Do you ever feel discouraged?

Happy Easter in Buddhism Happy Easter Everyone! I thought today would be a good day to start a series of articles on how to become unstuck – overcoming the long winter of our discouragement to arise anew. Sloughing off our sense of a limited, fixed, deluded self — a self that doesn’t in any case even exist — and arising and identifying ourselves as a wise, peaceful, positive, loving, happy, blissful, free person instead.

Easter and Spring both seem to me occasions to celebrate the ripening of deep potential and fertility. Isn’t that what Jesus was showing when he arose from the dead on what is, according to Christian friends, the most uplifting day of the Christian calendar? Isn’t that also what eggs and bunnies are about? And, when the daffodils do finally manage to get their little yellow heads up above the snow, isn’t that what daffodils are about too?

Self-effacement or self-sabotage?

don't believe everything you thinkAt my day job last week I was asked to fill in an incredibly long and complicated (to me) application form in a very short period of time, and I was protesting inwardly and a little bit outwardly too: “Don’t make me do this! It’s way above my pay grade, someone else could do it so much better, there’s so much at stake, I’m going to blow it!”

Later that day I overheard someone talking about the impossibility of their realizing emptiness in almost exactly the same terms!

I realized we were both under the influence of discouragement, and therefore setting ourselves up for failure. Only when I got going and realized I probably could do this after all, (with a little encouragement), did I start enjoying myself; and I did a perfectly okay job of it. Likewise, only when we get going and get rid of the notion that we can’t do emptiness, (with a little encouragement and inspiration), can we start enjoying ourselves and get the job done.

Laziness in disguise

Discouragement is rampant in our times, and when it is applied to our spiritual practice it becomes a dangerous type of laziness, called the laziness of discouragement. Over the last year or so, quite a number of people have asked me to write something about it. Now that I’m back in the land of self-deprecation bordering on self-sabotage, I thought it would be a good time to start.

We have enormous spiritual potential. And everything depends upon our mind, our thoughts; including our sense of self. Holding onto the thought of a fixed, limited self is preventing us from changing and realizing our potential.

British self-effacement can be endearing and sometimes even humble, but as often as not it is a tight grasping at a limited sense of self that is holding us back from attempting or achieving anything that will help ourselves and others. The self-talk thoughts, “You’re useless”, “You’re too old”, “You can’t do this!”… these are not humility, these are aversion, and comments we would not want to put up with from other people. That we put up with and heed our own self-defeating thoughts is a big shame, considering we have a precious human life and Buddha nature and can do anything if we go for it. As one Facebook friend put it:

overcoming discouragement in Buddhism

“Discouragement is a problem for me – often there is no boundary between being self-effacing and being self-destructive in my mind. My teacher once very helpfully pointed out that the full name for discouragement is ‘the laziness of discouragement’, but we don’t often think of ourselves as lazy when we’re feeling discouraged.”

Which is true. We might be assuming that putting ourselves down is almost innocent. We don’t think of it as a delusion, but this laziness of discouragement IS a delusion. Perhaps it is even the most pernicious delusion, insofar as, under its influence, we let our life go by without changing ourselves, and it keeps us forever stuck in suffering if we let it.

We can understand the delusion of laziness better if we appreciate what is its opposite, positive mind, which is effort. So perhaps we can start here.

What is effort?

“Effort” can sound like a lot of effort! Joyful effort, its full name, is better, but still seems to require, well, effort. Is “energy” any better? Inspiration? Enjoyment?  I’m inspired to practice, I’m happy to practice, I love practicing, I enjoy practicing – these are all manifestations of effort, far more than “I need to put in the effort”, “I really ought to be practicing”…

amazing race to enlightenmentEffort can sound tense, can sound like we’re squeezing or pushing for results. Sometimes we are — as competitive westerners we can bring our competitive streak to our spiritual practice. We may be sitting next to someone thinking “I wonder how they’re concentrating? Oh no, they can meditate for far longer than me! Oh, their posture is so much better…” We tend to push a lot in our own culture, job, family, society and so forth – we push for results. And we can also feel under pressure to fake for results in order to look good.

Do you ever live your life as if people are looking over your shoulder and judging you? Perhaps feeling guilty when you don’t think you’re up to scratch as mothers, workers, partners, and even spiritual practitioners? Then we feel we need to push and try harder (or fake better!); but guilt is certainly no substitute for joy, and this is not effort. I love to practice Buddhism or Dharma as if no one is looking.

When I first went to America, I noticed that Americans are unafraid to tell you about their qualities, whereas you could never get a Brit to tell you about their qualities except under torture. Brits resort to understatement and self-deprecation: “I am perfectly useless at that… I can’t meditate for the life of me”, whereas Americans like to put their best foot forward at all times, which can be good, but which can also sometimes mean faking it a little – it’s a bit like a job interview culture. Perhaps some of us associate effort, then, with pushing, and not being entirely authentic – and basically not really experiencing any change. However, effort is all about changing.

If we can avoid the extremes of self-deprecation and insincerity, and have a joyful, confident, enthusiastic, and relaxed approach to our meditation practices, we are guaranteed to change a great deal for the better.

