Everything is relative

8 mins read.

This pandemic has been driving people crazy, and not least because we’re not able to move about much and let go of grasping at the place we’re in, so it feels real or absolute.

Continuing from this article, Perspective is everything. 

Back up that mountain …

It can be helpful to get in a car if you have access to one, drive to a trailhead, walk up a mountain, and look back at your now-tiny city. However, to change our perspective it is not necessary to physically GO up a hill; which is just as well if you’re still in lockdown or live in Florida. Nothing is really out there — everything is a dream-like projection of our mind. There is no real coming and going and we can travel up a mountain in our mind if we want to. 

No coming and going

Clouds (and rainbows) only appear in the sky due to a bunch of atmospheric causes and conditions coming together – clouds are not these causes and conditions, but take any one of them away and the clouds cannot form. Clouds therefore have no power to exist on their own, in and of themselves, self-contained, from their own side. They exist only in relation to other things, indeed AS relation to other things. Talking about the emptiness of the so-called “eight extremes”, which includes coming and going, Geshe Kelsang says:

The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds, and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend on factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent or independent existence and are mere imputations of the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe Kelsang has said that things “barely exist”. Although they appear and function, they are no more substantial than objects that appear and function in a dream. That includes mountains! And Denver! And my body! And me! 

So instead of having to go to places and return from places, we can realize that everything is simply popping up in our mind due to multiple causes and conditions – not the least of which is our karma or previous mental intentions.

Whenever we go anywhere we develop the thought, “I am going,” and grasp at an inherently existent act of going. In a similar way, when someone comes to visit us we think, “they are coming,” and we grasp at an inherently existent act of coming…. However, the coming and going of people is like the appearance and disappearance of a rainbow in the sky. When the causes and conditions for a rainbow to appear are assembled, a rainbow appears; and when the causes and conditions for the continued appearance of the rainbow disperse, the rainbow disappears; but the rainbow does not come anywhere, nor does it go anywhere.

We seem to be moving around all the time — walking our legs, waving our arms — everything is constantly coming and going. Or is it?! When we drive along in a car, are we really moving? Or are the rapidly changing scenes and other sensory experiences simply unfurling moment by moment as mere appearances of mind in dependence upon causes and conditions, including ripening karmic seeds?! Space and time are relative, as Albert Einstein would say. 

Why does this matter, you may be wondering? Because if things are relative or dependent-related, we can disappear them by changing our viewpoint or mental angle. If the observer moves, the rainbow moves or disappears. For example, if we view someone who is unkind to us as a kind teacher of something we need to learn, (s)he is no longer an enemy but a friend.

If things are absolute, that is, not dependent on other things, then they are fixed and therefore there is nothing we can do to change them. Also, there is a real or absolute me over here and a real or absolute world over there and never the twain shall meet. With self-grasping ignorance there is necessarily a gap between me and everything else, which turns out to be quite exhausting because we tend to relate to that world with delusions, such as the pull of attachment or the push of aversion. As Gen-la Dekyong said the other day:

Stop tinkering with this impure world. We don’t have time! There is nothing we can do externally to change it.

Where is the center of everything?

Related to this, another thing I find helpful to contemplate from a mountain rock is how each of the millions of people moving about in the city below feels themselves to be the center of it. Wherever they are, wherever they go, everything seems to be revolving around that fixed or moving point. And when I am in the city, it’s the same for me – everything is revolving around me. If I am driving down Sixth Avenue, for example, Denver seems to exist in a centrifugal ring around me; and that illusion persists even if I turn down another street.

Even if we are motivated to help others, while we remain with self-grasping ignorance we naturally have the sense that the world revolves around us. That is how it appears and we assent to that appearance. However, how can a real world be revolving around me and around you and around everyone else at the same time?!

Each one of us Denverites is only one of, say, two million, if we count only the humans. (Though right now there’s a strong argument for also counting the six kittens who are running around my feet like crazy people). From a distance, it’s particularly absurd to say that any one of those two million+ living beings is central, that the city revolves around any one of them, including me. And when I am back in the city, I can remember that – I am just one of millions, no more central than anyone else. We are all equal. We all equally exist only in dependence upon each other, like cells in the body of life. We are indisputably nothing without others.

This was almost literally a “this mountain that mountain” enactment – I drove down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other. Looking back at my previous self and everything to do with that self, I got it into perspective. 

