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 2017 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

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 recent 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.  These 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 2017. 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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Thanking our lucky stars, thanking everyone

thank you 2I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving, probably because it is Thanksgiving today – and I’m thinking that Buddhism teaches two very good reasons to give thanks, both of which have universal relevance.

The first is being thankful because we have such a precious human life right now. The second is being thankful to others, because without them this life would be impossible. Contemplating our good fortune makes us feel lucky to have it – and feeling lucky is feeling happy. Contemplating others’ kindness opens our heart to gratitude and appreciation, and feeling grateful is also feeling happy. Feeling happy in turn makes us value what we have and value others, and then we are far more likely to use what we have to pay others back.

So, if we really want to embrace the full meaning of “Thanksgiving” and feel doubly happy and energized to pay it forward, it seems like a win-win meditation to put these 2 meditations together … therefore I thought I would quickly offer a few ideas, providing I can get this written before I fall into a sugar coma (I ate already.)

richerAs for the first, we have everything we need to make spiritual progress in this life. And even leaving the opportunity for attaining permanent freedom and enlightenment out of it,  from a mundane point of view we are also far luckier than most of the other humans in this world, not to mention all other living beings, such as the cat on my lap. In an earlier article I listed the results of some research showing what happens if the whole world is to be shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same. That list of what could be but isn’t shows us where we fit in the grand scheme of things, and it occurred to me that every one of these good fortunes comes entirely from others. As a kind of contemplation, therefore, I’m going to list each one and then explain (1) how lucky that makes me, and (2) how this luck is all thanks to others.

  • 80 would live in substandard housing. Yesterday I was standing outside in Denver waiting for someone to givehomeless me a ride home as it felt bitterly cold and I was carrying shopping. I waited next to a guy in his twenties whose face was blue with cold. He had a skinny Chihuahua with him, and they were walking quickly up and down the sidewalk to keep warm. “When are they going to get a chance to get warm?”, I thought, for they were both homeless. I on the other hand live in a well-built house, and it comes entirely from others’ kindness, as I have never built a house in my life and wouldn’t know where to begin.
  • 67 would be unable to read. How much I take for granted my ability to read and write. When I read writewas staying in a remote Brazilian rain forest some years ago in meditation retreat, none of the valley dwellers had a reading age past 12, and as a result their world was quite confined. Primary school teachers spent many hours or even years teaching me to read and write, skills I use hugely every day; and I can’t even remember their names.
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation. I just ate a huge dinner, every morsel of which came from others. I brought some peas, it is true; but, honestly, all I had to do is open the freezer door, provided by others, take out the frozen peas, grown, harvested, and packaged by others, put them in a saucepan manufactured by others, add boiling water from plumbing and a kettle provided by others, boil them on a stove made by others … anyway, you get the point. And I still took the credit when people thanked ME for the peas! (not that they did, but had they …)
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply. I may complain when the water doesn’t come out of the faucet, but we know how far many people have to walk each day just to carry back a bowl of water, the amount I probably use washing a few pieces of cutlery. And all the water I take for granted comes entirely from the kindness of others.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation. I certainly take my bathroom for granted. But why!!? And how water scarcitykind of others to provide me with sanitation so I don’t have to use a hole in the ground or wash once a year. 
  • 24 would not have any electricity. It’s been cold outside, as I said. But I am very cozy and warm inside. I can also stay cool in summer. The lights are on; I just have to flip a switch. Yes, it is worth thinking this one through – the moment by moment infrastructure of my life is a result of others.
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet. I am able to write and post this, for a start. And all I have to do is move my fingers over the keyboard – fingers provided for me by my parents and typing taught me by … again, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten their name.
  • 1 would have a college education. The fact that we have any education is a blessing, and it all comes from others.
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death. I will indeed be near death before too long, in that regard we are all the same; however, I have better chances of good health and a long life than most due to doctors, good nutrition, etc. – all again coming from the kindness of others.
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US. Hmmm. The richer we are, the MORE we depend on others.

Also, in the same article I spoke of how much religious freedom we have compared with most people in the world. And, again, this makes us both very lucky, and also very indebted to those who provide us with everything we need to make spiritual progress and bring an end to suffering.icing on cake

All told, we are outrageously lucky and it is worth thinking about this from time to time rather than focusing on what is wrong with our life – of course we all have problems, but our problems are a walk in the park compared with those of others (see above.) Better to count our blessings on a regular basis. We may not have all the icing, but we DO have the cake.

