Climate change and Buddhism

22 mins read!!! Sorry about that. Big subject.

I shared this October 2018 IPCC global warming report on Facebook because it was a bit of “an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world”.

Since then, FB friends have been asking me to do an article on Buddhism and climate change. That is except for those who are telling me it’s a conspiracy and that they’ll boycott this blog if I do. Their version of events may be more comforting, and there is a sense in which everything we see is merely a hoax of our ignorance; but just in case the  masks in san franciscomajority of scientists also have a point about global warming I decided to have a go. Especially as I have just spent several days wearing one of these masks.

Having said that, I don’t feel qualified to speak for all Buddhists on climate change, given that Buddha didn’t address the subject directly and I am by no means an expert. But I can start a discussion that you’re invited to join in and/or to argue with below.

(Just reminded me of what my parents would always say to us kids when we told them to stop arguing: “We’re not arguing, we’re discussing.” And given that they’re still happily married going on 50 years later, perhaps that’s true after all 😆).

Rather than break this article up, I have put it all here to make that discussion/argument easier. We can also, as some have requested, brainstorm concrete pointers on how to behave responsibly and lead by example all in one place (comments below). Hopefully this process will contribute to the consciousness-raising needed on our planet if we are to survive.

Okay, here goes.

First off, a life in the day …

Last week I flew into San Francisco just as people were doing their best to fly out. I had thought that flying into DC during the emotional midterms was close enough to the action, but I was greeted at the airport in SF with a mask and dense toxic air thanks to the biggest fire in California history burning 120 miles away, already the size of SF and Oakland combined.

Buddha in fireAnd I realized just how much I take good air for granted. How I automatically assume I can throw open windows and doors to let in the fresh air without starting to cough and experience a headache. How the choice boils down to fresh air or CO2 build up. How odd it is to be in one of the most beautiful places on earth where you are advised to stay indoors. How much I take outside in general for granted.

The fire has affected so many thousands of innocent beings — due to the strong winds, it spread at the rate of 3 football fields a minute, so how could humans or animals have outrun that wall of flames? (If they hadn’t succumbed to the heat and fumes first.) 83 humans so far declared dead, still over 500 missing, and how many animals dying in pain and fear? Saw footage of grown men crying — grown men with tattoos crying — because they have lost everything or everyone. Saw images of the makeshift shelters in a Walmart parking lot – not exactly Paradise any more. Down the coast in Malibu, likewise, deadly fire licking a place once synonymous with Paradise. Sure, it is possible to improve forest management – but don’t tell me these rapidly escalating fires or hurricanes are nothing to do with climate change.

cat rescued in the fire
Anyone own this cat?

I got to thinking about the homeless, who have nowhere to escape the air. On Monday, Choma and I went to Oakland to visit a friend John, who is a research coordinator on senior homelessness (and appears in this thoughtful article I found ). It’s frightening to find yourself on the streets when you are over 55 and NEVER expected to end up there. So many people are just a pay check away. I wouldn’t want it for even one day, yet getting off the streets once you’re old and prematurely ill is hardest of all.

Meantime, air quality around the world means that 9 out of 10 humans don’t have clean air, EVER. And they don’t have masks either, plus you can’t wear those things for long, they’re awkward and make it hard to breathe – you can’t wait to take them off at the first opportunity. 7 million people a year die from bad air, according to WHO. And don’t even get me started on the water I take totally for granted as well.

Which also reminds me of all those incarcerated with little to no access to fresh air, spending up to 23 hours a day in often windowless cells. Those prisons must be as stuffy and smelly as hell, and I hadn’t even thought about that element of being locked up until now.

Which leads me to think about what life must be like for the pigs and chickens and cows locked up in all the stinking factory farms, hidden from us in plain sight. Or for that matter what life is like for the animals and fish in the Dallas Aquarium I visited two

big blue fish
I’m not a cartoon.

weeks ago – how on earth is this fish ever going to get out of there, not just out of the Aquarium but out of the lower realms? What is that going to take? Human problems are a cake walk in comparison; and this despite the fact that human mental health problems around the world are reaching epidemic proportions.

I could keep musing like this forever on the problems in our world. One item leads to another and then to another. It seems never-ending.

But that is the thing about samsara — it never is just about one thing. Or one calamity, I should say. It is about calamities on all fronts – climate change, for sure, and fossil fuel profiteering, but also homelessness, mass migration, poverty, intolerance, racism, consumerism, cancer, greed, fascism, starvation, cruelty, hurricanes, factory farming, war, terrorism, shootings, etc, etc, etc. (And that’s just the humans). When this karma starts to ripen on us, we cannot outrun it any more than people could outrun the fire.

Bizarrely enough, this may be the place to start talking about climate change. It is part of a far bigger and more interconnected problem than most people even realize – it is the problem of samsara itself, the vicious cycle of impure life. If we have delusions, we are all caught up in it, like fish in a net.

MalibuEven the uber wealthy are not immune – just ask those celebrities who lost their homes in Malibu last week — and even the most powerful humans on this planet are just as bound up in the vicious cycle of birth, ageing, sickness, and death. As it says in the powerful prayer called Request to the Lord of all Lineages, which Geshe Kelsang is encouraging people to contemplate deeply every day: 

In this cycle of impure life, samsara,
There is no real protection from suffering.
Wherever I am born, either as a lower or higher being,
I will have to experience only suffering.

We need very deep solutions, or this is all any of us will ever be able to expect. However, according to Buddha solutions do exist, if we are prepared to look for them not just outside but within.

In samsara we can assume the worst and we won’t be far off, sooner or later. It is no pleasure garden, as Buddha said. We can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The only way all this is going to change is if we change. Who wants to be the same in 5 years who wants changeanyway? 10 years? The only way to improve is to improve.

Understanding this, I will make continuous effort to cease samsaric rebirth
By striving to permanently abandon its root, self-grasping ignorance. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages

The entire special presentation of Buddha’s teachings called the “stages of the path to enlightenment” (Lamrim) gives us insightful, proactive, and tried-and-tested ways to deal with suffering – I tried explaining that once here: Can we make sense of the senseless? And if we had time e could apply all 21 contemplations just as easily to climate change. 

