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 

 

Equalizing self and others

 Equalizing self and others is cherishing others as much as we cherish ourselves.

Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal. ~ The New Meditation Handbook 

roquetailladeWhen we can stand in others’ shoes, we have a big world to walk around in – a world that is so much more interesting than being holed up in the fortress of self-absorption. With self-cherishing we have no choice but to ward off loneliness by pulling others obsessively across a narrow drawbridge, or to defend ourselves by slamming closed the gates.

Snowflakes

We are like a snowflake. Sure, no two snowflakes are exactly alike, but it is also pretty hard to tell them apart. In the ways that count most, they are practically indistinguishable – they are made of ice and air, they are bound to perish sooner or later, and on their own will perish even faster for they cannot survive on their own. In the same way, we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, and our own problems and suffering are just that much more interesting than everybody else’s; but when it comes right down to it we are far more similar to others than different. We are made of flesh and blood, we are bound to perish sooner or later, and we cannot survive on snowflake-1our own for even a minute.

Imagine one little snowflake putting up its hand and declaring, “Hey, look at me! I’m special! I look like intricate lace!” And another goes, “No, look at me, I look like a flower!” And a third chips in, “That’s nothing, I look like a pointy star!” In a white blanket of snowflakes, they are all equally important or unimportant. No objective judge is going to say that one snowflake is superior to another, or more unique, or more deserving of happiness.

In meditation I sometimes imagine an alien coming down to earth and seeing millions of people all with their hands up, “Hey, look at me! I’m special.” As far as the alien is concerned, we are all the same. Let alone the aliens, as far as everyone else is concerned we alone are not the real deal. It is only our own self-cherishing that thinks otherwise.

Everybody without exception wants to be happy – I mean look at this world, how many are we, six, seven billion?, anyway, lots, and that’s just the humans, there’s all the animals too. There are so many — countless — living beings, and if we look into the heart of every single one of them, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, without exception they are all yearning for happiness. But basically, more or less without exception, they are NOT experiencing enough happiness! There is a lot of pain right now in this world, isn’t there? And I think it’s very clear that our ordinary methods of striving for happiness aren’t working particularly well – and if we can’t see that, then it could be because we’re not looking.

What is love?!

I think we are all definitely interested in love, and we have this idea that if I am to be happy, if I am to have fun and meaning, I need love. But generally speaking in the West we also have this idea that in order to have love you have to fall into it. Which involves a lot of dating in the hope that somewhere along the line we will fall into it, and then have it, and then as a consequence be happy. But there are problems with that perspective, as you may have guessed.snowflake 2.jpeg

One being that we don’t really understand what love is – “Oh, I’m feeling something, is it love?! I don’t know! What’s going on?! Love’s a mystery! Man, why does it have to hurt like this?” A backdrop to our scheming, indulging, and recovering, we play endless songs about “love”, trying to figure it out yet again as our heart is yanked up and down like a yo yo. So from a Buddhist perspective there is a basic confusion between love and attachment. Attachment is a delusion yanking our heart and causing pain, but love is a peaceful, positive, warm mind that opens our heart to greater and greater happiness and bliss. One of the kindest things Buddha did for us is point out the many differences between them.

Scratch my back

The affectionate love that comes from equalizing is not conditioned by what the other person looks like, what they say, snowflake-4what they do, because it is other-centered. At the moment, because so much of our love is mixed with desirous attachment, it’s very conditional – meaning that for as long as you look attractive to me I am going to like you but, Oops! you’re no longer attractive, so therefore I am not going to like you. Or for as long as you keep saying things that make me happy I’m going to like you, but now you’ve gone all weird and are saying things that aren’t making me happy any more, so I don’t like you. See what I mean? I’m scratching your back and you’re scratching mine = the best we can hope for. Doesn’t leave much room for maneuver. Very quickly dissatisfaction can set in ~ “I don’t want my back scratched this way, I want it scratched that way.”

In other words, it’s all about ME! I’m judging my reality and discriminating between people based on ME. That guy is a great guy, he makes me happy. That guy bores me silly, he’s a boring guy. It’s like we become a universal arbiter of reality: “You want to have the real load on reality, you come to me cos I say it straight – this is a good person and this is a bad person (or, ermm, at least this person was a good person until they became a bad person …) etc.” It is all based on ME. “What have you done for me lately?” This self-focus and self-concern and self-obsession is self-cherishing. It’s a pain. Thankfully it is totally undermined by equalizing self and others.

