Living beings have no faults

Guest article co-written in Arizona by one Black and one white Kadampa. 

Do you sometimes feel that the problems of our world are insurmountable? We feel confused about the way forward. What are the solutions, how can we effect change, and how can we effect it quickly? Because we need to make some changes now.

goodnessAlthough it can appear that the problems of our self and of our world are overwhelming, we can know from our own direct experience that things change so fast. Ven Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:

If everyone in the world were to practice cherishing each other, all the problems of our world would be solved in just a few years.

This could happen if we all practiced love because love has such extraordinary power. Things can change dramatically in a very short amount of time. This is not a platitude; this is the truth. Why? The problems in our world have arisen because we do not practice love for one another. So, if we do the opposite, we get a new and different result and our problems will quickly disappear. We need to practice cherishing love and we need to do it now, not later.

The moment is calling us

I think that’s what this historic moment is calling us all to do. The future is now. From an ordinary point of view, if we think, “later,” what is the future? Fantasy. Some idealized vision. We need to bring the future into the present moment. That means that we can try our very best to practice love now, to practice powerful compassion now, to be wise now, to be patient now. Not later — we don’t need it later. We need it now. If we practice love, patience and wisdom right now, then we will see different results right now, and we will bring that future into the present moment.

The solution to the problems of our world is grounded in the transformation of our mind because if we change our mind, we change everything. This is Buddha’s essential teaching. If we change our mind, we change our world because what we see or experience exists in relationship to our mind.

linking hands

This isn’t a statement to gaslight you and your reality, but to show that our mind has extraordinary power; so let’s harness thatcreative power our mind has to create good, to create peace, to hold onto the virtues of love, wisdom, truth, and patience, which are so necessary for us. We can take hold of the solution right now.

Change minds, change (inter)actions

When we look at what’s going on in our world, we automatically go to changing things. I’m not saying we shouldn’t change things — things need to be changed — but we sometimes neglect the understanding that if we change our mind then the quality of our actions changes. If we change what we feel and believe about others then the quality of our interactions changes. Thus, the way we go about making change is dramatically different because what we are bringing to it is not ordinary.

It is a challenge to think about changing our mind, to look within ourself and to take personal responsibility, to say “I’m going to be part of the solution and it starts within my mind.” We can rise to this challenge in a very balanced way, addressing both the outer problems and the mind.

Buddha taught that because our mind creates the world — our experience, our emotions, our actions. Our mind is so powerful and mental actions are hundreds of times more powerful than physical and verbal actions, as Genla Dekyong explained two days ago during the US Spring Festival.

In this video above, you can see the moment Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:

Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all of our enemies.

If we have a powerful mind of love and we see love as real power, and we develop that stably within our heart, we would have no personal enemies. Yet we would have extraordinary power to do good things for others, and to move through the challenge, the hatred, the obstacles, unwaveringly. We are beings with so much power. We need to find it, claim it, take it back. And we can do so through rising to the spiritual challenge and taking these methods to heart.

What does world peace mean?

Buddha Shakyamuni dedicated all his activities to the benefit of all living beings. Similarly, the teachings of this tradition, called the New Kadampa Tradition, are dedicated to world peace. That is the vision of our world now. It’s not the vision of our world sometime later. We have built these temples, established these Centers for this world now as well as for the future, but also for our future, now.

Another way of looking at world peace is that we’re working on developing communities and societies that are founded in truth as opposed to deception; founded in love as now thenopposed to self-interest; founded in wisdom as opposed to ignorance. This is world peace. Buddhists need to think about this. We talk about what’s called, “the Pure Land” as if it’s some future fantasy; but the Pure Land can be now, and if our compassion is strong, powerful, passionate, then we will bring that into reality very soon.

What is the Mahayana?

The nature of Buddha’s teachings is compassion — and also wisdom that overcomes ignorance. The teachings of modern Kadampa Buddhism are part of what is called, “the Mahayana.” “Maha” is a Sanskrit word that means “great” and “yana” means “vehicle” — “Great Vehicle.” It refers to the huge scope of our motivation that we can develop through practicing these teachings. This means that we can develop great compassion, which is universal compassion. This means that we don’t leave anybody out. These teachings, this Great Vehicle, is a vehicle that takes everyone out of the ocean of suffering.

The Mahayana asks us to develop this great compassion. It is a big goal, but a goal worth pursuing; and it is something that we can all accomplish. Why can we accomplish this pure, altruistic mind of the Great Vehicle, of great love, empathy, and eventually great compassion? Because it is our nature. Our nature as sentient beings is essentially good. We essentially have a heart of gold. Right now it is a gold nugget in dirt, but who we really are, what the nature of our mind really is, is love. Truth. Kindness. Compassion. Since these qualities are all part of our pure nature, we can accomplish this great scope of our vision and intention. We can access these qualities in meditation and, if we can enjoy the peace within and be it, then we will gain real confidence in who we actually are.

Our Buddha nature

If we can do this, we can develop confidence and even faith in who others really are too. I degenerate vs Buddha naturebelieve this is the starting point for this journey to ending all suffering for all beings. It starts in recognizing what we call our Buddha nature, our compassionate seed of enlightenment. Bringing about the end of our own personal and collective suffering necessitates this faith in ourself personally, and in all of us collectively. This is logical.

What’s the danger of not really relating to our Buddha nature as the essential quality of ourself and others? When we see others and ourself thinking, saying, and doing harmful things, then we will become discouraged. Angry. Ashamed. If we don’t relate to our essence and have faith in that as who we really are, then we get sucked into the drama and negativity because we’ve just lost sight of our own and others’ pure nature and potential.

We’ve lost our faith in each other, in our common humanity and so then we just descend into fighting, arguments, and destruction. equal rights
We need to work on developing faith in our common goodness. We know how powerful beliefs are. They guide all of our actions. Everything that we do and say comes from our beliefs, so what we believe about ourself and others is the foundation of how we live. Therefore, what we believe, what we have faith in, is power. It’s real power.

There’s nothing wrong with sentient beings

Therefore, how do we develop faith or confidence in our nature being essentially good? In How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says:

Although sentient beings’ minds are filled with delusions, sentient beings themselves are not faulty. We say that sea water is salty but in fact it is the salt in the water that makes it salty.

This is exactly like our mind. Our mind is like pure, clear water. It just has salt in it. On the one hand, we think that the water is contaminated. On the other hand, we think, “But we can make it good.” And essentially it is good because the contamination, the salt, is temporary.

Similarly, all the faults we see in people are actually the faults of their delusions, not of the people themselves. The fault is the salt, not the water, so people are like pure water, pure in essence. They are good, but what makes them salty? Delusions. We are not our delusions — but we are often controlled by them.

Delusions are part of the characteristics of a person’s mind, not of the person. Since we can never find faults in sentient beings themselves, we can say in this respect sentient beings are like Buddhas.

Since enlightened beings are people who have purified their minds, they have only love and wisdom, constantly and spontaneously. That’s a simple way of understanding what is  an enlightened being. Therefore, they benefit everybody with no concern for themselves and they’re always peaceful and happy. They’re free.

We are like enlightened beings already because our essential nature is like pure, clear water. Our essential nature is love and wisdom. It’s just that we’ve got the salt of delusions that we need to remove. You and I and every sentient being has Buddha nature, we’re almost enlightened already. We’re so close.

What do we relate to? Unfortunately, the salt. “There’s a whole glass of water here, but all I see is salt.” We forget that actually it’s pure water, just clouded over. We’re just mistaking who we are. We have mistaken appearance and beliefs. We’re not seeing the truth and it’s this mistaken perception of ourself and others — which is a projection of the mind — that traps us into believing something that’s not true. Therefore, we get angry and we harm each other. However, our root mind is completely pure.

lightningAnother example is that it is like blue sky, and our delusions and all other conceptions are like clouds that temporarily arise. We know there are storms in the sky. There are dark clouds and all of a sudden it looks ominous. However, so quickly the weather changes, and then there’s blue sky for days and days.

The mind itself is pure like sky. And the delusions – our ignorance, anger, hatred, shame – these are just dark clouds. Not only are they not the sky, but they do not destroy the sky. They’re temporary, only moving through.

Therefore, living beings have no faults. If we can apply this correct belief to ourself, have faith in ourself, and really understand this logical way of thinking, we will have faith in other people too. How could it be that we ourselves are essentially pure while a whole lot of other people are not?! I don’t think that logic works. Every living being’s mind is equally pure.

Start from your blissful clear light mind

We have deep within us what’s called our root mind, our consciousness at our heart. It’s the root because it’s the source from which all our other minds develop. This heart-based blue skymind has a beautiful name, “clear light.” Within Buddha’s teachings, we are taught that the deepest level of our mind, its nature, is always bliss, always peace.

When we do even a little breathing meditation, we experience a new level of peace. And the more that we meditate, the more peace we find. If the nature of our mind were not peaceful, then what we’d actually find would be just more and more layers of junk. We’d just go deeper and deeper into confusion and negativity. However, this is not the case.

We call this mind at our heart, “continuously residing.” Its nature is indestructible bliss. So this is the starting point – Buddha nature. The whole Buddhist path is a path of discovering and revealing this nature. If we hold onto the belief in our own and others’ pure nature without a doubt, and we engage in actions with this in mind, we will always be moving in the right direction. And, as Geshe Kelsang says, if every living being cherishes one another, believes in each other in this way, and pursues the common goal of real happiness and liberation from suffering, then the problems of our world will be solved in a few years. Truth.

Over to you. Please leave your comments for the guest authors in the box below!

 

 

The compassion cure

A guest article by a Buddhist gerontologist. 

Picture2I wrote Parts 1 and 2 of this blog while “coronavirus” was a new word appearing in a far-off land. Shrouded by an illusion of safety in my Brooklyn apartment, I assumed it would be like other diseases that popped up around the world in recent times, thankfully disappearing before spreading beyond localized areas. By the time Part 1 was published, the coronavirus had reached the West Coast of the United States and it was all anyone could talk about.

(This is Part 2 of Everyone Wants to be Seen: Observations from a Buddhist Gerontologist.)

Luna Kadampa, our editor, connected what I had written to the crisis by pointing to the impact it was having on our elderly:

Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.

In the mere weeks since that publication, the entire world has changed. Buddhists know everything is changing at every moment. Blink and it’s a whole new world. But we’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime change. Tens of thousands have died. Millions have lost jobs. People are lonely. They are scared. I wondered if what I had written for Part 2 would still have relevance. And, given the cataclysmic scale of the pandemic, if any of it mattered.

