Itchy feet, itchy mind

I was just thinking about Puerto Rico earlier, much of which, almost 7 months on, is still without power. I have good friends there who have built a beautiful retreat center in the rainforest, you can visit there if you like, it is so conducive to going deep in meditation. I was sort of planning to go back last Christmas but Hurricane Maria had other ideas.casa-kadam

Carrying on from this article on refuge.

Anyway, I was thinking that if you’re in Puerto Rico right now, you probably really want a shower. And if you got in the shower, and got all clean and fresh and cooled down, it’d feel just great, wouldn’t it? So it’d be great if everyone in Puerto Rico could have a shower; if they could have everything they need right now.

Indeed, it would be wonderful if everyone could have whatever they need, whenever they need it, especially shelter, food, and medicines. These are necessities for human beings’ basic survival, and worth striving for.

But are they enough? No, not if we want real or lasting happiness and freedom. For we can also recognize that if the Puerto Rican was to stay in that shower for more than about an hour, he would start suffering again.

While we’re in the shower it can feel fantastic, can’t it?, especially if we haven’t showered for a while. So we assume that a shower is an actual source of happiness. But if it was an actual source of happiness, then the longer we stayed in the shower the happier we’d become. After 3 hours in the shower, we’d be so blissed out it’d be crazy. But as it is, even the person in PR just can’t wait to get out of that shower. It becomes like a torture, doesn’t it?

shower

If someone just came along and locked you in the sauna because you’re loving it so much, it would not be long before you were hammering at the door, “Have mercy, let me out!” I rest my case.

What are true causes of happiness?

The great Indian Buddhist master called Aryadeva says in Treatise of Four Hundred Verses:

Although it can be seen that the increase of happiness is destroyed by its cause, it can never be seen that the increase of suffering is destroyed by its cause.

This is only fair: If something is an actual cause of something, then it has to produce that effect every time. If someone hits us on the thumb with a hammer, we’re gonna say, “Ouch!” If they keep hitting us on the thumb with a hammer, that pain is only going to grow – it is not going to turn into happiness. This means that it is an actual cause of suffering.

However, when we increase the cause of any worldly happiness, instead of feeling better and better we instead start to feel pain (to experiment, try eating the whole can of Pringles or having sex for 24 hours straight).overreating

If we enjoy eating food, our pleasure may increase as we eat the first few mouthfuls, but if we continue to eat more and more, our pleasure will turn into pain. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

That’s what happens with food, isn’t it? The first few mouthfuls of that doughnut are always the best, aren’t they? And at some point we push away the box and say, “No! No more.” If we had to keep eating them, if we had to eat 10 doughnuts, our pleasure would decidedly morph into pain. We pull faces when we see people in those overeating competitions, it’s almost frightening. This means that eating doughnuts or hot dogs is not a real cause of happiness because if it was it could not cause suffering.

Which pleasures are overrated?

The point about worldly or external pleasures is that they are all changing sufferings, meaning that sooner or later they ALL turn into pain, every single one of them. Every single worldly pleasure, every “temporary refuge” if you like, turns into pain unless we stop in time. Try and think of one that doesn’t.

This is like Buddha’s challenge to us – find something outside the mind that is always going to make us happy, and that the more we have of it the happier we’re going to get. If you can think of that thing, you’re going to get very rich. No one has invented it yet. It can’t be invented because this is not where happiness or refuge come from. fleeting pleasure

I read a survey recently on “Which pleasures are overrated?” The replies included the usual suspects – partying, drugs, sports, food, drinking beer, etc. Respondents also mentioned kids, spouses, jobs, and traveling. And one or two wise folks replied, “any fleeting pleasures”. But the fact is that all external enjoyments are overrated.

My neighbor has been playing Candy Crush saga since we got on this flight. (So now I know who is playing that game!) Her nosy neighbor (me) sees that she has reached level 274! That’s got to be good, right?! She doesn’t seem that ecstatic though. No resting on laurels here. A glancing smile, perhaps, before she’s off again, chasing level 275.

The world is wounded

plastic in oceanThe great Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna says our mind is like an itchy wound. Worldly enjoyments only ever work when we need to scratch the itch. Doughnuts, for example, only work if we are hungry. They don’t work at all if we have just had a six-course Indian curry or have a cold and can’t taste anything. If we’re lonely, company feels fantastic, sometimes, and so on.

If we have a big itch, we want to scratch it — it feels great, scratching itches. But we all know what happens if we keep doing it — itches turn back into pain. Buddha is saying that these kinds of temporary refuges or changing sufferings are like scratching an itch – there is some temporary relief, and then it turns back to pain.

Sometimes more pain than we started with, in fact. The things that we turn to for solutions to our problems are also, ironically — or samsarically — the sources of our problems. Our problems come from our food, they come from our doctors, they come from the police, they come from our medicines, they come from our relationships, they come from our living quarters, etc. All the things we turn to for protection or refuge are just as capable of giving us problems.