What is “virtue”?

Effort is defined in Buddhism as “a mind that delights in virtue”.

Virtue means the causes of happiness. Again, not what we always think when we think of the word virtue, which can sound a bit too, well, virtuous (goody two shoes = not what it means.)

So, effort delights in the causes of happiness. This doesn’t sound much like effort as we know it! But we can see that if we did have a mind that delighted in cultivating the causes of happiness, we’d end up being very happy, because we’d be joyfully creating joy! With effort our meditation becomes delightful, like a child playing his favorite video game, and how much effort does THAT take?! We are aiming at enjoying our practice so that it feels effortless – and that funnily enough IS what genuine effort feels like.Buddha's face in flower

We may not be there yet, but it is as well to know that this is what effort is. Not pushing. Not squeezing. Not clenching. Not forcing. Not grasping at results. Not feeling miserably as if I am over here TRYING so hard to practice, and the results are over there, years or even lifetimes away in the future, an unbridgeable chasm between us — setting ourselves up for failure. Not comparing and contrasting what everyone else is doing or fantasizing about what they think of us. Not putting ourselves down or believing all our own inner narrative about who we are. Effort is all about being in the present moment, enjoying virtue or the causes of happiness, identifying with being a happy person – enjoying, in other words, being positive, kind, wise, happy, and free.

A little tip: To begin with, if you have to, you can pretend you are enjoying your virtuous activities — or rather imagine that you are.  I remember when I first got into Buddhist that I used to do this with really long prayers, prostrations, fasting, and so on, as I didn’t always automatically enjoy these spiritual practices. So I would think: “I’m really enjoying this!” until I believed it. It is just thoughts, after all. It worked for me.

Next time, more on how we get stuck and how to get unstuck.

YOUR TURN: Please help me with my continued market research on the subject. Do you ever feel discouraged? How do you overcome it?

 

Wherever you go, there you are

Buddhism 101 explains how happiness and suffering are states of mind, and how external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful. Even if we are in the most blissful surroundings and have everything we need — the one time we might reasonably expect to be deliriously happy — we’re still not if any agitation is arising in our mind for any reason.

Let’s say you’re having a particularly amazing experience. It’s your birthday party, your devoted friends have been planning it for months, and it is taking place on an exotic island. Every single one of your best friends since early childhood has been invited and can be there; it’s a miracle! The food is incredible and none of it has any calories. Wafting scented breezes, lapping waves, soft lighting, your favorite music, the perfect temperature…. It’s paradise, isn’t it? What’s the problem? There isn’t one!

paradise lost through angerBut then one of your childhood friends says something a bit off color, like “You’ve put on weight!” or “So you haven’t done much with your life, then…” And you immediately think, “That was cruel!” and maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but it’s a little dagger in your heart. It could be anything, and it doesn’t have to be much. All that has to happen is for you to get a bit upset, a little irritated, and the happiness starts to seep out of the whole event.

“I wish I hadn’t invited you!” you think to yourself. This is followed by a spontaneous recall of all the mean things they’ve ever said to you, and suddenly you can’t let it go. All the magic and fun of the party has been sucked out, it’s gone. Your experience has changed because now you’re in a bad mood. Now you’re having an ordinary, boring day, just as if you were chained back at your desk.

You can run, but you can’t hide

As they say, you can run but you can’t hide. We’ve taken our same old states of mind to this paradise, so our happiness can be destroyed in a moment, just as the tranquility of an ocean can be destroyed by a sudden storm. As my teacher puts it:

Even if we are in the most beautiful surroundings and have everything we need, the moment we get angry any happiness we may have disappears. This is because anger has destroyed our inner peace. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6

I bet all of us can think of examples like this – we were having the time of our life and then it just collapsed.

We can see from this that if we want true, lasting happiness we need to develop and maintain a special experience of inner peace. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6

We need to find a way to keep a happy mind regardless of what happens because s*** happens. Even today I’ll wager that a bunch of annoying things have already happened? And that some of the things that you wanted to happen didn’t happen?

Did you have a problem today?

A long time ago I was doing a Post Graduate Certificate in Education in York, UK. Soon after we arrived, we were all asked to sit in a large circle, and I was sitting to the right of the moderator. Starting from her left, she went round each person in turn, asking solicitously: “What problems are you having?”

Now, weirdly, when she started, I had no problems. I was feeling very happy. I had been meditating for a few years already, so I also knew that problems were not as fixed as they had once appeared. But as she worked her way around the group, and everyone came up with their dreadful and seemingly intractable problems, I did start to feel nervous. “What the heck am I going to say when she asks me?!” I now had a problem, albeit a small one. I cast around wildly in my memories for something that had gone wrong that week, and think I gamely came up with something in the nick of time.

solving problems with meditationI found it quite interesting that every single one of these cool young people, however together and sorted they looked on the outside, had a major problem. It is something I remember when I have problems in order to gain perspective — I am by no means alone. I have tried out the same market research quite often since then in a shortened form, and by all means try it yourself if you like. If you ask a group of friends, “Did you have a problem today?”, I bet 99% will say yes (and then look at each other in surprised recognition).

