“I am the master of my fate” ~ a tribute to Nelson Mandela

SOUTH AFRICA MANDELAA light has gone out in the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013)

I like millions of others around the world am very sad that such a great being departed today. He is leaving a hole in too many hearts to count. President Obama said it the other day:

He is personal hero. But I don’t think I am unique in that regard. He is a hero for the world.

For decades, Mandela has been one of my greatest heroes – a shining example of how it really is possible to be a very good person, full of patience and love, and yet because of this, not in spite of it, able to effect enormous changes. He showed a different paradigm for dealing with conflict that resonated around the world.

I was trying to think today of anyone else in my lifetime who has been so universally well regarded and appreciated for their good qualities. I can’t think of anyone. My friend’s face dropped when I told her, and I knew it’d be the same if I told anyone else in the Denver coffee house where I heard the news. Around the world, I believe, the news, “Have you heard that Nelson Mandela has just died?”, is being met only with dismay.

President Zuma called him “the father of democracy” in South Africa. I believe he was a bona fide Bodhisattva in our midst, an obvious guiding light on the world stage, who managed to pull off the seeming impossible in South Africa and inspire people everywhere to behave just that little bit better.

I could talk about his good qualities all day. I hope and believe that others will be rejoicing in him today in the global media, in a thousand more qualified tributes–but I would like to join in. I sometimes think that the best way not to miss someone so important to you is to try and adopt his or her good qualities as your own. If everyone who loves him took on even a fraction of Madiba’s qualities, the world would transform overnight. For me, amongst many good qualities, it was Mandela’s genuine patient acceptance and strength that inspires me the most and that I would most like to possess myself.

A tribute from a South African friend

nelson mandela fear quoteI had quite a number of close South African relatives and friends. A good friend teaches Buddhism in Cape Town. My key ring is the South African flag in the shape of a miniature sandal that I bought in Langa. I visited a few years ago, finding Cape Town to be the most beautiful and yet most incongruous place – the stunning natural beauty sitting side by side with the appalling aids-abetted poverty of Langa and other townships. I shared a birthday with Nelson Mandela. I named a beloved cat for him. I have some connection with South Africa, but an old friend of mine has even closer karma with it as he was born and adopted there. I want him to do the honors, therefore, and include here something he said about Mandela in the context of patience some years back.

The patience of non-retaliation

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

I see difficult people and the suffering they cause as apparently unpleasant, yet actually useful, because without them I could not practice patience. I want to become more patient because it brings me great peace of mind and helps me make spiritual progress. Who will help me to increase my patience? The people causing my difficulties! Actually, they exist for my benefit. They behave appallingly because I require and want them to for my spiritual well-being. I owe them.

mandela in prisonThe people who inspire me most are those who transcend seemingly unforgiveable grievances and end up helping millions of people – heroes like Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and my own Teacher Geshe Kelsang (who had to flee from his homeland). I was born in South Africa about the time Mandela was sent to break rocks in Robben Island, and I was 27 by the time he was released. Those first 27 years of my life felt like a really long time, and I would often wonder how “Madiba” was doing?

If anyone had a right and provocation to be angry, it was he. Yet he famously left the prison with a huge heart of forgiveness and love that saved an entire nation from a bloodbath. How did he do it? He said it was by patiently understanding that he was working for a task greater than himself.

He also had a huge sense of personal responsibility, as can be seen in the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus that helped him through the long years of captivity:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

To practice non-retaliation involves compassion, the wish for others to be free from their suffering and also its causes, delusions and negative karma. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. Negative karma refers specifically to the negative mental intentions that motivate each negative action we perform, and it is these intentions that sow the actual seeds for the experience of suffering. Think about how much negative karma angry minds and angry people create, thus sowing the seeds for intensely unpleasant experiences to manifest in their future. I don’t have to make it worse. young Nelson Mandela

Instead of thinking “This is an angry person,” we can think, “This is an unfortunate person who is being controlled by their enemy of anger.” By never seeing faults in people, Buddhas are able to maintain their love and compassion for them at all times. Anger is the enemy; the person is not. Compassion for them, not more anger, is the best response.

Perspective
Mandela quote about love
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

As a Buddhist, I too am trying to work for a task greater than myself – enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Suffering is all relative. As it says in Meaningful to Behold, we have experienced aeons of great suffering but it has not bought us any benefit. Now is different because we have a different perspective on what we are trying to get out of life:

We have the unique opportunity, by enduring comparatively insignificant suffering, to work for the benefit of others and thereby attain the supreme state of enlightenment.

