Kadampa parenting: A guest article

My friend, who has five children including two new twin boys!, has written an article for Kadampa Life on what it is like to be a Kadampa parent.

Some people believe that having children and a family is an obstacle to one’s Buddhist or Dharma practice. This has certainly not been my experience. My children and my family ARE my Dharma practice.

What does it mean to practice the Dharma? It means to clearly understand that we have no problems other than our own negative minds or delusions, and that the solution to all of our problems is to replace our delusions with virtuous minds. To practice Dharma is to apply effort to train our mind in this way.

An Old Kadampa master once said:

The essence of Dharma practice is to harm our delusions as much as possible and to help others as much as possible.

This, for me, is the key to transforming my family life into my spiritual path.

Some people think that situations that provoke delusions are obstacles to our Dharma practice. From my perspective, just as a beggar is needed to practice giving and an annoying person is needed to practice patience, so too situations that would normally provoke delusions in us are needed to practice Dharma. It is (relatively) easy to keep our minds virtuous when everything is pleasant and easy, but it is when we are being pushed to our limits that we are really forced to practice the Dharma.

From an ordinary perspective, family life can be hell on earth – woken up countless times every night, changing dirty diapers, constant crying, total irrationality, kids sticking their fingers in electrical sockets or every other dangerous thing they can find, the emphatic “NO” of a toddler, struggling to get your kids to eat something other than McDonalds and plain butter pasta, constant interruptions, no peace ever, constant fighting between siblings, dealing with “but all my friends already have a cell phone” at age 8, the occasional “I hate you” and “you are ruining my life”, just trying to get out the door or get anywhere on time, and this doesn’t even include the teenage years! Oh, and don’t forget that the average cost of a kid today is close to $400,000 by the time they graduate from college!

But for a Dharma practitioner, these experiences are priceless. Each one of these situations, and the countless others, will generate within our mind all sorts of delusions, such as self-cherishing, miserliness, frustration, anger, jealousy, wishing for gratitude, attachment to our own wishes, etc. When these delusions arise, it gives us a valuable opportunity to practice training our mind in the opponents to these delusions. Day after day, we can work on overcoming our delusions in some of the most challenging situations of our life. If we can learn to be a parent without delusion, frankly, we can do almost anything!

Parenting likewise gives us countless opportunities to “help others as much as possible.” Throughout Venerable Geshe-la’s books he describes all the different ways in which a mother is kind. Of course he does so to try help us generate gratitude for our own mother, but I also think there is a second layer of meaning for us parents: namely, he is telling us everything we ourselves need to do to be a good and kind parent towards our own children. There are of course the obvious things like caring for them, providing for them, changing their diapers, feeding them, taking them on special outings, etc. But often the best thing we can do to help our children is to be a good example for them.

One thing I have learned is it almost never matters what I say. It is just endless blah blah for my kids. But the example I set of the type of person I am is where the real helping comes. If I show the example of somebody who is giving, morally correct, patient, forgiving, dedicated, understanding, compassionate, calm, playful, joyful, fun, hard working, etc., then it is this example more than anything else which will help shape them. How we deal with the challenges of our own life, especially in the context of the family, will shape how they will deal with the problems in their lives. If we constantly blame others for our problems, so will they. If we assume responsibility for our own experience, they will do this too. So all the time in our family life, we can directly or indirectly help others.

Seen in this light, I personally believe that family life is my spiritual practice. I see no contradiction between the two. Yes, it sometimes creates obstacles to be able to go to all of the formal teachings I would otherwise like to or makes it sometimes difficult to find the time to do my daily formal practice, but all day, every day that I am with my family I can practice what it really means to be a Kadampa – to harm my delusions as much as possible and to help others as much as possible. When I see this clearly, instead of viewing my family as an obstacle to my practice, I view them as a gift from all of the Buddhas for my practice. When I see this, I am able to remain happy even when dealing with an outbreak of the stomach flu!

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Like this?! Kadampa Ryan now has his own blog!

What can we do about tragedies?

I wrote this on the occasion of the Japanese earthquake some years ago, but Buddha’s advice still holds true.

