Who wants an existential wake-up call?!

8 min read 

past-life-signsLast night I dreamt that my spiritual teacher showed me all my lifetimes so far. These were not at all vivid, but I got a sense of the non-stop and varied installments in this interminable story of my samsara; and this was powerful. I cannot get it out of my mind – and nor do I want to.

It made me realize that if I don’t get my spiritual act together in this short life I am set to experience infinitely more chapters in this cycle of existence. Why am I at all interested, still, in buying into all these dramas, especially now that I have tasted the alternative of wisdom?

Then I woke to a foster kitten jumping onto my bed, and the recognition that this purring creature now kneading me with his paws was in yet another installment of his own beginningless story as well. This time, a cat book, filled with cat chapters. And right now our story is overlapping for a few paragraphs, but we will soon be moving on. Forced to move on. And I felt very sad for him because he has no way of understanding what all this means or what is in store for him, much less any way of escaping. And his confusion and suffering have already been going on for far too long.

Loved and lost

And then I thought of some of the humans I have loved and lost in this life alone, and realized that our endless stories had also intersected for just a few pages. At the time, it seemed that those relationships were deeply significant, and maybe in some ways they were. But they were never permanent – just a few shared paragraphs in the never-ending tomes of samsara.

Talk about getting things into perspective …! I am sorry to sound existentially terrifying, but a more realistic perspective brings us some measure of peace, and this has.

23622102_10155844260527442_2370081359763870875_nNo difference between those loved & lost humans and this kitten, really – at least, the only difference being a very small matter of time. As the equanimity meditation shows, I have been as close to this kitten in the past as I ever was to them. And it is this kitten, not them, who is currently appearing directly to my senses in this latest story line, and who is the one I can show love to directly.

Fleeting narratives

So each lifetime is like a new book, and within each book, whether short or long, are the transient chapters of that life. Within the chapters are paragraphs, including sentences and words. These make up the narrative of our lives, and the narrative we have largely been telling ourselves all these eons. For there is nothing behind these tales, or even these characters, when we look. Everything is mere name.

The common denominator holding this narrative together life after life is grasping at ME. Even though that me is changing all the time, even day by day, we believe it it real, that it is there, not just a projection of our thoughts. And then our self-cherishing, attachment, aversion, and other delusions emanate from that grasping in life after life, like a spider weaving her web. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

 We need to understand that the inherently existent I that we grasp at so firmly and continuously does not exist at all. It never has existed and never will. It is merely the fabrication of our self-grasping ignorance. ~ page 51.

Moreover, our stories with each other may have interwoven in extraordinary or mundane ways, but they have all been, thus far, entirely ephemeral. And pretty much entirely out of our control.

We don’t own others. We cannot begin to own them. We don’t even own ourselves.

Swept along

201306-orig-past-life-949x534Most of the time – maybe the whole of beginningless time — we have been swept along by each unfolding drama and its bardo interludes, believing in it as if was the be-all and end-all, as if there was something solid behind those mental projections. We have clung on for dear life to every appearance – trying to solve our problems and get happy through the use of ignorance, attachment, and aversion all trying to manipulate the objects outside our mind. We have not yet realized that all subject minds and object things co-arise and subside simultaneously, like waves from an infinitely deeper source, the ocean of our own root mind that goes from life to life.

You may have noticed — we cannot solve an attachment problem with the attachment that is in fact creating the problem in the first place. Same for aversion. We can’t force the objects of our attachment or aversion to behave better while at the same time allowing our attachment and aversion to stay put. We can’t solve any actual problems or unpleasant feelings outside of changing our thoughts. But we sure do try.

If we cannot gain control over our mind through wisdom, we will have no choice but to believe in and be carried along by its projections or mistaken appearances. As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a graphic depiction of our real predicament:

Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path  

The imperative to get enlightened

beyond-1157000_960_720How can we help others, really help them, if we are as helplessly carried along as they are, and incapable of staying with any of them for very long, much less forever? Even the people we love the dearest in this life, who have always been there for us, such as our parents – we cannot even hold onto them. My mom turns 80 in two short days, on December 24th. I have known her for over half a century, I think about her every single day, I feel like I have never not known her, but …

This all adds up to … we have to become enlightened. We need to be the clear light of omniscience itself, the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, and to allow all new books, chapters, paragraphs, and even commas to appear within that completely purified, transformed, and blissful mind.

Otherwise everything that appears to us (other than to our very subtle mind) is going to remain as the mistaken and often painful projection of self-grasping. We will keep trying to believe in it as the truth, but like any hallucination or mirage it will thus forever and always keep letting us down.

Buddha_sunBuddha is the “supreme unchanging friend”. Enlightened beings are brighter than the sun, constantly shining in our lives, in all our lives. They are more stable than the great earth. They are omniscient wisdom mixed with universal compassion that pervades all beings. They have pulled this off as they have directly realized the non-duality of subject and object. We are mere aspects of their completely purified mind already, even if we don’t realize it.

Through following Buddha’s teachings, eventually we too will attain the non-conceptual mind of great bliss. With this we have direct experience that there is only one truth – ultimate truth emptiness – and that all conventional truths, ie, all story lines without exception, are mere appearances not other than ultimate truth.

Start here

If we want to help other people a lot, we can’t keep losing them. We can’t settle with just throwing them temporary lifelines as they drift in and out of our range. And how can any lifeline be enough if we are floundering in the waves ourselves?

We need to have everyone in our story all the time — not outside our mind, nor we outside theirs — sharing our mandala now and for always.

Leonard CohenI know that this may sound a very long way off, but we can start straightaway. There is nothing to lose, and every step we take will make our existential situation better.

What is the first step? Trusting in our own inner peace. We can start with just one simple breath carrying us into our heart.

What’s step two? High-quality encounters day by day. Learning to love people unconditionally in the moment. If we hold and remember people with love, they will not feel wrenched from our mind even when appearances change. We need not feel separate from them. We are always losing people through attachment, let alone aversion, so we must learn to dissolve these deluded conceptual thoughts and their objects away. As William Blake said along these lines:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

We can practice day by day to increase our love and compassion within the understanding of impermanence and space-like emptiness, until, as a Buddha, we can hold everyone all the time.

This way we will become supreme unchanging friends for the people we already adore, and for everyone else we have forgotten we adored in the past.

This may not be the Christmassy article you were hoping for, sorry; but it’s what I’ve been thinking about since I woke up 😁 Blame my mother — I wouldn’t be typing this fast if she hadn’t forced me to do a typing course back in the day. Or if she hadn’t given me my fingers.

That said, please join me in wishing her the most pure and peaceful of birthdays and years ahead!

