Good night, sweet Prince

Prince

U turn on the telly and every other story
Is tellin’ U somebody died ~ Sign o the Times

PrinceI wonder if celebrities everywhere are getting nervous?! But of course it was forever thus. None of us gets out of here alive, famous or otherwise. As a friend put it, rather well I thought: “We all have a shelf life. When our expiration date is up, that’s it. … We are all at the big funeral everyday.”

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.

I liked Prince but wasn’t intending to write anything about his death – that is, until I saw this arresting Facebook post by the same person who wrote this last article:

What I Learned from Prince’s Death

* Death can come suddenly at any time – no one is immune.

* Fame means nothing at the time of death.

* Everybody loves you when you’re dead, but it’s too late then.

* It’s only when you’re dead that you would realise from everyone’s reactions what your life meant to them, but you’ll never see it.

Prince 1* Obviously, you don’t exist in a post-you world; everything and everyone has to go on without you, and they do, no matter how indispensable you think you are.

* When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.

* Whether you have lots of talent and are famous, or not, death treats everyone the same: extinction of ‘you’.

* Death shows there is no real meaning in this ordinary human life: everything you were ends instantly, unexpectedly and finally.

* Your wealth means nothing as it becomes someone else’s – even your clothes aren’t yours.

* Life is an unfinished story because it ends for you but not for everyone you know.

This got me thinking. And wanting to add something to these points in particular: “Everybody loves you when you’re dead but it’s too late then” and “When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.”

How is it that we keep affecting people after we’re dead? And I mean not just emotionally, but karmically? Prince is dead, yes, but he has not inherently ceased and still has a connection with the beings of this world, whose love and well wishes are having some effect on his mental continuum – that’s how transference of consciousness and other prayers for the deceased work too. His music will still give pleasure – so, providing he had the intention to give people happiness, he will still create some merit, or good karma, from it.

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain.

According to Van Jones, his friend and a CNN commentator, Prince was a humanitarian but wasn’t allowed to talk about his numerous good deeds as he was a Jehovah’s witness. So news of these is just emerging now.

It’s not all over

Prince 3The dream that was Prince’s life is ended, for sure, but it is not inherently over, any more than yesterday or even the moment before this one has inherently ceased. Our life is a cause leading to an effect, not to non-existence. Of course there is no more access to his body or gross personality or the identity “Prince”, but Prince was only ever mere imputation anyway. We are still all connected to that living being, just as we are always interdependent with all living beings. We cannot separate ourselves out from others and they in turn are affected by everything we do. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And this truth spans life and death. We are each waves made up entirely of one another and all arising from the ocean of clear light, the very subtle mind. (More on this later.)

This is why love is the answer, as it is the natural response to reality; and why what Prince did does mean something, not nothing, though he most likely won’t remember. (As for the fame part, I agree that fame is meaningless after we die, which makes it meaningless now too, unless we are using it for good.)

Creativity

We need to make our lives count with our mental actions, for sure, because they are the most creative actions – with our thoughts we create our world. But we also make our lives count with physical and verbal actions, leaving something intentionally helpful and uplifting behind us too if we can, such as a temple or other tangible improvement in others’ lives. Geshe Kelsang says, for example, when talking about helping at Kadampa centers, “We are working for future generations.”

Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.

How we use our creativity as modern Buddhists is still new territory over here in the West – in Tibet, there was no art outside of painting Buddhas, no music outside of spiritual chanting, and so on; the culture was entirely different. But over here, to “remain natural while changing our aspiration” may mean that between us we need to hijack today’s culture to our own and others’ spiritual ends as much as we can. That’s why I am hijacking some of Prince’s lyrics and quotes for this article:-)

The Forgetting Time.jpgMy take on it so far — and I am totally open to ideas in the comments — is this. The ultimate spiritual goal of human life is attaining enlightenment for the sake of all living beings because that is the way to fulfill all our own and others’ purposes. That is our main job, our main creativity. And making Buddha’s teachings accessible to as many people as possible by helping meditation centers and so on also seems important because if we don’t do it, who will, plus it is powerful karma. Within that, with an increasingly good motivation and skill, we can embrace and enjoy our creativity however it manifests — eg, film-making, painting, music, song-writing — and channel it into helping others. A lot of people are doing this already, it is I think inevitable; and I also think it will make Buddhist meditation relevant to more and more people — bring it into the global mainstream as an idea whose time has come. For example, this readable new novel, The Forgetting Time, is bringing the idea of past and future lives to a huge audience that possibly would never have considered it otherwise.

New world needs spirituality that will last. 

Good night and thank you

Wishing Prince a swift rebirth in the Pure Land surrounded by the celestial music of offering gods and goddesses. Or, to hijack the Bard:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Everything we need is inside us

theft of iphone

I seem to be here again at the Denver DMV. I thought I’d left this grimy place forever, but here I am back all over again. “Weren’t you here just the other day”? asked the man who failed me in my first test and whom I’d never felt the great urge to see again. But our karma was clearly not done. At any rate, he was a good deal more friendly this time (so I discover he is not in fact an inherently nerve-wracking smile-less robot). He was curious as to all the details of the theft of the spanking new Colorado driving license (amongst theft of iphoneother things) that was bringing me to his desk.

I have learned many lessons from this, as it happens, which all goes to show that difficulties can be our best spiritual teachers, as explained in the Lojong teachings. I thought I’d divide this into Sutra and Tantra lessons learned. It’s a long post, sorry in advance!

Sutra lessons learned
Karmic mirror

I must have stolen in the past, and this is not even the first theft I’ve had. There were some curious incidents growing up where thieves would break into my parents’ house but only steal MY stuff. They broke in in Guyana and stole only my treasured radio. They broke in in Singapore and took a stereo my parents had literally just given me. They broke in in London and took just my relatively worthless jewelry. And when I was a supposedly innocent five-year-old, they stole the shipment of my toys alone when we were moving from Sri Lanka back to England. Yikes. This may be a good sign that my parents are as honest as the day is long, but me?!? This karmic mirror reminds me to check whether I am still being dishonest in any areas of my life.

Never safe in samsara

Another lesson bought home is that while I am in samsara, I am not safe. A good friend shared his experience of being robbed (he managed to have not just one but two MacBook Airs stolen in 1 day):

I don’t know how you are experiencing this, but for me it was very unsettling. I felt extremely vulnerable, exposed, and violated, while simultaneously holding compassion for the perpetrator, and praying for his delusions to be removed.

Nothing is truly mine, certainly not lastingly mine. In samsara, the end of collection is dispersion, and our karma to have stuff comes to an end. This samsaric entropy is also the second law of thermodynamics, I discovered the other day:

There is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.

My appearances of a shiny new iPhone 5S, driver’s license, and handy credit cards, all iphone casecontained in a beautiful new turquoise wallet, came to an abrupt dissolution on Sunday morning. All our karmic projections come to an end whether we want them to or not. And then other karmic projections come up, ones we don’t want, eg, having to sort out things we thought were already sorted rather than doing the other more fun things we had planned.

We only have so many appearances to mind left before we die.

Self-grasping

And due to self-grasping we feel the loss, we feel vulnerable and violated as my friend pointed out. I’ll not deny that I had some attachment to my phone (not least as my mother had given it to me at Xmas). So my first reaction was some numbness – things seemed to slow down as I searched the pockets of everything I was wearing and looked in every room, and then did the same again, just in case. That sinking feeling, “It’s gone, it’s really gone.”

As Chandrakirti puts it:

I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving ‘I’ with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well. ~ Ocean of Nectar, page 25

This feeling of discombobulation was useful for showing my permanent-grasping at myself and my infrastructure, instead of recognizing at all times that it is as insubstantial and fleeting as last night’s dream.

Compassion
Find-My-iPhone

Always been unfindable.

I could not help but feel compassion though because I got into my nice borrowed car and went to my nice house and was able to have some nice lunch and call everyone I needed to, while meantime the perpetrator rather pathetically managed to spend all of $10.12 just getting something to eat at a 7/11 at 1.20pm EST before I closed my cards down. I may not be very rich, but I do have more than $10.12 in my account, so he could at least have treated himself to a swanky restaurant. He also got a $4 drink at Starbucks at 6.30pm with my Starbucks card, and there was a little cash in there too. (This knowledge courtesy of Find my iPhone.) It is doubtful that he (or she) has anywhere great to live, if anywhere at all; and he is clearly hungry and/or desperate enough to sneak into an unknown basement and grab what he can and get out before he is caught. And I am not oblivious to the utter privilege of having these things to lose in the first place, so lucky even compared with most human beings, including him.

