I think this cartoon applies not just to animals in abattoirs, but to all manner of suffering in our world. At the moment it seems that a lot of us, a lot of the time, try to keep suffering at a distance so we don’t have to think about it. Perhaps we feel forced to deal with it otherwise. How else to explain why we turn a blind eye to the billions of animals being butchered daily behind iron doors, but most of us would label as a sociopath someone who beat an animal to death on the street in front of us? Why we tolerate the gun violence when it is happening in some other country, some other state, some other town, but freak out when it gets closer to home?
I think due to our Buddha nature, our innate goodness, we do have a sense of responsibility that kicks in when suffering gets close enough. Maybe it is for that reason that we prefer to physically or emotionally shut it away. However, suffering is around us all the time, and it requires a lot of exhausting mental calisthenics to ignore that. All we need to do to see suffering is “open your eyes” as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says; but we have to want to open our eyes.
Look around. Every person you see has some suffering, something they’d like solved, do they not? It is everywhere but we don’t look around as we don’t feel we can deal with it. But although our self-protective self-cherishing doesn’t want to be bothered with it, “I have to protect myself from suffering!” – in reality we are not protecting ourselves from suffering, we are carrying on suffering by ignoring others’ suffering. It is not self-protective but self-defeating. By ignoring suffering and staying absorbed in our own problems, we never solve our own problems. We’ve tried that, we know. It doesn’t work.
Suffering is not solid
We also need to overcome the ignorance that believes suffering is so real and so solid and so just there, so what are we supposed to do about it?! Gradually over time we understand more and more how the causes of suffering lie within our minds, and then it becomes more and more obvious how we can help solve our own and others’ problems. It is not that we have immediately to go out and save the whole world – we can’t do that – but compassion is a good and necessary step to getting closer to helping everyone. Eventually our compassion becomes the universal compassion of a Buddha, which is immensely active – protecting, blessing, and inspiring. It can genuinely help everyone experience peace of mind every day.
If we understand how blessings work, we can see how our state of mind in itself will become a source of refuge for others. And opportunities to help others will also arise more and more as our intention expands, as Nagarjuna explains, quoted here.
You may, for example, already be a very compassionate person, and although you are not always necessarily doing something, still the people around you are picking up on it. They feel better around you. We feel better around people who care for us, who want us to be free from suffering. Whether they are doing something about it or not in some ways doesn’t matter – we just want to be in the same room as them. Then, when the opportunity arises, they can help us practically too.
A Bodhisattva is someone who is developing their compassionate Buddha nature to perfection; an enlightened being is someone who has accomplished that. This is a big, universal, deep mind. We can all take the compassion we have now and slowly extend it until it becomes that, at which point we can protect people everywhere as our mind is everywhere. We can become like the sun, or the great earth supporting all living beings. Compassion is a very powerful force, as the article I quoted earlier says too:
The desire is that people see that kindness isn’t soft or syrupy but it’s actually a really powerful force and that if we actually started to prioritize it, not in a sentimental way but in the same way we might go to the gym to keep fit, it can really make a huge difference to people’s lives.
Eight Steps to Happiness explains a beautiful and extensive meditation on compassion, hopefully you have some time to check it out. In brief, we can bring others into the orbit of our compassion simply by thinking they matter, by loving them, by seeing how they suffer, and by wishing them to be free. We can start with the people for whom we already have an open heart, and then extend our love and compassion as widely as we wish. We can finish our meditation with the big thought:
May everyone be free from suffering and its causes. How wonderful this would be!
Imagine that! Everything starts in the imagination. The world is not fixed. Suffering is not fixed. Life without suffering is possible, and this is where it starts.
Compassion fills our life with meaning. So, what is it? It is not just being nice, though it will lead us to being good people. If we have compassion, we want something for others. If a friend has tripped over a drain and broken their leg, we want them to be free from physical pain. If a friend is suicidal, we want to protect them from mental suffering.
We already have some compassion—it may be a bit limited and biased, it may come and go, but we do have it. It is our Buddha nature. And don’t you find that those times you have felt a deep genuine compassion for another person with no thought for yourself have been very precious? Something good happens to your perspective? You feel more in touch with the truth of things?
Actual compassion is defined as the mind wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes. It’s the other side of the coin from wishing love, wishing others to have happiness and its causes.
Feeling sad and bad about others?
Though compassion can be hard sometimes, it is still more than worth it. (Delusions such as selfishness and anger are always hard, and they are never worth it!) And compassion, unlike delusions, is not a painful feeling. At its most qualified, it is blissful. I tried to start explaining this already in this article. But for me, I find that this quote from Eight Steps to Happiness puts it most beautifully:
Pure compassion is a mind that finds the suffering of others unbearable, but it does not make us depressed. In fact it gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we shall come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.
One practical way to develop compassion starting here and now
It is good to keep it real, not abstract, by starting with our immediate circle. We can contemplate the situation of those under our noses at home or at work, for example, as opposed to a mass of unknown humanity living in China. We find a way in, and then draw more and more people into that orbit of love and compassion at our heart. Make meditation work, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says.
