What is Buddha’s enlightenment?

what is Buddha's enlightenmentHappy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! April 15th is another big holy(i)day for Kadampa Buddhists, marking the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni demonstrating the attainment of enlightenment in 589 B.C.E. I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to say something short and simple about what Buddha’s enlightenment means to me.

Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha

For sure, on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, we remember the kindness of the historical Buddha, the one everyone has heard of, the one who started his life as Prince Siddhartha and became known as Buddha Shakyamuni. Without his appearing in our world to give teachings, there would be no Buddhism or Buddhist meditation in our lives today. You can read his inspiring life story in Introduction to Buddhism.

Faith in our own potential

As a Buddhist, I have faith or confidence in the Founder of Buddhism, Buddha Shakyamuni — faith in his enlightened nature of universal compassion and omniscient wisdom, in his teachings, in his example. But effective faith in Buddha necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential. He only appeared in this world to teach us Buddhism because he knew we could all be just like him, that we already had within us the seeds of enlightenment. In fact, Buddha Shakyamuni is just one of countless Buddhas – those who have perfected their qualities until they cannot be perfected further, out of a compassion that yearns for the capacity to free every single living being from suffering.

The imperative to become enlightened

Buddha's enlightenmentAs I sit here with my dying cat Nelson, (whom I’ve had to join in the yard to write this as he wants to go outside in accordance with his feral upbringing,) there is an imperative to become enlightened for his sake. If every cat is as adorable as he is, which they are, if that is possible, which it is, then samsaric suffering is truly brutal, pervasive and heart-breaking. Nelson is only a year and a half old, but already has a tumor that is taking up half his small body. He hasn’t eaten in days, and each day drinks less, trundles around less, suffers more. Right now he is just lying here under the table, bravely and uncomplainingly accepting his fate, as animals seem to do so much better than us. He is still managing a faint purr when I reach down to stroke him.

What did Nelson do to deserve this? As a person, nothing. He is naturally pure, like all of us. His ignorance, his real enemy, drove him to engage in deluded actions that have led to this. He needs, like all of us, to purify his mind of suffering and all its causes (ignorance, delusions, and karma) so that he never has to take another samsaric rebirth again. How am I going to help him do that if I am just an ordinary person who cannot even speak the language of cats, or read his mind, or follow him from life to life? I love him and I want to protect him. I can perhaps give him some temporary love and protection for the days or weeks he remains with me here, but that is nowhere near enough. I cannot settle for that. I want to give him peace by blessing his mind all the time, and as soon as he is in a human body I want to show him how to end mistaken appearances and suffering once and for all. I want to set the example that Buddha Shakyamuni and many other great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have set for me.Buddha peace

That is a lot for me to accomplish even for one small cat, so what about my other cat, also joining us here at the table for a spell, not in pain but still in a cat’s body? And what about the feral cat colony I discovered last month, one of whose members is the spitting image of Nelson and no doubt a relative, that live a mile down the road? And what about everybody else?!

Sadness won’t do it, although it can be an impetus. I need to attain enlightenment.

My teacher says in Modern Buddhism page 26:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and its function is to bestow mental peace on each and every living being every day.

That is what we need. And we need it fast.

That wish alone dissolves away my sadness and helplessness and leaves me blissful and energized. Compassion is bliss, according to Buddha’s Tantric teachings. One minute sad for Nelson, the next blissed out, that’s how it works. Nelson is purring in agreement. (I like to think of his purrs as him tuning into Buddha’s omniscient wisdom, enlightened mind, blessings.*) He would tell me, if he could, that he would far rather I be blissful than sad because I’m far better at helping him feel peaceful if I am feeling that way myself. Our mental states are catching. Blessings are contagious.

Is bodhichitta pie in the sky?

Someone commented on this article, How would you save this bear?, about a month ago:

“As much as I know intellectually that bodhichitta is more beneficial, I don’t really feel it in my heart. For me the idea of becoming a Buddha to benefit others seems very abstract, compared to directly helping beings now. Have any of you got any advice on how to increase my faith that developing bodhichitta is the best way to help others?”

I replied:

“For one thing, it is not an either/or, in the sense that if we are not trying to help any individuals now as well, it is hard to say we are working to help everyone!

