In Buddhism, the actual Spiritual Guide is the so-called “definitive Spiritual Guide”, the Truth Body (Skt. Dharmakaya) of great bliss and emptiness of all Buddhas, which can also be understood as the union of universal compassion and omniscient wisdom. This appears in the form of a person who, in accordance with our karma, can show us a good example and lead us along the path to the same blissful freedom of enlightenment. He or she is called the “interpretative Spiritual Guide”.
One way I like to develop faith in my Spiritual Guide, therefore, is to use my own humble experiences of Dharma to extrapolate and develop confidence in these transcendent qualities of enlightenment.
To take one example, earlier today I was thinking about where I and everyone I know lives. How it is a big ball zooming through space, with all of us hanging on for dear life (thank you gravity!); and how none of us can exactly leave it, even for a cigarette break, (except when we die). Therefore, it makes no sense not to look after this shared home we call Planet Earth – is it not suicidal to poison the rivers, for example, or to fight amongst ourselves? How’s that different to people at 36,000 feet strewing their garbage around in an aircraft, hogging all the food, or maiming each other (including the flight attendants who are trying to take care of us)? How are any of us supposed to make it if we behave like this and don’t look out for each other? Indeed, the fact that our self-cherishing so deeply blinds us to the fact that we are all in this together reminds me of why it never works, whereas clear-sighted cherishing others is the source of all goodness and happiness.
This then got me thinking about how we are all bobbing about in the vast limitless Milky Way. I started to contemplate how not just our little home planet but the endless reaches of outer space – past, present, and future — are all mere imputation of mind. They do not exist outside my mind or yours, they cannot be found upon ultimate analysis if we go looking for them with wisdom. They simply are the nature of our mind, dream-like, illusory. Mere name. It became very blissful and spacey for a while there, lol. Manageable, yet with infinite possibilities. And super enjoyable. And it gave rise to a deeper compassion for all sentient beings because, although they also are not solid and real but merely imputed by conception, they do not realize this — hence all this needless tragic suffering.
This got me to thinking how Buddhas are never separated from this so-called compassion observing the unobservable for each and every living being. They are never separated from the wisdom realizing that everything and everyone to the ends of space and beyond is mere imputation, mere name, not outside the mind. Their sense of self is utterly unlike ours – we impute ourself on a meaty body and a deluded mind that seems cut off from everyone and everything, whereas they impute themselves on this blissful Truth Body of wisdom and compassion that pervades all of space and time.
And that is my Spiritual Guide, my actual Spiritual Guide. As I cannot readily or easily access that, at least for now, Buddhas emanate Spiritual Guides whom I can see and understand. As it says in Offering to the Spiritual Guide:
Exalted wisdom of all the infinite Conquerors
Out of supremely skillful means appearing to suit disciples,
Now assuming the form of a saffron-robed monk,
O Holy Refuge and Protector I prostrate at your lotus feet.
Through my own small experience, therefore, I can understand that there are countless beings who have these kinds of experiences of wisdom and compassion, just far far deeper and more stable, and that they are trying to reach us. Whenever we taste our own potential to become more and more like them, we can develop the believing, admiring, and wishing faith that allows us to trust them enough to show us how.
Weirdly, this Supertramp song Babaji just came on:
All of my life I felt that you were listening
Watching for ways to help me stay in tune
Oh Lord of my dreams
Although confusion keeps trying to deceive
Oh what is it that makes me believe in you?
Often when things go wrong in our lives, we cast about for someone to blame and/or conclude that life is unconscionably unfair. Maybe we think there is some arbiter of our fate, some supernatural law-giver who is punishing us, and we feel guilty.
We ask, “Why me?” There are actually two questions we can ask: (1) Why is this happening? (2) Why is this happening to me?
For example, I just had my second COVID vaccination. I am very grateful, especially given what is happening in India and Brazil, and wish everyone could be safe from this seemingly endless pandemic. But I am also waiting for the well known side effects to start kicking in … some people have none, others are laid up for a few days. Although monumentally better than catching (and spreading) COVID itself, nonetheless, like I said, I am waiting ….
If I do start feeling fatigued and feverish, by understanding karma I can accept (1) that this is happening because causes were created, and (2) it is happening to me (as opposed to somebody else who got the same shot but is getting off symptom-free) because I was the one who created these causes.
Just to reiterate the basic teaching on karma: Buddha observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by an intention that is out of whack with reality, aka deluded, it is the substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences, such as wondering what work shirt to wear today above our sweatpants.
Karma is a natural law that governs us, like the law of gravity. It is not the same as fate or predestination because we can change our karma by understanding how it works. That wisdom gives us free will.
Buddha didn’t invent karma any more than Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity. At some point in our life we learn about the earth’s gravitational pull — big things like this planet attract small things like me. And from then on, to protect ourselves from unwanted suffering, ideally we act in accordance with this natural law, such as by not jumping off the top of the Empire State Building.
Nor is there any capricious supernatural lawgiver. Everything depends upon our own minds and intentions. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Mirror of Dharma:
No-one has the power or authority to say to living beings, ‘You should go to the human realm, the animal realm, the hell realm, or the god realm.’ Because of our previous different actions, or karma, accumulated since beginningless time we all take different rebirths and experience different sufferings.
Just as there is no one who is casting us off the Empire State Building, so according to Buddhism there is no one who is punishing us for our transgressions or rewarding us for our good behavior.
Suffering is created by our own actions or karma – it is not given to us as a punishment. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Therefore, there is no need to feel guilty. However, there is a need to understand.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
When talking with other people about karma, it is important to do so sensitively. This is because when explained skillfully, it is very empowering and releases people; but when it is not, it can do the opposite — although logical, it can sound brutally unfair. For why do bad things happen to good people?
At a day course on karma recently a friend noticed a participant with his head in his heads and, asking him if he was ok, saw that he was crying. He told her he had a disabled son and was very upset by the teaching for suggesting that it was his son’s fault. His son is gentle and kind and he couldn’t bear to hear people suggesting that he somehow deserved this suffering. It was heartbreaking.
What would you have replied?
My friend said that we needed to take past lives into account — that it was not his son but a perfect stranger, really, in his son’s mental continuum who had created the causes for disabilities in this life. She also tried to explain how precious it is to have a human life and the story of the turtle and the golden yoke, meaning that someone in his son’s continuum must also have done many wonderful things, even more so to be born to such a loving father.
Other suggestions in response to my friend’s post on Facebook were to understand that all our negative actions are caused by our enemies, the delusions, and we are not our delusions, meaning that no intrinsically bad person created the karma. It was not his fault but the fault of delusions.
Moreover, there is no judgment – not just because it is our delusions that are to blame, but because all of us samsaric beings are in the same boat and have created a long history of similar deluded actions. They just haven’t ripened for us yet.
Far from feeling that this man’s son is inherently bad or deserving of his disability, taking karma into account can deepen our compassion (and our renunciation). This is because we develop a wish for ourselves and others to be freed not just from whatever is ripening to hurt us now, but from the causes of our suffering, delusions and karma. These are the chains that will bind all of us in all realms to suffering perpetually until we learn how to dismantle them.
Internal locus of control
Another person replied that on the other hand it can be a relief to understand about karma being created in previous lives as an explanation for their suffering now. Otherwise if we suffer a trauma or continuous ill health we just think we’re unlucky or being punished. We now have a ‘scientific’ explanation for it, which can be healing to hear and allow us to do something practical.
Some social scientists say that one thing we can do to ensure success is to take responsibility for everything that comes our way—big and small. To take the reins of our life, they believe it’s important to maintain an “internal locus of control.” This refers to the belief that our own ability and efforts contribute directly to our success. Conversely, when something doesn’t go our way or we encounter adversity, we don’t hold factors beyond our control as responsible.
When you believe you alone are responsible for your circumstances [ie, an internal locus of control], you’ll make necessary changes in your life to achieve success. If you sit around blaming everyone else for your problems an—’external locus of control’—your situation will remain as it is.
