Are we doing enough?

who wants changePeople everywhere are suffering. Mass murder in Las Vegas. Climate catastrophes. Rampant racism. Growing inequality. Sanctioned homophobia. The clear and present danger of nuclear war. Millions more animals butchered without conscience. Even bad so-called Buddhists in Myanmar. Oh, and let’s not forget what’s been going on in all the other realms of samsara.

And that’s just today.

When I read these things I wonder, as a Buddhist, am I practicing enough? Am I giving enough? Am I helping enough? Am I putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak? Or am I still allowing myself to get too distracted or too complacent, “I’m alright, Jack”, given that Buddhism, or Dharma, makes it increasingly easy to feel all peaceful and happy inside? Or discouraged and fatalist, “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s nothing I can do about this mess of a world so there is no point even trying.”?

We can always operate on two levels – inside and outside. Training our mind does not preclude being active to help our world. With a peaceful, grounded, and stable heart, above all practicing compassion and wisdom, we can also act externally to try and make a difference in whatever way seems appropriate, and according to how much time and skill we have.

What to do about Las Vegas?

sign-americansFor me, for example, I am using what happened on Sunday to remind myself that I have to address any hatred or even dislike in my own mind. If this is what uncontrolled aversion can do, I cannot afford to let this delusion feel at home in my heart.

And then I’m trying to figure what I can do to help counteract the culture of violence in the USA, partly by seeking to understand it more fully in the first place. I may not be able to do much, but I can contribute in some ways.

There need be no contradiction between practicing Buddhism on the inside and on the outside – when we try to protect others by, for example, campaigning for gun control with a good heart, this is a Bodhisattva perfection, giving fearlessness.

And we also have to practice patience with the outcome. We cannot be attached to the results of our actions in the near future because so many other factors are already in play. However, we can know that this giving and patience are creating good karma that will lead to good results.

And I accompany any actions with a prayer for the best possible outcome, for prayers are never wasted.

And North Korea?!

What about even more seemingly out of control situations such as climate change or the nuclear escalation between North Korea and the US? It is not beyond the realm of possibility that we’ll be faced with a “limited nuclear option” that would claim an impossible number of lives and throw this world into hell. So what do we do about that?

I don’t think we should pretend it is not happening. I don’t think we should pretend that we are not part of this world or that this world is not part of us. I don’t think this is a good time to be distracted by our own small problems and entertainments. I do think we need to be motivated by this to become Bodhisattvas and Buddhas as quickly as possible, so that we can use our wisdom to destroy our own and others’ samsara.

And as prayers do make all the difference, we need to direct our prayers toward world peace not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, but NOW.

It is not an either/or

Some Buddhists frame our activities as an either/or: either we are studying and meditating to attain enlightenment or we are helping others “externally”. But that’s a bit precious human lifeof a red herring because we can do both, and both can be leading us closer to enlightenment.

In any event, it is not as if many of us get to sit around in monasteries or their equivalent any more, studying and meditating all day long, like it was in Tibet. The chance would be a fine thing! Although I am of the opinion that most of us could indeed profitably spend more time studying and meditating, most of us will still have to go to work every day in any case to earn our keep, obliged to interact with a bunch of people, acting “externally”. So what are we DOING all day long at work? Most of us are probably in a position to love and help and influence at least a few people every day, to help transform their lives.

Fact is, too, that we never know how we are being received. We never know how far our influence might be spreading. An old friend of mine, Kathleen Dowling Singh, died on Tuesday. She was a wonderful woman, a fearless warrior for love. In mid-SeptemKathleen Dowling Singhber she had written to tell me she had just been diagnosed with cancer, requesting prayers and thanking me for “all you have given me.” Her heart was always deeply grateful to Geshe Kelsang and his teachings, some of which I was able to share with her when we both lived in Florida. And tributes are coming in from many people to say how much her series of “Grace” therapy books have helped them, books whose ideas come mainly from Buddhism.

You can’t keep a good idea down. So let’s share these ideas whenever possible.

Our Buddhist Centers

As I talked about in this last article, helping our Dharma Centers is always going to be an invaluable, even cosmic, use of our time — helping at the core of things. Even if you have no clue what to do about some of this other stuff, you can always volunteer practical help at a Center. Helping keep the doors open to people seeking refuge is increasingly vital and meaningful.

