This was written this February, when human beings still bustled quaintly on this earth within inches of each other, no masks!, and no idea what was about to hit us. This article still works now, maybe more so, given that the entire world is full of the sorrows of this pandemic. We could probably all do with an effective way to feel less anxious and overwhelmed, more safe and in refuge.
New York City is full of people. So full, perhaps, that you could find yourself sucked into dramas morning till night. Sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. Given that there are so many people here, so many people in other cities, so many people in ant hills, so many people in samsara … how on earth are we supposed to extricate ourselves, let alone everyone else?! It can all feel very solid and real – the sickness, the ageing, the death, the homelessness, the hunger, the cold, and so on. No wonder compassion fatigue is a thing.
It is true that there are infinite beings in the six realms of samsara, and our stories of pain and suffering, told since beginningless time, seem to show no signs of slowing down, much less stopping. Taken alone, getting us all out seems a daunting task. But when feeling besieged by samsaric narratives, it can be incredibly helpful to remember that although there may be countless samsaric beings, there are also countless enlightened beings.
To infinity and beyond
When we visualize Buddha Shakyamuni, for example, he is not appearing with only a few holy beings dotted around him, in our tiny NY room, hopelessly outnumbered by a gazillion sentient beings. Buddha is surrounded by infinite enlightened beings, “like the full moon surrounded by stars”, who stretch on and out forever and ever.
This is not just true for Buddhists. This is true for everyone. Holy omniscient beings, however or whoever we envisage them, pervade everywhere and everyone.
(Coincidentally, just as I was writing this, I heard Stevie Wonder sing: “When you feel your life’s too hard, just go have a talk with God.” 🙂 )
Countless beings, once just like us, have attained enlightenment and no longer belong in samsara. This means that although there are infinite beings in infinite galaxies, Buddhas and Buddha Lands equal, if not outnumber, them all.
Samsara is the product of hallucination. Enlightenment is reality. Pit samsaric worlds and beings against enlightened worlds and beings, and who, ultimately, is going to prevail?
What is faith?
With the practice of Dharma we get to start choosing whose company we want to keep and be influenced by. We can start to feel that we are in the company of enlightened beings whenever we want; and with Tantra we feel that we are already one of them.
This is faith, of course – but faith doesn’t have to be overly complicated or mysterious. We can believe in the existence of enlightened beings by observing our own minds and how we have been able to reduce our delusions and increase our love and patience, for example. Nothing is fixed about our thoughts, and everything depends upon our thoughts. Taking that to its logical conclusion, we can envisage ourselves free from all faults and suffering and pervaded by spontaneous wisdom and compassion.
Close your eyes for a moment and try it!
Did that work? If so, even being able to entertain a notion of being enlightened indicates our potential for enlightenment and therewith the fact that countless enlightened beings already exist – the only difference between us and them is that they have put in the effort.
Based on this so-called “believing faith”, we can develop admiration for their good qualities — they can be our role models and super heroes, we can feel happy about them. And because we have this so-called “admiring faith,” which includes that faith in our own potential, we have the wish to become just like them, which is called “wishing faith.”
As Geshe Kelsang says in the first edition of Transform Your Life:
Without faith, everything is mundane. We are blind to anything beyond the ordinary and imperfect world we normally inhabit, and we cannot even imagine that pure, faultless beings, worlds, or states of mind exist. Faith is like pure eyes that enable us to see a pure and perfect world beyond the suffering world of samsara.
The company we keep
Whenever we think of Buddha, there he or she is. He is there even when we don’t think of him. Enlightenment is everywhere, always, because enlightenment is reality, always waiting to be revealed.
Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena; and because his or her body and mind are the same nature, his body is also all-pervasive. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist.
This means that enlightened beings and Buddha Lands are everywhere and always, including right here right now. Holy beings are just as close to us as all these samsaric beings popping up around us. Purify our minds and we will see these pure beings directly. In the meantime we can have faith that they’re here, and that, because they are always relating to our pure potential as opposed to our delusions and suffering, they love us unconditionally whatever we are up to.
We do have a choice. Even in the middle of a huge city, full of seemingly endless suffering samsaric beings, we don’t need to invest in every passing mirage, powerlessly pulled in every direction. With Dharma in general and Tantra in particular, we can start to enjoy ourselves and those around us as illusion-like appearances arising within the space of emptiness – not inherently suffering, potentially pure and enlightened. We are already in the living company of countless holy beings in a pure and beautiful world.
As it continues in Eight Steps:
Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has been shining all along, and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we will see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.
Tuning into joy and purity like this, space opens up and discouragement goes away. I think there’s an enormous amount of love and support available all the time, more than enough to stop us from feeling overwrought. And, situated now on the side of the solution, we can always find the energy to help others. For if we are already in the Pure Land, what is there to worry about?
This is the highest and most empowering form of renunciation (seeking to be permanently free) and compassion (seeking to free others), which we can learn to feel all the time, wherever we are. After all, as Freddie Mercury just happens to sing in the movie I’ve been watching on this plane out of NYC:
We are the champions, my friends. And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.
There were a thousand people at the recent Kadampa Buddhist Festival in Mexico, all receiving Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments and commentary. There will be several thousand more attending Heruka and Vajrayogini empowerments this Summer in England. This may be just the beginning. And, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think this development might indicate a coming paradigm shift for much of modern humanity. 😁
In my defense …. there’s loads of hyperbole around these days anyway, only most of it is painting the picture of a dystopian future for us all. There are many articles around, such as this one, bemoaning the moral decay of civilization and politics, the rise of nationalism and “strong men”, the destruction of our planet, and more. And the more of this stuff I read, the more I feel that Buddhism can help in these times, that Tantra gives us mighty tools for helping.
Point is, there is no inherently existent world. There is no fixed future – the future doesn’t even exist, all we have is our thoughts and imaginations about the future. These can change. We need to choose what we focus on – so that we can bring that out of ourselves and others.
In this article, a guest author talks about how wisdom and compassion are needed in modern society to bring about the real shift that is necessary to empower us all.
Tantra is the embodiment of that wisdom and compassion, it gives it vision and life. A paradigm shift is defined as:
An important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.
If there are thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of human beings practicing Buddhist Tantra, the world has no choice but to change for the better. And we seem to be heading in that direction.
I don’t think for a moment that 7 billion human beings are about to become Buddhist, let alone start practicing Tantra, in the next few years. But I do think that millions may, and, given that the wisdom of Tantra tears down the illusions of samsara and builds Pure Lands in the here and now, this will surely make the biggest impact not just on them but on everyone around them.
There are good people everywhere with big hearts, in all faiths and walks of life — beautiful people making a difference. As Tantric practitioners, we can help them.
Escape to reality
Buddhist Tantra is far from escapist, far from make-believe. At the moment we are hallucinating ourselves, the world, and everything and everyone else – projecting a “real” world outside the mind and then reacting as if it was actually there. Samsara is the make-believe. Tantra sees through the hallucinations. It escapes TO reality, rather than from reality.
So, I’d like to continue sharing ways I make Tantra practical.
Let’s say we have now generated ourselves as Heruka or Vajrayogini in the way described in this article — using as our basis of imputation to begin with a positive mind that is not hard for us to generate. If we are in our meditation session, this is now our jumping off point for going deep.
Then what do we do?
Well, one thing I like to do after thinking “I am Vajrayogini” is to check what’s happening in my mind, like if there are any delusions coming up. Then I find it incredibly helpful to deal with those delusions in the space of bliss and emptiness.
In Sutra we are taught not to dwell on our faults nor identify with them, and in Tantra we take this to its logical conclusion and do it in a supercharged way. Check out this section from How to Solve Our Human Problems:
Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from. …. In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm… Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings.
That’s just from a Sutra point of view. If we apply this to Tantra and understand that the space or sky of the mind is bliss and emptiness, then our bad weather delusions become utterly manageable, even if they feel really painful.
So, for example, rather than grappling with attachment or anger like a dog with a bone, we self-generate first and then look at those unpleasant feelings that are arising like clouds. Is it possible to have some unhappy feelings and be happy at the same time?! Yes, providing we are not identifying “Me” with those cloud-like feelings but instead with the blissful, spacious sky.
