I wrote this on a plane back to Denver recently (via Calgary, never again …) It felt like a training day at Calgary airport or something because there were several personnel for each position and mainly they were chatting away to each other pleasantly and veerrrry slowly, despite the hundreds of people backed up in line. (I have always liked how laid-back Canadians are, until today.) And this was not just one line – I had 45 minutes to clear Canadian immigration and then customs and then US immigration and then bag drop and then security. My speedy passage was also obstructed by the exception to the laid back rule, the official who made me go back to the end of the line because he said I threw my customs form at him … debatable, but maybe true, I did run right past him 😉 But they always get away with it in the movies…
Anyway, an hour later, as a result of others’ kindness in letting me go ahead, I am here on the right plane, grateful that I was not mauled by a bear. (I watched Revenant on the plane; Leonardo di Caprio’s character was seriously mauled by a bear.) Nor did I have my wife or son murdered in front of me. Nor did anyone abandon me as a bloody pulp in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in mid-winter, at a time when they didn’t even have roads! Or cars! Or phones! Or satellite navigation! Or stores! Just Cowboys and Indians, all of whom were out to kill you or at least wasted no time worrying about your health and well-being. The buffalo and birds were better behaved than most humans in this movie, though the same can often be said of humans and animals today.
I was thinking too that the way those dudes traversed mile upon mile of wild mountains, rivers, and waterfalls — even with dislocated ankles and blood gushing from their throats, pretty much for no good reason whatsoever — makes my own hikes in the Rockies seem like a walk in the park. Literally. And no real refuge for them anywhere, just delusion upon delusion.
Yeah, the Canadians may have been having a slow day, I thought, but I am still a very lucky person with a precious human life (at least as long as my karma continues to project this airplane staying up in the air.)
All is here, it is already here
Patient acceptance is a profound mind. It seems to be the other side of the coin from wisdom. With patience we accept the dream-like manifestations of our karma and take responsibility for our conceptual imputations or thoughts. With wisdom we understand that these appearances and thoughts have no existence from their own side and so they can be completely purified and changed. More on that subject here.
Resignation is buying into appearances, I think. So acceptance is not the same as resignation, or fatalism for that matter. I didn’t resign myself to missing my flight, hence my breakaway attempt through Customs, but I did practice a little acceptance. Which of course had its usual benefits, having a soothing and illuminating effect on the mind.
As mentioned before, we can be patient both with external circumstances and with the actual problems within our own minds, our unpleasant feelings – making space for these so that we can deal with them. When we notice mental pain, we don’t resign ourselves to these thoughts, but nor do we repress, suppress, combat, or reject them. The more stiffness, stuckness, and rejection we feel toward whatever is arising, the more we can be prompted to turn toward the natural vast open peaceful spaciousness of our mind, recognizing our Buddha nature, identifying with it. There is room for all of this, there is no need to panic.
In a way, acceptance is an existential decision. We decide to say to each thing that arrives not so much “All is well,” (which can be hard to pull off, especially at first), as, ‘Yes, all is here, it is already here.” If we feel disturbed, hindered, crushed, depressed, or melancholy, we are aware that this is how we are feeling; and it has already arisen and cannot be undone so we accept it. With acceptance we open up an infinite inner space because we have “given up the idea that things should be otherwise”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We have given up the idea of filtering, controlling, validating, and judging everything (including Canadians and, indeed, ourselves).
Patient acceptance enables us to take on the tragedy of samsara without turning our life into a tragedy by identifying with it. We make space. Then we can use what is arising to propel us forwards. Accepting what is makes us more peaceful and more wise, and therefore more able to change what needs to to be changed. As Geshe Kelsang says:
Remembering these teachings means we can in fact be enriched by our experiences, not impoverished. We can even get to the point where we feel as though we are choosing everything.
Last but not least, if you want to make this whole process easier you can also do it in the context of the light, liberating mind of renunciation – it gives us lift off. We don’t have to buy into all these delusions any more if we don’t want to.
