Beneficial believing

To carry on from here, I want to add that conventional reality is not just a question of agreeing with each other. There is no safety in numbers. I was just reading about the odd phenomenon of presumptive nominee Trump:

The internet creates a sense of universality; it’s easy to think your bubble is more representative than it actually is. Facebook curates our feeds so we get more of the stuff we ‘like.’ What do we ‘like’? People and posts that agree with us. It’s sort of a mass delusion. ~ The Week

hallucination 1We can all be wrong about something and agree; in fact we often are. So my point about conventional reality being collective hallucination in the last article only goes that way around – collective hallucination is not necessarily conventional reality, it can just be sheer madness with no basis in any reality. For we are hallucinating both conventional truths and non-existents.

No dream, no dreamer

It is so helpful to use our dreams to delve into reality, as explained here. Geshe Kelsang gives this beautiful verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:

All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

I often think too, when I wake up and the dream has disappeared, the dream has gone and so has the dreamer. If there was never a real dream, where was the real dreamer? So where is the I who is now awake also? Dream minds, people (including ourself), and objects are all created by the self-grasping dream mind. Waking minds, people, and objects are all created by the self-grasping waking mind.

Beneficial believing

Understanding lack of true existence is the wisdom realizing emptiness and it will set us free from samsara permanently. However, although a direct loverealization of emptiness is our goal, we also need to learn what to do with appearances for our own and others’ sake. Eventually we will come to see appearances and emptiness (lack of true existence) as one object, at which point those appearances are no longer technically conventional truths, but ultimate truth.

Ultimate truth appearing.

So, meanwhile, until we realize this union of appearance and reality directly, how are we to navigate through the false appearances, the hallucinations, and make our lives meaningful?

I think through “beneficial believing,” as Geshe Kelsang has called it — believing things not because they are true from their own side, but because they are beneficial and will lead us in the right direction. This includes toward the one and only true object, the only truth that exists in the way that it appears — emptiness or lack of true existence — realized by our very subtle mind, the clear light of bliss.

(By the way, even ultimate truth is not ultimately true – even emptiness is empty of inherent existence.)

Buddha’s teachings are divided into two: the instructions for directly realizing emptiness (wisdom practices) and everything else (method practices). Method practices such as renunciation and compassion do not apprehend ultimate truth directly, but they do apprehend the best of the conventional or relative truths, and they lead us to relative happiness, including the requisite merit or good karma for developing the Form Body of a Buddha. Method practices nurture the growth of our Buddha nature and wisdom practices free it from obstructions.

Fulfilling our two basic wishes

To reiterate, as Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

All conventional truths are false objects because the way they appear and the way they exist do not correspond. ~ p. 129

bear quiz
This may help me, relatively, up the mountain.
In other words, conventional truths are all fake. However, some conventional truths are more useful than others; so those are the ones we need to focus on to go in the direction we want to go in. Which is? We all want to be happy all the time, and we never want to suffer. Anything that takes us toward the fulfillment of those wishes can be described as beneficial believing, or even wisdom.

For example, although neither me nor you exist from our own sides and are creations of self-grasping, understanding the equality and interdependence of ourselves and all other living beings (as explained in the mind-training teachings) is far more realistic and valid, and therefore beneficial, than grasping onto an isolated or inherently existent self and other. These do not exist even relatively, do not appear to any valid mind; for no one in the universe can agree, for example, that I am the only real me.

Here is an example.

“I don’t understand it!”

If we ever wonder why we get so confused in our dealings with others, we need look no further than the fact we are all hallucinating and not all our hallucinations match up. A sad friend told me this week that someone broke up with them and they can’t understand it — they were sure they were getting on so well and that the other person really liked them too. And according to them that felt like the truth; but according to their ex-lover it did not. So where did that truth exist? Did it exist at all?

Unlike a chair that we are agreed we can sit on, what was appearing so vividly to their attachment never existed. All they had was their own version of events, total projection, and in this instance no shared reality. The ex-lover’s apparent truth, that this person was no longer love 1interesting or whatever, was also not objective but a mere reflection of her own mind. In this instance, these reflections did not coincide. Their perceptions were not in agreement, in fact they clashed, and so pain arose. It’s happening all the time with all of us.

When we manage to let go of our delusion of attachment for people, all we are losing is our illusions. Letting go of illusion, we are now free to experience a totally different and more realistic relationship. It seems that the best “truth” to be salvaged from these kinds of situation is love and compassion recognizing our equality and interdependence and wishing the other person to be happy and free. That mind is valid, for its object does have a relative truth to it. And it fulfills our basic wish, it makes us happy again.

More coming soon. Meantime, your comments are most welcome! Just use the box below 🙂

Life is but a dream

It might be helpful to read Am I dreaming? first. (For a full and inspiring explanation of the subject, you’re welcome to download Modern Buddhism for free and read the chapter Ultimate Truth.)

Appearances are deceptive
Is this really moving?! Or is it your mind moving?! Or both?!

We know from the experience of waking up each morning that our dreams are a moment by moment projection of mind, mere appearances to mind that are totally dependent on the minds that perceive them. However, as in our waking world, this is not how they appear and this is not what we think about them while we are still dreaming. When we dream, our 3D dream world is intact with all its geographical, spatial, and temporal coordinates. There is a sense of here and there, outside and inside, coming and going. There is a sense of past, present and future – if asked in our dream, we’d agree that the people we meet were born and will die, and the same goes for us.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Heart of Wisdom:

When we dream, we may have extremely vivid experiences. We may travel to colorful lands, meet beautiful or terrifying people, engage in various activities, and as a result experience great pleasure or suffering and pain. In our dream a whole world appears to us, functioning in its own way. This world may be similar to the world of our waking state or it may be quite bizarre, but in either case while we are dreaming it appears to be utterly real.

