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).
(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.
(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 TheOral 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.
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.
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 never 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.
The 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
Talking 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!:
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.
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.
It 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.
We are making all of this up as we go along. Always have been. Always will be.
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?!
Even 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 for everyone
But luckily samsara is not real.
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.
When 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.
Harari 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.
Homo 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.
The 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 our 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.
Everything 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.
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.
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.
As part of anger, it is a toxic inner poison, so no wonder it leads to so many problems. Anger is a distorted unrealistic mind, so how can it serve any useful purpose?
Destroying our confidence, self-dislike and over-critical self-judgment blocks our creativity and inspiration, and therewith can sabotage not just our careers but our spiritual practice.
It deadens our relationships – keeping us trapped in relationships where we might put up with the other person criticizing or abusing us, because we feel we “deserve” it.
A quick Google search shows that it leads to shame, sadness, self-doubt, fear, hopelessness, irritability, frustration, and learning and memory problems. We get depressed, suffer from lower energy, experience constant anxiety, and engage in self-destructive behaviors. For example, if we believe we are hopeless and cannot stick to a diet, we may just as well eat those six donuts – it’ll provide temporary relief at least!
We become our own worst enemy, but it doesn’t stop there – it can make us criticize and complain about others as well, making enemies of them. This can be because, when we are feeling irritable, everything appears irritating. Then people don’t like us and we end up liking ourselves less too, in a negative spiral.
Constantly complaining about others or ourselves is bad for our mind and for our body (Google it!). Experiencing anger and frustration causes our body to release the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, a weakened immune system, and the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Need I go on?!
Putting others down can also be an attempt to distract ourselves from our own perceived inadequacies, or an attempt to bolster our own self-esteem. If we liked and valued ourselves, would we really need to put others down to raise ourselves up? No self-respecting person actually feels the need to do that.
Among many other things, this 4-part series shows me how oppressing or dehumanizing other people to deal with our own feelings of inadequacy leads to frightening hypocrisy, self-deception, and societal problems; and how it is little wonder that so many African Americans experience not just less opportunity but also report to feelings of low self-esteem, given this nation’s long violent history of systemic racism. This documentary has given me a far clearer picture of the factors at play in many of the problems faced in America today.
It is often so painful to admit that we have faults that we make all manner or excuse rather than alter our exalted view of ourselves. One of the most common ways of not facing up to our faults is to blame others.
America has a lot of amazing qualities and I love it, but I have been thinking how white-washing our history is not helping us to stop demonizing each other, let alone to love and respect one other; which we need to do if we are to have any hope of a fair and peaceful society. I was not brought up here so it may be less surprising that much of this documentary was news to me, but I watched it with an African American friend who told me that he learned very little of this history of slavery and its aftermath in school in Texas. Other American friends, black and white, old and even young, in the south and in the north, have also told me that the US educational system has been highly selective with its facts about the Civil War and Reconstruction, that they were fed a lot of propaganda. But until this history is widely explained and acknowledged, I can’t see how it can go away.
We need to acknowledge our delusions in order to overcome them, otherwise we are fooling ourselves, as it says in Eight Steps, …
… like pretending that there is no dirt in our house after sweeping it under the carpet.
I was struck in Berlin’s monuments of how owning the faults of the past has allowed people to learn what not to do moving forward, to claim back some self-respect as a society, to heal, and to move on. What’s to stop us doing something similar in America?
The past is like last night’s dream, it has gone. So I don’t see all this so much as sorting out a solid, real past so much as using the past as a mirror for recognizing the patterns of thinking and behaving that are still alive in us today, so we can deal with them in ourselves and in our society. If we look in the mirror and find there’s nothing to fix, that’s great; but I think there is value in looking. Or else, you know what they say about history repeating itself??!
In terms of making external improvements to our society, people come up with different ideas, political or otherwise, some more effective than others. If we use Buddha’s teachings, known as Dharma, to solve our inner problems – in this instance, solving the problem of self-hatred and low self-esteem – I reckon that this in turn will make our outer actions more successful and compassionate wherever we stand on politics.
Anyway, this is a deep subject to wade into, but, like I say, the documentary has been eye opening; so I just wanted to throw some of my thoughts out there to continue a conversation about how Buddha’s radical ideas can help society.
What’s the Buddhist solution to self-loathing, then?
It doesn’t work to push these self-critical thoughts away or suppress them any more than it works to squish a jack back into the box and expect him to stay down. We can’t just tell ourselves to shut up. So what can we do?
To solve the problem of anger, we first need to recognize the anger within our mind, acknowledge how it harms both ourself and others, and appreciate the benefits of being patient in the face of difficulties.
First off, of course, we need to become aware that those critical thoughts are there and that they are harming us and others, but without panicking. We are not our thoughts. We are like pure boundless sky. We can learn to patiently accept what is going on with our thoughts with a view to letting them go.
As explained more in this article, we have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? It is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts.
In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains about examining our thoughts as a precursor to meditation practice:
Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions. At the beginning our mind is very much orientated towards external phenomena and we are preoccupied with worldly affairs, but by bringing our attention inwards to examine the mind it is possible that these conceptual distractions will cease.
