Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

enlightenment pie in the skyI was remembering the other day what happened when I first encountered Buddhism. A new friend at college happened to mention that there was a talk on that evening by a Tibetan Lama in York – he was not Geshe Kelsang, who became my teacher, but a visitor who was being hosted by the Buddhist Centre. I took another nice, new friend, M., along with me, not having a clue what to expect (this was 1981 in the North of England when meditation was an alien concept to most people.)

To be honest, I hardly understood a word this Geshe said. But during the course of the evening, I couldn’t help thinking: “Whatever it is you have, I want it.”

He said a couple of things I sort of got, the words at least. The first was a comment about how we have radiators in the West, followed by his falling about laughing – something he seemed to be doing most of the evening. I suppose for someone who grew up in Tibet, radiators and other Western technology must have seemed quite amusing. (This was in the days before SmartPhones, which he would doubtless have found hysterical.) M. told me later that I was laughing uproariously and a little crazily at everything, which seems strange given that I didn’t know what this happy Tibetan was saying; but clearly this stuff was infectious.

The other comment I remember from that evening was:

 “We are all on the airplane to enlightenment!”

(Followed by even more laughter.)

path to enlightenmentWe’re what??! I thought. What is he talking about?! I knew I still liked it, I probably laughed along, but I wasn’t sure what it was I liked. And, when I stopped to think about it, enlightenment or Buddhahood sounded rather pie in the sky. As far as I was concerned, I’d be lucky to just get through the day without getting annoyed with someone. If Buddhist meditation could do that for me, I’d give it a shot.

And so M. and I did, the following week at the regular introductory meditation class at our nearest Buddhist centre. That was almost 32 years ago. The rest is history.

Although I well remember how pie in the sky enlightenment felt back then, since then I’ve decided that it really is not that much of a culturally alien concept, let alone an impossibly idealistic goal. Indeed, it is within the reach of every one of us; we just have to get going, starting with wanting it.

The other day I asked some friends if they wanted to improve. They said yes. Then I asked them what would happen if they did improve a bit and became a bit kinder and wiser, for example – would that be enough, or would they still want to improve? They said they would.

Interesting, I said. No wonder Buddha says we all have Buddha nature or Buddha seed, which is our natural potential for improvement; we clearly feel it on some level. We have this potential because our mind is not inherently existent, or fixed, which means it can change. If you really want to improve, then your Buddha seed has already sprouted into the beginning of a Bodhisattva’s mentality because a Bodhisattva is someone who has taken that wish to its logical conclusion and wants to keep improving until there is no further room for improvement.

Then I asked them if they would like to be able to help more people than they are helping at the moment. They said yes. So I asked them what would happen if they were able to help, say, 3 more people than they are helping now due to being kinder and wiser (see above), would that then be the end of it? No, they replied, they’d want to help even more people.

And there you have it, I said. You’re already just like a baby Bodhisattva, who has taken this wish to its logical conclusion and wishes to help all living beings without leaving anyone out. That wish is part of our compassion, also our Buddha nature. We are naturally kind because when our delusions are not functioning we default to being peaceful and free from self-centeredness, connected to others.

bodhichitta airplane to enlightenmentA Bodhisattva is someone who wishes to help all living beings without exception by attaining enlightenment aka becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is someone, anyone, who has perfected all their good qualities and got rid of all their faults, viz, improved until there is no further room for improvement.

What is so pie in the sky about that? We just have to train in our natural wishes and let our mind expand. We are all on the airplane to enlightenment; we just have to get it off the ground.

It all depends how we’re looking at it

dolphins and meditationSo I have recently moved from Florida (80 degrees, wall to wall sunshine, sea breezes, pelicans and dolphins) to Liverpool (frozen lake, not quite wall to wall sunshine, bracing wind, swans and Lambananas.)

Just now I was scooting down the stairs to the World Peace Café that is conveniently placed inside the large house I’m living in, meaning I don’t have to go outside, ever, if I don’t want to. At 3.48pm, it is already getting dark out there, and I was wondering whether to feel sorry for myself when I ran into J on the stairs.

