Compassion and the super-rich

A man walked past me on the beach recently dressed in a plain grey tee-shirt and ordinary looking shorts, only his state of the art new trainers and the X-Men type headset gracing his crown gave him away. I caught a drift of his conversation: “Yeah, the plane can stay there at the airport, we can catch the game, the car can take us back to the airport, and we’ll be back at the hotel no later than midnight.”

compassion and the super richHe is clearly one of the super-rich, in a world where cars seem to drive themselves and whole planes can be left casually lying around waiting for us. Yesterday I read in the paper that the top 5% of the US population buys 37% of the goods. What do you feel when you read statistics like this (and there are plenty of them)? Judging by the press, the Facebook comments I often see, and my own occasional grumpiness about it, I’m guessing sometimes maybe a touch of resentment or irritation? “Bl**** rich people with bonuses got us all into this mess!” An annoyance at society’s inequality and the decline of the middle class? A fear for the future? A burning desire to get involved in politics to put an end to careless rich people gorging on the rest of us? (I think being a politician is possibly the most thankless task of all). Envy arising from insecurity (especially when we ourselves are suffering from the recession)? Dislike? (If you count yourself amongst the super-rich, is there still someone richer, a neighbor perhaps, whom you feel annoyed about sometimes?)

Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day

I decided to write on compassion to celebrate Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, which is today, September 22nd. You can read a beautiful teaching given on this day in 1991 by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso here. In it, he says:

On this day we should especially remember Buddha’s kindness…. kindness of Buddha

The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.

I often write about developing compassion for animals — today I feel like writing about developing compassion for rich people, who are also “living beings” and still in samsara 🙂

What is samsara?

In samsara, there are six realms, including the demi-god and god realms that outshine the wealth, possessions and glory of the super-rich as a sun outshines a firefly. But all these realms are in samsara and all of them are to be abandoned if we are to find true and lasting happiness.

Buddha called ordinary, suffering life “samsara.” What is samsara? Samsara is the experience of an impure, uncontrolled mind. Our world does not exist from its own side but is projected by our own thoughts. At the moment, due to our delusions and karma, we are projecting a world full of suffering.

This world is characterized by a lack of freedom. At the moment we experience only relative freedom. We are not free in significant ways. For example, are we free from being born, getting sick, growing old, or dying? These happen without any choice, whether we like it or not. At some point, without choice, we have to be separated from everything we love, we have to put up with things we don’t like, and we experience a lack of satisfaction. No one who is truly free would choose to experience pain over happiness.

The different realms of samsara are all dream-like projections of a mind distorted by delusions, in particular self-grasping and self-cherishing. Liberation from samsara, so-called nirvana, or the Pure Land, is a dream-like projection of a pure or non-deluded mind. Samsara is not a place, and when we are aiming to live a pure life free from suffering it is not necessary to go somewhere else to find Milarepa's cavethis. When Milarepa (who lived in Tibet in the 11th century) was asked where his Pure Land was, he pointed to his cave. Samsara is not outside our minds any more than nirvana is. We can remove the samsara from our minds by gaining true mental freedom from our delusions, and then we will naturally be creating and living in a pure world, with blissful experiences.

Compassion for everyone

In Eight Steps to Happiness Geshe Kelsang says we also need compassion for everyone in samsara, including those who appear to be better off than us. There is something missing otherwise, and we are in danger of feeling resentful, which undermines our spiritual progress. Of course, some people are rich right now, but that doesn’t mean they are not suffering. It doesn’t in fact mean that they are suffering any less than us. Quite possibly many of them are suffering more. They have all the human sufferings we have – sickness, birth, ageing, rebirth, no satisfaction, etc. And they often have more desire, trying to slake their thirst with yet more salt-water as attachment can never be satiated. He didn’t seem particularly excited, my friend on the beach, just matter of fact, and it struck me that having your own plane soon grows old, just like every other 21st century marvel even many of us hoi poloi have already gotten used to – cars, comfortable bedding, indoor plumbing, traveling through the air, high definition TV, computers, iPhones, etc etc. My great-grandparents would have thought they’d died and gone to heaven if they could have used a fraction of what we now routinely take for granted in our daily lives. Even beings in the god realms may be getting some ideas from Apple.

shit creek of samsara
Better to get out of samsara’s creek altogether!

