Unleashing our potential

httyl-bookcovers

sarcasticI asked a bunch of people the other day what their New Year’s resolutions were, and most of them told me they hadn’t bothered making any because they never stuck to them. And it is true that New Year’s resolutions often don’t work because our minds are kind of too much all over the place, scattered.

If we find we can’t stick to our obviously worthwhile resolutions each new year, or any other time for that matter, it could well be because our habits and real desires go way deeper than our new plans, so they keep winning. Luckily meditation helps, perhaps more than anything.

We need to change from deep within, not just on a superficial level of consciousness – our thoughts are too changeable on the surface of our minds, like waves or froth on an ocean, so even if we manage to change them they don’t stay changed. I find it is always pretty much vital, therefore, to start the process of self-transformation by diving below the waves of chatter and thoughts directed largely outward, to access a deeper level of awareness.

Reboot

amplutihedron_spanEven the simplest breathing meditation, designed to overcome conceptual distractions, brings us inward and helps us to connect to our Buddha nature, which is in fact unfathomably deep, and we can sense that.

We don’t feel things in our head – we feel them in our heart. We don’t really change in our head — we change in our heart.

So we start by dropping into our heart, and experiencing already some peace and space opening up. The slightest experience of peace shows lasting deep peace and change is possible, so we identify with that, thinking, “This is me.”

An even more powerful method for accessing deeper awareness is meditating on the clarity of the mind.

And above all we can mix with the blessings of all enlightened beings — their all-pervasive omniscient, compassionate minds — because then for sure we go deeper and deeper and deeper. And our mind is purified and inspired.

On this basis we can reinvent ourselves — dissolve all our stale habitual thoughts away and start again! Reboot. Especially if we can bring even a little understanding of emptiness into the equation.

I plan to share more on how to do everything I’ve just said because it’s useful – but later. For all this to work, to really change, we need to get in the habit of relating to this potential — our spiritual depth — and identifying with it. And this brings us back to the development of self-confidence, carrying on from this article.

colorado mountains 1.JPG Pride with respect to our potential

The first type of self-confidence, also known as non-deluded pride, is called “pride with respect to our potential”. This state of mind is:

… based on a recognition of our spiritual potential and leads us to think, “I can and will attain Buddhahood. ~ How to Understand the Mind

With this we identify with our Buddha nature, our potential for lasting happiness, total freedom, universal love, omniscient wisdom, etc. In short, our potential for enlightenment. We trust our Buddha nature, not our superficial desires and aversions, however seductive or on our side these may pretend to be.

Big vision

In How to Transform Your Life, which you can now download for FREE! here, the author Geshe Kelsang says: httyl-bookcovers

In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom. Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure essential nature of every living being… Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

“Everyone” includes ourselves. We are all future Buddhas. In our society, we have phrases like, “You gotta have vision of yourself”; but our vision tends to be who we are now, just a little bit better, right? In Buddhism, we develop a really big vision. We say “Identify with your Buddha nature ~ you can become an enlightened being.”

With this first non-deluded pride, we aren’t just saying I CAN become a Buddha, we are saying “I WILL become a Buddha.” I am going to become someone with perfect love, perfect compassion, perfect wisdom, total patience. A mind pervaded by joy. I’m going to do that. That’s proper vision, isn’t it? And if we identify with that, well, that’s a big sense of self. But this self, unlike our ordinary, painful, limited sense of self, is imputed on the truth. I have the potential and I am going to become a Buddha. It’s true.

Some people might think, “Hey, that’s a bit arrogant or far-fetched.” But you know what? It’s possible. It’s actually possible for us to become a Buddha.

happinessWhereas it’s not possible for us to develop lasting happiness or meaning through our looks. Or through our ability to sing. Or through our ability to make money. Or through any of the other things we tend to develop pride in. We might or might not get a temporary happiness hit, but sooner or later these things all just disappear.

In other words, it is MORE possible to achieve enlightenment than to achieve lasting happiness through external things.

We are by nature unlimited, and once we have purified our mind we will have purified our world.

So why put our efforts into trying to achieve happiness through external things that will never amount to anything, instead of into something that we know is possible, and infinitely more desirable, which is to achieve enlightenment? The first non-deluded pride helps us overcome this discrepancy because we identify with our potential and with our wish for enlightenment.

Try it out

In meditation, in our heart, we can just try it out. Just allow that self-confidence to resonate deep inside, just that insight and determination, “I have the potential for enlightenment, that’s who I really am, and I am going to realize that potential and become a Buddha.”

Actual enlightenment is a mind, and anyone can develop that mind of pure love, pure wisdom, and pure compassion, from which we manifest in whatever form benefits living beings.

Enlightenment is a state of total freedom, for which we all have the potential. So why not go for it? Why not develop a big vision? And say deep inside, “I’m going to do that!” Unless you have a better idea. But what could be a better idea?

not-way-to-relate-to-potentialIt may seem a fairly outrageous thought if you are new to Buddhism, it may even seem slightly terrifying; but it is actually a very relaxing thought. Why? Because we’re no longer identifying with our limitations. It is identifying with our limitations that’s the main reason for our laziness of discouragement — looking at ourselves and thinking, “I’m such a twerp. I’m such a deluded being — I’m so angry, and I’m so jealous, and I’m so attached to my stuff, and I’m incapable of moving on, and that’s me.” And then we’re walking around trying to improve an inherently existent twerp, which is really tough. We’re thinking, “I’m useless, I’m so inadequate, I’m a stupid person, but at least I’ve made some New Year’s resolutions here, at least I’m trying” – but we can’t move away from that if we think it’s the truth, if we feel intrinsically useless.

Luckily, it’s not the truth. We’re just creating it with our mind. An intrinsic twerp is just an idea. And it’s a useless idea at that, it’s a wrong idea. We’re not useless. We are by nature empty, which means we are by nature free. If we think we’re a limited being, we’re a limited being. But if we think we have an unlimited potential and we identify with that, that’s what we have.

If you think you’re someone who is going to become a Buddha, that’s exactly who you are. So go for it.

Ok, enough for today. Maybe you’d like to try this out for a few days and report back in the comments below?! I’ll be back soon with the next type of self-confidence.

Related articles

Going wide means going deep

Articles on overcoming discouragement

How is your meditation going?

 

A rising tide lifts all boats ~ the power of Sangha

transcending fear and anger

You know, there is nothing fixed about you. You can change the narrative of yourself, go down a whole new road. For example, of these two, which to identify with?:

I am now middle aged with all those affairs of the gorgeous young me with the beautiful young lovers behind me, increasingly wrinkly and achy atranscending fear and anger.jpgnd irrelevant, and heading for the graveyard (via smelly old folks’ home).

