Right here right now

9 mins read

clear light of blissMeditation is now marketed as an antidote to everything from anxiety and depression to poor sleep and workplace inefficiency.

These are tangible benefits into which it is worth investing time and energy.

But why stop there? This is only the tip of the iceberg.

While meditation can certainly help enormously with all these things, if we stop there we are starving ourselves of the really best parts of Buddhist technology: the attainment of liberation and enlightenment.

When we engage in simple breathing meditation, we find that we are more peaceful and relaxed. This indicates that our mind is naturally peaceful, and is an important start. However, this only scratches the surface of the power of meditation and our potential to help ourselves and others.

In general, in the West, there’s a tendency to market an extraordinarily transcendent process, meditation, only as a solution for stress. Meditating to bring out our innate compassion and deep insight can sometimes get lost in translation. But traditional Buddhist meditation has these two main objectives — to develop universal compassion and gain insight into the true nature of reality — and by practicing these we can use this life to attain incredible joy and freedom.

From engaging in meditation we can increasingly understand that we all have within us a vast potential for peace and happiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. We are infinitely transformable, and potentially infinitely peaceful, wise, and loving.

Step into reality

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Once we’ve fully realized this potential, we’ve attained enlightenment — the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow blessings and mental peace upon each and every living being every day.

And the thing about enlightenment? …

Enlightenment is reality.

Everything else is mistaken appearance — it is unreality. And buying into it is why we are suffering.

Using Buddha’s teachings, we can understand that we are engaged in a process of practical contemplation and meditation that is drawing us closer to reality. Revealing reality.

Sometimes we think about enlightenment in the sense of a higher state of mind, a transcendent consciousness. And from one point of view that’s true. But the problem with this type of articulation is that enlightenment can sound difficult. It sounds like a good idea in general, but probably not for me because it feels unattainable.

Instead, it’s much more helpful to understand that enlightenment is just reality. Enlightenment is the only mind that that is IN reality, that is experiencing reality, and that, finally, IS reality.

So what does it mean if we’re not enlightened? It means we’re not in reality, which means we’re in an hallucination of mistaken appearances.

And this hallucination — because it’s not in reality — is producing suffering simply automatically. So whatever suffering is appearing in our life is coming about because we’re not enlightened.

welcome to reality

We can challenge our Western notions — just because it is common doesn’t mean that suffering is inevitable.

Reality cannot be destroyed

What or who is a Buddha? A person who has “awakened from the sleep of ignorance and seen things as they really are.”

We have the potential for no less than enlightenment. This is called our Buddha nature and every living being without exception has this extraordinary capacity to change, get rid of all their suffering, and cultivate all their good qualities to perfection.

The reason we have this indestructible potential is because it is not possible to destroy reality, only delusions.

This profound but simple wisdom — that enlightenment is reality — is weaved through all Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s books, both Sutra and Tantra. For example, in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, it says:

Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena …. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist. Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has clouds and sunbeen shining all along; and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we shall see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.

To get a bit philosophical for a moment …

Emptiness is the real nature of all phenomena – always has been, always will be. But emptiness doesn’t exist from its own side, in isolation. It exists like everything else only through being known by mind. The mind that is permanently mixed with emptiness is the clear light of bliss. This is the very subtle mind that all of us have had since beginningless time, but purified of all obstructions.

So wherever emptiness is — ie, everywhere — there too is great bliss. Nice!

Here is a cool bit from Essence of Vajrayana:

Definitive Heruka is Buddha’s mind of great bliss mixed with emptiness. Since the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, definitive Heruka pervades all phenomena. In Tibetan Heruka is sometimes called “kyab dag” Heruka. “Kyab” means “pervasive” and “dag” means “nature”, so “kyab dag” means that all phenomena are pervaded by Heruka’s nature…. If we have deep understanding of this there is great hope that we shall be able to perceive whatever appears to our mind as Heruka.

Omniscient wisdom is possible because it simply knows reality, the union of bliss and emptiness. We don’t need to think of bliss and emptiness as too high for us to know or experience because it is right here, just obscured. Practicing the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra gradually reveals it.

rubik cubeSometimes we see Buddhas or enlightened beings as separate from us, denizens of a distant world. But they are just enlightenment, or, strictly speaking, imputed on enlightenment.

In other words, Buddhas are people, like us, but they are entirely unlike us in that our self or I is imputed on a contaminated body and mind whereas a Buddha, such as Buddha Heruka, is a self or I imputed on the bliss and emptiness that is the real nature of all phenomena, and is therefore everywhere, including right here right now.

