Good night, sweet Prince

U turn on the telly and every other story
Is tellin’ U somebody died ~ Sign o the Times

PrinceI wonder if celebrities everywhere are getting nervous?! But of course it was forever thus. None of us gets out of here alive, famous or otherwise. As a friend put it, rather well I thought: “We all have a shelf life. When our expiration date is up, that’s it. … We are all at the big funeral everyday.”

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.

I liked Prince but wasn’t intending to write anything about his death – that is, until I saw this arresting Facebook post by the same person who wrote this last article:

What I Learned from Prince’s Death

* Death can come suddenly at any time – no one is immune.

* Fame means nothing at the time of death.

* Everybody loves you when you’re dead, but it’s too late then.

* It’s only when you’re dead that you would realise from everyone’s reactions what your life meant to them, but you’ll never see it.

Prince 1* Obviously, you don’t exist in a post-you world; everything and everyone has to go on without you, and they do, no matter how indispensable you think you are.

* When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.

* Whether you have lots of talent and are famous, or not, death treats everyone the same: extinction of ‘you’.

* Death shows there is no real meaning in this ordinary human life: everything you were ends instantly, unexpectedly and finally.

* Your wealth means nothing as it becomes someone else’s – even your clothes aren’t yours.

* Life is an unfinished story because it ends for you but not for everyone you know.

This got me thinking. And wanting to add something to these points in particular: “Everybody loves you when you’re dead but it’s too late then” and “When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.”

How is it that we keep affecting people after we’re dead? And I mean not just emotionally, but karmically? Prince is dead, yes, but he has not inherently ceased and still has a connection with the beings of this world, whose love and well wishes are having some effect on his mental continuum – that’s how transference of consciousness and other prayers for the deceased work too. His music will still give pleasure – so, providing he had the intention to give people happiness, he will still create some merit, or good karma, from it.

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain.

According to Van Jones, his friend and a CNN commentator, Prince was a humanitarian but wasn’t allowed to talk about his numerous good deeds as he was a Jehovah’s witness. So news of these is just emerging now.

It’s not all over

Prince 3The dream that was Prince’s life is ended, for sure, but it is not inherently over, any more than yesterday or even the moment before this one has inherently ceased. Our life is a cause leading to an effect, not to non-existence. Of course there is no more access to his body or gross personality or the identity “Prince”, but Prince was only ever mere imputation anyway. We are still all connected to that living being, just as we are always interdependent with all living beings. We cannot separate ourselves out from others and they in turn are affected by everything we do. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And this truth spans life and death. We are each waves made up entirely of one another and all arising from the ocean of clear light, the very subtle mind. (More on this later.)

This is why love is the answer, as it is the natural response to reality; and why what Prince did does mean something, not nothing, though he most likely won’t remember. (As for the fame part, I agree that fame is meaningless after we die, which makes it meaningless now too, unless we are using it for good.)

Creativity

We need to make our lives count with our mental actions, for sure, because they are the most creative actions – with our thoughts we create our world. But we also make our lives count with physical and verbal actions, leaving something intentionally helpful and uplifting behind us too if we can, such as a temple or other tangible improvement in others’ lives. Geshe Kelsang says, for example, when talking about helping at Kadampa centers, “We are working for future generations.”

Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.

How we use our creativity as modern Buddhists is still new territory over here in the West – in Tibet, there was no art outside of painting Buddhas, no music outside of spiritual chanting, and so on; the culture was entirely different. But over here, to “remain natural while changing our aspiration” may mean that between us we need to hijack today’s culture to our own and others’ spiritual ends as much as we can. That’s why I am hijacking some of Prince’s lyrics and quotes for this article 🙂

