(Since I wrote this, Hurricane Ian has struck … not such a sigh of relief there.)
I am pretty fond of a lot of people in Florida. And I noticed the sigh of relief as Hurricane Irma downsized to a Cat 3 and then a tropical storm, and Tampa Bay seemed sort of spared, for now.
How many sighs of relief remain to us, as we dodge another bullet, even as the dangers get closer, even as others around us are falling to the ground?
Catastrophes are what happen to other people. That’s what we all think, until they happen to us.
Do you ever wonder if we might be sleepwalking through a very perilous time in human history, where we are in genuine danger of our planet collapsing if we don’t blow ourselves up first?! That the adults have all left the room!? And that these things may just be creeping up on us – and one day we’ll wake up to find … ?!
Look, I’m not a fear monger (well, maybe a little bit). Like a lot of us, I’m in the habit of switching channels and pretending none of it is happening, that me and you (especially me, lol) are perfectly safe. I’ve been trying to hold onto this complacency since beginningless time, after all, and old habits die hard. But for some reason I can’t this (life)time. I may want to keep seeing samsara as a pleasure garden, but in this life it is (for me) revealing its true colors. Which is great, in fact, because it means I am not condemned to stay here for ever and ever. And, if I play my cards right, nor are my friends.
One of my favorite quotes in Buddhism, which I stumbled upon 3 decades ago in Meaningful to Behold, seems more and more relevant with each passing year:
We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.
A new disaster baseline
I just read this:
Even if America joins a global effort to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible, as we surely must, we have already locked in a new disaster baseline, and will have to spend a lot to repair and adapt. ~ The Week
And a friend of mine has been collating the shifts in the climate as part of his work as a Futurist checking trends:
- The historic heatwave that just ravaged Eastern Europe.
- Historic flooding and mudslides in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Niger.
- A massive earthquake off the Mexican coast.
- Record radiation from the sun due to unusual sun spots activity.
- Bigger and more intense hurricanes striking the United States
- Political instability in the US, Syria, Venezuela and 15 other places around the globe.
- Historic fires in California, Oregon, British Columbia, Washington, Greenland and Tunisia.
And all of this over the past 60 days.
Buddha Shakyamuni and many Buddhist teachers who followed him predicted these difficult, turbulent, “degenerate times” in this human world. And Geshe Kelsang — who is certainly not an irrational fear-monger nor prophet of doom, but the most sane, realistic, and hopeful person I’ve ever met — has also been trying to wake us up for decades, saying things like:
Superficially it looks as if our world is improving, but if we look a little more deeply we shall see that there are now many problems that never existed before. Terrifying weapons have been invented, our environment is being poisoned, and new diseases are appearing. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness
The result of an unbridled pursuit of happiness from external sources is that our planet is being destroyed and our lives are becoming more complicated and dissatisfying. It is time we sought happiness from a different source.
Time indeed. And that is not even taking into account the scary nature of other, lower realms in samsara and the distinct possibility that we could end up there after we breathe our final breath. Countless people are already trapped there.
So, what are we going to do?
I have so much I want to discuss on this subject these days that I have given myself writer’s block and haven’t written in weeks – I just don’t know where to start! But because I think the option of just getting all peaceful ourselves while doing nothing to help others is in fact no option at all, maybe I’ll start with that. (And now I can see I have written too much for one blog article, oops, but perhaps you can read it in installments, if you still have power after that hurricane.)
There have been a couple of articles recently questioning whether mindfulness has been co-opted and cheapened. Such as this one, which explores how “Pasteurized versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business”:
And this is perhaps the crux of the problem of the mindless application of Buddhist meditation practice: the marketing of mindfulness as a solution to work stress and life balance rather than the complex spiritual approach to living it is meant to be.
Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action. If we truly become mindful of our existence, then our recurrent anxieties become not just a wave we watch pass through our minds, not something to be mastered in order to be a better servant, but a call to take action in order to be more fully alive.