Everyone needs Dharma

equalizingIn an oral transmission on his latest book that he gave in London last summer to a representative group of Kadampas, Ven Geshe Kelsang reiterated what he has said many times, that our actual problems are our own unpleasant feelings, such as discouragement, depression, unhappiness, and other unpeaceful states of mind. Our mind becomes crazy with so many internal problems, and even if we live in a very quiet place with nothing interfering with us, still due to self-grasping or self-cherishing inside we are tightly holding. Which means there is no peace, we are experiencing discomfort day and night. To solve this, he says, everyone needs Dharma — religious or not, Buddhist or not — because Dharma is the way to solve our unpleasant feelings.

That is why Dharma means, literally, “protection”, ie, protection from suffering. And this Dharma of equalizing self and others, which anyone can try out, I believe always has the power to solve unpeaceful feelings, my actual problems. At least it seems to work whenever I bother to do it 😍

Over to you ~ do you have familiarity with this meditation? Do you have, or have you overcome, any difficulties in doing it?

Related articles:

What can we really know about anyone?

Ever-connected world

Love hurts! Or doesn’t it?

 

What is Buddhism? ~ A short, simple guide

This summer my parents asked if I could write a “short, simple guide” to answer the main questions they and their friends have about Buddhism. They kindly sent me the list of quite excellent enquiries, so I am going to have a go now.

  • What is Buddhism in one sentence? 

Buddhism is learning to live from a peaceful mind and a good heart as the best way to solve our own inner problems of anxiety, depression, fear, etc.; finding a deepening sense of happiness and freedom from within; and in time helping and inspiring others to do the same.

(Thank goodness for semi-colons.)

Or how about this:

“Buddha says be nice to people and animals and then you feel good.” ~ a 4-year-old Buddhist

  • What is meditation in one sentence?

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resMeditation, literally “familiarizing ourselves with positivity”, lies at the heart of Buddhism, and by practicing it we (1) are protected from the suffering caused by unpeaceful, uncontrolled states of mind such as anger, attachment, and ignorance that give rise to suffering; and (2) learn how to develop and maintain our peaceful, beneficial states of mind such as patience, love, and wisdom, in this way fulfilling our innate potential for lasting happiness and freedom, as well as the ability to help others.

Hmm, that might have been stretching the one sentence thing a bit. So how about this quote from Buddha instead:

Learn to do good,
Cease to do evil,
And control the mind.

  • Do Buddhists believe there is a God?

Short answer: No. Not a creator God. But we do believe in the existence of completely perfect holy beings.

If there is a creator God who is omnipotent and has compassion for his creation, why is there suffering? It would seem that a creator God must either have no compassion or not be omnipotent, one can’t have it both ways.

Buddhists do not believe that one single mind, namely God’s, created the world, but that we are all creating our own reality with our own minds continually. Nonetheless, we all have the potential to purify our minds of all obstructions and attain omniscience, if not omnipotence. And so Buddhists do believe in the existence of countless enlightened beings who have attained complete freedom and omniscience in order to help everyone else do the same, and we pray to them for guidance and blessings.

Kadampa  BuddhasSo, like Christians and so on, we believe in the existence of omnipresent compassionate holy beings and in the power of prayer and blessings. Just not in an omnipotent creator God.

We can also find common ground on a more mystical (perhaps sort of holy spirit level) if we take God to be the clear light mind possessed by all living beings, which is called the basic Dharmakaya or Truth Body. This very subtle mind that goes from life to life is the basis or creator of both samsara and nirvana, and, when purified, will become the bliss and emptiness of the actual Truth Body of a Buddha, omniscient wisdom.

There is a bit more here.

  • Is Buddhism a religion or a faith? Are they different?

Buddhism is a religion, according to the dictionary definition. It is also a faith, in so far as Buddhists grow their faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Faith is a positive state of mind that is quite clearly defined in Buddhism – it goes hand in hand with experience and includes (a) believing faith, where we simply believe in the existence of holy beings, pure states of mind, etc.; (b) admiring faith, where we admire their good qualities; and (c) wishing faith, where we wish to gain those qualities ourselves.

