Climate change and Buddhism

22 mins read!!! Sorry about that. Big subject.

I shared this October 2018 IPCC global warming report on Facebook because it was a bit of “an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world”.

Since then, FB friends have been asking me to do an article on Buddhism and climate change. That is except for those who are telling me it’s a conspiracy and that they’ll boycott this blog if I do. Their version of events may be more comforting, and there is a sense in which everything we see is merely a hoax of our ignorance; but just in case the  masks in san franciscomajority of scientists also have a point about global warming I decided to have a go. Especially as I have just spent several days wearing one of these masks.

Having said that, I don’t feel qualified to speak for all Buddhists on climate change, given that Buddha didn’t address the subject directly and I am by no means an expert. But I can start a discussion that you’re invited to join in and/or to argue with below.

(Just reminded me of what my parents would always say to us kids when we told them to stop arguing: “We’re not arguing, we’re discussing.” And given that they’re still happily married going on 50 years later, perhaps that’s true after all 😆).

Rather than break this article up, I have put it all here to make that discussion/argument easier. We can also, as some have requested, brainstorm concrete pointers on how to behave responsibly and lead by example all in one place (comments below). Hopefully this process will contribute to the consciousness-raising needed on our planet if we are to survive.

Okay, here goes.

First off, a life in the day …

Last week I flew into San Francisco just as people were doing their best to fly out. I had thought that flying into DC during the emotional midterms was close enough to the action, but I was greeted at the airport in SF with a mask and dense toxic air thanks to the biggest fire in California history burning 120 miles away, already the size of SF and Oakland combined.

Buddha in fireAnd I realized just how much I take good air for granted. How I automatically assume I can throw open windows and doors to let in the fresh air without starting to cough and experience a headache. How the choice boils down to fresh air or CO2 build up. How odd it is to be in one of the most beautiful places on earth where you are advised to stay indoors. How much I take outside in general for granted.

The fire has affected so many thousands of innocent beings — due to the strong winds, it spread at the rate of 3 football fields a minute, so how could humans or animals have outrun that wall of flames? (If they hadn’t succumbed to the heat and fumes first.) 83 humans so far declared dead, still over 500 missing, and how many animals dying in pain and fear? Saw footage of grown men crying — grown men with tattoos crying — because they have lost everything or everyone. Saw images of the makeshift shelters in a Walmart parking lot – not exactly Paradise any more. Down the coast in Malibu, likewise, deadly fire licking a place once synonymous with Paradise. Sure, it is possible to improve forest management – but don’t tell me these rapidly escalating fires or hurricanes are nothing to do with climate change.

cat rescued in the fire
Anyone own this cat?

I got to thinking about the homeless, who have nowhere to escape the air. On Monday, Choma and I went to Oakland to visit a friend John, who is a research coordinator on senior homelessness (and appears in this thoughtful article I found ). It’s frightening to find yourself on the streets when you are over 55 and NEVER expected to end up there. So many people are just a pay check away. I wouldn’t want it for even one day, yet getting off the streets once you’re old and prematurely ill is hardest of all.

Meantime, air quality around the world means that 9 out of 10 humans don’t have clean air, EVER. And they don’t have masks either, plus you can’t wear those things for long, they’re awkward and make it hard to breathe – you can’t wait to take them off at the first opportunity. 7 million people a year die from bad air, according to WHO. And don’t even get me started on the water I take totally for granted as well.

Which also reminds me of all those incarcerated with little to no access to fresh air, spending up to 23 hours a day in often windowless cells. Those prisons must be as stuffy and smelly as hell, and I hadn’t even thought about that element of being locked up until now.

Which leads me to think about what life must be like for the pigs and chickens and cows locked up in all the stinking factory farms, hidden from us in plain sight. Or for that matter what life is like for the animals and fish in the Dallas Aquarium I visited two

big blue fish
I’m not a cartoon.

weeks ago – how on earth is this fish ever going to get out of there, not just out of the Aquarium but out of the lower realms? What is that going to take? Human problems are a cake walk in comparison; and this despite the fact that human mental health problems around the world are reaching epidemic proportions.