If we are capable of creating a whole world at night, we are certainly capable of creating one during the day!

Sometimes our waking life feels quite bizarre too, when unexpected things happen and we say things like “This feels so dream-like!” When we dream, our mind is more subtle and our mindfulness does not function very well (unless we have trained it), so it often appears as if everything is a little more chaotic or less predictable, just as it would if you were to lose your memory in waking life.

If we test our dreams, say during a lucid dream, by tapping the table or asking people around us “Am I dreaming?”, the table will feel solid to our seemingly solid knuckles and the people will most likely look at us in surprise and say that of course we are not dreaming. I once did try pinching myself in a dream and had to conclude that it proved absolutely nothing! The only way to know for sure that we’ve been dreaming is to wake up. Similarly, if you now tap the table you are reading this on, or ask your neighbor “Am I dreaming?”, or even pinch yourself, see what happens!! The only way to know directly that this is not all out there, independent of our mind, and existing as it appears (i.e. true as opposed to deceptive) is to wake up from our ignorance of self-grasping that clings to everything as being out there, independent, and true. However, in the meantime we can still gain a very strong understanding and sense of it through study and meditation, which will enable us to stop grasping (and its attendant delusions) and profoundly relax.

Like the dream you had last night, this day that you are having right now is a mere appearance to your mind. But, as Geshe Kelsang says in Heart of Wisdom:

“Nevertheless our world functions, following its own apparent rules in accordance with the laws of cause and effect, just as our dream world functions in its own way.”

We can follow these apparent physical (e.g. gravity) and karmic rules as opposed to being entirely nihilistic and throwing ourselves off cliffs or engaging in negative actions, whilst at the same time treading very lightly and happily through life. Emptiness is not nothingness. Inherently existent things don’t exist, but things do exist, even if only apparently.

“This plot has nothing to do with me!” we may think, especially when our lives are unraveling or our delusions are strong. Oh, but it does. It has everything to do with us. And for as long as we have self-grasping and self-cherishing, the projections that our mind throws up will be in the nature of suffering, they will be our own samsara. When we have compassion and wisdom functioning, we will project a peaceful, pure and blissful world that we can recognize as being the nature of our own mind. Depending on the extent of our compassion and wisdom, this will be a world that we can moreorless create and control for our own and others’ benefit.

A Buddha or “Awakened One” is anyone who has completely woken up from the sleep of ignorance and sees all phenomena as they really are. He or she is never again separated from the knowledge and perception that everything is appearance to mind, like objects in a dream, and that nothing exists from its own side. The definition of enlightenment in Mahamudra Tantra is:

“An omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings.”

Buddhas are omniscient and all-loving, and as a result can help each and every living being every day through the power of their blessings. The only restriction to their power is living beings’ karma and delusions.

Even a slight understanding of emptiness (lack of inherent or independent existence) will revolutionize our outlook and where we put all our energy. If we want to change a dream, do we try and move the dream objects around, or do we need some understanding that we are dreaming and mainly focus on changing our mind? In our waking world, we can and do move things around, for sure; but we’ll be far more effective if we do this while also focusing on the state of our mind and mental intentions or karma.

If we change our mind, we’ll change our world. If we purify our mind, we’ll purify our world. You know in dreams — for example, if you’re having a lucid dream, the monster’s chasing you, and suddenly you think, “This is just a dream”  — I don’t know if you’ve had this experience?! “Ah!  You’re not really a monster after all. Just an appearance to my mind!” You make friends with the monster — maybe the monster starts crying and says, “No one has ever understood me before!” I have a friend who was always dreaming of being chased by a terrifying monster until one day, having heard these teachings, she stopped in her tracks, swung around, stared at him, and declared: “You are just a dream!” He transformed into a peaceful Buddhist monk.

Slight digression: My grandfather used to read me Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid – that and Alice through the Looking Glass are kind of useful for introducing children to some of these ideas. I remember being so struck when Alice declared:

“You are nothing but a pack of cards!”

I heard it again recently at my niece’s musical. I still use that expression! (maybe not out loud).

Whenever we know we’re dreaming, we can change everything in our dreams. It is the same for our whole life. As Geshe Kelsang says in Understanding the Mind:

“If we think deeply about this we shall understand how all phenomena are mere appearances to our mind, just like objects in a dream. Then we shall realize that we can cause all the unpleasant things that we dislike to cease simply by abandoning impure states of mind, and we can cause all the good things that we desire to arise simply by developing a pure mind. In this way we shall be able to fulfill all our wishes.”

We can temporarily abandon the “unpleasant things we dislike” by reducing our anger, attachment and other delusions; and we can abandon them completely, once and for all, by waking up. How? By realizing emptiness directly. The Buddhas’ point is that if we wake up to the fact that we are basically in a waking dream — everything appears so real and yet it’s just an appearance to our mind, a projection of our mind — then our delusions will stop, they will cease, they’ll have no ground left to stand on.

There’ll be no basis for attachment because attachment arises for things that are out there, independent of our mind. If something or someone appears attractive to us, we immediately think that the attractiveness is an inherent part of that object or person, we don’t think that it comes from the side of our mind. We think that person is really desirable, desirable from their own side, and “I have to have you if I’m going to be happy!” Thus attachment is born and we mentally (and/or physically!) pull them toward us, the closer the better. (Of course, a gap between two inherently existent people can never be bridged, so frustration is part and parcel of attachment). Or we see something that appears unattractive to us, and we think the unattractiveness inheres within the object (exists from its own side, in other words) and thus anger is born. We push the object away from us, or try to.

