A skeptic’s guide to Buddhas and blessings

By a guest writer and long-term meditator

Buddha for skeptic.jpgI live in a country where the majority of the population identify themselves as non-religious (agnostic or atheist). They are not closed minded people, rather just naturally skeptical. So, for some time now I have been pondering how to explain the existence of Buddhas and blessings to a life-long skeptic. Most importantly, how can they come to explore the truth of both for themselves, experientially.

Connecting to a peaceful reality

Through even the simplest form of meditation — breathing meditation — everyone can learn how to connect to a relatively peaceful mind. When we are experiencing a little peace we are, at that time, tasting a little of what it’s like for someone who experiences their life as peaceful, whether that’s for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or all day!

Buddha explained there is no world outside our mind — our personal world, our life, is a reflection of our mind. If our mind is peaceful, our life will be experienced as peaceful; if it’s not, it won’t. So, those peaceful moments in meditation are revealing a little of our potential to live from the perspective of a peaceful reality.

This peaceful potential is what we call in Buddhism our “Buddha nature”. Someone who has fully actualized this inner potential and accomplished a supreme and lasting peace of mind and happiness, moment to moment, is an enlightened being, a Buddha. Everyone has this potential. To know it experientially we just need to connect to a little peace.

breathing-meditationA Buddha experiences their life always as a profoundly peaceful reality. Our moment of peace in meditation (or out of meditation) is revealing our potential to one day live from that supremely peaceful reality ourselves.

In his book The New Eight Steps to Happiness, my teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:

It is also important to understand how we too can become a Buddha, for when we are confident that enlightenment is a possibility for us we will naturally feel much closer to those who have already attained enlightenment.

For me, this has many levels of meaning. One way of understanding it is that the more we learn to access and abide in the experience of a peaceful mind, the more we become ‘confident that enlightenment is a possibility for us’; and gradually we ‘feel much closer to those who have already attained enlightenment’. Not just ideologically, but in our direct experience.

The key is, Buddha explained how our normal sense of a separate self and separate mind is mistaken. In reality there is no separate mind or self. So in reality our mind is never separate from the minds of all enlightened beings, and, when we experience a little peace, to some degree we are letting go of that experience of a separate mind and self. At that moment we are connecting with the vast peace of enlightenment, Buddha’s mind. That connection to the peace of enlightenment is what we call, in Buddhism, a blessing.

Geshe Kelsang defines blessings as:

The transformation of our mind from a negative state to a positive state, from an unhappy state to a happy state, or from a state of weakness to a state of strength through the inspiration of holy beings such as our Spiritual Guide, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Blessings, when two minds connect

reach-enlightenmentA friend of mind explains it in a very simple and practical way. He says that blessings are simply when two minds connect. We probably all know a peaceful, positive and kind friend whom, when we spend time with them, we generally leave feeling better for the encounter. It seems the best of who they are draws out the best of who we are, and we often leave them feeling more peaceful, positive and kind than when we arrived. These are the people we hear ourselves saying, ‘I feel blessed to have them in my life’. Most of us can understand and accept this explanation of blessings.

Connecting with enlightenment

The challenge is when we try to understand how we receive the blessings of a Buddha. The reason for this is very simple, we can see our kind friend, we can’t see Buddhas.

However, just because we cannot see them, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. For example, have you ever seen wind? Yet, if you open your window on a windy day you will feel it and its power immediately. Although we cannot see wind, we can still harness its power to accomplish beneficial outcomes, like powering wind turbines which power electricity plants.

It’s similar with the blessings of Buddhas — we may not be able to see Buddhas (at the moment!), but we can certainly feel their presence through the peaceful power of their blessings. So the good news is that even the most skeptical of us can learn to tap into this ocean of peaceful positive energy / blessings of enlightenment, whenever we wish.

How? Simply close your eyes, focus on your breath, and connect to a peaceful mind. Then just allow yourself to imagine (and in time to know) that your little peace is connecting you to the limitless peace and goodness of enlightenment, connecting with a Buddha’s mind. Gradually this is what you will experience.

With our eyes closed, centered in that inner experience in meditation, notice how that seems quite real for you. Also, notice how when you open your eyes all your doubts naturally come back. Why?

Let your experience reveal a deeper knowing

The reason for this is that when we are focused inwards (in our inner world) we are relying upon our direct experience, and when we open our eyes (back in our outer world) we go back to relying upon our so-called 5-sitting-at-the-dock-of-the-bayrational, logical mind.

This is the downside of our over-reliance on science as the only barometer of truth. We discount our own direct experience in favor of the so-called logic and truth of science. I am not dismissing science; it has many good qualities. However, when it becomes a dogma it can limit us in our exploration of deeper truth. The only constancy in science is that it is constantly proving that what we previously dogmatically thought to be true was, in fact, wrong!

Geshe Kelsang refers to Kadam Dharma as:

Scientific methods to improve our human nature and qualities.

Meditation and Dharma is inner science, the science of conscious experience. We prove empirically that by continually centering in a peaceful heart and opening up to the idea that we are connecting to the vast peace of enlightenment, this is exactly what we prove to be true, through our own direct experience, empirically.

