Scientists say they have evidence to show that Buddhists really are happier and calmer than other people. ~ Reuters
For more than twenty years now, in the press — in the cracks between all the disasters erupting all over the world — there has been increasing talk about the scientific findings which indicate that meditation and mindfulness within or from the Buddhist tradition leads to genuine lasting happiness and mental freedom.
Over these years, I have seen articles with titles like “Buddhists Really are Happier”, “Buddhists Transcend Mental Reservations”, “Meditation Shown to Light Up Brains of Buddhists”, and “Buddhists Hold Key to Happiness”.
The quantum folks are famous for their research into the role of the observer in creating reality — but it is not just in quantum physics that people are getting to the bottom of why the benefits of meditation might be so mind- and life-changing. Other studies — including within the scientific disciplines of epigenetics, neuroscience, electromagnetism, psychoneuroimmunology, psychology, and even public health — are now coming into synchronicity with the ancient Eastern understanding about the unbreakable connection between mind and matter.
Numerous experiments are showing how our thoughts and intentions can literally rewire our brains in all the right places, change our brainwaves for the better, fill our brains with those feel-good hormones, heal our bodies, and delay ageing cells.
In other words, consciousness changes matter. Ideas become things. Everything starts in the imagination. With our thoughts we create our world.
Buddhists have been saying this kind of thing for at least 2500 years, but it was not so long ago in the West that pretty much all conventional wisdom held it to be entirely the other way around.
With a dualistic view of mind and matter, reductionists for example were unable to come up with a bridging mechanism between two — as they saw it — ontologically diverse realms of mind and matter. One of these realms had to go, so they did away with the “ghost in the machine”. The only primary reality was seen to be physical, so everything was “reduced” to the material. Thus, consciousness was regarded as some kind of by-product of matter, secreted by the brain like the liver secretes enzymes for example — although that has always been hard to prove, let alone to reconcile with people’s own firsthand experience of thinking. People’s subjective awareness is not experienced as physical or material — hence 20th century Western philosophy’s ongoing perplexing “question of consciousness”, a question that cannot be answered within the paradigm of mind-matter duality.
The pervasive materialistic world view, seemingly unquestioned for decades, has led to a great number of problems, such as a preoccupation with material development at the expense of moral, mental, or spiritual development. The winner is the one who dies with the most toys. As it says in the Big Short:
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
There has never needed to be any problem with asserting two primary realities, as I mention in this article – for they are not dualistic, competing, ontologically oppositional realms, but arise in synchronicity, as the same nature.
Anyway, all that philosophy and fancy adjectives aside, studies of meditators’ brains are showing conclusively that we are not, as once believed, hard-wired, but that our thoughts change our brain throughout our whole life.
(And yes, just to reiterate — it is our thoughts that change our brain, not our brain that changes our thoughts.)
This change can happen even really quite quickly, such as in the example of Dr. Graham Phillips whom I read about in this pretty fascinating book: Mind to Matter (being read as we speak downstairs by my dad). This skeptical Australian astrophysicist underwent a battery of tests, including MRIs, both before and after starting an 8-week course of meditation, to find hard evidence of whether this “feel-good technique” actually could do anything for him. After just two weeks he reported that he “notices stress but doesn’t get sucked into it.” After 8 weeks, the key discoveries were:
A 22.8% increase in the volume of the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation
No drugs, surgery, supplements, or major life changes – just mindfulness
Here are some other quotes, and a Google search will surely deliver loads more…
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison used new scanning techniques to examine brain activity in a group of Buddhists. They have discovered that certain areas of the brain light up constantly in Buddhists, which indicates positive emotions and good mood. This happens at times even when they are not meditating.
Researchers at University of California San Francisco Medical Center have found the practice can tame the amygdala, an area of the brain which is the hub of fear memory. They found that experienced Buddhists, who meditate regularly, were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry compared to other people.
(From The UK Independent:)
“Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts”, research has shown. According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe — an area just behind the forehead — which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of well being.
(From New Scientist:)
Writing in today’s New Scientist, Professor Flanagan cites early findings of a study by Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, who used scanners to analyse the active regions of a Buddhist’s brain. Professor Flanagan said the findings are “tantalising” because the left prefrontal lobes of Buddhist practitioners appear to “light up” consistently, rather than just during acts of meditation. “This is significant, because persistent activity in the left prefrontal lobes indicates positive emotions and good mood,” he writes. “The first Buddhist practitioner studied by Davidson showed more left prefrontal lobe activity than anyone he had ever studied before.”
There was a time in the Western world when meditation in general and certainly Buddhist meditation was considered somewhat weird, probably escapist, impractical, and most certainly “alternative”. When I got interested in Buddhist meditation over 37 years ago in the north of England, most people had barely heard of Buddhism or even meditation. Back then, unless asked directly, I rarely mentioned that I meditated, let alone that I was a Buddhist, because it would generally lead to blank stares and a quick change of subject. That still happens sometimes today, of course, but nothing compared to then.
Those days are going. With the explosion of interest in Buddhism and mindfulness (derived from Buddhism) throughout the Western world, taught even in schools, both meditation and Buddhism have now become mainstream words and concepts.
For me, it is not that these articles have told me anything I don’t already know about how great meditation makes me feel, or how it keeps on changing my life for the better in pretty much every single area I can think of. Also, although curious, I’m not really bothered that my squidgy brain as a long-term meditator may look relatively impressive today compared with how it looked 37 years ago. 😁
However, what I do really like is that modern science is catching up to and even recording some of the very tangible benefits of meditation, benefits that anyone can gain if they just do it. I think it means that more people will gain the confidence to try it out and stick at it, and then they’ll get these great results.
One last quote from the New Scientist:
Buddhists are not born happy. It is not reasonable to suppose that Buddhists are born with a ‘happiness gene’. The most reasonable hypothesis is there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek. Antidepressants are currently the favored method for alleviating negative emotions, but no antidepressant makes a person happy. On the other hand, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which were developed 2,500 years before Prozac, can lead to profound happiness.
Meditation may not be a best-kept secret for much longer.
To celebrate Buddha Shakyamuni’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma (Skt. Dharmachakra) Day, which also happens to be Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s birthday, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the study programs in Kadampa Buddhism. Today, these are turning the Wheel of Dharma at hundreds of Buddhist centers around the world.
As you may or may not know, Buddhism has always put an emphasis on (1) listening to lots of teachings, (2) contemplating them to check they work in our own experience and transform them into our own idea, and (3) meditating on them to bring them deep into our heart where they will be a constant joy and protection, leading us all the way to enlightenment. Buddha gave 84,000 teachings of Sutra and Tantra, and basically the idea is to learn the jist of all of these and put them into practice 😊
I will be quoting Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s words from a talk he gave called A Wishfulfilling Dharma Jewel, and you can read the whole thing here.
At present in our Centers we have a Foundation Program and a Teacher Training Program. This is not a new tradition. In the past there have been other programs specially designed for Dharma students according to their particular circumstances.
All these programs involved studying a certain number of texts, memorizing material, passing examinations, and being awarded a degree or certificate. For example, the ancient Kadampa Geshes had a program in which they studied six texts. Later Je Tsongkhapa introduced a program based on ten texts, and later still Tibetan Monasteries such as Ganden, Sera, and Drepung introduced a program based on five texts.
