High above, in the endless clear sky of the Brazilian Serra da Bocaina rain forest, I watched eagles fly. They soared effortlessly through the sphere of space, with barely a movement of their wings.
There is a picture of an eagle on the front cover of Modern Buddhism, her two wide outstretched wings symbolizing the path of compassion and wisdom, the book’s subtitle. These two wings of ultimate bodhichitta can and one day will fly us to enlightenment.
Bodhichitta is the wish to become enlightened by permanently overcoming all mistaken appearances so we can bring mental peace to all living beings each and every day. With this compassionate motivation, we meditate on the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness. We try to find ourself and other objects existing inherently (or from their own side), as they appear to exist; but — like a mirage — the closer we look the more it all just disappears. This meditation is explained with impeccable clarity in “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”, IMHO the best chapter on emptiness in the world.
Normally I see my body within its parts—the hands, back, and so forth—but neither the individual parts nor the collection of the parts are my body because they are the parts of the body and not the body itself. However, there is no “my body” other than its parts. Through searching with wisdom for my body in this way, I realize that my body is unfindable. This is a valid reason to prove that my body that I normally see does not exist at all.
To demonstrate how to meditate on this emptiness of inherent existence, Geshe Kelsang gives the analogy of eagles, who …
… soar through the vast expanse of the sky without meeting any obstructions, needing only minimal effort to maintain their flight…
Once we’ve found the object — the mere absence of the body we normally see – we settle on it, without further distracting flapping-wing-like analysis.
Analytical and placement meditation
There were many colorful hummingbirds there too, at the pousada where I was lucky enough to be doing a six week retreat off the grid prior to the Kadampa Brazil Festival. Their little wings moved faster than my eyes could keep up with; they were more like bees than birds. Cute as anything, but all this flapping is not the way to meditate! Plus it looked exhausting.
Meditation involves two parts, analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed concentration.) You can find out about these in The New Meditation Handbook or Joyful Path of Good Fortune. In brief, during analytical meditation we bring to mind the object of placement meditation through reasoning, analogies, and checking the teachings in our own experience. When the object appears clearly we stop analyzing and concentrate on it single-pointedly.
Whether we are meditating on emptiness or any other object, once we have a rough idea of our object through contemplation, we rest on it for as long as we can in single-pointed focus, remembering it moment by moment without further analysis. Soaring, not flapping.
Don’t over-think it
When I started meditating I had a tendency to over-think in my meditation sessions, not daring to rest on the object (whether that was an object apprehended by mind or a state of mind such as a determination) until I was quite sure I had it perfect. But, as Je Tsongkhapa says, you cannot see the details of a temple mural by the light of a flickering candle. Once I figured out that it would never be perfect if I never allowed myself to improve my concentration on it, I relaxed into the meditation objects sooner and for longer in placement meditation. Almost overnight, I became far better at meditating.
Three valuable tips for good concentration
Meditation involves seeking, finding, holding and remaining on our object – not just seeking. We seek the object through contemplation until we find it – we have to stop once we have a rough idea of the object, be content with that, and focus on it, or we’ll never improve our concentration. Then we hold the object firmly but gently and remain on it without pushing.
(I find it helpful at the outset of my meditations to believe that I have already found my object of meditation, and I spend a few moments focusing on it. Then I start contemplating to make that object clearer and more stable. This way, because I have some sense of the object right from the beginning, I know when to stop looking for it!)
I extrapolated these three instructions from the tranquil abiding teachings as I find them really helpful:
(1) Remember the object moment by moment. Just remember it, don’t do anything with it. And relax. Hold the object in your root mind at the level of your heart, not in your thinky head.
(2) Hold the object clearly. It is rough to begin with, but you are still focusing on just that and nothing else, without pushing.
(3) Overcome distractions. Do this by ignoring them. If you fight your distractions or try and think your way out of them, they have won. Thoughts are going to come up unless you are an advanced meditator, and it doesn’t matter that they do provided you pay them no attention.
Don’t think, “This is too difficult, I can’t do it.” Think instead, “This is not difficult and I am doing it.”
When we do this, our mind and its meditation object become closer and closer until they mix like water mixing with water.
Everything becomes wonderful
Next time you have a chance, look up at an eagle blissfully soaring in space… When we have some experience of emptiness, and a little concentration, and we can dissolve all appearances away into their space-like ultimate nature and stay there for a little while, we are at deep peace because we discover that there is nothing more we could possibly want. Why? Because we have it all already. Geshe Kelsang describes it like this:
In this experience, everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.
Buddha’s mind of great bliss always pervades all phenomena because it is permanently mixed with their emptiness. In truth, when we have even the slightest experience of emptiness, and we combine this with even an imagined bliss, this experience is tapping directly into the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind. See Modern Buddhism for how to meditate on the union of the emptiness taught in Sutra and the bliss taught in Tantra.
Space and creativity
Out of this fundamentally creative experience, like a rainbow arising from the sky, we can appear anything we want — pure appearance or experience arising from the ultimate bodhichitta of bliss (our compassionate bodhichitta) and the wisdom realizing emptiness. (Pure appearance doesn’t just mean visual images, BTW, it means any conventional truth arising from the experience of bliss and emptiness.) We can even arise as a Buddha in a Pure Land if we want to, spontaneously suffused with those blessings. We can change the movie reel of our reality, choosing the movie we want this time. About time too. All this is explained in Modern Buddhism, which is the union of Sutra and Tantra.
Do you think there is anything better we could do with our life than realize emptiness motivated by bodhichitta? Geshe Kelsang requests us on the back of Modern Buddhism:
I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”. Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.”
You could (re)treat yourself by carving out a couple of hours this weekend or soon to read the chapter, closing your eyes and thinking about it. Everyone has access to this book now… If you don’t have the book, you can download it for free here thanks to Geshe-la’s kindness 🙂
Is something stopping you?
Finally, with Buddha Shakyamuni’s appearance in our world and his perfect instructions on emptiness, not to mention Geshe Kelsang’s constant heartfelt requests and attempts to wake us all up over the years, what is stopping us from wanting to spend all our time blissfully absorbed in emptiness?! Clearly something is or we’d be finding every opportunity to do it (perhaps you are).
Please leave your comments so I can write the next article, “What is stopping us?!”
I never thought poop could make me so happy. It was just a small piece the size of a dime, but it was enough for me to hope that Ralph could eliminate the four days of build-up inside him. Because of what it represented, I wasn’t even disgusted when I picked it up to feel its consistency; to me it was almost beautiful! I have never wanted someone to poop more. When Ralph finally let it all come out at the vets’ office the next day, it was high-fives all around, and he felt our approval and purred even more loudly than usual.
That teaching on emptiness, (that beauty is in the eye of the beholder!), has been just one of many I’ve had this roller coaster week while caring for Ralph, who entered our lives out of nowhere on Sunday, promptly stole our hearts, then left us again last night. This six-week-old kitten had paralysis in his back legs and walked by dragging himself along with his front legs. He was left outside my house. He was a combination of utter sweetness and utter helplessness, and as a result loved by everyone who had the privilege of knowing him, including me, his lucky adoptive mom.
I want to tell Ralph’s story, as he may have been one tiny unique being but he came to represent for me these past four days, well, a lot! All suffering beings, and the truth of Dharma. I want to share him and I also want this story to remember him by. I’m not saying this story is unusual. It is not. Ralph’s story is like all our stories, but for some reason I learnt so much from him that I could fill a book. The intensity of our experiences can make four days seem like four months – showing the emptiness of time. There is also life before Ralph and life after him, and they do not feel the same at all. It has been a roller coaster, as I said, but I do not regret a single moment.
It was Sunday when F found him dirty, abandoned, and dragging his legs outside our house — he could have been dying for all we knew, and only the Emergency vet was open, so I took him there on the way back from dropping F and J at the airport.