Here I will highlight just some of Buddha’s wisdom. One place to start is karma

The environmental effects of karma

Our mental actions or karma have four effects, one of which is called “the environmental effect”, whereby:

… our environment and the things that surround us are hostile, dangerous, or uncomfortable. The environmental effect of killing is that the place in which we live is poor and it is hard to find food and other necessities; the environmental effect of stealing is that the place in which we live is barren and plants and crops will not flourish there; and the environmental effect of sexual misconduct is that the place in which we live is unclean and breeds disease. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

 karma quoteWe can ask ourselves whether or not we have created any negative actions of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and so on. If we haven’t, cool, but the chances are we have and thereby created an incalculable number of causes for these kinds of experiences. These are like seeds waiting to ripen as suffering — and once they do we cannot outrun these karmic appearances. We need another approach. As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:

The cause of suffering is non-virtuous actions
And the cause of happiness is virtuous actions.
Since this is completely true
I will definitely abandon the first and practice the second.

We never think calamity will strike until it does. But on what basis can I go around being so complacent, I wonder.

As someone on Facebook put it:

Perhaps I am experiencing a world being destroyed because in previous lives I destroyed the environments of others? It is possible, when I think of things I did as a child to ant’s nests, for example — even in this life I destroyed the environments of others 😮.

You can read all about how karma works in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. It’s life-saving information.

So what are we supposed to do?

I think the answer is that we have to work on different levels. I’ve spoken before about how Bodhisattvas and trainee Bodhisattvas operate on the level of going to the practical aid of those in need, helping others overcome their negativities, avoiding destroying places such as towns, and so on, while at the same time using everything as fuel for the journey to enlightenment so that they can end up helping everyone. As someone said on Facebook:

There must be some combination of inner and outer efforts. Inner efforts to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible for everyone’s sakes! And outer efforts to protect humans’ and animals’ homes, as well as our waters and trees and air.

One thing is for sure: without empathy coming from an understanding of our inescapable interconnection, we are doomed. If we insist on holding onto our self-cherishing like some kind of perverse security blanket, we are doomed. From The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

boat with hole in itAll the problems of human society, such as war, crime, pollution, drug addiction, poverty, injustice, and disharmony within families, are the result of self-cherishing. Thinking that human beings alone matter, and that the natural world exists to serve human desires, we have wiped out thousands of animal species and polluted the planet to such an extent that there is great danger it could soon be unfit even for human habitation. If everyone were to practice cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.

The Bodhisattva perfections (see below) are all motivated by the compassion wishing to free not just our family and neighbors but everyone from suffering and its causes by fulfilling our own potential for enlightenment. We are all in this together.

As someone said on Facebook:

The suffering that we are causing as a species is getting out of hand. We are creating hell-like realms for both other species and the less fortunate of our own species plus the (not so far) future inhabitants of this planet. As Bodhisattvas, our compassion should be such that we are driven to take action.

There are also different levels of compassion that we can work on, explained in Ocean of Nectar:

Living beings are seen to be transient and empty of inherent existence,
Like a moon in rippling water.

We develop compassion wanting to free all living beings from suffering and its causes, but we can also deepen this to take in how much suffering arises from grasping at permanence and grasping at inherent existence, even though we are nowhere near as permanent nor as solid as we believe. Compassion is explained in a very beautiful chapter called A Praise of Compassion, if you get a chance to read that.

Toward planetary health

Here’s a whistle stop tour of the six perfections that a Bodhisattva practices every day, to hopefully whet your appetite – you can discover everything you need to know about these in Geshe Kelsang’s books.

To permanently liberate all mother living beings
From suffering and mistaken appearance,
I will attain the Union of the state of enlightenment
Through the practice of the six perfections. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages

IMG_4875
Lonnell + friend

Generosity: There are so many practical ways to get over our insecure miserliness and help others in our world with our time, money, attention, advice, skills, fearlessness, and so on. John, as mentioned, works to help the senior homeless population every day. Many other friends are social workers, doctors, teachers, film makers, climate activists, etc, etc – all making this world just that bit kinder. We can offset our carbon footprint with some dollars. We can plant trees. We can do many things.

As in most crises, stories of Buddha nature emerge, like that of the garbage collector and the old lady. Though he’d been ordered home, he risked his life to check on some elderly neighbors – discovering the 93-year-old trying to escape the Camp Fire on her Zimmergarbage truck rescue frame. She had no chance till he showed up and put her in his truck. Then, rather than making her endure a shelter, he took her to his house. His kids love her, so she’ll be there for 2 months until it’s safe to go home.

Moral discipline involves refraining from harming others by, for example, consciously using fewer plastic bags or eating fewer or no animal products. I don’t know if you know this, but 51% of global warming is caused by animal agriculture. As someone on FB put it:

I believe with all my heart that the planet will begin to heal when we treat all of its inhabitants with respect. There is a very deep interconnection between meat/dairy consumption/production and climate breakdown. 

(On this point, we could also work on our realization of emptiness, become like the great Buddhist master Chandrakirti:

Chandrakirti refused to take milk from the cows because he felt it should be saved for their young, and he left them to wander freely on the neighboring hills. Nevertheless, he still managed to provide the monks with an abundant supply of daily produce!

If you want to know how, you can read the rest of the story in Ocean of Nectar.)

We can offset our carbon footprint. We can press our world and industrial leaders into passing essential legislation and investing in sustainable energy, including these 100 companies. We can make Ecobricks out of our plastics. We can rake the forests (kidding 😉)

That is just for starters – I know some of you’ll come up with more ideas below. And there are more pointers here from people who have been thinking about this for 50 years. (In brief: Stop using pesticides. Stop with the single use plastic. Plant a tree. Reduce your footprint. Eat less meat.)

In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:

If for no reason I begin to perform actions
That cause damage to the environment,
I should recall Buddha’s advice,
And out of respect stop straightaway.

Buddha and globeMoral discipline also involves helping others whenever and however we can, all the while overcoming our obsessive self-concern. It is an essential protection for us against creating negative karma, and helps us to purify the tons of negative karma we’ve already created.

Patient acceptance is what we need to get through the day without blaming everyone else for what goes wrong, disliking others or ourselves, feeling upset when we read the latest news, or becoming helpless, fearful, and angry. We need to get from anger to compassion, which is actually a far more passionate though realistic response. As it says in How to Understand the Mind:

Some people are angered by the existence of nuclear weapons or pollution, while others become upset if their food is not to their liking. Whenever we encounter inanimate objects that cause us suffering we should remember the futility of getting angry with such things. ~ page 69

 It is degenerate times alright!

