Do you ever feel that you have lost or are in the process of losing lots of things and people over the course of this life alone? And that, as you get older, this may just be more and more the story of your life?
From one perspective, yes, the end of collection is dispersion (including, it seems, all the working bits of our body) and the end of meeting is parting. But that is from the point of view of the dualistic mind, the mind of “in here” and “out there”, the mind of self-grasping. Inside our mind there is nothing to lose and nothing to gain, which means that outside our mind there is nothing really to lose or gain either. We may think that we have lost things and people, but we have lost nothing, other than perhaps our illusions. Whether awake, asleep, in this life, in the bardo, everything unfolds as mere karmic appearance to mind, created by our minds, not outside us. The story of our life will be very different if we rewrite it with deep wisdom and unconditional love ~ for then we will not be separated from anyone.
Even death, the biggest loss, is mere aspect of mind, mere imputation; and for people who realize this and are able to access and control their very subtle mind:
For such practitioners, death is just mere name.
They are simply moved from the prison of samsara
To the Pure Land of Heruka. ~ Root Tantra of Heruka
I stopped long ago
We have everything we need inside us. We need to believe this, for it is true. All the peace and bliss we have ever wanted, all the connection, all the most exquisitely beautiful appearances, have always been part of our nature and potential; we just need to realize this.
And, if we do, we can finally stop running round and round in circles, life after life, following our delusions that have been convincing us that we have to get happiness and get rid of suffering outside the mind, and freaking out when our attempts prove futile. “I stopped long ago”, Buddha said calmly to the mass murderer Angulimala. This “madly hostile man” was in hot pursuit of Buddha, yelling at him to STOP, but failing to catch him even though he was running and Buddha was walking. “It is you who need to stop”, Buddha said. You can watch this scene in the Life of Buddha movie here.
We stop our delusions by transforming them, and we do this by first getting good at accepting that they are there as opposed to suppressing or repressing or combating them, and then trying to transform them. What does acceptance mean? I think part of it is that whenever we feel discouraged or useless or lonely, we can accept that, yes, we feel this way, that’s the way it is, but NOT accept that it is real or that it is me. We don’t accept that these thoughts are about anything particularly real — rather that they are just floating story lines with nothing behind them.
If we allow ourselves to relax and breathe a moment, as explained here, some space might open up around these seemingly solid feelings. They are just weather in the mind – we can let them pass and know that there is peace, that our mind is on our side, that there is in fact plenty of room in our basically okay peaceful sky-like mind for all of this. We make space. We can dilute our thoughts in a container of infinite size. We’re okay. We’ll survive. We might even expand.
Wisdom Buddha Dorje Shugden
Then it is not so hard to gain better perspective and transform whatever is coming up. And there is also powerful help on hand for doing this; we don’t have to do it all alone if we don’t want to. I just received a Wisdom Buddha Dorje Shugden empowerment and teachings at the International Spring Festival at Manjushri Center in the English Lake District. Dorje Shugden is a Dharma Protector, which means he specializes in helping us keep our minds off delusions and on Dharma. One way he does this is by helping us transform all appearances into the spiritual path, opening our wisdom eyes so that we know what to do with each delight or disaster as it arises, generating Dharma minds such as renunciation, compassion, or wisdom.
Dorje Shugden overcomes obstacles and helps us gather favorable conditions for Dharma practice, and after making lots of prayers to him over the past few days I now find myself writing this in the quiet seclusion of first class on the train from Preston to London Euston, which is weird as I never travel first class and have zero recollection of buying a first-class ticket. In fact I know I didn’t buy one, so this is technically a mistake. But, as it happens, the last two trains to London were cancelled and so standard class is totally jam-packed; yet here is little old me in an empty carriage watching the sunset — with free wifi, endless supplies of free coffee and Perrier, place settings, and a box labeled “Delicious Deli Snacks”. The best favorable conditions may not, admittedly, be such luxury, and perhaps I would have more to practice patience with, for example, if I was in steerage like everyone else. But although some might argue that this means I am not quite ready to transform standing in the aisle for 3 and a half hours, and most likely they are right, I am not complaining (much less feeling guilty, even though one or two people have suggested I should be ;-)) This is because it still feels unusual, as if Dorje Shugden orchestrated it; so I am prompted to transform and offer it. And post this article while I am at it.
More later. Meanwhile, over to you – have you had some success in accepting seemingly insurmountable painful emotions and delusions (rather than suppressing them) such that you were then able to do something practical to transform them?
Postscript: Someone has just asked me how they can rely on Dorje Shugden as they haven’t come across this Buddha before. Enlightened beings appear in different forms for different purposes, including as teachers, personal Deities, and Protectors. One simple way to get the numerous benefits of having this Buddha in your life is to consider Dorje Shugden to be the same nature as Wisdom Buddha Manjushri and Je Tsongkhapa — he is the manifestation of the omniscient wisdom of all enlightened beings appearing in this form to protect you. Then just make any requests to him to avert your obstacles and give you favorable conditions for gaining temporary and lasting freedom and happiness.
You can do this, if you like, by thinking he is with you and saying his mantra in your heart:
OM VAJRA WIKI WITRANA SOHA
And/or by using this concise but says-it-all prayer:
All the attainments I desire Arise from merely remembering you. O Wishfulfilling Jewel, Protector of the Dharma, Please accomplish all my wishes.