The way I see it is that we already want to help others and we already want to improve ourselves (largely so we can be of more use to others.) If we increase both those wishes — wanting to help more and more people until we want to help everybody, and wanting to improve ourselves more and more until there is no further room for improvement – we have bodhichitta. So the seed is there, we just have to keep watering it.”

A couple of days later, I had Nelson in his usual spot on my/his meditation cushion, and decided to respond to this comment further:

bodhichitta mind of enlightenment “Hello again, your comment came into my mind this morning when I was meditating with my small cat Nelson purring next to me. He looks to me for protection, love and food, which I try my best to provide him, but I’d like to scoop him out of samsara altogether. To do that — and to help all my current nearest and dearest — I need to generate bodhichitta because I need to become a Buddha with the necessary power. To develop bodhichitta, I need love and compassion for all living beings at least equal to what I have for Nelson. He is an example showing me what I need. So even to help our nearest and dearest, we need bodhichitta, let alone to help everyone else.”

With our thoughts, we create our world

We can choose how we think. We may think our thoughts rule us, but that is only if we are not exerting control over our own mind. We can learn to think big, enlightened thoughts instead of small, selfish ones. We can ignore the inappropriate attention that leads to all our baseless, disturbing delusions, and choose to think realistic things that will liberate and enlighten us. With our thoughts, we create our world, to summarize what Buddha taught us. We are what we think. There is no Nelson outside my experience of Nelson. There is no world outside my experience of the world. So I am in the process of creating a better me, a better world, and a better Nelson, for his and everyone’s sake.

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is a good time to remember all this and renew our intention to follow in kind Buddha Shakyamuni’s footsteps by developing compassion and wisdom.

Over to you — your comments are warmly invited below. What does Buddha’s Enlightenment Day mean to you?

Short video

A short video of Nelson tuning into Buddha’s blessings on my/his meditation cushion:

Nelson the cat, Buddha's Enlightenment Day
Nelson’s grave

 

Update: Nelson died at 5:30am on Saturday April 14th, 2012, in my arms in front of my shrine, after spending the night lying on my chest. So many kind people have been praying for him, including Geshe Kelsang, for which I am very grateful, and I’m sure Nelson is too. May he and all animal beings, human beings, and others quickly be released permanently from suffering and mistaken appearances, and find enlightened bliss.

Celebrating a great Buddhist Master on his birthday

Wheel of Dharma on a Temple roof

Wrote this a few years ago, but it is still relevant! Please do share your own comments too.

Turning the Wheel of Dharma

Today, June 4, is the birthday of my kind teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and I want to mark the occasion by writing something about him. His birthday falls auspiciously on the day of Buddha Shakyamuni’s first teaching, called Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day; and for me and many thousands of other students, Geshe Kelsang, or Geshe-la as we like to call him, has been the one who has turned the Wheel of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings for us.

Geshe Kelsang’s Birthday in Dallas, 1997.

There is not a snowflake’s chance in hell that I could even begin to do him justice in one article, of course, even though I apologize in advance for its length. But I’ll try and highlight a few of his qualities as I see it, in case you are interested in hearing some more about one of today’s most influential Buddhist masters. There is also more about his life and works in this article.

Where did Geshe Kelsang come from?
Ven Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, circa 1978, London

Without getting into all the infinite causes and conditions that causes a great master to appear in our world, you can check out some of the biographical details of where he was born and brought up on any New Kadampa Tradition center website. After the 1959 invasion of Tibet, forcing him into exile with nothing but his robes and a couple of texts, Geshe Kelsang spent 18 years in retreat in the Himalayan mountains, meditating day and night — blissfully happy, needing nothing. I think of him first and foremost as a great Yogi, Dharma practitioner, Bodhisattva, and Tantric adept. Having spent his entire lifetime from an early age learning Buddhadharma, and well over 20 years in retreat, he possesses an ocean of direct experience of all the Buddhist teachings and therefore no interest whatsoever in the paltry rewards of fame, reputation, possessions or worldly pleasure. This is entirely obvious from his exceedingly humble, simple, generous lifestyle and his exceptional teachings. It means I can trust him as he wants nothing from me other than my own Buddhist practice.

Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang

Out of faith in his own teacher, the beloved Trijang Rinpoche, and compassion for people like me, he agreed in 1977 to come to Manjushri Institute in the Lake District and teach two Buddhist texts. Then when a small group of early students sincerely requested him to stay, he agreed.

