Thank you for being there

I just finished an Annie Chun’s All Natural Asian Cuisine noodle bowl, bought not inexpensively at the local Whole Pay Packet, I mean Whole Foods (who went and put such a money-sucking store right next to my house?!) It was kind of untasty to tell the truth, seriously it looked nothing like the picture on the packet, but it only took three minutes to make, and has kept me fed for another couple of hours so I have the energy to write this. So far in all the days of my life I have been kept alive by mountains of food already, all provided to me by the kindness of others – at least, I sure didn’t have anything to do with my noodle bowl other than buying it with dollars given to me by others, warming up the water in a kettle provided by others, using water from goodness knows where coming out of a faucet whose plumbing I had zero to do with, and putting it in my mouth (provided by my parents) with a fork manufactured by others. And of course that is just scratching the surface of all the causes and conditions that went into my supposedly “instant” dinner and my ability to eat it.

kindness of others Buddhism

Just in the last ten minutes I have been entirely dependent on others, and I could take any ten minutes in my day and never get to the bottom of it. As Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness, we are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves.

Mountain reflections

Buddhism home is where the heart isI saw a “Colorado Native” bumper sticker recently in the Rockies (where I live now!) Where am I native to, I thought? I seem to be a bit of a nomad. But I think I may be indigenous to the land of others’ kindness. We are all indigenous here. We are born into it naked, with nothing, and then supported by it. It is quite a big world. Can feel at home anywhere if we remember.

I was marveling at the feats of human ingenuity – the roads, tunnels, and bridges carved goodness knows how through the mountains next to the rivers, rocks, and frozen waterfalls, past Glenwood hot springs and the place called No Name, a Starbucks (yee haa!) in every wild west town. I watched the wheels of vehicles rotating on the highway as a moment by moment testimony to other people, each inch of the meeting of tire and asphalt coming from their kindness – I didn’t pay for even an inch of the journey between Denver and Grand Junction.

Buddhism in ColoradoI glanced at the driver – on the surface it looks like a driver is in charge of turning the steering wheel, but in fact the wheel has to turn in dependence upon the curving road, which is entirely dependent on others – not even the coolest driver has any autonomy. Driving, like any of our activities, merely reflects off a vast narrative of causes and conditions, karmic and environmental, just carved into the scene as a whole – the driving in this instance not other than the mountains, and the mountains not other than the drive. So with no inherently existent driving in all that, no findable driving, where is the inherently existent driver? Our constrained and seemingly findable self, whatever we are doing, is just an hallucination of self-grasping and self-cherishing.

These kinds of contemplations on our complete dependence on others and on our environment, which we can do anywhere, help us feel closer to others — more in our heart, and less fixated on a heady, dualistic sense of me and them. (Funny how the more in the heart we are, the more we feel connected with the whole wide world.) They also increase our wisdom understanding emptiness, that nothing exists from its own side.

There was a gold rush out here once. Didn’t amount to much (though I believe they found some silver). But as Buddha pointed out, if we were a pauper living our whole life in a hovel, we’d be pretty delighted if someone showed us that we had a gold mine right beneath our feet. The gold of our Buddha nature has always been inside us, we simply haven’t known. And we can mine these seams of limitless wisdom and compassion through contemplations on the interdependence of ourselves and others.

(As you are probably guessing, I might have had too much time to think on that journey – ten hours in a car, caught in a blizzard, my thoughts meandering along with the winding roads … surely I am practically a native of the Western Land of the Snows myself now?!)

Buddhism and meditation in the Rockies

Is anyone not kind to us?

I think that is what Thanksgiving is about, remembering the kindness of others. I suppose it is customary to remember the kindness of our nearest and dearest as we gather around the laden dining table, but we can also remember the kindness of strangers, and why not even of enemies?

Attentive friends and family are obviously kind to us in ways we can recognize (at least, if we notice in the first place). When we meditate on our dependence on all living beings, we realize that strangers are very kind too, eg, Annie Chun and co, the road and railway company, etc.

What about people who annoy us or even set out deliberately to harm us? They are arguably the kindest of all as they allow us to practice patience and unconditional love, qualities we need for lasting happiness and freedom.

We watched the Life of Atisha in Cascais, Portugal, at the Kadampa Buddhist Fall Festival the other day – a truly insightful script and well executed production directed by the talented Olivier. There was a lot of good acting, but Atisha’s cook arguably stole the show. Atisha took this rude, obnoxious servant all the way with him to Tibet and, when the Tibetans asked him why, replied:

Without this man, there would be no one with whom I could practice patience. He is very kind to me. I need him!

Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

Atisha understood that the only way to fulfill his deepest wish to benefit all living beings was to achieve enlightenment, and that to do this he needed to perfect his patience. For Atisha, his bad-tempered assistant was more precious than material possessions, praise, or any other worldly attainment. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

We don’t need to have a servant to practice patience, there will probably be someone willing to fit the bill amongst our parents, partner, or children over Thanksgiving, or our boss and co-workers back at work next week. If anyone tries to start an argument over the holiday, you could try just playing about with offering them the victory and see what happens. I think it is often not the content of an argument that is the issue (especially when we’ve overeaten and feel grumpy)–it is the emotional luggage and inappropriate attention. Diffuse this and the content can often take care of itself.

Kind just because they’re therekindness of others in Buddhism

Shantideva says that others are kind just because they are other – because they are there, really! If they are there, we can cherish them, and if we cherish them we experience happiness both now and in the future.

As Mark Twain put it:

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

I borrowed a cat this morning, here in Denver, called Bella. She is a cuddly little grey fur ball, who sat on the fire escape crying to be let in my attic window, and then lay peacefully next to my leg as I meditated. In Buddhism, we never meditate alone – we don’t have to have an actual cat (or human) sitting next to us, but we always think we’re surrounded by countless living beings. It takes us out of ourselves, makes the meditation flow better.

kindness of others ShantidevaFor as long as there are people around you, or even just one person, we can be cherishing others and making our life meaningful and happy. Big heart translates into big action. One analogy Geshe Kelsang uses is that even if all we are doing is putting crumbs on a bird table, if we do it with great compassion our action is far more powerfully beneficial than giving a diamond ring to someone out of attachment.

This next bit is old news, and wide rivers have flown under the bridge since then; but it is when I became 100% convinced of the advantages of cherishing others in times of crisis, so I’ll share it. When I was fired from my very enjoyable long-term job several years ago, I relied upon those around me to bring me out of it – not by expecting them to do anything, but simply by serving as my immediate objects of cherishing to take me out of myself, to help me keep moving onward and upward. I would not just survive, in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I was determined to thrive. I remember the moment I received my firing letter. Immediately I had perspective as it was the same morning that my dear friend Trish died of cancer, died most beautifully I might add, with a smile on her face and with the faint euphoric words over the phone the night before: “L, this is all just appearance! Geshe-la is everywhere!” News travels fast, but not that fast, and before she found out another friend came to me in tears of guilt about losing a precious gift a friend had given her, and then another friend came to me in tears seeking advice on how to communicate better with her husband. Later they both said words to the effect: “So sorry to dump on you, I had no idea you’d just been fired!” but they didn’t know they were being the kind ones, allowing me think about others in my hour of need.

Kadampa Buddhism in ColoradoAnd I continued as I meant to go on, deciding that the only way not to go doolally would be to firmly and stably put myself in everyone else’s shoes. Self-cherishing is like trying to keep your balance on high pointy (just focused on one person, me) Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos; loving others is like wearing solid flat (focused on lots of people, others) Doc Martens. When you find yourself navigating uncertain terrain, lumpy, full of potholes, treacherous in places, believe me you’d far rather be wearing Doc Martens. It worked every time I did it (which was a lot due to desperation); and I know I’m more stable and confident now thanks to it.

Thanks, in fact, to others.

Essential issues for consideration in a study of world religions

denver airport I met with a delightful Professor recently here in Denver, Dr. Don Maloney, who is both the eastern and world religions teacher at Metro State University and University of Colorado in Denver (both share the same large hip campus). He showed me the five core questions that students are asked in these university courses, the “essential issues for consideration” as they embark on a study of the history, beliefs and central practices of world religions; and I couldn’t resist sharing a Buddhist take on them. Don was a Jesuit priest for 30 years, and has an open enquiring mind, so we and his students had some pretty good conversations!

Thought I would jot down some of the ideas here.  You are welcome to contribute more in the comments.

  1. How does one define “religion”? Is the notion of a “God” necessary for a religion? If not, how might one define religion?

Buddhists don’t believe in a creator God, an omnipotent God who created us, because we believe that everything is created by mind. But we do believe in holy beings, and we pray to them for inspiration and guidance. Everyone has Buddha nature, the potential to become a Buddha or fully enlightened being; and there are already countless people who have realized this potential and become Buddhas. They are omniscient, and perhaps we can even say from their own side omnipotent in so far as they have complete control over reality or truth due to their realization of emptiness or the ultimate nature of reality. However they are constrained in the help they can give the rest of us by our own minds and karma. If we want to help someone, and know we can, and indeed have everything required to help them, but they are in no mood or position to be helped, we know how that goes … If we want the Buddhas’ help, it is there for the taking – it is their job, their enlightened deeds, to send blessings, emanations, and guidance our way each and every day, that is part of the definition of enlightenment. So that is why Buddhists pray to them, requesting to become like them by realizing our own pure, transcendent potential. We can tune into their complete purity and, as it were, download it because our minds are not by nature impure or unworthy, but pure. Buddha's blessings

