By the way, samsara has always sucked. Buddha predicted, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and other Buddhist teachers have been saying for years, that we would be, and are, living in increasingly degenerate times. Maybe we have been sort of lucky in this human life so far, and samsara has moreorless spared us its worst ravages; or maybe we have not.
However, I am noticing recently that the deceptive nature of samsara has become more obvious to many people, and our complacency is thus being a little challenged. Our usual expectation of progress and our usual ways of fixing things are not working so well. And that this is good (only) in so far as it is motivating some more people to find solutions from a different source, changing the future by changing the mind.
What is samsara?
Samsara is not a place. Sometimes, when things go wrong, for example when someone’s credit card is stolen, I think we say to each other, “Samsara is horrible!”, with a sense that there is a real horrible samsara out there. And it is true that samsara is horrible, but it is not true that it is out there. As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:
Samsara does not exist outside ourself. Therefore, we cannot become liberated merely by abandoning our possessions, changing our lifestyle, or becoming a nun or a monk.
Samsara is a creation of our own delusions. Get rid of these once and for all by realizing that everything is the nature of mind … and there is no samsara, only the Pure Land. Right here, right now.
The end of the world as we know it, therefore, is not the end of the world.
And this approach of changing our future by changing our mind will work because nothing at all is fixed. There is no inherently existent future; everything exists in a state of potential.
The enemy of complacency
Nagarjuna prayed not to be born as a politician. Many, if not most, realized beings feel similarly. But even if we did have enlightened beings as our politicians, we would still suffer from poverty, abuse, and hardship while we remained with their causes in our minds — delusions including selfishness, and the negative actions or karma these have made us perform. We cart these around from life to life, and only when we take the responsibility for overthrowing them will we be finally free and happy.
Even in the most comfortable surroundings imaginable, Buddha still had the wisdom to see that samsara was deceptive, rotten to the core, built on decay, ageing, death, sadness — which is why he went off to find the solution and bring it back to everyone. He discovered that waiting for samsara to improve is a fools’ game. The only way to live in freedom is to control and purify our mind.
Wild applause in Chicago. Stunned silence in Boston. Or numberless scenes like this when elections are won and lost all over the world.
And, February 7 2016, my team, the Broncos, just won the Superbowl.
Geshe Kelsang once told a sports lover how to watch games skillfully by rejoicing in the winners and having compassion for the losers.
This is a lot better than feeling resentful of the winners or gloating ignobly over the losers, whether we are talking about sports or politics.
However, this is life, not politics, not a sports game. The truth is we are not on opposing teams, which means that there are no actual winners and there are no actual losers. I think this cartoon illustrates our actual situation pretty well:
“The task of perfecting our union moves forward because you reaffirmed… the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.”
“In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”
“Despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future.”
“By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.”
“I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”
President Obama’s speech was rousing because it touched on a basic inspiring fact of our Buddha nature, that we are not intrinsically stupid or selfish but alright really — I think we all know that we have to rise above our “individual ambitions” (read, self-cherishing concerns) and think about the greater whole, which includes everyone, not just half of us. (See this article.) We are all united in the ways that it counts the most; we have a “common bond”. Starting with ourselves, we have to come to remember this not just during one moving, hopeful speech, but all the time.
From a spiritual and practical point of view, all living beings, American or otherwise, have the same common enemy, which is pain and suffering, and all living beings have the same common goal, which is happiness and freedom. This means we are all on the same team. And this means that we can only win by overcoming our common enemy and accomplishing our common goal. Fighting amongst ourselves is not only “small, even silly” as the President said, but it is like the Yankees fighting against each other during the game yet still hoping to win.
Bodhisattvas understand this and work to overcome the delusions and negative karma that are the deeper and actual causes of our suffering and everyday problems, and to cultivate the compassion and wisdom that are the deeper and actual causes of our happiness and freedom. They also have a vow to help others on a practical, relatively superficial, but still important level where possible. (See The Bodhisattva Vow for all the promises a Bodhisattva makes.)
With a good heart and wisdom, we can work together to overcome the manifestations of our confusion, attachment, and anger, for example, which can arise in many forms, such as poverty, as inequality, as climate disaster, as being in mammoth debt, as disharmony and fighting, etc. We can also work together to bring everyone greater success and happiness in the best ways we know how, spiritual and practical.
At Superbowl 2016, “Believe in Love” was emblazoned across the audience, in full view of 100 million people. Now, that was the real winner last night.
Love is not idealistic advice from Buddha, this is advice based on the reality of our mutual dependence. Sooner or later we all have to catch up to it if we really want happiness and freedom.
Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.
In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.
I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)
My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.
There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering. If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others. We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.
It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happinesspages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.)
Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.
I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.
My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.
In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.
Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?
As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.
On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.
So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)
(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)