It was a fine day for an adventure and, leaving the 6 kittens and their mom with Aunty Erica for a couple of nights, I drove into the mountains toward Five Peaked Mountain for my first getaway in a long while.
My Air BnB, “The Snug,” came complete with mountains on all sides and its very own fairy garden. I sat outside with my face in the sun drinking coffee and contemplating snow because there was an awful lot of it around.
When we meditate, we often imagine that we are surrounded by living beings — our family and so on sitting closest to us but nobody left out. Snow reminds me that I am surrounded by infinite living beings, each unique, each dependent on each other. And I am not a big human being surrounded by miniscule snowflakes – I am also just one of those snowflakes no more important than any other.
Because there was snow as far as the eye could see, so there were snowflakes as far as the eye could see – and living beings too really are countless. Even a few square feet is so packed full of snowflakes, and so too is a city, for example, so packed full of living beings. Yet this is just a tiny tiny portion of all the snow/living beings who are alive and feel important.
Given that, why would one snowflake ever consider itself more significant than any of these others, let alone all these others? Even if it happened to be in charge of the few million snowflakes immediately around it, in the grand scheme of things this is negligible. Not to mention that however powerful a snowflake may think it is, or however popular or talented, it is still 100 percent dependent on all the other snowflakes and cannot last for even a second without them. (Ever seen a snowflake on its own?) And soon of course it will melt just like everyone else.
Caught by the light, snowflakes sparkle – move just a bit, though, and they stop sparkling while others sparkle instead. In the same way, over a period of countless aeons everybody has sparkled for us as our mother, our partner, our child, and so on, sometimes for a lifetime, sometimes for just a moment. And then they’ve gone dark again as we have moved on or moved away, mentally or physically, including at death.
That same afternoon I went looking for Rainbow Lake. Google Maps had a red dot right in the middle of it, but my car got me only as far as a lay by some miles away.
I walked further than I realized along the rainbow trail – as I got higher, the sun got lower, and it started getting quite chilly. I was leaning against a wooden pole in a sunbeam when a woman on cross country skis passed me on her way down. I asked if the lake was just up there, and she said she didn’t think it was. Then she added that she would prefer it if I went back down the mountain rather than go up any further because it was going to get exceedingly cold and I wasn’t going to find my lake. You can’t find rainbows and, as it turns out, you can’t find rainbow lakes either.
I followed her advice, not least because she was wearing red from top to toe, and I was glad I did because I was the last one off that mountain. I saw no one on the way down, and if I’d carried on up the mountain in search of that Rainbow Lake I may not be writing this to you now.
However, I did then get a bit more of an adventure than I bargained for. Having walked for quite a distance, I realized I could not recognize a thing. The sun was threatening to dip behind the mountains. I was lost.
I couldn’t retrace my steps too far because it was about to be very cold, not to mention pitch dark, and there wasn’t going to be any help forthcoming from that direction. I waded up a hillock in the thick snow to see if I could see anything promising on the horizon, but all that revealed was that the town lights were a rather alarmingly long way away.
A little worried, I kept walking until I was relieved to see a big building in the distance. Hurrying over to it, I called out loudly to a small figure in the parking lot, who told me that this was Summit Hospital and she was a nurse. She told me to keep walking on the trail for about a mile to access the emergency entrance of the hospital, go inside to avoid freezing, and figure out what to do from there. She couldn’t drive me anywhere, she said, because she was just on her quick break. Some break, talking to a foolish tourist! I love nurses.
A little later I was pondering how to get down the large bank of 3 to 4 feet snow and across a low wall to access the hospital below, and what I’d even do when I got there given that Uber wasn’t an option here and I didn’t know anyone in Frisco, when a couple walked past me, the only other people I had seen on the trail for well over an hour. I stopped them to explain my predicament, whereupon Jim said I needed to follow them, he thought he might know where my car was parked, but it was at least two miles away and did I mind walking fast? (It seemed like the opposite direction to me, but I wasn’t going to leave these people now!)
I fell into conversation with Julie, who commiserated with me for having a terrible sense of direction and told me that Jim and her took long hikes every day but were never out this late, she didn’t know how the day had gotten away from her. We were talking about how unbearable it must be to be truly stranded in these teeth-chattering, finger-throbbing temperatures without a house, like so many people in Denver. I was able to reach out to Julie or the hospital or even the police if it came to it, but who can unhoused people turn to for safety and warmth? In Denver, these human beings are not just ignored but constantly swept from place to place, their tents, sweeping bags, and other meager belongings trashed, even during these unlive-able temperatures. It just beggars belief.
Jim had ran off ahead but, meeting up with him again 2.5 fast-walked miles later, we discovered that my car was not here after all. (Sort of a relief – my sense of direction was bad, but not that bad.) Jim was all for me calling the police at this point, but Julie had decided by now that she was not going to let this “young lady” (thanks Julie!) stick around any longer in the mountains in -9 degree temperatures. They called their son in law Chris, who bundled me and Julie in the car and drove us around Frisco until I recognized a road, from where we found my car. Then they waited until I drove safely away. I was very apologetic and thankful. Julie told me she believed in karma and that I would help her one day. How right she is.
Which just goes to illustrate my point about snowflakes. For the skier in red, the nurse in green, Julie, Chris, and Jim — strangers just hours ago — all sparkled brightly for me today.
It can be helpful to get in a car if you have access to one, drive to a trailhead, walk up a mountain, and look back at your now-tiny city. However, to change our perspective it is not necessary to physically GO up a hill; which is just as well if you’re still in lockdown or live in Florida. Nothing is really out there — everything is a dream-like projection of our mind. There is no real coming and going and we can travel up a mountain in our mind if we want to.
No coming and going
Clouds (and rainbows) only appear in the sky due to a bunch of atmospheric causes and conditions coming together – clouds are not these causes and conditions, but take any one of them away and the clouds cannot form. Clouds therefore have no power to exist on their own, in and of themselves, self-contained, from their own side. They exist only in relation to other things, indeed AS relation to other things. Talking about the emptiness of the so-called “eight extremes”, which includes coming and going, Geshe Kelsang says:
The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds, and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend on factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent or independent existence and are mere imputations of the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism
Geshe Kelsang has said that things “barely exist”. Although they appear and function, they are no more substantial than objects that appear and function in a dream. That includes mountains! And Denver! And my body! And me!
So instead of having to go to places and return from places, we can realize that everything is simply popping up in our mind due to multiple causes and conditions – not the least of which is our karma or previous mental intentions.
Whenever we go anywhere we develop the thought, “I am going,” and grasp at an inherently existent act of going. In a similar way, when someone comes to visit us we think, “they are coming,” and we grasp at an inherently existent act of coming…. However, the coming and going of people is like the appearance and disappearance of a rainbow in the sky. When the causes and conditions for a rainbow to appear are assembled, a rainbow appears; and when the causes and conditions for the continued appearance of the rainbow disperse, the rainbow disappears; but the rainbow does not come anywhere, nor does it go anywhere.
We seem to be moving around all the time — walking our legs, waving our arms — everything is constantly coming and going. Or is it?! When we drive along in a car, are we really moving? Or are the rapidly changing scenes and other sensory experiences simply unfurling moment by moment as mere appearances of mind in dependence upon causes and conditions, including ripening karmic seeds?! Space and time are relative, as Albert Einstein would say.
Why does this matter, you may be wondering? Because if things are relative or dependent-related, we can disappear them by changing our viewpoint or mental angle. If the observer moves, the rainbow moves or disappears. For example, if we view someone who is unkind to us as a kind teacher of something we need to learn, (s)he is no longer an enemy but a friend.
If things are absolute, that is, not dependent on other things, then they are fixed and therefore there is nothing we can do to change them. Also, there is a real or absolute me over here and a real or absolute world over there and never the twain shall meet. With self-grasping ignorance there is necessarily a gap between me and everything else, which turns out to be quite exhausting because we tend to relate to that world with delusions, such as the pull of attachment or the push of aversion. As Gen-la Dekyong said the other day:
Stop tinkering with this impure world. We don’t have time! There is nothing we can do externally to change it.
Where is the center of everything?
Related to this, another thing I find helpful to contemplate from a mountain rock is how each of the millions of people moving about in the city below feels themselves to be the center of it. Wherever they are, wherever they go, everything seems to be revolving around that fixed or moving point. And when I am in the city, it’s the same for me – everything is revolving around me. If I am driving down Sixth Avenue, for example, Denver seems to exist in a centrifugal ring around me; and that illusion persists even if I turn down another street.