The police detective called me today, two days later, offered to meet me in the parking lot if my phone shows up online again, for a “civil standby”. But I have already given the phone away, though it is useless to the thief because it is locked – not even the FBI could break in, not even with a law suit against Apple.

(Last year, J, in Florida at the time, had her iPhone stolen and F and I, in New York, watched the dot zooming down I275, reporting coordinates to J and her sister, who were in hot pursuit. Forty miles later, the phone ended up in a theater parking lot, beeping away inside a black jalopy; and they waited until the thieves came out of their movie and were obliged by the police to open their car and hand over the phone. Not sure what the moral of that tale is, but it was surprisingly exciting at the time, like an OJ Simpson redux. (OK, orange juicenow I have to tell you my true OJ Simpson story for I can’t imagine getting another chance. I was at Miami airport with N. early one morning, who asked if I would go over and “get us a couple of OJs” while he watched the luggage. And guess who was standing next to me at the same counter. No, I’m not kidding. Mere name, eh. And he had a beautiful blonde with him, for whom I felt a little nervous.)

I gave the stuff away so that the thief would not get the complete action of stealing. He (or she) will still incur some negative karma if he had a deluded intention, but I thought I could offset it. It can’t be offset completely as not even Buddhas can do that – if they could, it’d be impossible to create negative karma with respect to Buddhas.

After the theft, I came back to the 2 cats I am babysitting who, for some reason, were in a very demanding mood, jumping all over me and making a lot of noise while I was trying to call the bank etc. It crossed my mind to get irritated with them, but then I remembered that although they may not give a monkeys about my human problems, in fact the cat problems they have are far, far, far worse.

So I feel luckier than the perpetrator for many reasons, but mainly because he may well not have access to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, whereas I do. As another good friend JS messaged me yesterday, after her camera equipment worth 10,000 quid was stolen from right inside her own house:

There is a huge back story to people’s crime. I want to ask him questions like when did he decide this was the route to take, does he still want to carry on, what did he want to be when he was a kid … does he think it’s possible to change his life …. That’s what I will be putting in my “victim’s” statement, but who is the real victim? I have Geshe-la in my life and the Dharma, I gave up any thoughts of my possessions being important … the victim to me seems like the burglar, he has no Dharma to help him.

My theft is not really different to a theft in a dream. Overall, this has made me more determined than ever to bring an end to my own and others’ samsaric hallucinations while deathI still have the chance. The compassion that wants to overcome this root cause of suffering is called compassion observing the unobservable, you can read about it in Ocean of Nectar. Samsara sucks, samsara sucks for everyone, but luckily samsara is not real.

Death is on its way

It can be useful to imagine losing one thing at a time to get our heads and hearts around the fact that the entire infrastructure of our life is going to collapse. This includes the people we adore, not just our shiny gadgets. As this inevitability could be just around the corner, this is, as JS put it:

Good practice for death, when I won’t be able to take anything with me. It’s always good to see where one is at with our possessions so I thank him for that.

The kindness of others

I feel almost fraudulent to be writing this, this theft was such a small fry incident in the grand scheme of things, yet people have been astonishingly generous.

A Bodhisattva immediately, and I mean immediately, the moment he saw my stuff had been stolen, said, “Oh, this iPhone I have is spare, you can have it!” Then he wiped his phone clean and gave it to me, along with his phone number, before I had a chance to protest. And he did this utterly convincingly, not even with the slightest hesitation like the one I had when I gave my actually totally spare iPhone 4 away just last week. He reminds me of that quote from Ocean of Nectar:

If from hearing and contemplating the word ‘Give’,
The Conquerors’ Son develops a bliss
The like of which is not aroused in the Able Ones through experiencing peace,
What can be said about giving everything? ~ Ocean of Nectar page 69

Giving does feel pretty good when we manage to pull it off without any regret – the day before this theft I had given a jacket (left here by a Buddhist monk) to a homeless man in Cheesman Park. Long story, but it felt great to see Michael pull it over his skinny shoulders on a freezing day.cheesman park.JPG

But the person who helped me is in a class of his own – he even went so far as to thank me for allowing him to help me. As if he meant it! Which I do believe he did. And I have to add that this same nameless (for his own sake) person said the other day just after I passed my test, “Oh, this car I have is spare, you can borrow it indefinitely!” (Naturally I am now waiting for his spare house and his spare cash.)

There are emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in our midst whatever we want to call them – angels, saints, or just very kind people. Maybe they don’t appear so often to a very cynical mind, but they are still there, trying to help, waiting for the first moment they can dive in there. They may appear as the regular folks around us – nurses, neighbors, co-workers, homeless people, family members, strangers at bus stops – but as a Buddha’s job description is to emanate whatever people need, it’s cool not to succumb to ordinary appearances.

Tantric lessons learned
all you need is inside youEmptiness

When we realize that we are completely empty of inherent existence, our possessions are completely empty, and our relationship with our possessions is completely empty (the so-called “three spheres”), we can see that we already have everything we need inside us. Why? Because everything is merely projection of our own minds.

I’m going to get a bit philosophical and Tantric for a moment …

Nothing is inherently anything. If we understand this, we can say “This is not that”, about everything, and this truth frees us up. For example, “This is not Denver” frees me up to think “This is Heruka’s Pure Land”. “This is not an annoying co-worker” frees me up to think “This is an emanation of Buddha.” “These are not my possessions” frees me up to give my iPhone away happily.

Bounty of the Dharmakaya

I find myself comparing this “loss” to what I like to call “the bounty of the Dharmakaya“. Within the bliss and emptiness of the Dharmakaya (or Truth Body), everything exists and everything is possible. The divinity is there as you are mixed with the Truth Body of every Buddha. You can manifest anything out of that.Vajrayogini 1

Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, for example, are simply the bounty and infinite good qualities of the Dharmakaya appearing – their symbolism includes absolutely everything good about Buddhahood. So when we focus on them, our bliss and good qualities and so on increase – we are able to itemize, focus on, and identify with them, and gain a greater understanding and experience of the Dharmakaya. And vice versa.

This is why these meditative practices of pure appearance, introduced by enlightened beings, are so important; and why focusing on bliss and emptiness alone, though it is the essence and truth, make it harder or perhaps even impossible to manifest the creative elements of the Dharmakaya and gain full enlightenment for the sake of all other beings.

Bliss and emptiness can appear in any form whatsoever, of course, but we may as well embrace the blissful forms of the Buddhas and their Pure Lands. Why go to the trouble of inventing the appearance of infinite good qualities, imagining how they might show themselves, when generations of enlightened beings have already shown them to us?! Why wish for mundane or ordinary good things to happen when we can set our squirrelimaginations free to have the glorious body, enjoyments, environments, and deeds of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini?! Their reality, as evinced in everything about the way they appear, is wild and free and blissful and compassionate already. It is a blessed and powerful expression of the completely pure mind of bliss and emptiness.

Point here being that I can and already do have anything I want within the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini, so why bother about the loss of a few ordinary appearances to an ordinary mind? Why not just stay in the Pure Land full time instead?

A similar point could be made about making mandala offerings, the offerings of entire pure universes. I can offer countless iPhones appearing from the pure mind of bliss and emptiness on behalf of me and everyone else. And these offerings will result in the appearances of bliss-inducing iPhones sooner or later …

Okay, enough of that for now, I can see my Dad shaking his head. Your comments are most welcome in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

State of flow

hacking-flow-achieving-ultimate-human-potential-1-638

Some people talk these days about “peak experiences”, and how they give meaning to a human life; like when you skateboard over the great wall of China with a sprained ankle and your mind is so focused and death-aware that you are totally and utterly in the zone, you can put weight on your foot painlessly, you seem to drop down into a more spacey, subtle level of consciousness, and it feels great. But, honestly, you can gain the same blissful effect far more safely (and inexpensively) by learning to meditate properly.
hacking-flow-achieving-ultimate-human-potential-1-638Not only that, but there is no comparison in terms of meaning, for meditation lets us have peak experiences not only now but in all our future lives. Meditation is transcendent – it increases our human capacity from initial scope to middle scope to great scope. A few years ago a friend of my cousin’s was telling us how she liked to jump out of airplanes because it was the only time she felt so “incredibly alive”. Ironically (or not), she died quite young last year, of commonplace cancer. Already with initial scope we are mindful of death, so each moment of this fleeting precious life can be an opportunity for a peak experience, for feeling just as incredibly alive as my once-acquaintance plummeting through the sky.

