This was written this February, when human beings still bustled quaintly on this earth within inches of each other, no masks!, and no idea what was about to hit us. This article still works now, maybe more so, given that the entire world is full of the sorrows of this pandemic. We could probably all do with an effective way to feel less anxious and overwhelmed, more safe and in refuge.
New York City is full of people. So full, perhaps, that you could find yourself sucked into dramas morning till night. Sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. Given that there are so many people here, so many people in other cities, so many people in ant hills, so many people in samsara … how on earth are we supposed to extricate ourselves, let alone everyone else?! It can all feel very solid and real – the sickness, the ageing, the death, the homelessness, the hunger, the cold, and so on. No wonder compassion fatigue is a thing.
It is true that there are infinite beings in the six realms of samsara, and our stories of pain and suffering, told since beginningless time, seem to show no signs of slowing down, much less stopping. Taken alone, getting us all out seems a daunting task. But when feeling besieged by samsaric narratives, it can be incredibly helpful to remember that although there may be countless samsaric beings, there are also countless enlightened beings.
To infinity and beyond
When we visualize Buddha Shakyamuni, for example, he is not appearing with only a few holy beings dotted around him, in our tiny NY room, hopelessly outnumbered by a gazillion sentient beings. Buddha is surrounded by infinite enlightened beings, “like the full moon surrounded by stars”, who stretch on and out forever and ever.
This is not just true for Buddhists. This is true for everyone. Holy omniscient beings, however or whoever we envisage them, pervade everywhere and everyone.
(Coincidentally, just as I was writing this, I heard Stevie Wonder sing: “When you feel your life’s too hard, just go have a talk with God.” 🙂 )
Countless beings, once just like us, have attained enlightenment and no longer belong in samsara. This means that although there are infinite beings in infinite galaxies, Buddhas and Buddha Lands equal, if not outnumber, them all.
Samsara is the product of hallucination. Enlightenment is reality. Pit samsaric worlds and beings against enlightened worlds and beings, and who, ultimately, is going to prevail?
What is faith?
With the practice of Dharma we get to start choosing whose company we want to keep and be influenced by. We can start to feel that we are in the company of enlightened beings whenever we want; and with Tantra we feel that we are already one of them.
This is faith, of course – but faith doesn’t have to be overly complicated or mysterious. We can believe in the existence of enlightened beings by observing our own minds and how we have been able to reduce our delusions and increase our love and patience, for example. Nothing is fixed about our thoughts, and everything depends upon our thoughts. Taking that to its logical conclusion, we can envisage ourselves free from all faults and suffering and pervaded by spontaneous wisdom and compassion.
Close your eyes for a moment and try it!
Did that work? If so, even being able to entertain a notion of being enlightened indicates our potential for enlightenment and therewith the fact that countless enlightened beings already exist – the only difference between us and them is that they have put in the effort.
Based on this so-called “believing faith”, we can develop admiration for their good qualities — they can be our role models and super heroes, we can feel happy about them. And because we have this so-called “admiring faith,” which includes that faith in our own potential, we have the wish to become just like them, which is called “wishing faith.”
As Geshe Kelsang says in the first edition of Transform Your Life:
Without faith, everything is mundane. We are blind to anything beyond the ordinary and imperfect world we normally inhabit, and we cannot even imagine that pure, faultless beings, worlds, or states of mind exist. Faith is like pure eyes that enable us to see a pure and perfect world beyond the suffering world of samsara.
The company we keep
Whenever we think of Buddha, there he or she is. He is there even when we don’t think of him. Enlightenment is everywhere, always, because enlightenment is reality, always waiting to be revealed.
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; and because his or her body and mind are the same nature, his body is also all-pervasive. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist.
This means that enlightened beings and Buddha Lands are everywhere and always, including right here right now. Holy beings are just as close to us as all these samsaric beings popping up around us. Purify our minds and we will see these pure beings directly. In the meantime we can have faith that they’re here, and that, because they are always relating to our pure potential as opposed to our delusions and suffering, they love us unconditionally whatever we are up to.
We do have a choice. Even in the middle of a huge city, full of seemingly endless suffering samsaric beings, we don’t need to invest in every passing mirage, powerlessly pulled in every direction. With Dharma in general and Tantra in particular, we can start to enjoy ourselves and those around us as illusion-like appearances arising within the space of emptiness – not inherently suffering, potentially pure and enlightened. We are already in the living company of countless holy beings in a pure and beautiful world.
As it continues in Eight Steps:
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 been shining all along, and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we will see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.
Tuning into joy and purity like this, space opens up and discouragement goes away. I think there’s an enormous amount of love and support available all the time, more than enough to stop us from feeling overwrought. And, situated now on the side of the solution, we can always find the energy to help others. For if we are already in the Pure Land, what is there to worry about?
This is the highest and most empowering form of renunciation (seeking to be permanently free) and compassion (seeking to free others), which we can learn to feel all the time, wherever we are. After all, as Freddie Mercury just happens to sing in the movie I’ve been watching on this plane out of NYC:
We are the champions, my friends. And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.
I wrote this about a dog and me a few years ago. “I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.”
Why the emotional resistance?
Knowing about subtle impermanence (carrying on from this article) can in fact make life fun, full, and vibrant. To begin with, however, thinking about all this constant changing can make us feel a bit insecure, like there is nothing to hold on to. “I want something to hold on to!” We may feel a little threatened, even though it is such a beautiful truth, which makes it hard to open our heart to this teaching. How can we overcome this emotional resistance?
See the beauty
Gen Samten says that the secret, he feels, is to approach these teachings from point of view of seeing their beauty. If we see them as threatening, we’ll have resistance, but if we see them as beautiful we’ll naturally open up to them. It’s a bit like loving poetry or a work of art. My mother has an always open poetry book on her kitchen counter, and can quote reams of the stuff by heart. She finds the poems beautiful and so reads them in a certain way — enjoys contemplating the nuances and drinking them in (and all while cooking the supper …)
It’s the same with subtle impermanence (and indeed any teaching). If we can see it as beautiful, we will want to explore it and drink it in and see its subtle implications in our life. This all comes down to seeing the beauty in it. That’s our job. Not to force ourselves to meditate on it as an onerous task, but to let ourselves discover the beauty (even while we are busy doing other things).
This, basically, is faith, particularly what is called “admiring faith”. Society may be a bit confused in general about faith, and even see it as contrary to wisdom (it’s not, they are mutually compatible). But in reality faith is one of most basic human emotions and is intrinsic to inner transformation. Buddhism teaches believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Here, we come to believe in the truth of the teaching, that everything changes moment by moment, and this is believing faith. Then we appreciate it, finding beauty in its special qualities, and this increases our admiring faith. As a result we wish to practice this truth in our lives, and this is wishing faith.
Another little anecdote
Not unusually for this blog, I am writing this article on a plane – this one from Denver to London via Charlotte. Just now I was waiting outside the restroom and trying to make the most of each moment by looking at the rows of heads in front of me, thinking: “What is their life like?” And then the verse on equalizing self and others/developing affectionate love from Offering to the Spiritual Guide:
In that no one ever wishes for even the slightest suffering,
Or is ever content with the happiness they have,
There is no difference between myself and others;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings joyfully to make others happy.
That way I was having that pleasant feeling that I was no more important than anyone else on the plane, including the person taking a rather long time in the restroom. Ten minutes later he came out, a young man with a huge beam on his face, carrying the book “The Power of Now”. So make of that what you will.
We’re all gonna die!