When we experience even slight peace through our delusions subsiding, either naturally or through the force of our effort, we can understand this peace to be our Buddha nature, or Buddha seed, the pure potential of our root mind; and it is not separate from the enlightened mind of all the Buddhas. Our mind is like a boundless clear ocean but most of the time we are entirely unaware of the profundity, clarity, and deep purity we have within – instead we identify with the waves and the froth on the very surface as we spend our lives and thoughts directed outward, not inward, in a massive play of distraction from our source. One etymology for religion is to link back, bond, or connect – return to the truth or source of inspiration. When we connect with our own Buddha nature, the profound clarity and purity of our own mind, this is the source of our inspiration, this is the truth of whom we are; and it is not separate from the inspiration and truth of a Buddha. Continue to grow our Buddha seed and it will become the omniscient wisdom and compassionate bliss of a Buddha.

The only real truth in Buddhism is that nothing is fixed, everything is empty of existing in a solid, substantial, inherently existent way, because everything is imputed or created by mind. Change the mind, and literally change our reality. We don’t just change the way we look at the world, we change the world itself. The Buddhist “religion” links us back time and again on every level, from the simplest to the most profound, to that only truth — the truth of the emptiness of things existing from their own side. The truth which means that everything depends upon the mind — from whether we are happy or sad depending on our mood rather than on what is “going on”, to whether something is ugly or beautiful, to whether something is a problem or not a problem, right up to the ontological status of the tiniest quark of existence that has no power to exist from its own side. (Even the mind depends upon the mind, is projected by the mind!) The truth which means that we can change completely from an ordinary ignorant being into a sacred wise Buddha by changing our mind.

I’ll get to the remaining four essential considerations in the next article … meanwhile, over to you.

How to win friends and influence people (according to Buddhism)

moral discipline in Buddhism is not goody two shoesSometimes I think we approach moral discipline the wrong way around, thinking of all the things we’d have to give up and deny ourselves if we really went for it, making our lives dull and hard work; and how we’ll be plagued with guilt the moment we put a step out of place. And perhaps we worry that meantime all our characterful, devil-may-care friends will find us really boooring…

But I think that moral discipline is really our way of not harming others and helping them instead. It makes us into a kind, reliable, happy, interested friend whom everyone wants to hang out with. Others can trust us, and are a great deal more likely to help us out when we need it.

Ten negative actions

Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“Anyone who deliberately harms others is no follower of mine.”

moral ethics according to BuddhismWithin that, he advised us to avoid the so-called ten negative actions as our bottom-line moral discipline. We avoid killing and violence – and don’t you generally prefer to be around people like that? We avoid stealing, including stealing others’ partners – again, people appreciate us for that, and trust us. I know that I prefer to hang out with someone who will lift my spirits by not bitching on about others’ faults – sure, it can seem like a fun way to pass 15 minutes by the water cooler, but it always leaves a sour taste in the mind. We usually like people whom we know are not coveting our things or plotting to harm us or scorn us or slander us as soon as we hit any kind of road block. We enjoy the company of people who have open, curious minds, not closed minds through holding onto wrong views. We are more comfortable around someone who is not out of control through drinking and drugs (unless perhaps we are out of control ourselves). We like people with integrity.

It feels good to be around peaceful, relaxed people, and moral discipline leads to a more controlled and therefore peaceful mind.

“Pure societies”

Geshe-la statue in temple at Manjushri Centre EnglandLike Je Tsongkhapa before him, Geshe Kelsang has said that he would like to create “pure societies” where people improve their cherishing of others and moral discipline together, encouraging each other. This does not refer to being an exclusionary, judgmental, “superior” goody two-shoes, much less losing our passion for life or our sense of humor. As mental freedom opens up in our mind through bringing our actions under control, we have a far lighter, happier, and more entertaining time, and this reflects in the people around us.

We have just had the International Kadampa Festival in Portugal, with inspiringly clear and do-able teachings from Geshe Kelsang himself. Over seven thousand people* gathered from around the world for six days in the Hippodrome in Cascais, all doing their best to refrain from harming others and to help them instead. It was impressive. For me, the Festival in Portugal demonstrated that Geshe Kelsang’s vision for a pure society is not so far-removed from current reality – in fact, people remarked that it was easier to cherish others than not to in that environment.  Peter from Poland, the cousin of a close friend who was on his first trip to any kind of Kadampa gathering, remarked that he had never seen so many peaceful, smiling people, and “They didn’t even mind me going through their bags!” (he was on bag check in case you’re wondering). Portugal Festival 2

Your turn: do you agree or not that moral discipline can make life less boring and more enjoyable for you and your circle?

