The inspiration of Harriet Tubman

I want to talk about Harriet Tubman, one of the most celebrated freedom fighters in American history, whose story Harriet has only now made it onto the big screen. I don’t need to put a spoiler alert on this because most Americans, if not others, know her story. It’s as relevant as ever and has inspired me anew to get over myself and “keep on keepin’ on”.

For the time-pressed amongst you, don’t bother reading this article lol — just listen to the movie anthem, Stand Up:

I’ll start with this overview from ST, who watched the movie with me:

“The anthem has the power of someone who has just stood up on principal — and owns it. This is the story of someone who does not identify with what is done – only what is to be done. It is a story of courage and righteous determination. It is a story of a leader who didn’t take No for an answer. She was aware it was not going to be easy but was willing to give her last life drop to save others – with her own hands. She was so laser focused on what she needed to accomplish that her own self barely rated a mention. She was selfless, compassionate, loving, and brave. To me, she is a genuine inspiration: her focus and determination and fearless action. All this while having been a slave, been a woman, in the 1800’s, against all odds she surmounted.

I ask myself, would I have been as brave? Would I have thrown myself into that life, in that place and time, as she did? And I have to conclude that it would be poorly at best – given that although I know Dharma and I trust Geshe-la, I have not plugged like that into refuge, renunciation, and bodhichitta. And yet my life evaporates before my own eyes.”

If you have time, read on …

Life in bondage

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.

Harriet in slavery daysIn early life, Harriet experienced the countless horrors of a life in bondage. She and her family were beaten, sold, humiliated, and constantly ill due to poor conditions and endless struggles.

Although slavery was all she knew, somehow Harriet knew it was not right. She came to realize that she was destined for something else. Born a slave, she yet had a vision of freedom.

We samsaric beings, too, are born enslaved. We are all in bondage. Now is not the time to appease the slave holders but to stand up. Don’t ignore that voice inside you that says you are born to bigger things. Harriet didn’t.

Harriet Tubman quotation 1.jpg

Owning others

God don’t mean people to own people. 

Harriet’s relationship with Gideon Brodess, the chilling young slaveholder, was complicated – he seemed to envy her and love her and hate her. He was torn. They grew up together. She might have saved his young life with her fervent bedside prayers; he’ll never know. He knew her humanity and probably even her superiority, but was raised in a belief system whereby he was the superior, her master and OWNER! He knew this was not true on one level, but he also got a kick out of thinking, “You’re amazing, but I own you.”

How can one human being absurdly feel that they own another? Only by “othering” them and labelling them less than a human (at most two-thirds of a human); so he had to liken her ridiculously to a pig. Yet at the same he recognized her power – for one thing, his father had just dropped dead, and he didn’t know if it was because of her prayers that God smote him.

Why do we ever feel the compulsion to “own” another living being and/or (ab)use them for our own purposes? There is no justification for it. It is always just ignorance. It stems from the so-called view of the transitory collection conceiving “I” and “mine”. Because we have a strong sense of I, we also have a strong sense of mine, which is grasping at I in the possessive mode, “I’s”, or “of me”. The stronger this ignorant sense of an inherently existent self and mine, the stronger the sense of other and possession; and the more our self-cherishing unreliably informs us that this “other/possession” is less important than self.

(Technical aside: “view of the transitory collection” simply means we observe the transitory, fleeting collection of body and mind parts, not one of which is the self, and project or view a real, inherently existent self there where there isn’t one.)

Does thinking we own other people make us more free or more powerful? Of course not, ignorance does the opposite. And are abusers ever off the hook – how do they really sleep at night or look at themselves in the mirror, what fantasies about themselves do they have to concoct and then constantly sustain to make their life feel even remotely right? Gideon’s mother, for example, looked about as tense as it is possible for a human being to be even when things were supposedly still going her way. Not to mention the hideous karma.

As said here, of course, it is not other living beings but delusions that are the real slaveholders. While the delusions grasping at I and mine run the show, we will continue to treat each other badly and create worlds of suffering for ourselves at the same time. Because Buddhas and Bodhisattvas understand that people are not their delusions, their love and compassion for everyone (even psychopaths!) never wavers. And they work on two levels – going to the assistance of those in need with fierce love and compassion, but also and always keeping their sights on liberating everyone permanently from the actual causes of all suffering.

Do you really want to be free?

Not everyone Harriet tried to help wanted to be helped. In the movie, at least, her sister Rachel, for example, seemed to opt to keep her head under the radar as much she could and just find ways to withstand the terrible treatment until her death.

What’s the difference between a Harriet and a Rachel? Rachel knew her situation was atrocious so why did she deny herself any hope of release, even when her sister came all the way back for her?

I don’t claim to know about Rachel per se, or all the other slaves in her position. Rachel’s situation was going to be very dangerous whatever she decided. However, this scene made me wonder not so much about Rachel but about myself. Am I just going through the motions of renunciation and bodhichitta? Do these go deep enough? Am I free? Am I a freedom fighter? Or am I someone who knows life can be extremely painful but still doesn’t have a deep enough wish to escape, thinking I will just try to put up with my lot till death sets me free? Neglecting also to think about the even greater slavery and bondage I will be subject to in future lives, that the only difference between me and someone more obviously enslaved is time?

In other words, do I really get how unfree I am? That not just samsara’s pains but its reliefs are totally deceptive and irredeemable, houses of cards at best?

The black slave catcher also rejected salvation. Even in the inspiring presence of a courageous freedom fighter, he didn’t want to leave and he didn’t want anyone else to leave either. Am I like that — aiding and abetting samsara’s wardens in the hope of some perverse affection or reward, like someone with Stockholm syndrome?

Stand Up

Harriet managed to escape from her slaveholders in Maryland in 1849. As she jumped to an uncertain fate in the rushing river, rather than go back to Brodess who was slickly trying to convince her he wouldn’t hurt her, she declared:

I’m going to live free or die! 

Imagine having that zero tolerance for the despicable, slick, and heartless enemy of samsara, not trying to keep appeasing it or hoping against all odds for the best. Harriet had the deepest renunciation for slavery and an option to try and do something about it, which then translated into compassion for others in the same situation.

The underground hero Reverend Green — who preached obedience in front of the slave owners as a cover to enable Harriet and others to escape – had said to her:

There’s not much time. You got to be miles away from here till dawn. Follow that north star. If there are no stars, just follow the river. Listen for them. Fear is your greatest enemy. 

