A skeptic’s guide to Buddhas and blessings

By a guest writer and long-term meditator

Buddha for skeptic.jpgI live in a country where the majority of the population identify themselves as non-religious (agnostic or atheist). They are not closed minded people, rather just naturally skeptical. So, for some time now I have been pondering how to explain the existence of Buddhas and blessings to a life-long skeptic. Most importantly, how can they come to explore the truth of both for themselves, experientially.

Connecting to a peaceful reality

Through even the simplest form of meditation — breathing meditation — everyone can learn how to connect to a relatively peaceful mind. When we are experiencing a little peace we are, at that time, tasting a little of what it’s like for someone who experiences their life as peaceful, whether that’s for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or all day!

Buddha explained there is no world outside our mind — our personal world, our life, is a reflection of our mind. If our mind is peaceful, our life will be experienced as peaceful; if it’s not, it won’t. So, those peaceful moments in meditation are revealing a little of our potential to live from the perspective of a peaceful reality.

This peaceful potential is what we call in Buddhism our “Buddha nature”. Someone who has fully actualized this inner potential and accomplished a supreme and lasting peace of mind and happiness, moment to moment, is an enlightened being, a Buddha. Everyone has this potential. To know it experientially we just need to connect to a little peace.

breathing-meditationA Buddha experiences their life always as a profoundly peaceful reality. Our moment of peace in meditation (or out of meditation) is revealing our potential to one day live from that supremely peaceful reality ourselves.

In his book The New Eight Steps to Happiness, my teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:

It is also important to understand how we too can become a Buddha, for when we are confident that enlightenment is a possibility for us we will naturally feel much closer to those who have already attained enlightenment.

For me, this has many levels of meaning. One way of understanding it is that the more we learn to access and abide in the experience of a peaceful mind, the more we become ‘confident that enlightenment is a possibility for us’; and gradually we ‘feel much closer to those who have already attained enlightenment’. Not just ideologically, but in our direct experience.

The key is, Buddha explained how our normal sense of a separate self and separate mind is mistaken. In reality there is no separate mind or self. So in reality our mind is never separate from the minds of all enlightened beings, and, when we experience a little peace, to some degree we are letting go of that experience of a separate mind and self. At that moment we are connecting with the vast peace of enlightenment, Buddha’s mind. That connection to the peace of enlightenment is what we call, in Buddhism, a blessing.

Geshe Kelsang defines blessings as:

The transformation of our mind from a negative state to a positive state, from an unhappy state to a happy state, or from a state of weakness to a state of strength through the inspiration of holy beings such as our Spiritual Guide, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Blessings, when two minds connect

reach-enlightenmentA friend of mind explains it in a very simple and practical way. He says that blessings are simply when two minds connect. We probably all know a peaceful, positive and kind friend whom, when we spend time with them, we generally leave feeling better for the encounter. It seems the best of who they are draws out the best of who we are, and we often leave them feeling more peaceful, positive and kind than when we arrived. These are the people we hear ourselves saying, ‘I feel blessed to have them in my life’. Most of us can understand and accept this explanation of blessings.

Connecting with enlightenment

The challenge is when we try to understand how we receive the blessings of a Buddha. The reason for this is very simple, we can see our kind friend, we can’t see Buddhas.

However, just because we cannot see them, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. For example, have you ever seen wind? Yet, if you open your window on a windy day you will feel it and its power immediately. Although we cannot see wind, we can still harness its power to accomplish beneficial outcomes, like powering wind turbines which power electricity plants.

It’s similar with the blessings of Buddhas — we may not be able to see Buddhas (at the moment!), but we can certainly feel their presence through the peaceful power of their blessings. So the good news is that even the most skeptical of us can learn to tap into this ocean of peaceful positive energy / blessings of enlightenment, whenever we wish.

How? Simply close your eyes, focus on your breath, and connect to a peaceful mind. Then just allow yourself to imagine (and in time to know) that your little peace is connecting you to the limitless peace and goodness of enlightenment, connecting with a Buddha’s mind. Gradually this is what you will experience.

With our eyes closed, centered in that inner experience in meditation, notice how that seems quite real for you. Also, notice how when you open your eyes all your doubts naturally come back. Why?

Let your experience reveal a deeper knowing

The reason for this is that when we are focused inwards (in our inner world) we are relying upon our direct experience, and when we open our eyes (back in our outer world) we go back to relying upon our so-called 5-sitting-at-the-dock-of-the-bayrational, logical mind.