Our whole planet is being polluted and the oceans turned into plastic by all of us trying to derive refuge from this, that, and the other, jostling to get as comfortable as we can while treading on other people’s needs and future in the process.

Therefore, although we are turning to these kinds of temporary refuges to get rid of our problems, to get comfortable, to get happy, at best they are only palliative, scratching an itch. And if we keep going, they give rise to further pains. And this is because we’re in samsara, whose very nature is suffering. scratching itch

In Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang also gives the very helpful example of sitting and standing:

If we sit in the same position for a long time, and then stand up, it will seem that standing is a cause of happiness, but …

… if we remain standing for a few hours, we’re desperate to sit down again. Then lie down. And then prop ourselves up. And then move around. The amount we have to move these bodies around in the average day just to keep them comfortable!! — sitting up and lying down and moving around over and over again, all day long, just one mini-relief after another, or mini happiness hits. Meaning that neither sitting nor standing are real causes of happiness because both of them are causes of changing suffering. And the same goes for all our worldly pleasures.

Thought experiment

Here is a thought experiment to help us see this. It might even save you loads of time and money!!!

Close your eyes and imagine you have already got everything you have ever wanted or worked for – enough money, career, relationship, house, vacation, well behaved kids, fast car, no body fat, equitable society. Whatever it is – you can imagine having all the material things and/or worldly pleasures you have ever wanted or worked for. Right now. Already. You did it! Congratulations!

(Impossible of course to get all our ducks in a row, let alone keep them there; but imagine it anyway.)

You have got everything you want! Are you happy? Finally … are you happy?!

donkey and carrotHmmm. Maybe for a few minutes. Until we want something else as well. Or until someone annoys us and our mind starts hurting again.

Has that preempted years, maybe lifetimes, of throwing time and money after dreams that can never come true?! I’m half-kidding. But half not.

Point is, we can still go to work, build a career, etc., of course, and we need to gather necessary conditions; but we need be under no illusion that these are actual or lasting sources of refuge or happiness. The pressure is off. The false expectations are dropped. We can relax. Maybe spend some of that money and time on making other people happy instead – just a side thought. Right now the global divide between rich and poor is getting so crazy and it is helping no one.

In our countless lives since beginningless time we have actually had everything. There is no tee-shirt large enough to list all the places, enjoyments, and bodies (our own and others) we have had. Nonetheless we have lost them all. Indeed we have forgotten them all. We have forgotten everybody and everything.

So what are we supposed to do?

teeshirtDoes this mean lasting refuge or happiness is impossible? Of course not. But Buddha’s point in explaining this second type of suffering, changing suffering, is that we need to stop selling ourselves short, just muddling through life trying to make it bearable; and instead discover actual comfort, satisfaction, joy, happiness, and deep bliss by seeking refuge in a different source. This will help us not just now but in all our future lives as well. With non-attachment to worldly pleasures, we will also discover a lot more energy and patience for helping others.

We are not starting from scratch, either, of course. We already have a taste of the potentially limitless joy inside us whenever we experience any contentment, love, faith, wisdom, and so on. When we have these states of mind going on inside, we can also enjoy everything going on outside, not least because we’re in a great mood. So it’s a question of what we want to emphasize.

Here concludes what I have to say on changing suffering, as part of a series on refuge. More on the third type of suffering, pervasive suffering, in a future article.

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Get Up to Speed and Out the Door

6.5 mins read

Where on earth is there no suffering?world peace

From just a cursory look at CNN’s daily Five things you need to know to Get Up to Speed and Out the Door, which drops into my inbox each morning: The recent bombings of children in Syria, where “words are no longer sufficient to describe the horror, terror, and suffering.” The leader of the free world calling to congratulate a “dictator on winning a sham election.” The 17-year old who tried to murder his classmates, now numbingly routine. The vigil for those crushed under a Miami bridge. The abysmal life of pigs who are kept in cruel iron cages no bigger than their bodies. And the “good” news that some of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram have been released. (However, most have not; and what kind of shape are these girls in now?) And so on. These all help my renunciation and compassion – I like to call it Five things you need to know to Get Up to Speed and Out of Samsara.

Manifest suffering

There are three types of suffering that we want to get rid of by being in refuge, which include all the sufferings endemic to samsara. The first is the suffering of manifest pain. We know this one all too well – it refers to any unpleasant bodily or mental feeling. Toothache, heartache, CNN’s five things, etc. This manifest pain is what we normally think of as suffering — we think suffering refers to when something hurts.

Carrying on from this article.

Manifest suffering is obviously horrible. It is the easiest-to-understand suffering. We don’t need to be taught about the suffering of manifest pain – we’re all well aware of what it is, how much we dislike it, and how we’d like to find refuge from it and help others do the same. We try hard day and night to get rid of our own manifest pain, and many people try hard day and night to help others get rid of theirs.