I could keep musing like this forever on the problems in our world. One item leads to another and then to another. It seems never-ending.

But that is the thing about samsara — it never is just about one thing. Or one calamity, I should say. It is about calamities on all fronts – climate change, for sure, and fossil fuel profiteering, but also homelessness, mass migration, poverty, intolerance, racism, consumerism, cancer, greed, fascism, starvation, cruelty, hurricanes, factory farming, war, terrorism, shootings, etc, etc, etc. (And that’s just the humans). When this karma starts to ripen on us, we cannot outrun it any more than people could outrun the fire.

Bizarrely enough, this may be the place to start talking about climate change. It is part of a far bigger and more interconnected problem than most people even realize – it is the problem of samsara itself, the vicious cycle of impure life. If we have delusions, we are all caught up in it, like fish in a net.

MalibuEven the uber wealthy are not immune – just ask those celebrities who lost their homes in Malibu last week — and even the most powerful humans on this planet are just as bound up in the vicious cycle of birth, ageing, sickness, and death. As it says in the powerful prayer called Request to the Lord of all Lineages, which Geshe Kelsang is encouraging people to contemplate deeply every day: 

In this cycle of impure life, samsara,
There is no real protection from suffering.
Wherever I am born, either as a lower or higher being,
I will have to experience only suffering.

We need very deep solutions, or this is all any of us will ever be able to expect. However, according to Buddha solutions do exist, if we are prepared to look for them not just outside but within.

In samsara we can assume the worst and we won’t be far off, sooner or later. It is no pleasure garden, as Buddha said. We can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The only way all this is going to change is if we change. Who wants to be the same in 5 years who wants changeanyway? 10 years? The only way to improve is to improve.

Understanding this, I will make continuous effort to cease samsaric rebirth
By striving to permanently abandon its root, self-grasping ignorance. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages

The entire special presentation of Buddha’s teachings called the “stages of the path to enlightenment” (Lamrim) gives us insightful, proactive, and tried-and-tested ways to deal with suffering – I tried explaining that once here: Can we make sense of the senseless? And if we had time e could apply all 21 contemplations just as easily to climate change. 

Here I will highlight just some of Buddha’s wisdom. One place to start is karma

The environmental effects of karma

Our mental actions or karma have four effects, one of which is called “the environmental effect”, whereby:

… our environment and the things that surround us are hostile, dangerous, or uncomfortable. The environmental effect of killing is that the place in which we live is poor and it is hard to find food and other necessities; the environmental effect of stealing is that the place in which we live is barren and plants and crops will not flourish there; and the environmental effect of sexual misconduct is that the place in which we live is unclean and breeds disease. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

 karma quoteWe can ask ourselves whether or not we have created any negative actions of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and so on. If we haven’t, cool, but the chances are we have and thereby created an incalculable number of causes for these kinds of experiences. These are like seeds waiting to ripen as suffering — and once they do we cannot outrun these karmic appearances. We need another approach. As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:

The cause of suffering is non-virtuous actions
And the cause of happiness is virtuous actions.
Since this is completely true
I will definitely abandon the first and practice the second.

We never think calamity will strike until it does. But on what basis can I go around being so complacent, I wonder.

As someone on Facebook put it:

Perhaps I am experiencing a world being destroyed because in previous lives I destroyed the environments of others? It is possible, when I think of things I did as a child to ant’s nests, for example — even in this life I destroyed the environments of others 😮.

You can read all about how karma works in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. It’s life-saving information.

So what are we supposed to do?

