The year of living confidently

changing-sufferingIf we want 2019 to be better than 2018, we might want to cultivate some more self-confidence. I was thinking about how we cannot afford to become heavy-hearted or overwhelmed with all the things that will inevitably go wrong publicly and privately this year, or we will be of little use to anyone. The laziness of discouragement will kick in, wherein we will feel too dejected to help ourselves and everyone else bring an end to suffering and its causes. It is no fun to be like a dying snake, as in Shantideva’s illustration in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

If a snake lies dying on the ground,
Crows will act like brave eagles and attack it.
In the same way, if my self-confidence is weak,
Even the slightest adversity will be able to harm me.

According to Buddhism, there are four areas in which we need to cultivate self-confidence, and I thought it might be really helpful to set ourselves up with these for the new year. These will give us both courage and energy, regardless of what the day’s headlines are screaming.

Some things will go right in 2019, too, and, as you’ll see, we may need these special types of self-confidence then as well to stop ourselves getting side-tracked from our mission to save the world 😉

Tara’s story

But first I want to tell Tara’s story, as I said I would in this last article. This is because she is a perfect embodiment of self-confidence and fearlessness, and we could do a lot worse than (1) having her on our side and (2) learning to emulate her. It’s helpful to ask, “What would Tara tara-2do?” when we notice ourselves getting forlorn, desperate, or panic-stricken.

Whether you take the following account of where Tara came from as an allegory or a true story, I don’t think it really matters, for either way it shows how cool and courageous she is. In the Sutra of Praises to the Twenty-one Taras, Buddha Shakyamuni said:

Homage to Tara, the Swift One, the Heroine,
Whose eyes are like a flash of lightning,
Who arose from the opening of a lotus,
Born from the tears of the Protector of the Three Worlds.

Aeons and aeons ago, in another world system, Buddha Avalokiteshvara, who had already liberated countless living beings from suffering, thought he’d check, “How many are left?” Seeing that there were still a countless number, he was so moved that he began to cry.

The Buddha of Compassion’s tears were so great that they formed a pool.

And in response, swift as the wind, as a manifestation of the wind element of all the Buddhas, Tara arose from a lotus on the pool and said to him these words:

Don’t cry. I will help you. I will permanently liberate all remaining living beings from their suffering.

Tara is therefore compassion in action, action Buddha, superwoman. She doesn’t mess about and she never backs down. Gentle, ferocious, whatever it takes … she will do it to liberate living beings. An incredibly popular, iconic Buddha in India and in Tibet, and hopefully now increasingly amongst us in the modern world, there are many stories of people calling out to her at moments of danger, fear, and duress and immediately receiving her help.

And if we want to assist all the Buddhas, including our compassionate Spiritual Guide, in their mission to liberate everyone on this planet and elsewhere from their pain, we need to aim at Tara’s degree of self-assurance.

What is pride?

So, back to the four types of self-confidence. Judging by the number of self-help books on developing self-confidence, a lot of people like this topic – probably because our self-grasping and self-cherishing make us feel so insecure all the time.

In other teachings, Geshe Kelsang refers to these types of self-confidence taught by Shantideva as “non-deluded pride.” In general, pride is deluded. Our mind is “puffed up” with an exaggerated sense of our own importance, as Geshe-la explains in the book How to Understand the Mind.

Pride refers to an inflated sense of self for slight reasons. For example, a new haircut. New shoes. Or you just got a promotion or a hot girlfriend or something like that. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. These things are never a reason to think that we’re better or superior to others, that we are somehow more special. But due to our ridiculous feelings of self-doubt, we’re constantly longing to feel special. Our self-cherishing makes us long to be affirmed in some way, any way. Yesterday a close friend I haven’t seen in a while said to me, as if he pridemeant it, “You’re looking really great!” and although I brushed it off modestly on the outside, inside I was like, “Yeah, you’re right, thank you.” We swell up like a balloon.

Or maybe someone tells us excitedly of a beautiful place they visited and we reply, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve been there.” Subtext is that we discovered it, we got there first, it is pervaded by our ego blessings, they should count themselves lucky to be part of that. According to our self-grasping and our self-cherishing, the world basically revolves around us; and deluded pride is just an inflation of those ego minds. The self held up by our self-grasping and self-cherishing doesn’t exist, so we need pride to bolster it! Perhaps this is why deluded pride is one of the six root delusions, meaning it is pretty common, even if we hate ourselves. Perhaps especially if we hate ourselves.

Ego trips (up)

Self-confidence is not the same as self-importance, it is quite the opposite. If we are caught up with grasping at inherently existent self and inherently existent others — which leads to cherishing our important self and neglecting the importance of others — we find ourselves constantly jockeying for position. This undermines our self-confidence as we are always comparing and contrasting ourselves with others instead of just getting mountain-peakson un-self-consciously with the job of improving ourselves and helping everyone else. We feel superior, or we feel inferior, or we feel competitive. We have to focus on our own good qualities and others’ faults just to stay on top. We have to praise ourselves and criticize others, whether out loud or internally, just to feel good about ourselves. It’s exhausting.

