Meditating on the emptiness of our self

emancipate yourselves10 mins read

Someone told me today that he felt like he was a very ordinary person. I am not sure whether he wanted me to contradict him or not, but the point is that he is neither inherently ordinary nor extraordinary. What he is and what he does depends on what thoughts he is identifying himself with. Same goes for you and for me.

According to Buddhism, by far the best thing we could do for ourselves is to stop believing in a limited, ordinary, and often painful sense of me as if it was the truth. To understand instead that we are merely imputed by conceptual thought like everything else.

If we don’t know how to stop holding on, it is hard to let go and reimagine ourselves because we don’t realize we exist in that state of freedom.

This is why we need to do the meditation on the emptiness of our self. Once we can dissolve away our stuck sense of self, we can start being who we want to be. We can change everything.

Step One of this meditation explained in this last article, identifying the negated object, involves gaining a clear image of the Me or I we normally perceive, the one that appears real or inherently existent. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang says:

There is something quite strange about the inherently existent I. If we do not investigate it, it will appear all the time and even in our dreams we shall grasp at it; but as soon as we actually examine it, it becomes very unclear. As we search for it, instead of being able to locate it we lose it. This very experience is a sign that the I does not exist from its own side, because if it did exist from its own side investigation would reveal it more and more clearly.

We can start by recollecting or imagining a vivid personal example, such as walking along a narrow path in the Grand Canyon (no railings!) when a GC pathtourist coming the other way bumps into us with his oversized rucksack and we start to lose our footing …. At that time we’re not thinking “My body is about to fall” or “My mind is about to fall”, but “I am about to fall!!!” And that I seems independent of the body and mind, real and solid, existing all on its own. Luckily I didn’t fall. True story! Happened last week.

(Given me an excuse, at least, to litter this article with my Grand Canyon photos …)

It is practical to use any of our current greatest hits — whether that be the afraid me or rejected me or worried me or stuck me or frankly any me we’d rather we shot of — because the greater the impact of our emptiness meditation, the more we’ll come to enjoy it.

This first step is the most important part of the meditation because the remaining 3 steps are really not that hard if we get it right.

And by the way:

When it is said that inherent existence is the negated object of emptiness, this does not mean that it is put out of existence by emptiness, because inherent existence has never existed. Nevertheless, because we believe that inherent existence really exists we need to examine this object and get a clearer idea of it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

Step Two: Ascertaining the pervasion

If that self or me exists from its own side, as solid and real as it appears, it should be findable — and the more we look for it the clearer it should become. We should be able to take away everything that is not Me and be left with Me.

Likewise, we should be able to point to it and say, “Here I am!”, without pointing at anything that is not it. That’s only fair, wouldn’t you agree? You wouldn’t accept that someone had found the ketchup in the fridge if they are pointing at the mayo.

Where would we search for our self?!

In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang says:

We should know that if our self that we normally see exists, it must exist in our body, in our mind, as the collection of our body and mind, or somewhere other than these.

The first obvious place to look for me is within my body and mind, as opposed to over there down the street somewhere.

But if I cannot find me in my body and mind, the only other option is that I am somewhere else.

In other words, I either have to be somewhere around here (imagine my hands waving around my body) or somewhere else. Grand Canyon view

In this part of the meditation we think this through and understand that there is no third possibility. This means that we can now look in these two places with the certainty that our search will cover, or pervade, everywhere this I could possibly be.

This is a helpful analogy from Joyful Path of Good Fortune (providing you don’t go thinking that the fish is jumping in and out … )

If we think there is a fish in our house, there are only two places where it could be. Either it is inside the aquarium or it is outside the aquarium. There is no third place it could be. If we establish that there is no fish inside the aquarium and no fish outside the aquarium, we can firmly conclude there is no fish in our house.

So now we go looking for our self with analytical wisdom — trying to find an actual me that corresponds or matches up with our vivid idea of me.

Step Three: Ascertaining the absence of oneness

We start our search in our body and mind.

Is my body me? (We can ask this question the other way around too – “Am I my body?” Whichever works better for you.)

No, my body is my body, not me. I’m not a pile of inanimate flesh and bones; there is a lot more to me than that! I have lots of interesting ideas, for a start. I have a body but I am not a body. My sense of me doesn’t even feel like flesh and bones. I cannot find my me anywhere in this body.

Also, try saying “My body” – and see how that has a different connotation or feel than saying “Me”.

Is my mind me? (Am I my mind?) Perhaps this is a more likely candidate?

No, my mind is my mind, not me. I am not a thought or an idea, there is a lot more to me than that! I can sit down, for a start. And I can type on this keyboard; something my formless awareness cannot do. If someone insults me, I don’t think they are insulting my thoughts but ME. And today my body has a fever and I feel ill, even though my mind doesn’t have a temperature.

Also, saying “My mind” has a different connotation than saying “Me”. They don’t denote the same things.

As and when you get time, do check out How to Transform Your Life or Joyful Path of Good Fortune or some of the other books for more reasoning on how you are neither your body nor your mind. One of these reasons may work well for you, it’s good to find one that clicks.

