Have you ever fallen for a perfect stranger?!

With just a few twists and turns we can and do bump into perfect strangers who become part of our hearts and lives for a lifetime. In fact, apart from our immediate family, which of our closest friends did not start off as a stranger?!

Sparky and Joe
The happy tail of Winston

A marvelous encounter took place in heat-drenched Manhattan yesterday. I was meeting my friend J (her of Ralph’s story) to do some shopping for a laptop. Right next to Best Buy was Pet Smart and so I said entirely jokingly: “Let’s go in there and I’ll buy a small dog.” J agreed that she needed to go in there anyway to buy some cat treats so we visited with the adoptive cats for a while and then made to leave.

At the doorway, a cute dog stopped us in our tracks, and we bent to pet him. Then we noticed his owner sitting on the window ledge with tears in his eyes. Joe told us in a delightful but sad Irish brogue that he was being forced to bring Sparky back as he was severely allergic to him and that he and his girlfriend Julia were gutted, absolutely gutted. This half-Peke half-ShihTzu ”Shinese” was the best dog in the world and this was obvious even though they’d only had him for a week. Joe had been trying everything to work a way around the allergies, but “I feel like I’ve swallowed a furball and if I cuddle him I just can’t breathe.” The tears in his eyes came from the allergy and the fact that he was finding it agony to hand him back in. The shelter woman hadn’t arrived yet, he was waiting.

We asked him where Sparky came from – he and his family were in a house fire and wasn’t allowed in their shelter, and then his family were not able to have him back as they lost everything. He is just one year old. He was in a cage for weeks.

I looked at J. She looked back at me. It was obvious what she was thinking. “What is there to lose?” I rather naughtily encouraged her half under my breath. “Perhaps he could just spend the weekend with you and F and then, if F or the cats object, you can bring him back on Monday? Delay his re-entry into the cold lonely cage?”

Thing about J is that she is a pushover when it comes to animals… but there was just something about Sparky.

The 29-year-old DJ sized up the situation and seized his chance: “Hey girls, how about we take Sparky for a walk to the dog park? It’s not too far. You can see how good he is with the other dogs.” (Said Sparky is apparently spectacularly well behaved and friendly with every life form on earth, if Joe with the blarney stone is to be believed, and of course, smitten by Sparky, we believed him.)

We walked miles through the sweltering heat, Sparky tugging on the end of J’s green leash, his panty pink tongue hanging out. He is a human-magnet. And it is true that he managed to make friends with all the dogs in the park within a matter of minutes. Then Joe sloshed him with water to cool him down, and we started walking back.

“Why not cut out the middleman”, I proffered. “Just lend Sparky to J and you could both meet up again next week at Pet Smart if it doesn’t work out?”

And so we came to be carrying Sparky home in a shopping bag via Bleeker Street subway to the World Trade Center and the Park line back to New Jersey to an unsuspecting fiancé who never knew what hit him until it was too late and he’d fallen for him at first sight 🙂

And there he is to this day. Well, it is only a day later, but it looks like he has stolen the hearts of his new family and will not be going back into a cage anytime soon. Even the cats liked him instantly, and when it comes to Fluffer that is really saying something. And the landlords say he can stay, even though they don’t allow dogs. He is now called Winston because of his Churchillian jaw. Sir Winston, to be precise.

So in one chance meeting, this perfect stranger entered the hearts and lives of a family who weren’t looking for a dog but will love him for his whole life. Joe, all smiles, says he thinks he ran into angels this sweltering summer’s day in Soho. But it was the other way round.

Meet your daughter (again)

Another friend sent me an ultrasound of his daughter in her mother’s womb yesterday. She is lying in the position in which Buddha entered paranirvana, and he is chuffed: “It’s quite something when you see your daughter facing straight at you on the big flat screen TV, lying on her right side, with her head on her hand (not sucking her thumb)! I can’t say that’s her orientation relative to anything in the outside world, as she floats in her ambionic fluid, but it was very clear on the screen and I rejoice in my projection!”

He has not officially met her yet but already he adores her: “As I said to my wife when they confirmed her gender, ‘I guess I’ll be saying yes to just about anything from now on!’” When did that love happen?! Why did it happen?! In beginningless lifetimes, we have all been each other’s father and each other’s daughter. That recognition – for example when the facts are staring us in the face on a flat screen TV — is enough to bring out our innate love, our Buddha nature. However, we don’t have to wait countless lifetimes to be everyone’s father and daughter again; we can recognize that relationship right now if we want to greatly speed up our love for everyone.

