Buddhism Lite

BodhisattvaI am pretty fond of a lot of people in Florida. And I noticed the sigh of relief as Hurricane Irma downsized to a Cat 3 and then a tropical storm, and Tampa Bay seemed sort of spared, for now.

How many sighs of relief remain to us, as we dodge another bullet, even as the dangers get closer, even as others around us are falling to the ground?

Catastrophes are what happen to other people. That’s what we all think, until they happen to us.

Do you ever wonder if we might be sleepwalking through a very perilous time in human history, where we are in genuine danger of our planet collapsing if we don’t blow ourselves up first?! That the adults have all left the room!? And that these things may just be creeping up on us – and one day we’ll wake up to find … ?!

Look, I’m not a fear monger (well, maybe a little bit). Like a lot of us, I’m in the habit of switching channels and pretending none of it is happening, that me and you (especially me, lol) are perfectly safe. I’ve been trying to hold onto this complacency since beginningless time, after all, and old habits die hard. But for some reason I can’t this (life)time. I may want to keep seeing samsara as a pleasure garden, but in this life it is (for me) revealing its true colors. Which is great, in fact, because it means I am not condemned to stay here for ever and ever. And, if I play my cards right, nor are my friends.

IRC Grand Canyon 1One of my favorite quotes in Buddhism, which I stumbled upon 3 decades ago in Meaningful to Behold, seems more and more relevant with each passing year:

We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.

A new disaster baseline

I just read this:

Even if America joins a global effort to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible, as we surely must, we have already locked in a new disaster baseline, and will have to spend a lot to repair and adapt. ~ The Week

And a friend of mine has been collating the shifts in the climate as part of his work as a Futurist checking trends:

  • The historic heatwave that just ravaged Eastern Europe.
  • Historic flooding and mudslides in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Niger.
  • A massive earthquake off the Mexican coast.
  • Record radiation from the sun due to unusual sun spots activity.
  • Bigger and more intense hurricanes striking the United States
  • Political instability in the US, Syria, Venezuela and 15 other places around the globe.
  • Historic fires in California, Oregon, British Columbia, Washington, Greenland and Tunisia.

And all of this over the past 60 days.

Buddha Shakyamuni and many Buddhist teachers who followed him predicted these difficult, turbulent, “degenerate times” in this human world. And Geshe Kelsang — who is certainly not an irrational fear-monger nor prophet of doom, but the most sane, realistic, and hopeful person I’ve ever met — has also been trying to wake us up for decades, IRC Grand Canyon 3saying things like:

Superficially it looks as if our world is improving, but if we look a little more deeply we shall see that there are now many problems that never existed before. Terrifying weapons have been invented, our environment is being poisoned, and new diseases are appearing. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And:

The result of an unbridled pursuit of happiness from external sources is that our planet is being destroyed and our lives are becoming more complicated and dissatisfying. It is time we sought happiness from a different source.

Time indeed. And that is not even taking into account the scary nature of other, lower realms in samsara and the distinct possibility that we could end up there after we breathe our final breath. Countless people are already trapped there.

So, what are we going to do?

I have so much I want to discuss on this subject these days that I have given myself writer’s block and haven’t written in weeks – I just don’t know where to start! But because I think the option of just getting all peaceful ourselves while doing nothing to help others is in fact no option at all, maybe I’ll start with that. (And now I can see I have written too much for one blog article, oops, but perhaps you can read it in installments, if you still have power after that hurricane.)

IRC Grand Canyon 2There have been a couple of articles recently questioning whether mindfulness has been co-opted and cheapened. Such as this one, which explores how “Pasteurized versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business”:

And this is perhaps the crux of the problem of the mindless application of Buddhist meditation practice: the marketing of mindfulness as a solution to work stress and life balance rather than the complex spiritual approach to living it is meant to be.

And:

Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action. If we truly become mindful of our existence, then our recurrent anxieties become not just a wave we watch pass through our minds, not something to be mastered in order to be a better servant, but a call to take action in order to be more fully alive.