One reason that compassion is our Buddha nature, I think, is because compassion is a natural response to reality. If we remove our wrong conceptions holding ourselves to be independent of others, and focus on our interdependence, which exists, our compassion will naturally grow and grow and grow until it becomes the universal compassion of a Buddha. By the same token, I think the reason why wisdom is part of our Buddha nature is because it is a natural response to the reality of emptiness.
In the sunshine of wisdom and compassion, our delusions have no choice but to dissolve into our clear light mind like the San Francisco fog.
The ME mind
As mentioned, one reason we find our own painful thoughts so intolerable is because we are identifying with them. Another reason is that we are forgetting something quite significant, that we are one of countless people. So it is not really all about me. Therefore, that ME mind is the crux of our suffering, based as it is on an hallucination. We forget:
We are just one person among countless living beings, and a few moments of unpleasant feeling arising in the mind of just one person is no great catastrophe. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems
We grasp at our painful feelings as if they were a storm in a teacup instead of a tiny, passing storm in a vast global sky.
This is true, no? No one else really gives a monkeys, this is our private affair. When we get a glimpse into others’ minds and see their storm in a teacup, we might easily judge: “Get over it! Can’t you just drop it, or him or her, it’s not such a big deal.” Or “You haven’t lost that much money, what are you so worried about?!” But we grapple with our own problems like a dog with a bone because we are so obsessed with ourselves. “What about ME?” Our self-grasping and self-cherishing are like a black hole sucking everything into it.
As soon as we can identify with others, give ourselves a break from poor old me, there is relief. The “What about me?” mind hurts, for example comparing and contrasting our own situation unfavorably with everyone else’s. But everyone has a hard life, and we can use our own pain to remind us of that and slowly but surely get over ourselves.
As a neurotic Tweeter put it the other day:
I’m a tiny speck in the infinite cosmos that feels fat. ~ Melissa Broder
This ME mind blinds us to others’ suffering. Yesterday I was eating my supper while casually reading The Week’s page The World at a Glance:
Gabarone, Botswana: Up to 49 million people across Southern Africa are at risk of famine from the worst drought in three decades.
I had to read it again, surely I didn’t just read “49 MILLION PEOPLE”? But I did. How come I never knew this? Why isn’t it the headline on every news outlet? Why has it not occupied a single moment of my attention until now? Why is it just one short paragraph at the bottom of one page in a short-circulation magazine?
I don’t know. But I suspect our global self-cherishing has a lot to do with it. And it is awful.
Meanwhile, the truth is that the Me we are so desperate to serve and protect and freak out about doesn’t even exist.
Of course it feels right now like it exists, but in truth it is nothing more than the non-existent object of an unrealistic painful idea of ourselves.
In the course of one day we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, one day it’s I’m fabulous, other days it’s “I’m such a wreck, can’t keep anything together.” We have wildly different ideas about ourselves. We might say kind things to ourselves “You’re ok, you’re good”, and we get on with our lives, but then when we get angry, for example, there is the person we are angry with, whom we are holding in an exaggerated way as the source of our harm, and there is the Me we are holding onto in also in an exaggeratedly limited way, eg, “I am a hurt person, that’s who I am.” Then we have to do something to protect that poor hurt person from that really mean person, as described here.
As for the allegedly harmful person, we can go from zero to a hundred miles per hour with anger by exaggerating their faults and thinking about nothing else, leaving the nice bits about them conveniently on the cutting room floor. While we remain angry we give them no wriggle room — nothing they say or do makes much difference as anger has covered Mister Mean with superglue.
A few days ago I was invited to coffee just to have someone insult me in a myriad of quite creative (I thought) ways. But in the same conversation she was telling me about her dying mother, who insists on continuing to work through her painful illness because she wants to claim a $9,000 tax credit in April to give to her child. Wow, I thought. Stand up the real person, the one who is appearing unjust and weird to me, or the beautiful one loved beyond pain by her mother?
In this article I explained how we have the chance to identify with our potential rather than with our painful limited self, and in this way come to our own conclusion that we want liberation. So why do we identify with pain? If we believed we had choice, would we not choose to identify with freedom, space, happiness? Ignorance removes our choice because it is convincing us that we are not creating the painful self and other, that these are independent of our mind; so then we have no choice but to go along with it all.
If we dream of a monster and run away from it, is it because the monster is actually there? Or is it because we are misapprehending the monster’s mode of existence? Ignorance is causing this misapprehension. In the same way, we are not in pain because a real self or other is actually there, but because ignorance is causing us to apprehend both self and other as independent of the mind.
Realizing this about ourselves gives us renunciation. Realizing this about others gives us compassion.
More coming soon! Meanwhile, please share your experiences on this subject in the comments below.
(And thank you for giving me an excuse to share some San Francisco photos I took this week 😉 Kadampa Meditation Center SF was the first Kadampa Center in America. I have been visiting this beautiful, lovable center and community for their 25 Year Anniversary Celebrations.)
I seem to be here again at the Denver DMV. I thought I’d left this grimy place forever, but here I am back all over again. “Weren’t you here just the other day”? asked the man who failed me in my first test and whom I’d never felt the great urge to see again. But our karma was clearly not done. At any rate, he was a good deal more friendly this time (so I discover he is not in fact an inherently nerve-wracking smile-less robot). He was curious as to all the details of the theft of the spanking new Colorado driving license (amongst other things) that was bringing me to his desk.
I have learned many lessons from this, as it happens, which all goes to show that difficulties can be our best spiritual teachers, as explained in the Lojong teachings. I thought I’d divide this into Sutra and Tantra lessons learned. It’s a long post, sorry in advance!
