A guest article from a Kadampa practitioner in New York who is determined to start the New Year right … everyday.
6 mins read
Well looky looky, here it is again. The New Year. The time when we are reminded that a “fresh beginning” is again upon us and that perhaps (perhaps) this would be a good time to make some internal and/or external life changes. . . or at the very least, some worthy tweaks.
But first …
I know, I know, I know. . . The whole New Years resolution thing…it’s a ritual schtick. There is nothing intrinsically “transformagical” about the beginning of a new year. It’s a construction. It’s a convention. I’ve got that. It’s not really any different than any other random moment of the Earth’s solar orbit. January 1st. February 14th. July 4th. All these “special” days are simply designations, names and numbers bundled together and endowed with various agreed-upon meanings. As many a Kadampa teacher would say, “Find January 1. You can’t. It’s not really there, at least not the way you think it is.”
I love that.
It’s not really there.
I love this because what it means is that we get to assign meaning. How is it that the “New Year” can posses its fabled rejuvenating qualities? How can there be actual power on this very day in our resolutions to start doing this, quit doing that, begin eating this way, etc.? Simple. Because we choose to name it as a day of power. That’s it, folks. The magic wand of our mind says it is so. Presto change-o. It’s nothing else but what we name it. So I’d strongly suggest that we name it well.
So, let’s scoot back for a moment to Day One of this life. Happy New Life. Your own personal January 1. How do we begin our life? No real news flash here, it’s with our breath, correct? Inhale. . . exhale. . . cry like a baby. All of us, at some point in this rebirth, we each took our very first breath. We sucked some of that good old O2 down into our little chests. And so it began: the appearances of this life. Welcome (back) to Karmaville. Happy New Life.
Here’s a question for you. Meditation. Our precious tool for transformation. How is it that we begin our meditations? Well, traditionally, it’s also with the breath. Once we have settled in on our cushions (cracked our knuckles, scratched our head, readjusted our legs, rubbed our nose, noticed some dustballs on the floor near our shrine…) we close our eyes and bring our attention to our breathing. Many people, it turns out, have trouble with this part. It’s boring (they say). It’s too hard to do. It becomes its own distraction (“Am I breathing correctly?”).
I don’t dare reveal how many years it was that I did the shabbiest of all jobs in this “bring your attention to your breath” part of my practice. Along with the excuses I just listed, part of this shabbiness was due to my urgency to get on to the “real” stuff. You know, the contemplation, the single-pointed focus, the insights, the clear light mind, the liberating of all sentient beings from their suffering through the power of my correct imagination and compassion and wisdom, etc. Why the heck should I sit here and stare at my boring old breath when I’ve got all these more fun and more important matters to attend to?
Who knew? The breath rocks.
As it turns out, this neutral object is an astounding thing. It’s a fantastic vehicle to start us on our road to all those powerful places we want to go. Inhalation … exhalation . . . inhalation . . . exhalation.
Perhaps it will help if you stop thinking of it as breath. Try thinking of it as a tide that washes up onto the shore then draws back from the shore, clearing and cleansing with every single cycle.
Or as a wind that blows smoothly and calmly through your entire body and mind, dislodging and dispersing any sort of stuckness and ugh-ness that has been building up there. That’s nice.
Or let it be light: a cascade of radiant illumination silently blasting away any and all shadows. Your call. It’s just breath. It’s invisible. It’s about as “not really there” as you can get. So you can picture it any way you wish. Go wild. Designate at your pleasure. And “pleasure” is the key here, isn’t it? We need to enjoy. The best advice on meditation in general that I’ve heard from my beloved Kadampa teachers is: Have fun with it. It is being presented to us as a joyful path to good fortune, not a frustrating or boring one.
So we begin with our breath. Just like we did on that day we were reborn. But rather than simply breathing mindlessly as we did then, now we make skillful use of it to help direct us toward the experience of peace, of stillness, of expansive inner relaxation that is our potential. And of course the breath is so convenient an object. It’s right there. All the time. Usually being ignored. It’s like Dorothy’s red shoes…just sitting there waiting to start you on your way to fantastic places.
Lately, I’ve been employing the phrase, “Follow the breath into the heart,” as one of my encouragements, one of my suggestions to myself. “Do this. This will be nice. Follow the breath into the heart. This will help.” And it has helped. Quite a lot. Geshe Kelsang provides a potent encouragement of his own (no surprise) in How To Transform Your Life:
Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to control the mind, without having to depend on external conditions….So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from the mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress. We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed toward other people, and our relationships with others will naturally improve.
Beginnings are important
Which is all to say (among other things), that beginnings are important. They can set the stage for what comes next. Little baby sucking in that first breath . . . a very good thing. Little meditator taking the time to create focus and inspiration with those first breaths . . . a very good thing.
And now, back to the New Year. 2018. It’s coming. That thing that holds no inherent meaning. That thing we get to imbue with meaning, if we so choose. What I’m going to suggest is that when 2018 rolls around, we notice our very first breath of the new year and make a resolution to follow it into our heart. Let it take us there. And let’s remain there.
Even better, what say we follow that first breath into the hearts of those we know? Or of those we encounter in the course of our days and nights? And those we hear about or read about, or even merely think about? Good idea? And then follow the next breath there as well . . .and the next . . . and the next . . . “and so forth.”
The New Year is empty. Beginnings are relative. Lucky us. We choose. We can fill that first moment of our new year with good purpose, and then holding that intention, see where it leads us.
In Buddhism, we train to solve our own and everybody else’s problems through compassion and wisdom.
This is a bit different to the usual way we try to solve them, to be honest, which is generally through attachment and aversion.
Out of attachment to a world outside our thoughts, a world in fact projected by our ignorance, we wish and sometimes expect things to turn out a certain way and people to behave a certain way. We’re constantly going outside of ourselves to get what we want and get others to cooperate with our wishes.
