Time to rebel!

manjushri-wisdom-sword

There seems to be a fair bit of hubris around lately, like it’s catching or something, and some of it is quite dangerous. Deluded pride is more about bending the world to our own will, thinking we are already great and/or know it all. It never works out in the long term — as they say, pride always comes before a fall. And pride is not inspiring.manjushri

With wisdom, on the other hand, we see that WE need to change if we are to find lasting happiness and help others do the same. We need the confidence to change, and this needs to be based on something valid, ie, our spiritual potential and actual good qualities, not dumb stuff or selfish stuff or negative stuff.

Actual self-confidence — or non-deluded pride — is a humble mind, the very opposite of hubris. It is able to accept challenges without freaking out, learn from others, grow from mistakes, and keep us moving and improving. It is also catching because when we meet a truly humble, selfless person we are humbled by their guru-and-lineage-gurus-black-and-whitehumble nature. Their influence can be huge and their inspiration ring down the ages.

Even one strong delusion can be a powerful force for negativity in our world – delusions are weird and scary, and they can spread fast. But a strong, virtuous, sane mind like self-confident humility or compassion is just as powerful and contagious, maybe more so, and can oppose the delusions directly. So being the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi put it, is an effective response to our own and others’ delusions; and, unlike trying to master other people, mastering our own mind is guaranteed to bring about good results now and later.

Carrying on from this article.

Pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions

The second area in which we can increase our self-confidence is called “the pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions.” This is the thought:

I can conquer all my delusions; they will never conquer me. ~ How to Understand the Mind

We are thinking, “I don’t want to stay the same – I want to become unstuck by freeing my mind from the chains of my delusions.” In ordinary psychology, perhaps, we hardly dare imagine that we can change that much – getting rid of all our faults and limitations, as opposed to just some of them. But in Buddhist psychology, as explained a bit here, it is possible to develop a vision that understands we can.

It is impossible to destroy our spiritual potential because this is based on reality, but it is perfectly possible to destroy our delusions because these are based on wrong conceptions that can be righted:

A person under the influence of delusions is not in his right mind, because he is creating terrible suffering for himself and no one in his right mind would create suffering for himself. All delusions are based on a mistaken way of seeing things. When we see things as they really are, our delusions naturally disappear and virtuous minds naturally manifest. ~ How to Transform Your Life 

Bodhisattva warriors

warriorsTry thinking this: “I’m going to destroy, vanquish, and utterly eliminate from my mind every last trace of delusion.” Just try it out. Try the feel of it in your heart-mind. I am going to destroy my delusions. This is how Shantideva says it in his epic Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

 I will conquer all obstacles,
And none shall conquer me.

That is a big sense of self, right?! But it’s not the big, real, important self as in deluded pride (the self that doesn’t exist).

Thus I, who will become a Conqueror,
Will practice with self-confidence.

A real Conqueror is a Buddha, someone who has awakened from the sleep of mistaken conceptions and appearances, destroying all their delusions permanently.

We need this self-confidence so that when things go wrong, (as they do tend to do), we need never become panic-stricken or downcast.

You know that feeling – if our confidence is weak, then just some little thing crops up, like an annoying email, and we trip up and collapse. It’s like we’re setting out to practice patience and suddenly people are being doubly disagreeable. “Ohh, I can’t do it!” In truth, the opposite is the case. “I, who am going to become a Buddha, will destroy all my delusions.”

Shantideva illustrates how we can put ourselves into that space with the example of a warrior – saying that if a warrior in battle gets a flesh wound and sees their own blood, they are roused to greater acts of courage. Whereas if someone bloodies me with a sword … well, I don’t know what I’d do, but if my brief days of playing school sports are anything to go by, I’d probably slink off the battle field as soon as as I could without being noticed.manjushri-wisdom-sword

The Bodhisattva is like a warrior – they start experiencing obstacles, and they are like, “Great! Bring it on!” More reason to wield the sword of wisdom against the delusions, more reason to be self-confident. 

And in truth, why shouldn’t we be self-confident? We know where the obstacles are coming from = just our own mind. The intriguing thing about the obstacles, the delusions, is that that’s all they are – they’re just delusions. Meaning not only are they just thoughts, without arms or legs as Shantideva says (let alone swords), but they also don’t have truth on their side. They’re actually grounded in ignorance. They are founded on a misperception of reality. Whereas we can become a Buddha, that’s the truth. We can overcome our delusions, that’s the truth. Wisdom, love, compassion, generosity, patience, self-confidence and all the other virtuous minds are based on seeing reality correctly.

The real battle lines are drawn 

It’s not a fight between good versus evil where we are on the sidelines, on tenterhooks, “Who’s going to win the ultimate battle, the dark side, the light side?!” It’s not like that — especially if we are talking about living beings versus living beings because we are all mixed bags of delusions and virtues changing all the time, and from one life to the next, so who could ever possibly win a battle like that?!

The real battle lines are wisdom versus ignorance, and finally, in that war, ignorance doesn’t stand a chance. This is because it is ignorant! It is stupid. It is also stubborn and fairly persuasive while we remain under its influence, but as soon as we start to view it from the perspective of wisdom it doesn’t stand a chance.

curved-knife

By holding in her right hand a curved knife, Buddha Vajrayogini — the wisdom of all Buddhas  — shows her power to cut the continuum of the delusions and obstacles of her followers and of all living beings.

More on this second type of self-confidence in the next article — we are out of time as I know a lot of readers have things to do like march the streets today. That’s cool, I like that people are standing up for what they believe in. Maybe it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, that our outward action is nurtured and given its meaning by our inner motivations. So even in these, for many people, difficult and scary times, and in the heat of battle, I am trying to remember that my real rebellion is against the delusions or wrong conceptions – never other living beings — and starting with my own.

Feedback from you: How do you stay confident enough to prioritize conquering your delusions, even when things are going badly wrong and the tendency to feel upset and lash out might be strong?

Related articles

Think globally, act locally

What are delusions?

Overcoming discouragement

 

Love & affection according to Buddhism

equalizing-3

If we too want to wake everyone up from their hallucinations, as explained here, we have to like them first, just as S has affectionate love for Murphy. This is the first step, and it is why the equalizing-3straightforward meditation on equalizing self with others is so helpful and why I’m going to write a bit more about it.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the bestest of us all?

