Inner being

5 min read

Refuge is what we turn to to get rid of our suffering. We go for refuge because we need refuge, or protection, from our various problems, big or small. We arguably spend all day going for refuge, trying to get rid of one thing by turning to something else.

people walking in NYC.jpeg

Like, just now I was feeling a big sleepy, so went to grab a coffee from my local NYC coffee shop. (Passing waves of people on the street seemingly on their way somewhere, no doubt in pursuit of relief just like me.) If we are feeling unwell, we turn to medicine; if we’re lonely, maybe we turn to friends or Tinder; if we’re hungry, we eat something if we can; if we’re bored, maybe we go online; if we’re uncomfortable, we shift our body into another position. Etc. Those are relatively tame things to do – we also have a large variety of more suspect things we turn to, such as opioids or the pursuit of power, status, and extreme wealth (check out this video:)

Sped-up movies

You know those sped-up movies? Watching them, we can see how we’re always on the go — going here, doing this, going there, doing that. Getting up, sitting down, propping ourselves up, lying down, walking around, sitting down again. Each day is a constant pursuit of little relief hits from what are basically physical or mental aches and pains. And we’ve been doing this our entire life. In all our lives, since beginningless time.

But the interesting thing is that we have just as many problems to solve as ever, don’t you find? We have just as many physical aches and pains, quite possibly more given that this body doesn’t get more comfortable as it gets older. Not to mention the near-constant mental aches and pains. So, we’re turning for refuge to other things all the time, but they are clearly only providing some temporary relief at best.New york subway

This is not to say that we shouldn’t eat, drink coffee, get a job, surf the internet, etc. That’s not Buddha’s point. His point is, are we finding the lasting happiness and freedom that we all long for? Are these temporary refuges sufficient for us, or could we actually be doing more? Could we be getting rid of our aches and pains more effectively?

And so far we’re not even talking about those BIG problems — namely ageing, sickness, major loss, catastrophes, and death — just the run of the mill irritations and discomforts. Coffee, the internet, power/status, and hot dates don’t even touch the big problems.

Ultimate refuge

This is where we turn to the subject of refuge in Buddhism. This is a vast subject — all Buddha’s teachings are included within refuge one way or another, because basically Buddhist refuge means that instead of turning to worldly solutions, or sense pleasures, or indeed anything outside our mind, we turn inside to the practice of Buddhadharma.

The main object of refuge in Buddhism is our own efforts in practicing Dharma: such as increasing our inner peace, getting rid of our delusions (sometimes known, with good reason, as “afflictions”), practicing patience, love, compassion, and wisdom. We turn to Dharma experience because we appreciate that it is the effective and lasting protection from our problems.New York shrine

There would be no Dharma without Buddha Shakyamuni, he taught it in our world; and Buddhas also emanate as Spiritual Guides who can guide us and bless our minds. Without Buddhas, or enlightened beings, it would be impossible to practice Dharma. And we also turn to Sangha, such as our fellow Dharma practitioners – others who are also interested in solving their problems, if you like, from the inside, not always from the outside.

Buddhism

At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, when he was walking around in a form that everyone could see, he never used the word “Buddhism.” The word “Buddhism” is a new invention. It is one of those Western “ism” words — we took Buddha and added ism to the end of it.

Buddha instead would apparently call his disciples “inner beings.” Nangpa cho, if you want to know the Tibetan and impress people at parties; which I believe, though correct me if I’m wrong, literally means inner Dharma. Those who practice the teachings, go for refuge to the Three Jewels, are inner beings, because instead of turning outwards for solutions to their problems they are trying to turn inwards to transform the mind.

new york freedom towerAnd the reason we practice Dharma is out of compassion, to free ourselves and others. To end suffering. To end suffering for everybody: humans, animals, insects, everybody. That’s the end goal in Buddhism — to ourselves become more and more of an object of refuge until eventually we ourselves are a Buddha.

Going for refuge to Dharma

Putting effort into practicing Dharma means that we take delight in it, really enjoy it. We see it as a real solution to everything that ails us and everybody else. We love it, we understand its benefits, we understand that it works. So we naturally turn to it with effort. Effort doesn’t mean straining and pushing, it means enjoyment — its full name is joyful effort. If we enjoy things, we do them, you’ve probably noticed.

Going for refuge to Buddha

We also put effort into receiving blessings and inspiration from Buddha. We can do this by just feeling close to enlightened beings, because from their side they’re already close to us, indeed one with us. By tuning into blessings, our minds experience huge amounts of power and inspiration.

Going for refuge to Sangha

love is the real nuclear bombAnd then we put effort into receiving help from Sangha, which means we allow ourselves to be encouraged and inspired by other people who are practicing Dharma. They’re all trying to gain the experiences of cherishing others and patience, for example, and all trying to get rid of their attachment and irritation. The fact that they haven’t managed it all yet doesn’t matter; we’re still motivated by them because they’re trying. They can be very good examples for us. And we can make an effort not just to receive help from Sangha but to help them too.

My feeling is that Sangha don’t have to be signed-up Buddhists – I find anyone who is relying on inner refuge, for example compassion in the face of adversity, can work as refuge and inspiration for me.

