Can we make sense of the senseless?

I wrote this on the occasion of the Boston bombings, but the technique for transforming senseless tragedy into spiritual insight applies to everything that is going on today as well.

“It was a beautiful, cool day when two bombs unleashed chaos and killed three people. Friends of those killed say they are devastated by the senseless deaths.” CNN

Much of the response to the Boston bombings this week has been, as always, the question “Why?”

I don’t know what motivated the two young brothers to do it, so I’m not even going to go there in this article, but I did meditate today on “making sense” of it from a spiritual point of view. As well as praying for those suffering so much today as a result of all this, I also wanted to find ways to think about it that could be helpful — otherwise this and all the other tragedies around the world are just piling misery onto misery with no seeming way out for any of us. Also, if there is no constructive way to think about suffering, the danger is that we disengage from it and look away, as opposed to connecting with others.

On the occasion of the 9/11 bombings, my teacher Geshe Kelsang prayed:

“We pray that the people who die will find a good rebirth and we pray that the world leaders gain wisdom. For those who are suffering, we pray that they are swiftly released from their suffering and receive blessings from the Three Jewels. It is very clear that without compassion and wisdom there is no possibility of being released from this kind of tragedy. We should learn how Dharma is the truth.” ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 9/11/01

Scanning meditation

“Apply meditation to whatever circumstances you meet”

is a Kadampa motto, so I used the Boston bombings as the example. There is a type of meditation you can do called “scanning meditation” where you spend just a few moments or minutes on each of the stages of the path meditations to get an overview – we do this, for example, when we recite Je Tsongkhapa’s Prayer of the Stages of the Path in Prayers for Meditation. The following are just my own first thoughts on the subject – there are clearly thousands of ways to think about each one.

(1)    Precious human life: I just watched a very moving video of Krystle Campbell’s grandmother saying how her Krystle once told her that she liked to take each day as it came and loved life. Krystle “had a heart of gold. She was always smiling,” said her mother. She moved in with her grandmother to take care of her and was by all accounts a happy, compassionate person. I was thinking that she seemed to use her life, short as it was, to bring joy to others, and that it was a precious life while it lasted and even now. Krystle Campbell is second victim killed in Boston bombing

(2)    Death: You never know when or how you’re going to die. Really, never. None of us do. Best to start preparing today.

(3)    Dangers of the lower realms: Described in the media as: “The festive race into a hellish scene of confusion, horror and heroics.” The resembling physical hell realm at the bomb blast and the pure torture of the anger in human minds is like the tip of the iceberg, indicating the hells we are quite capable of creating for ourselves.

(4)    Refuge: Especially in Dharma on all its levels, including these 21 meditations. Our main refuge commitment with respect to Dharma is never to intentionally harm others. Or as the 8-year-old killed in the blast said earlier: no more hurting people

(5)    Karma: Don’t bomb other countries if you don’t want your own country to be bombed. This bull in a china shop option has no real subtlety or nuanced understanding of cause and effect. We have to stop perpetuating vicious cycles in our own lives and in the world at large.

(6)    Renunciation: While delusions rage in human minds, it will be forever thus. We need a radical solution, actual liberation from our real enemies, the delusions.

(7)    Equanimity: Agony as it is for the Bostonian victims, perpetrators, and their families, this scene is playing out all over the world and I think could benefit from our equal recognition.

(8)    All living beings are our mothers: If we realized this we could not harm them but, also, we could perhaps hope to start a process of forgiveness, understanding that people are not their delusions, even if they are currently controlled by them.

(9)    Remembering the kindness of living beings: People have been remarking that a lot of stories of heroism have come out of this, such as that guy in the cowboy hat. There has been an outpouring of kindness. Mr Rogers and the Boston bombing

(10) Equalizing self and others: Every single person in this scenario equally wants to be happy and free from suffering. That gives a lot of food for thought, stops it being so much about “us and them”. We realize we’re in this mess together and have to help each other get out of it.

(11) The disadvantages of self-cherishing: Where to start?

(12) The advantages of cherishing others: Any moment of happiness that has come out or will come out of this derives from the kindness of people helping and saving limbs, eg, the medical profession, the outpouring of love and prayers all over the world, and so on.

(13) Exchanging self with others: We can do this with both the victims and the perpetrators. Again, it gives a great deal of food for thought.

(14) Great compassion: This means compassion not just for obvious physical and mental pain, but for the causes of suffering, delusions and negative actions, or karma. In which case, there is no one in this scenario who is not a suitable object of our compassion. May everyone swiftly be freed from delusions and pain.  See Geshe Kelsang’s prayer.

