What is Buddhism? ~ A short, simple guide

This summer my parents asked if I could write a “short, simple guide” to answer the main questions they and their friends have about Buddhism. They kindly sent me the list of quite excellent enquiries, so I am going to have a go now.

  • What is Buddhism in one sentence? 

Buddhism is learning to live from a peaceful mind and a good heart as the best way to solve our own inner problems of anxiety, depression, fear, etc.; finding a deepening sense of happiness and freedom from within; and in time helping and inspiring others to do the same.

(Thank goodness for semi-colons.)

Or how about this:

“Buddha says be nice to people and animals and then you feel good.” ~ a 4-year-old Buddhist

  • What is meditation in one sentence?

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resMeditation, literally “familiarizing ourselves with positivity”, lies at the heart of Buddhism, and by practicing it we (1) are protected from the suffering caused by unpeaceful, uncontrolled states of mind such as anger, attachment, and ignorance that give rise to suffering; and (2) learn how to develop and maintain our peaceful, beneficial states of mind such as patience, love, and wisdom, in this way fulfilling our innate potential for lasting happiness and freedom, as well as the ability to help others.

Hmm, that might have been stretching the one sentence thing a bit. So how about this quote from Buddha instead:

Learn to do good,
Cease to do evil,
And control the mind.

  • Do Buddhists believe there is a God?

Short answer: No. Not a creator God. But we do believe in the existence of completely perfect holy beings.

If there is a creator God who is omnipotent and has compassion for his creation, why is there suffering? It would seem that a creator God must either have no compassion or not be omnipotent, one can’t have it both ways.

Buddhists do not believe that one single mind, namely God’s, created the world, but that we are all creating our own reality with our own minds continually. Nonetheless, we all have the potential to purify our minds of all obstructions and attain omniscience, if not omnipotence. And so Buddhists do believe in the existence of countless enlightened beings who have attained complete freedom and omniscience in order to help everyone else do the same, and we pray to them for guidance and blessings.

Kadampa  BuddhasSo, like Christians and so on, we believe in the existence of omnipresent compassionate holy beings and in the power of prayer and blessings. Just not in an omnipotent creator God.

We can also find common ground on a more mystical (perhaps sort of holy spirit level) if we take God to be the clear light mind possessed by all living beings, which is called the basic Dharmakaya or Truth Body. This very subtle mind that goes from life to life is the basis or creator of both samsara and nirvana, and, when purified, will become the bliss and emptiness of the actual Truth Body of a Buddha, omniscient wisdom.

There is a bit more here.

  • Is Buddhism a religion or a faith? Are they different?

Buddhism is a religion, according to the dictionary definition. It is also a faith, in so far as Buddhists grow their faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Faith is a positive state of mind that is quite clearly defined in Buddhism – it goes hand in hand with experience and includes (a) believing faith, where we simply believe in the existence of holy beings, pure states of mind, etc.; (b) admiring faith, where we admire their good qualities; and (c) wishing faith, where we wish to gain those qualities ourselves.

  • What happens when you die? What is meant by reincarnation?

We take rebirth, which means the same as reincarnation moreorless. Our mind is formless awareness whereas our body is made of flesh and blood; so though the body dies, the very subtle mind continues. Buddha documents the entire process of dying and taking rebirth from the subjective point of view of the person dying, it is fascinating. We pass through different levels of consciousness. It is a bit like falling asleep, dreaming, and waking up, though we wake up into an entirely new body and world. What body and world that is depends on the quality of our mind and our actions, or karma. I have written several articles about this subject here.

reincarnation.jpgA surprising number of Western thinkers too have believed in rebirth over the centuries, including early Christian Gnostics; and I like Voltaire’s words on the subject:

It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.

Being born once is no less weird than being born lots of times. Dying once is no less weird than dying lots of times.

For as long as I remember I have believed in rebirth, so that kind of says something right there. I remember telling you, Dad, that your father was going to be reborn as a human and not as an animal because he was a good man (a vicar) and died peacefully. I was all of six years old at the time, I wonder if you remember, it was in the kitchen in Guildford. I also knew without being told, aged 4, that our daschund Rozy was already on the way to her next life when you drove her away in the boot of our car in Sri Lanka after her accident. Stuff like that.

  • What is a Buddhist’s relationship with everyday life? For instance, can a Buddhist be a soldier? or kill anything?

Buddhism is based on compassion and its chief refuge commitment is: “Not to harm others.” So Buddhists avoid killing as much as they can, and also try to have careers that don’t involve harming others if possible. The main thing always is the motivation, however, so there are no external laws or strict rules for living per se; each Buddhist has to be pragmatic and figure out for themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and what results it will have for themselves and others.