The key is, give yourself permission to let go of what you think you know (just for a few moments!), until your experience in meditation reveals a far deeper knowing. Discover for yourself how when we surrender our current logic to our own direct experience, we find it a far more reliable barometer of truth.

Let your peace flow to the ocean

river flowing.pngHave you ever noticed that a flowing river, no matter how small, naturally flows to the ocean. It’s always flowing to something far greater. So it is with our little peace. Whenever we are experiencing a flow of peaceful, positive energy in our heart, for example through love or any other positive state of mind, we are immediately connecting to the ocean of peace that is enlightenment, we are experiencing a blessing.

Just as the river is never separate from the ocean, so our little peace is always connected to this ocean of peace that is enlightenment. We just need to recognize this and then relax into and abide with that connection to enlightenment. In this way we allow this enlightened energy to awaken our potential for love, compassion, and wisdom, as well as pure peace and happiness.

Plug in and awaken your potential

In the eco-friendly city I live in, there is an increasing demand for Tesla electric cars. I’m not much of a car person myself, but I’m reliably informed that they are a thing of great beauty and potential. Apparently the new ones can go from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds! However, if your Tesla car is sitting on the side of the road and hasn’t been plugged into an electricity source, its extraordinary potential remains dormant and it can’t take you anywhere.

In a similar way, everyone already has an extraordinary (and indestructible) potential for enlightenment, our Buddha nature. This potential will remain dormant in us until we connect to an enlightened energy source, an enlightened being’s mind.

It’s simple really — the only way to enlightenment is through enlightenment.

Through plugging into the limitless peace and goodness of enlightenment in the form of blessings, we can awaken our potential for limitless compassion, wisdom, peace, and pure happiness.

Buddha in water.jpgPractically, it’s similar to what happens when hanging out with your peaceful, positive friend. The best in him or her draws out the best in us. Just take some time every day in the inner experience of meditation to connect to a flow of peace (or any virtuous mind), and then allow that flow to connect you to the ocean of peace and goodness that is enlightenment. Just spend time with the most peaceful, positive person there is, Buddha! And allow the very best in him or her to draw out the very best in you — to awaken your Buddha nature.

It’s easier than we think

Then we will understand what Geshe Kelsang means in the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune, when he says:

The instructions of Lamrim are easy to put into practice.

The ease comes from knowing (through experience) that we are not doing this on our own, thank goodness! Rather, we are attaining enlightenment through our creative, dynamic relationship with enlightenment.

Over to you, comments for our guest author are welcome!

Related articles

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness 

Other articles on blessings

Exploring our potential for peace and omniscience

 

Mahamudra blessing

DMV
Boring!

I just failed my drive test. I was sort of speeding without realizing it, so I guess I deserved that and don’t mind too much. (I also knew things didn’t bode too well when, unavailingly trying to woo the instructor with my suave in-control persona, the alarm went off as I opened the door … and, being as it wasn’t my car, I had no clue how to turn it off again.) More to the point, however, is why am I even having to take a drive test when I’ve already been driving for 30 years?!* But one may just as well ask, “Why do I have to take rebirth and go to school all over again? I already flipping well did that.”

I was asking myself just this while I waited the 50 unsettling minutes at the Denver DMV leading up to my failed test. Samsara is relentlessly monotonous and we keep having to do things we don’t want to do, not just once but over and over and over, ad infinitum. We keep having to take tests, even though I have only met about 3 people in my life who like them, and no one looked too exhilarated to be on their plastic chairs in the DMV. A friend of mine has to re-sit her whole psychotherapy exam just because she has moved to a new state, even though she has been a psychotherapist for hundreds of years. It’s annoying. And that is just in this one life. In samsara, we keep on having to re-learn stuff we already spent way too long learning and have no need for – I sometimes think the only thing I have retained from geography lessons, for example, is a rudimentary knowledge of ox-bow lakes, and I have yet to find a way to put that to any use.

Why do I mention this? Well, because when I think about dying and taking even a best-case scenario human rebirth, I think how much I dread having to go to school all over again. So then I think I want to get out of samsara quickly by accessing and purifying my very subtle mind, and how right now, in this precious human life, I have the opportunity to do so, lucky me. Which motivates me to practice meditation with an appreciative mind, with a good feeling of gratitude in fact.

Continuing from this article on Mahamudra.

An ocean of helpMahamudra

Whenever we practice meditation, especially meditation on Mahamudra, it makes a huge difference if we know that we are not doing this on our own. We are connecting to a lineage through our Spiritual Guide, through his or her Spiritual Guide, and so on, back through an ocean of practitioners to Buddha himself. Their minds are all on offer so we can connect to a vast reservoir of assistance. It is not us duking it out with our delusions on our own. Not at all. Receiving blessings may not come intuitively, we need to train. Why? One reason is that we are in exile in our head most of the time, and it doesn’t occur to us to go into our heart and connect.

First way to receive blessings

This is something I like to do before doing any meditation, and it works very well with Mahamudra.

We imagine we are receiving the blessings of Buddha and all holy beings in the form of blissful lights or rays of sunshine, coming from their hearts and filling our body and mind. This enlightened energy, enlightened mind, mixes with our mind like light mixing with light. We can do this after reciting some prayers, if we like, such as Prayers for Meditation or Heart Jewel, where “receiving blessings” is almost always indicated – but we can also do it anytime, anywhere. We are bathing in an ocean of delicious blessings, which are very interesting and also everywhere.