We can therefore joyfully accept the hardships we face – which doesn’t mean gritting our teeth and putting up with it, but actually accepting fully and happily, without judgment or disapproval, whatever arises. We can do this if we are confident that we can learn to use absolutely any situation to train our minds in wisdom and compassion, thus bringing an end to suffering.

In Mandela’s broad smiles as he left the prison in friendship with his captors, I find that he discovered this truth.

Mandela quote about freedom of othersAs a Buddhist, I too am striving for a superior intention that takes personal responsibility for freeing all my kind mothers from their suffering and its causes. I have therefore learned from Nelson Mandela and seen in his actions, with my own eyes, how patience is possible if I keep this big perspective. And it was because of this patience, not in spite of it, that he also got everything done, as he could work toward getting everything done all the time without being derailed by anger. Patience is not a passive, doormat state of mind that leaves us standing there doing nothing. It is an active, dynamic, and immensely creative state of mind that enables us to accomplish all our tasks.

The greatest tribute

reacting to Nelson Mandela's death

My endless gratitude to you, Nelson Mandela.

Wherever you are now, I believe you will still be helping people. I am not worried about you, only the rest of us.

I don’t want to say goodbye. I have been dreading this day. Everyone is so sad. Zuma said “We need him with us.” I agree. But as we cannot have him with us, we can at least let his inspiring qualities live on.

The greatest tribute I believe we can pay Nelson Mandela is to become more like him.

The sooner, the better.

__________________

(Please feel welcome to leave your own tributes in the comments.)

A sliver of life, finger food for thought


Rousseau, Buddhism
I just went out to buy a collar for Rousseau* at a local supermarket, as he managed to lose his during his nocturnal ramblings. I got him a pink one this time – embarrassing for a Real He Man Cat but, I figured, more visible.

The 30-something Salvation Army guy outside had appointed himself as guardian of my bike. He praised me for taking the exercize and volunteered that he had just put on 30 pounds in two months. The way he spoke about it, it was like as if something had happened TO him, without him even noticing. “I used to exercise but for the last two months I was just laid about on the couch after work.” “Did you have an injury?” “Oh no, I just felt like laying around. And I ate a lot. In fact, I noticed that I had drunk a crate of sodas in the last two weeks. Weighed myself on that scale in there today, 30 pounds! Bit of a shock! Yeah, when I come to think of it, my clothes don’t fit so good neither.” If he lost that 30 pounds, he’d be a very decent weight, so how did he not notice that the pounds had been creeping on? He just didn’t. He sort of answered a question I have about people who put on a lot of weight without seeming to notice; the way he was talking, it was as if it was an unfortunate accident. Perhaps it was. (Perhaps it is time for me to weigh myself again, something I usually studiously avoid, weighing yourselfpreferring to rely on the scientific method of how tight my trousers feel.)

He was a nice guy, and I was thinking that although this was curious and a little disappointing for him, far worse is our inability to notice when our mind is becoming incrementally more heavy or sad, without our taking early or preventative steps to exercise it with positive thinking or feed it with the healthy food of meditation. In any event, we agreed that if he didn’t buy any more sodas he’d not be inclined to drink them, and that if he took up exercise again he’d be 30 pounds lighter when I next saw him. I hope so. (Though I think dieting can be harder work than training our mind…? Or, to put it more encouragingly, training the mind can be easier than dieting… What do you reckon?)

A few minutes later I found myself caught up in a small military parade of infantry men who had definitely kept themselves together physically. They were marching right where I normally bike home, for some unknown reason, and I ended up having to follow them. They were crisply dressed in their deep blue uniforms with yellow piping, their pressed trousers ending just above their shiny black shoes, in exactly the same point on the ankle. They were holding sleek but intimidating rifles with bayonets and they walked in step beautifully, effortlessly throwing the bayonet from one hand to the other. I found myself thinking: “I hope they have as much control over their minds as they do over their bodies.”

On the home stretch, my bike chain came unstuck and I got my hands all oily fixing it.

Rousseau the cat and Buddhism Then, remember that pink collar I just bought?! Well, when I got home, I noticed something blue and shiny dangling from my postbox. Much to Rousseau’s relief, some kind stranger had returned his manly collar.