Related articles
  1. Articles on past and future lives 
  2. Everything is appearance of mind 
  3. Are we hallucinating all this? 
  4. We cannot find anything behind appearances 
  5. Everything we need is inside us 

 

 

Time to rebel!

There seems to be a fair bit of hubris around lately, like it’s catching or something, and some of it is quite dangerous. Deluded pride is more about bending the world to our own will, thinking we are already great and/or know it all. It never works out in the long term — as they say, pride always comes before a fall. And pride is not inspiring.manjushri

With wisdom, on the other hand, we see that WE need to change if we are to find lasting happiness and help others do the same. We need the confidence to change, and this needs to be based on something valid, ie, our spiritual potential and actual good qualities, not dumb stuff or selfish stuff or negative stuff.

Actual self-confidence — or non-deluded pride — is a humble mind, the very opposite of hubris. It is able to accept challenges without freaking out, learn from others, grow from mistakes, and keep us moving and improving. It is also catching because when we meet a truly humble, selfless person we are humbled by their guru-and-lineage-gurus-black-and-whitehumble nature. Their influence can be huge and their inspiration ring down the ages.

Even one strong delusion can be a powerful force for negativity in our world – delusions are weird and scary, and they can spread fast. But a strong, virtuous, sane mind like self-confident humility or compassion is just as powerful and contagious, maybe more so, and can oppose the delusions directly. So being the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi put it, is an effective response to our own and others’ delusions; and, unlike trying to master other people, mastering our own mind is guaranteed to bring about good results now and later.

Carrying on from this article.

Pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions

The second area in which we can increase our self-confidence is called “the pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions.” This is the thought:

I can conquer all my delusions; they will never conquer me. ~ How to Understand the Mind

We are thinking, “I don’t want to stay the same – I want to become unstuck by freeing my mind from the chains of my delusions.” In ordinary psychology, perhaps, we hardly dare imagine that we can change that much – getting rid of all our faults and limitations, as opposed to just some of them. But in Buddhist psychology, as explained a bit here, it is possible to develop a vision that understands we can.

It is impossible to destroy our spiritual potential because this is based on reality, but it is perfectly possible to destroy our delusions because these are based on wrong conceptions that can be righted:

A person under the influence of delusions is not in his right mind, because he is creating terrible suffering for himself and no one in his right mind would create suffering for himself. All delusions are based on a mistaken way of seeing things. When we see things as they really are, our delusions naturally disappear and virtuous minds naturally manifest. ~ How to Transform Your Life 

Bodhisattva warriors

warriorsTry thinking this: “I’m going to destroy, vanquish, and utterly eliminate from my mind every last trace of delusion.” Just try it out. Try the feel of it in your heart-mind. I am going to destroy my delusions. This is how Shantideva says it in his epic Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

 I will conquer all obstacles,
And none shall conquer me.

That is a big sense of self, right?! But it’s not the big, real, important self as in deluded pride (the self that doesn’t exist).

Thus I, who will become a Conqueror,
Will practice with self-confidence.

A real Conqueror is a Buddha, someone who has awakened from the sleep of mistaken conceptions and appearances, destroying all their delusions permanently.

We need this self-confidence so that when things go wrong, (as they do tend to do), we need never become panic-stricken or downcast.

You know that feeling – if our confidence is weak, then just some little thing crops up, like an annoying email, and we trip up and collapse. It’s like we’re setting out to practice patience and suddenly people are being doubly disagreeable. “Ohh, I can’t do it!” In truth, the opposite is the case. “I, who am going to become a Buddha, will destroy all my delusions.”

Shantideva illustrates how we can put ourselves into that space with the example of a warrior – saying that if a warrior in battle gets a flesh wound and sees their own blood, they are roused to greater acts of courage. Whereas if someone bloodies me with a sword … well, I don’t know what I’d do, but if my brief days of playing school sports are anything to go by, I’d probably slink off the battle field as soon as as I could without being noticed.manjushri-wisdom-sword

The Bodhisattva is like a warrior – they start experiencing obstacles, and they are like, “Great! Bring it on!” More reason to wield the sword of wisdom against the delusions, more reason to be self-confident. 

And in truth, why shouldn’t we be self-confident? We know where the obstacles are coming from = just our own mind. The intriguing thing about the obstacles, the delusions, is that that’s all they are – they’re just delusions. Meaning not only are they just thoughts, without arms or legs as Shantideva says (let alone swords), but they also don’t have truth on their side. They’re actually grounded in ignorance. They are founded on a misperception of reality. Whereas we can become a Buddha, that’s the truth. We can overcome our delusions, that’s the truth. Wisdom, love, compassion, generosity, patience, self-confidence and all the other virtuous minds are based on seeing reality correctly.

The real battle lines are drawn 

It’s not a fight between good versus evil where we are on the sidelines, on tenterhooks, “Who’s going to win the ultimate battle, the dark side, the light side?!” It’s not like that — especially if we are talking about living beings versus living beings because we are all mixed bags of delusions and virtues changing all the time, and from one life to the next, so who could ever possibly win a battle like that?!

The real battle lines are wisdom versus ignorance, and finally, in that war, ignorance doesn’t stand a chance. This is because it is ignorant! It is stupid. It is also stubborn and fairly persuasive while we remain under its influence, but as soon as we start to view it from the perspective of wisdom it doesn’t stand a chance.

curved-knife
By holding in her right hand a curved knife, Buddha Vajrayogini — the wisdom of all Buddhas  — shows her power to cut the continuum of the delusions and obstacles of her followers and of all living beings.

More on this second type of self-confidence in the next article — we are out of time as I know a lot of readers have things to do like march the streets today. That’s cool, I like that people are standing up for what they believe in. Maybe it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, that our outward action is nurtured and given its meaning by our inner motivations. So even in these, for many people, difficult and scary times, and in the heat of battle, I am trying to remember that my real rebellion is against the delusions or wrong conceptions – never other living beings — and starting with my own.

Feedback from you: How do you stay confident enough to prioritize conquering your delusions, even when things are going badly wrong and the tendency to feel upset and lash out might be strong?

Next type of self-confidence can be found here.

Related articles

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What are delusions?

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Living fearlessly

You know the thing I like most about Buddha Tara? That she is fearless. That she never gives up. That she never backs down. That she will never give up on anyone until the very last living being is rescued from the prison of samsara.

Someone wrote this earlier today on Facebook, and I reckon some of you can relate to it:toddler-in-aleppo

I’m mourning for the people of Aleppo, as well as ALL victims of war and genocide. I feel paralyzed, unable to help. Even in the midst of financial uncertainty, my life is so very comfortable and blessed in comparison with theirs, and I wish I could give them some of my good circumstances. I’d happily do with less to allow them to have safety and shelter and food. But I don’t know how to help when I have no financial resources to share.