And this article:
We’ve marketed an ancient Indian tradition as an antidote to stress, but traditional Buddhist meditation has two objectives: to become more compassionate, and gain insight into the true nature of reality. But meditating to gain compassion seems to have got lost in translation.
If people get interested in Buddhist teachings via “mindfulness” courses, I am all for it. I am actually grateful that contemplation and meditation are going mainstream in the Western world. And although very few people initially go to meditation classes to do any more than chill out and learn to relax, I am of course good with that, even if that is as far as they want to go.
But … I think it is important to let people know that there is infinitely more we can do with these teachings. People do often leave pleasantly surprised after sampling the low-hanging fruit, and more open to trying new things. Buddhism is not just a lifestyle choice to help us cope and escape, with no real bearing on ending suffering – the goal is all about ending suffering, wherever it is, and whoever it belongs to, because suffering hurts. And I would argue that our current times both reveal and request this engagement of us.
Meditation has in many cases become a type of therapy that shouts “Me, me, me” and entirely misses the point. Disengagement and self-absorption are not what are needed right now, not in this short window of opportunity we have to make a difference.
Stress reduction is necessary, as I have explained in this article, and it is essential to start by tuning into and identifying with the peaceful nature of our own minds; but becoming happier ourselves is only a means to a far, far greater end. Breathing meditation and so on help us still the mind, and from that place we have the space to apply the practical philosophy.
We do like doing this in the West, don’t we – stripping a philosophy out of its context for a simplistic quick fix. “Mindfulness with all the awkward Buddhist bits taken out” as a Guardian article recently put it. However, this cultural appropriation to a lowest common denominator, in the service of our “Me first” culture, implicitly underestimates modern humans’ capacity to rise above their egocentrism and transform themselves and their world entirely. The quick fix mentality means that people are potentially missing out so much, “starving themselves of the best bits” as someone who claims to have done that for years told me recently.
But I don’t think Geshe Kelsang Gyatso could ever be accused of cheapening or watering down Buddhism in this way. In the last 40 years and counting, he’s been doing exactly the opposite, building up the Sangha, Centers, and study programs with 100% confidence that modern students can gain the same liberation and enlightenment as all the practitioners of old. His teachings are entirely in keeping with that of qualified, realized Buddhist teachers dating back in an unbroken lineage to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, with their emphasis on renunciation (wanting lasting mental freedom, not the self-satisfied incremental improvements of samsara), bodhichitta (engaged compassion, not complicity with the status quo), the wisdom realizing emptiness (the strongest medicine in the universe), and the two stages of Highest Yoga Tantra (taking us so far beyond our limitations and ordinariness). These teachings can bring about universal happiness and world peace; it is simply a matter of applying them.
(And need I add that no personal profit is made from any of the teachings and so they are a great deal less expensive than many mindfulness courses. Just sayin’.)
I have been very inspired this summer by the new International Kadampa Retreat Center, Grand Canyon. It has 75 rooms and plenty of room to grow. Like a portal located on the iconic Route 66, the golden roof of its Temple for World Peace (once it’s built) will be glimpsed by millions of tourists every year, giving them at least some food for thought, if not inviting them into the discovery of their wondrous potential as Bodhisattvas.
To echo this article, I think we urgently need to incorporate some Bodhisattva thinking into our world. In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:
Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East. ~ Meaningful to Behold
Whether we are practicing Buddhism Lite or not probably depends most on our motivation, whether it is worldly or spiritual. It depends on how engaged we are in actively overcoming suffering, and I would argue that this depends on how powerful our compassion is.
We need three types of compassion, and the deepest, called “compassion observing the unobservable”, is to help everyone realize that suffering is not real (see Ocean of Nectar, just about to be studied on the STTP). But Bodhisattvas need to, indeed WANT to, solve every problem that they see. They don’t just sit back and watch Netflix passively for hours a day, twiddling their thumbs while Rome burns, excusing themselves: “Look, I did meditate today, but there’s not much I can do about all that suffering anyway, not until I’m a Buddha.” They are passionate and creative about ending suffering, day and night, and will do whatever is in their power.
