Time traveler ~ rebirth part 5

recycle wasted time

A few days ago I was in the English Lake District, walking in Tarn Haws, contemplating water flow – sometimes gushing fast down a waterfall, sometimes collecting briefly in pools created by rocks in the river, but always, always moving. Even in the stillest parts of the stream, the water did not remain the same even for a moment. Our consciousness too may pool in one world for a time, with the relatively superficial swirls and eddies of change — perhaps we will move around, or change friends, or raise a family, or advance in our careers, or retire. But one day it will inexorably exit through the rocks to move on.

We deny impermanence at great cost to our peace of mind. If we do not go with the flow – if we think our current companions and infrastructure are moreorless permanent and the be all and end all of our life, thus investing us and them with self-grasping ignorance, attachment, aversion – it’s like trying to stay the water of a river. As Heraclitus put it, we can’t step in the same river twice. In fact he said we cannot step in the same river once – but, either way, living within an understanding of impermanence is vital to our spiritual and emotional well-being. Our mind is a constant flow, a constant becoming. We need to purify and transform our river-like mental continuum in the now – immersing it in the Dharma of compassion and wisdom. Mixing it with the blessings of the Guru, Buddhas, and Sangha, with their mental continuum, flowing into the vast and profound ocean of bliss and emptiness.

So, that is what I was thinking as I watched the river flow. I recommend that walk in Tarn Haws sometime 🙂

Expanding the mindkill time injure eternity

At any given moment, we are a being who is identified with this time traveler — that is our sense of who we are. Through coming to understand the continuum of our mind and that it is our life, as explained in these articles, this particular human life we have now becomes very meaningful.

Sometimes when people hear about future lives and how important it is to work for their happiness, they assume that this one short life is not important, that happiness must be deferred. But this is not true – this life becomes immensely important because we understand that it is a crucial part of this journey, in which we can prepare for the entire journey ahead. If we want to be happy in the future, we need to learn to be happy now. And we currently have all the conditions we need for spiritual practice. We have all obstacles out of our way. If we want to purify, liberate our mind, and so on, we can do so as much as we want with this precious human life. This is not the case with everyone — not everyone has this opportunity that we have right now. These conditions are very temporary, but at the moment we have them.

Our sights expand. If you have spent your life living in a castle, even a big one, and have never been outside, and one dawn you go up to the keep and peek your head over the parapets, you may think, “I never knew! There is a vast world out there!” I think that these meditations on the nature and function of the mind, on death and impermanence, on rebirth, on the cycle of consciousness, the cycle of life — these meditations are the dawning of spiritual awareness.

Geshe Kelsang, my Spiritual Guide, has said that we grow when we develop these understandings. We grow from what is called a “small initial scope being” to a “special initial scope being”. This means that our “being”, or who we are, has grown as our understanding and capacity has increased.

you grow to heavenTo explain a little … within Transform Your Life, for example, is contained all the stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim for short), the whole journey to enlightenment with all its increasing scopes of growing capacity. The first scope is called “initial scope”. Within initial scope are small initial scope and special initial scope. Small initial scope is where we’re at before we start getting interested in the continuum of consciousness, who we are, where we’re going, where we came from — we’re just interested in the things of this life. That’s who we are, that’s what we want, that’s all we are coping with.

Then, through understanding these teachings of Buddha, we grow from a small initial scope being to a special initial scope being, which means we have become someone who is actually interested in spiritual awareness and spiritual development. We are no long just stuck inside the castle, but looking over the parapets and seeing the vast wonder of the continuum of mind and its possibilities. Our mind is opening. Our awareness is expanding and we start getting interested in spiritual training.

Right now everything depends upon our mind, whether we are sad, happy, non-deluded, deluded, etc. Tomorrow everything is still going to depend upon our mind; next week it’s the same story. In ten years’ time our life is going to entirely depend upon our mind, just as it does today. When we die our life is still going to depend upon our mind. In the intermediate state, in our next life, everything is still going to be created by our mind and dependent upon our mind. Now if that’s the case, small problem filling mindif our mind is of such profound importance, is in fact the creator of everything, indeed it is our life, then it makes a lot of sense to realize its full potential through spiritual practice.

If we think that our mind is just our body, if we never explore these things and never meditate on them and never come to understand them, then there does not seem to be a huge incentive to practice a spiritual path. Then we’re just a lump of lard. If it’s just the things of this life that are important to us, then we sell ourselves incredibly short.

Sixth and final installment is here.

What is the point of training the brain!? ~ rebirth part 4

My grandfather lived to 100. He was a spiritual person, and he probably could have lived to 110 as he was immensely fit, but unfortunately he was run over by a car. During his last 6 weeks, spent in hospital, he went through a lot of stuff, going in and out of pain, in and out of lucidity, and having some moments of great insight. One day he said to my brother:

“In the light of eternity I can see very clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.”

then whatWhen we get to the end of our life, it is like last night’s dream upon awakening — however long it felt at the time, it’s barely a moment. There is no difference between a dream of long duration and one of short duration, once it’s finished. So whether we live a long life or a short life, it’s still insubstantial, it’s not who we really are. It’s just who we think we are at the moment. In fact, if we’re imputing ourselves on the body of this life, the people of this life, the jobs of this life, the money of this life, the surroundings of this life, and so on, then we are not relating to ourselves as who we really are.