And, having defeated that greatest enemy, Harriet finally crossed into Pennsylvania, later describing that moment:

When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven. 

Harriet’s faith

Harriet as MosesShe was indubitably guided by her faith, her faith increasing with her fear, like refuge does. The sun of her faith kept her always pointed in a positive direction:

I been walking with my face turned to the sun.

Did she have narcolepsy or seizures or even “possible brain damage” as stated in abolitionist William Still’s initial report on her? It doesn’t really matter. If our faith makes other people think we’re a little different or crazy it doesn’t matter because, as the singer Seal puts it:

No we’re never gonna survive, unless
We are a little crazy.

Apparent craziness = sanity, when it comes to disbelieving samsara’s fairy tales and following our Spiritual Guide out of here.

And I know what’s around the bend
Might be hard to face ’cause I’m alone.
And I just might fail
But Lord knows I tried
Sure as stars fill up the sky.

Like Harriet, we need a deepening faith and refuge whenever things go wrong, in the very middle of danger and pain. We can trust more in blessings and open ourselves more to being guided. It worked for her and for the thousands of people who trusted her.

 It wasn’t me, it was the Lord! I always told Him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,’ and He always did.

JW, an African American friend mentioned here, just told me while we were discussing this movie:

“I don’t know if this was in the movie, but Harriet was asked to lead the raid on Harper’s Ferry during the Civil War by abolitionist John Brown. She didn’t go for some unknown reason. Fortunately for her, she didn’t go, because the group was captured and many of the group were executed, including John Brown.”

Holy beings seemed to be protecting her till a ripe old age. Our faith protects us. I feel I’ve had a couple of near misses myself that are hard to account for without some divine intervention.

We already have Buddha nature that is not of this world, not of samsara. Within it, we can come to feel the connection to holy beings, to enlightenment. The sooner we tune in and relate to that, the sooner we will wake up from this horror story.

Take my people with me

My father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were in Maryland. But I was free, and they should be free.  

Harriet escoring slavesEven though Harriet made it to a new life and a fresh start, she couldn’t rest easy knowing her people continued to endure doomed lives as slaves. So despite the strong protestations of William Hill, she went back with a suit to fetch her beloved husband. Only to discover that he had married another woman.

At first full of doubt and emotional agony, she said:

Why, Lord, did you bring me all this way to rub mud in my face? 

But then she realized, through the pain, that the suit must have been meant for someone else. God had other plans for her.

When things don’t go our way, they can be the catalyst to a far more meaningful life. Not to mention, as Marie, her friend in Pennsylvania, says later:

What’s a man to a woman touched by God?

Although her husband lost out, Harriet still used her karmic circle as her starting point. She was not afraid of her fondness for her family and relatives — in fact it spurred her on to rescue all the others.

Harriet’s brother: Why are you back here? It ain’t safe.
Harriet: I come to get you. Bring all of you to freedom.

When it comes to helping others we need to start with where and with whom we are. This is also modern Buddhism. Not afraid to work with our karmic circle, we have to help the people in our orbit, but still come to take whoever wants to come — using our heartfelt karmic connections as a portal to the bigger cosmos of all living beings.

One of the 8 precepts observed by an aspiring Bodhisattva is, “not to abandon any living being.” And Harriet — focused not on who had been freed but who had not, and even when it made the journey a lot more challenging — always had room in her mission for one more.

I do what I can when I can while I can for my people.

Harriet became a conductor on the Underground Railroad — a network of secret routes and safe houses destined to help those enslaved during the 19th century first to the Northern free states and later, when the despicable Fugitive Slave Law was adopted in political concession to the Southerners, to Canada instead. She made an endless string of round-trip journeys down to the South in a disguise and with the nickname Moses, rescuing more and more slaves with each miraculous expedition.

Fearless, Harriet avoided cops, dogs, mobs, bounty hunters, and slave catchers. She and her escapees slept in swamps and moved only at night. She inspired huge courage, crossing the river when she had no real idea if she’d drown, but knowing it was the only way to encourage her people to follow her out of there.

I’m wading through muddy waters
You know I got a made up mind. 

To be honest, as things stand at present, I’d prefer not to have to run around like that my whole life as I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But what I do want is that fearless determination and commitment, that lack of apathy and complacency, that self-confidence, and that faith in being guided every step of the way. Harriet has inspired me to take renunciation and engaging bodhichitta more seriously. To be less wimpy about wading through the muddy waters of samsara to the brand new home of liberation and bringing everyone with me.

There is a verse in Offering to the Spiritual Guide about the mentality of joyful effort:

I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be reborn as an actual hell being, but that a Bodhisattva will go back to the lower realms again and again until everyone is liberated. Harriet was not about her own personal safety. She was free, but she was compelled. Her compassion gave her no choice but to keep going back.

I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.  

Keep on keeping on

Harriet was black and female in a very white male world. But she didn’t let any man get one over on her. Not Gideon, not her husband, not her brother, not the abolitionists, not anyone who spoke down to her. She earned huge respect.

I made it this far on my own, so don’t you tell me what I can’t do.

Harriet never learned to read or write, but despite all odds she was the only conductor to never lose a slave. She was a Union spy during the Civil War. She was the first woman ever to lead a combat assault, rescuing 750 people. Her knowledge of the local flora in Maryland led her to find a cure for Union troops suffering from dysentery. She became a suffragette. She was penniless until old age. She died at a charity home she had founded in Auburn, New York.

All told, she was an unstoppable force for good.

Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going. 

What motivated her? JS told me that she was saying to someone, “I watched Harriet and loved her compassion,” only to have the person reply: “No, Harriet was very angry.” JS (and me) disagree heartily. Anger has no good qualities because the mind is egotistical and distorted and Harriet was amazingly selfless and clear-headed. If Harriet had been angry she might have killed Gideon (or the white family) when she had the chance, but instead she gave him a teaching. It is perfectly possible to be both fierce and compassionate, in fact it can be required. There’s an important distinction to be made between anger and non-deluded wrath, and Harriet is a good example of the latter.

There are four types of non-deluded pride, or self-confidence; and one way or another Harriet seemed to exemplify them all. Her courage and passion grew over the years and decades, just like ours can. Far from being vain, between God on the one side and all the slaves on the other there wasn’t much room left over for ego. Harriet’s sense of identity was mixed with a greater good. This selflessness impressed people so much that they came over to her cause, including a previous slave catcher.

