Buddha and the Hidden Universe

BuddhaToday, September 22, is Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, one of my favorite anniversaries of the Buddhist calendar. This is why I like it:

“On this day we celebrate Buddha’s return from the desire god realm called Land of the Thirty-three Heavens, where he had been to visit his mother who had been reborn there.

Traditionally this day also marks the end of the summer retreat. Every year, during the summer months, Buddha did a three-month retreat with his disciples. His reason for doing this was to avoid harming insects and other animals.

If we go out a lot during the summer months we will naturally kill more insects and other animals than at other times of the year. The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.” ~ From a talk by Geshe Kelsang in 1991

It is so easy to get caught up in an insular world of just a few people, often human, perhaps a couple of cats… Buddha going to heaven (and later using this time for retreats) to avoid stepping on insects reminds me of how important it is to remove our blinkers as often as possible and expand our mind. In this way, interest grows, some understanding or empathy can emerge, and we can develop universal compassion that takes in everyone, not just a few.

Buddhism talks about six realms of samsara, each with an infinite variety of forms and experiences. We can find it hard to believe in the existence of hidden realms, such as the hell realms, yet we are surrounded by a hidden universe of insects and animals, most of whom experience unbelievably intense suffering. Every now and then we may become aware of the existence of this realm, due to some nifty camera work, and our eyes open.

microcosmosI chanced to see Microcosmos yesterday evening with my friend M, who watches it regularly to remind her of the existence of other beings. It is a great movie, I really recommend it. The beetle we named Sisyphus tried valiantly to move the ball of dung up the hill despite it rolling down on top of him and getting stuck on thorns – the camera panned out to show a hill that we wouldn’t even notice as a groove if we were walking along that path. The exotic, colorful, ugly, bizarre, bug eyed, narrow eyed, legless, multi-legged etc. collection of little people (little from our perspective, perfectly big from theirs) grooming themselves, getting to work (insects all business all the time), having sex (man, those snails really liked each other!), reproducing, fighting their corners for no apparent reason that we could see … And all the while looking entirely sentient, as they are. Their tiny, personal worlds consuming them as our own personal world can consume us with its seeming importance, even when we are all just busy moving things around. I think it is Woody Allen’s character in the movie Antz, a soil relocation engineer called Z, who says:

I’ve got to believe there’s something out there better than this. Otherwise I’ll just curl up into a larval position and weep.

I watched this movie with Daka also, one of my foster kittens, who is M’s cat now, along with soft Kini, and who has developed into a very funny character full of affection and curiosity. If I had the same tenderness for all cats, stag beetles, stick insects, and ants as I have for Daka and Kini, I would probably be enlightened by now. Starting with our karmic circle and spreading that love outward is the way to get there.

Alternatively, we can bring others into our circle of love, which will then expand naturally because love is like digital data, infinitely replicable. But to love others we have to remember first that they even exist.

Buddha's Return from Heaven DayRight now I can hear the cicadas—it’s a bit like tuning into a radio frequency from another realm. Thousands upon thousands of mother living beings in the tall fir trees surrounding my forest hut, all trying to be happy and free from suffering. I have been trying to remember them in my meditations here, for, despite the noise they make, it is too easy to ignore their actual being.

When people get to know an animal closely, and perhaps for the first time, their views on that type of animal often change. Dog owners seem to have a respect and affection for the other dogs they meet, they often smile genuinely at the dog and at each other in recognition. If someone raises a chicken from a chick, and gets to know that chicken as a pet, it is far harder, if not impossible, for them to kill and eat it, because they have “met” it and know it is not just a piece of meat.

I read a story in the wonderful book Random Acts of Kindness by Animals about a trapper who came from England to America a few centuries ago, and at his Iroquois wife’s urging adopted two beaver babies whose mother he had killed. This changed his view of animals and he decided never to hunt again, writing these evocative words:

Their almost childlike intimacies and murmurings of affection, their rollicking good fellowship not only with each other but ourselves, their keen awareness, their air of knowing what it was all about. They seemed like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not quite understand. To kill such creatures seemed monstrous. I would do no more of it.

cockroachAnimals are folk, they are people. And so in fact are insects. During one retreat some years ago, I saw a cockroach being eaten alive by ants. I blew the ants off and put the cockroach on my shrine in a box with grass and water, and said prayers and mantras. I meditated with him every day for a week, but he didn’t die — he lay there and sometimes he wandered around a bit. And during that week I came to know him and love him.