Actually, although it is true that our best friends started off as strangers, if we go back even further we’ll see that they also started off as our kind mothers. Take any slice of time and our bodies and relationships will appear different; but the fact is that once someone is our mother, they are always our mother. Look at a photo of your mom before you were born — is she your mother or not?! Yes, we say “That’s a picture of my mom before I was born.” And let’s say she dies and a trusted person with clairvoyance introduces you to her in another form, won’t you still recognize her as your mother and wish for her happiness and safety?

Sure, we can argue that we’ve all been each others’ enemies too, but not only is thinking in that way unproductive, we were also only each others’ enemies when we had ignorantly forgotten our mutual dependence, close relationship and lovability, and were under the influence of anger’s inappropriate attention.

We are generally superficial in our perceptions and as a result love does not flow. I reckon the three poisons actually depend on superficiality, on taking appearances at face value, on confusing appearance for reality. Someone appears disagreeable and we believe that they are, inherently so, even though stacks of evidence points to the contrary.

We can love anyone so we might as well love everyone

Our relationships with others are never stuck or fixed; we can accelerate our universal love by understanding this. We don’t need to wait for “chance” meetings like that of Winston, we don’t need to wait for someone to become pregnant, we don’t need to wait for things to change physically. We can imagine these changes happening, as we do in the meditation on equanimity, and our relationships will change dramatically. We can bring everyone up to the level of our mother, our best friend, or even our child. Genuine love entails noticing and accepting that everything and everyone changes all the time while it itself endures. Love does not take appearances at face value. Love does not judge the book by its cover. If love depends on everything and everyone staying the same, it is actually not love at all but attachment.

Sir Winston of New York

Useful tip: If you find it hard seeing everyone as your kind mother, as in the Buddhist Lamrim meditation, or you have as yet unresolved grievances with your mother, you can try seeing people as your pet dog instead to begin with! Do whatever works. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso calls meditation “beneficial believing”. It is endlessly creative — not just repeating things to ourselves, but tuning into our own experience and building on that. Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness (page 148):

Since an object’s nature and characteristics depend upon the mind that beholds it, we can change the objects we see by changing the way we see them. We can choose to view ourselves, other people and our world in whatever way is most beneficial. By steadfastly maintaining a positive view we gradually come to inhabit a positive world, and eventually a Pure Land.

To conclude, we’re all going to become Bodhisattvas and enlightened beings at some point because we have the potential to and the methods exist – sooner or later these two conditions will come together and we’ll travel the spiritual path. Therefore, I always think I may as well get started now! I’ll save myself and others a lot of unnecessary heartache if I do …

Your comments are most welcome, and please share this article if you like it.

Buddha & the Brain

(This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!)

In May 2001, Newsweek ran the headline ‘God & the Brain’. The magazine featured a series of articles on the new ‘neurotheologists’ who are attempting to chart the connections between mystical experience and brain patterns, hoping to answer the ‘question of consciousness’.

One of the articles began:

“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The neurologist — who was spending a sabbatical year in England — saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about a Buddhist meditation retreat he was headed toward.

And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things ‘as they really are’, he recalls. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ disappeared. ‘Time was not present,’ he says. ‘I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death, insinuations of self-hood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.’”

Sharon Begley’s article went on to state that scientists are beginning to use brain imaging to pinpoint the circuits within the brain that are active when people meditate or enter periods of deep prayer. Current scientific thinking has us experiencing a sense of ‘cosmic unity’ when the parietal lobes quiet down, manifesting ‘spiritual emotions… of joy and awe’ within our middle temporal lobe, and having our intense periods of concentration, such as in meditation, linked to our frontal lobes.

Notwithstanding the above, Buddha drew a clear distinction between our body and our mind. Although the two are related, he said, they are not the same thing. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is physical, whereas the mind is formless and functions to know objects. In fact, Buddha explained how our deepest levels of consciousness do not depend upon the body at all.

Here we can consider some words from Geshe Kelsang’s book Transform Your Life – A Blissful Journey, published in August 2001. In the chapter What is the Mind? he writes:

Some people think that the mind is the brain or some other part or function of the body, but this is incorrect. The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.