Painful feelings can only arise and remain in our mind because of our present self-grasping … we strongly feel “I am hurt” or “MY feelings are hurt.” The intensity of our suffering is in direct proportion to the intensity of our self-grasping.
So, if we look at our delusions from our perspective of being bliss and emptiness, they can seem weirdly fascinating, but we are neither threatened nor scared by them. We are not bogged down by them. We are not them. We have the space to look at them and understand how to work with them, and then it is easy to apply any antidote of Sutra and Tantra — all within that context of being very light and free and confident.
Whatever painful feelings arise, we can see that they’re not able to harm us in any way, any more than weather can destroy the sky; and, sooner or later we’ll see that they are just aspects of clear light.
First we should know that in ultimate truth there are no impure things, no samsara, no suffering, and no mistaken appearance; everything is completely pure in the nature of definitive Heruka, emptiness inseparable from the clear light of bliss. Impure things are only the creation of the ignorance of self-grasping and therefore actually do not exist.
In any event, it’s not so much what is appearing to you right now that’s the problem (if you have any problems), so much as your grasping at it as actually being there, solid and real.
This self-grasping ignorance gets us into all sorts of trouble and weighs us down. One example amongst countless (such as everything we’ve been upset about today) — if someone we like appears unfriendly, we can buy into that, dwell on it, make it more and more real, and get more and more unhappy.
As opposed to using wisdom to just let it go.
Breaking the illusion
We have this little window right now, with this precious human life, because we’ve met these teachings, and especially Buddha’s wisdom teaching on the illusory nature of reality, which is the ultimate Dharma Jewel and refuge.
Moreover, everything we see is a 3D virtual reality projection that we are buying into, as if we were obliviously wearing those glasses and thinking that it’s really going on out there. From the perspective of those not seeing our particular hallucinations, we can look quite mad. And they can look quite mad to us for not following the rules of our 3D game.
Until we realize the fakery of samsara, we are wandering around thinking: “All this is real and out there. I’m really limited. I’m really suffering. Things really are difficult for me. My body really is a horrible mess. And I am basically an angry person — perhaps I can practice a bit of patience here and there, or maybe I can get a little bit kinder, but basically this is how I am, and I’m fixed, and I’m limited. And I am really deluded, and my life is full of suffering and problems, not to mention irritating people.”
This is when we’re buying into the reality of our samsara. Believing it. Believing what we see, all those appearances or projections, thinking that’s the way it actually is, this is who I am, that’s who all these annoying people are, the world’s a mess, everything’s real, everything’s solid.
But with Buddha’s wisdom teachings, it’s a bit like we suddenly worked out we are preprogrammed, realizing, “My life is not my own — I’m being propelled from one situation to the next by the software of delusions and karma!” And we decide, “OK, I’m going to change this, because, although everything is kind of fake, now that I’ve realized this, it means I can ditch this program and take off these glasses.”
“We have everything upside down”
Fact is, there’s nothing real or solid or fixed about any of this. There is nothing existing objectively. There is nothing independent of the mind. There is nothing outside the mind. Even some quantum scientists are beginning to say this kind of thing:
Consciousness is what gives rise to our sense of there being an “out there” when, in fact, the world we experience around us is actually created in our consciousness.
I might add that it is our gross and subtle consciousness that creates this dualistic sense of in here and out there – our very subtle mind has a non-dual experience of reality. Check out this article if you’re interested.
Victims of our thoughts?
If things were inherently or objectively existent, we might as well give up right now. There’s no point practicing Buddhism if everything is solid and fixed and real. There’s no point at all, if we can’t change it.
But what Buddha is saying is that it is completely changeable because it’s not really there, at least not in the way we think it is. Everything is dreamlike and depends entirely upon our mind. We are projecting our world with our thoughts and then believing that it’s out there, coming at us, rather like a movie or an hallucination. But rather than remaining the victims of our own crummy thoughts without even realizing it, Buddha explained that we can transform our thoughts – which is the practice of Dharma – and therewith our reality.
It is not just a case of coping with the material, real world, by practicing a little bit of patience here with inherently annoying people, a little bit of contentment there with inherently attractive people. If we change our thoughts, we literally change our world. We change our reality from one of confusion and delusion to one of wisdom and positivity, with all the objects projected by our minds changing too, because they depend entirely one upon the other.
Buddha’s point is that we can do this because nothing is fixed, nothing is real. The ultimate Dharma Jewel IS those wisdom teachings, that nothing is real. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all, by the way – we’re all here reading this, Hello! But we’re not here in the way that we think we’re here. We’re not all separate, isolated individuals, for example. It’s not us over here, and everyone else over there, with this big gap between us. That duality is an optical illusion of our ignorance.
Ultimately we turn to wisdom, therefore, to get rid of our problems. In the mean time we also turn to the other Dharma jewels: compassion, love, patience, renunciation, faith, correct imagination, and so on. All these virtuous minds solve our problems — they solve our actual problems, such that those problems reduce straightaway and finally go away for good.
As explained here, we have an habitual urge to solve our problems out there – “Should I contact him? What should I say to get his attention? To make him love me again?!” It doesn’t work, usually.
But we don’t have to keep scratching every itch, or any itch. If we change our thoughts, the itch simply goes away. For good.
Even just allowing our mind to settle a bit relieves the pain of needing to go out there and fix the fixed or unfixable. Delusions such as attachment and aversion go outwards – we need to go inwards, where we’ll find all the peace, relief, satisfaction, and richness we’ve always wanted. Try this meditation to see for yourself.
On that basis, instead of developing anger, jealousy, disappointment, or unrequited attachment, we can learn to view others with genuine love. That way they are never separated from us and we feel a warmth of communion instead of the wrench of being torn asunder.
Everyone is a projection of our mind, so we can learn to project with love and wisdom rather than projecting people out there, nothing to do with us, fixed, who then won’t or can’t cooperate with what we think we need from them.
Over to you, would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
One way we can understand the need for deeper refuge is by thinking about what ARE our problems, what are our sufferings, and whether our temporary sources of refuge are in fact good enough for us. If they are, fantastic. And if they’re not, then good to know, because we can then seek refuge in something more effective.
If you’re suffering at all, chances are you’re in samsara. Samsara is what Buddha called this state of existence where we have delusions and (usually) meaty bodies. Basically, in samsara we’re suffering, one way or another. Even when we’re happy, we’re not as happy as we could be.
Samsara doesn’t come from the places and people outside us, our job or our politics, our weather or our entertainments. It is the creation and mirror of the delusions in our mind, especially our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. This is why we can run but we can’t hide.
Although there’s good bits in our mind, and nice experiences that we have, overall we’re trapped in a state of uncertainty, in a state of no satisfaction, in a state of suffering. We’re subject to physical illnesses, we’re subject to mental pain — every day, if we check. Perhaps every hour.
I’ve had a rotten cold these past 10 days for example, along with half of New York; and it’s been making me feel sad for the people I pass with no homes to go to. I find it painful even to walk for ten minutes to the subway in these frigid temperatures, the cold searing my lungs – but I have a cozy bed and warm tea to welcome me at the end of my journey, as opposed to cardboard and indifference.
There’s rarely a day goes by when a body doesn’t hurt in some way. Yours is probably already a little uncomfortable in some way as you sit reading this — you’re thinking it’s time to get up and move around. (Not that I want to put that idea in your head … hold on.)
The problem with these bodies
You could be sitting right now on a lovely comfy sofa – we try to make our body as comfortable as we can, but it is challenging given that it is a bag of bones with lots of nerve endings. Reminds me … I was so pleased with a new massage chair gifted to me that I bought a similar contraption for my father with the hope that it’d ease his aching muscles. What it actually did though was crunch his old bones and make him hurt for weeks.
A good friend of mine texted this morning from England, a yogi monk known as Rainbow to his oldest friends — been practicing Dharma as long as I have, and really meditating a lot. Anyway, he texted me this morning just to say, “How are you? I’m doing well considering I’m imputed on a bag of bones.”
