“I am the master of my fate” ~ a tribute to Nelson Mandela

SOUTH AFRICA MANDELAA light has gone out in the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013)

I like millions of others around the world am very sad that such a great being departed today. He is leaving a hole in too many hearts to count. President Obama said it the other day:

He is personal hero. But I don’t think I am unique in that regard. He is a hero for the world.

For decades, Mandela has been one of my greatest heroes – a shining example of how it really is possible to be a very good person, full of patience and love, and yet because of this, not in spite of it, able to effect enormous changes. He showed a different paradigm for dealing with conflict that resonated around the world.

I was trying to think today of anyone else in my lifetime who has been so universally well regarded and appreciated for their good qualities. I can’t think of anyone. My friend’s face dropped when I told her, and I knew it’d be the same if I told anyone else in the Denver coffee house where I heard the news. Around the world, I believe, the news, “Have you heard that Nelson Mandela has just died?”, is being met only with dismay.

President Zuma called him “the father of democracy” in South Africa. I believe he was a bona fide Bodhisattva in our midst, an obvious guiding light on the world stage, who managed to pull off the seeming impossible in South Africa and inspire people everywhere to behave just that little bit better.

I could talk about his good qualities all day. I hope and believe that others will be rejoicing in him today in the global media, in a thousand more qualified tributes–but I would like to join in. I sometimes think that the best way not to miss someone so important to you is to try and adopt his or her good qualities as your own. If everyone who loves him took on even a fraction of Madiba’s qualities, the world would transform overnight. For me, amongst many good qualities, it was Mandela’s genuine patient acceptance and strength that inspires me the most and that I would most like to possess myself.

A tribute from a South African friend

nelson mandela fear quoteI had quite a number of close South African relatives and friends. A good friend teaches Buddhism in Cape Town. My key ring is the South African flag in the shape of a miniature sandal that I bought in Langa. I visited a few years ago, finding Cape Town to be the most beautiful and yet most incongruous place – the stunning natural beauty sitting side by side with the appalling aids-abetted poverty of Langa and other townships. I shared a birthday with Nelson Mandela. I named a beloved cat for him. I have some connection with South Africa, but an old friend of mine has even closer karma with it as he was born and adopted there. I want him to do the honors, therefore, and include here something he said about Mandela in the context of patience some years back.

The patience of non-retaliation

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

I see difficult people and the suffering they cause as apparently unpleasant, yet actually useful, because without them I could not practice patience. I want to become more patient because it brings me great peace of mind and helps me make spiritual progress. Who will help me to increase my patience? The people causing my difficulties! Actually, they exist for my benefit. They behave appallingly because I require and want them to for my spiritual well-being. I owe them.

mandela in prisonThe people who inspire me most are those who transcend seemingly unforgiveable grievances and end up helping millions of people – heroes like Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and my own Teacher Geshe Kelsang (who had to flee from his homeland). I was born in South Africa about the time Mandela was sent to break rocks in Robben Island, and I was 27 by the time he was released. Those first 27 years of my life felt like a really long time, and I would often wonder how “Madiba” was doing?

If anyone had a right and provocation to be angry, it was he. Yet he famously left the prison with a huge heart of forgiveness and love that saved an entire nation from a bloodbath. How did he do it? He said it was by patiently understanding that he was working for a task greater than himself.

He also had a huge sense of personal responsibility, as can be seen in the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus that helped him through the long years of captivity:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

To practice non-retaliation involves compassion, the wish for others to be free from their suffering and also its causes, delusions and negative karma. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. Negative karma refers specifically to the negative mental intentions that motivate each negative action we perform, and it is these intentions that sow the actual seeds for the experience of suffering. Think about how much negative karma angry minds and angry people create, thus sowing the seeds for intensely unpleasant experiences to manifest in their future. I don’t have to make it worse. young Nelson Mandela

Instead of thinking “This is an angry person,” we can think, “This is an unfortunate person who is being controlled by their enemy of anger.” By never seeing faults in people, Buddhas are able to maintain their love and compassion for them at all times. Anger is the enemy; the person is not. Compassion for them, not more anger, is the best response.

Perspective
Mandela quote about love
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

As a Buddhist, I too am trying to work for a task greater than myself – enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Suffering is all relative. As it says in Meaningful to Behold, we have experienced aeons of great suffering but it has not bought us any benefit. Now is different because we have a different perspective on what we are trying to get out of life:

We have the unique opportunity, by enduring comparatively insignificant suffering, to work for the benefit of others and thereby attain the supreme state of enlightenment.