So, we can do what we can to balance out society and make it fairer; and to preserve our democracy I personally think it behooves us to take some responsibility, at least by voting. However, it is impossible to fix samsara or make it work for any length of time, and having an unbalanced mind about the rich is not going to improve a thing for us or for anyone else. We have to gather all blame into our delusions, not rich bankers. Actually, rich people got their wealth from past giving. If they continue to give, they will also continue to create the causes for future wealth, just like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, and that is something to rejoice in, without feeling insecure. Every time we get annoyed or jealous, we burn merit or good fortune. But every time we rejoice in someone’s qualities or good fortune, we create the cause to have those ourself.samsara is not a zero sum game

There is not set amount of wealth, it is not a zero sum game. Wealth and possessions are a result of good karma or merit, so if we create merit we necessarily create the cause for wealth – it’ll appear from somewhere, even if we are in a desert, as there is no external world that is fixed. In a dream, things just appear due to the ripening of karmic seeds. It is the same in our waking worlds. If we are worried about running out of resources, the Kadampas say the best thing we can do is practice giving to others and offering to holy beings. In one concentrated mandala offering we can create the cause for whole worlds of prosperity and joy!

 

 

Who will buy this wonderful morning?

Are we only as lucky as we feel?

I think one thing is for sure, we won’t make the most of any good luck we have if we don’t realize we have it, and especially if we are focused instead on what we don’t have.

Feeling lucky is one of the best feelings in the world, as well as one of the most useful.

are you feeling luckyBuddhism is eminently optimistic because it recognizes that at heart everyone is pure and everyone is good. In fact, there’s no difference between any of us in that we all have equally flawless potential, our Buddha nature. Whether we fulfill that potential or not depends on whether or not we use our human life to help both ourselves and others.

In The New Meditation Handbook, my teacher says we need to encourage ourselves to put the Buddhist teachings into practice for the compelling reason that we can then:

“permanently cure the inner sickness of our delusions and all suffering, and achieve everlasting happiness.”

What friend is encouraging us to do that? They are probably few and far between, and in any case who has time to be giving us thought aid all day long? So Buddha likened the first meditation of the so-called stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim in Tibetan), the one on our precious human life, to our “best friend” because it gives us all the good advice and encouragement we need, whenever we need it.

foster kitten BuddhismI have just been landed with three more foster kittens. They are scrawny, sickly, hissy, and currently clueless as to what is going on.* I will try and give them the best possible start to life, and they each have just the same potential as me. However, it is not going to be possible for them to travel the spiritual path while still in their animal body. I find that the animals in my life help me as much if not more than I help them. Taking care of them reminds me daily of how lucky I am by comparison, and so how important it is to make spiritual progress myself so that one day I can help them do the same. It is not fair otherwise.

Even if I compare myself to other humans, it is clear that I have ridiculous resources compared to most people in the world. I have had a roof over my head every day and night, I can read, I can write, I’m drinking coffee, I’m eating a delicious sandwich, I have options. Other people look at us, or watch us on TV, and think that we’re like gods, the luckiest people on the planet, at least materially.

This relative well-being comes about not because we are better or more special than others, but because we are really very, very lucky. That luck comes from many causes and conditions, the substantial cause being good karma, because we have created the causes for well-being in the past. We were able to create these causes entirely thanks to others, who gave us the opportunities to be kind, generous, patient, and so on. The main contributory cause of our good fortune is also other people’s goodness to us – bringing us up, giving us jobs, building our roads and other infrastructure, supporting us on every level since we got here. This much is clear from the meditation on the kindness of others. (Look at this blog article for more on this point).  I'm feeling lucky Buddhism

