Caring for others and helping ourselves

at what distanceAt what distance do we stop caring?

I think this cartoon applies not just to animals in abattoirs, but to all manner of suffering in our world.  At the moment it seems that a lot of us, a lot of the time, try to keep suffering at a distance so we don’t have to think about it. Perhaps we feel forced to deal with it otherwise. How else to explain why we turn a blind eye to the billions of animals being butchered daily behind iron doors, but most of us would label as a sociopath someone who beat an animal to death on the street in front of us? Why we tolerate the gun violence when it is happening in some other country, some other state, some other town, but freak out when it gets closer to home?

Continuing on from this article.

I think due to our Buddha nature,  our innate goodness, we do have a sense of responsibility that kicks in when suffering gets close enough. Maybe it is for that reason that we prefer to physically or emotionally shut it away. However, suffering is around us all the time, and it requires a lot of exhausting mental calisthenics to ignore that. All we need to do to see suffering is “open your eyes” as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says; but we have to want to open our eyes.

Look around. Every person you see has some suffering, something they’d like solved, do they not? It is everywhere but we don’t look around as we don’t feel we can deal with it. But although our self-protective self-cherishing doesn’t want to be bothered with it, “I have to protect myself from suffering!” – in reality we are not protecting ourselves from suffering, we are carrying on suffering by ignoring others’ suffering. It is not self-protective but self-defeating. By ignoring suffering and staying absorbed in our own problems, we never solve our own problems. We’ve tried that, we know. It doesn’t work.

Suffering is not solid

animals belong in our heartsWe also need to overcome the ignorance that believes suffering is so real and so solid and so just there, so what are we supposed to do about it?! Gradually over time we understand more and more how the causes of suffering lie within our minds, and then it becomes more and more obvious how we can help solve our own and others’ problems. It is not that we have immediately to go out and save the whole world – we can’t do that – but compassion is a good and necessary step to getting closer to helping everyone. Eventually our compassion becomes the universal compassion of a Buddha, which is immensely active – protecting, blessing, and inspiring. It can genuinely help everyone experience peace of mind every day.

If we understand how blessings work, we can see how our state of mind in itself will become a source of refuge for others. And opportunities to help others will also arise more and more as our intention expands, as Nagarjuna explains, quoted here.

You may, for example, already be a very compassionate person, and although you are not always necessarily doing something, still the people around you are picking up on it. They feel better around you. We feel better around people who care for us, who want us to be free from suffering. Whether they are doing something about it or not in some ways doesn’t matter – we just want to be in the same room as them. Then, when the opportunity arises, they can help us practically too.

A Bodhisattva is someone who is developing their compassionate Buddha nature to perfection; an enlightened being is someone who has accomplished that. This is a big, universal, deep mind. We can all take the compassion we have now and slowly extend it until it becomes that, at which point we can protect people everywhere as our mind is everywhere. We can become like the sun, or the great earth supporting all living beings. Compassion is a very powerful force, as the article I quoted earlier says too:sunshine

The desire is that people see that kindness isn’t soft or syrupy but it’s actually a really powerful force and that if we actually started to prioritize it, not in a sentimental way but in the same way we might go to the gym to keep fit, it can really make a huge difference to people’s lives.

Eight Steps to Happiness explains a beautiful and extensive meditation on compassion, hopefully you have some time to check it out. In brief, we can bring others into the orbit of our compassion simply by thinking they matter, by loving them, by seeing how they suffer, and by wishing them to be free. We can start with the people for whom we already have an open heart, and then extend our love and compassion as widely as we wish. We can finish our meditation with the big thought:

May everyone be free from suffering and its causes. How wonderful this would be!

Imagine that! Everything starts in the imagination. The world is not fixed. Suffering is not fixed. Life without suffering is possible, and this is where it starts.

Buddha and the Hidden Universe

BuddhaToday, September 22, is Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, one of my favorite anniversaries of the Buddhist calendar. This is why I like it:

“On this day we celebrate Buddha’s return from the desire god realm called Land of the Thirty-three Heavens, where he had been to visit his mother who had been reborn there.

Traditionally this day also marks the end of the summer retreat. Every year, during the summer months, Buddha did a three-month retreat with his disciples. His reason for doing this was to avoid harming insects and other animals.

If we go out a lot during the summer months we will naturally kill more insects and other animals than at other times of the year. The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.” ~ From a talk by Geshe Kelsang in 1991

It is so easy to get caught up in an insular world of just a few people, often human, perhaps a couple of cats… Buddha returning to heaven to avoid stepping on insects reminds me of how important it is to remove our blinkers as often as possible and expand our mind. In this way, interest grows, some understanding or empathy can emerge, and we can develop universal compassion that takes in everyone, not just a few.

Buddhism talks about six realms of samsara, each with an infinite variety of forms and experiences. We can find it hard to believe in the existence of hidden realms, such as the hell realms, yet we are surrounded by a hidden universe of insects and animals, most of whom experience unbelievably intense suffering. Every now and then we may become aware of the existence of this realm, due to some nifty camera work, and our eyes open.

microcosmosI chanced to see Microcosmos yesterday evening with my friend M, who watches it regularly to remind her of the existence of other beings. It is a great movie, I really recommend it. The beetle we named Sisyphus tried valiantly to move the ball of dung up the hill despite it rolling down on top of him and getting stuck on thorns – the camera panned out to show a hill that we wouldn’t even notice as a groove if we were walking along that path. The exotic, colorful, ugly, bizarre, bug eyed, narrow eyed, legless, multi-legged etc. collection of little people (little from our perspective, perfectly big from theirs) grooming themselves, getting to work (insects all business all the time), having sex (man, those snails really liked each other!), reproducing, fighting their corners for no apparent reason that we could see … And all the while looking entirely sentient, as they are. Their tiny, personal worlds consuming them as our own personal world can consume us with its seeming importance, even when we are all just busy moving things around. I think it is Woody Allen’s character in the movie Antz, a soil relocation engineer called Z, who says:

I’ve got to believe there’s something out there better than this. Otherwise I’ll just curl up into a larval position and weep.

