Choose love

Loving-kindness is arguably the most important example we can show in our troubled world.

This was one of the many take-aways from the recent International Kadampa Spring Festival in the UK, where we received empowerment and teachings on Buddha Maitreya, the Buddha of loving-kindness, from Gen-la Jampa.

Another take-away: People need to know how to become happy through love.

Genla Jampa

Not much else seems to be making us happy these days. Not politics as usual, anyway. The silver lining of this, though, may be that more people are starting to explore other more spiritual ways to solve problems. At least that’s been my observation.

And through becoming familiar with the three aspects of love – affectionate, cherishing, and wishing love — we can really help others and solve our own problems. It’s a win win. And it works instantly.

How hard is it to love others? I would submit that it is not as hard as we may think. I think that for many people, including maybe you, love is the easiest positive mind to generate. And yet it has these huge, compelling benefits! So here goes, I will share some of these to encourage us all to get going …

We’ll always be happy

choose love 2The first type of love, affectionate love, is a warm heart and feeling close to others, rather like a mother feels toward her child, minus the attachment.* If we can learn to develop a warm, loving heart toward all beings all the time, we’ll finally fulfill our deepest life-long wish (indeed beginningless lives-long wish) to be happy all the time. This is what we really need. I know I must have learned a bunch of useful things at school, even if I can’t remember what they were. But however much I learned at school, I didn’t learn this.

In Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on developing love from 2009, which Gen-la Jampa referred to extensively, he said:

Probably we think: If I have money I will be happy all the time. If I have a good friend, a boyfriend or girlfriend, I will be happy all the time. If I have a good reputation or a higher position, I will be happy all the time. This is wrong.

More on why “This is wrong” (ie, worldly enjoyments don’t make us happy all the time) is explained all over this blog, including here.

We will solve our problems

Love, as Buddha said, is the great Protector. As Geshe Kelsang said:

If everybody sincerely practices affectionate love, all problems between each other will be solved and never arise again. This is guaranteed; I will give my signature.

We need love in our hearts. Others need love in their hearts. This is the real solution. So, as Gen-la Jampa pointed out, people need to see our loving-kindness and that it works.

choose love 1We can understand this from the classic Buddhist explanation on inner and outer problems. For example, technology can solve some outer problems, but it doesn’t solve all of them; and in fact world peace is in more jeopardy than ever before with the easy ability to produce home-made bombs and so on, not to mention the WMD. And even when we get all the way to iPhone 500, we will still be suffering from the real problems of attachment, anger, jealousy, ignorance, and so on.

Talking of iPhones, possibly à propos nothing – I love mine. I sometimes feel quite pleased with myself when I pick it up and do cool things with it. But 2 nights ago I misplaced it. And I had no way of texting anyone to find out where it might have gotten to. I felt like I’d lost a limb. All these years of being the proud owner of an iPhone have clearly not diminished my attachment, for starters.

Technology and other external stuff can be useful but they are not the actual solutions to our real problems. Our real problems are our experience of unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind and arise with our delusions. We can learn to solve these problems with loving kindness, to go for refuge to love. Love changes the flavor of our mind as sugar changes the flavor of tea, and the sour delusions cannot thrive in this sweet new environment.
Manjushri CentreYou can read a lot more about how love solves all our problems in New Eight Steps to Happiness. Buddha would always explain the benefits of various spiritual practices before teaching them because he knows how our minds work — how we like advertising to get us going 😉 Then we develop the wish to taste love.

And tasting love is then the best advertisement; I defy you not to want more!

We will attain enlightenment

Geshe Kelsang says:

Ultimately our practice of affectionate love leads us to the state of supreme happiness of enlightenment, which gives us the ability to directly benefit each and every living every day.

The sooner we can set our sights on enlightenment, the sooner we’ll get there. Maybe when we first hear about the goal of enlightenment we think “Hey steady on, what you talking about?! That sounds way too difficult, a super human attainment way beyond my capacity! Seeking enlightenment is setting myself up for spectacular failure — can’t I settle for something more manageable instead?!”

Enlightenment is reality

But it is vital to understand that attaining enlightenment is neither outside ourselves nor beyond our reach, not like climbing Mount Everest or winning a gold medal. Enlightenment is just reality. It is the inner light of wisdom that is completely free from all mistaken perceptions, pervaded by the bliss of universal love and compassion. We all 
temple
have the potential for this in our hearts already. We don’t need to go somewhere else – we just need to step away from the false perception of what reality is (vis a vis an objective world outside our mind) and into reality itself. This is entirely doable and we have to do it because what’s the alternative?