Sutra lessons learned
I must have stolen in the past, and this is not even the first theft I’ve had. There were some curious incidents growing up where thieves would break into my parents’ house but only steal MY stuff. They broke in in Guyana and stole only my treasured radio. They broke in in Singapore and took a stereo my parents had literally just given me. They broke in in London and took just my relatively worthless jewelry. And when I was a supposedly innocent five-year-old, they stole the shipment of my toys alone when we were moving from Sri Lanka back to England. Yikes. This may be a good sign that my parents are as honest as the day is long, but me?!? This karmic mirror reminds me to check whether I am still being dishonest in any areas of my life.
Never safe in samsara
Another lesson bought home is that while I am in samsara, I am not safe. A good friend shared his experience of being robbed (he managed to have not just one but two MacBook Airs stolen in 1 day):
I don’t know how you are experiencing this, but for me it was very unsettling. I felt extremely vulnerable, exposed, and violated, while simultaneously holding compassion for the perpetrator, and praying for his delusions to be removed.
Nothing is truly mine, certainly not lastingly mine. In samsara, the end of collection is dispersion, and our karma to have stuff comes to an end. This samsaric entropy is also the second law of thermodynamics, I discovered the other day:
There is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.
My appearances of a shiny new iPhone 5S, driver’s license, and handy credit cards, all contained in a beautiful new turquoise wallet, came to an abrupt dissolution on Sunday morning. All our karmic projectionscome to an end whether we want them to or not. And then other karmic projections come up, ones we don’t want, eg, having to sort out things we thought were already sorted rather than doing the other more fun things we had planned.
We only have so many appearances to mind left before we die.
And due to self-grasping we feel the loss, we feel vulnerable and violated as my friend pointed out. I’ll not deny that I had some attachment to my phone (not least as my mother had given it to me at Xmas). So my first reaction was some numbness – things seemed to slow down as I searched the pockets of everything I was wearing and looked in every room, and then did the same again, just in case. That sinking feeling, “It’s gone, it’s really gone.”
I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving ‘I’ with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well. ~ Ocean of Nectar, page 25
This feeling of discombobulation was useful for showing my permanent-grasping at myself and my infrastructure, instead of recognizing at all times that it is as insubstantial and fleeting as last night’s dream.
I could not help but feel compassion though because I got into my nice borrowed car and went to my nice house and was able to have some nice lunch and call everyone I needed to, while meantime the perpetrator rather pathetically managed to spend all of $10.12 just getting something to eat at a 7/11 at 1.20pm EST before I closed my cards down. I may not be very rich, but I do have more than $10.12 in my account, so he could at least have treated himself to a swanky restaurant. He also got a $4 drink at Starbucks at 6.30pm with my Starbucks card, and there was a little cash in there too. (This knowledge courtesy of Find my iPhone.) It is doubtful that he (or she) has anywhere great to live, if anywhere at all; and he is clearly hungry and/or desperate enough to sneak into an unknown basement and grab what he can and get out before he is caught. And I am not oblivious to the utter privilege of having these things to lose in the first place, so lucky even compared with most human beings, including him.
The police detective called me today, two days later, offered to meet me in the parking lot if my phone shows up online again, for a “civil standby”. But I have already given the phone away, though it is useless to the thief because it is locked – not even the FBI could break in, not even with a law suit against Apple.
(Last year, J, in Florida at the time, had her iPhone stolen and F and I, in New York, watched the dot zooming down I275, reporting coordinates to J and her sister, who were in hot pursuit. Forty miles later, the phone ended up in a theater parking lot, beeping away inside a black jalopy; and they waited until the thieves came out of their movie and were obliged by the police to open their car and hand over the phone. Not sure what the moral of that tale is, but it was surprisingly exciting at the time, like an OJ Simpson redux. (OK, now I have to tell you my true OJ Simpson story for I can’t imagine getting another chance. I was at Miami airport with N. early one morning, who asked if I would go over and “get us a couple of OJs” while he watched the luggage. And guess who was standing next to me at the same counter. No, I’m not kidding. Mere name, eh. And he had a beautiful blonde with him, for whom I felt a little nervous.)
I gave the stuff away so that the thief would not get the complete action of stealing. He (or she) will still incur some negative karma if he had a deluded intention, but I thought I could offset it. It can’t be offset completely as not even Buddhas can do that – if they could, it’d be impossible to create negative karma with respect to Buddhas.
After the theft, I came back to the 2 cats I am babysitting who, for some reason, were in a very demanding mood, jumping all over me and making a lot of noise while I was trying to call the bank etc. It crossed my mind to get irritated with them, but then I remembered that although they may not give a monkeys about my human problems, in fact the cat problems they have are far, far, far worse.
So I feel luckier than the perpetrator for many reasons, but mainly because he may well not have access to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, whereas I do. As another good friend JS messaged me yesterday, after her camera equipment worth 10,000 quid was stolen from right inside her own house:
There is a huge back story to people’s crime. I want to ask him questions like when did he decide this was the route to take, does he still want to carry on, what did he want to be when he was a kid … does he think it’s possible to change his life …. That’s what I will be putting in my “victim’s” statement, but who is the real victim? I have Geshe-la in my life and the Dharma, I gave up any thoughts of my possessions being important … the victim to me seems like the burglar, he has no Dharma to help him.
My theft is not really different to a theft in a dream. Overall, this has made me more determined than ever to bring an end to my own and others’ samsaric hallucinations while I still have the chance. The compassion that wants to overcome this root cause of suffering is called compassion observing the unobservable, you can read about it in Ocean of Nectar. Samsara sucks, samsara sucks for everyone, but luckily samsara is not real.