Can we up our game?

web of kindness

A friend sent me this article called Radical Buddhism and the Paradox of Acceptance. Someone on Facebook pointed out that this article may be a bit of a straw man misrepresentation of Slavoj Zizek’s apparently complex arguments, but I think that reading it could still serve a useful purpose because people do sometimes have these questions about the relevance of Buddhism.

In this tumultuous day and age — and as we seek to integrate Buddhism as a new development into our Western world — each of us probably needs to try answering these kinds of questions for ourselves individually. At least, I have found recently that in questioning myself, “Am I complicit in the status quo because I am personally alright, or am I doing enough to end world suffering?”, I have been inspired to up my spiritual game. So with that in mind I asked a question on Facebook:

How would you debate this misconception about Buddhism? Do you find Buddhism helps you escape or engage the world? Or both?!

Related to this, I also asked:

What can we as Buddhists do about (a) violent incidents like the one in Las Vegas (2) the real and present danger of nuclear strikes (3) the growing divisions and inequality in modern society (4) climate disasters. Answers on a postcard! No, seriously, what are we each doing individually and as a Sangha to end this kind of suffering?

Please give your own answer in the comments, if you have time! And I am going to share some of the excellent replies I have already received in the next article.

Related articles

A case for Buddhist Centers

What is modern Buddhism for?

A vision of hope in these troubled times

Beneficial believing

To carry on from here, I want to add that conventional reality is not just a question of agreeing with each other. There is no safety in numbers. I was just reading about the odd phenomenon of presumptive nominee Trump:

The internet creates a sense of universality; it’s easy to think your bubble is more representative than it actually is. Facebook curates our feeds so we get more of the stuff we ‘like.’ What do we ‘like’? People and posts that agree with us. It’s sort of a mass delusion. ~ The Week

hallucination 1We can all be wrong about something and agree; in fact we often are. So my point about conventional reality being collective hallucination in the last article only goes that way around – collective hallucination is not necessarily conventional reality, it can just be sheer madness with no basis in any reality. For we are hallucinating both conventional truths and non-existents.

No dream, no dreamer

It is so helpful to use our dreams to delve into reality, as explained here. Geshe Kelsang gives this beautiful verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:

All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

I often think too, when I wake up and the dream has disappeared, the dream has gone and so has the dreamer. If there was never a real dream, where was the real dreamer? So where is the I who is now awake also? Dream minds, people (including ourself), and objects are all created by the self-grasping dream mind. Waking minds, people, and objects are all created by the self-grasping waking mind.

Beneficial believing

Understanding lack of true existence is the wisdom realizing emptiness and it will set us free from samsara permanently. However, although a direct loverealization of emptiness is our goal, we also need to learn what to do with appearances for our own and others’ sake. Eventually we will come to see appearances and emptiness (lack of true existence) as one object, at which point those appearances are no longer technically conventional truths, but ultimate truth.

Ultimate truth appearing.

So, meanwhile, until we realize this union of appearance and reality directly, how are we to navigate through the false appearances, the hallucinations, and make our lives meaningful?

I think through “beneficial believing,” as Geshe Kelsang has called it — believing things not because they are true from their own side, but because they are beneficial and will lead us in the right direction. This includes toward the one and only true object, the only truth that exists in the way that it appears — emptiness or lack of true existence — realized by our very subtle mind, the clear light of bliss.

(By the way, even ultimate truth is not ultimately true – even emptiness is empty of inherent existence.)

Buddha’s teachings are divided into two: the instructions for directly realizing emptiness (wisdom practices) and everything else (method practices). Method practices such as renunciation and compassion do not apprehend ultimate truth directly, but they do apprehend the best of the conventional or relative truths, and they lead us to relative happiness, including the requisite merit or good karma for developing the Form Body of a Buddha. Method practices nurture the growth of our Buddha nature and wisdom practices free it from obstructions.

Fulfilling our two basic wishes

To reiterate, as Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

All conventional truths are false objects because the way they appear and the way they exist do not correspond. ~ p. 129

bear quiz
This may help me, relatively, up the mountain.
In other words, conventional truths are all fake. However, some conventional truths are more useful than others; so those are the ones we need to focus on to go in the direction we want to go in. Which is? We all want to be happy all the time, and we never want to suffer. Anything that takes us toward the fulfillment of those wishes can be described as beneficial believing, or even wisdom.

For example, although neither me nor you exist from our own sides and are creations of self-grasping, understanding the equality and interdependence of ourselves and all other living beings (as explained in the mind-training teachings) is far more realistic and valid, and therefore beneficial, than grasping onto an isolated or inherently existent self and other. These do not exist even relatively, do not appear to any valid mind; for no one in the universe can agree, for example, that I am the only real me.