The push and pull of all our delusions come from that grasping at things as being out there, independent of our mind, nothing to do with our perceiving awareness. If we understand how the world comes not from out there but from the side of our mind, just projection, then we can understand that if we want to change our world we have to change our mind. Our mind also depends upon its objects and lacks inherent existence, so we can change it. Emptiness gives us freedom, nothing is fixed. As the great Indian Buddhist Master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.

All Buddha’s teachings free us from suffering and problems to a greater or lesser extent but, of all his teachings, his teachings on ultimate reality — the emptiness of inherent existence — are the most completely liberating teachings of all. It’s through these wisdom teachings that countless people in the past have attained actual liberation and enlightenment.

Maybe it is our turn now.

What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?!

As quoted in this previous article, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that if we have some experience of emptiness:

Geshe Kelsang at Madhymaka Centre, early 1980s

“Everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.”

Countless meditators before us have had this experience and there seems to be no reason to think that Buddha or our kind teachers are just making this up. Once we’ve had teachings on emptiness, we do generally get the sense that it is the answer to all our problems, don’t we? Also, while compassion is arising strongly it is a major motivator for realizing emptiness, as I saw when looking after Ralph the kitten.

So my question is, “Why don’t we just go for it?”

A lot of you answered this question on the previous article, thank you.

Samsara or freedom?

I think the major reason we don’t go for it in earnest — a reason even underlying our other reasons and sabotaging our compassion — is because we are attached to inherently existent things. We don’t particularly like the idea of our house, for example, being burnt up in the fire of exalted wisdom. We’ve worked years for that house and we really quite like it! We need it! We want it to be real. Not to mention our partner, our children, our enjoyments, our vacation, our money… Have you ever lost your wallet? This is a very significant absence. We don’t like it. Why would we want to meditate on the absence of inherent existence of our wallet and everything else?!

“Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”

In the first Matrix movie, Cypher wants to return to the unreal world of false appearances because he is attached to it. Cutting up a juicy steak in a restaurant in the Matrix (of mistaken appearance) with Agent Smith (self-grasping ignorance), he ruminates that he knows the steak is merely the simulation telling his brain that it is delicious and juicy, but after nine years he has discovered that “ignorance is bliss.” He strikes a deal with the enemy Agent Smith because he wants to be rich and powerful, “an actor” maybe.

Years ago I saw a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk entered a dream-like world. He knew he was dreaming and he had control over his dream, but he didn’t like it. He spent the whole episode trying to get back to “real” life. He could not enjoy the creative freedom of being able to make up his own world, and the movie supported his view that it is better if things are solidly real.

And I’ve often wondered why brilliant Western scientists who have delved into quantum physics for a lifetime haven’t realized emptiness directly. (I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that most haven’t). They seem so close — they have almost entirely de-constructed an objective world. But they haven’t got to the point of acknowledging that, no matter how much money they spend on particle accelerators blowing tinier and tinier things up, they will never find the ultimate constituent of the universe. Why? Because there isn’t one. There is nothing out there, not even the smallest gluon, tachyon, or neutrino. Everything is projected by mind (even mind itself).

Granted, this is just my theory, but I think they’ll keep looking because they are attached to an inherently or objectively existent universe. They don’t want to dismantle it entirely because they’re attached to it being real. (Their assumption is also part of the Western creator view of a first beginning and a final end, but that’s another story.)

Buddha’s teachings are so clear on the subject – I think it could be easier and quicker to realize emptiness than spend a lifetime becoming an expert in quantum mechanics, string theory, parallel universes and so on! Yogis — who are experts in the field of the mind and of emptiness — are free and blissful all the time. Therefore, Buddha is not just positing a theory, for what he says has worked in practice for millenia to free the mind. Scientists, on the other hand, are as brainy as can be, but are also as neurotic as the rest of us.

We need renunciation, the mind of liberation

Buddha said that a pre-requisite for realizing emptiness directly is the non-attachment of renunciation. That is the only way we can enter a supramundane spiritual path – without at least renunciation we will remain trapped in samsara indefinitely. Some people wonder why we need renunciation – why, if we are intelligent, can’t we realize emptiness first and then develop aversion for samsara?! After all, the teachings on emptiness can seem more fun to begin with.

However, I think this is only because we’re not clear what it is we are actually renouncing. Yes, we are renouncing the places, enjoyments and bodies of samsara, but this is because we apprehend them as inherently existent. What we are actually renouncing is the ignorance in our minds.

We are renouncing, or wishing to give up, our self-grasping ignorance apprehending inherent existence because we know that it is the source of all our other delusions such as anger and attachment, and of all our suffering. If we are renouncing the mind of ignorance, we are also renouncing the object of that mind – inherently existent things. We want neither the conception nor the appearance of inherent existence any more, whatever these are associated with – nice things or nasty things. That is real renunciation, it seems to me.

And it is the minimum motivation we need for realizing emptiness. With it, we are delighted to spend time in emptiness, dissolving mistaken appearances away. Without it, we are at best half-hearted. And we just want to go lay on the real beach, followed by a real juicy steak, and a movie.

nobody can make us happy...

Unless we start developing some non-attachment for inherent existence, we’ll be lucky just to get glimpses of the possibilities of the spiritual path. Through blessings and/or good karmic imprints, we may have one or two good meditation sessions — letting go and abiding in a peace we’ve never experienced the like of before. But then due to our habitual attachment we will allow ourself to cling again to inherent existence, thinking of it as innocuous or even desirable.

Do you agree? (Especially the scientists among you who are reading this?!)

Where eagles fly … how to soar in the space of meditation

High above, in the endless clear sky of the Brazilian Serra da Bocaina rain forest, I watched eagles fly. They soared effortlessly through the sphere of space, with barely a movement of their wings.