And this article:

We’ve marketed an ancient Indian tradition as an antidote to stress, but traditional Buddhist meditation has two objectives: to become more compassionate, and gain insight into the true nature of reality. But meditating to gain compassion seems to have got lost in translation.

If people get interested in Buddhist teachings via “mindfulness” courses, I am all for it. I am actually grateful that contemplation and meditation are going mainstream in the Western world. And although very few people initially go to meditation classes to do any more than chill out and learn to relax, I am of course good with that, even if that is as far as they want to go.

But … I think it is important to let people know that there is infinitely more we can do with these teachings. People do often leave pleasantly surprised after sampling the low-hanging fruit, and more open to trying new things. Buddhism is not just a lifestyle choice to help us cope and escape, with no real bearing on ending suffering – the goal is all about ending suffering, wherever it is, and whoever it belongs to, because suffering hurts. And I would argue that our current times both reveal and request this engagement of us.

Meditation has in many cases become a type of therapy that shouts “Me, me, me” and entirely misses the point. Disengagement and self-absorption are not what are needed right now, not in this short window of opportunity we have to make a difference.

Stress reduction is necessary, as I have explained in this article, and it is essential to start by tuning into and identifying with the peaceful nature of our own minds; but becoming happier ourselves is only a means to a far, far greater end. Breathing meditation and so on help us still the mind, and from that place we have the space to apply the practical philosophy.

Bodhisattva factories

We do like doing this in the West, don’t we – stripping a philosophy out of its context for a simplistic quick fix. “Mindfulness with all the awkward Buddhist bits taken out” as a Guardian article recently put it. However, this cultural appropriation to a lowest common denominator, in the service of our “Me first” culture, implicitly underestimates modern humans’ capacity to rise above their egocentrism and transform themselves and their world entirely. The quick fix mentality means that people are potentially missing out so much, “starving themselves of the best bits” as someone who claims to have done that for years told me recently.meditating for world

But I don’t think Geshe Kelsang Gyatso could ever be accused of cheapening or watering down Buddhism in this way. In the last 40 years and counting, he’s been doing exactly the opposite, building up the Sangha, Centers, and study programs with 100% confidence that modern students can gain the same liberation and enlightenment as all the practitioners of old. His teachings are entirely in keeping with that of qualified, realized Buddhist teachers dating back in an unbroken lineage to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, with their emphasis on renunciation (wanting lasting mental freedom, not the self-satisfied incremental improvements of samsara), bodhichitta (engaged compassion, not complicity with the status quo), the wisdom realizing emptiness (the strongest medicine in the universe), and the two stages of Highest Yoga Tantra (taking us so far beyond our limitations and ordinariness). These teachings can bring about universal happiness and world peace; it is simply a matter of applying them.

(And need I add that no personal profit is made from any of the teachings and so they are a great deal less expensive than many mindfulness courses. Just sayin’.)

IRC Grand Canyon

I have been very inspired this summer by the new International Kadampa Retreat Center, Grand Canyon. It has 75 rooms and plenty of room to grow. Like a portal located on the iconic Route 66, the golden roof of its Temple for World Peace (once it’s built) will be glimpsed by millions of tourists every year, giving them at least some food for thought, if not inviting them into the discovery of their wondrous potential as Bodhisattvas.

To echo this article, I think we urgently need to incorporate some Bodhisattva thinking into our world. In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East.Meaningful to Behold

Whether we are practicing Buddhism Lite or not probably depends most on our motivation, whether it is worldly or spiritual. It depends on how engaged we are in actively overcoming suffering, and I would argue that this depends on how powerful our compassion is.Lekma in Southampton

We need three types of compassion, and the deepest, called “compassion observing the unobservable”, is to help everyone realize that suffering is not real (see Ocean of Nectar, just about to be studied on the STTP). But Bodhisattvas need to, indeed WANT to, solve every problem that they see. They don’t just sit back and watch Netflix passively for hours a day, twiddling their thumbs while Rome burns, excusing themselves: “Look, I did meditate today, but there’s not much I can do about all that suffering anyway, not until I’m a Buddha.” They are passionate and creative about ending suffering, day and night, and will do whatever is in their power.

