How to broaden your horizons while stuck inside

10 mins read.

A news alert just popped up on this screen to say “Need a vacation!? Here are 8 gorgeously located movies to watch on Netflix.” And if we watch them, our mind will go to those places, albeit leaving our physical body on the sofa munching homemade popcorn.

Carrying directly on from this article, Living in a virtual world.

mirror worldIt seems like our mind can go anywhere, so let’s go somewhere uplifting. If I can go to the Caribbean or London from home, why can I not also visit the Pure Land from home? As I explain a bit in this article:

Just as our ordinary mind can go to the moon just by thinking about it, so our un-ordinary mind Vajrayogini can go to the Pure Land just by thinking about it.

Buddha Maitreya said in Ornament for Clear Realization that because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure; and when they purify their minds, they will inhabit Pure Lands. Even if I dream I am in a Pure Land, it is no different from being there, even if for just a little while.

Once we get rid of all the obstructions from our mind, our body will also go where our mind goes because for a Buddha their body and mind are the same nature, not different like ours. One way to understand this is to think of a dream – if my dream mind dreams that I am swimming in an ocean, my dream body is also swimming in an ocean.

Unfettered

Not only is our mind not in any way restricted by physical objects or time, but it has this amazing potential for deep bliss, for love encompassing all living beings, for wisdom that sees all objects of knowledge fully and simultaneously, for being everywhere all at once. It is because we have this formless mind, which is not in any way fixed, that we have the potential for enlightenment, our so-called Buddha seed. You have this. dark clouds

When we attain enlightenment, our mind is universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — everyone is appearing to our mind and in our mind, like reflections in an unobstructed  mirror. Not separated from them by the illusion of dualistic appearances and conceptions, we can now help everyone every day.

A mirror with two cloths

Buddha gave his 84,000 teachings precisely because we have this potential – if we didn’t, there’d be literally no point in him explaining how to attain liberation and enlightenment.

Try wrapping your mind around this for a moment:

In Ornament for Clear Realization, Buddha Maitreya gives three reasons why Buddha’s mind knows all phenomena directly and simultaneously: (1) Buddhas directly realize the two truths of all phenomena because they have completed meditation on the two truths being one entity; (2) Buddhas have complete knowledge of all phenomena being of one taste in the state of emptiness; and (3) a Buddha’s mind is completely free from the two obstructions. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 379

Here is a hopefully helpful analogy to illustrate at least that third point. We can think of our mind as like a mirror that is capable of reflecting (or if you like, holding) every single object in the universe.

Right now, however, it is covered with two cloths – a thin veil just on top of it and a thick cloth on top of that.

mirror obstructedFrom our perspective we don’t know we are a mirror because all we see is darkness and confusion. We may get glimmers of light, but generally we blink out at a world narrowed by obscurations and, having no idea that we’re doing it, grasp onto this shrunken world as if it really existed. Like William Blake says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

Our deepest level of awareness, or root mind, can potentially be everywhere and love everyone all the time. However, we are normally confined to our small selfish ego capsules feeling ordinary, fixed, and limited. This self-grasping and our other delusions are like a thick cloth obscuring our vision and rendering us unaware of how extraordinary we can be. Through spiritual training we learn about these delusions — how they function, how they harm us, where they come from, and how to remove them both temporarily and ultimately.

One conclusion we can draw from this, as Geshe Kelsang teaches in How to Transform Your Life, is how it is possible to maintain kindness and respect for everyone (including ourselves) despite our delusions:

Just as we distinguish between a person and his or her ­delusions, so we should also remember that the delusions are only temporary, adventitious characteristics of that person’s mind and not its real nature. Delusions are distorted conceptual thoughts that arise within the mind, like waves on the ocean—just as it is possible for waves to die down without the ocean disappearing, so it is possible for our delusions to end without our mental continuum ceasing. It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being.

When we remove the thick cloth of our delusions permanently through the wisdom realizing the true nature of things, already there is light and happiness and freedom shining through. However, our mind is not free from all obstructions yet – we are still like the mirror with a thin veil over it.

mirror unobstructed 2We are liberated from our own suffering once we remove the thick cloth of our delusion-obstructions, but we still need to do some more spiritual practice to remove the veil of obstructions to omniscience, which we do on the so-called “three pure grounds”. These cause things to appear to us as somewhat existing outside the mind, the so-called “mistaken appearance of true existence;” even though we no longer believe or buy into this. We know we’re dreaming now, we have control. Our own mind is pure and free, but with this dualistic appearance we are not able to  be everywhere all the time helping everyone.