Even if we are motivated to help others, while we remain with self-grasping ignorance we naturally have the sense that the world revolves around us. That is how it appears and we assent to that appearance. However, how can a real world be revolving around me and around you and around everyone else at the same time?!
Each one of us Denverites is only one of, say, two million, if we count only the humans. (Though right now there’s a strong argument for also counting the six kittens who are running around my feet like crazy people). From a distance, it’s particularly absurd to say that any one of those two million+ living beings is central, that the city revolves around any one of them, including me. And when I am back in the city, I can remember that – I am just one of millions, no more central than anyone else. We are all equal. We all equally exist only in dependence upon each other, like cells in the body of life. We are indisputably nothing without others.
This was almost literally a “this mountain that mountain” enactment – I drove down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other. Looking back at my previous self and everything to do with that self, I got it into perspective.
There is only one way to free ourselves and that is to get over ourselves. In truth there is no real or most important me to cherish because that self we normally see doesn’t exist. The more often we dissolve it away by looking for and not finding it, the better. This is emptiness or selflessness. As someone said on Facebook today:
No self, nothing to cherish. This is so obvious so why doesn’t it permeate my entire being, providing constant peace? More time on the cushion for me till a stable realisation is attained.
Taking this perspective back down the mountain
We need a sense of proportion because it makes it a lot easier to help without becoming overwhelmed and burning out. Because of course there is horrible suffering in Denver – people are freezing sometimes even to death on the streets, a pandemic is raging, businesses are shuttered, and pretty much every single person you talk to has problems of one sort or another. Including me. But with a large viewpoint we don’t get so overpowered. Seeing the big picture, we can develop the big minds – universal love and the compassion that wants everyone to be free not just from today’s problems but from all their problems forever.
Sooner or later we have to get back down off that mountain! (Unless you are on retreat in a snowy cave. Tempting.) With those big minds, we can return to the middle of the city and help in practical ways. The bigger our mind, the smaller our problems, and the more capacity we have to serve others.
If we find we’re getting overwhelmed, it’s worth pointing out that our mind doesn’t have to get off the mountain. We don’t even have to physically go up a mountain in the first place! That’s what meditation is for, gaining perspective, seeing the relativity of all things. And everyone can learn to do this – regardless of where we happen to be living at the moment, or whether or not we have a car. There is truthfully far more space inside all of us than outside. We can close our eyes, do a bit of breathing meditation to get into our heart, contemplate the space in and around everything, and then get back to work.
Whether or not we understand selflessness and dependent relationship perfectly yet, one immediate thing we can do is appreciate the people around us for giving us the opportunity to practice improving ourselves and helping others, in both obvious and less obvious ways. Given that nothing (including all living beings) exists in any absolute fixed way but is entirely relative and the nature of our mind, we can set ourselves up in relationship with others however we decide; and perhaps the best way to relate to them is in the aspect of kindness. From seeming almost inanimate at times, everyone springs to life when we think about their kindness to us; and Buddhism gives us so many different practical ways to do that.
A mountain in the city
Last but not least, our Buddhist meditation centers in Denver and elsewhere will hopefully be opening up again before too long to provide a physical get-away for this kind of teaching and reflection. For example, a friend who now lives in Colorado was talking about KMC London in Kensington the other day: “That place itself is an oasis and, if we did something similar here, people would get the top of the mountain feel in the city.”
Thank you for reading! Would love to see your feedback and comments below.
Everything is being shaken up right now for almost everyone, one way or another. Business and activities as usual, including many of our distractions, are on hold. The future looks pretty cloudy and unsustainable based on our old ways of doing things; it would appear that something has to give.
Hopefully a lot of you, the relatively lucky ones who are forced to stay “safe at home”, have actually had a chance to rest and rejuvenate … you may have forgotten this, but in the “old days” we constantly complained of being too busy, stressed, even burned out. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I LOVE the idea of meditation!” but then never got around to it … (I’d be quite rich). If we use this time to deliberately reset our intentions and our hearts through meditation practices including loving-kindness, things will work out a lot better moving forward. Instead of giving ourselves over to anxiety (a “misuse of the imagination”) or aimlessly twiddling our thumbs, it makes us feel far more alive to take control of our days and hours.
Cells in the same body of life
We are all like cells in the body of life in two ways and there is nothing uniquely special about us in that respect.
To remind you of the first way, as explained in this last article Love the Great Protector — at the moment we may view ourself as being independent of everyone else – I am over here being me and you are over there being you — but that gap is not actually there. Where is that gap? When we meditate on the interconnectedness of self and others, we realize that without others we’re literally nothing. We melt away like individual snowflakes. We don’t exist.
Buddha said that we are not wholes unto ourselves but part of a whole, only existing in dependence upon all the other parts. This is not just theoretical, it is reality. We need this deeper knowing so that we are not sucked into the illusion of loneliness every day.
Plus right now we can see that we are all on the same side fighting the same foe – we always are, it’s just clearer at the moment. We do have a common enemy and it is not each other – it is ignorance and delusions, suffering in general, and at this point in time the particular suffering arising from COVID-19.
We could recognize what needs to be done, practically speaking, without wasting time apportioning blame. Blaming each other with anger doesn’t really help, it generally makes things worse, and it tends to make us feel more powerless. We can stop blaming each other by recognizing that we are all in this together, that far from being each other’s enemies we are each other’s life support system.
When we really come to feel that we are cells in the same body of life, it’s not hard to appreciate that everything we do affects others and everything they do affects us. The parts affect the whole and the whole affects the parts. This is why our constant attempts to separate ourselves out backfire. When we go through life thinking “Me, me, me,” all day long (“What about me and my happiness, that’s what’s most important!”) — neglecting others and pursuing our own wishes at the expense of others — then we are not just harming others but harming ourselves. If everyone in the whole world is thinking “Me first!”… well, we can just look at the world to see how that is (not) working out.
It is a good time to take stock. Many societal fault-lines are being revealed even more glaringly during this crisis – for example what happens if we don’t care for everyone’s health without prejudice. As the now famous Fauci said yesterday: “These health disparities have long been prevalent in the African American community and that this pandemic is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is. ”
There is no clearly good path or outcome based on how our species has been running full tilt toward wreckage due to our uncontrolled selfish desires. We need to turn this around, starting with ourselves. We can’t wait for everyone else to change – where would we be if Buddha had done that? It is extraordinary what even one person can do to help their community if they put their mind to it – people who deeply cherish others are like “magic crystals”.
Caring about others is the best intention. Because we are all cells in the same body of life, what is good for one person must be good for another; and if we are harming others, we are harming ourselves. We all impact each other in both life-threatening and life-saving ways. We need to wake up to this. Love helps us immediately and it helps us in the long term because the positive intentions that arise from love are congruent with our wish for good experiences in the future.
Equalizing self and others
Everyone matters and everyone matters equally. We are all exactly the same. The different cells in a body play different functions, but they are all important and need to be healthy.
The second way in which we are all like cells in the same body of life is explained in the meditation called “Equalizing ourself and others”. This meditation opens our hearts to cherishing others as much as we currently cherish ourself because we are all exactly the same, equally necessary parts of the one whole.
Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal.
“All this happiness is driving me crazy!” said no one ever. And who wants to be unhappy!? Right, nobody.
We’ve been working non-stop forever to be happy and free from unhappiness, but something we are doing is not working. Buddha identified that as self-grasping and self-cherishing ignorance, putting our own happiness and freedom before others’, which has brought about “a painful situation,” as Geshe Kelsang says, in all our countless lives.
The starting point of this meditation is: “Everyone is exactly like me. We all have the same wishes. I know their hearts.” We can practice it with our friends first, even just one friend, and then extend our contemplation to encompass more and more living beings.
What is life like for this person? We put ourselves in their shoes. This is empathy. If we don’t rush it but sit with this meditation, we will notice our heart starts to open. The first time I did this meditation was for my paternal grandmother, as explained in this article. It led to the liberating discovery that I could choose whom I love. I could choose my thoughts about people. It is not up to them whom I love, it is up to me. And this affection always makes me feel happy.
Through this meditation on equalizing self and others we come to understand what it is like for everyone in their hearts because they are just like me — they are as 3-dimensional as I am and have just as strong wishes for happiness and freedom. Far from being extras in the movie in which I play a starring role, they are all lead actors themselves.