This is the downside of our over-reliance on science as the only barometer of truth. We discount our own direct experience in favor of the so-called logic and truth of science. I am not dismissing science; it has many good qualities. However, when it becomes a dogma it can limit us in our exploration of deeper truth. The only constancy in science is that it is constantly proving that what we previously dogmatically thought to be true was, in fact, wrong!

Geshe Kelsang refers to Kadam Dharma as:

Scientific methods to improve our human nature and qualities.

Meditation and Dharma is inner science, the science of conscious experience. We prove empirically that by continually centering in a peaceful heart and opening up to the idea that we are connecting to the vast peace of enlightenment, this is exactly what we prove to be true, through our own direct experience, empirically.

The key is, give yourself permission to let go of what you think you know (just for a few moments!), until your experience in meditation reveals a far deeper knowing. Discover for yourself how when we surrender our current logic to our own direct experience, we find it a far more reliable barometer of truth.

Let your peace flow to the ocean

river flowing.pngHave you ever noticed that a flowing river, no matter how small, naturally flows to the ocean. It’s always flowing to something far greater. So it is with our little peace. Whenever we are experiencing a flow of peaceful, positive energy in our heart, for example through love or any other positive state of mind, we are immediately connecting to the ocean of peace that is enlightenment, we are experiencing a blessing.

Just as the river is never separate from the ocean, so our little peace is always connected to this ocean of peace that is enlightenment. We just need to recognize this and then relax into and abide with that connection to enlightenment. In this way we allow this enlightened energy to awaken our potential for love, compassion, and wisdom, as well as pure peace and happiness.

Plug in and awaken your potential

In the eco-friendly city I live in, there is an increasing demand for Tesla electric cars. I’m not much of a car person myself, but I’m reliably informed that they are a thing of great beauty and potential. Apparently the new ones can go from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds! However, if your Tesla car is sitting on the side of the road and hasn’t been plugged into an electricity source, its extraordinary potential remains dormant and it can’t take you anywhere.

In a similar way, everyone already has an extraordinary (and indestructible) potential for enlightenment, our Buddha nature. This potential will remain dormant in us until we connect to an enlightened energy source, an enlightened being’s mind.

It’s simple really — the only way to enlightenment is through enlightenment.

Through plugging into the limitless peace and goodness of enlightenment in the form of blessings, we can awaken our potential for limitless compassion, wisdom, peace, and pure happiness.

Buddha in water.jpgPractically, it’s similar to what happens when hanging out with your peaceful, positive friend. The best in him or her draws out the best in us. Just take some time every day in the inner experience of meditation to connect to a flow of peace (or any virtuous mind), and then allow that flow to connect you to the ocean of peace and goodness that is enlightenment. Just spend time with the most peaceful, positive person there is, Buddha! And allow the very best in him or her to draw out the very best in you — to awaken your Buddha nature.

It’s easier than we think

Then we will understand what Geshe Kelsang means in the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune, when he says:

The instructions of Lamrim are easy to put into practice.

The ease comes from knowing (through experience) that we are not doing this on our own, thank goodness! Rather, we are attaining enlightenment through our creative, dynamic relationship with enlightenment.

Over to you, comments for our guest author are welcome!

Related articles

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness 

Other articles on blessings

Exploring our potential for peace and omniscience

 

Why pray?

By the way, during that meditation I described on the meditation on the nature of the mind, the moment we notice we are distracted we can ask the same question, “What is it that is aware?” so that we return to the clarity of the mind, allowing the distracting concern to dissolve back into the clarity like a wave settling into a still ocean.

Pebbles-in-water501There are other legitimate things to do as well if we find ourselves too tempted to get involved with our thoughts — we can recall subtle impermanence, that these things are already gone, and in that way let them dissolve spontaneously away. Or we can recall the suffering nature of contaminated phenomena, that the end of collection is dispersion and so on, motivating us to deepen our meditation. These ways into the clarity of the mind were taught by Venerable Geshe Kelsang in his fantastic 2000 AD teachings combining Mahamudra and the four seals, and I’d love to get around to talking about them some day as they have helped me immeasurably. The main object of meditation is clarity, so once we have found that we stick with it; but we can use various contemplations to help us get there.

This article is part of a series of Mahamudra articles. Those of you who know about Lamrim, or the stages of the path to enlightenment, may wonder where meditating on the nature of the mind appears in the 21 meditations? It doesn’t explicitly, but it is our favored object of tranquil abiding (#19), and it does appear in many other places in the Kadampa books, such as How to Understand the Mind and Mahamudra Tantra, and in detail in two chapters of Clear Light of Bliss. It also features in Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, in which the first of the five stages of the actual practice of Mahamudra is identifying our own mind and meditating on tranquil abiding.