The day came for me to leave and I thought I might leave him there in his box in front of a picture of Buddha, as surely he was not far from death now and he would be peaceful and unmolested. I got in the car and drove a mile. Then I turned back, picked him up, and took him home.

My view of cockroaches completely changed after that encounter. They are no longer creepy looking beetles (well, they still look a bit creepy sometimes, but so can I). They are sentient beings who need love, like us. Issa’s words evoke this for me:

Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.

There are a lot of insects to love so we better get started. As Z says in Antz:

Z: I think everything must go back to the fact that I had a very anxious childhood. My mother *never* had time for me. You know, when you’re – when you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention. I mean, how is that possible?

Geshe Kelsang says in the same talk mentioned above:

In fact, we should have stronger compassion for animals than for human beings because animals suffer more. Human beings have better conditions and are more fortunate than animals. Because animals have so much suffering and no freedom, out of compassion Buddhists should try not to kill or disturb them. So, for three months during the summer, Buddha advised his disciples to retreat, staying always inside and living carefully and conscientiously.

bugEverything about Buddhism speaks to animals and for animals. Most obviously, as many people with even a passing understanding of Buddhism are aware, Buddhists are aiming at enlightenment, part and parcel of which is universal compassion — the mind that wishes to protect each and every living being from suffering and its causes. This really does mean not just our friends and family, not just human beings, not even just our pets, but each and every living being. We sit on our meditation seats and meditate on this every day. We meditate on the sufferings of all six realms of samsara to develop compassion for all living beings.

But in fact already in the initial scope teachings we are wisened up to the status of animals and insects, and in particular we see how we ourselves are not inherently human beings but can be reborn in other forms. From the get-go we understand that we have a precious human life, which means amongst other things that we have not had to take an animal (or insect) rebirth this time, but this situation is rare. In other words, we COULD have taken an animal rebirth and we can still take one again in the future.

If we understand the teachings on karma and delusions, we will understand how easy it is for someone in samsara to take an animal rebirth –in fact it is far easier to be born as an animal than as a human being. That alone might give us pause. If you know you might end up in a dark and frightening world, you presumably would not want to alienate its inhabitants before you get there. But every time we willfully harm animals, we are creating the causes to be willfully harmed ourselves in the future.

In the intermediate scope teachings, we are taught to meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop the wish to be free from samsara altogether, once and for all. For as long as we remain trapped by delusions and contaminated karma, we are never free from the threat of lower rebirth – which means that at any time we could be reborn as a lobster and someone could be picking us out to be boiled alive for dinner.

bug 2In the great scope teachings we meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop compassion wishing to free everyone from samsara altogether, once and for all. The only way to do this is to become fully enlightened. Animals and insects are very kind to act as the sources of our growing concern, love, and compassion. I am glad that Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day is here again to remind me of this, of them, and hope this mindfulness remains with me. But I may do what M did and buy Microcosmos just in case …

More on Buddhism and animals can be found here.

Compassion and the super-rich

A man walked past me on the beach recently dressed in a plain grey tee-shirt and ordinary looking shorts, only his state of the art new trainers and the X-Men type headset gracing his crown gave him away. I caught a drift of his conversation: “Yeah, the plane can stay there at the airport, we can catch the game, the car can take us back to the airport, and we’ll be back at the hotel no later than midnight.”

compassion and the super richHe is clearly one of the super-rich, in a world where cars seem to drive themselves and whole planes can be left casually lying around waiting for us. Yesterday I read in the paper that the top 5% of the US population buys 37% of the goods. What do you feel when you read statistics like this (and there are plenty of them)? Judging by the press, the Facebook comments I often see, and my own occasional grumpiness about it, I’m guessing sometimes maybe a touch of resentment or irritation? “Bl**** rich people with bonuses got us all into this mess!” An annoyance at society’s inequality and the decline of the middle class? A fear for the future? A burning desire to get involved in politics to put an end to careless rich people gorging on the rest of us? (I think being a politician is possibly the most thankless task of all). Envy arising from insecurity (especially when we ourselves are suffering from the recession)? Dislike? (If you count yourself amongst the super-rich, is there still someone richer, a neighbor perhaps, whom you feel annoyed about sometimes?)

Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day

I decided to write on compassion to celebrate Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, which is today, September 22nd. You can read a beautiful teaching given on this day in 1991 by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso here. In it, he says:

On this day we should especially remember Buddha’s kindness…. kindness of Buddha

The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.

I often write about developing compassion for animals — today I feel like writing about developing compassion for rich people, who are also “living beings” and still in samsara 🙂

What is samsara?

In samsara, there are six realms, including the demi-god and god realms that outshine the wealth, possessions and glory of the super-rich as a sun outshines a firefly. But all these realms are in samsara and all of them are to be abandoned if we are to find true and lasting happiness.

Buddha called ordinary, suffering life “samsara.” What is samsara? Samsara is the experience of an impure, uncontrolled mind. Our world does not exist from its own side but is projected by our own thoughts. At the moment, due to our delusions and karma, we are projecting a world full of suffering.

This world is characterized by a lack of freedom. At the moment we experience only relative freedom. We are not free in significant ways. For example, are we free from being born, getting sick, growing old, or dying? These happen without any choice, whether we like it or not. At some point, without choice, we have to be separated from everything we love, we have to put up with things we don’t like, and we experience a lack of satisfaction. No one who is truly free would choose to experience pain over happiness.

The different realms of samsara are all dream-like projections of a mind distorted by delusions, in particular self-grasping and self-cherishing. Liberation from samsara, so-called nirvana, or the Pure Land, is a dream-like projection of a pure or non-deluded mind. Samsara is not a place, and when we are aiming to live a pure life free from suffering it is not necessary to go somewhere else to find Milarepa's cavethis. When Milarepa (who lived in Tibet in the 11th century) was asked where his Pure Land was, he pointed to his cave. Samsara is not outside our minds any more than nirvana is. We can remove the samsara from our minds by gaining true mental freedom from our delusions, and then we will naturally be creating and living in a pure world, with blissful experiences.

Compassion for everyone

In Eight Steps to Happiness Geshe Kelsang says we also need compassion for everyone in samsara, including those who appear to be better off than us. There is something missing otherwise, and we are in danger of feeling resentful, which undermines our spiritual progress. Of course, some people are rich right now, but that doesn’t mean they are not suffering. It doesn’t in fact mean that they are suffering any less than us. Quite possibly many of them are suffering more. They have all the human sufferings we have – sickness, birth, ageing, rebirth, no satisfaction, etc. And they often have more desire, trying to slake their thirst with yet more salt-water as attachment can never be satiated. He didn’t seem particularly excited, my friend on the beach, just matter of fact, and it struck me that having your own plane soon grows old, just like every other 21st century marvel even many of us hoi poloi have already gotten used to – cars, comfortable bedding, indoor plumbing, traveling through the air, high definition TV, computers, iPhones, etc etc. My great-grandparents would have thought they’d died and gone to heaven if they could have used a fraction of what we now routinely take for granted in our daily lives. Even beings in the god realms may be getting some ideas from Apple.

shit creek of samsara
Better to get out of samsara’s creek altogether!

So, we can do what we can to balance out society and make it fairer; and to preserve our democracy I personally think it behooves us to take some responsibility, at least by voting. However, it is impossible to fix samsara or make it work for any length of time, and having an unbalanced mind about the rich is not going to improve a thing for us or for anyone else. We have to gather all blame into our delusions, not rich bankers. Actually, rich people got their wealth from past giving. If they continue to give, they will also continue to create the causes for future wealth, just like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, and that is something to rejoice in, without feeling insecure. Every time we get annoyed or jealous, we burn merit or good fortune. But every time we rejoice in someone’s qualities or good fortune, we create the cause to have those ourself.samsara is not a zero sum game

There is not set amount of wealth, it is not a zero sum game. Wealth and possessions are a result of good karma or merit, so if we create merit we necessarily create the cause for wealth – it’ll appear from somewhere, even if we are in a desert, as there is no external world that is fixed. In a dream, things just appear due to the ripening of karmic seeds. It is the same in our waking worlds. If we are worried about running out of resources, the Kadampas say the best thing we can do is practice giving to others and offering to holy beings. In one concentrated mandala offering we can create the cause for whole worlds of prosperity and joy!