What is Buddhism? ~ A short, simple guide

This summer my parents asked if I could write a “short, simple guide” to answer the main questions they and their friends have about Buddhism. They kindly sent me the list of quite excellent enquiries, so I am going to have a go now.

  • What is Buddhism in one sentence? 

Buddhism is learning to live from a peaceful mind and a good heart as the best way to solve our own inner problems of anxiety, depression, fear, etc.; finding a deepening sense of happiness and freedom from within; and in time helping and inspiring others to do the same.

(Thank goodness for semi-colons.)

Or how about this:

“Buddha says be nice to people and animals and then you feel good.” ~ a 4-year-old Buddhist

  • What is meditation in one sentence?

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resMeditation, literally “familiarizing ourselves with positivity”, lies at the heart of Buddhism, and by practicing it we (1) are protected from the suffering caused by unpeaceful, uncontrolled states of mind such as anger, attachment, and ignorance that give rise to suffering; and (2) learn how to develop and maintain our peaceful, beneficial states of mind such as patience, love, and wisdom, in this way fulfilling our innate potential for lasting happiness and freedom, as well as the ability to help others.

Hmm, that might have been stretching the one sentence thing a bit. So how about this quote from Buddha instead:

Learn to do good,
Cease to do evil,
And control the mind.

  • Do Buddhists believe there is a God?

Short answer: No. Not a creator God. But we do believe in the existence of completely perfect holy beings.

If there is a creator God who is omnipotent and has compassion for his creation, why is there suffering? It would seem that a creator God must either have no compassion or not be omnipotent, one can’t have it both ways.

Buddhists do not believe that one single mind, namely God’s, created the world, but that we are all creating our own reality with our own minds continually. Nonetheless, we all have the potential to purify our minds of all obstructions and attain omniscience, if not omnipotence. And so Buddhists do believe in the existence of countless enlightened beings who have attained complete freedom and omniscience in order to help everyone else do the same, and we pray to them for guidance and blessings.

Kadampa  BuddhasSo, like Christians and so on, we believe in the existence of omnipresent compassionate holy beings and in the power of prayer and blessings. Just not in an omnipotent creator God.

We can also find common ground on a more mystical (perhaps sort of holy spirit level) if we take God to be the clear light mind possessed by all living beings, which is called the basic Dharmakaya or Truth Body. This very subtle mind that goes from life to life is the basis or creator of both samsara and nirvana, and, when purified, will become the bliss and emptiness of the actual Truth Body of a Buddha, omniscient wisdom.

There is a bit more here.

  • Is Buddhism a religion or a faith? Are they different?

Buddhism is a religion, according to the dictionary definition. It is also a faith, in so far as Buddhists grow their faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Faith is a positive state of mind that is quite clearly defined in Buddhism – it goes hand in hand with experience and includes (a) believing faith, where we simply believe in the existence of holy beings, pure states of mind, etc.; (b) admiring faith, where we admire their good qualities; and (c) wishing faith, where we wish to gain those qualities ourselves.

  • What happens when you die? What is meant by reincarnation?

We take rebirth, which means the same as reincarnation moreorless. Our mind is formless awareness whereas our body is made of flesh and blood; so though the body dies, the very subtle mind continues. Buddha documents the entire process of dying and taking rebirth from the subjective point of view of the person dying, it is fascinating. We pass through different levels of consciousness. It is a bit like falling asleep, dreaming, and waking up, though we wake up into an entirely new body and world. What body and world that is depends on the quality of our mind and our actions, or karma. I have written several articles about this subject here.

reincarnation.jpgA surprising number of Western thinkers too have believed in rebirth over the centuries, including early Christian Gnostics; and I like Voltaire’s words on the subject:

It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.

Being born once is no less weird than being born lots of times. Dying once is no less weird than dying lots of times.

For as long as I remember I have believed in rebirth, so that kind of says something right there. I remember telling you, Dad, that your father was going to be reborn as a human and not as an animal because he was a good man (a vicar) and died peacefully. I was all of six years old at the time, I wonder if you remember, it was in the kitchen in Guildford. I also knew without being told, aged 4, that our daschund Rozy was already on the way to her next life when you drove her away in the boot of our car in Sri Lanka after her accident. Stuff like that.

  • What is a Buddhist’s relationship with everyday life? For instance, can a Buddhist be a soldier? or kill anything?

Buddhism is based on compassion and its chief refuge commitment is: “Not to harm others.” So Buddhists avoid killing as much as they can, and also try to have careers that don’t involve harming others if possible. The main thing always is the motivation, however, so there are no external laws or strict rules for living per se; each Buddhist has to be pragmatic and figure out for themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and what results it will have for themselves and others.

Moreover, Buddhists believe that everyday life can be transformed into a spiritual path by changing our minds:

Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. – Eight Steps to Happiness

  • Do Buddhists aim to make the world a better place by the personal example of their Way of Life rather than by direct action?

