A nun in South Africa sent me a video recently, a quantum physics thing. You’ve probably seen videos like this by now on social media or elsewhere, or maybe you even study science?! It seems to me like some of modern science is catching up to Buddha’s wisdom. I have to say that because whenever I see anything or read anything about quantum physics—and I do find it fascinating, at least when it’s in plain English—I always think “That’s what Buddha said! Only, like, 2500 years ago!” However, perhaps more to the point, not only did he say it, but he also showed us how to actually gain personal experience of these mind-boggling facts and use them to our advantage to be rid of all our suffering and get happy.
So there’s around 7.7 billion human beings, or thereabout, on this planet … (didn’t we just get to 7 billion the other day?! I can’t keep up). In any event, there are a lot of us, not to mention all the animals and so forth … But … (and do pause to think about this for a moment) … if you removed from human beings alone all the empty space between our atoms, how much matter would be left?……
A sugar cube.
The entire human race would fit into a single sugar cube!
C’mon, that’s pretty impressive, don’t you think?! Fits nicely with one of the earliest examples I read about which is how, if you look at a wall, it appears very solid – ‘cos everything appears solid to us. This is the persistent illusion we have that there’s a real, physical, external, solid wall, which has nothing to do with our perceiving consciousness. But a solid wall is made of lots of atoms, and molecules, and quarks, and leptons, and the rest of it, and they’re all whizzing around really, really fast, and the space between two atoms—apparently, this is what I read—is the equivalent of the space between two planets. And there are also absurdly huge spaces between the subatomic particles. Turns out there is 99.999% more space than matter in a solid wall and in anything else that mistakenly seems solid.
I mean, that’s crazy, no, how it is nothing like it appears?!!!
So why, from a conventional or scientific point of view, do things appear so darned solid if they’re not, if they’re just space?! Because apparently these subatomic particles are moving so fast that they give the illusion of solidity. Maybe it is like quickly twirling a stick of incense in a dark room – it appears like a continuous ring of fire when it is just the point of the incense stick.
As the video says:
The hidden truth of reality is that this is a universe built on pure energy—pure consciousness … This consciousness has no physical boundaries. It is intimately connected everywhere.
This science confirms what Buddha has always been talking about, that everything depends 100% upon the mind and everything is interconnected – something he proved in many different ways.
Okay, let’s get back to the 7.7 billion of us who are now shrunk to the size of a sugar cube. That’s us, right, a sugar cube. So, where do all these apparently solid bodies that we see keep coming from!? Why are we seeing them everywhere? Where are they really? How come they keep getting in my way?!!
As Einstein is quoted:
Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
Buddha also takes this a lot further because, for one thing, the molecules, the subatomic particles, and the space are also all mere illusion. They’re dreamlike, we can’t find them anywhere if we look for them, they don’t exist from their own side. They are mere appearance, mere name, like objects in a dream.
Buddha explained how everything is “empty like space,” and he did so thousands of years ago, long before the invention of particle accelerators and fancy microscopes. He went a lot further than modern science – proving that nothing exists from its own side, not that sugar cube, not even the consciousness perceiving it.
Things’ lack of existing from their own side, or objectively, is ultimate truth. It is reality. There are no ultimate or findable constituents of the universe, not even really dense sugar cubes. Everything is empty of inherent existence. We can’t find a single thing when we go looking for it. There is nothing there to grasp at.
Conventional reality is an illusion, and therefore, if you think about it, not really reality. Only ultimate truth, or emptiness, is reality because only emptiness exists in the way that it appears.
As this video shows, what we’re doing is projecting a world that’s not there; even on the level of conventional science we’re projecting a solid world. We don’t go around and see infinite space everywhere, do we? No, everything appears to be solid and chunky and real. And the problem is, we believe it. We’re actually projecting that solidity with our thoughts, with our consciousness, but we still manage to believe that it’s real.
Our whole lives are trapped within the imaginary confines of that hallucination. If we are so far off understanding and perceiving reality, we are suffering – how could it be otherwise?
And Buddha also had an enormous amount of insight into consciousness – what it is, how it creates our world, and how it is not just doing that in this one brief dreamlike life but in life after life. Everything is arising from the continuum of our consciousness moment by moment, as in a dream, in a never-ending story.
What are the implications?
However, Buddha didn’t explain these things simply so we could all go, “Whoaaaah!!!!”, followed by “What’s for supper?” This kind of information may not be impacting us at a deep level because we don’t really know what to do with it.
This video, at 5 minutes, is almost too long by today’s standards but still it goes by very fast. It may make some of us think “Wow!” But how long does this wonderment last if we don’t slow down to think about it and take the implications deep into our heart? And how can it help us? As the video says:
But despite this knowledge that has been written about in countless ancient mystical texts, and proven time and time again by modern science, we continue to behave as if it wasn’t true. We continue to use the old paradigm model of a physical universe when trying to change the world and fix its problems.
I was telling my childhood Guyanese friends about this video over a Chinese meal in Jamaica Queens, and their eyes did widen. Five minutes later, however, we were discussing Prince Harry and Meghan leaving the royal family, “You’re British! What do you think about THAT?!” Any potential implications from this mind-boggling insight into our existential predicament were already dismissed or forgotten in favor of useless opinions about the “real world”.
And I thought, “Well that had a lot of impact!” I didn’t blame us – it is Albert Einstein’s point, we are living a very persistent illusion. Most people never seem to leave it, even for a minute – it’s horrible, to be honest. And even those of us who do, thanks to the kindness of our wise teachers, are going to keep getting sucked back into this illusion until we can maintain a far deeper knowing in our heart.
The purpose of Buddhism is to gain a deep functional wisdom of all these truths, which sets us free — finally!!! — from the beginningless hallucinations of samsara. Plus it is so much easier to study Buddhism than to study quantum physics! Given this, I cannot resist exploring this video to see if we can start taking its revelations into our hearts and lives to really change stuff up. More coming soon …
Meantime, I would love to hear what you make of all this in the comments below!
Guest article by Susan de la Vergne, native Angelino
5.5 mins read
One of our weekly Kadampa branch classes in the Los Angeles area is held in the foothill community of La Cañada at a YMCA — specifically in their chapel, which can hold 25 people who don’t mind sitting close together. There are two doors to the chapel, heavy wooden doors that swing open into the Y courtyard. The odd thing is that the doors don’t latch — it’s as if they’re unlocked and ready to swing wide whenever a chapel visit is needed.
Since weather is rarely an issue in this part of the world, it’s not really a problem that the doors don’t latch. It’s not like a blizzard is going to rip the doors open and fill the place with snow. But a couple of years ago we did have a blustery day — windy, rainy, cold (by LA standards) — and as we started the meditation, the wind blew at the chapel entrance, and the heavy unlatched doors trembled.
Nonetheless, we headed into the opening meditation with the wind howling and the doors shaking, and as we started to pay attention to the sensation of our breathing, I hoped the weather would let up, not really thinking that it would. And it didn’t. The wind continued, and about five minutes into the meditation the doors opened a few inches. Leaves blew in from the courtyard. Then the wind blew the doors shut with an audible thud. But they didn’t stay closed. Again, the wind pried open the heavy doors. More leaves. I was having a difficult time meditating through Mother Nature’s noise and interruptions.
