I just want to stop suffering

7.5 mins read

While we continue to harbor the 2 ego-centered minds of self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing, our lives can quickly take a sinister turn. Everything that was working out for usinisters can so quickly go wrong when our own and others’ delusions such as anger, attachment, pride, and jealousy wreck everything – work, supreme court nominations, families, marriages, these can all implode and leave us finding everything and everyone so weird and distasteful, even the people we thought we understood.

Do you ever have thoughts like this: “I don’t like this! I want to escape! I want to get away from all these annoying and/or demanding people and crushing responsibilities/anxieties/stressors! I want to get away and forget about it all — the worrying family, the depressive exes, the needy friends, the daily grind, the constant pressure of the endless to-do list, the boring commute, the insane politics, the scary climate change, the racist system, the cruelty everywhere I look, the sickness and ageing and death ….” And that’s just for starters.

Maybe we save up all year to go on vacation to get away from it all, but before long we want to get away from the airport queues, the sunburn, the sand in our teeth, the vacationcredit card debt, and the bad memories and anxieties we accidentally brought along in our luggage.

The thing is, regardless of our circumstances, and wherever we find ourselves in samsara, the only way we are going to finally get away from our suffering is if we learn how to increase our inner peace and, above all, learn how to dissolve all suffering into (bliss and) emptiness. We need to take time to do this every single day. Even taking ourselves off to a deserted cave in the middle of nowhere to do a long solitary retreat is not going to crack it otherwise.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has explained over and over again in all his books on Sutra and Tantra exactly how we can do this. I find this too incredible for words. Because these methods work every single time. No matter how busy or over-scheduled I become, giving myself a little time to meditate on emptiness is to find the way out of the feelings of being overwhelmed, the tight crowded thoughts that make everything seem unmanageable.

And the more we have to do, and the more people who need our attention, the more we need to apply this wisdom, as I talk about in this article, “Going wide means going deep.”

Moreover, quite the opposite of being irresponsible, Geshe Kelsang explains in his mind-boggling new commentary on Avalokiteshvara practice how cultivating the recognition of all forms, sounds, and thoughts as mere name not other than emptiness is the only way to quickly release all six classes of being from suffering. Please read this latest book, The Mirror of Dharma, when you get a chance; it feels very blessed to me.

A quick fix meditation

happy mind aloneI shared my thoughts on how to meditate on the emptiness of the self in this article. Once we have gotten a taste of that, we can try this quick-fix meditation – it is my main go-to when I’m feeling oversubscribed or worried about anything.

So, let’s say you’re feeling upset or overwhelmed. Soon as you can, take yourself off to a quiet place (even if that means letting the restroom live up to its name.) Sit down, breathe a little and get into your heart, and ask yourself:

Who is upset?

Answer: ME. I am.

Then ask yourself: Is my body upset? Is my mind upset?

Answer: No. I am upset. That I or Me seems to exist all on its own, from its own side, pretty darned solid and real and upset; and I seem to be grasping at it without question.

But now I will question it. So now look for this I or Me. Is it your body? No. That’s just flesh and bone. Is it your mind? No. That’s just formless awareness, just thoughts, no me embedded in them. I am not just a thought, I am ME.

So take away the body and mind, and the I or Me remains? No. Not at all. It’s gone.

When we have some experience of this searching and not finding, our strong sense of self disappears. There is empty-like space there, the absence of self, NO self — and big relief.

It is not the appearance of our I and other things existing in a certain fixed way, or external to the mind, but the belief in that appearance as being true that leads to our being upset. If we can let go of that belief that our I or me exists in a certain fixed way by observing how it dissolves into emptiness, this frees us up to name or impute or project our self, our world, and other people differently. We can arise within the space of that emptiness, inseparable from that emptiness, as a mere appearance who is very relaxed and happy, or a Bodhisattva, or a Buddha, or whoever we want.

“The Pure Land is closer than thought”, a friend just messaged me. Make of that what you will.

Getting some context

If we are confident in our path to liberation and enlightenment, and hold that as our main priority and job, we are less inclined to become “too closely involved in the external situation” as Geshe Kelsang puts it in How to Transform Your Life — like children building sandcastles, excited when it’s built and anxious when it’s swept away. Instead, it can be an enjoyable daily challenge to use the arising and subsiding of all fleeting, insubstantial cloud-like appearances as fuel for our renunciation, compassion, and wisdom. We have a big mind perspective, like the sky, and thus the space to play with the clouds.

leaving past behindA practical idea … instead of reaching for the Smartphone first thing in the morning (get another alarm clock!) and/or starting to itemize all the things to worry about that day and/or ruminating on everything that is going wrong with our life, thus cramming our mind with clouds before we’ve even got to the coffee, it is a really good idea to start the day by counting our blessings. We can do that by tuning into our precious human life and the kindness of others, for example, letting happiness wash over us.