It’s very interesting and revealing to turn our attention from outward to inward. Try it and see. It doesn’t take long to notice that, after all, we are not our thoughts. There is space there, space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. How is it possible to let them go? Because they are just fleeting thoughts and they are not me. I can let them all go, for example using a breathing meditation or dissolving them back into the clarity of the mind from which they arose.
This is just the first step — there is more here about how, with this as a first step, we can develop a more empowered sense of self.
Over to you … there are 4 more articles in the pipeline already written, including this one; but I can incorporate your feedback if you leave it for me in the comments below.
A month in New York City provides more than enough food for thought for a meditator. There is no avoiding people in the city that never sleeps, and on every street, avenue, and subway all manifestations of human nature, good or bad, are on display. Here are three subway stories for starters.
Story 1 The Family
I was sitting opposite a family – the elderly mom and dad sitting close to each other, and the adult daughter standing up next to them. They were being companionable, not chatting very much if at all, but they looked sweet together. I wondered whether the parents had come to visit the daughter, or the daughter had come to visit the parents, or whether they all lived in NYC. I wondered what they all did and whether there were other children in the family. I can’t remember what else I wondered about, but it kept me occupied for at least two subway stops.
Then we reached 42nd Street and the daughter got off. She didn’t say goodbye to her parents! That’s odd, I thought. Bit rude. Or … and this was a bit of a blow … maybe she wasn’t their daughter after all!
Ah well, they still made an adorable couple. Obviously been together for years as they felt no need to make small talk. Probably still had a daughter somewhere. Maybe a dog too.
But when we reached 28th Street, the husband just stood up and left — without so much as a backward glance at his wife of 30 years! That’s odd, I thought. Bit rude! Or … and this was now not just a blow but an entire dismantling of my subway reality … maybe they weren’t a couple after all!!!
Hmmm. I don’t know about you (well, I do a bit), but I am doing this kind of thing all the time. We are making up stories about other people, and ourselves for that matter, but then believing them as if they were the truth. Always believing whatever appears to us, which just so happens to be the same as whatever it is we are unknowingly projecting with our thoughts.
This story and its characters turned out to be completely unreal, but all felt perfectly real at the time. How many of our daily stories are actually real? What are we doing all day long?!!
Story 2 “You are a sick woman!”
Story 1 was a fabricated narrative for sure, which left me feeling slightly foolish; but no real harm was done, and I didn’t inflict my “truth” on others. This was not the case in this second story.
Opposite me was a man and a woman (they were canoodling so I felt safe in assuming they were a couple), and next to the girlfriend (Woman 1) was another woman (Woman 2).
The couple were chatting away while Woman 2 was contentedly minding her own business and, like 95% of the rest of the carriage, playing with her phone. All was fine. All was peaceful.
Then Woman 1, wanting to point out where they were going, accidentally waved her hand in Woman 2’s face. Woman 2 not unreasonably pushed her hand away without looking up from her phone.
Woman 1 made a face at her boyfriend, but was otherwise ready to let it go. But he wasn’t. He leaned over and said, “What do you think you are doing, pushing my girlfriend’s hand away like that?!”
Surprised, Woman 2 said it had been in her face, and in the way of her and her texting.
“I don’t care!” said the man. “That was incredibly rude”. Anyway, I will now spare you the details of what they said, but the whole carriage, including Woman 1, started to pay even more attention to their phones as this rapidly escalated into a loud argument.
Woman 1, embarrassed, put her hand on the boyfriend’s knee to try and pacify him, but he wasn’t having it, the bit now between his teeth. And instead of just saying sorry or nothing at all, Woman 2 was giving back as good as she got.
Visibly agitated, they stopped and stared ahead of them for a few moments. Peace at last, the rest of us fervently hoped, as we surreptitiously resumed some eye contact.
But then Woman 2 leaned over, having thought of something really juicy to say, and let it rip.
Within the time frame of two subway stops, two strangers had become two mortal enemies — the man was standing up and yelling at her, “You are a sick woman!”
Luckily, he had to get off at his stop. But his anger went with him; he was still fuming as he walked past the window.
The two women sat there right next to each other in silence. Woman 1 looked like she was about to cry. I wanted them to turn to each other and say, “Sorry about that! Bit over the top.” But they didn’t. They just looked miserable. All three of those people’s mornings were ruined. That may not even be the only time anger arose for them that day. And it could all have been so easily avoided.
This was just one of million stories of anger playing themselves out all over the city and all over the world. Ruining people’s enjoyment. Ruining relationships. Exaggerating everything into such ugliness. Causing such harm. And for what? Where was the truth in any of that? To those in the carriage not under the deception of anger, for example, there was nothing believable about that narrative at all.
Story 3 The old lady fallen on hard times
Meanwhile, while the anger narratives play out on every street and subway, the stories worth paying attention to if we want to develop positive minds are instead ignored.
A woman in her seventies, I would guess, got onto the subway and started hesitantly to tell us her story. “I am very sorry to be doing this, but I never expected at my age to be staying in a shelter.”
