Doing meditation retreat

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2018 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

(I wrote this article last year — and 2017 has proved to be an even weirder year in many ways! Retreat is very needed in our world if we have the chance to do some, holding the space for others.)

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally. As it mentions here, and I’ll now loosely quote:

“Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.”

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland. And, now, in 2017, we have the incredible International Retreat Center (IRC) Grand Canyon just opening up, and the opportunity to do six weeks of Lamrim retreat with Kadam Morten.

These IRCs and KMCs all offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2018. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

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Learning to let go

letting go 2A dear friend emailed me during my rather paltry adventure in Denver airport. She is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer at the moment, and this is what she said:

Struggles are spiritual adventures with a vision. That is how I am trying to see my whole journey through this cancer thing. It’s a spiritual adventure.

So, inspired by her, I’m continuing the subject of stopping grasping, finding real relief and refuge, and going places we have never been … all the time letting go and relaxing like we’ve never relaxed before.

1. Stop grasping at this life

The first helpful thing to remember is that this life is just one and very short, so why sweat it. It is not the be all and end all of existence, more like one stitch in the tapestry of time. Future lives are very many and long by comparison. This life is like one bead of a mala/rosary, other lives are like the other beads. Or, as I heard just yesterday in a Summer Festival teaching, they are like grains of rice in a mandala kit or bag of rice. And these are just analogies or visual aids, because past and future lives are countless. But even compared with 107 other beads, of what importance is just one? As Geshe Kelsang said last October in Portugal:

Tmala beadshe happiness and freedom of future lives are more important than those of this life because this present life is only one single life and if we die today it will end today, but our future lives are countless and endless. There is no doubt that our future lives are more important than this life.

(Geshe Kelsang went onto explain that we can understand the existence of future lives by understanding the nature and function of consciousness, and you can read about this in How to Understand the Mind.)

2. Stop grasping at samsara

We are attached to the places, enjoyments, and bodies (people) of samsara, which keeps us heavily stuck like an elephant in mud. But attachment, or uncontrolled desire, exaggerates the power of these things to make us happy. If something is a real cause of happiness, as attachment believes, then should it not always give rise to happiness? But it is not hard to see that the supposed causes of our happiness are also the causes of our problems.

For example, when you first fall for someone, they seem to be the source of great joy and happiness – from their own side, out there coming at you. But then you have your first argument and, before you know it, they are the source of your pain and problems. What happened!? How can they be a real cause of happiness if they are now causing you pain? In which case, how could they ever have been a real cause of happiness to begin with? elephant stuck in mud

So the mind of attachment is thoroughly deceptive, illogical, thinking that the source of happiness is out there; and its object is thoroughly deceptive too as it is simply not capable of delivering the goods. If we let go of grasping at the object of attachment as being a real source of pleasure, we will no longer be disappointed that they are now seemingly causing us so much pain. And we can also see that they are not the actual cause of that pain, our delusions are – our delusions give them the power to hurt us.

Thinking this through, we can let go of the pain of attachment and aversion, dismantling the habits that trap us in samsara. (We can also take it a step further — see them as helping us to do that by serving as a mirror, and thus transform them from an object of attachment/aversion into an object of gratitude and love! Eh voilà.)

3. Stop grasping at me

Then we can stop grasping at our own happiness as being more important than others’ happiness, when this is palpably untrue as there are sooooo many more of them. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Solve Our Human Problems p.42, a few unpleasant feelings in the mind of one person are no great shakes:

perspectiveWe are just one person among countless living beings, and a few moments of unpleasant feeling arising in the mind of just one person is no great catastrophe.

So we don’t need to take our problems so seriously, we can let them go.

4. Stop grasping at real me and real everything else

We can also learn to stop grasping at ourself as real at all, and stop grasping at the past, the future, the 10 directions, what’s “really” going on, eg, where you live, your job, everything. This is profound letting go, profound relaxation. The Dharma of emptiness is the real refuge. All we see and think about is just labels, conceptual imputations, held by thought with no existence beyond that. Seeing no sense in grasping at hallucinations, we can start to let all these conceptual thoughts and their objects dissolve into the clarity of our root mind.

Here is one of my favorite quotes (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life p. 180) just to whet the appetite for this extraordinary subject:

When examined in this way,
Who is living and who is it who will die?
What is the future and what is the past?
Who are our friends and who are our relatives?

5. Stop grasping at ordinariness

With the help of Tantra, we can stop grasping at being an ordinary person — particularly if that person is limited, and particularly if that person is melancholy or sad. We can identify with being peaceful and free, nay, with being blissful. We can stop agreeing with ourself that we are an unhappy person – I sometimes wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, “I’m not a super happy person”, or “I’m generally a sad person.” If we keep defaulting to that, it’s a really good idea to stop it. We can learn to default to happiness, to bliss, instead, seeing as that is our Buddha nature and who we actually are.