They are clearly practiced in the art of showing no emotion as they see one tragedy after another roll in through their sliding doors. When I arrived, the steely receptionist called out “Good Sam”, and they came to collect him and asked me to sign some papers. This is when I discovered I had two rather unpleasant alternatives: (A) Hand him over to them (hence the Good Samaritan finding a stray) and risk never seeing him again even though I said I wanted to adopt him later, especially as it was quite clear they thought he should be euthanized; (B) Spend lots of money — $100 just for the first exam and then whatever was needed after that in a particularly expensive and sterile vet place where I’d still have to leave him on his own. I mulled over option A for about 2 seconds, enough time to see a couple of big eyes looking reproachfully at me through the cat carrier. Then I decided on a whole ‘nother option (C), and took him home to take his chances overnight.
How Ralph got around.
Worrying in the waiting room at All Cats Hospital, Largo
(I will keep this in the present tense as this is how I wrote it waiting at the family vet.)
His admission papers show him with the same last name as mine, he is now officially my son and I his mom! But I’m a hopeless mom and trainee Bodhisattva, I’m just preoccupied with worry right now. I’m waiting for results from his blood tests and x-rays. I know the “pros” are already thinking it’s kinder to euthanize him because of his paralysis and will try and persuade me of same. But that’s no way good enough of a reason.
His distended belly is full of poop, his bladder is huge, and he drags himself along with his little kitten paws, but he loves any touch, even being bathed, even being prodded, even having his bladder squirted, even having his paws clamped to test for pain. He loves being placed in his cat carrier. In fact he loves anything that involves anyone paying him any attention at all. He purrs so loudly that no vet has yet managed to hear his heartbeat. He is very much liking being alive and I intend to keep him that way as long as I can.
But I’m leaving for England in one week and what are we to do with him long-term? He needs his bladder expressing regularly and goodness knows what else with his stools. His inability to walk seems the least of his problems right now. J, bless her heart, will not let this little guy die, and has been spending hours on the internet figuring out his future care and calling everyone she knows for a home for him. If she can’t find one, and if he is not infectious to her other cats, I suspect she will have him herself as she can’t help her kind heart. She is also fund-raising and bank-rolling the not inconsiderable costs of these vet visits, which is just as well as he has cost more than my monthly income already.
What an emotional roller coaster it is to look after a sick animal. I’ve been anxious about him despite all my best training! Why is his stomach so distended? Will he survive the night? Is his breathing too shallow and fast? Is he breathing at all? (waking up the poor little guy to check!) Why is he shivering? And, scariest of all, will I ever learn to express his bladder so as actually to get enough pee out of him?! So far I haven’t managed it. I am too scared to squeeze too hard in case I bruise his bladder. The vets tell me I’ll get the hang of it but I wish I had the hang of it already!
How I stopped worrying in the waiting room
In fact, two things are going on:
(1) I think all my problems will be solved if only I can get the pee out of him/he controls his own bowel movements/he eats and drinks properly/he can put some weight on his back legs. Of course, even if all that happened, there will still be plenty more things to worry about!
(2) When I see any other cats at the moment (a) they appear enormous, like giants and (b) I think they are so lucky to have four functioning legs even if they don’t seem to know it.
Isn’t it like that with all our problems?! (1) Whatever difficulty we encounter with relationships, jobs, money, sickness, helpless dependents, etcetera etcetera, it can fill our mind and we think that if only this was out of the way we could be sooo happy. And (2) when we see someone else without that problem, we think they are so lucky, although they are oblivious to their good fortune!
Samsara is impossible, really. So many intractable problems in just one 2lb sentient being despite the best efforts of J, F, me, the vets, the nurses, and a growing number of well-wishers. Geshe Kelsang often says that temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. Samsara is the cycle of impure life projected by our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. The seven sufferings of samsara are like waves on an ocean; they’ll never stop rolling in on their own. We need to recognize this so that we can stop worrying about one problem at a time ( = literally endless worry) and turn our attention to removing the causes of all our own and others’ suffering. That is the spiritual path. So, for example, while I do the very best I can for Ralph, worrying about it at the same time is missing the point.
Easier said than done, but it is something trainee Bodhisattvas train in – helping others practically to the best of our ability but also remembering to put a lot of energy into generating renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom, using these very karmic appearances that arise as fuel.
For example, I admit I never saw myself squirting a cat! But that is the appearance to my mind, so I accept it. While I’m doing that I can with one part of my mind attend completely to Ralph’s need to empty his bladder, and with another part I can think about how wonderful it would be to squeeze the samsara out of everyone. Same physical action, hugely more meaning and hope. There are, after all, a gazillion Ralphs not getting the attention they need right now.
You can hear him purring if you listen.
When I feel particularly worried about him, faith helps hugely. We can mentally hand things over to the enlightened beings when they seem too much for us. Ralph and I did Medicine Buddha puja out loud earlier and loved it, everything seemed okay, everything was okay.
I also did Medicine Buddha puja dedicated to the even more helpless creatures who have sadly had to die in the saving of Ralph, namely his fleas, possibly his worms if he has any. What a horrible dilemma, there is no way in samsara to avoid killing completely despite our very best intentions. But Venerable Geshe Kelsang said 25 years ago at Madhyamaka Centre that we could do Medicine Buddha puja every month with strong faith in Medicine Guru and strong compassion for all the animals and insects whom we have inadvertently killed, and Medicine Guru would be able to take them to his Pure Land.
Ralph again slept overnight like a baby — which he is — high on the chest of drawers in my room with an unobstructed view of the Buddhas on the shrine and of me on my bed.
(Meanwhile the young feral hissy cat outside, Korska, has developed a slight limp – what to do about him?! Keep feeding him and let him take his chances? Catch him earlier than I was going to (in August) and take him to animal services for the full treatment? Difficult, as I’m going away soon and don’t want him to be convalescing on his own, and I don’t him to run away as I have plans to slowly tame him (well, I can try!). Next to little Ralph, his problems don’t seem as great as they did; but I will have to get to him later. I really admire people who take responsibility for many feral animals).
Ralph had fun at the vets today. He even managed to crawl down a nurse’s buxom cleavage when we were momentarily distracted so that just his little orange back legs were sticking out. Everyone at the vet’s has gone gaga over him. In fact, he has now managed to win over, by my calculations, F and J who found him and where he is going next week, me, six neighbors who now knock on my door to visit him, two vets, four nurses, the man in the bank, and basically everyone else who has crossed his path. All kittens are cute, and yes of course I am biased, but he is a fuzzy ball of concentrated cuteness. Maybe he needs to be extra-friendly and open as he knows his life depends on people loving him. He also has a lot of merit, or good karma, as people have offered to help pay for him, and he is not going to go homeless even though he is always going to need care. He has a bevy of supporters watching the videos I send of him from my iPhone; he could have a You Tube channel of his own. He seems to bring out the best in everyone.
He has had another very happy day. Tuesday was also another day of many teachings from my little emanation. I will save these for other articles so I can finish his story.
4pm: I prayed to Tara in the car just now coming home from the vet as Ralph was lethargic, breathing faster, and, most ominously, not purring when I reached over to touch him, which was a first. We’ll do Medicine Buddha together out loud. Dissolve our worries away in the bliss and emptiness of Buddha’s mind. He loves doing pujas, which is just as well.
Worrying in the waiting room at Emergency Services
6:30pm: When I came into the Emergency vet just now, they yelled out “Triage! Respiratory distress! Front desk!” and off Ralph was whisked into ICU, with no time for goodbyes. I feel helpless again. His rapid breathing in the car was not the heat because it progressively got worse through the afternoon and it looks like he must have pneumonia or FIP. Will I have to take him home and help him die? F***, you have to be brave. Right now I don’t feel cut out for this. Why am I such a wimp? Of course I can and will do it, but I’m feeling some despair right now. All I can see is his big limpid trusting eyes. He thinks I am his mommy, he trusts me. Why can’t I protect him? How can I not feel that I am totally letting him down? I’d be a frigging hopeless vet. How on earth are people so brave?
There is a picture here in the waiting room next to the picture of Golda the Retriever (deceased), with the words:
“Even in our sleep pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”
I really get that right now even though I’m a Buddhist and know the holy beings are not doing this. But it is a situation of forced self-improvement.
Right now I don’t know what will happen. The uncertainty is awful. And one of the six sufferings of samsara so why expect anything else, but I don’t like it.
