If you are interested in practicing meditation, I think you will find something you like in this book. Just click on this link for your copy: Free Modern Buddhism eBook.
(If you are new to meditation, and are interested in simple easy getting-started instructions, you might like one of these articles.)
Geshe Kelsang says:
“Through reading and practicing the instructions given in this book, people can solve their daily problems and maintain a happy mind all the time.”
I cannot help but feel rather happy about this cosmic no-holds-barred act of giving Buddha’s teachings, especially as I think Modern Buddhism is a spiritual masterpiece. It contains every Buddhist meditation and is a wealth of practical advice for living a happy, positive, and meaningful life.
So what can I do to help give it away? I can help to spread the word amongst family, friends and others. I also feel I can join in helping this come about by the sheer mental act of wanting it enough! Aspiration is the source of joyful effort and of all good results.
I have been doing this special tailor-made visualization on giving Modern Buddhism to everyone for some time now. It only takes a minute or so. I base it on the meditation on giving that Geshe Kelsang explains in Modern Buddhism itself, in a fabulous section called “Training in Giving in Conjunction with the Practice of the Six Perfections” (search for it in Volume One of your brand new eBook!!)
“How do we meditate on giving? In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:
… to accomplish the welfare of all living beings
I will transform my body into an enlightened wishfulfilling jewel.
We should regard our continuously residing body, our very subtle body, as the real wishfulfilling jewel; this is our Buddha nature through which the wishes of ourself and all other living beings will be fulfilled.”
If you prefer, you can visualize your regular body as the wishfulfilling jewel. (Just so you know, any words you are not familiar with are explained clearly in the book. For example, according to Buddha’s Tantric teachings given in Volume 2, our very subtle body or subtle energy wind is our actual body, as opposed to this gross meaty body with a limited shelf life. Our very subtle mind and body travel never-endingly from life to life and, once fully purified through the practice of meditation, will become the mind and body of an enlightened being.)
With love wishing everyone to be happy, we then believe that from this wishfulfilling jewel we emanate infinite rays of light which reach all living beings, giving them whatever they want. They experience the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment.
At this point, I imagine that at the end of each infinite ray of light is a copy of the Modern Buddhism, and that as soon as the living beings receive it they experience pure and lasting happiness. Then I make a dedication, such as the one by Geshe Kelsang below.
This meditation feels great! It creates enormous good karma (the mental potential for good fortune) and the cause to give spiritual teachings directly to everyone. And there is no reason you cannot adapt it to other things too.
This gift feels to me like one of Geshe Kelsang‘s auspicious deeds, in a whole lifetime spent in the service of others. He is starting by giving away the UK English version of Modern Buddhism eBook, but who knows where he may go with this next… And there are teachers he has trained in countries all over the world who are giving oral commentaries to this book to bring it even more alive. The idea of everyone in the world, whoever they are, and however much money they do or don’t possess, having access to this treasury of exquisite practical liberating advice in their own language sounds almost too good to be true! Almost.
If you like Buddhist meditation, do help spread the word by sharing the link to eModernBuddhism.com everywhere. The sooner people have the choice to download and read this book, the sooner Geshe Kelsang’s dedication can come true:
“May everyone who reads this book experience deep peace of mind, and accomplish the real meaning of human life.”
(Geshe Kelsang’s kindness in giving away Modern Buddhism reminds me of how good it is to have met such an accomplished spiritual master in this life, hence this article: What is the point of faith).
In the Vajrapani teaching in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:
Milarepa said to the hunter Gonpo Dorje:
‘You have the body of a human but the mind of an animal.’
That is, we have the same intention or view. What we human beings want and what animals want is exactly the same. We know all about computers and many other things, but our aim is the same – temporary happiness or worldly pleasure. Animals have various methods for finding worldly pleasures, and so do human beings. Their methods may differ but their aim, view and intention are the same; and, with regard to this, human beings are no more special than animals.
But surely my mentality, wants, needs and actions are far more sophisticated than an animal’s?
Are they? We are all equal in that we wish to be free from suffering all the time and always want to be happy. We never wake up and think, “Hey, I’d love a whole bunch of suffering today”, and nor do animals. In his commentary to Medicine Buddha in 2006, Geshe Kelsang said:
“Everybody wants to be free from suffering and be happy all the time; even animals have the intention to be free from suffering. They want to liberate themselves from suffering of this life.”
Buddhism teaches that unless we have developed a spiritual perspective and wish for the happiness of future lives, liberation or enlightenment, our outlook is really quite hard to distinguish from that of an animal! Our aims are the same. And as everything depends upon our intention, the results we’ll ultimately get out of our life are pretty much the same too.
If we can equalize our self and others, really understanding how just like our own self animals wish to be happy and free, we are not going to project alien “other” so strongly upon them, and with this inclusive perspective we can empathize with them. They are just like me. From their perspective, they are “me”.
Animals also create actions and experience their karmic effects, just like we do. In the Prajnaparamita commentary in 2008 Geshe Kelsang said:
Even animals, like dogs, also experience some inner mental peace from time to time. Why? Because they have on their consciousness the imprints of mental actions of meditation and concentration that they performed in their previous lives, and when these imprints of the mental actions of meditation ripen they experience mental peace. When they experience mental peace they are really happy because their mind is happy.
