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.

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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:

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“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.

Related articles

Developing a Bodhisattva’s confidence

Developing a Buddha’s omniscience 

Integrity and ethics 

More on patient acceptance 

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 …

Related articles

The gift that keeps on giving

First you, then me ~ the Bodhisattva’s attitude

To the rescue!

Just passin’ through

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.

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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.

Related articles

Renunciation 

Change your future by changing your mind

How to help on different levels

Developing confidence

 

Are we doing enough?

who wants changePeople everywhere are suffering. Mass murder in Las Vegas. Climate catastrophes. Rampant racism. Growing inequality. Sanctioned homophobia. The clear and present danger of nuclear war. Millions more animals butchered without conscience. Even bad so-called Buddhists in Myanmar. Oh, and let’s not forget what’s been going on in all the other realms of samsara.

And that’s just today.

When I read these things I wonder, as a Buddhist, am I practicing enough? Am I giving enough? Am I helping enough? Am I putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak? Or am I still allowing myself to get too distracted or too complacent, “I’m alright, Jack”, given that Buddhism, or Dharma, makes it increasingly easy to feel all peaceful and happy inside? Or discouraged and fatalist, “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s nothing I can do about this mess of a world so there is no point even trying.”?

We can always operate on two levels – inside and outside. Training our mind does not preclude being active to help our world. With a peaceful, grounded, and stable heart, above all practicing compassion and wisdom, we can also act externally to try and make a difference in whatever way seems appropriate, and according to how much time and skill we have.

What to do about Las Vegas?

sign-americansFor me, for example, I am using what happened on Sunday to remind myself that I have to address any hatred or even dislike in my own mind. If this is what uncontrolled aversion can do, I cannot afford to let this delusion feel at home in my heart.

And then I’m trying to figure what I can do to help counteract the culture of violence in the USA, partly by seeking to understand it more fully in the first place. I may not be able to do much, but I can contribute in some ways.

There need be no contradiction between practicing Buddhism on the inside and on the outside – when we try to protect others by, for example, campaigning for gun control with a good heart, this is a Bodhisattva perfection, giving fearlessness.

And we also have to practice patience with the outcome. We cannot be attached to the results of our actions in the near future because so many other factors are already in play. However, we can know that this giving and patience are creating good karma that will lead to good results.

And I accompany any actions with a prayer for the best possible outcome, for prayers are never wasted.

And North Korea?!

What about even more seemingly out of control situations such as climate change or the nuclear escalation between North Korea and the US? It is not beyond the realm of possibility that we’ll be faced with a “limited nuclear option” that would claim an impossible number of lives and throw this world into hell. So what do we do about that?

I don’t think we should pretend it is not happening. I don’t think we should pretend that we are not part of this world or that this world is not part of us. I don’t think this is a good time to be distracted by our own small problems and entertainments. I do think we need to be motivated by this to become Bodhisattvas and Buddhas as quickly as possible, so that we can use our wisdom to destroy our own and others’ samsara.

And as prayers do make all the difference, we need to direct our prayers toward world peace not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, but NOW.

It is not an either/or

Some Buddhists frame our activities as an either/or: either we are studying and meditating to attain enlightenment or we are helping others “externally”. But that’s a bit precious human lifeof a red herring because we can do both, and both can be leading us closer to enlightenment.

In any event, it is not as if many of us get to sit around in monasteries or their equivalent any more, studying and meditating all day long, like it was in Tibet. The chance would be a fine thing! Although I am of the opinion that most of us could indeed profitably spend more time studying and meditating, most of us will still have to go to work every day in any case to earn our keep, obliged to interact with a bunch of people, acting “externally”. So what are we DOING all day long at work? Most of us are probably in a position to love and help and influence at least a few people every day, to help transform their lives.