I remember being quite excited when I read this in the American constitution shortly after I arrived here in 1999:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal …

We are all equal. In what way? Clearly not financially or politically or materially, and perhaps it will always be impossible for us all to be the same externally. But on a deeper and more basic level altogether, the mind level, the heart level, we are all exactly the same in wanting to experience happiness and avoid suffering. That’s true, isn’t it? I want to be happy and I want to avoid suffering, but so do you and so do you and so do you and so do you and so do you! Everybody does.

We are all sitting around having lots of ideas –schemes and memories and reflections, & likes and dislikes and opinions — but basically if you distill us all down to 2 essential wishes, they are, I want to be happy and I don’t want to suffer. That’s why we think all of our other thoughts, they back them up, they come from us trying to make ourselves happy and solve our problems.

And yet we manage to think, “I’m so special!” If I’m special, everybody’s special. And if you’re not special, well I’m not special either. Because at heart we’re the same.cherishing-others-is-not-so-difficult

This is quite a miracle meditation – it is based on the methods for equalizing and exchanging self with others taught by the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri via Shantideva, and it is like Manjushri’s sword cutting right through appearances and differences to the heart of the matter.

I wanted to make a tee-shirt with the slogan: “You’re nobody till you realize you’re nobody.” My friends laughed at the notion, but I don’t care, I like it. It reminds me of my teacher, Geshe Kelsang, who has no ego, which makes him a big Somebody when it comes to his ability to help people in this world.

Start with family and friends

Equalizing is one of the first meditations I did and it had such an impact that it became an instant favorite. Back in the day, about 100 years ago, when I started going to meditation classes in York, England, we were encouraged to remember just one person, put ourselves in their shoes, and then reflect how, at heart, we are the same – just as I long to be happy, so do they, and just as I long to be free from suffering, so do they. When that understanding arose in our mind, we were encouraged to hold it, and the feeling of affection that comes along with it.equalizing-2

I chose my grandmother, the lovely old mother of my dad, because I already liked her and it is good to make meditations easy to start with, to slip into some good feeling you already have and build on that. And, like I said, doing this easy-peasy, entirely reasonable contemplation had an impact. I felt close and warm toward her, a feeling that lasted for the remaining years of her life. In fact, I still feel it now when she comes to mind, wherever she may be. Hey Granny, I hope you are exceedingly well and happy.

If we have a sense of how one person is at heart just like us, then we can understand that this is equally true for everyone. All these people around me in the street or at work have the same heart as mine, so why focus on the differences when through recognizing our commonality a mind of love will naturally arise? Instead of being neurotically focused on what’s going on in our own irksome dream-like lives, we can ask ourselves, with genuine interest, “What is their life like? How do they feel? What do they want?” Moving away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others allows the heart to open and warm happiness to flow.

And we can gradually ask this question of all those too whom we find upsetting at the moment — it really helps us get over it and become centered, grounded, and peaceful.

Whose team are you on?

Did you watch the Broncos vs the Panthers in the Super Bowl this year? Which side did you root for? I think of all living beings as being on the same team, and our opponent is always the same: suffering and delusions. Competing with each other, not to mention deliberately getting in each others’ way, is as pointless as football players on the same team working against each other. The Broncos knew that. That’s why we won!!! 😉

equalizing-1Everyone is worthy of love. With this meditation we understand the heart of others. We understand what we have in common. We understand what unites us, and how much greater it is than what divides us.

In a way, the equanimity meditation is about how we see others. Now, with equalizing, we recognize how they see themselves. We develop empathy, put ourselves in their shoes, understand that “I” is the name of everyone. We are not uniquely “Me”. Which means we are not uniquely important. With familiarity we get used to thinking this way, and our life becomes big. And a lot more fun.

A mantra for the meditation break

If we get some familiarity with this in the meditation session — which can be just 10 minutes sitting on our sofa thinking this through with as little distraction as possible until our heart moves — then we can make the decision to carry this understanding into our daily life. It is helpful to have a quote or a mantra or a slogan to recall whenever we encounter anyone, and one recommended for this meditation is:

This person is important. Their happiness matters.may-i-constantly-cherish

This quote is a problem-solver par excellence as most of our problems come from thinking we are more important and significant than others. In the short term people will like us and we won’t develop problems from hatred, jealousy, and so on. In the longer term we will easily develop great compassion and bodhichitta.

Over to you. Have you had good results from this meditation?

Related articles:

Equalizing self and others 

Why am I so sad?

Want quicker results from your meditation?

Let’s just be kind

storm sky
storm sky

Storm Jonas Sky

Geshe Kelsang was in a car being shown around New York City some years ago – people were trying to point out the sights, he wasn’t unduly excited. At one point he shook his head, and said:

So many people, so much suffering.

Suffering can be seen on many faces in this towering concrete jungle. The overly entitled have affluenza in their penthouses, for example, while down below over 20,000 kids are homeless, including the frozen girl outside the Path subway stop with her cardboard sign. (Unbearable, she is still only a teenager but has been there for years. What future?) But there was a change in pace and noise over the weekend with the landing of Storm Jonas, when many were given temporary shelter, no cars were allowed on the roads, the snow muted all other sounds, and the usually high-octane New Yorkers were obliged to take it down a notch or two and cozy up inside.

I had my snow days over the water in Jersey City – we dug the car out but clearly weren’t going far on those roads, and the train was closed, so we stayed mainly on the sofa instead, along with millions of other East Coasters. Except I did go for some magical walks around the neighborhood with the dog – kids were making snowmen and tobogganing down their front stoops, everything felt far more peaceful than usual, graveyardthe cars were neatly buried, the blue sky and whiteness showed the colorful Journal Square houses off to good effect, even the cemetery looked good. It was like the olden days, like the 1950s or something, everyone convivial, the narrow or unpassable sidewalks forcing us to stand courteously aside for each other and smile. And everywhere, just everywhere, people were shoveling snow.

I had Winston with me, in his warm winter overcoat but his belly soaked. (Some people were dismayed by a photo I posted of him on Facebook because he was submerged to his nose, but what you might not know is that he is a Tibetan spaniel with snow in his DNA who chose to jump into the deepest mounds.) On shoveling snowMonday, as I was about to go inside, a friendly voice called me, “Hey! I didn’t recognize you!” I turned around. “Oh, it’s not you! But it is Winston! Where is Julian?” I told him that I was staying with Julian and France again, and that he and I had bumped into each other last year, which is true, his name is John. We got to chatting, he’s a very genial man, and he asked, “Have you come to live over here?” I said no, I still lived in Denver, to which he replied, “You should come and live with us! And meanwhile look at all this snow you brought! But it is a beautiful day.” We chatted a little longer and had some laughs. This was a good encounter and, though brief, left both of us feeling a warm connection. Life did not seem so rough in this neighborhood for a change.

