How to broaden your horizons while stuck inside

10 mins read.

A news alert just popped up on this screen to say “Need a vacation!? Here are 8 gorgeously located movies to watch on Netflix.” And if we watch them, our mind will go to those places, albeit leaving our physical body on the sofa munching homemade popcorn.

Carrying directly on from this article, Living in a virtual world.

mirror worldIt seems like our mind can go anywhere, so let’s go somewhere uplifting. If I can go to the Caribbean or London from home, why can I not also visit the Pure Land from home? As I explain a bit in this article:

Just as our ordinary mind can go to the moon just by thinking about it, so our un-ordinary mind Vajrayogini can go to the Pure Land just by thinking about it.

Buddha Maitreya said in Ornament for Clear Realization that because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure; and when they purify their minds, they will inhabit Pure Lands. Even if I dream I am in a Pure Land, it is no different from being there, even if for just a little while.

Once we get rid of all the obstructions from our mind, our body will also go where our mind goes because for a Buddha their body and mind are the same nature, not different like ours. One way to understand this is to think of a dream – if my dream mind dreams that I am swimming in an ocean, my dream body is also swimming in an ocean.

Unfettered

Not only is our mind not in any way restricted by physical objects or time, but it has this amazing potential for deep bliss, for love encompassing all living beings, for wisdom that sees all objects of knowledge fully and simultaneously, for being everywhere all at once. It is because we have this formless mind, which is not in any way fixed, that we have the potential for enlightenment, our so-called Buddha seed. You have this. dark clouds

When we attain enlightenment, our mind is universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — everyone is appearing to our mind and in our mind, like reflections in an unobstructed  mirror. Not separated from them by the illusion of dualistic appearances and conceptions, we can now help everyone every day.

A mirror with two cloths

Buddha gave his 84,000 teachings precisely because we have this potential – if we didn’t, there’d be literally no point in him explaining how to attain liberation and enlightenment.

Try wrapping your mind around this for a moment:

In Ornament for Clear Realization, Buddha Maitreya gives three reasons why Buddha’s mind knows all phenomena directly and simultaneously: (1) Buddhas directly realize the two truths of all phenomena because they have completed meditation on the two truths being one entity; (2) Buddhas have complete knowledge of all phenomena being of one taste in the state of emptiness; and (3) a Buddha’s mind is completely free from the two obstructions. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 379

Here is a hopefully helpful analogy to illustrate at least that third point. We can think of our mind as like a mirror that is capable of reflecting (or if you like, holding) every single object in the universe.

Right now, however, it is covered with two cloths – a thin veil just on top of it and a thick cloth on top of that.

mirror obstructedFrom our perspective we don’t know we are a mirror because all we see is darkness and confusion. We may get glimmers of light, but generally we blink out at a world narrowed by obscurations and, having no idea that we’re doing it, grasp onto this shrunken world as if it really existed. Like William Blake says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

Our deepest level of awareness, or root mind, can potentially be everywhere and love everyone all the time. However, we are normally confined to our small selfish ego capsules feeling ordinary, fixed, and limited. This self-grasping and our other delusions are like a thick cloth obscuring our vision and rendering us unaware of how extraordinary we can be. Through spiritual training we learn about these delusions — how they function, how they harm us, where they come from, and how to remove them both temporarily and ultimately.

One conclusion we can draw from this, as Geshe Kelsang teaches in How to Transform Your Life, is how it is possible to maintain kindness and respect for everyone (including ourselves) despite our delusions:

Just as we distinguish between a person and his or her ­delusions, so we should also remember that the delusions are only temporary, adventitious characteristics of that person’s mind and not its real nature. Delusions are distorted conceptual thoughts that arise within the mind, like waves on the ocean—just as it is possible for waves to die down without the ocean disappearing, so it is possible for our delusions to end without our mental continuum ceasing. It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being.

When we remove the thick cloth of our delusions permanently through the wisdom realizing the true nature of things, already there is light and happiness and freedom shining through. However, our mind is not free from all obstructions yet – we are still like the mirror with a thin veil over it.

mirror unobstructed 2We are liberated from our own suffering once we remove the thick cloth of our delusion-obstructions, but we still need to do some more spiritual practice to remove the veil of obstructions to omniscience, which we do on the so-called “three pure grounds”. These cause things to appear to us as somewhat existing outside the mind, the so-called “mistaken appearance of true existence;” even though we no longer believe or buy into this. We know we’re dreaming now, we have control. Our own mind is pure and free, but with this dualistic appearance we are not able to  be everywhere all the time helping everyone.

A Bodhisattva on the eighth ground has abandoned all delusions and their seeds, but he still has the imprints of delusions in his mental continuum, rather as wet sand will retain a footprint even after the foot has moved on. These imprints of the delusions are obstructions to omniscience … Imprints of delusions are effects of delusions, but not causes of delusion. They are however, causes of mistaken appearance. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 431

On the final stage of our spiritual journey, wisdom pulls away the veil of mistaken appearance and reveals a Buddha’s omniscient mind, like a mirror that can reflect everything directly and simultaneously.