Buddha taught that there are two levels of impermanence – gross and subtle. For example, with respect to a house, its subtle impermanence is the moment by moment changes that happen continually for the duration of its existence; and its gross impermanence is when it falls down, finishes. We can see this everywhere – a tree grows and changes constantly, which is subtle impermanence; and then it dies, gross impermanence.
To live our lives in the moment, in the light of subtle impermanence, we have to learn to live it in the light of gross impermanence, which means living our life with an understanding of the truth that we are going to die.
This thought, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most liberating and beautiful understandings we can cultivate.
Consider these two possibilities in relation to yourself: “I will die today” and “I won’t die today”. Seems to cover all options!
Now if we ask ourselves which of these applies to me …? We can’t say. All we can say is “I may die today. I may not, but I may.” Both those statements are true.
However, if we go around assuming “I won’t die today”, our life doesn’t do anything special. If somebody gives us something valuable and we treat it as worthless, we will waste it, of course. Our life is so valuable, but if we treat it as something mundane or never-ending we will waste it. However, if we think “I may die today”, we extract the meaning and the preciousness of our life. We will treat it as valuable, and we will stop taking it for granted.
It’s a wonderful life
One great benefit from understanding that we may die today is that we stop worrying about tomorrow. Instead we wake in the morning and think, “I want to live today in a way that is very meaningful, show kindness to others, make today special, without worrying about tomorrow.” It’s like our only mission is to make today a wonderful day.
Sometimes we think that making our life meaningful means making some mega changes. But on a day to day level, and on a mind level, perhaps, our life doesn’t change. We don’t change.
So what is a meaningful life, a wonderful life? Is it not made up of meaningful years, months, weeks, and days?
On the one hand, we can stop dwelling on the past because it has gone — every day is a new day. And on the other hand we can stop worrying about the future – I may die today. All that is real for us is today. And then we just focus our energy on today. Then, day by day, naturally our whole life will be meaningful.
Create a boundary
Boundaries can be useful for protecting our minds, and perhaps one of the most useful is a boundary around today. Gen Samten uses the example of food that is vacuum packed to keep it fresh — we can keep today new and fresh, not contaminated by worries of what might happen tomorrow. Through the power of our determination we can think:
I’m not going to worry about what might happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I may die today. All I will focus on is enjoying today in a meaningful manner.
It is like we need to build a wall around today and focus our mental energy within it. Otherwise, worry is a big problem for us and one we have little control over – our thoughts are running around in a non-existent future: “How will I be able to cope if that happens?” If we focus just on today, our mind will be peaceful. This is such a good habit to build.
The wall goes behind us as well — I’m not going to dwell on the past. Maybe I screwed up terribly yesterday but that is outside the wall. I am not going to recreate that today. And then we are freed from the burden of all the mistakes we have made because they are outside the wall and we just focus on what is inside.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t learn from our mistakes or make plans for the future, but it does mean that we spend most of our energy on today. Reverse that original percentage — spend 10% of our energy thinking about the past and future and 90% concentrating on today! Building any wall takes time – we can’t just throw it up, it takes time to build up this mental habit. But it is very do-able.
When someone linked to this video a few days ago on Facebook, I watched it once, was mesmerized, and had to watch it again. My thoughts keep returning to this child. I’m not alone — tons of people have commented on this video. Have a look and see what you think, and I’ll resume this below.
Recently I did some articles on blessings, and Gavan is a shining example of what I was trying to get at, even if we are in different religions and have somewhat different beliefs. Since time immemorial, people have had the experience of communing with holy beings, in all traditions. Either we are all quite mad, or we are all quite, quite sane! You decide.
Children can be quite amazing sometimes. My friend Julie told me recently about a little boy who attends Kadampa Meditation Center NYC in Manhattan (which has just signed the contract for a beautiful new space on 24th Street :-)) In school, his teacher was showing the kids diagrams of everything inside the human body. When she’d finished, the four-year-old put his hand up and said: “You’ve forgotten something.” “What is that?” she replied. “The Buddhas. They are in here too.”
Meantime, on the other end of the spectrum, I confess that, although I don’t subscribe to his atheistic world view, I’m going to miss Christopher Hitchens a little! He spoke truth to power, and reminded me that none of us, whatever position we hold, can afford to get caught up in hypocrisy or use any part of our religion as a justification for unkindness and discrimination.
I’m pretty sure that Garvan didn’t.
Two more to go…
So, this is article #97 on Kadampa Life! Thank you for helping me get here. If you still like this blog, please feel a warm fuzzy invitation to subscribe! That way, you don’t have to keep coming back here, because every four or five days the articles will drop conveniently into your inbox.
Turn on the faith, tune in to the blessings, and drop out of samsara (i.e. life characterized by delusions). This is the final article on the subject of blessings — the rest you can find here.
Love is all you need
Blessings are inseparable from love as they are the nature of the clear light mind of bliss and in Tantra this bliss is the same as love and compassion. It is not too hard to understand that, for what happier mind is there than unconditional love?
Indeed, love and compassion are just the other side of the coin from the wisdom realizing lack of inherent, or independent, existence. Cherishing others arises naturally from the wisdom understanding the interdependence of all phenomena, our utter interconnectedness. Holy beings cannot help but love us unconditionally, it is their nature; and I believe the utter joy that my grandfather felt came from the love.
The more frequently we tune into enlightened beings’ love, the quicker we can develop. Interestingly, studies show that when human beings feel they are receiving love, and even when animals feel they are receiving love, their full potential to learn is activated. I’m not the only one to have noticed that if you give an animal a lot of love, you get far more out of her; she is more engaged and intelligent. So if we are feeling the love of the Buddhas and other holy beings and bathing in it, our full potential for love (and wisdom) will also be sparked.
“I am not worthy!”
We have to understand and believe that the holy beings love us. (This includes any holy being — the Buddhas, Jesus, God, or whomever you have faith in). It doesn’t really work if we are projecting judgmental, critical, hard-hearted characteristics onto holy beings, due to our own lack of self-worth or useless feelings of unloveability, unworthiness or guilt. This is facing North. My teacher Geshe Kelsang says:
For example, even if the sun is shining in the sky, if our door is facing North the sun will not come in. This is not the sun’s fault; this is the house’s fault! Similarly, even if Buddhas are ready to bestow blessings, the liberating path, if we are facing the opposite direction, this is our fault, not Buddha’s fault. We need to face them and make a relationship or connection through developing faith and devotion and making requests. Between us we will then receive protection from them.
When we feel holy beings’ love flowing into us, it is not hard to then pass that on to our family, friends and other living beings, for we feel, rightly, that there is infinite love to go around. It pours out of us. Geshe Kelsang wrote a beautiful praise to Buddha Shakyamuni called Liberating Prayer, which includes these words:
Please nourish me with your goodness,
That I in turn may nourish all beings
With an unceasing banquet of delight.
Blessings, like atmosphere, are everywhere
Most people would agree that the atmosphere in a war zone is less conducive to peace than the atmosphere in a temple or cathedral. Many things are invisible and even undetectable by physical means, but nonetheless exist: sorrow, pain, hope, for instance; or an atmosphere of tension or distrust in a room. We feel blessings in our heart as a sort of glow, like feeling the sun on our skin – a source of energy that we might never fully understand until we’re enlightened, but that is still there.
Gravity is there and we are all entirely affected by it, although apart from theoretical physicists not many of us actually understand it. Blessings exist too, an invisible force that cannot be seen or tasted but is still capable of drawing us into its orbit. In fact, blessings are enlightened mind and we are already in their orbit, we just haven’t necessarily tuned in with faith yet.
