Addicted to social media?!

A term for Buddhist is “inner being” because, theoretically at least, we have decided to seek happiness from within rather than from without.

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resWe are making a shift from trying to solve problems in our body and mind outside our body and mind to solving the problems of our body, and especially our mind (because all our problems come from there), inside the mind. And that basic shift in emphasis, or change of direction, is what I would say makes someone a Buddhist, or inner being.

Changing direction

An inner being can have a job, take showers, bring up families, help society, and all the rest of it. But their interest is in developing their minds, increasing their capacity for freedom and happiness from within. Realizing their inner potential or Buddha nature, inner beings are interested in getting rid of all the delusions, limitations, and sufferings from their mind, and helping others do the same.

For this we need renunciation, understanding the faults and pitfalls of samsara. For without renunciation, despite any amount of intellectual understanding of Dharma, we have an overwhelming need to grab our happiness and solve our problems “out there.” This is even when part of us knows — full well really — that it is not working. “Let me just send one more text! Let me try once more to change their view of me! Let me just tell this person what I think of them, they need to know …”

The eight worldly concerns

8 worldly concernsWorldly beings have what are called the “eight worldly concerns“, where we are overly interested in garnering praise while avoiding criticism, trying to make people like and admire us rather than dismissing us, getting hold of material stuff while avoiding loss, seeking one pleasure after another while avoiding the slightest unhappiness. We’re all at it!

But an inner being knows that this is a bit like drinking saltwater to quench our thirst – the most we can ever get is a little short-lived relief. One of Gen Losang‘s sayings used to be (maybe still is): “Leave the object alone.” Point being, we don’t need to keep chewing on the objects of our desires or our problems, trying or wishing to make them change or cooperate. If we know how to change our thoughts through Dharma, these problems automatically disappear and our desires for happiness are automatically satiated, all without the object having to do anything from its own side.

It is such a relief to know this. It puts us back in control of our own moods, rather than being like a puppet on the strings of someone else’s behavior or random inpenetrable thoughts. An object of unrequited attachment can become an object of renunciation or compassion, for example. An object of jealousy can become an object of rejoicing or of wisdom. With Dharma, we get to choose. We can go through the day happy rather than sad. We are free. maxresdefault

Renunciation for mistaken appearances

Dharma, as you may have noticed, goes deep. Bottom line is that we need renunciation for self-grasping ignorance AND for all mistaken appearances, that is, things appearing to exist dualistically, outside our mind. As we request in this prayer in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:

I request you … liberate me from dualistic appearance. ~ page 72.

This renunciation may take a while because we have the habitual tug of attachment to the things outside our mind that we like and aversion to the things outside our mind that we feel are in some way doing us wrong; and we are kind of attached to these delusions themselves, as well as the ignorance that underpins them. We are used to employing them to sort out our problems and get what we want. Plus we don’t necessarily want things to be mere appearances to our minds, as explained in this article.

Shadow-Projection-Night-LightBut we come to see over time, by applying this Dharma wisdom to our own experiences, that any mental movement outwards toward a “real” world — a world outside our mind and indeed pretty much outside our control — is subtly painful, and sometimes of course incredibly painful.

Plus, it is grasping at these appearances has kept us trapped in samsara since beginningless time. We have been fighting so hard and so long on behalf of this insubstantial I against all others, with the endless mental push and the pull toward the appearances that seem to harm or help it; and this internal struggle has caused us nothing but bad karma and pain.

The pain we feel as we wander around does not inhere in the object, as it appears to, but in the way we are holding the object. Even allowing our thoughts and their objects to settle via simple breathing meditation helps this dualistic appearance dissolve so we find ourselves experiencing a natural inner peace. And if we take it further — to switch attachment out for love, say — the pain we were so convinced came from the object goes away and stays away. Both the mind and its object have changed simultaneously, co-dependently. This is because, as Geshe Kelsang explains in the Mahamudra teachings, objects are not outside the mind. Subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from the ocean of the root mind, like waves. 

The pitfalls of social media

Maybe because retreat season is coming up for Kadampa Centers everywhere, which means that a lot of people might be switching off their Smartphones for awhile, I was thinking today of Facebook and other social media as a classic example of fleeting insubstantial mistaken appearances that have sucked us all (me) in, engendering the eight worldly concerns.