Buddha said there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish with a precious human life, spiritually speaking. In this first meditation of the Lamrim, he spelled out our options like a tour guide: “Now that you’re here, you can collect all the inner treasure you need to help you in all your future lives, you can attain complete mental freedom and overcome suffering, and/or you can attain the state of omniscient bliss and wisdom and help everyone …”

Harrods is a large department store in London, so luxurious that people from all over the world travel there to shop. It has the best and most desirable of everything. Imagine for a moment that we won a prize of ten minutes in Harrods when everything we can put into a shopping cart is ours. We might well rub our hands in glee, “This is my chance!” But imagine that instead of rushing straight to the jewelry section, we bump into someone rather attractive in the lobby and we linger a while, “Interesting person, maybe we’ll get together later.” Then we think, “Hmm, I’m feeling a little peckish,” and we head over to the cafe for a nice free croissant and latte. There we find a queue full of annoying people who are in our way, and we get distracted by that thought for a while.

Suddenly we realize we have just a minute left and we’re three floors away from anything we actually want or need. If we made a plan, we have not stuck to it. Too late. That’s how we are, we get distracted. We need that motivating knowledge of our opportunity front and foremost in our mind if we are to not to waste whatever time we have left.

The hugely influential Indian meditator Nagarjuna, when he woke up each morning, said:

“How fortunate that my breath has sustained me through the night!”

We could be like this, jumping out of bed happy each morning. As a kid, I was touched by the movie Oliver  Twist, about the orphan who was suddenly plucked from poverty due to his birthright and given all the opportunity he could desire. That scene on the balcony when he sings:

Who will buy this wonderful morning? 
Such a sky you never did see!
Who will tie it up with a ribbon
And put it in a box for me?   

Who will buy this wonderful feeling?
I'm so high I swear I could fly.
Me, oh my!  I don't want to lose it
So what am I to do
To keep the sky so blue?

We could feel this ecstatic every day if we wanted to.

don't wish our life away
Are we wishing our life away…?!

We can’t afford to take this opportunity for granted, given how fragile and short-lived it actually is. Life is not a dress rehearsal, as they say. We only have this shot at getting it right. It is very hard for animals and even most humans to avoid suffering and control their minds. We always have the potential, the Buddha nature — it is our birthright. Right now we also have the conditions — we have the freedom to become free! Joyful Path of Good Fortune has a checklist of good fortune — the freedoms and endowments. If we discover we have these, I think we discover we have everything.

Over to you: What is more valuable to you, one minute of life or one thousand dollars?

(*Day 4: The foster kittens are coming along in leaps and bounds. I like to think of their new purring as tuning into the Dharmakaya, receiving blessings. May it one day be as easy for us to give ALL living beings food, medicine, shelter, safety, entertainment, and love.) tuning into Buddha's enlightened mind, blessings

Choose Freedom

It may sound counterintuitive, but a free mind is a controlled mind. Having no control over our own mind is the same as having no choice in our thoughts. If we cannot choose what to think at any given moment, we automatically default to our habits and react with thoughts that we don’t even like half the time, such as attachment, envy, aversion, bitter disappointment, non-faith, unkindness, impatience, or whatever.

true mental freedom, controlling the mind
The two wings of wisdom and compassion will fly us to freedom.

Freedom is the ability to choose any thought we want whenever we want it, regardless of what or who is going on around us.

Thoughts are just that — thoughts. They don’t have arms or legs. They are not physical. They only exert dominion over us because we have always let them. It is like the sky letting the clouds run the show, not realizing its own vast and profound power.

We all want to be happy, and we all have the limitless potential for happiness and even bliss – so why is it so darned hard to stay happy?! For example, when people first start to meditate, they often complain that they cannot even get their mind to stay still and peaceful for a few seconds, for three rounds of breathing meditation, let alone for an hour, a day, a week, a month, a lifetime. If we simply cannot stay happy, even when external conditions are going our way, does this not mean, effectively, that we don’t have enough control over our mind?