Moreover, Buddhists believe that everyday life can be transformed into a spiritual path by changing our minds:

Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. – Eight Steps to Happiness

  • Do Buddhists aim to make the world a better place by the personal example of their Way of Life rather than by direct action?

Another good question. It’s a bit of both. Bodhisattvas have two main methods to make the world a better place, which are reflected in the vows they take – (1) to develop their minds so they can attain enlightenment as quickly as possible to help all living beings, and (2) to help others directly whenever they can. What form that help takes depends on the individual, there is a lot of diversity.Sally and Buddha

For example, my main aim is to practice Buddhism and help it to flourish so that it reaches lots of people and inspires them also to become more peaceful, happy, patient, etc. This involves both a way of life and direct action. But I also do other types of direct action, as you may be meaning it, in the form of helping an animal shelter and trying to promote kindness to animals. But again, it is the motivation that counts. Direct action motivated by, say, a mind full of hate or intolerance, is counterproductive.

Buddhists’ main goal to make the world a better place by helping each other develop the capacity of our minds, realizing that everyone has powerful spiritual potential for lasting peace and freedom. We have been creating our own suffering for a very long time, and in the same way we can create our own happiness; we just need the methods. Geshe Kelsang puts it like this:

Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough.

A friend on Facebook put it rather nicely I thought: “We could bandage people up and give them tents and a bowl of soup, and it is great if we can do that; but if they are in a whirlwind of self-destruction they will run out with the bandages on to fight again. The whirlwind is the delusions. Until these are stopped, we can keep rebuilding houses but the uncontrolled mind will keep smashing them down again.”

  • For example, is a Buddhist Doctor a Buddhist first or a Doctor? We assume there is no dilemma or conflict but how do you explain?

I think that depends on the individual – some would say they were Buddhists first and then doctors, some would say it the other way around. There need be no conflict between being a Buddhist and being a doctor, especially if the doctor is motivated by the wish to relieve suffering and support happiness in his or her patients. As with any job, there may be certain dilemmas to navigate; but these in themselves can help someone become better at eg, compassion, patience, or taking responsibility. As one guest blogger put it in his article:

Being a social worker makes me a better Buddhist. Being a Buddhist makes me a better social worker.

Interestingly enough, Geshe Kelsang was a doctor in Tibet before he became a teacher. He came to feel that he could personally help people more by being a teacher (see point above), but there is no contradiction.

  • There are many different forms of Buddhism, do we need to know how to refer to the NKT?

Guru Sumati Buddha HerukaWe refer to the NKT as Kadampa Buddhism, “Kadampa” literally meaning “those who take all Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and put them into practice in their daily lives.” These days we also call ourselves “modern Buddhism”, because this tradition has spread more globally than most due to its accessibility to people in many countries and walks of life.

The NKT is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982-1054), practiced fully and passed down the generations through accomplished spiritual masters, including Je Tsongkhapa (AD 1357-1419), to the present day.

  • Is anyone or any type of Buddhism considered the founder of Buddhism? If so, how long ago did Buddhism start?

Buddha Shakyamuni is known as the founder of Buddhism – so from one point of view Buddhism started just over 2550 years ago in India and then spread from there. However, time is beginningless, and there are countless beings who have realized their full potential and become Buddhas; so Buddhism has actually been around (somewhere if not always here) forever!

In this world, a prince called Siddhartha in India (550 BC) found suffering unacceptable, so left his palace to bring an end to it. He discovered that the root of suffering lies within the mind, specifically within a mistaken understanding of reality, and he found a way to cut this root of ignorance with compassion and the wisdom realizing the illusory nature of things. He was then requested to teach, and gave 84,000 teachings to a very wide audience over a 40-year ministry, which became known as Dharma (literally, “that which holds us back from suffering”).

squirrelInterestingly, Buddha didn’t coin the term “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”; that was something we did much later. He called his followers simply “inner beings” because there were interested in attaining happiness and freedom by controlling the mind. Anyone can use Buddha’s teachings, therefore — for example on meditation, mindfulness, love, patience, and wisdom — without having to call themselves a Buddhist if they don’t want to. Geshe Kelsang, I remember, used to call some of his students in Dallas Texas “Christian Buddhists”, for example.

  • How many types of Buddhism exist? Or does no-one really know?

Buddhism can be grouped by country, by culture, by lineage, by teacher, by monastery, etc., so there are many types. At the same time you could say there is only one type of Buddhism, the teachings of Buddha.

Buddhism spread extensively because many countries and cultures saw that it deals with the mind so effectively; and, broadly speaking, in all these places groups would form with an experienced teacher at their center.