Here is an example.

“I don’t understand it!”

If we ever wonder why we get so confused in our dealings with others, we need look no further than the fact we are all hallucinating and not all our hallucinations match up. A sad friend told me this week that someone broke up with them and they can’t understand it — they were sure they were getting on so well and that the other person really liked them too. And according to them that felt like the truth; but according to their ex-lover it did not. So where did that truth exist? Did it exist at all?

Unlike a chair that we are agreed we can sit on, what was appearing so vividly to their attachment never existed. All they had was their own version of events, total projection, and in this instance no shared reality. The ex-lover’s apparent truth, that this person was no longer love 1interesting or whatever, was also not objective but a mere reflection of her own mind. In this instance, these reflections did not coincide. Their perceptions were not in agreement, in fact they clashed, and so pain arose. It’s happening all the time with all of us.

When we manage to let go of our delusion of attachment for people, all we are losing is our illusions. Letting go of illusion, we are now free to experience a totally different and more realistic relationship. It seems that the best “truth” to be salvaged from these kinds of situation is love and compassion recognizing our equality and interdependence and wishing the other person to be happy and free. That mind is valid, for its object does have a relative truth to it. And it fulfills our basic wish, it makes us happy again.

More coming soon. Meantime, your comments are most welcome! Just use the box below 🙂

Are we hallucinating all this?!

shoes on mountainI was on a walk the day Prince died, in the freezing/hot Colorado spring weather, which took me through no fewer than 12 snow-melty streams; and I didn’t see another person all day, not even a bear. And I got to thinking all philosophically about what’s life all about; so I thought I’d share some thoughts.

The aim of Buddhist practice and, if you ask me, the meaning of life, is to gain the realization of Mahamudra, the union of bliss and emptiness. This will obliterate samsara, freeing us and enabling us to free those connected to us, which is everyone.

And there are two complementary approaches (I was thinking on my mountain) into this. One is through the mind (aiming for the clear light of bliss) and the other is through the object (aiming for a realization of emptiness).

In The New Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang explains how all conventional truths are created by our mind of self-grasping ignorance (albeit not apprehended or established by it.)

In How to Understand the Mind, he says that everything appearing to our gross and subtle minds is hallucination. It would seem that of all ordinary beings’ minds, only our very subtle mind is not mistaken because it perceives emptiness, the way things are.

Yikes, we’re hallucinating all the time!
it'll be fun
Fooled again!

Taken together, it looks like we are always hallucinating, except when we can use our very subtle mind. All appearances to these gross and subtle levels of mind, and even the mind itself, are hallucinations that we need to learn to see through.

We end up with the union of these two approaches by practicing the union of Sutra and Tantra. We get closer to the very subtle mind by understanding its object, emptiness, as taught in Sutra; and we get closer to emptiness by learning to manifest and use the very subtle mind, as taught in Highest Yoga Tantra. It seems these realizations are symbiotic.

We can start practicing this union now by feeling that we are meditating with and on our own very subtle mind whenever possible, seeing all other minds and their appearances as simply waves from that ocean.

So, what can we trust?!trees

In the meantime, trapped in hallucination, how on earth do we function at all? How do we know what to rely on? How can we trust anything that doesn’t exist as it appears?

We can because some things have relative meaning, are relatively meaningful. Within our hallucinations we agree on some things, eg, we can sit on chairs, and that is relative or conventional reality (shared experiences arising from the similar perceptions/appearances of our collective karma). We can rely on it to a certain extent. It functions in the way it is supposed to, and we can have a relatively valid apprehension of it, with a so-called ‘conventional valid cognizer’.

One way to understand this is by using the example of a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Modern Buddhism:

Conventional objects are false because, although they appear to exist from their own side, in reality they are mere appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

The world we experience in a dream is deceptive because it appears to have its own existence independent of the mind, and we discover this when we wake up. However, within the dream we can say that there are relative truths and relative falsities.

Within the context of a dream, dream objects have a relative validity and this distinguishes them from things that do not exist at all. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe-la gives the example of our stealing a diamond in a dream – if we confess to it, we are telling the truth, if we say we didn’t steal it we are telling a lie.