We will never find anything anywhere in our body or our mind that matches up or corresponds with our sense of me. I have thoughts and I have a body, but I am not my thoughts nor my body. pointing at the GC

Whenever we try to point at our Me, physically or mentally, we cannot. If we point at ourselves sitting here reading this, for example, and follow the trajectory of our finger, we end up just focusing on a part of our body, eg, our chest. I am not a chest. And it is even harder to point to the mind — we end up pointing at a thought, and I am not a thought. Or, if I am, which one?!

Everything we point to as we attempt to point to me turns out to be NOT me.

Is the collection of my body and mind me? (Am I the collection of my body and mind?) Since my body and mind individually are not me, perhaps I can find my self in a combination of the two?

But it is impossible for a collection of non-me’s to be me. For example, if we put two non-sheep together, such as two cows, how do we magically get a sheep out of that? We don’t, we just have two cows. My body is a non-me and my mind is a non-me; so how do we get a me out of that? We don’t, we just have two non-me’s.

We conclude that I am not my body, not my mind, and not the collection of my body and mind. Or that we cannot find a me in my body, my mind, or the collection of the two.

Step Four: Ascertaining the absence of difference

tree and hole Grand CanyonThat leaves only somewhere else for that me to be – perhaps as some separate possessor of my body and mind?

So, where would that be? Can we point to Me without pointing at our body or our mind?

Here is a helpful bit from The New Meditation Handbook for this part:

We should imagine that our body gradually dissolves into thin air, and then our mind dissolves, our thoughts scatter with the wind, our feelings, wishes, and awareness melt into nothingness. Is there anything left that is the I? There is nothing. Clearly, the I is not something separate from the body and mind.

Conclusion

The conclusion of this meditation is that we don’t find our I anywhere. It disappears. Where there previously appeared an inherently existent I, there now appears an absence of that I, like an empty-like space. As Geshe Kelsang says:

We allow our mind to become absorbed in space-like emptiness for as long as possible.

This is the emptiness of the self. It is the truth of the self, and meditating on it directly undercuts our ignorance, the root of all our suffering.

What an incredible sense of lightness and relaxation! I no longer have to cherish this thing or worry about it, because it’s not there! When we get it, we want to stay with that wonderful realization for a while. Forever, if we could.

So what, we may now be wondering, is my self?

The I is merely a designation imputed by the conceptual mind upon the collection of the body and mind. ~ The New Meditation Handbook

In other words, it is no more than an idea. And often quite a bad one!

hole in Grand CanyonDue to self-grasping ignorance, our I appears as far more than a mere imputation or label. It feels solid and independent, a real I existing behind the label, and we grasp at this as the truth; but if we do this meditation we find out for ourselves that we have been clutching at straws this whole time.

The I that we grasp at so strongly is merely a fabrication of our ignorance, the non-existent object of a wrong awareness. What happens to a thought when we stop thinking it? What happens to the self when we stop believing it is there?

Practicing wisdom

Please try out these four steps until you get a taste for losing your I. It can take a bit of practice, but that’s okay – we are generally happy to practice patience, love, etc, and so we can be happy to practice wisdom too, knowing it’ll get easier and more powerful the more we do. Unless we actually meditate on Buddha’s instructions on emptiness, they’ll just sound abstract or intellectual or complicated – when in fact they are the liberating path to incredible happiness.

Geshe Kelsang says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

We should learn to stop grasping at our self that we normally see by remembering that our self that we normally see does not exist. If this works practically, then there is no basis for experiencing problems and suffering.

squirrel at GC

If we really get a sense of its disappearance,  “practically”, we immediately feel a freedom. We are immediately opening the door to freedom. We don’t have to wait until we are Superior beings with a direct realization of emptiness; we can start accumulating mini-freedoms starting today.

Liberation doesn’t happen overnight – I think it is the result of many freedoms that we accomplish over the course of our lives through identifying our vividly appearing limited self and letting it dissolve away into the space of emptiness. Our daily neuroses start to subside immediately. For example, if we have let go of being that person who needs someone else to make us happy, we have instant confidence. Or if we are no longer holding ourselves as a competitor, fearing that our rival is getting all the glory and we are being passed over, we can enjoy our work again.

The possibilities are endless.

“Who am I relating to now?” This question is great for the meditation break, particularly when a painful feeling is arising. For example, if an inadequate neglected self is appearing, instead of immediately feeling. “Oh no, I’m stuck again!” we can be happy. “Oh yes! Fantastic. I need you to see you. Now I can identify you, which means I can abandon you.”blackbird at GC

If we are putting these instructions into practice, we are happy to recognize the enemy, to learn from it. “Let me see how this self is appearing to be independent and how I am grasping it as such.” We want to watch that until we see it clearly, at which point we realize how ridiculous it is. We see that it has no power other than the power we are giving it. The thoughts that revolve around that me create our present and future suffering, rendering us powerless and pathetic; but the moment we apply wisdom we can easily vanquish this enemy. And now we can be whoever we want to be.

As the great Yogi Saraha said:

If your mind is released permanently from self-grasping, there is no doubt that you will be released permanently from suffering.

I have this quote on my fridge. I sometimes think it’s all I need.