Geshe Kelsang has also said more recently:

How wonderful it would be for our world if many modern-day practitioners could emulate the training the mind practitioners of ancient times and become actual Bodhisattvas! ~ How to Transform Your Life

I think supporting all our Kadampa Meditation Centers and World Peace Temples worldwide is crucial. They are Bodhisattva factories and — right about now — we need Bodhisattvas.

Do you agree?!

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What is modern Buddhism for?

I watched 13th recently. And “I Am Not Your Negro”. (You can get them on Netflix and Amazon, respectively.) They are both such well observed and eye-popping documentaries that I now want everyone to watch them – well, especially if you are anything like me and have been living in a bubble of privilege, uncomprehending and shocked as to why the USA “suddenly” seems to be so racist and mean, suddenly seems to be going “backwards” (when perhaps it was never progressing quite as forwardly as some of us thought.)

13th.jpg

The questions stirring my mind these days are how I, as a modern Buddhist, can help bring an end to racism and all other forms of discrimination, selfishness, and intolerance – and not just in some distant, delayed Pure Land, but here and now in this world, given that we are all in this together. I know Buddhism has the ideas. I know some of these ideas, such as love and fairness, are of course shared by other traditions too. My questions are how to share these ideas wider, most effectively and appropriately.

It is a work in progress and I welcome your comments on how you are doing it – some of you have already shared some useful observations on the last two articles.  For me, I will contribute by chatting on this blog and to anyone else who may be interested. I have been listening most recently to people, both lay and ordained, who have brought Buddha’s insights into prisons, to great effect, and into the favelas in Rio and townships in Cape Town, and into film-making, and into brave new visions for renewing our broken social systems.

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Modern Buddhism is surely not about escapism; it cannot be about navel-gazing. I think we need to gain gradual experience of these teachings while sharing them in as many practical ways as we can. I know Buddhist software developers, social activists, doctors, healers, artists, directors, performers, prison officers, entrepreneurs, and so on, who are increasingly bringing these ideas into play to change their professions and their own and others’ lives, to change society, to reimagine our world.

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This may sound obvious — that there are Buddhist practitioners appearing in all fields — but it was not always so. When I first got involved with the Kadampa Buddhist tradition 36 years ago, it had just come out of Tibet, not surprisingly dragging along the cultural accretions of a monastic-oriented and somewhat archaic values of a very static society. I hate to say this, but there was a view for a few years back in the day that if you were not a monk or a nun, you were not a full or proper Buddhist. If you were not living in a Buddhist center, you were not a proper Buddhist. If you had a regular day job, you were not a proper Buddhist. And if you had children, goodness me, you had pretty much thrown your precious human life away.

Those anachronistic basically Tibetan notions all went out of the window a very long time ago and surprisingly rapidly, thanks in large part to the vision, skill, and courage of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Working closely with his students, he has modernized the presentation of Buddhism in umpteen far-reaching and radical ways, all while managing to keep the meaning of the teachings intact and flourishing the lay and ordained community. This means that there is an ever increasing number of good examples of how to be a Buddhist, Bodhisattva, and Tantric Yogi.

As a result, this tradition has exploded in size and relevance. And I believe this modern Buddhism is still evolving to catch up with Geshe Kelsang’s vision!

planet earth

Which of Buddha’s insights could be of benefit to help our modern world? If you ask me, all of them! They are all methods for purifying and transforming our minds and actions, and thereby purifying and transforming our actual world, including everyone in it. And they boil down to wisdom and compassion, as explained in this last excellent guest article. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Developing compassion and wisdom and helping those in need is the true meaning of life.