What really matters?

What does matter when the world we normally see falls apart? How do we manage as we helplessly watch the pieces slip through our fingers? Without a spiritual path we might default to things that make the situation worse. We scroll news feeds for glimmers of hope or to justify our worry, look for someone to blame, take substances to numb the pain or indulge escapist thoughts on the one hand or hopeless ones on the other.

In Buddhism we take refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They alone have the power to protect us from this calamity. Buddha is the wise physician who diagnoses our problem, Dharma, his teachings, is the medicine we need to get well, and Sangha is the community of kind nurses helping us to heal.

Our real refuge is buried deep within our own heart. It is our compassion, a wish for our self and others to be freed from suffering. Compassion has the power to vanquish all our anger, fear, and depression, and can lift others out of theirs, too. Which is what I discovered in the sixty years I spent with thousands of elderly people. It is the type of true refuge we all need in these unprecedented and perilous times. It is where I was headed with the second part of this blog when our entire world got turned upside-down.

The unseen friend of migrators

Picture 4In Part 1, I wrote about the decades I spent questioning anyone “of a certain age,” hoping they could make sense of a world that was nonsensical, contaminated, and oftentimes cruel. I was certain they could reveal some big meaning to life that eluded me. At a minimum, they could provide me with a reason to get up each morning.

While I never found a satisfying answer to all my questions, little did I realize how valuable those years would prove to be. In every connection with my elderly friends, listening and being heard, seeing and being seen, offering comfort and being comforted, I experienced an immensely important spiritual lesson. I just didn’t see it.

Lama Tayang (quoted in the book Universal Compassion) wrote:

Compassion is the unseen friend of migrators.

I think he meant this figuratively — that matters of the heart aren’t seen by our physical eyes. But for me it was literal. I couldn’t see that what was occurring within these interactions provided a large clue to the mystery I was trying to solve.

It took Buddha Shakyamuni to dispel the darkness of my mind. In my first Buddhist class, Gen Kelsang Rigpa, the Resident Teacher of Kadampa Meditation Center Los Angeles, told everyone gathered how Buddha had explained that we are all searching for something. Naturally, I was hooked because by this time I’d spent half a century looking. The answer was so obvious it surprised me: “we all want to be happy”. Not just in the moment, but permanently — there is never a moment when we don’t want to be happy.

Picture3I wondered, “Could this be what I was seeking all those years?” It seemed so simple. Yet the moment I heard it, I knew it to be true. Gen Rigpa went on to explain that this wish is what drives all our actions, be it the pursuit of a career, a relationship, money, a reputation, or the myriad of other things we chase after. The problem, according to Buddha, is that these things don’t bring us the type of pure and lasting happiness we seek.

So if happiness doesn’t lie in these usual suspects, where can it be found? In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang writes:

In the Sutras, Buddha says: “The fully ripened effects of actions ripen not on soil or stones, but only on consciousness.” This is because only consciousness has feelings, and only with feelings can we experience the ripened effects of actions. Virtuous actions result in pleasant feelings, non-virtuous actions result in unpleasant feelings, and neutral actions in neutral feelings.

We find happiness by cultivating virtuous minds like love and compassion that ripen back on us as pleasant feelings. And this is where all my years with my elderly friends rained down like a million blessings.

Cherishing others is the key that unlocks the prison of self

As the years unfolded, I began to notice something interesting. I observed that even in my darkest hours, no matter how pointless everything seemed, being with my elderly friends often lifted me. Even opening the door of the nursing home on my way in to work in the morning made me feel better.

I experienced this pleasant sensation as a small boy being cherished by his grandmother. And over the decades I experienced it time and again with my elderly friends and clients. Maybe it wasn’t a permanent release from mental pain, but it was at least a temporary parole. And it appeared to help them, too. Even those in the depths of depression seemed better during our interactions than before. Why?  Picture1

I believe one of the reasons that compassion is our friend is that it protects us from ourselves. It has the power to instantly eject us from that dangerous and painful prison of self. Geshe-la describes self-cherishing as an “excessive concern for our own welfare.” This “concern” can manifest as self-criticism and hatred, jealousy, anxiety, attachment or any of the many other delusions. It whispers insidious lies, telling us how much worse off we are than others and that the way out of our predicament is to work solely for our own benefit. And it never happens.

However, when we focus on others with an affectionate, compassionate heart we have no mental space left to obsess over ourselves. Our mind is completely pacified. Geshe-la writes:

It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.

Compassion also is our friend because it purifies our mind. Compassion removes the blinders covering our eyes to reveal a beautiful reality that has always been there, like the sun shining behind the clouds.

In several of his books, Geshe-la presents the well-loved story of Asanga, who entered a mountaintop retreat to come face-to-face with Buddha Maitreya. After twelve years with no success he abandoned his retreat because he was discouraged.

On the way down the mountain he came across an old dog lying in the middle of the path. Its body was covered in maggot-infested sores and it seemed close to death. This sight induced within Asanga an overwhelming feeling of compassion for all living beings trapped within samsara. As he was painstakingly removing the maggots from the dying dog, Buddha Maitreya suddenly appeared to him.

Buddha kindIt was Asanga’s extraordinary compassion that purified his mind so that he was able to see this Buddha of loving-kindness, who had in fact been there all the time. We have the same potential, we just need to rely on our friend, compassion. And doing so starts by opening our eyes to the truth — that everyone suffers.

Geshe-la says this awareness does not make us depressed, rather:

Compassion gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we will come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.

For Kadampas, the spiritual path is our precious Lamrim, or stages of the path. When we combine these teachings with compassion, our mind gradually transforms into a state of joy beyond our wildest dreams. But to do this we first must believe in the power of compassion. Our faith grows by remembering moments of transcendence when we experienced pure, unconditional love and compassion. We know that if we can experience one moment of transcendence, we can experience more. We need only to train.

Our freedom grows by shifting the lens from self to others

To cultivate our virtuous minds of love and compassion, Geshe-la suggests we start with our karmic circle. For many people, this is their family or close friends. The hearts of some are naturally opened by being with animals, such as was the case with Asanga. For some it is children. And for some of us it is when we are with the elderly.

Oftentimes the suffering of the elderly is manifest. At every turn they are confronted by loss — the loss of physical appearance, possessions, health, friends, and lifelong partners. Anyone who has worked with the elderly, particularly employees of nursing homes or assisted living centers, knows this to be true. If we have the courage to face the truth of this suffering we will find our liberation. And more importantly, we will free others.

In the early ‘90’s I was running a nursing home on the north coast of Ohio. One day we admitted a wealthy woman who instantly shattered our peace and harmony. I knew she was wealthy because she paid us to remove a bed from one of our rooms so she could have it all to herself. Barely an hour went by without a staff member stopping at my door to tell me of a new complaint: she didn’t like the food, the staff, the air conditioning, and on and on. I had an “open door” policy but given her socio-economic background I knew she wouldn’t visit me; I was expected to call on her.

A few days later I decided to pay her a visit. As I knocked on her door I realized I knew nothing of her medical condition. This wasn’t a big deal because I’d known people with every medical condition under-the-sun. Even so, I was surprised by what I saw when I opened the door.

“Come in,” a shrill voice called out. I took a deep breath and entered. I could tell she was tall because she stretched to the ends of the hospital bed and she was emaciated, couldn’t be more than ninety pounds. But what struck me was her body. She was stiff as a board. Her hands were contracted and curled against her chest and old age had cruelly driven her chin into her shoulder. She lifted her eyes and they locked on me as I crossed the room.

“Hello, I’m Mr. Williams.” I said. “You wanted to see me.” When she realized I was the administrator she’d been asking for she affected a tone stiffer than her body. “Mr. Williams…” and then she unleashed a barrage of complaints that I already knew, sounding rehearsed as if she were reading from a script.

I could tell this was a lifelong pattern. When this woman said “jump,” people either asked “how high?” or argued with her. So my response probably surprised her. I just stood there silently gazing into her eyes. All of a sudden, she became aware of me. “What are you looking at?!” she snapped.

“I’m just trying to understand you,” I said.

No sooner had the words left my mouth than her body went limp and she began to sob. It was as if the words, “I’m trying to understand you” had found their way to a secret linchpin that was binding her musculoskeletal system and involuntarily released her. I stood there stunned as she continued to cry. I’d seen extraordinary things in my career, but nothing quite like this. After a few minutes she composed herself and said bitterly, “You have no idea what it feels like to be me.”

I did wonder what it must be like being her. A prisoner in your own body, totally dependent on others for the basics like eating and toileting. She couldn’t even wipe away her own tears. What could I say as I gazed down at her, this healthy whippersnapper dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie there to solve all her problems? “You’re right,” I said. “I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be you. But I’d like to try.”

Opening our hearts to the elderly in the time of Coronavirus

The initial epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States was a nursing home in suburban Seattle. Tragically, many more nursing homes around the country and world have experienced outbreaks. To date, one-fourth of all deaths in the United States have been nursing home residents.

As I read the stories, my mind is flooded by memories of all the nursing home residents I’ve known over the years. These are the people I have in my mind as I write this blog. They helped to shape and form the good aspects of the person I am today. I remembered the jokes, the kindness, the insights, and the tender and intimate moments.

cape of compassionAnd my mind went to the staff, particularly the nursing assistants who are on the front line of the front line. To me, they are true Bodhisattvas. Oftentimes they were cheerful, single mothers, making not much more than minimum wage, with little formal education. But they could write the book on how to cherish others. I think about how unfair it is for them to be in this situation. And I think about the deaths of all the people they care about and how this must be affecting them.  

It seems no matter where in the country I worked, all caregivers held the same superstition. They believed residents died in threes. So when one died, they would brace themselves for the loss of the next two. At the time of completion of the second part of this blog, of the 120 residents of the suburban Seattle nursing home, a total of thirty-seven have died.

Every night at seven o’clock the people of New York City stop what they are doing to recognize essential workers. People in isolation open their windows wide. Church bells rings. Pots clang. People in the streets clap as they walk by. Some cheer. We unite in a collective inner wisdom that understands something profound is happening in the midst of all this suffering. We salute the courage of caregivers. We rejoice in compassion.

Over to you. Comments for this wonderful guest author are warmly invited in the comments box below. 

 

Everyone wants to be seen: observations from a Buddhist Gerontologist

A guest article.

(Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.)

