Unlock the power of intention

6.5 mins read + a video. 

Where did COVID-19 spring from? This surprising catastrophe hasn’t actually appeared out of nowhere, of course – it has been a long time in the making. It has arisen in dependence upon numerous physical causes — whatever those may be, and opinion differs — and also in dependence upon numerous mental causes – to wit, our individual and collective intentions and actions.

A little while back I wrote an article called Quantum Buddhism, which was inspired by this video:

 

This video gives a glimpse into how essential our minds are in creating our reality — in fact, our intentions do create our reality. Buddha talked about this many, many centuries ago, he called it “karma”.

What exactly is karma?

The Sanskrit word “karma” means “action.” It refers specifically to our mental actions, or intentions; and more generally to the law of cause and effect, or actions and their effects, as applied to the world of our mind.

The law of karma is a special instance of the law of cause and effect, according to which all our actions of body, speech, and mind are causes and all our experiences are their effects. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Everything we are experiencing right now, good or bad, is a result of the decisions and intentions we created in the past – not just the immediate past but over many lifetimes. And everything we decide or intend to do now is setting us up for future experiences. We are creating innumerable causes for stuff to happen every single day, designing the landscapes of our mind.

Where do all our good and bad experiences come from? According to Buddhism they are the result of the positive and negative karma we created in the past. As a result of positive karma, attractive and agreeable people appear in our life, pleasant material conditions arise, and we live in a beautiful environment; but as a result of negative karma, unpleasant people and things appear. This world is the effect of the collective karma created by the beings who inhabit it. Because karma originates in the mind—specifically in our mental intentions—we can see that all worlds arise from the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism

Taking karma into account

Life doesn’t arise from blind chance nor merely physical causes. To get a handle on our life and the direction it takes, it’s hugely helpful to think about karma.

We know from Science 101, or from plain old observation, that nothing comes from nothing.  Everything in the physical world has causes; and depending on the causes you get a different effect. If something exists, we have to say there is a definite cause of that thing. If something is a product, we have to say it is the effect of a cause.

Every phenomenon arises from something that’s in the same substantial continuum. For example, our human body comes from the union of our mother’s egg and father’s sperm. A wooden table comes from wood. Wool carpets come from sheep, not from Daddy Long Legs.

Scientists and others have spent generations analyzing causes and effects. As a result, humankind has gained enormous control over and advances in the physical world.

Buddha is a scientist of the mind. The law of karma is just this immutable law of cause and effect as applied to the internal world of our mind, where our mental actions (or intentions) are the substantial causes and our experiences their effects. Understanding this will lead to enormous control over and advances in our mind.

Whenever we do anything intentional, it’s like throwing a boomerang in our mind. Or, as the old saying goes, what goes around comes around. Our lives are divided into good experiences, bad experiences, and neutral experiences and, if we could trace them back, we would see that our good experiences come from our good actions, our bad experiences from our bad actions, and our neutral experiences from our neutral actions. That, in a nutshell, is karma.

The world we “inhabit” or experience therefore depends not just on our current thoughts, moods, perceptions, and so on, but also on our previous thoughts or, specifically, our previous intentions, which are the substantial causes of our experiences. Venerable Geshe Kelsang explained in his 2000 Mahamudra teachings how all subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from karmic potentialities in the root mind, like waves arising from an ocean, as explained more here.

Take today for example. What happened today and where did it come from?

Your experience of today has been ripening from potentials in your mind left by previous intentions or karma. Moreover, we cannot point to a “today” that is other than our experience of today — try pointing at today and see! …….

This shows that there is no objective “today.” There is no “today” out there, outside the mind. Today has just been the moment by moment unfurling of karmic appearances, like a dream unfurling within our mind. It’ll be the same tomorrow. It’s been like this every day.

Can’t judge others

We can’t necessarily tell from people’s outward actions what their intensions are, which means we can’t necessarily tell what karma others are creating with their mental, bodily, and verbal actions.

For example, if I’m standing by road next to Jocelyn and I lash out and knock her over, is that good karma, bad karma, or no karma?!

It might seem pretty bad on the surface of things, and would be if I had pushed her over out of hatred. But what if I wanted to push her out of the way of a passing truck? Or what if I just had a nervous tic and knocked her over unintentionally?

We can only tell about our own actions. Buddha used to say we shouldn’t use his teachings as a magnifying glass to judge other people: “Ooh, look at him, he’s so bad!” Buddhism or Dharma is meant as a mirror to hold up to our OWN thoughts and actions. If we can do this, enormous positive benefits can come to us and we are increasingly able to create a world that is happy, including all the causes for the things that we want. But the only stance to take with respect to others, according to Buddha, is “How can I help you?”

We need to know

Geshe Kelsang says that there are immense contradictions between our wishes and the actions we are performing to fulfill those wishes. Maybe in the short term our actions sometimes seem to work out to fulfil our wishes – if we shoot someone an angry email they may shut up for a while, for example — but in the long run our actions can set us up for disaster. This is because we are not taking karma into account.

If everything depends upon intention, as all Buddhas and some quantum physicists are saying, then, per the video above:

The truth is that no amount of fighting and protesting and campaigning will create real, lasting change as long as there’s anger and hatred and resistance in our hearts. We’ve been down this futile path for endless centuries. One problem solved, and a new one springs in its place, necessitated by the negative energy that solved the first one.

Everything begins and ends in our minds. There is no world outside of our mind, everything is dream-like karmic appearance of mind, created by our intentions. Whatever we intend comes back to us sooner or later. If we keep putting negativity into the world, that’s all we’re going to keep getting back out of it.

What kind of field?

Over 2600 years ago, when Buddha explained karma — the power of our intentions to create our reality — he used the analogy of sowing seeds in a field of soil:

Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potentiality, on our very subtle mind, and each imprint eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Virtuous actions sow seeds of future happiness and non-virtuous actions sow seeds of future suffering. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Back in the day, Buddha probably used the analogy of a field because there were a lot of farmers around (and modern science was not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye). But I reckon we could also talk about planting intentions in the quantum field that later show up as our experiences. Every time we intend something — that is, think, say, or do something deliberately — then its result shows up in our life, sooner or later.

Karma has so many implications for our life! The more we know about it, the better. So over to you. What do you make of karma? I would love to see your comments below.

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Matters of life and death

 

Taking things less personally

9 mins read.

Today finds me contemplating snow again. I am dog/cat/fish sitting in the mountains this week and, despite the 67-degree heat yesterday, woke this morning to a thick blanket of snow. Good thing I brought my snow shoes along with my tee-shirt.

Who are we?

Like snowflakes, every living being is unique. We are each a summation of a very very long history of previous karma, so however similar we may seem physically or even mentally, we are also unique.

Like snowflakes, too, we are all alike in that each of us has the same wish for happiness and freedom, sometimes via the satisfaction of immediate needs, sometimes via the existential question, “What does all this mean?! This has to mean something!”

I stood in line for my Moderna vaccination yesterday – the Denver Health nurses were, as always, kind and welcoming, but everyone seemed a little nervous about their own shot, wanting it to be over, even though we were each just one of millions in line worldwide. Will this give me flu? Will this help me or might it harm me? When is this awful pandemic even going to end? Will my life ever be normal again?

But when we got smiling and chatting a bit in the waiting room, we started to relax because we realized we’re all in this together. Switching our attention off “What about me?” and onto others —  even a little bit — lightens the mind. For my part, I was waving my vaccinated arm around and trying to convince a couple of other people to do the same. This is because I feel I have known my whole life that this is how to stop your arm getting stiff. I think my Mom probably told me this and I still believe it. My new friends did not seem quite so sure, but I still recommend it to you, dear reader 🙂

Like snowflakes, too, our body quickly perishes and we are 100 percent dependent on the other snowflakes – no one can make it on their own for even a second. How many people, for example, were involved in getting that potentially life-saving shot into my arm? (Thank you). Let alone have been responsible for all the other minutes of my life? 

Ego identities

But perhaps unlike snowflakes, each of us has infinite depth – countless lives and boundless potential.

The snow is thick now, despite it being almost April. After a very boisterous snow romp with the big dogs, the puppy is mercifully napping, aka letting me (and the cats) get on with things without being jumped on. Looking at the unique yet still indistinguishable snowflakes around me, I think about what it means to have a sense of self. It seems to me that we generally have a very small, limited, and personal view of self, confined to just one fleeting ego identity, just one life. It’s as if we think we are just one of these snowflakes, believing that this is all there is.

For one thing, if we don’t understand the continuum of mind, we don’t realize that who we really are is a traveler bound for future lives.

For another, with self-grasping and self-cherishing we think that the self or me we normally see is the only real and important me. Inhabiting this self is like inhabiting just one snowflake, in which case the feeling of self-importance is clearly an illusion of grandeur.