And it’s not just five things of course – there are countless painful reasons to Get Up to Speed and Out of Samsara. It’s not just me — everyone around me is experiencing some variety of discomfort at any given moment.CNN five things

A random example: As I was walking to my seat just now, on this evening flight to Chicago, I wondered in passing why a woman was hiding behind huge dark glasses.

Turns out she is in the seat in front of me, 25F, and I can hear her talking into her phone before take-off:

“Oh, honey I’m a wreck. I could pass as the twin of the Terminator. I can’t take these glasses off. And, honey, if you could see my arms and legs — I am covered with hives!”

She is doing her best, as many of us are:

“Anyway, I love you. See you soon.”

But whatever improvements we are able to make in our own and others’ lives, that is not the end of the story. There are two other types of suffering in samsara, which underpin and cause this manifest pain; and we need more wisdom to identify these. If we don’t identify changing suffering and pervasive suffering, we cannot bring an end to all suffering. We will have to carry on experiencing both physical and mental pain endlessly, however much and often we try to patch it up.

Changing suffering

The second type of suffering is called “changing suffering”. In the big yellow book called Joyful Path of Good Fortune — which contains all of Buddha’s teachings if you get a chance to read it, sort of like the Buddhist bible — there’s a section on how the three sufferings of samsara pervade our experience, including our worldly pleasures:

For samsaric beings, every experience of happiness or pleasure that arises from samsara’s enjoyments is called changing suffering.

beer drinking

This experience of pleasure is called “changing” suffering (or “suffering of change”) because it’s a kind of changeover or switchover point between manifest pain and more manifest pain. It is those brief feelings of relief.

Now, a few weeks later, I am on the tube from Heathrow to North London, my journey colliding with the morning commute. And the expression on many people’s faces, or rather the studied lack of expression, brings to my mind the word “heaviness”. People seem weighed down. One bloke ten years younger than me I reckon, but with heavy creases in his brow, speaks into his phone, “Hey, mate, just got in, you alright?” A pause, then, louder, “What? he did what? That’s just what I told him not to do! Idiot.” He stared dejectedly at the ground. “Look, mate, let’s meet up in about an hour. I need a pint.”

People’s lives are difficult everywhere. And over the course of a lifetime, many people are struggling to muddle through their lives without things going too badly wrong, catching excitement, release, and pints of beer wherever we can.

Changing suffering is pleasant feelings. It feels like a kind of happiness. Buddha called it changing suffering not because it feels like suffering, but because it is not real happiness, it is just relief. This experience is contaminated by delusions and ignorance, and actually has the nature of suffering. Geshe Kelsang also calls it “artificial happiness”.

We may sense that things are not quite right even when they are going well, but we need to know exactly why this is in order to fix it. And we need not fear that this knowledge will depress us further, for it is this knowledge that in fact will finally set us free.

In Joyful Path it says:

We need to meditate repeatedly on this point because it’s not obvious to us that our worldly pleasures are worldly suffering. We can gain a better understanding by considering the following analogy. If we have a very painful illness and our doctor prescribes painkillers we take these and for a while we stop feeling the pain. At that time we actually experience a feeling that is merely the reduction of pain, but because the strong painful feeling has gone we feel happy and experience pleasure. This pleasant feeling is changing suffering.

Selling ourselves short

I’ll just point out that Buddha is not saying don’t go to the doctor or take painkillers. This is subtle, trying to understand what Buddha is saying here. It’s not that we don’t enjoy or take care of things, but that we understand what’s going on. Then we don’t sell ourselves short.

sell yourself short

Because, extraordinarily enough, every person on that tube goes unfathomably deep. Everyone I saw racing along the pavements in the unusual spring snow-freeze and darting in and out of the crazy London traffic goes unfathomably deep. We are seeing a tiny fraction of who people are — a fleeting appearance, their body of this life, of this day, just a reflection or imputation of thought. Their real body and mind are indestructible and full of the potential for lasting mental freedom and bliss. As it says in The New Heart of Wisdom:

Each and every living being has their own body and mind, which are their subtle body and mind. These are called the “continuously residing body and mind,” and are his or her Buddha nature, the lineage of a future Buddha. Because they have this, when living beings meets Buddhadharma they will all finally attain the state of an enlightened Buddha.

However, at the moment impure appearances seem so real to us that we are perpetually overpowered and sucked into the daily drama of samsara. Most people of course don’t even know what they have inside them, nor the future that could be. We have been through countless lives already without finding this out.

(Not only are we selling ourselves short by not knowing who we really are and of what we are capable, we are also not even enjoying life’s pleasures a fraction as much as we could be. When we know about changing suffering and the dangers of its usual corollary, attachment, we have the impetus to transform these enjoyments into the spiritual path and make super speedy spiritual progress! But this can be the subject of other articles, such as this one.)