The Forgetting Time.jpgMy take on it so far — and I am totally open to ideas in the comments — is this. The ultimate spiritual goal of human life is attaining enlightenment for the sake of all living beings because that is the way to fulfill all our own and others’ purposes. That is our main job, our main creativity. And making Buddha’s teachings accessible to as many people as possible by helping meditation centers and so on also seems important because if we don’t do it, who will, plus it is powerful karma. Within that, with an increasingly good motivation and skill, we can embrace and enjoy our creativity however it manifests — eg, film-making, painting, music, song-writing — and channel it into helping others. A lot of people are doing this already, it is I think inevitable; and I also think it will make Buddhist meditation relevant to more and more people — bring it into the global mainstream as an idea whose time has come. For example, this readable new novel, The Forgetting Time, is bringing the idea of past and future lives to a huge audience that possibly would never have considered it otherwise.

New world needs spirituality that will last. 

Good night and thank you

Wishing Prince a swift rebirth in the Pure Land surrounded by the celestial music of offering gods and goddesses. Or, to hijack the Bard:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

How are you feeling? Musings on karma continued…

(You may want to read this article first to get up to scratch. I’ve divided the article up into two parts to make it easier to read in a coffee break.)

Feelings

Going back to the discussion in the last article, as there are three types of object, there are three types of feeling that experience these objects – pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings.

“It is impossible to cognize an object without experiencing it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.” ~ Understanding the Mind

photo 3Feeling that things are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is part and parcel of living beings’ subjective experience, whether we are a baby, an old person, an animal… Right now my cat is pursuing pleasant feelings by trying to get real comfy on the sofa next to me, with a choice view of the birds outside — birds who luckily are safe right now from experiencing unpleasant feelings to do with his murderous paws, the “same” paws that give me the warm fuzzies.

Again, if you check your own feelings or experiences, have you ever had a feeling that is not pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad) or neutral? Even during your dreams?!

So why, if my friend and I are both given a bowl of Haagen Daaz’s vanilla ice cream, does he experience it to be yummy whereas I would have preferred chips? It is mainly due to our karma. Understanding the Mind says:

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma.

Karma gives rise to all our pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Feelings and experiences are the same. In other words, all our feelings or experiences come from karma, which are the intentions or mental actions we created in the past. Pleasant feelings come from positive actions, unpleasant feelings from negative actions, and neutral feelings from neutral actions. Pleasantness and unpleasantness do not exist from the side of the object, but depend entirely on our karma. Therefore, as it says in Understanding the Mind:

Two people might eat the same food and one find it delicious while the other thinks it is revolting. 

Milarepa

Have you heard of Milarepa? He was one of the most beloved Tibetan saints or yogis because he gained incredible, deep realizations, in fact actual enlightenment, and then sang beautiful songs of realization that became known and sung throughout Tibet. There were no CD players back then, let alone MP3s or Spotify, so these songs passed down orally through the ages and he became very famous. He lived many years ago (1452-1507).

Milarepa's caveMilarepa spent many years in retreat as an ascetic living in caves and isolated places. Wherever he went, it seemed there would be an abundance of nettles. (These are a green plant with stingy bits on their leaves, and there are, arguably, way too many of them in the English countryside.) One famous fact about Milarepa is that he ate these nettles. He was miles away from anywhere and so he’d have nettle soup, nettle tea, nettle sandwiches… (maybe not, no bread). For him, nettles utterly nourished his body and sustained his spiritual practice. He ate so many nettles that he turned green. But he was perfectly healthy.

So Geshe Kelsang once asked how anyone living on nettles could be healthy? It would appear to be impossible. Frankly, even though, as mentioned, there are plenty of nettles in England, if I had to live on them I would not be healthy. I would be complaining vociferously; this would not be a 5-star hotel in my opinion. Milarepa was living in a 5-star hotel because everything he needed was in those nettles. Geshe Kelsang explained that this was the ripened karma of his practice of generosity, which meant that he had everything he needed to sustain his life and spiritual practice.

