Practical precepts for a Bodhisattva wannabe

Given that we have to go to work and/or haconnectionng out and/or social media (verb yet?) with lots of other people, there are umpteen opportunities in our modern lives to observe the Bodhisattva’s vow, where we take personal responsibility to travel the path to enlightenment for the sake of others by practicing the six perfections.

Just to retrace our steps for a moment …

When we develop a compassion that wishes to free everyone permanently from their suffering, it doesn’t take much to figure out that we can’t actually do that while remaining limited, identifying “Me” on the basis of only this impure & ordinary body and mind.

I was just thinking today, for example — when someone was mildly complaining that they never saw me — that although I too would like to hang out with them all the time, there is just one of me. And how much handier it would be if there were more of me, so I could be in more than one place at a time.

IMG_2194-EFFECTS
I only live here at the moment.

So that got me to thinking, “Hmmm, how can I get around this problem and have more time and fun with everyone?! I mean, Skype and FaceTime have their uses, but still …

Wait, I have an idea! A Buddha can be everywhere all at once, and help and bless not just a small circle of friends, but each and every living being every day – that’s her job description! I’m going to use this life to become a Buddha.”

With that conclusion, we have generated bodhichitta. Then we engage practically in the six perfections with this big, beautiful motivation, working on different levels as mentioned in this last article.

Within that, I find it very encouraging to know that with the six perfections there is always something we can be doing to solve our own and others’ problems.

#2 Moral discipline 

This second perfection, that of moral discipline or ethical behavior, includes avoiding negativity and benefiting others. As a rule of thumb, we can ask ourselves before doing stuff:

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“Is this action going to help or harm others? If it will harm them, I won’t do it.”

This question can free us from hypocrisy, ie, saying one thing and doing another, and keep us real. We can become a shining light on the hill through the power of our genuine example.

#3 Patient acceptance

And we can be patient when things and people don’t work out; for example, when they ignore or cannot receive our help, and fall over into the swamp despite our best attempts to prevent this.

Avoiding the downfalls of the Bodhisattva vow

As well as training in the six perfections, the Bodhisattva vow also entails avoiding the 46 secondary and 18 root downfalls related to these six, many of which I find refreshingly appropriate to our modern society. I thought I’d share a fairly random selection, in the hopes you are inspired to find out all about them in the book The Bodhisattva Vow.

Enjoying ourselves more

One of the downfalls related to the perfection of giving, “Indulging in worldly pleasures out of attachment,” reminds me that it is not our work that is currently distracting us from making spiritual progress, helping other people, or even enjoying ourselves, but our attachment to externals! This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy our lives, but that we can enjoy our lives with bodhichitta motivation.

A few weeks ago I was at the beautiful Echo Lake in Colorado with my friend and he said, “I would love to bring a busload of kids from the south side of Chicago up here.” We can mandala offeringalways invite others in, mentally, to our enjoyments — “May all beings enjoy such Pure Lands”, as we say in the mandala offering.

This makes our enjoyments instantly meaningful, good karma, and, in my experience, more blissful.

Plus, if we actually have some bodhichitta, we may find we have more energy to immerse into interesting Dharma books and classes, and less energy to waste on social media and TV 😉 Even changing that direction to go inward a little bit can help a lot, I have found.

Related to the perfection of giving, we also need to avoid “Not replying to others”, which basically means “we try to make others’ minds happy by giving suitable answers anIMG_2211d advice.” We don’t have to be appointed as a teacher or sit on a throne to share our experiences – we can talk about these ideas wherever we go, whenever we are with others who are receptive. For example, if someone at work is suffering from jealousy or anxiety, we can give them common-sense advice on rejoicing and finding some peace, without having to use any of the Buddhist terminology.

Avoiding time suck

Similarly, it is not engaging in the world that is sucking up all our precious time, it is our distractions. This is implied by the fact that Bodhisattvas “accept gifts” and “accept invitations” whenever they can! Related to the perfection of moral discipline, they also avoid “Doing little to benefit others” – not “needlessly shunning wealth, reputation, or involvement with other people.” With bodhichitta, we can increase our wealth and reputation provided we use it to help others.

Also related to moral discipline, Bodhisattvas promise to “help others avoid negativity,” “go to the assistance of those in need”, “take care of the sick”, “act to dispel suffering”, “help others to overcome their bad habits”, and so on. You can read about all of these if you get a moment. Lovely.

Universal CompassionAnd then, if you are still interested, do check out the vows and commitments of training the mind in the book Universal Compassion. These also give modern-day people like me a lot of practical advice on working on many levels to bring both temporary and ultimate help.

Crucially, perhaps — if we never lose sight of our main aim of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of every living being, then, regardless of how many things don’t work out or “go wrong”, nothing will be wasted. Every single day will be a step in the right direction.

Related articles

Developing a Bodhisattva’s confidence

Developing a Buddha’s omniscience 

Integrity and ethics 

More on patient acceptance 

A Bodhisattva’s way of life

Who around here couldn’t use some support? So I wanted to say a bit more about the different levels on which we can help others, following on from this article about the swamp of samsara.

Dharma in daily lifeThe way I see it is that we need to do stuff everyday, anyway, and — whatever it is we do — why not make it really count by doing it motivated by renunciation for the suffering yet unreal nature of samsara? (Our motivations determine the outcome of our actions, or karma.)