With patient acceptance of what is going on — because that is what is going on — we are now in a position to transform adverse conditions into the path to enlightenment. When things get tough, the tough get going, as the saying goes. Buddha predicted that times would degenerate – particularly in five ways:

In this spiritually degenerate time there are five impurities that are increasing throughout the world: (1) our environment is becoming increasingly impure because of pollution; (2) our water, air and food are becoming increasingly impure, also because of pollution; (3) our body is becoming increasingly impure because sickness and disease are no more prevalent; (4) our mind is becoming increasingly impure because our delusions are getting stronger and stronger; and (5) our actions are becoming increasingly impure because we have not control over our delusions. ~ Modern Buddhism (available free

Our current enormous challenges are more grist to the mill for a mind-training practitioner:

When the container and the contents are filled with evil
Transform adverse conditions into the path to enlightenment. ~ Universal Compassion 

The container and the contents refers to our world and everything and everyone in it, filled with the effects of negative actions. And as it explains in Modern Buddhism:

Because of these five impurities, suffering, problems’ and dangers are increasing everywhere. However, through Lamrim price we can transform our experience of all these impurities into the spiritual path that leads us to the pure an everlasting happiness of liberation and enlightenment.

It is worth knowing that impurity and suffering can be transformed – by motivating us into renunciation and compassion for example — because in that case we no longer need to fear it as we have been. We don’t need paralyzing self-cherishing fear, but motivating, refuge-inspiring, and not unpleasant fear that comes from the wisdom understanding deeper causes. Buddha nature 

You can read in detail how to transform adverse conditions in Universal Compassion and The New Eight Steps to Happiness.

Joyful effort gives us all the energy we need every day to get over discouragement and hopelessness, even upon reading the latest Climate Report that says we have only 12 years to get our acts together. Effort gives us the power and self-confidence to do what needs to be done for as long as it needs doing, without ever giving up on ourselves or anybody else. As Kadampas recite twice a month in Offering to the Spiritual Guide:

I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.

I agree with this from someone else on FB:

Raising awareness is good and positive encouragement for collective action is good. What I read in the groups I am part of is a lot of despondency by people trying to do their best, but feeling the tide is against them. Encouragement of positive actions, therefore, has to be a good thing, supporting people in the changes they make.

At the same time, I think it’s helpful to know where most usefully to put our time and energy so that we don’t get burned out or despondent, and so as to aim for maximum benefit. As a Dharma practitioner, my main priority is mastering my mind and trying to give others that opportunity – and, when I’m doing that, then I am always doing something useful, so I don’t have to feel so discouraged or hopeless. Someone suggested:

I honestly think, as Buddha teaches, the answer is training our own mind and helping Art volunteeringothers to do the same. Awakening compassion for all would be the solution. So supporting our local Dharma Centres, volunteering, teaching Dharma, and training our own mind, while setting the example of practising moral discipline and mindfulness around these issues, is the answer for me.

Concentration is essential for mastering our mind, overcoming the distractions of our delusions, and creating the karma for deep and lasting inner peace and happiness. Concentration makes our mind extremely powerful. As it says in How to Transform Your Life:

We can sometimes help others by providing them with money or better material conditions, but we should remember that the greatest benefit we can give is to help them overcome their delusions and find true, lasting happiness within.

And to pull that off for others, we need to start with ourselves.

Wisdom is the actual and only door out of the prison of samsara, and something we can keep in mind whatever else we are up to, both in and out of meditation sessions.

In general, all those problems and sufferings mentioned above are coming directly or indirectly from our delusions of ignorance, attachment, and aversion, and the negative karma we create in dependence upon those delusions. As someone said on Facebook:

I can certainly work on my delusions and try personally to break free from my uncontrolled desire that contributes to the polluted world, and perhaps also encourage others skillfully to do so — done with the right intention I think this can be powerful purification.

quote from scientistsThese three so-called poisons poison our minds, spilling over into the world that appears to us because our world is a reflection of our minds. So we have to dig deeper to solve our problems – solving not just outer problems but our inner problems with both compassion and wisdom. Otherwise:

Through technological progress and by organizing society in fairer, more humane ways, we can certainly help improve people’s lives in some respects. But whatever we do will inevitably have some unwanted side effects. The best we can hope for is to provide people with conditions that bring some temporary relief from problems and difficulties, but we cannot give them true, lasting happiness. This is because the real cause of happiness is inner peace, which can be found only within the mind, not in external conditions. ~ How to Transform Your Life (available for free here

Our polluted world is mere appearance to mind like a dream – we need to destroy the hallucinations of climate change along with all other impure appearances through purification practice and especially through realizing that all the things we normally see do not exist.

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

appearances in dreams teach meThis brings us back to karma. As things don’t exist from their own side, whatever appears to us depends upon our minds and our karma, both individual and collective. If you want to check this out from Ocean of Nectar, it says:

If a god, a human, and a hungry ghost were to look at a glass containing a moist, liquid substance, the god would see nectar, the human water, and the hungry ghost pus and blood…. There are not, however, three different liquids on the same base. ~ [from VI.71ab]

How am I supposed to remember all this?!!

To keep in mind these different levels of dealing with climate change, I find it truly helpful and inspiring to remember the meaning of Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, as explained a little bit in this article.

So, out of renunciation, symbolized by Je Tsongkhapa, we are avoiding negativity on a day to day basis, striving to get rid of our inner poisons and attain liberation. My feeling is that we need to do whatever we can on an immediate practical and visible level, setting an example of someone who actually cares — because we do care. It’s all very well talking about getting enlightened for the sake of all living beings, but if we are still part of the brigade trashing our planet we are not setting a very relatable example, and can in fact come over as a complete hypocrite.

We need to be grounded, balanced, and moreorless normal or we will just put people off. Our head can be in the clouds providing our feet are firmly planted on the earth.

Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka
Tharpa large canvas print reminder 😄

Out of bodhichitta, symbolized by Buddha Shakyamuni at Je Tsongkhapa’s heart, we are trying to help others in every way possible. All the while we can be inwardly dedicating all these six practices to the swift purification of our own and others’ negative karma, praying that by this virtue may everyone soon inhabit a Pure Land, the reflection of a pure and blissful mind.

And with our Tantric practice, symbolized by Heruka at Buddha’s heart, we are bringing the result into the path, speedily purifying and transforming our bodies, enjoyments, deeds, AND environments with no time to waste. With Tantra we are already abiding in the solution – and it turns out that reality is not — after all — relentless suffering, but sublime and blissful enlightenment. I would submit that mystics of all traditions can relate to this through experience.

A lot of discouragement comes from having a very limited view of ourselves and helpless view of what we can do — “What can little old me do to prevent climate catastrophe!?!” Tantra gives us the vision we need to feel deeply inspired on a daily basis.

