Are we hallucinating all this?!

shoes on mountainI was on a walk the day Prince died, in the freezing/hot Colorado spring weather, which took me through no fewer than 12 snow-melty streams; and I didn’t see another person all day, not even a bear. And I got to thinking all philosophically about what’s life all about; so I thought I’d share some thoughts.

The aim of Buddhist practice and, if you ask me, the meaning of life, is to gain the realization of Mahamudra, the union of bliss and emptiness. This will obliterate samsara, freeing us and enabling us to free those connected to us, which is everyone.

And there are two complementary approaches (I was thinking on my mountain) into this. One is through the mind (aiming for the clear light of bliss) and the other is through the object (aiming for a realization of emptiness).

In The New Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang explains how all conventional truths are created by our mind of self-grasping ignorance (albeit not apprehended or established by it.)

In How to Understand the Mind, he says that everything appearing to our gross and subtle minds is hallucination. It would seem that of all ordinary beings’ minds, only our very subtle mind is not mistaken because it perceives emptiness, the way things are.

Yikes, we’re hallucinating all the time!
it'll be fun
Fooled again!

Taken together, it looks like we are always hallucinating, except when we can use our very subtle mind. All appearances to these gross and subtle levels of mind, and even the mind itself, are hallucinations that we need to learn to see through.

We end up with the union of these two approaches by practicing the union of Sutra and Tantra. We get closer to the very subtle mind by understanding its object, emptiness, as taught in Sutra; and we get closer to emptiness by learning to manifest and use the very subtle mind, as taught in Highest Yoga Tantra. It seems these realizations are symbiotic.

We can start practicing this union now by feeling that we are meditating with and on our own very subtle mind whenever possible, seeing all other minds and their appearances as simply waves from that ocean.

So, what can we trust?!trees

In the meantime, trapped in hallucination, how on earth do we function at all? How do we know what to rely on? How can we trust anything that doesn’t exist as it appears?

We can because some things have relative meaning, are relatively meaningful. Within our hallucinations we agree on some things, eg, we can sit on chairs, and that is relative or conventional reality (shared experiences arising from the similar perceptions/appearances of our collective karma). We can rely on it to a certain extent. It functions in the way it is supposed to, and we can have a relatively valid apprehension of it, with a so-called ‘conventional valid cognizer’.

One way to understand this is by using the example of a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Modern Buddhism:

Conventional objects are false because, although they appear to exist from their own side, in reality they are mere appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

The world we experience in a dream is deceptive because it appears to have its own existence independent of the mind, and we discover this when we wake up. However, within the dream we can say that there are relative truths and relative falsities.

Within the context of a dream, dream objects have a relative validity and this distinguishes them from things that do not exist at all. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe-la gives the example of our stealing a diamond in a dream – if we confess to it, we are telling the truth, if we say we didn’t steal it we are telling a lie.

Another example – if in my dream I nod to the six-stringed instrument I am playing and tell you, “This is my guitar”, this is true, but if I say “This is my ukulele” (a four-stringed instrument), this is false. However, within the whole context of the dream both are deceptive because they appear to be real when they are not. (As I discover when I wake up and can no longer play either.)

flowers.jpgSo, it seems that everything in a dream is created by the self-grasping of the dream mind and is therefore deceptive; but within that experience some thoughts are ‘valid’ and establish the ‘truth’, relatively speaking, and some thoughts are not, namely our delusions, whose objects don’t exist at all.

I think we can say the same for conventional truths while we are awake — all conventional truths are ‘created’ by self-grasping, true only for self-grasping; but compared with non-existents they are relatively true, truths by convention or agreement, ie, conventional truths. A non-existent on the other hand is still hallucination, still projected by self-grasping, but has no validity at all. It is apprehended or established by self-grasping delusions. An example would be an object of anger, such as an inherently existent faulty person, who doesn’t exist at all. (The anger itself however does exist and is a conventional truth, as is every mind.)

Perhaps I will stick my neck out and say that conventional reality is collective hallucination?! But please don’t take my word for it, please feel free to debate this in the comments.

Given all this, how are we to navigate through these mistaken appearances and make our lives meaningful? Answers on a postcard …! And Part Two is here.