Only Buddhas are free from the imprints of delusions and the mistaken appearance of true existence to which they give rise.

A time of reckoning

Why am I telling you all this? Because when I look out of the window — as “stay at home” is morphing into “safe at home” here in Colorado — I can see that it is Spring; and Spring is all about new beginnings. We can become who we want to become, realize our fullest and most blissful potential. And this is a good time to do it, rather than sitting around feeling bored and powerless and sad. We have been projecting the causes of our pain outwards since beginningless time and look where that has gotten us. Now we could learn to do something different and really get rid of this pain once and for all.

quote about wisdomThis is a time of reckoning. I read a moving article the other day from a mother, here are some extracts:

The other night (or last night, or last month) I was putting my daughter to bed and she started to cry. “What’s wrong, baby?” I asked, and I meant it…. “What is all this even for?” she wailed. She didn’t mean the quarantine: “All of this, why are we even here? Why are we even alive?” I tried to put together a soothing platitude …

To her credit, she was having none of it. “I hate this, I hate everything that’s ever going to happen to me. Help me, Mama, please, please help me.” …..

Absent the scaffolding of the world as we know it, I’ve got nothing to say. So I did the only thing I could. I held her, and rocked her, and hoped my silence helped.

During this confusing global pandemic, instead of feeling trapped we can really think about who we want to be and what we want out of this life – which will depend on what we think we can get out of it. Even when we brave our first tentative steps out of our houses, we’ll be finding that there are fewer distractions from all those full gatherings, a lot of our entertainments will have dried up, external life is basically looking like it is going to be pretty tedious and full of masks and endless hand-washing yet for a while. But instead of feeling hemmed in and frustrated and anxious, “hating everything that is ever going to happen to me”, maybe we can use Buddha’s teachings to find agency and become free instead.

My daughter is saying out loud the questions that everyday life helps us forget. This quarantine feels like a time of reckoning, forcing us to look at ourselves as we really are. Maybe whatever world we build after this is over will be more honest about that reality.

Like that young seeker, we can take stock: Who am I? Where on earth (or elsewhere) did I come from? Where am I going? Who do I want to be? Who can I be? What do I want out of this life? What kind of world do I want to live in? How can I find lasting happiness and freedom? And how can I be part of creating that for others too?

These are important questions. Do I want to go back to the same life and world I had in the “old days” or do I want something better? Is that old life even sustainable? Where and who do I want to be in five years’ time, for example? If we just go back to doing the same old things, we won’t change; and if we don’t change, our world won’t change.

At the very least, this pandemic has shown us that it doesn’t work to ignore and neglect others given that we are all caught up in the same web of mutual dependence. The heroes these days, the people we are applauding at 8:00 pm, are the healthcare and other essential workers – essential to our lives and well-being, that is — rather than the glitzy millionaires. Who knows, perhaps this is long overdue.

I suspect this is not our last pandemic. Why would it be? And even without pandemics there is plenty of other pain in our world, not least the swarms of locusts in East Africa causing hardship and starvation to millions of human beings while barely making the news, and the trapped animals who are being chillingly “depopulated” in their millions due to the interruptions in the human food supply chains. Meanwhile all over the world people are still thinking to solve their problems using angry violence or selfish greed, simply setting themselves up for more.

Sherma in lockdownBuddha’s point is that the suffering will never end on its own or by us just by dealing with external causes, which is at best putting on a band-aid. This world, our whole world, is clearly suffering a whole lot of problems right now; and we can’t ignore it so much now that it is reaching everyone’s doorstep. When we have delusions and do negative actions we have no choice but to inhabit a world of suffering – sooner or later our karma bounces back on us. This world is a reflection of our mind and our karma. If we don’t change these, our experiences won’t change, and our world will just stay impure, unhealthy, and painful. In fact, it will get worse.

Be the change

We follow the crowd. We tend to follow what everyone else is up to. Right now we don’t really know what everyone is up to as we are not seeing them – so maybe we can think more independently? Or maybe not, I don’t know.

We are often waiting for other people to change – for example for the politicians to start behaving. Good luck with that. Vote for who you need to, but basically waiting for others to change is massively demoralizing because we have no control over them nor guarantees their motivation or behavior will magically improve. Please don’t misconstrue me as saying we don’t do practical things as well, as I talk about here – but you know what I mean.

Venerable Atisha said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Sherma 2 in lockdownWe try to tame others’ minds, but that’s not how it works. If our mind is uncontrolled and polluted by delusions such as selfishness, we’re as much a part of the problem as anyone else; and there is no way we can control others’ minds or behavior.

I was wondering what would have happened if Buddha had waited for everyone else to change? Where would we be now? Prince Siddhartha figured samsara out when he left the palace and saw in turn a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. This is bad, he thought, I can see that this is bad. Life is based on a crumbling edifice of sickness, ageing, death, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, or feeling basically dissatisfied.