I watched this movie with Daka also, one of my foster kittens, who is M’s cat now, along with soft Kini, and who has developed into a very funny character full of affection and curiosity. If I had the same tenderness for all cats, stag beetles, stick insects, and ants as I have for Daka and Kini, I would probably be enlightened by now. Starting with our karmic circle and spreading that love outward is the way to get there. Alternatively, we can bring others into our circle of love, which will then expand naturally because love is like digital data, infinitely replicable. But to love others we have to remember first that they even exist.Daka

Right now I can hear the cicadas—it’s a bit like tuning into a radio frequency from another realm. Thousands upon thousands of mother living beings in the tall fir trees surrounding my forest hut, all trying to be happy and free from suffering. I have been trying to remember them in my meditations here, for, despite the noise they make, it is too easy to ignore their actual being.

When people get to know an animal closely, and perhaps for the first time, their views on that type of animal often change. Dog owners seem to have a respect and affection for the other dogs they meet, they often smile genuinely at the dog and at each other in recognition. If someone raises a chicken from a chick, and gets to know that chicken as a pet, it is far harder, if not impossible, for them to kill and eat it, because they have “met” it and know it is not just a piece of meat. I read a story in the wonderful book Random Acts of Kindness by Animals about a trapper who came from England to America a few centuries ago, and at his Iroquois wife’s urging adopted two beaver babies whose mother he had killed. This changed his view of animals and he decided never to hunt again, writing these evocative words:

“Their almost childlike intimacies and murmurings of affection, their rollicking good fellowship not only with each other but ourselves, their keen awareness, their air of knowing what it was all about. They seemed like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not quite understand. To kill such creatures seemed monstrous. I would do no more of it.”

cockroachAnimals are folk, they are people. And so in fact are insects. During one retreat some years ago, I saw a cockroach being eaten alive by ants. I blew the ants off and put the cockroach on my shrine in a box with grass and water, and said prayers and mantras. I meditated with him every day for a week, but he didn’t die — he lay there and sometimes he wandered around a bit. And during that week I came to know him and love him.

The day came for me to leave and I thought I might leave him there in his box in front of a picture of Buddha, as surely he was not far from death now and he would be peaceful and unmolested. I got in the car and drove a mile. Then I turned back, picked him up, and took him home.

My view of cockroaches completely changed after that encounter. They are no longer creepy looking beetles (well, they still look a bit creepy sometimes, but so can I). They are sentient beings who need love, like us. Issa’s words evoke this for me:

“Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.”

There are a lot of insects to love so we better get started. As Z says in Antz:

Z: I think everything must go back to the fact that I had a very anxious childhood. My mother *never* had time for me. You know, when you’re – when you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention. I mean, how is that possible?

Geshe Kelsang says in the same talk mentioned above:

In fact, we should have stronger compassion for animals than for human beings because animals suffer more. Human beings have better conditions and are more fortunate than animals. Because animals have so much suffering and no freedom, out of compassion Buddhists should try not to kill or disturb them. So, for three months during the summer, Buddha advised his disciples to retreat, staying always inside and living carefully and conscientiously.

bugEverything about Buddhism speaks to animals and for animals. Most obviously, as many people with even a passing understanding of Buddhism are aware, Buddhists are aiming at enlightenment, part and parcel of which is universal compassion — the mind that wishes to protect each and every living being from suffering and its causes. This really does mean not just our friends and family, not just human beings, not even just our pets, but each and every living being. We sit on our meditation seats and meditate on this every day. We meditate on the sufferings of all six realms of samsara to develop compassion for all living beings.

But in fact already in the initial scope teachings we are wisened up to the status of animals and insects, and in particular we see how we ourselves are not inherently human beings but can be reborn in other forms. From the get-go we understand that we have a precious human life, which means amongst other things that we have not had to take an animal (or insect) rebirth this time, but this situation is rare. In other words, we COULD have taken an animal rebirth and we can still take one again in the future. If we understand the teachings on karma and delusions, we will understand how easy it is for someone in samsara to take an animal rebirth –in fact it is far easier to be born as an animal than as a human being. That alone might give us pause. If you know you might end up in a dark and frightening world, you presumably would not want to alienate its inhabitants before you get there. But every time we willfully harm animals, we are creating the causes to be willfully harmed ourselves in the future.

In the intermediate scope teachings, we are taught to meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop the wish to be free from samsara altogether, once and for all. For as long as we remain trapped by delusions and contaminated karma, we are never free from the threat of lower rebirth – which means that at any time we could be reborn as a lobster and someone could be picking us out to be boiled alive for dinner.

bug 2In the great scope teachings we meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop compassion wishing to free everyone from samsara altogether, once and for all. The only way to do this is to become fully enlightened. Animals and insects are very kind to act as the sources of our growing concern, love, and compassion. I am glad that Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day is here again to remind me of this, of them, and hope this mindfulness remains with me. But I may do what M did and buy Microcosmos just in case …

More on Buddhism and animals can be found here.

Disney’s movie Chimpanzee ~ “There is meaning in those eyes.”

I watched the movie Chimpanzee last night with my friends Anya and her two great kids, Zia (12) and Tom Tom (10). We wanted to see it before May 3rd as Disneynature are donating some of the profits this week to the Jane Goodall Institute.

(Spoiler alert: I knew the plot before I watched the movie and it made no difference, but you could always go see the movie first and then read this.)

Oscar and Isha in the movie ChimpanzeeOscar is Isha’s child, and the early part of the movie shows his first years growing up under her doting care, learning how to smash nuts with the right tools and goofing around with his friends while she tries vainly to sleep. (Anya related to all these early scenes.) He looks so human, they all do. (Or we look like chimps.) His chest and rib cage looks like a little hairy boy’s chest and rib cage. His hands are like our hands. And his face is expressive, by turns curious, amused, playful, soulful.