Enlightened beings have let go of this fake self by directly seeing that it cannot be found and doesn’t exist. Upon that basis they have been able to complete the exchange of self with others, imputing their sense of me on all the beings in the universe. Their sense of self is now vast – instead of identifying themselves as just one snowflake, they think “me” about all of them. As a result they have effortless love and compassion for everyone.

The self that we normally see is relatively small, poky, limited, and fragile. However, we are misidentifying ourselves because this self we are relating to doesn’t actually exist – I am not my body, not my mind, and not other than my body and mind.

 If we correctly identify our self as mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, as Geshe Kelsang explains in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, we are free to impute ourself on anything, to identify our self as anything or anyone. If we decide to broaden our sense of self to include all the snowflakes, to identify “Me” with all of them, and “My happiness” with all of their happiness, then what happens? What does that feel like?!

When we realize emptiness or selflessness, we take the inherently existent self out, at which point nothing is personal, everything is infinite. Person, being, self, and I are synonyms according to Buddhism, which means that Buddhas are people too. But they have a radically different sense of self than do samsaric beings. Not only is a Buddha a person imputed on all living beings, but they are also a person imputed upon the Truth Body of bliss and emptiness, which pervades all phenomena. Therefore, although an enlightened being is a being or a person or a self, this sense of self is NOTHING like the sense of self possessed by me or anyone else with self-grasping and self-cherishing.

Levels of mind

Watching water dripping from the snow on the roof, as the sun melts it away, I am thinking that this liquid in turn will soon evaporate back into the water vapor from which it came. This reminds me of the revolving levels of our consciousness, from our crunchy static snow-like gross minds to the dripping liquid-like subtle mind that has more movement (as in a dream), to the vaporous very subtle mind that can disperse everywhere.

(BTW, bit of terminology — when manifest in sleep, death, and deep meditation, the very subtle mind is known as the “clear light” mind.)

Everything is changing all the time, moment by moment — but sometimes things seem more solid and permanent. When we identify with our gross waking body and mind, believing that’s basically who we are, we are like a relatively static snowflake. When we dream, and things flit and move around more, we are like dripping or flowing water. When we stop grasping at our gross and subtle mind and body even temporarily during the death process, our vaporous very subtle mind travels to a whole new life. (If we stop this grasping once and for all through meditating on bliss and emptiness, our clear light mind can be everywhere all at once, a Buddha’s omniscient wisdom.)

Then just as water vapor coalesces back into liquid and then snow, so our very subtle mind coalesces into the subtle and gross minds of a new rebirth and we start to grasp again. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang says:

What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp at our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I, I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly,

Are we unique or the same?

Life after life our consciousness is cycling like this, yet in each life we keep believing that we are just that one snowflake and hence exaggerate its importance.

On this surface level our lives are often not that different – for example, we all have the same types of positive and negative minds, such as love and anxiety, varying just in degree or in their objects. My Air BnB hosts in Frisco (where I first started this article) were a sweet couple called Jim and Cyndi, who love Ireland (hence “The Snug” complete with fairyland) and are devoted to each other and their family. We all want security and relationships and adventures, and we all love our dog (Finnogan, who chewed my shoe) and think he’s the best dog ever. Which he is, of course, as are all other dogs.

We hold ourselves and our family and our life experiences to be unique, which on one level they are, yet are we not also all caught up in the monotonous repetitive patterns of samsaric living that involve some happiness, of course, but also the cliché of the seven sufferings? I overheardJim on the phone to his doctor, “I have pain in my lower abdomen”. Later he looked distracted and Cyndi looked drawn, trying to be polite but clearly worried. The Snug was a shrine to their love for their grandchildren and their Irish adventures, but how long can that particular identity last? They will soon be staring into the abyss; yet how can we find meaning there if we don’t understand what we are looking at? If all our lives we have invested only in the fleeting, unstable, and, according to Buddha, mistaken appearances of our gross waking minds?

I like to think about the infinite clear light mind that underlies everything – all minds and their objects arise from this root mind. Every being has it, which means that every snowflake-life and identity is just a temporary manifestation, and every being is in fact infinitely deep and infinitely connected.

Our very subtle mind is not even human.

At the level of clear light, how can you tell us apart? Tell me from you? You can only ever talk about “me and you” from a specific relative standpoint(the standpoint of snowflakes). Our true nature is empty like space, and we can only tell us apart via convention or point of view; just as we can only tell the space in empty bottles apart via the bottles.

What happens when we die

Talking about the abyss, people sometimes take up extreme sports or even criminal activity just to feel alive and transcend their fear and unease of the unknown. Even though they may face down death in these ways, it doesn’t in fact stop the terror when the time actually does come to die because the understanding is still not there.

However, Buddha explained what happens to our consciousness when we die; this doesn’t have to stay unknown, this is verifiable inner science. Many accounts from people with near-death experiences (NDEs) bear this out, as do stories of reincarnation, and many people’s direct experiences in meditation. Talking of which, a friend recently recommended a Netflix documentary called Surviving Death, especially Episode 1 ‘Near Death Experiences’ and Episode 6 ‘Reincarnation’. I just watched a little bit so far, but it looks like it’s going to give people food for thought.

Watching that show I was thinking, yes, it helps to have faith, this gives us some refuge in light of the unknown. But I think it helps more to have faith combined with a considerably greater understanding of consciousness. Death, rebirth, and liberation are not ineffable. What happens during them is verifiable from centuries of personal exploration and experience. If you want to know what happens to us subjectively during the death process, for example, you need reach no further than a copy of Clear Light of Bliss.

I wish everyone who feels existential dread or even just ordinary curiosity would investigate Buddha’s teachings because he was an extraordinarily deep thinker who went out of his way to address all of this. And what he discovered has been practiced with the same results for millennia.

Over to you. Would love to hear your comments.

 

A way through this

A guest article. A couple of friends have written to me in the last couple of days with their responses to the events in Atlanta, saying that I could share these with you.

The power of love ~ by Hannah Kim

Recently someone texted me about recent violence toward Asian Americans. Here is what seems to be coming out of me presently:

1. It seems to me that ignorance hurts everyone.
2. We can generate renunciation for ourselves and compassion for others in order to protect our minds.
3. And lastly we can remember that the best thing we can do right now is to practice loving kindness. It is the only appropriate response — loving kindness, compassion and wisdom. These are the only paths that will lead us out of the chaos, fear and darkness of our times.

This teaching comes from Gen-la Dekyong during the US Summer Festival 2020, which was concurrent with the George Floyd protests. She said that as American Kadampa Buddhists we need to practice loving kindness; and I believe this holds true right now as well.  

Especially if you are not a Buddhist, or even if you are a Buddhist, sometimes it feels as if suggesting the practice of loving kindness can sound very simple minded or perfunctory. After all how can simply loving people stop violence and hatred when what I really want to do
is break something or hit someone?! Or maybe as Buddhists we are just overly trying to be nice, or, worse, ‘virtuous’, or even high and mighty, idealistic.

But I’ve come to realize that Buddha is not saying practice loving kindness in some general, nebulous, though kind hearted way. He’s saying that in our moments of deepest pain, darkness, fear, or discouragement, we must generate affectionate love. True affectionate love will lift our hearts, minds and heads from the morass which is the pit of samsara. It functions as medicine to heal our own pain and the pain of others which can lead to such senseless and hurtful actions.

Geshe Kelsang once said:

Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys our enemies.

He means this in a very specific and literal way. Specific because this is what we are supposed to be doing right now, every day, for every heartache and pain. Literal because we can be nice to people even if others are not nice to us. Ha!

We need to become people who practice loving kindness, compassion and wisdom in order to alter the course of our collective fate, our collective karma.

Lastly, because no one says it better, from Meaningful to Behold:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in
the West.

The power of prayer ~ by Cai

This is my mom, Bây; she is Vietnamese. (I’m the baby in her arms.) We came to America when I was three years old. We endured racism in a small white town in Montana, where I spent most of my childhood. After all these years, I never thought I would again find myself concerned for my mom’s safety and well-being. I am heartbroken by the increasing violence against Asian Americans.

A few Asian American friends have asked me what I am doing to help as a Buddhist. Every day I wake up and make prayers for my mother and my AAPI elders, brothers, and sisters. I ask the divine to make my mother and others invisible to those who want to harm them. I also pray that those who wish to harm are blocked from having the opportunity to harm.

However, with loving-kindness I also pray for those who engage in acts of violence and who inspire violence through their hateful rhetoric. They are cruel and violent because they are profoundly ignorant and riddled with fear and insecurity, and often most likely possessed by or under the influence of demonic interferences. So every day I ask an assembly of wrathful compassionate Deities to remove interferences from the body, speech, and mind of those spewing hatred and engaging in acts of violence. I ask that ignorance be removed from their minds to create an opening in their hearts to be kinder, happier, and more peaceful. Peaceful people do not harm others.