Over to you. Any questions or comments?

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Just who do you think you are?!

I saw someone at the airport recently carrying just a wallet and a skateboard. That’s it. Now, that is traveling light, I thought. And this dude was smiling at everyone.

traveling light

I was thinking it’d be even more wonderful not to be weighed down by our self-grasping and projections, our emotional baggage that we’ve been lugging around from life to life, including this one. Just to skate lightly through this life, loving everyone we meet, with an open, accommodating heart, knowing we are all just passing through.

Putting 2 and 2 together and making 5

In How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says quite directly: 

We may have the sincere wish to avoid suffering permanently, but we never think to abandon our delusions.

Do you ever wake up wanting to suffer? Thought not. This means that you do want to avoid suffering permanently; and presumably you’d also prefer to always wake up peaceful and relaxed if you could. But we keep getting the real causes of suffering and happiness all wrong.

Why do you think we are never deeply happy for very long, even though that’s all we want? Buddha’s diagnosis is that it is because of our delusions, and especially the self-grasping ignorance that “always abides at our heart destroying our inner peace.” There is always some tension and discomfort in our minds, or, if not, the threat of it. There is always some underlying dissatisfaction, feeling cut off, or needing something else — even in the midst of supposedly enjoying ourselves. And a world of pain when we are not.

ignorance is bliss

And all this suffering is because “The foolish mind of self-grasping believes or grasps at I, mine, and all other phenomena as truly existent.” This wrong awareness creates our other delusions, negative karma, and their suffering karmic results in life after life.

And it is also the basis for all our everyday annoyances — I think that “grasping” is a good descriptor for it, because we squeeze and we push, rarely able to relax into a non-dual experience of deep peace and wholeness.

The thing we grasp at most tightly is our own self or me. It’s exhausting, actually. We are all wandering around day and night clinging to this painful limited version of ourselves, one that no one else can even see; and it is incredibly important to see exactly how we are doing it and then stop doing it.

Four essential points

So I have been wanting for a long time to talk about the four essential points, or steps, for meditating on the emptiness of the self, like I did for meditating on the emptiness of the body. In brief, if the self, me, or I that we normally perceive exists, it must be findable in its parts or separate from its parts. We should be able to point to it without pointing at anything that is not it – that’s only fair.

But luckily we cannot find a real me anywhere if we look for it with analytical wisdom. I am not the body, not the mind, and not the collection of the body and mind – yet take the body and mind away and I disappear. It’s like trying to pin down a mirage. I’ll expand on those four steps now, hoping you have a few undistracted minutes to read this.

A Tale of Two Selves

But before we start, may I suggest we take a moment to connect to the peace at our heart, recognizing it as our limitless potential for change, our Buddha nature. Our principal peace of mind arises from our connection to enlightened beings (however we envisage them), especially through our Spiritual Guide. We are already communing with them the moment we experience just a little bit of peace at our heart, so we can receive their blessings and connect with their truth not by grasping or “working it”, but just by relaxing and abiding in it, letting go. Then this peace feels limitless. We have a deeper knowing. And we identify with this, thinking “This is me.”

There is more on how to do this explained here

lotus reflectionWe now have the space to take a step back and watch our painful limited self in action = Step One, below. It is a bit like A Tale of Two Selves – and their different paths and results. Here on the one hand is my Buddha nature – relating to and nurturing that will lead me to enlightenment. Here on the other hand is my hurt and limited self – relating to and nurturing that will lead me to more neurosis.

Our choice.

Step One: Identifying the negated object

When we meditate on the emptiness of the self, it is very helpful to start with the painful, limited self that we are currently holding onto – this is our target into which we fire the arrows of wisdom.

So, bring to mind the limited, painful self you are grasping at today.

If we are having any kind of delusion, this will not be too hard to do. For center stage of all our delusions is a big sense of Me or ego – and the stronger the delusion, the stronger that sense of me.

Let’s say we are really worried about something or someone. We even want to help them so bad, but we can’t, and it makes us feel inadequate, helpless, or infuriated.

What is going on here? Three things. We have a perception of that person as being in a bad way and it seems fixed. And we have a perception of ourself as someone helpless and hopeless, and this too seems fixed. And we are also grasping at the perception itself as real or fixed. These are called the “three spheres of emptiness” because none of these exists in the way that they appear, ie, real. We can learn to dissolve them all away.

Let’s focus on this perception of Me and ask ourselves: does this me feel limited? Does it seem fixed? Does it feel real, as if it is actually there? Does it seem to exist from its own side, nothing to do with anything, including the body and mind? Does it seem to be just arising independently, just arising on its own? Just a big distended me sitting here, existing in and of itself? 

self-cherishing 1As Geshe Kelsang suggests in Joyful Path of Good Fortune

We begin our meditation by considering, “How am I grasping at self? What is the I that appears to my mind?”

This real me is in fact the non-existent object of the wrong awareness of self-grasping. But this is certainly not how it appears — it seems to exist solidly and have nothing to do with our thoughts. It appears to be real. If this me is not real, what is?!?