When the film-makers started the movie, they didn’t know that his mother would be killed. But she is injured by the patriarch Scar and his army of chimpanzee rivals from over the Ridge in the rainforests of the Ivory Coast, in a raid on their nut grove. Isha becomes separated from her family, and is picked off by a leopard (this being Disney, the gruesome scenes are only hinted at.)

Oscar on his own in the movie Chimpanzee

Tiny Oscar looks for her everywhere. As the days go by, he becomes thinner and thinner, and covered with ticks because no one is grooming him. He tries to stick his little arm into a bees’ hive, but it isn’t long enough to reach the honey, and he just gets stung. He tugs at all the other mothers, asking for help, but they have infants of their own and growl him away. Even his friends are not playing with him like they used to. Oscar is alone.

At this point, I had read beforehand, the film-makers thought their movie was over. But then something extraordinary happens. The only person Oscar has not approached, and with good reason, is Freddy, the enormous gruff alpha male. When Oscar does finally pluck up the courage to approach, Freddy surprisingly lets him sit near him, and Oscar starts to watch and learn.

Oscar follows Freddy everywhere, and from his side Freddy develops more and more interest in Oscar, until he is giving him the choice portions of the food he finds and prepares. And then one day Freddy lets him ride on his back, something that a male chimp never does, and certainly not the Big Boss who has a reputation to maintain.

Oscar and Freddy in the movie Chimpanzee

The movie shows that over the coming days and weeks Freddy becomes devoted to Oscar. He grooms him, something usually reserved for those higher in the hierarchy, not the weakest member of the group who has nothing to offer in return; and he even lets Oscar sleep in his arms. He adopts Oscar, and Oscar is saved. The movie has a happy ending, thanks to love.

Life in that world is not easy, and there are no final happy endings in samsara. The rival gang of hungry chimps, seen off once thanks to Freddy’s teamwork, will be back. The chimps still have to hunt other monkeys for food — monkeys intelligent enough to realize they’ve been ambushed and that there is no escape from being ripped limb from limb (also hinted at, not shown.) The photography and scenery in the movie is spectacular, including scenes set in slow and fast motion, but beneath that seemingly enchanting cloud-wrapped canopy of trees lies a very traumatic world, none of whose inhabitants ever feels truly safe.

Spending over an hour in the company of chimps in this movie helps us see how similar to us they are in many ways – in terms of their wishes and fears, their maternal love, their cleverness at using tools to prepare food, the importance of teamwork to survival, their cultivated social relationships, their rivalry and violence, and their bodies. And Freddy’s unexpected reaction to Oscar, in particular, shows a remarkable, selfless love. No one could argue that this love is merely instinctive, because it does Freddy’s standing in the group no good when, preoccupied with Oscar, he is unable to cultivate his allies or patrol his borders. It works out okay for him as it happens, but he didn’t know this when he fell for the small bundle of love.

This movie is a good testimony to how animals can share with us the same emotions, feelings, ability to learn, sociability, and even self-awareness. They are in a lower realm, and they don’t have the opportunity to develop spiritually in this lifetime, but they have minds, they think and feel, and their Buddha nature is no different to ours. They are not mere bodies with instincts, devoid of sentience or thought, as many people claim in justification for treating them badly or as less than people.

“There is meaning in those eyes”

Oscar's eyes in the movie ChimpanzeeI saw an interview with some of the film-makers, who spent up to three years in the jungle with the chimps, and here are some of their remarks:

People watching this movie “can understand that the chimps’ potential and relationships are as watchable as a human drama.”

“Why did Freddy adopt Oscar? It was pure altruism. It was selfless looking after the young orphan where he hasn’t got an agenda.”

“When those eyes look out at you from a massive screen, there is meaning in those eyes, and we as human beings connect to them.”

“The chimps are very endangered, the rain forest is being cut down, they are part of the bush meat trade, living in fragmented patches of forest, threatened with extinction.”

“[The audience are] going to see that we are not the only beings with personalities and minds capable of thought.” ~ Jane Goodall.

By the way, for the parents amongst you, I can report that Tom Tom turned to us in the middle and whispered loudly, “I LOVE this movie!” Both kids pretended to be chimps after the auditorium emptied, running and jumping through the aisles, and even their own mother said she could not see that much difference between them and Oscar… ; – )

In Buddhism, person, being, self, and I are synonyms. Human beings are just one type of person. That has always made sense to me.

And my question to anyone who watches this and sees Oscar’s eyes is:

Who can believe that he is not a person? 

Here are some interesting links to other chimpanzee and primate stories:

chimps taste freedom for the first time in 30 yearsIf only they could all be freed. Chimpanzees see sunlight for the first time in 30 years.

Are animals smarter than people?

Do monkeys wonder? BBC do monkeys wonder

The kindness of others — a pelican’s story

Here is a short tale involving one pelican and five human beings — an illustration of a world working properly.

pelican found injured on Clearwater causeway

My friend was walking over the Clearwater bridge at dusk when a drunken man on a bicycle stopped her, almost toppling off as he waved an arc with his arm: “There ish a shick pelican by zhat biiig tree. Can ya do shumthing?” He knew he wanted that pelican saved, but he needed all his concentration just to stay on his bike. He’d picked the right person — my friend is a regular Gerald Durrell who used to collect animals and insects from the wild as a child in the dubious belief that they would be better off under her care and protection – ants, tortoises, rivetingly exciting cocoons.

As she was observing the large flapping bird to figure out what to do, another friend texted her about something and, hearing about the pelican, said she was driving right over. Pelly was by now trying to commit hari kiri by waddling out onto the busy highway so they parked the car between him and the highway, at which point he ducked under the car and they were stuck. Now my friend is the sort of person who swerves on her bike to avoid ants, oblivious of her own death and the impending pile-up behind her, so here she was out on the busy highway trying to push Pelly back the way he had come so at least he wouldn’t get squashed.