We can also set ourselves in flight by remembering impermanence — laying down the heavy burden of the past (which is in fact no more substantial than the dream from which we have just awoken). Considering that this could be our last day on Earth, we may as well use it to be a Bodhisattva or Buddha.

Wanna be a wishfulfilling jewel?

wishfulfilling jewelFrom a Tantric point of view, as someone said the other day on Facebook, what’s stopping us from thinking of ourselves in this way, using the words from the Liberating Prayer:

Your body is a wishfulfilling jewel,
Your speech is supreme, purifying nectar,
And your mind is refuge for all living beings.

This is a description of Buddha Shakyamuni and, if we play our cards right, one day this will be a description of us. In Buddhism, faith in Buddha necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential. We may as well start practicing.

Maybe just give this thought a go and see what it feels like. What’s it like to think outside the box about ourselves? There is nothing to stop us arising from emptiness as a Buddha or, if we don’t feel ready for that yet, as a magic crystal:

It is said that there exists a magic crystal that has the power to purify any liquid in which it is placed. Those who cherish all living beings are like this crystal — by their very presence they remove negativity form the world and give back love and kindness. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

How are you?

Someone asked me how I was the other day, and for some reason I couldn’t find the words to reply. But it got me thinking that a more interesting question than “How are you?” might be “Who are you?” For who we think we are will be determining both how we feel and what we plan on doing, including the karma we create.  

Geshe-la 1-1I don’t suppose this question will take off 😄 But I find it useful because it reminds me of who I want to be and what I want to do, rather than just how I am feeling at that moment. “Who are you and what do you seek?” as it asks us in Heruka Tantra.

Atisha used to ask the people he met,

Do you have a good heart?

This question might not take off either, but I think it could help society if it did, putting the emphasis on what we are all intending rather than how we are all feeling.

Our intentions are more significant than our feelings or experiences as they are what create the causes or karma for our feelings and experiences – not much we can do about the ripening of our previous karma, but much we can do about the karma we are creating now. What do you think about that?

And who are you today?! 😄

Related articles

Just who do you think you are?

Tired, yet, of living a cliche?

Karma and us

 

 

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

In the Spring Festival I just attended at the Kadampa World Peace temple in the Lake District in England (laid back, relaxed, good Dharma, lovely Sangha, blessings all over), Gen-la Dekyong gave a talk on Friday night about the deceptive nature of samsara’s pleasures. In general, people think they will find happiness in eating, drinking, sexual activity, or watching television, or in a good job or nice relationship, or in lots of money, or even more money, or in a good reputation. If I have all this, we think, I will be happy, so we put all our energy into it. But we can see that even people who have managed to get a lot or even all of these things together are still not happy.

Pringles 2So, maybe, she said, you know what is coming next.  The happiness that arises from these worldly activities–eating drinking etc–isn’t real happiness, because it changes into suffering. Geshe Kelsang calls this artificial happiness or contaminated happiness or happiness mixed with suffering. For example, a pleasant feeling may arise when we start eating, but if eating was a real cause of happiness, then the more we ate the happier we would become. Yet the opposite is the case – the more we eat, the more uncomfortable we become.

Thinking this through I have concluded, not for the first time, that the same does indeed apply to all the other things we grasp at for pleasure, without exception. We’ve tried it all enough times, in this life and in countless previous lives – trying to find happiness in things or people outside the mind. Every time we get excited, “Perhaps this is it! This is the ultimate café, town to live in, relationship, weather, job!!” But it never lasts, does it?

Pringles 1Don’t get me wrong – I like eating, drinking, hanging out in the sun, and the rest of it as much as anyone else, and am not suggesting that we stop all these enjoyments (as if we even could). But it is important to find a way to transform them into the spiritual path through wisdom, compassion, and bliss, and we will only bother doing that if we see that in themselves they are not the real causes of our happiness.

I think we have to check this point carefully, not in an abstract way but based on our own activities and experiences at the moment – where are we investing our happiness? For example, what did you do today? Did it deliver the goods? Or was it more reminiscent of the words of Venerable Atisha:

Friends, the things you desire give no more contentment than drinking saltwater.

Pringles 3Or eating Pringles. I have often tried to find contentment in eating Pringles, and “once you pop, you cannot stop”, as their jingle goes — but I just end up with a sore mouth and slight feeling of nausea.

(And we are not even talking here about the problems of samsara, just the pleasures!! Which can often end up, weirdly, amounting to the same thing.)