According to Buddha, we human beings are also not inherently or permanently human. We too can take rebirth as animals, and have indeed done so many times already in our countless previous lives. We are all in this ocean of samsara together. In the introduction to the Paris Festival in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:
When we take rebirth as human beings we will have to experience various kinds of human suffering; when we take rebirth as animals we will have to experience animals’ suffering; and when we take rebirth as a hell being we will have to experience the sufferings of hell beings. We should contemplate this continually again and again until we develop the strong wish to attain permanent liberation from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives.
When you open your eyes, what do you see?
Geshe Kelsang has said things like this so often:
Our intention is to benefit people throughout the world, to benefit all mother living beings including animals, other non-human beings.
Buddhists are encouraged to remember animals all the time, and to pray for their welfare. Geshe Kelsang has said that if we wish to develop compassion, all we have to do is “open our eyes”. When I take the paper bag of self-preoccupation off my head and look around here, I see lizards, cats, birds, worms, beetles, ants, dogs, and so on… animal beings are everywhere! If I bother to put myself in their “shoes” for even a few moments, and feel how they struggle to survive, it is quite an eye-opener and hard not to develop concern for them. It can also be a perspective shifter on how lucky we are at the moment, and — depending on our familiarity with Buddha’s teachings — a constant reminder of the need to use this time to attain liberation from samsara as soon as possible and enlightenment for their sake.
Animals have nothing. As Geshe Kelsang said in the 2008 Vajrapani teachings:
For example, dogs and other animals have nothing belonging to them. Relatively their body belongs to them but human beings control everything, even their body. They don’t even have any ability to control their own body. Human beings use them.
But how am I responsible for animals?
I’d like to quote here from Dougal’s comment on part one:
“We owe animals big. Geshe Kelsang once said he sometimes wants to sue humans on animals’ behalf. As he says: we need to work on our compassion, all of us, ’til it has the power to protect all living beings without exception; and at the same time we have to start facing our responsibilities in this world, right now, and do what we can to end the hell on earth our society inflicts on so many millions of living beings every day. I applaud Wayne Pacelle and the HSUS, and all those speaking out for our brothers and sisters without a voice – thank you. Think I’ll go buy his book.”
Someone told me yesterday that the etymology of the word responsible is “able to respond”. We are able to respond right now (in both ways mentioned in this comment), so doesn’t this mean that we are responsible whether we like it or not?
We are immensely privileged right now with our precious human life. And with great privilege comes great responsibility.
What about being decent to insects, isn’t that going a bit far?
We collectively have a low tolerance for insects it seems – I’m constantly passing white vans with slogans on them promising one way or another to be the best at ridding my home of “pests” and “stop being bugged”. Factory farms may be hidden away, but no one bats an eyelid at these proud proclamations of slaughter. We tell annoying people to “buzz off…”
There is to my knowledge no humane society for insects at this point in time. I personally have always had a thing for insects. I like what Issa says:
“Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.”
But although some may see me as a ridiculous bleeding heart liberal, at the same time I know I have a way to go. I am more careful with animals than insects – I would be far more concerned if I ran over a raccoon than if I trod on a beetle. This tells me that I still haven’t comprehended the full horrors of samsara, where I and my kind mothers can take rebirths in these forms.
It is with the help of subtle external winds that plants draw up water, grow new leaves, and so forth. Such winds are the life-force of plants…. Thus, although it is incorrect to say that plants are alive in the sense of being conjoined with consciousness, we can say that they are alive in this sense.
We can choose to believe these things or not, of course. I don’t have trouble seeing animals and insects as sentient and flowers and vegetables as not, I’ve always thought of it that way. However, it is not obvious judging by people’s sometimes paradoxical relationships with their plants. Yesterday I visited an old friend who is very fond of her plants, and she showed them to me one by one. The last one, a hibiscus, had tiny white insects all over its flowers and she explained that she was spraying it with insecticide to save it. I objected that I didn’t think one hibiscus plant was worth the lives of hundreds of insects, no way. And she replied, “That is where you are wrong. Plants have feelings too.” And I said, sort of under my breath, “Well, why do you keep attacking them then with those large scary garden shears, that’s got to be agony”, and, louder, “Plants don’t have consciousness.” And she replied, “No they don’t, but they do have feelings.” Admittedly she has never been a master logician, but I still am trying to figure out the best answer for her to that. Let me know in the comments!
As part of the meditation on generating universal compassion, explained in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:
In the third stage, we focus on ourself and all animals and we think, “Just as I want happiness but not suffering, so too do all animals. In this respect we are all exactly the same. Therefore, I must believe that I myself and all animals are equally important. My happiness and their happiness, my freedom and their freedom, are equally important.” In this way we develop a caring attitude towards all animals, including insects, and we hold this for as long as possible. We should practice this every day in many sessions, continually until we cherish all animals, including insects, without exception.
Geshe Kelsang lovingly picks up the dying wasps on a summer’s day near his window and spends ages blowing mantras on them. I don’t know how many of you were at Madhyamaka Centre the year a fly flew into his teacup, and he scooped it out, paused the Je Tsongkhapa empowerment, made a lot of prayers blowing into his hand, and then laughingly but seriously told us that the insect was now in Tushita Pure Land.