By now another compassionate motorist had stopped to help, and the three of them had to conclude that this was the not the way to go about the rescue. So the friends went home and picked up a large cardboard box, thick gloves, a blanket, and a flashlight. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to pick up the closest thing we have to a pterodactyl when he doesn’t want to be picked up. The only advice they’d managed to garner from any animal welfare person on the phone was “Grab it by the beak”, which seemed a bit of a tall order. After an adventure in the darkening undergrowth, they did manage to throw the blanket over him, grab his beak, and put him in the box.

pelican at clearwater beach Kindness the MovieThey drove to the well-known sea bird sanctuary in Indian Shores where, despite the late hour, a competent bird person was waiting. She picked Pelly up by his wings and his beak, making it look rather simple considering, and took him in for rehabilitation. He had been starving, but she managed to fix him.

In this way, at least five human beings were involved in the rescue of one bird, and everyone felt better for their part in it. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this tale. There are countless small, unnoticed acts of kindness like this all over the world every single day, and also countless huge acts of heroism.

Kindness, the Movie

Kindness the Movie Eva Ilona Brzeski

When human beings are functioning correctly, they are kind. Don’t you love hearing about kindness? People are much happier being kind than being cruel, even if our delusions (uncontrolled states of mind, such as pride or anger) don’t always let us be kind. Sometimes no humans will help rescue even another human, but that is when the world is not working properly.

A documentary film-maker and friend of mine, Eva Ilona Brzeski, is making a movie called: Kindness the Movie.  She is searching for true stories of kindness to feature in the film. It is a really wonderful project because there is in fact a never-ending supply of stories about others’ kindness, if we look for them, and focusing on these increases our love and respect. Kindness helps not only the recipient but the donor, because it is in harmony with reality, the interconnection of all beings, and part of our pure Buddha nature.

If you would like to know more about the movie, click here.

Your turn: if you have any stories of kindness to share, please share them here, and/or send them to Eva.

Trust v. personal responsibility

Trusting holy beings…

I recently renamed the feral cat Korska “Nelson”; I figure it might help him to be named after one of my great heroes, Nelson Mandela, who triumphed over adversity just as I want this little guy to do, in his own way.

Nelson is coming along, albeit very slowly and in fits and starts. Sometimes he is interested, sometimes he is standoffish and hissy, and sometimes he doesn’t show up at all. Currently he has an open sore on his forehead and a swollen right eye which concerns me, he is way too skinny still, and at some point I’ll have to freak him out by capturing him to neuter him and give him his shots. But I’m set on my course to make him as tame as possible, and will overcome the obstacles en route one way or another, taking any opportunity he gives me. I can see I’m going to need a lot of patience and a lot of persistence/effort, but he’s worth it.*

As it was pouring with rain at his breakfast time this morning, I managed to lure him into the kitchen for a few precious moments while he ate, and was even able to dab a blob of Neosporin on his forehead with a wooden spoon. He actually purred as he rubbed up against the door, and he sniffed my leg and reluctantly let me stroke his back while he was eating. But although he is lonely and clearly likes my company in a funny kind of way, after he’d eaten he still didn’t stick around in my nice dry kitchen, let alone avail himself of the comfortable sofa, soft carpet, squashy cushions and other cat-friendly offerings in this potential cat-palace that awaits him. Instead he curled himself up on some damp leaves under a few inches of shelter, which did nothing to stop the raindrops dripping on his tail. I was cajoling him, “Hey, Nelson, sweetheart, why don’t you stick around with me for a while in here, it is so much nicer than out there in the wilderness!! I will never hurt you – in fact I will make sure you reach your full cat potential and that you are as healthy and happy as possible, and I will not curb your freedom, you can still go outside whenever the urge takes you if you do decide to be tamed.”

And then it struck me. I sounded like the Buddhas, and especially our Spiritual Guides, trying to get through to us… The Tibetan word for disciple, “dul wa”, literally means “one to be tamed”. It is so obvious to the kind and wise holy beings what we need to do to be happy and safe, but, even if we intellectually know what they are after, it seems we don’t trust them enough to follow their suggestions, or at least we are in no hurry about it. Instead of gladly escaping into the heart of the Buddhas, including the Tantric mandala palace, we stubbornly, fearfully, and proudly insist on staying outside in the wilderness of samsara, subject to being attacked by wild animals, mange, bitey insects, loneliness, mental pain, physical discomfort and all manner of other sufferings.

No trust, no progress. (If you’re in another tradition and rely on God, Jesus, Mother Mary, etc, I imagine the same principle applies.)

At least Ralph was cooperative. Because he understood somehow that he needed help, he really bonded with me, which turned out to be the best move of his short life. I really would like Nelson to cooperate with me consistently, but all I can do is blast him with love until I get through, and try and be as patient and persistent with him as the Buddhas undoubtedly have to be with me.

… while also taking responsibility for our own spiritual journey

There is an element of surrender in trust, so how does this square with taking personal responsibility? I put “v.” in the title, but it is not really trust versus personal responsibility, they get along just fine, and have a dynamic ever-deepening relationship. Genuine trust entails believing also in our own potential to progress and genuine personal responsibility entails understanding that we need to make progress, which involves trusting others who can lead us, just not trusting them blindly.

This seems to be borne out by the Lamrim teachings on refuge. Simple refuge is just the call for help. As our refuge progresses, we assume more and more responsibility for our own spiritual journey, and with Mahayana refuge we actually rely on Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to fulfill our greatest spiritual potential for the sake of everyone, which involves a rather huge amount of personal responsibility!

…And avoiding institutionalization

Meanwhile, upstairs with the Russian tenants lives Roberto the baby possum. They found him half-dead while I was away and have been feeding him up prior to his release. They love him!