John's home

Home?

Later as I was getting ready to go to Manhattan, the whole street for some reason filled up with emergency vehicles – a fire truck, 2 ambulances, a police car, all lights flashing. A queue of adventurous cars behind, no way they could pass on the snow-narrowed street. One ambulance left, one stayed. Emergency crew were coming and going with bits of equipment, and pushing snow fast to make a pathway for the stretcher. Clearly someone was in distress. “Perhaps it is the old Chinese man who lives next door?” said Julian. “I hope not, but maybe it is. Often people have heart attacks when shoveling snow.” I’d never heard that. I waited quite a while until someone was finally brought out on a stretcher, the ambulance crew still trying to pump his heart. To me, he looked dead, he had gone, only a body was left. And I said, “Julian, is that John?”

IMG_6645

Home?

We never know. Then we saw his distressed wife and 12-year-old daughter getting into the police car. I have heard since that he died in the house, that the first responders were never able to resuscitate him.

This has made me think, not for the first or for the last time, that life is way too short to waste in anger, frustration, disappointment, or intolerance. We have a few hundred months left at most. Life can end anytime so do we want to waste any of these valuable years, months, weeks, days, or even moments being angry or unkind? John was holding his shovel while we were talking. He was around my age, he looked perfectly fit and hJohn Caldwellealthy, he was having a beautiful day — but he still had a heart attack while shoveling snow. I was possibly the last person he talked to, an hour or so earlier, and if I had known then what I know now I would have asked him to go inside and sit on the sofa instead.

But that is not even all. On the Kadampa Buddhist Prayer Request FB page, someone has asked for prayers for her brother Thomas, aged 53 with a clean bill of health, who also died in New Jersey on Monday night while shoveling snow. He has left behind a “devastated” wife and teenage son. Please remember John, Thomas, and their families in your prayers.

IMG_6647Bodhisattvas, those intent on attaining full enlightenment to free every living being from their suffering and its causes forever, have a prayer, beautifully articulated by Shantideva:

Therefore, in whatever I do, may I never bring harm to others;
And when anyone encounters me, may it always be meaningful for them.

Walking down the street this evening with Winston, I saw the tree John planted for France and Julian outside their house, his black landscaping truck that has stood still for 3 days even though the road is now clear, and his blue home with all the curtains closed, perhaps his beloved poodle waiting by the door. And I thought how the remaining piles of once innocent snow, now grubbying and yellow, might be reminding his wife and daughter of their unfathomable loss, and how they might always find snow sinister after this.

John's truck

The snow is shoveled but this truck is going nowhere.

It makes me want to remember at all times that we are all on our way to dying and our next lives, so whoever we think we are and wherever we think we come from, we are all in this together. So let’s just be kind to each other on our way.

Seven benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitudeNow we are coming up to Thanksgiving here in the United States, and apparently the word “thanks” is connected to the word “grateful”, no surprises there, really. (“Grateful” is also loosely related to the word “grace”.) So this is the time of the year to feel grateful, which is nice, as study after study shows that gratitude is an enormous predictor of happiness, a kind of happiness superpower, and we all like being happy.

Plus we need to feel happy if we are to avoid being a grumpy git and ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. Have you noticed that we are far more likely to get annoyed if we are already not feeling happy inside? How when things feel good and we are connected to our own inner peace, happiness, and confidence, minor annoyances don’t worry us at all – but how on the other hand when we feel unsettled inside, not good in ourselves, not whole, split off from our own peace, the smallest thing can set us off? This might sound obvious, but that doesn’t seem to prevent us, the moment we do get annoyed, from casting around for something or someone else to blame, anything other than our own disgruntled state of mind.

Join the clubcontrol mind

Things are changing all the time, and I mean literally moment by moment – this is called impermanence – so is it any wonder that things don’t always change in the direction we want them to? We all have to keep re-adjusting to changing circumstances, we have no choice. However, if our mind is calm and we know we have everything we need inside, we hardly care. And one of the most powerful ways to get there is to train in gratitude. This means actually putting time aside to think about it.

Great-full

I sometimes think of “grateful” as “great-full”, ie, feeling full of all that is great. (Or something like that.) Dictionary.com says it means “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful” as well as “pleasing to the mind or senses; agreeable or welcome; refreshing.”

Gratitude does please our mind. It helps us enjoy our lives immensely. It helps us feel happy, whole, enriched, and confident. Instead of focusing on the things that are wrong with our life, and of course we can all come up with a long list, we focus on the things that are right.

How does that square with the need to focus on our suffering in order to develop renunciation? (Just in case you are wondering.) This is samsara after all, so what on earth are we supposed to be happy about? Generally the only time it is worth focusing on our own suffering is just for that reason, in order to develop the wish to get rid of it all and its causes. But at the times we are feeling hopelessly unhappy, bereft, annoyed, sorry for ourselves – the chances are that we are not focusing on our suffering in this constructive way at all. At which point we can either shift our focus to renunciation, or shift our focus away from what’s wrong to what’s right, developing gratitude instead.

The grass is not always greenergrass greener

Too often we pine over the things we haven’t got whilst neglecting the things we have. Counting our blessings is a way to focus on what we’ve got going for us, the green grass right under our noses.

By the way, I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ve been thinking lately about how there is never any point in trying to replace people and things we have lost. Better to tune into what is now and we’ll feel whole again. Not, “Oh this is just a pale imitation of the living conditions/relationship/job etc I had!” It is not a pale imitation, it is just different. It is not supposed to replace anything, and if we don’t set it up as a replacement we might just find that we are enjoying it in its own right. Be happy in ourselves and we can enjoy everything that comes our way.

Some scientifically proven benefits of gratitude

As I said, there are a ton of articles out these days about the power of gratitude. This article for example gives 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, so I thought I’d give a quick unscientific comment on all of them.

