Facing ageing with strength

Eileen Stead Madhyamaka Centre

Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were. ~ Neil Young

Continuing from this article, how can we remain positive when we’re getting old and our body starts to go wrong? I have a few people in my life who have grown old so well that I intend to copy them as I age. One of them is Eileen.

A widow’s story

One of my dearest friends, Eileen, is now a 91-year old widow, physically frailer but still 39 inside. Eileen first met Geshe Kelsang in the late 1970s. In 1996, when she was a spry 70-something, Eileen came to Florida and ran around (pretty much literally) for years helping set up Buddhist centers, before returning to England to live in her cottage in the grounds of Madhyamaka Centre. Eileen Stead Madhyamaka Centre

I first met Eileen years earlier, when her husband was dying, and she has been no stranger to sickness, ageing, loss, and death. So I asked Eileen recently to tell me how she copes so well with it all, and this is what she wrote:

How does one deal with the sufferings of old age? I remember with a wry smile Geshe Kelsang’s description of an old person. He said they were bent over and walked like bird catchers. I thought at the time (20 years ago), “How amusing,” but wait – if you live long enough, you too will walk like a bird catcher. I am aware that recently I am walking with small unsteady careful steps. I make an effort to be sure I’m standing upright and attempt to stride out. I stumble a little, and my lovely Grandson grabs my arm, and says, “Careful Granny.”

Where did the girl go, the one who ran up and down the Lake District hills, and swam in freezing Scottish seas or the warm waters of Florida? I must not fall into the danger of nostalgia, longing for the things that are gone forever. I can remember them, though, with love and gratitude, and maybe when the sufferings of old age become more apparent they will help me. I know for sure that I have deep gratitude for all the wonderful experiences of this life, my husband, my friends, the music and flowers in the garden, and so much more. How could I not be grateful?!  

thank you for kindness

Widows – what do widows do? What do they feel? How do they react? Some, I know, have become very angry – “Why did you leave me?!” Some sink into depression, and some actually take their own lives. I’m sorry to say that these reactions are not helpful, and can only cause more bitterness in the mind. A far better way, I believe, is to acknowledge that all life in samsara has to adhere to the cycle of unending birth, death and rebirth, and nothing anyone can do will change that, so why give way to anger when the inevitable happens?  

We lose our friends too, particularly if we have a long life and they do not. To attend their funerals, and know that yet another good companion has disappeared from your life – that is hard too. These losses have to be met with patient acceptance. It is the only way. As long as we are in samsara we shall have to experience the conditions of samsara and have to deal with our ripening karma, unless we can purify the negativities in our mind. Just as anger can destroy our positive imprints, so compassion and love can purify the negative ones. That is a good thought, and we can work at it with great diligence. 

If through the teachings of Buddha we can become less self-centered, free from our self-grasping mind, and learn to trust in the spiritual path, a new contentment will pervade our lives and we can ride the waves of our suffering and will not drown. We can become a pure being, a Bodhisattva.

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.)

A sliver of life, finger food for thought

food for thought and meditation


Rousseau, Buddhism
I just went out to buy a collar for Rousseau* at a local supermarket, as he managed to lose his during his nocturnal ramblings. I got him a pink one this time – embarrassing for a Real He Man Cat but, I figured, more visible.

The 30-something Salvation Army guy outside had appointed himself as guardian of my bike. He praised me for taking the exercize and volunteered that he had just put on 30 pounds in two months. The way he spoke about it, it was like as if something had happened TO him, without him even noticing. “I used to exercise but for the last two months I was just laid about on the couch after work.” “Did you have an injury?” “Oh no, I just felt like laying around. And I ate a lot. In fact, I noticed that I had drunk a crate of sodas in the last two weeks. Weighed myself on that scale in there today, 30 pounds! Bit of a shock! Yeah, when I come to think of it, my clothes don’t fit so good neither.” If he lost that 30 pounds, he’d be a very decent weight, so how did he not notice that the pounds had been creeping on? He just didn’t. He sort of answered a question I have about people who put on a lot of weight without seeming to notice; the way he was talking, it was as if it was an unfortunate accident. Perhaps it was. (Perhaps it is time for me to weigh myself again, something I usually studiously avoid, weighing yourselfpreferring to rely on the scientific method of how tight my trousers feel.)