Good night, sweet Prince

U turn on the telly and every other story
Is tellin’ U somebody died ~ Sign o the Times

PrinceI wonder if celebrities everywhere are getting nervous?! But of course it was forever thus. None of us gets out of here alive, famous or otherwise. As a friend put it, rather well I thought: “We all have a shelf life. When our expiration date is up, that’s it. … We are all at the big funeral everyday.”

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.

I liked Prince but wasn’t intending to write anything about his death – that is, until I saw this arresting Facebook post by the same person who wrote this last article:

What I Learned from Prince’s Death

* Death can come suddenly at any time – no one is immune.

* Fame means nothing at the time of death.

* Everybody loves you when you’re dead, but it’s too late then.

* It’s only when you’re dead that you would realise from everyone’s reactions what your life meant to them, but you’ll never see it.

Prince 1* Obviously, you don’t exist in a post-you world; everything and everyone has to go on without you, and they do, no matter how indispensable you think you are.

* When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.

* Whether you have lots of talent and are famous, or not, death treats everyone the same: extinction of ‘you’.

* Death shows there is no real meaning in this ordinary human life: everything you were ends instantly, unexpectedly and finally.

* Your wealth means nothing as it becomes someone else’s – even your clothes aren’t yours.

* Life is an unfinished story because it ends for you but not for everyone you know.

This got me thinking. And wanting to add something to these points in particular: “Everybody loves you when you’re dead but it’s too late then” and “When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.”

How is it that we keep affecting people after we’re dead? And I mean not just emotionally, but karmically? Prince is dead, yes, but he has not inherently ceased and still has a connection with the beings of this world, whose love and well wishes are having some effect on his mental continuum – that’s how transference of consciousness and other prayers for the deceased work too. His music will still give pleasure – so, providing he had the intention to give people happiness, he will still create some merit, or good karma, from it.

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain.

According to Van Jones, his friend and a CNN commentator, Prince was a humanitarian but wasn’t allowed to talk about his numerous good deeds as he was a Jehovah’s witness. So news of these is just emerging now.

It’s not all over

Prince 3The dream that was Prince’s life is ended, for sure, but it is not inherently over, any more than yesterday or even the moment before this one has inherently ceased. Our life is a cause leading to an effect, not to non-existence. Of course there is no more access to his body or gross personality or the identity “Prince”, but Prince was only ever mere imputation anyway. We are still all connected to that living being, just as we are always interdependent with all living beings. We cannot separate ourselves out from others and they in turn are affected by everything we do. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And this truth spans life and death. We are each waves made up entirely of one another and all arising from the ocean of clear light, the very subtle mind. (More on this later.)

This is why love is the answer, as it is the natural response to reality; and why what Prince did does mean something, not nothing, though he most likely won’t remember. (As for the fame part, I agree that fame is meaningless after we die, which makes it meaningless now too, unless we are using it for good.)

Creativity

We need to make our lives count with our mental actions, for sure, because they are the most creative actions – with our thoughts we create our world. But we also make our lives count with physical and verbal actions, leaving something intentionally helpful and uplifting behind us too if we can, such as a temple or other tangible improvement in others’ lives. Geshe Kelsang says, for example, when talking about helping at Kadampa centers, “We are working for future generations.”

Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.

How we use our creativity as modern Buddhists is still new territory over here in the West – in Tibet, there was no art outside of painting Buddhas, no music outside of spiritual chanting, and so on; the culture was entirely different. But over here, to “remain natural while changing our aspiration” may mean that between us we need to hijack today’s culture to our own and others’ spiritual ends as much as we can. That’s why I am hijacking some of Prince’s lyrics and quotes for this article 🙂

The Forgetting Time.jpgMy take on it so far — and I am totally open to ideas in the comments — is this. The ultimate spiritual goal of human life is attaining enlightenment for the sake of all living beings because that is the way to fulfill all our own and others’ purposes. That is our main job, our main creativity. And making Buddha’s teachings accessible to as many people as possible by helping meditation centers and so on also seems important because if we don’t do it, who will, plus it is powerful karma. Within that, with an increasingly good motivation and skill, we can embrace and enjoy our creativity however it manifests — eg, film-making, painting, music, song-writing — and channel it into helping others. A lot of people are doing this already, it is I think inevitable; and I also think it will make Buddhist meditation relevant to more and more people — bring it into the global mainstream as an idea whose time has come. For example, this readable new novel, The Forgetting Time, is bringing the idea of past and future lives to a huge audience that possibly would never have considered it otherwise.

