Unplugged

6.5 mins read.

kids in Khayelitsha
Going home after meditation

My visit to South Africa made me grateful to my teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang, to the resident teachers and warm-hearted community in the 3 South African Kadampa centres – ground-breaking hard-working pioneers, and to the tireless always-travelling Gen-las who have visited several times. It is inspiring to watch how things might unfurl here due to this patient networking, planting roots that in time will be popping up like grass all over and in unexpected places.

Carrying on from this article.

For sure, material poverty is no obstacle to gaining realizations of inner peace, compassion, and so on, to which Buddha Shakyamuni himself bore witness by wandering from place to place teaching everyone from kings to beggars. As Sangkyong put it, renunciation is also not so difficult here. Give it some time, sow some seeds, and who knows.

kids in kids in Khayelitsha

Go to where the people are, as Geshe Kelsang once told me; don’t wait for them to come to you. And, as he also said, we don’t need any agenda of making people into Buddhists or even using Dharma terminology — just give them “advice for a happy life”.

In the townships, a lot of the teenage girls at COSAT High School, younger kids I met, and social workers seemed to have a naturally easier engagement and focus than a lot of people I’ve met back home. Addictive technology has done a number on us. I wouldn’t wish the hardship and dearth of opportunity on anyone, and pray for a steady improvement in South African society (maybe by swapping over black and white babies at birth?! Hehe. You know I’m kidding, right?! But you have to admit, it could speed equality up considerably … ) However, I don’t think people are missing too much by not having access/addiction to a screen and headphones 24/7. COSAT girls

My own African tech karma was such that the moment I set out for Heathrow my iPhone 5S started to overheat, become erratic, and increasingly cut out, and then once in Cape Town I dropped it on the floor so chunks of the screen fell off. As I stuck on the sellotape some days later in Durban, I said with zero sarcasm: “Hey, look, that’s much better!” to have my new friend Kelsang Jampel compliment me that I was becoming a real African now. It was surprisingly not annoying but refreshing to be cut loose from a smartphone in a place I had assumed I really needed one. (Postscript: My first-world karma re-ripened just before I left for London, with the unexpected offer of a barely used iPhone 7 from brand new friends. Thanks, G and S!)

Talking of freedom from pervasive technology – I was impressed by how much spontaneous enjoyment thousands of people were having on the Golden Mile, where no one I saw had their head stuck into a phone. I feel like I haven’t seen that kind of unplugged party since I was young, before the technology took over our lives – people were laughing in the streets and jumping over the waves for hours without getting bored. Just saying.

I am not suggesting that life in laid-back (apparently to a fault) Durban is perfect, obviously — the hugely overcrowded underfunded government hospitals looming grimly over parts of that same Durban beach are, according to a doctor I met, a nightmarish death trap for a start. But this friendly gathering of the healthy seemed like an improvement over the isolation and ever-diminishing eye contact of so many lives in thrall to the internet.  (I even got to swim in the ocean with this crowd, one of many highlights on this trip — like that party scene in the Matrix, oh, never mind …)

Maybe people were having more fun than usual because South Africa had just won the Rugby world cup; but from what I hear this is just how it is at weekends. Even on Mango Airlines between Durban and Jozi, my fellow passengers seemed far better at making the most of being on a plane, singing across the aisles. No one seems as addicted to their technology.

(By the way, to be fair, I was on Parliament Hill yesterday back in London, and for some reason found an unplugged happy pile of strangers up there as well, albeit wrapped up against the cold. One common denominator to having fun = put the phones down and pay attention to the people around us?!) Parliament Hill London

Buddhism 101 tells us that happiness depends on the mind. If we are in a good mood, it is all fun. If we are in a bad mood, it is no fun at all. As those sayings go, you can run but you can’t hide. Wherever you go, there you are … especially once the novelty has worn off.

How to get into a better mood

Meditation is about getting more peaceful inside and therefore, frankly, having more fun:

The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7

As I like to say, thoughts are free. We can learn to choose them. While it is clearly impossible to avoid all difficult situations and conditions, it turns out that through training the mind in Buddhist meditation we can upend those troubling situations and use them to our advantage. This practice of “transforming adverse conditions into the path” enables us to integrate everything we come across into our spiritual training. If we can learn to live more skillfully like this, our whole life becomes meaningful, creative, and, yes, fun.