A Bodhisattva on the eighth ground has abandoned all delusions and their seeds, but he still has the imprints of delusions in his mental continuum, rather as wet sand will retain a footprint even after the foot has moved on. These imprints of the delusions are obstructions to omniscience … Imprints of delusions are effects of delusions, but not causes of delusion. They are however, causes of mistaken appearance. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 431

On the final stage of our spiritual journey, wisdom pulls away the veil of mistaken appearance and reveals a Buddha’s omniscient mind, like a mirror that can reflect everything directly and simultaneously.

Only Buddhas are free from the imprints of delusions and the mistaken appearance of true existence to which they give rise.

A time of reckoning

Why am I telling you all this? Because when I look out of the window — as “stay at home” is morphing into “safe at home” here in Colorado — I can see that it is Spring; and Spring is all about new beginnings. We can become who we want to become, realize our fullest and most blissful potential. And this is a good time to do it, rather than sitting around feeling bored and powerless and sad. We have been projecting the causes of our pain outwards since beginningless time and look where that has gotten us. Now we could learn to do something different and really get rid of this pain once and for all.

quote about wisdomThis is a time of reckoning. I read a moving article the other day from a mother, here are some extracts:

The other night (or last night, or last month) I was putting my daughter to bed and she started to cry. “What’s wrong, baby?” I asked, and I meant it…. “What is all this even for?” she wailed. She didn’t mean the quarantine: “All of this, why are we even here? Why are we even alive?” I tried to put together a soothing platitude …

To her credit, she was having none of it. “I hate this, I hate everything that’s ever going to happen to me. Help me, Mama, please, please help me.” …..

Absent the scaffolding of the world as we know it, I’ve got nothing to say. So I did the only thing I could. I held her, and rocked her, and hoped my silence helped.

During this confusing global pandemic, instead of feeling trapped we can really think about who we want to be and what we want out of this life – which will depend on what we think we can get out of it. Even when we brave our first tentative steps out of our houses, we’ll be finding that there are fewer distractions from all those full gatherings, a lot of our entertainments will have dried up, external life is basically looking like it is going to be pretty tedious and full of masks and endless hand-washing yet for a while. But instead of feeling hemmed in and frustrated and anxious, “hating everything that is ever going to happen to me”, maybe we can use Buddha’s teachings to find agency and become free instead.

My daughter is saying out loud the questions that everyday life helps us forget. This quarantine feels like a time of reckoning, forcing us to look at ourselves as we really are. Maybe whatever world we build after this is over will be more honest about that reality.

Like that young seeker, we can take stock: Who am I? Where on earth (or elsewhere) did I come from? Where am I going? Who do I want to be? Who can I be? What do I want out of this life? What kind of world do I want to live in? How can I find lasting happiness and freedom? And how can I be part of creating that for others too?

These are important questions. Do I want to go back to the same life and world I had in the “old days” or do I want something better? Is that old life even sustainable? Where and who do I want to be in five years’ time, for example? If we just go back to doing the same old things, we won’t change; and if we don’t change, our world won’t change.

At the very least, this pandemic has shown us that it doesn’t work to ignore and neglect others given that we are all caught up in the same web of mutual dependence. The heroes these days, the people we are applauding at 8:00 pm, are the healthcare and other essential workers – essential to our lives and well-being, that is — rather than the glitzy millionaires. Who knows, perhaps this is long overdue.

I suspect this is not our last pandemic. Why would it be? And even without pandemics there is plenty of other pain in our world, not least the swarms of locusts in East Africa causing hardship and starvation to millions of human beings while barely making the news, and the trapped animals who are being chillingly “depopulated” in their millions due to the interruptions in the human food supply chains. Meanwhile all over the world people are still thinking to solve their problems using angry violence or selfish greed, simply setting themselves up for more.

Sherma in lockdownBuddha’s point is that the suffering will never end on its own or by us just by dealing with external causes, which is at best putting on a band-aid. This world, our whole world, is clearly suffering a whole lot of problems right now; and we can’t ignore it so much now that it is reaching everyone’s doorstep. When we have delusions and do negative actions we have no choice but to inhabit a world of suffering – sooner or later our karma bounces back on us. This world is a reflection of our mind and our karma. If we don’t change these, our experiences won’t change, and our world will just stay impure, unhealthy, and painful. In fact, it will get worse.

