When the world seems bonkers

Guest article by Susan de la Vergne, native Angelino

5.5 mins read

One of our weekly Kadampa branch classes in the Los Angeles area is held in the foothill community of La Cañada at a YMCA — specifically in their chapel, which can hold 25 people who don’t mind sitting close together. There are two doors to the chapel, heavy wooden doors that swing open into the Y courtyard. The odd thing is that the doors don’t latch — it’s as if they’re unlocked and ready to swing wide whenever a chapel visit is needed.

Rain in LASince weather is rarely an issue in this part of the world, it’s not really a problem that the doors don’t latch. It’s not like a blizzard is going to rip the doors open and fill the place with snow. But a couple of years ago we did have a blustery day — windy, rainy, cold (by LA standards) — and as we started the meditation, the wind blew at the chapel entrance, and the heavy unlatched doors trembled.

Nonetheless, we headed into the opening meditation with the wind howling and the doors shaking, and as we started to pay attention to the sensation of our breathing, I hoped the weather would let up, not really thinking that it would. And it didn’t. The wind continued, and about five minutes into the meditation the doors opened a few inches. Leaves blew in from the courtyard. Then the wind blew the doors shut with an audible thud. But they didn’t stay closed. Again, the wind pried open the heavy doors. More leaves. I was having a difficult time meditating through Mother Nature’s noise and interruptions.

When we rose from meditation, we all shifted in our seats and shared a laugh about the challenge of meditating in the midst of all that weather.

But one woman remarked, “That was great!” Many of us looked surprised. “No, really, that was amazing because it was so great for meditation! I really had to concentrate with all that going on. It made me focus so much better. I loved it!”

Which was, of course, a teaching in itself. To me, the banging doors and the blowing leaves were obstacles; to her, they were inspiration! Once again, things don’t exist independently of the mind perceiving them. It’s as true for banging doors and blowing leaves as it is for everything else.

The News of the World

NYT online

I read the news of the world every morning. Things around the world appear to be heating up on many fronts. It’s easy to get discouraged and overwhelmed by accounts of rage and separatism, apparent lies that are becoming a new normal, predictions of imminent new wars, and leaders who used to speak to each other but won’t anymore. It’s hard not to feel swamped by the monumental problems of the world, especially as they appear to be intensifying.

But maybe they’re also an inspiration. Maybe the lies and the escalating hostilities are turning up the heat on our commitment to go inward so we can more skillfully go outward — to develop our capacity for love and compassion in the midst of what seems to be intensifying turmoil. Maybe they’re cranking up the urgency to practice, to make swifter than ever progress towards inner peace.

Just as the wind and the banging doors inspired the woman to hone her focus, so the news of the world can power our practice. When would virtuous minds be more needed than now?

Sometimes when I’m reading or watching the news, I find myself going for refuge to politicians who agree with me — “Yeah, that’s telling them!” I think or sometimes say aloud. I’m glad they get it, glad they have clout I don’t have, and hoping they use their clout and clarity to protect me from whatever craziness or violence I need protection from.

But they regularly disappoint me. They are politicians after all.

Better to take the latest world crisis to the Buddhas and to try to think about it as they might. For example: See the suffering! It’s samsara; what can we expect? Delusions of anger and self-grasping are behind all the violence, all the craziness. Think of the damage that’s being done to the mental continuums of all the people you’re blaming for the way things are. They’re facing far worse in their future, and they have no idea.

Buddha face smallerI’m not trying to put words in a Buddha’s mouth but adopting a perspective based on how they might view the things I’m angsting over. That’s a way for me to go for refuge and to develop compassion even for the people I don’t agree with. It’s also a way to bring to mind all the far-away, remote, “out there” people who happen to be suffering more acutely than I right now because of the anger, lying, resentment, conflict and a whole long list of deluded states of mind that are behind all our negative actions and their consequences.

When the news of the world knocks us down, we can go for refuge to Buddha and find answers to the question, “What can I do?”

In the aisle at Walmart

On Black Friday in November, two Walmart shoppers got into an argument that ended up in a mid-aisle fistfight. The two men brawled to the ground, surrounded by racks of Christmas wrap, while onlookers observed from a few feet away. A security guard broke up the fight, but not before one of the brawlers suffered a broken nose.