He was a nice guy, and I was thinking that although this was curious and a little disappointing for him, far worse is our inability to notice when our mind is becoming incrementally more heavy or sad, without our taking early or preventative steps to exercise it with positive thinking or feed it with the healthy food of meditation. In any event, we agreed that if he didn’t buy any more sodas he’d not be inclined to drink them, and that if he took up exercise again he’d be 30 pounds lighter when I next saw him. I hope so. (Though I think dieting can be harder work than training our mind…? Or, to put it more encouragingly, training the mind can be easier than dieting… What do you reckon?)

A few minutes later I found myself caught up in a small military parade of infantry men who had definitely kept themselves together physically. They were marching right where I normally bike home, for some unknown reason, and I ended up having to follow them. They were crisply dressed in their deep blue uniforms with yellow piping, their pressed trousers ending just above their shiny black shoes, in exactly the same point on the ankle. They were holding sleek but intimidating rifles with bayonets and they walked in step beautifully, effortlessly throwing the bayonet from one hand to the other. I found myself thinking: “I hope they have as much control over their minds as they do over their bodies.”

On the home stretch, my bike chain came unstuck and I got my hands all oily fixing it.

Rousseau the cat and Buddhism Then, remember that pink collar I just bought?! Well, when I got home, I noticed something blue and shiny dangling from my postbox. Much to Rousseau’s relief, some kind stranger had returned his manly collar.

This errand took all of half an hour from beginning to end. Just a normal slice of life, taking its unexpected small (in this case) twists and turns. But it was another reminder that the appearances of life, whether good or bad, are always changeable and unpredictable.

Although we like to feel we have tabs on the general narrative of our lives, we have really no idea who or what we are going to meet from one minute to the next, let alone from one year to the next, and forget about from one lifetime to the food for thought and meditationnext!

The only thing we can learn to control is our mind; and seen in that context every one of our encounters is food for thought, with a potential to nourish our compassion and/or wisdom.

*(I wrote this article six months ago. Nowadays, I’ve given up on collars for Rousseau, manly or otherwise.)

Your turn: which encounters have fed you the most food for thought recently?

 

Martin Luther King and the power of love

MLK

This short article below appeared on Kadampa Life this time last year, but the blog was in its infancy so not many of you have seen it. Here it is again, to celebrate Martin Luther King Day on Monday.

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A Kadampa nun gave the annual Martin Luther King lecture at Montana State University last Monday, speaking to about 400 students, professors and community members.

King proved power of love, nonviolence, speaker says

Martin Luther King Jr. achieved incredible changes in American law and society, yet it all sprang from what was within his mind, a philosophy based on love, compassion and wisdom, a Buddhist nun told a Bozeman crowd Wednesday.

Gen Varahi spoke in Washington DC, a breath of fresh air in a city known at the moment mainly for its partisan bickering.

Democrat or Republican, the only way to make a lasting difference in our world is to have a good intention — beginning, middle and end. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in Mahamudra Tantra (page 9):

Wherever we go and whatever we do depends upon our intention. No matter how powerful our body and speech may be, we shall never be able to do anything if we lack the intention to do it. If our intention is incorrect we shall naturally perform incorrect actions, which give rise to unpleasant results, but if our intention is correct the opposite will be true.

As Gen Varahi, a former medical doctor, points out:

King was a hero, who led a movement that took America out of a “very shameful” position to one we can be proud of”… “We can be like Martin Luther King if we train our minds to react with compassion and wisdom…. King’s use of the practical philosophy of nonviolent worked. It showed us the power of love.”