We can find refuge in pure view. Nothing exists from its own side, as mentioned above. So at some point the mandala and Deities, who are the appearance of bliss and emptiness, will feel more authentic to us than this samsaric chicanery. As it says in The Mirror of Dharma on page 25, when …

… we directly experience the union of appearance and emptiness we will directly experience our environment, enjoyments, body and mind as the enlightened environment, enjoyments, body and mind, and we will directly experience ourself as an enlightened being – the union of Buddha, the union of Vajradhara, the union of Heruka, and so forth.

The whole reason for doing this is to lead everyone to the same blissful state.

One more point I’d like to make (and thank you for reading this far! … )

Don’t forget mandala offerings!

Geshe-la in templeOne spiritual practice that is astoundingly powerful for offsetting our negative karma and creating the causes for everyone to live in a Pure Land is the mandala offering. We even say, as we offer this completely purified universe to all the holy beings, “May all beings enjoy such Pure Lands.” I am out of time, or else I’d explain how it is that mandala offerings are in fact my favorite Dharma practice, and that is saying something. You can read about them all over the place, including in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra.

Conclusion

Phew. Thanks to Buddha, we need never be at a loss for what to do again.

Over to you! Please feel free to discuss with each other below. I already took the liberty of copying and pasting some of the comments from the Facebook thread to kick it off.

A beacon to light the future in South Africa

Guest article by Kadampa Buddhist monk, Gen Pagpa.

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. The education system is in a dire state and there is 50% youth unemployment. However, in the midst of all this, COSAT High School shines out as a beacon of hope.

Pagpa and girls in Khayelitsha.jpg

COSAT is in Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town, South Africa — it stands for the Centre of Science and Technology, and its core subjects are maths and science. Khayelitsha is one of the largest townships in SA, home to more than half a million people.

The retreat and the teachings really help one towards good decision-making and a peaceful mind. In the township there are things that disturb one’s peace, such as gangsterism and other stuff. ~ Elethu, aged 15.

I arrived in South Africa in 2007 to help set up Tushita Kadampa Meditation Centre in Cape Town. On a visit to Kwa-Zulu Natal I witnessed the extraordinary efforts of Patti Joshua to bring the practical teachings of Kadampa Buddhism to the rural communities, as explained more in this article, “Where can I find you?”; and this deeply inspired me to try and share these teachings within the African communities in Cape Town as well. Pagpa and Patti

By connecting with a local hospice called St Luke’s, I have been able to give ongoing meditation sessions to cancer patients at the hospice in township locations. And it was through this that I met Sitheti, a local Anglican priest, who was acting as my interpreter for the IsiXhosa non-English speakers.

Developing a keen affinity with Dharma, Sitheti requested more teachings for other local people, which led to a seminal meeting between myself (a Kadampa Buddhist monk), Sitheti (an Anglican priest), and Phadiela, who is the Muslim principal of COSAT.

Ever since I joined the meditation group my life changed. I became a new person. I quit my old life and welcomed the new me because of meditation. I was not that peaceful from the first time but now I am able to forgive and forget. I was that harsh girl with anger but now I am no longer like that. ~ Mihle, aged 16.

PhadielaPhadiela was immediately receptive to the idea of introducing meditation classes as part of the weekly extramural activities, so I started going there the following week — initially in sessions tacked onto the end of their drama classes! This was towards the end of 2013, but when I returned in 2014 I was delighted to discover that Phadiela had allocated meditation as a stand-alone extramural activity.

It was really humbling to walk into the classroom for the first time to see twenty smiling and eager students ready to go! Fast-forward to 2018 and these classes have gone from strength to strength. There are currently thirty focused meditation students in attendance, most of whom started in 2016. Here is a 4-minute video about it.

Each meditation session lasts for an hour. We begin with breathing meditation, followed by practical advice on, for example, how to develop and maintain a good heart of loving-kindness. As part of the teaching I encourage them to share their own understanding with the group.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow I understand and know how to make myself happy. Meditation has been my boss over my emotions. Today I’m a peaceful, forgiving and loving Khanya, just like my name I bring light into the dark world, the problems of anger and pain. ~ Khanya, aged 16.

They always ask to sing the Liberating Prayer and Migtsema prayer, with trust and understanding that they have the freedom of choice to maintain their Christian faith. I also help them expand their English vocabulary and they, in turn, help me to learn their mother tongue IsiXhosa, which is a beautiful click language.

Testimonials

Here are some other testimonials from the students:

Cosat students groupIf we have inner peace then we realize that there are things we thought we couldn’t do because we did not discover our pure selves. Inner peace helps us to define ourselves and be a great example to others. ~ Alulutho, aged 15.

After the retreat last year I remember having a feeling that everything was ‘golden’. I felt a sense of love for everyone and everything in a way that I had never experienced before. ~ Aviwe, aged 15.

Meditation allows me to step outside the situation, see myself as the observer rather than the victim, and relaxes my body and mind. I turned to meditation as a means to enhance the process of healing and recovery in my breathing condition.

Ever since I started meditating I am less stressed, healthier, sleep better and have a positive outlook on life. It made me a happier person. ~ Lisakhanya, aged 16.

Pagpa and girlsSupport the girls

At the end of this year Tushita KMC will be holding the fourth annual COSAT away retreat for 30 learners at a local olive farm. If you would like to help with the retreat funding, please contact: info@meditateincapetown.org. If you are not able to contribute financially, please support us with your thoughts and prayers!

Judge not …

7.5 mins read

Our Buddha nature is likened to a golden nugget in filth for it can never perish, it is utterly indestructible. I find it pretty inspiring to think about that.

gold nugget in dirtNo matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion and wisdom. Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible, and is the pure essential nature of every living being. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Nothing we ever think, say, or do, however heinous, could destroy the vajra-like purity of our own or others’ root minds, any more than clouds can destroy the space of the sky. We can dive into that reality every day because it is the truth, and it heals us.

An encounter on Frontier

With this understanding of what lies at the heart of every single one of us, it’s a good idea not to judge ourselves or others on the basis of the fleeting thoughts in our mind or indeed the words coming out of our mouths. These are not who any of us really are. We can totally disagree with people’s ideas and actions of course, but judging the person themselves on the basis of their ideas and actions is superficial, often uninformed, and unhelpful. I relearned this lesson on Frontier Airlines last night coming back from DC.

IMG_4733I was sitting by the window, and squished in the middle seat was a portly man in his seventies. He soon became very interested in my reading the unwieldy pages of The Washington Post on Sunday, which I had bought because, hey, I was in the nation’s capital.