Another example – if in my dream I nod to the six-stringed instrument I am playing and tell you, “This is my guitar”, this is true, but if I say “This is my ukulele” (a four-stringed instrument), this is false. However, within the whole context of the dream both are deceptive because they appear to be real when they are not. (As I discover when I wake up and can no longer play either.)

flowers.jpgSo, it seems that everything in a dream is created by the self-grasping of the dream mind and is therefore deceptive; but within that experience some thoughts are ‘valid’ and establish the ‘truth’, relatively speaking, and some thoughts are not, namely our delusions, whose objects don’t exist at all.

I think we can say the same for conventional truths while we are awake — all conventional truths are ‘created’ by self-grasping, true only for self-grasping; but compared with non-existents they are relatively true, truths by convention or agreement, ie, conventional truths. A non-existent on the other hand is still hallucination, still projected by self-grasping, but has no validity at all. It is apprehended or established by self-grasping delusions. An example would be an object of anger, such as an inherently existent faulty person, who doesn’t exist at all. (The anger itself however does exist and is a conventional truth, as is every mind.)

Perhaps I will stick my neck out and say that conventional reality is collective hallucination?! But please don’t take my word for it, please feel free to debate this in the comments.

Given all this, how are we to navigate through these mistaken appearances and make our lives meaningful? Answers on a postcard …! And Part Two is here.

Good night, sweet Prince

U turn on the telly and every other story
Is tellin’ U somebody died ~ Sign o the Times

PrinceI wonder if celebrities everywhere are getting nervous?! But of course it was forever thus. None of us gets out of here alive, famous or otherwise. As a friend put it, rather well I thought: “We all have a shelf life. When our expiration date is up, that’s it. … We are all at the big funeral everyday.”

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.

I liked Prince but wasn’t intending to write anything about his death – that is, until I saw this arresting Facebook post by the same person who wrote this last article:

What I Learned from Prince’s Death

* Death can come suddenly at any time – no one is immune.

* Fame means nothing at the time of death.

* Everybody loves you when you’re dead, but it’s too late then.

* It’s only when you’re dead that you would realise from everyone’s reactions what your life meant to them, but you’ll never see it.

Prince 1* Obviously, you don’t exist in a post-you world; everything and everyone has to go on without you, and they do, no matter how indispensable you think you are.

* When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.

* Whether you have lots of talent and are famous, or not, death treats everyone the same: extinction of ‘you’.

* Death shows there is no real meaning in this ordinary human life: everything you were ends instantly, unexpectedly and finally.

* Your wealth means nothing as it becomes someone else’s – even your clothes aren’t yours.

* Life is an unfinished story because it ends for you but not for everyone you know.

This got me thinking. And wanting to add something to these points in particular: “Everybody loves you when you’re dead but it’s too late then” and “When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.”

How is it that we keep affecting people after we’re dead? And I mean not just emotionally, but karmically? Prince is dead, yes, but he has not inherently ceased and still has a connection with the beings of this world, whose love and well wishes are having some effect on his mental continuum – that’s how transference of consciousness and other prayers for the deceased work too. His music will still give pleasure – so, providing he had the intention to give people happiness, he will still create some merit, or good karma, from it.

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain.

According to Van Jones, his friend and a CNN commentator, Prince was a humanitarian but wasn’t allowed to talk about his numerous good deeds as he was a Jehovah’s witness. So news of these is just emerging now.

It’s not all over

Prince 3The dream that was Prince’s life is ended, for sure, but it is not inherently over, any more than yesterday or even the moment before this one has inherently ceased. Our life is a cause leading to an effect, not to non-existence. Of course there is no more access to his body or gross personality or the identity “Prince”, but Prince was only ever mere imputation anyway. We are still all connected to that living being, just as we are always interdependent with all living beings. We cannot separate ourselves out from others and they in turn are affected by everything we do. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And this truth spans life and death. We are each waves made up entirely of one another and all arising from the ocean of clear light, the very subtle mind. (More on this later.)

This is why love is the answer, as it is the natural response to reality; and why what Prince did does mean something, not nothing, though he most likely won’t remember. (As for the fame part, I agree that fame is meaningless after we die, which makes it meaningless now too, unless we are using it for good.)

Creativity

We need to make our lives count with our mental actions, for sure, because they are the most creative actions – with our thoughts we create our world. But we also make our lives count with physical and verbal actions, leaving something intentionally helpful and uplifting behind us too if we can, such as a temple or other tangible improvement in others’ lives. Geshe Kelsang says, for example, when talking about helping at Kadampa centers, “We are working for future generations.”

Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.

