Dealing with suffering

BAMHappy Vajrayogini Day 🙂 This transcendent Buddha of Wisdom is all about helping us destroy our suffering at its root, in the course of one short lifetime.

We don’t like suffering, at least I don’t. Strange how much time we spend, then, dwelling on our own suffering each day.

Geshe Kelsang has said it is meaningless to think about our own suffering unless we want to develop renunciation, the wish for permanent freedom from all suffering and its causes. Dwelling on our own problems out of the context of renunciation can just lead to more self-cherishing. We tend to bat away one problem at a time, which is a bit exhausting and overwhelming. This is one reason why we need genuine renunciation, a compassion for ourselves that wants to be free from the whole ocean of samara, not just one wave at a time.

My friend K went to ER on Wednesday morning – waited 7 hours to be seen, all the time experiencing attacks of agony from kidney stones. She said the main thing she learned was that temporary cessations from particular sufferings, as Geshe Kelsang puts it, were indeed not good enough. In between the bouts of vomiting she’d experience temporary relief, and for the first few hours she though each time, “Phew, that’s it.” She said she even forgot quickly about the pain, thought she was free. But by 11 at night, experience had shown her that this short respite was just the precursor to another pain attack, and that she needed permanent freedom.

Keeping suffering in context

prison and freedomInterestingly, we can be overwhelmingly sad about any given daily mental or physical suffering, but when we manage to view that in the bigger existential context of the four noble truths and develop renunciation our mind becomes lighter and happier, already on the side of liberation, on the side of the solution.

Imagine you’d been born in a prison but had no idea, and you spent your life complaining about the prison food, the bars on the window that ruined your view, the rough and annoying people around you, the cold showers …. You tried to fix these problems as they arose, with greater or lesser success, but generally the whole experience was frustrating. Then someone comes along and says, “Your actual problem is that you are in prison. Until you get out, you are going to experience prison problems, whatever you do.” Buddha was like that when he pointed out the truth of suffering, the first of the four noble truths, likening samsara to a prison. It was not to depress us that he explained how we suffer from mental and physical pain every single frigging day of our lives, but to energize us to break out of the prison of suffering, whose walls and prison guards are our own delusions and negative actions.

hunger gamesWe’ve been enslaved by a master race of delusions since beginningless time. Katniss may be cool, but never mind the Hunger Games (a nod to the 4 nieces who told me to read/watch it) – that’s small fry. It’s time for us all to really rebel, shooting the flaming arrow of wisdom into our ignorance by realizing the ultimate nature of things, the mere absence of all the things we normally see.

Life is short

As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Understand the Mind p 275:

“Normally we believe that solving the suffering and problems of our present life is most important, and we dedicate our whole life for this purpose.”

But the problems of this life are very short-lived – if we die tomorrow, those problems end tomorrow.

I was talking with a friend over Xmas who was saying he wanted to win the lottery. I replied, “Don’t we all, but all the same it won’t solve our problems for very long.” He disagreed, regaling me with the varying levels of debt he and his family are in, and how much more wonderful life will be when those debts are paid off, how they’ll be free. Yes, perhaps, (I might have said if I’d thought of it at the time) — but not if you pay your debts off on Tuesday and then die on Wednesday.

Springboard to freedom
flicking off a rock
Quick, learn to fly!

Far more serious are the problems we are carrying deep inside us in the form of delusions and negative karma, as these undercurrents will flow into our countless future lives, constantly churning up new sufferings. If we use this short, very precious human life just to bat away at our immediate problems, I was thinking it’s a bit like using a million dollars to pay for a bag of salt & vinegar crisps at the airport because we feel peckish and happen to like Walkers. Precious human lives packed full with opportunity don’t come out of nowhere – we may not remember, but we must have spent a huge amount of time and effort in previous lives creating all the causes for this one, our potential springboard to freedom. Do we want to squander all that trying to solve the problems of just this life when we can use it in advance to solve the problems of all our future destinations?

Same for others

I think we can use a similar line of reasoning for developing compassion. Let’s say someone we love has been diagnosed with a horrible perhaps incurable illness. We can’t bear it, and we want them to be free from it; but we are not a doctor and, even if we were, we cannot cure them. So we are unhappy, the suffering seems overwhelming, seems to be just there, just sitting there. If however we transform that simple wish for them to be free from this particular illness into actual compassion for not just this sickness but all their sicknesses forever, already our mind is lifting.

Vajrayogini
What would Vajrayogini do?!