  • What happens when you die? What is meant by reincarnation?

We take rebirth, which means the same as reincarnation moreorless. Our mind is formless awareness whereas our body is made of flesh and blood; so though the body dies, the very subtle mind continues. Buddha documents the entire process of dying and taking rebirth from the subjective point of view of the person dying, it is fascinating. We pass through different levels of consciousness. It is a bit like falling asleep, dreaming, and waking up, though we wake up into an entirely new body and world. What body and world that is depends on the quality of our mind and our actions, or karma. I have written several articles about this subject here.

reincarnation.jpgA surprising number of Western thinkers too have believed in rebirth over the centuries, including early Christian Gnostics; and I like Voltaire’s words on the subject:

It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.

Being born once is no less weird than being born lots of times. Dying once is no less weird than dying lots of times.

For as long as I remember I have believed in rebirth, so that kind of says something right there. I remember telling you, Dad, that your father was going to be reborn as a human and not as an animal because he was a good man (a vicar) and died peacefully. I was all of six years old at the time, I wonder if you remember, it was in the kitchen in Guildford. I also knew without being told, aged 4, that our daschund Rozy was already on the way to her next life when you drove her away in the boot of our car in Sri Lanka after her accident. Stuff like that.

  • What is a Buddhist’s relationship with everyday life? For instance, can a Buddhist be a soldier? or kill anything?

Buddhism is based on compassion and its chief refuge commitment is: “Not to harm others.” So Buddhists avoid killing as much as they can, and also try to have careers that don’t involve harming others if possible. The main thing always is the motivation, however, so there are no external laws or strict rules for living per se; each Buddhist has to be pragmatic and figure out for themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and what results it will have for themselves and others.

Moreover, Buddhists believe that everyday life can be transformed into a spiritual path by changing our minds:

Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. – Eight Steps to Happiness

  • Do Buddhists aim to make the world a better place by the personal example of their Way of Life rather than by direct action?

Another good question. It’s a bit of both. Bodhisattvas have two main methods to make the world a better place, which are reflected in the vows they take – (1) to develop their minds so they can attain enlightenment as quickly as possible to help all living beings, and (2) to help others directly whenever they can. What form that help takes depends on the individual, there is a lot of diversity.Sally and Buddha

For example, my main aim is to practice Buddhism and help it to flourish so that it reaches lots of people and inspires them also to become more peaceful, happy, patient, etc. This involves both a way of life and direct action. But I also do other types of direct action, as you may be meaning it, in the form of helping an animal shelter and trying to promote kindness to animals. But again, it is the motivation that counts. Direct action motivated by, say, a mind full of hate or intolerance, is counterproductive.

Buddhists’ main goal to make the world a better place by helping each other develop the capacity of our minds, realizing that everyone has powerful spiritual potential for lasting peace and freedom. We have been creating our own suffering for a very long time, and in the same way we can create our own happiness; we just need the methods. Geshe Kelsang puts it like this:

Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough.

A friend on Facebook put it rather nicely I thought: “We could bandage people up and give them tents and a bowl of soup, and it is great if we can do that; but if they are in a whirlwind of self-destruction they will run out with the bandages on to fight again. The whirlwind is the delusions. Until these are stopped, we can keep rebuilding houses but the uncontrolled mind will keep smashing them down again.”

  • For example, is a Buddhist Doctor a Buddhist first or a Doctor? We assume there is no dilemma or conflict but how do you explain?

I think that depends on the individual – some would say they were Buddhists first and then doctors, some would say it the other way around. There need be no conflict between being a Buddhist and being a doctor, especially if the doctor is motivated by the wish to relieve suffering and support happiness in his or her patients. As with any job, there may be certain dilemmas to navigate; but these in themselves can help someone become better at eg, compassion, patience, or taking responsibility. As one guest blogger put it in his article:

Being a social worker makes me a better Buddhist. Being a Buddhist makes me a better social worker.

Interestingly enough, Geshe Kelsang was a doctor in Tibet before he became a teacher. He came to feel that he could personally help people more by being a teacher (see point above), but there is no contradiction.