(Great article, hope you can read it all).

I read last Sunday’s papers yesterday and came to my usual conclusion that the world is a mess.

Africa — disaster
Arab world — disaster
Afghanistan — disaster
American job situation — disaster

And that is just the A’s.

And why? We can point the finger at any number of external causes and conditions, and usually do. In politics different people point fingers at different causes, and then spend most of the time arguing about what they’re pointing at.

But the real causes are the delusions — i.e. unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — of everyone involved. Anger, greed, ignorance, pride, hubris, hypocrisy, selfishness, the eight worldly concerns… These are all states of mind, nothing external.

Imagine if  they were replaced by love, generosity, wisdom, humility, straightforwardness, honesty, unselfishness, equanimity…?

“King realized that you cannot separate the ends and means”, Varahi said. “Over time, violent methods do not result in peace.”

(See the article for her reply on the efficacy non-violence in the face of violent dictators).

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang is fond of saying:

“Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.”

Atisha, the original Kadampa Teacher, said:

“Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.”

It might sound obvious when we see it, so why do we keep pointing the finger elsewhere when things go wrong?After all, whenever we point a finger, there are four fingers pointing back at us.

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.

Who deserves credit for Kung Fu Panda 2 and the rest of our life?!

Po and five

Po’s father

I went to Kung Fu Panda 2 3D yesterday with my father. (He insisted!! Or perhaps that was me?!) Either way, it was even better than I thought it would be – both entertaining and inspirational. I will write an article on it soonish but, before I do, I want to start at the end. Which is also the beginning…

Remembering the kindness of others

At the end of the movie, the closing credits rolled for many minutes; page after page of people who were responsible for writing, directing, producing, filming, editing, designing, composing, visual effects, animating, modeling, supervising, engineering, and all round awesomeness!!

Thousands of people were kind enough to bring this one and a half hour movie into creation for our enjoyment. We may even notice and acknowledge a few of them, e.g. Jack Black and Angelina Jolie :-) But though I decided this time to stay to the very end, everyone else in the auditorium had left long before the credits finished rolling.

Thousands of people are also involved in bringing an hour and a half of our regular life into creation too – in fact we are dependent upon the kindness of thousands of people at any given moment. We may even notice a few of them, at least every now and then, and if they are obvious enough!

People left the cinema the moment the action stopped most likely because where the action actually came from didn’t seem sufficiently relevant to them, and besides they had things to do and their own lives to get on with. In a similar way, in our busy lives, in our personal worlds, with our own individual priorities and conceptual thoughts, it is rare to acknowledge everyone who has been involved one way or another in giving us literally everything we need to live moment by moment. Our self-grasping ignorance is in fact telling us that we are independent and don’t depend that much on others, that we are somehow self-made, that our world revolves around us as the main protagonist with everyone else being a bit player.

Take this moment. Perhaps you feel that you are moreorless alone in it, reading this – you’re not bothering anyone and likewise no one is bothering you. We’re all somehow separate. But if we look carefully we see that we are never alone and that every breath, every thought, every cell comes entirely from others.

You are looking at this on a screen on some magical electronic gadget, which in itself is the result of the imagination and work of many thousands of people; and the infrastructure that supported them involved many more people. You are able to read this because people taught you to read and because you have eyes that depend on your parents and on all the food and medicines you’ve taken throughout your life to keep you alive. I’ll assume you’re wearing clothes, which if you check the labels you will see come from people all over the world and the families who support them. And so on, ad infinitum.

