Wrote this during the last election cycle — still seems quite relevant.
Two things have happened this week that have reinforced my conclusion that although we have to do practical stuff to help others (eg, I took Zia the foster kitten to the vet yesterday, which might have saved her life), lasting, far-reaching change has to come from within. Like I was saying in my last article.
An adventure in canvassing
Those of you in the US may have noticed that we are in election season. Now, I want to say before I go any further that generally I’m with Nagarjuna when he prayed never to reborn as a politician. However, I do think there is a choice in this election that might make a difference to large sections of the population. I voted yesterday for the person I think will muck things up less and I actually do hope he wins. I became an American citizen in July, and I’ve long thought that exercising my right to vote is a karmic way to make sure I keep my freedom to vote in the future (and gives me the excuse to complain when politicians annoy me.) But that’s me. I have friends who entirely disagree with my version of who should win this election, or who think that voting for any politician is an exercise in futility, and these are perfectly fine and kind people; which just goes to show how everything depends on our own mind.
The only time I’ve ever been politically active was, aged 13 in Britain, when I saw a party political broadcast by Jeremy Thorpe of the Liberal Party and decided on the spot to join the Young Liberals. This basically meant wearing a nerdy badge and going to a few discos. I don’t believe I made the slightest jot of difference to anything, but I did meet some boys.
Still, the other day I was chilling on my sofa when the phone rang and someone asked me: “Are you voting for so and so?” “Yes.” “Would you like to volunteer to help the campaign?”
I have never hitherto had the slightest interest in volunteering to help the campaign, and I am not one of those people who tries everything once, but for some reason the word “Yes” came out of my mouth again. Before I could swallow it, I found myself committed to a time and place.
Last Sunday at 1pm, therefore, I found myself driving to a rather nice house on the water and meeting a bunch of rather nice people, who are passionate about this thing. I had read that the well-organized campaign knew everything about registered voters and tried to match canvassers up with their own type of demographic, so as I drove off alone in my car with my clipboard and all my leaflets I called my mum to tell her that with my English accent I’d soon be knocking on some posh doors in that neighborhood. Instead, I found my directions taking me east of the railway tracks.
Equipped with only my sticker, I knocked on 41 doors that afternoon – half the people were out (thankfully) and the other half were African American. Florida gets called the zebra state for good (bad) reason – the strip of land by the water is white, and the strip of land behind it is black, and don’t get me started on how weird that is. In any event, I had an interesting afternoon and a total of 15 conversations, being invited in a couple of times, and persuading perhaps a total of four whole people to go early to the voting booth, but more likely I was preaching to the choir and those four would have gone anyway.
That took four concerted hours!! And really, if I’m to be honest, it accomplished very little, if anything. (I did have fun though.) I am not criticizing Get Out the Vote, in fact it may be necessary and I admired the motivation of the organizers I met (who now of course want me to come back as apparently 15 conversations is some sort of first-time record, tho’ no doubt they say that to everyone.) But what struck me was how labor-intensive and in fact potentially frustrating it is to try and talk people into things they are not interested in. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It just shows me how slow change will be if that is all we do to change things.
Atisha says that we cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own mind. And I think that if everyone put four concerted hours into developing compassion and wisdom each day, we’d very quickly tame our own minds, and could help and encourage others in quite exceptional ways.
I actually heard these words coming out of my mouth while out canvassing, “Let’s win this thing!” I was surprised at myself, until I realized that I wasn’t really talking about the election.
(Hey, I just had some scary trick or treaters come to my door and had to bribe them to go away with Reeses Peanut Butter Cups… it sort of reminded me of Sunday, only no one gave me any chocolate… Happy Halloween Everyone!)
Sandy. An innocuous name for a killer storm. The inescapable violence of the out-of-control wind and rain in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Haiti and so on reminds me that all too often we have little to no control over the external world. NYC, a major world city with extraordinary modern infrastructure, was still powerless in many ways when the four elements became unbalanced. Many people had the karma in this storm to stay cosy and warm inside, power on, stocked up, just hearing the howling wind without being adversely affected by it on this occasion. Quite a lot of others, however, did not. I think of that policeman who took his family to safety in the attic and returned to the basement, only to drown. He did not expect that when he woke up in the morning. Nor did that woman expect to tread on a live wire and be electrocuted to death. We never know when it is our turn – we always think tragedy is something that happens to others, until it happens to us. Just one or two days, but so much damage. We need to gain more control over our lives, and quickly.