= dead end street, no happy ending in sight.

VERSUS

I am a spiritual practitioner with incredible opportunity and strong renunciation and compassion, like Buddha and all previous practitioners, heading closer and closer to the Pure Land and the ability to liberate all living beings. I am Heruka, trampling on delusions, wielding the wheel of sharp weapons to cut through the self-grasping of all living beings.

= liberating path to somewhere completely new and blissful.

Or whatever story line we like. You can figure something out, especially with the help of Dharma. Conventional truth depends entirely on mental perspective – that’s maybe why it is also called “relative truth”. So if we give ourselves a different perspective on whatever is going on in our lives, the meaning of our life changes. For example, in the context above, I have found in the past that periods of solitude or being fired from a job are not galling but a springboard to far, far greater things.

NKT Summer Festival 2016

international assemblyThe recent summer festival was amazingly inspiring in this respect because there were 4,000 people focusing on a vision of being enlightened, not ordinary, all in the same place at the same time. I hope I get a chance to share more about some of the actual teachings in future articles. But this is a bit of what I wrote down about the Festival in general at the time. I apologize in advance to those of you who may be new to the subject of Buddhist Tantra and wonder what on earth I am so rhapsodic about. Next year’s Summer Festival will be focused on the new version of Transform Your Life, Buddha’s Sutra teachings. (By the way, do check out the photo-journalism in these Festival Diaries, written by Kadam Morten.)

Wheel of sharp weapons

I’ve been having wonderful conversations and connections with an unusual assembly of cool people from all over the place. No one is normal around here. I have loved sitting in the temple with this huge Sangha, and there are plenty more practitioners back home too. I’ve been wondering about the causes and conditions we and others around the world must all have created to have met this fully realized Spiritual Guide, these ear-whispered instructions, this Tantric technology, this quick path to full enlightenment. It was feeling to me like we have done most of the work just to get to this point, perhaps in many previous lifetimes, and now all we have to do is fall off a log, spiritually speaking.

We can and usually do have pretty ordinary views of ourself and others, but there is nothing ordinary about any of this. There doesn’t have to be anything boring or ordinary about anything or anyone in our world. The key is to remember this every day, even when we are back home and at work.

The “Sangha” is not an exclusive club, by the way. There are no rules of entry. There is not a single person who does not equally have the potential to attain the happiness of enlightenment so, as soon as someone wants that, even a little bit, they are on their way. And who knows what spiritual work anyone has already done in this or previous lives?

Oral InstructionsAs it says in Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

Through the wheel of sharp weapons of the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness,
Circling throughout the space of the minds of sentient beings until the end of the aeon,
Cutting away the demon of self-grasping, the root of samsara,
May definitive Heruka be victorious.

It is said that thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples attained enlightenment. Despite my faith in the methods, and Geshe Kelsang’s oft-stated conviction that we modern-day practitioners can gain the same results, I admit I used to be a bit skeptical about this: “Steady on! That’s a bit unrealistic, surely! Maybe two or three people could go all the way?!”

(I still thought even two or three would be pretty good … after all, think of the power of even one more person in this world having Geshe Kelsang’s realizations of meaning clear light and pure illusory body?!)

A rising tide raises all boats

meditatingBut you know that expression, “a rising tide raises all boats”? Of late I have been beginning to intuit that as some of us start to gain deep completion stage realizations, we might all start doing it. If you or me or any of the Sangha gain realizations, others around us will be raised naturally due to our karmic interconnections and the fact that our minds are not inherently separate. Let alone fellow practitioners, even our family and friends and colleagues will naturally experience benefits. I didn’t find it at all hard during this Festival to appreciate my rather epic fellow international Sangha, old and new, because I could tell that we are all in this together. We rise and fall together, aspects of Guru Vajradhara’s mind.

It is not the individual, isolated, separate me who will attain enlightenment after all – that is the me that has to dissolve away so that I can identify with my actual self. In Tantra we learn to impute ourselves no longer on a contaminated deluded mind and meaty body, but on our own indestructible, blissful very subtle mind and body. These, once purified by dissolving all phenomena into ultimate truth emptiness, will transform into the actual mind and body of a Buddha. How hard can that be? Once we’ve been shown how to do it?! As Nagarjuna says:

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.

jumping with joyLike I said, even if one or two people were to gain the union of meaning clear light and illusory body and be like Geshe-la, this world would transform. So what about ten? Or a thousand!? It is degenerate times alright (thank you Mr. Trump, Isis, the age of distraction, and co.), but the blessings of Heruka and Vajrayogini become more powerful in degenerate times; so who is to say that collectively we cannot and will not transform this thing? When the distractions are few and the Festival blessings strong, it all seems perfectly doable. Now I just have to tune into this refuge in Sangha every day.

Over to you. Please share your experiences of this year’s Summer Festival if you were there. (And maybe you’d like to attend another international Festival some day if you were not there, the next one being the Fall Festival in Toronto.)

You might enjoy this video:

 

Rewriting the story of my life

Vajrayogini face

One day in mid-February 2010, a friend, H, shot himself after his car was repossessed. He had also recently emerged from a messy divorce, but his financial woes pushed him over the edge that day. However, he also had many close friends who loved him and thought he was larger than life, who were shocked and devastated at his surprising self-harm.

self-image in BuddhismIt seems to me that H must have had an abysmally out of whack self-image if he hated himself enough to blow his own head off. The demon self-cherishing –  exaggerated disappointment at my wishes not being fulfilled, seeing them as the most important thing in the world – contributed to that sad, needless tragedy. Certainly it was not love or wisdom. Self-grasping ignorance and attachment caused him to create and believe a mental fiction about who he was, ie, a failure, someone whose life was not worth living. Yet all his friends knew that he was a lovely sweet engaging man and had everything to live for — he could have been a Bodhisattva if that was the story he had told himself instead on that day in February. There was a lesson in this for all of us who knew him. We have to be wise about who we believe we are and what we need, or, one way or another, slowly or quickly, we will self-destruct.

Dealing with a broken heart

When painful feelings arise, it is wise not to resist them – what you resist persists – but see them as passing bad weather in the mind without repressing or indulging them. Further to this I have thought: (a) my thoughts don’t have to be that scary, they are bubbles arising from the root mind, they won’t kill me if I don’t buy into them and they disappear if I stop thinking them, and (b) those feelings and thoughts are empty — even within them is a non-conceptual wisdom and peace if I allow myself to experience it. A very wise Buddhist nun once gave me this advice to cure my broken heart:

Vajrayogini faceWhen bad feelings come, and the whole body and mind ache, instead of resisting it, it is good to let the suffering arise in the mind, become one with it, and look at it so closely – it dissolves into emptiness and beyond this there is nothing. Where is it, what, why? It dissolves into emptiness. Don’t be afraid of the feeling of suffering. It is just imputation, just label.  See that there is nothing there, only the mind of clear light, which is bliss and emptiness. Then feel love for everyone. Be Vajrayogini.