I then finish my prayer by visualizing all those who would do harm experiencing a peaceful state of mind, causing them to see the truth that everyone is deserving of understanding, acceptance, and compassion.

If you want to donate to support the AAPI community — GOFUNDME.COM/AAPI

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Everybody sparkles

6.5 mins read.

It was a fine day for an adventure and, leaving the 6 kittens and their mom with Aunty Erica for a couple of nights, I drove into the mountains toward Five Peaked Mountain for my first getaway in a long while.

My Air BnB, “The Snug,” came complete with mountains on all sides and its very own fairy garden. I sat outside with my face in the sun drinking coffee and contemplating snow because there was an awful lot of it around.

When we meditate, we often imagine that we are surrounded by living beings — our family and so on sitting closest to us but nobody left out. Snow reminds me that I am surrounded by infinite living beings, each unique, each dependent on each other. And I am not a big human being surrounded by miniscule snowflakes – I am also just one of those snowflakes no more important than any other.

Because there was snow as far as the eye could see, so there were snowflakes as far as the eye could see – and living beings too really are countless. Even a few square feet is so packed full of snowflakes, and so too is a city, for example, so packed full of living beings. Yet this is just a tiny tiny portion of all the snow/living beings who are alive and feel important.

Given that, why would one snowflake ever consider itself more significant than any of these others, let alone all these others? Even if it happened to be in charge of the few million snowflakes immediately around it, in the grand scheme of things this is negligible. Not to mention that however powerful a snowflake may think it is, or however popular or talented, it is still 100 percent dependent on all the other snowflakes and cannot last for even a second without them. (Ever seen a snowflake on its own?) And soon of course it will melt just like everyone else. 

Caught by the light, snowflakes sparkle – move just a bit, though, and they stop sparkling while others sparkle instead. In the same way, over a period of countless aeons everybody has sparkled for us as our mother, our partner, our child, and so on, sometimes for a lifetime, sometimes for just a moment. And then they’ve gone dark again as we have moved on or moved away, mentally or physically, including at death.

Mountain misadventure

That same afternoon I went looking for Rainbow Lake. Google Maps had a red dot right in the middle of it, but my car got me only as far as a lay by some miles away.

I walked further than I realized along the rainbow trail – as I got higher, the sun got lower, and it started getting quite chilly. I was leaning against a wooden pole in a sunbeam when a woman on cross country skis passed me on her way down. I asked if the lake was just up there, and she said she didn’t think it was. Then she added that she would prefer it if I went back down the mountain rather than go up any further because it was going to get exceedingly cold and I wasn’t going to find my lake. You can’t find rainbows and, as it turns out, you can’t find rainbow lakes either.

I followed her advice, not least because she was wearing red from top to toe, and I was glad I did because I was the last one off that mountain. I saw no one on the way down, and if I’d carried on up the mountain in search of that Rainbow Lake I may not be writing this to you now.

However, I did then get a bit more of an adventure than I bargained for. Having walked for quite a distance, I realized I could not recognize a  thing. The sun was threatening to dip behind the mountains. I was lost.

I couldn’t retrace my steps too far because it was about to be very cold, not to mention pitch dark, and there wasn’t going to be any help forthcoming from that direction. I waded up a hillock in the thick snow to see if I could see anything promising on the horizon, but all that revealed was that the town lights were a rather alarmingly long way away.

A little worried, I kept walking until I was relieved to see a big building in the distance. Hurrying over to it, I called out loudly to a small figure in the parking lot, who told me that this was Summit Hospital and she was a nurse. She told me to keep walking on the trail for about a mile to access the emergency entrance of the hospital, go inside to avoid freezing, and figure out what to do from there. She couldn’t drive me anywhere, she said, because she was just on her quick break. Some break, talking to a foolish tourist! I love nurses.

A little later I was pondering how to get down the large bank of 3 to 4 feet snow and across a low wall to access the hospital below, and what I’d even do when I got there given that Uber wasn’t an option here and I didn’t know anyone in Frisco, when a couple walked past me, the only other people I had seen on the trail for well over an hour. I stopped them to explain my predicament, whereupon Jim said I needed to follow them, he thought he might know where my car was parked, but it was at least two miles away and did I mind walking fast? (It seemed like the opposite direction to me, but I wasn’t going to leave these people now!)

I fell into conversation with Julie, who commiserated with me for having a terrible sense of direction and told me that Jim and her took long hikes every day but were never out this late, she didn’t know how the day had gotten away from her. We were talking about how unbearable it must be to be truly stranded in these teeth-chattering, finger-throbbing temperatures without a house, like so many people in Denver. I was able to reach out to Julie or the hospital or even the police if it came to it, but who can unhoused people turn to for safety and warmth? In Denver, these human beings are not just ignored but constantly swept from place to place, their tents, sweeping bags, and other meager belongings trashed, even during these unlive-able temperatures. It just beggars belief.

Jim had ran off ahead but, meeting up with him again 2.5 fast-walked miles later, we discovered that my car was not here after all. (Sort of a relief – my sense of direction was bad, but not that bad.) Jim was all for me calling the police at this point, but Julie had decided by now that she was not going to let this “young lady” (thanks Julie!) stick around any longer in the mountains in -9 degree temperatures. They called their son in law Chris, who bundled me and Julie in the car and drove us around Frisco until I recognized a road, from where we found my car. Then they waited until I drove safely away. I was very apologetic and thankful. Julie told me she believed in karma and that I would help her one day. How right she is.

Which just goes to illustrate my point about snowflakes. For the skier in red, the nurse in green, Julie, Chris, and Jim — strangers just hours ago — all sparkled brightly for me today.

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The dark blessing of chronic illness

A guest article by Gen Samten Kelsang.

(Find the article in Spanish here.)

It was Manjushri Centre in 1983. I had just moved in, and this was to be my first meeting with Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I was 18 years old, fresh out of college, and trembling in earnest anticipation of meeting someone I believed would lead me to enlightenment. In that meeting he agreed to be my Spiritual Guide. In the following decades he became a father to me.

All my life I have suffered from epilepsy (drug-resistant). Also other neurological conditions — restless legs and ADHD. In the early days when I first met Geshe-la he gave me some treasured advice about how to approach epilepsy from a Dharma angle. I have never forgotten this, and would like to write about it now in the hope that it may help some people.

Geshe-la told me to regard my seizures as my teacher. This can be applied to any health conditions. I would now like to share what I have learnt from this priceless advice over the past 40 years.

Cultivate mental strength. Weakness is not an option.

I lived almost all of my life without hope of health. For a few short moments hope for a cure might arise, then it would swiftly be quenched. If you suffer from chronic illness you are probably intimately familiar with despair. Please turn to a deeper and true source of hope. You must. Your back is against the wall and you have no choice. Choose whatever it is in Buddha’s teachings that touches your heart. This is your source of hope. For me, it started out as emptiness but over several decades seemed to morph into compassion and bodhichitta. That becomes our true source of hope.

We cannot gain deep, experiential realization of our source of true hope through book-learning alone.

There is only one way — we have to suffer. We all have to suffer in order to develop the psychological depth to realize the liberating truth of Buddhadharma. You will be able to help people progress forward in their path of Dharma. You will lead people to the true happiness of liberation. And most importantly, you can protect people from suffering and pain, not just in this life but in life after life. Your illness and pain have spiritual meaning and purpose. Yes, I know how hard it can be, but it is your dark and painful blessing.

People whose minds are weak need hope from some worldly belief that their body of this life will get well again. Be strong. People need you.

Chronic illness cannot be argued with. In that psychological act of giving up there is great strength, if guided with wisdom. It makes you strong. But it is a strength the worldly cannot see. Standing up and trying to lead a normal life, whilst every atom of your disease wants you to give up. This battle gives you an immense yet hidden strength that most people cannot even perceive or comprehend.

Always remember emptiness during your daily activities

My advice on emptiness is threefold if we have chronic sickness:

1) Focus on the emptiness of your body
2) Focus on the emptiness of your self or ‘I’
3) Frequently recite The Heart Sutra

1) We need to meditate on the emptiness of our body because in emptiness there is no body. Therefore, there is no disease. During nights I have spent lying in bed unable to sleep due to the restlessness in my legs, meditating on the emptiness of my body has been a great soother. Emptiness and bodhichitta have been the only things that have helped.

2) We need to meditate on the emptiness of our self. Whether we have illness or not, we accumulate many painful memories around our sense of self. But illness strikes at the heart of one’s self-concept and inflicts a special sort of pain. It shapes you, creates you. We have to meditate on the emptiness of our self to discover the panacea of the peace of emptiness.

3) We need to recite and reflect on The Heart Sutra. This is one of the most powerful ways to improve our understanding of emptiness, yet so blessed, intuitive, and beyond my ability to explain.