Prayers and blessings

You may have noticed that in this tradition we like to practice in conjunction with prayers (whether we say them out loud or not). When some of you first encounter the prayers, you think, “How wonderful, I love them!” … but there are not many of you. A lot of people’s initial response is “What? I thought they didn’t have this in Buddhism! I came to relax and now you want me to sing?!” And then we reconcile ourselves to the idea: “Ah well, I’ll settle my mind with the breathing meditation, let my mind rest and ramble during the prayers, and then focus again when I am back on the meditation.” That, of course, is not the idea. As Geshe Kelsang has warned us many times, we don’t want to get into the bad habit of parroting the prayers. Instead we can start off really well by communing with enlightened beings.

The main purpose of prayers is to change our mind in a good direction and to receive blessings. With blessings we are essentially connecting our mind to an enlightened being’s mind and, in doing so, adding a lot of power and fluidity to our meditations. This exponentially facilitates and deepens our experience.

This meditation on the nature of the mind is part of the Mahamudra practice, which is the heart essence of our lineage, the Ganden Oral Lineage, and lies at the very heart of our Spiritual Guide’s experience. So this particular Mahamudra lineage that we are receiving comes directly from Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the new Kadampa tradition; and it is exceedingly blessed. As Venerable Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit, thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples gained deep experience through putting these methods into practice, attaining the illusory body, clear light, and full enlightenment.

It is very important for us to recognize and think about blessings, for otherwise, when we meditate, WE try to meditate. Meaning that while identifying ourselves in an ordinary limited way, we try to coerce our mind into having very profound experiences of the subtle dimensions of reality. Basically, we are TRYING in the wrong way. We are putting the onus on our SELF, and in particular our ordinary sense of self.

I think often when we sit down to meditate we immediately bring up an association with our self, the one that is not that good at meditating. We only think about this sense of self when it is time to meditate, when we feel we need to cajole it, “This time, you are going to do it!”, and then basically push to have an experience of the clarity of the mind. And of course what can happen is that we end up not having this experience, which in a rather subconscious gratifying way affirms what we knew all along, ie, that we are not very good at meditating. It reinforces our underlying sense of discouragement, a common type of laziness.

This is a great shame with this great gift of Mahamudra. Hence, blessings.

Buddha is not outside our mind

Everything we experience is not outside our mind, nothing is outside the mind. For example, is the sound of the bird inside or outside? You cannot separate it from your perception, you cannot draw a line between the perception and the sound; so it is inside. Your experience of your friend is your experience of your friend, inside, not out.

Homs Syria
Aleppo, Syria, February 2016. We need enlightenment.

So when we bring to mind Buddha, he or she is not outside my mind. There is no need to buy into the dualistic appearance of a gap or separation – my isolated meditation over here and the Awakened Ones having a great time over there. When we pray, we are not petitioning external forces but awakening our own potential by recognizing it is not separate from the minds of all enlightened beings. And we are doing this for everyone.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang says every single peaceful mind and happiness arises through Buddha’s blessings. (There is a great explanation of that in this guest article.) According to Geshe-la:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. Only human beings can attain this through practicing meditation. How fortunate we are! ~ The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, p. 3.

We can understand that whenever we develop a positive mind, in that moment, when we allow ourselves to be happy, we have disengaged from delusions to some extent. We have allowed our mind to come into alignment with a Buddha’s non-deluded reality, which is pervaded by peace, joy, love, etc; tapping into a profound enlightenment.

Settling

So we need to allow that to happen rather than the clutching “Yikes, grab my peace, it’s disappearing!” rodeo experience of meditating. Our meditation should not be a rodeo; it should feel instead like a settling. The word we use, in Clear Light of Bliss for example, is “Settling like a still ocean.” We use our own experience of peace to help settle into a vast transcendent experience of peace, joy, etc.finding happiness

My peace is already connected to Buddha’s peace, great! So we start not from disconnection but from connection, from refuge, and allow the prayers to deepen that experience naturally. Geshe Kelsang has likened prayers to an old man’s stick, a reminder to their meaning. So we let the words suggest the minds, as opposed to forcing the minds and getting tired and distracted. We enjoy what we’re saying, saying it from the heart, while abiding in that communion.

Then when it is time to meditate, we do so while continuing to bathe in that experience – we don’t LEAVE the blessings. It’s not like filling our car up with gas and then driving off, here I am all on my own again. We meditate WITH blessings, we can even let the Spiritual Guide do the meditation for us for he really wants to help and he is very good at this. Instead of combat with obstacles, nay-saying, and distractions, we can really relax. From the point of view of the Spiritual Guide, there are no obstacles, and we are already fantastic. We could do a lot worse than to get into the habit of seeing ourself through his eyes.

