Modern Buddhism Study Programs

BuddhaTo celebrate Buddha Shakyamuni’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma (Skt. Dharmachakra) Day, which also happens to be Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s birthday, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the study programs in Kadampa Buddhism. Today, these are turning the Wheel of Dharma at hundreds of Buddhist centers around the world.

There are 3 programs — General Program, Foundation Program, and Teacher Training Program. They’re all great, but I will mainly be talking about the last two.

As you may or may not know, Buddhism has always put an emphasis on (1) listening to lots of teachings, (2) contemplating them to check they work in our own experience and transform them into our own idea, and (3) meditating on them to bring them deep into our heart where they will be a constant joy and protection, leading us all the way to enlightenment. Buddha gave 84,000 teachings of Sutra and Tantra, and basically the idea is to learn the jist of all of these and put them into practice 😊

I will be quoting Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s words from a talk he gave called A Wishfulfilling Dharma Jewel, and you can read the whole thing here.

At present in our Centers we have a Foundation Program and a Teacher Training Program. This is not a new tradition. In the past there have been other programs specially designed for Dharma students according to their particular circumstances.

All these programs involved studying a certain number of texts, memorizing material, passing examinations, and being awarded a degree or certificate. For example, the ancient Kadampa Geshes had a program in which they studied six texts. Later Je Tsongkhapa introduced a program based on ten texts, and later still Tibetan Monasteries such as Ganden, Sera, and Drepung introduced a program based on five texts.

Nalanda University
Nalanda

Even for the 1,000 years before Buddhism got to Tibet, deep learning and meditation had always been integral to the Buddhist tradition – for example the famous monastic university of Nalanda in Southern India produced generations of famous master practitioners from the fifth to twelfth century CE.

Now Geshe Kelsang has made all these teachings and meditations accessible to us in the unwieldy modern world through modern books, teachers, centers, temples, and study programs. Most of us definitely don’t have the same kind of time for formal study that they had in the old days, so he has made the time we do have incredibly efficient, and put more emphasis on sustaining and deepening these teachings and meditations through mindfulness in our regular daily lives.

Geshe Kelsang said:

Inspired by my own experience, I developed a strong wish to introduce a similar program for western Dharma students so that they could reap the same results. However, I understand very clearly that the program designed for Tibetan Geshes is not suitable for westerners.

For one thing, most western Dharma students are lay people … Shar Gaden monastery

Recently I asked some of my teacher friends to tell me what they thought were the main benefits of the Foundation Program (FP) in particular, as this is the program that most people tend to join. I wanted to hear what they had to say in particular about the commitments of the FP and why someone might want to take those on. So here goes, their ideas and mine, all jumbled together.

Becoming our own Protector

I agree with Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Studying Dharma consistently guarantees our getting to know ourselves and our lives a lot better, and overcoming all our faults and limitations. This gives our life a spiritual dimension, and a vision far less ordinary.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

GeshelaWith wisdom and Dharma experience we can bring our deluded minds under control. We can reduce our attachment, anger, jealousy, and so forth, and subdue our self-grasping and self-cherishing. By controlling our deluded minds we will come to experience permanent peace day and night. We will bring about a permanent cessation of human problems in particular and of samsaric problems in general. In this way we will become our own protectors.

The commitments of the FP involve attending every class for the enrolled book, reading ahead, memorizing the root text and main points of the commentary, discussing, doing pujas (chanted prayers), and taking an exam.

Their overall purpose is so that our practice is not stop/start but regular and consistent, leading to guaranteed results. Buddha’s example for this kind of steady effort is like leaving water in a pot on the stove to boil at a low heat rather than moving it on and off a high heat such that it never gets around to boiling.

Mixing our minds with Dharma

In a busy, distracted, ofter overwhelming world, it’s only too easy for other stuff to get in the way; so committing to attending each class (or catching up with the recording and study summary in a timely manner) moves us past that problem. It helps us fulfill our wish to help ourselves and others.

facebookWe go deeper than in drop-in General Program classes because each class can build upon the one before it, presupposing knowledge, and shifting the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student. And then we start to change.

This is good for the group, as we all literally stay on the same page. It becomes teamwork. The team is strong and unified and so everyone likes being on it. It is also good for the teacher as they don’t have to repeat the same points each week for people who weren’t there, and can take all the students more deeply into the material.

Reading ahead is a bit like toasting bread into which the hot butter of Dharma can easily soak during the class. That’s my analogy anyway! We come prepared with questions and looking forward to hearing the commentary on what we’ve already read and studied.