I’ll give you a recent example of how I try to do this.
I was fostering a kitten recently called Dexton and we bonded like crazy. A woman had swerved to avoid him as he crossed the intersection on 53rd street and Pearl. She got out of the car to see him lying upside down with his paws thrown up above his head. “OMG,” she thought, “I’ve killed him!” But of course she hadn’t, that is just Dexton’s favorite posture, even, it seems, when he is in the middle of the highway. And she bought him into the shelter.
Given that it was already easy to love him, I found him a perfect candidate for compassion that I could then spread out to all the other cats and humans etc. But whenever I found myself worrying about him, for example how betrayed he would feel when I gave him away later, or when my friend P and I thought he’d jumped out of a second-storey window as we couldn’t find him anywhere (he was in a shoe), I found it very helpful to remember that it is not just that suffering I want him free from, but all wretched cat sufferings forever. And all other sufferings. And therefore all the causes of that suffering.
And then it was not too much of a stretch to remember that he is just one small furry person amongst countless others who need exactly what he does — complete freedom from suffering and its causes. It may seem counter-intuitive to our normal way of (avoiding) thinking about suffering, but worry starts to subside in the course of this contemplation, and an initial heartfelt concern for one kitten’s sore paw, for example, or a baby’s colic, or a friend’s heartbreak can be a trigger or way in for compassion wanting to remove everyone’s suffering and its causes. Because everyone is suffering and no one wants to.
Anyone can develop compassion for one suffering at a time – May this person be free from their migraine! May this family living in poverty receive a windfall! May this dying person consumed with anger quickly find peace! But only if we understand the actual origins of suffering – delusions and contaminated karma – can we develop genuine compassion wishing others to be free from all suffering and its causes.
How can I help everyone?!
To help everyone we have to become a Buddha first, but every day we can go in that direction by paying attention to suffering or “opening our eyes” as Geshe Kelsang has put it. Wishing, “May you be free”.
So, how does it work that a Buddha’s compassion has the power directly to protect others from suffering? The answer is profound, but this is one way to think about it. If you are experiencing some pain in the presence of someone, even an ordinary person, who genuinely and respectfully wants you to be free from that suffering, how does that make you feel? It’s at least a little bit better than being entirely neglected, is it not?! The Bodhisattva Vow describes Buddha Shakyamuni:
His purified mind abides eternally in the tranquil ocean of reality, seeing all phenomena as clearly as a jewel held in the hand, and suffused with an all-embracing compassion.
Buddha’s minds are everywhere, infinitely powerful, and a constant source of blessings.
The 2 ingredients of compassion
Are (1) love and (2) seeing suffering. Both wishing love (the wish for others to have happiness and its causes) and compassion come from cherishing love, thinking that others matter and that their happiness and freedom are important. If we don’t care about someone, we might think “Who cares” or even “Yeah!” when we see them suffering. But if we love our brother, say, and care for him, and see that he’s in pain, naturally we want that pain to go away. That will in turn lead to behaviors that help us help our brother – but compassion itself is what we are thinking, not what we do, it is a state of mind.
Compassion increases our opportunities to help
The more compassion we have, of course, the more likely it is that we are going to be kind, care for others, look after them, and protect them. But just the wish “May they be free” is compassion, and in itself is a powerful mind. So we don’t ever need feel inadequate, “Oh so and so is helping SO many more people than me, I’m useless …” Mental actions are more powerful than physical and verbal actions, according to Geshe Kelsang.
Not only are we good to be around when we have a heart filled with compassion, even without our having to lift a finger, but one encouraging thing is that if we do have the compassionate intention to help others, opportunities to help others will arise more and more. As the great teacher Nagarjuna explains in one of my favorite quotes:
Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ Universal Compassion
Compassion increases our capacity to help
Our capacity to help others will also increase because compassion purifies our mind and leads to many other good mental qualities, while at the same time decreasing our delusions. As it says in Eight Steps to Happiness:
It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.
For example, if you really want someone to be free from their cancer, and you’re in their shoes, you’re not irritated with them at the same time, are you? You find quite a reservoir of patience! And in that way you can help more. Here is a short anecdote from an old friend of mine to illustrate this point.
To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.
The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.
Over to you: More thoughts on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, your feedback and comments are most welcome. How do you generate compassion?
By guest writer TT, who says he “is in his second year of university studying philosophy, politics and economics, working out how to unify student life with Kadampa Buddhism.”
At the moment, as during most moments in recent years, I am suffering from attachment… When attachment becomes very strong, I find it hard to let go of using the traditional opponents to attachment such as meditation on emptiness, death and renunciation. If I meditate on these, then my attachment may be gone by the morning but back by midday because my mindfulness is not strong enough to hold onto the opponents and oppose my mind’s tendency to focus on objects of attachment. This article is an explanation of a slightly different way in which I have recently been dealing with my attachment.
What is attachment and what are its faults?
