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 Buddhist way to world peace

In this most recent article, we saw how to view others as kind to us, as necessary to us, so that we could love them.

But a question may arise, “How can I see people as kind when they are mean or unjust?”

This is the question that came up in my mind when I saw the footage of Philando Castile’s girlfriend being comforted by her child in the aftermath of his terrible shooting. As a friend said on Facebook:

If this doesn’t humanize the outrageous event, I don’t know what will.

The worst of it, it seems to me, is that this has been going on forever. So how to respond constructively, how to see the “kindness” in this situation? As someone else put it on Facebook:

One day I hope I can learn to react to things like this with genuine compassion, rather than it make my blood boil.

I have been wondering how Diamond Reynolds will explain to her little girl what happened. How would a Buddha explain it in such a way that he could help the child, perhaps saving her a lifetime of sadness, victimhood, and distrust?

It pretty much goes without saying, but needs to be said again and again anyway, that if this had been a white family the man would still be alive. This family are victims of the ignorance and prejudice of others. The cop shooter was a victim of his own ignorance and delusions, and he was also a victim of the age-old system that allows this discrimination to carry on.

It seems to me that when it comes to the 400-year-old history of racism in this country, black or white we are all trapped in this corrupt system together. The sooner we realize that, and the sooner we pull aside the veil of ignoring, maybe the sooner the prejudice and complicit behaviors can end. As Martin Luther King Jr put it, the struggle against racial discrimination is

… not a struggle for ourselves alone, but it is a struggle to save the soul of America.

Delusions are our real common enemy

samsaraBut, even deeper, we are all victims caught up in the corrupt system of samsara, and this is our real problem. As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Our real problem is not the physical sickness, difficult relationship, or financial hardship that we might currently be experiencing, but our being trapped in samsara.

Whatever problem we are having, whether individually or collectively, we are having it because we are trapped in the prison of samsara, the cycle of impure life, by our delusions. If we are still in samsara, this means we are dominated by our bad habits of anger, selfishness, attachment, jealousy, etc, and above all by our ignorance. These are the source of all our negative thoughts and actions and of all our suffering experiences.

If we are in a prison, whatever problem we are having individually or collectively — whether with cold porridge, moldy surroundings, no money, or violent prison guards — the real problem is always that we are in prison in the first place.

And if we are in this prison of samsara, then even if some other prisoners seem to be having it worst than us at the moment, this is no cause for feeling superior or complacent. We are all in this together, lacking freedom, and we will have similar if not worse problems soon enough.

Delusions are our common enemy, the real enemy. It is essential that we separate people from their delusions. They are not their delusions, just temporarily controlled by them, as are we. Every living being is in fact kind, is even our mother from past lives; and our mother is never our enemy. In How to Transform Your Life, (available as a free ebook), Geshe Kelsang says:

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. Consequently, their love and compassion for sentient beings never diminish. Failing to make this distinction, we, on the other hand, are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind.

We are all slaves of our delusions together. They are like some master race enslaving us all, so there is power in opposing them together. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr:

When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.

World peace is possible

equalityWe need vision and hope based on reality — based on a realistic, helpful view. A Bodhisattva has huge vision, wishing to end all suffering everywhere with the understanding that everyone has the potential to be suffering-free. Is this what MLK Jr meant when he said:

I have seen the promised land.

We need to know and believe that an alternative way of thinking and living is possible. That world peace is possible. Geshe Kelsang said in 2009:

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.

Everyone, Buddhist or not Buddhist, can apply these practical teaching on blaming the delusions, not each other, for our suffering. If enough people follow this simple but profound view, world peace is a possibility.

Does this view help me consider the situation with more compassion, for a start? Yes, it does. It increases my wish to help everyone caught up in that situation become deeply free, not just from this horror but from all suffering.

More importantly, could Diamond’s little girl benefit from this idea? I believe so. I believe it could help empower her and give her peace if she took it to heart. I believe it could help the cop, too, to see the error of his ways. And it could help everyone trapped in thedoorways in mind system see that it doesn’t have to be like this, that there is another way out of this mess for all of us.

Temporarily we can be working to improve these particular situations by changing our minds and changing our society. Ultimately we can be working to break everyone out of samsara’s prison altogether. And can we not be doing all this at the same time?

An idea whose time has come

Our modern age is a time of momentous and lightning-fast change. It seems as though a lot of things are going downhill fast, but this rapid change can also open doorways in people’s minds as they struggle to figure out another, better way to be, given that the old certainties are no longer working.

What MLK Jr said some decades ago seems even more the case than ever:

Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

Given that, I believe that Buddhism is an idea whose time has come.

I have been thinking recently of how Buddha Shakyamuni himself appeared in India at a time of great social change, 2500 years ago. There was a lot of population upheaval from love alwaysthe rural areas to the towns, and a chance to shake things up a bit – and with his teachings on the equality and interdependence of all things, as well as his example of teaching, ordaining, and treating princes and paupers alike, Buddha upheaved the caste system.

I submit that Buddha’s teachings would be equally capable of ending racism, and the ignorance and fear and greed that underlie it.

I found this interesting quote the other day by a Sri Lankan monk, Walpola Rahula, who said in 1978:

Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom.

Buddhism is all about liberation from suffering. Mainly this means getting ourselves and everyone else out of samsara permanently. But this doesn’t mean that we all have to GO somewhere — samsara and liberation are mere reflections of our minds. We need to create this alternate peaceful liberated reality right here and right now by purifying our minds and our actions.

What is modern Buddhism if not applying the ideas of Buddhism to the problems of the modern world? In the modern world, we are not sequestered in caves and monasteries, as were the practitioners in Tibet. In this world we are all interconnected and interdependent like never before, and we ignore this fact at our peril. Far better to take advantage of it to spread the ideas of wisdom and compassion to bring about genuine, lasting improvement.

So, I am asking you, how are we going to get these ideas, such as the one above, out there?!

More in these articles: What is modern Buddhism for? and A vision of hope in these troubled times.

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