I think the answer is that we have to work on different levels. I’ve spoken before about how Bodhisattvas and trainee Bodhisattvas operate on the level of going to the practical aid of those in need, helping others overcome their negativities, avoiding destroying places such as towns, and so on, while at the same time using everything as fuel for the journey to enlightenment so that they can end up helping everyone. As someone said on Facebook:

There must be some combination of inner and outer efforts. Inner efforts to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible for everyone’s sakes! And outer efforts to protect humans’ and animals’ homes, as well as our waters and trees and air.

One thing is for sure: without empathy coming from an understanding of our inescapable interconnection, we are doomed. If we insist on holding onto our self-cherishing like some kind of perverse security blanket, we are doomed. From The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

boat with hole in itAll the problems of human society, such as war, crime, pollution, drug addiction, poverty, injustice, and disharmony within families, are the result of self-cherishing. Thinking that human beings alone matter, and that the natural world exists to serve human desires, we have wiped out thousands of animal species and polluted the planet to such an extent that there is great danger it could soon be unfit even for human habitation. If everyone were to practice cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.

The Bodhisattva perfections (see below) are all motivated by the compassion wishing to free not just our family and neighbors but everyone from suffering and its causes by fulfilling our own potential for enlightenment. We are all in this together.

As someone said on Facebook:

The suffering that we are causing as a species is getting out of hand. We are creating hell-like realms for both other species and the less fortunate of our own species plus the (not so far) future inhabitants of this planet. As Bodhisattvas, our compassion should be such that we are driven to take action.

There are also different levels of compassion that we can work on, explained in Ocean of Nectar:

Living beings are seen to be transient and empty of inherent existence,
Like a moon in rippling water.

We develop compassion wanting to free all living beings from suffering and its causes, but we can also deepen this to take in how much suffering arises from grasping at permanence and grasping at inherent existence, even though we are nowhere near as permanent nor as solid as we believe. Compassion is explained in a very beautiful chapter called A Praise of Compassion, if you get a chance to read that.

Toward planetary health

Here’s a whistle stop tour of the six perfections that a Bodhisattva practices every day, to hopefully whet your appetite – you can discover everything you need to know about these in Geshe Kelsang’s books.

To permanently liberate all mother living beings
From suffering and mistaken appearance,
I will attain the Union of the state of enlightenment
Through the practice of the six perfections. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages

IMG_4875
Lonnell + friend

Generosity: There are so many practical ways to get over our insecure miserliness and help others in our world with our time, money, attention, advice, skills, fearlessness, and so on. John, as mentioned, works to help the senior homeless population every day. Many other friends are social workers, doctors, teachers, film makers, climate activists, etc, etc – all making this world just that bit kinder. We can offset our carbon footprint with some dollars. We can plant trees. We can do many things.

As in most crises, stories of Buddha nature emerge, like that of the garbage collector and the old lady. Though he’d been ordered home, he risked his life to check on some elderly neighbors – discovering the 93-year-old trying to escape the Camp Fire on her Zimmergarbage truck rescue frame. She had no chance till he showed up and put her in his truck. Then, rather than making her endure a shelter, he took her to his house. His kids love her, so she’ll be there for 2 months until it’s safe to go home.

Moral discipline involves refraining from harming others by, for example, consciously using fewer plastic bags or eating fewer or no animal products. I don’t know if you know this, but 51% of global warming is caused by animal agriculture. As someone on FB put it:

I believe with all my heart that the planet will begin to heal when we treat all of its inhabitants with respect. There is a very deep interconnection between meat/dairy consumption/production and climate breakdown. 

(On this point, we could also work on our realization of emptiness, become like the great Buddhist master Chandrakirti:

Chandrakirti refused to take milk from the cows because he felt it should be saved for their young, and he left them to wander freely on the neighboring hills. Nevertheless, he still managed to provide the monks with an abundant supply of daily produce!

If you want to know how, you can read the rest of the story in Ocean of Nectar.)