And then this article appeared, with Facebook itself acknowledging that social media use can be bad for users’ mental health, a sign the company is feeling pressure from a growing chorus of critics raising alarms about the platform’s effect on society.

before-facebookSo many of us these days are hopelessly addicted to the push and pull of social media, feverishly logging in to see what we have missed and whether other people (especially those we currently have a thing for) liked our posts. We can get into Facebook surveillance, aka stalking too, which this study discovers is (not surprisingly) a major impediment to moving on with our lives.

Social media can seem so innocent, partly as everyone is doing it, and partly as it does have a good quality of conveniently connecting us to others when it is working well. Or, rather, when we are working well, such as when we’re not consumed with insecurity, attachment, FOMO, and when we genuinely want to bring some happiness to those we interact with.

Social media has its uses, for sure. Social media has allowed me to write this blog and reach people, for example, all over the world. Simple and easy communication even across the globe is also a result of good karma, as opposed to this environmental effect that comes from the action of divisive speech:

Since divisive speech makes smooth and harmonious relationships between people difficult and painful, we have to inhabit a hard and inhospitable environment where communications are difficult to establish. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune, p 250

Electronic communication also creates a more level playing field for all parties to get involved regardless of their gender, age, race, social standing, and education.

But attachment to it is painful and frustrating, just like any attachment, and it can b0bf5c9a73b9d34a1919e55e1d9e5091dominate our waking hours if we’re not careful. It’s hard to get much done if we are constantly scratching the itch — “I’ll just check my Facebook feed before I start this …” — and then we feel cheated and bad about our unproductive days.

Can I control my mind, switch off, go deep each day? Can I drop all thoughts? Our motivation may be to help others, but we cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own, as Atisha put it. That entails the ability to concentrate. And concentration is about staying on one object, as stable as Mount Meru. Surfing the internet is about perpetual motion. Can we reconcile the two?

I have fallen prey to the lure of social media from time to time. I find that although I really appreciate the ease of communication we can have these days with people all over the world, I don’t like having a dependency. So I try to resist the urge to passively read everything, and limit the amount of time I spend online. I am currently watching my mind to see how often I have the urge to scratch that itch of wanting to check my feed/texts/gmail/etc, even when I am in the middle of a perfectly nice moment. It is challenging at first, but if we stop scratching itches, they go away. How long is that going to take?! I will let you know. You can let me know too, if you try something similar 😁

Going cold turkey can also be a very good idea and useful way to see where we’re at, especially during retreat season. Just sayin’.tweeting

As it says in this article:

The Social Network is an amazing phenomenon, an amazing opportunity to see the truth of interdependence, that none of our lives occur in an isolated vacuum. Social networking is also, possibly, the most widespread addiction on our planet right now, sucking billions of hours we’ll never get back again.

Studies I have read indicate, amongst other signs of our collective addiction to screens: kids under the age of eight apparently use screens for 2 hours a day; preteens and teens for an average of 7.5 hours; and adults for an average of 8.5 hours a day. We tend to check our phones 150 times a day. 150 times!!! In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in 4 people check their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” Some of those services we use on our phones have become more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes, and make us feel worse about ourselves, even when we use them. Not to mention, when we use them at night, the light from our screens can ruin our sleep.Funny facebook addiction image pics

 

A poem

Here is a poem written by HT, a London musician and Kadampa Buddhist, that sums up some of this pain of attachment:

When you’re scrolling on your phone and you’re all alone
What are you looking for?
When you’re browsing online and you’re clicking one more time
What are you searching for?
There’s a hole in your heart from which you’re never apart
Which reminds you that you’re in need
There’s a crack in your smile that’s been buried for a while
In the place where no one else can see

When you’re opening the fridge choosing something rich
What are you looking for?
When you pour another drink before you’re over the brink
What are you searching for?
There’s a pull from a place that has never seen grace
And lures you into desolate land
There’s a voice in your head that keeps you up in bed
And mocks that nothing is going to plan

When you’re staying up late and your desire escalates
What are you waiting for?
When your body’s in a mess and you struggle to get dressed
What are you living for?
There’s a hole in your life full of struggle and strife
Which makes you question every step of the way
There’s a void in your mind which lingers behind
Every action and each word that you say

When you’re out in the street seeking someone to meet
What are you looking for?
When you’re trying to catch the eye of the people passing by
What are you searching for?
There’s a perpetual wish that can never be fixed
For an end to the bittersweet quest
There’s a dream of a world and a forever girl
Who can finally let you rest

But what you don’t see is that you have everything you need
Right now, in this moment, in your heart
If you recognise this truth then you will have no use
Of seeking that from which you must part
The river flows on, and yet it never was:
You can’t step in the same river twice
So surrender to the peace that will only increase
And that never comes to you at a price

What are you seeking, what are you wanting,
What are you searching for?
You have it all within you, waiting to be realised
So, come on in: you can close the door.

