Subtle impermanence

time lapse 3

(Carrying straight on from Living in the moment.) We can ask ourselves how many of the decisions etc we make are truly new and how many are just impermanence 3recreating the past? Let’s say someone was critical of us yesterday and we became defensive. Then we see them again today. They are a completely different person — today’s person, not yesterday’s —  but we see yesterday’s person and so interact with them edgily and uncomfortably again.

Relating to yesterday’s person and not today’s gives rise to problems as the assumptions we make about them, and the ways we then interact with them, are completely false. And we can end up perpetuating the negativity for days, weeks, or longer. A grudge is a perfect example of this. We sustain anger in the present about a person who has long gone. And it doesn’t help them, or us. Resentment is, as the saying goes, like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Two ways to address the problem

There are 2 ways to address the problem of being stuck in the past illustrated in this example. The first is wisdom, cultivating insight into the nature of impermanence and change. The second is determination, combining this insight practically into our daily activities by deciding strongly to stop grasping at the past.

First, wisdom

this too shall passI’m going to spend this article and the next exploring the wisdom of subtle impermanence as explained by Buddha and my teacher Geshe Kelsang (in his books and oral Mahamudra teachings), and incorporating insights from a wise friend called Gen Samten, whom I find to be an expert on this subject.

In general, wisdom is defined as a virtuous intelligent mind that understands a meaningful object. It is not the same as just being smart. We don’t need to know everything to be free and happy — we need to know what is meaningful to be happy. Buddha illustrated this by picking up a handful of leaves in a forest, saying to his disciples that the numerous leaves in the forest represent all that can be known in the world, but the leaves in his hand represent all that needs to be known to attain liberation.

For example, when a king asked his Buddhist teacher for advice that would both lift his mind in adversity and prevent over-excitement and distraction when things were going well, his teacher taught him the simple phrase: “This too shall pass.”

Two different models of change

time lapse 2Do you agree that things change? I think pretty much everyone agrees that everything changes — we even say things like, “Things are changing all the time! Things are changing so fast!” That much is true, but our understanding of what change actually is is wrong.

There  are 2 different models of change, one coming from confusion and one coming from wisdom.

Suppose you walk past a house on way to work every day. That house undergoes changes, cracks appear, masonry falls down, and so on. Why does it change? The bigger changes are happening because moment by moment the building is changing. We can’t perceive that with our eyes, but moment by moment it is changing and we notice the more obvious results of this. We’d all agree with this and this is correct, BUT generally we feel that it is the same basic building that is changing from moment to moment. It has changed a bit but it’s the same house.

It’s the same with the relationship with our significant other. We can acknowledge that the relationship changes but we still feel it’s the same relationship – it’s the same as yesterday’s relationship but has changed slightly.

This thought is confusion because it isn’t true that it is the same building. It is not the same building. It is a completely different building. And the same is true for the relationship — no part of yesterday’s relationship carries over into today’s relationship.

What about us? We woke up, we had coffee, now some time later we’re here reading this, and we feel that I’m the same basic person who woke up this morning and had that coffee. I’ve changed a little bit, but I’m the same basic person.time lapse 3

But this is not true. We are a completely different person. The person drinking coffee and the person reading this now are completely different. Not even an atom of the person drinking coffee exists now. If they did exist, if the previous me had not ceased, where is it, and why are there not two me’s wandering around, one drinking coffee and one reading this?

We are a continuum of moments that are causally related but completely different. So, yes, the person who drank coffee this morning is the cause of the person who is sitting here now, but is completely different. The person sitting here is not that person who drank coffee — that person has completely finished, gone, not even an atom of them remains.

In How to Understand the Mind, page 134, my teacher says:

In reality we do not remain the same for one moment without changing, let alone for one life. Without the I of the previous moment ceasing, the I of the next moment could not arise. The I of one moment is the cause of the I of the next moment, and a cause and its effect cannot exist at the same time. A sprout, for example, can develop only when its cause, the seed, disintegrates.

seeds sprouting

Five replacement sprouts

This is the real meaning of change. The person who begins the sentence is not the one who ends it – every single atom has gone by the end. The person who begins a thought is not the same as the one who finishes a thought. Moment to moment to moment we are changing and not even a tiny trace of one moment is carried over into the next. The next moment is completely new, the previous me has completely gone, the person who drank coffee has completely gone. 

Yesterday’s weather has completely gone, we accept this, we know not a trace of it remains today. Heck, the whole of yesterday is like that – it has all completely gone, including yesterday’s me. 