2 bearsI wondered how isolated an incident this was. How many hostile shoppers glared at each other across the aisles this past holiday season? Maybe they didn’t deck each other, but they were impatient and annoyed, the same states of mind that led to the Walmart clash.

Rage always starts small.

It is easy to judge the battling men at Walmart. “Really, guys, can you not see how pointless this is?” Or to feel helpless in the face of such an incident. “The world is simply going down the drain!”

Or we can use the difficulties we see around us to ratchet up our own refuge practice. “Buddha, what can I do? How can I view this?”

We can decide to better master our own anger and irritations. We can request blessings for instigators of conflict. We can make dedications. We can practice taking and giving. There are all kinds of practices we can engage in; and thanks to Geshe Kelsang’s practical guidance and instructions we have the tools and techniques we need.

So it’s good to remember that we’re not helpless even when things around us seem very crazy — and that when things seem at their craziest, we can use this as extra inspiration for our practice.

Questions and comments for the guest author are invited below 🙂

 

Finding a quick way to spiritual realizations

A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software engineer teams.

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 10.46.40 AM4.5 mins read

Have you ever thought to yourself anything along these lines: “How am I supposed to develop a state of perfect concentration — I can only focus for a few seconds before my mind wanders away?!” In Buddha’s teachings we learn about attaining incredible spiritual realizations, such as universal love, single-pointed concentration, and omniscient wisdom, yet we might feel as if these are something completely impossible for us.

Luckily, this is not true. Spiritual attainments or realizations arise as a dependent relationship — they are not something we either have or do not have. It is more helpful to think of them as an inner evolution. If we keep creating the causes, then the results we are looking for will necessarily appear.

Increasing the potentials for spiritual realizations

Tharpa Publications just released Geshe Kelsang’s new book The Mirror of Dharma. The eBook of this is now available for download. In it, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we have within ourself a strong potential for spiritual realizations, then with this condition we will easily develop and maintain profound knowledge and spiritual realizations. We can accomplish this condition, a strong potential for spiritual realizations, within ourself by sincerely practicing the Guru yoga of the Wisdom Buddha Je Tsongkhapa.

buddha teaching

During the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, many people easily attained high spiritual realizations. This was due to the strong potentials for spiritual realizations already in their minds.

In these spiritually degenerate times, it seems far more rare to possess these strong potentials, such that making progress on the spiritual path can often feel rough and difficult. Nonetheless, due to our connection to the Wisdom Buddha Je Tsongkhapa, we can become exactly like the disciples of Buddha, making quick and easy progress on our path to enlightenment.

Imagine the unbelievable confidence we would possess if we received the teachings on the perfection of wisdom directly from Buddha Shakyamuni! Through the kindness of Je Tsongkhapa, who was predicted by Buddha Shakaymuni, we are able to develop this same confidence and experience these same results.

The easiest way to develop these potentials

Geshe Kelsang goes on to say:

Through this we will receive the powerful blessings of all the Buddhas through our Guru so that we will easily develop and maintain profound knowledge and spiritual realizations.

Je TsongkhapaIn general, we say that all spiritual realizations ripen through receiving Buddha’s blessings. In particular, as Kadampa Buddhists we rely upon the blessings of Buddha Je Tsongkhapa.

Je Tsongkhapa was a Tibetan Buddhist Master and scholar who founded the New Kadampa lineage. Buddha Shakyamuni predicted him in King of Instructions Sutra, explaining that he  would spread and clarify Buddha’s teachings of Sutra and Tantra and prevent people from following mistaken views. Believing this Wisdom Buddha is in the space before us or at our heart and holding a mind of faith in him creates potent conditions for easy spiritual attainments.

As with any relationship, we first need to discover who Je Tsongkhapa is and then get closer and closer to him. Over time we’ll come to see in our own experience that the skill of his methods and the power of his blessings are unequalled.

It is because of Je Tsongkhapa that we are now able to easily integrate all the practices of Lamrim (the stages of the path to enlightenment), Lojong (training the mind), and Tantric Mahamudra into our daily life. He compiled all 84,000 teachings of Buddha into one complete and straightforward path to enlightenment.

The fact that this path can be completed by even the busiest person is one of the miracle powers of Je Tsongkhapa. If we entrust ourselves to these methods and blessings, we will soon develop advanced spiritual attainments.