Notably, to me at least, Harriet Tubman suffered from terrible headaches from an injury inflicted upon her by a slave owner – but still she carried on. Arguably it drove her on with even more empathy. Using Dharma, such as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path makes our mind into a blacksmith’s anvil, which doesn’t get affected however hard it is hit.

Stand up

That’s when I’m going to stand up
Take my people with me
Together we are going to a brand new home
Right across the river
Can you hear freedom calling
Calling to me to answer
Gotta keep on keeping on. 

This is what ST has to say about this epic anthem chorus for all Bodhisattvas in training:

“These lines remind me of the superior intention of a Bodhisattva, taking personal responsibility, because everyone, just like me, wants happiness and freedom from suffering. Through this we will make it to the Pure Land, the experience of a pure mind free from the bondage of the delusions. We will cross the river of samsara, always called on by the freedom that is part and parcel of our Buddha nature.”

I have no idea if Harriet was or was not an actual Bodhisattva, defined as someone who seeks to attain enlightenment to liberate each and every living being permanently from suffering. But as JW said, she was “very very brave. Very inspiring, indeed. She was as close to being a superhero as a real person could be.”

Harriet Tubman 20 dollar bill
May this come to be.
“Someone I can relate to”

Point is, Harriet was a “real” person, like us; which means we can be superheroes too. As JS was telling me, sometimes we read stories about great practitioners to discover that they were already fully realized and were just showing us an example – Buddha himself had already attained enlightenment, for example, and Je Tsongkhapa was Manjushri. Their stories are still incredibly faith inducing, but we need stories not just of ancient Mahasiddhas and Bodhisattvas back in India and Tibet and even in other world systems who did extraordinary things, but people nearer our time and experiences. Even though Harriet seemed to start off as a regular person like the rest of us, her courage and faith grew throughout her life. She was on a spiritual journey if anyone is. “This is someone I can relate to,” said JS. I think anyone who is interested in freedom can relate to this story.

Avoiding complacency

Harriet transformed fear on the one hand, but on the other she didn’t allow herself to be seduced by samsara’s comforts. She never let herself get too cozy or complacent even when she could have led a seemingly free life – she was not scared of discomfort.

And I don’t mind if I lose any blood on the way to salvation
And I’ll fight with the strength that I’ve got until I die. 

Man, I would love to be like that. As JS put it:

“I feel like I have a relationship with her – to see someone who looks like me develop the wish not to be enslaved, to take the Bodhisattva vow, to self-generate as someone through whom God is working, divine pride. She was not doing the bidding of the status quo, so when the relatively posh abolitionists, good people all (including Frederick Douglass), told her she couldn’t bring people 600 miles to Canada, she told them they were too comfortable and that they couldn’t tell her what not to do. Harriet took on actual engaging bodhichitta, as opposed to just saying the words. She had such conviction, there was no doubt in her mind that she could do this.

Speaking truth to power, it as is if Harriet was directly addressing us audience in the comfort of our own living rooms, never really having to do anything — instilling in us a sense of urgency and need. Frederick Douglass and co were indubitably brave people, but they were not willing to put as much on the line – they created a system, but she rescued people on her own, with the grace of God.”

Indeed, Douglass is quoted as saying to her:

The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.

Harriet’s choices of course did not make for an easy life.

Weight on my shoulders, a bullet in my gun. 

Still these heavy things are in my life, and I have to fight a fight to lift them, maybe she is saying. However, unlike me, Harriet never seemed to whine about having too much to do (to help people!) or to tightly guard her days off. She was driven by joyful effort.

Perhaps she saw everything as an opportunity to help others and to increase her faith, thereby having an amazingly meaningful life; and was grateful for it? I don’t know, but her behavior has struck me with the thought that this is a very good way to approach life’s to do lists — to start from a sense of being lucky and thankful.

I go to prepare a place for you

Harriet at end of lifeHarriet freed as many as 3,000 people from slavery, but her job was not done. Her marvelous last words, aged 91, were:

I go to prepare a place for you.

Temporary freedom, though clearly a lot better than slavery, is not good enough. Canada is no one’s final destination. Nowhere in samsara is. We need the permanent freedom that comes from a completely pure mind. I imagine Harriet Tubman went straight to her heaven or Pure Land through the force of her refuge and compassion, where to this day she is preparing it for others.

Ultimately, we need to aim at bringing everyone into the Pure Land of our own enlightenment. For at that time our mind will be, as it says in Praise to Buddha Shakyamuni:

A refuge for all living beings.

Thank you for reading all this! Comments welcome.

Key

Quotes in purple – original Harriet Tubman quotes.

Quotes in green – quotes from the movie Harriet.

Quotes in blue – quotes from the anthem Stand Up.

 

 

 

Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

8 mins read

IMG_5326The other day I heard about a study in which psychologists asked a bunch of regular people how many of their thoughts they had no control over, out of 10.

Their findings seemed quite startling, so in my own further market research I have of late been asking hundreds of people this same question.

I’ll ask you, if you don’t mind … out of 10, how many of your thoughts are in your control and how many are not? Or, put another way, how many of your thoughts do you actually want or choose to think and how many of your thoughts do you not want to think but can’t help thinking?

…….

I don’t know what your answer is, but I have, interestingly enough, been getting the same answer as the psychologists from almost everybody else. Which is …

9.

9 uncontrolled thoughts out of 10! Rarely has it been 8. Never has it been lower than 7. Sometimes people have said 10. Or 11!

Meditation is the antidote – it enables us to control our thoughts. So this has given me even more appreciation for the vital role of meditation in our day and age. For if this is true, and I have no reason to doubt what people are telling me, we can’t control our own mind 90% of the time. No wonder we feel bad a lot (90% of the time). No wonder we have only a 10% guarantee of happiness on any one day. And no wonder our world is such an uncontrollable mess – we are all pretty much insane.9-10-rating

Buddha analyzed that the main reason we are still suffering is because of our uncontrolled mind. We have a word for these uncontrolled thoughts – “delusions,” unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts that arise from inappropriate attention. Anxiety, anger, attachment, addiction, jealousy, self-obsession, pride, and so on rule the roost. They dominate and manipulate us all day, well at least 90% of the time. They are our worst enemies — our only enemies when it comes down to it. We have to gain control over these delusions or they will continue to control us, till kingdom come, every single day.

