To the rescue!

While working on an article filled with your ideas on how Buddhists can (and need to) help in the current world turmoil, someone sent me this:

In a recent retreat, after teaching on emptiness and how the appearances in this life are like dreams, Gen Losang went on to say that a compassionate way to help people is to skilfully reduce the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it. He meant skilfully, not shutting them down with, “Oh, it’s all emptiness.” 

wisdom

What do you think about this? It reminded me of this analogy (below) for helping people on different levels and in accordance with their needs that I hope you might also find helpful.

To help anyone, we need compassion. And true compassion, or deep compassion, arises from renunciation – we develop renunciation for ourselves and for everyone else.

Renunciation is when we stop buying into samsara, hoping that things in samsara will one day work themselves out – they will not. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. For as long as our minds are impure, our worlds will be impure.

“Reducing the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it” depends on the degree of suffering and crazy appearances the person is experiencing.

If we are helping someone who has a little space in their lives, and who is suffering, for example, from a relationship problem – yes, this advice can really help.

For someone whose home and country have just been washed away or burned to the ground, maybe not so much. (Unless they already have experience of this deep spiritual truth and just want reminding.)

The swamp

Imagine living beings are trying to navigate a huge, deep swamp that happens to be full of alligators and other monsters with very big teeth and hungry bellies. It is dusky — hard to see clearly or far. There are stepping stones, but it’s challenging to see how to tread safely. Here and there are small patches of dry land where people can catch a bit of a breather, and some of those patches even seem relatively pretty or interesting.

alligator in swampImagine that we are also in that swamp, but that we know, at least intellectually, something profound – this swamp is false, merely an appearance to mind, like a dream or a movie.

The need for renunciation

In that scenario, we need renunciation ourselves, wishing to get out of this swamp of samsara entirely and forever rather than remaining intrigued by it. We need to know that for as long as we have delusions, we’re going to keep projecting monsters wherever we look.

dystopia

Speaking for myself, I know that the times I feel anxious, overwhelmed, heavy, or graspy is when I have forgotten my renunciation, which is a light, joyful, and confident wish for liberation. My compassion then is far less effective. I have thoughts like, “There are so many people, including animals, needing help! So many people demanding the attention that I’m not giving them – it’s coming from all sides. How am I going to save them all from the alligators?! Especially when I’m feeling trapped or overwhelmed myself?” I feel like going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or distracting myself with Netflix. It also doesn’t help if we are bound to our own selfish attachments needing things or people to go our way.

If we don’t have the non-attachment of renunciation, we have only momentary relief when a plan pans out – but it is short lived, whereas the disappointments can seem to pile up effortlessly. This is because of attachment. It leads to the suffering of change, not to deep satisfaction or solutions.

The need for wisdom

We also need some wisdom understanding the illusory nature of the swamp or we will soon be joining in the collective panic, “Aarggh, I’m freaking out over here! We’re going to be swallowed whole.” We will be part of the problem, swept up in the drama, overwhelmed by appearances or the 24/7 news cycle.

Without wisdom, compassion fatigue sets in because it is exhausting to try and solve “real” problems — it is like wading through treacle with no end in sight. It can also make us feel guilty as we can never do enough.

With the compassion born of renunciation and wisdom, we won’t get discouraged. The context is different – we have set it up differently. We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”

Back to the analogy … Let’s say we are lucky enough to have a flashlight. The flashlight is the teachings illuminating the path — we don’t know how long we have this flashlight, but it is very effective. How strong it is depends on the strength of our experience. Perhaps we understand the dream-like nature of reality and — even though for now things may also still seem real to us — we know we have to get ourselves and others to the firm ground of wisdom.

Tread here!

swampWhat we need to do, if we care about the people around us, is to stop them being eaten by swamp monsters. The first thing we need to do is encourage them to get to the patches of dry land … tread here, avoid those jaws, hold my hand, look at the light. You’ll be ok, let me help.” Although there are no real dangers there, they are not necessarily ready to hear us say so: “Stop being an idiot! There are no swamp monsters! This is just a dream! It’s all empty!” We understand how it is all appearing to them as real, and so we give them the relevant advice for their situation. We empathize with their hopes and fears. We give them material help, “Here, have some water.” They need water.

Once they reach dry land, and have had a chance to rest up, we can then tell them:

“Believe it or not, this is all just a bad dream. You are in no real danger. And now let me explain how.”

We can explain how it is possible for them to stay on firm ground forever, and help get everyone else out as well.

IMG_2080

We may not be able to do this with everyone straightaway, of course — for example all I can do with these foster kittens is give them food, shelter, love, temporary safety, and entertainment. But we never give up trying until everyone is permanently safe and free. That is a Bodhisattva‘s mentality.

Calm the waters

I’ll finish by sharing what my friend wrote about Gen Losang’s advice:

The key for me here is genuine compassion. I say that because if we try to practice this without genuine compassion as a motivation then we just end up unskillfully minimising people’s feelings. It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.

Within that, I try not to draw attention to the awful things that are happening. Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic. I point out possible alternative explanations for the actions they have witnessed, or suggest a better possible outcome. In a way I try to steer their dream in a more positive direction. If a mother comforts a child after a nightmare, she doesn’t do this by agreeing the monsters were just horrific and are probably still there …IMG_2085

If we are not careful, we can just spread the hype (and there is also no shortage of “fake news” out there). We can end up pointing out the monsters in their nightmares that they missed the first time, instead of shining the flashlight under the bed and saying, “Look, there is no one there!”

A parent comforts their children when they have been terrified or upset by a dream by sympathising with their pain but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth. Then, once they are comforted to some extent, they can move their attention to something that will soothe or comfort them, rather than harping on about their own horrific nightmares or asking them for more details. 

What I am working on now is responding in the way Losang suggested, calming the waters, not swirling them around. 

As always, your comments are welcome below.

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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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