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.

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Seven good reasons to learn how to meditate in a pandemic

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Enlightenment is reality

9 mins read

clear light of blissMeditation is now marketed as an antidote to everything from anxiety and depression to poor sleep and workplace inefficiency.

These are tangible benefits into which it is worth investing time and energy.

But why stop there? This is only the tip of the iceberg.

While meditation can certainly help enormously with all these things, if we stop there we are starving ourselves of the really best parts of Buddhist technology: the attainment of liberation and enlightenment.

When we engage in simple breathing meditation, we find that we are more peaceful and relaxed. This indicates that our mind is naturally peaceful, and is an important start. However, this only scratches the surface of the power of meditation and our potential to help ourselves and others.

In general, in the West, there’s a tendency to market an extraordinarily transcendent process, meditation, only as a solution for stress. Meditating to bring out our innate compassion and deep insight can sometimes get lost in translation. But traditional Buddhist meditation has these two main objectives — to develop universal compassion and gain insight into the true nature of reality — and by practicing these we can use this life to attain incredible joy and freedom for both ourselves and others.

From engaging in meditation we can increasingly understand that we all have within us a vast potential for peace and happiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. We are infinitely transformable, and potentially infinitely peaceful, wise, and loving.

Step into reality

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Once we’ve fully realized this potential, we’ve attained enlightenment — the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow blessings and mental peace upon each and every living being every day.

And the thing about enlightenment? …

Enlightenment is reality.

Everything else is mistaken appearance — it is unreality. And buying into it is why we are suffering.

Using Buddha’s teachings, we can understand that we are engaged in a process of practical contemplation and meditation that is drawing us closer to reality. Revealing reality.

Sometimes we think about enlightenment in the sense of a higher state of mind, a transcendent consciousness. And from one point of view that’s true. But the problem with this type of articulation is that enlightenment can sound difficult. It sounds like a good idea in general, but probably not for me because it feels unattainable.

Instead, it’s much more helpful to understand that enlightenment is just reality. Enlightenment is the only mind that that is IN reality, that is experiencing reality, and that, finally, IS reality.

So what does it mean if we’re not enlightened? It means we’re not in reality, which means we’re in an hallucination of mistaken appearances.

And this hallucination — because it’s not in reality — is producing suffering simply automatically. So whatever suffering is appearing in our life is coming about because we’re not enlightened.

welcome to reality

We can challenge our Western notions — just because it is common doesn’t mean that suffering is inevitable.

Reality cannot be destroyed

What or who is a Buddha? A person who has “awakened from the sleep of ignorance and seen things as they really are.”

We have the potential for no less than enlightenment. This is called our Buddha nature and every living being without exception has this extraordinary capacity to change, get rid of all their suffering, and cultivate all their good qualities to perfection.

The reason we have this indestructible potential is because it is not possible to destroy reality, only delusions.

This profound but simple wisdom — that enlightenment is reality — is weaved through all Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s books, both Sutra and Tantra. For example, in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, it says:

Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena …. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist. Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has clouds and sunbeen shining all along; and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we shall see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.

To get a bit philosophical for a moment …

Emptiness is the real nature of all phenomena – always has been, always will be. But emptiness doesn’t exist from its own side, in isolation. It exists like everything else only through being known by mind. The mind that is permanently mixed with emptiness is the clear light of bliss. This is the very subtle mind that all of us have had since beginningless time, but purified of all obstructions.

So wherever emptiness is — ie, everywhere — there too is great bliss. Nice!

Here is a cool bit from Essence of Vajrayana:

Definitive Heruka is Buddha’s mind of great bliss mixed with emptiness. Since the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, definitive Heruka pervades all phenomena. In Tibetan Heruka is sometimes called “kyab dag” Heruka. “Kyab” means “pervasive” and “dag” means “nature”, so “kyab dag” means that all phenomena are pervaded by Heruka’s nature…. If we have deep understanding of this there is great hope that we shall be able to perceive whatever appears to our mind as Heruka.