We can offset our carbon footprint. We can press our world and industrial leaders into passing essential legislation and investing in sustainable energy, including these 100 companies. We can make Ecobricks out of our plastics. We can rake the forests (kidding 😉)

That is just for starters – I know some of you’ll come up with more ideas below. And there are more pointers here from people who have been thinking about this for 50 years. (In brief: Stop using pesticides. Stop with the single use plastic. Plant a tree. Reduce your footprint. Eat less meat.)

In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:

If for no reason I begin to perform actions
That cause damage to the environment,
I should recall Buddha’s advice,
And out of respect stop straightaway.

Buddha and globeMoral discipline also involves helping others whenever and however we can, all the while overcoming our obsessive self-concern. It is an essential protection for us against creating negative karma, and helps us to purify the tons of negative karma we’ve already created.

Patient acceptance is what we need to get through the day without blaming everyone else for what goes wrong, disliking others or ourselves, feeling upset when we read the latest news, or becoming helpless, fearful, and angry. We need to get from anger to compassion, which is actually a far more passionate though realistic response. As it says in How to Understand the Mind:

Some people are angered by the existence of nuclear weapons or pollution, while others become upset if their food is not to their liking. Whenever we encounter inanimate objects that cause us suffering we should remember the futility of getting angry with such things. ~ page 69

 It is degenerate times alright!

With patient acceptance of what is going on — because that is what is going on — we are now in a position to transform adverse conditions into the path to enlightenment. When things get tough, the tough get going, as the saying goes. Buddha predicted that times would degenerate – particularly in five ways:

In this spiritually degenerate time there are five impurities that are increasing throughout the world: (1) our environment is becoming increasingly impure because of pollution; (2) our water, air and food are becoming increasingly impure, also because of pollution; (3) our body is becoming increasingly impure because sickness and disease are no more prevalent; (4) our mind is becoming increasingly impure because our delusions are getting stronger and stronger; and (5) our actions are becoming increasingly impure because we have not control over our delusions. ~ Modern Buddhism (available free

Our current enormous challenges are more grist to the mill for a mind-training practitioner:

When the container and the contents are filled with evil
Transform adverse conditions into the path to enlightenment. ~ Universal Compassion 

The container and the contents refers to our world and everything and everyone in it, filled with the effects of negative actions. And as it explains in Modern Buddhism:

Because of these five impurities, suffering, problems’ and dangers are increasing everywhere. However, through Lamrim price we can transform our experience of all these impurities into the spiritual path that leads us to the pure an everlasting happiness of liberation and enlightenment.

It is worth knowing that impurity and suffering can be transformed – by motivating us into renunciation and compassion for example — because in that case we no longer need to fear it as we have been. We don’t need paralyzing self-cherishing fear, but motivating, refuge-inspiring, and not unpleasant fear that comes from the wisdom understanding deeper causes. Buddha nature 

You can read in detail how to transform adverse conditions in Universal Compassion and The New Eight Steps to Happiness.

Joyful effort gives us all the energy we need every day to get over discouragement and hopelessness, even upon reading the latest Climate Report that says we have only 12 years to get our acts together. Effort gives us the power and self-confidence to do what needs to be done for as long as it needs doing, without ever giving up on ourselves or anybody else. As Kadampas recite twice a month in Offering to the Spiritual Guide:

I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.

I agree with this from someone else on FB:

Raising awareness is good and positive encouragement for collective action is good. What I read in the groups I am part of is a lot of despondency by people trying to do their best, but feeling the tide is against them. Encouragement of positive actions, therefore, has to be a good thing, supporting people in the changes they make.

At the same time, I think it’s helpful to know where most usefully to put our time and energy so that we don’t get burned out or despondent, and so as to aim for maximum benefit. As a Dharma practitioner, my main priority is mastering my mind and trying to give others that opportunity – and, when I’m doing that, then I am always doing something useful, so I don’t have to feel so discouraged or hopeless. Someone suggested:

I honestly think, as Buddha teaches, the answer is training our own mind and helping Art volunteeringothers to do the same. Awakening compassion for all would be the solution. So supporting our local Dharma Centres, volunteering, teaching Dharma, and training our own mind, while setting the example of practising moral discipline and mindfulness around these issues, is the answer for me.