I have more questions than answers when it comes to insects. What is our responsibility toward them? Are they necessary collateral damage because it is impossible not to harm unintentionally in samsara, as some people say? Have you found ways to increase your concern for them without resorting to going around with a cloth over your face and sweeping the path before you like the commendably compassionate but perhaps impractical Jains? What is to be done about insects?
But what can little old me do to help all these animals and insects? The problem seems insurmountable.
Buddha said that anyone who deliberately harmed another living being was no follower of his. At the very least, we can observe this refuge commitment.
As mentioned in part one, we turn a blind eye perhaps because we just don’t want there to be that much suffering. However, our head in the sand sadly doesn’t stop the suffering. Buddha advises us in the first of the four noble truths not to shy away from suffering – we need to know suffering in order to take the steps to overcome it. We can let animals remind us that there is immense suffering in the world but right now, with our precious human life, unlike them there is something we can do about it.
As Geshe Kelsang said in 2008 during the Vajrapani teachings:
Because we have the opportunity to study and practice Buddhadharma, we have the opportunity to understand the nature of samsara, and to cut the continuum of samsara and achieve permanent liberation from suffering. We have the opportunity to control our delusions, through which we can solve our own problems of anger, attachment and ignorance, and we can benefit others effectively. We have all this opportunity because we have met Buddhadharma. With regard to this, human life is valuable and very precious. It depends on our view and intention.
If we try to be brave and courageous, like a hero or heroine, and contemplate others’ suffering, we can increase our capacity very quickly. When I saw the lizard just now with the other by the throat, after running after it to make it drop its prey, I prayed mentally:
“May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.”
So simple, but so effective. Taking and giving is also so useful at times like this. And if we always remember our potential and theirs, we need never be discouraged. If you are a Tantric practitioner, use a situation like this to remind and motivate you to be a Buddha right now. If you are not, you can think “I am a Bodhisattva already, right now, bringing an end to this suffering.” Bring the result into the path. Please never despair, it helps no one, and there is always something we can do.
If we keep animals on our radar, they are a far larger category than human beings and will help our renunciation and compassion grow strong. If we think about animals, there is also more chance of our turning our attention to the other realms of samsara, such as hungry ghosts and hell beings, so that we will actually develop universal rather than biased compassion, the only basis for bodhichitta and enlightenment. Then we can pull the plug on samsara’s ocean.
Meantime, we can also specifically look out for the animals in our life, whoever they are. If you are stuck for ideas, Pacelle gives 50 practical suggestions at the end of his book for how to take action to help animals.
Even helping one animal makes a big difference. One day a woman came across a girl walking along the beach throwing dying stranded starfish back into the ocean. She asked her: “Why are you doing that? There are miles of beach and thousands of starfish. What difference does it make to throw that one back?” The girl looked at the starfish she was holding and replied: “It makes all the difference in the world to this one.” I don’t know if the Starfish story is true or not, but it could be.
And most significantly, if we combine our actions with bodhichitta, we create vast merit or good karma. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang says:
With bodhichitta, if we offer just one morsel of food to a dog, our merit will be as great as the number of living beings upon whose behalf we perform the action.
I was wondering too how Pacelle has become able to protect so many thousands of animals? He has been passionate about them since a boy. He must have created the karmic causes to help them. We can too.
Last but not least…
Geshe Kelsang himself has two rescued dogs. I remember when he and his assistant found the first one several years ago — a dirty grey bedraggled creature who, upon being given his first bath, looked like a drowned rat. But then he arose as a wonderfully radiant white fluffy fellow, whom Geshe-la now describes as very special, like a Bodhisattva. In the Brazil Festival last October, Geshe-la talked about how even our pet dog could be an emanation of Buddha, just as Buddha Maitreya appeared to Asanga on retreat as a dying dog (and maggots!) to help Asanga quickly purify his mind through compassion.
Enough already with our human superiority complex. In Eight Steps to Happiness, in the section on humility, Geshe Kelsang says:
“Since we cannot be sure one way or another, rather than wasting our time speculating whether the dog is an ordinary animal or an emanation, we should simply think, ‘This dog may be an emanation of Buddha.’ From this point of view we can think that we are lower than the dog, and this thought will protect us against any feelings of superiority.”
We never know. So, for all these reasons, and just in case, let’s be nice to animals and insects.
Your comments are most welcome. And please share this article if you think others might like it.
Buddha teaches that everything is projected by our mind; and of course this is clear when it comes to movies! But we like to be drawn into them as we like a good story, just as we usually allow ourselves to be sucked up by the drama of our own lives even if we know it is not real.
For me movies can be a time-wasting distraction or they can be helpful. It depends on whether I’m watching them out of some delusion/unpeaceful mind such as attachment or laziness, or out of some positive motivation such as the wish to expand my horizons to empathize with others.
Nothing is completely untransformable if we have the wish, capacity and methods to do it – even violent movies could be seen as a battle against delusions. Of course, it is risky to watch movies that may engender unpeaceful, uncontrolled reactions such as hatred or anger in us, so it is worth being honest to ourselves about our level of mindfulness and our ability to transform appearances to stay peaceful. It is worth protecting ourselves by not straying over certain boundaries (as in the practice of moral discipline).