Omniscient wisdom is possible because it simply knows reality, the union of bliss and emptiness. We don’t need to think of bliss and emptiness as too high for us to know or experience because it is right here, just obscured. Practicing the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra gradually reveals it.

rubik cubeSometimes we see Buddhas or enlightened beings as separate from us, denizens of a distant world. But they are just enlightenment, or, strictly speaking, imputed on enlightenment.

In other words, Buddhas are people, like us, but they are entirely unlike us in that our self or I is imputed on a contaminated body and mind whereas a Buddha, such as Buddha Heruka, is a self or I imputed on the bliss and emptiness that is the real nature of all phenomena, and is therefore everywhere, including right here right now.

Another way of putting this is that someone who has realized bliss and emptiness directly, and imputed themselves on this reality, is called a Buddha.

And since our I or self is not at all fixed, once we get rid of our ignorance and mistaken appearances we can become the Buddha we’ve always been destined to become. We too can be everywhere, helping everyone.

As I sometimes like to put it, enlightenment is just a trick of the mind away.

Or as a friend of mine put it the other day, “All we need to do is stop tripping.”

One way to get started …

In Highest Yoga Tantra, the essence practice is dissolving our Spiritual Guide into our heart, mixing our own mind with his/her mind of bliss and emptiness, and imagining we arise as a Buddha ourselves within that space.

If you haven’t got empowerments yet, you could perhaps get started by dissolving your Spiritual Guide, Buddha Shakyamuni, through your crown and into your heart and letting your mind mix with his like water mixing with water, feeling happy. Then impute yourself on that peaceful pure mind. There is a bit more about self-generation as Buddha Shakyamuni in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Not an ordinary life

In some ways, we can think that everything is already enlightenment, everything is Buddha. Which is why in Tantra the main obstacles to liberation and enlightenment are called “ordinary appearances and conceptions”, ie, the mistaken appearances of things as not being Buddha-like, and the mind that assents to those appearances as the truth.

As it says in Modern Buddhism (available for free here):

Suppose there is a Heruka practitioner called John. Normally he sees himself as John, and his environment, enjoyments, body, and mind as John’s. These appearances are ordinary appearances. The mind that assents to these ordinary appearances by holding them to be true is ordinary conception. Ordinary conceptions are obstructions to liberation and ordinary appearances are obstructions to omniscience.

We see everything not only as impure and suffering, but as ordinary as opposed to enlightened; and those perceptions are in fact a mistake, grasping at which is perpetuating our samsara.

grumpy cat in landscapeI, for example, am going around thinking, “I’m L. I have this boring old body and I have this neurotic personality and I live in this okay house in this problematic country surrounded by these other regular people, all of us doing all these regular activities.” It’s all just ordinary.

But this ordinariness is not really the truth, it is just ideas, mere imputations of an ordinary mentality. None of the things I normally see exists = reality. And, providing I have some understanding of what reality is, I could instead be thinking, “I am Buddha Vajrayogini. I have this incredible body of light and I have this winning personality and I live in this blissful Buddha Land surrounded by all these pure beings, helping everyone without exception!”

These are also just ideas, but they are far better ideas, and far closer to the truth. As we discover over time, as our wisdom of bliss and emptiness grows, our hallucinations die down, and eventually enlightenment becomes our own direct experience 24/7.

Revelation

lightbulb momentsOnce we have a feeling for how enlightenment just is reality, all Buddha’s teachings make a huge lot of sense. We have more of those light bulb moments. We can understand how right now we are not in reality. Which is why enlightenment is not an option, it’s the only place to be. And how through Buddhist meditation we can step into an enlightened perspective that has always been available to us, we just needed it to be pointed out (probably more than once!) That’s the real meaning of meeting a Spiritual Guide.

Therefore, enlightenment isn’t a philosophical talking point, or the goal of superhuman meditators, like climbing a distant mountain. If we are not in enlightenment, not in reality, we are necessarily trying to make unreality work. Everything is deceiving us more or less.