New world needs spirituality that will last. 

Good night and thank you

Wishing Prince a swift rebirth in the Pure Land surrounded by the celestial music of offering gods and goddesses. Or, to hijack the Bard:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Keeping it simple

A guest article by a Buddhist monk.Keep it simple 1

Keep it simple – but life’s NOT simple!

There’s an expression used in business based on the acronym KISS – ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’. This reveals a profound truth; that to succeed in anything we have to have a clear idea of what we want to achieve and how to do it. The more simply and clearly this can be expressed, the clearer we are about our goals and paths.

Geshe Kelsang is a master at this, continually revising his spiritual advice to make it simpler and clearer, yet more profound. In this way, spiritual advice becomes a living, breathing, evolving thing, which is quite beautiful. Someone who really understands something can make it very simple and accessible for others. Have you ever had to explain something complicated to a child? Those skills are very useful for us to understand our own spiritual practices. If you can explain it to yourself in such a way that a child would understand it, there’s a good chance that you will understand it clearly.

We need to make our life simple too. Don’t you find that life is complicated? It seems so! We’re often left confused and bewildered by the pace of change in our life and with our own responsibilities. Our mind feels busy and it’s hard to focus on anything. Life can just become a very busy series of soul-destroying routines until we are left wondering in the small hours of the morning, trying to get to sleep, ‘what is the purpose of my life?’ These routines seem to take over our life until there’s no space left; everything feels difficult and complicated, even spiritual practice, so therefore simplicity is the key to success.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing

It’s hard to be happy and stay that way but that’s the purpose of our spiritual life. If we are to succeed in our spiritual life, we’ve got to find a way to make our spiritual practice part of our daily life so it’s as natural and comfortable as breathing. We can do this by keeping things simple. We just need a few words that we can remember during our busy day to get Geshe Chekhawa.jpgour mind back on track again so that we can keep calm and happy. In this way we can refocus our life without losing its purpose in the busyness of our daily responsibilities. So here is one great piece of advice from Buddhist Master, Geshe Chekhawa from the 11th Century. He said:

Train in every activity by words.

Not much has changed since then; we really need something simple so that our mind can easily engage. How many distractions are there in an 11th Century Tibetan village compared to our busy modern information-overloaded world? We’re drowning in an ocean of information from email, the internet, texts, phones and people; but not much of it helps us to stay calm and happy. If Geshe Chekhawa’s advice was useful way back then when people enjoyed a simple, technology free life, how much more relevant is it now?

Buddha said that everything is mere name so we don’t have anything other than words to evoke the positive minds that will lead us to inner peace and happiness. But what words? Try to find something that resonates with you. I want to share some of my favourites with you from Geshe Kelsang’s books. We really need these because our mind and life are busy and so we need to RE-MIND ourself. It’s good when put like this! It means ‘to bring something meaningful back to mind’ – literally ‘re-mind’. This is the real practice of mindfulness.

We have to decide what the purpose of our life is. For those who want a meaningful life, it is transforming the mind and thereby making progress in compassion and wisdom. To this end, I like this phrase:

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

complicated life.jpegThe main thing is remembering Dharma, so keeping this practice of remembering is the main thing. We need to remember to remember, otherwise we forget. What we want is to keep a happy mind all the time and to be progressing in our practice of compassion and wisdom and to do this, we need to keep it as the very core of our life by not forgetting. If we forget to transform our daily experience through Dharma thinking, we will lose many opportunities to make progress.