There is a picture of an eagle on the front cover of Modern Buddhism, her two wide outstretched wings symbolizing the path of compassion and wisdom, the book’s subtitle. These two wings of ultimate bodhichitta can and one day will fly us to enlightenment.

Bodhichitta is the wish to become enlightened by permanently overcoming all mistaken appearances so we can bring mental peace to all living beings each and every day. With this compassionate motivation, we meditate on the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness. We try to find ourself and other objects existing inherently (or from their own side), as they appear to exist; but — like a mirage — the closer we look the more it all just disappears. This meditation is explained with impeccable clarity in “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”, IMHO the best chapter on emptiness in the world. 

For example, my teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso summarizes how to look for our own body:

Normally I see my body within its parts—the hands, back, and so forth—but neither the individual parts nor the collection of the parts are my body because they are the parts of the body and not the body itself. However, there is no “my body” other than its parts. Through searching with wisdom for my body in this way, I realize that my body is unfindable. This is a valid reason to prove that my body that I normally see does not exist at all.

To demonstrate how to meditate on this emptiness of inherent existence, Geshe Kelsang gives the analogy of eagles, who …

… soar through the vast expanse of the sky without meeting any obstructions, needing only minimal effort to maintain their flight…

Once we’ve found the object — the mere absence of the body we normally see – we settle on it, without further distracting flapping-wing-like analysis.

Analytical and placement meditation

There were many colorful hummingbirds there too, at the pousada where I was lucky enough to be doing a six week retreat off the grid prior to the Kadampa Brazil Festival. Their little wings moved faster than my eyes could keep up with; they were more like bees than birds. Cute as anything, but all this flapping is not the way to meditate! Plus it looked exhausting.

Meditation involves two parts, analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed concentration.) You can find out about these in The New Meditation Handbook or Joyful Path of  Good Fortune. In brief, during analytical meditation we bring to mind the object of placement meditation through reasoning, analogies, and checking the teachings in our own experience. When the object appears clearly we stop analyzing and concentrate on it single-pointedly.

Whether we are meditating on emptiness or any other object, once we have a rough idea of our object through contemplation, we rest on it for as long as we can in single-pointed focus, remembering it moment by moment without further analysis. Soaring, not flapping.

Don’t over-think it

When I started meditating I had a tendency to over-think in my meditation sessions, not daring to rest on the object (whether that was an object apprehended by mind or a state of mind such as a determination) until I was quite sure I had it perfect. But, as Je Tsongkhapa says, you cannot see the details of a temple mural by the light of a flickering candle. Once I figured out that it would never be perfect if I never allowed myself to improve my concentration on it, I relaxed into the meditation objects sooner and for longer in placement meditation. Almost overnight, I became far better at meditating.

Three valuable tips for good concentration

Meditation involves seeking, finding, holding and remaining on our object – not just seeking. We seek the object through contemplation until we find it – we have to stop once we have a rough idea of the object, be content with that, and focus on it, or we’ll never improve our concentration. Then we hold the object firmly but gently and remain on it without pushing.

(I find it helpful at the outset of my meditations to believe that I have already found my object of meditation, and I spend a few moments focusing on it. Then I start contemplating to make that object clearer and more stable. This way, because I have some sense of the object right from the beginning, I know when to stop looking for it!)

I extrapolated these three instructions from the tranquil abiding teachings as I find them really helpful:

(1)   Remember the object moment by moment. Just remember it, don’t do anything with it. And relax. Hold the object in your root mind at the level of your heart, not in your thinky head.

(2)   Hold the object clearly. It is rough to begin with, but you are still focusing on just that and nothing else, without pushing.

(3)   Overcome distractions. Do this by ignoring them. If you fight your distractions or try and think your way out of them, they have won. Thoughts are going to come up unless you are an advanced meditator, and it doesn’t matter that they do provided you pay them no attention.

Don’t think, “This is too difficult, I can’t do it.” Think instead, “This is not difficult and I am doing it.”

When we do this, our mind and its meditation object become closer and closer until they mix like water mixing with water.

Everything becomes wonderful

Next time you have a chance, look up at an eagle blissfully soaring in space… When we have some experience of emptiness, and a little concentration, and we can dissolve all appearances away into their space-like ultimate nature and stay there for a little while, we are at deep peace because we discover that there is nothing more we could possibly want. Why? Because we have it all already. Geshe Kelsang describes it like this:

In this experience, everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.

Buddha’s mind of great bliss always pervades all phenomena because it is permanently mixed with their emptiness. In truth, when we have even the slightest experience of emptiness, and we combine this with even an imagined bliss, this experience is tapping directly into the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind. See Modern Buddhism for how to meditate on the union of the emptiness taught in Sutra and the bliss taught in Tantra.

Space and creativity

Out of this fundamentally creative experience, like a rainbow arising from the sky, we can appear anything we want — pure appearance or experience arising from the ultimate bodhichitta of bliss (our compassionate bodhichitta) and the wisdom realizing emptiness. (Pure appearance doesn’t just mean visual images, BTW, it means any conventional truth arising from the experience of bliss and emptiness.) We can even arise as a Buddha in a Pure Land if we want to, spontaneously suffused with those blessings. We can change the movie reel of our reality, choosing the movie we want this time. About time too. All this is explained in Modern Buddhism, which is the union of Sutra and Tantra.

Treat yourself!

Do you think there is anything better we could do with our life than realize emptiness motivated by bodhichitta? Geshe Kelsang requests us on the back of Modern Buddhism:

I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”. Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.”

You could (re)treat yourself by carving out a couple of hours this weekend or soon to read the chapter, closing your eyes and thinking about it. Everyone has access to this book now… If you don’t have the book, you can download it for free here thanks to Geshe-la’s kindness 🙂

Is something stopping you?