We can learn to identify with our fully realized Buddha nature too, arising as a Tantric Buddha, and then spreading that love around. Others will gradually relate to us as happy and blissful, and we can think, as the prayer says (Meaningful to Behold, p. 121):

When others encounter me, may it always prove meaningful and beneficial for them. Whether a person has anger or faith towards me, may his wishes be fulfilled.

What will happen if we let go?

What I think is that once we have let go of it all, we can almost effortlessly enter Buddha’s mandala (or Pure Land) and stay there, for we are no longer grasping at being anywhere else. And then we can drop into the central channel and stay there.clear light 1

The Guru, Yidam, Dakinis, and Protector will make sure that we attain enlightenment — we just have to let go of this life, samsara, self-cherishing, self-grasping, and ordinariness. Nothing compares with getting the winds into the central channel and realizing the union of bliss and emptiness. Seriously, nothing. This seems to me the real meaning of the verse:

Having rejected the supreme joy of the sacred Dharma
That is an endless source of delight,
Why am I distracted by the causes of pain,
Why do I enjoy frivolous amusements and the like?

What is success?

I don’t think it matters so much what job etc. we do in our daily life or whether we are “successful” at it or not – real success comes from changing beginningless stale habits and becoming kinder, wiser, and a Buddha. From that, everything else falls into place.

And in the quest to stop grasping, suffering becomes a mirror, a test, so very helpful – we can be challenged every day by people’s bad behavior, the boredom of our job, not liking where we are living, loneliness, etc., and see where the problem is really coming from, ie, delusions and ordinary conceptions. We will become a strong person as a result, who is permanently free from attachment and grasping. Then we’ll feel very grateful to everyone who got us here, however seemingly badly behaved they were!

(Of course, I have barely touched on these subjects and they are a lifetime’s practice. But I do think it can be helpful to consider them in the light of letting go. You can find a vast treasury of teachings on each one in these books.)

Stop grasping

letting go 5To me the spiritual path seems largely a process of letting go – first of the expectations that this life is the be all and end all of existence, then of the expectations of samsara working out, then of the expectations that our happiness comes first, then of the expectations that everything is as really happening as it appears, then of the expectations that everything is as ordinary and impure as it appears.

If we want to feel free, it is time to let go. Stop elaborating. Stop grasping. And when I think these thoughts, I feel tremendously relieved as I don’t have to make something unworkable work, and can instead abide in the beautiful, relaxing Dharma minds of love, compassion, wisdom, bliss and emptiness, Tantric pure view, hanging out with holy beings who are already here day and night. This is what refuge really means to me.

One of life’s little challenges

stuck at airportHowever, I wrote this first bit after a peaceful meditation, and now my plane to Heathrow has been delayed indefinitely, possibly even cancelled — so I need urgently to think it out in the field as well…

For right now I am feeling rather attached to the happiness of this life wherein planes are supposed to go on time, in which case this delay is very annoying.

I am attached to samsara working out  – “All those other lucky people whose planes are not delayed, ‘Zones 1, 2, and 3 now boarding for Salt Lake City!’, they must be feeling great around about now, life is working for them, why not for me, why didn’t those airplane people figure out they needed this part earlier?!”

I am attached to my own happiness over and above the happiness of the people waiting (surprisingly patiently) around me, who didn’t even seem to raise an eyebrow when the announcement was made, whereas I was thinking, “Oh b****** hell, poor old me!”

I am attached to the idea of a real plane missing a real part that is being flown in on another real plane from a real city called San Francisco, and then real people have to replace this real part in monotonous real time, all of which real time I am really having to wait around, not able to just rest and be, really wanting to leave this crowded airport and go to real England NOW.

Plus, this place is grimy, it is not a blissful Pure Land at all – full of fast food, tired looking people, stuffy air, screaming kids, grubby carpets, and no Tantric Deities or celestial mansions in sight.

stuck at airport 2

I’ll let you know if and how I turn this around in the next several hours. I know I can and will probably have to because it is no fun being stuck here otherwise. That’s the whole point. The grasping is what is causing the pain, not the situation, which has no existence from its own side. Only the grasping is the problem.

Refuge is deep, deep relaxation. We can let the Three Jewels take over. We can surrender to Dharma experiences that are guaranteed to lift the mind and make us happy; to omniscient, blissful, unchangingly supportive friends, the Buddhas; and to Sangha, many of whom have already figured these things out and would be very cheerful waiting here in the airport.

