Kadampa Centers everywhere welcome everyone and provide communities in which to learn about and practice Buddha’s meditations and teachings as an effective way to solve our daily problems, grow spiritually, and transform our world.
On this very cool date of January 1st 2020, I want to share a beautifully made video of one of these 1400 Centers because it seems to be a good representative of all the others. Credit and thanks go to film-maker Josh Ruzansky.
I hope you like it. Do leave your comments and questions below.
To celebrate Buddha Shakyamuni’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma (Skt. Dharmachakra) Day, which also happens to be Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s birthday, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the study programs in Kadampa Buddhism. Today, these are turning the Wheel of Dharma at hundreds of Buddhist centers around the world.
There are 3 programs — General Program, Foundation Program, and Teacher Training Program. They’re all great, but I will mainly be talking about the last two.
As you may or may not know, Buddhism has always put an emphasis on (1) listening to lots of teachings, (2) contemplating them to check they work in our own experience and transform them into our own idea, and (3) meditating on them to bring them deep into our heart where they will be a constant joy and protection, leading us all the way to enlightenment. Buddha gave 84,000 teachings of Sutra and Tantra, and basically the idea is to learn the jist of all of these and put them into practice 😊
I will be quoting Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s words from a talk he gave called A Wishfulfilling Dharma Jewel, and you can read the whole thing here.
At present in our Centers we have a Foundation Program and a Teacher Training Program. This is not a new tradition. In the past there have been other programs specially designed for Dharma students according to their particular circumstances.
All these programs involved studying a certain number of texts, memorizing material, passing examinations, and being awarded a degree or certificate. For example, the ancient Kadampa Geshes had a program in which they studied six texts. Later Je Tsongkhapa introduced a program based on ten texts, and later still Tibetan Monasteries such as Ganden, Sera, and Drepung introduced a program based on five texts.
Even for the 1,000 years before Buddhism got to Tibet, deep learning and meditation had always been integral to the Buddhist tradition – for example the famous monastic university of Nalanda in Southern India produced generations of famous master practitioners from the fifth to twelfth century CE.
Now Geshe Kelsang has made all these teachings and meditations accessible to us in the unwieldy modern world through modern books, teachers, centers, temples, and study programs. Most of us definitely don’t have the same kind of time for formal study that they had in the old days, so he has made the time we do have incredibly efficient, and put more emphasis on sustaining and deepening these teachings and meditations through mindfulness in our regular daily lives.
Geshe Kelsang said:
Inspired by my own experience, I developed a strong wish to introduce a similar program for western Dharma students so that they could reap the same results. However, I understand very clearly that the program designed for Tibetan Geshes is not suitable for westerners.
For one thing, most western Dharma students are lay people …
Recently I asked some of my teacher friends to tell me what they thought were the main benefits of the Foundation Program (FP) in particular, as this is the program that most people tend to join. I wanted to hear what they had to say in particular about the commitments of the FP and why someone might want to take those on. So here goes, their ideas and mine, all jumbled together.
Becoming our own Protector
I agree with Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Studying Dharma consistently guarantees our getting to know ourselves and our lives a lot better, and overcoming all our faults and limitations. This gives our life a spiritual dimension, and a vision far less ordinary.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
With wisdom and Dharma experience we can bring our deluded minds under control. We can reduce our attachment, anger, jealousy, and so forth, and subdue our self-grasping and self-cherishing. By controlling our deluded minds we will come to experience permanent peace day and night. We will bring about a permanent cessation of human problems in particular and of samsaric problems in general. In this way we will become our own protectors.
The commitments of the FP involve attending every class for the enrolled book, reading ahead, memorizing the root text and main points of the commentary, discussing, doing pujas (chanted prayers), and taking an exam.
Their overall purpose is so that our practice is not stop/start but regular and consistent, leading to guaranteed results. Buddha’s example for this kind of steady effort is like leaving water in a pot on the stove to boil at a low heat rather than moving it on and off a high heat such that it never gets around to boiling.
Mixing our minds with Dharma
In a busy, distracted, ofter overwhelming world, it’s only too easy for other stuff to get in the way; so committing to attending each class (or catching up with the recording and study summary in a timely manner) moves us past that problem. It helps us fulfill our wish to help ourselves and others.
We go deeper than in drop-in General Program classes because each class can build upon the one before it, presupposing knowledge, and shifting the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student. And then we start to change.
This is good for the group, as we all literally stay on the same page. It becomes teamwork. The team is strong and unified and so everyone likes being on it. It is also good for the teacher as they don’t have to repeat the same points each week for people who weren’t there, and can take all the students more deeply into the material.
Reading ahead is a bit like toasting bread into which the hot butter of Dharma can easily soak during the class. That’s my analogy anyway! We come prepared with questions and looking forward to hearing the commentary on what we’ve already read and studied.
At the end of discussion the students come up with creative ideas together on what to practice in the meditation break to transform our everyday lives. We can troubleshoot how to practice Dharma throughout all our activities, lifestyles, and challenges. There are so many examples of people practicing Dharma in all walks of life, and we can learn from each other’s practical wisdom.
As Geshe Kelsang puts it:
The nature of western people is to study something one day and to want to put it into practice the next. This is a very good quality because they are always trying to gain practical experience of what they study.
Scale the highest mountain
One friend sent me this:
The Foundation Program is an opportunity to turn intellectual understanding into insights that authentically move our mind. For example, we understand intellectually that real or lasting happiness cannot be found outside out mind, and yet we still have a strong pull to find happiness from outside. FP is a chance to make a lasting change on our mind so that we genuinely want to find happiness from within.
We do this by giving more structure to our practice and spiritual development. FP is the opportunity to go through the training the mind teachings in depth, discuss, ask questions, and meditate on them. We make a commitment to study in this way so that, when difficulties come, we already have the structure in our mind to transform them. We have internalized the meaning. This means we will be able to actually transform adverse conditions in real time which is so much more difficult without this foundation.
FP creates the “foundation” for lasting happiness in our life. It’s an opportunity once or twice a week to reconnect deeply with our intention to improve our mind. We learn to consistently rely on Buddha and his teachings to solve our inner problems. We learn to trust and grow with our Sangha friends who are on the path with us. It’s a much more enriching way of experiencing this inner transformation.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
Our present understanding and experience of Dharma is quite superficial. We are like someone who has entered a huge food store and seen many things but sampled only a few. We may have received many different teachings from many different Teachers, but we have taken in very little, just a few morsels. Therefore our actual experience remains superficial. There is a gap between us and the Dharma. It feels as if Dharma is there and we are here. Our mind is not mixed with Dharma and so we cannot apply it in our daily lives.
As a result our ordinary everyday problems remain. For example, we may have received many teachings on Lamrim and read many books. Intellectually we find it relatively easy to understand and we accept it all, but we find it difficult to integrate into our daily lives, and so we cannot use this Dharma to solve our daily problems. When we study Dharma our mind remains passive, like someone watching television. It does not engage in the subject and mix with it. Therefore our daily life and our Dharma remain completely separate and unrelated.
Why is this? It is because we are not studying systematically according to a specially-designed program. If we just pick at Dharma randomly we will never gain a deep and stable experience, and our wisdom will never become like a full moon.
Geshe Kelsang has always said we should not view commitments as “heavy luggage” (Ed: it’s more like a purse).
We are simply making time for the things we actually know are good for us and love to do. I read a study the other day where a large group of women were questioned on how much time they spent meditating and so on versus watching Netflix – they replied that although they felt far better when they were meditating, they still spent about 5x more time on Netflix.
As Geshe-la puts it:
We should try to memorize the important points of the subject and combine whatever we understand in a practical way with our daily activities. We also have to observe the various commitments of the program. These commitments are designed to help us accomplish our aim. Without them there is a danger that we will be distracted by laziness or other circumstances and not complete our studies.