Being seen by others

I discovered my fascination with the elderly during coffee hours after Sunday services in the small town where I grew up. I also learned it was unusual for almost anyone, let alone a five-year-old, to be interested in them. Despite regular encouragement to go upstairs to play with the other children, I managed to finagle my way through the rooms of the parish house and into the company of the elderly parishioners, particularly the women.1960s-grandmother-in-chair-hugging-vintage-images (2)

They’d call me close and, peering out behind coke bottle glasses, ask me things. I don’t remember the detail of those early conversations, but they left me with a lasting impression. I thought,These people are so interested in others.” I felt special in their presence. Cherished. Safe. I felt seen.

Thus began a lifelong habit of seeking out the oldest person in the room. While the mantra of the mid-’60’s was, Don’t trust anyone over 30,” mine was “Don’t trust anyone under 50.” My most trusted companion was my paternal grandmother, a kind woman who lived in an old country house at the other end of town. She was one of my greatest teachers, teaching me one of the most important things I have learned in my sixty years on this planet – the power of unconditional love.

Learning to see others

The truth is that I viewed every elderly person as my teacher. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes that the function of a person isTo perform actions and experience their results.” As an older friend once remarked, “You live long enough, you know stuff.” I reasoned that the older a person was, the more they knew, even if it was what not to do. They were time capsules of valuable karmic lessons, and from an early age I began looking to them for answers.

At some point I realized I was organizing what I was learning into my own mental filing cabinet. Some of it was social in nature — “European Immigration to the US in the Early 20th Century,” some of it technical — “Behavioral Patterns Exhibited by Those with Memory Loss,” and some of it just plain fun — “How to Sew, Crochet or Knit your own Wardrobe.”

I couldn’t help but note the physical changes that occur with age, as well. The thickening glasses. The hearing loss. The swelling in the ankles. The fading memory. The bandages on arms and heads. The skin. (Once I commented on a woman’s badly bruised skin. “Skin?!” she scoffed. “This isn’t skin. It’s tissue paper!”). The smells of ointments, tinctures, and sweet perfume. One by one I learned their stories. I listened. I studied. I watched. I saw.

This man’s search for meaning

Gerontology, the study of aging, emerged as a bonafide college degree in the late ‘70’s and I was one of the first to sign up. There I learned about the “Life Review,” an explanation as to why older people seem to like to reminisce. According to this theory they talk about their lives as a way of making sense of them. They are wrapping things up, getting ready to go.

Davis Funeral Home Edited

Learning that my elderly friends had an almost biological need to talk about their lives prompted me to deepen my line of inquiry. My motive was not entirely altruistic; I was desperate to find answers to some of life’s bigger questions.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was being raised in a funeral home a few houses down from my church, but underpinning my early life was a nagging thought that everything was existentially pointless.

A story from Joyful Path of Good Fortune sums up my feelings at that time. A man is painstakingly carving a round stone into a square one with a feather. When a passerby asks why on earth he is doing this, he responds,

I am doing this so that I can leave the stone behind.

The story is referencing pointless efforts made in the accumulation of wealth, but to me everything was a variation of the same theme — be it a career, raising a family, or collecting tchotchkes. We will all die in the end, so why bother? I was sure one of my aged friends could provide me with the answer.

Over the decades I moved a lot, which put me in touch with thousands of elderly people in Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, California, and immigrants from around the world. When the moment seemed right, I’d ask my friends, the oldest of whom was 104, “What’s the point of all of this?” or “Why are we here?” Everyone seemed happy to offer an opinion, but I never did get a satisfying answer. What I did get, instead, was another list: “The Top Ten Meanings of Life.”

I don’t know if meaninglessness is the chicken and depression is the egg or the other way ‘round, but they are a killer combination. I knew this from my many years of working with people who were stripped mercilessly of the things that meant the world to them — their spouses, homes, cars, careers, reputations, health, wealth, families, and oldest friends. Some were left with nothing to fill the void, critically ill and deeply depressed, begging to die. But I knew of this deadly combination not just from witnessing it, but from experiencing it from the inside out. From a young age I began to experience a deep and inexplicable sadness.

As a young man I stumbled across a quote from the French philosopher Voltaire that struck me as so profound I committed it to memory. He said, “We throw ourselves in prison and stand as our own guard.” I knew on some level I played a role in my own torment, but at the same time I felt powerless to stop. And, as much as the quote impacted me, there was still no answer as to how to get out of this vicious cycle. Or if it was even possible.

Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 7.13.59 PM

Before becoming a Buddhist I believed a certain amount of suffering was natural, part of the human condition.” While I never dreamed it was feasible to completely end suffering, as taught by Buddha, I did believe it could be mitigated. So I did with my depression what I did with everything else. I took it to my elderly friends. Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I’d ask. Or, “Given all that humans must endure, only to die in the end, how can a person ever be happy?” When the moment seemed right, I’d be candid. “I’m depressed,” I’d say. “Do you have an idea of how I can shake it?”

Finding the path

After an exhaustive, nearly half-century search, it was at my first class at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Los Angeles that I began to find answers. The monk taught that my search for freedom from suffering was common. Aware of it or not, every sentient being, even babies and insects, carries the same basic wish to be free. It drives everything we do. And yes, Virginia, there is a way out.

The prison, I learned, is called samsara, a hellish and unending nightmare that is the experience of a self-centered and deluded mind. As Geshe Kelsang puts it,

Samsara is not an external prison; it is a prison made by our own mind.

The meaning of our lives is to be found in securing a permanent release from our jail cell and in helping everyone out of theirs. We do this not only to improve this life, but to secure our futures after we die. But how? As Geshe-la explains:

Although samsara resembles a prison, there is one door through which we can escape. That door is emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena. By realizing emptiness we can escape from samsara.

In the early days of my Buddhism, realizing this magic bullet of emptiness seemed a ways off; and, meanwhile, what’s a suffering sentient being to do?! I took refuge in the more easily accessible method practices as outlined in How to Transform Your Life, such as renunciation, compassion, and patience. Geshe-la writes that these minds help us to inch towards the prison door. Eventually

…by diligently practicing a pure spiritual path, and thereby eliminating our self-grasping and other delusions, we can bring our samsara to an end.

jail Blog

In Buddhism, delusions are described as those states of mind that create suffering and virtuous minds as those that result in happiness. Self-cherishing is a principal delusion, and compassion — our wish for others to be free from suffering — is a principal virtue. Something about this idea clicked for me. I even had a folder. There it was in the far recesses of my mind, dusty and overlooked, but chock-full of rich and valuable evidence to validate the truth of Buddha’s teachings.

I didn’t have the wisdom to know its value at the time but, once I learned what it contained, I reorganized my findings into two separate files and moved them to the forefront of my mind. Borrowing language from my new hero, the Buddhist Master Shantideva, I titled one, “Self-Cherishing — All the Suffering in this Worldand the other “Love and Compassion — All the Happiness in this World.”

In part 2 of this article I will expand on my observations of how seeing others and being seen by them inches us toward the door to our own liberation.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments.

(Postscript: There are many word choices to describe people of a certain age.” I’ve used them all in my career so as not to offend, but my personal preference is elderly.” To my mind the popular euphemism senior is a regression, sending us back to high school and in the process devaluing the trials, tribulations, and triumphs all of us experience if we are lucky enough to live that long. I know some people consider elderly an ugly word, but historically it was an honorific. As for me, at the ripe old age of sixty, considered young elderly by some classifications,” I’m not quite ready to let it go.)

How to stop being so down on ourselves

I was thinking the other day that perhaps it is no wonder self-hatred is a thing — if we have the inner poison of anger and spend 24/7 with ourselves, we are bound to get angry with ourselves sooner or later! self-hate 1

Someone I know, who btw is fabulous and has literally nothing wrong with them, wrote this to me:

Wow, self hatred, it is what it all comes down to! I make some headway, blessings get in here and there, but that is always what I slap back too. Of course, this blocks everything! I always feel like there is just this huge block to my creativity, imagination, like a numbness that I am increasingly aware of. It’s this, it’s self hatred. When I perceive anything as going wrong, or I say something I wish I hadn’t, or I perceive someone in a way that is not in the best light, I catch myself saying to myself, “I hate myself.” It’s fast, it’s constant. Keep these articles coming.

So, carrying on from Toward an empowered sense of self, I am keeping these articles coming.

To effectively get rid of self-dislike and indeed all delusions, we need to see how our sense of self changes entirely in dependence upon our thoughts. For this purpose it is very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, view (or sense) of self, intentions, actions, and results/life.

A talented guest writer just wrote about this dependent relationship in this incredibly  helpful article, The meditation game changer. Please read it if you get a chance! I will now attempt to apply the same principles specifically to overcoming being so hard on ourselves.

Stack of pebbles in shallow water with blue sky background

  1. Experience

Our sense of self is shifting constantly, depending on what parts of the body or mind we are identifying our self with, or, to use a technical phrase, imputing our self on.

A person’s so called “basis of imputation” is in general their body and mind or, usually (at any given moment) parts of their body and mind. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

We normally refer to our body and mind as “my body” and “my mind,” in the same way as we refer to our other possessions. This indicates that they are different from our I. The body and mind are the basis upon which we establish our I, not the I itself. ~ How to Transform Your Life (download the free ebook)

We have a body and we have a mind, but we are not a body and we are not a mind. However, even though they are not the same, we make the mistake of identifying our self as our body and mind, conflating the imputed object (the self) with its basis of imputation (the body and mind). For example, if my stomach hurts I may believe, “I am stick-figure-and-clouds-vector-14506555in pain”; and when unhappy experiences occur I may believe “I am unhappy.” This as opposed to “My stomach aches” or “Unhappy cloud-like feelings are arising in my sky-like mind.” 

Maybe this’d be fine and dandy if it didn’t lead to all our physical and mental suffering, over and over again, in lifetime after lifetime. As it is, imputing ourselves on painful experiences is not fine at all. It is the main thing standing in the way between us and inner peace and freedom.

For example, applying this to our sense of a never-good-enough-self, this self or Me is imputed on the basis of self-critical thoughts, which usually have two things in common: they’re very painful, and they’re founded on a feeling or experience that we’re not good enough. They may sound like: “I’ll never amount to anything,” “I’m so lazy,” “I always ruin relationships,” “I should have achieved a lot more by this stage in my life!”, “Look at me compared to so and so, no wonder I keep being passed over!”, “I’m a lousy cook/mom/dad/friend/worker/person.” Etc.