I pray that all those who died so unexpectedly in the storm go straight to Tara’s heart, and that their loved ones find peace. I pray that those 20 premature babies who had to be evacuated with tubes dangling all survive intact and healthy and that their parents aren’t too terrified. I pray the damage is not too devastating to people’s livelihoods and property, that those who lost their homes can recover as soon as possible, and that those without power quickly get it back. I pray anyone reading this, and your friends, family, and neighbors, are all okay, now and always.
Meditation is all about changing from within. Usually we’re busy trying to change things out there, but in meditation we go inward to look much deeper at the causes of happiness, suffering, sickness, and health. We learn to transform our own mind — cultivating causes of happiness and overcoming causes of suffering – and let our words, actions, and world be a reflection of that.
We like change, don’t we? We think things like, “It would be nice if this was different. It would be really nice if you were different. And if I was in charge, I’d make the whole company/relationship/family/organization/country/world different, I tell you! It would not be like this!” We’re constantly trying to control the world in one way or another. But the interesting thing is that even though we’ve been doing this for an awfully long time, like mini-Mussolinis or something, control freaks, trying to control everything around us, we’re in just as much a mess as we ever were, both individually and collectively as a society. The world as a whole is still full of suffering and problems. We ourselves still have problems and suffering in our life. It looks like on the whole we’ve barely scraped the surface, if that, of finding solutions to everyday pain. Tell me I’m wrong! Buddha’s point is not that there is anything wrong with change per se – in fact, our potential for change is our ticket to get ourselves out of this mess. However, we have to figure out where happiness and suffering actually come from and then work to change our hearts and minds, not everyone else.
I was watching a TV show called “Rome” at a friend’s house the other day, and found myself thinking: “Really, nothing’s changed since ancient Rome! There’s still the greed and the attachment, there’s still the hatred and the annoyance, there’s still the scheming and the attachment to reputation. It’s all there. We haven’t changed much.” On the way home that evening I saw a sticker on someone’s bumper: “EVOLVE!” “Good idea!” I thought.
But we’re only going to evolve into better people if we get rid of our uncontrolled and unpeaceful minds. While they remain, we’re no better than the ancient Romans. We haven’t changed at all. Humans are still yelling at each other, still hurting each other, still scheming, still deceiving, still attached to possessions and position, still trying to find happiness outside of the mind, and still failing. Nothing’s changed in that department for hundreds or thousands of years. This is why we learn to meditate, because if we still have anger, jealousy, pride, greed, and ignorance in our minds, nothing is ever going to change much for the better. The furniture of our lives may look different, sandals and togos may go out of style and suits come in – but it’s the same old, same old, isn’t it?
But if we change our minds, then we change our world, we actually start to inhabit a better world, a purer world, and help others do the same.
Over to you. Do you agree that internal change is most important, or do you think that this can be overstated and that, in terms of helping others, for example, external change is where it’s at?
First of all, Happy Je Tsongkhapa Day! Today, October 25th, Kadampa Buddhist centers worldwide celebrate this great Buddhist master and Yogi, and what he has done for us. Geshe Kelsang’s Kadampa Buddhist books are commentaries to Je Tsongkhapa’s texts, and I find the two authors share an uncanny economy and lucidity of words, combined with profundity and transcendence. So I can’t resist pointing out some of Geshe Kelsang’s books in this article to celebrate, sort of like an extended ad!, and maybe you’ll get to sit down with one of them this cool October evening.
How to switch off
Our bodies come and go, but our mind is a beginningless and endless continuum of awareness. We can learn to switch off different thoughts, including anger, attachment, selfishness, and ignorance; but it will never be possible to switch off this continuum. From waking to sleep, and from life to life, it continuously cycles — from gross, to subtle, to very subtle, back to subtle, back to gross. I sometimes think of it as a bit like H2O cycling from ice, to water, to water vapor, and back again.
When I die, my very subtle mind (associated with my very subtle wind that is currently located in my heart chakra) is all that will go with me to my next life. Buddha taught that it is the very subtle mind, or “root mind”, that I’ve had in all my lives which will transform into omniscient wisdom, not my grosser levels of consciousness that come and go like clouds in the sky.
A problem most of us have at the moment is that we cannot use our subtler levels of mind whenever we feel like it … Even though you dream most nights, can you even remember, let alone use, your own subtle dreaming awareness for example? Our very subtle mind only awakens when our grosser minds have disappeared, in deep sleep or death when, unless we are deeply trained in meditation, we can’t use our mindfulness or memory at all.
