Buddha and the Hidden Universe

BuddhaToday, September 22, is Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, one of my favorite anniversaries of the Buddhist calendar. This is why I like it:

“On this day we celebrate Buddha’s return from the desire god realm called Land of the Thirty-three Heavens, where he had been to visit his mother who had been reborn there.

Traditionally this day also marks the end of the summer retreat. Every year, during the summer months, Buddha did a three-month retreat with his disciples. His reason for doing this was to avoid harming insects and other animals.

If we go out a lot during the summer months we will naturally kill more insects and other animals than at other times of the year. The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.” ~ From a talk by Geshe Kelsang in 1991

It is so easy to get caught up in an insular world of just a few people, often human, perhaps a couple of cats… Buddha returning to heaven to avoid stepping on insects reminds me of how important it is to remove our blinkers as often as possible and expand our mind. In this way, interest grows, some understanding or empathy can emerge, and we can develop universal compassion that takes in everyone, not just a few.

Buddhism talks about six realms of samsara, each with an infinite variety of forms and experiences. We can find it hard to believe in the existence of hidden realms, such as the hell realms, yet we are surrounded by a hidden universe of insects and animals, most of whom experience unbelievably intense suffering. Every now and then we may become aware of the existence of this realm, due to some nifty camera work, and our eyes open.

microcosmosI chanced to see Microcosmos yesterday evening with my friend M, who watches it regularly to remind her of the existence of other beings. It is a great movie, I really recommend it. The beetle we named Sisyphus tried valiantly to move the ball of dung up the hill despite it rolling down on top of him and getting stuck on thorns – the camera panned out to show a hill that we wouldn’t even notice as a groove if we were walking along that path. The exotic, colorful, ugly, bizarre, bug eyed, narrow eyed, legless, multi-legged etc. collection of little people (little from our perspective, perfectly big from theirs) grooming themselves, getting to work (insects all business all the time), having sex (man, those snails really liked each other!), reproducing, fighting their corners for no apparent reason that we could see … And all the while looking entirely sentient, as they are. Their tiny, personal worlds consuming them as our own personal world can consume us with its seeming importance, even when we are all just busy moving things around. I think it is Woody Allen’s character in the movie Antz, a soil relocation engineer called Z, who says:

I’ve got to believe there’s something out there better than this. Otherwise I’ll just curl up into a larval position and weep.

I watched this movie with Daka also, one of my foster kittens, who is M’s cat now, along with soft Kini, and who has developed into a very funny character full of affection and curiosity. If I had the same tenderness for all cats, stag beetles, stick insects, and ants as I have for Daka and Kini, I would probably be enlightened by now. Starting with our karmic circle and spreading that love outward is the way to get there. Alternatively, we can bring others into our circle of love, which will then expand naturally because love is like digital data, infinitely replicable. But to love others we have to remember first that they even exist.Daka

Right now I can hear the cicadas—it’s a bit like tuning into a radio frequency from another realm. Thousands upon thousands of mother living beings in the tall fir trees surrounding my forest hut, all trying to be happy and free from suffering. I have been trying to remember them in my meditations here, for, despite the noise they make, it is too easy to ignore their actual being.

When people get to know an animal closely, and perhaps for the first time, their views on that type of animal often change. Dog owners seem to have a respect and affection for the other dogs they meet, they often smile genuinely at the dog and at each other in recognition. If someone raises a chicken from a chick, and gets to know that chicken as a pet, it is far harder, if not impossible, for them to kill and eat it, because they have “met” it and know it is not just a piece of meat. I read a story in the wonderful book Random Acts of Kindness by Animals about a trapper who came from England to America a few centuries ago, and at his Iroquois wife’s urging adopted two beaver babies whose mother he had killed. This changed his view of animals and he decided never to hunt again, writing these evocative words:

“Their almost childlike intimacies and murmurings of affection, their rollicking good fellowship not only with each other but ourselves, their keen awareness, their air of knowing what it was all about. They seemed like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not quite understand. To kill such creatures seemed monstrous. I would do no more of it.”

cockroachAnimals are folk, they are people. And so in fact are insects. During one retreat some years ago, I saw a cockroach being eaten alive by ants. I blew the ants off and put the cockroach on my shrine in a box with grass and water, and said prayers and mantras. I meditated with him every day for a week, but he didn’t die — he lay there and sometimes he wandered around a bit. And during that week I came to know him and love him.

The day came for me to leave and I thought I might leave him there in his box in front of a picture of Buddha, as surely he was not far from death now and he would be peaceful and unmolested. I got in the car and drove a mile. Then I turned back, picked him up, and took him home.