How we use our creativity as modern Buddhists is still new territory over here in the West – in Tibet, there was no art outside of painting Buddhas, no music outside of spiritual chanting, and so on; the culture was entirely different. But over here, to “remain natural while changing our aspiration” may mean that between us we need to hijack today’s culture to our own and others’ spiritual ends as much as we can. That’s why I am hijacking some of Prince’s lyrics and quotes for this article 🙂

The Forgetting Time.jpgMy take on it so far — and I am totally open to ideas in the comments — is this. The ultimate spiritual goal of human life is attaining enlightenment for the sake of all living beings because that is the way to fulfill all our own and others’ purposes. That is our main job, our main creativity. And making Buddha’s teachings accessible to as many people as possible by helping meditation centers and so on also seems important because if we don’t do it, who will, plus it is powerful karma. Within that, with an increasingly good motivation and skill, we can embrace and enjoy our creativity however it manifests — eg, film-making, painting, music, song-writing — and channel it into helping others. A lot of people are doing this already, it is I think inevitable; and I also think it will make Buddhist meditation relevant to more and more people — bring it into the global mainstream as an idea whose time has come. For example, this readable new novel, The Forgetting Time, is bringing the idea of past and future lives to a huge audience that possibly would never have considered it otherwise.

New world needs spirituality that will last. 

Good night and thank you

Wishing Prince a swift rebirth in the Pure Land surrounded by the celestial music of offering gods and goddesses. Or, to hijack the Bard:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

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.) 

fly the friendly skies

Welcome to the friendly skies! …

fly the friendly skies… our pilot just welcomed us. And this reminded me of Geshe Kelang’s first flight to America in July 1990. As they set off from Heathrow, he said to the 2 students traveling with him, one of them my closest friend at the time:

We are flying to Vajrayogini’s’s Pure Land…

… and then he absorbed into meditation for the next 6 hours, only arising when prompted to eat lunch, of which he partook of a mere forkful. (As both these students were sitting either side of him, that kind of scuppered any chance of conversation… But it was still apparently a darned good flight.)

And I always think of these words when I fly. Besides, we need to go to the very friendly higher sky of Vajrayogini and Heruka’s Pure Land – Keajra – even when stationary, and we can leave through our crown chakra.

Why? Because samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. I can hear the video game violence emanating from the ear buds of the youth next to me – so how loud is it blaring into HIS ears?! Not that he cares of course, he is never going to get middle aged and old and die. That only happens to other people, like the woman next to him (me). A friend in his 50s recently developed tinnitus. Of course he didn’t see that coming despite years of headphone abuse. And who amongst us hasn’t blissed out to loud music – but even music is deceptive, my friend was telling me. All sense pleasures are. All appearances mislead us while we remain overpowered by them, not realizing they are empty, not realizing they are not really there.

As Geshe Kelsang explains in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition, the Buddhist master Vasubandhu used various examples to show how attachment to sense pleasures creates suffering. Moths are ensnared by attachment to visual forms when they fly into the flame; deer to sounds when they are enticed by the hunter’s flute; flies to smells when they land on food and are swatted; fish to food when they are impaled on the hook; and elephants to tactile sensations when they sink helplessly into mud. Meanwhile, humans are ensnared by attachment to all five!

But everything we encounter can also teach us everything about Dharma if we let it. As Milarepa said:IMG_6603

I have no need of books because all the objects around me are my books. From these I learn about death and impermanence, the disadvantages of samsara, and the emptiness of all phenomena. Great Treasury of Merit p. 212.

Sooooo, so far today … It started with a teaching on my early morning coffee – Life is short. Stay awake for it. (Don’t know what to suggest for those of you who don’t drink coffee.)

The snack cart just came down the aisle, and my attention was captured by Buddha Bowl Foods™ (Trademark! Since when did a snack company get the trademark on Buddha’s begging bowl?) – organic popcorn with pink Himalayan salt. What will they think of next? But although it is seasoned by elements from faraway holy lands, this popcorn is still not worth the $4.99 price tag. Though it makes me shudder a bit to see Buddha smiling out from a disposable snack wrapper, I also think it is lucky that Buddha is not fussy – maybe someone will create an indestructible potential for enlightenment as they chow down on their salty morsels.

distractionEveryone is either snoozing or plugged in. Some are multitasking their entertainment — managing to be on their personal devices AND watching the latest movie on the seat-back in front of them. In this worth-reading NYT article about death, Arthur C. Brooks reports a scary illustration of the disconnect between what we want and what we do due to the power of distractions:

The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.