A friend told me that when she was once suffering from heavy and unrequited attachment, her perennially down to earth mother told her that it is like trying to quit smoking – the cravings come and the cravings also go. Which got me thinking about how to relate to ourselves in such a way that we are able to give up attachment – all forms of dependency and heavy sadness. How if H had related to himself differently, none of the above would have happened, and today we could all be having a laugh with him. I had had a lovely conversation with him the previous summer at Madhyamaka Center – he had Tantric empowerments, he was really loving his Vajrayogini retreat. So why didn’t he keep believing he was a blissful, wise, free enlightened being instead of the ordinary dead-end fiction of being a lonely, financially incompetent, rejected man? In truth, both are fictions, both are mere thought or labels, but so is everything; and there is a world of infinite possibilities in the clear light of our limitless Buddha nature, the seed of enlightenment, the seed of the Dharmakaya.

When we try to give up smoking, we have to identify with being a non-smoker who occasionally has manageable cravings (which can even be a useful teacher) as opposed to a smoker who unnaturally has to give up something that is part of them and is ending up in a state of need and loss. No one will live like that for long, in need and loss – we would sooner cave in to the attachment. But in the invisible world of our boundlessly creative mind, especially moment by moment, if we think wisely we can see that we need nothing more, we have lost nothing, we have nothing to fear from the future.

Mental fictions and self-image

planets 1We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and what we need all the time. They are all mental fictions. There is no reality behind those hallucinatory empty thoughts. We can think anything we want in the invisible world, the world of the mind, of which this manifest physical world is simply like a mirror reflection. Mind is formless. Mind is invisible (also we can’t hear it, smell it etc.). Working at the level of our subtlest mind, dropping our awareness from our head into our root mind at our heart chakra, is far more effective too; and we can do that through belief to begin with. Close your eyes, drop into your heart, and think about who you are, where you are, what you are. This world of the mind – of experience, of feelings, even of physical sensations – is the only world there actually is. Can you point to any world or body or self outside of your experience of it? (And even the mind is empty of existing from its own side, dependent on its reflections or perceptions to exist.) Close our eyes, and we can think that we are jumping from planet to planet. Someone told me that when she closes her eyes she can think that she can walk — and she has always been in a wheelchair. Someone else told me that in her mind, and her experience, she thinks she is whole, even though a truck left her unable to stand up straight without feeling compression and pain.

We can think we are a smoker, dependent on cigarettes for our happiness. Or we can think we are a non-smoker. When the craving arises, it is just some habit we got into, and we are not a smoker, so it is natural to not seek the cigarette and just see that habit as a temporary cloud in the vast expanse of sky. One of my favorite Geshe Kelsang quotes is:

We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking. ~ Meaningful to Behold, p. 190

When we are attached to someone, we can and often do make up this mental fiction: “I am dependent on them for my happiness. I need them. I am weak without them. If they seem uninterested, I behave like a bumbling idiot around them to get their attention. I am in a state of loss when they are not in my life or when they reject me. I miss them, they are missing. The future is empty without them. Only they understand me, really. To give them up will leave me in a state of lacking, it will leave me incomplete, needing something I no longer have. Even if I know I have to give them up, or they have died, it is unnatural, as it is going to cause me to be shadow of my former self, and the life they breathed into me will be gone.” Etc etc.

live in the momentIf we check, this is not a pleasant self-image and does not give rise to any genuine feelings of joy, only relief on the occasions that they call us and say, “Everything is alright, I love you, marry me, I’m not really dead”, etc. Until the relief passes, as by nature relief does. Relief is so-called changing suffering, only a temporary release of, or distraction from, underlying need and want and suffering, like scratching an itch according to Nagarjuna. Also, we hold on tightly to the supposed source of our wholeness, which is perceived as out there not within, and get rope burn as the rope must inevitably slide through our fingers due to impermanence. We condense the whole universe into one person so that it must crumble when they disappear.

Whereas we can make up any fiction we want anytime. And we can believe it, if it is helpful, while knowing that it is empty of inherent reality. Our self-image changes all the time anyway, and we can change it ourselves far more easily than we might have thought possible. In the invisible world, there are infinite possibilities (whether you want to look at this spiritually or quantumly or both). Everything begins in the mind, in the imagination. What will happen if instead of thinking I have lost everything I held dear, I think instead: “I have everything I need for my happiness right here and now. This moment is perfect. I am strong. I am able to experience love, compassion, renunciation, faith, wisdom, joy and bliss. I am a Bodhisattva. I am a Yogini in a charnel ground, fearful of nothing and no one, transforming everything, surrounded by the corpses of my own and others’ fake suffering self-images. I am a Buddha.”

We don’t need to think “I want to be Buddha some day” or “I will be Buddha in the future”. Wanting or hoping creates a gap between who we think we are now (some deluded being with big problems) and who we might be in some la la land future. And how will we bridge that gap?  If we can’t bridge it today, why will we be able to tomorrow? Instead, we already ARE, and we relate to that and happily create all the causes for it in the here and now – meditations on love and compassion, the six perfections, bliss and emptiness, the central channel, and so on. Or, simply put, we can start with a thought like, “I am a loving person who has everything I need”, and let our belief in our good qualities get bigger and bigger over time, as our imagination and wisdom appreciating the nature of these good qualities improves.

If there are infinite possibilities and no constraint on thought, if I can be anything, why not be a Buddha? The previous holy beings have paved the way for this and shown the best possible self-image in their Tantric revelations. How could we possibly come up with something this deep, sophisticated, or blissful without their input?! Therefore, “I am a Buddha, such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara, or Heruka and Vajrayogini, manifesting all the infinite bounty and good qualities of the Dharmakaya in every moment and leading all living beings to that state.” Also: “I can accept any unpleasant feelings/emotions/sensations — they are just clouds drifting in the endless blissful expanse of my mind, useful for teaching me about renunciation and compassion and wisdom. Like pleasant feelings, they are also just manifestations of the empty sky of the basic Dharmakaya. I can welcome and embrace them, and in doing so they miraculously have no more power to hurt. They also dissolve away, as all thoughts do sooner or later, because nothing lasts even a moment.” space goer

Well, who is there to contradict that? It is just as real or unreal as “I am useless without you.” Who says? Also, when we think of others looking at us pityingly, “Poor thing, she is useless without him”, (a) it is unlikely that they are in fact wasting much time thinking that – people tend to relate to us as far more of a whole individual than we do ourselves when we’re suffering heartache; and (b) when we change our view of ourselves, people will follow suit, sooner or later. With love and compassion, we don’t care or take seriously what people project on us in any case, we mainly want to help them – there is no need for their approval of us, we are more interested in their view of themselves.