Concentration is essential for mastering our mind, overcoming the distractions of our delusions, and creating the karma for deep and lasting inner peace and happiness. Concentration makes our mind extremely powerful. As it says in How to Transform Your Life:

We can sometimes help others by providing them with money or better material conditions, but we should remember that the greatest benefit we can give is to help them overcome their delusions and find true, lasting happiness within.

And to pull that off for others, we need to start with ourselves.

Wisdom is the actual and only door out of the prison of samsara, and something we can keep in mind whatever else we are up to, both in and out of meditation sessions.

In general, all those problems and sufferings mentioned above are coming directly or indirectly from our delusions of ignorance, attachment, and aversion, and the negative karma we create in dependence upon those delusions. As someone said on Facebook:

I can certainly work on my delusions and try personally to break free from my uncontrolled desire that contributes to the polluted world, and perhaps also encourage others skillfully to do so — done with the right intention I think this can be powerful purification.

quote from scientistsThese three so-called poisons poison our minds, spilling over into the world that appears to us because our world is a reflection of our minds. So we have to dig deeper to solve our problems – solving not just outer problems but our inner problems with both compassion and wisdom. Otherwise:

Through technological progress and by organizing society in fairer, more humane ways, we can certainly help improve people’s lives in some respects. But whatever we do will inevitably have some unwanted side effects. The best we can hope for is to provide people with conditions that bring some temporary relief from problems and difficulties, but we cannot give them true, lasting happiness. This is because the real cause of happiness is inner peace, which can be found only within the mind, not in external conditions. ~ How to Transform Your Life (available for free here

Our polluted world is mere appearance to mind like a dream – we need to destroy the hallucinations of climate change along with all other impure appearances through purification practice and especially through realizing that all the things we normally see do not exist.

The phenomena that I normally see or perceive
Are deceptive – created by mistaken minds.
If I search for the reality of what I see,
There is nothing there that exists – I perceive only empty like space. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages

appearances in dreams teach meThis brings us back to karma. As things don’t exist from their own side, whatever appears to us depends upon our minds and our karma, both individual and collective. If you want to check this out from Ocean of Nectar, it says:

If a god, a human, and a hungry ghost were to look at a glass containing a moist, liquid substance, the god would see nectar, the human water, and the hungry ghost pus and blood…. There are not, however, three different liquids on the same base. ~ [from VI.71ab]

How am I supposed to remember all this?!!

To keep in mind these different levels of dealing with climate change, I find it truly helpful and inspiring to remember the meaning of Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, as explained a little bit in this article.

So, out of renunciation, symbolized by Je Tsongkhapa, we are avoiding negativity on a day to day basis, striving to get rid of our inner poisons and attain liberation. My feeling is that we need to do whatever we can on an immediate practical and visible level, setting an example of someone who actually cares — because we do care. It’s all very well talking about getting enlightened for the sake of all living beings, but if we are still part of the brigade trashing our planet we are not setting a very relatable example, and can in fact come over as a complete hypocrite.

We need to be grounded, balanced, and moreorless normal or we will just put people off. Our head can be in the clouds providing our feet are firmly planted on the earth.

Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka
Tharpa large canvas print reminder 😄

Out of bodhichitta, symbolized by Buddha Shakyamuni at Je Tsongkhapa’s heart, we are trying to help others in every way possible. All the while we can be inwardly dedicating all these six practices to the swift purification of our own and others’ negative karma, praying that by this virtue may everyone soon inhabit a Pure Land, the reflection of a pure and blissful mind.

And with our Tantric practice, symbolized by Heruka at Buddha’s heart, we are bringing the result into the path, speedily purifying and transforming our bodies, enjoyments, deeds, AND environments with no time to waste. With Tantra we are already abiding in the solution – and it turns out that reality is not — after all — relentless suffering, but sublime and blissful enlightenment. I would submit that mystics of all traditions can relate to this through experience.