“How are you doing, J?” “Great, thanks.” “What about this getting dark at 3.30, then?” “Oh, I love it! I love the winter.” “You do?!” “Yes, I love it. I love the spring and the summer too.” “Hmmm. I daresay you love the Fall, erm Autumn, as well?” “Oh yes, I love it! I love all four seasons.” Just as I was pondering mentally how anyone could love winter with such enthusiasm, and perhaps he had nothing to compare it with, he added, “I lived in Fort Lauderdale and Miami for three years when I was younger, and it was lovely, but I really missed the seasons!” lambananas in liverpool and kadampa life

“Well”, I told him, “That really shows how everything depends on the mind! And now I’m going to love the four seasons too.” So, dear reader, if you catch me complaining, please remind me of this conversation. As a friend told me the other day, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. (It reminded us of Shantideva’s famous analogy about leather on the feet.)

In the last article on delusions, I talked about the object of delusion. While our delusions are still rampant, there is not an awful lot we can do about objects of delusion. Geshe Kelsang sums this up:

Even if we were to live in an isolated cave there would be some parts of the cave that would appear more attractive than other parts, and some kinds of weather that would seem more pleasant than others. We would soon find ourselves preferring this sort of birdsong to that sort of birdsong, and we would still have all the memories of other objects of delusion. ~ Understanding the Mind

It sounds like a pretty nice idea to me: “I’m going to get away from it all, get away from all these trying people and/or objects of temptation that surround me wherever I go. I’ll go to the countryside on retreat, or on top of a mountain in Brazil or Switzerland, or perhaps even a cave in the Himalayas. Hey, that’s awesome, that’s the answer!” meditating in a cave retreat season in NKT

Actually, it can be very helpful to go away sometimes from our usual environment and work on our minds, for example in meditation retreat. January is retreat month in the New Kadampa Tradition and it provides a refreshing and significant start to the year. However, by itself, getting away from it all is not going to solve the problem because, as they say, wherever we go, there we are. Our deluded mind comes along for the ride.

Cause of delusion # 3, inappropriate attention

As mentioned in this first article on the delusions, there are six causes of our delusions. These are like a chain that bind us to suffering and problems. To break a chain, especially one as strong as this, it makes sense to find its weakest link.

We just saw how the object is not the weakest link – it is hard to isolate ourselves from all objects of delusion because they are going to pop up wherever we take our deluded minds. We can run, but we cannot hide. Sooo, what to do?

Now we come to the weakest link in the chain that binds us to suffering, insofar as it is the easiest one for us to break at the moment. This is very lucky for us. We can work on all six causes of our problems to a certain extent, of course, but this is the one where we can really get in there and stop the course of the delusion.

I keep saying a delusion is an unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind, and this is true, but strictly speaking the actual definition of a delusion is “An unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind that arises from inappropriate attention.” Even if our mind meets an object of anger, say, we will only get angry if we let inappropriate attention develop. delusions distort

Inappropriate attention is that function of honing in on a jelly donut, for example, and exaggerating its power to make our day, or honing in on someone who annoys us and letting our peace be destroyed ostensibly by that person but actually by our inappropriate attention toward that person.

There are many levels of inappropriate attention, from very subtle to very gross. At the moment, whenever we see an object we naturally apprehend it as being inherently existent, as independent of the mind, nothing to do with us. This itself is an exaggeration and the most subtle form of inappropriate attention. It is also our ignorance of self-grasping.

attachment to jelly donutBecause we are grasping at things as if they were outside the mind, we then believe that their apparent desireability or distastefulness inhere in them, and have nothing to do with the way we are perceiving them. If something out there looks nice, we naturally want to pull it toward us, and attachment is born. If something out there looks nasty, we naturally want to push it away from us, and anger or aversion is born. Due to our initial exaggeration of the object’s ontological status as being inherently existent as opposed to a mere projection of our mind, like a dream object, we then engage in even more exaggeration: “That donut out there on the cake dish is really nice (ie, from its own side) – just look at that red jelly oozing out of it, and the sugar sprinklings, and think how well it will go with the Cappuchino from the World Peace Café downstairs?!” This is gross inappropriate attention, leading to attachment.

We can overcome subtle inappropriate attention with wisdom, and we can overcome gross inappropriate attention with mindfulness, alertness, and conscientiousness, applying the opponents to delusions as described here.

More on this subject later … over to you for now 🙂

Facing ageing with strength

Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were. ~ Neil Young

Continuing from this article, how can we remain positive when we’re getting old and our body starts to go wrong? I have a few people in my life who have grown old so well that I intend to copy them as I age. One of them is Eileen.