This errand took all of half an hour from beginning to end. Just a normal slice of life, taking its unexpected small (in this case) twists and turns. But it was another reminder that the appearances of life, whether good or bad, are always changeable and unpredictable.

Although we like to feel we have tabs on the general narrative of our lives, we have really no idea who or what we are going to meet from one minute to the next, let alone from one year to the next, and forget about from one lifetime to the food for thought and meditationnext!

The only thing we can learn to control is our mind; and seen in that context every one of our encounters is food for thought, with a potential to nourish our compassion and/or wisdom.

*(I wrote this article six months ago. Nowadays, I’ve given up on collars for Rousseau, manly or otherwise.)

Your turn: which encounters have fed you the most food for thought recently?

 

“When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem’ a-suffer.” ~ A story of hope and transformation

As mentioned in this article, Maynor was tortured and murdered in the Honduras aged 19, trampled by drug wars he had nothing to do with. Jeffery “Black Nature” was also at Maynor’s powa (transference of consciousness) puja at Saraha Center in San Francisco.

At the 20th anniversary of Saraha Center, a few days earlier, Michael Rollins, a dear friend, told me about the band Black Nature of the Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars, which was just about to play — Michael had at the last minute invited them. Jeffery “Black Nature”, the lead vocalist and drummer, was the youngest member of the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars band, which was the subject of a PBS documentary in 2007 .

Extract from movie description: “The plight of the refugee in today’s war-torn world is captured in the African proverb: “When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem’ a-suffer.” So it was in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, when the government and various rebel factions carried out a brutal civil war in which the terrorizing of civilians — by killing, mutilation, rape and forced conscription — was common practice on all sides. The war sent hundreds of thousands of ordinary Sierra Leoneans fleeing to refugee camps in the neighboring West African nation of the Republic of Guinea. That’s where the remarkable story told by the new documentary Sierra Leone‘s Refugee All Stars began…

… At 15, Alhadji Jeffery Kamara, called “Black Nature,” is the youngest of the group. Orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea, to which he had fled, Black Nature is perhaps the most traumatized and is considered an adopted son by the others.”

Michael Rollins

Jeffery has now started his own band, with the All Stars’ blessing. He met Michael by chance in the guitar shop where Michael works, and invited him to play bass for him and help him find the other musicians. Before one of their songs, Michael stood up to speak:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

That, Michael had told me, was the thought keeping him sane during this nightmare. Nature was nodding his head in agreement through Michael’s short speech.

Nature’s story dwarfs most stories. I’ll share some of the main elements as told to me by Michael, hopefully not blowing the plot of the movie that I think could be made about him (and hopefully his new band). 🙂

Nature was 11 when the rebels came to his house. His mother had gone missing. He was forced to watch as they set his father alight, telling him that they’d do the same to him if he cried. Then they took him. They taught him how to kill, keeping him and the other child soldiers ramped up on drugs so that life and shooting felt unreal, like a video game. They filled the children’s heads with tales of how evil their parents and neighbors had been, but Nature said he never bought into what they said. Instead, he always tried to escape.

And during some fighting, he did manage to get away. Later one of the older soldiers found him but, in a lucky break, decided not to take him back but instead to flee with him and a couple of other escapees. He helped them make their way toward Guinea, but en route this new father figure was also blown up by a mine in front of Jeffery’s eyes.

The boys managed to get over the border into Guinea but the terror was not over. They were captured by police and, accused of being rebel soldiers, kept in cages not tall enough to stand up in. Nature has a stoop to this day. They’d be taken out and tortured, and periodically made to look at a pit of dead bodies, told that they were headed there themselves.

I’m a little hazy as to how they managed to escape this new nightmare, but at some point it involved Jeffery being plucked up miraculously by someone in a UN convoy truck as it was driving away from some war zone with things being blown up all around them. That is how he ended up in a squalid, dangerous, soulless refugee camp for the remainder of his teenage years, but how he also managed by another lucky break to meet the other members of the Refugees All Stars Band, including a musician whom he had greatly admired as a young boy in pre-war days. The band was eventually invited to travel, and they tour to this day.

At the tea Esmerelda made after the powa, Jeffery spoke softly to Maynor’s family and us, saying that the only thing we have to fear is mental bondage, and people can enslave or destroy our body but no one else can enslave our mind. He seems well on his way to extracting retribution from anger and other delusions.

