8.5 mins read.
You may know this already, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, that people the world over are all the same in the ways that really count.
For one thing, samsara sucks for everyone. Birth, sickness, old age, and death – who is immune from these four great rivers or from having to watch loved ones helplessly tossed around upon them?
Carrying straight on from this article,where I started talking about transforming adverse conditions into the path.
The day I arrived in South Africa, I heard that my beloved cat Rousseau, the king of the neighborhood, had met his match. He was torn to death by a coyote.
No words, really. A nightmare for him. Despite his own murderous ways, he had a heart of sweetness under those terrible instincts, and he deserved so much better. Everybody does. I am so very grateful for the hundreds of prayers that many of you offered for him, and that Venerable Geshe-la enquired after him. As cats go, despite his terrifying and painful death, he was still blessed. Only a tiny fraction of wild animals get to die peacefully in their sleep, and infinitely fewer still have anyone paying any attention to them, let alone a great spiritual master. However, it still makes me ask, for the thousandth time — how do people cope with losses like this without Dharma?
Over a month later, the panther is still on my mind. But that is not him anymore. Where are you, my dear? Why can we never know where people have gone. A friend of mine once went missing in Florida – two agonizing weeks for everyone who loved her, the just not knowing. Then she was found drowned, her car having overshot a bridge in the middle of the night; and everyone was “Well, at least we know now.” But of course we don’t know; she is still missing. We have no clue where she is. That alone is reason enough to become a Buddha, if you ask me – so that we can keep eyes on everyone always, like Avalokiteshvara with his thousand arms and eyes, because they are now always mere aspects of our omniscient blissful mind.
Rousseau’s other mom Donna asked for my input into his gravestone and I chose a stone Buddha statue from Walmart. I hope through seeing Buddha that she and all the other humans and animals in his old stomping grounds will receive continuous blessings. Even the coyote.
Outer problems in South Africa can clearly be a good deal more challenging than my own usual first-world problems. For example, I don’t need the daily fear of a deadly crash in the crazy communal taxi I rely on to get to work.
These taxis are everywhere, sidling alongside your car in the same lane, viewing every gap in the road as an opportunity to get ahead because, at the end of the day, payment depends upon meeting impossible quotas. South African traffic is crazy!!! As my old friend Cas put it in his laconic way when I asked why people didn’t follow the road rules, “They are more like guidelines.” (Some of you know Cas as no-shoes John from the Festivals – and it may please you to know that he was the first Kadampa in South Africa, requesting the first teachings.) Or I could be living in a place with zero privacy, several family members in a noisy one-roomed house, or no electricity, or insufficient money for supper. And so on.
But life is not easy back here in the States either, despite it still being the richest country in the world. For example, a friend of mine, JW, who is doing a study on senior homelessness often tells me stories of his clients’ wretched conditions in Oakland CA. This one just in:
Work today was nonstop. It was also a bit gloomy. I had an interview with a homeless gentleman who is in extremely poor health. He has a broken bone in his shoulder, another broken in his leg and has had countless falls in the past couple of months due to having problems with his balance. He is outside and the rains are beginning to fall. He is in serious need of help but is having a hard time finding it.
JW is not allowed to “interfere,” because this study is to reveal what senior homeless people need and so those results cannot be skewed. So:
All I could do for him was to give him a few large garbage bags to us as a poncho or for shelter. Sad.
As mentioned in this article, our role model in Mahayana Buddhism, called a “Bodhisattva”, works on solving both outer and inner problems — trying to come to the aid of those in need whenever the opportunity is there to do so.
But although outer problems vary from place to place and time to time, our inner problems do not — they come from our delusions grasping at me and mine, they distort our perceptions, they destroy our peace, and inside they feel the same. And these problems can only be finally solved for any of us when we get around to purifying and transforming our minds.
Our states of mind feel exactly the same – whether that be worry, irritation, or the pleasure of changing suffering. If you are really p***** off with George, does that not feel the same as someone else feeling really p****** off with Mary? Your grief or your annoyance or your depression or your attachment feels the same as mine, for example; only the object varies.
We are funny really – all feeling like we are the center of the universe and somehow different and unique. We have so little real clue about the vast majority of the world’s population of humans, let alone animals; but I think we are safe in assuming that everyday life everywhere is a mixture of the same array of negative, neutral, and virtuous minds, just in varying ratios. That makes our stories and priorities similar, world over, regardless of our background or culture; and knowing that could help us to understand and empathize with each other.
If you want to check whether Buddha’s explanation of all living beings’ negative, neutral, and virtuous states of mind actually applies to you or not, I recommend you read How to Understand the Mind. Go see if he has left any of your thoughts out.
On the basis of allowing our delusions to subside temporarily through allowing the mind to settle even a little, for example with this meditation, connecting with some natural inner peace, we can then gradually learn strategies or ways of thinking to (a) pre-empt our future problems and/or (b) deal with them or transform them as they start to arise.
With the help of mind-training (Lojong) in particular, in which we learn to apply Buddha’s teachings directly to our difficulties, we can develop a huge repertoire of coping mechanisms.
Just for starters, whatever problem we are having today, instead of thinking of it as inherently bad we can try labelling or imputing it as a useful teaching. For the sake of argument, let’s say that today you notice a strange lesion on your skin – you had been thinking it was a scratch but it’s been there 2 months and is now ominously growing. You send a photo to a friend, who sends it to a dermatologist, who texts back, “Skin cancer until proven otherwise.”
Meantime you have been chucked off Medicaid due to not filing the correct paperwork in time.
Okay. After the initial freakout — spending a panicky half hour looking at all the Google images for skin cancer and discovering that, yes, it could be benign, as your friend is trying to tell you, but on the other hand it could also be the worst possible most malignant melanoma and you have approximately 2 years left to live — you decide to slow down and, for the sake of your sanity, think about this from a Dharma point of view. Instead of grasping so tightly at me and mine, maybe you decide to let those thoughts dissolve into the peaceful clarity of your own mind, like bubbles into water, going for refuge in the peace of your own Buddha nature and/or in holy beings.
Within the mental flexibility or freedom that opens up in that space, this small but very present skin lesion can now remind us of all sorts of things, such as:
- I need more inner peace, in fact lasting inner peace; and I need to identify my self with this peace, not with this mental pain and possible physical suffering.
- This is what life is like for others, so it’s giving me a window into empathy – for example for people experiencing dread or fear when they receive bad news from a doctor. When we get over ourselves, we finally start to relax.
- This is not inherently bad because it can make me stronger. Me myself, this lesion, and my experience of this lesion, far from being solid or fixed, all depend upon my thoughts. I can come to enjoy the challenge of transforming this problem into a solution! Why? Because I want to be a better person.
This is a true story that happened to someone I know, probably many people actually — and this way of thinking has worked for them, they feel peaceful again, inner problem solved for now. They are also dealing with the outer problem by getting on the phone to Medicaid and finding a doctor who can see them next week.
This also works for transforming other people’s problems. Someone in Joburg told me that all vegans are depressed, including her, because things are changing so slowly – and how can she transform that kind of stress? Again, heart-rending as it is when it comes to animals and other vulnerable people, we cannot immediately sort out all their outer problems, any more than one drowning person can save another drowning person, however much they want to. But as well as doing the best we can, knowing that every little bit helps someone, we can use these situations to increase our compassion and our wish to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for their sake.
As we progressively free ourselves from depression, discouragement, and other delusions and as we increase our wisdom, patience, and good heart, we can become more skillful, creative, and full of the tireless courage we need if we are to free everybody.
Over to you. Comments please!