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What is purification practice?

Vajrasattva.png
See p. 87-88 of Oral Instructions for a Vajrasattva purification practice — short & sweet, but powerful.

For the inner demons who do not come out into the open, or at least only in such shadowy ways that we cannot properly identify them, purification is immensely helpful. It is also very helpful when we are overwhelmed by appearances and need extra help in overcoming them.

Lay down that burden

A lot of people are laboring under a heavy burden of unresolved sadness, which may be why they don’t like being left alone with their own thoughts for even 12 minutes.

Stubborn recurrent sadness is still no match for purification practice – and we can feel that we are purifying not just that karmic appearance or karmic tendency but ALL similar versions since beginningless time. For example, if you have been suffering from attachment, you can use that as an example, and purify all your attachment since karma 4beginningless time. If you have been getting irritated with the sweet people around you despite your best intentions, you can purify your needless irritation since beginningless time. If you are feeling depressed because “things just aren’t what they used to be!”, you can even purify all that despondency since beginningless time.

Magnet for misfortune

Bad karma is a magnet for misfortune. And it ripens in different ways, for example irritation or anger we have had in the past can ripen as an experience (eg, someone does something we find really annoying) or in the tendencies we have to react in a certain way (eg, we get really annoyed.) Karma also ripens in the way our environment in general appears to us (eg, not quite right, uncomfortable), and even in the type of rebirth we have taken. You can read all about these four fascinating effects of karma in that chapter in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. They explain a lot.

karma 3So if we don’t like something that is happening to us or how we feel about it or indeed how we are reacting, this is a perfect reminder to us to purify this karma. Taking responsibility for our karma can turn our lives around, as Gen-la Khyenrab said the other day.

The power of promise

The power of promise is one of the four opponent powers of good purification practice, and it purifies our heavy tendencies to negativity that we lug around with us from familiarity with these in the past. So after a good purification practice, we promise not to do that thing, whatever it is, again. But, as a friend of mine was saying yesterday, sometimes it’s hard to know what exactly to promise. For example, declaring “I will never get angry again!” and a host of other big promises is unrealistic – we are likely to forget them sooner or later and blow it. So we then get discouraged that we are not keeping our promises, wondering if we’ll ever remember them for longer than ten minutes, and whether there is even any point in making any more promises when we are so useless at keeping them.

What I like to do to make effective promises, I told her, is tie in my purification practice to whatever is coming up in my life – as part of my mind-training, transforming difficulties. For example, in her case, she has been feeling despondent because something she really wanted to happen didn’t happen, and she also blames herself because that is her tendency. Soooo, what I would do in that situation, having recognized karmathat tendency in me, is purify that situation, and while I am at it to purify all my tendencies to feeling despondent and lacking self-worth since beginningless time. Then, once my mind felt all cleaned up from this tendency due to a good purification practice, I’d promise to not feel despondent again in similar circumstances. I am likely to remember that promise as it ties into what I am up against and I therefore have a vested interest in remembering it, in incorporating it into my mind-training. And it is powerful because I want it; it is not a vague open-ended promise, but one stemming from my everyday wishes to stay happy despite this thing or that thing not working out.

Phew! I can get rid of all of it!

35-Confession-BuddhasEven when we are a bit vaguer about all the negative actions we need to purify and the kinds of effects these are specifically wreaking on our day-to-day lives, it still works very well to do a general spring-clean of our mind. I really enjoy doing prostrations to the 35 Confession Buddhas first thing in the morning (and before you get impressed, it takes less than 10 minutes), purifying basically everything I could possibly ever have done. There are some great words in that Mahayana Sutra (written by Buddha Shakyamuni himself), such as “I confess without concealing or hiding anything.” The Buddhas know exactly what we need to purify even if we don’t; that’s an advantage of omniscience. So we praise them: “Who have become witnesses, who have become valid, who see with their wisdom.”

Dry rot creeps up on us without us noticing, until the fabric of our house is destroyed. We’ve forgotten the vast majority of our negative minds and actions, which is why we contemplate these when we purify – not to feel bad but because we want all the mold, visible or not, to be gone as it is affecting our minds and our lives. We purify our greatest delusion first, whatever keeps coming up; but at the same time we want to purify the whole lot, and we can. Our negativity is mere imputation and literally no match for omniscient wisdom.

Turn on the lights for goodness sake!

You know how horror movies always take place at night in the pitch black and you just wish someone would turn on all the lights? And you know the darkness of our ignorance? The Confession Buddhas and Buddha Vajrasattva throw open the shutters to broad cosmic daylight and the sunshine streams in everywhere.karma 1

The ultimate purification is mixing with the mind of bliss and emptiness so that we destroy our ordinary appearances and conceptions – that is what will tear the whole samsaric moldy structure down so we can build ourselves and others a celestial mansion of delight. So we request Vajrasattva:

Please permanently purify my non-virtues, downfalls, and ordinary appearances and conceptions.