For example, wisdom can be seen to range from an understanding that happiness and suffering are states of mind whose main causes depend upon the mind, right through to an understanding that everything, even the tiniest atom, depends upon our minds. The things we normally see, vis a vis things outside the mind or independent of the mind, do not exist — everything is mere name, mere projection. Everything is dream-like, everything is illusion. Our ignorance veils the truth; we need to pull that veil aside. We need to help ourselves and everyone else overcome their ignorance on every level because ignorance is what keeps us trapped in systems that have never worked and never will.

Compassion ranges from an understanding that we are all equal and interconnected, breaking down the pernicious “us and them” mentality, through to a universal empathy that finds the suffering of all living beings more unbearable than our own and seeks to permanently dispel it.

All these ideas are rooted in the idea of our potential for change — our innate compassion and wisdom — a potential that is enormous, infinite, and that can start functioning right now if we let it. And if we add the transcendent vision of Tantra, we are able to bring about results very quickly indeed.  prism

It also seems to me that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso — in many ways the modern Buddhist master for our time – has been pointing for a long time to the possibility of Buddha’s teachings bringing about actual world peace. In his Buddha Maitreya teachings of 2009, for example, he said, as I quoted earlier:

If everybody followed this view — sincerely believe there is no enemy other than our delusions — all our problems that come from fighting and war will be ceased permanently. Following this view is the best method to make world peace. Unfortunately, everybody denies or neglects Buddha’s view, his intention. So we want world peace, everybody says, “World peace, world peace!”; but no-one understands how to do this.

My feeling is that it is on us to help people understand, alongside gaining experience ourselves. How? Through our own practice, example, conversations, and social engagement. Through not hiding away these ideas or ourselves out of modesty or a fear of offending, but engaging our bodhichitta into the world around us, sharing any experience far and wide in as many contexts as we can.

Not trying to make everyone into a Buddhist either — most people will not become Buddhists but they are still welcome to apply these ideas.

To finish, here is some food for thought from a comment on this last article:

Compassion that is based in wisdom is the only effective way to change this dreamlike world. Geshe Kelsang explains why so eloquently at the end of the Great Compassion chapter in How to Transform Your Life. Changing our mind directly changes the experience of the world because there is no world outside of our experience of it! With wisdom and faith, we can experience that change directly and others will experience it through our example and influence. World peace is possible if we change our mind today.

Summer Festival.jpg

More to come, including hopefully some of your comments and/or guest articles. Also, the Kadampa Summer Festival is about to start, meaning that thousands of lay and ordained practitioners from around the world will be sitting around chatting in cafes … maybe see you there.

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A vision of hope in troubled times

A guest article.

Extract: “It all starts with a social dialogue, openly considering the Bodhisattva (“friend of the world”) ideal and way of life in all areas of society, not just in Buddhist Centers.”

Do you think world peace is possible? We want your comments on this subject! And please share this article if you can.

It’s fair to say that we live in troubled times. Whether it is the growing divisions in society, the threat of global terrorism, global warming, or the potential for conflict (or indeed all-out war) in parts of the world such as the Middle East and North Korea, it’s clear we live in volatile times. While we may not be expressing it externally so much, it seems to me that many people are living with a sense of quiet hopelessness for the future of humanity and our planet.

planet earth 3Thankfully all is not lost. There is a way we can all emerge stronger and more resilient in spite of the times we live in. Many people have found that within the teachings and practices of Buddha – for example, in the practical, modern Buddhist approach of Kadampa Buddhism – we can find a universal vision of real hope for everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. It also seems there has never been a time in the history of humanity when this vision of hope was more needed, at all levels of society.

Why? It starts with understanding the goal of Buddhism, which is the realization of world peace. Just as importantly, it offers methods to accomplish this vision. To explore how Buddhism offers very real and practical solutions for our troubled world, the key is to be clear about what is the biggest problem we have in the world today. It may surprise you to hear that it’s not the divisions in society, the growing threat of terrorism, or even global warming.