I seem to be here again at the Denver DMV. I thought I’d left this grimy place forever, but here I am back all over again. “Weren’t you here just the other day”? asked the man who failed me in my first test and whom I’d never felt the great urge to see again. But our karma was clearly not done. At any rate, he was a good deal more friendly this time (so I discover he is not in fact an inherently nerve-wracking smile-less robot). He was curious as to all the details of the theft of the spanking new Colorado driving license (amongst other things) that was bringing me to his desk.
I have learned many lessons from this, as it happens, which all goes to show that difficulties can be our best spiritual teachers, as explained in the Lojong teachings. I thought I’d divide this into Sutra and Tantra lessons learned. It’s a long post, sorry in advance!
Sutra lessons learned
I must have stolen in the past, and this is not even the first theft I’ve had. There were some curious incidents growing up where thieves would break into my parents’ house but only steal MY stuff. They broke in in Guyana and stole only my treasured radio. They broke in in Singapore and took a stereo my parents had literally just given me. They broke in in London and took just my relatively worthless jewelry. And when I was a supposedly innocent five-year-old, they stole the shipment of my toys alone when we were moving from Sri Lanka back to England. Yikes. This may be a good sign that my parents are as honest as the day is long, but me?!? This karmic mirror reminds me to check whether I am still being dishonest in any areas of my life.
Never safe in samsara
Another lesson bought home is that while I am in samsara, I am not safe. A good friend shared his experience of being robbed (he managed to have not just one but two MacBook Airs stolen in 1 day):
I don’t know how you are experiencing this, but for me it was very unsettling. I felt extremely vulnerable, exposed, and violated, while simultaneously holding compassion for the perpetrator, and praying for his delusions to be removed.
Nothing is truly mine, certainly not lastingly mine. In samsara, the end of collection is dispersion, and our karma to have stuff comes to an end. This samsaric entropy is also the second law of thermodynamics, I discovered the other day:
There is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.
My appearances of a shiny new iPhone 5S, driver’s license, and handy credit cards, all contained in a beautiful new turquoise wallet, came to an abrupt dissolution on Sunday morning. All our karmic projectionscome to an end whether we want them to or not. And then other karmic projections come up, ones we don’t want, eg, having to sort out things we thought were already sorted rather than doing the other more fun things we had planned.
We only have so many appearances to mind left before we die.
And due to self-grasping we feel the loss, we feel vulnerable and violated as my friend pointed out. I’ll not deny that I had some attachment to my phone (not least as my mother had given it to me at Xmas). So my first reaction was some numbness – things seemed to slow down as I searched the pockets of everything I was wearing and looked in every room, and then did the same again, just in case. That sinking feeling, “It’s gone, it’s really gone.”
I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving ‘I’ with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well. ~ Ocean of Nectar, page 25
This feeling of discombobulation was useful for showing my permanent-grasping at myself and my infrastructure, instead of recognizing at all times that it is as insubstantial and fleeting as last night’s dream.
I could not help but feel compassion though because I got into my nice borrowed car and went to my nice house and was able to have some nice lunch and call everyone I needed to, while meantime the perpetrator rather pathetically managed to spend all of $10.12 just getting something to eat at a 7/11 at 1.20pm EST before I closed my cards down. I may not be very rich, but I do have more than $10.12 in my account, so he could at least have treated himself to a swanky restaurant. He also got a $4 drink at Starbucks at 6.30pm with my Starbucks card, and there was a little cash in there too. (This knowledge courtesy of Find my iPhone.) It is doubtful that he (or she) has anywhere great to live, if anywhere at all; and he is clearly hungry and/or desperate enough to sneak into an unknown basement and grab what he can and get out before he is caught. And I am not oblivious to the utter privilege of having these things to lose in the first place, so lucky even compared with most human beings, including him.