Yes, I offer prayers and dedications, and I try to spread awareness; but I want to be able to do something more concrete and immediate. I do use their suffering as a motivation to become enlightened in order to save them and all other living beings from suffering, but some days that seems like such a distant and ethereal goal.

I want to be able to swoop in like a superhero right now and save the people from their hell on earth, but I cannot. It breaks my heart.

Fearlessness

Buddha Tara is a superhero.tara

She does not get discouraged or overwhelmed. And this is a quality we need if we are to be able to grow our compassion until it reaches all living beings. Because there are a lot of people experiencing a lot of suffering, and this can be terrifying and hard to cope with when we open our eyes to look at it. Without fearlessness, we will shut our eyes again; I think this is only a matter of time.

Earthlings

Human suffering is bad enough. But I have now watched Earthlings, having put it off for a long time, which shows the monstrous (I don’t have the words) suffering inflicted by humans — us — on millions and millions of bewildered fellow beings every single day. Within a few miles of where you are sitting — wherever that is — no doubt there are animals who, although they want to be loved just as much as our dog or cat, or at least left alone, are being stabbed and tortured and murdered instead.

Earthlings was almost impossible to watch; I knew it would be. But it also got a lot of things into perspective and brought out a compassionate, if somewhat desperate, wish to do whatever I could to bring an end to the suffering. However, I need a powerful ally. There is no way I can do this on my own, of course; I don’t even know where to begin, hence the desperation. So I was thinking a lot about Guru Tara — how she would never flinch in going to the aid of all the animals and human beings involved. And how I want and need that kind of ally and that kind of courage. Or I am never going to follow through, I am just going to switch channels.

earthlingsReader discretion is advised

I don’t know if you ever intend to watch Earthlings, but I hope you don’t mind if I mention here some of the reactions I had to it. As the movie says at the outset, “viewer discretion is advised.” Which, before the first harrowing images even appeared, made me realize the privilege, the luxury, of being a mere spectator, able to turn off this unpleasantness whenever I felt like it – unlike those who were actually experiencing it.

I think we need context for watching something like Earthlings or it will just make us angry and depressed, or cause us to stick our head even further into the sand. Same with Aleppo. Same with all the intense tragedies and catastrophes all around the world all the time.

Might doesn’t mean right

The film makers are making the case for us not harming animals with our own actions directly or indirectly – in all five categories where animals are misused, namely (unwanted) pets, food, clothes, entertainment, experimentation.

Just because our species happens to be more powerful is no excuse for exploiting people in other species. Any mark of humanity is surely that the powerful are supposed to look after the vulnerable, not take advantage of them. We kind of get that for human beings, but not for some sad reason for animals. And this despite the overwhelming and increasing evidence that animals and fish are just as feeling of suffering as we are, they have nervous systems, pain receptors, and so on.stop-it-thats-horrible

I think it is not correct to turn the other way when animals are suffering within our own realm, within our own neighborhoods, hidden within plain sight. As Edmund Burke was quoted in the movie:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Very few people visit slaughterhouses. Many people hope and assume that the meat they eat has come from humanely killed animals. Generally, this is a pipe dream. We need to know what and who we are eating or wearing. Ignorance is not bliss, especially not for the animals. As it says in the movie:

They all die from pain.

What will be enough?

Not misusing others for our own purposes, as the film makers want viewers to conclude, is a very good start – probably an essential one if we are to claim any conscience at all — but it is not ever going to be enough. It is not ever going to be nearly enough.

This movie shows pretty conclusively in my opinion that, despite its occasional pleasant moments, samsara is not a pleasure garden and we are idiotic to be skipping around fecklessly as if it is, as if it cannot suddenly twist into something very very nasty.Geshe-la turtle.jpg

And it shows too that nothing less than waking these living beings up forever from the nightmarish hallucinations of the sleep of ignorance will ever be enough.

Snapshots of hell

An “earthling” is someone who inhabits the Earth – any sentient being sharing our planet.

Some searing moments among too many: a stray dog was thrown into the back of a garbage truck, and he stared out at the humans incomprehendingly before he was crushed along with all the other “trash”. Each week thousands of unwanted dogs and cats, just as lovable as yours or mine, are tossed into gas chambers like useless sacks, their bodies later pulled out and piled up, because the shelters cannot afford the cost of putting them down humanely with an injection.

Have you ever communed with a cow in a field? They are so curious, they’ll always come gather around you if you sit there long enough. I have sat meditating with cows in the English Lake District on more than one occasion, and I remember a particularly friendly cow once licked me all the way up the front of my dress. And these are the same kind of gentle big-brown-eyed beings with long eyelashes who are are branded on their faces and have their horns ripped out without anaesthetic; all this long before they get to the killing cows-on-hillroom. Where they can have their throats slit while still conscious because the steel bolt into the brain has been administered so carelessly, and where they can still be thrashing around on the assembly line. So much blood. It’s like watching a horror movie, only these are not special effects.

Intelligent sows are confined their entire lives in cages barely bigger than themselves – imagine someone chucking your dog in a closet filled with excrement and not letting her out her whole life. Piglets meanwhile squeal with agony as their baby ears are clipped, tails docked, teeth cut, and genitals removed. Ruptured flesh and abscesses make the rest of their lives wretched, not helped by being stomped on and yelled at, in insult upon injury, “Go you mother fucker, go, go!!! Come on, you bitch!” I had just been thinking, “Why don’t any of these workers ever want to try and let the pigs escape?”, when I saw a worker filmed laughing as he clubbed a pig to death.

I wonder how any human being can work at a slaughterhouse without becoming at least partly a hell being. The karma is hideous. The desensitization too common but necessary to do the job. The additional cruelty and harshness legion. There are hundreds of thousands of poor human beings being paid to maim and kill. Yeah, you can say it is a job like any other, you have to put food on the table, but still …. And reports like this one do show that even in this life it impairs people greatly …. Hard to watch this and deny the existence of hell realms, including the karmic experiences similar to the cause.

I don’t think you can stay hating the protagonists if you know Dharma; compassion for them is almost greater. For they are part of that same hell, and you know full well that if they remain oblivious of the reality they are creating for themselves, and don’t purify their harmful actions, it will soon be their turn on the killing room floor.cow-in-factory-farm

Earthlings is scary. Yet Earthlings shows just snapshots of the lower realms in terms of the amount of sentient beings in agony and the length of time they must suffer. Buddha taught that there are countless world systems in samsara, and countless living beings in pain. He also taught that we living beings have been suffering in samsara since beginningless time due to our delusions and bad karma.

I kept wishing for the animals I was watching to be able to die as quickly as possible and for the humans to stop, please stop, just clock off and go home – but the fact is that death may close that particular chapter, but the endless tale of suffering will continue in the next. This book of samsara is millions and millions of chapters long. Longer.