Buddha’s advice on equalizing might even help us survive our relationships and/or prevent us killing our kids (jk. It’s just that a news alert popped up when I was writing this sentence, “Can your marriage survive the coronavirus?”)
What is the difference between me and anyone else, therefore? What makes me more worthy or deserving of freedom and happiness than anyone else in this house or anywhere else? Nothing. We are all exactly the same and completely and utterly equal. We all want the same things — to be happy and free. No one is better than anyone else. Putting ourselves first therefore doesn’t work because it is not based on a realistic vision. Something as dramatic as this pandemic can help us to see that.
I spoke to a nurse on the front lines who is not happy about the “non-compliant” or flippant people taking risks, not realizing they could bring this virus to others including their own friends and family – she told me that it feels like an insult to her sacrifices. This is why people are doing a good thing by staying at home and why we may as well make the most of it. We can start by reframing it as being “safe” at home and having the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and think deeply about where we want to go next individually and collectively.
As Madonna said it (from her bathtub as it happens, but why not, anything goes these days):
We are all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together.
She talked about this pandemic being the great equalizer (hence the bathtub I guess). I was thinking about that too when I saw that some of the late night comedy hosts are doing their shows from their couch or porch, filmed by their partners. Without the glitz and glamor of the showbiz, without the studio audience and the band, it felt no different to a Skype call I could have had with any number of amusing friends. We are all exactly the same, and to their credit the late night hosts seem to agree.
The masks reveal who we really are
How as individuals and as a society have we been viewing and treating other human beings who may not look exactly like us, but who upon closer examination obviously are us? As Seneca put it:
We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.
I don’t often quote Seneca, in fact this is a first; but I just read that quote in a thoughtful article about how many people are coming together to help each other all over the world, in ways big and small. In it, the author talks about the equalizing effect of the masks we are all wearing:
The mask also represents a world all in action at once,waves of the same sea, united against a common threat. When you put on a mask your features disappear, erasing the differences of skin color or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news. The masks work just as well whether you’re black, brown or white, Chinese, Italian, or Nigerian. What we are seeing now is something truly global in scale.
With equalizing, we recognize that everyone is a Me or an I. This includes every single human being. And, frankly, it also includes every single animal, who have just the same constant wish to be free from suffering and to be happy – as your cat will tell you loudly when you accidentally step on her tail. We would do well to recognize that all animals are part of our world, part of this whole, part of our body of life – and we depend on them as they do us. Do we usually pay much heed to their suffering? If we don’t, maybe we should.
We have to stop being cruel. Karmically our indifference, disdain, or cruelty is creating the causes for terrible times ahead. Word on the street is that pandemics come from our abuse of animals, and now, I’ve been thinking, here we are also locked in like billions of animals. What makes us so sure that these kinds of situations won’t deteriorate even more over time if we keep sowing careless and harmful intentions into our world?
Helping others makes us feel better
Would you say that deep in people’s core is the desire to be of service to others, to do something truly good from their hearts? Buddhists would say that the delusions get in the way, yet our hearts are naturally good. We are a bit like teenagers, or even children as Buddha would say, when it comes to selfless service to others. But the thing about children is that they have the potential to grow up. There is nothing wrong with any of us deep down, just a lack of knowledge and/or practice.
Good actions come from good intentions and lead to good outcomes. Many people, maybe all, find that helping others is deeply satisfying — far more so than just following our own selfish desires. As Shantideva succinctly puts it:
The childish work only for themselves, Whereas the Buddhas work only for others.
Just look at the difference between them.
Helping others is where it’s at — this is what Buddha, Jesus, and all other great spiritual leaders have always said. It’s also an observable fact and we already kind of know it – we just don’t always act by it. But we feel better when we do, which makes sense when we understand we are all cells in the same body of life. Here are some “real-life” examples:
“It feels good to be able to do something,” D’Antonio (a maker of masks) said. “Because you feel helpless in this whole thing.” Despite the fear, anxiety and heartache, rather than the normal stress response of flight or fight, we can tap into a natural “tend and befriend” impulse, as one psychologist put it rather well:
“It can actually help us cultivate well-being in the midst of this pandemic. It also spreads hope. There’s so much we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is to help somebody or offer some kindness or compassion. That is what the virus hasn’t touched, these innate capacities we have as humans.”
One person shopping for the elderly put it: “I think it’s really important in times of crisis, when people are doing something positive it does make you feel a little bit calmer and more in control. It certainly does me. And another: “I do think the act of giving just makes us feel better. It feels as though we’re doing something, we’re part of a collective effort.” And another: “I think we just felt panic never solves anything, let’s focus some of that energy on really helping the people in our community.”
At a loss as to what to do practically to help?
Even if we can’t make any grand gestures to help others because we can’t think of any, we can keep our friends, family, and elderly neighbors in our thoughts and reach out to them by phone or on Facetime, especially those whom we know are more isolated than usual. Shelters are crying out for people to foster cats and dogs right now; and I know from caring for the two I have that they are a helpful reminder that, however bad we have it in the human realm, it is still far better than being an animal.
And even if for whatever reason we cannot do anything practical at all right now, we should know that our mental actions are very powerful, in a karmic sense even more powerful than physical and verbal actions, and that our prayers help. The practice known as “taking and giving” is also a massively useful and beautiful practice, always giving us a way to help others; and you can read up how to do it in this free ebook, in the chapter Taking and Giving.
To summarize these last 4 articles written for the age of Corona, we are all in this together.
We see the “me” in each other through equalizing self and others, because we see everyone is Me.
Wesee all the others in me when we meditate on how we are composed of others, rather like a wave arising in an ocean is composed directly or indirectly of all the other waves — without others we do not exist. We all need each other and no one is more important than anyone else.
This global appearance of the virus is bringing that home. The more we use this time at home to tune into this wisdom, the bigger our heart will grow and the more our problems will shrink.
Last but not least, it’s immensely helpful to remember how everything is the same nature as our mind, like a dream or a reflection of a moon in a rippling lake. Through this we’ll see how, whenever we develop wisdom and compassion, we are already changing the make-up of our world because everything starts and ends in our minds. Avalokiteshvara, the Compassion Buddha, is known as “the most powerful one of all” because compassion is infinitely more powerful than the delusions of hate and attachment, it is an indestructible response to the way things are.
We identify with the gold nugget of our Buddha nature, not the dirt of the delusions. If we do this, it is not hard to get rid of the dirt – but if we are trying to get rid of the dirt while identifying with the dirt, we will get nowhere.
We identify also with our natural warmth (or our “instinctive compassion” as Queen Elizabeth referred to it the other day.)
We think that everyone is sitting around us – countless in number. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering just as I do. We can choose one person first, contemplate their life and wishes until our heart moves, and then expand this affection to others.
We understand that each one of them is exactly like us. It is only our delusions that are isolating us and cutting us off from others, as if we are a cell existing in a vacuum all on our own.
We are all equally cells in body of life, all parts of the same whole. Everyone is equally important and equally deserving of happiness and freedom. In this way, we develop love, concern, and compassion for all living beings.
If we like, why not, we can finish off by putting a Buddha on everyone’s crown. We can think, for example, that the compassion of all enlightened beings is appearing as Avalokiteshvara on their crowns, pouring blessings into them, healing their body and mind.
Over to you – what have you been up to during these unusual times?!
Once upon a time, about 3 weeks ago, when human beings roamed freely upon the Earth, two neighbors brushed right past each other without so much as a smile.
All that changed in early 2020. These are indeed more surreal times than most of us can probably remember, and immensely challenging for just about everybody; but a lot of people are being amazing and brave when it comes right down to it. Despite the physical distancing, they are finding ways to connect with one another and to support their families and neighbors in this time of crisis, with kind gestures being made across the world to combat the dislocation, isolation, and potential insanity being brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.
As I mentioned in this last article, people’s Buddha nature is shining. Not only do we owe a huge debt to the beautiful people on the frontlines of this battle, but people everywhere are trying hard to make a difference. Volunteers are making free deliveries. Sewing experts have been cranking out medical masks. Restaurants have been giving away food to employees, passers by, and the elderly. Individuals, including some children, are raising huge amounts of money for those in need and volunteering to run errands for high-risk people. Some are breaking into spontaneous song to cheer each other up from balconies, or making music on the Internet, including this beautiful offering:
Even from beyond the grave, poignantly, an 88-year-old man in North Manchester who died of the virus has asked friends and family to carry out acts of kindness in his memory rather than offer flowers.
