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As Venerable Geshe Kelsang explains in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, it is because we have been identifying ourselves incorrectly for so long that we keep experiencing delusions and hallucinatory suffering.
Since beginningless time our way of identifying our self has been mistaken. We believe that our self that we normally see is our self. This belief is ignorance because our self that we normally see does not exist.
How can a non-existent self be our self?! Yet here we are relating to it day and night, life after life, serving and protecting it, experiencing delusions, creating contaminated karma, and experiencing hallucinatory suffering. Is it any wonder we can’t stay happy or solve our actual problems? We all sense something is wrong, and this is it.
I am on the plane to Houston, sitting next to a young man talking to an older man about his new-found love of hunting. He is boasting about the size of the deer he just shot (I don’t even want to look at that picture); and they agree, “It’ll be even bigger next year!” They are describing their tactics. “If you do the sit right, pretend to be one of them, don’t spook them, you can catch them.” I want to spook them … run away you poor harmless deer!!! Run away from these well-fed humans who want to shoot you dead. These gentlemanly fellows offered to put up my case and are nothing but friendly, but due to their self-cherishing they think their happiness matters more than those deer they have murdered. “Most satisfying thing after I killed it was … “ – I didn’t quite catch what he just said after that. But, “Yeah, you walk a bit taller.” And “We are spoiled in Iowa”, describing all the opportunities to hunt.
And, get this, the older man, who has been talking about the fun of hunting quail, just said he was a veterinarian!!! I don’t even get this. Isn’t there a contradiction in there somewhere? I might pluck up the courage to ask him during this three-hour flight. (Maybe toward the end though, lol. Which is now further away as we have been delayed almost an hour already due to tardy lavatory maintenance. That’s a first. Hope it doesn’t mean I miss my connecting flight to London for the second day running. Samsara is always coming up with new ways to torture us. Still, no one is trying to hunt me down at the moment = bonus.) Meanwhile, this conversation shows no sign of slowing down. Young man: “I want to kill a turkey this year, that’s my next goal.” Older man, encouragingly: “You will.”
Do I tell them that killing is a cause of rebirth in hell? Probably not.*
How I do it
Okay, with renewed renunciation and compassion, I’m going to try to ignore their conversation now and get on with explaining my favorite way of identifying with my Buddha nature.
Following on from these last two articles:
What I like to do is not go for my Buddha nature as a “thing” as it were, however positive, but by letting it emerge from the truth of emptiness.
In other words, the first thing I do whenever I sit down to meditate is to dissolve myself and my world into emptiness by remembering the dreamlike nature of things and/or using the quick fix meditation I explain here.
The self that we normally see appears relatively small, constrained, limited, and fragile. However, believing it exists is a mistake because this self that I am relating to doesn’t actually exist and therefore cannot be found – I am not my body, not my mind, and not other than my body and mind.
(Tip: sometimes it is helpful to start by dissolving away our body and mind first, and asking, “Where is my self?” It’s gone. Then we go looking for it in the body, the mind, or the collection. Can’t find it in there anywhere either. We are left beholding the absence of the self we normally see, which is its non-existence.) We come to understand:
The I that we grasp at so strongly, cherish so dearly, and devote our whole life to serving and protecting is merely a fabrication of our ignorance. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
By getting this fabricated self out of the way, a lot of space opens up; and I can now meditate freely and happily without holding myself back. (At some point, I also invite Buddha to enter into my heart so that I can meditate with blessings.)
Once we have seen that the self we normally see doesn’t exist, we are left with the absence of that self, which is its true or ultimate nature, emptiness. That may leave us with a question:
We may wonder, “If my self that I normally see does not exist, then who is meditating? Who will get up from meditation, speak to others, and reply when my name is called? ~ Modern Buddhism
If one minute we are beholding a mere absence of the self we normally see, and then the next minute a self appears again, what is that appearance exactly? It can’t be a real self because we just saw that a real self doesn’t exist. So it must be mere appearance – merely or simply projected by the mind with no existence at all from its own side. Like a dream. And completely empty.
As long as we are satisfied with the mere imputation of our “self,” there is no problem. We can think, “I exist,” “I am going to town,” and so on.
Therefore, a fully correct identification of our self is as mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, as Geshe Kelsang explains so profoundly in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra.
I think we can also identify ourself correctly as mere name not other than the emptiness of all phenomena. Self is not findable within its name — yet take the name away and it disappears. We can never find a real self lurking behind the name and/or waiting or worthy to be called “self”. “Self” is named or labelled by thought in dependence upon its basis of imputation (whatever that basis of imputation may be, and it is changing all the time).
