The life-changing power of small stories

By a guest writer, SG, who, amongst other things, uses art to bring about change in prisons and among vulnerable populations.

We are living in unparalleled times; it seems that extreme ideologies are gathering momentum. The increase of terrorist atrocities, sensationalised by a media pursuing a fear-based narrative, is causing bewilderment and anxiety.

As our economic structures fragment, poverty and a surge towards the politics of divide and rule inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, demagogic leaders are arising at the same time as fascism in Europe and America is rearing its ugly head.21325683_10155010321930847_566859715_n

These world events trickle down and affect ordinary people: In the UK, hate crimes have increased 41 percent since the Brexit vote. Since the elections in the US, the latest FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent.

What to do?

What is a meaningful Buddhist response? What are we to do?

Firstly, it seems vital we work to reduce any divide between self and other. When facing those who hold extreme opposite viewpoints to ourselves, it is important not to ‘other-ize’ them. We can be mindful that people act in harmful ways only because of their delusions. When delusions are manifest, there is no control over the mind.

If we begin to ‘Monster’ others, we are externalising evil, which is a recipe for more insidious discord.

The current rise of racism and fascism is a symptom of fear, that fear is arising (conventionally) from a societal system collapsing. This collapse is due in large part to a resolute belief in external sources being able to secure a means to happiness. This view invariably leads to conflict and suffering. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we consider why nations go to war we shall find that the basic reason is very simple. Human beings cannot be content with their own wealth and resources but must appropriate more and more. Millions of people have died as a result of humankind’s collective discontent.

Wrath vs anger

Recently, I have been thinking about wrath. In Buddhism, there is a vast difference between wrath and anger. It is possible to be wrathful without being angry. When we see images of wrathful protector Buddhas such as Dorje Shugden or Vajrapani, they are not angry. Motivated solely by compassion, they exist only to relieve the suffering of others. Afraid of nothing and no one, they display the aspect of anger toward the delusions while simultaneously being completely free from anger toward living beings.

Imagine being able to harness that energy, having the confidence and wisdom to know that we were always responding in the best manner, with the best set of actions.

21322857_10155010323290847_414830036_nWhen large crowds of people take to the streets espousing violence and hatred, imagine being a fearless opponent, able to perform wrathful actions while never straying from wisdom and compassion. Surely this would be most welcome? Could this be a way to think about challenging oppressive hate-fuelled actions while still practising modern Buddhism purely?

I think before we begin thinking about performing wrathful actions, however, we first have to spend time nurturing our compassion and wisdom. Otherwise, our “wrathful” actions could just be more anger, and end up causing more harm than good!

In the past I have tried engaging in wrathful actions — it didn’t work out well. I just ended up angry and frustrated. If we are to be wrathful, we need to be completely free of delusions such as anger and pride. We have to be free of the idea that before us stands an enemy and understand that the person in front of us is a suffering being, unable to fulfill or even express their unmet needs.

The importance of understanding

Can we try to enter into the frames of reference of those who engage in extreme hateful actions? To understand is not to condone. Many causes and conditions lead people to the views they hold.

Imagine being brought up with those very same causes and conditions, imagine having that very same karma — it becomes easier to see how we might then go on to develop those views. If we can do this, then we can learn to separate the person from their delusions and actions. Then we no longer see a monster, and instead become someone capable of developing genuine love and compassion.

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With love, compassion, and wisdom in our hearts, we can find innovative and creative ways to respond to age-old problems.

No man is an island

We can also strengthen our faith in the power of virtuous actions. Last month, I attended the Summer Festival at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, where Kadam Morten led the second week’s retreat. He read an excerpt from Geshe Kelsang’s How to Transform Your Life:

In short, we need others for our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality … It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.

I have heard these lines many times before, but this time something was different. One of the most beautiful things about Dharma is that it always holds the potential to surprise you, to completely change your world view, to transform your life.

Everything we do …

Three words rang out, ‘Everything we do.’ Every single thing we do affects others.