Buddha imageBasically there are two main “vehicles” of Buddhism – Hinayana (incl. Theravadan) and Mahayana, of which Kadampa Buddhism is the latter. Hinayanists’ goal is to attain liberation or nirvana, which means freedom from all delusions and suffering for themselves. Mahayanists’ or Bodhisattvas’ goal is to attain full enlightenment so they can lead all living beings to the same state. (Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is included in the Mahayana.) Both traditions were taught by Buddha and they have many practices in common, including the four noble truths. All authentic traditions of Buddhism are able to trace their teachings back through an unbroken line of teachers and disciples to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.

Thank you to Facebook friends who contributed to this article. I have attempted the impossible, ie, to keep my answers short. It is clearly not conclusive and plenty more could be said, so this article is like Cliff’s notes or something. Please feel free to contribute good stuff on any of these questions in the comments section below.

 

Who do you want to be when you die? ~ rebirth part 6

to see the world in a drop of dewWhen we gain insight into the continuum of our mind — and that death is the permanent separation of the mind and the body, not the death of consciousness — this realization expands our horizons and is very joyful, liberating.

People say that they don’t want to think about death, “I don’t want to think about leaving everything!” But we won’t even notice that we’ve left everything! Do you even notice that last night’s dream has come and gone? Do any of you miss last week’s dream? Do any of you miss any of your past lives at the moment? Attachment is all about, “I’ve got to keep having it, I’ll not be happy without it.” But as soon as attachment has gone, there’s nothing there to hang on to — it’s gone and we’ve forgotten it.

We all want to be happy and free from suffering, all the time. In which case, the only thing to do is to train the mind. Tweaking this body is a fool’s game — no matter how much Botox we inject into this thing, it is not going to last. It’s not going to look any prettier as we get older. It’s not going to serve us any better as time goes by. Despite years and years of devotion to our body – giving it pizza, washing it countless times, worrying about its slightest wrinkles, spending days and weeks (if you add it up) in front of the mirror, lugging it around all day, buying it expensive plane tickets – our body will betray us in the end.

Our body is an object of so much inappropriate attention. So much attachment, so much aversion, so much self cherishing, so much angst, worry, obsession, and time wasted goes into just thinking about these bodies. At the end of the day this body completely lets us down, becoming an inanimate lump of flesh that others cannot wait to get rid of. If we are relating to our body as ourselves, what does that make us – a lump of meat?!

Shantideva
Shantideva

As Shantideva, a great Indian Master who never minced his words, said, we are not so different to an animated corpse. Why is my body animated right now? When I die it will just be laying there and people will go, “Yuck.” When someone we have loved for 50 years dies, and we see them lying there, we know it is not them, at that point it is obvious. Why? Because they have gone. The body they inhabited is there the same as when they were alive, but it is now missing an essential ingredient. What animates the body? It is awareness, it is consciousness, it is life. When we die, this body that we invest so much energy and angst into, becomes “What was all that about?!” So much wasted time.

I’m not suggesting you all stop showering, by the way — we look after our body, of course, but rather as an ambulance driver looks after his ambulance the best he can, even when it is the worse for wear, seeing this body as a vehicle in which we can make a lot of spiritual progress and help others.

There is a powerful parallel scene in the movie Schindler’s List that has always struck me as the Bodhisattva way to look after our own body. Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth are both grooming themselves meticulously for a party, preparing to impress. But Goeth is seething with pride and self-absorption, whereas Schindler is making himself presentable with the view only to save others.

At the moment our mind and body are connected. Our body is like our vehicle or, if you like, our overcoat, so we need to keep it healthy and presentable; but it’s not where the real action is. Infinitely more important is the life of our mind.

Also, don’t take this to mean that you have to always forget that your body is there! It will remind us often enough. I’m talking about not relating to the body out of inappropriate attention and delusions that come from identifying with it as being who we are, when it is only part of who we are. As it inevitably gets older, and the bodies around it get older, we will experience nothing but loss and suffering for example, if we exaggerate its importance. We can enjoy it and its sense pleasures without grasping. We can learn not to cling so tightly to it when it is sick. We don’t need to worry so much about what others think when they look at our body.  This is a work in progress but starts with the recognition that we are not just bodies.

If we understand the nature of consciousness then we really get a sense of who we are. Then we get a sense of who we can become.

seeds are no small thingAs we go through the teachings of the Lamrim, or the stages of the path, we start off with this special initial scope, setting our sights beyond the vanishing appearances of this life, thinking about countless future lives. Within this we also understand karma, that everything we do resonates into the future as seeds and potentials carried in our consciousness from life to life, the only luggage we are going to take with us. Therefore, we need to practice pure behavior and pack the causes for happiness, not suffering, for our future lives.

