Who wants an existential wake-up call?!

8 min read 

past-life-signsLast night I dreamt that my spiritual teacher showed me all my lifetimes so far. These were not at all vivid, but I got a sense of the non-stop and varied installments in this interminable story of my samsara; and this was powerful. I cannot get it out of my mind – and nor do I want to.

It made me realize that if I don’t get my spiritual act together in this short life I am set to experience infinitely more chapters in this cycle of existence. Why am I at all interested, still, in buying into all these dramas, especially now that I have tasted the alternative of wisdom?

Then I woke to a foster kitten jumping onto my bed, and the recognition that this purring creature now kneading me with his paws was in yet another installment of his own beginningless story as well. This time, a cat book, filled with cat chapters. And right now our story is overlapping for a few paragraphs, but we will soon be moving on. Forced to move on. And I felt very sad for him because he has no way of understanding what all this means or what is in store for him, much less any way of escaping. And his confusion and suffering have already been going on for far too long.

Loved and lost

And then I thought of some of the humans I have loved and lost in this life alone, and realized that our endless stories had also intersected for just a few pages. At the time, it seemed that those relationships were deeply significant, and maybe in some ways they were. But they were never permanent – just a few shared paragraphs in the never-ending tomes of samsara.

Talk about getting things into perspective …! I am sorry to sound existentially terrifying, but a more realistic perspective brings us some measure of peace, and this has.

23622102_10155844260527442_2370081359763870875_nNo difference between those loved & lost humans and this kitten, really – at least, the only difference being a very small matter of time. As the equanimity meditation shows, I have been as close to this kitten in the past as I ever was to them. And it is this kitten, not them, who is currently appearing directly to my senses in this latest story line, and who is the one I can show love to directly.

Fleeting narratives

So each lifetime is like a new book, and within each book, whether short or long, are the transient chapters of that life. Within the chapters are paragraphs, including sentences and words. These make up the narrative of our lives, and the narrative we have largely been telling ourselves all these eons. For there is nothing behind these tales, or even these characters, when we look. Everything is mere name.

The common denominator holding this narrative together life after life is grasping at ME. Even though that me is changing all the time, even day by day, we believe it it real, that it is there, not just a projection of our thoughts. And then our self-cherishing, attachment, aversion, and other delusions emanate from that grasping in life after life, like a spider weaving her web. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

 We need to understand that the inherently existent I that we grasp at so firmly and continuously does not exist at all. It never has existed and never will. It is merely the fabrication of our self-grasping ignorance. ~ page 51.

Moreover, our stories with each other may have interwoven in extraordinary or mundane ways, but they have all been, thus far, entirely ephemeral. And pretty much entirely out of our control.

We don’t own others. We cannot begin to own them. We don’t even own ourselves.

Swept along

201306-orig-past-life-949x534Most of the time – maybe the whole of beginningless time — we have been swept along by each unfolding drama and its bardo interludes, believing in it as if was the be-all and end-all, as if there was something solid behind those mental projections. We have clung on for dear life to every appearance – trying to solve our problems and get happy through the use of ignorance, attachment, and aversion all trying to manipulate the objects outside our mind. We have not yet realized that all subject minds and object things co-arise and subside simultaneously, like waves from an infinitely deeper source, the ocean of our own root mind that goes from life to life.

You may have noticed — we cannot solve an attachment problem with the attachment that is in fact creating the problem in the first place. Same for aversion. We can’t force the objects of our attachment or aversion to behave better while at the same time allowing our attachment and aversion to stay put. We can’t solve any actual problems or unpleasant feelings outside of changing our thoughts. But we sure do try.

If we cannot gain control over our mind through wisdom, we will have no choice but to believe in and be carried along by its projections or mistaken appearances. As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a graphic depiction of our real predicament:

Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path  

The imperative to get enlightened

beyond-1157000_960_720How can we help others, really help them, if we are as helplessly carried along as they are, and incapable of staying with any of them for very long, much less forever? Even the people we love the dearest in this life, who have always been there for us, such as our parents – we cannot even hold onto them. My mom turns 80 in two short days, on December 24th. I have known her for over half a century, I think about her every single day, I feel like I have never not known her, but …

This all adds up to … we have to become enlightened. We need to be the clear light of omniscience itself, the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, and to allow all new books, chapters, paragraphs, and even commas to appear within that completely purified, transformed, and blissful mind.

Otherwise everything that appears to us (other than to our very subtle mind) is going to remain as the mistaken and often painful projection of self-grasping. We will keep trying to believe in it as the truth, but like any hallucination or mirage it will thus forever and always keep letting us down.

Buddha_sunBuddha is the “supreme unchanging friend”. Enlightened beings are brighter than the sun, constantly shining in our lives, in all our lives. They are more stable than the great earth. They are omniscient wisdom mixed with universal compassion that pervades all beings. They have pulled this off as they have directly realized the non-duality of subject and object. We are mere aspects of their completely purified mind already, even if we don’t realize it.

Through following Buddha’s teachings, eventually we too will attain the non-conceptual mind of great bliss. With this we have direct experience that there is only one truth – ultimate truth emptiness – and that all conventional truths, ie, all story lines without exception, are mere appearances not other than ultimate truth.

Start here

If we want to help other people a lot, we can’t keep losing them. We can’t settle with just throwing them temporary lifelines as they drift in and out of our range. And how can any lifeline be enough if we are floundering in the waves ourselves?

We need to have everyone in our story all the time — not outside our mind, nor we outside theirs — sharing our mandala now and for always.

