I have been at the Fall Festival in Toronto this week, which has been an incredible pleasure, one that could only have been improved upon if you had all been here as well. During one lunch with my old friend G from Florida and his charming new wife S, who is relatively new to Buddhism, she asked me how it is that living beings are experiencing suffering if that suffering is not “real”, or inherently existent – that is, if the suffering we normally see does not exist?
A similar question came up during the Tantric Q & A, to which Gen-la Jampa gave a beautiful reply. Only I didn’t take notes so you’ll have to wait for that. Unless someone feels like typing up their notes on that for us all in the comments section … ah, done, thank you, see below.
But I know that S has 3 crazy little mini-schnauzers, and so what I said to her was this.
Imagine that Murphy is sleeping on that huge big bed with you and G, and he is fine, all safe and cozy. But you see that he is whimpering and twitching, and you know he is having a nightmare. You know that he is not “really” suffering, but that is not how he is seeing it at the moment. He believes that the big dog is actually attacking him or the black squirrel has outwitted him yet again or that his family have really deserted him (etc, etc, whatever). But you know that all this is mere appearance to his dreaming mind, and so all you want to do is wake him up.
The Buddhas feel the same way about us. All the time.
It’s a fine mess we have gotten ourselves into …
In a surreal counterpoint to this sane, harmonious Pure Land of the Festival was the divisive second US presidential debate – Greek drama or tragedy, take your pick. Jaws worldwide were dropping. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Only we did, between us. Please by all means vote on November 8; I certainly am going to. However, I have also concluded that the only way to cure these weird appearances and resultant widespread discomfort and delusion is to focus on developing compassion for everyone concerned (including the Rocky Mountain Trump supporter sitting next to me on this flight, who is drinking lots of beer and trying to sleep the whole thing off). Not to take these politics too seriously, if I even could, but to remember to purify it nonetheless, remembering that it is all dream-like karmic appearance. (Perhaps it is even better that it is now “out” rather than “in”, providing it encourages us to do something about it.) For the alternative to purifying it is buying into it and experiencing an increasingly tangled mess.
I was moved by the last question of the debate, when an earnest undecided voter asked the candidates to please name one thing that they actually respected about each other — and they did both come up with something. The atmosphere in the town hall immediately softened. There was some opening. Everyone could breathe a little more freely. You saw the possibility of sanity and kindness being restored one day. All in the space of a few minutes. I know the clouds rolled back in again almost straightaway, but there was a glimpse for a moment there of sky-like Buddha nature.
Centered in the solution
We think to cure suffering that we need to focus on the problem. But Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution. How are we going to help others if we hold them to be inherently problematic? There is no space — there is no room to bring out their potential, their pure nature, their kindness or clarity or peace. All we can do is try and patch things up, shuffle things around, all the while in danger of being dragged further and further into the morass. There is no hope in a world of inherent existence. Borrowing the newly-minted Nobel Laureate to make this point:
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Luckily the world is empty of inherent existence. As Gen-la Khyenrab explained in the Festival, emptiness is the true nature of phenomena. Emptiness is not nothingness; it is the opposite of nothingness. It is because of emptiness that everything can exist.
Because emptiness is possible, everything is possible. ~ Nagarjuna
So emptiness means that things can change completely and radically – that this otherwise intractably tangled mess of samsara can be unravelled by pulling on a single thread.
From enlightened beings’ point of view, we are already pure. Geshe Kelsang said in Portugal in 2009, for example, that he views us all as Heroines and Heroes, which is why he has so much respect for us. And this seems to be why he has never tired in liberating us, why he finds it effortless. Buddhas understand that we are not inherently pure, and that from our point of view we can feel far from pure. But that is just a point of view, and when we stop “awfulizing everything” with our inappropriate attention, as a friend put it the other day, and improve our imagination or imputation based on wisdom, we will see ourselves and others in a completely different way. No more “real” but infinitely more enjoyable.
Over to you, comments welcome.