He has doubled his size on Russian home-cooking!

They’ll be sad to see him go. And right now he shows the manner of being tamed (albeit slightly reluctantly) – unlike Nelson he does not object to being held, cuddled, stroked, and kept indoors. Yet in a way you can tell from his eyes that he is not tamed; he is just doing what he is told because he has little choice in the matter. It is certainly better than nothing; in fact it has saved his life. But in a week or so we must drive him to a large patch of woods and release him into the wild, at which point he will revert to his instinctive/habit-formed wild behavior to survive.

This has been reminding me that we can tame ourselves or even others physically by forcing ourselves to behave, but that won’t be enough. For example, we can follow the rules in a workplace, monastery or spiritual center not out of our own volition but just because we are told to, expected to, or scared not to — like children or baby possums. However, genuine moral discipline is based on our own discrimination of what to do and not to do, and our own resultant adult decision/intention. Just falling in with the crowd doesn’t guarantee that we are tamed on the inside or for very long, and when thrust back in the “outside world” we may just revert to our old wild samsaric habits.

It can be enormously supportive to have the external discipline provided by spiritual centers — and I would not have traded my 14 years living at Madhyamaka Centre for anything, nor the other decades I have spent closely associated with other centres. Also, check out this article about this nun leaving her monastery for the first time in 84 years to meet the Pope — look at her alert face at 103 years old! In the book, titled “What is a girl like you doing in a place like that”, she is quoted as saying:

‘Who can spend 84 years in a convent without being happy? Of course I’m happy.’

Look at that face! Aged 103

I believe her and think that she probably has a very rich inner life. If we are in a spiritual center but are not becoming genuinely happier and more open as the years go by, we can check to see if we are voluntarily taking responsibility for training our mind or whether we have fallen into institutional modes of thinking and behaving. We need integrity to avoid being like a leaf in the wind, carried away by whatever happen to be the current gusts of the institutional zeitgeist.

How do we know if we’ve become a bit institutionalized I wonder? Is it if the small world of our school, office, workplace or spiritual center seems to be the main place where it’s at? When we become preoccupied with concerns that would seem petty to anyone “outside”? When we are cowed by authority because we are too attached to, and fearful for, our position in the pecking order, or our job, or our status within the organization? How do we overcome it? Your suggestions are welcome.

In any event, whether we are currently inside or outside of an organization, Roberto is a reminder that we need to take responsibility for ourselves and change our minds, not just our behavior.

Faith v. fanaticism

(Here, the “v.” is justified.) Arguably blind faith is not faith at all but fanaticism as it possesses no degree of personal responsibility – what do you think? Blind faith can manifest as a childish wish to please a holy being in order to be rewarded, or fear of displeasing them in case we are punished; and that is abnegating responsibility. Also the outcome of our actions depends on our karma, not on any external law-maker or law-enforcer. Nor does blind faith really trust, because to really trust a holy being I think we have to know their actual nature — unconditional love.

Fanatics of all stripes notoriously end up acting in irresponsible, dangerous ways with respect to themselves and others, whereas actual faith is necessarily flexible, including the flexibility to doubt and question. I would argue that extreme fanatics such as suicide bombers have no actual faith at all but are simply holding false views as supreme, which is a type of ignorance.

Buddha taught that all virtuous minds are pervaded by faith. Faith can never be in contradiction, therefore, to love, compassion, wisdom or any other virtuous mind.

If you have any relevant experiences you’d like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.

*Update Sept 2011: Nelson tested positive for both feline leukemia and feline AIDS, a double whammy. I recently got another rescue cat, Rousseau, and have to keep them separate to avoid infection; so I look after Nelson outside and on a friend’s porch next door. Ironically, since he was fixed and I obliged him to recuperate on that porch for a week — with us doing meditations and prayers together every morning — he has become a very friendly little guy who now follows me around and actually wants to come in the house!! Another of samsara’s sick little jokes.

*Update 2: Nov 2011, Nelson is currently doing really well, fattening up and becoming friendlier by the minute! I even let him inside when the other cat is outside… He loves to be cuddled. He has learned to trust 🙂

*Update 3: Feb 2012, Nelson is now the cuddliest, sweetest cat in the world and joins me for many of my meditation sessions. Who would have thunk it?! There is hope for us all.

Update 4: April 2012, Nelson has just been diagnosed with a large cancerous tumor in his stomach, along with anemia and some dehydration. He stopped eating a few days ago. Now I am focused on making sure he is as comfortable and blessed as possible for his remaining time in this cat body, and my main wish for him is that he has a wonderful rebirth, hopefully in the Pure Land. He totally deserves it. p.s. I adore this person.

Update 5: April 14 2012, Nelson died in my arms.

Have you ever fallen for a perfect stranger?!

With just a few twists and turns we can and do bump into perfect strangers who become part of our hearts and lives for a lifetime. In fact, apart from our immediate family, which of our closest friends did not start off as a stranger?!

Sparky and Joe
The happy tail of Winston

A marvelous encounter took place in heat-drenched Manhattan yesterday. I was meeting my friend J (her of Ralph’s story) to do some shopping for a laptop. Right next to Best Buy was Pet Smart and so I said entirely jokingly: “Let’s go in there and I’ll buy a small dog.” J agreed that she needed to go in there anyway to buy some cat treats so we visited with the adoptive cats for a while and then made to leave.

At the doorway, a cute dog stopped us in our tracks, and we bent to pet him. Then we noticed his owner sitting on the window ledge with tears in his eyes. Joe told us in a delightful but sad Irish brogue that he was being forced to bring Sparky back as he was severely allergic to him and that he and his girlfriend Julia were gutted, absolutely gutted. This half-Peke half-ShihTzu ”Shinese” was the best dog in the world and this was obvious even though they’d only had him for a week. Joe had been trying everything to work a way around the allergies, but “I feel like I’ve swallowed a furball and if I cuddle him I just can’t breathe.” The tears in his eyes came from the allergy and the fact that he was finding it agony to hand him back in. The shelter woman hadn’t arrived yet, he was waiting.

