be happy, we then believe that from this wishfulfilling jewel we emanate infinite rays of light which reach all living beings, giving them whatever they want. They experience the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment.

At this point, I imagine that at the end of each infinite ray of light is a copy of the Modern Buddhism, and that as soon as the living beings receive it they experience pure and lasting happiness. Then I make a dedication, such as the one by Geshe Kelsang below.

This meditation feels great! It creates enormous good karma (the mental potential for good fortune) and the cause to give spiritual teachings directly to everyone. And there is no reason you cannot adapt it to other things too.

This gift feels to me like one of Geshe Kelsang‘s auspicious deeds, in a whole lifetime spent in the service of others. He is starting by giving away the UK English version of Modern Buddhism eBook, but who knows where he may go with this next… And there are teachers he has trained in countries all over the world who are giving oral commentaries to this book to bring it even more alive. The idea of everyone in the world, whoever they are, and however much money they do or don’t possess, having access to this treasury of exquisite practical liberating advice in their own language sounds almost too good to be true! Almost.

If you like Buddhist meditation, do help spread the word by sharing the link to eModernBuddhism.com everywhere. The sooner people have the choice to download and read this book, the sooner Geshe Kelsang’s dedication can come true:

“May everyone who reads this book experience deep peace of mind, and accomplish the real meaning of human life.”

(Geshe Kelsang’s kindness in giving away Modern Buddhism reminds me of how good it is to have met such an accomplished spiritual master in this life, hence this article: What is the point of faith).

Advice from a Buddhist dad on making practice a priority

Biggest problem

This is the second guest article from our Kadampa Buddhist dad, who has five young kids and a very busy job. The first is Kadampa Parenting.

Making our daily practice a priority

In many ways, the biggest obstacle to our attainment of enlightenment is our inability to establish a consistent daily practice.  This is especially true when we have a busy family and work life.  But with a consistent daily practice, we will eventually attain enlightenment — it is just a matter of time.  Without a consistent practice, we will never attain enlightenment, no matter how long we wait.

Establishing a consistent daily practice really comes down to one simple question:

Are we organizing our practice around our life or are we organizing our life around our daily practice?  

Establishing a consistent daily practice is not rocket science, we simply need to “make it a priority and then make the time to do it.”  In the next two postings by me, I will explore these two points.  First, let’s look at why we should make our daily practice a priority. The bottom line is we do what is important to us.  We work on what we consider in our hearts to be our priority.  We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to act towards the fulfillment of our desires.  We cannot change this.  What we can change, however, is what we desire.  We need to make doing our daily practice the biggest desire in our heart.  If we do this, then maintaining a consistent daily practice will be easy.  So how do we make doing our practice a priority?  There are several things we can consider:

The most important thing we need to do is correctly diagnose what is our problem.  Without thinking too much, ask yourself the question:

What is my biggest problem?  

Instinctively, we come up with a long list of external things that are our problems, such as our work, our partner, our finances, etc.  Since we consider these external things to be our problem, we naturally work to change these external things as the method of solving our problems.  If we check, the nature of human life is problem solving.  All day, every day, our every action is aimed at solving our problems.

But here’s the rub:  we have misdiagnosed the problem.  Venerable Geshe Kelsang gives the example of our car breaking down.  In such a situation, there are two problems — the car’s problem and our problem.  We need a mechanic to solve the car’s problem, but our problem is our deluded mental reaction to the external event.  We suffer when our car breaks down because our mind relates to this event in a negative way.  If we examine it carefully, we will see that any external event only becomes a ‘problem’ because we don’t yet know how to relate to that event in a different, positive way.  If we can learn to relate to this event in a positive, virtuous way, our car breaking down won’t be a ‘problem’ for us, rather it will be a ‘blessing.’  Thanks to our car breaking down, we can now work on our mind and on overcoming our delusions.  Fantastic!  We will, of course, still need to go to the mechanic to fix the car’s problem, but our problem will have been solved.

The same is true with all external events.  We only have one problem:  our uncontrolled, deluded mind.  This is our inner problem.  The car breaking down is not our problem, it is the car’s problem.  Our only problem is our deluded mental reactions.  If we clearly see our deluded mind as the problem, then we will naturally see changing our mind as the solution to our problems.  Our daily practice is the very method by which we change our mind.  If we understand this, then doing our daily practice will be the very method by which we solve our problems, and we will naturally do it.  If we get this one right, the rest will be easy.
To get you started, one useful trick you can do is to connect your daily practice with whatever you consider to be your biggest problem.  Before you start your practice, ask yourself the question: What is my biggest problem? You will come up with something external.  Then think to yourself, “no, that is an outer problem, what is my problem?”  Then you will see how it is your deluded mental reaction to the external event.

