Ten ways we’re all equal

 8.5 mins read.

(Para leer este artículo en español utilice este link.)

It’s no secret that we human beings are not getting along very well with each other these days. There are any number of reasons for this, but the deeper causes arguably lie more in our messed up psychology than in the external world.

Buddha was an expert psychologist – diagnosing what ails us at the deepest level and proscribing the cure. He lived at a time when the caste system was entrenched in Indian society, but in his teachings and practical example managed to show how people could live without all the prejudice and hatred, the “isms” of his time. He taught everyone equally, from monarchs to outcasts, and he taught that everyone IS equal.

The following is just a list off the top of my head – there are probably more ways we are equal – but it’ll do for starters. (Please feel free to add more in the comments.) Contemplating all or any of these always increases my love for others and lifts my mood.

1. Equally full of potential: We all have the same spiritual depth or Buddha nature, the same indestructible potential for enlightenment, the same exact innate seeds for purity, goodness, love, happiness, compassion, and wisdom. Regardless of our packaging, all living beings have far more in common than not. If we could learn to distinguish people (which includes animals) from their delusions and see them instead as innately pure, even as future Buddhas, world peace and harmony would quickly appear on the horizon.

2. Equally wishing to be happy and free: Every living being has the same two basic wishes – the wish to be happy and the wish to be free from suffering. No one has a monopoly on these wishes. Like the snowflake example given here, we have far more in common than not.

Although we all equally deserve to be happy and free, unfortunately our common enemy, the delusions, causes this to happen instead:

Although living beings wish to be free from suffering,
They run straight towards the causes of suffering;
And although they wish for happiness,
Out of ignorance they destroy it like a foe. ~Shantideva

3. Equally me and other: We are all equally me and we are also all equally other, depending on our perspective. Which means that if I am special because I’m me, so is everyone else; and if others are not special because they are other, nor am I.

We pay lip service to equality in our society:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. ~ US Constitution

But of course, due to our delusions, some men are created more equal than others, to coin a phrase. Or rather they think they are.

Some of these life-changing ideas on innate equality so prominent in Buddhist mind-training have also come up the ages in other faiths and in political discourse, of course. Truth is truth, wherever we find it.

Everyone needs a rest from our narrative.

One important area of equality, however, that has always lagged so dismally as to be largely non-existent is in the generally accepted human view of animals. According to Buddhism, person, being, self, and I are synonyms, and so animals are as much persons or people as we are. And we can end up as animals.

4. Equally subject to delusions: Whether our delusions are strongly manifesting or leaving us in peace, while we remain with self-grasping ignorance we are never free from the threat of delusions. We may be temporarily free from hatred, for example, but if we have no permanent liberation from hatred we will hate again, causing ourselves and others suffering. This is why temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough – we have to get rid of all our sufferings permanently by destroying its root, self-grasping.

5. Equally enmired in samsara: While we share this prison called samsara, we are all equally experiencing the sufferings of birth, ageing, sickness, and death, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, and experiencing dissatisfaction. Regardless of our status in this particular samsaric life, we are still all equally subject overall to the three sufferings – pervasive, changing, and manifest. We are also all equally subject to the six sufferings of uncertainty, having no satisfaction, having to leave our body over and over again, having to take rebirth over and over again, having to lose status over and over again, and having no companionship.  Regardless of where we are in the six realms, sooner or later we all experience all of these, and have done so since beginningless time.

Some people are temporarily luckier than others at any given moment; but no one in the six realms is more special. If we really want to be special, we’d be better off becoming liberated and enlightened for the sake of all living beings. We’re only special once we realize we’re not special.

Rater than segregating ourselves from other living beings, Buddha’s advice is to segregate ourselves and others from the real prison guards = the delusions.

6. Equally subject to karma: We are all equally subject to the laws of karma, the internal law of cause and effect wherein our intentions are the causes and our experiences are their effects. As in gravity, where for everyone what goes up must come down, so for everyone our positive actions must lead to happiness and our deluded or negative actions must lead to suffering.

7. Equally kind: Every living being has been the mother of every other living beings. Multiple times in fact. Due to our different appearances, we don’t recognize each other as mothers, more likely as friends, enemies, and strangers. But these appearances are deceptive and keep us divided.

Everyone is also equally kind when it comes to helping us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in life after life – this is the meditation called Remembering the kindness of others.

We need everyone equally as our objects of love and compassion, patience, generosity and so on, if we are to attain enlightenment.

8. Equal in the eyes of enlightened beings: Due to their omniscient wisdom and universal compassion, Buddhas love everyone equally, with absolutely no favorites. It is one of the qualities of being enlightened and why enlightened beings are true sources of refuge.

9. Equally empty of inherent existence: Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

To mix our mind with emptiness we need to know that, although phenomena appear in many different aspects, in essence they are all empty. The differences we see are just appearances to mistaken minds; from the point of view of ultimate truth all phenomena are equal in emptiness.