Because it is true, isn’t it, that if we want our mother, say, to be free from her neck pain today, we would also like her still to be free from it next week, and the week after, and the week after that … and, if we stop to think further, we want her to be free from ANY physical illness and mental suffering now and forever too. And if we understand that for her to be free from suffering forever she needs to be free of the causes of suffering, and we develop that wish for her, our mind becomes the very peaceful, solution-oriented, pure, even blissful mind of genuine compassion. Try it and see, and report back in the comments if you would. (Doesn’t mean of course that we don’t also try to alleviate her immediate neck pain eg, with Tiger Balm patches.) 

Spread that out to all our kind mothers and our mind gradually becomes vast and powerful, developing first into universal compassion and then the compassion of a Buddha, like Vajrayogini, that actually has the power to protect living beings from suffering.

 

 

 

Prostrating to the Buddha of Compassion

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is coming up on April 15, and I, along with a lot of Kadampa Buddhists in places around the world, tend to celebrate it with two days of Drop of Essential Nectar, sometimes known as Nyung Nä (or Nyungnay). This is a purification, prostration, and fasting retreat in conjunction with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

It’s the only time of the year that we seem to engage in some physical asceticism — for two days, starting at dawn, we observe the eight Mahayana precepts, which include not eating after lunch and, for those who do the full fast, not eating or drinking at all on the second day. The hunger pangs are helpful for reminding us about the gazillions of people who don’t get enough to eat or drink on any day, ever.

1000-armed Avalokiteshvara
1000-armed Avalokiteshvara

I do like Nyungnay, with its emphasis on keeping compassion and bodhichitta in our heart all day long, and the transcendent power of Avalokiteshvara, his thousand arms reaching out to everyone without exception. Also, I find prostrations fun. I do, I’m not making that up! So I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been doing today in case you are under the impression that prostrations are just hard work. (If you haven’t read pages 116 onward in the book Great Treasury of Merit, by the way, there is a beautiful explanation of prostrations in there.)

Compassion and the lower realms

Whenever I am developing compassion and/or doing prostrations, I get myself out of the way first by remembering that the self I cherish doesn’t even exist. I am not my body, and I am not my mind — but take these away and I disappear (thankfully). That means I am free to lay down my boring burden of self-fixation and move into the vast expanse of everyone else.

Today during precepts I was meditating on the lower realms. I personally cannot tolerate even the slightest headache without popping two Advil, and am currently preoccupied with trying to navigate the bureaucracy of Obamacare before the looming deadline of April 15th as I fear any manner of human illnesses and accidents might empty out my bank account if I do not. However, human sufferings like these are a walk in the park compared with the unbearable sufferings of people in the hell realms. I read in some Lojong (mind-training) text recently that being stabbed 30 times in the hand with a spear does not even compare with a minute of suffering experienced by those in the black-line hell.

I know I don’t spend enough time thinking about people who have ended up in the hell realms, which is a shame because, when I do, it instantly gets everything into perspective. All rebirths are impermanent, and the realms of hell are nightmarish appearances to mind that have no more existence from their own side than this current life. But, and it is a big but, once someone lands up in hell, it takes an unfathomably long time to get out. The countless karmic appearances from lifetimes of negative actions don’t disappear overnight, and there is no refuge or chance to purify them; so it is like an interminable nightmare from which we cannot wake up.Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha

Meantime, people in the hungry ghost realm are perpetually hungry, thirsty, sad, and exhausted. Moreover, we know close up and personal what a bad time animals have from the struggles and powerlessness of the thousands we can see around us, and there are tragically far more animals in their own realm.

What “prostration” means

The Tibetan word for prostrations is “chag tsel” – ‘chag’ means sweeping away delusions, negative karma, and obstructions, and ‘tsel” means requesting all good qualities. I don’t think prostrations work if we are holding ourselves as unworthy or at a distance from enlightened beings – they work best when our faith recognizes our own Buddha nature clear light, and connects to the holy beings’ clear light Dharmakaya, knowing we will become just like them.

The sky is the limit

When prostrating, we don’t need to be small-minded, thinking that it is just me in one meaty body making one feeble little distracted prostration onto the carpet (oooh, look at that dust! … at least I’m getting some exercise …) in front of some image of Buddha. No, there is a great deal more going on than that! The sky is the limit! The higher sky of the Dharmakaya, that is.