Another friend, CB, who is, incidentally, a highly successful public speaker and all-around lovely guy, posted this poem on Facebook (ironically!), with a photo and explanation:

25348470_10100273660399432_4598317039153268998_n

“How I feel late at night after just a few minutes on Facebook comparing myself to others. Judging my insides by other people’s outsides. “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” (the Desiderata)

My dear brother HT has articulated the absurdity and danger of social media beautifully in this poem. What happens when we forget how to be happy without the approval of others?”

As modern Buddhists, inner beings, we want to learn to transform everything into the spiritual path. We are living at a time when everything could distract us and addict us, or we could learn somehow to transform it to our advantage. My question is, given that this technology is not going away, how can we get on board while understanding it is a tool, not a refuge? The answer to this seems crucial if we are to find inner peace and liberation.

Over to you. Comments, insights, all help welcome 😄

Don’t leave me alone in here! ~ a Buddhist’s thoughts on Smartphone addiction

smartphone addictionSociety today could do with some meditation!

Science journal recently published a sobering study that has not surprisingly created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. Get this:

“In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.”

6 to 15 minutes?! Apparently they reached for their Smartphones after only a couple of those minutes and, when these were denied them, they even administered themselves electric shocks — anything to stop themselves from being left alone with their own minds.

It’s true that people hate waiting in line, at airports, for friends, in traffic, in doctor’s offices, etc. What did we do in the old days, before we had our gadgets?

The study said people found it “unpleasant” because a lot of their thoughts were unpleasant or negative. There’s a lot of unprocessed sadness, loss, sorrow about. Louis CK does a very good riff on this in this video, worth a watch:

smartphone in carExtract: “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive.”

He describes sitting through his sadness one day, and coming out the other side actually happier, accompanied by a Bruce Springsteen song. Ironically, the day before seeing this video I was listening to “Philadelphia” and had a similar experience of a loss coming up and then subsiding, good old Bruce. You know how people say, “It’s okay to be sad”? There is truth in that. (As long as we are not identifying with the sadness, though – see below). If we let ourselves experience our thoughts, we see that they are not as scary as they seemed while they were still lurking in the shadows. The more we understand what our mind actually is — a clear formless awareness that is naturally peaceful — the more we realize that the passing shadows of clouds can in no way affect its spaciousness and natural freedom.

Give yourself a real break

In a readable commentary to the Science study called No Time to Think in the New York Times, Kate Murphy says:

“But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.”

happiness 2Life is full of loss for all of us. I once heard a Tibetan Lama say:

“Anyone who lives a long life has a sad story to tell.”

But the way to deal with sorrow is not just to pretend that these things aren’t happening, try to change channels, try to keep ourselves insanely busy. If we don’t allow ourselves to observe these sad thoughts, we are not going to take responsibility for them, nor discover that they are not in fact as frightening or harmful as we dread. We are not going to process them. We are not going to accept them, see them as just waves arising from the natural clarity and peace of our formless awareness. We are not going to be able to let them go, or transform them, or become happy. They are going to be recurrent thoughts. This distraction doesn’t work anyway – as one psychologist says:

“Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.”

So in Buddhism, we do the exact opposite – we spend a lot of time with our thoughts, coming to know our own minds well through empirical observation so that we can transform them. We develop mindfulness, or presence of mind, to actually loosen our grip on the distractions and sorrowful thoughts as opposed to pushing them down like a jack in the box.

The patience of voluntarily enduring suffering jack in the box

Actual problems or suffering are the unpleasant thoughts or feelings in our own minds, nothing outside. When we think compassionate or wise thoughts, for example, about the things we perceive, we inhabit a different world – there is no world outside of our perception of it. To transcend suffering, to think differently, however, we first need to be able to accept these problems wholeheartedly without wishing that they were otherwise. Pushing them aside out of fear or denial, repressing or suppressing them, just makes us more deeply tormented and unhealthy, and can perpetuate a vicious downward spiral due to their inevitable, insistent recurrence.

