Just passin’ through …

Today I was wondering what people might want to do with my ashes, if anything at all. For the record, if any of you can be bothered, I would like them scattered in the lake at Madhyamaka Centre, Geshe Kelsang’s first Buddhist Centre in the West, where I spent a number of formative years. If that’s inconvenient because I die in another country, I don’t mind being scattered on the plants at any Kadampa Center.

riding through townAnyway, this got me thinking. And maybe it is because I live in the Wild West these days, but I got this image of myself as a cowboy riding into town – one of those fake Hollywood towns with a saloon, livery, general store, sheriff, and all that other atmospheric stuff.

I have no idea how long I will be on this set — it could be days or weeks or perhaps even years, but one thing I know for sure is that I am only passing through. I have been riding my whole life through town after town, and before long I will be riding onto countless more. And the same is true for everybody else in this dusty desert.

For the sake of argument, lets say that everything I do in this town is going to count towards where I go next — I will be taking my intentions or karma with me like credentials or a rap sheet. Also, in this town, everybody, just like me, wants to be happy all the time and never wants to suffer.

So, given this, what am I going to do while I’m here? What is the best way to help myself and help everyone else?

I will do my best to make sure they’re comfortable. I will try and make this town more peaceful, harmonious, fair, and equitable. I will try and help people find enough to eat and have roofs over their heads. I will speak up against injustice. I will vote for the best sheriff on offer. When there is trouble, eg, a violent storm, I will try my best to help people rebuild. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

Through technological progress and by organizing society in fairer, more humane ways, we can certainly help improve people’s lives in some respects.

All of this is very important. But even more important, I think, is to help everyone realize that they are just here for a short time and that none of this is really happening.

indianAlso, when I do help in those external ways, I need to be able to set the intention and release the outcome, as it were – not getting attached to results, because these are by no means certain in samsara. This is not fatalistic, it is realistic; and recognizing it will make me more, not less, effective in helping my townsfolk, while keeping the discouragement of false expectations at bay.

Also, I need to be prepared not to freak out if there are unwanted consequences from some of my actions – I am dealing, after all, with a truck-load of cowboys and girls, with all their uncontrolled minds and bad karma. For example, I might protect the damsel from the gunslinger, but she may go on to shoot someone else.

Whatever we do will inevitably have some unwanted side effects. The best we can hope for is to provide people with conditions that bring some temporary relief from problems and difficulties, but we cannot give them true, lasting happiness. This is because the real cause of happiness is inner peace, which can be found only within the mind, not in external conditions. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Whatever happens in this town has no lasting impact or value because soon we will all be moving on. Realizing this obviates the 8 worldly concerns. For what use are fame, wealth, and so on, except insofar as we can use it to help others? I need to realize as well that this town is basically fake, a back lot at Universal Studios. Appearances are deceptive. We can sometimes have happy moments in a virtual reality, but buying into mistaken appearances overall causes nothing but problems and confusion.

The source of everything that appears to us in this movie-like reality is mind, an extraordinarily creative mind. One that happens to be our own. We need to harness and control it as soon as we can, take over the narrative, and help everyone else do the same.

Portals

So let’s say that in this town there is a place that has uncovered the mystery that lies at the heart of the Wild West and all its people, ie, it is all fleeting and it is all false.

sceneryAnd if I were to stumble upon this place, it would be utterly eye-opening, it would shatter my complacency, it would be a portal into a blissful new world of possibility and freedom. I couldn’t get enough of it. And I would want to help it grow so that more and more of my friends and fellow inhabitants could find it too.

As the townsfolk discovered it, and gradually learned the ideas that set them free, they would naturally bring those ideas into their lives in the town, share them with others, whatever line of work they were in. They would naturally work to help their people because they would WANT to, and they might have imaginative and fresh approaches to old problems. Society could change for the better.

Welcome to your local Buddhist Center.

Buddha said:

This world is not our permanent home. We are travelers passing through.

In this short human life, of course I want to help with practical kindness as much as I am able, even if it’s only donating to disaster relief. But my main wish is to help create portals of wisdom and compassion so that everyone in the world can learn the true nature of reality and escape from the bad dream of samsara forever.

