Have no fear

People’s hearts are good, but ignorance is our greatest enemy and destroys our happiness every single day.

bench in botanical gardens
He’d just left when I took this photo.

Earlier today in the Denver Botanical Gardens I saw an old Air Force veteran sitting all on his own looking sad, and then I saw him later near my pond. He dug into his canvas bag I thought for a sandwich, and indeed it was, but instead of eating it himself he proceeded to break it up and feed it to the fish, peering at them through the water as he did so. I thought, “May he and all those fish never experience another moment’s hunger or loneliness between now and when they attain enlightenment.” For none of them deserves to suffer, ever. None of us do. It is only our ignorance that has got us into this existential predicament.

Carrying on from this article.

Four noble truths

We talk about the “four noble truths” in Buddhism. In the first noble truth, Buddha showed that there is suffering, an endless cycle of suffering, and everyone still in samsara experiences it. In the second noble truth he identified the causes of suffering as lying within our minds – external conditions are only conditions for suffering if we have the actual causes in our mind, delusions and karma.

These delusions tend to cluster around a strong sense of self-importance, me me me, I’m the center of the universe, my happiness and suffering matter more than yours. In this article I tried to explain how we identify with a limited, painful sense of self, one that doesn’t even exist except as the object held by a wrong idea (self-grasping ignorance). Then we cherish that I, do everything we can to serve and protect it (self-cherishing).

That I — the seemingly real or inherently existent I, the I that we normally perceive — is like a puff of air blown into a balloon. The balloon is locked in a box. The box is secured in a vault. The vault is put in the bank. The bank is protected by guards.  The guards are employed by the government. And there we have it – a vast impressive bureaucracy of ego to administer and defend a big empty nothing.balloon in box

And everyone is doing it! Therefore, we suffer. And the stronger our sense of self, the stronger our sense of other. As it says in this article on some benefits of compassion that I quoted previously:

There is no-one who has not, will not, or does not suffer. By trying to identify common traits which you share it starts breaking down this barrier of defining someone as an ‘other’.

So in general when we are very self-absorbed and so on we are neither peaceful nor fulfilled because we are not living in accordance with reality. Self-cherishing that positions ourselves as more important than others leads to anger when things don’t go our way, uncontrolled desire grasping at what we think will make me happy, jealousy, miserliness, fear, and so on. One way or another, our mind is agitated. Modern society — or as we might want to put it “degenerate times” — apparently does not help us much either:

Combined with the frenetic pace of modern life, it has led to a stressed out, individualized society with a reduced capacity for empathy. As we remain vigilant to perceived threats to our own small piece of turf, compassion is the casualty.

Geshe Kelsang did say this though, and I believe him:

Full enlightenment is not easy to achieve. In these spiritually degenerate times people’s delusions are so strong, and there are so many obstacles to making progress in spiritual practice. But if we sincerely practice Kadam Dharma [Kadampa Buddhism] with a pure motivation, pure view, and unchangeable faith, we can achieve the ultimate happiness of full enlightenment in three years without any difficulty. We can do this.

Empathy

In our little experiment in this article, did you find that there was a sense that, although you really felt for another’s suffering, your mind was peaceful? Or not? Was it a bit of both? In which case, which bit was which?
empathy

Real compassion is all about the other person, identifying with their feelings etc. We have exchanged places with them in a way. And to the extent that it is about them and not us, compassion is very pure and free from any kind of pain. Also during that time it is impossible to feel impatience, at least as soon as you do the compassion has gone. Maybe your mom knows how to push your buttons and irritate you, but maybe she is very ill in hospital and you are not irritated with her at all.

The second noble truth, the causes of suffering, refers to self-grasping, self-cherishing, and their backing band delusions. These have reduced while we are cherishing others, so we are experiencing some peace. Thus, we gain a little taste of the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering and its causes; we see how this could be possible. How? Through the fourth noble truth, true paths, spiritual paths. These are states of mind such as compassion and wisdom (understanding that the I we normally perceive doesn’t exist) that cancel out our delusions and lead to their cessation.

So in this experiment, hopefully we see in our own experience how a cessation of suffering is possible. This may only be a temporary cessation for now, but through spiritual training it’s possible to get rid of our suffering for good. This is amazing, and gives us the confidence to think, “I don’t need to fear suffering. If I know its causes, I can stop it, and also apply this understanding to others to help them stop theirs.”

Reality

Generally, however, unless we want to train in renunciation or compassion, we try to avoid looking at suffering through distraction etc, and when we can’t avoid it we get depressed. As TS Eliot puts it:

Human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

cow in factory farmIn that state, we don’t really want to explore suffering more deeply to see where it is coming from, let alone to look at others’ suffering. We’d much rather switch on Netflix or self-medicate. Again, in the words of TS Eliot, we spend much of our life “distracted from distraction by distraction.” But even if we were to spend 6 hours on Netflix and manage to forget about suffering for a while, does that get rid of it?