Be the change

We follow the crowd. We tend to follow what everyone else is up to. Right now we don’t really know what everyone is up to as we are not seeing them – so maybe we can think more independently? Or maybe not, I don’t know.

We are often waiting for other people to change – for example for the politicians to start behaving. Good luck with that. Vote for who you need to, but basically waiting for others to change is massively demoralizing because we have no control over them nor guarantees their motivation or behavior will magically improve. Please don’t misconstrue me as saying we don’t do practical things as well, as I talk about here – but you know what I mean.

Venerable Atisha said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Sherma 2 in lockdownWe try to tame others’ minds, but that’s not how it works. If our mind is uncontrolled and polluted by delusions such as selfishness, we’re as much a part of the problem as anyone else; and there is no way we can control others’ minds or behavior.

I was wondering what would have happened if Buddha had waited for everyone else to change? Where would we be now? Prince Siddhartha figured samsara out when he left the palace and saw in turn a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. This is bad, he thought, I can see that this is bad. Life is based on a crumbling edifice of sickness, ageing, death, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, or feeling basically dissatisfied.

Rather than just putting his head back under his soft luxurious royal pillow or immersing himself in his palatial distractions, Prince Siddhartha decided to do something about this. He got rid of the two cloths from the mirror of his mind, and gave 84,000 teachings to show how we could do the same. The path to enlightenment is now all laid out for us in black and white.

It is not as if we don’t have the potential to follow this path, like countless people have done already:

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resFrom this point of view sentient beings are like enlightened beings. Their root mind, their own mind, is completely pure. Their own mind is like a blue sky and their delusions and all other conceptions are like clouds that temporarily arise. From another point of view sentient beings mistakenly identify themselves and are harmed by delusions. They endlessly experience immense suffering as hallucinations. Therefore we need to develop compassion for them, and liberate them from their deep hallucination of mistaken appearance by showing them the real nature of things, which is the emptiness of all phenomena. ~ How to Transform Your Life

I don’t know what we are waiting for. We can complain as much as we like about other people, but it doesn’t help a single thing.

To conclude, we can use the creative role of our minds and actions to go beyond all suffering to the Pure Land of liberation and enlightenment, or we can ignore this potential and keep trying to stick band-aids on our gaping wounds, staying in the impure lands of samsara. It is our choice.

Okay, enough from me. Please leave comments.

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Better together

Love, the great Protector

 

Mine. No touch.

This video moved me, and has helped me generate positive minds all day. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it and invite you to contribute your own in the comments.

  1. The sentience — the sheer life — of animals. Indeed, how they are just like us, wanting to protect themselves and their young. They want to be happy and they don’t want to be hurt. Person, self, being, and I are synonyms according to Buddha. Animals are people. They are he’s and she’s, never its.
  2. Animals possess the same Buddha seeds of compassion and wisdom as we do — they are future Buddhas deserving of love and respect.
  3. How at our mercy animals are. The human in the video could easily take that puppy away and there is nothing the dog dad could do about it.
  4. Will this dad in fact get to keep his puppy? Where is the rest of the litter? Every day, millions and millions of children are taken away from their parents – calves, chicks, just this week more schoolgirls in Nigeria. Looking at these dogs, how can we bear that and allow it to go on? What right do we have to separate mothers and fathers from their babies? This illusory sense of ownership comes from ignorance, from the so-called view of the transitory collecting conceiving I and mine.
  5. Animals have ignorance conceiving I and mine, and attachment, just as we do. This dog may not be so protective of other puppies, for example, whom he doesn’t consider to be “mine”. There is a mixture going on of pure love wanting to protect his puppy and the ignorance of attachment. Exactly as there is with us human beings in most of our (good) relationships.
  6. Unlike us right now, animals are not able to cultivate their potential for enlightenment in this life. We could let this increase our compassion wanting to help them, rather than looking down on them. After all, there, but for the grace of Buddha and Dharma, or some good karma ripening, go we.
  7. For who would choose to be born as an animal? Samsara gives us no choice. We have been helpless animals like this countless times already, and have created the karma to be born helpless countless times again. One breath could be all that is keeping us from our next furry body.
  8. How are animals supposed to get out of there? And, if we fall into the animal realm, how on earth are we going to escape? As it says in the Buddhist scriptures: “It is said to be easier for human beings to attain enlightenment than it is for beings such as animals to attain a precious human rebirth.”
  9. This is motivation to make the most of this precious human life while we still have breath in our body. As Chandrakirti says in Guide to the Middle Way:

If when living in good conditions and acting with freedom
We do not act to hold ourselves back,
Once we have fallen into the abyss and lost our freedom,
How shall we raise ourselves from there in the future?