Taste love

So we need love. By thinking about these benefits we develop the wish to taste it, and as Geshe Kelsang says:

We make the determination to develop and maintain a warm heart feeling close to all living beings without exception. We do this again and again; we do this job…. There is no greater virtuous action than love.

What a nice job! Deeply thinking in this way for even one moment brings HUGE results. Mental actions, or intentions, such as this are more powerful than physical or verbal actions because their meaning depends entirely upon the intentions with which we do them. We don’t even need to do anything verbal or physical (though of course we can and naturally will) – we just need to move our mind. From such a good heart, good results will always arise. As Geshe Kelsang says:

In Precious Garland Nagarjuna listed eight benefits of love: The first is that meditating on love for just one moment is a greater virtuous action than giving food to all those who are hungry in the world three times a day…. When we simply give food to those who are hungry we are not giving real happiness, because the happiness that comes from eating food is not real happiness; it is just a reduction of their hunger problem, it is just changing suffering. But when we meditate on wishing love, we sincerely wish to give real happiness, the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment, to all living beings without exception.

Of course we can do both — feed others with the intention, “May everyone have the permanent bliss of enlightenment.”

You can find the other eight benefits in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

*Love free from attachment

In these teachings on love in 2009, Geshe Kelsang introduced a quick note of caution about attachment:

We need to love each other continually but we don’t need attachment. Attachment causes problems.

And he went on to say that sometimes we start with pure love, but then it morphs into the selfish intention of attachment.
choose love 3

You know how that goes — when we first meet someone we might have some pure love, be really grateful to them and wish them to be happy; but as time goes on attachment creeps in with its expectations (or “premeditated resentments” as I’ve heard them called), and then the arguments start, and then it’s no longer nearly so much fun. We can keep the honeymoon period going longer by ditching the attachment and growing the love.

With attachment, our love wishing someone else to be happy is conditional, the other person has to behave. With this conditionality, this need, we are to a greater or lesser extent trapped and bound in all directions, confused and helpless, without agency, a puppet on a string dangled by what others do, think, or say.

Whereas with unconditional love we have the thought “I wish you freedom and happiness!” and this gives us freedom as well.

If we know the difference between the way love and attachment feel, we can choose love. We can get to the point where we genuinely feel, “Even if you walk out that door, I am okay as long as you’re happy, because that is what I actually want.” Our love and therefore our happiness stay the same.

Also, I have noticed that when I bring out my love for an object of attachment, letting the attachment go, it is not hard to then spread that love to everyone else – it is a way of opening the floodgates.

So we choose love because love is what will make us and everybody else happy.

(Next up: a special method for developing love, as taught in the Spring Festival.)

Over to you, do you agree? Do you have any examples?

Related articles

Kadampa Festivals 

Can worldly enjoyments make us happy?

The difference between outer and inner problems

Love and affection according to Buddhism

 

Seven benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitudeNow we are coming up to Thanksgiving here in the United States, and apparently the word “thanks” is connected to the word “grateful”, no surprises there, really. (“Grateful” is also loosely related to the word “grace”.) So this is the time of the year to feel grateful, which is nice, as study after study shows that gratitude is an enormous predictor of happiness, a kind of happiness superpower, and we all like being happy.

Plus we need to feel happy if we are to avoid being a grumpy git and ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. Have you noticed that we are far more likely to get annoyed if we are already not feeling happy inside? How when things feel good and we are connected to our own inner peace, happiness, and confidence, minor annoyances don’t worry us at all – but how on the other hand when we feel unsettled inside, not good in ourselves, not whole, split off from our own peace, the smallest thing can set us off? This might sound obvious, but that doesn’t seem to prevent us, the moment we do get annoyed, from casting around for something or someone else to blame, anything other than our own disgruntled state of mind.

Join the clubcontrol mind

Things are changing all the time, and I mean literally moment by moment – this is called impermanence – so is it any wonder that things don’t always change in the direction we want them to? We all have to keep re-adjusting to changing circumstances, we have no choice. However, if our mind is calm and we know we have everything we need inside, we hardly care. And one of the most powerful ways to get there is to train in gratitude. This means actually putting time aside to think about it.

Great-full

I sometimes think of “grateful” as “great-full”, ie, feeling full of all that is great. (Or something like that.) Dictionary.com says it means “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful” as well as “pleasing to the mind or senses; agreeable or welcome; refreshing.”

