Serenity in the storm

7 mins read.

It’s no secret that humanity has been living through some difficult times and a lot of people have been struggling to stay afloat.

Friends all over the world have told me they’ve been having a challenging two years. Some who were relatively carefree have been experiencing levels of anxiety they didn’t expect, for example, and I know what they mean. I read that therapists cannot keep up with demand because stress and other mental health issues are, not surprisingly, at an all time high. Samsara (the cycle of impure life explained by Buddha) was not exactly working out even before this pandemic; but the pandemic has functioned like a magnifying glass for vulnerabilities.

Nine out of 10 therapists say the number of clients seeking care is on the rise, and most are experiencing a significant surge in calls for appointments, longer waiting lists, and difficulty meeting patient demand. Nearly one in three clinicians have 3-month waiting lists, and report hating having to turn so many people away.

This has got me thinking even more than usual about the value of Buddhism, or Dharma. Buddha specialized in overcoming adversity and suffering. His teachings address all aspects of the human experience, including trauma, grief, loneliness, depression, anxiety, anger, and overwhelmingness. Buddhist meditation is both therapeutic and transcendent, and anyone can learn how to do it, Buddhist or not.

We can go to classes now all over the world. There is no waiting list, no one has to be turned away, and weekly classes are kept accessible and inexpensive — not much more than this over-priced coffee I am nursing. And once we learn how to meditate we can do it whenever we like, for free. It doesn’t require special clothing or equipment. We can do it wherever we like too — on our bed or on our commute or on a park bench.

Hole or door?

I have been wanting to share a bit of advice for any of you who might be feeling fear and worry in these difficult times — advice I am just going to go ahead and repeat verbatim from a fellow ancient Kadampa:

This moment that humanity is living through can be considered a door or a hole. The decision to fall into the hole or go through the door is yours.

If you consume information 24 hours a day, with negative energy, constantly nervous, with pessimism, you will fall into this hole.

But if you take the opportunity to look at yourself, to rethink life and death, to take care of yourself and others, you will go through the door.

Take care of your body and mind. When you take care of yourself, you take care of others at the same time. Be kind to yourself and others.

You are prepared to go through this crisis. Grab your toolbox and use all the tools at your disposal.

Don’t feel guilty for feeling fortunate in these difficult times. Being sad and without energy doesn’t help at all — enjoy life! You have the right to be strong and positive. You have to maintain a beautiful, cheerful, and bright demeanor. This has nothing to do with ignoring the world’s problems, it is a strategy of resistance.

When we walk through the door, we have a new view of the world because we have faced our fears and difficulties. This is what you can do now:

  • Practice serenity in the storm
  • Keep calm, meditate daily
  • Make a habit of encountering the sacred every day
  • Demonstrate resilience through faith, patience, and love.

I hope this year that lots of people will add tools to that resilience toolbox by taking advantage of the meditation centers existing all over this big wide world.

While we remain with delusions such as aversion, uncontrolled desire, confusion, and fear, we are all of us mentally unhealthy to a greater or lesser degree. If we don’t understand ourselves, we cannot heal ourselves, let alone anyone else. Therefore, we need to learn to apply the medicine of Dharma to our own actual problems; and with a skillful meditation teacher this is exactly what we can do. Moreover, Buddhist meditation is not only immediately curative but also an entire path to the everlasting bliss of enlightenment – meaning that we can practice it at whatever level we wish.

For any Kadampas amongst you, this pressing need for Dharma to stay widely available has got me thinking about a related topic that seems quite relevant  …

Find your Sangha

Listening recently to one of Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s teachings from a Festival he taught years ago, I heard the laughter of thousands of people in attendance. It struck me how important these Festivals are for the flourishing of Kadampa Buddhist teachings in this world, providing the glue to keep this tradition alive and whole.

I really appreciate the opportunities that livestreaming meditation classes have created for people everywhere – it has been a genuinely silver lining to this pandemic, and I hope it stays put. However, from what I can tell, there has also been a lot of inevitable fracturing over these past two years of involuntary separation, and the sooner we can all try and get back in person to our Centers and Festivals, the better. (Maybe not this minute, with Omicron raging, but as soon as the coast is clear.)

We talk about the Three Jewels of refuge in Buddhism – not just Buddha and Dharma (his teachings), but also Sangha (the community of practitioners). Our Sangha provide the antidote to the isolation so many of us have been feeling, as well as the advice and help we need to make sustained and happy progress. I recall Venerable Geshe-la saying years ago:

People come for the teachings, but they stay for the Sangha.

What is our Center for?

What is your Buddhist Center for you?

I think this might be quite an important question to ask ourselves as we deliberate on whether or not to head on back there.

Kadampas are all about living a more heartfelt, enlightened way of life. That’s the theory, anyway. We really are supposed to mean it when we say, “Everybody welcome”; and this is because we are trying to be Bodhisattva communities. We share in the vision of bringing about lasting peace and freedom in the hearts of each and every single living being! Every Center is dedicated to this very aim. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we always maintain the recognition “I am a member of a Bodhisattva family; our community is a Bodhisattva family,” we will develop respect for our community, which in reality is Mahayana Sangha and an object of refuge.

If we go to our Center in person, we can help build up a warm, inclusive, and kind-hearted Sangha community, and it really will become a place where anyone feels they can come for company, joy, and mutual support. It can also act as a reliable base from which we can take everything we learn back out into our family and wider communities.

But, to paraphrase Gen-la Dekyong from last Summer’s International Festival, how can we say “Everybody welcome” if we’re not at the Center to let them in?!

We need to show up, somehow, to do our bit if we possibly can. I think so, anyway. As Venerable Geshe-la says in a talk he gave called “What should our main practice be?”

We cannot cherish all living beings immediately because our self-cherishing is too strong. Therefore, to train in the intention to offer happiness to others we need to choose one object to begin with. Eventually we can apply this practice to all mother sentient beings. I can say that for us this object is our own Dharma Centre. If we help Dharma Centers, in reality we are giving happiness to all living beings.

He goes on to explain exactly what he means by that, summing it up like this:

By helping Dharma Centers to flourish we are helping pure Dharma to flourish, and if Dharma flourishes people will have the opportunity to listen to, contemplate, meditate on, and realize Dharma. In this way they can solve their problems and gain permanent freedom from suffering.

Without our Dharma Center flourishing, what would be left in our area? Would we even have the rather convenient livestreaming we have all come to know and (sort of) love … ?!

Finally, in the current climate I think it’s worth mentioning also that Kadampa Centers are political-free zones. There is so much more we humans have in common than not, and Buddha’s teachings help us to appreciate this such that we can genuinely understand and respect one another. Something the world could use more of, wouldn’t you agree?

Comments on this subject (pros and cons of livestreaming) are appearing on this article, and your experience is very welcome if you can take a moment to write about it in the box below.

(One thing I want to just add is that, in my observation, livestream has worked well as a way to stay connected for those who had already attended Centers and somewhat knew their Sangha. Less so for complete newcomers — livestream is not quite as supportive — which may be why some Centers are now noticing that there are more “new” people than old-timers showing up for in-person classes. Your thoughts are welcome on this too.)

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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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