So when we go deeper in our meditations with the motivation to attain enlightenment, in addition to addressing our stress and other temporary problems we are also drawing every day closer to this blissful primordial reality. Two for the price of one!

To engage in Buddhist meditation is to understand that we all have within us this unlimited potential for the truth of bliss and emptiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. So whenever we meditate, even if it is just a breathing meditation, we can try starting with this understanding and see what happens. (In this article on meditating backwards, I explain a bit about how I practically do this.) Even an intellectual understanding that enlightenment is reality is inspiring; and, if we can get a feeling for this in our heart, everything flows so much more effortlessly from there.

I find this immensely encouraging: we are not having to go anywhere strange and new, much less having to create something from scratch, or something that is not already in some sense there. What we are doing on the journey to enlightenment, the journey into the clear light of bliss at our heart, is gradually letting go of all mental elaborations so that we can at last directly enjoy what has always been.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

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Exploring our potential for peace and omniscience

We all need to be able to let go of our unhappiness. This, to put it mildly, is a Very Useful Skill – unless of course we don’t mind hanging onto misery for a few more years, a few more decades, a few more lifetimes…

let-goConsidering that we probably do mind that, quite a lot in fact, why would we hang on?

Carrying on from this article.

No one ever wants to suffer and everyone always wants to be happy. These are the two most basic wishes of all living beings. Do you ever wake up and want a truckload of suffering? … I didn’t think so. We always want to be happy and we hate suffering, that’s why we call it suffering. But still we relentlessly hold onto it. Why?

One reason is that we have to think thoughts without control – for example frustrated thoughts, lonely thoughts, worried thoughts, jealous thoughts, depressed thoughts. We don’t particularly want to think these unhappy thoughts but we can’t help it, and that’s why we are unhappy.  When we are not thinking these thoughts, we are just fine.

The whole purpose of meditation is to understand our own mind, including which states of mind give rise to our chronic mental aches and pains. Buddhism teaches many meditations to dig deeper and see where unhappiness is coming from so that we can uncover and uproot those causes and cultivate our natural capacity for real happiness instead. We come to see how our so-called delusions have no basis in reality and we switch them out for their opposite, eg, switching out hatred for love. While we are loving someone, we are not hating them at the same time with the same mind – wishing them to be happy is opposite to wishing them to suffer, like turning on a dimmer switch extinguishing the darkness.IMG_6686

First step

Before we get to this point of transforming our thoughts, we first need to learn to let go of our distractions and deeply relax and enjoy the natural peace and space of our own minds. Then within that – as the second step, if you like — we can accept whatever is going on in our minds so that we can work with it.

The most common way to quieten our mind is breathing meditation (or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our own mind). Some space opens up – we can remember Buddha’s example of our mind being like a boundless clear ocean. Generally we are so caught up with externals, such as our body, our job, our relationships, and other things that are not our thoughts – constantly discriminating “Oh I like the look of that”, “Ooh he’s ugly”, “Hmm that’s pretty cool”, “Yeah, that sucks”, while neglecting to discriminate what’s going on in our own mind, “Whoah, that’s a cool thought! Yikes, that thought is ugly!” But it is only by discriminating what is going on within our mind that we can plumb our real potential – focusing on externals is like being caught up in just the froth, the waves, the bubbles, neglecting this enormous wellspring of power and freedom within us, failing to recognize that it is our thoughts that make our world, not the other way around.

IMG_6764We try to master the world we dualistically perceive to be around us, outside us, trying to get other people to behave (how is that working out for you?!), while neglecting to master our own minds. We identify with our passing emotions, our fleeting likes and dislikes, making them solid and thinking that this is what life is about; and meantime we neglect the extraordinary opportunity we find ourselves in at the moment to end all suffering. So we are not diving into this incredible thing we have all the time within us, our Buddha nature — our clear light mind and its emptiness — and because of this we are accessing a mere fraction of our spiritual potential.