Geshe Kelsang has also said more recently:
How wonderful it would be for our world if many modern-day practitioners could emulate the training the mind practitioners of ancient times and become actual Bodhisattvas! ~ How to Transform Your Life
I think supporting all our Kadampa Meditation Centers and World Peace Temples worldwide is crucial. They are Bodhisattva factories and — right about now — we need Bodhisattvas.
Do you agree?!
Beautiful 👌👏👏🙏. I agree 💯 percent.
Thank you so much for all your beautiful teaching. Blessings and love to you 🌟💐💚
Thank you for that article. It had some very interesting points. However, the whole thing seems to be leading up to a final thought, which seems to be saying that our efforts aren’t good enough unless we help a centre. Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood. Sure, they need our support, how could any of us make contact with dharma without them. I’m very happy to discuss Dharma, but this did feel like a bit of a recruitment drive and a bit of a guilt trip.
I’ve been in this tradition long enough to figure out a mode of practice that I’m genuinely heartfelt about, but it took a long time to figure that out amidst the pressure to ‘work for the cause’ and the incessant push to expand.
People are more important than ideas. If the opposite happens, there’s trouble and suffering. I’ve seen that happen too often in the NKT and heard too many similar stories.
I don’t disagree with your points about the state of the world and what we need to do, but there are many ways we can help become a less self-centre person. Sure, let’s help a centre, but when we feel genuinely motivated. But let’s also work on our mind each and every moment with everyone we meet and every little action. That’s what’s crucial.
And Buddhism Lite? Well, I hear you, but it’s better than nothing. If it helps relieve people From some mental pain, great. Maybe their karma isn’t ready for a full-on religious experience. This world needs love, not more one-size-fits-all ideologies. Practised correctly, Buddhism is the former.
Thank you for your comment. I am not sure that it all leads up to that point. I was mainly trying to extol the benefits and opportunity of becoming a Bodhisattva for our modern world, hence the related but not main point that Centers are geared up to train Bodhisattvas.
However, it is true that when I wrote this, I was feeling it, that we needed as many hands on deck as possible, in whatever way that shows up. I do still feel that, though I am sorry for the guilt-tripping! That was far from my intention and in any case I personally have spent several years not directly working for Centers without feeling one smidgeon of guilt.
I have as a matter of fact written several articles about what you are talking about here, because I agree that where it is at is training our minds. And helping people and setting a viable example in as many different contexts and walks of life as we can is the meaning — to me — of modern Buddhism. We need many different voices and examples — everyone’s in fact.
What is a Dharma Center, anyway? (I explore that somewhere too). I see it as extending far beyond its walls, and into the lives of the people practicing in their daily lives.
I didn’t say that Buddhism lite wasn’t better than nothing, I don’t think? But I wanted to bring up some legitimate concerns for discussion as well. Thank you for giving me more food for thought 🙂
Thank you for clarifying. I really appreciate your reply. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with for some time. Take care x
This article was so helpful in putting into words many of the diffuculties I encounter in helping people to understand what Buddhist practice means to me. I agree that any way people are putting Buddhist teachings into practice that helps them or those around them is very inspiring. Sometimes I find hard core spiritual practitioners being dismissive of people who aren’t taking all the teachings on board right away such that the gradual practitioners don’t feel welcome in some centers. On the other hand, the emphasis on Buddhist practice as mainly a mindfulness practice does also have a downside. I for one was not drawn to the idea of sitting for hours at a time ‘removing’ myself from contact with other living beings. What appealed to me was understanding methods to improve relationships and cultivate love and compassion. Years into my dharma practice after many years of struggle I finally learned to enjoy my sitting practice and understood that meditation was the method for accomplishing my wishes. I wonder if there are people like me who because of the way Buddhism is now viewed as the latest self help trend to improve your worldly situation are no longer daring to come in the door. Please keep coming wth your advice on how to help everyone feel welcome.