Even for the 1,000 years before Buddhism got to Tibet, deep learning and meditation had always been integral to the Buddhist tradition – for example the famous monastic university of Nalanda in Southern India produced generations of famous master practitioners from the fifth to twelfth century CE.
Now Geshe Kelsang has made all these teachings and meditations accessible to us in the unwieldy modern world through modern books, teachers, centers, temples, and study programs. Most of us definitely don’t have the same kind of time for formal study that they had in the old days, so he has made the time we do have incredibly efficient, and put more emphasis on sustaining and deepening these teachings and meditations through mindfulness in our regular daily lives.
Geshe Kelsang said:
Inspired by my own experience, I developed a strong wish to introduce a similar program for western Dharma students so that they could reap the same results. However, I understand very clearly that the program designed for Tibetan Geshes is not suitable for westerners.
For one thing, most western Dharma students are lay people …
Recently I asked some of my teacher friends to tell me what they thought were the main benefits of the Foundation Program (FP) in particular, as this is the program that most people tend to join. I wanted to hear what they had to say in particular about the commitments of the FP and why someone might want to take those on. So here goes, their ideas and mine, all jumbled together.
Becoming our own Protector
I agree with Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Studying Dharma consistently guarantees our getting to know ourselves and our lives a lot better, and overcoming all our faults and limitations. This gives our life a spiritual dimension, and a vision far less ordinary.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
With wisdom and Dharma experience we can bring our deluded minds under control. We can reduce our attachment, anger, jealousy, and so forth, and subdue our self-grasping and self-cherishing. By controlling our deluded minds we will come to experience permanent peace day and night. We will bring about a permanent cessation of human problems in particular and of samsaric problems in general. In this way we will become our own protectors.
The commitments of the FP involve attending every class for the enrolled book, reading ahead, memorizing the root text and main points of the commentary, discussing, doing pujas (chanted prayers), and taking an exam.
Their overall purpose is so that our practice is not stop/start but regular and consistent, leading to guaranteed results. Buddha’s example for this kind of steady effort is like leaving water in a pot on the stove to boil at a low heat rather than moving it on and off a high heat such that it never gets around to boiling.
Mixing our minds with Dharma
In a busy, distracted, ofter overwhelming world, it’s only too easy for other stuff to get in the way; so committing to attending each class (or catching up with the recording and study summary in a timely manner) moves us past that problem. It helps us fulfill our wish to help ourselves and others.
We go deeper than in drop-in General Program classes because each class can build upon the one before it, presupposing knowledge, and shifting the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student. And then we start to change.
This is good for the group, as we all literally stay on the same page. It becomes teamwork. The team is strong and unified and so everyone likes being on it. It is also good for the teacher as they don’t have to repeat the same points each week for people who weren’t there, and can take all the students more deeply into the material.
Reading ahead is a bit like toasting bread into which the hot butter of Dharma can easily soak during the class. That’s my analogy anyway! We come prepared with questions and looking forward to hearing the commentary on what we’ve already read and studied.
At the end of discussion the students come up with creative ideas together on what to practice in the meditation break to transform our everyday lives. We can troubleshoot how to practice Dharma throughout all our activities, lifestyles, and challenges. There are so many examples of people practicing Dharma in all walks of life, and we can learn from each other’s practical wisdom.
As Geshe Kelsang puts it:
The nature of western people is to study something one day and to want to put it into practice the next. This is a very good quality because they are always trying to gain practical experience of what they study.
Scale the highest mountain
One friend sent me this:
The Foundation Program is an opportunity to turn intellectual understanding into insights that authentically move our mind. For example, we understand intellectually that real or lasting happiness cannot be found outside out mind, and yet we still have a strong pull to find happiness from outside. FP is a chance to make a lasting change on our mind so that we genuinely want to find happiness from within.
We do this by giving more structure to our practice and spiritual development. FP is the opportunity to go through the training the mind teachings in depth, discuss, ask questions, and meditate on them. We make a commitment to study in this way so that, when difficulties come, we already have the structure in our mind to transform them. We have internalized the meaning. This means we will be able to actually transform adverse conditions in real time which is so much more difficult without this foundation.
FP creates the “foundation” for lasting happiness in our life. It’s an opportunity once or twice a week to reconnect deeply with our intention to improve our mind. We learn to consistently rely on Buddha and his teachings to solve our inner problems. We learn to trust and grow with our Sangha friends who are on the path with us. It’s a much more enriching way of experiencing this inner transformation.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
Our present understanding and experience of Dharma is quite superficial. We are like someone who has entered a huge food store and seen many things but sampled only a few. We may have received many different teachings from many different Teachers, but we have taken in very little, just a few morsels. Therefore our actual experience remains superficial. There is a gap between us and the Dharma. It feels as if Dharma is there and we are here. Our mind is not mixed with Dharma and so we cannot apply it in our daily lives.
As a result our ordinary everyday problems remain. For example, we may have received many teachings on Lamrim and read many books. Intellectually we find it relatively easy to understand and we accept it all, but we find it difficult to integrate into our daily lives, and so we cannot use this Dharma to solve our daily problems. When we study Dharma our mind remains passive, like someone watching television. It does not engage in the subject and mix with it. Therefore our daily life and our Dharma remain completely separate and unrelated.
Why is this? It is because we are not studying systematically according to a specially-designed program. If we just pick at Dharma randomly we will never gain a deep and stable experience, and our wisdom will never become like a full moon.
Geshe Kelsang has always said we should not view commitments as “heavy luggage” (Ed: it’s more like a purse).
We are simply making time for the things we actually know are good for us and love to do. I read a study the other day where a large group of women were questioned on how much time they spent meditating and so on versus watching Netflix – they replied that although they felt far better when they were meditating, they still spent about 5x more time on Netflix.
As Geshe-la puts it:
We should try to memorize the important points of the subject and combine whatever we understand in a practical way with our daily activities. We also have to observe the various commitments of the program. These commitments are designed to help us accomplish our aim. Without them there is a danger that we will be distracted by laziness or other circumstances and not complete our studies.
Any meaningful relationship requires commitment. For example, what would a marriage be like without any commitment? Or our job? Or working to combat climate change, or improving social justice, etc.? I think we find things more meaningful or of benefit when we have some commitment to them; and we get more done.
The FP commitments are also largely a commitment to each other. If everyone turns up and gets with the program, the group becomes stronger. If attendance is sporadic, the group weakens and our fellow students’ Dharma experience suffers.
One friend puts it like this:
On FP we come to experience in our heart (1) who we truly are, and (2) who we can become, and (3) more importantly, who our family, friends, and everyone else can become. Not through hearing ideas that it’s easy to soon forget, through dropping in on General Program (GP), but through a relaxed, consistent, dynamic engagement and deepening experience of Dharma and meditation on FP. FP closes the gap between the teachings we hear and experiencing them in our heart.
If we signed up to be a doctor with the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefitting others, but then didn’t turn up to classes consistently or seal that understanding through exams, out in the field we’d quickly realize we’re not equipped to fulfil our goals. From this point of view our 7 years in medical school would feel meaningless, because meaningful just means we feel we have accomplished or are accomplishing our goals.
In a similar way, to derive the greatest meaning and fulfillment from the time we have chosen to spend on FP, the commitments and exams are not rigid rules, but rather helpful guidelines and opportunities to accomplish the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefiting others. Or, in Geshe-la’s words, 1) to be happy and 2) to make others happy! In this way taking the commitments to heart is the best way to make our time on FP FEEL meaningful for us (not to placate the teacher or program coordinators) and be beneficial for others.
