If we want 2019 to be better than 2018, we might want to cultivate some more self-confidence. I was thinking about how we cannot afford to become heavy-hearted or overwhelmed with all the things that will inevitably go wrong publicly and privately this year, or we will be of little use to anyone. The laziness of discouragement will kick in, wherein we will feel too dejected to help ourselves and everyone else bring an end to suffering and its causes. It is no fun to be like a dying snake, as in Shantideva’s illustration in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
If a snake lies dying on the ground,
Crows will act like brave eagles and attack it.
In the same way, if my self-confidence is weak,
Even the slightest adversity will be able to harm me.
According to Buddhism, there are four areas in which we need to cultivate self-confidence, and I thought it might be really helpful to set ourselves up with these for the new year. These will give us both courage and energy, regardless of what the day’s headlines are screaming.
Some things will go right in 2019, too, and, as you’ll see, we may need these special types of self-confidence then as well to stop ourselves getting side-tracked from our mission to save the world 😉
But first I want to tell Tara’s story, as I said I would in this last article. This is because she is a perfect embodiment of self-confidence and fearlessness, and we could do a lot worse than (1) having her on our side and (2) learning to emulate her. It’s helpful to ask, “What would Tara do?” when we notice ourselves getting forlorn, desperate, or panic-stricken.
Whether you take the following account of where Tara came from as an allegory or a true story, I don’t think it really matters, for either way it shows how cool and courageous she is. In the Sutra of Praises to the Twenty-one Taras, Buddha Shakyamuni said:
Homage to Tara, the Swift One, the Heroine,
Whose eyes are like a flash of lightning,
Who arose from the opening of a lotus,
Born from the tears of the Protector of the Three Worlds.
Aeons and aeons ago, in another world system, Buddha Avalokiteshvara, who had already liberated countless living beings from suffering, thought he’d check, “How many are left?” Seeing that there were still a countless number, he was so moved that he began to cry.
The Buddha of Compassion’s tears were so great that they formed a pool.
And in response, swift as the wind, as a manifestation of the wind element of all the Buddhas, Tara arose from a lotus on the pool and said to him these words:
Don’t cry. I will help you. I will permanently liberate all remaining living beings from their suffering.
Tara is therefore compassion in action, action Buddha, superwoman. She doesn’t mess about and she never backs down. Gentle, ferocious, whatever it takes … she will do it to liberate living beings. An incredibly popular, iconic Buddha in India and in Tibet, and hopefully now increasingly amongst us in the modern world, there are many stories of people calling out to her at moments of danger, fear, and duress and immediately receiving her help.
And if we want to assist all the Buddhas, including our compassionate Spiritual Guide, in their mission to liberate everyone on this planet and elsewhere from their pain, we need to aim at Tara’s degree of self-assurance.
What is pride?
So, back to the four types of self-confidence. Judging by the number of self-help books on developing self-confidence, a lot of people like this topic – probably because our self-grasping and self-cherishing make us feel so insecure all the time.
In other teachings, Geshe Kelsang refers to these types of self-confidence taught by Shantideva as “non-deluded pride.” In general, pride is deluded. Our mind is “puffed up” with an exaggerated sense of our own importance, as Geshe-la explains in the book How to Understand the Mind.
Pride refers to an inflated sense of self for slight reasons. For example, a new haircut. New shoes. Or you just got a promotion or a hot girlfriend or something like that. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. These things are never a reason to think that we’re better or superior to others, that we are somehow more special. But due to our ridiculous feelings of self-doubt, we’re constantly longing to feel special. Our self-cherishing makes us long to be affirmed in some way, any way. Yesterday a close friend I haven’t seen in a while said to me, as if he meant it, “You’re looking really great!” and although I brushed it off modestly on the outside, inside I was like, “Yeah, you’re right, thank you.” We swell up like a balloon.
Or maybe someone tells us excitedly of a beautiful place they visited and we reply, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve been there.” Subtext is that we discovered it, we got there first, it is pervaded by our ego blessings, they should count themselves lucky to be part of that. According to our self-grasping and our self-cherishing, the world basically revolves around us; and deluded pride is just an inflation of those ego minds. The self held up by our self-grasping and self-cherishing doesn’t exist, so we need pride to bolster it! Perhaps this is why deluded pride is one of the six root delusions, meaning it is pretty common, even if we hate ourselves. Perhaps especially if we hate ourselves.
Ego trips (up)
Self-confidence is not the same as self-importance, it is quite the opposite. If we are caught up with grasping at inherently existent self and inherently existent others — which leads to cherishing our important self and neglecting the importance of others — we find ourselves constantly jockeying for position. This undermines our self-confidence as we are always comparing and contrasting ourselves with others instead of just getting on un-self-consciously with the job of improving ourselves and helping everyone else. We feel superior, or we feel inferior, or we feel competitive. We have to focus on our own good qualities and others’ faults just to stay on top. We have to praise ourselves and criticize others, whether out loud or internally, just to feel good about ourselves. It’s exhausting.
Anyway, that’s deluded pride. There are seven types as a matter of fact, and you can check these out in How to Understand the Mind – they have names like “pride in identity” and “pretentious pride”, and the descriptions are embarassing. This pride stops us improving. And pride comes before a fall, as they say. It makes us vulnerable and sets us up for suffering because it’s only a matter of time before we’re not being acknowledged in the way we want to be acknowledged, or people are ignoring us, or suddenly there’s a biting comment, and whoooosh, all the wind goes out of the balloon, just like that.
Feeling full of ourselves based on external stuff that doesn’t last is highly suspect – youth and good looks, for example, are neither a stable nor genuine basis for feeling cool. (Doesn’t mean we’re not appreciative to be young and good-looking, but we don’t need to be all conceited about it.) Pride also leads to disrespect and gets in the way of empathizing with others. On the subject of ordinary coolness:
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder. ~ John Lennon
Buddha Vajrayogini often appears as an old hag to help her followers realize that youth and looks aren’t everything, aren’t much in fact. And of course there is Tara, who is totally cool, as is Geshe Kelsang, not because he is young or has movie star looks but because he is fully in control of his mind. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la says:
At present we might be beautiful, fit, intelligent, and successful, but we have no power to remain like this. Eventually, without any choice, we will have to become old, decrepit, impoverished, disabled or senile. If we compare ourselves to realized beings who have perfect freedom and whose happiness cannot be destroyed by external conditions, we will soon lose our pride.