Death is on its way
It can be useful to imagine losing one thing at a time to get our heads and hearts around the fact that the entire infrastructure of our life is going to collapse. This includes the people we adore, not just our shiny gadgets. As this inevitability could be just around the corner, this is, as JS put it:
Good practice for death, when I won’t be able to take anything with me. It’s always good to see where one is at with our possessions so I thank him for that.
The kindness of others
I feel almost fraudulent to be writing this, this theft was such a small fry incident in the grand scheme of things, yet people have been astonishingly generous.
A Bodhisattva immediately, and I mean immediately, the moment he saw my stuff had been stolen, said, “Oh, this iPhone I have is spare, you can have it!” Then he wiped his phone clean and gave it to me, along with his phone number, before I had a chance to protest. And he did this utterly convincingly, not even with the slightest hesitation like the one I had when I gave my actually totally spare iPhone 4 away just last week. He reminds me of that quote from Ocean of Nectar:
If from hearing and contemplating the word ‘Give’,
The Conquerors’ Son develops a bliss
The like of which is not aroused in the Able Ones through experiencing peace,
What can be said about giving everything? ~ Ocean of Nectar page 69
Giving does feel pretty good when we manage to pull it off without any regret – the day before this theft I had given a jacket (left here by a Buddhist monk) to a homeless man in Cheesman Park. Long story, but it felt great to see Michael pull it over his skinny shoulders on a freezing day.
But the person who helped me is in a class of his own – he even went so far as to thank me for allowing him to help me. As if he meant it! Which I do believe he did. And I have to add that this same nameless (for his own sake) person said the other day just after I passed my test, “Oh, this car I have is spare, you can borrow it indefinitely!” (Naturally I am now waiting for his spare house and his spare cash.)
There are emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in our midst whatever we want to call them – angels, saints, or just very kind people. Maybe they don’t appear so often to a very cynical mind, but they are still there, trying to help, waiting for the first moment they can dive in there. They may appear as the regular folks around us – nurses, neighbors, co-workers, homeless people, family members, strangers at bus stops – but as a Buddha’s job description is to emanate whatever people need, it’s cool not to succumb to ordinary appearances.
Tantric lessons learned
When we realize that we are completely empty of inherent existence, our possessions are completely empty, and our relationship with our possessions is completely empty (the so-called “three spheres”), we can see that we already have everything we need inside us. Why? Because everything is merely projection of our own minds.
I’m going to get a bit philosophical and Tantric for a moment …
Nothing is inherently anything. If we understand this, we can say “This is not that”, about everything, and this truth frees us up. For example, “This is not Denver” frees me up to think “This is Heruka’s Pure Land”. “This is not an annoying co-worker” frees me up to think “This is an emanation of Buddha.” “These are not my possessions” frees me up to give my iPhone away happily.
Bounty of the Dharmakaya
I find myself comparing this “loss” to what I like to call “the bounty of the Dharmakaya“. Within the bliss and emptiness of the Dharmakaya (or Truth Body), everything exists and everything is possible. The divinity is there as you are mixed with the Truth Body of every Buddha. You can manifest anything out of that.
Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, for example, are simply the bounty and infinite good qualities of the Dharmakaya appearing – their symbolism includes absolutely everything good about Buddhahood. So when we focus on them, our bliss and good qualities and so on increase – we are able to itemize, focus on, and identify with them, and gain a greater understanding and experience of the Dharmakaya. And vice versa.
This is why these meditative practices of pure appearance, introduced by enlightened beings, are so important; and why focusing on bliss and emptiness alone, though it is the essence and truth, make it harder or perhaps even impossible to manifest the creative elements of the Dharmakaya and gain full enlightenment for the sake of all other beings.
Bliss and emptiness can appear in any form whatsoever, of course, but we may as well embrace the blissful forms of the Buddhas and their Pure Lands. Why go to the trouble of inventing the appearance of infinite good qualities, imagining how they might show themselves, when generations of enlightened beings have already shown them to us?! Why wish for mundane or ordinary good things to happen when we can set our imaginations free to have the glorious body, enjoyments, environments, and deeds of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini?! Their reality, as evinced in everything about the way they appear, is wild and free and blissful and compassionate already. It is a blessed and powerful expression of the completely pure mind of bliss and emptiness.
Point here being that I can and already do have anything I want within the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini, so why bother about the loss of a few ordinary appearances to an ordinary mind? Why not just stay in the Pure Land full time instead?
A similar point could be made about making mandala offerings, the offerings of entire pure universes. I can offer countless iPhones appearing from the pure mind of bliss and emptiness on behalf of me and everyone else. And these offerings will result in the appearances of bliss-inducing iPhones sooner or later …
Okay, enough of that for now, I can see my Dad shaking his head. Your comments are most welcome in the comments section below.
People’s hearts are good, but ignorance is our greatest enemy and destroys our happiness every single day.
Earlier today in the Denver Botanical Gardens I saw an old Air Force veteran sitting all on his own looking sad, and then I saw him later near my pond. He dug into his canvas bag I thought for a sandwich, and indeed it was, but instead of eating it himself he proceeded to break it up and feed it to the fish, peering at them through the water as he did so. I thought, “May he and all those fish never experience another moment’s hunger or loneliness between now and when they attain enlightenment.” For none of them deserves to suffer, ever. None of us do. It is only our ignorance that has got us into this existential predicament.