At the end of discussion the students come up with creative ideas together on what to practice in the meditation break to transform our everyday lives. We can troubleshoot how to practice Dharma throughout all our activities, lifestyles, and challenges. There are so many examples of people practicing Dharma in all walks of life, and we can learn from each other’s practical wisdom.

study program NYCAs Geshe Kelsang puts it:

The nature of western people is to study something one day and to want to put it into practice the next. This is a very good quality because they are always trying to gain practical experience of what they study.

Scale the highest mountain

One friend sent me this:

The Foundation Program is an opportunity to turn intellectual understanding into insights that authentically move our mind. For example, we understand intellectually that real or lasting happiness cannot be found outside out mind, and yet we still have a strong pull to find happiness from outside. FP is a chance to make a lasting change on our mind so that we genuinely want to find happiness from within.

We do this by giving more structure to our practice and spiritual development. FP is the opportunity to go through the training the mind teachings in depth, discuss, ask questions, and meditate on them. We make a commitment to study in this way so that, when difficulties come, we already have the structure in our mind to transform them. We have internalized the meaning. This means we will be able to actually transform adverse conditions in real time which is so much more difficult without this foundation.

FP creates the “foundation” for lasting happiness in our life. It’s an opportunity once or twice a week to reconnect deeply with our intention to improve our mind. We learn to consistently rely on Buddha and his teachings to solve our inner problems. We learn to trust and grow with our Sangha friends who are on the path with us. It’s a much more enriching way of experiencing this inner transformation.

StudyProgram advert
Click here for an FP near you.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Our present understanding and experience of Dharma is quite superficial. We are like someone who has entered a huge food store and seen many things but sampled only a few. We may have received many different teachings from many different Teachers, but we have taken in very little, just a few morsels. Therefore our actual experience remains superficial. There is a gap between us and the Dharma. It feels as if Dharma is there and we are here. Our mind is not mixed with Dharma and so we cannot apply it in our daily lives.

As a result our ordinary everyday problems remain. For example, we may have received many teachings on Lamrim and read many books. Intellectually we find it relatively easy to understand and we accept it all, but we find it difficult to integrate into our daily lives, and so we cannot use this Dharma to solve our daily problems. When we study Dharma our mind remains passive, like someone watching television. It does not engage in the subject and mix with it. Therefore our daily life and our Dharma remain completely separate and unrelated.

Why is this? It is because we are not studying systematically according to a specially-designed program. If we just pick at Dharma randomly we will never gain a deep and stable experience, and our wisdom will never become like a full moon.

Commitments

Geshe Kelsang has always said we should not view commitments as “heavy luggage” (Ed: it’s more like a purse).

We are simply making time for the things we actually know are good for us and love to do. I read a study the other day where a large group of women were questioned on how much time they spent meditating and so on versus watching Netflix – they replied that although they felt far better when they were meditating, they still spent about 5x more time on Netflix.

As Geshe-la puts it: 

study program 7We should try to memorize the important points of the subject and combine whatever we understand in a practical way with our daily activities. We also have to observe the various commitments of the program. These commitments are designed to help us accomplish our aim. Without them there is a danger that we will be distracted by laziness or other circumstances and not complete our studies.

Any meaningful relationship requires commitment. For example, what would a marriage be like without any commitment? Or our job? Or working to combat climate change, or improving social justice, etc.? I think we find things more meaningful or of benefit when we have some commitment to them; and we get more done.

The FP commitments are also largely a commitment to each other. If everyone turns up and gets with the program, the group becomes stronger. If attendance is sporadic, the group weakens and our fellow students’ Dharma experience suffers.

only peace

One friend puts it like this:

On FP we come to experience in our heart (1) who we truly are, and (2) who we can become, and (3) more importantly, who our family, friends, and everyone else can become. Not through hearing ideas that it’s easy to soon forget, through dropping in on General Program (GP), but through a relaxed, consistent, dynamic engagement and deepening experience of Dharma and meditation on FP. FP closes the gap between the teachings we hear and experiencing them in our heart.

If we signed up to be a doctor with the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefitting others, but then didn’t turn up to classes consistently or seal that study programunderstanding through exams, out in the field we’d quickly realize we’re not equipped to fulfil our goals. From this point of view our 7 years in medical school would feel meaningless, because meaningful just means we feel we have accomplished or are accomplishing our goals.

In a similar way, to derive the greatest meaning and fulfillment from the time we have chosen to spend on FP, the commitments and exams are not rigid rules, but rather helpful guidelines and opportunities to accomplish the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefiting others. Or, in Geshe-la’s words, 1) to be happy and 2) to make others happy! In this way taking the commitments to heart is the best way to make our time on FP FEEL meaningful for us (not to placate the teacher or program coordinators) and be beneficial for others.