A widow’s story

One of my dearest friends, Eileen, is now a 91-year old widow, physically frailer but still 39 inside. Eileen first met Geshe Kelsang in the late 1970s. In 1996, when she was a spry 70-something, Eileen came to Florida and ran around (pretty much literally) for years helping set up Buddhist centers, before returning to England to live in her cottage in the grounds of Madhyamaka Centre. Eileen Stead Madhyamaka Centre

I first met Eileen years earlier, when her husband was dying, and she has been no stranger to sickness, ageing, loss, and death. So I asked Eileen recently to tell me how she copes so well with it all, and this is what she wrote:

How does one deal with the sufferings of old age? I remember with a wry smile Geshe Kelsang’s description of an old person. He said they were bent over and walked like bird catchers. I thought at the time (20 years ago), “How amusing,” but wait – if you live long enough, you too will walk like a bird catcher. I am aware that recently I am walking with small unsteady careful steps. I make an effort to be sure I’m standing upright and attempt to stride out. I stumble a little, and my lovely Grandson grabs my arm, and says, “Careful Granny.”

Where did the girl go, the one who ran up and down the Lake District hills, and swam in freezing Scottish seas or the warm waters of Florida? I must not fall into the danger of nostalgia, longing for the things that are gone forever. I can remember them, though, with love and gratitude, and maybe when the sufferings of old age become more apparent they will help me. I know for sure that I have deep gratitude for all the wonderful experiences of this life, my husband, my friends, the music and flowers in the garden, and so much more. How could I not be grateful?!  

thank you for kindness

Widows – what do widows do? What do they feel? How do they react? Some, I know, have become very angry – “Why did you leave me?!” Some sink into depression, and some actually take their own lives. I’m sorry to say that these reactions are not helpful, and can only cause more bitterness in the mind. A far better way, I believe, is to acknowledge that all life in samsara has to adhere to the cycle of unending birth, death and rebirth, and nothing anyone can do will change that, so why give way to anger when the inevitable happens?  

We lose our friends too, particularly if we have a long life and they do not. To attend their funerals, and know that yet another good companion has disappeared from your life – that is hard too. These losses have to be met with patient acceptance. It is the only way. As long as we are in samsara we shall have to experience the conditions of samsara and have to deal with our ripening karma, unless we can purify the negativities in our mind. Just as anger can destroy our positive imprints, so compassion and love can purify the negative ones. That is a good thought, and we can work at it with great diligence. 

If through the teachings of Buddha we can become less self-centered, free from our self-grasping mind, and learn to trust in the spiritual path, a new contentment will pervade our lives and we can ride the waves of our suffering and will not drown. We can become a pure being, a Bodhisattva.

Living happy

It seems to me that one major reason we get grumpy, irritated, depressed, or angry is if we feel that our happiness or freedom are under threat.

why we get grumpyIf we think that our happiness and freedom are bound up with external situations and other people, this means that we are going to get grumpy a lot, as we have so little control over these things. Sooner or later, the things that we were relying upon in life for happiness and freedom blaze out or else slowly fade away. And grumpiness of course is hardly the solution; it only makes things worse.

I was at a good friend’s 50th birthday party last month in Balham. My friend has the sensibilities of an English Woody Allen, and gave a wry, amusing speech, quite spontaneous, (and to the whole restaurant, not just his gathered friends), about how grateful he was for everyone coming to support him and commiserate at this time. The night before the party, I dreamt that he, me, and several other very old friends of mine were all turning 50 together and that our whole life was just the duration of a day… It was late afternoon already. In my dream I was considering how, even if we are thinking, “Ah, just a few more years left at work, then I can chill, relax, enjoy the fruits of my labor, meditate, sit on a beach or whatever”, this is like looking forward to that sleepy couple of hours in front of the TV before you crash into bed. It all goes so fast. Now is not the time to defer gratification but to enjoy every moment and make it count. Our next life is breaths away. 50 birthday ageing and meditation

I asked one old friend at the party whether having his three teenage kids made him feel younger or older, and he replied ruefully: “Older, definitely! The taller they get, the more they look down on me!” My generation may be concerned about bags under their eyes, yellowing teeth, expanding girths, deteriorating fitness levels, and kids who now find us ancient and embarrassing. Not only are we no longer turning heads, but the quirky behavioural patterns that were charming and cute in our smooth-skinned twenties are now creepy and eccentric. Senior moments are beginning their stealthy creep up on us as we forget people’s names and where we put our new reading glasses. But what does that mean for our parents’ generation?! As Bette Davis famously said,

“Old age is no place for sissies.”

