Evil monkeys

Of course we homo sapiens are not inherently monkeys, much less evil monkeys; but there is some validity in saying we are hairless primates rather than some superior life form, and that as a species we have managed to couple our creative imaginations with increasing greed and selfishness to entrap, torture, and exterminate millions of fellow living beings (including previous varieties of human).

monkey 1.gif

Carrying on from this article, No Buddhism.

(I called this article “Evil monkeys” because it was quicker than “psychopathic narcissistic genocidal self-important monkeys”).

For me that narrative of evolutionary biology only tells part of a story, yet it has been helpful. I have been feeling keenly that despite my usual pride of being a human being as opposed to, say, a chimpanzee or a squirrel, there is really nothing exceptional about me (or other humans) — we are all part and parcel of samsara, trapped in flesh and blood just like all the other animals.

What is so different about me?! How can I expect a better outcome than anyone else around here? How can I expect that for any of the other hairless monkeys I know? That is scary, as there is visibly infinite suffering in our world; so it has been helping me to develop deeper renunciation and compassion.

Yet at the same time my mind need not be that of an animal for I now have a brief window of opportunity to use my mental power to overcome self-grasping — to see that none of this suffering is really happening, that it is like a dream or a mirage. As I heard Lenny Kravitz sing earlier:

Wake up world before it is too late.

monkey 2.gif(I’ll just remind us all while I’m here of the Buddhist understanding of our minds as formless continuums of awareness that have passed from body to body since beginningless time. Therefore, this body we have right now is just one of countless we have appropriated. Evolutionary biology doesn’t take that continuum of consciousness into account as far as I can tell so, like I say, it only tells part of a story.)

Evil monkeys or enlightened Buddhas – our choice

Buddha is deeply radical in saying that all the things we normally perceive do not exist, and proving it in multiple ways.

Dream things such as dream mountains and dream houses
And the horses and elephants that are created by magicians
Are all mere appearance to the mind –
They do not actually exist.
In the same way, all living beings from gods to hell beings
And all phenomena that we normally see or perceive
Are also mere appearances to the mind –
They do not actually exist.” ~ Norsang Gyatso, quoted in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra 

This truth can come to be experienced, giving us actual mental freedom and lasting bliss. Which is what we all want. And all the other teachings of Buddhism — such as renunciation and compassion and even faith — are designed not as something to believe in “out there,” but as mere devices to lead us to the truth of emptiness.

The exercise yard of a bigger prison

The author Harari theorizes that we only ever escape one imagined order by inventing another. He gives some good examples, and funnily enough I just stumbled upon one myself while reading The Week — capitalism will go away if we all believe in socialism instead:

For 40 years, the corporate world has reverently knelt before libertarian economist Milton Friedman and his famed doctrine: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business,” Friedman said, and that is to “engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

However, at this point in history, for various reasons I won’t get into:

… capitalism is clearly headed for a reckoning …. Real-world experience has undermined free marketeers’ near-theological belief that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest invariably produces the best outcomes for society itself.

We might be headed for “pure and unadulterated socialism” instead.stuck to prison lego

Be that as it may, and whether you think that would be an improvement or not, Harari concludes that replacing one system with another cannot actually free us:

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

Overall, I agree with him … BUT ONLY IF WE DON’T REALIZE EMPTINESS. This is the door through which we can finally escape the prison of samsara.

(Interestingly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, Harari himself is a meditator.)

In the meantime we can still safely agree on some things

An understanding of emptiness allows for us to follow relative reality. We can all agree that this is a blog for example. We will neversapiens 5 find it anywhere if we look for it, so it is not an objective or absolute truth; but it still functions as a blog. That is conventional reality.

I explained here about how things like forests come into being – once the forest exists, insofar as we all agree there is a forest, it functions and we can burn it down and make lots of money.

But although things appear and perform a function, they never exist from their own side. They don’t have to exist from their own side to appear and function – in fact, if they did exist from their own side they could neither appear nor function.

Within that, some relative reality works very well, not least because it brings us inner peace and takes us in the direction of the wisdom realizing the way things are. Geshe-la calls this “beneficial believing”.

For example, developing love and compassion is beneficial believing because it gets us closer and closer to being able to benefit ourselves and others. It is also an expression of our pure, non-deluded nature. Identifying ourselves and others as our pure Buddha nature as opposed to our delusions is also beneficial believing.

Karma functions too. Virtuous actions that derive from a relatively realistic view of things, such as compassion, patience, or love, lead to good results; and actions that derive from delusions — non-virtuous actions (such as gouging out pigs’ eyes so they can’t run away) — lead to bad results. It’s not surprising really that this is the case.

There is relative truth. We want to be happy and free from suffering and some truths and states of mind, including faith, lead us closer toward that. As Voltaire said:

There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.

No narrative created by self-grasping can work that great, but some do work better than others. How? Because some bring about some temporary happiness and freedom for ourselves and others, such as those rooted in decency, empathy, kindness, and unselfishness. Others just entrap us more and more deeply in a vicious cycle of selfishness, fear, and pain.

So what can we do for our troubled planet?

We watch the news at record rates; everyone is interested in politics these days it seems. And the more we watch, the more we are in danger of buying into the various narratives we are being fed, and the more we become immersed in our own echo chambers, believing more and more what we’re told. It’s a bit dangerous, frankly. Another maybe slightly relevant quote:

It is impossible to raise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood, or money.