The biggest problem in the world today

The biggest problem in the world today is the current lack of wisdom and compassion in the hearts of living beings. I say the “current” lack of wisdom and compassion because all is by no means lost, and this present situation can truly change. As I will explain below, we can all evolve our current levels of wisdom and compassion, and in this way realize this inspiring vision of hope, a peaceful and harmonious world.

At present, the external problems in our world today – on which we are focusing most of our energies — arise from this inner problem that we largely ignore, our universal lack of wisdom and compassion.

Due to lacking compassion we face many problems on a micro and macro level in society and in our world. Lacking compassion, and due to grasping tightly at what “I want” to be more important than what “you want”, we experience so much conflict and breakdowns in our relationships. Terrorism is the result of a fundamental lack of compassion for others. In this case, what I want or my world view is more important than your life, even if your life happens to be the life of an innocent child.

radiate loveEvery major world religion without exception advocates love and compassion at the very heart of its teachings and way of life. Yet much of the terrorism we see in the world today is carried out in the name of religion. Lacking compassion, we cannot tolerate and embrace the differences in others, whether those differences are based on politics, race, religion, or sexual orientation. A brief glance at the daily news stands testament to the fact that we have never lived in such divided and intolerant times. For too many people today, it seems that if you are not like me, I don’t like you, or indeed I hate you. Also, lacking compassion, we close our hearts and borders to our fellow humans who seek only to live in peace, free from the traumas of war.

Due to lacking wisdom, our elected politicians believe the way to solve potential regional conflicts is to follow a path of diplomacy until that appears to have failed. Then, history shows that the final solution of our leaders seems to be imposing world peace through the force of guns and bombs.

Due to lacking the wisdom that understands the true causes of happiness, the prevailing world view is that we can buy our way to happiness. This leads to the problems of a consumer society working too hard, spending too much, eating too much, drinking too much, and ending up paying for it all in rising debt levels and decreasing physical and mental health and well-being.

When our accumulated stuff does not bring us the happiness and contentment we seek, we discard it. This then ends up on ever-growing land fill sites that contribute to a polluted world and potential global environmental catastrophe.

In reality, as the well-known modern Buddhist teacher and author, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, explains in many of his books:

Happiness is part of our mind that experiences peace of mind, it does not exist outside ourself.

Ironically, the cause of real peace and real happiness is, in essence, simply wisdom and compassion!

A note of caution: it is important that we direct our blame in the right direction, which is never toward other living beings. All too often people get angry at all the angry people they see in the world, which simply perpetuates the problem, never solving it.

Other people are never a valid object of judgment, yet always a valid object of compassion.

Everyone — whether they are painters or politicians — is simply working with their current levels of wisdom and compassion, which sadly at present can often be quite un-evolved. Unless people have consciously trained their minds to grow and strengthen their qualities of wisdom and compassion, it is unrealistic to expect anything better than what we see in our world today.

Everyone everywhere has the same potential

The solution is both simple and profound. As a starting point, as Geshe Kelsang puts it:

If everyone practiced cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.

We have tried everything else — perhaps it is time we embrace a new way of solving the problems we experience in our own lives, society, and world. This is not a nice to have, rather an absolute necessity if we are to successfully navigate our way through these difficult times.

The changes in society and our world need to start with a change in our relationship with ourself. To begin with, we need to come to know through our own experience that we all have the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom already in our hearts.

Anne FrankIn truth there is natural and limitless peace and goodness that lies at the heart of humanity and indeed all living beings. Whilst at present this natural peace and goodness is obscured by our negativity and delusions, Buddhist meditation gives us proven methods to connect to and fully liberate this peace and goodness. And we can start right here and now.

How? Any small experience of peace, joy, or good hearted qualities such as love, compassion, and kindness is revealing the essence of who we are, and the potential for who we can all become. In Buddhism, we call this inner potential our “Buddha nature”, and the good news is that everyone has the same potential.