But it doesn’t really work, does it? Because we still don’t have everything we want and, even when we do get the things we want, we lose them. And then we get disappointed and upset. Worldly pleasures, as Buddha explained, are like scratching an itch. Indulging in them just satisfies the itch that’s created by our attachment in the first place.
In this way, attachment is a bit of an inner demon, deceiving us; but it’s sometimes hard for us to recognize this because we feel it’s what’s making us happy. This is our habit. We’ve always used our attachment to go out and try and get what we think we want.
And with aversion we try to push away the things out there that seem to be getting in the way of our happiness — people or situations that seem to be threatening us or harming us in any way. And this makes our mind unpeaceful. We don’t like things. We don’t like people, and we want them to behave differently, or go away. We are not in control – we have to push out mentally, verbally, and/or physically.
We’ve been doing this since beginningless time, trying to solve our problems with our attachment and aversion, and for that matter all our other delusions too; but it doesn’t seem to be working, does it?! Because here we all are, still probably with the same number of problems we started with this life, or this morning, and still without all the things we want, or, even if we got them, still wanting more.
Newsflash: We cannot solve our problems through our delusions when it is our delusions that are creating our problems in the first place.
So, with Dharma (ie, Buddha’s teachings and the experiences we gain from practicing those teachings) we learn to become what’s called “inner beings”, appreciating more and more that the way to solve our problems is to change our minds. And on one level it may sound obvious, but it can’t be that obvious to us or we’d be doing it all the time. It may be intellectually obvious to us, but at the moment we have the deeply ingrained emotional habit of trying to solve our pain and problems outside of our mind. We try to get what we want by rearranging stuff outside of our mind.
What we need to do is change these habits and approach our problems with wisdom and compassion, which have the power to solve all our problems not just straightaway but permanently.
To get started …
When we start our training in meditation and Dharma, we need first to learn to experience our own inner peace by allowing our minds to relax and settle. Otherwise it is no wonder we feel we have to get our happiness from out there. Even Dharma seems to be something we have to find from out there.
What we come to understand when we start meditating (skillfully) is that Dharma is already within us. We already have the seeds of everything we need inside us, including a naturally peaceful, blissful mind. We may have heard this many times, but sometimes we forget. We also forget that peace equals happiness, and that when our mind is experiencing peace we don’t have problems.
So the very first step is learning to rely on that inner peace — identifying with just how good we feel when we allow our mind to relax and just forget those stupid delusions for awhile. We can do this through breathing meditations, relaxing into our heart, clarity of the mind, and so on. This is the first way we usually taste that freedom, that peace we have inside us. We can relax into it and think:
This is me. I’m home.
We really need to give ourselves a break and, by letting our mind chill out, see how our aversion and attachment settle down a bit, like waves disappearing into the ocean of our root mind. We can let this go. We can let our thoughts go. And when we let our thoughts go, their objects go as well; so for awhile we’re simply free of that problem! We feel peaceful inside, it’s like, “Hey, I don’t have a problem!” If we can just forget it though breathing meditation, we feel COMPLETELY FINE.
And it doesn’t matter what the problem is, to be honest. Any problem can be temporarily solved through breathing meditation if we get good at it. Or even if we’re not that good at it. Just by allowing ourself to focus on our breath, or relaxing into our heart, we get a little peace, a little space from that problem. And we stop, at least for a short while, trying to solve those problems OUT THERE, in that most frustrating way we normally have. We relax, we rest, we experience this feeling of contentment and think:
“That’s incredible. I have this peace inside me. I can relax. And, you know what? This indicates that there is so much more where this came from. This is just the beginning of the peace I can experience if I change direction — from trying to solve everything outside myself to just allowing myself to practice these teachings and change my mind. This is only the beginning, but I can rely on it — I can understand that this peace is how I can be feeling all the time, and it is who I am.”
At the moment we are so habituated to following our attachment wherever it takes us, or our aversion trying to solve everything out there all the time. These delusions are what’s shaking up our minds and causing us so much aggravation, pain, frustration, tightness, heaviness, sadness, depression, not to mention negative actions, etc., etc., etc. IT’S OUR DELUSIONS. We get a glimpse into that simply by experiencing some temporary freedom from those delusions. We should really take refuge in that peace, knowing we can always go there.
Then we can arise from that peace with a clearer mind and happier heart, more centered and better able to deal practically with the so-called outer problems that present themselves.
Next installment is here. Meanwhile, your comments are always welcome.
Last night I dreamt that my spiritual teacher showed me all my lifetimes so far. These were not at all vivid, but I got a sense of the non-stop and varied installments in this interminable story of my samsara; and this was powerful. I cannot get it out of my mind – and nor do I want to.
It made me realize that if I don’t get my spiritual act together in this short life I am set to experience infinitely more chapters in this cycle of existence. Why am I at all interested, still, in buying into all these dramas, especially now that I have tasted the alternative of wisdom?
Then I woke to a foster kitten jumping onto my bed, and the recognition that this purring creature now kneading me with his paws was in yet another installment of his own beginningless story as well. This time, a cat book, filled with cat chapters. And right now our story is overlapping for a few paragraphs, but we will soon be moving on. Forced to move on. And I felt very sad for him because he has no way of understanding what all this means or what is in store for him, much less any way of escaping. And his confusion and suffering have already been going on for far too long.
Loved and lost
And then I thought of some of the humans I have loved and lost in this life alone, and realized that our endless stories had also intersected for just a few pages. At the time, it seemed that those relationships were deeply significant, and maybe in some ways they were. But they were never permanent – just a few shared paragraphs in the never-ending tomes of samsara.
Talk about getting things into perspective …! I am sorry to sound existentially terrifying, but a more realistic perspective brings us some measure of peace, and this has.