This makes sense to me, but it may not work so effectively if we evaluate our actions in only a short-term way when effects seem far more random, such as good things happening to bad people and vice versa. But it is very effective to take ownership of our intentions and actions by taking karma into account, if we are ready to do that.
This isn’t fair!
Bad things happening to good people and vice versa leads a lot of people to shrug that it doesn’t matter what we do, what is the point of going out of our way to be kind? Don’t we live in some kind of a haphazard world where things happen accidentally, meaninglessly?
Truth is, nothing happens accidentally and there’s no such thing as co-incidence. Events happen systematically according to the definite albeit illusion-like laws of cause and effect, including certain laws of nature; and one such ubiquitous law is the law of karma. Because it has such a tremendous impact on every aspect of our lives, we are very much kept in the dark by trying to live without an in-depth understanding of its workings. We end up floundering in this life too, not understanding “Why is this happening!”, just as we have been blundering around in all our previous lives.
As I talk about in these articles, this is not our first much less our only life – we have had countless lives, repeating the same mistakes that come from not understanding this natural law. By keeping an open mind to Buddha’s explanations, we can finally break free and create the future we want.
It’s karma so I won’t do anything about it
If misunderstood, observing the law of karma can even provide a false excuse to preserve the status quo, such as in the caste system in India. Or it can lead to a general lack of motivation to do anything practical to help ourselves and others because we think, “Oh it’s our karma, there’s nothing I can do.”
Related to this, earlier in the pandemic I heard some people say, “I’m not going to wear a mask because it is my karma whether or not I get COVID. I will take my chances.” More recently I have heard people say they won’t receive a shot for the same reason. Is this true?! What do you think?
This is what I think: understanding karma does NOT mean that we do nothing practical to help ourselves or others. I would argue the exact opposite — that it becomes even more compelling to work to end suffering, injustice, disease, cruelty, and so on, preferably motivated by wisdom and positivity and without attachment to results.
Moreover I think it’s just common sense to observe the valid conventions of our world, including its laws of cause and effect, because we are part and parcel of this world, not immune to pandemics or anything else. I could be wrong – happy to discuss — but to me it’s a bit fatalist, like someone smoking cigarettes saying they don’t need to quit because it’s their karma whether or not they die of lung cancer.
(At the very beginning of the pandemic, even before we all knew it was that serious, the person who seemed to be encouraging us the most to observe the COVID protocols was Geshe Kelsang himself.)
Over to you: would love to discuss this all with you. Per my earlier question, how would you explain to yourself or others how good things can happen to “bad” people and vice versa?
I do like this time of year – sitting in the Spring sunshine watching those moist bright green buds pop out hopefully from the skeleton trees. The seeds were clearly there all along, but now the conditions have come together for them to burgeon into the most beautiful flowers and leaves.
These seeds remain dormant in our mind until the conditions for them to ripen occur, and then they produce their effect. In some cases, this can happen many lifetimes after the original action was performed. ~ Geshe Kelsang
Seeds ripen as sprouts sooner or later, with the assistance of some external conditions such as sunlight and moisture. Similarly, every time we intentionally do anything, we sow a seed in our field-like consciousness that later ripens as a crop-like experience when various conditions come together. If we have a kind intention, for example, this will ripen as a positive experience for us, such as receiving help. If we have an unkind intention, this will ripen as a suffering experience, such as receiving hostility.
We can sow the seeds for whatever beautiful healthy plants we want to ripen in our minds. We can also dig out the poisonous seeds with a bit of mental gardening – nothing is fixed.
(Those green buds also remind me of the ripening of everyone’s potential – most people just don’t realize yet what they have inside of them, how extraordinary they can be.)
Striking it lucky
It’s a good idea to nurture and feel happy about all the seeds you have sown already in this life and in previous lives – you did a lot of pretty awesome things just to be sitting here in this rare precious human life, for a start. You already hit the karmic jackpot.
And ever since you were born in this life, every moment of love where you have wished others to be happy, for example, has created the causes for so much happiness. As a matter of fact, our mental actions are hundreds of times more powerful than our physical and verbal actions. As an illustration of this, it is said that generating real love for all living beings for one moment creates more merit, or good karma, than feeding all living beings three meals a day. (Nothing to stop us loving people and feeding them, by the way.)
Or how many seeds of faith have we already sown in the Field of Merit (focusing on the vast assembly of enlightened beings), including just requesting their help? This opened our mind to blessings at the time and sowed the seeds for whatever it is we asked for.
Or those times we’ve thought about emptiness, the mere absence of all the things we normally see – just doubting inherent existence causes samsara to shake! Not to mention any time we may have done a Tantric sadhana, creating potent causes for the Pure Land.
Everything is continually growing and evolving, so who knows when all those good seeds we have already planted will ripen? Far from being fatalistic, understanding karma gives us agency. It gives us hope.
Life after life after life
Buddha gave detailed explanations through which we can understand the connection between our actions performed in previous lives, either virtuous or non-virtuous, and our experiences in this life, either happiness or suffering. ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
If we understand this natural law we can use it to our advantage and gain full control of our actions and lives. If we don’t, we keep being swept along by the winds of karma as helplessly as a leaf in a typhoon.
Buddha understood and explained how our intentions and their resultant experiences don’t just play out over one lifetime and in one world. This body you are sitting in is not the only body you have ever had or will have, nor is this the only life. We’ve already had countless dreamlike bodies and lives and will be having countless more. As Voltaire put it:
It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.
(Talking of which, a friend recently recommended a Netflix documentary called Surviving Death, especially Episode 1 ‘Near Death Experiences’ and Episode 6 ‘Reincarnation’. I just watched a bit so far but you might find it interesting.)
Yesterday has gone. Tomorrow has not yet been born. Today, moment by moment, is appearing from the ripening of potentials in my mind. We are not moving around in a real or permanent world — nothing is actually out there or static, instead life is momentarily unfurling like a dream. What comes up for me today has less to do with what I do today than what I did in the past. What I do today, meantime, is creating the causes for all manner of future experiences.
A few days ago, I, in Denver, was chatting to a Brazilian friend in the UK, when another American friend just happened to walk past and I just happened on a whim to introduce them — maybe because they sort of remind me of each other and are both passionate about animals. One of them enquired about the other’s last name, the same as her mother’s unusual maiden name; and it turns out that their families come from the same small village of Ganci in Sicily. What are the chances?! It is no coincidence — simply the ripening of collective karma to be in the right place at the right time to meet a long-lost cousin.
All living beings have been our mothers, for that matter. Below the surface where we usually hang out, there is an infinite web of karmic relationships. We often deny ourselves that depth, richness, and connection in our lives, but it’s there.
Everyone is unique
Most humans already have a general sense of karma; it makes intuitive sense that what we put out there should come back to us sooner or later. Buddhists believe that our karma plays itself out over many lifetimes, but we can also see instances of karma operating within one lifetime.
The law of karma explains why each individual has a unique mental disposition, a unique physical appearance, and unique experiences. These are the various effects of the countless actions that each individual has performed in the past. We cannot find any two people who have created exactly the same history of actions throughout their past lives, and so we cannot find two people with identical states of mind, identical experiences, or identical physical appearances. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Each of us is unique, like snowflakes. Even identical twins who have the same nature and moreorless the same nurture still have their own experiences, personalities, tendencies, and life spans — a unique and complex summation of their individual and collective karma. Despite all the same caregivers, genes, education, toys, parental love, etc — ie, even with all else being equal — they can and generally do end up being completely different. Karma also goes deeper and explains why two people are born as twins in the first place.
Geshe Kelsang gives the example of two siblings going into business. They have the same education and resources and do the same things, but one becomes wealthy and the other goes bankrupt. What accounts for this? Nothing external.
Luck and bad luck are descriptions, not explanations. The explanation is that one sibling previously created the causes of wealth—giving—and the other created the causes of poverty—stealing or miserliness. They created a different set of actions, so they had different karmic effects.
(This doesn’t mean that the bankrupt sibling hasn’t also planted the seeds for wealth and vice versa – they may well have, it’s just that these have not yet ripened.)