Okay, I’ll start. I was just contemplating this all a bit earlier on this plane when my vegetarian Asian dinner arrived, a delicious BA curry, so much tastier than the stodgy pasta and dead chickens that all those meat-eaters have to eat! Ravenous after several hours of packing, traveling, security, and powerlessly waiting around, I eagerly stopped what I was doing (actually writing this), put lime pickle all over it, and shoved it in my mouth, barely managing to remember that it was not an actual cause of happiness, even though I had just been thinking about this subject. The first few mouthfuls were fine and dandy, then, hunger pangs abating, it already got a bit boring, and I started to toy with it, roll it around on my fork, and wonder, “What exactly is this?”, and “What shall I eat next?” One mouthful of the lemon cake was more than enough. To eat the bread roll or not to eat it, that was the next question. I decided not, but I have hedged my bets by buttering it and photo 1 (1)secreting it away for a snack later, no doubt so I can find it in a few days’ time mouldy and festering in my rucksack, like the banana I “kept for later” on my last plane trip, or the year-old cookies found in a forgotten pocket. I am a very slow learner when it comes to figuring out how to make samsara work for me. But there again, aren’t we all? Perhaps it is why we are still here, we are still hedging our bets, “One day it’ll work out, surely?! I just need to try harder!” Then I needed a coffee to wash down my coca cola, and while I was at it I thought I should finish my earlier purchased Kit Kat before it melted completely. Now I’m on a sugar/caffeine high, of which you, dear reader, are bearing the brunt. I also am waiting again, this time for the flight attendant to take this annoying meal tray away. I’d also like to use the bathroom, but I am in the window seat, and trays and bodies are everywhere, in my way. Oh, and did I mention that I dropped the tray of leftovers from this once appetizing curry all over my lap?

But my search for happiness on this flight is not over yet. Nowhere near. I still have 7 hours and 47 minutes to go. (And that’s just the first leg, getting me from London to San Francisco just so I can get on a whole other flight backward eastward to Denver, don’t even ask … ) When I watch a movie later, it may moreorless entertain me and keep me awake, but by the time I crawl into bed 5am UK time, I won’t feel I have accomplished much, really — just gone from A to C and back to B, killing time. If on the other hand I used this time in the sky plane in sky who takes these photosactually flying, thinking about renunciation, universal compassion, and wisdom, for example, or generating bliss and using that to meditate on emptiness, that would be a day well spent, whether or not I watched the movie or enjoyed the curry or even spilt more stuff over myself. My journey would have meant something. Something would have changed forever for the better.

Gen-la Dekyong went onto quote the verse from Je Tsongkhapa’s Prayer of the Stages of the Path:

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive
Give no contentment, only torment.

If we believed this from our own experience, we could reach a conclusion: “I don’t want artificial happiness. I want the real thing!” So what is the happiness we experience when we eat?  It is actually just a reduction in our previous suffering of hunger.  Buddha says that in this world no one has real happiness and their actions cause suffering.  But we keep looking; we are absolutely convinced that within this cycle of impure life we can find happiness.

I find it very helpful to consider how happiness could ever possibly come from outside the mind when there isn’t anything outside the mind to begin with?! Attachment is based on ignorance, grasping at (pleasant) things outside the mind, so no wonder it is futile.

We can remember the story of the thief rummaging around in Milarepa’s cave at night to find something to steal, only to hear Milarepa’s voice: “I cannot even find anything in here worth stealing in the daytime!” Buddhas in the light of their omniscient wisdom have searched and failed to find any real happiness in samsara, so what hope do we have in the darkness of our ignorance?

Over to you, do you think we can find happiness in objects and people outside the mind?

Doped up on the 8 worldly concerns?!

This continues from this article, In praise of integrity. And talking of pedestals, a good friend of mine went to the same high school as John Cleese, and told me this tale about him. In front of the school is a tall pillar, on which Field Marshall Haig had stood for almost a hundred years, until parents and guests turned up to graduation one year to find footsteps leading from the pillar to the building and back again… Even famous commanders can’t live on a pedestal, but have to get down to use the restroom sooner or later.

The 8 worldly concerns (attached to receiving praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and aversion to their opposite) are insidious and very damaging. Practicing Buddhism, or Dharma, under their influence, with an impure motivation, is said to be like eating healthy food mixed with poison – we might derive some short-term benefit but in the long-term we’re going to be in pain. In his book Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we have been practicing Dharma for some time but cannot feel any of its benefits, the reason is that we are not yet practicing pure Dharma.impure motivation is like food laced with poison

What’s more, as the scriptures say, the higher we are in the tree of ambition, the thinner the branches, and the further we have to fall.

You do know this is not it?

“That was good, but you do know this is not it?” The words spoken by his friend to a prominent teacher in my Buddhist tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, after he had just finished teaching at a large Festival. The teacher was telling me this, saying how glad he had friends around him to keep him real so that he did not become “doped up” on praise, love, or prostration mudras. Teaching success is no substitute for spiritual success.

We were also chatting about what happens when we become so unused to criticism by dint of a high position that, if we’re not careful, it becomes harder and harder to handle criticism when it does come our way  – clearly the opposite of what is supposed to happen for a Kadampa!