(15) Taking: You could spend all day taking on the suffering of the victims, their families, the perpetrators, their families, and everyone else in similar circumstances around the world. A powerful day it would be, too.

(16) Wishing love: Love is the great Protector. With love in our hearts, there is room for everyone in this world. Without it…

Tara protecting living beings
May everyone  in Boston and elsewhere swiftly come under Buddha Tara’s loving protection.

(17) Giving: Act like a Buddha and send healing light rays giving relief and happiness to everyone involved. There is always something we can do 

(18) Bodhichitta: Seeing from this bombing the futility of trying to solve all the world’s problems without removing our own faults and delusions, and without having all the necessary qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and skill, it is imperative to become a Buddha as quickly as possible. And if I don’t, who will?

(19) Tranquil abiding/concentration: In short supply at the bomb site. If we have a chance to focus on controlling our own minds through concentration, we will be able to help others do the same as soon as the conditions are right. But life is crazy, so our time to train in concentration is now.

(20) Superior seeing/wisdom: See Geshe Kelsang’s prayer. The interviewer asked Krystle’s grandmother, “Does this feel unreal?” Everyone is saying, as they always do when tragedy strikes: “This is a nightmare.” And it is. With wisdom realizing the true nature of things, we have the actual solution to this and every other problem – we can wake up.

(21) Relying upon a Spiritual Guide: We need experienced guides to steer us out of the madness of this hall of distorted, bomb-blasted mirrors, and into lasting peace and freedom.

Over to you: How do you make sense of the senseless?

Happy Valentine’s Day to Everyone

A good day to talk about love, I think. This is the annual “love day”. For most of us, our love is a mixture of two things – attachment, which is not in fact love at all, and love, which is.

I like Valentine’s Day in America. Everyone sends everyone Valentines. In England, Valentine’s Day is just about romantic love, or it was when I last lived there. You send a Valentine’s Day card to someone you are in love with or someone you’ve been admiring from afar. It is often mysterious, “from a secret admirer.”  But here you may get a card and flowers saying “love from Grandpa.”  In England, that would be very strange, you would be worried. When I first got over here I learned about this difference, and then entirely forgot what Valentine’s Day is like in England. I sent my Dad a Valentine’s Day card, and he was touched, but a bit mystified.

But, as I said, I like it. The multimillion dollar card industry may have it made in the States, but I’m with them on this one. So Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad, and everyone else!*

What is desirous attachment?

It is not the same as desire – we need desires, but we don’t need attachment. Attachment is “dö chag” in Tibetan, which literally means “sticky desire”. There is a stickiness, neediness, dependency, and self-centeredness associated with attachment. It’s “I need you to make ME happy”, as opposed to “I want to make YOU happy”, which is actual love. Attachment weakens us, and we give away the key to our happiness. Love strengthens us, and we stay in charge of our happiness.

Attachment is all about me and what I can get from you, and love is all about what I can give or do for you. There are three kinds or levels of love, affectionate love, cherishing love, and wishing love. Briefly, affectionate love is just liking people, having a warm, fuzzy feeling, the way our mom feels when she hasn’t seen us for awhile, just unconditionally delighted to see us without that needy, “I want YOU to do something for ME.” On the basis of affection, if we think about how kind someone is, we come to cherish them – we find them special, we want to take care of them, their happiness matters. So because we cherish this person, our question is “Are they happy?” The answer is usually, “Well, they could be a lot happier,” and we wish for them to have what they need, what they want, to be happy now and always. This is wishing love.

Attachment stands in horrible contrast to all types of love, but to begin with it can be quite hard for us to tell them apart as our relationships are so mixed up. It is one of Buddha’s great kindnesses that he distinguishes between them so clearly. It can save us from immense heartache. We can learn to reduce the attachment and increase the love in all our close friendships, which is guaranteed to bring us more meaning and joy.

Here is a definition from Understanding the Mind:

“Desirous attachment is a deluded mental factor that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it.”

“Contaminated” means tainted by the ignorance of self-grasping, which makes it seem as though the object or person we are attached to is real, “out there”, independent of our mind, as if we are uninvolved in bringing it into being. Attachment externalizes happiness, thinking it inheres in things and people, as opposed to being part of a peaceful mind. It can be a cream donut or a person – neither one has anything to do with me. It seems to be capable from its own side of giving me the happiness I want. And because our happiness is out there, we need to go get it.