As Geshe-la explains from his own experience:
I studied this program at Sera Monastery. When I completed it and was awarded my Geshe degree, I felt as if I had reached the summit of the highest mountain. My faith and experience had increased considerably and I felt great confidence in teaching others. My mind was very happy and I felt completely free from problems.
Become a really good meditator
We learn how to have a regular practice that is sustainable at home, know what to meditate on clearly through structured study, and build up self-discipline. Plus being there for other meditators in the FP group.
On the Foundation Program we can learn to meditate very well and always know what to meditate on — we learn how to do analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed meditation) on every aspect of Buddha’s Sutra teachings. This leads to results, confidence, and joy.
The power of discussion
Discussion is a particularly important aspect of the program because we can help each other greatly by sharing our experience and understanding of Dharma.
Discussing with each other resolves our doubts, increases our understanding, and shows us what we don’t yet understand. Talking about gaining a realization of emptiness in particular, Geshe Kelsang says in The New Heart of Wisdom:
If we develop doubts or cannot accept what is taught we should discuss the matter with others. In this way, our understanding will become clearer and clearer. We should not keep doubts hidden inside our hearts — we need wisdom in our hearts, not doubts!
Geshe Kelsang has said that, in terms of his own understanding, he got 50% from the teachings and contemplations and 50% from his discussions with others! Which is quite a statement given how much he understands. He also gives some great advice on how to discuss in this talk.
The Foundation Program builds the spiritual community so everyone ends up with more friendship and support. Connections strengthen due to weekly study, discussion, meditation, and so on; and once an FP group has been studying together for a while, people connect with each other at a deep level (a bit like people who do retreats together). This is the true meaning of Sangha community. And, as Sangha are the third Jewel of Buddhist refuge, who can really help us to make spiritual progress, the more the better.
The study programs involve prayers as a support for the meditations. Sometimes people are a bit like, “I didn’t know Buddhists did prayers!” But we do, as explained more here. Prayers give us the opportunity to quickly purify our mind, accumulate merit or good karma, and bathe in inspiring blessings.
One of my friends says he puts it like this to his students: If you don’t think you like prayers, perhaps let go of what you think about them until your growing experience of them reveals a far deeper knowing. Buddhist prayers are just another form of meditation. We are so used to skimming the surface of life (caught up in busyness and trivia, numbing the pain of ordinary life) that we can miss out on the opportunity to experience something far deeper and incredibly rich. Prayers empower us to connect to and directly experience the greater depth that life has to offer, such as our pure potential and connection to enlightenment. They provide refuge.
So if you are new to a study program and faced with the prospect of doing prayers, for now just sit back, relax, and enjoy. We don’t have to understand all the meaning of the words of a beautiful song to enjoy the experience. We don’t go into existential meltdown because we don’t get it! It’s the same with prayers — just enjoy the experience of the peaceful resonance of the prayers for now, which is connecting us to our pure nature and enlightenment, whether we know it or not. Over time their meaning unfolds in any case.
There is a commitment to try and attend a weekly puja (chanted prayers) at the Center. Many people don’t even know what a puja is yet; so don’t sweat this one. It will come gradually and be explained over time. The main thing to know about pujas is that they are beautiful and saturated with blessings, and people always seem to leave a puja feeling better than when they arrived.
Plus group pujas increasingly bless the center or temple so that these become refuge zones for everyone who visits them, which is providing a beautiful service to this troubled world.
Memorization and examinations!
Now we get to the commitment that generally freaks modern-day disciples out the most 😄. A dollar for everyone who says, “I left school years ago, I can’t memorize a thing, I’m way too old for this,” and variations on that theme.
It can be helpful to think of the exam at the end of the book as a self-assessment in six questions. They are marked, but no one but you knows your score (candidates have numbers, so even the marker doesn’t know.)
One teacher told me that with exams he likes to encourage people to regard it as a retreat rather than as preparing for a test. The exam is not the important part. The important part is the reading and contemplating. We can just have fun with it.
As mentioned earlier, if we are training as a doctor we need all the essential knowledge in our hearts, not on a dusty bookshelf. So this is Geshe Kelsang’s skillful way to encourage us to take the time to study – for when else are we going to be sufficiently motivated to do that?!
Another teacher says: “Don’t worry about it. This is a wonderful opportunity to study, get lots of Dharma — the cause of happiness — into your mind. Ask people who have taken exams – they have initial resistance sometimes but once they do it they realize why. Don’t be a perfectionist American (if you are) – remember Geshe-la’s advice:
Try, don’t worry.
And no one cares how you do on your exam.
If none of that works, how about regarding exam prep as an excellent way to ward off senility in a culture that is overly dependent on Google. Memorizing beautiful Dharma greatly improves our mindfulness.
We recite the Root Text and Condensed Meaning every week in class as well, so we find that we pick a lot of it up naturally.
The Kadampa way of life
Another friend, when I asked him what the benefits were, said succinctly:
This made me think of the old Kadampas and the Kadampa way of life. Foundation Program is training in a way of life. Transforming our life into Kadampa life. This takes real training – mindfulness, blessings, discipline. Do you wish to become a Kadampa?
By studying all five subjects (in six books) on FP, we come to know all of Buddha’s Sutra teachings, joining the illustrious company of tens of thousands of modern-day Sangha around the world. We will help provide hope for our society in the form of practicing and sharing Buddha’s teachings with the people around us, which amount to profound common sense that can be applied usefully to most of their everyday problems.
You can see some of these programs and students around the world in this video:
The six FP books are like jewel mines, and the FP allows us to delve deep. In this context the word ‘foundation’ does not mean basic or for beginners. It means we are constructing a strong and stable foundation for our daily Dharma practice and for attaining high realizations in the future.
If you want to train as a Kadampa Buddhist teacher, you can join the Teacher Training Program, which adds extra subjects and books including all of Buddha’s Tantric teachings, and has more of a retreat commitment.
Final encouragement from Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Sometimes five years or seven years may seem like a very long time, but if we practice steadily every day without giving up, gradually we will reach our goal. If we start today, tomorrow we shall already be a bit closer to completing! We should think like this and then one day we shall have completed our training.
How wonderful that will be! We shall be able to give pure teachings with confidence on any subject we have studied, and people will believe us and develop faith in us because we have prepared so well. They will appreciate us from many points of view: our teachings, our personal experience, our ability to help them solve their problems, and so forth.
These are benefits that we shall experience just in this life. In reality, future lives are much more important. We shall experience the beneficial results of studying on this program for life after life until we reach enlightenment. The benefits are inexhaustible.
Over to you please! From your own experience, would you like to add anything?
Happy Dharmachakra Day! May Dharma flourish, may everyone be happy, and may our world be peaceful.
Meditation practice is not just about sitting on a cushion and concentrating, but practicing to stay positive and peaceful throughout the whole day. I like to think of it as happiness training.
Yesterday a meditator of one year, who has just finished working 60 days straight, 16 hours a day, on hurricane rebuilding, told me, “I only lost my temper once during that whole time. I used to lose my temper every single day. My coworkers all noticed and want to know what’s happened to me. I realized that although I haven’t had time for a daily meditation session these past couple of months, the advice on how to stay peaceful and patient is baked into my mind. And I’m really happy about that.”
If he can do it, so can you and me.