We know things are not really handed to us on a plate for no reason, so what is that reason?! What we believe it is will determine what we do with our lives. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar:
If our enjoyments were the result of this life’s endeavors alone, anyone who strove to became rich would succeed; yet there are many people who work hard at business with no success, while there are others who seem to accumulate wealth with almost no effort. This is because wealth is the result of giving in former lives.
We read this and maybe we even think we believe it, but the proof is in the pudding – do we act according to it? How much time do we (do I) spend putting effort into gathering external conditions for success compared with the internal conditions for success, such as giving? Today, for example – did I just push on through trying to fix everything on the outside with uncertain results, or was I mindful of my intentions and where these were certainly leading me?
Each person has a different individual karma. Some people enjoy good health while others are constantly ill. Some people are seen as very beautiful while others are seen as very ugly. Some people have a happy disposition that is easily pleased while others have a sour disposition and are rarely delighted by anything. Some people easily understand the meaning of spiritual teachings while others find them difficult and obscure. ~ How to Transform Your Life
I’ve heard people say things like, “I had a karmic thing happen once! I stole a lollipop and …” Or “It was karma, meeting that love of my life!” Yes, it was. But so is everything else. Karma affects every part of our life all the time.
Just so you know, I am laying some groundwork in these first few articles on karma, and then I intend to apply this basic understanding to different areas in our life and spiritual practice, and answer some common questions. That’s the plan, anyway!
Meantime, over to you ~ I would love to have your comments and questions in the box below 🙂
Where did COVID-19 spring from? This surprising catastrophe hasn’t actually appeared out of nowhere, of course – it has been a long time in the making. It has arisen in dependence upon numerous physical causes — whatever those may be, and opinion differs — and also in dependence upon numerous mental causes – to wit, our individual and collective intentions and actions.
A little while back I wrote an article called Quantum Buddhism, which was inspired by this video:
This video gives a glimpse into how essential our minds are in creating our reality — in fact, our intentions do create our reality. Buddha talked about this many, many centuries ago, he called it “karma”.
What exactly is karma?
The Sanskrit word “karma” means “action.” It refers specifically to our mental actions, or intentions; and more generally to the law of cause and effect, or actions and their effects, as applied to the world of our mind.
The law of karma is a special instance of the law of cause and effect, according to which all our actions of body, speech, and mind are causes and all our experiences are their effects. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Everything we are experiencing right now, good or bad, is a result of the decisions and intentions we created in the past – not just the immediate past but over many lifetimes. And everything we decide or intend to do now is setting us up for future experiences. We are creating innumerable causes for stuff to happen every single day, designing the landscapes of our mind.
Where do all our good and bad experiences come from? According to Buddhism they are the result of the positive and negative karma we created in the past. As a result of positive karma, attractive and agreeable people appear in our life, pleasant material conditions arise, and we live in a beautiful environment; but as a result of negative karma, unpleasant people and things appear. This world is the effect of the collective karma created by the beings who inhabit it. Because karma originates in the mind—specifically in our mental intentions—we can see that all worlds arise from the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism
Taking karma into account
Life doesn’t arise from blind chance nor merely physical causes. To get a handle on our life and the direction it takes, it’s hugely helpful to think about karma.
We know from Science 101, or from plain old observation, that nothing comes from nothing. Everything in the physical world has causes; and depending on the causes you get a different effect. If something exists, we have to say there is a definite cause of that thing. If something is a product, we have to say it is the effect of a cause.
Every phenomenon arises from something that’s in the same substantial continuum. For example, our human body comes from the union of our mother’s egg and father’s sperm. A wooden table comes from wood. Wool carpets come from sheep, not from Daddy Long Legs.
Scientists and others have spent generations analyzing causes and effects. As a result, humankind has gained enormous control over and advances in the physical world.
Buddha is a scientist of the mind. The law of karma is just this immutable law of cause and effect as applied to the internal world of our mind, where our mental actions (or intentions) are the substantial causes and our experiences their effects. Understanding this will lead to enormous control over and advances in our mind.
Whenever we do anything intentional, it’s like throwing a boomerang in our mind. Or, as the old saying goes, what goes around comes around. Our lives are divided into good experiences, bad experiences, and neutral experiences and, if we could trace them back, we would see that our good experiences come from our good actions, our bad experiences from our bad actions, and our neutral experiences from our neutral actions. That, in a nutshell, is karma.
The world we “inhabit” or experience therefore depends not just on our current thoughts, moods, perceptions, and so on, but also on our previous thoughts or, specifically, our previous intentions, which are the substantial causes of our experiences. Venerable Geshe Kelsang explained in his 2000 Mahamudra teachings how all subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from karmic potentialities in the root mind, like waves arising from an ocean, as explained more here.
Take today for example. What happened today and where did it come from?
Your experience of today has been ripening from potentials in your mind left by previous intentions or karma. Moreover, we cannot point to a “today” that is otherthan our experience of today — try pointing at today and see! …….
This shows that there is no objective “today.” There is no “today” out there, outside the mind. Today has just been the moment by moment unfurling of karmic appearances, like a dream unfurling within our mind. It’ll be the same tomorrow. It’s been like this every day.
Can’t judge others
We can’t necessarily tell from people’s outward actions what their intensions are, which means we can’t necessarily tell what karma others are creating with their mental, bodily, and verbal actions.
For example, if I’m standing by road next to Jocelyn and I lash out and knock her over, is that good karma, bad karma, or no karma?!
It might seem pretty bad on the surface of things, and would be if I had pushed her over out of hatred. But what if I wanted to push her out of the way of a passing truck? Or what if I just had a nervous tic and knocked her over unintentionally?
We can only tell about our own actions. Buddha used to say we shouldn’t use his teachings as a magnifying glass to judge other people: “Ooh, look at him, he’s so bad!” Buddhism or Dharma is meant as a mirror to hold up to our OWN thoughts and actions. If we can do this, enormous positive benefits can come to us and we are increasingly able to create a world that is happy, including all the causes for the things that we want. But the only stance to take with respect to others, according to Buddha, is “How can I help you?”
We need to know
Geshe Kelsang says that there are immense contradictions between our wishes and the actions we are performing to fulfill those wishes. Maybe in the short term our actions sometimes seem to work out to fulfil our wishes – if we shoot someone an angry email they may shut up for a while, for example — but in the long run our actions can set us up for disaster. This is because we are not taking karma into account.
If everything depends upon intention, as all Buddhas and some quantum physicists are saying, then, per the video above:
The truth is that no amount of fighting and protesting and campaigning will create real, lasting change as long as there’s anger and hatred and resistance in our hearts. We’ve been down this futile path for endless centuries. One problem solved, and a new one springs in its place, necessitated by the negative energy that solved the first one.
Everything begins and ends in our minds. There is no world outside of our mind, everything is dream-like karmic appearance of mind, created by our intentions. Whatever we intend comes back to us sooner or later. If we keep putting negativity into the world, that’s all we’re going to keep getting back out of it.
What kind of field?
Over 2600 years ago, when Buddha explained karma — the power of our intentions to create our reality — he used the analogy of sowing seeds in a field of soil:
Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potentiality, on our very subtle mind, and each imprint eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Virtuous actions sow seeds of future happiness and non-virtuous actions sow seeds of future suffering. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Back in the day, Buddha probably used the analogy of a field because there were a lot of farmers around (and modern science was not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye). But I reckon we could also talk about planting intentions in the quantum field that later show up as our experiences. Every time we intend something — that is, think, say, or do something deliberately — then its result shows up in our life, sooner or later.
Karma has so many implications for our life! The more we know about it, the better. So over to you. What do you make of karma? I would love to see your comments below.
Today finds me contemplating snow again. I am dog/cat/fish sitting in the mountains this week and, despite the 67-degree heat yesterday, woke this morning to a thick blanket of snow. Good thing I brought my snow shoes along with my tee-shirt.
Who are we?
Like snowflakes, every living being is unique. We are each a summation of a very very long history of previous karma, so however similar we may seem physically or even mentally, we are also unique.
Like snowflakes, too, we are all alike in that each of us has the same wish for happiness and freedom, sometimes via the satisfaction of immediate needs, sometimes via the existential question, “What does all this mean?! This has to mean something!”