Praise etc doesn’t help us while we have it, and once we’re off our pedestal it quickly dries up as well. If we have come to depend on it we’re in trouble, and if it has become part of our self-image we’ll have to pretty much reinvent ourselves.

humility in BuddhismI believe that the 8 worldly concerns stop spiritual progress. It is easier to make progress when you feel normal, like everyone else, rather than special.  Lucky, yes, perhaps, but special, no. Pride drives a wedge between us and those we are trying to help, which is one reason there’s so much emphasis on humility for Bodhisattvas.

I like this Alanis Morrissette lyric as it speaks to me of genuinely spiritual people, such as a Bodhisattva, who are the only ones who really deserve to be on a pedestal, though you’ll never catch them up there:

And I am fascinated by the spiritual man;
I am humbled by his humble nature.

The main job

Always being in performance mode can be bad for one’s own practice. The Buddhas can take us wherever we want to go, but we don’t need to keep looking over our shoulder to see if others are watching us. I once visited Geshe Kelsang seeking advice on something, and just by way of preamble I stated what I thought was the obvious: “I know that my main job is to teach Dharma, but …”

I could not get another word out of my mouth as he interrupted me, quite forcibly:

overcoming the 8 worldly concerns

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

That has been true for me on many levels, and it makes more sense to me with each passing year.  My main job is being a practitioner first and whatever else second.

If we feel that our job is inherently worthy, and feel carried along by it, this can make us lazy in training our minds and undermine our inner development by allowing worldly concerns to creep in. And the worst part? We might not even realize this is happening, while the precious years for practice pass us by.

There are numerous stories in the Buddhist scriptures of people being expelled or otherwise leaving their high or cushy positions in the monastery or society to go off on their ownsome to gain realizations, and to me these are an inspiring example of the need to let go of the eight worldly concerns even whilst we stay amongst others.

Flavor of the month

don't need to be flavor of the month It really doesn’t matter whether or not we are flavor of the month. It does matter whether or not we stick to our principles of compassion and wisdom. And if these are our principles, rather than the 8 worldly concerns, this allows a lot of room for flexibility in accordance with the changing needs of others. For example, Geshe Kelsang has shown extraordinary month-by-month flexibility in adapting Buddhism from the reclusive monastic situation in Tibet to the connected, transparent modern world without sacrificing his principles and seemingly caring not a jot for the 8 worldly concerns.

Humility helps us remain flexible even as we stick to what we know is right, not just fashionable. Also, true change comes from inside, not from changing others; so we can be tolerant of others’ shortcomings whilst overcoming our own. As Atisha says, in what I regard as one of the most helpful all-time Buddhist quotes:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Don’t you think this means not just in general, but also on a rigorous daily basis, knowing what our mind is doing and taming our own delusions before we go trying to tame others?

Shrinking or expanding world?

The 8 worldly concerns shrink our world and I think can make us institutionalized if we take our small world a little too seriously — whether this is the world of our family and friends, our business or workplace, or even our place of worship. To expand our world again we can remember that we’ll be leaving this life soon; we have at most a few hundred months left before we find ourselves in our next life. Remembering death and impermanence is the antidote to the 8 worldly concerns.

Can you remember back to this time last year, what were your overriding concerns/anxieties/things you really wanted? Are they the same today? Fast forward to this time next year, will the concerns/anxieties/things you really want today still be the same then? If the answer is no, as it pretty generally is, I find this helps me let go of worrying about whatever I happen to be currently worrying about, for it seems a waste of mental energy! We can relax instead into what endures year after year, our spiritual journey.

Kadampa Buddha 2We can also broaden our horizons by developing bodhichitta, changing what we really want out of life by contemplating every day how wonderful it would actually be to have freedom from all mistaken, suffering appearances and the ability to help each and every living being. (With bodhichitta motivation, putting a crumb on a bird table is far more valuable and satisfying than giving a diamond out of attachment to the 8 worldly concerns. That example from Joyful Path shows how, if we change what we want, life can actually become simpler and deeper at the same time!)

Everything is deceptive, except for… 

Wisdom: Everything is moreorless deceptive while we have ignorance – things are never exactly as they appear, and when we have strong delusions or agitated minds, such as the 8 worldly concerns, we can be sure that what we are seeing has very little resemblance to what’s really going on. Therefore, we need to rely on the wisdom of emptiness to do away with the false appearance of inherent existence, understanding that the things we normally see do not exist.

Compassion: The other day, I mentioned to J on the stairs in passing: “Everything is deceptive except wisdom.” He looked at me with his big eyes and asked, “And love?” And he is right. Love itself doesn’t grasp at an inherently existent person, its object is simply wishing others happiness, which is the great protector against suffering for ourselves and the people around us. Compassion is our love focused on others’ suffering, wishing them to be freed from it. Our so-called “method” minds of renunciation, love, compassion, patience, and so on are entirely more trustworthy than our attachment and aversion, and they keep us sane and happy, hence the Kadampa motto:

integrityAlways rely upon a happy mind alone.