Look in the mirror

Do you want to know what else I do?! I look at a picture of my favorite enlightened being and think I am looking in the mirror. We don’t have to feel that we are unworthy or light years pebble in wateraway from our Spiritual Guide or the Buddhas. That is ordinary appearance, and they don’t ever see us as ordinary or limited.

So feel free at any time during the meditation to reconnect with the Spiritual Guide and simply ask, “Please help me with clarity.” If we throw a pebble in the pond and wait, ripples will gradually arise. We ask for some guidance or inspiration, and then we wait.

Do leave a comment to add anything else that is helpful or ask questions.

State of flow

Some people talk these days about “peak experiences”, and how they give meaning to a human life; like when you skateboard over the great wall of China with a sprained ankle and your mind is so focused and death-aware that you are totally and utterly in the zone, you can put weight on your foot painlessly, you seem to drop down into a more spacey, subtle level of consciousness, and it feels great. But, honestly, you can gain the same blissful effect far more safely (and inexpensively) by learning to meditate properly.
hacking-flow-achieving-ultimate-human-potential-1-638Not only that, but there is no comparison in terms of meaning, for meditation lets us have peak experiences not only now but in all our future lives. Meditation is transcendent – it increases our human capacity from initial scope to middle scope to great scope. A few years ago a friend of my cousin’s was telling us how she liked to jump out of airplanes because it was the only time she felt so “incredibly alive”. Ironically (or not), she died quite young last year, of commonplace cancer. Already with initial scope we are mindful of death, so each moment of this fleeting precious life can be an opportunity for a peak experience, for feeling just as incredibly alive as my once-acquaintance plummeting through the sky.

And through meditation we grow into relaxed Yogis bound for liberation (middle scope), cool, heroic Bodhisattvas (great scope), and then fully Awakened Ones, omniscient beings who can bless each and every living being every day, freeing the world from suffering. No skiing, skateboarding, surfing, skydiving, or high-wire walking can ever do that for us, even if we don’t have a fatal accident.*

One thing that does inspire me about people who push the boundaries, though, is that they are not discouraged, they have vision. They don’t assume, “I’ve never done this before so I will never be able to do it.” We could be more like that. Just because we haven’t gotten enlightened before doesn’t mean we cannot do it now. Just because Buddhism is new to the modern world doesn’t mean that it is not going to take this world by storm, with the help of our own examples.portugal-festival-2

I was in NYC for the last few weeks and many people were pouring in for meditation classes every day. This upsurge of interest is happening in other places too, and is light years away from the early days of Buddhism in the West. I remember, 35 years ago, the organizers being excited when 100 people showed up for Geshe Kelsang’s teachings in the so-called North Wing gompa at Manjushri Center, whereas now, at Kadampa festivals around the world, thousands is the norm. And studies on the benefits of mindfulness and other Buddhist techniques are everywhere you turn, mainstream, such as in the big display on the ground floor of Denver library. The snowball has already started its roll.

There is also related talk these days about being in a state of flow – extreme athletes or insanely talented artists being prime examples, but I think we all enter the zone to some extent whenever we engage in some creative act with concentration, eg, gardening, flowwriting, acting, composing, playing music, etc. We do love this because we are experiencing some degree of euphoria or bliss at that time, our most gross, chunky, talky, concretizing mind is temporarily turned down so we are at peace.

And Dharma minds put us in a state of flow – refuge and love spring to mind, but also wisdom, compassion, maybe all of them! And not least Mahamudra. 

Training in concentration

In this article, I talked about what was Mahamudra Tantra, namely the union of bliss and emptiness. Meditation on the nature of our mind is the access point to Mahamudra, enabling us to improve our mindfulness so that we can then meditate on emptiness and the union of bliss and emptiness. According to the Ganden oral lineage, Je-Tsongkhapaour “ear-whispered lineage” passed down through a succession of awesome practitioners to the present day, it is the recommended object for training in concentration.

Geshe Kelsang, modern-day Mahamudra Master, has said:

Make meditation work.

This means we make it work for us, and I think we need not be scared to experiment with the ingredients previous Yogis and Yoginis have given us, any more than those crazy snowboarders are afraid to experiment with what they have learned. We can put together these following elements of dropping into our heart, experiencing peace, receiving blessings, and meditating on clarity in whichever way helps us gain the peak experiences.

