7.5 mins read.
We never really meditate alone. In Mahayana Buddhism, when we sit down to do prayers or meditations, it is customary to imagine countless living beings sitting all around us. Envisaging them in human form for auspiciousness, we recognize that they are in fact the beings of all 6 realms of samsara.
(By the way we’re not expected to visualize them all clearly, in case you were wondering. But just know they’re there, like I know there are people in London even though I can’t see them right now.)
We can have our mom on our left, our dad on our right, our current object(s) of attachment behind us, and our current object(s) of aversion in front of us. Our karmic circle are sitting closest to us, but we feel that there is nobody left out. Our karmic circle can even double up as representatives of everybody else.
The mere act of visualizing this ginormous assembly, however vaguely, starts to broaden our horizons.
We can then forget about ourself for a while and spread our mind over all these living beings, contemplating briefly how just as I want to be happy and free all the time, so do they. I am not more important than they are — we are all the same and equal. Moreover they are countless in number whereas I am just one single person, and so their happiness and suffering are more important than just mine. And they have all been so kind to me, including as my kind mother multiple times over. Thinking all or any of these thoughts, we feel close to them out of love and compassion.
If we spend a bit of time on this, a few minutes, say, our mind is moved even before we get to the refuge prayers or meditation.
Pinpricks in time and space
This Summer a friend explained what she did for this visualization of all living beings, which I find quickly moves my mind; so I have been playing with ever since.
We feel not that we are seated at ground level, as it were, in the very middle of a vast assembly circling out around from us, but are viewing everybody from above, including ourself. We are just one of many, a mere pinprick, no more special. This visualization is not ego-centered at all because we are no longer at the center of anything – and that is why I think it can be so helpful in overcoming self-cherishing.
If one pinprick is important, surely they all are?
I have also been picturing how these pinprick beings, including me, are not static but constantly moving around – both within this life, and as they move from rebirth to rebirth in this endless prison of samsara. We never get to stay proximal to people for long. It helps to get a sense of our existential situation – that we are all perpetual travelers from life to life. Where in time and space am I — that one little pinprick – now? Where have I been? Where am I going? It’s the same for all living beings.
And so we need equanimity – to overcome our aversion, attachment, and indifference — because before too long all our relationships will change regardless, and we need that to be under our control.
Leaves in Fall
Which brings me to leaves. It is Fall, and I have been slushing through piles upon piles of leaves, doing this experiment by thinking I am just one of those leaves.
Generally when we are grounded in the perspective of the Me Leaf, center of the universe, all the other leaves are significant or not depending only on where they stand in relation to Me. As it says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:
Our ordinary view is that we are the center of the universe and that other people and things derive their significance principally from the way in which they affect us. Our car, for example, is important simply because it is ours, and our friends are important because they make us happy. Strangers, on the other hand, do not seem so important.
“Look at me!” the Me Leaf goes. “I am so unique and interesting – such a lovely yellow color and interesting shape! Such an interesting journey to get here, let me tell you! I am important and ought to be the best off leaf in the forest. I must work toward that. Perhaps you’d like to work for me?”
The bigger our ego, the bigger our sense that the people who are nice to us are important, that strangers are not worth the time of day, and that our enemies are really threatening. “I don’t like those leaves because they look different to me, have different views, and they’re not praising me or scratching my back so they must be out to get me. But I like those leaves because they like my Facebook posts, agree with me all the time, and do what I want them to. And I am seriously bored by all those other leaves except insofar as I can figure out what they might have to offer me.”
Perhaps we get ourselves into a position with a lot of power over people, but with these 3 poisons all that power does is make those 3 arbitrary categories bigger – more friends or fans, more enemies or people we fear, more people for whom we feel indifference or disdain.
Which is not only a poisonous but stupid attitude given that it only takes someone to march through our pile of leaves, kicking them around, such as the Lord of Death; at which point all bets are off as to who is around us anymore at all, let alone who are our friends, enemies, and strangers.
One day we could be in Paradise with a million dollar house and all the latest luxuries, and the next we could be enveloped in a terrifying fire, perhaps even find ourselves plunging into a hell realm. We cannot say, “That would never happen to me or the people I love!” On what basis can we say that? Those 48 people in Paradise, Northern California who have just lost their lives probably thought exactly the same thing until this week.