Over to you.

 

How to be a hero

One of the main things about compassion is that it makes us a kinder, more helpful person. A force of good in this world, for sure. But it also helps US. Why? Because it overcomes our own limitations and problems, as does love. If we understand this, we are less reluctant to develop it. (Carrying on from this last article.)

compassion fatigue?!
compassion fatigue?!

Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.”

If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Compassion causes us to experience happiness because once we generate it our disturbing minds such as pride, jealousy, anger, and attachment are pacified and our mind becomes very peaceful. It causes others to experience happiness because when we have great compassion we naturally care for others and try to help them whenever we can. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 21.

Brief compassion experiment

We can close our eyes and think of the last time we had strong compassion for someone we loved – our dog at the vet, or our disappointed child, or our parent suffering from a pain of old age, or our friend who lost their partner. Or a stranger whose plight has moved us. I don’t need to give you examples! Think of that person. Sadly we all have at least one.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. The United Nations renewed calls for the Syria regime and rebels to allow food and medical aid into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. An estimated 18,000 people are besieged inside the camp as the conflict in Syria continues. (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA  (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

We wished for them to be free from pain. We would have done anything to free them.

We can go back to that experience, when all we wanted was for them to be well again, free from suffering.  What was going on in our mind at that time? During this experience, who were we caring about—ourselves or them? Was this wish for them to be free actually painful or — with the ego temporarily out of the way and our focus exclusively on another — was it okay? We can look and see for ourselves.

Also at that time, we can see how other obstacles in our mind were pacified – for example, was there any irritation or impatience, any self-pity? No, because it wasn’t about us. All problems associated with thinking about ourself disappeared. If someone had said to us, while we were caught up with the needs of a suffering relative, “Look, I’m sorry, but the machine is out of cappuccino”, would we really have cared?

We can keep that experience of compassion vivid, and ask ourself, “Was this a peaceful mind or not? Within that mind was there some cessation of suffering because I wasn’t thinking about myself?” Although we wished for someone we loved to be free from suffering, this was not a painful feeling. It was dynamic, positive.

“You need to go and let him out, then”

Be a heroI don’t often share my dreams, except with the occasional long-suffering friend, and I don’t want to bore you, but this vivid one I had last night showed me how compassion can be both unbearable and a liberating force that makes everything else pale into insignificance.

A young man was trapped in a big glass box on an unknown pedestrian street, quite visible, by enemies he had crossed, and the  box was heated up to an unbearably hot temperature. He wouldn’t die, but his body was shriveling up, and he was clutching his hands together in pain, blinking. People were walking past, some curious, others ignoring him, but no one seeming inclined to do anything. I couldn’t bear it and got on the phone to an (unknown in my dream) assistant of my teacher Geshe Kelsang to tell him what was going on. The message got lost in translation as Geshe-la came out to meet me holding a large glass of water, and I had to explain that the man wasn’t just hot, but trapped in a boiling box. To which Geshe-la replied: “You need to go and let him out, then.”

I hadn’t considered that a possibility, but I ran over there with my friend Morten, who managed to lift up a corner of the box and said, “Man, it is really hot in there.” I realized from this that it was possible to lift the entire side of the box up, so we did, and dragged the skinny man out. Then I told him, “We need to get out of here, we’re not safe yet, run with me.” Which he managed to do. We ran, stopping only for me to beg for some water for him from a passing vendor as I’d left my wallet and phone behind. We got away.

Moral of the tale
cape of compassion
cape of compassion

I got a few things from this dream: People suffer unbearably every day, including in hot, hellish states of existence that are out of our sight, but also plenty right under our nose, eg, the refugees trying so desperately hard to escape to Europe.

Until Geshe-la told me to let this man out, I hadn’t realized I could. Until I found Buddha’s teachings through Geshe-la, I didn’t realize liberating people from suffering was an option. I also had help from Sangha.

The main thing was the agony of seeing the man curled up in the box, and the sheer joy of helping him escape. Nothing would have distracted me at that point. The passion I had to save this person was stronger than any passion that comes from attachment, strong as that can be (remember Daniel Day Lewis and “I WILL find you?!” Stronger than that even!)