I reckon we could all do with less feverish yet passive following of CNN, Fox news, or Twitter feeds, and spending more time proactively and responsibly working on transforming our own minds and actions.

monkey mindThe point is, we don’t really have much time left, whichever way you cut it. A year goes fast, and how many of those do we have before we die? A month goes even faster and how many of those do we have left – several hundred at most? What we choose to do with this remaining time is incredibly important because who knows whether we’ll have the freedom to choose what to do with our thoughts in our next life. Just ask the veal calf or one of the trillion tortured chickens.

Freedom from illusion

I found this passage from Sapiens somewhat thought-provoking, what do you think of it?

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity*, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature.

But the point I suppose I am trying to make is that Buddha totally did admit that his teachings are imagined – because everything is. But there is incorrect and correct imagination, and Buddha’s clear and practical teachings are designed specifically to lead us to the realization that everything is imagined, and thus finally to freedom from the illusion.

*I don’t feel comfortable singling out any religion as not revealing the truth of emptiness – it seems very likely to me that enlightened beings (Skt. Buddhas) would do their best to appear and teach in all traditions to reveal this truth one way or another. I have read profound things in Christianity, for example; and I also remember Venerable Geshe-la saying how surprised he was to discover how rich was the English language and therefore how easy to translate profound concepts from Tibetan Buddhism — how it had the deep words “manifestation” and “emanation” for example, which come from the early Christian tradition. I think it is also helpful that we have the words “illusion” versus “reality,” for example, indicating that these ideas are not new. Emptiness doesn’t belong to Buddhism, obviously; it is the only truth for everyone. But Buddha did emphasize and explain it very clearly.

The graying of America

old ageTalking of aging, dying, and getting a move on, I was just reading an article called “The graying of America”, which includes all the dismal statistics and prognoses you can imagine. But the article then suggested optimistically that we could “copy or learn” from other countries in their approach to the problem. That sounded good, for a moment, or at least better than nothing, as I read about hacks for incentivizing old people to keep exercising.

But the good ideas then abruptly dried up, because this is what came next: “Japanese companies such as Sony and Soft Bank are marketing a line of robot puppies and baby seals as a balm for elderly loneliness.”

Whaaa? That’s supposed to reassure me — that I can look forward to a robot baby seal for company?! Yes, apparently: “Just looking at it makes people smile.” Grimly, I would hope, unless they’ve totally lost their marbles. And that’s not all – at the Shintomi nursing home in Tokyo you can now join in a sing-along led by a 4-foot-tall android named Pepper.

Forget the chronic shortage of social security, pensions, and doctors, the decline in GDP, the resetting of crosswalk timers throughout the land, or the epidemic of loneliness as millions of people find themselves trapped in their once comfortable suburban houses unable to walk or drive to the shops. The idea of spending my golden years with a literally mindless robot seal who can neither give nor receive an iota of love, and apparently enjoying it, is what horrifies me the most.

And in my case we’re only really talking a matter of 10-20 years at this point: all the more reason to focus my efforts and for-now-functioning marbles on getting into my heart and out of samsara.

Here is a great poem a friend sent me the other day; she knew it’d be right up my street!:

The Parade

BY BILLY COLLINS

How exhilarating it was to march
along the great boulevards
in the sun flash of trumpets
and under all the waving flags— 

the flag of ambition, the flag of love.
So many of us streaming along—
all of humanity, really—
moving in perfect step,
yet each lost in the room of a private dream. 

How stimulating the scenery of the world,
the rows of roadside trees,
the huge curtain of the sky. 

How endless it seemed until we veered
off the broad turnpike
into a pasture of high grass,
headed toward the dizzying cliffs of mortality. 

Generation after generation,
we keep shouldering forward
until we step off the lip into space.

And I should not have to remind you
that little time is given here
to rest on a wayside bench,
to stop and bend to the wildflowers,
or to study a bird on a branch— 

not when the young
are always shoving from behind,
not when the old keep tugging us forward,
pulling on our arms with all their feeble strength.

Wake up world

The other day I dreamed I was miles from where I needed to be and already late, but instead of getting a move on I was sluggishly trying to figure out something suitable to wear.

Whatever this random dream amongst millions of dreams may mean, far more important is what I noticed upon waking, which is how we just get caught up in our narratives.

Within those nightly parameters we feel we have to figure everything out, whereas all we really need to do to solve everything and get where we need to be is to wake up. Blessed relief. It is all well and good being nice to the people around us in our dream, and accepting their help and kindness and so on, and it makes the dream far more pleasant than fighting and arguing; but, either way, nothing is really going on, and we simply need to wake up. As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:

All my appearances in my dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

Percy in graveyard

Rather than blindly following the crowd or people at work, like a sheep, we have to figure out what narrative or world view we are following and whether or not it is working for us; and use our considerable human ingenuity and will power to escape.

Percy and Jenny

Talking of sheep, I once lived in a huge Buddhist Centre called Madhyamaka Centre, at Kilnwick Percy Hall, way out in the Yorkshire countryside. Two sheep, only two, kept escaping from the neighboring field and hanging out in our rose gardens. We kept returning them, and they kept escaping, we never quite figured out how.