Of course it is more “realistic” as in closer to reality to view ourselves as whole, as complete, as loving, as a Buddha, because our real nature is our Buddha nature. Our wisdom understanding that nothing is fixed is what enables us to change into whatever we want to change into, to transform; and that wisdom is the ground of our new experience. This is as opposed to our self-grasping ignorance, which is the ground of our attachment and aversion to real things and people, including our own depressing self-image. “It must be real because it appears to me that way!!! I’m not moving until the reflection in the mirror moves!”

Telling ourselves the same old stories and clichés about our own and others’ lives will never liberate us from suffering. We will simply live the clichés again and again and again — birth, ageing, sickness, death, disappointment, lack of fulfillment, dissatisfaction, birth, ageing, etc. Cyclic existence (Skt. samsara) just is one big cliché. The other day when I was complaining about getting older and uglier, looking I think for sympathy or reassurance, my friend effectively shut me up by saying this instead:

“The story of samsara has no answer.”

How long do we need?

There is a lot of talk these days about “manifesting”, eg, The Secret, a Course in Miracles, so called ‘new thought’. From a Buddhist point of view, manifesting a favorable reality depends not only upon our way of perceiving reality but also upon the karmic appearances created by our good and kind intentions. And, from a Buddhist point of view, if we can manifest reality, we may as well skip the ordinary samsaric manifestations of wealth, companionship, sex, a good reputation etc. “Be careful what you wish for!”, as the saying goes, partly because a large number of our desires are contradictory eg, pizza and a great figure, excitement and security, a long life and eternal youth, etc. Instead, we can go for the blissful enlightened reality that will always help both ourselves and others. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We can gradually come to identify with every pure, enlightened quality as explained in the Sutras and manifested in Technicolor in the Tantric Deities and mandalas, and progress will be swift – we can even gain enlightenment in one lifetime. Buddha

One lifetime?!?! You sure?! Well, given the infinite possibilities of the Dharmakaya, the extraordinary and fortunate reality that Buddha himself has appeared in our life and consciousness to introduce us to these, and the reality that all the methods exist and have always worked, why not?! Why would it take more than one lifetime if we really believe it? If we come to know that nothing is really out there, how long do we need to dismantle it? If we come to know that our thoughts are empty, invisible, with nothing really behind them, how long do we need to change them?

“I am the master of my fate” ~ a tribute to Nelson Mandela

mandela in prison 2

SOUTH AFRICA MANDELAA light has gone out in the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013)

I like millions of others around the world am very sad that such a great being departed today. He is leaving a hole in too many hearts to count. President Obama said it the other day:

He is personal hero. But I don’t think I am unique in that regard. He is a hero for the world.

For decades, Mandela has been one of my greatest heroes – a shining example of how it really is possible to be a very good person, full of patience and love, and yet because of this, not in spite of it, able to effect enormous changes. He showed a different paradigm for dealing with conflict that resonated around the world.

I was trying to think today of anyone else in my lifetime who has been so universally well regarded and appreciated for their good qualities. I can’t think of anyone. My friend’s face dropped when I told her, and I knew it’d be the same if I told anyone else in the Denver coffee house where I heard the news. Around the world, I believe, the news, “Have you heard that Nelson Mandela has just died?”, is being met only with dismay.

President Zuma called him “the father of democracy” in South Africa. I believe he was a bona fide Bodhisattva in our midst, an obvious guiding light on the world stage, who managed to pull off the seeming impossible in South Africa and inspire people everywhere to behave just that little bit better.

I could talk about his good qualities all day. I hope and believe that others will be rejoicing in him today in the global media, in a thousand more qualified tributes–but I would like to join in. I sometimes think that the best way not to miss someone so important to you is to try and adopt his or her good qualities as your own. If everyone who loves him took on even a fraction of Madiba’s qualities, the world would transform overnight. For me, amongst many good qualities, it was Mandela’s genuine patient acceptance and strength that inspires me the most and that I would most like to possess myself.

A tribute from a South African friend

nelson mandela fear quoteI had quite a number of close South African relatives and friends. A good friend teaches Buddhism in Cape Town. My key ring is the South African flag in the shape of a miniature sandal that I bought in Langa. I visited a few years ago, finding Cape Town to be the most beautiful and yet most incongruous place – the stunning natural beauty sitting side by side with the appalling aids-abetted poverty of Langa and other townships. I shared a birthday with Nelson Mandela. I named a beloved cat for him. I have some connection with South Africa, but an old friend of mine has even closer karma with it as he was born and adopted there. I want him to do the honors, therefore, and include here something he said about Mandela in the context of patience some years back.

The patience of non-retaliation

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.

I see difficult people and the suffering they cause as apparently unpleasant, yet actually useful, because without them I could not practice patience. I want to become more patient because it brings me great peace of mind and helps me make spiritual progress. Who will help me to increase my patience? The people causing my difficulties! Actually, they exist for my benefit. They behave appallingly because I require and want them to for my spiritual well-being. I owe them.

mandela in prisonThe people who inspire me most are those who transcend seemingly unforgiveable grievances and end up helping millions of people – heroes like Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and my own Teacher Geshe Kelsang (who had to flee from his homeland). I was born in South Africa about the time Mandela was sent to break rocks in Robben Island, and I was 27 by the time he was released. Those first 27 years of my life felt like a really long time, and I would often wonder how “Madiba” was doing?

If anyone had a right and provocation to be angry, it was he. Yet he famously left the prison with a huge heart of forgiveness and love that saved an entire nation from a bloodbath. How did he do it? He said it was by patiently understanding that he was working for a task greater than himself.

He also had a huge sense of personal responsibility, as can be seen in the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus that helped him through the long years of captivity:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

To practice non-retaliation involves compassion, the wish for others to be free from their suffering and also its causes, delusions and negative karma. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. Negative karma refers specifically to the negative mental intentions that motivate each negative action we perform, and it is these intentions that sow the actual seeds for the experience of suffering. Think about how much negative karma angry minds and angry people create, thus sowing the seeds for intensely unpleasant experiences to manifest in their future. I don’t have to make it worse. young Nelson Mandela

Instead of thinking “This is an angry person,” we can think, “This is an unfortunate person who is being controlled by their enemy of anger.” By never seeing faults in people, Buddhas are able to maintain their love and compassion for them at all times. Anger is the enemy; the person is not. Compassion for them, not more anger, is the best response.