No difference between those loved & lost humans and this kitten, really – at least, the only difference being a very small matter of time. As the equanimity meditation shows, I have been as close to this kitten in the past as I ever was to them. And it is this kitten, not them, who is currently appearing directly to my senses in this latest story line, and who is the one I can show love to directly.
So each lifetime is like a new book, and within each book, whether short or long, are the transient chapters of that life. Within the chapters are paragraphs, including sentences and words. These make up the narrative of our lives, and the narrative we have largely been telling ourselves all these eons. For there is nothing behind these tales, or even these characters, when we look. Everything is mere name.
The common denominator holding this narrative together life after life is grasping at ME. Even though that me is changing all the time, even day by day, we believe it it real, that it is there, not just a projection of our thoughts. And then our self-cherishing, attachment, aversion, and other delusions emanate from that grasping in life after life, like a spider weaving her web. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:
We need to understand that the inherently existent I that we grasp at so firmly and continuously does not exist at all. It never has existed and never will. It is merely the fabrication of our self-grasping ignorance. ~ page 51.
Moreover, our stories with each other may have interwoven in extraordinary or mundane ways, but they have all been, thus far, entirely ephemeral. And pretty much entirely out of our control.
We don’t own others. We cannot begin to own them. We don’t even own ourselves.
Most of the time – maybe the whole of beginningless time — we have been swept along by each unfolding drama and its bardo interludes, believing in it as if was the be-all and end-all, as if there was something solid behind those mental projections. We have clung on for dear life to every appearance – trying to solve our problems and get happy through the use of ignorance, attachment, and aversion all trying to manipulate the objects outside our mind. We have not yet realized that all subject minds and object things co-arise and subside simultaneously, like waves from an infinitely deeper source, the ocean of our own root mind that goes from life to life.
You may have noticed — we cannot solve an attachment problem with the attachment that is in fact creating the problem in the first place. Same for aversion. We can’t force the objects of our attachment or aversion to behave better while at the same time allowing our attachment and aversion to stay put. We can’t solve any actual problems or unpleasant feelings outside of changing our thoughts. But we sure do try.
If we cannot gain control over our mind through wisdom, we will have no choice but to believe in and be carried along by its projections or mistaken appearances. As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a graphic depiction of our real predicament:
Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,
Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path
The imperative to get enlightened
How can we help others, really help them, if we are as helplessly carried along as they are, and incapable of staying with any of them for very long, much less forever? Even the people we love the dearest in this life, who have always been there for us, such as our parents – we cannot even hold onto them. My mom turns 80 in two short days, on December 24th. I have known her for over half a century, I think about her every single day, I feel like I have never not known her, but …
This all adds up to … we have to become enlightened. We need to be the clear light of omniscience itself, the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, and to allow all new books, chapters, paragraphs, and even commas to appear within that completely purified, transformed, and blissful mind.
Otherwise everything that appears to us (other than to our very subtle mind) is going to remain as the mistaken and often painful projection of self-grasping. We will keep trying to believe in it as the truth, but like any hallucination or mirage it will thus forever and always keep letting us down.
Buddha is the “supreme unchanging friend”. Enlightened beings are brighter than the sun, constantly shining in our lives, in all our lives. They are more stable than the great earth. They are omniscient wisdom mixed with universal compassion that pervades all beings. They have pulled this off as they have directly realized the non-duality of subject and object. We are mere aspects of their completely purified mind already, even if we don’t realize it.
Through following Buddha’s teachings, eventually we too will attain the non-conceptual mind of great bliss. With this we have direct experience that there is only one truth – ultimate truth emptiness – and that all conventional truths, ie, all story lines without exception, are mere appearances not other than ultimate truth.
If we want to help other people a lot, we can’t keep losing them. We can’t settle with just throwing them temporary lifelines as they drift in and out of our range. And how can any lifeline be enough if we are floundering in the waves ourselves?
We need to have everyone in our story all the time — not outside our mind, nor we outside theirs — sharing our mandala now and for always.
I know that this may sound a very long way off, but we can start straightaway. There is nothing to lose, and every step we take will make our existential situation better.
What’s step two? High-quality encounters day by day. Learning to love people unconditionally in the moment. If we hold and remember people with love, they will not feel wrenched from our mind even when appearances change. We need not feel separate from them. We are always losing people through attachment, let alone aversion, so we must learn to dissolve these deluded conceptual thoughts and their objects away. As William Blake said along these lines:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
We can practice day by day to increase our love and compassion within the understanding of impermanence and space-like emptiness, until, as a Buddha, we can hold everyone all the time.
This way we will become supreme unchanging friends for the people we already adore, and for everyone else we have forgotten we adored in the past.
This may not be the Christmassy article you were hoping for, sorry; but it’s what I’ve been thinking about since I woke up 😁 Blame my mother — I wouldn’t be typing this fast if she hadn’t forced me to do a typing course back in the day. Or if she hadn’t given me my fingers.
That said, please join me in wishing her the most pure and peaceful of birthdays and years ahead!
A term for Buddhist is “inner being” because, theoretically at least, we have decided to seek happiness from within rather than from without.
We are making a shift from trying to solve problems in our body and mind outside our body and mind to solving the problems of our body, and especially our mind (because all our problems come from there), inside the mind. And that basic shift in emphasis, or change of direction, is what I would say makes someone a Buddhist, or inner being.
An inner being can have a job, take showers, bring up families, help society, and all the rest of it. But their interest is in developing their minds, increasing their capacity for freedom and happiness from within. Realizing their inner potential or Buddha nature, inner beings are interested in getting rid of all the delusions, limitations, and sufferings from their mind, and helping others do the same.