Hard ego capsule

This me seems so solid and real, it’s a wonder no one else can see it. But they can’t, so where is it? If it was really there, outside our private thoughts, someone should be able to see it, surely?! 

So in this first step we bring to mind this inherently existent me or I as strongly as we can, such that we wonder, “If this me doesn’t exist, what on earth does?!” We want maximum impact on our mind when we go onto realize that this me doesn’t exist.

This is the worried self we want to serve and protect – but it is difficult because this depends on the other person cooperating and not worrying us anymore. This is on them – they are worrying me. The stronger the worry, the stronger the sense of the worried me and the stronger the sense of the problematic person causing my worry.

We can also use examples of embarrassment or fear. If we are standing next to the train tracks losing our balance, for example, we are not thinking, “My body is about to fall!” or “My mind is about to fall!”, but “I am about to fall!”; and that I appears to be something different from, and independent of, our body and mind.

about to fallEven if we are just sitting here reading this blog, we can consider what Geshe Kelsang says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We do not feel that “I am reading this book” means the same as “My body is reading this book” or “My mind is reading this book.” The I appears to exist from its own side. This independent I, if it exists, is the inherently existent I, the I we cherish.

Although we cannot find that me (as we shall see), for as long as we continue to believe it and cherish it not a day will go by when we don’t experience problems and suffering. And this will continue in our future lives as well, as we hallucinate one painful and/or circumscribed self after another. We need to wake up from the nightmare of this ignorance and wake everyone else up too.

So in this first step we have to get this I in our sights. Allowing it to manifest obviously by remembering situations where we have a strong delusion functioning and we are self-centered — “What is that me that is so upset?!” — and then simply stepping back to observe it.

The worried sense of self. The hurt sense of self – imagine someone says something hurtful and the hurt self pops up. Or the neglected sense of self. The irritated sense of self. The needy sense of self. Something real and vivid. There it is! Recognize how you immediately believe it. So fast — it is instant. I am now in pain. And we want to serve and protect that self – it feels inherently in pain and therefore needs protection.

emptiness mirrorsWe all have a playlist of our personal greatest hits. So you apply your meditation not to an abstract notion of who you are, but to YOU. This way our meditations will change us.

This fixed me comes up all the time depending on our delusions.  We can see how our horizons shrink very small whenever we are caught and wrapped up in this painful, bounded, fixed self. When we have delusions, pretty much all our valuable energy goes into protecting this real me or I, leaving very little left over for other people.  We inhabit a very small universe. We are fragile — it is so easy for us to feel slighted and even more upset. Someone looks at us funny …  even someone walking past us can seem deeply personal!

I think our self or I can feel sometimes like a hard ego capsule, sometimes an insoluble one. But when we meditate on emptiness or selflessness we find it is not as solid as it appears and we can dissolve it away.

Freedom is just some wisdom away

The thoughts of a real me are just thoughts. If we go looking for this real me, we won’t find it.  Once we identify how we are grasping at the me or I that we normally perceive, there are many ways to understand how this is grasping at a false me or I – for example, everyone is me, so I cannot be the real me. And, as we will see, we cannot find this me anywhere.

Good to bear in mind that we are capable of wisdom, of understanding everything, of having infinite love and compassion for everyone. With self-grasping and self-cherishing, we stick our head in a thick obstructing cloud — oblivious to our potential and oblivious to other people. If our head is stuck in a cloud, it doesn’t much matter that there is infinite sky around it because we can’t see it. We are just thinking about me. 

However, if we dissolve away that me that doesn’t exist, we no longer have to change the world to suit it. We just get rid of it.  We can feel happy. Full. Contented. Not needing anything; we are free. If we see how we are not that limited needy person, we no longer need to try to manipulate and control others around us. The urge to do that has gone because we now feel fine. for whom emptiness is possible

And we are now also free to think “I am a being bound for liberation!” Or “I am a Bodhisattva!” I am not fixed so I can be anyone. That is who I am. That is what I want to be. We are in the driver’s seat now. 

Therefore, now that we have a fix on this negated object — the real me, the one we normally perceive — we can now use Steps Two to Four to dissolve it away. You can find those here.

Comments welcome!

Decommissioning samsara

 

5.5 mins read

biocentrism 3What’s appearing to you right now?

In any event, it’s not so much what is appearing to you right now that’s the problem (if you have any problems), so much as your grasping at it as actually being there, solid and real.

This self-grasping ignorance gets us into all sorts of trouble and weighs us down. One example amongst countless (such as everything we’ve been upset about today) — if someone we like appears unfriendly, we can buy into that, dwell on it, make it more and more real, and get more and more unhappy.

As opposed to using wisdom to just let it go.

Breaking the illusion

We have this little window right now, with this precious human life, because we’ve met these teachings, and especially Buddha’s wisdom teaching on the illusory nature of reality, which is the ultimate Dharma Jewel and refuge.

Going back to the analogy in the last article on refuge, samsara is full of preprogrammed robots like me.