Rather than just putting his head back under his soft luxurious royal pillow or immersing himself in his palatial distractions, Prince Siddhartha decided to do something about this. He got rid of the two cloths from the mirror of his mind, and gave 84,000 teachings to show how we could do the same. The path to enlightenment is now all laid out for us in black and white.

It is not as if we don’t have the potential to follow this path, like countless people have done already:

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resFrom this point of view sentient beings are like enlightened beings. Their root mind, their own mind, is completely pure. Their own mind is like a blue sky and their delusions and all other conceptions are like clouds that temporarily arise. From another point of view sentient beings mistakenly identify themselves and are harmed by delusions. They endlessly experience immense suffering as hallucinations. Therefore we need to develop compassion for them, and liberate them from their deep hallucination of mistaken appearance by showing them the real nature of things, which is the emptiness of all phenomena. ~ How to Transform Your Life

I don’t know what we are waiting for. We can complain as much as we like about other people, but it doesn’t help a single thing.

To conclude, we can use the creative role of our minds and actions to go beyond all suffering to the Pure Land of liberation and enlightenment, or we can ignore this potential and keep trying to stick band-aids on our gaping wounds, staying in the impure lands of samsara. It is our choice.

Okay, enough from me. Please leave comments.

Related articles

Seven good reasons to learn how to meditate in a pandemic

Better together

Love, the great Protector

 

Experience and reality

The mirrormirror 2

Another example for helping us shift our perspective from the perceived to the perceiver in the meditation on our own mind is the mirror. When we look in a mirror, normally we are very interested in the spinach stuck in our teeth or whatever – but imagine if we shifted perspective from the object in the mirror to the mirror itself, from the reflected to the reflector. It is similar with this meditation – we shift focus from the object of awareness to the awareness itself. We are watching the watcher, or observing the observer. That awareness is clarity – formless awareness that has the actual power to perceive. Our mind understands, remembers, creates.

meeting hermit in mountainSpace

I recently did a retreat on Mahamudra in Rocky Mountain National Park. The air quality is amazing there, so clear, you can see for miles, you can reach out and touch the distant mountains. In fact according to the Denver Botannical Gardens science museum, Colorado has similar topography, air quality, and climate to Mongolia! I didn’t find it hard to see how the great Yogis and Yoginis of yore, including my teacher Geshe Kelsang, experienced blissful retreats in the Himalayas. Geshe-la was on solitary retreat there for 18 years.

Our minds are far clearer than the clearest sky. A whole different dimension of clear. Still, when we rise from this meditation, it can help while wandering from A to B to look at the sky, especially on a clear day. Also, rather than just honing in on objects, looking at the space between them can remind us of how clear our mind actually is.

Clarity is amazing

Your mind is hands down the most amazing thing in your life. The fact that someone can say or write words to you and you can understand them is incredible. The fact that we can see each other. The fact that this whole world is appearing. The fact that within our mind we have the capacity for peace, joy, transcendence, love etc, and that the deeper we go the better it gets. The fact that we can commune with enlightened beings. Plus our mind is naturally peaceful — indeed naturally blissful. It is all quite unbelievable, really, and we are walking around with this treasure all the time. But what do we use it for?! Live tweeting. A global expression of nonsense. “Yes, I’m really alive!”watching stupid shit

Only kidding, Twitter has its uses. However, it is too easy for us (me) to stay entirely occupied with the most superficial of appearances and neglect to step back and recognize that there is this inner light, inner luminosity, that is allowing us to experience all the various things we are experiencing, which is always present, always accessible.

I would rather live my life inside the experience of the actual nature of things, which are all the nature of the mind, and therefore experience everything in a non-dualistic fashion. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang said in his amazing Mahamudra teachings in 2000:

Using the root mind as our object of meditation — always trying to perceive the general image of our mind – means that we realize the subject mind very well, and understand the relationship between mind and its objects. The huge mistaken understanding that objects are there and the subject mind is here – that between them there is a large gap – will cease, and we will gain the correct understanding of how things really exist. If we clearly understand the real nature and function of mind, then we also understand how things really exist.

We are in fact deeply connected to everyone and everything. It is not my mind over here and everything else out there – the appearances are inside my mind, to my mind, of my mind.

Ocean and waves

oceanOne traditional example to help us understand that everything is the nature of the mind is the ocean and waves. Just as waves stirred up on an ocean by the wind are not separate from the ocean — we cannot draw a line between the ocean and its waves as it were — so all our thoughts and their objects such as forms, sounds, etc arise like waves from the ocean of the root mind. Which appearances and experiences arise like waves depends on which karmic potentialities are ripening. Everything is the nature of the mind; nothing exists outside the mind. As the Chittamatrins says in Ocean of Nectar page 228:

Just as waves arise from a great ocean
When it is stirred by the wind,
Likewise, because of it potentials a mere consciousness arises
From the seed of all, which is called ‘basis-of-all’.