I stood in line for my Moderna vaccination yesterday – the Denver Health nurses were, as always, kind and welcoming, but everyone seemed a little nervous about their own shot, wanting it to be over, even though we were each just one of millions in line worldwide. Will this give me flu? Will this help me or might it harm me? When is this awful pandemic even going to end? Will my life ever be normal again?
But when we got smiling and chatting a bit in the waiting room, we started to relax because we realized we’re all in this together. Switching our attention off “What about me?” and onto others — even a little bit — lightens the mind. For my part, I was waving my vaccinated arm around and trying to convince a couple of other people to do the same. This is because I feel I have known my whole life that this is how to stop your arm getting stiff. I think my Mom probably told me this and I still believe it. My new friends did not seem quite so sure, but I still recommend it to you, dear reader 🙂
Like snowflakes, too, our body quickly perishes and we are 100 percent dependent on the other snowflakes – no one can make it on their own for even a second. How many people, for example, were involved in getting that potentially life-saving shot into my arm? (Thank you). Let alone have been responsible for all the other minutes of my life?
But perhaps unlike snowflakes, each of us has infinite depth – countless lives and boundless potential.
The snow is thick now, despite it being almost April. After a very boisterous snow romp with the big dogs, the puppy is mercifully napping, aka letting me (and the cats) get on with things without being jumped on. Looking at the unique yet still indistinguishable snowflakes around me, I think about what it means to have a sense of self. It seems to me that we generally have a very small, limited, and personal view of self, confined to just one fleeting ego identity, just one life. It’s as if we think we are just one of these snowflakes, believing that this is all there is.
For another, with self-grasping and self-cherishing we think that the self or me we normally see is the only real and important me. Inhabiting this self is like inhabiting just one snowflake, in which case the feeling of self-importance is clearly an illusion of grandeur.
Enlightened beings have let go of this fake self by directly seeing that it cannot be found and doesn’t exist. Upon that basis they have been able to complete the exchange of self with others, imputing their sense of me on all the beings in the universe. Their sense of self is now vast – instead of identifying themselves as just one snowflake, they think “me” about all of them. As a result they have effortless love and compassion for everyone.
The self that we normally see is relatively small, poky, limited, and fragile. However, we are misidentifying ourselves because this self we are relating to doesn’t actually exist – I am not my body, not my mind, and not other than my body and mind.
If we correctly identify our self as mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, as Geshe Kelsang explains in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, we are free to impute ourself on anything, to identify our self as anything or anyone. If we decide to broaden our sense of self to include all the snowflakes, to identify “Me” with all of them, and “My happiness” with all of their happiness, then what happens? What does that feel like?!
When we realize emptiness or selflessness, we take the inherently existent self out, at which point nothing is personal, everything is infinite. Person, being, self, and I are synonyms according to Buddhism, which means that Buddhas are people too. But they have a radically different sense of self than do samsaric beings. Not only is a Buddha a person imputed on all living beings, but they are also a person imputed upon the Truth Body of bliss and emptiness, which pervades all phenomena. Therefore, although an enlightened being is a being or a person or a self, this sense of self is NOTHING like the sense of self possessed by me or anyone else with self-grasping and self-cherishing.
Levels of mind
Watching water dripping from the snow on the roof, as the sun melts it away, I am thinking that this liquid in turn will soon evaporate back into the water vapor from which it came. This reminds me of the revolving levels of our consciousness, from our crunchy static snow-like gross minds to the dripping liquid-like subtle mind that has more movement (as in a dream), to the vaporous very subtle mind that can disperse everywhere.
(BTW, bit of terminology — when manifest in sleep, death, and deep meditation, the very subtle mind is known as the “clear light” mind.)
Everything is changing all the time, moment by moment — but sometimes things seem more solid and permanent. When we identify with our gross waking body and mind, believing that’s basically who we are, we are like a relatively static snowflake. When we dream, and things flit and move around more, we are like dripping or flowing water. When we stop grasping at our gross and subtle mind and body even temporarily during the death process, our vaporous very subtle mind travels to a whole new life. (If we stop this grasping once and for all through meditating on bliss and emptiness, our clear light mind can be everywhere all at once, a Buddha’s omniscient wisdom.)
Then just as water vapor coalesces back into liquid and then snow, so our very subtle mind coalesces into the subtle and gross minds of a new rebirth and we start to grasp again. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang says:
What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp at our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I, I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly,
Are we unique or the same?
Life after life our consciousness is cycling like this, yet in each life we keep believing that we are just that one snowflake and hence exaggerate its importance.
On this surface level our lives are often not that different – for example, we all have the same types of positive and negative minds, such as love and anxiety, varying just in degree or in their objects. My Air BnB hosts in Frisco (where I first started this article) were a sweet couple called Jim and Cyndi, who love Ireland (hence “The Snug” complete with fairyland) and are devoted to each other and their family. We all want security and relationships and adventures, and we all love our dog (Finnogan, who chewed my shoe) and think he’s the best dog ever. Which he is, of course, as are all other dogs.
We hold ourselves and our family and our life experiences to be unique, which on one level they are, yet are we not also all caught up in the monotonous repetitive patterns of samsaric living that involve some happiness, of course, but also the cliché of the seven sufferings? I overheardJim on the phone to his doctor, “I have pain in my lower abdomen”. Later he looked distracted and Cyndi looked drawn, trying to be polite but clearly worried. The Snug was a shrine to their love for their grandchildren and their Irish adventures, but how long can that particular identity last? They will soon be staring into the abyss; yet how can we find meaning there if we don’t understand what we are looking at? If all our lives we have invested only in the fleeting, unstable, and, according to Buddha, mistaken appearances of our gross waking minds?
I like to think about the infinite clear light mind that underlies everything – all minds and their objects arise from this root mind. Every being has it, which means that every snowflake-life and identity is just a temporary manifestation, and every being is in fact infinitely deep and infinitely connected.
Our very subtle mind is not even human.
At the level of clear light, how can you tell us apart? Tell me from you? You can only ever talk about “me and you” from a specific relative standpoint(the standpoint of snowflakes). Our true nature is empty like space, and we can only tell us apart via convention or point of view; just as we can only tell the space in empty bottles apart via the bottles.
What happens when we die
Talking about the abyss, people sometimes take up extreme sports or even criminal activity just to feel alive and transcend their fear and unease of the unknown. Even though they may face down death in these ways, it doesn’t in fact stop the terror when the time actually does come to die because the understanding is still not there.
However, Buddha explained what happens to our consciousness when we die; this doesn’t have to stay unknown, this is verifiable inner science. Many accounts from people with near-death experiences (NDEs) bear this out, as do stories of reincarnation, and many people’s direct experiences in meditation. Talking of which, a friend recently recommended a Netflix documentary called Surviving Death, especially Episode 1 ‘Near Death Experiences’ and Episode 6 ‘Reincarnation’. I just watched a little bit so far, but it looks like it’s going to give people food for thought.
Watching that show I was thinking, yes, it helps to have faith, this gives us some refuge in light of the unknown. But I think it helps more to have faith combined with a considerably greater understanding of consciousness. Death, rebirth, and liberation are not ineffable. What happens during them is verifiable from centuries of personal exploration and experience. If you want to know what happens to us subjectively during the death process, for example, you need reach no further than a copy of Clear Light of Bliss.
I wish everyone who feels existential dread or even just ordinary curiosity would investigate Buddha’s teachings because he was an extraordinarily deep thinker who went out of his way to address all of this. And what he discovered has been practiced with the same results for millennia.
A guest article. A couple of friends have written to me in the last couple of days with their responses to the events in Atlanta, saying that I could share these with you.
The power of love ~ by Hannah Kim
Recently someone texted me about recent violence toward Asian Americans. Here is what seems to be coming out of me presently:
1. It seems to me that ignorance hurts everyone. 2. We can generate renunciation for ourselves and compassion for others in order to protect our minds. 3. And lastly we can remember that the best thing we can do right now is to practice loving kindness. It is the only appropriate response — loving kindness, compassion and wisdom. These are the only paths that will lead us out of the chaos, fear and darkness of our times.