As we journey further along the path, we understand that we need to be in a state where we never taken any uncontrolled rebirth ever again. We start thinking about the problems of our delusions and particularly how to get rid of our ignorance, which is what is keeping us trapped in the uncontrolled cycle of life. At this point we are identifying with a being of intermediate scope, or middling scope. That is who we are.

We don’t stop there. Thinking,

“I am just one person, one traveler. Everybody is a traveler forced to cycle through death, bardo, and rebirth over and over again. My friends my dog, everybody is caught and I need to help them.”

Our samsara's cagemind gets even bigger. Our sense of being, of self, of who we are, is growing bigger and bigger. Geshe Kelsang uses this word “growing” – we grow from a being of initial scope, to middling scope, to great scope, namely the Mahayana. We become a Bodhisattva, literally an “enlightenment being” – someone who has decided to realize their complete potential for enlightenment so that they can guide all the other travelers to the same state.

So that’s the spiritual path. It all hinges on our understanding of who we are, which in turn hinges on our understanding of what life is, which in turn hinges on our understanding of our own beginningless and endless consciousness.

(This is the last part of the articles on rebirth — all of them can be found together here.)

Time traveler ~ rebirth part 5

recycle wasted time

A few days ago I was in the English Lake District, walking in Tarn Haws, contemplating water flow – sometimes gushing fast down a waterfall, sometimes collecting briefly in pools created by rocks in the river, but always, always moving. Even in the stillest parts of the stream, the water did not remain the same even for a moment. Our consciousness too may pool in one world for a time, with the relatively superficial swirls and eddies of change — perhaps we will move around, or change friends, or raise a family, or advance in our careers, or retire. But one day it will inexorably exit through the rocks to move on.

We deny impermanence at great cost to our peace of mind. If we do not go with the flow – if we think our current companions and infrastructure are moreorless permanent and the be all and end all of our life, thus investing us and them with self-grasping ignorance, attachment, aversion – it’s like trying to stay the water of a river. As Heraclitus put it, we can’t step in the same river twice. In fact he said we cannot step in the same river once – but, either way, living within an understanding of impermanence is vital to our spiritual and emotional well-being. Our mind is a constant flow, a constant becoming. We need to purify and transform our river-like mental continuum in the now – immersing it in the Dharma of compassion and wisdom. Mixing it with the blessings of the Guru, Buddhas, and Sangha, with their mental continuum, flowing into the vast and profound ocean of bliss and emptiness.

So, that is what I was thinking as I watched the river flow. I recommend that walk in Tarn Haws sometime 🙂

Expanding the mindkill time injure eternity

At any given moment, we are a being who is identified with this time traveler — that is our sense of who we are. Through coming to understand the continuum of our mind and that it is our life, as explained in these articles, this particular human life we have now becomes very meaningful.

Sometimes when people hear about future lives and how important it is to work for their happiness, they assume that this one short life is not important, that happiness must be deferred. But this is not true – this life becomes immensely important because we understand that it is a crucial part of this journey, in which we can prepare for the entire journey ahead. If we want to be happy in the future, we need to learn to be happy now. And we currently have all the conditions we need for spiritual practice. We have all obstacles out of our way. If we want to purify, liberate our mind, and so on, we can do so as much as we want with this precious human life. This is not the case with everyone — not everyone has this opportunity that we have right now. These conditions are very temporary, but at the moment we have them.

Our sights expand. If you have spent your life living in a castle, even a big one, and have never been outside, and one dawn you go up to the keep and peek your head over the parapets, you may think, “I never knew! There is a vast world out there!” I think that these meditations on the nature and function of the mind, on death and impermanence, on rebirth, on the cycle of consciousness, the cycle of life — these meditations are the dawning of spiritual awareness.

Geshe Kelsang, my Spiritual Guide, has said that we grow when we develop these understandings. We grow from what is called a “small initial scope being” to a “special initial scope being”. This means that our “being”, or who we are, has grown as our understanding and capacity has increased.

you grow to heavenTo explain a little … within Transform Your Life, for example, is contained all the stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim for short), the whole journey to enlightenment with all its increasing scopes of growing capacity. The first scope is called “initial scope”. Within initial scope are small initial scope and special initial scope. Small initial scope is where we’re at before we start getting interested in the continuum of consciousness, who we are, where we’re going, where we came from — we’re just interested in the things of this life. That’s who we are, that’s what we want, that’s all we are coping with.