As explained more here, blessings, or “jin gyi lob” in Tibetan, means “transformation through inspiration”, and they are not that mysterious — we are affected Man walking through doorway with ocean, in desertby even ordinary  waves of mental energy so of course we can be uplifted by transcendent minds if we tune into them. This makes everything easier. We can receive blessings from any holy being we believe in, whoever works for us. Traditionally for Mahamudra meditation we rely on Je Tsongkhapa.

Why Je Tsongkhapa?

Je Tsongkhapa is the founder of our Buddhist tradition, the Kadampa tradition. He lived in the 14th century but his teachings are still flourishing because they have been carried from generation to generation in an unbroken lineage all the way, marvelously enough, to us. I believe that Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is the latest in the line of fully realized adepts in this lineage, and he has made it his life’s work to help us gain these realizations. And Mahamudra (literally, the union of great bliss and emptiness) is the specialty of this tradition. Buddha Shakyamuni gave 84,000 different teachings, and the pith essence of all of them is Mahamudra. As one scholar, Gungtang, puts it (using Je Tsongkhapa’s ordained name, Losang Dragpa):

The emptiness that is explained in Buddha’s Sutra teachings,
And the great bliss that is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings –
The union of these two is the very essence of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings.
May the doctrine of Conqueror Losang Dragpa flourish for evermore.

Now is the time

Oral InstructionsMaybe some of you have reached that place known as “over the hill” and things look very different from this perspective – if you’ve ever biked downhill, you know you speed up. So maybe, we think, maybe we better wait till next time round to attain enlightenment, we might have left it a bit late this time. But the truth is that the opportunity we have now will never get better. We can come under the care and guidance of an exceptionally qualified Mahamudra master. His new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, published in Tibetan at the request of many Tibetan practitioners and now translated for us into English and other languages, is unbelievable. Geshe Kelsang is now regarded as the authority in this world on Mahamudra. Sometimes I think we have no idea how fortunate we are. “Kelsang Gyatso” means “ocean of good fortune”, and all the ordained Sangha are given the name “Kelsang Somebody”, meaning “Fortunate Somebody”.

Second way to receive blessings

In the second way of receiving blessings, we can imagine that Buddha, or Guru Tsongkhapa, comes to our crown and his body of wisdom light shrinks to the size of a thumb, facing the same way we face. There is all that Buddha power on our crowns, enlightened beings are all within that space; and then we can imagine Buddha entering through our crown chakra and flowing slowly and blissfully into our heart. As he descends, we slide down with him into our heart. Now he is a presence in our heart, and once again we can think that our minds mix. This helps us get into our heart and also appreciate that he is doing the meditation along with us. It’s not necessary to visualize him clearly, we just think he’s there with us in our heart. We can experience bliss, and then mix that bliss with emptiness or the conventional nature of the mind. Also, we can use that bliss in any meditation, and we can invite any holy being.

Hope you have fun with it!

*The technical, if not karmic, reason is that I let my Florida driving license expire. Like letting life expire before getting some stable, ever-lasting realizations, I guess.

 

What’s the relationship between blessings and inner peace?

A guest article by a long-time Kadampa practitioner

Buddha of lightVenerable Geshe Kelsang has said that the function of Buddha is to bestow blessings continuously upon living beings and cause them to experience inner peace. Often I take these words superficially without relating them to my daily experience; but on those rare occasions when I do …

My experience of peace now, at this time, is arising from the blessings or inspiration of holy beings affecting my mind here and now!!! …

… a completely new world opens up before me.

Such a difference between words to the ear understood by the intellect, and wisdom from the Spiritual Guide experienced, even just for a moment, within daily life.

A beautiful piece of advice that Kadam Morten gave in the New York Festival was to learn to recognise the presence of blessings in our lives. Whenever we experience some degree of inner peace, we should recognise that experience as moments of blessing, to enjoy those moments with an understanding of the deep and close connection we have with enlightened beings. As he said (according to my recollection, so please forgive mistakes):

When you experience inner peace, right there is your Buddha nature, right there is Buddha and Buddha’s blessings.

Often when we experience some inner peace (and I can only speak for myself) we can easily take these moments for granted and let them pass without noticing what is actually happening. When those fleeting moments pass and the clouds of disturbing conceptions have rolled back, covering the pure inner sky of our mind, we are once more unhappy and wondering where we can go to, what can we hold on to or push ourselves away from to return to that pure space. When the mind is peaceful – and thus blessed – it is easy to feel connected to holy beings and develop our relationship with them. By contrast – again I speak for myself – when the mind has no peace it is hard to develop faith in, or even remember, our connection with Buddhas and their unobstructed power to bless and transform our mind. The instinct is to immediately search outside the mind… and so journey further into suffering.

