A guest article. A couple of friends have written to me in the last couple of days with their responses to the events in Atlanta, saying that I could share these with you.
The power of love ~ by Hannah Kim
Recently someone texted me about recent violence toward Asian Americans. Here is what seems to be coming out of me presently:
1. It seems to me that ignorance hurts everyone. 2. We can generate renunciation for ourselves and compassion for others in order to protect our minds. 3. And lastly we can remember that the best thing we can do right now is to practice loving kindness. It is the only appropriate response — loving kindness, compassion and wisdom. These are the only paths that will lead us out of the chaos, fear and darkness of our times.
This teaching comes from Gen-la Dekyong during the US Summer Festival 2020, which was concurrent with the George Floyd protests. She said that as American Kadampa Buddhists we need to practice loving kindness; and I believe this holds true right now as well.
Especially if you are not a Buddhist, or even if you are a Buddhist, sometimes it feels as if suggesting the practice of loving kindness can sound very simple minded or perfunctory. After all how can simply loving people stop violence and hatred when what I really want to do is break something or hit someone?! Or maybe as Buddhists we are just overly trying to be nice, or, worse, ‘virtuous’, or even high and mighty, idealistic.
But I’ve come to realize that Buddha is not saying practice loving kindness in some general, nebulous, though kind hearted way. He’s saying that in our moments of deepest pain, darkness, fear, or discouragement, we must generate affectionate love. True affectionate love will lift our hearts, minds and heads from the morass which is the pit of samsara. It functions as medicine to heal our own pain and the pain of others which can lead to such senseless and hurtful actions.
Geshe Kelsang once said:
Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys our enemies.
He means this in a very specific and literal way. Specific because this is what we are supposed to be doing right now, every day, for every heartache and pain. Literal because we can be nice to people even if others are not nice to us. Ha!
We need to become people who practice loving kindness, compassion and wisdom in order to alter the course of our collective fate, our collective karma.
Lastly, because no one says it better, from Meaningful to Behold:
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.
The power of prayer ~ by Cai
This is my mom, Bây; she is Vietnamese. (I’m the baby in her arms.) We came to America when I was three years old. We endured racism in a small white town in Montana, where I spent most of my childhood. After all these years, I never thought I would again find myself concerned for my mom’s safety and well-being. I am heartbroken by the increasing violence against Asian Americans.
A few Asian American friends have asked me what I am doing to help as a Buddhist. Every day I wake up and make prayers for my mother and my AAPI elders, brothers, and sisters. I ask the divine to make my mother and others invisible to those who want to harm them. I also pray that those who wish to harm are blocked from having the opportunity to harm.
However, with loving-kindness I also pray for those who engage in acts of violence and who inspire violence through their hateful rhetoric. They are cruel and violent because they are profoundly ignorant and riddled with fear and insecurity, and often most likely possessed by or under the influence of demonic interferences. So every day I ask an assembly of wrathful compassionate Deities to remove interferences from the body, speech, and mind of those spewing hatred and engaging in acts of violence. I ask that ignorance be removed from their minds to create an opening in their hearts to be kinder, happier, and more peaceful. Peaceful people do not harm others.
I then finish my prayer by visualizing all those who would do harm experiencing a peaceful state of mind, causing them to see the truth that everyone is deserving of understanding, acceptance, and compassion.
It was Manjushri Centre in 1983. I had just moved in, and this was to be my first meeting with Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I was 18 years old, fresh out of college, and trembling in earnest anticipation of meeting someone I believed would lead me to enlightenment. In that meeting he agreed to be my Spiritual Guide. In the following decades he became a father to me.
All my life I have suffered from epilepsy (drug-resistant). Also other neurological conditions — restless legs and ADHD. In the early days when I first met Geshe-la he gave me some treasured advice about how to approach epilepsy from a Dharma angle. I have never forgotten this, and would like to write about it now in the hope that it may help some people.
Geshe-la told me to regard my seizures as my teacher. This can be applied to any health conditions. I would now like to share what I have learnt from this priceless advice over the past 40 years.
Cultivate mental strength. Weakness is not an option.
I lived almost all of my life without hope of health. For a few short moments hope for a cure might arise, then it would swiftly be quenched. If you suffer from chronic illness you are probably intimately familiar with despair. Please turn to a deeper and true source of hope. You must. Your back is against the wall and you have no choice. Choose whatever it is in Buddha’s teachings that touches your heart. This is your source of hope. For me, it started out as emptiness but over several decades seemed to morph into compassion and bodhichitta. That becomes our true source of hope.
We cannot gain deep, experiential realization of our source of true hope through book-learning alone.
There is only one way — we have to suffer. We all have to suffer in order to develop the psychological depth to realize the liberating truth of Buddhadharma. You will be able to help people progress forward in their path of Dharma. You will lead people to the true happiness of liberation. And most importantly, you can protect people from suffering and pain, not just in this life but in life after life. Your illness and pain have spiritual meaning and purpose. Yes, I know how hard it can be, but it is your dark and painful blessing.
People whose minds are weak need hope from some worldly belief that their body of this life will get well again. Be strong. People need you.
Chronic illness cannot be argued with. In that psychological act of giving up there is great strength, if guided with wisdom. It makes you strong. But it is a strength the worldly cannot see. Standing up and trying to lead a normal life, whilst every atom of your disease wants you to give up. This battle gives you an immense yet hidden strength that most people cannot even perceive or comprehend.
Always remember emptiness during your daily activities
My advice on emptiness is threefold if we have chronic sickness:
1) Focus on the emptiness of your body 2) Focus on the emptiness of your self or ‘I’ 3) Frequently recite The Heart Sutra
1) We need to meditate on the emptiness of our body because in emptiness there is no body. Therefore, there is no disease. During nights I have spent lying in bed unable to sleep due to the restlessness in my legs, meditating on the emptiness of my body has been a great soother. Emptiness and bodhichitta have been the only things that have helped.
2) We need to meditate on the emptiness of our self. Whether we have illness or not, we accumulate many painful memories around our sense of self. But illness strikes at the heart of one’s self-concept and inflicts a special sort of pain. It shapes you, creates you. We have to meditate on the emptiness of our self to discover the panacea of the peace of emptiness.
3) We need to recite and reflect on The Heart Sutra. This is one of the most powerful ways to improve our understanding of emptiness, yet so blessed, intuitive, and beyond my ability to explain.
We must remember emptiness during those dark times when we need it most. This occurs not in the meditation session, but during our daily activities. This is when help is needed most, when we can be pushed to the utmost, and when the world can seem darkest. Please remember emptiness at these times. We do not have a choice. We need to deepen our understanding of emptiness now, while we have the opportunity. Alternatively, we can put emptiness off to another day. We will probably die before that day. It is always ‘today’ when we die, and ‘tomorrow’ is the day we put spiritual practice off to. We do not have a choice.
If it were not for the suffering and pain I endured through illness, I would not think of emptiness so much. This is the first dark, painful blessing that disease gave me.
Abandon fear and embrace death. Become a traveler.
Epilepsy is pervaded by fear. Fear and I are old friends. Whenever I walk into a room, I immediately look around for the presence of any piece of furniture that may cause injury. Nowadays I do this automatically and unconsciously. It happens without me choosing to do it. Sharp corners, hard edges, hot space-heaters, glass, the list goes on. Even familiar rooms. Fear of injury has been with me since I was 5 years old. Over the past 50 years, fear multiplied as I became more aware of how seizures affect all the other worldly things I care about — where I live, what I do, how it affects my physical and cognitive health. How the medication I take to prevent my seizures is rotting my brain and inner organs away. How every seizure devastates my brain. Fear is a part of epilepsy. Now the fear is gradually reducing as I dwell on my mortality and consider that the only reason for being alive is to help others.
I no longer fear death. For the worldly, fear of death is really fear of loss. We fear losing our friends, losing the places we are familiar with, losing the reassuring facade of security. During a long, painful, or traumatic chronic illness one comes to know loss intimately. There may come a time when illness makes us lose so much that we no longer fear loss. At that time we lose fear of death.
However, I do fear rebirth. Geshe Potowa said:
It is not death I fear so much as rebirth.
Rebirth in samsara. Rebirth as an insect. Rebirth in hell. Lifetime after lifetime, endlessly. Yes, this I fear.
It is only the understanding of death that begins to resolve the fear. When you have looked death in the face several times, that grim teacher will finally reveal that fear of death is about fear of loss. The loss of everything one holds dear.
I regard myself as a traveler passing through this life, and from life to life. When illness is severe it begins to teach us that we are just passing through, we will die soon. Buddha said:
The end of meeting is parting.
I try to help people as best I can whilst loving them unconditionally, and being willing to leave them behind to move on to the next life. You will leave behind everybody you know, even the people you love most. Please understand this. A traveler loves people unconditionally because they know they will leave them behind.
Epilepsy taught me how to understand people’s suffering. How to melt this cold, hard heart. Selfish people need to learn to combine their chronic illness (if they are lucky enough to have one) with Dharma. Otherwise that cold, hard heart will remain frozen in a perpetual state of selfishness.
Make compassion your main practice
People discover compassion in many different ways. Mine was through chronic sickness. Yours might be another way. Put in the simplest terms, compassion is the wish to protect people from pain and suffering. If you are severely ill, please make compassion your main practice. Without compassion we are lifeless and dead. Don’t run from the suffering of your illness. Turn around and look it in the eye. Look carefully. Look closely. Over time, instead of seeing our own pain we start to see others’ pain, others’ sickness, others’ tears, others’ loss. Their suffering becomes our suffering. In this way, our Buddha nature starts to grow. But not without pain.
Please practice compassion. It is the most powerful method to transform your painful illness into something good. You cannot be free from physical sickness. As long as you have a body, that will be your burden, your pain, your tears, and your misery. However, compassion awakens your heart. We realize illness is not about us — there are millions of people out there with worse. When compassion blesses our mind it does not remove our chronic condition, but it helps us realize that our suffering is insignificant. In that realization we discover a purpose to our suffering. We discover meaning.
There are so many people out there in chronic pain. If we don’t help each other, then who will?
The value of friends
I consider myself blessed to have had the supportive friends and family I have. The degree of kindness and help I have received has been enormous and deeply moving.
Please understand. People with chronic illness are incredibly stoic and strong, but there is still one bitter pain that is so hard to bear. When people disbelieve or doubt you are struggling with chronic illness, this pierces the heart. It makes you secretive about your ailment, angry, depressed, and eventually bitter and cynical. Even a little understanding helps enormously.
This article may seem heavy. I may talk about death too much, or other hard subjects. But this is the reality of someone with chronic and serious sickness. These dark heavy thoughts are what they wake up to. They live with this reality every day. It is a hard burden to endure — a heavy burden and a lonely one. Sometimes, the health issues (physical or mental aspects) have been too strong for me to endure alone. My mind is strong, but sometimes even that has not been enough. This is when the dark blessing of chronic illness teaches the value of wise friends and caring family. I have only made it this far in life because of the people who were willing to help me during the difficult times. If any of these people are reading this article, thank you — I owe you everything.