There is only one way to free ourselves and that is to get over ourselves. In truth there is no real or most important me to cherish because that self we normally see doesn’t exist. The more often we dissolve it away by looking for and not finding it, the better. This is emptiness or selflessness. As someone said on Facebook today:  

No self, nothing to cherish. This is so obvious so why doesn’t it permeate my entire being, providing constant peace? More time on the cushion for me till a stable realisation is attained.

Taking this perspective back down the mountain

We need a sense of proportion because it makes it a lot easier to help without becoming overwhelmed and burning out. Because of course there is horrible suffering in Denver – people are freezing sometimes even to death on the streets, a pandemic is raging, businesses are shuttered, and pretty much every single person you talk to has problems of one sort or another. Including me. But with a large viewpoint we don’t get so overpowered. Seeing the big picture, we can develop the big minds – universal love and the compassion that wants everyone to be free not just from today’s problems but from all their problems forever.

Sooner or later we have to get back down off that mountain! (Unless you are on retreat in a snowy cave. Tempting.) With those big minds, we can return to the middle of the city and help in practical ways. The bigger our mind, the smaller our problems, and the more capacity we have to serve others.

If we find we’re getting overwhelmed, it’s worth pointing out that our mind doesn’t have to get off the mountain. We don’t even have to physically go up a mountain in the first place! That’s what meditation is for, gaining perspective, seeing the relativity of all things. And everyone can learn to do this – regardless of where we happen to be living at the moment, or whether or not we have a car. There is truthfully far more space inside all of us than outside. We can close our eyes, do a bit of breathing meditation to get into our heart, contemplate the space in and around everything, and then get back to work. 

Whether or not we understand selflessness and dependent relationship perfectly yet, one immediate thing we can do is appreciate the people around us for giving us the opportunity to practice improving ourselves and helping others, in both obvious and less obvious ways. Given that nothing (including all living beings) exists in any absolute fixed way but is entirely relative and the nature of our mind, we can set ourselves up in relationship with others however we decide; and perhaps the best way to relate to them is in the aspect of kindness. From seeming almost inanimate at times, everyone springs to life when we think about their kindness to us; and Buddhism gives us so many different practical ways to do that. 

A mountain in the city

Last but not least, our Buddhist meditation centers in Denver and elsewhere will hopefully be opening up again before too long to provide a physical get-away for this kind of teaching and reflection. For example, a friend who now lives in Colorado was talking about KMC London in Kensington the other day: “That place itself is an oasis and, if we did something similar here, people would get the top of the mountain feel in the city.”

Thank you for reading! Would love to see your feedback and comments below.

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Perspective is everything

7.5 mins read.

One advantage of living in a mountainous region is that you can walk up a mountain and look back at the huge city in which you live. And now it’s tiny. You can hold it in the palm of your hand. You can hold everyone in it in the palm of your hand. You can hold all their innumerable problems in the palm of your hand. I did that today. I instantly felt a weight off.

Denver is tiny from the distance. And it is also hundreds of miles from the next large city, so it is a tiny city surrounded by a vast expanse of largely empty land. I was picturing all the huge cities criss-crossing the globe, all even tinier than Denver from where I was looking.

It’s really good to get out of our lives from time to time. When we get some distance, we can see how much we have been investing in what seems so real. When we’re all wrapped up in it, there seems to be such a real solid city full of real worrying problems – loads of problems, far more problems than there are people. Even my teeny-tiny house that I can’t even begin to see from here, or the teeny tiny building where I work, or the even teeny tinier co-workers, can and sometimes do preoccupy me fully. There seem to be endless things that need sorting out when we are right in the thick of it, surrounded in all directions. But when we get out of that perspective and get some space, we can see that we have been too caught up in the details and we are all in our feelings, as a wise friend of mine talks about here

 

 

Space solves problems

An old friend, the first administrative director at Geshe Kelsang’s first Centre (Madhyamaka Centre in North Yorkshire), would make sure he walked up the hill behind it at least once a week. This way he could see it in the distance and put his job and life back into perspective, as well as appreciate the beauty of the building again. This created space in his mind such that he could recalibrate his motivation and get back to work happily without grasping at it so tightly.

Nothing is as solid, real, or even important as it seems when we are all completely caught up in it with no space, our moods going up and down like a yo yo depending on the slightest vagaries or off-handed comments:

Such fluctuations of mood arise because we are too closely involved in the external situation. We are like a child making a sandcastle who is excited when it is first made, but who becomes upset when it is destroyed by the incoming tide. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Vasten the mind

Buddha encourages us to aim for large spacious universal minds, such as love for all beings without exception and omniscient wisdom!