Also the disconnect between the self-imposed pressure to be impossibly perfect (from a worldly point of view) but feeling crummy inside can start at any age. As someone said to me the other day: self-critism 2

In these times, even when I observe my children and their friends (they are about 18 years old), there is so much self-hatred, doubts, and a very strong pressure to make everything PERFECT, to look perfect … sometimes it is overwhelming to observe that tendency. Maybe it’s because of all these Internet platforms, where everything looks perfect… I don’t know.

  1. Sense of self

Identifying ourselves with this painful limited experience/feeling/thought (of not being good enough) leads to a painful limited sense of self. So we need to stop doing it.

First we can check to see what we are holding onto or believing to be our “self”? What is Me? Who is Me? We have this so-called self-grasping ignorance where we hold our me, I, or self to be a fixed limited entity, independent of anything. As Geshe Kelsang puts it in How to Transform Your Life: “The object we grasp at most strongly is our self or I.” We have this sense of me or I somehow lurking IN our body or mind, findable in its basis of imputation. As Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

This I appears to be completely solid and real, existing from its own side without depending upon the body or the mind.

This self is appearing solid and real, plus it is the only real me and the center of my known universe, so of course I have to serve and protect it.

But am I as solid and real as I appear? That’s the trillion-dollar question. The answer is priceless, in fact, because it will set us free after aeons of mental bondage.

grand canyon

Our sense of self changes all the time. Here’s an example. I was walking down the Grand Canyon last year on a narrow path with a ridiculously steep drop on one side. One moment I was all relaxed, chatting with friends – that was happy-Me, it felt real enough. The next moment a tourist brushed past me with his large rucksack and I found myself about to lose my footing … my sense of me suddenly changed, and that about-to-fall-to-my-death-Me also felt pretty darned real. Then I regained my footing and my sense of me changed into relieved-Me. Also real.

What does that say about our Me? In each of those 3 cases, that is who I thought I was. But if the Me that appeared so solid, fixed, and real actually existed as it appeared, ie, solid, fixed, and real, how could it change? Where did it go? If it existed from its own side, independent of body and mind, how could it vanish from one minute to the next?

But my sense of self did vanish and change — in dependence upon what? My thoughts. The self I thought I saw existing from its own side, independent of thought, was just the product of thought – relaxed thoughts, terrified thoughts, then relieved thoughts. This shows that the fixed or real me was never there to begin with. The self we normally see is a mental image – if we look for a real self that corresponds to the image, or is behind the image, it cannot be found anywhere.

(Meanwhile, everyone else also sees a completely different person when they look at us. My companions on the cliff edge could not see any of those 3 Me’s, which also indicates that those Me’s did not exist outside my view of them.) who are we

So if the self or ego cannot be found anywhere, who are we? Who we are depends on who we think we are which is, as mentioned, changing all the time. Because our thoughts change, who we are changes. Far from being independent or inherently existent, it is the opposite – our self is 100% dependent. Take away the thoughts and it disappears.

Which means we are not fixed. Which is really very good news. We can validly think, “There is nothing solid or intrinsic about me at all. I can and do change in dependence on my thoughts.”

Take away our deluded thoughts, such as our self-loathing, and our deluded suffering self will disappear.

  1. Intentions

Have you noticed how who we think we are determines what we want? If we wake up with negative thoughts about ourself, thinking we’re a waste of space, what do we want to do all day? Nothing edifying! But if we think we are kind, or grateful, or a Bodhisattva, we intend and act accordingly.

Therefore, for as long as we grasp onto a intrinsically limited painful unworthy self, our intentions or wishes will follow suit.

Because we always want to be happy and free from suffering, we feel that the way to do that is by serving and protecting this limited self. So we won’t, for example, attempt things in case we fail, or we crack the whip on ourself for fear that, if we don’t, the disapproval and rejection that seems imminent will become our reality.

  1. Actions

We always try to do what we want. Everything we do depends on what we want or intend. Therefore, these intentions or wishes to serve or protect this limited self in turn lead to actions such as self-sabotage or criticizing others, which may sometimes lead to brief relief, but no release. we do what we want

Even when we do something well, we won’t jump for joy but merely breathe a sigh of relief: we’ve escaped from being criticized or censored. But that relief lasts only until the next expectation presents itself. It’s the perfect setup for anxiety and depression. We are engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle, in which the stress is unremitting.

People with a strong inner critic tend to have one thing in common: however great their success, they don’t feel it’s genuine. The inner critic won’t let them see their past achievements as ‘real’ for fear that, if they do, they’ll slack off and end up failing. So they may push themselves more, with diminishing returns, driven more by fear of failure or judgment than by inspiration.

We really don’t need to be hard on ourselves — our delusions are already doing a fabulous job at that. It’s one reason we still feel so stuck in samsara, even though we have everything we need right now to get out.

  1. Results/Life

 self-hateThese actions in turn create our life. We are reinforced in our lack of self-esteem, believing that self to be limited, in pain, and in need. It is a vicious cycle and, if we’re not careful, our whole life can go by like that.

Not to mention that each of our mental actions or intentions leaves a karmic potential in our root mind for similar experiences and tendencies in the future, leading to a longer-term and even more vicious cycle.

 Summary

 To summarize, this is all stemming from a painful experience that, because we identify with it, leads to a limited painful sense of self. This self doesn’t actually exist, there is just a mental image of it; but, believing that it does exist, we wish to serve and protect it, and then we act upon those wishes or intentions. Because we act upon them, we get the same results, the same underwhelming life, which in turn brings us more painful experiences and reinforces our limited sense of self.

We need to step out from under the dark shadow of these ignorant, self-destructive thoughts and actions. How? By shining the light of wisdom, wherein these dark shadows will have no choice but to disappear. More in this next installment, Giving up self-hatred once and for all.

Over to you … have you suffered from self-doubt or self-criticism? Do you recognize this process? Your feedback is very welcome.

Related articles

Saying bye bye to the painful limited self

Feel free to change your mind

Change our thoughts, change our world

 

 

 

The meditation game changer

A guest article. After great conversations with this long-term meditator and friend, I requested him to write an article on this subject. He kindly obliged. Hope you like it as much as I do.

8.5 mins read.

Road Warning Sign SeriesDoes any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe we’ve tried to change our view of ourselves, relating to our potential to change, our Buddha nature no less! We’ve been inspired by the Buddhist books and teachings, even meditated on them, yet we still feel stuck in a view of ourselves as someone who is fundamentally not changing and who lacks any real spiritual potential.

Something has been on my mind for some time now, which is why it is that we can sometimes be practicing meditation and Dharma for years but still feel we are not that much further along from when we started. And more importantly, is there a simple change we can make with the power to accelerate the process of deep and lasting spiritual transformation that we want? The answer is, thankfully, a resounding yes!

What’s going on

Perhaps without truly changing our view of ourselves, we are still trying to cultivate new intentions to live a more spiritual life. We have the intention to meditate daily and deeply, to be more consistently accepting, loving, and compassionate. Yet we never seem to quite get around to it, or at least never fully. Intention becomes “I intend”, ie, later, tomorrow!

With no genuine change in our intention, perhaps we are still trying to encourage or indeed force ourselves to change our actions. Maybe on the surface we try to act more like what we think a good Dharma practitioner or even a Bodhisattva should act like. Yet discouragement 1we find ourselves feeling stuck in habits of repression, distraction, worldly concerns, and many of the deluded and self-centered patterns of behavior we have always had, and increasingly desperately want to be free of.

In this way, our way of life can come to feel not that different to when we started out on our spiritual journey, with one notable exception: we now have the added burden of growing discouragement, feeling like a failing spiritual practitioner!

Why we can feel like we’re not really changing

A simple understanding to explore – helping us shed light on this problem and illuminate the solution – is that our present experience of life is what Buddha called a dependent-related phenomenon.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

The definition of dependent related is existing (or established) in dependence upon its parts.

Meaning that, if it exists, it exists in dependence upon something else.

Now, consider this simple dependent-related sequence. From our experience comes our view, from our view comes our intention, from our intention come our actions, and from our actions comes our life. In this moment in time, our life exists in dependence upon these causes and conditions, not independent of them.

Our experience of life then reinforces our view, intention, actions, and life, in what is either a limiting and downward spiral or liberating and upward spiral of dependent-related change and transformation. This applies to all areas of our life, spiritual or otherwise.

Are you a swimmer?

As a simple example, if someone asks us ‘Are you a swimmer?’, our instinctive answer will very much depend on our experience. If we have previously tried to swim a few times or more, and it didn’t go well, naturally our view of our self (if not challenged) will be that we’re not a swimmer. Due to self-grasping ignorance we deeply identify with this belief as if it’s who we really are, inherently. In dependence upon this view, our intention and actions will naturally be to avoid swimming at all costs.

Without changing our experience, this downward spiral of limitation will continually reinforce itself, each time deepening our limiting self-identification and way of life, the life of a non-swimmer.

If we want to become a swimmer and try to change only our view, intentions, or actions without changing our experience, ultimately we will fail. This is simply because our attempts at change will be continually undermined by our default and deeply entrenched limiting self-identification: “At the end of the day, and no matter what I or anyone else says, I am just not a swimmer! Inherently!” Everything else will naturally flow from this.

The game-changer

happy-girl-swimmingTo transform this situation, and our lives, the solution is as simple as it is profound. All we need to do at the beginning is make a simple change in this dependent related sequence – which is to change our experience. We learn how to swim properly, then relax, and gradually gain consistent experience of swimming. All other positive changes will naturally flow from, and in dependence upon, this change.

In dependence upon this new experience, our view of ourselves will naturally change – we will start to identify ourselves as someone who is a swimmer.

In dependence upon this new view, our intention and actions will gradually and naturally change – we will find ourselves wanting to swim and doing it regularly and joyfully. As a result, our experience will get better and better.

In dependence upon this new and growing experience, view, intention, and actions, our life over time will become the life of a confident swimmer. A new liberating and upward spiral of positive change and transformation is established and continually reinforced on every new iteration. In this way, we elevate and accelerate this process of change.

How to elevate and accelerate our spiritual path

How can we apply this understanding to elevating and accelerating our spiritual path? The key is this: if we feel we are not really progressing spiritually, it is NOT because we are incapable. If we check, more likely than not we are trying to change our view, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso teaching 3intention, actions, and way of life without giving ourselves the time and space to immerse ourselves in that first and critical step, experience!

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness 

Conversely, if we do make some time every day to meditate, we will find it increasingly easy to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will flourish.