We asked him where Sparky came from – he and his family were in a house fire and wasn’t allowed in their shelter, and then his family were not able to have him back as they lost everything. He is just one year old. He was in a cage for weeks.

I looked at J. She looked back at me. It was obvious what she was thinking. “What is there to lose?” I rather naughtily encouraged her half under my breath. “Perhaps he could just spend the weekend with you and F and then, if F or the cats object, you can bring him back on Monday? Delay his re-entry into the cold lonely cage?”

Thing about J is that she is a pushover when it comes to animals… but there was just something about Sparky.

The 29-year-old DJ sized up the situation and seized his chance: “Hey girls, how about we take Sparky for a walk to the dog park? It’s not too far. You can see how good he is with the other dogs.” (Said Sparky is apparently spectacularly well behaved and friendly with every life form on earth, if Joe with the blarney stone is to be believed, and of course, smitten by Sparky, we believed him.)

We walked miles through the sweltering heat, Sparky tugging on the end of J’s green leash, his panty pink tongue hanging out. He is a human-magnet. And it is true that he managed to make friends with all the dogs in the park within a matter of minutes. Then Joe sloshed him with water to cool him down, and we started walking back.

“Why not cut out the middleman”, I proffered. “Just lend Sparky to J and you could both meet up again next week at Pet Smart if it doesn’t work out?”

And so we came to be carrying Sparky home in a shopping bag via Bleeker Street subway to the World Trade Center and the Park line back to New Jersey to an unsuspecting fiancé who never knew what hit him until it was too late and he’d fallen for him at first sight 🙂

And there he is to this day. Well, it is only a day later, but it looks like he has stolen the hearts of his new family and will not be going back into a cage anytime soon. Even the cats liked him instantly, and when it comes to Fluffer that is really saying something. And the landlords say he can stay, even though they don’t allow dogs. He is now called Winston because of his Churchillian jaw. Sir Winston, to be precise.

So in one chance meeting, this perfect stranger entered the hearts and lives of a family who weren’t looking for a dog but will love him for his whole life. Joe, all smiles, says he thinks he ran into angels this sweltering summer’s day in Soho. But it was the other way round.

Meet your daughter (again)

Another friend sent me an ultrasound of his daughter in her mother’s womb yesterday. She is lying in the position in which Buddha entered paranirvana, and he is chuffed: “It’s quite something when you see your daughter facing straight at you on the big flat screen TV, lying on her right side, with her head on her hand (not sucking her thumb)! I can’t say that’s her orientation relative to anything in the outside world, as she floats in her ambionic fluid, but it was very clear on the screen and I rejoice in my projection!”

He has not officially met her yet but already he adores her: “As I said to my wife when they confirmed her gender, ‘I guess I’ll be saying yes to just about anything from now on!’” When did that love happen?! Why did it happen?! In beginningless lifetimes, we have all been each other’s father and each other’s daughter. That recognition – for example when the facts are staring us in the face on a flat screen TV — is enough to bring out our innate love, our Buddha nature. However, we don’t have to wait countless lifetimes to be everyone’s father and daughter again; we can recognize that relationship right now if we want to greatly speed up our love for everyone.

Actually, although it is true that our best friends started off as strangers, if we go back even further we’ll see that they also started off as our kind mothers. Take any slice of time and our bodies and relationships will appear different; but the fact is that once someone is our mother, they are always our mother. Look at a photo of your mom before you were born — is she your mother or not?! Yes, we say “That’s a picture of my mom before I was born.” And let’s say she dies and a trusted person with clairvoyance introduces you to her in another form, won’t you still recognize her as your mother and wish for her happiness and safety?

Sure, we can argue that we’ve all been each others’ enemies too, but not only is thinking in that way unproductive, we were also only each others’ enemies when we had ignorantly forgotten our mutual dependence, close relationship and lovability, and were under the influence of anger’s inappropriate attention.

We are generally superficial in our perceptions and as a result love does not flow. I reckon the three poisons actually depend on superficiality, on taking appearances at face value, on confusing appearance for reality. Someone appears disagreeable and we believe that they are, inherently so, even though stacks of evidence points to the contrary.

We can love anyone so we might as well love everyone

Our relationships with others are never stuck or fixed; we can accelerate our universal love by understanding this. We don’t need to wait for “chance” meetings like that of Winston, we don’t need to wait for someone to become pregnant, we don’t need to wait for things to change physically. We can imagine these changes happening, as we do in the meditation on equanimity, and our relationships will change dramatically. We can bring everyone up to the level of our mother, our best friend, or even our child. Genuine love entails noticing and accepting that everything and everyone changes all the time while it itself endures. Love does not take appearances at face value. Love does not judge the book by its cover. If love depends on everything and everyone staying the same, it is actually not love at all but attachment.

Sir Winston of New York

Useful tip: If you find it hard seeing everyone as your kind mother, as in the Buddhist Lamrim meditation, or you have as yet unresolved grievances with your mother, you can try seeing people as your pet dog instead to begin with! Do whatever works. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso calls meditation “beneficial believing”. It is endlessly creative — not just repeating things to ourselves, but tuning into our own experience and building on that. Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness (page 148):

Since an object’s nature and characteristics depend upon the mind that beholds it, we can change the objects we see by changing the way we see them. We can choose to view ourselves, other people and our world in whatever way is most beneficial. By steadfastly maintaining a positive view we gradually come to inhabit a positive world, and eventually a Pure Land.

To conclude, we’re all going to become Bodhisattvas and enlightened beings at some point because we have the potential to and the methods exist – sooner or later these two conditions will come together and we’ll travel the spiritual path. Therefore, I always think I may as well get started now! I’ll save myself and others a lot of unnecessary heartache if I do …

Your comments are most welcome, and please share this article if you like it.