As Geshe-la explains from his own experience:

standing on the highest mountain

I studied this program at Sera Monastery. When I completed it and was awarded my Geshe degree, I felt as if I had reached the summit of the highest mountain. My faith and experience had increased considerably and I felt great confidence in teaching others. My mind was very happy and I felt completely free from problems.

Become a really good meditator

We learn how to have a regular practice that is sustainable at home, know what to meditate on clearly through structured study, and build up self-discipline. Plus being there for other meditators in the FP group.

Geshe-la meditating in his roomOn the Foundation Program we can learn to meditate very well and always know what to meditate on — we learn how to do analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed meditation) on every aspect of Buddha’s Sutra teachings. This leads to results, confidence, and joy.

The power of discussion

Geshe-la says:

Discussion is a particularly important aspect of the program because we can help each other greatly by sharing our experience and understanding of Dharma.

Discussing with each other resolves our doubts, increases our understanding, and shows us what we don’t yet understand. Talking about gaining a realization of emptiness in particular, Geshe Kelsang says in The New Heart of Wisdom:

If we develop doubts or cannot accept what is taught we should discuss the matter with others. In this way, our understanding will become clearer and clearer. We should not keep doubts hidden inside our hearts — we need wisdom in our hearts, not doubts!

Geshe Kelsang has said that, in terms of his own understanding, he got 50% from the teachings and contemplations and 50% from his discussions with others! Which is quite a statement given how much he understands. He also gives some great advice on how to discuss in this talk.

Community

study program 6The Foundation Program builds the spiritual community so everyone ends up with more friendship and support. Connections strengthen due to weekly study, discussion, meditation, and so on; and once an FP group has been studying together for a while, people connect with each other at a deep level (a bit like people who do retreats together). This is the true meaning of Sangha community. And, as Sangha are the third Jewel of Buddhist refuge, who can really help us to make spiritual progress, the more the better.

Why prayers?

The study programs involve prayers as a support for the meditations. Sometimes people are a bit like, “I didn’t know Buddhists did prayers!” But we do, as explained more here. Prayers give us the opportunity to quickly purify our mind, accumulate merit or good karma, and bathe in inspiring blessings.

study program 2One of my friends says he puts it like this to his students: If you don’t think you like prayers, perhaps let go of what you think about them until your growing experience of them reveals a far deeper knowing. Buddhist prayers are just another form of meditation. We are so used to skimming the surface of life (caught up in busyness and trivia, numbing the pain of ordinary life) that we can miss out on the opportunity to experience something far deeper and incredibly rich. Prayers empower us to connect to and directly experience the greater depth that life has to offer, such as our pure potential and connection to enlightenment. They provide refuge.

So if you are new to a study program and faced with the prospect of doing prayers, for now just sit back, relax, and enjoy. We don’t have to understand all the meaning of the words of a beautiful song to enjoy the experience. We don’t go into existential meltdown because we don’t get it! It’s the same with prayers — just enjoy the experience of the peaceful resonance of the prayers for now, which is connecting us to our pure nature and enlightenment, whether we know it or not. Over time their meaning unfolds in any case.

Pujas 

There is a commitment to try and attend a weekly puja (chanted prayers) at the Center. Many people don’t even know what a puja is yet; so don’t sweat this one. It will come gradually and be explained over time. The main thing to know about pujas is that they are beautiful and saturated with blessings, and people always seem to leave a puja feeling better than when they arrived.

study program prayersPlus group pujas increasingly bless the center or temple so that these become refuge zones for everyone who visits them, which is providing a beautiful service to this troubled world.

Memorization and examinations!

Now we get to the commitment that generally freaks modern-day disciples out the most 😄. A dollar for everyone who says, “I left school years ago, I can’t memorize a thing, I’m way too old for this,” and variations on that theme.

It can be helpful to think of the exam at the end of the book as a self-assessment in six questions. They are marked, but no one but you knows your score (candidates have numbers, so even the marker doesn’t know.)

One teacher told me that with exams he likes to encourage people to regard it as a retreat rather than as preparing for a test. The exam is not the important part. The important part is the reading and contemplating. We can just have fun with it.

study program 10As mentioned earlier, if we are training as a doctor we need all the essential knowledge in our hearts, not on a dusty bookshelf. So this is Geshe Kelsang’s skillful way to encourage us to take the time to study – for when else are we going to be sufficiently motivated to do that?!