Non-deluded pride is completely different to deluded pride. Non-deluded pride is also a strong sense of self, but this self is not the inherently existent self, which doesn’t in fact exist, but a self that is identified with the truth, or imputed on something that does exist. These are the four types of non-deluded pride, or self-confidence:
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.
I was on a walk the day Prince died, in the freezing/hot Colorado spring weather, which took me through no fewer than 12 snow-melty streams; and I didn’t see another person all day, not even a bear. And I got to thinking all philosophically about what’s life all about; so I thought I’d share some thoughts.
The aim of Buddhist practice and, if you ask me, the meaning of life, is to gain the realization of Mahamudra, the union of bliss and emptiness. This will obliterate samsara, freeing us and enabling us to free those connected to us, which is everyone.
And there are two complementary approaches (I was thinking on my mountain) into this. One is through the mind (aiming for the clear light of bliss) and the other is through the object (aiming for a realization of emptiness).
In The New Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang explains how all conventional truths are created by our mind of self-grasping ignorance (albeit not apprehended or established by it.)
In How to Understand the Mind, he says that everything appearing to our gross and subtle minds is hallucination. It would seem that of all ordinary beings’ minds, only our very subtle mind is not mistaken because it perceives emptiness, the way things are.
Yikes, we’re hallucinating all the time!
Taken together, it looks like we are always hallucinating, except when we can use our very subtle mind. All appearances to these gross and subtle levels of mind, and even the mind itself, are hallucinations that we need to learn to see through.
We end up with the union of these two approaches by practicing the union of Sutra and Tantra. We get closer to the very subtle mind by understanding its object, emptiness, as taught in Sutra; and we get closer to emptiness by learning to manifest and use the very subtle mind, as taught in Highest Yoga Tantra. It seems these realizations are symbiotic.
We can start practicing this union now by feeling that we are meditating with and on our own very subtle mind whenever possible, seeing all other minds and their appearances as simply waves from that ocean.
So, what can we trust?!
In the meantime, trapped in hallucination, how on earth do we function at all? How do we know what to rely on? How can we trust anything that doesn’t exist as it appears?
We can because some things have relative meaning, are relatively meaningful. Within our hallucinations we agree on some things, eg, we can sit on chairs, and that is relative or conventional reality (shared experiences arising from the similar perceptions/appearances of our collective karma). We can rely on it to a certain extent. It functions in the way it is supposed to, and we can have a relatively valid apprehension of it, with a so-called ‘conventional valid cognizer’.
One way to understand this is by using the example of a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Modern Buddhism:
Conventional objects are false because, although they appear to exist from their own side, in reality they are mere appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.
The world we experience in a dream is deceptive because it appears to have its own existence independent of the mind, and we discover this when we wake up. However, within the dream we can say that there are relative truths and relative falsities.
Within the context of a dream, dream objects have a relative validity and this distinguishes them from things that do not exist at all. ~ Modern Buddhism
Geshe-la gives the example of our stealing a diamond in a dream – if we confess to it, we are telling the truth, if we say we didn’t steal it we are telling a lie.
Another example – if in my dream I nod to the six-stringed instrument I am playing and tell you, “This is my guitar”, this is true, but if I say “This is my ukulele” (a four-stringed instrument), this is false. However, within the whole context of the dream both are deceptive because they appear to be real when they are not. (As I discover when I wake up and can no longer play either.)
So, it seems that everything in a dream is created by the self-grasping of the dream mind and is therefore deceptive; but within that experience some thoughts are ‘valid’ and establish the ‘truth’, relatively speaking, and some thoughts are not, namely our delusions, whose objects don’t exist at all.
I think we can say the same for conventional truths while we are awake — all conventional truths are ‘created’ by self-grasping, true only for self-grasping; but compared with non-existents they are relatively true, truths by convention or agreement, ie, conventional truths. A non-existent on the other hand is still hallucination, still projected by self-grasping, but has no validity at all. It is apprehended or established by self-grasping delusions. An example would be an object of anger, such as an inherently existent faulty person, who doesn’t exist at all. (The anger itself however does exist and is a conventional truth, as is every mind.)
Perhaps I will stick my neck out and say that conventional reality is collective hallucination?! But please don’t take my word for it, please feel free to debate this in the comments.
Given all this, how are we to navigate through these mistaken appearances and make our lives meaningful? Answers on a postcard …! And Part Two is here.
Mahasiddha Saraha was a Mahamudra master who gave some very helpful analogies to help us settle the mind, explained in Clear Light of Bliss. One is about a crow and a boat. In the olden days, before GPS, sailors would take a crow with them and periodically let it go to see if they were near land. If they were, the crow would not return; if they were not, it would fly around a bit and then have to return to the boat.
We can be the same with our various distractions – wedo not give them anywhere to land. We don’t let them land, we just watch them. They’ve arisen from the mind and are the nature of mind so — although they’ll give us reasons as to why we SHOULD think them, fascinating or useful as they are — if we just wait they will rejoin the meditation object, the mind itself. And we don’t need to worry that we have lost anything, a useful train of thought for example, for we have lost nothing. In fact, we have gained a great deal.
Normally we are very good at giving our thoughts somewhere to land … indeed a sofa to sit on, a house to live in, a bed, a family, a history, a town … Distraction is like poison. If we get sufficiently stuck in one thought it can derail our entire life, it has that power. Any depression or fury that we’ve had started with one thought.
So in the meditation on the nature of the mind we learn to let go, and we learn that it is safe to let go, because the thoughts arose from and subsided into our own mind, nowhere else. And once they’re gone they’re gone but we are not missing much, if anything.
Bear in mind, after all, that we are hallucinating like crazy most of the time! Whenever we are suffering from the delusions of anger, attachment, and even just our underlying ignorance, the engaged objects of our mind don’t exist, as explained in detail in How to Understand the Mind. I spent time in a ward for people with so-called “confusion” not long ago. Some of the patients were clearly hallucinating like crazy due to infections, “delirious” as the doctors put it, and, you know something, I couldn’t help thinking that they were not really that much more “delusional” than anyone else, it was just that no one was sharing these particular narratives with them. No more than people share our dreams. Not that it was pleasant for anyone concerned, but no hallucinations are pleasant, not really, and they just go on and on and on, which is why Buddhists have had enough and want samsara to end.
Let it be
When we are meditating and we get distracted, eg, by the sound of someone moving around, then instead of going immediately out to this distraction we can remember Saraha’s crow analogy and let it be. We can stay focused on the clarity and know that the distraction will rejoin it. One corner of our mind is observing that a thought is arising, but we also know that it will rejoin the mind. This is the same for any awareness or thought we have – they are all equally mind, or clarity, so however compelling, or however far they threaten to take us away from the meditation, in fact they can’t if we don’t let them.
