Lives and leaves

7.5 mins read.

We never really meditate alone. In Mahayana Buddhism, when we sit down to do prayers or meditations, it is customary to imagine countless living beings sitting all around us. Envisaging them in human form for auspiciousness, we recognize that they are in fact the beings of all 6 realms of samsara.

IMG_4787
I’m not a cartoon.

(By the way we’re not expected to visualize them all clearly, in case you were wondering. But just know they’re there, like I know there are people in London even though I can’t see them right now.)

We can have our mom on our left, our dad on our right, our current object(s) of attachment behind us, and our current object(s) of aversion in front of us. Our karmic circle are sitting closest to us, but we feel that there is nobody left out. Our karmic circle can even double up as representatives of everybody else.

The mere act of visualizing this ginormous assembly, however vaguely, starts to broaden our horizons.

We can then forget about ourself for a while and spread our mind over all these living beings, contemplating briefly how just as I want to be happy and free all the time, so do they. I am not more important than they are — we are all the same and equal. Moreover they are countless in number whereas I am just one single person, and so their happiness and suffering are more important than just mine. And they have all been so kind to me, including as my kind mother multiple times over. Thinking all or any of these thoughts, we feel close to them out of love and compassion.

If we spend a bit of time on this, a few minutes, say, our mind is moved even before we get to the refuge prayers or meditation.

Pinpricks in time and space

This Summer a friend explained what she did for this visualization of all living beings, which I find quickly moves my mind; so I have been playing with ever since.

We feel not that we are seated at ground level, as it were, in the very middle of a vast assembly circling out around from us, but are viewing everybody from above, including ourself. We are just one of many, a mere pinprick, no more special. This visualization is not ego-centered at all because we are no longer at the center of anything – and that is why I think it can be so helpful in overcoming self-cherishing.

If one pinprick is important, surely they all are?

deer in Paradise
Deer in Paradise

I have also been picturing how these pinprick beings, including me, are not static but constantly moving around – both within this life, and as they move from rebirth to rebirth in this endless prison of samsara. We never get to stay proximal to people for long. It helps to get a sense of our existential situation – that we are all perpetual travelers from life to life. Where in time and space am I — that one little pinprick – now? Where have I been? Where am I going? It’s the same for all living beings.

And so we need equanimity – to overcome our aversion, attachment, and indifference — because before too long all our relationships will change regardless, and we need that to be under our control.

Leaves in Fall

Which brings me to leaves. It is Fall, and I have been slushing through piles upon piles of leaves, doing this experiment by thinking I am just one of those leaves.

Generally when we are grounded in the perspective of the Me Leaf, center of the universe, all the other leaves are significant or not depending only on where they stand in relation to Me. As it says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

Our ordinary view is that we are the center of the universe and that other people and things derive their significance principally from the way in which they affect us. Our car, for example, is important simply because it is ours, and our friends are important because they make us happy. Strangers, on the other hand, do not seem so important.

IMG_4659“Look at me!” the Me Leaf goes. “I am so unique and interesting – such a lovely yellow color and interesting shape! Such an interesting journey to get here, let me tell you! I am important and ought to be the best off leaf in the forest. I must work toward that. Perhaps you’d like to work for me?”

The bigger our ego, the bigger our sense that the people who are nice to us are important, that strangers are not worth the time of day, and that our enemies are really threatening. “I don’t like those leaves because they look different to me, have different views, and they’re not praising me or scratching my back so they must be out to get me. But I like those leaves because they like my Facebook posts, agree with me all the time, and do what I want them to. And I am seriously bored by all those other leaves except insofar as I can figure out what they might have to offer me.” 

Perhaps we get ourselves into a position with a lot of power over people, but with these 3 poisons all that power does is make those 3 arbitrary categories bigger – more friends or fans, more enemies or people we fear, more people for whom we feel indifference or disdain.

IMG_4658Which is not only a poisonous but stupid attitude given that it only takes someone to march through our pile of leaves, kicking them around, such as the Lord of Death; at which point all bets are off as to who is around us anymore at all, let alone who are our friends, enemies, and strangers.