Things are always going to go wrong, one way or another, so if this throws us off balance we’re going to be unhappy — a lot. Therefore, we’ve got to find a way to be peaceful and positive no matter what’s going on.

Baby steps to nirvana

As Geshe Kelsang says:

The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7

Nirvana (a Sanskrit word) means liberation, permanent inner peace, or true mental freedom. But nirvana is not some pie in the sky thing. The way all the so-called Foe Destroyers (who have destroyed the inner foes of their delusions) and enlightened beings have come to experience this forever inner peace is through developing moments of inner peace and learning to connect them.

Buddha happiness is withinFor example, every once in a while we feel a state of deep well-being, a feeling of peace or connection—life is good! This usually lasts between a few seconds and half an hour ~ it doesn’t last that long, does it? But at these points we really get a glimpse of what our life could be about. Why don’t we just stay here, seeing as we like it so much? It’s because some negative thought interrupts as we’re not in control of our mind.

Buddha’s point is that those moments we get of joy, peace, and contentment, even bliss, are a manifestation of our own Buddha nature, our boundless potential for lasting peace, universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, endless joy and flexibility, incredible goodness. Buddha called it Buddha nature because we all, without exception, have the potential not just for liberation but to be a Buddha, a fully awakened person who has all good qualities to perfection.

baby steps to enlightenment

So how do we get there? Baby steps. We gradually train our mind so we can find and hold the positive, peaceful feelings, like love for others, for longer and longer periods of time, always identifying with them and giving ourselves permission to stay there. We gradually clear our minds of all obstructive, destructive thoughts that interrupt, letting the clouds disperse from the sky. We can do all this because we have the potential and we have the methods. And as soon as we’ve attained the true and lasting mental freedom of liberation we’ll be happy throughout our life, and in any future life.

Happiness now, happiness later

In Buddhism, we talk about how our mind and our body are different natures. Our body is like a guest house for our mind. There is no use pretending that this body is anything other than a piece of meat with a rapidly approaching expiration date. But we are not our body; we are so much more than our body. Our mind has limitless potential.

At the point when the body dies, our mind does not die because it is a formless continuum of awareness that never stops. Our gross waking minds do stop — they dissolve into our subtle mind, and this dissolves into our very subtle mind that travels onto our next life. Buddha’s understanding of life after life comes from the direct experience that mind is formless. Happiness will always depend upon the positive qualities in the formless continuum of our mind and not on externals, and that is not going to change. Wherever you go, there you are. Therefore, if we want to be peaceful and happy in this life and in any future lives, we need to develop and maintain these qualities as a matter of priority.

Over to you: do you agree that to be happy we need to train our minds? Or can we find lasting happiness in other ways?

The power of communication to change lives

thank you for visiting Kadampa Life quarter million visits

It was Red Nose Day yesterday in the UK. I really like Red Nose Day. Comedians and celebrities do funny, embarrassing, and risky things in order to bring awareness and money to children who need it.

I don’t have a TV but thanks to the internet (and BBC iPlayer) I was able to watch 6 celebrities — including Sporty Spice Mel C, Philips Idowu (who has a terror of water), and Jack Dee — risk life and limb rafting down the Zambezi  in “Through Hell and High Water”.

In between the very good photography (some taken just with the celebs helmet cams when they’d tipped over and were hanging onto tree branches for dear life with anyone supposed to be helping them already way, way downstream) and voiceover of their exploits (they seemed to be in real danger on at least a few occasions), the celebs were visiting children like 11-year old Cynthia, who couldn’t go to school as she was too poor and had too much housework to do in lieu of her sick mother. They joined children on their daily two-hour walk each way to get to school, and not along nice paved sidewalks either — even Philips Idowu found it grueling. The celebs were moved and spoke movingly about what they were seeing, and they made me press Yes to text money a few times until I remembered that it was ending up on my mum’s phone bill (long story, oops! I’ll pay you back, promise!) Red Nose Day has raised 75 million quid so far (and there’s still time to donate more)!

I was impressed by the good sportsmanship of those taking part in this 5-day challenge – even when they had a totally terrible, scary day they determined to carry on because they wanted to help, and they were unfailingly good-natured with each other as well despite the heat, the exhaustion, the dirt, the fear, the insect bites.

red nose day

I was also struck about how easy it is for us to see what is going on in other parts of the world, to expand our horizons, through the power of the internet. How easy it has made it for us to communicate and spread ideas, and meet people all around the world – to feel part of the same huge human (and animal) family. It is far harder to hold onto musty ancient prejudices in the oxygen of internet exposure.

I could of course speculate any number of things about the dangers of too much internet use, wondering aloud how it is going to be possible to develop strong concentration while we succumb to too much distraction, and musing how, as with any tool for communication, it can be used for good or for bad. But overall I welcome this modern development – and there is no doubt that it has been a very useful way to spread meditation and Buddhism throughout the world. This blog is just one small way of how this can happen, it is riding a wave. With his free gift of Modern Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang showed his understanding of the power of modern communication, and harnessed it to an immensely beneficial end. Modern Buddhism is (I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong) in the top ten Buddhist books on Amazon, downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and counting. That is hundreds of thousands of people who might not have met Buddhism for years if they’d had to rely on their local library storing a hard copy of a Buddhist book.