And he started asking me, in an unplaceable foreign accent, about where I lived and who my senators were and so on and so forth, and it soon became apparent that we were not of the same political persuasion and that he was going to vote for someone I was not. Raised eyebrows on both sides, this segued into a conversation about equality – he arguing that someone who worked hard to get an education and look after his family was not equal to someone who never mowed his lawn or picked up his trash, citing as an example his two next-door neighbors. I said they were still equal because we are all equal, and that different backgrounds and baked-in circumstances led to different opportunities and it was not on us to judge. This devolved into whether or not a physician should earn more than a school teacher because they had trained longer, me arguing that money didn’t buy happiness or measure success, that healing people could be its own reward, and he arguing that of course it did, that I was only able to fly on this plane because of money. I suggested that happiness depended not on the money in the bank but the thoughts in our mind, and he at least paused to consider that. But I could tell it was going to be an uphill battle to get him to agree with me on pretty much anything!

In any event, we were getting quite animated, but I confess I was also getting a bit annoyed by his seemingly hardline views and insistence on arguing about every point; and I was also beginning to think that he was way too big for his seat and physically squishing me as well. So I escaped by feigning sleep and then actually falling asleep. This was me:

With self-cherishing we hold our opinions and interests very strongly and are not willing to see a situation from another point of view. As a consequence we easily get angry and wish to harm others verbally or even physically. ~ How to Transform Your Life, page 97

Just before I started ignoring him, though, he looked at me and said, “We are not arguing! No, not at all. We are only debating!” And he had the sweetest look in his big old watery eyes.

When I woke later and took a sideways glance at him, I saw that he had, as a matter of fact, a very kind face. And there was something poignant about him. This idea came to my mind:

Buddha natureWhenever we meet other people, rather than focusing on their delusions we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique, but also help to bring out their good qualities. ~ How to Transform Your Life

A twist in the tale

I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of our 4-hour journey ignoring him because he had really been enjoying our conversation even if I hadn’t, so I asked him, Which country did you come from originally?

“Syria”, he replied. I got interested and asked him more. It turned out that he came over here in 1970 and then tried to live in Syria again later, but “I was forced to leave permanently a few years ago because I was in danger.”

“Why?”

“My brother was killed.”

Was his brother involved in politics? No, a quiet man, not political, only the wrong sect of Islam. Shot. And he told me that in a country of 21 million people, 1 million people have been killed, 7 million people have been forced to leave as refugees, and the children have not been at school for 7 going on 8 years, an entire generation lost. The country is bitterly divided. Nowhere is safe. He said all this very sadly. He has two elderly sisters still there who are alright only because, like a lot of people, they never dare go outside. He asked me what I thought could be done about Syria. He asked me several impossible questions on this plane journey, genuinely wanting to know what I thought.

It was sobering. I had never felt this close to Syria or its people before, realized in person how they were just like me. I don’t need to mention how much it put other problems into perspective.world peace

I had realized by now that I had (mis)judged him. I had not immediately related to his Buddha nature but to the words coming out of his mouth in our first conversation, even though they were based on just a few of his fleeting thoughts, thoughts I didn’t even remotely know the context for as it turned out, and thoughts that were not him. I could have saved myself all those slightly irked and uncharitable thoughts if I had related instead to his good heart from the get-go.

Then he added that he believed rich people had a duty to look after poor people. And that the only reason he was going to vote in the way he was going to vote is not because he believed in the person or politics at all, in fact he thought they were bad and … (here he twirled his finger around his temple), but because he believed that the only chance for Iran to be stopped from destroying his country was if their money dried up due to sanctions.

I have of course never given that geopolitical perspective a moment’s thought before. It made me wonder what other perspectives I had never bothered to entertain in this almost infinite complex web of causes and conditions that make up our globe, assuming the correctness of my own.

Can these problems ever be solved?

outer space shelleyAll we can each trust when it comes to the immensity of our outer problems, it seems to me, is doing our level best to do the right thing, the ethical thing, the wise thing, the compassionate thing. But how that shows up in practice is probably going to turn out different depending upon our positioning, amongst other things. Whether we live in Syria, or Iran, or America, for example, and whereabouts in those countries we live.

Because, to the deluded mind, our own needs and wishes seem so often contradictory with others’, in an apparently zero sum game, how can we ever hope to solve all outer problems with only outer means? It makes me even more determined to solve all the inner problems of the delusions and hallucinations of inherent existence instead, for only then will the outer problems finally go away.

He also asked me about Buddhism and what we believed in because he didn’t know the first thing about it, though he had heard of meditation being good for relaxation. He said the world was created by a superpower, not a “being”; and we got a bit philosophical there for a while.inner problems outer problems

My new friend’s name is Osama, “as in Osama Bin Laden” he said slightly ruefully. We plan to talk again. He is the sweetest person. And, Dad, if you’re reading this, he reminded me ever so slightly of you.

I will leave you with a final insight brought home by this encounter with Osama, one that Geshe Kelsang has said would lead to world peace if we all adopted it:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the fault of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being. Consequently their love and compassion for sentient beings never diminish. Failing to make this distinction, we, on the other hand, are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

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Yearning to breathe free

5 mins read

I got a tiny glimpse today of the pain that parents and children are experiencing at our borders, as they are forcibly separated, the kids put into the custody of the office of refugee resettlement, many in cages.

Tagger JuniorI took the three kittens for a routine vaccination, but Tagger Junior, who admittedly eats like there is no tomorrow, turned out to be big enough ahead of schedule for his operation and adoption.

“We are taking him now.” So instead of bringing home three kittens, I brought home two, and they were crying all the way.

I have had Tagger Jr. here since he weighed a pound. Kittens are famously heart-tugging and vulnerable, as any quick glance at the Internet will tell you; and he is no exception – a sweet-natured trusting little dude. He pawed at my face as I said goodbye. Then he was looking at me with those wide innocent eyes, like, “What is happening, where are you going?” as I was obliged to hand him over to a busy vet tech. He then stared after me through the glass door of the kitten room, confused. Hours later, I still miss him. I really hope he doesn’t miss me.

I was feeling a mixture of some sadness and helplessness, not knowing where he will end up now in this life let alone the next, wanting him to be okay, feeling bad about leaving him without me when he trusted me. This is what I mean about a glimpse.

border familyOf course, in this case we are (a) only talking about a cat, who will soon forget this trauma and me and (b) I know he will be taken good care of by the shelter. I also at least know where he is for the time being, safe, unlike the dad I read about who can get no information on where they’ve taken his four-year old. WTF. Where are these faceless officials taking all these children? They are being warehoused, apparently, literally where housed? (Such as in a decommissioned Walmart with blackened windows that no one can enter, later to be “put into foster care or whatever” according to one official.) Who is comforting these children? Who is loving them? Who is caring enough to ensure they’ll escape lifelong trauma?