(In the Tantric Prasangika view, it is also held that all objects are the nature of mind, arising simultaneously with the minds apprehending them from the same karmic potentialities on the root mind; except, unlike the Chittamatrins, they do not assert the mind is truly existent. However, I won’t get into that here.)

Geshe Kelsang said in his Mahamudra teachings in 2000:

The reality is that everything – our subject mind and all object things – came from this root consciousness. ‘Appearance’ means all objects such as the world, its beings, its environments, and all objects of enjoyment, including our body and our self. All the many different types of subject mind or conceptual thought to which things appear are like waves of an ocean, and our root consciousness is like the ocean itself. The waves of the ocean come from the ocean itself, and similarly the waves of appearance and all the different types of mind come from the ocean of our consciousness.

If we check, we can see that we cannot in fact separate out the objects of our thoughts from the thoughts or awarenesses holding them, any more than we can separate out a wave from an ocean or a reflection in a mirror from the mirror itself. There is no such thing as an object not known by mind, which is the definition of object, “known by mind”.

Can you even think of an object that is not known by mind? There is no world outside of our experience of the world. What is going on for you right now, for example, is your experience of what is going on – if you go looking, you cannot find anything going on out there. Your whole world cannot be separated out from your experience of the world – you cannot point to any world outside of your experience of it. As soon as you do, you’re experiencing it.

Waves are the nature of the ocean, not outside the ocean. Appearances are the nature of the mind, not outside the mind.

More about this here … meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.

What is there to grasp at?

letting go 3If something doesn’t remain for even a moment — if it is gone as soon as it arises — then what is there to hold onto??! (Carrying on from this article.) For example, we meet someone we like – but if they’re gone the moment we meet them, what is there to get attached to? If we go out for a meal with some friends, and each moment is gone as soon as it arises, what is there to grasp at? If someone unfriends you on Facebook, who is there to get upset with? They’re already gone. A new car or iPad — gone as soon as we’ve got it — what is there to get attached to? We can enjoy people and things moment by moment, but as nothing remains for the tiniest moment there is nothing to get stuck to with attachment. And however unfairly people behave, we can avoid the futility of holding hurt in our heart.

We don’t have to cover everyone and everything with the superglue of permanent grasping so that they cannot change and/or so that we cannot see them differently.

Key insight of Buddha

friend or enemyThis is the heart of Buddha’s key insight into why there is suffering in the world. Suffering doesn’t come because we are bad, it is not inflicted on us by some creator, it doesn’t come randomly out of nowhere – it all comes because we grasp. We grasp at something being there when in reality it isn’t. Grasping at my friend/enemy being there is grasping at an illusion, a rainbow. He cannot be found. And this simple act of grasping is the cause of all our suffering because if we like the thing we are grasping, we develop craving because we think there is something there. If we don’t like it, we develop anger or the wish to destroy it.

What do babies do?

Gen Samten shared a tale of his school days learning about the instincts of new-born babies — sucking and grasping. It apparently has no control even over its eyes. It also has a third instinct, which is yelling! Yelling, sucking, and grasping. The baby grasps: if it likes it, it sucks; and if it doesn’t, it yells. This seems to indicate the existence of past lives — the moment we pop out we carry on from where we left off. Then we grow up. And what is the definition of growing up? Learning to pretend to be a rational, thinking human being while still grasping, sucking, and yelling?! And we wonder why we suffer!baby yelling

Subtle impermanence cuts through all that because it teaches us there is nothing to grasp at. As soon as something has arisen, it has gone. We can ask ourselves, if we are attached to a person: “This person went the moment they arose. What am I getting attached to?”

Perhaps this makes us nervous, particularly if we really like someone, “I don’t like this!” As soon as we realize that we ourselves, for example, are gone the moment we arise, just gone, we want there to be something we can hold onto and say “me”; but there isn’t. Gone. Gone again. Gone again. As soon as I try to hold onto something it is not there anymore.

Pure states of mind instead of grasping

But when we can let go, we open up to experiencing pure states of mind such as love and compassion. Grasping always gets in the way of these. For example, if we grasp at someone, how can we love them? For if they are pleasant we develop attachment, if unpleasant, anger. The only way for our love to be pure is to love them without grasping at them as being there to love.

“But how can I love someone who’s not there?” we may protest.

One answer I think is that positive minds are always in the present moment. With love, we want that person to be happy now, wherever they are. With compassion we want them to be free from suffering. With patience we accept whole-heartedly whatever is arising in the present moment. With wisdom we go with the flow of life and deathfleeting appearances to mind. Delusions on the other hand always seem to be ranging over the past and future. This tells me something else about why it is a good idea to learn to live in the moment, and that it goes both ways — we are also able to live more in the moment when we cultivate these positive minds.

Also, in Ocean of Nectar page 28 Geshe-la explains compassion observing phenomena, which observes living beings who are realized as impermanent and wishes to protect them from suffering:

Because living beings are impermanent they are transient like the moon reflected in rippling water.