Perspective
Mandela quote about love

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

As a Buddhist, I too am trying to work for a task greater than myself – enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Suffering is all relative. As it says in Meaningful to Behold, we have experienced aeons of great suffering but it has not bought us any benefit. Now is different because we have a different perspective on what we are trying to get out of life:

We have the unique opportunity, by enduring comparatively insignificant suffering, to work for the benefit of others and thereby attain the supreme state of enlightenment.

We can therefore joyfully accept the hardships we face – which doesn’t mean gritting our teeth and putting up with it, but actually accepting fully and happily, without judgment or disapproval, whatever arises. We can do this if we are confident that we can learn to use absolutely any situation to train our minds in wisdom and compassion, thus bringing an end to suffering.

In Mandela’s broad smiles as he left the prison in friendship with his captors, I find that he discovered this truth.

Mandela quote about freedom of othersAs a Buddhist, I too am striving for a superior intention that takes personal responsibility for freeing all my kind mothers from their suffering and its causes. I have therefore learned from Nelson Mandela and seen in his actions, with my own eyes, how patience is possible if I keep this big perspective. And it was because of this patience, not in spite of it, that he also got everything done, as he could work toward getting everything done all the time without being derailed by anger. Patience is not a passive, doormat state of mind that leaves us standing there doing nothing. It is an active, dynamic, and immensely creative state of mind that enables us to accomplish all our tasks.

The greatest tribute

reacting to Nelson Mandela's death

My endless gratitude to you, Nelson Mandela.

Wherever you are now, I believe you will still be helping people. I am not worried about you, only the rest of us.

I don’t want to say goodbye. I have been dreading this day. Everyone is so sad. Zuma said “We need him with us.” I agree. But as we cannot have him with us, we can at least let his inspiring qualities live on.

The greatest tribute I believe we can pay Nelson Mandela is to become more like him.

The sooner, the better.

__________________

(Please feel welcome to leave your own tributes in the comments.)

Essential issues for consideration in a study of world religions

cropped-denver-airport.jpg

denver airport I met with a delightful Professor recently here in Denver, Dr. Don Maloney, who is both the eastern and world religions teacher at Metro State University and University of Colorado in Denver (both share the same large hip campus). He showed me the five core questions that students are asked in these university courses, the “essential issues for consideration” as they embark on a study of the history, beliefs and central practices of world religions; and I couldn’t resist sharing a Buddhist take on them. Don was a Jesuit priest for 30 years, and has an open enquiring mind, so we and his students had some pretty good conversations!

Thought I would jot down some of the ideas here.  You are welcome to contribute more in the comments.

  1. How does one define “religion”? Is the notion of a “God” necessary for a religion? If not, how might one define religion?

Buddhists don’t believe in a creator God, an omnipotent God who created us, because we believe that everything is created by mind. But we do believe in holy beings, and we pray to them for inspiration and guidance. Everyone has Buddha nature, the potential to become a Buddha or fully enlightened being; and there are already countless people who have realized this potential and become Buddhas. They are omniscient, and perhaps we can even say from their own side omnipotent in so far as they have complete control over reality or truth due to their realization of emptiness or the ultimate nature of reality. However they are constrained in the help they can give the rest of us by our own minds and karma. If we want to help someone, and know we can, and indeed have everything required to help them, but they are in no mood or position to be helped, we know how that goes … If we want the Buddhas’ help, it is there for the taking – it is their job, their enlightened deeds, to send blessings, emanations, and guidance our way each and every day, that is part of the definition of enlightenment. So that is why Buddhists pray to them, requesting to become like them by realizing our own pure, transcendent potential. We can tune into their complete purity and, as it were, download it because our minds are not by nature impure or unworthy, but pure. Buddha's blessings

When we experience even slight peace through our delusions subsiding, either naturally or through the force of our effort, we can understand this peace to be our Buddha nature, or Buddha seed, the pure potential of our root mind; and it is not separate from the enlightened mind of all the Buddhas. Our mind is like a boundless clear ocean but most of the time we are entirely unaware of the profundity, clarity, and deep purity we have within – instead we identify with the waves and the froth on the very surface as we spend our lives and thoughts directed outward, not inward, in a massive play of distraction from our source. One etymology for religion is to link back, bond, or connect – return to the truth or source of inspiration. When we connect with our own Buddha nature, the profound clarity and purity of our own mind, this is the source of our inspiration, this is the truth of whom we are; and it is not separate from the inspiration and truth of a Buddha. Continue to grow our Buddha seed and it will become the omniscient wisdom and compassionate bliss of a Buddha.

The only real truth in Buddhism is that nothing is fixed, everything is empty of existing in a solid, substantial, inherently existent way, because everything is imputed or created by mind. Change the mind, and literally change our reality. We don’t just change the way we look at the world, we change the world itself. The Buddhist “religion” links us back time and again on every level, from the simplest to the most profound, to that only truth — the truth of the emptiness of things existing from their own side. The truth which means that everything depends upon the mind — from whether we are happy or sad depending on our mood rather than on what is “going on”, to whether something is ugly or beautiful, to whether something is a problem or not a problem, right up to the ontological status of the tiniest quark of existence that has no power to exist from its own side. (Even the mind depends upon the mind, is projected by the mind!) The truth which means that we can change completely from an ordinary ignorant being into a sacred wise Buddha by changing our mind.

I’ll get to the remaining four essential considerations in the next article … meanwhile, over to you.

Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

path to enlightenment

enlightenment pie in the skyI was remembering the other day what happened when I first encountered Buddhism. A new friend at college happened to mention that there was a talk on that evening by a Tibetan Lama in York – he was not Geshe Kelsang, who became my teacher, but a visitor who was being hosted by the Buddhist Centre. I took another nice, new friend, M., along with me, not having a clue what to expect (this was 1981 in the North of England when meditation was an alien concept to most people.)

To be honest, I hardly understood a word this Geshe said. But during the course of the evening, I couldn’t help thinking: “Whatever it is you have, I want it.”

He said a couple of things I sort of got, the words at least. The first was a comment about how we have radiators in the West, followed by his falling about laughing – something he seemed to be doing most of the evening. I suppose for someone who grew up in Tibet, radiators and other Western technology must have seemed quite amusing. (This was in the days before SmartPhones, which he would doubtless have found hysterical.) M. told me later that I was laughing uproariously and a little crazily at everything, which seems strange given that I didn’t know what this happy Tibetan was saying; but clearly this stuff was infectious.

The other comment I remember from that evening was:

 “We are all on the airplane to enlightenment!”