Durban beach 3The first step to thinking differently is the patience which accepts that our negative disturbed thoughts are there without panicking. Otherwise, how are we supposed to be able to let them go?

Suppressing negative thoughts and feelings is not an option — that just makes them more intrusive, like a jack popping out from the box, and we have to work even harder to keep them at bay. However, we can bear in mind that our mind is like the wide spacious sky and our unpeaceful thoughts are just weather passing through. Our thoughts are really nowhere near as scary as they try to make out.

(By the way, a few people recently have asked me the difference between thoughts (as in discriminations) and feelings because they have the impression that they can train their thoughts but not their feelings. Not quite true. Discriminations and feelings are both so-called “all-accompanying mental factors”, which means they form part of every moment of mind and always share the same object. Change one, change the other. Maybe more on that another day — it is one of hundreds of unfinished articles. Meantime, pick up How to Understand the Mind Mango airlinesfor a perfect explanation.

Inner peace and space solve problems and make us happier. This is our sanity. So this is where we need to start. We can stop fighting our own thoughts because our mind is actually on our side – stop giving energy to our delusions and our mind naturally wants to settle into peace and sanity.

As I talk about here, right now it may seem as though our problems are getting in the way of our inner peace — but the only thing getting in the way is that we’re clutching onto our problems and determined to solve them all out there. Peace is destroyed when we feel an excessive need to do this because our mind is more and more shaken up with distorted thinking or so-called “inappropriate attention” – dwelling, exaggerating, conceptualizing, elaborating. Whether it’s our relationships, our politicians, our health, our work, our travel, our accommodations, our technology, we’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go.

Cape Town water

Even when we know this, we are in the bad habit of trying to solve our delusion problems with more delusions. And ironically the harder we try to do this the less and less in control we feel, because our mind IS less and less in control. It’s far more effective to unplug and sort out our outer problems from the sanity of inner peace, as suggested by this Kadampa motto by Geshe Chekhawa:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

More on this subject coming up soon. Meantime, I’d love your comments.

 

 

Advice for a happy life

7.5 mins read.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’d wager that pretty much everyone around you is having some sort of problem today. Which section of society is exempt?

flight over AfricaThis seems to be the case from London to Cape Town, from Phoenix to Johannesburg, from Durban to Denver. Hehe, I should know, as I have been to and from all these 6 cities in the past month, including a last minute trip to South Africa. These next couple of articles may end up being a bunch of vignettes with Buddhist thoughts blended in … or vice versa, let’s see. I have almost 20 hours of flying time on this Ethiopian airlines, with a long layover in Addis Ababa, so it is either this or watching 4 movies.

Here in South Africa I’ve been the recipient of an inordinate number of hugs and smiles from people I’ve only just met, and felt strangely at home. This includes two townships where I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing meditation and Buddhist ways of coping, hearing some stories of life on the edge.

A few days ago the Kadampa nun in Joburg (Gen Mila) and myself met a group of 40 social workers in Alexandra at an organization called Friends for Life — mostly women, two outnumbered men (one appropriately named “Gift”), whose main task is to help young people (aged 3 to 18) orphaned by AIDS. The things they have to see and cope with every day are very hard. One veteran of ten years told us, “Sometimes when I enter the room I want to cry. Sometimes I ask to go to the toilet so I can just cry.”

township(Talking of Gift, he is probably lucky he arrived in this world when his parents were in a good mood or he might have been named “Problem” instead, like one poor soul I met. “Enough” is not an uncommon name either, because that’s enough kids already. Just say what you mean, why not.)

Full disclosure: I should point out that Alexandra is a township that is home to 800,000 crammed-in souls, about 10 of whom, embarrassingly enough, could fit into the digs I was staying at — a Pure Land in the wealthy enclave of Sandton, Joburg. There were even white furry comic book rabbits surreally wandering around. Was I dreaming? Yes. And don’t go to South Africa if you don’t like really loud birds.