With renunciation like this, we won’t get heavy-hearted or anxious. Why? Because we have given up on our attachment to things working out in this swamp of samsara, and therefore each day we have nothing to lose. We just need to try, not worry. This swamp may have a shallow end, where people can stand, and a deep end, where people are drowning; but it is all basically swampish. Luckily, this swamp is also just mere imputation or label of mind, which means that when we transform our minds through wisdom, it will disappear, Poof!, like last night’s dream.

So, with renunciation on others’ behalf (aka compassion), we can help in whatever way we think of, on different levels. Nothing is too small or too trivial – any more than helping someone to tread an inch to the right, avoid the snapping teeth, or find a stepping stone is trivial if they are scared or drowning. It is not the final answer to this person’s problems, but it is still important to them and therefore to us. In the same way, we can give people the necessities of food, shelter, medicine, & protection, work toward a fairer and more humane society, and so on.

The six perfections

The Bodhisattva is the Mahayana Buddhist role model, and a better role model would be hard to find.

He or she trains in the so-called “six perfections” – giving, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration/meditation, and wisdom.

giving

These six practices are called “perfections” because they are motivated by the mind of enlightenment, aka bodhichitta, which is the wish to realize our potential for enlightenment so that we can lead all living beings without exception to that state of lasting happiness.

In other words, we want to wake ourselves up from the hallucinations of samsara, become an “Awakened One” aka “Buddha”, so that we can go about waking everyone else up too.

The Bodhisattva’s aim is therefore two-fold: (1) to help others as much as possible both practically and spiritually right now, and (2) to get daily closer to the inner light of omniscience, with its power to bless each and every being every day, so we can free them all for good.

The first three perfections, largely applicable to our daily actions, lend themselves to helping people navigate their way to safety, to the shallow end as it were; albeit still submerged for now in the swamp of samsara. All the while we can be motivated by the wish to get them onto the dry land of liberation, where they are forever safe from suffering.

Giving

giving is livingGiving (or, really, giving back) includes giving material things AND giving Dharma teachings or advice. We can help people at work — and with our work — in any way that seems suitable, sometimes with material help to improve individual or societal well being, and sometimes with non-judgmental skillful advice that people can use to transform their thoughts.

Buddha’s teachings are divided into wisdom teachings, which are basically his teachings on emptiness, and method teachings, which are basically everything else. We can start using both to help others.

Method teachings

For example, with Buddha’s advice on interdependence, we can show how we could all better navigate this swamp by mending our fractured society of small, selfish, isolated Me’s by joining up in caring, cooperative, connected teams of We instead.

Or we could explain how not to mistake other people for their delusions, but see them as victims of their confusion and anger etc., just as we are, and so stay loving and patient.

connectionWe could also encourage people to witness and take refuge in their own and others’ good hearts and pure, peaceful minds. Knowing that we all have immense spiritual depth and potential, we can help others identify with that rather than their false, limited, suffering sense of self.

We can demonstrate with our own example how changing direction to go inwards for peace is not a selfish escape, but paradoxically connecting us more more and more deeply with everyone else “out there”.

Wisdom teachings

It seems to me as though the method teachings are the way to get people to the shallow end of samsara’s vast swamp, where they at least have their heads above water. But the only way to lift them out of the swamp altogether is with Buddha’s wisdom teachings. As Buddha Maitreya puts it:

Because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure.

All the time we are practicing giving and the other perfections, we know in our heart that we are trying to get people to a place where they can realize it is all just the impure dream of an impure mind. This way, they can wake up and create a world of their own choosing out of the bliss and emptiness of their Buddhism in society 2own purified mind. And then they can pull everyone out onto dry land as well.

By the way, we don’t have to sit on a throne to give good advice. We don’t have to be a Dharma millionaire yet, either, as Geshe Kelsang once put it – we just need a few spare dollars in our pocket. Any Dharma we have, we can give, and we will never run out. We don’t have to use Dharma terminology, of course. We can use the language that works for whoever we are talking to. We can use the language of the heart.

We can also give fearlessness, time, attention, and love. Even — or sometimes especially — our practice of meditation is giving others fearlessness and love, holding the space for them. There is a beautiful video that seems to demonstrate this … check out the brief footage of our Kadampa nun in Mexico 😊

And I think we can do all this giving without judgment, as explained for example in this article about giving unconditionally to homeless people, though that might be a subject for another day.

We are really learning to give of ourselves, to let go of keeping ourselves to ourselves, staying small and poky. Giving is a big beautiful shining open-hearted practice that brings real joy to our own and others’ lives.

More on the other perfections and related practical advice in the next article …

Related articles

The gift that keeps on giving

First you, then me ~ the Bodhisattva’s attitude

To the rescue!

Just passin’ through

The relevance of inner peace

Right now it may seem as though our problems are getting in the way of our inner peace. But the only thing getting in the way is that we’re clutching onto our problems and determined to solve them all out there. Anxiety can arise when we feel an excessive need to do this, and what it does it shake our mind up more and more with inappropriate attention – dwelling, exaggerating, conceptualizing, elaborating – whether this be our relationships, our politics, our health, our work, war with Korea, etc. We’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go.

Carrying on from this article.