In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects. Thus, it is impossible for our body to go to the moon without traveling in a spaceship, but our mind can reach the moon in an instant just by thinking about it. Knowing and perceiving objects is a function that is unique to the mind. Although we say `I know such and such’, in reality it is our mind that knows. We know things only by using our mind.

I reckon we all know from our own common-sense experience of our own mind that mind and body are not the same. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes and think about your mom. Ask yourself: “What does this thought feel like? What is it? Where is it? Does it feel like a chemical or neural impulse? Or the side-effect of heightened lobe activity? Etc.”

When I do this, consciousness of my mother (let alone any non-dual experience of anything transcendent such as the illusory nature of all phenomena or the experience of blessings) does not feel like anything physical at all. Thought exists in a different dimension altogether — the formless dimension beyond the physical, without shape, color, spatial boundaries, tactile properties. Invisible, but the creator of reality. Immaterial, but mattering a great deal.

Moreover, when we refer to ‘my body’, we do not feel as if we are talking about ‘my mind’, and vice versa, which clearly indicates that we know first-hand that they are not the same. We may have the figure of speech “My brain hurts”, but we also talk about our mind, feelings and experiences all the time, and I would argue that when we do we are not even casting a sideways glance at our brain. If you’re feeling depressed, do you have the notion “My brain is depressed”? If you really want something, does it feel like “My brain really wants that!”?

I personally think that we are not born with a belief that our mind is our brain. I think it is a so-called “intellectually-formed delusion” that we acquire due to incorrect reasoning and/or other people telling us. Often we don’t question this conventional wisdom and assume smart people know what they are talking about when they say the mind is the brain, even though it provides far more questions than answers.

I never thought about it much until one day, as a 14-year-old, I was dancing and suddenly felt a wave of bliss at my heart. I thought to myself: “This feeling is not in my brain! It is so much bigger than that. It is not physical!” And that for some reason got me thinking about an article I had read about a mother who had lost her child, and it seemed to me impossible that all that grief could be contained in a lump of grey matter in her head. Also, life just isn’t that meaningless – why do we worry about anything if all that is doing the worrying is a sponge-like organ or a bunch of chemicals? Who cares what happens to us or anyone else if it is only happening to a blob of meat in our skull? Anyway, I had practical thoughts like this before I met Buddhism, so when later I was introduced to Buddha’s experiential teachings on the mind it was a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-))

In struggling to answer the ‘question of consciousness’ and how the mind relates to the body — which arose when the materialist view of Descartes and his followers took hold of Western philosophy — rather than simply accepting that mind and body are different natures and taking it from there, scientists have tried to answer the question by reducing consciousness to the purely physical. We are blinded by science: this reductionism obscures our own direct experience, based on the false premise that mind and body cannot be different natures. We are cheated out of an understanding of the formless continuum of our mind, with dire ramifications for our spiritual beliefs such as life after death, the existence of enlightened beings, and the possibility of infinite mental and spiritual development and bliss.

There is not and never will be a magical chemical concoction or brain operation that will lead living beings to full spiritual awakening. Finding a permanent way to quieten our parietal lobes is no guarantee of ‘cosmic unity’! And even if these things were possible, they would be pointless.

Geshe Kelsang's hands in meditation

Meditators, on the other hand, are scientists of the mind who spend their lives investigating the nature of consciousness from direct experience (something that can be done only by using mental awareness, not crude physical instruments) — and they have clearly understood that the mind is not anything physical. There may be some relationship between certain types of mental awareness and the brain, as there is between sense consciousness and our sense faculties (the eyeball, nose, etc); but the fact that two things have a relationship proves that they are two different things, not the same thing e.g. a driver affects his car, but is not the same as the car.

People tend to put their hands to their hearts, not their heads, to indicate deep feelings of love there. When we meditate deeply, our consciousness feels seated at our heart. In his Tantric teachings, Buddha explained that our mind is related to subtle inner energy winds that can be said to have locations within the body — we have conceptual thoughts related to the winds in our crown chakra (perhaps why we scratch our head when we’re confused!). Our minds of attachment are related to winds in our navel chakra (hence those butterflies!) We have love and wisdom related to winds in our heart chakra, which is also the seat of our deepest level of mind. Stories abound in Buddhism of great meditators, such as Geshe Kelsang’s Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, who remained warm and upright for days after their brain was dead, meditating on the clear light of bliss at their heart. You can find out more about all this in the Tantric books.

