fly the friendly skies

Welcome to the friendly skies! …

fly the friendly skies… our pilot just welcomed us. And this reminded me of Geshe Kelang’s first flight to America in July 1990. As they set off from Heathrow, he said to the 2 students traveling with him, one of them my closest friend at the time:

We are flying to Vajrayogini’s’s Pure Land…

… and then he absorbed into meditation for the next 6 hours, only arising when prompted to eat lunch, of which he partook of a mere forkful. (As both these students were sitting either side of him, that kind of scuppered any chance of conversation… But it was still apparently a darned good flight.)

And I always think of these words when I fly. Besides, we need to go to the very friendly higher sky of Vajrayogini and Heruka’s Pure Land – Keajra – even when stationary, and we can leave through our crown chakra.

Why? Because samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. I can hear the video game violence emanating from the ear buds of the youth next to me – so how loud is it blaring into HIS ears?! Not that he cares of course, he is never going to get middle aged and old and die. That only happens to other people, like the woman next to him (me). A friend in his 50s recently developed tinnitus. Of course he didn’t see that coming despite years of headphone abuse. And who amongst us hasn’t blissed out to loud music – but even music is deceptive, my friend was telling me. All sense pleasures are. All appearances mislead us while we remain overpowered by them, not realizing they are empty, not realizing they are not really there.

As Geshe Kelsang explains in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition, the Buddhist master Vasubandhu used various examples to show how attachment to sense pleasures creates suffering. Moths are ensnared by attachment to visual forms when they fly into the flame; deer to sounds when they are enticed by the hunter’s flute; flies to smells when they land on food and are swatted; fish to food when they are impaled on the hook; and elephants to tactile sensations when they sink helplessly into mud. Meanwhile, humans are ensnared by attachment to all five!

But everything we encounter can also teach us everything about Dharma if we let it. As Milarepa said:IMG_6603

I have no need of books because all the objects around me are my books. From these I learn about death and impermanence, the disadvantages of samsara, and the emptiness of all phenomena. Great Treasury of Merit p. 212.

Sooooo, so far today … It started with a teaching on my early morning coffee – Life is short. Stay awake for it. (Don’t know what to suggest for those of you who don’t drink coffee.)

The snack cart just came down the aisle, and my attention was captured by Buddha Bowl Foods™ (Trademark! Since when did a snack company get the trademark on Buddha’s begging bowl?) – organic popcorn with pink Himalayan salt. What will they think of next? But although it is seasoned by elements from faraway holy lands, this popcorn is still not worth the $4.99 price tag. Though it makes me shudder a bit to see Buddha smiling out from a disposable snack wrapper, I also think it is lucky that Buddha is not fussy – maybe someone will create an indestructible potential for enlightenment as they chow down on their salty morsels.

distractionEveryone is either snoozing or plugged in. Some are multitasking their entertainment — managing to be on their personal devices AND watching the latest movie on the seat-back in front of them. In this worth-reading NYT article about death, Arthur C. Brooks reports a scary illustration of the disconnect between what we want and what we do due to the power of distractions:

The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.

So far I have resisted the itch to swipe my credit card and watch The Martian … but temptation is always all around. I need to think this could be my last flight, and what would I do if I ever did have to follow the second of these helpful instructions (pictured)? (Has anyone ever actually survived by using their cushion for a flotation flotation devicedevice?! Ok, I admit, I got distracted and googled it. Apparently, yes, they have, in 1970.) But, should the cushion fail, given that I am unprepared for my activities just over the next week in NYC, where does that leave my next life?

In the security line

So much effort goes into becoming a functioning adult – it needs years. There are students behind me in the security line, all young, hip, fresh-faced, and about to have their moment ruling the world. “Boulder has changed so much! Like, totally,” one says, as if she has been there well over her 17 years. “I major in education,” she carries on saying to her new friends. “So are you gonna become a teacher?” “Yeah.” “Cool.” That will take years of money and resources. A small earnest boy with oversized spectacles and a watchful mother — will he be a teacher one day? How much money and kindness will make that possible? Then it starts unravelling as you see from the deeply lined woman hobbling by with a stick, maybe she was an educator once.

functioning adultIt is so easy to grasp at permanence, at things staying the same. Sometimes I fast forward in these snaky queues — where will we all be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?

My young co-queuer from Boulder has also wasted no time telling her new friends that she is traveling to see her boyfriend, who inconveniently lives in New York. “Man! That sucks!” “I know. But it’s okay.” (Clearly right now it is way more than okay for she cannot help grinning, albeit in a cool, I can take it or leave it girls, kind of way). It may last for decades, like Alan Rickman and Rima Horton, but the odds are against it, and she may have the first of several broken hearts, perhaps even on this trip. How many have you had?! I have had my fair share. While we remain with attachment, broken hearts are an unavoidable side effect at any age. There is a joke in California – before you get serious with someone, ask yourself:

Is this who I want my kids to spend the weekends with?