The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra says:

The flesh and bones of all the bodies I have previously taken if gathered together would be equal to Mount Meru,
And if the blood and bodily fluids were gathered they would be equal to the deepest ocean.
Although I have taken countless bodies as Brahma, Indra, chakravatin kings, gods and ordinary humans,
There has been no meaning from any of these, for still I continue to suffer.

If having been born in the hells drinking molten copper, as insects whose bodies turned into mud,
And as dogs, pigs and so forth who ate enough filth to cover the whole earth,
And if, as it is said, the tears I have shed from all this suffering are vaster than an ocean,
I still do not feel any sorrow or fear, do I have a mind made of iron?

Hang on Buddha, we may be thinking, it can’t be that bad. Watching Earthlings, it is not hard to see that it can. The whole of samsara is rotten to the core.

Time to wake upsuperheroes

Hence the need for Buddha Tara and her countless emanations, including us. “Buddha” means Awakened One. We can become an Awakened One ourselves. This need not be a “distant and ethereal goal”, not now when we have access to the wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of reality and the Awakened Ones’ help.

Once we have woken up from the sleep of samsara, and are abiding in the reality of bliss and emptiness — universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — we will be a position to wake everyone else up. What’s the alternative? What lies in store for us if we do not wake up?

I wanted to tell Tara’s story to show what I mean about her fearlessness and cheer you up a bit, but we are out of space. Coming up soon — here in fact! Meanwhile, comments as always are welcome.

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Tired, yet, of living a cliché?

Buddha Shakyamuni

On the last day of the recent Kadampa Summer Festival, the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni was shown, as it always is, and well received.

Buddha’s story is a great story, and ours can be a great story too, if we stop thinking about ourselves in clichéd, samsaric ways. “Anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse,” as one dictionary definition of cliché has it.

Once upon a time, when I was experiencing a break-up from a fun and always interesting relationship that had lasted over half our lives, when my larger than life, handsome, previously devoted partner, like countless men before him, left for a baby with a younger woman, I turned for desperate comfort to my dear friend M. “What a cliché!” I wailed to him. “I don’t WANT to be a cliché.”

And M replied, “Everything in samsara is a cliché.”

This shook me out of self-pity. Point being, despite variations on a theme, despite any extenuating circumstances, we have been there, done that, countless times – no tee-shirt will ever be big enough to document it all. We even call the appearances of samsara “common appearances” or “ordinary appearances”. seen it all.jpg

We might think it is just us, we’re in a private world of forlorn hopes and dwindling dreams; but pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to finds growing older distasteful at least from time to time. This is especially if they assumed that they would be an exception to the rule — that with the help of Botox or a great exercise routine or a good hairdresser or alternative healing or a lot of money or a predictable partner they could avoid life’s biggest clichés. But the end of collection is dispersion, as Buddha pointed out, the end of rising falling, the end of meeting parting. Everyone (who lives long enough) seems to feel at some point or another old or ill, or past it, overlooked, or useless, or unglamorous, haggard, or paunchy, or an object of increasing irrelevance or ridicule – and then basically ends up losing everything. Just in time to buy into the next series of clichés in our next life.

Samsara manages to be both unpredictable and banally predictable all at the same time. The details may be unpredictable, but the pattern is wearyingly monotonous.

The seven sufferings of samsara are all one gigantic cliché and we’re all going to be living this forever if we don’t decide to think outside the box, in fact until we realize there is no box. Like Buddha did.

I have been thinking a lot about Buddha Shakyamuni recently because I was very moved by Gen-la Dekyong‘s teachings at the US Kadampa Spring Festival 2016 and also by the fact that Geshe Kelsang loves watching the Life of Buddha, so much, for all its teachings. He Geshela life of Buddha.jpegsaid he is watching not actors but the actual life story and protagonists, and he said something similar after watching the Life of Atisha play. It is as if Geshe-la is watching the actual life story unfold in the present, which makes me think the story is eternally present really, the examples timelessly relevant.

Think outside the box

I love that Prince Siddhartha had everything a man could ever want, and certainly far more than I could hope for in this life; yet he still walked away from it because he saw that it was built on a deceptive illusion, the utterly shaky edifice of the sufferings of sickness, ageing, death, and uncontrolled rebirth.

I mean, who amongst you has all the things he had – such as exceptional good looks, the most beautiful spouse in the kingdom, a whole harem of other glamorous people eager to please you, a really nice palace, riches and worldly achievements beyond compare, crowds of adulating Prince Siddhartha.jpgvillagers bowing at your feet?! Are you set to become a king or queen anytime soon?!

Prince Siddhartha didn’t even know, technically, that he was going to find the solution, but he decided he had to do it anyway. So if he could do it, I reckon we can develop renunciation for our relatively paltry objects of attachment, especially as Buddha did figure out our escape for us. Not to say that we have to abandon anything external, for that is not in fact renunciation; but we can abandon our attachment and turn our attention to the solution for the existential predicament we find ourselves in. Vis a vis, realize that the things we normally see — those common appearances that we normally buy into as if they are the only pathetic choice we have — don’t even exist.

Calling the earth to witness

Buddha and marasThen there is that great scene when Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi Tree and is attacked by Maras — first appearing as enticing women and then as terrifying demons. And Buddha is entirely unbothered, he stays in undistracted concentration, he can see through the whole hallucination. He is infinitely more interested in blissful love and profound illumination. He is unbelievably cool.

Maybe we see that scene as something allegorical, and not even that relevant to us, just indicating Buddha’s extraordinary qualities as he showed the manner of attaining enlightenment.  But I think it shows us a powerful way to deal with our own delusions or maras when they arise. After all, sure, in the play we can think that those enchanting women are too abstract to be tempting; but if all the people we ever really lusted after were to appear in front of us and say, “It’s always been you I love! I’ve been an idiot! Come with me!” might we not be tempted?! But Buddha saw right through them.

And when those same maras then tried to scare him, again we might think that is something abstract; but what are those maras? All are appearances created by our own scary delusions of anger, attachment, jealousy, self-loathing, loneliness, fear, anxiety, or existential despair arising as if out there, in front of us, trying to attack us, to overwhelm us. Think of the scariest appearances to your mind, your most feared enemies, those who have the greatest power (you think) to upset you – a neglectful parent, an off the rails child, a sneering rival, a bullying abuser, a ruthless boss, a dismissive ex, or plain old sickness, ageing, wrinkles, and death. But they get nowhere because we, like Buddha, can see right through them.