We must remember emptiness during those dark times when we need it most. This occurs not in the meditation session, but during our daily activities. This is when help is needed most, when we can be pushed to the utmost, and when the world can seem darkest. Please remember emptiness at these times. We do not have a choice. We need to deepen our understanding of emptiness now, while we have the opportunity. Alternatively, we can put emptiness off to another day. We will probably die before that day. It is always ‘today’ when we die, and ‘tomorrow’ is the day we put spiritual practice off to. We do not have a choice.

If it were not for the suffering and pain I endured through illness, I would not think of emptiness so much. This is the first dark, painful blessing that disease gave me.

Abandon fear and embrace death. Become a traveler.


Epilepsy is pervaded by fear. Fear and I are old friends. Whenever I walk into a room, I immediately look around for the presence of any piece of furniture that may cause injury. Nowadays I do this automatically and unconsciously. It happens without me choosing to do it. Sharp corners, hard edges, hot space-heaters, glass, the list goes on. Even familiar rooms. Fear of injury has been with me since I was 5 years old. Over the past 50 years, fear multiplied as I became more aware of how seizures affect all the other worldly things I care about — where I live, what I do, how it affects my physical and cognitive health. How the medication I take to prevent my seizures is rotting my brain and inner organs away. How every seizure devastates my brain. Fear is a part of epilepsy. Now the fear is gradually reducing as I dwell on my mortality and consider that the only reason for being alive is to help others.

I no longer fear death. For the worldly, fear of death is really fear of loss. We fear losing our friends, losing the places we are familiar with, losing the reassuring facade of security. During a long, painful, or traumatic chronic illness one comes to know loss intimately. There may come a time when illness makes us lose so much that we no longer fear loss. At that time we lose fear of death.

However, I do fear rebirth. Geshe Potowa said: 

It is not death I fear so much as rebirth. 

Rebirth in samsara. Rebirth as an insect. Rebirth in hell. Lifetime after lifetime, endlessly. Yes, this I fear.

It is only the understanding of death that begins to resolve the fear. When you have looked death in the face several times, that grim teacher will finally reveal that fear of death is about fear of loss. The loss of everything one holds dear.

I regard myself as a traveler passing through this life, and from life to life. When illness is severe it begins to teach us that we are just passing through, we will die soon. Buddha said: 

The end of meeting is parting.

I try to help people as best I can whilst loving them unconditionally, and being willing to leave them behind to move on to the next life. You will leave behind everybody you know, even the people you love most. Please understand this. A traveler loves people unconditionally because they know they will leave them behind.

Epilepsy taught me how to understand people’s suffering. How to melt this cold, hard heart. Selfish people need to learn to combine their chronic illness (if they are lucky enough to have one) with Dharma. Otherwise that cold, hard heart will remain frozen in a perpetual state of selfishness.

Make compassion your main practice

People discover compassion in many different ways. Mine was through chronic sickness. Yours might be another way. Put in the simplest terms, compassion is the wish to protect people from pain and suffering. If you are severely ill, please make compassion your main practice. Without compassion we are lifeless and dead. Don’t run from the suffering of your illness. Turn around and look it in the eye. Look carefully. Look closely. Over time, instead of seeing our own pain we start to see others’ pain, others’ sickness, others’ tears, others’ loss. Their suffering becomes our suffering. In this way, our Buddha nature starts to grow. But not without pain.

Please practice compassion. It is the most powerful method to transform your painful illness into something good. You cannot be free from physical sickness. As long as you have a body, that will be your burden, your pain, your tears, and your misery. However, compassion awakens your heart. We realize illness is not about us — there are millions of people out there with worse. When compassion blesses our mind it does not remove our chronic condition, but it helps us realize that our suffering is insignificant. In that realization we discover a purpose to our suffering. We discover meaning.

There are so many people out there in chronic pain. If we don’t help each other, then who will? 

The value of friends


I consider myself blessed to have had the supportive friends and family I have. The degree of kindness and help I have received has been enormous and deeply moving.

Please understand. People with chronic illness are incredibly stoic and strong, but there is still one bitter pain that is so hard to bear. When people disbelieve or doubt you are struggling with chronic illness, this pierces the heart. It makes you secretive about your ailment, angry, depressed, and eventually bitter and cynical. Even a little understanding helps enormously.

This article may seem heavy. I may talk about death too much, or other hard subjects. But this is the reality of someone with chronic and serious sickness. These dark heavy thoughts are what they wake up to. They live with this reality every day. It is a hard burden to endure — a heavy burden and a lonely one. Sometimes, the health issues (physical or mental aspects) have been too strong for me to endure alone. My mind is strong, but sometimes even that has not been enough. This is when the dark blessing of chronic illness teaches the value of wise friends and caring family. I have only made it this far in life because of the people who were willing to help me during the difficult times. If any of these people are reading this article, thank you — I owe you everything.

Even a little understanding from trusted friends is a ray of sunshine that can penetrate through the dark and ominous clouds of the heaviest painful thoughts that accompany sickness. Understanding from a sympathetic and knowledgeable friend helps bring back mental fortitude that was waning. When people show understanding, it brings hope and optimism into the suffering mind. And a will to live returns. We think understanding is just about knowledge. But understanding is also about love, and caring, and acceptance, and empathy. It is these qualities that gives our ability to understand sickness the power to start the healing process.

Over the past 40 or 50 years I have sometimes let a friend down. Maybe I didn’t consider that friend important enough, or maybe I was trying to follow the path of expediency. I now understand with crystal clarity that I would be dead if not for my friends. Friendship becomes something rare and sacred for anyone with chronic disease. It has become sacred to me. I will never harm a friend. Ever.

The only way to realistically commit to this ideal is to cultivate equanimity. This means cultivating a caring heart that is free from fickle and partial states of mind, and that embraces everyone with warmth and friendliness. This also comes from the dark and painful blessing of chronic illness.

The spiritual meaning and purpose of our life

I used to believe I was a meditator, a yogi. I have come to realize that I am not. My purpose in this life is not so much to meditate as to teach. It is teaching Dharma that gives me meaning and (I believe) maintains my life. I cannot explain how this happened but it is the dark and painful blessings of chronic illness that revealed to me what my vocation is and what it is not. At least in this lifetime. As long as there is purpose and meaning to my life, and vocation, then there is value in my living. Protecting other people from their suffering through helping them realize emptiness is the only reason I have for living. It is the only reason for me to have the privilege of being alive and drawing another breath.

We will have different conditions. Maybe bedbound, or exhausted with chronic fatigue, or tormented with extreme fibromyalgia. It may feel that we have nothing to lose because we have already lost everything. This is a good feeling and we must cultivate it. Having lost everything, we are free to be a Bodhisattva. 

Why do people practice Dharma for years with no real change? Because Buddhadharma is frightening to our selfishness and ego-grasping. Buddha’s teachings demand change, and our foolish, petty, selfish, egocentric mind is terrified of change. But when the dark, painful, blessings of chronic illness takes away everything, there is nothing left to lose. On a material level we may still have things. But psychologically everything is gone. Empty. Nothing. Then we can start to be the person Buddha wants us to be. A Bodhisattva.

Our only job is to protect others from suffering and pain. If we are very sick we need to be radical. Be more extreme than normal people. Give up selfish behaviors and ways of thinking. You have already lost everything anyway, and have nothing of worldly worth left to lose. Become a Bodhisattva and learn the 6 perfections. Hard times and illness — this alone is what makes life worthwhile. The world needs Bodhisattvas. The world needs us. You are strong, like a superhero. Please do not allow your sickness to simply strengthen your samsara or make you feel weak. We must become Bodhisattvas. There is no choice. People need us. 

When we become Bodhisattvas, we are inspired to make solemn and sacred vows about how we will benefit others when we become enlightened. For example, the 35 Confession Buddhas or 7 Medicine Buddhas have different and distinctive powers. I am far from being a Bodhisattva but I make this promise now: When I become a Buddha I will free those with neurological illnesses from their pain. This is not a sentiment, it is a promise.

We are Mahayana Buddhists. Soon we will die and lose our opportunity to develop bodhichitta. We need to understand others’ suffering now. We need to understand others’ sickness now. There is no time to wait. This is my message.

Everything is relative

8 mins read.

This pandemic has been driving people crazy, and not least because we’re not able to move about much and let go of grasping at the place we’re in, so it feels real or absolute.

Continuing from this article, Perspective is everything. 

Back up that mountain …

It can be helpful to get in a car if you have access to one, drive to a trailhead, walk up a mountain, and look back at your now-tiny city. However, to change our perspective it is not necessary to physically GO up a hill; which is just as well if you’re still in lockdown or live in Florida. Nothing is really out there — everything is a dream-like projection of our mind. There is no real coming and going and we can travel up a mountain in our mind if we want to. 