Michael told me that Jeffery spontaneously gives a helpful hand wherever he goes and to whomever he meets. He also supports and encourages musicians back in Sierra Leone and in his new adopted city of San Francisco in particular. I found him to be gentle, kind, and humble, very easy to be with. At tea, he laughed at how during his time in the Refugee All Stars he had hung out with Angelina Jolie, been on Oprah, and appeared with Leonardo diCapria, only realizing from people’s reactions later how famous these people are.

I have not begun to do justice to his story and I apologize for any mistake in details, but the movie version will set us straight! In any event, what is powerful about meeting Black Nature is witnessing how he has transformed all this to end up the person he is today. By comparison any hardships I might have had in this human life are not even a walk in the park, more like a gentle stroll.

Offering music to the Buddhas

After Michael’s short speech, the band did a song about sending love to Maynor and to everyone in the world.  It was “real” – they were walking the talk – and everyone loved it. They say that their intention is not to make lots of money with their new band but to spread joy and sanity in our troubled world. I see no reason why they won’t reach and move new audiences with their music, because if Jeffery Black Nature and Maynor’s brother in law can forgive and find peace, surely there is hope for all of us?

(Michael told me yesterday that they are now recording a song dedicated to Maynor and the family.)

Please share this article if you like it, and leave your comments in the box below.

Here is a short video. You can look at Black Nature Band Facebook page to find out more.

Touches of kindness ~ a day in the life of Sue Hulley

My good friend Sue is currently in hospice. Please pray for her.

I had the opportunity to visit Sue when she invited me to stay with her for 10 days in Marin in November (overlapping with the 20th year anniversary celebration of Saraha Center in San Francisco.) Here is something I wrote at the time.

11.08.2011

“Health is fragile and life is short. I’m sitting in the radiology waiting room while my friend Sue has her port seen to – we have an appointment in an hour with her chemo doctor in the cancer center down the road but who knows if we’ll be done here by then. It is not in our hands.

A woman sitting near us, with a pixie face and big blue eyes, whose hair is just growing back into a fuzz, is asked by the nurse: “Do you want to come with me?” “No”, pixie lady replies, but she goes anyway.

So much paperwork! Just to get past the entrance for a chest x-ray involved paperwork and insurance details in triplicate, followed by a long questionnaire of an entire medical history – all lest the minutest detail might have changed in the last few weeks since Sue’s last x-ray so that, goodness forbid, her insurance might not cover it anymore. Paperwork is challenging even if you’ve just had a cup of Starbucks – what to do if you’re feeling bone tired and can hardly sit up straight?! As Sue says, “Look at the chairs!” These are not designed for people to recline.

“There is only one thing for it”, Sue says, “when you lose your autonomy. I have had to stop identifying with my body and appreciate the opportunity to practice patience.”

And the fact that everyone sitting around you is either in the same boat or already overboard kind of means that there is less room for self-pity. One lanky man sitting opposite us seems to have lost half his face, he looks like a Persian cat and his voice is a sibilant whisper. He is being tended to by a brother, it seems. The elderly lady next to me has sparkling blue eyes and a sweet smile, but also a deep air of resignation. The nurse says to her, “Maureen, that is a lovely sweater. I love the color red.” A moment of kindness in the face of all Maureen is having to go through, a touch of humanity to make the patients feel less alone.

Sue, noticing this too, says, “What a difference even one small human encounter makes when you are in the system waiting for appointments etc. One touch on the arm, and a kind comment, makes it all meaningful.” I tell her that it reminds me in a funny kind of way of being in the busy San Francisco airport the other day. The lack of autonomy as large numbers of people are processed and the individual gets caught up in the big garbage collecting claw as opposed to picked off gently in the tweezers (Sue’s words, she has such a way with words!) Crowded never-ending security lines but one official was so welcoming: “Hello mister so and so!” “Hello Ms L, how are you doing?” “Ah, you’re from the Phillipines, how great is that!” A little bit of love transforms everything.

There will be a changing of the guards as Sue’s valiant and cute as a button partner Bill drives over to relieve me so I can make it to the temple in time for a powa (transference of consciousness) for Maynor. As for perspective, I hear Sue, who has just said that being stuck with cancer treatment is a luxury compared to this atrocity: Maynor was a gentle 19-year-old, always helping his mother and grandmother around the house, when he was brutally tortured and killed in Honduras last week. He was in a taxi and mistaken for a gang member in possession of information needed by another gang. After chopping off 10 toes and 9 fingers, his torturers realized he actually did know nothing and killed him off. Meanwhile, they beheaded the taxi driver for good measure. Maynor was the brother-in-law of Michael, a member of Saraha Center. Maynor’s stunned father was there at the powa, very quiet, but managing to smile at all gestures of concern. His uncle, an old friend called Carlos, was there too, with tears in his eyes: “I miss him.”