When we get rid of our self-grasping ignorance and have this experience of emptiness:

everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.

When you get a chance, check out this stunningly beautiful teaching called “The Ten Equalities” in Ocean of Nectar (in the chapter Identifying the negated object.)

10. Equally mere label or imputation: We are always “othering” each other – it is a function of our self-cherishing whereby I am inherently me and you are inherently you. By extension I, myself, and those whom I currently identify as my kind are more important and/or better than you and your kind.

There is a lot of sensitivity around race, for example. White people can feel like they’re being guilted into being racist, for example, when they don’t really feel they are racist. But black people know firsthand the dangers of white people being blind to the systemic racism in this and other countries, including South Africa where I recently had the benefit of spending a month.

Buddha’s wisdom helps us get way past our labels of each other. We are all in this system together and need to get out of it together. No one is more equal than anyone else. We are all We. We are all Me.

Shantideva explains how we categorize people into those we feel superior to, inferior to, or moreorless equal with. These categories leading to pride, unworthiness, and competitiveness are based on the delusion of self-cherishing, where we feel we are always in a position with respect to others, jostling for position like a horse competing on a racecourse. It is tiring, and it is based on labels imputed by ignorance and self-centeredness.

When we exchange self with others in the radical way he teaches, we actually swap places with someone in each one of these categories and then look back at ourselves. Moving from the space of self to other, developing empathy, those labels disappear. This shows us that these categories do not exist from their own side, that there is nothing behind these labels.

Just as Buddha, in his teachings, did away with all the isms of his time, I think we could profitably do something similar with each other to cure the societal evils of homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, xenophobia, exceptionalism, etc, as well as to stop looking down on animals and abusing them for our own ends in speciesism.

There is a noteworthy verse in the Offering to the Spiritual Guide tsog offering that I’ve always loved:

Since Brahmins, outcasts, pigs, and dogs are of one nature, please enjoy.

This shows that everyone, regardless of their current societal line up, is equally empty of existing from their own side, and exists as mere label. Labels are imputed by thought, so if we change our thoughts from racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, and speciesism to love, empathy, compassion, and wisdom, the labels we hold of each other will change as well. And as there is nothing to be found beyond mere label, everything will change.

Summary

These Buddhist teachings for recognizing our equality in all these different ways are very practical. They are not meant to be dry or intellectual – they can start off intellectual but need to get into the heart through contemplation and meditation. They help us break down the illusion of separateness, increasing our empathy and love. Starting with us, today, they can be used by everyone to make an enormous difference.

Please add your comments in the section below 😁

 

 

 

 

“Yogi”: a modern-day mystic

By Gen Samten Kelsang.

(Para leer este artículo en español utilice este link.)

This article is celebrating the life and death of Gen Kelsang Tharpa. He is the oldest friend I have, and we shared many sweet, humorous, profound moments together, as well as many wild adventures. I feel honored to be able to share some affectionate thoughts about my dear friend.

I met Gen Tharpa when I first arrived at Manjushri Institute in 1983.  I had a burning desire to realize emptiness and become enlightened. At that time he was involved in teaching the Geshe studies program, and was teaching a course on Buddhist logic (Ta.Rig). I promptly joined the class.

In the early days at Manjushri, he was affectionally nicknamed “Yogi” because he loved meditation so much. Even then, all those decades ago, Yogi’s other-worldly and mystical side was showing its presence. Although he had a very gentle manner, his speech was powerful, and he soon became a leader in the community.

Shortly after arriving I became ordained. I found it a challenging time in my ordination, and Tharpa, with his laughter, lightheartedness, and kindness, was one of the people who kept me on track in the early days.

At heart, Gen Tharpa was a mystic. The flow of his energy was deep and powerful. He had a floating dreaminess that was attuned to understanding the mysteries of life and of death. He possessed the eternal patience of a single drop of water that wears away rock. Over the years, this patient and deep exploration of Dharma caused a profound and deep wisdom to begin to grow within him.

People would sometimes get exasperated with his inability to conform with their expectations. Little did they know that it was just because he was marching to the beat of a different drum …. a drum with a gentler, almost mirthful beat, that was not of this world. A drum that was very different from the manic cacophony a lot of us seem to march to.

Discussing emptiness with Gen Tharpa for any length of time would begin to re-shape reality. Another of his old friends told me: “One summer during ITTP (the International Teacher Training Program), while studying the Chittamatrins, Yogi and I were discussing every day how everything is the nature of mind. Life felt very spacey (in a good way) for weeks.”

Back in the early days, we travelled to India together to do pilgrimage. It was a profound and deeply bonding experience. We travelled with two other monks and went on a wild excursion to Massed Vultures Mountain, where Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras over 2500 years ago. We did Offering to the Spiritual Guide puja on top of the mountain.