I couldn’t have kept Tagger Jr; that wasn’t the point of me looking after him. But those parents wanted desperately to keep their children, obviously, and the cruelty of separating them is weighing on me. With their whole heart, they will miss their kids and their kids will miss them until they can see each other again – and when exactly will that be?

give me your tiredSuffering of uncertainty

Tagger’s life is risky, and his future full of samsaric pitfalls – this in itself is pretty scary and tragic if you think about it. Hopefully the Buddhas will answer my prayers that someone will now love Tagger until he dies, when he will get out of the lower realms. Fostering him and other kittens is a constant reminder for me to make these prayers for all animals.

And, for that matter, all human beings, as none of us knows where we are going next, not really. There are no guarantees while our minds and karma are out of control.

But I was wondering, what can these parents pray for their kids? They wanted to protect them with every atom of their being; it is why they took the risky journey all the way here. How do they deal with the sense of failure and guilt and betrayal and fear? Or live with that longing to see their children again, let alone the desperate hourly need to know that they are ok? It reminds me of one of the most chilling scenes I have ever seen in a movie, that one in Sophie’s Choice. It is mind-boggling. I don’t know the answers.

mother with childLike I said, I only got a tiny glimpse of the pain – but it has given me some empathy and incentive. I could blame increasingly draconian and legally suspect policies for the arbitrary power that is crushing people’s lives. I could … I do, actually. However, the deeper culprit is the delusions tyrannizing all of our minds, along with the underdevelopment of our wisdom and compassion. This is what needs addressing most urgently, for everyone’s sake.

Suffering of having no companionship

So please pray for all these families, and for everyone in samsara who is being torn away from their loved ones in life after life. As well as for those living beings creating or tasked with the horrible job of taking the kids away, trying somehow to sleep at night, all the while creating the karma for the same to happen to them.

I wish I could intervene directly to put a stop to all this. I have donated money, made prayers, joined in the outcry. And I am glad there is an increasingly widespread and bipartisan outcry, at least, as more facts of this “zero tolerance” or rather “zero humanity” come out each day; and I pray that the unpopular policy is reversed soon.

However, I feel I also have to go deeper. Since I cannot do much practically while I remain limited and no one is really listening to me, I need to step up my efforts to become a Bodhisattva and a Buddha asap, spreading blessings and emanations everywhere there are suffering beings.

I hope you become one soon too. How else are we going to stop this samsaric madness so that it stays stopped?

After all, 2 of the 8 sufferings of samsara described by Buddha, as explained in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, are the sufferings of uncertainty and having no companionship. In samsara, this means, they will go on forever.

As a friend pointed out, this has been going on in America for centuries already, let alone in all the other realms of samsara:

Native American indigenous children were taken away from their parents, their hair was cut and they were not allowed to speak their native language. (They died from the separation.) Of course African slave families were ripped apart & “sold separately” by their owners, not knowing where their children, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers or mothers were sent. Japanese Americans were stripped of all their property and possessions during WW2 and put in interment camps in CA not too long ago. (I have seen those camps.) T’was ever thus in the inevitable sphere of suffering. MUST PRACTICE — MUST GET OUT!

All three kittensPs, By the way, don’t let this put you off fostering … these kittens were rescued from being gassed to death at another shelter. And there is still time to adopt Tagger Jr. or his brothers …

Update: The separation of families is getting more and more out of control. Samsara grinds on. At least Tagger got a home, for now.

Update update (June 21): Since I wrote this, the public outcry on both sides of the aisle has been huge, thank goodness. The policy is being reversed. Samsara, however, still grinds on. We still need to get ourselves and others out of here permanently.

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Practical precepts for a Bodhisattva wannabe

Given that we have to go to work and/or haconnectionng out and/or social media (verb yet?) with lots of other people, there are umpteen opportunities in our modern lives to observe the Bodhisattva’s vow, where we take personal responsibility to travel the path to enlightenment for the sake of others by practicing the six perfections.

Just to retrace our steps for a moment …

When we develop a compassion that wishes to free everyone permanently from their suffering, it doesn’t take much to figure out that we can’t actually do that while remaining limited, identifying “Me” on the basis of only this impure & ordinary body and mind.

I was just thinking today, for example — when someone was mildly complaining that they never saw me — that although I too would like to hang out with them all the time, there is just one of me. And how much handier it would be if there were more of me, so I could be in more than one place at a time.

IMG_2194-EFFECTS
I only live here at the moment.

So that got me to thinking, “Hmmm, how can I get around this problem and have more time and fun with everyone?! I mean, Skype and FaceTime have their uses, but still …

Wait, I have an idea! A Buddha can be everywhere all at once, and help and bless not just a small circle of friends, but each and every living being every day – that’s her job description! I’m going to use this life to become a Buddha.”

With that conclusion, we have generated bodhichitta. Then we engage practically in the six perfections with this big, beautiful motivation, working on different levels as mentioned in this last article.

Within that, I find it very encouraging to know that with the six perfections there is always something we can be doing to solve our own and others’ problems.

#2 Moral discipline 

This second perfection, that of moral discipline or ethical behavior, includes avoiding negativity and benefiting others. As a rule of thumb, we can ask ourselves before doing stuff:

IMG_2210

“Is this action going to help or harm others? If it will harm them, I won’t do it.”

This question can free us from hypocrisy, ie, saying one thing and doing another, and keep us real. We can become a shining light on the hill through the power of our genuine example.

#3 Patient acceptance

And we can be patient when things and people don’t work out; for example, when they ignore or cannot receive our help, and fall over into the swamp despite our best attempts to prevent this.

Avoiding the downfalls of the Bodhisattva vow

As well as training in the six perfections, the Bodhisattva vow also entails avoiding the 46 secondary and 18 root downfalls related to these six, many of which I find refreshingly appropriate to our modern society. I thought I’d share a fairly random selection, in the hopes you are inspired to find out all about them in the book The Bodhisattva Vow.

Enjoying ourselves more

One of the downfalls related to the perfection of giving, “Indulging in worldly pleasures out of attachment,” reminds me that it is not our work that is currently distracting us from making spiritual progress, helping other people, or even enjoying ourselves, but our attachment to externals! This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy our lives, but that we can enjoy our lives with bodhichitta motivation.