Then, through understanding these teachings of Buddha, we grow from a small initial scope being to a special initial scope being, which means we have become someone who is actually interested in spiritual awareness and spiritual development. We are no long just stuck inside the castle, but looking over the parapets and seeing the vast wonder of the continuum of mind and its possibilities. Our mind is opening. Our awareness is expanding and we start getting interested in spiritual training.

Right now everything depends upon our mind, whether we are sad, happy, non-deluded, deluded, etc. Tomorrow everything is still going to depend upon our mind; next week it’s the same story. In ten years’ time our life is going to entirely depend upon our mind, just as it does today. When we die our life is still going to depend upon our mind. In the intermediate state, in our next life, everything is still going to be created by our mind and dependent upon our mind. Now if that’s the case, small problem filling mindif our mind is of such profound importance, is in fact the creator of everything, indeed it is our life, then it makes a lot of sense to realize its full potential through spiritual practice.

If we think that our mind is just our body, if we never explore these things and never meditate on them and never come to understand them, then there does not seem to be a huge incentive to practice a spiritual path. Then we’re just a lump of lard. If it’s just the things of this life that are important to us, then we sell ourselves incredibly short.

Sixth and final installment is here.

What is the point of training the brain!? ~ rebirth part 4

My grandfather lived to 100. He was a spiritual person, and he probably could have lived to 110 as he was immensely fit, but unfortunately he was run over by a car. During his last 6 weeks, spent in hospital, he went through a lot of stuff, going in and out of pain, in and out of lucidity, and having some moments of great insight. One day he said to my brother:

“In the light of eternity I can see very clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.”

then whatWhen we get to the end of our life, it is like last night’s dream upon awakening — however long it felt at the time, it’s barely a moment. There is no difference between a dream of long duration and one of short duration, once it’s finished. So whether we live a long life or a short life, it’s still insubstantial, it’s not who we really are. It’s just who we think we are at the moment. In fact, if we’re imputing ourselves on the body of this life, the people of this life, the jobs of this life, the money of this life, the surroundings of this life, and so on, then we are not relating to ourselves as who we really are.

As mentioned in previous articles on rebirth, we are actually a traveler who has come from countless previous lives and is going to countless future lives. That sense of being a continuum of awareness is immensely mind expanding. If we don’t have it, we limit our self to superficial, fleeting appearances.

It is like getting in a train carriage and putting up the curtains, marrying the person in the next seat, settling down forever, complaining about the neighbors in the next row. When we get to the end of the line and the conductor says, “All disembark!”, we panic, “Oh no, you can’t make me get off! This is who I am, this is me and my friends on this train. This is my real world. This is where I belong.” But it’s not. train tracks

We do ourselves a great disservice because of identifying so strongly with the things of this life. We are upset when things don’t go our way. Instead of getting any perspective on them, we grasp at everything as being very important; and also we do not set our sights on spiritual training because in fact we’re not identifying ourselves as spiritual beings. To become interested in our spiritual nature entails understanding the nature of consciousness. I don’t think there is any other way around it. If we understand the nature, function, and continuum, or cycle, of consciousness, and if we know that this body will eventually perish, we know that our mind will continue past the duration of this body.  From that we’ll conclude that it is extremely important that we take care of purifying and training it so that we experience happiness and freedom not just now but forever.

If we get interested in Buddhism, we find that we can train to overcome our anger, for example, and our attachment, our addictions. We can overcome our fear, we can even uproot our ignorance. During this life we can purify our mind of all its negative actions and pathways to suffering. We can develop universal love and compassion. We can develop bliss and omniscient wisdom. Perhaps we hear these things and we think, “What a great idea!”, but then at the same time, if we’re going to be dead in a few hundred months, and if our mind is the brain, then at that point the candle is going out. If that’s what we think, that the mind is finite, then what’s the point really of training it? Of course it will make us happier and so on, and increase our gray matter, but what is the real point? There’s not much point really, is there? If our mind is just a piece of shriveling soft tissue headed for annihilation, we might as well sit this one out. Just wait for it to pass. Wait for extinction.

Of course that’s not what happens. The whole point is that the mind and the body are not the same.

I have a story about my grandmother too. When I was younger and became interested in Buddhism, doing jobs in Buddhist centers and so on, I got paid a pittance. (Working for Buddhist centers is not a career move by the way ;-)) And my grandmother noticed this and thought, basically, that I wasn’t taking enough care of the things of this life. She would say, “You’re not working hard enough to make money! What about your pension? What’s going to happen when you get to my age and you’ve no money?” One Christmas party she also cornered a good family friend of mine, Pagpa, a Buddhist monk, and spent over an hour telling him the same things …

samsara attachment to homeThese were valid points; it is not like what she was saying didn’t have any reality. However, she felt that everything was wrapped up just with who I was in this life and that I was therefore badly letting myself down. And I was trying to explain to her that, regardless of what happens when I retire, my death and future lives may come sooner and I needed to prepare for those.