Another way of putting this is that someone who has realized bliss and emptiness directly, and imputed themselves on this reality, is called a Buddha.

And since our I or self is not at all fixed, once we get rid of our ignorance and mistaken appearances we can become the Buddha we’ve always been destined to become. We too can be everywhere, helping everyone.

As I sometimes like to put it, enlightenment is just a trick of the mind away.

Or as a friend of mine put it the other day, “All we need to do is stop tripping.”

One way to get started …

In Highest Yoga Tantra, the essence practice is dissolving our Spiritual Guide into our heart, mixing our own mind with his/her mind of bliss and emptiness, and imagining we arise as a Buddha ourselves within that space.

If you haven’t got empowerments yet, you could perhaps get started by dissolving your Spiritual Guide, Buddha Shakyamuni, through your crown and into your heart and letting your mind mix with his like water mixing with water, feeling happy. Then impute yourself on that peaceful pure mind. There is a bit more about self-generation as Buddha Shakyamuni in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Not an ordinary life

In some ways, we can think that everything is already enlightenment, everything is Buddha. Which is why in Tantra the main obstacles to liberation and enlightenment are called “ordinary appearances and conceptions”, ie, the mistaken appearances of things as not being Buddha-like, and the mind that assents to those appearances as the truth.

As it says in Modern Buddhism (available for free here):

Suppose there is a Heruka practitioner called John. Normally he sees himself as John, and his environment, enjoyments, body, and mind as John’s. These appearances are ordinary appearances. The mind that assents to these ordinary appearances by holding them to be true is ordinary conception. Ordinary conceptions are obstructions to liberation and ordinary appearances are obstructions to omniscience.

We see everything not only as impure and suffering, but as ordinary as opposed to enlightened; and those perceptions are in fact a mistake, grasping at which is perpetuating our samsara.

grumpy cat in landscapeI, for example, am going around thinking, “I’m L. I have this boring old body and I have this neurotic personality and I live in this okay house in this problematic country surrounded by these other regular people, all of us doing all these regular activities.” It’s all just ordinary.

But this ordinariness is not really the truth, it is just ideas, mere imputations of an ordinary mentality. None of the things I normally see exists = reality. And, providing I have some understanding of what reality is, I could instead be thinking, “I am Buddha Vajrayogini. I have this incredible body of light and I have this winning personality and I live in this blissful Buddha Land surrounded by all these pure beings, helping everyone without exception!”

These are also just ideas, but they are far better ideas, and far closer to the truth. As we discover over time, as our wisdom of bliss and emptiness grows, our hallucinations die down, and eventually enlightenment becomes our own direct experience 24/7.

Revelation

lightbulb momentsOnce we have a feeling for how enlightenment just is reality, all Buddha’s teachings make a huge lot of sense. We have more of those light bulb moments. We can understand how right now we are not in reality. Which is why enlightenment is not an option, it’s the only place to be. And how through Buddhist meditation we can step into an enlightened perspective that has always been available to us, we just needed it to be pointed out (probably more than once!) That’s the real meaning of meeting a Spiritual Guide.

Therefore, enlightenment isn’t a philosophical talking point, or the goal of superhuman meditators, like climbing a distant mountain. If we are not in enlightenment, not in reality, we are necessarily trying to make unreality work. Everything is deceiving us more or less.

So when we go deeper in our meditations with the motivation to attain enlightenment, in addition to addressing our stress and other temporary problems we are also drawing every day closer to this blissful primordial reality. Two for the price of one!

To engage in Buddhist meditation is to understand that we all have within us this unlimited potential for the truth of bliss and emptiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. So whenever we meditate, even if it is just a breathing meditation, we can try starting with this understanding and see what happens. (In this article on meditating backwards, I explain a bit about how I practically do this.) Even an intellectual understanding that enlightenment is reality is inspiring; and, if we can get a feeling for this in our heart, everything flows so much more effortlessly from there.

I find this immensely encouraging: we are not having to go anywhere strange and new, much less having to create something from scratch, or something that is not already in some sense there. What we are doing on the journey to enlightenment, the journey into the clear light of bliss at our heart, is gradually letting go of all mental elaborations so that we can at last directly enjoy what has always been.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

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On peace and omniscience

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Where is everything?

Unfindable, impermanent shapes — everything is like this!