We talk about the “four noble truths” in Buddhism. In the first noble truth, Buddha showed that there is suffering, an endless cycle of suffering, and everyone still in samsara experiences it. In the second noble truth he identified the causes of suffering as lying within our minds – external conditions are only conditions for suffering if we have the actual causes in our mind, delusions and karma.
These delusions tend to cluster around a strong sense of self-importance, me me me, I’m the center of the universe, my happiness and suffering matter more than yours. In this article I tried to explain how we identify with a limited, painful sense of self, one that doesn’t even exist except as the object held by a wrong idea (self-grasping ignorance). Then we cherish that I, do everything we can to serve and protect it (self-cherishing).
That I — the seemingly real or inherently existent I, the I that we normally perceive — is like a puff of air blown into a balloon. The balloon is locked in a box. The box is secured in a vault. The vault is put in the bank. The bank is protected by guards. The guards are employed by the government. And there we have it – a vast impressive bureaucracy of ego to administer and defend a big empty nothing.
There is no-one who has not, will not, or does not suffer. By trying to identify common traits which you share it starts breaking down this barrier of defining someone as an ‘other’.
So in general when we are very self-absorbed and so on we are neither peaceful nor fulfilled because we are not living in accordance with reality. Self-cherishing that positions ourselves as more important than others leads to anger when things don’t go our way, uncontrolled desire grasping at what we think will make me happy, jealousy, miserliness, fear, and so on. One way or another, our mind is agitated. Modern society — or as we might want to put it “degenerate times” — apparently does not help us much either:
Combined with the frenetic pace of modern life, it has led to a stressed out, individualized society with a reduced capacity for empathy. As we remain vigilant to perceived threats to our own small piece of turf, compassion is the casualty.
Geshe Kelsang did say this though, and I believe him:
Full enlightenment is not easy to achieve. In these spiritually degenerate times people’s delusions are so strong, and there are so many obstacles to making progress in spiritual practice. But if we sincerely practice Kadam Dharma [Kadampa Buddhism] with a pure motivation, pure view, and unchangeable faith, we can achieve the ultimate happiness of full enlightenment in three years without any difficulty. We can do this.
In our little experiment in this article, did you find that there was a sense that, although you really felt for another’s suffering, your mind was peaceful? Or not? Was it a bit of both? In which case, which bit was which?
Real compassion is all about the other person, identifying with their feelings etc. We have exchanged places with them in a way. And to the extent that it is about them and not us, compassion is very pure and free from any kind of pain. Also during that time it is impossible to feel impatience, at least as soon as you do the compassion has gone. Maybe your mom knows how to push your buttons and irritate you, but maybe she is very ill in hospital and you are not irritated with her at all.
The second noble truth, the causes of suffering, refers to self-grasping, self-cherishing, and their backing band delusions. These have reduced while we are cherishing others, so we are experiencing some peace. Thus, we gain a little taste of the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering and its causes; we see how this could be possible. How? Through the fourth noble truth, true paths, spiritual paths. These are states of mind such as compassion and wisdom (understanding that the I we normally perceive doesn’t exist) that cancel out our delusions and lead to their cessation.
So in this experiment, hopefully we see in our own experience how a cessation of suffering is possible. This may only be a temporary cessation for now, but through spiritual training it’s possible to get rid of our suffering for good. This is amazing, and gives us the confidence to think, “I don’t need to fear suffering. If I know its causes, I can stop it, and also apply this understanding to others to help them stop theirs.”
Generally, however, unless we want to train in renunciation or compassion, we try to avoid looking at suffering through distraction etc, and when we can’t avoid it we get depressed. As TS Eliot puts it:
Cannot bear very much reality.
In that state, we don’t really want to explore suffering more deeply to see where it is coming from, let alone to look at others’ suffering. We’d much rather switch on Netflix or self-medicate. Again, in the words of TS Eliot, we spend much of our life “distracted from distraction by distraction.” But even if we were to spend 6 hours on Netflix and manage to forget about suffering for a while, does that get rid of it?
If all our efforts to get rid of suffering through distraction and diversion worked, we would be as happy as clams by this point; but instead we have the same old problems every single day of our life because we are not addressing their causes ie, the delusions and karma. For as long as we are not touching those, for as long as we are fiddling about with externals to solve our problems, we are not getting rid of the causes of suffering and experiencing cessations. The most we’re getting is some temporary relief, like scratching an itch – that is, if we’re lucky, and of course if we don’t keep scratching. Looking for freedom in external sources is a fool’s game. It has got us nowhere.
Training in compassion is not an optional extra, therefore, that might make our life a little better. It is a necessity, the actual path to happiness and fulfillment.
With attachment born of ignorance we are always splitting ourselves off from our actual happiness, the happiness of our own peaceful mind. Holding onto an isolated real “self”, distanced from “other”, happiness is now necessarily separate from us, other than us.
We distance ourselves from it in time – “Oh I was so happy back THEN!” Or “I won’t be happy until I get this thing! …” Or we distance ourselves from it in terms of space – which reminds me of this FOMO thing I read about recently, “fear of missing out”. An apparent modern-day epidemic where interesting things are always going on elsewhere and we losers are most likely missing out on all the action … (as evidenced by all that fun everyone else is having on their Facebook pages). We need to make sure we are not missing out on happiness, and we may just manage to catch it if we check our social media enough times (apparently the US average is at least once an hour).
We are massively distracted these days, are we not?!
As mentioned in this article, however, meditating on the nature of our own mind pacifies distractions very well.
What is a distraction?