Just now the receptionist was taking J’s credit card details and I was willing her to hurry up as they were not going to give Ralph his x-rays until they had them. Right in the middle someone phoned for directions and it seemed to take an age: “Turn left down…, no, left, yes, past the blah blah blah… and then half a mile… yes half a mile…blah blah blah”. I was impatiently thinking, “For goodness sake, hurry up, don’t you know Ralph is waiting?” when I heard the receptionist say, “And how many were hit by the car?”
That jerked me back into perspective.
His last morning. I can see in retrospect that he is beginning to breathe faster, and is more agitated than before; though I didn’t notice it at the time.
How I stopped worrying in the waiting room (part two)
Compassion and emptiness: It is not unkind to dissolve people away into emptiness. When I saw Ralph’s chest rising and falling so fast, and J (on the phone from NJ) and I timed it to discover he was breathing at a rate of 91 breaths per minute instead of the normal 30, we knew I had to get going fast to the ER. I felt sick to the stomach, but J calmed me with three magic words: “Don’t freak out.”
The best way not to freak out at times of crisis is to remember emptiness, if you can. All this scary stuff is mistaken appearance, it is like a dream (or nightmare), it is not really happening. But if our wisdom is not strong yet, we might think that this is callous – dissolving away Ralph and his suffering when in fact he is still really suffering, how can that work?! Perhaps we prefer to seize on method practices at this time, but I can see in my experience that we need both, because while my compassion was for a real inherently existent kitten experiencing real pain and distress, this mind had no solution in it, and so it caused more pain for me and less ability to stay present and positive for him. Remembering emptiness in no way diminishes the compassion. There is no contradiction between compassion and emptiness; in fact they are two sides of the same coin. Within the mind of compassion, we need the solution, and this is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence of persons and phenomena. We need to dissolve our loved ones into emptiness for them to be able to arise in a pure, blissful form. Otherwise they remain stuck and our hearts remain uselessly broken.
Now he really wants to escape samsara and get to the Pure Land: “Let me out!”
Watching someone you love gasping for breath is not high up on anyone’s wish list. Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.
This is the union of method (renunciation and compassion) and wisdom.
The power of prayer: I did not like leaving Ralph alone with the brisk uniformed people at the Emergency Hospital for even an hour, yet I knew I was about to leave him alone forever as he couldn’t stay. All that I could do was pray. But luckily prayers are very powerful when our compassion and faith are strong, which is often the case at times of crises, especially if we’ve been training in refuge.
Ralph’s little body was filling up fast with more and more fluid, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
I kept stroking him and speaking loving encouraging thoughts of his future to him, breathed in his suffering as if there was no tomorrow, and blew mantras into his ears. He purred a lot and kneaded my face with his paws, whilst at the same time opening and shutting his little pink mouth trying hard to breathe and meowing at me for help. He could hold a gaze better than any other cat I’ve known. Sometimes in the past few days I’d do something else for a while, but when I looked back at him he was still staring at me. He died in my arms, looking at me with those beautiful eyes that then gently drooped shut. He died very peacefully and his last thoughts, I pray, were ones of love and trust. I touched him firmly on the head with Medicine Buddha sadhana, his favorite, to help his subtle consciousness leave his body through his crown.
I’ll never forget the feel of his tiny body in my hands as his eyes closed for the last time and then as I held him doing prayers and meditation for the next couple of hours. It looked like Ralph had just fallen asleep in my arms, but his consciousness was wending its way through the bardo to his next life, and he was no longer there. Death is so natural and so weird at the same time. People in India and Tibet meditated in the charnel grounds… and I discovered there is nothing quite like meditating on impermanence while holding a body in your hands.
JP told me a few days ago that when she was with her husband just after he was killed, she wanted to hold every part of his body. Her friend was sitting with her and said quietly: “That arm is not J. That leg is not J….” It was an intense, she said, but timely teaching.
An hour before Ralph died he pooped again all on his own, and looked at me for approval. It did feel like an offering, but this time it also made me sad. Although all I had wanted two days earlier was for him to be free of his chronic constipation and be able to poop on his own, having control over his own bowels was now no longer enough. And he didn’t even know this. The waves of samsara keep rolling in.
It is 2.15 right now, and Ralph had a vet’s appointment at this exact time for the free daily laser therapy they were generously offering him to bring back his legs. But my tiny dancer doesn’t have that body any more. I pray and imagine that he is dancing with the Dakinis instead, a beautiful, smiling Daka with red hair and luminous green-blue eyes.
Self-cherishing — thinking that me and my happiness are the most important in the world — is bad news for me and for everyone else. Very bad news.
Beaker unwittingly demonstrates some of the perils of self-cherishing in his rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy:
Self-cherishing not only destroys our chances at any lasting peace or happiness (having already made our lives miserable since beginningless time), but it also directly prevents us from being able to help others have a less miserable life. And this is the case even if we are basically decent and would actually like to help others.
The rubber band of self-cherishing
While we remain tethered and bound by the demonic delusion of self-cherishing, our wishes and attempts to help others will always have an expiry date – we’ll do it for a while, perhaps, but there are obvious built-in limits. Try stretching a rubber band from your thumb as far as you can, and then letting go. Ow! In the same way, we may stretch ourselves with great effort and strain to help other people, but the moment our mindfulness slips our mind snaps back to self-cherishing.
For sure, we rarely admit to being at the center of the universe at polite dinner parties, but it is not hard to figure out that this is exactly how we feel. Who does it feel like the world revolves around, if not me? I and a bunch of strangers were swimming in the ocean the other day and I wondered what I’d think if a shark was approaching. Whose leg would I want the shark to bite off?! If I’m ravenous and there is just one piece of pie left, who gets to eat it? As my teacher says in Eight Steps to Happiness:
Our ordinary view is that we are the centre of the universe and that other people and things derive their significance principally from the way in which they affect us. Our car, for example, is important simply because it is ours, and our friends are important because they make us happy. Strangers, on the other hand, do not seem so important because they do not directly affect our happiness, and if a stranger’s car is damaged or stolen we are not that concerned….
We are a little embarrassed by our self-cherishing in its naked form, so we clothe it in front of others and ourself with all sorts of justifications: “Look, I need my leg more than them because I’m a runner.” “Honestly, I should be the one who has that piece of pie because I’m bigger than everyone else and need the calories more.” Etc etc. You can check any number of everyday examples. Anytime we put ourself and our needs above others, what layer upon layer of excuses are we coming up with?!
When analyzed, my excuses for putting myself above others are exceedingly lame and superficial for they mask the actual truth – the reason I don’t want my leg bitten off is because it is my leg. The reason I want the last piece of pie is because my happiness and freedom from suffering are most important. It just is like that because I’m me.
Who is fighting whom?
Yes, I have work to do! First thing is to realize who the actual enemy is and why, so I can stop being victimized. This very same attitude — nothing and no one else — has caused every single one of my problems while ingratiatingly pretending to be on my side. (You can find out all about its faults and oily, deceptive nature in Eight Steps to Happiness.) This recognition alone takes us an exceedingly long way in the right direction. It also brings us some instant peace of mind.
Geshe Kelsang says:
This self-centered view of the world is based on ignorance and does not correspond to reality.
The self we cherish is the inherently existent self that is apprehended by our self-grasping ignorance.
Important announcement: this self doesn’t exist!!
So what are we doing cherishing it?!!
Self-cherishing is a delusion, which means it is an unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind that arises from inappropriate attention. Its important to remember that self-cherishing, like all our delusions, may be a deep bad habit as we are so darned used to paying inappropriate attention to ourselves, but it is not an integral part of our make-up. It is like a big cloud – it may have swooped down like a black spaceship to block out the sun, but a delusion cloud is always temporary and adventitious, and can never destroy the clear sky of our Buddha nature.
Cherishing others on the other hand arises naturally from a recognition of the truth – that others are kind, that we depend on them for everything, and that cherishing them has countless benefits. Because it is part of reality, it is also part of our Buddha nature. It is far more who we are than the self-deceptive distorted delusion of self-cherishing. We need to remember this or we think we’re fighting ourselves. We’re not. We’re fighting our enemy, and on our side in this battle we have not only our own pure potential but also every single enlightened being. Therefore, we are bound to win.