I was reminded of a podcast I listened to last year, when the interviewee (a famous and respected counsellor) recalled a story his father told him. Years ago, his father was involved in the Spanish Civil war, during which time a village into which he had ventured was surrounded by fascists belonging to General Franco, and there seemed to be no escape. For days, the father remained in the village, hiding. There was no food in the village — all he had was a piece of stale bread, which he nibbled on each day. Then one day he encountered an ill, starving, old man and, without thinking, he gave him his last piece of bread.

Years later, the father returned to the village with his son to show him where the siege had taken place. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman came running out and hugged him. The old man’s daughter, she had never forgotten this stranger’s kindness, telling them that it had always been an act of great importance both to her father and to her.

The son went on to say that watching this tale unfold was instrumental in him becoming a counsellor. He also mentioned that he had told this story to many people, many times, and he believed that they too had gone on to repeat it to inspire others.

This story is now being read by hundreds of you, too!

21291263_10155010321605847_37033674_nIf a simple act of giving a piece of stale bread to one person can become a catalyst for positive change for thousands of people, what power does an action hold if it is motivated by bodhichitta — the wish to become enlightened for the lasting happiness of all living beings? Imagine if we had faith or trust in the often hidden consequences of our developing such a mind? What encouragement it would give us, what strength. How much faster we could move towards developing the wisdom and compassion needed to engage in actions that can bring about genuine world peace, actual nirvana (liberation) in the minds of all living beings?

Even the smallest of our actions performed with a big beneficial intention, therefore, can be a cause of ridding this world of even the most violent and destructive actions. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Others are affected by everything we do.

Over to you. Questions and comments welcome.

Related articles

People are not their delusions 

Can Buddhism help society? 

What is bodhichitta? 

A vision of hope in troubled times 

 

 

 

Compassion: the quick path to enlightenment

I was walking with an old friend yesterday evening on the beautiful beach at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre in the English Lake District, discussing how we could improve our compassion. We have to get ourselves more and more out of the way, for sure, and train in the time-honored Buddhist methods for improving our love and compassion. And we can just take a genuine interest in how others are — entering into their worlds monk on beachempathetically without fear, finding out what is going on for them, somehow, even simply by asking them when we can. We can actively want them to be free from any problems they may be having, and from all the pains queuing up endlessly for them in samsara. We can practice this again and again (and again) until it takes.

My friend and I also discussed the helpfulness of watching documentaries or movies that bring others’ lives home to us, for example Earthlings, a documentary I confess I have so far been too squeamish to watch. But, a question for you, can we shy away from looking at unbearable suffering if we are to develop the compassionate wish to free those people from that suffering? Thinking “I can’t bear to watch this” is not necessarily what is meant by “unbearable compassion” for the suffering of others.

What could be more fun?!

The other day I stumbled on a live webcam streaming a national park in Alaska. They asked, and I quote: “WHAT COULD BE more fun than watching brown bears fishing for bear and salmonsalmon?!”

I could think of a lot of things, but I still gingerly clicked on the link and spent a few relatively, I suppose, fun minutes watching some brown bears loll around in the river while silvery salmon jumped upstream. Could almost have been an idyllic scene, until one brown bear suddenly yanked a salmon from the water with its huge claws. The fish thrashed around in terror while the bear carried it in its mouth to a nearby rock. Then he tore a strip of flesh from its side. I gasped, as this was being shown live, and the salmon did not die – she carried on thrashing around in agony, bleeding. And there was nothing I could do.

Thirsty man’s wish for water

This line has struck me recently, even though I’ve read it many times:

If we train in taking and giving for a long time, our love and compassion will become very powerful and our wish to free others from suffering will be as strong as a thirsty man’s wish for water. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

Imagine having that urgent wish to free others from their suffering. It would do two things, it seems to me:

cows
Local cows, branded, their lives not their own.
  • It would drive all other deluded thoughts out of my mind. There would be no room for them. If you’re desperate for water, it’s all you can think about.
  • It would mean that nothing stops me from trying to help others. This is a short thought away from thinking, but how? I need to get into a position where I can help others, ie, I need to attain enlightenment.