We can come to understand that everything is mere appearance arising in the mind like a rainbow in an empty sky. In the Isolated Body chapter of Tantric Grounds and Paths, Geshe Kelsang helps us with this: 

Whenever a form appears to us, we need complete conviction that this form is a manifestation of emptiness, and that, apart from its emptiness, there is no form existing from its own side.

He gives the example of a wristwatch:

We can hold a wristwatch in our hands but, if we examine it more closely to find the “real” watch, we cannot find anything at all. When we try to point to the watch, all we can ever point to are parts of the watch. The parts of the watch are not the watch itself, but, besides these parts, there is no watch.

You can try this for yourself – imagine the parts of the watch disappear. What happens to the watch?

By the way, from a distance, as I said, we can also hold Denver in our hands. And the same applies as for the watch – if we examine it more closely to find the “real” Denver, we cannot find anything at all. As Geshe-la says:

This very unfindability is the real nature of the watch…. The real nature of the watch is just its emptiness, but this very emptiness appears to us in the aspect of a watch.

Same for Denver and for wherever you live.

Holding Denver and its innumerable problems in the palm of my hand gives me that sense that they are empty, that they will be easier to solve and dissolve if I realize I can’t find them anywhere.

Up the mountain looking at Denver, I couldn’t point to anything that was actually Denver. It was clear that I was just thinking or labelling “Denver” on those far-away buildings and people. Later as I drove back into the city and more and more of its parts or details appeared, it became even harder to point to anything that could be called “Denver.” Everything I pointed to was in fact NOT Denver – such as the buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians, or cars. These are just buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians and cars, not “Denver”. And if you put them all together you still have just a collection of things that are not Denver. (As explained more here.) Denver cannot be found existing in and of itself. Far from being solid or real, it is mere imputation of mind, created by conceptual thought. Which is why every person has a different Denver.

Ignorance makes us believe things and people are real and exist from their own side. That there is a fixed world outside of our mind. The illusion is persistent. Because we tend to get so overwhelmed by appearances — always have done since beginningless time — we readily believe in the truth of everything we see. But I can from time to time at least imagine that I am back up that mountain, looking at all these seemingly solid insurmountable details from afar.

What exactly is a job?

I like my job in Denver very much, but it is as unreal as the rest of Denver, nothing behind the label. Lately it’s been occurring to me a lot, what else is my job other than an opportunity to help others? Who else are my coworkers other than people giving me an opportunity to help others? Beyond that, what need is there to hold onto all this and build it up with mental elaborations as some solid findable thing? When it isn’t?

This gets me thinking that wherever we go, providing we are trying to remember a Bodhisattva’s motivation, our lives will always have areas in which we can serve others. As Nagarjuna says:

Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ 
Universal Compassion

Given that compassion increases our opportunities to help, it seems we don’t need to get too attached to our current circumstances, however nice they are or even however helpful we feel we are able to be. For wherever we are, and whether things are going well or badly, with the right mind-set don’t we always have an opportunity to improve ourselves and help others? We don’t need to buy into being a success or a failure because it is who we are each day rather than what we do that is most important; and that is something we have control over.

If we are motivated by genuine concern for others we’re going to be doing helpful things mentally, verbally, and physically; and if we’re not, it doesn’t really matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, our help is going to be more limited. Geshe Kelsang has told me twice now:

Your main job is to practice Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.

If you’re still here …

If we know that everything is merely imputed by conceptual thought, not other than its emptiness, then it is not hard to see that if we purify our thoughts, we purify our world.

AND … if we realize this true nature of all phenomena with the mind of great bliss, then we see everything not just as a manifestation of its emptiness but of great bliss and emptiness. Which gives rise to even more bliss. As Venerable Geshe-la explains about Tantric Yogis in Tantric Grounds and Paths:

Because they have a deep recognition of emptiness and their mind of bliss as the same nature, they can view all phenomena that appear to their mind as manifestations of their bliss, and this special way of looking at phenomena causes them greatly to increase their experience of bliss, just as a fire will increase if more fuel is added to it.

If you like the sound of this, do read that chapter when you get a chance. It is a very clear explanation of a Yogi’s actual experience (and of OUR actual experience one day). 

I promised someone the other day that I’d make my articles shorter and more frequent again (as opposed to longer and rarer), lol. So you can read part 2, Everything is relative, now or later! Either way, over to you, I would love to hear your comments in the box below.

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Living Buddha

10 mins read.

Like a lot of people I’ve had trouble falling asleep a few times in the last year, and also like a lot of people it was probably from unwisely looking at news headlines just before heading to bed, then lying awake wondering how on earth to solve my own problems, my family and friends’ problems, the world’s problems.