Even the scientific equipment in the lab seemed to pick up that Dr. Eben Alexander’s sense consciousness and other grosser levels of consciousness were not functioning during the shut-down of his brain (brought on by a potentially life-threatening encounter with meningitis.) Advanced meditators can cause their gross minds to dissolve away without having to wait for sleep or death or comas or NDEs. One way they train in this is through imagining going through the death process and transforming the very subtle mind or so-called “clear light” of death into the clear light of bliss. Then later they are able to manipulate their subtle inner winds and minds to replicate the death process but without actually dying, experiencing an authentic clear light. We can also get to the clear light through the six-stage Mahamudra meditation, which we can fortunately study in Mahamudra Tantra.
The significant problems we face…
Through learning these tried and tested meditation practices, we can access our deepest level of consciousness at our heart chakra, which is unrelated to our brain, and use it to meditate; and, once we have this ability, we have a blissful non-dual mind and can experience blissful Pure Lands at will. This clear light mind itself does not support dualistic conceptions, and it is also mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena, emptiness of inherent existence, like water mixed with water; so self-grasping and mistaken appearances no longer have any leg to stand on. This “inner science” is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings and the works of many advanced meditators, including Volume 2 of Modern Buddhism, available for free right now if you want to read it.
So, we cannot destroy our self-grasping, selfishness, and ordinary minds completely with our ordinary, dualistic levels of consciousness — we need to meditate on emptiness with the clear light mind of bliss. This reminds me of Einstein’s dictum:
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
I think my own teacher spends a lot of his life in the clear light. If you’ve ever seen him meditate, which he can do for many hours and days at a stretch, you’ll see an extraordinary stillness and absorption. It was the same apparently with his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, and his teacher’s teacher, Je Phabongkhapa. Geshe Kelsang also spent 18 years in meditative retreat in the Himalayas and 3 years of retreat in Tharpaland, when it was in Scotland.
A good friend of mine once travelled with Geshe Kelsang to the US to set up his first Center. As they were taking off, he smiled: “We are going to Vajrayogini’s Pure Land!” He then closed his eyes and meditated for the entire 8-hour flight, opening them just once to take a single fork’s worth of food.
You can tell upon reading Geshe Kelsang’s books, including his Tantric teachings, that he has first-hand experience, that he is describing what he sees directly. I think this is why his words have the power to inspire results in the reader or listener.
Lamrim, the stages of the path
In the last article, I talked about Dr. Alexander’s description of non-duality. And I find that the 21 Buddhist Lamrim meditations seem to draw us closer one way or another to non-duality, to a lessening gulf between subject and object. If you’ve been doing this incredibly helpful cycle of Kadampa Buddhist meditations for a while, as this Kadampa has, (recording his experiences in Daily Lamrim), you may have your own conclusions about this, in which case please share them below.
For me, with the meditations on the initial scope, starting with precious human life and death, I see how this current situation I’m in is dependent on many causes and conditions, and once any of these is removed and I die all the appearances of this life will dissolve away like last night’s dream. With some mental space from worldly concerns, I stick my head above the parapets and get a vast view of reality, of the different possible appearances to mind of all my future lives. Like new dreams unfolding – the realms where I may be reborn are not outside the mind, they cannot be found in any geographical location. The main object of refuge or protection from future suffering is then emptiness itself, the only non-deceptive object, as taught to me by Buddha and practiced by my fellow Sangha. Also, by observing the law of karma I am focusing on inner cause and effect, the other side of the coin from emptiness, seeing how all my thoughts, actions, and experiences are interconnected, and so taking responsibility for them.
With the meditations on the intermediate scope, the main thing I develop renunciation for is self-grasping ignorance, grasping at inherent existence, as well as attachment to happiness existing outside the mind. With the wish to be completely free, I try to practice the three higher trainings of moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom to cut this root of suffering away. When I have finally stopped grasping at things existing independently of the mind — “that’s got nothing to do with me!” — I will be master of my own reality. I’ll be completely free. Nirvana.
With all the meditations on the great scope or Mahayana, I become closer and closer to other living beings (including animals) by contemplating our interdependence and so on, identifying with them, feeling they are also “me”, closing the chasm ‘twixt self and other. Then with tranquil abiding concentration and the wisdom of superior seeing, I focus on emptiness itself until one very happy day I will have removed all dualistic appearances from my mind permanently and can help everyone all the time.