And that’s about as good as it gets in terms of physical comfort. Some days we’re relatively comfortable. Given that at the moment we identify so strongly with this bag of bones as “my body”, and even as me, it’s amazing we have any good days, really, because, and I don’t know if you have noticed?, these bodies are not set up for comfort. Everything in our body can hurt. Everything, except for maybe our hair. And even that, if someone pulls it …
There’s pretty much nothing about our bodies that can’t hurt, doesn’t hurt sooner or later. Like teeth. How many teeth do we have? 36? 2? 12? Anyway, it amazes me that every single tooth in our mouth is fine when it’s working, we don’t even think about it; but when it isn’t working, whoa, that hurts, that can ruin our day. And there’s 31 more where that came from.
And there’s nothing about our body that’s not potentially going to turn against us, either. We can get cancer all over our body, can’t we? (Maybe not in our fingernails.) And eventually the whole thing just gives out.
Incorrectly identifying ourselves
Samsara is basically when we impute ourselves on, or identify ourselves with, a meaty body and a deluded mind, thinking: “This is me, this is who I am, I’m this person, I’m a limited person. This is me, looking all ugly because of this cold. I’m capable of good things sometimes, but other times I hate myself. I’m inadequate, I’m unhappy, I’m irritated, I’m obsessed, I’m anxious, I’m sad, I’m sore, I’m hurting. Etc. etc.
Whenever we think like that about ourselves, we’re identifying ourselves with our meaty body and/or impure states of mind. But the fact is that these are NOT who we are. We are not really (or inherently) anything. We could instead identify with our extraordinary pure potential, and, if we go for refuge to Dharma, we can completely transcend mental and physical suffering with this human life that we currently possess, traveling the entire path to liberation and enlightenment.
What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I” “I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly.
So, when we turn for refuge, that’s what we really want — protection from all the sufferings that come up within our samsara, understanding that samsara is just the experience of a deluded mind and a meaty body, wherever they may be. According to Buddhism we’ve had countless lives in these kinds of bodies. Often far worse bodies than the one we have now, and far more polluted or negative minds.
We’ve caught a bit of a break, according to Buddha, at the moment, in this precious human life. We have a little window to practice Dharma — our sufferings are not so crushing that there’s nothing we can do about them, but they’re enough to motivate us to do something about them. We can develop the ability to get to their root, to kind of deprogram or decommission our samsara, as it were.
Delusions remind me a little bit of preprograms that run in our minds. Maybe I’ve been thinking too much about artificial intelligence recently. It’s kind of like when robots run around all preprogrammed, our delusions are a bit like that. We’ve arrived with this horrible software from previous lives, and are being run around by it. So we need to reconfigure our software. In fact, we need to ditch it altogether, be free!
We need to be free. Our delusions don’t let us be free. They constrict us in so many different ways, and they cause us suffering in life after life. So we need to deprogram our minds by getting rid of our delusions while we’ve got this opportunity to do so, while someone is actually saying to us, “Hey, you can do this, and this is how.” Someone who is not part of this program, and understands exactly how it is set up and how we can dismantle it.
A Buddha has appeared in our life, extraordinarily, and, as we go about our daily lives — running around trying to find happiness here, there, and everywhere — he’s kind of striding along next to us, saying, “Hey, slow down a minute, look within. You’re preprogrammed. Just ditch the entire software, stop trying to make this work, it can’t.”
(Is this analogy working for anyone other than me?!)
I have quoted this before as it is one of my favorite Shantideva sayings:
We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.
I think that’s exactly what we do — we let our deluded habits dominate our behavior, we DO act as if we’re kind of sleepwalking, we’re not wide awake. We’re conditioned or pre-programmed to act in certain ways. Conditioned by what? By our delusions and karma. And with our delusions we create our messy society, and this in turn conditions us further. It is endless mirror reflections.
So we’re trapped in this kind of Matrix hallucination. And Buddha really wants to unplug us all. He wants us to log out of this preprogrammed endless horror show of samsara.
Life without suffering is possible. But not samsaric life.
More later. Meanwhile, what do you think about all this?
“I feel like I’m losing control of my life! I have to go! Let me go! I need to go to my house!”
And Jim gently replied:
“I’m so sorry. That is what it feels like when we are dying. But please don’t worry, you are here with us now. You are too confused to leave; it is not safe to let you go. We are going to take care of you.”
With that, he turned on the prayer playlist Aubree always wanted by her side – nowadays it was on pretty loud all night at her request to remind her of her Spiritual Guide when she fell unconscious, because her greatest fear was forgetting him when she died.
Jim and his wife Karin have been taking extraordinarily good care of Aubree for well over a year now, day and night – it used to be just weekends but towards the end they kindly took her into their house full-time because hospice was not a possibility. (The reason it was not a possibility is because her disturbed sister would not release the name of her oncologist and, despite calling every hospital in town, Jim was not able to locate him. It was maddening.)
Jim offered her the anti-seizure medicine she has been taking for two years, but she gagged and choked and said she couldn’t swallow any pills. “Don’t worry”, he said again, as he crushed her Ativan and put it in her food, which for the past year has amounted to approximately a tiny bit of mush per day. She had to eat something, and the meds were to help her with the seizures. But this time she was really freaking out. She was very confused, it seemed, and she snapped at them uncharacteristically, “Let me go! You have kidnapped me!!!”
A modern-day Upala
Aubree’s story is incredible. Here are some of the salient details she wrote herself when requesting prayers:
“I was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago, am an epileptic, and will likely die very soon. My seizures have been so bad that I have been resuscitated 3 times recently, my breathing is very labored, I am usually unable to eat more than a tablespoon a day, and I have a lot of physical pain. I have had nightmares and fearful flashbacks most of my adult life, ever since a violent attack in College, but these lessened considerably when I met dharma 2 years ago. However, with my illness, it is hard for me to have a formal meditation practice and I struggle to keep a peaceful mind, but I am trying to keep you at my heart at all times. Please be with me when I die and guide me through death and rebirth.
I want everyone to be happy and not to suffer. I feel so lucky and know there are many other living beings with more suffering. I especially want my family to be happy, but they are having a difficult time letting go. Please pray for my mother who is struggling with losing me. She is unhappy and responding to the situation poorly and recently tried to kill me 3 times out of delusion, once by kicking me in the stomach while I was unconscious, once by pushing me down stairs, and once by stabbing me in my side. My sister also is struggling with me dying and needed to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. My brothers are very sad and are unable to accept the situation and let me go. I want them all to be happy and to find peace. Please keep them all in your prayers.”
And it is not just her mother, sister, and brothers. A little while ago Aubree went missing for a week, at the end of which time she texted to say that her father had been keeping her locked up at his house and wouldn’t let her have her phone nor read any Dharma books. She said she was now terrified of him as well.
A few months ago her best childhood friend was on her way to visiting her when she went missing for 4 days. It was a scary 4 days, at the end of which time her friend’s body was tragically discovered by a state trooper in Texas – she had gone off her meds and committed suicide. So sad. She was supposed to be getting married next month.
Something dramatic happened pretty much every week – including too many brinks of death to count. Aubree was a modern-day Upala (see Joyful Path of Good Fortune). We all hoped that this was Aubree’s incredible purification too, and that she was swiftly earning her place in the Pure Land.
It was painful for all of us to watch Aubree dying like this, experiencing so many epileptic or PNES seizures lying clenched and shaking on the floor, so many night terrors, so much head-banging pain, some of which Jim successfully treated with acupuncture –needles stuck in an inch and a half, up to 50 at a time, because she said she couldn’t feel them. This treatment would take hours, and she would look like a pin cushion. When we first met her, she would have hellish-sounding night terrors every single night, reliving the trauma of her abduction and rape, and she’d wake up very frightened. It felt as if she was living in both the human world and an occasional hell at the same time – but at least these terrors largely subsided a few months after meeting Dharma.
And so many trips to the ER, where we watched them pump her full with Ativan or resuscitate her and then send her home with another big bill. Her grueling chemo treatments causing her to vomit and lose her hair, her arm in a sling for weeks after her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the bruises from falling into walls, the mini-strokes and increasing confusion, the stab wounds inflicted by her alcoholic mother (now thankfully in jail). She could not walk without support, she needed constant attention. She could hardly talk by the end, barely a whisper, and she weighed 90 lbs; but still through all of this she smiled radiantly and inspired us all with her courage and good humor. She bought out a good deal of compassion in her spiritual community, and no one felt like complaining when she was around because, frankly, compared to her what did any of us have to complain about?! And she never complained – in her quavering voice she would call herself “the luckiest person in the world” and all she ever said she wanted was for us to pray for her poor, deluded, suffering family.