Finally, with Buddha Shakyamuni’s appearance in our world and his perfect instructions on emptiness, not to mention Geshe Kelsang’s constant heartfelt requests and attempts to wake us all up over the years, what is stopping us from wanting to spend all our time blissfully absorbed in emptiness?! Clearly something is or we’d be finding every opportunity to do it (perhaps you are).

Please leave your comments so I can write the next article, “What is stopping us?!”

What’s karma got to do with it?

This morning I felt mildly irritated at an “official” person because they have a different idea about something than I do, and naturally that means their idea is daft, but they are the ones in charge. Sound familiar? (I know it’s not just me).

Angry Birds
Blame the right thing!

People play Angry Birds, so they tell me, because of the fun they have in beating each level. When two fantastically bright Millenials admitted to playing Angry Birds for two whole hours in one sitting — catapulting the poor birds at the long-suffering pigs or monkeys with a swipe of their finger — this was the only reason they could give me, even though I tried for at least half an hour to squeeze more psychology out of them. I have unhelpful habits of my own, but I confess I don’t really get the attraction (should I say mass addiction) of video games like Angry Birds. It was so clearly pre-programmed by nerds in an office who are having a laugh at your behalf and rubbing their hands in glee at the money 200 million people have purportedly parted with to “beat” a machine.

But this morning I actually got a glimpse of what my friends were saying. I’m not a fan of negative minds or so-called delusions, but I do find small ones quite helpful, as you can immediately look at your mind and see what you’re doing, where you’re focusing, and how it feels. And I have grown to enjoy the challenge of overcoming my negative minds with their opponents, beating them at each level, starting from the big and working your way up/down to the most subtle.

A couple of people recently asked me to do an article on karma. It is a vast subject and covered beautifully in my teacher’s books, but I’ll say how I smashed this morning’s particular monkey/pig by remembering the teachings on karma.

When irritation arose, I blamed it on its source… that b****y annoying person. I externalized it and as a result I felt powerless. If we hold the source of our aversion to be something out there, independent of the mind, there is precious little we can do other than get more defensive and angry as we try to push that seemingly harmful object away from us. (Alternatively, I could work for years to get into a position of power and then fire them, but that doesn’t seem quite practical either.)

It is always more enjoyable and peaceful to be centered in the heart-mind, feeling connected to everyone and everything, than to be adrift and cut off, relating to an apparently inherently existent world outside our mind. But delusions force us to live dualistically, sensing an unsettling gulf between us and the world about us – e.g. I am here and you, annoying person, are over there. This gulf is a figment of our ignorance and yawns wider when our delusions are strong.

Where does the world come from?

Luckily, the actual source of the irritation is nothing outside our mind. We can see from Buddha’s teachings that the world we experience depends on the world we are paying attention to or focusing on. There is no world other than the world we experience. No need to take Buddha’s word for it — try to inhabit, or even point to, a world outside of your experience of it!

The world we create for ourselves also depends entirely on our mind. If the only world we inhabit is the world we experience, and experience is mind, the causes of our world must also lie within our mind.

Specifically the world we live in depends on our intentions, or mental actions. “Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions. 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 — or is it the other way round?! Either way, everything must arise from something in the same continuum as itself, so an apple tree cannot arise from an unrelated peach seed, for example, as Master Oogway pointed out to Master Shifu, nor mental experience arise from a physical cause.

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 mind. Mental intentions are those seeds, experience is their effect. 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.

Mladic would never have escaped

We cannot escape our negative karma unless we purify it. I read a story in the press today about the fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladic who has now finally been delivered to the Hague. Even without being tried for the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes against humanity, he will reap their ghastly results sooner or later in this or future lives. It seems to me that his bad karma already began to ripen when his beloved daughter Ana allegedly shot herself with his favorite gun because she was so distressed by his atrocities. He was granted permission to visit her grave before he was exiled. He has had strokes, heart attacks and cancer, but that loss must hurt him more than anything else.

How to gain more conviction in karma

There is no world independent of our mind. The world we experience depends on our current states of mind — if our mind is peaceful, the world seems like a pleasant place; if dark, we live in a dark world. As mentioned, the world we experience also depends on our previous thoughts and actions.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang advises that to gain more conviction in how we create our world with our intentions or karma, it is most helpful to consider how things do not exist from their own side but are projections of our mind. They are rather like a movie. We know a movie on a cinema screen is not out there coming at me, as it appears to be, but is projected by a projector. Similarly, the world appears to be out there coming at me, but it is in fact projected by my mind.

If my world is merely a projection of my mind, with no existence “out there” from its own side, then why does it appear in one way and not another? How do we become involved in one movie and not another?

How the world appears depends on which of my karmic potentials are ripening; these are rather like the movie reel being run through the projector. For this reason, everything is said to be mere karmic appearance of mind.

When we dream, where do all those appearances come from? They come from karmic seeds planted in our mind; where else could they come from? We experience a dream world that is projected by our own karma. Our waking world is also projected by our karma.

Looking in the mirror

So, going back to this morning… I thought about these things and how the only reason I was irritated was because I had irritated someone else in the past. If you look in a mirror and don’t like what you see, what do you do? Do you get out a paper towel and some Windex and try and rub that dirt away? Or do you realize it is just a reflection and use the mirror to clean your face instead? In the same way, if I don’t like what is appearing to my mind do I tire myself out by fixing the person out there with frustrating results? Or do I purify the causes for unpleasant appearances and make sure not to create more karmic causes for the things I don’t like?

If you don’t like a movie, change the movie reel.