Gratitude does please our mind. It helps us enjoy our lives immensely. It helps us feel happy, whole, enriched, and confident. Instead of focusing on the things that are wrong with our life, and of course we can all come up with a long list, we focus on the things that are right.

How does that square with the need to focus on our suffering in order to develop renunciation? (Just in case you are wondering.) This is samsara after all, so what on earth are we supposed to be happy about? Generally the only time it is worth focusing on our own suffering is just for that reason, in order to develop the wish to get rid of it all and its causes. But at the times we are feeling hopelessly unhappy, bereft, annoyed, sorry for ourselves – the chances are that we are not focusing on our suffering in this constructive way at all. At which point we can either shift our focus to renunciation, or shift our focus away from what’s wrong to what’s right, developing gratitude instead.

The grass is not always greenergrass greener

Too often we pine over the things we haven’t got whilst neglecting the things we have. Counting our blessings is a way to focus on what we’ve got going for us, the green grass right under our noses.

By the way, I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ve been thinking lately about how there is never any point in trying to replace people and things we have lost. Better to tune into what is now and we’ll feel whole again. Not, “Oh this is just a pale imitation of the living conditions/relationship/job etc I had!” It is not a pale imitation, it is just different. It is not supposed to replace anything, and if we don’t set it up as a replacement we might just find that we are enjoying it in its own right. Be happy in ourselves and we can enjoy everything that comes our way.

Some scientifically proven benefits of gratitude

As I said, there are a ton of articles out these days about the power of gratitude. This article for example gives 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, so I thought I’d give a quick unscientific comment on all of them.

Gratitude:

  1. Opens the door to more relationships. Hardly surprising really, who doesn’t like being around someone who appreciates them?!
  2. Improves physical health. All I’ll say here is that I was feeling very grateful this morning (hence this article) and my good mood made me go for a swim in a pool in the snow.
  3. Improves psychological health. Gratitude “effectively increases happiness and reduces depression” and “reduces a multitude of toxic emotions (read “delusions”), ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.” That’s understandable, and cool.
  4. Enhances empathy and reduces aggression. For sure.
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Yup, I love sleeping!
  6. Improves self-esteem. And “reduces social comparisons”. Yes, if we are grateful to others, we tend to want to repay them, and it becomes natural to rejoice in them instead of comparing ourselves and falling short.
  7. Increases mental strength. Gratitude “reduces stress” and “fosters resilience”. There is nothing more resilient than a peaceful, controlled mind, which we get with gratitude.

That was only 7. This article gives 31 benefits of gratitude 🙂 But I’ll spare you my comments.

pigletNow I don’t know if this kind of thing impresses you or not, but I’ll mention it just in case. Gratitude also boosts our dopamine and serotonin levels. It is apparently even a form of emotional intelligence and “affects neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex” (which apparently is a good thing).

Feel free to Google “gratitude benefits” or whatever and you’ll have a stack of bedtime reading.

Before teaching how to generate a positive state of mind, Buddha Shakyamuni would always talk first about its benefits to encourage us to go for it. So hopefully you’ve decided that gratitude is what you want, in which case, in the next article I carry on with this and share some Buddhist techniques for feeling more grateful.

Meanwhile, I am always (well, almost always) grateful for your comments …

Ten ways to be happier

Who doesn’t want to be happier? That, and wanting to be free from suffering, are the two basic wishes of all living beings, from world leaders to the smallest gnat. Generally, however, as Shantideva says:

Although living beings wish to be free from suffering,
They run straight towards the causes of suffering;
And although they wish for happiness,
Out of ignorance they destroy it like a foe. ~ Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Someone at work posted an article called Ten Simple Science-Based Ways to be Happier Today, perhaps not surprisingly one of the most read leadership articles of 2013, and it inspired me to give a Buddhist version.

1.      Exercise more

As it explains in the article, exercise helps prevent depression, helps us relax, increases our brain power, is good for our physical health and weight, etc, etc. This we all know, really.

exercizeMy teacher Geshe Kelsang encourages people to stay healthy through exercise and good diet. Although our mind goes on forever and so we need to put most of our effort into keeping our mind healthy and increasingly strong, we also have to look after this meaty body despite its limited shelf life. At the moment we have a precious human life with which to help ourselves and everyone else, so we need to take care of this body as our vehicle, rather as an ambulance driver takes good care of her ambulance so she can drive around helping people. Those with a Tantric empowerment even have a commitment to take care of their body, not needlessly weaken it, let alone destroy it.