Another teacher says: “Don’t worry about it. This is a wonderful opportunity to study, get lots of Dharma — the cause of happiness — into your mind. Ask people who have taken exams – they have initial resistance sometimes but once they do it they realize why. Don’t be a perfectionist American (if you are) – remember Geshe-la’s advice:

Try, don’t worry.

And no one cares how you do on your exam.

If none of that works, how about regarding exam prep as an excellent way to ward off senility in a culture that is overly dependent on Google. Memorizing beautiful Dharma greatly improves our mindfulness.

We recite the Root Text and Condensed Meaning every week in class as well, so we find that we pick a lot of it up naturally.

The Kadampa way of life

Another friend, when I asked him what the benefits were, said succinctly:

This made me think of the old Kadampas and the Kadampa way of life. Foundation Program is training in a way of life. Transforming our life into Kadampa life. This takes real training – mindfulness, blessings, discipline. Do you wish to become a Kadampa?

Tharpa booksBy studying all five subjects (in six books) on FP, we come to know all of Buddha’s Sutra teachings, joining the illustrious company of tens of thousands of modern-day Sangha around the world. We will help provide hope for our society in the form of practicing and sharing Buddha’s teachings with the people around us, which amount to profound common sense that can be applied usefully to most of their everyday problems.

You can see some of these programs and students around the world in this video:

The six FP books are like jewel mines, and the FP allows us to delve deep. In this context the word ‘foundation’ does not mean basic or for beginners. It means we are constructing a strong and stable foundation for our daily Dharma practice and for attaining high realizations in the future.

If you want to train as a Kadampa Buddhist teacher, you can join the Teacher Training Program, which adds extra subjects and books including all of Buddha’s Tantric teachings, and has more of a retreat commitment.

Final encouragement from Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Sometimes five years or seven years may seem like a very long time, but if we practice steadily every day without giving up, gradually we will reach our goal. If we start today, tomorrow we shall already be a bit closer to completing! We should think like this and then one day we shall have completed our training.

Sangha in South Africa
Young Kadampas in South Africa

How wonderful that will be! We shall be able to give pure teachings with confidence on any subject we have studied, and people will believe us and develop faith in us because we have prepared so well. They will appreciate us from many points of view: our teachings, our personal experience, our ability to help them solve their problems, and so forth.

These are benefits that we shall experience just in this life. In reality, future lives are much more important. We shall experience the beneficial results of studying on this program for life after life until we reach enlightenment. The benefits are inexhaustible.

Over to you please! From your own experience, would you like to add anything? 

 Happy Dharmachakra Day! May Dharma flourish, may everyone be happy, and may our world be peaceful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transference of consciousness for those who have committed suicide

10 mins read

This week (Sept 9-15) is suicide prevention awareness week. I would submit a week is not enough. We need more awareness every week, as suicide is on the rise and it is destroying lives – not just those who kill themselves but those who are left behind.

BuddhaAvalokiteshvaraIn this final article on suicide, I want to say something about a powerful practice we can do for those who have died in general, and suicide victims in particular.

Back to my thoughts on Denis at the time

Denis believed in transference of consciousness (Powa in Tibetan, pronounced Poe Wa). In a letter written a few months ago to a mutual friend, he said:

“My dear friend my dog Jake died last weekend. I think I told you he had heart problems. His heart stopped early Sunday morning while he slept so he was in peace. He had sat with me through many meditations and listened to many prayers. I completed Powa for him the day after he died so I know he exists in a pure land now, but I experienced many feelings of loss and sadness.” 

In his suicide note, Denis also asked for me to guide Powa as his funeral. So of course I did. I mention some of the things I said below.

If someone you love has committed suicide, please feel that you can pray for them, whenever it happened – it is never too late. And you can also ask for this Powa practice to be done for them at Kadampa Buddhist Centers. Here too is a beautiful Facebook prayer request group.

What is Powa?

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains:

Transference of consciousness was taught by Buddha in both the Sutras and the Tantras. According to the Sutras, transference is accomplished primarily through the power of aspiration, while according to the Tantras it is accomplished primarily through the power of controlling the winds. Tantric practitioners who can dissolve their winds into the central channel through meditation can eject their consciousness and take rebirth in a Pure Land through their own power. 

A Pure Land is a place or an experience beyond suffering. We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell, as it were. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we cultivate and water.