Any meaningful relationship requires commitment. For example, what would a marriage be like without any commitment? Or our job? Or working to combat climate change, or improving social justice, etc.? I think we find things more meaningful or of benefit when we have some commitment to them; and we get more done.
The FP commitments are also largely a commitment to each other. If everyone turns up and gets with the program, the group becomes stronger. If attendance is sporadic, the group weakens and our fellow students’ Dharma experience suffers.
One friend puts it like this:
On FP we come to experience in our heart (1) who we truly are, and (2) who we can become, and (3) more importantly, who our family, friends, and everyone else can become. Not through hearing ideas that it’s easy to soon forget, through dropping in on General Program (GP), but through a relaxed, consistent, dynamic engagement and deepening experience of Dharma and meditation on FP. FP closes the gap between the teachings we hear and experiencing them in our heart.
If we signed up to be a doctor with the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefitting others, but then didn’t turn up to classes consistently or seal that understanding through exams, out in the field we’d quickly realize we’re not equipped to fulfil our goals. From this point of view our 7 years in medical school would feel meaningless, because meaningful just means we feel we have accomplished or are accomplishing our goals.
In a similar way, to derive the greatest meaning and fulfillment from the time we have chosen to spend on FP, the commitments and exams are not rigid rules, but rather helpful guidelines and opportunities to accomplish the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefiting others. Or, in Geshe-la’s words, 1) to be happy and 2) to make others happy! In this way taking the commitments to heart is the best way to make our time on FP FEEL meaningful for us (not to placate the teacher or program coordinators) and be beneficial for others.
As Geshe-la explains from his own experience:
I studied this program at Sera Monastery. When I completed it and was awarded my Geshe degree, I felt as if I had reached the summit of the highest mountain. My faith and experience had increased considerably and I felt great confidence in teaching others. My mind was very happy and I felt completely free from problems.
Become a really good meditator
We learn how to have a regular practice that is sustainable at home, know what to meditate on clearly through structured study, and build up self-discipline. Plus being there for other meditators in the FP group.
On the Foundation Program we can learn to meditate very well and always know what to meditate on — we learn how to do analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed meditation) on every aspect of Buddha’s Sutra teachings. This leads to results, confidence, and joy.
The power of discussion
Discussion is a particularly important aspect of the program because we can help each other greatly by sharing our experience and understanding of Dharma.
Discussing with each other resolves our doubts, increases our understanding, and shows us what we don’t yet understand. Talking about gaining a realization of emptiness in particular, Geshe Kelsang says in The New Heart of Wisdom:
If we develop doubts or cannot accept what is taught we should discuss the matter with others. In this way, our understanding will become clearer and clearer. We should not keep doubts hidden inside our hearts — we need wisdom in our hearts, not doubts!
Geshe Kelsang has said that, in terms of his own understanding, he got 50% from the teachings and contemplations and 50% from his discussions with others! Which is quite a statement given how much he understands. He also gives some great advice on how to discuss in this talk.
The Foundation Program builds the spiritual community so everyone ends up with more friendship and support. Connections strengthen due to weekly study, discussion, meditation, and so on; and once an FP group has been studying together for a while, people connect with each other at a deep level (a bit like people who do retreats together). This is the true meaning of Sangha community. And, as Sangha are the third Jewel of Buddhist refuge, who can really help us to make spiritual progress, the more the better.
The study programs involve prayers as a support for the meditations. Sometimes people are a bit like, “I didn’t know Buddhists did prayers!” But we do, as explained more here. Prayers give us the opportunity to quickly purify our mind, accumulate merit or good karma, and bathe in inspiring blessings.
One of my friends says he puts it like this to his students: If you don’t think you like prayers, perhaps let go of what you think about them until your growing experience of them reveals a far deeper knowing. Buddhist prayers are just another form of meditation. We are so used to skimming the surface of life (caught up in busyness and trivia, numbing the pain of ordinary life) that we can miss out on the opportunity to experience something far deeper and incredibly rich. Prayers empower us to connect to and directly experience the greater depth that life has to offer, such as our pure potential and connection to enlightenment. They provide refuge.
So if you are new to a study program and faced with the prospect of doing prayers, for now just sit back, relax, and enjoy. We don’t have to understand all the meaning of the words of a beautiful song to enjoy the experience. We don’t go into existential meltdown because we don’t get it! It’s the same with prayers — just enjoy the experience of the peaceful resonance of the prayers for now, which is connecting us to our pure nature and enlightenment, whether we know it or not. Over time their meaning unfolds in any case.
There is a commitment to try and attend a weekly puja (chanted prayers) at the Center. Many people don’t even know what a puja is yet; so don’t sweat this one. It will come gradually and be explained over time. The main thing to know about pujas is that they are beautiful and saturated with blessings, and people always seem to leave a puja feeling better than when they arrived.
Plus group pujas increasingly bless the center or temple so that these become refuge zones for everyone who visits them, which is providing a beautiful service to this troubled world.
Memorization and examinations!
Now we get to the commitment that generally freaks modern-day disciples out the most 😄. A dollar for everyone who says, “I left school years ago, I can’t memorize a thing, I’m way too old for this,” and variations on that theme.
It can be helpful to think of the exam at the end of the book as a self-assessment in six questions. They are marked, but no one but you knows your score (candidates have numbers, so even the marker doesn’t know.)
One teacher told me that with exams he likes to encourage people to regard it as a retreat rather than as preparing for a test. The exam is not the important part. The important part is the reading and contemplating. We can just have fun with it.
As mentioned earlier, if we are training as a doctor we need all the essential knowledge in our hearts, not on a dusty bookshelf. So this is Geshe Kelsang’s skillful way to encourage us to take the time to study – for when else are we going to be sufficiently motivated to do that?!
Another teacher says: “Don’t worry about it. This is a wonderful opportunity to study, get lots of Dharma — the cause of happiness — into your mind. Ask people who have taken exams – they have initial resistance sometimes but once they do it they realize why. Don’t be a perfectionist American (if you are) – remember Geshe-la’s advice:
Try, don’t worry.
And no one cares how you do on your exam.
If none of that works, how about regarding exam prep as an excellent way to ward off senility in a culture that is overly dependent on Google. Memorizing beautiful Dharma greatly improves our mindfulness.
We recite the Root Text and Condensed Meaning every week in class as well, so we find that we pick a lot of it up naturally.
The Kadampa way of life
Another friend, when I asked him what the benefits were, said succinctly:
This made me think of the old Kadampas and the Kadampa way of life. Foundation Program is training in a way of life. Transforming our life into Kadampa life. This takes real training – mindfulness, blessings, discipline. Do you wish to become a Kadampa?
By studying all five subjects (in six books) on FP, we come to know all of Buddha’s Sutra teachings, joining the illustrious company of tens of thousands of modern-day Sangha around the world. We will help provide hope for our society in the form of practicing and sharing Buddha’s teachings with the people around us, which amount to profound common sense that can be applied usefully to most of their everyday problems.
You can see some of these programs and students around the world in this video:
The six FP books are like jewel mines, and the FP allows us to delve deep. In this context the word ‘foundation’ does not mean basic or for beginners. It means we are constructing a strong and stable foundation for our daily Dharma practice and for attaining high realizations in the future.
If you want to train as a Kadampa Buddhist teacher, you can join the Teacher Training Program, which adds extra subjects and books including all of Buddha’s Tantric teachings, and has more of a retreat commitment.
Final encouragement from Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Sometimes five years or seven years may seem like a very long time, but if we practice steadily every day without giving up, gradually we will reach our goal. If we start today, tomorrow we shall already be a bit closer to completing! We should think like this and then one day we shall have completed our training.
How wonderful that will be! We shall be able to give pure teachings with confidence on any subject we have studied, and people will believe us and develop faith in us because we have prepared so well. They will appreciate us from many points of view: our teachings, our personal experience, our ability to help them solve their problems, and so forth.