Gratitude:

  1. Opens the door to more relationships. Hardly surprising really, who doesn’t like being around someone who appreciates them?!
  2. Improves physical health. All I’ll say here is that I was feeling very grateful this morning (hence this article) and my good mood made me go for a swim in a pool in the snow.
  3. Improves psychological health. Gratitude “effectively increases happiness and reduces depression” and “reduces a multitude of toxic emotions (read “delusions”), ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.” That’s understandable, and cool.
  4. Enhances empathy and reduces aggression. For sure.
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Yup, I love sleeping!
  6. Improves self-esteem. And “reduces social comparisons”. Yes, if we are grateful to others, we tend to want to repay them, and it becomes natural to rejoice in them instead of comparing ourselves and falling short.
  7. Increases mental strength. Gratitude “reduces stress” and “fosters resilience”. There is nothing more resilient than a peaceful, controlled mind, which we get with gratitude.

That was only 7. This article gives 31 benefits of gratitude 🙂 But I’ll spare you my comments.

pigletNow I don’t know if this kind of thing impresses you or not, but I’ll mention it just in case. Gratitude also boosts our dopamine and serotonin levels. It is apparently even a form of emotional intelligence and “affects neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex” (which apparently is a good thing).

Feel free to Google “gratitude benefits” or whatever and you’ll have a stack of bedtime reading.

Before teaching how to generate a positive state of mind, Buddha Shakyamuni would always talk first about its benefits to encourage us to go for it. So hopefully you’ve decided that gratitude is what you want, in which case, in the next article I carry on with this and share some Buddhist techniques for feeling more grateful.

Meanwhile, I am always (well, almost always) grateful for your comments …

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

ripples from one drop of water

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

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

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

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

Shantideva

Shantideva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t stop there. Thinking,

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

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

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

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

A storm on Belleair Beach

struck by lightning

When I first met Phyllis Kalinowski, she was already dead.

She had a hole above her left eye, where she had just been struck by lightning.

And, lightning notwithstanding, I had just been intending to stroll along that beach and swim in that ocean. Instead, I crouched by her and did transference of consciousness (powa) until the first responders arrived. Phyllis Kalinowski struck by lightning

This is a beach I have never been on before. It was several miles from where I normally swim. We only chanced upon it because there was a big storm. When we were walking onto our normal beach, everyone else was walking off it, even though it wasn’t raining yet; and two women warned us rather sternly: “Don’t go out there.” So we didn’t, as they seemed to us like Tara. But still we felt strangely impelled to drive around looking for another beach, and it looked a bit less dark and thunderous further south.

You can probably tell from my wandering around in a storm that I always assumed the whole “you can get struck by lightning” thing was grossly exaggerated. But, as one of the first responders told me:

“It happens all the time around here.”

The most dangerous time is before the rain starts – once you’re wet, the lightning apparently glances off you.

Nowhere is safe. Phyllis was feet away from the idyllic Gulf of Mexico where, like us, she clearly thought she could get away with a stroll. She wasn’t yet headed toward shelter – and she unfortunately happened to be the highest lightning conductor on the beach. She had fallen flat on her face. Her friend, finding her like that, turned her over onto her back. Then, I imagine, her friend screamed – and when we first saw her she was hurrying away as fast as she could, wailing. She was being comforted by an older stranger, and I was wondering at the incongruity of someone dressed in a swimsuit on a beautiful beach being this stricken. Why did she go to the beach in the first place if she was this distraught? And, if something had upset her since she got to the beach, what could it possibly have been? Seeing us approach, she said in an odd echo, “You don’t want to go down there!”, but then said not another word as the woman led her away.

We expected to see something as we walked over the sand bank, but we were not expecting Phyllis. Another stranger, a man, had offered to guard the body while waiting for the first responders. He looked very uncomfortable and stood at some distance away. Other than that, no one else was on the beach. I felt very sorry for Phyllis – her friend was hysterical and this man clearly didn’t want to be there. She needed some peace around her, so we went close to her to meditate and pray.

Her arms and hands were flung out, relaxed. Despite the big hole in it, her face did not look scared. It must have been instant death. Mysteriously, her sunglasses had not fallen off. This did not look like someone asleep though. Her consciousness had clearly departed, hopefully through her upper chakras, leaving just her flesh. There is literally all the difference in the world between a dead body and a live one. I could tell from her face that she was not much older than me. According to the news reports the following day, she was 51. Her body had strong tan lines so I assumed she was a Florida native – it turned out she came from Brandon and had gone to the beach that day with her old friend to shell and swim.

Phyllis 2

These guys came after the first responders to take the body away.

The flashing lights and sirens heralded the approach of the first responders. They felt her pulse, nothing. She was already cool to the touch. They opened her eyelids, and her eyes “looking” at me were hazel brown and quite, quite unseeing. They cut her swimsuit off, with a view to restarting her heart. This is nothing she was expecting when she woke up that morning. It was nothing she was expecting even twenty minutes earlier. The indignity of her flesh, cherished and guarded throughout her life, now laid bare; I looked away then. Their efforts did no good anyway, she was still dead. They covered her with a yellow plastic sheet. Professional, swift — they were used to dead bodies, this much was clear, though a couple of the younger paramedics couldn’t disguise a look of surprise when they first saw her wound. 

Karma strikes again

Phyllis and us had the karma to be on that beach at (almost) the same time. How did we come to this moment? We clearly had some connection with her—strange, fleeting, but hopefully helpful as it led to a transference of consciousness and many prayers being made. When and how did we meet in the past? How did she create the causes to have so many Buddhists praying for her?

According to all the papers and news shows, Phyllis was a great person. “She was just wonderful, she was so giving to everybody’. “Those who knew the wife and mother of two described her as an energetic, outgoing and compassionate woman.”

Do you ever wonder why we have chance meetings, and what is their meaning? How many people are there in our karmic circle, whom we share life with every day – 5, 10, 20, 100? How many family members, friends, and colleagues? Then how many millions of people do we meet for one minute or two minutes during the course of our lives, nodding at each other on the street, or having a momentary conversation about something that may or may not be meaningful to both of us? Yet at the same time we have entwined karma and a deep connection with each one of them, dating back lifetimes.

Our meetings, however brief, need never be superficial or insignificant. There is always something positive we can do with our mind when others cross our path. As P said on Tuesday, as we watched the people walk by in Liverpool One, “People-watching is so meaningful if you use Dharma!” There is a beautiful verse in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Therefore, in whatever I do,
I will never cause harm to others;
And whenever anyone encounters me,
May it never be meaningless for them.