I heard Gen Rigpa, the Kadampa Buddhist teacher in Los Angeles, say that every atom of a Dharma Center is made of compassion. I love that.  For of course the Center is not just bricks and mortar, or what happens inside those walls. It is not even just the people attending at any given time. It doesn’t have boundaries. It spreads into the society cowgirlaround it via the hearts and deeds of all its members. People get peace from the teachings and are inspired to pay it forward. Everyone is welcome. No one is excluded.

The portal doesn’t have to be secret, not at all. It could be in the building right next to the Saloon. The commercial spaces being created all over the world are particularly interesting for this reason – when I started out, Buddhist Centers were always out in the sticks, not obvious, and self-contained like the monasteries of Tibet. Now they are very much a public service, part of the fabric of modern life, found in the middle of cities everywhere, open and accessible to all the people walking by. People show up to relax at a lunchtime breathing meditation, and find themselves with access to an entire path to enlightenment. This is modern Buddhism.

So everything we do directly or indirectly to help these Centers is of great service to our one-horse town and — because each Center is dedicated to world peace — it is also of implicit service to everyone else.

There are temples for world peace everywhere, where the teachings are available and prayers for world peace are being offered up all the time. And prayers work. Luckily there is a world peace temple being built in Washington DC as we speak; and it is is also clearer to me now why Geshe Kelsang seemed so keen on starting a Center in South Korea, even though this has not properly materialized yet. None of these temples will come a moment too soon.

Practitioners at the Centers learn what they need to know, become more and more like Bodhisattvas, and gradually take their wisdom, compassion, skill, and imagination into their own and others’ daily lives. Wherever they go, the Center goes with them so to speak – as artists, doctors, social activists, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, flight attendants, film makers, and so on. There are no real limits. That’s how I see it at least. I think these teachings, far from leading to escapism, can light fires under the socially engaged.

WestworldAnd, by the way, it seems to be a two-way street – Dharma Centers cannot flourish in a vacuum. People need to have a certain number of good human conditions and the space and freedom to practice. Think of Tibet – when it was overrun, Dharma could not flourish. If we want Dharma to flourish, I would say we have some responsibility for helping make our society conducive. For right now our world does not seem to be going in a fabulous direction, not at all.

Buddhism is therefore not about navel-gazing – once we know and have some stable experience of it, we apply it also with relevance to “real-world” problems, while at the same time recognizing that there is no real world.

For material development alone, for its own sake, is not good enough. Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. And no matter how hard we try, we’ll never find happiness where it is not. Of primary importance is the radical shift within, especially realizing the true nature of reality. As modern-day Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as the only way to solve our own problems is to find inner peace, so the only way to help others to solve theirs is to encourage them to engage in spiritual practice and discover their own inner peace.

This peace is not just a feel-good option but a must-have. It is the path to lasting freedom and happiness. There are many levels of inner peace – from the patience that stops shooting at everything that moves, right through to the enlightenment that dissolves away the suffering world and recreates a Pure Land.

The teachings on selflessness and Tantra in particular are capable of flipping switches left, right, and center. The lasting inner peace we want people to experience is the inner light of omniscient wisdom, where they see through the illusion, see through the deception, and are finally completely free to create the blissful reality and worlds of their choosing.

The actual portal to freedom is not outside of us – it is the doorway into the heart of bliss and emptiness. We need to realize the impermanent and illusory nature of the scenery, ourselves, and everyone else in this godforsaken town! As Geshe Kelsang says:

We can sometimes help others by providing them with money or better material conditions, but we should remember that the greatest benefit we can give is to help them overcome their delusions and find true, lasting happiness within.

And that is the true and only purpose for helping power up these portals — wherever you are and however you can.

Related articles

A Buddhist way to world peace

What is modern Buddhism for?

A vision of hope in troubled times

 

Reflections in a clear lake

flying crowMahasiddha Saraha was a Mahamudra master who gave some very helpful analogies to help us settle the mind, explained in Clear Light of Bliss. One is about a crow and a boat. In the olden days, before GPS, sailors would take a crow with them and periodically let it go to see if they were near land. If they were, the crow would not return; if they were not, it would fly around a bit and then have to return to the boat.

(I am continuing from this article on Mahamudra.)

Where do you want to land?