One Tuesday the farmer came to collect his flock for slaughter, and sure enough the two sheep once again sought refuge on our land. When the farmer realized they were missing and came to find them, our Admin Director Nick Gillespie decided on the spot to buy them off him instead.

Percy, the ringleader, was a surprisingly intelligent and personable sheep – one could imagine him reading The Times when no one was looking. Jenny was pretty dumb, but she adored Percy and followed him everywhere, and that was her saving grace. Within a few months, the beloved Percy died of yew poisoning and we all did a transference of consciousness for him. Due to his refusal to follow the other sheep, we like to think that he escaped not just a beastly death but more lives in the lower realms and/or samsara. Jenny escaped relatively due to her good idea to follow Percy – she lived to a ripe old age, along with a couple more lambs to keep her company. Hopefully she followed him to the Pure Land.

Percy and JennyIt takes a special sheep to be that persistent. It takes a special human to be that persistent too, but here we are, and we have to find freedom before the farmer gets here.

Over to you, love your comments.

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How’s samsara working out for you?

Tired, yet, of living a cliche?

 

 

No Buddhism

9 mins read.

We are making all of this up as we go along. Always have been. Always will be.  everything depends on mind

That’s the thing I admire the most about Buddhism – it explains so clearly that the only truth is that nothing is really true. Nothing exists inherently. We are creating everything with our thoughts — there is nothing out there existing from its own side. Yet, at the same time, right here right now we have not just the potential but also the option to realize this—and, if we do that, we are finally free. It’s epic.

The phenomena that I normally see or perceive
Are deceptive – created by mistaken minds.
If I search for the reality of what I see,
There is nothing there that exists – I perceive only empty like space. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages

The things we normally see — inherently existent things or things outside the mind — do not exist at all. This applies not just to mental constructs such as shared myths, but to our biological reality such as our body or our physical reality such as radioactivity. If we go looking for anything with wisdom, as explained for example in this article about the emptiness of the body, we will find nothing. Emptiness, or ultimate truth, is the mere absence of the things we normally see. As Buddha pointed out in the shortest Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, called the Heart Sutra:

There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, not tactile object, no phenomenon.

Not only that, but there is no inherently existent suffering being, no samsara, no Buddhas, no liberation, no enlightenment.

There is no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance and so forth up to no ageing and death and no exhaustion of ageing and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; no exalted awareness, no attainment, and also no non-attainment. ~ Heart Sutra

That means, does it not, that there is even no Buddhism?!

Heart SutraEven emptiness doesn’t exist inherently, from its own side, outside of thought. There are no absolute truths — not even emptiness, not even awareness, not even Buddhas, not even the path to liberation itself.

Which doesn’t leave us with much of a leg to stand upon. But this turns out to be a very good thing, actually the most extraordinary thing, for, as I like to say:

Samsara sucks
Samsara sucks for everyone
But luckily samsara is not real.

Imagined orders

The things we see do not exist, and yet things hang together due to collective agreement or convention. According to Buddhism, everything, whether a corporation or a chair, exists only as mere appearance, via convention or collective agreement.

So corporations and money etc can function because we collectively allow them too. And because of the huge power of human imagination, we have invented all sorts of useful and not so useful things that, for example, have allowed our societies to grow in size and complexity. As it says in the book Sapiens by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari that I mentioned in this last article:

Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

The book gives some excellent examples of imaginary constructs – companies such as Peugeot, various world views over the millennia, the American declaration of independence, money, empires, even evolutionary biology itself. People invented all these systems and then got enough people to believe and participate in them for them to moreorless work.

superior imaginationWhen the agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands, and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links …. The human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation.

Everything from myth to religion to nations to moral codes to money are inter-subjective realities according to Harari. They have force for as long as people believe them, and cease to exist the moment people no longer believe them. This explains how people could cooperate in groups larger than 150, giving them a military and security advantage, and encouraging specialization which eventually gave them a technological advantage.

The term Harari uses is “inter-subjective;” and he distinguishes between “objective” and “inter-subjective”:

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals … Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.

illusionHarari has a brilliant mind; but I don’t think he goes quite far enough. So I would just like to add, kinda crucially, that Buddha said nothing is objective. I think of the term “inter-subjective reality” as a synonym for existing by agreement or existing by convention. And everything is therefore inter-subjective, existing by convention, including radioactivity! But I agree with Harari on how things you cannot see or sit on have nonetheless had enormous impact on the world.

As it says in Lord of all Lineages:

When I search with my wisdom eye,
All the things that I normally see disappear
And only their mere name remains.

These numerous human narratives, myths, legends, religions, and evolutionary and scientific theories all tell a story, but only ever part of a story, and not an entirely true story. And whether a narrative succeeds in getting us all cooperating and communicating depends entirely on how many people can be persuaded to believe it and thus buy into it.

With this mere name I simply accept everything for the purpose of communicating with others.

Evil monkeys

sapiens 1Homo sapiens have been hands down the cruelest of species, entrapping and torturing and murdering vast numbers not just of other species but our own. We have used our extraordinary imaginations over millennia to become the dominant species on this planet, getting to the top of the food chain despite our relatively puny bodies, using ever more creative ways to indulge our self-cherishing and profit-driven attachment, even making virtues of them along the way.

