8 mins read.
What you been up to today? Has it been a blissful care-free day! or have you been worried about things? Have you felt a bit burned out or annoyed or sad? Have you been craving or missing anyone lately? On top of your own personal selection of things that are not quite working out, have you felt overwhelmed at all by any of the seemingly impossible problems experienced by people all over the world? How real and solid has everything seemed?
If today has not been a perfect day, we know we’re not alone. I think it is fair to say that most of us get very caught up with the appearances of this life – sucked in one minute, desperate to escape the next – day after day after day. Yet, none of these things that we normally see exists. Whereas we see everything as solid, real, and existing from its own side, out there, everything is mere appearance not other than emptiness, and the same nature as our mind.
I was just driving through Suffolk this morning, like you do, and after a while wondered if I had reached Norfolk yet. How would I know?! Only if someone put a sign there “NORFOLK”. Norfolk is just another label, another imputation of mind, another idea if you like. And for it to exist and function we have to collectively agree that it is Norfolk and not, for example, Klofron.
However, if we try to point to Norfolk behind that sign or label, whether within the individual parts – trees, roads, pigeons, and rather cute cottages, etc – or within the collection of all of these, we’ll never ever be able to find it, we will only ever be pointing at things that are not it.
Like the blue of a clear sky, the more we go looking for something the more it disappears. That vivid blue above me is just the clear sky appearing as blue — if I fly through it I quickly discover that not one atom of that blue exists from its own side. Likewise, this screen is just the emptiness of your screen appearing as a screen. Your body sitting there is just the emptiness of your body appearing as a body. Same for everything we normally see, no exceptions.
But that is not of course how it appears normally. Due to the beginningless imprints of self-grasping ignorance, everything we see appears to be really there, existing from its own side; and we believe that appearance to be the truth. This belief is self-grasping ignorance, and it creates yet more imprints for these virtual-reality-like mistaken appearances to arise. A brief sojorn in Norfolk may or may not be a benign episode in my personal Truman show; but what about all those suffering appearances, such as sick and ageing bodies, famines, lower realms, and so on? Do I really want mistaken appearances to shift and change forever without me even knowing it??!
If we realized that we are effectively trying to live and work in an hallucination, this would clearly would have far-reaching implications.This stuff is profound! Yet given the tenacity of mistaken appearances, how are we supposed to realize this?! I don’t think we can without a lot of help from someone who has already seen so totally through the illusion that they can never fall for it again.
In Ocean of Nectar, Venerable Geshe-la invites us to imagine that a magician or illusionist has conjured up the appearance of a horse:
In the case of an ordinary member of the audience who is taken in by the spell, the horse appears to be real and he conceives it to be a real horse. In the case of the magician himself, a horse also appears to his mind but he is not taken in my the spell, and so he does not conceive it to be a real horse. In the case of a member of the audience with great wisdom whose mind is not affected by the spell, there is no appearance of a horse to his mind, and he does not conceive there to be a real horse.
If we are still sucked in by appearances because we believe they are real, we are like an ordinary member of the audience. If we have more wisdom and, although we still see the horse, know directly that this horse is not real and that we in effect created it, we are like the magician. We already have more control over the appearances of our life, rather like someone flying around in a lucid dream. If we don’t even see the mistaken appearance of a horse, much less believe it, we are like an enlightened being. We can never get fooled again. We are utterly free. And to help others, we can appear whatever we want to from our mind of great bliss.
To me, this analogy shows how much we need an enlightened Spiritual Guide. They can show us that these mistaken appearances do not exist and so there is no point in continuing to grasp at them with ignorance, anger, attachment, anxiety, and so on, all our actions or karma contaminated by this ignorance; and there is literally no point in suffering the needless endless way that we do. Once we have found this person, there are various ways in which we can rely upon them. This carries straight on from the first way I talked about in this last article.
(2) Practice the instructions
We can practice the instructions and teachings of Buddha as revealed to us by our Spiritual Guide. Nothing helps us or pleases him more
Once we have met a qualified Spiritual Guide, the way to rely upon him or her is basically very simple. All we have to do is to develop faith in him (or her) and put his instructions into practice to the best our ability. If we do this, our Dharma realizations will naturally increase and we will quickly attain enlightenment. ~ Great Treasury of Merit
Teaching this in the recent International Spring Festival, Gen-la Khyenrab said:
Whatever is your ability, whatever that is, just try. A realization is a stable understanding of a virtuous meaning that will protect us from suffering — for example, love will protect us from anger.
We can do that today. Then we do the same tomorrow, doing our best. Gradually our wish and capacity to do this will improve and we’ll be moving ourselves along the spiritual path. Something in my heart works much better when I actively want to rely on a Spiritual Guide and take on board the instructions he has given me.