This teaching comes from Gen-la Dekyong during the US Summer Festival 2020, which was concurrent with the George Floyd protests. She said that as American Kadampa Buddhists we need to practice loving kindness; and I believe this holds true right now as well.
Especially if you are not a Buddhist, or even if you are a Buddhist, sometimes it feels as if suggesting the practice of loving kindness can sound very simple minded or perfunctory. After all how can simply loving people stop violence and hatred when what I really want to do is break something or hit someone?! Or maybe as Buddhists we are just overly trying to be nice, or, worse, ‘virtuous’, or even high and mighty, idealistic.
But I’ve come to realize that Buddha is not saying practice loving kindness in some general, nebulous, though kind hearted way. He’s saying that in our moments of deepest pain, darkness, fear, or discouragement, we must generate affectionate love. True affectionate love will lift our hearts, minds and heads from the morass which is the pit of samsara. It functions as medicine to heal our own pain and the pain of others which can lead to such senseless and hurtful actions.
Geshe Kelsang once said:
Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys our enemies.
He means this in a very specific and literal way. Specific because this is what we are supposed to be doing right now, every day, for every heartache and pain. Literal because we can be nice to people even if others are not nice to us. Ha!
We need to become people who practice loving kindness, compassion and wisdom in order to alter the course of our collective fate, our collective karma.
Lastly, because no one says it better, from Meaningful to Behold:
Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West.
The power of prayer ~ by Cai
This is my mom, Bây; she is Vietnamese. (I’m the baby in her arms.) We came to America when I was three years old. We endured racism in a small white town in Montana, where I spent most of my childhood. After all these years, I never thought I would again find myself concerned for my mom’s safety and well-being. I am heartbroken by the increasing violence against Asian Americans.
A few Asian American friends have asked me what I am doing to help as a Buddhist. Every day I wake up and make prayers for my mother and my AAPI elders, brothers, and sisters. I ask the divine to make my mother and others invisible to those who want to harm them. I also pray that those who wish to harm are blocked from having the opportunity to harm.
However, with loving-kindness I also pray for those who engage in acts of violence and who inspire violence through their hateful rhetoric. They are cruel and violent because they are profoundly ignorant and riddled with fear and insecurity, and often most likely possessed by or under the influence of demonic interferences. So every day I ask an assembly of wrathful compassionate Deities to remove interferences from the body, speech, and mind of those spewing hatred and engaging in acts of violence. I ask that ignorance be removed from their minds to create an opening in their hearts to be kinder, happier, and more peaceful. Peaceful people do not harm others.
I then finish my prayer by visualizing all those who would do harm experiencing a peaceful state of mind, causing them to see the truth that everyone is deserving of understanding, acceptance, and compassion.
It was a fine day for an adventure and, leaving the 6 kittens and their mom with Aunty Erica for a couple of nights, I drove into the mountains toward Five Peaked Mountain for my first getaway in a long while.
My Air BnB, “The Snug,” came complete with mountains on all sides and its very own fairy garden. I sat outside with my face in the sun drinking coffee and contemplating snow because there was an awful lot of it around.
When we meditate, we often imagine that we are surrounded by living beings — our family and so on sitting closest to us but nobody left out. Snow reminds me that I am surrounded by infinite living beings, each unique, each dependent on each other. And I am not a big human being surrounded by miniscule snowflakes – I am also just one of those snowflakes no more important than any other.
Because there was snow as far as the eye could see, so there were snowflakes as far as the eye could see – and living beings too really are countless. Even a few square feet is so packed full of snowflakes, and so too is a city, for example, so packed full of living beings. Yet this is just a tiny tiny portion of all the snow/living beings who are alive and feel important.
Given that, why would one snowflake ever consider itself more significant than any of these others, let alone all these others? Even if it happened to be in charge of the few million snowflakes immediately around it, in the grand scheme of things this is negligible. Not to mention that however powerful a snowflake may think it is, or however popular or talented, it is still 100 percent dependent on all the other snowflakes and cannot last for even a second without them. (Ever seen a snowflake on its own?) And soon of course it will melt just like everyone else.
Caught by the light, snowflakes sparkle – move just a bit, though, and they stop sparkling while others sparkle instead. In the same way, over a period of countless aeons everybody has sparkled for us as our mother, our partner, our child, and so on, sometimes for a lifetime, sometimes for just a moment. And then they’ve gone dark again as we have moved on or moved away, mentally or physically, including at death.
That same afternoon I went looking for Rainbow Lake. Google Maps had a red dot right in the middle of it, but my car got me only as far as a lay by some miles away.
I walked further than I realized along the rainbow trail – as I got higher, the sun got lower, and it started getting quite chilly. I was leaning against a wooden pole in a sunbeam when a woman on cross country skis passed me on her way down. I asked if the lake was just up there, and she said she didn’t think it was. Then she added that she would prefer it if I went back down the mountain rather than go up any further because it was going to get exceedingly cold and I wasn’t going to find my lake. You can’t find rainbows and, as it turns out, you can’t find rainbow lakes either.
I followed her advice, not least because she was wearing red from top to toe, and I was glad I did because I was the last one off that mountain. I saw no one on the way down, and if I’d carried on up the mountain in search of that Rainbow Lake I may not be writing this to you now.
However, I did then get a bit more of an adventure than I bargained for. Having walked for quite a distance, I realized I could not recognize a thing. The sun was threatening to dip behind the mountains. I was lost.
I couldn’t retrace my steps too far because it was about to be very cold, not to mention pitch dark, and there wasn’t going to be any help forthcoming from that direction. I waded up a hillock in the thick snow to see if I could see anything promising on the horizon, but all that revealed was that the town lights were a rather alarmingly long way away.
A little worried, I kept walking until I was relieved to see a big building in the distance. Hurrying over to it, I called out loudly to a small figure in the parking lot, who told me that this was Summit Hospital and she was a nurse. She told me to keep walking on the trail for about a mile to access the emergency entrance of the hospital, go inside to avoid freezing, and figure out what to do from there. She couldn’t drive me anywhere, she said, because she was just on her quick break. Some break, talking to a foolish tourist! I love nurses.
A little later I was pondering how to get down the large bank of 3 to 4 feet snow and across a low wall to access the hospital below, and what I’d even do when I got there given that Uber wasn’t an option here and I didn’t know anyone in Frisco, when a couple walked past me, the only other people I had seen on the trail for well over an hour. I stopped them to explain my predicament, whereupon Jim said I needed to follow them, he thought he might know where my car was parked, but it was at least two miles away and did I mind walking fast? (It seemed like the opposite direction to me, but I wasn’t going to leave these people now!)
I fell into conversation with Julie, who commiserated with me for having a terrible sense of direction and told me that Jim and her took long hikes every day but were never out this late, she didn’t know how the day had gotten away from her. We were talking about how unbearable it must be to be truly stranded in these teeth-chattering, finger-throbbing temperatures without a house, like so many people in Denver. I was able to reach out to Julie or the hospital or even the police if it came to it, but who can unhoused people turn to for safety and warmth? In Denver, these human beings are not just ignored but constantly swept from place to place, their tents, sweeping bags, and other meager belongings trashed, even during these unlive-able temperatures. It just beggars belief.
Jim had ran off ahead but, meeting up with him again 2.5 fast-walked miles later, we discovered that my car was not here after all. (Sort of a relief – my sense of direction was bad, but not that bad.) Jim was all for me calling the police at this point, but Julie had decided by now that she was not going to let this “young lady” (thanks Julie!) stick around any longer in the mountains in -9 degree temperatures. They called their son in law Chris, who bundled me and Julie in the car and drove us around Frisco until I recognized a road, from where we found my car. Then they waited until I drove safely away. I was very apologetic and thankful. Julie told me she believed in karma and that I would help her one day. How right she is.
Which just goes to illustrate my point about snowflakes. For the skier in red, the nurse in green, Julie, Chris, and Jim — strangers just hours ago — all sparkled brightly for me today.