If we’re going to watch a movie, some movies are probably easier for us to transform and derive meaning from than others, and I personally count Kung Fu Panda as an example. I watched it on the airplane and found a lot of uplifting Buddhist teachings in it. So I thought I’d share a few seeing as Kung Fu Panda 2 is coming out on May 26 and no doubt some of you will be watching it, especially if you have the excuse of kids!
Masters and students
My favorite theme is the transformative relationships between the Masters and their students. The Panda Po says to Master Shifu, “You are not my master!”, but that changes when he believes he can learn to be a great Kung Fu warrior and that Master Shifu can teach him. Similarly, we only need a Spiritual Guide if we decide we want to follow in his footsteps along a spiritual path.
Shifu maintains great devotion to his own Master Oogway, even when he seems to be behaving erratically and appointing a very odd choice for the Dragon Warrior. He questions his Master but listens carefully to his replies and is inspired by them. “Obeying the master is not a weakness” says Shifu to the snow leopard Tai Lung. Tai Lung shows the treacherous contrast of what happens if we let our pride and self-cherishing run out of control, and how feeling superior to our own teacher inevitably ends up sooner or later in hubristic disaster.
What can we control?
Master Oogway says we have to accept that we cannot control everything. Shifu replies that we can control some things and shows this by hitting the Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom to get the peaches to fall and planting a peach seed from which a tree will grow. Master Oogway points out that we can only get a peach tree not an apple tree from that seed, teaching the definite relationship between cause and effect (karma). But then he shows the manner of passing away into the Dharmakaya Truth Body by dissolving into emptiness, showing that for whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible, as the famous Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna said.
Po is lumbering and clumsy, at least for as long as he identifies with “me”, a limited self, in his case a big fat lazy Panda. But he doesn’t want to be “me” any more, he wants to change. And Master Oogway gives both Master Shifu and Po the confidence to believe in Po’s ability to do it, and believing is what we need to do if we are to let go of our ego, fulfill our potential and make spiritual progress. (However, unlike in the movie, we are all “chosen”). And Master Shifu also realizes there can be no cookie cutter approach to teaching one’s students, especially these days. The teacher and student sometimes need to think out of the box and find other ways, even if these are unconventional (and involve dumplings).
Po’s humility is what enables him to succeed. He has an ingenuousness and zest for life that is very refreshing for the five great and good warriors who have gotten slightly institutionalized and by the book in the Jade Palace. Po is down to earth and unobsequious but at the same time entirely and humbly in awe of Kung Fu and its masters. For me he was an example of staying fresh on our spiritual path, devoted to the teachings, teachers and living beings but not rigidly going through the motions, becoming sycophantic and/or developing a superiority complex in an ivory tower. We need discipline, but we also need lightness of touch and the ability to respect each others’ differences.
Even at the end when Po has defeated Tai Lung and the whole valley are prostrating to him and chanting “Master”, he doesn’t develop a trace of pride or identify with that praise. That word simply reminds him of his own master, so he turns around and rushes back up the steps to see him.
What is the secret ingredient?
And the other thing is that Po realizes something very important when he enters the mystery of the dragon scroll – he does not need to add anything at all from the outside to fulfill his potential. As his father, the goose Mr. Ping, finally confides about his Secret Ingredient Soup, the secret ingredient is …. that there is no secret ingredient! We don’t need a secret ingredient. We don’t need to be someone “special”. We all have the potential already to be great. This is our Buddha nature.
Movies and us
Okay, I know, I have read far too much into this movie! And a cartoon to boot! But I guess that’s the point; we can and do see anything anywhere because nothing is really out there, it is all projection of our own minds. I cannot find a world outside of my experience of the world, and when I change my mind, my world itself automatically changes. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, my own Master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:
Milarepa said that he regarded everything that appeared to his mind as a Dharma book. All things confirmed the truth of Buddha’s teachings and increased his spiritual experience.
So, if we are going to watch movies, we might as well make them into spiritual teachings!
Have you got a favorite example?
By the way, if you want a free Buddhist meditation book from a world-renowned Buddhist master and author, you are in luck! Click here: www.eModernBuddhism.com
This is the second guest article from our Kadampa Buddhist dad, who has five young kids and a very busy job. The first is Kadampa Parenting.
Making our daily practice a priority
In many ways, the biggest obstacle to our attainment of enlightenment is our inability to establish a consistent daily practice. This is especially true when we have a busy family and work life. But with a consistent daily practice, we will eventually attain enlightenment — it is just a matter of time. Without a consistent practice, we will never attain enlightenment, no matter how long we wait.
Establishing a consistent daily practice really comes down to one simple question:
Are we organizing our practice around our life or are we organizing our life around our daily practice?
Establishing a consistent daily practice is not rocket science, we simply need to “make it a priority and then make the time to do it.” In the next two postings by me, I will explore these two points. First, let’s look at why we should make our daily practice a priority. The bottom line is we do what is important to us. We work on what we consider in our hearts to be our priority. We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to act towards the fulfillment of our desires. We cannot change this. What we can change, however, is what we desire. We need to make doing our daily practice the biggest desire in our heart. If we do this, then maintaining a consistent daily practice will be easy. So how do we make doing our practice a priority? There are several things we can consider:
The most important thing we need to do is correctly diagnose what is our problem. Without thinking too much, ask yourself the question:
What is my biggest problem?
