A way out of this fine mess …

space-needle-1I have been at the Fall Festival in Toronto this week, which has been an incredible pleasure, one that could only have been improved upon if you had all been here as well. During one lunch with my old friend G from Florida and his charming new wife S, who is relatively new to Buddhism, she asked me how it is that living beings are experiencing suffering if that suffering is not “real”, or inherently existent – that is, if the suffering we normally see does not exist?

A similar question came up during the Tantric Q & A, to which Gen-la Jampa gave a beautiful reply. Only I didn’t take notes so you’ll have to wait for that. Unless someone feels like typing up their notes on that for us all in the comments section … ah, done, thank you, see below.

But I know that S has 3 crazy little mini-schnauzers, and so what I said to her was this.

Imagine that Murphy is sleeping on that huge big bed with you and G, and he is fine, all safe and cozy. But you see that he is whimpering and twitching, and you know he is having a nightmare. You know that he is not “really” space-needle-2suffering, but that is not how he is seeing it at the moment. He believes that the big dog is actually attacking him or the black squirrel has outwitted him yet again or that his family have really deserted him (etc, etc, whatever). But you know that all this is mere appearance to his dreaming mind, and so all you want to do is wake him up.

The Buddhas feel the same way about us. All the time.

It’s a fine mess we have gotten ourselves into …

In a surreal counterpoint to this sane, harmonious Pure Land of the Festival was the divisive second US presidential debate – Greek drama or tragedy, take your pick. Jaws worldwide were dropping. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Only we did, between us. Please by all means vote on November 8; I certainly am going to. However, I have also concluded that the only way to cure these weird appearances and resultant widespread discomfort and delusion is to focus on developing compassion for everyone concerned (including the Rocky Mountain Trump supporter sitting next to me on this flight, who is drinking lots of beer and trying to sleep the whole thing off). Not to take these politicpres-debates too seriously, if I even could, but to remember to purify it nonetheless, remembering that it is all dream-like karmic appearance. (Perhaps it is even better that it is now “out” rather than “in”, providing it encourages us to do something about it.) For the alternative to purifying it is buying into it and experiencing an increasingly tangled mess.

I was moved by the last question of the debate, when an earnest undecided voter asked the candidates to please name one thing that they actually respected about each other — and they did both come up with something. The atmosphere in the town hall immediately softened. There was some opening. Everyone could breathe a little more freely. You saw the possibility of sanity and kindness being restored one day. All in the space of a few minutes. I know the clouds rolled back in again almost straightaway, but there was a glimpse for a moment there of sky-like Buddha nature.

Centered in the solution

vajrayoginiWe think to cure suffering that we need to focus on the problem. But Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution. How are we going to help others if we hold them to be inherently problematic? There is no space — there is no room to bring out their potential, their pure nature, their kindness or clarity or peace. All we can do is try and patch things up, shuffle things around, all the while in danger of being dragged further and further into the morass. There is no hope in a world of inherent existence. Borrowing the newly-minted Nobel Laureate to make this point:

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Luckily the world is empty of inherent existence. As Gen-la Khyenrab explained in the Festival, emptiness is the true nature of phenomena. Emptiness is not nothingness; it is the opposite of nothingness. It is because of emptiness that everything can exist.

Because emptiness is possible, everything is possible. ~ Nagarjuna

So emptiness means that things can change completely and radically – that this otherwise intractably tangled mess of samsara can be unravelled by pulling on a single thread.

sky-in-torontoFrom enlightened beings’ point of view, we are already pure. Geshe Kelsang said in Portugal in 2009, for example, that he views us all as Heroines and Heroes, which is why he has so much respect for us. And this seems to be why he has never tired in liberating us, why he finds it effortless. Buddhas understand that we are not inherently pure, and that from our point of view we can feel far from pure. But that is just a point of view, and when we stop “awfulizing everything” with our inappropriate attention, as a friend put it the other day, and improve our imagination or imputation based on wisdom, we will see ourselves and others in a completely different way. No more “real” but infinitely more enjoyable.

Over to you, comments welcome.

Related articles:

Change our thoughts, liberate ourself

How to be a hero 

Tantra: Bringing the result into the path

How to be a hero

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

compassion fatigue?!
compassion fatigue?!

Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.”

If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

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

Brief compassion experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral of the tale
cape of compassion
cape of compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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