A lot of discouragement comes from having a very limited view of ourselves and helpless view of what we can do — “What can little old me do to prevent climate catastrophe!?!” Tantra gives us the vision we need to feel deeply inspired on a daily basis.

We can find refuge in pure view. Nothing exists from its own side, as mentioned above. So at some point the mandala and Deities, who are the appearance of bliss and emptiness, will feel more authentic to us than this samsaric chicanery. As it says in The Mirror of Dharma on page 25, when …

… we directly experience the union of appearance and emptiness we will directly experience our environment, enjoyments, body and mind as the enlightened environment, enjoyments, body and mind, and we will directly experience ourself as an enlightened being – the union of Buddha, the union of Vajradhara, the union of Heruka, and so forth.

The whole reason for doing this is to lead everyone to the same blissful state.

One more point I’d like to make (and thank you for reading this far! … )

Don’t forget mandala offerings!

Geshe-la in templeOne spiritual practice that is astoundingly powerful for offsetting our negative karma and creating the causes for everyone to live in a Pure Land is the mandala offering. We even say, as we offer this completely purified universe to all the holy beings, “May all beings enjoy such Pure Lands.” I am out of time, or else I’d explain how it is that mandala offerings are in fact my favorite Dharma practice, and that is saying something. You can read about them all over the place, including in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra.

Conclusion

Phew. Thanks to Buddha, we need never be at a loss for what to do again.

Over to you! Please feel free to discuss with each other below. I already took the liberty of copying and pasting some of the comments from the Facebook thread to kick it off.

Practical precepts for a Bodhisattva wannabe

Given that we have to go to work and/or haconnectionng out and/or social media (verb yet?) with lots of other people, there are umpteen opportunities in our modern lives to observe the Bodhisattva’s vow, where we take personal responsibility to travel the path to enlightenment for the sake of others by practicing the six perfections.

Just to retrace our steps for a moment …

When we develop a compassion that wishes to free everyone permanently from their suffering, it doesn’t take much to figure out that we can’t actually do that while remaining limited, identifying “Me” on the basis of only this impure & ordinary body and mind.

I was just thinking today, for example — when someone was mildly complaining that they never saw me — that although I too would like to hang out with them all the time, there is just one of me. And how much handier it would be if there were more of me, so I could be in more than one place at a time.

IMG_2194-EFFECTS
I only live here at the moment.

So that got me to thinking, “Hmmm, how can I get around this problem and have more time and fun with everyone?! I mean, Skype and FaceTime have their uses, but still …

Wait, I have an idea! A Buddha can be everywhere all at once, and help and bless not just a small circle of friends, but each and every living being every day – that’s her job description! I’m going to use this life to become a Buddha.”

With that conclusion, we have generated bodhichitta. Then we engage practically in the six perfections with this big, beautiful motivation, working on different levels as mentioned in this last article.

Within that, I find it very encouraging to know that with the six perfections there is always something we can be doing to solve our own and others’ problems.

#2 Moral discipline 

This second perfection, that of moral discipline or ethical behavior, includes avoiding negativity and benefiting others. As a rule of thumb, we can ask ourselves before doing stuff:

IMG_2210

“Is this action going to help or harm others? If it will harm them, I won’t do it.”

This question can free us from hypocrisy, ie, saying one thing and doing another, and keep us real. We can become a shining light on the hill through the power of our genuine example.

#3 Patient acceptance

And we can be patient when things and people don’t work out; for example, when they ignore or cannot receive our help, and fall over into the swamp despite our best attempts to prevent this.

Avoiding the downfalls of the Bodhisattva vow

As well as training in the six perfections, the Bodhisattva vow also entails avoiding the 46 secondary and 18 root downfalls related to these six, many of which I find refreshingly appropriate to our modern society. I thought I’d share a fairly random selection, in the hopes you are inspired to find out all about them in the book The Bodhisattva Vow.