  • There are many different forms of Buddhism, do we need to know how to refer to the NKT?

Guru Sumati Buddha HerukaWe refer to the NKT as Kadampa Buddhism, “Kadampa” literally meaning “those who take all Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and put them into practice in their daily lives.” These days we also call ourselves “modern Buddhism”, because this tradition has spread more globally than most due to its accessibility to people in many countries and walks of life.

The NKT is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982-1054), practiced fully and passed down the generations through accomplished spiritual masters, including Je Tsongkhapa (AD 1357-1419), to the present day.

  • Is anyone or any type of Buddhism considered the founder of Buddhism? If so, how long ago did Buddhism start?

Buddha Shakyamuni is known as the founder of Buddhism – so from one point of view Buddhism started just over 2550 years ago in India and then spread from there. However, time is beginningless, and there are countless beings who have realized their full potential and become Buddhas; so Buddhism has actually been around (somewhere if not always here) forever!

In this world, a prince called Siddhartha in India (550 BC) found suffering unacceptable, so left his palace to bring an end to it. He discovered that the root of suffering lies within the mind, specifically within a mistaken understanding of reality, and he found a way to cut this root of ignorance with compassion and the wisdom realizing the illusory nature of things. He was then requested to teach, and gave 84,000 teachings to a very wide audience over a 40-year ministry, which became known as Dharma (literally, “that which holds us back from suffering”).

squirrelInterestingly, Buddha didn’t coin the term “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”; that was something we did much later. He called his followers simply “inner beings” because there were interested in attaining happiness and freedom by controlling the mind. Anyone can use Buddha’s teachings, therefore — for example on meditation, mindfulness, love, patience, and wisdom — without having to call themselves a Buddhist if they don’t want to. Geshe Kelsang, I remember, used to call some of his students in Dallas Texas “Christian Buddhists”, for example.

  • How many types of Buddhism exist? Or does no-one really know?

Buddhism can be grouped by country, by culture, by lineage, by teacher, by monastery, etc., so there are many types. At the same time you could say there is only one type of Buddhism, the teachings of Buddha.

Buddhism spread extensively because many countries and cultures saw that it deals with the mind so effectively; and, broadly speaking, in all these places groups would form with an experienced teacher at their center.

Buddha imageBasically there are two main “vehicles” of Buddhism – Hinayana (incl. Theravadan) and Mahayana, of which Kadampa Buddhism is the latter. Hinayanists’ goal is to attain liberation or nirvana, which means freedom from all delusions and suffering for themselves. Mahayanists’ or Bodhisattvas’ goal is to attain full enlightenment so they can lead all living beings to the same state. (Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is included in the Mahayana.) Both traditions were taught by Buddha and they have many practices in common, including the four noble truths. All authentic traditions of Buddhism are able to trace their teachings back through an unbroken line of teachers and disciples to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.

Thank you to Facebook friends who contributed to this article. I have attempted the impossible, ie, to keep my answers short. It is clearly not conclusive and plenty more could be said, so this article is like Cliff’s notes or something. Please feel free to contribute good stuff on any of these questions in the comments section below.

 

Dealing with our demons

Light in cellarOf the three steps to overcoming our delusions taught in the mind-training teachings of Buddhism, the first is recognizing or identifying them. And that means not just intellectually but in our own minds. We identify them but we don’t identify WITH them — the difference is crucial. (The next two steps are overcoming them by applying their opponents and uprooting them completely with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.)

Monsters in the cellar

It is far better not to repress those bits of our mind that we don’t like. These delusions and the bad karmic appearances they spawn are not intrinsic to our mind but, while we fail to accept that they are there, they continue to lurk in our mental cellar. Even when they don’t jump out and terrify us, they still haunt us. They cause us unease and painful feelings without our even knowing why we are feeling this way. Do you ever find life a bit spooky, or is that just me? I think life is a bit spooky when we are living under the influence of unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they’re all there, which is why we try to keep that cellar door firmly shut and bolted.

We have various strategies to avoid them, as mentioned here, but they’re not really working. You’ve seen horror movies, maybe — you know what people do to try and pretend there are no monsters in the cellar. They blame the creepy neighbors, distract themselves, and/or get blind drunk. Or they try to leave the house, but of course that never goes well (we cannot leave our minds.)monster in the cellar

Whatever they do, the terror still creeps up the stairs and through the cracks in the doors and windows; and it always seems to maintain the element of surprise. They know that, so they are never truly comfortable; they live in fear.