(There is more explanation about Je Tsongkhapa in the books Heart Jewel and Great Treasury of Merit.)

Identifying with these potentials

Practitioners such as Gyalwa Ensapa and his disciples and Je Sherab Senge and his disciples are witnesses to this. They attained the state of enlightenment within three years. This is magical. Through this we can understand how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to practice these instructions. ~ The Mirror of Dharma

When we hear about enlightenment, we may concede that it could be possible if we could give it a few lifetimes worth of training. Thinking like this underestimates both our potential and the power of our teacher’s blessings.

Pure minds create the experience of pure worlds and impure minds create the experience of impure worlds. This means that experiencing our own pure world is a change of mind away.

If we want to have magical results in our practice, we need to learn to stop identifying with our limitations and ordinary appearances, to see through them and past them. Our limitations are momentary appearances arising from potentials in our mind. If we quickly increase our spiritual potentials through Guru yoga practice, and identify with these every day, then what appears to our mind will soon start to be radically different. It is just a matter of time before we experience the same results as the practitioners who have come before us.

Make the future an enlightened one

just-shower-thoughts-0-when-people-talk-about-traveling-to-the-past-30585898In movies about time travel, characters are very cautious of changing even the slightest detail of the past because they fear how it might affect the future they came from. We can apply this notion to changing our mind.

Even the slightest positive imprint we place in our mind has the potential to create dramatic consequences for our future self. Every day we can create these spiritual potentials and receive blessings. Eventually, maybe even in a few years, we will find we have traveled to a future in which we are now enlightened and benefiting every living being!

Over to you, comments welcome.

Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra

sky and cloudsFirst I thought it’d be helpful to give some context for the clarity of mind meditation, and then share some thoughts on why it is so effective at pacifying our distractions.

The clarity of mind meditation is part of Sutra Mahamudra. And Mahamudra is the heart essence of the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism.

A Kadampa Buddhist is someone who:

takes all of Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and puts them into practice in their daily lives.

Buddha gave 84,000 teachings, so how do we pull that off?! By practicing Lamrim, a cycle of 21 meditations (or 14 meditations in How to Understand the Mind) that covers all the stages of the path to enlightenment. Pretty much all the meditations we will ever learn in Buddhism fit somewhere in the Lamrim cycle!

Also, as Geshe Kelsang explains in Great Treasury of Merit (page 18), Lamrim and Lojong (lit. “training the mind”, a powerful method for developing bodhichitta extracted from Lamrim and given particular emphasis) are both preliminaries for Mahamudra.

Mahamudra, a Sanskrit word, means “great seal”. In Sutra it refers to emptiness, and in Tantra to the union of great bliss and emptiness:

Mahamudra Tantra is defined as a mind of fully qualified clear light that experiences great bliss and realizes emptiness directly. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 55

All Kadampa Buddhist meditations are explicitly or implicitly aiming at this realization of bliss and emptiness, which, when perfected, becomes omniscient wisdom, enlightened reality. With practice, we can use deeper and deeper levels of awareness to meditate, and the deepest is our very subtle mind which, when manifest, is called clear light. This mind is naturally blissful. Inconceivably blissful. Ridiculously blissful. Think of the most blissful thing you can imagine and then multiply that by infinity. More blissful than that.

Buddha seed

sky and clouds 2It is also our Buddha nature or Buddha seed – this clear light mind itself will transform into a Buddha’s mind when it is fully purified and developed. So, best of all, we already have the very subtle mind! This means we don’t need to add anything to our mind to become enlightened. We have the seeds of love, compassion, bliss, wisdom etc. – it is all there. All we need to do is grow those seeds — not add to them but grow them. And remove the obstructions that get in their way. Buddhahood is not out there anywhere. The beginnings are already right here, in our heart chakra.

As Buddha said:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 100

If we recognize and realize our own root mind or very subtle mind directly, we will definitely become a Buddha in this life!

Geshe-la looking at Pure LandGeshe Kelsang is always saying that we can attain enlightenment in this life. Numerous past practitioners in the Kadampa Tradition have already done this; and at the moment we have, by some karmic marvel, exactly the same methods at our fingertips. Our problem is that we don’t believe him half the time (any of the time?!)