We can share a similar set of external conditions and yet have radically different experiences. Our karma does not ripen, therefore, as external conditions, so much as our experiences of those conditions. Whether those experiences are good or bad depends on whether our karma is good or bad. For Milarepa, eating nettles was good karma ripening – he was nourished by them and able to gain profound spiritual attainments, and even being green proved to be no problem. For me, having to eat nettles would be horrible karma ripening as I haven’t created that same karma of generosity. This is one example Geshe Kelsang uses to show how the quality of our experience doesn’t depend on the object but on our previous karma.

We can do something, everything, about causes, but once an effect is ripening it is too late to change it. Therefore, it is futile to run after pleasant feelings with attachment or to try to avoid unpleasant feelings through aversion. We need either to enjoy the pleasant feeling without attachment, or be patient with the unpleasant feeling. If we want to create the life we want, we have to pay more attention to improving the numerous intentions or karmic causes we are creating on a daily basis than to our ripened feelings.

(Funnily enough, just after writing that last paragraph I went to a nearby greengrocer to buy some fruit. On the way back I overheard a young man advise his girlfriend: “You should do the right thing, even if it seems a bit inconvenient and doesn’t immediately deliver you results.” Apropos, I thought.)

Back to the case in point, the blue bike …. 

karma paintingWas it F’s karma, as technically the bike had been given to him by N, or was it N’s karma? And if so, what kind of karma – good, bad, or neutral? My guess is that N won’t give a hoot, unless he gives into nostalgia for the fun in the sun he used to have with that bike when he lived here (and that in turn would depend on him finding out about his old bike, which may never happen). Some might argue that it was no longer even his bike, so all his karma related to that bike has gone. I don’t know if that is true or not. For example, if I give my cat away and then something happens to the cat, will I or will I not be experiencing the ripening of karma?

Also, F probably won’t give a hoot because (1) he never gives much of a hoot about anything; and (2) it is not directly affecting him as he has moved to New York. But any neutral feelings he may have are still the result of neutral karma ripening.

Was it my other friend’s karma, then, the person who always used the bike? He professed to feeling a “little disappointed” and, although he quickly got over it, one could argue that the unpleasant feeling was a result of some negative karma ripening, even if he didn’t own the bike. Or else, as he managed quickly to overcome his disappointment and be very positive again, was it good karma ripening overall?!

Or was it my karma, as the custodian and lender of the bikes? And if so, given my relative calm on discovering its theft, was it neutral, good, or bad karma ripening!? And what exactly did I or the others all do for this to happen? And did we do it at the same or at different times?!

As for the person who stole the bike, well, I can’t judge his karma because I have no idea of his intention, and karma depends entirely on intention. He might have needed the bike to go visit his mother on her deathbed, for all I know. We figured he probably needed it a lot more than we did, so we mentally gave it to him, which protected him from incurring the full karma of stealing and created good karma for more bikes to come our way later. In fact, the very next day we sold our old car for a couple hundred more dollars than we were expecting, and were able to go ahead and buy another bike!

See, karma is a curious thing! It is far from being fatalistic or simplistic but is a constantly changing, complex play of causes and effects. The immensely mind-boggling interdependence of all conventional appearances hinges on karma, individual and collective. Karma is the other side of the coin from ultimate truth, the emptiness (lack of inherent existence) of all phenomena.

Keep it simple

karma 5Still, however much fun we can have discussing whose karma and what kind of karma it all is, when it comes to actually observing the law of karma on a daily basis it helps to keep it simple. When I want to put good into the world, that’s what I’ll get out, one way or another. Same for my bad and neutral intentions. We can understand the general principles of karma (such as explained in Joyful Path) and leave most of the detailed, subtle stuff for once we’ve fully realized the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth. At that point we’ll be omniscient and can see exactly which actions lead to which effects while simultaneously seeing their emptiness.

I learned a couple more interesting things from this bike situation, which I might as well share now.

No bike 

When we first came off the beach, we both saw it, a rather significant absence, a space where the bike had been. “No bike!” In the meditation on emptiness, we are also seeking a significant absence — lack of inherent existence. That absence is filled with rather cosmic meaning. It means that nothing exists from its own side, so nothing is fixed, and everything depends entirely on the mind. As the great Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible.