But what has been our undoing — for example our own species now being on the verge of extinction on this planet — can also be our saving. Our imagination can be used for evil, but it can also be used to transcend.

Conspiracy theories are not helpful

I was talking to a conspiracy theorist the other day – for sure, these days everyone seems to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, even me. These stories of victimhood and blame can be convincing and there may be some relative truth to them sometimes. However, these narratives often involve so much mental elaboration in pursuit of the deep perpetrator of all that ails us – and if not careful, far from becoming more free, people fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit holes of hallucination, paranoia, and blame.

we are all being played conspiracyThe only conspiracy a Buddhist really has to uncover and blame is that of our self-grasping, the one that underlies every other conspiracy there has ever been, that fabricates all deceptive appearances. If we had all the time in the world, maybe we could spend weeks and months contemplating other possible evil conspiracies as well. But we don’t have much time, so we need to focus. At least that is what I think, and probably some of you do too. Now we only need to persuade everyone else of that 😁

Until we rid our mind of self-grasping and other delusions, it remains impure. And it seems as if nothing we have created with our impure imaginations has ever had the power to make us happy, at least not for long – whether that be politics or technology or sports or even medicine. Something cannot be real happiness if its cause is not a real cause of happiness, can it? So because politics, science, medicine, and so on can also cause problems, they are not real causes of happiness, and therefore any happiness we derive from them is not real happiness.

Plus our grasping at all these things – including religions — as inherently existent (self-grasping ignorance) and as inherently existent sources of happiness (attachment) has led us to huge suffering. Real happiness comes only from real causes of happiness, inner peace and wisdom.

We have also been kept very busy at justifying our attachments. For example, as we domesticated more and more other species, it must have become convenient at some point to develop the belief that we were somehow of a different order of special (despite Sapiens 2our tail bone) and that animals were put on earth just for our benefit. Of course, therefore, we can treat them however we want.

The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries.

To this day that exceptionalist world view lingers such that we feel our cruel treatment of animals is justified – but what reasonable justification do we have for this behavior, really?

It’s reasonable to assume, for example, that bulls prefer to spend their days wandering over open prairies in the company of other bulls and cows rather than pulling carts and ploughshares under the yoke of a whip-wielding ape.

And where has this subjugation of animals led us? To the burning of the Amazon and our own potential mass suicide, for one thing.

Not just another invention

Instead of inventing just another imagined order for us to believe in as if it really existed from its own side, outside of our minds, Buddha basically — right out of the door — said that this IS all imagination; that we are making it all up. Everything is emptiness, ie, the mere lack of inherent existence.

The whole methodology of the Buddhist faith is then designed to get us to that understanding so that we can walk through the door of emptiness to lasting freedom.

sapiens 3Everything in Buddhism starts with that — or sometimes with the other side of the same coin which is that everything depends upon thought. That is Buddhism 101. You’ll hear something along those lines the moment you walk in the door of a Buddhist Center. Geshe Kelsang for example has said that he has put emptiness teachings in all of his books in the hope that people will therefore find them; and that the main reason for his appearing in this world is to reveal emptiness to us.

Countless enlightened beings have appeared to say these things in countless world systems, leading countless people like you and me through that door to join them. There may be more enlightened beings than samsaric beings by now, for all we know.

As it says in The New Heart of Wisdom, a commentary to the Heart Sutra:

Although we need to strive to develop a new realization of emptiness, it is important to understand that emptiness itself is not a new development or creation. It is not a product of philosophical analysis or an invention of Buddha. Emptiness has been the actual nature of all phenomena from the very beginning. Our body, for example, has always been empty of inherent existence; there has never been a time when our body, or anything else, existed inherently. Although emptiness has always been the true nature of phenomena, we need to receive instructions to realize this; and for this reason Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

If you are interested in emptiness, and haven’t had a chance to read The New Heart of Wisdom yet, I strongly recommend it! I wouldn’t have a clue what I am talking about without reading  that book for the first time decades ago, and many times since.

Summary

Sapiens 4

I do hope I’m not confusing anyone – please go now read The New Heart of Wisdom if I am! But I suppose what I am trying to chat about in this long article is how Buddha came along and blasted all imagined realities, including religions and other belief systems, out of the water by saying that nothing is actually out there, our minds are making the whole thing up – always have been and always will be. Some imagined realities work better than others — some lead us to hellish suffering and some to the bliss of enlightenment — but everything is equally unfindable and illusion-like. That is what we need to realize.

I am going to let Buddha have the last word. In the Heart Sutra, he says:

Therefore, Shariputra, because there is no attainment, Bodhisattvas rely upon and abide in the perfection of wisdom; their minds have no obstructions and no fear. Passing utterly beyond perversity, they attain the final nirvana.

Over to you. What do you think about all this?!

There is another installment here, called Evil monkeys.

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Will this make me happy? 

What can I believe?! 

There is nothing out there out there 

 

Mine. No touch.

This video moved me, and has helped me generate positive minds all day. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it and invite you to contribute your own in the comments.