And through meditation we grow into relaxed Yogis bound for liberation (middle scope), cool, heroic Bodhisattvas (great scope), and then fully Awakened Ones, omniscient beings who can bless each and every living being every day, freeing the world from suffering. No skiing, skateboarding, surfing, skydiving, or high-wire walking can ever do that for us, even if we don’t have a fatal accident.*

One thing that does inspire me about people who push the boundaries, though, is that they are not discouraged, they have vision. They don’t assume, “I’ve never done this before so I will never be able to do it.” We could be more like that. Just because we haven’t gotten enlightened before doesn’t mean we cannot do it now. Just because Buddhism is new to the modern world doesn’t mean that it is not going to take this world by storm, with the help of our own examples.portugal-festival-2

I was in NYC for the last few weeks and many people were pouring in for meditation classes every day. This upsurge of interest is happening in other places too, and is light years away from the early days of Buddhism in the West. I remember, 35 years ago, the organizers being excited when 100 people showed up for Geshe Kelsang’s teachings in the so-called North Wing gompa at Manjushri Center, whereas now, at Kadampa festivals around the world, thousands is the norm. And studies on the benefits of mindfulness and other Buddhist techniques are everywhere you turn, mainstream, such as in the big display on the ground floor of Denver library. The snowball has already started its roll.

There is also related talk these days about being in a state of flow – extreme athletes or insanely talented artists being prime examples, but I think we all enter the zone to some extent whenever we engage in some creative act with concentration, eg, gardening, flowwriting, acting, composing, playing music, etc. We do love this because we are experiencing some degree of euphoria or bliss at that time, our most gross, chunky, talky, concretizing mind is temporarily turned down so we are at peace.

And Dharma minds put us in a state of flow – refuge and love spring to mind, but also wisdom, compassion, maybe all of them! And not least Mahamudra. 

Training in concentration

In this article, I talked about what was Mahamudra Tantra, namely the union of bliss and emptiness. Meditation on the nature of our mind is the access point to Mahamudra, enabling us to improve our mindfulness so that we can then meditate on emptiness and the union of bliss and emptiness. According to the Ganden oral lineage, Je-Tsongkhapaour “ear-whispered lineage” passed down through a succession of awesome practitioners to the present day, it is the recommended object for training in concentration.

Geshe Kelsang, modern-day Mahamudra Master, has said:

Make meditation work.

This means we make it work for us, and I think we need not be scared to experiment with the ingredients previous Yogis and Yoginis have given us, any more than those crazy snowboarders are afraid to experiment with what they have learned. We can put together these following elements of dropping into our heart, experiencing peace, receiving blessings, and meditating on clarity in whichever way helps us gain the peak experiences.

Short meditation

So here is a short suggested meditation to help you enter the state of flow without having to leave your armchair (though do put your coffee cup down for a moment …)

We first drop from our head into our heart chakra in the middle of our chest, sensing already some peace and space. (Our heart is where we feel things most deeply – for example, where do you place your hand when you want to express love?) We feel grateful and happy at our good fortune at still being alive, still having this opportunity (for forget skateboarding, even shoveling can kill us); and make a decision to apply ourselves gently without expectation to our meditation.

With this decision, we consciously breathe out whatever is on our mind, let it go with each natural exhalation. Our thoughts only have the power we give them; we don’t ever need to feel intimidated by them. We are infinitely bigger than them, bigger even than the sky is to the clouds. With each breath, space opens up in our mind and we feel lighter and cleaner.

As we inhale we experience the breath as radiant light, the most beautiful, blessed light we can imagine, which we breathe right down into our heart. Through enjoying this process, our awareness is also drawn naturally toward our heart, riding upon our breath. This light is the nature of our Spiritual Guide’s mind, peaceful inspiration that soaks into our root mind. We feel our awareness becoming centered within a light, calm experience at our heart, and there we abide.

Within this, we ask: “What is the mind? What is it that is aware of the sounds, sensations, distractions? Where is it?”, so that instead of focusing all our attention on their “content” we use these thoughts to help us become aware of awareness itself. We recognize the clarity — the inner empty space with no shape, no color, no size, no material properties, no form — that possesses the power to perceive, that is conscious. We stay here, experiencing clarity moment by moment.

zone_4We can appreciate the extraordinary beauty of the nature of our mind, which is limitless clarity and unbounded potential. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could gain deep experience of the nature of our mind, and through this accomplish Mahamudra and full enlightenment? For this, we need to do ourselves an enormous favor and receive blissings — commune with the mind of enlightenment itself, with our Spiritual Guide and all the Buddhas.

We feel that our present mind of peace or contentment, however slight or relative, is connected to our Spiritual Guide’s mind of peace, that we are already abiding in a heart-to-heart communion with all the Buddhas, and in particular to their full experience of Mahamudra. We take a moment to recognize this, to relax into our peaceful mind, knowing that we are not separate from Buddha’s transcendent consciousness, knowing that there is an ocean of assistance on hand. We are really in the zone now; whereas before we may have felt unsure, now we feel very confident that we can pull this meditation off.

We can feel too that we are meditating on our root or very subtle mind, which is naturally blissful. (Imagine bliss if you don’t feel it, everything begins in our imagination, it is still authentic.)

With this connection, we can if we wish engage in Liberating Prayer, Prayers for Meditation, Heart Jewel, or any prayers we like, and then continue with more Mahamudra meditation, pausing any time to feel that connection with the mind of enlightenment. Or you can open your eyes and get on with your day, thinking it could be your last & staying in the zone …

(*There is a bit more to say about the state of the flow, and how it increases performance; so I’ll explore it a bit more in a future article on refuge. This is intended as a conversation starter, so I welcome your insights into the subject. Indeed, Helen has already written a very helpful comment below.) 

fly the friendly skies

Tintin

Welcome to the friendly skies! …

fly the friendly skies… our pilot just welcomed us. And this reminded me of Geshe Kelang’s first flight to America in July 1990. As they set off from Heathrow, he said to the 2 students traveling with him, one of them my closest friend at the time:

We are flying to Vajrayogini’s’s Pure Land…

… and then he absorbed into meditation for the next 6 hours, only arising when prompted to eat lunch, of which he partook of a mere forkful. (As both these students were sitting either side of him, that kind of scuppered any chance of conversation… But it was still apparently a darned good flight.)

And I always think of these words when I fly. Besides, we need to go to the very friendly higher sky of Vajrayogini and Heruka’s Pure Land – Keajra – even when stationary, and we can leave through our crown chakra.

Why? Because samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. I can hear the video game violence emanating from the ear buds of the youth next to me – so how loud is it blaring into HIS ears?! Not that he cares of course, he is never going to get middle aged and old and die. That only happens to other people, like the woman next to him (me). A friend in his 50s recently developed tinnitus. Of course he didn’t see that coming despite years of headphone abuse. And who amongst us hasn’t blissed out to loud music – but even music is deceptive, my friend was telling me. All sense pleasures are. All appearances mislead us while we remain overpowered by them, not realizing they are empty, not realizing they are not really there.

As Geshe Kelsang explains in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition, the Buddhist master Vasubandhu used various examples to show how attachment to sense pleasures creates suffering. Moths are ensnared by attachment to visual forms when they fly into the flame; deer to sounds when they are enticed by the hunter’s flute; flies to smells when they land on food and are swatted; fish to food when they are impaled on the hook; and elephants to tactile sensations when they sink helplessly into mud. Meanwhile, humans are ensnared by attachment to all five!

But everything we encounter can also teach us everything about Dharma if we let it. As Milarepa said:IMG_6603

I have no need of books because all the objects around me are my books. From these I learn about death and impermanence, the disadvantages of samsara, and the emptiness of all phenomena. Great Treasury of Merit p. 212.

Sooooo, so far today … It started with a teaching on my early morning coffee – Life is short. Stay awake for it. (Don’t know what to suggest for those of you who don’t drink coffee.)