An experience of attachment is the perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment – how it makes us pathetic and foolish, causing us great pain and anxiety. By believing that a source of our happiness exists ‘out there’ in that person or enjoyment, we effectively put our happiness there, and therefore make ourself deeply emotionally vulnerable and deprive ourself of any stable happiness – we actually make it the case that we can only be happy if so-and-so likes us by believing that we can only be happy if he or she likes us; we believe that we need them for our happiness. It is this belief that is the real demon. It sucks out any joy from our life, stops us living in the moment, and causes an underlying pain that means we can never quite feel truly happy. When it is strong, it means that we are constantly walking around with an uncomfortable feeling in our stomach.. My teacher once said that we need to learn about the faults of delusions from our own experience and deeply understand them, so that when we contemplate the faults of attachment we are not just reciting a list or reading from a book – we are basing our understanding of the faults of attachment on our own experience. That way, our understanding of the faults of attachment will be strong, stable, and not merely intellectual.
When strong attachment arises I like to sit down on my meditation cushion and to look directly and unflinchingly at the mind of attachment. What is it exactly? What is it telling me? Where is it coming from? What are its faults? See for yourself precisely what this mind is, and what it is telling you. Don’t take anyone’s word for it that attachment means that you have actually put your cause of happiness in someone or something else – actually see how this is happening in your own experience. When we see attachment for what it really is, we see its absurdity and how it can cause nothing but pain for us. Seeing this, it naturally begins to drop away, like realizing how the magic trick works: once we know how the trick works, we are no longer sucked in by it.
Become an inner scientist: investigate the nature of your delusions
I think that there is so much to be said for not just watching our mind in an abstract way, but really looking deeply at our delusions – where they come from and what they’re saying. The same is true for all delusions I think, not just attachment – if we’re experiencing anger, for example, I believe it can be very valuable to sit down on the cushion and look directly at precisely where the anger is coming from (from what views and thoughts) and what it is saying to us. Once we do that we begin to see how absurd it is, and as we see the truth the delusion immediately begins to drop. I find this especially useful and if delusions are very strong – if we can’t seem to breath them out or let go of them in the usual way, we have a unique opportunity to sit down and really look, really learn deeply about where our delusion is coming from. Therefore we can attack it right at the root: we can challenge our deluded views and beliefs from which our delusions arise, such as ‘My cause of happiness is over there’, with the truth, by directly and unflinchingly seeing the absurdity of our delusion.
Why let go of attachment? Isn’t that letting go of our happiness?!
Now, this practice is unlikely to rid you of all attachment overnight! I have suffered from strong attachment for many years, and continue to do so. But gradually, as my understanding of attachment and its faults increases, attachment decreases. You may find that attachment soon creeps back after you try this meditation – but that is ok, because then you can just do it over again! So I try to remember repeatedly the faults of attachment: how it makes us pathetic, foolish, unhappy, emotionally dependent, vulnerable, and deprives us love and virtue, the only source of true meaning and happiness in our life. I simultaneously contemplate the benefits of letting go of attachment: the mental freedom, spaciousness, relaxation and happiness we experience. Wow!! The happiness and freedom that non-attachment has to offer is truly incredible. In Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 170), Geshela writes:
In the past, great Indian and Tibetan yogis such as Milarepa spent much of their lives in seclusion. Compared with us, who spend our life in comfortable houses surrounded by luxuries, who has the greater happiness? Without a doubt yogis like Milarepa experience bliss that is a thousand times greater than anything we ever experience. Their unsurpassed happiness is due to their inner calm and their complete lack of attachment to external objects while our suffering and dissatisfaction is due to our complete submersion in attitudes of attachment and aversion for external objects.
If we get a heartfelt feeling for any Buddhist, or Dharma, practice whatsoever, it will bring us incredible joy and freedom. The experience of letting go of attachment and turning inwards to find the joy inside ourselves that comes from this, will bring incredible happiness and meaning to our life, and free us from so much of our everyday pain and dissatisfaction. Without attachment, we can just enjoy whatever arises, every moment, without grasping onto it. We have no pain about what has gone, and no fear about what is coming. We simply enjoy every moment, deeply, engaging fully with the world around us. The thing is, there is absolutely no problem with enjoyments. There is nothing wrong with surfing, spending time with friends, having sex or drinking lots of mango smoothie. The object to be abandoned is not the object(s) of our enjoyment, but grasping onto these objects – it is the clinging, the craving, THE ATTACHMENT, that causes us pain, dissatisfaction and keeps us chained to the prison of samsara. But if we let go of our attachment then we can enjoy all these objects without pain, without feeling like we need them for our happiness. And then we can see all our experiences of enjoyment as in the mind, and offer them to the guru at our heart, giving us a taste of liberation; or if we have had a tantric empowerment then we can recognize these feelings of bliss and emptiness as the nature of our guru’s mind and from there we can self-generate as the deity and impute ourself upon bliss and emptiness.
As Geshela says in Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 176-177):
… the person who is content with what he or she has does not experience the pain of dissatisfaction and instead receives inexhaustible happiness. Of all forms of wealth, that of contentment is found to be supreme…
… A person who feels no attachment to beautiful, external objects will find a beautiful mind within. Remaining content is the best wealth; not to grasp at what is attractive is the best of all possessions.