Back on the plane, but on this same subject, I am now actually across the aisle from a hot couple meeting and flirting for the first time. We do quite rightly like the bliss of connection — and they are, after all, the only people around here immersed in the present moment as opposed to asleep or on their gadgets — so I think it’d be wonderful if that bliss could last forever. However, fast forward 5 years and they’ll be watching box sets on the couch with the dog like the rest of us. We need to know where our bliss actually comes from.
honey on a razor's edgeGeshe Kelsang once told me that it is not possible to get between someone and their object of attachment. (But was I applying these wise words to myself?! Umm, no. No more than I got his teaching on eating mindfully when during a tea party I offered him a huge slice of chocolate cake and he said, “This is poison for me,” — so I ate it instead, and he laughed. Geshe-la has been infinitely patient with me. With all of us, really.) Try telling someone as they start licking the honey off the razor’s edge, “That’s going to hurt you know!” And will they listen? Will they heck.

Talking of Alan Rickman, he seemed to be well loved by all who knew him for his loyalty, kindness, and willingness to go the extra mile. And his kindness will guide him to happiness now too, none of it is wasted, it’s a win win — happy in this life, creating the causes for happiness now in his next life, as well as being prayed for and wished well on his way by the many people he helped.

Back in the security line …

You snake past the same people over and over in these lines. It reminds me of being on the same flight from Portugal as someone who loathed me. We both pretended we didn’t notice each other, and got away with it on the plane; but upon arrival found ourselves in one of those long looping queues — having to look at our phones, over to some friends, up at the roof, etc — each time we were about to pass. Five times we better angelsmanaged it — only to bump right into each other as we emerged from the restrooms. It makes me think that we cannot hide forever from our karma, we have to face it over and over again until it is exhausted; so we may as well learn to love everyone in the line. We will have to keep bumping into everyone forever, so why not learn to enjoy it. Reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Love this quote.

And, like I was saying, we need to get out of this long queue as fast as possible – like those people in the Clear Me line who have created enough merit to breeze through. Then we can fly the friendly sky of the Dharmakaya, and help everyone else do the same.

We seek transcendence. People do crazy extreme sports and jump out of airplanes to get the thrill of flying. I saw a poster trying to entice passers-by with, “Learn to stunt drive!” Why would I do that?!! I am just now noticing my neighbor with the noisy headphones watching a man walk on a wire high high above New York City. He is lying down! He is pointing at a magical sun behind a cloud! A white dove is flying toward him! This is all pretty cool, especially as I’m not distracted by the narrative. Still, I would want more than a wire between me and the ground 70 stories below. Like a direct realization of emptiness, for example.

Talking of sports, people ask why I don’t ski. I used to as a child living in Turkey and visiting good friends in Switzerland, but now I prefer to enjoy it in my mind — for some reason, maybe my precious human life and a distinct preference for a body in one uninterrupted piece — I have gone off the idea of standing at the top of a steep mountain with two insanely slippery sticks tied to my feet. Not judging, because I also kind of admire the spectacular fear-defying feats I watch from the comfort of the gondola cafe in Breckenridge or Aspen. And it makes me blissful to watch, except when people fall. TintinNurse an overpriced cappuccino long enough, and someone is bound to fall. Especially if they are sufficiently high, and/or under some illusion about their skill-set or permanence in this life. People get into all sorts of trouble in the mountains through underestimating their environment or overestimating themselves, according to an English friend in Breckenridge. He goes out whenever called to save people in an utterly heroic fashion, whether on skies, or wheels, or even by air, on a variety of cool snow vehicles. He does this in his plus fours, tweed cap, and a tweed jacket, and honestly looks just like Tintin — but the people who have gotten themselves into any number of of idiotic situations are always very happy to see him.

And my final observations for now: a full cup of coffee + rough air = bad combo. But the flight attendant did just call me “Miss” instead of the dreaded “Ma’am”, which I like, even if he is about 75 years old. And remind me again why I insist on always traveling

meanwhile in New York
I flew all the way to NY for this?

with a ripe banana that I have to clean out of my bag upon arrival?You may conclude from these rambling observations that I have way too much time on my hands, spend way too much time in airplanes, and should get a proper job like all the other functioning adults of this world. In my defence I will say that I write most of my stuff while traveling between places, and though I do, naturally, like the feeling of being on perpetual vacation while technically not, a feeling I believe I may have inherited from my parents, I also do have a few other things to do from time to time, I promise. So bye bye for now. Thank you for flying united.

Postscript: This ended up long, and I thought about putting it in 2 installments to make some of my readers happy (you know who you are, France and Philippe.) But then I realized they could just stop reading halfway and come back to the rest later. Don’t know why I never thought of that before.


Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

20 thoughts on “fly the friendly skies”

  1. Gosh I think this is my favourite ever article. So much humour in your wisdom. Eating the cake that Geshe La said was poison to him, I would have done that too. My favourite line in the prayers is ‘Oh please be patient with me.’ Googling the cushion, also me. We do indeed seek transcendence but I worry that too many things distract me from that seeking. It should be all we do, like Geshe La meditating on the plane. What an example he sets. Thank you dear Luna, this is really lovely ❤️

  2. Thank you so much for sharing you personal experiences with Geshe-la and his advice.
    I also love the quote from Milarepa-it shows that Dharma is the truth, because we can realize it in our own everyday experience, and it would continue to be true whether or not it had been written in a Dharma book or taught by an Enlightened being. The truth is the truth, simply because it is true. Enlightened beings and their teachings are guiding us to this fact.

  3. The idea of not needing dharma books does steer perilously close to the sentiment that one does not need a spiritual guide to train the mind. The idea of a self-directed hike on the spiritual path is very ordinary in this world of shopping cart spiritual choices. So I think it’s worth clarifying that one can skip the books and see dharma in every appearance only in dependence (arising) of relying on a guide and his books for an extended period of time.

  4. I think this is my fave article yet! Thank you! I loved that it was long and so “stream of consciousness”… Lots of interesting observations. Kadampa life! <3

  5. The part of Geshe Kelang’s first flight ✈ to America… Got my attention… All the way pass the Comments in one session. WoW!… I’m so grateful for the way you allow us to have this kind of experiences… Thank you 😊 j.

  6. Dear Luna,

    I enjoyed this article – as usual, always thought-provoking. It’s interesting because your talk of travel made me think about how and why I haven’t had a holiday in 4-5 years. Partly it’s money but mainly it’s because I lack the desire or point. I will travel again but I don’t feel the urgency.

    Why is this?

    As I’ve become more immersed in Buddha’s teachings, I feel less inclination to do things that society expects of me. There is a notion that holidaying is even necessary for a healthy state of mind and certainly it has a function and a place and can bring many pleasures – but they are temporary, and often our idea of a place is more fantastical than the experience we end up having. Apparently the Japanese are said to suffer from an affliction called ‘Paris Syndrome’ where they have romanticised views of Paris but end of disappointed upon visiting. Some of course, not all, and there will be other examples in other cultures, but the point remains that we have expectations that aren’t met, and will never fully be met whilst we remain in samsara.

    I question more and more what is the motivation behind my actions (and that of others). The world can lack logic at times. To give a few examples, I suspect some people go to places because they have a bucket or tick list, but are they really engaged with the moment? Or is the point to boast that they’ve seen the Mona Lisa ‘in-person’ or successfully queued to go inside the Empire State Building? The photos that result from such ventures are usually filtered and tweaked and posted to social media to present a view of the world that is ideal but essentially faked.

    Which brings me to my next point: what exactly is real or fake?

    Returning to the Mona Lisa, because it has been recreated and reinterpreted so many times, we should question why seeing the “original” in the Louvre actually matters? If our eyes only see the same image we’d see on a tea towel or digitally, what are we gaining exactly from seeing it in-person? What process is at work that convinces us that it is somehow more “real” or authentic? Much of what we see is based on believing ideas and convincing ourselves that they are “true” yet often the approach is illogical. If this is the case, then we can decide what appears to our minds.

    Only yesterday I spotted the following article about a guy who spent £750,000 on a picture of a potato and yet a real one would set you back less than £1 which you could mash, chip and roast. So he now owns a picture of a potato but can’t do any of those things with it!

    In addition, you reference the risks that people are prepared to take from high-rope walking to stunt driving. Both of these pursuits (among others) could end fatally and beyond a temporary thrill (of what exactly? Not dying!?), it’s a bit worrying (and unnecessary) that people are willing to experience a temporary thrill that they might not return from or maybe they will, in a lesser form missing a few functionalities! Ultimately what I’m trying to express is that I’ve begun to realise that it’s best to invest time in something more meaningful such as the pursuit of permanent bliss irrespective of the environment we find ourselves in. I can close my eyes and travel far and wide and often the results are far more extraordinary. The world can be a very beautiful place and a one I will continue to explore, but the way I go about it has changed.

    Thanks for sharing, Dan.

    1. There is so much insight in this comment, thank you so much for posting it. I had similar thoughts when i saw the “original” Mona Lisa — although admittedly i was trying to see her over and through a hundred other onlookers, it still didn’t seem quite worth the effort or to live up to the hype.

      Real vs fake. Art vs hype. Meaningless or meaningful? I heard someone argue the other day that no things of material beauty or accomplishment came out of Tibet because of the emphasis on going inward rather than out, and they were wondering what would happen to art, music, etc if everyone became a meditator.

      Lots of food for thought ~ I would love to hear what artists and so on have to add to your comments.

  7. You are in NY, I saw Facebook. When will it be Florida, we would love to see you. All is well.

  8. You have a proper job! That benefits so many of us. On your plane ride back maybe you’ll see The Martian. There’s a great use of a David Bowie tune in it 🙂 That Arthur C. Brooks quote is remarkable. We have such powerful tendencies to not do what actually benefits us – in the short and long term.

  9. So clever L. Don’t know how you do it. Was a bit long but then all are and yes, often I stop reading and come back later. But this one I just had to finish!

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