According to Buddhism, the “Pure Land” is the experience of a purified mind, whereas “samsara” is the experience of an impure mind that is still contaminated by the inner poison of delusions. Here is a short description taken from Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully:

In a Buddha’s Pure Land everything is pure; there are no sufferings, no contaminated environments, and no impure enjoyments. Beings born there are free from sickness, ageing, poverty, war, harm from fire, water, earth, and wind, and so forth. They have the ability to control their death and rebirth, and they experience physical and mental suppleness throughout their life. Just being there naturally gives rise to a deep experience of bliss.

LMDJThe Pure Land could be considered similar to the Christian idea of heaven (or other religions’ idea of paradise), but in Buddhism a Pure Land is the experience of a pure mind — there is no external creator who rewards us with it (or who, alternatively, can send us to hell.)

The mind is the creator of all. To attain a Pure Land primarily involves purifying and mastering our own thoughts. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.

As does doing Powa for people who have died, which is a very powerful spiritual practice. I share some of my first-hand experience with it in this article. You can read all the details of how to do it in Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully. Many Kadampa Centers around the world also offer it once a month.

Denis’s Powa

The room was packed with 120 people — Sangha friends, his daughter, his brothers, his ex-wife, other family, clients, and a lot of Veterans. Most people in the room had never set foot in a Buddhist Center, some had no clue that Denis was a Buddhist. His family and friends packed the sitting room before Powa started, watching videos of him and crying. After the Powa, the atmosphere was very different. Many family members thanked us and said they felt real peace, a peace they were not expecting. His daughter said she felt huge relief and could start to move forward. People said they deeply appreciated being part of the ceremony, doing something so active to send him off.

chink of light

These are some of the things I said at Denis’s Powa:

“We are all here because we love Denis. We also know his good qualities. We want to help give him what he so yearned for, which is freedom, finally, from his pain.

Buddhism and other religions explain how the person is not their body. There is a lot more to Denis than his body. His formless mind, or awareness, continues now, past death; and so now through our connection we will help him, act as a bridge between him and the holy enlightened beings, however you envisage them, and especially the Buddha of Compassion.

Denis asked for this Powa and he had faith in it. He did it for many people himself, including his dog.

Denis had a lot of faith in the Three Jewels and a lot of love for his family and friends. From a Buddhist perspective we would say that he was not in his right mind last Friday and his uncontrolled, unpeaceful thoughts, or delusions, got the upper hand over his pure and kind nature. But the actual Denis is not these inner demons who tormented him — he was their victim. We are all very sad about this, but we can channel this sadness into compassion, sending him to a Pure Land where his body no longer hurts and these inner demons can harm him no longer.

Denis led a very caring life, creating huge good karma and many connections with us and with enlightened beings, so there is no doubt we can help him. Venerable Geshe Kelsang, Denis’s spiritual teacher, wrote to say he had done Powa for Denis and was praying. We all have love and compassion for him, and so now all we need is some openness or faith, and some concentration on the words and meditations. I will guide it a bit.”

What else can we do?

 “What do we do with the information that those whose lives we admire cannot bear to live … What hope is there for the rest of us?” ~ Time magazine, reporting on the celebrity suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade 

Perhaps we can develop more compassion for each other, both the people we know personally and the ones we don’t.

be kindRather than feeling envious, competitive, or annoyed when we see the lives of people more rich, famous, or powerful, here is an insight from Time magazine:

There’s also a case to be made for having more compassion. If people’s lives aren’t as amazingly blissful as they appear, perhaps people are not as evil or stupid as they appear, either.

I need to pay more attention to the people close to me who may be silently suffering. Not assume they are okay. Not neglect people for years on end. It doesn’t take much to reach out in genuine interest.

Correspondence with a friend

I would like to conclude these articles on suicide with emails I had with a friend whose husband of nearly 40 years killed himself in 2010. At the time she told me this correspondence helped her a great deal, so I repeat some of it here in case it might help other people too.

After she first told me M had committed suicide, I replied:

“You are strong, but I can only imagine how hard this is. It surely is one of the largest challenges we can face in a life full of challenges — having to let go so completely and utterly of our person whom we love very deeply, knowing there is nothing we can do to control or change his own path and karma, however much we want(ed) to. All we can do is to love him unconditionally forever, wherever he is, staying connected. And it helps to love and connect more closely with those who are still here, your beloved children, your friends. We can always ask holy beings for help, and prayer works very well when we are so close to someone.

If there is anything I can do, I will do it, please let me know. Meanwhile, I am going to continue to make many prayers for M so that he is protected and pain-free and takes rebirth in a Pure Land. I am also praying for you and your children to find all the support and inner resources you need to get through this time.”

A few weeks later she sent this:

birds flying image.png

In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M … wanting him back on earth …. Can you give me guidance to passages that could ease my pain?