The stronger our wish to free others, the stronger our efforts, and the quicker the results. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra Geshe Kelsang says that in general Highest Yoga Tantra is known as the quick path to enlightenment, but in the Sutras compassion observing all living beings is explained as the quick path:

If we have this mind, then through its power we will never waste a single moment, but draw closer and closer to the attainment of enlightenment every moment of the day and the night.

Taking and giving

monk on beach 2So, judging by the quote above, the so-called “magical practice” of taking and giving seems to be the way to get here. There is a lot that can be said about this practice and you can read all about it all over the place, including in Transform Your Life and the free eBook Modern Buddhism. But taking basically involves taking away others suffering in the form of smoke that dissolves into our heart and destroys our self-cherishing. And giving basically involves imagining giving others whatever they want, which bestows upon them endless, pure happiness.

Taking and giving has, when I last totted it up, at least 22 pretty amazing benefits, including obvious ones such as increasing our love and compassion, and slightly less obvious ones such as increasing our concentration and purifying our mind. And once we are used to doing it in meditation, we can then “mount taking and giving upon the breath”, which means breathing in others’ suffering and breathing out pure happiness – all as we wander about doing the regular things we do. There is then not a breath that need be wasted. Our whole life becomes meaningful. We feel incredible ourselves, and we become a walking, talking, breathing source of comfort and happiness for others, like Je Tsongkhapa, of whom his disciples said:

O Protector, even your daily breath brings benefit to countless beings.

Don’t take my word for it — do read all about this practice in the various books as soon as you get a spare moment.

Superior intention

To develop the motivation of going for enlightenment, the force of our compassion needs to grow until it becomes so-called “superior intention”. An analogy for this is given in the scriptures:

If we see a child fall into a river we will naturally want the child to be saved, but the child’s mother will wish so strongly that she will decide to act to save the child herself. ~ Great Treasury of Merit 

drowningEveryone standing on the bank (well, hopefully everyone) wants that child to be saved, but the mother jumps in after him. If we have superior intention we don’t plan on leaving it up to someone else, we take personal responsibility — we can’t help but take personal responsibility due to the force of our compassion. If my compassion for that agonized fish was strong enough, and I was close by, I would be compelled to help her if I could. And if I couldn’t, my wish to get into a stronger position to help her (and the bear) would grow naturally.

Superior intention leads to bodhichitta, which is the wish to free all others from suffering by developing all the qualities needed to do so, such as the requisite skill, omniscient wisdom, and freedom from limitations and faults.

Become their Buddha

So why, someone asked the other day, do WE need to become enlightened — why can’t Buddhasall the other Buddhas take care of the suffering of that fish and everyone else? After all they are already enlightened and have all the qualities needed to protect all living beings — isn’t that the whole point of becoming enlightened!?

What do you think about that? To me, it seems to be a question of timing – for others to be freed sooner rather than later. The ability to help others directly and practically — for example by removing them from suffering situations or teaching them — depends on karmic connections. It is a two-way street, a dependent relationship – we need a connection with an enlightened being from our side, too, to receive the full force of their help.

So, all the Buddhas want to help that brown bear and that fish, for example, not to mention my family etc; and they bless everyone’s mind every day. But I share some karmic two-way street with these particular living beings, meaning that I will be able to help them directly and soon, if I attain enlightenment.

We can strengthen our connections every day with a lot of living beings through love and compassion, through taking and giving, through prayer. Which means that one day, as a monk friend put it so beautifully, we will become “their Buddha”.

Over to you, comments welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

Being a modern-day Bodhisattva

This is the 3rd of 4 articles on our precious human life.

In Breathing for Peace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

six perfections

Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

We could do something truly radical by using our life to become a friend of the world, a modern-day Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by universal compassion, wants to help everyone without exception find lasting freedom and happiness. Compassion fuels their entire spiritual progress. They understand that the most far-reaching and satisfying way to help others is to keep increasing their own good qualities of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom – the so-called six perfections – until they become an enlightened Buddha able to help everyone all the time. This motivation is called bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment.