When he first flew over London, he turned to his translator and asked: “How many people are down there?!” When he heard the reply, “10 million”, he exclaimed, “But there are only 5 million people in Tibet! I must help the West.” I and many other people are a result of that intention.

Manjushri’s wisdom sword
Manjushri from Geshe Kelsang’s 3-year retreat at Tharpaland.

There are uncanny parallels with the great 15th century scholar, Yogi and saint Je Tsongkhapa in terms of Geshe-la’s vision, teachings and deeds. Wielding Wisdom Buddha Manjushri’s wisdom sword, their teachings and books possess an uncommon but very similar clarity, and the instant ability to cut through confusion and suffering. When I read a book by Je Tsongkhapa, it always feels the same as receiving a teaching by Geshe Kelsang. Every sentence of Geshe Kelsang’s 22 books has power. I’ve read them all several times but if I read even one nectar-like sentence, and bring it into my heart, it instantly clears my vision and improves the flavor of my mind. With Geshe Kelsang’s books, you can never run out of quotable sentences!

His personal instructions to people have also changed their lives. He looks reassuringly normal, so we can relate to him; but he is also one of the greatest wisdom masters who has ever lived and can say and do things that are unpredictable yet deep-reachingly effective. Life is never dull.

Defier of expectations

You never know what to expect with Geshe Kelsang; he has defied expectations on a daily basis since the day he arrived over here. Gentle and kind, he nonetheless keeps his students on their toes. He doesn’t allow people to rest on their laurels for more than approximately 30 seconds – completely uninterested in their eight worldly concerns of praise, reputation and so on. He relates to his students in terms of their potential not in terms of their delusions. He is really not one for massaging an ego or cultivating a false sense of security, as he knows that our self-grasping and self-cherishing are the source of all our pain and misery. Someone senior in the tradition once said jokingly: “You aren’t anyone in the NKT until you’ve been fired three times.” Hyperbole, for sure, but Geshe Kelsang has demolished the ego-grasping of many students – all within the refuge of love and acceptance.

Modern Buddhism manifesting from ancient tradition
Not real yet, creating causes!

Geshe Kelsang had a very close relationship with his own Spiritual Guide, Trijang Rinpoche, who requested him to come to the West and approved of his adapting the presentation of the teachings for an entirely new audience. In this way the New Kadampa Tradition came into existence. Centuries-worth of authentic liberating teachings are available in a form that modern-day people can actually practice without having to abandon their modern lifestyles or retire to a mountain cave. In fact, Geshe Kelsang is showing us how to thrive in today’s overwrought world by using all the circumstances we meet to advance our spiritual practice, in the Lojong tradition of those sincerest of Buddhists, the ancient Kadampas.

The world has changed dramatically even in the last 30 years, especially with the technological revolution, but the Buddhist teachings are still working. Geshe Kelsang learnt our language fluently and translated everything we needed. When I started we would chant for hours in Tibetan! I kind of liked it, but it was entirely unsustainable even 30 years ago, and is inconceivable now! Most people are lucky if they have half an hour for formal meditation practice these days. So over the years Geshe-la has packed the profundity of the 84,000 teachings of Buddha into fewer and fewer words without losing their meaning; something that can only be pulled off by someone with rare experience and skill. This has culminated most recently in the masterpiece union of Sutra and Tantra, Modern Buddhism ~ The Path of Compassion and Wisdom. These profound yet simple instructions are even available in the most modern of formats, the eBook!

Ode to the ordained

Incredibly for this day and age, Geshe Kelsang has inspired a very large stable ordained community of monks and nuns. One day I would like to write an ode to the ordained – they are essential for the survival of the Buddhist tradition, and I think it must be harder than it ever was to be ordained, in a society that has in some ways lost its sense of history and authentic tradition. Respect and support are not as forthcoming as they used to be. These monks and nuns are brave warriors in a world that doesn’t understand the need for boundaries so well anymore. They are not allowed to live in an ivory tower, but have to become integral members of daily society without succumbing to its increasing distractions and temptations. They show the vital example of discipline, contentment and authentic happiness from within. They are amazing.