For this we need renunciation, understanding the faults and pitfalls of samsara. For without renunciation, despite any amount of intellectual understanding of Dharma, we have an overwhelming need to grab our happiness and solve our problems “out there.” This is even when part of us knows — full well really — that it is not working. “Let me just send one more text! Let me try once more to change their view of me! Let me just tell this person what I think of them, they need to know …”
The eight worldly concerns
Worldly beings have what are called the “eight worldly concerns“, where we are overly interested in garnering praise while avoiding criticism, trying to make people like and admire us rather than dismissing us, getting hold of material stuff while avoiding loss, seeking one pleasure after another while avoiding the slightest unhappiness. We’re all at it!
But an inner being knows that this is a bit like drinking saltwater to quench our thirst – the most we can ever get is a little short-lived relief. One of Gen Losang‘s sayings used to be (maybe still is): “Leave the object alone.” Point being, we don’t need to keep chewing on the objects of our desires or our problems, trying or wishing to make them change or cooperate. If we know how to change our thoughts through Dharma, these problems automatically disappear and our desires for happiness are automatically satiated, all without the object having to do anything from its own side.
It is such a relief to know this. It puts us back in control of our own moods, rather than being like a puppet on the strings of someone else’s behavior or random inpenetrable thoughts. An object of unrequited attachment can become an object of renunciation or compassion, for example. An object of jealousy can become an object of rejoicing or of wisdom. With Dharma, we get to choose. We can go through the day happy rather than sad. We are free.
Renunciation for mistaken appearances
Dharma, as you may have noticed, goes deep. Bottom line is that we need renunciation for self-grasping ignorance AND for all mistaken appearances, that is, things appearing to exist dualistically, outside our mind. As we request in this prayer in TheOral Instructions of Mahamudra:
I request you … liberate me from dualistic appearance. ~ page 72.
This renunciation may take a while because we have the habitual tug of attachment to the things outside our mind that we like and aversion to the things outside our mind that we feel are in some way doing us wrong; and we are kind of attached to these delusions themselves, as well as the ignorance that underpins them. We are used to employing them to sort out our problems and get what we want. Plus we don’t necessarily want things to be mere appearances to our minds, as explained in this article.
But we come to see over time, by applying this Dharma wisdom to our own experiences, that any mental movement outwards toward a “real” world — a world outside our mind and indeed pretty much outside our control — is subtly painful, and sometimes of course incredibly painful.
Plus, it is grasping at these appearances has kept us trapped in samsara since beginningless time. We have been fighting so hard and so long on behalf of this insubstantial I against all others, with the endless mental push and the pull toward the appearances that seem to harm or help it; and this internal struggle has caused us nothing but bad karma and pain.
The pain we feel as we wander around does not inhere in the object, as it appears to, but in the way we are holding the object. Even allowing our thoughts and their objects to settle via simple breathing meditation helps this dualistic appearance dissolve so we find ourselves experiencing a natural inner peace. And if we take it further — to switch attachment out for love, say — the pain we were so convinced came from the object goes away and stays away. Both the mind and its object have changed simultaneously, co-dependently. This is because, as Geshe Kelsang explains in the Mahamudra teachings, objects are not outside the mind. Subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from the ocean of the root mind, like waves.
The pitfalls of social media
Maybe because retreat season is coming up for Kadampa Centers everywhere, which means that a lot of people might be switching off their Smartphones for awhile, I was thinking today of Facebook and other social media as a classic example of fleeting insubstantial mistaken appearances that have sucked us all (me) in, engendering the eight worldly concerns.
And then this article appeared, with Facebook itself acknowledging that social media use can be bad for users’ mental health, a sign the company is feeling pressure from a growing chorus of critics raising alarms about the platform’s effect on society.
So many of us these days are hopelessly addicted to the push and pull of social media, feverishly logging in to see what we have missed and whether other people (especially those we currently have a thing for) liked our posts. We can get into Facebook surveillance, aka stalking too, which this study discovers is (not surprisingly) a major impediment to moving on with our lives.
Social media can seem so innocent, partly as everyone is doing it, and partly as it does have a good quality of conveniently connecting us to others when it is working well. Or, rather, when we are working well, such as when we’re not consumed with insecurity, attachment, FOMO, and when we genuinely want to bring some happiness to those we interact with.
Social media has its uses, for sure. Social media has allowed me to write this blog and reach people, for example, all over the world. Simple and easy communication even across the globe is also a result of good karma, as opposed to this environmental effect that comes from the action of divisive speech:
Since divisive speech makes smooth and harmonious relationships between people difficult and painful, we have to inhabit a hard and inhospitable environment where communications are difficult to establish. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune, p 250
Electronic communication also creates a more level playing field for all parties to get involved regardless of their gender, age, race, social standing, and education.
But attachment to it is painful and frustrating, just like any attachment, and it can dominate our waking hours if we’re not careful. It’s hard to get much done if we are constantly scratching the itch — “I’ll just check my Facebook feed before I start this …” — and then we feel cheated and bad about our unproductive days.
Can I control my mind, switch off, go deep each day? Can I drop all thoughts? Our motivation may be to help others, but we cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own, as Atisha put it. That entails the ability to concentrate. And concentration is about staying on one object, as stable as Mount Meru. Surfing the internet is about perpetual motion. Can we reconcile the two?
I have fallen prey to the lure of social media from time to time. I find that although I really appreciate the ease of communication we can have these days with people all over the world, I don’t like having a dependency. So I try to resist the urge to passively read everything, and limit the amount of time I spend online. I am currently watching my mind to see how often I have the urge to scratch that itch of wanting to check my feed/texts/gmail/etc, even when I am in the middle of a perfectly nice moment. It is challenging at first, but if we stop scratching itches, they go away. How long is that going to take?! I will let you know. You can let me know too, if you try something similar 😁
Going cold turkey can also be a very good idea and useful way to see where we’re at, especially during retreat season. Just sayin’.