*The gathering

While on the subject of 7,200 people practicing moral discipline at the same time, I just wanted to add something … I found it fascinating that far too many causes and conditions to count were involved in the arising of this Festival, a Festival that had been talked about for a very long time and then appeared for six magical, dream-like days. The feat of organization, transforming an empty hippodrome into a Pure Land for 7,200 people, was supplemented by the umpteen intentions, conversations, imputations, and travel plans created over months and years by individuals all around the globe — from Lisbon to Zululand. (And if we take all the karma from past lives into account…)

The statue

statue of Geshe Kelsang GyatsoMeanwhile, countless more causes and conditions came together to produce the  queue snaking out of the Festival shop, where people waited just a few more minutes to buy their statue of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. This statue is exactly the same as the new statue of Geshe Kelsang that arrived in the World Peace Temple in England this summer, except for being only six inches tall. These 2,000 statues too travelled a very long way, in a shiny red box, complete with a throne, hat, and khatanga. Seven weeks previously they were in China, then they travelled the globe via Hong Kong, Malaysia, up the coast of Sri Lanka, up the red sea past Mecca, past the pyramids, into the Mediterranean. Three days holidays in Algiers and a week in Spain, then a whole day waiting in customs less than two miles from the Hippodrome in Cascais. They arrived at the Festival just on the day it started, phew, along with the thousands of travelling Kadampas. They have been privately sponsored and all proceeds go to the International Temples Fund. Geshe-la statue in Madeira

The Festival has now dissolved like a rainbow into the sky because its innumerable causes and conditions have ceased. (Though not inherently–there will be positive effects arising individually and collectively from this Festival for years to come.) Now there are pictures of Geshe-la statues all over the world appearing on Facebook, as he continues to travel far and wide. What do you make of that?!

Enemy or victim?

Yesterday J and F bought Winston for a visit. He has been scratching himself a lot recently, due to fleas, and J has been applying anti-histamine cream out of great concern for his discomfort. Apparently, I was informed, he no longer has fleas. But sitting at the dining table, stroking Winston, F looked up suddenly: “Oh, here’s a flea.” Then he added, perhaps somewhat in defense of his beloved pooch, “You must have fleas in the carpet!”

Winston 5 Now, not wanting to quibble, but I did feel the need to point out that I have thus far never had any fleas in my carpet, and Winston is the one who has been scratching like crazy, so I was coming to an entirely different conclusion… my carpet (and cat) were now at risk from Winston, not the other way around!

And I caught myself developing a split second of aversion toward this usually adorable fellow, “Oh, Winston, as if it’s not enough that you chase my cat, I wish you hadn’t bought fleas into my house”, as if the fleas were all his fault, and somehow part of him. But of course it was not his fault. He is a poor little dog plagued by flea bites, not an annoying flea-dog at one with his fleas.

This got me thinking some more. If I had the constant, unconditional love for Winston that J and F have, I would not assume for a moment that the fleas are somehow his fault, nor ever identify him with his fleas. I would distinguish between Winston and his fleas, seeing the faults of being bitten by fleas without seeing a single fault in Winston.*

You know how, if we encounter a co-worker with a huge head cold and then develop symptoms ourselves, we can easily think: “Oh it is their fault I feel so ill, they are the one who gave me this” (as if the head cold was part and parcel of them as opposed to something victimizing them.) Think about the panic, aversion and vilification that used to surround people with cancer, for example, or more recently AIDS, as people conflated the victims with the very enemy who was drawing the life out of them. They were not distinguishing between the person and their illness, and this caused hard-heartedness and even cruelty.

Yet when a mother sees her child with a head cold, she is not thinking about herself but about him, so she never identifies the child with the illness or develops aversion out of selfish concern for her own welfare. Instead she distinguishes between her child and his illness and tries her best to free him from this enemy, to make him feel better.

mother childThe common denominator here strikes me as being love. When we have love for someone, we seem to naturally focus on their pure nature and potential and don’t mistake them for their temporary faults, even if we see that they have them. We don’t think “Oh, all you are is a flea-carrying cur, get out of my house!” or “You are just one big head cold, get away from me!” We think “Oh, you poor thing, let me help you overcome your problems and feel better.”

This reminds me of that quote I mentioned here:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish. ~ Transform Your Life, p 131

It strikes me that this goes both ways, in a virtuous cycle. If we don’t identify people with their delusions, we can keep loving them; and if we love them, we are far less likely to identify them with their delusions.

*By the way, I have nothing against fleas per se. They are sentient beings and as such are not enemies at all. But I won’t get into all that right now.

What do you think?

Postscript: I wrote this some time ago too. Winston has since moved to New York and I am about to move to a place with another carpet.