The devastating knock-on effects of uncontrolled thoughts

Yes, the world is getting crazier, if you ask me. Nationalism is on the rise in many countries. Hatred for “others” seems to be increasing exponentially, not just in the US, but in Central and South America, and all over Europe. These last 34 days leading up to a potentially no-deal Brexit feel to me like watching a slow-motion train wreck that we could stop but for some reason won’t. Meanwhile one fifth of the world’s children are living in a conflict zone, traumatized; and way too many children are starving. And don’t get me started on our behavior towards animals.

Where do these bad actions and their ensuing problems really stem from? Is it not from anger, hatred, intolerance, greed, selfishness, confusion, apathy? Are these not the real problems that we need to fix? Corrupt politics and so on are the conditions arising from these delusions, not the root cause. When we don’t control our thoughts, they control us.world peace

The great Indian master and founder of the Kadampa tradition, Venerable Atisha, said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Try as we might to cure the world’s problems and sort everyone else out, and as important as that work and goal undoubtedly is, we can only make a deep and lasting difference if we are sorting out our own thoughts at the same time.

Below the mess

We are not crazy at heart though. At heart, below all this mess, we are amazing. We all have an indestructible potential for perfect concentration, mental mastery, peace, love, wisdom, and endless bliss. And we need to learn to pay attention to this, learn to identify with it, so that we can realize it. Our uncontrolled thoughts are still just thoughts – we can learn to let them go and think instead the thoughts we want to think.

And what would those be, as a matter of interest? Probably happy ones, loving ones, helpful ones, creative ones, etc. Buddha has a lot of ideas for positive and wise thoughts we can develop, comprising the entire path to enlightenment.

Mastering our own mind, we master our life and we master our future. With mindfulness and concentration, and indeed the whole path of training the mind in compassion and wisdom, we can learn how to master 2 thoughts out of 10, then 3, then 4 … all the way to 10/10. True mental freedom!

We have our work cut out

And I would submit that there is no time to waste. Distraction and intrusive thoughts are only getting worse. If you are reading this, you are probably older than 0 to 6 years old. But bear in mind that many of this age group are right now immersed in a screen somewhere, picking up the habits of distraction that will quite possibly torment them for a life time.Calvin and Hobbes

By the way, I just looked up “distraction” in the dictionary:

  1. something that serves as a diversion or entertainment
  2. an interruption; an obstacle to concentration
  3. mental turmoil or madness

Distractions can be all three at the same time, if you ask me, when driven by attachment. Our seemingly innocent diversions and entertainments can indeed be interruptions and obstacles to concentration; and our dependence on them is surely driving us to mental turmoil and madness.

Honestly, I can’t be bothered to wait for the results of the research on this intrusive technology on developing brains to come in – I will take the word of my dentist instead. She told me today that when her 4-year-old and 6-year-old nieces greet her, they run up, say “Hi Ally!”, and then immediately root about her person for her phone, “Can we do Snapchat!?!” If they are offered a toy to play with, they are uninterested, unless by playing with it they are then allowed more screen time. They won’t play board games. They are not all that interested in the great big outdoors even though they live in a veritable children’s wonderland (Colorado). They are already entirely addicted to the magic box. And in this they are just like all their friends. “Have you noticed fewer kids playing in the cul de sacs and so on?” Ally asked me. “Doesn’t it strike you as quieter outside these days?”

“All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box”

baby and technologyBy coincidence I also read The Week article about this later in the day, called “An iPad is not a parent”:

Children are living in a technologically augmented reality — not from adolescence or young adulthood, when they might be old enough to have some say in the matter, but from birth onward.

And:

All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box after your parents press two buttons — or, more likely, without any apparent human effort at all, thanks to an infinite algorithmically generated playlist: This is an experience as familiar to them as the sound of rain.

A quick Google search reveals that kids under the age of 8 use screens for 2-3 hours a day and counting. Preteens and teens (from ages 8 to 18) an average of 7.5 hours. Adults stare into the light an average of 8.5 hours a day.

You know. We got problems.

My dentist Ally, who is very likeable and sociable by the way, told me that people don’t know how to have conversations any more, that they aren’t looking each other in the eye. And that when teenagers sit in her dentist’s chair, they are still glued to their phones. She lets them because it is their comfort zone. But when she tries to get their attention, “I’m afraid we are going to have to take five teeth out, and if you don’t reduce your sugar intake you might lose more,” they keep thumbing their video games, mumble, “Umm, okay,” and studiously avoid all eye contact.

playing outsideAnother friend told me today that at the middle school where he teaches, they now have a no-phone rule all day, and the results have been outstanding: kids are playing actual games like cards and rough and tumble, concentrating in classes, and generally seeming more content and communicative. But he says once they get to high school it won’t be possible to control their online behavior in this way.

Dentist Ally also mentioned that she is so relieved to be of the generation that can still remember a time before it was normal to be glued to a screen, spending the days of her early childhood riding her bike and hanging out with flesh & blood friends. I would like to point out that Ally was the one bemoaning what is happening to the next generation — and she is only 31! Things are changing very fast.

(Note to Kadampa Centers: we really need kids’ meditation classes.)

How can we improve this percentage?

 It looks like we have a huge problem on our hands, but luckily there are many effective ways to cure it. And rest assured that controlling our unwanted thoughts is not the same as pushing them away forcefully, entering into battle with them, suppressing them. Not the same at all. It is more about learning to take them less seriously and letting them go, gradually replacing them with their opposite wanted thoughts.

The most obvious and popular way for newcomers to start this is to learn some simple breathing meditation – and within that there are variations we can try out, some of which can be found here. Or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our mind. Or we can meditate on absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought. Prayers help too, as does dissolving enlightened beings into our heart.

And whatever method you choose, please start in your heart space, not your head. We won’t get far along the road to peace if we stay in our head, there is little space to be found there. IMG_5325-1

Through any of these methods we will experience the relaxing clarity and concentration needed to work on uprooting our uncontrolled thoughts entirely, replacing them with wonderful thoughts, so as to reclaim our sanity, our happiness, our lives, and world peace.

There are 2 further articles on meditation and technology here: Improving our focus and Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you – your insights are most welcome on this topic of how to get all our minds under control in over-stimulated times. Our collective future is at stake.

Related articles

Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants

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Addicted to social media?

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The life-changing power of small stories

By a guest writer, SG, who, amongst other things, uses art to bring about change in prisons and among vulnerable populations.

We are living in unparalleled times; it seems that extreme ideologies are gathering momentum. The increase of terrorist atrocities, sensationalised by a media pursuing a fear-based narrative, is causing bewilderment and anxiety.