Over to you. Any thoughts to contribute on the subject of inner being?

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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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Let’s just be kind

storm sky
Storm Jonas Sky

Geshe Kelsang was in a car being shown around New York City some years ago – people were trying to point out the sights, he wasn’t unduly excited. At one point he shook his head, and said:

So many people, so much suffering.

Suffering can be seen on many faces in this towering concrete jungle. The overly entitled have affluenza in their penthouses, for example, while down below over 20,000 kids are homeless, including the frozen girl outside the Path subway stop with her cardboard sign. (Unbearable, she is still only a teenager but has been there for years. What future?) But there was a change in pace and noise over the weekend with the landing of Storm Jonas, when many were given temporary shelter, no cars were allowed on the roads, the snow muted all other sounds, and the usually high-octane New Yorkers were obliged to take it down a notch or two and cozy up inside.

I had my snow days over the water in Jersey City – we dug the car out but clearly weren’t going far on those roads, and the train was closed, so we stayed mainly on the sofa instead, along with millions of other East Coasters. Except I did go for some magical walks around the neighborhood with the dog – kids were making snowmen and tobogganing down their front stoops, everything felt far more peaceful than usual, graveyardthe cars were neatly buried, the blue sky and whiteness showed the colorful Journal Square houses off to good effect, even the cemetery looked good. It was like the olden days, like the 1950s or something, everyone convivial, the narrow or unpassable sidewalks forcing us to stand courteously aside for each other and smile. And everywhere, just everywhere, people were shoveling snow.

I had Winston with me, in his warm winter overcoat but his belly soaked. (Some people were dismayed by a photo I posted of him on Facebook because he was submerged to his nose, but what you might not know is that he is a Tibetan spaniel with snow in his DNA who chose to jump into the deepest mounds.) On shoveling snowMonday, as I was about to go inside, a friendly voice called me, “Hey! I didn’t recognize you!” I turned around. “Oh, it’s not you! But it is Winston! Where is Julian?” I told him that I was staying with Julian and France again, and that he and I had bumped into each other last year, which is true, his name is John. We got to chatting, he’s a very genial man, and he asked, “Have you come to live over here?” I said no, I still lived in Denver, to which he replied, “You should come and live with us! And meanwhile look at all this snow you brought! But it is a beautiful day.” We chatted a little longer and had some laughs. This was a good encounter and, though brief, left both of us feeling a warm connection. Life did not seem so rough in this neighborhood for a change.

John's home
Home?

Later as I was getting ready to go to Manhattan, the whole street for some reason filled up with emergency vehicles – a fire truck, 2 ambulances, a police car, all lights flashing. A queue of adventurous cars behind, no way they could pass on the snow-narrowed street. One ambulance left, one stayed. Emergency crew were coming and going with bits of equipment, and pushing snow fast to make a pathway for the stretcher. Clearly someone was in distress. “Perhaps it is the old Chinese man who lives next door?” said Julian. “I hope not, but maybe it is. Often people have heart attacks when shoveling snow.” I’d never heard that. I waited quite a while until someone was finally brought out on a stretcher, the ambulance crew still trying to pump his heart. To me, he looked dead, he had gone, only a body was left. And I said, “Julian, is that John?”

IMG_6645
Home?

We never know. Then we saw his distressed wife and 12-year-old daughter getting into the police car. I have heard since that he died in the house, that the first responders were never able to resuscitate him.

This has made me think, not for the first or for the last time, that life is way too short to waste in anger, frustration, disappointment, or intolerance. We have a few hundred months left at most. Life can end anytime so do we want to waste any of these valuable years, months, weeks, days, or even moments being angry or unkind? John was holding his shovel while we were talking. He was around my age, he looked perfectly fit and hJohn Caldwellealthy, he was having a beautiful day — but he still had a heart attack while shoveling snow. I was possibly the last person he talked to, an hour or so earlier, and if I had known then what I know now I would have asked him to go inside and sit on the sofa instead.

But that is not even all. On the Kadampa Buddhist Prayer Request FB page, someone has asked for prayers for her brother Thomas, aged 53 with a clean bill of health, who also died in New Jersey on Monday night while shoveling snow. He has left behind a “devastated” wife and teenage son. Please remember John, Thomas, and their families in your prayers.

IMG_6647Bodhisattvas, those intent on attaining full enlightenment to free every living being from their suffering and its causes forever, have a prayer, beautifully articulated by Shantideva:

Therefore, in whatever I do, may I never bring harm to others;
And when anyone encounters me, may it always be meaningful for them.

Walking down the street this evening with Winston, I saw the tree John planted for France and Julian outside their house, his black landscaping truck that has stood still for 3 days even though the road is now clear, and his blue home with all the curtains closed, perhaps his beloved poodle waiting by the door. And I thought how the remaining piles of once innocent snow, now grubbying and yellow, might be reminding his wife and daughter of their unfathomable loss, and how they might always find snow sinister after this.

John's truck
The snow is shoveled but this truck is going nowhere.

It makes me want to remember at all times that we are all on our way to dying and our next lives, so whoever we think we are and wherever we think we come from, we are all in this together. So let’s just be kind to each other on our way.