These are benefits that we shall experience just in this life. In reality, future lives are much more important. We shall experience the beneficial results of studying on this program for life after life until we reach enlightenment. The benefits are inexhaustible.
Over to you please! From your own experience, would you like to add anything?
Happy Dharmachakra Day! May Dharma flourish, may everyone be happy, and may our world be peaceful.
Today, October 25th, is Je Tsongkhapa Day ~ you can read more about it in this talk. In it, Geshe Kelsang says:
Although Je Tsongkhapa had the highest realizations of Highest Yoga Tantra he never physically showed that he was a Tantric yogi. He lived like as an ordinary pure practitioner, emphasizing by his outward appearance the pure practice of moral discipline. However, his daily life was that of a Bodhisattva, and his inner realization of experiencing the union of great bliss and emptiness day and night was the very essence of Highest Yoga Tantra.
Practicing Buddhism on different levels at the same time
So here are some short musings of what this day means to me.
Our main object of refuge in modern or Kadampa Buddhism is Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka – our Spiritual Guide is appearing as Je Tsongkhapa, with Buddha Shakyamuni at his heart, and Buddha Heruka (or Buddha Vajradhara) at his heart.
This reveals our outer, inner, and secret Dharma practice through which our Spiritual Guide is drawing us all into his heart of bliss and emptiness. We want to and can become just like him.
Guru Tsongkhapa is the embodiment of moral discipline and renunciation and, totally trustworthy and relatable, represents the visible or outer structure for helping others, such as the organized centers, ordained community, and lay Pratimoksha community. Not to mention practically helping people each day.
Je Tsongkhapa emanates from Guru Buddha Shakyamuni at his heart, who is the embodiment of his inner realizations of love, compassion, and bodhichitta, which flow effortlessly throughout the whole world of living beings.
And Buddha Shakyamuni in turn emanates from Heruka and Vajrayogini at his heart, who are the embodiment of the secret or hidden Tantric practice of bliss and emptiness that sources and pervades all phenomena, that is reality itself, that already exists as the solution.
Think globally, act locally
This always reminds me that we can and do practice on different levels: outer, inner, and secret.
It helps others a great deal if we are practicing renunciation, contentment, and ethics. We need to be observing the ten virtuous actions, for example, whoever we are, and trying to keep our word and avoid pretension and deceit. Whatever our walk of life, we can’t show crazy examples even if we have powerful realizations — no one can follow those, especially in these degenerate times; and, thanks to self-cherishing, everyone’s moral discipline goes to pot given half an excuse. Along with kindness and basic decency.
Whoever and wherever we are (high profile or low key) and whatever we do every day (high powered or below the radar), we are always acting moreorless locally, as it were. Geshe Langri Tangpa paid a lot of attention to one mouse, for example, and I have seen Geshe Kelsang spend many minutes blessing a bee that was dying next to his window one hot summer day.
When he first got to England, also, in the late seventies, Geshe-la would routinely be teaching the profound perfection of wisdom to an audience of … 7 people! But with the same enthusiasm with which he later taught 7 thousand.
We generally only have a certain limited number of people we are practically able to help on any given day, especially when we compare that number to countless living beings. You could say that it’s never enough, that there’s always more to be done, even if we practically die trying.
Perhaps à propos nothing, but it seems relevant to me, Joe Di Maggio was once asked by a reporter why he always played so hard, even if there were only a few people in the stands. He replied:
Because there might have been somebody in the stands who’d never seen my play before, and might never see me again.
And that reminds me of that starfish story … you know the one, I also repeat it here, but the point being that even helping one person makes all the difference to them.
So we try to help everyone in our path each day, and the more the merrier on one level. But on another level it doesn’t really matter how many people we can meet and help directly because our heart can always be in the right place, always vast with bodhichitta, encompassing all living beings. In that way we are also making a difference on a deeper level, heading toward enlightenment rapidly so that we can help everyone all the time through emanations and blessings. Sure, Geshe-la could have been teaching thousands of people in the same amount of time he spent looking after one bee; but the fact is that this bee action was just as significant in some ways.
And if we have a big heart, each of these seemingly limited actions is a like a portal into helping everyone, so it becomes limitless.
Get out the vote! I was just thinking about voting, for example. The way to make my vote really count is to cast it with a mind of renunciation and bodhichitta, wishing for all beings to live in the freedom of bliss and emptiness. And, while I’m at it, I can pray for our dear leaders, whoever they end up being, to have wisdom and compassion.
Secret (blissful wisdom)
Then there is the solution that always lies at our hearts and at the heart of reality. If we remember that we and everything else is the nature of bliss and emptiness, we are making a difference on an even deeper level – we’re already in the process of drawing everyone into that state. We can remain tethered in the solution, and therefore in hope and refuge, as described a bit in this last article.
This way of practicing on outer, inner, and secret levels is the union of Sutra and Tantra — something else Je Tsongkhapa’s Kadampa tradition is famous for.
Everywhere we look these days there seem to be insurmountable problems – sped up climate change, factory farming, politicians and populace gone wild, mental health crises, not to mention all our own stuff. This can be immensely discouraging if we stop there, if we never get off social media and the 24/7 news cycle.
But true refuge involves not just understanding the doom and gloom of it all, but that it is all mere name, not as real and fixed as it appears deceptively to our sense awarenesses. Not an atom of it exists from its own side, so a lasting solution is possible; even though we will have to dig deeper than the delusions and karmic hallucinations to get to it.
True refuge involves not just a reasonable and woke fear of our own and others’ suffering, but faith in the solution – liberation and enlightenment — and the holy beings who have already attained it or who are on their way. Faith in enlightenment and holy beings — especially in our Spiritual Guide who is showing us an actual alternative to suffering — is crucial. We need this faith to be able to bring ourselves and others to that state, not to mention to stay sane and positive in the process.
Today I think lots about how kind my Spiritual Guide is for managing to appear in my life despite these challenging times to show me exactly how to get us out of here. There is a verse in Offering to the Spiritual Guide that expresses this for me perfectly:
To the coarse beings of these impure times who, being so hard to tame,
Were not subdued by the countless Buddhas of old,
You correctly reveal the excellent path of the Sugatas;
O Compassionate Refuge and Protector, to you I make requests.
When I think about Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, and especially when I allow him to enter my heart and mix with my mind, it fills me with inconceivable hope. It fills me with refuge. It fills me with the energy to keep going despite the crazy appearances at every turn.
That is what Je Tsongkhapa Day means to me. I’d love to hear what it means to you, if it does. And to conclude with Geshe Kelsang’s words:
Today we remember Je Tsongkhapa’s great kindness and dedicate all our virtuous actions so that his Dharma will flourish throughout the world and provide many living beings with the great opportunity to attain liberation and full enlightenment.
Our guest author is an 18-year-old student living in Leicester, UK.
5.5 mins read.
Last year I very nearly ditched school.
I was torn between two worlds: my father in Wales — an intelligent and charismatic individual characterised by his grand, magical thinking, and my mother in Leicester, who had always been kind and patient. After years of not understanding the conflict between the two, I had to find out more about my dad’s world. I left for Wales in January 2017 planning not to return.
However, I was back in Leicester the following week, having experienced my dad’s coercive tirades and destructive behaviour first hand. This was enough for me to realise what it is actually like to live with mental health problems, and that I needed a reliable method to be able to control my own mind.
Lots of people my age have to deal with disturbing relationships, identity and gender issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and the struggles of long-term mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Some go for counselling to manage these problems, and others have turned to their medical doctors for help. Whilst these are valid avenues, for me the solution has been meditation.
How do I meditate?
When meditating, I sit cross-legged, shut out the outside world, and focus on developing specific positive feelings, such as love or compassion. Sometimes the only thing I can focus on is the pain in my knees, but when all my distractions cease I can feel a profound sense of calm and peace.
‘So what?’ you might say — ‘I feel pretty relaxed after a couple of pints. This sounds like airy-fairy nonsense to me.’