Perspective = reality

While I was using the restroom before our long walk home, my friend happened upon a police aide and mentioned the theft of the bike. He was a jovial elderly Mid-Westerner with a moustache, who drove his blue and white cart up and down the beach all day, just waiting to help people like us, so he took it more seriously than we expected and called it in. Another police aide, his boss, a young friendly Latino turned up, and we chatted about all sorts of things while we waited the hour for the actual police officer to show.

Why didn’t they show sooner? Because they had things like murder and home break-ins to deal with – it seems fair enough. In fact, just as I was wondering whether I should perhaps be a bit more upset about the theft of this fine $700 bike, a crackling message came over the first police aide’s radio: “Woman distressed, male intruder in her house, over.” Yikes. Then this police aide told us that just the previous day his son, a police officer, had been called to a homicide – the victim had been shot in the back of the head for the $400 drug money he had just collected from the shooter.

The theft of our bike and the prospect of the long walk back home were becoming less and less significant the longer we hung out with our friends in blue, and indeed we were beginning to feel really rather lucky! If perspective can change in the light of other thoughts and/or events, it shows there is no “real” situation out there to begin with.

The kindness of strangers

Yet despite our trifling complaint, the police were still attentive and courteous to us, as if they had nothing better to do, and this in turn reminded me of the kindness of strangers and increased my love. So, all in all, a good day’s meditation work …

Postscript: I wrote this article months ago, and, apart from the Buddhism in it, pretty much all my personal circumstances have changed since then, showing the unpredictable nature of karma and how you never know what karma is going to ripen next.

Over to you: Have you been in any situations recently that particularly reminded you of karma and/or emptiness?

Karma and us

Some of you may remember the inappropriate attention I paid to the supposed theft of two bikes two summers ago… bikes that turned out not to be stolen at all.

clear sky cafeWell, some months ago, the big blue bike was stolen “for real”! Someone really wanted that bike. We’d locked them to a palm tree on a relatively busy pathway near the Clear Sky Café, and whoever it was must have pretended to be busily opening the lock whilst actually sawing through it. We figured he must have needed it for himself, rather than for sale, as he left the other bike standing there.

It is good I’d had the rehearsal earlier! And it would have been way too much of an indictment on my progress as a meditator if I had gone through all those mental acrobatics again… So this time, when we returned from two hours on the beach to the sight of no bike, I was prepared, and stayed totally calm. Imagine that!

(The cynical amongst you might say that I stayed calm because it wasn’t actually the bike that I ride that was stolen – my red bike was still next to the palm tree … Or you might ask who doesn’t feel relaxed after 2 hours on the beach?! You’d have a point. But I still claim a small victory.) stolen bike

A few conclusions from this latest bike saga:

Everything has a cause

As we started to walk with the remaining bike on the long journey back home by foot, we wondered whose karma it was and what kind of karma it was.

Everything has a cause. Nothing arises from nothing – a phenomenon arises from something that’s in the same substantial continuum. Physical things must arise from physical causes. The cause of an oak tree is an acorn seed, the cause of a flood is rain, and the cause of our human body is the union of our mother’s egg and father’s sperm.

Buddha was a scientist of the mind who penetrated the actual causes of our mental experiences. He observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience or feeling of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by delusion, such as anger, it is the actual substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences. Buddha talked in detail about actions that cause negative effects and those that cause positive effects. He helpfully listed ten negative actions to avoid: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, hurtful speech, idle chatter, ill will, covetousness and wrong view. By abstaining from these, we avoid having to experience their painful results. By practicing positive actions, such as generosity, kindness, patience, cherishing, love, compassion and wisdom, we create the causes for happiness. In this way, we can gain control over the experiences of our life and make it successful.

Bill Meyer put it this way:

Every thought is a seed.  If you plant crab apples, don’t count on harvesting Golden Delicious.

