The inspiration of Harriet Tubman

I want to talk about Harriet Tubman, one of the most celebrated freedom fighters in American history, whose story Harriet has only now made it onto the big screen. I don’t need to put a spoiler alert on this because most Americans, if not others, know her story. It’s as relevant as ever and has inspired me anew to get over myself and “keep on keepin’ on”.

For the time-pressed amongst you, don’t bother reading this article lol — just listen to the movie anthem, Stand Up:

I’ll start with this overview from ST, who watched the movie with me:

“The anthem has the power of someone who has just stood up on principal — and owns it. This is the story of someone who does not identify with what is done – only what is to be done. It is a story of courage and righteous determination. It is a story of a leader who didn’t take No for an answer. She was aware it was not going to be easy but was willing to give her last life drop to save others – with her own hands. She was so laser focused on what she needed to accomplish that her own self barely rated a mention. She was selfless, compassionate, loving, and brave. To me, she is a genuine inspiration: her focus and determination and fearless action. All this while having been a slave, been a woman, in the 1800’s, against all odds she surmounted.

I ask myself, would I have been as brave? Would I have thrown myself into that life, in that place and time, as she did? And I have to conclude that it would be poorly at best – given that although I know Dharma and I trust Buddha, I have not plugged like that into refuge, renunciation, and bodhichitta. And yet my life evaporates before my own eyes.

If you have time, read on …

Life in bondage

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.

Harriet in slavery daysIn early life, Harriet experienced the countless horrors of a life in bondage. She and her family were beaten, sold, humiliated, and constantly ill due to poor conditions and endless struggles.

Although slavery was all she knew, somehow Harriet knew it was not right. She came to realize that she was destined for something else. Born a slave, she yet had a vision of freedom.

We samsaric beings, too, are born enslaved. We are all in bondage. Now is not the time to appease the slave holders but to stand up. Don’t ignore that voice inside you that says you are born to bigger things. Harriet didn’t.

Harriet Tubman quotation 1.jpg

Owning others

God don’t mean people to own people. 

Harriet’s relationship with Gideon Brodess, the chilling young slaveholder, was complicated – he seemed to envy her and love her and hate her. He was torn. They grew up together. She might have saved his young life with her fervent bedside prayers; he’ll never know. He knew her humanity and probably even her superiority, but was raised in a belief system whereby he was the superior, her master and OWNER! He knew this was not true on one level, but he also got a kick out of thinking, “You’re amazing, but I own you.”

How can one human being absurdly feel that they own another? Only by “othering” them and labelling them less than a human (at most two-thirds of a human); so he had to liken her ridiculously to a pig. Yet at the same he recognized her power – for one thing, his father had just dropped dead, and he didn’t know if it was because of her prayers that God smote him.

Why do we ever feel the compulsion to “own” another living being and/or (ab)use them for our own purposes? There is no justification for it. It is always just ignorance. It stems from the so-called view of the transitory collection conceiving “I” and “mine”. Because we have a strong sense of I, we also have a strong sense of mine, which is grasping at I in the possessive mode, “I’s”, or “of me”. The stronger this ignorant sense of an inherently existent self and mine, the stronger the sense of other and possession; and the more our self-cherishing unreliably informs us that this “other/possession” is less important than self.

(Technical aside: “view of the transitory collection” simply means we observe the transitory, fleeting collection of body and mind parts, not one of which is the self, and project or view a real, inherently existent self there where there isn’t one.)

Does thinking we own other people make us more free or more powerful? Of course not, ignorance does the opposite. And are abusers ever off the hook – how do they really sleep at night or look at themselves in the mirror, what fantasies about themselves do they have to concoct and then constantly sustain to make their life feel even remotely right? Gideon’s mother, for example, looked about as tense as it is possible for a human being to be even when things were supposedly still going her way. Not to mention the hideous karma.

As said here, of course, it is not other living beings but delusions that are the real slaveholders. While the delusions grasping at I and mine run the show, we will continue to treat each other badly and create worlds of suffering for ourselves at the same time. Because Buddhas and Bodhisattvas understand that people are not their delusions, their love and compassion for everyone (even psychopaths!) never wavers. And they work on two levels – going to the assistance of those in need with fierce love and compassion, but also and always keeping their sights on liberating everyone permanently from the actual causes of all suffering.