Fact is, too, that we never know how we are being received. We never know how far our influence might be spreading. An old friend of mine, Kathleen Dowling Singh, died on Tuesday. She was a wonderful woman, a fearless warrior for love. In mid-SeptemKathleen Dowling Singhber she had written to tell me she had just been diagnosed with cancer, requesting prayers and thanking me for “all you have given me.” Her heart was always deeply grateful to Geshe Kelsang and his teachings, some of which I was able to share with her when we both lived in Florida. And tributes are coming in from many people to say how much her series of “Grace” therapy books have helped them, books whose ideas come mainly from Buddhism.

You can’t keep a good idea down. So let’s share these ideas whenever possible.

Our Buddhist Centers

As I talked about in this last article, helping our Dharma Centers is always going to be an invaluable, even cosmic, use of our time — helping at the core of things. Even if you have no clue what to do about some of this other stuff, you can always volunteer practical help at a Center. Helping keep the doors open to people seeking refuge is increasingly vital and meaningful.

Can we up our game?

web of kindness

A friend sent me this article called Radical Buddhism and the Paradox of Acceptance. Someone on Facebook pointed out that this article may be a bit of a straw man misrepresentation of Slavoj Zizek’s apparently complex arguments, but I think that reading it could still serve a useful purpose because people do sometimes have these questions about the relevance of Buddhism.

In this tumultuous day and age — and as we seek to integrate Buddhism as a new development into our Western world — each of us probably needs to try answering these kinds of questions for ourselves individually. At least, I have found recently that in questioning myself, “Am I complicit in the status quo because I am personally alright, or am I doing enough to end world suffering?”, I have been inspired to up my spiritual game. So with that in mind I asked a question on Facebook:

How would you debate this misconception about Buddhism? Do you find Buddhism helps you escape or engage the world? Or both?!

Related to this, I also asked:

What can we as Buddhists do about (a) violent incidents like the one in Las Vegas (2) the real and present danger of nuclear strikes (3) the growing divisions and inequality in modern society (4) climate disasters. Answers on a postcard! No, seriously, what are we each doing individually and as a Sangha to end this kind of suffering?

Please give your own answer in the comments, if you have time! And I am going to share some of the excellent replies I have already received in the next article.

Related articles

A case for Buddhist Centers

What is modern Buddhism for?

A vision of hope in these troubled times

Just passin’ through …

Today I was wondering what people might want to do with my ashes, if anything at all. For the record, if any of you can be bothered, I would like them scattered in the lake at Madhyamaka Centre, Geshe Kelsang’s first Buddhist Centre in the West, where I spent a number of formative years. If that’s inconvenient because I die in another country, I don’t mind being scattered on the plants at any Kadampa Center.

riding through townAnyway, this got me thinking. And maybe it is because I live in the Wild West these days, but I got this image of myself as a cowboy riding into town – one of those fake Hollywood towns with a saloon, livery, general store, sheriff, and all that other atmospheric stuff.

I have no idea how long I will be on this set — it could be days or weeks or perhaps even years, but one thing I know for sure is that I am only passing through. I have been riding my whole life through town after town, and before long I will be riding onto countless more. And the same is true for everybody else in this dusty desert.

For the sake of argument, lets say that everything I do in this town is going to count towards where I go next — I will be taking my intentions or karma with me like credentials or a rap sheet. Also, in this town, everybody, just like me, wants to be happy all the time and never wants to suffer.

So, given this, what am I going to do while I’m here? What is the best way to help myself and help everyone else?

I will do my best to make sure they’re comfortable. I will try and make this town more peaceful, harmonious, fair, and equitable. I will try and help people find enough to eat and have roofs over their heads. I will speak up against injustice. I will vote for the best sheriff on offer. When there is trouble, eg, a violent storm, I will try my best to help people rebuild. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

Through technological progress and by organizing society in fairer, more humane ways, we can certainly help improve people’s lives in some respects.

All of this is very important. But even more important, I think, is to help everyone realize that they are just here for a short time and that none of this is really happening.

indianAlso, when I do help in those external ways, I need to be able to set the intention and release the outcome, as it were – not getting attached to results, because these are by no means certain in samsara. This is not fatalistic, it is realistic; and recognizing it will make me more, not less, effective in helping my townsfolk, while keeping the discouragement of false expectations at bay.