Moreover, everything we see is a 3D virtual reality projection that we are buying into, as if we were obliviously wearing those glasses and thinking that it’s really going on out there. From the perspective of those not seeing our particular hallucinations, we can look quite mad. And they can look quite mad to us for not following the rules of our 3D game.virtual reality glasses

Until we realize the fakery of samsara, we are wandering around thinking: “All this is real and out there. I’m really limited. I’m really suffering. Things really are difficult for me. My body really is a horrible mess. And I am basically an angry person — perhaps I can practice a bit of patience here and there, or maybe I can get a little bit kinder, but basically this is how I am, and I’m fixed, and I’m limited. And I am really deluded, and my life is full of suffering and problems, not to mention irritating people.”

This is when we’re buying into the reality of our samsara. Believing it. Believing what we see, all those appearances or projections, thinking that’s the way it actually is, this is who I am, that’s who all these annoying people are, the world’s a mess, everything’s real, everything’s solid.

But with Buddha’s wisdom teachings, it’s a bit like we suddenly worked out we are preprogrammed, realizing, “My life is not my own — I’m being propelled from one situation to the next by the software of delusions and karma!”  And we decide, “OK, I’m westworldgoing to change this, because, although everything is kind of fake, now that I’ve realized this, it means I can ditch this program and take off these glasses.”

“We have everything upside down”

Fact is, there’s nothing real or solid or fixed about any of this. There is nothing existing objectively. There is nothing independent of the mind. There is nothing outside the mind. Even some quantum scientists are beginning to say this kind of thing:

Consciousness is what gives rise to our sense of there being an “out there” when, in fact, the world we experience around us is actually created in our consciousness.

I might add that it is our gross and subtle consciousness that creates this dualistic sense of in here and out there – our very subtle mind has a non-dual experience of reality. Check out this article if you’re interested.

Victims of our thoughts?

If things were inherently or objectively existent, we might as well give up right now. There’s no point practicing Buddhism if everything is solid and fixed and real. There’s no point at all, if we can’t change it.

But what Buddha is saying is that it is completely changeable because it’s not really there, at least not in the way we think it is. Everything is dreamlike and depends entirely upon our mind. We are projecting our world with our thoughts and then believing that it’s out there, coming at us, rather like a movie or an hallucination. But rather than remaining the victims of our own crummy thoughts without even realizing it, Buddha explained that we can transform our thoughts – which is the practice of Dharma – and therewith our reality.

Biocentrism 1It is not just a case of coping with the material, real world, by practicing a little bit of patience here with inherently annoying people, a little bit of contentment there with inherently attractive people. If we change our thoughts, we literally change our world. We change our reality from one of confusion and delusion to one of wisdom and positivity, with all the objects projected by our minds changing too, because they depend entirely one upon the other.

Buddha’s point is that we can do this because nothing is fixed, nothing is real. The ultimate Dharma Jewel IS those wisdom teachings, that nothing is real. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all, by the way – we’re all here reading this, Hello! But we’re not here in the way that we think we’re here. We’re not all separate, isolated individuals, for example. It’s not us over here, and everyone else over there, with this big gap between us. That duality is an optical illusion of our ignorance.

Ultimately we turn to wisdom, therefore, to get rid of our problems. In the mean time we also turn to the other Dharma jewels: compassion, love, patience, renunciation, faith, correct imagination, and so on. All these virtuous minds solve our problems — they solve our actual problems, such that those problems reduce straightaway and finally go away for good.

Inner being

As explained here, we have an habitual urge to solve our problems out there – “Should I contact him? What should I say to get his attention? To make him love me again?!” It doesn’t work, usually.

But we don’t have to keep scratching every itch, or any itch. If we change our thoughts, the itch simply goes away. For good.

projectionEven just allowing our mind to settle a bit relieves the pain of needing to go out there and fix the fixed or unfixable. Delusions such as attachment and aversion go outwards – we need to go inwards, where we’ll find all the peace, relief, satisfaction, and richness we’ve always wanted. Try this meditation to see for yourself.

On that basis, instead of developing anger, jealousy, disappointment, or unrequited attachment, we can learn to view others with genuine love. That way they are never separated from us and we feel a warmth of communion instead of the wrench of being torn asunder.

Everyone is a projection of our mind, so we can learn to project with love and wisdom rather than projecting people out there, nothing to do with us, fixed, who then won’t or can’t cooperate with what we think we need from them.

Over to you, would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

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Inner being

 

Who wants an existential wake-up call?!

8 min read 

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

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

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

Loved and lost

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

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

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

Fleeting narratives

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

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

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

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

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

Swept along

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

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

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

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

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

The imperative to get enlightened

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

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

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

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

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

Start here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles
  1. Articles on past and future lives 
  2. Everything is appearance of mind 
  3. Are we hallucinating all this? 
  4. We cannot find anything behind appearances 
  5. Everything we need is inside us 

 

 

You are me

So, first off, we have this ignorant mind called self-grasping, where we grasp at a real self — the self that is the center of the universe, the self that is inherently me, the self that is really me. And even though logically we may know that everyone is a me and that from their point of view I am an other, still our mind of ignorance sees a real me and believes show me who you arewhat it sees.

But there is no real me. We are seeing and believing something that is NOT THERE.

Carrying on from this article.