I count myself lucky to know people with lots of integrity, who’re trying their best to change for the better, every day. They are flexible, but not blown about by the changing winds of how things are done or not done this week, month, or year, at the expense of common sense or indeed basic human kindness; they are not sticklers for rules for rules’ own sake. They are more inspired by the enduring rules of wisdom and compassion.

We can always find our way if we stick to wisdom and compassion.

In praise of integrity

I recently re-read a good article on Heart of Compassion on honesty and keeping it real, well worth reading twice. It has also prodded me to finish writing down some thoughts on integrity that I’ve had up my sleeve for a while.

Integrity definitionThe dictionary definition of integrity is:

Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

One of the things I love most about the old Kadampas is their integrity. They seemed to practice Dharma as if no one was looking, totally for its own sake, with no side-tracking worldly concerns. (The 8 worldly concerns are attachment to praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and fear of or aversion to their opposite.)

A few years ago, when I was about to go on quite a long retreat, a friend said: “You’ll be setting a great example!” I remember thinking, and replying, “I don’t want to set an example, though. I just want to practice as if no one is looking.” I don’t know if that thought was a cop-out or not, but I know at the time it helped me enjoy the retreat a great deal.

integrity and Understanding the Mind TharpaAlthough it can obviously be helpful to set a good example, it is counterproductive if there is pretension or concealment involved. (Perhaps it is better to be a good example than to set one?)  If I look to someone for inspiration or advice, for example, I am not worried about their faults per se because we all have those. What will destroy my confidence in their ability to help me is if they don’t seem to be doing anything about these faults, particularly if they don’t seem to believe or care that they have them, and even more so if they are trying to cover them up or being prideful. (Others probably evaluate our advice using similar criteria.)

A Bodhisattva promises to work for the welfare of all living beings without pretension or deceit. Here are some useful definitions from Understanding the Mind (where you can read all about them) that have helped me understand what integrity is and aspire to it, since it seems free from these faulty attitudes.

The definition of pretension is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to pretend that we possess qualities that we do not possess.

The definition of concealment is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to conceal our faults from others.

If we have wealth or reputation, we have to be particularly careful because we have the grounds for attachment to arise every day – trying to hold onto our wealth or popularity, fearing their loss. Our behavior will no longer have integrity if it is motivated by these concerns and results will not be as good as they could be, even if we are ostensibly helping a lot of people.

Here’s another good one, self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth, or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development.

If we count among our “other good qualities” the fact that everyone right now loves us, praises us, and does what we ask, we develop a spiritual smugness that means after years of supposed practice and example we have not taken an actual step forward toward liberation or enlightenment.

Crabs in a bucket

If you put a crab in a bucket and it can climb out of that bucket, it will climb out. But if you put two crabs in the bucket, when one of the crabs tries to climb out, the other will pull it back in. (Apparently. I’ve never tried this.) Neither will ever escape. It doesn’t matter that it is possible to escape; the crabs will hold each other back from doing so.

Atisha
Atisha, founder of Kadampa Buddhism

Sometimes we may not believe in the idea of our own limitless potential and instead have a jealous or insecure sense that someone else’s success somehow diminishes our own. With that mentality, even if we are not fully aware of it, if we see others improving we will naturally if unconsciously reach out to hold them back, or at least experience that most ignoble of  feelings, schadenfreude, when we see them fall back.

However, we don’t only hold each other back by criticizing each other, putting each other down, or rejoicing in their misfortune. Actually, I think we are more effectively held back in samsara when people shower us with praise, power, and gifts, especially if we take it seriously and buy into it. Words of fame and praise do nothing to advance us spiritually, especially if we become dependent on them for our self-image and self-esteem. As Venerable Atisha says in his quintessential Advice for all wannabe Kadampas:

Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.

Profit and respect are nooses of the maras, so brush them aside like stones on the path.

Geshe-la in Tibet
Geshe Kelsang in Tibet

I was once on a little pedestal by dint of my position – not a huge pedestal like Nelson’s in Trafalgar Square, more like one of those plastic pillars a foot high in a MacDonalds playground, but still not quite on the level playing field. When I was pushed off my pedestal (as we all are sooner or later), I took incredible inspiration from the old Kadampas, and still do. The real Kadampas would hide their best qualities in plain sight. On the outside they were a pure example by observing moral discipline motivated by non-attachment and contentment, on the inside they were motivated by a fiercely kind bodhichitta, and, even more deeply and secretly on the inside, they were relaxing in the bliss and emptiness of Tantra. 

It is not what you do but why you do it. There is no such thing as ordinary activity without an ordinary mind. With an ordinary mind, even seemingly pure activities will have ordinary results.

Part 2 of this subject is here. Meanwhile, over to you, do you agree with this or not?

On storms and politics

Wrote this during the last election cycle — still seems quite relevant.