Here is an (unusually) short but (hopefully) sweet article.

Everything is made of parts, including even the smallest part. And those parts are continually changing both individually and collectively.

Our body, for example, is changing all the time like this in dependence upon causes and conditions. So is every part of our body, as is every part of every starling.

Things may move at different paces, but move they do.

Atoms whizz around exceedingly fast, in fact, giving the illusion of solidity where there is none.

And absolutely everything changes moment by moment. Nothing lasts even a moment. Check out these articles on subtle impermanence to find more.

And, even more profoundly, everything is empty of existing from its own side.

We are attracted to the five sense objects and, like a moth to a flame, we get burned again and again. We need to learn to enjoy lightly without getting absorbed into everything, taken over and burned.

We get so attached to shapes — bodies, houses, art, carpets, mugs, and any number of other shapes, such that we think we can’t even live without them. Sometimes it seems that we are more attached to the shape of things than anything else?! Maybe the color too. This might be because our visual awareness is so important to us. In the old days, some meditators would even pray to be born blind! However, there is an easier way, which is to remember emptiness. Hence me posting this video as a visual reminder.

We think these shapes are actually there, solid and real. But if we go looking for the object of our attachment, such as our lover’s body, we’ll never be able to find it, any more than we can point to a shape in those birds. There is only emptiness. Every shape is mere appearance or mere name — nothing behind that. So what exactly are we so attached to?

(We like the smell, taste, sound, and touch of physical things too, of course, and they are all just as unfindable.)

The problem is not with attractive appearances, but with the belief that they are outside of our mind and hence outside of our control. Hence attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”. So we seek to own (or be owned). We seek to control (or be controlled).

Ideally, in the world of moths, there’d be a flame education program… “Listen guys when you next see that bright shiny thing, fly around it and not right into it. Discover how to enjoy its warmth and beauty from a safe distance and you’ll be happier – trust me!” Similarly, we can learn how to enjoy the mere appearance or mere name of beautiful things, such as we enjoy these starlings, without getting sucked into something that is not actually there.

On the basis of contentment (or renunciation), compassion, and wisdom, we can find out how to channel the desire energy aroused by attractive things into open-ended non-dual blissful wisdom, rather than falling into the flames of attachment and craving and experiencing suffering.

What do you reckon?

 

The art of letting go

Did you get a chance to try out any breathing meditation lately?

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It can be so very useful, indeed powerful; and we can gain some deep levels of concentration and mindfulness with it. While we remain in that state of peace, when thoughts arise we don’t feel the same need to dwell on them – we sense the space around them and the space within them.

Continuing from this article.

We can let even disturbing thoughts come and we can let them go. We are free from the mental chain reactions induced by the habit of over-thinking. We are more present – not worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. We can stop identifying with our thoughts, as explained more in this article, understanding that:

There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

What’s next?

However, within minutes our meditation will come to an end and we’ll have to get up and get on. And even though we’ve tasted that space — and in fact even if we have some insight that things are more virtual reality than they seem — daily appearances can be very overpowering very quickly. We get sucked in.

In which case our delusions might quite likely not just rear their heads again but take over — possibly within minutes! — and we’ll be obliged to go back to our normal, crazy way of reacting to things as if they are solid, real, and outside our mind.

So, we need to take our spiritual practice further and get rid of delusions altogether by applying the antidotes of Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) both in and out of meditation.

Man holding crystal ball in landscapeWhen we do that breathing meditation, the first step, we feel the pure, clear, spacious peace that we already have inside us once we allow our delusions and their objects to simply subside. We give ourselves a break, giving ourselves permission to let go, relax, and take refuge in the peace of our own minds. And this in itself is evidence that our actual problems are created by our mind, because, when we let go of the thoughts of attachment and other delusions, our mind is at peace. The problem is gone; it actually just goes away.

Within that understanding, we train in Dharma to change our way of thinking about or holding onto things. Our mind and its objects — or our thoughts and what’s appearing to those thoughts — are co-dependent (not in a bad way!) Because they co-arise and depend upon each other completely, then when our way of looking at other people and the world changes, those objects change too. Literally change.

I think we’ve all had this experience.

Moving on naturally

attachment-1For example, if the person we are currently attached to has not replied to our 25 texts, we might feel desperate, holding them as neglectful and ourselves as unlovable. But instead of dropping this storyline, we’re like a dog with a bone. We try to wrestle with that person mentally, physically, verbally — whatever we think it will take to get them to change and start being nice to us again. We believe we need this to happen so that we can feel good about them again. AND good about ourselves.