So, our usual response is to try to bypass this by controlling our world and other people rather than trying to control our thoughts, and look where that gets us.

A traditional Buddhist image showing how the stages of concentration bring our crazy elephant mind under control.
Wild elephant mind

Buddha described our mind as a rampaging wild elephant, stomping around creating havoc much of the time. As mentioned in this article, Buddha called unpeaceful and uncontrolled minds delusions. I remember first hearing a teaching on the so-called six causes of delusions at Madhyamaka Centre and how much I appreciated having this very practical, seemingly fool-proof way of making headway in taming and overcoming my uncontrolled and unpeaceful states of mind. I realized I could start to think the thoughts I wanted to think whenever I wanted to think them. I could choose to be kind, loving, blissful, faithful, contented, cool, and wise whenever I wanted once I had control over my own mind. No one could stop me doing this, regardless of what they do, or say, or think!

In fact, the more obstacles put in our way, the more of an enjoyable challenge it can become to react in the way we WANT to as opposed to the usual, boring, choiceless, instinctive, negative way we’ve always responded in the past. To me, that is real freedom, and I want it more than anything else.

The first three causes of delusion are the main causes—if we have these three, we automatically have a delusion arising in our mind. The last three are conditions that make it easy for the causes to come together. Our temporary states of mind are like clouds in the sky — if the right causes and conditions come together clouds manifest, otherwise they don’t. Knowing these causes and conditions means knowing the techniques for controlling our mind.

(1) The seed of delusion

 The seed of a delusion is the potentiality for that delusion to arise; it is the substantial cause of the delusion. ~ Understanding the Mind

seeds of delusions, seeds of sufferingWe have at the moment potentials for irritation, attachment, ignorance, and so on. According to Buddhism, these are like seeds in our formless mental continuum, which we’ve had since beginningless time. For example, I have the seed of anger within my mind even right now, while I’m feeling peaceful, but it won’t arise without other conditions, such as an annoying object and inappropriate attention. We also have potentials for almost unimaginable bliss, goodness, love, compassion, wisdom, and so on – also like seeds. Which ones are sprouting in our mind right now depends on other factors, but right now we have the potentials for the dark side and the good side.

The result of spiritual practice is to dig out the seeds for delusions once and for all from our mental continuum. So-called Foe Destroyers have done this and as a result cannot develop delusions regardless of what is going on in their lives. We can imagine what it’d be like to be permanently freed from anger, attachment, ignorance, pride, selfishness, and so on – just imagining it feels like a relief, and starts bringing it on.

Interestingly and luckily enough, we can never destroy the seeds of our positive minds because they’re part of our Buddha nature, whom we really are, and are also based on a realistic, unexaggerated view of the world, not on inappropriate attention.

Ignorant, not evil

All ordinary beings have these potentialities in their mind, and they can be eradicated only by attaining the wisdom directly realizing emptiness and meditating on this for a long time. ~ Understanding the Mind

Our root delusion, from which all the others grow, is ignorance. Living beings are not evil — we engage in evil actions, we can have evil states of mind, but we ourselves are not evil. We suffer from an inner sickness or inner poison – our delusions — and all these are rooted not in evil, but in ignorance. We just do not know how things exist, and we think that things exist in a way that they don’t exist, in fact contradictory to how they exist — namely independent of the mind, having nothing to do with our perceiving consciousness, solid, real, inherently existent, “out there”, existing from their own side. There seems to be a gap between us and everyone else, between our mind and our world, whereas the truth is that everything depends entirely upon our mind, just like objects in a dream.

life is like a dream according to BuddhaJust a dream!

In a dream everything feels real and vivid, it seems to exist out there, independent of our mind.  Yet when we wake up, we realize it was made up by our mind. “Ah! I made this up! It’s just a dream! I projected the whole thing, it’s gone! It just came from my mind and then I thought it was out there, and I got really het up about all these things, and hmm, what was all that about?”