How can we help?

“What did you feel when you heard about the colossal tragedy in Japan? Powerless or not? What are the best ways you think you personally can help?”

I asked these questions on Facebook and share some replies below.

I just saw three fish struggling for their lives, inevitably losing the battle. One was big, one was medium, one was small. Their mouths were gasping and their silver bodies thrashing about, eyes wide with fear, drowning in the air. I felt sick. There was nothing I could do. They were surrounded by fishermen who would neither understand nor appreciate my wish to throw them immediately back into the silky water, their home. I said prayers for them as I walked slowly back home.

And they reminded me of how ghastly the drowning deaths of so many thousands of human beings in Japan has been. Again, what can I do about it? I am many miles away. I can’t even directly help one of these poor scared people as they transition so abruptly and alone to their next life.

One of the first things I did was donate some money to the Red Cross, as that seemed practical and obvious; but I am not rich and know my contribution will not go terribly far, maybe it will provide the survivors some clean drinking water or a blanket. Still worth it, of course.

Don’t feel helpless

But the truth is, from a Buddhist point of view, we don’t need to feel helpless. There are things we can do. Every suffering we see is a reminder and an incentive to progress quickly from an ordinary limited state (of someone who cares but feels relatively useless) to that of a trainee and then real Bodhisattva with universal compassion and an enormous joyful confidence to help, and then an enlightened being with the power to bless everyone’s mind each and every day forever.

As people pointed out on Facebook, we can meditate on any or all of the following spiritual thoughts, and in this way make spiritual progress and become increasingly able to help others: our precious human life, the certainty of death, future lives, refuge, renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom, from which all other practical freedom arises), love, compassion, taking and giving, bodhichitta, wisdom realizing the way things are

Buddha Shakyamuni

If you’re interested, what I do when I sit down to do these practices (as opposed to doing them on the fly) is believe that Buddha and all the holy beings are in front of me and that the world is transformed into a Pure Land – all those who are in pain are seated around me, and they too are coming under the protection, love, and influence of all pure, compassionate, powerful beings. This instantly makes everything less helpless, bringing the future result of spiritual practice into the present, imagining it is so, right now.

Practical meditation on compassion

If I am meditating on compassion, I will focus on one person in particular to make the love and compassion real. For example, one story was told of a woman who was my mother’s age and looked a bit like her. The day of the tsunami, she was hours away from an eagerly anticipated birthday celebration; instead she instead found herself fleeing for her life, her family and friends disarrayed, her livelihood destroyed. I put her next to me in my meditation. If that was my mother of this life…?! And I take it from there, focusing on and then spreading that wish for her to find happiness and be free from all this pain to more and more people in her situation, and then to other situations (remember those in Haiti) …

The power of prayer

You know, even in the short term we can alleviate suffering through the power of prayer. It is good not to underestimate prayer – by tuning into the minds of all enlightened beings, and acting as a conduit between them and those who are suffering, we can bring about enormous change, individually and collectively. At one Festival my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

“Our main job is to pray”.

Study upon study shows the power of prayer to heal, to comfort, to transform. Anyone in any tradition can pray – if you have any belief in the existence of holy beings or transcendent forces, you can simply ask them to protect the people who are suffering. Whenever we see someone suffering and there is nothing obvious we can do, we can immediately pray: “Please help them. Please help me to be able to help them.”

Always something to rejoice in

In this instance, even if we cannot be there in person to help, there is so much opportunity also to rejoice and feel happy about others’ incredible qualities and actions. People everywhere are bending over backward to help, and the rescue workers are all far out of their own comfort zones. The Japanese in general are behaving with such integrity, there is no looting, people are looking after each other… And what about those 50 faceless workers who have sacrificed their health and their lives to protect their fellow citizens by staying behind at the nuclear plant? Kindness, unselfishness and good karma are alive and well in Japan.

What will happen if we do nothing?