Turn on the radio receiver of faith
In this article, I likened faith to a radio receiver — radio waves are always playing around us but whether or not we hear the music depends on whether or not we turn on the radio. Same thing for blessings.
Actually, faith is not that mysterious either. If we understand the three types of faith – believing, admiring and wishing – we can see that faith is not a bolt from the blue or blind, but something we can cultivate like any other positive state of mind. (But, if you do go ahead and cultivate it, make sure you can handle all the blissings that are going to come your way!)
Since this article, I have written eight more on blessings (one is actually by a guest writer); they can all be found here. Now I’m sure everyone, including me, would love to hear more from other people! Please leave your comments in the box below.
Please share these articles with anyone who might want more blessings in their life.
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.” ~ Albus Dumbledore, Prisoner of Azkaban
Making spiritual progress
In terms of making progress in our meditations and training our mind, what a difference blessings make! Without the water of blessings, our potentials for realizations are said to be like dry seeds that cannot sprout nor grow into a crop of experience. We can push as much as we like at meditation and other spiritual practices, but results will be slow and, quite likely, torturous if we are relying only on our own unblessed minds.
Once upon a time there was an old man called Mr. Donn, who attended classes at Geshe Kelsang’s first Centre, Madhyamaka Centre, right from the beginning. He had been the principal of the art college there in York, and he told us this story one day to illustrate the need for blessings. He was scheduled to visit some student sculptors to survey their work, but when he arrived, a whole two weeks after they’d started, they were still trying to knead the clay into something malleable enough to sculpt! But it was tough and dry and, try as they might, they could get not joy from the task. “Did no one tell you to add this liquid?”, he asked them in surprise. When they shook their heads, he produced a bottle, poured it over the clay, and then magically kneaded it and sculpted it into a beautiful vase. I’ll always remember how Mr. Donn likened that magical liquid that enables us to create whatever we want from the (otherwise intractable) clay to blessings that enable us to create whatever we want from our (otherwise intractable) minds.
As mentioned, the traditional analogy for receiving blessings is watering dry seeds, without which they cannot grow, even in a fertilized ground (analogous to a mind rich in merit or good karma) that is free from stone-like obstructions (analogous to a purified mind). You can check out the preliminary practices section in Eight Steps to Happiness for more on creating merit and purifying the mind, now available as an eBook too.
In his Medicine Buddha teachings in 2004, Geshe Kelsang said:
“Just pushing in meditation or contemplation, reading books, understanding or studying, these things alone are not good enough because we need to receive blessings from enlightened beings.”
For a 21st century analogy, Kadampa dad likes to talk about “downloading realizations” from our Spiritual Guide! Why not do it if we can, it certainly makes our spiritual practice and path far more effortless and enjoyable. Maybe he can explain more in the comments.
Everyone is blessed
Even when we don’t try, we receive blessings, because that is a Buddha’s function or job. In his Medicine Buddha teachings in 2004, my teacher said:
We always want to be peaceful and happy. We try to keep our mind peaceful, but it doesn’t work. Generally we say “I should be happy!”, but in reality just wanting to be happy is not enough, happiness is not coming! But sometimes, without any reason, our mind is naturally peaceful, calm, and happy. Where does this come from? Through receiving the blessings of enlightened beings. Even animals such as dogs have this experience. Even when sometimes we go to sleep in anger or unhappiness, in the morning we can wake up peaceful and calm — we’ve changed.
As Shantideva says in the beginning of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Buddha’s blessings are like lightning during a dark night, quickly illuminating the environment and so forth. Similarly, Buddha’s blessings suddenly illuminate our mind with positivity, peace, and calm. At that time we are happy.
As Robert Thomas suggests on Facebook (again rather beautifully): “I was thinking about the definition of a blessing being that which transforms the mind from a negative to a positive state and it occurred to me that blessings come in the guise of many forms. Of course there’s the classic invisible un-seen magical intervention, but often a blessing is felt or transmitted by our friends and family – it can be something they say or do, or just their constant love, perhaps a kind look in the eyes of a stranger, a sunset, a gentle breeze on a hot day. There are so many ways that Buddhas find to bestow their blessings – they come in many forms, in many ways and many places and pervade everything! Ha – i’d never thought of it like that before …”
If we do try, we can tune in and receive special blessings day and night. If “at that time we are happy”, then it follows we can be happy day and night! So, that’s another reason why making spiritual progress is accompanied by increasing happiness.
Answering the question “What exactly are blessings?” on Facebook, Robert Thomas wrote beautifully:
“It’s that moment you feel the weight lift off your heart and you can’t say why (because nothing ‘out there’ really changed) but suddenly you see a way through a problem or a pain and you start to feel “It’s going to be ok”, and you know just what needs to be done. It’s also that moment where something you never understood suddenly makes sense. Or you see a thing you thought you knew in a whole new light, in a deeper way. Particularly with respect to Buddha’s teachings, but even everyday problems like solving something to keep your job! It’s also where you suddenly see into another person’s heart and ‘soul’ where all the barriers and differences between you and me or yours and mine dissolve. And you feel strong enough and inspired enough to do anything it takes for that or those other ones to feel real lasting joy. And so much more – like seeing and feeling an underlying purity and perfection in even the most terrible thing, and knowing that’s the real truth of everything. It’s being inspired, it’s finding a strength and patience and calm you never could imagine you might have. And and …. :-)) I think some people might call it grace. It’s a gift, it’s a blessing!”
Drop in an ocean. Ocean in a drop
I am carrying this on from a previous article, What are blessings? As mentioned then, whatever our spiritual background, providing we have some faith we can tune into blessings whenever we want. Our mind, like a drop of water, can dissolve into the mind of all enlightened beings, which is like a boundless blissful ocean. The drop is then pervaded by the ocean.
We can taste reality because we have never, ever, been separated from it. It is only our ignorance grasping at ourselves and everything else being independent, limited and ordinary, and the dualistic appearances we project, which are obscuring reality. Let them go for a moment through faith in the infinitely more powerful pervasive omniscient wisdom of holy beings, and anything can happen. Yes, I do believe that faith can move mountains. Mountains are mere appearance to mind like everything else.
The role of a Spiritual Guide
This is one big reason why in Buddhism the practice of relying on the Spiritual Guide is considered so very effective and important, because, due to our karmic connection, he or she is an obvious (to us) window open to receiving the blessings of all Buddhas at any given moment. (“Buddha” means “enlightened being”: anyone who has removed all ignorance and mistaken appearances from their mind permanently is a Buddha). If we consider our Spiritual Guide as the same nature as all the Buddhas, possessing their omniscient wisdom and bliss (pretty much disregarding how he or she may be appearing superficially to our temporary, mistaken minds), the Buddhas can effortlessly bless our minds through our karmic and faithful connection with him or her. Right now, NPR or some other station are beaming radio waves into your room, they’re dancing all around you. Are you picking them up? That depends on whether your radio receiver is switched on. Faith is like that radio receiver.