Start with peace

The essence of what is being explored here is how we can approach ALL aspects of our Dharma training for it to flow more naturally and effortlessly. Whether it’s building deep and stable refuge in our hearts, or gaining authentic experience of all the stages of the spiritual path of Lamrim, Lojong, or Mahamudra, we can use this approach to elevate and accelerate these trainings.

However, for the purposes of this article, let’s start with the simplest meditation and experience of peace. At the beginning of our daily meditation session – no matter how brief or extensive – we are encouraged to use a preparatory practice such as breathing meditation, absorption of cessation, or clarity of mind to help us gradually center in a calm, clear, and peaceful mind.

The key is, once we calm the mind and experience a noticeable degree of inner peace – even if it’s only a little bit — we give ourselves permission to take as much time and space as we need to abide with, and absorb more deeply into, that experience of a peaceful mind.keep calm and change the game

If you are anything like I was in the early years of my training in meditation, this preparatory stage felt more like an item on my to-do list before I got on with the rest of my sadhana.

I felt there was a lot I had to get through – before leaving for work – to fulfill my daily sadhana commitment, not realizing for some time that meditation can never be about ‘doing,’ rather it’s about ‘being’. Being absorbed in, and dynamically engaged with, an experience in our heart at every step from the moment we sit down to meditate and beyond!

Through giving ourselves the time and permission to abide and absorb a little in this way, we establish the experience of a relatively open, expansive, and peaceful mind. We then turn our attention to that experience and, crucially, identify with it as our innate and indestructible potential for great peace and happiness, our own Buddha nature.

This experience of peace alone does not transform our lives. However (1) the experience of inner peace that is associated with (2) the heartfelt wisdom insight that this is the peace of my own Buddha nature, my pure potential for the supreme and lasting peace and happiness of enlightenment, is the very basis for all deep and lasting spiritual transformation. Dharmavajra

Allowing ourselves to abide in that experience every day before, during, and after our meditation session is a key component to success in Dharma training. As a result of our increasing familiarity with this experience and correct self-identification with our Buddha nature, our view of ourselves will gradually and quite naturally change.

If we are feeling a little, or a lot, stuck in our spiritual life, it simply indicates that we currently lack this basic familiarity. As a result, we try to practice on the basis of our present default experience and view, which happens to be an ordinary limited self who isn’t changing, indeed can’t change.

This growing familiarity with our own Buddha nature is one we can all gain, and it will open the door to a whole new perspective on how we approach our Dharma practice. Instead of feeling like we are practicing in abstract, going through the motions in the hopes of some future “Aha!” moment, we will come to view our practice as a here and now dynamic and experientially-based engagement with our own path or journey.

In dependence upon this new view of our extraordinary potential, our intention will move from ‘I intend, tomorrow’ to the intention that is moving our mind Pagmacontinually and spontaneously to the full actualization of this pure potential; and over time not just for ourselves but for others as well.

In dependence upon this deepening intention, our actions will be increasingly in alignment – they will become the actions of someone who is joyfully dedicated to accomplishing this goal, coming from the confidence that I have the potential and that this is what I and others need.

Ultimately, this liberating and upward spiral of positive change will transform into the view, intention, actions, and life of a Bodhisattva – what is known as the Bodhisattva’s way of life – until one day we definitely realize our highest potential of enlightenment.

Over to you – comments and questions are welcome for this guest author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fellow American

Sickened by political division and conflict, a filmmaker travels across the US in search of  a different story.
A love letter to a troubled nation, one face at a time. 

 

 

 

 

Twenty rules of life (2)

6.5 mins read.

Meditation practice is not just about sitting on a cushion and concentrating, but practicing to stay positive and peaceful throughout the whole day. I like to think of it as happiness training.

anger 3

Yesterday a meditator of one year, who has just finished working 60 days straight, 16 hours a day, on hurricane rebuilding, told me, “I only lost my temper once during that whole time. I used to lose my temper every single day. My coworkers all noticed and want to know what’s happened to me. I realized that although I haven’t had time for a daily meditation session these past couple of months, the advice on how to stay peaceful and patient is baked into my mind. And I’m really happy about that.”

If he can do it, so can you and me.

So, whatever we are up to today, here are 10 more ideas for staying positive and peaceful. Carrying straight on from this article.

11. Keep your options open

Keeping our mind open is keeping our options open, I think. There are many ways to go about this, but none better than remembering emptiness – everything depends upon thought (including thought!) and so nothing at all is fixed. We can learn to think or label whatever we want and create whatever dream-like reality we want.

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.

as the great sage Nagarjuna said.

12. Don’t be a slave to your surroundings

Hollywood Hills“Possessions and a luxurious home may seem important, but there are more important things to treasure in life.” Especially the happiness that comes from the inner peace of wisdom and love, which is good deal more certain than the happiness that comes from having some cool palm trees in our yard.

The real source of happiness is inner peace. If our mind is peaceful, we will be happy all the time, regardless of external conditions, but if it is disturbed or troubled in any way, we will never be happy, no matter how good our external conditions may be. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Talking of which, I was strolling in the Land of the One Percenters (aka the Hollywood Hills) a few days ago, wondering whether luxury made life easier for everyone up here. Of course it does in some ways, I was thinking, and I was glad for them because lord knows there are more than enough people suffering from abysmal poverty and homelessness in our world. I was also making a little prayer that some of their good karma might ripen on them in the form of spiritual realizations (like universal love and generosity to homeless charities, to name but two).

luxury living made easy

But then, even so, I came across this real estate sign, “Luxury living made easy.” Which seems to suggest that luxury living can be hard work. Someone in LA was also telling me that they have a beautiful garden, jacuzzi, and view, and yet still they sit there wondering why they cannot enjoy it more.

This rule reminds me of this line I’ve been thinking about a lot recently from the benefits of meditation section in How to Transform Your Life, how we are, “too closely involved in the external situation”. This can lead to attachment to outcome and the corresponding anxiety when things aren’t working out exactly as we desire – we are up and down like a blimmin’ yo yo. We don’t want to be enslaved by external appearances, by fleeting surroundings, like a yo yo or a puppet on a string. If we want to be satisfied and fulfilled, we need to master our minds instead.

13. Learn not to be gluttonous

“We as a society obsess over food and the pleasures of fine dining, or even just a good takeaway.” But as Buddha pointed out, contradictory desireswe are full of contradictory desires, which is one reason why our attachment doesn’t work out for us — we want rich food and zero body fat, for example, or loads of alcohol and no grogginess.

For me, recalling that I’ve given my body away in the service of the Buddhas and all living beings helps me look after it better in terms of enjoying exercise and not being quite so attached to eating unhealthy stuff. Eat to live, not live to eat, as the old saying goes. (Work in progress. I just had a packet of chips.)

14. Abandon possessions in favor of minimalism

Or “don’t hold onto things you don’t need any more.” The practice of giving can be very liberating because it helps us let go of grasping so tightly at Me, My, and Mine.

There is probably no optimum number of possessions; everyone is different. So I think it is not the number of possessions we have but the way we are viewing them that is conducive to happiness and fulfillment. However, our possessions would seem to derive the most meaning from being given away, or being used directly or indirectly for others’ sake. Click on these links for more practical stuff on overcoming miserliness and becoming more open-hearted and generous.

15. Do not believe something just because you’re told to

echo chamber“Don’t just follow the crowd and listen to others’ opinions.” Good advice for us in our modern echo chambers. Buddhism is all about this as a matter of fact — we are encouraged to check everything out carefully in our own experience to see if it is true for us before taking it on board. Buddha said we should not blindly believe him just because he is Buddha, but to test the teachings for their authenticity as if we were testing gold before committing to buying it.

Faith and experience go hand in hand. If we try something and it works, for example cherishing others, we can then have the confidence and faith to try something else, for example giving up selfishness.

16. Respect the gods, but do not rely solely on their guidance

I take this to mean that we need to rely on all Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Our ultimate protection is Dharma Jewel, the Dharma wisdom we grow in our own minds as a result of listening to Buddhist teachings, contemplating, and meditating. We do most certainly need the inspiration and guidance of enlightened beings and fellow practitioners to steer us out of the ocean of samsara, and, as Geshe Kelsang explains in Great Treasury of Merit, we also need the inner teacher of our own wisdom.

17. Have no fear of dying

The only way we can pull this one off is if we come happily to terms with our death now rather than waiting till our deathbed when it’ll be a bit too late. An awareness of impermanence and death, “I may die today,” enables us to live our precious life to the full, go with the flow, and prepare for a peaceful death and good future lives.

18. Do not use weaponry unless it is necessary

Heruka Toussaint-1Ermm, what to say … I do agree with the author that we shouldn’t attack people, and I would include in that butchering defenseless animals. And Buddha Heruka has a lot of weapons that he uses all the time to overcome the enemy of the delusions, but never living beings.

19. Do not put pressure on retiring with riches

“Again, it was suggested we should live in the moment and not chase happiness in the form of possessions.” I guess the salient word is “pressure” — we can still make plans for retirement without attachment. If we see the importance of preparing for the future, we can also encourage ourselves to plan for our countless future lives, seeing as these are far more definite than retirement in this life (especially these days! LOL), and far more lengthy.

20. Always protect your honor

“Live life as honorably as you know how to” with, for example, the aid of sense of shame and consideration for others, being a reliable, non-hypocritical, kind, and trustworthy person.

Conclusion

Although these are 20 quite random bits of Dharma advice, which pretty much boil down to practicing wisdom and compassion, I enjoyed thinking about them; so thank you for reading. As mentioned at the end of the last article, if you like lists of practical advice for inspiring daily living, you can find some time-tested Kadampa “rules” in the books Universal Compassion (the precepts and commitments of training the mind) and The Bodhisattva Vow.

Comments welcome below.

Spring Training

The guest poster is a novelist, mother, and practitioner.

The field is right there in front of me, shimmering in the bright light, filled with beings…. an expanse of color, except for our uniforms, which are gray.  Someone yells, “Come on, get a hit for Mama!” Parents sit on the sidelines, nursing cups of coffee. The dew sparkles in the grass like jewels.

My kids play a lot of baseball, so in the spring particularly my weekends are full of games.

Spring is also the time that things speed up at our Center. There’s always an empowerment on the calendar, which inevitably falls on the weekend of my kids’ baseball playoffs.  Since I started practicing Buddhism, or Dharma, in earnest almost five years ago, this has been a bit of a challenge for me.