So far I have resisted the itch to swipe my credit card and watch The Martian … but temptation is always all around. I need to think this could be my last flight, and what would I do if I ever did have to follow the second of these helpful instructions (pictured)? (Has anyone ever actually survived by using their cushion for a flotation flotation devicedevice?! Ok, I admit, I got distracted and googled it. Apparently, yes, they have, in 1970.) But, should the cushion fail, given that I am unprepared for my activities just over the next week in NYC, where does that leave my next life?

In the security line

So much effort goes into becoming a functioning adult – it needs years. There are students behind me in the security line, all young, hip, fresh-faced, and about to have their moment ruling the world. “Boulder has changed so much! Like, totally,” one says, as if she has been there well over her 17 years. “I major in education,” she carries on saying to her new friends. “So are you gonna become a teacher?” “Yeah.” “Cool.” That will take years of money and resources. A small earnest boy with oversized spectacles and a watchful mother — will he be a teacher one day? How much money and kindness will make that possible? Then it starts unravelling as you see from the deeply lined woman hobbling by with a stick, maybe she was an educator once.

functioning adultIt is so easy to grasp at permanence, at things staying the same. Sometimes I fast forward in these snaky queues — where will we all be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?

My young co-queuer from Boulder has also wasted no time telling her new friends that she is traveling to see her boyfriend, who inconveniently lives in New York. “Man! That sucks!” “I know. But it’s okay.” (Clearly right now it is way more than okay for she cannot help grinning, albeit in a cool, I can take it or leave it girls, kind of way). It may last for decades, like Alan Rickman and Rima Horton, but the odds are against it, and she may have the first of several broken hearts, perhaps even on this trip. How many have you had?! I have had my fair share. While we remain with attachment, broken hearts are an unavoidable side effect at any age. There is a joke in California – before you get serious with someone, ask yourself:

Is this who I want my kids to spend the weekends with?

Back on the plane, but on this same subject, I am now actually across the aisle from a hot couple meeting and flirting for the first time. We do quite rightly like the bliss of connection — and they are, after all, the only people around here immersed in the present moment as opposed to asleep or on their gadgets — so I think it’d be wonderful if that bliss could last forever. However, fast forward 5 years and they’ll be watching box sets on the couch with the dog like the rest of us. We need to know where our bliss actually comes from.
honey on a razor's edgeGeshe Kelsang once told me that it is not possible to get between someone and their object of attachment. (But was I applying these wise words to myself?! Umm, no. No more than I got his teaching on eating mindfully when during a tea party I offered him a huge slice of chocolate cake and he said, “This is poison for me,” — so I ate it instead, and he laughed. Geshe-la has been infinitely patient with me. With all of us, really.) Try telling someone as they start licking the honey off the razor’s edge, “That’s going to hurt you know!” And will they listen? Will they heck.

Talking of Alan Rickman, he seemed to be well loved by all who knew him for his loyalty, kindness, and willingness to go the extra mile. And his kindness will guide him to happiness now too, none of it is wasted, it’s a win win — happy in this life, creating the causes for happiness now in his next life, as well as being prayed for and wished well on his way by the many people he helped.

Back in the security line …

You snake past the same people over and over in these lines. It reminds me of being on the same flight from Portugal as someone who loathed me. We both pretended we didn’t notice each other, and got away with it on the plane; but upon arrival found ourselves in one of those long looping queues — having to look at our phones, over to some friends, up at the roof, etc — each time we were about to pass. Five times we better angelsmanaged it — only to bump right into each other as we emerged from the restrooms. It makes me think that we cannot hide forever from our karma, we have to face it over and over again until it is exhausted; so we may as well learn to love everyone in the line. We will have to keep bumping into everyone forever, so why not learn to enjoy it. Reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Love this quote.

And, like I was saying, we need to get out of this long queue as fast as possible – like those people in the Clear Me line who have created enough merit to breeze through. Then we can fly the friendly sky of the Dharmakaya, and help everyone else do the same.

We seek transcendence. People do crazy extreme sports and jump out of airplanes to get the thrill of flying. I saw a poster trying to entice passers-by with, “Learn to stunt drive!” Why would I do that?!! I am just now noticing my neighbor with the noisy headphones watching a man walk on a wire high high above New York City. He is lying down! He is pointing at a magical sun behind a cloud! A white dove is flying toward him! This is all pretty cool, especially as I’m not distracted by the narrative. Still, I would want more than a wire between me and the ground 70 stories below. Like a direct realization of emptiness, for example.