When we rose from meditation, we all shifted in our seats and shared a laugh about the challenge of meditating in the midst of all that weather.
But one woman remarked, “That was great!” Many of us looked surprised. “No, really, that was amazing because it was so great for meditation! I really had to concentrate with all that going on. It made me focus so much better. I loved it!”
Which was, of course, a teaching in itself. To me, the banging doors and the blowing leaves were obstacles; to her, they were inspiration! Once again, things don’t exist independently of the mind perceiving them. It’s as true for banging doors and blowing leaves as it is for everything else.
The News of the World
I read the news of the world every morning. Things around the world appear to be heating up on many fronts. It’s easy to get discouraged and overwhelmed by accounts of rage and separatism, apparent lies that are becoming a new normal, predictions of imminent new wars, and leaders who used to speak to each other but won’t anymore. It’s hard not to feel swamped by the monumental problems of the world, especially as they appear to be intensifying.
But maybe they’re also an inspiration. Maybe the lies and the escalating hostilities are turning up the heat on our commitment to go inward so we can more skillfully go outward — to develop our capacity for love and compassion in the midst of what seems to be intensifying turmoil. Maybe they’re cranking up the urgency to practice, to make swifter than ever progress towards inner peace.
Just as the wind and the banging doors inspired the woman to hone her focus, so the news of the world can power our practice. When would virtuous minds be more needed than now?
Sometimes when I’m reading or watching the news, I find myself going for refuge to politicians who agree with me — “Yeah, that’s telling them!” I think or sometimes say aloud. I’m glad they get it, glad they have clout I don’t have, and hoping they use their clout and clarity to protect me from whatever craziness or violence I need protection from.
But they regularly disappoint me. They are politicians after all.
Better to take the latest world crisis to the Buddhas and to try to think about it as they might. For example: See the suffering! It’s samsara; what can we expect? Delusions of anger and self-grasping are behind all the violence, all the craziness. Think of the damage that’s being done to the mental continuums of all the people you’re blaming for the way things are. They’re facing far worse in their future, and they have no idea.
I’m not trying to put words in a Buddha’s mouth but adopting a perspective based on how they might view the things I’m angsting over. That’s a way for me to go for refuge and to develop compassion even for the people I don’t agree with. It’s also a way to bring to mind all the far-away, remote, “out there” people who happen to be suffering more acutely than I right now because of the anger, lying, resentment, conflict and a whole long list of deluded states of mind that are behind all our negative actions and their consequences.
When the news of the world knocks us down, we can go for refuge to Buddha and find answers to the question, “What can I do?”
In the aisle at Walmart
On Black Friday in November, two Walmart shoppers got into an argument that ended up in a mid-aisle fistfight. The two men brawled to the ground, surrounded by racks of Christmas wrap, while onlookers observed from a few feet away. A security guard broke up the fight, but not before one of the brawlers suffered a broken nose.
I wondered how isolated an incident this was. How many hostile shoppers glared at each other across the aisles this past holiday season? Maybe they didn’t deck each other, but they were impatient and annoyed, the same states of mind that led to the Walmart clash.
Rage always starts small.
It is easy to judge the battling men at Walmart. “Really, guys, can you not see how pointless this is?” Or to feel helpless in the face of such an incident. “The world is simply going down the drain!”
Or we can use the difficulties we see around us to ratchet up our own refuge practice. “Buddha, what can I do? How can I view this?”
We can decide to better master our own anger and irritations. We can request blessings for instigators of conflict. We can make dedications. We can practice taking and giving. There are all kinds of practices we can engage in; and thanks to Geshe Kelsang’s practical guidance and instructions we have the tools and techniques we need.
So it’s good to remember that we’re not helpless even when things around us seem very crazy — and that when things seem at their craziest, we can use this as extra inspiration for our practice.
Questions and comments for the guest author are invited below 🙂
Kadampa Centers everywhere welcome everyone and provide communities in which to learn about and practice Buddha’s meditations and teachings as an effective way to solve our daily problems, grow spiritually, and transform our world.
On this very cool date of January 1st 2020, I want to share a beautifully made video of one of these 1400 Centers because it seems to be a good representative of all the others. Credit and thanks go to film-maker Josh Ruzansky.
I hope you like it. Do leave your comments and questions below.
Sometimes human beings manage to get their lives pretty well organized – and end up going along for years or even decades in the familiar comforting grooves of family, relationship, careers, possessions, vacations, status, power … Why would comfortable people ever rock that boat by turning to meditation?
Of course, despite good fortune, many people sense there may well be more to us than these external achievements – I call those our 3am questions. As Michael Pollen put it (in a book I’ll talk about later in this article):
“By the time I arrived safely in my fifties, life seemed to be running along a few deep but comfortable grooves: a long and happy marriage alongside an equally long and gratifying career. As we do, I had developed a set of fairly dependable mental algorithms for navigating whatever life threw at me, whether at home or at work. What was missing from my life?”
The question is whether people want to risk finding out. Some do. A lot don’t. I love this quote by the late Ram Dass:
In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.
Sometimes the costumes of our identity and life narratives show signs of unravelling – and at these times our failing health or other problems and uncertainties can do us a favor by giving us little choice but to look more deeply into what life actually is about and who we actually are. As Ram Dass put it:
Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.
But if we have spent decades of our life in comfortable grooves that are now turning out to be more like ruts, how are we supposed to hoist ourselves out of these? According to Michael Pollen’s new book, through psychedelics.
I am bringing this up for two related reasons – one because I have been reading about Ram Dass, as you can probably tell; and the other because of a conversation I had with a 65-year-old man the other day.
Rodney (not his real name) has had a basically successful life but been depressed for the last few years since his wife died. He has been trying out meditation but it seems to be taking too long for his liking, so he told me the other day he is now trying out mushrooms as well. He reckons that at 65 he has nothing to lose, and he gave me that book by Michael Pollen with all this fantastic re-emerging research to show me how psychedelics (under supervision of course!) might be a valid path to enlightenment. Imagine how easy that would make everything!
I probably wasn’t as excited as Rodney would have liked. I tried to explain why I don’t think magic mushrooms can lead people to enlightenment. The conversation went something like this: “How do you know?” “I don’t, for sure. I just can’t think of anyone. Plus my own past experience has led to other conclusions.” “Well, though, you were just a teenage hippy — what about if you’d done it under the supervision of an expert?” “Erm, no thanks.” (I can’t think of anything more embarrassing, to be honest, than tripping while being watched and analyzed by a stranger, however “expert” they are; but maybe that’s just me.) I tried to explain that although drugs temporarily alter our consciousness, for sure, they are a quick fleeting fix rather than a path. That we need to change our minds using our own efforts, or our minds won’t stay changed. And so on. Rodney’s not really buying it.
