Thanking our lucky stars, thanking everyone

thank you 2I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving, probably because it is Thanksgiving today – and I’m thinking that Buddhism teaches two very good reasons to give thanks, both of which have universal relevance.

The first is being thankful because we have such a precious human life right now. The second is being thankful to others, because without them this life would be impossible. Contemplating our good fortune makes us feel lucky to have it – and feeling lucky is feeling happy. Contemplating others’ kindness opens our heart to gratitude and appreciation, and feeling grateful is also feeling happy. Feeling happy in turn makes us value what we have and value others, and then we are far more likely to use what we have to pay others back.

So, if we really want to embrace the full meaning of “Thanksgiving” and feel doubly happy and energized to pay it forward, it seems like a win-win meditation to put these 2 meditations together … therefore I thought I would quickly offer a few ideas, providing I can get this written before I fall into a sugar coma (I ate already.)

richerAs for the first, we have everything we need to make spiritual progress in this life. And even leaving the opportunity for attaining permanent freedom and enlightenment out of it,  from a mundane point of view we are also far luckier than most of the other humans in this world, not to mention all other living beings, such as the cat on my lap. In an earlier article I listed the results of some research showing what happens if the whole world is to be shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same. That list of what could be but isn’t shows us where we fit in the grand scheme of things, and it occurred to me that every one of these good fortunes comes entirely from others. As a kind of contemplation, therefore, I’m going to list each one and then explain (1) how lucky that makes me, and (2) how this luck is all thanks to others.

  • 80 would live in substandard housing. Yesterday I was standing outside in Denver waiting for someone to givehomeless me a ride home as it felt bitterly cold and I was carrying shopping. I waited next to a guy in his twenties whose face was blue with cold. He had a skinny Chihuahua with him, and they were walking quickly up and down the sidewalk to keep warm. “When are they going to get a chance to get warm?”, I thought, for they were both homeless. I on the other hand live in a well-built house, and it comes entirely from others’ kindness, as I have never built a house in my life and wouldn’t know where to begin.
  • 67 would be unable to read. How much I take for granted my ability to read and write. When I read writewas staying in a remote Brazilian rain forest some years ago in meditation retreat, none of the valley dwellers had a reading age past 12, and as a result their world was quite confined. Primary school teachers spent many hours or even years teaching me to read and write, skills I use hugely every day; and I can’t even remember their names.
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation. I just ate a huge dinner, every morsel of which came from others. I brought some peas, it is true; but, honestly, all I had to do is open the freezer door, provided by others, take out the frozen peas, grown, harvested, and packaged by others, put them in a saucepan manufactured by others, add boiling water from plumbing and a kettle provided by others, boil them on a stove made by others … anyway, you get the point. And I still took the credit when people thanked ME for the peas! (not that they did, but had they …)
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply. I may complain when the water doesn’t come out of the faucet, but we know how far many people have to walk each day just to carry back a bowl of water, the amount I probably use washing a few pieces of cutlery. And all the water I take for granted comes entirely from the kindness of others.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation. I certainly take my bathroom for granted. But why!!? And how water scarcitykind of others to provide me with sanitation so I don’t have to use a hole in the ground or wash once a year. 
  • 24 would not have any electricity. It’s been cold outside, as I said. But I am very cozy and warm inside. I can also stay cool in summer. The lights are on; I just have to flip a switch. Yes, it is worth thinking this one through – the moment by moment infrastructure of my life is a result of others.
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet. I am able to write and post this, for a start. And all I have to do is move my fingers over the keyboard – fingers provided for me by my parents and typing taught me by … again, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten their name.
  • 1 would have a college education. The fact that we have any education is a blessing, and it all comes from others.
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death. I will indeed be near death before too long, in that regard we are all the same; however, I have better chances of good health and a long life than most due to doctors, good nutrition, etc. – all again coming from the kindness of others.
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US. Hmmm. The richer we are, the MORE we depend on others.

Also, in the same article I spoke of how much religious freedom we have compared with most people in the world. And, again, this makes us both very lucky, and also very indebted to those who provide us with everything we need to make spiritual progress and bring an end to suffering.icing on cake

All told, we are outrageously lucky and it is worth thinking about this from time to time rather than focusing on what is wrong with our life – of course we all have problems, but our problems are a walk in the park compared with those of others (see above.) Better to count our blessings on a regular basis. We may not have all the icing, but we DO have the cake.