It was also amazing how many Festivals, teachings, and retreats she managed to get to, and how many NKT luminaries she managed to meet. Plus her story captured the heart, and she had hundreds of people praying for her.
It was not just us caring for her. Her brother in law, Tom, was a deaf mute and busy traveling, but for months he was able to arrange her visiting schedule all the way from Houston and the road. I texted and emailed back and forth with him several times, and Karin and Jim had hundreds of communications with him and Aubree’s sister. I also was in communication with her full time caregiver Matt, and a couple of other friends. They would keep us informed with messages like:
“Aubree has had severe seizures and breathing issues. She is confused and upset. Please pray.
Aubree’s sister here! Let’s plan on a visit Friday at 11. We will confirm with you. Aubree has been unwell and I am hoping we do not have any issues that cause us to be at hospital again. She is looking forward to seeing you.
Aubree thinks she is actively dying. Her experience of her body has changed significantly, she wasn’t able to get out bed at all today (was at our house), and has been having very long and difficult seizures and intense pain. She was with her brothers this last week and was admitted into the hospital (against her wishes) and was resuscitated (her brothers ignored her DNR because they were scared). That would have been it, but the CPR brought her back, however she doesn’t want CPR again, and says she is ready to die.
Aubree is with her friend Kayla, who thinks she is dying. Aubree has stopped breathing and is changing color.
By yesterday evening she didn’t even know who she was. I would call her name and she would look at me and say “Aubree?” while touching her chest then say “am I Aubree?”
Her pain increased alarmingly last night. She has had intense liver area pain. At midnight we woke up to her screaming (I didn’t think she had such a strong voice left) “HELP ME, HELP ME!” while crying and curled up in a ball. She is not on pain meds now because they interfered with her seizure meds.”
I was surprised and frankly a little relieved that Aubree never had a seizure on my watch, and, even though she did choke and go blue a couple of times, she rallied before I had to call an ambulance. And I am even more relieved that I never had to obey her end of life care document. This slightly spooky manifesto was drawn up recently by her medical power of attorney, Jim, after she pleaded for no more medical interventions; and it called for her visitors to just hold her, turn up the playlist, and let her die right there and then.
We wrote to tell Venerable Geshe-la she was dying, perhaps would die that very day, and could he give her a message. A couple of leisurely days later he wrote back and told her to read and contemplate Modern Buddhism.
That was a surprise. She was lying on her deathbed and couldn’t read at all! And Modern Buddhism is a long book!
Clearly she was not as close to death as we had thought. But her visitors duly took turns reading her Modern Buddhism for the next several weeks. Which she loved, though her health continued to decline.
The kidnapping accusation was a dilemma because last Friday Karin and Jim felt obliged to let Aubree go back to her empty house and wait for her brother-in-law to fly in and take her back to Houston. We did see her on Saturday, after Tom had dropped her off at her house to pick up some things, and she seemed a bit better, though still weak and confused. We then spent the weekend texting Tom back and forth, trying to meet up with him to figure out what was best to do, but we never managed to meet. Then her disturbed sister Jude flew into town and all hell broke loose. It seemed that Tom was the only sane member of the family left, and the only hope for Aubree, and it was frustrating that we couldn’t talk to him on the phone because of his deafness.
Some extracts of messages from Tom sent last Monday:
“Hi! Tom here. I need to reschedule the time. I can’t leave Aubree and Jude to meet you. Aubree is not doing well…. Do either of you sign? Jude is falling apart. … Things with Aubree are spiraling quickly… Jude is struggling. Feeling like I can’t leave them right now…. Family is being weird. I want to shoot for 4 but Aubree is really not doing well and Jude has fallen apart.”
Then something strange happened.
One of Aubree’s work colleagues happened to get in touch, and Jim sent her one of Tom’s health updates. This was what she replied:
“Tom has not emailed so thank you. It is very strange. I see her and talk to her occasionally at work and she is 100% Aubree. Lucid and clear and intelligent and focused. If I hadn’t seen her in the late afternoon/evening those couple days, I wouldn’t believe that report on how she is doing. It is really hard to believe. She is still working during the day and that is a bit strange but probably good for her. I am trying to arrange to meet her for lunch one day so I can check in with her. She absolutely will not acknowledge that anything is wrong while she is in work mode so I can’t talk to her or see how she is feeling or even offer her support. That is hard but I’m trying to respect her need for compartmentalizing.”
When, Jim asked, was she last at work?!!!?!!!@!
“On Monday” was the reply. She drove there, apparently. And on Friday evening she had two drinks at the bar, to which she had walked completely unaided as usual, and then she wolfed down a huge Mexican meal. (Yes, she must have been pretty hungry after a whole week of mush at Karin and Jim’s.)
The web of deception
With a sinking feeling, Jim started to contact other people whom Aubree had mentioned in passing. Her ex-roommate Lindsay, whom we’d never happened to overlap with at Aubree’s house, surprise, surprise, said: “I lived with Aubree for 2 years, and not once did I see her have a seizure.” Matt the caretaker doesn’t exist — Lindsay had never heard of him, his number was listed as 000-0000.
What about all those emails and texts, I asked Karin in confusion as all this was slowly coming to light — how could Aubree go to work while Tom was with her, he would have noticed?!
“That’s the point. I don’t think there is a Tom.”
That was one of the spookiest moments of my life.
The gig was up, but we still didn’t know the extent of it. We got online and managed to find real emails for Tom and Jude, as opposed to the ones created by Aubree, and even a phone number. Late as it was, Jim called them straightaway.
They were fast asleep in bed in Houston.
And they knew nothing about any of this.
They called the parents to go pick up Aubree and take her to their house, worried that she would try to kill herself now that it was all over. Turns out her mother is not a murderer nor her father an abuser. Her colluding brothers turn out to be rather innocent as well.
Since then we have all been putting together the pieces, or rather unravelling the web of deception. It has been by turns spooky, surreal, and desperately sad, but also at times absurdly, darkly humorous. Aubree is brilliantly intelligent; we always knew that, even with all her stroke activity. And this was the performance of a lifetime. Did she have spreadsheets; how did she keep all these lies together?! Aubree had every single person she met duped. Everyone, that is, except Geshe-la.
For sure, all of us probably wondered once or twice, “Could this really all be happening to her at this pace? Is she really that ill, how come she hasn’t died yet?” Someone gave her a pain-relieving massage, for example, and was surprised her tumors were not more noticeable. But we pushed these thoughts aside as uncharitable – she only weighs 90lbs for goodness sake, and those seizures are ghastly! And yes, she had some good days where she rallied remarkably to get to things and talk weakly to people – but that must have been all our prayers! Poor brave girl.
Meeting the family
At dinner we sat in a booth at Racines with her murdering mother (supposedly in jail), her psychotic sister (supposedly in a psych ward), and her abusive father. (The only person missing was her deaf-mute long-suffering brother-in-law, who was on a lecture tour.) And these were three of the sweetest people you could imagine. I’d hang out happily with any of them.
With a family like this, and with several loyal old friends, Aubree has no need to crave attention. Clearly her self-hatred is not rational. I suppose which of our delusions is?
We wondered how the seizures had been so convincing, and her dad explained the time he took her to Yale epilepsy clinic when she was 22 (the last time he saw her have a fit) and they stressed to her that she must never take Ativan as it brought on the seizures. She had been eating it like candy, at least with us, though clearly not at work.
We wondered how she managed to choke and turn blue from not being able to breathe. Her mom, a nurse (somewhat the opposite to a killer), said that Aubree must have been holding her breath.
Impressive willfulness, we all agreed.
But her dad said, “This is so confusing for me. I hate to say this but I think I’d prefer it if she had cancer. At least we could understand that.” And “She is my daughter but I cannot protect her; this is the hardest thing in my life.”
It was her own dad who suggested grimly that this would make a very good 10-part miniseries. I have included only the salient details in this already long article – there is enough material for it. And the weekly suspense has certainly kept a lot of people on the edges of their seats for two years.