To me this shows a lack of deep understanding of where peace and happiness really come from. We need to take Geshe Kelsang’s teaching to heart – to develop a deep understanding and belief in the non-deceptive dependent relationship between Buddhas’ blessings and our own inner experience of peace and happiness.

rainbow-heart in skyThe more I think about this dependent relationship and, more importantly, the more I learn to experience it in daily life, the more I start to realise that we are not the independent entities we normally perceive – unrelated to, and separate from, everything else in the universe. Normally it feels like our state of mind just is what it is, from its own side, existing as a discreet entity whose qualities of peace or disturbance do not come from anywhere but are simply inherent characteristics of our mind itself. However this feeling is mistaken. Just as a rainbow arises entirely from the gathering of different necessary conditions and cannot be separate from them, so our peaceful mind arises from the blessings of Buddha.

For me, learning to let go of my sense of independence and separateness goes hand in hand with learning to become more open and receptive to blessings. While on the one hand we long to feel more connected to Buddhas and be nourished by their blessings, our grasping at an independent self creates the illusion of a big gap between our self and these beings, undermining our receptivity. Our mind that we wish to change feels “in here” while Buddhas and their benevolent power seem “out there”. These two, which we yearn to experience as deeply related and connected, are held by our ignorance to be truly separate, different, unrelated. While we try to feel ever closer to our Spiritual Guide and develop powerful faith so as to receive the blessings of all the Buddhas, our inner ignorance always holds us at a distance, weakening the power of our faith. The ignorance in our heart doesn’t really believe we can change, let alone “be changed”, by the influence of a pure being so “different” and “other” to ourselves.

With faith we make sincere requests but ignorance makes it feel as if our prayers are telegraphed across a big existential gap and that blessings are received from some distant Dharmakaya or holy space.

blessings 2Through contemplating the dependent relationship of our own experience of inner peace and blessings we begin to realize that we already have a deep, profound, powerful, and intimate connection with enlightened beings. That relationship is already there – we do not need to create it. But we can learn to recognize it and increase our trust and reliance upon this relationship as a dynamic and vital source of refuge and transformation.

When I recognize (on the basic level that I am able) that all that I am and all that I experience is entirely dependent on other factors, that every moment my mind and my self are being re-created and transformed by many conditions, I let go (however slightly) of my sense of existing independently, permanent, and separate. Instead I can begin to experience my self as a dependently arising be-ing, in connection with the universe and receptive to conditions of transformation. There is no real gap between myself and Buddhas, no space between my mind and their blessings. This wisdom opens the heart more and more to the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, which in turn further awaken our Buddha nature.

Likewise there is no real gap or difference between ourselves and all other living beings. We already have, right now, a profound, powerful and intimate connection with all the countless mother beings of the universe. We do not need to create this relationship. It is already there. Just by recognizing this relationship our heart begins to open with a natural, uncontrived love and compassion, through which the blessings of Buddha can pervade and transform the entire universe.

*********

For more articles on blessings, click here.

Prostrating to the Buddha of Compassion

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is coming up on April 15, and I, along with a lot of Kadampa Buddhists in places around the world, tend to celebrate it with two days of Drop of Essential Nectar, sometimes known as Nyung Nä. This is a purification, prostration, and fasting retreat in conjunction with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

It’s the only time of the year that we seem to engage in some physical asceticism — for two days, starting at dawn, we observe the eight Mahayana precepts, which include not eating after lunch and, for those who do the full fast, not eating or drinking at all on the second day. The hunger pangs are helpful for reminding us about the gazillions of people who don’t get enough to eat or drink on any day, ever.

1000-armed Avalokiteshvara
1000-armed Avalokiteshvara

I do like Nyung Nä, with its emphasis on keeping compassion and bodhichitta in our heart all day long, and the transcendent power of Avalokiteshvara, his thousand arms reaching out to everyone without exception. Also, I find prostrations fun. I do, I’m not making that up! So I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been doing today in case you are under the impression that prostrations are just hard work. (If you haven’t read pages 116 onward in the book Great Treasury of Merit, by the way, there is a beautiful explanation of prostrations in there.)

Compassion and the lower realms

Whenever I am developing compassion and/or doing prostrations, I get myself out of the way first by remembering that the self I cherish doesn’t even exist. I am not my body, and I am not my mind — but take these away and I disappear (thankfully). That means I am free to lay down my boring burden of self-fixation and move into the vast expanse of everyone else.

Today during precepts I was meditating on the lower realms. I personally cannot tolerate even the slightest headache without popping two Advil, and am currently preoccupied with trying to navigate the bureaucracy of Obamacare before the looming deadline of April 15th as I fear any manner of human illnesses and accidents might empty out my bank account if I do not. However, human sufferings like these are a walk in the park compared with the unbearable sufferings of people in the hell realms. I read in some Lojong (mind-training) text recently that being stabbed 30 times in the hand with a spear does not even compare with a minute of suffering experienced by those in the black-line hell.

I know I don’t spend enough time thinking about people who have ended up in the hell realms, which is a shame because, when I do, it instantly gets everything into perspective. All rebirths are impermanent, and the realms of hell are nightmarish appearances to mind that have no more existence from their own side than this current life. But, and it is a big but, once someone lands up in hell, it takes an unfathomably long time to get out. The countless karmic appearances from lifetimes of negative actions don’t disappear overnight, and there is no refuge or chance to purify them; so it is like an interminable nightmare from which we cannot wake up.Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha

Meantime, people in the hungry ghost realm are perpetually hungry, thirsty, sad, and exhausted. Moreover, we know close up and personal what a bad time animals have from the struggles and powerlessness of the thousands we can see around us, and there are tragically far more animals in their own realm.