I would have probably agreed with that a year or two ago. In fact, it’s true that for the first sessions you may not experience instant results. Hence, there is a lot of confusion about meditation. Some people think it is about losing yourself, whilst others think it is about finding yourself; some think meditation is about being mindless like a stone, or even listening to whale noises. For me, after enduring so much pain and confusion during my childhood, I was determined to find a method that, based on logical reasoning, was bound to produce lasting positive results.
After researching various traditions and schools of meditation, I came across the clarity of the Kadampa teachings and discovered that a key part of the meditative process is being able to identify the states of mind that produce negative feelings and then working to reduce them, and identifying positive states of mind and working to increase them. Therefore, meditation is a methodology for familiarising the mind with positivity.
How does meditation improve our mental health?
The principal driving force of meditation is concentration and mindfulness. By learning to concentrate solely on positive states of mind without distractions, we train in developing positive thought patterns. This is akin to a musician practising scales and chords, or training our muscles in the gym through repeated exercises. Eventually through training in meditation, positive mental sequences become ingrained and it becomes possible to tap into them effortlessly. Since good mental health comes from positive states of mind, we can thus understand how meditation, when practised correctly, has great power to improve our mental health.
To find out more about how meditation has helped others, I made a case study of five people who use meditation: a doctor, a Buddhist practitioner, a researcher, and two of my friends at college.
Doctor Judith Casson, a GP at Hinckley surgery, has been practising mindfulness meditation for fifteen years. She has found it to be an invaluable tool for her own mental health and has witnessed the positive implementation of mindfulness practices in junior doctors and her patients. She thinks of meditation as like “planting a seed from which grows long-term compassion and patience”.
There is abundant scientific evidence for meditation improving mental health. Neurobiologist Sara Lazar, PhD, states in an interview with the Washington Post that after conducting studies, meditation was found to increase grey matter in different parts of the brain, including the left hippocampus which is associated with regulating emotions. This could prove a direct neurobiological link between emotional stability and meditation.
A Buddhist practitioner:
Derek is a Buddhist practitioner who started meditating nearly fifty years ago. As a child, he struggled with serious health problems and nearly died. “I had to learn to deal with a wealth of suffering and mental torment, which acted as a big incentive to try to work with my mind.” 45 years later, he is now able to maintain mental stability despite ongoing health challenges.
Two of my friends at college:
After just one month of practising a basic breathing meditation, my friend Ellie, who suffers from PTSD and anxiety, says, “Meditation has allowed me to find peace in the most difficult times – it has been an absolute lifeline.” Similarly, my friend Alex who suffers from cerebral palsy and depression has also turned to meditation. In his words, “It’s given me clarity when rationality goes out the window.”
After a year and a half of practising meditation, I myself am much better able to deal with daily challenges, my stress has reduced, I don’t fall into frustration so easily, and I rarely get depressed. Most of the time I’m not fazed when things don’t go the way I expect. My empathy and compassion have dramatically increased and I’m also better able to think clearly and organise my time. I’m not perfect, but I can clearly see an upward trajectory of peace and mental stability.
Where am I now?
It has been a year and a half since I’ve had to cut ties with my dad, and although I am still dealing with grieving and loss, meditation has helped me to move on and I can face my adversities with a happy mind. Through meditating on compassion, I have also learned to see things from my dad’s perspective, which has been an eye-opener in understanding his suffering due to his mental health disorder.
Despite the rocky territory I have passed through in the last year and a half, I finished my A Levels in June 2018 with great results. I have just started an art course at De Montfort University in Leicester, and, let me tell you, I am loving life! Through the special qualities of modern Kadampa Buddhism, I can now take my peaceful mind wherever I go and do all the normal student things at the same time.
Just like becoming a pilot takes many years of training and knowledge, from my own experience I believe that through consistent practice we can fly our mind to profoundly better mental health through meditation.
Ed: This week (Oct 7-13) is Mental Health Awareness Week …. Please share this guest article to raise awareness of the benefits of meditation in helping with mental health issues.
I am on the road again, this time to Glasgow. The tube was delayed into Heathrow by some undisclosed incident on the tracks, and after 10 minutes a young boy started to whimper, “We’re going to miss our plane!” His patient mother explained several times why they still had plenty of time, and when that didn’t work she told him firmly, “You will have to learn how to cope with stress if you are going to survive life.” And then his dad added, “There is nothing we can do so we just have to accept this; stop worrying.” Advice to live by. Not that their son seemed too convinced at the time.
I have just overheard in this busy terminal, in short order, a man confiding into his phone, “Today has been a disaster so far and I’m on holiday so that makes it even more annoying.” And then a woman into her phone, “Everyone here is having a hard day as far as I can see.”
And it is not just here, of course, that everyone’s having a hard day. Today’s headlines out of Charlottesville, Virginia indicate the vicious and stupid racism that is still alive and well in America, for example. Plus, is anyone else around here wondering whether humankind is about to atomized, with all this adolescent tension between the US and North Korea? A friend said yesterday that we may as well not worry about the chaotic fumbling disaster that is Brexit because at this rate we won’t be around long enough for it to happen.
She kind of had a point. When we remember we will be dying before too long — let alone our countless past and future lives and all the big sufferings we have experienced and yet have to experience in samsara — it interestingly gets all our other problems into perspective. The individual details of samsara don’t have the power to crowd our mind, to overwhelm us, when we are focused on the big picture. We have the space and mental control to develop renunciation (the determination to get permanently free) and bodhichitta (the determination to get everyone permanently free) instead.
But first things first. As indicated in this last article on how to overcome anxiety, we could all do with learning to relax as a matter of priority, which we can do using a breathing meditation that gives us the peace of mind to reboot and cope.
It is not selfish to take the time to do this, for how are we going to sort out this world if we cannot sort out ourselves? I thought I’d “guide” a simple but effective meditation here so you have something to do next time you’re trapped on a hot tube with anxious travelers or experiencing heart palpitations from headlines like, “North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and terrifying”.
We will all be Buddhas one day
Breathing meditation is all the rage these days. But have you ever wondered why a simple meditation on our breath has the power to make us feel so much better? After all, we are breathing all the time. I think it proves that our mind is naturally peaceful, and that to access this peaceful mind we simply need to stop churning it up with uncontrolled thoughts (which are like a speedboat churning up the deep water of a still Scottish loch). We don’t need to add peace to our minds, for we already have it going on inside.
It is quite profound, really. When we do the following meditation, we get a glimpse of our Buddha nature, our infinite depth – our natural inner peace that is full of the seeds of universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, everlasting peace, and the ability to help everyone. It is like an indestructible gold nugget hiding out in the muck of our delusions.
People are not doomed …
… they are future Buddhas!
If we want the incredible inspiration required to keep going day after day in our pursuit of freeing the world of suffering, we must always relate to this fundamental purity in both ourselves and others, looking past our delusions to see the future Buddhas within. The alternative is to go around feeling moreorless bad about ourselves and everyone else, too demoralized to do much about all these complications we see everywhere. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in the free Buddhist e-book How to Transform Your Life:
Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure, essential nature of every living being … Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.
And we can do this happily and without getting so exhausted. I think we have to clear the muck aside, at least for a moment, by doing some meditation every day, or we will inevitably forget about our own and others’ gold nuggets and simply remain part of the problem/muck. So, here goes.
15-minute peace meditation
First get into a good meditation posture with a straight but relaxed back, level shoulders, and head tilted a little forward. Your mouth and eyes are lightly closed or, if you prefer, your eyes can be slightly open. Take a moment to settle into this posture and forget about everything else.
Feel contented to be here doing this — accessing your potential for limitless peace and the ability to help others in this troubled world — and determined to concentrate as best you can.
Spend a couple of minutes doing some simple breathing meditation, focusing on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils. Tune into this, disregarding all static distractions.