Meanwhile, talking of perspective, I have a torn rotator cuff and it pales into nothingness next to Sue’s and Maynor’s situations.”

Please keep Sue in your prayers during this time.

Surfing life’s waves

The other day I saw a little dude with his surfboard looking disappointedly at the ocean – it was clearly his first day of vacation and his parents perhaps hadn’t warned him that the Gulf of Mexico is not known for its waves.

Lojong or mind-training practitioners are also a little disappointed when everything goes too smoothly because they have no exciting challenges to harness and transform into positive outcomes.

Transforming a sickness

My mother asked me how I found enough material to write about on my blog and, to give her an example of no shortage of subject matter when it came to applying meditation to daily life, I said I would write about my brother T as we had just been talking about him. Thanks for your permission, T, it is for a good cause 😉 (This is not the brother of this article, but after this I’ve run out of brothers to write about).

new life

T started life as a 7 pound baby and then a skinny boy. But by the time he reached his teens, he was starting to pack on the pounds, and he loved his food. He was also a brilliant and disciplined athlete who captained a whole bunch of school teams, scored 100 runs at Lords Cricket ground, can run fast, and is as strong as an ox (he can lift up my mother and me at the same time). But plump, and getting more so by the year. His Facebook picture is the Michelin man. I gave him the XXXL waistcoat (US vest) for Xmas and it barely zipped up around his big tum.

Early this year he was diagnosed with diabetes. My mother didn’t bother telling me for a month or so and, when she did get around to it, she sounded oddly cheerful. She even chuckled. I know she loves her first-born child, so what was that about?! Turns out it was because the apple of her eye is happy about his diagnosis! It has cheered him right up! I kid you not. He now says that he has to lose weight or die, and he is really relishing the incentive. He says having diabetes is making him lose the weight he could never have lost otherwise, it has given him the will power, and now he’ll live long and healthy and thin.

To give you some context here… people’ve been trying for YEARS, make that decades, to encourage him to lose weight. His two young daughters, his family, friends, his grandmother, everyone has veered between the extremes of nagging him and giving up and pretending the problem is not there. Naturally he has not been fond of all the interference and judgment, and in any case it didn’t make the blindest difference. His wife alone — who is so slim she disappears if you look at her sideways — accepted him the size he is. But the rest of us….

I saw him in the summer. He is a new person. At Xmas he was tired and listless and not as happy as he used to be. But the sparkle in his eyes is back, his energy levels are high, he is happy and engaging, and he has already lost 4 stone (56 pounds). His attitude to food has changed — he ate far less at lunch, for example, and didn’t seem to mind. He says he feels healthier than he has done in years. He intends to lick the disease through diet. If you saw what he ate before and how much, such bad habits over such a long period of time, you’d know what a huge step forward this is. And he can now fit into my Xmas gift with room to spare.

I complimented him on his discipline but he waved it off: “I’m not disciplined, I just had to do it. This was the greatest incentive.”

Suffering has good qualities

This is proof that diabetes is not inherently bad. You can’t call something inherently bad if it it is possible to transform it into something helpful. From a Buddhist point of view, we try to transform all our adversities into the spiritual path through renunciation (aiming for lasting freedom and happiness), compassion, bodhichitta (aiming for others  to have lasting freedom and happiness), wisdom… There is no such thing as a problem that cannot be solved with these methods. As Shantideva says:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

If we really in our heart of hearts know that suffering has good qualities and offers us unprecedented opportunities, as T spontaneously understands about his serious illness, would we not decide to make use of it, and slowly but surely take delight in doing so? As mentioned, ancient Kadampas would look forward to difficulties – they were almost disappointed when things were going their way (although we don’t need to worry, there are ways to transform good things too…;-) We can know for sure that it is possible to transform whatever difficulty arises into a solution, and then find out the best way to do that in each case – eventually it’ll become a habit. (If you want, you can start by picking up one of the Lojong or mind-training books – Eight Steps to Happiness or Universal Compassion for example. It’s all explained in there.) Like my brother T, we’ll end up healthier and happier and with thinner delusions.