The need to solve our problems becomes more compelling the more we focus on them with inappropriate attention.

But ironically we feel more and more powerless to solhead in cloudsve our problems because our mind is getting more and more out of control. Then, when we feel powerless, and that things have slipped out of our control, we get even more anxious and frustrated — we cannot see clearly what to do. You know that expression, we cannot see the wood for the trees.

Inner peace really does solve problems

It can take a while to become totally convinced that inner peace can solve our problems, even when we’ve had experience of this truth. This is because we have a deep habit of relying upon delusions to try and solve our problems. We are pretty attached to solving everything outside the mind.

For example, you ever had that feeling that you don’t even WANT to solve the problem you are having with an irritating person by letting go of your irritation because that just lets them off the hook!? We want to send them the irate email, we want them to know what we think of them, we want them to feel bad – and only when those goals are accomplished might we be ready to sit down and meditate. Or when we’re feeling hurt and neglected by our object of attachment, we don’t want to feel all peaceful by letting go of the attachment. No, THEY are obviously the ones who should change!

Outer and inner problems 

I’m not saying we don’t sort external problems out at all. Of course we have to pay some attention to them; but it is the kind of attention that matters. We need to approach these problems not from an unbalanced, chaotic mind, but from the sanity of inner peace.

To sort the outside out, we need to pay at least as much attention to the inside.

One of the most useful teachings we could ever stumble across is the difference between outer and inner problems. The classic example Geshe Kelsang uses is if our car breaks down — do we have a problem!? Sure our car has a problem (the outer problem); but we only have a problem if our mind gets upset (the inner problem). We deal with these problems in outer and inner ways — cars go to the garage, and inner problems need to be solved by transforming the mind.head in clouds 1

It is helpful to remember that solving our own and others’ outer problems — in itself — is never going to solve the inner problems, however busy or expert we become. But that’s ok, because even though we may never be able to solve every difficult situation, we CAN slowly but surely solve all our inner problems. And, as Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:

If we were to respond to difficult situations with a positive or peaceful mind they would not be problems for us; indeed, we may even come to regard them as challenges or opportunities for growth and development. ~ How to Transform Your Life, page 10

So we can afford to relax. We don’t need to feel bad about relaxing. Quite the opposite. Try, don’t worry, as Geshe Kelsang also says. Or, another favorite Kadampa quote:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

Come to love the space

As explained here, when problems come up they seem like reality because our head is in the clouds. We are caught up in the storms. We make them very real, very solid. Therefore, we are in worry.

head in the clouds 2Any problem tends to fill our mind when we’re in the middle of it. Our problems seem all encompassing — we have to get rid of them. But can you remember the problem you were having this time last week? This time last year?! It seemed totally compelling at the time, so where’s it gone, why can’t we even remember what it was?!

When we do allow our mind to experience its natural inner peace by letting go and relaxing into our heart, we see for ourselves how space solves problems. Just putting space around our problems, getting them into perspective, helps hugely. We relax and we see more clearly a way forward. We stop panicking. A cloud surrounded by an infinite sky is no big deal. On the basis of our mind being quieter, more mindful, more clear, we can then turn it to deep Dharma topics that will uproot all our problems more permanently.

Trusting inner peace

No matter how slight it is, or how relative, we can trust our inner peace. But we cannot trust our distorted, agitated states of mind, any more than we can trust a churned up lake to accurately reflect what is going on around it. The more peaceful our mind, the more in tune with reality, the more accurately it reflects the world. Truthfully, the world is just a reflection of our mind to begin with. This is why Geshe Kelsang says:

Without inner peace, there can be no outer peace.

Because we can trust inner peace, go there as often as you can. Even if it is only for a few minutes in the restroom at work, that will do it. As soon as you feel some inner peace, give yourself the permission to enjoy it, to remain with it, to remember “This is who I am.” It may sound unlikely while we are feeling anxious, but one day we will get to the point where we can bliss out whenever we want 🙂

And, far from being irresponsible or escapist, this will give us the power to solve stuff. It will give us the power to help others for, if we ain’t got it, how can we give it?

Thead in clouds 3his peace and bliss are sanity, reality. It is the delusions that are distorted. They are faulty ways of thinking that are not based on sanity and that make everything seem like a problem. Trust the truth of peace, compassion, kindness, and wisdom instead; they’ll never let us down.

How do I get started?

You may be thinking, “All this is easier said than done.” Well of course it takes no time to get these ideas written down on this page, but the reason these ideas are still around is because they work, countless people have benefited from them. We too can give ourselves permission to relax if we understand its importance and relevance to our “real world” problems. We can make time each day to sit quietly and look within, and the investment of time is going to be more than worth it. We could end up being far more productive! What have we got to lose?!

I am not even talking about hours and hours a day. I’m talking 10 to 20 minutes. Seriously. That’s really not a lot of time. You’ll may want to do more as you get better at it and love it more and more, but that’s not the point, you still only need 10 to 20 minutes to get started.

To summarize, learning to let go and relax through breathing meditation (a) feels good, (b) gives us essential space and perspective, and (c) is part of reality – it is sanity.