Believing in karma is said to be like looking in a mirror that shows us what to abandon and what to practice. If you’re a Buddhist, you may think you believe in karma, yet the proof is in the pudding – if we do believe it we will want to engage in positive actions and abandon negative ones. We also won’t keep blaming the wrong things for our suffering or chasing the wrong things for our happiness — fiddling with the projected rather than the projector. As Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism (now available as a free eBook!).

“We should judge whether or not we believe that the main cause of suffering is our non-virtuous actions and the main cause of happiness is our virtuous actions. If we do not believe this, we will never apply effort to accumulating virtuous actions, or merit, and we will never purify our non-virtuous actions, and because of this we will experience suffering and difficulties continually, in life after life without end.”

The driver’s seat

Observing the natural law of karma puts us in the driver’s seat of our own destiny. If we don’t know about karma, we can’t do much about our future. Even if we try day in and day out to shape our world, we will rarely receive the results we wish for, because we are putting all our energy into creating external causes whilst ignoring the internal and actual causes of our experiences.

Buddha said that until we have gained a realization of ultimate truth, emptiness, observing karma is the most important thing for us to do in the pursuit of happiness and freedom. Why? Because karma entirely shapes what happens to us and how we experience life. If we want to be a conscious architect of our reality, choosing our own experiences, we need to fall in with this natural law. If we do not, we remain stuck and powerless; and, however hard we try to change our future, it never goes the way we want it to. With the wisdom understanding karma, we seize control and change our karma as we like. Without it, we are to all intents and purposes pre-determined by our karma. Buddhists don’t believe in fate, but if we blindly ignore the law of internal cause and effect, it looks like we are dooming ourselves to a future beyond our control!

I look forward to your comments, and please share this article if it’s helpful.

What just happened?!

I was woken at 4am this morning by my mom in London: “Oh sorry darling, I didn’t mean to wake you.” (Funny how a loud ringing noise in your ear can do that). “It’s just that I was watching the royal wedding and I wished you were here.”

Today something is happening. No one can deny that. Two billion people have tuned into watch this happening, both live and recorded, and plenty more are trying to ignore it. But what is it exactly?!

In the last article I explained that when we wake from a dream it is clear to us that our dream objects do not exist independent of the mind… we don’t go searching for them as we know we will not find them. But it is the same when we are awake! Where was that wedding? What was it?! If it existed as it appeared to, out there, independent of our minds, then we should be able to find it, either within its parts or somewhere else. So was the wedding in the milling swarms of people? In Kate’s ring? In the vows? In the buildings of Westminster Cathedral or Buckingham Palace? No, none of those things were the wedding either individually or collectively – they were just parts of the wedding. But if we take the swarms, the ring, the vows, the buildings etc away, the wedding vanishes, proving it does not exist other than its parts. So it is not in its parts nor anywhere else, meaning we cannot find it anywhere, we cannot point to a “royal wedding”. It therefore does not exist as it appeared to, independent of our minds.

In dependence upon various parts appearing to our mind, we imputed or labeled “royal wedding”, and voila it existed for us. The royal wedding was therefore no more than mere label or mere name, imputed by our conceptual thought. [For a perfect explanation of all this, consult the teachings on emptiness given in Heart of Wisdom or Modern Buddhism.]

Due to our collective karma we experienced moreorless a similar appearance, and shared a conceptual label. We can say that from this point of view there was only one royal wedding – it took place in London, not Beijing for example, the main protagonists were Will and Kate, and the Queen wore a canary yellow dress. But we can also say that everyone experienced their own royal wedding — I reckon that if you were to interview every one of the two billion people they’d be telling different stories, let alone if you interviewed all those who boycotted it! And the stories they’d be telling would depend entirely upon their own individual karmic appearances and their minds. Yet they’d probably all agree that it really did happen, they really saw it or missed it.

I alone watched three royal weddings simultaneously – I don’t have a TV so I watched one on the YouTube Royal Channel to get some commentary, one on CNN to get it live (the Royal Channel was 20 seconds behind), and one on CNN mobile on my iphone as my computer kept crashing due to a virus, and in fact has now died altogether [that’s another story – I originally wrote this article on there and it was better, but its lost…You have only my word for it 😉 ] Which of the three was the real wedding?

I decided to write this article partly as I was wondering how Kate felt at having two billion people watching her every dimple. Did she feel like a fairytale princess arriving in Cinderella’s glass car and leaving in a horse-drawn carriage with her Prince Charming, with loads of black horses and marching men wearing black fuzzy hats all just for her?! Planes flying over, and her mouth could be seen saying “Perfect formation!”, and yes, all for her! People practically swooning in anticipation of that first blissful kiss, camping out all night for this?!

I know there are a lot of republicans reading this and I have no trouble respecting your point of view. Also, in a casual chit chat about the wedding, someone who shall remain nameless was heard to say “Who are Charles and Diana?”, proving conclusively I think that we live in parallel universes! But whether you’re a royalty lover, a royalty hater, or a couldn’t care lesser, there is no real wedding happening out there today. Our dreams show the power of our mind to create a whole world, with temporal and spatial coordinates all intact; and then to mistakenly believe that it has nothing to do with us. Due to our ignorance we project a wedding out there within its parts, which we believe is real, and feel annoyed, in love, or blasé about it. But to live in a pure world, and experience happiness, we need to purify our mind, whether republican or royalist. As Buddha Maitreya puts it:

Because living beings minds are impure, their worlds are impure.
When living beings purify their minds, they will inhabit a Pure Land.

To fully purify our mind we need to realize the part we are playing in creating everything so we can create something better. It is hard to over-emphasize how important this is.