My view of cockroaches completely changed after that encounter. They are no longer creepy looking beetles (well, they still look a bit creepy sometimes, but so can I). They are sentient beings who need love, like us. Issa’s words evoke this for me:

“Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.”

There are a lot of insects to love so we better get started. As Z says in Antz:

Z: I think everything must go back to the fact that I had a very anxious childhood. My mother *never* had time for me. You know, when you’re – when you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention. I mean, how is that possible?

Geshe Kelsang says in the same talk mentioned above:

In fact, we should have stronger compassion for animals than for human beings because animals suffer more. Human beings have better conditions and are more fortunate than animals. Because animals have so much suffering and no freedom, out of compassion Buddhists should try not to kill or disturb them. So, for three months during the summer, Buddha advised his disciples to retreat, staying always inside and living carefully and conscientiously.

bugEverything about Buddhism speaks to animals and for animals. Most obviously, as many people with even a passing understanding of Buddhism are aware, Buddhists are aiming at enlightenment, part and parcel of which is universal compassion — the mind that wishes to protect each and every living being from suffering and its causes. This really does mean not just our friends and family, not just human beings, not even just our pets, but each and every living being. We sit on our meditation seats and meditate on this every day. We meditate on the sufferings of all six realms of samsara to develop compassion for all living beings.

But in fact already in the initial scope teachings we are wisened up to the status of animals and insects, and in particular we see how we ourselves are not inherently human beings but can be reborn in other forms. From the get-go we understand that we have a precious human life, which means amongst other things that we have not had to take an animal (or insect) rebirth this time, but this situation is rare. In other words, we COULD have taken an animal rebirth and we can still take one again in the future. If we understand the teachings on karma and delusions, we will understand how easy it is for someone in samsara to take an animal rebirth –in fact it is far easier to be born as an animal than as a human being. That alone might give us pause. If you know you might end up in a dark and frightening world, you presumably would not want to alienate its inhabitants before you get there. But every time we willfully harm animals, we are creating the causes to be willfully harmed ourselves in the future.

In the intermediate scope teachings, we are taught to meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop the wish to be free from samsara altogether, once and for all. For as long as we remain trapped by delusions and contaminated karma, we are never free from the threat of lower rebirth – which means that at any time we could be reborn as a lobster and someone could be picking us out to be boiled alive for dinner.

bug 2In the great scope teachings we meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop compassion wishing to free everyone from samsara altogether, once and for all. The only way to do this is to become fully enlightened. Animals and insects are very kind to act as the sources of our growing concern, love, and compassion. I am glad that Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day is here again to remind me of this, of them, and hope this mindfulness remains with me. But I may do what M did and buy Microcosmos just in case …

More on Buddhism and animals can be found here.

Delusions be gone!

I had one more article on delusions up my sleeve, quickly finishing off the six causes of delusion as these are so practical. They show how delusions arise in dependence upon other factors and so, if we avoid those factors, we don’t have to experience the delusions.

overcoming delusions and negative mindsFirst it is worth remembering, as always, that it is our dualistic mind of self-grasping that is distorting our reality – reality itself is fine. We grasp at self and we grasp at other, and so we have a problem. And, believing in our own flimsy projection of our limited self, solidifying it, we grasp at negativity and impurity that are not actually there; they are the infrastructure needed to hold up this projection. “How is it even possible for me, me of all people, really to be free from all delusions?! I’m made of them!” we think. Instead of recognizing that the nature of our mind is fundamentally pure, our ego minds project impurity where it does not exist. Without the deep, abiding, confident recognition of and identification with our Buddha nature, although we may try to clean up our acts a little, we cannot help but reify our sense of an impure, unworthy self with the notions that we are deluded now, we will always be moreorless deluded even if we practice meditation, and we will probably die deluded.

 Buddha nature clouds of delusionsLuckily, these deluded projections have no power from their own side to stick because they are not the truth. They are momentary and extrinsic, like clouds in the sky – they can never become part of the pure, spacious, sky-like mind itself. Our own mind has always been naturally pure and brimming with every blissful potential for happiness and liberation, it is pure now, and it will always be pure. What we call delusions are superficial clouds arising from temporary causes and conditions that can be removed. They are fantasy. Once we start to relate on a daily basis to our Buddha nature, everything becomes easier and more joyful, and we find there is in fact no room in our space-like, empty mind for heaviness or mawkishness.

So, that being said, here is a whistle-stop tour of the last three conditions of delusions, explained beautifully in Understanding the Mind. (The first three causes are the seedthe object, and inappropriate attention.)