(Followed by even more laughter.)

path to enlightenmentWe’re what??! I thought. What is he talking about?! I knew I still liked it, I probably laughed along, but I wasn’t sure what it was I liked. And, when I stopped to think about it, enlightenment or Buddhahood sounded rather pie in the sky. As far as I was concerned, I’d be lucky to just get through the day without getting annoyed with someone. If Buddhist meditation could do that for me, I’d give it a shot.

And so M. and I did, the following week at the regular introductory meditation class at our nearest Buddhist centre. That was almost 32 years ago. The rest is history.

Although I well remember how pie in the sky enlightenment felt back then, since then I’ve decided that it really is not that much of a culturally alien concept, let alone an impossibly idealistic goal. Indeed, it is within the reach of every one of us; we just have to get going, starting with wanting it.

The other day I asked some friends if they wanted to improve. They said yes. Then I asked them what would happen if they did improve a bit and became a bit kinder and wiser, for example – would that be enough, or would they still want to improve? They said they would.

Interesting, I said. No wonder Buddha says we all have Buddha nature or Buddha seed, which is our natural potential for improvement; we clearly feel it on some level. We have this potential because our mind is not inherently existent, or fixed, which means it can change. If you really want to improve, then your Buddha seed has already sprouted into the beginning of a Bodhisattva’s mentality because a Bodhisattva is someone who has taken that wish to its logical conclusion and wants to keep improving until there is no further room for improvement.

Then I asked them if they would like to be able to help more people than they are helping at the moment. They said yes. So I asked them what would happen if they were able to help, say, 3 more people than they are helping now due to being kinder and wiser (see above), would that then be the end of it? No, they replied, they’d want to help even more people.

And there you have it, I said. You’re already just like a baby Bodhisattva, who has taken this wish to its logical conclusion and wishes to help all living beings without leaving anyone out. That wish is part of our compassion, also our Buddha nature. We are naturally kind because when our delusions are not functioning we default to being peaceful and free from self-centeredness, connected to others.

bodhichitta airplane to enlightenmentA Bodhisattva is someone who wishes to help all living beings without exception by attaining enlightenment aka becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is someone, anyone, who has perfected all their good qualities and got rid of all their faults, viz, improved until there is no further room for improvement.

What is so pie in the sky about that? We just have to train in our natural wishes and let our mind expand. We are all on the airplane to enlightenment; we just have to get it off the ground.

Blessings are not that mysterious

mysterious blessings

Blessings may be ineffable, but I don’t think they are entirely mysterious. It is possible for our consciousness to be affected by others’ states of mind; in fact it happens all the time.

Have you ever walked into a room where someone is feeling incredibly hostile but not saying a word nor even making a face – they are just sitting there but their negative energy is practically palpable? Before you know it, you feel uneasy as well, and if you’re not careful you can become quite negative.

Alternatively, have you ever walked into a room where someone is feeling incredibly open and loving, and again they are not saying a word but you can feel their positive energy and it uplifts your own mind?

If we can be affected by ordinary people’s minds in this way, (I think some Western psychologists call it “resonant empathy”), perhaps it is not so hard to get a sense of how blessings work.  As described in What are blessings?, blessings are “transformation through inspiration” — how? By being affected by the infinitely creative, loving and wise minds of holy beings, which are not something we randomly run into but everywhere all the time. The function of a Buddha or enlightened being is to bestow blessings, it is as if they cannot help it! Blessing everyone is their job! My teacher Geshe Kelsang’s definition in Mahamudra Tantra:

Enlightenment is defined as an omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings (by bestowing blessings).

(BTW, anyone whose mind fits the definition above is a Buddha (Sanskrit for “Awakened One”), regardless of what tradition they appear in). Buddhas’ minds are always everywhere, they pervade all phenomena, including us. Why? A Buddha’s mind is inseparable bliss and emptiness free from all obstructions. Everything is always empty of inherent existence. The emptiness of all phenomena is always indivisible with the bliss of a Buddha’s mind.

It is also very helpful to remember that whenever you generate a positive mind, such as love or compassion or inner peace, this is no different to the inner peace of all enlightened beings, you are already mixing your mind with theirs. And recognizing this allows their blessings to pour into you effortlessly.

As mentioned in Blissings, we can receive the blessings of all enlightened beings through our Spiritual Guide. Our Spiritual Guide is able to appear as a person we can relate to — who can teach us or set a good example — but the actual or definitive Spiritual Guide is the so-called “Dharmakaya” (“Truth Body” or omniscient mind). This is described as the “pervasive nature of all things stable and moving”. This verse from Offering to the Spiritual Guide sent (nice) chills down my spine when I first heard it, and still does:

Pervasive nature of all things stable and moving,
Inseparable from the experience of spontaneous joy without obstructions;
Thoroughly good, from the beginning free from extremes,
O Actual, ultimate bodhichitta, to you I make requests.

(Ultimate bodhichitta from a Tantric point of view is the same as Mahamudra, the union of bliss and emptiness. There are different levels of this, and in this verse it is referring to the ultimate bodhichitta that is a Buddha’s omniscient wisdom, which is the Truth Body or Dharmakaya completely free from obstructions).

Everything is always empty of inherent existence, and where there is emptiness there is bliss. They are indivisible. Why?

Vajra and bell, always touching, symbolizing indivisible bliss and emptiness

There is no such thing as an object without a mind (or “object-possessor”) knowing it, and no such thing as a mind (object-possessor) without its object. The object emptiness is not inherently existent or “out there” independent of mind; like everything else its very existence depends on the mind knowing it. Which mind? It is the clear light mind of bliss that knows emptiness non-dualistically, that sees it directly free from any mistaken appearance, which is the actual object-possessor of emptiness. And this mind likewise cannot exist without emptiness as its object. They exist only in relationship to each other — just as you cannot have a husband without a wife or a wife without a husband.

Omniscient wisdom, the nature of bliss, is therefore always mixed inseparably with the emptiness or ultimate nature of all phenomena including you, me and everything else that exists. At the moment I have mistaken appearance that blocks me from seeing this, but it is true, and through blessings I can feel it. Eventually we will realize the union of bliss and emptiness for ourselves.

In this respect, does the Dharmakaya seem so different from my Grandfather’s understanding of a creative God?

I find even my limited and clumsy understanding of how bliss and emptiness pervade all phenomena is crucial to understanding the spiritual technology behind tuning into blessings. Wiser folks than me can make more comments on this in the box below and you can consult Great Treasury of Merit pages 189-91 for incredible commentary on the verse above.

Visualizing blessings as lights and nectars

Bliss is the same nature as love and compassion, and so it radiates eternally and spontaneously from all enlightened beings – hence, “blissings”. To feel that we are receiving blessings having asked for them, it can be really helpful to visualize them flowing from holy beings (or their minds) into us in the form of blissful lights and even nectars — clear light, white light, multi-colored lights, it doesn’t matter, whatever seems right. Different Buddhas are associated with different colors so you can find out about that whenever you want — for example, if you want healing blessings, believe you are receiving blue lights and nectars, for blue is the color of Medicine Buddha.