A few weeks ago I was at the beautiful Echo Lake in Colorado with my friend and he said, “I would love to bring a busload of kids from the south side of Chicago up here.” We can mandala offeringalways invite others in, mentally, to our enjoyments — “May all beings enjoy such Pure Lands”, as we say in the mandala offering.

This makes our enjoyments instantly meaningful, good karma, and, in my experience, more blissful.

Plus, if we actually have some bodhichitta, we may find we have more energy to immerse into interesting Dharma books and classes, and less energy to waste on social media and TV 😉 Even changing that direction to go inward a little bit can help a lot, I have found.

Related to the perfection of giving, we also need to avoid “Not replying to others”, which basically means “we try to make others’ minds happy by giving suitable answers anIMG_2211d advice.” We don’t have to be appointed as a teacher or sit on a throne to share our experiences – we can talk about these ideas wherever we go, whenever we are with others who are receptive. For example, if someone at work is suffering from jealousy or anxiety, we can give them common-sense advice on rejoicing and finding some peace, without having to use any of the Buddhist terminology.

Avoiding time suck

Similarly, it is not engaging in the world that is sucking up all our precious time, it is our distractions. This is implied by the fact that Bodhisattvas “accept gifts” and “accept invitations” whenever they can! Related to the perfection of moral discipline, they also avoid “Doing little to benefit others” – not “needlessly shunning wealth, reputation, or involvement with other people.” With bodhichitta, we can increase our wealth and reputation provided we use it to help others.

Also related to moral discipline, Bodhisattvas promise to “help others avoid negativity,” “go to the assistance of those in need”, “take care of the sick”, “act to dispel suffering”, “help others to overcome their bad habits”, and so on. You can read about all of these if you get a moment. Lovely.

Universal CompassionAnd then, if you are still interested, do check out the vows and commitments of training the mind in the book Universal Compassion. These also give modern-day people like me a lot of practical advice on working on many levels to bring both temporary and ultimate help.

Crucially, perhaps — if we never lose sight of our main aim of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of every living being, then, regardless of how many things don’t work out or “go wrong”, nothing will be wasted. Every single day will be a step in the right direction.

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Developing a Bodhisattva’s confidence

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A Bodhisattva’s way of life

Who around here couldn’t use some support? So I wanted to say a bit more about the different levels on which we can help others, following on from this article about the swamp of samsara.

Dharma in daily lifeThe way I see it is that we need to do stuff everyday, anyway, and — whatever it is we do — why not make it really count by doing it motivated by renunciation for the suffering yet unreal nature of samsara? (Our motivations determine the outcome of our actions, or karma.)

With renunciation like this, we won’t get heavy-hearted or anxious. Why? Because we have given up on our attachment to things working out in this swamp of samsara, and therefore each day we have nothing to lose. We just need to try, not worry. This swamp may have a shallow end, where people can stand, and a deep end, where people are drowning; but it is all basically swampish. Luckily, this swamp is also just mere imputation or label of mind, which means that when we transform our minds through wisdom, it will disappear, Poof!, like last night’s dream.

So, with renunciation on others’ behalf (aka compassion), we can help in whatever way we think of, on different levels. Nothing is too small or too trivial – any more than helping someone to tread an inch to the right, avoid the snapping teeth, or find a stepping stone is trivial if they are scared or drowning. It is not the final answer to this person’s problems, but it is still important to them and therefore to us. In the same way, we can give people the necessities of food, shelter, medicine, & protection, work toward a fairer and more humane society, and so on.

The six perfections

The Bodhisattva is the Mahayana Buddhist role model, and a better role model would be hard to find.

He or she trains in the so-called “six perfections” – giving, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration/meditation, and wisdom.

giving

These six practices are called “perfections” because they are motivated by the mind of enlightenment, aka bodhichitta, which is the wish to realize our potential for enlightenment so that we can lead all living beings without exception to that state of lasting happiness.

In other words, we want to wake ourselves up from the hallucinations of samsara, become an “Awakened One” aka “Buddha”, so that we can go about waking everyone else up too.

The Bodhisattva’s aim is therefore two-fold: (1) to help others as much as possible both practically and spiritually right now, and (2) to get daily closer to the inner light of omniscience, with its power to bless each and every being every day, so we can free them all for good.

The first three perfections, largely applicable to our daily actions, lend themselves to helping people navigate their way to safety, to the shallow end as it were; albeit still submerged for now in the swamp of samsara. All the while we can be motivated by the wish to get them onto the dry land of liberation, where they are forever safe from suffering.

Giving

giving is livingGiving (or, really, giving back) includes giving material things AND giving Dharma teachings or advice. We can help people at work — and with our work — in any way that seems suitable, sometimes with material help to improve individual or societal well being, and sometimes with non-judgmental skillful advice that people can use to transform their thoughts.

Buddha’s teachings are divided into wisdom teachings, which are basically his teachings on emptiness, and method teachings, which are basically everything else. We can start using both to help others.

Method teachings

For example, with Buddha’s advice on interdependence, we can show how we could all better navigate this swamp by mending our fractured society of small, selfish, isolated Me’s by joining up in caring, cooperative, connected teams of We instead.

Or we could explain how not to mistake other people for their delusions, but see them as victims of their confusion and anger etc., just as we are, and so stay loving and patient.

connectionWe could also encourage people to witness and take refuge in their own and others’ good hearts and pure, peaceful minds. Knowing that we all have immense spiritual depth and potential, we can help others identify with that rather than their false, limited, suffering sense of self.

We can demonstrate with our own example how changing direction to go inwards for peace is not a selfish escape, but paradoxically connecting us more more and more deeply with everyone else “out there”.

Wisdom teachings

It seems to me as though the method teachings are the way to get people to the shallow end of samsara’s vast swamp, where they at least have their heads above water. But the only way to lift them out of the swamp altogether is with Buddha’s wisdom teachings. As Buddha Maitreya puts it:

Because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure.

All the time we are practicing giving and the other perfections, we know in our heart that we are trying to get people to a place where they can realize it is all just the impure dream of an impure mind. This way, they can wake up and create a world of their own choosing out of the bliss and emptiness of their Buddhism in society 2own purified mind. And then they can pull everyone out onto dry land as well.

By the way, we don’t have to sit on a throne to give good advice. We don’t have to be a Dharma millionaire yet, either, as Geshe Kelsang once put it – we just need a few spare dollars in our pocket. Any Dharma we have, we can give, and we will never run out. We don’t have to use Dharma terminology, of course. We can use the language that works for whoever we are talking to. We can use the language of the heart.

