Time traveler ~ rebirth part 5

recycle wasted time

A few days ago I was in the English Lake District, walking in Tarn Haws, contemplating water flow – sometimes gushing fast down a waterfall, sometimes collecting briefly in pools created by rocks in the river, but always, always moving. Even in the stillest parts of the stream, the water did not remain the same even for a moment. Our consciousness too may pool in one world for a time, with the relatively superficial swirls and eddies of change — perhaps we will move around, or change friends, or raise a family, or advance in our careers, or retire. But one day it will inexorably exit through the rocks to move on.

We deny impermanence at great cost to our peace of mind. If we do not go with the flow – if we think our current companions and infrastructure are moreorless permanent and the be all and end all of our life, thus investing us and them with self-grasping ignorance, attachment, aversion – it’s like trying to stay the water of a river. As Heraclitus put it, we can’t step in the same river twice. In fact he said we cannot step in the same river once – but, either way, living within an understanding of impermanence is vital to our spiritual and emotional well-being. Our mind is a constant flow, a constant becoming. We need to purify and transform our river-like mental continuum in the now – immersing it in the Dharma of compassion and wisdom. Mixing it with the blessings of the Guru, Buddhas, and Sangha, with their mental continuum, flowing into the vast and profound ocean of bliss and emptiness.

So, that is what I was thinking as I watched the river flow. I recommend that walk in Tarn Haws sometime 🙂

Expanding the mindkill time injure eternity

At any given moment, we are a being who is identified with this time traveler — that is our sense of who we are. Through coming to understand the continuum of our mind and that it is our life, as explained in these articles, this particular human life we have now becomes very meaningful.

Sometimes when people hear about future lives and how important it is to work for their happiness, they assume that this one short life is not important, that happiness must be deferred. But this is not true – this life becomes immensely important because we understand that it is a crucial part of this journey, in which we can prepare for the entire journey ahead. If we want to be happy in the future, we need to learn to be happy now. And we currently have all the conditions we need for spiritual practice. We have all obstacles out of our way. If we want to purify, liberate our mind, and so on, we can do so as much as we want with this precious human life. This is not the case with everyone — not everyone has this opportunity that we have right now. These conditions are very temporary, but at the moment we have them.

Our sights expand. If you have spent your life living in a castle, even a big one, and have never been outside, and one dawn you go up to the keep and peek your head over the parapets, you may think, “I never knew! There is a vast world out there!” I think that these meditations on the nature and function of the mind, on death and impermanence, on rebirth, on the cycle of consciousness, the cycle of life — these meditations are the dawning of spiritual awareness.

Geshe Kelsang, my Spiritual Guide, has said that we grow when we develop these understandings. We grow from what is called a “small initial scope being” to a “special initial scope being”. This means that our “being”, or who we are, has grown as our understanding and capacity has increased.

you grow to heavenTo explain a little … within Transform Your Life, for example, is contained all the stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim for short), the whole journey to enlightenment with all its increasing scopes of growing capacity. The first scope is called “initial scope”. Within initial scope are small initial scope and special initial scope. Small initial scope is where we’re at before we start getting interested in the continuum of consciousness, who we are, where we’re going, where we came from — we’re just interested in the things of this life. That’s who we are, that’s what we want, that’s all we are coping with.

Then, through understanding these teachings of Buddha, we grow from a small initial scope being to a special initial scope being, which means we have become someone who is actually interested in spiritual awareness and spiritual development. We are no long just stuck inside the castle, but looking over the parapets and seeing the vast wonder of the continuum of mind and its possibilities. Our mind is opening. Our awareness is expanding and we start getting interested in spiritual training.

Right now everything depends upon our mind, whether we are sad, happy, non-deluded, deluded, etc. Tomorrow everything is still going to depend upon our mind; next week it’s the same story. In ten years’ time our life is going to entirely depend upon our mind, just as it does today. When we die our life is still going to depend upon our mind. In the intermediate state, in our next life, everything is still going to be created by our mind and dependent upon our mind. Now if that’s the case, small problem filling mindif our mind is of such profound importance, is in fact the creator of everything, indeed it is our life, then it makes a lot of sense to realize its full potential through spiritual practice.

If we think that our mind is just our body, if we never explore these things and never meditate on them and never come to understand them, then there does not seem to be a huge incentive to practice a spiritual path. Then we’re just a lump of lard. If it’s just the things of this life that are important to us, then we sell ourselves incredibly short.

Sixth and final installment is here.