To that end, we send a text, “Hey, do you like me?” We know it’s lame and will cause our self-respect to sink even further, but we can’t help it. We have to do something.

Seems like we’re always trying subtle and less subtle ways to get other people to cooperate, to get them to do what we want them to do. And it’s a bit of a battle, isn’t it? Because, funnily enough, they’ve got their own ideas and self-interest. And meanwhile we’re just exacerbating the problem because we are trying to solve it with the very same mind that is creating it.

But then one day, just naturally, even without deliberately changing our thoughts, we realize: “Actually I don’t care any more what this person thinks or does! Cool.” A cloud lifts. Our attachment has lessened. Maybe it’s even gone away. And at that point the problem’s gone, the battle is over. We have moved on, as they say.

We are now free to view that person and ourselves in a different way. We can establish a better kind of connection with them, maybe keeping the love part while ditching the attachment. This too can happen quite naturally — sometimes we discover we can feel quite warmly toward someone we were really upset about. Sometimes we can’t even remember what we were upset about, and it doesn’t matter anymore.

So, on Wednesday that person can seem like a major problem. And this is from their own side I might add – it is their bad behavior causing our pain and self-contempt. We wander around thinking, “It’s their fault I feel this way. It’s their fault, it’s their fault, they need to change.” That’s what we think, isn’t it, when we have attachment or aversion? It’s their fault. But then on Thursday we wake up and think, “Actually, I don’t have a problem with this person anymore.” We’ve let go, moved on. At which point the person appears very differently, do they not? And we are happy and confident in ourselves again – back to being cool and mysterious. (At which point they may start texting us again … just sayin’. Doesn’t matter either way though.)

That person hasn’t had to do a single thing from Wednesday to Thursday. They’re just going about their merry way, as usual, ignoring us or not, as usual. They haven’t done anything, but our thoughts have changed, and so suddenly they’ve changed and we ourselves have changed. When we think about them, it’s: “Oh they’re not so bad. I could be friendly with them again.” Maybe we can even think, “I really want them to be happy.” At which point they’re no longer a source of pain but a source of happiness for us.

The three spheresemptiness bend the spoon

And we are now identifying ourselves as, or imputing ourselves on, a loving, whole person, no longer a neurotic needy one. Again, these changes have not come from that person’s side, but because there’s a dependent relationship between our thoughts and their objects, including our self. Our mind and its objects arise together.

We have these kinds of experiences all the time, even without practicing Dharma. When our delusions naturally abate through time, the problem goes away and we’re free to have a totally different experience of that other person, relationship, and self. These are called “the three spheres”. They are all empty of existing from their own side.

Moving on more quickly

So, with Dharma, what we’re doing is understanding this connection between our thoughts and their objects and then changing our thoughts deliberately. This means we don’t have to wait for weeks, months, or years for our attachment to go away on its own, or for our aversion to subside, or for our disappointment or frustration or anxiety to fade. Through Dharma, we no longer have to wait for our thoughts to exhaust themselves. We can actually seize control over our own minds, rather than (as Buddha pointed out) having our minds control us, which is our current predicament. Our thoughts are no longer calling all the shots, because we are.

Through the meditations on renunciation, compassion, and wisdom we can learn to let go of our attachment, aversion, and other delusions, and in an instant be relating to ourselves and others in a happier way. And when we love other people — genuinely love them, not mixed with attachment or conditionality, just wanting them to be happy — then they present no problem for us. If they are an object of our attachment or aversion, they are a problem for us; but as soon as attachmentthey become an object of our love, they’re no longer a problem for us. Quite the opposite, in fact. They become a source of joy, even if they’ve let us down. Does that make sense?

Love, compassion, and so on are our greatest wealth because they will always help us solve our problems and find happiness. And this is because our problems don’t exist outside the mind. Nothing exists outside our mind. Nothing is independent of our perceptions and thoughts.

As it says in the synopsis of How to Understand the Mind:

If we understand that objects depend on the subjective mind, we can change the way objects appear to us by changing our own mind. Gradually we will gain the ability to control our mind and in this way solve all our problems.

Geshe Kelsang explains in his Mahamudra teachings how subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from the root mind like waves. Whatever we are experiencing or thinking about in any given moment, we cannot separate our thoughts out from their objects. Everything that appears to us entirely depends on the quality of our consciousness, or our thoughts. So, if we have a thought of irritation or anger, we have an object of irritation or anger. If we change that irritation into love, we have an object of love.