We can also give fearlessness, time, attention, and love. Even — or sometimes especially — our practice of meditation is giving others fearlessness and love, holding the space for them. There is a beautiful video that seems to demonstrate this … check out the brief footage of our Kadampa nun in Mexico 😊

And I think we can do all this giving without judgment, as explained for example in this article about giving unconditionally to homeless people, though that might be a subject for another day.

We are really learning to give of ourselves, to let go of keeping ourselves to ourselves, staying small and poky. Giving is a big beautiful shining open-hearted practice that brings real joy to our own and others’ lives.

More on the other perfections and related practical advice in the next article …

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To the rescue!

While working on an article filled with your ideas on how Buddhists can (and need to) help in the current world turmoil, someone sent me this:

In a recent retreat, after teaching on emptiness and how the appearances in this life are like dreams, Gen Losang went on to say that a compassionate way to help people is to skilfully reduce the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it. He meant skilfully, not shutting them down with, “Oh, it’s all emptiness.” 

wisdom

What do you think about this? It reminded me of this analogy (below) for helping people on different levels and in accordance with their needs that I hope you might also find helpful.

To help anyone, we need compassion. And true compassion, or deep compassion, arises from renunciation – we develop renunciation for ourselves and for everyone else.

Renunciation is when we stop buying into samsara, hoping that things in samsara will one day work themselves out – they will not. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. For as long as our minds are impure, our worlds will be impure.

“Reducing the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it” depends on the degree of suffering and crazy appearances the person is experiencing.

If we are helping someone who has a little space in their lives, and who is suffering, for example, from a relationship problem – yes, this advice can really help.

For someone whose home and country have just been washed away or burned to the ground, maybe not so much. (Unless they already have experience of this deep spiritual truth and just want reminding.)

The swamp

Imagine living beings are trying to navigate a huge, deep swamp that happens to be full of alligators and other monsters with very big teeth and hungry bellies. It is dusky — hard to see clearly or far. There are stepping stones, but it’s challenging to see how to tread safely. Here and there are small patches of dry land where people can catch a bit of a breather, and some of those patches even seem relatively pretty or interesting.

alligator in swampImagine that we are also in that swamp, but that we know, at least intellectually, something profound – this swamp is false, merely an appearance to mind, like a dream or a movie.

The need for renunciation

In that scenario, we need renunciation ourselves, wishing to get out of this swamp of samsara entirely and forever rather than remaining intrigued by it. We need to know that for as long as we have delusions, we’re going to keep projecting monsters wherever we look.

dystopia

Speaking for myself, I know that the times I feel anxious, overwhelmed, heavy, or graspy is when I have forgotten my renunciation, which is a light, joyful, and confident wish for liberation. My compassion then is far less effective. I have thoughts like, “There are so many people, including animals, needing help! So many people demanding the attention that I’m not giving them – it’s coming from all sides. How am I going to save them all from the alligators?! Especially when I’m feeling trapped or overwhelmed myself?” I feel like going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or distracting myself with Netflix. It also doesn’t help if we are bound to our own selfish attachments needing things or people to go our way.

If we don’t have the non-attachment of renunciation, we have only momentary relief when a plan pans out – but it is short lived, whereas the disappointments can seem to pile up effortlessly. This is because of attachment. It leads to the suffering of change, not to deep satisfaction or solutions.

The need for wisdom

We also need some wisdom understanding the illusory nature of the swamp or we will soon be joining in the collective panic, “Aarggh, I’m freaking out over here! We’re going to be swallowed whole.” We will be part of the problem, swept up in the drama, overwhelmed by appearances or the 24/7 news cycle.

Without wisdom, compassion fatigue sets in because it is exhausting to try and solve “real” problems — it is like wading through treacle with no end in sight. It can also make us feel guilty as we can never do enough.

With the compassion born of renunciation and wisdom, we won’t get discouraged. The context is different – we have set it up differently. We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”

Back to the analogy … Let’s say we are lucky enough to have a flashlight. The flashlight is the teachings illuminating the path — we don’t know how long we have this flashlight, but it is very effective. How strong it is depends on the strength of our experience. Perhaps we understand the dream-like nature of reality and — even though for now things may also still seem real to us — we know we have to get ourselves and others to the firm ground of wisdom.

Tread here!

swampWhat we need to do, if we care about the people around us, is to stop them being eaten by swamp monsters. The first thing we need to do is encourage them to get to the patches of dry land … tread here, avoid those jaws, hold my hand, look at the light. You’ll be ok, let me help.” Although there are no real dangers there, they are not necessarily ready to hear us say so: “Stop being an idiot! There are no swamp monsters! This is just a dream! It’s all empty!” We understand how it is all appearing to them as real, and so we give them the relevant advice for their situation. We empathize with their hopes and fears. We give them material help, “Here, have some water.” They need water.

Once they reach dry land, and have had a chance to rest up, we can then tell them:

“Believe it or not, this is all just a bad dream. You are in no real danger. And now let me explain how.”

We can explain how it is possible for them to stay on firm ground forever, and help get everyone else out as well.

IMG_2080

We may not be able to do this with everyone straightaway, of course — for example all I can do with these foster kittens is give them food, shelter, love, temporary safety, and entertainment. But we never give up trying until everyone is permanently safe and free. That is a Bodhisattva‘s mentality.

Calm the waters

I’ll finish by sharing what my friend wrote about Gen Losang’s advice:

The key for me here is genuine compassion. I say that because if we try to practice this without genuine compassion as a motivation then we just end up unskillfully minimising people’s feelings. It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.

Within that, I try not to draw attention to the awful things that are happening. Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic. I point out possible alternative explanations for the actions they have witnessed, or suggest a better possible outcome. In a way I try to steer their dream in a more positive direction. If a mother comforts a child after a nightmare, she doesn’t do this by agreeing the monsters were just horrific and are probably still there …IMG_2085

If we are not careful, we can just spread the hype (and there is also no shortage of “fake news” out there). We can end up pointing out the monsters in their nightmares that they missed the first time, instead of shining the flashlight under the bed and saying, “Look, there is no one there!”

A parent comforts their children when they have been terrified or upset by a dream by sympathising with their pain but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth. Then, once they are comforted to some extent, they can move their attention to something that will soothe or comfort them, rather than harping on about their own horrific nightmares or asking them for more details. 

What I am working on now is responding in the way Losang suggested, calming the waters, not swirling them around. 

As always, your comments are welcome below.

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Change your future by changing your mind

How to help on different levels

Developing confidence