Even a little understanding from trusted friends is a ray of sunshine that can penetrate through the dark and ominous clouds of the heaviest painful thoughts that accompany sickness. Understanding from a sympathetic and knowledgeable friend helps bring back mental fortitude that was waning. When people show understanding, it brings hope and optimism into the suffering mind. And a will to live returns. We think understanding is just about knowledge. But understanding is also about love, and caring, and acceptance, and empathy. It is these qualities that gives our ability to understand sickness the power to start the healing process.
Over the past 40 or 50 years I have sometimes let a friend down. Maybe I didn’t consider that friend important enough, or maybe I was trying to follow the path of expediency. I now understand with crystal clarity that I would be dead if not for my friends. Friendship becomes something rare and sacred for anyone with chronic disease. It has become sacred to me. I will never harm a friend. Ever.
The only way to realistically commit to this ideal is to cultivate equanimity. This means cultivating a caring heart that is free from fickle and partial states of mind, and that embraces everyone with warmth and friendliness. This also comes from the dark and painful blessing of chronic illness.
The spiritual meaning and purpose of our life
I used to believe I was a meditator, a yogi. I have come to realize that I am not. My purpose in this life is not so much to meditate as to teach. It is teaching Dharma that gives me meaning and (I believe) maintains my life. I cannot explain how this happened but it is the dark and painful blessings of chronic illness that revealed to me what my vocation is and what it is not. At least in this lifetime. As long as there is purpose and meaning to my life, and vocation, then there is value in my living. Protecting other people from their suffering through helping them realize emptiness is the only reason I have for living. It is the only reason for me to have the privilege of being alive and drawing another breath.
We will have different conditions. Maybe bedbound, or exhausted with chronic fatigue, or tormented with extreme fibromyalgia. It may feel that we have nothing to lose because we have already lost everything. This is a good feeling and we must cultivate it. Having lost everything, we are free to be a Bodhisattva.
Why do people practice Dharma for years with no real change? Because Buddhadharma is frightening to our selfishness and ego-grasping. Buddha’s teachings demand change, and our foolish, petty, selfish, egocentric mind is terrified of change. But when the dark, painful, blessings of chronic illness takes away everything, there is nothing left to lose. On a material level we may still have things. But psychologically everything is gone. Empty. Nothing. Then we can start to be the person Buddha wants us to be. A Bodhisattva.
Our only job is to protect others from suffering and pain. If we are very sick we need to be radical. Be more extreme than normal people. Give up selfish behaviors and ways of thinking. You have already lost everything anyway, and have nothing of worldly worth left to lose. Become a Bodhisattva and learn the 6 perfections. Hard times and illness — this alone is what makes life worthwhile. The world needs Bodhisattvas. The world needs us. You are strong, like a superhero. Please do not allow your sickness to simply strengthen your samsara or make you feel weak. We must become Bodhisattvas. There is no choice. People need us.
When we become Bodhisattvas, we are inspired to make solemn and sacred vows about how we will benefit others when we become enlightened. For example, the 35 Confession Buddhas or 7 Medicine Buddhas have different and distinctive powers. I am far from being a Bodhisattva but I make this promise now: When I become a Buddha I will free those with neurological illnesses from their pain. This is not a sentiment, it is a promise.
We are Mahayana Buddhists. Soon we will die and lose our opportunity to develop bodhichitta. We need to understand others’ suffering now. We need to understand others’ sickness now. There is no time to wait. This is my message.
Guest article by British Kadampa Julie Stewart — filmmaker, theatre practitioner and actor living in Harlem NYC.
To begin with, we can gently allow our focus to be on our breath — on the sensation of the breath going in and out of our nostrils. If any thoughts arise in the mind we simply don’t follow them, and if it wanders we can bring our awareness back to our breathing. We can recognize that when we focus on the sensation of our breath, our mind automatically becomes more peaceful. Now we can gently open our eyes.
Today is June 19, Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the US. It’s also known as “Freedom Day.” I have been thinking a lot today about freedom and how we all want it in one form or another. We all like the idea of freedom. And I’ve also been thinking how fortunate it is we’re here today with the freedom to learn these teachings; that we even have access to these amazing Buddhist practices that have the power to change our minds. How many people in this world right now don’t have access to these teachings, don’t even know that they exist?
Then I was thinking about another kind of freedom, freedom of mind. Do we feel that we are the masters of our own minds? Do we have control over our thoughts, our feelings, our reactions to external situations?
We all tell ourselves a story about who we think we are – we all have this inner monologue, which may be characterized by mistakes, shortcomings, perceptions of what other people say and think about us, and what we can and cannot achieve. This inner monologue may be very limited but it also goes on and on. What is your inner monologue? What’s your story that you keep telling yourself, “Who do I think I am?”
I can probably guarantee that whoever you think you are, it’s a very limited version of who you actually are, because if I asked you, “Do you think you have the capability to love all living beings, to have universal compassion, to possess the deep wisdom that understands the nature of reality?, you’re probably going to reply “No.” We’re believing this limited inner monologue but it is not who we are.
It is not who Buddha thinks we are, knows we are. Buddha says that within each and every one of us there is a seed that can grow into the limitless minds of love, wisdom, and compassion.
Each and every living being has within them the seed or potential to become a Buddha, a fully enlightened being. This is our Buddha nature. ~ How to Transform Your Life
This is what we’re being told. Now we need to ask ourselves, “Am I willing to change my story? Am I going to add this to the inner monologue of my life?” Or are we thinking to ourselves, “That’s not true” or “That’s not possible for me. It might be possible for everyone else, but not for me!”?
If we don’t think it’s possible, why is it we don’t believe Buddha but do believe our own limited monologue, including others’ perceptions of us? Why would we listen to those voices and not Buddha’s voice?
Buddha was a master of his own mind. He was a mental scientist. He revolutionized how people thought about their own reality. He wasn’t just a passive figure sitting calmly meditating – within that meditating was activity, he was experimenting, exploring the contents of his mind, examining it. Through this he conquered all the delusions in his own mind and has been able to inspire other people to do the same. Including us, that’s what Buddha’s asking us to do. That’s what we do with Buddhist practice.
We’re so familiar with telling ourselves the same story over and over again, and Buddha is saying, actually, No. There’s a malleability. There’s a flexibility of self that we haven’t even begun to explore. He’s inviting us to take the opportunity to look within our own mind and question that inner monologue so that we can smash it to pieces. And he’s able to do that because he did it himself.
In Buddha’s teachings we have found the best method to ripen this seed or potential. What we need to do now is to put these teachings into practice. ~ How to Transform Your Life
These profound Buddhist teachings are not just an intellectual exercise — we have to allow them to move our heart because an intellectual understanding alone does not motivate spiritual action. We have to do the work. It’s a two-way conversation.
Where do our delusions come from?
The reason we don’t experience the vast sky of the mind, the potential that resides within us, which is there all the time, is because of delusions. Delusions are mistaken ways of looking at reality, and every time we have an unpleasant feeling, that’s a delusion at work. Our problem is that we’re so familiar with these unpleasant feelings that we think that these are just who we are.
But what Buddha is telling us is that delusions are simply bad mental habits. We all have bad habits that we want to break, whether that’s eating too much, smoking, taking drugs, or not doing enough exercise, but they are not who we are.
Why is it that when I hear a song on the radio that I don’t even like that I keep on singing it?! It’s because I keep on hearing it. I keep hearing it and hearing it so I start singing it and then I catch myself and say, “I don’t even like that song. Stop it.” And that’s what it’s like. you know, listening to these delusions or other people’s perceptions of us. We listen and take them to heart, and then we use them to define ourselves. It’s really quite crazy.
And the thing is about delusions is how natural and familiar they can feel to us, such that we do not think we can get rid of them. Like anger. Or attachment, because we’re thinking, “That’s just who I am. I’ve got to base my happiness on wanting this thing. That’s what I always do.” But delusions are not who we are, they are just mental habits.
We should understand that although delusions are deeply ingrained, they are not an intrinsic part of our mind and so they can definitely be removed. ~ How to Transform Your Life
We can think about our own dominant delusion that we have – it could be anger, jealousy, pride. We can think about how it arises in certain situations – without us even having to think about it, it is just there in a finger snap.
What about anger?
What about anger, say? We can feel that it’s justified, but Buddha is saying that it’s a distorted way of viewing reality. And I know that this can be controversial because we think anger brings about change. We do. I’ve seen it. I’ve believed it. I’ve felt it, myself, in these last few weeks. Rage. Anger. And I’ve had to really examine that mind. I’ve had to ask myself a fundamental question that Buddha asks us to consider:
Is the anger coming from inside or outside of my mind?
In Buddhism we are always saying that happiness and suffering are states of mind. And what I have been experiencing a lot in these last challenging weeks is that we can’t be fifty/fifty. We either believe it or we don’t. There is no, “In this situation it applies, but in THIS situation it doesn’t.” We really have to examine this because what happens is we get confused. So, in these challenging times, and I’ll say it as a person of color: “Is the anger coming from inside or outside of my mind?”
Buddha is not giving me a “get out” clause, and he is not going to give you one either. So, your dominant delusion – is it coming from inside or outside of your mind?
We have to contemplate this deeply, so deeply. Because what happens when we have an angry mind – and I will just talk here about my own mind – is that it feels like energy. It is visceral – it feels like a fuel that will power me to communicate, to act. But the big question that I ask myself is “Could I have the same results with the mind of compassion? Better results, even?” Because we may not think that compassion has the same fuel, but it does. However, it is motivated by love, so then why not use compassion, because compassion is not a distorted mind. Compassion is based on reality. Why? Because it’s based on love and is the natural state of our mind. Anger isn’t.
The space of acceptance
We have to experiment for ourself. If a mind of anger arises, that’s ok, Buddha said – we first just accept the delusion in terms of accepting that it is there. We don’t fight it – instead we welcome it wholeheartedly. Then we can transform it into a wisdom that can propel us into reality.
Once delusions have arisen in our mind, accepting them wholeheartedly means that we accept the fact they have arisen. We do this in the framework of asking ourself, “Is this coming from inside or outside of my mind?” Just by asking this question we are separating ourself from the delusion and can begin to examine how a delusion works instead of following it to its unfortunate conclusion.
For example when we get angry with our partner or our friend, how do we see them? We see them as intrinsically bad, don’t we? In that moment they seem to have no good qualities, and as a result we say some really horrible things. People get hurt; and then when the anger subsides we are full of regret and have to say things like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, I was really angry.”
So we don’t deny the delusion once it’s in our mind – we accept it and look at it from a place of space, knowing that it’s not an intrinsic part of our mind. It’s important to give ourself that space because we really don’t want to be repressing our anger – which means we are pretending not to feel the thing that we are feeling. That’s no good. It doesn’t help.
This anger is not who we are – it is just a mental habit arising in our mind and it cannot destroy our mind any more than a thunderstorm can destroy the sky. We don’t keep defining ourselves by our delusions, by saying, “I’m an angry person. I’m a depressed person. I’m a jealous person.” Let’s stop the inner monologue of limitations. Let’s just stop. It’s not helping us. It’s not helping us reach our full potential. We can learn to stop that limited monologue and replace it with a limitless one.
What is true change?