We can be the same with our various distractions – we do not give them anywhere to land. We don’t let them land, we just watch them. They’ve arisen from the mind and are the nature of mind so — although they’ll give us reasons as to why we SHOULD think them, fascinating or useful as they are — if we just wait they will rejoin the meditation object, the mind itself. And we don’t need to worry that we have lost anything, a useful train of thought for example, for we have lost nothing. In fact, we have gained a great deal.

Normally we are very good at giving our thoughts somewhere to land … indeed a sofa to sit on, a house to live in, a bed, a family, a history, a town … Distraction is like poison. If we get sufficiently stuck in one thought it can derail our entire life, it has that power. Any depression or fury that we’ve had started with one thought.

reflection in lakeSo in the meditation on the nature of the mind we learn to let go, and we learn that it is safe to let go, because the thoughts arose from and subsided into our own mind, nowhere else. And once they’re gone they’re gone but we are not missing much, if anything.

Delirium

Bear in mind, after all, that we are hallucinating like crazy most of the time! Whenever we are suffering from the delusions of anger, attachment, and even just our underlying ignorance, the engaged objects of our mind don’t exist, as explained in detail in How to Understand the Mind. I spent time in a ward for people with so-called “confusion” not long ago. Some of the patients were clearly hallucinating like crazy due to infections, “delirious” as the doctors put it, and, you know something, I couldn’t help thinking that they were not really that much more “delusional” than anyone else, it was just that no one was sharing these particular narratives with them. No more than people share our dreams. Not that it was pleasant for anyone concerned, but no hallucinations are pleasant, not really, and they just go on and on and on, which is why Buddhists have had enough and want samsara to end.

Let it be

When we are meditating and we get distracted, eg, by the sound of someone moving around, then instead of going immediately out to this distraction we can remember Saraha’s crow analogy and let it be. We can stay focused on the clarity and know that the distraction will rejoin it. One corner of our mind is observing that a thought is arising, but we also know that it will rejoin the mind. This is the same for any awareness or thought we have – they are all equally mind, or clarity, so however compelling, or however far they threaten to take us away from the meditation, in fact they can’t if we don’t let them.

So we are not conceptually pushing the thoughts away, rejecting them – there is no aversion, we are just letting them rejoin the object and dissolve away, quite naturally. We are relaxed – concentrated for sure, yet in a state of acceptance rather than resistance. And both our concentration and our wisdom are improving all the time.

Being alive

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says that our very subtle mind “holds our life”. It seems to me that when we are tuned into the clarity of our mind, this is really feeling alive. I also think we can do this to a certain extent anytime, not just in deep meditation – be aware of the awareness rather than fixated on its objects. We tend to stay more in the heart too when we do this, which feels more peaceful and spacious.

We do not need to go OUT to objects any more than a lake needs to go out to its reflections – they are mere aspects/appearances. This really helps us stay in the present moment for how can a reflection in a lake be in the past or in the future?

Have you ever noticed what happens when you are starting to feel a bit disturbed or deluded – how your mind wants to go OUT? It starts to feel unsettled. We can feel our energy winds going outwards, if we observe carefully – trying like the crow to find somewhere to land. When we allow ourselves to absorb inward by remembering that there is nothing actually out there to go to, we experience contentment, and eventually non-dual bliss.

We can get a taste of how it is possible to enjoy endlessly, without craving, with the blissful Heroes and Heroines (the Tantric Buddhas) of Heruka’s mandala; and learn to bring everyone else in. As we pray in the Heruka tsog offering:

Please bless me so that I may experience delight with the messengers of the vajra mind family.

Quick meditation on the mind

Here are a few quick pointers to the Mahamudra meditation again.

With a decision to apply ourselves, we can breathe out our obstacles and open up the space in our mind to inhale radiant light, the nature of our Mahamudra master’s fully realized consciousness. We can draw peaceful blessings deep into our root mind at our heart with each inhalation. Through enjoying this process, we allow our own awareness to be drawn in too, until we feel centered within this light, peaceful, experience at our heart. 

While relaxing here, we ask: “What is the mind? What is it that is aware of the sounds, sensations, thoughts?” So that instead of focusing on these we use them to help us become aware of awareness itself, which is like an inner empty space that has the power to perceive. Then we abide within the experience of the mind itself, recognizing it as the root mind at our heart, moment by moment.