And then let him enter through our crown, dissolving into our “inner darkness”, vanquishing it instantly and permanently.

Whether we are doing Vajrasattva purification or the 35 Confession Buddhas practice, we feel their purity flooding into us, we don’t hold back. Our negativity doesn’t exist from its own side – like everything else, it is mere aspect of mind. Purify the mind by mixing it with the extraordinary bliss and wisdom of enlightened beings and where’s that negativity going to go? Nowhere, is where — it disappears, because it is only appearance to mind.

karma 2Build some purification practice into our daily lives, therefore, and we can relax — as Gen-la Khyenrab also said the other day. And it doesn’t have to take long, especially if you are convinced it is working. How long does it take to switch the lights on?

I believe there is nothing that a well-aimed Vajrasattva mantra cannot purify.

We don’t talk about the subconscious in Buddhism but we do talk about subtle and very subtle levels of mind and, even if we can’t yet reach these directly ourselves, the Buddhas certainly can as, in fact, this is their abode, their being. It’s where they hang out. Kind of fun to hang out with them, don’t you think?!

Good purification is like having a massive spring clean of the mind, it feels amazing, uplifting. We feel that we can do anything now, for the slate is clear, today is a brand new day.

Over to you! Comments and queries on purification practice are welcome.

Doped up on the 8 worldly concerns?!

This continues from this article, In praise of integrity. And talking of pedestals, a good friend of mine went to the same high school as John Cleese, and told me this tale about him. In front of the school is a tall pillar, on which Field Marshall Haig had stood for almost a hundred years, until parents and guests turned up to graduation one year to find footsteps leading from the pillar to the building and back again… Even famous commanders can’t live on a pedestal, but have to get down to use the restroom sooner or later.

The 8 worldly concerns (attached to receiving praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and aversion to their opposite) are insidious and very damaging. Practicing Buddhism, or Dharma, under their influence, with an impure motivation, is said to be like eating healthy food mixed with poison – we might derive some short-term benefit but in the long-term we’re going to be in pain. In his book Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we have been practicing Dharma for some time but cannot feel any of its benefits, the reason is that we are not yet practicing pure Dharma.impure motivation is like food laced with poison

What’s more, as the scriptures say, the higher we are in the tree of ambition, the thinner the branches, and the further we have to fall.

You do know this is not it?

“That was good, but you do know this is not it?” The words spoken by his friend to a prominent teacher in my Buddhist tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, after he had just finished teaching at a large Festival. The teacher was telling me this, saying how glad he had friends around him to keep him real so that he did not become “doped up” on praise, love, or prostration mudras. Teaching success is no substitute for spiritual success.

We were also chatting about what happens when we become so unused to criticism by dint of a high position that, if we’re not careful, it becomes harder and harder to handle criticism when it does come our way  – clearly the opposite of what is supposed to happen for a Kadampa!

Praise etc doesn’t help us while we have it, and once we’re off our pedestal it quickly dries up as well. If we have come to depend on it we’re in trouble, and if it has become part of our self-image we’ll have to pretty much reinvent ourselves.

humility in BuddhismI believe that the 8 worldly concerns stop spiritual progress. It is easier to make progress when you feel normal, like everyone else, rather than special.  Lucky, yes, perhaps, but special, no. Pride drives a wedge between us and those we are trying to help, which is one reason there’s so much emphasis on humility for Bodhisattvas.

I like this Alanis Morrissette lyric as it speaks to me of genuinely spiritual people, such as a Bodhisattva, who are the only ones who really deserve to be on a pedestal, though you’ll never catch them up there:

And I am fascinated by the spiritual man;
I am humbled by his humble nature.

The main job

Always being in performance mode can be bad for one’s own practice. The Buddhas can take us wherever we want to go, but we don’t need to keep looking over our shoulder to see if others are watching us. I once visited Geshe Kelsang seeking advice on something, and just by way of preamble I stated what I thought was the obvious: “I know that my main job is to teach Dharma, but …”

I could not get another word out of my mouth as he interrupted me, quite forcibly:

overcoming the 8 worldly concerns

Your main job is practicing Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.

That has been true for me on many levels, and it makes more sense to me with each passing year.  My main job is being a practitioner first and whatever else second.

If we feel that our job is inherently worthy, and feel carried along by it, this can make us lazy in training our minds and undermine our inner development by allowing worldly concerns to creep in. And the worst part? We might not even realize this is happening, while the precious years for practice pass us by.

There are numerous stories in the Buddhist scriptures of people being expelled or otherwise leaving their high or cushy positions in the monastery or society to go off on their ownsome to gain realizations, and to me these are an inspiring example of the need to let go of the eight worldly concerns even whilst we stay amongst others.