As we may know from Buddha’s wisdom teachings, everything is dreamlike. What appears to our mind depends entirely upon the mind itself. This is why Dharma works. Pure and simple – this is why it works. Change our mind, change our world. Literally. Not just tweak our world, not just make incremental changes, but change it. Transform it from the inside out.

Common experience

If we gain some experience of this peace and transformation, we have something to give, do we not? If we understand how our own thoughts operate, we can understand the same for others; and, feeling this common experience, are now more able to be there for them. We can help others, eg, give them some badly-needed encouragement or advice, because we’ve done it ourselves. Dharma is a win win. We help ourselves, we help the people we love, we help everybody.

Over to you. Do you have any examples or anything else to add?

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A handy introduction to some common Buddhist terms

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

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

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

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

What are delusions?

delusions

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

What is attachment?

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

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

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

What is self-cherishing?

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

What is Dharma?

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

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

What is samsara?

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

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

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

What is karma?

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

What is self-grasping?

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

emptinessWhat is inherent existence?

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

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

What is emptiness?

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

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

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

What is Sangha?

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

wishfulfilling jewelWhat is a wishfulfillling jewel?

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

Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:

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

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

And check out the Kadampa glossary whenever in doubt.

Related articles

What is Buddhism? A short, simple guide

Karma

Delusions

Attachment 

Samsara

Self-cherishing 

Realizing emptiness and destroying self-grasping 

 

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible

During an idyllic mountain retreat on the emptiness of the mind not long ago, we spent all weekend looking for our mind and failing to find it; and then I drove home. On the way I picked up a watery coffee in a garage, thought, “I guess I should just practice WIFI.jpgcontentment with this horrible coffee”, but then a few miles down the road was magnetically drawn into a passing Starbucks against my will. This was in a distant mountain town called, rather charmingly, Loveland.

A first-world problem

As it happens, giving into my attachment like that might have been a mistake. I walked from the car to the coffee shop, ordered my flat white, oh yeah!, and then glanced down at my hands. They were holding a credit card, but that was all.

I looked at my empty hands and thought “Oh dear, help!” The barista looked at me staring strangely at my empty hands and thought “That is a mad woman.” She just saw empty hands. But I saw a very significant object, the lack of car keys.

A very meaningful absence

driving-homeNew terminology alert! Bear with me for a moment …

Emptiness is also known as a “non-affirming negative phenomenon”. It is the mere absence of inherent existence or, to put it another way, the mere absence of the things we normally see. It is “non-affirming” because it does not affirm any other phenomenon.

For example, if I tell you, “My cousin is not female”, that would be called an “affirming negative phenomenon” as the object you perceive is the lack of my cousin being female with the implied observation that my cousin is male. (It is called a “negative phenomenon” not because it is bad, by the way, but because you have to negate something else to get to it, namely a female cousin).

But if I say, “There is no elephant in this room”, all that brings to mind is the lack of an elephant in this room, it does not imply there is a bishop, for example, here instead. You’re just left looking at a mere lack or absence of an elephant in this room, without any other object being implied or affirmed in its place.

Some absences or lacks can be quite significant. If you park your car, do some shopping, and then go back to the parking lot with heavy bags to find an empty space where your car was, what are you seeing? Are you seeing an empty space or are you seeing a lack of car? A mountains-1passer by will be seeing just an empty space, but you will be freaking out because what you are seeing is a very meaningful absence. Not dissimilar to the absence of car keys in my hand.

This sounds a bit technical, I know, but it is actually exceedingly helpful to know that “emptiness” (also known as “selflessness”) is just a mere lack of something. What exactly? Emptiness is the mere lack of everything we have ever thought existed! Knowing this lack is quite significant, to be honest – it is profound knowledge that will free our mind if we become familiar with it.

Why? Well, you know that thing you are worried about? It’s not there. That person you are so hung up on? They are not there. That body which feels sick, not there. The politics you are so mad at, not there. They only appear to be really there because of our ignorance. Everything exists in a state of freedom. Everything is mere appearance to our mind with no substantiality, nothing behind the appearance. So, change your mind, change your world.

It takes time to get a direct or non-conceptual realization of emptiness, at which point all our problems are over forever; but even a slight taste gives us a liberating sense of possibility.