Our main problem is that we lose our purpose because we are constantly being hit by waves of ordinary appearances and so we develop ordinary minds in response. What we need is to make our appearances spiritual rather than the appearances making our mind ordinary and this depends upon having a method for making things spiritual, which depends upon remembering to do so. We need a simple method to remember to transform all our daily appearances into the spiritual path because this is one of the main characteristics of a person who practises Lamrim, and a Kadampa is someone who practises Lamrim, making everything spiritual and continually making progress.

First you, then meSimple reminders

As I said, it’s important to keep things simple otherwise we either won’t do it or won’t know how to do it. The main goals of a spiritual life are developing love and wisdom to keep our mind peaceful and happy, and our actions positive.  Our love and wisdom are like the two wings of a bird that enable us to fly to the jewelled island of enlightenment. We forget to flap those wings during our daily life, so our main focus is to remain focused. We need reminding because otherwise we are too busy and will easily forget. Don’t forget to remember!

Here are some love re-minders that I use:

All the happiness there is in the world arises from wishing others to be happy.

All the suffering there is in the world arises from wishing ourself to be happy.

For happiness, cherish others.

First you, then me.

This person is important and their happiness matters.

Also, some wisdom re-minders:

Everything is like a dream.

All the things that I normally see do not exist.

Everything is the nature of mind, mind is the nature of emptiness.

Everything is dependent, so nothing exists from its own side.

Everything is like an illusion.

 There are many other areas that we can explore too. Can you find phrases that move you to practise renunciation, patience, generosity, rejoicing, Tantric self-generation, and so one? Perhaps you can find one phrase to move your mind for each of the Lamrim meditations? There are many possibilities to explore.

Make it simple and practical – just do

Our path to enlightenment can be very simple – all we need to do is love others with the wish to become enlightened and see Life is like a dream.jpgeverything like a dream. Does that seem too complicated, like patting your belly and rubbing your head at the same time? It’s only two things! If it seems difficult, break it down – train in one, then train in the other. Keep remembering and remembering again and again using words that you enjoy, like spiritual poetry. Many people love poetry because it speaks to them and ignites imagery in their mind; spiritual poetry can do the same. Inspire yourself, find words that speak to your heart, or make up your own. Find something that quickly leads to the actual experience of cherishing others, compassion, patience, wisdom and other virtues.

Here, then, is my spiritual ‘to do’ list:

  1. Find something that works.
  2. Keep it clear and simple.
  3. Do it as often as I can remember!
Precious human life

How often you remember depends upon how important you feel it is to remember your spiritual practice, which depends upon appreciating the rarity and preciousness of this opportunity – yes, we’re back to precious human life meditation! Geshe Kelsang says that we need to meditate on  precious human life to develop four determinations:

I will practise Dharma.
I can practise Dharma.
I will practise Dharma in this very lifetime.
I will practise Dharma right now.

Details can be found in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. To practise Dharma ‘right now’ we need to remember because we want to, so it’s back to mindfulness training.

don't forget to rememberThe most important thing is to move our mind; find something that works. You’ll know when you find something that works because it’s easy to remember and easy to recall, and it moves your heart. Don’t be satisfied until you have found something that works, that feels natural.

We tend to get used to things, or complacent, so you might have to switch things around and try different phrases as you get used to the ones that you initially choose.

Beginner’s mind

Keep tasting the real meaning of those phrases: Geshe Kelsang says that if we think deeply about these things from our heart and without distractions, we will taste the words, our mind will move and we can keep it fresh. People talk about ‘the beginner’s mind’ and this is very important. We need to keep Dharma fresh and interesting no matter how long we’ve been practising; this is a skill in itself.

So do try this method and see how it works!

Thanks for reading – I hope this approach works for you. Please feel free to share your own favourite Dharma phrases that are meaningful to you in the comments below so that we can all learn and benefit, and if you can suggest something simpler, please do because, as I said earlier, simplicity is the key to success.

Dealing with our demons

Light in cellarOf the three steps to overcoming our delusions taught in the mind-training teachings of Buddhism, the first is recognizing or identifying them. And that means not just intellectually but in our own minds. We identify them but we don’t identify WITH them — the difference is crucial. (The next two steps are overcoming them by applying their opponents and uprooting them completely with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.)