Prostrations are recommended if we want to combine our exercise directly with a spiritual practice. I think with a little mindfulness it is also possible to transform any exercise into the spiritual path – for example, when I get a chance to swim laps, I enjoy thinking Dharma thoughts, and bathing in water-like blessings and/or prostrating to an ocean of compassion, etc. Maybe some of you do some creative things, care to share?

See # 5 below too.

2.      Sleep more

“Sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.”

For those who have not gained control over their deeper levels of consciousness, sleep may come from dullness and its imprints — but we still need it!!

For ordinary beings sleep helps to restore the energy of the body and to bring the elements of the body into harmony, thereby making the body comfortable and prolonging life. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 166

The book also says:

Sleep is also the basis of the development of all the things we experience in dreams.

remember you are dreamingI think this refers to the fact that the appearances in dreams actually arise from the dreaming mind, are perceptions of the dreaming mind. This is no different to when we are awake — our mind is the basis for the perceptions of our waking world too. There is nothing outside the mind. So dreaming can really help us to understand this, to increase our wisdom.

Also the yoga of sleeping taught in Tantra is incredibly helpful and time-saving – better than spending almost a third of this precious, hard-to-attain human life zonked out. Sleep doesn’t have to be a waste of time. We can actually learn to use our sleeping mind to meditate if we train in the six stages of Mahamudra Tantra.

At least it is a good idea last thing each night to let go of and purify the bad parts of the day, not entering our dream world with a deluded, upset, anxious mind. There is nothing to stop us turning our mind in a positive direction as we lay down, and we can ask the Buddhas and the Dakinis to bless our minds while we sleep. They will.

Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe Kelsang’s own root Spiritual Guide, even recommends a nap if we are feeling negative or anxious during the day. You can find out more about the yoga of sleeping in your free ebook Modern Buddhism.

3.      Move closer to work

‘Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”’

Although I do travel quite a lot, I’m lucky in that my daily commute at the moment is a rather delightful bike ride through the streets of Denver. But if we have no choice, we can remember that everything is transformable. Actually being stuck in traffic can give us the opportunity to listen to teachings, develop a happy mind, practice patience, remember the kindness of the people in the cars around (for without them, there would be no road), and so on. We don’t actually have to be “stuck”. Those moments of pause throughout our day — eg, at red lights, when our computer spends an age booting up, waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s office, last in the long line at Starbucks — are a perfect chance to check in with our mind to see if it is peaceful and positive.

4.      Spend times with friends and family

“The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.”

A study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics states that our relationships are worth more than $100,000! Not sure how they got that figure … but we do all know that money doesn’t buy us happiness, don’t we?! Nor does status etc. At least theoretically we know this, though this recent New York Times article shows that people still chase after more and more money and prestige … we chain ourselves to our own desks.

I am sitting at an airport café writing this, and enjoying the loud laughter, almost hysterical laughter, coming from a group of Bosnian friends sitting at a table close to me. They are having a blast! Love is where it’s at. If spending time with friends and family brings out our love, it’ll definitely make us happy. If it brings out our frustration, dislike, and attachment — not so much.Pope and little girl

Everyone can be a friend. To a Bodhisattva, a so called “friend of the world”, who has trained in universal love and compassion, everyone is a friend. I liked the recent footage of Pope Francis jumping out of his Fiat 500 every few feet, or so it seemed, to hug random strangers!

However, I think we also need time alone, and to learn to love being on our own, happy with ourselves, both in general and if we are interested in pursuing a spiritual path. I have spent many, maybe most, of my happiest hours alone. There are numerous benefits to solitude explained in the scriptures and experienced by past and present spiritual practitioners.attachment 3

Alone or surrounded, it all depends on what we are doing with our mind. If we have love, we can be on a retreat in the middle of nowhere and feel very connected and happy. If we don’t, we can be sitting in the midst of family and friends and feel left out and lonely.

The most reliable friends, if you ask me, are enlightened beings, holy beings — those who’ve perfected their love, compassion, and wisdom, whether Buddhist or otherwise. They unrelentingly see the good in us, looking beyond our faults to our pure nature, and are always there for us. We could do a lot worse than getting used to hanging out with them on a daily basis, sharing with them our good and our bad times.