(In the case of attachment, the object or person seems to have the power to make me happy. In the case of anger, it seems to have the power to make me unhappy.)

Are you a spiritual person?!

Having strong attachment is the opposite to the spiritual life. If I ask you, “What is a spiritual person? Are you a spiritual person? Do you have to wear open-toed sandals to be spiritual? Do you have to wear robes? What do you have to do to be a spiritual person?” and then go ahead and answer my own question, I would say that a spiritual person is someone who knows where happiness and suffering come from. They know their source lies in the mind. They know they’re on a journey to happiness. They still can be doing the same things that everybody else does – they can have a job, raise a family, eat donuts — but where they seek happiness and fulfillment is on the inside, in the mind. Do you agree?!

Attachment is the opposite. That’s why Buddha called the rest of us “worldly people” – someone is worldly if they are always looking outside of themselves for their happiness, and don’t recognize that their happiness comes from within.

As mentioned, desirous attachment is not the same as desire. There are many non-deluded desires that it is suitable to cultivate, such as the wish to help others, to accomplish pure happiness, even to overcome desirous attachment! And there are neutral desires too, such as the wish to open the door. If we got rid of all desire, we would cease functioning at all. We need to work on what we desire.

How do we develop desirous attachment

Very simply put, attachment exaggerates the apparent qualities of an object until we feel we have to have it. Here is another definition from Understanding the Mind:

“First we perceive or remember a contaminated object and feel it to be attractive, then we focus our attention on its good qualities and exaggerate them. With an exaggerated sense of the attractiveness of the object we then hold it to be desirable and develop desire for it. Finally our desire attaches us to the object so that it feels as if we have become glued to it or absorbed into it. Only when all these stages are completed has desirous attachment occurred.”

This is quite unlike love, which does not distort its object but recognizes it for what it is, for example as kind or lovable. Our neutral minds also don’t distort the attractiveness of their object — you go to the sock drawer to decide what socks to wear today, but you don’t spend hours thinking about it, unless you’re a sad case. With attachment, there has to be an exaggeration of seeming desirable features going on in the mind.

We can exaggerate at the speed of light!  Exaggeration is like a top notch advertising agency in the mind. We just meet someone, “Oh, he’s got nice eyes… I bet he’d make a great husband. I wonder if he’ll marry me?” The whole advertising industry feeds into our attachment, they know us – think how glued people were to the commercials in last week’s Super Bowl. The producers didn’t spend a million dollars on them just to provide us with entertainment. They know they’ll work to make us buy stuff  because we have attachment that is all too ready to go along with a gross exaggeration of the apparent qualities of a product. “Oooh, if I buy this dream car …” 

I’ll take this subject of love and attachment up again in a few days — Valentine’s Day will be over, but I’m betting it’ll still be relevant 🙂 And here is that new article… Falling in love (again) according to Buddhism.

Over to you: what do you think about all this?!

*This article originally appeared as Love, attachment and desire according to Buddhism. I am currently in England and, as of 9.19 am, only one person has sent me a Valentine’s Card… I rest my case.

What is Buddha’s enlightenment?

what is Buddha's enlightenmentHappy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! April 15th is another big holy(i)day for Kadampa Buddhists, marking the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni demonstrating the attainment of enlightenment in 589 B.C.E. I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to say something short and simple about what Buddha’s enlightenment means to me.

Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha

For sure, on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, we remember the kindness of the historical Buddha, the one everyone has heard of, the one who started his life as Prince Siddhartha and became known as Buddha Shakyamuni. Without his appearing in our world to give teachings, there would be no Buddhism or Buddhist meditation in our lives today. You can read his inspiring life story in Introduction to Buddhism.

Faith in our own potential

As a Buddhist, I have faith or confidence in the Founder of Buddhism, Buddha Shakyamuni — faith in his enlightened nature of universal compassion and omniscient wisdom, in his teachings, in his example. But effective faith in Buddha necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential. He only appeared in this world to teach us Buddhism because he knew we could all be just like him, that we already had within us the seeds of enlightenment. In fact, Buddha Shakyamuni is just one of countless Buddhas – those who have perfected their qualities until they cannot be perfected further, out of a compassion that yearns for the capacity to free every single living being from suffering.