Even our ability to contribute depends on the kindness of many others. For example, our education, our money, our skills, our job, our audience, our supporters and our responsibilities only exist due to the kindness, generosity and willingness of others. When we find ourself in a responsible or exalted position, it is easy to develop a pride thinking that we are rather special and higher up because others depend upon us, not the other way round. But the fact is that the more we are in a position to contribute, the more we depend upon them, even as the objects of our contribution, and therefore the more cause for humility we have. If they were to withdraw their support, our infrastructure would crumble and we would be nothing. So we might as well get off the fragile pedestal constructed by our pride and join everyone else on level ground. (It’s more fun down here anyway ;)

It is rare to be grateful for more than a fraction of the kindness we have received from others. The kindness of others is not new information – it becomes obvious as soon as we take anything more than a superficial egotistical glance at the apparently solid uncaused infrastructure of our lives! There is a meditation in Buddhism called remembering the kindness of others. We only need to remember something if we’ve forgotten it in the first place. You can learn this meditation in Modern Buddhism, now available completely free, no strings attached, as an e-Book due to the kindness of the author and, one way or another, the actions of thousands of other people past and present:

We are able to make use of many things with very little effort on our own part. If we consider facilities such as roads, cars, trains, airplanes, ships, houses, restaurants, hotels, libraries, hospitals, shops, money and so on, it is clear that many people worked very hard to provide these things. Even though we make little or no  contribution towards the provision of these facilities, they are all available for us to use. This shows the great kindness of others. Both our general education and our spiritual training are provided by others. (p 67 ff)

If we had a closing credit for each moment of our lives, it’d be at least as impossible to keep up with reading all the names as it was in Kung Fu Panda.

The Kadampa Temple for World Peace, Sarasota, Florida

The other day I attended the Florida New Kadampa Tradition temple opening. For nine years I was very much involved at that center, during which time the temple project was started and much money was raised. The Je Tsongkhapa statues were imported, painted and filled, and the five lineages of Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden created from scratch by talented artists at Manjushri KMC, and dedicated from the start to KMC Florida. I and many others prayed every day for a long time for this temple to arise.

Young Jin No (foreground)

However I have been living elsewhere for the past three years, during which time the temple was constructed under the expert building direction of Young Jin No, an old student who had previously built another center in Florida. She showed me around, no detail too small to rejoice in.

offerings of light

The temple is magnificent. There is no doubt that the modern day Kadampa master Geshe Kelsang has given the Sunshine State the most outrageously wonderful gift. And thousands of man and woman hours have also gone into it. It depends entirely upon millions of causes created both in this life and no doubt in previous lives – take any one of those causes away and this particular temple would not exist. Apart from making prayers and rejoicing, I myself have been out of it for the past three years, during which time new people have become involved who don’t know me from Adam. This is true of a number of people who were previously entirely instrumental in the temple even in this life, not to mention previous lives! But although only a few people may now recognize our contribution, I realized during the opening ceremony that not one of the causes we created was lost. And that even if there had been a closing credit of us and everyone else who has ever helped bring this temple into existence, no one would have been much interested anyway – for how interested are we really in the people who built our house, made our roads, taught us at school, and so on?! Isn’t that ancient history?! Are we not mainly just interested in how we can personally use these things now, in the present?!

From my own side, it has always seemed a bit pointless seeking praise or reputation, or being upset and demoralized when I am ignored, misunderstood or criticized. I have found it far more constructive and rewarding to concern myself with developing positive states of mind and good karmic intentions. Being attached to praise and reputation are so-called “worldly concerns” that do nothing to help us overcome our pride and self-cherishing, which is why the great Kadampa mind-training master Atisha famously declared in his Advice:

“Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.”

(BTW, have you ever noticed how Geshe Kelsang blows his nose during the long-life prayer done for him at festivals?!)

On the other hand, remembering and acknowledging what others have done and do for us right down to the cellular level is a supremely powerful method for breaking us out of our own little worlds by seeing how dependent on others we actually are. Other people are, in fact, not bit players but the main protagonists in our life, deserving at least equal billing! This wisdom understanding interdependence gives us humility, gratitude and loving-kindness, and the wish to repay their kindness. It makes us happy and peaceful.