Bonus
Je Tsongkhapa on clouds
Je Tsongkhapa appearing on clouds of compassion

As a (big) bonus, this peace is also not separate from the non-deluded peaceful reality and good heart of an enlightened being, as explained here. Feel your connection to enlightenment, however you understand it, the divine. The more we recognize this, the more peaceful, blessed, and inspired we feel. Enlightened beings see us as we really are – at heart pure and good and worry-free, just not yet realizing it.

Related articles

How to overcome anxiety

Going wide means going deep

Acceptance — the first step toward self-transformation

 

To the rescue!

While working on an article filled with your ideas on how Buddhists can (and need to) help in the current world turmoil, someone sent me this:

In a recent retreat, after teaching on emptiness and how the appearances in this life are like dreams, Gen Losang went on to say that a compassionate way to help people is to skilfully reduce the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it. He meant skilfully, not shutting them down with, “Oh, it’s all emptiness.” 

wisdom

What do you think about this? It reminded me of this analogy (below) for helping people on different levels and in accordance with their needs that I hope you might also find helpful.

To help anyone, we need compassion. And true compassion, or deep compassion, arises from renunciation – we develop renunciation for ourselves and for everyone else.

Renunciation is when we stop buying into samsara, hoping that things in samsara will one day work themselves out – they will not. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. For as long as our minds are impure, our worlds will be impure.

“Reducing the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it” depends on the degree of suffering and crazy appearances the person is experiencing.

If we are helping someone who has a little space in their lives, and who is suffering, for example, from a relationship problem – yes, this advice can really help.

For someone whose home and country have just been washed away or burned to the ground, maybe not so much. (Unless they already have experience of this deep spiritual truth and just want reminding.)

The swamp

Imagine living beings are trying to navigate a huge, deep swamp that happens to be full of alligators and other monsters with very big teeth and hungry bellies. It is dusky — hard to see clearly or far. There are stepping stones, but it’s challenging to see how to tread safely. Here and there are small patches of dry land where people can catch a bit of a breather, and some of those patches even seem relatively pretty or interesting.

alligator in swampImagine that we are also in that swamp, but that we know, at least intellectually, something profound – this swamp is false, merely an appearance to mind, like a dream or a movie.

The need for renunciation

In that scenario, we need renunciation ourselves, wishing to get out of this swamp of samsara entirely and forever rather than remaining intrigued by it. We need to know that for as long as we have delusions, we’re going to keep projecting monsters wherever we look.

dystopia

Speaking for myself, I know that the times I feel anxious, overwhelmed, heavy, or graspy is when I have forgotten my renunciation, which is a light, joyful, and confident wish for liberation. My compassion then is far less effective. I have thoughts like, “There are so many people, including animals, needing help! So many people demanding the attention that I’m not giving them – it’s coming from all sides. How am I going to save them all from the alligators?! Especially when I’m feeling trapped or overwhelmed myself?” I feel like going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or distracting myself with Netflix. It also doesn’t help if we are bound to our own selfish attachments needing things or people to go our way.

If we don’t have the non-attachment of renunciation, we have only momentary relief when a plan pans out – but it is short lived, whereas the disappointments can seem to pile up effortlessly. This is because of attachment. It leads to the suffering of change, not to deep satisfaction or solutions.

The need for wisdom

We also need some wisdom understanding the illusory nature of the swamp or we will soon be joining in the collective panic, “Aarggh, I’m freaking out over here! We’re going to be swallowed whole.” We will be part of the problem, swept up in the drama, overwhelmed by appearances or the 24/7 news cycle.

Without wisdom, compassion fatigue sets in because it is exhausting to try and solve “real” problems — it is like wading through treacle with no end in sight. It can also make us feel guilty as we can never do enough.

With the compassion born of renunciation and wisdom, we won’t get discouraged. The context is different – we have set it up differently. We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”

Back to the analogy … Let’s say we are lucky enough to have a flashlight. The flashlight is the teachings illuminating the path — we don’t know how long we have this flashlight, but it is very effective. How strong it is depends on the strength of our experience. Perhaps we understand the dream-like nature of reality and — even though for now things may also still seem real to us — we know we have to get ourselves and others to the firm ground of wisdom.

Tread here!

swampWhat we need to do, if we care about the people around us, is to stop them being eaten by swamp monsters. The first thing we need to do is encourage them to get to the patches of dry land … tread here, avoid those jaws, hold my hand, look at the light. You’ll be ok, let me help.” Although there are no real dangers there, they are not necessarily ready to hear us say so: “Stop being an idiot! There are no swamp monsters! This is just a dream! It’s all empty!” We understand how it is all appearing to them as real, and so we give them the relevant advice for their situation. We empathize with their hopes and fears. We give them material help, “Here, have some water.” They need water.

Once they reach dry land, and have had a chance to rest up, we can then tell them:

“Believe it or not, this is all just a bad dream. You are in no real danger. And now let me explain how.”

We can explain how it is possible for them to stay on firm ground forever, and help get everyone else out as well.

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We may not be able to do this with everyone straightaway, of course — for example all I can do with these foster kittens is give them food, shelter, love, temporary safety, and entertainment. But we never give up trying until everyone is permanently safe and free. That is a Bodhisattva‘s mentality.

Calm the waters

I’ll finish by sharing what my friend wrote about Gen Losang’s advice:

The key for me here is genuine compassion. I say that because if we try to practice this without genuine compassion as a motivation then we just end up unskillfully minimising people’s feelings. It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.