If there is any silver lining to this crisis, it is that people are experiencing more empathy at the moment because we all perhaps realize, for a change, that we are in the same boat. For example, I read this:
“This is the first time lots of us have looked at shelves and thought actually I need something and I can’t have it, and so we’re better able to relate to people living in poverty who feel like that quite a lot of the time.”
A friend just texted me:
“The neighbors have been quite enjoyable lately … very kind and compassionate, offering whatever needed to get by, coming together, communal.”
Stories have been appearing of people currently embracing the values of kindness, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and patience over materialistic values where every man or woman is out for themselves. People are finding plenty of free ways to spread love and cheer, such as costumes, parodies, front-lawn jam sessions, and this chalked sign I just walked past on the sidewalk.
Money, reputation, and so on clearly do not buy happiness because external conditions can never be the true source of happiness, or meaning for that matter. They never have been and never will be; and, at times like this, it is more obvious.
Of course we need basic human conditions because we are human beings …
… but external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.
Cells in the same body of life
Peace and love are not some utopian fantasy, nor optional extras in our pursuit of happiness — they ARE our happiness.
Starting with a deeply encouraging understanding of our true nature, our potentially boundless good heart, Buddha revealed 84,000 methods that allow us to embrace and fully realize our Buddha nature. I plan on sharing a few of these to help us change our fundamental way of seeing ourselves and others, whether we are safe at home in lockdown or in the midst of the frightening overcrowded chaos of the hospitals. These simple considerations can help us become more loving, wise, and selfless, making both ourselves and others more peaceful and happy in the process.
We don’t always see so clearly how we are all completely interdependent like cells in the same body of life — distinct yet intimately bound up with others. There are two ways to understand this, both of which help us to develop empathy and love. One is that we are interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves, and the other is that in all the ways that count we are exactly the same.
We depend upon others for everything – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life (available as a free eBook here):
All the time our day-to-day needs are provided through the kindness of others. We brought nothing with us from our former life, yet as soon as we were born, we were given a home, food, clothes, and everything we needed – all provided through the kindness of others.
And nothing in that sense has changed since the day of our birth — all our day-to-day needs are still provided through the kindness of others. When we wander through aisles empty of toilet paper in the grocery store, we complain – but when those aisles are full, how often do we consider the incredible amount of people involved in inventing toilet paper, manufacturing it, transporting it, and stocking the shelves?
That is one small comfort of life, among others too numerous to count – so what about the plumbing, for a start, something we also take for granted until the plumber is too sick with the virus to sort out the blocked pipes. What about our life and health themselves – if this pandemic is showing us anything, it is the enormous debt we owe to those who have trained so long and work so hard to look after us when we are not well. Plus all the people who support them. Plus all the people who support them. And so on.
When the infrastructure starts to crumble, as it is rapidly doing — when health workers and computer specialists and food manufacturers and school teachers are not able to do their work — it is not hard to see how much we have been taking them for granted. Ask any parent! Even WordPress has been acting up since this all started, making me appreciate how much I depend on it (100%) to get these articles out.
Through the meditation on the kindness of others, we see how we are in every way completely bound up with other living beings – none of us can separate ourselves out.
Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Trying to split ourselves off from others is not realistic and so it doesn’t work:
It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do. The idea that it is possible to secure our own welfare while neglecting that of others, or even at the expense of others, is completely unrealistic.
If we sit with this image for a while and let it touch our heart, we naturally wish for the health and happiness of the entire body. All the other cells of this body make up our very infrastructure. If we started to hand back everything others have given us, within seconds there will be literally nothing left of us. Try doing it and see.
Every gesture connects us to the entire world
Every gesture we make and every step we take is evidence that we are all cells in the same body of life. If I lean over to pick up this glass of water, how many people are involved in that one gesture alone? The arm comes from my parents, for a start, plus all the food that comes from others. I had nothing to do with the invention, manufacturing, or delivery of that glass, yet without it the water would be all over the table. Only there wouldn’t be a table without others. Or water, for that matter.
I read a great book called “Thanks a Thousand”, where the author “decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe, transforms his life, and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” Well worth a read – far more uplifting than an hour of the news.
Others matter. That is what cherishing others mean – we think they matter, and that their happiness and freedom are important. So we try to make them happy and we try to do nothing to harm them because why would we harm the body of which we are a part?
The role of animals
This is also a really good time to remember not just our human but our billions of animal neighbors with whom we share this planet, who are also cells of this same body of life. We hate being made to stay inside even our own home – but we have been keeping animals trapped inside in alien cages in despicable conditions for decades for our own purposes with scant regard to how they feel.
As I read in an email about factory farming:
The COVID-19 crisis is concrete evidence of our interdependence. Our health and wellbeing is impacted by the health and wellbeing of others, including the animals who are raised for food.
Virtually every other recent pandemic threat—like swine flu H1N1 or bird flu H5N1—has been directly linked to factory farms. This is arguably why, while we are on the subject:
There is no other public health measure that could so dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic virus emerging as reforming industrial animal agriculture.
Public health measures start with a change of heart, and I hope that one thing this crisis might bring about is a more widespread understanding of how harming animals is really harming us human beings as well. This is both in the short term because it gives rise to a profoundly unhealthy way of life, as well as in the long term because of the awful karmic causes we are creating to experience similar conditions ourselves. It makes perfect sense for all of us to overcome both our selfish desires that harm animals and our senseless human exceptionalism.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were as responsive to being told to stop abusing animals for our own and others’ good as we are to being told to stay inside for our own and others’ good?
The health of this body
In a body, the health and happiness of one cell depends upon the health and happiness of the whole body and vice versa. It is never just about little old me. Putting ourselves first doesn’t help us or anyone else. If one rogue cell decides out of egotistical selfishness to do its own thing, maybe co-opting others to its selfish aims in return for favors … what would we call that?!
Cancer. Which in the process of destroying the body also destroys itself. No one wins.
Grasping at an independent self who is more important than all the others selves or Me’s leads to disaster for that self and for everyone else sooner or later. Self-cherishing both creates our suffering by leading to delusions and negative karma, and is the basis for our suffering because it makes our mind deluded and unpeaceful. And we can see why it doesn’t work if we understand that we are all equally cells in the body of life and therefore the welfare of the collective matters.
By caring for the whole, we are caring for the parts. By caring for all the parts, we are caring for the whole, which includes us. If we care for others our needs will sooner or later be met through creating the right karmic causes and keeping a peaceful, positive mind despite any difficulties. Everybody wins.
This virus is showing us our profound interconnectedness and requisite social obligations by in some ways forcing us to adopt ways of thinking and behaviors that transcend the individual and help everyone collectively, including us. Once it is all over, let’s hope these lessons remain learned and our society becomes far healthier and happier as a result.
Out of time for now, I will conclude this topic in the next article. Meantime, please share how are you are doing under lockdown, including anything you have found helpful.
How are you all coping with these uncertain and surreal times? I hope you’re able to resist binge-watching the news, and are taking at least some time out to relax your mind and feel the peace you have at your core. (Try this calming meditation for example.) As a friend put it:
The news should be 15 minutes information, 45 minutes prayer and meditation.
This person just called me from lockdown in Brooklyn. He says it is very noisy as the walls and ceilings are paper thin, but rather than focusing on the grass being greener elsewhere he has put on his noise-cancelling headphones and is appreciating his time alone. He did however spend 4 days depressed last week because his neighbor told him he should be feeling more freaked out, prompting him to check out every piece of news on the pandemic that he could find. Finally he concluded, “This isn’t helping anyone”, whereupon he decided to keep washing his hands, staying at home, and not hugging anyone, but also to keep relaxed and to keep working on his ideas for helping others. As a result, he’s been feeling “inspired and productive” all week, coming up with great ideas for his new TV show.
One day at a time
Personally, I am taking this one day at a time – it doesn’t help to rewind to how much easier and more innocent life seemed in the past (ie, 3 weeks ago) or fast forward to a possibly even grimmer dystopian future. Buddha’s wise teachings on impermanence are very helpful right now. Today, apart from washing my hands and staying at home, I can control one thing — and that is my mind and whether or not I choose to stay calm and care about others more than myself, including those risking themselves for the rest of us.
The new normal and the old normal
We may be feeling more than usually overwhelmed with dread, but this panicked state only complicates everything, including our relationships with the people around us – which is a problem if we are stuck inside the house with them!