(Finally, there are stories of people who live with a tiny fraction of normal brain matter but still have an IQ of 100 or more. You can Google it.)

To gain experience of the nature and function of your own mind, you can try out this meditation: How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind.

Do you think it matters whether or not Westerners are taught that the mind is the brain? Have you had any experiences that convince you that it is not (or that it is!)? I look forward to your comments.

Putting things in perspective

We make up our own storyline as we go along. So we might as well make it a good one.

I just heard that our two $700 bicycles that I ride all the time have been stolen. The upstairs tenants left them unlocked in the front yard. (I’m property manager but away at the moment).

I know straightaway that these things happen all the time – that things appear and disappear, even every moment. The bikes appeared out of nowhere in the first place, someone generously gave them to us when they left the area.

Inappropriate attention v appropriate attention

But my initial response is nonetheless one of disappointment followed fast on its heels by its best friend annoyance. And I can easily increase both these states of mind if I want to, for example by dwelling on detailed memories of the red and blue bikes with their cute convenient little key holders, the perfect distance between the seat and the handlebars, the 21 gears, the way I could sail up and over the bridge…. and how that is now all gone!! And the greater the disappointed lather I work myself up into, the greater the annoyance at Irena and the other Russian tenants who’ve ruined my fun: “I never said they could use those bikes! What were they thinking?! How careless!! How can we get $1400 out of them?” And kicking myself too for good measure: “You idiot, why did you trust them with the shed key in the first place?”

The definition of delusion is:

“A mental factor (state of mind) that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”

(You can find out everything you need to know about delusions and how to get rid of them in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

With the delusion of anger (including aversion, annoyance, irritation, resentment etc), we pay inappropriate attention by mentally exaggerating the seeming bad qualities of a person or object until we consider it undesirable and become antagonistic and averse, wanting to push it away or even harm it/destroy it.

Korska, Russian for "cat"

There are so many ways in which inappropriate attention can run riot and take down our peace of mind! And within that inappropriate attention is a corresponding editing out of anything that inconveniently contradicts it e.g. the good qualities of Irena. Appropriate attention could be thoughts like: “This same Irena is looking after my feral cat Korska, who now apparently loves her and whom she even named, she empties all the smelly trash cans, she waters all my newly planted flowers, she spent ages trying her healing techniques on little Ralph… she’s actually a good person and probably feels bad about the bikes herself.” But annoyance doesn’t want to think about any of that stuff because it commits hari kiri if it does.

We choose what we focus on. And Irena only annoys me if I focus on her seeming bad qualities, not if I don’t.

Solving nothing
What vital things are going on in the world!?

We can find plenty of things to annoy us every day of our lives (and being currently in England, the land of the Daily Mail, reminds me how superbly daily tabloids can tap into our potential for whininess.) Alternatively we can choose to follow any number of positive lines of thought and deeper meanings, like those explained in Buddha’s teachings. For example, when something is stolen from us we can practice patience by remembering karma and impermanence, or what a downer attachment is and how great it is to live lightly, or compassion for those who have lost far more than a bicycle in the recent tornadoes in southern US, or the children in the horn of Africa who desperately need our attention, or how there is no point giving people a hard time when life is hard enough already, etc. I can even mentally give the bikes away so that the (quite possibly homeless) person who stole them doesn’t incur negative karma, advice I magnanimously gave to someone else just weeks ago 😉

After all, the bikes are gone whether I choose to get disappointed and annoyed or not, and so the disappointment and annoyance solve nothing.

Perspective
storm in a teacup

I have this theory that if you’re going to get your perspective back sooner or later anyway, you may as well skip out the annoying bit in the middle. We can hold onto certain things for years (our anger turning into the even worse delusion of resentment) due to stuck-record inappropriate attention, but don’t you find that we usually get bored of our negative thoughts sooner or later and end up dropping them? For example, what were you annoyed about this time last month, or last year? Can you even remember? And will the stealing of the bikes be any more than an anecdote in a matter of months, weeks, or even days?

There were two kids at Madhyamaka Centre long ago, brothers Edmund and Tamlin, who’d play with a third kid called Stephen, who was a bit of a handful. One day they fell out very badly with him and didn’t want to talk to him ever again.

Madhyamaka Centre, Geshe Kelsang's first centre

They tell me this, so I test out my theory on them: “Have you ever liked Stephen in the past, like yesterday for example did you play with him?” They consider this for a moment, then: “Yeah”. “Can you see a time when you might like to play with him again in the future, for example if he lets you use his space cowboy gun?” Pause while they think about this. “Errr, yeah, probably.” “How about then just saving time and energy by liking him now as you’re going to end up liking him again anyway?”