Thank you. That’s an interesting thing to contemplate. I wonder. Hmmm…
I too have wondered about mindfulness becoming ‘fashionable’ – I work in a bookshop and we get people coming in looking for books about mindfulness, and we have mindful colouring books! Therapists seem to have found it as well and are using it as a treatment for stress and depression etc. But then I think, well, perhaps that’s all they are ready for in this life, and it’s a stepping stone. Some may get well into it and decide to investigate further and discover Dharma. Some may never get any further than dabbling in it for a while but perhaps it will set up seeds in their minds that will ripen in a future life and let them find Dharma then. So I don’t roll my eyes (not that I would!), I just show them what we have, and casually drop in that Buddhists have been doing this for 2 and a half thousand years!
I really appreciate your commentary about Buddhism lite. It seems to me
the answer to question posed in this article about the ‘dark side’ of meditation. I would love your feedback.
Thank you. But which article?
Here is the article I mentioned. Sorry it didn’t come through the first time. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/372766/
If I’m not mistaken, bodhisattva’s concern themselves with developing/cultivating compassionate “attitude”, without which they won’t even be able to “see” suffering.
And, they strive to end the suffering they see…almost all of which stems from “ignorance”…not physical in nature, but a form of mind-blindness.
What is the most effective way to end world suffering. Giving vision.
Another great article – thank you, Luna.
Talking of Bodhisattva ‘factories’ 😉 – I noticed the beautiful photo of Gen Lekma and the shrine at the new city space in Southampton (Southampton KMC) on this blog post.
I dropped by last week to help a little with the preparations and I’m also volunteering on the reception desk one morning a week. The Sangha are wonderful and there is such an incredible vision of making Dharma accessible to everyone. I’m hoping to take my 4year old to the tots class and they even have happy hour meditation with mocktails on a Friday – how cool is that! with over 15 classes a week, there is something for everyone.
It’s perfectly situated – right in the heart of the city with a constant stream of people passing by (and popping in).
Gen Lekma is exquisite 😍 there aren’t enough words to describe her beauty and blissfulness and her kindness in making both myself and anyone who steps through the door feel accepted and welcome.
So glad you wrote this, Ally.
Gen Lekma is a dear friend and a gem, and I hope everyone in Southampton (and England) gets to meet her soon.
That would be wonderful x
Thank you for an insightful mirror of an article. What do you think it is that makes a practitioner really start to believe they can actually become a bodhisattva? I feel like ‘trying’ in the ordinary sense of the word isn’t enough. Something has to change in my actual level of consciousness. Can I ask what it was for you that made this change from an intellectual belief to you deciding to dedicate your life to helping others?
Cheers for that btw 👍🏻🙏🏻 ur articles kick ass ❤️
Very good question. I’ll give it some thought and get back to you 😀
Thank you for this powerful, insightful, and timely call to wake us all up! I am here in Orlando after Hurricane Irma, with no electricity and damaged homes (including my own) and I’m seeing my neighbors come together to help one another. Neighbors who’ve never even met over the years. Human beings have such a wonderful capacity for compassion when we realize our shared suffering! And when we are brave enough to show a good heart to others we find a special happiness, even in the worst external circumstances.
Wow, so true. I love this line, “Human beings have such a wonderful capacity for compassion when we realize our shared suffering”. When we realize there is no real “them and us” when it comes to suffering.
Your home was damaged in Hurricane Andrew as well, if i recall? Here’s wishing you everything you need, and send my love to Pat 😀
Thanks! A well written, poignant post that I will be giving a lot of thought to.
So pleased it’s helpful.
This is a staggeringly good article. Wow. I think I’ll be reading it everyday as a manifesto to spur me on. Thank you and tremendous gratitude for blogging in the most sublimely perfect way for our modern world
Thank you for the encouragement, i’m so glad you like it 🙂
Just been reading YOUR blog and find it wonderful!
Please take a look, readers:
We need these voices, new ideas …