It is worth bearing in mind that if we are in this cycle of impure life called “samsara,” we have been vulnerable to physical and mental sufferings of some form or another pretty much every day since beginningless time, and that we will be forever if we don’t do something radical and deep about it. It is just a bit more obvious for a lot of us at the moment, as if we have woken from a fairly comfortable dream to realize that things are not quite so fine after all.
This understanding of our existential predicament, far from freaking us out further, ironically helps us to find some mental balance and calm perspective. We are able to develop a light and peaceful wish for true and lasting mental freedom — a wish called “renunciation” — which we have always needed but don’t usually have. More on that here if you’re interested.
I read this today: “Massive swarms of locusts, one of which occupied an area more than three times the size of New York City, have devoured crops across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, leaving an estimated 20 million people at risk of famine.”
Yes, 20 million people could starve, and more locusts could be on their way. And there is such helplessness: “Farmers attempt to drive them away by clanging pots and pans.” Why is this only on page 16 of Time magazine?
“There have been many pandemics in the past and there will be in the future. The potential for this was always there because we are in contaminated life. The real problem is not this virus. The real problem is the self-grasping and self-cherishing that are the underlying causes producing an environment that will produce viruses, that will produce oppression, injustice, violence, war, and all that has been going on since beginningless time. Use this visceral feeling of aversion to contamination to develop insight into these precious minds [renunciation, compassion, and wisdom] that will enable us to liberate ourselves and others.”
And here is another calm quiet voice of reason:
As Geshe Kelsang said, there is no point dwelling on our own suffering unless we want to develop the liberating mind of renunciation or use it as an example of the suffering of others so that we can develop empathy and compassion.
So I want to keep sharing one or two Buddhist pieces of advice about how we can keep a calm mind and a loving heart in the time of COVID-19. Starting with love – for love is the great Protector, said Buddha.
With self-cherishing or selfishness we assume we’re more important than everyone else (despite all evidence to the contrary), hence dwelling in an exaggerated way on our own stuff, including all potential catastrophes. This is, to be honest, what overwhelms us, not the external situation, and definitely not our wisdom and love.
Check out this article for the difference between inner and outer problems, helpful to know right now. Talking of which, here is a quick purification practice for you. It doubles up as a video on how to wash our groceries properly to stop us getting COVID-19 😁 Yes, it takes a tedious while to wash them well, but the tedium is removed if we also use this time to solve not just the outer problem but the inner problem by purifying our mind. For example, we can think:
Just as I clean these items, may my mind be cleansed of all delusions, negativity, and suffering.
Shining the light
There are some astonishingly kind people out there.
I know I am not alone in feeling awed by those who are working in increasingly uncomfortable environments, risking their health and their lives for our sakes. Who are these incredible people and would I do that? I like to think I would, but would I?! We’ve been hearing some bad stories about the conditions of nurses and other hospital workers on the front lines without inadequate protection – overworked, overtired, hungry, and unsupported – even here in the wealthiest country in the world (where our complacent lack of preparedness hasn’t helped), let alone in other parts of the world. These heroes and heroines keep going because they care more about their patients than themselves – why else would they keep going? Why else wouldn’t they just go home and sit on the sofa, safe inside with their families, like the rest of us?
Some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. Due to the lack of medical staff to assist such a large number of patients, an Iranian doctor with the virus called Dr Shirin Rouhani, who was on IV, kept treating patients until her own last breath.
Pretty humbling. We all have Buddha nature – the potential for universal love, universal compassion – putting others before ourselves — and omniscient wisdom. Like a gold nugget encased in dirt, this innate good heart can never be sullied, even by the most egregious of our delusions (such as greed and selfishness). Every now and then our Buddha nature shines out strongly, and I think we are seeing that in many ways at the moment. It seems to me that there is more concern for fellow human beings, with less than the usual amount of discrimination, pettiness, and self-entitlement. I hope this lasts well beyond the pandemic.
I am not in Britain at the moment, but I read that since February 28, even Brexit — which was all anyone could think about for years — no longer looms so large. The battle lines drawn between the younger, metropolitan Britons on the one side versus the oldies on the other are now an anachronism. Elderly people are most at risk, and those of working age, in the NHS and other key professions, are there to try and save them. Everyone is in this together.
As I talk about here, for as long as reality exists, compassion and wisdom will always be the response; which means that it is impossible to destroy this gold nugget inside us. Anger, on the other hand, is a response to exaggerating others’ faults. I saw someone on Facebook going off on a diatribe about the toilet paper hoarders, for example, with the self-righteousness of anger – but people are not inherently evil toilet paper hoarders, they are just panicking.
“But people really are deluded!” — you may be protesting. “Look how crazily and selfishly some people are reacting!” True, some people’s behaviors are idiotic and dangerous. We can just as easily focus on that but, if we do, we should at least remember that people are not their delusions. As it says in the book Universal Compassion:
Buddhas never abandon, condemn, or get angry with living beings but, realizing that they are controlled by their deluded minds, feel only compassion for them. Cultivating the same attitude when someone becomes angry with us is one of the most profound ways of gaining peace for ourself and others.
Buddha’s advice is to relate persistently to the gold nugget in ourselves and in others. It is far easier to get rid of the dirt of our delusions if we are identified with being the gold nugget, and almost impossible if we are identified with the dirt. And if we identify others with their potential, we will bring out the best in each other.
More coming soon.
Meantime, I would love your feedback and suggestions in the comments below, including for any useful online resources you have found for keeping your meditation practice going at home.
Talking of which, here is one from Tharpa Publications (which has a streaming video embedded.) Don’t forget to tune into the increasing number of live-streaming classes and meditation prayers available from your nearest Center. And check out this worldwide streamed talk from Gen-la Dekyong on April 4th.
In this most recent article, we saw how to view others as kind to us, as necessary to us, so that we could love them.
But a question may arise, “How can I see people as kind when they are mean or unjust?”
This is the question that came up in my mind when I saw the footage of Philando Castile’s girlfriend being comforted by her child in the aftermath of his terrible shooting. As a friend said on Facebook:
If this doesn’t humanize the outrageous event, I don’t know what will.
The worst of it, it seems to me, is that this has been going on forever. So how to respond constructively, how to see the “kindness” in this situation? As someone else put it on Facebook:
One day I hope I can learn to react to things like this with genuine compassion, rather than it make my blood boil.
I have been wondering how Diamond Reynolds will explain to her little girl what happened. How would a Buddha explain it in such a way that he could help the child, perhaps saving her a lifetime of sadness, victimhood, and distrust?
It pretty much goes without saying, but needs to be said again and again anyway, that if this had been a white family the man would still be alive. This family are victims of the ignorance and prejudice of others. The cop shooter was a victim of his own ignorance and delusions, and he was also a victim of the age-old system that allows this discrimination to carry on.
It seems to me that when it comes to the 400-year-old history of racism in this country, Black or white we are all trapped in this corrupt system together. The sooner we realize that, and the sooner we pull aside the veil of ignoring, maybe the sooner the prejudice and complicit behaviors can end. As Martin Luther King Jr put it, the struggle against racial discrimination is
… not a struggle for ourselves alone, but it is a struggle to save the soul of America.
Our real problem is not the physical sickness, difficult relationship, or financial hardship that we might currently be experiencing, but our being trapped in samsara.
Whatever problem we are having, whether individually or collectively, we are having it because we are trapped in the prison of samsara, the cycle of impure life, by our delusions. If we are still in samsara, this means we are dominated by our bad habits of anger, selfishness, attachment, jealousy, etc, and above all by our ignorance. These are the source of all our negative thoughts and actions and of all our suffering experiences.
If we are in a prison, whatever problem we are having individually or collectively — whether with cold porridge, moldy surroundings, no money, or violent prison guards — the real problem is always that we are in prison in the first place.
And if we are in this prison of samsara, then even if some other prisoners seem to be having it worst than us at the moment, this is no cause for feeling superior or complacent. We are all in this together, lacking freedom, and we will have similar if not worse problems soon enough.
Delusions are our common enemy, the real enemy. It is essential that we separate people from their delusions. They are not their delusions, just temporarily controlled by them, as are we. Every living being is in fact kind, is even our mother from past lives; and our mother is never our enemy. In How to Transform Your Life, (available as a free ebook), Geshe Kelsang says:
It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being. Consequently, their love and compassion for sentient beings never diminish. Failing to make this distinction, we, on the other hand, are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind.