Omniscience ~ a little digression
earth
Can you see Earth?!

And we have the potential not just for peace but for full enlightenment, for omniscience. Our mind is vaster than the universe, than all universes, including their time and space, which are all merely reflection of our mind that cannot be separated out from it. So by removing our ignorance and its imprints we can come to see fully and directly the interrelationship and totality of all phenomena; and how, because nothing exists from its own side, all minds and their appearances arise from the emptiness of the clear light.

When we realize the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of our own mind, we come to see also that it is not separate from the emptiness of the clear light mind of all enlightened beings and of all living beings; and that all phenomena, both their conventional and ultimate nature, including our individual and collective karma, are mere appearance to this clear light. We are not, nor ever have been, separated from any other being.

I have loved this William Blake quote since I was a teenager – it shone a light into my mind before I met Buddhism:

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.

magnified sand
Magnified sand.

Omniscience is not a gathering of facts and data outside our mind, as it were, or a knowledge describing all phenomena down to the finest detail, but the experience of an unobstructed mind that has understood the interdependence and non-duality of all phenomena, the union of conventional and ultimate truth.

At present we are hallucinating what is NOT there and we are overpowered by these appearances. We need first to stop being taken in by these appearances, which involves destroying our ignorance and other delusions (the obstructions to liberation). Then we need to remove the imprints of these delusions that cause everything to appear real (the obstructions to omniscience). At this point, we will see what exists. (I have a lot more to say on the subject of omniscience if you’re interested – like I said, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.)

Meanwhile, more in the next article about getting perspective on our hurt feelings.

How to be a hero

One of the main things about compassion is that it makes us a kinder, more helpful person. A force of good in this world, for sure. But it also helps US. Why? Because it overcomes our own limitations and problems, as does love. If we understand this, we are less reluctant to develop it. (Carrying on from this last article.)

compassion fatigue?!
compassion fatigue?!

Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.”

If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Compassion causes us to experience happiness because once we generate it our disturbing minds such as pride, jealousy, anger, and attachment are pacified and our mind becomes very peaceful. It causes others to experience happiness because when we have great compassion we naturally care for others and try to help them whenever we can. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 21.

Brief compassion experiment

We can close our eyes and think of the last time we had strong compassion for someone we loved – our dog at the vet, or our disappointed child, or our parent suffering from a pain of old age, or our friend who lost their partner. Or a stranger whose plight has moved us. I don’t need to give you examples! Think of that person. Sadly we all have at least one.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. The United Nations renewed calls for the Syria regime and rebels to allow food and medical aid into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. An estimated 18,000 people are besieged inside the camp as the conflict in Syria continues. (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA  (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

We wished for them to be free from pain. We would have done anything to free them.

We can go back to that experience, when all we wanted was for them to be well again, free from suffering.  What was going on in our mind at that time? During this experience, who were we caring about—ourselves or them? Was this wish for them to be free actually painful or — with the ego temporarily out of the way and our focus exclusively on another — was it okay? We can look and see for ourselves.

Also at that time, we can see how other obstacles in our mind were pacified – for example, was there any irritation or impatience, any self-pity? No, because it wasn’t about us. All problems associated with thinking about ourself disappeared. If someone had said to us, while we were caught up with the needs of a suffering relative, “Look, I’m sorry, but the machine is out of cappuccino”, would we really have cared?

We can keep that experience of compassion vivid, and ask ourself, “Was this a peaceful mind or not? Within that mind was there some cessation of suffering because I wasn’t thinking about myself?” Although we wished for someone we loved to be free from suffering, this was not a painful feeling. It was dynamic, positive.

“You need to go and let him out, then”

Be a heroI don’t often share my dreams, except with the occasional long-suffering friend, and I don’t want to bore you, but this vivid one I had last night showed me how compassion can be both unbearable and a liberating force that makes everything else pale into insignificance.