What is the point of training the brain!? ~ rebirth part 4

My grandfather lived to 100. He was a spiritual person, and he probably could have lived to 110 as he was immensely fit, but unfortunately he was run over by a car. During his last 6 weeks, spent in hospital, he went through a lot of stuff, going in and out of pain, in and out of lucidity, and having some moments of great insight. One day he said to my brother:

“In the light of eternity I can see very clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.”

then whatWhen we get to the end of our life, it is like last night’s dream upon awakening — however long it felt at the time, it’s barely a moment. There is no difference between a dream of long duration and one of short duration, once it’s finished. So whether we live a long life or a short life, it’s still insubstantial, it’s not who we really are. It’s just who we think we are at the moment. In fact, if we’re imputing ourselves on the body of this life, the people of this life, the jobs of this life, the money of this life, the surroundings of this life, and so on, then we are not relating to ourselves as who we really are.

As mentioned in previous articles on rebirth, we are actually a traveler who has come from countless previous lives and is going to countless future lives. That sense of being a continuum of awareness is immensely mind expanding. If we don’t have it, we limit our self to superficial, fleeting appearances.

It is like getting in a train carriage and putting up the curtains, marrying the person in the next seat, settling down forever, complaining about the neighbors in the next row. When we get to the end of the line and the conductor says, “All disembark!”, we panic, “Oh no, you can’t make me get off! This is who I am, this is me and my friends on this train. This is my real world. This is where I belong.” But it’s not. train tracks

We do ourselves a great disservice because of identifying so strongly with the things of this life. We are upset when things don’t go our way. Instead of getting any perspective on them, we grasp at everything as being very important; and also we do not set our sights on spiritual training because in fact we’re not identifying ourselves as spiritual beings. To become interested in our spiritual nature entails understanding the nature of consciousness. I don’t think there is any other way around it. If we understand the nature, function, and continuum, or cycle, of consciousness, and if we know that this body will eventually perish, we know that our mind will continue past the duration of this body.  From that we’ll conclude that it is extremely important that we take care of purifying and training it so that we experience happiness and freedom not just now but forever.

If we get interested in Buddhism, we find that we can train to overcome our anger, for example, and our attachment, our addictions. We can overcome our fear, we can even uproot our ignorance. During this life we can purify our mind of all its negative actions and pathways to suffering. We can develop universal love and compassion. We can develop bliss and omniscient wisdom. Perhaps we hear these things and we think, “What a great idea!”, but then at the same time, if we’re going to be dead in a few hundred months, and if our mind is the brain, then at that point the candle is going out. If that’s what we think, that the mind is finite, then what’s the point really of training it? Of course it will make us happier and so on, and increase our gray matter, but what is the real point? There’s not much point really, is there? If our mind is just a piece of shriveling soft tissue headed for annihilation, we might as well sit this one out. Just wait for it to pass. Wait for extinction.

Of course that’s not what happens. The whole point is that the mind and the body are not the same.

I have a story about my grandmother too. When I was younger and became interested in Buddhism, doing jobs in Buddhist centers and so on, I got paid a pittance. (Working for Buddhist centers is not a career move by the way ;-)) And my grandmother noticed this and thought, basically, that I wasn’t taking enough care of the things of this life. She would say, “You’re not working hard enough to make money! What about your pension? What’s going to happen when you get to my age and you’ve no money?” One Christmas party she also cornered a good family friend of mine, Pagpa, a Buddhist monk, and spent over an hour telling him the same things …

samsara attachment to homeThese were valid points; it is not like what she was saying didn’t have any reality. However, she felt that everything was wrapped up just with who I was in this life and that I was therefore badly letting myself down. And I was trying to explain to her that, regardless of what happens when I retire, my death and future lives may come sooner and I needed to prepare for those.

As my grandmother got old, on one of my visits to see her at her house in the south of England she said, “You know, as I am heading now towards my death and looking back on my life, all these things, such as having money, feel hollow to me. They don’t feel like who I am.” And we talked about this and she asked me, “What can I do? What does Buddhism say about this? What will happen when I die and afterwards?” I showed her the book, Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, which I had on me. She read the title out loud and then said, sadly, “It is too late now to make that blissful journey. My life is almost over.” It was very poignant, actually, the way she said it. But anyway I tried to encourage her; I said it is never too late to get interested in spiritual life. Which I think is true, as long as we do get interested when we hear about it.

Later on, my grandmother suffered from dementia and needed full-time care. From having a big house with lots of books, she went down to having whatever could fit in one small room in a nursing home. When I visited her there, I success 1saw that on her book shelf she had just two books. One of them was Transform Your Life.