What “prostration” means

The Tibetan word for prostrations is “chag tsel” – ‘chag’ means sweeping away delusions, negative karma, and obstructions, and ‘tsel” means requesting all good qualities. I don’t think prostrations work if we are holding ourselves as unworthy or at a distance from enlightened beings – they work best when our faith recognizes our own Buddha nature clear light, and connects to the holy beings’ clear light Dharmakaya, knowing we will become just like them.

The sky is the limit

When prostrating, we don’t need to be small-minded, thinking that it is just me in one meaty body making one feeble little distracted prostration onto the carpet (oooh, look at that dust! … at least I’m getting some exercise …) in front of some image of Buddha. No, there is a great deal more going on than that! The sky is the limit! The higher sky of the Dharmakaya, that is.

First thing we are encouraged to do, along with our mind of faith and respect, is to think that from every pore of our body we manifest another body, which in turn manifests countless more, until the whole universe is filled with our bodies all making prostrations. Already some mind-expansion is going on and you’re going to have more fun. It is inspiring to think that you are already in a very pure space, as you are in the company of all enlightened beings, and you are prostrating to all of them.

Avalokiteshvara by Graham Dyer
Buddha Avalokiteshvara painted by Graham Dyer

I like to think that I am also in the company of everyone in all six realms, and that they are all prostrating along with me – and it can be helpful to start by focusing on specific people in my life who are currently experiencing suffering, believing they are next to me prostrating. For example, today I thought a lot about an old university friend and Buddhist artist Graham Dyer, who was just saying, “Those treacle tarts look nice” to his best friend in Grange bakery last Thursday when he dropped to the floor and died. (Please pray for him and his wife and two sons).

I also thought about the kittens I am fostering, who are going to have to go back into the smelly crowded shelter, which they will not like at all, to wait for a home. They are trapped in their bodies and environments — they cannot even open the door — and are always at the mercy of humans being nice to them. So I imagine them prostrating along with me, in human form or even in the aspect of a Buddha, purifying all their negativity and accumulating vast good karma and blessings, also emanating bodies from every pore of their bodies for maximum effect.

These human beings and animals are in turn are surrounded by all the other human beings and animals in the universe, also prostrating. And so on. This takes the same amount of time as making one corporeal prostration on the carpet, but the outcome in terms of good karma and purification is altogether more extraordinary.

Prostrating all the way home

I find it blissful to feel as though I am prostrating directly into my Spiritual Guide’s actual heart, which is his clear light Truth Body or Dharmakaya. This feels like going home, finally going home – a profound relief. Everything is completely purified and transformed, and when I arise from the prostration I can do so as an emanation of my Spiritual Guide, inseparable from the Dharmakaya, to help others. I also imagine that everyone is doing the same as they prostrate with me, gathering into the clear light and arising completely purified and blissful.Buddha and lake

The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye said (and I’m sure it could apply to O People of Denver, Ulverston, Cape Town, etc too):

O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go. To repay his kindness, offer your faith. ~ Great Treasury of Merit p. 116

Geshe Kelsang comments on this:

If we wish for a human rebirth our Spiritual Guide will lead us there, if we wish for liberation he will lead us there, if we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land he will lead us there, and if we wish to attain enlightenment he will lead us there.

To my mind, this means my Spiritual Guide is here to take me home, where I belong, as I don’t feel I really belong in samsara, and nor does anyone else. And with this faith, I can prostrate my way home.Mount Kailash

I have always been inspired for some reason by people who prostrate all the way up Mount Kailash and/or around Lake Manasarova, believing these mountains and lakes to be completely pure, part of the mandala, the home of enlightened beings. I’m quite sure that if I actually had to do it, my enthusiasm would wane, as it is not exactly carpeted and there are no hotels en route; but, still, I like the idea, and can emulate it in the comfort of my room. It is a pilgrimage — prostrating all the way to your actual home, the heart of the Buddhas, the heart of the mandala.

Here is an article for Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! May you all swiftly realize your full potential and become enlightened too.

 

 

Being Buddha Tara

Who is supposed to be looking after all these animals?

stargazerMost of the animals we can see are in our human realm, of course, because that is where we are. But there are countless more. According to Buddha’s explanation of the six realms of samsara, the vast majority of animals are packed together in the animal realm. In Washington DC a few weeks ago, at the Smithsonian museum, I watched a short documentary showing the outlandish creatures not long ago discovered right at the bottom of the ocean, under the seabed, all stacked one upon the other, much like the scriptural description of the animal realm.

And we don’t have to look far to see that most animals inhabit a terrifying and hostile world. In the summer of 2009 I went to the aquarium in Plymouth with my good friend Kelsang L, and I wrote at the time: “I need to remember these images. A large flat fish with a distinct face is flailing out of the water at L, perhaps some part of him recognizing her robes, who knows, and working his mouth as if to cry “Help me!” Tiny sea horses, the size of a fingernail, have no future to write home about. Sharp-teethed sharks move incessantly around a large tank above our heads, avoided for dear life by the terrified fish forced to share their space. L and I didn’t realize we had come across the tank for fighting crabs until we spotted their body limbs strewn all over the ground, all the remaining crabs lying on top of each other in exhaustion. Limpets and other crustaceans are stuck fast to the rocks, with such settled ignorance of their surroundings that they could be the very epitome of self-cherishing. Enormous salamanders and eels are confined in cruelly tiny spaces. Unsuspecting prawns are dumped in the tanks with the anemones, to serve as their supper.