As mentioned in previous articles on rebirth, we are actually a traveler who has come from countless previous lives and is going to countless future lives. That sense of being a continuum of awareness is immensely mind expanding. If we don’t have it, we limit our self to superficial, fleeting appearances.

It is like getting in a train carriage and putting up the curtains, marrying the person in the next seat, settling down forever, complaining about the neighbors in the next row. When we get to the end of the line and the conductor says, “All disembark!”, we panic, “Oh no, you can’t make me get off! This is who I am, this is me and my friends on this train. This is my real world. This is where I belong.” But it’s not. train tracks

We do ourselves a great disservice because of identifying so strongly with the things of this life. We are upset when things don’t go our way. Instead of getting any perspective on them, we grasp at everything as being very important; and also we do not set our sights on spiritual training because in fact we’re not identifying ourselves as spiritual beings. To become interested in our spiritual nature entails understanding the nature of consciousness. I don’t think there is any other way around it. If we understand the nature, function, and continuum, or cycle, of consciousness, and if we know that this body will eventually perish, we know that our mind will continue past the duration of this body.  From that we’ll conclude that it is extremely important that we take care of purifying and training it so that we experience happiness and freedom not just now but forever.

If we get interested in Buddhism, we find that we can train to overcome our anger, for example, and our attachment, our addictions. We can overcome our fear, we can even uproot our ignorance. During this life we can purify our mind of all its negative actions and pathways to suffering. We can develop universal love and compassion. We can develop bliss and omniscient wisdom. Perhaps we hear these things and we think, “What a great idea!”, but then at the same time, if we’re going to be dead in a few hundred months, and if our mind is the brain, then at that point the candle is going out. If that’s what we think, that the mind is finite, then what’s the point really of training it? Of course it will make us happier and so on, and increase our gray matter, but what is the real point? There’s not much point really, is there? If our mind is just a piece of shriveling soft tissue headed for annihilation, we might as well sit this one out. Just wait for it to pass. Wait for extinction.

Of course that’s not what happens. The whole point is that the mind and the body are not the same.

I have a story about my grandmother too. When I was younger and became interested in Buddhism, doing jobs in Buddhist centers and so on, I got paid a pittance. (Working for Buddhist centers is not a career move by the way ;-)) And my grandmother noticed this and thought, basically, that I wasn’t taking enough care of the things of this life. She would say, “You’re not working hard enough to make money! What about your pension? What’s going to happen when you get to my age and you’ve no money?” One Christmas party she also cornered a good family friend of mine, Pagpa, a Buddhist monk, and spent over an hour telling him the same things …

samsara attachment to homeThese were valid points; it is not like what she was saying didn’t have any reality. However, she felt that everything was wrapped up just with who I was in this life and that I was therefore badly letting myself down. And I was trying to explain to her that, regardless of what happens when I retire, my death and future lives may come sooner and I needed to prepare for those.

As my grandmother got old, on one of my visits to see her at her house in the south of England she said, “You know, as I am heading now towards my death and looking back on my life, all these things, such as having money, feel hollow to me. They don’t feel like who I am.” And we talked about this and she asked me, “What can I do? What does Buddhism say about this? What will happen when I die and afterwards?” I showed her the book, Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, which I had on me. She read the title out loud and then said, sadly, “It is too late now to make that blissful journey. My life is almost over.” It was very poignant, actually, the way she said it. But anyway I tried to encourage her; I said it is never too late to get interested in spiritual life. Which I think is true, as long as we do get interested when we hear about it.

Later on, my grandmother suffered from dementia and needed full-time care. From having a big house with lots of books, she went down to having whatever could fit in one small room in a nursing home. When I visited her there, I success 1saw that on her book shelf she had just two books. One of them was Transform Your Life.

Many people do have this kind of experience as they get older. As they get close to death they don’t really know who they are anymore. This is because all the things that were propping them up, everything they thought they were, is no longer working. The career is over, they’re retired, the children are grown, health, energy, and looks are failing, and it is clear now that money can’t buy happiness All those measures of who we are and what constitutes wellbeing or success in life are becoming increasingly hollow. But in fact they’re always hollow. It’s just that sometimes as we get older it becomes more evident.

Part 5 is here.

The circle of life ~ rebirth part 3  

time is emptyIf we do the meditation described in the last article on rebirth, we get a sense of the flow of our mind – what it is, where it’s coming from, where it’s going. This helps us understand rebirth.  There are 5 different ways in general to understand rebirth, and understanding the continuum of consciousness is in some ways the best because, if we can meditate on our own mind, we can come to see in our own experience how our mind is continuously forming, becoming, evolving, flowing. It never stops. It is beginningless and endless. It is impermanent but never-ending. But this body we have right now, the physical body, although also impermanent (ie, changing moment by moment) is highly temporary. It arises in dependence on its physical causes, the sperm and egg of our parents, food, etc.; and when those causes deteriorate and disappear, this body vanishes. It has a very limited shelf life.