One day we could be in Paradise with a million dollar house and all the latest luxuries, and the next we could be enveloped in a terrifying fire, perhaps even find ourselves plunging into a hell realm. We cannot say, “That would never happen to me or the people I love!” On what basis can we say that? Those 48 people in Paradise, Northern California who have just lost their lives probably thought exactly the same thing until this week.

Even a tiny shift of perspective changes our positioning on everything and everyone around us. I saw three women painting in the Botanic Gardens the other day – they were mere feet apart in a peaceful place, but their paintings were very different. Had there been 100 painters, there would have been 100 different paintings. Tossed different perspectivesviolently on the turbulence of the four great rivers of birth, ageing, sickness, and death, what chance is there for our current perspective on everything and everyone to survive at all?

Are you having a small or a big day?

One question I like to ask myself each day is “What do I most want today?” And is it about me or about everyone else? If it is about me, for example attachment to someone showing an interest in me, that makes for a small day.

This is the case even if we have all the power or admirers in the world. Not only because we are just one person, but because for others, preoccupied with themselves, it is never about us but about them. From their point of view, our significance derives principally from the way in which we affect them. So, putting ourselves first, we all wander around in a world of one, effectively. No one shares our perspective – we are on our own, like one leaf on the forest floor.

But we can choose to share others’ perspective, ie, they are important, and see life from their point of view, and now we have a big life – it is as if we are now one with ALL the leaves. I was once traveling to an event with a very chatty driver, who shared with the entire busload that he and his wife got along very happily: “This is because we both share the same viewpoint – she thinks she is very important, and so do I!”

treesBy decreasing the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and indifference, we open our hearts to limitless love and connection. We can realize the equality and interdependence of self and others, understanding that we are others and others are us, and in this way feel a bond to each and every one of these leaves vast as space. And with the wisdom realizing that everyone is unfindable and mere name – that they are the same nature as our mind and we theirs — we are never separated from any of them again.

Once we attain enlightenment we abide in the blissful recognition of interdependence, totality, and union. We are no longer cut off and isolated by our self-grasping delusions and mistaken perceptions that cause everyone to appear “out there”, really outside our mind and therefore separate from us.

Both in meditation and whilst wandering around kicking leaves, I have been finding this visualization and contemplation great for expanding my horizons in these various ways. And with Winter on its way, you’ll be glad to hear it also works for snowflakes.

I seem to do most of the talking around here! Would love to hear from you in the comments below 😃

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Mine. No touch.

This video moved me, and has helped me generate positive minds all day. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it and invite you to contribute your own in the comments.

  1. The sentience — the sheer life — of animals. Indeed, how they are just like us, wanting to protect themselves and their young. They want to be happy and they don’t want to be hurt. Person, self, being, and I are synonyms according to Buddha. Animals are people. They are he’s and she’s, never its.
  2. Animals possess the same Buddha seeds of compassion and wisdom as we do — they are future Buddhas deserving of love and respect.
  3. How at our mercy animals are. The human in the video could easily take that puppy away and there is nothing the dog dad could do about it.
  4. Will this dad in fact get to keep his puppy? Where is the rest of the litter? Every day, millions and millions of children are taken away from their parents – calves, chicks, just this week more schoolgirls in Nigeria. Looking at these dogs, how can we bear that and allow it to go on? What right do we have to separate mothers and fathers from their babies? This illusory sense of ownership comes from ignorance, from the so-called view of the transitory collecting conceiving I and mine.
  5. Animals have ignorance conceiving I and mine, and attachment, just as we do. This dog may not be so protective of other puppies, for example, whom he doesn’t consider to be “mine”. There is a mixture going on of pure love wanting to protect his puppy and the ignorance of attachment. Exactly as there is with us human beings in most of our (good) relationships.
  6. Unlike us right now, animals are not able to cultivate their potential for enlightenment in this life. We could let this increase our compassion wanting to help them, rather than looking down on them. After all, there, but for the grace of Buddha and Dharma, or some good karma ripening, go we.
  7. For who would choose to be born as an animal? Samsara gives us no choice. We have been helpless animals like this countless times already, and have created the karma to be born helpless countless times again. One breath could be all that is keeping us from our next furry body.
  8. How are animals supposed to get out of there? And, if we fall into the animal realm, how on earth are we going to escape? As it says in the Buddhist scriptures: “It is said to be easier for human beings to attain enlightenment than it is for beings such as animals to attain a precious human rebirth.”
  9. This is motivation to make the most of this precious human life while we still have breath in our body. As Chandrakirti says in Guide to the Middle Way:

If when living in good conditions and acting with freedom
We do not act to hold ourselves back,
Once we have fallen into the abyss and lost our freedom,
How shall we raise ourselves from there in the future?