So we are not conceptually pushing the thoughts away, rejecting them – there is no aversion, we are just letting them rejoin the object and dissolve away, quite naturally. We are relaxed – concentrated for sure, yet in a state of acceptance rather than resistance. And both our concentration and our wisdom are improving all the time.
In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says that our very subtle mind “holds our life”. It seems to me that when we are tuned into the clarity of our mind, this is really feeling alive. I also think we can do this to a certain extent anytime, not just in deep meditation – be aware of the awareness rather than fixated on its objects. We tend to stay more in the heart too when we do this, which feels more peaceful and spacious.
We do not need to go OUT to objects any more than a lake needs to go out to its reflections – they are mere aspects/appearances. This really helps us stay in the present moment for how can a reflection in a lake be in the past or in the future?
Have you ever noticed what happens when you are starting to feel a bit disturbed or deluded – how your mind wants to go OUT? It starts to feel unsettled. We can feel our energy winds going outwards, if we observe carefully – trying like the crow to find somewhere to land. When we allow ourselves to absorb inward by remembering that there is nothing actually out there to go to, we experience contentment, and eventually non-dual bliss.
We can get a taste of how it is possible to enjoy endlessly, without craving, with the blissful Heroes and Heroines (the Tantric Buddhas) of Heruka’s mandala; and learn to bring everyone else in. As we pray in the Heruka tsog offering:
Please bless me so that I may experience delight with the messengers of the vajra mind family.
With a decision to apply ourselves, we can breathe out our obstacles and open up the space in our mind to inhale radiant light, the nature of our Mahamudra master’s fully realized consciousness. We can draw peaceful blessings deep into our root mind at our heart with each inhalation. Through enjoying this process, we allow our own awareness to be drawn in too, until we feel centered within this light, peaceful, experience at our heart.
While relaxing here, we ask: “What is the mind? What is it that is aware of the sounds, sensations, thoughts?” So that instead of focusing on these we use them to help us become aware of awareness itself, which is like an inner empty space that has the power to perceive. Then we abide within the experience of the mind itself, recognizing it as the root mind at our heart, moment by moment.
The moment we notice that our mind is distracted outward and wants somewhere to land, we can remember the crow analogy. We can ask, “What is it that is aware?”, and stay inwardly focused on the clarity of the mind.
You may or may not have much time to practice this meditation over the holiday period, but I hope these Mahamudra articles so far have given some of you a little appetite for retreat in January 2019 (also Heruka and Vajrayogini month). Meditation retreats will be taking place at residential and non-residential Kadampa centers all over the world, for example in upstate New York. It’s always been my favorite part of the year.
We can start the meditation on the mind, as mentioned here, just by watching the cloud-like thoughts come and go within the clear sky-like mind, without reacting or intruding or indeed thinking them through. Our mind may not seem much like a clear sky to begin with – it may indeed feel totally overcast, with no glimpses of clarity – but we just watch the clouds scud by. Then we can come to observe what is beneath those scudding thoughts, asking, “Where is each thought coming from? Where is it going to? What is it? Where is it? What is that space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?”
Once we are through to the clarity of our mind at the level of our heart, we think that we are meditating on our root mind, our deepest level of consciousness, also known as our “very subtle mind”.
No matter how good or not we are at this meditation, we can always create very special causes by thinking that we are meditating on our root mind itself. As Geshe Kelsang said in 2000 (and it also comes up in his new ear-whispered Oral Instructions of Mahamudra):
We don’t need to expect quick results. Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. We will get closer and closer. In reality this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.
If you get a chance to sit down with the chapter on “The Gross, Subtle and Very Subtle Minds” in How to Understand the Mind, please do, as it is quite — for want of a better word — mind-blowing. As for our very subtle mind, also descriptively known as our “continuously residing mind”, Geshe Kelsang says in this book:
Without the very subtle mind we would have no life because our gross and subtle minds cannot hold our life. This is because they are only temporary minds, and very unstable.
They are like the waves on the ocean, where the root mind is the ocean itself. Or like the clouds in the sky, where the root mind is the sky itself.
Therefore only our very subtle mind holds our life continuously throughout the day and night, and in life after life until we become an enlightened Buddha. ~ How to Understand the Mind
There is more philosophical stuff coming up in this and future articles, but really the meditation on the mind should be done in the spirit of relaxed experimentation. We’re not pushing for a result or an insight, but allowing our own simple observation of our thoughts and what is appearing to those thoughts to improve our understanding of the nature of the mind and its objects.
So in this meditation we are meditating on the conventional nature of the mind, but also indirectly gaining a deeper insight into ultimate truth, emptiness, by seeing the interdependence of perceiver and perceived; that we can’t have one without the other. Thoughts and their objects are not identical, but they depend on each other, and you cannot separate them out.
The clarity of mind is the basis for perceptions AND their objects. A mountain, for example, is form, not clarity itself; but it is also not other than that clarity. Take dreaming. We know that an elephant in a dream is not the mind, or clarity, itself, as it is grey and big whereas the mind is colorless and shapeless. However, it is also not other than clarity. It is not outside the mind. It is mere aspect of clarity, mere appearance of mind.
One way we can know this is because when the dreaming mind dreaming the elephant ceases, so does the elephant. That’s the only reason the elephant ceases, according to Geshe Kelsang in How to Understand the Mind. Only mind has that power.
In the same way, waking objects are all mere aspects of the minds that perceive them. Although forms and so on are not mind itself, they are “almost mind”, Geshe Kelsang has taught.
When we did the meditation mentioned at the beginning of this article, we began by watching our thoughts. This is rather as if we are watching a karmic movie – wave after wave of appearance arising from the winds of karma blowing on the ocean of the root mind. Through this simple observation, it looks like we are already improving our wisdom.
Once we have a feeling of watching the karmic movie, we move to the clarity. We don’t force it or hold onto a dry, intellectual image, but observe that it is our actual mind that is clarity.
If we allow all our wave-like thoughts to dissolve into the clarity of our mind, all the objects of those thoughts also disappear. They have no life of their own, they cannot exist without being apprehended. When we develop deep concentration on the clarity of our mind, everything dissolves away into it.
The ocean analogy can really help this happen – wave-like thoughts arise from the root mind and they also dissolve back, we can actually observe this. We get a feeling for the waves returning to their source, rather than trying to hold a hard generic, or mental, image of a clear mind.