I hope you enjoy your cake and eat it this Thanksgiving, and indeed every day. We can thank our lucky stars for being so lucky, and thank pretty much every living being as they have all directly or indirectly had a hand in bringing us this good fortune. And now we can pay it forward — using these current great conditions to become a better person, hopefully even a Buddha, for others’ sake.

Where were you before you were born? ~ rebirth part 2

We are travelers. Here’s a Buddhist meditation we can do to help us gain a feel for this.

stonesWe can begin by simply sitting comfortably, back straight, shoulders level, hands resting in our lap, right hand on top of left, palms upward, thumbs slightly raised and touching. (If you’re used to putting your hands in a different position to meditate, that’s fine also.)  Our head is tilted slightly forward, mouth closed, tongue on our upper palate, breathing through our nose. Our eyes are also lightly closed or ever so slightly open. We can take a few deeper breaths than normal as we settle into this position, focus on how we’re sitting, and forget about everything else.

The world around us in all directions melts into light and disappears. Everything before this moment evaporates, like last night’s dream. Everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. We are in the present moment, the here and the now. There is no other place or time to be.

We feel all the weight and tension of our body fall away, every muscle relaxes, and our body melts into a light like a hologram. We could pass our hand through it without obstruction.

We encourage ourselves to concentrate on this meditation, thinking:

“Through meditating on my own mind I can come to understand who I am. If I understand who I am, I can change who I am. This understanding will expand my horizons, open me up to extraordinary spiritual possibilities. For this reason I will focus on this meditation happily, not following distractions.”

To help us overcome mental distractions directed outward, and to rest and relax the mind, we can spend a couple of minutes focusing just on our breath as it enters and leaves our nostrils. We let all other thoughts go. (We can also feel our subtle inner energy winds that “carry” our minds change direction from going out to coming in.)

As our mind is settling, a natural feeling of peace, space, and contentment arises in our heart. We feel that we are centered in our heart, the center of our chest, our so-called “heart chakra” where our root mind is located. We drop from our head into our heart. We absorb inward.HUM

From within this space we can now spend a couple of minutes watching our thoughts or awarenesses (sense or mental) arise and dissolve away. We don’t follow our thoughts or think them – just observe them as they appear and disappear again. Whatever ideas, daydreams, awarenesses of sounds, memories, etc. that appear to the mind, we allow these to arise in the present moment and subside, without reacting to or intruding on them.

After a little while we can ask:

“What is this thought? Where is it? Where does each thought come from? Where does each thought go? What is that space between the ending of one thought and the rising of the next?”

Each thought is clarity, is formless. Each thought arises from the deep inner clarity of our root mind at our heart and dissolves back into it. We now let all our thoughts dissolve into a clarity at our heart, a boundless clear awareness, like an inner empty space.

This is my mind. My mind is clarity, which is formless, empty of shape, empty of size. It has no color, no touch, no taste, no smell, no physical properties whatsoever. We meditate on this clarity which is empty of form.

The function of my mind is to cognize, to know, to experience, to be aware. My mind also has the power to create everything — everything comes from our mind, with our thoughts we create our world.

If it helps, you can think of your mind like a boundless clear ocean and any distracting thoughts that arise are like bubbles – bubbles have nowhere to go, disregard them and they will dissolve back into the clarity of your mind at your heart.

Everything has dissolved into a crystal clear and peaceful or even blissful awareness at our heart — all thoughts and their objects have dissolved.

This awareness is impermanent, constantly changing moment by moment, always clarity, always cognizing, but never staying the same. We get a sense now of how our mind is a becoming, a moment by moment transformation, a mental continuum. This moment arose naturally from the previous moment of mind in an unbroken continuum, and the mind of this moment will transform into the mind of the next moment, a never ending flow.

time is empty 3And where did today’s mind come from? We can trace it back to the mind of last night’s dream. And that came from the mind of yesterday, which came from the mind of the day before, and so on. If we had good mindfulness or memory we would be able to trace back our mind to the moment of our birth. And where did that mind come from? It came from the mind of the baby in the womb. Where did our mind as a baby in the womb come from? Mind is caused by mind, not by physical objects. The mind in the womb came from the mind of our previous life.

Death is the permanent separation of body and mind. This meaty body skids to a halt, but formless mind continues in an unbroken continuum. When the body perishes, what will happen to the last moment of the mind of this life? It will be the cause of the first moment of the mind in the bardo, or intermediate state. And that mind in turn will transform seamlessly into the mind of our next life.