Another good question. It’s a bit of both. Bodhisattvas have two main methods to make the world a better place, which are reflected in the vows they take – (1) to develop their minds so they can attain enlightenment as quickly as possible to help all living beings, and (2) to help others directly whenever they can. What form that help takes depends on the individual, there is a lot of diversity.Sally and Buddha

For example, my main aim is to practice Buddhism and help it to flourish so that it reaches lots of people and inspires them also to become more peaceful, happy, patient, etc. This involves both a way of life and direct action. But I also do other types of direct action, as you may be meaning it, in the form of helping an animal shelter and trying to promote kindness to animals. But again, it is the motivation that counts. Direct action motivated by, say, a mind full of hate or intolerance, is counterproductive.

Buddhists’ main goal to make the world a better place by helping each other develop the capacity of our minds, realizing that everyone has powerful spiritual potential for lasting peace and freedom. We have been creating our own suffering for a very long time, and in the same way we can create our own happiness; we just need the methods. Geshe Kelsang puts it like this:

Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough.

A friend on Facebook put it rather nicely I thought: “We could bandage people up and give them tents and a bowl of soup, and it is great if we can do that; but if they are in a whirlwind of self-destruction they will run out with the bandages on to fight again. The whirlwind is the delusions. Until these are stopped, we can keep rebuilding houses but the uncontrolled mind will keep smashing them down again.”

  • For example, is a Buddhist Doctor a Buddhist first or a Doctor? We assume there is no dilemma or conflict but how do you explain?

I think that depends on the individual – some would say they were Buddhists first and then doctors, some would say it the other way around. There need be no conflict between being a Buddhist and being a doctor, especially if the doctor is motivated by the wish to relieve suffering and support happiness in his or her patients. As with any job, there may be certain dilemmas to navigate; but these in themselves can help someone become better at eg, compassion, patience, or taking responsibility. As one guest blogger put it in his article:

Being a social worker makes me a better Buddhist. Being a Buddhist makes me a better social worker.

Interestingly enough, Geshe Kelsang was a doctor in Tibet before he became a teacher. He came to feel that he could personally help people more by being a teacher (see point above), but there is no contradiction.

  • There are many different forms of Buddhism, do we need to know how to refer to the NKT?

Guru Sumati Buddha HerukaWe refer to the NKT as Kadampa Buddhism, “Kadampa” literally meaning “those who take all Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and put them into practice in their daily lives.” These days we also call ourselves “modern Buddhism”, because this tradition has spread more globally than most due to its accessibility to people in many countries and walks of life.

The NKT is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982-1054), practiced fully and passed down the generations through accomplished spiritual masters, including Je Tsongkhapa (AD 1357-1419), to the present day.

  • Is anyone or any type of Buddhism considered the founder of Buddhism? If so, how long ago did Buddhism start?

Buddha Shakyamuni is known as the founder of Buddhism – so from one point of view Buddhism started just over 2550 years ago in India and then spread from there. However, time is beginningless, and there are countless beings who have realized their full potential and become Buddhas; so Buddhism has actually been around (somewhere if not always here) forever!

In this world, a prince called Siddhartha in India (550 BC) found suffering unacceptable, so left his palace to bring an end to it. He discovered that the root of suffering lies within the mind, specifically within a mistaken understanding of reality, and he found a way to cut this root of ignorance with compassion and the wisdom realizing the illusory nature of things. He was then requested to teach, and gave 84,000 teachings to a very wide audience over a 40-year ministry, which became known as Dharma (literally, “that which holds us back from suffering”).

squirrelInterestingly, Buddha didn’t coin the term “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”; that was something we did much later. He called his followers simply “inner beings” because there were interested in attaining happiness and freedom by controlling the mind. Anyone can use Buddha’s teachings, therefore — for example on meditation, mindfulness, love, patience, and wisdom — without having to call themselves a Buddhist if they don’t want to. Geshe Kelsang, I remember, used to call some of his students in Dallas Texas “Christian Buddhists”, for example.

  • How many types of Buddhism exist? Or does no-one really know?

Buddhism can be grouped by country, by culture, by lineage, by teacher, by monastery, etc., so there are many types. At the same time you could say there is only one type of Buddhism, the teachings of Buddha.

Buddhism spread extensively because many countries and cultures saw that it deals with the mind so effectively; and, broadly speaking, in all these places groups would form with an experienced teacher at their center.

Buddha imageBasically there are two main “vehicles” of Buddhism – Hinayana (incl. Theravadan) and Mahayana, of which Kadampa Buddhism is the latter. Hinayanists’ goal is to attain liberation or nirvana, which means freedom from all delusions and suffering for themselves. Mahayanists’ or Bodhisattvas’ goal is to attain full enlightenment so they can lead all living beings to the same state. (Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is included in the Mahayana.) Both traditions were taught by Buddha and they have many practices in common, including the four noble truths. All authentic traditions of Buddhism are able to trace their teachings back through an unbroken line of teachers and disciples to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.

Thank you to Facebook friends who contributed to this article. I have attempted the impossible, ie, to keep my answers short. It is clearly not conclusive and plenty more could be said, so this article is like Cliff’s notes or something. Please feel free to contribute good stuff on any of these questions in the comments section below.