The Jacaranda trees in full bloom, spilling their vivid purple petals on the ground, were reminiscent of a childhood home, 28-29 Jacaranda Avenue. A lot about South Africa brought to mind my supposedly long-lost youth in Guyana, Ghana and other places, not to mention a history with SA itself, going to show that that karma never gets done ripening and circling. I was thinking that it’s always worth keeping an eye on what intentions/seeds we are sowing because everything is a mere karmic appearance of mind, not outside our mind; and anything can appear or reappear at any point, dream-like, entirely depending on our karma. Reminded like this that everything is the nature of my mind, however, may explain why I was feeling so relaxed my entire time in South Africa.

Jacaranda tree

In Sandton I took early morning walks in a gated neighborhood that could be in Palm Beach Florida or Palm Springs California, providing you ignore all the barbed wire, ADT warning systems, and armed patrols, the only indication that there’s a township just a mile down the road. Unlike an actual Pure Land, not everyone is welcome here.

A mere 25 years on from apartheid and SA, perhaps unsurprisingly, still has a long road to freedom.

At least the manager at the guest house, Beneeta, said she was so struck by my apparent peacefulness that she wants to learn to meditate — her first class is next week. I am rooting for her because she is, as I told her, a natural. Along with so many other people I have met here, to be honest, who are already in their hearts, or closer to. A little Dharma seems to go a long way here – whereas I sometimes feel like it has to be spelled out in 100 ways and 100 times to more heady, over-thinking, and spoiled-for-choice people like me before we’ll even attempt it.

On the subject of random encounters, on the trip over from London a young woman, M, kindly gave up her window seat for a mother and daughter, ending squished in the middle seat next to me. First she volunteered to sort out my headphones. Then we navigated Addis Ababa airport and its multiple security checkpoints, rewarding ourselves with a strong Ethiopian coffee. Then last night she came along to her first Kadampa meditation class in Cape Town 🙂 Point being, it can be worth saying hello to people we bump into “accidentally” – for we only bump into people we have some karma with.

Observatory 2In Cape Town I stayed at the stunning sanctuary of Tushita KMC with Kadampa monk Kelsang Sangkyong, who himself grew up in a township, along with pretty much all other black South Africans in the era of apartheid. He is in a good position to know what’s going on and how Buddha’s teachings might skillfully be shared where they might be needed, with no agenda to convert anyone to anything, just as tools for a happier life.

He was saying how it seems that rich people problems can often afford to be more emotional – whereas if you are hustling to stay alive, that preoccupies your search for happiness and freedom from suffering. Once you’ve managed to secure basic shelter, food, clothing, and medicine — necessities for humans, as Buddha pointed out — then the other mental problems become more dominant. Whether it’s for solving first-world or third-world problems, however, everyone, Buddhist or not, can find some practical benefit from Buddha’s advice on controlling the mind.

For regardless whether our problems are big or small, they fill our mind – we find it hard to think of much else, accustomed as we are to feeding them whether or not we want to. As mentioned in this article, the average number of uncontrolled thoughts is reportedly 9 out of 10; and so far in my own market research I have found this number to be the same everywhere from Hollywood to Alexandra. Is it then any wonder that we can feel helpless in the face of difficulties? We are doing our best to control externals, including helping other people; but that’s a stretch given that we cannot even control our own minds.

Meditation vs medication

woman with heartHow do people cope? We can medicate (drink, distract, etc) our way out of stress and problems and/or we can learn to meditate our way out of it. Anyone from any background or culture can learn to meditate in the sense of becoming more practiced and familiar with positive ways of thinking. We can all become a calmer and more peaceful person if that is what we decide to do.

Whoever I ask, they agree they experience glimpses of the peace available to us — sometimes out of the blue we feel happy inside, not a care in the world, connected to everyone, and we could stay there forever, we want to. Only we can’t, of course, because shortly some delusion comes along to destroy our peace again. But this we can remedy. We can grow our peace because it’s there already. It is our Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment.

BE a peaceful person

After the meditation in Alex, one of the social workers summed up what had just happened better than I could have:

We have peace, we have choice, and we must go there everyday into our heart. We must BE a peaceful person.

They all nodded in agreement, adding things like:

Now we are so peaceful, now we are ready for our day. Now we know we can cope with today.