Two things have happened this week that have reinforced my conclusion that although we have to do practical stuff to help others (eg, I took Zia the foster kitten to the vet foster kittenyesterday, which might have saved her life), lasting, far-reaching change has to come from within. Like I was saying in my last article.

An adventure in canvassing

Those of you in the US may have noticed that we are in election season. Now, I want to say before I go any further that generally I’m with Nagarjuna when he prayed never to reborn as a politician. However, I do think there is a choice in this election that might make a difference to large sections of the population. I voted yesterday for the person I think will muck things up less and I actually do hope he wins. I became an American citizen in July, and I’ve long thought that exercising my right to vote is a karmic way to make sure I keep my freedom to vote in the future (and gives me the excuse to complain when politicians annoy me.) But that’s me. I have friends who entirely disagree with my version of who should win this election, or who think that voting for any politician is an exercise in futility, and these are perfectly fine and kind people; which just goes to show how everything depends on our own mind.

The only time I’ve ever been politically active was, aged 13 in Britain, when I saw a party political broadcast by Jeremy Thorpe of the Liberal Party and decided on the spot to join the Young Liberals. This basically meant wearing a nerdy badge and going to a few discos. I don’t believe I made the slightest jot of difference to anything, but I did meet some boys.

Still, the other day I was chilling on my sofa when the phone rang and someone asked me: “Are you voting for so and so?” “Yes.” “Would you like to volunteer to help the campaign?” vote for me

I have never hitherto had the slightest interest in volunteering to help the campaign, and I am not one of those people who tries everything once, but for some reason the word “Yes” came out of my mouth again. Before I could swallow it, I found myself committed to a time and place.

Last Sunday at 1pm, therefore, I found myself driving to a rather nice house on the water and meeting a bunch of rather nice people, who are passionate about this thing. I had read that the well-organized campaign knew everything about registered voters and tried to match canvassers up with their own type of demographic, so as I drove off alone in my car with my clipboard and all my leaflets I called my mum to tell her that with my English accent I’d soon be knocking on some posh doors in that neighborhood. Instead, I found my directions taking me east of the railway tracks.

Equipped with only my sticker, I knocked on 41 doors that afternoon – half the people were out (thankfully) and the other half were African American. Florida gets called the zebra state for good (bad) reason – the strip of land by the water is white, and the strip of land behind it is black, and don’t get me started on how weird that is. In any event, I had an interesting afternoon and a total of 15 conversations, being invited in a couple of times, and persuading perhaps a total of four whole people to go early to the voting booth, but more likely I was preaching to the choir and those four would have gone anyway.

That took four concerted hours!! And really, if I’m to be honest, it accomplished very little, if anything. (I did have fun though.) I am not criticizing Get Out the Vote, in fact it may be necessary and I admired the motivation of the organizers I met (who now of course want me to come back as apparently 15 conversations is some sort of first-time record, tho’ no doubt they say that to everyone.) But what struck me was how labor-intensive and in fact potentially frustrating it is to try and talk people into things they are not interested in. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It just shows me how slow change will be if that is all we do to change things.

Atisha says that we cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own mind. And I think that if everyone put four concerted hours into developing compassion and wisdom each day, we’d very quickly tame our own minds, and could help and encourage others in quite exceptional ways.

I actually heard these words coming out of my mouth while out canvassing, “Let’s win this thing!” I was surprised at myself, until I realized that I wasn’t really talking about the election.

(Hey, I just had some scary trick or treaters come to my door and had to bribe them to go away with Reeses Peanut Butter Cups… it sort of reminded me of Sunday, only no one gave me any chocolate… Happy Halloween Everyone!)

Hurricane Sandy
crane in Manhattan in Hurricane Sandy
A picture of that crane just taken by a friend who lives nearby.

Sandy. An innocuous name for a killer storm. The inescapable violence of the out-of-control wind and rain in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Haiti and so on reminds me that all too often we have little to no control over the external world. NYC, a major world city with extraordinary modern infrastructure, was still powerless in many ways when the four elements became unbalanced. Many people had the karma in this storm to stay cosy and warm inside, power on, stocked up, just hearing the howling wind without being adversely affected by it on this occasion. Quite a lot of others, however, did not. I think of that policeman who took his family to safety in the attic and returned to the basement, only to drown. He did not expect that when he woke up in the morning. Nor did that woman expect to tread on a live wire and be electrocuted to death. We never know when it is our turn – we always think tragedy is something that happens to others, until it happens to us. Just one or two days, but so much damage. We need to gain more control over our lives, and quickly. Tara protecting

I pray that all those who died so unexpectedly in the storm go straight to Tara’s heart, and that their loved ones find peace. I pray that those 20 premature babies who had to be evacuated with tubes dangling all survive intact and healthy and that their parents aren’t too terrified. I pray the damage is not too devastating to people’s livelihoods and property, that those who lost their homes can recover as soon as possible, and that those without power quickly get it back. I pray anyone reading this, and your friends, family, and neighbors, are all okay, now and always.