Dumbo octopusThe “HOMES” display is a poignant reminder of how every creature in the sea desperately wants one – they try to make their homes on rocks, under rocks, under the sand, even in the waves of the water itself. In samsara, we all have attachment to places, enjoyments, and bodies — but real estate in the Ocean is hard to come by, and most people down here are not able to keep their home even when they do manage to find one.

“Who is looking after these living beings?”, I find myself asking, as thousands of mouths open and shut in a Munchian scream for help. “How am I going to get you out of this lower realm?”

Buddha Tara, you are needed

Tara is the embodiment of swift compassionate action, so it seems to me that to become more like her we need to ripen our potential for this by taking on others’ suffering both in and out of meditation. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook:

We should alleviate others’ suffering whenever we can and happily accept our own suffering as a method to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way … the power of our compassionate activities will strengthen.

Tara 5

Taking away everyone’s suffering is Tara’s very nature. As a Buddha, she has already exchanged self with others, imputed her I on all living beings, including the prawns; so living beings’ suffering IS her suffering and she has already happily accepted it, purified it, and transformed it into bliss. We can do that too, generate ourselves as a Buddha, purify everyone through imagination that becomes reality. Everything starts and ends in the imagination. We need to be part of that creative solution if samsara is ever to stop.

During meditation, we mentally take on the suffering of others upon ourself, using imagination. Having gained deep experience of this meditation, we shall then be able happily to accept our own suffering in order to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way, we are physically taking the suffering of others upon ourself. ~ The New Meditation Handbook

Tara’s legs remind me that it is pointless rushing around like a headless chicken – one of her legs is out, showing her readiness to leap up to help, but the other is drawn in, showing that she can help others precisely and only because  she is an ever-present manifestation of bliss and emptiness. In fact, she only ever need take one step.

Please give me that!

To be like Tara, we can learn to take on others’ burdens, first mentally, then physically — “Hey, let me carry that for you!” “Give me your suffering!” Walking one day up one of those notoriously steep hills in San Francisco, and seeing an old hunched woman trying to ascend an even steeper set of stairs to her front door carrying two huge shopping bags, I ran up and carried them the rest of the way for her. However, although it worked that time and she seemed relieved, a friend’s similar but different story reminded me that we need to be happy to help others in the way that they want, without imposing our ideas of what that may be. In his case, seeing a homeless man pushing a trolley with three wheels that got stuck on the tarmac he also ran up, only to be greeted with outrage: “I don’t know you! I don’t want your help!” It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.Tara picture

Suffering sticks to a real me – ageing, sickness, death, and so on – and it is hard to stop obsessing on that for long enough to focus on others. To develop a depth of compassion, we need to realize that the self we normally see and cherish does not even exist, so we can get it out of the way.

And as we can impute whatever we want — choose how we discriminate the world as Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind — we can impute that others are our mothers, that they are kind, that they are more important than me, that they ARE me. We can make that work, as Buddha Tara does.

Once we share her realizations, we will also be completely free from any mistaken appearances or hallucinations (and hallucinations don’t get much weirder than those to be found at the bottom of the ocean or in the Plymouth Aquarium). We will be able to bestow blessings/peace on each and every living being every day, including every forgotten sea creature in existence. They need this. We all need it.

Happy Tara Day!

Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

enlightenment pie in the skyI was remembering the other day what happened when I first encountered Buddhism. A new friend at college happened to mention that there was a talk on that evening by a Tibetan Lama in York – he was not Geshe Kelsang, who became my teacher, but a visitor who was being hosted by the Buddhist Centre. I took another nice, new friend, M., along with me, not having a clue what to expect (this was 1981 in the North of England when meditation was an alien concept to most people.)

To be honest, I hardly understood a word this Geshe said. But during the course of the evening, I couldn’t help thinking: “Whatever it is you have, I want it.”

He said a couple of things I sort of got, the words at least. The first was a comment about how we have radiators in the West, followed by his falling about laughing – something he seemed to be doing most of the evening. I suppose for someone who grew up in Tibet, radiators and other Western technology must have seemed quite amusing. (This was in the days before SmartPhones, which he would doubtless have found hysterical.) M. told me later that I was laughing uproariously and a little crazily at everything, which seems strange given that I didn’t know what this happy Tibetan was saying; but clearly this stuff was infectious.

The other comment I remember from that evening was:

 “We are all on the airplane to enlightenment!”

(Followed by even more laughter.)

path to enlightenmentWe’re what??! I thought. What is he talking about?! I knew I still liked it, I probably laughed along, but I wasn’t sure what it was I liked. And, when I stopped to think about it, enlightenment or Buddhahood sounded rather pie in the sky. As far as I was concerned, I’d be lucky to just get through the day without getting annoyed with someone. If Buddhist meditation could do that for me, I’d give it a shot.