A lot of people think that spiritual practice is passive, as if we’re not supposed to be doing anything to change things, that we are just sitting here – it can almost be used as an excuse not to do anything. But what would actually instigate change more than being in control of our own minds and using to instigate external change?
Buddhas says there are two types of problem — the internal problems of unpleasant feelings and the external problems such as what is going on in our world – and we get the two mixed up. What is going to govern the way we solve the external problem? The wisdom knowing that there’s an inner problem and an outer problem. With this, there is such flexibility – it’s a bit like Bruce Lee. If you’ve ever watched his films, he’s got like twenty people around him and he fights them all in a matter of minutes and then he’s done, finished, all his enemies down. How? Because he’s got flexibility of body – he knows where and how to move. We should have that same flexibility with our mind so that when delusions come for us we are not afraid – we are done, finished, we have defeated the real enemies.
We are governed by the flexible power of compassion — and there is huge power in compassion. There is power in love. There is power in wisdom. These are not passive states of mind.
Holding up a mirror to our minds
Buddha says that everything is created by mind and nothing exists outside of our minds. In these last few challenging weeks I have been recollecting:
This is all a mirror to my own mind because nothing exists outside of my mind.
What is that mirror reflecting? What is that mirror telling me? It is teaching us to look at our minds of anger, rage, or trauma, or other things that I’ve heard people say, “shame”, “denial”. It’s a mirror for us to look at the things that are being brought up from inside our own minds.
Make no mistake, I am not saying that we don’t do anything to change external situations. Looking at the unpleasant feelings that are arising through causes and conditions, I’m gonna welcome them all wholeheartedly because I need to, me, it’s MY responsibility to get rid of the unpleasant feelings in my mind. Then I can look at the outer problem and deal with it in a completely different way – I can challenge it with wisdom.
Buddha Shakyamuni disrupted the caste system in India because what he said was that it doesn’t matter whether someone is low, middle, or high caste – everyone has the same Buddha nature. He also allowed women into the Buddhist order at a time it was unheard of. He even advised kings and queens how to use their power in the most beneficial way. And he accomplished all of this outer change out of compassion.
What do you really want?
I think we have to think really deeply about what it is that we want. Do we want to follow our delusions or do we want to conquer our delusions and encouraged by an inner monologue of our limitless potential? This is after all who we really are. Our naturally peaceful mind is like a golden nugget encased in dirt. We need to identify with this indestructible potential, not the dirt around it.
When we’re embarking on any meditation, we need the confidence that knows we have a resource of inner peace available to us at any time. When we do even a simple breathing meditation, we get rid of all the distracting conceptual thoughts that fill our mind because normally we can’t see the wood for the trees. Beneath all this busy chaotic thinking is actually a source of peace to which we have access at any time. This is also a place of wisdom from which we can start to make good decisions, and a place of clarity where we are no longer defining ourselves by our limitations, shortcomings, or mistakes.
Try this short meditation
We can breathe out whatever is on our mind, allow our mind to stop thinking, to become still but relaxed. We can think that our mind is like a stone, or inanimate object, not thinking or feeling anything. Then, where our mind was full of thoughts, with the absence of thoughts there is now space; and we allow our awareness to absorb into that space, to be pervaded by it. Like a stone descending to the bottom of a clear lake, we can allow our spacious awareness to descend to our heart. We recognize that this space is the nature of peace, and that this peace is our Buddha nature. It has clarity and is as vast at the sky. We allow ourself to recognize this and rejoice in this recognition. “This is my natural source of peace at my heart. It is the source of my limitless compassion, wisdom, and love.”
Thank you for reading this! If you like, we can dedicate all the positive energy we have just gathered through this reading and contemplation to all living beings:
May everyone be free from suffering. May everyone experience a peaceful and happy mind all the time.
Over to you. Please leave comments or questions for the guest writer in the box below!
Who we really are is love. This is the essential indestructible nature of our mind — love. And if we’re going to solve our personal problems and the problems of our nation and our world, we need never to lose sight of this.
All the problems of human society, such as war, crime, pollution, drug addiction, poverty, injustice, and disharmony within families, are the result of self-cherishing.
With self-cherishing, we lack love. All the problems of human society stem from a lack of love, and because we haven’t identified ourself as love.
If everyone were to practice cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.
With Buddha’s teachings we are learning how to identify ourself and others correctly, and to act from that vantage point — with the kindness that is the pure expression of our nature. This is beautiful. We all have this nature of love and it is indestructible. This means that it will never leave us. We will never lose it. Eventually, we’re all going to identify ourself correctly as love.
How do we not get stuck or trapped by our powerful emotions, but instead creatively transform them? At the core of our strong feelings is the sense of ‘I’ — and of course, in terms of how we identify ourself and others, there’s ‘I.’ We’re always thinking ‘I. I. I’ “I want. I need.” We have an imaginary friend called ‘self’ and we are talking and listening to them all day long. We need to look clearly at how we create this self, this identity.
I think Geshe Kelsang’s phrase “identifying ourself and others correctly” is very contemporary, speaking right to the moment. We identify or create ourself based on so many shifting variables: our personal history, our family history, our culture, our race, our sexuality, our religion, and so forth.
Since we regard our self or I as so very important, we exaggerate our own good qualities and develop an inflated view of ourself. Almost anything can serve as a basis for this arrogant mind, such as our looks, possessions, knowledge, experiences, or status.
This is hilarious. It’s a great caricature of the mind, but it’s our caricature. “I’m so clever. Look at me. I have so much information. I’m so worldly wise.” We develop a sense of I that’s important and very well-defined based on pretty much anything.
We also base our sense of self on the things we like. If we like cats, we think, “I’m a cat person” – and maybe we get a cat illustrated tote bag and stickers that we put all over our laptop. Maybe we go to a cat party with all our cat friends wearing our cat sweaters and hauling along our tote bag with a cat inside. However, maybe we don’t understand dogs, so we think, “I’m not a dog person” — now dog people are over there, and cat people are over here. We have developed pride based on some sense of identity, in turn based on something we like or are attached to. This is crazy. What are we doing?
We can create a self based on anything. Wine, beer, cats, dogs, sports. And yeah, it’s all in good fun, and so forth, but sometimes it’s not. When the mind and emotions get out of control, then fighting ensues – for example the soccer hooligans who deliberately cause brawls. This mistaken way of identifying ourself can be very toxic.
In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la gives an insightful and practical explanation of seven types of ordinary or deluded pride. We say that samsara is the cycle of harming and being harmed endlessly, in life after life after life. And all of this can be understood to have its origin in deluded pride. We must overcome this.
Humility in action
Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is the most humble person I know. He’s an extraordinary being, an extraordinary monk and teacher. I think it’s really worth knowing a little bit about his life. He entered the monastery at the age of 8 – his mother sent him at his request, and also so he didn’t end up being a serf. Later, he had to flee from Tibet due to the invasion, when he became a refugee in India, experiencing immense poverty. After this, he emigrated to England, again not knowing the language or the customs. Still later, out of his fearlessness in wanting to preserve Kadampa Buddhism for the benefit of the modern world and break it away from feudal Tibetan politics, some of the institutions in which he was brought up in Tibet rejected him, tried to strip him of his degrees. He has experienced quite a lot of challenges, from a common understanding of his life.
Yet he loves all beings. And through his love for all beings, his extraordinary humility, and his conviction, he has brought ancient Kadampa Buddhism to the modern world.
He has often made jokes: “I don’t know how to use a computer. I don’t know how to do any of these things. You people helped me and together we have done this.” Humility is real power. Love is real power. We can see him as a great hero, as a role model, as an example. He’s been able to accomplish everything he’s accomplished in this world due to the purity of his intention. He said, “Whatever I’ve been able to accomplish, I’ve been able to accomplish because I respect everyone.” That’s a statement of truth and not a statement of deluded pride because he respects everyone.
With his humility, he has had the openness to understanding the ways of modern people. Through this beautiful display of love and humility, he’s actually transformed our world. He’s transformed my world. I think he’s transformed some of yours.
Pride in identity continued …
The fourth type of pride, pride in identity, is an inflated sense of self-importance based simply on our identity, such as being proud of being an English person, proud of being white, proud of being a man, or proud of being a Tantric meditator. ~ How to Understand the Mind
It’s very interesting what he points out here. And depending on who we think we are, we can say it other ways — proud of being an American person, proud of being Asian, proud of being a woman, proud of being a Christian. Or whatever. It goes all ways because, due to ignorance, we all do this.
This pride in identity is a real poison. This mistaken way of identifying ourself and therefore drawing distinctions between ourselves and others is a big problem. We do this within our mind.
Naming and labeling
There’s a very particular part of our mind called “discrimination.” And we know this word in general, right? We understand in general what it means to discriminate. We think, “I have fine discriminating taste because I’m a wine connoisseur and I can discern the tones of oak and cherry and chocolate,” or whatever. In How to Understand the Mind, we’re given a very interesting description:
The definition of discrimination is a mental factor (ie, part of our mind) that functions to apprehend the uncommon sign of an object.
The uncommon sign is what is seemingly unique to that object, that differentiates it from other objects.
The function of discrimination is to distinguish an object from other objects and to identify the object as this and not that. With this we impute, we name, we label.
Again, this is so contemporary. We all know about naming, labeling, and so forth because we know that, by labeling, an identity is created or imposed. However, who a person is depends entirely upon our mind, how we identify them; and who we are as a person depends entirely upon our mind. Therefore, for every different person who’s perceiving us, including ourself, there is a different person that is created, named, labeled, and imputed.
It’s not surprising how hard it is to communicate because we’re all in our own “self” bubbles, totally viewing different selves, based on our karma, based on all manner of factors. We think there’s me, and there’s you, and there’s this, and there’s that, and everything is so solid and objective — but everything is subjective. Everything depends upon the mind. Buddha gave us this teaching so that we can break out of the jail cells of our mistaken identifications.
Defined by our good heart
When I first met Kadam Dharma, I was maybe 21. I thought a lot about identity, being a mixed-race person growing up in the American South. When you are in high school, you have all kinds of questions about your sexual identity and so forth; but when I met Buddha’s teachings and learned about ultimate truth emptiness, I realized that we didn’t have to be defined by anything other than our good heart, our Buddha nature.
I found that incredibly liberating. That is a correct way of identifying ourself. This is a way that we can choose to correctly discriminate, and if we identify ourself like this, then we can do so with others.
Geshe-la says that we have choice how we discriminate, it is up to us. For example, we can choose to see those who are challenging for us as objects of our spiritual growth, such as patience, wisdom, and compassion. This is not necessarily easy, but if we can understand that everything depends upon the mind we will see that it is nevertheless our choice, and we can become more and more familiar with making this correct choice, in meditation, out of meditation, when we’re having challenging conversations or reading difficult things in the news.
If we hold onto this correct way of thinking of ourself and others as defined by Buddha nature, but being temporarily controlled by the enemies of the delusions, we can have a deep level of respect and compassion for others while also still righting wrongs. Actually, we’d be able to right wrongs far more effectively.
Buddha identified discriminations and feelings as two of our main bases for self-identification.
