I’ve been watching a couple of gentle dramas unfold on the other side of this lake.
First up, a group of schoolchildren skipping along laughing – such potential, and with their whole future ahead of them. What will this strange world look like for them? Will they be able to keep up this enthusiasm? Will these small human beings meet the path to enlightenment and realize their actual spiritual potential?
Next was a group of mentally disabled adults, whose Buddha nature was shining through their innocent faces — as it was in their supervisor trying so hard to get them excited by the large Coi swimming in front of them. Failing that, she pointed out the frog making such a loud noise! I, at least, found that interesting and smiled at her – tiny frog, very loud noise! And some of her charges seemed vaguely interested too; but the confusion on their faces was unmistakable.
One of the men asked for the restroom and she replied, “Sorry, buddy, you’re going to have to wait.” Well into his thirties, he had no capacity to go find the restroom on his own. They were all following her around like ducklings, so childlike, and I was rooting for them – rooting for their confusion to lift so that their real nature could shine forth.
Even those who are deeply confused are not their confusion. Living beings are not their confusion or any other delusion. Like I said in this related article, How can I blame you?, without this recognition Dharma doesn’t seem to make much sense and, besides, where is the hope for any of us?*
“Is it still you inside?”
Whilst we have the chance with this precious human life, moreorless able-bodied, if we make some effort to remember we’re not our delusions, we’ll be able to keep practicing Buddha’s teachings every day pretty happily all the way to enlightenment.
No matter how monstrous our delusions, they can never damage or destroy our pure nature. As Venerable Geshe-la says in one of his most oft-quoted passages:
Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
Have you ever had a sudden feeling of fullness and open-heartedness that wasn’t there the previous moment? When the endless talk show in our mind disappears, along with all those heavy inner critics; and we feel a sense of inner happiness as if our heart has expanded and brightened? In those luminous glimpses of our Buddha nature, there is far less duality between us and the world about us — we might sense that life is dream-like, not really outside of our awareness. Everything seems okay after all. There is nothing to be mad or sad about. We feel connected to everyone.
This all feels so much more like the “real” us. And we’re, like, “I’m just going to stay like this forever! What was I so worried about?!” But of course, mere moments later …
This is why we need to get used to deliberately identifying with our Buddha nature, not our delusions, so that these meaningful moments are not just random and short lived but become our everyday experience and sense of self. The alternative — to forget our Buddha nature and identify with our delusions – means that joy is once again elusive. It also means that the way to increase that joy — practicing Dharma — will seem foreign to us, like, “That’s not who I am. That’s not what I do.”
The hopeless Buddhist
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times — our mind is naturally peaceful. Which is significant. Why? Because we often overreact to our delusions. We try desperately to improve our mood by thinking good Dharma thoughts on top of an agitated mind. But then we feel worse because, sublime and liberating as these thoughts assuredly are, they don’t seem to be working to change our underlying mood; so now we feel like a hopeless Buddhist as well. Ironically, this can be more of an issue in people who have been practicing the teachings for while because we have learned a thousand good thoughts for every occasion and they should work straight away, right?! However, if they are not, it is a sign that we need to allow time for our mind to settle into its own natural peace first in order for these deep, beneficial thoughts to be able to work their magic, rather than overlay them on chaos. (Like spreading butter on warm toast rather than on frozen bread). Hence the initial use of breathing meditation, and so on.
Worth mentioning too that this correct identification also paves the way to identify ourselves correctly as a Buddha, someone who has fully realized their deepest potential, as practiced in Tantra.
How to purify our delusions
We have to know about our delusions, of course, in order to purify them:
Buddha said that those who understand their own faults are wise, whereas those who are unaware of their own faults yet look for faults in others are fools. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
There’s also a saying in the mind-training teachings, “Always purify your greatest delusion first”; and that’s going to be difficult if we don’t know what it is. We use Dharma as a mirror in which we can see our own faults. As Geshe Kelsang says:
We do not need to blame ourself for the many delusions we have inherited from our previous life, but, if we wish for our future self to enjoy peace and happiness, it is our responsibility to remove these delusions from our mind.
