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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