5.      Go outside

I love going outside, personally, enjoying the elements. So, it seems, does everyone else around here (Colorado) who work so they can play – I sometimes wonder if a love of the great outdoors has supplanted the work ethic I’ve found everywhere else in America …

I’ve read various studies that say getting into nature is very helpful, and one thing I enjoy doing when I am walking around is the Tantric self-generation practice of remembering that the 4 elements of water, wind, fire (heat), and earth are the four Dakinis – Dakini, Lama, and Khandarohi, and Rupini. This blissful practice gets the inner elements into balance – good for both the mind and the body. You can check this out in The New Guide to Dakini Land.staunton state park 2

I think a wonderful practice while outside is to offer the flowers, sky, and other delights to the Buddhas around you and at your heart, with the wish that everyone enjoy a Pure Land.

6.      Help others

“To make yourself feel happier, you should help others.”

“We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” ~ Martin Seligman

Cherishing others is the way to solve our problems. And we can help others practically in so many ways, it is the Bodhisattva’s way of life – Bodhisattvas promise two things, to get enlightened and to help others practically. Some of the moral disciplines of helping others in the Bodhisattva vow include, for example, going to the assistance of those in need, relieving the distress of others, and giving wealth to others. The article notes that spending money on other people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness. In Buddhism, generosity is taught to be a major source of happiness – the Bodhisattva feels amazing joy just at the word “Give”!

If you’re not sure practically how you’re supposed to help more people, Nagarjuna’s advice on the subject can be very helpful:

Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~  Universal Compassion 

The article also says:

“Volunteering is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.”

And as you may have noticed already, there are often plenty of opportunities to volunteer at your local Buddhist Center 🙂 Or animal shelter. Or wherever.

Of course part of all this is avoiding the opposite, harming others.

7.      Practice smiling

I have sometimes wondered if I’d look more cool if I smiled less and scowled more. I have concluded that this may well be the case, but overall I’d rather be happy than cool.fake smile

Of course, you gotta mean it – fake smiles don’t count.

Interestingly:

“Smiling can improve our attention and help us perform better on cognitive tasks.”

This list doesn’t mention laughing at the ridiculousness of samsara/sense of humor, but perhaps that can be snuck in here.

8.      Plan a trip but don’t take one

I had to think about this one 🙂 Then I thought about the power of imagination. We don’t ever really go anywhere anyhow.

9.      Meditate
all you need is inside youNo list on becoming happier would be anywhere near complete without this. In fact, the things on this list can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful, and the function of meditation is to make our mind peaceful.

Buddha explained that due to ignorance we do a lot of hallucinating. On the most basic level, we hallucinate that happiness comes from outside ourselves. We almost always assume that it is to be found out there somewhere – if I can get the right partner, the right job, the right car, the right pair of shoes, etc I’ll be just fine! And until I have them, I won’t.

This is not true. What we need to be happy is mental freedom.

We chain ourselves to external sources of happiness that cannot deliver the goods. I think that uncontrolled desire is a bit like playing the slot machines. Maybe we hit some kind of jackpot — someone returns our desire for a while until one or the other of us has had enough, or we enjoy our promotion until we realize it is too much like work – but by now we are addicted to trying again and again. A morbid fascination – maybe the oranges will all line up this time!! – distracts us from looking for happiness within. Sometimes it works due to some good karma, frankly more often it doesn’t – gambling addictbut until then we keep trying, bound to the machine in a dingy crypt full of fellow gambling addicts. We need to get out of here and into the sunshine: “I’m free!” Meditation does that for us.

Happiness is a state of mind, a feeling, and therefore its real causes lie within the mind. So of course meditation has to be on this list because with it we go direct to the source. Familiarizing our mind with positivity is the most direct, effective way to become happy. This in fact is what the article says:

“Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life.”

This whole Kadampa Life blog is about meditation, but I’ll let the scientists conclude this section:

“… neuroimaging … concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.”

And

“Research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.”

10.  Practice gratitude

“Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

Buddha had a lot to say about this. We do some beautiful meditations on cherishing others by remembering their kindness. We are grateful to living beings and we are grateful to enlightened beings, both. I wrote more about that here.

Thanks everyone for reading. I have only touched on a few things here. I’m sure you have a lot more ideas and it’d be great if you felt like sharing them in the comments.

Thanking our lucky stars, thanking everyone

thank you 2I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving, probably because it is Thanksgiving today – and I’m thinking that Buddhism teaches two very good reasons to give thanks, both of which have universal relevance.

The first is being thankful because we have such a precious human life right now. The second is being thankful to others, because without them this life would be impossible. Contemplating our good fortune makes us feel lucky to have it – and feeling lucky is feeling happy. Contemplating others’ kindness opens our heart to gratitude and appreciation, and feeling grateful is also feeling happy. Feeling happy in turn makes us value what we have and value others, and then we are far more likely to use what we have to pay others back.