 

I choose everything

I’m on a roll with this monsters in the basement theme, so bear with me for one more article.

surrealOur delusions project problems “out there”, in all the directions they face. Work problems, relationship problems, political problems, weather problems, sickness problems, etc. … karma ripening as a myriad of hallucinations. Impure energy winds flow through the left and right channels giving rise to strange appearances and states of mind. Whichever way we want to look at it, stuff happens, and it doesn’t matter; it is weather that will pass.

Appearances can only make us feel bad if we give them permission to do so — if we don’t accept them without a struggle, and if we believe they are real or that they are us.

As explained in the mind-training teachings, we can use whatever appearance arises to remind us of renunciation, compassion, wisdom, and so on — essential qualities on the spiritual path to lasting freedom and helping everyone. If we get good at this through practice, there comes a time when we even think, “I need this!” when a suffering arises. At which point it is hard to say that it is a suffering any more.

We might even get to the point where our patience is so strong that we are happy with whatever arises. We might even think, “I choose this! I choose everything.” What a wonderful feeling to no longer be a victim, but to be in charge of our own life at last.

Out in the open

When a ghost next comes up the basement stairs, it is out in the open. We can think, “It is good that you have come up here, I can see you! You are out here in the sitting room where it is easy to accommodate you – in fact, please meet my friends Love and Patience, as well as all these enlightened beings; everyone is here!”break out of prison

In this context, delusions coming up can be so useful, reminding us what we need to do, as well as what everyone else is up against. Each time we work though our own stuff and come out triumphant, we become more skilled at helping others – “This is how I got rid of my jealousy, you can try it too.” It’s a bit like getting the demons out of our own cellar and then showing the neighbors how to do the same. We can all help each other for we are not each other’s enemies but in this together.

What if I don’t want to get over it?

I have come across people who are grieving who don’t WANT to get over it because it feels traitorous to the loved one and their memories. Or sometimes we don’t want to get over broken relationships because that means acknowledging that we are failures, or that the whole thing was a waste of time.

But letting go is never traitorous – love is the answer, we can still love them. Love is also the best healer.

moving onAnd we are not failures as relationships inevitably break up sooner or later, that is the nature of samsara. Also, there is no relationship from which we cannot learn something if we want to, meaning that it was not a total waste of time.

Even realizing that the attachment part was a bit of a waste of time is very helpful for avoiding it in the future, and for encouraging us to learn Buddha’s skillful methods for enjoying the honey while avoiding the razor!

Moving on and accepting the present means we can establish a saner and more positive relationship with that person, even if we never see them again in that form. The freedom to respond constructively comes from the acceptance of what is, not holding onto what is not and cannot be. With gratitude for what is making us stronger and wiser; with love and compassion; with pure view. After all, they don’t exist from their own side, so we have the freedom to view them however we choose.

Got meditation?

inner peace 1.jpgTo deal with our demons, we need to meditate. We don’t have much power to identify, reduce, and abandon our delusions without sitting down to meditate regularly. We need some introspection. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we shall find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. ~ Transform Your Life

We need time out. We need, and can have, a daily vacation to get space and balance. Even the simplest breathing meditation can put us in touch with the natural peace and sanity of our own mind.

According to Buddhism, if we are so busy that we have no time to change our minds, we are wasting our time in laziness. It is a bit like being too busy to stop being too busy. Or like attempting to cut down a tree relentlessly for days with a blunt axe, when taking 15 minutes out to sharpen the axe would do the job so much more quickly and painlessly.

As Geshe-la says:

We need time alone to recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.

Worldly activities are said to be like a man’s beard – though he shaves it off in the morning, it is back by the evening. Spending our whole lives trying to fix our problems outside our mind is exhausting and counter-productive. No wonder men in Denver don’t bother shaving any more.

Over to you, comments welcome.

 

Want your meditation to flow?

What do you do when your meditation isn’t flowing as you wish?water flowing

Sometimes we feel disconnected. All these teachings and meditations sound good, great even; but they are out there separated from us.

First bit of advice: Never push for an experience, and never get caught up in a “should” mentality – “I should be feeling love! But I’m not! Therefore, I’m no good.” The aim is not to self-generate as a bad person.

So the first thing we have to do when the mind is not moving is to accept it. Rather than thinking “Oh no!”, we think “Oh yes! This is what I have to work with now, this is what is appearing.” Once we let go of the resistance, within that space of acceptance we just need to find our way back to our basic spiritual foundation. Rather than pushing forward, we can step back to find our way forward. You can try this if you like:

Disengage from the unhappy thoughts for a moment, enough time to allow yourself to relax a little. Follow your breath if it helps, or simply sit there in your heart. Then turn  your attention to something that is generally guaranteed to put a smile on your face, such as your niece, or some kindness you have received. It doesn’t have to be much, something simple, just enough to shift your attention. You stop focusing on the things that are agitating your mind, so the natural peace of your mind can reassert itself.

inner peace 3No pushing to peace

If we stop shaking our mind, our mind will stop shaking. We don’t press our mind into peace; we just stop agitating our mind and it becomes peaceful. We can build more peace from there. No point wrestling with unhappy thoughts like a dog with a bone in order to sort them out, “I gotta sort this out! It’s getting in the way of my meditation!” No need to apply any opponents to our delusions just yet. We just relax back to some peace, however slight, and the rest of our meditation can take place in the space of a basically peaceful mind. Identifying with the peace, we can then apply the opponents later.