Do you really want to be free?

Not everyone Harriet tried to help wanted to be helped. In the movie, at least, her sister Rachel, for example, seemed to opt to keep her head under the radar as much she could and just find ways to withstand the terrible treatment until her death.

What’s the difference between a Harriet and a Rachel? Rachel knew her situation was atrocious so why did she deny herself any hope of release, even when her sister came all the way back for her?

I don’t claim to know about Rachel per se, or all the other slaves in her position. Rachel’s situation was going to be very dangerous whatever she decided. However, this scene made me wonder not so much about Rachel but about myself. Am I just going through the motions of renunciation and bodhichitta? Do these go deep enough? Am I free? Am I a freedom fighter? Or am I someone who knows life can be extremely painful but still doesn’t have a deep enough wish to escape, thinking I will just try to put up with my lot till death sets me free? Neglecting also to think about the even greater slavery and bondage I will be subject to in future lives, that the only difference between me and someone more obviously enslaved is time?

In other words, do I really get how unfree I am? That not just samsara’s pains but its reliefs are totally deceptive and irredeemable, houses of cards at best?

The black slave catcher also rejected salvation. Even in the inspiring presence of a courageous freedom fighter, he didn’t want to leave and he didn’t want anyone else to leave either. Am I like that — aiding and abetting samsara’s wardens in the hope of some perverse affection or reward, like someone with Stockholm syndrome?

Stand Up

Harriet managed to escape from her slaveholders in Maryland in 1849. As she jumped to an uncertain fate in the rushing river, rather than go back to Brodess who was slickly trying to convince her he wouldn’t hurt her, she declared:

I’m going to live free or die! 

Imagine having that zero tolerance for the despicable, slick, and heartless enemy of samsara, not trying to keep appeasing it or hoping against all odds for the best. Harriet had the deepest renunciation for slavery and an option to try and do something about it, which then translated into compassion for others in the same situation.

The underground hero Reverend Green — who preached obedience in front of the slave owners as a cover to enable Harriet and others to escape – had said to her:

There’s not much time. You got to be miles away from here till dawn. Follow that north star. If there are no stars, just follow the river. Listen for them. Fear is your greatest enemy. 

And, having defeated that greatest enemy, Harriet finally crossed into Pennsylvania, later describing that moment:

When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven. 

Harriet’s faith

Harriet as MosesShe was indubitably guided by her faith, her faith increasing with her fear, like refuge does. The sun of her faith kept her always pointed in a positive direction:

I been walking with my face turned to the sun.

Did she have narcolepsy or seizures or even “possible brain damage” as stated in abolitionist William Still’s initial report on her? It doesn’t really matter. If our faith makes other people think we’re a little different or crazy it doesn’t matter because, as the singer Seal puts it:

No we’re never gonna survive, unless
We are a little crazy.

Apparent craziness = sanity, when it comes to disbelieving samsara’s fairy tales and following our Spiritual Guide out of here.

And I know what’s around the bend
Might be hard to face ’cause I’m alone.
And I just might fail
But Lord knows I tried
Sure as stars fill up the sky.

Like Harriet, we need a deepening faith and refuge whenever things go wrong, in the very middle of danger and pain. We can trust more in blessings and open ourselves more to being guided. It worked for her and for the thousands of people who trusted her.

 It wasn’t me, it was the Lord! I always told Him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,’ and He always did.

JW, a friend mentioned here, just told me while we were discussing this movie:

“I don’t know if this was in the movie, but Harriet was asked to lead the raid on Harper’s Ferry during the Civil War by abolitionist John Brown. She didn’t go for some unknown reason. Fortunately for her, she didn’t go, because the group was captured and many of the group were executed, including John Brown.”

Holy beings seemed to be protecting her till a ripe old age. Our faith protects us. I feel I’ve had a couple of near misses myself that are hard to account for without some divine intervention.

We already have Buddha nature that is not of this world, not of samsara. Within it, we can come to feel the connection to holy beings, to enlightenment. The sooner we tune in and relate to that, the sooner we will wake up from this horror story.