So why hold onto the past, to something that has completely gone?

weatherUse bigger than smaller chunks of time

It can be helpful to begin relating to this truth with bigger chunks of time and then making them smaller. Where is the child we were? Completely gone. Where is the person we were ten years ago, five years ago, one week ago, one minute ago …? Completely gone. “But it is still basically me!” Only it is not. If it was, the five-year-old you would still be wandering around. But not one atom of that child remains. Not one atom of the you who started reading this sentence remains.

Today is your first day.

Continued here.

Mere karmic appearance of mind

nature of reality

There are two complementary ways to approach this subject of emptiness (carrying on from here). One is understanding that things don’t exist from their own side. Things lack inherent existence. Things lack thingyness. Mere absence of inherent existence is emptiness.

nature of realitySo, then, the complementary point to this is, if things don’t exist from their own side, if things don’t exist independent of our mind, yet they appear, how do they exist? What is that appearance?

It is mere appearance to mind, it depends entirely upon perception. Geshe Kelsang uses “appearance” and “perception” interchangeably – he has gone so far as to say we perceive things or we appear things. There is nothing out there to perceive; our mind appears things. (Even itself.)

Emptiness and appearance are like two sides of the same coin. They are in fact the same truth.

So why do things appear to us in the way that they do, and so differently for everyone? Our appearances or perceptions come from our karma and from our conceptual imputations or discriminations.

I can take my current city, say, which is Denver. The appearance of Denver to my mind is arising as a result of my previous karmic intentions; I am experiencing the results of previous thoughts that sowed karmic potentials or seeds on my mental continuum which are now ripening. (Quite nice seeds ripening today in fact — I must have done something good to be enjoying 79 degree sunshine in March and an array of half-naked people throwing Frisbees in Cheesman Park…) Cheesman Park

Denver is also the nature of my mind – arising simultaneously with the awareness apprehending it from the same karmic seed, like a wave arising from the ocean of my root mind. It doesn’t exist outside my mind any more than a dream of Denver. (Dream minds and their objects also arise simultaneously from the same karmic seeds.)

In so far as me and my fellow Denverites have created similar karma in the past, we are experiencing a collective appearance or perception of Denver and can agree that it is Denver. It’s like a shared dream. However, it doesn’t exist outside our minds – we cannot point at any objective Denver outside of our experiences of it. Some of those experiences we have in common, eg, “Look, there are mountains!”, “Look, it is sunny (again!)” — but if we were all questioned on what exactly Denver was or how it appeared, we would all come up with our own answers. None of us have identical karma so none of us have identical Denver.

cat looking at Denver

What is she actually looking at?

Denver also depends on mere imputation by mind. Denver is Denver because we came to an agreement that it was. Why do I hold this city to be “beautiful Denver” as opposed to “ugly Denver”, or even “Denver” at all? There is nothing from its own side that I can point to and say, “This is Denver”. Without me labeling or conceptually imputing “Denver” on its parts, it would not appear to my mind, not even to my eye awareness. Both my foster cats live in Denver as far as I’m concerned, but not as far as they are concerned — they discriminate it entirely differently, they don’t even know its name, and they are having an entirely different experience as a result.

For example, let’s say someone says, “Come and see my forest!” But you get there and there are only 10 trees – “You can’t call that a forest!” you might protest. So then our friend adds a tree, and then another, asking, “Got a forest?” Maybe we have some interested onlookers joining us. “Yes”, someone says after, say, 15 trees, “Now there is a forest!” Others agree, others are not so sure. More trees are added, and one by one, or group by group, people agree there is a forest, until everyone is agreed, “Yes, there is a forest!” (Except for the squirrels, who couldn’t care less about the concept of the forest, though might agree amongst themselves that they’ve discovered a useful food store.) squirrel

So where did that forest come from?! Which tree made the forest!? The very existence of the forest came about only through agreement, through convention; and that is why it is conventional reality, rather than ultimate truth. Where do agreements occur? In the mind. So the forest depends on the mind. Likewise, which house or road made Denver?

The point of all this is that we are constantly creating our own reality with our intentions and with our thoughts, so we may as well create the best one.

If we understand how everything is mere karmic appearance of mind, we know the importance of creating the best intentions or karma possible to bring about the lives we want.

If we understand that everything is the nature of the mind, we know the importance of purifying and transforming the mind.

If we understand that everything is mere imputation, we can also understand that in any given moment we can choose how we discriminate or impute our world to the most beneficial effect — denver capitol building lit up whether we discriminate others as annoying or as our kind mothers, for example, or whether Denver is an ordinary city or the Pure Land of a Buddha. Even though things appear and exist due to karma, we can change our imputation of them. Nothing is fixed.

(This is a profound subject, I am only touching on it in passing here. More coming soon. But hopefully, if your curiosity is piqued, you’ll check out that chapter on emptiness in Modern Buddhism that I was telling you about.)