Within that, I try not to draw attention to the awful things that are happening. Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic. I point out possible alternative explanations for the actions they have witnessed, or suggest a better possible outcome. In a way I try to steer their dream in a more positive direction. If a mother comforts a child after a nightmare, she doesn’t do this by agreeing the monsters were just horrific and are probably still there …IMG_2085

If we are not careful, we can just spread the hype (and there is also no shortage of “fake news” out there). We can end up pointing out the monsters in their nightmares that they missed the first time, instead of shining the flashlight under the bed and saying, “Look, there is no one there!”

A parent comforts their children when they have been terrified or upset by a dream by sympathising with their pain but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth. Then, once they are comforted to some extent, they can move their attention to something that will soothe or comfort them, rather than harping on about their own horrific nightmares or asking them for more details. 

What I am working on now is responding in the way Losang suggested, calming the waters, not swirling them around. 

As always, your comments are welcome below.

Related articles

Renunciation 

Change your future by changing your mind

How to help on different levels

Developing confidence

 

Coping with anxiety

You might have heard the expression “Xanax is the new Prozac”? This is because worry worryand anxiety have already reached epidemic proportions in our modern society. And if we are prone to worry, there certainly seems more and more cause for it as the days and months roll by.

You’ve probably seen the articles. They report that, for example, in 1980, 4% of Americans suffered a mental disorder associated with anxiety. Today half do. A third of Britons will experience anxiety disorder at some stage in their life, with an explosion of reported anxiety among teenagers and young adults.

And so on and so forth, all over the world. It’s bad. It’s sad.

But it is not inevitable. And (along with the medication in some cases) meditation and Buddhism can help; they are designed to help.

Plus, we need to try and solve our own sense of anxiety and hopelessness if we have any desire to help our world. As we have probably all noticed, it is not easy to help others when we are feeling unbalanced or unhappy ourselves.

I am carrying on from this article.

How is it that some some people can cope with worry and stress and even thrive on it, whereas others get overwhelmed and even ill? Of course there are various factors at play, but there are also good methods for alleviating worry and stress that anyone can try.

I was interested to see that the dictionary.com definition for worry is:

To torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts; fret.

Note the word “oneself”. We are tormenting ourselves, no one is doing it to us. We are the ones thinking our thoughts. If we could control our thoughts, we could get rid of our worry. If we could change our thoughts, we could — we would — learn to be peaceful.

Break the vicious cycle

IMG_1750-EFFECTSWhen we notice our anxious symptoms, responding to some perceived threat, we think that we can’t cope with the situation, and therefore we become more anxious. This is the start of the vicious cycle of anxiety, the cycle we have to break.

If we are prone to worry, this means that our thoughts are thinking us us rather than the other way around. We have inadvertently boarded trains of thoughts that are taking us from worry stations right through to panic stations. We have to find a way to get off.

We don’t have to think all our thoughts. We don’t have to give them power – the only power a thought actually has is the power we give it. If we learn to control our mind, we can think our thoughts rather than the other way around. We can transform our thoughts and we can transform ourselves.

Thoughts depend upon the thinker just as the thinker depends upon the thoughts – change one, the other changes automatically.

This is a simple but devastatingly profound insight from Buddha, which can change everything. And we can experience it for ourselves by learning simple meditation.

Meditation has proven benefits in stopping worry – including even the simplest breathing meditation that anyone can do, such as the 15-minute peace meditation I explained in the last article on worry. Basically, in this meditation, we are making our mind bigger so that our problems become smaller. And we are learning that we can control our own thoughts.

Feeling foggy?

IMG_0956-EFFECTSOur mind is naturally peaceful. Our problem is that we keep shaking our minds up, like shaking a clear glass of water up and down, or like speedboats churning through a still mountain lake. Whenever we give ourselves some time and allow our mind to settle and relax, we experience some of our own natural peace of mind. Our inner problems subside temporarily because we have taken our attention away from them. And, even if we experience only a little bit of peace, we can know that there is plenty more where that came from.

Another analogy for our mind — and its infinite depth and spiritual potential – is that of a vast clear sky. When the fog rolls in, the whole sky can feel foggy, as anyone in San Francisco will tell you. But we know this is temporary, not the nature of sky; and that it can and will change. It is only if we are not aware of our limitless sky-like depth that we identify instead with our fog-like delusions and problems, and feel foggy ourselves. Our head is stuck in these as if that’s all there is. We get caught up in our fleeting feelings, clutching onto them as if they comprise our entire mind.

The first thing to do is allow these foggy problematical thoughts and feelings to disappear by focusing on the breath and not following them. Instead of shaking our mind up, we allow our mind to settle down. In this, we can start to experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mind, which has the power to heal us.

This goes for any problem – relationship problems (is he texting me enough?!), work problems (will I get that thing done on time?), health problems (why isn’t this diet working?), children problems (how can I help them when they don’t want to be helped?), world problems (where do I start?!) — we can let go of the inappropriate attention. Just allow ourselves to forget about all this for a few minutes, relax, let the attachment and anxiety drop away. We’re not going to miss anything.

Hey, I can’t afford to do that!