Purification and accepting what is

VajrasattvaIt is worth remembering the teachings on karma often, and especially when we are really suffering deeply– that way we can assume some responsibility and feel less like a hopeless, hard-done-by victim. We can start getting the control back over our lives by purifying all the crud causing this kind of suffering since beginningless time so we don’t have to go through it ever again. Vajrasattva purification is immensely helpful for this, makes you feel lighter again inside, optimistic for the future. The complete blissful purity of all enlightened beings appearing as Buddha Vajrasattva obliterates the heavy karmic load we are bearing, which has been weighing us down year after year and life after life without our even realizing it. If we let our suffering remind us to purify what is actually causing it, this suffering itself leads us straightaway to far less suffering now and in the future! Therefore, suffering is not inherently bad and we can accept it.

We can also accept patiently if we understand this is all karmic appearance to mind — deceptive appearances with no existence from their own side. Our unbearable situation is the reflection of our own delusions and the karma they spawn, no one else’s fault, which means, very fortunately, that to be happy again we don’t actually have to wait helplessly in the (often futile) hope that others might improve. A good friend once said:

“Leave the object alone. Change the mind.”

Real deep, inner refuge and peace comes from doing this, rather than from struggling with the external situation that seems so inherently painful but in fact is not.

Whatever we think and feel depends on our karma

In this very useful manual explaining everything you need to know about your mind and how it works, it says:  

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma. ~ How to Understand the Mind

Feeling is defined as a mental factor (or state of mind) that functions to experience pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral objects. Feeling accompanies every fleeting moment of mind – there is never a time when we are not feeling or experiencing something.

Have you ever come across an object that doesn’t feel pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad), or neutral? I can’t think of any; if you can, please let me know in the comments.

In truth, objects are not good, bad, or neutral from their own side – what they are depends on our minds apprehending them, and specifically on the mental factors of feeling and discrimination. Discrimination distinguishes one object from another and, when associated with conceptual minds, functions to impute, label, or name objects. As Geshe Kelsang says:

The defining characteristics of an object do not exist from the side of the object but are merely imputed by the mind that apprehends them.

How we discriminate and experience things depends entirely on our states of mind and our karma. This is rather a significant observation by Buddha.

What are your thoughts on ice cream?
Ice cream makes you happy
Nice try, Wall’s!

Do you like ice cream? And don’t you think it’s funny how if we like something we assume it is nice from its own side? We project or label niceness onto the object and then think that niceness inheres in it. We do this all the time. “Ice cream is great!” you may say, really believing that. However, if ice cream was really great, everyone would think so, yet I for one am more likely to say “Ice cream is okay, sometimes,” which is a fair enough comment from my point of view, and some Eastern cultures just as validly (from their point of view) say “Ice cream is disgusting, it is like eating snot.”

If the people who think ice cream is inherently great just because they like it insist that everyone else thinks that too, then we are in for trouble. And we do this kind of thing all the time, getting into conflict by assuming that the world is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) and therefore people must have a screw loose not to feel good about the things and the ideas we like, such as our politics, our religion, our country, our friends, and so on.

The same goes of course for thinking things are bad just because we personally discriminate them as such.

Buddha’s observation that everything depends on how we are discriminating and feeling it, both of which are states of mind, might seem obvious once it is pointed out, but we would behave quite differently if we were to live by it. We over-trust our highly subjective and fleeting discriminatory labels and feelings, believing that they are telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the way things actually are. Then we generalize the way we think and feel out to everyone else, often with disastrous consequences.

More on the bikes in part 2 later … meantime, do you believe in karma? Have you got any karma stories you’d like to share?

