Who is supposed to be looking after all these animals?
Most of the animals we can see are in our human realm, of course, because that is where we are. But there are countless more. According to Buddha’s explanation of the six realms of samsara, the vast majority of animals are packed together in the animal realm. In Washington DC a few weeks ago, at the Smithsonian museum, I watched a short documentary showing the outlandish creatures not long ago discovered right at the bottom of the ocean, under the seabed, all stacked one upon the other, much like the scriptural description of the animal realm.
And we don’t have to look far to see that most animals inhabit a terrifying and hostile world. In the summer of 2009 I went to the aquarium in Plymouth with my good friend Kelsang L, and I wrote at the time: “I need to remember these images. A large flat fish with a distinct face is flailing out of the water at L, perhaps some part of him recognizing her robes, who knows, and working his mouth as if to cry “Help me!” Tiny sea horses, the size of a fingernail, have no future to write home about. Sharp-teethed sharks move incessantly around a large tank above our heads, avoided for dear life by the terrified fish forced to share their space. L and I didn’t realize we had come across the tank for fighting crabs until we spotted their body limbs strewn all over the ground, all the remaining crabs lying on top of each other in exhaustion. Limpets and other crustaceans are stuck fast to the rocks, with such settled ignorance of their surroundings that they could be the very epitome of self-cherishing. Enormous salamanders and eels are confined in cruelly tiny spaces. Unsuspecting prawns are dumped in the tanks with the anemones, to serve as their supper.
The “HOMES” display is a poignant reminder of how every creature in the sea desperately wants one – they try to make their homes on rocks, under rocks, under the sand, even in the waves of the water itself. In samsara, we all have attachment to places, enjoyments, and bodies — but real estate in the Ocean is hard to come by, and most people down here are not able to keep their home even when they do manage to find one.
“Who is looking after these living beings?”, I find myself asking, as thousands of mouths open and shut in a Munchian scream for help. “How am I going to get you out of this lower realm?”
Buddha Tara, you are needed
Tara is the embodiment of swift compassionate action, so it seems to me that to become more like her we need to ripen our potential for this by taking on others’ suffering both in and out of meditation. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook:
We should alleviate others’ suffering whenever we can and happily accept our own suffering as a method to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way … the power of our compassionate activities will strengthen.
Taking away everyone’s suffering is Tara’s very nature. As a Buddha, she has already exchanged self with others, imputed her I on all living beings, including the prawns; so living beings’ suffering IS her suffering and she has already happily accepted it, purified it, and transformed it into bliss. We can do that too, generate ourselves as a Buddha, purify everyone through imagination that becomes reality. Everything starts and ends in the imagination. We need to be part of that creative solution if samsara is ever to stop.
During meditation, we mentally take on the suffering of others upon ourself, using imagination. Having gained deep experience of this meditation, we shall then be able happily to accept our own suffering in order to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way, we are physically taking the suffering of others upon ourself. ~ The New Meditation Handbook
Tara’s legs remind me that it is pointless rushing around like a headless chicken – one of her legs is out, showing her readiness to leap up to help, but the other is drawn in, showing that she can help others precisely and only because she is an ever-present manifestation of bliss and emptiness. In fact, she only ever need take one step.
Please give me that!
To be like Tara, we can learn to take on others’ burdens, first mentally, then physically — “Hey, let me carry that for you!” “Give me your suffering!” Walking one day up one of those notoriously steep hills in San Francisco, and seeing an old hunched woman trying to ascend an even steeper set of stairs to her front door carrying two huge shopping bags, I ran up and carried them the rest of the way for her. However, although it worked that time and she seemed relieved, a friend’s similar but different story reminded me that we need to be happy to help others in the way that they want, without imposing our ideas of what that may be. In his case, seeing a homeless man pushing a trolley with three wheels that got stuck on the tarmac he also ran up, only to be greeted with outrage: “I don’t know you! I don’t want your help!” It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.
Suffering sticks to a real me – ageing, sickness, death, and so on – and it is hard to stop obsessing on that for long enough to focus on others. To develop a depth of compassion, we need to realize that the self we normally see and cherish does not even exist, so we can get it out of the way.
And as we can impute whatever we want — choose how we discriminate the world as Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind — we can impute that others are our mothers, that they are kind, that they are more important than me, that they ARE me. We can make that work, as Buddha Tara does.
Once we share her realizations, we will also be completely free from any mistaken appearances or hallucinations (and hallucinations don’t get much weirder than those to be found at the bottom of the ocean or in the Plymouth Aquarium). We will be able to bestow blessings/peace on each and every living being every day, including every forgotten sea creature in existence. They need this. We all need it.
Happy Tara Day!
A week late, but just wanted to say how much I loved:
“It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.”
This will truly help to remind me in my practice not to try to force my solution onto other people’s suffering but to learn to become what they need in that moment.