Appearances don’t obstruct the clarity because they are aspects of clarity. For example, the sound of a bird appearing to the clarity of ear awareness is not other than clarity itself. It is not outside it.
A wave is just the ocean making itself known.
By the end of our meditation on the mind, all appearances have settled into our root mind like waves settling into the ocean, and we focus on the clarity, which is the main object of meditation.
Instead of staying endlessly preoccupied with the most superficial of appearances, in this meditation on the mind we can learn to recognize instead the inner luminosity that allows us to experience everything, which is always present and always accessible. Only our mind is “clear enough to perceive objects”, as Geshe Kelsang has said. It is animation itself. It is life.
(And, mind-boggling as it may seem to us at the moment, once this mind is no longer obstructed by delusions and their imprints through the practice of Dharma, we will know everything simultaneously and directly; we will be omniscient.)
As mentioned, whenever there is an appearance – eg, a memory, or a feeling, or a physical sensation — there is a mind to which it is appearing that is the same nature as that appearance. We try to see that the mind itself is the cognizer; we are aware of the cognizer. We can see ourselves how it is formless. Experientially, it is observed to be rather like an inner empty space with the power to perceive.
This is proof enough that the mind is not the body and, indeed, as a formless continuum it will go to future lives – we don’t need to debate whether or not the mind is the brain as it clearly is not. It’s enough to gain at least some understanding of past and future lives. As Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind page 6:
Through understanding the nature and function of the mind correctly, we can understand that our mind is completely different from our body, and this proves that, after our death, although our body will cease the mind will not.
Life continues through and after the death of our meaty body, as life is mind. So, if our body ends today, where will our mind and all its experiences be tomorrow? Today might be a good day to think about this, before that tomorrow is upon us!
(Carrying straight on from Living in the moment.) We can ask ourselves how many of the decisions etc we make are truly new and how many are just recreating the past? Let’s say someone was critical of us yesterday and we became defensive. Then we see them again today. They are a completely different person — today’s person, not yesterday’s — but we see yesterday’s person and so interact with them edgily and uncomfortably again.
Relating to yesterday’s person and not today’s gives rise to problems as the assumptions we make about them, and the ways we then interact with them, are completely false. And we can end up perpetuating the negativity for days, weeks, or longer. A grudge is a perfect example of this. We sustain anger in the present about a person who has long gone. And it doesn’t help them, or us. Resentment is, as the saying goes, like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
Two ways to address the problem
There are 2 ways to address the problem of being stuck in the past illustrated in this example.The first is wisdom, cultivating insight into the nature of impermanence and change. The second is determination, combining this insight practically into our daily activities by deciding strongly to stop grasping at the past.
I’m going to spend this article and the next exploring the wisdom of subtle impermanence as explained by Buddha and my teacher Geshe Kelsang (in his books and oral Mahamudra teachings), and incorporating insights from a wise friend called Gen Samten, whom I find to be an expert on this subject.
In general, wisdom is defined as a virtuous intelligent mind that understands a meaningful object. It is not the same as just being smart. We don’t need to know everything to be free and happy — we need to know what is meaningful to be happy. Buddha illustrated this by picking up a handful of leaves in a forest, saying to his disciples that the numerous leaves in the forest represent all that can be known in the world, but the leaves in his hand represent all that needs to be known to attain liberation.
For example, when a king asked his Buddhist teacher for advice that would both lift his mind in adversity and prevent over-excitement and distraction when things were going well, his teacher taught him the simple phrase: “This too shall pass.”
Two different models of change
Do you agree that things change? I think pretty much everyone agrees that everything changes — we even say things like, “Things are changing all the time! Things are changing so fast!” That much is true, but our understanding of what change actually is is wrong.
There are 2 different models of change, one coming from confusion and one coming from wisdom.
Suppose you walk past a house on way to work every day. That house undergoes changes, cracks appear, masonry falls down, and so on. Why does it change? The bigger changes are happening because moment by moment the building is changing. We can’t perceive that with our eyes, but moment by moment it is changing and we notice the more obvious results of this. We’d all agree with this and this is correct, BUT generally we feel that it is the same basic building that is changing from moment to moment. It has changed a bit but it’s the same house.
It’s the same with the relationship with our significant other. We can acknowledge that the relationship changes but we still feel it’s the same relationship – it’s the same as yesterday’s relationship but has changed slightly.
This thought is confusion because it isn’t true that it is the same building. It is not the same building. It is a completely different building. And the same is true for the relationship — no part of yesterday’s relationship carries over into today’s relationship.
What about us? We woke up, we had coffee, now some time later we’re here reading this, and we feel that I’m the same basic person who woke up this morning and had that coffee. I’ve changed a little bit, but I’m the same basic person.
But this is not true. We are a completely different person. The person drinking coffee and the person reading this now are completely different. Not even an atom of the person drinking coffee exists now. If they did exist, if the previous me had not ceased, where is it, and why are there not two me’s wandering around, one drinking coffee and one reading this?
We are a continuum of moments that are causally related but completely different. So, yes, the person who drank coffee this morning is the cause of the person who is sitting here now, but is completely different. The person sitting here is not that person who drank coffee — that person has completely finished, gone, not even an atom of them remains.
In reality we do not remain the same for one moment without changing, let alone for one life. Without the I of the previous moment ceasing, the I of the next moment could not arise. The I of one moment is the cause of the I of the next moment, and a cause and its effect cannot exist at the same time. A sprout, for example, can develop only when its cause, the seed, disintegrates.
This is the real meaning of change. The person who begins the sentence is not the one who ends it – every single atom has gone by the end. The person who begins a thought is not the same as the one who finishes a thought. Moment to moment to moment we are changing and not even a tiny trace of one moment is carried over into the next. The next moment is completely new, the previous me has completely gone, the person who drank coffee has completely gone.
Yesterday’s weather has completely gone, we accept this, we know not a trace of it remains today. Heck, the whole of yesterday is like that – it has all completely gone, including yesterday’s me.
So why hold onto the past, to something that has completely gone?
Use bigger than smaller chunks of time
It can be helpful to begin relating to this truth with bigger chunks of time and then making them smaller. Where is the child we were? Completely gone. Where is the person we were ten years ago, five years ago, one week ago, one minute ago …? Completely gone. “But it is still basically me!” Only it is not. If it was, the five-year-old you would still be wandering around. But not one atom of that child remains. Not one atom of the you who started reading this sentence remains.
Happy Vajrayogini Day 🙂 This transcendent Buddha of Wisdom is all about helping us destroy our suffering at its root, in the course of one short lifetime.
We don’t like suffering, at least I don’t. Strange how much time we spend, then, dwelling on our own suffering each day.