As our economic structures fragment, poverty and a surge towards the politics of divide and rule inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, demagogic leaders are arising at the same time as fascism in Europe and America is rearing its ugly head.21325683_10155010321930847_566859715_n

These world events trickle down and affect ordinary people: In the UK, hate crimes have increased 41 percent since the Brexit vote. Since the elections in the US, the latest FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent.

What to do?

What is a meaningful Buddhist response? What are we to do?

Firstly, it seems vital we work to reduce any divide between self and other. When facing those who hold extreme opposite viewpoints to ourselves, it is important not to ‘other-ize’ them. We can be mindful that people act in harmful ways only because of their delusions. When delusions are manifest, there is no control over the mind.

If we begin to ‘Monster’ others, we are externalising evil, which is a recipe for more insidious discord.

The current rise of racism and fascism is a symptom of fear, that fear is arising (conventionally) from a societal system collapsing. This collapse is due in large part to a resolute belief in external sources being able to secure a means to happiness. This view invariably leads to conflict and suffering. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we consider why nations go to war we shall find that the basic reason is very simple. Human beings cannot be content with their own wealth and resources but must appropriate more and more. Millions of people have died as a result of humankind’s collective discontent.

Wrath vs anger

Recently, I have been thinking about wrath. In Buddhism, there is a vast difference between wrath and anger. It is possible to be wrathful without being angry. When we see images of wrathful protector Buddhas such as Dorje Shugden or Vajrapani, they are not angry. Motivated solely by compassion, they exist only to relieve the suffering of others. Afraid of nothing and no one, they display the aspect of anger toward the delusions while simultaneously being completely free from anger toward living beings.

Imagine being able to harness that energy, having the confidence and wisdom to know that we were always responding in the best manner, with the best set of actions.

21322857_10155010323290847_414830036_nWhen large crowds of people take to the streets espousing violence and hatred, imagine being a fearless opponent, able to perform wrathful actions while never straying from wisdom and compassion. Surely this would be most welcome? Could this be a way to think about challenging oppressive hate-fuelled actions while still practising modern Buddhism purely?

I think before we begin thinking about performing wrathful actions, however, we first have to spend time nurturing our compassion and wisdom. Otherwise, our “wrathful” actions could just be more anger, and end up causing more harm than good!

In the past I have tried engaging in wrathful actions — it didn’t work out well. I just ended up angry and frustrated. If we are to be wrathful, we need to be completely free of delusions such as anger and pride. We have to be free of the idea that before us stands an enemy and understand that the person in front of us is a suffering being, unable to fulfill or even express their unmet needs.

The importance of understanding

Can we try to enter into the frames of reference of those who engage in extreme hateful actions? To understand is not to condone. Many causes and conditions lead people to the views they hold.

Imagine being brought up with those very same causes and conditions, imagine having that very same karma — it becomes easier to see how we might then go on to develop those views. If we can do this, then we can learn to separate the person from their delusions and actions. Then we no longer see a monster, and instead become someone capable of developing genuine love and compassion.

21291102_10155010326470847_424149716_n

With love, compassion, and wisdom in our hearts, we can find innovative and creative ways to respond to age-old problems.

No man is an island

We can also strengthen our faith in the power of virtuous actions. Last month, I attended the Summer Festival at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, where Kadam Morten led the second week’s retreat. He read an excerpt from Geshe Kelsang’s How to Transform Your Life:

In short, we need others for our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality … It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.

I have heard these lines many times before, but this time something was different. One of the most beautiful things about Dharma is that it always holds the potential to surprise you, to completely change your world view, to transform your life.

Everything we do …

Three words rang out, ‘Everything we do.’ Every single thing we do affects others.

I was reminded of a podcast I listened to last year, when the interviewee (a famous and respected counsellor) recalled a story his father told him. Years ago, his father was involved in the Spanish Civil war, during which time a village into which he had ventured was surrounded by fascists belonging to General Franco, and there seemed to be no escape. For days, the father remained in the village, hiding. There was no food in the village — all he had was a piece of stale bread, which he nibbled on each day. Then one day he encountered an ill, starving, old man and, without thinking, he gave him his last piece of bread.

Years later, the father returned to the village with his son to show him where the siege had taken place. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman came running out and hugged him. The old man’s daughter, she had never forgotten this stranger’s kindness, telling them that it had always been an act of great importance both to her father and to her.

The son went on to say that watching this tale unfold was instrumental in him becoming a counsellor. He also mentioned that he had told this story to many people, many times, and he believed that they too had gone on to repeat it to inspire others.

This story is now being read by hundreds of you, too!

21291263_10155010321605847_37033674_nIf a simple act of giving a piece of stale bread to one person can become a catalyst for positive change for thousands of people, what power does an action hold if it is motivated by bodhichitta — the wish to become enlightened for the lasting happiness of all living beings? Imagine if we had faith or trust in the often hidden consequences of our developing such a mind? What encouragement it would give us, what strength. How much faster we could move towards developing the wisdom and compassion needed to engage in actions that can bring about genuine world peace, actual nirvana (liberation) in the minds of all living beings?

Even the smallest of our actions performed with a big beneficial intention, therefore, can be a cause of ridding this world of even the most violent and destructive actions. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Others are affected by everything we do.

Over to you. Questions and comments welcome.

Related articles

People are not their delusions 

Can Buddhism help society? 

What is bodhichitta? 

A vision of hope in troubled times 

 

 

 

A handy introduction to some common Buddhist terms

My parents asked me for working definitions of the following terms, “an introduction to Buddhism in the simplest terms possible for the uninformed, but possibly quite bright, newcomer or beginner.”

GlossarySo I gave it a go, and they replied with some great suggestions for simplifying the language further. I also asked a good friend with much Buddhist knowledge, who helped edit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books, to give his input. This is therefore a collaborative work in progress, and you are invited to participate as well.

Meanwhile, the actual official Kadampa book glossary is accurate and useful.

And to find out more about all these terms, download this free Buddhist book, How to Transform Your Life.

What are delusions?

delusions

Delusions are distorted thoughts or emotions that destroy our mental peace and make us act in inappropriate ways; and so they are the cause of our suffering. Examples are anger, attachment, arrogance, and ignorance. They are distorted because the way they perceive their object does not correspond to reality – for example attachment exaggerates the pleasurable aspects of its object, in effect projecting things that are not there, whereas anger and hatred exaggerate the unpleasant aspects. If we get rid of our misperceptions, we get rid of our delusions and experience lasting happiness.