Our refusal to own our delusions pushes them into the cellar, where they exert enormous unseen influence over what we do in life. We need instead to have the confidence and authenticity to bring these inner demons of the delusions out into the open, invite them to show their faces in the light of our pure, indestructible potential, so we can (1) see that there is nothing to be scared of, they are not so intolerable, and we are far bigger and stronger than them; and (2) be prepared to learn from them to see what is really happening in our mind. Check out this article for more on how to do this.

Moving beyond

We cannot completely and whole-heartedly accept who we are or where we’re at if there are aspects of our mind that we are too afraid (or alternatively too self-satisfied) to explore. And if we cannot accept who we are, we cannot change who we are. If we want to improve, we need to take ownership and responsibility for our delusions, taking a good honest look at them rather than denying them or rejecting them outright.

Once we acknowledge instead of avoiding one of these dark traits or habit patterns, it will cease to have the same control over us. We will also see more clearly that we are not our delusions, that they come and go like clouds in a clear sky, like weather.

For example, we cannot move beyond our habitual dislike for others — that, “I don’t really like people very much, at least till I get to know them, and even then…” mind — until we realize we possess this mind of self-protective aversion, which is projecting unlikeability onto the mess of humanity (probably starting with ourselves). At the same time, we need to see that we are not the aversion, that our real nature is connectivity and affection.

One of the most valuable things I did during my longish retreat a few years ago was look at my delusions head on in this way, not papering them over with unapplied generalities of Dharma, not shoving them under the carpet, not pretending they were not shadow 1.JPGthere. I came to discover that when I had a strong delusion, my subsequent meditation session was even stronger as a result, such that I actively came to enjoy my delusions in a funny kind of way, certainly they lost a lot of their power to scare me or influence me. They became more objects of curiosity, of challenge. I’m not saying I have anywhere near mastered this yet, of course; it is a life-long practice and our delusions have many levels. (We always have to be on the look out for complacency and self-satisfaction too, which can rear their lazy heads when our mind is feeling comfortable.) But I do have total confidence in the possibility of genuinely accepting all our delusions, however shadowy, and letting them go with the help of applied Dharma.

More coming later! Meanwhile, please share your comments below on how you deal with the monsters in your cellar.

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.

Stop grasping

letting go 5To me the spiritual path seems largely a process of letting go – first of the expectations that this life is the be all and end all of existence, then of the expectations of samsara working out, then of the expectations that our happiness comes first, then of the expectations that everything is as really happening as it appears, then of the expectations that everything is as ordinary and impure as it appears.

If we want to feel free, it is time to let go. Stop elaborating. Stop grasping. And when I think these thoughts, I feel tremendously relieved as I don’t have to make something unworkable work, and can instead abide in the beautiful, relaxing Dharma minds of love, compassion, wisdom, bliss and emptiness, Tantric pure view, hanging out with holy beings who are already here day and night. This is what refuge really means to me.

One of life’s little challenges

stuck at airportHowever, I wrote this first bit after a peaceful meditation, and now my plane to Heathrow has been delayed indefinitely, possibly even cancelled — so I need urgently to think it out in the field as well…

For right now I am feeling rather attached to the happiness of this life wherein planes are supposed to go on time, in which case this delay is very annoying.

I am attached to samsara working out  – “All those other lucky people whose planes are not delayed, ‘Zones 1, 2, and 3 now boarding for Salt Lake City!’, they must be feeling great around about now, life is working for them, why not for me, why didn’t those airplane people figure out they needed this part earlier?!”

I am attached to my own happiness over and above the happiness of the people waiting (surprisingly patiently) around me, who didn’t even seem to raise an eyebrow when the announcement was made, whereas I was thinking, “Oh b****** hell, poor old me!”

I am attached to the idea of a real plane missing a real part that is being flown in on another real plane from a real city called San Francisco, and then real people have to replace this real part in monotonous real time, all of which real time I am really having to wait around, not able to just rest and be, really wanting to leave this crowded airport and go to real England NOW.