Refuge

If we’re not careful, inappropriate attention kicks in – we think this is all real, we exaggerate the problems – and the next thing we know we’re in a state of anxiety, even panic. Each time, I went for refuge to Dharma and my Spiritual Guide and ended up feeling fine again. It is a question of getting the Dharma from our heads into our hearts at times like this so that we see everything entirely differently – whether through the lens of refuge, compassion, wisdom or whatever.

If we can remember refuge, that all the countless Buddhas are rooting for us and see us as already pure, already ok, already enough, we start feeling more peaceful.

In the midst of our own anxiety, if we can get past ourselves to empathize with others’ often far worse worries, already our mind starts to lighten.

Or, going deeper still, rather than wrestle with a real world that isn’t actually there, we can let the seemingly solid intractable problems dissolve away into their emptiness — their absence of intrinsic existence, their unfindability — and reboot from there.

Whatever Dharma we turn to, it’s always worth remembering what we have understood so far about the world not being fixed, static, or real. When we go for refuge in Dharma and see things differently, we are not just seeing something objectively out there in a different way so that we can somehow better cope with it. As a mere appearance or reflection in our mind, everything depends 100% upon our perspective; therefore, as soon as we change our mind, the world itself changes — just as a reflection in a lake changes along with every ripple of the water. That’s why Dharma can solve problems permanently.

One simple example: if I get upset with someone for not agreeing with me, I am holding them to be intrinsically annoying. But if I change those thoughts of annoyance into thoughts of compassion and concern for them, for example by remembering their good qualities or kindness, I may still disagree with their point of view and tell them so, but I no longer have a problem with them. 

If we can remember any Dharma at all, we can restore our equilibrium. One measurement of having trained our minds is:

One is trained if one is able to do the practice even when distracted. ~ Training the Mind in Seven Points 

If we keep wanting to help people despite our own overwhelming problems, that’s deep, that shows we have what it takes. I’ve been spending some time recently with people who are helping the unhoused and/or who are unhoused. There are some incredible stories of dedication and kindness, such as the story of Bear who helped people up to his final days despite his own serious health problems. Or the mother who is simply concerned about her children and how she is going to be able to keep home-schooling them during a pandemic when she no longer has a kitchen table. This is because she lost both her jobs in the pandemic and no longer has a kitchen. Not to mention a roof. These are two of anywhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million people estimated to be without shelter in the United States, a number that is steadily growing.

Teacher of wisdom

Talking of refuge, I want to carry on from these articles about relying on a Spiritual Guide. In the Summer Festival teachings on Advice from Atisha’s Heart, Gen-la Jampa said: 

“There’s so much suffering in this world. People need wisdom. We have so much intelligence. It seems like we could make anything, and then we just keep improving it, because we’re never satisfied. Our technology just keeps increasing. Our material development keeps increasing. But there is not a corresponding increase in human happiness. In fact, it’s the opposite. Our world is becoming more problematic, more dangerous. So this shows us something very important. We must learn from this appearance. We are intelligent people but we have used our intelligence mainly to improve material conditions and we have never fulfilled our deepest wishes for happiness and freedom — in fact, the opposite. And then a teacher of wisdom appears in our modern world, who is in the lineage of Je Tsongkhapa, Atisha, Buddha Shakyamuni – the same nature. He appears in our modern world and he gives us the instruction of Lamrim and shows us how we can integrate it into our modern busy life. He doesn’t deny our modern life. He respects us and so he gives us Dharma that we can use, that is suitable for us, acceptable, that fits with our modern way of life. We have met a teacher of wisdom, a Kadampa master of modern times, who is giving us the most precious Lamrim instructions.”He is talking about Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who is also my Spiritual Guide. As I talk about here, our Spiritual Guide can be anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person. We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works.

Practicing Lamrim, which is all the stages of the path to enlightenment, is the way we can go for refuge to Dharma and solve our problems. We need to get our Lamrim instructions from someone who knows them inside out and has complete realizations of all of them. A book alone does not have that living lineage.

One’s own living Buddha

Would it be pretty amazing to have our very own living Buddha to ourselves?! Someone who wants to lead us all the way to enlightenment? Someone who looks reassuringly normal on one level — whom we can see, communicate with, and learn from directly — but who is at heart an enlightened being who comes bearing the blessings and teachings of all enlightened beings? 

What do you reckon, if a Buddha was to tap you on the shoulder right now, or appear in front of you and say “Hello!”, would you see him or her? 