A Bodhisattva is a rare being, a special person, an actual hero or heroine who gains victory over our real enemies of anger, greed, despair, discouragement and so on. Someone who wants to become enlightened for all living beings is uncommon, but just because it is rare doesn’t mean we can’t become one. There are people throughout the world working selflessly for others, in ways obvious or hidden. Sometimes we stumble across their stories and are inspired.  

Rick Chaboudy modernday Bodhisattva
Rick Chaboudy, modern-day Bodhisattva, savior of too many animals to count

If we decided we wanted to help others with surgical procedures, we would understand the need to train as a surgeon. We wouldn’t march around with a carving knife announcing, “Anyone care for some heart surgery? Or perhaps a little amputation?” Wanting to help everyone, a Bodhisattva knows they first need to improve their own motivation, skills and capacity. They have a way to make every single day meaningful and are a great role model for how to live in the world.

How can we live a meaningful life?

How does someone become a Bodhisattva? Simply through daily practice, one step at a time. You may be thinking, “Well this is a bit fanciful isn’t it?! I started reading this article just out of curiosity, and possibly to help me get through this stressful day without killing someone, and now you’re suggesting that I aspire to become a fully enlightened Buddha!” But it is far closer than we may think. We can tell that we already have the seed of bodhichitta because we already want to help others at least a bit more than we can right now, and we already want to improve ourselves at least a bit. Take both of these to their logical conclusion and we have bodhichitta – the wish to help everyone without exception by improving ourselves until there is no further room for improvement.

Modern Buddhism free book

We want our life to have some meaning, don’t we? Pleasure alone is not enough, it feels hollow, because it has no lasting value. True happiness and meaning go hand in hand. If we use our life to travel the spiritual path, we can be in the position of helping not just ourselves but infinite living beings. We can become real heroes.

Spreading a little happiness everyday

A friend of mine sent me this anecdote:

“Straight after university I spent a year working in television in London as a production runner for the Channel 4 comedy series The National Theatre of Brent. As a lot of my time was spent in gridlock, “driving” the company car on errands in London traffic, I had plenty of time to examine road rage. So frustrated by their lack of movement, drivers in front of me would honk their horns continuously, forcing their way into whatever gaps presented themselves. Yet an hour down the road, despite all their aggressive heart-attack—inducing attempts, I would see them again – a whole five cars further ahead!road rage

I decided to conduct an experiment. Whenever possible, I would allow a trapped car into the space ahead of me. When I did this, I was greeted by a smile and wave from the surprised driver, and that car would often play it forward, repeating the gesture of kindness to another car ahead of it. Traffic seemed to flow more easily as a result. My journeys did not take any longer, and they were a great deal more restful and entertaining. This is just a simple illustration. We have these kinds of opportunities to practice loving-kindness every day.”

By improving our love and compassion and the wish to improve ourselves for the sake of others, and by gradually engaging in the Bodhisattva’s way of life, our life approximates that of a Bodhisattva and we become more and more like one. With this good and big heart, even if we improve ourselves only a little bit each day by, for example, patiently resisting the temptation to get angry with someone, and even if we only slightly help one or two people each day, by, for example, helping a little old lady cross the street, every little bit counts a lot because right here and right now we are already making strides on a cosmic spiritual journey.

What’s YOUR problem?! :-)

Beware of Whinging PomsA recent survey discovered that people in the UK “feel fully fit and well only 61 days of the year”. Some Australian commentators apparently reacted to this report as typical of the “whinging Poms”, but the fact is that other studies show that this level of health worry is just about normal throughout the Western world (including the land of giant deadly insects and combative kangaroos).

And these are not the seriously ill or dying people who are in hospital, say, but people who are out and about. Based on this survey, people claim to be suffering 304 days a year from colds, backaches, bitten tongues, cricked necks, headaches, heartburn, old sporting injuries, ear infections – you name it, and we’ve got it.