Her sister said: “What you showed her, that love, that part was all true, pure. We are so grateful to you.”
We had a good evening – it was helpful for all of us. We even laughed quite a bit. They were so relieved with our reaction, said we were cool. I think Dharma is cool. Knowing about Buddha nature is cool.
And, hey, our prayers worked!!! Aubree is cancer-free! She is no longer dying! What a miracle. And her family have all magically recovered and become loving, reasonable people!!
Also, btw, remember that friend who committed suicide? Happily oblivious to the fact that she is dead, she is getting married next month, and Aubree has been invited to the wedding.
Our road of caring for Aubree has come to an end, and her family are taking it from here. She has confessed to lying. They have hopefully found a good place for her to receive help. I wish them all the best.
Echoes of “Misery”
See, go back to the first paragraph of this article and read it again, and perhaps you will understand why Aubree was panicking 😉 She was out in the middle of nowhere, far from her house. Two days of pretense was one thing, but this was a week already and she had to get to work, she was ravenous, she was being force-fed pills, and she couldn’t sleep at night because of her medicine-induced seizures and full-volume playlist.
Some lessons learned on this crazy train
Lesson #1 ~ What can we rely on?
At dinner, her sister commented that we must be angry, and we replied truthfully that we were not because we haven’t lost anything, not really, and we gained a great deal from Aubree. And inside there is definitely a dear, lovely person with potential, one that did shine through, despite her desperate need for attention, despite her mental illness.
Jim put it this way yesterday when he spoke to the Sangha:
“Although everything we knew about Aubree was wrong, the love and compassion she brought out of me was true. I had no idea I had these reserves of patience in me and could, for example, survive happily on so little sleep! And therefore I don’t regret it. For me, Aubree was an emanation of all the stages of the path from precious human life, death, and the fears of lower rebirth all the way through to love, compassion, and patience. And now I am learning the greatest lesson of all, the hallucinatory, deceptive nature of samsara. Dharma now is also what is healing any hurt I have.”
Both Jim and Karin have emerged as Bodhisattvas in my book. Their Sangha is impressed with them.
Buddhas emanate whatever we need, and Aubree did bring out the best in us so who knows who she is. Jim quoted the verse from the mind-training teachings:
Even if someone I have helped
And of whom I had great hopes
Nevertheless harms me intentionally
May I see him as my holy Spiritual Guide.
We have lost nothing, even if Aubree has. She has taught us much. As one friend puts it, Aubree was “for us”.
So, other than the wisdom that sees right through it all, including the “polluted memories” as someone sadly put it, what can we rely upon in this crazy mixed up world of illusion? (I address that a bit in this article.) We can rely upon love and compassion. And honesty (see below). We can rely upon the Dharma Jewel of Lamrim.
As Aubree earnestly texted me herself a few months back:
“If negative actions occur in this life despite trying to go for refuge and show compassion, can a precious human life be maintained?”
Even if this is the weirdest route to finding a Spiritual Guide and Dharma that I have ever seen, I am praying that some of the Dharma Aubree professed and seemed to love really did go in, and that it will help her now.
How could you be so stupid? …
… someone at his work asked Jim. Were we duped? Yes, most heartily. Are we embarrassed? Yes, maybe a little. But that was an Oscar-winning performance. She had actual seizures for hours on end. She went blue in the face. She was skin and bone. She held her body differently for days on end, faltered on her legs, talked in a strained way, and so on. Fifteen years ago she pulled another stunt and managed to dupe a whole team of care-workers including a psychologist. And embarrassment doesn’t hurt us. But being mistaken is okay if our hearts are true and we come to realize our mistake. Now we can all work on our wisdom.
In Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang talks about someone driving in the wrong direction to London and suddenly realizing he has been wrong all along. Finding out about Aubree was one of those heart-stopping moments, WHAT??! Have we really been on this crazy train for two years?
But in fact we have been on a crazy train since beginningless time. As Geshe-la says, when this man realizes he has made a serious mistake, he turns back, and:
… hopefully follows the correct road to London. In a similar way, before realizing emptiness we are following incorrect paths… At present we believe that whatever appears to our mind is truly existent and then we follow the paths of cyclic existence.
It is past time we all got off this crazy train. As Geshe-la says:
We shall know that hitherto we have been completely misled and mistaken. We shall realize that what appeared to us, what we apprehended, and the attitudes we developed were all completely wrong. Then, hopefully, we will begin to follow the path to liberation, the path that really does lead to peace and happiness.
Lesson # 2 ~ Hold space
This drama has increased my will to get into my heart every day and let all the elaborations fall away. Ideally we can learn over time to abide in our very subtle mind mixed with the nature of ultimate truth — bliss and emptiness, Mahamudra. There’s a beautiful line about this in Vajrayogini Tantra:
Then the youth of my mind, exhausted by its elaborations,
Came to rest in the forest hut beyond expression.
Do we not live these days in an overstimulated world of so many false appearances bombarding us daily? Special effects, political echo chambers, virtual reality, video games, all those iSomethings, AI robots, Pokémon Go, self-seeking lies, idle gossip, FOMO, etc, etc, etc. These days, we apparently spend 10+ hours on our screens, much of that precious time sucked into a made-up world one way or another.
But we need peace. We can’t be happy without it. Excited, maybe… but happy? No. We need to hang out at least some of our time in that forest hut. At the very least we need to allow our otherwise endless distractions to subside through breathing meditation to access the natural peace, clarity, and stillness of our own minds. We need to identify with and enjoy our vast and profound true nature, our Buddha nature. For this to happen, at least a little meditation regularly is crucial.
And this is not just for ourselves. As one friend puts it, we need to “hold space” for everyone. Become a refuge, a Sangha Jewel.
Why instead use the few remaining months we have left to seek out more confusion and trickery? What’s the point?
Lesson # 3 ~ Be honest, always
It is not worth adding extra elaborations to samsara. Better to be scrupulously honest, not deliberately deceiving others by lying. We are all already in a web of deception, so please let’s not make it worse.
Our self-protective minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing already have a tendency to weave little lies just to sustain the illusion of a non-existent self, both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we know we are doing it, sometimes we don’t. Aubree just took this fake identity to a whole new level.
Gotta stop stirring. Some slander is true to utter, and some is false (see Joyful Path). Either way, if our words turn people against each other they are to be avoided. We need to talk about others’ good qualities rather than their faults, see the best in them, bring out the best.
So much of our conversation is gossip and hyperbole! We don’t need to keep talking nonsense with no wish to help others (namely, idle chatter.) We are already wrapped in nonsense.
I find it interesting that these 3 of the 4 non-virtuous actions of speech explained by Buddha (see Joyful Path) — lying, slander, and idle gossip – all have something to do with deceiving or at best distracting each other. Harmony is key to happiness, and distrust kills it. Avoiding these negative verbal actions is especially important in our spiritual communities.
Thank you for getting this far. As Aubree once requested: “If you guys want to post photos some place, please do not tag me and if you use names, please be careful. As you know, my family is crazy and I can’t have things on my webpage.” For different reasons, to really protect the innocent, I have changed all names and withheld all photographic evidence. And, not for the first time, I request your prayers for poor Aubree and her confused and reeling family. But these are different prayers.
We have been making one crucial error since beginningless time. An error that is responsible for every bit of our suffering. And Geshe Kelsang sums it up with astounding concision in his latest book:
What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp at our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I, I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly. ~ Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra
We are not our body – we say “my body”, it is our possession. We are not our mind – we say “my mind”, it is our possession. We are neither a body nor a mind, we are a person.
Yet whenever we perceive our body or our mind we think we are totally in there. We conflate or identify ourselves as them. So when the non-me-body gets sick, we get unhappy, “I’m sick!” and when the non-me-thoughts get unhappy, we get unhappy, “I’m unhappy!”
We have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? A lot of it is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts. When we observe our thoughts at the beginning of the clarity of mind meditation, for example, there is space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. I can let them all go. Why? Because they are not me and I am not them.
I think we could also say “when” in the quote above, ie, “when there is no I, or self”. This is because there has never been an I or self to be found anywhere, ever – in the body, in the mind, in the collection of the body and mind, or anywhere else.