The Non-Thingyness of Things

Thingness

ThingnessThe other day I was sitting among exotic plants, hearing the trickling of a small waterfall and the call of wild birds. Could this be Florida?! But a quick glance upwards reminded me that I am still in Denver —  this was not a “real” tropical paradise but a giant greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens. Rather like a virtual reality tropical forest, like Avatar the movie or something. But I was sitting there feeling just as blissful as I do when I am in the tropics, experiencing this beauty as arising from a blissful mind, beauty that could be found nowhere out there. So it got me thinking, What is the real difference? Where is the real difference? I’ll leave you to ponder that and let me know in the comments

First clear some space

When thinking about Buddha’s wisdom teachings on emptiness, it is a good idea to do so from the standpoint of some flexible wisdom and good motivation rather than graspy ignorance and self-cherishing. We can clear some space first – drop from our thinky head into our heart center and let some of our grosser conceptions dissolve away into the peaceful spacious clarity of our own mind. Imagine, if you like, that all your water-bubble-like thoughts melt back into the water-like-consciousness from which they arise and of which they are made, in the ocean of your root mind at your heart. We can invite Buddha to join us there.

Outside the greenhouse, therefore more real?!

Outside the greenhouse, therefore more the real Colorado?!

Then we can remember why we don’t WANT things to be real in the first place, and how clinging at our own thoughts & projections as if they are independent of the mind binds us needlessly to suffering, like tying ourselves in knots in the sky. We can develop a warm heart thinking how utterly wonderful it will be when our friends and everyone else has transcendent mental freedom and bliss, having let go of grasping.

Emptiness is naturally beautiful. It will free both ourselves and others. If we appreciate that beauty with admiring faith, we want to drink it in, spend time with it, rather that see it as a spiritual chore that is a struggle to comprehend.

Now we are ready to think about emptiness!

Thingy-ness

(I am carrying on from this article, Appearance and Reality.)

Thingyness 1aEmptiness has a specific meaning; it is not nothingness. Emptiness is the lack of inherent existence, not the lack of existence. This is where contemplating appearance and reality comes in handy because we can say that things do exist but they exist as mere appearance. There is nothing behind the mere appearance. There is nothing we can point to and say, “There it is!”

So what our ignorance does for us is that it grasps at a reality behind and within things. It grasps at a thingy-ness. Everything seems to have a thingyness. There is something really there. I think that “thingyness” can be a helpful way to describe inherent existence, which is the technical term.

The truth or thingyness behind appearance. There is something out there and it is appearing in a certain way.  Buddha is not arguing that there is no tree at all. Our problem is that we think there is something that is REALLY the tree. That the tree is more than just mere appearance or reflection, there is a real tree there.

The reality is that there is nothing behind the appearance of tree but what our ignorance does is grasp at a thingyness or (it)self of tree – it is called “self-grasping ignorance” and it grasps at things as if they exist in-and-of themselves. Because our mind is grasping all the time at things being real – at real bodies, real tables, real annoying people, really delicious pizza, really horrible death — we suffer. All our delusions come from grasping at things to be more solid or real than they actually are. The wisdom realizing emptiness is the opposite of self-grasping because it realizes there is no thingyness anywhere to be found, and that lack of thingyness, or that lack of inherent existence, is emptiness. The mere absence of thingyness is emptiness itself. Thingyness 2

As mentioned, emptiness does not mean a lack or absence of everything. Emptiness is not nothingness. There is still a tree, but it’s just not a real tree. Identifying what it is we are grasping at, which is inherent existence, is called “identifying the object of negation” in Buddhist meditation on emptiness. And I think considering appearance and reality helps us to make this identification.

Purple dye

For example, let’s say that at birth you’d been injected with a purple dye and because of this you saw everything as purple. You see things like doors, your house, your friends, and even yourself as purple. And always have done since birth. Then someone comes along and says, “Ahem, you’ve got some strange pollution in you and it’s causing everything to appear purple. Things are not purple.” And you think, “OH, she’s saying nothing exists. If things aren’t purple, how can they exist?” But, in fact, she is not saying that things don’t exist at all, but that purple things don’t exist, or that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, ie, purple.

Likewise, what Buddha is saying when he says that things are empty of inherent existence is not that things don’t exist at all, but that inherently existent things don’t exist, or that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, ie, inherently existent.

Thingyness 3

Ok, this has become an excuse to post my latest CO photos …

All these things still exist, but they are not purple. The appearance of purple is misleading us into thinking that things are really purple. But they are not really purple. It is distortion in the mind that is causing everything to appear purple. It is a pollutant or contamination in the mind, and to decontaminate or purify the mind we need to see things as they are. What is that pollution, that distortion? It’s ignorance, the root of all suffering.