As my teacher Geshe Kelsang puts it:
“Because right now our mind is obstructed by the darkness of ignorance, we have no opportunity to communicate with enlightened beings directly. However, we will receive the blessings of enlightened beings through our Spiritual Guide.” ~ Teachings in Singapore 2007
Watering seeds of happiness
“Meditation” in Tibetan is “gom”, which literally means familiarity, and refers to familiarizing ourselves with positive thoughts, insights, feelings and so on. According to Buddhism, we take responsibility for training our minds in meditation, which we can do both on our meditation seat and around and about in our daily lives. Traditionally, meditation is said to be like sowing seeds, and receiving Buddha’s blessings is like watering those seeds so that the crops of spiritual realizations grow. Geshe Kelsang says:
“We know that in the summertime, through the sun shining on the snow mountain, water flows down. Similarly if we, from our side, shine the sun of our faith on the snow mountain of our Spiritual Guide, then from his or her side the water of blessings will flow down upon us continually. Through this we can easily make progress in our spiritual training, we can easily fulfil our spiritual wishes, and we can make our human life really meaningful.” ~ Teachings in Singapore 2007
Ask and you shall receive. As Genevieve Mancini puts it: “When I ask Geshe-la for blessings, my mind becomes happy.”
I believe mystics and the faithful in all spiritual traditions have had access to that window or snow mountain, one way or another, my grandfather certainly did, only he didn’t know how to access it on his own. So he and I talked about how he could do that through belief and faith, and he was very interested. It turned out to be my last long private conversation with him, so I might never know if he tried it or not.
Blessings are not that mysterious, it seems to me. More coming in the next article…
Please comment in the box below, and share this article if you like it.
I recently renamed the feral cat Korska “Nelson”; I figure it might help him to be named after one of my great heroes, Nelson Mandela, who triumphed over adversity just as I want this little guy to do, in his own way.
Nelson is coming along, albeit very slowly and in fits and starts. Sometimes he is interested, sometimes he is standoffish and hissy, and sometimes he doesn’t show up at all. Currently he has an open sore on his forehead and a swollen right eye which concerns me, he is way too skinny still, and at some point I’ll have to freak him out by capturing him to neuter him and give him his shots. But I’m set on my course to make him as tame as possible, and will overcome the obstacles en route one way or another, taking any opportunity he gives me. I can see I’m going to need a lot of patience and a lot of persistence/effort, but he’s worth it.*
As it was pouring with rain at his breakfast time this morning, I managed to lure him into the kitchen for a few precious moments while he ate, and was even able to dab a blob of Neosporin on his forehead with a wooden spoon. He actually purred as he rubbed up against the door, and he sniffed my leg and reluctantly let me stroke his back while he was eating. But although he is lonely and clearly likes my company in a funny kind of way, after he’d eaten he still didn’t stick around in my nice dry kitchen, let alone avail himself of the comfortable sofa, soft carpet, squashy cushions and other cat-friendly offerings in this potential cat-palace that awaits him. Instead he curled himself up on some damp leaves under a few inches of shelter, which did nothing to stop the raindrops dripping on his tail. I was cajoling him, “Hey, Nelson, sweetheart, why don’t you stick around with me for a while in here, it is so much nicer than out there in the wilderness!! I will never hurt you – in fact I will make sure you reach your full cat potential and that you are as healthy and happy as possible, and I will not curb your freedom, you can still go outside whenever the urge takes you if you do decide to be tamed.”
And then it struck me. I sounded like the Buddhas, and especially our Spiritual Guides, trying to get through to us… The Tibetan word for disciple, “dul wa”, literally means “one to be tamed”. It is so obvious to the kind and wise holy beings what we need to do to be happy and safe, but, even if we intellectually know what they are after, it seems we don’t trust them enough to follow their suggestions, or at least we are in no hurry about it. Instead of gladly escaping into the heart of the Buddhas, including the Tantric mandala palace, we stubbornly, fearfully, and proudly insist on staying outside in the wilderness of samsara, subject to being attacked by wild animals, mange, bitey insects, loneliness, mental pain, physical discomfort and all manner of other sufferings.
No trust, no progress. (If you’re in another tradition and rely on God, Jesus, Mother Mary, etc, I imagine the same principle applies.)
At least Ralph was cooperative. Because he understood somehow that he needed help, he really bonded with me, which turned out to be the best move of his short life. I really would like Nelson to cooperate with me consistently, but all I can do is blast him with love until I get through, and try and be as patient and persistent with him as the Buddhas undoubtedly have to be with me.
… while also taking responsibility for our own spiritual journey
There is an element of surrender in trust, so how does this square with taking personal responsibility? I put “v.” in the title, but it is not really trust versus personal responsibility, they get along just fine, and have a dynamic ever-deepening relationship. Genuine trust entails believing also in our own potential to progress and genuine personal responsibility entails understanding that we need to make progress, which involves trusting others who can lead us, just not trusting them blindly.
This seems to be borne out by the Lamrim teachings on refuge. Simple refuge is just the call for help. As our refuge progresses, we assume more and more responsibility for our own spiritual journey, and with Mahayana refuge we actually rely on Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to fulfill our greatest spiritual potential for the sake of everyone, which involves a rather huge amount of personal responsibility!
…And avoiding institutionalization
Meanwhile, upstairs with the Russian tenants lives Roberto the baby possum. They found him half-dead while I was away and have been feeding him up prior to his release. They love him!
They’ll be sad to see him go. And right now he shows the manner of being tamed (albeit slightly reluctantly) – unlike Nelson he does not object to being held, cuddled, stroked, and kept indoors. Yet in a way you can tell from his eyes that he is not tamed; he is just doing what he is told because he has little choice in the matter. It is certainly better than nothing; in fact it has saved his life. But in a week or so we must drive him to a large patch of woods and release him into the wild, at which point he will revert to his instinctive/habit-formed wild behavior to survive.
This has been reminding me that we can tame ourselves or even others physically by forcing ourselves to behave, but that won’t be enough. For example, we can follow the rules in a workplace, monastery or spiritual center not out of our own volition but just because we are told to, expected to, or scared not to — like children or baby possums. However, genuine moral discipline is based on our own discrimination of what to do and not to do, and our own resultant adult decision/intention. Just falling in with the crowd doesn’t guarantee that we are tamed on the inside or for very long, and when thrust back in the “outside world” we may just revert to our old wild samsaric habits.
It can be enormously supportive to have the external discipline provided by spiritual centers — and I would not have traded my 14 years living at Madhyamaka Centre for anything, nor the other decades I have spent closely associated with other centres. Also, check out this article about this nun leaving her monastery for the first time in 84 years to meet the Pope — look at her alert face at 103 years old! In the book, titled “What is a girl like you doing in a place like that”, she is quoted as saying:
‘Who can spend 84 years in a convent without being happy? Of course I’m happy.’
I believe her and think that she probably has a very rich inner life. If we are in a spiritual center but are not becoming genuinely happier and more open as the years go by, we can check to see if we are voluntarily taking responsibility for training our mind or whether we have fallen into institutional modes of thinking and behaving. We need integrity to avoid being like a leaf in the wind, carried away by whatever happen to be the current gusts of the institutional zeitgeist.
How do we know if we’ve become a bit institutionalized I wonder? Is it if the small world of our school, office, workplace or spiritual center seems to be the main place where it’s at? When we become preoccupied with concerns that would seem petty to anyone “outside”? When we are cowed by authority because we are too attached to, and fearful for, our position in the pecking order, or our job, or our status within the organization? How do we overcome it? Your suggestions are welcome.
In any event, whether we are currently inside or outside of an organization, Roberto is a reminder that we need to take responsibility for ourselves and change our minds, not just our behavior.
Faith v. fanaticism
(Here, the “v.” is justified.) Arguably blind faith is not faith at all but fanaticism as it possesses no degree of personal responsibility – what do you think? Blind faith can manifest as a childish wish to please a holy being in order to be rewarded, or fear of displeasing them in case we are punished; and that is abnegating responsibility. Also the outcome of our actions depends on our karma, not on any external law-maker or law-enforcer. Nor does blind faith really trust, because to really trust a holy being I think we have to know their actual nature — unconditional love.