The police detective called me today, two days later, offered to meet me in the parking lot if my phone shows up online again, for a “civil standby”. But I have already given the phone away, though it is useless to the thief because it is locked – not even the FBI could break in, not even with a law suit against Apple.
(Last year, J, in Florida at the time, had her iPhone stolen and F and I, in New York, watched the dot zooming down I275, reporting coordinates to J and her sister, who were in hot pursuit. Forty miles later, the phone ended up in a theater parking lot, beeping away inside a black jalopy; and they waited until the thieves came out of their movie and were obliged by the police to open their car and hand over the phone. Not sure what the moral of that tale is, but it was surprisingly exciting at the time, like an OJ Simpson redux. (OK, now I have to tell you my true OJ Simpson story for I can’t imagine getting another chance. I was at Miami airport with N. early one morning, who asked if I would go over and “get us a couple of OJs” while he watched the luggage. And guess who was standing next to me at the same counter. No, I’m not kidding. Mere name, eh. And he had a beautiful blonde with him, for whom I felt a little nervous.)
I gave the stuff away so that the thief would not get the complete action of stealing. He (or she) will still incur some negative karma if he had a deluded intention, but I thought I could offset it. It can’t be offset completely as not even Buddhas can do that – if they could, it’d be impossible to create negative karma with respect to Buddhas.
After the theft, I came back to the 2 cats I am babysitting who, for some reason, were in a very demanding mood, jumping all over me and making a lot of noise while I was trying to call the bank etc. It crossed my mind to get irritated with them, but then I remembered that although they may not give a monkeys about my human problems, in fact the cat problems they have are far, far, far worse.
So I feel luckier than the perpetrator for many reasons, but mainly because he may well not have access to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, whereas I do. As another good friend JS messaged me yesterday, after her camera equipment worth 10,000 quid was stolen from right inside her own house:
There is a huge back story to people’s crime. I want to ask him questions like when did he decide this was the route to take, does he still want to carry on, what did he want to be when he was a kid … does he think it’s possible to change his life …. That’s what I will be putting in my “victim’s” statement, but who is the real victim? I have Geshe-la in my life and the Dharma, I gave up any thoughts of my possessions being important … the victim to me seems like the burglar, he has no Dharma to help him.
My theft is not really different to a theft in a dream. Overall, this has made me more determined than ever to bring an end to my own and others’ samsaric hallucinations while I still have the chance. The compassion that wants to overcome this root cause of suffering is called compassion observing the unobservable, you can read about it in Ocean of Nectar. Samsara sucks, samsara sucks for everyone, but luckily samsara is not real.
Death is on its way
It can be useful to imagine losing one thing at a time to get our heads and hearts around the fact that the entire infrastructure of our life is going to collapse. This includes the people we adore, not just our shiny gadgets. As this inevitability could be just around the corner, this is, as JS put it:
Good practice for death, when I won’t be able to take anything with me. It’s always good to see where one is at with our possessions so I thank him for that.
The kindness of others
I feel almost fraudulent to be writing this, this theft was such a small fry incident in the grand scheme of things, yet people have been astonishingly generous.
A Bodhisattva immediately, and I mean immediately, the moment he saw my stuff had been stolen, said, “Oh, this iPhone I have is spare, you can have it!” Then he wiped his phone clean and gave it to me, along with his phone number, before I had a chance to protest. And he did this utterly convincingly, not even with the slightest hesitation like the one I had when I gave my actually totally spare iPhone 4 away just last week. He reminds me of that quote from Ocean of Nectar:
If from hearing and contemplating the word ‘Give’,
The Conquerors’ Son develops a bliss
The like of which is not aroused in the Able Ones through experiencing peace,
What can be said about giving everything? ~ Ocean of Nectar page 69
Giving does feel pretty good when we manage to pull it off without any regret – the day before this theft I had given a jacket (left here by a Buddhist monk) to a homeless man in Cheesman Park. Long story, but it felt great to see Michael pull it over his skinny shoulders on a freezing day.