In Modern Buddhism, available as a free download, there is a beautiful chapter on emptiness called Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta. It is well worth the time to read the whole chapter slowly, deliberately, and contemplatively and take it to heart because it is liberating wisdom from Buddha. There is a section in this chapter called What is Emptiness? (p. 104)

Emptiness is the way things really are. It is the way things exist as opposed to the way that they appear.

If we are still an ordinary being who has not yet realized emptiness …

we naturally believe that the things we see around us, such as tables, chairs, and houses, are truly existent, because we believe that they exist in exactly the way that they appear.

They are true as opposed to fake because their appearance and reality coincide, and this means that they are real because they appear real.

Due to our beginningless grasping at things as being real, at the moment whatever appears to us appears to exist Thingyness 4from its own side. It appears to be real. A bit like you’ve been injected with purple dye at birth and that is all you’ve ever seen, so you have deep familiarity with that. In the same way, through our familiarity with self-grasping, not just in this life but in countless previous lives as well, the imprints of this ignorance are causing everything that appears to us to seem to exist from its own side, under its own power. A thing unto itself. But in fact no thing exists like that.

It is our ignorance that causes us to perceive things in that way and then to grasp things in that way. There are two things going on. First off, due to our previous ignorance and the imprints of that ignorance, everything already appears to us as if existing from its own side.  I’m over here, you’re over there, stars and planets are over there. This thing we’re reading seems discrete, independent of the mind — we don’t feel our mind has had anything to do with bringing it into existence. It just IS. A minute ago, before you Thingyness 6logged onto the blog, you had nothing to do with this article – then it suddenly appeared from its own side and generated a consciousness of itself.

That’s how things appear at the moment. Even we ourselves appear that way to ourselves. We feel real. Our body and breakfast feel real. Everything appears real to us. That’s the first thing that happens

Then, instead of distrusting that appearance and wondering if things really are as real as they appear, our ignorance immediately latches onto that appearance and assents to it, “Yes. This is how things are.”

It’s just a deep-seated almost instinctive grasping — it’s not like we’re going around saying, “That’s how are they are, that’s how they are.” We are just blindly assenting because we haven’t yet examined to see if they really do exist in that way. A bit like just grasping at things being purple rather than ever examining to see whether things actually are purple.

This carries on here

Appearance and reality

tree

When we think about appearance and reality, we think of them as two different truths. But the truth is that they are not.

treeConsidering appearance and reality helps us understand where our ignorance, and therefore our problems, lie. This is because, generally speaking, when we think of something, for example a tree, we think that the tree is appearing and that there is something there that is the tree appearing. We don’t think of the tree as just being appearance. We think there is something there appearing. There is a tree that is appearing.

When we think of our body, we don’t think of something merely appearing, like in a dream say –we think there is something there that is my body appearing to me.

When we think about ourself, we grasp so strongly at ourself — we don’t think of “myself” as just an appearance of mind, we think there is something that is really me appearing. There is something behind the appearance.

reflection of treeFor people who have not experienced emptiness, if something is not real, then we don’t trust it. We feel that something has to be there to trust it. If it was just a reflection of a tree, just an appearance in a lake, say, and there was nothing behind that appearance, we know we are being deceived because there is no real tree there. What we don’t realize is that we are being deceived all the time.

We distinguish between the appearance of a tree and a tree. We think that trees and planets and bodies and jobs are somehow real and solid and dependable — the ground of our being. And a mere reflection or appearance of a tree is utterly false and deceptive. And so, for ordinary beings who have not realized emptiness, there is a need to distinguish between things that are real and valid and things that are fake, apparent, deceptive, hallucinatory.

A famous actress recently had a lot of work done on her face and her appearance changed dramatically. Where did the actress’s “real” face go?! People are calling her fake, saying that it is not her face. But of course it is her face. Just not really her face. But nor was her previous face really her face.

We need to explore what is real and what is fake. And basically we come to see that everything is fake. Except for reality.

appearance and reality

What is really moving?!

However, reality is not what we think it is. For an ordinary being, reality means inherent existence, it is things existing from their own side. You have a tree over there, the mind is over here — the tree exists from its own side and has the power to generate an awareness of itself. In fact, it doesn’t, but that’s what it feels like because our ignorance makes us think the tree is really there. So for us the reality of the tree is the tree being a tree from its own side. That is the truth. That is the ground of our being.  Take that away and there’s nothing. We actually mistake inherent existence for reality, whereas reality is the lack of inherent existence. The truth is the opposite of what we think at the moment.