Also, I need to be prepared not to freak out if there are unwanted consequences from some of my actions – I am dealing, after all, with a truck-load of cowboys and girls, with all their uncontrolled minds and bad karma. For example, I might protect the damsel from the gunslinger, but she may go on to shoot someone else.

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

Whatever happens in this town has no lasting impact or value because soon we will all be moving on. Realizing this obviates the 8 worldly concerns. For what use are fame, wealth, and so on, except insofar as we can use it to help others? I need to realize as well that this town is basically fake, a back lot at Universal Studios. Appearances are deceptive. We can sometimes have happy moments in a virtual reality, but buying into mistaken appearances overall causes nothing but problems and confusion.

The source of everything that appears to us in this movie-like reality is mind, an extraordinarily creative mind. One that happens to be our own. We need to harness and control it as soon as we can, take over the narrative, and help everyone else do the same.

Portals

So let’s say that in this town there is a place that has uncovered the mystery that lies at the heart of the Wild West and all its people, ie, it is all fleeting and it is all false.

sceneryAnd if I were to stumble upon this place, it would be utterly eye-opening, it would shatter my complacency, it would be a portal into a blissful new world of possibility and freedom. I couldn’t get enough of it. And I would want to help it grow so that more and more of my friends and fellow inhabitants could find it too.

As the townsfolk discovered it, and gradually learned the ideas that set them free, they would naturally bring those ideas into their lives in the town, share them with others, whatever line of work they were in. They would naturally work to help their people because they would WANT to, and they might have imaginative and fresh approaches to old problems. Society could change for the better.

Welcome to your local Buddhist Center.

Buddha said:

This world is not our permanent home. We are travelers passing through.

In this short human life, of course I want to help with practical kindness as much as I am able, even if it’s only donating to disaster relief. But my main wish is to help create portals of wisdom and compassion so that everyone in the world can learn the true nature of reality and escape from the bad dream of samsara forever.

I heard Gen Rigpa, the Kadampa Buddhist teacher in Los Angeles, say that every atom of a Dharma Center is made of compassion. I love that.  For of course the Center is not just bricks and mortar, or what happens inside those walls. It is not even just the people attending at any given time. It doesn’t have boundaries. It spreads into the society cowgirlaround it via the hearts and deeds of all its members. People get peace from the teachings and are inspired to pay it forward. Everyone is welcome. No one is excluded.

The portal doesn’t have to be secret, not at all. It could be in the building right next to the Saloon. The commercial spaces being created all over the world are particularly interesting for this reason – when I started out, Buddhist Centers were always out in the sticks, not obvious, and self-contained like the monasteries of Tibet. Now they are very much a public service, part of the fabric of modern life, found in the middle of cities everywhere, open and accessible to all the people walking by. People show up to relax at a lunchtime breathing meditation, and find themselves with access to an entire path to enlightenment. This is modern Buddhism.

So everything we do directly or indirectly to help these Centers is of great service to our one-horse town and — because each Center is dedicated to world peace — it is also of implicit service to everyone else.

There are temples for world peace everywhere, where the teachings are available and prayers for world peace are being offered up all the time. And prayers work. Luckily there is a world peace temple being built in Washington DC as we speak; and it is is also clearer to me now why Geshe Kelsang seemed so keen on starting a Center in South Korea, even though this has not properly materialized yet. None of these temples will come a moment too soon.

Practitioners at the Centers learn what they need to know, become more and more like Bodhisattvas, and gradually take their wisdom, compassion, skill, and imagination into their own and others’ daily lives. Wherever they go, the Center goes with them so to speak – as artists, doctors, social activists, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, flight attendants, film makers, and so on. There are no real limits. That’s how I see it at least. I think these teachings, far from leading to escapism, can light fires under the socially engaged.