How amazing is that?!
Licking honey off the razor’s edge…
Usually we focus on the initial good feelings of attachment like, as Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 67 of the latest edition), the taste of honey as we lick it off the razor’s edge–the excitement, the buzz, the rush, the thrill–without really thinking about its faults. And then, before we know it, it’s too late: we’re on the razor’s edge. Instead of this, I am trying to spend my time thinking repeatedly about the faults of attachment, not being deceived by the initial pleasant feelings that tend to come as we first develop attachment. I think we need to do this again and again and again, continually. We need to contemplate the rottenness, the anxiety, the pain, the vile nature of attachment, the way it causes us so much pain and suffering, keeps us trapped in samsara, and turns a person into an object of our selfish enjoyment, over many, many hours. As Geshela says in his new book How to Understand the Mind on page 116:
When attachment arises in our mind it does not feel harmful; on the contrary, it usually feels beneficial. Therefore, it is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.
I have to admit that recently I have become a bit suspicious of ‘falling in love’. For people with a close friendship, perhaps, there is a genuine mix of love in with the attachment. But for me, I think that most of my experiences have not been of ‘falling in love’ involving love at all. I used to think that they were a mix of love and attachment, and that all the good feelings were coming from affectionate love, but now I’m not so sure… The good feelings seem to me like the initial stages of attachment; I value the person and ‘love’ them because they make me feel good. But this is not real love – it is not based on renunciation, cherishing them or recognizing their kindness and good qualities, but only on them making ME feel good right now; it is based on self-cherishing. Furthermore, it’s clear that there’s not really much if any love there when they tell me that they’re not interested, heh heh – if I love them, then why does that cause me so much pain, and no mix of pain and joy at all, just pain….?!! I am tending to think that falling in love, and the joy it brings, is more like a temporary drug trip that makes everything seem wonderful due to rose-tinted spectacles and not at all due to love or wisdom which see things as the truly are.
But, that said, there is nothing wrong with falling in love! Another mistake that I have made over the last few years is to really beat myself up when attachment arises, thinking ‘I’m such a bad practitioner’, and ‘Oh no, I’ve got attachment!’ But how can wisdom arise from such attitudes? Such feelings are based entirely on self-cherishing, I think – it does not bother us if someone else, who we do not much care for, is suffering from attachment, does it? Yet if it is us, then it seems terrible. We need a realistic attitude that sees attachment for what it is and applies the opponent of wisdom with the calm and clear-sighted approach of the surgeon who applies the knife. We do not feel overwhelmed, guilty or exasperated; on the contrary, we have is a perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment and overcome it from the root, so we should rejoice! One of my teachers recently explained to me that dharma is not about denial – if we have attachment to someone, for example, dharma is not about pretending to ourself that we do not have this attachment and supressing it. Not at all. Of course, it is not always appropriate to follow our attachments externally; for example, if we are ordained then we probably should not ask that person out to dinner with us…(!) But if we are a lay practioner, then that’s fine! And if (s)he says ‘yes’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment; and if (s)he says ‘no’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment. Either way, we are working on our mind, trying to decrease our attachment and increase our love, and therefore we are heading towards the city of full enlightenment. As one Kadampa teacher often exclaims: ‘If a delusion comes up, great!’ We can use our experience of delusion to overcome that delusion – if we have strong attachment then great: this is the perfect time to see its faults and overcome it.
What are we chained down by?
Think about an attachment that you have right now. Ultimately, we have to make a choice between happiness and this attachment. As soon as we pick up an attachment our heart is thrown off beat, and we lose the ability to live a joyful, relaxed life. (NB. This is a choice between our happiness and the attachment, nor our happiness and the object – externally abandoning the object of our attachment does not necessarily mean that we have abandoned our [internal] attachment to it; but if we let go of our attachment then we will be happy regardless of whether or not we have the object.). Just realizing this is extremely liberating. We feel like we have to choose attachment because that is where our happiness is – but that is completely false! Look at how many people are not attached to our object of attachment, simply getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves! It is only the belief that we need someone for our happiness that makes us unhappy; and it is only the complete abandonment of this belief that allows us to be truly and utterly happy. At the time, our attachment object seems like the most important thing in the world – and letting go of it seems like an impossible task. But think about how many people or things we have been attached to in the past, and which now we hardly think of at all. We have managed ok without those people and things after all, haven’t we? And the same is true of our present attachment – if we develop a sense of perspective, we can easily see that our attachment is not important at all, it really is just a triviality. So what are we so worried about letting go of? The key to happiness lies within us, in letting go of this mind of attachment!
How to let go of attachment
We can look around and see how many people are engrossed in attachment, falsely believing that they need someone or something to be happy; deeply contemplating its faults, we begin to feel repulsed by the mind of attachment. With this complete disgust for attachment, we can actually let go of it by realizing that the object of our attachment is just an illusion, an idea, a false projection – it does not actually exist, at all. NOTHING and NO ONE has the power to make us happy. As Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 142 of the revised edition):
We are like the thief who entered Milarepa’s cave one night, looking for something valuable to steal. Hearing him, Milarepa laughed and said, ‘How do you expect to find anything valuable here at night, when I cannot find anything valuable here during the day?’ How can we expect to find happiness in the empty cave of samsara while obscured by the darkness of our delusions, when all the Buddhas with their omniscient wisdom have been unable to find it?