Which means that this life that we’re in at the moment is very temporary as well, and will not last for more than a few hundred more months, at most. Luckily, this is not who we are.

skeleton in mirrorIf we never give any thought to the nature of our consciousness, if we don’t understand its function or its continuum, then we will inevitably identify with this body very strongly, and with its infrastructure. We’ll identify with the things of this life; they will become what is most important to us. We’ll think that our job is most important to us, our career, our house, the amount of money we have in the bank, what restaurants we frequent, the friends around us. We will continually be externalizing the causes of our happiness and the sense of who we are. We think: “This is who I am.”

Me, for example, I’m 25 years old (yah!). I’m a Buddhist. I’m either American or English (depending on how I feel). I currently live and work in Denver, Colorado, I don’t have a lot of money in my bank account, but luckily or foolishly I don’t care too much. My mother is called Sally, my friend is called so and so. I am currently looking after a foster kitten called Dexton. I do a bit of editing. I like walking in the Botanical Gardens. Etc. I used to live here, there, everywhere. This is who I am.” But of course that’s not who we are! (Certainly not who you are – but also not who I am!) Nowhere close. We don’t really know who we are unless we understand our mind.

As a friend of mine put it the other day, we need to embrace the consciousness that is at the heart of life.  For our life is our mind, our mind is our life. If we think about what life is, it is animation, isn’t it? It is awareness, it is experience, it is mind. It’s not body. Shantideva goes so far as to say that we are animated corpses! When we see a dead body, especially if it belonged to someone close to us, it is clear that it is not them, that they’ve left.

Our life, our mind, is continuously becoming, continuously flowing. From life to life we go through stages of consciousness — we’re alive, then we go through the death process, then we go through an intermediate state or “bardo”, which is like a dream state, after which we “wake up” in another life. You can read about this cycle of consciousness in the chapter on Understanding the Mind in Introduction to Buddhism. With powerful mindfulness and concentration we can be cognizant of this cycle of consciousness and remember past lives – without mindfulness we can barely remember what we had for lunch last Wednesday. Based on his first-hand experience, Buddha Shakyamuni and many other realized meditators since his time have had a lot to say about the cycle of life. For example, Clear Light of Bliss gives a very detailed description of what happens during the death process from the subjective point of view of the person who is dying rather than the onlookers. (This is very helpful for us and also helps us help others who are dying.)

Does anyone remember their dreaming last night? I dreamt that I was about to crash in an airplane. I’m happy to sayShantideva leather that on this occasion I managed to go for refuge and not be alarmed. (I am not always so sanguine.) In our dreams we enter a different reality, we even have a different body, a dream body. And then we wake up from that in this meaty body again, in our bedroom. Constantly our mind is throwing up different appearances, but whatever is going on, dreaming or waking, we are thoroughly invested in it. When we’re dreaming, our dream world is our world at that time. When we wake up, this is our world. During deep sleep, everything disappears except emptiness. In the same way that we fall asleep and wake up every night and day, so we die and take rebirth life after life. Buddha said sleeping, dreaming, and waking are like a microcosm of dying, bardo, and rebirth. Our next life — months, weeks, or even days away — will be like waking up in a new life, with a new body, new parents, new environment, and so on.

time is running outOur mental continuum is perpetual, a ceaseless cycle of consciousness; whereas our physical bodies are exceedingly fragile and impermanent. Buddha says we are travelers bound for our future lives. This world is not our eternal home; there’s nothing eternal about it at all. So it is not who we are.

If we understand and identify our life as our mind, and if we understand that our mind is beginingless and endless, we start to get a very, very different understanding of who we are, do we not? We understand we are travelers, that this life is a detail — to be honest it’s got no more substantial reality than last night’s dream. It feels endless while it’s going on because of our permanent grasping. We think that this is all that there is. It’s me and this body and these friends, this job, this house, etc. It feels like it is really going on while its happening, doesn’t it?  But, when we die it disappears like last night’s dream. Sometimes a dream seems to go on forever – but the moment we wake up it has gone. This life is like that. As we approach our death, we’ll see that this life was a completely fleeting dream-like appearance. It feels real because of our ignorance, because we’re grasping it as real, not because it is real. We’re also grasping it as if it is permanent, but that doesn’t mean that it is. We need to question appearances more deeply if we are to figure out who we are and what is going on.

samsara's oceanWe have had innumerable dreams in this life, and each of our countless previous lives is also a dream-like mere appearance to our mind. We will continue to dream forever — and those dreams will be out of our control and full of suffering until we overcome our inertia, our attachment to the status quo, and realize the ultimate nature of things, that they have no more reality than a dream. Then, as Buddha Shakyamuni and countless others have done, we will wake up from the sleep of ignorance to experience the lasting happiness of liberation.

Part 4 is here.