There is also no body to be found. Or mind. Or other people. Or Trump world for that matter. Try pointing to it — you can only point at a version, your subjective version.
There are no inherently existent or real things. When we look, we can’t find anything anywhere ever. We are left looking at space-like emptiness. This is because nothing exists from its own side.
To understand and believe this, we need to go looking for things ourselves. This doesn’t have to be too difficult if we know how.
And the way we can do this is through what is called “the four essential points” or steps, of the traditional meditation on emptiness, by which we can come to understand the true nature of our self, our body, and everything else. These are:
Identifying the negated object
Ascertaining the pervasion
Ascertaining the absence of oneness
Ascertaining the absence of difference
It is easiest to do this contemplation first with our body, perhaps because, as a physical object, it generally feels chunkier than our self or our mind and so is easier to examine.
Step One: Identifying the negated object
We start by ‘identifying the negated object”, setting up the target carefully so that we can then shoot it down with the arrow of wisdom. No target, no point shooting any arrows. In the case of the body, we need to bring to mind the body that we normally perceive.
Our body takes up an inordinate amount of our attention at the moment. We don’t like it when it is stiff, or puts on weight, or is sick. We like it when others say nice things about it, even if they’re not strictly accurate. We are a little bit obsessed with our own body, to be honest, and sometimes someone else’s as well, especially if there is any hope or fantasy of it commingling with ours. Attachment to bodies is one of the three main attachments of samsara (the other two being places and enjoyments).
(I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care of our body, of course. Please keep eating and showering 😉 But we can stop being quite so preoccupied with our body, abandon attachment to it, enjoying enormously the space, ease, and confidence that opens up when we do.)
What exactly is it that we are so attached to? What comes to mind when you think “My body”? You can use an exaggerated version first – for example, someone tells you, “Whoah, you’ve put on weight!” The fat-seeming body suddenly feels very real and solid, existing from its own side. Get a sense of that.
Then what comes to mind when you think, “My body that is just sitting here”?
This is a real body, my real body. It seems to be really sitting here, a solid, singular, monolithic entity, independent of everything, including its parts, including thought. And I cherish and protect it above all else. I don’t want it to have the slightest pain or ugliness or insult. This particular body is very important, more so than anyone else’s. If a neighbor’s body is sick, “Oh, they’ll get over it.” But my body?!
Meanwhile, your comments are welcome, and you might also want to check out Introduction to Buddhism where these four points are explained very clearly.
Also, contemplating the dreamlike nature of reality (as described more here for example) helps tremendously in loosening us up and preparing us to think about emptiness logically, to reason our way into reality using analytical wisdom.
On the last day of the recent Kadampa Summer Festival, the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni was shown, as it always is, and well received.
Buddha’s story is a great story, and ours can be a great story too, if we stop thinking about ourselves in clichéd, samsaric ways. “Anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse,” as one dictionary definition of cliché has it.
Once upon a time, when I was experiencing a break-up from a fun and always interesting relationship that had lasted over half our lives, when my larger than life, handsome, previously devoted partner, like countless men before him, left for a baby with a younger woman, I turned for desperate comfort to my dear friend M. “What a cliché!” I wailed to him. “I don’t WANT to be a cliché.”
And M replied, “Everything in samsara is a cliché.”
This shook me out of self-pity. Point being, despite variations on a theme, despite any extenuating circumstances, we have been there, done that, countless times – no tee-shirt will ever be big enough to document it all. We even call the appearances of samsara “common appearances” or “ordinary appearances”.
We might think it is just us, we’re in a private world of forlorn hopes and dwindling dreams; but pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to finds growing older distasteful at least from time to time. This is especially if they assumed that they would be an exception to the rule — that with the help of Botox or a great exercise routine or a good hairdresser or alternative healing or a lot of money or a predictable partner they could avoid life’s biggest clichés. But the end of collection is dispersion, as Buddha pointed out, the end of rising falling, the end of meeting parting. Everyone (who lives long enough) seems to feel at some point or another old or ill, or past it, overlooked, or useless, or unglamorous, haggard, or paunchy, or an object of increasing irrelevance or ridicule – and then basically ends up losing everything. Just in time to buy into the next series of clichés in our next life.
Samsara manages to be both unpredictable and banally predictable all at the same time. The details may be unpredictable, but the pattern is wearyingly monotonous.
The seven sufferings of samsara are all one gigantic cliché and we’re all going to be living this forever if we don’t decide to think outside the box, in fact until we realize there is no box. Like Buddha did.
I have been thinking a lot about Buddha Shakyamuni recently because I was very moved by Gen-la Dekyong‘s teachings at the US Kadampa Spring Festival 2016 and also by the fact that Geshe Kelsang loves watching the Life of Buddha, so much, for all its teachings. He said he is watching not actors but the actual life story and protagonists, and he said something similar after watching the Life of Atisha play. It is as if Geshe-la is watching the actual life story unfold in the present, which makes me think the story is eternally present really, the examples timelessly relevant.
Think outside the box
I love that Prince Siddhartha had everything a man could ever want, and certainly far more than I could hope for in this life; yet he still walked away from it because he saw that it was built on a deceptive illusion, the utterly shaky edifice of the sufferings of sickness, ageing, death, and uncontrolled rebirth.
I mean, who amongst you has all the things he had – such as exceptional good looks, the most beautiful spouse in the kingdom, a whole harem of other glamorous people eager to please you, a really nice palace, riches and worldly achievements beyond compare, crowds of adulating villagers bowing at your feet?! Are you set to become a king or queen anytime soon?!
Prince Siddhartha didn’t even know, technically, that he was going to find the solution, but he decided he had to do it anyway. So if he could do it, I reckon we can develop renunciation for our relatively paltry objects of attachment, especially as Buddha did figure out our escape for us. Not to say that we have to abandon anything external, for that is not in fact renunciation; but we can abandon our attachment and turn our attention to the solution for the existential predicament we find ourselves in. Vis a vis, realize that the things we normally see — those common appearances that we normally buy into as if they are the only pathetic choice we have — don’t even exist.
Calling the earth to witness
Then there is that great scene when Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi Tree and is attacked by Maras — first appearing as enticing women and then as terrifying demons. And Buddha is entirely unbothered, he stays in undistracted concentration, he can see through the whole hallucination. He is infinitely more interested in blissful love and profound illumination. He is unbelievably cool.
Maybe we see that scene as something allegorical, and not even that relevant to us, just indicating Buddha’s extraordinary qualities as he showed the manner of attaining enlightenment. But I think it shows us a powerful way to deal with our own delusions or maras when they arise. After all, sure, in the play we can think that those enchanting women are too abstract to be tempting; but if all the people we ever really lusted after were to appear in front of us and say, “It’s always been you I love! I’ve been an idiot! Come with me!” might we not be tempted?! But Buddha saw right through them.
And when those same maras then tried to scare him, again we might think that is something abstract; but what are those maras? All are appearances created by our own scary delusions of anger, attachment, jealousy, self-loathing, loneliness, fear, anxiety, or existential despair arising as if out there, in front of us, trying to attack us, to overwhelm us. Think of the scariest appearances to your mind, your most feared enemies, those who have the greatest power (you think) to upset you – a neglectful parent, an off the rails child, a sneering rival, a bullying abuser, a ruthless boss, a dismissive ex, or plain old sickness, ageing, wrinkles, and death. But they get nowhere because we, like Buddha, can see right through them.
And at no point did Buddha identify with these appearances. At no point was he overpowered by them. He understood they were maras with no function other than to harm him. He accepted they were appearing, but instead of fighting them he saw right through them. He saw they were mistaken appearances, saw they weren’t even there; and with his love, concentration, and wisdom he called the earth to witness that he had overcome them all.
Buddha understood that none of these maras was outside his mind, so they all disappeared permanently the moment his final obstructions were lifted. In that moment, he became an omniscient being.
It’s kind of encouraging, don’t you think, that all this happened minutes before his enlightenment. No excuses, then, to think, “Bloody hell, I’ve been practicing Buddhism for six years already and I’m still being assailed by maras!” Looks like maras trying to scare or ensnare us might be the order of the day until the very last minute.