Monsters in the cellar

It is far better not to repress those bits of our mind that we don’t like. These delusions and the bad karmic appearances they spawn are not intrinsic to our mind but, while we fail to accept that they are there, they continue to lurk in our mental cellar. Even when they don’t jump out and terrify us, they still haunt us. They cause us unease and painful feelings without our even knowing why we are feeling this way. Do you ever find life a bit spooky, or is that just me? I think life is a bit spooky when we are living under the influence of unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they’re all there, which is why we try to keep that cellar door firmly shut and bolted.

We have various strategies to avoid them, as mentioned here, but they’re not really working. You’ve seen horror movies, maybe — you know what people do to try and pretend there are no monsters in the cellar. They blame the creepy neighbors, distract themselves, and/or get blind drunk. Or they try to leave the house, but of course that never goes well (we cannot leave our minds.)monster in the cellar

Whatever they do, the terror still creeps up the stairs and through the cracks in the doors and windows; and it always seems to maintain the element of surprise. They know that, so they are never truly comfortable; they live in fear.

Our refusal to own our delusions pushes them into the cellar, where they exert enormous unseen influence over what we do in life. We need instead to have the confidence and authenticity to bring these inner demons of the delusions out into the open, invite them to show their faces in the light of our pure, indestructible potential, so we can (1) see that there is nothing to be scared of, they are not so intolerable, and we are far bigger and stronger than them; and (2) be prepared to learn from them to see what is really happening in our mind. Check out this article for more on how to do this.

Moving beyond

We cannot completely and whole-heartedly accept who we are or where we’re at if there are aspects of our mind that we are too afraid (or alternatively too self-satisfied) to explore. And if we cannot accept who we are, we cannot change who we are. If we want to improve, we need to take ownership and responsibility for our delusions, taking a good honest look at them rather than denying them or rejecting them outright.

Once we acknowledge instead of avoiding one of these dark traits or habit patterns, it will cease to have the same control over us. We will also see more clearly that we are not our delusions, that they come and go like clouds in a clear sky, like weather.

For example, we cannot move beyond our habitual dislike for others — that, “I don’t really like people very much, at least till I get to know them, and even then…” mind — until we realize we possess this mind of self-protective aversion, which is projecting unlikeability onto the mess of humanity (probably starting with ourselves). At the same time, we need to see that we are not the aversion, that our real nature is connectivity and affection.

One of the most valuable things I did during my longish retreat a few years ago was look at my delusions head on in this way, not papering them over with unapplied generalities of Dharma, not shoving them under the carpet, not pretending they were not shadow 1.JPGthere. I came to discover that when I had a strong delusion, my subsequent meditation session was even stronger as a result, such that I actively came to enjoy my delusions in a funny kind of way, certainly they lost a lot of their power to scare me or influence me. They became more objects of curiosity, of challenge. I’m not saying I have anywhere near mastered this yet, of course; it is a life-long practice and our delusions have many levels. (We always have to be on the look out for complacency and self-satisfaction too, which can rear their lazy heads when our mind is feeling comfortable.) But I do have total confidence in the possibility of genuinely accepting all our delusions, however shadowy, and letting them go with the help of applied Dharma.

More coming later! Meanwhile, please share your comments below on how you deal with the monsters in your cellar.

What about ME?

golden gate in fogOne reason that compassion is our Buddha nature, I think, is because compassion is a natural response to reality. If we remove our wrong conceptions holding ourselves to be independent of others, and focus on our interdependence, which exists, our compassion will naturally grow and grow and grow until it becomes the universal compassion of a Buddha. By the same token, I think the reason why wisdom is part of our Buddha nature is because it is a natural response to the reality of emptiness. 

In the sunshine of wisdom and compassion, our delusions have no choice but to dissolve into our clear light mind like the San Francisco fog.

The ME mind

As mentioned, one reason we find our own painful thoughts so intolerable is because we are identifying with them. Another reason is that we are forgetting something quite significant, that we are one of countless people. So it is not really all about me. Therefore, that ME mind is the crux of our suffering, based as it is on an hallucination. We forget:

We are just one person among countless living beings, and a few moments of unpleasant feeling arising in the mind of just one person is no great catastrophe. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

We grasp at our painful feelings as if they were a storm in a teacup instead of a tiny, passing storm in a vast global sky.

duck
What about him?!