They both got it. They nodded their heads and laughed, and the three of them were playing again that very afternoon.

So, who is Irena? — the warm smiling woman who risks life and limb to stroke Korska or the woman chatting carelessly to her friends while she goes inside leaving our $700 bikes unattended? Do I waste mental energy and time itemizing her faults or do I recall how much easier she made my life by taking on my property manager responsibilities? Stand up the real Irena! But the fact is she cannot because nothing and no one exists independent of mind. Can you point to a world outside of your experience of the world? Where is it? And the world we experience is the world we are focusing on.

Thinking differently is not that hard once we decide to do it. You might be objecting: “But I can’t help feeling disappointed and annoyed when things don’t go my way!” But I reckon you can. If I can, you can. We all can. Start with small annoyances and work your way up. If you want to do it, there are a gazillion enjoyable ways to do it.

Postscript:

Well, dear reader, guess what? I have just heard that it was their own bikes that the Russians left in the front yard, not ours, thus rendering all those mental acrobatics unnecessary. But I’m putting up this article anyway because they still happened and so I can now use this article to also underscore another point: Many of our objects of disappointment, anger and annoyance, major or minor, do not have even the slightest basis of imputation to begin with e.g. imagined slights, fear of future unlikely events, etc, yet the deluded thought processes are the same.

Who deserves credit for Kung Fu Panda 2 and the rest of our life?!

Po’s father

I went to Kung Fu Panda 2 3D yesterday with my father. (He insisted!! Or perhaps that was me?!) Either way, it was even better than I thought it would be – both entertaining and inspirational. I will write an article on it soonish but, before I do, I want to start at the end. Which is also the beginning…

Remembering the kindness of others

At the end of the movie, the closing credits rolled for many minutes; page after page of people who were responsible for writing, directing, producing, filming, editing, designing, composing, visual effects, animating, modeling, supervising, engineering, and all round awesomeness!!

Thousands of people were kind enough to bring this one and a half hour movie into creation for our enjoyment. We may even notice and acknowledge a few of them, e.g. Jack Black and Angelina Jolie 🙂 But though I decided this time to stay to the very end, everyone else in the auditorium had left long before the credits finished rolling.

Thousands of people are also involved in bringing an hour and a half of our regular life into creation too – in fact we are dependent upon the kindness of thousands of people at any given moment. We may even notice a few of them, at least every now and then, and if they are obvious enough!

People left the cinema the moment the action stopped most likely because where the action actually came from didn’t seem sufficiently relevant to them, and besides they had things to do and their own lives to get on with. In a similar way, in our busy lives, in our personal worlds, with our own individual priorities and conceptual thoughts, it is rare to acknowledge everyone who has been involved one way or another in giving us literally everything we need to live moment by moment. Our self-grasping ignorance is in fact telling us that we are independent and don’t depend that much on others, that we are somehow self-made, that our world revolves around us as the main protagonist with everyone else being a bit player.

Take this moment. Perhaps you feel that you are moreorless alone in it, reading this – you’re not bothering anyone and likewise no one is bothering you. We’re all somehow separate. But if we look carefully we see that we are never alone and that every breath, every thought, every cell comes entirely from others.

You are looking at this on a screen on some magical electronic gadget, which in itself is the result of the imagination and work of many thousands of people; and the infrastructure that supported them involved many more people. You are able to read this because people taught you to read and because you have eyes that depend on your parents and on all the food and medicines you’ve taken throughout your life to keep you alive. I’ll assume you’re wearing clothes, which if you check the labels you will see come from people all over the world and the families who support them. And so on, ad infinitum.