But the person who helped me is in a class of his own – he even went so far as to thank me for allowing him to help me. As if he meant it! Which I do believe he did. And I have to add that this same nameless (for his own sake) person said the other day just after I passed my test, “Oh, this car I have is spare, you can borrow it indefinitely!” (Naturally I am now waiting for his spare house and his spare cash.)
There are emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in our midst whatever we want to call them – angels, saints, or just very kind people. Maybe they don’t appear so often to a very cynical mind, but they are still there, trying to help, waiting for the first moment they can dive in there. They may appear as the regular folks around us – nurses, neighbors, co-workers, homeless people, family members, strangers at bus stops – but as a Buddha’s job description is to emanate whatever people need, it’s cool not to succumb to ordinary appearances.
Tantric lessons learned
When we realize that we are completely empty of inherent existence, our possessions are completely empty, and our relationship with our possessions is completely empty (the so-called “three spheres”), we can see that we already have everything we need inside us. Why? Because everything is merely projection of our own minds.
I’m going to get a bit philosophical and Tantric for a moment …
Nothing is inherently anything. If we understand this, we can say “This is not that”, about everything, and this truth frees us up. For example, “This is not Denver” frees me up to think “This is Heruka’s Pure Land”. “This is not an annoying co-worker” frees me up to think “This is an emanation of Buddha.” “These are not my possessions” frees me up to give my iPhone away happily.
Bounty of the Dharmakaya
I find myself comparing this “loss” to what I like to call “the bounty of the Dharmakaya“. Within the bliss and emptiness of the Dharmakaya (or Truth Body), everything exists and everything is possible. The divinity is there as you are mixed with the Truth Body of every Buddha. You can manifest anything out of that.
Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, for example, are simply the bounty and infinite good qualities of the Dharmakaya appearing – their symbolism includes absolutely everything good about Buddhahood. So when we focus on them, our bliss and good qualities and so on increase – we are able to itemize, focus on, and identify with them, and gain a greater understanding and experience of the Dharmakaya. And vice versa.
This is why these meditative practices of pure appearance, introduced by enlightened beings, are so important; and why focusing on bliss and emptiness alone, though it is the essence and truth, make it harder or perhaps even impossible to manifest the creative elements of the Dharmakaya and gain full enlightenment for the sake of all other beings.
Bliss and emptiness can appear in any form whatsoever, of course, but we may as well embrace the blissful forms of the Buddhas and their Pure Lands. Why go to the trouble of inventing the appearance of infinite good qualities, imagining how they might show themselves, when generations of enlightened beings have already shown them to us?! Why wish for mundane or ordinary good things to happen when we can set our imaginations free to have the glorious body, enjoyments, environments, and deeds of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini?! Their reality, as evinced in everything about the way they appear, is wild and free and blissful and compassionate already. It is a blessed and powerful expression of the completely pure mind of bliss and emptiness.
Point here being that I can and already do have anything I want within the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini, so why bother about the loss of a few ordinary appearances to an ordinary mind? Why not just stay in the Pure Land full time instead?
A similar point could be made about making mandala offerings, the offerings of entire pure universes. I can offer countless iPhones appearing from the pure mind of bliss and emptiness on behalf of me and everyone else. And these offerings will result in the appearances of bliss-inducing iPhones sooner or later …
Okay, enough of that for now, I can see my Dad shaking his head. Your comments are most welcome in the comments section below.
There are two complementary ways to approach this subject of emptiness (carrying on from here). One is understanding that things don’t exist from their own side. Things lack inherent existence. Things lack thingyness. Mere absence of inherent existence is emptiness.
So, then, the complementary point to this is, if things don’t exist from their own side, if things don’t exist independent of our mind, yet they appear, how do they exist? What is that appearance?