She lived with her husband for many years and had a job just like everyone else. But he fell very ill and, having no children, she left work to take care of him. They spent all their money, and then he died, a month ago. And she realized she had nothing. That she was homeless.
This story was so so sad, I was deeply moved. I gave her some money and a smile, and her eyes brimmed with tears.
The reality is that she is our kind mother, she is just like us, and she has fallen on hard times and is deserving of our love and concern. She could have been me. She could have been you. We could be her. If I so much as lost my phone, wallet, or way, for example, or if I felt faint, I would expect the people around me to be sympathetic if I asked for help. But everyone in that carriage was way too immersed in their phone or studying the floor to even look at this entirely lost old woman. Not one person gave her money. Not one person said, “I’m so sorry.”
Then I got to wondering, because I know these people are not bad people, what if you had been sitting next to her in a doctor’s waiting room or at a friend’s funeral when she told you her story? Would you not say, “I’m so sorry” then, and mean it? What line, in other words, do people have to fall below to become invisible?
One homeless man, head bowed, had a cardboard sign saying, “I am invisible.”
In India, a friend from Calcutta was telling me, most people don’t see the huge numbers of destitute street children, and, if they do, they look through them or down on them. And you wonder how anyone could ever become that desensitized, you think, “That could never happen in my country! Those children would be cared for!” Well, guess what, it is happening in my country, it is happening right under my nose.
Where is the shared humanity? Let’s not get started on our unkindness to other species – what about man’s inhumanity to man? We are better than this of course, much better. And if we could just learn to follow our better instincts, live in accordance with our Buddha nature, there would be no more loud arguments on the subway, no more callous disregard of an old lady’s despair.
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 majority 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. And in response to some other criticism that has come my way for talking about this subject, I would like to say that for me this is not about politics — ie, I am not trying to scare anyone into voting in any way. As you’ll see, this article is all about Dharma responses to the rapidly deteriorating environments of our world, which anyone can apply, regardless of their political views.
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. 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 the 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.
And 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.
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
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.
It is time to break free from samsara
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.
Even 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 anyway? 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
We 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 😮.
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:
All 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 power of love and compassion
We should never underestimate the purifying power of a mind suffused with love. Because it is in alignment with reality, it is more powerful than a deluded mind.
It is said that there exists a magic crystal that has the power to purify any liquid in which it is placed. Those who cherish all living beings are like this crystal –by their very presence they remove negativity from the world and give back love and kindness.
A friend today was saying how we could imagine that we are like the trees in a forest — sucking out the carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen.
To find out how to increase love and compassion, and do the magical practice of taking and giving, check out the clear and inspiring instructions in The New Eight Steps to Happiness.
Whenever we are engaged in any outward actions to protest climate change and do something about it, it is worth remembering that these actions will be infinitely more powerful if we do them with a mind focused on love and compassion, and especially if we do them with bodhichitta.
We are all in this together
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.
Different levels of compassion
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
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 Zimmer 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.
2. Moral discipline
Moral discipline or ethics 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. (I have started offsetting my flights, using this website.) We can press our world and industrial leaders into 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.)
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.
Moral 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.
3. Patient acceptance
Patience 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.
Effort or enthusiasm 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 others 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 and mindfulness are 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 realizing the way things are 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.
These 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
This 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.
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 Dharmaon 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.
Four complete purities
I just read this succinct paragraph from Al Gore quoted in this week’s (Sept 2019) Time Magazine:
Humanity is now spewing more than 110 million tons of global warming pollution every day into the exceedingly thin shell of atmosphere that surrounds our planet as if it were an open sewer. The extra heat energy being trapped on earth and exacerbated by man-made climate change is now equal to what would be released by 500,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding on earth every single day, according to James Hansen, a leading climate scientist.
And it made me think of this essential practice of Tantric Buddhism, wherein instead of spewing pollution into the atmosphere we could be emanating wisdom blessings and love. All the time, if we want. Our minds are very very powerful if we focus them, and if everyone started doing this the world would improve very quickly. Even if we alone start doing this, our world will transform, and we’ll naturally be raising global awareness because we are all interconnected.
Having generated ourself as Heruka with a completely pure body and mind, we now imagine that five-colored lights, the nature of our five omniscient wisdoms, radiate from our body and pervade all worlds throughout the ten directions, completely purifying these worlds and the beings who inhabit them. We imagine that all impurities and imperfections of samsaric environments are purified. All rocky and uneven ground is made smooth, all extremes of heat and cold are removed, deserts are transformed into beautiful parks, floods abate, darkness is dispelled — the whole environment is transformed into Heruka’s Pure Land. ~ Great Treasury of Merit
You can find out more about these Tantric practices in the Tantric books. If you don’t know anything about Tantra, you can practice taking and giving and consider the analogy of the magic crystal explained above. There is always something we can do.
Just one more point I’d like to make (and thank you for reading this far! … )
Don’t forget mandala offerings!
One 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Phadiela 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.
Now 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.
Here are some other testimonials from the students:
If 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.
Support 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are not able to contribute financially, please support us with your thoughts and prayers!