The snack cart just came down the aisle, and my attention was captured by Buddha Bowl Foods™ (Trademark! Since when did a snack company get the trademark on Buddha’s begging bowl?) – organic popcorn with pink Himalayan salt. What will they think of next? But although it is seasoned by elements from faraway holy lands, this popcorn is still not worth the $4.99 price tag. Though it makes me shudder a bit to see Buddha smiling out from a disposable snack wrapper, I also think it is lucky that Buddha is not fussy – maybe someone will create an indestructible potential for enlightenment as they chow down on their salty morsels.

distractionEveryone is either snoozing or plugged in. Some are multitasking their entertainment — managing to be on their personal devices AND watching the latest movie on the seat-back in front of them. In this worth-reading NYT article about death, Arthur C. Brooks reports a scary illustration of the disconnect between what we want and what we do due to the power of distractions:

The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.

So far I have resisted the itch to swipe my credit card and watch The Martian … but temptation is always all around. I need to think this could be my last flight, and what would I do if I ever did have to follow the second of these helpful instructions (pictured)? (Has anyone ever actually survived by using their cushion for a flotation flotation devicedevice?! Ok, I admit, I got distracted and googled it. Apparently, yes, they have, in 1970.) But, should the cushion fail, given that I am unprepared for my activities just over the next week in NYC, where does that leave my next life?

In the security line

So much effort goes into becoming a functioning adult – it needs years. There are students behind me in the security line, all young, hip, fresh-faced, and about to have their moment ruling the world. “Boulder has changed so much! Like, totally,” one says, as if she has been there well over her 17 years. “I major in education,” she carries on saying to her new friends. “So are you gonna become a teacher?” “Yeah.” “Cool.” That will take years of money and resources. A small earnest boy with oversized spectacles and a watchful mother — will he be a teacher one day? How much money and kindness will make that possible? Then it starts unravelling as you see from the deeply lined woman hobbling by with a stick, maybe she was an educator once.

functioning adultIt is so easy to grasp at permanence, at things staying the same. Sometimes I fast forward in these snaky queues — where will we all be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?

My young co-queuer from Boulder has also wasted no time telling her new friends that she is traveling to see her boyfriend, who inconveniently lives in New York. “Man! That sucks!” “I know. But it’s okay.” (Clearly right now it is way more than okay for she cannot help grinning, albeit in a cool, I can take it or leave it girls, kind of way). It may last for decades, like Alan Rickman and Rima Horton, but the odds are against it, and she may have the first of several broken hearts, perhaps even on this trip. How many have you had?! I have had my fair share. While we remain with attachment, broken hearts are an unavoidable side effect at any age. There is a joke in California – before you get serious with someone, ask yourself:

Is this who I want my kids to spend the weekends with?

Back on the plane, but on this same subject, I am now actually across the aisle from a hot couple meeting and flirting for the first time. We do quite rightly like the bliss of connection — and they are, after all, the only people around here immersed in the present moment as opposed to asleep or on their gadgets — so I think it’d be wonderful if that bliss could last forever. However, fast forward 5 years and they’ll be watching box sets on the couch with the dog like the rest of us. We need to know where our bliss actually comes from.
honey on a razor's edgeGeshe Kelsang once told me that it is not possible to get between someone and their object of attachment. (But was I applying these wise words to myself?! Umm, no. No more than I got his teaching on eating mindfully when during a tea party I offered him a huge slice of chocolate cake and he said, “This is poison for me,” — so I ate it instead, and he laughed. Geshe-la has been infinitely patient with me. With all of us, really.) Try telling someone as they start licking the honey off the razor’s edge, “That’s going to hurt you know!” And will they listen? Will they heck.

Talking of Alan Rickman, he seemed to be well loved by all who knew him for his loyalty, kindness, and willingness to go the extra mile. And his kindness will guide him to happiness now too, none of it is wasted, it’s a win win — happy in this life, creating the causes for happiness now in his next life, as well as being prayed for and wished well on his way by the many people he helped.

Back in the security line …

You snake past the same people over and over in these lines. It reminds me of being on the same flight from Portugal as someone who loathed me. We both pretended we didn’t notice each other, and got away with it on the plane; but upon arrival found ourselves in one of those long looping queues — having to look at our phones, over to some friends, up at the roof, etc — each time we were about to pass. Five times we better angelsmanaged it — only to bump right into each other as we emerged from the restrooms. It makes me think that we cannot hide forever from our karma, we have to face it over and over again until it is exhausted; so we may as well learn to love everyone in the line. We will have to keep bumping into everyone forever, so why not learn to enjoy it. Reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Love this quote.

And, like I was saying, we need to get out of this long queue as fast as possible – like those people in the Clear Me line who have created enough merit to breeze through. Then we can fly the friendly sky of the Dharmakaya, and help everyone else do the same.

We seek transcendence. People do crazy extreme sports and jump out of airplanes to get the thrill of flying. I saw a poster trying to entice passers-by with, “Learn to stunt drive!” Why would I do that?!! I am just now noticing my neighbor with the noisy headphones watching a man walk on a wire high high above New York City. He is lying down! He is pointing at a magical sun behind a cloud! A white dove is flying toward him! This is all pretty cool, especially as I’m not distracted by the narrative. Still, I would want more than a wire between me and the ground 70 stories below. Like a direct realization of emptiness, for example.

Talking of sports, people ask why I don’t ski. I used to as a child living in Turkey and visiting good friends in Switzerland, but now I prefer to enjoy it in my mind — for some reason, maybe my precious human life and a distinct preference for a body in one uninterrupted piece — I have gone off the idea of standing at the top of a steep mountain with two insanely slippery sticks tied to my feet. Not judging, because I also kind of admire the spectacular fear-defying feats I watch from the comfort of the gondola cafe in Breckenridge or Aspen. And it makes me blissful to watch, except when people fall. TintinNurse an overpriced cappuccino long enough, and someone is bound to fall. Especially if they are sufficiently high, and/or under some illusion about their skill-set or permanence in this life. People get into all sorts of trouble in the mountains through underestimating their environment or overestimating themselves, according to an English friend in Breckenridge. He goes out whenever called to save people in an utterly heroic fashion, whether on skies, or wheels, or even by air, on a variety of cool snow vehicles. He does this in his plus fours, tweed cap, and a tweed jacket, and honestly looks just like Tintin — but the people who have gotten themselves into any number of of idiotic situations are always very happy to see him.

And my final observations for now: a full cup of coffee + rough air = bad combo. But the flight attendant did just call me “Miss” instead of the dreaded “Ma’am”, which I like, even if he is about 75 years old. And remind me again why I insist on always traveling

meanwhile in New York

I flew all the way to NY for this?

with a ripe banana that I have to clean out of my bag upon arrival?You may conclude from these rambling observations that I have way too much time on my hands, spend way too much time in airplanes, and should get a proper job like all the other functioning adults of this world. In my defence I will say that I write most of my stuff while traveling between places, and though I do, naturally, like the feeling of being on perpetual vacation while technically not, a feeling I believe I may have inherited from my parents, I also do have a few other things to do from time to time, I promise. So bye bye for now. Thank you for flying united.

Postscript: This ended up long, and I thought about putting it in 2 installments to make some of my readers happy (you know who you are, France and Philippe.) But then I realized they could just stop reading halfway and come back to the rest later. Don’t know why I never thought of that before.

 

Mahamudra blessing

Mahamudra
DMV

Boring!

I just failed my drive test. I was sort of speeding without realizing it, so I guess I deserved that and don’t mind too much. (I also knew things didn’t bode too well when, unavailingly trying to woo the instructor with my suave in-control persona, the alarm went off as I opened the door … and, being as it wasn’t my car, I had no clue how to turn it off again.) More to the point, however, is why am I even having to take a drive test when I’ve already been driving for 30 years?!* But one may just as well ask, “Why do I have to take rebirth and go to school all over again? I already flipping well did that.”

I was asking myself just this while I waited the 50 unsettling minutes at the Denver DMV leading up to my failed test. Samsara is relentlessly monotonous and we keep having to do things we don’t want to do, not just once but over and over and over, ad infinitum. We keep having to take tests, even though I have only met about 3 people in my life who like them, and no one looked too exhilarated to be on their plastic chairs in the DMV. A friend of mine has to re-sit her whole psychotherapy exam just because she has moved to a new state, even though she has been a psychotherapist for hundreds of years. It’s annoying. And that is just in this one life. In samsara, we keep on having to re-learn stuff we already spent way too long learning and have no need for – I sometimes think the only thing I have retained from geography lessons, for example, is a rudimentary knowledge of ox-bow lakes, and I have yet to find a way to put that to any use.