We are all slaves of our delusions together. They are like some master race enslaving us all, so there is power in opposing them together. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr:
When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.
World peace is possible
We need vision and hope based on reality — based on a realistic, helpful view. A Bodhisattva has huge vision, wishing to end all suffering everywhere with the understanding that everyone has the potential to be suffering-free. Is this what MLK Jr meant when he said:
I have seen the promised land.
We need to know and believe that an alternative way of thinking and living is possible. That world peace is possible. Geshe Kelsang said in 2009:
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.
Everyone, Buddhist or not Buddhist, can apply these practical teaching on blaming the delusions, not each other, for our suffering. If enough people follow this simple but profound view, world peace is a possibility.
Does this view help me consider the situation with more compassion, for a start? Yes, it does. It increases my wish to help everyone caught up in that situation become deeply free, not just from this horror but from all suffering.
More importantly, could Diamond’s little girl benefit from this idea? I believe so. I believe it could help empower her and give her peace if she took it to heart. I believe it could help the cop, too, to see the error of his ways. And it could help everyone trapped in the system see that it doesn’t have to be like this, that there is another way out of this mess for all of us.
Temporarily we can be working to improve these particular situations by changing our minds and changing our society. Ultimately we can be working to break everyone out of samsara’s prison altogether. And can we not be doing all this at the same time?
An idea whose time has come
Our modern age is a time of momentous and lightning-fast change. It seems as though a lot of things are going downhill fast, but this rapid change can also open doorways in people’s minds as they struggle to figure out another, better way to be, given that the old certainties are no longer working.
What MLK Jr said some decades ago seems even more the case than ever:
Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.
Given that, I believe that Buddhism is an idea whose time has come.
I have been thinking recently of how Buddha Shakyamuni himself appeared in India at a time of great social change, 2500 years ago. There was a lot of population upheaval from the rural areas to the towns, and a chance to shake things up a bit – and with his teachings on the equality and interdependence of all things, as well as his example of teaching, ordaining, and treating princes and paupers alike, Buddha upheaved the caste system.
I submit that Buddha’s teachings would be equally capable of ending racism, and the ignorance and fear and greed that underlie it.
I found this interesting quote the other day by a Sri Lankan monk, Walpola Rahula, who said in 1978:
Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom.
Buddhism is all about liberation from suffering. Mainly this means getting ourselves and everyone else out of samsara permanently. But this doesn’t mean that we all have to GO somewhere — samsara and liberation are mere reflections of our minds. We need to create this alternate peaceful liberated reality right here and right now by purifying our minds and our actions.
What is modern Buddhism if not applying the ideas of Buddhism to the problems of the modern world? In the modern world, we are not sequestered in caves and monasteries, as were the practitioners in Tibet. In this world we are all interconnected and interdependent like never before, and we ignore this fact at our peril. Far better to take advantage of it to spread the ideas of wisdom and compassion to bring about genuine, lasting improvement.
So, I am asking you, how are we going to get these ideas, such as the one above, out there?!
One way to turn on the faucet of love is by remembering how much we need others in order to practice love, compassion, generosity, and everything else that can fulfill our deepest wish for lasting happiness. Others are the gift that keeps on giving.
What makes something precious or valuable? For example, if you were offered the choice of a diamond or a bone, which would you choose? Obvious, perhaps. But what would really get your dog’s tail wagging? This example shows that preciousness doesn’t exist from the side of the object but depends on our needs and wishes. So, as it says in New Eight Steps to Happiness:
For someone whose main wish is to achieve the spiritual realizations of love, compassion, bodhichitta, and great enlightenment, living beings are more precious than a universe filled with diamonds or even wish-granting jewels.
The first step in this love practice, therefore, is really wanting those spiritual realizations. And why would we want them? Because we want to be happy all the time. “This day after day of unadulterated bliss is driving me crazy”, said no one ever.
But, although we want ongoing or permanent happiness, for as long as we associate happiness with stuff outside ourselves we settle instead for little happiness hits. Bit of food here, bit of sleep there, watching, talking, jobbing, texting, vacationing, etc. Sometimes things can work out well, but even then there’s usually still some underlying tension and frustration because the cause of happiness is perceived as outside of us so we have to keep clinging onto it for dear life. Plus it always goes away sooner or later.
In any event, for this love meditation to work, we can conclude that there is no guaranteed pure or lasting cause of happiness other than Dharma, ie, purifying and transforming our minds to increase our mental peace, preferably shooting for the supreme peace of enlightenment.
In the recent Kadampa Spring Festival, Gen-la Jampa taught the beautiful method to develop affectionate love that comes from Shantideva and also appears in the Oral Instructionsof the Mahamudra, where you can read it. I thought I’d summarize the main steps. As you go through them you can ask yourself, “Do I agree? Is this true for me?”
We all want real, lasting happiness. See above.
We human beings now have the opportunity to gain this — the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment — because we have met the path to enlightenment.
This path is any spiritual realization motivated by compassion for all living beings. This can be anything, including giving, ethics, helping others, studying, meditating, etc.
The only gateway to this path is therefore universal compassion.
How are we going to get universal compassion? Only by relying on all living beings in the universe as the objects of our compassion.
Therefore, they are very kind. Without them, even if we met Buddha directly we would not have the opportunity to attain enlightenment. As Shantideva says, they are as kind as Buddhas. They are the same as Buddhas in the opportunity they give us for attaining enlightenment, and so are worthy of the same respect.
So we can conclude:
Each and every living being is supremely precious and kind for me because they give me the supreme happiness of enlightenment – the ultimate goal of human life.
Thinking in this way we will generate a warm heart and a feeling of being close to all living beings without exception, and we can meditate on this affectionate love. Nice!
Competitors or invaluable?
If we want the pleasures of samsara, Gen-la Jampa said, it is hard to see others as kind because we are in competition with them. But if we want enlightenment, then each and every one of them is invaluable, more so than a universe of jewels, which in any case could never protect us from suffering or give us lasting happiness.
And we need them all, every single one. They are all equally beneficial, equally objects of love and compassion. And the objectionable ones are arguably the kindest or most beneficial, given that they are the causes of much needed patience.
The more we want worldly attainments, the more others will be the sources of our attachment or annoyance. The more we want spiritual attainments, the more valuable others will become for us. So, which is it to be?!
In our daily life, we can see what we actually want most by watching our minds to see how we are finding others — irritating or lovely. I will go first.
As I write this, there is a chubby little girl across the aisle from me on the supposedly Quiet carriage of this Virgin train, who is chattering loudly and singing songs about dinosaurs, despite her dad shushing her. She is also offering her dad ridiculous theories about fairies, and he, with his eyes closed and clearly trying to nap, is nodding his head absently. And I have the uncharitable thought, “What happened to that old adage about children should be seen but not heard?! After all, didn’t I deliberately choose the Quiet carriage so I could meditate on love & stuff uninterrupted?!!” But then her patient dad laughed at something she said, and she was delighted, and suddenly it was the sweetest scene. This is because he cherishes her and doesn’t find her at all annoying. So I don’t have to either, especially as I need her in order to get enlightened; and now I really quite like her.
Earlier, in a social setting I could not escape, I found myself landed with someone I’ve never had much in common with, who indeed has a diametrically opposed way of seeing the world. Was I bored and judgmental, or was I happy to have this opportunity to love and understand them?!
And even earlier, I was trying to give someone some really great advice, but they just kept talking and didn’t hear a word I was saying. Did I feel attachment to being heard, “They should be listening to me! Don’t they realize how much I know what I’m talking about here?!” Or was I happy to have the opportunity to just cherish them by listening?!
There was not enough rice left for everyone in the food caravan at the Festival, so as I watched someone in the line before me have the last scoop, was I jealous or happy for them?
Someone else was telling me about how much the National Health Service has deteriorated in Britain and how demoralized the doctors and nurses are. Did I get into self-preoccupation mode: “Oh no, who is going to look after my parents, and indeed even me if I ever want to come back to England for the free healthcare?” … or did I think about everyone concerned and increase my peaceful, compassionate wish to liberate all living beings from their sickness forever by becoming enlightened?
With these teachings fresh in my mind, dear reader, you’ll be relieved to hear that I was pretty much able to do the right thing on each of these occasions 😋
One useful question would really seem to be, “What am I most interested in? What do I want?” This seems to entirely determine whether I have a good time with others or see them as surplus to requirements or even an obstacle in my way.