I read some of the book just in case, hehe, and couldn’t help thinking also that Michael Pollen, talented and nice as he is, comes rather late to this particular party. Confession time: A previous me aged 15 or 16 probably would have applauded Rodney’s hallucinogenic attempts to blow his mind. If I’d been in charge back then, I would have required everyone between the ages of 30 and 65 to drop acid at least once. These dull middle-aged adults, they had no idea of anything, as far as I was concerned. They had no idea how closed were their doors of perception! That how much altering their consciousness would alter everything they’re looking at! That it would change their lives forever! I would have gone along with Pollen’s enthusiasm back then:
“Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience—something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper—could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?”
Coincidentally, it was only a couple of days after this conversation with Rodney that I came across some beautiful tributes to Ram Dass, who has just died. I don’t know all that much about him, but I know he experimented with psychedelics with Timothy Leary in the early days, and I know that he pretty much gave up the drugs once he discovered his Guru and the ability to develop cosmic love through his own efforts. So I did a bit more research (Google!) and report my findings below. He sounds amazing. He would have done a better job at persuading Rodney, I feel.
While perhaps a little bit true that a lot of middle-aged people don’t have a clue about how far their consciousness can lead them, you might be happy to hear that I stepped down from my arrogant youthful stance on obligatory acid-dropping. Like Ram Dass, once I met my Spiritual Guide and a brilliant spiritual path, I realized what I had been looking for was within us all already and that drugs were not required to bring it out.
My enthusiasm didn’t last because I had honestly found something far more profound, meaningful, blissful, mind-boggling, and lasting. Something that explained clearly to me what consciousness is and how it changes, and how then to deliberately and permanently use that understanding to change it for the better. How to practically use universal compassion and non-dual wisdom to destroy the causes of suffering once and for all. Dharma goes so deep. Drugs come nowhere close IMHO.
It is not as if Ram Dass didn’t try to make drugs work over quite a long period of time. For example, “In an effort to avoid the disappointment of “coming down” from a drug experience, Ram Dass said he and five others locked themselves in a building at the estate for three weeks and took LSD every four hours. “What happened in those three weeks in that house no one would ever believe, including us,” he wrote in “Be Here Now,” but they were not able to avoid the inevitable return to reality.”
We simply can’t stay high that way. Not to mention the risk of bad trips and mental illness if we have unprocessed traumas, an addictive personality, etc. I do know that I would be terrified to die while under the influence of psychedelic drugs — way too risky — so that also tells me something.
If we want to stay high, we have to put in our own efforts to understand and master ourselves, and to attain states of altered consciousness, selflessness, non-duality, love, wisdom, bliss, liberation, and enlightenment.
While Ram Dass credits drugs for awakening his spirituality, he ultimately found them unsatisfying. He found that after coming down from a high, he was depressed. As his tolerance to LSD increased, the thrill had diminished. And as the drug experience deteriorated, tensions between Mr. Leary and (the then) Mr. Alpert rose.
Searching for deeper meaning and a more permanent high, he embarked on a spiritual quest to India, where he met Maharaj-ji.
Ram Dass had taken a batch of LSD with him to India to share with holy men in order to get their opinion of it. At Maharaj-ji’s request, Ram Dass gave him a super-sized dose of LSD. However there was no discernible effect on him, nor again 3 years later when they repeated the experiment. He concluded that his Guru’s consciousness was already so awakened that drugs were powerless to alter it.
I am pretty sure that drugs would also have zero effect on Buddha Shakyamuni, Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Trijang Rinpoche, or any of the other great Yogis and Mahasiddhas in the Buddhist tradition. If I thought Geshe-la was sitting around getting high, it would in fact undermine my faith. I am quite relived that none of these great masters has advocated the taking of drugs, in fact rather the opposite, because it means I don’t have to figure out how to take them either to get their transcendent realizations. It seems like an easier example to follow, overall.
Through Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass found a spiritual love deeper than anything he had ever experienced. Drugs would no longer be a major factor in Ram Dass’s life. The old orthodoxies slipped away. He said he realized that his 400 LSD trips had not been nearly as enlightening as his drugless spiritual epiphanies — although, he said, he continued to take one or two drug trips a year for old time’s sake.
What about cannabis, while we’re on the subject of drugs?! It is of course legal all over the US these days, starting in Colorado the same month I arrived just over six years ago. I don’t have strong opinions on whether or not it should be legal, nor whether it’s any better or worse overall than alcohol; but I do think we have to be careful not to kid ourselves that smoking pot helps us to meditate better. In my own past experience, I never found cannabis helped my concentration or my mindfulness very much – and that I had to wait to come down to be able to get on with anything much other than wandering around the countryside or listening to music. As a long-term and experienced meditator wryly remarked the other day: “No, it doesn’t help you meditate better! You might think it does, just like you might think you’re quite interesting when you’re stoned.”
Instead of doing drugs, this is what Ram Dass did instead:
I hang out with my guru in my heart. And I love every thing in the universe. That’s all I do all day.
This is pretty much all I want to do all day as well.
So, Rodney, if you don’t believe me, ask Ram Dass. He might tell you that meditation turns out to be infinitely more satisfying (and actually easier) than taking any number or type of drugs, and will also lead you on the most cosmic journey to deep peace and mental freedom. I’m sure Ram Dass is blissfully happy as we speak.
Undermining our refuge
For me, I suppose, as a Buddhist, one of the main problems with intoxicants such as drugs, tobacco, and alcohol is not so much the occasional use with one’s eyes open (although that can be a slippery slope); but that due to our attachment we slowly turn to them more and more for refuge without realizing we are doing it. How can we tell? Maybe if we feel depressed or nervous at the idea of not being able to use them?
And this undermines our efforts to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and therewith our inner peace, making us have to try even harder to escape inner turmoil or boredom through these substances. It can become a vicious circle. This is addiction, not liberation.
These addictions do two bad things to us – they trap us in a cycle of dissatisfaction AND at the same time they detract from our real quest for freedom.
For those of us who are moreorless committed to the Buddhist path, there is another quite subtle point that may bear thinking about just in case. If we are attached to drugs and other substances, we may inadvertently be developing a sense that meditation on its own is not sufficient, that on some level Buddha didn’t get it quite right. This wrong view might have unintended consequences down the road, spiritually speaking, such as creating obstacles in our meditation practice. Recently in his Mirror of Dharmateachings Venerable Geshe Kelsang was emphasizing that one of the principal obstacles to our meditation practice, and one that we need to purify, comes from holding wrong views in our past lives. If we are developing a reliance on making ourselves happy and controlling our mind outside of just doing it, in the long run this might undermine our spiritual practice and our path. What do you think?
Making samsara work
While I am on the subject of addiction, it is not just addiction to intoxicants that slows us down and distracts us from real joy. We keep trying to make samsara satisfying in other ways too, for example through social media or video games addiction.
Nowadays strong attachment to being always “on” is a serious problem for people who want to go deep and stay deep. If we’re not careful, not only can these addictions take us away from a guaranteed source of peace in terms of using up our time and interest, but we end up going for refuge to them, seeking relief in them instead of Dharma.