Why do I mention this? Well, because when I think about dying and taking even a best-case scenario human rebirth, I think how much I dread having to go to school all over again. So then I think I want to get out of samsara quickly by accessing and purifying my very subtle mind, and how right now, in this precious human life, I have the opportunity to do so, lucky me. Which motivates me to practice meditation with an appreciative mind, with a good feeling of gratitude in fact.

Continuing from this article on Mahamudra.

An ocean of helpMahamudra

Whenever we practice meditation, especially meditation on Mahamudra, it makes a huge difference if we know that we are not doing this on our own. We are connecting to a lineage through our Spiritual Guide, through his or her Spiritual Guide, and so on, back through an ocean of practitioners to Buddha himself. Their minds are all on offer so we can connect to a vast reservoir of assistance. It is not us duking it out with our delusions on our own. Not at all. Receiving blessings may not come intuitively, we need to train. Why? One reason is that we are in exile in our head most of the time, and it doesn’t occur to us to go into our heart and connect.

First way to receive blessings

This is something I like to do before doing any meditation, and it works very well with Mahamudra.

We imagine we are receiving the blessings of Buddha and all holy beings in the form of blissful lights or rays of sunshine, coming from their hearts and filling our body and mind. This enlightened energy, enlightened mind, mixes with our mind like light mixing with light. We can do this after reciting some prayers, if we like, such as Prayers for Meditation or Heart Jewel, where “receiving blessings” is almost always indicated – but we can also do it anytime, anywhere. We are bathing in an ocean of delicious blessings, which are very interesting and also everywhere.

As explained more here, blessings, or “jin gyi lob” in Tibetan, means “transformation through inspiration”, and they are not that mysterious — we are affected Man walking through doorway with ocean, in desertby even ordinary  waves of mental energy so of course we can be uplifted by transcendent minds if we tune into them. This makes everything easier. We can receive blessings from any holy being we believe in, whoever works for us. Traditionally for Mahamudra meditation we rely on Je Tsongkhapa.

Why Je Tsongkhapa?

Je Tsongkhapa is the founder of our Buddhist tradition, the Kadampa tradition. He lived in the 14th century but his teachings are still flourishing because they have been carried from generation to generation in an unbroken lineage all the way, marvelously enough, to us. I believe that Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is the latest in the line of fully realized adepts in this lineage, and he has made it his life’s work to help us gain these realizations. And Mahamudra (literally, the union of great bliss and emptiness) is the specialty of this tradition. Buddha Shakyamuni gave 84,000 different teachings, and the pith essence of all of them is Mahamudra. As one scholar, Gungtang, puts it (using Je Tsongkhapa’s ordained name, Losang Dragpa):

The emptiness that is explained in Buddha’s Sutra teachings,
And the great bliss that is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings –
The union of these two is the very essence of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings.
May the doctrine of Conqueror Losang Dragpa flourish for evermore.

Now is the time

Oral InstructionsMaybe some of you have reached that place known as “over the hill” and things look very different from this perspective – if you’ve ever biked downhill, you know you speed up. So maybe, we think, maybe we better wait till next time round to attain enlightenment, we might have left it a bit late this time. But the truth is that the opportunity we have now will never get better. We can come under the care and guidance of an exceptionally qualified Mahamudra master. His new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, published in Tibetan at the request of many Tibetan practitioners and now translated for us into English and other languages, is unbelievable. Geshe Kelsang is now regarded as the authority in this world on Mahamudra. Sometimes I think we have no idea how fortunate we are. “Kelsang Gyatso” means “ocean of good fortune”, and all the ordained Sangha are given the name “Kelsang Somebody”, meaning “Fortunate Somebody”.

Second way to receive blessings

In the second way of receiving blessings, we can imagine that Buddha, or Guru Tsongkhapa, comes to our crown and his body of wisdom light shrinks to the size of a thumb, facing the same way we face. There is all that Buddha power on our crowns, enlightened beings are all within that space; and then we can imagine Buddha entering through our crown chakra and flowing slowly and blissfully into our heart. As he descends, we slide down with him into our heart. Now he is a presence in our heart, and once again we can think that our minds mix. This helps us get into our heart and also appreciate that he is doing the meditation along with us. It’s not necessary to visualize him clearly, we just think he’s there with us in our heart. We can experience bliss, and then mix that bliss with emptiness or the conventional nature of the mind. Also, we can use that bliss in any meditation, and we can invite any holy being.

Hope you have fun with it!

*The technical, if not karmic, reason is that I let my Florida driving license expire. Like letting life expire before getting some stable, ever-lasting realizations, I guess.

 

What is life according to Buddha?

samsara's ocean

samsara's oceanWe can start the meditation on the mind, as mentioned here, just by watching the cloud-like thoughts come and go within the clear sky-like mind, without reacting or intruding or indeed thinking them through. Our mind may not seem much like a clear sky to begin with – it may indeed feel totally overcast, with no glimpses of clarity – but we just watch the clouds scud by. Then we can come to observe what is beneath those scudding thoughts, asking, “Where is each thought coming from? Where is it going to? What is it? Where is it? What is that space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?”

(I am carrying on from this article.)

Once we are through to the clarity of our mind at the level of our heart, we think that we are meditating on our root mind, our deepest level of consciousness, also known as our “very subtle mind”.

No matter how good or not we are at this meditation, we can always create very special causes by thinking that we are meditating on our root mind itself. As Geshe Kelsang said in 2000 (and it also comes up in his new ear-whispered Oral Instructions of Mahamudra):

We don’t need to expect quick results. Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. We will get closer and closer. In reality this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.heart chakra 2

If you get a chance to sit down with the chapter on “The Gross, Subtle and Very Subtle Minds” in How to Understand the Mind, please do, as it is quite — for want of a better word — mind-blowing. As for our very subtle mind, also descriptively known as our “continuously residing mind”, Geshe Kelsang says in this book:

Without the very subtle mind we would have no life because our gross and subtle minds cannot hold our life. This is because they are only temporary minds, and very unstable.

They are like the waves on the ocean, where the root mind is the ocean itself. Or like the clouds in the sky, where the root mind is the sky itself.

Therefore only our very subtle mind holds our life continuously throughout the day and night, and in life after life until we become an enlightened Buddha. ~ How to Understand the Mind

“Almost mind”

There is more philosophical stuff coming up in this and future articles, but really the meditation on the mind should be done in the spirit of relaxed experimentation. We’re not pushing for a result or an insight, but allowing our own simple observation of our thoughts and what is appearing to those thoughts to improve our understanding of the nature of the mind and its objects.

So in this meditation we are meditating on the conventional nature of the mind, but also indirectly gaining a deeper insight into ultimate truth, emptiness, by seeing the interdependence of perceiver and perceived; that we can’t have one without the other. Thoughts and their objects are not identical, but they depend on each other, and you cannot separate them out.

The clarity of mind is the basis for perceptions AND their objects. A mountain, for example, is form, not clarity itself; but it is also not other than that clarity.
elephant in dreamTake dreaming. We know that an elephant in a dream is not the mind, or clarity, itself, as it is grey and big whereas the mind is colorless and shapeless. However, it is also not other than clarity. It is not outside the mind. It is mere aspect of clarity, mere appearance of mind.

One way we can know this is because when the dreaming mind dreaming the elephant ceases, so does the elephant. That’s the only reason the elephant ceases, according to Geshe Kelsang in How to Understand the Mind. Only mind has that power.

In the same way, waking objects are all mere aspects of the minds that perceive them. Although forms and so on are not mind itself, they are “almost mind”, Geshe Kelsang has taught.

Karmic movie

When we did the meditation mentioned at the beginning of this article, we began by watching our thoughts. This is rather as if we are watching a karmic movie – wave after wave of appearance arising from the winds of karma blowing on the ocean of the root mind. Through this simple observation, it looks like we are already improving our wisdom.

Once we have a feeling of watching the karmic movie, we move to the clarity. We don’t force it or hold onto a dry, intellectual image, but observe that it is our actual mind that is clarity.

If we allow all our wave-like thoughts to dissolve into the clarity of our mind, all the objects of those thoughts also disappear. They have no life of their own, they cannot exist without being apprehended. When we develop deep concentration on the clarity of our mind, everything dissolves away into it.

The ocean analogy can really help this happen – wave-like thoughts arise from the root mind and they also dissolve back, we can actually observe this. We get a feeling for the waves returning to their source, rather than trying to hold a hard generic, or mental, image of a clear mind.