Even a tiny shift of perspective changes our positioning on everything and everyone around us. I saw three women painting in the Botanic Gardens the other day – they were mere feet apart in a peaceful place, but their paintings were very different. Had there been 100 painters, there would have been 100 different paintings. Tossed violently on the turbulence of the four great rivers of birth, ageing, sickness, and death, what chance is there for our current perspective on everything and everyone to survive at all?
Are you having a small or a big day?
One question I like to ask myself each day is “What do I most want today?” And is it about me or about everyone else? If it is about me, for example attachment to someone showing an interest in me, that makes for a small day.
This is the case even if we have all the power or admirers in the world. Not only because we are just one person, but because for others, preoccupied with themselves, it is never about us but about them. From their point of view, our significance derives principally from the way in which we affect them. So, putting ourselves first, we all wander around in a world of one, effectively. No one shares our perspective – we are on our own, like one leaf on the forest floor.
But we can choose to share others’ perspective, ie, they are important, and see life from their point of view, and now we have a big life – it is as if we are now one with ALL the leaves. I was once traveling to an event with a very chatty driver, who shared with the entire busload that he and his wife got along very happily: “This is because we both share the same viewpoint – she thinks she is very important, and so do I!”
By decreasing the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and indifference, we open our hearts to limitless love and connection. We can realize the equality and interdependence of self and others, understanding that we are others and others are us, and in this way feel a bond to each and every one of these leaves vast as space. And with the wisdom realizing that everyone is unfindable and mere name – that they are the same nature as our mind and we theirs — we are never separated from any of them again.
Once we attain enlightenment we abide in the blissful recognition of interdependence, totality, and union. We are no longer cut off and isolated by our self-grasping delusions and mistaken perceptions that cause everyone to appear “out there”, really outside our mind and therefore separate from us.
Both in meditation and whilst wandering around kicking leaves, I have been finding this visualization and contemplation great for expanding my horizons in these various ways. And with Winter on its way, you’ll be glad to hear it also works for snowflakes.
Addition 2020: This strange year seems to have shown even more obviously that samsara has nothing worth grasping onto. So just one more thing on the subject of leaves — another thing I like to do in Fall when I see the leaves fly off the trees is to imagine and/or pray that every living being flies through the higher sky of bliss and emptiness to land in a Pure Land, either at the time of death or sooner.
I seem to do most of the talking around here! Would love to hear from you in the comments below 😃
What can we really know about anyone?
Love the variety of analogies, and different angles to remind ourselves to avoid thinking we are the centre of the universe.
The more I realise I really do have that perception of myself, through meditation and listening /reading dharma, the more I become aware I make choices every day to have a ” big or small day.”
Thank you for helping to make my day bigger. 🙏
Lovely post 😊
I think I am more a snowflake than a leaf, I can be rather (cold ) when I see harsh events that happen around the world! Like cruelty to animals or violence in general, but I soon (melt) when I look into the eyes of a little child filled with love ❤️ With the snow storm I can be blown anywhere ! But when I see the child like fun of been part of a snowangel 👼🏼 Or a snow person lol that reminds me I can be pure of thought and light and fluffy or trodden and slushy ! My choice is to get under the duvet and stay warm lol 😁
Thank you Luna. In a recent STTP teaching Genla Dekyong encourages us to spent some on the analogy Geshela gives us in, “Ocean of Nectar”. “We are like fish trapped in a fisherman’s net due to our self grasping”. We are the fish and self grasping is the net. She encourages us to contemplate this deeply as Buddhists analogies lead to a wish. The wish here is to cut the net of our self grasping and escape from samsara otherwise we have no hope. This article was very timely as it gave me a powerful tool to contemplate to help cut that net.
That is a brilliant analogy — not surprisingly given that Chandarkirti came up with it 🙂 Thank you for sharing. Glad the article helped.
Hi Luna, I really like your leaf meditation and will give it a go. Recently I have been using a sand analogy in a similar way with the tides and waves mixing up the sand grains as well as trying to get my head around the vastness of the numbers of living beings to bring with me in my practice.
Thank you so much for your blogs. Since being recommended by my teacher to look at a particular post I have looked forward to the new ones that appear in my in-box. I hope that you stay in this life for a long time, sharing your Dharma teachings with us.
I appreciate this kind comment. And I hope you enjoy the leaves meditation 🙂 Sand works very well too — i used to think about this when I lived closer to a beach 😁