Bit strange

Having that strong sense of me is a little bit strange, don’t you think, considering that no one else on the planet sees it? Other than you. Not one single other person shares your assumption that you are the real me. I hate to break it to you, I really do. Not even the person who loves you the most on this planet, whoever that is, whether that is your mom or someone else, even they do not see Me when they look at you. That Me you assume is so real and solid is a private idea or imputation that you have all to yourself.*

We are all doing this. “Me, me, me me …”, we go around all day thinking, “Me, my, mine, me, myself, I.” Do we not? No one else is seeing that. No one else can see that. Have you ever thought about how strange that might be?

Well, anyway, Buddha thought it was very strange and explained how it was the source of all our other mistaken notions, our other exaggerated and myopic ideas, our other — what we call in Buddhism — “delusions”.

How so?

DenverIn dependence on that ignorance, which projects or hallucinates a real me and then grasps at it, we develop self-cherishing because we naturally assume that Me is more important than Other. So we naturally put ourselves first — I want this, I need this, I don’t need this. It’s all revolving around a sense of protecting this real me, or serving this real me. And because of those two ego minds, all our other delusions arise.

A delusion has got a definition — an unpeaceful, uncontrolled state of mind that arises from inappropriate attention. And our delusions are states of mind like anger. If I don’t get my own way, what happens? If someone seems to be getting in the way of my happiness, or just in my way on the sidewalk, what am I going to do? I am going to develop irritation, anger, annoyance.

This happened to me yesterday, as a matter of fact. A group of drunken men in downtown Denver hogged the entire sidewalk, leaving me and my friend to walk on the road. But I decided to walk back onto the sidewalk and directly into their path, making them get out of the way, because they were basically being racist and I confess I felt like challenging them. But my friend later told me that if he was to respond to the numerous micro aggressions he experiences every day with irritation, he’d never be peaceful and flowershe wouldn’t be able to sustain his work to change things for the better. And that’s the truth. He has had to learn to think bigger and better both about them and about himself.

Where does most of our anxiety come from?

If I am thinking about me all the time I am also going to get stressed out and worried and anxious. I am always going to be cultivating the inappropriate attention, “What about me, what about me, what about me?!”– building up anxious thoughts projecting forward into the future, “What if this happens to me, what if that happens to me?!”, chewing over all the things that could go wrong for poor old me, and meanwhile not giving a monkeys for the far greater sufferings of gazillions of other people. Not, in other words, having any reasonable perspective at all.

Four dead boars

One snapshot of us versus them, greed, callousness, and suffering stood out on my recent trip to San Francisco, particularly disappointing for a city that used to care a lot more. A friend, Michele, and I went into Four Barrels and were surprised to see four dead boar heads on the wall of this this yuppy coffee shop on Valencia, perhaps most surprised by the fact that no one else seemed to be noticing, let alone bothered.

Wfour boarse left to drink tea at Samovar instead, down the street, but then I was compelled to come back to ask “Why?” “It was a late night purchase on Ebay”, said the stressed out baristo by way of explanation, begging the question, “But why did someone buy them?” He was impatient with me, he didn’t know, and suggested it was good to embrace “others’ cultural norms”. But this was a coffee shop in gentle San Francisco, the once bastion of thoughtful values and compassion, not a hunting range in Redneck, Texas.

“Why would you ever want to stick people’s heads on a wall?” (I didn’t ask him, but could have.) “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

The four boars seem to me to represent the desensitization that seems to be more prevalent now in this city and elsewhere: “Perhaps they’ll have four homeless people’s heads up there next time I visit,” I said to Michele.

An oasis in the city

temple 1I would like to qualify at this point that San Francisco still contains a lot of very compassionate people, even if they report to feeling somewhat more exercized these days. The Kadampa Buddhist temple I was visiting, for example, continues to be a bright guiding light, full of Bodhisattvas. I love that place. Please visit if you ever get a chance. It is Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s first center in the United States, and has been a refuge for over 25 years.

Okay, I was going to keep going, but it’ll have to wait as your coffee break is probably over … more next time. Over to you for comments!

*With the possible exception of those who have exchanged self with others, such as Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, because they do see Me when they look at you, just not a real me.

Related articles

Changing our world and ourselves through compassion

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What about me?!

Us and Them in Buddhism

As I was saying the other day, there are two main obstacles standing in the way of our spiritual growth. The first is the ignorant feeling that I am the real me, therefore you are real and secondary other, somewhat less important. Self-grasping ignorance apprehends a gap between me and everybody else, which means that when it comes to stretching love and compassion to another person I can only do it for a certain length of time and, generally and ideally, they need to have done me a favor, or be likely to do me a favor down the road, or something.

US-Them

Carrying on from this article.

Expiry date

The second obstacle is self-grasping’s inseparable mate self-cherishing, which wants to serve and protect our own self over others. We are not completely selfish, of course we are not, we have a lot of genuine compassion and love – these are our Buddha nature, who we really are. But our concern has an expiry date. We can love others, even unconditionally, for a while, until we get a headache or something else goes wrong in our life, when it’s like, “Uh, hang on, I will get back to you guys later.”