And this is why we suffer. In Buddha’s analysis, ignorance is grasping at reality, inherent existence, and truth as all being the same. Thinking that things are as real as they appear, when in fact nothing is as real as it appears. There are things we know we are not being fooled by, such as mirages, hallucinations, reflections – “I’m not fooled by that mirage! fake realOr by that Botox! Or by that fake brand name!” But, unfortunately, we are being fooled by everything else. And because of that we suffer. If we didn’t suffer, we wouldn’t need to examine the nature of reality because we would be fine. But the fact is that all our delusions and all our contaminated karma come from grasping at something that is not there. We are grasping at a reality behind the appearance of things, when there is none to be found.

Next article, The Non-Thingyness of Things, can be found here.

There is no boogey man under the bed

realizing emptiness of the self we normally see

self-grasping ignorance destroyed by wisdom realizing emptiness According to Buddha, the way to attain true and lasting mental freedom is to realize ultimate truth, emptiness. What does this mean? We have to stop what binds us to suffering — our self-grasping, which is a deep ignorance grasping at a real or inherently existent self in objects and people, including ourself. We do this by cultivating a wisdom that realizes the lack (or emptiness) of inherent existence of everything that exists.

All that can sound a bit complicated or technical, but over the last few decades Geshe Kelsang has been making Buddhism more and more accessible to Westerners, and a few years ago I believe he put a realization of emptiness within reach of many people with the surprisingly simple but radical description:

The things we normally see do not exist.

This includes ourself. He also says:

The self we normally see does not exist.

That’s because the self we normally see or perceive is the inherently existent self. But it is also the self we normally perceive, the living, breathing, neurotic, sad, or happy “me” of any given moment, ie, it is not some abstract concept. “The inherently existent self” can be harder for us to get our heads around, it can feel a bit theoretical.

The mere absence of the self we normally see is the way our self actually exists. The self we normally perceive, grasp at, and cherish does not exist at all. The non-existence of the self we normally grasp at is the emptiness of our self, the true nature of our self.

(This is not the same as saying that the self does not exist at all. Emptiness is not nothingness. Things do exist as mere imputations or projections of the mind, like objects in a dream.)

Who are you?

The first thing to do when meditating on the emptiness of our self is to identify the object of negation, which means we have to figure out what it is exactly that does not exist – what is the inherently existent self as seen in our own experience, not in an abstract way, and how are we grasping at it.

Before Geshe Kelsang came up with his brilliant way of describing it, it was only too easy to be theoretical rather than practical about it.

For example, after receiving my first teaching over 30 years ago on identifying the inherently existent self based on the instructions in Meaningful to Behold, the resident teacher asked us to describe what we thought it was. The instructions had been good and entirely accurate, but it was hard to equate these with the self that I normally relate to, and nor did I really know I was supposed to. The self is a slippery thing when you try to pin it down, and when, as advised, you try to think about how it would look if it was inherently existent, it is only too easy to start making things up. Nonetheless, in meditation I thought I had found what might be it, so I put my hand up. Although it took longer than a sentence to describe, more like a rambling paragraph or two, this was the jist of what I said:

“If I think about it, my “self” feels like something in my heart, like something small, dark, and solid.”

Not the right answer. My teacher replied: “So, you’re a piece of coal?”

realizing emptiness of the self we normally seeIt may sound daft, but I know from talking to many people over the years that they too basically make up the negated object, and then try to realize its non-existence, which means they don’t end up focusing on emptiness at all. Then meditation on emptiness is no fun and doesn’t feel liberating, and they prefer to stick with seemingly easier meditation practices instead. If you find this happening to you, it probably means you have not yet identified the self you normally perceive clearly enough to get rid of it in meditation. In traditional parlance, you have not found the target, so any arrows of logic you shoot toward it, however sophisticated, will miss their mark.

It’s easier than you think

What I think is that once you have identified the self you normally perceive, the rest of the meditation on emptiness is not hard at all – with even just one or two considerations, such as trying to find it, you can see that it does not exist. This understanding is wisdom, and directly opposes self-grasping. It is exceedingly liberating, and on the spot pulls the rug out from under a host of regular, everyday problems coming from self-grasping (and also self-cherishing, which piggy-backs on self-grasping). Do this meditation enough — let the non-existence of the self you normally see become clearer and clearer — and in time you will dissolve away all your own samsara, which after all is only a product of your own self-grasping and self-cherishing.