I hope you enjoy your cake and eat it this Thanksgiving, and indeed every day. We can thank our lucky stars for being so lucky, and thank pretty much every living being as they have all directly or indirectly had a hand in bringing us this good fortune. And now we can pay it forward — using these current great conditions to become a better person, hopefully even a Buddha, for others’ sake.

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.

Being a modern-day Bodhisattva

This is the 3rd of 4 articles on our precious human life.

In Breathing for Peace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

six perfections

Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

We could do something truly radical by using our life to become a friend of the world, a modern-day Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by universal compassion, wants to help everyone without exception find lasting freedom and happiness. Compassion fuels their entire spiritual progress. They understand that the most far-reaching and satisfying way to help others is to keep increasing their own good qualities of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom – the so-called six perfections – until they become an enlightened Buddha able to help everyone all the time. This motivation is called bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment.

A Bodhisattva is a rare being, a special person, an actual hero or heroine who gains victory over our real enemies of anger, greed, despair, discouragement and so on. Someone who wants to become enlightened for all living beings is uncommon, but just because it is rare doesn’t mean we can’t become one. There are people throughout the world working selflessly for others, in ways obvious or hidden. Sometimes we stumble across their stories and are inspired.  

Rick Chaboudy modernday Bodhisattva
Rick Chaboudy, modern-day Bodhisattva, savior of too many animals to count

If we decided we wanted to help others with surgical procedures, we would understand the need to train as a surgeon. We wouldn’t march around with a carving knife announcing, “Anyone care for some heart surgery? Or perhaps a little amputation?” Wanting to help everyone, a Bodhisattva knows they first need to improve their own motivation, skills and capacity. They have a way to make every single day meaningful and are a great role model for how to live in the world.

How can we live a meaningful life?

How does someone become a Bodhisattva? Simply through daily practice, one step at a time. You may be thinking, “Well this is a bit fanciful isn’t it?! I started reading this article just out of curiosity, and possibly to help me get through this stressful day without killing someone, and now you’re suggesting that I aspire to become a fully enlightened Buddha!” But it is far closer than we may think. We can tell that we already have the seed of bodhichitta because we already want to help others at least a bit more than we can right now, and we already want to improve ourselves at least a bit. Take both of these to their logical conclusion and we have bodhichitta – the wish to help everyone without exception by improving ourselves until there is no further room for improvement.

Modern Buddhism free book

We want our life to have some meaning, don’t we? Pleasure alone is not enough, it feels hollow, because it has no lasting value. True happiness and meaning go hand in hand. If we use our life to travel the spiritual path, we can be in the position of helping not just ourselves but infinite living beings. We can become real heroes.

Spreading a little happiness everyday

A friend of mine sent me this anecdote:

“Straight after university I spent a year working in television in London as a production runner for the Channel 4 comedy series The National Theatre of Brent. As a lot of my time was spent in gridlock, “driving” the company car on errands in London traffic, I had plenty of time to examine road rage. So frustrated by their lack of movement, drivers in front of me would honk their horns continuously, forcing their way into whatever gaps presented themselves. Yet an hour down the road, despite all their aggressive heart-attack—inducing attempts, I would see them again – a whole five cars further ahead!road rage

I decided to conduct an experiment. Whenever possible, I would allow a trapped car into the space ahead of me. When I did this, I was greeted by a smile and wave from the surprised driver, and that car would often play it forward, repeating the gesture of kindness to another car ahead of it. Traffic seemed to flow more easily as a result. My journeys did not take any longer, and they were a great deal more restful and entertaining. This is just a simple illustration. We have these kinds of opportunities to practice loving-kindness every day.”

By improving our love and compassion and the wish to improve ourselves for the sake of others, and by gradually engaging in the Bodhisattva’s way of life, our life approximates that of a Bodhisattva and we become more and more like one. With this good and big heart, even if we improve ourselves only a little bit each day by, for example, patiently resisting the temptation to get angry with someone, and even if we only slightly help one or two people each day, by, for example, helping a little old lady cross the street, every little bit counts a lot because right here and right now we are already making strides on a cosmic spiritual journey.

