On a recent Saturday evening, I was invited to the birthday party of a dear old friend, a party filled with amiable characters from all parts of the world.
Among me and my friends were S the ebullient New Ager, J her elegant French mom, I the dear Danish healer, H the kind Texan host, A the Dutch retiree with a twinkle in her eye, P her mischievous ex-Nato husband, I the calm Floridian Braille teacher and observer, B the liberal Unity churchman, C the cheerful Puerto Rican grandmother, and L the British Buddhist. We ate lots of tasty food, conversed loudly, sang happy birthday twice, watched the space station go by outside in the sky 17,000 whole miles away, got tipsy on champagne or sugar, and laughed a lot. And only one person texted the whole evening, as far as I could tell, perhaps because the youngest person there was 43.
A few scene snippets: S is talking animatedly about her recent trip to the Philippines and her shock at returning to affluent white man’s land where people cannot distinguish between ‘needing’ and ‘wanting’. She makes a good point, and also adds that unfortunately the shock is fading fast. Elderly P asks her what she does, and S replies, “I cannot answer such an old world question. I can make up an answer if you like.” He volunteers that he also spent time in the Philippines and when I ask him “what did YOU do?” he replies straight-faced, “The usual. I was a hired killer.” I’ve only just met him; I have no idea if he is pulling my leg. Then his wife sings for us a Brazilian song in a strong Dutch accent, after which the conversation turns to chelation and why brown rice (the main thing I eat!) is now bad for you, and the differences between Europe and America (in Europe people have more acquaintances, in America more friends, but are they really the same thing?), and some safe conversation about grandchildren. Then we all went our separate ways home and the evening dissolved.
There, with these few words and labels I have given you a tiny bit of a handle on just one of countless Saturday night scenes, but we’ll never find anything behind those labels if we look!
What was really going on that evening?! Who there can say? We can each only describe our experience and these are all bound to be quite different to everyone else’s – we came to the house with our own karmic background, states of mind, discriminations and feelings, which entirely colored, nay, created, the whole evening. Yet we still thought WYSIWYG – what we each saw was what was actually there.
However, like a dream, there was nothing really happening at that party. It was merely a dance of fleeting appearances projected by our minds – some appearances collective, e.g. we could all agree there was vegetarian sushi served – but probably most not. It was empty of being ‘real’ – it lacked objective existence. If we check, nothing in any situation exists ‘out there,’ or from its own side.
Everything is mere reflection of the mind, and its only depth is emptiness.
Thoughts about thoughts
While enjoying the party, and in general enjoying life, these thoughts crossed my mind:
(1) It is best not to take refuge in any of it, or believe it too strongly, as there is nothing there to grasp at or be attached to. Instead we can enjoy the mere appearance of it, like a butterfly flitting from one flower to another, and not get more sucked up in our ignorance believing all this to be true. Toward the end of the evening, the elderly Dutch lady said to me: “I was watching you when you were over there laughing and smiling, and I wanted to come and join you.” Thinking about the dream-like nature of things makes us very happy.
(2) These appearances are pleasant enough right now, but can and will change on a dime. We need to scratch this random dream while we have some control over the projector of our mind, and project a meaningful, blissful world from wisdom and compassion.
(3) The only safe thing to rely on, apart from not getting drawn into appearances, is tolerance, compassion and love because these always work to bring about happiness, and they always create good karma for more pleasant appearances and experiences to manifest in the future. At some point old P says to young S: “You’re weird, and I’m a bit far out, and B is eccentric, and H is OCD, etc., but we still accept each other even if we don’t understand each other.”
S also said that when she doesn’t understand someone, she puts herself in their shoes, but this sometimes has the effect that she finds them totally weird. I reckoned that if she was actually succeeding in putting herself in their shoes she would not be thinking “I am weird” about herself… we rarely do. It is everyone else who is weird. She agreed. The Tea Party find the liberals weird. The liberals find the Tea Party weird. Jocks find nerds weird. Nerds find jocks weird. Dogs find cats weird. Cats find dogs weird. You name it.
(4) Tread lightly, on our way out of samsara, with renunciation for mistaken appearances and the wish for a completely non-mistaken mind, the mind of bliss and emptiness, and the ability to bring every lovable person in the room and everywhere else to that state. Geshe Kelsang says:
Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and its function is to bestow mental peace on each and every living being every day. ~ Modern Buddhism, p. 26
To truly overcome ordinary mistaken appearances, our grosser levels of mind have to subside and we have to manifest the very subtle clear light mind by bringing our inner energy winds into our heart chakra (you can find out what all that means in Modern Buddhism if you like.) But even before we have that advanced realization we can feel more in the heart and less ‘all over the place,’ more centered and settled through the practice of decreasing the distractions of all our busy, manic conceptual thoughts and labels. How? All meditations have this as a side effect, and you can use breathing meditation or meditation on the clarity of the mind or OM AH HUM meditation to great effect. A clear, settled mind sees reality more clearly, and deep meanings can soak into it like butter soaking into hot toast.
Life is stranger than fiction
Life IS stranger than fiction because most fiction inevitably pins things down, labels things, creates a narrative from generally just one or a few perspectives. And anything we can imagine in fiction can and does happen in ‘real’ life – as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says, “We can appear anything due to karma.” If we can imagine it, it can appear, because our world begins in conceptual imputation.
You know that song Piano Man by Billy Joel? He sets a vivid scene. If you put any group of people together in a bar or anywhere else you are going to have a situation, a play, sometimes a drama. There is always going to be a story there. But it is important to know that there is nothing there to grasp at, the story is not just highly shifting and impermanent, but also entirely imputed, labeled or made up by all our minds. We can change the story once we understand this; write a better one for ourselves and others.
A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
If you’ve ever made the mistake of sitting through an entire run of the series 24, as I have, you’ll know that it is a lot of sound and fury, as the bard would say, signifying nothing. A whole bunch of delusions are projecting all sorts of weirdness and violence, and the hero Jack Bauer is trying to make sense of it so he can sort it all out. The suspense kills you all the way through, and then it still ends in tears and on a cliff hanger, with most people dead.
I think samsaric life is rather like that – 24 may be a sped up version, but still… we’re addicted to drama, suspense, excitement, action, relief!! I would get up and stroke the cat in the most hairy moments (about every five minutes, the cat didn’t know what had gotten into me), and in the same way in life it is very helpful to settle our minds if we are to cope with all the drama. But that alone is not enough. The end of 24 left me deflated, nothing was resolved – no, and it never can be. Samsara is like that. How extraordinary it would be if we could switch off the projector of our deluded minds, absorb into the clear light of bliss and emptiness, and then project a whole new movie or dream, but one we are in control of this time.
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