As Buddha Shakyamuni explained, our root mind is beginningless and endless and, when fully purified and transformed, will become the mind of a fully enlightened being, a Buddha. This is who we are, this is who we can be.

Whatever understanding we have gleaned of the nature, function, and continuum of our mind from our own experience, we now focus on it single-pointedly.

(See also pages 26-7 of Meaningful to Behold for more on this meditation and subject.)

What are the implications of all this?! Part 3 is here.

Are you a traveler? Where are you bound? ~ rebirth part 1

Reincarnation or rebirth is a very important and challenging topic – and not just in Buddhism but for everyone because, just in case it IS true, we’re better off thinking about it than not …

Do you ever ponder your existential predicament (for example at three in the morning when the clouds of distractions temporarily part) – questions like, “Who the heck am I?!”

“Who am I, and where did I come from? What am I doing here? Where am I going? What’s going on?! What does it mean to be alive?” ~ 3am questions

retreatI have found that the only way to address these questions in a way that makes any sense is to contemplate what is our own mind or awareness. Then, at long last, we can start to figure out who we actually are.

Understanding our body, understanding our mortgage, understanding our career, understanding our bank balance, understanding our vacations, understanding our family — these are not who we are. I think we know this at 3 in the morning. We know we are not anything external, we are not anything physical, we are not any fleeting experiences of this life.

If we want to know who we are, we have to understand what our mind is. We have to understand its nature, we have to understand its function, we have to understand that it is a never-ending continuum. Only then will we realize who we are, and that who we are is a traveler.

The Buddhist definition of our mind is, simply put, clarity and cognizing. The nature of the mind is formless or empty of form — it is empty of shape, empty of color, empty of anything tactile, empty of any physical properties. It is utter clarity that has the power to perceive or appear things. The mind has a very important function, which is to cognize, to be aware of everything, to experience, to understand, and to know; and in fact even to create our thoughts, our world, our reality.

Our mind is also a continuum – it is impermanent, changing moment by moment, constantly becoming. It is not a static entity but a functioning thing. At every moment it is changing. It is always clarity, it is always cognizing, but every moment it is a becoming, it is an event.

The substantial cause of mind is mind: nothing physical can give rise to consciousness as they are different entities. Every moment of mind arises from a previous moment of mind and gives rise to the next moment of mind in an uninterrupted flow, a moment by moment transformation.

This is extremely helpful for us to understand rebirth – that our mind is not only formless and utterly unlike the perishing physical body, but also a continuum that never stops. It has actually never started and it will never stop.seeing death as the end of life

Understanding this, we will begin to get a sense of what life actually is, who we actually are. As Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“This world is not our permanent home. We are travelers bound for future lives.”

In the next article on rebirth I describe a Buddhist meditation that helps us get a feel for this.

Equanimity and the Dalai Lama

Unkind DL
Click on image for Dalai Lama’s own speeches on the ban

This blog is about applying meditation to transform daily life, and as my own daily life of late has included protesting the Dalai Lama, I am going to write an article about what I did with that.Kind DL

 

I don’t feel the need to explain again why I was at the demonstrations, I did that here. The media are now at any rate asking more probing questions of both sides, and this means the tide is turning and our efforts at free speech feel well placed. But I did want to say a bit about how it has been as a long-term Buddhist to be participating in demonstrations at all. I didn’t sign up as a Buddhist all those years ago with a view to one day protesting the Dalai Lama, but I do find this unusual experience has opened my mind and heart in some helpful ways.

Tibetan demonstrating 4
Some fellow demonstrators, now on the Tibetan administration’s wanted list

hit list These were peaceful demonstrations, with hundreds of Westerners and Tibetans requesting religious freedom and an end to slander, all to the beat of some very melodious drums. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood and, more importantly, personally dedicated to practicing what they were making so much noise about — the freedom for everyone to practice the religion of their choosing, to live together in harmony, free from slander and persecution.

many Tibetan followers of Dorje Shugden
There are many Dorje Shugden Buddhists worldwide. But the Dalai Lama has banned their religion.

I got to see parts of America that I may never have visited otherwise – in Birmingham Alabama we ironically demonstrated in Kelly Ingram park in front of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and from there we travelled to the privileged Princeton where we were the first demonstrators ever to be permitted to march through campus. I saw the value of taking the self out of it, remembering to abide in a dream. Like in a drama, I felt the need to play my part Kelly Ingram Park 1because it is very important to me to stand up for this tradition and preserve it for all future generations. But though this is a serious issue, it doesn’t have to be a heavy one – and the protestors did not seem heavy in the least. The police everywhere said that we were the most considerate or well-behaved Kelly Ingram Park 3demonstrators they have ever seen. They didn’t need to control us, some of them said, but mainly protect us from the Dalai Lama’s unruly followers. At one point, for example, out leafleting and explaining the issue to the general public, two NYC police officers escorted me away from some angry Tibetans, stopping the traffic so we could cross the road, “for my own safety.”