Geshe Kelsang has said it is meaningless to think about our own suffering unless we want to develop renunciation, the wish for permanent freedom from all suffering and its causes. Dwelling on our own problems out of the context of renunciation can just lead to more self-cherishing. We tend to bat away one problem at a time, which is a bit exhausting and overwhelming.This is one reason why we need genuine renunciation, a compassion for ourselves that wants to be free from the whole ocean of samara, not just one wave at a time.
My friend K went to ER on Wednesday morning – waited 7 hours to be seen, all the time experiencing attacks of agony from kidney stones. She said the main thing she learned was that temporary cessations from particular sufferings, as Geshe Kelsang puts it, were indeed not good enough. In between the bouts of vomiting she’d experience temporary relief, and for the first few hours she though each time, “Phew, that’s it.” She said she even forgot quickly about the pain, thought she was free. But by 11 at night, experience had shown her that this short respite was just the precursor to another pain attack, and that she needed permanent freedom.
Keeping suffering in context
Interestingly, we can be overwhelmingly sad about any given daily mental or physical suffering, but when we manage to view that in the bigger existential context of the four noble truths and develop renunciation our mind becomes lighter and happier, already on the side of liberation, on the side of the solution.
Imagine you’d been born in a prison but had no idea, and you spent your life complaining about the prison food, the bars on the window that ruined your view, the rough and annoying people around you, the cold showers …. You tried to fix these problems as they arose, with greater or lesser success, but generally the whole experience was frustrating. Then someone comes along and says, “Your actual problem is that you are in prison. Until you get out, you are going to experience prison problems, whatever you do.” Buddha was like that when he pointed out the truth of suffering, the first of the four noble truths, likening samsara to a prison. It was not to depress us that he explained how we suffer from mental and physical pain every single frigging day of our lives, but to energize us to break out of the prison of suffering, whose walls and prison guards are our own delusions and negative actions.
We’ve been enslaved by a master race of delusions since beginningless time. Katniss may be cool, but never mind the Hunger Games (a nod to the 4 nieces who told me to read/watch it) – that’s small fry. It’s time for us all to really rebel, shooting the flaming arrow of wisdom into our ignorance by realizing the ultimate nature of things, the mere absence of all the things we normally see.
“Normally we believe that solving the suffering and problems of our present life is most important, and we dedicate our whole life for this purpose.”
But the problems of this life are very short-lived – if we die tomorrow, those problems end tomorrow.
I was talking with a friend over Xmas who was saying he wanted to win the lottery. I replied, “Don’t we all, but all the same it won’t solve our problems for very long.” He disagreed, regaling me with the varying levels of debt he and his family are in, and how much more wonderful life will be when those debts are paid off, how they’ll be free. Yes, perhaps, (I might have said if I’d thought of it at the time) — but not if you pay your debts off on Tuesday and then die on Wednesday.
Springboard to freedom
Far more serious are the problems we are carrying deep inside us in the form of delusions and negative karma, as these undercurrents will flow into our countless future lives, constantly churning up new sufferings. If we use this short, very precious human life just to bat away at our immediate problems, I was thinking it’s a bit like using a million dollars to pay for a bag of salt & vinegar crisps at the airport because we feel peckish and happen to like Walkers. Precious human lives packed full with opportunity don’t come out of nowhere – we may not remember, but we must have spent a huge amount of time and effort in previous lives creating all the causes for this one, our potential springboard to freedom. Do we want to squander all that trying to solve the problems of just this life when we can use it in advance to solve the problems of all our future destinations?
Same for others
I think we can use a similar line of reasoning for developing compassion. Let’s say someone we love has been diagnosed with a horrible perhaps incurable illness. We can’t bear it, and we want them to be free from it; but we are not a doctor and, even if we were, we cannot cure them. So we are unhappy, the suffering seems overwhelming, seems to be just there, just sitting there. If however we transform that simple wish for them to be free from this particular illness into actual compassion for not just this sickness but all their sicknesses forever, already our mind is lifting.
Because it is true, isn’t it, that if we want our mother, say, to be free from her neck pain today, we would also like her still to be free from it next week, and the week after, and the week after that … and, if we stop to think further, we want her to be free from ANY physical illness and mental suffering now and forever too. And if we understand that for her to be free from suffering forever she needs to be free of the causes of suffering, and we develop that wish for her, our mind becomes the very peaceful, solution-oriented, pure, even blissful mind of genuine compassion. Try it and see, and report back in the comments if you would. (Doesn’t mean of course that we don’t also try to alleviate her immediate neck pain eg, with Tiger Balm patches.)
Spread that out to all our kind mothers and our mind gradually becomes vast and powerful, developing first into universal compassion and then the compassion of a Buddha, like Vajrayogini, that actually has the power to protect living beings from suffering.
Do you feel that death is curtains, or that there is life after death? When it comes to rebirth, or life continuing after the death of this body, it seems very well worth keeping an open mind, for what is there to lose?
An old friend of mine in his late fifties is approaching death from stage 4 cancer, and on a long walk looking out over a panoramic coastline recently he told me that he wants to know for sure that death is not the end. He believes that very much sometimes, but other times doubts intrude and he wonders if consciousness is just a by-product of chemicals, like he was taught in school and so many people assume. “I still can’t really wrap my head around death and all we are taught. I wish I could be secure in knowing that we go on in some way that is better and more helpful but most of the time it is just “lights out” no matter what, because we won’t remember this life anyway, you know, like the “waking from a dream” analogy. I am tired of worrying about it even though Geshe Kelsang always says not to.”
My friend LOVES life. He is full of life. He does not want to die – he dug his heels into the sand when we were having our picnic and waved his fists in a mocked childish tantrum: “I don’t want to leave!!! Don’t make me!!!!” He wrote me in an email: “Sigh. I am tired of death. I wish I could wrap my head around it but it is so elusive.” His love of life and other people is infectious. The thoughts I shared with him are that, whatever happens, his deep gratitude and love for others are going to stand him in good stead, and that as far as I’m concerned he’ll always have people around him to love, it is his nature, even if they are not the same people whom he is so concerned about leaving in the lurch now. This article is really for him and others in “two minds.”
Do you believe in life after death?