How do I meditate to get some feeling?

Someone who has been meditating for a long time but not enjoying it as much as she might asked me the other day how to meditate to get some feeling. This is what I suggested.

We need to start where we are, with our own experience, not pushing for a result that is somewhere outside of us. Start by getting into your heart and simply imagining there is some peace there. Find an inroad into that peace by connecting to a thought of gratitude and love that comes relatively easily to you, that works for you — like the last time you saw your dog, or the appreciation you feel for a friend. Then understand that the peace is your own Buddha nature, it is you, it is Dharma, and it is also not different to the peace of your Spiritual Guide, Buddha. Basking in the feeling of faith increases the peace even more, and on that basis you can spread out the feeling of gratitude or the feeling of love to more people, bringing them into its orbit.

IMG_7957
Foster kitten works for me.

Only once you have relaxed in this way, feeling in your heart the confidence that arises from your own experience, start your actual meditation.

If you like, while abiding in that space of refuge, do some blessed prayers as a way to purify the mind, increase your good karma, and receive even more inspiration for the meditation you want to do. It can help focus the mind too if you briefly generate the object of meditation before the prayers, and then recite the prayers with the implicit request to deepen and stabilize that particular realization.

I think this is where we need to start if we are not to be overwhelmed by appearances/distractions or identified with delusions and pain. There is more meditation advice along these lines here.

Our mind is on our side

Always remember: Your mind is on your side. Happiness arises naturally by letting go and abiding. We don’t have to force happy thoughts back into our head or push our mind for an experience of peace; we just need to let go of the thoughts that are shaking our mind.Digital Camera Exif JPEG

Imagine getting out of a perfectly functioning Ferrari to push it along the highway. Crazy, right? But no crazier than trying to push your mind when it is already perfectly capable of moving itself.

So, in summary, we don’t identify with ourselves as being blocked, negative, not able to meditate. That’s wasted time. Our mind is on our side, and even the slightest peace indicates its nature and potential for lasting peace, indeed permanent bliss. So it indicates our unbelievable potential, our Buddha nature. We can always go back to basics and identify with our Buddha nature. If we connect to our potential, we can feel that we are fortunate, and our peace will increase. If we allow ourselves to just relax into the nature of our mind, sooner or later this peace expands, takes on a life of its own, is pervaded by blessings; and we will feel that we can meditate on anything.

More about our Buddha nature and acceptance in the next article. Meanwhile, your comments and shared experience of overcoming obstacles in meditation are very appreciated.

Accepting unhappiness without panicking

Another instinctive reaction to hurt feelings (accentuated these days by 24/7 availability) is to try and distract ourselves from them, hoping that by sweeping them under the carpet they’ll go away.

Carrying straight on from this articlejack in the box

Maybe we switch on a miniseries on Netflix for 6 hours, get drunk, run away, try and put ourselves somewhere else. We are trying to get away from our own thoughts, but what we resist persists; and by ignoring, repressing, or denying what is going on inside the more intrusive our thoughts become. Undealt with thoughts have a habit of coming back and biting us even harder the next time. What happens to a jack in the box when we try to push him down?

Do you remember me mentioning this experiment in Science Journal? The scientists got 700 people to sit in a room on their own, that was the experiment! But … they took away their smartphones. Horror! And how long do you think those poor souls lasted? Apparently all of 6 to 15 minutes before they preferred to administer themselves with electric shocks than endure any more time in solitary confinement. People are seemingly incapable of sitting with their thoughts due to unaccepted and unprocessed grief, loss, sadness – so, when left alone, they started to get sad. People everywhere have lost the art of accepting, processing, working through, letting go, moving on.

IMG_6725So, suppressing our unhappy thoughts is not the way to get rid of them, whereas accepting that they are there, like clouds, is the beginning of being able to transform them. We need to let them be, without panicking. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Unfortunately, by reacting so quickly we do not give ourself the time to see what is actually going on in our mind. In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously.

Phew, what a relief!

No need for internal conflict

12743909_945984215455688_7422037828919330423_nSo, instead of trying to immediately get rid of an unpleasant feeling with blame, suppression, or distraction, we can instead be confident enough to welcome it, saying: “Come in! Sit down! Join us! I find you not so intolerable really, you are in fact quite interesting, like a weird grey cloud formation; but bear in mind that I don’t believe a word you are saying, not for a moment. Your advice has always been blinkered and disastrous. I prefer the advice of my wise friends over here, my friend patience for example. You’re acting all self-important as usual, but there is plenty else going on in my life and my mind if I think about it.” We have perspective. However bombastic or seductive they may be, we stop giving them the platform, stop listening to them, stop writing stories about them. We realize our delusions are ludicrous and self-seeking and stop taking them so seriously. (Hmmm, could be writing this about the upcoming US elections.)

DON’T PANIC!

Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings; and just as a storm has no power to destroy the sky, so unpleasant feelings have no power to destroy our mind. When painful feelings arise in our mind, there is no need to panic.

don't panic.jpgLove that last line. It reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I read this book in the past, I started saying this to myself when thoughts seemed to be racing away with themselves, “DON’T PANIC!” We panic – “I can’t handle this!”, and we spin out of control because we can’t handle this feeling of being upset or betrayed or lonely. It fills our mind and we overreact. We give our thoughts power, not realizing that there is nothing behind them. Literally nothing. We really don’t like being unhappy and because we have no patience with it, we are not accepting it, we feel actually hurt by it — which means it sits there looking inherently horrible, all solid and real.

How effective is it to cling onto misery really tightly while at the same time wishing it would go away?

I was in New York in January for the monster Storm Jonas, but within a day the sky was crystal clear again. We know this about weather, so we don’t panic that we are never going to see the sun again. I used to even enjoy the raging thunderstorms in Florida, knowing that in a day or two the sky would be blue once more. We can be more like this with our minds and our moods.

So we don’t pretend that unhappiness is not there, but we do know that this thunderstorm is not all that big shakes, that it’ll pass, that it is never going to destroy my sky-like mind. This gives us the 12744175_1002357209802864_5939240562791456254_nspace and wisdom to see more deeply why we feel mad or jealous or anxious or saturated with longing — how these painful appearances, however overwhelming they seem, are arising, for example, from the unfurling of the karma in our mind — just karmic projection.

Lamrim has solutions

If we have studied and appreciate the Lamrim meditations, we can think for example that this unhappiness is reminding me to clean up the projector of my delusions and negative karma while I still have the time to do so, while I am still breathing, in this precious human life. I am on parole from the lower realms – states of existence where suffering appearances are so overpowering that there is no longer anything we can do about them and we have no idea that we even have a choice. I’m going to break parole and flee to12717396_1002005613171357_141140646733730239_n the Pure Land, I owe nothing to Officers Self-Grasping & Self-Cherishing, I’m not going back with them. Then I’ll be in a position to start busting everyone else out of samsara’s prison too because they don’t belong here any more than I do.

Slowly but surely we take responsibility to transform our minds to view the world in different ways, ways that don’t engender feelings of unhappiness and further delusions in the first place. Eventually we learn to control what weather comes up in our mind, which will help us now and always, and allow us to be there for others.

Next installment here.

State of flow

Some people talk these days about “peak experiences”, and how they give meaning to a human life; like when you skateboard over the great wall of China with a sprained ankle and your mind is so focused and death-aware that you are totally and utterly in the zone, you can put weight on your foot painlessly, you seem to drop down into a more spacey, subtle level of consciousness, and it feels great. But, honestly, you can gain the same blissful effect far more safely (and inexpensively) by learning to meditate properly.
hacking-flow-achieving-ultimate-human-potential-1-638Not only that, but there is no comparison in terms of meaning, for meditation lets us have peak experiences not only now but in all our future lives. Meditation is transcendent – it increases our human capacity from initial scope to middle scope to great scope. A few years ago a friend of my cousin’s was telling us how she liked to jump out of airplanes because it was the only time she felt so “incredibly alive”. Ironically (or not), she died quite young last year, of commonplace cancer. Already with initial scope we are mindful of death, so each moment of this fleeting precious life can be an opportunity for a peak experience, for feeling just as incredibly alive as my once-acquaintance plummeting through the sky.

And through meditation we grow into relaxed Yogis bound for liberation (middle scope), cool, heroic Bodhisattvas (great scope), and then fully Awakened Ones, omniscient beings who can bless each and every living being every day, freeing the world from suffering. No skiing, skateboarding, surfing, skydiving, or high-wire walking can ever do that for us, even if we don’t have a fatal accident.*

One thing that does inspire me about people who push the boundaries, though, is that they are not discouraged, they have vision. They don’t assume, “I’ve never done this before so I will never be able to do it.” We could be more like that. Just because we haven’t gotten enlightened before doesn’t mean we cannot do it now. Just because Buddhism is new to the modern world doesn’t mean that it is not going to take this world by storm, with the help of our own examples.portugal-festival-2

I was in NYC for the last few weeks and many people were pouring in for meditation classes every day. This upsurge of interest is happening in other places too, and is light years away from the early days of Buddhism in the West. I remember, 35 years ago, the organizers being excited when 100 people showed up for Geshe Kelsang’s teachings in the so-called North Wing gompa at Manjushri Center, whereas now, at Kadampa festivals around the world, thousands is the norm. And studies on the benefits of mindfulness and other Buddhist techniques are everywhere you turn, mainstream, such as in the big display on the ground floor of Denver library. The snowball has already started its roll.

There is also related talk these days about being in a state of flow – extreme athletes or insanely talented artists being prime examples, but I think we all enter the zone to some extent whenever we engage in some creative act with concentration, eg, gardening, flowwriting, acting, composing, playing music, etc. We do love this because we are experiencing some degree of euphoria or bliss at that time, our most gross, chunky, talky, concretizing mind is temporarily turned down so we are at peace.

And Dharma minds put us in a state of flow – refuge and love spring to mind, but also wisdom, compassion, maybe all of them! And not least Mahamudra. 