Cause # 4: Familiarity

Geshe Kelsang says:

The reason we develop delusions naturally, whereas we have to apply effort to cultivate virtuous minds, is that we are very familiar with delusions. ~ Understanding the Mind

Right now, although delusions have no actual leg to stand on in the space of our Buddha nature, following our delusions is the path of least resistance because it is the path we have always trodden. In certain situations, for example, we are always going to get annoyed because we always have. But if we practice patience in that situation, everything will change.

familiarity with delusionsOn a long hike some years ago in Andalucia, I got amazingly lost in the mountains when I followed the goat trails mistaking them for some kind of human path going somewhere useful. As darkness fell, me and my companion, a dog called No No, realized that just because a path is well trodden doesn’t mean it’s the best path to take. Luckily, No No (so-called as he was a very affectionate, grubby stray and everyone in the village was always saying “No, no!” when he jumped up on them) not only stayed perfectly cheerful, but also had a better sense of direction than I, so we got home eventually. Thing is, we have to start treading new, positive paths until they become clearer and easier to follow than the old ones, which will meantime become overgrown through lack of use. We come to the point where it’s easier for us to be patient than to be angry, it’s easier for us to feel love than to feel dislike, it’s easier for us to feel spiritually energetic than to succumb to the laziness of attachment. We even eventually get to the point where we’d have to work at it to develop delusions! Not that we would work at it, but if we wanted them, we’d have to. Imagine! Definitely this will happen.

We know from our own regular day-by-day experience that everything becomes easy with familiarity.  When I first started to drive a car, for example, it seemed almost impossible! In fact, I was relieved, aged 17, when I failed my test because it indicated that there were no drivers like me on the road. I thought I was never going to learn all this stuff! But we do. Next thing we know, we have music playing, we’re talking to other people in our car, we’re eating crisps, (some people these days even seem to be watching TV), and we’re still driving, effortlessly!  Effortlessly. In the same way, when we become familiar with positive minds, they will start to arise effortlessly regardless of what we’re doing. We won’t have to work at it. Until we get to that point, we need to work at it; but the end is in sight.

Cause # 5: Distraction and being influenced by others

We naturally imitate those with whom we associate. ~ Understanding the Mind

In fact, there is nothing wrong at all with having love and compassion and feeling close to everybody, but this cause of delusion seems to be talking about whom we are influenced by, whom we allow ourselves to influenced by; so we can check. If we are coming under the influence of people who are leading us into more delusions, who have no interest in developing their minds, then this will rub off on us. We are a bit like sheep, aren’t we? (Or goats, judging by my example.) Let’s face it, we copy the people around us, and we especially copy the people we admire. (We do it consciously and unconsciously). We don’t much like breaking ranks. That is fine if they are doing good things, but a cause of going backwards if they are not.peer_pressure

Geshe Kelsang talks about this cause of delusion over a couple of pages, there is a lot to it; but what I mainly take from it is that we’re easily influenced by our friends, so either choose good friends and be influenced by them, or make sure we’re not coming under the baleful influence of people doing destructive things. Watch our minds. Don’t succumb to negative peer pressure. Maintain integrity. Just because other people are, for example, engaging in some kind of gossip fest about someone, slandering people, developing angry minds, doesn’t mean we have to join in. That kind of thing. 

Cause # 6: Bad habits

Bad habits are the main cause of strong delusions arising in our mind. ~ Understanding the Mind

Examples given are stealing, sexual misconduct, talking meaninglessly, etc. For example, if we watch a lot of violent movies or play violent video games, thinking, ‘Kill them, kill them, kill them!’, this doesn’t seem very conducive to peaceful, loving minds. We want to check what kind of junk we’re putting in our minds, and see if we can do something about it, in terms of our lifestyle. Because we’ll always justify our lifestyle, even if it’s a bad one, with our delusions. Mmm?

That was just a whistle stop tour. There’s lots more to discover in Understanding the Mind and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

reality checkSomeone asked me once: “How do we know that the minds like love are not just delusions, good delusions?” Good question. Minds like love and compassion are based on reality, whereas anger and so forth are not. For example, there’s no exaggeration in the mind when you’re wishing someone else to be happy out of love or wishing to protect others from their suffering out of compassion. You have an understanding of what suffering is and a wish for them to be free from it, and there is no exaggeration or inappropriate attention there. Our peaceful, positive minds are in tune with reality and our Buddha nature. Not only do we feel positive and peaceful when we are generating these minds, but they aren’t in any way undermined by our wisdom realizing the way things are. In fact, they are increased by our wisdom, whereas our delusions all automatically diminish as our wisdom improves.

Over to you. Comments welcome.