Over to you.

 

Who wants an existential wake-up call?!

8 min read 

past-life-signsLast night I dreamt that my spiritual teacher showed me all my lifetimes so far. These were not at all vivid, but I got a sense of the non-stop and varied installments in this interminable story of my samsara; and this was powerful. I cannot get it out of my mind – and nor do I want to.

It made me realize that if I don’t get my spiritual act together in this short life I am set to experience infinitely more chapters in this cycle of existence. Why am I at all interested, still, in buying into all these dramas, especially now that I have tasted the alternative of wisdom?

Then I woke to a foster kitten jumping onto my bed, and the recognition that this purring creature now kneading me with his paws was in yet another installment of his own beginningless story as well. This time, a cat book, filled with cat chapters. And right now our story is overlapping for a few paragraphs, but we will soon be moving on. Forced to move on. And I felt very sad for him because he has no way of understanding what all this means or what is in store for him, much less any way of escaping. And his confusion and suffering have already been going on for far too long.

Loved and lost

And then I thought of some of the humans I have loved and lost in this life alone, and realized that our endless stories had also intersected for just a few pages. At the time, it seemed that those relationships were deeply significant, and maybe in some ways they were. But they were never permanent – just a few shared paragraphs in the never-ending tomes of samsara.

Talk about getting things into perspective …! I am sorry to sound existentially terrifying, but a more realistic perspective brings us some measure of peace, and this has.

23622102_10155844260527442_2370081359763870875_nNo difference between those loved & lost humans and this kitten, really – at least, the only difference being a very small matter of time. As the equanimity meditation shows, I have been as close to this kitten in the past as I ever was to them. And it is this kitten, not them, who is currently appearing directly to my senses in this latest story line, and who is the one I can show love to directly.

Fleeting narratives

So each lifetime is like a new book, and within each book, whether short or long, are the transient chapters of that life. Within the chapters are paragraphs, including sentences and words. These make up the narrative of our lives, and the narrative we have largely been telling ourselves all these eons. For there is nothing behind these tales, or even these characters, when we look. Everything is mere name.

The common denominator holding this narrative together life after life is grasping at ME. Even though that me is changing all the time, even day by day, we believe it it real, that it is there, not just a projection of our thoughts. And then our self-cherishing, attachment, aversion, and other delusions emanate from that grasping in life after life, like a spider weaving her web. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

 We need to understand that the inherently existent I that we grasp at so firmly and continuously does not exist at all. It never has existed and never will. It is merely the fabrication of our self-grasping ignorance. ~ page 51.

Moreover, our stories with each other may have interwoven in extraordinary or mundane ways, but they have all been, thus far, entirely ephemeral. And pretty much entirely out of our control.

We don’t own others. We cannot begin to own them. We don’t even own ourselves.

Swept along

201306-orig-past-life-949x534Most of the time – maybe the whole of beginningless time — we have been swept along by each unfolding drama and its bardo interludes, believing in it as if was the be-all and end-all, as if there was something solid behind those mental projections. We have clung on for dear life to every appearance – trying to solve our problems and get happy through the use of ignorance, attachment, and aversion all trying to manipulate the objects outside our mind. We have not yet realized that all subject minds and object things co-arise and subside simultaneously, like waves from an infinitely deeper source, the ocean of our own root mind that goes from life to life.

You may have noticed — we cannot solve an attachment problem with the attachment that is in fact creating the problem in the first place. Same for aversion. We can’t force the objects of our attachment or aversion to behave better while at the same time allowing our attachment and aversion to stay put. We can’t solve any actual problems or unpleasant feelings outside of changing our thoughts. But we sure do try.