I replied:

I think that mourning is the process of letting go of our attachment and loneliness and being left with the love and feeling of being alive again. Everyone has to move through this when they suffer a great loss, but you can help this process along and even get something valuable out of it.

Almost any teaching would help as it will give you a bigger perspective and so diminish the pain. Sometimes when I am in pain I just pick up any of Geshe Kelsang’s books to a random page and see what happens, and the medicine always seems to help.

However, the Lojong or mind-training teachings are often the most helpful of all in combating severe pain because that is what they are designed for, to enable us to transform any adverse conditions, however desperate – Eight Steps to Happiness and Universal Compassion. Suffering doesn’t have to end up being bad. Understanding that in itself can lead to a certain mental freedom. My favorite Geshe-la quote for dealing with suffering is in Universal Compassion:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

Tara prayerDon’t underestimate the power of prayer, “wish paths”. Through prayer you’ll get blessings and your mind will be lifted. There are many stories documenting how radical blessings can be in helping us. As you know, a Buddha is someone who has overcome all distorted perceptions (mistaken appearances) permanently and has the power to help each and every living being find mental peace every day by blessing their minds.

Please ask the holy beings for help, they want to help you, they are waiting to. Tara for example. From the depths of your heart ask Tara to help you by taking refuge and reciting her mantra OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA. When we are feeling sad and vulnerable, we understand our existential situation and can go for deeper refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and our spiritual friends; and as a result we experience more blessings than usual.

Personally as well I like to do the equanimity meditation (eg, taught in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and The New Meditation Handbook) when I find myself finally parted from someone I love. I find it broadens my mind and scope of interest so that, in the words of that song, “if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one(s) you’re with.” Everyone is a suitable object of our love and you have been as close to everyone as you are to M. You can use your great love for him as an example to help you increase your love for others, and that love then becomes truly transformative. Imagine if you loved and wanted to protect everyone as much as you love and want to protect M. You have a lot of love in you already.

Over to you. I have been really appreciating your comments, stories, and other feedback on previous suicide articles, so please feel invited to contribute anything that might be helpful to yourself or other readers. Thank you.

Further reading

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out

A first-hand experience of transference of consciousness

What is a Pure Land? 

A brother’s suicide

This too shall pass

 

 

 

The Great Escape

4 mins read and a video

Did you hear about the rescue of the 12 Thai boys and their coach? Probably, unless you were stuck down a cave yourself, because it was headline news all over the world. A feel-good story of heroism and selflessness that was a rare light in the increasingly surreal 24/7 news cycle, an international effort to extricate children that was a welcome break from the head-spinning politics of fear, resentment, and retrenchment.

Thai boys rescue

This was something we all seemed to pretty much agree on for a change. Common ground. Something we could understand, that brought us closer. Something “real”. A story that felt good to identify with and celebrate, and that gave people everywhere an opportunity to appreciate and exercise the common values of compassion and love innate to all of us, regardless of their religion or politics. Where I was, in London, there mission accomplishedwas a genuine eruption of rejoicing and high fives as the last boy was brought out.

And for me this story is deeply motivating in another way too …

Imagine this. You were looking forward to exploring a cave with your friends after routine soccer practice, but when you try to leave you find your exit flooded by an unexpected downpour.

You are all totally trapped. It is pitch dark, with a tiny bit of light from the flashlights. You have only the clothes you came in and a ledge to perch on. There is nothing to eat, for you were only planning on being there an hour; and for water you have to lick dripping stalactites. You are running out of strength. You feel sick. There are no toilets, and nothing comfortable to sit or lie on. You take turns trying to dig yourself out, but soon realize it’s hopeless. Perhaps worst of all, you have no idea if anyone is coming for you and, even if they do come for you, how on earth they are going to get you out of there.

Plus you are still just a boy.

This is going on for days, nine days so far, an eternity … Would you feel anguished? Agitated? Scared? Lonely? If anyone has a right to feel that way, it would be children trapped almost 1km underground.

Yet the first reports coming out revealed a very different picture. As one of their mothers said:  

Thai coach“Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing,” the mother of one of the boys told the AP, referring to a widely shared video of the moment the boys were found.

As it says in this article:

Instead of agitated and anguished, they were in a state of calm.

How could this be?!!

How Buddhist meditation kept the Thai boys calm in the cave

Later it transpired that the boys’ soccer coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, had lived in a Buddhist monastery for a decade and taught the boys to meditate!