The definition of distraction is “A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion”. We are constantly distracting ourselves from our meditations, and from our happiness, and from our actual nature and potential.
Interestingly, however, there are no objects of delusion from their side. For example, a person is only an object of attachment when we are thinking about them with attachment.
You ever look at a photo of you and an ex-lover, for example, that you’ve seen many times, but today it looks completely different, and you can’t even recall what all the fuss was about? Why you were so bothered by them?! You feel a sense of relief, like you too are a different person. The attachment has gone – and so of course has its object. As has the attached you, the subject.
Soooo, if we can learn to let go of our distractions, attachments, irritations, etc, by dissolving them into the clarity of the mind, we are then free to think about others and ourselves in non-deluded ways.
When we have a delusion, eg, attachment coupled with loneliness, that delusion has both an object and a subject. We are holding not only onto them as being real and outside the mind, as a real object of desire, but also ourself as being a real needy person who has to have them.
Likewise, if we are irritated with someone, we are holding onto both them and us in a certain fixed way. Even seeing that we have an email from them annoys us, and we are suspicious if it is somehow a nice one – why? Because we have set them up as a real irritant and we have set ourself up as a real victim who is being put upon by them, etc.
BUT, and it is a big but, if we view that person with love instead of attachment or anger, our sense of self also changes for the better. They are no longer an object of delusion, and we are no longer a deluded subject. We can identify instead with being a loving person wishing happiness to other beings — this makes us very happy, is truer to our nature, and puts us in the driver’s seat of our lives.
“People always let you down!”
We complain all the time, don’t we, “Oh people are so unreliable!” And it is true, they are — if we have delusions. People are never reliable if they are objects of our delusions. However, they are always reliable if they are objects of renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, or pure view. So, it is up to us.
Cherishing and protecting a limited self
I want to explore this development of delusions a bit further. Let’s say we suddenly remember something someone said that we didn’t like, 5 minutes ago, or 25 years ago. (It doesn’t make much difference! It still feels real!) That person appears to our mind, and we focus on their unattractiveness and turn them into an enemy. This is unbearable, and suddenly we are in pain. Where did that come from? It just arose out of our mind.
As mentioned, with every delusion there is always an object and a subject. On the one hand, we are exaggerating the object, the unattractive appearance becoming an intrinsic source of pain. On the other hand, we are also exaggerating our self — identifying with a self who cannot handle it, who feels overwhelmed. “I can’t bear that you don’t like me, that you didn’t look at me when I wanted you to.” This very limited sense of self appears to us and we believe it, “I am a person who cannot handle criticism.” This is self-grasping.
An unattractive appearance arose out of our mind due to karma, and then, instead of letting it pass, we grasped at and consolidated it, got lost in it, wrote emails about it, maybe even a book. We talked to others to affirm our view or to get some help. And we can get lost in this little drama for a long time, sometimes a whole life.
This is a shame. All our problems are like this, by the way. It is similar with attachment. One moment we’re fine, the next we remember some attractive person, exaggerate their desirability and make it real, and simultaneously buy into a painful sense of a limited self, ie, “I need this person, I can’t be happy without them”. Suddenly we have a problem because that person has no interest in us! Others may agree, “Yeah, you’ve got a problem!” but it’s all created by the mind.
What happens is that we then try to solve the problem while relating to the self who sees the problem. How is that working for you? Isn’t it Einstein who said we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it?!
We cherish that painful self that doesn’t exist, and as a result get attached to the things we think will help it and averse to the things that seem to threaten it. And so delusions are born, and the unskillful actions motivated by delusions. We keep doing this, so samsara rolls on.
This is where the meditation on the nature of the mind is so helpful. We learn this skill of recognizing that although at the moment we are caught up in the waves’ appearances, rather than the ocean, these are just the nature of the mind and if I don’t get caught up into them they’ll simply disappear.
When we are relating to a painful neurotic sense of self, thinking about it obsessively, have you ever wondered how it is that no one else ever sees it?! They may even think we are fine. Is this construct of self therefore inside or outside the mind? If we look into this, it becomes more obvious that it is just an idea – and a bad idea at that. A private, painful idea that we’re walking around nurturing. It is a painful sense of self, but still our self-cherishing wants to nurture it, protect it, serve it.
What happens to an idea when we stop thinking about it?!
Ven Geshe Kelsang taught a wonderful analogy from Buddha’s Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of a man going to a doctor who tells him he has cancer and will soon die. Overwhelmed with anxiety and sorrow, he goes home to share the news with his family, who are all very upset too.
But then he gets a second opinion from a reliable physician who reassures him: “It is 100% guaranteed that you have no cancer.” His sorrow vanishes. His family throw a party!
The point is that this man never had cancer; he only believed he had it.
In the same way, this limited self has never existed and so it is not the problem – it is our belief in it that is the problem. Buddha is pointing out that the object of our self-grasping simply does not exist, 100% does not exist. If we realize this, we’ll relax. Profoundly relax.
If you are somewhat new to the idea of emptiness, you can think “My self is just an idea; I can let it go.”
Moreover, at the moment all our cherishing energy is circling around that self that we normally see. Once we let go of it, our cherishing energy is free to radiate to others.
Meditation should never be abstract, but grounded in our own experience.
The self we normally see doesn’t exist. But it is hard to spot that self if we are clinging too tightly onto it, too closely identified with it. So here is a meditation that will hopefully help us to sit back and look at it, and to witness how samsara twists around it. This will naturally lead us to the light, happy mind of renunciation, wishing to be free from the creeping vine of self-grasping and all other delusions.