So me and dad stayed right to the end of Kung Fu Panda 2 and I mentally thanked everyone whose names were appearing on the screen — right down to the technical resource tester and post-production office supervisor — for the enjoyment they had given us! Moreover, though there was no visible screen of rolling credits at KMC Florida, I felt grateful the whole weekend I was there; and as a result I had a blast!

There is nothing to stop me or you from remembering the kindness of others every day, every moment, of our lives. Your comments, including how you do this meditation, are very welcome. And please share this article if you like it.

Oh woe is me! How to stop distracting ourselves from happiness.

i love myself

Probably, as mentioned in this previous article, the worst fault of self-cherishing is how it undermines our wish and capability to love and help others. I have a couple of embarrassing examples of this from just now, which I have summoned up the courage to share with you below …

As my teacher says in his wonderful mind-training book Eight Steps to Happiness:

The main reason why we do not cherish all living beings is that we are so preoccupied with ourself, and this leaves very little room in our mind to appreciate others.

It is like you’ve worked hard and paid a fortune for a hotel room with a view, only to discover that this view is entirely obscured by a huge rocky mountain right in front of your window. Self-cherishing is likened in the scriptures to a huge mountain blocking our view of the valley of others, a big shame when we’ve paid a karmic fortune to be in this precious human life.

Tai Lung

The awful distraction of self-cherishing cannot be over-estimated and makes us useless to others. Whenever it arises it distracts us to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes tragically, from the meaning of our lives and the source of real happiness, which is cherishing others.

I had a haircut yesterday and I don’t think Vince (not his real name) cut enough off. Vince was regaling me with a long sad story about an obese employee, and clearly he is a bit of a ham, and I’m not sure if he paid enough attention to my hair. He probably did, but my self-cherishing thinks he should have talked less and concentrated more. So I’m wondering whether to go back and have more chopped off, even though a friend told me its nice (but she doesn’t have to live with it on her head…). Basically, I have had some boring monotonous petty thoughts, plus annoyance at those bits of hair that keep falling into my eyes (which also remind me that my eyesight is deteriorating, which reminds me that I’m getting old…) Oh woe is me!

Then a particularly crafty mosquito buzzed around me all night and this morning, and I haven’t been able to catch her to take her outside. I have slathered myself with OFF! and smell like a chemical factory, but nonetheless she scared me in the night into having the sheet right up to my neck even though it’s hot, and she was still hungrily bugging me during my morning meditation session. Look, I love mosquitos in principle, and especially when they are behaving themselves. But I’m covered with itches. Oh woe is me!

So I open my emails and one is from a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, who was always a bit disturbed but is now sounding flat-out paranoid and threatening suicide. I have to find a way to help her…. I also get an email from a close friend saying that her mother has just had a (mild) stroke and is being kept in the hospital, and that it is a “shock”. And it is, for a few minutes until Madam Mosquito bites again.

Okaaaaaaay……

You’d think those two bits of news would be enough to occupy my mind with thoughts of compassion and how to help, but no, still my self-cherishing wants to veer off those things and back onto the bad hair day and the buzzing mosquito. I have to make an effort to ignore its demands.

(I would like to seguey into a little praise here for my friend, the Buddhist monk Kelsang Nyima. Standing chatting with him outside the NKT mother center Manjushri Centre’s front entrance one day, I noticed his hands were covered with small red welts. Indeed, there was a still a mosquito sucking out his blood. I asked him why he didn’t shoo her away and he replied matter of factly that she was hungry. Then he changed the subject.)

I can only be humbled by such patient generosity, but at least my own 30 years of practice helps me to recognize that it is crazy and, frankly, embarassing to be even remotely bothered about myself given the far worse situations of my friends, not to mention the entire rest of the planet and all six realms. Yet these two incidents have been a useful reminder that, until my self-grasping and self-cherishing are entirely eliminated, I am always in danger and cannot be complacent. My “biggest problem” during the minutes of distraction is bad hair and buzzing mosquitoes, not my sick friend or my friend’s sick mom, if I’m honest, and I might as well be. Those seemingly reasonable and self-protecting worries are entirely unreasonable and treacherous. Stop you buzzing biting mosquito and let me generate compassion!!! Let me offer the victory to others, but please be sure my hair looks hot while I’m doing it.