Tug of war?

spring training 8As parents and Dharma practitioners, sometimes it can be tough to balance everything. We miss a lot of good stuff. Empowerments, Festivals, Celebrations, workshops, pujas, retreats. We are lucky to have many opportunities to practice, of course, and yet, for me, sometimes, I have felt my commitment to my family as something pulling me away from going deeper into the Dharma. It felt like a tug of war, my family on one side, my wish to strengthen my practice on the other.

The first year I was practicing Dharma seriously, when I realized I was going to have to miss the empowerment for a playoff game, as well as a coming retreat that just wouldn’t work with my kids’ schedule…. let’s just say I was not relying upon a happy mind.  “I want to do so many of these things, but I can’t. I can’t,” I said to my teacher, my eyes welling up with tears.

He laughed (kindly, and with zero pity for my alleged predicament) and said something about modern Buddhism.

I knew modern Buddhism meant that we don’t need to go off to the Temple to practice; we can practice in our daily lives.  Which, at that moment, I took as, “if you’re unlucky enough to miss a retreat and an empowerment, just try (if you can) to make the best of it.”

That year, I paced the edges of the field, thinking about how everyone else at my Center was absorbing blessings and making spiritual progress while I was stuck there at the game.  Not only stuck: incredibly anxious. The game was close, and I ended up barely able to watch the plays, walking away a bit from the field, putting my hands over my eyes, so tense about the outcome that I couldn’t look. If they lose, I thought, my son will be so sad….if they don’t give him a good position, he’ll be so sad…if he messes up in the field, he’ll be (you get the picture)… I can’t even remember now if they won or lost.

Spiritual gifts?

Gradually, as time went on, I received more teachings in Lojong: transforming whatever is happening into the path. Everything is a spiritual gift, to this view, allowing us to practice when we miss our flight, or get stuck in traffic, or have a heartbreak of some kind…and everything where your kids are concerned is a possible heartbreak, even if it’s a tiny one. By accepting what occurs we have the flexibility to see it in meaningful ways.

spring training 6The game was hardly adversity, but could it be something to transform? Could I be like the peacock, eating the poison of painful baseball losses to strengthen my mind, my ability to roll with whatever happens and bring it into my spiritual path? Could I use it to begin to transform all the things my kids go through that I have no control over and worry about — not just games but school, grades, friends, health, well being?

I tried. I began to relax a bit. There’s a lot of downtime if you are a spectator at a baseball game, and I used this time to focus my mind, thinking “I accept,” every time there was a dropped ball, or a strike out, or my son wasn’t asked to play at all. The games became a little more enjoyable.

Another season, another playoff game, another empowerment — I wasn’t going to miss this one, but I would miss the commentary: This time, I was ready, or thought I was.

Go Buddha!

spring training 3The game began. My son’s team was losing a lot that year, and I felt the disappointment keenly. The pitcher on the other side was really good.

I was rooting hard for my son’s team.  I found myself rooting so hard I was asking for help. Who from? The Buddhas, of course. I recited the Tara mantra. Please, I thought. Help.

Then I thought, Help who? Help what? What am I doing?  What am I asking Tara to do?

Could the Buddhas possibly care that one side (my son’s side) would win the game over the other side? No. The Buddhas didn’t care which side won this game. I needed to look at things more deeply.

I took a few breaths and imagined my Spiritual Guide, Geshe Kelsang, standing right in the middle of the not-so-vast baseball field, about where the pitcher stood, smiling at me.

Two seconds later, from the row of seats next to ours where the other team’s parents’ sat, a chant began: “Go Buddha Go! Go Buddha Go!”

I must have heard wrong. I walked over to them. “What are you saying?”

“Buddha. It’s his nickname,” they said, pointing at the pitcher.

A few minutes later, one of our players started gasping; he had asthma, and the inhalers his parents had brought were empty. The parents panicked, debated bringing him to the hospital. I went over to “Buddha’s” parents — did that side happen to have an inhaler? Turns out they did. They offered it to us, so that our team member could breathe.

I decided to get a cup of lemonade to absorb what was happening. I chatted with the coach’s kid, who was selling me the lemonade. I gave her a dollar. “It’s going to a camp for kids with cancer,” she said. “My sister used to go there, before she died.”

I didn’t know that the coach’s daughter died.

I thought the coach just wanted to win the baseball games.

But I saw, standing on the sidelines, that that wasn’t it at all. The coach knew the baseball game wasn’t really important — he was there out of love.

That’s why all of us are here at the sidelines, I thought. We’re just there to love. That’s our JOB.  And when we have our hands over our eyes when a kid drops the ball, when we wince and frown when things don’t go our way, we aren’t doing our job. In fact, that’s our job as parents. That’s our job as aspiring Bodhisattvas. To love.

The field of modern Buddhism

spring training 7The insight moved through me and I looked at all the kids and the spectators with different eyes. It was as if every meditation on universal compassion I had done was coming to life right there. I loved everybody at that baseball field in that moment. This particular insight didn’t happen in the meditation room.  It didn’t happen on the cushion (though all those meditations were necessary, of course). It happened in the field …

… the field of modern Buddhism.

That spring, I was sitting at the sidelines of my older son’s game, when I saw a wonderful woman I knew with a son on the team; I’d seen her mostly at PTA meetings. She seemed unusually upset; she walked by me and sat down in a portable chair she’d brought, fighting back tears. I asked if she was okay.

“Just having a really hard time right now,” she said. We chatted for a few more moments, about hard times and baseball, watching the game. It was a beautiful day, clear, breezy. The boys were playing all right.

“I go to a meditation class, if you ever want to check it out,” I said after a while, lightly. “It’s really helped me.”

She turned. She looked me straight in the eye. “YES!”

We made a plan to go together the next week. She’s still going, over a year later — we are Sangha now.  She tells me often how her Dharma practice has given her great joy, how much it has transformed her life.

Now, when I go to the field, I’m ready.

Sometimes, on a really beautiful day, it feels as if the air is humming with blessings, and I can feel the joy of the kids playing the game in the breeze, and it’s easy to offer all of this enjoyment up to the Buddhas.

Sometimes I focus on the kids on the other team and try to cultivate love for them, see how much they want to be happy (and get hits) and don’t want to suffer (and strike out) just like everyone else. Or I think about how we have all been born and reborn so many times that these “other people’s kids” were my children, my parents, in previous lives.

Or I try to dissolve it all into emptiness. Do we care who wins the games that take place in our dreams? I try to find it — where is the field? Can you point to it? Where is the blue of the sky…. or I imagine that the field is a field of karma, the karma of everyone ripening right now on this field in strike outs or home runs, all of us having this collective karma of playing this game together….

Or I think about how, when I am hoping for my son to get a hit, I am really wanting his samsara to work out….We want our kids’ samsara to work out, don’t we? We want thespring training 9m always to get A’s and home runs and everything they want in life — but samsara never works out, as we know, and happiness does not lie in these things.  When I focus on this, I start wishing for him to learn to cultivate peace and resilience and kindness and a sense of freedom and many good qualities that have nothing to do with winning the game.

And then…when in spite of all this, I still feel some tension — when the whole game relies on something my kid is about to do, for instance, which happens a lot in baseball, and I feel painful anxiety arising in my mind (please, let him not strike out right now and lose the game!) — I try to look at that tension within a larger, more peaceful mind, to see that self-grasping ignorance…. this vivid sense of wanting success and fearing failure for “my” kid, for this “me” that I really believe exists at this moment.

And how useful it is to be able to see it wriggling there, to pinpoint it and see it operate so I can begin to let it go, so that someday I can be truly helpful to my children and also everybody else’s. How amazing it is to have this opportunity to train in going for refuge at a baseball game, so that I can be there when I really need to be.

I tried this yesterday at my son’s game, which by the way we lost in the very last moments, because my son did indeed strike out, and the thought occurred to me:  wanting to win this game is just like samsara itself.

It’s not important, after all, a baseball game — we will forget about it tomorrow, or the day after — so it’s essentially meaningless. And we know it’s insignificant, especially when we think of the intense suffering that so many living beings are experiencing. Yet we often feel tension anyway when something like this is happening, when we want to “win.”

The ball game of samsara

spring training 2And the worldly activities we engage in with so much energy– aren’t they the same thing? Won’t we forget them by the next life, if not sooner? We know they won’t cause lasting happiness — samsara’s a ball game that can never be won. And yet we get so anxious about it all…

Wouldn’t it be great to reach a place where we could be relaxed about everything that came our way, if we could see the baseball play happening within the play of bliss and emptiness? And if — by training our minds in this way — we could move closer to being able to help others, and thus make every game really count?

It’s my field of practice now, the baseball field. (And I’m not even sporty.)

It’s modern Buddhism in action: a gift from our kind founder that gives us everything we need, in real time, today, right now.

What’s the baseball field in your life?

Don’t quit your day job (to practice dharma)

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

kamparipa
“Transform your daily task into an internal meditation … the result is the immaculate dharmakaya.” ~Kamparipa, the Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in his daily life as a blacksmith

What do a Weaver, Musician, Cobbler, Blacksmith, Merchant and Potter all have in common? They are a few of the professions of ancient practitioners who attained full enlightenment through their day jobs. How did they do this? The common theme in the stories of these great yogis is that they used their daily appearances as fuel for their practice of meditation.

These ancient Mahasiddhas knew that everything is a mere appearance to the mind. By changing our mind and learning to see the appearances of our day job as a Dharma teaching, there is no need to change external appearances. Rather than our job being an obstacle to realizing Buddha’s teachings, it becomes our path of meditation. Then the focus of our job is not on escaping it so that we can really practice Dharma. Rather, the focus will be on transforming it in the most profound and meaningful way possible.

Our day job is not an obstacle to our practice
Manibhadra
“When I realized my mind is the nature of emptiness, all phenomena that appeared to my mind became emptiness itself.” ~Manibhadra, the female Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in her daily life raising her family

Thinking that we need to quit our job to practice Dharma puts the results of our practice into the distant (and often unlikely) future. Often the wish to leave our job to practice Dharma is an aspect of aversion. We believe that if we only could have the space and time to actually focus on our practice, then we could make a dent in our delusions. This way of thinking obstructs us from living in the moment. It also disengages us from transforming every experience into one that destroys our delusions.

The most common objection to this is that we need to do solitary retreat for years to make progress. Geshe Kelsang has explained that with consistent practice we can attain the fourth stage of tranquil abiding in our daily life. In Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang explains how to attain actual tranquil abiding and superior seeing using this level of concentration. This teaching unlocks the complete path to enlightenment without the need to quit our day job.