Do you think there is ever a time when we need self-cherishing? Your comments are most welcome. And please share this article if you like it.
I was watching a swimmer in the ocean today, carving his way through the water, while the water closed in around him leaving no trace that he’d been there.
Just as I was contemplating the philosophical meaning of that, a guy stops between me and the shoreline and takes off his shirt. He has a lot of tattoos. I look as if I’m fascinated by the sand under my crossed feet, but he doesn’t seem to notice my aversive tactics and turns to me with a wide grin, “Is this low tide or high tide?” It was obviously low tide. Anyway, I answer politely, prompting a “You from around here?” I’m groaning inside, I wanted to meditate. Best laid plans… it is fantastic to meditate amongst the elements in a beautiful space, but stay inside if you want to guarantee not being disturbed. “I just hitched from Ohio, but look where I am now!”
As he sits himself a few feet from me, I make a feeble excuse, “Ermm, I won’t be too chatty as I have to think.” “Why’s that?” “Ermm, I am a writer”. Ok, dear reader, that’s not a complete fib, I’m writing this aren’t I?! I didn’t want to tell him I was meditating, and I didn’t want to be drawn into conversation. But of course not wanting something is often a sure bet you’re about to get it.
He goes quiet for a few moments and then asks me as if he really wants to know:
“What do you write?”
“Well, I write about meditation.”
Now he goes really quiet and I think he is thinking about how to make his escape. I hope so anyway.
But I misconstrued his silence, for then he says thoughtfully:
“I was in solitary confinement for three and a half years in an 8 by 10 cell. I had to stop myself going mad. I think I taught myself to meditate then.”
Ok, now he can stay.
He has a cheeky friendly face with wide-spaced bluish brown eyes. He has skulls and writing all over his body and he shows me his ID card and parole card to show me his is not fibbing. He was sentenced for 26 years, served the first three and a half in Super Max solitary, served 18 altogether, and was then paroled for good behavior. Then he tested positive for marijuana (a family member apparently shopped him) and to his horror was thrown back inside for 3 years for violating his parole. Now he has been out for 2 years and his parole ended last week, hence the road trip. He is 44 years old and his name is Loren Jay Shaw (“like George Bernard, I think we’re related, I’m Irish by the way.”)
Some of the details of his story don’t add up if you pay too much attention – e.g. all four of his grandparents were Irish, but he also never knew his father. He was the child of violent rape and his father apparently died during a 20-year prison sentence for the crime that inadvertently brought Loren Jay forth. But overall what he said rang many notes of truth so I’m not too bothered about the veracity of every detail.
How did he survive? He starts to tell me.
He knew the ants in his cell, he even named them, “I’d never hurt them, they were my friends.”
A bird could make his day. It’d briefly land on his window sill, enough time to make friends with it; and then he’d imagine him and the bird in a forest or on a beach like this one. He could spend hours like that. “And that is where you are you know, not in prison.”
Every other day a mouse would visit him for crumbs of his food. “He would come right up and sit here”, he jabbed the sand with his finger six inches away. “I would never touch him. I’d say ‘Hey Buddy, how you doin’ today?’ He was my friend.”
“So you were like Tom Hanks with Wilson the football?” “Yeah, something like that. Or you go mad, you know. They were my friends.”
He lay on his rack, “Seriously that’s what they call it! We don’t get a ‘bed’!”, and imagined himself wherever he wanted to be and whoever he wanted to be with: “I was rarely in the prison. I been everywhere! ‘How many women you been with, being inside all those years,’ people want to know, and I reply, “Thousands! Beyonce, Jessica Simpson, you name them! We done lots of things together, hanging out, not just what you think.”
One day his heavy door was cranked open at 5:30am. “Get up, you’re moving.” “Where to?” “Can’t tell you.” He was transported to another prison and let out of the van. He was in a large courtyard. “Where’s my cell?” “There is a dorm over there.” It had over 100 beds. Other people. He wasn’t sure if he’d arrived in paradise or hell.
Within 3 days, he says, he was dating a female prison guard and she would bring him extra food. He is around 180 pounds now but he was 241 in prison, pumped, to show the other inmates that he was to be respected. He had a good attitude, seemingly an infectious one. He was popular.
Prison is a microcosm of society just behind an iron fence, he told me. You can do whatever you want – he took advantage of everything on offer, got two degrees and learnt how to drive a truck; and he read copiously. “When people say ‘How come you so smart with that background?’, I tell them ‘I got an IQ of 183 and I read solidly for 18 years’.” He still never watches or reads anything that he feels isn’t going to improve him somehow, “What’s the point?”
That includes the bible, the only book he read in Super Max solitary confinement, because it was the only book he was allowed. He knows that book very well, and is also, “I kid you not”, an ordained minister now. Jesus Christ is his personal savior. But I didn’t find him preachy or judgmental. He thinks God appears differently to different people so Buddhism is fine with him. But his God provides everything he needs.
Just last night after visiting his two daughters, aged 21 and 22, in Tampa, he found himself lost in a rough area. He was nervous and called upon God “Again!” to help him. He turned down a dark street and walked past a porch where a 21-year-old kid called out to him: “Hey dude, where you goin’?” He said he needed to get to I275 so he could hitch to Clearwater. “I’ll take you.” “Thanks! How far is I275?” “No, I mean I’ll take you to Clearwater.” As they were driving, Loren said to him: “You are an angel”, and explained why.
I know what he means. In my wisest moments I feel deep inside exactly as though my life is being entirely guided and provided for by the spiritual guide, Dakinis and Protector. Emanations have appeared out of nowhere more times than I can count, especially it seems to me in the last few years, though they’ve probably always been around waiting for me to notice.
Loren sees life as a series of events. Wandering in Tampa and meeting that kid was an event. Meeting me on the beach is an event. The rest of the day will be an event. Life is an adventure.
Why, I asked him, were no other books allowed in Super Max? The answer is because people screw up the paper into braids to hang themselves with. Someone hung himself with toilet paper.
Some people cannot make it on the outside again either. One man was in for 48 years and then abruptly paroled. He said, “I’ll be back next week”, and he robbed a shop. Now, I’ve heard that story or a variation on it before, but it still resonates. Think Shawshank Redemption. We need some courage to make it on the outside, a free but deeply unfamiliar place to our delusions. We may prefer the seeming security and control of our familiar prison guard delusions and the petty living from day to day.
Because, according to Loren Jay, petty it is. Men spend all day just trying to get hold of a picture of a pretty woman, ideally naked. ‘Hey man”, he would apparently tell them, “There’s more to life than sex!” A large number refuse to avail themselves of what is on offer in terms of education and training. But a lot would avail themselves of the pills for mental illness – many were indeed mentally ill, talking to walls, but many just wanted the high from the pills. There were umpteen drugs in there. The meals weren’t big enough so people fought sometimes viciously over the food brought in by visitors. Life was dangerous. He showed me four stab marks on his chest for a pack of his cigarettes. (Now he only smokes the occasional cigar.)
On his bad days in Super Max, what would he do? “I would sleep. I did ask God to kill me sometimes. Those times, after about 20 minutes, something would happen and my mood would change.”
He marked straight lines on the wall and watched as the sunshine crossed those lines, telling him the time. He’d get absorbed in that. His mind would clear.
He made chess pieces out of toilet tissue that he moistened in his sink, and he drew a chess board on a piece of paper. Then he’d play against himself. He’d make a move, pause, and then imagine he was the other person playing.
Loren had one hour a day out of his cell for a 15 minute shower and 45 minutes recreation. But somedays he didn’t take it! “Some days I didn’t want to be disturbed. I was somewhere else altogether, not in that prison. I was up a mountain with a beautiful view, or on a beach like this one.” Another con (whose name I’ve forgotten though he told me) gave him life-changing advice before he was locked down:
“Take three deep breaths, breathing out from the bottom of your toes. Then imagine where you would most like to be at this time. Go there. Stay there.”
I told him about the Yogis who would do three year three month retreat in strict isolation as a way to control their minds and unbind their imaginations. Difference was, they went into this prepared.