And so M. and I did, the following week at the regular introductory meditation class at our nearest Buddhist centre. That was almost 32 years ago. The rest is history.

Although I well remember how pie in the sky enlightenment felt back then, since then I’ve decided that it really is not that much of a culturally alien concept, let alone an impossibly idealistic goal. Indeed, it is within the reach of every one of us; we just have to get going, starting with wanting it.

The other day I asked some friends if they wanted to improve. They said yes. Then I asked them what would happen if they did improve a bit and became a bit kinder and wiser, for example – would that be enough, or would they still want to improve? They said they would.

Interesting, I said. No wonder Buddha says we all have Buddha nature or Buddha seed, which is our natural potential for improvement; we clearly feel it on some level. We have this potential because our mind is not inherently existent, or fixed, which means it can change. If you really want to improve, then your Buddha seed has already sprouted into the beginning of a Bodhisattva’s mentality because a Bodhisattva is someone who has taken that wish to its logical conclusion and wants to keep improving until there is no further room for improvement.

Then I asked them if they would like to be able to help more people than they are helping at the moment. They said yes. So I asked them what would happen if they were able to help, say, 3 more people than they are helping now due to being kinder and wiser (see above), would that then be the end of it? No, they replied, they’d want to help even more people.

And there you have it, I said. You’re already just like a baby Bodhisattva, who has taken this wish to its logical conclusion and wishes to help all living beings without leaving anyone out. That wish is part of our compassion, also our Buddha nature. We are naturally kind because when our delusions are not functioning we default to being peaceful and free from self-centeredness, connected to others.

bodhichitta airplane to enlightenmentA Bodhisattva is someone who wishes to help all living beings without exception by attaining enlightenment aka becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is someone, anyone, who has perfected all their good qualities and got rid of all their faults, viz, improved until there is no further room for improvement.

What is so pie in the sky about that? We just have to train in our natural wishes and let our mind expand. We are all on the airplane to enlightenment; we just have to get it off the ground.

Relaxing in your heart

This is the third and last part of Is Heaven real?

Celebrating Je Tsongkhapa Day Je Tsongkhapa and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

First of all, Happy Je Tsongkhapa Day! Today, October 25th, Kadampa Buddhist centers worldwide celebrate this great Buddhist master and Yogi, and what he has done for us. Geshe Kelsang’s Kadampa Buddhist books are commentaries to Je Tsongkhapa’s texts, and I find the two authors share an uncanny economy and lucidity of words, combined with profundity and transcendence. So I can’t resist pointing out some of Geshe Kelsang’s books in this article to celebrate, sort of like an extended ad!, and maybe you’ll get to sit down with one of them this cool October evening.

How to switch off

Our bodies come and go, but our mind is a beginningless and endless continuum of awareness. We can learn to switch off different thoughts, including anger, attachment, selfishness, and ignorance; but it will never be possible to switch off this continuum. From waking to sleep, and from life to life, it continuously cycles — from gross, to subtle, to very subtle, back to subtle, back to gross. I sometimes think of it as a bit like H2O cycling from ice, to water, to water vapor, and back again.

Introduction to Buddhism
All this explained here.

When I die, my very subtle mind (associated with my very subtle wind that is currently located in my heart chakra) is all that will go with me to my next life. Buddha taught that it is the very subtle mind, or “root mind”, that I’ve had in all my lives which will transform into omniscient wisdom, not my grosser levels of consciousness that come and go like clouds in the sky.

water as example of mental continuum A problem most of us have at the moment is that we cannot use our subtler levels of mind whenever we feel like it … Even though you dream most nights, can you even remember, let alone use, your own subtle dreaming awareness for example? Our very subtle mind only awakens when our grosser minds have disappeared, in deep sleep or death when, unless we are deeply trained in meditation, we can’t use our mindfulness or memory at all.

Even the scientific equipment in the lab seemed to pick up that Dr. Eben Alexander’s sense consciousness and other grosser levels of consciousness were not functioning during the shut-down of his brain (brought on by a potentially life-threatening encounter with meningitis.) Advanced meditators can cause their gross minds to dissolve away without having to wait for sleep or death or comas or NDEs. One way they train in this is through imagining going through the death process and transforming the very subtle mind or so-called “clear light” of death into the clear light of bliss. Then later they are able to manipulate their subtle inner winds and minds to replicate the death process but without actually dying, experiencing an authentic clear light. We can also get to the clear light through the six-stage Mahamudra meditation, which we can fortunately study in Mahamudra Tantra.

The significant problems we face…

Through learning these tried and tested meditation practices, we can access our deepest level of consciousness at our heart chakra, which is unrelated to our brain, and use it to meditate; and, once we have this ability, we have a blissful non-dual mind and can experience blissful Pure Lands at will. This clear light mind itself does not support dualistic conceptions, and it is also mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena, emptiness of inherent existence, like water mixed with water; so self-grasping and mistaken appearances no longer have any leg to stand on. This “inner science” is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings and the works of many advanced meditators, including Volume 2 of Modern Buddhism, available for free right now if you want to read it.