We can therefore joyfully accept the hardships we face – which doesn’t mean gritting our teeth and putting up with it, but actually accepting fully and happily, without judgment or disapproval, whatever arises. We can do this if we are confident that we can learn to use absolutely any situation to train our minds in wisdom and compassion, thus bringing an end to suffering.

In Mandela’s broad smiles as he left the prison in friendship with his captors, I find that he discovered this truth.

Mandela quote about freedom of othersAs a Buddhist, I too am striving for a superior intention that takes personal responsibility for freeing all my kind mothers from their suffering and its causes. I have therefore learned from Nelson Mandela and seen in his actions, with my own eyes, how patience is possible if I keep this big perspective. And it was because of this patience, not in spite of it, that he also got everything done, as he could work toward getting everything done all the time without being derailed by anger. Patience is not a passive, doormat state of mind that leaves us standing there doing nothing. It is an active, dynamic, and immensely creative state of mind that enables us to accomplish all our tasks.

The greatest tribute

reacting to Nelson Mandela's death

My endless gratitude to you, Nelson Mandela.

Wherever you are now, I believe you will still be helping people. I am not worried about you, only the rest of us.

I don’t want to say goodbye. I have been dreading this day. Everyone is so sad. Zuma said “We need him with us.” I agree. But as we cannot have him with us, we can at least let his inspiring qualities live on.

The greatest tribute I believe we can pay Nelson Mandela is to become more like him.

The sooner, the better.

__________________

(Please feel welcome to leave your own tributes in the comments.)

Want peace of mind? Get rid of your delusions.

We already have within us our own source of peace and happiness, as Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life. It is our birthright, our Buddha nature, who we actually are. Sometimes we know this, when the dark clouds of discontent disperse and the sun naturally shines through. So if we have the constant potential for happiness, and we work very hard at it in various ways, why, we may well ask ourselves, is it so hard to stay happy 24/7?!

delusion negative emotionThe answer is “delusions.” We hear this word all the time in Buddhism. I know I’ve mentioned delusions umpteen times on Kadampa Life, and we’ve looked a bit at some of the main ones (ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, self-cherishing). Since identifying and removing our delusions is, one could say, the bread and butter of a happy life, I’ve been meaning to write something about delusions in general for a while. (Also, you can find out everything you’ve ever needed to know about them in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and Understanding the Mind.)

What is a delusion?

According to Buddhism, any unpeaceful, uncontrolled state of mind  is a delusion. All delusions are unrealistic minds arising from so called “inappropriate attention”, or thinking about things in a false way. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Delusions are distorted ways of looking at ourselves, other people, and the world around us–like a distorted mirror, they reflect a distorted world. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 7

what is a delusion, negative emotionOur experience of the world is only distorted and messed up because it is reflected in the messed up mirror of our minds. Our delusions see things that aren’t really there. You know the House of Mirrors at fairgrounds, where we are all bendy, then nine feet wide, then suddenly fourteen feet tall? We know not to get taken in because we know the nature of mirrors. But we get taken in by our delusions, even though it’s the same thing – they are reflecting something that is not there and then believing that it IS there.

Distorting reality

The deluded mind of hatred, for example, views other people as intrinsically bad, but there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad person. ~ Transform Your Life, p.7

When we don’t like someone, they’re just bad, almost as if they had a neon sign above them flashing, “I’m BAD” (and not in a cool way …) Hatred apprehends other people to be bad from their own side, intrinsically bad, having nothing to do with the way we’re looking at them. But of course there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad person. If they were bad from their own side, then everybody would see that neon sign, but they don’t. Their mother comes along and for her the big neon sign says, “I’m cuddly”, doesn’t it?

A dying soldier

I once saw a picture of a woman cradling a wounded man. She was weeping. I looked more closely and didn’t know who this man was, and I wasn’t weeping. I read the caption — it was a mother with her dying son, who had been shot during some fighting. Someone had looked at that man and thought, “This man is my enemy. He is bad, so hateful in fact that I have to shoot him to death.”

I looked at that man and saw a stranger. The man who shot him looked at that man and saw a repugnant enemy. The mother looked at hatred versus love, mother's lovethat man and saw a child, a beautiful, loveable person now destroyed. One person. Who is right, me, the person who shot him, or his mother? Actually, all of us and none of us. It just depends. How that person appears to us depends entirely on how we’re looking at him.