Short meditation

So here is a short suggested meditation to help you enter the state of flow without having to leave your armchair (though do put your coffee cup down for a moment …)

We first drop from our head into our heart chakra in the middle of our chest, sensing already some peace and space. (Our heart is where we feel things most deeply – for example, where do you place your hand when you want to express love?) We feel grateful and happy at our good fortune at still being alive, still having this opportunity (for forget skateboarding, even shoveling can kill us); and make a decision to apply ourselves gently without expectation to our meditation.

With this decision, we consciously breathe out whatever is on our mind, let it go with each natural exhalation. Our thoughts only have the power we give them; we don’t ever need to feel intimidated by them. We are infinitely bigger than them, bigger even than the sky is to the clouds. With each breath, space opens up in our mind and we feel lighter and cleaner.

As we inhale we experience the breath as radiant light, the most beautiful, blessed light we can imagine, which we breathe right down into our heart. Through enjoying this process, our awareness is also drawn naturally toward our heart, riding upon our breath. This light is the nature of our Spiritual Guide’s mind, peaceful inspiration that soaks into our root mind. We feel our awareness becoming centered within a light, calm experience at our heart, and there we abide.

Within this, we ask: “What is the mind? What is it that is aware of the sounds, sensations, distractions? Where is it?”, so that instead of focusing all our attention on their “content” we use these thoughts to help us become aware of awareness itself. We recognize the clarity — the inner empty space with no shape, no color, no size, no material properties, no form — that possesses the power to perceive, that is conscious. We stay here, experiencing clarity moment by moment.

zone_4We can appreciate the extraordinary beauty of the nature of our mind, which is limitless clarity and unbounded potential. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could gain deep experience of the nature of our mind, and through this accomplish Mahamudra and full enlightenment? For this, we need to do ourselves an enormous favor and receive blissings — commune with the mind of enlightenment itself, with our Spiritual Guide and all the Buddhas.

We feel that our present mind of peace or contentment, however slight or relative, is connected to our Spiritual Guide’s mind of peace, that we are already abiding in a heart-to-heart communion with all the Buddhas, and in particular to their full experience of Mahamudra. We take a moment to recognize this, to relax into our peaceful mind, knowing that we are not separate from Buddha’s transcendent consciousness, knowing that there is an ocean of assistance on hand. We are really in the zone now; whereas before we may have felt unsure, now we feel very confident that we can pull this meditation off.

We can feel too that we are meditating on our root or very subtle mind, which is naturally blissful. (Imagine bliss if you don’t feel it, everything begins in our imagination, it is still authentic.)

With this connection, we can if we wish engage in Liberating Prayer, Prayers for Meditation, Heart Jewel, or any prayers we like, and then continue with more Mahamudra meditation, pausing any time to feel that connection with the mind of enlightenment. Or you can open your eyes and get on with your day, thinking it could be your last & staying in the zone …

(*There is a bit more to say about the state of the flow, and how it increases performance; so I’ll explore it a bit more in a future article on refuge. This is intended as a conversation starter, so I welcome your insights into the subject. Indeed, Helen has already written a very helpful comment below.) 

Mahamudra blessing

DMV
Boring!

I just failed my drive test. I was sort of speeding without realizing it, so I guess I deserved that and don’t mind too much. (I also knew things didn’t bode too well when, unavailingly trying to woo the instructor with my suave in-control persona, the alarm went off as I opened the door … and, being as it wasn’t my car, I had no clue how to turn it off again.) More to the point, however, is why am I even having to take a drive test when I’ve already been driving for 30 years?!* But one may just as well ask, “Why do I have to take rebirth and go to school all over again? I already flipping well did that.”

I was asking myself just this while I waited the 50 unsettling minutes at the Denver DMV leading up to my failed test. Samsara is relentlessly monotonous and we keep having to do things we don’t want to do, not just once but over and over and over, ad infinitum. We keep having to take tests, even though I have only met about 3 people in my life who like them, and no one looked too exhilarated to be on their plastic chairs in the DMV. A friend of mine has to re-sit her whole psychotherapy exam just because she has moved to a new state, even though she has been a psychotherapist for hundreds of years. It’s annoying. And that is just in this one life. In samsara, we keep on having to re-learn stuff we already spent way too long learning and have no need for – I sometimes think the only thing I have retained from geography lessons, for example, is a rudimentary knowledge of ox-bow lakes, and I have yet to find a way to put that to any use.