Modern Buddhism book on ipadKadampa Buddhist meditation is immensely practical and useful for people in all walks of life and all over the world, and it doesn’t belong just to Buddhists. A lot of it is simply common sense with bells on – it doesn’t require us to believe things that we can’t test in our own experience or using our own powers of reasoning. And once we know the methods for finding inner peace, freely given in Modern Buddhism, we can practice them whenever and wherever we want — no one can take that away from us.

We are all about “modern Buddhism” these days, and modern Buddhism necessarily takes place in modern lives. In the early days, as Kadampa Buddhism segueyed from sequestered Tibetan monasteries into the West, we did things very differently. We tried to a large extent to emulate the monastic way of life, even as lay people – moving into residential centres, joining full-on study programmes, and working full-time for those centres. Back in the day, we had no TV, no internet (barely invented), no Smartphones – it is pretty much impossible nowadays to live and practice as we did in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s. Some people still live, study, and work full time in our large residential centres, at least on and off, but the vast majority of Kadampa Buddhists worldwide live “out” in the world with their families, regular jobs, mortgages, etc., and are learning to put the teachings into practice and get results in many different contexts.

The world has modernized beyond belief and we are moving with it. I think we are all still very much in the process of modernizing the presentation of Buddhism to fit into this new reality so that people can still gain deep realizations like the monastics and Yogis in Tibet. I for one am watching this process with great interest. I welcome this adaptation of Buddhism to the modern world, I like that it is so much easier for people to share ideas and awaken to the lives of others even if they live in far-flung places, and my hope with this blog is to help that process along in one small way. Geshe Kelsang once told me we need to “go where the people are”. I think that most of you can often be found here, in Cyberspace! Kadampa Buddhism in cyberspace

Growing up, I was probably less “modern” than almost any other Westerner I know. Moving around from continent to continent meant that I knew a lot about the people I was living with, my local schools, and so on, but we had little to no communication with the rest of the world. There were no TVs (let alone computers) in those countries back then. One UK newspaper came over weekly in the diplomatic bag, and was then shared out amongst the staff, starting with the Ambassador, and eventually arriving tattered at our house. We used the telephone on Christmas Day to call my grandparents, keeping the call short due to its ludicrous expense. I watched my first movie around the age of 8, it was a Dracula movie at a drive-in theater with a scratchy screen (and I loved it!) I read, a lot! I had lots of time to think, and there was time for my imagination to go crazy in 20-page stories I wrote for my teachers and long-suffering parents. I was outside running and biking around a lot, and started lots of societies for all my friends – gymnastics, dancing, animal protection, etc. I collected tortoises, cocoons, ants, and other animals so I could look after them. (I know, they should have just got me a dog.) My first accent was Sri Lankan where I learned to speak, later I had a West Indian accent for two years. Early photos show me looking like Mowgli from the Jungle Book. When I was eventually sent back to the motherland for “reintegration” in my teens, I knew a lot about different places and people and the contents of (often old, musty) books, but I was clueless about global and current affairs. I had never studied anything except English, maths, and local history and geography, and I had a lot of catching up to do. facebook

I left scores of friends behind in all the countries I lived in – once I left, I never heard from them again, unless we wrote letters (didn’t happen, except in the case of Debra, whom I recently re-found miraculously through Facebook). And how different to Facebook, where it might now be impossible for a child ever to lose a friend even if they want to – friends follow you around forever! If the Internet had existed when I was a child, none of the above would apply. At any rate, it was not a problem, my childhood was great, and I did catch up. And everyone my age and older has this experience to some extent or another of how life has changed, modernized, and become transparent in communication beyond our wildest dreams; we have all changed with it. And I’m not THAT old!!

Since I started writing Kadampa Life at the end of 2011, there have been more blogs appearing that share people’s experiences of practicing Buddhism and meditation in their daily lives. I want to give a shout out to some of these, and you can find a list here (please let me know if your blog has inadvertently been left out).

Daily Lamrim A great feat, Vide Kadampa, a working man and father of 3, has written an article on Lamrim meditation every single day – you can see his meditation practice deepening with each cycle of 21 meditations, and he has a wonderful way with analogies. Well worth following.

This Mountain, That Mountain Mimi explains how she has used meditation to help her transform her cancer.

Kadampa Working Dad Started as a guest writer on Kadampa Life, now soaring on his own…

Cosmic Loti Quirky and warm, Buddhism in action.

Luna Cruciente By a kind-hearted Buddhist nun, in Spanish.

Heart of Compassion A promising and interesting new arrival.

There is also a Kadampa Buddhist Facebook page/forum for parents and another one for professionals.

Judging by the shares, people are appreciating the internet videos of how Buddhism is helping rural communities in South Africa too, such as this one, which is 9 minutes well spent watching.