Instinctively, we come up with a long list of external things that are our problems, such as our work, our partner, our finances, etc. Since we consider these external things to be our problem, we naturally work to change these external things as the method of solving our problems. If we check, the nature of human life is problem solving. All day, every day, our every action is aimed at solving our problems.
But here’s the rub: we have misdiagnosed the problem. Venerable Geshe Kelsang gives the example of our car breaking down. In such a situation, there are two problems — the car’s problem and our problem. We need a mechanic to solve the car’s problem, but our problem is our deluded mental reaction to the external event. We suffer when our car breaks down because our mind relates to this event in a negative way. If we examine it carefully, we will see that any external event only becomes a ‘problem’ because we don’t yet know how to relate to that event in a different, positive way. If we can learn to relate to this event in a positive, virtuous way, our car breaking down won’t be a ‘problem’ for us, rather it will be a ‘blessing.’ Thanks to our car breaking down, we can now work on our mind and on overcoming our delusions. Fantastic! We will, of course, still need to go to the mechanic to fix the car’s problem, but our problem will have been solved.
The same is true with all external events. We only have one problem: our uncontrolled, deluded mind. This is our inner problem. The car breaking down is not our problem, it is the car’s problem. Our only problem is our deluded mental reactions. If we clearly see our deluded mind as the problem, then we will naturally see changing our mind as the solution to our problems. Our daily practice is the very method by which we change our mind. If we understand this, then doing our daily practice will be the very method by which we solve our problems, and we will naturally do it. If we get this one right, the rest will be easy.
To get you started, one useful trick you can do is to connect your daily practice with whatever you consider to be your biggest problem. Before you start your practice, ask yourself the question: What is my biggest problem? You will come up with something external. Then think to yourself, “no, that is an outer problem, what is my problem?” Then you will see how it is your deluded mental reaction to the external event.
Then, as you engage in your daily Lamrim practice, try to directly apply the wisdom of the Lamrim meditation for the day as the means of changing your mind with respect to that external problem. For example, let’s say your Lamrim meditation for the day is the dangers of self-cherishing, try realize how your problem is you are considering yourself as more important than others and therefore the solution to the problem is to put others first.
Or if your Lamrim meditation is death, think to yourself :
Will I be worried about this on my deathbed?
If not, why should I worry about it now?”
At a very practical level, a useful thing we can do is to think about all of the things we do have time to do, and then consider how our practice is even more important than these things. For example, we find time every day to wash our body with a shower, in a similar way we should find time every day to wash our mind with our practice. If our body smells, it is a real problem. But if our mind smells, it ruins everything. Likewise, we find time every day to recharge our mobile phones, so in a similar way we should take the time to recharge the virtue within our minds. We take the time to nourish our body with (hopefully) good food, so too we need to take the time to nourish our mind with virtue. Just as we fill our lungs with oxygeon, so too we need to fill our mind with virtue.
Whenever we do these things (bathe, recharge our phones, eat, breathe, etc.), we can remind ourselves of how we need to do our practice. If we make a habit of reminding ourselves in this way, it won’t be long before our desire to do our practice will be ever present within our minds.
How we treat the world’s animals—whether coldly or compassionately, selfishly or justly—is a measure of who we are. It defines our character, our moral progress, and our ability to look beyond self-interest. There’s a reason why the decent treatment of animals commands ownership of the word humane.
“Animals have no opportunity to sue us!”
Buddhism agrees that if we are not decent to animals, our humanity is compromised. In his commentary to Vajrapani in 2008, Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang said:
We use animals, which is horrible. We take away their freedom. We use animals for our own purpose – for money, for meat, for our own activities. So in reality we human beings are very bad; but animals have no opportunity to sue us! For our temporary enjoyment alone, we go fishing. The animals are suffering, we know this from the blood coming out of them, but we are still laughing. This is dishonest. Then sometimes we play with cows, you know in bullfights – using animals to make money. We are just temporarily enjoying ourselves but they are suffering.
Just now I saw one lizard grab another by the throat. Nature red in tooth and claw — animals can be so cruel to each other, doesn’t that justify our being cruel to them too? No. Right now we have a choice. They don’t.
Geshe Kelsang says:
So we are nothing special and in some ways we are bad. But we have some qualities. If we actually use our human life for spiritual development – for the development of correct view, correct intention, and a good heart – then we have a very good opportunity. Our qualifications are much better than animals.
I have won the karmic lottery in this life. But, from a Buddhist perspective, if I am not working on my view and my intention I am fast throwing my winnings and my future away.
But surely human beings are so much smarter than animals that they deserve better treatment?
We may be at the top of the food chain, but are we smarter in every way?! That depends! In some ways our non-virtuous “intelligence” (namely ignorance) is far more stupidly dangerous than the confusion of animals. In the Prajnaparamita empowerment in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:
We know that some animals are very intelligent at hunting and we human beings are very intelligent at creating things that destroy others’ lives. This kind of intelligence is not wisdom. We should never think these are wisdom. Actually we human beings are very intelligent at creating things that destroy human life, including nuclear bombs. These kinds of intelligence are not wisdom but part of ignorance.