WestworldAnd, by the way, it seems to be a two-way street – Dharma Centers cannot flourish in a vacuum. People need to have a certain number of good human conditions and the space and freedom to practice. Think of Tibet – when it was overrun, Dharma could not flourish. If we want Dharma to flourish, I would say we have some responsibility for helping make our society conducive. For right now our world does not seem to be going in a fabulous direction, not at all.

Buddhism is therefore not about navel-gazing – once we know and have some stable experience of it, we apply it also with relevance to “real-world” problems, while at the same time recognizing that there is no real world.

For material development alone, for its own sake, is not good enough. Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. And no matter how hard we try, we’ll never find happiness where it is not. Of primary importance is the radical shift within, especially realizing the true nature of reality. As modern-day Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as the only way to solve our own problems is to find inner peace, so the only way to help others to solve theirs is to encourage them to engage in spiritual practice and discover their own inner peace.

This peace is not just a feel-good option but a must-have. It is the path to lasting freedom and happiness. There are many levels of inner peace – from the patience that stops shooting at everything that moves, right through to the enlightenment that dissolves away the suffering world and recreates a Pure Land.

The teachings on selflessness and Tantra in particular are capable of flipping switches left, right, and center. The lasting inner peace we want people to experience is the inner light of omniscient wisdom, where they see through the illusion, see through the deception, and are finally completely free to create the blissful reality and worlds of their choosing.

The actual portal to freedom is not outside of us – it is the doorway into the heart of bliss and emptiness. We need to realize the impermanent and illusory nature of the scenery, ourselves, and everyone else in this godforsaken town! As Geshe Kelsang says:

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 that is the true and only purpose for helping power up these portals — wherever you are and however you can.

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Buddhism Lite

BodhisattvaI am pretty fond of a lot of people in Florida. And I noticed the sigh of relief as Hurricane Irma downsized to a Cat 3 and then a tropical storm, and Tampa Bay seemed sort of spared, for now.

How many sighs of relief remain to us, as we dodge another bullet, even as the dangers get closer, even as others around us are falling to the ground?

Catastrophes are what happen to other people. That’s what we all think, until they happen to us.

Do you ever wonder if we might be sleepwalking through a very perilous time in human history, where we are in genuine danger of our planet collapsing if we don’t blow ourselves up first?! That the adults have all left the room!? And that these things may just be creeping up on us – and one day we’ll wake up to find … ?!

Look, I’m not a fear monger (well, maybe a little bit). Like a lot of us, I’m in the habit of switching channels and pretending none of it is happening, that me and you (especially me, lol) are perfectly safe. I’ve been trying to hold onto this complacency since beginningless time, after all, and old habits die hard. But for some reason I can’t this (life)time. I may want to keep seeing samsara as a pleasure garden, but in this life it is (for me) revealing its true colors. Which is great, in fact, because it means I am not condemned to stay here for ever and ever. And, if I play my cards right, nor are my friends.

IRC Grand Canyon 1One of my favorite quotes in Buddhism, which I stumbled upon 3 decades ago in Meaningful to Behold, seems more and more relevant with each passing year:

We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.

A new disaster baseline

I just read this:

Even if America joins a global effort to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible, as we surely must, we have already locked in a new disaster baseline, and will have to spend a lot to repair and adapt. ~ The Week

And a friend of mine has been collating the shifts in the climate as part of his work as a Futurist checking trends:

  • The historic heatwave that just ravaged Eastern Europe.
  • Historic flooding and mudslides in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Niger.
  • A massive earthquake off the Mexican coast.
  • Record radiation from the sun due to unusual sun spots activity.
  • Bigger and more intense hurricanes striking the United States
  • Political instability in the US, Syria, Venezuela and 15 other places around the globe.
  • Historic fires in California, Oregon, British Columbia, Washington, Greenland and Tunisia.

And all of this over the past 60 days.