Anyway, that’s deluded pride. There are seven types as a matter of fact, and you can check these out in How to Understand the Mind – they have names like “pride in identity” and “pretentious pride”, and the descriptions are embarassing. This pride stops us improving. And pride comes before a fall, as they say. It makes us vulnerable and sets us up for suffering because it’s only a matter of time before we’re not being acknowledged in the way we want to be acknowledged, or people are ignoring us, or suddenly there’s a biting comment, and whoooosh, all the wind goes out of the balloon, just like that.

Feeling full of ourselves based on external stuff that doesn’t last is highly suspect – youth and good looks, for example, are neither a stable nor genuine basis for feeling cool. (Doesn’t mean we’re not appreciative to be young and good-looking, but we don’t need to be all conceited about it.) Pride also leads to disrespect and gets in the way of empathizing with others. On the subject of ordinary coolness:

For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder. ~ John Lennon

Buddha Vajrayogini often appears as an old hag to help her followers realize that youth and looks aren’t everything, aren’t much in fact. And of course there is Tara, who is totally cool, as is Geshe Kelsang, not because he is young or has movie star looks but because he is fully in control of his mind. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la says:

At present we might be beautiful, fit, intelligent, and successful, but we have no power to remain like this. Eventually, without any choice, we will have to become old, decrepit, impoverished, disabled or senile. If we compare ourselves to realized beings who have perfect freedom and whose happiness cannot be destroyed by external conditions, we will soon lose our pride.

Non-deluded pride is completely different to deluded pride. Non-deluded pride is also a strong sense of self, but this self is not the inherently existent self, which doesn’t in fact exist, but a self that is identified with the truth, or imputed on something that does exist. These are the four types of non-deluded pride, or self-confidence:

  1. Pride with respect to our potential.
  2. Pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions.
  3. Pride in our actions.
  4. Divine pride, taught in Buddha’s Tantric teachings.

I’m out of space, so can come back to these in the next article.

Meantime, over to you. Comments very welcome! (To leave a comment, by the way, just scroll down to the bottom of this page.)

Related articles

Living fearlessly  

Saying bye bye to the painful, limited self

In praise of integrity 

Prostrating to the Buddha of Compassion

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is coming up on April 15, and I, along with a lot of Kadampa Buddhists in places around the world, tend to celebrate it with two days of Drop of Essential Nectar, sometimes known as Nyung Nä (or Nyungnay). This is a purification, prostration, and fasting retreat in conjunction with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

It’s the only time of the year that we seem to engage in some physical asceticism — for two days, starting at dawn, we observe the eight Mahayana precepts, which include not eating after lunch and, for those who do the full fast, not eating or drinking at all on the second day. The hunger pangs are helpful for reminding us about the gazillions of people who don’t get enough to eat or drink on any day, ever.

1000-armed Avalokiteshvara
1000-armed Avalokiteshvara

I do like Nyungnay, with its emphasis on keeping compassion and bodhichitta in our heart all day long, and the transcendent power of Avalokiteshvara, his thousand arms reaching out to everyone without exception. Also, I find prostrations fun. I do, I’m not making that up! So I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been doing today in case you are under the impression that prostrations are just hard work. (If you haven’t read pages 116 onward in the book Great Treasury of Merit, by the way, there is a beautiful explanation of prostrations in there.)

Compassion and the lower realms

Whenever I am developing compassion and/or doing prostrations, I get myself out of the way first by remembering that the self I cherish doesn’t even exist. I am not my body, and I am not my mind — but take these away and I disappear (thankfully). That means I am free to lay down my boring burden of self-fixation and move into the vast expanse of everyone else.

Today during precepts I was meditating on the lower realms. I personally cannot tolerate even the slightest headache without popping two Advil, and am currently preoccupied with trying to navigate the bureaucracy of Obamacare before the looming deadline of April 15th as I fear any manner of human illnesses and accidents might empty out my bank account if I do not. However, human sufferings like these are a walk in the park compared with the unbearable sufferings of people in the hell realms. I read in some Lojong (mind-training) text recently that being stabbed 30 times in the hand with a spear does not even compare with a minute of suffering experienced by those in the black-line hell.

I know I don’t spend enough time thinking about people who have ended up in the hell realms, which is a shame because, when I do, it instantly gets everything into perspective. All rebirths are impermanent, and the realms of hell are nightmarish appearances to mind that have no more existence from their own side than this current life. But, and it is a big but, once someone lands up in hell, it takes an unfathomably long time to get out. The countless karmic appearances from lifetimes of negative actions don’t disappear overnight, and there is no refuge or chance to purify them; so it is like an interminable nightmare from which we cannot wake up.Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha

Meantime, people in the hungry ghost realm are perpetually hungry, thirsty, sad, and exhausted. Moreover, we know close up and personal what a bad time animals have from the struggles and powerlessness of the thousands we can see around us, and there are tragically far more animals in their own realm.