What is attachment?

Attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”, is a state of mind that believes happiness inheres or can be found in things outside the mind. Attachment is the “sticky desire” that is our normal response to anything or anyone we feel is a cause of pleasure, comfort, or security for us, that wants to keep it close or wants more, or that feels a painful sense of loss when it goes. The truth is, happiness is a state of mind that depends upon mental peace, and so its real causes lie within the mind, not without.

my precious.jpgAttachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy by focusing on its supposed good qualities while editing out all its faults, e.g., a pizza or a partner is perceived by attachment to be an inherent, or actual, source of pleasure when in fact they can be just as much a source of suffering.

Attachment is often confused with love but they are completely different. Love is other-centered and peaceful and focuses on the welfare of the other person, whereas attachment is self-centered and unpeaceful and wants the other person simply because we think they make us feel better.

What is self-cherishing?

Self-cherishing is a mind that wrongly believes we are more important than others, andself-cherishing that our happiness and freedom matter more. Self-grasping misconceives our I to be inherently existent, the only real me; and self-cherishing misconceives this I to be supremely important, the very center of our world. These two ego minds are the source of all samsaric problems.

What is Dharma?

Dharma refers to Buddhist teachings and especially the experiences we gain by putting these teachings into practice. It literally means “protection.” Since our suffering comes from our delusions, it is our inner experience of the opposite of these delusions that directly protects us from this suffering.

For example, the experience of pure love protects us from the suffering caused by our own anger and dislike, and the experience of emptiness protects us from the suffering caused by self-grasping ignorance.

What is samsara?

samsaraSamsara is the life experience of someone with a body and mind still polluted by delusions and the negative actions and their unpleasant consequences arising from these delusions. Sometimes known as “cyclic existence”, it is life characterized by repetitive suffering.

Samsara’s very nature is problematic. The mind is not physical and it continues after death, but, for as long as our mind is governed by delusions, what it experiences will be fundamentally unsatisfactory and generally painful.

But not all life is samsaric life – if we can free ourselves from delusions by realizing emptiness, we can end samsara and experience lasting peace and happiness.

What is karma?

karma“Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions, or intentions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs. Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the “soil” of our mental continuum. Mental intentions are those seeds; experiences are their effects. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.

What is self-grasping?

Self-grasping ignorance is the underlying source of all other delusions. It is a wrong awareness that apprehends people and things as existing inherently or independently. For example, when we think of a person called Tom, there seems to be a completely real Tom out there who in no way depends upon our perceptual and conceptual apparatus for his existence.

emptinessWhat is inherent existence?

Inherent existence means independent existence. An object would be inherently existent if it didn’t depend on anything at all for its existence, such as its causes, its parts, or the mind perceiving it. No object exists like this, so no object is inherently existent. Some synonyms for inherent existence are existing from the side of the object, existing from its own side, existing in and of itself, independently existent, or objectively existent. 

At the moment, we grasp at inherent existence; it is the object of self-grasping ignorance. The world seems to be made up of discrete, objective entities that do not depend upon an observer for their existence; but, in reality, all phenomena are inter-dependent, or “dependent relationships”, existing only in relationship with a multitude of causes, parts, contexts, imputations, and perceptions.

What is emptiness?

Emptiness is not nothingness but the lack of things existing inherently. Self-grasping ignorance misconceives things as having inherent or independent existence, and emptiness 1emptiness is the total absence of this mode of existence. Because everything depends entirely upon other things, everything is empty of inherent existence.

The things we normally see – inherently existent things — do not exist. Things do exist, but as mere appearances to mind, entirely dependent upon mind, and the nature of mind.

Realizing emptiness — lack of inherent existence — is the only way to destroy the object of self-grasping and free our mind permanently from all delusions.

What is Sangha?

Sangha refers to the spiritual community practicing Dharma. In general, our spiritual friends who give us spiritual advice, support, and inspiration are our Sangha; but more strictly a Sangha Jewel is someone who has realized emptiness directly, because only such a person sees things as they really are and can be relied upon completely.

wishfulfilling jewelWhat is a wishfulfillling jewel?

 A wishfulfilling jewel is an ancient legendary jewel similar to Aladdin’s lamp that supposedly had the power to grant all worldly wishes. It is often used as an analogy for spiritual accomplishments such as full enlightenment, which not only fulfill all our worldly and temporary wishes, but also our everlasting, ultimate wishes.

Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:

“We regret that we still find several definitions too difficult and sometimes too wordy, as if you are both trying too hard to cover every aspect.”almost there

So, as we are not there yet, I invite you all to give this a go as well! Please use the comments section below. My friend and I have found that attempting to sum up these profound subjects in a few sentences, if indeed such a thing is possible, has been a very useful exercise in checking our own understanding. As this list is very far from complete, please feel free to submit other Buddhist terms and working definitions too.

And check out the Kadampa glossary whenever in doubt.

Related articles

What is Buddhism? A short, simple guide

Karma

Delusions

Attachment 

Samsara

Self-cherishing 

Realizing emptiness and destroying self-grasping 

 

The age-old foes of our people

To get my news, I have taken to watching the late night comedians from time to time. It seems as reasonable as anything else in this post-facts world, and at least you get some laughs in.

umbrella jelly fish

It has always been strange times in samsara, however. Ask human beings all over the world.* Maybe for a lot of us, right now, it is just a bit more obviously strange.

(*Not to mention asking the 50,000 underwater beings I met yesterday at Vancouver Aquarium – “How strange is life for you, umbrella jelly fish?” for example. “What is it like to identify with that body and mind?”)

Continuing from this article on developing self-confidence.

Evolution

Everyone seems to be annoying everyone else these days, but in truth living beings are never our actual enemy – delusions are our only enemy. As a Buddhist verse says:

This fault I see is not the fault of the person
But the fault of delusion.
Realizing this, may I never view others’ faults,
But see all beings as supreme.

We can do a lot of things to help our world — complacency or opting out may not be the best options. But I think it’s important to consider that external action might be of limited use unless we’re remembering who is the real enslaving enemy here. If we want to know who is world hurtstruly unjust, cruel, narcissistic, and relentlessly unreasonable, causing the maximum damage to every single living being without caring even the tiniest bit, it is, and always has been, our delusions. Delusions lead to negative intentions and actions, or karma, and all its resulting unpleasant experiences, including sickness, ageing, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, dissatisfaction, death, and then all that all over again, rebirth, etc.