It is mere appearance to mind, it depends entirely upon perception. Geshe Kelsang uses “appearance” and “perception” interchangeably – he has gone so far as to say we perceive things or we appear things. There is nothing out there to perceive; our mind appears things. (Even itself.)
Emptiness and appearance are like two sides of the same coin. They are in fact the same truth.
So why do things appear to us in the way that they do, and so differently for everyone? Our appearances or perceptions come from our karma and from our conceptual imputations or discriminations.
I can take my current city, say, which is Denver. The appearance of Denver to my mind is arising as a result of my previous karmic intentions; I am experiencing the results of previous thoughts that sowed karmic potentials or seeds on my mental continuum which are now ripening. (Quite nice seeds ripening today in fact — I must have done something good to be enjoying 79 degree sunshine in March and an array of half-naked people throwing Frisbees in Cheesman Park…)
Denver is also the nature of my mind – arising simultaneously with the awareness apprehending it from the same karmic seed, like a wave arising from the ocean of my root mind. It doesn’t exist outside my mind any more than a dream of Denver. (Dream minds and their objects also arise simultaneously from the same karmic seeds.)
In so far as me and my fellow Denverites have created similar karma in the past, we are experiencing a collective appearance or perception of Denver and can agree that it is Denver. It’s like a shared dream. However, it doesn’t exist outside our minds – we cannot point at any objective Denver outside of our experiences of it. Some of those experiences we have in common, eg, “Look, there are mountains!”, “Look, it is sunny (again!)” — but if we were all questioned on what exactly Denver was or how it appeared, we would all come up with our own answers. None of us have identical karma so none of us have identical Denver.
Imputation of mind
Denver also depends on mere imputation by mind. Denver is Denver because we came to an agreement that it was. Why do I hold this city to be “beautiful Denver” as opposed to “ugly Denver”, or even “Denver” at all? There is nothing from its own side that I can point to and say, “This is Denver”. Without me labeling or conceptually imputing “Denver” on its parts, it would not appear to my mind, not even to my eye awareness. Both my foster cats live in Denver as far as I’m concerned, but not as far as they are concerned — they discriminate it entirely differently, they don’t even know its name, and they are having an entirely different experience as a result.
For example, let’s say someone says, “Come and see my forest!” But you get there and there are only 10 trees – “You can’t call that a forest!” you might protest. So then our friend adds a tree, and then another, asking, “Got a forest?” Maybe we have some interested onlookers joining us. “Yes”, someone says after, say, 15 trees, “Now there is a forest!” Others agree, others are not so sure. More trees are added, and one by one, or group by group, people agree there is a forest, until everyone is agreed, “Yes, there is a forest!” (Except for the squirrels, who couldn’t care less about the concept of the forest, though might agree amongst themselves that they’ve discovered a useful food store.)
So where did that forest come from?! Which tree made the forest!? The very existence of the forest came about only through agreement, through convention; and that is why it is conventional reality, rather than ultimate truth. Where do agreements occur? In the mind. So the forest depends on the mind. Likewise, which house or road made Denver?
The point of all this is that we are constantly creating our own reality with our intentions and with our thoughts, so we may as well create the best one.
If we understand how everything is mere karmic appearance of mind, we know the importance of creating the best intentions or karma possible to bring about the lives we want.
If we understand that everything is the nature of the mind, we know the importance of purifying and transforming the mind.
If we understand that everything is mere imputation, we can also understand that in any given moment we can choose how we discriminate or impute our world to the most beneficial effect — whether we discriminate others as annoying or as our kind mothers, for example, or whether Denver is an ordinary city or the Pure Land of a Buddha. Even though things appear and exist due to karma, we can change our imputation of them. Nothing is fixed.
(This is a profound subject, I am only touching on it in passing here. More coming soon. But hopefully, if your curiosity is piqued, you’ll check out that chapter on emptiness in Modern Buddhism that I was telling you about.)