Then, as you engage in your daily Lamrim practice, try to directly apply the wisdom of the Lamrim meditation for the day as the means of changing your mind with respect to that external problem.  For example, let’s say your Lamrim meditation for the day is the dangers of self-cherishing, try realize how your problem is you are considering yourself as more important than others and therefore the solution to the problem is to put others first.

Or if your Lamrim meditation is death, think to yourself :

Will I be worried about this on my deathbed?

If not, why should I worry about it now?”

At a very practical level, a useful thing we can do is to think about all of the things we do have time to do, and then consider how our practice is even more important than these things.  For example, we find time every day to wash our body with a shower, in a similar way we should find time every day to wash our mind with our practice.  If our body smells, it is a real problem.  But if our mind smells, it ruins everything.  Likewise, we find time every day to recharge our mobile phones, so in a similar way we should take the time to recharge the virtue within our minds.  We take the time to nourish our body with (hopefully) good food, so too we need to take the time to nourish our mind with virtue.  Just as we fill our lungs with oxygeon, so too we need to fill our mind with virtue.

Whenever we do these things (bathe, recharge our phones, eat, breathe, etc.), we can remind ourselves of how we need to do our practice.  If we make a habit of reminding ourselves in this way, it won’t be long before our desire to do our practice will be ever present within our minds.

Transforming a great sadness: a Buddhist nun’s tale

Jilly-Sutton-Pontoon-Girl-Sculpture-female-head-sculpture-jesmonite-wood-peaceful-1687888

Here is an article from a guest writer, Kelsang Chogma.

I will explain how Dharma transformed a very difficult situation for me. This may seem like an extreme situation, but hey, this is samsara and you have to work with whatever it throws at you.

A few years ago my brother was killed in Afghanistan, along with thirteen other soldiers. It was a horrendous death in which their bodies were apparently ‘fragmented'; which meant that they had to be repatriated to the UK before all their parts could be identified using DNA sampling. What this meant for my family, and the other thirteen families, was of course a lot of pain, but through it all I also learned an incredible amount about the truth of Dharma, Buddha’s teachings.

The first thing I learned is that we need to have a knee-jerk, reflex action of going for refuge to the Three Jewels. It needs to be the most familiar reaction to any situation, so that it’s instantaneous, spontaneous. For in the first few minutes when I saw my mum almost hysterical with the pain from hearing the news of her son’s death, I forgot to go for refuge. Those few minutes taught me a lot. They taught me how it feels to experience samsara completely exposed without it’s deceptive veneer; how people without any refuge experience such unbearable pain that you feel like your heart has been ripped out and you’ll just die on the spot; and how the moment we go for refuge and pray for others with all our heart, that pain subsides and we become a source of refuge for the people we pray for.

The coffins of the authors brother and his thirteen friends

Within a few days each family got to spend time with all fourteen coffins in a make-shift chapel on an RAF base in Scotland. I remember they looked quite beautiful all lined up together in two neat rows of seven, with Union Jack flags draped perfectly in line with each other; and the smell of the wooden coffins filling the room. As I sat there in silence with the rest of my family, we just gazed at the coffins. At first all the coffins were equal to me as I had no idea which one contained my brother’s remains, for all I knew it might be all of them. Each coffin was just as important as all the rest, and in turn my feelings toward the men who’d died felt equal and my mind felt surprisingly peaceful. I started wondering which coffin my brother was in, and I focused on the one nearest to me, wondering if it contained his body. Immediately my mind became unpeaceful and I started getting really upset. What upset me most wasn’t that here might be my brother’s body but that suddenly that one coffin was the only one that mattered and the other thirteen coffins were irrelevant to me, like they didn’t even exist. It came as quite a shock and it just felt so wrong – these were my brother’s friends, his colleagues, who’d died in just the same way; and yet suddenly they didn’t matter. I will never forget that moment when I realised how immediate the painful effect of delusion is in our mind and how horrible it feels to disregard people who really do matter. I reminded myself that I didn’t know which coffin my brother was in and how all these guys were equally important – and my mind became peaceful again. I realised that what I was experiencing was the beautiful peace of equanimity.