Indeed, this person does not even exist from his or her own side! Let alone do they exist as a true cause of happiness for us… So then, remembering that the object of our attachment, the attachment, and we ourself, are impermanent and illusory, we can let go of attachment, because there is nothing to hold onto – the object of our attachment does not exist. A beautiful analogy that one of my teachers once gave is that of a moth that had got ‘stuck’ to his finger that morning when he was trying to take it out of the kitchen – it refused to let go and fly off. We are like that moth: when we experience the smallest sense of enjoyment or happiness from some person or enjoyment, we cling onto it soooo desperately and tightly, thinking that if we let go of it then we letting go of our source of happiness – what is left? But in fact, it is this clinging mind that deprives us of any happiness – it stops us from enjoying the object of our attachment, and everything else. Only by letting go of our attachment can we truly enjoy the object, and everything else, without pain. When we let go of our attachment, our mind will be filled with joy and freed of fear. This is the indication that we have let go of our attachment. We can now truly enjoy the object without any pain, and we can enjoy everyone and everything else in life. Non-attachment has freed us from pain and allowed us to discover the joy and happiness in all aspects of life.
Much help for me has come from a book called The Way to Love by, believe it or not, a Jesuit priest called Anthony De Mello. There is some fantastic advice on letting go of attachment in there, a lot of which I have largely repeated in this article. The guru can manifest in many forms!!
So anyway, I wanted to share some of that beautiful advice that I have received from my teachers. Now it is time to put it into practice, otherwise I will remain miserable and will be like the man that tells his son every day ‘Do not walk outside after dark, it is dangerous’ but then walks out at dark and gets killed. If I’m here regurgitating wonderful advice but not practising any of it, then there is none more foolish than me!!
In many ways, I am the least qualified person possible to give advice on overcome attachment, hehehe. But I have 100% confidence that the instructions on letting go of attachment work, if only we put them into practice. The key to happiness is within us – it is within our grasp. All we have to do is let go of our clinging attitude and completely abandon the utterly false belief that we need any external thing or person for us to be happy. And if we do this – then we shall finally find the happiness we seek.
I just finished an Annie Chun’s All Natural Asian Cuisine noodle bowl, bought not inexpensively at the local Whole Pay Packet, I mean Whole Foods (who went and put such a money-sucking store right next to my house?!) It was kind of untasty to tell the truth, seriously it looked nothing like the picture on the packet, but it only took three minutes to make, and has kept me fed for another couple of hours so I have the energy to write this. So far in all the days of my life I have been kept alive by mountains of food already, all provided to me by the kindness of others – at least, I sure didn’t have anything to do with my noodle bowl other than buying it with dollars given to me by others, warming up the water in a kettle provided by others, using water from goodness knows where coming out of a faucet whose plumbing I had zero to do with, and putting it in my mouth (provided by my parents) with a fork manufactured by others. And of course that is just scratching the surface of all the causes and conditions that went into my supposedly “instant” dinner and my ability to eat it.
Just in the last ten minutes I have been entirely dependent on others, and I could take any ten minutes in my day and never get to the bottom of it. As Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness, we are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves.
I saw a “Colorado Native” bumper sticker recently in the Rockies (where I live now!) Where am I native to, I thought? I seem to be a bit of a nomad. But I think I may be indigenous to the land of others’ kindness. We are all indigenous here. We are born into it naked, with nothing, and then supported by it. It is quite a big world. Can feel at home anywhere if we remember.
I was marveling at the feats of human ingenuity – the roads, tunnels, and bridges carved goodness knows how through the mountains next to the rivers, rocks, and frozen waterfalls, past Glenwood hot springs and the place called No Name, a Starbucks (yee haa!) in every wild west town. I watched the wheels of vehicles rotating on the highway as a moment by moment testimony to other people, each inch of the meeting of tire and asphalt coming from their kindness – I didn’t pay for even an inch of the journey between Denver and Grand Junction.
I glanced at the driver – on the surface it looks like a driver is in charge of turning the steering wheel, but in fact the wheel has to turn in dependence upon the curving road, which is entirely dependent on others – not even the coolest driver has any autonomy. Driving, like any of our activities, merely reflects off a vast narrative of causes and conditions, karmic and environmental, just carved into the scene as a whole – the driving in this instance not other than the mountains, and the mountains not other than the drive. So with no inherently existent driving in all that, no findable driving, where is the inherently existent driver? Our constrained and seemingly findable self, whatever we are doing, is just an hallucination of self-grasping and self-cherishing.
These kinds of contemplations on our complete dependence on others and on our environment, which we can do anywhere, help us feel closer to others — more in our heart, and less fixated on a heady, dualistic sense of me and them. (Funny how the more in the heart we are, the more we feel connected with the whole wide world.) They also increase our wisdom understanding emptiness, that nothing exists from its own side.