Something needs to click

When we realize things with the force of certainty, it can be far easier for our behavior to change as we are no longer negotiating with ourselves over every detail or meal. It is as if T was sabotaging himself before — he knew he was eating badly and he didn’t feel good about it all, but even if he lost weight each January (due to his once-yearly diet) there was the swing back due to attachment, lack of conviction, or whatever. And he was able to live in denial.

We all have to overcome our self-sabotage, attachment and denial of what’s going on, and it is not always easy. We know on one level that we’re going to get old and sick and dead, and that this should be incentive enough to practice being positive all the time and prepare for the inevitable; but on another level we deny these things, ‘Oh, it won’t be that bad!’ Or we even romanticize them: ‘It’ll be cozy, I can wear my PJs and slippers all day, and then I’ll have a peaceful death. Maybe I’ll do Botox and look even better!’ But when the doctor was telling T directly that he’d have to shape up or face the consequences, something must have clicked. We all could do with those click moments. That is what meditation is for. These are realizations. Better to have them before we get too old, sick or dead to do anything about our bad habits.

I find this a great example of surfing life’s waves:

It’s your turn: If you have any examples of transforming adversity to share, please leave them in the comment box below, I’d love to hear them. Please share this article if you like it.

Stand up the real Steve Jobs! 1955-2011

On Sunday I dropped my iPhone 3 down the toilet. Not deliberately, of course, but my bathroom is small, the toilet crammed next to the basin, and the phone slipped from my loose pocket as I was brushing my teeth.

My iPhone 3, deceased

Along with my iPhone it felt like I’d flushed my whole life – photos, contacts, passwords, videos, apps, etc. I managed to stay calm, thinking: “Okay, good time to practice patience, non-attachment, mindfulness of impermanence etc etc!” But it was a little wake-up call, and not just reminding me to back up my data in future 😉 (Why do we always have these good ideas only AFTER disaster has struck?!) Even after three days submerged in rice, the phone is dead. All that is left from its data is what I can remember. It is a bit like dying and only taking my mind with me to my next life.

A hair pulled from butter

The Tibetans have a saying about death, that it is like a hair pulled from butter. They like yak butter tea, (or yuck butter tea as I can’t help thinking of it), and the butter arrives wrapped in a yak skin. Some yak hairs inevitably get into the butter and have to be pulled out. They come out smoothly, leaving all the butter behind – in the death analogy, this would be our body, possessions, home, career, people, gross minds and personality. All that continues to our next life is our subtle mental continuum and our karmic imprints, from which a whole new world is going to arise like another dream.

Can you find Steve Jobs within his parts?

Steve Jobs, co-creator of Apple, probable genius and Buddhist, died yesterday from pancreatic cancer at the age of 56, apparently peacefully. Like a hair pulled from a ton of butter, he has left the entire empire he built behind. What has gone with him? Of course there are varying opinions about whether what he did was brilliant or exploitative, generous or self-seeking… It is impossible for us to judge what karma he has created — that depends entirely on his intentions for doing what he did, which only he could have known. But I think it’s fair to assume that he created very strong karma in that he influenced much of the world and provided insanely cool gadgets used (or abused) by millions of people. My teacher Geshe Kelsang once said that modern technology is rather like “modern miracle powers”, and its true – imagine showing someone born in the 19th century your iPad?! Even when I demonstrated my iPhone offline to some children in a Brazilian rainforest (who’d didn’t have running water or electricity, let alone any space-age gadgets), they got very excited! Tom the Talking Cat, anyone?!

 Stand up the real Steve Jobs!

Many people are feeling affected one way or another by Steve Jobs’s death. But stand up the real Steve Jobs! Who were you? Comments on Kadampa Life’s Facebook wall include: Joan Boccafola: “I was on the plane back to NY when I heard he died. Tears streamed down my face. He was such a genius, a visionary. He has touched my life with his creativity. I write this on my Mac.” Robert Thomas: “Sad news, I pray that he takes a fortunate rebirth where he can complete his inner training (assuming he hadn’t already). He certainly touched everyone profoundly and so much good has arisen through his life, like how so many of us stay connected via iPhones and even share a little Dharma too.” But Adam Head reminds us there are other perspectives: “Hmmm…is it appropriate to mention another side of things? – mega-wealthy business-man with multiple sweat-shops in the “third world” – on top of the capitalist food chain!” And Tamara Cartwright says: “While it is sad that one man has died, we are all celebrating extreme commercialism … he taught people to crave the next thing and buy it while their previous thing was still valid and functioning.” Gee Gibson suggests: “As a Buddhist, then Steve Jobs would understand that his physical wealth was worthless. It was the wisdom in his heart and mind that he would have valued. We should not be judging anyone other than ourselves. I’m sure he left more of a positive mark than a negative. Maybe we should take a few minutes to show some compassion and send positive energy to him.” 