I know how I feel when I go for refuge to social media or entertainment rather than to the guaranteed peace, joy, and satisfaction I get whenever I bother to take Dharma to heart. And it’s not that nice, to be honest. How about you?
What to do?
So what do I do? What I have found is that it’s easier to overcome an addiction by figuring out first why I am attached to it – what positive experiences does this substance or activity give me that I think I don’t have already?
Having figured out what I’m actually searching for, when I find my mind turning to an object of attachment, instead of immediately denying myself and feeling sad and discouraged, I use it as a reminder to turn instead to an object of real refuge such as love or wisdom or clarity of mind.
A few examples. What do we want to get out of social media? Maybe we want to feel connected to stories or to feel love. In which case, learning how to meditate on love and taking a compassionate interest in others gets us there too, but without the huge time suck.
We may turn to drugs to alter our consciousness. For example, as Pollen put it: “The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe.” In which case, by becoming practiced at meditation we can have that on tap.
We may turn to binge-watching to seek entertainment, alleviate boredom, or reward ourselves after a hard day. However, nothing is more entertaining and less boring than seeing life as the play of bliss and emptiness, Heruka’s mandala; and if we spend the day in the mandala, we don’t need further rewarding.
These alternatives take practice, of course, but they do the job. Please feel free to add other examples in the comments.
If you are new to Buddhism and meditation, please know that even the simplest breathing meditation makes us feel better if we give ourselves a few minutes to do it — just letting our thoughts dissolve away for a bit in the natural peace of our consciousness like waves dissolving into a clear ocean. Cravings don’t last all that long, anyway, apparently — just between 5 and 20 minutes for the most part.
Once we’ve given ourselves, say, 5 to 15 minutes to meditate on the breath or love or faith or wisdom or renunciation or whatever we like best about Dharma, we can then let ourselves have that original object of attachment if we still want it. We might still want it, but there again we might not. Even if we do, we won’t want it so desperately. Our habits and consciousness will already have started to change for good.
Thank you Ram Dass for a life of service, example, and inspiration for so many people.
I want to talk about Harriet Tubman, one of the most celebrated freedom fighters in American history, whose story Harriet has only now made it onto the big screen. I don’t need to put a spoiler alert on this because most Americans, if not others, know her story. It’s as relevant as ever and has inspired me anew to get over myself and “keep on keepin’ on”.
For the time-pressed amongst you, don’t bother reading this article lol — just listen to the movie anthem, Stand Up:
I’ll start with this overview from ST, who watched the movie with me:
“The anthem has the power of someone who has just stood up on principal — and owns it. This is the story of someone who does not identify with what is done – only what is to be done. It is a story of courage and righteous determination. It is a story of a leader who didn’t take No for an answer. She was aware it was not going to be easy but was willing to give her last life drop to save others – with her own hands. She was so laser focused on what she needed to accomplish that her own self barely rated a mention. She was selfless, compassionate, loving, and brave. To me, she is a genuine inspiration: her focus and determination and fearless action. All this while having been a slave, been a woman, in the 1800’s, against all odds she surmounted.
I ask myself, would I have been as brave? Would I have thrown myself into that life, in that place and time, as she did? And I have to conclude that it would be poorly at best – given that although I know Dharma and I trust Geshe-la, I have not plugged like that into refuge, renunciation, and bodhichitta. And yet my life evaporates before my own eyes.”
If you have time, read on …
Life in bondage
I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.
In early life, Harriet experienced the countless horrors of a life in bondage. She and her family were beaten, sold, humiliated, and constantly ill due to poor conditions and endless struggles.
Although slavery was all she knew, somehow Harriet knew it was not right. She came to realize that she was destined for something else. Born a slave, she yet had a vision of freedom.
We samsaric beings, too, are born enslaved. We are all in bondage. Now is not the time to appease the slave holders but to stand up. Don’t ignore that voice inside you that says you are born to bigger things. Harriet didn’t.
God don’t mean people to own people.
Harriet’s relationship with Gideon Brodess, the chilling young slaveholder, was complicated – he seemed to envy her and love her and hate her. He was torn. They grew up together. She might have saved his young life with her fervent bedside prayers; he’ll never know. He knew her humanity and probably even her superiority, but was raised in a belief system whereby he was the superior, her master and OWNER! He knew this was not true on one level, but he also got a kick out of thinking, “You’re amazing, but I own you.”
How can one human being absurdly feel that they own another? Only by “othering” them and labelling them less than a human (at most two-thirds of a human); so he had to liken her ridiculously to a pig. Yet at the same he recognized her power – for one thing, his father had just dropped dead, and he didn’t know if it was because of her prayers that God smote him.
Why do we ever feel the compulsion to “own” another living being and/or (ab)use them for our own purposes? There is no justification for it. It is always just ignorance. It stems from the so-called view of the transitory collection conceiving “I” and “mine”. Because we have a strong sense of I, we also have a strong sense of mine, which is grasping at I in the possessive mode, “I’s”, or “of me”. The stronger this ignorant sense of an inherently existent self and mine, the stronger the sense of other and possession; and the more our self-cherishing unreliably informs us that this “other/possession” is less important than self.
(Technical aside: “view of the transitory collection” simply means we observe the transitory, fleeting collection of body and mind parts, not one of which is the self, and project or view a real, inherently existent self there where there isn’t one.)
Does thinking we own other people make us more free or more powerful? Of course not, ignorance does the opposite. And are abusers ever off the hook – how do they really sleep at night or look at themselves in the mirror, what fantasies about themselves do they have to concoct and then constantly sustain to make their life feel even remotely right? Gideon’s mother, for example, looked about as tense as it is possible for a human being to be even when things were supposedly still going her way. Not to mention the hideous karma.
As said here, of course, it is not other living beings but delusions that are the real slaveholders. While the delusions grasping at I and mine run the show, we will continue to treat each other badly and create worlds of suffering for ourselves at the same time. Because Buddhas and Bodhisattvas understand that people are not their delusions, their love and compassion for everyone (even psychopaths!) never wavers. And they work on two levels – going to the assistance of those in need with fierce love and compassion, but also and always keeping their sights on liberating everyone permanently from the actual causes of all suffering.
Do you really want to be free?
Not everyone Harriet tried to help wanted to be helped. In the movie, at least, her sister Rachel, for example, seemed to opt to keep her head under the radar as much she could and just find ways to withstand the terrible treatment until her death.
What’s the difference between a Harriet and a Rachel? Rachel knew her situation was atrocious so why did she deny herself any hope of release, even when her sister came all the way back for her?
I don’t claim to know about Rachel per se, or all the other slaves in her position. Rachel’s situation was going to be very dangerous whatever she decided. However, this scene made me wonder not so much about Rachel but about myself. Am I just going through the motions of renunciation and bodhichitta? Do these go deep enough? Am I free? Am I a freedom fighter? Or am I someone who knows life can be extremely painful but still doesn’t have a deep enough wish to escape, thinking I will just try to put up with my lot till death sets me free? Neglecting also to think about the even greater slavery and bondage I will be subject to in future lives, that the only difference between me and someone more obviously enslaved is time?