But, like Buddha, we can call the earth to witness that none of these phantoms has any hold over us whatsoever. We are waking up. We are learning to see everything as it is. We can finally do (and have) what we want because we realize that everything is created by our minds.
We can be like this. For hallucinations can only harm us if we buy into them, if we believe in them as being real, as existing independent of the mind. Ven Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind:
We mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. p. 311
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to not be hallucinating at all – not your self, not others, not your job, not your objects of desire, not anything? What will appear to you once common, banal appearances stop appearing? What will you choose to manifest or appear from the bliss and emptiness of your own mind, understanding the dreamlike nature of things?! This experience will be inexhaustibly joyful and meaningful, I think, and enable us to help everyone else in cosmically original, effortless, ways.
I wrote this on a plane back to Denver recently (via Calgary, never again …) It felt like a training day at Calgary airport or something because there were several personnel for each position and mainly they were chatting away to each other pleasantly and veerrrry slowly, despite the hundreds of people backed up in line. (I have always liked how laid-back Canadians are, until today.) And this was not just one line – I had 45 minutes to clear Canadian immigration and then customs and then US immigration and then bag drop and then security. My speedy passage was also obstructed by the exception to the laid back rule, the official who made me go back to the end of the line because he said I threw my customs form at him … debatable, but maybe true, I did run right past him 😉 But they always get away with it in the movies…
Anyway, an hour later, as a result of others’ kindness in letting me go ahead, I am here on the right plane, grateful that I was not mauled by a bear. (I watched Revenant on the plane; Leonardo di Caprio’s character was seriously mauled by a bear.) Nor did I have my wife or son murdered in front of me. Nor did anyone abandon me as a bloody pulp in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in mid-winter, at a time when they didn’t even have roads! Or cars! Or phones! Or satellite navigation! Or stores! Just Cowboys and Indians, all of whom were out to kill you or at least wasted no time worrying about your health and well-being. The buffalo and birds were better behaved than most humans in this movie, though the same can often be said of humans and animals today.
I was thinking too that the way those dudes traversed mile upon mile of wild mountains, rivers, and waterfalls — even with dislocated ankles and blood gushing from their throats, pretty much for no good reason whatsoever — makes my own hikes in the Rockies seem like a walk in the park. Literally. And no real refuge for them anywhere, just delusion upon delusion.
Yeah, the Canadians may have been having a slow day, I thought, but I am still a very lucky person with a precious human life (at least as long as my karma continues to project this airplane staying up in the air.)
All is here, it is already here
Patient acceptance is a profound mind. It seems to be the other side of the coin from wisdom. With patience we accept the dream-like manifestations of our karma and take responsibility for our conceptual imputations or thoughts. With wisdom we understand that these appearances and thoughts have no existence from their own side and so they can be completely purified and changed. More on that subject here.
Resignation is buying into appearances, I think. So acceptance is not the same as resignation, or fatalism for that matter. I didn’t resign myself to missing my flight, hence my breakaway attempt through Customs, but I did practice a little acceptance. Which of course had its usual benefits, having a soothing and illuminating effect on the mind.
As mentioned before, we can be patient both with external circumstances and with the actual problems within our own minds, our unpleasant feelings – making space for these so that we can deal with them. When we notice mental pain, we don’t resign ourselves to these thoughts, but nor do we repress, suppress, combat, or reject them. The more stiffness, stuckness, and rejection we feel toward whatever is arising, the more we can be prompted to turn toward the natural vast open peaceful spaciousness of our mind, recognizing our Buddha nature, identifying with it. There is room for all of this, there is no need to panic.
In a way, acceptance is an existential decision. We decide to say to each thing that arrives not so much “All is well,” (which can be hard to pull off, especially at first), as, ‘Yes, all is here, it is already here.” If we feel disturbed, hindered, crushed, depressed, or melancholy, we are aware that this is how we are feeling; and it has already arisen and cannot be undone so we accept it. With acceptance we open up an infinite inner space because we have “given up the idea that things should be otherwise”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We have given up the idea of filtering, controlling, validating, and judging everything (including Canadians and, indeed, ourselves).
Patient acceptance enables us to take on the tragedy of samsara without turning our life into a tragedy by identifying with it. We make space. Then we can use what is arising to propel us forwards. Accepting what is makes us more peaceful and more wise, and therefore more able to change what needs to to be changed. As Geshe Kelsang says:
Remembering these teachings means we can in fact be enriched by our experiences, not impoverished. We can even get to the point where we feel as though we are choosing everything.
Last but not least, if you want to make this whole process easier you can also do it in the context of the light, liberating mind of renunciation – it gives us lift off. We don’t have to buy into all these delusions any more if we don’t want to.
In the last few days I’ve had a few things go wrong with this body – none of them worth writing home about, but, added together, annoying enough. Bad allergies, stomach pains, an infected finger, a fever, and less of my taken-for-granted ability to dive into my heart and stay there.
High time to transform this physical suffering because that is what Kadampa Buddhists do – we love suffering! Don’t we?! Hmmm. Maybe. Or at least we try not to mind it too much, and use it to make spiritual progress. Eventually, yes, we love it, for I have met lots of practitioners who love quite major suffering already. I admire them and aspire to their attainments, for then suffering will hold no fear. The end goal is to put a stop to our own and others’ suffering forever, and we use the appearance of suffering to help us get there. So this is a short tale of what I tried today.
(Look, admittedly, this is not going to be an inspiring account of how I transformed cancer. A few minor ailments are nothing in the grand scheme of things, I know that, in fact it is sort of the point; but you have to start somewhere and the important thing is to deal with whatever is arising for you.)
The tale of a sore finger
So this story starts first thing this morning with my finger, or, more precisely, the top inch of my finger. Who knew that such a small area of the body could throb so much! It makes me realize that there is not an inch of my body that is not ready to hurt me, that inevitably will hurt me if I insist on identifying myself with meat and nerve endings.
I made the mistake of looking up infected fingers on Google, to discover the horrible truth that, left untreated, I was about to lose my whole finger… and that the infection could spread to other fingers and (left unsaid but I could see where this was going) I would soon lose my entire hand!!! Aarggh! My finger is now the most important finger in the whole wide world! It has to be saved! Moral of the tale: stop surfing the internet while under the influence of self-cherishing, it doesn’t help. To be fair, Google was useful on the home remedies front, and I’ve been dutifully dipping said finger into a mixture of warm water and apple cider vinegar for 15 minutes several times a day, during which times it is interesting to see how little else gets done.
Between finger-soaking and nose-blowing and stomach clutching and general woe-is-me’ness, early this morning I decided to be nice and wash some of the soiled litter off the tiny soft paws of this harmless-looking round kitten. But appearances are deceptive, I discovered not for the first time, when he yowled and sunk his nasty scratchy sharp nails right into my poor swollen finger. I allowed myself a little optimism as the blood spurted, “Perhaps he has lanced this wound, saving me a visit to the doctor for surgery and amputation!”, but alternatively, I then thought, he might have added cat scratch fever to my list of ailments. I’m never going to foster horrible little kittens again …
Aarrghh! self-cherishing feeling sorry for itself and blaming others again … Clearly it was time for some contemplation on all of this, or my day was going to get away from me.
Lesson #1 ~ renunciation
Samsara throws up one problem after another, waves on an ocean. No sooner have we dealt with one thing — the thing we thought was all that was standing in the way of us and unbounded happiness – then something else comes up.
“There’s always something”, as my friend M said to me last week, “until there isn’t.”
And that “isn’t” time will only come when we recognize, reduce, and abandon permanently our self-grasping ignorance, destroying the ocean of samsaric suffering once and for all.
If we think about our suffering out of self-grasping and self-cherishing, we suffer. If we think about it to inspire us to overcome true sufferings and true origins, we have the liberating thought of renunciation, not suffering.
This sore finger ain’t no thing — doesn’t matter — as they say, compared with the sufferings of my countless future lives.
We blame others, even kittens, whining away like “childish ones”, as Buddha described us; but all the blame can rightfully be laid on our own self-grasping. Not understanding that the things we normally see do not exist, grasping at a world outside of the mind, we develop self-cherishing, anger, and attachment, which in turn create the contaminated karma that cause our endless problems to appear. Other living beings and situations can only ever be conditions for our own karma to ripen.