Training in concentration

In this article, I talked about what was Mahamudra Tantra, namely the union of bliss and emptiness. Meditation on the nature of our mind is the access point to Mahamudra, enabling us to improve our mindfulness so that we can then meditate on emptiness and the union of bliss and emptiness. According to the Ganden oral lineage, Je-Tsongkhapaour “ear-whispered lineage” passed down through a succession of awesome practitioners to the present day, it is the recommended object for training in concentration.

Geshe Kelsang, modern-day Mahamudra Master, has said:

Make meditation work.

This means we make it work for us, and I think we need not be scared to experiment with the ingredients previous Yogis and Yoginis have given us, any more than those crazy snowboarders are afraid to experiment with what they have learned. We can put together these following elements of dropping into our heart, experiencing peace, receiving blessings, and meditating on clarity in whichever way helps us gain the peak experiences.

Short meditation

So here is a short suggested meditation to help you enter the state of flow without having to leave your armchair (though do put your coffee cup down for a moment …)

We first drop from our head into our heart chakra in the middle of our chest, sensing already some peace and space. (Our heart is where we feel things most deeply – for example, where do you place your hand when you want to express love?) We feel grateful and happy at our good fortune at still being alive, still having this opportunity (for forget skateboarding, even shoveling can kill us); and make a decision to apply ourselves gently without expectation to our meditation.

With this decision, we consciously breathe out whatever is on our mind, let it go with each natural exhalation. Our thoughts only have the power we give them; we don’t ever need to feel intimidated by them. We are infinitely bigger than them, bigger even than the sky is to the clouds. With each breath, space opens up in our mind and we feel lighter and cleaner.

As we inhale we experience the breath as radiant light, the most beautiful, blessed light we can imagine, which we breathe right down into our heart. Through enjoying this process, our awareness is also drawn naturally toward our heart, riding upon our breath. This light is the nature of our Spiritual Guide’s mind, peaceful inspiration that soaks into our root mind. We feel our awareness becoming centered within a light, calm experience at our heart, and there we abide.

Within this, we ask: “What is the mind? What is it that is aware of the sounds, sensations, distractions? Where is it?”, so that instead of focusing all our attention on their “content” we use these thoughts to help us become aware of awareness itself. We recognize the clarity — the inner empty space with no shape, no color, no size, no material properties, no form — that possesses the power to perceive, that is conscious. We stay here, experiencing clarity moment by moment.

zone_4We can appreciate the extraordinary beauty of the nature of our mind, which is limitless clarity and unbounded potential. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could gain deep experience of the nature of our mind, and through this accomplish Mahamudra and full enlightenment? For this, we need to do ourselves an enormous favor and receive blissings — commune with the mind of enlightenment itself, with our Spiritual Guide and all the Buddhas.

We feel that our present mind of peace or contentment, however slight or relative, is connected to our Spiritual Guide’s mind of peace, that we are already abiding in a heart-to-heart communion with all the Buddhas, and in particular to their full experience of Mahamudra. We take a moment to recognize this, to relax into our peaceful mind, knowing that we are not separate from Buddha’s transcendent consciousness, knowing that there is an ocean of assistance on hand. We are really in the zone now; whereas before we may have felt unsure, now we feel very confident that we can pull this meditation off.

We can feel too that we are meditating on our root or very subtle mind, which is naturally blissful. (Imagine bliss if you don’t feel it, everything begins in our imagination, it is still authentic.)

With this connection, we can if we wish engage in Liberating Prayer, Prayers for Meditation, Heart Jewel, or any prayers we like, and then continue with more Mahamudra meditation, pausing any time to feel that connection with the mind of enlightenment. Or you can open your eyes and get on with your day, thinking it could be your last & staying in the zone …

(*There is a bit more to say about the state of the flow, and how it increases performance; so I’ll explore it a bit more in a future article on refuge. This is intended as a conversation starter, so I welcome your insights into the subject. Indeed, Helen has already written a very helpful comment below.) 

Why do I have no friends?

This article is part of a series on overcoming loneliness. Click here for part 1, part 2, and part 3.

I miss you!missing things

When did you last miss someone?

Missing people is of course related to loneliness. When we say we “miss” people, it seems like quite a good descriptor, because we are “missing” also in the sense of not getting it, missing the mark, not realizing that they are still in our hearts, that they haven’t really gone anywhere.

Attachment is a cover up of isolation that increases our isolation. It looks for love but blocks us as the object is outside ourself, unreachable – we’re like that donkey chasing the carrot. Futility and frustration are endemic in attachment for we’re looking for relationship while grasping at an independent, ie, unrelatable, self and other. We are holding ourself and others to be poles apart (||) as opposed to poles dependent (/\). This means we cannot be together, however hard we try.

donkey-and-carrot

Uncontrolled desire, or attachment, takes us out of the here and the now. Have you noticed how, when you are attached, you are always wanting to be someplace different or with someone else, never content or satisfied in the present moment with the people around you?

And do you not find it ironic that the less dependent we are on externals, the less needy–for example through open-hearted equanimity and love–the more others seem to enjoy sticking around?! With grasping, sooner or later we lose everything.

Try this thought experiment

We can use Chandrakirti’s verse as an object of contemplation, and see how our self-grasping ignorance sets us up for attachment, asking ourselves:

“What or who is that I or me who is lonely? How am I holding myself and the object of my ignorance and attachment apart, like the two poles (||), unable to bring them together?”