Talking of sports, people ask why I don’t ski. I used to as a child living in Turkey and visiting good friends in Switzerland, but now I prefer to enjoy it in my mind — for some reason, maybe my precious human life and a distinct preference for a body in one uninterrupted piece — I have gone off the idea of standing at the top of a steep mountain with two insanely slippery sticks tied to my feet. Not judging, because I also kind of admire the spectacular fear-defying feats I watch from the comfort of the gondola cafe in Breckenridge or Aspen. And it makes me blissful to watch, except when people fall. TintinNurse an overpriced cappuccino long enough, and someone is bound to fall. Especially if they are sufficiently high, and/or under some illusion about their skill-set or permanence in this life. People get into all sorts of trouble in the mountains through underestimating their environment or overestimating themselves, according to an English friend in Breckenridge. He goes out whenever called to save people in an utterly heroic fashion, whether on skies, or wheels, or even by air, on a variety of cool snow vehicles. He does this in his plus fours, tweed cap, and a tweed jacket, and honestly looks just like Tintin — but the people who have gotten themselves into any number of of idiotic situations are always very happy to see him.

And my final observations for now: a full cup of coffee + rough air = bad combo. But the flight attendant did just call me “Miss” instead of the dreaded “Ma’am”, which I like, even if he is about 75 years old. And remind me again why I insist on always traveling

meanwhile in New York
I flew all the way to NY for this?

with a ripe banana that I have to clean out of my bag upon arrival?You may conclude from these rambling observations that I have way too much time on my hands, spend way too much time in airplanes, and should get a proper job like all the other functioning adults of this world. In my defence I will say that I write most of my stuff while traveling between places, and though I do, naturally, like the feeling of being on perpetual vacation while technically not, a feeling I believe I may have inherited from my parents, I also do have a few other things to do from time to time, I promise. So bye bye for now. Thank you for flying united.

Postscript: This ended up long, and I thought about putting it in 2 installments to make some of my readers happy (you know who you are, France and Philippe.) But then I realized they could just stop reading halfway and come back to the rest later. Don’t know why I never thought of that before.

 

The force awakens

plane 1
This sunset went on for FOUR hours!

I am writing this in Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport, Dec 31, watching the mass and mess of humanity – including families bustling home after Xmas and, exhaustingly, a youth going to New York just for New Year’s Eve. (As my flight is an hour and a half late, my New Year is now going to commence in the higher sky …)

Family life provides umpteen opportunities to practice patience and kindness, especially when it involves the care of small children or elderly or unwell adults. Notwithstanding that the love in families can be a wonderful thing, and I have just had a very enjoyable time with my parents and other fab family members, my observation has been that family life is challenging at all ages and in all countries. One drawback of family life can be that we are bound to the same people whether we get on with them or not, that we can get stuck into grooves of thinking and behaving that are not necessarily helpful, and that this can cause underlying frustration even at the best of times. Looking around this airport, a small slice of life, a small slice of time, I can see hundreds of little annoyances and minor desperations. A mother right next to me saying wearily over the sound of her wailing child: “We’ll get him to suck his dummy during take-off if we need to; he won’t eat anything now.” An argument between a couple in Costa. And one full-blown tantrum at the security gate.

I said goodbye to my 81-year old dad at East Finchley tube station this morning, and a woman standing nearby saw that he was a bit mournful as he lumbered back to his car (my dad likes me.) In a South African accent, she asked how old he was, and then pointed out her husband, who is 83, and volunteered, “All our friends are getting older and iller and dying.” Of course, I couldn’t then pass up on this opportunity to chat as I have been thinking a lot of late of the challenges of worldly life; so we ended up traveling together to Warren Street tube where she and her husband got off.

plane 2
Sunset was followed by daylight!

She told me she had read a book called Letting Go, recently, and was experiencing a bit of an “awakening” as she found independence from her husband (only 74, she has decided to go on lots of mini-trips on her own without him if he can’t come with her, for example to Vienna.) She is no longer interested in being taken for granted, used as a hotel, and blamed for everything by her three 50+ kids – I agreed that they may respect her more if she starts to live her own life and respect herself, that she has already done quite enough for them, including giving them their bodies (“and much much more”, she added darkly). Also, everyone, even those for whom we feel most responsible, has their own path and karma, and so we can only do so much. Her morbidly obese daughter, who was rushed to ER recently, has always blamed her mother for everything, and her mother has always worried herself sick about her; but this daughter is now in the care of professionals and her brother, an ex-Israeli soldier, who is insisting she finally take responsibility for her own life — leaving her mother to declare on the London tube, “I feel free for the first time in years!” It was a brief encounter, but a meaningful one. She wanted my blog URL, and thought I might write about her; and she may even be reading this now.

