No time like the present

First, a little anecdote

stop and smell the rosesI 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 articlecan 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 …)

dew drops 1It’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.

death awarenessThis 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.

drop of waterSometimes 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.boundary

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.

Today is your first day. It may also be your last…

Next installment is here.

From Garvan Byrne to Christopher Hitchens ~ a broad spectrum of belief

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, tune in, drop out

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.

blessed squirrel?!

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
Turn on the faith, tune into the blessings, drop out of samsara

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!)

Your turn

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.

How blessings can help

“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
dry seeds

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.

Downloading realizations

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.

Other articles on blessings can be found here.

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

Blissings

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.

Taste reality

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.

(And “like” Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do!)

Trust v. personal responsibility

Trusting holy beings…

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!

He has doubled his size on Russian home-cooking!

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.’

Look at that face! Aged 103

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.

Update 5: April 14 2012, Nelson died in my arms.

Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2

This continues on from Five ways to deal with criticism.

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.”

Venerable Atisha

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.

This only works if we are clear on the difference between our pure potential and the limited, faulty self we identify with when we have any delusions. Clearly we don’t want to end up hating ourselves; that would be entirely missing the point.

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.”

Wrathful blessings

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….)