The Social Network is an amazing phenomenon, an amazing opportunity to see the truth of interdependence, that none of our lives occur in an isolated vacuum. Social networking is also, possibly, the most widespread addiction on our planet right now, sucking billions of hours we’ll never get back again.
Studies I have read indicate, amongst other signs of our collective addiction to screens: kids under the age of eight apparently use screens for 2 hours a day; preteens and teens for an average of 7.5 hours; and adults for an average of 8.5 hours a day. We tend to check our phones 150 times a day. 150 times!!! In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in 4 people check their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” Some of those services we use on our phones have become more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes, and make us feel worse about ourselves, even when we use them. Not to mention, when we use them at night, the light from our screens can ruin our sleep.
Here is a poem written by HT, a London musician and Kadampa Buddhist, that sums up some of this pain of attachment:
When you’re scrolling on your phone and you’re all alone What are you looking for? When you’re browsing online and you’re clicking one more time What are you searching for? There’s a hole in your heart from which you’re never apart Which reminds you that you’re in need There’s a crack in your smile that’s been buried for a while In the place where no one else can see
When you’re opening the fridge choosing something rich What are you looking for? When you pour another drink before you’re over the brink What are you searching for? There’s a pull from a place that has never seen grace And lures you into desolate land There’s a voice in your head that keeps you up in bed And mocks that nothing is going to plan
When you’re staying up late and your desire escalates What are you waiting for? When your body’s in a mess and you struggle to get dressed What are you living for? There’s a hole in your life full of struggle and strife Which makes you question every step of the way There’s a void in your mind which lingers behind Every action and each word that you say
When you’re out in the street seeking someone to meet What are you looking for? When you’re trying to catch the eye of the people passing by What are you searching for? There’s a perpetual wish that can never be fixed For an end to the bittersweet quest There’s a dream of a world and a forever girl Who can finally let you rest
But what you don’t see is that you have everything you need Right now, in this moment, in your heart If you recognise this truth then you will have no use Of seeking that from which you must part The river flows on, and yet it never was: You can’t step in the same river twice So surrender to the peace that will only increase And that never comes to you at a price
What are you seeking, what are you wanting, What are you searching for? You have it all within you, waiting to be realised So, come on in: you can close the door.
Another friend, CB, who is, incidentally, a highly successful public speaker and all-around lovely guy, posted this poem on Facebook (ironically!), with a photo and explanation:
“How I feel late at night after just a few minutes on Facebook comparing myself to others. Judging my insides by other people’s outsides. “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” (the Desiderata)
My dear brother HT has articulated the absurdity and danger of social media beautifully in this poem. What happens when we forget how to be happy without the approval of others?”
As modern Buddhists, inner beings, we want to learn to transform everything into the spiritual path. We are living at a time when everything could distract us and addict us, or we could learn somehow to transform it to our advantage. My question is, given that this technology is not going away, how can we get on board while understanding it is a tool, not a refuge? The answer to this seems crucial if we are to find inner peace and liberation.
Over to you. Comments, insights, all help welcome 😄
Wonder Woman’s goal is to “restore peace to the world”. Not sure that this world was ever that peaceful, but you get the point – we need world peace.
I got a lot out of the movie. It reinforced my understanding that this is not a good moment to be sitting around feeling hopeless and discouraged. There isn’t time; too many people need help. So Wonder Woman, just out on DVD, is timely because, if we are paying attention, it can remind us of a more hopeful way of looking at the world and at ourselves. If you bear with me, I am now going to attempt a Buddhist take on Wonder Woman’s life and works… And I am more than happy for you to chip in with comments.
Antiope, her aunt, the strongest Amazon warrior, said to Diana:
You keep doubting yourself, Diana. But you are stronger than you believe. You have greater power than you know.
It is the same for you reading this. This is not some corny throw-away movie line – we all have greater power inside us than we know. We all have a divine spark, akaBuddha nature. Each and every living being has both heroism and delusions within them – we are capable of becoming Wonder Woman/Wonder Man, or we can stay ordinary and weak, depending on what we choose to focus upon.
It’s worth reminding ourselves too that this Buddha nature is indestructible, but our delusions are totally destructible.We will all attain enlightenment one day, so we may as well do it now and cut out all the mooching around in the middle. We have already been in samsara for way way way too long.
Who will I be if I stay?
Diana Prince left her childhood paradise on a beaten up boat without a backward glance: “I can not stand by while innocent lives are lost!” she said to her mother. This is similar to Prince Siddhartha, Atisha, and many other great luminaries of the past, who left their exquisite comfortable surroundings out of renunciation for their meaningless lives of luxury and the burning compassion to help others.
Queen Hippolyta: You know that if you choose to leave, you may never return.
Diana: Who will I be if I stay?
Later when Steve Trevor said, “I will save the day but you will save the world,” she had to let him go, she had to accept the sacrifice of his loss. We don’t have much option to hide in a domestic bubble when the world is burning and we are drawn to service. It reminds me that I cannot put my own comfort above that of countless living beings, for then “Who will I be?”
The power of love
Wonder Woman’s strength is her love and compassion. Against this, Ares, the god of war, the world leader, had no chance – even though he was far bigger and seemingly more powerful than her, she was able to glance his lightning back at him. Love is stronger than hate because it is a response to reality whereas hate arises from misconception and distortion.
This is good to know at a time (2017-2018) when reason seems to be falling on granite, when regular people are up against a leviathan of self-interest and self-absorption in our world leaders. If we rely upon love and creativity, and above all don’t succumb to hopelessness, we will triumph.
It is love and compassion that ignited Diana’s super powers – she could have smitten Dr. Poison as she cowered beneath her, but instead she saw that Dr. Poison was not her delusions, and she let her go. It is love and compassion that will activate our Buddha nature too, our boundless potential for enlightenment.