Four types of teacher

Geshe-la has also defied all old-fashioned Tibetan expectations by promoting, from day one, not just ordained monks but “four types of teacher”, as he put it, ordained, lay, female and male – all equal.Lekma.JPG

They all study together, work together, practice together. To help people everywhere have access to Buddha’s teachings in their own language and culture, Geshe-la has trained teachers of all shapes and sizes on an unprecedented scale (1100 centers and counting…) Centers start Gen Menlawhen someone reads a book or attends a meditation course and, in a grass roots movement, they ask for their own teacher in their own town or country. Then thousands of students from all around the world also get together in the New Kadampa Tradition international festivals each year.

Healing power
Geshe Kelsang in Tibet

Back in Tibet, Geshe-la was also a healer – when he revisited Tibet in the early 1980s to rebuild his first monastery Jampa Ling, the line to receive his healing blessings stretched for miles, much to the surprise of the Western students who had accompanied him. When he got to the West he changed his emphasis from healing to teaching, but there are many people who nonetheless can tell you incredible stories of healing through the force of his prayers and blessings. People with major heart attacks, aggressive cancer or in deep comas from accidents making complete and doctor-defying recoveries, children expected to die in the womb emerging healthy and beautiful, and so on. Again, no space for details – but it’d be great if any of you wanted to tell your stories in the comments.

The power of emanations

An interesting thing about Geshe-la is that many people have their own story to tell about him and his profound influence on their lives, and you wonder how there was time for him to do all this! He has only been in the West since 1977. It is as if this one small man is hundreds of people rolled into one. When you look at the sun reflected in the ocean, it comes right at you, nowhere else! But a person standing a few feet away will tell you the same thing – the sun is coming right at me! It is said that enlightened beings – anyone who has removed all obstructions from the mind and perfected all good qualities — have the power to emanate infinite forms, which are like reflections on the water of faithful minds. In that sense, I have my personal spiritual guide, you have yours. Buddha’s emanations can also appear in the form of one person due to our collective karma, and thousands of students may gather for example to hear Geshe Kelsang’s teachings; but the spiritual guide is always at the heart of each of his or her students, as if we have our own spiritual guide all to ourselves.

What is the meaning of Geshe Kelsang being here?

Geshe-la said himself that the meaning of his being here is to enable people to practice Kadam Dharma, and specifically gain a realization of the ultimate nature of things, emptiness, so as to finally escape the cycle of suffering. All the temples, study programs and so on are essential for Kadampa Buddhism to remain and flourish into future generations, but they are here for just one reason: to enable people to practice Buddha’s teachings and gain authentic freedom and happiness for themselves and others. These external developments are therefore not ends in themselves. For 35 years I have tried in many jobs to help my teacher with external developments, and will always help as much as I can; but over time I have increasingly come to understand from him that what he appreciates more than anything else is my Dharma practice. It makes him happy whenever I or others attempt to increase our compassion and wisdom, the two wings of a bird that can fly us to Happy Birthdayenlightenment.

So, Geshe-la, out of inexpressible gratitude for everything you have done for me and so many others, today I resolve to try my best to practice all you have taught and help you turn the Wheel of Dharma in this and all my lives.

Over to you: Your comments are most welcome.

 

Preparing for something?!

Recently two of my old friends lost their beloved husbands to unexpected death. One was a suicide and the other a murder.

These were both very loving partnerships, lasting decades. Both these women have responded to violent loss by seeking refuge in their spiritual practice.

While on retreat, J called her husband at about 2pm each day. This day he didn’t pick up. After 20 minutes of redialing: “I had a hunch that something was dreadfully wrong.”  Driving to his store, she was crying all the way. She found him unconscious, and two days later his life support was turned off. Her husband was a wonderful person, always giving things away in his store, always a kind word for everyone. One of his customers recalled on TV:

“He was just one of the sweetest guys you ever want to meet.  He didn’t deserve this.”

J said to me:

“I collapse on the floor with the pain sometimes. However, if it wasn’t for Dharma, I would have to be hospitalized for grief.”

Interviews of her on local TV show her deeply sad but full of grace, unwilling to condemn the attacker despite the reporter’s leading questions. (The 33-year-old attacker battered J’s husband in a robbery of his antique store, enraged that he had sold his pawned silver coins. The cell phone that J’s husband never picked up was found discarded, along with his wallet, on the road). J said on TV that she was overwhelmed by the kindness that her community had shown her and her family, and felt immense gratitude to friends and strangers.  She told me that she surprised herself by feeling no anger toward the attacker due to her practice of compassion, and for this she was also very grateful. She is taking refuge in her spiritual community and in her meditations, and intends to spend the rest of her life seeking deeper spiritual meanings.