The imperative to become enlightened

Buddha's enlightenmentAs I sit here with my dying cat Nelson, (whom I’ve had to join in the yard to write this as he wants to go outside in accordance with his feral upbringing,) there is an imperative to become enlightened for his sake. If every cat is as adorable as he is, which they are, if that is possible, which it is, then samsaric suffering is truly brutal, pervasive and heart-breaking. Nelson is only a year and a half old, but already has a tumor that is taking up half his small body. He hasn’t eaten in days, and each day drinks less, trundles around less, suffers more. Right now he is just lying here under the table, bravely and uncomplainingly accepting his fate, as animals seem to do so much better than us. He is still managing a faint purr when I reach down to stroke him.

What did Nelson do to deserve this? As a person, nothing. He is naturally pure, like all of us. His ignorance, his real enemy, drove him to engage in deluded actions that have led to this. He needs, like all of us, to purify his mind of suffering and all its causes (ignorance, delusions, and karma) so that he never has to take another samsaric rebirth again. How am I going to help him do that if I am just an ordinary person who cannot even speak the language of cats, or read his mind, or follow him from life to life? I love him and I want to protect him. I can perhaps give him some temporary love and protection for the days or weeks he remains with me here, but that is nowhere near enough. I cannot settle for that. I want to give him peace by blessing his mind all the time, and as soon as he is in a human body I want to show him how to end mistaken appearances and suffering once and for all. I want to set the example that Buddha Shakyamuni and many other great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have set for me.Buddha peace

That is a lot for me to accomplish even for one small cat, so what about my other cat, also joining us here at the table for a spell, not in pain but still in a cat’s body? And what about the feral cat colony I discovered last month, one of whose members is the spitting image of Nelson and no doubt a relative, that live a mile down the road? And what about everybody else?!

Sadness won’t do it, although it can be an impetus. I need to attain enlightenment.

My teacher says in Modern Buddhism page 26:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and its function is to bestow mental peace on each and every living being every day.

That is what we need. And we need it fast.

That wish alone dissolves away my sadness and helplessness and leaves me blissful and energized. Compassion is bliss, according to Buddha’s Tantric teachings. One minute sad for Nelson, the next blissed out, that’s how it works. Nelson is purring in agreement. (I like to think of his purrs as him tuning into Buddha’s omniscient wisdom, enlightened mind, blessings.*) He would tell me, if he could, that he would far rather I be blissful than sad because I’m far better at helping him feel peaceful if I am feeling that way myself. Our mental states are catching. Blessings are contagious.

Is bodhichitta pie in the sky?

Someone commented on this article, How would you save this bear?, about a month ago:

“As much as I know intellectually that bodhichitta is more beneficial, I don’t really feel it in my heart. For me the idea of becoming a Buddha to benefit others seems very abstract, compared to directly helping beings now. Have any of you got any advice on how to increase my faith that developing bodhichitta is the best way to help others?”

I replied:

“For one thing, it is not an either/or, in the sense that if we are not trying to help any individuals now as well, it is hard to say we are working to help everyone!

The way I see it is that we already want to help others and we already want to improve ourselves (largely so we can be of more use to others.) If we increase both those wishes — wanting to help more and more people until we want to help everybody, and wanting to improve ourselves more and more until there is no further room for improvement – we have bodhichitta. So the seed is there, we just have to keep watering it.”

A couple of days later, I had Nelson in his usual spot on my/his meditation cushion, and decided to respond to this comment further:

bodhichitta mind of enlightenment “Hello again, your comment came into my mind this morning when I was meditating with my small cat Nelson purring next to me. He looks to me for protection, love and food, which I try my best to provide him, but I’d like to scoop him out of samsara altogether. To do that — and to help all my current nearest and dearest — I need to generate bodhichitta because I need to become a Buddha with the necessary power. To develop bodhichitta, I need love and compassion for all living beings at least equal to what I have for Nelson. He is an example showing me what I need. So even to help our nearest and dearest, we need bodhichitta, let alone to help everyone else.”

With our thoughts, we create our world

We can choose how we think. We may think our thoughts rule us, but that is only if we are not exerting control over our own mind. We can learn to think big, enlightened thoughts instead of small, selfish ones. We can ignore the inappropriate attention that leads to all our baseless, disturbing delusions, and choose to think realistic things that will liberate and enlighten us. With our thoughts, we create our world, to summarize what Buddha taught us. We are what we think. There is no Nelson outside my experience of Nelson. There is no world outside my experience of the world. So I am in the process of creating a better me, a better world, and a better Nelson, for his and everyone’s sake.

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is a good time to remember all this and renew our intention to follow in kind Buddha Shakyamuni’s footsteps by developing compassion and wisdom.