Why do I mention this? Well, because when I think about dying and taking even a best-case scenario human rebirth, I think how much I dread having to go to school all over again. So then I think I want to get out of samsara quickly by accessing and purifying my very subtle mind, and how right now, in this precious human life, I have the opportunity to do so, lucky me. Which motivates me to practice meditation with an appreciative mind, with a good feeling of gratitude in fact.

Continuing from this article on Mahamudra.

An ocean of helpMahamudra

Whenever we practice meditation, especially meditation on Mahamudra, it makes a huge difference if we know that we are not doing this on our own. We are connecting to a lineage through our Spiritual Guide, through his or her Spiritual Guide, and so on, back through an ocean of practitioners to Buddha himself. Their minds are all on offer so we can connect to a vast reservoir of assistance. It is not us duking it out with our delusions on our own. Not at all. Receiving blessings may not come intuitively, we need to train. Why? One reason is that we are in exile in our head most of the time, and it doesn’t occur to us to go into our heart and connect.

First way to receive blessings

This is something I like to do before doing any meditation, and it works very well with Mahamudra.

We imagine we are receiving the blessings of Buddha and all holy beings in the form of blissful lights or rays of sunshine, coming from their hearts and filling our body and mind. This enlightened energy, enlightened mind, mixes with our mind like light mixing with light. We can do this after reciting some prayers, if we like, such as Prayers for Meditation or Heart Jewel, where “receiving blessings” is almost always indicated – but we can also do it anytime, anywhere. We are bathing in an ocean of delicious blessings, which are very interesting and also everywhere.

As explained more here, blessings, or “jin gyi lob” in Tibetan, means “transformation through inspiration”, and they are not that mysterious — we are affected Man walking through doorway with ocean, in desertby even ordinary  waves of mental energy so of course we can be uplifted by transcendent minds if we tune into them. This makes everything easier. We can receive blessings from any holy being we believe in, whoever works for us. Traditionally for Mahamudra meditation we rely on Je Tsongkhapa.

Why Je Tsongkhapa?

Je Tsongkhapa is the founder of our Buddhist tradition, the Kadampa tradition. He lived in the 14th century but his teachings are still flourishing because they have been carried from generation to generation in an unbroken lineage all the way, marvelously enough, to us. I believe that Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is the latest in the line of fully realized adepts in this lineage, and he has made it his life’s work to help us gain these realizations. And Mahamudra (literally, the union of great bliss and emptiness) is the specialty of this tradition. Buddha Shakyamuni gave 84,000 different teachings, and the pith essence of all of them is Mahamudra. As one scholar, Gungtang, puts it (using Je Tsongkhapa’s ordained name, Losang Dragpa):

The emptiness that is explained in Buddha’s Sutra teachings,
And the great bliss that is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings –
The union of these two is the very essence of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings.
May the doctrine of Conqueror Losang Dragpa flourish for evermore.

Now is the time

Oral InstructionsMaybe some of you have reached that place known as “over the hill” and things look very different from this perspective – if you’ve ever biked downhill, you know you speed up. So maybe, we think, maybe we better wait till next time round to attain enlightenment, we might have left it a bit late this time. But the truth is that the opportunity we have now will never get better. We can come under the care and guidance of an exceptionally qualified Mahamudra master. His new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, published in Tibetan at the request of many Tibetan practitioners and now translated for us into English and other languages, is unbelievable. Geshe Kelsang is now regarded as the authority in this world on Mahamudra. Sometimes I think we have no idea how fortunate we are. “Kelsang Gyatso” means “ocean of good fortune”, and all the ordained Sangha are given the name “Kelsang Somebody”, meaning “Fortunate Somebody”.

Second way to receive blessings

In the second way of receiving blessings, we can imagine that Buddha, or Guru Tsongkhapa, comes to our crown and his body of wisdom light shrinks to the size of a thumb, facing the same way we face. There is all that Buddha power on our crowns, enlightened beings are all within that space; and then we can imagine Buddha entering through our crown chakra and flowing slowly and blissfully into our heart. As he descends, we slide down with him into our heart. Now he is a presence in our heart, and once again we can think that our minds mix. This helps us get into our heart and also appreciate that he is doing the meditation along with us. It’s not necessary to visualize him clearly, we just think he’s there with us in our heart. We can experience bliss, and then mix that bliss with emptiness or the conventional nature of the mind. Also, we can use that bliss in any meditation, and we can invite any holy being.

Hope you have fun with it!

*The technical, if not karmic, reason is that I let my Florida driving license expire. Like letting life expire before getting some stable, ever-lasting realizations, I guess.

 

Caring for others and helping ourselves

at what distanceAt what distance do we stop caring?