S understands impermanence and the opportunity she now has to increase her empathy and love for everyone, but missing her partner of 46 years hurts like hell:

“In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M……… wanting him back on earth….. I just cannot believe I will not see him again.”

“I have been trying to get a grip on this experience of a broken heart as a gift towards greater compassion. But, you know L,………I just miss M… The younger generation is independent and know how to live their lives self sufficiently……I had been with M for 46 years……I have been part of a team! This is very challenging for me…….”

These women are having strident wake up calls. Not ones anyone would choose, naturally, but we rarely choose our wake up calls; that is why they have the power to wake us up. Hitting the snooze button doesn’t work when we’re in so much pain; we simply cannot distract ourselves with meaningless things as we typically do when we have problems. We have to face the big questions in life because they are staring us in the face. But by facing them and by finding answers, we can gain acceptance, understanding and a growing peace of mind. In this way, we live our fullest lives.

Every day is a challenge for S and J right now, but they are strong. S said this week:

“Spending at least part of the day reading & meditating about this life of ours. Forgiveness is what I am working on a lot………for M & for myself …………just knowing this was his path and had nothing to do with me……is a relief……. Realizing there is nothing permanent here ………… so many things I have learned over the years are now being tested for real……. and I am getting through it all pretty well………  I am working on being happy in this situation because this is what is right now……..”

Please pray for S, J, their husbands and their children.

So often a close encounter with death leads to transformation. At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, there was a young woman called Kisigotami. She lived a regular life pursuing ordinary ambitions, not particularly interested in spiritual practice. She had a baby, but the baby fell ill and died before its first birthday.

Life of Buddha Play at KMC Manjushri 2009

Clutching the little body in her arms, she took to the streets, begging anyone she met to help bring her baby back to life. One passer-by eventually pointed her in the direction of Buddha.

Buddha told her that there was only one thing she could do to heal her pain, and that was to bring him back a mustard seed from a house in the village that had never known death.

She excitedly knocked on the first door. “I’m sorry. My brother died recently.” At the second door, “We have known many deaths in this family.” At the third, “We are no strangers to death in this house.”

And on it went. She was struck with the realization of death and impermanence, that no one lives forever, that death is part of life. She bid farewell to her child and returned to Buddha empty-handed.

“Did you bring me the mustard seed?” Buddha asked her. She shook her head, and explained how grief had blinded her to the fact that she was not alone in experiencing the reality of death, but that she was now ready to receive spiritual teachings. She wanted to know what death is, what happens at death, what happens after death. She went onto become a great spiritual adept.

No matter how much we deny death, like everyone else we will find ourselves staring it in the face soon enough. Others’ deaths, and our own. It is amazing how little we talk about death in any meaningful way in our modern society — it is taboo, it  is considered morbid, as if talking about it will somehow make it more likely. This leaves us searching for words and meaning when it happens to our friends and loved ones, and utterly unable to cope when we have to face it in ourselves.

Life and death are two ends of the same tunnel. They are parts of the same continuum. If we don’t accept this and learn to live our lives in accordance with this truth, we will experience fear, pain and confusion as the exit looms. If we do accept it, we find like Kisigotami, and so many spiritual practitioners since, that life takes on a deeper meaning. Therein lies a deeper humility, sense of purpose, love, transcendent wisdom and joy. This life is very precious. Others’ lives are precious. If we don’t feel that way, it is probably because we rarely think about how soon we all have to leave.

Death is not the end, it is the opening of a new chapter, one that we are writing today with our thoughts and actions. Every day we prepare for many things. We prepare to get out of bed, we prepare our breakfast, we prepare for school, we prepare for work, we prepare what we’ll do that evening, we prepare to pick up the kids, we prepare how we’ll proceed in our careers, we prepare to meet someone, we prepare ways to earn money, we prepare what to plant in our gardens, we prepare replies for those who’ve offended us, we prepare for our next vacation, we prepare for our retirement, we prepare for bed….

But how many minutes today have we spent preparing for the only future that is certain to occur?