One of the most inspiring, to me, recent developments in communication has been the possibility of Ben Fletcher teaching Buddhism in sign language to people all over the world – if we can video him and put him on YouTube and spread it through social media. Ben was born deaf and has never heard a sound. He is one of the most radiant meditators I have met. Young Dorje, aged 3, living at Manjushri Centre, summed up the usual reaction to meeting Ben for the first time when he turned to his mum after 2 minutes and asked: “Mum, why do I love that man so much?  I won’t say any more about Ben for now, other than to say I spent a lot of time with him a couple of weeks ago at Manjushri Centre and he blew my socks off. I will try to watch every video ever made of him. He is teaching for the first time next week, March 23, in Southampton!! You can see a video of him here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEkeC26XDUI&feature=youtu.be

Going back to Red Nose Day, spinning off from Live Aid it also reminds me of how Kadampa Buddhism first came to America. I want to finish today with an amazing story by a friend of mine who accompanied Geshe Kelsang to America on that first trip. This has always struck me as a fortuitous example of the power of communications to transform many lives if harnessed to an extraordinary end.

(Please share your thoughts on this article and how to modernize the presentation of Buddhism in the comments box below.)

The frog story

In the 1980’s a simultaneous rock concert in London and Philadelphia called Live Aid was organized to beat back famine in Ethiopia. It reached a worldwide television audience.

My Teacher saw some of it too and became aware of the donation appeal to help the starving people. Someone had just given him a shiny new car to assist his increasing travels across the UK and, not having any other possessions, my Teacher phoned this benefactor and asked for permission to sell the car and donate the money to Live Aid. The benefactor agreed.

The local newspaper in Ulverston, a quiet Lake District town just next to Manjushri Institute, picked up the story and ran a small piece with a delightful picture of my physically tiny Teacher standing next to the huge car he had just sold. This story was syndicated across the newswires and also appeared in a newspaper in Palm Springs, USA, where it was read by Leland C. Miller, President of the Kilner Foundation, a non-profit organization that dispensed grants for worthy causes. Mr. Miller had recently purchased a copy of my Teacher’s book, Clear Light of Bliss, from his local bookstore, put two and two together, and concluded that here was “the real deal.” He wrote and requested my Teacher to come and give his first teachings in America, saying that his Foundation would sponsor the trip.

I was thrilled when my Teacher called me and asked me to help him organize the trip and accompany him on it. Working with Mr. Miller and responding to other invitations to teach in the US, including at Geshe Sopa’s Deer Park Center in Madison Wisconsin, we arranged the following schedule: Madison Wisconsin, Toronto, Montreal, and Seattle Washington, where Geshe Kelsang would give teachings on Lamrim and the Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments of Heruka & Vajrayogini at the appropriately named Bliss Hall.

It was a magical trip, including a journey to the rainbow-filled Niagara Falls and many other delights. I was snap-happy and took many photos of this historic event. When we returned to the UK, I decided to present my Teacher with an album of these photos as a gift. We looked through the photos together and came to the last one, a group photo of about ten people with my Teacher right at the front. He paused and looked at me; and then he asked a question I was not expecting: “Which one is me?”

I was so dumbfounded that I had no idea what to say. Here was one of the greatest Buddhist Masters of our time, who had written books of astonishing intelligence and brilliance, apparently unable to recognize himself in a photo. It was not a problem I had ever had!

SONY DSCOf course this question stayed with me, and I thought about it for a long time afterwards. I would take a picturesque daily afternoon walk around the lake at Madhyamaka Centre. There is a bench at the bottom of the lake, which presents the most beautiful view of the centre and the rolling hills behind, where I often stopped and meditated for a while. On one of these occasions I noticed a group of frogs in the water below. As I watched this scene I had a revelation.

Buddha taught that there are six different realms of existence, including animal realms, human realms and god realms – all dream, or nightmare-like, projections of mind where we take repeated rebirth according to our karma. I had recently read that from the perspective of someone who has taken rebirth in the god realms, we human beings are as ugly and smelly as frogs. I also understood from Buddha’s teachings that enlightened beings have the power of emanation, and that one of these powers is the ability to appear in many different forms, both animate and inanimate, for the benefit of living beings.

It dawned on me – what if I, as a human, wanted to help these frogs directly by teaching them how to be happy, co-exist peacefully, not be so attached to each other’s bodies, and attain a higher rebirth such as in the human realm? Would I not need to appear in a form that they could relate to, namely as another frog? I would still keep my human mind and my sense of my human life, but would simultaneously appear as a frog. What if I asked a keen young little frog to help me organize a trip across the pond to the other bank, where I could meet other frogs and teach them a spiritual path? What if that frog kept snapping photos of me here and there? And what if, the journey safely concluded, that young frog presented me with a group photo of ten frogs in a row? Would I not have to ask, “Which one is me?”

Man’s best friend

Frodo Buddha dog

You may have got the impression that I am a cat person, but that is because you never saw me with Frodo, and he was a mini-Schnauzer. Actually, he was a Buddha emanating as a human in a mini-Schnauzer body, but whatever… the point is, he was not a cat.