A young man was trapped in a big glass box on an unknown pedestrian street, quite visible, by enemies he had crossed, and the  box was heated up to an unbearably hot temperature. He wouldn’t die, but his body was shriveling up, and he was clutching his hands together in pain, blinking. People were walking past, some curious, others ignoring him, but no one seeming inclined to do anything. I couldn’t bear it and got on the phone to an (unknown in my dream) assistant of my teacher Geshe Kelsang to tell him what was going on. The message got lost in translation as Geshe-la came out to meet me holding a large glass of water, and I had to explain that the man wasn’t just hot, but trapped in a boiling box. To which Geshe-la replied: “You need to go and let him out, then.”

I hadn’t considered that a possibility, but I ran over there with my friend Morten, who managed to lift up a corner of the box and said, “Man, it is really hot in there.” I realized from this that it was possible to lift the entire side of the box up, so we did, and dragged the skinny man out. Then I told him, “We need to get out of here, we’re not safe yet, run with me.” Which he managed to do. We ran, stopping only for me to beg for some water for him from a passing vendor as I’d left my wallet and phone behind. We got away.

Moral of the tale
cape of compassion
cape of compassion

I got a few things from this dream: People suffer unbearably every day, including in hot, hellish states of existence that are out of our sight, but also plenty right under our nose, eg, the refugees trying so desperately hard to escape to Europe.

Until Geshe-la told me to let this man out, I hadn’t realized I could. Until I found Buddha’s teachings through Geshe-la, I didn’t realize liberating people from suffering was an option. I also had help from Sangha.

The main thing was the agony of seeing the man curled up in the box, and the sheer joy of helping him escape. Nothing would have distracted me at that point. The passion I had to save this person was stronger than any passion that comes from attachment, strong as that can be (remember Daniel Day Lewis and “I WILL find you?!” Stronger than that even!)

Pure compassion makes heroes of us all. A real hero or heroine, according to Buddhism, is someone who has beaten the foe of their selfish desires & other delusions and developed their compassion for others.

From these kinds of experiences, both in and out of dreams, I think it is not hard to see how, for Bodhisattvas motivated by compassion, nothing now will stop them from getting enlightened. By contrast to strong love and compassion, it is so so boring to be thinking about myself. If I never had to think about myself again out of self-centeredness, it would not be a day too soon.

The best way to have helped this man would have been to realize that I was dreaming, that the suffering was not real. The best way to help people is to wake ourselves and others up. More in a later article on how everything is the nature of the mind and so there are no inherently existent suffering beings. I’ll just leave you with a question: If everything is the nature of your mind, what is going to happen to everyone when you become an omniscient Buddha?

Blessings are not that mysterious

Blessings may be ineffable, but I don’t think they are entirely mysterious. It is possible for our consciousness to be affected by others’ states of mind; in fact it happens all the time.

Have you ever walked into a room where someone is feeling incredibly hostile but not saying a word nor even making a face – they are just sitting there but their negative energy is practically palpable? Before you know it, you feel uneasy as well, and if you’re not careful you can become quite negative.

Alternatively, have you ever walked into a room where someone is feeling incredibly open and loving, and again they are not saying a word but you can feel their positive energy and it uplifts your own mind?

If we can be affected by ordinary people’s minds in this way, (I think some Western psychologists call it “resonant empathy”), perhaps it is not so hard to get a sense of how blessings work.  As described in What are blessings?, blessings are “transformation through inspiration” — how? By being affected by the infinitely creative, loving and wise minds of holy beings, which are not something we randomly run into but everywhere all the time. The function of a Buddha or enlightened being is to bestow blessings, it is as if they cannot help it! Blessing everyone is their job! My teacher Geshe Kelsang’s definition in Mahamudra Tantra:

Enlightenment is defined as an omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings (by bestowing blessings).