(Check out this blog, where the blogger says the same thing, only better. I don’t think this blogger is a Buddhist, which just goes to show that these teachings are common sense and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to choose cherishing others over self. It works for everyone, every time. Buddha gave some beautiful wise practical advice on how precisely to do it though – and you can read this in Eight Steps to Happiness.)

Got any examples of your own that you’d like to embarass yourselves with in the comments? And if you like this article, please share it.

“Me me me me me me me me me me me me me me me”! (to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy)

rubber band 1

Self-cherishing — thinking that me and my happiness are the most important in the world  — is bad news for me and for everyone else. Very bad news.

Beaker unwittingly demonstrates some of the perils of self-cherishing in his rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy:

Self-cherishing not only destroys our chances at any lasting peace or happiness (having already made our lives miserable since beginningless time), but it also directly prevents us from being able to help others have a less miserable life. And this is the case even if we are basically decent and would actually like to help others.

The rubber band of self-cherishing

While we remain tethered and bound by the demonic delusion of self-cherishing, our wishes and attempts to help others will always have an expiry date – we’ll do it for a while, perhaps, but there are obvious built-in limits. Try stretching a rubber band from your thumb as far as you can, and then letting go. Ow! In the same way, we may stretch ourselves with great effort and strain to help other people, but the moment our mindfulness slips our mind snaps back to self-cherishing.

For sure, we rarely admit to being at the center of the universe at polite dinner parties, but it is not hard to figure out that this is exactly how we feel. Who does it feel like the world revolves around, if not me? I and a bunch of strangers were swimming in the ocean the other day and I wondered what I’d think if a shark was approaching. Whose leg would I want the shark to bite off?! If I’m ravenous and there is just one piece of pie left, who gets to eat it? As my teacher says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

Our ordinary view is that we are the centre of the universe and that other people and things derive their significance principally from the way in which they affect us. Our car, for example, is important simply because it is ours, and our friends are important because they make us happy. Strangers, on the other hand, do not seem so important because they do not directly affect our happiness, and if a stranger’s car is damaged or stolen we are not that concerned….

Excuses, excuses

We are a little embarrassed by our self-cherishing in its naked form, so we clothe it in front of others and ourself with all sorts of justifications: “Look, I need my leg more than them because I’m a runner.” “Honestly, I should be the one who has that piece of pie because I’m bigger than everyone else and need the calories more.” Etc etc. You can check any number of everyday examples. Anytime we put ourself and our needs above others, what layer upon layer of excuses are we coming up with?!

When analyzed, my excuses for putting myself above others are exceedingly lame and superficial for they mask the actual truth – the reason I don’t want my leg bitten off is because it is my leg. The reason I want the last piece of pie is because my happiness and freedom from suffering are most important. It just is like that because I’m me.

Who is fighting whom?

self-cherishing v me

Yes, I have work to do! First thing is to realize who the actual enemy is and why, so I can stop being victimized. This very same attitude — nothing and no one else — has caused every single one of my problems while ingratiatingly pretending to be on my side. (You can find out all about its faults and oily, deceptive nature in Eight Steps to Happiness.) This recognition alone takes us an exceedingly long way in the right direction. It also brings us some instant peace of mind.

Geshe Kelsang says:

This self-centered view of the world is based on ignorance and does not correspond to reality.

The self we cherish is the inherently existent self that is apprehended by our self-grasping ignorance.

Important announcement: this self doesn’t exist!!

So what are we doing cherishing it?!!