As my grandmother got old, on one of my visits to see her at her house in the south of England she said, “You know, as I am heading now towards my death and looking back on my life, all these things, such as having money, feel hollow to me. They don’t feel like who I am.” And we talked about this and she asked me, “What can I do? What does Buddhism say about this? What will happen when I die and afterwards?” I showed her the book, Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, which I had on me. She read the title out loud and then said, sadly, “It is too late now to make that blissful journey. My life is almost over.” It was very poignant, actually, the way she said it. But anyway I tried to encourage her; I said it is never too late to get interested in spiritual life. Which I think is true, as long as we do get interested when we hear about it.

Later on, my grandmother suffered from dementia and needed full-time care. From having a big house with lots of books, she went down to having whatever could fit in one small room in a nursing home. When I visited her there, I success 1saw that on her book shelf she had just two books. One of them was Transform Your Life.

Many people do have this kind of experience as they get older. As they get close to death they don’t really know who they are anymore. This is because all the things that were propping them up, everything they thought they were, is no longer working. The career is over, they’re retired, the children are grown, health, energy, and looks are failing, and it is clear now that money can’t buy happiness All those measures of who we are and what constitutes wellbeing or success in life are becoming increasingly hollow. But in fact they’re always hollow. It’s just that sometimes as we get older it becomes more evident.

Part 5 is here.

The circle of life ~ rebirth part 3  

time is emptyIf we do the meditation described in the last article on rebirth, we get a sense of the flow of our mind – what it is, where it’s coming from, where it’s going. This helps us understand rebirth.  There are 5 different ways in general to understand rebirth, and understanding the continuum of consciousness is in some ways the best because, if we can meditate on our own mind, we can come to see in our own experience how our mind is continuously forming, becoming, evolving, flowing. It never stops. It is beginningless and endless. It is impermanent but never-ending. But this body we have right now, the physical body, although also impermanent (ie, changing moment by moment) is highly temporary. It arises in dependence on its physical causes, the sperm and egg of our parents, food, etc.; and when those causes deteriorate and disappear, this body vanishes. It has a very limited shelf life.

Which means that this life that we’re in at the moment is very temporary as well, and will not last for more than a few hundred more months, at most. Luckily, this is not who we are.

skeleton in mirrorIf we never give any thought to the nature of our consciousness, if we don’t understand its function or its continuum, then we will inevitably identify with this body very strongly, and with its infrastructure. We’ll identify with the things of this life; they will become what is most important to us. We’ll think that our job is most important to us, our career, our house, the amount of money we have in the bank, what restaurants we frequent, the friends around us. We will continually be externalizing the causes of our happiness and the sense of who we are. We think: “This is who I am.”

Me, for example, I’m 25 years old (yah!). I’m a Buddhist. I’m either American or English (depending on how I feel). I currently live and work in Denver, Colorado, I don’t have a lot of money in my bank account, but luckily or foolishly I don’t care too much. My mother is called Sally, my friend is called so and so. I am currently looking after a foster kitten called Dexton. I do a bit of editing. I like walking in the Botanical Gardens. Etc. I used to live here, there, everywhere. This is who I am.” But of course that’s not who we are! (Certainly not who you are – but also not who I am!) Nowhere close. We don’t really know who we are unless we understand our mind.

As a friend of mine put it the other day, we need to embrace the consciousness that is at the heart of life.  For our life is our mind, our mind is our life. If we think about what life is, it is animation, isn’t it? It is awareness, it is experience, it is mind. It’s not body. Shantideva goes so far as to say that we are animated corpses! When we see a dead body, especially if it belonged to someone close to us, it is clear that it is not them, that they’ve left.

Our life, our mind, is continuously becoming, continuously flowing. From life to life we go through stages of consciousness — we’re alive, then we go through the death process, then we go through an intermediate state or “bardo”, which is like a dream state, after which we “wake up” in another life. You can read about this cycle of consciousness in the chapter on Understanding the Mind in Introduction to Buddhism. With powerful mindfulness and concentration we can be cognizant of this cycle of consciousness and remember past lives – without mindfulness we can barely remember what we had for lunch last Wednesday. Based on his first-hand experience, Buddha Shakyamuni and many other realized meditators since his time have had a lot to say about the cycle of life. For example, Clear Light of Bliss gives a very detailed description of what happens during the death process from the subjective point of view of the person who is dying rather than the onlookers. (This is very helpful for us and also helps us help others who are dying.)