Pure compassion makes heroes of us all. A real hero or heroine, according to Buddhism, is someone who has beaten the foe of their selfish desires & other delusions and developed their compassion for others.

From these kinds of experiences, both in and out of dreams, I think it is not hard to see how, for Bodhisattvas motivated by compassion, nothing now will stop them from getting enlightened. By contrast to strong love and compassion, it is so so boring to be thinking about myself. If I never had to think about myself again out of self-centeredness, it would not be a day too soon.

The best way to have helped this man would have been to realize that I was dreaming, that the suffering was not real. The best way to help people is to wake ourselves and others up. More in a later article on how everything is the nature of the mind and so there are no inherently existent suffering beings. I’ll just leave you with a question: If everything is the nature of your mind, what is going to happen to everyone when you become an omniscient Buddha?

Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

enlightenment pie in the skyI was remembering the other day what happened when I first encountered Buddhism. A new friend at college happened to mention that there was a talk on that evening by a Tibetan Lama in York – he was not Geshe Kelsang, who became my teacher, but a visitor who was being hosted by the Buddhist Centre. I took another nice, new friend, M., along with me, not having a clue what to expect (this was 1981 in the North of England when meditation was an alien concept to most people.)

To be honest, I hardly understood a word this Geshe said. But during the course of the evening, I couldn’t help thinking: “Whatever it is you have, I want it.”

He said a couple of things I sort of got, the words at least. The first was a comment about how we have radiators in the West, followed by his falling about laughing – something he seemed to be doing most of the evening. I suppose for someone who grew up in Tibet, radiators and other Western technology must have seemed quite amusing. (This was in the days before SmartPhones, which he would doubtless have found hysterical.) M. told me later that I was laughing uproariously and a little crazily at everything, which seems strange given that I didn’t know what this happy Tibetan was saying; but clearly this stuff was infectious.

The other comment I remember from that evening was:

 “We are all on the airplane to enlightenment!”

(Followed by even more laughter.)

path to enlightenmentWe’re what??! I thought. What is he talking about?! I knew I still liked it, I probably laughed along, but I wasn’t sure what it was I liked. And, when I stopped to think about it, enlightenment or Buddhahood sounded rather pie in the sky. As far as I was concerned, I’d be lucky to just get through the day without getting annoyed with someone. If Buddhist meditation could do that for me, I’d give it a shot.

And so M. and I did, the following week at the regular introductory meditation class at our nearest Buddhist centre. That was almost 32 years ago. The rest is history.

Although I well remember how pie in the sky enlightenment felt back then, since then I’ve decided that it really is not that much of a culturally alien concept, let alone an impossibly idealistic goal. Indeed, it is within the reach of every one of us; we just have to get going, starting with wanting it.

The other day I asked some friends if they wanted to improve. They said yes. Then I asked them what would happen if they did improve a bit and became a bit kinder and wiser, for example – would that be enough, or would they still want to improve? They said they would.

Interesting, I said. No wonder Buddha says we all have Buddha nature or Buddha seed, which is our natural potential for improvement; we clearly feel it on some level. We have this potential because our mind is not inherently existent, or fixed, which means it can change. If you really want to improve, then your Buddha seed has already sprouted into the beginning of a Bodhisattva’s mentality because a Bodhisattva is someone who has taken that wish to its logical conclusion and wants to keep improving until there is no further room for improvement.

Then I asked them if they would like to be able to help more people than they are helping at the moment. They said yes. So I asked them what would happen if they were able to help, say, 3 more people than they are helping now due to being kinder and wiser (see above), would that then be the end of it? No, they replied, they’d want to help even more people.

And there you have it, I said. You’re already just like a baby Bodhisattva, who has taken this wish to its logical conclusion and wishes to help all living beings without leaving anyone out. That wish is part of our compassion, also our Buddha nature. We are naturally kind because when our delusions are not functioning we default to being peaceful and free from self-centeredness, connected to others.

bodhichitta airplane to enlightenmentA Bodhisattva is someone who wishes to help all living beings without exception by attaining enlightenment aka becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is someone, anyone, who has perfected all their good qualities and got rid of all their faults, viz, improved until there is no further room for improvement.

What is so pie in the sky about that? We just have to train in our natural wishes and let our mind expand. We are all on the airplane to enlightenment; we just have to get it off the ground.