In other words, do I really get how unfree I am? That not just samsara’s pains but its reliefs are totally deceptive and irredeemable, houses of cards at best?
The black slave catcher also rejected salvation. Even in the inspiring presence of a courageous freedom fighter, he didn’t want to leave and he didn’t want anyone else to leave either. Am I like that — aiding and abetting samsara’s wardens in the hope of some perverse affection or reward, like someone with Stockholm syndrome?
Harriet managed to escape from her slaveholders in Maryland in 1849. As she jumped to an uncertain fate in the rushing river, rather than go back to Brodess who was slickly trying to convince her he wouldn’t hurt her, she declared:
I’m going to live free or die!
Imagine having that zero tolerance for the despicable, slick, and heartless enemy of samsara, not trying to keep appeasing it or hoping against all odds for the best. Harriet had the deepest renunciation for slavery and an option to try and do something about it, which then translated into compassion for others in the same situation.
The underground hero Reverend Green — who preached obedience in front of the slave owners as a cover to enable Harriet and others to escape – had said to her:
There’s not much time. You got to be miles away from here till dawn. Follow that north star. If there are no stars, just follow the river. Listen for them. Fear is your greatest enemy.
And, having defeated that greatest enemy, Harriet finally crossed into Pennsylvania, later describing that moment:
When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.
She was indubitably guided by her faith, her faith increasing with her fear, like refuge does. The sun of her faith kept her always pointed in a positive direction:
I been walking with my face turned to the sun.
Did she have narcolepsy or seizures or even “possible brain damage” as stated in abolitionist William Still’s initial report on her? It doesn’t really matter. If our faith makes other people think we’re a little different or crazy it doesn’t matter because, as the singer Seal puts it:
No we’re never gonna survive, unless
We are a little crazy.
Apparent craziness = sanity, when it comes to disbelieving samsara’s fairy tales and following our Spiritual Guide out of here.
And I know what’s around the bend Might be hard to face ’cause I’m alone. And I just might fail But Lord knows I tried Sure as stars fill up the sky.
Like Harriet, we need a deepening faith and refuge whenever things go wrong, in the very middle of danger and pain. We can trust more in blessings and open ourselves more to being guided. It worked for her and for the thousands of people who trusted her.
It wasn’t me, it was the Lord! I always told Him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,’ and He always did.
JW, an African American friend mentioned here, just told me while we were discussing this movie:
“I don’t know if this was in the movie, but Harriet was asked to lead the raid on Harper’s Ferry during the Civil War by abolitionist John Brown. She didn’t go for some unknown reason. Fortunately for her, she didn’t go, because the group was captured and many of the group were executed, including John Brown.”
Holy beings seemed to be protecting her till a ripe old age. Our faith protects us. I feel I’ve had a couple of near misses myself that are hard to account for without some divine intervention.
We already have Buddha nature that is not of this world, not of samsara. Within it, we can come to feel the connection to holy beings, to enlightenment. The sooner we tune in and relate to that, the sooner we will wake up from this horror story.
Take my people with me
My father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were in Maryland. But I was free, and they should be free.
Even though Harriet made it to a new life and a fresh start, she couldn’t rest easy knowing her people continued to endure doomed lives as slaves. So despite the strong protestations of William Hill, she went back with a suit to fetch her beloved husband. Only to discover that he had married another woman.
At first full of doubt and emotional agony, she said:
Why, Lord, did you bring me all this way to rub mud in my face?
But then she realized, through the pain, that the suit must have been meant for someone else. God had other plans for her.
When things don’t go our way, they can be the catalyst to a far more meaningful life. Not to mention, as Marie, her friend in Pennsylvania, says later:
What’s a man to a woman touched by God?
Although her husband lost out, Harriet still used her karmic circle as her starting point. She was not afraid of her fondness for her family and relatives — in fact it spurred her on to rescue all the others.
Harriet’s brother: Why are you back here? It ain’t safe. Harriet: I come to get you. Bring all of you to freedom.
When it comes to helping others we need to start with where and with whom we are. This is also modern Buddhism. Not afraid to work with our karmic circle, we have to help the people in our orbit, but still come to take whoever wants to come — using our heartfelt karmic connections as a portal to the bigger cosmos of all living beings.
One of the 8 precepts observed by an aspiring Bodhisattva is, “not to abandon any living being.” And Harriet — focused not on who had been freed but who had not, and even when it made the journey a lot more challenging — always had room in her mission for one more.
I do what I can when I can while I can for my people.
Harriet became a conductor on the Underground Railroad — a network of secret routes and safe houses destined to help those enslaved during the 19th century first to the Northern free states and later, when the despicable Fugitive Slave Law was adopted in political concession to the Southerners, to Canada instead. She made an endless string of round-trip journeys down to the South in a disguise and with the nickname Moses, rescuing more and more slaves with each miraculous expedition.
Fearless, Harriet avoided cops, dogs, mobs, bounty hunters, and slave catchers. She and her escapees slept in swamps and moved only at night. She inspired huge courage, crossing the river when she had no real idea if she’d drown, but knowing it was the only way to encourage her people to follow her out of there.
I’m wading through muddy waters You know I got a made up mind.
To be honest, as things stand at present, I’d prefer not to have to run around like that my whole life as I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But what I do want is that fearless determination and commitment, that lack of apathy and complacency, that self-confidence, and that faith in being guided every step of the way. Harriet has inspired me to take renunciation and engaging bodhichitta more seriously. To be less wimpy about wading through the muddy waters of samsara to the brand new home of liberation and bringing everyone with me.
I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.
This doesn’t mean that we have to be reborn as an actual hell being, but that a Bodhisattva will go back to the lower realms again and again until everyone is liberated. Harriet was not about her own personal safety. She was free, but she was compelled. Her compassion gave her no choice but to keep going back.
I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.
Keep on keeping on
Harriet was black and female in a very white male world. But she didn’t let any man get one over on her. Not Gideon, not her husband, not her brother, not the abolitionists, not anyone who spoke down to her. She earned huge respect.
I made it this far on my own, so don’t you tell me what I can’t do.
Harriet never learned to read or write, but despite all odds she was the only conductor to never lose a slave. She was a Union spy during the Civil War. She was the first woman ever to lead a combat assault, rescuing 750 people. Her knowledge of the local flora in Maryland led her to find a cure for Union troops suffering from dysentery. She became a suffragette. She was penniless until old age. She died at a charity home she had founded in Auburn, New York.
All told, she was an unstoppable force for good.
Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
What motivated her? JS told me that she was saying to someone, “I watched Harriet and loved her compassion,” only to have the person reply: “No, Harriet was very angry.” JS (and me) disagree heartily. Anger has no good qualities because the mind is egotistical and distorted and Harriet was amazingly selfless and clear-headed. If Harriet had been angry she might have killed Gideon (or the white family) when she had the chance, but instead she gave him a teaching. It is perfectly possible to be both fierce and compassionate, in fact it can be required. There’s an important distinction to be made between anger and non-deluded wrath, and Harriet is a good example of the latter.