So, encouraged by my experiments, I have decided that when I meet people I’m going to think — and from my heart not my head ‘cos it works — “I am going to get enlightened both thanks to you and for the sake of you.”
Last Monday I found myself at Fort Funston in San Fran, had that vast beach to myself again, just like the old days when I lived there; so I sat on a rock and watched the ocean. I love contemplating waves — they lead me into the deep noumenal (for want of a better word) and vast phenomenal relationships between everything and everyone — where we all come from and where we all disappear, and how not even an atom of us exists without depending upon every other atom.
Going deep, I think of how I arise like a wave from the water of my root mind at my heart — my true home — every lifetime and every day. And I dissolve back into it every time I fall asleep, and every time I die. As Mahasiddha Saraha says:
All phenomena are manifestations of the continually abiding mind. They arise from that mind just as waves arise from an ocean. ~ Great Treasury of Merit, page 192
Going deeper, I consider how I arise from the bliss and emptiness of my root mind.
And going even deeper, I consider how that bliss and emptiness is not other than the bliss and emptiness of enlightenment. Part human, part divine!
Going vast or wide, I like to consider that I am arising from bliss and emptiness, which is cosmic enough, but so is everyone else! Every sentient being, ie, everyone with a mind — including humans, mice, and the smallest ants — arises like a wave from the ocean of the root or clear light mind.
Our minds are not inherently separate so, although we each have our own mental continuum, at a deep level, at the level of clear light — where all mistaken, dualistic appearances have subsided — we are all of one blissful taste. It is as though we are all equally water – so drawing hard and fast distinctions between self and other is false and futile, like trying to draw lines in the ocean.
Once arisen, also, each wave is still not in the least independent of all the other waves. We exist in relationship, as relationship, not in and of ourselves. A wave in an ocean may put up her watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way she is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but the truth is that this wave is made up of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level (physical, emotional, or spiritual) without others, we are already in a symbiotic, dependent relationship with them all.
The Buddhist meditation on the kindness of others shows how every atom of our being depends upon others and how they in turn are affected by everything we do.
I am because we are. We are because I am.
Wisdom and compassion
In every moment, therefore, we are like a wave both arising from the water of the root mind and existing only in relationship to every other wave-like being. We are never separated from others, and never other than the ocean of reality itself.
All waves are enjoyable when we are identifying with the ocean, and all living beings are part of us when we stop grasping at the self-identity of self and others, to realize we’re all equally waves.
Our true home is bliss and emptiness; we just haven’t realized it yet. We exist only in relationship to others; we just haven’t realized it yet. Getting started on this wisdom and compassion is spreading the two wings that will fly us to enlightenment – an enlightenment that will never be found outside our own hearts, yet that pervades all reality.
Be the ocean
Realizing our true nature makes us whole and sets us free. And we don’t have to go anywhere to seek our true nature any more than a wave has to go looking for the sea.
So, drop into your heart whenever you can. Buddha is there waiting, if you like. (You can also start with him or her in front of you, then let him dissolve through your crown to your heart.) Feel the spaciousness and peace of your own root mind. Remember emptiness. Go for refuge in this experience. Be the ocean. Know that we all equally arise from and return to it.
I find this deeply enjoyable to contemplate! Your comments are most welcome.
During an idyllic mountain retreat on the emptiness of the mind not long ago, we spent all weekend looking for our mind and failing to find it; and then I drove home. On the way I picked up a watery coffee in a garage, thought, “I guess I should just practice contentment with this horrible coffee”, but then a few miles down the road was magnetically drawn into a passing Starbucks against my will. This was in a distant mountain town called, rather charmingly, Loveland.
A first-world problem
As it happens, giving into my attachment like that might have been a mistake. I walked from the car to the coffee shop, ordered my flat white, oh yeah!, and then glanced down at my hands. They were holding a credit card, but that was all.
I looked at my empty hands and thought “Oh dear, help!” The barista looked at me staring strangely at my empty hands and thought “That is a mad woman.” She just saw empty hands. But I saw a very significant object, the lack of car keys.
A very meaningful absence
New terminology alert! Bear with me for a moment …
Emptiness is also known as a “non-affirming negative phenomenon”. It is the mere absence of inherent existence or, to put it another way, the mere absence of the things we normally see. It is “non-affirming” because it does not affirm any other phenomenon.
For example, if I tell you, “My cousin is not female”, that would be called an “affirming negative phenomenon” as the object you perceive is the lack of my cousin being female with the implied observation that my cousin is male. (It is called a “negative phenomenon” not because it is bad, by the way, but because you have to negate something else to get to it, namely a female cousin).
But if I say, “There is no elephant in this room”, all that brings to mind is the lack of an elephant in this room, it does not imply there is a bishop, for example, here instead. You’re just left looking at a mere lack or absence of an elephant in this room, without any other object being implied or affirmed in its place.
Some absences or lacks can be quite significant. If you park your car, do some shopping, and then go back to the parking lot with heavy bags to find an empty space where your car was, what are you seeing? Are you seeing an empty space or are you seeing a lack of car? A passer by will be seeing just an empty space, but you will be freaking out because what you are seeing is a very meaningful absence. Not dissimilar to the absence of car keys in my hand.
This sounds a bit technical, I know, but it is actually exceedingly helpful to know that “emptiness” (also known as “selflessness”) is just a mere lack of something. What exactly? Emptiness is the mere lack of everything we have ever thought existed! Knowing this lack is quite significant, to be honest – it is profound knowledge that will free our mind if we become familiar with it.
Why? Well, you know that thing you are worried about? It’s not there. That person you are so hung up on? They are not there. That body which feels sick, not there. The politics you are so mad at, not there. They only appear to be really there because of our ignorance. Everything exists in a state of freedom. Everything is mere appearance to our mind with no substantiality, nothing behind the appearance. So, change your mind, change your world.
It takes time to get a direct or non-conceptual realization of emptiness, at which point all our problems are over forever; but even a slight taste gives us a liberating sense of possibility.
Centered in the solution
After this recent article my dad said: “Still trying to understand what the following means. ‘Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution.’”
What is the solution? The simple answer is that it is the realization that everything depends upon the mind, so change the mind and the worry goes away. We already know this a bit because when we are able to calm down and get perspective, for example by taking a few minutes out to breathe and connect to the peace in our heart, and perhaps connect to blessings, the situation always seems to improve, become manageable. This means not just that our perception of the situation improves, but the situation itself improves, because there is no situation outside of our perception of it, as explained here.
At its most profound, the solution is realizing emptiness, the mere absence of the things we normally perceive. Because the things we normally perceive are not there at all – which is a meaningful non-affirming negative or absence — we don’t have to get upset, worried, anxious, angry, etc., on our own or others’ behalf, any more than we have to get upset in a dream, if we only knew we were dreaming. For when we wake up, we realize that the situation that seems to be so real is not there — it is mere appearance with no existence from its own side. This doesn’t mean that situations, whether asleep or awake, don’t exist at all, but it does mean they exist in a state of fluidity and freedom, and that just by changing our thoughts we will change the situation.
My dad also asked what was mean by Nagarjuna’s quote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You know that scene in Kung Fu Panda where Po defeats Tai Lung after a lot of tedious fist fighting. They are fighting each other “out there” to begin with — pretty tiring and tiresome if you ask me — but then with a little twist of Po’s finger, the Wuxi finger hold, everything is dissolved away in all directions. I find that a nice visual for the power of realizing that everything is empty and therefore depends entirely upon our mind, meaning we can change everything effortlessly and immediately if only we realize this.
Does that answer your questions, Dad? If not, let me know 😉
That’s why as soon as we realize we are mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, like Buddha Heruka, we can send light rays out to purify and transform each and every living being instantaneously and effortlessly. For they are not outside the mind. (And I may as well point out that we are not outside our mind either, and nor is our mind outside our mind – a subject for another day.)
Emptiness — the mere lack of the things we normally perceive — can be accessed through searching for things with wisdom, through reasoning our way into reality in the traditional meditation on emptiness. You can read how to do this search in Transform Your Life and other books, and I’ll try to come back to it later if I live long enough.
Back to my predicament …
Back to my predicament in Loveland… Well, I ran out to look for the car keys and, dear reader, I had parked all of 100 feet away but they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere — even when another young barista decided to come out and help me comb the grass for them. So then, in my usual turn-to when I lose something, I started saying Tara mantras, requesting her help. Immediately a charming man appeared and, hearing of my predicament, helped me look and then said he’d stay and call people for me.