This is a deeper compassion because we realize that one profound reason why living beings suffer is because they are transient, imputing themselves on a fleeting (and entropic) body and mind, but, not realizing this, they experience permanent grasping.

Also, most people enjoy rainbows. And we can’t find them – that is one of the loveliest things about them.

I would like to hear your examples in the comments section as to how understanding subtle impermanence has enabled you to let go of grasping and other delusions and been a catalyst for positive minds such as love.

Surfing analogy

Has anyone here ever gone surfing? Our ability to surf doesn’t depend upon grasping but upon letting go. We have to go with that wave — and if we grasp and want to find security by freezing time, it won’t work. We know everything is changing, not remaining even for a moment; so the only way to surf that is to move with it. And that is part of the joy of surfing.

Life is like a wave, it doesn’t stay put even for a moment. So surf it. The daily situations in our life are different waves — am I surfing this wave or trying to freeze it to find security?

Old photosbasis of imputation changes naturally

Thanks to the kindness of some friends, my stuff recently arrived in a truck from Florida, including statues, clothes, and photos. When I look at these, especially the photos, although I recognize them, they now look subtly (and not so subtly) different — they are brand new old photos. Life events and relationships between now and when I last saw these photos a few years ago have totally changed, and so has their meaning, their existence.

Final installment is here!

Why do I feel so lonely?

Can you remember the last time you felt lonely?

If you can, you are not alone!  Reminds me of that Billy Joel lyric from Piano Man:

They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinking alone.

We crave companionship, closeness, union, but the irony is that we are not actually alone in the first place. To appreciate this, we first need to understand the actual reasons we feel so lonely.

Loneliness 2
Lonely, or in seventh heaven?!

It is not because we are on our own that we suffer from loneliness. We can be sitting on the same sofa as someone, been married to them for years, and still feel totally isolated. We can be standing next to someone feeling half a world away. Or … we can be half a world away feeling like we are not separated at all. My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso spent 16 years strictly on his own in the Himalayas on retreat and didn’t feel a moment’s loneliness – had his compassion and teacher not prised him out so he could come help us, he’d probably still be blissfully there. I even spent the larger part of 3 years moreorless on my own doing retreat, and have never felt more connected or peaceful. Some of the happiest and friendliest people I know are monks and nuns, who have renounced coupledom.

Some days we can feel that we have an abundance of supportive friends and family, other days we can feel that there is not a single life form on this planet that really gets us.

Loneliness says far more about our world view or outlook on life than about who is or who is not around us. Whether we are in a relationship or not, whether we have many friends or only a few, we all need to learn the same things. Looking at loneliness is quite profound as it can teach us a lot about our existential situation, and understanding the illusion or hallucination behind it can help us attain liberation not just from loneliness but from other delusions too.

Understanding the illusion of loneliness

lonelinessOver the course of a few articles I thought it could be helpful to look at loneliness, starting with what causes the feeling of loneliness, namely self-grasping ignorance exacerbated by attachment. The feeling of being isolated is an illusion created by those delusions, especially as we are not in fact alone at all but entirely connected to everything and everyone. We don’t have to create relationships with others, those relationships are already there. Love and wisdom are a natural response to that recognition, and the very antidote to loneliness.

Some thought experiments

To help you go within and look at what’s going on, you can begin by sitting down to meditate — settling your mind with some kind of meditation on the breath or the clarity of the mind, and generating a good motivation wanting to get to the bottom of loneliness for your own and others’ sake.

Then you can do this:

(1)    Examine the last time you felt really lonely. What is loneliness? Who felt lonely? Answer: “Me”. Did you have a strong sense of self and other? Did you feel isolated, alienated? Did you feel like the only person in the universe, surrounded by other independent people all separate from you, going about their business? Did you feel you were over here and everyone else was over there, quite possibly having a whole lot of fun without you? Did you feel homesick, as if you were not in the place or with the people you wanted to be, as if your life was on some kind of hold? Did you feel a sense of lacking, of loss? Did you feel a yearning for connection to someone outside of yourself?

(2)    When did you experience this loneliness? Was it in a relationship or out of one? Or both?

(3)    What would it take to satisfy you so that you wouldn’t be lonely? When wouldn’t you be lonely?

All this is coming from a misconception of who we are and who others are, called “self-grasping ignorance”. We feel we are independent, existing solidly and from our own side, the only real me. Then other people feel really “other” and so apart from us — there is by necessity a gap between us. Then we develop attachment and craving to be close because we don’t want to be all alone in here.

In your meditation you can breathe out the ignorance, attachment, and loneliness, it is not who you are any more than clouds are the sky. Breathe in the blessings of wisdom and love understanding your profound and vast connectivity, riding these light rays into your heart where they join the inner light of your Buddha nature.

Based on this, perhaps some working description of loneliness might be: an unhappy feeling based on a feeling of isolation and a yearning to be with someone and/or elsewhere. 