What “prostration” means

The Tibetan word for prostrations is “chag tsel” – ‘chag’ means sweeping away delusions, negative karma, and obstructions, and ‘tsel” means requesting all good qualities. I don’t think prostrations work if we are holding ourselves as unworthy or at a distance from enlightened beings – they work best when our faith recognizes our own Buddha nature clear light, and connects to the holy beings’ clear light Dharmakaya, knowing we will become just like them.

The sky is the limit

When prostrating, we don’t need to be small-minded, thinking that it is just me in one meaty body making one feeble little distracted prostration onto the carpet (oooh, look at that dust! … at least I’m getting some exercise …) in front of some image of Buddha. No, there is a great deal more going on than that! The sky is the limit! The higher sky of the Dharmakaya, that is.

First thing we are encouraged to do, along with our mind of faith and respect, is to think that from every pore of our body we manifest another body, which in turn manifests countless more, until the whole universe is filled with our bodies all making prostrations. Already some mind-expansion is going on and you’re going to have more fun. It is inspiring to think that you are already in a very pure space, as you are in the company of all enlightened beings, and you are prostrating to all of them.

Avalokiteshvara by Graham Dyer
Buddha Avalokiteshvara painted by Graham Dyer

I like to think that I am also in the company of everyone in all six realms, and that they are all prostrating along with me – and it can be helpful to start by focusing on specific people in my life who are currently experiencing suffering, believing they are next to me prostrating. For example, today I thought a lot about an old university friend and Buddhist artist Graham Dyer, who was just saying, “Those treacle tarts look nice” to his best friend in Grange bakery last Thursday when he dropped to the floor and died. (Please pray for him and his wife and two sons).

I also thought about the kittens I am fostering, who are going to have to go back into the smelly crowded shelter, which they will not like at all, to wait for a home. They are trapped in their bodies and environments — they cannot even open the door — and are always at the mercy of humans being nice to them. So I imagine them prostrating along with me, in human form or even in the aspect of a Buddha, purifying all their negativity and accumulating vast good karma and blessings, also emanating bodies from every pore of their bodies for maximum effect.

These human beings and animals are in turn are surrounded by all the other human beings and animals in the universe, also prostrating. And so on. This takes the same amount of time as making one corporeal prostration on the carpet, but the outcome in terms of good karma and purification is altogether more extraordinary.

Some ideas to try out

Couple of other things I like to do … I have my mother of this life to my left, my father to my right, those for whom I have attachment behind me, and those whom I may be having trouble with in front of me. They are surrounded by all other living beings. I prostrate with different requests, eg, may I and all these living beings be free from attachment, or anger, or ignorance. I find this a very powerful way to get rid of whatever my own current stubborn delusions may be, getting unstuck.

Or may we all be free from sickness and famine. Or from the lower realms. Or from war. Etc. Sometimes I focus on specific individuals who are suffering, sometimes groups, sometimes everyone. We can request whatever we want because Guru Avalokiteshvara pervades all worlds and beings and can fulfill these wishes.

If I want to emphasize completion stage, I recognize that me and all living beings are mere imputations—the selves we normally see do not exist. And we are all prostrating with the wish to overcome all hallucinations, all ordinary conceptions and mistaken appearances, and attain meaning clear light and enlightenment. The prostration mudra, putting our fingers and thumbs together, holding a jewel, symbolizes the gathering of the 10 winds into the central channel so that we manifest the clear light, symbolized by the jewel.

Do you have any other things you like to do? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Prostrating all the way home

I find it blissful to feel as though I am prostrating directly into my Spiritual Guide’s actual heart, which is his clear light Truth Body or Dharmakaya. This feels like going home, finally going home – a profound relief. Everything is completely purified and transformed, and when I arise from the prostration I can do so as an emanation of my Spiritual Guide, inseparable from the Dharmakaya, to help others. I also imagine that everyone is doing the same as they prostrate with me, gathering into the clear light and arising completely purified and blissful.Buddha and lake

The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye said (and I’m sure it could apply to O People of Denver, Ulverston, Cape Town, etc too):

O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go. To repay his kindness, offer your faith. ~ Great Treasury of Merit p. 116

Geshe Kelsang comments on this:

If we wish for a human rebirth our Spiritual Guide will lead us there, if we wish for liberation he will lead us there, if we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land he will lead us there, and if we wish to attain enlightenment he will lead us there.

To my mind, this means my Spiritual Guide is here to take me home, where I belong, as I don’t feel I really belong in samsara, and nor does anyone else. And with this faith, I can prostrate my way home.Mount Kailash

I have always been inspired for some reason by people who prostrate all the way up Mount Kailash and/or around Lake Manasarova, believing these mountains and lakes to be completely pure, part of the mandala, the home of enlightened beings. I’m quite sure that if I actually had to do it, my enthusiasm would wane, as it is not exactly carpeted and there are no hotels en route; but, still, I like the idea, and can emulate it in the comfort of my room. It is a pilgrimage — prostrating all the way to your actual home, the heart of the Buddhas, the heart of the mandala.

Here is an article for Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! May you all swiftly realize your full potential and become enlightened too.