I am so sad for Phyllis and her family and friends, but I am glad we were there that surreal day. She helped me deepen my experience of the truth of Dharma and I hope, thanks to the Buddhas and other friends, that I was of some use to her.

Brief encounters

A lot of people saw my Facebook posting about Phyllis and were praying for her even before her strange death hit the news the following morning.

Oscar the kitten in Kadampa LifeThat same evening, my first foster kitten Oscar died of FIP, just over a year old. I coincidentally had the chance to say goodbye to him when I arrived at Orlando airport a week earlier, as his mum and dad live nearby. Oscar was a beautiful little fellow inside and out and no cat could ever want a more perfect, loving home, so it was very sad. Oscar however created the causes for many Facebook friends to care and pray for him too. 

A few days later, Dianne Elliott also died, of a heart attack that was not unexpected given years of poor health, but sudden nonetheless. Dianne was a long-term Buddhist practitioner and a beloved woman, and her funeral (in Barrow last Wednesday) was by far the best one I have ever been to. Although she will be very missed, I think we all felt she had gone to the Pure Land, in keeping with her foremost and most constant wish:

At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines, and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ Quick Path to Great Bliss

DianneI first met Dianne in Florida too, but we go back many years and share many experiences and good friends, and so the connection is clear. The day before her death, oddly enough, I had ridden her old bicycle and driven past her old apartment, and was thinking of her. I heard the news by text message, but most people heard about her death within hours of it being posted on Facebook, and powas and prayers were made for her worldwide.

A week later, little Losang Tenpa died. Although he had spent his whole short life in Nepal and India, there were hundreds of Westerners who loved him, rooted for him, and prayed for him. All this also through the collective karma of Facebook, where big Losang Tenpa posted moving accounts of the last few hopeful, heroic months and then his sudden, tragic passing. Good article about it here, on the Heart of Compassion blog. 

Collective karma

Facebook seems to have increased the number of daily encounters we can make — friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, or the people (including animals) whom we are asked to help and pray for every day… (It seems everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to Facebook…)

All in all I find that Facebook can be pretty meaningful–or as meaningful as I want it to be–if I log on to increase my love, Losang Tenpacompassion, and sense of connectedness with a wide world web of living beings. Though it can of course be a huge exercise in distraction, it seems in some ways to be the result of good collective speech karma. Dianne’s husband said he felt a bit strange about announcing his wife’s death on Facebook, but the fact is he knew it would do the trick. When I die, I hope to have the good karma to be posted on Facebook too. It is through Facebook, after all, that thousands of people were able to tune in and make strong prayers for Dianne, Phyllis, little Tenpa, and Oscar, within short days or even just hours of their unscheduled departures from this life.

Related articles

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

A temple for this place and time

Preparing for the Pure Land

All the world’s a stage…

Mad Men

Do you ever feel you’re being manipulated when you’re watching something? Like it’s staged to make you think and feel a certain way?

Of course, all plays and movies are! But sometimes for some reason you see right through it.

Mad Men is a popular drama and several friends had recommended it to me so I watched some of it. Notwithstanding the intentionally annoying misogyny that pervades it, I enjoyed the fact that it was set not long before I was born but might as well have been made in the dark ages, so much has changed since then. Those telephones! I remember we had one as a child; it seemed perfectly fine back then, now it belongs in a museum. The whole way of life without cell phones and computers is entirely different. And yet this is only 50 years ago, and I was born pretty much into the tail end of it. This is the world of my parents. Mad Men and Buddhism

It also struck me that one reason there was no way out for these characters is because meditation hadn’t even arrived on the scene yet – they had to hit the bottle or the sack because they had no reliable sources of pleasure or satisfaction, especially as on the whole these were not church-going types and yet had few spiritual alternatives.

But for the purposes of this article I was interested in how much effort and how many causes and conditions were brought together to convince me, the viewer, that it was real. The telephones for sure, and all the design pieces. The Neanderthal attitudes, the drinking, the nervous reaching for a cigarette at times of the remotest stress or pleasure, the boredom, the futility… Thousands of people have engineered this reality for me, making it as real as possible, and a huge variety of causes and conditions have gone into it. Remove any of them – the hairstylist, the director, the camera man, the cigarettes, the clunky telephones, etc – and I may not have been as convinced.

A movie clearly depends completely on its causes and conditions. It is none of those causes and conditions either individually or collectively, yet take even one away and it disappears. It has no power to exist from its own side. The same is true of life.

When I was living in San Francisco I visited the set of Pixar with a friend, T., who was working on Ratatouille. My mind boggled at the number of causes and conditions going into producing a 90-minute animated movie – thousands of skilled people, several years, and seemingly never-ending still drawings and sculptures both traditional and computerized. In The Incredibles, there is a typical teenager called Violet, who is characterized by hiding behind a large fringe of hair, until she gains confidence (helped no doubt by saving the world with her superpowers) and the hair gets tucked back. During this whole eye-opening visit to Pixar, the thing that struck me most was learning that one of T’s friends had worked for three years on … get this… pretty much just Violet’s hair! Violet from the Incredibles and Kadampa Life

If we really examine it, we can see that our own hair has also risen and continues to arise in dependence upon numerous causes and conditions – both physical and karmic – going back a very long way. Even just one moment or freeze frame of our hair depends on genes coming from our parents and their parents etc, and karma we have created – and moment by moment these causes and conditions continue to evolve to produce moment after moment of hair (or hair loss).

Countless causes and conditions have also gone into the scene I am witnessing right now. I am sitting at my desk writing on a PC with a splendid cappuchino from the World Peace Cafe downstairs, looking out onto a park that is vividly green with flashes of rhodedendrom colour, half-sunshine/half clouds and a sky close enough to touch, magpies hopping about on the branches, goslings on the lake, and people kicking a football… Remove any one of these causes and conditions – the desk, the park, the sunshine, even the football — and the scene is a new one. If I was to look for anything really happening, from its own side, as in the movies, I would find nothing – none of the causes and conditions is this scene, but remove even just one of them and this particular scene dissolves.

goslings in Sefton Park Kadampa Meditation Centre Liverpool(In a few days, all the causes and conditions for my sitting here in Liverpool will have been used up. New causes and conditions will be kicking in to produce new effects as life unfurls … )

Everything is illusion-like according to the Buddhist Madhyamika view of reality. Even though it appears to, nothing exists inherently, from its own side. In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:

Provided all the necessary conditions are assembled,
Even an illusion will come into being.