So, whatever we are up to today, here are 10 more ideas for staying positive and peaceful. Carrying straight on from this article.
11. Keep your options open
Keeping our mind open is keeping our options open, I think. There are many ways to go about this, but none better than remembering emptiness – everything depends upon thought (including thought!) and so nothing at all is fixed. We can learn to think or label whatever we want and create whatever dream-like reality we want.
“Possessions and a luxurious home may seem important, but there are more important things to treasure in life.” Especially the happiness that comes from the inner peace of wisdom and love, which is good deal more certain than the happiness that comes from having some cool palm trees in our yard.
The real source of happiness is inner peace. If our mind is peaceful, we will be happy all the time, regardless of external conditions, but if it is disturbed or troubled in any way, we will never be happy, no matter how good our external conditions may be. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Talking of which, I was strolling in the Land of the One Percenters (aka the Hollywood Hills) a few days ago, wondering whether luxury made life easier for everyone up here. Of course it does in some ways, I was thinking, and I was glad for them because lord knows there are more than enough people suffering from abysmal poverty and homelessness in our world. I was also making a little prayer that some of their good karma might ripen on them in the form of spiritual realizations (like universal love and generosity to homeless charities, to name but two).
But then, even so, I came across this real estate sign, “Luxury living made easy.” Which seems to suggest that luxury living can be hard work. Someone in LA was also telling me that they have a beautiful garden, jacuzzi, and view, and yet still they sit there wondering why they cannot enjoy it more.
This rule reminds me of this line I’ve been thinking about a lot recently from the benefits of meditation section in How to Transform Your Life, how we are, “too closely involved in the external situation”. This can lead to attachment to outcome and the corresponding anxiety when things aren’t working out exactly as we desire – we are up and down like a blimmin’ yo yo. We don’t want to be enslaved by external appearances, by fleeting surroundings, like a yo yo or a puppet on a string. If we want to be satisfied and fulfilled, we need to master our minds instead.
13. Learn not to be gluttonous
“We as a society obsess over food and the pleasures of fine dining, or even just a good takeaway.” But as Buddha pointed out, we are full of contradictory desires, which is one reason why our attachment doesn’t work out for us — we want rich food and zero body fat, for example, or loads of alcohol and no grogginess.
For me, recalling that I’ve given my body away in the service of the Buddhas and all living beings helps me look after it better in terms of enjoying exercise and not being quite so attached to eating unhealthy stuff. Eat to live, not live to eat, as the old saying goes. (Work in progress. I just had a packet of chips.)
14. Abandon possessions in favor of minimalism
Or “don’t hold onto things you don’t need any more.” The practice of giving can be very liberating because it helps us let go of grasping so tightly at Me, My, and Mine.
There is probably no optimum number of possessions; everyone is different. So I think it is not the number of possessions we have but the way we are viewing them that is conducive to happiness and fulfillment. However, our possessions would seem to derive the most meaning from being given away, or being used directly or indirectly for others’ sake. Click on these links for more practical stuff on overcoming miserliness and becoming more open-hearted and generous.
15. Do not believe something just because you’re told to
“Don’t just follow the crowd and listen to others’ opinions.” Good advice for us in our modern echo chambers. Buddhism is all about this as a matter of fact — we are encouraged to check everything out carefully in our own experience to see if it is true for us before taking it on board. Buddha said we should not blindly believe him just because he is Buddha, but to test the teachings for their authenticity as if we were testing gold before committing to buying it.
Faith and experience go hand in hand. If we try something and it works, for example cherishing others, we can then have the confidence and faith to try something else, for example giving up selfishness.
16. Respect the gods, but do not rely solely on their guidance
I take this to mean that we need to rely on all Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Our ultimate protection is Dharma Jewel, the Dharma wisdom we grow in our own minds as a result of listening to Buddhist teachings, contemplating, and meditating. We do most certainly need the inspiration and guidance of enlightened beings and fellow practitioners to steer us out of the ocean of samsara, and, as Geshe Kelsang explains in Great Treasury of Merit, we also need the inner teacher of our own wisdom.
17. Have no fear of dying
The only way we can pull this one off is if we come happily to terms with our death now rather than waiting till our deathbed when it’ll be a bit too late. An awareness of impermanence and death, “I may die today,” enables us to live our precious life to the full, go with the flow, and prepare for a peaceful death and good future lives.
18. Do not use weaponry unless it is necessary
Ermm, what to say … I do agree with the author that we shouldn’t attack people, and I would include in that butchering defenseless animals. And Buddha Heruka has a lot of weapons that he uses all the time to overcome the enemy of the delusions, but never living beings.
19. Do not put pressure on retiring with riches
“Again, it was suggested we should live in the moment and not chase happiness in the form of possessions.” I guess the salient word is “pressure” — we can still make plans for retirement without attachment. If we see the importance of preparing for the future, we can also encourage ourselves to plan for our countless future lives, seeing as these are far more definite than retirement in this life (especially these days! LOL), and far more lengthy.
Although these are 20 quite random bits of Dharma advice, which pretty much boil down to practicing wisdom and compassion, I enjoyed thinking about them; so thank you for reading. As mentioned at the end of the last article, if you like lists of practical advice for inspiring daily living, you can find some time-tested Kadampa “rules” in the books Universal Compassion (the precepts and commitments of training the mind) and The Bodhisattva Vow.
I surfed into an article while on the Internet late last night (as one does, even when one would be better off asleep) – commenting on 20 rules for a happy and fulfilled life written by a Japanese Buddhist 400 years ago. It was a pleasant and indeed meaningful alternative to political shenanigans, climate catastrophes, Brexiteering, and other woesome late-night annoyances and, since I was still thinking about it this morning, I thought I’d shamelessly plagiarize and comment on all 20, ‘cos who doesn’t like lists?!
So, 400 years on, here are 20 rules of life updated by one modern Buddhist:*
1. Learn to accept life as it comes
I see this as the practice of patiently accepting whatever arises without wishing it were otherwise. There’s no point not accepting what is happening in the moment, given that it is happening. That’s like trying to fight reality – we can’t win.
Rather than starting from from aversion, from that internal thought “Nooooo!!!!”, we can learn to say “Yes, that’s ok, I can do something with this.” Then on the basis of peaceful acceptance we can not only grow stronger as people but also improve our own and others’ external situation as needs be and as much as we can. More articles on this here.
2. Abandon any obsession to achieving pleasure
“As humans we spend a lot of time chasing down pleasure …” We keep pursuing happiness outside of ourselves instead of relaxing and enjoying the happiness we already have within us — the contentment of our own peaceful and positive minds. We actually distract ourselves from our own happiness on the hedonistic treadmill of selfish desire, and feel worn out and discouraged in the process
The author suggests “we should try simply to live life in the moment and enjoy pleasure when it comes to us naturally instead of striving for it.” This is so true that I have nothing more to add. More on how to live in the moment here.
3. Do not act on an impulsive emotion
Intuition can be a good thing, as long as we know that’s what it really is as opposed to a deluded gut reaction. I find the Kadampa advice to “Rely upon a happy mind alone” to be helpful for telling the difference. If our mind is peaceful and positive, and we find we are popping with seemingly good ideas, we can generally trust those ideas. But if our mind is agitated or over-excited, and popping with ideas, maybe not so much.