Lesson # 2 ~ no self, no problem
To destroy the whole of our samsara with its literally endless problems, we only need to re-think the way we are viewing things. How hard is that, given that we currently have access to all the teachings on how to do it? As the great Yogi Saraha says, in one of my favorite quotes:
If your mind is released permanently from self-grasping, there is no doubt that you will be released permanently from suffering.
Or, put this way:
No self, no problem.
The things we normally see do not exist, and that includes ourself, sore fingers, and everything else.
I cannot be found anywhere in my body or mind, and nor can I be found anywhere else. I hurt because I mush my sense of I up with my finger, but I am not my finger. You cannot find me in there, even though I say “Ow, I hurt”, or “This is hurting me,” or even “My finger hurts”. Where is the I that owns the finger?
Also, Geshe Kelsang says:
It is true that our body that we normally see does not exist, and there is no body other than this; but we mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. ~ How to Understand the Mind, p. 311
My finger cannot be found in its parts or anywhere else — try pointing to your finger without pointing at its parts.
So the suffering finger that I normally see is not really there — it is like an hallucination, like the suffering in a dream.
This sore finger ain’t no thing, for it cannot be found anywhere.
Lesson # 3 ~ compassion
I decided that my finger was like a portal into the lives of others — those, for example, who have lost limbs in fighting, or those not born with any limbs to begin with, or burn victims with large parts of their skin in agony. Let alone all those in the lower realms. I wouldn’t necessarily think about these people if I didn’t have to transform this paltry finger pain, and so my compassion would not develop.
Similar to renunciation, if we think about our own suffering out of self-cherishing we suffer, but if we use it to think about others’ suffering we develop the wish to free them, which is the peaceful mind of compassion, not suffering.
Just as I was thinking this, the kittens climbed up onto my shoulders, where they are now as well, and started snuffling into my ears. (Sometime in their journey to safety from the kill shelter in Pampa, Texas they developed upper respiratory problems). It was not hard to see that my suffering is NOTHING compared with theirs, and all I want is for them to be out of those kitten bodies and into human bodies or better, ASAP. How is that going to happen if I don’t make it happen?
This sore finger ain’t no thing compared with the sufferings of countless other living beings.
Lesson # 4 ~ Tantra
There is no suffering in the Pure Land. If out of renunciation and compassion I dissolve everything into bliss and the wisdom realizing that all the things I normally see do not exist — including my entire meaty body, self, mind, and world — I can then appear myself as Buddha Vajrayogini in the Pure Land, and the basis of suffering has gone for ever. Buddhas’ fingers give rise to nothing but endless bliss and benefit.
So my sore finger is reminding me to go straight away, now, to the Pure Land — why hang out any longer in a meaty body that can hurt all over, and sooner or later no doubt will, especially given my increasing age? Let alone all the bodies I’ll have to keep taking in all my future lives. Nasty stuff. It has to stop now, I have to stop ordinary conceptions and appearances.
I am switching to Keajra channel and staying there, resisting any temptation to flick back to samsara channel on the frankly remote chance that something better might be on. That hasn’t happened yet.
This sore finger ain’t no thing in the Pure Land.
Having had quite some success with this contemplation despite my fever, and feeling pretty darned good by now, I then applied these lines of thought to my running nose and my stomach ache, and threw in a few emotional issues too while I was at it. And, just as Buddha promised, I felt better and better the more grist I threw to the mill.
I even came to the conclusion that I’m loving me some suffering! (However, lets not push it … )
The ability to transform our everyday appearances of suffering into something immensely meaningful and joyful is HUGE, and a major hallmark of a genuine Kadampa. So I’d like to open this conversation up to you — inspire us, have you used Buddha’s teachings to transform your suffering?
Ps, My finger miraculously cured itself while I was writing this.
To carry on from here, I want to add that conventional reality is not just a question of agreeing with each other. There is no safety in numbers. I was just reading about the odd phenomenon of presumptive nominee Trump:
The internet creates a sense of universality; it’s easy to think your bubble is more representative than it actually is. Facebook curates our feeds so we get more of the stuff we ‘like.’ What do we ‘like’? People and posts that agree with us. It’s sort of a mass delusion. ~ The Week
We can all be wrong about something and agree; in fact we often are. So my point about conventional reality being collective hallucination in the last article only goes that way around – collective hallucination is not necessarily conventional reality, it can just be sheer madness with no basis in any reality. For we are hallucinating both conventional truths and non-existents.
All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.
I often think too, when I wake up and the dream has disappeared, the dream has gone and so has the dreamer. If there was never a real dream, where was the real dreamer? So where is the I who is now awake also? Dream minds, people (including ourself), and objects are all created by the self-grasping dream mind. Waking minds, people, and objects are all created by the self-grasping waking mind.
Understanding lack of true existence is the wisdom realizing emptiness and it will set us free from samsara permanently. However, although a direct realization of emptiness is our goal, we also need to learn what to do with appearances for our own and others’ sake. Eventually we will come to see appearances and emptiness (lack of true existence) as one object, at which point those appearances are no longer technically conventional truths, but ultimate truth.
Ultimate truth appearing.
So, meanwhile, until we realize this union of appearance and reality directly, how are we to navigate through the false appearances, the hallucinations, and make our lives meaningful?
I think through “beneficial believing,” as Geshe Kelsang has called it — believing things not because they are true from their own side, but because they are beneficial and will lead us in the right direction. This includes toward the one and only true object, the only truth that exists in the way that it appears — emptiness or lack of true existence — realized by our very subtle mind, the clear light of bliss.
(By the way, even ultimate truth is not ultimately true – even emptiness is empty of inherent existence.)
Buddha’s teachings are divided into two: the instructions for directly realizing emptiness (wisdom practices) and everything else (method practices). Method practices such as renunciation and compassion do not apprehend ultimate truth directly, but they do apprehend the best of the conventional or relative truths, and they lead us to relative happiness, including the requisite merit or good karma for developing the Form Body of a Buddha. Method practices nurture the growth of our Buddha nature and wisdom practices free it from obstructions.
All conventional truths are false objects because the way they appear and the way they exist do not correspond. ~ p. 129
In other words, conventional truths are all fake. However, some conventional truths are more useful than others; so those are the ones we need to focus on to go in the direction we want to go in. Which is? We all want to be happy all the time, and we never want to suffer. Anything that takes us toward the fulfillment of those wishes can be described as beneficial believing, or even wisdom.
For example, although neither me nor you exist from our own sides and are creations of self-grasping, understanding the equality and interdependence of ourselves and all other living beings (as explained in the mind-training teachings) is far more realistic and valid, and therefore beneficial, than grasping onto an isolated or inherently existent self and other. These do not exist even relatively, do not appear to any valid mind; for no one in the universe can agree, for example, that I am the only real me.
Here is an example.
“I don’t understand it!”
If we ever wonder why we get so confused in our dealings with others, we need look no further than the fact we are all hallucinating and not all our hallucinations match up. A sad friend told me this week that someone broke up with them and they can’t understand it — they were sure they were getting on so well and that the other person really liked them too. And according to them that felt like the truth; but according to their ex-lover it did not. So where did that truth exist? Did it exist at all?
Unlike a chair that we are agreed we can sit on, what was appearing so vividly to their attachment never existed. All they had was their own version of events, total projection, and in this instance no shared reality. The ex-lover’s apparent truth, that this person was no longer interesting or whatever, was also not objective but a mere reflection of her own mind. In this instance, these reflections did not coincide. Their perceptions were not in agreement, in fact they clashed, and so pain arose. It’s happening all the time with all of us.
When we manage to let go of our delusion of attachment for people, all we are losing is our illusions. Letting go of illusion, we are now free to experience a totally different and more realistic relationship. It seems that the best “truth” to be salvaged from these kinds of situation is love and compassion recognizing our equality and interdependence and wishing the other person to be happy and free. That mind is valid, for its object does have a relative truth to it. And it fulfills our basic wish, it makes us happy again.
More coming soon. Meantime, your comments are most welcome! Just use the box below 🙂