The blinkered mind of hatred however does not see the other ways in which that person could be perceived; it just sees “enemy”. Our own minds of dislike just see disagreeable people, dislikable people, and so on. They project an enemy, and then think that the enemy is really there.

Ninja the Rat

We can see this from our own ever-changing experiences. When our feelings and perceptions change toward someone, they appear totally different, even to our sense awarenesses. They are different people for us. I was once friendly with a rat. Generally humans and rats don’t get along too well, and when I first met Ninja the pet rat, whom I was to look after for a few weeks, I confess that although I didn’t exactly dislike him, I didn’t want to get that close to him either. His tail looked a bit creepy, for a start. However, as I got to know him, I came to find him entirely adorable. He had a strokeable tummy, bright eyes, and sensitive whiskers, and he was intelligent, inquisitive, brave, and friendly. He hung out under my desk in San Francisco in one of those plastic balls and chewed through my trouser leg when I was absorbed in my work – I still look at the hole with affection.

cute pet rat, loveWhich view of this rat was correct? Ninja felt he was just Ninja throughout, but I had the experience of a completely different rat. There was no rat outside of my experience of the rat. That rat I first met didn’t exist outside of my experience, and nor did the sweet rat. If you had come to tea with me, for example, you might not have found him quite so sweet.

So there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad rat or bad human being. There is so much more to a person than the obnoxious person we are projecting, but when we’re angry we’re convinced that all they are is nasty.

Even if they are behaving in deluded ways, this is still not all there is to them – in fact they are not their delusions at all.

Our anger is a delusion because we are distorting reality — exaggerating their negative aspects, and then pouring mental superglue over them so they cannot change. While the mind of hatred or anger is functioning, it has no choice but to perceive an enemy. That delusion has to subside for the enemy to disappear. This is why Geshe Kelsang famously remarked during one teaching, to a rare round of applause:

Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys enemies.love is the nuclear bomb that destroys enemies

It is not just our anger — all our delusions are projecting and then believing something that is not there. In the next article on delusions, I’m going to look at this some more.

Your turn. Do you ever project things that are not there and then get taken in by them?

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Breathe your way to inner peace

This is the last installment of the how not to worry articles.

Breathing meditations can help enormously in instantly alleviating our worry, and anyone can do them if they have a mind to.

Simple breathing meditation

Worrying affects us physiologically, from shallower breathing and the inability to relax through to full blown panic attacks when we can hardly breathe. When the mind is calm, our breathing tends to be deeper, and vice versa. So one way to confront the problem is to follow our breath and calm ourselves down that way. Here is a simple five-minute breathing meditation you can try anytime, even now!

You’ll get three specific benefits from doing this breathing meditation:

(1) There is a close relationship between our mind and our breath. Our breath is related to our subtle inner energy winds (Skt. prana). We can understand this by remembering what happens when, for example, we are anxious and our breathing quickens, or when we are calm or concentrated (e.g. threading a needle) and it slows down. As we calm the breath in breathing meditation, our mind naturally calms down too.

(2) The breath is a neutral object, so meditating on it temporarily pacifies our worries because we forget about them. It is like putting our car into neutral. We can then move into forward gear by meditating on a positive object such as patience.

(3) Our mind can only hold one object at a time. If we focus single-pointedly on our breath, which is not too difficult an object to find, our worries will naturally diminish and disappear.

Taking and giving mounted upon the breath

As mentioned in the previous article on overcoming worry, we can also combine our breathing meditation with taking and giving, thereby increasing our love and compassion at the same time as reducing our worry and stress.

OM AH HUM breathing meditation
OM AH HUM

And we can also get two for the price of one if we combine breathing meditation with receiving blessings from the holy beings in the profound OM AH  HUM meditation based on Tantric principles that renowned Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang explains in The New Meditation Handbook. This meditation also cleanses our subtle inner energy winds (chi, prana), upon which all our minds are “mounted”. As a result, so-called “wisdom winds” flow and our mind naturally becomes peaceful and positive. You can find out what is behind this profound meditation and how to do it here.