If all our efforts to get rid of suffering through distraction and diversion worked, we would be as happy as clams by this point; but instead we have the same old problems every single day of our life because we are not addressing their causes ie, the delusions and karma. For as long as we are not touching those, for as long as we are fiddling about with externals to solve our problems, we are not getting rid of the causes of suffering and experiencing cessations. The most we’re getting is some temporary relief, like scratching an itch – that is, if we’re lucky, and of course if we don’t keep scratching. Looking for freedom in external sources is a fool’s game. It has got us nowhere.

Training in compassion is not an optional extra, therefore, that might make our life a little better. It is a necessity, the actual path to happiness and fulfillment.

One more article on compassion here.

“If you do not help us, we will be killed.” What can we do about large-scale sufferings?

Some time has elapsed since I wrote this article on Homs, Syria; but the question “What can we do?” seems just as relevant to what’s going on today — which at the time of writing (January 4 2016) includes the rise of ISIS, the flood of desperate refugees, the floods in the north of England, the crazy political discourse, and one mass shooting a day on average in the US. Amongst other things.

********************************************

This sign held by a child trying to reach the world was the first thing I saw about the slaughter taking place in Homs, Syria, a few days ago. Then a newspaper today had the headline: “Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents.”

“We are seriously dying here. It is really war,” Waleed Farah told the Guardian, speaking via satellite phone. He said: “It isn’t war between two armies. It’s between the army and civilians. You hear the rockets and explosions. You feel you are at the front. The situation for civilians is pitiful.”

What, if anything, are we supposed to do, as individuals in a country far away?

This question comes up again and again and again. Daily. With your help, I looked at this subject at the time of the Japanese earthquake. We decided there is never nothing we can do.

This time I wanted to examine how hard it is not to look away when we hear news like this. How tempting it is to turn away, or even close our heart, thinking “It is too awful, it is too far away, it is not part of my life, and what can I do anyway?”

But this suffering is part of my life. It is part of my suffering world. It is appearing in my world. I turn away at my peril.

I often come across links to footage I’d really rather not see, such as starving humans and skinned cats. Where does my squeamishness come from though – does it come from compassion or is there something else at play? After all, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas never shy away from following Buddha’s advice to know suffering (the first noble truth). How can we know something without looking at it? Can we? How am I going to go about removing myself and others from hellish situations if I can’t or won’t look at them? What do you think? (I’m not advocating we all start watching horror movies, perhaps there is a balance to be had here; but I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.)

A lotus grows from mud

One thing I do know, I cannot conveniently box away all seemingly irrelevant or unworkable suffering without increasing my own dullness or carelessness.

Back to the case in point, what did I try and do to help today? Here is a quick summary of my meditation. This is not the only way to do it, of course, it is just the way I did it today (and I always like to begin and end with bliss and emptiness!) Meditation is very creative, and you can do whatever works best for you.

  • I invited all the holy beings into my heart and mixed my mind with theirs like water blending with water, experiencing bliss. I knew I wanted to start from a peaceful, blessed place, or I would have nothing to bring to others, and I definitely wouldn’t want to focus on their gruesome pain.
  • With my mind of bliss I dissolved me, them, and our whole world into its ultimate nature, emptiness. There is no inherently existent world, “out there”. There are not even any inherently existent suffering beings in Homs. (See this article for why this is not escapism but holds the solution.)
  • I meditated on how I’m deeply connected to all living beings in my world, including those in Homs – we are all waves rising from the same ocean, each wave containing elements of all the others, entirely dependent related.
  • In that context, from my heart, I invited the residents of Homs inside. I exchanged self with others.
  • Then I thought about what they are experiencing right now. Beheaded people lie in the street, there are no ambulances to take away the dead, and people are cowering in their houses waiting for bombs to drop on them. And “the problem is that no one can get out”, as one resident put it. I usually prefer to start with an individual, for example I imagined what it must have been like to be this mother before, during and after the militiamen broke in: “The shabbiha (Assad’s militiamen) broke into three houses overnight and slaughtered a family of five — the father, wife and their three children…” And where are they now?
  • I developed a wish for them to be safe and free.
  • I did some taking and giving and imagined that they were safe and free, now and always.
  • I prayed to all the holy beings to bring this about swiftly. It is impossible to overestimate the power of completely pure minds. We can act as a conduit for blessings to flow from holy to ordinary beings, transforming them. There are no inherently existent suffering beings – we would all be doomed if there were, and there really would be no point in thinking about their suffering.
  • I brought everyone in all six realms into my heart to stay with all the enlightened beings, in bliss and emptiness. I stayed here as long as possible.

That much I owe them at least. If I was in their position, I would want to know that the world was at least looking at me, that the world cared. If we are in a position to do anything practical, then we do it, just as it suggests in the Bodhisattva downfall:

Not going to the assistance of those in need.

We can call upon our own government, wherever we are, to step in on behalf of the civilians, or sign a petition. I just donated to Avaaz here. And mainly, unless we have a direct line to the Syrian government, we can develop compassion and we can pray, knowing that these actions do make a difference.

One more point: although it is tempting to become angry at those who are attacking them, we can remember that the deluded and karmic causes of suffering go much deeper — the wheel of sharp weapons swirls round and round, perpetrators and victims continuously changing places. Michael said it this way in this article about his murdered brother-in-law:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

Over to you: What are you doing about all these massive-scale tragedies? I look forward to your comments.