And at no point did Buddha identify with these appearances. At no point was he overpowered by them. He understood they were maras with no function other than to harm him. He accepted they were appearing, but instead of fighting them he saw right through them. He saw they were mistaken appearances, saw they weren’t even there; and with his love, concentration, and wisdom he called the earth to witness that he had overcome them all.Buddha calling earth to witness

Buddha understood that none of these maras was outside his mind, so they all disappeared permanently the moment his final obstructions were lifted. In that moment, he became an omniscient being.

It’s kind of encouraging, don’t you think, that all this happened minutes before his enlightenment. No excuses, then, to think, “Bloody hell, I’ve been practicing Buddhism for six years already and I’m still being assailed by maras!” Looks like maras trying to scare or ensnare us might be the order of the day until the very last minute.

But, like Buddha, we can call the earth to witness that none of these phantoms has any hold over us whatsoever. We are waking up. We are learning to see everything as it is. We can finally do (and have) what we want because we realize that everything is created by our minds.

We can be like this. For hallucinations can only harm us if we buy into them, if we believe in them as being real, as existing independent of the mind. Ven Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind:

We mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. p. 311

beautiful heartHave you ever imagined what it would be like to not be hallucinating at all – not your self, not others, not your job, not your objects of desire, not anything? What will appear to you once common, banal appearances stop appearing? What will you choose to manifest or appear from the bliss and emptiness of your own mind, understanding the dreamlike nature of things?! This experience will be inexhaustibly joyful and meaningful, I think, and enable us to help everyone else in cosmically original, effortless, ways.

Over to you, comments welcome.

 

Lost and (un)Found

In a few short hours we may have voted Brexit or Bremain, who on earth knows!? Who is in control of all this anyway?!

There is no stability in samsara because all appearances are the nature of our ever-shifting, uncontrolled mind and projected by our karma. In a flash everything can change; we can even lose everything and everyone we know.

lostLike an episode of Lost, where there is a flash of light, they all clutch their heads, and then they end up in another time. It’s not “Where am I?! But “When am I?” They are understandably disorientated and discombobulated but, being the indomitable cast of Lost, and nothing like me, waste no time in getting back to work, trying to act as if things make sense again, all (external) action all the time: “Where is so and so? Let’s get back to the beach even though it’s pointless because our camp has gone or hasn’t yet been built! Let’s join in with the Others or, on the other hand, let’s leave. Let’s look amazed and dumbfounded but still not talk things through except in the tersest of sentences! Let’s make a house and a life back in 1974 as if that is totally normal! As if the other young people in jump suits around us aren’t illusory, aren’t in fact now old or dead! Let’s get on with the action! Let’s shoot! Let’s kiss! Etc.” And so they kid themselves that regular life goes on, until there is another flash.

Anything can appear

dream mistI had a dream last night that could have been an episode from Lost. One minute I was here, the next there, I was meeting people who had died and thinking nothing of it, I was warmly greeting people from whom I have been long estranged as if I had seen them only yesterday, I was meeting new people, and everyone disappeared or appeared or morphed into new appearances. You know the kind of thing; dreams are like that. And so are our varied lifetimes – due to karma, anything can appear, Venerable Geshe Kelsang has said. We could be born anywhere and perhaps — as time is not fixed but merely imputed – anytime?!

Life sped up

Have you ever wondered what your life would look like if it had been filmed and you watched it all sped up?! Pretty darn weird, is what. Speed all our lives up — what a very peculiar, overwhelming plethora of changes!!! Love them, hate them, feed them, eat them, hug them, fight them … we have had every relationship imaginable with every living being. You know those Tee-shirts “Been there, done that”? There is no tee-shirt large enough for all the places we have been, for all the things that we have done.

In this life alone, I have lived for several years on every continent except Antarctica and I have visited nearly 50 countries. I am, predictably enough, writing this article on yet another plane (flip, nice sunset!) on the way through a brief night to a brief dream in Reykjavik, next to a charming man who has lived all over the place, having just stood in line at the airport with someone else who also travels extensively. Yet all this is nothing seven continentscompared to the infinite worlds within samsara wherein you and I have traveled through beginningless lives. And within those countless lifetimes, all those dreams …

Memento

And waking life only seems more consistent than dream life because we bring some memory or mindfulness to it and so, in a way, have more time to get used to things before they change on us. (Our waking minds are gross minds, so we are better at using mindfulness than with our subtler levels of dreaming mind.) My sister-in-law’s mother, Christine, had a bad stroke and has spent the last several years in a nursing home. She has no short-term memory and describes the experience as “dream-like”. It is memory and memory alone, it seems, that makes coherence of appearances, strings them together into narratives; and so when we lack memory we can quickly lose the plot. Or have to do the same things over and over again, like a Guppy.

Diversion from main article

Which reminds me, I read a report recently saying that human beings these days have a shorter attention span than a goldfish – approximately 8 seconds. That’s what we get, if you ask me, from spending the whole day stimulating the senses with non-stop diversions (Snapchat, anyone?! Have you managed to refrain from checking your texts or Facebook feed since you started reading this article? Have any of you indeed even managed to get this far down thweapons of mass distractione page?!) We distract our sense awarenesses while neglecting the life of the mental awareness, the only awareness that possesses mindfulness and concentration. Someone was telling me yesterday about the brave new world of Augmented Reality Glasses – we will soon be able to superimpose robots and story lines etc OVER our regular surroundings – sounds horrible, but could well become the next mass-addiction. (Update July 20 2016: less than a month later, this is already starting — look at what’s going on with Pokemon GO!!!)

Comfy sofa

We try so hard to hold on in our waking life, but in a flash everything can change. We can be evicted, we can be deserted, we can be exiled, we can be wounded, we can even be in our next life. It seems like we try to anchor ourselves in this ever-changing scenery with a partner (“us against the world!”), a family, a house, a reputation, Facebook likes, etc — trying to construct a weighty life on top of an infrastructure that is simply projection of mind. For as long as we have self-grasping — feeling alienated from our own surroundings by grasping dualistically at a world outside our mind — we seem to have an existential need to do this; which is why it can feel devastating when the seeming anchors of relationships or careers etc end. We can feel as though we have lost our still point, our northern star, our comfy sofa in samsara.

So we keep trying to build up our money, our career, our sense of who and what we are, our family, our friends, our body – but none of these fleeting, flimsy edifices can save us from new unfurling karmic projections once they are ready to ripen.

Bear and Fizz GigI think our lives are like insubstantial bubbles blown by fleeting states of mind and karma. This is why, I reckon, we have the 7 sufferings of samsara – birth, ageing, sickness, death, not encountering what we like, encountering what we don’t like, and dissatisfaction. How can these not be inevitable in a life characterized by uncontrolled minds and karma?