Many people do have this kind of experience as they get older. As they get close to death they don’t really know who they are anymore. This is because all the things that were propping them up, everything they thought they were, is no longer working. The career is over, they’re retired, the children are grown, health, energy, and looks are failing, and it is clear now that money can’t buy happiness All those measures of who we are and what constitutes wellbeing or success in life are becoming increasingly hollow. But in fact they’re always hollow. It’s just that sometimes as we get older it becomes more evident.

Part 5 is here.

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

What (or who) do we see when we look at strangers? Do we mainly see their bodies? Their minds, after all, are formless and therefore invisible. Are we evaluating them based mainly on their bodies and on what we imagine must be their external lifestyle and background (e.g. jobs, family, income, possessions, politics, sexuality, choice of entertainment) as opposed to their vast, indeed infinite, spiritual potential?!

In London last summer a friend and I stopped for a pizza in London’s Gloucester Road and did some people watching, all the fashionistas wandering around looking cool, or not, as the case may be. Back in the sweltering NY summer, likewise, I caught myself looking at the sharply dressed men and the women in pretty summer dresses, as well as many older and more shambling people (whom younger people assume have let themselves go); and having superficial, lazy and rather useless discriminations about them. And on a beach not too long ago, I found myself making up stories about all the families I was seeing around me, who was who and what was what, and these stories were also rather one-dimensional or fixed – at least they didn’t take into account the huge variety of thoughts, experiences, relationships and potentials that each of them has been experiencing since beginningless time. I think I sometimes do the same thing in airports! The exceptions are when I’m not being lazy and I’m remembering Dharma, when the world feels very vast and interconnected.*

“The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn’t indicate or promise, and which the other kind couldn’t detect.” ~ Mark Twain

It struck me that if we’re (I’m) not careful it is very easy to mindlessly judge everyone by various superficial criteria. “Oh he’s gorgeous! Oh, she could really do with a haircut!” etc. We impute people on their body, their form aggregate, and this is terribly restrictive. People are not their bodies. They have bodies, but they also have minds, and frankly their minds are infinitely more interesting. In fact, their minds are as vast as space, and have the potential for unbelievable wisdom, compassion, love and bliss.

One-day experiment

Just try this experiment with me for one day. Ignore people’s bodies and think about their minds. Impute or label people not on their fleshy bodies with their limited shelf life but instead on their boundless formless minds, and particularly on the potential their minds have to do anything at all, including attaining full enlightenment and becoming omniscient Buddhas. Please let me know in the comments if it makes a difference and, if so, what…

*If I’m remembering Dharma quickly, my thoughts watching a stranger in a waiting room or elsewhere may go something like this: I’ve had every conceivable relationship with them since beginningless time; they’ve even been my kind mother and dependent child; they want to be happy just as much as I do; their happiness is more important because they are other; so I’ll put myself in their shoes; now I want them to be very happy and free; they’re not; so I better attain enlightenment quickly for their sake. I find this potted Lamrim, or variation on that theme, works every time on humans and animals, and makes waiting or sitting around vastly more productive and blissful.

Your turn: what do you see when you look at a stranger?

Buddha & the Brain

(This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!)

In May 2001, Newsweek ran the headline ‘God & the Brain’. The magazine featured a series of articles on the new ‘neurotheologists’ who are attempting to chart the connections between mystical experience and brain patterns, hoping to answer the ‘question of consciousness’.

One of the articles began:

“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The neurologist — who was spending a sabbatical year in England — saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about a Buddhist meditation retreat he was headed toward.

And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things ‘as they really are’, he recalls. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ disappeared. ‘Time was not present,’ he says. ‘I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death, insinuations of self-hood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.’”

Sharon Begley’s article went on to state that scientists are beginning to use brain imaging to pinpoint the circuits within the brain that are active when people meditate or enter periods of deep prayer. Current scientific thinking has us experiencing a sense of ‘cosmic unity’ when the parietal lobes quiet down, manifesting ‘spiritual emotions… of joy and awe’ within our middle temporal lobe, and having our intense periods of concentration, such as in meditation, linked to our frontal lobes.

Notwithstanding the above, Buddha drew a clear distinction between our body and our mind. Although the two are related, he said, they are not the same thing. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is physical, whereas the mind is formless and functions to know objects. In fact, Buddha explained how our deepest levels of consciousness do not depend upon the body at all.

Here we can consider some words from Geshe Kelsang’s book Transform Your Life – A Blissful Journey, published in August 2001. In the chapter What is the Mind? he writes:

Some people think that the mind is the brain or some other part or function of the body, but this is incorrect. The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.

In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects. Thus, it is impossible for our body to go to the moon without traveling in a spaceship, but our mind can reach the moon in an instant just by thinking about it. Knowing and perceiving objects is a function that is unique to the mind. Although we say `I know such and such’, in reality it is our mind that knows. We know things only by using our mind.