Flavor of the month

don't need to be flavor of the month It really doesn’t matter whether or not we are flavor of the month. It does matter whether or not we stick to our principles of compassion and wisdom. And if these are our principles, rather than the 8 worldly concerns, this allows a lot of room for flexibility in accordance with the changing needs of others. For example, Geshe Kelsang has shown extraordinary month-by-month flexibility in adapting Buddhism from the reclusive monastic situation in Tibet to the connected, transparent modern world without sacrificing his principles and seemingly caring not a jot for the 8 worldly concerns.

Humility helps us remain flexible even as we stick to what we know is right, not just fashionable. Also, true change comes from inside, not from changing others; so we can be tolerant of others’ shortcomings whilst overcoming our own. As Atisha says, in what I regard as one of the most helpful all-time Buddhist quotes:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Don’t you think this means not just in general, but also on a rigorous daily basis, knowing what our mind is doing and taming our own delusions before we go trying to tame others?

Shrinking or expanding world?

The 8 worldly concerns shrink our world and I think can make us institutionalized if we take our small world a little too seriously — whether this is the world of our family and friends, our business or workplace, or even our place of worship. To expand our world again we can remember that we’ll be leaving this life soon; we have at most a few hundred months left before we find ourselves in our next life. Remembering death and impermanence is the antidote to the 8 worldly concerns.

Can you remember back to this time last year, what were your overriding concerns/anxieties/things you really wanted? Are they the same today? Fast forward to this time next year, will the concerns/anxieties/things you really want today still be the same then? If the answer is no, as it pretty generally is, I find this helps me let go of worrying about whatever I happen to be currently worrying about, for it seems a waste of mental energy! We can relax instead into what endures year after year, our spiritual journey.

Kadampa Buddha 2We can also broaden our horizons by developing bodhichitta, changing what we really want out of life by contemplating every day how wonderful it would actually be to have freedom from all mistaken, suffering appearances and the ability to help each and every living being. (With bodhichitta motivation, putting a crumb on a bird table is far more valuable and satisfying than giving a diamond out of attachment to the 8 worldly concerns. That example from Joyful Path shows how, if we change what we want, life can actually become simpler and deeper at the same time!)

Everything is deceptive, except for… 

Wisdom: Everything is moreorless deceptive while we have ignorance – things are never exactly as they appear, and when we have strong delusions or agitated minds, such as the 8 worldly concerns, we can be sure that what we are seeing has very little resemblance to what’s really going on. Therefore, we need to rely on the wisdom of emptiness to do away with the false appearance of inherent existence, understanding that the things we normally see do not exist.

Compassion: The other day, I mentioned to J on the stairs in passing: “Everything is deceptive except wisdom.” He looked at me with his big eyes and asked, “And love?” And he is right. Love itself doesn’t grasp at an inherently existent person, its object is simply wishing others happiness, which is the great protector against suffering for ourselves and the people around us. Compassion is our love focused on others’ suffering, wishing them to be freed from it. Our so-called “method” minds of renunciation, love, compassion, patience, and so on are entirely more trustworthy than our attachment and aversion, and they keep us sane and happy, hence the Kadampa motto:

integrityAlways rely upon a happy mind alone.

I count myself lucky to know people with lots of integrity, who’re trying their best to change for the better, every day. They are flexible, but not blown about by the changing winds of how things are done or not done this week, month, or year, at the expense of common sense or indeed basic human kindness; they are not sticklers for rules for rules’ own sake. They are more inspired by the enduring rules of wisdom and compassion.

We can always find our way if we stick to wisdom and compassion.

Happy Thanksgiving, One and All!

Forget Christmas, let every day be Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here again in the States and, although I was not brought up with it and often barely eat more than a tofurkey sandwich unless people invite me over (hint?!), it has become my favorite holiday. People everywhere stop to count their blessings, and this makes them feel grateful and appreciative, so it is a good day. (Not for turkeys, however, not a good day for them at all. I don’t like the role that turkeys are forced to play. So p’raps don’t invite me over for the meal part after all… or the football… but the rest of it, yeah!)

Back in the day, from what I’m told, the first settlers gave thanks for good harvests. Nowadays most of us are a good deal more removed from the source of our food, which means that what it takes to get food onto our plates every day is hidden from us unless we really stop to think about it. But although I may not be thinking about the background of my frozen peas as I plop them in the pan and then gobble them down with my tofurkey, I am just as dependent on those who planted, grew, harvested, packaged and delivered my food as the early settlers were. In fact, the chances are that these days a good deal more people are involved in the process of getting food into my stomach to sustain my life for another 24 hours. On Thanksgiving we have a better chance of remembering this, and the thought pleases us for we feel supported.

I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day (no turkey, no football, no lines at the airport, but the good bits!). And I can, there is nothing stopping me. For one thing, I can remember how lucky I am to have this precious human life. For another, I can remember how this precious human life and every single one of my needs and enjoyments come from the kindness of others.

