Me and a couple of thousand other people recently spent a week in an architecturally award-winning Temple for World Peace in Spain learning about the so-called “Eleven Reversals”. Meditating on these regularly is meditating on the whole of the stages of the path to enlightenment, or Lamrim, and will gradually pull the carpet out from under all our delusions and sufferings once and for all. In his Lojong text “Training the mind in seven points”, Geshe Chekhawa says:
The indication of having trained is reversal.
To which Ven Geshe Keslang gives commentary in Universal Compassion:
Here “reversal” means the complete reversal of our ordinary attitudes. For example, the indication that we have trained well in the preliminary practice of relying upon our Spiritual Guide is reversal of our previous lack of faith.
Growing familiarity with the 11 reversals will prevent problems arising in the first place. But before we get permanently liberated from suffering, I wanted to see if these 11 reversals could be used as active medicine to deal with a particular problem that was already arising. I don’t know if I ate something funny or caught a one-day bug, but one night I found myself with a headache, nausea, and inability to fall asleep. I’ll spare you the details, but they involved throwing up. For this 24-hour period when I wasn’t feeling very well, I was nonetheless lucky and spoiled enough to be in a place where I could lie undisturbed with not much I had to do (other than feed chickens in a beautiful house high up in the Spanish mountains of Cartama. Just above us on a hill were the ancient ruins of the Templo del Remediadora, Mother Mary (aka Mother Tara) worshipped in her healing aspect. In the World Peace Temple we had just received Medicine Buddha empowerment and teachings. And, like I said, we were in the middle of hearing about the 11 reversals. So I had no actual excuses not to apply Dharma to this problem while I lay there (by the pool, lol) half out of it. Plus I knew it was the only way I was going to get through this without feeling sorry for myself or worried or needlessly unhappy.
Relying upon the Spiritual Guide vs lack of faith
I always feel better when I tune into blessings. Every time. It is like magic but it actually is not that mysterious. And viewing my Spiritual Guide as the same nature as Medicine Buddha and dissolving him into my own body and mind felt really quite blissful, even when I was at my most nauseous. Interesting.
Precious human life vs lack of interest in Dharma
I have been largely blessed so far with good health, which of course renders me complacent about my good health and, although I can talk the good talk, generally inexperienced at transforming the adversity of sickness. But one of these days I will get a sickness that I cannot get rid of, and it will turn into death, and then this precious human life will be gone. Yet it is such a good one! I need to make the most of it while I can. I was thinking about the chickens, who, pecking for their scraps in the midst of their own excrement, probably feel sick a lot. I really don’t want to be reborn as a chicken. I need to use this life to permanently release myself and others from sickness, ageing, and death.
3. Impermanence vs worldly concerns
“I may die today” feels more likely when you’re retching over a toilet. This could be my last day and, if I die today, where will I be tomorrow? Therefore I need to apply the 11 reversals right now, to this sickness. Meditating on death is a powerful way to stop inappropriate attention – there just isn’t time to dwell on unhelpful thoughts. There’s no time to feel sorry for myself today.
(I’m not saying all these contemplations worked right away, but they did all work. And using them with respect to just one straightforward problem was also a doorway into deeper contemplations.)
Sufferings of the lower realms vs lack of fear of lower rebirth
One thing that did not make me happy this past week was hearing about the habit of some folks in the Spanish countryside of leaving their dogs alone all week while they go to the city to work, apparently even without food, so they can bark day and night and scare off any intruders. Then they are fed at the weekend so they stop barking and don’t keep their owners up all night. There is so much wrong with this. We discovered this bad habit because of the dog who kept waking us up in the night, at which point you could hear dogs barking faintly throughout the entire valley, like something out of 101 Dalmatians. Meanwhile, scrawny cats and kittens were popping up all over the place – some had found their way to the house of some UK friends at the Festival, and were enjoying the love, strokes, and copious amounts of cat food provided by the animal-loving English. Today, Festival over, they’ll be looking around wondering where their saviors went. Don’t get me started on the sweet-natured chickens – at least before we left I was able to give a tiny bit of advice to David, the owner of our Airbnb, who admitted to being clueless about this chicken project he started 2 months ago. Better off by far than their factory-farmed cousins, but still, so confined, so bored, such a wretched life.
In any event, as nauseous as I felt, I knew I was in a god realm compared with the thousands of animals and insects within a mere half-mile of this Casa Rural. And that I never wanted to be reborn and trapped there. It is said to be easier for a human to attain enlightenment than for an animal to escape from the lower realms. Please help your pets die peacefully! — it might be their one and only chance. As Genla Khyenrab explained, the wisdom fear we get from understanding that we could be reborn in the lower realms is not the same as the unpleasant paralyzing fear we get from ignorance. It is instead a very strong (and not unpeaceful) determination not to go there.