Chances are you already do have an at least occasional sneaking suspicion that there is something that continues after our body has perished – varying statistics overall show that a high percentage of people do believe this. Many friends who don’t ostensibly believe in rebirth have still asked me to pray for a loved one when they die, so what is that about? Overall, as reported by Greeley and Hout, the proportion of Americans who believe in life after death rose from 77 percent in 1973 to 82 percent in 1998. Many people believe in heaven and hell, and what are those if not a future life? Buddhists believe that we can take rebirth in heavenly or hellish realms, but that even that is not the end. These rebirths are as impermanent as this one and, like a bird leaving one nest to fly to another, we will die from there and take rebirth again. We will continue to take uncontrolled rebirth and die again until we have destroyed its causes, which are ignorance and contaminated karma, which together project one hallucinatory episode of life after another.
More things in heaven and earth…
There is one Shakespearean quote that I’ve always loved:
Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
How can we explain away the many and diverse cultures’ belief in future lives, and the vivid imaginings, dreams and waking experiences that people the world over have shared of certain things that we cannot find in this human world — the existence of spirits or ghosts for instance? Just because we cannot see our future lives now, or remember our past lives, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I don’t know about you, but I cannot even remember being born, though I am pretty sure I was. My memory of my entire childhood is sketchy for that matter. Like Horatio, we’d be well advised to keep an open mind, accepting that, however rational we may think we are, we are simply not in a position to see absolutely everything that exists.
I also love Voltaire’s words on the subject:
“It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.”
Being born once is no less weird than being born lots of times. Dying once is no less weird than dying lots of times.
Body and mind
We take rebirth because the body and mind are different natures – our body is physical, whereas the definition of our mind is:
Something whose nature is empty like space, always lacking form, shape and color, and whose function is to perceive or understand objects. ~ How to Understand the Mind, p. 6
Our body has a limited shelf life. Our mind, a formless continnuum of awareness, is beginningless and endless. Do the math.
My teacher says:
Through understanding the nature and function of the mind correctly, we can understand that our mind is completely different from our body, and this proves that after our death, although our body will cease, the mind will not. ~ How to Understand the Mind, p. 6
From one point of view, we can say that we seem to take one rebirth after another – from another point of view, each life is just a new dream arising from our root mind, each body just an imputation, projection, or even thought (albeit relatively persistent) of that mind. The body does not have any power to create anything by itself. It is of a different order or dimension altogether to the mind, and nowhere near as important. More on this and Buddha’s other reasons for rebirth here.
Please leave all your comments, experiences, questions, objections, etc on this article to help with further market research; there is so much to discuss and share on this subject.
By guest writer TT, who says he “is in his second year of university studying philosophy, politics and economics, working out how to unify student life with Kadampa Buddhism.”
At the moment, as during most moments in recent years, I am suffering from attachment… When attachment becomes very strong, I find it hard to let go of using the traditional opponents to attachment such as meditation on emptiness, death and renunciation. If I meditate on these, then my attachment may be gone by the morning but back by midday because my mindfulness is not strong enough to hold onto the opponents and oppose my mind’s tendency to focus on objects of attachment. This article is an explanation of a slightly different way in which I have recently been dealing with my attachment.
What is attachment and what are its faults?
An experience of attachment is the perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment – how it makes us pathetic and foolish, causing us great pain and anxiety. By believing that a source of our happiness exists ‘out there’ in that person or enjoyment, we effectively put our happiness there, and therefore make ourself deeply emotionally vulnerable and deprive ourself of any stable happiness – we actually make it the case that we can only be happy if so-and-so likes us by believing that we can only be happy if he or she likes us; we believe that we need them for our happiness. It is this belief that is the real demon. It sucks out any joy from our life, stops us living in the moment, and causes an underlying pain that means we can never quite feel truly happy. When it is strong, it means that we are constantly walking around with an uncomfortable feeling in our stomach.. My teacher once said that we need to learn about the faults of delusions from our own experience and deeply understand them, so that when we contemplate the faults of attachment we are not just reciting a list or reading from a book – we are basing our understanding of the faults of attachment on our own experience. That way, our understanding of the faults of attachment will be strong, stable, and not merely intellectual.
When strong attachment arises I like to sit down on my meditation cushion and to look directly and unflinchingly at the mind of attachment. What is it exactly? What is it telling me? Where is it coming from? What are its faults? See for yourself precisely what this mind is, and what it is telling you. Don’t take anyone’s word for it that attachment means that you have actually put your cause of happiness in someone or something else – actually see how this is happening in your own experience. When we see attachment for what it really is, we see its absurdity and how it can cause nothing but pain for us. Seeing this, it naturally begins to drop away, like realizing how the magic trick works: once we know how the trick works, we are no longer sucked in by it.
Become an inner scientist: investigate the nature of your delusions
I think that there is so much to be said for not just watching our mind in an abstract way, but really looking deeply at our delusions – where they come from and what they’re saying. The same is true for all delusions I think, not just attachment – if we’re experiencing anger, for example, I believe it can be very valuable to sit down on the cushion and look directly at precisely where the anger is coming from (from what views and thoughts) and what it is saying to us. Once we do that we begin to see how absurd it is, and as we see the truth the delusion immediately begins to drop. I find this especially useful and if delusions are very strong – if we can’t seem to breath them out or let go of them in the usual way, we have a unique opportunity to sit down and really look, really learn deeply about where our delusion is coming from. Therefore we can attack it right at the root: we can challenge our deluded views and beliefs from which our delusions arise, such as ‘My cause of happiness is over there’, with the truth, by directly and unflinchingly seeing the absurdity of our delusion.
Why let go of attachment? Isn’t that letting go of our happiness?!
Now, this practice is unlikely to rid you of all attachment overnight! I have suffered from strong attachment for many years, and continue to do so. But gradually, as my understanding of attachment and its faults increases, attachment decreases. You may find that attachment soon creeps back after you try this meditation – but that is ok, because then you can just do it over again! So I try to remember repeatedly the faults of attachment: how it makes us pathetic, foolish, unhappy, emotionally dependent, vulnerable, and deprives us love and virtue, the only source of true meaning and happiness in our life. I simultaneously contemplate the benefits of letting go of attachment: the mental freedom, spaciousness, relaxation and happiness we experience. Wow!! The happiness and freedom that non-attachment has to offer is truly incredible. In Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 170), Geshela writes:
In the past, great Indian and Tibetan yogis such as Milarepa spent much of their lives in seclusion. Compared with us, who spend our life in comfortable houses surrounded by luxuries, who has the greater happiness? Without a doubt yogis like Milarepa experience bliss that is a thousand times greater than anything we ever experience. Their unsurpassed happiness is due to their inner calm and their complete lack of attachment to external objects while our suffering and dissatisfaction is due to our complete submersion in attitudes of attachment and aversion for external objects.