Another thing that struck me as I sat there is that the parts of the body are definitely not the body, just as Geshe Kelsang explains in his books. If someone had come along right then and shown me all the fragmented parts of my brother’s body all put back in the right places, it could never have satisfied my wish to see my brother’s body as a whole, solid, unitary thing. I wished to simply see my brother’s body, not it’s parts assembled together. Nothing anyone could ever show me would match up with the image in my mind, but isn’t it the same now with all phenomena?

Another thing I learned was that even simple meditations done for just a few seconds can have an amazing immediate effect. At my brother’s funeral I was asked to read out fond memories of him that family members had written. I remember sitting in the chapel with his coffin in front of me and a picture of him on the wall above. He was given full military honours and many of his RAF colleagues and other officers were present; with the flag draped over his coffin and his RAF hat laid on top. As the service progressed I could feel myself getting more and more anxious as it came closer to the time for me to get up. I could feel my legs shaking and I didn’t know if I’d be able to even stand, let alone speak. I tried to imagine that my brother’s photo was a picture of Geshe-la, like the one I have above my shrine at home, gazing at me, smiling and encouraging me. I suddenly remembered a meditation Geshe-la had taught at the festival that year, from Mahamudra Tantra, the meditation on turning your mind to wood – absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts – so I did just that. I stopped listening to the service, I stopped feeling anything, thinking anything, held my mind still, and imagined I was an inanimate object, completely without thought. Just for a few moments it felt like slipping the gearbox out of gear, like things were going on around me but I wasn’t engaged at all. Then I started listening again and found that it had worked! I was ok, I had my Spiritual Guide with me and in a very distressing, adverse condition I had remembered some of his instructions and I’d put them into practise and felt their benefit. I knew that I’d be ok, and I was. I got through it with a picture of Geshe-la and one of Tara on the lecturn with me, and with my mala in my hand and my Guru at my heart.

We did a Powa, transference of consciousness, for my brother and I’m certain he went to the Pure Land – he sure has helped me get a little bit closer.

Kadampa parenting: A guest article

Crying baby

My friend, who has five children including two new twin boys!, has written an article for Kadampa Life on what it is like to be a Kadampa parent.

Some people believe that having children and a family is an obstacle to one’s Buddhist or Dharma practice. This has certainly not been my experience. My children and my family ARE my Dharma practice.

What does it mean to practice the Dharma? It means to clearly understand that we have no problems other than our own negative minds or delusions, and that the solution to all of our problems is to replace our delusions with virtuous minds. To practice Dharma is to apply effort to train our mind in this way.

An Old Kadampa master once said:

The essence of Dharma practice is to harm our delusions as much as possible and to help others as much as possible.

This, for me, is the key to transforming my family life into my spiritual path.

Some people think that situations that provoke delusions are obstacles to our Dharma practice. From my perspective, just as a beggar is needed to practice giving and an annoying person is needed to practice patience, so too situations that would normally provoke delusions in us are needed to practice Dharma. It is (relatively) easy to keep our minds virtuous when everything is pleasant and easy, but it is when we are being pushed to our limits that we are really forced to practice the Dharma.

From an ordinary perspective, family life can be hell on earth – woken up countless times every night, changing dirty diapers, constant crying, total irrationality, kids sticking their fingers in electrical sockets or every other dangerous thing they can find, the emphatic “NO” of a toddler, struggling to get your kids to eat something other than McDonalds and plain butter pasta, constant interruptions, no peace ever, constant fighting between siblings, dealing with “but all my friends already have a cell phone” at age 8, the occasional “I hate you” and “you are ruining my life”, just trying to get out the door or get anywhere on time, and this doesn’t even include the teenage years! Oh, and don’t forget that the average cost of a kid today is close to $400,000 by the time they graduate from college!

But for a Dharma practitioner, these experiences are priceless. Each one of these situations, and the countless others, will generate within our mind all sorts of delusions, such as self-cherishing, miserliness, frustration, anger, jealousy, wishing for gratitude, attachment to our own wishes, etc. When these delusions arise, it gives us a valuable opportunity to practice training our mind in the opponents to these delusions. Day after day, we can work on overcoming our delusions in some of the most challenging situations of our life. If we can learn to be a parent without delusion, frankly, we can do almost anything!