I reckon we all know from our own common-sense experience of our own mind that mind and body are not the same. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes and think about your mom. Ask yourself: “What does this thought feel like? What is it? Where is it? Does it feel like a chemical or neural impulse? Or the side-effect of heightened lobe activity? Etc.”

When I do this, consciousness of my mother (let alone any non-dual experience of anything transcendent such as the illusory nature of all phenomena or the experience of blessings) does not feel like anything physical at all. Thought exists in a different dimension altogether — the formless dimension beyond the physical, without shape, color, spatial boundaries, tactile properties. Invisible, but the creator of reality. Immaterial, but mattering a great deal.

Moreover, when we refer to ‘my body’, we do not feel as if we are talking about ‘my mind’, and vice versa, which clearly indicates that we know first-hand that they are not the same. We may have the figure of speech “My brain hurts”, but we also talk about our mind, feelings and experiences all the time, and I would argue that when we do we are not even casting a sideways glance at our brain. If you’re feeling depressed, do you have the notion “My brain is depressed”? If you really want something, does it feel like “My brain really wants that!”?

I personally think that we are not born with a belief that our mind is our brain. I think it is a so-called “intellectually-formed delusion” that we acquire due to incorrect reasoning and/or other people telling us. Often we don’t question this conventional wisdom and assume smart people know what they are talking about when they say the mind is the brain, even though it provides far more questions than answers.

I never thought about it much until one day, as a 14-year-old, I was dancing and suddenly felt a wave of bliss at my heart. I thought to myself: “This feeling is not in my brain! It is so much bigger than that. It is not physical!” And that for some reason got me thinking about an article I had read about a mother who had lost her child, and it seemed to me impossible that all that grief could be contained in a lump of grey matter in her head. Also, life just isn’t that meaningless – why do we worry about anything if all that is doing the worrying is a sponge-like organ or a bunch of chemicals? Who cares what happens to us or anyone else if it is only happening to a blob of meat in our skull? Anyway, I had practical thoughts like this before I met Buddhism, so when later I was introduced to Buddha’s experiential teachings on the mind it was a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-))

In struggling to answer the ‘question of consciousness’ and how the mind relates to the body — which arose when the materialist view of Descartes and his followers took hold of Western philosophy — rather than simply accepting that mind and body are different natures and taking it from there, scientists have tried to answer the question by reducing consciousness to the purely physical. We are blinded by science: this reductionism obscures our own direct experience, based on the false premise that mind and body cannot be different natures. We are cheated out of an understanding of the formless continuum of our mind, with dire ramifications for our spiritual beliefs such as life after death, the existence of enlightened beings, and the possibility of infinite mental and spiritual development and bliss.

There is not and never will be a magical chemical concoction or brain operation that will lead living beings to full spiritual awakening. Finding a permanent way to quieten our parietal lobes is no guarantee of ‘cosmic unity’! And even if these things were possible, they would be pointless.

Geshe Kelsang's hands in meditation

Meditators, on the other hand, are scientists of the mind who spend their lives investigating the nature of consciousness from direct experience (something that can be done only by using mental awareness, not crude physical instruments) — and they have clearly understood that the mind is not anything physical. There may be some relationship between certain types of mental awareness and the brain, as there is between sense consciousness and our sense faculties (the eyeball, nose, etc); but the fact that two things have a relationship proves that they are two different things, not the same thing e.g. a driver affects his car, but is not the same as the car.

People tend to put their hands to their hearts, not their heads, to indicate deep feelings of love there. When we meditate deeply, our consciousness feels seated at our heart. In his Tantric teachings, Buddha explained that our mind is related to subtle inner energy winds that can be said to have locations within the body — we have conceptual thoughts related to the winds in our crown chakra (perhaps why we scratch our head when we’re confused!). Our minds of attachment are related to winds in our navel chakra (hence those butterflies!) We have love and wisdom related to winds in our heart chakra, which is also the seat of our deepest level of mind. Stories abound in Buddhism of great meditators, such as Geshe Kelsang’s Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, who remained warm and upright for days after their brain was dead, meditating on the clear light of bliss at their heart. You can find out more about all this in the Tantric books.

(Finally, there are stories of people who live with a tiny fraction of normal brain matter but still have an IQ of 100 or more. You can Google it.)

To gain experience of the nature and function of your own mind, you can try out this meditation: How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind.

Do you think it matters whether or not Westerners are taught that the mind is the brain? Have you had any experiences that convince you that it is not (or that it is!)? I look forward to your comments.