Take my people with me

My father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were in Maryland. But I was free, and they should be free.  

Harriet escoring slavesEven though Harriet made it to a new life and a fresh start, she couldn’t rest easy knowing her people continued to endure doomed lives as slaves. So despite the strong protestations of William Hill, she went back with a suit to fetch her beloved husband. Only to discover that he had married another woman.

At first full of doubt and emotional agony, she said:

Why, Lord, did you bring me all this way to rub mud in my face? 

But then she realized, through the pain, that the suit must have been meant for someone else. God had other plans for her.

When things don’t go our way, they can be the catalyst to a far more meaningful life. Not to mention, as Marie, her friend in Pennsylvania, says later:

What’s a man to a woman touched by God?

Although her husband lost out, Harriet still used her karmic circle as her starting point. She was not afraid of her fondness for her family and relatives — in fact it spurred her on to rescue all the others.

Harriet’s brother: Why are you back here? It ain’t safe.
Harriet: I come to get you. Bring all of you to freedom.

When it comes to helping others we need to start with where and with whom we are. This is also modern Buddhism. Not afraid to work with our karmic circle, we have to help the people in our orbit, but still come to take whoever wants to come — using our heartfelt karmic connections as a portal to the bigger cosmos of all living beings.

One of the 8 precepts observed by an aspiring Bodhisattva is, “not to abandon any living being.” And Harriet — focused not on who had been freed but who had not, and even when it made the journey a lot more challenging — always had room in her mission for one more.

I do what I can when I can while I can for my people.

Harriet became a conductor on the Underground Railroad — a network of secret routes and safe houses destined to help those enslaved during the 19th century first to the Northern free states and later, when the despicable Fugitive Slave Law was adopted in political concession to the Southerners, to Canada instead. She made an endless string of round-trip journeys down to the South in a disguise and with the nickname Moses, rescuing more and more slaves with each miraculous expedition.

Fearless, Harriet avoided cops, dogs, mobs, bounty hunters, and slave catchers. She and her escapees slept in swamps and moved only at night. She inspired huge courage, crossing the river when she had no real idea if she’d drown, but knowing it was the only way to encourage her people to follow her out of there.

I’m wading through muddy waters
You know I got a made up mind. 

To be honest, as things stand at present, I’d prefer not to have to run around like that my whole life as I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But what I do want is that fearless determination and commitment, that lack of apathy and complacency, that self-confidence, and that faith in being guided every step of the way. Harriet has inspired me to take renunciation and engaging bodhichitta more seriously. To be less wimpy about wading through the muddy waters of samsara to the brand new home of liberation and bringing everyone with me.

There is a verse in Offering to the Spiritual Guide about the mentality of joyful effort:

I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be reborn as an actual hell being, but that a Bodhisattva will go back to the lower realms again and again until everyone is liberated. Harriet was not about her own personal safety. She was free, but she was compelled. Her compassion gave her no choice but to keep going back.

I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.  

Keep on keeping on

Harriet was Black and female in a very white male world. But she didn’t let any man get one over on her. Not Gideon, not her husband, not her brother, not the abolitionists, not anyone who spoke down to her. She earned huge respect.

I made it this far on my own, so don’t you tell me what I can’t do.

Harriet never learned to read or write, but despite all odds she was the only conductor to never lose a slave. She was a Union spy during the Civil War. She was the first woman ever to lead a combat assault, rescuing 750 people. Her knowledge of the local flora in Maryland led her to find a cure for Union troops suffering from dysentery. She became a suffragette. She was penniless until old age. She died at a charity home she had founded in Auburn, New York.

All told, she was an unstoppable force for good.

Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going. 

What motivated her? JS told me that she was saying to someone, “I watched Harriet and loved her compassion,” only to have the person reply: “No, Harriet was very angry.” JS (and me) disagree heartily. Anger has no good qualities because the mind is egotistical and distorted and Harriet was amazingly selfless and clear-headed. If Harriet had been angry she might have killed Gideon (or the white family) when she had the chance, but instead she gave him a teaching. It is perfectly possible to be both fierce and compassionate, in fact it can be required. There’s an important distinction to be made between anger and non-deluded wrath, and Harriet is a good example of the latter.