Fanatics of all stripes notoriously end up acting in irresponsible, dangerous ways with respect to themselves and others, whereas actual faith is necessarily flexible, including the flexibility to doubt and question. I would argue that extreme fanatics such as suicide bombers have no actual faith at all but are simply holding false views as supreme, which is a type of ignorance.
Buddha taught that all virtuous minds are pervaded by faith. Faith can never be in contradiction, therefore, to love, compassion, wisdom or any other virtuous mind.
If you have any relevant experiences you’d like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.
*Update Sept 2011: Nelson tested positive for both feline leukemia and feline AIDS, a double whammy. I recently got another rescue cat, Rousseau, and have to keep them separate to avoid infection; so I look after Nelson outside and on a friend’s porch next door. Ironically, since he was fixed and I obliged him to recuperate on that porch for a week — with us doing meditations and prayers together every morning — he has become a very friendly little guy who now follows me around and actually wants to come in the house!! Another of samsara’s sick little jokes.
*Update 2: Nov 2011, Nelson is currently doing really well, fattening up and becoming friendlier by the minute! I even let him inside when the other cat is outside… He loves to be cuddled. He has learned to trust 🙂
*Update 3:Feb 2012, Nelson is now the cuddliest, sweetest cat in the world and joins me for many of my meditation sessions. Who would have thunk it?! There is hope for us all.
Update 4: April 2012, Nelson has just been diagnosed with a large cancerous tumor in his stomach, along with anemia and some dehydration. He stopped eating a few days ago. Now I am focused on making sure he is as comfortable and blessed as possible for his remaining time in this cat body, and my main wish for him is that he has a wonderful rebirth, hopefully in the Pure Land. He totally deserves it. p.s. I adore this person.
How to deal with criticism and overcome our faults without feeling guilty or inadequate
If we have any self-cherishing, criticism will probably sting us to a greater or lesser extent. As Christopher Penny put it: “It depends on how high my self-cherishing dial is turned up!” But if we are cherishing others and also if we have a strong wish to improve, the criticism will not upset our mind, as Geshe Kelsang’s comments above indicate.
Self-confidence can handle criticism, whereas deluded pride (and/or feelings of unworthiness) cannot. (Check out the chapter on effort in the book Meaningful to Behold for the difference between these states of mind.)
Michael Hume said: “I hope I can develop to the point of taking direct comments as this is a much more powerful way to improve. We all need to know our faults, so anyone who criticises with any intention is in fact being very kind.” Rosanne Brancatelli added: “When we have love and compassion (even a little) it doesn’t sound like a criticism, it sounds more like an advice. If we have the determination to become a better human being (as the listener), we are more open to advice.” Someone else(sorry, lost your name!) put it this way: “I suppose the very strong Dharma practitioner would react positively and constructively no matter what the criticism seemed to be coming from, and that is a goal to keep in mind. Being objective in reaction as well, keeping the ego out of it — is it true? Yes — then change it. Is it not? Well don’t worry then! Just maybe try to calm the upset or pain of the criticiser.”
The ancient Kadampas used to enjoy being criticized as it helped them see their faults more clearly. They aimed at getting to the point where they actively loved criticism, especially from their Spiritual Guide, as it was a direct assault on their worst enemy, self-cherishing. Seen in that light, we are in it together with our Spiritual Guides, teachers and friends when they criticize our limited, faulty, samsaric self because we agree with them that it has to go!
Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at taking criticism from others, especially from my Spiritual Guide 🙂 I know when my teacher seems to disapprove that he is relating to my pure potential and not to my faults – it is as if he and the pure blissful actual me of my Buddha nature are ganging up on the limited faulty samsaric fake me apprehended by my self-grasping and self-cherishing. “She’s got to go”, we both agree.
It is incredibly helpful to have help from holy beings when identifying and overcoming our faults. If we can mix our mind with theirs, we can look at ourself from within that wide-open accepting and loving perspective. This is the best place to work on ourselves as it guarantees we will not identify with our faults and feel inadequate, unworthy or guilty.
Kelsang Chogma describes it well: “I think if we can stop identifying with our faults, then we can take criticism from others and it also stops us from feeling discouraged and overwhelmed when we notice our faults ourself. I think there’s a strong relationship between these two. If we feel that we are an inherently faulty, deluded, impure, degenerate person then we don’t like it when others can see this too. If we contemplate how we are not our delusions, this helps. Then we can honestly say, “yes I have faults and I’m trying to do something about them”. That’s what I’ve found helpful anyway.”
The wrathful blessings of the Spiritual Guide were always considered to be the most powerful for removing obstructions from the mind. There are four so-called “siddhis” or attainments possessed by holy beings. Nowadays, our Spiritual Guide generally has to rely on the first three — peaceful, increasing and occasionally controlling attainments — for if he displays wrath, the chances are we’ll run a mile! Our Spiritual Guides would never get away with actually beating us as they did in the old days, when the old Mahasiddhas would view it as Yamantaka’s hand (see Great Treasury of Merit page 94)! But, occasionally, if we’re lucky, our Spiritual Guide may be pretty direct with us; and during these times we have an unprecedented opportunity to cleanse our negativities and change quickly for the better.
Maria Tonella agreed: “What about when you don’t even know you are doing something bad? Or you have incorrect instructions? Or when your Teacher points you out something you should change for the better..?” Jas Varmana said: “Yes, I was thinking how my teacher can be sharply critical but so clearly wants you to live up to your potential that it’s empowering rather than hurtful.”
The point is, if our Spiritual Guide criticizes us, it usually is for a good reason as he or she has no wish to make us feel bad just for the heck of it. He or she can help us face up to faults that we never knew we had and get rid of them. Certainly this has been true in my case.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…
Sometimes we may be tempted to jump on the moral bandwagon when we see a peer being criticized or demoted by the powers that be, including our teachers, and decide it is okay for us to lay into them too! (This happens in all human societies, even in Buddhist ones, and I reckon it is often due to our own feelings of inadequacy and schadenfreude.) But the truth is that if we don’t actually possess any wrathful siddhis, we might not want to emulate our teachers in this respect 😉 Wrath is motivated by compassion alone; it possesses no trace of anger or pride. It’s important to have worked our way up through peaceful, increasing and controlling siddhis first! In fact, really it is safest to stick to entirely peaceful methods unless we can be absolutely sure we know what we are doing… Always be kind, not judgmental, is the Kadampa way. Related to that… (this article will be finished in part 3, coming shortly, and including us (not) criticizing others, the advice of the Kadampas, and emptiness….)
I never thought poop could make me so happy. It was just a small piece the size of a dime, but it was enough for me to hope that Ralph could eliminate the four days of build-up inside him. Because of what it represented, I wasn’t even disgusted when I picked it up to feel its consistency; to me it was almost beautiful! I have never wanted someone to poop more. When Ralph finally let it all come out at the vets’ office the next day, it was high-fives all around, and he felt our approval and purred even more loudly than usual.
That teaching on emptiness, (that beauty is in the eye of the beholder!), has been just one of many I’ve had this roller coaster week while caring for Ralph, who entered our lives out of nowhere on Sunday, promptly stole our hearts, then left us again last night. This six-week-old kitten had paralysis in his back legs and walked by dragging himself along with his front legs. He was left outside my house. He was a combination of utter sweetness and utter helplessness, and as a result loved by everyone who had the privilege of knowing him, including me, his lucky adoptive mom.