There was a gold rush out here once. Didn’t amount to much (though I believe they found some silver). But as Buddha pointed out, if we were a pauper living our whole life in a hovel, we’d be pretty delighted if someone showed us that we had a gold mine right beneath our feet. The gold of our Buddha nature has always been inside us, we simply haven’t known. And we can mine these seams of limitless wisdom and compassion through contemplations on the interdependence of ourselves and others.
(As you are probably guessing, I might have had too much time to think on that journey – ten hours in a car, caught in a blizzard, my thoughts meandering along with the winding roads … surely I am practically a native of the Western Land of the Snows myself now?!)
Is anyone not kind to us?
I think that is what Thanksgiving is about, remembering the kindness of others. I suppose it is customary to remember the kindness of our nearest and dearest as we gather around the laden dining table, but we can also remember the kindness of strangers, and why not even of enemies?
Attentive friends and family are obviously kind to us in ways we can recognize (at least, if we notice in the first place). When we meditate on our dependence on all living beings, we realize that strangers are very kind too, eg, Annie Chun and co, the road and railway company, etc.
What about people who annoy us or even set out deliberately to harm us? They are arguably the kindest of all as they allow us to practice patience and unconditional love, qualities we need for lasting happiness and freedom.
We watched the Life of Atisha in Cascais, Portugal, at the Kadampa Buddhist Fall Festival the other day – a truly insightful script and well executed production directed by the talented Olivier. There was a lot of good acting, but Atisha’s cook arguably stole the show. Atisha took this rude, obnoxious servant all the way with him to Tibet and, when the Tibetans asked him why, replied:
Without this man, there would be no one with whom I could practice patience. He is very kind to me. I need him!
Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:
Atisha understood that the only way to fulfill his deepest wish to benefit all living beings was to achieve enlightenment, and that to do this he needed to perfect his patience. For Atisha, his bad-tempered assistant was more precious than material possessions, praise, or any other worldly attainment. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness
We don’t need to have a servant to practice patience, there will probably be someone willing to fit the bill amongst our parents, partner, or children over Thanksgiving, or our boss and co-workers back at work next week. If anyone tries to start an argument over the holiday, you could try just playing about with offering them the victory and see what happens. I think it is often not the content of an argument that is the issue (especially when we’ve overeaten and feel grumpy)–it is the emotional luggage and inappropriate attention. Diffuse this and the content can often take care of itself.
The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.
I borrowed a cat this morning, here in Denver, called Bella. She is a cuddly little grey fur ball, who sat on the fire escape crying to be let in my attic window, and then lay peacefully next to my leg as I meditated. In Buddhism, we never meditate alone – we don’t have to have an actual cat (or human) sitting next to us, but we always think we’re surrounded by countless living beings. It takes us out of ourselves, makes the meditation flow better.
For as long as there are people around you, or even just one person, we can be cherishing others and making our life meaningful and happy. Big heart translates into big action. One analogy Geshe Kelsang uses is that even if all we are doing is putting crumbs on a bird table, if we do it with great compassion our action is far more powerfully beneficial than giving a diamond ring to someone out of attachment.
This next bit is old news, and wide rivers have flown under the bridge since then; but it is when I became 100% convinced of the advantages of cherishing others in times of crisis, so I’ll share it. When I was fired from my very enjoyable long-term job several years ago, I relied upon those around me to bring me out of it – not by expecting them to do anything, but simply by serving as my immediate objects of cherishing to take me out of myself, to help me keep moving onward and upward. I would not just survive, in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I was determined to thrive. I remember the moment I received my firing letter. Immediately I had perspective as it was the same morning that my dear friend Trish died of cancer, died most beautifully I might add, with a smile on her face and with the faint euphoric words over the phone the night before: “L, this is all just appearance! Geshe-la is everywhere!” News travels fast, but not that fast, and before she found out another friend came to me in tears of guilt about losing a precious gift a friend had given her, and then another friend came to me in tears seeking advice on how to communicate better with her husband. Later they both said words to the effect: “So sorry to dump on you, I had no idea you’d just been fired!” but they didn’t know they were being the kind ones, allowing me think about others in my hour of need.
And I continued as I meant to go on, deciding that the only way not to go doolally would be to firmly and stably put myself in everyone else’s shoes. Self-cherishing is like trying to keep your balance on high pointy (just focused on one person, me) Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos; loving others is like wearing solid flat (focused on lots of people, others) Doc Martens. When you find yourself navigating uncertain terrain, lumpy, full of potholes, treacherous in places, believe me you’d far rather be wearing Doc Martens. It worked every time I did it (which was a lot due to desperation); and I know I’m more stable and confident now thanks to it.
Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.
In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.
I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)
My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.
There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering. If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others. We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.
It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happinesspages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.)
Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.
I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.
My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.
In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.
Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?
As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.
On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.