There are four types of non-deluded pride, or self-confidence; and one way or another Harriet seemed to exemplify them all. Her courage and passion grew over the years and decades, just like ours can. Far from being vain, between God on the one side and all the slaves on the other there wasn’t much room left over for ego. Harriet’s sense of identity was mixed with a greater good. This selflessness impressed people so much that they came over to her cause, including a previous slave catcher.
Notably, to me at least, Harriet Tubman suffered from terrible headaches from an injury inflicted upon her by a slave owner – but still she carried on. Arguably it drove her on with even more empathy. Using Dharma, such as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path makes our mind into a blacksmith’s anvil, which doesn’t get affected however hard it is hit.
That’s when I’m going to stand up Take my people with me Together we are going to a brand new home Right across the river Can you hear freedom calling Calling to me to answer Gotta keep on keeping on.
This is what ST has to say about this epic anthem chorus for all Bodhisattvas in training:
“These lines remind me of the superior intention of a Bodhisattva, taking personal responsibility, because everyone, just like me, wants happiness and freedom from suffering. Through this we will make it to the Pure Land, the experience of a pure mind free from the bondage of the delusions. We will cross the river of samsara, always called on by the freedom that is part and parcel of our Buddha nature.”
I have no idea if Harriet was or was not an actual Bodhisattva, defined as someone who seeks to attain enlightenment to liberate each and every living being permanently from suffering. But as JW said, she was “very very brave. Very inspiring, indeed. She was as close to being a superhero as a real person could be.”
“Someone I can relate to”
Point is, Harriet was a “real” person, like us; which means we can be superheroes too. As JS was telling me, sometimes we read stories about great practitioners to discover that they were already fully realized and were just showing us an example – Buddha himself had already attained enlightenment, for example, and Je Tsongkhapa was Manjushri. Their stories are still incredibly faith inducing, but we need stories not just of ancient Mahasiddhas and Bodhisattvas back in India and Tibet and even in other world systems who did extraordinary things, but people nearer our time and experiences. Even though Harriet seemed to start off as a regular person like the rest of us, her courage and faith grew throughout her life. She was on a spiritual journey if anyone is. “This is someone I can relate to,” said JS. I think anyone who is interested in freedom can relate to this story.
Harriet transformed fear on the one hand, but on the other she didn’t allow herself to be seduced by samsara’s comforts. She never let herself get too cozy or complacent even when she could have led a seemingly free life – she was not scared of discomfort.
And I don’t mind if I lose any blood on the way to salvation And I’ll fight with the strength that I’ve got until I die.
Man, I would love to be like that. As JS put it:
“I feel like I have a relationship with her – to see someone who looks like me develop the wish not to be enslaved, to take the Bodhisattva vow, to self-generate as someone through whom God is working, divine pride. She was not doing the bidding of the status quo, so when the relatively posh abolitionists, good people all (including Frederick Douglass), told her she couldn’t bring people 600 miles to Canada, she told them they were too comfortable and that they couldn’t tell her what not to do. Harriet took on actual engaging bodhichitta, as opposed to just saying the words. She had such conviction, there was no doubt in her mind that she could do this.
Speaking truth to power, it as is if Harriet was directly addressing us audience in the comfort of our own living rooms, never really having to do anything — instilling in us a sense of urgency and need. Frederick Douglass and co were indubitably brave people, but they were not willing to put as much on the line – they created a system, but she rescued people on her own, with the grace of God.”
Indeed, Douglass is quoted as saying to her:
The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.
Harriet’s choices of course did not make for an easy life.
Weight on my shoulders, a bullet in my gun.
Still these heavy things are in my life, and I have to fight a fight to lift them, maybe she is saying. However, unlike me, Harriet never seemed to whine about having too much to do (to help people!) or to tightly guard her days off. She was driven by joyful effort.
Perhaps she saw everything as an opportunity to help others and to increase her faith, thereby having an amazingly meaningful life; and was grateful for it? I don’t know, but her behavior has struck me with the thought that this is a very good way to approach life’s to do lists — to start from a sense of being lucky and thankful.
I go to prepare a place for you
Harriet freed as many as 3,000 people from slavery, but her job was not done. Her marvelous last words, aged 91, were:
I go to prepare a place for you.
Temporary freedom, though clearly a lot better than slavery, is not good enough. Canada is no one’s final destination. Nowhere in samsara is. We need the permanent freedom that comes from a completely pure mind. I imagine Harriet Tubman went straight to her heaven or Pure Land through the force of her refuge and compassion, where to this day she is preparing it for others.
Ultimately, we need to aim at bringing everyone into the Pure Land of our own enlightenment. For at that time our mind will be, as it says in Praise to Buddha Shakyamuni:
A refuge for all living beings.
Thank you for reading all this! Comments welcome.
Quotes in purple – original Harriet Tubman quotes.
You are unique. There is no one quite like you in this world. And as Fred Rogers would say:
I like you just the way you are.
But, as per this last article, it is helpful to contemplate that we are all also basically the same — unique but none more special — one reason being that our varieties of mind are the same. This includes both negative and positive minds, both unhappiness and happiness.
In this human realm we have a lot more worldly pleasure aka changing suffering than beings in the hell and hungry spirit realms because living beings there are rarely, if ever, free from the painful feelings of manifest suffering. This is almost too ghastly to contemplate, thought contemplate it we must if we are to develop universal compassion.
But whenever we are experiencing changing suffering it feels the same as other people’s.
My African adventure took a new turn when we decided on the spur of the moment to go say hello to the animals at the Tala game reserve. I was not expecting to spend the day hanging out on the wide open plain with rhinos, zebras, ostriches, wildebeest, monkeys, and giraffes, but there you go, another reminder to always expect the unexpected. It was a bit like the opening scenes of the Lion King, which I seem to be watching on this final airplane lap back to America.
Ok, so here’s a question. We saw this giraffe, like some mesmeric prehistoric creature, lumbering across the road in front of our truck to nibble on the green leaves on the top of a new tree. She seemed happy, she probably was happy, why not. And what was that? Was it not changing suffering? The same kind of comparative pleasure we all experience from worldly pleasures?
Back in the Observatory where I was staying in Cape Town, a frail old woman was sleeping outside in the same spot every night because it has a makeshift tarpaulin roof; but Sangkyong discovered that in the rainy months she was pushed out of that prime spot by two youths, only allowed to return in the dry season. If someone finds a tarpaulin, there is happiness, just as if someone buys a mansion, there is happiness. How much subjective difference is there in those pleasant feelings?
From life in luxury to life on the edge, is there any qualitative difference in our happiness when we get something we want? The giraffe is happy to find his green leaves, a millionaire is happy to purchase some new novelty like a yacht, and a handout of 100 Rands might make the day of someone hustling to survive. It is all relative – the suffering of change is by nature relative, the crossover point between some manifest pain and its temporary relief. Scratching an itch, as it were. Like receiving the all clear from a doctor, which is a pleasurable relief, but only for someone who thought they might have cancer. Better than, “It’s not good news I’m afraid,” but still not good enough.