Self-grasping ignorance

In Ocean of Nectar, a beautiful big book on the ultimate nature of things that is a commentary to Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way, there is a verse near the beginning:

I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving “I” with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well.

This is part of a motivational teaching on generating compassion for others – but we can also use it on ourselves because to have compassion for others we also need compassion for ourselves, namely renunciation, wishing for ourselves to be free from the actual root of suffering.

What is this root? Within our body and mind, yet also strangely independent of them, we apprehend an I that is us – solid, real, permanent — and we want the best for it. My possessions, my family, my views, my job etc are very important because they are MINE. I am the only real me – everyone else feels distinctly like “other”, regardless of what name they may call themselves. Who do you think of first when you wake up in the morning? And for the rest of the day?! This attention to self may seem just normal, but it is in fact it is entirely exaggerated and blinkered, and the cause of all our suffering.

i me mineDue to a strong sense of I, me, and mine, we generate attachment to things we think can please us and aversion for the things that don’t.

A strong sense of self leads to a correspondingly strong sense of other, and we are immediately split off, isolated. Our nature is in truth whole, unified, blissful, in communion; but this feels ruptured by our self-grasping and attachment. These cause a black hole in our heart that nothing and no one can fill.

Attachment

We seek union, awakening and bliss, perhaps wanting to connect to the truth of our Buddha nature, and there is nothing wrong with this at all. What doesn’t work, however, is doing this with the mind of attachment, which, because it is based on real me and real you, can only reinforce our sense of a gap between us. Due to attachment we feel we are in opposition to others instead of in harmony and communication. We feel disconnected.

Society is a reflection of our attachment. Hollywood and match.com set us up to feel lonely as we believe that there is someone out there who will make us feel complete; therefore, loneliness is justified as Mr. or Ms. Right is waiting. There is no shortage of songs to support this view, eg, Neil Young’s “I am lonely but you can free me in the way you smile.” In NYC, London, Denver, and every other urban area, your soul mate is waiting — so we stay lonely as it is to do with finding someone.

Who is alone? I am. Attachment is a natural response to that and so it is not the root problem, though it aggravates it. We have to identify the self that is lonely — a limited, isolated self that is in a state of need. Attachment exaggerates that need by convincing us that happiness and togetherness really ARE to be found out there. It makes the situation far worse in the guise of trying to make it better.

Although Guide to the Middle Way is a profound philosophical treatise, there is nothing abstract or airy fairy about this verse or the commentary to it. Chandrakirti and Geshe Kelsang are describing the very building blocks of our suffering, saying “It is like this”; and, if you have ever felt really lonely, you’ll understand what they are talking about. You’ll know the truth of suffering and origins (the first two of  Buddha’s four noble truths).

If we understand these, we will also understand that there are many doorways to exit from suffering — paths leading to cessations (the second two noble truths). We will develop renunciation, or the wish for liberation, because we will understand our existential predicament as well as the way out of it. If we see what we are up against, we can then see how a real self and real other is a complete illusion.

Part 2 is here, How to mend a broken heart. 

I would love to hear your comments below.

There is no boogey man under the bed

self-grasping ignorance destroyed by wisdom realizing emptiness According to Buddha, the way to attain true and lasting mental freedom is to realize ultimate truth, emptiness. What does this mean? We have to stop what binds us to suffering — our self-grasping, which is a deep ignorance grasping at a real or inherently existent self in objects and people, including ourself. We do this by cultivating a wisdom that realizes the lack (or emptiness) of inherent existence of everything that exists.

All that can sound a bit complicated or technical, but over the last few decades Geshe Kelsang has been making Buddhism more and more accessible to Westerners, and a few years ago I believe he put a realization of emptiness within reach of many people with the surprisingly simple but radical description:

The things we normally see do not exist.

This includes ourself. He also says:

The self we normally see does not exist.

That’s because the self we normally see or perceive is the inherently existent self. But it is also the self we normally perceive, the living, breathing, neurotic, sad, or happy “me” of any given moment, ie, it is not some abstract concept. “The inherently existent self” can be harder for us to get our heads around, it can feel a bit theoretical.

The mere absence of the self we normally see is the way our self actually exists. The self we normally perceive, grasp at, and cherish does not exist at all. The non-existence of the self we normally grasp at is the emptiness of our self, the true nature of our self.

(This is not the same as saying that the self does not exist at all. Emptiness is not nothingness. Things do exist as mere imputations or projections of the mind, like objects in a dream.)

Who are you?

The first thing to do when meditating on the emptiness of our self is to identify the object of negation, which means we have to figure out what it is exactly that does not exist – what is the inherently existent self as seen in our own experience, not in an abstract way, and how are we grasping at it.

Before Geshe Kelsang came up with his brilliant way of describing it, it was only too easy to be theoretical rather than practical about it.