(BTW, anyone whose mind fits the definition above is a Buddha (Sanskrit for “Awakened One”), regardless of what tradition they appear in). Buddhas’ minds are always everywhere, they pervade all phenomena, including us. Why? A Buddha’s mind is inseparable bliss and emptiness free from all obstructions. Everything is always empty of inherent existence. The emptiness of all phenomena is always indivisible with the bliss of a Buddha’s mind.

It is also very helpful to remember that whenever you generate a positive mind, such as love or compassion or inner peace, this is no different to the inner peace of all enlightened beings, you are already mixing your mind with theirs. And recognizing this allows their blessings to pour into you effortlessly.

As mentioned in Blissings, we can receive the blessings of all enlightened beings through our Spiritual Guide. Our Spiritual Guide is able to appear as a person we can relate to — who can teach us or set a good example — but the actual or definitive Spiritual Guide is the so-called “Dharmakaya” (“Truth Body” or omniscient mind). This is described as the “pervasive nature of all things stable and moving”. This verse from Offering to the Spiritual Guide sent (nice) chills down my spine when I first heard it, and still does:

Pervasive nature of all things stable and moving,
Inseparable from the experience of spontaneous joy without obstructions;
Thoroughly good, from the beginning free from extremes,
O Actual, ultimate bodhichitta, to you I make requests.

(Ultimate bodhichitta from a Tantric point of view is the same as Mahamudra, the union of bliss and emptiness. There are different levels of this, and in this verse it is referring to the ultimate bodhichitta that is a Buddha’s omniscient wisdom, which is the Truth Body or Dharmakaya completely free from obstructions).

Everything is always empty of inherent existence, and where there is emptiness there is bliss. They are indivisible. Why?

Vajra and bell, always touching, symbolizing indivisible bliss and emptiness

There is no such thing as an object without a mind (or “object-possessor”) knowing it, and no such thing as a mind (object-possessor) without its object. The object emptiness is not inherently existent or “out there” independent of mind; like everything else its very existence depends on the mind knowing it. Which mind? It is the clear light mind of bliss that knows emptiness non-dualistically, that sees it directly free from any mistaken appearance, which is the actual object-possessor of emptiness. And this mind likewise cannot exist without emptiness as its object. They exist only in relationship to each other — just as you cannot have a husband without a wife or a wife without a husband.

Omniscient wisdom, the nature of bliss, is therefore always mixed inseparably with the emptiness or ultimate nature of all phenomena including you, me and everything else that exists. At the moment I have mistaken appearance that blocks me from seeing this, but it is true, and through blessings I can feel it. Eventually we will realize the union of bliss and emptiness for ourselves.

In this respect, does the Dharmakaya seem so different from my Grandfather’s understanding of a creative God?

I find even my limited and clumsy understanding of how bliss and emptiness pervade all phenomena is crucial to understanding the spiritual technology behind tuning into blessings. Wiser folks than me can make more comments on this in the box below and you can consult Great Treasury of Merit pages 189-91 for incredible commentary on the verse above.

Visualizing blessings as lights and nectars

Bliss is the same nature as love and compassion, and so it radiates eternally and spontaneously from all enlightened beings – hence, “blissings”. To feel that we are receiving blessings having asked for them, it can be really helpful to visualize them flowing from holy beings (or their minds) into us in the form of blissful lights and even nectars — clear light, white light, multi-colored lights, it doesn’t matter, whatever seems right. Different Buddhas are associated with different colors so you can find out about that whenever you want — for example, if you want healing blessings, believe you are receiving blue lights and nectars, for blue is the color of Medicine Buddha.

All traditions understand the power of blessings and anyone can experience them in this way. In fact Jon Dicks says on Facebook: “Maybe what we feel is a akin to the experience of Hildegard of Bingen when she had a vision: ‘And it came to pass, when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming….’  I put this in because many religions, in addition to Buddhism, talk about blessings and being blessed.”

And even if we don’t fully understand the spiritual technology, it still works.

For the previous articles on this subject, see What are blessings? and Blissings.

Your turn: please share your understanding or experience in the comments box below.