There are four types of non-deluded pride, or self-confidence; and one way or another Harriet seemed to exemplify them all. Her courage and passion grew over the years and decades, just like ours can. Far from being vain, between God on the one side and all the slaves on the other there wasn’t much room left over for ego. Harriet’s sense of identity was mixed with a greater good. This selflessness impressed people so much that they came over to her cause, including a previous slave catcher.

Notably, to me at least, Harriet Tubman suffered from terrible headaches from an injury inflicted upon her by a slave owner – but still she carried on. Arguably it drove her on with even more empathy. Using Dharma, such as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path makes our mind into a blacksmith’s anvil, which doesn’t get affected however hard it is hit.

Stand up

That’s when I’m going to stand up
Take my people with me
Together we are going to a brand new home
Right across the river
Can you hear freedom calling
Calling to me to answer
Gotta keep on keeping on. 

This is what ST has to say about this epic anthem chorus for all Bodhisattvas in training:

“These lines remind me of the superior intention of a Bodhisattva, taking personal responsibility, because everyone, just like me, wants happiness and freedom from suffering. Through this we will make it to the Pure Land, the experience of a pure mind free from the bondage of the delusions. We will cross the river of samsara, always called on by the freedom that is part and parcel of our Buddha nature.”

I have no idea if Harriet was or was not an actual Bodhisattva, defined as someone who seeks to attain enlightenment to liberate each and every living being permanently from suffering. But as JW said, she was “very very brave. Very inspiring, indeed. She was as close to being a superhero as a real person could be.”

Harriet Tubman 20 dollar bill
May this come to be.
“Someone I can relate to”

Point is, Harriet was a “real” person, like us; which means we can be superheroes too. As JS was telling me, sometimes we read stories about great practitioners to discover that they were already fully realized and were just showing us an example – Buddha himself had already attained enlightenment, for example, and Je Tsongkhapa was Manjushri. Their stories are still incredibly faith inducing, but we need stories not just of ancient Mahasiddhas and Bodhisattvas back in India and Tibet and even in other world systems who did extraordinary things, but people nearer our time and experiences. Even though Harriet seemed to start off as a regular person like the rest of us, her courage and faith grew throughout her life. She was on a spiritual journey if anyone is. “This is someone I can relate to,” said JS. I think anyone who is interested in freedom can relate to this story.

Avoiding complacency

Harriet transformed fear on the one hand, but on the other she didn’t allow herself to be seduced by samsara’s comforts. She never let herself get too cozy or complacent even when she could have led a seemingly free life – she was not scared of discomfort.

And I don’t mind if I lose any blood on the way to salvation
And I’ll fight with the strength that I’ve got until I die. 

Man, I would love to be like that. As JS put it:

“I feel like I have a relationship with her – to see someone who looks like me develop the wish not to be enslaved, to take the Bodhisattva vow, to self-generate as someone through whom God is working, divine pride. She was not doing the bidding of the status quo, so when the relatively posh abolitionists, good people all (including Frederick Douglass), told her she couldn’t bring people 600 miles to Canada, she told them they were too comfortable and that they couldn’t tell her what not to do. Harriet took on actual engaging bodhichitta, as opposed to just saying the words. She had such conviction, there was no doubt in her mind that she could do this.

Speaking truth to power, it as is if Harriet was directly addressing us audience in the comfort of our own living rooms, never really having to do anything — instilling in us a sense of urgency and need. Frederick Douglass and co were indubitably brave people, but they were not willing to put as much on the line – they created a system, but she rescued people on her own, with the grace of God.”

Indeed, Douglass is quoted as saying to her:

The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.

Harriet’s choices of course did not make for an easy life.

Weight on my shoulders, a bullet in my gun. 

Still these heavy things are in my life, and I have to fight a fight to lift them, maybe she is saying. However, unlike me, Harriet never seemed to whine about having too much to do (to help people!) or to tightly guard her days off. She was driven by joyful effort.

Perhaps she saw everything as an opportunity to help others and to increase her faith, thereby having an amazingly meaningful life; and was grateful for it? I don’t know, but her behavior has struck me with the thought that this is a very good way to approach life’s to do lists — to start from a sense of being lucky and thankful.