It was Manjushri Centre in 1983. I had just moved in, and this was to be my first meeting with Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I was 18 years old, fresh out of college, and trembling in earnest anticipation of meeting someone I believed would lead me to enlightenment. In that meeting he agreed to be my Spiritual Guide. In the following decades he became a father to me.
All my life I have suffered from epilepsy (drug-resistant). Also other neurological conditions — restless legs and ADHD. In the early days when I first met Geshe-la he gave me some treasured advice about how to approach epilepsy from a Dharma angle. I have never forgotten this, and would like to write about it now in the hope that it may help some people.
Geshe-la told me to regard my seizures as my teacher. This can be applied to any health conditions. I would now like to share what I have learnt from this priceless advice over the past 40 years.
Cultivate mental strength. Weakness is not an option.
I lived almost all of my life without hope of health. For a few short moments hope for a cure might arise, then it would swiftly be quenched. If you suffer from chronic illness you are probably intimately familiar with despair. Please turn to a deeper and true source of hope. You must. Your back is against the wall and you have no choice. Choose whatever it is in Buddha’s teachings that touches your heart. This is your source of hope. For me, it started out as emptiness but over several decades seemed to morph into compassion and bodhichitta. That becomes our true source of hope.
We cannot gain deep, experiential realization of our source of true hope through book-learning alone.
There is only one way — we have to suffer. We all have to suffer in order to develop the psychological depth to realize the liberating truth of Buddhadharma. You will be able to help people progress forward in their path of Dharma. You will lead people to the true happiness of liberation. And most importantly, you can protect people from suffering and pain, not just in this life but in life after life. Your illness and pain have spiritual meaning and purpose. Yes, I know how hard it can be, but it is your dark and painful blessing.
People whose minds are weak need hope from some worldly belief that their body of this life will get well again. Be strong. People need you.
Chronic illness cannot be argued with. In that psychological act of giving up there is great strength, if guided with wisdom. It makes you strong. But it is a strength the worldly cannot see. Standing up and trying to lead a normal life, whilst every atom of your disease wants you to give up. This battle gives you an immense yet hidden strength that most people cannot even perceive or comprehend.
Always remember emptiness during your daily activities
My advice on emptiness is threefold if we have chronic sickness:
1) Focus on the emptiness of your body 2) Focus on the emptiness of your self or ‘I’ 3) Frequently recite The Heart Sutra
1) We need to meditate on the emptiness of our body because in emptiness there is no body. Therefore, there is no disease. During nights I have spent lying in bed unable to sleep due to the restlessness in my legs, meditating on the emptiness of my body has been a great soother. Emptiness and bodhichitta have been the only things that have helped.
2) We need to meditate on the emptiness of our self. Whether we have illness or not, we accumulate many painful memories around our sense of self. But illness strikes at the heart of one’s self-concept and inflicts a special sort of pain. It shapes you, creates you. We have to meditate on the emptiness of our self to discover the panacea of the peace of emptiness.
3) We need to recite and reflect on The Heart Sutra. This is one of the most powerful ways to improve our understanding of emptiness, yet so blessed, intuitive, and beyond my ability to explain.
We must remember emptiness during those dark times when we need it most. This occurs not in the meditation session, but during our daily activities. This is when help is needed most, when we can be pushed to the utmost, and when the world can seem darkest. Please remember emptiness at these times. We do not have a choice. We need to deepen our understanding of emptiness now, while we have the opportunity. Alternatively, we can put emptiness off to another day. We will probably die before that day. It is always ‘today’ when we die, and ‘tomorrow’ is the day we put spiritual practice off to. We do not have a choice.
If it were not for the suffering and pain I endured through illness, I would not think of emptiness so much. This is the first dark, painful blessing that disease gave me.
Abandon fear and embrace death. Become a traveler.
Epilepsy is pervaded by fear. Fear and I are old friends. Whenever I walk into a room, I immediately look around for the presence of any piece of furniture that may cause injury. Nowadays I do this automatically and unconsciously. It happens without me choosing to do it. Sharp corners, hard edges, hot space-heaters, glass, the list goes on. Even familiar rooms. Fear of injury has been with me since I was 5 years old. Over the past 50 years, fear multiplied as I became more aware of how seizures affect all the other worldly things I care about — where I live, what I do, how it affects my physical and cognitive health. How the medication I take to prevent my seizures is rotting my brain and inner organs away. How every seizure devastates my brain. Fear is a part of epilepsy. Now the fear is gradually reducing as I dwell on my mortality and consider that the only reason for being alive is to help others.
I no longer fear death. For the worldly, fear of death is really fear of loss. We fear losing our friends, losing the places we are familiar with, losing the reassuring facade of security. During a long, painful, or traumatic chronic illness one comes to know loss intimately. There may come a time when illness makes us lose so much that we no longer fear loss. At that time we lose fear of death.
However, I do fear rebirth. Geshe Potowa said:
It is not death I fear so much as rebirth.
Rebirth in samsara. Rebirth as an insect. Rebirth in hell. Lifetime after lifetime, endlessly. Yes, this I fear.
It is only the understanding of death that begins to resolve the fear. When you have looked death in the face several times, that grim teacher will finally reveal that fear of death is about fear of loss. The loss of everything one holds dear.
I regard myself as a traveler passing through this life, and from life to life. When illness is severe it begins to teach us that we are just passing through, we will die soon. Buddha said:
The end of meeting is parting.
I try to help people as best I can whilst loving them unconditionally, and being willing to leave them behind to move on to the next life. You will leave behind everybody you know, even the people you love most. Please understand this. A traveler loves people unconditionally because they know they will leave them behind.
Epilepsy taught me how to understand people’s suffering. How to melt this cold, hard heart. Selfish people need to learn to combine their chronic illness (if they are lucky enough to have one) with Dharma. Otherwise that cold, hard heart will remain frozen in a perpetual state of selfishness.
Make compassion your main practice
People discover compassion in many different ways. Mine was through chronic sickness. Yours might be another way. Put in the simplest terms, compassion is the wish to protect people from pain and suffering. If you are severely ill, please make compassion your main practice. Without compassion we are lifeless and dead. Don’t run from the suffering of your illness. Turn around and look it in the eye. Look carefully. Look closely. Over time, instead of seeing our own pain we start to see others’ pain, others’ sickness, others’ tears, others’ loss. Their suffering becomes our suffering. In this way, our Buddha nature starts to grow. But not without pain.
Please practice compassion. It is the most powerful method to transform your painful illness into something good. You cannot be free from physical sickness. As long as you have a body, that will be your burden, your pain, your tears, and your misery. However, compassion awakens your heart. We realize illness is not about us — there are millions of people out there with worse. When compassion blesses our mind it does not remove our chronic condition, but it helps us realize that our suffering is insignificant. In that realization we discover a purpose to our suffering. We discover meaning.
There are so many people out there in chronic pain. If we don’t help each other, then who will?
The value of friends
I consider myself blessed to have had the supportive friends and family I have. The degree of kindness and help I have received has been enormous and deeply moving.
Please understand. People with chronic illness are incredibly stoic and strong, but there is still one bitter pain that is so hard to bear. When people disbelieve or doubt you are struggling with chronic illness, this pierces the heart. It makes you secretive about your ailment, angry, depressed, and eventually bitter and cynical. Even a little understanding helps enormously.
This article may seem heavy. I may talk about death too much, or other hard subjects. But this is the reality of someone with chronic and serious sickness. These dark heavy thoughts are what they wake up to. They live with this reality every day. It is a hard burden to endure — a heavy burden and a lonely one. Sometimes, the health issues (physical or mental aspects) have been too strong for me to endure alone. My mind is strong, but sometimes even that has not been enough. This is when the dark blessing of chronic illness teaches the value of wise friends and caring family. I have only made it this far in life because of the people who were willing to help me during the difficult times. If any of these people are reading this article, thank you — I owe you everything.
Even a little understanding from trusted friends is a ray of sunshine that can penetrate through the dark and ominous clouds of the heaviest painful thoughts that accompany sickness. Understanding from a sympathetic and knowledgeable friend helps bring back mental fortitude that was waning. When people show understanding, it brings hope and optimism into the suffering mind. And a will to live returns. We think understanding is just about knowledge. But understanding is also about love, and caring, and acceptance, and empathy. It is these qualities that gives our ability to understand sickness the power to start the healing process.