In How to Solve our Human Problems, there is a really helpful section on this so-called “patience of voluntarily enduring suffering” (pages 42 onwards in my edition), and I really hope you get a chance to read all of it. Here is an extract:

“Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from… In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously…. Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings.”

Buddha said that the root cause of our mental pain is the two distorted ego-minds of self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing. The article would also seem to suggest something along these lines:

“To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally” said Dr. Kross of Michigan.”

As Geshe Kelsang succinctly puts it in a sentence that has helped thousands of people, including me:

“There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind.” ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

As soon as we stop identifying with our problems, “Oh woe is me!”, we can step back and look at them curiously, objectively even. We can practice transforming difficulties into interesting challenges, and experience the sweet taste of victory as the fear and sadness subside. Sometimes all in the time frame of one Bruce Springsteen song 🙂

And that’s not all …

The article also talks about empathy, or the growing lack of it in an over-stimulated society, when we don’t reflect on our own thoughts and feelings — for how then are we supposed to understand the experiences of others? In Buddhism, we use our own suffering to remind us 3d rendering of a water splash with ripple shaped as a heart.of the suffering of others so we can wish them to be free – this is compassion, vital for spiritual growth and happiness.

Also, there is no sorrow if we have not actually lost anything. If we go further and use our wisdom to understand how everything is simply the nature of our mind, all appearances and their minds arising and ceasing simultaneously from the same karmic seeds in the clarity of our root mind, like waves arising and falling in an ocean, we can relax deeply. There is nothing really out there to grasp at or to lose. Check out Joyful Path for more on this (p. 319-320).

So, next time we find ourselves alone, perhaps all of us could put down our Smartphones and look inside our own minds for entertainment instead. We and society might be a lot better off for it.

Over to you. I would love to hear your insights into this subject and any solutions!

The power of communication to change lives

thank you for visiting Kadampa Life quarter million visits

It was Red Nose Day yesterday in the UK. I really like Red Nose Day. Comedians and celebrities do funny, embarrassing, and risky things in order to bring awareness and money to children who need it.

I don’t have a TV but thanks to the internet (and BBC iPlayer) I was able to watch 6 celebrities — including Sporty Spice Mel C, Philips Idowu (who has a terror of water), and Jack Dee — risk life and limb rafting down the Zambezi  in “Through Hell and High Water”.

In between the very good photography (some taken just with the celebs helmet cams when they’d tipped over and were hanging onto tree branches for dear life with anyone supposed to be helping them already way, way downstream) and voiceover of their exploits (they seemed to be in real danger on at least a few occasions), the celebs were visiting children like 11-year old Cynthia, who couldn’t go to school as she was too poor and had too much housework to do in lieu of her sick mother. They joined children on their daily two-hour walk each way to get to school, and not along nice paved sidewalks either — even Philips Idowu found it grueling. The celebs were moved and spoke movingly about what they were seeing, and they made me press Yes to text money a few times until I remembered that it was ending up on my mum’s phone bill (long story, oops! I’ll pay you back, promise!) Red Nose Day has raised 75 million quid so far (and there’s still time to donate more)!

I was impressed by the good sportsmanship of those taking part in this 5-day challenge – even when they had a totally terrible, scary day they determined to carry on because they wanted to help, and they were unfailingly good-natured with each other as well despite the heat, the exhaustion, the dirt, the fear, the insect bites.

red nose day

I was also struck about how easy it is for us to see what is going on in other parts of the world, to expand our horizons, through the power of the internet. How easy it has made it for us to communicate and spread ideas, and meet people all around the world – to feel part of the same huge human (and animal) family. It is far harder to hold onto musty ancient prejudices in the oxygen of internet exposure.

I could of course speculate any number of things about the dangers of too much internet use, wondering aloud how it is going to be possible to develop strong concentration while we succumb to too much distraction, and musing how, as with any tool for communication, it can be used for good or for bad. But overall I welcome this modern development – and there is no doubt that it has been a very useful way to spread meditation and Buddhism throughout the world. This blog is just one small way of how this can happen, it is riding a wave. With his free gift of Modern Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang showed his understanding of the power of modern communication, and harnessed it to an immensely beneficial end. Modern Buddhism is (I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong) in the top ten Buddhist books on Amazon, downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and counting. That is hundreds of thousands of people who might not have met Buddhism for years if they’d had to rely on their local library storing a hard copy of a Buddhist book.