Plus, this place is grimy, it is not a blissful Pure Land at all – full of fast food, tired looking people, stuffy air, screaming kids, grubby carpets, and no Tantric Deities or celestial mansions in sight.

stuck at airport 2

I’ll let you know if and how I turn this around in the next several hours. I know I can and will probably have to because it is no fun being stuck here otherwise. That’s the whole point. The grasping is what is causing the pain, not the situation, which has no existence from its own side. Only the grasping is the problem.

Refuge is deep, deep relaxation. We can let the Three Jewels take over. We can surrender to Dharma experiences that are guaranteed to lift the mind and make us happy; to omniscient, blissful, unchangingly supportive friends, the Buddhas; and to Sangha, many of whom have already figured these things out and would be very cheerful waiting here in the airport.

Two hours later: Thoughts so far …

As I was walking around this ever-changing, dreamlike terminal, I remembered that this is all coming from my own karmic seeds and doesn’t exist outside my mind; there is instant relief in that thought. Why would I expect anything different, I created the causes for these appearances to my mind, no one else did. Also, whatever they are, they are not inherently any more good or bad than any other appearances, it just depends what I make of them.

stuck at airport 3And I’m already getting thought aid from suspected emanations functioning as Sangha Jewels. A couple of tweens have been hogging 3 out of the 4 precious plugs for the last 3 hours playing a mindless video game so I was in danger of (a) running out of computer juice and (b) getting annoyed with them, also not conducive to the happiness of this life. But then a charming young couple offered me one of their chairs and their plug, “That’s got to give you some peace of mind, right!”, and we have all just agreed that “it is what it is”, and, as the bloke said, “There is no point grumping about it, it won’t change anything. And there’s definitely no point getting angry with those poor guys at the counter.” A kid just said, “Dad, I’m bored”, and his dad replied, “Things go wrong, you have to get used to it.”  A South American Catholic nun was asking me what had been said in the announcement and she looked serenely full of patience when I told her, even though she is now going to miss her connecting flight. A lot of people are finding solace in their gadgets, some in their books, one guy chuckling opposite me at a comedy show, others chatting and joking around – the kindness of others keeping them entertained. Maybe this is the best hangout in town!?

We were given a $19 voucher for food and, samsara’s pleasures being deceptive, that free money burned a hole in my pocket as I felt I had to spend it on a rather large pizza, the only place that was still open, and I really don’t need pizza right now, I already had potato wedges while waiting earlier. But in the line I met an enthusiastic British Airways plane technician who told me that last week the same thing happened and people were put in hotels for, get this, TWO days, while they waited for their aircraft to be fixed with a landing light. Our broken part is more complicated, something to do with the nose (not) going up; so he cheerily told me that he hoped it wasn’t even longer a wait this time as people are missing connecting flights, missing cruises, missing big events … and he is quite right. I can afford to “miss” two days in England, I can spend them in a hotel if needs be. I am not exactly in Iraq right now fleeing for my life from ISIS. Looking around, I can see an old man trying hard to get his head comfortable, and the woman opposite me said, “I wish he had a pillow.” My compassion is kicking in and that is protecting my mind.

Buddha nature goldAnd this is a perfect opportunity to practice that experiment explained here. In Eight Steps, it says that we can focus on the gold of people’s Buddha nature, their limitless potential, rather than their faults, which in any case are the faults of their delusions, not them (including those tweens! Their real nature is limitless compassion and freedom, not adolescent self-absorption!)

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, because no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold… Whenever we meet other people, instead of focusing on their delusions we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique but will also help bring out their good qualities. ~Eight Steps to Happiness p. 82

Not focusing on others’ faults for me also includes the faults of people seeming just ordinary. If we know about Tantra, we can see their Buddha nature as already actualized. I am therefore surrounded by very unordinary Heroes and Heroines, Tantric Buddhas, and am a Space Goer myself.

no baggage to claim
No baggage to claim!

Latest announcement (now shortly before midnight): the plane with the part has just left SF (just left?!!!) and will be here at 1am. Heigh ho. Then it has to be fixed. People actually chuckled — they must be Heroes and Heroines.

Enjoying life

This continues from these articles on overcoming loneliness.