7 questions to ask about animals and us (part three)

Click here for part one and click here for part two.

In the Vajrapani teaching in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:

Milarepa said to the hunter Gonpo Dorje:

‘You have the body of a human but the mind of an animal.’

That is, we have the same intention or view. What we human beings want and what animals want is exactly the same. We know all about computers and many other things, but our aim is the same – temporary happiness or worldly pleasure. Animals have various methods for finding worldly pleasures, and so do human beings. Their methods may differ but their aim, view and intention are the same; and, with regard to this, human beings are no more special than animals.

But surely my mentality, wants, needs and actions are far more sophisticated than an animal’s?

Are they? We are all equal in that we wish to be free from suffering all the time and always want to be happy. We never wake up and think, “Hey, I’d love a whole bunch of suffering today”, and nor do animals. In his commentary to Medicine Buddha in 2006, Geshe Kelsang said:

“Everybody wants to be free from suffering and be happy all the time; even animals have the intention to be free from suffering. They want to liberate themselves from suffering of this life.”

Buddhism teaches that unless we have developed a spiritual perspective and wish for the happiness of future lives, liberation or enlightenment, our outlook is really quite hard to distinguish from that of an animal! Our aims are the same. And as everything depends upon our intention, the results we’ll ultimately get out of our life are pretty much the same too.

If we can equalize our self and others, really understanding how just like our own self animals wish to be happy and free, we are not going to project alien “other” so strongly upon them, and with this inclusive perspective we can empathize with them. They are just like me. From their perspective, they are “me”.

Animals also create actions and experience their karmic effects, just like we do. In the Prajnaparamita commentary in 2008 Geshe Kelsang said:

Even animals, like dogs, also experience some inner mental peace from time to time. Why? Because they have on their consciousness the imprints of mental actions of meditation and concentration that they performed in their previous lives, and when these imprints of the mental actions of meditation ripen they experience mental peace. When they experience mental peace they are really happy because their mind is happy.

According to Buddha, we human beings are also not inherently or permanently human. We too can take rebirth as animals, and have indeed done so many times already in our countless previous lives. We are all in this ocean of samsara together. In the introduction to the Paris Festival in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:

When we take rebirth as human beings we will have to experience various kinds of human suffering; when we take rebirth as animals we will have to experience animals’ suffering; and when we take rebirth as a hell being we will have to experience the sufferings of hell beings. We should contemplate this continually again and again until we develop the strong wish to attain permanent liberation from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives.

When you open your eyes, what do you see?

Geshe Kelsang has said things like this so often:

Our intention is to benefit people throughout the world, to benefit all mother living beings including animals, other non-human beings.

Buddhists are encouraged to remember animals all the time, and to pray for their welfare. Geshe Kelsang has said that if we wish to develop compassion, all we have to do is “open our eyes”. When I take the paper bag of self-preoccupation off my head and look around here, I see lizards, cats, birds, worms, beetles, ants, dogs, and so on… animal beings are everywhere! If I bother to put myself in their “shoes” for even a few moments, and feel how they struggle to survive, it is quite an eye-opener and hard not to develop concern for them. It can also be a perspective shifter on how lucky we are at the moment, and — depending on our familiarity with Buddha’s teachings — a constant reminder of the need to use this time to attain liberation from samsara as soon as possible and enlightenment for their sake.

Animals have nothing. As Geshe Kelsang said in the 2008 Vajrapani teachings:

For example, dogs and other animals have nothing belonging to them. Relatively their body belongs to them but human beings control everything, even their body. They don’t even have any ability to control their own body. Human beings use them.

But how am I responsible for animals?

I’d like to quote here from Dougal’s comment on part one:

“We owe animals big. Geshe Kelsang once said he sometimes wants to sue humans on animals’ behalf. As he says: we need to work on our compassion, all of us, ’til it has the power to protect all living beings without exception; and at the same time we have to start facing our responsibilities in this world, right now, and do what we can to end the hell on earth our society inflicts on so many millions of living beings every day. I applaud Wayne Pacelle and the HSUS, and all those speaking out for our brothers and sisters without a voice – thank you. Think I’ll go buy his book.”

Someone told me yesterday that the etymology of the word responsible is “able to respond”. We are able to respond right now (in both ways mentioned in this comment), so doesn’t this mean that we are responsible whether we like it or not?

We are immensely privileged right now with our precious human life. And with great privilege comes great responsibility.

What about being decent to insects, isn’t that going a bit far?

We collectively have a low tolerance for insects it seems – I’m constantly passing white vans with slogans on them promising one way or another to be the best at ridding my home of “pests” and “stop being bugged”. Factory farms may be hidden away, but no one bats an eyelid at these proud proclamations of slaughter. We tell annoying people to “buzz off…”

There is to my knowledge no humane society for insects at this point in time. I personally have always had a thing for insects. I like what Issa says:

“Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.”

But although some may see me as a ridiculous bleeding heart liberal, at the same time I know I have a way to go. I am more careful with animals than insects – I would be far more concerned if I ran over a raccoon than if I trod on a beetle. This tells me that I still haven’t comprehended the full horrors of samsara, where I and my kind mothers can take rebirths in these forms.

In the What is Karma? chapter in Introduction to Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we kill even a tiny insect, this is a non-virtuous action because it causes great suffering to the insect.


In Tantric Grounds and Paths (p. 151) he says:

It is with the help of subtle external winds that plants draw up water, grow new leaves, and so forth. Such winds are the life-force of plants…. Thus, although it is incorrect to say that plants are alive in the sense of being conjoined with consciousness, we can say that they are alive in this sense.