So, if we really want to embrace the full meaning of “Thanksgiving” and feel doubly happy and energized to pay it forward, it seems like a win-win meditation to put these 2 meditations together … therefore I thought I would quickly offer a few ideas, providing I can get this written before I fall into a sugar coma (I ate already.)

richerAs for the first, we have everything we need to make spiritual progress in this life. And even leaving the opportunity for attaining permanent freedom and enlightenment out of it,  from a mundane point of view we are also far luckier than most of the other humans in this world, not to mention all other living beings, such as the cat on my lap. In an earlier article I listed the results of some research showing what happens if the whole world is to be shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same. That list of what could be but isn’t shows us where we fit in the grand scheme of things, and it occurred to me that every one of these good fortunes comes entirely from others. As a kind of contemplation, therefore, I’m going to list each one and then explain (1) how lucky that makes me, and (2) how this luck is all thanks to others.

  • 80 would live in substandard housing. Yesterday I was standing outside in Denver waiting for someone to givehomeless me a ride home as it felt bitterly cold and I was carrying shopping. I waited next to a guy in his twenties whose face was blue with cold. He had a skinny Chihuahua with him, and they were walking quickly up and down the sidewalk to keep warm. “When are they going to get a chance to get warm?”, I thought, for they were both homeless. I on the other hand live in a well-built house, and it comes entirely from others’ kindness, as I have never built a house in my life and wouldn’t know where to begin.
  • 67 would be unable to read. How much I take for granted my ability to read and write. When I read writewas staying in a remote Brazilian rain forest some years ago in meditation retreat, none of the valley dwellers had a reading age past 12, and as a result their world was quite confined. Primary school teachers spent many hours or even years teaching me to read and write, skills I use hugely every day; and I can’t even remember their names.
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation. I just ate a huge dinner, every morsel of which came from others. I brought some peas, it is true; but, honestly, all I had to do is open the freezer door, provided by others, take out the frozen peas, grown, harvested, and packaged by others, put them in a saucepan manufactured by others, add boiling water from plumbing and a kettle provided by others, boil them on a stove made by others … anyway, you get the point. And I still took the credit when people thanked ME for the peas! (not that they did, but had they …)
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply. I may complain when the water doesn’t come out of the faucet, but we know how far many people have to walk each day just to carry back a bowl of water, the amount I probably use washing a few pieces of cutlery. And all the water I take for granted comes entirely from the kindness of others.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation. I certainly take my bathroom for granted. But why!!? And how water scarcitykind of others to provide me with sanitation so I don’t have to use a hole in the ground or wash once a year. 
  • 24 would not have any electricity. It’s been cold outside, as I said. But I am very cozy and warm inside. I can also stay cool in summer. The lights are on; I just have to flip a switch. Yes, it is worth thinking this one through – the moment by moment infrastructure of my life is a result of others.
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet. I am able to write and post this, for a start. And all I have to do is move my fingers over the keyboard – fingers provided for me by my parents and typing taught me by … again, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten their name.
  • 1 would have a college education. The fact that we have any education is a blessing, and it all comes from others.
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death. I will indeed be near death before too long, in that regard we are all the same; however, I have better chances of good health and a long life than most due to doctors, good nutrition, etc. – all again coming from the kindness of others.
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US. Hmmm. The richer we are, the MORE we depend on others.

Also, in the same article I spoke of how much religious freedom we have compared with most people in the world. And, again, this makes us both very lucky, and also very indebted to those who provide us with everything we need to make spiritual progress and bring an end to suffering.icing on cake

All told, we are outrageously lucky and it is worth thinking about this from time to time rather than focusing on what is wrong with our life – of course we all have problems, but our problems are a walk in the park compared with those of others (see above.) Better to count our blessings on a regular basis. We may not have all the icing, but we DO have the cake.

I hope you enjoy your cake and eat it this Thanksgiving, and indeed every day. We can thank our lucky stars for being so lucky, and thank pretty much every living being as they have all directly or indirectly had a hand in bringing us this good fortune. And now we can pay it forward — using these current great conditions to become a better person, hopefully even a Buddha, for others’ sake.

Being a modern-day Bodhisattva

This is the 3rd of 4 articles on our precious human life.