If we correctly identify ourself in this way as mere name, we are free and able to impute or label our self on any valid basis of imputation. We could stop imputing ourself on delusions and pain, for a start.
Practically speaking, once the self that I normally see — that real, boring, limited, deluded self – has disappeared into emptiness, I am free to impute myself on the basis of something inspiring and beneficial. It seems to me that it is not just once we get to Tantra that we change our basis of imputation — “Oh, now I’m supposed to be a Buddha suddenly, how does that work?!” We can get used to changing our basis of imputation with correct imagination or correct imputation from the very outset of our Dharma practice.
Starting with even a slight experience of inner peace that arises, say, from some breathing meditation, we can recognize this as our Buddha nature and on that basis correctly think: “I am a peaceful person with boundless potential.” This is what Shantideva calls “pride with respect to our potential.” This really gets us going, as explained in this article.
Then, as we experience any kinds of virtuous or peaceful minds, we can impute ourselves on those as well. For example, based on developing some loving kindness, instead of imputing ourself on our delusion and thinking, “I am a grumpy person who has by some miracle managed to feel kind,” we can think, “I am a kind-hearted person who sometimes suffers from the delusion of grumpiness, which is not me.”
We can use this correct identification of our self as mere name or mere appearance not other than emptiness to gain first-hand genuine experience of the virtuous minds that are the entire stages of the path to enlightenment of Sutra and Tantra. Such as:
On the basis of even some slight experience understanding the importance of future lives, we can validly impute our self: “‘I am someone who is concerned with future lives.” Then what do we think about and do all day long?!
On the basis of even some slight experience of renunciation, we can correctly think about ourselves: “I am a being bound for liberation.” Remember that all day and we’ll have incredible self-confidence, including the ability to transform that day’s difficulties. Shantideva calls this “pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions”.
On the basis of developing bodhichitta for even a few moments, we can re-identify ourselves: “I am a Bodhisattva!” Don’t forget this, and we’ll spend our whole life concerned for others and doing the wonderful things to help them that a Bodhisattva does. Shantideva calls this “pride in our actions”.
Bring Tantra into this and it gets even more cosmic – based on our imagined experience of bliss and emptiness, reality, we can think, “I am a Buddha.” Then what does our life look like?! This is so-called “divine pride”.
(You can read about these four types of non-deluded pride in Meaningful to Behold and How to Understand the Mind.)
Postscript: I just texted a friend about my neighboring hunters, and he replied that perhaps they are Avalokiteshvara and Savaripa having a chat. He sent me the story from The Masters of Mahamudra (an excellent book). Savaripa is a proud hunter, and Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara develops a strong with to help him:
“Savaripa’s karma was cursed. The hunter’s survival depends on taking life, and killing animals and eating their flesh results in a rebirth such as that of a hunter; he kills to survive and survives to kill.”
“Seeing his plight” Avalalokiteshvara manifests as a hunter. He handily out-hunts Savaripa by shooting 500 emanated deer with one arrow, which highly impresses Savaripa (rather like these two men are trying to impress each other) and means he now has his attention. You can read the rest of your story yourself … spoiler alert, it averts disaster for Savaripa and leads him to enlightenment. If I was a Buddha, instead of just judging them with dismay, I could help these two hunters in a similar way.
And … since I wrote that, I had a long and very amicable conversation with both of them, sweet men with lots of Buddha nature, where I did ask some perhaps awkward questions but with a disarming amount of friendliness. Such as, how can you reconcile being a vet and experiencing that sorrow to see animals suffering, trying your hardest to make them feel better, with going out of your way to kill them yourself? (Andy the vet: that’s a good question.) Had anyone ever bought in a deer to be healed? (Yes, one with a broken leg. He liked healing the deer. Animals are all the same, he said. Soooo, why harm a deer and not a dog?) And even though it might be “the culture” around these parts, did God not also give us an intellect so we could think things through and not just follow the herd? (He agreed.) And even though animals do live in fear all the time and are being hunted by other animals, per the young man (Ryan’s) argument, cannot we as human beings, unlike poor animals, choose to be compassionate instead? Also, the camaraderie that is so enjoyable, does someone have to suffer so that others can have fun? How does the deer feel about that camraderie if you put yourself in the deer’s shoes? (Andy said that was a very interesting contemplation.) And, for Ryan, it is all very well to agree that hunting is a necessary evil, but there is a big difference between feeling sadness when we kill, even if we intend to eat the whole animal, and feeling pride and joy. That led us into a conversation about Native Americans, and he actually said he’d think about it. We left on the best of terms and Andy wanted to know my mom’s name (Sally) so he could pray for her.
Over to you. I’d love to hear from you! And I’m sure the other readers would too.