Appearances don’t obstruct the clarity because they are aspects of clarity. For example, the sound of a bird appearing to the clarity of ear awareness is not other than clarity itself. It is not outside it.

A wave is just the ocean making itself known.

By the end of our meditation on the mind, all appearances have settled into our root mind like waves settling into the ocean, and we focus on the clarity, which is the main object of meditation.

Inner luminosity

Instead of staying endlessly preoccupied with the most superficial of appearances, in this meditation on the mind we can learn to recognize instead the inner luminosity that allows us to experience everything, which is always present and always accessible. Only our mind is “clear enough to perceive objects”, as Geshe Kelsang has said. It is animation itself. It is life.

(And, mind-boggling as it may seem to us at the moment, once this mind is no longer obstructed by delusions and their imprints through the practice of Dharma, we will know everything simultaneously and directly; we will be omniscient.)

life after deathAs mentioned, whenever there is an appearance – eg, a memory, or a feeling, or a physical sensation — there is a mind to which it is appearing that is the same nature as that appearance. We try to see that the mind itself is the cognizer; we are aware of the cognizer. We can see ourselves how it is formless. Experientially, it is observed to be rather like an inner empty space with the power to perceive.

This is proof enough that the mind is not the body and, indeed, as a formless continuum it will go to future lives – we don’t need to debate whether or not the mind is the brain as it clearly is not. It’s enough to gain at least some understanding of past and future lives. As Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind page 6:

Through understanding the nature and function of the mind correctly, we can understand that our mind is completely different from our body, and this proves that, after our death, although our body will cease the mind will not.

Life continues through and after the death of our meaty body, as life is mind. So, if our body ends today, where will our mind and all its experiences be tomorrow? Today might be a good day to think about this, before that tomorrow is upon us!

Looking back at this life

death

We will all be dead soon, waking up in our next life. This’ll happen within a few hundred months at most, or maybe even next year, or next month, or next week, or tomorrow, or even today. All that’s going with me is my mind, more or less purified and controlled, and the karmic potentials from the actions I have done.

Trish, a friend of mine aged around 55, once asked me with great interest: “What would you do if you had only two months left to live?” This wasn’t just a theoretical question — she had just been diagnosed with cancer and deathdied two months later. And if you think about it, this never is just a theoretical question, for we have no idea how long we have left in this life.

A very helpful practice, I find, for instantly getting perspective on what is valuable today is to think that I’m already in my next life looking back on this life, which is now my past life, and seeing whether I am satisfied with what I did in this life? Would I thank myself?! Would I have done anything differently? What is important?

(You know those interviews where people describe, for example, “52 things I wish I could tell my younger self”?! It’s a bit like that, only on a more cosmic scale.)

This makes me appreciate what a precious human life I have now, and how, as Buddha said, this world is not my permanent home, I am just a traveler passing through.

Life is suffering, of course, while we remain in samsara, and we have many challenges. Lots of horrible, sad things happen, including the loss of everything we like sooner or later, having to encounter things we don’t like on pretty much a daily basis, and so on. However, a characteristic of a precious human life, such as the one you have now, is that we are not so overwhelmed by our sufferings that we can do nothing about them.

What upsets us the most?
chickens scratching in dirt

Looking in the wrong place?!

I think it’s always worth remembering is that whenever we do not succumb to inappropriate attention, delusions cannot arise, and our mind remains peaceful and free. It remains peaceful and free because it is naturally peaceful and free. Our mind free from delusions is happy, content, and whole. We have everything we need. The ONLY thing that upsets our happiness and makes us experience mental pain is our delusions. The delusion of ignorance also make us believe that both solutions to this pain and ways to be happy are to be found outside the mind, so we waste our time scratching around; when in fact there is nothing there outside the mind.

However, the sooner we are convinced of the entirely creative power of our own minds, the sooner we will know that we can make ourselves happy; and that if we can gradually gain control over our thoughts and lives, the good times, no the best times, lie ahead, not behind, starting now. This is a proper relief. Looking back, I know I will appreciate the times I stopped myself following just my short-term preoccupations, and used my thoughts to fulfill my deepest wishes for happiness and freedom rather than subverting them. Instead of wasting valuable time thinking, for example, “Oh woe is me! I wish that person would talk to me! My life is going nowhere! My job is exhausting! My taxes are stressing me out!” I could be thinking “I’m so darned lucky, I have everything I need to make spiritual progress every single day and hour. I don’t care if that person talks to me or not, my happiness doesn’t actually depend on them but on love, and I can love them unconditionally whether they like it or not. My life is so going places because I’m training my mind. My job gives me a chance to help people, practice patience, remember other’s kindness, etc. Nothing will stress me out if I look at it the right way and I have that choice.”

Those are just examples, of course, off the top of my head – but whenever we notice ourselves experiencing any disgruntlement or mental pain whatsoever, it’s guaranteed that inappropriate attention is at work. We can learn to change our thoughts to take our minds and lives in another happier direction, on the path to liberation and enlightenment. Looking back, we’ll be very pleased that we did.

planet earth from spacePlus it’s a win-win because with the same positive thoughts we also enjoy ourselves now, in this life, as well as setting ourselves up for a great future – the same minds work for both.

Imagining ourselves as the person we’ll be in our next life and looking back at this one also helps us stop identifying so tightly with the self and hang-ups of this life – maybe a bit like someone in space looking back at Planet Earth. Space solves problems, grabbing on tightly does not.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Geshe-la meditating in his roomWhen I look back, what always strikes me the most is how lucky I am to have found my teacher, Geshe Kelsang. I feel like he’s been around me this entire life. His real nature is omniscient bliss and emptiness, and I consider him to be the kindest emanation of enlightened beings, who will take me wherever I want to go if I let him. I want to be sure that I never take this cosmic connection for granted, but to make it stronger in this life. I need for him to follow me into the next life and to stick around until I attain enlightenment. That is the one thing that is guaranteed to end my suffering and enable me to help others once and for all.

Looking back at this life from the next, I am quite amazed at this unprecedented opportunity to generate renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, and Mahamudra realizations. These have the power to solve my problems both now – instantly – and in the future, and to make me and others totally happy. I have not found a problem yet that cannot be solved by applying the so-called “five seeds” of renunciation, bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, generation stage Tantra, and completion stage Tantra. And I have access to all of these, maybe for the first time in aeons, if ever; as well as the companionship of tens of thousands of people also practicing this Dharma, including some spectacular friends. My life need be no different to the lives of the past Yogis, Mahasiddhas, and scholars whom I so much admire, who took advantage of their teacher and the Buddhist teachings. This includes of course Geshe-la himself, whose devotion to his own teacher Trijang Rinpoche I find inspiring.

If I look back and see that I have wasted my chance to gain deep realizations — to partake of this banquet of delight while it was all laid out before me — what would I say to my past self?

Forget the sideshows

side showWhat kind of relationships do we really want to have had with others, once we are looking back at these? Surely not sticky relationships that are built on the inappropriate attention of attachment? For not only do these end in pain, but in retrospect they seem like a massive waste of time, sideshows distracting us from the main attraction of this life.

An arresting (for me) verse in Geshe Kelsang’s new book The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

Like mistakenly  believing
A poisonous drink to be nectar,
Attachment with grasping at objects of desire
Is the cause of great danger.

I have been deeply attached to every single living being at one point or another over countless previous lives, I have suffered grievously on their behalf; and where exactly has that got me, or us? Also, because attachment undermines our interest in anyone other than our object of attachment, it thwarts our love and compassion too, it seems to me. It’s about time I gave up the attachment that has sabotaged all my previous lives, and cultivated bodhichitta in its place.

Kind people

speaking of kindnessI find it helpful to look at my connections of this life and see how I would have wanted these to go if I was looking back at them, especially perhaps for people who have been kind to me. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. Today, for example, thinking about my parents, I realized again that I could never have asked for better ones, I couldn’t have invented better ones. Half a century of unconditional love and support, and counting. Wonderful people, kind examples; and my life has been interesting and brilliant thanks to them. Even Geshe-la said, rubbing his heart, that they were “very spiritual”. Chances of having such good parents the next time around?! Very slim. Depends on creating a huge number of good causes. So, am I making the most of these ones? And am I doing as much for them as I can? Maybe I need to ask them – hey, anything more I can do for you, ma and pa?! (They are reading this, because they also support my blog😉  They are probably also embarrassed because they are modest and British. But, hey, life is short, and why wait to say stuff like this in the obituaries.)