Self-cherishing is a delusion, which means it is an unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind that arises from inappropriate attention. Its important to remember that self-cherishing, like all our delusions, may be a deep bad habit as we are so darned used to paying inappropriate attention to ourselves, but it is not an integral part of our make-up. It is like a big cloud – it may have swooped down like a black spaceship to block out the sun, but a delusion cloud is always temporary and adventitious, and can never destroy the clear sky of our Buddha nature.

Mother Tara

Cherishing others on the other hand arises naturally from a recognition of the truth – that others are kind, that we depend on them for everything, and that cherishing them has countless benefits. Because it is part of reality, it is also part of our Buddha nature. It is far more who we are than the self-deceptive distorted delusion of self-cherishing. We need to remember this or we think we’re fighting ourselves. We’re not. We’re fighting our enemy, and on our side in this battle we have not only our own pure potential but also every single enlightened being. Therefore, we are bound to win.

Do you think there is ever a time when we need self-cherishing? Your comments are most welcome. And please share this article if you like it.

Mind-training and social work

social work 9

This is the third 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 and for the second, see Where is a problem? 

Throughout my three years of training to become a social worker I have undertaken three long-term work placements.  The first was in a baby’s hospice caring for children with life-limiting illnesses.  They offer palliative and respite care for babies/infants from birth to five years old. I loved this job!  To be honest I have never felt so much unconditional love for others in one organisation, especially towards the ill children.  I have lived and visited many Kadampa Buddhist Centres in my time who show a brilliant example of tolerance and acceptance to people from all backgrounds without wanting anything in return, and the experience at the baby’s hospice was similar.

Exchanging self with others

At times it was quite a busy environment and twelve hour shifts too.  I try and always make time to do my meditation though, even if very tired I do my daily offerings and pujas (chanted prayers) to keep the blessings going (and me).  One of the main meditations to focus on when in a busy care environment is exchanging self with others (from the Lojong or mind-training tradition).

In the morning before work, I always try and include prayers in my meditation such as Prayers for Meditation (available here) or Heart Jewel and try to feel close to Buddha.

Before actual meditation I dissolve Buddha into my heart and imagine that I already have the spiritual realisation of exchanging self with others, imagining what it would be like to have this mind.

Then I contemplate Buddha’s teaching on exchanging self with others, feeling it is possible to change the object of my cherishing from myself to all others, and develop a heartfelt determination to develop this mind.  I find that this meditation is meditation on love — cherishing love, perceiving others as precious and important.

A playful social worker

If it is a good meditation then I can carry this feeling of love for a while at work– even when extremely busy, having staff, visitors and children wanting my attention.  At busy times like this I try and mentally repeat in my heart, that others matter and are more important than me, repeating this like a mantra.  It helps me become more self-aware and less stressed, actively listening to what others are saying and trying to fulfil their expressed needs.

It is perhaps easier with children.  In the children’s hospice it was never a large group and most activities were therapeutic and playful.  In a way you are becoming just like them (although still aware of your duties and health and safety).  You join in with all the activities they are doing such as messing about in a soft play area, arts and crafts, playing with toys, laughing and joking, and trying to get out onto the swings in the park.

This playfulness reminded me of how I should be with my meditation practice to overcome laziness, being playful and light with meditation.

Non-sectarianism

The hospice is on the grounds of a Catholic nunnery and although it is not a religious organisation there seems to be a Catholic religious background and culture to the premises and nearby organisations.  I think people found it quite cool me being a Buddhist and I was accepted into the work life (as a professional and at times as a volunteer) and also, the social life of the organisation and community.   I found that there was harmony and mutual respect between myself and those in the hospice that were religious.

Gen Pagpa and other religious teachers opening the world cup stadium in Cape Town

In Understanding the Mind Geshe Kelsang explains how mixing religions causes sectarianism but that if you practice your own tradition and respect all other traditions at the same time, this leads to harmony and tolerance. (Gyatso, 1997, p162).  I showed this example here well, as did the Christians I worked with.  At times I was asked to attend church services with the children and often with colleagues we shared spiritual or religious beliefs and respected the similarities and differences.