Martin Luther King and the power of love

This short article below appeared on Kadampa Life in 2011, but the blog was in its infancy so not many of you have seen it. Here it is again, to celebrate Martin Luther King Day today.

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A Kadampa nun gave the annual Martin Luther King lecture at Montana State University last Monday, speaking to about 400 students, professors and community members.

King proved power of love, nonviolence, speaker says

Martin Luther King Jr. achieved incredible changes in American law and society, yet it all sprang from what was within his mind, a philosophy based on love, compassion and wisdom, a Buddhist nun told a Bozeman crowd Wednesday.

Gen Varahi spoke in Washington DC, a breath of fresh air in a city known at the moment mainly for its partisan bickering.

Democrat or Republican, the only way to make a lasting difference in our world is to have a good intention — beginning, middle and end. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in Mahamudra Tantra (page 9):

Wherever we go and whatever we do depends upon our intention. No matter how powerful our body and speech may be, we shall never be able to do anything if we lack the intention to do it. If our intention is incorrect we shall naturally perform incorrect actions, which give rise to unpleasant results, but if our intention is correct the opposite will be true.

As Gen Varahi, a former medical doctor, points out:

King was a hero, who led a movement that took America out of a “very shameful” position to one we can be proud of”… “We can be like Martin Luther King if we train our minds to react with compassion and wisdom…. King’s use of the practical philosophy of nonviolent worked. It showed us the power of love.”

I read last Sunday’s papers yesterday and came to my usual conclusion that the world is a mess.

Africa — disaster
Arab world — disaster
Afghanistan — disaster
American job situation — disaster

And that is just the A’s.

And why? We can point the finger at any number of external causes and conditions, and usually do. In politics different people point fingers at different causes, and then spend most of the time arguing about what they’re pointing at.

But the real causes are the delusions — i.e. unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — of everyone involved. Anger, greed, ignorance, pride, hubris, hypocrisy, selfishness, the eight worldly concerns… These are all states of mind, nothing external.

Imagine if  they were replaced by love, generosity, wisdom, humility, straightforwardness, honesty, unselfishness, equanimity…?

“King realized that you cannot separate the ends and means”, Varahi said. “Over time, violent methods do not result in peace.”

(See the article for her reply on the efficacy non-violence in the face of violent dictators).

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang is fond of saying:

“Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.”

Atisha, the original Kadampa Teacher, said:

“Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.”

It might sound obvious when we see it, so why do we keep pointing the finger elsewhere when things go wrong? After all, whenever we point a finger, there are four fingers pointing back at us.

Stand up the real Steve Jobs! 1955-2011

On Sunday I dropped my iPhone 3 down the toilet. Not deliberately, of course, but my bathroom is small, the toilet crammed next to the basin, and the phone slipped from my loose pocket as I was brushing my teeth.

My iPhone 3, deceased

Along with my iPhone it felt like I’d flushed my whole life – photos, contacts, passwords, videos, apps, etc. I managed to stay calm, thinking: “Okay, good time to practice patience, non-attachment, mindfulness of impermanence etc etc!” But it was a little wake-up call, and not just reminding me to back up my data in future 😉 (Why do we always have these good ideas only AFTER disaster has struck?!) Even after three days submerged in rice, the phone is dead. All that is left from its data is what I can remember. It is a bit like dying and only taking my mind with me to my next life.

A hair pulled from butter

The Tibetans have a saying about death, that it is like a hair pulled from butter. They like yak butter tea, (or yuck butter tea as I can’t help thinking of it), and the butter arrives wrapped in a yak skin. Some yak hairs inevitably get into the butter and have to be pulled out. They come out smoothly, leaving all the butter behind – in the death analogy, this would be our body, possessions, home, career, people, gross minds and personality. All that continues to our next life is our subtle mental continuum and our karmic imprints, from which a whole new world is going to arise like another dream.

Can you find Steve Jobs within his parts?

Steve Jobs, co-creator of Apple, probable genius and Buddhist, died yesterday from pancreatic cancer at the age of 56, apparently peacefully. Like a hair pulled from a ton of butter, he has left the entire empire he built behind. What has gone with him? Of course there are varying opinions about whether what he did was brilliant or exploitative, generous or self-seeking… It is impossible for us to judge what karma he has created — that depends entirely on his intentions for doing what he did, which only he could have known. But I think it’s fair to assume that he created very strong karma in that he influenced much of the world and provided insanely cool gadgets used (or abused) by millions of people. My teacher Geshe Kelsang once said that modern technology is rather like “modern miracle powers”, and its true – imagine showing someone born in the 19th century your iPad?! Even when I demonstrated my iPhone offline to some children in a Brazilian rainforest (who’d didn’t have running water or electricity, let alone any space-age gadgets), they got very excited! Tom the Talking Cat, anyone?!

 Stand up the real Steve Jobs!