Our bodies are pain machines. Sometimes I see people on the jogging trail outside my window in Liverpool run past with an incredible spring in their step, smoothly and effortlessly, and I like it; but this level of fitness and health seems to be the exception. Sometimes the body cooperates, sometimes you just feel you have to lug it around with you — you know that thought when running, I’m sure it is not just me, “Please, can I stop now?!” Most of us have aches, pains, and a lack of energy a lot of the time. Have you ever met anyone who can say that they always feel comfortable in their bodies? I sometimes marvel at how well the body functions at all, given that it is made of meat, bones, skin, fat, and a bunch of weird organs squashed really tightly together. (I used to think there was loads of space inside me, between, eg, my kidneys and my heart, but that was before I went to the Body Worlds exhibition about 15 years ago – quite the wake-up call.) discover the mysteries

I work at editing and project-managing medical magazines, which daily reveals to me bizarre symptoms it is apparently possible for humans to get, some of them exceedingly awful. I try not to look at my Dorland’s medical dictionary too much – a fat tome full of all the things that can go dreadfully wrong, many in body parts I’ve never heard of! This week I was editing a dermatology article on a rare autoimmune blistering disease affecting the subepidermis called bullous pemphigoid, and musing how I had never met anyone with this, which is perhaps just as well as it sounds really nasty. But then today I just happened to visit a poorly bed-ridden friend of my parents who has been itching like crazy for months… her husband said no one has ever heard of what she’s got, so I said “try me”, and guess what. Maybe it’s just me, but the sheer unexpectedness of having things go horribly wrong in layers of skin you never even knew you had (and your painful condition possessing a daft, no-one’s-ever-heard-of-it name like bullous pemphigoid) strikes me as a tad, oh I don’t know, unreasonable …?

Buddha pointed out that greater or lesser suffering is normal in a contaminated body (that arises from ignorance and delusions, and the karma created by these). The 4 “great rivers” of suffering are birth, ageing, sickness, and death, and we’re constantly being tossed around in their cruel waters. And this is not even taking into account the mental pain and agitation we feel every day as a result of our uncontrolled, oversensitive minds!

The point of looking at this physical and mental suffering head on is to decide we don’t want any of it anymore and to ask the question, “What can we do about it?”

Samsara

Sailboat on the Ocean in a Storm

The seventh Dalai Lama, who lived in 18th century Tibet, said:

Whoever I behold, of high position or low, ordained or lay, male or female, they differ only in appearance, dress, behavior and status. In essence they are all equal. They all experience problems in their lives.

Buddha identified 7 categories of suffering for every human in what he called “samsara“: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to part with what we like, having to encounter what we do not like, and failing to satisfy our desires.

Our problems are neither unusual nor special, but part of a monotonous pattern.

If I were to ask you: “Have you had any problems today?”, I’m almost prepared to bet that you’ll say yes. If you don’t mind, could you recall today’s problem for a moment…

Does this problem fall into any of the 7 categories described by Buddha – does it have anything to do with sickness, say? Or ageing? Or failing to satisfy your desires? Or losing something you liked?

Or is your problem in a category all of its own? Such as “bullous pemphigoid” perhaps? Nope, even bullous pemphigoid is part of sickness. complaint

Again, I’m prepared to bet that any problem you care to name can be placed in one or more of these 7 categories.

Normally we labor intensively to solve one problem at a time – thinking “If only I didn’t have this splitting headache, I’d be so happy! Look at all those lucky people without headaches, they must be sooo happy!” (Are they?) Or “There is no way I can relax with all these money problems — I have to have more money so I can finally stop worrying!” (Would you?)

It’s not that we don’t try to fix our problems and experience temporary reliefs. However, there is wisdom in recognizing that just trying to solve one external problem at a time is an endless process because as soon as one problem is solved another arises to take its place, like waves in an ocean. Even on a relatively good day we may get rid of our headache, only to find that someone at work says something annoying; then we deal with that problem, only to find ourselves stuck in traffic on the way home; and then we get home eventually, only to find that the Internet is down and we can’t go surfing. We may earn some more money for our family, which is a relief for a while, until the next big problem such as a major teenage rebellion comes along to occupy our thoughts. We may take a medication that fixes our itchiness for a while, but then our liver starts to play up from the toxicity. There is literally no end to problems in samsara. There is also no end to worries while we have a mind to worry. This is not even factoring in the really BIG wave-like sufferings of life, such as bereavement, terrorist attacks, and collapsing buildings, which can literally knock us flat.