If we are not taking advantage of our precious human life, and in particular if we are using it to create negativity (including harming animals), can we hand on heart say we are wiser than animals? In the Prajnaparamita empowerment Geshe Kelsang said:
We are ignorant beings but we do not know what ignorance is. From one point of view we human beings are so intelligent, but from another point of view we are so stupid. We have the books; we can understand these things through reading books and listening to teachings. Animals have no such opportunity. No matter how intelligent animals such as dogs and horses are, they have no opportunity to listen to teachings and no opportunity to read information in books. We human beings have this opportunity but still don’t know what ignorance is and how to abandon ignorance and so forth.
As the great Tibetan Master Shantideva (687-763) said, if having attained this rare precious human life we are now wasting it, there is no greater self-deception, there is no greater folly.
So animals may be confused insofar as they are powerless to break free but they do also possess some intelligence that is not so different to our own. Geshe Kelsang says they can be more intelligent than us at finding food and mates, building homes and warding off predators! Wayne Pacelle tells of Alex the parrot and other stories demonstrating animal intelligence that surpasses even that of five-year old human beings!! And I saw an article recently about Chaser, a border collie who, at 1,022 nouns, speaks a lot more English than I speak dog. Her enthusiasm for learning is tiring her poor trainer out:
“She still demands four to five hours a day,” Dr. Pilley said. “I’m 82, and I have to go to bed to get away from her.”
As for emotional intelligence, just look at this lion! And the story Pacelle tells of Binti Jua, a gorilla who saves a three-year old boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure, made headlines, and is also relayed in this book by a biologist: Wild Justice, The Moral Lives of Animals.
Besides, we know it is not correct to consider people inferior on the basis of their IQ or whether we decide they can or cannot do the things we can do. There is something immensely distasteful about that – think about the eugenic experiments and the killing or abandoning of disabled people that have taken place in the past. Even when animals do have a lower IQ, does that give us any good reason at all to disrespect them and use them to our own selfish ends? One could argue that the opposite is the case. Babies are pretty dumb but thankfully there are laws to protect them. I know mothers of severely disabled children who love them more fiercely than they have ever loved anyone, who understand their good qualities and heart, and who fight their entire lives for their rights.
We human beings have a moral compass, it is how we got this human rebirth. So, even if that compass is currently submerged, one part of us understands the moral imperative to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and certainly we abhor taking advantage of their powerlessness to abuse them for our own ends. Otherwise, these things would never make us uncomfortable but, if we check, they do, and so collectively we lock people away for taking advantage of other humans. Would it not be wonderful if we could now apply this same moral intuition to animals? Truly, is there any difference? (I’d be interested to hear what you think about this in the comments).
In the same Vajrapani teaching, Geshe Kelsang says:
If there was an opportunity, I could sue on behalf of animals against human beings but there is no law, there is no court. Some groups try to help animals; I know this is the case in many countries. There are very kind but they do not have enough power because the law mainly does not protect animals, it only protects human beings.
Part three (of three) is here, including more teachings from Geshe Kelsang and suggestions for some things we can do.
For Wayne Pacelle’s bookstore schedule over the next few weeks, click here.
Please raise awareness of Buddhist teachings on animals by sharing this article if you like it.
Wayne Pacelle is smart, humble, personable and compassionate, the right CEO for the Humane Society of the Unites States I reckon. At the bookstore talk I attended last Saturday, promoting his new book The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, our Call to Defend Them, he was also refreshingly optimistic about human nature yet clearly clued up about the egregious cruelty that takes place every day everywhere when it comes to human treatment of animals. He walks the talk, working hard for 17 years to make life better for thousands and thousands of animals, and I for one am very appreciative that he and the HSUS are doing what they do.
I have since read the book, enjoyed it, and wanted to share some ideas on what Buddhists think about animals, and in particular some of contemporary Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on them. It is a huge subject! But I share Wayne Pacelle’s sentiment that it is a very important one and I told him I would write this to help raise a little more awareness. (He asked me convincingly to send it to him when I was done – see what I mean about humble?!)
From a Buddhist perspective, confronting the suffering of animals enables us to develop renunciation, compassion, and bodhichitta so that we are ever more strongly motivated to train in all the practices that will lead to lasting mental freedom (nirvana) and full enlightenment for all our sakes. I find this an entirely encouraging perspective–without it, focusing on the seemingly never-ending sufferings of all animals (and other living beings) feels sad and hopeless as there is nothing I can do to bring an end to it all. And I’m even complicit in it – in my walk just now, I know I squished some ants beneath my feet without meaning to.
In some ways I understand very well why many people turn a blind eye to the tremendous suffering of animals and others; they consciously or unconsciously don’t want to open the floodgates of grief from having to think about how awful it is without having a solution. But Buddha’s point is that we have to, and the sooner the better. The truth of suffering is the first of the four noble truths that, taken with the other three, will lead us, at last, to freedom from all suffering. And burying his head in the sand doesn’t stop the ostrich from being run over by the jeep.