Thanks everyone for the “Reality Check”. It is good to have ourselves in perspective, as unworthy of the psychotic completely exaggerated self-importance that can pervade our existence (certainly my existence). Another aspect to this reality check is, as has been mentioned, the vastness of the animal realm and other realms; we simply are unaware of this vastness as Luna pointed out so well. I heard that wise teachers who came from Tibet to begin spreading Kadam dharma used to say that every time you brush your teeth you kill milions of sentient beings. I was told that they said that even one cell beings have minds, experience suffering and are sentient beings, including all the bacteria in our bodies; it has apparently been said that these microscopic forms of life display behavours similar to other creatures when their territory is being invaded in any way. When I mention this to some people who have been studying and meditating a long time they don’t seem to have heard the same thing about the vastness of the animal realm. I would be interested in knowing what others have come to believe about this. I have been told that plants and viruses are not sentient but all other forms of life are. Does this mean that we need to have complete equanimity also towards our mouth bacteria and our kittens?
If I could see them, perhaps i would like them as much as my kittens. Could start with equanimity toward bigger things like that Dumbo octopus above and a kitten. Good to start somewhere so we develop that vast mind that wants lasting freedom for all living beings.
Kitten in the one hand, curved knife in the other … 😉
Ouch! That thing above that I previously called “thing without a name” now has a name.. ..”Dumbo Octopus”…Gen Losang taught emptiness last weekend at Manjushri Centre beautifully encouraging us to use “mere name” every time we think or say “emptiness”, so I have been playing with mere names the last few days; (forgive my slight deviation from the topic). Yesterday morning a verse manifested:
I’m stuck inside
A language labeling machine
Slapping a name
On everything I see
This morning my verse finds a thread to attach itself too … cool!
And does calling him “Dumbo” change him? (Yes!)
Sean, only just read this! Re plants…they have a VERY subtle mind. I once moved a bamboo cane which a sweet pea was about to wrap its tendron around, to the other side of the stalk ( 6 inches) and within a v short time the ‘ tendron’ had wrapped itself around the moved cane! Also, in Oz on Gt Barrier reef I slowly avoided walking on corals, not to hurt them and was thought bonkers! Most corals are now dying from the suns heat plus too much disturbance…..just my wee input!
I pray every morning for help seeing the lessons/teachings that day that will help me become whatever will most relieve the suffering of others and also ask each day to be whatever and where ever I am most useful in the grand scheme of the Dharmakaya. I figure that’s what is going to happen whether I’m aware of it or not but the prayers increase the likelihood that I am rejoicing in and happily accepting (maybe even embracing) each person, place, and thing that arises during the day rather than struggling to fit reality back into the dismal shoebox of my narrow little plans. Plus, I like to make prayers that are guaranteed to be answered!
For example, when I do get particularly wrapped up in the bondage of self and start experiencing the crankiness, discomfort, and desperate discontent that come along with spending time in the melodramatic hallucination named “Roseland,” I say a little prayer to Tara, “Please bring me someone to help” and almost immediately I will receive an email, call, or facebook message. This weekend, I was experiencing a LOT of intestinal disturbances and pain but, surprisingly, not much suffering. Probably because I decided to use the forced downtime to read and memorize Dharma and use the waves of abdominal cramps to remember taking and giving. And then, on the two occasions when friends called me asking for help, I went from feeling tired and hungry to feeling no illness whatsoever. Even feeling light and healthy! The very process of being fully present with someone else’s suffering, really focusing on understanding the state of mind that is supporting/holding that suffering, finding where the other person’s mind is currently residing, imagining routes they can feasibly take to attain a different perspective on their situation, and describing those routes in ways the other person is most familiar with requires all my attention which leaves nothing to focus on maintaining all the imputations that go into maintaining the fancy-shmancy story lines that make up ordinary me. I consider this minor respite from suffering a brief, minuscule taste of what I have to look forward to…
Thanks for the inspiration Luna!
Beautiful. You could write a guest article some time!
Ha! The only thing I’m qualified to write about is the sumo wrestling matches between myself and my deluded mental habits!
Very beautifully written. I saw a documentary about the see creatures on the ocean floor, it was the most terrifying thing, every creatures just trying to eat other creatures, no light, no vegetation, it felt like the most desperate situation. Thanks for the reminder. xo
It is desperate down there 🙁
Wow yes, we know about 8.7 million species but that’s the tip of the iceberg. This made me think about how much I DON’T know, what I see is so, so limited. Imagine then other realms and the numbers there! So many suffering living beings, countless. Then a thought occurred, “Imagine if I exchanged self with others and then generated bodhichitta”. Wow. Amazing! Now that’s vast.
Phew, seriously vast!!!
Dear Lovely, Thank you for such a beautiful and inspiring reminder. Much love, Gamo
My pleasure 🙂
Thanks, good timing!