Signs of transition are all around me at the moment – indeed they always are, Mayan predictions or not, but sometimes we take more note of them. I stayed with my parents over Christmas as they were writing out their Christmas cards – every year the list grows shorter and they receive fewer cards. My grandfather, who lived to 100, once told me that he was the only person left in his address book. An increasing number of my parents’ friends are also experiencing ailments and disabilities — these seem to pile up on us as we age. It is not enough just to have to go through gruelling treatment for cancer, we also fall over and break our frail shoulder. It is not enough just to have high blood pressure, we also suffer from macular degeneration and feel our freedom curtailed as our driving license is taken away. It is not enough to be increasingly vague, we also suffer the loss of confidence as we struggle to do things we used to do without thinking, or to learn new things. And so on. On Christmas morning, I went with my sister-in-law’s family to visit her very lovable mother Christine in the nursing home she has been living in since her stroke – she is frail and no longer recognizes her own hand (sometimes, to the kids’ amusement, mistaking it for my brother’s). I felt humbled not only by the reserves of patience this is bringing out in my sister-in-law, but also the courage and dignity with which Christine’s husband John, aged 82, is facing the destroyed privacy of their 60-year old marriage, as he sat eating Christmas dinner with his wife surrounded by people lolling and dribbling.

The Buddhist teachings talk about the sufferings of old age and we may wonder why they need to point this out; surely it is just toooo depressing. But ask anyone who is there already, old age happens anyway, and surprisingly fast; and the key is to find a way to grow old gracefully, happily, and meaningfully. If we don’t die first, we’ll grow old too. We can do older people the courtesy of recognizing that they are us and we are them; there is only the slight difference of time. The more we understand that happiness and mental freedom come from within, the more control we retain over it, and the easier it is to grow older with equanimity. This has also been my observation with certain older people in my life, including my 81-year-old teacher, who is timelessly blissful, and my grandfather.

So, as mentioned, if our happiness and freedom are tied up entirely in externals and other people, we are sure to lose them sooner or later and so get sadder and quite possibly grumpier as we get older. But if our happiness and freedom are inside, depending on our own states of mind, this is not the case, as they cannot be threatened by change. This is why I think it is so valuable to learn how to meditate, and why it is never too late to learn.

And for you young things…

And for all of you under 40 reading this, time to get your act together! (as the Buddhist teachers of old would say.) If you don’t believe me, ask anyone over 40 how they got so old and they are at a loss: “I was 20 only yesterday! What happened?!” Don’t live up to the classic grumpy old man adage: “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Happiness training

Happy Rd

I see meditation practice as “happiness training.” Old or young, there is never a time when we don’t want to be happy and free from suffering. Happiness and suffering are opposites, like light and dark. The happier we become, the less we suffer. Happiness is part of who we actually are, as well as a skill that we can cultivate.

According to Buddha’s teachings, happiness is a state of mind and therefore its real causes lie within the mind, not in external objects. Happiness is not some divine favor granted on whim to the chosen few. Nor does it depend on dumb luck (although, tellingly, the Scandanavian root of the Western word “happiness” means “luck,” implying we don’t have much say over it). We cannot buy happiness, nor indeed find it existing anywhere outside the mind. Yet each of us possesses the potential to be happy, and each of us can become happy and stay happy. How? By training our mind so that it is always peaceful and positive.

Meditation is the means for finding and keeping happiness in our mind; and if we’re happy in our mind, we’re happy everywhere. The Tibetan word for meditation is “gom,” which literally means “familiarize.” What are we trying to become familiar with? The positive states of mind that make us happy. According to this explanation, meditation is not something we just do on a cushion, but throughout the course of our lives. Like a doctor, Buddha identified the healthy, productive states of mind that make us peaceful, contented, happy, or blissful and the unhealthy, counterproductive states of mind (or delusions) that make us unpeaceful, discontented, unhappy and depressed. Examples of positive minds are love, compassion, patience, kindness, and wisdom. Examples of delusions are “the three mental poisons” of anger, attachment, and ignorance.

violinIn fact, whenever our mind is free from the mud of delusions, it is naturally peaceful and clear. We’re often so tightly wound up in our self and our problems that we fail to see that our natural default experience is actually being happy. By learning to meditate, we pay attention to the seeds of happiness within us. In a cacophonous urban din we may hear the strains of a beautiful violin; and by paying attention to this it becomes louder to our ear. In the same way, by paying attention to the small moments of happiness that are already within us, gradually and without forcing it our experience of happiness grows stronger and louder.

Over to you: do you agree that it is possible to get happier as you grow old? Do you have any examples?