If everyone could just become a little less selfish, for example, or a little less angry, this world would improve overnight. That would be real evolution.

Right now, as humans we have a real shot at this. Our only shot. At Vancouver Aquarium yesterday I met fish who can do nothing but swim backwards and forwards day after relentless day, and anemones whose only activity is to suck their tentacles in and out, whose mouth and anus are one and the same.

This particular fish spent an age swimming Tekchen and fishup to my companion, a Buddhist monk, mouthing the words: “You have a chance to do something about samsara! I don’t. Help yourself. Help me!” At least that is what my friend heard his new fishy friend say.

To get rid of our real enemies, we need the self-confidence that believes:

I am the conqueror of my delusions; they will never conquer me!

Age-old foes

On the subject of solving external problems, I appreciate some (not all) of Avaaz‘s campaigns, especially on climate and animals. They have managed to right some wrongs, maybe because the founder, Ricken Patel, has his heart in the right place:

We need to be strong, and to challenge the forces of regress. But let’s not be twisted by the darkness and act from fear and anger. We are warriors for love and wisdom. We must act from that light. When we do come from love and wisdom, we can see that our ‘enemy’ is not so much any people, as it is unwisdom. Misplaced fear and anger. Lack of awareness and understanding.  These are age-old foes of our people. Our grandparents faced far worse with far less, and they won progress. We have every reason to hope, and no excuse for despair.

In general, it is a good deal more beneficial if our outward actions are nourished by renunciation for samsara, compassionate strength, and the wisdom realizing that all of this is the play of samsara, or drama inseparable from emptiness — nothing is really going on, as I was trying to explain in the last eight articles. We also need to grow our skill, which comes from compassion and wisdom, so we don’t make too many mistakes when trying to help others.

I reckon the best way we can help others right now is to show them that it is possible to remain peaceful, compassionate, and wise regardless of what we do on the outside – for the internal march toward lasting mental freedom and bliss is the one we must all take sooner or later.

Are you a prisoner?

Samsara is likened by Buddha to a prison. We need to remember that we don’t have to be in prison, at least not while we have a human life and the ability to change our deep-seated thoughts. We don’t have to feel part of the prison population; we can think out of the

don't be deceived by samsara's pleasure garden
Samsara’s pleasure garden

box. If we knew we had a way out, we’d focus on that, not wasting time with detailed gossip on the annoying and dreadful new prison guards – instead it’s “I’m outta here!” We’d be making plans to burn this thing down. There are no safe spaces in here, no real comfy corners, so we need to stop fiddling about in a samsaric pleasure garden of complacency and develop faith in the enlightened world, an enlightened society, outside the prison walls.

First thing we could usefully do is give up our useless or harmful self-image. We are whom we tell ourselves we are, whom we identify with. So we can close that gap between the ordinary prisoner we might think we are now and the liberator we really want to be, thinking, “I AM a conqueror of my delusions”, not the other way around.

Rebellion

Sometimes people pride themselves on their rebellious streak, stick it to the Man and all that – in my distant youth my own rebellious streak manifested in …. well, I wrote it down but have just thought better of publishing it! In any case, a lot of us don’t want to submit to the “establishment” or the “system”, whether worldly or religious, and hold ourselves at a distance.

After meeting Buddhism, I had an insight: I had been rebelling for years against the wrong things. It was kind of stupid. I had been throwing the baby out with the bath water. Although other people may boss me around and say what I can and cannot do, it is only my delusions who can truly yank my chains. Fact is, the only true and worthwhile rebellion is against samsara. Samsara is the rat race establishment that truly sucks, and self-grasping the callous, we can't solve problemscorrupt system that really needs overthrowing. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook, we have been slaves to our self-cherishing since beginningless time. We have to tear samsara down and build something new with fresh thinking. Not just thinking outside the box, but realizing there IS no box.

Samsara is the endless product of self-grasping and self-cherishing – so why not try now instead to produce a world out of compassion and wisdom, even bliss and emptiness? This may sound idealistic, like “How on earth are we all supposed do that?!” But, truth is, it is eminently realistic. Why? Because compassion and wisdom ARE reality.

Any other revolution is just gonna be another turning of the wheel of samsara.

Outward action nourished by a deeper understanding
Help fish
My friend’s fish

We can come up with new ideas for organizing ourselves that are less self-serving and more in tune with our mutual dependence – I applaud people who are doing this. A system that is based on integrity, including sense of shame — or conscience — and consideration for others. Standing up for what is right. I also think that good ideas can spread if we are practicing them ourselves and not afraid of sharing them as widely as we can.

Within this broader understanding of our existential predicament, we can help others overcome their bad habits and negativities as best we can, as per our Bodhisattva vow, and respectfully, seeing past their delusions to their Buddha nature. We can restrain others as need be, at the ballot box for example, as a doctor restrains a mental patient, without anger, understanding that people create negative actions because they are confused by the mental illness of the delusions and not because they are intrinsically bad people. Sometimes it is very necessary to take action – but it is never going to be enough on its own.

Next article on self-confidence here.

Over to you. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Related articles

Who are we!?

Freedom march

Unleashing our potential

How to catch a problem before it catches you

This carries on directly from this last article.

My lovely dad turned 80 on October 2nd, and we were discussing the meaning of (the rest of his) life. He told me he’d been perusing the obituaries to get a sense of how long he had to live and worked out (by some strange and somewhat optimistic algorithm known only to himself) that most people die at 82. And he has been thinking about what he can accomplish in this remaining time. He thinks making his family happy might be it. I’m quite happy to go along with that 😉  “And how about accomplishing inner peace?”, I suggested. He liked that, so this article is for you, dad. (Your comments are welcome in the comments section below if you can figure out how to get it to work. Just scroll way down the first page of this blog til you see “I’d love to hear from you”, write your comment in that box, and hit the button that says “Post comment”. Anyone else reading this is also welcome to do this!)

Because to accomplish inner peace, I think, we have to understand that our mind is naturally peaceful. That natural peace is constantly being disturbed, however–but by inner problems, not outer ones.

waves on samsaric ocean In this article I talk about how according to Buddha all our problems fit into a pattern of seven types of problem, and all of these can be recognized as stemming from our delusions. The very day after we spoke, my father emailed me about a problem he’d been having with a car and possibly a policeman … even that would seem to fit into the category of having to encounter what we do not like.