We try to cling to reality but there isn’t any. Not in appearances, anyway. In Lost, they at least moved time zones with the same body and gross minds and even a few select companions – but in one flash of light our body could change and so could our gross mind to go with it. For example, if we are reborn as a cat, our gross mind will certainly feel very different to how it does now, and our companions will be nothing like our friends now. If human, we have to learn all this stuff all over again, or a whole bunch of new stuff — for example if I am reborn in Iceland, I will have to say passenger announcement“Utgangur” instead of “Exit”.

Nothing can be pinned down; nothing. We can have a six-pack and a rifle, and talk in manly monosyllables; but when the flash comes this is not going to help us one bit. We need to change our minds. And we kind of need to do it right now, while we are in the relatively stable position of this precious human life and have some refuge. That’s the urgency, far more so than running through a jungle. (Apologies for all these Lost references if you haven’t seen it 🙂 I am not even suggesting you put yourselves through 5 seasons of Lost, you probably have far superior, more culturally up-to-date things to do. Like Snapchat. Or Pokemon GO. But you get the idea.) James from Lost

Unfound

Nothing can be found when we search with wisdom, which means that nothing exists inherently. Attachment is trying to hold onto hallucinations – it needs its object to have a degree of permanence and substantiality that it simply doesn’t have, which makes this all-too-common delusion at best a waste of time. (Reminds me of my favorite line from the latest Star Wars movie, “Escape first, hug later.”)

We can drop no anchors in samsara’s contaminated ocean; it has no bottom. We need to set about purifying and transforming the entire ocean of our root mind. For then, instead of it throwing up endless waves of pointless suffering, it will manifest endless waves of beneficial bliss.

hand in lakeSo there is no reason to be discouraged. The mind of renunciation — wishing to overcome the hallucinations of samsara, to wake up from mistaken appearances — is strangely uplifting. It is also the gateway to the liberating path. We don’t have to buy into what isn’t working and can never work, trying to control it. We can instead start to rely on what does work, which is going for refuge and controlling our minds.

We can go for refuge to all-pervasive enlightened beings, to Dharma, to Sangha. We can purify our mind and gain full mastery of our thoughts so that we can choose to go wherever and whenever we want. We can in particular gain an experience of emptiness — realizing that all appearances are the nature of the mind and the mind is the nature of emptiness — so that we not only realize exactly what is going on but can control it completely. And we can then be a deep, vast, source of refuge for everyone else.

(Regardless of who wins the Referendum, whose results are rolling in unpredictably as we speak …)

Your comments are most welcome!

Everything we need is inside us

I seem to be here again at the Denver DMV. I thought I’d left this grimy place forever, but here I am back all over again. “Weren’t you here just the other day”? asked the man who failed me in my first test and whom I’d never felt the great urge to see again. But our karma was clearly not done. At any rate, he was a good deal more friendly this time (so I discover he is not in fact an inherently nerve-wracking smile-less robot). He was curious as to all the details of the theft of the spanking new Colorado driving license (amongst theft of iphoneother things) that was bringing me to his desk.

I have learned many lessons from this, as it happens, which all goes to show that difficulties can be our best spiritual teachers, as explained in the Lojong teachings. I thought I’d divide this into Sutra and Tantra lessons learned. It’s a long post, sorry in advance!

Sutra lessons learned
Karmic mirror

I must have stolen in the past, and this is not even the first theft I’ve had. There were some curious incidents growing up where thieves would break into my parents’ house but only steal MY stuff. They broke in in Guyana and stole only my treasured radio. They broke in in Singapore and took a stereo my parents had literally just given me. They broke in in London and took just my relatively worthless jewelry. And when I was a supposedly innocent five-year-old, they stole the shipment of my toys alone when we were moving from Sri Lanka back to England. Yikes. This may be a good sign that my parents are as honest as the day is long, but me?!? This karmic mirror reminds me to check whether I am still being dishonest in any areas of my life.

Never safe in samsara

Another lesson bought home is that while I am in samsara, I am not safe. A good friend shared his experience of being robbed (he managed to have not just one but two MacBook Airs stolen in 1 day):

I don’t know how you are experiencing this, but for me it was very unsettling. I felt extremely vulnerable, exposed, and violated, while simultaneously holding compassion for the perpetrator, and praying for his delusions to be removed.

Nothing is truly mine, certainly not lastingly mine. In samsara, the end of collection is dispersion, and our karma to have stuff comes to an end. This samsaric entropy is also the second law of thermodynamics, I discovered the other day:

There is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.

My appearances of a shiny new iPhone 5S, driver’s license, and handy credit cards, all iphone casecontained in a beautiful new turquoise wallet, came to an abrupt dissolution on Sunday morning. All our karmic projections come to an end whether we want them to or not. And then other karmic projections come up, ones we don’t want, eg, having to sort out things we thought were already sorted rather than doing the other more fun things we had planned.

We only have so many appearances to mind left before we die.

Self-grasping

And due to self-grasping we feel the loss, we feel vulnerable and violated as my friend pointed out. I’ll not deny that I had some attachment to my phone (not least as my mother had given it to me at Xmas). So my first reaction was some numbness – things seemed to slow down as I searched the pockets of everything I was wearing and looked in every room, and then did the same again, just in case. That sinking feeling, “It’s gone, it’s really gone.”

As Chandrakirti puts it:

I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving ‘I’ with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well. ~ Ocean of Nectar, page 25

This feeling of discombobulation was useful for showing my permanent-grasping at myself and my infrastructure, instead of recognizing at all times that it is as insubstantial and fleeting as last night’s dream.

Compassion
Find-My-iPhone
Always been unfindable.

I could not help but feel compassion though because I got into my nice borrowed car and went to my nice house and was able to have some nice lunch and call everyone I needed to, while meantime the perpetrator rather pathetically managed to spend all of $10.12 just getting something to eat at a 7/11 at 1.20pm EST before I closed my cards down. I may not be very rich, but I do have more than $10.12 in my account, so he could at least have treated himself to a swanky restaurant. He also got a $4 drink at Starbucks at 6.30pm with my Starbucks card, and there was a little cash in there too. (This knowledge courtesy of Find my iPhone.) It is doubtful that he (or she) has anywhere great to live, if anywhere at all; and he is clearly hungry and/or desperate enough to sneak into an unknown basement and grab what he can and get out before he is caught. And I am not oblivious to the utter privilege of having these things to lose in the first place, so lucky even compared with most human beings, including him.

The police detective called me today, two days later, offered to meet me in the parking lot if my phone shows up online again, for a “civil standby”. But I have already given the phone away, though it is useless to the thief because it is locked – not even the FBI could break in, not even with a law suit against Apple.