Even our ability to contribute depends on the kindness of many others. For example, our education, our money, our skills, our job, our audience, our supporters and our responsibilities only exist due to the kindness, generosity and willingness of others. When we find ourself in a responsible or exalted position, it is easy to develop a pride thinking that we are rather special and higher up because others depend upon us, not the other way round. But the fact is that the more we are in a position to contribute, the more we depend upon them, even as the objects of our contribution, and therefore the more cause for humility we have. If they were to withdraw their support, our infrastructure would crumble and we would be nothing. So we might as well get off the fragile pedestal constructed by our pride and join everyone else on level ground. (It’s more fun down here anyway 😉

It is rare to be grateful for more than a fraction of the kindness we have received from others. The kindness of others is not new information – it becomes obvious as soon as we take anything more than a superficial egotistical glance at the apparently solid uncaused infrastructure of our lives! There is a meditation in Buddhism called remembering the kindness of others. We only need to remember something if we’ve forgotten it in the first place. You can learn this meditation in Modern Buddhism, now available completely free, no strings attached, as an e-Book due to the kindness of the author and, one way or another, the actions of thousands of other people past and present:

We are able to make use of many things with very little effort on our own part. If we consider facilities such as roads, cars, trains, airplanes, ships, houses, restaurants, hotels, libraries, hospitals, shops, money and so on, it is clear that many people worked very hard to provide these things. Even though we make little or no  contribution towards the provision of these facilities, they are all available for us to use. This shows the great kindness of others. Both our general education and our spiritual training are provided by others. (p 67 ff)

If we had a closing credit for each moment of our lives, it’d be at least as impossible to keep up with reading all the names as it was in Kung Fu Panda.

The Kadampa Temple for World Peace, Sarasota, Florida

The other day I attended the Florida New Kadampa Tradition temple opening. For nine years I was very much involved at that center, during which time the temple project was started and much money was raised. The Je Tsongkhapa statues were imported, painted and filled, and the five lineages of Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden created from scratch by talented artists at Manjushri KMC, and dedicated from the start to KMC Florida. I and many others prayed every day for a long time for this temple to arise.

Young Jin No (foreground)

However I have been living elsewhere for the past three years, during which time the temple was constructed under the expert building direction of Young Jin No, an old student who had previously built another center in Florida. She showed me around, no detail too small to rejoice in.

offerings of light

The temple is magnificent. There is no doubt that the modern day Kadampa master Geshe Kelsang has given the Sunshine State the most outrageously wonderful gift. And thousands of man and woman hours have also gone into it. It depends entirely upon millions of causes created both in this life and no doubt in previous lives – take any one of those causes away and this particular temple would not exist. Apart from making prayers and rejoicing, I myself have been out of it for the past three years, during which time new people have become involved who don’t know me from Adam. This is true of a number of people who were previously entirely instrumental in the temple even in this life, not to mention previous lives! But although only a few people may now recognize our contribution, I realized during the opening ceremony that not one of the causes we created was lost. And that even if there had been a closing credit of us and everyone else who has ever helped bring this temple into existence, no one would have been much interested anyway – for how interested are we really in the people who built our house, made our roads, taught us at school, and so on?! Isn’t that ancient history?! Are we not mainly just interested in how we can personally use these things now, in the present?!

From my own side, it has always seemed a bit pointless seeking praise or reputation, or being upset and demoralized when I am ignored, misunderstood or criticized. I have found it far more constructive and rewarding to concern myself with developing positive states of mind and good karmic intentions. Being attached to praise and reputation are so-called “worldly concerns” that do nothing to help us overcome our pride and self-cherishing, which is why the great Kadampa mind-training master Atisha famously declared in his Advice:

“Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.”

(BTW, have you ever noticed how Geshe Kelsang blows his nose during the long-life prayer done for him at festivals?!)

On the other hand, remembering and acknowledging what others have done and do for us right down to the cellular level is a supremely powerful method for breaking us out of our own little worlds by seeing how dependent on others we actually are. Other people are, in fact, not bit players but the main protagonists in our life, deserving at least equal billing! This wisdom understanding interdependence gives us humility, gratitude and loving-kindness, and the wish to repay their kindness. It makes us happy and peaceful.

So me and dad stayed right to the end of Kung Fu Panda 2 and I mentally thanked everyone whose names were appearing on the screen — right down to the technical resource tester and post-production office supervisor — for the enjoyment they had given us! Moreover, though there was no visible screen of rolling credits at KMC Florida, I felt grateful the whole weekend I was there; and as a result I had a blast!

There is nothing to stop me or you from remembering the kindness of others every day, every moment, of our lives. Your comments, including how you do this meditation, are very welcome. And please share this article if you like it.

Oh woe is me! How to stop distracting ourselves from happiness.