There are many reasons for this – one perhaps being that we are not identifying with this potential but instead with a severely circumscribed sense of self. So it’s no wonder we don’t make that great of an effort, meaning we don’t get a taste, meaning we don’t develop an appetite. This meditation on the clarity of the mind luckily can also help with that! (More in a later article.)

Get control

The only hurdle right now is that we cannot access our very subtle mind, it is too deep. It manifests naturally in deep sleep and as we die, and it is even blissful when it does; but we can’t recognize or use it because, let’s face it, we can barely use our grossest levels of mind, our everyday waking consciousness. We find it hard to stay out of trouble even for one day! Because we lack mindfulness and concentration our mind controls us at the moment, not the other way around.

Still, through Buddhism in general we learn to control our gross levels of mind, our more obvious delusions; and through Tantra we learn to manifest our own very subtle mind and use that. Once we can meditate with our clear light mind, we are almost there. We are almost enlightened.

You can read about all of this properly in Mahamudra Tantra, an enlightening book in the real sense of the word.

Also, you can try out this meditation for letting a subtler or deeper level of mind emerge: Absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts.

Sutra Mahamudra

Within Sutra Mahamudra, the meditation on the nature of the mind is the access point to meditation on emptiness. We take it as our object of concentration and mindfulness. It leads us both into emptiness, and one day into the great bliss of our own clear light mind.

Even if you are a beginner, this is where this meditation is headed.  Geshe Kelsang said in 2000:

Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. In reality, this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.

It’s good to know what Buddha’s mind is and what our mind is capable of. One day, every single one of us will attain enlightenment because everyone has the potential and sooner or later everyone will learn how to do it – and this is how.

I sometimes think that if we are going to get enlightened anyway one day, why not go for it now? Haven’t we been hanging out in samsara way, way, way too long already? What are we waiting for, exactly?

I think that is enough background for now.

Pacifying distractions

sky and clouds 3The meditation on the clarity of the mind, explained briefly here, has many benefits, “incredible power and benefit” as Geshe Kelsang said in 2000. Unbelievable supramundane phenomenal benefits. Maybe some of you are thinking, “Here we go again! I know I’ve got to do this meditation, I just need to sort out my real issues and/or get through six seasons of The Wire first.” That’s why we need to keep thinking about the benefits and the faults of not getting around to this meditation.

These benefits are very precise, describing what we will experience if we meditate on the nature of mind, the first being that it pacifies distractions. And that is even for us modern people who, let’s face it, are a little distracted. I will say just a little more about that in this admittedly long article before you all get distracted.

I sometimes think of distractions as all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking, like thoughts of sadness, or annoyance, or feeling our life is meaningless, or dissatisfaction, or longing, or fear of failure, or … you know the kind of thing. They distract us away from our natural peace of mind – yet we have no choice but to think them because our mind is so out of control. One of the things we learn in meditation is to let the delusions settle or temporarily disappear so that we can then more lastingly transform our mind. Different ways are taught to settle the mind, the most common being some kind of mindfulness of breathing. However, clarity of mind meditation is even more effective. It can take us all the way to enlightenment, but already at a basic beginners’ level it enables us to more easily let go of our distractions.

Have you ever felt that your meditation involves a struggle with your distractions? “I fought the distractions and the distractions won” kind of thing? This meditation helps us adjust our whole relationship with distractions. It no longer need be one of combat. We no longer need to feel besieged or overwhelmed. We no longer have to push our distractions away.

A distraction is defined as:

A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion.

sunset cloudsWe really need to know how to pacify our minds as there is always something that is troubling us. Does a day go past when it does not? There is always something. And we try to solve our problems day by day by trying to swat away this worry, then that worry; but those worries just keep on flying at us. We need to go straight to the source of that trouble, ie, unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds, without which we’d never experience another moment of pain. We need to learn the art of letting go, we need to learn how to drop our distractions.

To know how this meditation works to overcome distractions, we can look more at the object of meditation and how to approach it in a skillful way to reap this benefit. Next installment is here. Your comments are welcome.

Postscript: about the illustrations in this article, an excuse for me to share my pictures of the Denver sky, thanks. We don’t need to fear our delusions and distractions – they are like clouds that cannot pollute, much less destroy, the clear sky of our root mind. We can learn to dissolve away our delusions by always identifying with our clear sky mind.