Whatever his motivation and effects on other people, Steve Jobs did make my own life a little easier when I was living out of suitcases for a while and didn’t have a computer or any other gadgets to stay in touch with family and friends. His invention enabled me to take photos of the wonderful places and people I visited, gave me the ability to maintain this blog, helped me navigate new streets, and entertained me. Sure, my entertaining iPhone could distract me too (a lot), and I’m not celebrating my admitted attachment to technology, but I’m not going to blame Steve Jobs for that – I’m a big girl now and can take responsibility for controlling my own time and mind. For me, overall, he was kind.

Trying to live your best life

Steve Jobs clearly thought a lot about life and death, and he said some pertinent things that I want to share here. For whether he succeeded or failed at it, at least it seems he tried to live his best life:

“Life is brief, and then you die, you know?”
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Stand up the real Amanda Knox!

Another big story that touched hearts poignantly or painfully this week was the acquittal of Amanda Knox. Was she guilty or not? We may never know for sure. (I always thought she was innocent, but that’s just my opinion.) In any event, she has suffered a great deal these past four years and if she is guilty of murder her karma will catch up with her – so I’m glad she has the chance to go home at least for now. Did you see her face while she was waiting for the 3:30pm ruling on Monday? The tension was extraordinary. How did that feel? We’ll find out ourselves soon enough, within a few hundred months at most, when we are a hair pulled from butter … will the karma we have created condemn us to a dank lonely cell or send us home to freedom?

In the press conference in Seattle after her release, Amanda Knox said:

“I’m really overwhelmed right now,” she said. “I was looking down from the airplane and it seemed like everything wasn’t real.”

She’s right, it isn’t. Every now and then, usually when things are changing too fast for us to get a fixed handle or label on them, we have a natural glimpse into the ever-moving dream-like nature of our lives.

What I’ve learnt from this week’s news

Steve Jobs had an empire and is receiving glowing eulogies from all quarters, including the President, none of which he can hear. Amanda Knox’s life changed from a pleasant dream to a nightmare and back to a pleasant dream in a few dramatic years – which is like our moving between good dreams and nightmares over the course of many lifetimes, until we cut the cycle of suffering once and for all by realizing the dream-like nature of our reality. As Vide Kadampa said: “You never know what is around the corner – karma can give you quite a ride :-)” So, I’m deciding once again to make the most of the dream-like time I have left, keep my nose clean, love others as much as possible, and pack for the future. If I die today, where will I be tomorrow? As Venerable Atisha says in his Advice

Since you will definitely have to depart without the wealth you have accumulated, do not accumulate negativity for the sake of wealth.

And:

Since future lives last for a very long time, gather up riches to provide for the future.

Fiona Layton puts it this way! “Death is great! If I am feeling guilty about the past or anxious about the future death stops me in my tracks and helps me to BE HERE RIGHT NOW! Then I can relax with a beautiful mind that has let go of all the shit of this life and I am free then to enjoy all the magic instead!!! Death Rocks!”

Kelsang Dechen also reminds us that everyone has to die and indeed many did die yesterday, let’s pray for them too: “With a mind of equanimity, let us remember all sentient beings – our kind mothers – who died yesterday. OM MANI PÄME HUM.”

Postscript

At the risk of sounding like I did in fact drop my iPhone 3 down the toilet deliberately, I discovered I was just out of contract with AT & T and so had to/was obliged to/had no choice but to upgrade to an iPhone 4 😉 (I wasn’t going to, I promise, I’m not that addicted to possessing all the latest new gadgets… ?!)

I pray that our next life is also an upgrade.

Please leave your comments on the blog, and share this article if you like it.

Happiness/Freedom ~ Andrea, the real deal

“How do you tell everyone you love how important they were to you when you were alive?”  Andrea Walker, August 20, 2011

Last week, August 21st, I found this blog: Happiness/Freedom.