Maybe we think that if we relax like this we are reneging on our responsibility – that we need to chew over every problem until we have solved it, especially when other people are involved. For example, if I am not worrying about my parents/children/pets/the world, I am letting them down. We feel guilty. We think, “Let me just try and sort this/them out first, and then I can get back to feeling peaceful — I can reward myself, go on retreat or something.”IMG_1950

But this is completely the wrong way around. The fact of the matter is that over-thinking is not the way to solve our own or others’ problems. Trying to sort everything out “out there” is not the way to solve problems. Space is the way to solve problems. The sanity of inner peace is the way to solve problems.

There’s a saying in Buddhism that worldly activities are like a man’s beard – though he may shave it off in the morning, it is growing back again by the evening. Even if we did manage to sort everything out “out there” on any given day (an entirely dubious proposition, at least in my experience), is it not true that there are more problems to sort out by the next day? We need to learn the art of relaxation and letting go as the way to (dis)solve our own and others’ problems.

Then — and this is very much part of it — we can approach the external problems from a far more helpful and realistic perspective.

Who are you?

It’s also helpful to ask ourselves, “Who am I, really?” Once we are feeling more peaceful, we can spend a few minutes developing a really positive mind – for example by contemplating some brief instruction on love.

Then we can relate to ourselves as a loving compassionate person, or at least, “Hey, I’m not so bad!”, as opposed to that limited anxious person, “I am useless and doomed.” We can start to get a foot in the door, some agency in our own narrative.

We are who we tell ourselves we are, and in fact it is closer to reality to see ourselves as loving than as hopeless. The love goes far far deeper, and it is our own nature.

IMG_1037We can learn to go through our day with this relative peace, love, and confidence in our heart — try it out for size, let it grow through practice. At least know it is in there somewhere, that there is an alternative to this anxiety. Dive into the restroom when we forget there is peace at the heart, make it live up to its name.

Also, my advice, if you can: go to regular classes and get guided in meditation. You’ll learn stuff that you can practice all week, plus you’ll get the support and encouragement of others in the same boat.

Start the virtuous cycle

So, through breathing meditation we can develop a little space between us and our suffering — it is no longer consuming all our attention by drawing it into an exaggerated sense of a limited, suffering me. From that perspective, we have a better chance of using our own problems to empathize more deeply with others — and the more we do this the less anxious we will feel. We have started a a virtuous cycle to replace the vicious one.

More ideas for helping with worry coming up soon. Meantime, is this helping at all? Please share your experience and questions in the comments.

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Are we doing enough?

who wants changePeople everywhere are suffering. Mass murder in Las Vegas. Climate catastrophes. Rampant racism. Growing inequality. Sanctioned homophobia. The clear and present danger of nuclear war. Millions more animals butchered without conscience. Even bad so-called Buddhists in Myanmar. Oh, and let’s not forget what’s been going on in all the other realms of samsara.

And that’s just today.

When I read these things I wonder, as a Buddhist, am I practicing enough? Am I giving enough? Am I helping enough? Am I putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak? Or am I still allowing myself to get too distracted or too complacent, “I’m alright, Jack”, given that Buddhism, or Dharma, makes it increasingly easy to feel all peaceful and happy inside? Or discouraged and fatalist, “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s nothing I can do about this mess of a world so there is no point even trying.”?

We can always operate on two levels – inside and outside. Training our mind does not preclude being active to help our world. With a peaceful, grounded, and stable heart, above all practicing compassion and wisdom, we can also act externally to try and make a difference in whatever way seems appropriate, and according to how much time and skill we have.

What to do about Las Vegas?

sign-americansFor me, for example, I am using what happened on Sunday to remind myself that I have to address any hatred or even dislike in my own mind. If this is what uncontrolled aversion can do, I cannot afford to let this delusion feel at home in my heart.

And then I’m trying to figure what I can do to help counteract the culture of violence in the USA, partly by seeking to understand it more fully in the first place. I may not be able to do much, but I can contribute in some ways.

There need be no contradiction between practicing Buddhism on the inside and on the outside – when we try to protect others by, for example, campaigning for gun control with a good heart, this is a Bodhisattva perfection, giving fearlessness.

And we also have to practice patience with the outcome. We cannot be attached to the results of our actions in the near future because so many other factors are already in play. However, we can know that this giving and patience are creating good karma that will lead to good results.

And I accompany any actions with a prayer for the best possible outcome, for prayers are never wasted.

And North Korea?!

What about even more seemingly out of control situations such as climate change or the nuclear escalation between North Korea and the US? It is not beyond the realm of possibility that we’ll be faced with a “limited nuclear option” that would claim an impossible number of lives and throw this world into hell. So what do we do about that?

I don’t think we should pretend it is not happening. I don’t think we should pretend that we are not part of this world or that this world is not part of us. I don’t think this is a good time to be distracted by our own small problems and entertainments. I do think we need to be motivated by this to become Bodhisattvas and Buddhas as quickly as possible, so that we can use our wisdom to destroy our own and others’ samsara.

And as prayers do make all the difference, we need to direct our prayers toward world peace not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, but NOW.

It is not an either/or

Some Buddhists frame our activities as an either/or: either we are studying and meditating to attain enlightenment or we are helping others “externally”. But that’s a bit precious human lifeof a red herring because we can do both, and both can be leading us closer to enlightenment.