The moment we notice that our mind is distracted outward and wants somewhere to land, we can remember the crow analogy. We can ask, “What is it that is aware?”, and stay inwardly focused on the clarity of the mind.

Fancy winter retreat here at Madhyamaka Centre? It’s near (old) York, in England.

You may or may not have much time to practice this meditation over the holiday period, but I hope these Mahamudra articles so far have given some of you a little appetite for retreat in January 2019 (also Heruka and Vajrayogini month). Meditation retreats will be taking place at residential and non-residential Kadampa centers all over the world, for example in upstate New York. It’s always been my favorite part of the year.

Getting older and uglier by the year, who voted for this?!


When I was in my early thirties, and looking moreorless good still, I recall complaining to my hair stylist that I was starting to go grey. He replied that many of his clients complained of ageing, as they sat there staring at themselves and him in the mirror, and he would reply:

“We are all going in the same direction at the same speed.”

Wise man. As far as most of us are concerned, even if we have managed to escape a serious illness up ‘til now, just getting older and uglier is calamitous on a personal level. We don’t like losing our looks, our muscle tone, our smooth skin, our shiny thick hair, etc. We don’t like the effects of gravity on our body. But, as Buddha taught and we can easily observe, getting older and uglier is also entirely universal – it happens to all of us who are lucky enough to remain enough years in a human body. So why are we so fussed just about ourselves?  When it is this inevitable, why do we allow ourselves to get this fussed at all?

If I were any good at drawing graphs, I could draw one to represent the rise and fall of our looks that went something like this… the line would go up gradually starting at birth, peak in our late teens and twenties, go down slightly in our thirties, and then start to drop precipitously in our forties. From then on, it would all be downhill ‘til our body is disposed of entirely.

We might as well accept it happily. Otherwise, regardless of how much increased effort and money we put into looking good, we are in for decades of diminishing returns.

On a flight to San Francisco a few years ago, I was standing behind three teenage Californian girls on the walkway to the plane. This is what I overheard. The first girl remarked: “I saw your mom the other day. She looked good. How did she manage that?” The second girl replied: “She does Botox. Yeah, and she really works at keeping in shape, it’s like she thinks about it a lot.” The third girl asked: “How old is your mom?”, and the reply was “She’s like forty already!” There was a collective shudder as they took that in, then the first girl said: “I’m soooo going to have Botox if I get that old. It’ll be better then. I’ll never let myself go.” A pause as they thought ahead to the dismal day when they would turn forty and ugly. Then the third girl decided against it, to head nodding all around:

“I’m soooo not going to get old.”

I couldn’t help smiling, but I had to relate. I remember in my teens and early twenties thinking that middle-aged people had somehow  just lazily let themselves go — how with just a little more attention to what they ate and a little more exercise (and how hard is that for goodness sake?!) they’d look far better and younger. The grey hair, the pot belly, the wrinkles — it all felt somehow optional. I figured I’d follow my own advice and thus escape the trap they’d fallen into, that I’d look very much the same at their age as I did now. But, guess what. I do eat pretty well and I do still exercise, but I look nothing like I did when I was nineteen. Those girls on the plane did not throw me a second glance – as far as they were concerned, I had clearly failed. One part of me wanted to butt in and say, “Just you wait…!” but of course I didn’t.

Which reminds me of another time after I first moved into Madhyamaka Centre in 1986. A bright, healthy, relatively shapely young twenty something, I was sauntering down the beautiful driveway and, it being a Sunday, there was a local couple up ahead of me, walking very, very slowly. As I got closer to them, I could see that they were both entirely old and decrepit, and I remember this ignoble thought popped into my head: “I’ll never let myself get like that!” At which point, the old man turned around, looked me straight in the eye, and said, not without kindness: “You think you’ll never be old like us. You think you’ll always be able to walk fast down this road. I thought that too when I was your age. But you wait.” I had to chalk that one up to an emanation of Buddha. Despite years of studying ageing, sickness and death already, even teaching about them in branches and on Foundation Programme, this old man’s simple words struck home

And I didn’t have to wait long, at least before the process of ageing got well underway. Now it has got to that point when every peek in the mirror yields seemingly another wrinkle, grey hair, crevasse, or jowl. It would be scary if it wasn’t funny. (Or funny if it wasn’t scary, I’m not sure which.) Are you at that point yet when you cast around for photos that are several years old for your Facebook page, or at least photos that were shot in dim lighting?! Well, just you wait.