So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)
(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)
A man walked past me on the beach recently dressed in a plain grey tee-shirt and ordinary looking shorts, only his state of the art new trainers and the X-Men type headset gracing his crown gave him away. I caught a drift of his conversation: “Yeah, the plane can stay there at the airport, we can catch the game, the car can take us back to the airport, and we’ll be back at the hotel no later than midnight.”
He is clearly one of the super-rich, in a world where cars seem to drive themselves and whole planes can be left casually lying around waiting for us. Yesterday I read in the paper that the top 5% of the US population buys 37% of the goods. What do you feel when you read statistics like this (and there are plenty of them)? Judging by the press, the Facebook comments I often see, and my own occasional grumpiness about it, I’m guessing sometimes maybe a touch of resentment or irritation? “Bl**** rich people with bonuses got us all into this mess!” An annoyance at society’s inequality and the decline of the middle class? A fear for the future? A burning desire to get involved in politics to put an end to careless rich people gorging on the rest of us? (I think being a politician is possibly the most thankless task of all). Envy arising from insecurity (especially when we ourselves are suffering from the recession)? Dislike? (If you count yourself amongst the super-rich, is there still someone richer, a neighbor perhaps, whom you feel annoyed about sometimes?)
On this day we should especially remember Buddha’s kindness….
The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.
I often write about developing compassion for animals — today I feel like writing about developing compassion for rich people, who are also “living beings” and still in samsara 🙂
What is samsara?
In samsara, there are six realms, including the demi-god and god realms that outshine the wealth, possessions and glory of the super-rich as a sun outshines a firefly. But all these realms are in samsara and all of them are to be abandoned if we are to find true and lasting happiness.
Buddha called ordinary, suffering life “samsara.” What is samsara? Samsara is the experience of an impure, uncontrolled mind. Our world does not exist from its own side but is projected by our own thoughts. At the moment, due to our delusions and karma, we are projecting a world full of suffering.
This world is characterized by a lack of freedom. At the moment we experience only relative freedom. We are not free in significant ways. For example, are we free from being born, getting sick, growing old, or dying? These happen without any choice, whether we like it or not. At some point, without choice, we have to be separated from everything we love, we have to put up with things we don’t like, and we experience a lack of satisfaction. No one who is truly free would choose to experience pain over happiness.
The different realms of samsara are all dream-like projections of a mind distorted by delusions, in particular self-grasping and self-cherishing. Liberation from samsara, so-called nirvana, or the Pure Land, is a dream-like projection of a pure or non-deluded mind. Samsara is not a place, and when we are aiming to live a pure life free from suffering it is not necessary to go somewhere else to find this. When Milarepa (who lived in Tibet in the 11th century) was asked where his Pure Land was, he pointed to his cave. Samsara is not outside our minds any more than nirvana is. We can remove the samsara from our minds by gaining true mental freedom from our delusions, and then we will naturally be creating and living in a pure world, with blissful experiences.
Compassion for everyone
In Eight Steps to Happiness Geshe Kelsang says we also need compassion for everyone in samsara, including those who appear to be better off than us. There is something missing otherwise, and we are in danger of feeling resentful, which undermines our spiritual progress. Of course, some people are rich right now, but that doesn’t mean they are not suffering. It doesn’t in fact mean that they are suffering any less than us. Quite possibly many of them are suffering more. They have all the human sufferings we have – sickness, birth, ageing, rebirth, no satisfaction, etc. And they often have more desire, trying to slake their thirst with yet more salt-water as attachment can never be satiated. He didn’t seem particularly excited, my friend on the beach, just matter of fact, and it struck me that having your own plane soon grows old, just like every other 21st century marvel even many of us hoi poloi have already gotten used to – cars, comfortable bedding, indoor plumbing, traveling through the air, high definition TV, computers, iPhones, etc etc. My great-grandparents would have thought they’d died and gone to heaven if they could have used a fraction of what we now routinely take for granted in our daily lives. Even beings in the god realms may be getting some ideas from Apple.
So, we can do what we can to balance out society and make it fairer; and to preserve our democracy I personally think it behooves us to take some responsibility, at least by voting. However, it is impossible to fix samsara or make it work for any length of time, and having an unbalanced mind about the rich is not going to improve a thing for us or for anyone else. We have to gather all blame into our delusions, not rich bankers. Actually, rich people got their wealth from past giving. If they continue to give, they will also continue to create the causes for future wealth, just like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, and that is something to rejoice in, without feeling insecure. Every time we get annoyed or jealous, we burn merit or good fortune. But every time we rejoice in someone’s qualities or good fortune, we create the cause to have those ourself.
There is not set amount of wealth, it is not a zero sum game. Wealth and possessions are a result of good karma or merit, so if we create merit we necessarily create the cause for wealth – it’ll appear from somewhere, even if we are in a desert, as there is no external world that is fixed. In a dream, things just appear due to the ripening of karmic seeds. It is the same in our waking worlds. If we are worried about running out of resources, the Kadampas say the best thing we can do is practice giving to others and offering to holy beings. In one concentrated mandala offering we can create the cause for whole worlds of prosperity and joy!