Does anyone remember their dreaming last night? I dreamt that I was about to crash in an airplane. I’m happy to sayShantideva leather that on this occasion I managed to go for refuge and not be alarmed. (I am not always so sanguine.) In our dreams we enter a different reality, we even have a different body, a dream body. And then we wake up from that in this meaty body again, in our bedroom. Constantly our mind is throwing up different appearances, but whatever is going on, dreaming or waking, we are thoroughly invested in it. When we’re dreaming, our dream world is our world at that time. When we wake up, this is our world. During deep sleep, everything disappears except emptiness. In the same way that we fall asleep and wake up every night and day, so we die and take rebirth life after life. Buddha said sleeping, dreaming, and waking are like a microcosm of dying, bardo, and rebirth. Our next life — months, weeks, or even days away — will be like waking up in a new life, with a new body, new parents, new environment, and so on.

time is running outOur mental continuum is perpetual, a ceaseless cycle of consciousness; whereas our physical bodies are exceedingly fragile and impermanent. Buddha says we are travelers bound for our future lives. This world is not our eternal home; there’s nothing eternal about it at all. So it is not who we are.

If we understand and identify our life as our mind, and if we understand that our mind is beginingless and endless, we start to get a very, very different understanding of who we are, do we not? We understand we are travelers, that this life is a detail — to be honest it’s got no more substantial reality than last night’s dream. It feels endless while it’s going on because of our permanent grasping. We think that this is all that there is. It’s me and this body and these friends, this job, this house, etc. It feels like it is really going on while its happening, doesn’t it?  But, when we die it disappears like last night’s dream. Sometimes a dream seems to go on forever – but the moment we wake up it has gone. This life is like that. As we approach our death, we’ll see that this life was a completely fleeting dream-like appearance. It feels real because of our ignorance, because we’re grasping it as real, not because it is real. We’re also grasping it as if it is permanent, but that doesn’t mean that it is. We need to question appearances more deeply if we are to figure out who we are and what is going on.

samsara's oceanWe have had innumerable dreams in this life, and each of our countless previous lives is also a dream-like mere appearance to our mind. We will continue to dream forever — and those dreams will be out of our control and full of suffering until we overcome our inertia, our attachment to the status quo, and realize the ultimate nature of things, that they have no more reality than a dream. Then, as Buddha Shakyamuni and countless others have done, we will wake up from the sleep of ignorance to experience the lasting happiness of liberation.

Part 4 is here.

Where were you before you were born? ~ rebirth part 2

We are travelers. Here’s a Buddhist meditation we can do to help us gain a feel for this.

stonesWe can begin by simply sitting comfortably, back straight, shoulders level, hands resting in our lap, right hand on top of left, palms upward, thumbs slightly raised and touching. (If you’re used to putting your hands in a different position to meditate, that’s fine also.)  Our head is tilted slightly forward, mouth closed, tongue on our upper palate, breathing through our nose. Our eyes are also lightly closed or ever so slightly open. We can take a few deeper breaths than normal as we settle into this position, focus on how we’re sitting, and forget about everything else.

The world around us in all directions melts into light and disappears. Everything before this moment evaporates, like last night’s dream. Everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. We are in the present moment, the here and the now. There is no other place or time to be.

We feel all the weight and tension of our body fall away, every muscle relaxes, and our body melts into a light like a hologram. We could pass our hand through it without obstruction.

We encourage ourselves to concentrate on this meditation, thinking:

“Through meditating on my own mind I can come to understand who I am. If I understand who I am, I can change who I am. This understanding will expand my horizons, open me up to extraordinary spiritual possibilities. For this reason I will focus on this meditation happily, not following distractions.”

To help us overcome mental distractions directed outward, and to rest and relax the mind, we can spend a couple of minutes focusing just on our breath as it enters and leaves our nostrils. We let all other thoughts go. (We can also feel our subtle inner energy winds that “carry” our minds change direction from going out to coming in.)

As our mind is settling, a natural feeling of peace, space, and contentment arises in our heart. We feel that we are centered in our heart, the center of our chest, our so-called “heart chakra” where our root mind is located. We drop from our head into our heart. We absorb inward.HUM

From within this space we can now spend a couple of minutes watching our thoughts or awarenesses (sense or mental) arise and dissolve away. We don’t follow our thoughts or think them – just observe them as they appear and disappear again. Whatever ideas, daydreams, awarenesses of sounds, memories, etc. that appear to the mind, we allow these to arise in the present moment and subside, without reacting to or intruding on them.

After a little while we can ask:

“What is this thought? Where is it? Where does each thought come from? Where does each thought go? What is that space between the ending of one thought and the rising of the next?”