So, we cannot destroy our self-grasping, selfishness, and ordinary minds completely with our ordinary, dualistic levels of consciousness — we need to meditate on emptiness with the clear light mind of bliss. This reminds me of Einstein’s dictum:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Good examples

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso meditatingI think my own teacher spends a lot of his life in the clear light. If you’ve ever seen him meditate, which he can do for many hours and days at a stretch, you’ll see an extraordinary stillness and absorption. It was the same apparently with his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, and his teacher’s teacher, Je Phabongkhapa.  Geshe Kelsang also spent 18 years in meditative retreat in the Himalayas and 3 years of retreat in Tharpaland, when it was in Scotland.

A good friend of mine once travelled with Geshe Kelsang to the US to set up his first Center. As they were taking off, he smiled: “We are going to Vajrayogini’s Pure Land!” He then closed his eyes and meditated for the entire 8-hour flight, opening them just once to take a single fork’s worth of food.

You can tell upon reading Geshe Kelsang’s books, including his Tantric teachings, that he has first-hand experience, that he is describing what he sees directly. I think this is why his words have the power to inspire results in the reader or listener.  

Lamrim, the stages of the path

In the last article, I talked about Dr. Alexander’s description of non-duality. And I find that the 21 Buddhist Lamrim meditations seem to draw us closer one way or another to non-duality, to a lessening gulf between subject and object. If you’ve been doing this incredibly helpful cycle of Kadampa Buddhist meditations for a while, as this Kadampa has, (recording his experiences in Daily Lamrim), you may have your own conclusions about this, in which case please share them below.

The New Meditation Handbook
The cycle of 21 Lamrim meditations

For me, with the meditations on the initial scope, starting with precious human life and death, I see how this current situation I’m in is dependent on many causes and conditions, and once any of these is removed and I die all the appearances of this life will dissolve away like last night’s dream. With some mental space from worldly concerns, I stick my head above the parapets and get a vast view of reality, of the different possible appearances to mind of all my future lives. Like new dreams unfolding – the realms where I may be reborn are not outside the mind, they cannot be found in any geographical location. The main object of refuge or protection from future suffering is then emptiness itself, the only non-deceptive object, as taught to me by Buddha and practiced by my fellow Sangha. Also, by observing the law of karma I am focusing on inner cause and effect, the other side of the coin from emptiness, seeing how all my thoughts, actions, and experiences are interconnected, and so taking responsibility for them.

With the meditations on the intermediate scope, the main thing I develop renunciation for is self-grasping ignorance, grasping at inherent existence, as well as attachment to happiness existing outside the mind. With the wish to be completely free, I try to practice the three higher trainings of moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom to cut this root of suffering away. When I have finally stopped grasping at things existing independently of the mind — “that’s got nothing to do with me!” — I will be master of my own reality. I’ll be completely free. Nirvana.

With all the meditations on the great scope or Mahayana, I become closer and closer to other living beings (including animals) by contemplating our interdependence and so on, identifying with them, feeling they are also “me”, closing the chasm ‘twixt self and other. Then with tranquil abiding concentration and the wisdom of superior seeing, I focus on emptiness itself until one very happy day I will have removed all dualistic appearances from my mind permanently and can help everyone all the time.

To do all this, I mix my own mind with the blessings or enlightened mind of my Spiritual Guide, Buddha, which is already free from dualistic appearances and permanently blissful.

Messengers 

When someone has fully purified their mind and perfected all good qualities, they have attained enlightenment. Even enlightened beings are projections of our mind, but they exist. In his experience, Dr. A had some experiences of being guided – I wasn’t there, so I have no idea who his “angels” were, but I am happy to accept that they were significant to him and that they existed. I really enjoyed a couple of his descriptions, his description of the heavenly sounds are redolent to me of mantra, or the nectar of enlightened beings’ speech:

“The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet.”

Dakini in Kadampa Buddhist Temple for World Peace in England
Detail from the Kadampa Buddhist Temple for World Peace in England

I was also moved by his description of the person who guided him – she reminded me of a Dakini, or “Space Goer”, a female Tantric Buddha or a woman who has attained the realization of meaning clear light. Dakinis are also sometimes called “messengers”. I don’t know who his guide was, but I liked to be reminded of mine.

What now?

Dr. Eben Alexander has written his book to inspire others because:

“The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already.”

Hopefully, Kadampa Buddhism will be able to help break the mold as it already has plenty to say on the subject.

Susan Grober said on Facebook in response to Dr. wish to educate others:

“He has a hard task, especially given the new stats on fewer people in US identifying with a particular religion. I hope his experience lets people living too much in their heads, and not enough in their hearts, entertain, even for a minute, that “this” isn’t it. Hopefully the degree and Harvard credentials will help this “good cause”!”

Facebook and meditationThe same Newsweek magazine also carried an article on the insidious influence that Facebook could have on children under 13 if FB allows them to join, with general alarm at what the supersonic rate of sensory stimulation and instant distraction available 24/7 might be doing to all of us, including reducing our empathy (feeling of connection?) Certainly, I think we can tell that it is keeping us in our heads, and Dr. A’s article, to me, in notable contrast, was giving another example of what is available if we allow ourselves to connect with our spiritual hearts.

Part 1 of this article: “Is heaven real?”
Part  2 of this article: “Moving from the head to the heart

That’s it from me on the subject. Over to you!