*A short video of Nelson tuning into Buddha’s blessings on my/his meditation cushion:

Nelson the cat, Buddha's Enlightenment Day
Nelson’s grave

 

Update: Nelson died at 5:30am on Saturday April 14th, 2012, in my arms in front of my shrine, after spending the night lying on my chest. So many kind people have been praying for him, including Geshe Kelsang, for which I am very grateful, and I’m sure Nelson is too. May he and all animal beings, human beings, and others quickly be released permanently from suffering and mistaken appearances, and find enlightened bliss.

The secrets of national happiness

the secrets of national happiness U.N. building Turtle BayOn Monday, the U.N. General Assembly asked the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to host a daylong special session on Happiness. As Patrick Stewart, author of a CNN article called The U.N. Happiness Summit, puts it:

What the heck is going on in Turtle Bay?

I don’t think it is any coincidence that Bhutan is a Buddhist country. Buddhism 101 famously explains how happiness is tied not to external happenings but to internal states of mind. As Geshe Kelsang puts it on the very first page of Modern Buddhism:*

In recent years our knowledge of modern technology has increased considerably, and as a result we have witnessed remarkable material progress, but there has not been a corresponding increase in human happiness.

happiness is modern technology
1902 Union Automobile Co. Ad

My grandfather lived to 100, through some of the most dramatic changes in human history. A cardiac doctor with an inquisitive mind and big heart, he was always fascinated in external development and technology, and drove all over Europe in a car almost as soon as they were invented. He kept abreast of all modern progress through magazines, TV, and conversations with anyone who would talk to him, and, had he lived long enough, I bet he would have surfed the net and enjoyed every minute of it. When he was about 98 I asked him what he thought about all the changes he had seen since 1902. He told me that he found them exhilarating. But, he added unprompted, they also added a layer of complication to life such that he felt people in general were not as happy as they used to be. Life was too fast for many people. People had become more materialistic as a result of all the societal emphasis on scientific, technological and material development, and although it was necessary for us to have food, shelter and medical care, materialism itself didn’t make anyone actually happy. He told me he personally managed to stay happy and enjoy watching the rate of progress due to his close, stable relationships with his family, and especially due to his inner life [which I wrote something about here.]

That happiness is a state of mind, and therefore depends on what we are doing with our mind, is obvious when we stop to think of it, but often we are so busy chasing dreams (or trying to avoid nightmares) related to fame and fortune that we don’t stop to think of it. We get caught up in material markers, not spiritual ones, and our life is poorer and more anxious as a result.

But perhaps the tide is turning a little? In answer to the question he asks above, Patrick Stewart replies:

More than meets the eye, in fact. One of the hottest fields in development economics has been, believe it or not, happiness research…. In recent years, a small but influential group of economists has concluded that traditional measurements of national progress, typically couched in terms of per capita Gross National Product (GNP), don’t actually tell us much about the wellbeing of citizens. This is partly a critique of modernization theory, which suggests that human welfare advances in lockstep with material enrichment.

Who is happier, your average Iowan or your average sub-Saharan African? We might assume this to be a daft question, but according to this article some of the highest levels of happiness have been recorded in low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

happiness in GhanaWhen I was in my late teens I lived for a while in Ghana, West Africa, where my father was posted as a diplomat, and I couldn’t fail to notice how cheerful and basically happy most people were. Even after a 1981 military coup, when supplies started to dwindle and life became more uncertain, my own and my parents’ Ghanaian friends (with some exceptions of course) seemed determined to maintain their joie de vivre. (We had quite a number of parties staying out after curfew, making the most of being unable to drive home.) I’m not recommending anyone seek out a shortage of food, or soldiers driving around in trucks waving guns, of course, but for me it was a pretty compelling example of the power of attitude.

As for Bhutan, it is apparently the happiest country in Asia and the eighth happiest in the world. Their gauge of national progress is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, replacing the GNP! As Stewart says:

Improbably, the concept has taken off….

So much so that the U.N. General Assembly has passed a Resolution entitled: “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development”, conceding:

The gross domestic product indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being in a country.

gross national happinessAs a society I agree it’d be nice to discourage “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption” and have a more “equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of peoples.” Positive attitudes, views, values, and intentions will be crucial for bringing these about. Of course we are all individually responsible for our own states of mind, but as we also always imitate each other, and attitudes are infectious, don’t you think it’d be quite fabulous if the concept of a GNH index did take off in our own society, and our governments heeded the call to integrate a “happiness agenda” into public policy?!