I want to tell Ralph’s story, as he may have been one tiny unique being but he came to represent for me these past four days, well, a lot! All suffering beings, and the truth of Dharma. I want to share him and I also want this story to remember him by. I’m not saying this story is unusual. It is not. Ralph’s story is like all our stories, but for some reason I learnt so much from him that I could fill a book. The intensity of our experiences can make four days seem like four months – showing the emptiness of time. There is also life before Ralph and life after him, and they do not feel the same at all. It has been a roller coaster, as I said, but I do not regret a single moment.
It was Sunday when F found him dirty, abandoned, and dragging his legs outside our house — he could have been dying for all we knew, and only the Emergency vet was open, so I took him there on the way back from dropping F and J at the airport.
They are clearly practiced in the art of showing no emotion as they see one tragedy after another roll in through their sliding doors. When I arrived, the steely receptionist called out “Good Sam”, and they came to collect him and asked me to sign some papers. This is when I discovered I had two rather unpleasant alternatives: (A) Hand him over to them (hence the Good Samaritan finding a stray) and risk never seeing him again even though I said I wanted to adopt him later, especially as it was quite clear they thought he should be euthanized; (B) Spend lots of money — $100 just for the first exam and then whatever was needed after that in a particularly expensive and sterile vet place where I’d still have to leave him on his own. I mulled over option A for about 2 seconds, enough time to see a couple of big eyes looking reproachfully at me through the cat carrier. Then I decided on a whole ‘nother option (C), and took him home to take his chances overnight.
How Ralph got around.
Worrying in the waiting room at All Cats Hospital, Largo
(I will keep this in the present tense as this is how I wrote it waiting at the family vet.)
His admission papers show him with the same last name as mine, he is now officially my son and I his mom! But I’m a hopeless mom and trainee Bodhisattva, I’m just preoccupied with worry right now. I’m waiting for results from his blood tests and x-rays. I know the “pros” are already thinking it’s kinder to euthanize him because of his paralysis and will try and persuade me of same. But that’s no way good enough of a reason.
His distended belly is full of poop, his bladder is huge, and he drags himself along with his little kitten paws, but he loves any touch, even being bathed, even being prodded, even having his bladder squirted, even having his paws clamped to test for pain. He loves being placed in his cat carrier. In fact he loves anything that involves anyone paying him any attention at all. He purrs so loudly that no vet has yet managed to hear his heartbeat. He is very much liking being alive and I intend to keep him that way as long as I can.
But I’m leaving for England in one week and what are we to do with him long-term? He needs his bladder expressing regularly and goodness knows what else with his stools. His inability to walk seems the least of his problems right now. J, bless her heart, will not let this little guy die, and has been spending hours on the internet figuring out his future care and calling everyone she knows for a home for him. If she can’t find one, and if he is not infectious to her other cats, I suspect she will have him herself as she can’t help her kind heart. She is also fund-raising and bank-rolling the not inconsiderable costs of these vet visits, which is just as well as he has cost more than my monthly income already.
What an emotional roller coaster it is to look after a sick animal. I’ve been anxious about him despite all my best training! Why is his stomach so distended? Will he survive the night? Is his breathing too shallow and fast? Is he breathing at all? (waking up the poor little guy to check!) Why is he shivering? And, scariest of all, will I ever learn to express his bladder so as actually to get enough pee out of him?! So far I haven’t managed it. I am too scared to squeeze too hard in case I bruise his bladder. The vets tell me I’ll get the hang of it but I wish I had the hang of it already!
How I stopped worrying in the waiting room
In fact, two things are going on:
(1) I think all my problems will be solved if only I can get the pee out of him/he controls his own bowel movements/he eats and drinks properly/he can put some weight on his back legs. Of course, even if all that happened, there will still be plenty more things to worry about!
(2) When I see any other cats at the moment (a) they appear enormous, like giants and (b) I think they are so lucky to have four functioning legs even if they don’t seem to know it.
Isn’t it like that with all our problems?! (1) Whatever difficulty we encounter with relationships, jobs, money, sickness, helpless dependents, etcetera etcetera, it can fill our mind and we think that if only this was out of the way we could be sooo happy. And (2) when we see someone else without that problem, we think they are so lucky, although they are oblivious to their good fortune!
Samsara is impossible, really. So many intractable problems in just one 2lb sentient being despite the best efforts of J, F, me, the vets, the nurses, and a growing number of well-wishers. Geshe Kelsang often says that temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. Samsara is the cycle of impure life projected by our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. The seven sufferings of samsara are like waves on an ocean; they’ll never stop rolling in on their own. We need to recognize this so that we can stop worrying about one problem at a time ( = literally endless worry) and turn our attention to removing the causes of all our own and others’ suffering. That is the spiritual path. So, for example, while I do the very best I can for Ralph, worrying about it at the same time is missing the point.
Easier said than done, but it is something trainee Bodhisattvas train in – helping others practically to the best of our ability but also remembering to put a lot of energy into generating renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom, using these very karmic appearances that arise as fuel.
For example, I admit I never saw myself squirting a cat! But that is the appearance to my mind, so I accept it. While I’m doing that I can with one part of my mind attend completely to Ralph’s need to empty his bladder, and with another part I can think about how wonderful it would be to squeeze the samsara out of everyone. Same physical action, hugely more meaning and hope. There are, after all, a gazillion Ralphs not getting the attention they need right now.
You can hear him purring if you listen.
When I feel particularly worried about him, faith helps hugely. We can mentally hand things over to the enlightened beings when they seem too much for us. Ralph and I did Medicine Buddha puja out loud earlier and loved it, everything seemed okay, everything was okay.
I also did Medicine Buddha puja dedicated to the even more helpless creatures who have sadly had to die in the saving of Ralph, namely his fleas, possibly his worms if he has any. What a horrible dilemma, there is no way in samsara to avoid killing completely despite our very best intentions. But Venerable Geshe Kelsang said 25 years ago at Madhyamaka Centre that we could do Medicine Buddha puja every month with strong faith in Medicine Guru and strong compassion for all the animals and insects whom we have inadvertently killed, and Medicine Guru would be able to take them to his Pure Land.
Ralph again slept overnight like a baby — which he is — high on the chest of drawers in my room with an unobstructed view of the Buddhas on the shrine and of me on my bed.
(Meanwhile the young feral hissy cat outside, Korska, has developed a slight limp – what to do about him?! Keep feeding him and let him take his chances? Catch him earlier than I was going to (in August) and take him to animal services for the full treatment? Difficult, as I’m going away soon and don’t want him to be convalescing on his own, and I don’t him to run away as I have plans to slowly tame him (well, I can try!). Next to little Ralph, his problems don’t seem as great as they did; but I will have to get to him later. I really admire people who take responsibility for many feral animals).
Ralph had fun at the vets today. He even managed to crawl down a nurse’s buxom cleavage when we were momentarily distracted so that just his little orange back legs were sticking out. Everyone at the vet’s has gone gaga over him. In fact, he has now managed to win over, by my calculations, F and J who found him and where he is going next week, me, six neighbors who now knock on my door to visit him, two vets, four nurses, the man in the bank, and basically everyone else who has crossed his path. All kittens are cute, and yes of course I am biased, but he is a fuzzy ball of concentrated cuteness. Maybe he needs to be extra-friendly and open as he knows his life depends on people loving him. He also has a lot of merit, or good karma, as people have offered to help pay for him, and he is not going to go homeless even though he is always going to need care. He has a bevy of supporters watching the videos I send of him from my iPhone; he could have a You Tube channel of his own. He seems to bring out the best in everyone.