(Last year, J, in Florida at the time, had her iPhone stolen and F and I, in New York, watched the dot zooming down I275, reporting coordinates to J and her sister, who were in hot pursuit. Forty miles later, the phone ended up in a theater parking lot, beeping away inside a black jalopy; and they waited until the thieves came out of their movie and were obliged by the police to open their car and hand over the phone. Not sure what the moral of that tale is, but it was surprisingly exciting at the time, like an OJ Simpson redux. (OK, orange juicenow I have to tell you my true OJ Simpson story for I can’t imagine getting another chance. I was at Miami airport with N. early one morning, who asked if I would go over and “get us a couple of OJs” while he watched the luggage. And guess who was standing next to me at the same counter. No, I’m not kidding. Mere name, eh. And he had a beautiful blonde with him, for whom I felt a little nervous.)

I gave the stuff away so that the thief would not get the complete action of stealing. He (or she) will still incur some negative karma if he had a deluded intention, but I thought I could offset it. It can’t be offset completely as not even Buddhas can do that – if they could, it’d be impossible to create negative karma with respect to Buddhas.

After the theft, I came back to the 2 cats I am babysitting who, for some reason, were in a very demanding mood, jumping all over me and making a lot of noise while I was trying to call the bank etc. It crossed my mind to get irritated with them, but then I remembered that although they may not give a monkeys about my human problems, in fact the cat problems they have are far, far, far worse.

So I feel luckier than the perpetrator for many reasons, but mainly because he may well not have access to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, whereas I do. As another good friend JS messaged me yesterday, after her camera equipment worth 10,000 quid was stolen from right inside her own house:

There is a huge back story to people’s crime. I want to ask him questions like when did he decide this was the route to take, does he still want to carry on, what did he want to be when he was a kid … does he think it’s possible to change his life …. That’s what I will be putting in my “victim’s” statement, but who is the real victim? I have Geshe-la in my life and the Dharma, I gave up any thoughts of my possessions being important … the victim to me seems like the burglar, he has no Dharma to help him.

My theft is not really different to a theft in a dream. Overall, this has made me more determined than ever to bring an end to my own and others’ samsaric hallucinations while deathI still have the chance. The compassion that wants to overcome this root cause of suffering is called compassion observing the unobservable, you can read about it in Ocean of Nectar. Samsara sucks, samsara sucks for everyone, but luckily samsara is not real.

Death is on its way

It can be useful to imagine losing one thing at a time to get our heads and hearts around the fact that the entire infrastructure of our life is going to collapse. This includes the people we adore, not just our shiny gadgets. As this inevitability could be just around the corner, this is, as JS put it:

Good practice for death, when I won’t be able to take anything with me. It’s always good to see where one is at with our possessions so I thank him for that.

The kindness of others

I feel almost fraudulent to be writing this, this theft was such a small fry incident in the grand scheme of things, yet people have been astonishingly generous.

A Bodhisattva immediately, and I mean immediately, the moment he saw my stuff had been stolen, said, “Oh, this iPhone I have is spare, you can have it!” Then he wiped his phone clean and gave it to me, along with his phone number, before I had a chance to protest. And he did this utterly convincingly, not even with the slightest hesitation like the one I had when I gave my actually totally spare iPhone 4 away just last week. He reminds me of that quote from Ocean of Nectar:

If from hearing and contemplating the word ‘Give’,
The Conquerors’ Son develops a bliss
The like of which is not aroused in the Able Ones through experiencing peace,
What can be said about giving everything? ~ Ocean of Nectar page 69

Giving does feel pretty good when we manage to pull it off without any regret – the day before this theft I had given a jacket (left here by a Buddhist monk) to a homeless man in Cheesman Park. Long story, but it felt great to see Michael pull it over his skinny shoulders on a freezing day.cheesman park.JPG

But the person who helped me is in a class of his own – he even went so far as to thank me for allowing him to help me. As if he meant it! Which I do believe he did. And I have to add that this same nameless (for his own sake) person said the other day just after I passed my test, “Oh, this car I have is spare, you can borrow it indefinitely!” (Naturally I am now waiting for his spare house and his spare cash.)

There are emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in our midst whatever we want to call them – angels, saints, or just very kind people. Maybe they don’t appear so often to a very cynical mind, but they are still there, trying to help, waiting for the first moment they can dive in there. They may appear as the regular folks around us – nurses, neighbors, co-workers, homeless people, family members, strangers at bus stops – but as a Buddha’s job description is to emanate whatever people need, it’s cool not to succumb to ordinary appearances.

Tantric lessons learned
all you need is inside youEmptiness

When we realize that we are completely empty of inherent existence, our possessions are completely empty, and our relationship with our possessions is completely empty (the so-called “three spheres”), we can see that we already have everything we need inside us. Why? Because everything is merely projection of our own minds.

I’m going to get a bit philosophical and Tantric for a moment …

Nothing is inherently anything. If we understand this, we can say “This is not that”, about everything, and this truth frees us up. For example, “This is not Denver” frees me up to think “This is Heruka’s Pure Land”. “This is not an annoying co-worker” frees me up to think “This is an emanation of Buddha.” “These are not my possessions” frees me up to give my iPhone away happily.

Bounty of the Dharmakaya

I find myself comparing this “loss” to what I like to call “the bounty of the Dharmakaya“. Within the bliss and emptiness of the Dharmakaya (or Truth Body), everything exists and everything is possible. The divinity is there as you are mixed with the Truth Body of every Buddha. You can manifest anything out of that.Vajrayogini 1

Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, for example, are simply the bounty and infinite good qualities of the Dharmakaya appearing – their symbolism includes absolutely everything good about Buddhahood. So when we focus on them, our bliss and good qualities and so on increase – we are able to itemize, focus on, and identify with them, and gain a greater understanding and experience of the Dharmakaya. And vice versa.

This is why these meditative practices of pure appearance, introduced by enlightened beings, are so important; and why focusing on bliss and emptiness alone, though it is the essence and truth, make it harder or perhaps even impossible to manifest the creative elements of the Dharmakaya and gain full enlightenment for the sake of all other beings.

Bliss and emptiness can appear in any form whatsoever, of course, but we may as well embrace the blissful forms of the Buddhas and their Pure Lands. Why go to the trouble of inventing the appearance of infinite good qualities, imagining how they might show themselves, when generations of enlightened beings have already shown them to us?! Why wish for mundane or ordinary good things to happen when we can set our squirrelimaginations free to have the glorious body, enjoyments, environments, and deeds of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini?! Their reality, as evinced in everything about the way they appear, is wild and free and blissful and compassionate already. It is a blessed and powerful expression of the completely pure mind of bliss and emptiness.

Point here being that I can and already do have anything I want within the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini, so why bother about the loss of a few ordinary appearances to an ordinary mind? Why not just stay in the Pure Land full time instead?