4. Do not obsess over yourself
The biggest truth in Buddhism. The article says, “These days, we are so focused on online presence, taking a perfect selfie and striving for perfection, that we forget what matters in life.” There is an alarming increase in anxiety, depression, and even suicide due to addiction to social media, especially among young women.
(I met with a very interesting woman last week, a friend of a friend, who has written a Buddhist guide to social media based on sociology degrees and a long practice of Buddhism. It is fascinating material and highly relevant to our times, so I’ll let you know when it is out.)
Social media seems to be a modern-day manifestation of the insecurity that necessarily arises from an obsession with self. Self-cherishing is self-defeating, so we may as well just stop it, as explained here. Self-cherishing also makes for a cruel world. We are more worried about our own diets, for example, than about the fact that mankind is on the brink of its biggest starvation in Yemen.
5. Never allow jealousy to rule your life
The author advises us “never to be jealous of others, and to simply be thankful for what you yourself have.” Jealousy and competitiveness come from that obsession with self, insecurity, and feeling bad or inadequate about ourselves compared with others.
Gratitude for everything we have and are, learning to be a whole lot nicer to ourselves, is one excellent antidote. Another one is rejoicing, ie, being happy about others’ happiness and good luck – after all, these things don’t come around too often, why begrudge them? Not to mention that people’s perfect lives as seen on social media are as curated as the pictures we post of our own, so not the greatest yardstick for our self-worth.
I think it’s good to remember that we actually have nothing to prove. What is going on inside us is far more significant to our happiness than what is going on around us; so we can learn to focus on that rather than on what other people may or may not be up to.
6. Abandon attachment to desire
I like the way this is phrased because we are indeed attached not just to objects of attachment but to desirous attachment itself, having relied upon it since beginningless time as the way to get happy. We may even envisage a life without attachment as unexciting or humdrum. However, it is attachment that is boring and blocks the way to true bliss. It also tortures us every day, making us repeatedly have to scratch an itch, or drink salt water to slake our thirst.
7. Never live in regret
I agree with the author that dwelling on what we did wrong in the past is pointless because the past me, the past situation, and the past delusion have all gone. Dwelling on the past and wishing it were otherwise is as futile and frustrating as dwelling on last night’s dream and wishing it didn’t happen.
By remembering impermanence, especially subtle impermanence, we can learn to reinvent ourselves anew. Whatever happened in the past, we can let go of the baggage of that old story we keep telling ourselves (and others), and embark on a new narrative for our life. And we can do this one day at a time, living freshly without being weighed down by regret.
This advice is not contradictory to developing regret for the negative potentials we have planted in our mental continuum through our delusions and negative karma. This regret is the first opponent power of purification practice, and akin to wishing to dispel poison we have accidentally ingested so that it does not harm us. We don’t identify with that poison, thinking “I am a poisonous person!”; we just purify our system by getting rid of it. In a similar way, how can we purify/get rid of our negative karma while at the same time thinking “I am a negative/bad person!” – ie, feeling guilty and holding onto it?
8. Do not dwell on a sad separation
“Constantly thinking on a sad parting of friends and family prevents us from moving on and continuing our lives.” The law of (samsaric) entropy means that everything is being flung apart all the time — however urgently or impossibly we try to hold it all together with self-grasping, permanent grasping, and/or attachment.
As the author says, there is no way to bring back the dead. However, with love and wisdom we might find we don’t need to as we can learn to relate to that person in the present, wherever they are, and understand that we are not truly separated. Moving on and continuing our lives doesn’t mean we have to forget about loving them. In fact, it is better if we don’t forget to love them!
9. Complaining should have no place in your life
“Dwelling on what is going wrong only prolongs the past’s hold over your life.” Patient acceptance, again, is key. It is tiring to complain and it is tiring for others to be around us if we are always complaining. My suggestion is that if we have to complain, complain not about other people but about our collective self-grasping and self-cherishing. “Gather all blame into one” as it says in the mind-training (Lojong) teachings.
(There might be such a thing as making a complaint with a good motivation, eg, to get things improved, but I take the meaning of complain here to be the peevish self-pitying kind.)
I can’t vouch for this but someone told me the other day that Geshe Kelsang apparently said in a meeting that it’s okay to be annoyed about something for five minutes (if we can’t help it, I guess, and because we have to start somewhere); but after that we need to be patient.
It is more energizing to be part of the solution, using gripes to spur us into positive thought and action rather than wasting time exaggerating the faults we think we see and whining about them. We can’t be wringing our hands and rolling up our sleeves at the same time.
10. Don’t let lust rule your life
… “instead strive for love and lasting relationships”.
Good advice in the age of Tinder, #Metoo, sex bots, Cam girls, and the modern slave trade.
Okay, your coffee break is probably up, so I cover the remaining ten in this article.
Meantime, if you like lists of practical advice for daily living, you can find some cool time-tested Kadampa Buddhist “rules” in the books Universal Compassion (the precepts and commitments of training the mind) and The Bodhisattva Vow.
(*ie, me. You might have other ideas on these, or you may have other “rules” altogether — feel free to share them below.)
My parents asked me for working definitions of the following terms, “an introduction to Buddhism in the simplest terms possible for the uninformed, but possibly quite bright, newcomer or beginner.”
So I gave it a go, and they replied with some great suggestions for simplifying the language further. I also asked a good friend with much Buddhist knowledge, who helped edit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books, to give his input. This is therefore a collaborative work in progress, and you are invited to participate as well.
Delusions are distorted thoughts or emotions that destroy our mental peace and make us act in inappropriate ways; and so they are the cause of our suffering. Examples are anger, attachment, arrogance, and ignorance. They are distorted because the way they perceive their object does not correspond to reality – for example attachment exaggerates the pleasurable aspects of its object, in effect projecting things that are not there, whereas anger and hatred exaggerate the unpleasant aspects. If we get rid of our misperceptions, we get rid of our delusions and experience lasting happiness.
What is attachment?
Attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”, is a state of mind that believes happiness inheres or can be found in things outside the mind. Attachment is the “sticky desire” that is our normal response to anything or anyone we feel is a cause of pleasure, comfort, or security for us, that wants to keep it close or wants more, or that feels a painful sense of loss when it goes. The truth is, happiness is a state of mind that depends upon mental peace, and so its real causes lie within the mind, not without.
Attachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy by focusing on its supposed good qualities while editing out all its faults, e.g., a pizza or a partner is perceived by attachment to be an inherent, or actual, source of pleasure when in fact they can be just as much a source of suffering.
Attachment is often confused with love but they are completely different. Love is other-centered and peaceful and focuses on the welfare of the other person, whereas attachment is self-centered and unpeaceful and wants the other person simply because we think they make us feel better.
What is self-cherishing?
Self-cherishing is a mind that wrongly believes we are more important than others, and that our happiness and freedom matter more. Self-grasping misconceives our I to be inherently existent, the only real me; and self-cherishing misconceives this I to be supremely important, the very center of our world. These two ego minds are the source of all samsaric problems.
What is Dharma?
Dharma refers to Buddhist teachings and especially the experiences we gain by putting these teachings into practice. It literally means “protection.” Since our suffering comes from our delusions, it is our inner experience of the opposite of these delusions that directly protects us from this suffering.
For example, the experience of pure love protects us from the suffering caused by our own anger and dislike, and the experience of emptiness protects us from the suffering caused by self-grasping ignorance.
What is samsara?