I don’t know what meditations he taught them – perhaps breathing meditation and mindfulness of their body, feelings, and thoughts, given that this is the Thai tradition (but Thai boys meditatingI stand to be corrected). However, whatever it was, through meditation they clearly discovered the peace and calm we all have within us. They found sanctuary. Which makes me think:

If meditation works when you’re trapped underground, it probably works everywhere …

As it says in the same article:

That meditation would be a useful practice in an extremely stressful situation like being trapped in a cave is really no surprise. Buddhist meditation has been around for 2,600 years, since the Buddha began teaching it as tool for achieving clarity and peace of mind, and ultimately, liberation from suffering.

So I find this story enormously revealing and inspiring in that it shows us our indestructible mental potential, our so-called Buddha nature, as well as the accessibility and power of meditation in enabling us to access that natural peace and let go of all our worries and anxiety. Even in a situation where all our usual props have fallen away, such as in an empty cave deep underground, we can still learn to enjoy the refuge of inner happiness and freedom.

coach with boysThis is the real great escape we all have to look forward to. With practice, this can become freedom from all uncertainty and suffering, despite the diminishing props of all our lives. After all, when it comes right down to it, no one can give us actual freedom – we have to claim it.

Check out this news clip of a live national interview with a Kadampa teacher in Toronto, answering questions such as:

  • How would meditation be helpful in a stressful situation like this?
  • Can people learn meditation that quickly?
  • What is the capacity of someone that young to understand what they are doing when they meditate?
  • Meditation helped them mentally and spiritually, how about physically?

Hope you have a chance to watch this. And then get cracking with your meditation 😄 If you haven’t gotten started yet, maybe check out one of these articles and/or find a class near you.

Interesting update:

Thai boy monksThe 11 boys and their coach have been ordained as Buddhist monks for nine days! (The coach for longer, I believe.) Check out this article.

The boys, whose ages range from 11 to 16, will live in a Buddhist temple for nine days, the same length of time they were trapped in Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai before they were discovered by a team of divers.

Postscript: The power of prayer

Someone left this comment and I think it is worth repeating here:

The other thing I took away from this is the power of prayer. The whole world wished for the boys and their coach to be brought out safely alive. Prayer can also be called a wish path so the whole world, no matter what faith each person practiced, even those who claim no faith, was praying for their safe recovery. The potential for death was huge yet they are all alive. What brought together all the people with the knowledge needed to perform the successful rescue? The wishes/prayers of the whole world.

That leads me to the question, what would happen if the whole world spent as many days wishing deep in their hearts for an end to war?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why pray?

By the way, during that meditation I described on the meditation on the nature of the mind, the moment we notice we are distracted we can ask the same question, “What is it that is aware?” so that we return to the clarity of the mind, allowing the distracting concern to dissolve back into the clarity like a wave settling into a still ocean.

Pebbles-in-water501There are other legitimate things to do as well if we find ourselves too tempted to get involved with our thoughts — we can recall subtle impermanence, that these things are already gone, and in that way let them dissolve spontaneously away. Or we can recall the suffering nature of contaminated phenomena, that the end of collection is dispersion and so on, motivating us to deepen our meditation. These ways into the clarity of the mind were taught by Venerable Geshe Kelsang in his fantastic 2000 AD teachings combining Mahamudra and the four seals, and I’d love to get around to talking about them some day as they have helped me immeasurably. The main object of meditation is clarity, so once we have found that we stick with it; but we can use various contemplations to help us get there.

This article is part of a series of Mahamudra articles. Those of you who know about Lamrim, or the stages of the path to enlightenment, may wonder where meditating on the nature of the mind appears in the 21 meditations? It doesn’t explicitly, but it is our favored object of tranquil abiding (#19), and it does appear in many other places in the Kadampa books, such as How to Understand the Mind and Mahamudra Tantra, and in detail in two chapters of Clear Light of Bliss. It also features in Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, in which the first of the five stages of the actual practice of Mahamudra is identifying our own mind and meditating on tranquil abiding.

Prayers and blessings

You may have noticed that in this tradition we like to practice in conjunction with prayers (whether we say them out loud or not). When some of you first encounter the prayers, you think, “How wonderful, I love them!” … but there are not many of you. A lot of people’s initial response is “What? I thought they didn’t have this in Buddhism! I came to relax and now you want me to sing?!” And then we reconcile ourselves to the idea: “Ah well, I’ll settle my mind with the breathing meditation, let my mind rest and ramble during the prayers, and then focus again when I am back on the meditation.” That, of course, is not the idea. As Geshe Kelsang has warned us many times, we don’t want to get into the bad habit of parroting the prayers. Instead we can start off really well by communing with enlightened beings.