To do all this, I mix my own mind with the blessings or enlightened mind of my Spiritual Guide, Buddha, which is already free from dualistic appearances and permanently blissful.
When someone has fully purified their mind and perfected all good qualities, they have attained enlightenment. Even enlightened beings are projections of our mind, but they exist. In his experience, Dr. A had some experiences of being guided – I wasn’t there, so I have no idea who his “angels” were, but I am happy to accept that they were significant to him and that they existed. I really enjoyed a couple of his descriptions, his description of the heavenly sounds are redolent to me of mantra, or the nectar of enlightened beings’ speech:
“The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet.”
I was also moved by his description of the person who guided him – she reminded me of a Dakini, or “Space Goer”, a female Tantric Buddha or a woman who has attained the realization of meaning clear light. Dakinis are also sometimes called “messengers”. I don’t know who his guide was, but I liked to be reminded of mine.
Dr. Eben Alexander has written his book to inspire others because:
“The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already.”
Hopefully, Kadampa Buddhism will be able to help break the mold as it already has plenty to say on the subject.
Susan Grober said on Facebook in response to Dr. wish to educate others:
“He has a hard task, especially given the new stats on fewer people in US identifying with a particular religion. I hope his experience lets people living too much in their heads, and not enough in their hearts, entertain, even for a minute, that “this” isn’t it. Hopefully the degree and Harvard credentials will help this “good cause”!”
The same Newsweek magazine also carried an article on the insidious influence that Facebook could have on children under 13 if FB allows them to join, with general alarm at what the supersonic rate of sensory stimulation and instant distraction available 24/7 might be doing to all of us, including reducing our empathy (feeling of connection?) Certainly, I think we can tell that it is keeping us in our heads, and Dr. A’s article, to me, in notable contrast, was giving another example of what is available if we allow ourselves to connect with our spiritual hearts.
In the last article I was mainly trying to organize some thoughts around the “object” side of things, what was appearing to Dr. Eben Alexander’s mind and whether it proves heaven or not. What about the “subject” side, the actual state of mind he was in?
Dr. A’s cortex was “offline” so where, we might ask, WAS that experience? “It’s all in his head”, some people grumble when they hear about trippy experiences like this one; only he wasn’t in his head.
Even if his cortex was “switched on”–as it has been in other people who have had similar experiences in their dreams or while awake–where in the brain can that all fit? The mind and body are different entities, different dimensions if you will. If anywhere, the seat of our consciousness is in our heart chakra, not our brain; nonetheless our mind is formless and therefore not constrained by matter. Not all our thoughts are in our head – one could argue that the most important ones are in our heart. (For an article on how the mind and the brain are not the same, see Buddha and the Brain, as well as the comments readers have left below it.)
Moving from our head to our heart
For people who love to meditate, I think a real secret of their success is moving from their head to their heart. The more we center ourselves at our heart, the more concentrated and peaceful we feel, and the easier it is to meditate. When I experience even a little inner peace from even a short meditation, good thought, or blessing, I like to feel that peace at the level of my heart. It feels more reliable and stable. I start every meditation there; in fact I try to stay in my heart as much as I can. It also helps me stay in the moment. We can also identify with this peaceful mind at our heart as our Buddha nature, our potential for limitless peace and happiness. I think this is creating causes to experience the non-dual mind of great bliss, when we can have “heavenly” experiences on tap.
The main thing this article did for me was to increase my determination to get from my head to my spiritual heart – to keep applying effort to gather my inner energy winds into the central channel in my heart chakra so that they can no longer support the development of gross conceptions of dualistic appearance. This is one of the main aims of spiritual practice, because with the resultant very blissful clear light mind, or very subtle mind, we can realize ultimate truth directly, or non-conceptually, and experience permanent freedom and inner peace. You can read all about this in Modern Buddhism, available free.
In transit in Washington DC, I read a Facebook update about my friend’s son Nathan Dorje, who is a handsome little boy with semi-lobar holoprosencephaly. He may not be able to do many of the things his brother and sister can do requiring complicated conceptual thoughts, but his infectious happiness and love are states of consciousness as “real” and significant as any others, and have brought a lot of joy and meaning into many people’s lives. I would bet that he feels these things at his heart.