Frodo appeared exactly when I needed him. In 2009, I had lost my job, my house, my income, my community, and was staying at the mercy of Frodo’s mom S in the Hamptons (why not! What better place to hang out when you’re penniless?!) for a few months, doing retreat. I was at first a little discombobulated, wondering how to make my life meaningful with only my own mind for company, adapting to a new reality. And along came Frodo, giving me his unadulterated, unconditional adoration. It was some strong karma ripening as he wanted to follow me around everywhere, and I happily let him. His mom was very good about it; she said it was not his fault as I had bewitched him.Frodo on walk

Frodo was always happy to go for walks with me. He was always happy to sit next to me, beside me, on top of me, as I read my Buddhist books in between sessions. He was a little too happy to sit right next to me staring at me whenever I ate — really he did love his (anyone’s) food! And, marvelously enough, he was always happy to join me for any number of 2-hour meditation sessions, his paws reaching under the door if I shut it, scrabbling to be let in. He would sit very quietly on the bed behind me for about an hour and three quarters (and sometimes I could feel him staring at me) … then I would hear a small whimpery noise, and I’d tell him to shoosh. He would shoosh for about ten minutes, and then that little attempt at communication again, this time a little louder and more determined. If I looked behind me at that point, his face would generally be right next to my left shoulder. That is if he wasn’t upside down on the bed entirely blissing out, which is how he spent most of the sessions. We enjoyed our Heruka retreat very much, Frodo and I.

Buddhism and dogsI wrote a few things down about Frodo at the time, so here are a few random snippet memories of getting to know a dog, and a sometimes challenging but beautiful retreat.

A meeting

“Frodo jumped unexpectedly onto my lap today, and stayed there for hours, mainly staring at me. He is very sentient. S was not looking for a dog, but when she popped into the pet store to visit her favorite puppy, he was gone. With a shock, she realized he was her dog, but it was too late, he had been crated away for euthanization (at 5 months deemed too old to be cute.) Luckily, she managed to get him back in the nick of time. I am doing no justice to this story, let her tell it to you.”

Cure for boredom and loneliness

“I’ve never felt bored before, really. However, I felt a little bored and out of sorts after lunch, so I took Frodo for a walk and cheered right up. I was out of sorts about the lack of job or clear future, no community, tinged with loneliness, thinking, “What am I doing?” I examined that I, the one that needs distraction and the suffering of change, and dissolved it away. Everyone has it – the sufferings of boredom and loneliness and the sufferings of change are horrible. There is even a TV series called “Bored to Death” — I saw the billboard when I was in New York. I developed compassion from exchanging myself with those who experience boredom, and it was “real” as it was based on my own experience of suffering. I developed real concern for the suffering of Frodo, and everyone else.Buddhism and boredom

At this stage I dissolved my Spiritual Guide into my heart. If he feels this much love and compassion, he must be desperate to dissolve our suffering away, so I went with that and spent time feeling the bliss. There is no need for the grasped-at-I, including the I that is more concerned about its own boredom than the suffering of those born as animals, in a tsunami, etc. I did a meditation fusing exchanging self with others and emptiness, deciding to become an emanation of Guru Buddha and forget all about my limited sense of self, a self that doesn’t even exist. Then I can spread my sense of self over everyone, starting with Frodo, and dissolve them into my mind of bliss and emptiness. I generate others as Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, which means that I am never separate from anyone (and therefore never lonely.) This, I find, is the perfect cure for feeling lonely and isolated.”

I want you. I need you.

“Frodo came along at a good time. In a few self-pitying moments I would think that no one seemed to want me or need me any more, but Frodo told me with his eyes: ‘I want you to attain enlightenment for my sake. I need you to attain enlightenment for my sake.’ Frodo is my new BFF and how wonderful it is if he can be representative of all living beings, as my object of love. This is such an uncomplicated relationship! I can’t bear to see him hurt, even though it is usually momentary e.g. when I threw the yellow tennis ball for him and it landed on his back and he yelped. I have to get him and everyone else out of the lower realms and out of samsara.”

A dog’s life

“Frodo is powerless – all he can do is whine or bark, he cannot open a door himself, or get himself his favorite treats, and he’s always at ground level having to look up. He cannot read or otherwise really entertain himself. Who owns Frodo’s body? It’d be good to love all living beings as much as I love Frodo. He is an emanation dog for my retreat. He is whimpering ‘Please hurry up and get enlightened!’

“Frodo is not worried about human problems like losing a job. My teacher Geshe-la makes the point that animals are temporarily free from human problems, just as we humans are (only) temporarily free from animal problems. If you pay close attention to people’s lives, naturally empathy and compassion will arise as they are all experiencing problems every day.”

dog is man's best friend

Wake up!

“This morning, Frodo was whimpering in his sleep. I wanted to wake him up. It occurred to me that if you’re going to free someone from a nightmare, you can’t buy into that nightmare yourself. Buddhas see that we are suffering but they also see that it is dream-like suffering, so they try to wake us up.”