If we cannot gain control over our mind through wisdom, we will have no choice but to believe in and be carried along by its projections or mistaken appearances. As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a graphic depiction of our real predicament:

Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path  

The imperative to get enlightened

beyond-1157000_960_720How can we help others, really help them, if we are as helplessly carried along as they are, and incapable of staying with any of them for very long, much less forever? Even the people we love the dearest in this life, who have always been there for us, such as our parents – we cannot even hold onto them. My mom turns 80 in two short days, on December 24th. I have known her for over half a century, I think about her every single day, I feel like I have never not known her, but …

This all adds up to … we have to become enlightened. We need to be the clear light of omniscience itself, the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, and to allow all new books, chapters, paragraphs, and even commas to appear within that completely purified, transformed, and blissful mind.

Otherwise everything that appears to us (other than to our very subtle mind) is going to remain as the mistaken and often painful projection of self-grasping. We will keep trying to believe in it as the truth, but like any hallucination or mirage it will thus forever and always keep letting us down.

Buddha_sunBuddha is the “supreme unchanging friend”. Enlightened beings are brighter than the sun, constantly shining in our lives, in all our lives. They are more stable than the great earth. They are omniscient wisdom mixed with universal compassion that pervades all beings. They have pulled this off as they have directly realized the non-duality of subject and object. We are mere aspects of their completely purified mind already, even if we don’t realize it.

Through following Buddha’s teachings, eventually we too will attain the non-conceptual mind of great bliss. With this we have direct experience that there is only one truth – ultimate truth emptiness – and that all conventional truths, ie, all story lines without exception, are mere appearances not other than ultimate truth.

Start here

If we want to help other people a lot, we can’t keep losing them. We can’t settle with just throwing them temporary lifelines as they drift in and out of our range. And how can any lifeline be enough if we are floundering in the waves ourselves?

We need to have everyone in our story all the time — not outside our mind, nor we outside theirs — sharing our mandala now and for always.

Leonard CohenI know that this may sound a very long way off, but we can start straightaway. There is nothing to lose, and every step we take will make our existential situation better.

What is the first step? Trusting in our own inner peace. We can start with just one simple breath carrying us into our heart.

What’s step two? High-quality encounters day by day. Learning to love people unconditionally in the moment. If we hold and remember people with love, they will not feel wrenched from our mind even when appearances change. We need not feel separate from them. We are always losing people through attachment, let alone aversion, so we must learn to dissolve these deluded conceptual thoughts and their objects away. As William Blake said along these lines:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

We can practice day by day to increase our love and compassion within the understanding of impermanence and space-like emptiness, until, as a Buddha, we can hold everyone all the time.

This way we will become supreme unchanging friends for the people we already adore, and for everyone else we have forgotten we adored in the past.

This may not be the Christmassy article you were hoping for, sorry; but it’s what I’ve been thinking about since I woke up 😁 Blame my mother — I wouldn’t be typing this fast if she hadn’t forced me to do a typing course back in the day. Or if she hadn’t given me my fingers.

That said, please join me in wishing her the most pure and peaceful of birthdays and years ahead!

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What is life according to Buddha?

samsara's oceanWe can start the meditation on the mind, as mentioned here, just by watching the cloud-like thoughts come and go within the clear sky-like mind, without reacting or intruding or indeed thinking them through. Our mind may not seem much like a clear sky to begin with – it may indeed feel totally overcast, with no glimpses of clarity – but we just watch the clouds scud by. Then we can come to observe what is beneath those scudding thoughts, asking, “Where is each thought coming from? Where is it going to? What is it? Where is it? What is that space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?”

(I am carrying on from this article.)

Once we are through to the clarity of our mind at the level of our heart, we think that we are meditating on our root mind, our deepest level of consciousness, also known as our “very subtle mind”.

No matter how good or not we are at this meditation, we can always create very special causes by thinking that we are meditating on our root mind itself. As Geshe Kelsang said in 2000 (and it also comes up in his new ear-whispered Oral Instructions of Mahamudra):

We don’t need to expect quick results. Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. We will get closer and closer. In reality this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.heart chakra 2

If you get a chance to sit down with the chapter on “The Gross, Subtle and Very Subtle Minds” in How to Understand the Mind, please do, as it is quite — for want of a better word — mind-blowing. As for our very subtle mind, also descriptively known as our “continuously residing mind”, Geshe Kelsang says in this book:

Without the very subtle mind we would have no life because our gross and subtle minds cannot hold our life. This is because they are only temporary minds, and very unstable.