Centered in the solution

After this recent article my dad said: “Still trying to understand what the following means. ‘Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution.’”

mountains-3What is the solution? The simple answer is that it is the realization that everything depends upon the mind, so change the mind and the worry goes away. We already know this a bit because when we are able to calm down and get perspective, for example by taking a few minutes out to breathe and connect to the peace in our heartand perhaps connect to blessings, the situation always seems to improve, become manageable. This means not just that our perception of the situation improves, but the situation itself improves, because there is no situation outside of our perception of it, as explained here.

At its most profound, the solution is realizing emptiness, the mere absence of the things we normally perceive. Because the things we normally perceive are not there at all – which is a meaningful non-affirming negative or absence — we don’t have to get upset, worried, anxious, angry, etc., on our own or others’ behalf, any more than we have to get upset in a dream, if we only knew we were dreaming. For when we wake up, we realize that the situation that seems to be so real is not there — it is mere appearance with no existence from its own side. This doesn’t mean that situations, whether asleep or awake, don’t exist at all, but it does mean they exist in a state of fluidity and freedom, and that just by changing our thoughts we will change the situation.

My dad also asked what was mean by Nagarjuna’s quote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You know that scene in Kung Fu Panda where Po defeats Tai Lung wuxi-finger-hold-1after a lot of tedious fist fighting. They are fighting each other “out there” to begin with — pretty tiring and tiresome if you ask me — but then with a little twist of Po’s finger, the Wuxi finger hold, everything is dissolved away in all directions. I find that a nice visual for the power of realizing that everything is empty and therefore depends entirely upon our mind, meaning we can change everything effortlessly and immediately if only we realize this.

Does that answer your questions, Dad? If not, let me know 😉

That’s why as soon as we realize we are mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, like Buddha Heruka, we can send light rays out to purify and transform HUM.jpgeach and every living being instantaneously and effortlessly. For they are not outside the mind. (And I may as well point out that we are not outside our mind either, and nor is our mind outside our mind – a subject for another day.)

Emptiness — the mere lack of the things we normally perceive — can be accessed through searching for things with wisdom, through reasoning our way into reality in the traditional meditation on emptiness. You can read how to do this search in Transform Your Life and other books, and I’ll try to come back to it later if I live long enough.

Back to my predicament …

Back to my predicament in Loveland… Well, I ran out to look for the car keys and, dear reader, I had parked all of 100 feet away but they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere — even when another young barista decided to come out and help me comb the grass for them. So then, in my usual turn-to when I lose something, I started saying Tara mantras, requesting her help. Immediately a charming man appeared and, hearing of my predicament, helped me look and then said he’d stay and call people for me.

Because of course I had left everything in the locked car, including my phone. And mountains-2including, as it happened, every single telephone number that I might ever have use for. That is one moral of this tale. Failing to dredge up even one phone number from my computer-addled mind, we tried emailing the only two emails I could remember. To no avail. We stood there for a while, me foolishly, both wondering, and then a cop showed up randomly.

Happened they knew each other. And then the cop started googling for break-in companies because he said he was not allowed to break into cars himself any more. But then Tara blessed his mind or something, for he changed his mind, “Hang on, I think I have a colleague who will break in for us.” (Yes, he really said “us”.) So I then had one charming man and half the Loveland police department trying to solve my problem, and lo and behold they did break safely into the car. Whereupon I was able to call one of my usual guardian angels, who appeared a mere 45 minutes later with a spare set of keys. During which 45 minutes I managed to memorize all of 3 phone numbers, including my own, for future eventualities. I wonder if I still remember them …

Moral of the tale

Okay, what was all that about? That mini-first-world panic went to demonstrate:

(1) A great example of a meaningful absence.

(2) The kindness of strangers and how we ALWAYS depend on others, it’s just that we can forget that when seemingly ensconced in our comfort zone cocoons/cars.

(3) An external problem doesn’t have to lead to an internal problem and can even be a source of happiness. For I was happier after all this happened then before it started, and I was already in a great mood from the retreat. I could not help but feel the warm fuzzies due to those 5 Lovelandy men spending their Monday afternoon helping me. And in another twist there was a huge thunderstorm while I was waiting in the car, but instead of being a problem it actually cleaned the car beautifully from the red sticky dust of the unpaved mountain roads.

(If my skin had been a different color it may [or may not] have been a different story – I was conscious of that too; and it gave me some more ideas for an article I have been wanting to write on the subject of discrimination.)

More articles on the emptiness of the mind coming up soonish. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.