Therefore, the solution to the biggest problem we have in the world today — the lack of wisdom and compassion in the hearts of living beings — is to simply recognize, through our own experience, this universal truth of our own Buddha nature and then learn how to access and fully actualize this potential.

When hope becomes reality

How do we accomplish this? Instead of living from greed, aggression, and intolerance, we need a new vision of how we relate to ourselves, others, and our world.

To put it simply, we need to become a friend of the world. This in the Buddhist tradition is known as the “Bodhisattva” ideal. A Bodhisattva is someone who identifies deeply with their Buddha nature, and motivated by a universal compassion for all and guided by wisdom, views themselves as a friend of the world. On this basis, they dedicate their life to the goal of accomplishing world peace. World peace is when everyone in the world is truly at peace, happy, and free from suffering. This is also enlightenment.

The way to accomplish this is simple yet profound. As Gandhi put it ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. Find real and lasting peace, freedom, and happiness within your own heart (enlightenment) and work to help everyone – without exception – to accomplish the same.world of friends1

In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East. ~ Meaningful to Behold

Although written nearly 40 years ago, for me this a compassionate message of real hope for our modern times and troubled world. If we are to solve the problems of our world and make it through these perilous times, people everywhere need to embrace and live at least some aspect of the Bodhisattva ideal. If we can create a shift in the global paradigm, and a lot of people can embrace this ideal even a little, we can change our world beyond recognition.

We shouldn’t see this as an impossible goal, and in fact this kind of change is not entirely new or unnatural to us. It is often in the periods of great darkness in the history of humanity that our Buddha nature seems to manifest as a force of light to oppose this dark, and some aspect of the Bodhisattva mind manifests. For example, the civil rights movement arose as a powerful and compassionate response to the inhumane segregation and repression of the rights of African-Americans. I also vividly recall the outpouring of compassion that arose from the images we saw on our TV’s of the terrible suffering during the Ethiopian famine of the 1980’s. This was the catalyst for the Live Aid concerts and the millions of dollars that were raised at that time, and the humanitarian projects it funded.

However, these positive shifts in humanity’s consciousness and the social movements that arise from these shifts all too often either dissipate or even sometimes turn from compassion to frustration and anger. We still have major racial divisions in the US and around the world, and we all too often turn off our TV screens at the latest global catastrophe or famine due to ‘compassion fatigue’, the result of the present limitations of our compassion and wisdom.

Towards an enlightened society

In my own experience, this is where the modern Buddhist approach can truly help. With its focus on integrating the principles of wisdom and compassion into all aspects of our daily life, and its universal applicability, everyone can learn what it means to live and grow from a truly peaceful, wise, and compassionate heart. This is the Bodhisattva’s way of life. If everyone could do this, one day we will realize this vision of a peaceful and harmonious world. World peace is simply the day when the world is at peace — this is an enlightened society. wings of wisdom and compassion

The practical way to realize this vision is to create a more enlightened society right here and now. It all starts with a social dialogue, openly considering and practically exploring the Bodhisattva ideal and way of life in all areas of society, not just in Buddhist Centers.

In this way we start a conversation about a better way for humanity and ultimately all living beings. The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that it offers proven meditations and practices for daily life that empower everyone in our society – regardless of your race, religion, or background – to at least begin to live the Bodhisattva’s way of life, right now!

When people in all areas of society — whether you are a father or a mother, a painter or a politician — try their best to live and grow from a genuinely peaceful mind and good heart of wisdom and compassion, we will begin moving towards a truly peaceful world, an enlightened world, and this vision of hope can one day be fully realized.

This guest article was written in response to my request at the end of this last article, A Buddhist way to world peace.

I am sincerely hoping that it will encourage more conversation around this subject, and not just on this blog but by you talking about compassion and wisdom as a viable answer to the world’s problems with the people around you, wherever you are.

I have met a number of people already finding ways to share these ideas at work and so on, changing people’s lives, and maybe you are one of them? And I am hoping we can collectively find more and more ways to spread these universally applicable solutions far and wide.