It makes much better sense to focus on improving the beauty of our mind through developing love, compassion, patience, wisdom and so on. This beauty will never let us down either in this life or in any future lives.

Apparently Americans per capita spend more on skin care each year than they do on education. Yet someone I know working in the skin care industry told me the conventional wisdom is that even the best creams and surgical procedures will take only a few years off someone’s looks.  Of course, if we try too hard, at some point it backfires — we end up looking unnatural and off-putting, the opposite of what we signed up and paid so much for.

There’s only so much we can do with our meaty bodies!

We are attached to an image of ourselves, not accepting who we are and where we are at. Talking of this body image, though, have you noticed how on some days you think you look hot (still) and on others you can’t quite believe how much you’ve aged – yet a casual observer would not be able to tell the difference between these two you’s (and probably couldn’t care less if they could?!) It is all in our mind.

Have you ever seen those pictures of the most attractive people on our planet, the movie stars, when the Enquirer has got hold of them at an unguarded and un-photoshopped moment? Like those stars, we generally don’t allow that to happen. We approach our bathroom mirror deliberately and with certain preconceptions, and this usually determines what we see – “Look, I still look quite nice!” We add our own photo-shop: We angle our head in a certain complimentary way, perhaps smile seductively at ourselves, hold our stomach in, and stand up straight (don’t tell me this is just me!! I’ve seen you…) But how often have you heard someone relay how they were travelling up an escalator in a mall the other day when they caught sight of a middle-aged overweight grey-haired person with terrible posture in the mirror, only to realize with horror that it was their own reflection?!  And you wonder what others see sometimes. The other day I wandered down to an open-air blues concert in my town and an ancient man (who was probably my age) tried to pick me up, as if he stood a chance! I felt I was way too young for him, but he probably thought I was just the same age.

When we’re young, we take it in our stride when someone says: “You’re gorgeous!” But the most we can hope for as we get older is: “You’re looking good for your age.” The Buddhist scriptures talk about “the mask of youth”. That smooth flawless skin must fall off sooner or later, even if we try to resist it like some kind of Dorian Gray making a pact with the devil of self-pre-occupation. We can be the opposite of Dorian Gray – becoming more beautiful on the inside, even as our face and body succumb to the years and gravity. (Of course I’m not suggesting we entirely neglect what we look like, just that we don’t exaggerate its importance.)

Why am I saying all this? Only to encourage everyone, or perhaps just myself, to not worry about getting uglier because it is inevitable, at least superficially at skin level. We can cut mold out of an orange, but it is still only a matter of time before the whole orange succumbs. And though there may be more oranges in the fruit bowl, we only have this one body, so our ageing is an indicator that it is time to get out of samsara, the cycle of impure life, by focusing on what we can control, our mind.

If you are beautiful inside, you’ll never be ugly. People will always find you attractive and want you around – that is one of the main benefits of patience, for example. So we could save ourselves a lot of time and heartache by taking Buddha’s advice on board. And sooner — learning to see it coming while we’re relatively young — rather than waiting until the last minute, when we really can kid ourselves no longer but have left ourselves little to fall back upon. Luckily, we are not our bodies so we don’t have to identify with them so desperately. There is a great deal more to us. Our body has a limited shelf life, but the continuum of our mind does not.

Finally, we don’t even have to focus on our bodily age if we are interested mainly in the inner life of our mind, for our mind is ageless. I always find it fascinating how, from a Buddhist perspective, all of us are the same age because our mental continuums have existed since beginningless time.

Over to you: Do you agree? And have you ever met anyone who is more beautiful as their body grows older? What is their secret?

p.s: Ageing happens to everyone who lives long enough, even George Clooney, who claims to be scared of getting old and dead. The London Times quoted him last week:

“There’s only a certain amount of time” (about 10 years he thinks)—“when you get the keys to the kingdom. I’m terrified of the moment when you’re the guy who goes to the studio and says, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ and they’re like, ‘Thanks for stopping by,’ and you walk out and they roll their eyes.”

Please share this article with all the old geezers you know, if you like it.