  1. The sentience — the sheer life — of animals. Indeed, how they are just like us, wanting to protect themselves and their young. They want to be happy and they don’t want to be hurt. Person, self, being, and I are synonyms according to Buddha. Animals are people. They are he’s and she’s, never its.
  2. Animals possess the same Buddha seeds of compassion and wisdom as we do — they are future Buddhas deserving of love and respect.
  3. How at our mercy animals are. The human in the video could easily take that puppy away and there is nothing the dog dad could do about it.
  4. Will this dad in fact get to keep his puppy? Where is the rest of the litter? Every day, millions and millions of children are taken away from their parents – calves, chicks, just this week more schoolgirls in Nigeria. Looking at these dogs, how can we bear that and allow it to go on? What right do we have to separate mothers and fathers from their babies? This illusory sense of ownership comes from ignorance, from the so-called view of the transitory collecting conceiving I and mine.
  5. Animals have ignorance conceiving I and mine, and attachment, just as we do. This dog may not be so protective of other puppies, for example, whom he doesn’t consider to be “mine”. There is a mixture going on of pure love wanting to protect his puppy and the ignorance of attachment. Exactly as there is with us human beings in most of our (good) relationships.
  6. Unlike us right now, animals are not able to cultivate their potential for enlightenment in this life. We could let this increase our compassion wanting to help them, rather than looking down on them. After all, there, but for the grace of Buddha and Dharma, or some good karma ripening, go we.
  7. For who would choose to be born as an animal? Samsara gives us no choice. We have been helpless animals like this countless times already, and have created the karma to be born helpless countless times again. One breath could be all that is keeping us from our next furry body.
  8. How are animals supposed to get out of there? And, if we fall into the animal realm, how on earth are we going to escape? As it says in the Buddhist scriptures: “It is said to be easier for human beings to attain enlightenment than it is for beings such as animals to attain a precious human rebirth.”
  9. This is motivation to make the most of this precious human life while we still have breath in our body. As Chandrakirti says in Guide to the Middle Way:

If when living in good conditions and acting with freedom
We do not act to hold ourselves back,
Once we have fallen into the abyss and lost our freedom,
How shall we raise ourselves from there in the future?

Over to you.

 

Being Buddha Tara

Who is supposed to be looking after all these animals?

stargazerMost of the animals we can see are in our human realm, of course, because that is where we are. But there are countless more. According to Buddha’s explanation of the six realms of samsara, the vast majority of animals are packed together in the animal realm. In Washington DC a few weeks ago, at the Smithsonian museum, I watched a short documentary showing the outlandish creatures not long ago discovered right at the bottom of the ocean, under the seabed, all stacked one upon the other, much like the scriptural description of the animal realm.

And we don’t have to look far to see that most animals inhabit a terrifying and hostile world. In the summer of 2009 I went to the aquarium in Plymouth with my good friend Kelsang L, and I wrote at the time: “I need to remember these images. A large flat fish with a distinct face is flailing out of the water at L, perhaps some part of him recognizing her robes, who knows, and working his mouth as if to cry “Help me!” Tiny sea horses, the size of a fingernail, have no future to write home about. Sharp-teethed sharks move incessantly around a large tank above our heads, avoided for dear life by the terrified fish forced to share their space. L and I didn’t realize we had come across the tank for fighting crabs until we spotted their body limbs strewn all over the ground, all the remaining crabs lying on top of each other in exhaustion. Limpets and other crustaceans are stuck fast to the rocks, with such settled ignorance of their surroundings that they could be the very epitome of self-cherishing. Enormous salamanders and eels are confined in cruelly tiny spaces. Unsuspecting prawns are dumped in the tanks with the anemones, to serve as their supper.

Dumbo octopusThe “HOMES” display is a poignant reminder of how every creature in the sea desperately wants one – they try to make their homes on rocks, under rocks, under the sand, even in the waves of the water itself. In samsara, we all have attachment to places, enjoyments, and bodies — but real estate in the Ocean is hard to come by, and most people down here are not able to keep their home even when they do manage to find one.

“Who is looking after these living beings?”, I find myself asking, as thousands of mouths open and shut in a Munchian scream for help. “How am I going to get you out of this lower realm?”

Buddha Tara, you are needed

Tara is the embodiment of swift compassionate action, so it seems to me that to become more like her we need to ripen our potential for this by taking on others’ suffering both in and out of meditation. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook:

We should alleviate others’ suffering whenever we can and happily accept our own suffering as a method to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way … the power of our compassionate activities will strengthen.

Tara 5

Taking away everyone’s suffering is Tara’s very nature. As a Buddha, she has already exchanged self with others, imputed her I on all living beings, including the prawns; so living beings’ suffering IS her suffering and she has already happily accepted it, purified it, and transformed it into bliss. We can do that too, generate ourselves as a Buddha, purify everyone through imagination that becomes reality. Everything starts and ends in the imagination. We need to be part of that creative solution if samsara is ever to stop.

During meditation, we mentally take on the suffering of others upon ourself, using imagination. Having gained deep experience of this meditation, we shall then be able happily to accept our own suffering in order to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way, we are physically taking the suffering of others upon ourself. ~ The New Meditation Handbook

Tara’s legs remind me that it is pointless rushing around like a headless chicken – one of her legs is out, showing her readiness to leap up to help, but the other is drawn in, showing that she can help others precisely and only because  she is an ever-present manifestation of bliss and emptiness. In fact, she only ever need take one step.