No coming and going

Clouds (and rainbows) only appear in the sky due to a bunch of atmospheric causes and conditions coming together – clouds are not these causes and conditions, but take any one of them away and the clouds cannot form. Clouds therefore have no power to exist on their own, in and of themselves, self-contained, from their own side. They exist only in relation to other things, indeed AS relation to other things. Talking about the emptiness of the so-called “eight extremes”, which includes coming and going, Geshe Kelsang says:

The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds, and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend on factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent or independent existence and are mere imputations of the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe Kelsang has said that things “barely exist”. Although they appear and function, they are no more substantial than objects that appear and function in a dream. That includes mountains! And Denver! And my body! And me! 

So instead of having to go to places and return from places, we can realize that everything is simply popping up in our mind due to multiple causes and conditions – not the least of which is our karma or previous mental intentions.

Whenever we go anywhere we develop the thought, “I am going,” and grasp at an inherently existent act of going. In a similar way, when someone comes to visit us we think, “they are coming,” and we grasp at an inherently existent act of coming…. However, the coming and going of people is like the appearance and disappearance of a rainbow in the sky. When the causes and conditions for a rainbow to appear are assembled, a rainbow appears; and when the causes and conditions for the continued appearance of the rainbow disperse, the rainbow disappears; but the rainbow does not come anywhere, nor does it go anywhere.

We seem to be moving around all the time — walking our legs, waving our arms — everything is constantly coming and going. Or is it?! When we drive along in a car, are we really moving? Or are the rapidly changing scenes and other sensory experiences simply unfurling moment by moment as mere appearances of mind in dependence upon causes and conditions, including ripening karmic seeds?! Space and time are relative, as Albert Einstein would say. 

Why does this matter, you may be wondering? Because if things are relative or dependent-related, we can disappear them by changing our viewpoint or mental angle. If the observer moves, the rainbow moves or disappears. For example, if we view someone who is unkind to us as a kind teacher of something we need to learn, (s)he is no longer an enemy but a friend.

If things are absolute, that is, not dependent on other things, then they are fixed and therefore there is nothing we can do to change them. Also, there is a real or absolute me over here and a real or absolute world over there and never the twain shall meet. With self-grasping ignorance there is necessarily a gap between me and everything else, which turns out to be quite exhausting because we tend to relate to that world with delusions, such as the pull of attachment or the push of aversion. As Gen-la Dekyong said the other day:

Stop tinkering with this impure world. We don’t have time! There is nothing we can do externally to change it.

Where is the center of everything?

Related to this, another thing I find helpful to contemplate from a mountain rock is how each of the millions of people moving about in the city below feels themselves to be the center of it. Wherever they are, wherever they go, everything seems to be revolving around that fixed or moving point. And when I am in the city, it’s the same for me – everything is revolving around me. If I am driving down Sixth Avenue, for example, Denver seems to exist in a centrifugal ring around me; and that illusion persists even if I turn down another street.

Even if we are motivated to help others, while we remain with self-grasping ignorance we naturally have the sense that the world revolves around us. That is how it appears and we assent to that appearance. However, how can a real world be revolving around me and around you and around everyone else at the same time?!

Each one of us Denverites is only one of, say, two million, if we count only the humans. (Though right now there’s a strong argument for also counting the six kittens who are running around my feet like crazy people). From a distance, it’s particularly absurd to say that any one of those two million+ living beings is central, that the city revolves around any one of them, including me. And when I am back in the city, I can remember that – I am just one of millions, no more central than anyone else. We are all equal. We all equally exist only in dependence upon each other, like cells in the body of life. We are indisputably nothing without others.

This was almost literally a “this mountain that mountain” enactment – I drove down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other. Looking back at my previous self and everything to do with that self, I got it into perspective. 

There is only one way to free ourselves and that is to get over ourselves. In truth there is no real or most important me to cherish because that self we normally see doesn’t exist. The more often we dissolve it away by looking for and not finding it, the better. This is emptiness or selflessness. As someone said on Facebook today:  

No self, nothing to cherish. This is so obvious so why doesn’t it permeate my entire being, providing constant peace? More time on the cushion for me till a stable realisation is attained.

Taking this perspective back down the mountain

We need a sense of proportion because it makes it a lot easier to help without becoming overwhelmed and burning out. Because of course there is horrible suffering in Denver – people are freezing sometimes even to death on the streets, a pandemic is raging, businesses are shuttered, and pretty much every single person you talk to has problems of one sort or another. Including me. But with a large viewpoint we don’t get so overpowered. Seeing the big picture, we can develop the big minds – universal love and the compassion that wants everyone to be free not just from today’s problems but from all their problems forever.

Sooner or later we have to get back down off that mountain! (Unless you are on retreat in a snowy cave. Tempting.) With those big minds, we can return to the middle of the city and help in practical ways. The bigger our mind, the smaller our problems, and the more capacity we have to serve others.

If we find we’re getting overwhelmed, it’s worth pointing out that our mind doesn’t have to get off the mountain. We don’t even have to physically go up a mountain in the first place! That’s what meditation is for, gaining perspective, seeing the relativity of all things. And everyone can learn to do this – regardless of where we happen to be living at the moment, or whether or not we have a car. There is truthfully far more space inside all of us than outside. We can close our eyes, do a bit of breathing meditation to get into our heart, contemplate the space in and around everything, and then get back to work. 

Whether or not we understand selflessness and dependent relationship perfectly yet, one immediate thing we can do is appreciate the people around us for giving us the opportunity to practice improving ourselves and helping others, in both obvious and less obvious ways. Given that nothing (including all living beings) exists in any absolute fixed way but is entirely relative and the nature of our mind, we can set ourselves up in relationship with others however we decide; and perhaps the best way to relate to them is in the aspect of kindness. From seeming almost inanimate at times, everyone springs to life when we think about their kindness to us; and Buddhism gives us so many different practical ways to do that. 

A mountain in the city

Last but not least, our Buddhist meditation centers in Denver and elsewhere will hopefully be opening up again before too long to provide a physical get-away for this kind of teaching and reflection. For example, a friend who now lives in Colorado was talking about KMC London in Kensington the other day: “That place itself is an oasis and, if we did something similar here, people would get the top of the mountain feel in the city.”

Thank you for reading! Would love to see your feedback and comments below.

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Perspective is everything

7.5 mins read.

One advantage of living in a mountainous region is that you can walk up a mountain and look back at the huge city in which you live. And now it’s tiny. You can hold it in the palm of your hand. You can hold everyone in it in the palm of your hand. You can hold all their innumerable problems in the palm of your hand. I did that today. I instantly felt a weight off.

Denver is tiny from the distance. And it is also hundreds of miles from the next large city, so it is a tiny city surrounded by a vast expanse of largely empty land. I was picturing all the huge cities criss-crossing the globe, all even tinier than Denver from where I was looking.

It’s really good to get out of our lives from time to time. When we get some distance, we can see how much we have been investing in what seems so real. When we’re all wrapped up in it, there seems to be such a real solid city full of real worrying problems – loads of problems, far more problems than there are people. Even my teeny-tiny house that I can’t even begin to see from here, or the teeny tiny building where I work, or the even teeny tinier co-workers, can and sometimes do preoccupy me fully. There seem to be endless things that need sorting out when we are right in the thick of it, surrounded in all directions. But when we get out of that perspective and get some space, we can see that we have been too caught up in the details and we are all in our feelings, as a wise friend of mine talks about here

 

 

Space solves problems

An old friend, the first administrative director at Geshe Kelsang’s first Centre (Madhyamaka Centre in North Yorkshire), would make sure he walked up the hill behind it at least once a week. This way he could see it in the distance and put his job and life back into perspective, as well as appreciate the beauty of the building again. This created space in his mind such that he could recalibrate his motivation and get back to work happily without grasping at it so tightly.

Nothing is as solid, real, or even important as it seems when we are all completely caught up in it with no space, our moods going up and down like a yo yo depending on the slightest vagaries or off-handed comments:

Such fluctuations of mood arise because we are too closely involved in the external situation. We are like a child making a sandcastle who is excited when it is first made, but who becomes upset when it is destroyed by the incoming tide. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Vasten the mind

Buddha encourages us to aim for large spacious universal minds, such as love for all beings without exception and omniscient wisdom!

We can come to understand that everything is mere appearance arising in the mind like a rainbow in an empty sky. In the Isolated Body chapter of Tantric Grounds and Paths, Geshe Kelsang helps us with this: 

Whenever a form appears to us, we need complete conviction that this form is a manifestation of emptiness, and that, apart from its emptiness, there is no form existing from its own side.

He gives the example of a wristwatch:

We can hold a wristwatch in our hands but, if we examine it more closely to find the “real” watch, we cannot find anything at all. When we try to point to the watch, all we can ever point to are parts of the watch. The parts of the watch are not the watch itself, but, besides these parts, there is no watch.

You can try this for yourself – imagine the parts of the watch disappear. What happens to the watch?