There’s a phrase these days, “Don’t be in your feelings. Why you all in your feelings?” which is really quite Buddhist. Why are we trapped by our feelings? Feeling is really important and now, perhaps for many of us, individually, collectively, we can see that we have powerful emotions. These are not a problem. Perhaps if we are a Buddhist, we sometimes think that they are a problem because we see strong emotions as the opposite of inner peace. I’m sure there’s some validity to that, but we must never deny, suppress, ignore, or intellectualize our feelings. Why? Because then we are not practicing Dharma.
What we are trying to get to is the realization of ultimate truth, but how are we going to get there if we don’t start with a realization of honesty? Being emotionally truthful. If we don’t start off from truth, we’re not going to get to truth. And this is where the hard work comes in of looking at our faults in the mirror of Dharma. I’m not equating faults with strong emotions, but just looking honestly in a spiritual mirror at how we feel.
This is why the Buddhist approach was founded in meditating because through meditating we watch our mind. Without the practice of meditating, we can’t watch our mind well. We can’t see what we’re thinking and believing in every action. Without going deep into the heart in meditation, we remain stuck in our intellectual realm. Thus, we need meditation to see what’s happening within our mind, to dislodge our mistaken discriminations, to be completely honest about how we feel. And then, to direct our mind along a positive path, not suppressing, denying, or ignoring, but honestly seeing.
The phrase that’s really helped me lately is ‘emotional honesty.’ Mental honesty. Looking in the mirror without judgment or criticism. And if we have strong and powerful emotions, just allowing them to be, to wash over us. They won’t remain. And maybe we cry. Maybe we feel rage, and so forth. Until we have really great mastery over our mind, we’re going to experience these things. And that’s okay.
I think the measure of our Dharma practice is not about not experiencing these strong emotions, but how we practice with them.
For instance, we may have very strong anger, rage even. We want to blame. And within Buddha’s teachings, we say we can blame something. We can channel our anger. What can we blame? We can blame ignorance. We can blame delusion. But we never blame living beings. We never blame people, because people are not their delusions. People in some ways are already like enlightened beings. They are love. That is their nature, just as it is ours.
Over to you dear reader. Any comments for the guest writer are very welcome below.
Guest article co-written in Arizona by one Black and one white Kadampa.
Do you sometimes feel that the problems of our world are insurmountable? We feel confused about the way forward. What are the solutions, how can we effect change, and how can we effect it quickly? Because we need to make some changes now.
Although it can appear that the problems of our self and of our world are overwhelming, we can know from our own direct experience that things change so fast. Ven Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:
If everyone in the world were to practice cherishing each other, all the problems of our world would be solved in just a few years.
This could happen if we all practiced love because love has such extraordinary power. Things can change dramatically in a very short amount of time. This is not a platitude; this is the truth. Why? The problems in our world have arisen because we do not practice love for one another. So, if we do the opposite, we get a new and different result and our problems will quickly disappear. We need to practice cherishing love and we need to do it now, not later.
The moment is calling us
I think that’s what this historic moment is calling us all to do. The future is now. From an ordinary point of view, if we think, “later,” what is the future? Fantasy. Some idealized vision. We need to bring the future into the present moment. That means that we can try our very best to practice love now, to practice powerful compassion now, to be wise now, to be patient now. Not later — we don’t need it later. We need it now. If we practice love, patience and wisdom right now, then we will see different results right now, and we will bring that future into the present moment.
The solution to the problems of our world is grounded in the transformation of our mind because if we change our mind, we change everything. This is Buddha’s essential teaching. If we change our mind, we change our world because what we see or experience exists in relationship to our mind.
This isn’t a statement to gaslight you and your reality, but to show that our mind has extraordinary power; so let’s harness thatcreative power our mind has to create good, to create peace, to hold onto the virtues of love, wisdom, truth, and patience, which are so necessary for us. We can take hold of the solution right now.
Change minds, change (inter)actions
When we look at what’s going on in our world, we automatically go to changing things. I’m not saying we shouldn’t change things — things need to be changed — but we sometimes neglect the understanding that if we change our mind then the quality of our actions changes. If we change what we feel and believe about others then the quality of our interactions changes. Thus, the way we go about making change is dramatically different because what we are bringing to it is not ordinary.
It is a challenge to think about changing our mind, to look within ourself and to take personal responsibility, to say “I’m going to be part of the solution and it starts within my mind.” We can rise to this challenge in a very balanced way, addressing both the outer problems and the mind.
Buddha taught that because our mind creates the world — our experience, our emotions, our actions. Our mind is so powerful and mental actions are hundreds of times more powerful than physical and verbal actions, as Genla Dekyong explained two days ago during the US Spring Festival.
In this video above, you can see the moment Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:
Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all of our enemies.
If we have a powerful mind of love and we see love as real power, and we develop that stably within our heart, we would have no personal enemies. Yet we would have extraordinary power to do good things for others, and to move through the challenge, the hatred, the obstacles, unwaveringly. We are beings with so much power. We need to find it, claim it, take it back. And we can do so through rising to the spiritual challenge and taking these methods to heart.
What does world peace mean?
Buddha Shakyamuni dedicated all his activities to the benefit of all living beings. Similarly, the teachings of this tradition, called the New Kadampa Tradition, are dedicated to world peace. That is the vision of our world now. It’s not the vision of our world sometime later. We have built these temples, established these Centers for this world now as well as for the future, but also for our future, now.
Another way of looking at world peace is that we’re working on developing communities and societies that are founded in truth as opposed to deception; founded in love as opposed to self-interest; founded in wisdom as opposed to ignorance. This is world peace. Buddhists need to think about this. We talk about what’s called, “the Pure Land” as if it’s some future fantasy; but the Pure Land can be now, and if our compassion is strong, powerful, passionate, then we will bring that into reality very soon.
What is the Mahayana?
The nature of Buddha’s teachings is compassion — and also wisdom that overcomes ignorance. The teachings of modern Kadampa Buddhism are part of what is called, “the Mahayana.” “Maha” is a Sanskrit word that means “great” and “yana” means “vehicle” — “Great Vehicle.” It refers to the huge scope of our motivation that we can develop through practicing these teachings. This means that we can develop great compassion, which is universal compassion. This means that we don’t leave anybody out. These teachings, this Great Vehicle, is a vehicle that takes everyone out of the ocean of suffering.
The Mahayana asks us to develop this great compassion. It is a big goal, but a goal worth pursuing; and it is something that we can all accomplish. Why can we accomplish this pure, altruistic mind of the Great Vehicle, of great love, empathy, and eventually great compassion? Because it is our nature. Our nature as sentient beings is essentially good. We essentially have a heart of gold. Right now it is a gold nugget in dirt, but who we really are, what the nature of our mind really is, is love. Truth. Kindness. Compassion. Since these qualities are all part of our pure nature, we can accomplish this great scope of our vision and intention. We can access these qualities in meditation and, if we can enjoy the peace within and be it, then we will gain real confidence in who we actually are.
Our Buddha nature
If we can do this, we can develop confidence and even faith in who others really are too. I believe this is the starting point for this journey to ending all suffering for all beings. It starts in recognizing what we call our Buddha nature, our compassionate seed of enlightenment. Bringing about the end of our own personal and collective suffering necessitates this faith in ourself personally, and in all of us collectively. This is logical.
What’s the danger of not really relating to our Buddha nature as the essential quality of ourself and others? When we see others and ourself thinking, saying, and doing harmful things, then we will become discouraged. Angry. Ashamed. If we don’t relate to our essence and have faith in that as who we really are, then we get sucked into the drama and negativity because we’ve just lost sight of our own and others’ pure nature and potential.
We’ve lost our faith in each other, in our common humanity and so then we just descend into fighting, arguments, and destruction.
We need to work on developing faith in our common goodness. We know how powerful beliefs are. They guide all of our actions. Everything that we do and say comes from our beliefs, so what we believe about ourself and others is the foundation of how we live. Therefore, what we believe, what we have faith in, is power. It’s real power.
There’s nothing wrong with sentient beings
Therefore, how do we develop faith or confidence in our nature being essentially good? In How toTransform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says:
Although sentient beings’ minds are filled with delusions, sentient beings themselves are not faulty. We say that sea water is salty but in fact it is the salt in the water that makes it salty.
This is exactly like our mind. Our mind is like pure, clear water. It just has salt in it. On the one hand, we think that the water is contaminated. On the other hand, we think, “But we can make it good.” And essentially it is good because the contamination, the salt, is temporary.
Similarly, all the faults we see in people are actually the faults of their delusions, not of the people themselves. The fault is the salt, not the water, so people are like pure water, pure in essence. They are good, but what makes them salty? Delusions. We are not our delusions — but we are often controlled by them.
Delusions are part of the characteristics of a person’s mind, not of the person. Since we can never find faults in sentient beings themselves, we can say in this respect sentient beings are like Buddhas.
Since enlightened beings are people who have purified their minds, they have only love and wisdom, constantly and spontaneously. That’s a simple way of understanding what is an enlightened being. Therefore, they benefit everybody with no concern for themselves and they’re always peaceful and happy. They’re free.
We are like enlightened beings already because our essential nature is like pure, clear water. Our essential nature is love and wisdom. It’s just that we’ve got the salt of delusions that we need to remove. You and I and every sentient being has Buddha nature, we’re almost enlightened already. We’re so close.
What do we relate to? Unfortunately, the salt. “There’s a whole glass of water here, but all I see is salt.” We forget that actually it’s pure water, just clouded over. We’re just mistaking who we are. We have mistaken appearance and beliefs. We’re not seeing the truth and it’s this mistaken perception of ourself and others — which is a projection of the mind — that traps us into believing something that’s not true. Therefore, we get angry and we harm each other. However, our root mind is completely pure.
Another example is that it is like blue sky, and our delusions and all other conceptions are like clouds that temporarily arise. We know there are storms in the sky. There are dark clouds and all of a sudden it looks ominous. However, so quickly the weather changes, and then there’s blue sky for days and days.
The mind itself is pure like sky. And the delusions – our ignorance, anger, hatred, shame – these are just dark clouds. Not only are they not the sky, but they do not destroy the sky. They’re temporary, only moving through.
Therefore, living beings have no faults. If we can apply this correct belief to ourself, have faith in ourself, and really understand this logical way of thinking, we will have faith in other people too. How could it be that we ourselves are essentially pure while a whole lot of other people are not?! I don’t think that logic works. Every living being’s mind is equally pure.
Start from your blissful clear light mind
We have deep within us what’s called our root mind, our consciousness at our heart. It’s the root because it’s the source from which all our other minds develop. This heart-based mind has a beautiful name, “clear light.” Within Buddha’s teachings, we are taught that the deepest level of our mind, its nature, is always bliss, always peace.
When we do even a little breathing meditation, we experience a new level of peace. And the more that we meditate, the more peace we find. If the nature of our mind were not peaceful, then what we’d actually find would be just more and more layers of junk. We’d just go deeper and deeper into confusion and negativity. However, this is not the case.