One of many signs
One of many signs

The Dalai Lama’s supporters have not taken to the protests very well. Sometimes, if I got too close to the Dalai Lama’s followers and counter-demonstrators, I was spat at, told I was going to hell, told I was only a westerner with no understanding of Buddhism, told to go away and practice my spirit worship elsewhere, and had money shoved in my face (apparently the Chinese pay me for demonstrating).

Typical conversations with Dalai Lama supporters during the protests:

“You worship a spirit!” “No I don’t.” “Yes you do.” “Okay, then.”
“You are paid by the Chinese!” “No I’m not.” “Yes you are.” “Okay, then.”

That is why I generally avoid conversations with die-hard Dalai Lama supporters. I find I get more results from hitting my head against a brick wall.

(A friend of mine at the most recent demonstrations in London, September 2015, has just had this experience: “Tibetan followers were getting really nasty and aggressive. Following N & me all over the place. Shouting in our faces – calling me “ugly face – horrible face” – etc etc. And I apparently am speaking to the Chinese government through my phone head set. And they seem to really believe that.” She added: “It was a stark reminder of what we are up against, just trying to speak up, as the Dalai Lama has all the power and this was just a small experience of what it must it be like for the Tibetans under his power. I got to walk away, they don’t.”)

To be fair, not all the followers were aggressive and angry, some did seem to be practicing the values of tolerance and compassion that Buddhism is famous for, and a lot of people have started asking questions.

In any event, the demonstrations afforded me a fantastic if unexpected opportunity to meditate on equanimity. When you are obviously disliked and everyone is staring at you as if they just wiped you off their shoe (just as Dorje Shugden practitioners are pretty much every day in the exile communities and I Do not enter 5was while out leafletting near ardent followers of the Dalai Lama), it is a good time to get your self out of the way and just try to love your “enemies”. Otherwise, you might get tense, fearful, or angry, and want to leave. When you get back in your own demonstration pen, with your own “tribe”, and those peaceful Buddhist practitioners are requesting religious freedom and an end to deception — it is all too easy to think “Phew, I like these people, they’re brave and good-tempered, and they like me.” But it was also a perfect opportunity to see them and the crowd opposite as equally my kind mothers and closest friends, the only difference between them being time. And then, again out leafleting, there were the masses of pedestrians walking by on the street who were total strangers – or, were they?! An interesting challenge too to watch their reactions – some sympathetic, some a bit hostile, others utterly indifferent — and not be swayed to feel close to some and averse to others.

autumn leaves fallingI was lucky enough to be in Boston in the Fall – everyone says you should visit New England when the leaves turn, and thanks to the Dalai Lama I had my chance. The falling of the leaves always reminds me of the meditation on equanimity. Leaves that have been together, side by side, for all their lives are blown by the wind to all directions, some landing close to each other again, some so far away, subsequent gusts of wind possibly bringing them together again, but rarely. When we die, we will be blown by the winds of karma to our new lives, worlds, identities, companions – and all the companions of this life will have moved away, maybe or maybe not to reappear later, but in unrecognizable forms. In the light of this existential situation, it makes no sense to have attachment, aversion, and indifference – better to open our hearts wide enough to include everyone everywhere.

What’s really going on in New York City?

Halloween 1We stumbled into a metamorphosized New York on Halloween, a veritable charnel ground, when we decided to watch the parade down in the Village. The altered reality started for me on the subway, people dressed in outlandish costumes and behaving larger than life, but I was not expecting the sheer torrent of ghouls, torture victims, skeletons, Playboy bunnies, Spidermen, Spiderwomen, Clark Kents, bananas, skyscrapers, and slices of pizza with eyes we encountered from the moment we exited a 6th Avenue subway and were herded in some strange dream down the sidewalk by a (genuine) New York cop. I saw another cop standing commandingly on a bench, and flinched as he turned to point his gun at me – turned out to be plastic, of course. (Thought you weren’t allowed to impersonate police officers?!) I saw a homeless person in a doorway – only he turned out to be “real”. I saw someone with folds of flesh hanging from his face – he sadly turned out to be “real” too. So did a couple of dogs, visitors from the animal realm, who were looking around in absolute bewilderment.