By the way, Patty Jenkins directed this movie. Bring on more female directors, is what I say. Talking of why Diana Prince first becomes Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins says:
I say no to what you are all doing, how you are all living your life. I still love you. I’m still engaged with you. I still understand it’s complicated. But I say not to this. To shooting people from afar who you cannot see, I say no.
Wonder Woman emanates as an ordinary woman in Paris, which is where we see her in the opening scenes. Wonder Woman walked amongst the land of crusty men (including British politicians), and — muttering away — they had no clue who she was. Emanations of holy beings are everywhere, usually disguised in ordinary forms. As it says in The New Guide to Dakini Land:
As ordinary beings with ordinary appearance we cannot experience anything as totally pure and perfect. Even an emanation of Buddha appears to us to have faults. It is because we have ordinary appearance that we view ourselves and others as imperfect – subject to faults such as sickness or ageing. ~ page 23
We have to do something
Wonder Woman sees a suffering woman in the WW1 trenches, and decides to cross the battlefield to save her village.
Steve: This is no man’s land, Diana! It means no man can cross it, alright? This battalion has been here for nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch. All right? Because on the other side there are a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place. This is not something you can cross. It’s not possible.
Diana: So… what? So we do nothing?
Steve: No, we are doing something! We are! We just… we can’t save everyone in this war. This is not what we came here to do.
Diana: No. But it’s what I’m going to do.
Then she runs onto the battlefield that no one has crossed. The German soldiers start to fire on her, but she deflects their bullets with her gauntlets, and uses her weapons and powers to free the town from suffering. And this encourages the rest of the group to risk their own lives to follow her.
It is a great example of compassion in action. Out of the intense wish to free living beings, Diana then engages in practical actions to fulfill this wish.
Diana: I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
We need the armor of patient acceptance that can handle the guns of ageing, sickness, death, and all the other daily stuff that comes up to frustrate us even when we are trying so hard to help others. Otherwise, the smallest bullet of suffering will knock us out. We need the sword of wisdom to cut down the delusions.
Our daily life is all about growing our super hero skills of the six perfections so that we can be of most benefit to others. And (see more below) we can grow all these a great deal faster through the practice of Buddhist Tantra, the quick path to enlightenment:
Vajrayogini’s body is in nature the perfection of wisdom of all the Buddhas. Her five mudra-ornaments of bone are the other five perfections of all the Buddhas. ~ The New Guide to Dakini Land, page 127
Wonder Woman’s motley crew are inspired by her example to live out their innate heroism too. As Steve Trevor put it:
My father told me once, he said, “If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something”. And I already tried nothing.
Living beings do deserve us
Ares told her: “They don’t deserve your protection!”
But in fact mankind does deserve her. All living beings deserve to be loved and helped by us. In the mind-training teachings of Buddhism we learn to see the kindness of all living beings as the very infrastructure of our life. They are also treasure chests of love, compassion, and all the other necessary qualities that we can only develop in dependence upon them:
Once we learn to value the inner wealth of patience, giving, love, and compassion above external conditions, we will come to regard each and every sentient being as supremely precious, no matter how they treat us. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness, page 77
Also, as Diana replies:
It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.
This is also true. It is up to us to choose love over judgment and more delusion. We can choose to focus on others’ faults or others’ good qualities – depending on whether we want to believe in delusions or in love. And although it is true that we are all mixed bags, it is also true that living beings are not their delusions but the victims of their delusions, so it makes more sense to put our faith in their actual pure nature.
War and anger
I write this as Members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), while accepting this year’s Nobel Peace Prize during a ceremony in Oslo, said the planet’s destruction is “only one impulsive tantrum away.” And some military analysts are also predicting that we have a 50/50 chance of nuclear war with North Korea sometime in the next 3 months …
What the heck?!?! Wonder Woman is set in World War 1, the war that was supposedly “The War to End All Wars” but of course was not. This is because war is caused by anger and hatred, and these are still alive and well in the minds of living beings. Fear and anger and threatening Tweets lead to more of the same, until it spills out of control – we’ve all seen bar fights.
Steve: You don’t think I wish I could tell you that it was one bad guy to blame? It’s not! We’re all to blame!
That is why we need the heroism of compassion and wisdom. We need both to rely upon and become actual heroes and heroines, who take the fight where it really belongs, to the delusions. In the battle of good versus evil, it is not living being versus living being; it is all of us against the monsters in all our minds. We need to purify our minds.
It is generally accepted in both Sutra and Tantra that the world appears to our mind as faulty, imperfect and unsatisfactory because our mind is impure – polluted by the delusions and their imprints. In Ornament for Clear Realization, Buddha Maitreya says that when the minds of sentient beings become completely pure, their environment becomes a Buddha’s Pure Land. ~ Guide to Dakini Land, page 23
Wonder Women in Buddhism
Buddha Vajrayogini is the greatest Wonder Woman of them all. And the best thing about her is that she is the embodiment of the bliss and emptiness of a completely purified mind, so we can all become her — become a Wonder Woman or a Wonder Man — through practicing the union of Buddhist Sutra and Tantra.
Through studying the correct view of emptiness we can understand that everything is merely an appearance to the mind and, like a dream, merely imputed by conceptual thought. This understanding is extremely helpful for developing conviction in the existence of (pure beings and) Pure Lands. ~ The NewGuide to Dakini Land, page 25
There is so much to say about Vajrayogini, and if you are interested you can find out more by reading The New Guide to Dakini Land. We can practice these Tantric teachings in dependence upon some experience of renunciation, bodhichitta, and wisdom, as well as receiving a Tantric empowerment*.
Marvel’s Wonder Woman even looks a bit like Vajrayogini:
Her hair is black, symbolizing the unchangeable nature of her Truth Body. It falls freely down her back, symbolizing that she is free from the fetters of self-grasping.” ~ The New Guide to Dakini Land, page 127
Vajrayogini holds a curved knife rather than a sword, “to show her power to cut the continuum of the delusions and obstacles of her followers and of all living beings.”