Best gift

“It is Frodo’s birthday today! I gave him all sorts of goodies, but my main gift to him, and indeed his back to me, was to exchange myself with him and all other animals all day long. On the beach where S and I took him for his birthday run, we saw a poor fish flapping on the sand, the fisherman oblivious.”

Upside down dog

“Tsog day was lovely with self-initiation and Offering to the Spiritual Guide and an upside-down dog on the bed behind me.”

Mala

“I was with Frodo earlier today when a white labrador bounded up to me on the beach, seemingly with no owner. She followed me for about a mile, until I came across a woman sitting on the beach with her dog, a black labrador. For some reason, she called out “Mala!” and both her black lab and my new white lab bounded up to her. We didn’t think too much of it, but when we looked at the white lab’s collar, her name, too, was “Mala.” And I’m doing a counting retreat.”

Stay here now

“I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.” (Postscript: I often think of this walk when I need a reminder to experience the vibrancy and fullness of the present moment, not dwelling futilely in the non-existent past or distracted by the non-existent future.)

If I ever wanted to tune into love, I could think of Frodo, it worked instantly every time. He was there during my Heruka retreat, and Heruka is the nature of love. At the time I used to reckon that if I loved everyone as much as I loved that dog, I would be enlightened by now. I think that may be true.bodhichitta or bears

Why am I telling you all this? Because Frodo died today.

Please pray for Frodo. May Buddha Tara, whom he loved, take him straight into her heart. Please pray for Dharma, my friend’s brave cat, who also died a few days ago after a long illness. Please pray for Bear, who died recently. Please pray for all our precious animals, who teach us so much, who open our hearts. May they all be happy. May they all be safe. May they all be free.

Finding my heart

I am only a parent of cats and take my hat off to parents of small humans, who seem to have to work 24/7 for others. But I think even pet parents have some of the same experiences, and also some of the same concerns when it comes to balancing love and attachment and avoiding undue worry and stress when things go wrong…♥)  So, when Kadampa working dad recently had the good idea of starting a Facebook page for Buddhist parents, I joined the group too. And to let more parents know about this forum, I thought it was a good excuse to post this guest article by him. Scroll to the bottom of this article to read the Facebook About. 

Just before I was to get married I was at the New Kadampa Tradition Summer Festival in England.  I went up to what was then the Protector Gompa (a special meditation room dedicated to the Dharma Protector).  I felt like getting married was the right thing to do for my spiritual practice, but I still had doubts.  So I made as sincere of a request as I could that my path be revealed to me.  What happened next was the only time something like this has ever happened to me.  I was meditating, my eyes were closed, but in my mind a Buddha who I understood to be Tara approached me.  She was made of a silvery metalic liquid, but very much alive.  In her hands was a baby – in normal flesh and bones that I could see as clearly as I could see any person out of meditation.  She then handed me the baby and said, “This is where you will find your heart.”  And then everything vanished.  I can still vividly remember and see this within my mind.  All doubt was then dispelled and I knew what my path was to be.  Thirteen years later, I now have five kids!

Prior to my being a parent, I was very much a Vulcan – heart-felt emotion wasn’t really part of my personality, and I was very intellectual in my approach to the Dharma (I still am, unfortunately, but it is slowly changing…).  I really struggled with feeling any Dharma realizations like love and compassion in my heart, and as a result I tended to shy away from such meditations and instead to focus on emptiness and other philosophical or technical topics.  “Finding my heart” was (and still is), in many respects, my greatest spiritual challenge.

To my surprise, the love I have for my children is not some sappy, mushy sort of thing, but is rather very active.  It can best be described as “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.”  It is a feeling of a fortunate assuming of personal responsibility for their welfare – I am glad it is me who is responsible for them, because I wouldn’t trust that anybody else would look after them the way I would and I very much want them to be taken care of.  It is a love that ‘knows them’, in many ways better than they know themselves.  I know and understand how they work and think, so I am always sensitive to what is best for them.  It is a love that happily works for their benefit.  It is a love that would rather me have the hardest tasks or the worst things so that they can have the best.  It is a love that somehow can see past all of their faults and understand where those faults are coming from and develop compassion wishing to protect them.  It is a love that literally laughs out loud when I see their summer portraits and the unique goofiness in each of their expressions!

And here’s the thing:  all of this comes naturally.  I haven’t worked to develop this love, I just naturally feel it.  Venerable Geshe-la explains the reason for this is because we have special karmic connections with these particular beings from our previous lives where we now spontaneously feel a pure love towards them.  Of course there are times when our minds are full of delusions towards our kids, but compared to everyone else we feel the most natural love for our kids.  It is thanks to my kids that I ‘found’ my heart, I realized what it means to feel an active love for somebody.

How wonderful if we can extend the love we feel towards our children to all living beings, where we can view all living beings as our children.