He has had another very happy day. Tuesday was also another day of many teachings from my little emanation. I will save these for other articles so I can finish his story.
4pm: I prayed to Tara in the car just now coming home from the vet as Ralph was lethargic, breathing faster, and, most ominously, not purring when I reached over to touch him, which was a first. We’ll do Medicine Buddha together out loud. Dissolve our worries away in the bliss and emptiness of Buddha’s mind. He loves doing pujas, which is just as well.
Worrying in the waiting room at Emergency Services
6:30pm: When I came into the Emergency vet just now, they yelled out “Triage! Respiratory distress! Front desk!” and off Ralph was whisked into ICU, with no time for goodbyes. I feel helpless again. His rapid breathing in the car was not the heat because it progressively got worse through the afternoon and it looks like he must have pneumonia or FIP. Will I have to take him home and help him die? F***, you have to be brave. Right now I don’t feel cut out for this. Why am I such a wimp? Of course I can and will do it, but I’m feeling some despair right now. All I can see is his big limpid trusting eyes. He thinks I am his mommy, he trusts me. Why can’t I protect him? How can I not feel that I am totally letting him down? I’d be a frigging hopeless vet. How on earth are people so brave?
There is a picture here in the waiting room next to the picture of Golda the Retriever (deceased), with the words:
“Even in our sleep pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”
I really get that right now even though I’m a Buddhist and know the holy beings are not doing this. But it is a situation of forced self-improvement.
Right now I don’t know what will happen. The uncertainty is awful. And one of the six sufferings of samsara so why expect anything else, but I don’t like it.
Just now the receptionist was taking J’s credit card details and I was willing her to hurry up as they were not going to give Ralph his x-rays until they had them. Right in the middle someone phoned for directions and it seemed to take an age: “Turn left down…, no, left, yes, past the blah blah blah… and then half a mile… yes half a mile…blah blah blah”. I was impatiently thinking, “For goodness sake, hurry up, don’t you know Ralph is waiting?” when I heard the receptionist say, “And how many were hit by the car?”
That jerked me back into perspective.
His last morning. I can see in retrospect that he is beginning to breathe faster, and is more agitated than before; though I didn’t notice it at the time.
How I stopped worrying in the waiting room (part two)
Compassion and emptiness: It is not unkind to dissolve people away into emptiness. When I saw Ralph’s chest rising and falling so fast, and J (on the phone from NJ) and I timed it to discover he was breathing at a rate of 91 breaths per minute instead of the normal 30, we knew I had to get going fast to the ER. I felt sick to the stomach, but J calmed me with three magic words: “Don’t freak out.”
The best way not to freak out at times of crisis is to remember emptiness, if you can. All this scary stuff is mistaken appearance, it is like a dream (or nightmare), it is not really happening. But if our wisdom is not strong yet, we might think that this is callous – dissolving away Ralph and his suffering when in fact he is still really suffering, how can that work?! Perhaps we prefer to seize on method practices at this time, but I can see in my experience that we need both, because while my compassion was for a real inherently existent kitten experiencing real pain and distress, this mind had no solution in it, and so it caused more pain for me and less ability to stay present and positive for him. Remembering emptiness in no way diminishes the compassion. There is no contradiction between compassion and emptiness; in fact they are two sides of the same coin. Within the mind of compassion, we need the solution, and this is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence of persons and phenomena. We need to dissolve our loved ones into emptiness for them to be able to arise in a pure, blissful form. Otherwise they remain stuck and our hearts remain uselessly broken.
Now he really wants to escape samsara and get to the Pure Land: “Let me out!”
Watching someone you love gasping for breath is not high up on anyone’s wish list. Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.
This is the union of method (renunciation and compassion) and wisdom.
The power of prayer: I did not like leaving Ralph alone with the brisk uniformed people at the Emergency Hospital for even an hour, yet I knew I was about to leave him alone forever as he couldn’t stay. All that I could do was pray. But luckily prayers are very powerful when our compassion and faith are strong, which is often the case at times of crises, especially if we’ve been training in refuge.
Ralph’s little body was filling up fast with more and more fluid, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
I kept stroking him and speaking loving encouraging thoughts of his future to him, breathed in his suffering as if there was no tomorrow, and blew mantras into his ears. He purred a lot and kneaded my face with his paws, whilst at the same time opening and shutting his little pink mouth trying hard to breathe and meowing at me for help. He could hold a gaze better than any other cat I’ve known. Sometimes in the past few days I’d do something else for a while, but when I looked back at him he was still staring at me. He died in my arms, looking at me with those beautiful eyes that then gently drooped shut. He died very peacefully and his last thoughts, I pray, were ones of love and trust. I touched him firmly on the head with Medicine Buddha sadhana, his favorite, to help his subtle consciousness leave his body through his crown.
I’ll never forget the feel of his tiny body in my hands as his eyes closed for the last time and then as I held him doing prayers and meditation for the next couple of hours. It looked like Ralph had just fallen asleep in my arms, but his consciousness was wending its way through the bardo to his next life, and he was no longer there. Death is so natural and so weird at the same time. People in India and Tibet meditated in the charnel grounds… and I discovered there is nothing quite like meditating on impermanence while holding a body in your hands.
JP told me a few days ago that when she was with her husband just after he was killed, she wanted to hold every part of his body. Her friend was sitting with her and said quietly: “That arm is not J. That leg is not J….” It was an intense, she said, but timely teaching.
An hour before Ralph died he pooped again all on his own, and looked at me for approval. It did feel like an offering, but this time it also made me sad. Although all I had wanted two days earlier was for him to be free of his chronic constipation and be able to poop on his own, having control over his own bowels was now no longer enough. And he didn’t even know this. The waves of samsara keep rolling in.
It is 2.15 right now, and Ralph had a vet’s appointment at this exact time for the free daily laser therapy they were generously offering him to bring back his legs. But my tiny dancer doesn’t have that body any more. I pray and imagine that he is dancing with the Dakinis instead, a beautiful, smiling Daka with red hair and luminous green-blue eyes.
Wrote this a few years ago, but it is still relevant! Please do share your own comments too.
Turning the Wheel of Dharma
Today, June 4, is the birthday of my kind teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and I want to mark the occasion by writing something about him. His birthday falls auspiciously on the day of Buddha Shakyamuni’s first teaching, called Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day; and for me and many thousands of other students, Geshe Kelsang, or Geshe-la as we like to call him, has been the one who has turned the Wheel of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings for us.
There is not a snowflake’s chance in hell that I could even begin to do him justice in one article, of course, even though I apologize in advance for its length. But I’ll try and highlight a few of his qualities as I see it, in case you are interested in hearing some more about one of today’s most influential Buddhist masters. There is also more about his life and works in this article.
Where did Geshe Kelsang come from?
Without getting into all the infinite causes and conditions that causes a great master to appear in our world, you can check out some of the biographical details of where he was born and brought up on any New Kadampa Tradition center website. After the 1959 invasion of Tibet, forcing him into exile with nothing but his robes and a couple of texts, Geshe Kelsang spent 18 years in retreat in the Himalayan mountains, meditating day and night — blissfully happy, needing nothing. I think of him first and foremost as a great Yogi, Dharma practitioner, Bodhisattva, and Tantric adept. Having spent his entire lifetime from an early age learning Buddhadharma, and well over 20 years in retreat, he possesses an ocean of direct experience of all the Buddhist teachings and therefore no interest whatsoever in the paltry rewards of fame, reputation, possessions or worldly pleasure. This is entirely obvious from his exceedingly humble, simple, generous lifestyle and his exceptional teachings. It means I can trust him as he wants nothing from me other than my own Buddhist practice.