We call this mind at our heart, “continuously residing.” Its nature is indestructible bliss. So this is the starting point – Buddha nature. The whole Buddhist path is a path of discovering and revealing this nature. If we hold onto the belief in our own and others’ pure nature without a doubt, and we engage in actions with this in mind, we will always be moving in the right direction. And, as Geshe Kelsang says, if every living being cherishes one another, believes in each other in this way, and pursues the common goal of real happiness and liberation from suffering, then the problems of our world will be solved in a few years. Truth.
Over to you. Please leave your comments for the guest authors in the box below!
I’m a white Australian/American and the video of George Floyd being murdered by a police officer, while other police officers watched, is not something I can ever “un-see”. While painful, as a Buddhist practitioner discomfort is something I am trying to learn to work through, not repress. I am no expert, but I would like to share my journey of looking deeper into this with you in case it’s of any help.
I have been studying and practicing Dharma for around 20 years now, and I am quite aware of the concept of reading/listening but not hearing, hearing but not knowing, knowing but not understanding, and understanding but not realizing. We can read about, listen to, and feel that we understand many things without it deeply touching our heart or moving us. Anyone who has ever had a Dharma insight will understand this point.
My profoundly kind Spiritual Guide has been giving me more or less the same words of wisdom for two decades, and I smile, enjoy the small progress I make, and don’t rise the next day with the fury of a Bodhisattva in my heart to decry all the simple and silly attachments and other delusions in my life in pursuit of protecting all living beings. I have access to the most complete and clear Buddhist path, I have faith in the teachings — and yet I hide in the so-called-comfort of my own samsaric existence — somewhat knowingly!
Just before I start ….
From the different opinions I am hearing on the matter of racism against black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement, I realize that what I am about to say might not resonate with all people, including all Buddhists. All I can reply is that I understand you and I hear you.
To those who say this conversation is necessarily political, I reply that I feel the lines between political and civil & human rights seem to be blurred. People are confused with the verbiage and politicians are also standing on platforms that are about humanity – making “taking sides” about humanitarian issues seem political. But the issues are humanitarian whether a politician agrees with them or not. And the deep solutions are not political but spiritual.
On this subject, I think a lot of people are mistaking being asked to “take a side” as being political. If this were the case then the whole of Buddhism is political. I think that the only thing being asked of people is for them to pick the side of the Bodhisattva. I am no expert at being a Bodhisattva, but in my experience of trying, the best way to arrive at the act of having compassion for “all living beings” is through specific living beings, in a targeted way. I believe that Venerable Geshe Kelsang says that at the end of almost all the Mahayana meditations on developing love and compassion — start with our karmic circle.*
What can I myself do?
With that out of the way, I will now talk about my own journey. Before my very recent insights, I was looking but not seeing. I believed that because I had heard of the racism against black Americans, I understood it. In the past I also believed I knew Dharma before I had any actual insights. Neither were the case. And I suspect I am at the very beginning of my journey. As Buddhists, this is our specialty — so my feeling is that we do not need be afraid or have self-judgement. Instead we can have plenty of joy that we are trying – trying to get in there and root out anything keeping us in samsara.
I have read about the disparity between white Americans and black Americans. I have seen it on the news, including the numbers of deaths during the coronavirus being disproportionately weighted towards black Americans. I have seen videos, and more than I would like to count, not just of abject racism, but of the police murder of black Americans. Captured on video! And yet, I have done little for the cause.
I support several charities regularly, one of them against animal abuse. I never open the mail they send because I can’t un-see those images, and they are horrific. Why is that? I know many gay women and men who have been abused, women who have been raped, and black people who have suffered deeply at the hands of racism. Again here, I am supportive and loving, but have not necessarily actively engaged in practical or maybe even specific spiritual solutions to these atrocities in the past. So why not?
Isn’t it good enough to be a good person? Isn’t it good enough to do good things when you can?
I am a Buddhist. I am a Bodhisattva-in-training. And, as such, I believe deeply in the merit of Buddhism as a solution to all of our actual or inner problems. Only once I am enlightened will I truly be able to help all living beings … all of the time. So, what of my journey to enlightenment? How should I spend my time on the way there? How should I prioritize the many demands pulling me in a multitude of directions? And how does my spiritual practice intersect with practical solutions in my daily life?
Being true to the tenet of Mahayana Buddhism, having compassion for all living beings without exception, a Bodhisattva finds the suffering of all living beings – which means any living being — unbearable. The caveat here is that the Bodhisattva actually “finds” the suffering. This would take not just looking, but actually hearing – or deeply understanding what that meant. That is when we find something unbearable. This is also the reason I don’t open my mail if I don’t want to look at what it is showing me because it is unbearable. It’s not that I don’t care, in fact, I care deeply; but I am making a number of fatal flaws as a human and especially as a Buddhist.
First, I am letting the discomfort of the “unbearable” feeling prevent me from really looking, from really knowing, from really seeing. I think this is where a lot of well-intentioned people fall short. We look, find it painful to see, briefly acknowledging how terrible that must be “for all involved,” and we look away, getting back to our busy daily lives.
This same feeling keeps me from even engaging in conversation about the topic or racism when it comes up for fear of saying something “wrong” that would lead to a feeling of hurt or embarrassment. I know this does not reflect well on my character, but it is true. I raised this issue with a black girlfriend recently, to which she said:
Can you bear a small moment of discomfort in pursuit of a solution to racism, for a lifetime and generations of deep suffering?
I hope this sentence never leaves my mind.
Second, on the basis of the fact that we “look away”, we deprioritize because we have not truly understood what the problem is. Today as I write this, it is a Saturday. My to-do list, like any other day, has more on it that I can possibly achieve in the time I have. I run a company, and between my work and home life, I seem to not have a moment to spare. And yet, if I looked up the street and saw several houses on fire, I would immediately abandon what I was doing and go help. Why? Because I can see it clearly. Lives are in danger. I couldn’t sit here finishing the financial reports for my company while simultaneously watching a house – with people in it – burn to the ground, all because I was too busy with other priorities.
Third, and just as important as the other items, is that even if we do have the time, the money, or the inclination to act, we are not identified with the solution, and we don’t have the confidence that what we are doing is really helping. This discourages us from continuing to act. This in turn undermines anything ever changing.
A Bodhisattva not only finds the suffering of any other living being unbearable, but is, at the same time, identified with the solution, knowing that freedom from suffering is possible. They have a clear vision of the solution and result, and a path to get there. In this way, a Bodhisattva is always confident in their actions, never stops working for the sake of all living beings, and never feels discomfort. The mind of compassion is a peaceful happy mind.
We need to be very honest with ourselves when we check – is my compassion a happy mind or not? If not, why not? Or maybe we even need to check by asking – how can I feel happy when I see the suffering of other living beings? It is not that Bodhisattvas feel happy when they see suffering, rather that their mind is never moved from peaceful confidence in the solution; and, when they see suffering, moved by it, they act, knowing that what they do will be moving in the right direction.
Diving in …
And so, with all of this in mind, I went on a deep dive into racism against black Americans and its implications.
Seeing this, and knowing how little I had actively done in the past and considering my own opportunity or privilege, coming to this understanding about myself was actually a little bit of a shock. I had been resting on a belief that it was good enough to be a good person. It was good enough to consider all beings as equals. It was good enough to do the things I am already doing (of which there are some…). But the truth is, if we look (and we don’t have to look too far or deeply), the house is burning! And we must act now.
This is surely how a Bodhisattva would feel.
Going out of my way to help
And so what now? For me it is time to act personally, on both a spiritual and practical level, and it is time to use any platform I have to work against the disparity. The time to act is now!
Last week I got together with a group of Sangha friends with the explicit purpose of talking about this issue. We were there to be honest with one another so that we can change, and we were there to hold one another accountable to our wishes to change. We plan to continue these conversations regularly, and we are all committing to actions.
Last week I held a meeting with all my employees. In the meeting I read out some topline statistics about the differences between black lives and white lives in America. After this I stopped and I asked everyone to take a moment of silence to think about what this really meant. Because this is where we need to start. We need to notice how things actually are. We need to truly see, to move, to act.
After this, I showed pictures of many black Americans who had been shot by police in 2020. I read their names, their ages, their home cities, and for a few of them, I read their stories. After this I asked people to take a moment to mentally place the pictures of their own family members on these photos, in these stories and asked them to spend a few moments thinking about how they would feel if it were their child, parent, cousin, uncle, etc. Because if we contemplate this deeply, we will be unable to bear the suffering.
And finally, we talked about action.
For my company, this will mean making systemic and formal changes as to how we hire people, where we spend our money, and how we leverage our communication channels as platforms to bring about positive change. This will also mean that we will commit to keeping the conversation and the action going.
For a Buddhist, this means spiritual action, which incidentally will lead to practical action. We (me) need to uproot our own ignorance through looking honestly at our own mind, and our own racist tendencies, even if that is avoidance or concealment or denial. We need to examine those places we feel discomfort, and look at why we feel it and how to move past that. (If we find we are already completely free from discrimination, which some of you reading this may well be, then that is wonderful too, and there was no harm looking.) We need to develop authentic compassion, which is a peaceful, action-oriented mind. We need to understand the great and unnecessary tragedy that mistaken appearance and conception keep us trapped in this place. And we need to use all of this to develop a strong intention to become an actual Bodhisattva and a Buddha.
I want to finish this article with a quotation from Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
Although there are many different parts of the body, such as the arms and legs,
We protect all these parts as equally as we protect the body itself.
In a similar way, although there are many different living beings,
I should cherish them all as equally as I cherish myself.
The suffering I experience
Does not harm others,
But I find it hard to bear
Because I cherish myself.
Likewise, the suffering of others
Does not harm me,
But, if I cherish others,
I shall find their suffering hard to bear.
Therefore, I should dispel others’ suffering
Simply because it is suffering, just like mine;
And I should bring happiness to others
Simply because they are living beings, just like me.
*Since I wrote the above, I have received some more feedback. In response to people saying things like (these are real questions), “Why don’t you feel it necessary to have these huge debates about the Syrians, the Palestinians, the Muslim Burmese? Are they not quite important enough? Where do we draw that line I wonder? Racism will not stop until delusions stop, it’s that simple. Why don’t you care equally for all the other minority groups and oppressed people around the world?”
Fair questions. One answer is that with regards to the Syrians, the Palestinians, and the Muslim Burmese, these people ALL MATTER. A child dies in the world every 10 seconds from hunger. More than a million (known) children are trafficked each year. Almost 30% of the world does not have access to safe drinking water. And I could go on… those trapped in refugee camps, victims of war, living in abject poverty, child marriages, the violence and abuse of animals….. These living beings ALL MATTER. All the time.
Drawing attention to one group is the only way we learn about it and can learn what it is that we can do to help. Don’t we want to help everyone? We can’t learn about gross injustices against “all living beings” at once. We are also not in a position to help everyone all at once either. But this happens to be an opportunity to speak up and do something about racism, which affects people all around me and right under my nose.