First we can do some breathing meditation to settle into the peaceful experience of our mind at our heart. We breathe out whatever’s on our mind in the form of thick smoke, and experience our in-breath as clear radiant light that has the nature of peace. We can ride these light rays into our heart chakra, where they join the inner light of our own peaceful good heart, our Buddha nature.
Even if our mind is only slightly more peaceful, we let ourselves rest there — recognizing that this peace is part of the indestructible quality of our mind, within which is the potentiality for limitless peace. No rush. No agenda. No “Ok, got my peaceful experience, check. Next!” We give ourself time and permission to enjoy this, to identify with it, thinking “This is me.” Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to just be happy. I don’t have a care in the world.
Connecting to our limitless potential is a crucial stepping stone – renunciation is the wish for permanent peace and freedom, but if we don’t believe this is possible how can we develop this wish?
Also, abiding in this peaceful experience we have a heart connection to the peaceful mind of all enlightened beings, their blessings.
We can allow that Buddha’s peace to manifest as our Spiritual Guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni, if we wish, do the Liberating Prayer, and spend a little time receiving blessings in the form of lights and nectars or just feeling the mind to mind transmission. Again, we give ourselves permission to abide there, enjoying that, feeling our Spiritual Guide’s bliss of permanent liberation flowing into our own mind. With our mind empowered by our Spiritual Guide’s realizations, we can easily gain his experience of renunciation and the wisdom realizing emptiness. We can believe that we already have his experience.
We get an intuitive sense of what liberation is like so it is no longer an abstract idea but grounded in our own experience and we WANT it and know we can have it. We are sampling it – a bit like how in Trader Joe’s the other day a store assistant gave me a sample of delicious pineapple juice and I decided to buy the whole carton. So the wish to attain liberation is already growing within us naturally, even before we get to our actual meditation!
In general, suffering has inner causes. These are the negative actions or karma that are created by our delusions, the root of which is self-grasping ignorance.
Now we can bring to mind the self that we normally see. That self appears all the time and in different aspects so we can start with a very manifest version, perhaps a painful one, when we felt hurt for example. We stay in the peaceful space of our heart and see how we believed this sense of I, poor hurt me. Grasping is believing.
Then we built our samsara around it. We wanted to serve and protect this I (self-cherishing) — we wanted to arrange the world to make this I feel better, for example by getting the other person to be nice to it again; and uncontrolled desire was born. And anything that got in the way made us upset, and anger was born. In dependence upon those three poisons and other delusions, we then engaged in actions or karma to protect this limited self and fulfill its wishes. All this entrenched us in contaminated life, subjecting us to yet another episode of its continuous unrelenting suffering.
We can witness this dynamic in action and ask, “Is this what I want?” Compared with the peace we are experiencing in our heart at the moment, that would be a definite “No” to self-grasping and “Yes” to liberation from it. We also need some forward thinking. The danger is that we have been building up these samsaric (not-so-)merry-go-rounds since beginningless time, and if we keep doing this we will continue to suffer. The best we can hope for while grasping at a limited self is temporary liberation from particular sufferings, and this is not good enough for this life or countless future lives.
Naturally, then, the wish to attain permanent liberation arises — not because a wise person is urging us to develop this wish or because we think in some vague abstruse way that we ought to, but because we are seeing the unviability of self-grasping for ourselves. Our own insight leads us to the certain knowledge that we need to destroy our self-grasping ignorance once and for all. We want to realize directly that the self we grasp at and cherish does not exist so that we no longer have any inclination to grasp at and cherish the stupid thing. How wonderful to have this freedom! We hold this wish for as long as we can so as to become deeply familiar with it.
Then we can apply this to others to develop compassion, for everyone is traipsing around from life to life in a futile attempt to protect and serve a painful, limited self that doesn’t even exist. And just as no one else really knows what sense of me we are desperately clinging to and protecting most of the time, so we have no clue what private hells others are concocting for themselves on a daily basis.
Back in this article I was surmising that the reason we don’t go for a realization of emptiness more passionately seems to be because we are so attached to inherently existent things, particularly if they appear nice. That seems to me to be our deep laziness of attachment. There’s a contemplation I do to combat it, so I’ll share it here in case it is of some practical use to you.
(1) First of all, I ask myself, “What or whom am I most attached to at the moment?” Then I ask myself, “Do I want this person or enjoyment to be real?”
For example, if you’ve fallen in love with someone, do you like the idea of them really being there, existing from their own side, ready at any moment to send you flowers and texts? Or really waiting there for you at the train station, really wanting to see you, really making plans with you, etc.? Or not?!
Sure, it is nice to meditate on the emptiness of difficult conditions like annoying co-workers and ageing bodies, but is it so nice to dissolve our loved ones away into emptiness, to realize they are mere projections of our own mind with no power from their own side to make us happy!? And what about that delicious pizza that’s just been delivered, or that show we’ve really been looking forward to watching this weekend; what is so fun about those not existing from their own side?
And, in any case, what’s the alternative to inherently existent or real things?! If we get rid of those, what do we actually have left to enjoy?
Anyway, these are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves. And if we’re honest, we might have to reply that we do want our objects of attachment to be at least a bit real.
(2) So then I ask myself, what is so wrong with wanting nice things to be real? It seems innocuous enough.
Which is why we need renunciation, or non-attachment, from knowing the faults of attachment. Without this, we’ll never get around to realizing emptiness, even if we’re an intellectual giant.
“It is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.”