Because who else is going to remove them?! But always in this context:
No matter how many delusions we may have or how strong they are, they are not an essential part of our mind. They are defilements that temporarily pollute our mind but do not sully its pure essential nature.
Intellectually, all this may be quite clear to us, but (as you’ve probably noticed) we can discourage ourselves pretty easily in these degenerate times. We can quickly get sucked right back in there and forget. So my advice is, every day, to spend a few minutes contemplating how you are not your delusions, not least your self-sabotaging discouragement and sense of not being enough. We can do things like set alarms on our phone, if it’s helpful, to remind ourselves to take a quick peek inside our mind every few hours — let it settle into its own natural non-deluded peace and remember who we really are.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, this ability to make ourselves feel better is something we have to get good at — our whole Dharma practice hinges on it. If we do get this right, in my experience at least, our life becomes a lot of fun, a journey that leads from joy to joy.
What does it mean to love ourselves?
In fact, when in daily life we notice that we’re becoming agitated, if we have started to internalize this new sense of self we will naturally think:
Okay, some unhappy thought is arising right now, making me feel bad — but let me just distance myself from it for a moment to remember something important: This agitation is NOT ME. It’s a wave on the ocean. It’s a cloud in the sky. Therefore, I don’t need to freak out at this point.
We’re not setting ourselves up in inner combat against our negative thoughts — we are simply no longer obliged to take them so seriously. To get rid of them we first need patiently to acknowledge they are there – and in fact become less scared of them. This is because we come to see that these currently unwelcome thoughts that we try to push down or push away — such as hatred, rage, despair, fear, addictive need, prejudice, guilt, anxiety, self-righteousness, and self-loathing, etc etc – have no real power to harm us in the context of our Buddha nature. (More about that in this article, Dealing with our demons.)
In fact, the delusions themselves can be weirdly helpful. The other night driving along the highway I experienced a disconcerting vibration – through a lack of attention or vision I had accidentally drifted onto the rumblestrip. And this in itself reminded me to steer straight back onto the road. Likewise, we can reconstrue our delusions to be useful rather than soul-destroying because their rumbling is reminding us of who our real enemies are — what it is that has actually caused all the hurt we have ever felt. They themselves are encouraging us to get back on the joyful path:
Thank you for appearing and reminding me of your existence. Now I can feel you, you are reminding me to give up on you, stop believing you, and get happy again.
Despite the fact that I have the potential to be happy and deserve to be happy, just like everyone else, these inner enemies are hurting me and so they have to go. This way, day by day, as delusions pop up, we have a resilience and self-confidence that comes from knowing who we really are and where we are going. We can think, per Shantideva:
I will destroy my delusions; they will not destroy me.
We are no longer overwhelmed by these enemies in our midst — however many are popping up, it doesn’t matter, because they’re not us. However strong they are, they’re still not us. With this renunciation, we can follow Venerable Geshe-la’s advice to “be utterly ruthless with our delusions but kind and patient with ourselves.” This really is self-care. This IS love and compassion for ourselves.
*A different level of learning
I am going to add what someone wrote in the comments because it’s inspiring:
“I’m a theatremaker who works with adults with learning disabilities, I often have to spend a long time looking at different ways to communicate aspects of the acting process which non-disabled adults would understand in a much shorter amount of time. However, I find that when I can relate to their Buddha-like potential it takes us all into a different level of understanding and learning. Some of my most magical moments in the theatre have happened as a result of this. One time I was talking to the group about Shakespeare and the human condition. One of the groups said they wanted to perform a Shakespeare play… So we did. King Lear! It got rave reviews and a standing ovation! I don’t believe it would or could have been made without us all having some experience relating to one another’s Buddha potential.”
Spiritual beings having a human experience
A quote you may have heard:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
This guy also describes it nicely:
Hope this is all helpful and please feel free to share it with anyone else, Buddhist or otherwise, who might find it so. And I would love your comments!