As is always pointed out, self-cherishing is not the same as liking ourselves, caring for ourselves, or even loving ourselves, ie, wanting to be happy. We need to do all these things – and indeed seeking liberation and enlightenment is the best way we can care for ourselves and fulfill our own purposes. No, self-cherishing is a mind that believes that this self, this me, is the real me and therefore its happiness comes first.

A day in San Francisco

SF airportThis “us and them” mentality is a horrible mind, responsible for all our callousness. I’m writing this in a shiny SFO, the flight to Denver delayed for an hour. San Francisco is as beautiful as ever on the surface, but its soul seems to have changed – the gulf between rich and poor, over-housed and homeless, being one of the largest in America now, which is saying something. And a widespread recognition that we are all in this together — fellow living beings who all want to be happy — seems to be sorely lacking.

A friend, JW, advocates for the homeless – he has been doing it for over a decade and told me today that there is nothing more important to him. He doesn’t get discouraged because his passion to tell their stories still motivates him; and he wants everyone to know that one of the worst problems these days is that the homeless population is rapidly ageing. It is bad enough being on the streets when you are relatively young and healthy, but there are now more seniors than ever before who are homeless for the first time, and they quickly age ten or twenty years. No one ever sees it coming, but seniors find themselves priced out or, along with low income populations, red-lined out of their neighborhoods by greedy developers putting up fancy apartments for people who have so much money they don’t know how to spend it all. homeless senior

As a local newspaper put it: “Most of San Francisco’s current homeless population is on the street not by choice, but because of skyrocketing rents. According to the city’s 2015 Homeless Count, 71 percent of SF’s homeless were city residents before they became homeless. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people having to stay outdoors has risen, from 28 percent in 2011 to 46 percent in 2017.”

(Pretty sure I read this somewhere …) Buddha said that although happiness depends on the mind, there are four basic things human beings need to be well: clothing, food, medicine, and shelter. Basic human well being starts with housing. As a senior, it is hard enough to get offered a job even if you are fit enough to work; but, at whatever age, there is only a slim chance of getting back on your feet if you are not housed. No job in this country = no money = insufficient food, medicine, and clothing.

Tekchog, a Buddhist monk, who has been working on Needle Exchange on Market Street for 15 years, concurred that if you cannot have a shower you’re not going to be aceing any job interviews. And that he has noticed that when someone comes to needle exchange who has been lucky enough to find housing, they look a hundred times healthier and happier. But although that Exchange has been there for decades, people who have just moved into one of the swanky new apartments routinely come over to complain that they object to having the needle exchange in THEIR neighborhood.

sit lie lawTents and tent cities rise up everywhere, but sooner or later the tents get “confiscated” and the tent inhabitants do not see it or any of their possessions again. How can it be viewed as any sort of civic virtue to rob from the destitute, to make them start all over again?

The sit/lie law meantime means that homeless people cannot sit or lie down in public places, despite the lack of anywhere else to seek shelter. What are you supposed to do if you are forced to keep moving, if you cannot sit or lay down your head, yet you are old, or tired, or sick? There is a scarcity of public toilets because they have shut them down at the Bart stations, and just lately they have dismantled the handles from the water faucets so that you can no longer even quench your thirst.

That is a huge amount of suffering. I often ponder whether I could last a week outdoors, let alone the rest of my life; and many senior homeless people had the same thought once upon a time. If we could use our imagination, see that every homeless person is just as much Me as I am, and mentally exchange places with them, would this suffering be allowed to go on?

Vision needed

San FranciscoThere is hope, there is always hope, because there is nothing fixed and we have everything we need inside us to create a better future for everyone, spiritually and practically.

Being in SF made me more determined to destroy samsara by destroying the self-grasping and self-cherishing that perpetuate it. And we can concurrently do stuff to help others practically, like JW and Tekchog for example, knowing that this is also taking us closer to our ultimate goal. There are good people everywhere who are working day and night to change things practically and socially, driven to end human suffering. Regardless of the immediate outcome, every single time we do something to try and alleviate the suffering of others — motivated by compassion, inspired by vision, seeing everyone as Me — we are creating the causes for our own and others’ well being.

Over to you, comments & ideas most welcome.

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A handy introduction to some common Buddhist terms

My parents asked me for working definitions of the following terms, “an introduction to Buddhism in the simplest terms possible for the uninformed, but possibly quite bright, newcomer or beginner.”

GlossarySo I gave it a go, and they replied with some great suggestions for simplifying the language further. I also asked a good friend with much Buddhist knowledge, who helped edit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books, to give his input. This is therefore a collaborative work in progress, and you are invited to participate as well.

Meanwhile, the actual official Kadampa book glossary is accurate and useful.

And to find out more about all these terms, download this free Buddhist book, How to Transform Your Life.

What are delusions?

delusions

Delusions are distorted thoughts or emotions that destroy our mental peace and make us act in inappropriate ways; and so they are the cause of our suffering. Examples are anger, attachment, arrogance, and ignorance. They are distorted because the way they perceive their object does not correspond to reality – for example attachment exaggerates the pleasurable aspects of its object, in effect projecting things that are not there, whereas anger and hatred exaggerate the unpleasant aspects. If we get rid of our misperceptions, we get rid of our delusions and experience lasting happiness.