Renunciation

According to Buddhism, we have to wake up to problems every day in life after life – many of them far more hideous than those we face now. The wave-like sufferings of samsara’s ocean can never stop rolling in; samsara has to stop first.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Temporary liberation from a particular suffering is not good enough.”

Never a day goes by when we don’t want to be rid of our problems — big or small they fill our minds. As someone on Facebook posted the other day:

“I want more problems today!” said nobody ever.

We rarely if ever wake up and think, “Hey, bring it on! I want loads of things to worry about today!” If you think about it, this means that we actually want permanent freedom from problems.

giving ourselves permission to be happyFor this, it is not enough to tinker about with the various symptoms as they arise; we need to work to overcome the actual causes of all our problems, which lie within our mental continuum in the form of delusions and negative karma. Only then can we experience permanent liberation from every type of suffering, called in Buddhism “liberation” or “nirvana”.

Having studied and understood this, if we develop a wish for actual, permanent liberation from physical and mental suffering, we have “renunciation”. This is described in the scriptures as a “light and happy mind”. Not getting mentally stuck to one heavy problem after another is liberating in itself. With less attachment and aversion — kept at bay by our renunciation — our daily moods are happier. With this uplifting wish front and foremost, everything we think or do will take us in the direction of liberation – we will be working our way out of samsara even as we take a headache pill, lie ill in bed, cart the kids to school, sip our latte, or strive to drum up business on the Internet.

Bodhichitta

We can also know that everyone equally experiences these problems. Ask a room of people, “Did anyone have a problem today?” and the chances are that pretty much everyone will say “Oh, yes!” Whatever problem we are having, we can guarantee that everyone else also has to experience it sooner or later. We are all in this together. And, as Jim Morrison of The Doors said, “No one here gets out alive.” This understanding can lead to compassion and then “bodhichitta” and, with this empathetic, empowering, meaningful wish front and foremost, everything we do will be taking us in the direction of enlightenment.

How would you save this bear?

Rusty the Bear

There is a little bear who lives opposite me. When i first saw him, at dusk, I didn’t see anyone with him and I couldn’t figure out what manner of being he was, even though he was clearly very cute. I exclaimed to my companion: “What is that!” “That” turned out to be Rusty, the little Pomeranian. Life was not always easy for him. Literally thrown around as a puppy (two boys were found playing catch with him on the beach), he was rescued by someone, only to spend the next five years in a cage, let out just to pee. Our neighbor Amanda from Columbia found him when she was cleaning the house where he was living packed in with many other animals. She asked if she could have him. Luckily for both of them, she could. He is now nine.

Everyone who sees him loves him, including the big builders next door who went gooey when he gambolled across the street toward them. I am no exception — i have to stop myself stalking poor Amanda whenever she appears at her front door with Rusty in tow. But he and I do have a good relationship already.

So, thinking of him spending five years in a cage is guaranteed to help me develop love and compassion for him, and then for all animals, and then, with a little further contemplation, for all beings caged in samsara in general. This in turn helps me develop bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha as quickly as possible so I can bust everyone out of this dreadful prison.

The way to rescue him and every other living being not just from current suffering but all future suffering is to develop the real capacity to do that, a capacity possessed by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, not yet me.

If you look at this world clock, see if you can get the chicken counter to stand still:

http://www.poodwaddle.com/worldclock.swf

It is scary. There are limitless living beings who need our protection and love. A person who has realized their full potential and possesses omniscient wisdom and the universal love that can actually protect living beings is called a Buddha, or Awakened One, or enlightened being. Anyone can become a Buddha through training in wisdom and compassion. Can anyone other than an enlightened being do anything really effective about what is happening — the cycle of birth, death, & suffering represented by these rapidly changing numbers?

Here is a conundrum for you to solve. So my friend asks me: “If you had the choice to save 100 little Pomeranian bears from cruelty, torture and life in a cage or develop spontaneous bodhichitta, which would you choose?”