If we get a heartfelt feeling for any Buddhist, or Dharma, practice whatsoever, it will bring us incredible joy and freedom. The experience of letting go of attachment and turning inwards to find the joy inside ourselves that comes from this, will bring incredible happiness and meaning to our life, and free us from so much of our everyday pain and dissatisfaction. Without attachment, we can just enjoy whatever arises, every moment, without grasping onto it. We have no pain about what has gone, and no fear about what is coming. We simply enjoy every moment, deeply, engaging fully with the world around us. The thing is, there is absolutely no problem with enjoyments. There is nothing wrong with surfing, spending time with friends, having sex or drinking lots of mango smoothie. The object to be abandoned is not the object(s) of our enjoyment, but grasping onto these objects – it is the clinging, the craving, THE ATTACHMENT, that causes us pain, dissatisfaction and keeps us chained to the prison of samsara. But if we let go of our attachment then we can enjoy all these objects without pain, without feeling like we need them for our happiness. And then we can see all our experiences of enjoyment as in the mind, and offer them to the guru at our heart, giving us a taste of liberation; or if we have had a tantric empowerment then we can recognize these feelings of bliss and emptiness as the nature of our guru’s mind and from there we can self-generate as the deity and impute ourself upon bliss and emptiness.
As Geshela says in Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 176-177):
… the person who is content with what he or she has does not experience the pain of dissatisfaction and instead receives inexhaustible happiness. Of all forms of wealth, that of contentment is found to be supreme…
… A person who feels no attachment to beautiful, external objects will find a beautiful mind within. Remaining content is the best wealth; not to grasp at what is attractive is the best of all possessions.
How amazing is that?!
Licking honey off the razor’s edge…
Usually we focus on the initial good feelings of attachment like, as Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 67 of the latest edition), the taste of honey as we lick it off the razor’s edge–the excitement, the buzz, the rush, the thrill–without really thinking about its faults. And then, before we know it, it’s too late: we’re on the razor’s edge. Instead of this, I am trying to spend my time thinking repeatedly about the faults of attachment, not being deceived by the initial pleasant feelings that tend to come as we first develop attachment. I think we need to do this again and again and again, continually. We need to contemplate the rottenness, the anxiety, the pain, the vile nature of attachment, the way it causes us so much pain and suffering, keeps us trapped in samsara, and turns a person into an object of our selfish enjoyment, over many, many hours. As Geshela says in his new book How to Understand the Mind on page 116:
When attachment arises in our mind it does not feel harmful; on the contrary, it usually feels beneficial. Therefore, it is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.
I have to admit that recently I have become a bit suspicious of ‘falling in love’. For people with a close friendship, perhaps, there is a genuine mix of love in with the attachment. But for me, I think that most of my experiences have not been of ‘falling in love’ involving love at all. I used to think that they were a mix of love and attachment, and that all the good feelings were coming from affectionate love, but now I’m not so sure… The good feelings seem to me like the initial stages of attachment; I value the person and ‘love’ them because they make me feel good. But this is not real love – it is not based on renunciation, cherishing them or recognizing their kindness and good qualities, but only on them making ME feel good right now; it is based on self-cherishing. Furthermore, it’s clear that there’s not really much if any love there when they tell me that they’re not interested, heh heh – if I love them, then why does that cause me so much pain, and no mix of pain and joy at all, just pain….?!! I am tending to think that falling in love, and the joy it brings, is more like a temporary drug trip that makes everything seem wonderful due to rose-tinted spectacles and not at all due to love or wisdom which see things as the truly are.
But, that said, there is nothing wrong with falling in love! Another mistake that I have made over the last few years is to really beat myself up when attachment arises, thinking ‘I’m such a bad practitioner’, and ‘Oh no, I’ve got attachment!’ But how can wisdom arise from such attitudes? Such feelings are based entirely on self-cherishing, I think – it does not bother us if someone else, who we do not much care for, is suffering from attachment, does it? Yet if it is us, then it seems terrible. We need a realistic attitude that sees attachment for what it is and applies the opponent of wisdom with the calm and clear-sighted approach of the surgeon who applies the knife. We do not feel overwhelmed, guilty or exasperated; on the contrary, we have is a perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment and overcome it from the root, so we should rejoice! One of my teachers recently explained to me that dharma is not about denial – if we have attachment to someone, for example, dharma is not about pretending to ourself that we do not have this attachment and supressing it. Not at all. Of course, it is not always appropriate to follow our attachments externally; for example, if we are ordained then we probably should not ask that person out to dinner with us…(!) But if we are a lay practioner, then that’s fine! And if (s)he says ‘yes’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment; and if (s)he says ‘no’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment. Either way, we are working on our mind, trying to decrease our attachment and increase our love, and therefore we are heading towards the city of full enlightenment. As one Kadampa teacher often exclaims: ‘If a delusion comes up, great!’ We can use our experience of delusion to overcome that delusion – if we have strong attachment then great: this is the perfect time to see its faults and overcome it.
What are we chained down by?
Think about an attachment that you have right now. Ultimately, we have to make a choice between happiness and this attachment. As soon as we pick up an attachment our heart is thrown off beat, and we lose the ability to live a joyful, relaxed life. (NB. This is a choice between our happiness and the attachment, nor our happiness and the object – externally abandoning the object of our attachment does not necessarily mean that we have abandoned our [internal] attachment to it; but if we let go of our attachment then we will be happy regardless of whether or not we have the object.). Just realizing this is extremely liberating. We feel like we have to choose attachment because that is where our happiness is – but that is completely false! Look at how many people are not attached to our object of attachment, simply getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves! It is only the belief that we need someone for our happiness that makes us unhappy; and it is only the complete abandonment of this belief that allows us to be truly and utterly happy. At the time, our attachment object seems like the most important thing in the world – and letting go of it seems like an impossible task. But think about how many people or things we have been attached to in the past, and which now we hardly think of at all. We have managed ok without those people and things after all, haven’t we? And the same is true of our present attachment – if we develop a sense of perspective, we can easily see that our attachment is not important at all, it really is just a triviality. So what are we so worried about letting go of? The key to happiness lies within us, in letting go of this mind of attachment!
How to let go of attachment
We can look around and see how many people are engrossed in attachment, falsely believing that they need someone or something to be happy; deeply contemplating its faults, we begin to feel repulsed by the mind of attachment. With this complete disgust for attachment, we can actually let go of it by realizing that the object of our attachment is just an illusion, an idea, a false projection – it does not actually exist, at all. NOTHING and NO ONE has the power to make us happy. As Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 142 of the revised edition):
We are like the thief who entered Milarepa’s cave one night, looking for something valuable to steal. Hearing him, Milarepa laughed and said, ‘How do you expect to find anything valuable here at night, when I cannot find anything valuable here during the day?’ How can we expect to find happiness in the empty cave of samsara while obscured by the darkness of our delusions, when all the Buddhas with their omniscient wisdom have been unable to find it?