Modern Buddhism book on ipadKadampa Buddhist meditation is immensely practical and useful for people in all walks of life and all over the world, and it doesn’t belong just to Buddhists. A lot of it is simply common sense with bells on – it doesn’t require us to believe things that we can’t test in our own experience or using our own powers of reasoning. And once we know the methods for finding inner peace, freely given in Modern Buddhism, we can practice them whenever and wherever we want — no one can take that away from us.

We are all about “modern Buddhism” these days, and modern Buddhism necessarily takes place in modern lives. In the early days, as Kadampa Buddhism segueyed from sequestered Tibetan monasteries into the West, we did things very differently. We tried to a large extent to emulate the monastic way of life, even as lay people – moving into residential centres, joining full-on study programmes, and working full-time for those centres. Back in the day, we had no TV, no internet (barely invented), no Smartphones – it is pretty much impossible nowadays to live and practice as we did in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s. Some people still live, study, and work full time in our large residential centres, at least on and off, but the vast majority of Kadampa Buddhists worldwide live “out” in the world with their families, regular jobs, mortgages, etc., and are learning to put the teachings into practice and get results in many different contexts.

The world has modernized beyond belief and we are moving with it. I think we are all still very much in the process of modernizing the presentation of Buddhism to fit into this new reality so that people can still gain deep realizations like the monastics and Yogis in Tibet. I for one am watching this process with great interest. I welcome this adaptation of Buddhism to the modern world, I like that it is so much easier for people to share ideas and awaken to the lives of others even if they live in far-flung places, and my hope with this blog is to help that process along in one small way. Geshe Kelsang once told me we need to “go where the people are”. I think that most of you can often be found here, in Cyberspace! Kadampa Buddhism in cyberspace

Growing up, I was probably less “modern” than almost any other Westerner I know. Moving around from continent to continent meant that I knew a lot about the people I was living with, my local schools, and so on, but we had little to no communication with the rest of the world. There were no TVs (let alone computers) in those countries back then. One UK newspaper came over weekly in the diplomatic bag, and was then shared out amongst the staff, starting with the Ambassador, and eventually arriving tattered at our house. We used the telephone on Christmas Day to call my grandparents, keeping the call short due to its ludicrous expense. I watched my first movie around the age of 8, it was a Dracula movie at a drive-in theater with a scratchy screen (and I loved it!) I read, a lot! I had lots of time to think, and there was time for my imagination to go crazy in 20-page stories I wrote for my teachers and long-suffering parents. I was outside running and biking around a lot, and started lots of societies for all my friends – gymnastics, dancing, animal protection, etc. I collected tortoises, cocoons, ants, and other animals so I could look after them. (I know, they should have just got me a dog.) My first accent was Sri Lankan where I learned to speak, later I had a West Indian accent for two years. Early photos show me looking like Mowgli from the Jungle Book. When I was eventually sent back to the motherland for “reintegration” in my teens, I knew a lot about different places and people and the contents of (often old, musty) books, but I was clueless about global and current affairs. I had never studied anything except English, maths, and local history and geography, and I had a lot of catching up to do. facebook

I left scores of friends behind in all the countries I lived in – once I left, I never heard from them again, unless we wrote letters (didn’t happen, except in the case of Debra, whom I recently re-found miraculously through Facebook). And how different to Facebook, where it might now be impossible for a child ever to lose a friend even if they want to – friends follow you around forever! If the Internet had existed when I was a child, none of the above would apply. At any rate, it was not a problem, my childhood was great, and I did catch up. And everyone my age and older has this experience to some extent or another of how life has changed, modernized, and become transparent in communication beyond our wildest dreams; we have all changed with it. And I’m not THAT old!!

Since I started writing Kadampa Life at the end of 2011, there have been more blogs appearing that share people’s experiences of practicing Buddhism and meditation in their daily lives. I want to give a shout out to some of these, and you can find a list here (please let me know if your blog has inadvertently been left out).

Daily Lamrim A great feat, Vide Kadampa, a working man and father of 3, has written an article on Lamrim meditation every single day – you can see his meditation practice deepening with each cycle of 21 meditations, and he has a wonderful way with analogies. Well worth following.

This Mountain, That Mountain Mimi explains how she has used meditation to help her transform her cancer.

Kadampa Working Dad Started as a guest writer on Kadampa Life, now soaring on his own…

Cosmic Loti Quirky and warm, Buddhism in action.