In any event, it is not as if many of us get to sit around in monasteries or their equivalent any more, studying and meditating all day long, like it was in Tibet. The chance would be a fine thing! Although I am of the opinion that most of us could indeed profitably spend more time studying and meditating, most of us will still have to go to work every day in any case to earn our keep, obliged to interact with a bunch of people, acting “externally”. So what are we DOING all day long at work? Most of us are probably in a position to love and help and influence at least a few people every day, to help transform their lives.

Fact is, too, that we never know how we are being received. We never know how far our influence might be spreading. An old friend of mine, Kathleen Dowling Singh, died on Tuesday. She was a wonderful woman, a fearless warrior for love. In mid-SeptemKathleen Dowling Singhber she had written to tell me she had just been diagnosed with cancer, requesting prayers and thanking me for “all you have given me.” Her heart was always deeply grateful to Geshe Kelsang and his teachings, some of which I was able to share with her when we both lived in Florida. And tributes are coming in from many people to say how much her series of “Grace” therapy books have helped them, books whose ideas come mainly from Buddhism.

You can’t keep a good idea down. So let’s share these ideas whenever possible.

Our Buddhist Centers

As I talked about in this last article, helping our Dharma Centers is always going to be an invaluable, even cosmic, use of our time — helping at the core of things. Even if you have no clue what to do about some of this other stuff, you can always volunteer practical help at a Center. Helping keep the doors open to people seeking refuge is increasingly vital and meaningful.

Can we up our game?

web of kindness

A friend sent me this article called Radical Buddhism and the Paradox of Acceptance. Someone on Facebook pointed out that this article may be a bit of a straw man misrepresentation of Slavoj Zizek’s apparently complex arguments, but I think that reading it could still serve a useful purpose because people do sometimes have these questions about the relevance of Buddhism.

In this tumultuous day and age — and as we seek to integrate Buddhism as a new development into our Western world — each of us probably needs to try answering these kinds of questions for ourselves individually. At least, I have found recently that in questioning myself, “Am I complicit in the status quo because I am personally alright, or am I doing enough to end world suffering?”, I have been inspired to up my spiritual game. So with that in mind I asked a question on Facebook:

How would you debate this misconception about Buddhism? Do you find Buddhism helps you escape or engage the world? Or both?!

Related to this, I also asked:

What can we as Buddhists do about (a) violent incidents like the one in Las Vegas (2) the real and present danger of nuclear strikes (3) the growing divisions and inequality in modern society (4) climate disasters. Answers on a postcard! No, seriously, what are we each doing individually and as a Sangha to end this kind of suffering?

Please give your own answer in the comments, if you have time! And I am going to share some of the excellent replies I have already received in the next article.

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Just passin’ through …

Today I was wondering what people might want to do with my ashes, if anything at all. For the record, if any of you can be bothered, I would like them scattered in the lake at Madhyamaka Centre, Geshe Kelsang’s first Buddhist Centre in the West, where I spent a number of formative years. If that’s inconvenient because I die in another country, I don’t mind being scattered on the plants at any Kadampa Center.

riding through townAnyway, this got me thinking. And maybe it is because I live in the Wild West these days, but I got this image of myself as a cowboy riding into town – one of those fake Hollywood towns with a saloon, livery, general store, sheriff, and all that other atmospheric stuff.

I have no idea how long I will be on this set — it could be days or weeks or perhaps even years, but one thing I know for sure is that I am only passing through. I have been riding my whole life through town after town, and before long I will be riding onto countless more. And the same is true for everybody else in this dusty desert.

For the sake of argument, lets say that everything I do in this town is going to count towards where I go next — I will be taking my intentions or karma with me like credentials or a rap sheet. Also, in this town, everybody, just like me, wants to be happy all the time and never wants to suffer.

So, given this, what am I going to do while I’m here? What is the best way to help myself and help everyone else?

I will do my best to make sure they’re comfortable. I will try and make this town more peaceful, harmonious, fair, and equitable. I will try and help people find enough to eat and have roofs over their heads. I will speak up against injustice. I will vote for the best sheriff on offer. When there is trouble, eg, a violent storm, I will try my best to help people rebuild. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

Through technological progress and by organizing society in fairer, more humane ways, we can certainly help improve people’s lives in some respects.

All of this is very important. But even more important, I think, is to help everyone realize that they are just here for a short time and that none of this is really happening.

indianAlso, when I do help in those external ways, I need to be able to set the intention and release the outcome, as it were – not getting attached to results, because these are by no means certain in samsara. This is not fatalistic, it is realistic; and recognizing it will make me more, not less, effective in helping my townsfolk, while keeping the discouragement of false expectations at bay.

Also, I need to be prepared not to freak out if there are unwanted consequences from some of my actions – I am dealing, after all, with a truck-load of cowboys and girls, with all their uncontrolled minds and bad karma. For example, I might protect the damsel from the gunslinger, but she may go on to shoot someone else.