As a result of your mind settling a little in this way, feel that you drop from your head into your heart – your spiritual heart or heart chakra right in the center of your chest. Feel already some space opening up, some peace. Feel as though your wave-like problems and distractions have dissolved away into the boundless ocean of clarity at your heart; just imagine.
Now, to become even more absorbed, think that everything outside your body disappears, melts into light in all directions. There is nothing out there to think about.
Now this light gathers into you, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until all that remains is your body suspended in empty space.
Also everything up until this moment melts into light and disappears. The past evaporates like last night’s dream, for it is no more substantial than that.
And everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. There is no future other than our thoughts about it, so let these go.
In this way, you are still and quiet, in your heart, in the present moment. There is only here and now. You are fully present, fully alive.
Now feel all the tension and weight fall away from your body. As it falls away, all your muscles relax and your body melts into light. Your body is hollow and translucent, as if you could pass your hand right through it without resistance. You think, “My body is as light as air, as if I am floating or flying.”
Then, “My body is like a rainbow body and my mind is like clear light.” Just imagine.
Now, still in your heart, imagine any problems you’re having — physical, emotional, mental, political, relationship, money problems etc. — appearing as heavy smoke or clouds. All unpleasant feelings and unhappy thoughts take form.
Think, “These are just thoughts and feelings, nothing more, nothing less. I don’t need to think them. I don’t need to identify with them. I can let them go.”
As you exhale through your nostrils, let them go. They disappear completely, never to arise again. You are breathing away your problems — with every breath your mind becoming purer and calmer. Concentrate on this for a couple of minutes and, if a distraction arises, breathe that out as well.
For the last few out-breaths, breathe out the last of the thick smoke.
Then, as you breathe in, imagine that your breath is in the aspect of blissful light. Ride this light into your heart, where it joins the inner light of your Buddha nature. Feel happier and lighter with every breath. Do this for a few minutes.
Now focus on this peaceful clarity at your heart, like a clear sky, infinitely spacious.
You can think, “This peace, however relative or slight, is the natural peace of my own mind. This peace is always in my mind. It indicates my potential for deep lasting happiness. There is plenty more where it came from. It is my Buddha nature. It is who I really am.” And feel happy about all that.
This peace is also not separate from the peace of enlightenment. Knowing this, you receive blessings.
Allow yourself to abide with this peace, to enjoy it, thinking, “This is me. I don’t have a care in the world.”
Then you can think, “How wonderful it would be if everyone felt this peaceful and free, or for that matter completely peaceful and free.” With compassion, you can spend some time getting ready for the day ahead. Who are you going to meet? How do you want to relate to them? I usually request some inner guidance at this point from Buddha in my heart, so I have the opportunities and skill to help people in the best possible way that day. It usually seems to work.
It is now safe to go out 😁
I hope this helps. You can find more advice on breathing meditation in these articles.
Did you enjoy this meditation?! How did you get on?
(ps, pictures are of Inchmurrin Island on Loch Lomond, where KMC Glasgow holds regular meditation retreats.)
I watched 13th recently. And “I Am Not Your Negro”. (You can get them on Netflix and Amazon, respectively.) They are both such well observed and eye-popping documentaries that I now want everyone to watch them – well, especially if you are anything like me and have been living in a bubble of privilege, uncomprehending and shocked as to why the USA “suddenly” seems to be so racist and mean, suddenly seems to be going “backwards” (when perhaps it was never progressing quite as forwardly as some of us thought.)
The questions stirring my mind these days are how I, as a modern Buddhist, can help bring an end to racism and all other forms of discrimination, selfishness, and intolerance – and not just in some distant, delayed Pure Land, but here and now in this world, given that we are all in this together. I know Buddhism has the ideas. I know some of these ideas, such as love and fairness, are of course shared by other traditions too. My questions are how to share these ideas wider, most effectively and appropriately.
It is a work in progress and I welcome your comments on how you are doing it – some of you have already shared some useful observations on the last two articles. For me, I will contribute by chatting on this blog and to anyone else who may be interested. I have been listening most recently to people, both lay and ordained, who have brought Buddha’s insights into prisons, to great effect, and into the favelas in Rio and townships in Cape Town, and into film-making, and into brave new visions for renewing our broken social systems.
Modern Buddhism is surely not about escapism; it cannot be about navel-gazing. I think we need to gain gradual experience of these teachings while sharing them in as many practical ways as we can. I know Buddhist software developers, social activists, doctors, healers, artists, directors, performers, prison officers, entrepreneurs, and so on, who are increasingly bringing these ideas into play to change their professions and their own and others’ lives, to change society, to reimagine our world.
This may sound obvious — that there are Buddhist practitioners appearing in all fields — but it was not always so. When I first got involved with the Kadampa Buddhist tradition 36 years ago, it had just come out of Tibet, not surprisingly dragging along the cultural accretions of a monastic-oriented and somewhat archaic values of a very static society. I hate to say this, but there was a view for a few years back in the day that if you were not a monk or a nun, you were not a full or proper Buddhist. If you were not living in a Buddhist center, you were not a proper Buddhist. If you had a regular day job, you were not a proper Buddhist. And if you had children, goodness me, you had pretty much thrown your precious human life away.
Those anachronistic basically Tibetan notions all went out of the window a very long time ago and surprisingly rapidly, thanks in large part to the vision, skill, and courage of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Working closely with his students, he has modernized the presentation of Buddhism in umpteen far-reaching and radical ways, all while managing to keep the meaning of the teachings intact and flourishing the lay and ordained community. This means that there is an ever increasing number of good examples of how to be a Buddhist, Bodhisattva, and Tantric Yogi.
As a result, this tradition has exploded in size and relevance. And I believe this modern Buddhism is still evolving to catch up with Geshe Kelsang’s vision!
Which of Buddha’s insights could be of benefit to help our modern world? If you ask me, all of them! They are all methods for purifying and transforming our minds and actions, and thereby purifying and transforming our actual world, including everyone in it. And they boil down to wisdom and compassion, as explained in this last excellent guest article. As Geshe Kelsang says:
Developing compassion and wisdom and helping those in need is the true meaning of life.
For example, wisdom can be seen to range from an understanding that happiness and suffering are states of mind whose main causes depend upon the mind, right through to an understanding that everything, even the tiniest atom, depends upon our minds. The things we normally see, vis a vis things outside the mind or independent of the mind, do not exist — everything is mere name, mere projection. Everything is dream-like, everything is illusion. Our ignorance veils the truth; we need to pull that veil aside. We need to help ourselves and everyone else overcome their ignorance on every level because ignorance is what keeps us trapped in systems that have never worked and never will.
Compassion ranges from an understanding that we are all equal and interconnected, breaking down the pernicious “us and them” mentality, through to a universal empathy that finds the suffering of all living beings more unbearable than our own and seeks to permanently dispel it.
All these ideas are rooted in the idea of our potential for change — our innate compassion and wisdom — a potential that is enormous, infinite, and that can start functioning right now if we let it. And if we add the transcendent vision of Tantra, we are able to bring about results very quickly indeed.
It also seems to me that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso — in many ways the modern Buddhist master for our time – has been pointing for a long time to the possibility of Buddha’s teachings bringing about actual world peace. In his Buddha Maitreya teachings of 2009, for example, he said, as I quoted earlier:
If everybody followed this view — sincerely believe there is no enemy other than our delusions — all our problems that come from fighting and war will be ceased permanently. Following this view is the best method to make world peace. Unfortunately, everybody denies or neglects Buddha’s view, his intention. So we want world peace, everybody says, “World peace, world peace!”; but no-one understands how to do this.
My feeling is that it is on us to help people understand, alongside gaining experience ourselves. How? Through our own practice, example, conversations, and social engagement. Through not hiding away these ideas or ourselves out of modesty or a fear of offending, but engaging our bodhichitta into the world around us, sharing any experience far and wide in as many contexts as we can.
Not trying to make everyone into a Buddhist either — most people will not become Buddhists but they are still welcome to apply these ideas.