Please give me that!

To be like Tara, we can learn to take on others’ burdens, first mentally, then physically — “Hey, let me carry that for you!” “Give me your suffering!” Walking one day up one of those notoriously steep hills in San Francisco, and seeing an old hunched woman trying to ascend an even steeper set of stairs to her front door carrying two huge shopping bags, I ran up and carried them the rest of the way for her. However, although it worked that time and she seemed relieved, a friend’s similar but different story reminded me that we need to be happy to help others in the way that they want, without imposing our ideas of what that may be. In his case, seeing a homeless man pushing a trolley with three wheels that got stuck on the tarmac he also ran up, only to be greeted with outrage: “I don’t know you! I don’t want your help!” It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.Tara picture

Suffering sticks to a real me – ageing, sickness, death, and so on – and it is hard to stop obsessing on that for long enough to focus on others. To develop a depth of compassion, we need to realize that the self we normally see and cherish does not even exist, so we can get it out of the way.

And as we can impute whatever we want — choose how we discriminate the world as Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind — we can impute that others are our mothers, that they are kind, that they are more important than me, that they ARE me. We can make that work, as Buddha Tara does.

Once we share her realizations, we will also be completely free from any mistaken appearances or hallucinations (and hallucinations don’t get much weirder than those to be found at the bottom of the ocean or in the Plymouth Aquarium). We will be able to bestow blessings/peace on each and every living being every day, including every forgotten sea creature in existence. They need this. We all need it.

Happy Tara Day!

Enemy or victim?

Yesterday J and F bought Winston for a visit. He has been scratching himself a lot recently, due to fleas, and J has been applying anti-histamine cream out of great concern for his discomfort. Apparently, I was informed, he no longer has fleas. But sitting at the dining table, stroking Winston, F looked up suddenly: “Oh, here’s a flea.” Then he added, perhaps somewhat in defense of his beloved pooch, “You must have fleas in the carpet!”

Winston 5 Now, not wanting to quibble, but I did feel the need to point out that I have thus far never had any fleas in my carpet, and Winston is the one who has been scratching like crazy, so I was coming to an entirely different conclusion… my carpet (and cat) were now at risk from Winston, not the other way around!

And I caught myself developing a split second of aversion toward this usually adorable fellow, “Oh, Winston, as if it’s not enough that you chase my cat, I wish you hadn’t bought fleas into my house”, as if the fleas were all his fault, and somehow part of him. But of course it was not his fault. He is a poor little dog plagued by flea bites, not an annoying flea-dog at one with his fleas.

This got me thinking some more. If I had the constant, unconditional love for Winston that J and F have, I would not assume for a moment that the fleas are somehow his fault, nor ever identify him with his fleas. I would distinguish between Winston and his fleas, seeing the faults of being bitten by fleas without seeing a single fault in Winston.*

You know how, if we encounter a co-worker with a huge head cold and then develop symptoms ourselves, we can easily think: “Oh it is their fault I feel so ill, they are the one who gave me this” (as if the head cold was part and parcel of them as opposed to something victimizing them.) Think about the panic, aversion and vilification that used to surround people with cancer, for example, or more recently AIDS, as people conflated the victims with the very enemy who was drawing the life out of them. They were not distinguishing between the person and their illness, and this caused hard-heartedness and even cruelty.

Yet when a mother sees her child with a head cold, she is not thinking about herself but about him, so she never identifies the child with the illness or develops aversion out of selfish concern for her own welfare. Instead she distinguishes between her child and his illness and tries her best to free him from this enemy, to make him feel better.

mother childThe common denominator here strikes me as being love. When we have love for someone, we seem to naturally focus on their pure nature and potential and don’t mistake them for their temporary faults, even if we see that they have them. We don’t think “Oh, all you are is a flea-carrying cur, get out of my house!” or “You are just one big head cold, get away from me!” We think “Oh, you poor thing, let me help you overcome your problems and feel better.”

This reminds me of that quote I mentioned here:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish. ~ Transform Your Life, p 131

It strikes me that this goes both ways, in a virtuous cycle. If we don’t identify people with their delusions, we can keep loving them; and if we love them, we are far less likely to identify them with their delusions.

*By the way, I have nothing against fleas per se. They are sentient beings and as such are not enemies at all. But I won’t get into all that right now.

What do you think?

Postscript: I wrote this some time ago too. Winston has since moved to New York and I am about to move to a place with another carpet.

Buddha and the Hidden Universe

BuddhaToday, September 22, is Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, one of my favorite anniversaries of the Buddhist calendar. This is why I like it:

“On this day we celebrate Buddha’s return from the desire god realm called Land of the Thirty-three Heavens, where he had been to visit his mother who had been reborn there.

Traditionally this day also marks the end of the summer retreat. Every year, during the summer months, Buddha did a three-month retreat with his disciples. His reason for doing this was to avoid harming insects and other animals.

If we go out a lot during the summer months we will naturally kill more insects and other animals than at other times of the year. The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.” ~ From a talk by Geshe Kelsang in 1991

It is so easy to get caught up in an insular world of just a few people, often human, perhaps a couple of cats… Buddha going to heaven (and later using this time for retreats) to avoid stepping on insects reminds me of how important it is to remove our blinkers as often as possible and expand our mind. In this way, interest grows, some understanding or empathy can emerge, and we can develop universal compassion that takes in everyone, not just a few.