Two hours later: Thoughts so far …

As I was walking around this ever-changing, dreamlike terminal, I remembered that this is all coming from my own karmic seeds and doesn’t exist outside my mind; there is instant relief in that thought. Why would I expect anything different, I created the causes for these appearances to my mind, no one else did. Also, whatever they are, they are not inherently any more good or bad than any other appearances, it just depends what I make of them.

stuck at airport 3And I’m already getting thought aid from suspected emanations functioning as Sangha Jewels. A couple of tweens have been hogging 3 out of the 4 precious plugs for the last 3 hours playing a mindless video game so I was in danger of (a) running out of computer juice and (b) getting annoyed with them, also not conducive to the happiness of this life. But then a charming young couple offered me one of their chairs and their plug, “That’s got to give you some peace of mind, right!”, and we have all just agreed that “it is what it is”, and, as the bloke said, “There is no point grumping about it, it won’t change anything. And there’s definitely no point getting angry with those poor guys at the counter.” A kid just said, “Dad, I’m bored”, and his dad replied, “Things go wrong, you have to get used to it.”  A South American Catholic nun was asking me what had been said in the announcement and she looked serenely full of patience when I told her, even though she is now going to miss her connecting flight. A lot of people are finding solace in their gadgets, some in their books, one guy chuckling opposite me at a comedy show, others chatting and joking around – the kindness of others keeping them entertained. Maybe this is the best hangout in town!?

We were given a $19 voucher for food and, samsara’s pleasures being deceptive, that free money burned a hole in my pocket as I felt I had to spend it on a rather large pizza, the only place that was still open, and I really don’t need pizza right now, I already had potato wedges while waiting earlier. But in the line I met an enthusiastic British Airways plane technician who told me that last week the same thing happened and people were put in hotels for, get this, TWO days, while they waited for their aircraft to be fixed with a landing light. Our broken part is more complicated, something to do with the nose (not) going up; so he cheerily told me that he hoped it wasn’t even longer a wait this time as people are missing connecting flights, missing cruises, missing big events … and he is quite right. I can afford to “miss” two days in England, I can spend them in a hotel if needs be. I am not exactly in Iraq right now fleeing for my life from ISIS. Looking around, I can see an old man trying hard to get his head comfortable, and the woman opposite me said, “I wish he had a pillow.” My compassion is kicking in and that is protecting my mind.

Buddha nature goldAnd this is a perfect opportunity to practice that experiment explained here. In Eight Steps, it says that we can focus on the gold of people’s Buddha nature, their limitless potential, rather than their faults, which in any case are the faults of their delusions, not them (including those tweens! Their real nature is limitless compassion and freedom, not adolescent self-absorption!)

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, because no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold… Whenever we meet other people, instead of focusing on their delusions we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique but will also help bring out their good qualities. ~Eight Steps to Happiness p. 82

Not focusing on others’ faults for me also includes the faults of people seeming just ordinary. If we know about Tantra, we can see their Buddha nature as already actualized. I am therefore surrounded by very unordinary Heroes and Heroines, Tantric Buddhas, and am a Space Goer myself.

no baggage to claim
No baggage to claim!

Latest announcement (now shortly before midnight): the plane with the part has just left SF (just left?!!!) and will be here at 1am. Heigh ho. Then it has to be fixed. People actually chuckled — they must be Heroes and Heroines.

Can we make sense of the senseless?

I wrote this on the occasion of the Boston bombings, but the technique for transforming senseless tragedy into spiritual insight applies to everything that is going on today as well.

“It was a beautiful, cool day when two bombs unleashed chaos and killed three people. Friends of those killed say they are devastated by the senseless deaths.” CNN

Much of the response to the Boston bombings this week has been, as always, the question “Why?”

I don’t know what motivated the two young brothers to do it, so I’m not even going to go there in this article, but I did meditate today on “making sense” of it from a spiritual point of view. As well as praying for those suffering so much today as a result of all this, I also wanted to find ways to think about it that could be helpful — otherwise this and all the other tragedies around the world are just piling misery onto misery with no seeming way out for any of us. Also, if there is no constructive way to think about suffering, the danger is that we disengage from it and look away, as opposed to connecting with others.

On the occasion of the 9/11 bombings, my teacher Geshe Kelsang prayed:

“We pray that the people who die will find a good rebirth and we pray that the world leaders gain wisdom. For those who are suffering, we pray that they are swiftly released from their suffering and receive blessings from the Three Jewels. It is very clear that without compassion and wisdom there is no possibility of being released from this kind of tragedy. We should learn how Dharma is the truth.” ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 9/11/01

Scanning meditation

“Apply meditation to whatever circumstances you meet”

is a Kadampa motto, so I used the Boston bombings as the example. There is a type of meditation you can do called “scanning meditation” where you spend just a few moments or minutes on each of the stages of the path meditations to get an overview – we do this, for example, when we recite Je Tsongkhapa’s Prayer of the Stages of the Path in Prayers for Meditation. The following are just my own first thoughts on the subject – there are clearly thousands of ways to think about each one.