When my grandmother was slipping into senility and upset at her brain’s deterioration and inability to remember the name of a tree we were looking at, I remember encouraging her to try and stay as much as she could in her heart where she could still feel love, peace, and purpose just like anyone else — these are what really count. She liked that. She asked for a Buddhist book, and Transform Your Life ~ A Blissful Journey followed her to her nursing home, even though she could no longer read.
I was interested less in the descriptions of fluffy clouds than in the sense of non-duality Dr. A felt, which I think is in common with all these kinds of experiences.
“It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it- without joining with it in some mysterious way. Again, from my present perspective, I would suggest that you couldn’t look at anything in that world at all, for the word “at” itself implies a separation that did not exist there. Everything was distinct, yet everything was also part of everything else.”
The subtler our mind, the less dualistic it is – the less pronounced the appearance of inherent existence, or things existing as findable entities, “out there” somewhere. Our deepest level of mind, called the very subtle mind or the mind of clear light, is naturally blissful and non-dualistic. Things do not appear “out there” to that mind.
The thing I like most about non-duality is that there is no sense of separation and therefore alienation from our surroundings or other people. There is no grasping in the mind at things we need or want because we already have everything. The wisdom of non-duality and compassion are two sides of the same coin. Instead of being trapped in the prison of self by our self-cherishing and self-grasping minds, as Dr. A’s account suggests we naturally connect with and identify with others as they no longer feel like “other”. We don’t have to think our way into it as we do with our grosser levels of mind. There is no basis for loneliness or selfishness. Love overflows everywhere, no longer constrained.
Given this, it is not hard to see why subtler levels of mind are also less distracted and more concentrated than grosser levels, so Dr. A experienced no distraction, or interruptions, from his vision. In his case, I couldn’t tell you which exact level of consciousness was functioning, but we know it was not his ordinary waking consciousness.
Levels of thinking
When we are falling asleep, or fainting and when we are dying, our sense awarenesses (associated with our eyes etc) first stop working. Then our gross thoughts, ideas, memories, and even our sense of self disappear. These may or may not have some association with our brain – and on one level it doesn’t matter to a meditator because we don’t meditate on our brain any more than we meditate on our eyeball in order to affect our state of mind, we meditate using the mind itself. You can read about the death process in detail in one of Geshe Kelsang’s first books Clear Light of Bliss. However, even during the death process our awareness itself never stops. It just becomes more subtle. Our thoughts become less “crunchy”, if you like, less solid and real, and, as mentioned, less dualistic.
Scanning the magazine rack at LaGuardia, wondering whether I could be bothered to buy anything to read, I spotted Newsweek’s announcement: “Heaven is Real.” I snapped it up. This out of left field article was too tempting a contrast to the politicking of this election season, and the general Us and Them unrest around the world. Judging by the thousands of comments online, the article is provoking strong reactions, as I daresay Newsweek predicted it would. For some, it is a breakthrough – an eminent man of science, brain science no less, saying that he now has proof of heaven (the name of his book) and the existence of consciousness beyond the brain. For others, it is annoyingly unscientific; the guy was clearly tripping out and has no proof whatsoever of anything, and they are cancelling their subscription forthwith. Here’s an example:
“It’s all a bunch of anecdotal malarkey. The only difference between this article and all the same BS I’ve heard from other people that believe in mythological deities is that this guy used the word “cortex” more frequently.”
For me, I read it on the plane above the clouds, and found it both fascinating and utterly unsurprising. I couldn’t help scribbling in the margins of my magazine, as Buddha had a great deal to say on the subject of the nature and types of consciousness and its relationship to the body, the survival of consciousness after death, the existence of different realms and what and where these are, the existence of divine beings and what and where these are, the ontological status of ourselves and our world, and so on. He taught all these to show that there is a path to freedom and happiness, and, like everything else, it begins and ends in the mind.
By relaying some of my scribbles here, I’m hoping to provoke your thoughts and experiences on the subject in the comments below, as I can be by no means exhaustive on the subject (exhausting, maybe! It has ended up longer than I anticipated! I’m now realizing it was an ambitious topic for one blog post, so I’m breaking it into 2 parts …)
In 2008 the neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander contracted a rare bacterial meningitis and his entire cortex shut down.
“For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline…. There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in a coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well.”
He then describes journey full of very peaceful, non-dualistic, and cosmic appearances, the like of which he cannot recall ever experiencing before.
“According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”
I suppose I want to look at this from two angles – from the point of view of the object, or what is appearing to the mind, and from the point of view of the subject, the mind itself.
So, is heaven real?