Enjoying ourselves more

One of the downfalls related to the perfection of giving, “Indulging in worldly pleasures out of attachment,” reminds me that it is not our work that is currently distracting us from making spiritual progress, helping other people, or even enjoying ourselves, but our attachment to externals! This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy our lives, but that we can enjoy our lives with bodhichitta motivation.

A few weeks ago I was at the beautiful Echo Lake in Colorado with my friend and he said, “I would love to bring a busload of kids from the south side of Chicago up here.” We can mandala offeringalways invite others in, mentally, to our enjoyments — “May all beings enjoy such Pure Lands”, as we say in the mandala offering.

This makes our enjoyments instantly meaningful, good karma, and, in my experience, more blissful.

Plus, if we actually have some bodhichitta, we may find we have more energy to immerse into interesting Dharma books and classes, and less energy to waste on social media and TV 😉 Even changing that direction to go inward a little bit can help a lot, I have found.

Related to the perfection of giving, we also need to avoid “Not replying to others”, which basically means “we try to make others’ minds happy by giving suitable answers anIMG_2211d advice.” We don’t have to be appointed as a teacher or sit on a throne to share our experiences – we can talk about these ideas wherever we go, whenever we are with others who are receptive. For example, if someone at work is suffering from jealousy or anxiety, we can give them common-sense advice on rejoicing and finding some peace, without having to use any of the Buddhist terminology.

Avoiding time suck

Similarly, it is not engaging in the world that is sucking up all our precious time, it is our distractions. This is implied by the fact that Bodhisattvas “accept gifts” and “accept invitations” whenever they can! Related to the perfection of moral discipline, they also avoid “Doing little to benefit others” – not “needlessly shunning wealth, reputation, or involvement with other people.” With bodhichitta, we can increase our wealth and reputation provided we use it to help others.

Also related to moral discipline, Bodhisattvas promise to “help others avoid negativity,” “go to the assistance of those in need”, “take care of the sick”, “act to dispel suffering”, “help others to overcome their bad habits”, and so on. You can read about all of these if you get a moment. Lovely.

Universal CompassionAnd then, if you are still interested, do check out the vows and commitments of training the mind in the book Universal Compassion. These also give modern-day people like me a lot of practical advice on working on many levels to bring both temporary and ultimate help.

Crucially, perhaps — if we never lose sight of our main aim of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of every living being, then, regardless of how many things don’t work out or “go wrong”, nothing will be wasted. Every single day will be a step in the right direction.

Related articles

Developing a Bodhisattva’s confidence

Developing a Buddha’s omniscience 

Integrity and ethics 

More on patient acceptance 

A Bodhisattva’s way of life

Who around here couldn’t use some support? So I wanted to say a bit more about the different levels on which we can help others, following on from this article about the swamp of samsara.

Dharma in daily lifeThe way I see it is that we need to do stuff everyday, anyway, and — whatever it is we do — why not make it really count by doing it motivated by renunciation for the suffering yet unreal nature of samsara? (Our motivations determine the outcome of our actions, or karma.)

With renunciation like this, we won’t get heavy-hearted or anxious. Why? Because we have given up on our attachment to things working out in this swamp of samsara, and therefore each day we have nothing to lose. We just need to try, not worry. This swamp may have a shallow end, where people can stand, and a deep end, where people are drowning; but it is all basically swampish. Luckily, this swamp is also just mere imputation or label of mind, which means that when we transform our minds through wisdom, it will disappear, Poof!, like last night’s dream.

So, with renunciation on others’ behalf (aka compassion), we can help in whatever way we think of, on different levels. Nothing is too small or too trivial – any more than helping someone to tread an inch to the right, avoid the snapping teeth, or find a stepping stone is trivial if they are scared or drowning. It is not the final answer to this person’s problems, but it is still important to them and therefore to us. In the same way, we can give people the necessities of food, shelter, medicine, & protection, work toward a fairer and more humane society, and so on.