To finish, here is some food for thought from a comment on this last article:
Compassion that is based in wisdom is the only effective way to change this dreamlike world. Geshe Kelsang explains why so eloquently at the end of the Great Compassion chapter in How to Transform Your Life. Changing our mind directly changes the experience of the world because there is no world outside of our experience of it! With wisdom and faith, we can experience that change directly and others will experience it through our example and influence. World peace is possible if we change our mind today.
More to come, including hopefully some of your comments and/or guest articles. Also, the Kadampa Summer Festival is about to start, meaning that thousands of lay and ordained practitioners from around the world will be sitting around chatting in cafes … maybe see you there.
This is the seventh article in a row on this subject of emptiness, and p’raps you’re thinking, “Hey, this is all well and good, and interesting and such, but rather than sitting around on our butts trying to get to the bottom of things (or not, as the case may be, seeing as there is no bottom), shouldn’t we be out doing more stuff to help others practically?!!”
I have just been stopped on my bike in the King Sooper’s parking lot to sign a petition for the Environmental Protection Agency. And yes, I believe that man-made climate change is a problem that needs addressing. I have lost track of the amount of petitions and good causes I have been asked to sign up and pay for, especially since last November. My in-box and mail box have never been this inundated – how did everyone find me?!
And I do my best. But it is drops in the ocean compared with changing our minds and getting rid of our ignorance and selfish intentions, which alone will lead to lasting good results — a purification of the entire ocean.
Taking time out to ponder the bigger picture and master the mind is the opposite of Me Time because, when we don’t, our old habits naturally lead us to self-cherishing and wasting time yet again trying to make this non-existent real me happy. Which in any case is impossible, so it’s frustrating even just trying. As well as leading to a Them and Us mentality, and self-centered actions.
We remain part of the problem, ie, deluded. So, if that is the case, if delusions are the problem for each one of us, the question would seem to be, “What can I do to be part of the solution?”
The answer is to increase our wisdom. Wisdom is the way to destroy our common enemies of the delusions once and for all.
Just look at this video to see the scale of human and animal suffering in this world. How are we going to even make a dent in this without becoming a Bodhisattva and increasing our wisdom?
In any case, if recent studies are anything to go by, we are not running around helping each other all the time; we are spending something like 40 hours a week just stuck to our Smartphones!
So, if you find yourself too glued to your screens these days, can I make a little practical suggestion? I like to have one or two Kadampa Buddhist books on the go at any time, and I keep one next to my bed. Twenty minutes reading one each day = 20 minutes less time on the internet. Not saying we have to stop Netflix and Instagram altogether, just 20 little minutes?! Go to bed a little earlier and spend the last 20 minutes of the day all tucked up reading?! We’ll definitely sleep better as all studies show that we need to turn off our screens earlier; and we’ll likely get enlightened a lot quicker as well 😁
Normally we think that the physical world and everything in it comes first, and that we are conscious beings who then arrive and bump into everything – enter stage left, move around for a lifetime, depart stage right. But it is the other way around. The world and everything in it, including ourselves, is a projection of mind, like a dream, arising simultaneously with our awareness.
Wherever and however hard we look, we cannot find anything existing from its own side, independent of our consciousness. Our hand, for example, exists only as the object of an idea, an imputation. No imputation, no hand. Our hand functions as a hand, we can call it a hand, and many people will agree that it is hand. (Maybe not the wild boar I was warned about the other day when I was wandering in South Carolina, who bit someone’s fingers off, presumably imputing something like “Rare meat sticks”.)
So by agreement or convention we can say this is a hand – this is conventional reality. But it is a mere label created by conceptual thought. It is mere appearance — nothing more than appearance. If we look behind the label, we’ll find nothing.
It is almost as if our body does not exist. Indeed, the only sense in which we can say that our body does exist is if we are satisfied with the mere name “body” and do not expect to find a real body behind the name. If we try to find, or point to, a real body to which the name “body” refers, we shall not find anything at all.
Hands in dreams also work as hands and can be called hands. It doesn’t mean they are real. This is true for the body, self, living beings, mind, planet, stars, everything. Things appear and perform a function, but they don’t exist from their own side. Everything is imputed by thought. A dream object only appears for as long as the dream awareness appearing it exists, then, Poof!, it’s gone.
We shall realize that we can cause all the unpleasant things that we dislike to cease simply by abandoning impure states of mind, and we can cause all the good things that we desire to arise simply by developing a pure mind. In this way, we shall be able to fulfill all our wishes. ~ Understanding the Mind
When we realize that we are creating our world with our thoughts, we understand at the deepest level what Buddha is always telling us — that if we want happiness and freedom from suffering we have to change our mind. For if we change our thoughts, we literally change our world. This is utterly radical and utterly mind-boggling — but also utterly true.
It’s also a good idea to get into practice this meditation on the emptiness of our body before our body gets too sore or unhealthy, because we’ll be delighted to have this knowledge when it does. I had a splitting headache the other night and I was able to remember that there was no head there to grasp at. It really helps.
I wrote this article several years ago but this weekend June 4-6, 2021– with many people all around the world celebrating Venerable Geshe-la’s 90th birthday both live and live-streaming — has reminded me of the power of our Sangha.
You know, there is nothing fixed about you. You can change the narrative of yourself, go down a whole new road. For example, of these two, which to identify with?:
I am now middle aged with all those affairs of the gorgeous young me with the beautiful young lovers behind me, increasingly wrinkly and achy and irrelevant, and heading for the graveyard (via smelly old folks’ home).
= dead end street, no happy ending in sight.
I am a spiritual practitioner with incredible opportunity and strong renunciation and compassion, like Buddha and all previous practitioners, heading closer and closer to the Pure Land and the ability to liberate all living beings. I am Heruka, trampling on delusions, wielding the wheel of sharp weapons to cut through the self-grasping of all living beings.
= liberating path to somewhere completely new and blissful.
Or whatever story line we like. You can figure something out, especially with the help of Dharma. Conventional truth depends entirely on mental perspective – that’s maybe why it is also called “relative truth”. So if we give ourselves a different perspective on whatever is going on in our lives, the meaning of our life changes. For example, in the context above, I have found in the past that periods of solitude or being fired from a job are not galling but a springboard to far, far greater things.
NKT Summer Festivals
The recent summer festival (2016) was amazingly inspiring in this respect because there were 4,000 people focusing on a vision of being enlightened, not ordinary, all in the same place at the same time.
Wheel of sharp weapons
I’ve been having wonderful conversations and connections with an unusual assembly of cool people from all over the place. No one is normal around here. I have loved sitting in the temple with this huge Sangha, and there are plenty more practitioners back home too. I’ve been wondering about the causes and conditions we and others around the world must all have created to have met this fully realized Spiritual Guide, these ear-whispered instructions, this Tantric technology, this quick path to full enlightenment. It was feeling to me like we have done most of the work just to get to this point, perhaps in many previous lifetimes, and now all we have to do is fall off a log, spiritually speaking.
We can and usually do have pretty ordinary views of ourself and others, but there is nothing ordinary about any of this. There doesn’t have to be anything boring or ordinary about anything or anyone in our world. The key is to remember this every day, even when we are back home and at work.
The “Sangha” is not an exclusive club, by the way. There are no rules of entry. There is not a single person who does not equally have the potential to attain the happiness of enlightenment so, as soon as someone wants that, even a little bit, they are on their way. And who knows what spiritual work anyone has already done in this or previous lives?
As it says in Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:
“Through the wheel of sharp weapons of the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness,
Circling throughout the space of the minds of sentient beings until the end of the aeon,
Cutting away the demon of self-grasping, the root of samsara,
May definitive Heruka be victorious.”
It is said that thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples attained enlightenment. Despite my faith in the methods, and Geshe Kelsang’s oft-stated conviction that we modern-day practitioners can gain the same results, I admit I used to be a bit skeptical about this: “Steady on! That’s a bit unrealistic, surely! Maybe two or three people could go all the way?!”