Luna Cruciente By a kind-hearted Buddhist nun, in Spanish.

Heart of Compassion A promising and interesting new arrival.

There is also a Kadampa Buddhist Facebook page/forum for parents and another one for professionals.

Judging by the shares, people are appreciating the internet videos of how Buddhism is helping rural communities in South Africa too, such as this one, which is 9 minutes well spent watching.

One of the most inspiring, to me, recent developments in communication has been the possibility of Ben Fletcher teaching Buddhism in sign language to people all over the world – if we can video him and put him on YouTube and spread it through social media. Ben was born deaf and has never heard a sound. He is one of the most radiant meditators I have met. Young Dorje, aged 3, living at Manjushri Centre, summed up the usual reaction to meeting Ben for the first time when he turned to his mum after 2 minutes and asked: “Mum, why do I love that man so much?  I won’t say any more about Ben for now, other than to say I spent a lot of time with him a couple of weeks ago at Manjushri Centre and he blew my socks off. I will try to watch every video ever made of him. He is teaching for the first time next week, March 23, in Southampton!! You can see a video of him here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEkeC26XDUI&feature=youtu.be

Going back to Red Nose Day, spinning off from Live Aid it also reminds me of how Kadampa Buddhism first came to America. I want to finish today with an amazing story by a friend of mine who accompanied Geshe Kelsang to America on that first trip. This has always struck me as a fortuitous example of the power of communications to transform many lives if harnessed to an extraordinary end.

(Please share your thoughts on this article and how to modernize the presentation of Buddhism in the comments box below.)

The frog story

In the 1980’s a simultaneous rock concert in London and Philadelphia called Live Aid was organized to beat back famine in Ethiopia. It reached a worldwide television audience.

My Teacher saw some of it too and became aware of the donation appeal to help the starving people. Someone had just given him a shiny new car to assist his increasing travels across the UK and, not having any other possessions, my Teacher phoned this benefactor and asked for permission to sell the car and donate the money to Live Aid. The benefactor agreed.

The local newspaper in Ulverston, a quiet Lake District town just next to Manjushri Institute, picked up the story and ran a small piece with a delightful picture of my physically tiny Teacher standing next to the huge car he had just sold. This story was syndicated across the newswires and also appeared in a newspaper in Palm Springs, USA, where it was read by Leland C. Miller, President of the Kilner Foundation, a non-profit organization that dispensed grants for worthy causes. Mr. Miller had recently purchased a copy of my Teacher’s book, Clear Light of Bliss, from his local bookstore, put two and two together, and concluded that here was “the real deal.” He wrote and requested my Teacher to come and give his first teachings in America, saying that his Foundation would sponsor the trip.

I was thrilled when my Teacher called me and asked me to help him organize the trip and accompany him on it. Working with Mr. Miller and responding to other invitations to teach in the US, including at Geshe Sopa’s Deer Park Center in Madison Wisconsin, we arranged the following schedule: Madison Wisconsin, Toronto, Montreal, and Seattle Washington, where Geshe Kelsang would give teachings on Lamrim and the Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments of Heruka & Vajrayogini at the appropriately named Bliss Hall.

It was a magical trip, including a journey to the rainbow-filled Niagara Falls and many other delights. I was snap-happy and took many photos of this historic event. When we returned to the UK, I decided to present my Teacher with an album of these photos as a gift. We looked through the photos together and came to the last one, a group photo of about ten people with my Teacher right at the front. He paused and looked at me; and then he asked a question I was not expecting: “Which one is me?”

I was so dumbfounded that I had no idea what to say. Here was one of the greatest Buddhist Masters of our time, who had written books of astonishing intelligence and brilliance, apparently unable to recognize himself in a photo. It was not a problem I had ever had!

SONY DSCOf course this question stayed with me, and I thought about it for a long time afterwards. I would take a picturesque daily afternoon walk around the lake at Madhyamaka Centre. There is a bench at the bottom of the lake, which presents the most beautiful view of the centre and the rolling hills behind, where I often stopped and meditated for a while. On one of these occasions I noticed a group of frogs in the water below. As I watched this scene I had a revelation.

Buddha taught that there are six different realms of existence, including animal realms, human realms and god realms – all dream, or nightmare-like, projections of mind where we take repeated rebirth according to our karma. I had recently read that from the perspective of someone who has taken rebirth in the god realms, we human beings are as ugly and smelly as frogs. I also understood from Buddha’s teachings that enlightened beings have the power of emanation, and that one of these powers is the ability to appear in many different forms, both animate and inanimate, for the benefit of living beings.