Samsara’s enjoyments 

photo 1 (4)Attachment to anything seems to aggravate our sense of isolation. Someone told me that they feel especially lonely when they’re looking for someone to share their samsaric enjoyments with, and not lonely while they’re enjoying Dharma. “I wish they were holding my hand in this movie” is a more likely craving than “I wish they were sitting next to me generating compassion and renunciation.” When I am meditating, for example, I never feel as if I am all on my ownsome, even if it may look like that from the outside.

The other day I was strolling in Denver Botanical Gardens, which just happens to be close to where I am living, very lucky me – and the flowers were breaking through after the winter splashing gorgeous color everywhere.* I was on my own, as is often the case, and I was loving being in the moment; but then I found myself wanting to show these exquisite flowers to my man friend and my parents all the way over in England, as if that would mean that they were there with me too. So I whipped out my handy Smartphone camera to endeavor to capture a paltry fraction of what was going on, and was about to send the photos over via Viber, when the following thought occurred: “This is so precarious and distracting – they are seven hours ahead, they are probably not online, plus the Martian for some reason cannot see the (to me, blindingly obvious) point of texting back and forth all day long, and my dear mother, smart as she is, is not the world’s most technically able individual and will likely send me back a blank email. This could end up being frustrating, and even exacerbate my sense of being alone!”photo 2 (4)

(As an aside, what about the wonders of modern technology! The distractions of modern technology!? The feeling that Smartphone gives us of being so close and yet paradoxically so far!?)

Pure enjoyments

So, instead, I decided to simply imagine that they were here with me already, part of my heart-mind, seeing all this; and imagined their delight. There is no real separation in time or space. You cannot find, or point to, time or space anywhere existing from their own side. Time is simply a characteristic of impermanent objects — not existing over and above them, or around them, or even before and after them! Space and distance, however seemingly vast, are likewise imputed, appearances to mind, as in a dream. The mind can be at the moon in an instant, as Geshe Kelsang explains in How to Understand the Mind. Buddhas are everywhere and with everyone all the time; and we can be too just by putting our minds there.

Contemplating this, I found myself offering up all these gardens, plus much more, to the kind holy beings who have taught me this, who also abide in my heart and pervade space and time; as well as to the lovable strangers passing me on the path. This took away any hint of the loneliness of trying to enjoy myself “on my own”; and in fact the gardens no longer felt like deceptive samsaric pleasures held by my self-grasping ignorance to exist “out there”, at a remove.photo 3 (4)

Instead, I felt very blissful, which is the opposite of attachment, I find. Attachment is like a black hole that can never be satiated whatever you throw at it; whereas bliss is like the sun — complete, present, all pervasive, and radiant. These kinds of experiences show me that it is possible to enjoy without attachment and clinging, and in genuine communion with others. This is good, as we are aiming at having uncontaminated pleasant feelings full-time!

Lonely as a cloud?

At this point, since I have mentioned my mother, and today indeed it is Mother’s Day, I feel like mentioning her favorite poem by the natural mystic Wordsworth, as I think she’ll find it relevant to what I am saying here:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils …

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Being in the here and the now

Talking about attachment, and about time and space, I grew up on the classic British Benson & Hedges line:

“Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.”

The famous commercials used an excerpt from a jazz rendition of Bach’s Air on the G String. A distinguished fellow would find himself in a variety of awkward situations and remedy them by lighting a cigar and smiling. (I can’t say it worked for me — whenever I tried a puff of my dad’s cigars I just felt sick …)photo 4 (3)

The moment we externalize happiness, as we do with attachment or uncontrolled desire – whether in another person, a house, a career, a reputation, or a cigar – we have instantly distanced ourselves from it. We may think, “To be happy I need to be on a Caribbean beach with a beautiful person, sipping a pink martini,” in which case our happiness is literally miles away. Or we may think, “To be happy I need to win this promotion and be free from my money worries,” in which case we are always separated from our happiness by the gulf of time.

Truly though, happiness is here within us right now. Remove all distorted, delusional states of mind and happiness will spontaneously flood into every part of our being, day and night. This has been the true-life experience of countless people who have trained their minds.

*ps. Denver is odd. Today, May 11th, winter is back already — five inches of snow smothering those poor spring flowers. It’s lucky I took these photos 😉