What is attachment?

Attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”, is a state of mind that believes happiness inheres or can be found in things outside the mind. Attachment is the “sticky desire” that is our normal response to anything or anyone we feel is a cause of pleasure, comfort, or security for us, that wants to keep it close or wants more, or that feels a painful sense of loss when it goes. The truth is, happiness is a state of mind that depends upon mental peace, and so its real causes lie within the mind, not without.

my precious.jpgAttachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy by focusing on its supposed good qualities while editing out all its faults, e.g., a pizza or a partner is perceived by attachment to be an inherent, or actual, source of pleasure when in fact they can be just as much a source of suffering.

Attachment is often confused with love but they are completely different. Love is other-centered and peaceful and focuses on the welfare of the other person, whereas attachment is self-centered and unpeaceful and wants the other person simply because we think they make us feel better.

What is self-cherishing?

Self-cherishing is a mind that wrongly believes we are more important than others, andself-cherishing that our happiness and freedom matter more. Self-grasping misconceives our I to be inherently existent, the only real me; and self-cherishing misconceives this I to be supremely important, the very center of our world. These two ego minds are the source of all samsaric problems.

What is Dharma?

Dharma refers to Buddhist teachings and especially the experiences we gain by putting these teachings into practice. It literally means “protection.” Since our suffering comes from our delusions, it is our inner experience of the opposite of these delusions that directly protects us from this suffering.

For example, the experience of pure love protects us from the suffering caused by our own anger and dislike, and the experience of emptiness protects us from the suffering caused by self-grasping ignorance.

What is samsara?

samsaraSamsara is the life experience of someone with a body and mind still polluted by delusions and the negative actions and their unpleasant consequences arising from these delusions. Sometimes known as “cyclic existence”, it is life characterized by repetitive suffering.

Samsara’s very nature is problematic. The mind is not physical and it continues after death, but, for as long as our mind is governed by delusions, what it experiences will be fundamentally unsatisfactory and generally painful.

But not all life is samsaric life – if we can free ourselves from delusions by realizing emptiness, we can end samsara and experience lasting peace and happiness.

What is karma?

karma“Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions, or intentions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs. Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the “soil” of our mental continuum. Mental intentions are those seeds; experiences are their effects. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.

What is self-grasping?

Self-grasping ignorance is the underlying source of all other delusions. It is a wrong awareness that apprehends people and things as existing inherently or independently. For example, when we think of a person called Tom, there seems to be a completely real Tom out there who in no way depends upon our perceptual and conceptual apparatus for his existence.

emptinessWhat is inherent existence?

Inherent existence means independent existence. An object would be inherently existent if it didn’t depend on anything at all for its existence, such as its causes, its parts, or the mind perceiving it. No object exists like this, so no object is inherently existent. Some synonyms for inherent existence are existing from the side of the object, existing from its own side, existing in and of itself, independently existent, or objectively existent. 

At the moment, we grasp at inherent existence; it is the object of self-grasping ignorance. The world seems to be made up of discrete, objective entities that do not depend upon an observer for their existence; but, in reality, all phenomena are inter-dependent, or “dependent relationships”, existing only in relationship with a multitude of causes, parts, contexts, imputations, and perceptions.

What is emptiness?

Emptiness is not nothingness but the lack of things existing inherently. Self-grasping ignorance misconceives things as having inherent or independent existence, and emptiness 1emptiness is the total absence of this mode of existence. Because everything depends entirely upon other things, everything is empty of inherent existence.

The things we normally see – inherently existent things — do not exist. Things do exist, but as mere appearances to mind, entirely dependent upon mind, and the nature of mind.

Realizing emptiness — lack of inherent existence — is the only way to destroy the object of self-grasping and free our mind permanently from all delusions.

What is Sangha?

Sangha refers to the spiritual community practicing Dharma. In general, our spiritual friends who give us spiritual advice, support, and inspiration are our Sangha; but more strictly a Sangha Jewel is someone who has realized emptiness directly, because only such a person sees things as they really are and can be relied upon completely.

wishfulfilling jewelWhat is a wishfulfillling jewel?

 A wishfulfilling jewel is an ancient legendary jewel similar to Aladdin’s lamp that supposedly had the power to grant all worldly wishes. It is often used as an analogy for spiritual accomplishments such as full enlightenment, which not only fulfill all our worldly and temporary wishes, but also our everlasting, ultimate wishes.

Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:

“We regret that we still find several definitions too difficult and sometimes too wordy, as if you are both trying too hard to cover every aspect.”almost there

So, as we are not there yet, I invite you all to give this a go as well! Please use the comments section below. My friend and I have found that attempting to sum up these profound subjects in a few sentences, if indeed such a thing is possible, has been a very useful exercise in checking our own understanding. As this list is very far from complete, please feel free to submit other Buddhist terms and working definitions too.

And check out the Kadampa glossary whenever in doubt.

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What is Buddhism? A short, simple guide

Karma

Delusions

Attachment 

Samsara

Self-cherishing 

Realizing emptiness and destroying self-grasping