All traditions understand the power of blessings and anyone can experience them in this way. In fact Jon Dicks says on Facebook: “Maybe what we feel is a akin to the experience of Hildegard of Bingen when she had a vision: ‘And it came to pass, when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming….’  I put this in because many religions, in addition to Buddhism, talk about blessings and being blessed.”

And even if we don’t fully understand the spiritual technology, it still works.

For the previous articles on this subject, see What are blessings? and Blissings.

Your turn: please share your understanding or experience in the comments box below.

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

hand holding Modern Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analytical and placement meditation

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

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

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

Don’t over-think it

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

Three valuable tips for good concentration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything becomes wonderful

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

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

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

Space and creativity

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

Treat yourself!

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

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

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

Is something stopping you?

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

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

What can we do about tragedies?

Japan earthquake 2

I wrote this on the occasion of the Japanese earthquake some years ago, but Buddha’s advice still holds true.

How can we help?

“What did you feel when you heard about the colossal tragedy in Japan? Powerless or not? What are the best ways you think you personally can help?”

I asked these questions on Facebook and share some replies below.

I just saw three fish struggling for their lives, inevitably losing the battle. One was big, one was medium, one was small. Their mouths were gasping and their silver bodies thrashing about, eyes wide with fear, drowning in the air. I felt sick. There was nothing I could do. They were surrounded by fishermen who would neither understand nor appreciate my wish to throw them immediately back into the silky water, their home. I said prayers for them as I walked slowly back home.

And they reminded me of how ghastly the drowning deaths of so many thousands of human beings in Japan has been. Again, what can I do about it? I am many miles away. I can’t even directly help one of these poor scared people as they transition so abruptly and alone to their next life.

One of the first things I did was donate some money to the Red Cross, as that seemed practical and obvious; but I am not rich and know my contribution will not go terribly far, maybe it will provide the survivors some clean drinking water or a blanket. Still worth it, of course.

Don’t feel helpless

But the truth is, from a Buddhist point of view, we don’t need to feel helpless. There are things we can do. Every suffering we see is a reminder and an incentive to progress quickly from an ordinary limited state (of someone who cares but feels relatively useless) to that of a trainee and then real Bodhisattva with universal compassion and an enormous joyful confidence to help, and then an enlightened being with the power to bless everyone’s mind each and every day forever.

As people pointed out on Facebook, we can meditate on any or all of the following spiritual thoughts, and in this way make spiritual progress and become increasingly able to help others: our precious human life, the certainty of death, future lives, refuge, renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom, from which all other practical freedom arises), love, compassion, taking and giving, bodhichitta, wisdom realizing the way things are

Buddha Shakyamuni

If you’re interested, what I do when I sit down to do these practices (as opposed to doing them on the fly) is believe that Buddha and all the holy beings are in front of me and that the world is transformed into a Pure Land – all those who are in pain are seated around me, and they too are coming under the protection, love, and influence of all pure, compassionate, powerful beings. This instantly makes everything less helpless, bringing the future result of spiritual practice into the present, imagining it is so, right now.

Practical meditation on compassion

If I am meditating on compassion, I will focus on one person in particular to make the love and compassion real. For example, one story was told of a woman who was my mother’s age and looked a bit like her. The day of the tsunami, she was hours away from an eagerly anticipated birthday celebration; instead she instead found herself fleeing for her life, her family and friends disarrayed, her livelihood destroyed. I put her next to me in my meditation. If that was my mother of this life…?! And I take it from there, focusing on and then spreading that wish for her to find happiness and be free from all this pain to more and more people in her situation, and then to other situations (remember those in Haiti) …

The power of prayer

You know, even in the short term we can alleviate suffering through the power of prayer. It is good not to underestimate prayer – by tuning into the minds of all enlightened beings, and acting as a conduit between them and those who are suffering, we can bring about enormous change, individually and collectively. At one Festival my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

“Our main job is to pray”.

Study upon study shows the power of prayer to heal, to comfort, to transform. Anyone in any tradition can pray – if you have any belief in the existence of holy beings or transcendent forces, you can simply ask them to protect the people who are suffering. Whenever we see someone suffering and there is nothing obvious we can do, we can immediately pray: “Please help them. Please help me to be able to help them.”

Always something to rejoice in

In this instance, even if we cannot be there in person to help, there is so much opportunity also to rejoice and feel happy about others’ incredible qualities and actions. People everywhere are bending over backward to help, and the rescue workers are all far out of their own comfort zones. The Japanese in general are behaving with such integrity, there is no looting, people are looking after each other… And what about those 50 faceless workers who have sacrificed their health and their lives to protect their fellow citizens by staying behind at the nuclear plant? Kindness, unselfishness and good karma are alive and well in Japan.

What will happen if we do nothing?

If we feel there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing, what will happen? After the initial shock, eyes glued to the appalling but sensational footage, we will feel guilty, we will make ourselves feel indifferent, we will change the channel, we will quickly forget… already the news of the earthquake and tsunami are fading on the front pages, to be replaced for sure by the fear of nuclear catastrophe over there, and also of other disasters such as Libya. But with the slow fade out in the news, have we also forgotten the people who are suffering so badly? How often do I remember Haiti? How often do I remember anything that happened even last year?

Feedback from other people

So here is how people answered those questions:

Powerless, but…

One person replied to my question: “It makes me feel powerless, grateful to live in England where we are relatively free from such dangers. It makes me aware of death — that it can arrive at any time. It also makes me aware of my laziness. This should help me increase my compassion & bodhichitta but rather I just think “what can I do?” This is very sad. It also seems rather unreal – like in a movie.”

Another said “i feel powerless…..but send loving thoughts through meditation.”

And another said: “I saw these pictures, first thing this morning, and almost couldn’t leave the house. I did make it to Prayers for World Peace, and the topic was Refuge, which helped. But truthfully I’m kinda wrecked by this. This magnitude of devastation is unfathomable. I must remember refuge and prayers. And I must find some way to help in a material way.”

Incentive to improve ourselves

“Remember that death can arrive in any moment, and make our precious life  meaningful!”

“This event certainly provides motivation for renunciation, which frankly can be hard to generate in beautiful Sonoma County. It’s a heckuva wakeup call to get off my complacent tush.”

“I think we can’t stop all external problems like these directly, but the causes of most of what you hear in the news is delusions. E.g. pollution, reccession, broken families, heavy consumerism, debt and war. If we overcame these delusions even… superficially the environment would become clean, families happier, the soil richer and undepleted, nature would increase and everything would become more beautiful, fresher, and this depressing pessimism about the future and feeling doomed would be replaced with feelings of hope for happiness for living beings.”