By the way, from a distance, as I said, we can also hold Denver in our hands. And the same applies as for the watch – if we examine it more closely to find the “real” Denver, we cannot find anything at all. As Geshe-la says:

This very unfindability is the real nature of the watch…. The real nature of the watch is just its emptiness, but this very emptiness appears to us in the aspect of a watch.

Same for Denver and for wherever you live.

Holding Denver and its innumerable problems in the palm of my hand gives me that sense that they are empty, that they will be easier to solve and dissolve if I realize I can’t find them anywhere.

Up the mountain looking at Denver, I couldn’t point to anything that was actually Denver. It was clear that I was just thinking or labelling “Denver” on those far-away buildings and people. Later as I drove back into the city and more and more of its parts or details appeared, it became even harder to point to anything that could be called “Denver.” Everything I pointed to was in fact NOT Denver – such as the buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians, or cars. These are just buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians and cars, not “Denver”. And if you put them all together you still have just a collection of things that are not Denver. (As explained more here.) Denver cannot be found existing in and of itself. Far from being solid or real, it is mere imputation of mind, created by conceptual thought. Which is why every person has a different Denver.

Ignorance makes us believe things and people are real and exist from their own side. That there is a fixed world outside of our mind. The illusion is persistent. Because we tend to get so overwhelmed by appearances — always have done since beginningless time — we readily believe in the truth of everything we see. But I can from time to time at least imagine that I am back up that mountain, looking at all these seemingly solid insurmountable details from afar.

What exactly is a job?

I like my job in Denver very much, but it is as unreal as the rest of Denver, nothing behind the label. Lately it’s been occurring to me a lot, what else is my job other than an opportunity to help others? Who else are my coworkers other than people giving me an opportunity to help others? Beyond that, what need is there to hold onto all this and build it up with mental elaborations as some solid findable thing? When it isn’t?

This gets me thinking that wherever we go, providing we are trying to remember a Bodhisattva’s motivation, our lives will always have areas in which we can serve others. As Nagarjuna says:

Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ 
Universal Compassion

Given that compassion increases our opportunities to help, it seems we don’t need to get too attached to our current circumstances, however nice they are or even however helpful we feel we are able to be. For wherever we are, and whether things are going well or badly, with the right mind-set don’t we always have an opportunity to improve ourselves and help others? We don’t need to buy into being a success or a failure because it is who we are each day rather than what we do that is most important; and that is something we have control over.

If we are motivated by genuine concern for others we’re going to be doing helpful things mentally, verbally, and physically; and if we’re not, it doesn’t really matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, our help is going to be more limited. Geshe Kelsang has told me twice now:

Your main job is to practice Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.

If you’re still here …

If we know that everything is merely imputed by conceptual thought, not other than its emptiness, then it is not hard to see that if we purify our thoughts, we purify our world.

AND … if we realize this true nature of all phenomena with the mind of great bliss, then we see everything not just as a manifestation of its emptiness but of great bliss and emptiness. Which gives rise to even more bliss. As Venerable Geshe-la explains about Tantric Yogis in Tantric Grounds and Paths:

Because they have a deep recognition of emptiness and their mind of bliss as the same nature, they can view all phenomena that appear to their mind as manifestations of their bliss, and this special way of looking at phenomena causes them greatly to increase their experience of bliss, just as a fire will increase if more fuel is added to it.

If you like the sound of this, do read that chapter when you get a chance. It is a very clear explanation of a Yogi’s actual experience (and of OUR actual experience one day). 

I promised someone the other day that I’d make my articles shorter and more frequent again (as opposed to longer and rarer), lol. So you can read part 2, Everything is relative, now or later! Either way, over to you, I would love to hear your comments in the box below.

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Living Buddha

10 mins read.

Like a lot of people I’ve had trouble falling asleep a few times in the last year, and also like a lot of people it was probably from unwisely looking at news headlines just before heading to bed, then lying awake wondering how on earth to solve my own problems, my family and friends’ problems, the world’s problems.

Refuge

If we’re not careful, inappropriate attention kicks in – we think this is all real, we exaggerate the problems – and the next thing we know we’re in a state of anxiety, even panic. Each time, I went for refuge to Dharma and my Spiritual Guide and ended up feeling fine again. It is a question of getting the Dharma from our heads into our hearts at times like this so that we see everything entirely differently – whether through the lens of refuge, compassion, wisdom or whatever.

If we can remember refuge, that all the countless Buddhas are rooting for us and see us as already pure, already ok, already enough, we start feeling more peaceful.

In the midst of our own anxiety, if we can get past ourselves to empathize with others’ often far worse worries, already our mind starts to lighten.

Or, going deeper still, rather than wrestle with a real world that isn’t actually there, we can let the seemingly solid intractable problems dissolve away into their emptiness — their absence of intrinsic existence, their unfindability — and reboot from there.

Whatever Dharma we turn to, it’s always worth remembering what we have understood so far about the world not being fixed, static, or real. When we go for refuge in Dharma and see things differently, we are not just seeing something objectively out there in a different way so that we can somehow better cope with it. As a mere appearance or reflection in our mind, everything depends 100% upon our perspective; therefore, as soon as we change our mind, the world itself changes — just as a reflection in a lake changes along with every ripple of the water. That’s why Dharma can solve problems permanently.

One simple example: if I get upset with someone for not agreeing with me, I am holding them to be intrinsically annoying. But if I change those thoughts of annoyance into thoughts of compassion and concern for them, for example by remembering their good qualities or kindness, I may still disagree with their point of view and tell them so, but I no longer have a problem with them. 

If we can remember any Dharma at all, we can restore our equilibrium. One measurement of having trained our minds is:

One is trained if one is able to do the practice even when distracted. ~ Training the Mind in Seven Points 

If we keep wanting to help people despite our own overwhelming problems, that’s deep, that shows we have what it takes. I’ve been spending some time recently with people who are helping the unhoused and/or who are unhoused. There are some incredible stories of dedication and kindness, such as the story of Bear who helped people up to his final days despite his own serious health problems. Or the mother who is simply concerned about her children and how she is going to be able to keep home-schooling them during a pandemic when she no longer has a kitchen table. This is because she lost both her jobs in the pandemic and no longer has a kitchen. Not to mention a roof. These are two of anywhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million people estimated to be without shelter in the United States, a number that is steadily growing.

Teacher of wisdom

Talking of refuge, I want to carry on from these articles about relying on a Spiritual Guide. In the Summer Festival teachings on Advice from Atisha’s Heart, Gen-la Jampa said: 

“There’s so much suffering in this world. People need wisdom. We have so much intelligence. It seems like we could make anything, and then we just keep improving it, because we’re never satisfied. Our technology just keeps increasing. Our material development keeps increasing. But there is not a corresponding increase in human happiness. In fact, it’s the opposite. Our world is becoming more problematic, more dangerous. So this shows us something very important. We must learn from this appearance. We are intelligent people but we have used our intelligence mainly to improve material conditions and we have never fulfilled our deepest wishes for happiness and freedom — in fact, the opposite. And then a teacher of wisdom appears in our modern world, who is in the lineage of Je Tsongkhapa, Atisha, Buddha Shakyamuni – the same nature. He appears in our modern world and he gives us the instruction of Lamrim and shows us how we can integrate it into our modern busy life. He doesn’t deny our modern life. He respects us and so he gives us Dharma that we can use, that is suitable for us, acceptable, that fits with our modern way of life. We have met a teacher of wisdom, a Kadampa master of modern times, who is giving us the most precious Lamrim instructions.”He is talking about Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who is also my Spiritual Guide. As I talk about here, our Spiritual Guide can be anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person. We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works.

Practicing Lamrim, which is all the stages of the path to enlightenment, is the way we can go for refuge to Dharma and solve our problems. We need to get our Lamrim instructions from someone who knows them inside out and has complete realizations of all of them. A book alone does not have that living lineage.

One’s own living Buddha

Would it be pretty amazing to have our very own living Buddha to ourselves?! Someone who wants to lead us all the way to enlightenment? Someone who looks reassuringly normal on one level — whom we can see, communicate with, and learn from directly — but who is at heart an enlightened being who comes bearing the blessings and teachings of all enlightened beings? 

What do you reckon, if a Buddha was to tap you on the shoulder right now, or appear in front of you and say “Hello!”, would you see him or her? 

In The Mirror of Dharma, Geshe Kelsang says: 

All Buddhas attained enlightenment with the sole intention of leading all living beings along the stages of the path to enlightenment through their emanations.

And the point is, all those enlightened beings are still around, everywhere, pervading reality. So, Geshe-la goes on to ask: 

Who is the emanation who is leading us along the stages of the path to enlightenment?

This is not intended to be a rhetorical question, we have to really think about who that person is. Probably we’ll conclude that the most likely candidate is: 

our present Spiritual Teacher, who is sincerely and correctly leading us along the paths of renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of emptiness by giving these teachings and showing a practical example for others to follow.