Ocean of Nectar teachings at KMC NYCIt is my go to meditation when things come up (which is daily). Without any personal experience of seeing that the self we normally grasp at does not exist, teachings on emptiness can sound to us like dry, arid, logical arguments at a remove from our everyday reality, even though they are not. But when you do get it right, there is nothing better. And you can get it right early on, avoiding the mistakes many early students made before we had it explained in ways that were much easier for us to understand. Once you get it right, all the teachings you hear on emptiness, however seemingly complicated (such as those on Ocean of Nectar currently being received by those lucky students in New York City) are like butter soaking into hot toast. They click. They enhance our existing experience in very profound and exciting ways.

When Geshe Kelsang wrote Modern Buddhism, he proffered some encouragement to read the chapter on realizing emptiness:

I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta.” Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.

I personally think there is no better chapter to read on emptiness, and hope you get a chance to read it lots of times, each time getting more out of it. The book is a free gift from the author.

Turn on the light

While we’re on the subject, I just wanted to say something more about how much Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of Kadam Dharma, stressed identifying the negated object, using our conceptual mind, as opposed to finding liberation by stopping conceptual thoughts altogether. realizing the lack of the self we normally see with Je Tsongkhapa's reasoning

If you think there is a boogey man under your bed, how are you going to overcome your fear of it? The only really effective way is to turn on the light and see if the boogey man is really there. It might take a bit of courage, but when you discover an absence of boogey man, you can really relax. You have to start with an idea of what you are looking for, and how it makes you feel, or you won’t know when you haven’t found him and have that incredible relief.

If instead you decide to stop thinking about anything at all in order to overcome your fear of the boogeyman, you’ll gain a temporary release from fear at most. But you’ll never be convinced he isn’t under the bed still – as soon as conceptual thoughts arise again, so will your fear.

This is why the Kadampas emphasize Nagarjuna’s view over other views that suggest meditation is just the absence of conceptual thought.

Turning on the light of wisdom by meditating on the emptiness of ourself, we see the absence of the boogey man “self” we normally see – we will see that it doesn’t exist at all, not under the bed nor anywhere else. If we do this over and over, we will gain more and more freedoms from the deep habit we have of grasping onto the boogey man self. It is like turning up the light in our room brighter and brighter until we cannot fail to see with our very own eyes, directly and vividly, how that boogey man simply is not there. Then all our samsaric fears shrivel up, never to return.

Life is stranger than fiction

water bubble and reflection

On a recent Saturday evening, I was invited to the birthday party of a dear old friend, a party filled with amiable characters from all parts of the world.

Among me and my friends were S the ebullient New Ager, J her elegant French mom, I the dear Danish healer, H the kind Texan host, A the Dutch retiree with a twinkle in her eye, P her mischievous ex-Nato husband, I the calm Floridian Braille teacher and observer, B the liberal Unity churchman, C the cheerful Puerto Rican grandmother, and L the British Buddhist. We ate lots of tasty food, conversed loudly, sang happy birthday twice, watched the space station go by outside in the sky 17,000 whole miles away, got tipsy on champagne or sugar, and laughed a lot. And only one person texted the whole evening, as far as I could tell, perhaps because the youngest person there was 43.

A few scene snippets: S is talking animatedly about her recent trip to the Philippines and her shock at returning to affluent white man’s land where people cannot distinguish between ‘needing’ and ‘wanting’. She makes a good point, and also adds that unfortunately the shock is fading fast. Elderly P asks her what she does, and S replies, “I cannot answer such an old world question. I can make up an answer if you like.” He volunteers that he also spent time in the Philippines and when I ask him “what did YOU do?” he replies straight-faced, “The usual. I was a hired killer.” I’ve only just met him; I have no idea if he is pulling my leg. Then his wife sings for us a Brazilian song in a strong Dutch accent, after which the conversation turns to chelation and why brown rice (the main thing I eat!) is now bad for you, and the differences between Europe and America (in Europe people have more acquaintances, in America more friends, but are they really the same thing?), and some safe conversation about grandchildren. Then we all went our separate ways home and the evening dissolved.

There, with these few words and labels I have given you a tiny bit of a handle on just one of countless Saturday night scenes, but we’ll never find anything behind those labels if we look!

What was really going on that evening?! Who there can say? We can each only describe our experience and these are all bound to be quite different to everyone else’s – we came to the house with our own karmic background, states of mind, discriminations and feelings, which entirely colored, nay, created, the whole evening. Yet we still thought WYSIWYG – what we each saw was what was actually there.

Life is fleeting and empty

However, like a dream, there was nothing really happening at that party. It was merely a dance of fleeting appearances projected by our minds – some appearances collective, e.g. we could all agree there was vegetarian sushi served – but probably most not. It was empty of being ‘real’ – it lacked objective existence. If we check, nothing in any situation exists ‘out there,’ or from its own side.