Buddha Shakyamuni and many Buddhist teachers who followed him predicted these difficult, turbulent, “degenerate times” in this human world. And Geshe Kelsang — who is certainly not an irrational fear-monger nor prophet of doom, but the most sane, realistic, and hopeful person I’ve ever met — has also been trying to wake us up for decades, IRC Grand Canyon 3saying things like:

Superficially it looks as if our world is improving, but if we look a little more deeply we shall see that there are now many problems that never existed before. Terrifying weapons have been invented, our environment is being poisoned, and new diseases are appearing. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And:

The result of an unbridled pursuit of happiness from external sources is that our planet is being destroyed and our lives are becoming more complicated and dissatisfying. It is time we sought happiness from a different source.

Time indeed. And that is not even taking into account the scary nature of other, lower realms in samsara and the distinct possibility that we could end up there after we breathe our final breath. Countless people are already trapped there.

So, what are we going to do?

I have so much I want to discuss on this subject these days that I have given myself writer’s block and haven’t written in weeks – I just don’t know where to start! But because I think the option of just getting all peaceful ourselves while doing nothing to help others is in fact no option at all, maybe I’ll start with that. (And now I can see I have written too much for one blog article, oops, but perhaps you can read it in installments, if you still have power after that hurricane.)

IRC Grand Canyon 2There have been a couple of articles recently questioning whether mindfulness has been co-opted and cheapened. Such as this one, which explores how “Pasteurized versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business”:

And this is perhaps the crux of the problem of the mindless application of Buddhist meditation practice: the marketing of mindfulness as a solution to work stress and life balance rather than the complex spiritual approach to living it is meant to be.

And:

Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action. If we truly become mindful of our existence, then our recurrent anxieties become not just a wave we watch pass through our minds, not something to be mastered in order to be a better servant, but a call to take action in order to be more fully alive.

And this article:

We’ve marketed an ancient Indian tradition as an antidote to stress, but traditional Buddhist meditation has two objectives: to become more compassionate, and gain insight into the true nature of reality. But meditating to gain compassion seems to have got lost in translation.

If people get interested in Buddhist teachings via “mindfulness” courses, I am all for it. I am actually grateful that contemplation and meditation are going mainstream in the Western world. And although very few people initially go to meditation classes to do any more than chill out and learn to relax, I am of course good with that, even if that is as far as they want to go.

But … I think it is important to let people know that there is infinitely more we can do with these teachings. People do often leave pleasantly surprised after sampling the low-hanging fruit, and more open to trying new things. Buddhism is not just a lifestyle choice to help us cope and escape, with no real bearing on ending suffering – the goal is all about ending suffering, wherever it is, and whoever it belongs to, because suffering hurts. And I would argue that our current times both reveal and request this engagement of us.

Meditation has in many cases become a type of therapy that shouts “Me, me, me” and entirely misses the point. Disengagement and self-absorption are not what are needed right now, not in this short window of opportunity we have to make a difference.

Stress reduction is necessary, as I have explained in this article, and it is essential to start by tuning into and identifying with the peaceful nature of our own minds; but becoming happier ourselves is only a means to a far, far greater end. Breathing meditation and so on help us still the mind, and from that place we have the space to apply the practical philosophy.

Bodhisattva factories

We do like doing this in the West, don’t we – stripping a philosophy out of its context for a simplistic quick fix. “Mindfulness with all the awkward Buddhist bits taken out” as a Guardian article recently put it. However, this cultural appropriation to a lowest common denominator, in the service of our “Me first” culture, implicitly underestimates modern humans’ capacity to rise above their egocentrism and transform themselves and their world entirely. The quick fix mentality means that people are potentially missing out so much, “starving themselves of the best bits” as someone who claims to have done that for years told me recently.meditating for world

But I don’t think Geshe Kelsang Gyatso could ever be accused of cheapening or watering down Buddhism in this way. In the last 40 years and counting, he’s been doing exactly the opposite, building up the Sangha, Centers, and study programs with 100% confidence that modern students can gain the same liberation and enlightenment as all the practitioners of old. His teachings are entirely in keeping with that of qualified, realized Buddhist teachers dating back in an unbroken lineage to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, with their emphasis on renunciation (wanting lasting mental freedom, not the self-satisfied incremental improvements of samsara), bodhichitta (engaged compassion, not complicity with the status quo), the wisdom realizing emptiness (the strongest medicine in the universe), and the two stages of Highest Yoga Tantra (taking us so far beyond our limitations and ordinariness). These teachings can bring about universal happiness and world peace; it is simply a matter of applying them.