I was wondering however why people the world over do like adulating other people? It is not just the royals – just think of the magazines devoted to movie stars, or have you been to rock concert or a football match recently?! And do you remember President Obama’s inauguration?! He wasn’t just waved to his oval-shaped office and told to get on with it. We love all that pomp and circumstance, don’t we, even republicans, come on admit it, even just a little?! The question is why?

I don’t really know! But I will hazard a guess. We like to worship something we consider bigger than ourselves, larger than life, to get out of ourselves. (The sermon seemed to be somewhat about that, about cultivating a love and devotion that is bigger than ourselves and bigger than just the two of them/us as a way of transcending self and becoming a better human being.) Focusing on others in this all-absorbing way gives us a temporary respite from being stuck in self.

And it is interesting how in Buddha’s teachings (and other religions) a lot of worshipful royal symbolism is used – today is also Protector Day, for example, and I recited a prayer to Manjushri “Your princely body is…” Dorje Shugden is the “Great King”.

And what, I was also musing, are the statistical chances of a “commoner”, like Kate, marrying into a royal family in a rare ceremony that only takes place once or twice in most people’s lifetimes? (My mother has reminded me more than once that Kate and I went to the same high school – though at somewhat different times!) By developing bodhichitta we become a son or daughter of the Conquerors, a princely or princessly Bodhisattva. This is rare. And the odds of a “commoner” or ordinary being encountering the Tantric empowerments and entering the mandala palace are even rarer.

Kate and Will could have gotten married in a small church followed by fish ‘n’ chips, and still be just as married. But two billion people wanted to buy into this elegant ceremony and feel the noble tradition and lineage of the ages, even if time also is imputed by mind. People were happy to feel part of this BIG thing. Perhaps this is a promising sign that we seek transcendence? And it doesn’t have to be escapist, especially if we understand our role in creating this reality.

After all, who knows who anyone is really?! In Tantra we train in pure view, trying to see everyone as a pure holy being. Even in Sutra we try to focus on the pure potential of others, and their kind natures rather than their faults. Why?! One main reason is that mind and its objects are dependent related. If we train in viewing pure objects, our mind becomes pure by relation because our mind depends upon its objects. And as our mind becomes purer, objects appear more purely to it, because objects likewise depend upon our mind – like clear reflections will appear in a pristine mountain lake. And on it goes. According to Buddhism, this is the spiritual path leading to liberation and enlightenment.

I want to tell a short story that has a lot of meaning… I don’t even pretend to understand its full meaning, but it has made me think over these years about the nature of reality, of pure view, of what things are really. It has helped me loosen up. Things are clearly not as fixed or ordinary as they appear! Buddhas have delusion-free and obstruction-free minds so they see pure worlds full of pure beings – and this is not to discount our suffering (or they wouldn’t be trying to help us of course), but also not to buy into it so that we are forever stuck. Only our delusions deserve the name “enemy” for they deceive us grievously into thinking that what we see is what we get, that we live in a concrete and impure world independent of our mind: Enter Stage Left! Suffer a Bit or a Lot. Exit Stage Right! We don’t though. And as Geshe Kelsang has often said, “Anything can appear to mind.”

When my teacher Geshe Kelsang gave a course in London back in the early nineties, he invited the students and teachers of the new London and Bath centres for tea.

I am sitting next to Geshe-la on his left, all of us in a circle daintily sipping tea. Geshe-la suddenly asks out of the blue: “Why is London so important?” He looks at me for the answer and I think, “Well, that’s an easy one!”, and reply “Because it is the capital of England, Geshe-la.” Not the answer he wants at all. So I try again, a bit more tentatively: “Because it is one of the financial centres of the world?” Again, he shakes his head. Me, more desperately: “Because it has so many people?” Now he is looking almost disappointed. Pause. Then Geshe-la says something that I don’t think anyone was expecting:

“London is important because it was emanated for the Queen.”

“Ah” we all nod knowingly. Another pause. What?!!

“The Queen is not an ordinary woman” he continues and, casting his eyes heavenward, “She comes from higher realms.”

I’ll leave you to ponder the levels of meaning Geshe-la was trying to teach us in that moment. I will just say that it was no ordinary tea party.

What do you think about all this? Is all the hype best ignored? Or is it possible to transform even a royal wedding into the spiritual path?!

Was it in fact Disney who imagined the Royal Wedding into existence?!

Am I dreaming?

Wisdom Buddha Manjushri (who was on Geshe Kelsang’s retreat in Tharpaland)

For years I have been using my dreams to gain a deeper understanding of the ultimate nature of reality. I’ve trained myself to remember my dreams first thing in the morning and compare them to my waking world in order to see for myself the truth of Buddha’s teachings that everything is like a dream.

Why do I want to do that? Because I find life is a lot more fun when I am not grasping at it in a crunchy real way, and can instead dissolve away appearances and have choice over how to impute and perceive my world. Our own dreams show how everything depends upon our mind – if our mind changes, our world changes, and if our mind ceases, the object ceases. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in How to Understand the Mind:

Just as all the things experienced in a dream are mere appearances to mind, so all beings, their environments, their enjoyments, and all other phenomena are mere appearances to mind. This is not easy to understand at first, but we can develop some understanding by contemplating as follows. When we are awake many different things exist, but when we fall asleep they cease because the mind to which they appear ceases. During our dreams we become a dreamer, and at that time the only things that appear are dream objects. Later, when we wake, these dream objects cease because the mind to which they appear ceases. Other than this there is no specific reason why they should cease.

So, can you all remember a dream you had recently, a vivid dream? Some people dream every night and remember it. Some people don’t dream every night, but all of you can probably remember at least one vivid dream.

Let’s say you dreamed of an elephant last night. Geshe Kelsang always uses elephants, I don’t know why. He’s got a sense of humor. This elephant in your dream had big flappy ears, a long trunk, and appeared fully and all at once in all its detail. You could see it, you could hear it, you could smell it, you could stroke it if it let you – all this is appearing vividly to your dream senses.