And in case you are concerned that all this discussion in the U.N. might just lead to a whole different type of Big Brother, one who says, “You WILL be happy, or else!”, the author Bhutan happinessreassures:

The Buddhists of Bhutan have no designs on the capitalist system, or the rest of our freedoms. In fact, the Land of the Thunder Dragon may have more in common with the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave than you might imagine. After all, they share the fundamental aspiration enunciated in America’s founding document: the pursuit of happiness. 

*Modern Buddhism, by the way but not incidentally, is currently at #1, #4, and #8 on Amazon’s Buddhist books list! You can download your own free copy here.

Unstoppable ~ 8 ways in which our thoughts are like a run-away train

delusions, runaway trainThe movie Unstoppable is based on the true 2001 story of a runaway train. The “real life” CSX 8888 train in Ohio was holding some toxic materials, whereas the movie train 777 in Pennsylvania was full of highly combustible molten phenol that could have blown up a huge area. It had to be stopped before it reached Stanton.

To begin with, the train company thought it was a “coaster” – not ideal to have it loose on the main line, but far better than it running on its own power. It was still manageable at a speed of between 10 and 20 miles per hour, giving someone time to hop on board and take control.

Then they discovered that due to “human error” and “bad luck”, the throttle had in fact jumped from idle to full power. The train was speeding away at over 70 miles per hour. It quickly burnt through its independent brakes.

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, BuddhismMovie spoiler: As you might expect, after lots of drama, corporate pride and greed, and false moves, our heroes in the aspect of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine risked their lives for others and saved the day. They rode the train into town almost unscathed, to be greeted by relieved, happy hugs and kisses all around.

Well, this movie got me thinking about our thoughts and how out of control they can be. In the old days, Buddha Shakyamuni often likened the uncontrolled mind to a powerful, wild elephant that could trample an entire grass village and everyone in it. We don’t have too many elephants around where I live, and our houses are made of wood and concrete, so I have been finding the run-away train full of explosives analogy to be a good updated substitute. Buddha Shakyamuni said our mind is like a crazy elephant

(The stages of the path (Lamrim) teachings encourage us to deepen our meditative insights with the use of our own and others’ experience, stories, and analogies. I bet Buddha Shakyamuni, Shantideva, and others would have used cars and trains and planes etc as analogies too if they’d been invented at the time, seeing how much time we all spend in them…)

These are the main ways I’ve been applying the analogy of the train to help me understand how our own uncontrolled thoughts arise, and how we can get back into the driver’s seat.delusions are like a runaway train

  1. Human error – the hapless “driver” who switched the wrong lever and then left the cab was being ignorant, careless, and lazy. Like us most days. We switch on anger instead of patience, for example, either because we are ignorant of our options, or because we are being careless with our options as we reckon it doesn’t matter too much, or because we can’t be bothered to apply the right option if it seems like hard work.
  2. Like the train, while our negative thoughts are coasting along slowly they are easier to control and divert than when they have built up powerful momentum and a life of their own due to inappropriate attention.
  3. Like the train crisis arising from many causes and conditions, including bad luck, so our thoughts arise from many different causes and conditions, including bad karma or bad luck. We have also developed karmic tendencies for negative thoughts by thinking them repeatedly in the past.
  4. Like the train with no driver in control, at the moment our thoughts are driving us. We need to drive them. Also, this driverlessness reminds me that although our thoughts are pre-programmed to wreak havoc due to beginningless conditioning to our delusions, they are still ownerless or empty of inherent existence. Therefore they are unfixed, such that all habitual momentum can be reversed.
  5. Like the train, our thoughts are carrying toxic explosive substances – potentially dangerous and fatal to ourselves and others.
  6. Like the train, our negative thoughts need to be stopped as soon as possible – and we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity at our disposal to stop them. Pride, greed, fatalism, and over-caution won’t stop them. Only skill, energy, compassion, and wisdom will.
  7. Like the train, when our thoughts are under control we can ride them safely and peacefully and go wherever we want to go.Phew, no more delusions
  8. Like the train arriving home, everyone is very relieved and happy when we finally manage to get our minds under control. 

Your turn: in the comments, please share any modern analogies or stories that you have found helpful for increasing your insights.

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

What (or who) do we see when we look at strangers? Do we mainly see their bodies? Their minds, after all, are formless and therefore invisible. Are we evaluating them based mainly on their bodies and on what we imagine must be their external lifestyle and background (e.g. jobs, family, income, possessions, politics, sexuality, choice of entertainment) as opposed to their vast, indeed infinite, spiritual potential?!