Going on 92

Eileen with SilverI was able to visit my friend Eileen again a couple of weeks ago (you may remember her from this article), and after four years I found her skinnier, frailer, and walking a lot more slowly. The other day a doctor exclaimed: “Are you still walking around on those feet?!” Eileen replied that indeed she was. “And you do know that you have two dislocated toes?!” Eileen knows it all too well. As well as hobbling around on broken toes due to advanced rheumatoid arthritis, Eileen is losing her previously reliable eyesight to macular degeneration, and wonders how and if she will drive for much longer, read, see… Despite all these curtailments, Eileen is still loving her daily meditations on Mahamudra, the clarity of the mind, and still delights in life – a delight that seems extra qualified these days by a deepening patience. We had a lot of fun that weekend. I told her of the interest her last article generated on this blog, and asked her to give us an update on the ageing process from the point of view of a meditator and Kadampa Buddhist; and she has sent this snapshot.

Going on 92

At the request of my friends, here I am again to update the subject of Ageing…

Over a year has passed since I wrote about coping with an ageing body, and now the disparity between that body and the mind, which I am happy to say remains much as it ever was, is more obvious every day.

I will give you an example that happened only in the last few days. My lovely daughter who is now 61 spoke to me on Skype – oh yes, I do keep up with modern technology! – to see where I would like to go for a trip this year. For the past few years we have treated ourselves to a short break in some exciting European city, Barcelona, Marrakesh, Warsaw…  and so now she wanted to know “Where this year?!

I so much wanted to go with her but I also knew that it would be foolish to make this ageing body attempt the trip. So with a foot on each side of the fence, I replied: “Well, darling, where would YOU like to go?” Quick as a flash the answer came, “Let’s go to Prague!”

Now Prague is one of my favorite European cities. I have always loved the idea of visiting the river Vltava, about which the composer Smetana wrote such eloquent music – for although I have visited Prague many years ago, I have never been on that river.

So how to resolve this conflict? To go or not to go? That is the question!

Perhaps the salutary experience I had the next day was provided for me by the Buddhas to bring me to my senses.

A lovely new friend, a Buddhist monk, had taken me to a seaside town on the Yorkshire coast for some sea air. The day was beautiful and the sun warm, even though it is only February. We were strolling along the promenade, my arthritic feet doing reasonably well, and I suggested descending to the lower promenade to be closer to the sea. This involved negotiating a flight of 15 steep concrete steps, but off I set, with my teenage mind and my ancient body. Big mistake! All was fine until we reached the fifth step from the bottom, at which point my legs gave way and I fell head first, landing in a sprawling heap on the ground, to my poor friend’s horror.

Struggling to my feet I tested out my legs. They held my weight, no broken bones – just a large swathe of skin flapping off my lower calf. Dramatically bloody, I must admit, and not a pretty sight. That and a sprained wrist seemed to be all the damage. It could have been so much worse – a fractured skull, a broken hip.

Was this a timely warning to “Be my age!?” To use the time I have left in this life to better advantage? Not to give in to my attachment for beautiful cities, rivers, and above all music? Years ago I asked a well-known Buddhist teacher, “How do you know if you have attachment for something?” and he replied, “If you want it again.”

I took this to mean if I want something again because I think it makes me happy from its own side. It is a major part of our Buddhist endeavours to overcome the 3 poisons of anger, attachment, and ignorance – three snakes in a basket on our lap vying for supremacy and ready to bite any time. Is this an opportunity to deal with attachment? “But hang on…”, objects my unruly mind, “Would it not be an act of giving to go to Prague and make your daughter happy? Giving is, after all, one of the six perfections of a Bodhisattva!!” Prevaricating, my mind hops from one side of the fence to the other.

Eileen doorsWhat to do? I am sitting here, looking out into my garden, and my little cat Silver jumps onto my knee. Two wood pigeons preen themselves in the cherry tree, and it is almost Spring. A wave of wondrous contentment envelops me. How foolish I am, wishing to be somewhere else. Isn’t this the teaching of Buddha, to dwell in contentment and rely on a happy mind? I see it now…Eileen with Silver 2

Dear daughter, don’t be disappointed. Go with a young friend, and later, when you visit me — and we’re sitting by my window with the clematis like a pink waterfall, the early roses scenting the air, and the little cat lying in the sun — you can tell me all about it.