A similar point could be made about making mandala offerings, the offerings of entire pure universes. I can offer countless iPhones appearing from the pure mind of bliss and emptiness on behalf of me and everyone else. And these offerings will result in the appearances of bliss-inducing iPhones sooner or later …

Okay, enough of that for now, I can see my Dad shaking his head. Your comments are most welcome in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The force awakens

plane 1
This sunset went on for FOUR hours!

I am writing this in Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport, Dec 31, watching the mass and mess of humanity – including families bustling home after Xmas and, exhaustingly, a youth going to New York just for New Year’s Eve. (As my flight is an hour and a half late, my New Year is now going to commence in the higher sky …)

Family life provides umpteen opportunities to practice patience and kindness, especially when it involves the care of small children or elderly or unwell adults. Notwithstanding that the love in families can be a wonderful thing, and I have just had a very enjoyable time with my parents and other fab family members, my observation has been that family life is challenging at all ages and in all countries. One drawback of family life can be that we are bound to the same people whether we get on with them or not, that we can get stuck into grooves of thinking and behaving that are not necessarily helpful, and that this can cause underlying frustration even at the best of times. Looking around this airport, a small slice of life, a small slice of time, I can see hundreds of little annoyances and minor desperations. A mother right next to me saying wearily over the sound of her wailing child: “We’ll get him to suck his dummy during take-off if we need to; he won’t eat anything now.” An argument between a couple in Costa. And one full-blown tantrum at the security gate.

I said goodbye to my 81-year old dad at East Finchley tube station this morning, and a woman standing nearby saw that he was a bit mournful as he lumbered back to his car (my dad likes me.) In a South African accent, she asked how old he was, and then pointed out her husband, who is 83, and volunteered, “All our friends are getting older and iller and dying.” Of course, I couldn’t then pass up on this opportunity to chat as I have been thinking a lot of late of the challenges of worldly life; so we ended up traveling together to Warren Street tube where she and her husband got off.

plane 2
Sunset was followed by daylight!

She told me she had read a book called Letting Go, recently, and was experiencing a bit of an “awakening” as she found independence from her husband (only 74, she has decided to go on lots of mini-trips on her own without him if he can’t come with her, for example to Vienna.) She is no longer interested in being taken for granted, used as a hotel, and blamed for everything by her three 50+ kids – I agreed that they may respect her more if she starts to live her own life and respect herself, that she has already done quite enough for them, including giving them their bodies (“and much much more”, she added darkly). Also, everyone, even those for whom we feel most responsible, has their own path and karma, and so we can only do so much. Her morbidly obese daughter, who was rushed to ER recently, has always blamed her mother for everything, and her mother has always worried herself sick about her; but this daughter is now in the care of professionals and her brother, an ex-Israeli soldier, who is insisting she finally take responsibility for her own life — leaving her mother to declare on the London tube, “I feel free for the first time in years!” It was a brief encounter, but a meaningful one. She wanted my blog URL, and thought I might write about her; and she may even be reading this now.

Shantideva says that people attached to a worldly life experience many problems with little reward:

They are like a horse forced to pull a cart,
Who can grab only an occasional mouthful of grass to eat.

In the old days of Buddhism, it was more traditional to give up on worldly life altogether and take yourself off to a monastery or a mountain cave. (Tempting!!!) But this is the modern world and, thanks to the patience and skill of my teacher Geshe Kelsang, this is modern Buddhism – so we are finding ways to install mountain caves into our living rooms next to the flat screen TV, Fisher Price truck, or zimmer frame, or maybe in a quiet spot in our bedrooms. Everyone can learn to meditate and follow a spiritual path both on and off the meditation seat; this is no longer the province just of monks and Yogis, and it’d all be over if it was.

plane in sky who takes these photosBeing practical can be helpful and, dealing with an illness, my folks and me did a lot of practical things over the last couple of weeks, adjusting day by day to the “new normal”. But in some ways this confirmed that we cannot solve our actual or inner problems outside the mind. We need to know how to develop and sustain inner peace as everything slides away from us, basically out of our control. No one ever gets out of here alive, and leaving these bodies, whether quickly or slowly, is usually pretty challenging for ourselves and everyone else concerned. The pilot (for I am writing this paragraph later, now on the plane, while experiencing an on-rolling sunset!) just described this as a “long-haul flight”; which made me think that we really do have to haul these meaty bodies about all over the place for years, sometimes under our own steam, sometimes with the help of a Boeing 747. Until they fall over and we can’t get them up again.

I have to quote this from Bill Bryson’s latest book that I just brought in WHSmiths at the airport:

The worst part about ageing is the realization that all your future is downhill. Bad as I am today, I am pretty much tip-top compared with what I am going to be next week or the week after. I recently realized with dismay that I am even too old now for early onset dementia. Any dementia I get will be right on time.

However, taking charge of our own minds (while we still can) does require some determination — going inwards to solve our human problems isn’t automatic in our busy, distracted society. Right now, for example, in the airport, I am surrounded by sensory stimulation – music straining to be heard above the noise, ads everywhere, shops galore, and pretty much everyone — except those in a hurry to queue for their planes or vainly trying to stop their children barging into strangers — on their smartphones. I am tuning this all out now to write this.

happiness is my responsibility
It’s not a bad idea (UK English for “it’s a good idea”) to take time off from the constant hectic blare to go inward every day, even if it is only 10 to 20 minutes, or even if it is only the few minutes in the gaps between activities, if we can tear ourselves away from our gadgets. It is also a good idea, if and when we can, to treat ourselves to some retreat. And I am very grateful that I and thousands of others in this tradition have the opportunity to do just this in January 2016. This is because I find that meditation is what makes sense of everything or anything, including all this ridiculous ageing, sickness, and death stuff. I mean, really, it is so bad it’s almost funny. Bill Bryson says, in what is supposed to be a funny book:

There are other scenarios that involve catheters, beds with side railings, plastic tubing with my blood in it, care homes, being lifted on and off toilets, and having to guess what season it is outside – and those are all still near the best-case end of the spectrum.

Laugh a minute, that. And no one escapes it. Unless … and this is the whole point of the spiritual path … unless we use everything that happens to us to help us increase our compassion (to give us the energy, the motivation, the bliss) and our wisdom realizing that this is all just dream-like appearance reflected by our own thoughts (to get us through the door to liberation). Or, as I like to say:

Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.

Star WarsWe need to escape from the sufferings of samsara once and for all. From the title of this article, you might have been expecting more about the new Star Wars movie; but I’m afraid I didn’t like it quite enough to write more. However, there was one rather excellent line in it I thought (and don’t worry, this is not a spoiler):

Escape first, hug later.

So, back to some discussion of how to do Mahamudra meditation, really awaken the force within (rather than — sorry, spoiler alert — have a lame stick fight in the forest), and get the hell out of here. Only now I have run out of space, and you have other things you need to do; so we’ll have to wait till next time.