For example, after receiving my first teaching over 30 years ago on identifying the inherently existent self based on the instructions in Meaningful to Behold, the resident teacher asked us to describe what we thought it was. The instructions had been good and entirely accurate, but it was hard to equate these with the self that I normally relate to, and nor did I really know I was supposed to. The self is a slippery thing when you try to pin it down, and when, as advised, you try to think about how it would look if it was inherently existent, it is only too easy to start making things up. Nonetheless, in meditation I thought I had found what might be it, so I put my hand up. Although it took longer than a sentence to describe, more like a rambling paragraph or two, this was the jist of what I said:

“If I think about it, my “self” feels like something in my heart, like something small, dark, and solid.”

Not the right answer. My teacher replied: “So, you’re a piece of coal?”

realizing emptiness of the self we normally seeIt may sound daft, but I know from talking to many people over the years that they too basically make up the negated object, and then try to realize its non-existence, which means they don’t end up focusing on emptiness at all. Then meditation on emptiness is no fun and doesn’t feel liberating, and they prefer to stick with seemingly easier meditation practices instead. If you find this happening to you, it probably means you have not yet identified the self you normally perceive clearly enough to get rid of it in meditation. In traditional parlance, you have not found the target, so any arrows of logic you shoot toward it, however sophisticated, will miss their mark.

It’s easier than you think

What I think is that once you have identified the self you normally perceive, the rest of the meditation on emptiness is not hard at all – with even just one or two considerations, such as trying to find it, you can see that it does not exist. This understanding is wisdom, and directly opposes self-grasping. It is exceedingly liberating, and on the spot pulls the rug out from under a host of regular, everyday problems coming from self-grasping (and also self-cherishing, which piggy-backs on self-grasping). Do this meditation enough — let the non-existence of the self you normally see become clearer and clearer — and in time you will dissolve away all your own samsara, which after all is only a product of your own self-grasping and self-cherishing.

Ocean of Nectar teachings at KMC NYCIt is my go to meditation when things come up (which is daily). Without any personal experience of seeing that the self we normally grasp at does not exist, teachings on emptiness can sound to us like dry, arid, logical arguments at a remove from our everyday reality, even though they are not. But when you do get it right, there is nothing better. And you can get it right early on, avoiding the mistakes many early students made before we had it explained in ways that were much easier for us to understand. Once you get it right, all the teachings you hear on emptiness, however seemingly complicated (such as those on Ocean of Nectar currently being received by those lucky students in New York City) are like butter soaking into hot toast. They click. They enhance our existing experience in very profound and exciting ways.

When Geshe Kelsang wrote Modern Buddhism, he proffered some encouragement to read the chapter on realizing emptiness:

I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta.” Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.

I personally think there is no better chapter to read on emptiness, and hope you get a chance to read it lots of times, each time getting more out of it. The book is a free gift from the author.

Turn on the light

While we’re on the subject, I just wanted to say something more about how much Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of Kadam Dharma, stressed identifying the negated object, using our conceptual mind, as opposed to finding liberation by stopping conceptual thoughts altogether. realizing the lack of the self we normally see with Je Tsongkhapa's reasoning

If you think there is a boogey man under your bed, how are you going to overcome your fear of it? The only really effective way is to turn on the light and see if the boogey man is really there. It might take a bit of courage, but when you discover an absence of boogey man, you can really relax. You have to start with an idea of what you are looking for, and how it makes you feel, or you won’t know when you haven’t found him and have that incredible relief.

If instead you decide to stop thinking about anything at all in order to overcome your fear of the boogeyman, you’ll gain a temporary release from fear at most. But you’ll never be convinced he isn’t under the bed still – as soon as conceptual thoughts arise again, so will your fear.

This is why the Kadampas emphasize Nagarjuna’s view over other views that suggest meditation is just the absence of conceptual thought.

Turning on the light of wisdom by meditating on the emptiness of ourself, we see the absence of the boogey man “self” we normally see – we will see that it doesn’t exist at all, not under the bed nor anywhere else. If we do this over and over, we will gain more and more freedoms from the deep habit we have of grasping onto the boogey man self. It is like turning up the light in our room brighter and brighter until we cannot fail to see with our very own eyes, directly and vividly, how that boogey man simply is not there. Then all our samsaric fears shrivel up, never to return.

Compassion v. attachment to the status quo

This article is part of the series: Is Compassion Happy or Sad?

We are not aiming impossibly high even when we aim for great or universal compassion — the wish to protect all living beings without exception from their suffering — because we already have all the ingredients within us. Compassion is our so-called Buddha seed or Buddha nature, the birthright of every living being. Have you ever felt overwhelming love for someone who is very sick, and the strong wish to scoop them up from suffering? For example a sick child, parent or pet? If you have, this is your Buddha seed at work. Even animals have it — there are umpteen inspiring stories on the Internet about animals unselfishly caring for human beings and each other.

With some understanding of samsara, we can deepen that compassion so that we wish to scoop them our dear friend up not just from this particular sickness, but from samsara in general. Then we can imagine feeling that for everyone, and this gives a wonderful glimpse of what a Buddha feels like, such as the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, with his 1000 arms reaching out to everyone.