Illusions like movie characters appear in dependence upon causes and conditions, and so do we.

Different types of cause
Give rise to different types of illusion.

We take one rebirth after another in dependence upon particular causes and conditions, and Mad Men comes into being in dependence upon different causes and conditions. There is no single cause that can give rise to the infinite variety of different effects. A movie may not last as long as us, but this is no proof that we are more existent from our own side – or it would follow that a dream of long duration was more valid than one of shorter duration.

sowing seeds of love karmaI can tell I’m being manipulated by the acting in Mad Men — the fake smoking and the fake sex and the fake attitudes. Not that it isn’t well acted; it is just that sometimes you can’t help seeing through things, you can see they are staged. Just like a movie, all the causes and conditions of my life effect an appearance that I get sucked into as real, even though this reality is just a set-up, a projection of my ignorance. How great it will be to see through the seeming permanence of every scene in my life to see that it is changing moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions. How great it will be to see through the veneer of my current reality to see that it too is fake, artificial, Drapersmile-lg1appearances pretending to be something solid and “out there”. We already are the designers, producers, and directors of our own reality. Once we realize this, we can design, produce, and direct a life we actually want!

Postscript 3 years later: Who thought Mad Men would end with Don Draper meditating?! There is hope for us all.

Do you like change?

change 1

This continues from the article “Do you ever feel discouraged?

making the most of changeIf someone were to ask you: “Do you want to be exactly the same person, in the same situation, in the same moods, in 5 years’ time or even 10 years’ time?”, chances are you’d think, “Heck, no!”, especially if you understand your potential for happiness and think about the number of irritants you currently have in your life.

So one part of us wants to change.

The other part of us hates the idea. “You’ve got to move.” “No, I don’t want to move.” Our partner starts changing, or our kids start changing, or our job changes, and it makes us nervous, it unsettles us. Not to mention our fear of death, our own and that of others close to us.

We want things to change and remain the same. So this ambivalence about change – wanting it and dreading it — can be a problem! Change makes us anxious, yet at the same time we know we need to change. Why? Because we’re not happy where we are, we are always wishing things were different at some level. We are rarely free from some level of dissatisfaction; even when we’re having a good time there is still some sense that we could make it even nicer or better, or else worrying, “Oh no, this is really good, but it’s about to be over!”

can't get no satisfactionThere is always a shifting going on, a wanting things to be different to get away from the basic dissatisfaction in our heart, but we can’t get no satisfaction. Mick Jagger got that one right. And we try, and we try. It doesn’t matter how much we shift around our external circumstances, the basic dissatisfaction in our heart remains, and that’s why we want change.

That’s why we want it, yet at the same time we dread it. Better the devil you know. Big changes tend to make us very insecure, even if they are not bad ones, because at least we feel we have a sort of handle on the current situation even if it sucks – “The new job, city, apartment looks better, but I don’t know… it’s a bit unsettling all this.” 

Arriving late

Here’s an example of wanting to change and not wanting to change. I have a good friend who always arrives late at places – sometimes so late that he misses the entire event! He arrived halfway through his own birthday party recently. To hear him tell it, there’s nothing he can do about it. But, and he is not alone in this, if you are a perpetual late arriver it is not because you can’t tell the time — you know exactly when you need to leave to arrive on time. Usually something like this happens: “Ok, time to go… oh, hold on, let me just do this and that, put my laundry in the drier, nip into this shop on the way, get some gas … Oh, I’m late again!” That is an act of self-sabotage because you’re wishing to arrive on time to blow out your own candles with your invited guests, and yet arranging it in such a way that you are not going to be there on time. It may seem to just sort of happen, but if we check, we are making a choice, as a result of which we’re going to be late.white_rabbit_arriving_late

This is an example of how on the surface we want to change, but subconsciously in the realm of deeper habits we don’t want to. And so we’re at odds with ourselves, which is tiring and discouraging. If we check our habits in meditation, especially the ones we don’t like, we can see what it is we are doing to feed that habit. When we step back and look at it, it’s a choice we’re making. It might be a weighted choice coming with a lot of habit behind it, but still it’s a choice.

Spiritual practice is all about change

So it seems we have an ambivalence – on the one hand we want change and on the other hand we are afraid of change and cling on to the same old things with attachment. And spiritual practice is all about change. It’s all about training our mind, letting go of attachment, moving our mind somewhere new. It’s all about identifying the internal causes of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, inner conflicts – the delusions – and getting rid of them. It is all about changing our lifelong habits of relating to others and to ourselves in unconstructive ways by increasing our positive minds such as love and wisdom. Meditation practice is a systemic process of transforming the mind. It requires effort. And effort requires aspiration – we have to WANT it. We have to therefore WANT to change our mind, deep down, without the ambivalence.

lotus 6

The four mental powers that help effort

The sign that we’re applying actual effort (as opposed to being lazy) is that we are changing. We’re becoming more peaceful, positive, flexible, kind-hearted, strong, free. Not necessarily day-by-day – monitoring it on a daily basis just sets us up for more grasping or impatience – but month by month, year by year. How do we apply effort in such a way that it is going to bring about these results? It has everything to do with our (1) deepest wishes and motivations, (2) steadfast confidence, (3) joyfulness, and (4) ability to relax and recharge. Shantideva teaches these 4 powers extensively in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (and further commentary is in Meaningful to Behold.)

These four powers are the way to increase our effort. It might be worth noting that effort is a state of mind, or so-called “mental factor”, unto itself, and it is by nature “virtuous”, ie, creating the cause of happiness. Therefore, the more we are enjoying any spiritual or virtuous practice, the more good karma we are creating! It seems to be a win win.

More here 

Over to you… comments welcome.

Breathe out problems, breathe in love

giving meditation

The other day someone asked me: “I know we’re supposed to put others first – but I was taught that in the Girl Guides and its always just made me feel like a doormat.”Buddhism is not about being a doormat

Interestingly, someone else in a separate conversation on the same day also told me that they’d been taught that in the Girl Guides, but their take was different, they felt it was a Buddhist teaching for them in disguise, and they really liked it

What is the difference? The answer is what is going on in the mind. Putting others first has to come not from a sense of onerous, self-sacrificing duty but from a genuine cherishing of others, feeling that their happiness is important, even more important than our own. If we genuinely feel that way, we will naturally and happily want to put them first, there’ll be no self-flagellation involved. But that does not mean that our happiness becomes entirely unimportant. Happiness is our nature, our Buddha nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong, insofar as it doesn’t work, is seeking it outside when it is inside, and thinking that our happiness is more important than anyone else’s when it’s not.