Over the past 40 or 50 years I have sometimes let a friend down. Maybe I didn’t consider that friend important enough, or maybe I was trying to follow the path of expediency. I now understand with crystal clarity that I would be dead if not for my friends. Friendship becomes something rare and sacred for anyone with chronic disease. It has become sacred to me. I will never harm a friend. Ever.
The only way to realistically commit to this ideal is to cultivate equanimity. This means cultivating a caring heart that is free from fickle and partial states of mind, and that embraces everyone with warmth and friendliness. This also comes from the dark and painful blessing of chronic illness.
The spiritual meaning and purpose of our life
I used to believe I was a meditator, a yogi. I have come to realize that I am not. My purpose in this life is not so much to meditate as to teach. It is teaching Dharma that gives me meaning and (I believe) maintains my life. I cannot explain how this happened but it is the dark and painful blessings of chronic illness that revealed to me what my vocation is and what it is not. At least in this lifetime. As long as there is purpose and meaning to my life, and vocation, then there is value in my living. Protecting other people from their suffering through helping them realize emptiness is the only reason I have for living. It is the only reason for me to have the privilege of being alive and drawing another breath.
We will have different conditions. Maybe bedbound, or exhausted with chronic fatigue, or tormented with extreme fibromyalgia. It may feel that we have nothing to lose because we have already lost everything. This is a good feeling and we must cultivate it. Having lost everything, we are free to be a Bodhisattva.
Why do people practice Dharma for years with no real change? Because Buddhadharma is frightening to our selfishness and ego-grasping. Buddha’s teachings demand change, and our foolish, petty, selfish, egocentric mind is terrified of change. But when the dark, painful, blessings of chronic illness takes away everything, there is nothing left to lose. On a material level we may still have things. But psychologically everything is gone. Empty. Nothing. Then we can start to be the person Buddha wants us to be. A Bodhisattva.
Our only job is to protect others from suffering and pain. If we are very sick we need to be radical. Be more extreme than normal people. Give up selfish behaviors and ways of thinking. You have already lost everything anyway, and have nothing of worldly worth left to lose. Become a Bodhisattva and learn the 6 perfections. Hard times and illness — this alone is what makes life worthwhile. The world needs Bodhisattvas. The world needs us. You are strong, like a superhero. Please do not allow your sickness to simply strengthen your samsara or make you feel weak. We must become Bodhisattvas. There is no choice. People need us.
When we become Bodhisattvas, we are inspired to make solemn and sacred vows about how we will benefit others when we become enlightened. For example, the 35 Confession Buddhas or 7 Medicine Buddhas have different and distinctive powers. I am far from being a Bodhisattva but I make this promise now: When I become a Buddha I will free those with neurological illnesses from their pain. This is not a sentiment, it is a promise.
We are Mahayana Buddhists. Soon we will die and lose our opportunity to develop bodhichitta. We need to understand others’ suffering now. We need to understand others’ sickness now. There is no time to wait. This is my message.
It can be helpful to get in a car if you have access to one, drive to a trailhead, walk up a mountain, and look back at your now-tiny city. However, to change our perspective it is not necessary to physically GO up a hill; which is just as well if you’re still in lockdown or live in Florida. Nothing is really out there — everything is a dream-like projection of our mind. There is no real coming and going and we can travel up a mountain in our mind if we want to.
No coming and going
Clouds (and rainbows) only appear in the sky due to a bunch of atmospheric causes and conditions coming together – clouds are not these causes and conditions, but take any one of them away and the clouds cannot form. Clouds therefore have no power to exist on their own, in and of themselves, self-contained, from their own side. They exist only in relation to other things, indeed AS relation to other things. Talking about the emptiness of the so-called “eight extremes”, which includes coming and going, Geshe Kelsang says:
The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds, and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend on factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent or independent existence and are mere imputations of the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism
Geshe Kelsang has said that things “barely exist”. Although they appear and function, they are no more substantial than objects that appear and function in a dream. That includes mountains! And Denver! And my body! And me!
So instead of having to go to places and return from places, we can realize that everything is simply popping up in our mind due to multiple causes and conditions – not the least of which is our karma or previous mental intentions.
Whenever we go anywhere we develop the thought, “I am going,” and grasp at an inherently existent act of going. In a similar way, when someone comes to visit us we think, “they are coming,” and we grasp at an inherently existent act of coming…. However, the coming and going of people is like the appearance and disappearance of a rainbow in the sky. When the causes and conditions for a rainbow to appear are assembled, a rainbow appears; and when the causes and conditions for the continued appearance of the rainbow disperse, the rainbow disappears; but the rainbow does not come anywhere, nor does it go anywhere.
We seem to be moving around all the time — walking our legs, waving our arms — everything is constantly coming and going. Or is it?! When we drive along in a car, are we really moving? Or are the rapidly changing scenes and other sensory experiences simply unfurling moment by moment as mere appearances of mind in dependence upon causes and conditions, including ripening karmic seeds?! Space and time are relative, as Albert Einstein would say.
Why does this matter, you may be wondering? Because if things are relative or dependent-related, we can disappear them by changing our viewpoint or mental angle. If the observer moves, the rainbow moves or disappears. For example, if we view someone who is unkind to us as a kind teacher of something we need to learn, (s)he is no longer an enemy but a friend.
If things are absolute, that is, not dependent on other things, then they are fixed and therefore there is nothing we can do to change them. Also, there is a real or absolute me over here and a real or absolute world over there and never the twain shall meet. With self-grasping ignorance there is necessarily a gap between me and everything else, which turns out to be quite exhausting because we tend to relate to that world with delusions, such as the pull of attachment or the push of aversion. As Gen-la Dekyong said the other day:
Stop tinkering with this impure world. We don’t have time! There is nothing we can do externally to change it.
Where is the center of everything?
Related to this, another thing I find helpful to contemplate from a mountain rock is how each of the millions of people moving about in the city below feels themselves to be the center of it. Wherever they are, wherever they go, everything seems to be revolving around that fixed or moving point. And when I am in the city, it’s the same for me – everything is revolving around me. If I am driving down Sixth Avenue, for example, Denver seems to exist in a centrifugal ring around me; and that illusion persists even if I turn down another street.
Even if we are motivated to help others, while we remain with self-grasping ignorance we naturally have the sense that the world revolves around us. That is how it appears and we assent to that appearance. However, how can a real world be revolving around me and around you and around everyone else at the same time?!
Each one of us Denverites is only one of, say, two million, if we count only the humans. (Though right now there’s a strong argument for also counting the six kittens who are running around my feet like crazy people). From a distance, it’s particularly absurd to say that any one of those two million+ living beings is central, that the city revolves around any one of them, including me. And when I am back in the city, I can remember that – I am just one of millions, no more central than anyone else. We are all equal. We all equally exist only in dependence upon each other, like cells in the body of life. We are indisputably nothing without others.
This was almost literally a “this mountain that mountain” enactment – I drove down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other. Looking back at my previous self and everything to do with that self, I got it into perspective.
There is only one way to free ourselves and that is to get over ourselves. In truth there is no real or most important me to cherish because that self we normally see doesn’t exist. The more often we dissolve it away by looking for and not finding it, the better. This is emptiness or selflessness. As someone said on Facebook today:
No self, nothing to cherish. This is so obvious so why doesn’t it permeate my entire being, providing constant peace? More time on the cushion for me till a stable realisation is attained.
Taking this perspective back down the mountain
We need a sense of proportion because it makes it a lot easier to help without becoming overwhelmed and burning out. Because of course there is horrible suffering in Denver – people are freezing sometimes even to death on the streets, a pandemic is raging, businesses are shuttered, and pretty much every single person you talk to has problems of one sort or another. Including me. But with a large viewpoint we don’t get so overpowered. Seeing the big picture, we can develop the big minds – universal love and the compassion that wants everyone to be free not just from today’s problems but from all their problems forever.