Samsara is the life experience of someone with a body and mind still polluted by delusions and the negative actions and their unpleasant consequences arising from these delusions. Sometimes known as “cyclic existence”, it is life characterized by repetitive suffering.
Samsara’s very nature is problematic. The mind is not physical and it continues after death, but, for as long as our mind is governed by delusions, what it experiences will be fundamentally unsatisfactory and generally painful.
But not all life is samsaric life – if we can free ourselves from delusions by realizing emptiness, we can end samsara and experience lasting peace and happiness.
What is karma?
“Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions, or intentions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs. Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the “soil” of our mental continuum. Mental intentions are those seeds; experiences are their effects. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.
What is self-grasping?
Self-grasping ignorance is the underlying source of all other delusions. It is a wrong awareness that apprehends people and things as existing inherently or independently. For example, when we think of a person called Tom, there seems to be a completely real Tom out there who in no way depends upon our perceptual and conceptual apparatus for his existence.
What is inherent existence?
Inherent existence means independent existence. An object would be inherently existent if it didn’t depend on anything at all for its existence, such as its causes, its parts, or the mind perceiving it. No object exists like this, so no object is inherently existent. Some synonyms for inherent existence are existing from the side of the object, existing from its own side, existing in and of itself, independently existent, or objectively existent.
At the moment, we grasp at inherent existence; it is the object of self-grasping ignorance. The world seems to be made up of discrete, objective entities that do not depend upon an observer for their existence; but, in reality, all phenomena are inter-dependent, or “dependent relationships”, existing only in relationship with a multitude of causes, parts, contexts, imputations, and perceptions.
What is emptiness?
Emptiness is not nothingness but the lack of things existing inherently. Self-grasping ignorance misconceives things as having inherent or independent existence, and emptiness is the total absence of this mode of existence. Because everything depends entirely upon other things, everything is empty of inherent existence.
The things we normally see – inherently existent things — do not exist. Things do exist, but as mere appearances to mind, entirely dependent upon mind, and the nature of mind.
Realizing emptiness — lack of inherent existence — is the only way to destroy the object of self-grasping and free our mind permanently from all delusions.
What is Sangha?
Sangha refers to the spiritual community practicing Dharma. In general, our spiritual friends who give us spiritual advice, support, and inspiration are our Sangha; but more strictly a Sangha Jewel is someone who has realized emptiness directly, because only such a person sees things as they really are and can be relied upon completely.
What is a wishfulfillling jewel?
A wishfulfilling jewel is an ancient legendary jewel similar to Aladdin’s lamp that supposedly had the power to grant all worldly wishes. It is often used as an analogy for spiritual accomplishments such as full enlightenment, which not only fulfill all our worldly and temporary wishes, but also our everlasting, ultimate wishes.
Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:
“We regret that we still find several definitions too difficult and sometimes too wordy, as if you are both trying too hard to cover every aspect.”
So, as we are not there yet, I invite you all to give this a go as well! Please use the comments section below. My friend and I have found that attempting to sum up these profound subjects in a few sentences, if indeed such a thing is possible, has been a very useful exercise in checking our own understanding. As this list is very far from complete, please feel free to submit other Buddhist terms and working definitions too.
This summer my parents asked if I could write a “short, simple guide” to answer the main questions they and their friends have about Buddhism. They kindly sent me the list of quite excellent enquiries, so I am going to have a go now.
What is Buddhism in one sentence?
Buddhism is learning to live from a peaceful mind and a good heart as the best way to solve our own inner problems of anxiety, depression, fear, etc.; finding a deepening sense of happiness and freedom from within; and in time helping and inspiring others to do the same.
(Thank goodness for semi-colons.)
Or how about this:
“Buddha says be nice to people and animals and then you feel good.” ~ a 4-year-old Buddhist
What is meditation in one sentence?
Meditation, literally “familiarizing ourselves with positivity”, lies at the heart of Buddhism, and by practicing it we (1) are protected from the suffering caused by unpeaceful, uncontrolled states of mind such as anger, attachment, and ignorance that give rise to suffering; and (2) learn how to develop and maintain our peaceful, beneficial states of mind such as patience, love, and wisdom, in this way fulfilling our innate potential for lasting happiness and freedom, as well as the ability to help others.
Hmm, that might have been stretching the one sentence thing a bit. So how about this quote from Buddha instead:
Learn to do good,
Cease to do evil,
And control the mind.
Do Buddhists believe there is a God?
Short answer: No. Not a creator God. But we do believe in the existence of completely perfect holy beings.
If there is a creator God who is omnipotent and has compassion for his creation, why is there suffering? It would seem that a creator God must either have no compassion or not be omnipotent, one can’t have it both ways.
Buddhists do not believe that one single mind, namely God’s, created the world, but that we are all creating our own reality with our own minds continually. Nonetheless, we all have the potential to purify our minds of all obstructions and attain omniscience, if not omnipotence. And so Buddhists do believe in the existence of countless enlightened beings who have attained complete freedom and omniscience in order to help everyone else do the same, and we pray to them for guidance and blessings.
So, like Christians and so on, we believe in the existence of omnipresent compassionate holy beings and in the power of prayer and blessings. Just not in an omnipotent creator God.
We can also find common ground on a more mystical (perhaps sort of holy spirit level) if we take God to be the clear light mind possessed by all living beings, which is called the basic Dharmakaya or Truth Body. This very subtle mind that goes from life to life is the basis or creator of both samsara and nirvana, and, when purified, will become the bliss and emptiness of the actual Truth Body of a Buddha, omniscient wisdom.
Is Buddhism a religion or a faith? Are they different?
Buddhism is a religion, according to the dictionary definition. It is also a faith, in so far as Buddhists grow their faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Faith is a positive state of mind that is quite clearly defined in Buddhism – it goes hand in hand with experience and includes (a) believing faith, where we simply believe in the existence of holy beings, pure states of mind, etc.; (b) admiring faith, where we admire their good qualities; and (c) wishing faith, where we wish to gain those qualities ourselves.
What happens when you die? What is meant by reincarnation?
We take rebirth, which means the same as reincarnation moreorless. Our mind is formless awareness whereas our body is made of flesh and blood; so though the body dies, the very subtle mind continues. Buddha documents the entire process of dying and taking rebirth from the subjective point of view of the person dying, it is fascinating. We pass through different levels of consciousness. It is a bit like falling asleep, dreaming, and waking up, though we wake up into an entirely new body and world. What body and world that is depends on the quality of our mind and our actions, or karma. I have written several articles about this subject here.
A surprising number of Western thinkers too have believed in rebirth over the centuries, including early Christian Gnostics; and I like Voltaire’s words on the subject:
It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.
Being born once is no less weird than being born lots of times. Dying once is no less weird than dying lots of times.
For as long as I remember I have believed in rebirth, so that kind of says something right there. I remember telling you, Dad, that your father was going to be reborn as a human and not as an animal because he was a good man (a vicar) and died peacefully. I was all of six years old at the time, I wonder if you remember, it was in the kitchen in Guildford. I also knew without being told, aged 4, that our daschund Rozy was already on the way to her next life when you drove her away in the boot of our car in Sri Lanka after her accident. Stuff like that.
What is a Buddhist’s relationship with everyday life? For instance, can a Buddhist be a soldier? or kill anything?
Buddhism is based on compassion and its chief refuge commitment is: “Not to harm others.” So Buddhists avoid killing as much as they can, and also try to have careers that don’t involve harming others if possible. The main thing always is the motivation, however, so there are no external laws or strict rules for living per se; each Buddhist has to be pragmatic and figure out for themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and what results it will have for themselves and others.