I think it is interesting to think about what it means that our job as Kadampas is to pray, and that the only way we will truly end racism is by ending self-cherishing and self-grasping. Until then, samsara will prevail over us. I agree full-heartedly with all of that. That being said, Geshe Kelsang tells us that modern Buddhism means to be “out there” in the modern world, the world we helped create, amongst people, helping them through example, through peaceful minds, through teaching, through giving advice, and, when able, through practical help too. Geshe-la would never say to NOT help someone if we see something practical that we could do. But do we see?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what activism means, and how it doesn’t mean going to demonstrations or even writing blog articles, but how it does mean living a life where we take every opportunity to protect the lives of human beings and animals we are intertwined with. I think if people have a platform – like a well read blog, or if they are a celebrity or a business owner or even a politician — then it is valuable to many people that they use their platform to speak up. Because this is what a black Kadampa said to me today:
The silence around racism is very loud
Touches us at the core of who we believe we are and who others are.
Over to you! Comments for the guest author are welcome below.
How do you feel about people who appear to be different to you? Someone with a different color skin. A different looking nose. Different looking hair. Someone from a different culture. Someone who likes different foods or music than you. Different sports. Someone who speaks a different language. Someone who wears different clothes. Someone in poverty. Someone with mental health issues. Someone who is angry. Someone who is visibly in pain. How do you feel?
It’s complicated. It depends. Feelings are not solid but depend on so many things. Our upbringing and education, our friends and way of life, our karma from previous intentions and actions, our beliefs and values, and many more things besides. Our thoughts and feelings aren’t straightforward or easily categorized. Our mind changes like the wind, and we often feel differently on different days.
Why you all in your feelings?
How we feel is entirely subjective, but because we grasp at our feelings as solid and objective, they are deceiving us much of the time. Yet we are in our feelings so much. We allow ourselves to be in them, to dwell in them, to stew in them. We allow our feelings to control us and dictate our actions, which can and does cause so much suffering. Buddha himself highlights this fact, calling out our contaminated feelings as a main component of how we build our false sense of self or identity.
There’s a popular phrase these days “In your feelings.” Courtesy of Urban Dictionary:
Kianna, why are you all in your feelings? You know how Shaundra be trippin.
David is in a bad mood because his girl didn’t call him last night.
Bro, why you all in your feelings, you know you just met that girl last weekend.
I think Buddha would agree. Why you all in your feelings? It’s a great question to ask.
Our feelings often arise from ignorant causes and give rise to suffering results. Yet we feel so right to be in our feelings. Why? Because they are real! And because they are mine! (Turn on sad music. Or happy music.)
We often base our whole sense of self off of these fleeting insubstantial unfindable feelings. Happy feelings arise, we think “I am happy.” Disappointed feelings, “I am disappointed.” This goes for most of our ever-changing senses of self, totally identifying “Me” with whatever feelings happen to be arising in our mind. A happy self. A sad self. A conflicted me. An overwhelmed me. A romantic self. An angry self. The results of overly identifying with our feelings can be quite tragic – tragi-comic, melodramatic, or even full on Greek tragedy.
Don’t believe everything your mind is saying
As it says in the Buddhist scriptures:
Appearances are deceptive and our own opinions are unreliable.
“What?!? Excuse me?” The BIG I does not like to hear that our opinions are not to be trusted and that what our mind perceives or appears is fooling us.
The real fool is our own ignorance. It is never to be trusted. When we are under the influence of ignorance, what is appearing to our mind is an hallucination created by ignorance. Our opinions and how we feel based on those appearances are unreliable. What we then do, how we act, is also contaminated by ignorance.
Our mind under the influence of ignorance is out of control, which means we are out of control; and when we are out of control our actions are not helping.
This is what we Buddhists call samsara — the cycle of contaminated, impure life, a life controlled by ignorance and other delusions. It’s not a pretty picture; and nowadays it seems that it’s getting clearer and clearer how ignorance is polluting our minds and society.
However, it is nothing new – we have been under the influence of ignorance since beginningless time. It would be good if we could enter a rehab facility of wisdom to detox our ignorance. Otherwise it’s just going to get worse for us and everyone else around us.
A personal mental survey
We need to do the work. Each one of us. We need to do the hard work of looking in the mirror of Dharma and asking, “How do I feel about…” Someone who is challenging me. Someone who appears different from me. A fundamentalist Christian. A far-right or far-left or straight-in-the-middle politician. A racist.
It’s not enough to say, “Oh I’m a Buddhist so (by definition) I love everyone. I have equanimity,” while at the same time feeling viscerally afraid of someone with darker skin. Or assuming that someone of a different background than ours isn’t interested in Buddha’s teachings. Or holding a great variety of assumptions and biases towards people of color for example. That can be any color by the way, including white. What are our stereotypes of any “type” of person?
Seeing discrimination in the Dharma mirror
Geshe Kelsang says:
We tend to project the faults or qualities of the few onto the many, and then develop hatred or attachment on the basis of, for example, race, religion, or country.
How do we think about someone who appears differently than us? What are the faults we are seeing in them? How are we discriminating against them? Buddha also called out discrimination as another main building block of how we identify ourself. Discrimination is a functionality of our mind and we can’t think without it. Simply, it serves to identify something as this versus that.
We have to do the hard but rewarding work of examining our minds, our biases, our feelings — being so honest with ourself that we feel a little pain our heart when we see the truth of our own faulty discrimination. It’s not a pain that lasts, more like a needle holding a medicine that will cure our illness. Or like removing a splinter from our toe – it hurts a little, but it’s humbling and quite quickly feels good to be on the way to being free from the pain.
The fourth type of pride, pride in identity, is an inflated sense of self-importance based simply on our identity, such as being proud of being an English person, proud of being white, proud of being a man, or proud of being a Tantric meditator. ~ How to Understand the Mind
So, how are we identifying ourself versus others? Of course our ignorance is always influencing the situation and so, if we’re honest, on some level or another we’re not identifying ourself and others correctly. For instance, we can discriminate cats as the most cute loveable animals, and on that basis create ourselves an identity as a cat-person. Raccoons? Hmmm. Not so much. Ooops. Just did it again. Mistakenly identifying ourself and others. It’s quite funny in some ways and then not so much in other ways.
This mistaken way of identifying ourself, and by extension others who seem inherently different to us, is the root of all suffering. So if we want to be free from suffering we have no choice but to do the real work. The honest work. The challenging work. The work of looking in the Dharma mirror at how we discriminate ourself and others, how we identify our self and others, how we feel about our self and others, and how ignorance is messing up this whole process of cognition. It’s messing with our reality. Right now it is not hard to see that it’s really, really messing things up.
The imprints of ignorance cause mistaken discriminations that apprehend an inherently existent self, even though such a self does not exist. Moreover, because of our familiarity with delusions we discriminate some people as our friends, some as enemies and some as strangers; but all these discriminations are mistaken. ~ How to Understand the Mind
For many of you reading this, I’m sure you could think of a number of ways in which Geshe Kelsang has explained how to correctly identify ourself and others. So it’s up to you (and me too) to do the work. To take the teachings deeper and try harder to get out of our hallucinatory discriminations and biased feelings by dislodging our deeply held grasping at both.
The way forward
If it weren’t for Buddha’s radical wisdom, we wouldn’t be able to understand much of this. We probably wouldn’t be able to even think or speak these things. Without Buddha we would be trapped in this mixed-up reality, literally forever.
In their compassion Buddhas feel no difference between their most bitter opponents and their own sons; they feel compassionate concern for everyone without any discrimination. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
Buddha has shown us the great example of deep compassion without discrimination. He’s shown us the freeing reality of ultimate truth. Due to his guidance we have the incomprehensibly good fortune to see the way out. Especially due to our kind visionaryteachers such as Je Tsongkhapa and Venerable Geshe Kelsang, we have crystal clear and practical teachings that anyone can follow. These wise beings are giving us the opportunity to clean up the mess of ignorance and walk out the door of samsara, only to return again and again for everyone else.
When a runner trains, they train in intervals. There are periods of slower runs and faster runs, shorter and longer distances. Sometimes they push a little, sometimes they rest. It’s the same when training our mind. Sometimes we’ve got to push a bit harder to achieve a goal. Sometimes we’ve got to dig a bit deeper to find extra power.
I think now’s the time to dig deeper, to push a little harder, to challenge ourselves to go to the next level of our spiritual training. With the world going in the way it appears to be going, we must do this. We must and we can find a better way forward.
Over to you. Please leave your comments for the guest writer below.
A guest article by a Kadampa Buddhist monk in Texas.
8 mins read.
We can think less! Wouldn’t that be nice? Day in and day out our mind is like fizzy water with so many bubble-like thoughts – we find ourselves thinking annoyed thoughts, unkind thoughts, self-defeating thoughts, random thoughts, and a bunch of other thoughts that we really don’t want to think.
When our mind is scattered like this, our attention is blurred and our natural wisdom is out of focus. Thinking, thinking, thinking, especially about challenging things, we easily overcomplicate matters and find ourselves stuck in indecision or tied in emotional knots. With our thoughts out of our control, we feel kicked about like a pinball in a pinball machine. By reactively pressing the buttons of delusions, we constantly feel disturbed, unpeaceful, and scattered. It’s really not as much fun as we think.
Inappropriate attention is conceptual thought, and breathing meditation temporarily removes all negative conceptual thoughts from our mind, making it calm like water that has become pure and still. Atisha says in Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment:
“Moreover the Blessed One has said: ‘The great ignorance of conceptualization causes us to fall into the ocean of samsara. [A mind] of non-conceptual concentration is free from conception and as clear as space.'”
Amidst all this static we are only trying to be happy! We are trying to be happy all the time. Which really isn’t a problem. Buddha doesn’t say, “Stop trying to be happy all the time! Just deal with it. Suck it up.” Can you imagine Buddha saying this?! I can’t. In fact, Buddha says the opposite.
He says this wish to be happy all the time is our real wish; so why not fulfill it? In reality we are never going to give up this wish. Temporary freedom from problems is too short lived. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:
Temporary liberations from particular sufferings are not good enough.
Since this is the case, let’s find lasting happiness. Let’s learn to be happy all the time!
“But hang on”, we might think, “That’s childish!” or “It’s unrealistic to be happy all the time!” Adjusting our expectations, we settle for being unhappy and unfulfilled instead, thinking that’s all there is. We simply try to put up with things and catch some limited happiness where we can.
Where happiness is
Both objections do have some truth to them. But it’s good to ask, “What kind of happiness are we talking about?”
It is fair to say that it’s entirely unrealistic to expect to find lasting happiness if we are looking for it in the wrong place. But lasting happiness itself is not spiritual fantasy. Buddha says it can be so, and many have seen this to be the truth. Buddha is a realist. Buddhism is all about being real. It is about learning to live in accordance with the way things are — reality. And if we look for happiness where it can be found, we will find it.
This is so simple for something so beautiful that maybe we think it has to be harder or more complicated. We can even look at all the extraordinary teachings of Buddha and think that this lasting happiness business sounds pretty complicated and, hmmm, I’m not sure if I want anything more complicated! I agree, who needs more complicated issues in their life!
It’s as simple as this. If you need motor oil and you go to the smelly trees section of the auto parts store, you aren’t going to find motor oil. But that’s just what we do. Or we go over to the windshield wipers section and, exasperated, think, ‘This is ridiculous. No motor oil!” Then we think, “What kind of useless auto parts store is this!?” Frustrated and with a feeling of entitlement we find a store clerk and say, “Excuse me, I’ve been looking all over this store and I can’t find any motor oil anywhere.” They kindly reply, “Oh we have every kind you could need in Aisle 7. Did you look over there?” But we never looked there, even though that’s where it is.