We can choose to believe these things or not, of course. I don’t have trouble seeing animals and insects as sentient and flowers and vegetables as not, I’ve always thought of it that way. However, it is not obvious judging by people’s sometimes paradoxical relationships with their plants. Yesterday I visited an old friend who is very fond of her plants, and she showed them to me one by one. The last one, a hibiscus, had tiny white insects all over its flowers and she explained that she was spraying it with insecticide to save it. I objected that I didn’t think one hibiscus plant was worth the lives of hundreds of insects, no way. And she replied, “That is where you are wrong. Plants have feelings too.” And I said, sort of under my breath, “Well, why do you keep attacking them then with those large scary garden shears, that’s got to be agony”, and, louder, “Plants don’t have consciousness.” And she replied, “No they don’t, but they do have feelings.” Admittedly she has never been a master logician, but I still am trying to figure out the best answer for her to that. Let me know in the comments!

As part of the meditation on generating universal compassion, explained in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:

In the third stage, we focus on ourself and all animals and we think, “Just as I want happiness but not suffering, so too do all animals. In this respect we are all exactly the same. Therefore, I must believe that I myself and all animals are equally important. My happiness and their happiness, my freedom and their freedom, are equally important.” In this way we develop a caring attitude towards all animals, including insects, and we hold this for as long as possible. We should practice this every day in many sessions, continually until we cherish all animals, including insects, without exception.

Geshe Kelsang lovingly picks up the dying wasps on a summer’s day near his window and spends ages blowing mantras on them. I don’t know how many of you were at Madhyamaka Centre the year a fly flew into his teacup, and he scooped it out, paused the Je Tsongkhapa empowerment, made a lot of prayers blowing into his hand, and then laughingly but seriously told us that the insect was now in Tushita Pure Land.

I have more questions than answers when it comes to insects. What is our responsibility toward them? Are they necessary collateral damage because it is impossible not to harm unintentionally in samsara, as some people say? Have you found ways to increase your concern for them without resorting to going around with a cloth over your face and sweeping the path before you like the commendably compassionate but perhaps impractical Jains? What is to be done about insects?

But what can little old me do to help all these animals and insects? The problem seems insurmountable.

Buddha said that anyone who deliberately harmed another living being was no follower of his. At the very least, we can observe this refuge commitment.

As mentioned in part one, we turn a blind eye perhaps because we just don’t want there to be that much suffering. However, our head in the sand sadly doesn’t stop the suffering. Buddha advises us in the first of the four noble truths not to shy away from suffering – we need to know suffering in order to take the steps to overcome it. We can let animals remind us that there is immense suffering in the world but right now, with our precious human life, unlike them there is something we can do about it.

As Geshe Kelsang said in 2008 during the Vajrapani teachings:

Because we have the opportunity to study and practice Buddhadharma, we have the opportunity to understand the nature of samsara, and to cut the continuum of samsara and achieve permanent liberation from suffering. We have the opportunity to control our delusions, through which we can solve our own problems of anger, attachment and ignorance, and we can benefit others effectively. We have all this opportunity because we have met Buddhadharma. With regard to this, human life is valuable and very precious. It depends on our view and intention.

If we try to be brave and courageous, like a hero or heroine, and contemplate others’ suffering, we can increase our capacity very quickly. When I saw the lizard just now with the other by the throat, after running after it to make it drop its prey, I prayed mentally:

“May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.”

So simple, but so effective. Taking and giving is also so useful at times like this. And if we always remember our potential and theirs, we need never be discouraged. If you are a Tantric practitioner, use a situation like this to remind and motivate you to be a Buddha right now. If you are not, you can think “I am a Bodhisattva already, right now, bringing an end to this suffering.” Bring the result into the path. Please never despair, it helps no one, and there is always something we can do.

If we keep animals on our radar, they are a far larger category than human beings and will help our renunciation and compassion grow strong. If we think about animals, there is also more chance of our turning our attention to the other realms of samsara, such as hungry ghosts and hell beings, so that we will actually develop universal rather than biased compassion, the only basis for bodhichitta and enlightenment. Then we can pull the plug on samsara’s ocean.

Meantime, we can also specifically look out for the animals in our life, whoever they are. If you are stuck for ideas, Pacelle gives 50 practical suggestions at the end of his book for how to take action to help animals.

Even helping one animal makes a big difference. One day a woman came across a girl walking along the beach throwing dying stranded starfish back into the ocean. She asked her: “Why are you doing that? There are miles of beach and thousands of starfish. What difference does it make to throw that one back?” The girl looked at the starfish she was holding and replied: “It makes all the difference in the world to this one.” I don’t know if the Starfish story is true or not, but it could be.

And most significantly, if we combine our actions with bodhichitta, we create vast merit or good karma. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang says:

With bodhichitta, if we offer just one morsel of food to a dog, our merit will be as great as the number of living beings upon whose behalf we perform the action.

I was wondering too how Pacelle has become able to protect so many thousands of animals? He has been passionate about them since a boy. He must have created the karmic causes to help them. We can too.

Last but not least…
Baby Luna just rescued from being a Brazilian street dog

Geshe Kelsang himself has two rescued dogs. I remember when he and his assistant found the first one several years ago — a dirty grey bedraggled creature who, upon being given his first bath, looked like a drowned rat. But then he arose as a wonderfully radiant white fluffy fellow, whom Geshe-la now describes as very special, like a Bodhisattva. In the Brazil Festival last October, Geshe-la talked about how even our pet dog could be an emanation of Buddha, just as Buddha Maitreya appeared to Asanga on retreat as a dying dog (and maggots!) to help Asanga quickly purify his mind through compassion.

Enough already with our human superiority complex. In Eight Steps to Happiness, in the section on humility, Geshe Kelsang says:

“Since we cannot be sure one way or another, rather than wasting our time speculating whether the dog is an ordinary animal or an emanation, we should simply think, ‘This dog may be an emanation of Buddha.’ From this point of view we can think that we are lower than the dog, and this thought will protect us against any feelings of superiority.”

We never know. So, for all these reasons, and just in case, let’s be nice to animals and insects.

Your comments are most welcome. And please share this article if you think others might like it.