In London last summer a friend and I stopped for a pizza in London’s Gloucester Road and did some people watching, all the fashionistas wandering around looking cool, or not, as the case may be. Back in the sweltering NY summer, likewise, I caught myself looking at the sharply dressed men and the women in pretty summer dresses, as well as many older and more shambling people (whom younger people assume have let themselves go); and having superficial, lazy and rather useless discriminations about them. And on a beach not too long ago, I found myself making up stories about all the families I was seeing around me, who was who and what was what, and these stories were also rather one-dimensional or fixed – at least they didn’t take into account the huge variety of thoughts, experiences, relationships and potentials that each of them has been experiencing since beginningless time. I think I sometimes do the same thing in airports! The exceptions are when I’m not being lazy and I’m remembering Dharma, when the world feels very vast and interconnected.*

“The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn’t indicate or promise, and which the other kind couldn’t detect.” ~ Mark Twain

It struck me that if we’re (I’m) not careful it is very easy to mindlessly judge everyone by various superficial criteria. “Oh he’s gorgeous! Oh, she could really do with a haircut!” etc. We impute people on their body, their form aggregate, and this is terribly restrictive. People are not their bodies. They have bodies, but they also have minds, and frankly their minds are infinitely more interesting. In fact, their minds are as vast as space, and have the potential for unbelievable wisdom, compassion, love and bliss.

One-day experiment

Just try this experiment with me for one day. Ignore people’s bodies and think about their minds. Impute or label people not on their fleshy bodies with their limited shelf life but instead on their boundless formless minds, and particularly on the potential their minds have to do anything at all, including attaining full enlightenment and becoming omniscient Buddhas. Please let me know in the comments if it makes a difference and, if so, what…

*If I’m remembering Dharma quickly, my thoughts watching a stranger in a waiting room or elsewhere may go something like this: I’ve had every conceivable relationship with them since beginningless time; they’ve even been my kind mother and dependent child; they want to be happy just as much as I do; their happiness is more important because they are other; so I’ll put myself in their shoes; now I want them to be very happy and free; they’re not; so I better attain enlightenment quickly for their sake. I find this potted Lamrim, or variation on that theme, works every time on humans and animals, and makes waiting or sitting around vastly more productive and blissful.

Your turn: what do you see when you look at a stranger?

“Love hurts.” Or doesn’t it?

(Part of the series Is compassion happy or sad?)

The main reason why thinking of others’ suffering hurts is due to our self-cherishing. This is not always obvious. In fact it’s quite subtle.

A dumb but destructive mind

self-cherishing

Self-cherishing believes that our self that we normally see (an inherently existent me) is supremely important, and that its happiness and freedom are supremely important. That inherently existent I is in fact non-existent, so self-cherishing is a really idiotic mind, which has nonetheless managed to pull the wool over our eyes since beginningless time! For us, self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing are almost the same, as Geshe Kelsang said in Summer Festival 2009. They are both aspects of our ignorance and, as such, the root of all our misfortune and suffering. To be clear, self-cherishing is not the same as caring for ourselves.

How can I bear this?

love and desire

In Modern Buddhism, page 78, Geshe Kelsang explains how with self-cherishing we find our own problems unbearable, and this makes us suffer, and how with cherishing others we find others’ suffering unbearable.

Why, one may wonder, would I then try to cherish others – it is bad enough cherishing just one person, me! Surely if I cherish others and then find their suffering unbearable too, I’ll just collapse in an agonized heap?

No. The interesting and profound thing about it is that if we don’t have self-cherishing, we don’t experience any mental pain. Ever. Cherishing others, we find their suffering unbearable, but it doesn’t hurt! It is compassion, which is by nature a peaceful, positive mind and leads to the everlasting happiness of enlightenment. Geshe Kelsang explained this in 2009, pointing out that we can see from this that it is self-cherishing alone that is making us unhappy. (Implicitly this seems to suggest that it is not contemplating others’ suffering, or even our own, that in itself makes us unhappy.)

Exchanging myself with others

equalizing self and others loveIf this is true, it has far-reaching consequences because it really does mean that all we need to do is change our views and intentions by removing self-cherishing from our minds and cherishing others instead (also known as exchanging self with others). According to Kadam Lamrim, this is the actual way to become a Buddha, and it is devastatingly simple – anyone can do it through the force of determination and meditation. It may take a while at first to get going with it, like anything, and we’ll have to review the reasons a lot more than once; but with familiarity it becomes easy. If we believe this, we will gradually lose all resistance to contemplating others’ suffering and generate compassion, enabling us to attain the bliss of enlightenment.