I actually did dream of an elephant once. He was waiting in line to use the restroom with me. He was a huge gray elephant and he was very friendly, but he accidentally trod on my toe, and I said, “Owww!” (as you might imagine), to which the elephant immediately apologized in a posh English accent, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” I talked with this elephant for quite some time, and only when I woke up did I realize what a fool I had been, by which point I was quite fond of my elephant and was half-wondering where he would be, where I could find him.

But of course I knew the moment I woke up that I had just been dreaming, and that there was no point pining over my new elephant friend or buying an expensive airline ticket to Borneo to look for him in the jungles over there. I realized that he never existed from his own side. However at the time of meeting my large gray friend I could talk to him, relate to him, he could make me sad, he could make me happy. Objects in our dreams can do all of these things, can’t they?

This is amazing, if you think about it, seeing as we are just making it all up. When we wake up, we know this for sure. “Oh, that was just a dream!”

Where did the elephant go? Where did it come from? Where did it disappear to? It just came from our mind, didn’t it? Where else could it have come from? If it came from anywhere else and we woke up, the elephant should be sitting there at the end of our bed; but, as Geshe-la points out, big elephants generally don’t fit in our small bedrooms. So there’s no elephant outside the mind. Is there? Or did someone ship the elephant into my dream and then ship it out again at the end? I don’t think so.

How can something disappear if it’s real? How can something disappear if it’s more than just appearance to begin with? How can things just disappear? Where do our dream appearances go? How can they just vanish if they exist from their own side? If our entire dream world is independent of our mind as it appears to be, why does it all disappear when the mind perceiving it disappears?

That elephant felt so solid and real, as if it existed from its own side, just as real as an elephant would feel like if you visited one in a zoo. But when we wake up we realize we made the whole thing up — the elephant was just a projection of my mind, just an appearance to my mind. It was never out there like it appeared to be, and yet I was taken in by it, completely and entirely, hook, line, and sinker. Again. And how many dreams have we had?!

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? How we get caught up and caught out by our dreams every single night? Yet when we wake up we assume we’re so much more sensible when we’re awake, and we think, “Things appear real when I’m awake, so they must be.” The experience of dreaming night after night for however many years we’ve been dreaming has not managed to convince us, once we fall asleep again, that we’re just dreaming. We still think it’s real. So why do we trust our waking perceptions to be any more valid?

Interesting thought, isn’t it? We do though, don’t we? We think the waking world is real, compared to the dream world. Guess what? It’s not.

In his new book, Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Venerable Geshe-la says:

All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru. ~ page 76

There are three points we can think about with respect to our dreams. The first one is that the elephant in our dream, say, is not our mind itself, because our mind itself is formless clarity and functions to cognize and so on, whereas the elephant is dream form, It is a big, gray, chunky thing, an appearance to the mind rather than the mind itself.

But, secondly, nor is it in any way independent of the mind. The dream elephant we see is entirely dependent upon our perception of elephant, we can’t separate it out from our perception of elephant, can we? If we could, we’d be able to find it outside the mind, for example in our room. But it is inseparable from the mind apprehending it. It cannot in any way exist independent of the mind, from its own side — not at all. There’s no part of that elephant that can exist in any way independent of our mind.

So then third point is that when our mind dreaming the elephant stops, or ceases, the elephant stops, or ceases.

The New Heart of WisdomGeshe Kelsang says in New Heart of Wisdom:

If we check carefully we shall realize that our waking world exists in a way that is similar to the way in which our dream world exists. Like the dream world, our waking world appears vividly to us and seems to have its own existence independent of our mind. Just as in the dream, we believe this appearance to be true and respond with desire, anger, fear and so on.

If you want a very helpful and profound daily reminder of the ultimate nature of reality, when you wake up from your dream in the morning you can immediately compare it to the waking reality of the day ahead using these three points. First of all, take an object in your dream for which you had strong feelings, and apply the three points to it until you know conclusively that, although it appeared utterly real, it was no more than a projection of your own mind — you owned it and could have controlled it. There is a sense of relief — you let it go because there was never anything there to grasp at in the first place.

Then you can think forward to your breakfast for example. You are going to be able to see it, smell it, touch it, taste it, feel it. It is going to feel very real, as if it exists “out there”, independent of your perceiving consciousness — you just stumbled into the kitchen and there it was waiting for you to perceive it. But in fact our breakfast shares the three points of similarity with our dream object: (1) It is not our mind, (2) it is not independent of our mind (we cannot find our breakfast out there if we look for it, for example in its parts), and (3) it only exists for as long as the mind apprehending it exists. Again, if you do this contemplation, you’ll have a sense of relief of letting go, there is nothing there to grasp at!

(In the logical meditation on emptiness, called “four essential points”, we look at the second point of similarity more closely by seeing if we can or cannot find things “out there”, or independent of our mind. For example, can you find the royal wedding!?)

In Modern Buddhism Geshe Kelsang says:

The only difference between them is that the dream world is an appearance to our subtle dreaming mind while the waking world is an appearance to our gross waking mind. The dream world exists only for as long as the dream awareness to which it appears exists, and the waking world exists only for as long as the waking awareness to which it appears exists. Buddha said:

“You should know that all phenomena are like dreams.”

When we die, our gross waking minds dissolve into our very subtle mind and the world we experienced when we were alive simply disappears. The world as others perceive it will continue, but our personal world will disappear as completely and irrevocably as the world of last night’s dream.

I’m out of space for now, but I’d like to continue this subject in a future article, particularly with reference to how a realization of the dreamlike nature of reality will free us from our problems once and for all.