Here is the Facebook forum: https://www.facebook.com/groups/288032664659782/members/ 

About: The purpose of this group is to provide a platform for Kadampa parents to share their experiences of how they use the Kadam Dhama to be better parents and to ask questions about how to apply the Dharma to common parenting challenges. Through this, we can all learn from each other’s trials and tribulations as we seek to unite the Kadam Dharma with modern parenting. Over time, this page will become like a repository of the accumulated wisdom of Kadampa parents, which will then hopefully prove helpful to future Kadampa parents for generations to come. The group is open to parents and non-parents alike, because in the end our job as Kadampa Bodhisattvas is to help others grow. Please add all of the Kadampa parents you know to this group. The group is also open to Kadampa teachers who wish to better understand and help their students who are parents. And yes, parents are free to post pictures of their little ones doing all of the silly things they do! Please note, the views expressed in this group are those of individual practitioners and do not represent those of the New Kadampa Tradition itself. This is an “unofficial” group of practitioners. For the official New Kadampa Tradition Facebook page, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/kadampa

Going on 92

Eileen with SilverI was able to visit my friend Eileen again a couple of weeks ago (you may remember her from this article), and after four years I found her skinnier, frailer, and walking a lot more slowly. The other day a doctor exclaimed: “Are you still walking around on those feet?!” Eileen replied that indeed she was. “And you do know that you have two dislocated toes?!” Eileen knows it all too well. As well as hobbling around on broken toes due to advanced rheumatoid arthritis, Eileen is losing her previously reliable eyesight to macular degeneration, and wonders how and if she will drive for much longer, read, see… Despite all these curtailments, Eileen is still loving her daily meditations on Mahamudra, the clarity of the mind, and still delights in life – a delight that seems extra qualified these days by a deepening patience. We had a lot of fun that weekend. I told her of the interest her last article generated on this blog, and asked her to give us an update on the ageing process from the point of view of a meditator and Kadampa Buddhist; and she has sent this snapshot.

Going on 92

At the request of my friends, here I am again to update the subject of Ageing…

Over a year has passed since I wrote about coping with an ageing body, and now the disparity between that body and the mind, which I am happy to say remains much as it ever was, is more obvious every day.

I will give you an example that happened only in the last few days. My lovely daughter who is now 61 spoke to me on Skype – oh yes, I do keep up with modern technology! – to see where I would like to go for a trip this year. For the past few years we have treated ourselves to a short break in some exciting European city, Barcelona, Marrakesh, Warsaw…  and so now she wanted to know “Where this year?!

I so much wanted to go with her but I also knew that it would be foolish to make this ageing body attempt the trip. So with a foot on each side of the fence, I replied: “Well, darling, where would YOU like to go?” Quick as a flash the answer came, “Let’s go to Prague!”

Now Prague is one of my favorite European cities. I have always loved the idea of visiting the river Vltava, about which the composer Smetana wrote such eloquent music – for although I have visited Prague many years ago, I have never been on that river.

So how to resolve this conflict? To go or not to go? That is the question!

Perhaps the salutary experience I had the next day was provided for me by the Buddhas to bring me to my senses.

A lovely new friend, a Buddhist monk, had taken me to a seaside town on the Yorkshire coast for some sea air. The day was beautiful and the sun warm, even though it is only February. We were strolling along the promenade, my arthritic feet doing reasonably well, and I suggested descending to the lower promenade to be closer to the sea. This involved negotiating a flight of 15 steep concrete steps, but off I set, with my teenage mind and my ancient body. Big mistake! All was fine until we reached the fifth step from the bottom, at which point my legs gave way and I fell head first, landing in a sprawling heap on the ground, to my poor friend’s horror.

Struggling to my feet I tested out my legs. They held my weight, no broken bones – just a large swathe of skin flapping off my lower calf. Dramatically bloody, I must admit, and not a pretty sight. That and a sprained wrist seemed to be all the damage. It could have been so much worse – a fractured skull, a broken hip.

Was this a timely warning to “Be my age!?” To use the time I have left in this life to better advantage? Not to give in to my attachment for beautiful cities, rivers, and above all music? Years ago I asked a well-known Buddhist teacher, “How do you know if you have attachment for something?” and he replied, “If you want it again.”

I took this to mean if I want something again because I think it makes me happy from its own side. It is a major part of our Buddhist endeavours to overcome the 3 poisons of anger, attachment, and ignorance – three snakes in a basket on our lap vying for supremacy and ready to bite any time. Is this an opportunity to deal with attachment? “But hang on…”, objects my unruly mind, “Would it not be an act of giving to go to Prague and make your daughter happy? Giving is, after all, one of the six perfections of a Bodhisattva!!” Prevaricating, my mind hops from one side of the fence to the other.

Eileen doorsWhat to do? I am sitting here, looking out into my garden, and my little cat Silver jumps onto my knee. Two wood pigeons preen themselves in the cherry tree, and it is almost Spring. A wave of wondrous contentment envelops me. How foolish I am, wishing to be somewhere else. Isn’t this the teaching of Buddha, to dwell in contentment and rely on a happy mind? I see it now…Eileen with Silver 2

Dear daughter, don’t be disappointed. Go with a young friend, and later, when you visit me — and we’re sitting by my window with the clematis like a pink waterfall, the early roses scenting the air, and the little cat lying in the sun — you can tell me all about it.