We’ve been doing this for years and years already, just in this life, every time we fall asleep at night. We still haven’t got it, have we?! We wake up every morning, “Ah, that was just a dream!” We fall asleep again at night, “Hey, what’s going on here?” Panic. Falling in love with people. Running away from other people. We wake up, “Oh, it’s just a dream.”

We’ve done this thousands of times, and still it hasn’t alerted us to the fact that, every time we dream, everything that appears to us is a projection of our mind that we are grasping at as real.

When I have a problem that seems intractable I imagine having it in a dream. I was talking to a good friend the other day who has just been through divorce. Not un-understandably, he felt disappointed and let down, like a victim, like it had nothing to do with him. This made him feel helpless and angry, with no clear way forward. He has a good understanding of Buddhism so I asked him: “If you had divorced in a dream, who would have been responsible for that?” If we understand that everything is a mere projection of our own mind, like a dream, we can see how we are responsible for what appears to our mind, for what happens to us. Knowing this always gives us a way to move forward, by changing our mind rather than bashing our head against an intractable brick wall. And when we change our mind, the situation itself changes – the brick wall does come down. He didn’t become undivorced, but the situation no longer appeared dire, and he got his mojo back.

 

Mummies of the World

I found myself doing a rather odd thing yesterday, but there were hundreds of other ordinary tourists and families doing it with me – though, come to think of it, that makes it even odder!! contemplating impermanence

I was looking at loads of dead bodies. Dead human bodies. And not just any old dead human bodies but bodies that had been dead for thousands of years. And me and all the kids, parents, couples, senior citizens, and so on were all trying to be respectful, as we had been requested in the introductory video, and we were surely fascinated with our “Ooohs!” and “Aaahhhs!”, though I overheard a great deal of “Euggh, that’s gross” comments and had no shortage of these sentiments myself.

I will backtrack. My friend Anya had asked me to go to the Mummies exhibition last week  with her and her kids, and I thought no more about it until they and another friend Donna picked me up yesterday morning. We had pancakes and coffee, a perfectly normal Sunday mummies story to be toldmorning activity, drove 50 miles to Tampa, still pretty normal, and then spent an hour or two staring at dead bodies.

Donna is a force of nature. She is undergoing extensive chemo for an aggressive cancer, throughout which she has continued to work nights at a grueling job without being granted so much as ten minutes off. 10am was like 3am for her, yet in the pancake house she was grinning from ear to ear as she told us a funny story about the rap artist 50 cents (I can’t really remember what it was about, I was too mesmerized by her contagious laughter, when I know that physically she feels a wreck.) This was after telling me her life history as I requested, which involved an Oprah-worthy amount of hardship, including abandonment at the age of 11 by her mother, years of living with a dead beat father, and basically bringing herself up with no money. But she seems to have emerged, if not entirely unscathed by her own admission, at least impressively lacking in self-pity and possessing a great sense of humor. She is two months younger than me.

A woman came up to Donna in the pancake house, touched her shoulder, nodded toward her bald head, and said, “God bless you. I’ve been there.” Donna said she gets that a lot. It doesn’t really annoy her, not any more. She feels she has joined a secret club, which actually has a surprisingly large number of people in it, and it feels good to know she is not alone even though she has always prided herself on her independence. I was telling her about Shantideva’s quote “Suffering has good qualities” because, whatever illness or suffering we have, the curious thing is how quickly we find others who have it as well – and these may be the same people we’ve been brushing shoulders with for years without knowing. This helps our empathy and it is not too much of a stretch to spread it out to understand that everyone suffers from something or other. She is not a Buddhist, but she liked that, as she has a direct taste. She told me she did feel that her world had gotten larger, paradoxically, even though she is more physically constrained, her life currently a combination of work and being strapped to chemo machines.

One of my previous bodies?

She was tired when we arrived so we got her a wheelchair. It was kind of useful actually — we found that people got out of our way when I pushed her toward them! Ha ha! So, even though it was a busy labor day Sunday, we had front row seats for a whole bunch of dead bodies…  Lucky us. 