However, just because a Buddhist is primarily training their mind doesn’t mean they should give up the effort to help animals as much as they can and always do the right thing. Things can change for the better. Slavery was abolished, women got the vote. The Humane Society is not going to solve samsara, but just because we can’t permanently solve problems doesn’t mean we don’t have to do anything at all. Bodhisattvas are committed to doing two things: train their minds and help others practically.
What are animals?
One reason I’ve always loved Buddhism is because of its view of animals. Not to mince words, ANIMALS ARE PEOPLE!!
In Geshe Kelsang’s commentary to Prajnaparamita in 2008, he said:
Self, person, and being are synonyms. They are called person, being, or self because they have mind, feeling, discrimination, understanding, and so forth. Other things, like trees, flowers, mountains, water, are not beings or persons because they have no mind, no feeling, no happiness. Animals, human beings, hell beings, demi-gods, gods – these are beings because they have feeling. We understand many things. We have discrimination.
For example, a fish is a being, a person, a self, because it has feelings, mind. Fish sometimes experience suffering, sometimes happiness. When people fish, the fish experience great suffering. Flowers are not beings. They are very different.
Over the last few years, moving around, I’ve made good friends with six dogs and cats in particular. I am introducing you to these six people in the pictures on this article. To me, the fact that animals and insects are all people has been clear my entire life. (My older brother tells me that as a toddler I flew into a rage and charged him because he was stomping on ants.) This is not unusual, many people just know that animals are people, it is common sense.
Someone may not LIKE animals for some bad karmic reason, but they’d have to twist themselves in knots to argue that animals are just a bundle of unconscious “instincts” or soulless unfeeling automatons or worthless commodities no more valuable than a vegetable. They’d have to ignore all the evidence of their senses and the voices of their hearts.
But people have of course done just this, many times over, and arguably–with the blind eye much of society turns to factory farming–our ig-nore-ance is at an all-time high. Pacelle gives a chilling history of the wrong views about animals that have been held and, worse, propagated by philosophers (Descartes for example was no friend to animals) and even religious figures. (I wonder if the wrong views people hold about animals are all intellectually-formed (acquired from others and/or faulty reasoning) as opposed to innate (we’re born with them)?)
Once you’ve made a mind-to-mind connection with one dog, recognizing his personhood, I think it is far easier to see other dogs as people too. You are far less likely to eat one or experiment on one. Once you’ve made a connection with one pig, like Habibi whom I met in Brazil last year, you also realize that it is unconscionable to cram intelligent sociable pigs into isolated crates for their entire lives. Once you’ve been licked by a cow, as I was during one summer in England at Manjushri Centre, it’s hard not to feel sick at the thought of a calf being kept alone in a dark veal crate or the dehumanizing atrocities of the kill floor. And those of you with intelligent parrots or friendly hens as members of your family, are you anything but horrified at the mass extermination of chicken “commodities” or the insane pigeon shoots where children are applauded for stomping on the pigeons wounded by their parents’ shotguns? (Look at this world clock, try and get the chicken counter to stand still for even a second). And so on. As Wayne Pacelle points out, there is no type of animal without its defenders. (Except we may collectively still have a way to go on insects, more later… if you have any good insect stories, let us know in the comments!)
We don’t just have connections with those who have patchy hair, two legs, two arms and opposable thumbs. We also know the heart of those who have a luxurious mane of fur, liquid eyes, and the ability to beat us up the stairs. Our love for an animal gives us eyes to see. People have felt a deep bond to animals of all shapes and anatomies – that is partly what Pacelle’s book is about. And from a Buddhist point of view, everyone has been our mother in past lives, so this kinship is not surprising.
Are animals conscious?
Ermm, yes. They think. They have emotions. They have personality. They are aware. I’m afraid I do actually have trouble understanding how anyone can think that, for example, a fish writhing around on a hook is not feeling any pain, or is feeling a pain that doesn’t count? Even an insect, like the beetle I rescued yesterday as it was being eaten alive by ants, was desperately trying to get away from this unimaginable ordeal with the last inches of its strength.
Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar that if you put a finger in front of an ant, it will turn away due to its self-grasping. So animals have ignorance and all the other delusions just as we do! They also have all the virtuous minds – in a moving chapter called The Mismeasure of Animals, Pacelle tells some wonderful stories of the empathy, bravery, and self-sacrifice shown by animals who had nothing to gain from it. And videos abound on YouTube. (If you have any stories about your animals, please share them!)
People dismiss it, “Oh it’s just their instinct”, when animals do something nice or clever. But what is an instinct other than a tendency, and why do we tend to do things? Because we have repeated them so often in past lives; they are habits. We ourselves were born with plenty of “instincts” for both virtuous and non-virtuous tendencies.
Even for animals, such as dogs, when their very subtle mind manifests during deep sleep, this mind is clear light and it perceives emptiness because it perceives the mere absence of the things that we normally see, like space…. Even an animal’s very subtle mind is located inside the indestructible drop at the heart.
This shows that they also have Buddha nature and always possess the potential for enlightenment; they simply cannot do the practices in this life as they don’t possess all the necessary conditions. But we can hardly hold that against them, especially if we’re not making an effort to engage in the practices leading to liberation and enlightenment ourselves! (We barely recognize the Buddha nature in ourselves half the time, so perhaps it is not surprising that we miss it in others!)