Actually we need to learn to enjoy our own company a great deal, and it is no fun hanging out with a doormat! We have to like and respect ourselves, which means we have to have something good to like and respect about ourselves = and generally this is our positive and happy qualities, all of which come one way or another from cherishing others. Cherishing others is a win win for us and for others.

we are not the center of the universeThe great Indian Buddhist Shantideva famously said that all suffering in this world comes from self-cherishing and all happiness in this world comes from cherishing others. All of it. I’m not sure there is even an exception to this rule. What Shantideva says makes sense because self-cherishing is a delusion, an unrealistic mind – who else but your own self-cherishing attitude thinks you are the most important person in the world?! (Asked what he felt about death recently, an Australian comedian joked half-seriously that his main fear was who was going to take his place in the center of the universe.) Not even your own mum agrees with this assessment of your own importance, except maybe sometimes, and certainly none of the other 7 billion humans on the planet does — and don’t even think about all the animals who have no clue who you are and don’t care. When we are thinking and acting while taken in by an hallucination, it is no surprise when things don’t work out. Cherishing others, on the other hand, is entirely realistic because it understands that others actually are important, both to themselves and also to us. Others also think they are the only real ME, and we depend on them for everything.

Test the teachings like gold

We don’t need to take Shantideva’s word for it though. In fact we should never take even Buddha’s word for anything, he said so himself – advising people to test everything he said as they’d assay gold to see if it was genuine. We test what we hear and read about Buddhism in the laboratory of our own mind, reasoning, and life experiences in order to come to our own conclusions and decisions, our own good ideas. However much we admire or trust someone, just taking on what they say without thinking it through and making it our own idea has limited benefit, for sooner or later we’ll fall back on our own habitual thoughts and behaviors again. That’s one reason why I think in Buddhism we talk about listening, contemplating, and meditating – we don’t just stop at listening.test Buddha's teachings like gold

So, in this instance, we can look at our own lives to see whether self-cherishing causes us problems or not, and whether cherishing others causes us happiness or not. A simple experiment to get us started is to think of a problem we’ve had recently, such as today. Any problem will do.

Okay, I’ll go first. I work as a project manager for a medical journal and sometimes one doctor or another can be a bit big for their boots. One was complaining about the imposition of only being paid $1,500 for a few hours’ work, and I found myself wondering briefly what planet he lived on. I was a little miffed at his rather rude and condescending email and felt discouraged for a few minutes. Then I got over it.

So, let’s analyze what was going on, and, specifically, who was I thinking of when I was feeling miffed…

Why, me, of course. “How dare he be so insensitive to ME!! Doesn’t he realize what my hourly rate of pay is?!” As my thoughts began to run away with themselves, I started to project this worry into the future as well… “Oh no, I have to work with this guy for a whole MONTH, what if I can’t do it …?”

Then, how did I get over it? By thinking about him and how he wants to be happy but, in this instance at least, doesn’t really know how to – if $1,500 for 3 hours work can’t make you happy, you may be relatively hard to satisfy. His own irritation was doubtless stressing him out. Plus, his dog probably loves him, he can’t be all bad. I genuinely wished him happiness and the problem magically disappeared.

Ok, your turn. Who were you thinking of while you were having your problem? ….

…. Now, if you imagine cherishing the other person or other people around you instead of yourself, what happens to your problem? ……

breathing out problemsDid the problem disappear? Poof…!

If it did, you can extrapolate that the same thing will happen to all your problems if you move away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others.

(This is not just the case for relatively small problems, such as having to work with an irritating client, but with seemingly insurmountable, existential ones. Loren Jay Shaw, for example, was in Super Max solitary confinement for 3 years, and it was cherishing ants that stopped him going quite literally insane.)

Combine your understanding with breathing meditation

Then, what you can do next, if you like, is think that this problem and all other problems caused by your self-cherishing appear in the form of dark clouds at the level of your heart, in the center of your chest. Think:

“I don’t need any of this – these thoughts are just bad habits, and they are not me.”

Then with this decision, breathe the dark clouds out through your nostrils so they disappear forever. Do that for a while, feeling your heart becoming lighter with every breath.

After a little while, imagine breathing in blissful, clear light – like the sky, only infinitely clearer. It enters your nostrils and descends to your heart, or heart chakra — your spiritual heart located in the center of your chest. It looks like light, but its nature is love, cherishing others. You can also think of it as all the love from throughout the universe, including that of all holy beings, blessings. With every breath, feel your heart become happier.

Than spend a few minutes combining the two, breathing out the last of the dark clouds and breathing in the blissful clear light.

Buddha peaceWe can identify with this peaceful, spacious feeling at our heart, thinking:

“This is my Buddha nature. This peace and love I am feeling, however slight, indicates my potential for limitless love. This is who I am.”

We are not the clouds of our delusions, we are the sky of our Buddha nature. We can hang out in this blissful clarity at our heart for as long as we like, feeling at home there, thinking “This is me.”

Then, for the extra icing on this meditation cake, we can think that everyone in the world has this same potential at their heart. How wonderful it would be if they could remove self-cherishing and its problems and identify with their pure love instead. Then we can dedicate all the good karma or good fortune we’ve created so that we and others quickly accomplish this.

Before we rise from meditation, we can think ahead briefly to how we are going to remember this love for the rest of the day. One excellent way is to use the Lojong (mind-training) motto with everyone we meet or think about:

“This person is important. Their happiness matters.”

Mummies of the World

mummies story to be told

I found myself doing a rather odd thing yesterday, but there were hundreds of other ordinary tourists and families doing it with me – though, come to think of it, that makes it even odder!! contemplating impermanence

I was looking at loads of dead bodies. Dead human bodies. And not just any old dead human bodies but bodies that had been dead for thousands of years. And me and all the kids, parents, couples, senior citizens, and so on were all trying to be respectful, as we had been requested in the introductory video, and we were surely fascinated with our “Ooohs!” and “Aaahhhs!”, though I overheard a great deal of “Euggh, that’s gross” comments and had no shortage of these sentiments myself.