For three years he managed to stave off insanity and find peace through his self-taught practices and the few words of advice from his friend. He has come to know that imagination creates our world, and, as he puts it, “We can choose. Choose your life and what you do with it. Why choose to swear and cuss, for example, why not say ‘How in the heaven have you bin?’ instead. Why chuck garbage on the ground when there is a disposal nearby? You can choose, man, so why not choose the trash can? Why spend your life in a 9 to 5 when that is not what life is?”
He seems to spend his days at the moment chancing upon people to help e.g. change their tires. He picks up trash when he sees it. And he feels constantly on the receiving end of kindness. I only had an apple to give him for breakfast, but it was enough to make him smile with joy. When he started hitching a few days ago, he said he had $28 in his pocket – by the end, he had $131, as people had given him ten dollars here, ten dollars there. (This may not square with his showing me his wallet and telling me that he had a debit card and could stay in a motel room if he wanted to but chose to sleep last night in the beautiful arch of a bank doorway as he hates being confined – the confined bit makes sense, but the money part… Still, I’m not quibbling. He may have some of the Irish gift of the gab, but he didn’t make up his insights or his zest for life.)
He tells me that he has seen people with Lamborghinis and Cadillacs who spend their whole life moving restlessly like a shark, polishing this, barking orders at that, worrying about scratches, and he thinks, “Hey man, just give up the car. It only brings you problems.” This reminded me of when Geshe Kelsang explained how we cannot solve our problems by external means alone, giving the example that before we have a car we have one problem, no car. After we get our car, we have many problems!
“Look”, Loren said looking out at the ocean, “Life is short. We don’t know if we’ll be alive tomorrow. An airplane could crash out of the sky right now and kill us. So why tie yourself down? That’s not living. And home is everywhere.”
Then he drew from his pocket a picture of two laughing skulls. “I’m not proud to have been in prison. But they say prison is make or break, and I made it. I had to endure a lot in prison, but it didn’t break my spirit and I came out better. So I had this tattoo done. We’re laughing at the prison, they didn’t break us! And, look, there are two of us?” “You and Jesus?” “Yeah!!”. This is the tattoo on his left chest. “I’ll have this etched here forever, so you keep the picture! If you ever get a tattoo, please get this one!” Well, laughing at the prison of samsara with my spiritual guide, why not?!
Then my eye fell on the large tattoo on his belly – it was a winding path leading up a mountain to a fairy castle, like Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. “Here is the path they took me up the mountain through the palace doors.” He is talking about entering prison. Man, he is a complete natural for entering the Tantric mandala! Samsara is likened to a prison but — realize that everything is empty of existing from its own side — and the mandala palace of bliss and emptiness is only a trick of the mind away.
Loren has had even more challenges since he got out. Last year his twin sister tragically shot herself with her mother’s gun in her mother’s bedroom because, she said in her suicide notes, she was in an abusive relationship. He got a bit upset at this point and said: “Look, if you were in an abusive relationship, wouldn’t you just get out? Why did she identify with being just a victim? Life’s too precious. Why didn’t she just get out? I did.”
I told him he could write a book and speak in prisons. He could record into one of those little tape recorders. He did a little speaking when he first got out; and he also kindly gave me his dog-eared toastmaster card, with the acronym “EOS” meaning “End of Sentence”. He says he doesn’t need it; they have him in the computer.
He wrote a story in prison too, about a man whose father was in the casino business and in with the mob. The son didn’t want to be part of the mob, yet he knew so much about the casino business that he had to find ways to fend them off. A psychoanalyst would have a field day with that story. This man really is someone who has fought to stop being under the influence of the mob – both external guards and prisoners, and internal delusions that could have damaged him seriously but that he refused to entertain. I would describe him as a free spirit with a lot of actual working faith. He knows he is being provided for and in return he wants to be good and he wants to be kind. He also says honestly: “There are two parts to me – there is the convict, and believe me I learnt a lot about having to survive in there, and there is the me you are seeing now.” As it is for him, life for the rest of us is also a case of a daily choice between which “part” we identify with, deluded or non-deluded.
We never know who anyone really is. All I know is that I have learnt a heaven of a lot from one apparent ex-con this morning.
Loren Jay, if you are reading this in the library, all the best to you, and thank you.
In the last posting we saw that establishing a consistent daily practice consists of two things: (1) making our daily practice a priority; and (2) making the time to do our daily practice.
We have already looked at why our daily practice should be our priority, now lets turn to the second question of how do we actually ‘make the time’ to do our practice? The following are some basic tips that have worked well for me.
1 Do your practice when everyone else is asleep
Family life in particular places tremendous strains on our time. In the end, the only way around this problem is to just do our practice when everybody else is asleep. For me, I do it first thing in the morning because at the end of the day the only thing I can do is collapse. How do you wake up earlier to do your practice? Well, the easiest way of doing that is to go to bed earlier. If that is not possible, then you will have to make trade-offs between hours of sleep and hours of practice.
For example, let’s say you have an 8 hour block of time for sleep. Instead of sleeping all 8 hours, sleep for only 7 and do your practice for the other hour. I have found that I am more rested after 7 hours of sleep and one hour of practice than I am after 8 hours of just sleep. The reason for this is it is not enough to rest our body, we also need to rest our mind. Only meditation enables us to really relax our mind.
2 Have the only thing you ask for of others be the time necessary to do your practice
In any relationship, there is give and take. When your practice becomes your number one priority in the day, the only ‘take’ you will ask for of the others you live with is the time necessary to do your practice. The only thing I ever ask of my wife is she gives me the time to do my practice. If you waste your ‘relationship capital’ on other things, like seeing the movie you want to see or going to the restaurant you want to go to, then you won’t have any left over for your practice. Just as we have finite money and must spend it on our top priorities, we also have finite things we can ask for in a relationship and we need to save it for our practice.
3 Understand that habits take time to form
We need to make doing our daily practice a habit. Habits are initially formed through applying consistent effort over a sustained period of time. In my experience, it usually takes a good three months of forcing ourselves to do our daily practice before it becomes a habit. But once it is a habit, it is very easy to maintain. So if you can persevere through this initial three month period, you will establish a practice for life. If you can’t, you will probably never establish a consistent daily practice no matter how many times you try get it started. I think the reason for this is our practice has a cumulative effect where it is only after doing it for several weeks that we start to feel its effects. We need to overcome our mental inertia, and unfortunately when we miss even one day it can be like having to start all over again.
4 Once you make it to cushion, choose to let go of everything else and allow your mind to focus on your practice
It is not enough to get our rear-end in the right place, we have to bring our mind there too. We have worked so hard to create the space to actually meditate, so it would be a shame to then mentally not show up and actually do it.
One of the biggest obstacles to actually allowing ourselves to focus on our practice is attachment to immediate results from our practice. We meditated for five minutes, how come we are not blissed out yet? We measure the success of our practice against the feelings we generate as opposed to the causes we create. A pure practitioner is happy simply to try. It is by trying that we create causes, and it is by creating causes that results will come in the future. As Ghandi said, full effort is full victory. Full effort itself is our victory.
5 Finally, stop making excuses
We all think we are so busy and our lives are so hard that we don’t have time to practice. But the reality is it is because we are busy and that our lives are hard that we must find the time to practice. The reality is everybody is equally busy, just in different ways. Everybody’s life is equally hard, just in different ways.
The good news is once we get started in our practice, it becomes self-perpetuating. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have goals we are working towards. Perhaps our goal is to simply ‘do as little as possible’, but as we practice the Lamrim we start to develop higher spiritual goals (avoiding being reborn in the lower realms, escaping from all suffering forever for ourselves, becoming a fully enlightened Buddha so that we can lead all beings to permanent freedom). Engaging in our practice functions to make these goals more and more central in our life. As these goals become more central, the ‘need’ to engage in our practice will only grow because we will see how it is only our practice that will enable us to accomplish these higher spiritual goals.
So in short, it is very simple: make a consistent daily practice a priority, then make the time to do it.
This morning I felt mildly irritated at an “official” person because they have a different idea about something than I do, and naturally that means their idea is daft, but they are the ones in charge. Sound familiar? (I know it’s not just me).