(I still thought even two or three would be pretty good … after all, think of the power of even one more person in this world having Geshe Kelsang’s realizations of meaning clear light and pure illusory body?!)
A rising tide raises all boats
But you know that expression, “a rising tide raises all boats”? Of late I have been beginning to intuit that as some of us start to gain deep completion stage realizations, we might all start doing it. If you or me or any of the Sangha gain realizations, others around us will be raised naturally due to our karmic interconnections and the fact that our minds are not inherently separate. Let alone fellow practitioners, even our family and friends and colleagues will naturally experience benefits. I didn’t find it at all hard during this Festival to appreciate my rather epic fellow international Sangha, old and new, because I could tell that we are all in this together. We rise and fall together, aspects of Guru Vajradhara’s mind.
It is not the individual, isolated, separate me who will attain enlightenment after all – that is the me that has to dissolve away so that I can identify with my actual self. In Tantra we learn to impute ourselves no longer on a contaminated deluded mind and meaty body, but on our own indestructible, blissful very subtle mind and body. These, once purified by dissolving all phenomena into ultimate truth emptiness, will transform into the actual mind and body of a Buddha. How hard can that be? Once we’ve been shown how to do it?! As Nagarjuna says:
“For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.”
Like I said, even if one or two people were to gain the union of meaning clear light and illusory body and be like Geshe-la, this world would transform. So what about ten? Or a thousand!? It is degenerate times alright, but the blessings of Heruka and Vajrayogini become more powerful in degenerate times; so who is to say that collectively we cannot and will not transform this thing? When the distractions are few and the Festival blessings strong, it all seems perfectly doable. Now I just have to tune into this refuge in Sangha every day.
(Clearly I wrote this article when Festivals were still live, the pandemic not even thought of. Hopefully it may double up as encouragement to get back to a live Festival later this year or next year.)
In the last few days I’ve had a few things go wrong with this body – none of them worth writing home about, but, added together, annoying enough. Bad allergies, stomach pains, an infected finger, a fever, and less of my taken-for-granted ability to dive into my heart and stay there.
High time to transform this physical suffering because that is what Kadampa Buddhists do – we love suffering! Don’t we?! Hmmm. Maybe. Or at least we try not to mind it too much, and use it to make spiritual progress. Eventually, yes, we love it, for I have met lots of practitioners who love quite major suffering already. I admire them and aspire to their attainments, for then suffering will hold no fear. The end goal is to put a stop to our own and others’ suffering forever, and we use the appearance of suffering to help us get there. So this is a short tale of what I tried today.
(Look, admittedly, this is not going to be an inspiring account of how I transformed cancer. A few minor ailments are nothing in the grand scheme of things, I know that, in fact it is sort of the point; but you have to start somewhere and the important thing is to deal with whatever is arising for you.)
The tale of a sore finger
So this story starts first thing this morning with my finger, or, more precisely, the top inch of my finger. Who knew that such a small area of the body could throb so much! It makes me realize that there is not an inch of my body that is not ready to hurt me, that inevitably will hurt me if I insist on identifying myself with meat and nerve endings.
I made the mistake of looking up infected fingers on Google, to discover the horrible truth that, left untreated, I was about to lose my whole finger… and that the infection could spread to other fingers and (left unsaid but I could see where this was going) I would soon lose my entire hand!!! Aarggh! My finger is now the most important finger in the whole wide world! It has to be saved! Moral of the tale: stop surfing the internet while under the influence of self-cherishing, it doesn’t help. To be fair, Google was useful on the home remedies front, and I’ve been dutifully dipping said finger into a mixture of warm water and apple cider vinegar for 15 minutes several times a day, during which times it is interesting to see how little else gets done.
Between finger-soaking and nose-blowing and stomach clutching and general woe-is-me’ness, early this morning I decided to be nice and wash some of the soiled litter off the tiny soft paws of this harmless-looking round kitten. But appearances are deceptive, I discovered not for the first time, when he yowled and sunk his nasty scratchy sharp nails right into my poor swollen finger. I allowed myself a little optimism as the blood spurted, “Perhaps he has lanced this wound, saving me a visit to the doctor for surgery and amputation!”, but alternatively, I then thought, he might have added cat scratch fever to my list of ailments. I’m never going to foster horrible little kittens again …
Aarrghh! self-cherishing feeling sorry for itself and blaming others again … Clearly it was time for some contemplation on all of this, or my day was going to get away from me.
Lesson #1 ~ renunciation
Samsara throws up one problem after another, waves on an ocean. No sooner have we dealt with one thing — the thing we thought was all that was standing in the way of us and unbounded happiness – then something else comes up.
“There’s always something”, as my friend M said to me last week, “until there isn’t.”
And that “isn’t” time will only come when we recognize, reduce, and abandon permanently our self-grasping ignorance, destroying the ocean of samsaric suffering once and for all.
If we think about our suffering out of self-grasping and self-cherishing, we suffer. If we think about it to inspire us to overcome true sufferings and true origins, we have the liberating thought of renunciation, not suffering.
This sore finger ain’t no thing — doesn’t matter — as they say, compared with the sufferings of my countless future lives.
We blame others, even kittens, whining away like “childish ones”, as Buddha described us; but all the blame can rightfully be laid on our own self-grasping. Not understanding that the things we normally see do not exist, grasping at a world outside of the mind, we develop self-cherishing, anger, and attachment, which in turn create the contaminated karma that cause our endless problems to appear. Other living beings and situations can only ever be conditions for our own karma to ripen.
Lesson # 2 ~ no self, no problem
To destroy the whole of our samsara with its literally endless problems, we only need to re-think the way we are viewing things. How hard is that, given that we currently have access to all the teachings on how to do it? As the great Yogi Saraha says, in one of my favorite quotes:
If your mind is released permanently from self-grasping, there is no doubt that you will be released permanently from suffering.
Or, put this way:
No self, no problem.
The things we normally see do not exist, and that includes ourself, sore fingers, and everything else.
I cannot be found anywhere in my body or mind, and nor can I be found anywhere else. I hurt because I mush my sense of I up with my finger, but I am not my finger. You cannot find me in there, even though I say “Ow, I hurt”, or “This is hurting me,” or even “My finger hurts”. Where is the I that owns the finger?
Also, Geshe Kelsang says:
It is true that our body that we normally see does not exist, and there is no body other than this; but we mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. ~ How to Understand the Mind, p. 311
My finger cannot be found in its parts or anywhere else — try pointing to your finger without pointing at its parts.
So the suffering finger that I normally see is not really there — it is like an hallucination, like the suffering in a dream.
This sore finger ain’t no thing, for it cannot be found anywhere.
Lesson # 3 ~ compassion
I decided that my finger was like a portal into the lives of others — those, for example, who have lost limbs in fighting, or those not born with any limbs to begin with, or burn victims with large parts of their skin in agony. Let alone all those in the lower realms. I wouldn’t necessarily think about these people if I didn’t have to transform this paltry finger pain, and so my compassion would not develop.
Similar to renunciation, if we think about our own suffering out of self-cherishing we suffer, but if we use it to think about others’ suffering we develop the wish to free them, which is the peaceful mind of compassion, not suffering.
Just as I was thinking this, the kittens climbed up onto my shoulders, where they are now as well, and started snuffling into my ears. (Sometime in their journey to safety from the kill shelter in Pampa, Texas they developed upper respiratory problems). It was not hard to see that my suffering is NOTHING compared with theirs, and all I want is for them to be out of those kitten bodies and into human bodies or better, ASAP. How is that going to happen if I don’t make it happen?
This sore finger ain’t no thing compared with the sufferings of countless other living beings.
Lesson # 4 ~ Tantra
There is no suffering in the Pure Land. If out of renunciation and compassion I dissolve everything into bliss and the wisdom realizing that all the things I normally see do not exist — including my entire meaty body, self, mind, and world — I can then appear myself as Buddha Vajrayogini in the Pure Land, and the basis of suffering has gone for ever. Buddhas’ fingers give rise to nothing but endless bliss and benefit.