And now some final thoughts on the subject of overcoming worry in no particular order…

Focus on your precious human life and death
Click on picture for blind turtle analogy

Instead of thinking inappropriate thoughts itemizing all the things that can go wrong, we can count our blessings and current opportunities. Victoria Kaya says: “Only through my practice of putting others first before myself do I find the antidote to my worry. Not always easy — however I believe that if I contemplate the suffering of others, and realise how bad things could be, I am grateful for every moment of this very short human life.”

And we can recall: “If I die today, where do I want to be tomorrow?” Ironically, perhaps, remembering impermanence totally reduces our mental stress and helps us to relax. We don’t sweat the small stuff because it just doesn’t seem important any more.

Jb Christy told us of her rather radical approach to remembering impermanence: “Skydiving worked for me. For 9 months after jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, I’d get in situations that normally would cause me to worry, and I’d start to get anxious, and then I’d think “Hey, there’s no planet rushing up to pulverize me,” and then whatever was making me anxious really didn’t bother me anymore. After a few months of that, I got out of the habit of worrying, and really don’t worry much at all anymore. But that might not work for everyone :)” (Ed: and you didn’t read it here!)

Overcome attachment

Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love is in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. It’s worth thinking about? And I am, in some articles I’m writing on whether compassion is a sad or happy mind, with help from Facebook feedback…

Emptiness

Who is worrying?! Where are they? What are they worrying about? Shantideva says:

If there were a truly existent I,
It would make sense to be afraid of certain things;
But, since there is no truly existent I,
Who is there to be afraid?

This is my favorite approach. You can recall the emptiness of the three spheres – the person doing the worrying, the worrying mind, and the object of worry. As mentioned in this article, the sharper our worry, the sharper our sense of a limited self, the bigger our target, and the freer we are when we knock it down in our meditation on no self! Mirja Renner puts it like this: “I tend to look at how worry is just a thought, and how the self that thinks it couldn’t handle the situation (should it arise) doesn’t exist.” Victoria Kaya says: “Interesting, only the realization of the way things really are could eradicate worry from my mind because it is only due to grasping at externals that we worry.”

To conclude…

As mentioned in the first of these anti-worry articles, all the stages of the path (Lamrim) have the side-effect of overcoming worry! As Fiona Layton put it: “Seems like we need to keep practicing the Lamrim and all will become worry free!” These are just a few ways of getting started with some different ways of thinking. As our experience of overcoming delusions, increasing our compassion and wisdom etc grows, our worries grow fewer and fewer until one day we can’t even remember what it is like to be worried about a thing. That’s the truth. In the meantime, we can use our worry to look at our minds and go deeper into its solutions.

Got anything to share? Have we missed anything crucial? Please add your comments in the box below, and share these articles with anyone who might find them useful.

How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind

In the last article on Buddha and the Brain, I quoted from Transform Your Life on how our body and mind are different entities. If this is true, it has huge implications on our lives: for one thing it allows for the continuum of past and future lives and karma. It also means that our mind has infinite potential for spiritual development, unlike our meaty body (including brain), which necessarily has a limited shelf life!

In the beautiful Buddhist Mahamudra teachings, we learn to actually meditate on the nature and function of our own mind, the formless continuum of our awareness. I was taught this meditation early on in my meditation life and it is popular amongst both old and new practitioners in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition. So I know from experience that even if you are new to meditation it is possible to get a feeling for the clarity of your own mind, which in turn will give you an experiential insight into what the mind is and how your thoughts and feelings arise.

This is useful because happiness and suffering both depend upon the mind, and so if we want to avoid suffering and find enduring happiness it makes sense to understand how the mind works and use that understanding to bring our mind under control. In this way we will improve the quality of our life, both now and in the future.

This meditation actually has infinite benefits – from calming our mind and helping us to dissolve away distractions, worry and delusions; to improving our concentration and mindfulness; to preparing us for a realization of the ultimate nature of things, their emptiness of existing from their own side; to increasing our bliss and the ability to realize directly our own very subtle mind; and, finally, to attaining actual enlightenment. As Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.”

I thought I would introduce this meditation practically and simply in the way that I have often done it with the hope that you’ll come to love it too, if you don’t already.

First a little background…

In Mahamudra Tantra Geshe Kelsang explains the location, nature and function of the mind so that we can meditate on these.

Our mind is principally located in the region of our heart channel wheel, or heart chakra. Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects…The function of the mind is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or impute objects.