People play Angry Birds, so they tell me, because of the fun they have in beating each level. When two fantastically bright Millenials admitted to playing Angry Birds for two whole hours in one sitting — catapulting the poor birds at the long-suffering pigs or monkeys with a swipe of their finger — this was the only reason they could give me, even though I tried for at least half an hour to squeeze more psychology out of them. I have unhelpful habits of my own, but I confess I don’t really get the attraction (should I say mass addiction) of video games like Angry Birds. It was so clearly pre-programmed by nerds in an office who are having a laugh at your behalf and rubbing their hands in glee at the money 200 million people have purportedly parted with to “beat” a machine.
But this morning I actually got a glimpse of what my friends were saying. I’m not a fan of negative minds or so-called delusions, but I do find small ones quite helpful, as you can immediately look at your mind and see what you’re doing, where you’re focusing, and how it feels. And I have grown to enjoy the challenge of overcoming my negative minds with their opponents, beating them at each level, starting from the big and working your way up/down to the most subtle.
A couple of people recently asked me to do an article on karma. It is a vast subject and covered beautifully in my teacher’s books, but I’ll say how I smashed this morning’s particular monkey/pig by remembering the teachings on karma.
When irritation arose, I blamed it on its source… that b****y annoying person. I externalized it and as a result I felt powerless. If we hold the source of our aversion to be something out there, independent of the mind, there is precious little we can do other than get more defensive and angry as we try to push that seemingly harmful object away from us. (Alternatively, I could work for years to get into a position of power and then fire them, but that doesn’t seem quite practical either.)
It is always more enjoyable and peaceful to be centered in the heart-mind, feeling connected to everyone and everything, than to be adrift and cut off, relating to an apparently inherently existent world outside our mind. But delusions force us to live dualistically, sensing an unsettling gulf between us and the world about us – e.g. I am here and you, annoying person, are over there. This gulf is a figment of our ignorance and yawns wider when our delusions are strong.
Where does the world come from?
Luckily, the actual source of the irritation is nothing outside our mind. We can see from Buddha’s teachings that the world we experience depends on the world we are paying attention to or focusing on. There is no world other than the world we experience. No need to take Buddha’s word for it — try to inhabit, or even point to, a world outside of your experience of it!
The world we create for ourselves also depends entirely on our mind. If the only world we inhabit is the world we experience, and experience is mind, the causes of our world must also lie within our mind.
Specifically the world we live in depends on our intentions, or mental actions. “Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs — or is it the other way round?! Either way, everything must arise from something in the same continuum as itself, so an apple tree cannot arise from an unrelated peach seed, for example, as Master Oogway pointed out to Master Shifu, nor mental experience arise from a physical cause.
Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the soil of our mind. Mental intentions are those seeds, experience is their effect. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.
Mladic would never have escaped
We cannot escape our negative karma unless we purify it. I read a story in the press today about the fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladic who has now finally been delivered to the Hague. Even without being tried for the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes against humanity, he will reap their ghastly results sooner or later in this or future lives. It seems to me that his bad karma already began to ripen when his beloved daughter Ana allegedly shot herself with his favorite gun because she was so distressed by his atrocities. He was granted permission to visit her grave before he was exiled. He has had strokes, heart attacks and cancer, but that loss must hurt him more than anything else.
How to gain more conviction in karma
There is no world independent of our mind. The world we experience depends on our current states of mind — if our mind is peaceful, the world seems like a pleasant place; if dark, we live in a dark world. As mentioned, the world we experience also depends on our previous thoughts and actions.
My teacher Geshe Kelsang advises that to gain more conviction in how we create our world with our intentions or karma, it is most helpful to consider how things do not exist from their own side but are projections of our mind. They are rather like a movie. We know a movie on a cinema screen is not out there coming at me, as it appears to be, but is projected by a projector. Similarly, the world appears to be out there coming at me, but it is in fact projected by my mind.
If my world is merely a projection of my mind, with no existence “out there” from its own side, then why does it appear in one way and not another? How do we become involved in one movie and not another?
How the world appears depends on which of my karmic potentials are ripening; these are rather like the movie reel being run through the projector. For this reason, everything is said to be mere karmic appearance of mind.
When we dream, where do all those appearances come from? They come from karmic seeds planted in our mind; where else could they come from? We experience a dream world that is projected by our own karma. Our waking world is also projected by our karma.
Looking in the mirror
So, going back to this morning… I thought about these things and how the only reason I was irritated was because I had irritated someone else in the past. If you look in a mirror and don’t like what you see, what do you do? Do you get out a paper towel and some Windex and try and rub that dirt away? Or do you realize it is just a reflection and use the mirror to clean your face instead? In the same way, if I don’t like what is appearing to my mind do I tire myself out by fixing the person out there with frustrating results? Or do I purify the causes for unpleasant appearances and make sure not to create more karmic causes for the things I don’t like?
If you don’t like a movie, change the movie reel.
Believing in karma is said to be like looking in a mirror that shows us what to abandon and what to practice. If you’re a Buddhist, you may think you believe in karma, yet the proof is in the pudding – if we do believe it we will want to engage in positive actions and abandon negative ones. We also won’t keep blaming the wrong things for our suffering or chasing the wrong things for our happiness — fiddling with the projected rather than the projector. As Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism (now available as a free eBook!).
“We should judge whether or not we believe that the main cause of suffering is our non-virtuous actions and the main cause of happiness is our virtuous actions. If we do not believe this, we will never apply effort to accumulating virtuous actions, or merit, and we will never purify our non-virtuous actions, and because of this we will experience suffering and difficulties continually, in life after life without end.”
The driver’s seat
Observing the natural law of karma puts us in the driver’s seat of our own destiny. If we don’t know about karma, we can’t do much about our future. Even if we try day in and day out to shape our world, we will rarely receive the results we wish for, because we are putting all our energy into creating external causes whilst ignoring the internal and actual causes of our experiences.
Buddha said that until we have gained a realization of ultimate truth, emptiness, observing karma is the most important thing for us to do in the pursuit of happiness and freedom. Why? Because karma entirely shapes what happens to us and how we experience life. If we want to be a conscious architect of our reality, choosing our own experiences, we need to fall in with this natural law. If we do not, we remain stuck and powerless; and, however hard we try to change our future, it never goes the way we want it to. With the wisdom understanding karma, we seize control and change our karma as we like. Without it, we are to all intents and purposes pre-determined by our karma. Buddhists don’t believe in fate, but if we blindly ignore the law of internal cause and effect, it looks like we are dooming ourselves to a future beyond our control!
I look forward to your comments, and please share this article if it’s helpful.
Yesterday I met Steve, recently evicted from his mobile home and locked out from his possessions for no longer earning enough money from eBay to pay his rent. Living in his car for two weeks, he has just been rescued by my old friend Iben who lives next to him and who decided to buy his home for the princely price of $5000 (plus $40,000 for shares in the park). This means that Steve can get back into his house and retrieve his possessions and, his dignity somewhat restored, my friend is letting him take his time.
Steve’s house was musty and full of, dare I say it, junk. Junk to me, anyway. Not so much to him, though in a way it seems as if the penny is dropping and he’s got different eyes to see this stuff now that he is obliged to move on with only what can fit in a rented truck. He told me he is now a little embarrassed about all “this mess” and strangely relieved to be leaving most of it behind forever as he sets off on his road trip via Mexico, ending up in the mid-west (whereabouts and with whom is not so certain). He had drink on his breath, but he is a thoughtful man, who is well read in history and counts several globes amongst his possessions.
I find it intriguing how relieved he feels to be getting away again after 8 years of accumulating stuff – to leave all that behind and get on the road again. He is looking forward to it, even though he has no idea where the road will take him. For years before he was evicted he was hunkered down, and his neighbors say he was taciturn and surly. Now he is friendly and talkative, optimistic. You can tell a cloud has lifted. He’ll probably shave off that long straggly yellow beard.
Whenever we de-clutter our mind, I think we have a similar type of relief. We are encouraged to clean our meditation room before meditating to clear our mind and make our place welcoming for holy beings and sentient beings. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness:
We know from our own experience that dirty and untidy surroundings tend to bring our mind down and drain our energy, whereas a clean and tidy environment uplifts our mind, making it clear and vibrant… Having physically cleaned our room, we should imagine that our environment transforms into the Pure Land of a Buddha.