I will backtrack. My friend Anya had asked me to go to the Mummies exhibition last week  with her and her kids, and I thought no more about it until they and another friend Donna picked me up yesterday morning. We had pancakes and coffee, a perfectly normal Sunday mummies story to be toldmorning activity, drove 50 miles to Tampa, still pretty normal, and then spent an hour or two staring at dead bodies.

Donna is a force of nature. She is undergoing extensive chemo for an aggressive cancer, throughout which she has continued to work nights at a grueling job without being granted so much as ten minutes off. 10am was like 3am for her, yet in the pancake house she was grinning from ear to ear as she told us a funny story about the rap artist 50 cents (I can’t really remember what it was about, I was too mesmerized by her contagious laughter, when I know that physically she feels a wreck.) This was after telling me her life history as I requested, which involved an Oprah-worthy amount of hardship, including abandonment at the age of 11 by her mother, years of living with a dead beat father, and basically bringing herself up with no money. But she seems to have emerged, if not entirely unscathed by her own admission, at least impressively lacking in self-pity and possessing a great sense of humor. She is two months younger than me.

A woman came up to Donna in the pancake house, touched her shoulder, nodded toward her bald head, and said, “God bless you. I’ve been there.” Donna said she gets that a lot. It doesn’t really annoy her, not any more. She feels she has joined a secret club, which actually has a surprisingly large number of people in it, and it feels good to know she is not alone even though she has always prided herself on her independence. I was telling her about Shantideva’s quote “Suffering has good qualities” because, whatever illness or suffering we have, the curious thing is how quickly we find others who have it as well – and these may be the same people we’ve been brushing shoulders with for years without knowing. This helps our empathy and it is not too much of a stretch to spread it out to understand that everyone suffers from something or other. She is not a Buddhist, but she liked that, as she has a direct taste. She told me she did feel that her world had gotten larger, paradoxically, even though she is more physically constrained, her life currently a combination of work and being strapped to chemo machines.

One of my previous bodies?

She was tired when we arrived so we got her a wheelchair. It was kind of useful actually — we found that people got out of our way when I pushed her toward them! Ha ha! So, even though it was a busy labor day Sunday, we had front row seats for a whole bunch of dead bodies…  Lucky us. 

If Donna was having any thoughts about her own mortality, she was keeping quiet about it. As were all the other still animated bodies wandering around in there. For myself, having spent a lifetime contemplating death, I couldn’t help but imagine my own body lying there all shriveled and hideous 3000 years in the future, with bits of skin and hair still hanging off it, while a whole bunch of weird people in a futuristic world I could never have anticipated were all gaping at it, laughing nervously, ignoring it while chattering about other stuff, or moving away in disgust.  (I told Anya et al that on no account do I want them to mummify my body when I’m gone.) There was a video there of the sped-up decomposition of a rabbit, a pumpkin, a rat, and an orange. Anyone under any illusion about the beauty of flesh need look no further…  There were even mummies of cats – nice to know the Egyptians valued their pets so highly, but still… I think when the time comes I will bury Rousseau instead.

mummy of a cat mummies of the world

Or this one?

(One question I have for you, dear readers. Why are they called “Mummies”? I know from a Buddhist point of view everyone has been our Mummy, but I don’t think that’s what the Egyptians meant.)

There is one other vignette from yesterday that also gave me a little insight. Years ago, as a volunteer youth I assisted a man called Wilf, who was completely paralyzed except for his head, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. We became friends so I also went to visit him and his wife, also disabled, at their very well equipped house. One thing I noticed was the embarrassed or condescending reactions many (not all) people had upon seeing someone in a wheelchair. Wilf was sharp as a tack and amusing as could be, and he took beautiful photos, but many people seemed to overlook these basic facts about him. People would look sympathetic or talk about him literally above his head. While Donna was in the restroom, I sat on her chair in the corridor to wait and use the few minutes to think about what I had seen. A man came out of the gents and the door swung into my chair because I was entirely in the way. He was flustered, said sorry, and made as if to move me out of the way. I said quickly: “Don’t worry, I’m fine, I was in the way, this is not my chair, I’ll just get up and….” But he wasn’t listening to a word I was saying! In fact, he was barely looking at me; I don’t think we made any eye contact at all. He got behind my chair and started to pull it along the corridor. I started to try and get up, and he pushed down on my shoulder, saying “No, don’t do that, I will help get you out of harm’s way.” I decided to relent and let him push me wherever he felt like. And I got a fleeting but useful feeling of what it must have been like to be Wilf.

Later yesterday evening I was invited by my Russian neighbors to Konstantin’s birthday party, and we discussed the body of Lenin, embalmed in alcohol, waiting for… what exactly?

mummies of the world

Bit late for that?

I suppose yesterday for me was mainly a testament to the futility of attempting to preserve and hang onto our human flesh when one thing is inevitable, and one thing alone – we are all going to die and these cossetted bodies, temporary guesthouses, are going to be entirely useless and rather revolting when we do. For most of us, our friends and relatives will be in no hurry to keep them lying around any longer than they have to, and will quickly dispose of them. We might as well get used to this idea sooner rather than later, given that everyone we know is going to die pretty shortly in the grand scheme of things, including us. Better to embrace impermanence than try to grasp onto a permanence that simply does not exist and end up with nothing better to hug than a corpse. Better to ask ourselves, “Once this body of mine is shriveling up and decaying — whether that is in 50 years, 20 years, 5 years, a few weeks, or later today — where will I be and what will I be doing?” It is not the truth we need to avoid; it is the deceptions of our permanent-grasping and attachment.

A friend of mine wrote to me today with an eloquent, moving reply to my condolences on his beloved mother’s death and explaining a little of how he is reacting to it. One of the things he said:

“It is a challenging appearance as you said. I had a thought yesterday as I sat in the chapel next to her open coffin that really she is Buddha Tara and this emanated appearance of death is just to teach me the most important meditation that Venerable Geshe-la is always encouraging us to realise.”

At this point I can only imagine what it must be like to sit beside the body of one of my parents, but we are all going to have to do this over and over again with all our loved ones, so we may as well give at least some thought as to how we’re going to cope with that before it is upon us. Is that morbid or is that common sense?

Over to you. Comments welcome.

 

 

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