Moreover, Buddhists believe that everyday life can be transformed into a spiritual path by changing our minds:
Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. – Eight Steps to Happiness
Do Buddhists aim to make the world a better place by the personal example of their Way of Life rather than by direct action?
Another good question. It’s a bit of both. Bodhisattvas have two main methods to make the world a better place, which are reflected in the vows they take – (1) to develop their minds so they can attain enlightenment as quickly as possible to help all living beings, and (2) to help others directly whenever they can. What form that help takes depends on the individual, there is a lot of diversity.
For example, my main aim is to practice Buddhism and help it to flourish so that it reaches lots of people and inspires them also to become more peaceful, happy, patient, etc. This involves both a way of life and direct action. But I also do other types of direct action, as you may be meaning it, in the form of helping an animal shelter and trying to promote kindness to animals. But again, it is the motivation that counts. Direct action motivated by, say, a mind full of hate or intolerance, is counterproductive.
Buddhists’ main goal to make the world a better place by helping each other develop the capacity of our minds, realizing that everyone has powerful spiritual potential for lasting peace and freedom. We have been creating our own suffering for a very long time, and in the same way we can create our own happiness; we just need the methods. Geshe Kelsang puts it like this:
Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough.
A friend on Facebook put it rather nicely I thought: “We could bandage people up and give them tents and a bowl of soup, and it is great if we can do that; but if they are in a whirlwind of self-destruction they will run out with the bandages on to fight again. The whirlwind is the delusions. Until these are stopped, we can keep rebuilding houses but the uncontrolled mind will keep smashing them down again.”
For example, is a Buddhist Doctor a Buddhist first or a Doctor? We assume there is no dilemma or conflict but how do you explain?
I think that depends on the individual – some would say they were Buddhists first and then doctors, some would say it the other way around. There need be no conflict between being a Buddhist and being a doctor, especially if the doctor is motivated by the wish to relieve suffering and support happiness in his or her patients. As with any job, there may be certain dilemmas to navigate; but these in themselves can help someone become better at eg, compassion, patience, or taking responsibility. As one guest blogger put it in his article:
Being a social worker makes me a better Buddhist. Being a Buddhist makes me a better social worker.
Interestingly enough, Geshe Kelsang was a doctor in Tibet before he became a teacher. He came to feel that he could personally help people more by being a teacher (see point above), but there is no contradiction.
There are many different forms of Buddhism, do we need to know how to refer to the NKT?
We refer to the NKT as Kadampa Buddhism, “Kadampa” literally meaning “those who take all Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and put them into practice in their daily lives.” These days we also call ourselves “modern Buddhism”, because this tradition has spread more globally than most due to its accessibility to people in many countries and walks of life.
The NKT is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982-1054), practiced fully and passed down the generations through accomplished spiritual masters, including Je Tsongkhapa (AD 1357-1419), to the present day.
Is anyone or any type of Buddhism considered the founder of Buddhism? If so, how long ago did Buddhism start?
Buddha Shakyamuni is known as the founder of Buddhism – so from one point of view Buddhism started just over 2550 years ago in India and then spread from there. However, time is beginningless, and there are countless beings who have realized their full potential and become Buddhas; so Buddhism has actually been around (somewhere if not always here) forever!
In this world, a prince called Siddhartha in India (550 BC) found suffering unacceptable, so left his palace to bring an end to it. He discovered that the root of suffering lies within the mind, specifically within a mistaken understanding of reality, and he found a way to cut this root of ignorance with compassion and the wisdom realizing the illusory nature of things. He was then requested to teach, and gave 84,000 teachings to a very wide audience over a 40-year ministry, which became known as Dharma (literally, “that which holds us back from suffering”).
Interestingly, Buddha didn’t coin the term “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”; that was something we did much later. He called his followers simply “inner beings” because there were interested in attaining happiness and freedom by controlling the mind. Anyone can use Buddha’s teachings, therefore — for example on meditation, mindfulness, love, patience, and wisdom — without having to call themselves a Buddhist if they don’t want to. Geshe Kelsang, I remember, used to call some of his students in Dallas Texas “Christian Buddhists”, for example.
How many types of Buddhism exist? Or does no-one really know?
Buddhism can be grouped by country, by culture, by lineage, by teacher, by monastery, etc., so there are many types. At the same time you could say there is only one type of Buddhism, the teachings of Buddha.
Buddhism spread extensively because many countries and cultures saw that it deals with the mind so effectively; and, broadly speaking, in all these places groups would form with an experienced teacher at their center.
Basically there are two main “vehicles” of Buddhism – Hinayana (incl. Theravadan) and Mahayana, of which Kadampa Buddhism is the latter. Hinayanists’ goal is to attain liberation or nirvana, which means freedom from all delusions and suffering for themselves. Mahayanists’ or Bodhisattvas’ goal is to attain full enlightenment so they can lead all living beings to the same state. (Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is included in the Mahayana.) Both traditions were taught by Buddha and they have many practices in common, including the four noble truths. All authentic traditions of Buddhism are able to trace their teachings back through an unbroken line of teachers and disciples to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.
Thank you to Facebook friends who contributed to this article. I have attempted the impossible, ie, to keep my answers short. It is clearly not conclusive and plenty more could be said, so this article is like Cliff’s notes or something. Please feel free to contribute good stuff on any of these questions in the comments section below.
… our pilot just welcomed us. And this reminded me of Geshe Kelang’s first flight to America in July 1990. As they set off from Heathrow, he said to the 2 students traveling with him, one of them my closest friend at the time:
We are flying to Vajrayogini’s’s Pure Land…
… and then he absorbed into meditation for the next 6 hours, only arising when prompted to eat lunch, of which he partook of a mere forkful. (As both these students were sitting either side of him, that kind of scuppered any chance of conversation… But it was still apparently a darned good flight.)
And I always think of these words when I fly. Besides, we need to go to the very friendly higher sky of Vajrayogini and Heruka’s Pure Land – Keajra – even when stationary, and we can leave through our crown chakra.
Why? Because samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. I can hear the video game violence emanating from the ear buds of the youth next to me – so how loud is it blaring into HIS ears?! Not that he cares of course, he is never going to get middle aged and old and die. That only happens to other people, like the woman next to him (me). A friend in his 50s recently developed tinnitus. Of course he didn’t see that coming despite years of headphone abuse. And who amongst us hasn’t blissed out to loud music – but even music is deceptive, my friend was telling me. All sense pleasures are. All appearances mislead us while we remain overpowered by them, not realizing they are empty, not realizing they are not really there.
As Geshe Kelsang explains in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition, the Buddhist master Vasubandhu used various examples to show how attachment to sense pleasures creates suffering. Moths are ensnared by attachment to visual forms when they fly into the flame; deer to sounds when they are enticed by the hunter’s flute; flies to smells when they land on food and are swatted; fish to food when they are impaled on the hook; and elephants to tactile sensations when they sink helplessly into mud. Meanwhile, humans are ensnared by attachment to all five!
But everything we encounter can also teach us everything about Dharma if we let it. As Milarepa said:
I have no need of books because all the objects around me are my books. From these I learn about death and impermanence, the disadvantages of samsara, and the emptiness of all phenomena. Great Treasury of Merit p. 212.