If Donna was having any thoughts about her own mortality, she was keeping quiet about it. As were all the other still animated bodies wandering around in there. For myself, having spent a lifetime contemplating death, I couldn’t help but imagine my own body lying there all shriveled and hideous 3000 years in the future, with bits of skin and hair still hanging off it, while a whole bunch of weird people in a futuristic world I could never have anticipated were all gaping at it, laughing nervously, ignoring it while chattering about other stuff, or moving away in disgust.  (I told Anya et al that on no account do I want them to mummify my body when I’m gone.) There was a video there of the sped-up decomposition of a rabbit, a pumpkin, a rat, and an orange. Anyone under any illusion about the beauty of flesh need look no further…  There were even mummies of cats – nice to know the Egyptians valued their pets so highly, but still… I think when the time comes I will bury Rousseau instead.

mummy of a cat mummies of the world
Or this one?

(One question I have for you, dear readers. Why are they called “Mummies”? I know from a Buddhist point of view everyone has been our Mummy, but I don’t think that’s what the Egyptians meant.)

There is one other vignette from yesterday that also gave me a little insight. Years ago, as a volunteer youth I assisted a man called Wilf, who was completely paralyzed except for his head, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. We became friends so I also went to visit him and his wife, also disabled, at their very well equipped house. One thing I noticed was the embarrassed or condescending reactions many (not all) people had upon seeing someone in a wheelchair. Wilf was sharp as a tack and amusing as could be, and he took beautiful photos, but many people seemed to overlook these basic facts about him. People would look sympathetic or talk about him literally above his head. While Donna was in the restroom, I sat on her chair in the corridor to wait and use the few minutes to think about what I had seen. A man came out of the gents and the door swung into my chair because I was entirely in the way. He was flustered, said sorry, and made as if to move me out of the way. I said quickly: “Don’t worry, I’m fine, I was in the way, this is not my chair, I’ll just get up and….” But he wasn’t listening to a word I was saying! In fact, he was barely looking at me; I don’t think we made any eye contact at all. He got behind my chair and started to pull it along the corridor. I started to try and get up, and he pushed down on my shoulder, saying “No, don’t do that, I will help get you out of harm’s way.” I decided to relent and let him push me wherever he felt like. And I got a fleeting but useful feeling of what it must have been like to be Wilf.

Later yesterday evening I was invited by my Russian neighbors to Konstantin’s birthday party, and we discussed the body of Lenin, embalmed in alcohol, waiting for… what exactly?

mummies of the world
Bit late for that?

I suppose yesterday for me was mainly a testament to the futility of attempting to preserve and hang onto our human flesh when one thing is inevitable, and one thing alone – we are all going to die and these cossetted bodies, temporary guesthouses, are going to be entirely useless and rather revolting when we do. For most of us, our friends and relatives will be in no hurry to keep them lying around any longer than they have to, and will quickly dispose of them. We might as well get used to this idea sooner rather than later, given that everyone we know is going to die pretty shortly in the grand scheme of things, including us. Better to embrace impermanence than try to grasp onto a permanence that simply does not exist and end up with nothing better to hug than a corpse. Better to ask ourselves, “Once this body of mine is shriveling up and decaying — whether that is in 50 years, 20 years, 5 years, a few weeks, or later today — where will I be and what will I be doing?” It is not the truth we need to avoid; it is the deceptions of our permanent-grasping and attachment.

A friend of mine wrote to me today with an eloquent, moving reply to my condolences on his beloved mother’s death and explaining a little of how he is reacting to it. One of the things he said:

“It is a challenging appearance as you said. I had a thought yesterday as I sat in the chapel next to her open coffin that really she is Buddha Tara and this emanated appearance of death is just to teach me the most important meditation that Venerable Geshe-la is always encouraging us to realise.”

At this point I can only imagine what it must be like to sit beside the body of one of my parents, but we are all going to have to do this over and over again with all our loved ones, so we may as well give at least some thought as to how we’re going to cope with that before it is upon us. Is that morbid or is that common sense?

Over to you. Comments welcome.