We live with the same stale thoughts day by day. They are familiar; we are attached to the coconut monkey or the shiny lacquered fish on the wall that Steve caught when he was 14 (“I would never go fishing again”, yet “I have to take that fish with me”). Both of these have followed Steve around for decades, along with his musty books, pewter glasses, bits of lace, and shiny pieces of porcelain. How many baseballs will he take with him?—he used to volunteer at a baseball stadium and has boxes, some of them autographed (albeit by rookies). He has to decide.
We too have to decide whether we want to lug all our mental stuff around with us forever. Do we really need it? Do we need to keep thinking familiar sagging thoughts about trivial things that give our life no real essence? Do we need endless imaginary conversations with all the people we feel have let us down? We are so strangely attached to the minutiae of our lives and, indeed, of our thoughts – yet anyone else privy to these thoughts would quite possibly disregard them as so much junk! That conversation we had with that person 15 years ago still rankles. That daydream we had for some kind of success or acknowledgment, as yet unfulfilled, is still popping up. Those painful assumptions that if we let go of this or that worry, such as about finances or relationships, we’ll suffer in the future – just as if we don’t hang onto sufficient baseballs we’ll miss them later.
We apparently talk to ourselves at a rate of 1300 words per minute. What are we ‘saying’ to ourselves and how many of these conversations are worth the time of day? Studies accord with Buddha’s analysis that a lot of our self-talk is negative and self-defeating, giving rise to anxiety, stress and depression – and in our own experience we can see how easily we can talk ourselves out of a good mood and back into another funk.
Quite soon, at death, we will be forced to leave behind all our objects of attachment and aversion, and all their associated mundane gross thoughts behind, just like Steve leaving his stuff. Without any control we’ll be back on the road again, who knows to where. It seems to me that through the practice of meditation we have the chance to let go now so we have time to enjoy and make use of the wonderful space and clarity that opens up in the mind, and feel as though we have the wide open road of the spiritual path stretching invitingly before us. In particular, with meditation we can replace our tired stale old delusions with the fresh flowers of dynamic positive minds such as love, compassion, renunciation, and wisdom.
Space solves problems, not holding onto things and constantly tussling with them like a dog with a bone. Interacting obsessively with their stuff on a daily basis, the pile getting higher as they accumulate more and more, hoarders are blinkered and demoralized by old musty memories. Similarly, interacting with our same old thoughts day in and day out, adding to the dusty pile as the day goes by without letting anything go or replacing old stuff with fresh positive thoughts like fresh flowers, is stale and demoralizing. It both restricts our outlook and weighs us down.
And others don’t enjoy it or enjoy us as much as they might – I liked Steve but I still couldn’t wait to get out of his sour-smelling old-feeling junk-filled house. It was a glorious sunny day but you would never know it in that place, things piled high in front of the windows – what a relief to emerge into the clear light.
Steve himself is sensing that at the moment he has a chance for freedom, a chance to let go of a lot of this; his intelligent blue eyes are gleaming. He told me with a big smile that he is looking forward to moving on and traveling the open road. Are we ready for that too?!
Please share this article if you like it. I look forward to reading your comments.
Wrote this a few years ago, but it is still relevant! Please do share your own comments too.
Turning the Wheel of Dharma
Today, June 4, is the birthday of my kind teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and I want to mark the occasion by writing something about him. His birthday falls auspiciously on the day of Buddha Shakyamuni’s first teaching, called Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day; and for me and many thousands of other students, Geshe Kelsang, or Geshe-la as we like to call him, has been the one who has turned the Wheel of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings for us.
There is not a snowflake’s chance in hell that I could even begin to do him justice in one article, of course, even though I apologize in advance for its length. But I’ll try and highlight a few of his qualities as I see it, in case you are interested in hearing some more about one of today’s most influential Buddhist masters. There is also more about his life and works in this article.
Where did Geshe Kelsang come from?
Without getting into all the infinite causes and conditions that causes a great master to appear in our world, you can check out some of the biographical details of where he was born and brought up on any New Kadampa Tradition center website. After the 1959 invasion of Tibet, forcing him into exile with nothing but his robes and a couple of texts, Geshe Kelsang spent 18 years in retreat in the Himalayan mountains, meditating day and night — blissfully happy, needing nothing. I think of him first and foremost as a great Yogi, Dharma practitioner, Bodhisattva, and Tantric adept. Having spent his entire lifetime from an early age learning Buddhadharma, and well over 20 years in retreat, he possesses an ocean of direct experience of all the Buddhist teachings and therefore no interest whatsoever in the paltry rewards of fame, reputation, possessions or worldly pleasure. This is entirely obvious from his exceedingly humble, simple, generous lifestyle and his exceptional teachings. It means I can trust him as he wants nothing from me other than my own Buddhist practice.
Out of faith in his own teacher, the beloved Trijang Rinpoche, and compassion for people like me, he agreed in 1977 to come to Manjushri Institute in the Lake District and teach two Buddhist texts. Then when a small group of early students sincerely requested him to stay, he agreed.
When he first flew over London, he turned to his translator and asked: “How many people are down there?!” When he heard the reply, “10 million”, he exclaimed, “But there are only 5 million people in Tibet! I must help the West.” I and many other people are a result of that intention.
Manjushri’s wisdom sword
There are uncanny parallels with the great 15th century scholar, Yogi and saint Je Tsongkhapa in terms of Geshe-la’s vision, teachings and deeds. Wielding Wisdom Buddha Manjushri’s wisdom sword, their teachings and books possess an uncommon but very similar clarity, and the instant ability to cut through confusion and suffering. When I read a book by Je Tsongkhapa, it always feels the same as receiving a teaching by Geshe Kelsang. Every sentence of Geshe Kelsang’s 22 books has power. I’ve read them all several times but if I read even one nectar-like sentence, and bring it into my heart, it instantly clears my vision and improves the flavor of my mind. With Geshe Kelsang’s books, you can never run out of quotable sentences!
His personal instructions to people have also changed their lives. He looks reassuringly normal, so we can relate to him; but he is also one of the greatest wisdom masters who has ever lived and can say and do things that are unpredictable yet deep-reachingly effective. Life is never dull.
Defier of expectations
You never know what to expect with Geshe Kelsang; he has defied expectations on a daily basis since the day he arrived over here. Gentle and kind, he nonetheless keeps his students on their toes. He doesn’t allow people to rest on their laurels for more than approximately 30 seconds – completely uninterested in their eight worldly concerns of praise, reputation and so on. He relates to his students in terms of their potential not in terms of their delusions. He is really not one for massaging an ego or cultivating a false sense of security, as he knows that our self-grasping and self-cherishing are the source of all our pain and misery. Someone senior in the tradition once said jokingly: “You aren’t anyone in the NKT until you’ve been fired three times.” Hyperbole, for sure, but Geshe Kelsang has demolished the ego-grasping of many students – all within the refuge of love and acceptance.
Modern Buddhism manifesting from ancient tradition
Geshe Kelsang had a very close relationship with his own Spiritual Guide, Trijang Rinpoche, who requested him to come to the West and approved of his adapting the presentation of the teachings for an entirely new audience. In this way the New Kadampa Tradition came into existence. Centuries-worth of authentic liberating teachings are available in a form that modern-day people can actually practice without having to abandon their modern lifestyles or retire to a mountain cave. In fact, Geshe Kelsang is showing us how to thrive in today’s overwrought world by using all the circumstances we meet to advance our spiritual practice, in the Lojong tradition of those sincerest of Buddhists, the ancient Kadampas.
The world has changed dramatically even in the last 30 years, especially with the technological revolution, but the Buddhist teachings are still working. Geshe Kelsang learnt our language fluently and translated everything we needed. When I started we would chant for hours in Tibetan! I kind of liked it, but it was entirely unsustainable even 30 years ago, and is inconceivable now! Most people are lucky if they have half an hour for formal meditation practice these days. So over the years Geshe-la has packed the profundity of the 84,000 teachings of Buddha into fewer and fewer words without losing their meaning; something that can only be pulled off by someone with rare experience and skill. This has culminated most recently in the masterpiece union of Sutra and Tantra, Modern Buddhism ~ The Path of Compassion and Wisdom. These profound yet simple instructions are even available in the most modern of formats, the eBook!