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

Continuing on from this article.

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

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

Suffering is not solid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you really want freedom?

Meditation should never be abstract, but grounded in our own experience.

friend or enemyThe self we normally see doesn’t exist. But it is hard to spot that self if we are clinging too tightly onto it, too closely identified with it. So here is a meditation that will hopefully help us to sit back and look at it, and to witness how samsara twists around it. This will naturally lead us to the light, happy mind of renunciation, wishing to be free from the creeping vine of self-grasping and all other delusions.

First we can do some breathing meditation to settle into the peaceful experience of our mind at our heart. We breathe out whatever’s on our mind in the form of thick smoke, and experience our in-breath as clear radiant light that has the nature of peace. We can ride these light rays into our heart chakra, where they join the inner light of our own peaceful good heart, our Buddha nature.

Even if our mind is only slightly more peaceful, we let ourselves rest there — recognizing that this peace is part of the indestructible quality of our mind, within which is the potentiality for limitless peace. No rush. No agenda. No “Ok, got my peaceful experience, check. Next!” We give ourself time and permission to enjoy this, to identify with it, thinking “This is me.” Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to just be happy. I don’t have a care in the world.

Connecting to our limitless potential is a crucial stepping stone – renunciation is the wish for permanent peace and freedom, but if we don’t believe this is possible how can we develop this wish?

Also, abiding in this peaceful experience we have a heart connection to the peaceful mind of all enlightened beings, their blessings.

beautiful heartWe can allow that Buddha’s peace to manifest as our Spiritual Guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni, if we wish, do the Liberating Prayer, and spend a little time receiving blessings in the form of lights and nectars or just feeling the mind to mind transmission. Again, we give ourselves permission to abide there, enjoying that, feeling our Spiritual Guide’s bliss of permanent liberation flowing into our own mind. With our mind empowered by our Spiritual Guide’s realizations, we can easily gain his experience of renunciation and the wisdom realizing emptiness. We can believe that we already have his experience.

We get an intuitive sense of what liberation is like so it is no longer an abstract idea but grounded in our own experience and we WANT it and know we can have it. We are sampling it – a bit like how in Trader Joe’s the other day a store assistant gave me a sample of delicious pineapple juice and I decided to buy the whole carton.  So the wish to attain liberation is already growing within us naturally, even before we get to our actual meditation!

In general, suffering has inner causes. These are the negative actions or karma that are created by our delusions, the root of which is self-grasping ignorance.

Now we can bring to mind the self that we normally see. That self appears all the time and in different aspects so we can start with a very manifest version, perhaps a painful one, when we felt hurt for example. We stay in the peaceful space of our heart and see how we believed this sense of I, poor hurt me. Grasping is believing.

delusional unicornThen we built our samsara around it. We wanted to serve and protect this I (self-cherishing) — we wanted to arrange the world to make this I feel better, for example by getting the other person to be nice to it again; and uncontrolled desire was born. And anything that got in the way made us upset, and anger was born. In dependence upon those three poisons and other delusions, we then engaged in actions or karma to protect this limited self and fulfill its wishes. All this entrenched us in contaminated life, subjecting us to yet another episode of its continuous unrelenting suffering.

We can witness this dynamic in action and ask, “Is this what I want?” Compared with the peace we are experiencing in our heart at the moment, that would be a definite “No” to self-grasping and “Yes” to liberation from it. We also need some forward thinking. The danger is that we have been building up these samsaric (not-so-)merry-go-rounds since beginningless time, and if we keep doing this we will continue to suffer. The best we can hope for while grasping at a limited self is temporary liberation from particular sufferings, and this is not good enough for this life or countless future lives.

Naturally, then, the wish to attain permanent liberation arises — not because a wise person is urging us to develop this wish or because we think in some vague abstruse way that we ought to, but because we are seeing the unviability of self-grasping for ourselves. Our own insight leads us to the certain knowledge that we need to destroy our self-grasping ignorance once and for all. We want to realize directly that the self we graspignorance is not bliss at and cherish does not exist so that we no longer have any inclination to grasp at and cherish the stupid thing. How wonderful to have this freedom! We hold this wish for as long as we can so as to become deeply familiar with it.

Then we can apply this to others to develop compassion, for everyone is traipsing around from life to life in a futile attempt to protect and serve a painful, limited self that doesn’t even exist. And just as no one else really knows what sense of me we are desperately clinging to and protecting most of the time, so we have no clue what private hells others are concocting for themselves on a daily basis.

 

What’s the relationship between blessings and inner peace?