Who else could it be? (Answers on a postcard.)

You have no problems! 

Human problems are not difficult to solve but people are not listening to enlightened advice.  ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

One thing that is so interesting is how little Venerable Geshe-la buys into the details of our virtual reality of mistaken appearances. Of course he is sympathetic, but he knows that if we change our minds we can get rid not just of today’s glitches but all our sufferings; and so he simply keeps bringing us back to this. His view of us is sourced by blissful compassion and wisdom, and he is always relating to our potential and even seeing it actualized. 

In Portugal in 2009, he said he saw and respected us all as Heroes and Heroines (aka Tantric Buddhas). Which means he never gives up on any of us, never loses hope or faith in any of us, no matter what manner of calamities we think are going on in our lives. Like Marpa didn’t give up on Milarepa, even though Milarepa had murdered 30 people – and, whatever else you’ve done, I doubt you’re a mass murderer? (don’t tell me). Or like Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t give up on Angulimala or Lam Chung, or any of the other seemingly hopeless cases. Scripture abounds with these stories.  

Decades ago, when I was still a wee lass, I went to see Geshe-la with a long list of problems I really needed his help with solving. I was standing outside his room for a moment, silently remembering what these were so I could ask him, when he threw the door open, started laughing, and said, “You have no problems!”

He was right — the moment he said it I realized he was right. My list must have dissolved into emptiness because I couldn’t remember a single item on it. I started laughing too. 

I have never forgotten this and it has helped me immeasurably at all the hardest times of my life. If something is wrong, I know I can take it to any Buddha and they’ll think it is no real problem at all. It’s a relief knowing that.

Think about if this wasn’t the case. If something goes wrong in your life and Guru Tara, for example, is like, “Oh no, don’t tell me that! That’s a real catastrophe! How on earth are we going to be able to help you with THAT?! You’re doomed!” that would be somewhat discouraging, would it not. 

I am always with you

Geshe Kelsang is pretty cool, is all I’m trying to say. He has bought us centuries of wisdom, he has brought us unconditional love, he has brought us eternal hope. He is the real deal. I’ve never seen or experienced anything that indicates he is anything other than the real deal. And any of his numerous disciples would likely tell you the same thing. The more you get to know him and his teachings, the more you realize that this person is exceptional in so many ways. And utterly dedicated to us. He said not long ago “I am always with you.” And he is. 

One of the ways we can generate bodhichitta is to imagine what it will be like when we are enlightened, how we will be able to emanate as whatever people need, including teachers: 

Just as there is one moon shining in the sky whose reflections fill all the lakes and waters of the world, when I become enlightened my emanations will cover and protect every living being. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

I think that there is one Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, according to our collective karma, the one we see in person or photos etc, whose Buddhist commentaries we study on the programs. But the fact is that we all have our own Spiritual Guide. (Our own Geshe-la, if he is whom we have chosen.) Sometimes people think, “My Spiritual Guide is so far removed! He knows some of his students really well, but he doesn’t know me! There are so many of us – how can he even know I exist, let alone have enough time to pay attention to me?” 

All that is ordinary conception or view, right? So, per the moon example, have you ever had this experience … You are standing next to an ocean, the moon is shining, and the light is coming directly toward you. You turn to your neighbor two feet away and say, “Look, there is no light where you are, it is all coming directly to me. Take a look at that!” And they shake their heads, “No, you’re wrong, it is all coming toward me, the water is dark where you are.” And so on, all the way up the beach. 

Buddha’s emanations appear for us, for each of us. There are as many Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s, for example, as there are people with faith in him. If you have a different Spiritual Guide, it’s the same principle. Even if you are in a different tradition, I reckon!

Over to you! Still more to come on this subject. Meantime, though, a lot of people love stories about Geshe-la, so if you happen to have any from the past 40+ years or have heard any from others, please share them below. Alongside his far-reaching life and works, personal stories might end up being the closest we can come to a biography.

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Matters of life and death

11 mins read.

The law of entropy shows that despite all our best efforts to hold things together somehow, everything is being flung apart all the time – our relationships, our families, our friendships, our jobs, our figures, our skin, our peace, our comfort, our safety, our favorite hobbies, our passions, our life itself. None of these last.

I read this striking article on climate change the other day, and enjoyed the wisdom the author Roy Scranton has gained from his lived experience. 

“I’d been a soldier in Baghdad in 2003-2004, where I saw what happens when the texture of the everyday is ripped apart. I realized that what we call social life was like a vast and complex game, with imaginary rules we all agreed to follow, fictions we turned into fact through institutions, stories, and daily repetition. Some of the rules were old, deeply ingrained and resilient. Some were so tenuous they’d barely survive a hard wind.”

The fact of impermanence may be more obvious in war zones, refugee camps, and so on, but the texture of the everyday is being ripped apart all the time in more subtle ways as well. Things everywhere are changing fast all the time due to numerous causes and conditions, including, and especially, our intentions or karma. Everything is in fact coming in and out of existence every moment, nothing lasts for even a moment

Yikes!

When changes are so small that we cannot detect them, we call that subtle impermanence; and when changes are big enough to become apparent, that is gross impermanence. We are all subject to both. According to this article, for example, climate change is happening faster than the models predicted:

“Normal means more fires, more category 5 hurricanes, more flooding, more drought, millions upon millions more migrants fleeing famine and civil war, more crop failures, more storms, more extinctions, more record-breaking heat. Normal means the increasing likelihood of civil unrest and state collapse, of widespread agricultural failure and collapsing fisheries, of millions of people dying from thirst and hunger, of new diseases, old diseases spreading to new places and the havoc of war. Normal could well mean the end of global civilization as we know it.”

We may be extinct soon. Or we may not. I know a lot of people who don’t believe in climate change, and that is their freedom. But one way or another — climate change or no climate change — every single one of us is still going to die. The whole of samsara is a hoax.

The biggest hoax of all

“This world is definitely done, for sure,” a young friend said tonight in reply to me half-jokingly wondering if the human race would be extinct by the time he got to my age. Samsara is always done. We keep trying to make it work, but it can’t. It has never worked out for anyone. All our dreams are broken in the end. If pondering climate change gives us pause to ponder our impermanence and vulnerable position, and even develop a little healthy fear, that’s not a bad thing. It is better than pretending that everything is fine when in actual fact it is not. We all have to get our acts together.

“But sometimes those breaks are openings. Sometimes those breaks are opportunities to do things differently.”

The point is that we have an enormous part to play in creating our entire reality. Things change not only in dependence upon physical or external causes, such as recycling, but more significantly in dependence upon the internal causes of our karma. The intentions or mental actions we perform every minute of every day are continuously sowing the seeds for future experiences. You can read in Joyful Path of Good Fortune how our karma is responsible for our tendencies, our environments, our experiences, and even which world we are born into in the first place.

We can see how in our nightly dreams there seems to be an external causality — I say something to them, they say something back to me, and so on. Trees grow and people are born. But the substantial causes of the entire dream, including ourselves in the dream, are the karmic potentialities in the mind – our mind is the projector, the movie reel our karma. And this is just as true when we are awake – ripening karma results in our entire dream-like world.

Every change we experience, both individually and collectively, takes place in dependence on our karma. Until we realize this, and are in the process of mastering our minds and our actions, we remain intensely vulnerable. Our karma changes just like that. At any point we can be thrown into an entirely different situation in this life or into an entirely different life altogether. This is happening to us all the time and has been happening since beginningless time.

The fragility and transience of our collective existence

Although when we pause to think about it we can gather that things are changing all the time, our normal default is to grasp at everything as static and fixed. This is unless something like a pandemic or an article about accelerated climate change shocks us out of our comfort zone (which by the way is not that comfortable because living in denial never is.)

We live our lives as if everything is going to go on forever, instead of changing literally moment by moment in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions, including our karma. We cling onto this life as if it is our only life. We cling onto our friends as if they are our forever friends. We cling onto this body as if it is our real body. This is called permanent grasping, and we have a lot of it. Especially the sense that we are not going to die — that at some point this life will not be as over as last night’s dream, that this day could not possibly be our last! 

Larry King died last week, aged 87. Where is he now? Where did he go?! He gave 50,000 interviews in his career, which, at the time, probably felt like they were really happening. From Larry King’s point of view, where is all that now? Where has his very full life gone? If he was like anyone else, he was probably very invested in that life and believed it was the be-all and end-all of his existence: “I am Larry King and this is my life.” But now that sentient being is somewhere else entirely with zero recollection of this past life, unless he happens to have high spiritual realizations, who knows. But if he didn’t, he will have taken an uncontrolled death and now be in the intermediate state, waiting to take rebirth in a whole different life. He (or she) will have a different body, personality, job, and name. Everything that he spent 87 years building went away forever in just the time it took for him to die. All that has travelled with this sentient being is his mental continuum and the karma he created in this and previous lives, whether good or bad. 