First thing we are encouraged to do, along with our mind of faith and respect, is to think that from every pore of our body we manifest another body, which in turn manifests countless more, until the whole universe is filled with our bodies all making prostrations. Already some mind-expansion is going on and you’re going to have more fun. It is inspiring to think that you are already in a very pure space, as you are in the company of all enlightened beings, and you are prostrating to all of them.

Avalokiteshvara by Graham Dyer
Buddha Avalokiteshvara painted by Graham Dyer

I like to think that I am also in the company of everyone in all six realms, and that they are all prostrating along with me – and it can be helpful to start by focusing on specific people in my life who are currently experiencing suffering, believing they are next to me prostrating. For example, today I thought a lot about an old university friend and Buddhist artist Graham Dyer, who was just saying, “Those treacle tarts look nice” to his best friend in Grange bakery last Thursday when he dropped to the floor and died. (Please pray for him and his wife and two sons).

I also thought about the kittens I am fostering, who are going to have to go back into the smelly crowded shelter, which they will not like at all, to wait for a home. They are trapped in their bodies and environments — they cannot even open the door — and are always at the mercy of humans being nice to them. So I imagine them prostrating along with me, in human form or even in the aspect of a Buddha, purifying all their negativity and accumulating vast good karma and blessings, also emanating bodies from every pore of their bodies for maximum effect.

These human beings and animals are in turn are surrounded by all the other human beings and animals in the universe, also prostrating. And so on. This takes the same amount of time as making one corporeal prostration on the carpet, but the outcome in terms of good karma and purification is altogether more extraordinary.

Some ideas to try out

Couple of other things I like to do … I have my mother of this life to my left, my father to my right, those for whom I have attachment behind me, and those whom I may be having trouble with in front of me. They are surrounded by all other living beings. I prostrate with different requests, eg, may I and all these living beings be free from attachment, or anger, or ignorance. I find this a very powerful way to get rid of whatever my own current stubborn delusions may be, getting unstuck.

Or may we all be free from sickness and famine. Or from the lower realms. Or from war. Etc. Sometimes I focus on specific individuals who are suffering, sometimes groups, sometimes everyone. We can request whatever we want because Guru Avalokiteshvara pervades all worlds and beings and can fulfill these wishes.

If I want to emphasize completion stage, I recognize that me and all living beings are mere imputations—the selves we normally see do not exist. And we are all prostrating with the wish to overcome all hallucinations, all ordinary conceptions and mistaken appearances, and attain meaning clear light and enlightenment. The prostration mudra, putting our fingers and thumbs together, holding a jewel, symbolizes the gathering of the 10 winds into the central channel so that we manifest the clear light, symbolized by the jewel.

Do you have any other things you like to do? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Prostrating all the way home

I find it blissful to feel as though I am prostrating directly into my Spiritual Guide’s actual heart, which is his clear light Truth Body or Dharmakaya. This feels like going home, finally going home – a profound relief. Everything is completely purified and transformed, and when I arise from the prostration I can do so as an emanation of my Spiritual Guide, inseparable from the Dharmakaya, to help others. I also imagine that everyone is doing the same as they prostrate with me, gathering into the clear light and arising completely purified and blissful.Buddha and lake

The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye said (and I’m sure it could apply to O People of Denver, Ulverston, Cape Town, etc too):

O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go. To repay his kindness, offer your faith. ~ Great Treasury of Merit p. 116

Geshe Kelsang comments on this:

If we wish for a human rebirth our Spiritual Guide will lead us there, if we wish for liberation he will lead us there, if we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land he will lead us there, and if we wish to attain enlightenment he will lead us there.

To my mind, this means my Spiritual Guide is here to take me home, where I belong, as I don’t feel I really belong in samsara, and nor does anyone else. And with this faith, I can prostrate my way home.Mount Kailash

I have always been inspired for some reason by people who prostrate all the way up Mount Kailash and/or around Lake Manasarova, believing these mountains and lakes to be completely pure, part of the mandala, the home of enlightened beings. I’m quite sure that if I actually had to do it, my enthusiasm would wane, as it is not exactly carpeted and there are no hotels en route; but, still, I like the idea, and can emulate it in the comfort of my room. It is a pilgrimage — prostrating all the way to your actual home, the heart of the Buddhas, the heart of the mandala.

Here is an article for Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! May you all swiftly realize your full potential and become enlightened too.

 

 

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

SOUTH AFRICA MANDELAA light has gone out in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tribute from a South African friend

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

The patience of non-retaliation

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The greatest tribute

reacting to Nelson Mandela's death

My endless gratitude to you, Nelson Mandela.

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

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

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

The sooner, the better.

__________________

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