The complete path to enlightenment is available in daily life
Tantipa
“I weave the strands of my experience … and the finished fabric is the dharmakaya.” ~Tantipa, the Mahasiddha who met his teacher at the age of 89 and attained enlightenment in his daily life as a weaver

Geshe-la has explained again and again that we can easily attain the same results as the ancient practitioners of the past. He said that their stories are our proof that these practices work. We have access to the same techniques, presented in a modern context that are clear and easily understood. Due to many special qualities of Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings, attaining the results of these practices is even easier now than it ever has been before!

So what other excuses do we have that stop us from fully embracing every appearance in our life as our spiritual path? What is stopping an Art Manager, Graphic Designer, Performer, Event Coordinator, or Software Engineer from becoming a modern-day Mahasiddha?

We need to fully believe that we can attain enlightenment in our day job and encourage ourself again and again until this becomes our reality.

All that glitters is not gold

 With panic in her eyes, Aubree said:

“I feel like I’m losing control of my life! I have to go! Let me go! I need to go to my house!”

And Jim gently replied:

“I’m so sorry. That is what it feels like when we are dying. But please don’t worry, you are here with us now. You are too confused to leave; it is not safe to let you go. We are going to take care of you.”

With that, he turned on the prayer playlist Aubree always wanted by her side – nowadays it was on pretty loud all night at her request to remind her of her Spiritual Guide when she fell unconscious, because her greatest fear was forgetting him when she died.

1. deception heartJim and his wife Karin have been taking extraordinarily good care of Aubree for well over a year now, day and night – it used to be just weekends but towards the end they kindly took her into their house full-time because hospice was not a possibility. (The reason it was not a possibility is because her disturbed sister would not release the name of her oncologist and, despite calling every hospital in town, Jim was not able to locate him. It was maddening.)

Jim offered her the anti-seizure medicine she has been taking for two years, but she gagged and choked and said she couldn’t swallow any pills. “Don’t worry”, he said again, as he crushed her Ativan and put it in her food, which for the past year has amounted to approximately a tiny bit of mush per day. She had to eat something, and the meds were to help her with the seizures. But this time she was really freaking out. She was very confused, it seemed, and she snapped at them uncharacteristically, “Let me go! You have kidnapped me!!!”

A modern-day Upala

Aubree’s story is incredible. Here are some of the salient details she wrote herself when requesting prayers:

“I was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago, am an epileptic, and will likely die very soon. My seizures have been so bad that I have been resuscitated 3 times recently, my breathing is very labored, I am usually unable to eat more than a tablespoon a day, and I have a lot of physical pain. I have had nightmares and fearful flashbacks most of my adult life, ever since a violent attack in College, but these lessened considerably when I met dharma 2 years ago. However, with my illness, it is hard for me to have a formal meditation practice and I struggle to keep a peaceful mind, but I am trying to keep you at my heart at all times. Please be with me when I die and guide me through death and rebirth.   

I want everyone to be happy and not to suffer. I feel so lucky and know there are many other living beings with more suffering. I especially want my family to be happy, but they are having a difficult time letting go. Please pray for my mother who is struggling with losing me. She is unhappy and responding to the situation poorly and recently tried to kill me 3 times out of delusion, once by kicking me in the stomach while I was unconscious, once by pushing me down stairs, and once by stabbing me in my side. My sister also is struggling with me dying and needed to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. My brothers are very sad and are unable to accept the situation and let me go. I want them all to be happy and to find peace. Please keep them all in your prayers.”

And it is not just her mother, sister, and brothers. A little while ago Aubree went missing for a week, at the end of which time she texted to say that her father had been keeping her locked up at his house and wouldn’t let her have her phone nor read any Dharma books. She said she was now terrified of him as well.

2. sadnessA few months ago her best childhood friend was on her way to visiting her when she went missing for 4 days. It was a scary 4 days, at the end of which time her friend’s body was tragically discovered by a state trooper in Texas – she had gone off her meds and committed suicide. So sad. She was supposed to be getting married next month.

Something dramatic happened pretty much every week – including too many brinks of death to count. Aubree was a modern-day Upala (see Joyful Path of Good Fortune). We all hoped that this was Aubree’s incredible purification too, and that she was swiftly earning her place in the Pure Land.

It was painful for all of us to watch Aubree dying like this, experiencing so many epileptic or PNES seizures lying clenched and shaking on the floor, so many night terrors, so much head-banging pain, some of which Jim successfully treated with acupuncture –needles stuck in an inch and a half, up to 50 at a time, because she said she couldn’t feel them. This treatment would take hours, and she would look like a pin cushion. When we first met her, she would have hellish-sounding night terrors every single night, reliving the trauma of her abduction and rape, and she’d wake up very frightened. It felt as if she was living in both the human world and an occasional hell at the same time – but at least these terrors largely subsided a few months after meeting Dharma.

And so many trips to the ER, where we watched them pump her full with Ativan or resuscitate her and then send her home with another big bill. Her grueling chemo treatments causing her to vomit and lose her hair, her arm in a sling for weeks after her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the bruises from falling into walls, the mini-strokes and increasing confusion, the stab wounds inflicted by her alcoholic mother (now thankfully in jail). She could not walk without support, she needed constant attention. She could hardly talk by the end, barely a whisper, and she weighed 90 lbs; but still through all of this she smiled radiantly and inspired us all with her courage and good humor. She bought out a good deal of compassion in her spiritual community, and no one felt like complaining when she was around because, frankly, compared to her what did any of us have to complain about?! And she never complained – in her quavering voice she would call herself “the luckiest person in the world” and all she ever said she wanted was for us to pray for her poor, deluded, suffering family.

4. hurricane reflection

It was also amazing how many Festivals, teachings, and retreats she managed to get to, and how many NKT luminaries she managed to meet. Plus her story captured the heart, and she had hundreds of people praying for her.

It was not just us caring for her. Her brother in law, Tom, was a deaf mute and busy traveling, but for months he was able to arrange her visiting schedule all the way from Houston and the road. I texted and emailed back and forth with him several times, and Karin and Jim had hundreds of communications with him and Aubree’s sister. I also was in communication with her full time caregiver Matt, and a couple of other friends. They would keep us informed with messages like:

“Aubree has had severe seizures and breathing issues. She is confused and upset. Please pray.

Aubree’s sister here!   Let’s plan on a visit Friday at 11.  We will confirm with you.  Aubree has been unwell and I am hoping we do not have any issues that cause us to be at hospital again.  She is looking forward to seeing you.

Aubree thinks she is actively dying. Her experience of her body has changed significantly, she wasn’t able to get out bed at all today (was at our house), and has been having very long and difficult seizures and intense pain. She was with her brothers this last week and was admitted into the hospital (against her wishes) and was resuscitated (her brothers ignored her DNR because they were scared). That would have been it, but the CPR brought her back, however she doesn’t want CPR again, and says she is ready to die. 

Aubree is with her friend Kayla, who thinks she is dying. Aubree has stopped breathing and is changing color.

By yesterday evening she didn’t even know who she was. I would call her name and she would look at me and say “Aubree?” while touching her chest then say “am I Aubree?”

Her pain increased alarmingly last night. She has had intense liver area pain. At midnight we woke up to her screaming (I didn’t think she had such a strong voice left) “HELP ME, HELP ME!” while crying and curled up in a ball. She is not on pain meds now because they interfered with her seizure meds.”

I was surprised and frankly a little relieved that Aubree never had a seizure on my watch, and, even though she did choke and go blue a couple of times, she rallied before I had to call an ambulance. And I am even more relieved that I never had to obey her end of life care document. This slightly spooky manifesto was drawn up recently by her medical power of attorney, Jim, after she pleaded for no more medical interventions; and it called for her visitors to just hold her, turn up the playlist, and let her die right there and then.

Interesting

3. all that glitters is not goldWe wrote to tell Venerable Geshe-la she was dying, perhaps would die that very day, and could he give her a message. A couple of leisurely days later he wrote back and told her to read and contemplate Modern Buddhism.

That was a surprise. She was lying on her deathbed and couldn’t read at all! And Modern Buddhism is a long book!

Clearly she was not as close to death as we had thought. But her visitors duly took turns reading her Modern Buddhism for the next several weeks. Which she loved, though her health continued to decline.

The unravelling

The kidnapping accusation was a dilemma because last Friday Karin and Jim felt obliged to let Aubree go back to her empty house and wait for her brother-in-law to fly in and take her back to Houston. We did see her on Saturday, after Tom had dropped her off at her house to pick up some things, and she seemed a bit better, though still weak and confused. We then spent the weekend texting Tom back and forth, trying to meet up with him to figure out what was best to do, but we never managed to meet. Then her disturbed sister Jude flew into town and all hell broke loose. It seemed that Tom was the only sane member of the family left, and the only hope for Aubree, and it was frustrating that we couldn’t talk to him on the phone because of his deafness.

Some extracts of messages from Tom sent last Monday:

“Hi! Tom here. I need to reschedule the time. I can’t leave Aubree and Jude to meet you. Aubree is not doing well…. Do either of you sign? Jude is falling apart. … Things with Aubree are spiraling quickly… Jude is struggling. Feeling like I can’t leave them right now…. Family is being weird. I want to shoot for 4 but Aubree is really not doing well and Jude has fallen apart.”

Then something strange happened.

One of Aubree’s work colleagues happened to get in touch, and Jim sent her one of Tom’s health updates. This was what she replied:

“Tom has not emailed so thank you. It is very strange. I see her and talk to her occasionally at work and she is 100% Aubree. Lucid and clear and intelligent and focused. If I hadn’t seen her in the late afternoon/evening those couple days, I wouldn’t believe that report on how she is doing. It is really hard to believe. She is still working during the day and that is a bit strange but probably good for her.  I am trying to arrange to meet her for lunch one day so I can check in with her. She absolutely will not acknowledge that anything is wrong while she is in work mode so I can’t talk to her or see how she is feeling or even offer her support. That is hard but I’m trying to respect her need for compartmentalizing.” 

When, Jim asked, was she last at work?!!!?!!!@!

5. self-deception“On Monday” was the reply. She drove there, apparently. And on Friday evening she had two drinks at the bar, to which she had walked completely unaided as usual, and then she wolfed down a huge Mexican meal. (Yes, she must have been pretty hungry after a whole week of mush at Karin and Jim’s.)

The web of deception

With a sinking feeling, Jim started to contact other people whom Aubree had mentioned in passing. Her ex-roommate Lindsay, whom we’d never happened to overlap with at Aubree’s house, surprise, surprise, said: “I lived with Aubree for 2 years, and not once did I see her have a seizure.” Matt the caretaker doesn’t exist — Lindsay had never heard of him, his number was listed as 000-0000.