Everything is mere reflection of the mind, and its only depth is emptiness.

Thoughts about thoughts

While enjoying the party, and in general enjoying life, these thoughts crossed my mind:

(1) It is best not to take refuge in any of it, or believe it too strongly, as there is nothing there to grasp at or be attached to. Instead we can enjoy the mere appearance of it, like a butterfly flitting from one flower to another, and not get more sucked up in our ignorance believing all this to be true.  Toward the end of the evening, the elderly Dutch lady said to me: “I was watching you when you were over there laughing and smiling, and I wanted to come and join you.” Thinking about the dream-like nature of things makes us very happy.

(2) These appearances are pleasant enough right now, but can and will change on a dime. We need to scratch this random dream while we have some control over the projector of our mind, and project a meaningful, blissful world from wisdom and compassion.

(3) The only safe thing to rely on, apart from not getting drawn into appearances, is tolerance, compassion and love because these always work to bring about happiness, and they always create good karma for more pleasant appearances and experiences to manifest in the future. At some point old P says to young S: “You’re weird, and I’m a bit far out, and B is eccentric, and H is OCD, etc., but we still accept each other even if we don’t understand each other.”

S also said that when she doesn’t understand someone, she puts herself in their shoes, but this sometimes has the effect that she finds them totally weird. I reckoned that if she was actually succeeding in putting herself in their shoes she would not be thinking “I am weird” about herself… we rarely do. It is everyone else who is weird.  She agreed. The Tea Party find the liberals weird. The liberals find the Tea Party weird. Jocks find nerds weird. Nerds find jocks weird. Dogs find cats weird. Cats find dogs weird. You name it.

(4) Tread lightly, on our way out of samsara, with renunciation for mistaken appearances and the wish for a completely non-mistaken mind, the mind of bliss and emptiness, and the ability to bring every lovable person in the room and everywhere else to that state. Geshe Kelsang says:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and its function is to bestow mental peace on each and every living being every day. ~ Modern Buddhism, p. 26

To truly overcome ordinary mistaken appearances, our grosser levels of mind have to subside and we have to manifest the very subtle clear light mind by bringing our inner energy winds into our heart chakra (you can find out what all that means in Modern Buddhism if you like.) But even before we have that advanced realization we can feel more in the heart and less ‘all over the place,’ more centered and settled through the practice of decreasing the distractions of all our busy, manic conceptual thoughts and labels. How? All meditations have this as a side effect, and you can use breathing meditation or meditation on the clarity of the mind or OM AH HUM meditation to great effect. A clear, settled mind sees reality more clearly, and deep meanings can soak into it like butter soaking into hot toast.

Life is stranger than fiction

Life IS stranger than fiction because most fiction inevitably pins things down, labels things, creates a narrative from generally just one or a few perspectives. And anything we can imagine in fiction can and does happen in ‘real’ life – as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says, “We can appear anything due to karma.” If we can imagine it, it can appear, because our world begins in conceptual imputation.

You know that song Piano Man by Billy Joel? He sets a vivid scene. If you put any group of people together in a bar or anywhere else you are going to have a situation, a play, sometimes a drama. There is always going to be a story there. But it is important to know that there is nothing there to grasp at, the story is not just highly shifting and impermanent, but also entirely imputed, labeled or made up by all our minds. We can change the story once we understand this; write a better one for ourselves and others.

A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

If you’ve ever made the mistake of sitting through an entire run of the series 24, as I have, you’ll know that it is a lot of sound and fury, as the bard would say, signifying nothing. A whole bunch of delusions are projecting all sorts of weirdness and violence, and the hero Jack Bauer is trying to make sense of it so he can sort it all out. The suspense kills you all the way through, and then it still ends in tears and on a cliff hanger, with most people dead.

I think samsaric life is rather like that – 24 may be a sped up version, but still… we’re addicted to drama, suspense, excitement, action, relief!! I would get up and stroke the cat in the most hairy moments (about every five minutes, the cat didn’t know what had gotten into me), and in the same way in life it is very helpful to settle our minds if we are to cope with all the drama. But that alone is not enough. The end of 24 left me deflated, nothing was resolved – no, and it never can be. Samsara is like that. How extraordinary it would be if we could switch off the projector of our deluded minds, absorb into the clear light of bliss and emptiness, and then project a whole new movie or dream, but one we are in control of this time.

Your comments are welcome! And please share this article if you like it.

Our job as a parent is to become irrelevant, part 2

putting others first

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

In my last post on this topic, we talked about some key principles for fulfilling our purpose of a parent to become irrelevant by helping our kids make wise decisions on their own.  In this post, we’ll look some key wisdom minds we can help our kids cultivate so that they can do this.