Because of course I had left everything in the locked car, including my phone. And including, as it happened, every single telephone number that I might ever have use for. That is one moral of this tale. Failing to dredge up even one phone number from my computer-addled mind, we tried emailing the only two emails I could remember. To no avail. We stood there for a while, me foolishly, both wondering, and then a cop showed up randomly.
Happened they knew each other. And then the cop started googling for break-in companies because he said he was not allowed to break into cars himself any more. But then Tara blessed his mind or something, for he changed his mind, “Hang on, I think I have a colleague who will break in for us.” (Yes, he really said “us”.) So I then had one charming man and half the Loveland police department trying to solve my problem, and lo and behold they did break safely into the car. Whereupon I was able to call one of my usual guardian angels, who appeared a mere 45 minutes later with a spare set of keys. During which 45 minutes I managed to memorize all of 3 phone numbers, including my own, for future eventualities. I wonder if I still remember them …
Moral of the tale
Okay, what was all that about? That mini-first-world panic went to demonstrate:
(1) A great example of a meaningful absence.
(2) The kindness of strangers and how we ALWAYS depend on others, it’s just that we can forget that when seemingly ensconced in our comfort zone cocoons/cars.
(3) An external problem doesn’t have to lead to an internal problem and can even be a source of happiness. For I was happier after all this happened then before it started, and I was already in a great mood from the retreat. I could not help but feel the warm fuzzies due to those 5 Lovelandy men spending their Monday afternoon helping me. And in another twist there was a huge thunderstorm while I was waiting in the car, but instead of being a problem it actually cleaned the car beautifully from the red sticky dust of the unpaved mountain roads.
(If my skin had been a different color it may [or may not] have been a different story – I was conscious of that too; and it gave me some more ideas for an article I have been wanting to write on the subject of discrimination.)
More articles on the emptiness of the mind coming up soonish. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.
As mentioned in the last article, giving thanks, or being grateful, is an effective way to feel good. It can also help us help others, inspiring us to repay kindness instead of taking it for granted, ignoring it, and/or focusing on others’ faults.
And gratitude is not something we either have or don’t have – we can deliberately cultivate it until it becomes a strong, natural habit that inspires us every day.
For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. ~New York Times, 11/22/2015
Buddhism can help us feel grateful on a large life-altering scale. The entire Lamrim, or stages of the path, teaches umpteen reasons for feeling lucky and grateful, and not just small ones either — some of these reasons are existentially cosmic, or cosmically existential, if you know what I mean.
Precious human life
It starts with our precious human life, realizing what we have compared with the sheer enormity of suffering of people in the lower realms right now, such as Butters, who is not only a small cat with zero control over his life (or bowels at the moment) but who also has to be jabbed with a needle twice a day to overcome his nausea. Or the flood of scared, exhausted refugees. Or the bundled up, unwashed man who keeps trying to play Frisbee with himself in the snowy park, muttering and shaking his head as he yet again walks after it to pick it up. Or …, or …, or …? Or even compared just with those who don’t know at all how to make themselves or the friends around them happy, even though that is all they have ever wanted?
We have the option in this life to attempt whatever we want, spiritually speaking, including developing bodhichitta and becoming a Buddha. There’s a great story in Meaningful to Behold about a one-legged man who falls off a cliff on to the back of a wild horse. As the horse gallops off, the villagers yell at him to get off, but, knowing this horse ride is an almost impossibly rare opportunity, he replies: “Not on your life!”
In Buddhism, the precursor meditation to developing gratitude and love for all living beings as our mothers is recognizing that they are all our mothers. The other day I overheard someone after receiving his first teaching on this: “That’s awesome!” he said, nodding his head a lot and smiling. Pause, then: “But life would be so much fun then, if we thought that. Where would the suffering be?” Another pause, before he answered his own question. “I guess we’re all still experiencing suffering and I’d want to get us ALL out.” Such confidence he had at that moment to deal with suffering, coming from a feeling of being whole and connected, not from a feeling of being bereft and helpless.
Waves on an ocean
We receive kindness from everyone every day – we are like waves in an ocean. A wave in an ocean may put up his watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way he is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but if we scratch beneath the surface we can understand that this wave is made up entirely of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level without others, we owe them everything, we are already in a symbiotic relationship with them all. Check out Eight Steps to Happiness for the meditation.
Takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.
Contemplating our interdependence naturally leads to gratitude and a feeling of richness and completeness – after all, as a wave, you have all the other waves in you already, you are missing nothing. (Did you know, by the way, that the word “whole” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “entire, unhurt, healthy”?)
3 reasons to feel good
Next time you’re feeling low you could check and see if you are assuming anything along the following lines: “Of course, the causes of my depression are out there in my lost friendship, my dead-end job, or my miserable life! It’s obvious. Plus, although I’m trying to be a happy Buddhist, what about all that endless suffering I keep hearing about! I’m doomed! I can’t handle all this. And look at everyone else having so much fun without me!”
By the way, I know this is true (taken from that same article today in the New York Times):
For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.
But I still think it is worth the effort to cultivate gratitude, and maybe we only need to think of 3 things — just 3 will do — that we can be grateful for to open that door.
Maybe pick from these 3 categories (just a suggestion, as is of course everything else you read on here.) Any order will do.
My potential.I do already have all the seeds for great happiness and freedom within. My Buddha nature is indestructible. It is there, I just have to re-access it and give myself a break from focusing on all that’s wrong with me, that limited painful self.
Something existential/big picture of our life. For example, I have a precious human life! That’s about as likely as a blind turtle managing to stick its head through a golden yoke that is floating on an immense ocean, but I’ve managed it. Or, another example, I have found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and/or a Spiritual Guide who can take me wherever I want to go! Or, another example, others are immensely kind all the time in every way. No wonder Geshe Kelsang keeps saying, “How fortunate we are.”
Something in our daily life.For example, today I get to be indoors and warm even though it is snowing out there, and the trees are beautiful in the Fall light, and I’ll be able to hang out with some lovely people, and … whatever, just start counting your blessings however you like, big or small, and see where you end up.
Thinking about these things, hopefully we’ll feel gratitude, we’ll feel lucky. And I reckon we are only as lucky as we feel.
We can then think, if we like: “How come I have all these things?” They pretty much all come from others. In that way we’ll feel even more thankful, and even better.
As the same NYT article says:
It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
Is no news good news?
“No news is good news,” we say, maybe because we do so want things to stay predictable and our boat not to be rocked. However, as everything is impermanent, everything is news, in that everything is new every moment. There’s a Kadampa rejoicing group on Facebook where people just share things to feel good about – it is all news, but sometimes it lifts the heart. If we take the time to spell out the good stuff in our lives, we will feel gratitude. And we will naturally want to share it with others.
Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude.
I like his anecdote:
I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.
Can gratitude help prevent worry?
Our thoughts are not fixed and we can re-arrange them to our advantage. I find I am having to do that today as the foster kitten Butters is really very sickly. He has transformed from a bouncy butterball into a skinny little thing weighing less than a pound, just lying there listlessly. I can (1) uselessly worry that he’s going to die etc, which helps neither of us; or (2) feel grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to cherish someone else for a change, even when they are pooping over everything. I’ve been doing #2 as much as I can, and can report a considerable difference in terms of peace of mind.*
Try counting them
Finally, here’s another method I use to feel good. I don’t know if it’ll work for you but feel free to give it a try. Love is known as “the great protector” — it always protects us from mental pain and makes us happy, so the more of it the better. If you could wave a magic wand and make people happy, who would they be? Count them all. Think about them a bit. Then, as they feel the same about their friends and relatives, wave your magic wand for their people as well. And so on. And then, if this is going well, you might find it pretty easy to feel quite spontaneously grateful for just how much opportunity you have to love others, grateful for just how many people there are to love. Seriously. This can work!
Heartburn or heartwarm?!
Thanksgiving, when this article was originally written, is the official day to give thanks in the United States. It can be an excuse to slaughter defenseless turkeys, get indigestion, and argue with relatives, or it can be a heartwarming reminder of our good fortune. What would happen, do you think, if 300 million people stopped blaming & complaining for a whole day, and instead focused with gratitude on what we have?
This article is of course by no means exhaustive about what we have to feel grateful about, so please add your ideas to the comments.
*Update on Butters
He died in my arms at 2am on 11/25. Many people were kind enough to pray for him, including Venerable Geshe-la. May all living beings be loved like Butters.