Probably, as mentioned in this previous article, the worst fault of self-cherishing is how it undermines our wish and capability to love and help others. I have a couple of embarrassing examples of this from just now, which I have summoned up the courage to share with you below …

As my teacher says in his wonderful mind-training book Eight Steps to Happiness:

The main reason why we do not cherish all living beings is that we are so preoccupied with ourself, and this leaves very little room in our mind to appreciate others.

It is like you’ve worked hard and paid a fortune for a hotel room with a view, only to discover that this view is entirely obscured by a huge rocky mountain right in front of your window. Self-cherishing is likened in the scriptures to a huge mountain blocking our view of the valley of others, a big shame when we’ve paid a karmic fortune to be in this precious human life.

Tai Lung

The awful distraction of self-cherishing cannot be over-estimated and makes us useless to others. Whenever it arises it distracts us to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes tragically, from the meaning of our lives and the source of real happiness, which is cherishing others.

I had a haircut yesterday and I don’t think Vince (not his real name) cut enough off. Vince was regaling me with a long sad story about an obese employee, and clearly he is a bit of a ham, and I’m not sure if he paid enough attention to my hair. He probably did, but my self-cherishing thinks he should have talked less and concentrated more. So I’m wondering whether to go back and have more chopped off, even though a friend told me its nice (but she doesn’t have to live with it on her head…). Basically, I have had some boring monotonous petty thoughts, plus annoyance at those bits of hair that keep falling into my eyes (which also remind me that my eyesight is deteriorating, which reminds me that I’m getting old…) Oh woe is me!

Then a particularly crafty mosquito buzzed around me all night and this morning, and I haven’t been able to catch her to take her outside. I have slathered myself with OFF! and smell like a chemical factory, but nonetheless she scared me in the night into having the sheet right up to my neck even though it’s hot, and she was still hungrily bugging me during my morning meditation session. Look, I love mosquitos in principle, and especially when they are behaving themselves. But I’m covered with itches. Oh woe is me!

So I open my emails and one is from a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, who was always a bit disturbed but is now sounding flat-out paranoid and threatening suicide. I have to find a way to help her…. I also get an email from a close friend saying that her mother has just had a (mild) stroke and is being kept in the hospital, and that it is a “shock”. And it is, for a few minutes until Madam Mosquito bites again.

Okaaaaaaay……

You’d think those two bits of news would be enough to occupy my mind with thoughts of compassion and how to help, but no, still my self-cherishing wants to veer off those things and back onto the bad hair day and the buzzing mosquito. I have to make an effort to ignore its demands.

(I would like to seguey into a little praise here for my friend, the Buddhist monk Kelsang Nyima. Standing chatting with him outside the NKT mother center Manjushri Centre’s front entrance one day, I noticed his hands were covered with small red welts. Indeed, there was a still a mosquito sucking out his blood. I asked him why he didn’t shoo her away and he replied matter of factly that she was hungry. Then he changed the subject.)

I can only be humbled by such patient generosity, but at least my own 30 years of practice helps me to recognize that it is crazy and, frankly, embarassing to be even remotely bothered about myself given the far worse situations of my friends, not to mention the entire rest of the planet and all six realms. Yet these two incidents have been a useful reminder that, until my self-grasping and self-cherishing are entirely eliminated, I am always in danger and cannot be complacent. My “biggest problem” during the minutes of distraction is bad hair and buzzing mosquitoes, not my sick friend or my friend’s sick mom, if I’m honest, and I might as well be. Those seemingly reasonable and self-protecting worries are entirely unreasonable and treacherous. Stop you buzzing biting mosquito and let me generate compassion!!! Let me offer the victory to others, but please be sure my hair looks hot while I’m doing it.

(Check out this blog, where the blogger says the same thing, only better. I don’t think this blogger is a Buddhist, which just goes to show that these teachings are common sense and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to choose cherishing others over self. It works for everyone, every time. Buddha gave some beautiful wise practical advice on how precisely to do it though – and you can read this in Eight Steps to Happiness.)

Got any examples of your own that you’d like to embarass yourselves with in the comments? And if you like this article, please share it.

What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?!

As quoted in this previous article, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that if we have some experience of emptiness:

Geshe Kelsang at Madhymaka Centre, early 1980s

“Everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.”

Countless meditators before us have had this experience and there seems to be no reason to think that Buddha or our kind teachers are just making this up. Once we’ve had teachings on emptiness, we do generally get the sense that it is the answer to all our problems, don’t we? Also, while compassion is arising strongly it is a major motivator for realizing emptiness, as I saw when looking after Ralph the kitten.