So without understanding the nature and causes of our problems (as described in the last article), and if we try instead of fixing our delusions just to fix one outer problem at a time, our problems will continue to arise like endless waves on an ocean. My dad said he was using the car thing as a way to practice inner peace — if he manages it, his actual problem will be over, even if he still has to do something external to make the policeman happy. And also he’ll be better set up to solve the next problem that comes his way. Inner peace, just as much as anxiety, is habit-forming.

When was your last problem-free day?
should i tell him
We’re looking in the wrong place!

This time next year we will still be having a problem. It may well appear in a different shape and size to the one we have been having today, but it will still fill our mind, just like today’s problem. The chances are we will have no clue then what today’s problem was, it’ll be long forgotten. I don’t even remember what problem I was having this time last week. However, we’ll still be thinking: “All I need to do is solve this particular problem and I’ll be happy again!” This won’t work. We won’t be happy again, or at least not for more than a few minutes or hours. Something else will have come up. This is pretty much what has been happening for as long as we can remember – can you remember having even one completely problem-free day?

We have to heal our mind, our mental continuum. The causes of our problems have been lurking in our mind since beginningless time – now is the time to address these, not their symptoms.

Essential advice: catch them early

And it is a very good idea to come to understand how the delusions each operate in our own minds so that we can spot them early. Spotting the inappropriate attention as it is about to arise and dealing with it is like extinguishing a match before it becomes a forest fire. match

For example, if we feel the murmurings of disappointed attachment arising, “Why is it not as good as it used to be?” and we run with that, rather than letting it go and turning our thoughts to compassion or some other actual source of happiness, it will quickly take over our mind and make us feel despondent and lethargic. It will be hard to apply the antidotes to attachment once it has taken over the mind. If we let our delusions or so-called “afflictions” take over our mind, we have no choice but to ride them out or pray for a massive blessing to zap them away. We quickly become stuck and confused and powerless.

On the other hand, when the first murmuring of unhappiness aka delusion does arise, I like to ask myself:

Who are you, thought!? And where do you come from? Where are you going?

I let it dissolve away into emptiness and/or the clarity of my root mind, like a snowflake dissolving onto a hot roof. Then I think about something else, such as faith, or love, or wisdom. I know that my real pleasure always comes from these positive, wise thoughts, and that the changing suffering of attachment is always a disaster — so enough already.

anger 4For anger, I think it is particularly essential to catch it early if we want to control it. It is the most self-justifying delusion – once it has arisen in the mind, it brooks no discussion. So, if for example we feel the rumblings of discontent or dislike, and are about to hone in on someone’s faults and get mighty annoyed, thus ruining a perfectly good day, we can go into the restroom and remember just 3 good things about that person to derail the runaway anger train.

We can learn a thousand wise, positive ways of thinking to which we gently turn our mind as soon as we notice that it is getting agitated. In this way, over time, we can stay in control, stay spacious, stay light, stay content, stay free.

It is a great pity to let delusions/problems take over our mind if we have a choice not to do that.  And we do have a choice. We can understand how delusions arise in dependence upon causes and conditions that we can change, ie, from inappropriate, unhelpful thoughts that we don’t need to think if we just catch them early enough and learn not to indulge them. Then we can stay happy and problem-free instead.

In this way, we can remain with our natural inner peace and let it gradually increase — first for one hour, then one day, then two, then a week, then a month, then a year, then two years, then for the rest of this life, however long that may be, and then for all our future lives. May my dad and everyone else accomplish this permanent inner peace.

How do I get rid of problems? Buddha’s advice

problemA million-dollar question. If we could answer this, we could get finally be free of the wretched things. In fact, this would be priceless information.

Buddha did answer this. The whole of Buddhism, or “Dharma”, is supposedly a method to solve all our daily problems, and not just temporarily but FOREVER! This might seem a bit far-fetched. Unless …  unless we realize what our problems actually are and where they are all coming from. At which point the Dharma method suddenly make a lot of sense. And if we gain some actual experience of how this works by trying it out in practice, it makes increasingly more sense. At least, that has been my experience over the past 33 years. I think Buddhism is supercharged common sense.

In his Medicine Buddha teachings of 2004, my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

Buddha’s teachings are the actual method to solve human problems. To understand this, firstly we think, “What is the real nature of our problems?” Secondly we think, “What is the main cause of our problems?”

The nature of our problems
Medicine Buddha
Medicine Buddha helps us cure our inner problems

Have you already had a problem today perchance? What was it? A work problem, a relationship problem, a health problem, a family problem, a computer problem, an ageing problem, an existential problem?

Whichever it was, there were two things going on if we check. For example, if someone said something to us like, “You are not a priority in my life,” and we felt disappointed, there was the outer problem presenting as the thing they said and the inner (actual) problem of our unwished for sad response to that. These are not the same. If that person had said the same words and we hadn’t given a monkeys, we wouldn’t have had an actual problem. And in some cases, like if you happen to be a celebrity and that person a stalker (and I don’t know who reads this blog), those same words might even be a source of relief.

Our problems do not exist outside our mind. Their real nature is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind. Normally we conflate outer and inner problems. Yesterday during a phone call my friend cursed, “Oh darn, I have a problem,” when Avast antivirus disabled his Yahoo toolbar. To be fair he got over it right away – his own unpleasant feeling, his actual problem, passed quickly. Then he sorted out the outer problem by fiddling about with his computer. (Or maybe he didn’t, I didn’t check.)

No unpleasant feeling = no problem. As my teacher says:

 “The computer’s problem exists outside. Our problem exists inside.”baby Rousseau

We can solve external problems as and when necessary by external means, eg, taking the computer to a computer whizz who understands the causes of the problem and can therefore fix it. To fix our inner problems, however, we need to understand their causes, which are not the same at all.

The cause of our problems

Geshe Kelsang continues:

problems outside the mindNow, what is the main cause of our problems? The delusions. All our problems, our unpleasant feelings, come from the delusions of our attachment and ignorance. Therefore, these delusions are the main causes of our problems.

To show how this works, he goes onto explain the role that uncontrolled desire or attachment to our own wishes plays, and you can read about this in How to Solve our Human Problems pages 3-4.  (I recommend having that book on your bedside table and dipping into it every day or whenever you are having a problem —  it is a treasury of practical advice.) I have also written several articles on delusions here.

So I won’t go into more detail here — I just wanted to share the simple logic of figuring out (1) what is the nature of our problems ie, unpleasant feelings, and (2) what is the cause of our problems ie, delusions. Once we can see this, problems becomes so much more easy to handle.