The mind has the power to perceive objects. Geshe Kelsang has used “perceive” and “appear” interchangeably in many teachings, so the mind has the power to “appear” objects, or we can say to “project” them.

Nothing exists outside of our experience — to exist means to be known by mind. Mind’s function is to cognize. It knows, cognizes or apprehends the things it “appears”. (Our ignorance believes these objects are actually out there, like believing a movie is “out there” coming at our mind rather than the other way around). Everything is imputed by mind, even the mind itself.

In our meditation on the mind we stop the projector, so to speak, and let all these perceptions or appearances dissolve into the clarity of the mind. Its nature is still to appear or project/impute, but we’re looking at the mind itself now rather than the objects projected – this is also rather like looking in the mirror/reflector rather than at the reflections in the mirror.

The mind also has the power to create. Mind is the “creator of all” according to Buddha. This becomes clearer the more we understand how the world and its inhabitants are merely imputed by mind, and you can read more in Geshe Kelsang’s brilliant explanation in Mahamudra Tantra.

We meditate on our mind in the location of the heart chakra because that is where our root mind or very subtle mind is said to be “located”. This is because the inner energy winds that support or are associated with our very subtle mind are located here.

You can bear any of this in mind as you do the meditation, but do keep the meditation simple as in the guidelines below, especially if you are just starting out. In the meditation, we’ll dissolve all our thoughts away and meditate on the nature and function of the mind located at the heart.

There are lots of other ways to do this meditation too that you can find out from New Kadampa Tradition meditation teachers, including in Mahamudra Tantra pages 100ff. (Before you start, you might find it helpful to remind yourself of the instructions on seeking, finding, holding and remaining, including the advice on how to stay concentrated on your meditation object, outlined in How to soar in the space of meditation.)

You’ll need 15-30 minutes. I’ve left spaces where you can pause to follow the guidelines.

The meditation

Sit comfortably with a straight back, gently close your eyes, generate a loving motivation, and settle your mind with a few minutes breathing meditation. (There is a simple breathing meditation explained here.)

Once you have overcome strong distractions and your mind is relatively peaceful and stable, turn your attention from your breath to the continuous stream of feelings, thoughts, and images arising in your mind. Simply observe these, without trying to control or follow them.

Watch your thoughts arising and falling away. Watch your feelings and sensations arising and falling away. Whatever comes up in the present moment and then disappears, watch this without reacting or intruding, clinging or pushing away.

Now ask yourself where these thoughts are coming from and where they go to. What is the space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?

You’ll notice that your thoughts, images, sensations and so on all arise from a deep formless clarity, like empty space, and that they also subside back into it.

Notice the clarity out of which thoughts arise and to which they return, like focusing on a mirror rather than on what is reflected in the mirror.

Drop your awareness from your head to your heart chakra so that you are experiencing this clarity or bare awareness at the level of your heart in the center of your chest. Meditate on your mind’s nature and function as described in Mahamudra Tantra:

“Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects. Its function is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or to impute objects.”

The mind also creates our reality through imputation by conceptual thought.

Simply put, meditate on the clarity of your mind free from all physical properties. Within that space you can recognize that it is awareness with the power to appear objects and know them, and that it is the creator of reality.

You can imagine that your mind is like a boundless clear ocean without shape, color or form. Gradually sink your awareness into this infinite ocean-like root mind at your heart chakra, and merge with it entirely. Think that it is peaceful and blissful.

Abide in this blissful space-like clarity for as long as possible. Any thoughts that still arise are just like bubbles arising in an ocean — pay them no heed, and they will naturally dissolve back into the ocean from whence they came. They are just mind themselves and have nowhere else to go.

Thoughts disappear if you don’t think them.

(When a thought arises you can also ask yourself “What is the mind? Where is the mind?” and you’ll find yourself meditating on the clarity of the mind. Geshe Kelsang taught this method a few years ago. You can even start your whole meditation like this.)

Know that you can return to this space whenever you want to. Know that you can dissolve any thought away, however troublesome. It only has the energy you give to it.

Before you arise from meditation, think: “I’ll bring this peace, serenity and clarity back with me into my daily life.”

You can finish by dedicating the vast good karma you have just created to the happiness of all.

For more on this meditation, Mahamudra Tantra has it all. If you want to find out more about the mind and its functions as explained in Buddha’s teachings, Understanding the Mind is a great book for that.

If you have been doing this meditation for a while and have some extra tips and tricks, please do share them here with us.