They are like the waves on the ocean, where the root mind is the ocean itself. Or like the clouds in the sky, where the root mind is the sky itself.

Therefore only our very subtle mind holds our life continuously throughout the day and night, and in life after life until we become an enlightened Buddha. ~ How to Understand the Mind

“Almost mind”

There is more philosophical stuff coming up in this and future articles, but really the meditation on the mind should be done in the spirit of relaxed experimentation. We’re not pushing for a result or an insight, but allowing our own simple observation of our thoughts and what is appearing to those thoughts to improve our understanding of the nature of the mind and its objects.

So in this meditation we are meditating on the conventional nature of the mind, but also indirectly gaining a deeper insight into ultimate truth, emptiness, by seeing the interdependence of perceiver and perceived; that we can’t have one without the other. Thoughts and their objects are not identical, but they depend on each other, and you cannot separate them out.

The clarity of mind is the basis for perceptions AND their objects. A mountain, for example, is form, not clarity itself; but it is also not other than that clarity.
elephant in dreamTake dreaming. We know that an elephant in a dream is not the mind, or clarity, itself, as it is grey and big whereas the mind is colorless and shapeless. However, it is also not other than clarity. It is not outside the mind. It is mere aspect of clarity, mere appearance of mind.

One way we can know this is because when the dreaming mind dreaming the elephant ceases, so does the elephant. That’s the only reason the elephant ceases, according to Geshe Kelsang in How to Understand the Mind. Only mind has that power.

In the same way, waking objects are all mere aspects of the minds that perceive them. Although forms and so on are not mind itself, they are “almost mind”, Geshe Kelsang has taught.

Karmic movie

When we did the meditation mentioned at the beginning of this article, we began by watching our thoughts. This is rather as if we are watching a karmic movie – wave after wave of appearance arising from the winds of karma blowing on the ocean of the root mind. Through this simple observation, it looks like we are already improving our wisdom.

Once we have a feeling of watching the karmic movie, we move to the clarity. We don’t force it or hold onto a dry, intellectual image, but observe that it is our actual mind that is clarity.

If we allow all our wave-like thoughts to dissolve into the clarity of our mind, all the objects of those thoughts also disappear. They have no life of their own, they cannot exist without being apprehended. When we develop deep concentration on the clarity of our mind, everything dissolves away into it.

The ocean analogy can really help this happen – wave-like thoughts arise from the root mind and they also dissolve back, we can actually observe this. We get a feeling for the waves returning to their source, rather than trying to hold a hard generic, or mental, image of a clear mind.

Appearances don’t obstruct the clarity because they are aspects of clarity. For example, the sound of a bird appearing to the clarity of ear awareness is not other than clarity itself. It is not outside it.

A wave is just the ocean making itself known.

By the end of our meditation on the mind, all appearances have settled into our root mind like waves settling into the ocean, and we focus on the clarity, which is the main object of meditation.

Inner luminosity

Instead of staying endlessly preoccupied with the most superficial of appearances, in this meditation on the mind we can learn to recognize instead the inner luminosity that allows us to experience everything, which is always present and always accessible. Only our mind is “clear enough to perceive objects”, as Geshe Kelsang has said. It is animation itself. It is life.

(And, mind-boggling as it may seem to us at the moment, once this mind is no longer obstructed by delusions and their imprints through the practice of Dharma, we will know everything simultaneously and directly; we will be omniscient.)

life after deathAs mentioned, whenever there is an appearance – eg, a memory, or a feeling, or a physical sensation — there is a mind to which it is appearing that is the same nature as that appearance. We try to see that the mind itself is the cognizer; we are aware of the cognizer. We can see ourselves how it is formless. Experientially, it is observed to be rather like an inner empty space with the power to perceive.

This is proof enough that the mind is not the body and, indeed, as a formless continuum it will go to future lives – we don’t need to debate whether or not the mind is the brain as it clearly is not. It’s enough to gain at least some understanding of past and future lives. As Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind page 6:

Through understanding the nature and function of the mind correctly, we can understand that our mind is completely different from our body, and this proves that, after our death, although our body will cease the mind will not.

Life continues through and after the death of our meaty body, as life is mind. So, if our body ends today, where will our mind and all its experiences be tomorrow? Today might be a good day to think about this, before that tomorrow is upon us!