Out of faith in his own teacher, the beloved Trijang Rinpoche, and compassion for people like me, he agreed in 1977 to come to Manjushri Institute in the Lake District and teach two Buddhist texts. Then when a small group of early students sincerely requested him to stay, he agreed.
When he first flew over London, he turned to his translator and asked: “How many people are down there?!” When he heard the reply, “10 million”, he exclaimed, “But there are only 5 million people in Tibet! I must help the West.” I and many other people are a result of that intention.
Manjushri’s wisdom sword
There are uncanny parallels with the great 15th century scholar, Yogi and saint Je Tsongkhapa in terms of Geshe-la’s vision, teachings and deeds. Wielding Wisdom Buddha Manjushri’s wisdom sword, their teachings and books possess an uncommon but very similar clarity, and the instant ability to cut through confusion and suffering. When I read a book by Je Tsongkhapa, it always feels the same as receiving a teaching by Geshe Kelsang. Every sentence of Geshe Kelsang’s 22 books has power. I’ve read them all several times but if I read even one nectar-like sentence, and bring it into my heart, it instantly clears my vision and improves the flavor of my mind. With Geshe Kelsang’s books, you can never run out of quotable sentences!
His personal instructions to people have also changed their lives. He looks reassuringly normal, so we can relate to him; but he is also one of the greatest wisdom masters who has ever lived and can say and do things that are unpredictable yet deep-reachingly effective. Life is never dull.
Defier of expectations
You never know what to expect with Geshe Kelsang; he has defied expectations on a daily basis since the day he arrived over here. Gentle and kind, he nonetheless keeps his students on their toes. He doesn’t allow people to rest on their laurels for more than approximately 30 seconds – completely uninterested in their eight worldly concerns of praise, reputation and so on. He relates to his students in terms of their potential not in terms of their delusions. He is really not one for massaging an ego or cultivating a false sense of security, as he knows that our self-grasping and self-cherishing are the source of all our pain and misery. Someone senior in the tradition once said jokingly: “You aren’t anyone in the NKT until you’ve been fired three times.” Hyperbole, for sure, but Geshe Kelsang has demolished the ego-grasping of many students – all within the refuge of love and acceptance.
Modern Buddhism manifesting from ancient tradition
Geshe Kelsang had a very close relationship with his own Spiritual Guide, Trijang Rinpoche, who requested him to come to the West and approved of his adapting the presentation of the teachings for an entirely new audience. In this way the New Kadampa Tradition came into existence. Centuries-worth of authentic liberating teachings are available in a form that modern-day people can actually practice without having to abandon their modern lifestyles or retire to a mountain cave. In fact, Geshe Kelsang is showing us how to thrive in today’s overwrought world by using all the circumstances we meet to advance our spiritual practice, in the Lojong tradition of those sincerest of Buddhists, the ancient Kadampas.
The world has changed dramatically even in the last 30 years, especially with the technological revolution, but the Buddhist teachings are still working. Geshe Kelsang learnt our language fluently and translated everything we needed. When I started we would chant for hours in Tibetan! I kind of liked it, but it was entirely unsustainable even 30 years ago, and is inconceivable now! Most people are lucky if they have half an hour for formal meditation practice these days. So over the years Geshe-la has packed the profundity of the 84,000 teachings of Buddha into fewer and fewer words without losing their meaning; something that can only be pulled off by someone with rare experience and skill. This has culminated most recently in the masterpiece union of Sutra and Tantra, Modern Buddhism ~ The Path of Compassion and Wisdom. These profound yet simple instructions are even available in the most modern of formats, the eBook!
Ode to the ordained
Incredibly for this day and age, Geshe Kelsang has inspired a very large stable ordained community of monks and nuns. One day I would like to write an ode to the ordained – they are essential for the survival of the Buddhist tradition, and I think it must be harder than it ever was to be ordained, in a society that has in some ways lost its sense of history and authentic tradition. Respect and support are not as forthcoming as they used to be. These monks and nuns are brave warriors in a world that doesn’t understand the need for boundaries so well anymore. They are not allowed to live in an ivory tower, but have to become integral members of daily society without succumbing to its increasing distractions and temptations. They show the vital example of discipline, contentment and authentic happiness from within. They are amazing.
Four types of teacher
Geshe-la has also defied all old-fashioned Tibetan expectations by promoting, from day one, not just ordained monks but “four types of teacher”, as he put it, ordained, lay, female and male – all equal.
They all study together, work together, practice together. To help people everywhere have access to Buddha’s teachings in their own language and culture, Geshe-la has trained teachers of all shapes and sizes on an unprecedented scale (1100 centers and counting…) Centers start when someone reads a book or attends a meditation course and, in a grass roots movement, they ask for their own teacher in their own town or country. Then thousands of students from all around the world also get together in the New Kadampa Tradition international festivals each year.
Back in Tibet, Geshe-la was also a healer – when he revisited Tibet in the early 1980s to rebuild his first monastery Jampa Ling, the line to receive his healing blessings stretched for miles, much to the surprise of the Western students who had accompanied him. When he got to the West he changed his emphasis from healing to teaching, but there are many people who nonetheless can tell you incredible stories of healing through the force of his prayers and blessings. People with major heart attacks, aggressive cancer or in deep comas from accidents making complete and doctor-defying recoveries, children expected to die in the womb emerging healthy and beautiful, and so on. Again, no space for details – but it’d be great if any of you wanted to tell your stories in the comments.
The power of emanations
An interesting thing about Geshe-la is that many people have their own story to tell about him and his profound influence on their lives, and you wonder how there was time for him to do all this! He has only been in the West since 1977. It is as if this one small man is hundreds of people rolled into one. When you look at the sun reflected in the ocean, it comes right at you, nowhere else! But a person standing a few feet away will tell you the same thing – the sun is coming right at me! It is said that enlightened beings – anyone who has removed all obstructions from the mind and perfected all good qualities — have the power to emanate infinite forms, which are like reflections on the water of faithful minds. In that sense, I have my personal spiritual guide, you have yours. Buddha’s emanations can also appear in the form of one person due to our collective karma, and thousands of students may gather for example to hear Geshe Kelsang’s teachings; but the spiritual guide is always at the heart of each of his or her students, as if we have our own spiritual guide all to ourselves.
What is the meaning of Geshe Kelsang being here?
Geshe-la said himself that the meaning of his being here is to enable people to practice Kadam Dharma, and specifically gain a realization of the ultimate nature of things, emptiness, so as to finally escape the cycle of suffering. All the temples, study programs and so on are essential for Kadampa Buddhism to remain and flourish into future generations, but they are here for just one reason: to enable people to practice Buddha’s teachings and gain authentic freedom and happiness for themselves and others. These external developments are therefore not ends in themselves. For 35 years I have tried in many jobs to help my teacher with external developments, and will always help as much as I can; but over time I have increasingly come to understand from him that what he appreciates more than anything else is my Dharma practice. It makes him happy whenever I or others attempt to increase our compassion and wisdom, the two wings of a bird that can fly us to enlightenment.
So, Geshe-la, out of inexpressible gratitude for everything you have done for me and so many others, today I resolve to try my best to practice all you have taught and help you turn the Wheel of Dharma in this and all my lives.