Overcoming self-doubts

Buddha kindThis weekend it is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day and Easter, both good occasions it would seem for overcoming self-doubts, sloughing off despondency, and resurging our spiritual practice.

I’ve been writing about the four types of self-confidence or so-called “non-deluded pride” we need for this – the first two are pride in realizing our potential and pride in overcoming our delusions. Today would seem like a perfect occasion for a conversation about the third type, called “Pride in our actions”. This is:

a strong determination to perform virtuous actions, for example a mind of superior intention thinking “I myself will free all sentient beings from suffering.” ~ How to Understand the Mind

So many people …

Back in New York this January, I found myself thinking about this type of self-confidence a lot, maybe because wherever there are lots of living beings, there is also lots of suffering. Which is what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said when he visited Manhattan years ago – after a glamorous “sight seeing” tour in the car, he shook his head and said:

So many people. So much suffering.

Cars DriveI walked home each day via a homeless pregnant young woman. One one occasion it had started raining and she was more bedraggled than ever. I gave her a juice, but it was so inadequate to her enormous needs that it brought to mind that Cars song they played at Live Aid back in the day:

Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Did you wake up happy today?

One morning I woke up feeling stiff and sorry for myself, but then I opted to remember her and the umpteen others living under cardboard boxes, at which point my own pathetic problems vanished.

Later that day I asked a large group of New Yorkers if any of them had woken up really happy. To my slight surprise, with just one or two exceptions, they all laughed and said “No”.

dinosaurs eating humansI don’t really like that no one is even waking up happy. We haven’t even got out of our nice warm bed yet! Nothing has gone wrong! What chance do we have of being happy for the rest of the precarious day?

The thing is, we all have the potential to be happy all the time. But our delusions are ruining this for us. We wake up and cast around for things to blame for our malaise — surely there is something or someone out there I can pin this feeling on?! But in fact we only wake up unhappy because our mind is out of control.

This is why we need to develop compassion, superior intention, and bodhichitta, for both our own and others’ sake. We need to become, as my friend Gen Samten says, protectors, not victims.

Benefits of bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is the wish to attain enlightenment so that we can liberate all living beings from their sufferings permanently. It starts off as a nice idea, then we get more and more familiar with it until it sticks and replaces our hitherto selfish motivations. At which point, day and night, we experience outrageously huge benefits.

One of these, possibly my favorite, is that we have a state of mind that is a source of peace and happiness for all living beings!

superior intentionI don’t know about you, but I love the idea of being of instant benefit to this world before we have even lifted a finger. We should never underestimate the power of our mind. Just look at what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is pulling off for example, through his ideas and his blessings, even though he spends most of his time in his room. We can become like his emanation, a servant helping him and all enlightened beings in their work of liberating everyone. We can become part of that enlightened society and invite everyone else to join us.

It’s up to me

So this third non-deluded pride has to do with our actions, with benefiting living beings. It includes superior intention, taking personal responsibility for everyone. On one level, there is such audacity in this! Because normally we think so far beneath our potential — for example we hear teachings on compassion and we think, “Okay, then, I’m really going to try to make up with my second cousin who beat me up in fourth grade” – whereas what we need to think is “I am going to do that, but I am also going to liberate all living beings without exception.”

Not just help them, but liberate them. Take them out of samsara. Take them away from all their suffering, lead them to liberation and enlightenment. I’m going to liberate all living beings without exception. I’m going to do that.

We can put ourselves in that frame of mind. Step out from our limited self-perception and go there.

money doesn't buy happinessIt might be helpful to consider how it’s not possible to find lasting happiness from our possessions, friendships, and so forth; but it is actually possible for us to attain the lasting happiness of enlightenment and liberate all living beings. So why invest all our energy and time into happiness that is impossible, as opposed to happiness that is possible?

That’s what a Buddha is – a Buddha is a very blissful being who has the power or capacity to liberate all living beings. We need this big vision of ourselves, and what better day to think about this than today?

With superior intention, we have this thought, “It’s up to me. If I don’t liberate everyone, who is going to do it?!” If a mother sees her child drowning, she doesn’t just think, “How nice it’d be if someone would dive in and rescue her!” – she jumps in herself. That is like superior intention – it is a compassion that assumes responsibility, knowing that we can, and have to, take it on.

This non-deluded pride overcomes discouragement, self-pity, and self-indulgence. Imagine sitting on the bank of the river feeling sorry for yourself just because no one gets you or acknowledges you, while meantime others are drowning right in front of you. It is a fairly sad state of affairs.

Sandwich Man

I love riding the subway. So much food for practice, so much scope for connection.

New York subway 1One day I was covertly watching the people around me, each in their own worlds and/or Smartphones, furrowed brows, far from the present moment, far from each other. But a man then entered the carriage with a trolley full of plain white-bread sandwiches. And he asked, simply: “Is anyone hungry?”

Everyone was snapped into the present moment — something about this man was making us smile, at him and also at each other. He then declared: “You don’t have to be homeless to be hungry!” A man wrapped up in the corner seat then asked if he could have one, which he devoured before asking for a second. Then someone else asked. Then people started giving Sandwich Man money. All of a sudden there was so much connection there, so much meaning, so much hope.

(And affectionate love brought everyone out of the past and the future and into the here and now, as virtuous minds always do. We all shared a moment.)

This man had taken personal responsibility for feeding all the hungry people on the subway, and it was making all the difference. Imagine taking that kind of responsibility for everyone everywhere, I thought. Our life would be entirely different, as would the lives of all the people we met and worked with.

Our worries and self-doubts diminish straightaway when we develop this big heart as it is no longer about us. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said to someone recently:

What is there to worry about? All you are trying to do is help others.

One more article on this third type of self-confidence in the pipeline. Meantime, over to you for feedback … how do you overcome self-doubts on a daily basis?

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Compassion ~ the quick path to enlightenment

 

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. 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 Nyung Nä, 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.

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.