Sooner or later we have to get back down off that mountain! (Unless you are on retreat in a snowy cave. Tempting.) With those big minds, we can return to the middle of the city and help in practical ways. The bigger our mind, the smaller our problems, and the more capacity we have to serve others.
If we find we’re getting overwhelmed, it’s worth pointing out that our mind doesn’t have to get off the mountain. We don’t even have to physically go up a mountain in the first place! That’s what meditation is for, gaining perspective, seeing the relativity of all things. And everyone can learn to do this – regardless of where we happen to be living at the moment, or whether or not we have a car. There is truthfully far more space inside all of us than outside. We can close our eyes, do a bit of breathing meditation to get into our heart, contemplate the space in and around everything, and then get back to work.
Whether or not we understand selflessness and dependent relationship perfectly yet, one immediate thing we can do is appreciate the people around us for giving us the opportunity to practice improving ourselves and helping others, in both obvious and less obvious ways. Given that nothing (including all living beings) exists in any absolute fixed way but is entirely relative and the nature of our mind, we can set ourselves up in relationship with others however we decide; and perhaps the best way to relate to them is in the aspect of kindness. From seeming almost inanimate at times, everyone springs to life when we think about their kindness to us; and Buddhism gives us so many different practical ways to do that.
A mountain in the city
Last but not least, our Buddhist meditation centers in Denver and elsewhere will hopefully be opening up again before too long to provide a physical get-away for this kind of teaching and reflection. For example, a friend who now lives in Colorado was talking about KMC London in Kensington the other day: “That place itself is an oasis and, if we did something similar here, people would get the top of the mountain feel in the city.”
Thank you for reading! Would love to see your feedback and comments below.
One advantage of living in a mountainous region is that you can walk up a mountain and look back at the huge city in which you live. And now it’s tiny. You can hold it in the palm of your hand. You can hold everyone in it in the palm of your hand. You can hold all their innumerable problems in the palm of your hand. I did that today. I instantly felt a weight off.
Denver is tiny from the distance. And it is also hundreds of miles from the next large city, so it is a tiny city surrounded by a vast expanse of largely empty land. I was picturing all the huge cities criss-crossing the globe, all even tinier than Denver from where I was looking.
It’s really good to get out of our lives from time to time. When we get some distance, we can see how much we have been investing in what seems so real. When we’re all wrapped up in it, there seems to be such a real solid city full of real worrying problems – loads of problems, far more problems than there are people. Even my teeny-tiny house that I can’t even begin to see from here, or the teeny tiny building where I work, or the even teeny tinier co-workers, can and sometimes do preoccupy me fully. There seem to be endless things that need sorting out when we are right in the thick of it, surrounded in all directions. But when we get out of that perspective and get some space, we can see that we have been too caught up in the details and we are all in our feelings, as a wise friend of mine talks about here.
Space solves problems
An old friend, the first administrative director at Geshe Kelsang’s first Centre (Madhyamaka Centre in North Yorkshire), would make sure he walked up the hill behind it at least once a week. This way he could see it in the distance and put his job and life back into perspective, as well as appreciate the beauty of the building again. This created space in his mind such that he could recalibrate his motivation and get back to work happily without grasping at it so tightly.
Nothing is as solid, real, or even important as it seems when we are all completely caught up in it with no space, our moods going up and down like a yo yo depending on the slightest vagaries or off-handed comments:
Such fluctuations of mood arise because we are too closely involved in the external situation. We are like a child making a sandcastle who is excited when it is first made, but who becomes upset when it is destroyed by the incoming tide. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Vasten the mind
Buddha encourages us to aim for large spacious universal minds, such as love for all beings without exception and omniscient wisdom!
We can come to understand that everything is mere appearance arising in the mind like a rainbow in an empty sky. In the Isolated Body chapter of Tantric Grounds and Paths, Geshe Kelsang helps us with this:
Whenever a form appears to us, we need complete conviction that this form is a manifestation of emptiness, and that, apart from its emptiness, there is no form existing from its own side.
He gives the example of a wristwatch:
We can hold a wristwatch in our hands but, if we examine it more closely to find the “real” watch, we cannot find anything at all. When we try to point to the watch, all we can ever point to are parts of the watch. The parts of the watch are not the watch itself, but, besides these parts, there is no watch.
You can try this for yourself – imagine the parts of the watch disappear. What happens to the watch?
By the way, from a distance, as I said, we can also hold Denver in our hands. And the same applies as for the watch – if we examine it more closely to find the “real” Denver, we cannot find anything at all. As Geshe-la says:
This very unfindability is the real nature of the watch…. The real nature of the watch is just its emptiness, but this very emptiness appears to us in the aspect of a watch.
Same for Denver and for wherever you live.
Holding Denver and its innumerable problems in the palm of my hand gives me that sense that they are empty, that they will be easier to solve and dissolve if I realize I can’t find them anywhere.
Up the mountain looking at Denver, I couldn’t point to anything that was actually Denver. It was clear that I was just thinking or labelling “Denver” on those far-away buildings and people. Later as I drove back into the city and more and more of its parts or details appeared, it became even harder to point to anything that could be called “Denver.” Everything I pointed to was in fact NOT Denver – such as the buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians, or cars. These are just buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians and cars, not “Denver”. And if you put them all together you still have just a collection of things that are not Denver. (As explained more here.) Denver cannot be found existing in and of itself. Far from being solid or real, it is mere imputation of mind, created by conceptual thought.Which is why every person has a different Denver.
Ignorance makes us believe things and people are real and exist from their own side. That there is a fixed world outside of our mind. The illusion is persistent. Because we tend to get so overwhelmed by appearances — always have done since beginningless time — we readily believe in the truth of everything we see. But I can from time to time at least imagine that I am back up that mountain, looking at all these seemingly solid insurmountable details from afar.
What exactly is a job?
I like my job in Denver very much, but it is as unreal as the rest of Denver, nothing behind the label. Lately it’s been occurring to me a lot, what else is my job other than an opportunity to help others? Who else are my coworkers other than people giving me an opportunity to help others? Beyond that, what need is there to hold onto all this and build it up with mental elaborations as some solid findable thing? When it isn’t?
This gets me thinking that wherever we go, providing we are trying to remember a Bodhisattva’s motivation, our lives will always have areas in which we can serve others. As Nagarjuna says:
Even if we are not able to help others directly We should still try to develop a beneficial intention. If we develop this intention more and more strongly, We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ Universal Compassion
Given that compassion increases our opportunities to help, it seems we don’t need to get too attached to our current circumstances, however nice they are or even however helpful we feel we are able to be. For wherever we are, and whether things are going well or badly, with the right mind-set don’t we always have an opportunity to improve ourselves and help others? We don’t need to buy into being a success or a failure because it is who we are each day rather than what we do that is most important; and that is something we have control over.
If we are motivated by genuine concern for others we’re going to be doing helpful things mentally, verbally, and physically; and if we’re not, it doesn’t really matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, our help is going to be more limited. Geshe Kelsang has told me twice now:
Your main job is to practice Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.
If you’re still here …
If we know that everything is merely imputed by conceptual thought, not other than its emptiness, then it is not hard to see that if we purify our thoughts, we purify our world.
AND … if we realize this true nature of all phenomena with the mind of great bliss, then we see everything not just as a manifestation of its emptiness but of great bliss and emptiness. Which gives rise to even more bliss. As Venerable Geshe-la explains about Tantric Yogis in Tantric Grounds and Paths:
Because they have a deep recognition of emptiness and their mind of bliss as the same nature, they can view all phenomena that appear to their mind as manifestations of their bliss, and this special way of looking at phenomena causes them greatly to increase their experience of bliss, just as a fire will increase if more fuel is added to it.
If you like the sound of this, do read that chapter when you get a chance. It is a very clear explanation of a Yogi’s actual experience (and of OUR actual experience one day).
I promised someone the other day that I’d make my articles shorter and more frequent again (as opposed to longer and rarer), lol. So you can read part 2, Everything is relative, now or later! Either way, over to you, I would love to hear your comments in the box below.