In Breathing for Peace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

six perfections

Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

We could do something truly radical by using our life to become a friend of the world, a modern-day Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by universal compassion, wants to help everyone without exception find lasting freedom and happiness. Compassion fuels their entire spiritual progress. They understand that the most far-reaching and satisfying way to help others is to keep increasing their own good qualities of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom – the so-called six perfections – until they become an enlightened Buddha able to help everyone all the time. This motivation is called bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment.

A Bodhisattva is a rare being, a special person, an actual hero or heroine who gains victory over our real enemies of anger, greed, despair, discouragement and so on. Someone who wants to become enlightened for all living beings is uncommon, but just because it is rare doesn’t mean we can’t become one. There are people throughout the world working selflessly for others, in ways obvious or hidden. Sometimes we stumble across their stories and are inspired.  

Rick Chaboudy modernday Bodhisattva
Rick Chaboudy, modern-day Bodhisattva, savior of too many animals to count

If we decided we wanted to help others with surgical procedures, we would understand the need to train as a surgeon. We wouldn’t march around with a carving knife announcing, “Anyone care for some heart surgery? Or perhaps a little amputation?” Wanting to help everyone, a Bodhisattva knows they first need to improve their own motivation, skills and capacity. They have a way to make every single day meaningful and are a great role model for how to live in the world.

How can we live a meaningful life?

How does someone become a Bodhisattva? Simply through daily practice, one step at a time. You may be thinking, “Well this is a bit fanciful isn’t it?! I started reading this article just out of curiosity, and possibly to help me get through this stressful day without killing someone, and now you’re suggesting that I aspire to become a fully enlightened Buddha!” But it is far closer than we may think. We can tell that we already have the seed of bodhichitta because we already want to help others at least a bit more than we can right now, and we already want to improve ourselves at least a bit. Take both of these to their logical conclusion and we have bodhichitta – the wish to help everyone without exception by improving ourselves until there is no further room for improvement.

Modern Buddhism free book

We want our life to have some meaning, don’t we? Pleasure alone is not enough, it feels hollow, because it has no lasting value. True happiness and meaning go hand in hand. If we use our life to travel the spiritual path, we can be in the position of helping not just ourselves but infinite living beings. We can become real heroes.

Spreading a little happiness everyday

A friend of mine sent me this anecdote:

“Straight after university I spent a year working in television in London as a production runner for the Channel 4 comedy series The National Theatre of Brent. As a lot of my time was spent in gridlock, “driving” the company car on errands in London traffic, I had plenty of time to examine road rage. So frustrated by their lack of movement, drivers in front of me would honk their horns continuously, forcing their way into whatever gaps presented themselves. Yet an hour down the road, despite all their aggressive heart-attack—inducing attempts, I would see them again – a whole five cars further ahead!road rage

I decided to conduct an experiment. Whenever possible, I would allow a trapped car into the space ahead of me. When I did this, I was greeted by a smile and wave from the surprised driver, and that car would often play it forward, repeating the gesture of kindness to another car ahead of it. Traffic seemed to flow more easily as a result. My journeys did not take any longer, and they were a great deal more restful and entertaining. This is just a simple illustration. We have these kinds of opportunities to practice loving-kindness every day.”

By improving our love and compassion and the wish to improve ourselves for the sake of others, and by gradually engaging in the Bodhisattva’s way of life, our life approximates that of a Bodhisattva and we become more and more like one. With this good and big heart, even if we improve ourselves only a little bit each day by, for example, patiently resisting the temptation to get angry with someone, and even if we only slightly help one or two people each day, by, for example, helping a little old lady cross the street, every little bit counts a lot because right here and right now we are already making strides on a cosmic spiritual journey.

Live life lightly, live it well

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park
View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best ways to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters
This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life 🙂

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!

Happiness from the inside out

Escape to reality

People often decide they’ll learn to meditate once they see the connection between inner peace and feeling good or happy.rainbow in clouds

But sometimes people misunderstand “happiness depends on inner peace” to mean that, when they meditate, Buddhists and so on are just trying to find some peace by escaping from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. We use meditation to become fully engaged both with our reality and with others’ reality. Peace is not just about switching off and ignoring whatever is going on. It’s about waking up to reality. Therefore, peaceful minds are peaceful, but they’re also meaningful.

Where do you look for happiness?