If we feel there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing, what will happen? After the initial shock, eyes glued to the appalling but sensational footage, we will feel guilty, we will make ourselves feel indifferent, we will change the channel, we will quickly forget… already the news of the earthquake and tsunami are fading on the front pages, to be replaced for sure by the fear of nuclear catastrophe over there, and also of other disasters such as Libya. But with the slow fade out in the news, have we also forgotten the people who are suffering so badly? How often do I remember Haiti? How often do I remember anything that happened even last year?

Feedback from other people

So here is how people answered those questions:

Powerless, but…

One person replied to my question: “It makes me feel powerless, grateful to live in England where we are relatively free from such dangers. It makes me aware of death — that it can arrive at any time. It also makes me aware of my laziness. This should help me increase my compassion & bodhichitta but rather I just think “what can I do?” This is very sad. It also seems rather unreal – like in a movie.”

Another said “i feel powerless…..but send loving thoughts through meditation.”

And another said: “I saw these pictures, first thing this morning, and almost couldn’t leave the house. I did make it to Prayers for World Peace, and the topic was Refuge, which helped. But truthfully I’m kinda wrecked by this. This magnitude of devastation is unfathomable. I must remember refuge and prayers. And I must find some way to help in a material way.”

Incentive to improve ourselves

“Remember that death can arrive in any moment, and make our precious life  meaningful!”

“This event certainly provides motivation for renunciation, which frankly can be hard to generate in beautiful Sonoma County. It’s a heckuva wakeup call to get off my complacent tush.”

“I think we can’t stop all external problems like these directly, but the causes of most of what you hear in the news is delusions. E.g. pollution, reccession, broken families, heavy consumerism, debt and war. If we overcame these delusions even… superficially the environment would become clean, families happier, the soil richer and undepleted, nature would increase and everything would become more beautiful, fresher, and this depressing pessimism about the future and feeling doomed would be replaced with feelings of hope for happiness for living beings.”

“It is the impetus for me to renounce samsara, generate bodhichitta and gain wisdom realizing emptiness; also, to set a beneficial intention towards all suffering sentient beings.”

“This is just the most recent event motivating us toward Buddhahood — where we can really do some good.”

“Automatically having much compassion for all the victims of this Japanese apocalypse and also having in mind all the others suffering great problems at the burning points of conflict on our entire globe.”

“Every day in your garden is like Japan except in the garden most die quickly so I suppose it isn’t 30 years of struggling with a disability from an earthqquake for example.”

“We can work on our compassion and wisdom! The vast and the profound – developing a good heart and try to reduce our negativity; and worry as little as possible.”

Taking and Giving in particular

“Taking the suffering and giving peace, calm (in Lojong)”

You can read about how to do this powerful practice in Transform Your Life. It instantly increases our love and our compassion and makes us feel we are doing something that counts (which is true). I think it may be the best antidote to feeling powerless, along with prayer.

Importance of prayer

‎”Our main job is to pray.” Didn’t Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say that at a festival? We are so not powerless when we can pray for the welfare of others.”

I’ll conclude with something Geshe Kelsang has often said:

“Try, and don’t worry.”

Your comments are welcome.

What is the point of faith?

Do you remember the Chilean miners? They were stuck underground for several months but then were miraculously saved. After they were rescued, they traveled the world like heroes, being feted wherever they went, having a grand old time.

Imagine being stuck down a mine. Imagine you have been down there so long that you don’t even register the possibility of a bright shiny world outside the mine, or, if you do occasionally wonder about such a thing, the thought quickly fades.

Then imagine that one day something amazing happens. A crack appears above you in the solid darkness, and light rays stream through.

When I was at high school, before I discovered Buddhism, these David Bowie lyrics from his song Starman inspired me for some half-remembered reason:

“There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’s told us not to blow it ‘cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.”

I had always had an intermittent sense that there was something more to life than these painted appearances, all this superficial stuff, and that I was supposed to be striving for something deeper and more cosmic than just getting through life; I just was not sure what it was. I also felt that someone somewhere was trying to tell me something, I just wasn’t sure who or where they were!

I think everyone has thoughts like these, even if it is 3am in the morning and the thought quickly fades or is pushed away. These are tiny cracks of light. They don’t amount to anything consistent or even life-changing, but they are an expression of the actual interdependent nature of all phenomena and our pure potential or Buddha nature (mystic theistic traditions might say our divinity and potential for apotheosis) — and they give us an intuition of something beyond this world of ordinary appearances. Whether we choose to pursue those existential thoughts or not depends on many things, of course.