I’d be interested to hear the perspective you gain when you look back at yourself in this life?

Experience and reality

ocean
The mirrormirror 2

Another example for helping us shift our perspective from the perceived to the perceiver in the meditation on our own mind is the mirror. When we look in a mirror, normally we are very interested in the spinach stuck in our teeth or whatever – but imagine if we shifted perspective from the object in the mirror to the mirror itself, from the reflected to the reflector. It is similar with this meditation – we shift focus from the object of awareness to the awareness itself. We are watching the watcher, or observing the observer. That awareness is clarity – formless awareness that has the actual power to perceive. Our mind understands, remembers, creates.

meeting hermit in mountainSpace

I recently did a retreat on Mahamudra in Rocky Mountain National Park. The air quality is amazing there, so clear, you can see for miles, you can reach out and touch the distant mountains. In fact according to the Denver Botannical Gardens science museum, Colorado has similar topography, air quality, and climate to Mongolia! I didn’t find it hard to see how the great Yogis and Yoginis of yore, including my teacher Geshe Kelsang, experienced blissful retreats in the Himalayas. Geshe-la was on solitary retreat there for 18 years.

Our minds are far clearer than the clearest sky. A whole different dimension of clear. Still, when we rise from this meditation, it can help while wandering from A to B to look at the sky, especially on a clear day. Also, rather than just honing in on objects, looking at the space between them can remind us of how clear our mind actually is.

Clarity is amazing

Your mind is hands down the most amazing thing in your life. The fact that someone can say or write words to you and you can understand them is incredible. The fact that we can see each other. The fact that this whole world is appearing. The fact that within our mind we have the capacity for peace, joy, transcendence, love etc, and that the deeper we go the better it gets. The fact that we can commune with enlightened beings. Plus our mind is naturally peaceful — indeed naturally blissful. It is all quite unbelievable, really, and we are walking around with this treasure all the time. But what do we use it for?! Live tweeting. A global expression of nonsense. “Yes, I’m really alive!”watching stupid shit

Only kidding, Twitter has its uses. However, it is too easy for us (me) to stay entirely occupied with the most superficial of appearances and neglect to step back and recognize that there is this inner light, inner luminosity, that is allowing us to experience all the various things we are experiencing, which is always present, always accessible.

I would rather live my life inside the experience of the actual nature of things, which are all the nature of the mind, and therefore experience everything in a non-dualistic fashion. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang said in his amazing Mahamudra teachings in 2000:

Using the root mind as our object of meditation — always trying to perceive the general image of our mind – means that we realize the subject mind very well, and understand the relationship between mind and its objects. The huge mistaken understanding that objects are there and the subject mind is here – that between them there is a large gap – will cease, and we will gain the correct understanding of how things really exist. If we clearly understand the real nature and function of mind, then we also understand how things really exist.

We are in fact deeply connected to everyone and everything. It is not my mind over here and everything else out there – the appearances are inside my mind, to my mind, of my mind.

Ocean and waves

oceanOne traditional example to help us understand that everything is the nature of the mind is the ocean and waves. Just as waves stirred up on an ocean by the wind are not separate from the ocean — we cannot draw a line between the ocean and its waves as it were — so all our thoughts and their objects such as forms, sounds, etc arise like waves from the ocean of the root mind. Which appearances and experiences arise like waves depends on which karmic potentialities are ripening. Everything is the nature of the mind; nothing exists outside the mind. As the Chittamatrins says in Ocean of Nectar page 228:

Just as waves arise from a great ocean
When it is stirred by the wind,
Likewise, because of it potentials a mere consciousness arises
From the seed of all, which is called ‘basis-of-all’.

(In the Tantric Prasangika view, it is also held that all objects are the nature of mind, arising simultaneously with the minds apprehending them from the same karmic potentialities on the root mind; except, unlike the Chittamatrins, they do not assert the mind is truly existent. However, I won’t get into that here.)

Geshe Kelsang said in his Mahamudra teachings in 2000:

The reality is that everything – our subject mind and all object things – came from this root consciousness. ‘Appearance’ means all objects such as the world, its beings, its environments, and all objects of enjoyment, including our body and our self. All the many different types of subject mind or conceptual thought to which things appear are like waves of an ocean, and our root consciousness is like the ocean itself. The waves of the ocean come from the ocean itself, and similarly the waves of appearance and all the different types of mind come from the ocean of our consciousness.

If we check, we can see that we cannot in fact separate out the objects of our thoughts from the thoughts or awarenesses holding them, any more than we can separate out a wave from an ocean or a reflection in a mirror from the mirror itself. There is no such thing as an object not known by mind, which is the definition of object, “known by mind”.

Can you even think of an object that is not known by mind? There is no world outside of our experience of the world. What is going on for you right now, for example, is your experience of what is going on – if you go looking, you cannot find anything going on out there. Your whole world cannot be separated out from your experience of the world – you cannot point to any world outside of your experience of it. As soon as you do, you’re experiencing it.

Waves are the nature of the ocean, not outside the ocean. Appearances are the nature of the mind, not outside the mind.

More about this here … meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.

Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra

sky and clouds

sky and cloudsFirst I thought it’d be helpful to give some context for the clarity of mind meditation, and then share some thoughts on why it is so effective at pacifying our distractions.

The clarity of mind meditation is part of Sutra Mahamudra. And Mahamudra is the heart essence of the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism.

A Kadampa Buddhist is someone who:

takes all of Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and puts them into practice in their daily lives.

Buddha gave 84,000 teachings, so how do we pull that off?! By practicing Lamrim, a cycle of 21 meditations (or 14 meditations in How to Understand the Mind) that covers all the stages of the path to enlightenment. Pretty much all the meditations we will ever learn in Buddhism fit somewhere in the Lamrim cycle!

Also, as Geshe Kelsang explains in Great Treasury of Merit (page 18), Lamrim and Lojong (lit. “training the mind”, a powerful method for developing bodhichitta extracted from Lamrim and given particular emphasis) are both preliminaries for Mahamudra.

Mahamudra, a Sanskrit word, means “great seal”. In Sutra it refers to emptiness, and in Tantra to the union of great bliss and emptiness:

Mahamudra Tantra is defined as a mind of fully qualified clear light that experiences great bliss and realizes emptiness directly. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 55

All Kadampa Buddhist meditations are explicitly or implicitly aiming at this realization of bliss and emptiness, which, when perfected, becomes omniscient wisdom, enlightened reality. With practice, we can use deeper and deeper levels of awareness to meditate, and the deepest is our very subtle mind which, when manifest, is called clear light. This mind is naturally blissful. Inconceivably blissful. Ridiculously blissful. Think of the most blissful thing you can imagine and then multiply that by infinity. More blissful than that.

Buddha seed

sky and clouds 2It is also our Buddha nature or Buddha seed – this clear light mind itself will transform into a Buddha’s mind when it is fully purified and developed. So, best of all, we already have the very subtle mind! This means we don’t need to add anything to our mind to become enlightened. We have the seeds of love, compassion, bliss, wisdom etc. – it is all there. All we need to do is grow those seeds — not add to them but grow them. And remove the obstructions that get in their way. Buddhahood is not out there anywhere. The beginnings are already right here, in our heart chakra.

As Buddha said:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 100

If we recognize and realize our own root mind or very subtle mind directly, we will definitely become a Buddha in this life!

Geshe-la looking at Pure LandGeshe Kelsang is always saying that we can attain enlightenment in this life. Numerous past practitioners in the Kadampa Tradition have already done this; and at the moment we have, by some karmic marvel, exactly the same methods at our fingertips. Our problem is that we don’t believe him half the time (any of the time?!)

There are many reasons for this – one perhaps being that we are not identifying with this potential but instead with a severely circumscribed sense of self. So it’s no wonder we don’t make that great of an effort, meaning we don’t get a taste, meaning we don’t develop an appetite. This meditation on the clarity of the mind luckily can also help with that! (More in a later article.)

Get control

The only hurdle right now is that we cannot access our very subtle mind, it is too deep. It manifests naturally in deep sleep and as we die, and it is even blissful when it does; but we can’t recognize or use it because, let’s face it, we can barely use our grossest levels of mind, our everyday waking consciousness. We find it hard to stay out of trouble even for one day! Because we lack mindfulness and concentration our mind controls us at the moment, not the other way around. Still, through Buddhism in general we learn to control our gross levels of mind, our more obvious delusions; and through Tantra we learn to manifest our own very subtle mind and use that. Once we can meditate with our clear light mind, we are almost there. We are almost enlightened.