That depends on what we mean by real. (And, I guess, what we mean by heaven!) Perhaps it’s better to ask “Does heaven exist?” It is not real in the sense that it is findable or inherently existent, independent of the mind. We cannot go visit it some place outside the mind. But appearances of peace, goodness, and bliss etc do exist as projections of a peaceful, good, and blissful mind.
Some terminology: in Buddhism we talk about six realms of samsara, and the highest of these are the god realms, sometimes called heavenly realms. We can create the necessary concentration and good or virtuous karma to be reborn as a god (though it is in point of fact more useful from a spiritual point of view to be reborn as a human.) If we are reborn as a god, although we have some lovely heavenly experiences while the rebirth lasts, we are not permanently free from suffering, and will once again take rebirth in painful realms.
Pure Lands exist outside of samsara and are not subject to samsara’s rules. Once we have purified our mind sufficiently, we are permanently free because we no longer have the delusions and negative karma that throw up our suffering. I wrote an article about Pure Lands here.
However, both the god realms and the Pure Lands are equally projections of mind, like illusions, like dreams. So is our current life, for that matter.
I came across this expression once, and have found it very helpful:
I am not in the world; the world is in me.
I add to that the fact that I too do not exist from my own side, any more than the world does.
Heaven and hell worldwide
A majority of cultures and religions have concepts of heaven and hell. Is this all a bizarre coincidence? Or could there be something to it? Dr. Alexander is by no means the first person to have had this kind of blissful experience–while awake, or dreaming, or having a near-death experience–or the first person to talk about it. He says himself:
“I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history.”
Skeptics may put these experiences and resultant beliefs down to a massive collective hallucination. In a way they are right, because all of us are always hallucinating to a greater or lesser extent for as long as things keep appearing to exist from their own side, independent of our mind, and especially when we grasp at those appearances as reality. But whose hallucination is more “accurate” or non-deceptive – someone experiencing an ordinary, mundane world full of problems and a crunchy sense of duality, or someone experiencing heavenly beings, love, and communion?
My grandfather was a skeptical man of science too until he had some experiences that changed everything for him. I wrote about that here. Someone very close to both me and my grandfather emailed me a fortnight ago about her cataract operation:
“During the op it was v. beautiful as I think I was in heaven – I was in the most beautiful white, silver coloured clouds floating in eternity, quite amazing. It was either heaven or it might have been Mars as I had heard on the radio on Monday that US scientists have sent some scientific equipment into space to land on Mars for a breakthrough research project.”
After we have had such experiences, we can conceive of them in different ways, depending on our belief systems, backgrounds, and so on. As Mike Hume said on Facebook about Dr. A:
“He is seemingly interpreting his experiences from a Christian perspective, despite the fact that he has stated he has never really believed in God. I guess this isn’t surprising, though. I think if he had investigated other ideas and concepts of mind and consciousness he might have interpreted it differently.”
But if we have these experiences and appearances, it shows they are possible, doesn’t it?! If these three people’s stream of consciousness is capable of experiencing such joy and peace once, who is to say they do not have the potential for experiencing something similar for a very long period of time again in the future, even forever? And would that not be some kind of heaven?
We also have the potential or karma for a great deal more suffering, which we need to take steps to purify and remove. A friend messaged me on Facebook:
“I worked in hospice during my graduate studies and there was more than one person who had horrible, horrible appearances at the approach of death. One elderly woman had burning bedsores and hallucinations, and she kept screaming for Grandmother to put out the fire on her body shortly before she went unconscious before death. I prayed hard for her not to die with that mind and take rebirth in a hell realm. So looking at the two sides of people’s experiences I find hope AND a cautionary tale.”
If people ask for physical, scientific proof of heaven (or hell), they may not get it, as science does not use the right tools for measuring the dimension of non-physical mind, and in fact has a self-confessed “problem” over what consciousness even is. Particle physics is now pointing the way to a non-objective universe, however, some modern scientists agreeing that there may be no objectively testable universe.
Jason Mandella says on Facebook:
“Science can assert that consciousness is merely a product of activity in the brain, and it can measure and predict that brain activity accurately with various instruments and practices. But it cannot “explain” lived, conscious experience: what is the nature of it? As Michael, Duane and Pawo are suggesting, Buddhist practice starts from the lived experience of consciousness. Living meditation masters from Buddha to now, present instructions which can be practiced by us. We verify from our own experience if what is being presented is true. That sounds like a science of consciousness to me. Does it need to be validated by conventional science if its working? Not that I have gotten much further than setting up the laboratory; but I have a little faith and some good reasons–like any scientist.”