This is true, no? No one else really gives a monkeys, this is our private affair. When we get a glimpse into others’ minds and see their storm in a teacup, we might easily judge: “Get over it! Can’t you just drop it, or him or her, it’s not such a big deal.” Or “You haven’t lost that much money, what are you so worried about?!” But we grapple with our own problems like a dog with a bone because we are so obsessed with ourselves. “What about ME?” Our self-grasping and self-cherishing are like a black hole sucking everything into it.

As soon as we can identify with others, give ourselves a break from poor old me, there is relief. The “What about me?” mind hurts, for example comparing and contrasting our own situation unfavorably with everyone else’s. But everyone has a hard life, and we can use our own pain to remind us of that and slowly but surely get over ourselves.

As a neurotic Tweeter put it the other day:

I’m a tiny speck in the infinite cosmos that feels fat. ~ Melissa Broder

Cruel world

famineThis ME mind blinds us to others’ suffering. Yesterday I was eating my supper while casually reading The Week’s page The World at a Glance:

Gabarone, Botswana: Up to 49 million people across Southern Africa are at risk of famine from the worst drought in three decades.

I had to read it again, surely I didn’t just read “49 MILLION PEOPLE”? But I did. How come I never knew this? Why isn’t it the headline on every news outlet? Why has it not occupied a single moment of my attention until now? Why is it just one short paragraph at the bottom of one page in a short-circulation magazine?

I don’t know. But I suspect our global self-cherishing has a lot to do with it. And it is awful.

No ME

Meanwhile, the truth is that the Me we are so desperate to serve and protect and freak out about doesn’t even exist.

Of course it feels right now like it exists, but in truth it is nothing more than the non-existent object of an unrealistic painful idea of ourselves.

deerIn the course of one day we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, one day it’s I’m fabulous, other days it’s “I’m such a wreck, can’t keep anything together.” We have wildly different ideas about ourselves. We might say kind things to ourselves “You’re ok, you’re good”, and we get on with our lives, but then when we get angry, for example, there is the person we are angry with, whom we are holding in an exaggerated way as the source of our harm, and there is the Me we are holding onto in also in an exaggeratedly limited way, eg, “I am a hurt person, that’s who I am.” Then we have to do something to protect that poor hurt person from that really mean person, as described here.

As for the allegedly harmful person, we can go from zero to a hundred miles per hour with anger by exaggerating their faults and thinking about nothing else, leaving the nice bits about them conveniently on the cutting room floor. While we remain angry we give them no wriggle room — nothing they say or do makes much difference as anger has covered Mister Mean with superglue.

A few days ago I was invited to coffee just to have someone insult me in a myriad of quite creative (I thought) ways. But in the same conversation she was telling me about her dying mother, who insists on continuing to work through her painful illness because she wants to claim a $9,000 tax credit in April to give to her child. Wow, I thought. Stand up the real person, the one who is appearing unjust and weird to me, or the beautiful one loved beyond pain by her mother?pagoda

Choose freedom

In this article I explained how we have the chance to identify with our potential rather than with our painful limited self, and in this way come to our own conclusion that we want liberation. So why do we identify with pain? If we believed we had choice, would we not choose to identify with freedom, space, happiness? Ignorance removes our choice because it is convincing us that we are not creating the painful self and other, that these are independent of our mind; so then we have no choice but to go along with it all.

If we dream of a monster and run away from it, is it because the monster is actually there? Or is it because we are misapprehending the monster’s mode of existence? Ignorance is causing this misapprehension. In the same way, we are not in pain because a real self or bay area treesother is actually there, but because ignorance is causing us to apprehend both self and other as independent of the mind.

Realizing this about ourselves gives us renunciation. Realizing this about others gives us compassion.

More coming soon! Meanwhile, please share your experiences on this subject in the comments below.

(And thank you for giving me an excuse to share some San Francisco photos I took this week 😉 Kadampa Meditation Center SF was the first Kadampa Center in America. I have been visiting this beautiful, lovable center and community for their 25 Year Anniversary Celebrations.)