Related articles:

Emptiness of the mind 

The kindness of others 

The non-thingyness of things 

 

A way out of this fine mess …

space-needle-1I have been at the Fall Festival in Toronto this week, which has been an incredible pleasure, one that could only have been improved upon if you had all been here as well. During one lunch with my old friend G from Florida and his charming new wife S, who is relatively new to Buddhism, she asked me how it is that living beings are experiencing suffering if that suffering is not “real”, or inherently existent – that is, if the suffering we normally see does not exist?

A similar question came up during the Tantric Q & A, to which Gen-la Jampa gave a beautiful reply. Only I didn’t take notes so you’ll have to wait for that. Unless someone feels like typing up their notes on that for us all in the comments section … ah, done, thank you, see below.

But I know that S has 3 crazy little mini-schnauzers, and so what I said to her was this.

Imagine that Murphy is sleeping on that huge big bed with you and G, and he is fine, all safe and cozy. But you see that he is whimpering and twitching, and you know he is having a nightmare. You know that he is not “really” space-needle-2suffering, but that is not how he is seeing it at the moment. He believes that the big dog is actually attacking him or the black squirrel has outwitted him yet again or that his family have really deserted him (etc, etc, whatever). But you know that all this is mere appearance to his dreaming mind, and so all you want to do is wake him up.

The Buddhas feel the same way about us. All the time.

It’s a fine mess we have gotten ourselves into …

In a surreal counterpoint to this sane, harmonious Pure Land of the Festival was the divisive second US presidential debate – Greek drama or tragedy, take your pick. Jaws worldwide were dropping. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Only we did, between us. Please by all means vote on November 8; I certainly am going to. However, I have also concluded that the only way to cure these weird appearances and resultant widespread discomfort and delusion is to focus on developing compassion for everyone concerned (including the Rocky Mountain Trump supporter sitting next to me on this flight, who is drinking lots of beer and trying to sleep the whole thing off). Not to take these politicpres-debates too seriously, if I even could, but to remember to purify it nonetheless, remembering that it is all dream-like karmic appearance. (Perhaps it is even better that it is now “out” rather than “in”, providing it encourages us to do something about it.) For the alternative to purifying it is buying into it and experiencing an increasingly tangled mess.

I was moved by the last question of the debate, when an earnest undecided voter asked the candidates to please name one thing that they actually respected about each other — and they did both come up with something. The atmosphere in the town hall immediately softened. There was some opening. Everyone could breathe a little more freely. You saw the possibility of sanity and kindness being restored one day. All in the space of a few minutes. I know the clouds rolled back in again almost straightaway, but there was a glimpse for a moment there of sky-like Buddha nature.

Centered in the solution

vajrayoginiWe think to cure suffering that we need to focus on the problem. But Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution. How are we going to help others if we hold them to be inherently problematic? There is no space — there is no room to bring out their potential, their pure nature, their kindness or clarity or peace. All we can do is try and patch things up, shuffle things around, all the while in danger of being dragged further and further into the morass. There is no hope in a world of inherent existence. Borrowing the newly-minted Nobel Laureate to make this point:

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Luckily the world is empty of inherent existence. As Gen-la Khyenrab explained in the Festival, emptiness is the true nature of phenomena. Emptiness is not nothingness; it is the opposite of nothingness. It is because of emptiness that everything can exist.

Because emptiness is possible, everything is possible. ~ Nagarjuna

So emptiness means that things can change completely and radically – that this otherwise intractably tangled mess of samsara can be unravelled by pulling on a single thread.

sky-in-torontoFrom enlightened beings’ point of view, we are already pure. Geshe Kelsang said in Portugal in 2009, for example, that he views us all as Heroines and Heroes, which is why he has so much respect for us. And this seems to be why he has never tired in liberating us, why he finds it effortless. Buddhas understand that we are not inherently pure, and that from our point of view we can feel far from pure. But that is just a point of view, and when we stop “awfulizing everything” with our inappropriate attention, as a friend put it the other day, and improve our imagination or imputation based on wisdom, we will see ourselves and others in a completely different way. No more “real” but infinitely more enjoyable.

Over to you, comments welcome.

Related articles:

Change our thoughts, liberate ourself

How to be a hero 

Tantra: Bringing the result into the path

What can we really know about anyone?