So what are the principles for helping our children make ‘wise decisions’ on their own?  What we try do is demonstrate to our children how basic wisdom solves most daily problems.  The trick is to package this wisdom in frequently repeated key phrases that will stick with them for the rest of their life, much like:

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

I will do a future post on quite a few key phrases that I believe serve parents well.  For now, however, I will give ‘the big three’:

(1) “I don’t care what other people are doing, you should do the right thing.”

Kids naturally understand the laws of karma because they naturally understand basic fairness and the sandbox is the ultimate arena of “instant karma.”  You explain to your kids, “If you want to change the dynamic you have with this person, then you need to always do the right thing, regardless of what the other person does.”

How do you know what the ‘right’ thing is?  We ground all of our explanations in terms of “creating good causes”.  Whatever you do to others you create the cause for them to do to you.  Whatever others do to you, you created the causes for them to do it to you.  So basically, do to others what you would have them do to you, and don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you (this obviously resonates well in Judeo-Christian cultures too).

When your kids make mistakes, don’t lecture them, just ask questions like “Would you want others doing that to you?”  Because they naturally understand basic fairness and instant karma, they generally know the answers to these questions, and your asking them will help them make their own wise decisions about what to do.

(2) “Change your mind/attitude first.”

There are several important points here.  First, the most liberating thing you can do for your children is help them understand that they have a ‘choice’ about their attitude towards or view on things.  They can choose their reactions to any event.  Most kids (and adults for that matter), frankly, are not that much different from animals in that they just respond impulsively to whatever happens to them.  Driving home again and again the fact that they always have a choice over how to view and respond to any situation that arises in their life is incredibly liberating.

Second, it is their attitude/mind that determines their experience, not the external circumstance.  “I’m bored!”  No, “Nothing is boring, it only becomes boring if you relate to it with a boring mind.  Everything is fun if you relate to it with a fun mind.”  “Nothing is annoying, rather we allow things to annoy us.”

Third, we need to help them create the reflex in life where their “first response” to any situation is to change their mind/attitude, then they focus on how to change the external circumstance.  We can do this by helping them identify what they have control over versus what they do not.  We have complete control over our own mind and attitude, we have little to no control over external events or what others do.  So first we should work on what we have the most control over.  This is just common sense.

(3) “Put others first”.

Here it is useful to recall what Shantideva said, namely that self-cherishing is the root of all suffering and cherishing others is the root of all happiness.  We need to help our children ‘see’ the truth of this in their daily lives, not lecture them about it.  Every single problem that arises in our children’s life can be traced back to self-cherishing.  Every single good thing that arises in our children’s life can be traced back to putting others first.  If we ourselves have the wisdom to be able to see how and why this is true, then we just share our perspective and view on the situation when our children come to us.  If we see it, then when they talk to us, they will come to see it too.  When they see this, they will naturally do the right thing.

What I am about to say is sneaky, and I know it – but it works!  I have found it most useful to take the following strategy:  usually our kids come to us with problems of what other people are doing to them and how they do not like it.  When they describe to us the problem, we can help our child see how the other person is behaving in the bad way because they think their happiness is more important than others, they are being selfish.  Our kid will then say, “yeah, that’s right.”  Then we turn it on them by saying, “so don’t be like them” or “well, if you do X, then you are being just like them” or “if you do X, then how are you being any different?”

Once you have done this a few times, they will learn the principle of selfishness is the root of all problems and putting others first is the root of all happiness, and then afterwards when they come to you with what others are doing you can simply say “I don’t care what others are doing, you need to do the right thing”, but now they understand the right thing to be to abandon their own selfishness and to put others first.

Conclusion

Needless to say, our ability to instill within our kids these principles is entirely dependent upon our living our own lives by them J  If there is one thing kids can spot a mile away, it is hypocrisy.  But if we learn to live our own lives by these principles, there is a very good chance that, almost through familial osmosis alone, our kids will come to adopt these principles themselves, and then they will become fully capable individuals of making wise decisions on their own.

Then your job as a parent will be complete – you will have made yourself irrelevant!

Your turn: Are you trying out these methods with your kids? Please leave comments in the box below.

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A timeless Buddhist prayer for 9/11

911

“We pray that the people who die will find a good rebirth and we pray that the world leaders gain wisdom. For those who are suffering, we pray that they are swiftly released from their suffering and receive blessings from the Three Jewels. It is very clear that without compassion and wisdom there is no possibility of being released from this kind of tragedy. We should learn how Dharma is the truth.”
~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 9/11/01

In the 13 years since 9/11, what do you feel you’ve learned from it all? Please share your experience in the comments box below.

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