Indeed, this person does not even exist from his or her own side! Let alone do they exist as a true cause of happiness for us… So then, remembering that the object of our attachment, the attachment, and we ourself, are impermanent and illusory, we can let go of attachment, because there is nothing to hold onto – the object of our attachment does not exist. A beautiful analogy that one of my teachers once gave is that of a moth that had got ‘stuck’ to his finger that morning when he was trying to take it out of the kitchen – it refused to let go and fly off. We are like that moth: when we experience the smallest sense of enjoyment or happiness from some person or enjoyment, we cling onto it soooo desperately and tightly, thinking that if we let go of it then we letting go of our source of happiness – what is left? But in fact, it is this clinging mind that deprives us of any happiness – it stops us from enjoying the object of our attachment, and everything else. Only by letting go of our attachment can we truly enjoy the object, and everything else, without pain. When we let go of our attachment, our mind will be filled with joy and freed of fear. This is the indication that we have let go of our attachment. We can now truly enjoy the object without any pain, and we can enjoy everyone and everything else in life. Non-attachment has freed us from pain and allowed us to discover the joy and happiness in all aspects of life.
Much help for me has come from a book called The Way to Love by, believe it or not, a Jesuit priest called Anthony De Mello. There is some fantastic advice on letting go of attachment in there, a lot of which I have largely repeated in this article. The guru can manifest in many forms!!
So anyway, I wanted to share some of that beautiful advice that I have received from my teachers. Now it is time to put it into practice, otherwise I will remain miserable and will be like the man that tells his son every day ‘Do not walk outside after dark, it is dangerous’ but then walks out at dark and gets killed. If I’m here regurgitating wonderful advice but not practising any of it, then there is none more foolish than me!!
In many ways, I am the least qualified person possible to give advice on overcome attachment, hehehe. But I have 100% confidence that the instructions on letting go of attachment work, if only we put them into practice. The key to happiness is within us – it is within our grasp. All we have to do is let go of our clinging attitude and completely abandon the utterly false belief that we need any external thing or person for us to be happy. And if we do this – then we shall finally find the happiness we seek.
Everyone reading this most likely has a precious human life at the moment. Even comparing ourselves with other human beings, we are really very lucky. Today, if the whole world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would apparently look something like this:
80 would live in substandard housing;
67 would be unable to read;
50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation;
33 would be without access to a safe water supply;
39 would lack access to improved sanitation;
24 would not have any electricity;
7 people would have access to the Internet;
1 would have a college education;
1 would have HIV;
2 would be near birth; 1 near death;
5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US.
Where do you fit into all this? Also, in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study on religious freedom in the world. According to the results, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom. But us? We can read spiritual books, go to meditation classes, go to church, go to the temple, go to yoga classes, practice at home… No one is stopping us from training our mind, fulfilling our true potential and becoming completely happy, except perhaps ourselves. That’s why this meditation on our precious human life comes first in the Lamrim cycle.
So, what is the meaning of life?!
The trillion-dollar question, but one I think we really need to have some kind of answer to if we are to have a meaningful life. ‘Course, meaning depends also on what we want and what we think we can get out of life.
Buddha explained how our life can be precious in three ways: from a temporary point of view, from an ultimate point of view, and in every moment. All the things we like doing to experience pleasure and purpose are only possible because we were born as a human being, and we can create the cause for more human life in the future. Not only that, but human beings can make enormous spiritual progress. We can reduce and even totally abandon our delusions, and increase our love, compassion and wisdom as much as we want, if we learn the methods. According to Buddha, within this short life we could even develop all our good qualities to their highest level, enlightenment. From that ultimate point of view, we are also incredibly lucky. Also, right here and now, and in every moment, we can learn to enjoy everything, as well as create the causes for future happiness. You can read all about all of this in the big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
When we attain enlightenment we will have fulfilled our own wishes, and we can fulfil the wishes of all other living beings; we will have liberated ourself permanently from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives, and we can directly benefit each and every living being every day.
I personally think that does sound impossible to beat. Plus, I believe it is entirely possible for you and me to attain enlightenment. So, I agree with my teacher:
The attainment of enlightenment is therefore the real meaning of human life.
Same actions, different outcomes
As mentioned in this article, we “remain natural while changing our aspiration.” We still do what we do as humans, and we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by running off to live the rest of our life in a cave (if that were even possible). But at the same time we are using this life to journey to liberation and enlightenment by changing our view and intentions. In Kadampa Buddhism, we try to transform everything into the spiritual path. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang says:
Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems…. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.
We can even keep enjoying the things we like enjoying, probably more if we can find a way to make them meaningful and not a cause of attachment and disappointment/aversion. I just watched my new team, the Denver Broncos, being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t understand the game at all, but even I could see they were being massacred. I am now seriously having to consider going back to supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs. Or… Geshe Kelsang was once asked by a diehard football enthusiast how to transform watching football into the spiritual path. Geshe-la replied:
Rejoice for the winners, and have compassion for the losers.
Those are actually the two main practices of a Buddha — if we managed to do that, instead of staring sadly and disbelievingly at the telly, even watching the Super Bowl could be meaningful. Could be. Depends. (I am not in fact a football enthusiast myself, but was invited to a gathering near South Park in the snow-capped Rockies, and want to get to know my new neighbors; plus I do like the snacks. We left at half-time, full of compassion …)
A star in the midday sky
Not only is our current opportunity really precious, it is also exceedingly unusual – according to Buddha, as rare as a star seen in the midday sky.
If we think about all the daily ways in which we can make our life meaningful, we’ll come to realize that we are very lucky – this deep experience stays with us all the time and changes everything. Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon? Funnily enough, it was the rabbit I always saw as a kid, never the man in the moon. Years later I discovered that the Tibetans call the moon the “rabbit-bearer” because they also see the clear shape of a rabbit on its surface. You may have glanced up at the moon for many years and not seen it, perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. Then, one day, “Got it!” From that moment on you’ll always see the rabbit whenever you see the moon. I think realizations are rather like this. Once we have realized our good fortune we are uplifted – never separated from the happy mind that appreciates and wants to make the most of it.
(This article is a continuation from this one … and your comments are very welcome.)