We always think we know stuff about people — cheesman-park-2yeah he’s really annoying, yeah she’s boring, yeah he’s great, etc. Occasionally we find ourselves hopelessly confused, for example when a friend becomes an enemy or a stranger and we are not sure how that happened, “What happened?!” — but generally at any given moment we accept the appearances of friends, enemies, and strangers for what they are. Or, rather, what they seem to be.

Contemplating equanimity is fantastic for shaking us out of our grasping at both permanence and inherent existence.

And … it clears the space for a heartfelt understanding that, just like us, everyone else wants to be happy and free from pain.

For what else do we really know about them?!

Let me explain a bit more.

Equanimitycheesman-park-1

As described more here, we see how those categories of friends, enemies, and strangers into which we are constantly placing people are not remotely fixed – they are changing all the time due to impermanence, and also because whether someone is a friend, enemy, or stranger says far more about our own projections than what is actually going on. Indeed, nothing is really going on. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Meaningful to Behold:   

It is extremely short-sighted and ultimately very mistaken to think that anyone is permanently or inherently our friend, enemy, or stranger. ~ page 24

So, given the facts of both impermanence and emptiness:

If these three positions are so temporary and variable – then who is the proper object of our attachment or hatred?

Not just in this lifetime — we have been around since beginningless time projecting stuff on people, everybody. Let me tell you a quick story.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged had immortality thrust upon him.

“Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards.”

Anyway, Wowbagger decided during one long dark teatime of the soul, around 2.55 on a Sunday, to insult everyone in the universe — in alphabetical order.

On his spaceship, Wowbagger:

“gazed at the fantastic jewelry of the night, the billions of tiny diamond worlds that dusted the infinite darkness with light. Every one, every single one, was on his itinerary. Most of them he would be going to millions of times over.”

Point being, over infinitely prolonged beginningless time, we have been doing this too! We have insulted everyone in the universe. We have slept with them. We have both slept with and insulted them. We have done everything with everybody.

On this particular trip he was on his way to insult a small slug by calling it a “brainless prat”.

That’s one thing, impermanence. And there is also emptiness to consider.

Infinite versions

If things are not fixed, and cannot be found outside the mind, you could argue that there are infinite versions of every situation and person. Even seemingly factual labels, such as “This is my husband or my boss or my President” have nothing real behind them. I saw a picture of the US President with his daughters the other day and I thought how he is a gazillion things – everyone is calling him something different. Stand up the one and true Barack Obama. Impossible.

cheesman-parkOr sitting in nearby Cheesman Park writing this – for me, a pleasant leafy place with wafting breezes; for that dog with the Frisbee, a playground; for the person who just approached me to canvass for the democratic party, an opportunity to get out the vote; for the more than 5,000 or so unclaimed bodies still buried under the ground, I’m not quite sure what. That is just two blunt illustrations amongst countless subtle variations. (Pics of said park liberally scattered through this article.)

We all have our own labels or versions of the people in our lives, and what we may sometimes forget is that so does everyone else. We might get possessive of our version, thinking it’s the only real person or the only version that counts, “This is MY husband, that’s who he is” — but try telling that to his mom, his best friend, his cat? Not to mention all those who knew previous versions and will know future versions.

So, we project our own stuff on everybody we meet – creating friends, enemies, and strangers over and over again. And this destroys our peace, causes us a lot of trouble, and blocks us from really helping people. We yearn for our objects of attachment to come here and make us happy while wanting our objects of anger to shut up and go away. But carlin-american-dreamprojected people can’t do anything from their own side to help us further our wishes for happiness and freedom, any more than can an actor on a screen.

So, what can we do?

If people are not permanently nor inherently friends, enemies, and strangers, what ARE they? What DO we know about them, really?

Only that they want to be happy all the time and free from suffering. Just like us.

Yup. That we can know.

One of the most amazing things I find about this way of thinking is the amount of space and freedom it opens up to abide with the minds that help me, instead of wasting time and cheesman-park-3peace being sidetracked by the three poisons. As Geshe-la says in Joyful Path

Equanimity reduces our attachment and hostility, but it does not reduce our liking and our love for others.

Quite the opposite. With equanimity understanding impermanence and projection, we now have the space to consider how others feel about things, rather than how we do, stepping into their shoes and walking through doorways to interesting new worlds based on appreciation, respect, affection, rejoicing, compassion, and empathy. Instead of staying confined to the claustrophobic spaceship of “me, me me”, our mental horizons are broadened on the way to the all-pervasive compassion and omniscient wisdom of a Buddha.

Over to you. Comments welcome.