Ode to the ordained
Incredibly for this day and age, Geshe Kelsang has inspired a very large stable ordained community of monks and nuns. One day I would like to write an ode to the ordained – they are essential for the survival of the Buddhist tradition, and I think it must be harder than it ever was to be ordained, in a society that has in some ways lost its sense of history and authentic tradition. Respect and support are not as forthcoming as they used to be. These monks and nuns are brave warriors in a world that doesn’t understand the need for boundaries so well anymore. They are not allowed to live in an ivory tower, but have to become integral members of daily society without succumbing to its increasing distractions and temptations. They show the vital example of discipline, contentment and authentic happiness from within. They are amazing.
Four types of teacher
Geshe-la has also defied all old-fashioned Tibetan expectations by promoting, from day one, not just ordained monks but “four types of teacher”, as he put it, ordained, lay, female and male – all equal.
They all study together, work together, practice together. To help people everywhere have access to Buddha’s teachings in their own language and culture, Geshe-la has trained teachers of all shapes and sizes on an unprecedented scale (1100 centers and counting…) Centers start when someone reads a book or attends a meditation course and, in a grass roots movement, they ask for their own teacher in their own town or country. Then thousands of students from all around the world also get together in the New Kadampa Tradition international festivals each year.
Back in Tibet, Geshe-la was also a healer – when he revisited Tibet in the early 1980s to rebuild his first monastery Jampa Ling, the line to receive his healing blessings stretched for miles, much to the surprise of the Western students who had accompanied him. When he got to the West he changed his emphasis from healing to teaching, but there are many people who nonetheless can tell you incredible stories of healing through the force of his prayers and blessings. People with major heart attacks, aggressive cancer or in deep comas from accidents making complete and doctor-defying recoveries, children expected to die in the womb emerging healthy and beautiful, and so on. Again, no space for details – but it’d be great if any of you wanted to tell your stories in the comments.
The power of emanations
An interesting thing about Geshe-la is that many people have their own story to tell about him and his profound influence on their lives, and you wonder how there was time for him to do all this! He has only been in the West since 1977. It is as if this one small man is hundreds of people rolled into one. When you look at the sun reflected in the ocean, it comes right at you, nowhere else! But a person standing a few feet away will tell you the same thing – the sun is coming right at me! It is said that enlightened beings – anyone who has removed all obstructions from the mind and perfected all good qualities — have the power to emanate infinite forms, which are like reflections on the water of faithful minds. In that sense, I have my personal spiritual guide, you have yours. Buddha’s emanations can also appear in the form of one person due to our collective karma, and thousands of students may gather for example to hear Geshe Kelsang’s teachings; but the spiritual guide is always at the heart of each of his or her students, as if we have our own spiritual guide all to ourselves.
What is the meaning of Geshe Kelsang being here?
Geshe-la said himself that the meaning of his being here is to enable people to practice Kadam Dharma, and specifically gain a realization of the ultimate nature of things, emptiness, so as to finally escape the cycle of suffering. All the temples, study programs and so on are essential for Kadampa Buddhism to remain and flourish into future generations, but they are here for just one reason: to enable people to practice Buddha’s teachings and gain authentic freedom and happiness for themselves and others. These external developments are therefore not ends in themselves. For 35 years I have tried in many jobs to help my teacher with external developments, and will always help as much as I can; but over time I have increasingly come to understand from him that what he appreciates more than anything else is my Dharma practice. It makes him happy whenever I or others attempt to increase our compassion and wisdom, the two wings of a bird that can fly us to enlightenment.
So, Geshe-la, out of inexpressible gratitude for everything you have done for me and so many others, today I resolve to try my best to practice all you have taught and help you turn the Wheel of Dharma in this and all my lives.
Earlier today I was drinking tea and half-watching my (borrowed) cats. One of them made her happy Meow sound at me, and I felt a sudden surge of love for her, thinking “May she find temporary and ultimate happiness.” I then felt like meditating, and my heart-mind was in just the right place for it to be a good one. Truth is, I always start my meditations by connecting to something immediately present and taking it from there, which could be why I never have any problem wanting to meditate.
Buddhist meditation is about training in happiness — authentic happiness that comes from a peaceful and positive mind as opposed to the excitement that arises from attachment and/or the ephemeral pleasant feelings from worldly pleasures that are actually changing suffering. (For more on changing suffering, see the beautiful big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)
The Tibetan word for meditation, “gom”, literally means “to familiarize” – so meditation is familiarizing our mind with positive, beneficial ways of looking at the world and other people. We can do formal meditation sessions on our meditation seats, and — luckily for us in our crazy time-consumed lives — we can also learn to stay positive all day long whatever we are doing. We don’t have to spend hours and hours in meditation sessions or be fantastically proficient at single-pointed concentration to familiarize our mind with positivity; we simply need to watch our mind throughout the day and check that we are always coming back to our heart as a starting point of positivity and peace.
To be able to come back to a place of positivity and peace, we need to know what that feels like! In other words, we need to get happy as our first priority. Being a miserable meditator is a contradiction in terms. If you feel that you are a miserable meditator, you might want to change your approach.
Every morning before the day’s activities have fully kicked in and we have even five or ten minutes of free space, we can meditate on happiness in a meditation session. We can do this in any number of spectacular ways by meditating on the stages of the path, training the mind, or Mahamudra… slowly but surely over the years we fill a huge reservoir with blissful liberating nectar-like meditations that will always be there for us to draw upon.
But however advanced we feel we are along the spiritual path, it is always very effective to start each meditation session simply by connecting to a happy mind that we are already familiar with. (You can do the following before or after a simple traditional breathing meditation if you wish.)
If you have faith in any holy beings, you can invite them into your heart and feel that your mind flows into their cosmically blissful and loving mind like a small stream flowing into a vast ocean, and feel as blissful as you can. And/or, for example, you can manifest your mind of love, which is guaranteed to come with happiness.
We already have the seed of universal love in us and we can water it with no further ado by bringing to mind someone whom we love already. This can be anyone – a niece, your mother, your best friend, your cat or dog. Think about how lovely they are, how they look at you, and how much you want them to be happy. Allow a feeling of warmth to arise in your heart and hold it there for as long as you can. Identify with that happy affectionate feeling, thinking,
“This is me; this is part of my sky-like Buddha nature. All my agitated, unpeaceful states of mind are not me — they are like clouds in the sky, not the sky itself.”
Then do your meditation, however long or short it is, from that starting point. What a big difference it makes! In other words, use what you have inside already, which is a lot. Don’t feel the results you seek are somewhere else and you need to strain in contemplation and meditation to bring them about. That dualistic way of meditating is no fun and sooner or later you’ll tire of it as it is like trying to sail to an ever-receding horizon.
Then throughout the busy day, check just one thing: “Am I happy?” We have a motto in the Kadampa tradition:
“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”
If our mind is not happy, I think it is fair to say that we are not being mindful of any meditation object, even if we are superficially going through the motions of virtue. On the other hand, if our mind is relatively contented or happy (not excited, remember, but peaceful spacious happy), we can know for sure that we are practicing meditation and making progress.
Throughout the day we can adjust and fine-tune the mind so that we are relying upon — or only trusting — a happy mind alone. If we notice our mind becoming agitated, we know not to rely on the evidence that mind seems to present us with, because delusions distort reality like a storm destroying the accurate reflections in a still ocean. We can pause for a few valuable minutes to reconnect to whatever can instantly bring us joy, such as love for our dog with those big brown eyes. And then carry on.
Talking of dogs, my close friend and excellent Buddhist teacher uses the analogy of taking a dog for a walk. The main part of your attention is on walking along, enjoying the scenery and getting to where you have to go, but one part of your mind is always aware of what the dog is up to. It is possible that he will need to be called to heel before he wreaks destruction in someone’s flower bed or eats a pigeon. In the same way, in our daily life we need to focus on what needs to be done at work and so on, but with one part of our mind we are checking to see whether or not we are happy and, if we’re not, we can do something about that.
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