Back in the mine, imagine now that the crack above your head becomes larger. And there is now a voice coming through from outside.

That voice is telling you that he wants to come and meet you and not to blow it because there is a way out of this mine…

… in fact he has all the equipment we’ll need to dig ourselves out with his help.

I remember when I first realized I had met my own Spiritual Guide. I was a student at university and was, strangely enough, at a disco (it was the 80s!) dancing with a friend. We had both met Geshe Kelsang a few weeks or months earlier, I don’t really remember. Suddenly, I was hit with a very blissful understanding — my starman had arrived. I shouted to my friend over the music, with unchecked teenage exuberance and somewhat to his (and probably everyone else’s) embarassment: “Do you realize our Spiritual Guide has found us?!!” And yes, it did blow my mind.

Since then, my teacher Geshe Kelsang has given me exactly everything I need. If all the enlightened beings had gotten together to figure out what I personally needed to escape from ignorance, anger, attachment, mistaken dualistic appearances and suffering, and start helping others to do the same, they would have done exactly what they have done. They would have emanated as someone I can communicate with and relate to because he appears in a relatively ordinary form, and given me through that person all the teachings, inspiration and conditions I need.

If I want to get out of the mine, I need to stay close to that light source and voice — not stray too far or get all skeptical about it — and keep believing that there is another world beyond the world of suffering. As my teacher says in Transform Your Life:

“Without faith, everything is mundane. We are blind to anything beyond the ordinary and imperfect world we normally inhabit, and we cannot even imagine that pure faultless beings, worlds, or states of mind exist.”

Dakini (female Tantric Deity) in the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

In truth, the world outside the mind is not somewhere else – the Pure Land is right here, it is the emptiness (lack of independent existence) of all phenomena that is always mixed indivisibly with the blissful wisdom of all enlightened beings. (When Milarepa, the great Buddhist meditator and poet, was asked in which Pure Land he had attained enlightenment, he famously pointed to his cave.) This bliss and emptiness pervades all phenomena, and we are only subtle mistaken appearances away from that experience ourselves. Faith in the enlightened beings and teachings necessitates faith in one’s own infinite potential. I sometimes like to think that we are just a trick of the mind away from enlightenment. As Geshe-la says in Yoga of Buddha Heruka:

“The moment our mind is free from subtle mistaken appearance, we open the door through which we can directly see all enlightened Deities. For as long as our mind remains polluted by subtle mistaken appearance, this door is closed.”

Through understanding that, I think we can understand what blessings actually are. But perhaps that can be the subject of another blog article.

Your comments are welcome!

(If  you are interested in knowing more about my teacher, see this article.)

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness

Geshe Chekawa 1102-1176

Geshe Chekhawa, famous Kadampa master, told us how we could measure our success in training our minds:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

This has many layers of meaning. But one thing I think it reveals is the best perspective for approaching our spiritual practice in the first place. If we can get that right, our meditations flow, and we make easy progress. If we don’t get it right, meditation and spiritual practice seem like more hard work, more duty, and one day we might just pack it in.

Discouragement naturally leads to the laziness of indolence and attraction to meaningless activities too…

Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen umpteen people start off enthusiastically, as they glimpse the infinite possibilities of developing the mind; but then the sky clouds over and they become discouraged. Sometimes, people who have been supposedly “practicing” Buddhist meditation for years just stop. That makes no sense to me because meditation gets better and better if we do it right. I love meditating. So I’m sharing some ideas in the hope that they might help a few people keep relying on a happy mind alone instead of giving into the laziness of discouragement. After all, do we get discouraged or stop doing something if we are really enjoying ourselves?

Happiness-training

Buddhist meditation or Dharma is designed to make us happier and more free. We talk about “practicing Dharma”, or “training in meditation”, which means that we are practicing or training in becoming happier and more free. “Practicing” or “training in” implies we already have the potential for happiness and freedom, otherwise we would have to say something like “adding happiness” instead.