Does it really work?

To believe it, I think we have to “suck it and see”, as they say. Does it really work? If I reduce my self-cherishing, and then contemplate my loved ones’ suffering, will it really not hurt my mind? I tried to apply this to one specific scenario, the swelling of Rousseau’s third eyelids. (I have of course many other scary examples I could use, such as friends with serious illnesses, but the same principles will apply.)

What is happening when I look at Rousseau’s eyes at the moment? His eyes appear unsightly and unpleasant to my mind and various things are going on if I’m honest:

Rousseau the catThe good bits:

(1)    I love this cat, feel for him, and want him to be free from sore, itchy eyes and having to stay inside all day long, which he loathes.
(2)    I will do anything it takes to make him feel better.

The not-so-good-bits:

(1)    Those swollen eyes mean expense at the vet. This is his second infection in three months and I cannot afford to keep paying for his treatments.
(2)    Pushing and grasping – if his eyes aren’t completely better after 5 whole days, someone’s gotta do something! This is desperate. Panic.
(3)    I am guilty that I allow him to roam free outside so he can pick up infections, even though I feel even more guilty keeping him cooped up inside in prison his entire life. I can’t win. It’s frustrating.
(4)    It is more urgent to get rid of his suffering than that of all the other cats in the neighborhood, nay in the world.
(5)    I feel woefully inadequate at protecting him from sickness and suffering even though he is my responsibility. I am a failure.

Yes, the good bits are all about him. And if I can stick to the good bits, no matter how much I consider his sickness, I feel no mental pain at all. I’ve been trying it, it is true. Good bit (1) is also a basis for wishing better things for him, like complete liberation from all sufferings, and good bit (2) is the basis for my determination to become a Buddha as quickly as possible to help him become one too. That is actually bodhichitta, a most blissful state of mind. I can even think: “What would a Buddha do in this situation?” and then approximate it. (For one thing, Buddha would be giving him mental peace through blessing his mind – something we can do somewhat ourselves already, especially if we identify with being a Buddha right now — perhaps a subject for another day. Meantime, see Joyful Path pages 60-61 and page 116 for how to self-generate as Buddha Shakyamuni out of bodhichitta, and bless others, even without an empowerment.)

what to do about depressionThe 5 not-so-good bits are all about me, and they are what are actually causing my pain and worry. They are also the basis for all inappropriate attention and getting stuck down grimy mental cul de sacs, such as (1) dwelling on his eyes in an unhelpful fashion, and then on how little money I have to fix him, and then moving on to all the things that can go wrong, requiring money; (2) not letting things run their karmic course but trying to force all the issues ahead of time, impatiently grasping at results, not seeing the mere (mistaken) appearance of the situation; (3) guilt, which is an entirely useless, cracked-record state of mind; (4) finding Rousseau’s suffering to be more important than the suffering of a gazillion other cats in the world, just because he is my cat, instead of having equanimity and universal compassion; and (5) identifying with my current limitations as opposed to figuring out that I need to, and I can, swiftly get into a position where I can help EVERYONE by practicing Kadam Dharma – going down the open road.

I have been reading both too much into Rousseau’s eyes (with inappropriate attention, causing worry) and too little (not recognizing them as a symptom of needing to get him and all of us out of samsara altogether).

“Question ourselves and give ourselves the answer”

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Summer Festival 2009You can try doing something similar with the person you are most worried about right now, including even your own child – what is going on in my mind, the good bits and the not-so-good bits. As Geshe Kelsang suggested in 2009 when analyzing whether or not self-cherishing is indeed the root of our suffering, we can “question ourselves” and “give ourselves the answer.” (No doubt we’ll have to do this a number of times before the answer sticks.) Please let us know in the comments what you discovered.

Jennifer, my neighbor, also loves Rousseau and often has him to visit, but she is not over-dwelling on his problems – she is not worried about him, and is simply efficiently helping me put in his eye drops, confident that he’ll feel better soon. And although we sometimes want other people to worry about our loved ones with us, for misery loves company, in fact it is far more uplifting when they are not worried, but simply care.

Finally, exchanging self with others is primarily a mental training — we change our thoughts, and our physical and verbal behavior naturally follows suit. Which leads me to a question I have for you, which I’ll ask soon.

Your turn: Do you think your self-cherishing is responsible for all your mental pain or not? Please share your experiences.