The other day I saw a little dude with his surfboard looking disappointedly at the ocean – it was clearly his first day of vacation and his parents perhaps hadn’t warned him that the Gulf of Mexico is not known for its waves.
Lojong or mind-training practitioners are also a little disappointed when everything goes too smoothly because they have no exciting challenges to harness and transform into positive outcomes.
Transforming a sickness
My mother asked me how I found enough material to write about on my blog and, to give her an example of no shortage of subject matter when it came to applying meditation to daily life, I said I would write about my brother T as we had just been talking about him. Thanks for your permission, T, it is for a good cause 😉 (This is not the brother of this article, but after this I’ve run out of brothers to write about).
T started life as a 7 pound baby and then a skinny boy. But by the time he reached his teens, he was starting to pack on the pounds, and he loved his food. He was also a brilliant and disciplined athlete who captained a whole bunch of school teams, scored 100 runs at Lords Cricket ground, can run fast, and is as strong as an ox (he can lift up my mother and me at the same time). But plump, and getting more so by the year. His Facebook picture is the Michelin man. I gave him the XXXL waistcoat (US vest) for Xmas and it barely zipped up around his big tum.
Early this year he was diagnosed with diabetes. My mother didn’t bother telling me for a month or so and, when she did get around to it, she sounded oddly cheerful. She even chuckled. I know she loves her first-born child, so what was that about?! Turns out it was because the apple of her eye is happy about his diagnosis! It has cheered him right up! I kid you not. He now says that he has to lose weight or die, and he is really relishing the incentive. He says having diabetes is making him lose the weight he could never have lost otherwise, it has given him the will power, and now he’ll live long and healthy and thin.
To give you some context here… people’ve been trying for YEARS, make that decades, to encourage him to lose weight. His two young daughters, his family, friends, his grandmother, everyone has veered between the extremes of nagging him and giving up and pretending the problem is not there. Naturally he has not been fond of all the interference and judgment, and in any case it didn’t make the blindest difference. His wife alone — who is so slim she disappears if you look at her sideways — accepted him the size he is. But the rest of us….
I saw him in the summer. He is a new person. At Xmas he was tired and listless and not as happy as he used to be. But the sparkle in his eyes is back, his energy levels are high, he is happy and engaging, and he has already lost 4 stone (56 pounds). His attitude to food has changed — he ate far less at lunch, for example, and didn’t seem to mind. He says he feels healthier than he has done in years. He intends to lick the disease through diet. If you saw what he ate before and how much, such bad habits over such a long period of time, you’d know what a huge step forward this is. And he can now fit into my Xmas gift with room to spare.
I complimented him on his discipline but he waved it off: “I’m not disciplined, I just had to do it. This was the greatest incentive.”
Suffering has good qualities
This is proof that diabetes is not inherently bad. You can’t call something inherently bad if it it is possible to transform it into something helpful. From a Buddhist point of view, we try to transform all our adversities into the spiritual path through renunciation (aiming for lasting freedom and happiness), compassion, bodhichitta (aiming for others to have lasting freedom and happiness), wisdom… There is no such thing as a problem that cannot be solved with these methods. As Shantideva says:
Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.
If we really in our heart of hearts know that suffering has good qualities and offers us unprecedented opportunities, as T spontaneously understands about his serious illness, would we not decide to make use of it, and slowly but surely take delight in doing so? As mentioned, ancient Kadampas would look forward to difficulties – they were almost disappointed when things were going their way (although we don’t need to worry, there are ways to transform good things too…;-) We can know for sure that it is possible to transform whatever difficulty arises into a solution, and then find out the best way to do that in each case – eventually it’ll become a habit. (If you want, you can start by picking up one of the Lojong or mind-training books – Eight Steps to Happiness or Universal Compassionfor example. It’s all explained in there.) Like my brother T, we’ll end up healthier and happier and with thinner delusions.
Something needs to click
When we realize things with the force of certainty, it can be far easier for our behavior to change as we are no longer negotiating with ourselves over every detail or meal. It is as if T was sabotaging himself before — he knew he was eating badly and he didn’t feel good about it all, but even if he lost weight each January (due to his once-yearly diet) there was the swing back due to attachment, lack of conviction, or whatever. And he was able to live in denial.
We all have to overcome our self-sabotage, attachment and denial of what’s going on, and it is not always easy. We know on one level that we’re going to get old and sick and dead, and that this should be incentive enough to practice being positive all the time and prepare for the inevitable; but on another level we deny these things, ‘Oh, it won’t be that bad!’ Or we even romanticize them: ‘It’ll be cozy, I can wear my PJs and slippers all day, and then I’ll have a peaceful death. Maybe I’ll do Botox and look even better!’ But when the doctor was telling T directly that he’d have to shape up or face the consequences, something must have clicked. We all could do with those click moments. That is what meditation is for. These are realizations. Better to have them before we get too old, sick or dead to do anything about our bad habits.
I find this a great example of surfing life’s waves:
It’s your turn: If you have any examples of transforming adversity to share, please leave them in the comment box below, I’d love to hear them. Please share this article if you like it.