 Then, when I try to bridge that gap, ‘I need you to make me happy’, what is that sense of me?”

We can see how we yearn to be close and yet our attachment pushes us further away from others. Frustration is guaranteed. The gulf between self and other grows greater the harder we try to bridge it with attachment.

Does attachment work? It’s what we’re turning to!

We need to bridge the gap through love and wisdom instead, effectively. So we can make the determination to overcome ignorance and attachment and increase our love and wisdom – this can be the object of our meditation.

This mountain, that mountain

The title of this article is “Why do I have no friends?” But the point is, you DO have friends, lots of them.

If we understand we are poles dependent (/\), we know that we are ALREADY in relationship. We don’t have to create relationships that are already there. We can however improve our relationships enormously by recognizing them.

There are various ways to understand that we are already dependent on others, and therefore in relationship with them. One is by contemplating “this mountain, that mountain.”mountain 3

The stronger our grasping at self, the stronger our isolation. We can seek more and more lovers, drugs, extreme experiences; but we remain in a state of lack. The happiest moments are when we forget ourselves and dissolve the gap between self and others through wisdom and love.

When we feel alone, we can feel like the only point of consciousness in the universe, the one and only actual “me” surrounded by an alien sea of countless actual “you’s” or “them’s” (or on a good day “we’s”). However, whoever is me is also you, and whoever is you is also me.

Living in Colorado at the moment, I get to hike the Rockies and witness the truth of what Buddha says … that if I am standing on a mountain the West and looking at one to the East, the mountain I am standing on is “This mountain” and the one over there really seems to be “That mountain.” No two ways about it – it really feels like it, as if it is inherently or intrinsically this mountain. However, if I walk down the mountain in the west and up the mountain in the east, what happens!?

This shows that this mountain and that mountain are relative, depending entirely on our perspective, not absolute truths that have a reality unto themselves independent of perception. If this mountain was real, existing from its own side, it would remain this mountain even when I moved.

This is the same for self and other – they are relative truths, not real or absolute truths, not independent of the mind but entirely dependent on our perceptions. If I walk down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other, other becomes self and, looking back at my previous self, it now feels like other.

This is just one of many insights Buddha gave us to help us understand the relativity and interdependence of all things — an understanding that blows up the bedrock of our ignorance and self-absorption, setting us free.

 

How to mend a broken heart according to Buddhism

This continues on from Why do I feel so lonely?

So close and yet so far

I have recently been in New York City for a week. People often say they feel lonelier in the middle of a huge city surrounded by long queue at airportmillions of people than in a rural area with hardly anyone around. A friend of mine who used to live in London said he always felt somewhat alone there. Then one weekend he did a Buddhist meditation retreat “in a field with a bunch of hairy men” and “never felt happier or more connected.” There was no turning back!

I think this is because, when we are surrounded by others, we are holding even more tightly to our own sense of personal space, trying to protect ourselves from uncomfortable intrusion by strange “others”, increasing that gap. It can be useful though — as mentioned in this article, in huge cities like NYC we have microseconds to connect to the waves of humanity walking past us, and if we pull it off it can feel wonderful.

Crammed like sardines on the Path train to New Jersey, trying to assert some sense of control over their environment, everyone was vigorously avoiding eye contact, even as we were forced to bump up against each other around every corner (the sense of powerlessness not helped by being diverted to Holboken where the doors wouldn’t open.) I found this a useful opportunity to connect to my fellow suffering commuters in my heart, the only place we can be in control of our experience and, ironically, feel we have enough space to relax.cherish others

Story of a broken heart

I am going to give an example now of an ill-fated romantic relationship; but problems, mental pain, and loneliness caused by self-grasping ignorance and attachment can arise in other relationships too, with friends, family, children, pets, etc.  And, as I said in the previous article, loneliness is not about whether or not we are in a relationship, or even about whether or not we find someone attractive; it is about whether or not we are controlling our ignorance and attachment. For any partnership, or friendship, to work, we need to reduce these, and increase our love. With a wise motivation and a heart full of love, it is possible to have strong, enjoyable, and helpful relationships.

Beginning:

Have you ever been having fun in a restaurant with friends when someone gorgeous walks in and, before you know it, your happiness dives out of your body, under the floorboards, and into them?! We were having a smooth, harmonious, warm time with our friends, not really fixating on ourselves, finding everyone interesting, feeling connected – and then what happened?! One minute we are enjoying everyone without grasping, the next minute we are clinging onto one person for dear life.

It is now up to them to make us happy and we have to get their name, phone number, lifelong devotion …

At the beginning of this love affair, we set ourselves up in need. We didn’t need them before, and they didn’t make us need them; that is all on us, or our mind of attachment. We are no longer the whole orange – we are half an orange and we need the other half to feel whole or complete. We give our power away – “There goes my happiness, it just walked out the restaurant door,” we give them the key.

give heart to you
“Oh, oh, you better be careful what you do with it!”

If we do manage to get it together with them, we then need to receive approximately 20 texts a day, (perhaps a few less if we’re from Mars), or we feel lonely. If happiness depends on a text or seeing them, then it’ll never be enough – there’s a brief relief if they call, and then the anxious waiting starts again.