That feeling of BEING a peaceful person needs to become our default through familiarity, through checking in with it every single day – and even a short breathing meditation is enough to get us there. As the headmistress of a Montessori kindergarten in Joburg, who shares meditation with the kids, told me:

When it comes time for the kids to leave for their next school, I tell them they have learned to read and write here, which is very good. But, even more importantly, they have learned that they always have their breath. And this means that they can always experience inner peace.

Mila and childrenMy heart opened wider in Africa. I am remembering the tiny girls in one township staring at me curiously with huge eyes, the eyes that then closed in meditation, not opening again even when time was up. Ducks to water. Natural meditators.

At question time, one of the Soweto kids at the elementary school in Joburg asked “Are you coming back next week?” I am not but Gen Mila is, and the week after. Yes!

(Couple more installments on their way.)

Over to you. Comments are very welcome!

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Getting by with a little help from our (enlightened) friends

3 mins read.

Buddha Shakyamuni 1
Buddha Shakyamuni

This article is based on a short unofficial introduction to Tara I shared with someone the other day – someone who is not a Buddhist practitioner but who asked for an effective method for dealing with recurrent anxiety. He says it’s helping. It takes, like, five minutes! (Longer if you want).

In general, all meditations help us to feel less anxious and more peaceful; but Buddha Tara is the Buddha of fearlessness who turns up as swiftly as the wind whenever people need and ask for her help. People have relied upon her for centuries, if not longer, to allay all their inner and outer fears. She helps anyone who asks. Therefore, this article is for my friend and for anyone else who gets worried, who likes the idea of real comfort and protection.

Step One: Sit somewhere comfortable and undisturbed. When you’re ready, imagine you drop from your head into your heart. Do one or two minutes’ breathing meditation, focusing on your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils, letting your other thoughts float away. Feel you are peaceful in your heart.

Step Two: Believe that Buddha Shakyamuni and Buddha Tara are in front of you, surrounded by countless holy beings, however you imagine them. Feel you are actually in their company.

Buddha Tara
Buddha Tara

Step Three: Recite the following traditional prayers out loud or mentally, contemplating their meaning:

Going for refuge

I and all sentient beings, until we achieve enlightenment,
Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. (3x)

Generating bodhichitta

Through the virtues I collect by giving and other perfections,
May I become a Buddha for the benefit of all. (3x)

(The six perfections are giving, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom.)

Four immeasurables

May everyone be happy.
May everyone be free from misery.
May no one ever be separated from their happiness.
May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment.

Buddha Tara’s mantra

Step Four: Ask Buddha Tara directly to remove whatever specific anxiety you are feeling, as well as all your own and others’ present and future fears and anxieties, by reciting her mantra 21 times or more:

OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA

Receiving blessings

Step Five: Imagine that from the hearts of Buddha Tara and all the holy beings, streams of light and nectar, the nature of their enlightened wisdom and compassion, flow down through the crown of your head and fill your body and mind.

These blessings purify all your worries, problems, and negative thoughts. They fill you with peace, happiness, kindness, and fearlessness. Feel that you are fully protected and don’t have a care in the world.i-get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-21

If you like, imagine that these blessings are also flowing into the people you love, purifying and inspiring them as well.

Take a few moments to really bathe in this enlightened peace in your heart, taking refuge in it, knowing that it is always there and you can come back to it whenever you like.

Dedication

Step Six: Make a prayer that through this practice all your own and others’ anxieties and fears will one day be permanently gone. May everyone be happy and may our world be peaceful.

Through the virtues I have collected
By giving and other perfections
May I become a Buddha
For the benefit of all.

The rest of the day

Step Seven: When you start feeling anxious about anything, before it takes over, remember that Buddha Tara is everywhere and ask her directly for help. You can use the mantra to do this if you like.

To find out more about Buddha Tara and her traditional practice (including verses composed by Buddha Shakyamuni), please click here: Liberation from Sorrow.

I want to add too that Tara practice is done once a month at Kadampa Buddhist Centers around the world, and during COVID it is being done 6 times over a 24-hour period on the 8th day of each month. Here is a 6-minute video explaining more about her if  you have time:

Feel free to leave any comments or questions in the box below.