Many people are feeling affected one way or another by Steve Jobs’s death. But stand up the real Steve Jobs! Who were you? Comments on Kadampa Life’s Facebook wall include: Joan Boccafola: “I was on the plane back to NY when I heard he died. Tears streamed down my face. He was such a genius, a visionary. He has touched my life with his creativity. I write this on my Mac.” Robert Thomas: “Sad news, I pray that he takes a fortunate rebirth where he can complete his inner training (assuming he hadn’t already). He certainly touched everyone profoundly and so much good has arisen through his life, like how so many of us stay connected via iPhones and even share a little Dharma too.” But Adam Head reminds us there are other perspectives: “Hmmm…is it appropriate to mention another side of things? – mega-wealthy business-man with multiple sweat-shops in the “third world” – on top of the capitalist food chain!” And Tamara Cartwright says: “While it is sad that one man has died, we are all celebrating extreme commercialism … he taught people to crave the next thing and buy it while their previous thing was still valid and functioning.” Gee Gibson suggests: “As a Buddhist, then Steve Jobs would understand that his physical wealth was worthless. It was the wisdom in his heart and mind that he would have valued. We should not be judging anyone other than ourselves. I’m sure he left more of a positive mark than a negative. Maybe we should take a few minutes to show some compassion and send positive energy to him.” 

Whatever his motivation and effects on other people, Steve Jobs did make my own life a little easier when I was living out of suitcases for a while and didn’t have a computer or any other gadgets to stay in touch with family and friends. His invention enabled me to take photos of the wonderful places and people I visited, gave me the ability to maintain this blog, helped me navigate new streets, and entertained me. Sure, my entertaining iPhone could distract me too (a lot), and I’m not celebrating my admitted attachment to technology, but I’m not going to blame Steve Jobs for that – I’m a big girl now and can take responsibility for controlling my own time and mind. For me, overall, he was kind.

Trying to live your best life

Steve Jobs clearly thought a lot about life and death, and he said some pertinent things that I want to share here. For whether he succeeded or failed at it, at least it seems he tried to live his best life:

“Life is brief, and then you die, you know?”
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Stand up the real Amanda Knox!

Another big story that touched hearts poignantly or painfully this week was the acquittal of Amanda Knox. Was she guilty or not? We may never know for sure. (I always thought she was innocent, but that’s just my opinion.) In any event, she has suffered a great deal these past four years and if she is guilty of murder her karma will catch up with her – so I’m glad she has the chance to go home at least for now. Did you see her face while she was waiting for the 3:30pm ruling on Monday? The tension was extraordinary. How did that feel? We’ll find out ourselves soon enough, within a few hundred months at most, when we are a hair pulled from butter … will the karma we have created condemn us to a dank lonely cell or send us home to freedom?

In the press conference in Seattle after her release, Amanda Knox said:

“I’m really overwhelmed right now,” she said. “I was looking down from the airplane and it seemed like everything wasn’t real.”

She’s right, it isn’t. Every now and then, usually when things are changing too fast for us to get a fixed handle or label on them, we have a natural glimpse into the ever-moving dream-like nature of our lives.

What I’ve learnt from this week’s news

Steve Jobs had an empire and is receiving glowing eulogies from all quarters, including the President, none of which he can hear. Amanda Knox’s life changed from a pleasant dream to a nightmare and back to a pleasant dream in a few dramatic years – which is like our moving between good dreams and nightmares over the course of many lifetimes, until we cut the cycle of suffering once and for all by realizing the dream-like nature of our reality. As Vide Kadampa said: “You never know what is around the corner – karma can give you quite a ride :-)” So, I’m deciding once again to make the most of the dream-like time I have left, keep my nose clean, love others as much as possible, and pack for the future. If I die today, where will I be tomorrow? As Venerable Atisha says in his Advice

Since you will definitely have to depart without the wealth you have accumulated, do not accumulate negativity for the sake of wealth.

And:

Since future lives last for a very long time, gather up riches to provide for the future.

Fiona Layton puts it this way! “Death is great! If I am feeling guilty about the past or anxious about the future death stops me in my tracks and helps me to BE HERE RIGHT NOW! Then I can relax with a beautiful mind that has let go of all the shit of this life and I am free then to enjoy all the magic instead!!! Death Rocks!”

Kelsang Dechen also reminds us that everyone has to die and indeed many did die yesterday, let’s pray for them too: “With a mind of equanimity, let us remember all sentient beings – our kind mothers – who died yesterday. OM MANI PÄME HUM.”

Postscript

At the risk of sounding like I did in fact drop my iPhone 3 down the toilet deliberately, I discovered I was just out of contract with AT & T and so had to/was obliged to/had no choice but to upgrade to an iPhone 4 😉 (I wasn’t going to, I promise, I’m not that addicted to possessing all the latest new gadgets… ?!)

I pray that our next life is also an upgrade.

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