“It is the impetus for me to renounce samsara, generate bodhichitta and gain wisdom realizing emptiness; also, to set a beneficial intention towards all suffering sentient beings.”

“This is just the most recent event motivating us toward Buddhahood — where we can really do some good.”

“Automatically having much compassion for all the victims of this Japanese apocalypse and also having in mind all the others suffering great problems at the burning points of conflict on our entire globe.”

“Every day in your garden is like Japan except in the garden most die quickly so I suppose it isn’t 30 years of struggling with a disability from an earthqquake for example.”

“We can work on our compassion and wisdom! The vast and the profound – developing a good heart and try to reduce our negativity; and worry as little as possible.”

Taking and Giving in particular

“Taking the suffering and giving peace, calm (in Lojong)”

You can read about how to do this powerful practice in Transform Your Life. It instantly increases our love and our compassion and makes us feel we are doing something that counts (which is true). I think it may be the best antidote to feeling powerless, along with prayer.

Importance of prayer

‎”Our main job is to pray.” Didn’t Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say that at a festival? We are so not powerless when we can pray for the welfare of others.”

I’ll conclude with something Geshe Kelsang has often said:

“Try, and don’t worry.”

Your comments are welcome.

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness

earth look

Geshe Chekawa 1102-1176

Geshe Chekhawa, famous Kadampa master, told us how we could measure our success in training our minds:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

This has many layers of meaning. But one thing I think it reveals is the best perspective for approaching our spiritual practice in the first place. If we can get that right, our meditations flow, and we make easy progress. If we don’t get it right, meditation and spiritual practice seem like more hard work, more duty, and one day we might just pack it in.

Discouragement naturally leads to the laziness of indolence and attraction to meaningless activities too…

Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen umpteen people start off enthusiastically, as they glimpse the infinite possibilities of developing the mind; but then the sky clouds over and they become discouraged. Sometimes, people who have been supposedly “practicing” Buddhist meditation for years just stop. That makes no sense to me because meditation gets better and better if we do it right. I love meditating. So I’m sharing some ideas in the hope that they might help a few people keep relying on a happy mind alone instead of giving into the laziness of discouragement. After all, do we get discouraged or stop doing something if we are really enjoying ourselves?

Happiness-training

Buddhist meditation or Dharma is designed to make us happier and more free. We talk about “practicing Dharma”, or “training in meditation”, which means that we are practicing or training in becoming happier and more free. “Practicing” or “training in” implies we already have the potential for happiness and freedom, otherwise we would have to say something like “adding happiness” instead.

To borrow my friend’s gym analogy again… There is no point in going to the gym unless we have a muscle. We go the gym precisely to train our muscles, so we need to have at least some muscle, however weak, in order to train it. Well, Dharma is happiness-training. In other words, we need to have some happiness for us to train. We can also say Dharma is love-training or compassion-training or wisdom-training, and similarly we need to have some love or compassion or wisdom in order to train.

This is why it so important to identify and abide with our natural good qualities of happiness, wisdom, compassion etc., however feeble they may be at the moment. Then we naturally approach our training with such faith and optimism — regarding realizations as natural, even inevitable.

This will give you actual meditation experience.

Where are you starting from?

Buddha said our true nature, our Buddha nature, was like a clear sky and that our faults are not our intrinsic nature but adventitious or temporary defilements, like rain clouds scudding across the sky.

To see if we are approaching our spiritual practice from the best and indeed only useful perspective, we can ask ourself :

“On a daily basis, how much time do I spend identifying with my pure potential for happiness and freedom? And how much time do I spend identifying with being deluded e.g. irritated, worried, diseased, insecure, lonely, ugly, unhappy, addicted? When I do meditation or prayers or go to a teaching or remember spiritual advice in my daily life, where am I starting from? From the standpoint of being a limited, dark cloudy being who is a million miles away from where I want to be, or from the standpoint of being right now a spacious-sky-like blissful Buddha or Bodhisattva or good person, just temporarily obscured by the clouds of delusions?

Am I slogging away at this because I know it is supposed to be good for me, or am I enjoying myself every step of the way?”

What is enlightenment?

In Mahamudra Tantra, my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

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

Nothing is being said here about adding anything. By freeing ourself permanently from mistaken or dualistic appearances, and by ripening our Buddha nature, we will naturally possess omniscience and universal compassion. We will then have the power to help each living being every day by bestowing our blessings on them, teaching, and emanating.

Love and all non-deluded minds are our Buddha nature — our innate potential for complete purity and bliss — which is never separate from any living being. This means that to increase our good qualities of love, happiness, wisdom and so on, we do not need to add anything. In fact, to go all the way to becoming an enlightened being we do not need to add anything. We simply need to (1) remove all cloud-like delusions and obscurations from our mind through the practice of wisdom and (2) ripen our potential for all good qualities with the so-called method practices of contentment, faith, renunciation (the mind of liberation), love, compassion, bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment), and so on.

No time like the present

Our Buddha nature is like a jewel wrapped in rags

Anyone at all can tune into their spiritual potential, starting right now, if they know how. When you feel some peace from doing simple breathing meditation, for example, identify this as your true nature, your Buddha nature. Disbelieve or ignore all the ordinary cloud-like thoughts you have of yourself as a limited, deluded being, and in this way leave the space for the naturally pure, positive, loving thoughts to arise instead. Actually, the Pure Land is right here, right now – we are just not looking at it.

This is one of my favorite quotes:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

~ William Blake

The more we grasp at things as real, the more out of touch with reality we are. Delusions (our unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds based on mistaken appearance and exaggeration, such as anger, greed and ignorance) grasp the most tightly, and their objects do not exist. Anger, for example, grasps at and wants to push away an inherently unpleasant person or situation; and there is no such thing. Attachment does the opposite — grasping at and pulling toward us something or someone out there that we feel is necessary for our happiness, when in fact our happiness is within, a state of mind. When any delusions are functioning, our life feels precarious, out of balance, somehow lacking.

Love, compassion, wisdom are in touch with reality and offer us transcendence – we can feel it, and it is why they make us feel good. When our love is arising in our mind, for example, it feels spacious, peaceful, and wholly connected with a wider reality. It also feels as if the elements of our life are in balance as we are in a state of not lacking anything — so it is impossible, for example, to feel guilty or worried about all the things we “should” be doing but are not…

Avoiding burnout at work

In this article, I try to explain how to use this understanding to prevent stress and burnout at work.

Your comments are very welcome. And please share this article if you found it helpful.

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