Whatever we do will inevitably have some unwanted side effects. The best we can hope for is to provide people with conditions that bring some temporary relief from problems and difficulties, but we cannot give them true, lasting happiness. This is because the real cause of happiness is inner peace, which can be found only within the mind, not in external conditions. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Whatever happens in this town has no lasting impact or value because soon we will all be moving on. Realizing this obviates the 8 worldly concerns. For what use are fame, wealth, and so on, except insofar as we can use it to help others? I need to realize as well that this town is basically fake, a back lot at Universal Studios. Appearances are deceptive. We can sometimes have happy moments in a virtual reality, but buying into mistaken appearances overall causes nothing but problems and confusion.

The source of everything that appears to us in this movie-like reality is mind, an extraordinarily creative mind. One that happens to be our own. We need to harness and control it as soon as we can, take over the narrative, and help everyone else do the same.

Portals

So let’s say that in this town there is a place that has uncovered the mystery that lies at the heart of the Wild West and all its people, ie, it is all fleeting and it is all false.

sceneryAnd if I were to stumble upon this place, it would be utterly eye-opening, it would shatter my complacency, it would be a portal into a blissful new world of possibility and freedom. I couldn’t get enough of it. And I would want to help it grow so that more and more of my friends and fellow inhabitants could find it too.

As the townsfolk discovered it, and gradually learned the ideas that set them free, they would naturally bring those ideas into their lives in the town, share them with others, whatever line of work they were in. They would naturally work to help their people because they would WANT to, and they might have imaginative and fresh approaches to old problems. Society could change for the better.

Welcome to your local Buddhist Center.

Buddha said:

This world is not our permanent home. We are travelers passing through.

In this short human life, of course I want to help with practical kindness as much as I am able, even if it’s only donating to disaster relief. But my main wish is to help create portals of wisdom and compassion so that everyone in the world can learn the true nature of reality and escape from the bad dream of samsara forever.

I heard Gen Rigpa, the Kadampa Buddhist teacher in Los Angeles, say that every atom of a Dharma Center is made of compassion. I love that.  For of course the Center is not just bricks and mortar, or what happens inside those walls. It is not even just the people attending at any given time. It doesn’t have boundaries. It spreads into the society cowgirlaround it via the hearts and deeds of all its members. People get peace from the teachings and are inspired to pay it forward. Everyone is welcome. No one is excluded.

The portal doesn’t have to be secret, not at all. It could be in the building right next to the Saloon. The commercial spaces being created all over the world are particularly interesting for this reason – when I started out, Buddhist Centers were always out in the sticks, not obvious, and self-contained like the monasteries of Tibet. Now they are very much a public service, part of the fabric of modern life, found in the middle of cities everywhere, open and accessible to all the people walking by. People show up to relax at a lunchtime breathing meditation, and find themselves with access to an entire path to enlightenment. This is modern Buddhism.

So everything we do directly or indirectly to help these Centers is of great service to our one-horse town and — because each Center is dedicated to world peace — it is also of implicit service to everyone else.

There are temples for world peace everywhere, where the teachings are available and prayers for world peace are being offered up all the time. And prayers work. Luckily there is a world peace temple being built in Washington DC as we speak; and it is is also clearer to me now why Geshe Kelsang seemed so keen on starting a Center in South Korea, even though this has not properly materialized yet. None of these temples will come a moment too soon.

Practitioners at the Centers learn what they need to know, become more and more like Bodhisattvas, and gradually take their wisdom, compassion, skill, and imagination into their own and others’ daily lives. Wherever they go, the Center goes with them so to speak – as artists, doctors, social activists, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, flight attendants, film makers, and so on. There are no real limits. That’s how I see it at least. I think these teachings, far from leading to escapism, can light fires under the socially engaged.

WestworldAnd, by the way, it seems to be a two-way street – Dharma Centers cannot flourish in a vacuum. People need to have a certain number of good human conditions and the space and freedom to practice. Think of Tibet – when it was overrun, Dharma could not flourish. If we want Dharma to flourish, I would say we have some responsibility for helping make our society conducive. For right now our world does not seem to be going in a fabulous direction, not at all.

Buddhism is therefore not about navel-gazing – once we know and have some stable experience of it, we apply it also with relevance to “real-world” problems, while at the same time recognizing that there is no real world.

For material development alone, for its own sake, is not good enough. Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. And no matter how hard we try, we’ll never find happiness where it is not. Of primary importance is the radical shift within, especially realizing the true nature of reality. As modern-day Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as the only way to solve our own problems is to find inner peace, so the only way to help others to solve theirs is to encourage them to engage in spiritual practice and discover their own inner peace.

This peace is not just a feel-good option but a must-have. It is the path to lasting freedom and happiness. There are many levels of inner peace – from the patience that stops shooting at everything that moves, right through to the enlightenment that dissolves away the suffering world and recreates a Pure Land.

The teachings on selflessness and Tantra in particular are capable of flipping switches left, right, and center. The lasting inner peace we want people to experience is the inner light of omniscient wisdom, where they see through the illusion, see through the deception, and are finally completely free to create the blissful reality and worlds of their choosing.

The actual portal to freedom is not outside of us – it is the doorway into the heart of bliss and emptiness. We need to realize the impermanent and illusory nature of the scenery, ourselves, and everyone else in this godforsaken town! As Geshe Kelsang says:

We can sometimes help others by providing them with money or better material conditions, but we should remember that the greatest benefit we can give is to help them overcome their delusions and find true, lasting happiness within.

And that is the true and only purpose for helping power up these portals — wherever you are and however you can.

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