Vajrayogini stomps the three poisons under foot, in the aspect of worldly gods (not unlike Ares) – attachment, anger, and ignorance have no sway over her. When dealing with our own delusions, we’d be as well to remember that – we start on the right footing then, as it were, with the self-confidence, “I will conquer my delusions, they will never conquer me.”
The ultimate super hero, Vajrayogini possesses omniscient wisdom, the bliss and emptiness of her completely purified mind pervading all phenomena, including us:
Her three eyes symbolize her ability to see everything in the past, present and future.” ~ The New Guide to Dakini Land, page 126
Self-generation as Vajrayogini enables us to hold it all together in the meditation break, aka most of our lives, when we are not absorbed in meditation. We cannot always be in single-pointed concentration on the source of everything, namely bliss and emptiness, because we have to get up and get practical. But Vajrayogini is the embodiment of bliss and emptiness, as well as of all Sutra and Tantra realizations, appearing in this dynamic form to help and bless others as we move through our day — a living, breathing Wonder Woman.
The practice of Vajrayogini quickly brings blessings, especially during this spiritually degenerate age. ~ The New Guide to Dakini Land, page 8
I have seen the worst of this world, and the best. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred, and the lengths they’ll go to for love. Now I know. Only love can save this world. So I stay. I fight, and I give… for the world I know can be. This is my mission, now. Forever.
This can be our mission, too – is there any reason why not? A lot of things these days seem to be making my superior intention kick in whether I like it or not – whether the sadness in people’s expressions, tragedies in my own family, the endless bad news for humans, animals, and our planet, or just the sound of passing sirens. Everyone is suffering. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang has said, we only need to “open our eyes” to see that.
What we need right now is armies of Bodhisattva, armies of heroes and heroines. Let’s just do it! As Venerable Geshe Kelsang once said at a Festival:
Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys enemies.
I love to think of the activities of my fellow Sangha and all those heroes and heroines everywhere who seem to be striving more than ever to change the world’s direction. Together, I know we can make all the difference. Let’s not waste too much more time giving into our selfishness, attachment, self-pity, aversions, or other delusions, except when we really have to! Let’s make our lives epic in the service of others instead.
Our world is in trouble but the situation is not hopeless. We need to inspire each other to hope and courage as they did in the movie – that bedraggled, disparate and, to begin with, self-centered group did amazing things once they were inspired. They saved the day. Despair, complacency, or personal escapism is not an option. We need to remember that we are battling not each other but the ignorance, hatred, and attachment in all our minds – it is a battle for hearts and minds, as they say, and that battle will be won with the weapons of Dharma.
There is so much suffering in the world right now – wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just wave a magic wand and have it all go away? Well, in a way, we can. For that is what blessings do.
I find it doesn’t hurt to tune into blessings whenever I need shadows chased away. Blessings always cheer me up. One quick way to feel them is by recognizing I am not outside enlightened beings’ minds and they are not outside mine.
Whatever faith we are – Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, etc. – we can all pray and receive powerful blessings for ourselves and others. This is because holy beings transcend our labels and help everyone who asks – that’s their job. If we are a living being, we have a divine spark in our heart (in Buddhism, we call it our Buddha nature) that will be ignited if we allow ourselves to believe in blessings.
Our prayers for others act as a bridge between them and the holy beings we are praying to. In the midst of the deepest depression, glimmers of light can appear in people’s minds through the force of our prayers invoking blessings. Some hope reappears to quell the hopelessness — a little window through which they can peek through the murk of their delusions to a brighter day. This is step #1 in their feeling better.
It is always worth remembering that holy beings are infinitely larger than samsara – they can flick away our samsaric nightmare with one finger if we let them. They appear in forms to show just this – the Wisdom Buddha cuts it down at its root with his wisdom sword, for example, and Buddha Vajrayogini swipes it away with her curved knife.
We can also send blessings from our own good heart – such as in taking and giving, which can be supercharged in our Tantric practice when we have generated ourself as a Buddha (see next section). There is always something we can be doing to help those around us and in our world.
Remember who we really are …
We are usually so wrapped up in an ordinary, limited sense of ourself, replete with all its suffering and lamentation – but that self does not exist and we can learn to drop it, more and more quickly.
Who we are depends on who we think we are at any given time, as explained here. When I stop identifying with the limited, painful self that doesn’t even exist — just drop it and generate a more realistic and less deluded vision of myself, eg, as a Bodhisattva warrior or a Dakini — I find I can accept the past, present, and future perfectly happily.
So, if I am in a bad mood, I dissolve all those mistaken dream-like appearances into ultimate truth emptiness and arise in a new dream as a Bodhisattva Heroine, whereby everything and indeed every time — present, past, and future – looks very different. Plus, whenever we self-generate as a Bodhisattva or a Buddha, we automatically receive blessings.
And, by the way, we need to think “I AM a holy being”, not “I am an ordinary being pretending to be a holy being.” We are neither inherently pure nor impure. We are neither inherently ordinary nor extraordinary. Who we are is not absolute but relative for it depends upon many factors, including our thoughts.*
Self-generation as a Buddha is not a device. It is reality. It is far more realistic than grasping with ignorance at an inherently existent ordinary person and not letting go.
It takes practice and mindfulness, but there does come a time when it is harder to hold onto a deluded sense of self than a cool, happy, heroic one, because our thought habits have changed.
… and who others are
And others are not inherently impure either, so we can generate them as blissful pure appearances of our blissful pure mind. With that, we are halfway there — they will catch up to that pure view themselves one day.
We are making all this up anyway — the attractive friend I see, for example, is totally different to the “meh” stranger you see. Who is right? It depends. So we may as well make this relativity work for us by choosing the thoughts that will liberate us all.