You can read about all of this properly in Mahamudra Tantra, an enlightening book in the real sense of the word.

Sutra Mahamudra

Within Sutra Mahamudra, the meditation on the nature of the mind is the access point to meditation on emptiness. We take it as our object of concentration and mindfulness. It leads us both into emptiness, and one day into the great bliss of our own clear light mind.

Even if you are a beginner, this is where this meditation is headed.  Geshe Kelsang said in 2000:

Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. In reality, this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.

It’s good to know what Buddha’s mind is and what our mind is capable of. One day, every single one of us will attain enlightenment because everyone has the potential and sooner or later everyone will learn how to do it – and this is how.

I sometimes think that if we are going to get enlightened anyway one day, why not go for it now? Haven’t we been hanging out in samsara way, way, way too long already? What are we waiting for, exactly?

I think that is enough background for now.

Pacifying distractions

sky and clouds 3The meditation on the clarity of the mind, explained briefly here, has many benefits, “incredible power and benefit” as Geshe Kelsang said in 2000. Unbelievable supramundane phenomenal benefits. Maybe some of you are thinking, “Here we go again! I know I’ve got to do this meditation, I just need to sort out my real issues and/or get through six seasons of The Wire first.” That’s why we need to keep thinking about the benefits and the faults of not getting around to this meditation.

These benefits are very precise, describing what we will experience if we meditate on the nature of mind, the first being that it pacifies distractions. And that is even for us modern people who, let’s face it, are a little distracted. I will say just a little more about that in this admittedly long article before you all get distracted.

I sometimes think of distractions as all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking, like thoughts of sadness, or annoyance, or feeling our life is meaningless, or dissatisfaction, or longing, or fear of failure, or … you know the kind of thing. They distract us away from our natural peace of mind – yet we have no choice but to think them because our mind is so out of control. One of the things we learn in meditation is to let the delusions settle or temporarily disappear so that we can then more lastingly transform our mind. Different ways are taught to settle the mind, the most common being some kind of mindfulness of breathing. However, clarity of mind meditation is even more effective. It can take us all the way to enlightenment, but already at a basic beginners’ level it enables us to more easily let go of our distractions.

Have you ever felt that your meditation involves a struggle with your distractions? “I fought the distractions and the distractions won” kind of thing? This meditation helps us adjust our whole relationship with distractions. It no longer need be one of combat. We no longer need to feel besieged or overwhelmed. We no longer have to push our distractions away.

A distraction is defined as:

A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion.

sunset cloudsWe really need to know how to pacify our minds as there is always something that is troubling us. Does a day go past when it does not? There is always something. And we try to solve our problems day by day by trying to swat away this worry, then that worry; but those worries just keep on flying at us. We need to go straight to the source of that trouble, ie, unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds, without which we’d never experience another moment of pain. We need to learn the art of letting go, we need to learn how to drop our distractions.

To know how this meditation works to overcome distractions, we can look more at the object of meditation and how to approach it in a skillful way to reap this benefit. Next installment is here. Your comments are welcome.

Postscript: about the illustrations in this article, an excuse for me to share my pictures of the Denver sky, thanks. We don’t need to fear our delusions and distractions – they are like clouds that cannot pollute, much less destroy, the clear sky of our root mind. We can learn to dissolve away our delusions by always identifying with our clear sky mind.

How to be a hero

compassion fatigue?!

One of the main things about compassion is that it makes us a kinder, more helpful person. A force of good in this world, for sure. But it also helps US. Why? Because it overcomes our own limitations and problems, as does love. If we understand this, we are less reluctant to develop it. (Carrying on from this last article.)

compassion fatigue?!

compassion fatigue?!

Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.” If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Compassion causes us to experience happiness because once we generate it our disturbing minds such as pride, jealousy, anger, and attachment are pacified and our mind becomes very peaceful. It causes others to experience happiness because when we have great compassion we naturally care for others and try to help them whenever we can. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 21.

Brief compassion experiment

We can close our eyes and think of the last time we had strong compassion for someone we loved – our dog at the vet, or our disappointed child, or our parent suffering from a pain of old age, or our friend who lost their partner. Or a stranger whose plight has moved us. I don’t need to give you examples! Think of that person. Sadly we all have at least one.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. The United Nations renewed calls for the Syria regime and rebels to allow food and medical aid into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. An estimated 18,000 people are besieged inside the camp as the conflict in Syria continues. (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

DAMASCUS, SYRIA  (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

We wished for them to be free from pain. We would have done anything to free them.

We can go back to that experience, when all we wanted was for them to be well again, free from suffering.  What was going on in our mind at that time? During this experience, who were we caring about—ourselves or them? Was this wish for them to be free actually painful or — with the ego temporarily out of the way and our focus exclusively on another — was it okay? We can look and see for ourselves.

Also at that time, we can see how other obstacles in our mind were pacified – for example, was there any irritation or impatience, any self-pity? No, because it wasn’t about us. All problems associated with thinking about ourself disappeared. If someone had said to us, while we were caught up with the needs of a suffering relative, “Look, I’m sorry, but the machine is out of cappuccino”, would we really have cared?

We can keep that experience of compassion vivid, and ask ourself, “Was this a peaceful mind or not? Within that mind was there some cessation of suffering because I wasn’t thinking about myself?” Although we wished for someone we loved to be free from suffering, this was not a painful feeling. It was dynamic, positive.

“You need to go and let him out, then”

Be a heroI don’t often share my dreams, except with the occasional long-suffering friend, and I don’t want to bore you, but this vivid one I had last night showed me how compassion can be both unbearable and a liberating force that makes everything else pale into insignificance.

A young man was trapped in a big glass box on an unknown pedestrian street, quite visible, by enemies he had crossed, and the  box was heated up to an unbearably hot temperature. He wouldn’t die, but his body was shriveling up, and he was clutching his hands together in pain, blinking. People were walking past, some curious, others ignoring him, but no one seeming inclined to do anything. I couldn’t bear it and got on the phone to an (unknown in my dream) assistant of my teacher Geshe Kelsang to tell him what was going on. The message got lost in translation as Geshe-la came out to meet me holding a large glass of water, and I had to explain that the man wasn’t just hot, but trapped in a boiling box. To which Geshe-la replied: “You need to go and let him out, then.”

I hadn’t considered that a possibility, but I ran over there with my friend Morten, who managed to lift up a corner of the box and said, “Man, it is really hot in there.” I realized from this that it was possible to lift the entire side of the box up, so we did, and dragged the skinny man out. Then I told him, “We need to get out of here, we’re not safe yet, run with me.” Which he managed to do. We ran, stopping only for me to beg for some water for him from a passing vendor as I’d left my wallet and phone behind. We got away.

Moral of the tale
cape of compassion

cape of compassion

I got a few things from this dream: People suffer unbearably every day, including in hot, hellish states of existence that are out of our sight, but also plenty right under our nose, eg, the refugees trying so desperately hard to escape to Europe.

Until Geshe-la told me to let this man out, I hadn’t realized I could. Until I found Buddha’s teachings through Geshe-la, I didn’t realize liberating people from suffering was an option. I also had help from Sangha.

The main thing was the agony of seeing the man curled up in the box, and the sheer joy of helping him escape. Nothing would have distracted me at that point. The passion I had to save this person was stronger than any passion that comes from attachment, strong as that can be (remember Daniel Day Lewis and “I WILL find you?!” Stronger than that even!)

Pure compassion makes heroes of us all. A real hero or heroine, according to Buddhism, is someone who has beaten the foe of their selfish desires & other delusions and developed their compassion for others.

From these kinds of experiences, both in and out of dreams, I think it is not hard to see how, for Bodhisattvas motivated by compassion, nothing now will stop them from getting enlightened. By contrast to strong love and compassion, it is so so boring to be thinking about myself. If I never had to think about myself again out of self-centeredness, it would not be a day too soon.

The best way to have helped this man would have been to realize that I was dreaming, that the suffering was not real. The best way to help people is to wake ourselves and others up. More in a later article on how everything is the nature of the mind and so there are no inherently existent suffering beings. I’ll just leave you with a question: If everything is the nature of your mind, what is going to happen to everyone when you become an omniscient Buddha?

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