Lucky me
prize: precious human life

In the meditation on our precious human life we count our blessings because this life is right now giving us an unprecedented opportunity to make serious spiritual progress even on a daily basis, yet it is so almost unbelievably rare — a fact that becomes obvious if we compare our situation to that of most other living beings. Even the simplest things in life are precious, such as being able to walk or talk or write or taste, something we often don’t realize until we no longer have them due to sickness, disability or death. Traditionally in Buddhism we count 18 blessings, called the eight freedoms and the ten endowments – chances are you have every one of these (if you want to know for sure, you can check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Don’t let this be true for you: “You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

Thanks to others!

Then in the kindness of others meditation we contemplate in as much personal detail as we can where exactly each of these blessings comes from?! Quick answer: Others.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Our body is the result not only of our parents but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter and so forth. It is because we have this present body with human faculties that we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of human life… Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others—we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write… Our spiritual development and the pure happiness of full enlightenment also depend on the kindness of living beings. ~ Transform Your Life

Great full

Remembering all this makes us feel grateful. We feel “full” for all that is “great”! We need gratitude to feel good about our lives and also as a foundation for love and compassion for others. Whenever we recall any kindness someone has shown us, studies and our own experience show that we feel instantly better, and closer to them. (A 15th century etymology for gratitude is “pleasing to the mind”). Gratitude predisposes us to many positive states of mind. So when we take a little time to itemize all the kindness we have received since the day we were born, we can overflow with happiness! As we fill up with happiness, it seems to push all our negative, selfish minds out, for there isn’t room for both – like scum being pushed out the top of a bottle when we fill it up with clean liquid.

On the other hand, when we feel depleted, exhausted or ungrateful it is easy for the negative moods to settle in. We feel we are lacking something, hollow, and project that on the world around us, which feels bereft of happiness and support. We can develop attachment for external objects to fill us up, and if we see others’ experiencing good things we can easily feel envy for the things we feel we don’t have.

“Hang on a minute”, I hear some of you say. “I don’t have that much to be thankful for – my life is in fact a huge mess and it is all their fault.” If we find ourselves pursuing this depressing line of thought, we can go back to the precious human life meditation. To be able to even think about these things means we must have a precious human life – so with that established we can stop dwelling on what is wrong with our lives and instead remember everything we have going for us. Then we can ask ourselves where each of our freedoms and opportunities actually comes from. (Answer above!)

We choose what we think about, so we might as well choose to smell the roses rather than stick our nose in the stinky garbage can.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Mister Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Please give this article to anyone who might like it.

(Postscript: despite the title of this article, Christmas can be cool too… more later.)

(I wrote this article last year but it still seems relevant this year!)

Please like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do.

Who will buy this wonderful morning?

Are we only as lucky as we feel?

I think one thing is for sure, we won’t make the most of any good luck we have if we don’t realize we have it, and especially if we are focused instead on what we don’t have.

Feeling lucky is one of the best feelings in the world, as well as one of the most useful.

are you feeling luckyBuddhism is eminently optimistic because it recognizes that at heart everyone is pure and everyone is good. In fact, there’s no difference between any of us in that we all have equally flawless potential, our Buddha nature. Whether we fulfill that potential or not depends on whether or not we use our human life to help both ourselves and others.

In The New Meditation Handbook, my teacher says we need to encourage ourselves to put the Buddhist teachings into practice for the compelling reason that we can then:

“permanently cure the inner sickness of our delusions and all suffering, and achieve everlasting happiness.”

What friend is encouraging us to do that? They are probably few and far between, and in any case who has time to be giving us thought aid all day long? So Buddha likened the first meditation of the so-called stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim in Tibetan), the one on our precious human life, to our “best friend” because it gives us all the good advice and encouragement we need, whenever we need it.

foster kitten BuddhismI have just been landed with three more foster kittens. They are scrawny, sickly, hissy, and currently clueless as to what is going on.* I will try and give them the best possible start to life, and they each have just the same potential as me. However, it is not going to be possible for them to travel the spiritual path while still in their animal body. I find that the animals in my life help me as much if not more than I help them. Taking care of them reminds me daily of how lucky I am by comparison, and so how important it is to make spiritual progress myself so that one day I can help them do the same. It is not fair otherwise.

Even if I compare myself to other humans, it is clear that I have ridiculous resources compared to most people in the world. I have had a roof over my head every day and night, I can read, I can write, I’m drinking coffee, I’m eating a delicious sandwich, I have options. Other people look at us, or watch us on TV, and think that we’re like gods, the luckiest people on the planet, at least materially.