(And need I add that no personal profit is made from any of the teachings and so they are a great deal less expensive than many mindfulness courses. Just sayin’.)

IRC Grand Canyon

I have been very inspired this summer by the new International Kadampa Retreat Center, Grand Canyon. It has 75 rooms and plenty of room to grow. Like a portal located on the iconic Route 66, the golden roof of its Temple for World Peace (once it’s built) will be glimpsed by millions of tourists every year, giving them at least some food for thought, if not inviting them into the discovery of their wondrous potential as Bodhisattvas.

To echo this article, I think we urgently need to incorporate some Bodhisattva thinking into our world. In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East.Meaningful to Behold

Whether we are practicing Buddhism Lite or not probably depends most on our motivation, whether it is worldly or spiritual. It depends on how engaged we are in actively overcoming suffering, and I would argue that this depends on how powerful our compassion is.Lekma in Southampton

We need three types of compassion, and the deepest, called “compassion observing the unobservable”, is to help everyone realize that suffering is not real (see Ocean of Nectar, just about to be studied on the STTP). But Bodhisattvas need to, indeed WANT to, solve every problem that they see. They don’t just sit back and watch Netflix passively for hours a day, twiddling their thumbs while Rome burns, excusing themselves: “Look, I did meditate today, but there’s not much I can do about all that suffering anyway, not until I’m a Buddha.” They are passionate and creative about ending suffering, day and night, and will do whatever is in their power.

Geshe Kelsang has also said more recently:

How wonderful it would be for our world if many modern-day practitioners could emulate the training the mind practitioners of ancient times and become actual Bodhisattvas! ~ How to Transform Your Life

I think supporting all our Kadampa Meditation Centers and World Peace Temples worldwide is crucial. They are Bodhisattva factories and — right about now — we need Bodhisattvas.

Do you agree?!

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The life-changing power of small stories

By a guest writer, SG, who, amongst other things, uses art to bring about change in prisons and among vulnerable populations.

We are living in unparalleled times; it seems that extreme ideologies are gathering momentum. The increase of terrorist atrocities, sensationalised by a media pursuing a fear-based narrative, is causing bewilderment and anxiety.

As our economic structures fragment, poverty and a surge towards the politics of divide and rule inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, demagogic leaders are arising at the same time as fascism in Europe and America is rearing its ugly head.21325683_10155010321930847_566859715_n

These world events trickle down and affect ordinary people: In the UK, hate crimes have increased 41 percent since the Brexit vote. Since the elections in the US, the latest FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent.

What to do?

What is a meaningful Buddhist response? What are we to do?

Firstly, it seems vital we work to reduce any divide between self and other. When facing those who hold extreme opposite viewpoints to ourselves, it is important not to ‘other-ize’ them. We can be mindful that people act in harmful ways only because of their delusions. When delusions are manifest, there is no control over the mind.

If we begin to ‘Monster’ others, we are externalising evil, which is a recipe for more insidious discord.

The current rise of racism and fascism is a symptom of fear, that fear is arising (conventionally) from a societal system collapsing. This collapse is due in large part to a resolute belief in external sources being able to secure a means to happiness. This view invariably leads to conflict and suffering. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we consider why nations go to war we shall find that the basic reason is very simple. Human beings cannot be content with their own wealth and resources but must appropriate more and more. Millions of people have died as a result of humankind’s collective discontent.