So my question is, “Why don’t we just go for it?”

A lot of you answered this question on the previous article, thank you.

Samsara or freedom?

I think the major reason we don’t go for it in earnest — a reason even underlying our other reasons and sabotaging our compassion — is because we are attached to inherently existent things. We don’t particularly like the idea of our house, for example, being burnt up in the fire of exalted wisdom. We’ve worked years for that house and we really quite like it! We need it! We want it to be real. Not to mention our partner, our children, our enjoyments, our vacation, our money… Have you ever lost your wallet? This is a very significant absence. We don’t like it. Why would we want to meditate on the absence of inherent existence of our wallet and everything else?!

“Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”

In the first Matrix movie, Cypher wants to return to the unreal world of false appearances because he is attached to it. Cutting up a juicy steak in a restaurant in the Matrix (of mistaken appearance) with Agent Smith (self-grasping ignorance), he ruminates that he knows the steak is merely the simulation telling his brain that it is delicious and juicy, but after nine years he has discovered that “ignorance is bliss.” He strikes a deal with the enemy Agent Smith because he wants to be rich and powerful, “an actor” maybe.

Years ago I saw a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk entered a dream-like world. He knew he was dreaming and he had control over his dream, but he didn’t like it. He spent the whole episode trying to get back to “real” life. He could not enjoy the creative freedom of being able to make up his own world, and the movie supported his view that it is better if things are solidly real.

And I’ve often wondered why brilliant Western scientists who have delved into quantum physics for a lifetime haven’t realized emptiness directly. (I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that most haven’t). They seem so close — they have almost entirely de-constructed an objective world. But they haven’t got to the point of acknowledging that, no matter how much money they spend on particle accelerators blowing tinier and tinier things up, they will never find the ultimate constituent of the universe. Why? Because there isn’t one. There is nothing out there, not even the smallest gluon, tachyon, or neutrino. Everything is projected by mind (even mind itself).

Granted, this is just my theory, but I think they’ll keep looking because they are attached to an inherently or objectively existent universe. They don’t want to dismantle it entirely because they’re attached to it being real. (Their assumption is also part of the Western creator view of a first beginning and a final end, but that’s another story.)

Buddha’s teachings are so clear on the subject – I think it could be easier and quicker to realize emptiness than spend a lifetime becoming an expert in quantum mechanics, string theory, parallel universes and so on! Yogis — who are experts in the field of the mind and of emptiness — are free and blissful all the time. Therefore, Buddha is not just positing a theory, for what he says has worked in practice for millenia to free the mind. Scientists, on the other hand, are as brainy as can be, but are also as neurotic as the rest of us.

We need renunciation, the mind of liberation

Buddha said that a pre-requisite for realizing emptiness directly is the non-attachment of renunciation. That is the only way we can enter a supramundane spiritual path – without at least renunciation we will remain trapped in samsara indefinitely. Some people wonder why we need renunciation – why, if we are intelligent, can’t we realize emptiness first and then develop aversion for samsara?! After all, the teachings on emptiness can seem more fun to begin with.

However, I think this is only because we’re not clear what it is we are actually renouncing. Yes, we are renouncing the places, enjoyments and bodies of samsara, but this is because we apprehend them as inherently existent. What we are actually renouncing is the ignorance in our minds.

We are renouncing, or wishing to give up, our self-grasping ignorance apprehending inherent existence because we know that it is the source of all our other delusions such as anger and attachment, and of all our suffering. If we are renouncing the mind of ignorance, we are also renouncing the object of that mind – inherently existent things. We want neither the conception nor the appearance of inherent existence any more, whatever these are associated with – nice things or nasty things. That is real renunciation, it seems to me.

And it is the minimum motivation we need for realizing emptiness. With it, we are delighted to spend time in emptiness, dissolving mistaken appearances away. Without it, we are at best half-hearted. And we just want to go lay on the real beach, followed by a real juicy steak, and a movie.

nobody can make us happy...

Unless we start developing some non-attachment for inherent existence, we’ll be lucky just to get glimpses of the possibilities of the spiritual path. Through blessings and/or good karmic imprints, we may have one or two good meditation sessions — letting go and abiding in a peace we’ve never experienced the like of before. But then due to our habitual attachment we will allow ourself to cling again to inherent existence, thinking of it as innocuous or even desirable.

Do you agree? (Especially the scientists among you who are reading this?!)