A guest article by a long-time Kadampa practitioner

Buddha of lightVenerable Geshe Kelsang has said that the function of Buddha is to bestow blessings continuously upon living beings and cause them to experience inner peace. Often I take these words superficially without relating them to my daily experience; but on those rare occasions when I do …

My experience of peace now, at this time, is arising from the blessings or inspiration of holy beings affecting my mind here and now!!! …

… a completely new world opens up before me.

Such a difference between words to the ear understood by the intellect, and wisdom from the Spiritual Guide experienced, even just for a moment, within daily life.

A beautiful piece of advice that Kadam Morten gave in the New York Festival was to learn to recognise the presence of blessings in our lives. Whenever we experience some degree of inner peace, we should recognise that experience as moments of blessing, to enjoy those moments with an understanding of the deep and close connection we have with enlightened beings. As he said (according to my recollection, so please forgive mistakes):

When you experience inner peace, right there is your Buddha nature, right there is Buddha and Buddha’s blessings.

Often when we experience some inner peace (and I can only speak for myself) we can easily take these moments for granted and let them pass without noticing what is actually happening. When those fleeting moments pass and the clouds of disturbing conceptions have rolled back, covering the pure inner sky of our mind, we are once more unhappy and wondering where we can go to, what can we hold on to or push ourselves away from to return to that pure space. When the mind is peaceful – and thus blessed – it is easy to feel connected to holy beings and develop our relationship with them. By contrast – again I speak for myself – when the mind has no peace it is hard to develop faith in, or even remember, our connection with Buddhas and their unobstructed power to bless and transform our mind. The instinct is to immediately search outside the mind… and so journey further into suffering.

To me this shows a lack of deep understanding of where peace and happiness really come from. We need to take Geshe Kelsang’s teaching to heart – to develop a deep understanding and belief in the non-deceptive dependent relationship between Buddhas’ blessings and our own inner experience of peace and happiness.

rainbow-heart in skyThe more I think about this dependent relationship and, more importantly, the more I learn to experience it in daily life, the more I start to realise that we are not the independent entities we normally perceive – unrelated to, and separate from, everything else in the universe. Normally it feels like our state of mind just is what it is, from its own side, existing as a discreet entity whose qualities of peace or disturbance do not come from anywhere but are simply inherent characteristics of our mind itself. However this feeling is mistaken. Just as a rainbow arises entirely from the gathering of different necessary conditions and cannot be separate from them, so our peaceful mind arises from the blessings of Buddha.

For me, learning to let go of my sense of independence and separateness goes hand in hand with learning to become more open and receptive to blessings. While on the one hand we long to feel more connected to Buddhas and be nourished by their blessings, our grasping at an independent self creates the illusion of a big gap between our self and these beings, undermining our receptivity. Our mind that we wish to change feels “in here” while Buddhas and their benevolent power seem “out there”. These two, which we yearn to experience as deeply related and connected, are held by our ignorance to be truly separate, different, unrelated. While we try to feel ever closer to our Spiritual Guide and develop powerful faith so as to receive the blessings of all the Buddhas, our inner ignorance always holds us at a distance, weakening the power of our faith. The ignorance in our heart doesn’t really believe we can change, let alone “be changed”, by the influence of a pure being so “different” and “other” to ourselves.

With faith we make sincere requests but ignorance makes it feel as if our prayers are telegraphed across a big existential gap and that blessings are received from some distant Dharmakaya or holy space.

blessings 2Through contemplating the dependent relationship of our own experience of inner peace and blessings we begin to realize that we already have a deep, profound, powerful, and intimate connection with enlightened beings. That relationship is already there – we do not need to create it. But we can learn to recognize it and increase our trust and reliance upon this relationship as a dynamic and vital source of refuge and transformation.

When I recognize (on the basic level that I am able) that all that I am and all that I experience is entirely dependent on other factors, that every moment my mind and my self are being re-created and transformed by many conditions, I let go (however slightly) of my sense of existing independently, permanent, and separate. Instead I can begin to experience my self as a dependently arising be-ing, in connection with the universe and receptive to conditions of transformation. There is no real gap between myself and Buddhas, no space between my mind and their blessings. This wisdom opens the heart more and more to the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, which in turn further awaken our Buddha nature.

Likewise there is no real gap or difference between ourselves and all other living beings. We already have, right now, a profound, powerful and intimate connection with all the countless mother beings of the universe. We do not need to create this relationship. It is already there. Just by recognizing this relationship our heart begins to open with a natural, uncontrived love and compassion, through which the blessings of Buddha can pervade and transform the entire universe.

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For more articles on blessings, click here.