Buddhism talks about six realms of samsara, each with an infinite variety of forms and experiences. We can find it hard to believe in the existence of hidden realms, such as the hell realms, yet we are surrounded by a hidden universe of insects and animals, most of whom experience unbelievably intense suffering. Every now and then we may become aware of the existence of this realm, due to some nifty camera work, and our eyes open.

microcosmosI chanced to see Microcosmos yesterday evening with my friend M, who watches it regularly to remind her of the existence of other beings. It is a great movie, I really recommend it. The beetle we named Sisyphus tried valiantly to move the ball of dung up the hill despite it rolling down on top of him and getting stuck on thorns – the camera panned out to show a hill that we wouldn’t even notice as a groove if we were walking along that path. The exotic, colorful, ugly, bizarre, bug eyed, narrow eyed, legless, multi-legged etc. collection of little people (little from our perspective, perfectly big from theirs) grooming themselves, getting to work (insects all business all the time), having sex (man, those snails really liked each other!), reproducing, fighting their corners for no apparent reason that we could see … And all the while looking entirely sentient, as they are. Their tiny, personal worlds consuming them as our own personal world can consume us with its seeming importance, even when we are all just busy moving things around. I think it is Woody Allen’s character in the movie Antz, a soil relocation engineer called Z, who says:

I’ve got to believe there’s something out there better than this. Otherwise I’ll just curl up into a larval position and weep.

I watched this movie with Daka also, one of my foster kittens, who is M’s cat now, along with soft Kini, and who has developed into a very funny character full of affection and curiosity. If I had the same tenderness for all cats, stag beetles, stick insects, and ants as I have for Daka and Kini, I would probably be enlightened by now. Starting with our karmic circle and spreading that love outward is the way to get there.

Alternatively, we can bring others into our circle of love, which will then expand naturally because love is like digital data, infinitely replicable. But to love others we have to remember first that they even exist.

Buddha's Return from Heaven DayRight now I can hear the cicadas—it’s a bit like tuning into a radio frequency from another realm. Thousands upon thousands of mother living beings in the tall fir trees surrounding my forest hut, all trying to be happy and free from suffering. I have been trying to remember them in my meditations here, for, despite the noise they make, it is too easy to ignore their actual being.

When people get to know an animal closely, and perhaps for the first time, their views on that type of animal often change. Dog owners seem to have a respect and affection for the other dogs they meet, they often smile genuinely at the dog and at each other in recognition. If someone raises a chicken from a chick, and gets to know that chicken as a pet, it is far harder, if not impossible, for them to kill and eat it, because they have “met” it and know it is not just a piece of meat.

I read a story in the wonderful book Random Acts of Kindness by Animals about a trapper who came from England to America a few centuries ago, and at his Iroquois wife’s urging adopted two beaver babies whose mother he had killed. This changed his view of animals and he decided never to hunt again, writing these evocative words:

Their almost childlike intimacies and murmurings of affection, their rollicking good fellowship not only with each other but ourselves, their keen awareness, their air of knowing what it was all about. They seemed like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not quite understand. To kill such creatures seemed monstrous. I would do no more of it.

cockroachAnimals are folk, they are people. And so in fact are insects. During one retreat some years ago, I saw a cockroach being eaten alive by ants. I blew the ants off and put the cockroach on my shrine in a box with grass and water, and said prayers and mantras. I meditated with him every day for a week, but he didn’t die — he lay there and sometimes he wandered around a bit. And during that week I came to know him and love him.

The day came for me to leave and I thought I might leave him there in his box in front of a picture of Buddha, as surely he was not far from death now and he would be peaceful and unmolested. I got in the car and drove a mile. Then I turned back, picked him up, and took him home.

My view of cockroaches completely changed after that encounter. They are no longer creepy looking beetles (well, they still look a bit creepy sometimes, but so can I). They are sentient beings who need love, like us. Issa’s words evoke this for me:

Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.

There are a lot of insects to love so we better get started. As Z says in Antz:

Z: I think everything must go back to the fact that I had a very anxious childhood. My mother *never* had time for me. You know, when you’re – when you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention. I mean, how is that possible?

Geshe Kelsang says in the same talk mentioned above:

In fact, we should have stronger compassion for animals than for human beings because animals suffer more. Human beings have better conditions and are more fortunate than animals. Because animals have so much suffering and no freedom, out of compassion Buddhists should try not to kill or disturb them. So, for three months during the summer, Buddha advised his disciples to retreat, staying always inside and living carefully and conscientiously.

bugEverything about Buddhism speaks to animals and for animals. Most obviously, as many people with even a passing understanding of Buddhism are aware, Buddhists are aiming at enlightenment, part and parcel of which is universal compassion — the mind that wishes to protect each and every living being from suffering and its causes. This really does mean not just our friends and family, not just human beings, not even just our pets, but each and every living being. We sit on our meditation seats and meditate on this every day. We meditate on the sufferings of all six realms of samsara to develop compassion for all living beings.