I had in fact come across it a few months ago but didn’t have time that day to read it at any length, and although it moved me I did not notice that it was actually written by an old friend of mine. As soon as I realized this, I tried to get in touch with her. But she had written her last words. On Friday August 26, at 2.32pm, Andrea died.

Andrea’s writing was already poignant, and now with her death it has become to my mind like a masterpiece of reflections on impermanence and love. I keep wanting to go back to it. She is unflinchingly honest. Her style is light and devoid of self-pity — despite her tremendous pain she found humor and also life in every situation, and was touchingly grateful for the smallest happinesses. And she remembered and applied Buddha’s teachings in her own inimitable style throughout all her ghastly treatments, inability to breathe, unbearable discomfort and final passing.

Although it was frightening and unknown, Andrea still faced her sickness and death head on, with the adventurous spirit that had served her so well in her life. Andrea, I wanted to say as I was reading her blog, you are so brave, and everyone who knows you must be so proud of you. We can learn so much from you. So I’m going to share your blog. As your friend Eva said: “Beautiful to think that she will have such an impact on so many lives. She would love that.”

In a series of writings that are eminently quotable, I will quote randomly a few of the things Andrea said to give you a glimpse in case you don’t have a chance to visit her blog itself today, and in the hope that you will remember this beautiful young woman in your prayers.

Ramblings of a shocked woman

When Andrea first received her diagnosis in February:

“I’m Andrea the adventurer, “a.walker not a runner”, the jumper, the athlete
I’m Andrea the fit, the strong, the tough
I’m Andrea the happy, the smiling, the laughing
I’m Andrea the INVINCIBLE!!!!!”

A mother’s love

“My mom is so worried — so every cough, every groan, every itch she jumps to make sure nothing is wrong or that she can’t help… I feel so bad for that…. if my mom had her way I’d be sleeping on her lap or curled up in bed beside her. It’s sweet, but too much for me.”

Kindness

Today Mrs. Ellison, my neighbor, came over in tears. My sister told her on Saturday that I had puffler’s. Mrs. Ellison is 80 something years old and crying said “This should be happening to me, not you – you have so much more life to live.”

Taking and giving

Today I meditated on taking. Just imagine if every cough I have, every fear I feel, every discomfort or painful experience I have from this disease is taking away the pain of other living beings. Imagine the dolphins in Japan being killed less and less; the incidence of AIDS decreases in Tanzania as I experience more pain; courage rises up in those being oppressed as I go through a bout of fear that paralyzes me. I must keep thinking that, because that’s what a Buddha is able to do and that’s what I need to imagine I’m doing with every ounce of my being — it’s the only thing that will make the pain OK. Now I can feel the joy of knowing that less children are being abused, less people are getting irritated, people are becoming peaceful and truly free.

Feel that joy?

Faith

Yesterday I thought ‘Gosh, I am just really dying. Fast.’ I’m OK with dying because Geshe-la says he’ll be there – just like during festivals and he says ‘If you cannot do it, don’t worry. I’ll do it for you’. But it hurts to think that my friends and extended family won’t know how much they mean to me.

I hope you find a chance to read more.

In memoriam

Andrea was a giving and loving person who never made a big deal out of anything. Her close friend Cindi just wrote me: “There are so many words I think of to try and describe Andrea was but they all seem to fall short of truly capturing the beauty, the essence, and the love that was Andrea. I think we all understand how much of a gift we had in our friendships with her. As you are aware from her blog, Andrea found great strength in her spiritual beliefs and they provided her much comfort and solace at a time in her life when very little else could ease her pain.” Eva also just wrote: “When I was Admin Director at Saraha Center, Andrea was always happy to give generously at every opportunity. She helped sponsor people, she volunteered at animal shelters. Any chance to benefit others, she was there. She was the real deal. And she loved salsa dancing.”  Lori just wrote: “She was such a beautiful person. She had a wonderful laugh. Such an incredible blog. The world has lost a sweet soul.” Sarah said: “You blessed everyone who was in your presence with a beautiful smile and a loving, warm heart.” From Victoria, who never met her: “Her words really touched my heart.” I have a feeling this is just the beginning: Andrea’s family and friends will be hearing a lot more testimonies like this.

Please pray for the permanent happiness and freedom of Andrea, her beloved mother and family, her many good friends, and all suffering beings who were never far from Andrea’s mind even as she was preparing for her death.