Parenting likewise gives us countless opportunities to “help others as much as possible.” Throughout Venerable Geshe-la’s books he describes all the different ways in which a mother is kind. Of course he does so to try help us generate gratitude for our own mother, but I also think there is a second layer of meaning for us parents: namely, he is telling us everything we ourselves need to do to be a good and kind parent towards our own children. There are of course the obvious things like caring for them, providing for them, changing their diapers, feeding them, taking them on special outings, etc. But often the best thing we can do to help our children is to be a good example for them.

One thing I have learned is it almost never matters what I say. It is just endless blah blah for my kids. But the example I set of the type of person I am is where the real helping comes. If I show the example of somebody who is giving, morally correct, patient, forgiving, dedicated, understanding, compassionate, calm, playful, joyful, fun, hard working, etc., then it is this example more than anything else which will help shape them. How we deal with the challenges of our own life, especially in the context of the family, will shape how they will deal with the problems in their lives. If we constantly blame others for our problems, so will they. If we assume responsibility for our own experience, they will do this too. So all the time in our family life, we can directly or indirectly help others.

Seen in this light, I personally believe that family life is my spiritual practice. I see no contradiction between the two. Yes, it sometimes creates obstacles to be able to go to all of the formal teachings I would otherwise like to or makes it sometimes difficult to find the time to do my daily formal practice, but all day, every day that I am with my family I can practice what it really means to be a Kadampa – to harm my delusions as much as possible and to help others as much as possible. When I see this clearly, instead of viewing my family as an obstacle to my practice, I view them as a gift from all of the Buddhas for my practice. When I see this, I am able to remain happy even when dealing with an outbreak of the stomach flu!

Where is a problem? … more from our social worker

kadampa social work 6

This is the second article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. For the first, see Meditation Helps Me Be a Better Social Worker and Vice Versa.

The problem is not in the person — the problem is the problem and the person is the person.
~ Solution-focussed social work theory

Our problems do not exist outside our mind.  The real nature of our problems is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind.
~ How to Solve Our Human Problems, Gyatso, 2005, p3.

When I first started training as a social worker I was immediately drawn to an approach which I feel is similar to Buddhism.  It’s called “solution-focussed assessment and intervention”.  As the first quote says, you don’t identify a problem in the person — the person is the person, the problem is the problem — and it is about identifying with solutions, and not giving too much energy to problems.

This reminded me of my Buddhist practice of trying to acknowledge my delusions, then let go of them and increase my positive qualities (solutions), and how as an aspiring Bodhisattva I can have a special view of others by not looking at their negative qualities, but focus on their good qualities and let these outshine any negative ones.  As Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Where is a problem?  It does not exist outside our mind.”

Many social workers are into empowering people and I find solution-focussed social work to be empowerment at its very best.  You try and get clients to understand that they don’t have to identify with their problems, to get them to try and see the changeability of a problem and that they can eventually deal with and even transform the situation.For example in a mental health charity I worked for I helped a service user realise that external problems such as personal relationship difficulties and negative people within the community weren’t always problems and that, when she was feeling good, the people were friendly and the problems weren’t there as much.  She understood the changeability of the situations and my advice helped a little. This person lacked self-esteem but I was able to help her improve her view of herself by helping her understand her good qualities such as being a good cook, being good at arts & crafts and being a very social person.  She learned to deal with her problems and difficulties better.

Arya Asanga

As a social worker you are a mediator between an individual and society.  You are concerned with helping vulnerable people and can often be a positive change agent for individuals.  Helping vulnerable people can be very beneficial.  In Joyful Path of Good Fortune my teacher Geshe-la quotes Arya Asanga’s eleven ways of helping others such as: alleviating the suffering of others and offering them assistance in their work, teaching others skills when they do not know how to accomplish tasks, removing dangers that threaten others, consoling others when they are in grief and giving material assistance to those who are destitute. (Gyatso, 2006, p457)

My Kadampa values have definitely helped me in my social work practice!  Through them I am now adopting my own individual assessment and intervention approach based on solution-focussed theory.  You always have to be aware of risk and assess this, but resilience, people’s strengths and solutions to problems are the main emphasis.

Your turn: your comment, questions and observations are most welcome! Please leave them in the box below. And do share this article if you found it helpful.

Other articles by our guest social worker are available here.

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