And anyone can do this, regardless of their history and background – even if they are a mass murderer! There is the famous example of Milarepa to give us hope:
To begin with, Milarepa was very evil. Using black magic he killed 36 people before he met his Guru, Marpa. Later, by relying sincerely upon Marpa he was able to purify his mind completely, accumulate merit and wisdom, and finally attain enlightenment in that same life.
The whole point of finding and relying on a Spiritual Guide is to make spiritual progress so that we can at long last get rid of all the causes of suffering and bondage in the mind and be able to help others do the same. This sickness and ageing stuff to which I currently have a front row seat (until I’m called to join the actors on the stage) is only going to be followed by rebirth, and then more of the same. It’s been this relentless grinding cycle since beginningless time, when will I have had enough?!
If we meditate on the stages of the path to enlightenment with the help of an enlightened Spiritual Guide, we can break this cycle and experience endless bliss. And just a reminder that in Buddhism we don’t trust blind faith. Relying on a teacher’s wisdom gives us the the tools to explore our own sense of truth from every angle, questioning and researching every step of the way – we have to do the work.
Enlightenment is reality; we are in unreality. I find this passage from Venerable Geshe-la’s Festival teachings on the Kadampa Way of Life incredibly encouraging in this respect:
“What is enlightenment? Enlightenment is not external light, it is inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom. Our ignorance is an inner darkness that obscures our understanding of the ultimate truth of phenomena or reality.
Because this inner darkness is so powerful, all our environment, the place or house where we live, our enjoyments, food, drink, clothes, friends and other objects and necessary conditions, our body and our mind are polluted by this inner darkness. Because of this all our environments, enjoyments, body and mind are contaminated phenomena and their nature is impurity and suffering. This is because of the inner darkness of ignorance.
To destroy this we need to engage in spiritual paths as mentioned in Lamrim teachings such as The Meditation Handbook where 21 meditations are listed. Each one of these meditations is very practical. If we develop 21 realizations through these meditations, these are the spiritual paths to enlightenment.
By engaging in the spiritual path and developing these realizations we will gain a good heart such as great compassion and the mind of bodhichitta, and we will definitely gain the wisdom understanding ultimate truth directly. Through further improving these two, eventually our inner darkness will completely disappear, together with its imprints. Nothing will be left except the inner light of omniscient wisdom.
Our mind will become inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom and bliss. Our environments, enjoyments, and everything we perceive will become inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom and bliss. We will only experience wisdom and bliss; this is enlightenment. This is our ultimate happiness. When we attain this enlightenment, we experience wisdom and bliss day and night life after life without ceasing.”
Coming soon … 3 more ways we can rely upon a Spiritual Guide. Meantime, I’d love to hear from you below.
All the previous articles on the Spiritual Guide in one place
I have been following your blog since 2014 when I got my heart broken – and I still love your articles on heart break and “sticky love” which were helpful and funny too. I’ve tried to put your ideas, together with some comments by Thich Nhat Hahn, etc., into my own summary of Buddhist Principles … but I do have a real issue with the idea of a Spiritual Guide.
I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Buddha wasn’t keen on this idea – and one book that gives a convincing argument against looking to any other person for certainty is “Underground” by Haruki Murakami – which details the suffering wrought by the Tokyo gas attacks carried out by a Buddhist cult.
BTW – another interesting and beautiful book is “The Conference of the Birds” and another “The Prophet” – these are Muslim and Christian texts respectively – but, especially the first, seems to have an incredible amount in common with Buddhist thinking – even so far as concepts such as non-duallity.
Thank you for these writings – like many people I’m guessing – it is a real pleasure to see a new post in my inbox – you make me feel so much less alone when you describe exactly how I’m feeling…
Dear Annabel, thank you for your kind words! Thank you for reading since 2014 🙂
Buddha Shakyamuni gave very clear instructions for relying on a Spiritual Guide according to his Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana teachings. What we have to be careful about is following anyone blindly. We research it and always use our wisdom and experience. Also we never act in contradiction to Buddha’s teachings. In an article coming soon, I plan on talking a bit more about that.
I very much like the way you bring imagery from films, music and art into your blogs. It’s brings depth and shows we can use all our appearances, even TV, for our spiritual paths.
Thank you. We have a lot of modern-day examples of illusions, far more than they had in the time of Buddha! Instead of allowing ourselves to be endlessly distracted, we can remember to use them as examples of how nothing is as it appears, so we stop grasping at a real world.
We try…to practice love compassion patience and wisdom whenever we meet a human being. We can think to ourselves : maybe he/she is a Buddha… Even if he she is not very nice to me at the moment…
Well, not always an easy practice
Thanks Luna for the reminder 🙏💕☀️☔🧘🏻♂️
Yes, we don’t really know who anyone is and if we see them as a possible Buddha we are going to learn something useful. Like you say, not always an easy practice, but a powerful one 🙂
Very wise and beautiful words.
I am glad you like the article! Thank you.