To borrow my friend’s gym analogy again… There is no point in going to the gym unless we have a muscle. We go the gym precisely to train our muscles, so we need to have at least some muscle, however weak, in order to train it. Well, Dharma is happiness-training. In other words, we need to have some happiness for us to train. We can also say Dharma is love-training or compassion-training or wisdom-training, and similarly we need to have some love or compassion or wisdom in order to train.

This is why it so important to identify and abide with our natural good qualities of happiness, wisdom, compassion etc., however feeble they may be at the moment. Then we naturally approach our training with such faith and optimism — regarding realizations as natural, even inevitable.

This will give you actual meditation experience.

Where are you starting from?

Buddha said our true nature, our Buddha nature, was like a clear sky and that our faults are not our intrinsic nature but adventitious or temporary defilements, like rain clouds scudding across the sky.

To see if we are approaching our spiritual practice from the best and indeed only useful perspective, we can ask ourself :

“On a daily basis, how much time do I spend identifying with my pure potential for happiness and freedom? And how much time do I spend identifying with being deluded e.g. irritated, worried, diseased, insecure, lonely, ugly, unhappy, addicted? When I do meditation or prayers or go to a teaching or remember spiritual advice in my daily life, where am I starting from? From the standpoint of being a limited, dark cloudy being who is a million miles away from where I want to be, or from the standpoint of being right now a spacious-sky-like blissful Buddha or Bodhisattva or good person, just temporarily obscured by the clouds of delusions?

Am I slogging away at this because I know it is supposed to be good for me, or am I enjoying myself every step of the way?”

What is enlightenment?

In Mahamudra Tantra, my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

“Enlightenment is defined as an omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings.”

Nothing is being said here about adding anything. By freeing ourself permanently from mistaken or dualistic appearances, and by ripening our Buddha nature, we will naturally possess omniscience and universal compassion. We will then have the power to help each living being every day by bestowing our blessings on them, teaching, and emanating.

Love and all non-deluded minds are our Buddha nature — our innate potential for complete purity and bliss — which is never separate from any living being. This means that to increase our good qualities of love, happiness, wisdom and so on, we do not need to add anything. In fact, to go all the way to becoming an enlightened being we do not need to add anything. We simply need to (1) remove all cloud-like delusions and obscurations from our mind through the practice of wisdom and (2) ripen our potential for all good qualities with the so-called method practices of contentment, faith, renunciation (the mind of liberation), love, compassion, bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment), and so on.

No time like the present
Our Buddha nature is like a jewel wrapped in rags

Anyone at all can tune into their spiritual potential, starting right now, if they know how. When you feel some peace from doing simple breathing meditation, for example, identify this as your true nature, your Buddha nature. Disbelieve or ignore all the ordinary cloud-like thoughts you have of yourself as a limited, deluded being, and in this way leave the space for the naturally pure, positive, loving thoughts to arise instead. Actually, the Pure Land is right here, right now – we are just not looking at it.

This is one of my favorite quotes:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

~ William Blake

The more we grasp at things as real, the more out of touch with reality we are. Delusions (our unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds based on mistaken appearance and exaggeration, such as anger, greed and ignorance) grasp the most tightly, and their objects do not exist. Anger, for example, grasps at and wants to push away an inherently unpleasant person or situation; and there is no such thing. Attachment does the opposite — grasping at and pulling toward us something or someone out there that we feel is necessary for our happiness, when in fact our happiness is within, a state of mind. When any delusions are functioning, our life feels precarious, out of balance, somehow lacking.

Love, compassion, wisdom are in touch with reality and offer us transcendence – we can feel it, and it is why they make us feel good. When our love is arising in our mind, for example, it feels spacious, peaceful, and wholly connected with a wider reality. It also feels as if the elements of our life are in balance as we are in a state of not lacking anything — so it is impossible, for example, to feel guilty or worried about all the things we “should” be doing but are not…

Avoiding burnout at work

In this article, I try to explain how to use this understanding to prevent stress and burnout at work.

Your comments are very welcome. And please share this article if you found it helpful.