Wrath vs anger

Recently, I have been thinking about wrath. In Buddhism, there is a vast difference between wrath and anger. It is possible to be wrathful without being angry. When we see images of wrathful protector Buddhas such as Dorje Shugden or Vajrapani, they are not angry. Motivated solely by compassion, they exist only to relieve the suffering of others. Afraid of nothing and no one, they display the aspect of anger toward the delusions while simultaneously being completely free from anger toward living beings.

Imagine being able to harness that energy, having the confidence and wisdom to know that we were always responding in the best manner, with the best set of actions.

21322857_10155010323290847_414830036_nWhen large crowds of people take to the streets espousing violence and hatred, imagine being a fearless opponent, able to perform wrathful actions while never straying from wisdom and compassion. Surely this would be most welcome? Could this be a way to think about challenging oppressive hate-fuelled actions while still practising modern Buddhism purely?

I think before we begin thinking about performing wrathful actions, however, we first have to spend time nurturing our compassion and wisdom. Otherwise, our “wrathful” actions could just be more anger, and end up causing more harm than good!

In the past I have tried engaging in wrathful actions — it didn’t work out well. I just ended up angry and frustrated. If we are to be wrathful, we need to be completely free of delusions such as anger and pride. We have to be free of the idea that before us stands an enemy and understand that the person in front of us is a suffering being, unable to fulfill or even express their unmet needs.

The importance of understanding

Can we try to enter into the frames of reference of those who engage in extreme hateful actions? To understand is not to condone. Many causes and conditions lead people to the views they hold.

Imagine being brought up with those very same causes and conditions, imagine having that very same karma — it becomes easier to see how we might then go on to develop those views. If we can do this, then we can learn to separate the person from their delusions and actions. Then we no longer see a monster, and instead become someone capable of developing genuine love and compassion.

21291102_10155010326470847_424149716_n

With love, compassion, and wisdom in our hearts, we can find innovative and creative ways to respond to age-old problems.

No man is an island

We can also strengthen our faith in the power of virtuous actions. Last month, I attended the Summer Festival at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, where Kadam Morten led the second week’s retreat. He read an excerpt from Geshe Kelsang’s How to Transform Your Life:

In short, we need others for our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality … It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.

I have heard these lines many times before, but this time something was different. One of the most beautiful things about Dharma is that it always holds the potential to surprise you, to completely change your world view, to transform your life.

Everything we do …

Three words rang out, ‘Everything we do.’ Every single thing we do affects others.

I was reminded of a podcast I listened to last year, when the interviewee (a famous and respected counsellor) recalled a story his father told him. Years ago, his father was involved in the Spanish Civil war, during which time a village into which he had ventured was surrounded by fascists belonging to General Franco, and there seemed to be no escape. For days, the father remained in the village, hiding. There was no food in the village — all he had was a piece of stale bread, which he nibbled on each day. Then one day he encountered an ill, starving, old man and, without thinking, he gave him his last piece of bread.

Years later, the father returned to the village with his son to show him where the siege had taken place. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman came running out and hugged him. The old man’s daughter, she had never forgotten this stranger’s kindness, telling them that it had always been an act of great importance both to her father and to her.

The son went on to say that watching this tale unfold was instrumental in him becoming a counsellor. He also mentioned that he had told this story to many people, many times, and he believed that they too had gone on to repeat it to inspire others.

This story is now being read by hundreds of you, too!

21291263_10155010321605847_37033674_nIf a simple act of giving a piece of stale bread to one person can become a catalyst for positive change for thousands of people, what power does an action hold if it is motivated by bodhichitta — the wish to become enlightened for the lasting happiness of all living beings? Imagine if we had faith or trust in the often hidden consequences of our developing such a mind? What encouragement it would give us, what strength. How much faster we could move towards developing the wisdom and compassion needed to engage in actions that can bring about genuine world peace, actual nirvana (liberation) in the minds of all living beings?

Even the smallest of our actions performed with a big beneficial intention, therefore, can be a cause of ridding this world of even the most violent and destructive actions. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Others are affected by everything we do.

Over to you. Questions and comments welcome.

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