Each thought is clarity, is formless. Each thought arises from the deep inner clarity of our root mind at our heart and dissolves back into it. We now let all our thoughts dissolve into a clarity at our heart, a boundless clear awareness, like an inner empty space.

This is my mind. My mind is clarity, which is formless, empty of shape, empty of size. It has no color, no touch, no taste, no smell, no physical properties whatsoever. We meditate on this clarity which is empty of form.

The function of my mind is to cognize, to know, to experience, to be aware. My mind also has the power to create everything — everything comes from our mind, with our thoughts we create our world.

If it helps, you can think of your mind like a boundless clear ocean and any distracting thoughts that arise are like bubbles – bubbles have nowhere to go, disregard them and they will dissolve back into the clarity of your mind at your heart.

Everything has dissolved into a crystal clear and peaceful or even blissful awareness at our heart — all thoughts and their objects have dissolved.

This awareness is impermanent, constantly changing moment by moment, always clarity, always cognizing, but never staying the same. We get a sense now of how our mind is a becoming, a moment by moment transformation, a mental continuum. This moment arose naturally from the previous moment of mind in an unbroken continuum, and the mind of this moment will transform into the mind of the next moment, a never ending flow.

time is empty 3And where did today’s mind come from? We can trace it back to the mind of last night’s dream. And that came from the mind of yesterday, which came from the mind of the day before, and so on. If we had good mindfulness or memory we would be able to trace back our mind to the moment of our birth. And where did that mind come from? It came from the mind of the baby in the womb. Where did our mind as a baby in the womb come from? Mind is caused by mind, not by physical objects. The mind in the womb came from the mind of our previous life.

Death is the permanent separation of body and mind. This meaty body skids to a halt, but formless mind continues in an unbroken continuum. When the body perishes, what will happen to the last moment of the mind of this life? It will be the cause of the first moment of the mind in the bardo, or intermediate state. And that mind in turn will transform seamlessly into the mind of our next life.

As Buddha Shakyamuni explained, our root mind is beginningless and endless and, when fully purified and transformed, will become the mind of a fully enlightened being, a Buddha. This is who we are, this is who we can be.

Whatever understanding we have gleaned of the nature, function, and continuum of our mind from our own experience, we now focus on it single-pointedly.

(See also pages 26-7 of Meaningful to Behold for more on this meditation and subject.)

What are the implications of all this?! Part 3 is here.

Are you a traveler? Where are you bound? ~ rebirth part 1

Reincarnation or rebirth is a very important and challenging topic – and not just in Buddhism but for everyone because, just in case it IS true, we’re better off thinking about it than not …

Do you ever ponder your existential predicament (for example at three in the morning when the clouds of distractions temporarily part) – questions like, “Who the heck am I?!”

“Who am I, and where did I come from? What am I doing here? Where am I going? What’s going on?! What does it mean to be alive?” ~ 3am questions

retreatI have found that the only way to address these questions in a way that makes any sense is to contemplate what is our own mind or awareness. Then, at long last, we can start to figure out who we actually are.

Understanding our body, understanding our mortgage, understanding our career, understanding our bank balance, understanding our vacations, understanding our family — these are not who we are. I think we know this at 3 in the morning. We know we are not anything external, we are not anything physical, we are not any fleeting experiences of this life.

If we want to know who we are, we have to understand what our mind is. We have to understand its nature, we have to understand its function, we have to understand that it is a never-ending continuum. Only then will we realize who we are, and that who we are is a traveler.

The Buddhist definition of our mind is, simply put, clarity and cognizing. The nature of the mind is formless or empty of form — it is empty of shape, empty of color, empty of anything tactile, empty of any physical properties. It is utter clarity that has the power to perceive or appear things. The mind has a very important function, which is to cognize, to be aware of everything, to experience, to understand, and to know; and in fact even to create our thoughts, our world, our reality.

Our mind is also a continuum – it is impermanent, changing moment by moment, constantly becoming. It is not a static entity but a functioning thing. At every moment it is changing. It is always clarity, it is always cognizing, but every moment it is a becoming, it is an event.

The substantial cause of mind is mind: nothing physical can give rise to consciousness as they are different entities. Every moment of mind arises from a previous moment of mind and gives rise to the next moment of mind in an uninterrupted flow, a moment by moment transformation.

This is extremely helpful for us to understand rebirth – that our mind is not only formless and utterly unlike the perishing physical body, but also a continuum that never stops. It has actually never started and it will never stop.seeing death as the end of life

Understanding this, we will begin to get a sense of what life actually is, who we actually are. As Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“This world is not our permanent home. We are travelers bound for future lives.”

In the next article on rebirth I describe a Buddhist meditation that helps us get a feel for this.