The main purpose of prayers is to change our mind in a good direction and to receive blessings. With blessings we are essentially connecting our mind to an enlightened being’s mind and, in doing so, adding a lot of power and fluidity to our meditations. This exponentially facilitates and deepens our experience.

This meditation on the nature of the mind is part of the Mahamudra practice, which is the heart essence of our lineage, the Ganden Oral Lineage, and lies at the very heart of our Spiritual Guide’s experience. So this particular Mahamudra lineage that we are receiving comes directly from Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the new Kadampa tradition; and it is exceedingly blessed. As Venerable Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit, thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples gained deep experience through putting these methods into practice, attaining the illusory body, clear light, and full enlightenment.

It is very important for us to recognize and think about blessings, for otherwise, when we meditate, WE try to meditate. Meaning that while identifying ourselves in an ordinary limited way, we try to coerce our mind into having very profound experiences of the subtle dimensions of reality. Basically, we are TRYING in the wrong way. We are putting the onus on our SELF, and in particular our ordinary sense of self.

I think often when we sit down to meditate we immediately bring up an association with our self, the one that is not that good at meditating. We only think about this sense of self when it is time to meditate, when we feel we need to cajole it, “This time, you are going to do it!”, and then basically push to have an experience of the clarity of the mind. And of course what can happen is that we end up not having this experience, which in a rather subconscious gratifying way affirms what we knew all along, ie, that we are not very good at meditating. It reinforces our underlying sense of discouragement, a common type of laziness.

This is a great shame with this great gift of Mahamudra. Hence, blessings.

Buddha is not outside our mind

Everything we experience is not outside our mind, nothing is outside the mind. For example, is the sound of the bird inside or outside? You cannot separate it from your perception, you cannot draw a line between the perception and the sound; so it is inside. Your experience of your friend is your experience of your friend, inside, not out.

Homs Syria
Aleppo, Syria, February 2016. We need enlightenment.

So when we bring to mind Buddha, he or she is not outside my mind. There is no need to buy into the dualistic appearance of a gap or separation – my isolated meditation over here and the Awakened Ones having a great time over there. When we pray, we are not petitioning external forces but awakening our own potential by recognizing it is not separate from the minds of all enlightened beings. And we are doing this for everyone.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang says every single peaceful mind and happiness arises through Buddha’s blessings. (There is a great explanation of that in this guest article.) According to Geshe-la:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. Only human beings can attain this through practicing meditation. How fortunate we are! ~ The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, p. 3.

We can understand that whenever we develop a positive mind, in that moment, when we allow ourselves to be happy, we have disengaged from delusions to some extent. We have allowed our mind to come into alignment with a Buddha’s non-deluded reality, which is pervaded by peace, joy, love, etc; tapping into a profound enlightenment.

Settling

So we need to allow that to happen rather than the clutching “Yikes, grab my peace, it’s disappearing!” rodeo experience of meditating. Our meditation should not be a rodeo; it should feel instead like a settling. The word we use, in Clear Light of Bliss for example, is “Settling like a still ocean.” We use our own experience of peace to help settle into a vast transcendent experience of peace, joy, etc.finding happiness

My peace is already connected to Buddha’s peace, great! So we start not from disconnection but from connection, from refuge, and allow the prayers to deepen that experience naturally. Geshe Kelsang has likened prayers to an old man’s stick, a reminder to their meaning. So we let the words suggest the minds, as opposed to forcing the minds and getting tired and distracted. We enjoy what we’re saying, saying it from the heart, while abiding in that communion.

Then when it is time to meditate, we do so while continuing to bathe in that experience – we don’t LEAVE the blessings. It’s not like filling our car up with gas and then driving off, here I am all on my own again. We meditate WITH blessings, we can even let the Spiritual Guide do the meditation for us for he really wants to help and he is very good at this. Instead of combat with obstacles, nay-saying, and distractions, we can really relax. From the point of view of the Spiritual Guide, there are no obstacles, and we are already fantastic. We could do a lot worse than to get into the habit of seeing ourself through his eyes.

Look in the mirror

Do you want to know what else I do?! I look at a picture of my favorite enlightened being and think I am looking in the mirror. We don’t have to feel that we are unworthy or light years pebble in wateraway from our Spiritual Guide or the Buddhas. That is ordinary appearance, and they don’t ever see us as ordinary or limited.

So feel free at any time during the meditation to reconnect with the Spiritual Guide and simply ask, “Please help me with clarity.” If we throw a pebble in the pond and wait, ripples will gradually arise. We ask for some guidance or inspiration, and then we wait.

Do leave a comment to add anything else that is helpful or ask questions.