When we go to Buddhist meditation classes, or read some books, it is not too long before we discover that Buddha taught that happiness comes from within. And we nod our heads in agreement and perhaps even tell others about it. But if we examine where we put all our time and energy, where we try to find happiness, this’ll give us a good indication of what we really believe about where our happiness comes from, regardless of the words coming out of our mouth. And it could well be that we still believe that it is to be found out there, somewhere. “If I get this right I’ll be happy” – if I just get this piece of pizza, this promotion, this pay raise, this boyfriend, this GPS…

directionally challengedActually, when I was given my first GPS, a Magellan, back in San Francisco where I was based about 8 years ago, I confess that for a while there I thought I might finally have stumbled upon the one thing in the entire universe that was capable of making me happy. That navigator revolutionized my entire existence! For years I had been saying to people that happiness didn’t depend on externals, and now I was realizing that it did! After years of being directionally challenged, to put it mildly, more like directionally demented, I drove around San Francisco like some crazy woman, and found my way everywhere with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever.

At the time I had to think quite hard about why Lady Magellan wasn’t a source of happiness from her own side – the only lame thing I could come up with was that although she got me places, she didn’t guarantee I enjoyed those places once I was there. (Admittedly, this was before she started to become a bit perverse and peevish and send me on some very odd detours, once even suggesting I drive off a cliff.)

Why am I fessing up to this? It’s because sometimes (often!) I do have to think hard about why someone or something is not capable from their own side of giving me happiness. If I dig deeper, I can see how this is the case, but it is not always immediately obvious, which is why I fall for external sources of happiness over and over again.

Have you found anything that from its own side is capable of giving you happiness, without its depending on the mind?

Where do you look for inner peace?

value of somethingWhereas we do often think that the causes of happiness lie outside the mind, when it comes to peace I think we have more of a sense that peace is an inner state of mind, and we have to work on our mind to get it. “If I want to be peaceful, my mind has to be peaceful.” I never thought, for example, that Lady Magellan could give rise to inner peace. I think it makes more sense to us to think of cultivating peace of mind, whereas when we use the word “pursuing happiness” it seems to suggest more about rearranging things externally. Just a little more Mozzarella on the pizza, or if only my kitten would stop throwing up, I’ll be happy. Happiness is out there and so we have to go out there and get it.

Joining the dots… happiness comes from inner peace, nowhere else

So it is very helpful to understand the relationship between peace and happiness – it helps us join the dots and change priorities. If we knew for sure that happiness depends on inner peace as opposed to external sources, we would find the energy to train in it. With inner peace, we can be happy all the time, no matter what is going on in our world. Without it, if our mind is troubled, we cannot find a moment’s happiness, even if we are magically transported to a fabulous tropical paradise surrounded by all our dearest friends. External conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.

Happiness come from the inside out, not the outside in.

Japanese-Tea-Garden-San-FranciscoFor example, San Francisco is a very beautiful city. I know, because I drove around it like a crazy woman and saw lots of touristy things, like the Japanese Tea Garden. But it is still going to entirely depend on our frame of mind whether we’re going to enjoy that Japanese Garden or find it, “Boooring! I’m hungry. Where’s my lunch?” If our mind is elsewhere, nothing takes: “I wish my boss would give me a break”, or “I’m so stressed out about that stupid deadline”, then a brief, “Oh, nice Bonsai tree”, then “I can’t believe what that woman said to me…” If our mind is churning and unpeaceful, we can be in one of the most beautiful corners of this planet and it can still be just “Bleahh!”, not making us happier at all. Many of us do live in a beautiful corner of this planet, but are we happy all the time? There are literally countless examples like this.

Everyone wants to be happy all the time. I can’t remember the last time I woke up in the morning thinking, “I hope I have a really miserable day”… Yet, without choice, we often do have a miserable day. This is because happiness is just not going to happen if we are not peaceful inside, regardless of which external source we turn to. Happiness comes from the inside out. We’ve got that backwards at the moment. We’ve tried it from the outside in for a very long time – months, years, decades, possibly half a century or more. And we’ll go on like this until we realize that happiness is not coming from there. That we won’t find happiness out there because happiness is a state of mind and it depends on inner peace, peace of mind. And, in fact, there is nothing out there!

A clearly defined path to peace and happiness

happiness comes from withinMeditation redresses this issue. The Western word “happiness” comes from the Icelandic word “luck”. We are happy by chance, when things suddenly go our way or we receive a windfall; and then something goes wrong and we are randomly unhappy again. But according to Buddhism, by contrast, there’s a clearly defined path to happiness, and this involves training in improving our peaceful and positive minds.

Over to you: In the comments, let us know if you have managed to find a real external source of happiness, so we can all go out and buy one …