Our conversations were mostly harmonious and friendly, but not always. Traveling back from Massed Vultures Mountain on the overnight train, I was slipping gratefully into an exhausted sleep, only to find myself suddenly pulled out of it by Gen Tharpa in the bunk above mine — doing his pujas and singing OM MANI PEME HUM really loudly. Indignant, I yelled, “Yogi! You just woke me up!” He smiled innocently: “I was just singing the mantra to lull you to sleep.” Yes, Gen Tharpa was marching to the beat of a different drum!

His natural courage, faith, and wisdom combined to summon the quiet strength and determination to deal with the challenges of life. A major challenge was his health …

Gen Tharpa had severe allergies to food, dust, and chemicals. For most of the 40 years I knew him, every day involved strict adherence to a very restrictive diet and strict vigilance towards external conditions. Often he would get ill from meeting even the smallest unfavorable conditions. Sometimes very ill.

He was very stoic with his illness. Illness was one of the main teachers in Tharpa’s life. Illness could not subdue him, so it taught him about the truth of Buddha’s words. When I reflect on this, I begin to think that if someone asked me to utter a word that summarized his life it would be this, VICTORY.

Maintaining his health involved strict discipline; however, rigidity was against his nature — he could never maintain strict discipline in a rigid manner. What I admired about him was his ability to adhere to strict discipline, but in an easy-going flexible way. He would naturally take a nap, rest a bit, eat some basic food, do some meditation, go for a walk, etc. The combination of his natural easy-going nature with a knowledge of his physical limitations and need for structure made him flow through the day, rather than stumble through it awkwardly. It was like watching a river flowing.

This quality of being flexible yet firm also appeared in his style of working with people. There was not an ounce of rigidity in him, yet he could be determined and tenacious. Combined with his skill with people and his inner courage, he was able to bring harmony to places of discord and strife.

He had the depth and vastness of mind to handle the intensity of another person’s strongest feelings, and hold the space for them to do deep inner work. With a rare combination of genuine compassion and pragmatism, he was able to help others navigate their spiritual lives and make genuine progress on the path to enlightenment.

Over the decades we have had many deep, enjoyable, and sometimes downright hilarious discussions about Dharma. Of all these conversations, one in particular changed me. We were talking about prayer and Tharpa shared an epiphany.

He described the suffering of this life as inevitable for most people. With his spaced-out and totally focused expression, he said that we often cannot protect the people we love the most. That we cannot stop their aging, their pain, their death.

There was a brief silence in the conversation. Tharpa slurped another spoon of his green spirulina soup, and I nodded wisely while contemplating the best way to fit a jumbo-sized veggie burger into my mouth. After a few moments of serious munching we resumed. He looked at me with that delightful other-worldly twinkle in his eye and said, “The way to help them is not to grieve, but to pray that we can meet them in future lives and teach them Dharma.” Maybe a basic point, but that is the moment it took root in my heart.

Gen Tharpa was one of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s first disciples. In Offering to the Spiritual Guide there is a verse:

O Protector, wherever you manifest as a Buddha,
May I be the very first in your retinue;
And may everything be auspicious for me to accomplish without effort,
All temporary and ultimate needs and wishes.

There is no doubt in my mind that in a previous life Tharpa sat making this prayer with deep sincerity and devotion. The life he has just lived and left is certain proof of that.

Being born among the Spiritual Guide’s first disciples is an experience of unusual good fortune. That does not mean it is easier. Often it is harder, and requires a disciple with strong faith and plenty of guts. The first disciples are entrusted with the responsibility of being the first emissaries of the Guru in what can be an uncomprehending society. Tharpa grew up in a time where there were no Dharma books, two or three Centers, not much by way of a Sangha support network, and many superstitions and myths about what Tibetan Buddhism actually was. Yet he triumphed, and shared what he learned with many others.

Recent photo at Madhyamaka Centre.

Three weeks ago, we video-chatted. He had just left hospital where he had been diagnosed with cancer and arrived back at Madhyamaka Centre where he was the resident teacher. Obviously he was happy to be back home, but something was different. His happiness was deep and almost other-worldly. It reminded me of a deep river, gentle, smooth, yet unstoppable. I think he gained a realization, and he was ready to go because he had gained that realization. Subsequent to his death, other people told me similar things…

“He was less in this world and more peaceful. He seemed happy that something was going to change. In retrospect, it was as if he was saying goodbye. As if he was getting ready to leave.”

Or…

“He had made peace with his illness and suffering. It was not his enemy any longer.”

After Gen Tharpa passed away, over many days and in many different places people practiced the Powa transference of consciousness puja. He was so well loved.

I have absolute conviction that he is in a Pure Land, that he was guided there by Geshe-la shortly after he left his physical body. Probably Keajra because he loved the practices of Heruka and Vajrayogini so deeply.

Gen Tharpa was wise, unorthodox, courageous, and profoundly philosophical. My dear friend, I am a better person for having known you.

_____

A short clip of Gen Tharpa talking about transforming death