In Sutra it is the same principle — we change people by changing our thoughts. We transform people into objects of love with our mind of love, for instance, thus making them lovable as opposed to annoying appearances to our aversion. And this helps to bring out their good qualities as a result.
(*To get profound for a sec: it is not just any old thoughts that we identify ourselves with in Tantra – we are identifying ourselves with omniscient wisdom and bliss, which in fact source and pervade all reality. We can think of our very subtle mind as like an ocean from which “all subject minds and object things arise simultaneously, like waves” as Venerable Geshe Kelsang put it in 2000. That root mind will, when purified, become the omniscient wisdom and bliss of a Buddha; so in Tantra we bring the result into the path by identifying ourselves with that in the present moment. Also, if we take care of the ocean by purifying it, the waves of our thoughts and appearances will take care of themselves.)
Bodhisattvas can accept whatever comes up for the sake of helping others — everything that appears to them helps their renunciation, or compassion, or patience, etc.
Dakinis or Heroines also accept all appearances as part of a totality, not discriminating between pleasant and unpleasant appearances because they are all equal in emptiness. They are all equally part of Heruka and Vajrayogini’s blissful mandala, which includes the celestial mansion and the terrifying charnel grounds.
(Just to get a bit profound again for a moment … apart from bliss and emptiness, everything is mistaken appearance, hallucination. So take it with a pinch of salt!)
Bit of purification
Purification practice also comes in very handy when we are in a really bad mood, to wipe away the most stubborn-seeming karmic appearances and ordinary conceptions. Out of space here — check out this article.
When I keep doing any of the things explained in these last two articles — letting any re-visiting sadness remind me to do it – then there is no problem.
As someone generally interested in the spiritual path, we can learn to keep our eye on the prize – which is enlightenment (however we currently understand it) and the permanent end of suffering. Then I think we will find creative ways to do whatever works to lift ourselves and others out of any temporary funk.
So, no guarantees I won’t feel sad again in samsara, but that’s ok; it can be put to good use.
Over to you: Have you dealt successfully with any calamities lately? Are you finding ways to avoid falling into despair over the current world situation? Care to share?
The world is pretty much a mess right now, it seems. A lot of people have been feeling hopeless and depressed, including some close to me. So I want to share a few ideas on how to cope when things go wrong, based on some of my own recent experiences. It’s in two parts — hope you have time to read this first one before you get up to face your day.
Whenever I get one of those phone calls containing bad news, eg, a shocking bereavement or break up of a good relationship, or am sickened by some cruel and unusual politics, the first thing I tell myself is not to panic because feeling sad for a while is not going to kill me. I’ve been through worse and ended up happy again. These are temporary cloud formations in the sky. Things seem so solid when we are unhappy, but the truth is they are not.
Through practice in identifying with a pure and peaceful mind, it has gotten to the point where I can still feel the bliss of the clear sky mind even under the thick cloak of the dark clouds. So if I can do it, you can too.
Then I tell myself, as soon as I remember, “Don’t rewind and don’t fast forward”. This was what my close friend Lovely Lekma told me after a calamity I had some years ago, and it sustained me then and sustains me now.
Stay in the moment. Stay in today at least.
Today I can handle. Today I can transform. Tomorrow will take care of itself. And I really don’t need to be thinking about how this will impact me all next year, let alone the rest of my life … especially considering I may die today.
We live life from dream to dream
As I explain a lot in these articles on subtle impermanence, due to our permanent grasping we spread our present mood over the past, missing what we think we had, and over the future, dreading a cold and depressing future. But neither of those scenarios exist — the past has gone, and the future doesn’t exist yet, plus I guarantee you that it will be very different to how you’re envisaging it while you’re in a sad mood.
When we are feeling blessed again, or just back in a reasonably okay mood, we appreciate past lessons and welcome the opportunities of the future. The immediate past can feel like a beautiful dream, and just one of many now passed. The dream-like future can feel ripe with the potential for lasting bliss, freedom, and the ability to help others.
In other words, I only have to make the effort to change the present moment. And that is very do-able.
The rest takes care of itself. It really does. Try it and see.
Let me take that away for you
One way I like to transform the present moment is to acknowledge my current feeling of sadness rather than push it away, and use it to empathize with and absorb the similar sadness of so many other living beings, thus releasing them from it. This practice of taking others’ suffering makes my suffering feel meaningful, rather than like useless pain. Taking pacifies my mind with compassion and motivates me, lifting me out of discouragement.
And the deeper the sadness, the more effective this practice is in some ways! So we need not fear our sadness.
Also, as our suffering is always arising from one delusion or another, such as attachment, we can also take on others’ similar delusions as explained in Great Treasury of Merit (which I will quote in full as it is such a helpful paragraph):
If we find it difficult to prevent a particular delusion by transforming it into its opposite, we can try to overcome it by practicing taking and giving. For example, if we are having difficulty in preventing attachment towards a particular object or person, we should think how there are countless beings afflicted by attachment which is often much stronger than our own, and out of compassion decide to take all their attachment upon ourself. We imagine that we draw all their attachment towards us in the form of black smoke. As it enters us, it completely destroys our own attachment, and then we meditate on emptiness for a while. We can use the same technique to overcome hatred and ignorance. In this way, we use our delusions to cultivate pure minds, rather as a farmer uses manure to grow crops.
I remember discussing this meditation with another friend, Gen Rabten, last year — he told me it has been his go-to for overcoming delusions for many years. IMHO it seems to be working for him very well, so I may as well copy him! Spiritual friends can be so useful.
Part 2 is now here, including practical stuff on prayer, blessings, and how to view ourselves completely differently.
Care to share?
Meantime, have you dealt successfully with any calamities lately? Are you finding ways to avoid falling into despair over the current world situation?