However, there is some stuff in the way of our universal compassion at the moment, obstructing its growth. Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar (p. 20):

“We all have some compassion, but the compassion we have for our friends and relatives is often mixed with attachment and so is not pure. The scriptures warn us not to mistake attachment for compassion. Pure compassion is unmixed with attachment.”

Compassion is necessarily a virtuous or positive mind, a peaceful, happy mind, and, when we gain Tantric realizations our compassion actually becomes bliss! If our compassion for others doesn’t feel very pleasant at the moment, let alone blissful, the chances are that some sort of attachment is at work. We need to see how the attachment is functioning so that we can root it out.

Attachment is an ignorant, self-centered mind that does not understand where happiness actually comes from and thinks that it is to be found outside the mind, in people or in objects, and so it desires or needs these things to make us happy.

Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love and a sense of responsibility are in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. I think this is worth thinking about.

Attached to the status quo

In her youth, my friend and animal-lover Mal had a Hindu Guru and spent some time in India. The plight of the stray dogs broke her heart and she couldn’t stop worrying about them. One day her Guru told her: “You have too much attachment to those dogs; if you’re not careful you will come back as one.” He was a loving person, and she didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time. However, the meaning dawned on her over time, especially, she said, when she met Geshe Kelsang and his teachings.

This comment got me thinking too – what does it mean to be too attached to the animals or human beings we love and care about? How does that obstruct our ability to really help them, let alone cause us to worry unduly and uselessly?

I think part of it is that we are attached to that person in their current form. For example, today I went to the vet with Rousseau, who has inflamed third eyelids, and Dr Smith said: “He may be getting these infections due to having leukemia, caught from your other cat.” I waited ten agonizing minutes for the results, during which time I realized that I still want Rousseau to be beautiful Rousseau, just without inflamed third eyelids and leukemia. And when it comes to beloved children?!….  Parents sometimes say things like “I wish they could stay small forever!” — of course they don’t really mean it, but it perhaps indicates that we do have a wish for the things we like to stay the same.

Are we just wishing people more samsara?!

This attachment to permanence and to impure, or samsaric, bodies results in our being attached to far too small and inferior results for our loved ones at the expense of seeing the larger picture. Spending all our mental energy in preoccupation with each individual suffering as it arises is a distraction if we are not seeing these in the grander scheme of things — as part of a pattern of samsaric suffering that they have been experiencing since begininngless time and will continue to experience if they don’t get out of their samsaric bodies. As I have often heard Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say:

“Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough”.

It seems to me that we have to want far more for them than just the alleviation of the individual sufferings of this samsaric life as they arise – these sufferings are just some of the never-ending waves on the ocean of samsara. We want the whole ocean of suffering to dry up. We have to desire so strongly for our loved ones to have lasting liberation from all sufferings that each individual suffering motivates us to become a better person, even an enlightened being, so that we can bring this about. We have to keep an eye on their potential for lasting freedom and happiness at all times, even if they are just a small feral cat or a stray Indian dog.

Buddhist compassion works very well as it has within it the solution – even if this solution is big and radical. In fact it has huge implications as we basically want NONE OF IT. All solutions in samsara have to be seen as temporary.

Also, with attachment to samsara we try to patch it up, make it work. Samsara can never be made to work – we’ve been trying to improve it for countless lifetimes and still the waves of the seven sufferings roll in upon us without cease.

Bandaids are useful but they are also just temporary solutions for someone with a constantly erupting skin disease. We need to go deeper and uncover the causes of our loved ones’ suffering – delusions and karma – so we can really help them destroy these causes to bring an end to their suffering. As Kelsang Tsondru said on Facebook, “Hopeless compassion (i.e., which does not see an end to suffering) is a sad mind, whereas hopeful compassion (i.e., which understands the end of suffering) is a happy mind.”

(The same reasoning also goes for dwelling upon our own individual problems one by one, as opposed to using these as a motivator to escape entirely from this prison of samsara while we have the chance.)

Compassion and love are not the same as worry and relief
Click here for Daily Lamrim article on changing suffering

I know I feel relieved when I see, for example, that my cat’s eyelids have slightly improved. But relief comes from tension in the mind, and that is also what has got me thinking — actual compassion is free from tension etc, and love is therefore not that feeling of relief that comes from tension being released. There is nothing wrong at all, of course, with being happy to see others’ free from suffering, quite the opposite, but we can check to see what that happiness consists of and so improve on it. The happy feeling that Rousseau’s eyelids are slowly going back to normal may be partly due to my love wishing him happiness, but also due to changing suffering (arising from attachment) – that brief respite between anxiety about the swollen eyelids and relief about the non-swollen eyelids. This brief respite is only brief – to be replaced with some other worry sooner or later.

Next time, we’ll analyze how self-cherishing fits into all this.

Your turn: do you agree? Do you have any examples?

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