Shantideva says that people attached to a worldly life experience many problems with little reward:

They are like a horse forced to pull a cart,
Who can grab only an occasional mouthful of grass to eat.

In the old days of Buddhism, it was more traditional to give up on worldly life altogether and take yourself off to a monastery or a mountain cave. (Tempting!!!) But this is the modern world and, thanks to the patience and skill of my teacher Geshe Kelsang, this is modern Buddhism – so we are finding ways to install mountain caves into our living rooms next to the flat screen TV, Fisher Price truck, or zimmer frame, or maybe in a quiet spot in our bedrooms. Everyone can learn to meditate and follow a spiritual path both on and off the meditation seat; this is no longer the province just of monks and Yogis, and it’d all be over if it was.

plane in sky who takes these photosBeing practical can be helpful and, dealing with an illness, my folks and me did a lot of practical things over the last couple of weeks, adjusting day by day to the “new normal”. But in some ways this confirmed that we cannot solve our actual or inner problems outside the mind. We need to know how to develop and sustain inner peace as everything slides away from us, basically out of our control. No one ever gets out of here alive, and leaving these bodies, whether quickly or slowly, is usually pretty challenging for ourselves and everyone else concerned. The pilot (for I am writing this paragraph later, now on the plane, while experiencing an on-rolling sunset!) just described this as a “long-haul flight”; which made me think that we really do have to haul these meaty bodies about all over the place for years, sometimes under our own steam, sometimes with the help of a Boeing 747. Until they fall over and we can’t get them up again.

I have to quote this from Bill Bryson’s latest book that I just brought in WHSmiths at the airport:

The worst part about ageing is the realization that all your future is downhill. Bad as I am today, I am pretty much tip-top compared with what I am going to be next week or the week after. I recently realized with dismay that I am even too old now for early onset dementia. Any dementia I get will be right on time.

However, taking charge of our own minds (while we still can) does require some determination — going inwards to solve our human problems isn’t automatic in our busy, distracted society. Right now, for example, in the airport, I am surrounded by sensory stimulation – music straining to be heard above the noise, ads everywhere, shops galore, and pretty much everyone — except those in a hurry to queue for their planes or vainly trying to stop their children barging into strangers — on their smartphones. I am tuning this all out now to write this.

happiness is my responsibility
It’s not a bad idea (UK English for “it’s a good idea”) to take time off from the constant hectic blare to go inward every day, even if it is only 10 to 20 minutes, or even if it is only the few minutes in the gaps between activities, if we can tear ourselves away from our gadgets. It is also a good idea, if and when we can, to treat ourselves to some retreat. And I am very grateful that I and thousands of others in this tradition have the opportunity to do just this in January 2016. This is because I find that meditation is what makes sense of everything or anything, including all this ridiculous ageing, sickness, and death stuff. I mean, really, it is so bad it’s almost funny. Bill Bryson says, in what is supposed to be a funny book:

There are other scenarios that involve catheters, beds with side railings, plastic tubing with my blood in it, care homes, being lifted on and off toilets, and having to guess what season it is outside – and those are all still near the best-case end of the spectrum.

Laugh a minute, that. And no one escapes it. Unless … and this is the whole point of the spiritual path … unless we use everything that happens to us to help us increase our compassion (to give us the energy, the motivation, the bliss) and our wisdom realizing that this is all just dream-like appearance reflected by our own thoughts (to get us through the door to liberation). Or, as I like to say:

Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.

Star WarsWe need to escape from the sufferings of samsara once and for all. From the title of this article, you might have been expecting more about the new Star Wars movie; but I’m afraid I didn’t like it quite enough to write more. However, there was one rather excellent line in it I thought (and don’t worry, this is not a spoiler):

Escape first, hug later.

So, back to some discussion of how to do Mahamudra meditation, really awaken the force within (rather than — sorry, spoiler alert — have a lame stick fight in the forest), and get the hell out of here. Only now I have run out of space, and you have other things you need to do; so we’ll have to wait till next time.