The only reason Buddha Shakyamuni appeared in this world, the so-called “Unforgetting World”, was to wake us sentient beings up so that we could experience lasting freedom and happiness. The only reason ANY Buddha, also known as “Awakened One”, appears anywhere in any world is for this purpose. Venerable Geshe-la has said that the real meaning of meeting Geshe Kelsang is to realize emptiness. Realizing emptiness is what wakes us up from these strange dysfunctional dreams of samsara.
However, it’s not that easy to wake people up. For starters most of us, probably, are way too immersed in our waking dreams to even fathom that we might be dreaming – that there could possibly be a significant discrepancy between appearance and reality. We can go through an entire human life without even questioning this. Even though this wisdom is around, most of us just don’t seem that interested. Or perhaps we simply don’t know we are interested because we don’t know that there is anything to be interested in. And some of us wouldn’t want to be woken up even if by chance we did discover that we were in fact dreaming as much with this waking mind as with our sleeping one.
Some sentient beings don’t have the right physical or mental equipment to get what Buddha was revealing, such as animals. For instance, the summer insects buzzing around me are aware of something very different to the expansive beauty of the mountains—for them, the moose droppings are more interesting. The jumpy young deer who crossed the road in front of me would never stick around long enough to listen to anyone explain emptiness, even if they had the right ears to hear.
What does Buddha see?
However, a brand new, fresh out of college journalist did ask me today, “What does Buddha see?” That came out of the blue and made me happy. I have no idea how this interview is going to come out: it was supposed to be about breathing meditation but, an hour and a half in, we had already discussed the entire path to enlightenment. Although I was actually trying to stay on topic and not get carried away, Luke kept asking me more questions. In a somewhat surreal walk down the leafy street toward the Kadampa Center being constructed here in town (where we were headed so he could take some photos), I was trying to explain how this was all a waking dream. At one point he stopped, rooted to the spot, and gestured around him: “You mean we’re making all this up?!!” Coincidentally, this meeting was on the same morning I’d earlier been thinking about how badly I wanted to wake everyone up.
Luke also expressed astonishment at the size of the building, given that, as he said, there are not that many people around here interested in meditation, relatively speaking. (Not yet, I replied.) He told me he had decided to write this article on the power of breathing because there is so much anger around these days and it makes him sad. He has done some breathing exercises in yoga and that is what gave him the idea.
He drove off at the end to find out more about Buddha and download his free copy of How to Transform Your Life – he said he knew nothing about Buddha before today and now he wants to know everything. Our whole conversation blew his mind, he said; and this can only be because he was ready to hear about the dreamlike nature of things. Quite a lot of other people would consider me way out there if I mentioned half the things he pulled out of me. (Good journalist! Like I said, I haven’t seen the article yet 😅)
Luke is the exception, not the rule. Most people I know hardly ask me anything, even people I’ve known my whole life. And why should they? A lot of them probably find this whole idea a bit mad, so I don’t as a rule go around saying “Wake up guys, none of this is real!” As this young man said, “This is totally wild! This can’t be true …. yet it makes sense. It’s very profound.” But not everyone wants to hear about the illusory nature of all things, if they even have the first inkling that things may not be as they seem. Besides, what’s the point of knowing about it?!
At least ten years ago I talked to my mother about emptiness, using the table we were eating at as an example. She got it. She really did: ‘’There is no actual table there! We created it with our mind. I understand what you are saying.” Whether she thought about it again, I don’t know, but every now and then she would “get” other things I talked about as well, such as the four noble truths.
Most recently, early last year, when she was very much under the influence of drug-induced Lewy Body dementia but before it had entirely taken over, she got excited about the idea of Tara’s Pure Land. With surprising articulation, she asked my dad to stop interrupting as I was trying to explain it to her: “Shoosh, Michael, this is important, I want to hear. There is another world I can go to.”
This was poignant to me, not least because I felt I should have mentioned it a lot earlier. Now as she lies almost motionless in bed, 88 weeks today and counting, she is not able to understand things – her once brilliant but now spoiled brain will no longer allow it. But I still recite the Heart Sutra to her when I am there, and talk quietly about the dream-like nature of things; and sometimes she seems to be listening. I am constantly praying that all her karmic potentials from giving me a life of freedom (amongst other things), a life in which I found Dharma, will ripen to propel her to a situation where she can break through the illusion and experience lasting happiness. If indeed she hasn’t already. As Venerable Geshe-la says, our mother may well be Tara. To be honest, as these things go, it wouldn’t surprise me. Better to identify her as Buddha Tara than as that practically useless, twisted temporary body on the bed.
(Can I request you to please keep my dad Michael in your prayers so that he feels more peaceful and less worried and bone tired, as he sits on the sofa almost all day next to my mother? He has health problems of his own. Old age is demoralizing and exhausting. We’ll need the patience of a saint when it’s us.)
Method and wisdom
Going back to what’s the point of knowing about emptiness? … Well, getting older is one major incentive. As is the only alternative to getting older.
Buddha’s teachings can be divided into method and wisdom. Briefly, his wisdom teachings directly address the true nature of all things, emptiness, on many different levels and in many different ways. Method includes all of Buddha’s other teachings, including renunciation, compassion, bodhichitta, and the other five perfections, which give us the reason, incentive, and merit to realize emptiness.
It is not possible to realize emptiness as an academic exercise – at the very least, renunciation is required. One reason for this is that if we are attached to samsara, we would kind of prefer it to be real. (And we are notoriously attached, hence our name, “Unforgetting World”.) We can’t use these teachings just to make our life more entertaining or comfortable (although they do)—for one thing, this life is short and over quickly, like a flash of lightning, especially when compared with our countless lives. These two pithy verses by Je Tsongkhapa in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path give us the method context for our wisdom:
Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers [birth, ageing, sickness, and death],
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,
Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings [painful feelings, changing suffering and pervasive suffering] –
Through contemplating the state of your mothers, all living beings, in conditions such as these,
Generate the supreme mind of bodhichitta.
Given that everyone we care about, including ourself, is trapped in this almost impossible cycle of suffering, wouldn’t it be phenomenal to have the power to go around waking them all up?
I have a bit more to say about this in the next article: Buddhas required ~ apply within. Meantime, do you agree with any of this? Disagree? Questions?