(1)    Precious human life: I just watched a very moving video of Krystle Campbell’s grandmother saying how her Krystle once told her that she liked to take each day as it came and loved life. Krystle “had a heart of gold. She was always smiling,” said her mother. She moved in with her grandmother to take care of her and was by all accounts a happy, compassionate person. I was thinking that she seemed to use her life, short as it was, to bring joy to others, and that it was a precious life while it lasted and even now. Krystle Campbell is second victim killed in Boston bombing

(2)    Death: You never know when or how you’re going to die. Really, never. None of us do. Best to start preparing today.

(3)    Dangers of the lower realms: Described in the media as: “The festive race into a hellish scene of confusion, horror and heroics.” The resembling physical hell realm at the bomb blast and the pure torture of the anger in human minds is like the tip of the iceberg, indicating the hells we are quite capable of creating for ourselves.

(4)    Refuge: Especially in Dharma on all its levels, including these 21 meditations. Our main refuge commitment with respect to Dharma is never to intentionally harm others. Or as the 8-year-old killed in the blast said earlier: no more hurting people

(5)    Karma: Don’t bomb other countries if you don’t want your own country to be bombed. This bull in a china shop option has no real subtlety or nuanced understanding of cause and effect. We have to stop perpetuating vicious cycles in our own lives and in the world at large.

(6)    Renunciation: While delusions rage in human minds, it will be forever thus. We need a radical solution, actual liberation from our real enemies, the delusions.

(7)    Equanimity: Agony as it is for the Bostonian victims, perpetrators, and their families, this scene is playing out all over the world and I think could benefit from our equal recognition.

(8)    All living beings are our mothers: If we realized this we could not harm them but, also, we could perhaps hope to start a process of forgiveness, understanding that people are not their delusions, even if they are currently controlled by them.

(9)    Remembering the kindness of living beings: People have been remarking that a lot of stories of heroism have come out of this, such as that guy in the cowboy hat. There has been an outpouring of kindness. Mr Rogers and the Boston bombing

(10) Equalizing self and others: Every single person in this scenario equally wants to be happy and free from suffering. That gives a lot of food for thought, stops it being so much about “us and them”. We realize we’re in this mess together and have to help each other get out of it.

(11) The disadvantages of self-cherishing: Where to start?

(12) The advantages of cherishing others: Any moment of happiness that has come out or will come out of this derives from the kindness of people helping and saving limbs, eg, the medical profession, the outpouring of love and prayers all over the world, and so on.

(13) Exchanging self with others: We can do this with both the victims and the perpetrators. Again, it gives a great deal of food for thought.

(14) Great compassion: This means compassion not just for obvious physical and mental pain, but for the causes of suffering, delusions and negative actions, or karma. In which case, there is no one in this scenario who is not a suitable object of our compassion. May everyone swiftly be freed from delusions and pain.  See Geshe Kelsang’s prayer.

(15) Taking: You could spend all day taking on the suffering of the victims, their families, the perpetrators, their families, and everyone else in similar circumstances around the world. A powerful day it would be, too.

(16) Wishing love: Love is the great Protector. With love in our hearts, there is room for everyone in this world. Without it…

Tara protecting living beings
May everyone  in Boston and elsewhere swiftly come under Buddha Tara’s loving protection.

(17) Giving: Act like a Buddha and send healing light rays giving relief and happiness to everyone involved. There is always something we can do 

(18) Bodhichitta: Seeing from this bombing the futility of trying to solve all the world’s problems without removing our own faults and delusions, and without having all the necessary qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and skill, it is imperative to become a Buddha as quickly as possible. And if I don’t, who will?

(19) Tranquil abiding/concentration: In short supply at the bomb site. If we have a chance to focus on controlling our own minds through concentration, we will be able to help others do the same as soon as the conditions are right. But life is crazy, so our time to train in concentration is now.

(20) Superior seeing/wisdom: See Geshe Kelsang’s prayer. The interviewer asked Krystle’s grandmother, “Does this feel unreal?” Everyone is saying, as they always do when tragedy strikes: “This is a nightmare.” And it is. With wisdom realizing the true nature of things, we have the actual solution to this and every other problem – we can wake up.

(21) Relying upon a Spiritual Guide: We need experienced guides to steer us out of the madness of this hall of distorted, bomb-blasted mirrors, and into lasting peace and freedom.

Over to you: How do you make sense of the senseless?

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!