What about all those emails and texts, I asked Karin in confusion as all this was slowly coming to light — how could Aubree go to work while Tom was with her, he would have noticed?!

“That’s the point. I don’t think there is a Tom.”

That was one of the spookiest moments of my life.

The gig was up, but we still didn’t know the extent of it. We got online and managed to find real emails for Tom and Jude, as opposed to the ones created by Aubree, and even a phone number. Late as it was, Jim called them straightaway.

They were fast asleep in bed in Houston.

And they knew nothing about any of this.

6. tangled webThey called the parents to go pick up Aubree and take her to their house, worried that she would try to kill herself now that it was all over. Turns out her mother is not a murderer nor her father an abuser. Her colluding brothers turn out to be rather innocent as well.

Since then we have all been putting together the pieces, or rather unravelling the web of deception. It has been by turns spooky, surreal, and desperately sad, but also at times absurdly, darkly humorous. Aubree is brilliantly intelligent; we always knew that, even with all her stroke activity. And this was the performance of a lifetime. Did she have spreadsheets; how did she keep all these lies together?! Aubree had every single person she met duped. Everyone, that is, except Geshe-la.

For sure, all of us probably wondered once or twice, “Could this really all be happening to her at this pace? Is she really that ill, how come she hasn’t died yet?” Someone gave her a pain-relieving massage, for example, and was surprised her tumors were not more noticeable. But we pushed these thoughts aside as uncharitable – she only weighs 90lbs for goodness sake, and those seizures are ghastly! And yes, she had some good days where she rallied remarkably to get to things and talk weakly to people – but that must have been all our prayers! Poor brave girl.

Meeting the family

At dinner we sat in a booth at Racines with her murdering mother (supposedly in jail), her psychotic sister (supposedly in a psych ward), and her abusive father. (The only person missing was her deaf-mute long-suffering brother-in-law, who was on a lecture tour.) And these were three of the sweetest people you could imagine. I’d hang out happily with any of them.

7. gold does not glitterWith a family like this, and with several loyal old friends, Aubree has no need to crave attention. Clearly her self-hatred is not rational. I suppose which of our delusions is?

We wondered how the seizures had been so convincing, and her dad explained the time he took her to Yale epilepsy clinic when she was 22 (the last time he saw her have a fit) and they stressed to her that she must never take Ativan as it brought on the seizures. She had been eating it like candy, at least with us, though clearly not at work.

We wondered how she managed to choke and turn blue from not being able to breathe. Her mom, a nurse (somewhat the opposite to a killer), said that Aubree must have been holding her breath.

Impressive willfulness, we all agreed.

But her dad said, “This is so confusing for me. I hate to say this but I think I’d prefer it if she had cancer. At least we could understand that.” And “She is my daughter but I cannot protect her; this is the hardest thing in my life.”

It was her own dad who suggested grimly that this would make a very good 10-part miniseries. I have included only the salient details in this already long article – there is enough material for it. And the weekly suspense has certainly kept a lot of people on the edges of their seats for two years.

Her sister said: “What you showed her, that love, that part was all true, pure. We are so grateful to you.”

We had a good evening – it was helpful for all of us. We even laughed quite a bit. They were so relieved with our reaction, said we were cool. I think Dharma is cool. Knowing about Buddha nature is cool.

And, hey, our prayers worked!!! Aubree is cancer-free! She is no longer dying! What a miracle. And her family have all magically recovered and become loving, reasonable people!!

(There are no inherently existent suffering beings, after all. Wake us up from the nightmare of mistaken appearances, and we are all just fine.)

Also, btw, remember that friend who committed suicide? Happily oblivious to the fact that she is dead, she is getting married next month, and Aubree has been invited to the wedding.

Our road of caring for Aubree has come to an end, and her family are taking it from here. She has confessed to lying. They have hopefully found a good place for her to receive help. I wish them all the best.

Echoes of “Misery”

MiserySee, go back to the first paragraph of this article and read it again, and perhaps you will understand why Aubree was panicking 😉 She was out in the middle of nowhere, far from her house. Two days of pretense was one thing, but this was a week already and she had to get to work, she was ravenous, she was being force-fed pills, and she couldn’t sleep at night because of her medicine-induced seizures and full-volume playlist.

Some lessons learned on this crazy train
Lesson #1 ~ What can we rely on?

At dinner, her sister commented that we must be angry, and we replied truthfully that we were not because we haven’t lost anything, not really, and we gained a great deal from Aubree. And inside there is definitely a dear, lovely person with potential, one that did shine through, despite her desperate need for attention, despite her mental illness.

Jim put it this way yesterday when he spoke to the Sangha:

“Although everything we knew about Aubree was wrong, the love and compassion she brought out of me was true. I had no idea I had these reserves of patience in me and could, for example, survive happily on so little sleep! And therefore I don’t regret it. For me, Aubree was an emanation of all the stages of the path from precious human life, death, and the fears of lower rebirth all the way through to love, compassion, and patience. And now I am learning the greatest lesson of all, the hallucinatory, deceptive nature of samsara. Dharma now is also what is healing any hurt I have.”

Both Jim and Karin have emerged as Bodhisattvas in my book. Their Sangha is impressed with them.

For us

Buddhas emanate whatever we need, and Aubree did bring out the best in us so who knows who she is. Jim quoted the verse from the mind-training teachings:

Even if someone I have helped
And of whom I had great hopes
Nevertheless harms me intentionally
May I see him as my holy Spiritual Guide.

We have lost nothing, even if Aubree has. She has taught us much. As one friend puts it, Aubree was “for us”.

truthSo, other than the wisdom that sees right through it all, including the “polluted memories” as someone sadly put it, what can we rely upon in this crazy mixed up world of illusion? (I address that a bit in this article.) We can rely upon love and compassion. And honesty (see below). We can rely upon the Dharma Jewel of Lamrim.

As Aubree earnestly texted me herself a few months back:

“If negative actions occur in this life despite trying to go for refuge and show compassion, can a precious human life be maintained?”

Even if this is the weirdest route to finding a Spiritual Guide and Dharma that I have ever seen, I am praying that some of the Dharma Aubree professed and seemed to love really did go in, and that it will help her now.

How could you be so stupid? …

… someone at his work asked Jim. Were we duped? Yes, most heartily. Are we embarrassed? Yes, maybe a little. But that was an Oscar-winning performance. She had actual seizures for hours on end. She went blue in the face. She was skin and bone. She held her body differently for days on end, faltered on her legs, talked in a strained way, and so on. Fifteen years ago she pulled another stunt and managed to dupe a whole team of care-workers including a psychologist. And embarrassment doesn’t hurt us. But being mistaken is okay if our hearts are true and we come to realize our mistake. Now we can all work on our wisdom.

In Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang talks about someone driving in the wrong direction to London and suddenly realizing he has been wrong all along. Finding out about Aubree was one of those heart-stopping moments, WHAT??! Have we really been on this crazy train for two years?

But in fact we have been on a crazy train since beginningless time. As Geshe-la says, when this man realizes he has made a serious mistake, he turns back, and:

… hopefully follows the correct road to London. In a similar way, before realizing emptiness we are following incorrect paths… At present we believe that whatever appears to our mind is truly existent and then we follow the paths of cyclic existence.

It is past time we all got off this crazy train. As Geshe-la says:

We shall know that hitherto we have been completely misled and mistaken. We shall realize that what appeared to us, what we apprehended, and the attitudes we developed were all completely wrong. Then, hopefully, we will begin to follow the path to liberation, the path that really does lead to peace and happiness.

Lesson # 2 ~ Hold space

This drama has increased my will to get into my heart every day and let all the elaborations fall away. Ideally we can learn over time to abide in our very subtle mind mixed with the nature of ultimate truth — bliss and emptiness, Mahamudra. There’s a beautiful line about this in Vajrayogini Tantra:

Then the youth of my mind, exhausted by its elaborations,
Came to rest in the forest hut beyond expression.

Do we not live these days in an overstimulated world of so many false appearances bombarding us daily? Special effects, political echo chambers, virtual reality, video games, all those iSomethings, AI robots, Pokémon Go, self-seeking lies, idle gossip, FOMO, etc, etc, etc. These days, we apparently spend 10+ hours on our screens, much of that precious time sucked into a made-up world one way or another.

But we need peace. We can’t be happy without it. Excited, maybe…  but happy? No. We need to hang out at least some of our time in that forest hut. At the very least we need to allow our otherwise endless distractions to subside through breathing meditation to access the natural peace, clarity, and stillness of our own minds. We need to identify with and enjoy our vast and profound true nature, our Buddha nature. For this to happen, at least a little meditation regularly is crucial.

And this is not just for ourselves. As one friend puts it, we need to “hold space” for everyone. Become a refuge, a Sangha Jewel.

Why instead use the few remaining months we have left to seek out more confusion and trickery? What’s the point?

Lesson # 3 ~ Be honest, always

It is not worth adding extra elaborations to samsara. Better to be scrupulously honest, not deliberately deceiving others by lying. We are all already in a web of deception, so please let’s not make it worse.6. in a time of universal deceit

Our self-protective minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing already have a tendency to weave little lies just to sustain the illusion of a non-existent self, both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we know we are doing it, sometimes we don’t. Aubree just took this fake identity to a whole new level.

Gotta stop stirring. Some slander is true to utter, and some is false (see Joyful Path). Either way, if our words turn people against each other they are to be avoided. We need to talk about others’ good qualities rather than their faults, see the best in them, bring out the best.

So much of our conversation is gossip and hyperbole! We don’t need to keep talking nonsense with no wish to help others (namely, idle chatter.) We are already wrapped in nonsense.

I find it interesting that these 3 of the 4 non-virtuous actions of speech explained by Buddha (see Joyful Path) — lying, slander, and idle gossip – all have something to do with deceiving or at best distracting each other. Harmony is key to happiness, and distrust kills it. Avoiding these negative verbal actions is especially important in our spiritual communities.

Postscript

Thank you for getting this far. As Aubree once requested: “If you guys want to post photos some place, please do not tag me and if you use names, please be careful.  As you know, my family is crazy and I can’t have things on my webpage.” For different reasons, to really protect the innocent, I have changed all names and withheld all photographic evidence. And, not for the first time, I request your prayers for poor Aubree and her confused and reeling family. But these are different prayers.