Refuge and karma vs lack of protection
Refuge always helps – turning to and asking help from Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. As for karma, of course I created the causes for feeling sick. As such, I could view it as purification – not useless suffering. I could reframe it, such that suffering could have good qualities. And it was an incentive not to engage in practices that cause others to be unwell, and to heal the sick.
Disadvantages of samsara vs lack of renunciation
Our body is mistaken appearance – we experience hallucination-like suffering. I found this contemplation really helpful on this occasion: I was only feeling sick because I was believing the hallucination. When you’re vomiting, it is easier to see how this body is simply the contaminated result of self-grasping – there is no purity to this collection of 32 impure substances. But this means there is a way out. Cue in Medicine Guru – imputing myself on or identifying myself with the completely pure, blissful, non-sick wisdom light body and mind of a Buddha.
Friends my age are starting to get cancer more often. And some of them die. Lately, one told me he is about to undergo 18 weeks of chemotherapy and is looking forward to seeing it as purification practice, and that because of Dharma “I’ve got this.” Another one, the sweet-hearted Glenn Davis, accepted his terminal diagnosis with incredible grace and equanimity, writing to me:
We stayed in touch till he passed away one dawn two weeks ago, peacefully, with a close friend doing powa for him.
These 11 reversals work as well for serious illness and death as for a day bug; and the longer we are obliged to apply them, the more protection from suffering we will achieve. This is why suffering is said to have good qualities.
7. Three higher trainings vs lack of progress on the path
If I had powerful moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom, would I care a jot about feeling under the weather? No. I wouldn’t have to be distracted by any inappropriate attention, instead keeping my mind peacefully absorbed in the vast space of emptiness.
8. Bodhichitta vs self-cherishing
When I was thinking about poor old me and catastrophizing how this sickness was going to ruin all my holiday fun and last forever, I felt miserable. When I turned my attention to those in Israel and Gaza and in the chicken coop down the drive, that misery no longer had anywhere to land. All the suffering there is in this world comes from wishing our self to be happy, the self that we normally see, the most important self, the self that doesn’t even exist.
Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not enough. In the plane back from Spain right now I’m listening to people regale each other with anecdotes about their holidays. It’s really nice they are so relaxed and happy. But (a) it is not real happiness and (b) it won’t last (eg, back to the office on Monday and sickness and death around the corner). When you’re sick lying by a beautiful pool in the Costa Del Sol, you realize that beautiful pools in the Costa del Sol are not real happiness. And you want to lead yourself and others to the true and lasting ocean of bliss and emptiness, enlightenment.
9. Emptiness vs self-grasping
When I asked Glenn what was the main lesson he was learning, he replied:
I would have to say that we are not our body and in searching for it we cannot find it.
The ultimate solution, the sword that cuts through everything bad or sad, is the wisdom realizing emptiness. I loved Genla Khyenrab’s explanations. (If you weren’t there, check out the teachings in How to Understand the Mind on yogic direct perceivers.) I spent time looking for my body and not finding it. Then, if there is no body, there is no sickness of the body. If there is no self, there is no sickness of the self. Just great stuff.
Generation stage vs ordinary appearances and conceptions
Ending up where I started with #1, generating as Medicine Buddha, even while half asleep, was a culmination and embodiment of all the previous reversals. Really fun.
Completion stage vs subtle dualistic appearance
The only place you really want to be when you are in pain and suffering is in your deepest heart, manifesting the clear light. Beyond words, thoughts, and expressions. Where there is not even the name “suffering”.
As you can see, this was just a whistle stop tour; but once again I was able to prove to myself that Dharma really works and that the 11 reversals, far from being esoteric, escapist, or irrelevant to daily life, are immensely practical in solving daily problems and taking us to the very heart of reality. We can see which negative and faulty attitudes are keeping us trapped in an endless cycle of suffering and how the opposite positive and wise attitudes can free us completely once and for all.
This article is dedicated to Glenn Davis. Glenn helped build Kadampa temples in Florida, Washington, and Baltimore – may all his kindness, faith, and hard work ripen on him in the Pure Land.
It’d be great if you could try applying these 11 reversals to one of your everyday problems and get back to us in the comments on how that worked?
And …. this is Article #600 on Kadampa Life! Thank you for reading any of these articles over the years because I love writing them.