So my sore finger is reminding me to go straight away, now, to the Pure Land — why hang out any longer in a meaty body that can hurt all over, and sooner or later no doubt will, especially given my increasing age? Let alone all the bodies I’ll have to keep taking in all my future lives. Nasty stuff. It has to stop now, I have to stop ordinary conceptions and appearances.
I am switching to Keajra channel and staying there, resisting any temptation to flick back to samsara channel on the frankly remote chance that something better might be on. That hasn’t happened yet.
This sore finger ain’t no thing in the Pure Land.
Having had quite some success with this contemplation despite my fever, and feeling pretty darned good by now, I then applied these lines of thought to my running nose and my stomach ache, and threw in a few emotional issues too while I was at it. And, just as Buddha promised, I felt better and better the more grist I threw to the mill.
I even came to the conclusion that I’m loving me some suffering! (However, lets not push it … )
The ability to transform our everyday appearances of suffering into something immensely meaningful and joyful is HUGE, and a major hallmark of a genuine Kadampa. So I’d like to open this conversation up to you — inspire us, have you used Buddha’s teachings to transform your suffering?
Ps, My finger miraculously cured itself while I was writing this.
By the way, during that meditation I described on the meditation on the nature of the mind, the moment we notice we are distracted we can ask the same question, “What is it that is aware?” so that we return to the clarity of the mind, allowing the distracting concern to dissolve back into the clarity like a wave settling into a still ocean.
There are other legitimate things to do as well if we find ourselves too tempted to get involved with our thoughts — we can recall subtle impermanence, that these things are already gone, and in that way let them dissolve spontaneously away. Or we can recall the suffering nature of contaminated phenomena, that the end of collection is dispersion and so on, motivating us to deepen our meditation. These ways into the clarity of the mind were taught by Venerable Geshe Kelsang in his fantastic 2000 AD teachings combining Mahamudra and the four seals, and I’d love to get around to talking about them some day as they have helped me immeasurably. The main object of meditation is clarity, so once we have found that we stick with it; but we can use various contemplations to help us get there.
This article is part of a series of Mahamudra articles. Those of you who know about Lamrim, or the stages of the path to enlightenment, may wonder where meditating on the nature of the mind appears in the 21 meditations? It doesn’t explicitly, but it is our favored object of tranquil abiding (#19), and it does appear in many other places in the Kadampa books, such as How to Understand the Mind and Mahamudra Tantra, and in detail in two chapters of Clear Light of Bliss. It also features in Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s new book,The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, in which the first of the five stages of the actual practice of Mahamudra is identifying our own mind and meditating on tranquil abiding.
Prayers and blessings
You may have noticed that in this tradition we like to practice in conjunction with prayers (whether we say them out loud or not). When some of you first encounter the prayers, you think, “How wonderful, I love them!” … but there are not many of you. A lot of people’s initial response is “What? I thought they didn’t have this in Buddhism! I came to relax and now you want me to sing?!” And then we reconcile ourselves to the idea: “Ah well, I’ll settle my mind with the breathing meditation, let my mind rest and ramble during the prayers, and then focus again when I am back on the meditation.” That, of course, is not the idea. As Geshe Kelsang has warned us many times, we don’t want to get into the bad habit of parroting the prayers. Instead we can start off really well by communing with enlightened beings.
The main purpose of prayers is to change our mind in a good direction and to receive blessings. With blessings we are essentially connecting our mind to an enlightened being’s mind and, in doing so, adding a lot of power and fluidity to our meditations. This exponentially facilitates and deepens our experience.
This meditation on the nature of the mind is part of the Mahamudra practice, which is the heart essence of our lineage, the Ganden Oral Lineage, and lies at the very heart of our Spiritual Guide’s experience. So this particular Mahamudra lineage that we are receiving comes directly from Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the new Kadampa tradition; and it is exceedingly blessed. As Venerable Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit, thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples gained deep experience through putting these methods into practice, attaining the illusory body, clear light, and full enlightenment.
It is very important for us to recognize and think about blessings, for otherwise, when we meditate, WE try to meditate. Meaning that while identifying ourselves in an ordinary limited way, we try to coerce our mind into having very profound experiences of the subtle dimensions of reality. Basically, we are TRYING in the wrong way. We are putting the onus on our SELF, and in particular our ordinary sense of self.
I think often when we sit down to meditate we immediately bring up an association with our self, the one that is not that good at meditating. We only think about this sense of self when it is time to meditate, when we feel we need to cajole it, “This time, you are going to do it!”, and then basically push to have an experience of the clarity of the mind. And of course what can happen is that we end up not having this experience, which in a rather subconscious gratifying way affirms what we knew all along, ie, that we are not very good at meditating. It reinforces our underlying sense of discouragement, a common type of laziness.
This is a great shame with this great gift of Mahamudra. Hence, blessings.
Buddha is not outside our mind
Everything we experience is not outside our mind, nothing is outside the mind. For example, is the sound of the bird inside or outside? You cannot separate it from your perception, you cannot draw a line between the perception and the sound; so it is inside. Your experience of your friend is your experience of your friend, inside, not out.
So when we bring to mind Buddha, he or she is not outside my mind. There is no need to buy into the dualistic appearance of a gap or separation – my isolated meditation over here and the Awakened Ones having a great time over there. When we pray, we are not petitioning external forces but awakening our own potential by recognizing it is not separate from the minds of all enlightened beings. And we are doing this for everyone.
Venerable Geshe Kelsang says every single peaceful mind and happiness arises through Buddha’s blessings. (There is a great explanation of that in this guest article.) According to Geshe-la:
Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. Only human beings can attain this through practicing meditation. How fortunate we are! ~ The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, p. 3.
We can understand that whenever we develop a positive mind, in that moment, when we allow ourselves to be happy, we have disengaged from delusions to some extent. We have allowed our mind to come into alignment with a Buddha’s non-deluded reality, which is pervaded by peace, joy, love, etc; tapping into a profound enlightenment.
So we need to allow that to happen rather than the clutching “Yikes, grab my peace, it’s disappearing!” rodeo experience of meditating. Our meditation should not be a rodeo; it should feel instead like a settling. The word we use, in Clear Light of Bliss for example, is “Settling like a still ocean.” We use our own experience of peace to help settle into a vast transcendent experience of peace, joy, etc.
My peace is already connected to Buddha’s peace, great! So we start not from disconnection but from connection, from refuge, and allow the prayers to deepen that experience naturally. Geshe Kelsang has likened prayers to an old man’s stick, a reminder to their meaning. So we let the words suggest the minds, as opposed to forcing the minds and getting tired and distracted. We enjoy what we’re saying, saying it from the heart, while abiding in that communion.
Then when it is time to meditate, we do so while continuing to bathe in that experience – we don’t LEAVE the blessings. It’s not like filling our car up with gas and then driving off, here I am all on my own again. We meditate WITH blessings, we can even let the Spiritual Guide do the meditation for us for he really wants to help and he is very good at this. Instead of combat with obstacles, nay-saying, and distractions, we can really relax. From the point of view of the Spiritual Guide, there are no obstacles, and we are already fantastic. We could do a lot worse than to get into the habit of seeing ourself through his eyes.
Look in the mirror
Do you want to know what else I do?! I look at a picture of my favorite enlightened being and think I am looking in the mirror. We don’t have to feel that we are unworthy or light years away from our Spiritual Guide or the Buddhas. That is ordinary appearance, and they don’t ever see us as ordinary or limited.
So feel free at any time during the meditation to reconnect with the Spiritual Guide and simply ask, “Please help me with clarity.” If we throw a pebble in the pond and wait, ripples will gradually arise. We ask for some guidance or inspiration, and then we wait.
Do leave a comment to add anything else that is helpful or ask questions.