We can check out our sense of self when we are thinking, “You make ME happy”. There is a strong sense of me, “What about me”, which is isolated, and therefore vulnerable to separation anxiety.

These Lifehouse lyrics seem to sum it up quite nicely, as do a million other song lyrics:

Every time I see your face
My heart takes off on a high speed chase.
Don’t be scared it’s only love
Baby that we’re falling in.

I can’t wait ’till tomorrow
This feeling has swallowed me whole
And I know that I’ve lost control…

Won’t be easy, have my doubts too,
But it’s over without you, I’m just lost, incomplete
Yeah you feel like home, home to me.

Herein follows a few weeks or months of bliss (or days or hours, depending) … there is a lot of attachment but it is seemingly in synch in that neither of us can get enough of the other, though if you check there is already tension in the mind. Sooner or later, one person starts to pull away. And whether that affair flames out or develops into a long-term meaningful relationship depends on genuine love and respect.

Middle:

Attachment puts our life on hold – if we are not in the other person’s physical presence, life is what is happening while we wander around missing them, feeling alienated from our environment, homesick, wanting to be somewhere else. Even when you’re with them, the other person can never do enough, can never reassure us enough. Meanwhile, you may notice if you look around — no one else is bored out of their mind watching the clock, waiting on tenterhooks for the weekend, sulking and/or playing emotional games, or tapping feverishly into their smartphone; they are just getting on with their day.

wiFIHave you ever been a waiting mode, wanting badly for someone to call you, email you, or return a text? Hours, perhaps days, go by and … nothing?! And you feel increasingly powerless? That is attachment at work. Every day brings new ways in which we can torture ourselves – in the old days, we could at least have some time out with the mental excuse that they might have missed us on the phone while we were shopping (or, even further back, the horse was taking a few weeks with the letter); but now we are glued to our smartphones and there are a hundred ways they could, and yet are NOT, contacting us.

Here’s a word of advice:

Never invest your happiness in something you cannot control.

This clearly includes other people’s behavior. We can hardly control our own behavior, let alone anyone else’s. Attachment, or uncontrolled desire, is based on an hallucination that happiness comes from OUT THERE. So we want power and control over our external environment and other people, but the only power or control we have any hope of gaining is over our own mind.

There’s nothing wrong with finding someone attractive, even incredibly attractive — the mistake we make is when we grasp at them as inherently attractive!

With uncontrolled desire, we often defer our happiness, “I’ll be happy when they finally get here!”; or else we try and get back to what once was, “We had such a great time then, why can’t we be like that now?!” Love is always in the present moment. Attachment ranges over the past and the future, missing out on the real bliss of being fully here, now, connecting to our pure and peaceful nature, real union. We can make plans and even have desired outcomes, but as soon as our happiness depends on those plans, we’ve lost control of it.

Attachment is conditional and therefore vulnerable – I once heard a song lyric, “For as long as we’re together, I’ll love you forever.” Love is unconditional, we just want them to be happy regardless; and we get to choose who we love, so love can last.

heart breakAttachment makes us act oddly, like a bumbling idiot desperately seeking attention. Someone told me the other day: “I was so cool at first as I could tell she loved me. Then she showed interest in other things, her own life and friends, and I felt excluded, and started to act oddly to get her attention. It didn’t feel like me, but I couldn’t help it.” Through his insecurity and loneliness, he said, she felt less and less close to him, and the relationship ended. Who cannot relate to that? Who hasn’t either heard or said things like: “I can’t give you what you seem to want from me! I feel cornered by you! You seem to expect my undivided attention!”

“Why don’t you love me anymore?” soon becomes “You selfish b****.” A vicious circle ensues of one person trying to get more attention and the other person feeling claustrophobic, closing off, and pulling away. And as the rose-tinted attachment specs come off and the feelings of aversion and betrayal begin, what was quirky, fascinating, original, or cool in our partner becomes strange, peculiar, weird, and distant.

A friend showed me a joke in the New Yorker, a man talking to a woman:

“When, exactly, did all the stuff you love about me become all the stuff you hate about me?”

There are endless self-help videos on how to get and, even harder, how to keep your man or woman. Some of them are pretty amusing, especially when it comes to the differences between Martians and Venusians; but they don’t seem to be addressing the root cause of the difficulty, which is the self-isolation of ignorance and exaggeration of attachment.

Of course, addressing these delusions completely doesn’t happen overnight, but as soon as we get started, the better our relationships with others are going to become.

End:

heart break 1If our love affair ends due to attachment, our heart literally aches. Attachment is “sticky desire”, it is like peeling sticking plaster off a hairy arm. We were already lonely when we were in the relationship, and we are still lonely now that it is over. We can’t live with someone, but we can’t live without them either.

Union

Seeking union and connection is part of our Buddha nature. We are just going the wrong way about it, projecting and externalizing the source of our happiness while holding tightly to a sense of a real self and other. We need to seek union through love and wisdom, bliss and emptiness, not ignorance and attachment.

More next time, in Part 3! Meantime, your insights into this subject are welcome in the comments.