There are a gazillion things wrong with attachment to inherently existent things, and at this point in my meditation I think of some of these, specifically relating them to whatever is my current object of attachment. For example …
Real nice things and people seem to be over there while real me seems to over here, trying desperately to pull them toward me, to keep them with me, to stop them from getting away. With attachment, we feel moreorless bereft or on the verge of being bereft in every moment. It is impossible to get enough of our objects of attachment – if they send us roses and say I love you one day, we’re happy for a moment, but then we wonder why they don’t do it again the next day, or even the next hour. Perhaps it’s because they no longer love us?! But we need them to! If we set ourselves up in need for reassurance, no one can ever possibly reassure us enough. Attachment causes our mind to become like a yo yo of excitement and nerves when it is reciprocated, and makes us feel like attention-seeking idiots when it is not. Attachment is a desperately insecure state of being. It gives us zero control over our mind. It burdens people the world over. It has done this since beginningless time. We have set ourselves up in need through our own deluded thought processes or inappropriate attention. We have given away the key to our own happiness — now dependent on the behaviors of others or the freshness of the cupcakes. Why we may wonder are serials or on-going TV shows now so much more popular than movies? Perhaps because we can never get enough of the storyline, we need it to go on and on, generally feeling cheated in the last episode.
We can’t be happy with our objects of attachment out of the underlying anxiety that they’re about to end or leave us, and we can’t be happy without them as we miss them, feel hollow, out of sorts. In short, we can’t be happy with attachment at all.
With attachment, it is hard to stay in sync with another person for very long. It is love that puts us on the same wavelength, not attachment.
“Attachment is the principal cause of dissatisfaction. It never causes contentment, only restlessness and discontent.” ~ How to Understand the Mind
Attachment puts our life on hold. Look around at people not suffering from strong attachment right now who are just getting on with having lives, concentrating on whatever it is they are doing without having to watch the clock or feverishly tap into their smartphones every 10 minutes in hope for a sign of reassurance or affirmation from their beloved. Without attachment, and if they have love and wisdom, not only are they having a life, but they’re having a good life, even a great one. And we can too if we recognize that the pain or dissatisfaction or fragility or uncertainty we feel come not from a lover or a lack of a lover, a place/home or lack of one, a job/position or lack of one, etc, but only from our attachment to these. We don’t need it.
And our attachment, or uncontrolled desire, also causes us to act in odd, sometimes undignified ways that lead to future suffering too. We desperately seek to fulfill our wishes day after day, week after week, year after year, and life after life but, like the donkey chasing the carrot on the stick, we never quite succeed. And in the meantime we create a lot of bad karma, including the karma to continue to feel separated from beautiful things.
Moreover, we are not making any effort to escape while we are attached to the objects of self-grasping ignorance–inherently existent things. And, given that we’re attached to many nice real things, this is clearly sticking us down to samsara. Ignorance for sure is what traps us in the prison of samsara, but attachment is like the chains binding us to the wall.
Emptiness is naturally beautiful
Ironically, we think we want real things, but in fact what we are attached to are the hallucinations of our self-grasping ignorance. Inherently existent things don’t exist at all. How can being attached to an hallucination ever work out for us? It is, as Geshe Kelsang says, like chasing a mirage, desperate for its water. If we want reality, we need to understand that the true nature of all things is emptiness – that’s the only reality. And, as it says in Vajrayogini Tantra, emptiness is naturally beautiful.
Empty things and people seem to be naturally beautiful too. We can enjoy anything endlessly if we realize that it’s the nature of our own mind, mere name, mere imputation. That full satisfaction, union, or non-duality is infinitely preferable to the gulf that inevitably separates us from all those nice inherently existent things. Not always grasping, which is inevitably accompanied by some kind of tension in the mind – a tension we are sometimes not even aware of until we are not grasping and it blissfully disappears. And it feels so good to be in control of our own happiness, not dependent on the vagaries of hallucinations.
(3) So, all that being said, I prefer to have non-attachment for inherently existent objects and the self-grasping ignorance that apprehends them. This non-attachment itself is renunciation. We are already relatively free.
(4) So, how can I be completely free from self-grasping (and its deceptive objects)? By slicing it with the sword of the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence, which is its direct antidote. Therefore, I’m going to practice wisdom today and every day. Nothing exists from its own side. Enjoy without grasping.
(5) I then try to come up with a practical plan to remember to practice wisdom in all the remaining hours of the day. And one of the most fruitful ways is to notice when attachment is arising, be aware of its painful nature, and let that remind me!
We were at the Science Museum in London recently and saw a lot of huge industrial machinery down the ages, accompanied by tales of sweat, effort, and immensely hard labor. It was reminiscent for me that a lot of heavy cranking of metal is required to try and get real things to work for us. We toil very diligently to get the external world to cooperate, we spend most of our days doing that. But it seems that life becomes a whole lot less hard work if we can also remember that everything is mere projection of mind. Rather than get the results we seek by tinkering around with the projection, which is as much an exercise in futility as trying to move the frames around on a movie screen, we are better off fixing the projector itself.
Postscript: Nothing wrong with being in love
BTW, there is nothing wrong with being in love. It’d be nice to be in love with everyone! Love is great. Attachment is a delusion whose only function is to harm us, so don’t be alarmed that you’ll lose anything special by letting it go. We can transform our relationships through Buddha’s teachings on the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra so that we can keep and increase the love, the passion, the bliss, and keep and transform even the desire … but jettison the attachment.
Over to you … What ideas do you have for doing this?