For all we know, and depending on our karma, we’ll be switching places with them next time around. (Lets pray they don’t hate us). Geshe-la tells the story in Modern Buddhism (p.33) about the fish and the people of Yamdroktso in Tibet, switching places life to life.
What’s the difference between me and an animal?
From a Buddhist point of view, the difference depends on what you can do with your life. We human beings can practice moral discipline and other spiritual practices and make our lives meaningful. We have some power. But we need to exercize our capacity to do good and refrain from evil. Otherwise, it seems that not only are we not much more fortunate than animals because we are not controlling our destiny, but we also possess no more wisdom!
As Pacelle puts it on page 53:
“Like all the best moral causes, in the end animal protection reminds us of what we know already—that to mistreat an animal is low, dishonorable, and an abuse of power that diminishes man and animal alike.”
The great yogi Milarepa said that moral discipline makes human beings different from animals. This means that we human beings have the opportunity to practice moral discipline. We can have consideration for others. To prevent our own future suffering and others future suffering, we can develop and maintain the determination not to perform any inappropriate actions. Through these actions we can transform the environment into a pure environment, ourselves into pure beings, and give other beings happiness. So this is a human being’s opportunity. Animals have no such opportunity. With regard to this, a human rebirth is higher than an animal rebirth….
…Anyway, Milarepa is very correct. From the point of view of moral discipline practice, human beings are higher, but, as Milarepa is saying indirectly, other than that we’re the same. There is no difference between human beings and animals in terms of finding conditions that we need, caring for our families and destroying enemies – both human beings and animals can do these things. Some animals are more intelligent than human beings you know! There is no difference. The only difference is from the discipline practice point of view. Then a human life is very precious. Moral discipline is the inner water through which we can clean ourself and make ourself become pure.
More questions and teachings from Geshe Kelsang in part two.
Please share these articles on Facebook or Twitter if you like it, and tell us your animals stories in the comments!
And for Wayne Pacelle’s bookstore schedule over the next few weeks, click here.
Throughout my three years of training to become a social worker I have undertaken three long-term work placements. The first was in a baby’s hospice caring for children with life-limiting illnesses. They offer palliative and respite care for babies/infants from birth to five years old. I loved this job! To be honest I have never felt so much unconditional love for others in one organisation, especially towards the ill children. I have lived and visited many Kadampa Buddhist Centres in my time who show a brilliant example of tolerance and acceptance to people from all backgrounds without wanting anything in return, and the experience at the baby’s hospice was similar.
Exchanging self with others
At times it was quite a busy environment and twelve hour shifts too. I try and always make time to do my meditation though, even if very tired I do my daily offerings and pujas (chanted prayers) to keep the blessings going (and me). One of the main meditations to focus on when in a busy care environment is exchanging self with others (from the Lojong or mind-training tradition).
In the morning before work, I always try and include prayers in my meditation such as Prayers for Meditation (available here) or Heart Jewel and try to feel close to Buddha.
Before actual meditation I dissolve Buddha into my heart and imagine that I already have the spiritual realisation of exchanging self with others, imagining what it would be like to have this mind.
Then I contemplate Buddha’s teaching on exchanging self with others, feeling it is possible to change the object of my cherishing from myself to all others, and develop a heartfelt determination to develop this mind. I find that this meditation is meditation on love — cherishing love, perceiving others as precious and important.
A playful social worker
If it is a good meditation then I can carry this feeling of love for a while at work– even when extremely busy, having staff, visitors and children wanting my attention. At busy times like this I try and mentally repeat in my heart, that others matter and are more important than me, repeating this like a mantra. It helps me become more self-aware and less stressed, actively listening to what others are saying and trying to fulfil their expressed needs.
It is perhaps easier with children. In the children’s hospice it was never a large group and most activities were therapeutic and playful. In a way you are becoming just like them (although still aware of your duties and health and safety). You join in with all the activities they are doing such as messing about in a soft play area, arts and crafts, playing with toys, laughing and joking, and trying to get out onto the swings in the park.
This playfulness reminded me of how I should be with my meditation practice to overcome laziness, being playful and light with meditation.
The hospice is on the grounds of a Catholic nunnery and although it is not a religious organisation there seems to be a Catholic religious background and culture to the premises and nearby organisations. I think people found it quite cool me being a Buddhist and I was accepted into the work life (as a professional and at times as a volunteer) and also, the social life of the organisation and community. I found that there was harmony and mutual respect between myself and those in the hospice that were religious.
In Understanding the Mind Geshe Kelsang explains how mixing religions causes sectarianism but that if you practice your own tradition and respect all other traditions at the same time, this leads to harmony and tolerance. (Gyatso, 1997, p162). I showed this example here well, as did the Christians I worked with. At times I was asked to attend church services with the children and often with colleagues we shared spiritual or religious beliefs and respected the similarities and differences.
Not so long ago I attended their Christmas party, hoping to be asked to be Santa, having been a Buddhist Santa in other care settings in the past. I missed out, but happily engaged in the fancy dress party (Cowboys and Indians), handing out Christmas presents to the children and making sure that they and their family had a good time – all part and parcel of trying to exchange self with others.