But in fact already in the initial scope teachings we are wisened up to the status of animals and insects, and in particular we see how we ourselves are not inherently human beings but can be reborn in other forms. From the get-go we understand that we have a precious human life, which means amongst other things that we have not had to take an animal (or insect) rebirth this time, but this situation is rare. In other words, we COULD have taken an animal rebirth and we can still take one again in the future.

If we understand the teachings on karma and delusions, we will understand how easy it is for someone in samsara to take an animal rebirth –in fact it is far easier to be born as an animal than as a human being. That alone might give us pause. If you know you might end up in a dark and frightening world, you presumably would not want to alienate its inhabitants before you get there. But every time we willfully harm animals, we are creating the causes to be willfully harmed ourselves in the future.

In the intermediate scope teachings, we are taught to meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop the wish to be free from samsara altogether, once and for all. For as long as we remain trapped by delusions and contaminated karma, we are never free from the threat of lower rebirth – which means that at any time we could be reborn as a lobster and someone could be picking us out to be boiled alive for dinner.

bug 2In the great scope teachings we meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop compassion wishing to free everyone from samsara altogether, once and for all. The only way to do this is to become fully enlightened. Animals and insects are very kind to act as the sources of our growing concern, love, and compassion. I am glad that Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day is here again to remind me of this, of them, and hope this mindfulness remains with me. But I may do what M did and buy Microcosmos just in case …

More on Buddhism and animals can be found here.

Losing Andromeda

Here is a timely story from Eileen, aged 91, which illustrates the last article on Kadampa Life…                

Buddha said that our current uncontrolled lives, which he called “samsara”, are in the nature of suffering. He described seven types of suffering: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to put up with things we don’t like, failing to find satisfaction, and losing or being separated from the things we love.

This is the story of a child who experienced this last kind of suffering, losing the thing she loved the most.

Leeds Market is a very famous place, for did not Mr. Marks and Mr. Spencer, two good local boys, start their first commercial venture on a market stall in Leeds?

But, more than that, it was a magical world of sights, sounds and smells, relished by an eight-year-old girl who used to go every Saturday morning with her parents into town on the bus. Happily, the Bus Station in Leeds was just below the Market, and one could savour its delights on the walk up to the City Center. The vast piles of fruit and vegetables, so fresh and colourful, and the smelly fish, straight from Grimsby that morning. Rows of poor pink hams hanging on fearsome looking hooks, and always a red faced man selling pots and pans, “Everything a bargain!”, as he clashed two frying pans together.

Eileen Stead as a young girlBut I, the child, had just one desire — to go to the Pet Shop. This was a magnet to me, and I cunningly guided my Parents in that direction. At last — baskets of the cutest puppies, rabbits with long ears and twitching noses, and, best of all, the mice. Black mice, white mice with pink eyes, golden brown mice with dark beady eyes and long whiskers. They lived in a “Mouse House” with little wheels to play on, and wooden staircases, having a grand old time.

On this visit, one of the golden brown mice, more adventurous than the rest, climbed up the wire cage and poked her little pink nose through a hole. I held out my finger, and she sniffed at it in an inquisitive way. It was love at first sight.

“Oh please can we buy her, she’s only sixpence, and I’ve saved my pocket money. Can I buy her?” “Well” said my mother, “You’ll have to look after it yourself” “Oh I will, I will, and can we make her a house like this one?” “Alfred”, said my Mother, turning to my Father, who, deep in revery, was thinking about some organ piece he was going to play in church the next day, “You’ll make it a house, won’t you?” “Yes, of course” he replied abstractedly. He always said “Yes, of course” to my Mother.

So, sixpence and a handshake later, and the deal was done – we returned home on the bus, me in 7th heaven and Andromeda in her paper bag. (I was into Greek Mythology at the time.) My Father, true to his promise, made her a wonderful house, with a wheel and a staircase, and even an upstairs room for her to sleep in. She was a very happy mouse, and often we would romp on the bed together and play hide and seek under the pillows. She was my very best friend.

The trouble was, I missed her dreadfully during the day when I had to go to school — so I persuaded my father to make a little box, with some air holes, just small enough to fit in my tunic pocket. I think she became quite a scholar, in her own Mousey way. I know she loved the singing lesson on Friday afternoons, I could feel her positively vibrating in her box.

It was quite a long walk to school, and one Friday, after the singing lesson, a girl in my class who lived near to me asked if we could walk together. She said “You’ve got a mouse, haven’t you?”  “Yes” I replied, “I have her in my pocket. Her name’s Andromeda.” “Can I see her?” “Well alright”, I said, “But I don’t want her to escape”. I took her out, and held her gently in my hand. She looked at me and twitched her whiskers in the trusting way that she had. “Can I hold her?” “Well, be very careful, be very gentle.”

I placed Andromeda into her hands, but something happened and my mouse tried to escape. Julia Shepherd (I remember her name to this day) clutched her tightly in her big strong hands. “Don’t squeeze her, don’t squeeze her” I cried, but my little mouse gave up the struggle, and, when Julia Shepherd opened her fingers, there lay my beautiful golden playmate, lifeless–dead!!

I was overwhelmed with rage and grief, and ran home in floods of tears, carrying the small, sad body. It was my first experience of death, of losing someone I loved, and even though easily 80 years have passed I can still recall the anguish of that moment. The end of a child’s relationship with a beloved pet. The seventh suffering of samsara. Another very good reason to attain liberation.