It was Red Nose Day yesterday in the UK — comedians and celebrities doing funny, embarrassing, and risky things in order to bring awareness and money to children who need it.
Thanks to the Internet 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 great photography and voiceover of their exploits (they seemed to be in real danger on 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 2-hour walk each way to get to school, and not along nice paved sidewalks either — even Philips Idowu found it grueling. The celebs 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!) Red Nose Day raised 75 million quid this year, a lot.
Even when they had a totally terrible, scary day, these celebrities remained determined to carry on because they wanted to help, and unfailingly good-natured with each other despite the heat, the exhaustion, the dirt, the fear, the insect bites.
I was struck by how easy it can be for us to see what’s going on in other parts of the world, to potentially expand our horizons through the power of the Internet. How easy it could be for us to communicate and spread good ideas, and meet people all around the world – to feel part of the same huge human (and animal) family. If it wasn’t for the fact that we seem to prefer staying locked up in our airless echo chambers, and the algorithms that make fake and bad news travel far faster than anything else, we could be letting go of all sorts of musty, ancient prejudices in the oxygen of Internet exposure.
Modern Buddhism, the book
As with any tool for communication, the Internet can be used for good or for bad. But overall I welcome this “modern miracle power” (as Venerable Geshe-la has called technology) – and there is no doubt that it has been a very useful way to spread meditation and Buddhism throughout the world.
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.
Kadampa 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 supercharged common sense – it doesn’t require us to believe things that we can’t test in our own experience or through 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 – pretty much everyone who was “serious” moved into residential centers, joined full-on study programs, and worked full-time for those centers. Back in the day we had no TV, no Internet, 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. Many people still live, study, and work full time in the large residential centers; 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 the New Kadampa Tradition is 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.
Moving around from continent to continent as I grew up meant that I knew a lot about the people I was living with, my local schools, and so on; but had little to no awareness of the rest of the world. There were no TVs (let alone computers) where I lived. One UK newspaper arrived most weeks in the diplomatic bag, and was then passed between the embassy staff. 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 aged around 8 — it was a Dracula movie at a drive-in theater with a scratchy screen (and I was mesmerized.) 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 all over the place, and started lots of societies for my friends – dancing, animal protection, gymnastics etc. I collected tortoises, cocoons, and ants, so I could have pets. (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, later still I knew enough Turkish to get around.
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, unfashionable) books, but I was clueless about global and current affairs. I had never studied anything except English and maths, and a bit of local history and geography, and I had a lot of catching up to do.
I left scores of friends behind in all the countries I grew up in – 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 wanted to – friends can follow you around forever! If the Internet had existed when I was a child, none of the above would apply. (Not that it was a problem for me at the time. I was very lucky with my childhood.)
Everyone my age and thereabouts has this experience of how life has changed, modernized, and become transparent in communication beyond our wildest dreams. The New Kadampa Tradition has been changing with it.
Judging by the shares, people are appreciating the videos of how Buddhism is helping communities in South Africa too, such as this one.
One inspiring recent development in communication has been the possibility of Ben Fletcher teaching Buddhism in sign language. Ben was born deaf and has never heard a sound. He is losing his eyesight. 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? Ben blows people’s socks off. I will try to watch and share every video ever made of him. Talking of which, I just found this one:
This blog is just one small way of how to capitalize on the Internet to share Buddhist ideas. Geshe Kelsang once told me that I needed to “go where the people are” and, as well, to give not Dharma teachings but “advice for a happy life”; and I think that most of you can be found here in cyberspace. 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. You can find a list here (let me know if your blog has inadvertently been left out).
Finally, since I wrote this article nine years ago, much has changed even in this short time. Social media has pretty much taken over our lives, for good or for evil. COVID-19 struck — with a silver lining being the worldwide proliferation of livestream Buddhist classes.
Red Nose Day, spinning off from Live Aid, 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 Venerable Geshe Kelsang to the US 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.
The frog story
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!
Of 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?”