The six perfections

The Bodhisattva is the Mahayana Buddhist role model, and a better role model would be hard to find.

He or she trains in the so-called “six perfections” – giving, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration/meditation, and wisdom.

giving

These six practices are called “perfections” because they are motivated by the mind of enlightenment, aka bodhichitta, which is the wish to realize our potential for enlightenment so that we can lead all living beings without exception to that state of lasting happiness.

In other words, we want to wake ourselves up from the hallucinations of samsara, become an “Awakened One” aka “Buddha”, so that we can go about waking everyone else up too.

The Bodhisattva’s aim is therefore two-fold: (1) to help others as much as possible both practically and spiritually right now, and (2) to get daily closer to the inner light of omniscience, with its power to bless each and every being every day, so we can free them all for good.

The first three perfections, largely applicable to our daily actions, lend themselves to helping people navigate their way to safety, to the shallow end as it were; albeit still submerged for now in the swamp of samsara. All the while we can be motivated by the wish to get them onto the dry land of liberation, where they are forever safe from suffering.

Giving

giving is livingGiving (or, really, giving back) includes giving material things AND giving Dharma teachings or advice. We can help people at work — and with our work — in any way that seems suitable, sometimes with material help to improve individual or societal well being, and sometimes with non-judgmental skillful advice that people can use to transform their thoughts.

Buddha’s teachings are divided into wisdom teachings, which are basically his teachings on emptiness, and method teachings, which are basically everything else. We can start using both to help others.

Method teachings

For example, with Buddha’s advice on interdependence, we can show how we could all better navigate this swamp by mending our fractured society of small, selfish, isolated Me’s by joining up in caring, cooperative, connected teams of We instead.

Or we could explain how not to mistake other people for their delusions, but see them as victims of their confusion and anger etc., just as we are, and so stay loving and patient.

connectionWe could also encourage people to witness and take refuge in their own and others’ good hearts and pure, peaceful minds. Knowing that we all have immense spiritual depth and potential, we can help others identify with that rather than their false, limited, suffering sense of self.

We can demonstrate with our own example how changing direction to go inwards for peace is not a selfish escape, but paradoxically connecting us more more and more deeply with everyone else “out there”.

Wisdom teachings

It seems to me as though the method teachings are the way to get people to the shallow end of samsara’s vast swamp, where they at least have their heads above water. But the only way to lift them out of the swamp altogether is with Buddha’s wisdom teachings. As Buddha Maitreya puts it:

Because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure.

All the time we are practicing giving and the other perfections, we know in our heart that we are trying to get people to a place where they can realize it is all just the impure dream of an impure mind. This way, they can wake up and create a world of their own choosing out of the bliss and emptiness of their Buddhism in society 2own purified mind. And then they can pull everyone out onto dry land as well.

By the way, we don’t have to sit on a throne to give good advice. We don’t have to be a Dharma millionaire yet, either, as Geshe Kelsang once put it – we just need a few spare dollars in our pocket. Any Dharma we have, we can give, and we will never run out. We don’t have to use Dharma terminology, of course. We can use the language that works for whoever we are talking to. We can use the language of the heart.

We can also give fearlessness, time, attention, and love. Even — or sometimes especially — our practice of meditation is giving others fearlessness and love, holding the space for them. There is a beautiful video that seems to demonstrate this … check out the brief footage of our Kadampa nun in Mexico 😊

And I think we can do all this giving without judgment, as explained for example in this article about giving unconditionally to homeless people, though that might be a subject for another day.

We are really learning to give of ourselves, to let go of keeping ourselves to ourselves, staying small and poky. Giving is a big beautiful shining open-hearted practice that brings real joy to our own and others’ lives.

More on the other perfections and related practical advice in the next article …

Related articles

The gift that keeps on giving

First you, then me ~ the Bodhisattva’s attitude

To the rescue!

Just passin’ through

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.