Clearly, it is hard to do any fact-checking on Newsweek’s article! I don’t think Dr. A’s experience proves that heaven exists objectively. It doesn’t prove any universal truth “out there”. Dr.’s experience was subjective. Kelsang Lekpa says on Facebook, and I agree:
“His spiritual experience doesn’t prove one bit that an actual physical heaven or hell – exactly as he describes it – exists outside of his brain, after death.”
“If I dream of unicorns, does it make them real?”
But what his experience does indicate is that anything can appear to mind.
It is subjective – would I have those exact experiences in similar circumstances? Probably not. My thoughts might not even be blissful to begin with – if negative karma is ripening, I could experience hell. My appearances will depend on my own thoughts and karma — I will project a different movie, which may or may not share some of the same elements. Appearances are infinite. Due to emptiness, anything can appear. If everything is a projection of mind, and nothing exists objectively or from its own side, it stands to reason that we can project anything, and we do. We have already had infinite projections in life after life since beginningless time (there is no beginning or end to our consciousness.)
When I read this, it reminded me that there are different levels of consciousness and that what we experience depends entirely upon our own mind; in fact experience IS mind. The Mahayana Buddhist goal is to remove all delusions and dualistic appearances from the mind through wisdom and perfect all good qualities through compassion. My wisdom and compassion already exist as part of my Buddha nature, I feel that my main job in life is just to increase these each day until I attain enlightenment. Unlike the random, chance encounter Dr. A had with his own potential for peace and bliss, not easily replicable unless he contracts meningitis again, through spiritual practices we will one day be able to experience bliss continuously at will, and appear or project whatever we want to our minds. If we are prepared to put in the time and training, these results are replicable, and have been replicated by countless meditators including Buddha and many of his followers.
As Robert Thomas said on Facebook:
“For me this account, whilst meaningful for the individual concerned, and others, adds nothing by way of proof. Even the Prof’s conviction that all this occurred whilst his cerebral cortex was inactive is impossible to verify. I prefer to rely on the accounts and insights of accomplished mind trainers who approach the more and more subtle levels of consciousness whilst maintaining mindfulness and clear discrimination.”
And as Mike Hume put it:
“I hope that I can have similarly vivid experiences through meditation, rather than having to nearly die.”
If you asked me to replicate the results of an experiment proving the existence of quarks, say, I would be hard put to do it as I do not have anywhere near the necessary training or experience. Similarly, without the necessary mental training and experience it is hard for each of us individually to replicate the results of generating at will a blissful, non-dual mind mixed inseparably with the ultimate nature of phenomena to prove that it exists. But I trust quantum physicists that quarks exist and have a function in my universe, and I also trust Buddha and his followers that these profound states of mind exist and have a function in my universe.
(In the mind of bliss and emptiness, we can find true commonality (as opposed to objectivity). But that can be left for another discussion on another day.)
I have been in New York City for the last ten days, on the occasion of attending the city Temple opening for Kadampa Meditation Center NYC and the North Eastern Dharma Celebration in upstate New York.
The new Buddhist Temple in Chelsea is a three-dimensional peace-space, refuge from the busy streets and lives outside. An enormous
Buddha Shakyamuni seems to float in mid-sky, surrounded by the most ethereal looking statues I have yet seen in the New Kadampa Tradition. I loved seeing a blissful Great Mother Prajnaparamita next to a knowing, smiling Tara. There are a lot of women in this city, and a lot who attend the Buddhist center, and it seems timely and inspiring to have these female enlightened beings in pride of place, perfect role models both.
I love being in New York City. It keeps me on my toes. New York is full of intelligent, creative people who actively decided to come here. I don’t always get that sense in other places I’ve lived and visited – people perhaps end up there by accident, or because their communities and families are there, or because they are relatively content with their lifestyle, or because they have not got a sufficiently strong desire to get up and move away. In New York, it seems people are dedicatedly pursuing their dreams. People come here to ride the formidable energy, but the challenge can be a loss of a sense of privacy or space.
In a way, although people everywhere are trying to get a foothold in samsara, in New York many seem to be attempting an ascent of the entire mountain. They have come here to do just that, to become masters of their universes, or at least scale greater heights, harnessing their often formidable intelligence, creativity, energy, or modern derring-do. How, this has been making me wonder, do New Yorkers interested in Buddhism most skillfully relate to and use the teachings on renunciation, on giving up on samsara? (I’m still getting to the bottom of this – so, New Yorkers, please tell me what you do in the comments.)