Sooooo, so far today … It started with a teaching on my early morning coffee – Life is short. Stay awake for it. (Don’t know what to suggest for those of you who don’t drink coffee.)
The snack cart just came down the aisle, and my attention was captured by Buddha Bowl Foods™ (Trademark! Since when did a snack company get the trademark on Buddha’s begging bowl?) – organic popcorn with pink Himalayan salt. What will they think of next? But although it is seasoned by elements from faraway holy lands, this popcorn is still not worth the $4.99 price tag. Though it makes me shudder a bit to see Buddha smiling out from a disposable snack wrapper, I also think it is lucky that Buddha is not fussy – maybe someone will create an indestructible potential for enlightenment as they chow down on their salty morsels.
Everyone is either snoozing or plugged in. Some are multitasking their entertainment — managing to be on their personal devices AND watching the latest movie on the seat-back in front of them. In this worth-reading NYT article about death, Arthur C. Brooks reports a scary illustration of the disconnect between what we want and what we do due to the power of distractions:
The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.
So far I have resisted the itch to swipe my credit card and watch The Martian … but temptation is always all around. I need to think this could be my last flight, and what would I do if I ever did have to follow the second of these helpful instructions (pictured)? (Has anyone ever actually survived by using their cushion for a flotation device?! Ok, I admit, I got distracted and googled it. Apparently, yes, they have, in 1970.) But, should the cushion fail, given that I am unprepared for my activities just over the next week in NYC, where does that leave my next life?
In the security line
So much effort goes into becoming a functioning adult – it needs years. There are students behind me in the security line, all young, hip, fresh-faced, and about to have their moment ruling the world. “Boulder has changed so much! Like, totally,” one says, as if she has been there well over her 17 years. “I major in education,” she carries on saying to her new friends. “So are you gonna become a teacher?” “Yeah.” “Cool.” That will take years of money and resources. A small earnest boy with oversized spectacles and a watchful mother — will he be a teacher one day? How much money and kindness will make that possible? Then it starts unravelling as you see from the deeply lined woman hobbling by with a stick, maybe she was an educator once.
It is so easy to grasp at permanence, at things staying the same. Sometimes I fast forward in these snaky queues — where will we all be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?
My young co-queuer from Boulder has also wasted no time telling her new friends that she is traveling to see her boyfriend, who inconveniently lives in New York. “Man! That sucks!” “I know. But it’s okay.” (Clearly right now it is way more than okay for she cannot help grinning, albeit in a cool, I can take it or leave it girls, kind of way). It may last for decades, like Alan Rickman and Rima Horton, but the odds are against it, and she may have the first of several broken hearts, perhaps even on this trip. How many have you had?! I have had my fair share. While we remain with attachment, broken hearts are an unavoidable side effect at any age. There is a joke in California – before you get serious with someone, ask yourself:
Is this who I want my kids to spend the weekends with?
Back on the plane, but on this same subject, I am now actually across the aisle from a hot couple meeting and flirting for the first time. We do quite rightly like the bliss of connection — and they are, after all, the only people around here immersed in the present moment as opposed to asleep or on their gadgets — so I think it’d be wonderful if that bliss could last forever. However, fast forward 5 years and they’ll be watching box sets on the couch with the dog like the rest of us. We need to know where our bliss actually comes from. Geshe Kelsang once told me that it is not possible to get between someone and their object of attachment. (But was I applying these wise words to myself?! Umm, no. No more than I got his teaching on eating mindfully when during a tea party I offered him a huge slice of chocolate cake and he said, “This is poison for me,” — so I ate it instead, and he laughed. Geshe-la has been infinitely patient with me. With all of us, really.) Try telling someone as they start licking the honey off the razor’s edge, “That’s going to hurt you know!” And will they listen? Will they heck.
Talking of Alan Rickman, he seemed to be well loved by all who knew him for his loyalty, kindness, and willingness to go the extra mile. And his kindness will guide him to happiness now too, none of it is wasted, it’s a win win — happy in this life, creating the causes for happiness now in his next life, as well as being prayed for and wished well on his way by the many people he helped.
Back in the security line …
You snake past the same people over and over in these lines. It reminds me of being on the same flight from Portugal as someone who loathed me. We both pretended we didn’t notice each other, and got away with it on the plane; but upon arrival found ourselves in one of those long looping queues — having to look at our phones, over to some friends, up at the roof, etc — each time we were about to pass. Five times we managed it — only to bump right into each other as we emerged from the restrooms. It makes me think that we cannot hide forever from our karma, we have to face it over and over again until it is exhausted; so we may as well learn to love everyone in the line. We will have to keep bumping into everyone forever, so why not learn to enjoy it. Reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Love this quote.
And, like I was saying, we need to get out of this long queue as fast as possible – like those people in the Clear Me line who have created enough merit to breeze through. Then we can fly the friendly sky of the Dharmakaya, and help everyone else do the same.
We seek transcendence. People do crazy extreme sports and jump out of airplanes to get the thrill of flying. I saw a poster trying to entice passers-by with, “Learn to stunt drive!” Why would I do that?!! I am just now noticing my neighbor with the noisy headphones watching a man walk on a wire high high above New York City. He is lying down! He is pointing at a magical sun behind a cloud! A white dove is flying toward him! This is all pretty cool, especially as I’m not distracted by the narrative. Still, I would want more than a wire between me and the ground 70 stories below. Like a direct realization of emptiness, for example.
Talking of sports, people ask why I don’t ski. I used to as a child living in Turkey and visiting good friends in Switzerland, but now I prefer to enjoy it in my mind — for some reason, maybe my precious human life and a distinct preference for a body in one uninterrupted piece — I have gone off the idea of standing at the top of a steep mountain with two insanely slippery sticks tied to my feet. Not judging, because I also kind of admire the spectacular fear-defying feats I watch from the comfort of the gondola cafe in Breckenridge or Aspen. And it makes me blissful to watch, except when people fall. Nurse an overpriced cappuccino long enough, and someone is bound to fall. Especially if they are sufficiently high, and/or under some illusion about their skill-set or permanence in this life. People get into all sorts of trouble in the mountains through underestimating their environment or overestimating themselves, according to an English friend in Breckenridge. He goes out whenever called to save people in an utterly heroic fashion, whether on skies, or wheels, or even by air, on a variety of cool snow vehicles. He does this in his plus fours, tweed cap, and a tweed jacket, and honestly looks just like Tintin — but the people who have gotten themselves into any number of of idiotic situations are always very happy to see him.
And my final observations for now: a full cup of coffee + rough air = bad combo. But the flight attendant did just call me “Miss” instead of the dreaded “Ma’am”, which I like, even if he is about 75 years old. And remind me again why I insist on always traveling
with a ripe banana that I have to clean out of my bag upon arrival?You may conclude from these rambling observations that I have way too much time on my hands, spend way too much time in airplanes, and should get a proper job like all the other functioning adults of this world. In my defence I will say that I write most of my stuff while traveling between places, and though I do, naturally, like the feeling of being on perpetual vacation while technically not, a feeling I believe I may have inherited from my parents, I also do have a few other things to do from time to time, I promise. So bye bye for now. Thank you for flying united.
Postscript: This ended up long, and I thought about putting it in 2 installments to make some of my readers happy (you know who you are, France and Philippe.) But then I realized they could just stop reading halfway and come back to the rest later. Don’t know why I never thought of that before.