If we look in the right place we will find exactly what we are looking for and more. The thing is, our normal way of looking for happiness is to look outside of ourself. We think, “I’m going to be happy WHEN … I meet someone who makes me laugh. I find success in my career. I lose 20lbs and get a new wardrobe. I go to cool places and have an adventure.” We’re always postponing happiness to a later time, and so are never actually really happy because we’re still seeking it in Aisle #3 in the smelly trees section instead of Aisle #7 where it can be found.
In a way, we are giving over our own power to be happy to someone or something else. We often feel powerless or have a hollow feeling that we can’t quite fill. That happy feeling is elusive, like water in our hands slipping through our fingers. So why don’t we reclaim our power to be really happy? Instead of giving it away, why don’t we take it back? We can find this spiritual power to be happy and fulfilled, an inner power to heal our mind and body. Through meditation we can find it within, grow it, and allow it to shine out to others. We can find a radiant inner resilience, which is like shining armor in the face of conflict and difficulty.
This is not unrealistic or spiritual fantasy. It is clear, logical, and practical. Meditation is not about checking out of reality – it is about checking into the reality of pure happiness. This benefits us, our family, and everyone we meet — and it’s not unrealistic to say that eventually it benefits the entire universe. We are all like cells in the body. So what kind of cell are we going to be?
New paradigm of happiness
I think we need to change our paradigm of happiness. Instead of it being, “I’ll be happy when …,” it can be, “How can I be truly happy inside now?” This way of thinking is not selfish, it is wisdom. Through Buddha’s incredible practicality we can shift our search for happiness 180 degrees, from outside ourselves to inside ourselves. We can find it within our peaceful heart right now.
A simple example is making plans. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, making it seemingly impossible to plan. But we still have our little daily plans, even if we can’t have the big ones – we plan to have a cup of tea and then a cookie. Yet if things change, even the little plans go out of the window.
That’s happened quite a lot for me recently, and at one point I found myself getting a bit irritated.
“Wait a minute!”, I thought. “Am I trying to find happiness through my plan?! But that’s not where happiness comes from!” Remembering to simply accept and go with the flow, the day turned out to be lovely. This was a helpful experience. I guess this 20 years’ of meditation is getting me somewhere.
Adjust on the fly
Meditation is not just about that quiet moment alone, but being able to adjust on the fly. It’s so important right now as all our plans have been smashed or temporarily interrupted at least. This has happened around the whole world.
A great question to ask is, “Why is my one plan more important than anyone else’s?” We’re all in this together –- as communities, cities, and countries. When we step back and gather perspective, for many of us it’s not too bad and it’s temporary. And as Venerable Geshe Kelsang says, “This is nothing, others far worse.’” Thinking like this we regain our inner peace, which is real happiness. We move into empathy and compassion, which are real protections or spiritual armor.
Meditation on the go is about this. Not getting stuck on what we think happiness is, looking for it where it can’t be found, but remembering in the moment where it really is — inside our peaceful and positive mind.
Re-examining and changing our paradigm of happiness is of great value during these unusual times, and is in fact always invaluable. Many people are naturally thinking about this these days, and understanding the value of contentment. Just because they are not able to do all the things they normally want to do, people are finding some more simplicity, being a bit more satisfied and happy with what is. This inner quality of contentment is something many people are finding naturally. It’s a form of non-attachment, which is central to Buddhism. It’s a form of letting go. Contentment is being happy whether our conditions are good or bad, not depending on those conditions for our happiness.
At the core of our new paradigm is checking into the reality of happiness through meditation. Making meditation central to how we live our lives, not just as an adjunct or fancy addition, we find the reality of pure happiness. We grow in inner peace, contentment, and joy. This power of true happiness shines out to others, helping them find peace too. This shift is so simple yet so profound. And as we keep making these small shifts everyday, things really do change in unexpectedly good ways.
More great advice coming soon from this same monk! Meanwhile, please leave your comments for him in the comments box below.
I wrote Parts 1 and 2 of this blog while “coronavirus” was a new word appearing in a far-off land. Shrouded by an illusion of safety in my Brooklyn apartment, I assumed it would be like other diseases that popped up around the world in recent times, thankfully disappearing before spreading beyond localized areas. By the time Part 1 was published, the coronavirus had reached the West Coast of the United States and it was all anyone could talk about.
Luna Kadampa, our editor, connected what I had written to the crisis by pointing to the impact it was having on our elderly:
Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.
In the mere weeks since that publication, the entire world has changed. Buddhists know everything is changing at every moment. Blink and it’s a whole new world. But we’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime change. Tens of thousands have died. Millions have lost jobs. People are lonely. They are scared. I wondered if what I had written for Part 2 would still have relevance. And, given the cataclysmic scale of the pandemic, if any of it mattered.
What really matters?
What does matter when the world we normally see falls apart? How do we manage as we helplessly watch the pieces slip through our fingers? Without a spiritual path we might default to things that make the situation worse. We scroll news feeds for glimmers of hope or to justify our worry, look for someone to blame, take substances to numb the pain or indulge escapist thoughts on the one hand or hopeless ones on the other.
In Buddhism we take refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They alone have the power to protect us from this calamity. Buddha is the wise physician who diagnoses our problem, Dharma, his teachings, is the medicine we need to get well, and Sangha is the community of kind nurses helping us to heal.
Our real refuge is buried deep within our own heart. It is our compassion, a wish for our self and others to be freed from suffering. Compassion has the power to vanquish all our anger, fear, and depression, and can lift others out of theirs, too. Which is what I discovered in the sixty years I spent with thousands of elderly people. It is the type of true refuge we all need in these unprecedented and perilous times. It is where I was headed with the second part of this blog when our entire world got turned upside-down.
The unseen friend of migrators
In Part 1, I wrote about the decades I spent questioning anyone “of a certain age,” hoping they could make sense of a world that was nonsensical, contaminated, and oftentimes cruel. I was certain they could reveal some big meaning to life that eluded me. At a minimum, they could provide me with a reason to get up each morning.
While I never found a satisfying answer to all my questions, little did I realize how valuable those years would prove to be. In every connection with my elderly friends, listening and being heard, seeing and being seen, offering comfort and being comforted, I experienced an immensely important spiritual lesson. I just didn’t see it.
Lama Tayang (quoted in the book Universal Compassion) wrote:
Compassion is the unseen friend of migrators.
I think he meant this figuratively — that matters of the heart aren’t seen by our physical eyes. But for me it was literal. I couldn’t see that what was occurring within these interactions provided a large clue to the mystery I was trying to solve.
It took Buddha Shakyamuni to dispel the darkness of my mind. In my first Buddhist class, Gen Kelsang Rigpa, the Resident Teacher of Kadampa Meditation Center Los Angeles, told everyone gathered how Buddha had explained that we are all searching for something. Naturally, I was hooked because by this time I’d spent half a century looking. The answer was so obvious it surprised me: “we all want to be happy”. Not just in the moment, but permanently — there is never a moment when we don’t want to be happy.
I wondered, “Could this be what I was seeking all those years?” It seemed so simple. Yet the moment I heard it, I knew it to be true. Gen Rigpa went on to explain that this wish is what drives all our actions, be it the pursuit of a career, a relationship, money, a reputation, or the myriad of other things we chase after. The problem, according to Buddha, is that these things don’t bring us the type of pure and lasting happiness we seek.
In the Sutras, Buddha says: “The fully ripened effects of actions ripen not on soil or stones, but only on consciousness.” This is because only consciousness has feelings, and only with feelings can we experience the ripened effects of actions. Virtuous actions result in pleasant feelings, non-virtuous actions result in unpleasant feelings, and neutral actions in neutral feelings.
We find happiness by cultivating virtuous minds like love and compassion that ripen back on us as pleasant feelings. And this is where all my years with my elderly friends rained down like a million blessings.
Cherishing others is the key that unlocks the prison of self
As the years unfolded, I began to notice something interesting. I observed that even in my darkest hours, no matter how pointless everything seemed, being with my elderly friends often lifted me. Even opening the door of the nursing home on my way in to work in the morning made me feel better.
I experienced this pleasant sensation as a small boy being cherished by his grandmother. And over the decades I experienced it time and again with my elderly friends and clients. Maybe it wasn’t a permanent release from mental pain, but it was at least a temporary parole. And it appeared to help them, too. Even those in the depths of depression seemed better during our interactions than before. Why?
I believe one of the reasons that compassion is our friend is that it protects us from ourselves. It has the power to instantly eject us from that dangerous and painful prison of self. Geshe-la describes self-cherishing as an “excessive concern for our own welfare.” This “concern” can manifest as self-criticism and hatred, jealousy, anxiety, attachment or any of the many other delusions. It whispers insidious lies, telling us how much worse off we are than others and that the way out of our predicament is to work solely for our own benefit. And it never happens.
However, when we focus on others with an affectionate, compassionate heart we have no mental space left to obsess over ourselves. Our mind is completely pacified. Geshe-la writes:
It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.
Compassion also is our friend because it purifies our mind. Compassion removes the blinders covering our eyes to reveal a beautiful reality that has always been there, like the sun shining behind the clouds.
In several of his books, Geshe-la presents the well-loved story of Asanga, who entered a mountaintop retreat to come face-to-face with Buddha Maitreya. After twelve years with no success he abandoned his retreat because he was discouraged.
On the way down the mountain he came across an old dog lying in the middle of the path. Its body was covered in maggot-infested sores and it seemed close to death. This sight induced within Asanga an overwhelming feeling of compassion for all living beings trapped within samsara. As he was painstakingly removing the maggots from the dying dog, Buddha Maitreya suddenly appeared to him.
It was Asanga’s extraordinary compassion that purified his mind so that he was able to see this Buddha of loving-kindness, who had in fact been there all the time. We have the same potential, we just need to rely on our friend, compassion. And doing so starts by opening our eyes to the truth — that everyone suffers.
Geshe-la says this awareness does not make us depressed, rather:
Compassion gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we will come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.
For Kadampas, the spiritual path is our precious Lamrim, or stages of the path. When we combine these teachings with compassion, our mind gradually transforms into a state of joy beyond our wildest dreams. But to do this we first must believe in the power of compassion. Our faith grows by remembering moments of transcendence when we experienced pure, unconditional love and compassion. We know that if we can experience one moment of transcendence, we can experience more. We need only to train.
Our freedom grows by shifting the lens from self to others
To cultivate our virtuous minds of love and compassion, Geshe-la suggests we start with our karmic circle. For many people, this is their family or close friends. The hearts of some are naturally opened by being with animals, such as was the case with Asanga. For some it is children. And for some of us it is when we are with the elderly.
Oftentimes the suffering of the elderly is manifest. At every turn they are confronted by loss — the loss of physical appearance, possessions, health, friends, and lifelong partners. Anyone who has worked with the elderly, particularly employees of nursing homes or assisted living centers, knows this to be true. If we have the courage to face the truth of this suffering we will find our liberation. And more importantly, we will free others.