Waves of humanity
I have been really enjoying practicing Dharma in New York this week, particularly trying to unite the wisdom practice of seeing the wave upon wave of humanity (and their dogs) as mere appearances to my mind, with no depth other than their emptiness, with the method practice of understanding that I have a long, rich, deep history with each and every one of them that goes back through countless lives. According to Buddhism, they are not inherently friends, enemies, or strangers – what they are depends on how I look at them, and there are many ways to do this, some helpful, some not. One helpful way of looking is to remember that they have all been my own caring mother, another is to understand that they are always exactly the same as me in wishing to experience happiness and freedom so we have a lot in common. I have microseconds to develop a connection of love and/or wisdom with the people I pass or see, before they are gone – in Florida I like to contemplate the ocean waves of impermanence, here it is the people waves. If I don’t succeed in using those precious seconds — distracted by what they are wearing perhaps, or buying into their apparently alien differences — whoof, they’ve disappeared, and I remain surrounded by anonymous strangers.
Right now, for example, in 56th street below this apartment there is an ear-splittingly loud revving of Harley Davidsons as thousands of people with red and white flags take to 5th and 6th Avenues to celebrate Polska Day, hundreds of whom seem to be on motorbikes. Now there is loud Polish music pounding in through the windows, even though I’m on the fifth floor. We’re having a Polish PARTY!! So, today, how do I feel connected to an anonymous Pole on a Harley? How much do we have in common? It is so easy to see how, without a concerted effort to view each person, not just the mess of humanity, through the lens of love or wisdom, people can end up feeling most isolated in the places where there are the most people. But with a little bit of effort, the opportunities to make spiritual progress around here are as endless as the lovable human beings coming and going all around us all the time.
On my way in on the bus from La Guardia last week, I sat next to a young actress who was returning to New York from San Diego for a wedding. She was excited to be home. Just as we were driving up 37th Street, she pointed at (to me) a total stranger crossing in front of our bus, and exclaimed: “I know that girl! I was at school with her!” She was beaming as she turned to me and said: “What are the chances of that?!” She felt connected, I could see it in her eyes, even though her friend had come and gone already; and the remembrance made her happy. Later on the subway, I thought that it would be wonderful if we could have that happy shock of recognition of the past we share with all coincidental strangers, including the Coptic Christian sitting next to me absorbed in a religious book, and the woman with two young children sitting opposite.
It’s a start
Last Wednesday I climbed eagerly onto a half-empty car on a full subway, only to smell why people had moved swiftly on up the carriage wrinkling their noses. There was a poor woman bent over herself, head between her knees. She had soiled herself and seemed to be attempting to rock herself into some comfort. Throughout the ride I wondered what to do, how I could help her, where I could take her. I am still wondering. Sometimes, practically, it is really hard to know what to do, and that can cause an inertia not wanting to do anything, just wanting to move on up the carriage. But I could still start somewhere, mentally at least, by sitting as close to her as I could stomach, and trying to put myself in her shoes by using the contemplations on equalizing and exchanging self with others and taking and giving, the kinds of things taught at the new Temple. There is always something I can do, and even and especially if it did not seem enough at the time, it incentivized me to hurry up along my spiritual path to Tara’s enlightened state.
Super samsara, super nirvana
The beautiful new temple seems to be entirely in the right place at the right time, a symbol of modern Buddhism. “Super samsara, super nirvana”, I once heard a Buddhist Lama say. This city thinks big, so, by New Yorkers learning to transform its world-renowned, energetic activity into ever-increasing compassion and wisdom, I think amazing things might be on the verge of happening and spilling out to other places.
Next time you come to New York, try this for me. Take a square block and walk around it, and see how many people are still there by the time you get back to the beginning and start to walk around it again. It feels like it is changing at the speed of a dream and, guess what, maybe it is a dream? And, guess what, even slower-paced places may be a dream too. Even the quietest suburb in middle America may be a dream. A good friend of mine says there is nowhere he feels closer to the dream-like nature of phenomena than in the Big Apple. Its very speed reveals its impermanence, and its impermanence reveals its emptiness. Hence, in all the potential claustrophobia, there is only space, and therefore, paradoxically, being in the middle of 8 million people living on a rock is where he feels at greatest peace.