Halloween 2But although all appearances are deceptive all the time, sometimes it is even harder than usual to tell what is “real” and what is “pretend”. Wave after wave of vampires, bubbles, jellyfish, cuddly tigers, drag queens, schoolchildren, footballers, skeletons  – the sidewalk every bit as outlandish as the parade. We walked for miles with no let up, Gotham simply teeming with strange creatures, like some kind of Star Trek convention, only weirder. Me and my companion were wearing jeans, woolly hats, thick jerseys, and Patagonia overcoats (it was freezing, though try telling that to the Playboy bunnies and gay prostitutes) – the party-goers were probably guessing we were dressed up (maybe a bit too) convincingly as boring, straight, middle-aged friends from somewhere (anywhere) other than the coolest city on the planet, if they noticed us at all.

There is nothing fixed about us at any time. We tell stories about ourselves to ourselves and then believe them as the gospel truth, even though our sense of self changes from day to day, from hour to hour, and perhaps especially on Halloween, America’s favorite holiday.  So who were these New Yorkers? Who did they think they were for that one night only?! And could you really say that they were the “same” people we saw in their macs and umbrellas the following grey morning? Did they believe their own new identity, or after a few minutes were they having “normal” conversations based on their normal personas, forgetting they were Halloween 6supposed to be the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man? We did witness quite a few arguments, one ballerina screaming, “We were trying to have a good time, and you RUINED it! You ignored me! You are totally different with your friends!” (I wonder whether his friends are also Yetis.) Is she always high-strung, or was she relating to herself as a beautiful but half-starved neurotic dancer?! Is it easier or harder to have a good time in samsara when you are masquerading as some other samsaric being? Or are all worldly appearances deceptive and, sooner or later, painful? Is there happiness to be found as any being in any realm in samsara, from the scary denizens of the hells, to the spirits and ghouls, to the leopards, to the Hollywood royalty? I didn’t see anyone dressed up as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. Now, that might have worked. But I have to say that me and my friend were not finding it too hard in this surreal scene to self-generate as undercover Heruka and Vajrayogini in the charnel grounds of the Tantric mandala, and as a result had a pretty blissful, meaningful evening.

Halloween 3Appearance vs reality, I was thinking (amongst other things). Where were we?! Where are we?! What is really going on? Where is New York? Totally unfindable! The New York of Friday 31st bore no resemblance to the New York of the following morning, but what actually changed? Like a dream, Halloween minds ceased and their appearances simply disappeared, coming from nowhere, going nowhere. Where are you right now? Who are you? There is nothing actually there, which means we can be anyone and we can be anywhere, as long as we don’t grasp at any of it.  When we understand how all conventional truths are created by the mind of self-grasping, as Geshe-la explains in The New Heart of Wisdom, we know not to fully trust our senses or even what our gross conceptual thoughts are telling us. Appearances are deceptive … unless they are appearing as not other than emptiness. We are constantly hallucinating to a greater or lesser degree. We have gross or subtle inappropriate attention going on pretty much 24/7.

Halloween 4For ordinary beings, our minds and their objects deceive us, are more trick than treat. In which case, what can we trust? I think we can trust: faith in the possibility of transcendent, pure worlds, beings, and minds; renunciation for the samsara created by the hallucinatory minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing; compassion for dream-like suffering; love; bodhichitta; the first 5 perfections — any of the so-called “method” practices. We can rely on these states of mind, even more so if we are gradually imbuing them with the wisdom understanding that nothing is really there, meaning that trying to fix things just “out there” is like trying to move objects around in a dream or on a movie screen.

One day our direct realization of appearance and reality as being one truth will mean we can stay single-pointedly absorbed in the ultimate nature of reality while simultaneously emanating countless appearances to help others, vis-a-vis we will have attained enlightenment. But for this to happen, I think now is a good time to understand that the only object Halloween 5which exists exactly as it appears, or in other words is 100%  trustworthy, is the emptiness of inherent existence. (This is the absence of things existing from their own side, as anything more real than dream-like mere appearance.) Moreover, although love is essential, compassion is indispensable, and so on, the only mind we can trust completely is the very subtle mind of clear light, in which all the things we normally see have disappeared and to which emptiness/reality is always appearing.

Halloween in New York reminded me of all this, and how important it is to train and purify my mind, to break through all the phantasms and disguises, until I see the truth directly.