Larry King felt like a solid person who was around for a long time, yet now he has disappeared. This is happening every day and eventually to every one. None of us can slow down the change. Within a few hundred months at most we will be dead – forced to leave this life and go to the next. The entire infrastructure of this life on which we have fully depended will dissolve away like a dream, or like virtual reality when the power is switched off. This could even happen this week, or tonight. We may feel right now like this world is the only world we have ever known, but in fact we have known countless worlds and had relationships with every single living being.

Fragile as kittens.

It is not just Larry King of course – this last year has been a massive shock for everyone:

“In March last year, watching an unknown plague stalk the land, I felt fear, but I also felt hope: the hope that this virus, as horrible as it might be, could also give us the chance to really understand and internalize the fragility and transience of our collective existence.”

It does seem that we generally have a bit more awareness of our fragility and transience than usual. And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing — it is in fact the dawning of spiritual awareness. Buddha said that of all animals it is the elephant who leaves the deepest footprint and, in a similar way, of all meditations it is meditation on death that leaves the deepest impression on our minds. Deep awareness (as opposed to a shallow intellectual understanding) of our impermanence and mortality changes us. It changes us for the better. As the author puts it:

“How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”

Making meaningful choices

I looked at another article this author had written, and was even more inspired with how he dealt with this constant change and threat of dissolution while soldiering in Iraq:

“I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.” I got through my tour in Iraq one day at a time, meditating each morning on my inevitable end.” 

Being aware of impermanence and especially the inevitable disappearance of this world can in fact give us the freedom to change things the way we want to and become the person we want to be, including an enlightened being. I do something similar when I look back at this life from the point of view of being in my next life, as I explain here. What are the benefits of imagining that I have already died from this life and am in my next life?:

It makes me feel free to take each day as it comes, as if each day is a bonus, yet I have nothing to prove or gain because I’m already over it. I find less need to buy into each dream-like appearance or invest in the day-to-day drama because I have already left this life – the only reason for doing anything now is to keep journeying toward enlightenment and help others. There is naturally less attachment, aversion, and worldly concerns. Instead of being an avatar in a virtual reality who believes they are a real person in a real world, wandering around bumping into people and things with no real clue as to what is going on or what is around the corner, I can instead feel that the entire world is not outside my mind and therefore I can do whatever I want with it. Maybe that is what Tsunetomo means by, “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body gains freedom in the Way.”

I’m not guaranteeing this works for everyone, but right now it’s working for me!

Tantric precedent

And most significantly, to me at least, is that there is a powerful precedent in Buddhism for living as if we have already died from this life. It is taught in Tantra. We do a practice called bringing the result into the path where we imagine dying from ordinary samsaric life and being born as a pure enlightened being. We imagine that all our gross and subtle minds dissolve away into emptiness, just as they do during the death process, and with them all the appearances of this life. This leaves us absorbed in the deepest level of awareness, the clear light mind, from which we go on to transform the intermediate state and rebirth.

We don’t need to come back to this life after the first bringing. There is nowhere in our self-generation sadhana that says, “Now you reappear as an ordinary being.” Also, as I explain in this article, once we have died from this life and arisen as a Buddha in a Pure Land, we have always been a Buddha. And providing we don’t forget that we engaged in the three bringings, we can live our life from that blissful place – in the world but not of it.

This is just to pique your curiosity. To learn the techniques for this profound practice of self-generation as a Buddha we need Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments and commentary – coming up in both this Summer and Fall Kadampa International Festivals

Okay, I am out of space but would love to hear your comments in the box below.

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Keeping the hope alive

I was wondering recently if Dharma is what comes out when our Buddha nature is manifest. For example, when someone speaks directly from the heart and to the heart about love, compassion, equality, helping others, our mutual dependence and responsibility, and so on, or about our courage and ability to withstand discouragement and defeat, to me that sounds like Dharma.

On one level, Dharma or Buddhism is just profound common sense, and as such can be practiced by anyone at all who wants to practice it. Parts of it are already being practiced by people all over the world from different backgrounds, faiths, and traditions.

With respect to Kadampa Buddhism (Kadam Dharma), Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

Even without studying or listening to Dharma, some people often come to similar conclusions as those explained in Kadam Dharma teachings through looking at newspapers or television and understanding the world situation. This is because Kadam Dharma accords with people’s daily experience; it cannot be separated from daily life.

Take last Wednesday, January 20th, for example, the day of the inauguration. This was a hopeful and inspiring day for a lot of people, and a lot of amazing things were said, including that poem by Amanda Gorman. For example:

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

On one level that may seem obvious, that we are interdependent and so our collective well-being is completely undermined by grasping at our differences; yet still this sentiment has not been heard much of late in mainstream public discourse.

That poem was not about politics, was it? It was about all of us. I don’t use this blog to talk about politics because, regardless of our political persuasion, Buddhism works. It is open to everybody. Buddhists genuinely believe that every single living being has the exact same potential for compassion, wisdom, happiness, enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhism is open to everybody; and when we say “Everyone is welcome” — which we do on the doors and publicity of every Kadampa Center in the world — we really mean it.

Buddhism, or Dharma, is Buddha’s teachings and the experiences we get from practicing those teachings. It enables us to realize our truest potential or Buddha nature; and when someone talks from the heart about love and so on, it is as though that truest potential is shining through.

Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

And for Gorman, the light of her Buddha nature was shining through, which is why I think so many people were moved by her and why she has gone viral! (Along with Bernie Sanders memes, lol. Which, talking about our innate kindness, he capitalized on to make money for charity.) Gorman spoke from the heart and to the heart; and to me it sounded like Dharma words. This is true when anyone talks about the beautiful qualities of the human spirit.

Dharma provides the methods for bringing out and developing our Buddha nature – the good heart that every single person possesses, like a golden nugget, deep inside. When we learn Buddhism we are learning how to develop and increase all our innate qualities of tolerance, non-hatred, equanimity, and so on. We have a meditation, for example, called “equalizing self and others”, which, if everyone did it, would mean no more prejudice, racism, or bigotry – those faulty unpeaceful mental attitudes, or so-called delusions, would have to go away.  

As it says in Modern Buddhism:

The great Master Dromtonpa said, “Kadam Dharma is like a mala made of gold.” Just as everyone, even those who do not use a mala (or prayer beads) would be happy to accept a gift of a gold mala because it is made of gold, in a similar way everyone, even non-Buddhists, can receive benefit from Kadam Dharma. This is because there is no difference between Kadam Dharma and people’s everyday experiences….

… Everyone needs it to make their lives happy and meaningful, to temporarily solve their human problems, and to enable them ultimately to find pure and everlasting happiness through controlling their anger, attachment, jealousy, and especially ignorance.

In my job I meet people from all walks of life and political persuasions, and I love them all equally, why not, we’re all the same. With Dharma we can break down the divides, empathize, and bring out the best in each other because the best in all of us is the same. Democrat or Republican, no one has a monopoly on compassion. Or common sense, for that matter, or love. As this is the truth, we can work to become more unified by emphasizing these qualities.

Living beings are terribly misguided and confused a lot of the time — what we call in Buddhism “deluded”. When we speak or act out of anger, hatred, fear, or self-grasping ignorance, that’s coming not from our true nature but from our delusions, which are the real, albeit adventitious, common enemies of us all. Living beings are not our enemies, as Buddha kept pointing out. But we don’t have to stay deluded. And on a day like January 20th when everyone was making an effort, their better natures were shining through, showing that delusions are not an intrinsic part of our minds.

So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? Now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

A quick look at today’s headlines shows that at least some of our collective absurdities have already crept back! Nonetheless, these are not permanent, nor whom we really are. The United States has some cool ideals as a country, equality, freedom, and justice for all – on one level I reckon all Americans love these ideals and the whole country was supposed to be founded on them. Of course it wasn’t and isn’t, and there has always been a struggle between these ideals and the reality; but nonetheless is there not a significant part of us that would like us all to live up to this? So these glimpses are important:

For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The hill we climb

“End of an error”, one wit put it the other day. But it is not an error to pin on others, just an error that we individually and collectively can rectify by trying to put behind us the things that have gone wrong — the division, the violence – to herald a new world of tolerance and kindness.

Buddha showed how we could be like this all the time, choosing to actualize this incredible potential for equality and freedom in our minds and in our society. It is what Buddhism is all about. By following Buddha’s advice, we do get kinder, wiser, and closer to other people, and we do let go of our intolerance, faulty discriminations, bigotry, and the rest of it.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare.

If we could only spend more than one day feeling hopeful and connected, if we can make an effort to keep this mutual respect and unity going day after day after day, to actively choose this way of thinking, one day we’ll find that we’ve climbed that hill once and for all. And what a view!

Over to you, please put a comment in the box below.

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