In The Mirror of Dharma, Geshe Kelsang says: 

All Buddhas attained enlightenment with the sole intention of leading all living beings along the stages of the path to enlightenment through their emanations.

And the point is, all those enlightened beings are still around, everywhere, pervading reality. So, Geshe-la goes on to ask: 

Who is the emanation who is leading us along the stages of the path to enlightenment?

This is not intended to be a rhetorical question, we have to really think about who that person is. Probably we’ll conclude that the most likely candidate is: 

our present Spiritual Teacher, who is sincerely and correctly leading us along the paths of renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of emptiness by giving these teachings and showing a practical example for others to follow.

Who else could it be? (Answers on a postcard.)

You have no problems! 

Human problems are not difficult to solve but people are not listening to enlightened advice.  ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

One thing that is so interesting is how little Venerable Geshe-la buys into the details of our virtual reality of mistaken appearances. Of course he is sympathetic, but he knows that if we change our minds we can get rid not just of today’s glitches but all our sufferings; and so he simply keeps bringing us back to this. His view of us is sourced by blissful compassion and wisdom, and he is always relating to our potential and even seeing it actualized. 

In Portugal in 2009, he said he saw and respected us all as Heroes and Heroines (aka Tantric Buddhas). Which means he never gives up on any of us, never loses hope or faith in any of us, no matter what manner of calamities we think are going on in our lives. Like Marpa didn’t give up on Milarepa, even though Milarepa had murdered 30 people – and, whatever else you’ve done, I doubt you’re a mass murderer? (don’t tell me). Or like Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t give up on Angulimala or Lam Chung, or any of the other seemingly hopeless cases. Scripture abounds with these stories.  

Decades ago, when I was still a wee lass, I went to see Geshe-la with a long list of problems I really needed his help with solving. I was standing outside his room for a moment, silently remembering what these were so I could ask him, when he threw the door open, started laughing, and said, “You have no problems!”

He was right — the moment he said it I realized he was right. My list must have dissolved into emptiness because I couldn’t remember a single item on it. I started laughing too. 

I have never forgotten this and it has helped me immeasurably at all the hardest times of my life. If something is wrong, I know I can take it to any Buddha and they’ll think it is no real problem at all. It’s a relief knowing that.

Think about if this wasn’t the case. If something goes wrong in your life and Guru Tara, for example, is like, “Oh no, don’t tell me that! That’s a real catastrophe! How on earth are we going to be able to help you with THAT?! You’re doomed!” that would be somewhat discouraging, would it not. 

I am always with you

Geshe Kelsang is pretty cool, is all I’m trying to say. He has bought us centuries of wisdom, he has brought us unconditional love, he has brought us eternal hope. He is the real deal. I’ve never seen or experienced anything that indicates he is anything other than the real deal. And any of his numerous disciples would likely tell you the same thing. The more you get to know him and his teachings, the more you realize that this person is exceptional in so many ways. And utterly dedicated to us. He said not long ago “I am always with you.” And he is. 

One of the ways we can generate bodhichitta is to imagine what it will be like when we are enlightened, how we will be able to emanate as whatever people need, including teachers: 

Just as there is one moon shining in the sky whose reflections fill all the lakes and waters of the world, when I become enlightened my emanations will cover and protect every living being. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

I think that there is one Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, according to our collective karma, the one we see in person or photos etc, whose Buddhist commentaries we study on the programs. But the fact is that we all have our own Spiritual Guide. (Our own Geshe-la, if he is whom we have chosen.) Sometimes people think, “My Spiritual Guide is so far removed! He knows some of his students really well, but he doesn’t know me! There are so many of us – how can he even know I exist, let alone have enough time to pay attention to me?” 

All that is ordinary conception or view, right? So, per the moon example, have you ever had this experience … You are standing next to an ocean, the moon is shining, and the light is coming directly toward you. You turn to your neighbor two feet away and say, “Look, there is no light where you are, it is all coming directly to me. Take a look at that!” And they shake their heads, “No, you’re wrong, it is all coming toward me, the water is dark where you are.” And so on, all the way up the beach. 

Buddha’s emanations appear for us, for each of us. There are as many Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s, for example, as there are people with faith in him. If you have a different Spiritual Guide, it’s the same principle. Even if you are in a different tradition, I reckon!

Over to you! Still more to come on this subject. Meantime, though, a lot of people love stories about Geshe-la, so if you happen to have any from the past 40+ years or have heard any from others, please share them below. Alongside his far-reaching life and works, personal stories might end up being the closest we can come to a biography.

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