It dawned on me – what if I, as a human, wanted to help these frogs directly by teaching them how to be happy, co-exist peacefully, not be so attached to each other’s bodies, and attain a higher rebirth such as in the human realm? Would I not need to appear in a form that they could relate to, namely as another frog? I would still keep my human mind and my sense of my human life, but would simultaneously appear as a frog. What if I asked a keen young little frog to help me organize a trip across the pond to the other bank, where I could meet other frogs and teach them a spiritual path? What if that frog kept snapping photos of me here and there? And what if, the journey safely concluded, that young frog presented me with a group photo of ten frogs in a row? Would I not have to ask, “Which one is me?”

What is a day for?

“There is more to life than its speed.” ~ Gandhi

I’ve always liked this quote. Life is precious, and life is short. I don’t want it to go by in a blur. Everyone is pursuing happiness and freedom, and seemingly working harder and longer as times roll on, but how are we all feeling at the end of a day? Given the amount of motivation, education, effort, and time we throw at the task of feeling happy and getting rid of problems, 24/7, one would think that each day would be better than the one before.

That would mean that today is the best day of your life.

Is it?

If not, happiness and freedom are either impossible, or we’re going about them the wrong way. Buddha concluded the latter and helpfully explained where we were going wrong in his 84,000 teachings.

The perils of multi-tasking

the perils of multitaskingTime Magazine a few years ago did a magazine article on the “perils of multitasking”. It shared “The latest research on how to stay mentally sharp” in a complex (read “over busy”) world. The main conclusions I could glean were that we can drink more coffee to perk up our IQ! Or, if that fails, we can take Ritalin…

I do like a cup of coffee in the morning, but I think the mental sharpness it confers is rather limited and temporary compared to the magic of meditation, which makes our brain bigger in all the right places.

Apparently, multitasking, for all its seeming efficiency, exacts a heavy toll on the quality of our output (and life). The article gave the example of a film producer who was always doing five things at once, wherever she is — whether in the office, on the go, even in the elevator — from the moment she rises ‘til bedtime. She is “fidgety, demanding, chattering” and tied to her gadgets – on the phone, typing notes, glancing at incoming email, motioning signals to her assistant, firing off an instant message. While driving, she is talking, drinking coffee, and checking her Smartphone for a number. Most of us seem to be like that these days, to a greater or lesser degree. Huge amounts of time are now lost to distraction.

But why? What are we actually trying to accomplish? This woman admitted to the journalist that she has noticed some drawbacks to her multi-tasking, such as impatience, irritability, anger, snappishness, and inefficiency. She says she feels a constant state of anxiety, whether her inbox is empty or full. She has an action- and anxiety-packed work day.

Facebook screen suckerIf we are not careful, the gadgets to lighten our load ensnare us and disrupt our work and creativity. We may all be addicted to some degree – sucked in by our screens. Statistics are a little alarming – modern workers spend an average of 11 hours a day attached to some form of media. This means that the mind is never just sitting still. And it is a vicious circle, for the more we stimulate our mind, the less it can stay still, and so the more we need to stimulate it to keep it sufficiently entertained or occupied.

Apparently the last decade has seen a 10-fold rise in symptoms like ADD, where people feel more irritable and pressurized, less able to relax, and less organized. And the ability to prioritize starts to suffer, which again begs the question: “What is a day for?!” If you ask me, a day is for increasing our mental peace, not decreasing it. We can’t be happy if we’re not peaceful, and we all want to be happy – that’s why we’re multitasking in the first place! For mental peace, we need mental space and positivity. So a day is not for a lot of external activity for its own sake, but for controlling our mind. Prioritizing this is rather essential, starting with our motivation. And, when we don’t absolutely HAVE to be online, in our own time, we can switch the gadget off, sit somewhere comfortable, and pick up a meditation book… That habit can also become addictive, and it is a pleasant, uplifting habit to have.

relaxing, space, peaceI think a successful day depends not on what we got “done”, but on how positively we met with challenges, kept a happy, creative mind, overcame our faults, and cherished others. It doesn’t matter then whether we get a lot done externally or just a little — in both cases we can rest assured that we have done a good day’s work and moved in a good direction.

Do you agree, or not? Is this just a recipe for laziness? What do you think a day is for?