 

World of kindness

By a guest blogger.

world of kindnessWe are all connected in mutual acts of kindness. We often think people are not kind unless they are trying to be nice to us in unselfish ways. But this is not true; a kindness is any act from which we derive benefit, irrespective of the other person’s motivation. In September 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle ran this story:

 Socialite Paris Hilton thrilled a homeless man in Hollywood Tuesday night when she handed him a $100 bill. The cheeky beggar raced up to the wannabe singer’s car as she was leaving a McDonald’s and asked her for $100. A source says, Paris reached down beside her and handed the man a crumpled $100 bill. She then stopped to pose for pictures with the homeless guy, who offered to wash her windows, before racing off.”

This beggar did not question the selflessness of Paris Hilton’s motivation before accepting the gift; he just appreciated having the $100 … In the same way, if we benefit in any way from the actions of others, then for us they are kind, irrespective of motivation.

I became an American citizen last year. Even pre-warned by my aunt, who had been at her own Ceremony a few months earlier, I still couldn’t quite believe that I teared up to Neil Diamond singing Coming to America. During the Ceremony you watch a film montage of faces of immigrants from the last 100 years – photos of travellers of all ages coming through Ellis Island to start again, to be reborn, with nothing in their pockets, but with a burning hope that their future will be a better place. (And due to the kindness of others, it often was.) I was struck by how all my enjoyments here in New York have arisen from the kindness of immigrants I never knew who built this city.

statue-of-liberty-pictureThere is a walk in Manhattan you might enjoy sometime. It takes you from the Hudson River Park on the Lower West Side down to the Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I sit there sometimes, looking out toward that iconic figure holding the flame of freedom in her outstretched hand, the symbol of opportunity, and meditating on just how lucky I am — on how every single cell of my body arises in dependence upon the kindness of others.

I woke this morning with a body conceived by my parents, and grown from enormous amounts of food provided by them and others. My parents also gave me my name, which I use all the time! As I slept, my head rested on a pillow made by someone I never knew in the Philippines, on sheets sown by Indians, under a duvet stitched together by Californians. People in Philadelphia filled my mattress. I stepped out of my bed to land on a rug woven by Tibetans in a house built by Americans in the 1920s. I drank Indian tea planted, grown and harvested by hundreds of workers, in a tea-cup designed by someone in China, stirred by silver spoons welded by people from Sheffield. I put on clothes fabricated by numerous people, all able to do it by being supported by numerous others, in Pakistan, Indonesia, America and England. And that was all in the first five minutes of my day! I greeted my neighbors in the English language created from the German and Romance languages, improved in large part by Chaucer and Shakespeare, carried down through countless generations, and gradually taught to me by many different caregivers. I commuted to the library to work on sidewalks laid by others, avoiding cars by following traffic lights invented by others. Others created my job and the demand for my work, and even the money I earn for my labors was invented and printed by others. For entertainment this weekend I might check out a movie, which if I bother to stay and watch the credits I will see was produced by a team of thousands. I will also read a Buddhist book that has come to me by some miracle from generations of wise Teachers who practiced these teachings and so kept them alive for me today.

I live in a body and a world constructed entirely from others’ kindness. Precisely what did I do to create the necessities and comforts of the world I enjoy moment by moment? Almost nothing. If I had to give back everything others have given me, what would I have left? Nothing at all.

Do I remember that I live in a world created by the kindness of others? My answer is, “Yes, I will try to, now, today, and always.”

Being confident

As well as increasing my feelings of gratitude, I find this meditation makes me confident – I don’t feel the need to go grasping at friends because I feel full of love already. And I think it can also have the side effect of helping us become popular! It is an awful irony that when we are lonely and desperately need a friend, our loneliness can give off an unattractive energy that makes a lot of people uninterested in coming anywhere near us. We seem like altogether too much hard work. Conversely, when we look like we can take it or leave it, we have that genuine air of confidence that makes us irresistible.

Postscript: I asked a friend for this article as I have been traveling a lot recently and unable to blog. I’m pleased I did, as I really like it. Please feel welcome to contribute articles yourself, sharing your own experiences of putting meditation into practice in daily life.

Over to you: Do you live in a world of kindness?