In the early ‘90’s I was running a nursing home on the north coast of Ohio. One day we admitted a wealthy woman who instantly shattered our peace and harmony. I knew she was wealthy because she paid us to remove a bed from one of our rooms so she could have it all to herself. Barely an hour went by without a staff member stopping at my door to tell me of a new complaint: she didn’t like the food, the staff, the air conditioning, and on and on. I had an “open door” policy but given her socio-economic background I knew she wouldn’t visit me; I was expected to call on her.
A few days later I decided to pay her a visit. As I knocked on her door I realized I knew nothing of her medical condition. This wasn’t a big deal because I’d known people with every medical condition under-the-sun. Even so, I was surprised by what I saw when I opened the door.
“Come in,” a shrill voice called out. I took a deep breath and entered. I could tell she was tall because she stretched to the ends of the hospital bed and she was emaciated, couldn’t be more than ninety pounds. But what struck me was her body. She was stiff as a board. Her hands were contracted and curled against her chest and old age had cruelly driven her chin into her shoulder. She lifted her eyes and they locked on me as I crossed the room.
“Hello, I’m Mr. Williams.” I said. “You wanted to see me.” When she realized I was the administrator she’d been asking for she affected a tone stiffer than her body. “Mr. Williams…” and then she unleashed a barrage of complaints that I already knew, sounding rehearsed as if she were reading from a script.
I could tell this was a lifelong pattern. When this woman said “jump,” people either asked “how high?” or argued with her. So my response probably surprised her. I just stood there silently gazing into her eyes. All of a sudden, she became aware of me. “What are you looking at?!” she snapped.
“I’m just trying to understand you,” I said.
No sooner had the words left my mouth than her body went limp and she began to sob. It was as if the words, “I’m trying to understand you” had found their way to a secret linchpin that was binding her musculoskeletal system and involuntarily released her. I stood there stunned as she continued to cry. I’d seen extraordinary things in my career, but nothing quite like this. After a few minutes she composed herself and said bitterly, “You have no idea what it feels like to be me.”
I did wonder what it must be like being her. A prisoner in your own body, totally dependent on others for the basics like eating and toileting. She couldn’t even wipe away her own tears. What could I say as I gazed down at her, this healthy whippersnapper dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie there to solve all her problems? “You’re right,” I said. “I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be you. But I’d like to try.”
Opening our hearts to the elderly in the time of Coronavirus
The initial epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States was a nursing home in suburban Seattle. Tragically, many more nursing homes around the country and world have experienced outbreaks. To date, one-fourth of all deaths in the United States have been nursing home residents.
As I read the stories, my mind is flooded by memories of all the nursing home residents I’ve known over the years. These are the people I have in my mind as I write this blog. They helped to shape and form the good aspects of the person I am today. I remembered the jokes, the kindness, the insights, and the tender and intimate moments.
And my mind went to the staff, particularly the nursing assistants who are on the front line of the front line. To me, they are true Bodhisattvas. Oftentimes they were cheerful, single mothers, making not much more than minimum wage, with little formal education. But they could write the book on how to cherish others. I think about how unfair it is for them to be in this situation. And I think about the deaths of all the people they care about and how this must be affecting them.
It seems no matter where in the country I worked, all caregivers held the same superstition. They believed residents died in threes. So when one died, they would brace themselves for the loss of the next two. At the time of completion of the second part of this blog, of the 120 residents of the suburban Seattle nursing home, a total of thirty-seven have died.
Every night at seven o’clock the people of New York City stop what they are doing to recognize essential workers. People in isolation open their windows wide. Church bells rings. Pots clang. People in the streets clap as they walk by. Some cheer. We unite in a collective inner wisdom that understands something profound is happening in the midst of all this suffering. We salute the courage of caregivers. We rejoice in compassion.
Over to you. Comments for this wonderful guest author are warmly invited in the comments box below.
(Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.)
Being seen by others
I discovered my fascination with the elderly during coffee hours after Sunday services in the small town where I grew up. I also learned it was unusual for almost anyone, let alone a five-year-old, to be interested in them. Despite regular encouragement to go upstairs to play with the other children, I managed to finagle my way through the rooms of the parish house and into the company of the elderly parishioners, particularly the women.
They’d call me close and, peering out behind coke bottle glasses, ask me things. I don’t remember the detail of those early conversations, but they left me with a lasting impression. I thought, “These people are so interested in others.” I felt special in their presence. Cherished. Safe. I felt seen.
Thus began a lifelong habit of seeking out the oldest person in the room. While the mantra of the mid-’60’s was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” mine was “Don’t trust anyone under 50.” My most trusted companion was my paternal grandmother, a kind woman who lived in an old country house at the other end of town. She was one of my greatest teachers, teaching me one of the most important things I have learned in my sixty years on this planet – the power of unconditional love.
Learning to see others
The truth is that I viewed every elderly person as my teacher. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes that the function of a person is “To perform actions and experience their results.” As an older friend once remarked, “You live long enough, you know stuff.” I reasoned that the older a person was, the more they knew, even if it was what not to do. They were time capsules of valuable karmic lessons, and from an early age I began looking to them for answers.
At some point I realized I was organizing what I was learning into my own mental filing cabinet. Some of it was social in nature — “European Immigration to the US in the Early 20th Century,” some of it technical — “Behavioral Patterns Exhibited by Those with Memory Loss,” and some of it just plain fun — “How to Sew, Crochet or Knit your own Wardrobe.”
I couldn’t help but note the physical changes that occur with age, as well. The thickening glasses. The hearing loss. The swelling in the ankles. The fading memory. The bandages on arms and heads. The skin. (Once I commented on a woman’s badly bruised skin. “Skin?!” she scoffed. “This isn’t skin. It’s tissue paper!”). The smells of ointments, tinctures, and sweet perfume. One by one I learned their stories. I listened. I studied. I watched. I saw.
This man’s search for meaning
Gerontology, the study of aging, emerged as a bonafide college degree in the late ‘70’s and I was one of the first to sign up. There I learned about the “Life Review,” an explanation as to why older people seem to like to reminisce. According to this theory they talk about their lives as a way of making sense of them. They are wrapping things up, getting ready to go.
Learning that my elderly friends had an almost biological need to talk about their lives prompted me to deepen my line of inquiry. My motive was not entirely altruistic; I was desperate to find answers to some of life’s bigger questions.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was being raised in a funeral home a few houses down from my church, but underpinning my early life was a nagging thought that everything was existentially pointless.
A story from Joyful Path of Good Fortunesums up my feelings at that time. A man is painstakingly carving a round stone into a square one with a feather. When a passerby asks why on earth he is doing this, he responds,
I am doing this so that I can leave the stone behind.
The story is referencing pointless efforts made in the accumulation of wealth, but to me everything was a variation of the same theme — be it a career, raising a family, or collecting tchotchkes. We will all die in the end, so why bother? I was sure one of my aged friends could provide me with the answer.
Over the decades I moved a lot, which put me in touch with thousands of elderly people in Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, California, and immigrants from around the world. When the moment seemed right, I’d ask my friends, the oldest of whom was 104, “What’s the point of all of this?” or “Why are we here?” Everyone seemed happy to offer an opinion, but I never did get a satisfying answer. What I did get, instead, was another list: “The Top Ten Meanings of Life.”
I don’t know if meaninglessness is the chicken and depression is the egg or the other way ‘round, but they are a killer combination. I knew this from my many years of working with people who were stripped mercilessly of the things that meant the world to them — their spouses, homes, cars, careers, reputations, health, wealth, families, and oldest friends. Some were left with nothing to fill the void, critically ill and deeply depressed, begging to die. But I knew of this deadly combination not just from witnessing it, but from experiencing it from the inside out. From a young age I began to experience a deep and inexplicable sadness.
As a young man I stumbled across a quote from the French philosopher Voltaire that struck me as so profound I committed it to memory. He said, “We throw ourselves in prison and stand as our own guard.” I knew on some level I played a role in my own torment, but at the same time I felt powerless to stop. And, as much as the quote impacted me, there was still no answer as to how to get out of this vicious cycle. Or if it was even possible.
Before becoming a Buddhist I believed a certain amount of suffering was natural, part of the “human condition.” While I never dreamed it was feasible to completely end suffering, as taught by Buddha, I did believe it could be mitigated. So I did with my depression what I did with everything else. I took it to my elderly friends. “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I’d ask. Or, “Given all that humans must endure, only to die in the end, how can a person ever be happy?” When the moment seemed right, I’d be candid. “I’m depressed,” I’d say. “Do you have an idea of how I can shake it?”
Finding the path
After an exhaustive, nearly half-century search, it was at my first class at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Los Angeles that I began to find answers. The monk taught that my search for freedom from suffering was common. Aware of it or not, every sentient being, even babies and insects, carries the same basic wish to be free. It drives everything we do. And yes, Virginia, there is a way out.
The prison, I learned, is called samsara, a hellish and unending nightmare that is the experience of a self-centered and deluded mind. As Geshe Kelsang puts it,
Samsara is not an external prison; it is a prison made by our own mind.
The meaning of our lives is to be found in securing a permanent release from our jail cell and in helping everyone out of theirs. We do this not only to improve this life, but to secure our futures after we die. But how? As Geshe-la explains:
Although samsara resembles a prison, there is one door through which we can escape. That door is emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena. By realizing emptiness we can escape from samsara.
In the early days of my Buddhism, realizing this magic bullet of emptiness seemed a ways off; and, meanwhile, what’s a suffering sentient being to do?! I took refuge in the more easily accessible method practices as outlined in How to Transform Your Life, such as renunciation, compassion, and patience. Geshe-la writes that these minds help us to inch towards the prison door. Eventually
…by diligently practicing a pure spiritual path, and thereby eliminating our self-grasping and other delusions, we can bring our samsara to an end.
In Buddhism, “delusions” are described as those states of mind that create suffering and “virtuous minds” as those that result in happiness. Self-cherishing is a principal delusion, and compassion — our wish for others to be free from suffering — is a principal virtue. Something about this idea clicked for me. I even had a folder. There it was in the far recesses of my mind, dusty and overlooked, but chock-full of rich and valuable evidence to validate the truth of Buddha’s teachings.
I didn’t have the wisdom to know its value at the time but, once I learned what it contained, I reorganized my findings into two separate files and moved them to the forefront of my mind. Borrowing language from my new hero, the Buddhist Master Shantideva, I titled one, “Self-Cherishing — All the Suffering in this World” and the other “Love and Compassion — All the Happiness in this World.”
In part 2 of this article I will expand on my observations of how seeing others and being seen by them inches us toward the door to our own liberation.
In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments.
(Postscript: There are many word choices to describe people “of a certain age.” I’ve used them all in my career so as not to offend, but my personal preference is “elderly.” To my mind the popular euphemism “senior” is a regression, sending us back to high school and in the process devaluing the trials, tribulations, and triumphs all of us experience if we are lucky enough to live that long. I know some people consider “elderly” an ugly word, but historically it was an honorific. As for me, at the ripe old age of sixty, considered “young elderly” by some classifications,” I’m not quite ready to let it go.)