What is the Meaning of Life?

meaning of life 42
Ermm …

Everyone reading this most likely has a precious human life at the moment. Even comparing ourselves with other human beings, we are really very lucky. Today, if the whole world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would apparently look something like this

  • 80 would live in substandard housing;
  • 67 would be unable to read;
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation;
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply;
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation;
  • 24 would not have any electricity;
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet;
  • 1 would have a college education;
  • 1 would have HIV;
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death;
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US.

Where do you fit into all this? Also, in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study on religious freedom in the world. According to the results, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom. But us? We can read spiritual books, go to meditation classes, go to church, go to the temple, go to yoga classes, practice at home… No one is stopping us from training our mind, fulfilling our true potential and becoming completely happy, except perhaps ourselves. That’s why this meditation on our precious human life comes first in the Lamrim cycle.

So, what is the meaning of life?!

The trillion-dollar question, but one I think we really need to have some kind of answer to if we are to have a meaningful life. ‘Course, meaning depends also on what we want and what we think we can get out of life.

meditating BuddhaBuddha explained how our life can be precious in three ways: from a temporary point of view, from an ultimate point of view, and in every moment. All the things we like doing to experience pleasure and purpose are only possible because we were born as a human being, and we can create the cause for more human life in the future. Not only that, but human beings can make enormous spiritual progress. We can reduce and even totally abandon our delusions, and increase our love, compassion and wisdom as much as we want, if we learn the methods. According to Buddha, within this short life we could even develop all our good qualities to their highest level, enlightenment. From that ultimate point of view, we are also incredibly lucky. Also, right here and now, and in every moment, we can learn to enjoy everything, as well as create the causes for future happiness. You can read all about all of this in the big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Enlightenment

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says:

When we attain enlightenment we will have fulfilled our own wishes, and we can fulfil the wishes of all other living beings; we will have liberated ourself permanently from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives, and we can directly benefit each and every living being every day.

I personally think that does sound impossible to beat. Plus, I believe it is entirely possible for you and me to attain enlightenment. So, I agree with my teacher:

The attainment of enlightenment is therefore the real meaning of human life.

Same actions, different outcomes

As mentioned in this article, we “remain natural while changing our aspiration.” We still do what we do as humans, and we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by running off to live the rest of our life in a cave (if that were even possible). But at the same time we are using this life to journey to liberation and enlightenment by changing our view and intentions. In Kadampa Buddhism, we try to transform everything into the spiritual path. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang says:

Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems…. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.

We can even keep enjoying the things we like enjoying, probably more if we can find a way to make them meaningful and not a cause of attachment and disappointment/aversion. I just watched my new team, the Denver Broncos, being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t understand the game at all, but even I could see they were being massacred. I am now seriously having to consider going back to supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs. Or… Geshe Kelsang was once asked by a diehard football enthusiast how to transform watching football into the spiritual path. Geshe-la replied:

Rejoice for the winners, and have compassion for the losers.

Those are actually the two main practices of a Buddha — if we managed to do that, instead of staring sadly and disbelievingly at the telly, even watching the Super Bowl could be meaningful. Could be. Depends. (I am not in fact a football enthusiast myself, but was invited to a gathering near South Park in the snow-capped Rockies, and want to get to know my new neighbors; plus I do like the snacks. We left at half-time, full of compassion …)

A star in the midday sky

Not only is our current opportunity really precious, it is also exceedingly unusual – according to Buddha, as rare as a star seen in the midday sky.

rabbit in the moonIf we think about all the daily ways in which we can make our life meaningful, we’ll come to realize that we are very lucky – this deep experience stays with us all the time and changes everything. Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon? Funnily enough, it was the rabbit I always saw as a kid, never the man in the moon. Years later I discovered that the Tibetans call the moon the “rabbit-bearer” because they also see the clear shape of a rabbit on its surface. You may have glanced up at the moon for many years and not seen it, perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. Then, one day, “Got it!” From that moment on you’ll always see the rabbit whenever you see the moon. I think realizations are rather like this. Once we have realized our good fortune we are uplifted – never separated from the happy mind that appreciates and wants to make the most of it.

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(This article is a continuation from this one … and your comments are very welcome.)

Live life lightly, live it well

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park
View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best ways to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters
This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life 🙂

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!