This relative well-being comes about not because we are better or more special than others, but because we are really very, very lucky. That luck comes from many causes and conditions, the substantial cause being good karma, because we have created the causes for well-being in the past. We were able to create these causes entirely thanks to others, who gave us the opportunities to be kind, generous, patient, and so on. The main contributory cause of our good fortune is also other people’s goodness to us – bringing us up, giving us jobs, building our roads and other infrastructure, supporting us on every level since we got here. This much is clear from the meditation on the kindness of others. (Look at this blog article for more on this point).  I'm feeling lucky Buddhism

Buddha said there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish with a precious human life, spiritually speaking. In this first meditation of the Lamrim, he spelled out our options like a tour guide: “Now that you’re here, you can collect all the inner treasure you need to help you in all your future lives, you can attain complete mental freedom and overcome suffering, and/or you can attain the state of omniscient bliss and wisdom and help everyone …”

Harrods is a large department store in London, so luxurious that people from all over the world travel there to shop. It has the best and most desirable of everything. Imagine for a moment that we won a prize of ten minutes in Harrods when everything we can put into a shopping cart is ours. We might well rub our hands in glee, “This is my chance!” But imagine that instead of rushing straight to the jewelry section, we bump into someone rather attractive in the lobby and we linger a while, “Interesting person, maybe we’ll get together later.” Then we think, “Hmm, I’m feeling a little peckish,” and we head over to the cafe for a nice free croissant and latte. There we find a queue full of annoying people who are in our way, and we get distracted by that thought for a while.

Suddenly we realize we have just a minute left and we’re three floors away from anything we actually want or need. If we made a plan, we have not stuck to it. Too late. That’s how we are, we get distracted. We need that motivating knowledge of our opportunity front and foremost in our mind if we are to not to waste whatever time we have left.

The hugely influential Indian meditator Nagarjuna, when he woke up each morning, said:

“How fortunate that my breath has sustained me through the night!”

We could be like this, jumping out of bed happy each morning. As a kid, I was touched by the movie Oliver  Twist, about the orphan who was suddenly plucked from poverty due to his birthright and given all the opportunity he could desire. That scene on the balcony when he sings:

Who will buy this wonderful morning? 
Such a sky you never did see!
Who will tie it up with a ribbon
And put it in a box for me?   

Who will buy this wonderful feeling?
I'm so high I swear I could fly.
Me, oh my!  I don't want to lose it
So what am I to do
To keep the sky so blue?

We could feel this ecstatic every day if we wanted to.

don't wish our life away
Are we wishing our life away…?!

We can’t afford to take this opportunity for granted, given how fragile and short-lived it actually is. Life is not a dress rehearsal, as they say. We only have this shot at getting it right. It is very hard for animals and even most humans to avoid suffering and control their minds. We always have the potential, the Buddha nature — it is our birthright. Right now we also have the conditions — we have the freedom to become free! Joyful Path of Good Fortune has a checklist of good fortune — the freedoms and endowments. If we discover we have these, I think we discover we have everything.

Over to you: What is more valuable to you, one minute of life or one thousand dollars?

(*Day 4: The foster kittens are coming along in leaps and bounds. I like to think of their new purring as tuning into the Dharmakaya, receiving blessings. May it one day be as easy for us to give ALL living beings food, medicine, shelter, safety, entertainment, and love.) tuning into Buddha's enlightened mind, blessings

Try a short meditation

Remember that new year’s resolution!? Here are two meditations you can practice at home. All you need is a comfortable chair or cushion and five to ten minutes’ free time.

Enjoy!

Meditation 1 – Finding a still point

Finding a still point in meditation – where busy mental activity subsides for a few moments – helps you to relieve stress and keep a clear head throughout the day.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation with your mind. Follow your breath, not your thoughts.
  4. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. Gradually you will feel the stress in your body and mind melt away and experience a deep, inner stillness and peace.
  6. Stay with this stillness for a while, giving yourself permission to enjoy it.
  7. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the merit from your meditation to the happiness of all.
  8. Throughout the day, try to remember the still point you reached in meditation and return to it as often as you can.

You can find our more about this meditation here.

Meditation 2 – Clearing the inner energies

Most of our problems come from our negative states of mind, which depend upon negative energy inside us. This meditation helps to eliminate negative energy and build up positive energy.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation.
  4. Follow your breath, not your thoughts. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. As you breathe out, imagine you exhale all your negative energy in the form of thick smoke, which completely disappears into space.
  6. As you breathe in, imagine you inhale blissful, positive energy in the form of clear light, which fills your entire body and mind.
  7. Continue in this way for a few minutes, then conclude by focusing on the clean, blissful feeling pervading your body and mind.
  8. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the good karma from your meditation to the happiness of all.
  9. Throughout the day, try to keep this clean, blissful feeling inside and make it the starting point for all your thoughts, words, and actions.

You can find out more about this meditation in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, pages 51-2.

The benefits of meditation

Positive Health Wellness have produced a fantastic infographic on the benefits of meditation, which I reproduce here with their permission:

The-Science-Behind-Why-Meditation-Makes-You-So-Much-Happier

Finally, if any of your family or friends have expressed interest in learning to meditate, please feel free to pass on this article, and/or this related article.