By the way, none of these types of relief holds a candle to the relief we experience when we are able to drop into our peaceful heart-mind and let go of our problems through breathing meditation, much less when we start grasping less at our self through the wisdom realizing there is no self.
What is happiness?
Happiness is a loaded word, of course, which may be why Geshe Kelsang explains two types, fake and real.
According to The Week, in the mid-17th century Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, cast the word “happiness” (which hitherto had meant “lucky”) as an unending process of accumulating objects of desire, redefining it as a subjective, shifting feeling, predicated on our desires:
The felicity of this life,” wrote Hobbes in 1651, “consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.
He believed that happiness had a slippery and fleeting nature and must be continually sought after, which I think is a good description for the fake happiness of changing suffering. Or as Don Draper, the advertising exec, puts it in Mad Men:
What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.
In some ways, the itch of fake happiness becomes more itchy the more stuff we acquire because luxuries become necessities and we find ourselves more and more distracted from the source of real happiness within. External wealth is nowhere near as meaningful or satisfying as internal wealth, not even close.
Once the basic necessities of food, clothing, medicine, and housing are met, more contentment would seem to bring more peace of mind. Trust me, I have thought about this, and I am not saying I’d prefer to be poverty stricken — day to day life is grueling with few resources and I’m way too accustomed to comfort and, basically, a wimp. But I think the feeling of pleasure we get from externals, once the basic needs are met, may not be that different.
I saw a lot of laughter in Alexandra, arguably more than in the neighboring Sandton with its fancy mansions behind electric fences. Jampel in Durban told me a story about visiting Eshowe in the Bodhisattva Patti days and seeing little boys playing with string and tin cans “squealing with joy, for hours on end” – a pleasure he reckoned was just as great as the pleasure of the little Sandton boy stuck into his video game, quick to boredom, maybe greater.
Therefore, as Buddha explains, the pleasure of temporary liberation from particular sufferings –although a great deal preferable to endless manifest pain — is nevertheless never going to be good enough for any of us, rich or poor – we all need permanent liberation from all suffering. This, then, is Buddha Shakyamuni’s intention– to free all living beings permanently from all their suffering. It is the reason he attained enlightenment and taught everyone else how to go about it.
I read this the other day about the apparently greatly misunderstood Epicurus (also in The Week):
As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of aponia—physical pain—and ataraxia—mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead was a happiness that lent itself to a constant gratefulness.
Buddhism would agree that when our delusions have subsided, and/or when we experience gratitude or other positive minds, our mind is naturally peaceful and therewith happy; and would also add that we can exponentially deepen that peace and happiness through increasing our positive minds until they last forever.
I was thinking today about why get out of bed in the morning? Why do anything? Why slog away at work, feed the cat, put up the offerings, answer the texts, talk to the coworkers, sort out the paperwork, go for a walk, surf the internet, give away a dollar, go to the doctor, watch TV, water the flowers, etc etc. I know from the times I’ve tried it that if we can have the same intention as Buddha — that is, wanting ourself and all living beings to be free permanently from all sufferings — our whole day becomes extraordinary, even as practically speaking we work just temporarily to liberate ourself and others’ from particular sufferings. With practice, we can get better and better at doing both these at the same time.
Curating our life feeds
What is true or real happiness? Nowadays a lot of people famously curate their Facebook or Instagram feeds to give the impression that their lives are perfect and to avoid appearing unhappy — just one peak experience after another, one exotically located selfie after another — leaving everyone else grimacing or with FOMO. This constant pretending takes a toll and probably, though I haven’t Googled this to check, undermines friendships rather than strengthens them. If our lives were actually perfect and we were always happy, we probably wouldn’t bother telling everyone. I haven’t seen Venerable Geshe-la post any selfies recently, for example. It’s hard to get him to talk about his own life or his achievements or his non-stop great bliss at all.
It is not just on social media that we are jostling for reputation and position like this, I think it just shows up there because we spend so much time on it. One of the social workers in Alex township, who has to deal with so much real crazy sh** every day, was nonetheless more preoccupied by a male friend who was so proud of his new car that he was making everyone around him “feel small”. Apparently there is a lot of jostling for status in the townships, that’s what they told me; and perhaps it’s not so surprising in a community that was kept down for so long.
When I brought up Shantideva’s analysis of how we categorize people into (1) those who are inferior to us in some way so we feel pride, (2) equal to us in some way so we feel competitive, or (3) superior to us in some way so we feel jealous, there was a vigorous nodding of heads. I was surprised one early morning to see the domestic, Ama, arrive at work where I was staying all dressed in her very finest togs as if she was going to a wedding or something. When I started looking, I could see that a lot of commuters were beautifully dressed on their way to and from work, apparently to keep up appearances in the communal taxi, and changing quickly into their scruffy clothes once no longer amongst their peers. Just Instagram in 3D.
That leads me to Buddha’s point about happiness coming from within — real happiness, that is, versus the fake happiness of changing suffering. The deepening pure unconditional happiness that arises from a growing inner peace, a pure intention, warm love, virtue, and wisdom. How does the pleasure from, say, eating some good food (however we construe that, from green leaves on top of a new tree to dining out on every continent) compare with the pleasure from say, developing the heartfelt wish for everyone to be unconditionally happy and permanently free from suffering?
Happiness doesn’t come from working hard or pursuing and purchasing peak experiences. It is a natural by-product of peaceful and positive states of mind. Our first-world lifestyle and expectations can therefore backfire. To quote The Week again:
These days, we try to collect moments of happiness like shells at the beach, even as the waves wash them away. The pursuit is Sisyphean; it inevitably leads down a disappointing path.
Or, as Aldous Huxley wrote in 1956:
The right to the pursuit of happiness is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.
Also, in this kind of pursuit of happiness, we often think it also requires avoiding bad feelings at all cost — pretending they are not there and airbrushing them out of our feeds or daily commute, or distracting ourselves. But if we know how to be truly happy we are no longer scared of these thoughts and emotions because we know they are just weather in the mind with no power to do us harm, and not who we really are. (See these articles for more on that.)
And, like I said, we’re all the same
One last thing, just like our negative minds and our experiences of changing suffering described above, our virtuous minds also feel the same inside. We are not that original. Which turns out to be a good thing. For, if we are not so original or unique after all, it means the methods exist to fix us.
Thanks for sharing my adventures in South Africa. Over to you. Comments most welcome in the box below.
You may know this already, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, that people the world over are all the same in the ways that really count.
For one thing, samsara sucks for everyone. Birth, sickness, old age, and death – who is immune from these four great rivers or from having to watch loved ones helplessly tossed around upon them?
Carrying straight on from this article,where I started talking about transforming adverse conditions into the path.
The day I arrived in South Africa, I heard that my beloved cat Rousseau, the king of the neighborhood, had met his match. He was torn to death by a coyote.