Leonard CohenI know that this may sound a very long way off, but we can start straightaway. There is nothing to lose, and every step we take will make our existential situation better.

What is the first step? Trusting in our own inner peace. We can start with just one simple breath carrying us into our heart.

What’s step two? High-quality encounters day by day. Learning to love people unconditionally in the moment. If we hold and remember people with love, they will not feel wrenched from our mind even when appearances change. We need not feel separate from them. We are always losing people through attachment, let alone aversion, so we must learn to dissolve these deluded conceptual thoughts and their objects away. As William Blake said along these lines:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

We can practice day by day to increase our love and compassion within the understanding of impermanence and space-like emptiness, until, as a Buddha, we can hold everyone all the time.

This way we will become supreme unchanging friends for the people we already adore, and for everyone else we have forgotten we adored in the past.

This may not be the Christmassy article you were hoping for, sorry; but it’s what I’ve been thinking about since I woke up 😁 Blame my mother — I wouldn’t be typing this fast if she hadn’t forced me to do a typing course back in the day. Or if she hadn’t given me my fingers.

That said, please join me in wishing her the most pure and peaceful of birthdays and years ahead!

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Mere karmic appearance of mind

There are two complementary ways to approach this subject of emptiness (carrying on from here). One is understanding that things don’t exist from their own side. Things lack inherent existence. Things lack thingyness. Mere absence of inherent existence is emptiness.

nature of realitySo, then, the complementary point to this is, if things don’t exist from their own side, if things don’t exist independent of our mind, yet they appear, how do they exist? What is that appearance?

Mere appearance

It is mere appearance to mind, it depends entirely upon perception. Geshe Kelsang uses “appearance” and “perception” interchangeably – he has gone so far as to say we perceive things or we appear things. There is nothing out there to perceive; our mind appears things. (Even itself.)

Emptiness and appearance are like two sides of the same coin. They are in fact the same truth.

Karmic appearance

So why do things appear to us in the way that they do, and so differently for everyone? Our appearances or perceptions come from our karma and from our conceptual imputations or discriminations.

I can take my current city, say, which is Denver. The appearance of Denver to my mind is arising as a result of my previous karmic intentions; I am experiencing the results of previous thoughts that sowed karmic potentials or seeds on my mental continuum which are now ripening. (Quite nice seeds ripening today in fact — I must have done something good to be enjoying 79 degree sunshine in March and an array of half-naked people throwing Frisbees in Cheesman Park…) Cheesman Park

Denver is also the nature of my mind – arising simultaneously with the awareness apprehending it from the same karmic seed, like a wave arising from the ocean of my root mind. It doesn’t exist outside my mind any more than a dream of Denver. (Dream minds and their objects also arise simultaneously from the same karmic seeds.)

In so far as me and my fellow Denverites have created similar karma in the past, we are experiencing a collective appearance or perception of Denver and can agree that it is Denver. It’s like a shared dream. However, it doesn’t exist outside our minds – we cannot point at any objective Denver outside of our experiences of it. Some of those experiences we have in common, eg, “Look, there are mountains!”, “Look, it is sunny (again!)” — but if we were all questioned on what exactly Denver was or how it appeared, we would all come up with our own answers. None of us have identical karma so none of us have identical Denver.

Imputation of mind
cat looking at Denver
What is she actually looking at?

Denver also depends on mere imputation by mind. Denver is Denver because we came to an agreement that it was. Why do I hold this city to be “beautiful Denver” as opposed to “ugly Denver”, or even “Denver” at all? There is nothing from its own side that I can point to and say, “This is Denver”. Without me labeling or conceptually imputing “Denver” on its parts, it would not appear to my mind, not even to my eye awareness. Both my foster cats live in Denver as far as I’m concerned, but not as far as they are concerned — they discriminate it entirely differently, they don’t even know its name, and they are having an entirely different experience as a result.

Forest example

For example, let’s say someone says, “Come and see my forest!” But you get there and there are only 10 trees – “You can’t call that a forest!” you might protest. So then our friend adds a tree, and then another, asking, “Got a forest?” Maybe we have some interested onlookers joining us. “Yes”, someone says after, say, 15 trees, “Now there is a forest!” Others agree, others are not so sure. More trees are added, and one by one, or group by group, people agree there is a forest, until everyone is agreed, “Yes, there is a forest!” (Except for the squirrels, who couldn’t care less about the concept of the forest, though might agree amongst themselves that they’ve discovered a useful food store.) squirrel

So where did that forest come from?! Which tree made the forest!? The very existence of the forest came about only through agreement, through convention; and that is why it is conventional reality, rather than ultimate truth. Where do agreements occur? In the mind. So the forest depends on the mind. Likewise, which house or road made Denver?

The point of all this is that we are constantly creating our own reality with our intentions and with our thoughts, so we may as well create the best one.

Conclusions

If we understand how everything is mere karmic appearance of mind, we know the importance of creating the best intentions or karma possible to bring about the lives we want.

If we understand that everything is the nature of the mind, we know the importance of purifying and transforming the mind.

If we understand that everything is mere imputation, we can also understand that in any given moment we can choose how we discriminate or impute our world to the most beneficial effect — denver capitol building lit up whether we discriminate others as annoying or as our kind mothers, for example, or whether Denver is an ordinary city or the Pure Land of a Buddha. Even though things appear and exist due to karma, we can change our imputation of them. Nothing is fixed.

(This is a profound subject, I am only touching on it in passing here. More coming soon. But hopefully, if your curiosity is piqued, you’ll check out that chapter on emptiness in Modern Buddhism that I was telling you about.)