Not so long ago I attended their Christmas party, hoping to be asked to be Santa, having been a Buddhist Santa in other care settings in the past. I missed out, but happily engaged in the fancy dress party (Cowboys and Indians), handing out Christmas presents to the children and making sure that they and their family had a good time – all part and parcel of trying to exchange self with others.

No arms, no legs, no worries!

Nick Vucicic

This brave, funny and happy man is helping millions of people to change their attitude, seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty. He is inspiring because he is a dramatic, visible, irrefutable example of how life depends on how you look at it. It is hard to sustain self-pity or even self-doubt when watching this video. That might be why some people have watched it many, many times!

Where does happiness come from?

Nick Vujicic reminds me that we have all the tools we need to be happy — very happy, indeed very blissful — but we won’t get round to using them if we don’t sincerely believe that we possess the seeds of happiness within. If our starting point for meditation is: “I’m a real mess and happiness is alien to me, but I guess I should try this meditation thing”, or — identifying with the delusions — “I’m so deluded, I better get around to training my mind”, we are off to a very slow and possibly quite torturous beginning. To succeed in becoming happier, we first have to actively want to be happy and stop buying into our misery. (It may sound obvious, but this step is surprisingly often left out.) Then, with that, we can be confident that happiness is a given if we apply effort. Why? Because we are not adding anything that is not already there.

The root of the Western word “happiness” is apparently Scandinavian and means “luck”. Happiness is randomly assigned to lucky people in some cosmic lottery, sorry mate if you got the losing numbers. And a lot of people subscribe to a Western psychotherapy “set level of happiness” theory, where an individual is always moreorless at the same level of happiness – studies showed happiness spiking or dipping due to e.g. winning the lottery or getting cancer, but returning to the same level later. If we believe all this, there is not much point in training the mind to be happy.

However, the only reason these studies showed that people’s happiness doesn’t appear to change much during their lifetime is because people are generally not training in happiness – they are trying to find happiness in external sources. Buddhism 101 explains how happiness is a state of mind, so its real cause lies in the mind, not the external world. Change the mind, everything changes. Change the mind a lot, and everything changes a lot.

I’ve had a lot of external changes over the last few years, and some of them have looked rather alarming to my loved ones. Over the holidays, my aunt, whom I haven’t seen in a while, asked me: “But how are you really feeling? I know you are always happy, but what is really going on?” What do I answer, “I’m really feeling awful… but I’m happy!” No, it is one or the other.

Yesterday, a friend told me how in a teaching he compared training the mind to going to the gym, in that you wouldn’t get round to going to the gym if you didn’t know for sure that you already had muscles to exercise. My biceps may be rather puny at the moment, but they are there, so I am prepared to make the effort to bring out their potential (well, I”m not really, but I am prepared to continue the effort to meditate.)

And if someone without arms and legs can learn to be happy, what is stopping us? As one school kid’s comment put it:

“I shall always remember this when I think I’m having problems, be happy. ‘Cos if he can, anyone can.”

Precious human life

One way instantly to lift our spirits is to count our blessings rather than worrying about all the things we don’t have. As another comment put it:

“Before this video, I felt I was so unlucky and I’ll never be good at something. After watching, DAMN! I’m lucky!”

This video for me was a meditation on my precious human life. Precious human life meditation is placed at the very beginning of the stages of the path so that we actually get going on the other stages. If we don’t remember and feel glad every day about how lucky we are right now, we’ll never get round to using our good fortune. We’ll take this rare life for granted — count out our life in coffee spoons — even though Buddha compares a precious human life to a star in the midday sky.

Nick Vujicic is being described by many as “a hero”. He has gained a victory over his own mind by fighting the inner enemies of self-pity and self-doubt. His website is called “Attitude is Altitude”. Nick Vujicic may not be able-bodied, but he sure is able-minded.

"I LOVE LIFE!" ~ Nick Vucicic

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