No words, really. A nightmare for him. Despite his own murderous ways, he had a heart of sweetness under those terrible instincts, and he deserved so much better. Everybody does. I am so very grateful for the hundreds of prayers that many of you offered for him, and that Venerable Geshe-la enquired after him. As cats go, despite his terrifying and painful death, he was still blessed. Only a tiny fraction of wild animals get to die peacefully in their sleep, and infinitely fewer still have anyone paying any attention to them, let alone a great spiritual master. However, it still makes me ask, for the thousandth time — how do people cope with losses like this without Dharma?
Over a month later, the panther is still on my mind. But that is not him anymore. Where are you, my dear? Why can we never know where people have gone. A friend of mine once went missing in Florida – two agonizing weeks for everyone who loved her, the just not knowing. Then she was found drowned, her car having overshot a bridge in the middle of the night; and everyone was “Well, at least we know now.” But of course we don’t know; she is still missing. We have no clue where she is. That alone is reason enough to become a Buddha, if you ask me – so that we can keep eyes on everyone always, like Avalokiteshvara with his thousand arms and eyes, because they are now always mere aspects of our omniscient blissful mind.
Rousseau’s other mom Donna asked for my input into his gravestone and I chose a stone Buddha statue from Walmart. I hope through seeing Buddha that she and all the other humans and animals in his old stomping grounds will receive continuous blessings. Even the coyote.
Outer problems in South Africa can clearly be a good deal more challenging than my own usual first-world problems. For example, I don’t need the daily fear of a deadly crash in the crazy communal taxi I rely on to get to work.
These taxis are everywhere, sidling alongside your car in the same lane, viewing every gap in the road as an opportunity to get ahead because, at the end of the day, payment depends upon meeting impossible quotas. South African traffic is crazy!!! As my old friend Cas put it in his laconic way when I asked why people didn’t follow the road rules, “They are more like guidelines.” (Some of you know Cas as no-shoes John from the Festivals – and it may please you to know that he was the first Kadampa in South Africa, requesting the first teachings.) Or I could be living in a place with zero privacy, several family members in a noisy one-roomed house, or no electricity, or insufficient money for supper. And so on.
But life is not easy back here in the States either, despite it still being the richest country in the world. For example, a friend of mine, JW, who is doing a study on senior homelessness often tells me stories of his clients’ wretched conditions in Oakland CA. This one just in:
Work today was nonstop. It was also a bit gloomy. I had an interview with a homeless gentleman who is in extremely poor health. He has a broken bone in his shoulder, another broken in his leg and has had countless falls in the past couple of months due to having problems with his balance. He is outside and the rains are beginning to fall. He is in serious need of help but is having a hard time finding it.
JW is not allowed to “interfere,” because this study is to reveal what senior homeless people need and so those results cannot be skewed. So:
All I could do for him was to give him a few large garbage bags to us as a poncho or for shelter. Sad.
As mentioned in this article, our role model in Mahayana Buddhism, called a “Bodhisattva”, works on solving both outer and inner problems — trying to come to the aid of those in need whenever the opportunity is there to do so.
But although outer problems vary from place to place and time to time, our inner problems do not — they come from our delusions grasping at me and mine, they distort our perceptions, they destroy our peace, and inside they feel the same. And these problems can only be finally solved for any of us when we get around to purifying and transforming our minds.
Our states of mind feel exactly the same – whether that be worry, irritation, or the pleasure of changing suffering. If you are really p***** off with George, does that not feel the same as someone else feeling really p****** off with Mary? Your grief or your annoyance or your depression or your attachment feels the same as mine, for example; only the object varies.
We are funny really – all feeling like we are the center of the universe and somehow different and unique. We have so little real clue about the vast majority of the world’s population of humans, let alone animals; but I think we are safe in assuming that everyday life everywhere is a mixture of the same array of negative, neutral, and virtuous minds, just in varying ratios. That makes our stories and priorities similar, world over, regardless of our background or culture; and knowing that could help us to understand and empathize with each other.
If you want to check whether Buddha’s explanation of all living beings’ negative, neutral, and virtuous states of mind actually applies to you or not, I recommend you read How to Understand the Mind. Go see if he has left any of your thoughts out.
On the basis of allowing our delusions to subside temporarily through allowing the mind to settle even a little, for example with this meditation, connecting with some natural inner peace, we can then gradually learn strategies or ways of thinking to (a) pre-empt our future problems and/or (b) deal with them or transform them as they start to arise.
With the help of mind-training (Lojong) in particular, in which we learn to apply Buddha’s teachings directly to our difficulties, we can develop a huge repertoire of coping mechanisms.
Just for starters, whatever problem we are having today, instead of thinking of it as inherently bad we can try labelling or imputing it as a useful teaching. For the sake of argument, let’s say that today you notice a strange lesion on your skin – you had been thinking it was a scratch but it’s been there 2 months and is now ominously growing. You send a photo to a friend, who sends it to a dermatologist, who texts back, “Skin cancer until proven otherwise.”
Meantime you have been chucked off Medicaid due to not filing the correct paperwork in time.
Okay. After the initial freakout — spending a panicky half hour looking at all the Google images for skin cancer and discovering that, yes, it could be benign, as your friend is trying to tell you, but on the other hand it could also be the worst possible most malignant melanoma and you have approximately 2 years left to live — you decide to slow down and, for the sake of your sanity, think about this from a Dharma point of view. Instead of grasping so tightly at me and mine, maybe you decide to let those thoughts dissolve into the peaceful clarity of your own mind, like bubbles into water, going for refuge in the peace of your own Buddha nature and/or in holy beings.
Within the mental flexibility or freedom that opens up in that space, this small but very present skin lesion can now remind us of all sorts of things, such as:
I need more inner peace, in fact lasting inner peace; and I need to identify my self with this peace, not with this mental pain and possible physical suffering.
This is what life is like for others, so it’s giving me a window into empathy – for example for people experiencing dread or fear when they receive bad news from a doctor. When we get over ourselves, we finally start to relax.
This is not inherently bad because it can make me stronger. Me myself, this lesion, and my experience of this lesion, far from being solid or fixed, all depend upon my thoughts. I can come to enjoy the challenge of transforming this problem into a solution! Why? Because I want to be a better person.
This is a true story that happened to someone I know, probably many people actually — and this way of thinking has worked for them, they feel peaceful again, inner problem solved for now. They are also dealing with the outer problem by getting on the phone to Medicaid and finding a doctor who can see them next week.
This also works for transforming other people’s problems. Someone in Joburg told me that all vegans are depressed, including her, because things are changing so slowly – and how can she transform that kind of stress? Again, heart-rending as it is when it comes to animals and other vulnerable people, we cannot immediately sort out all their outer problems, any more than one drowning person can save another drowning person, however much they want to. But as well as doing the best we can, knowing that every little bit helps someone, we can use these situations to increase our compassion and our wish to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for their sake.
As we progressively free ourselves from depression, discouragement, and other delusions and as we increase our wisdom, patience, and good heart, we can become more skillful, creative, and full of the tireless courage we need if we are to free everybody.