I go to prepare a place for you

Harriet at end of lifeHarriet freed as many as 3,000 people from slavery, but her job was not done. Her marvelous last words, aged 91, were:

I go to prepare a place for you.

Temporary freedom, though clearly a lot better than slavery, is not good enough. Canada is no one’s final destination. Nowhere in samsara is. We need the permanent freedom that comes from a completely pure mind. I imagine Harriet Tubman went straight to her heaven or Pure Land through the force of her refuge and compassion, where to this day she is preparing it for others.

Ultimately, we need to aim at bringing everyone into the Pure Land of our own enlightenment. For at that time our mind will be, as it says in Praise to Buddha Shakyamuni:

A refuge for all living beings.

Thank you for reading all this! Comments welcome.

Key

Quotes in purple – original Harriet Tubman quotes.

Quotes in green – quotes from the movie Harriet.

Quotes in blue – quotes from the anthem Stand Up.

 

 

 

Just who do we think we are?!

bird 3Superior intention is not weakened by the kryptonite of attachment or irritation. It is not sidetracked by the flimsy dreams of samsara, our own or others’. People need rescuing, big time, and there is no time to waste.

Carrying on from Overcoming self-doubts.

As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a vivid depiction of our existential status:

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

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

I sometimes think that once we start practicing these visionary Mahayana Buddhist teachings, we become aware of two competing versions of ourselves – the one where we have the brave big picture perspective and the other where we have a pathetic teeny weeny perspective, stymied by those habitual delusions. I might go so far as to say that it is as if we are spiritually schizophrenic – and that we have got to stop buying into the black white and blue birdlimited, often whiny version of ourselves and instead identify with the big version every day, feeling so lucky in our wish and growing ability to help others.

Service

And we are never alone when we do this. We are in service to all enlightened beings when we decide to help all living beings, just as we are in service to a mother when we decide to help her children. And they in turn will inspire and protect us in all our endeavors. We can feel them all around us and in our hearts.

Tara is a fantastic example of this – remember what she said to Buddha Avalokiteshvara: “Don’t cry. I will help you.” As a friend, D, remarked on this article:

Identifying with limitations and small selves is so 2016! I always think about that Tara story — I get a deeper understanding each time I contemplate it. This time I was thinking how swiftly and quickly she arose when the focus is on others. Not that she doesn’t help when we are experiencing suffering, but her power mostly lies in helping us to help others. swan

Part of the Bodhisattva’s commitment is to help practically to make things better for everyone wherever possible. The first three perfections are giving, moral discipline, and patience, and these are to be practiced within daily life, at home, at work, everywhere. The motivation is always, however, bodhichitta — so the ever-present goal is to journey to enlightenment to be able to liberate everyone from samsara’s prison.

We can’t always do big external actions, but we can grow our love and compassion so that we perform even the smallest actions with a big heart. I personally have a lot of respect for Queen Elizabeth II (and relay a story here told about her by Geshe Kelsang). This Christmas, me and my family listened to her 3pm speech, and liked what she said:

But to be inspirational you don’t have to save lives or win medals. I often draw strength from meeting ordinary people doing extraordinary things: volunteers, carers, community organizers and good neighbors; unsung heroes whose quiet dedication makes them special.

They are an inspiration to those who know them, and their lives frequently embody a truth expressed by Mother Teresa, from this year Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She once said: ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love’.

cockatooSome Bodhisattvas are able to do radical, visionary, great things to help society change, to become more equitable – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, and numerous others less well known spring to mind — and this is very wonderful. But even if we do small things with great love, we are still actually doing big things — creating karmic causes for big things, and making huge strides towards enlightenment for everyone’s sake, as everything depends upon our motivation.

Who do you think you are?!

So in this third type of self-confidence we change our identity, thinking, “I will liberate everyone, I am a Bodhisattva, that’s my job.” If we change our identity, everything and everyone related to us feels different as well.

I was talking to a British friend about this the other day – she is breaking new ground in becoming a Buddhist pastor in a hitherto all-Christian context, and has had to overcome the self-doubt that thinks, “Who do you think you are to be doing such things?!,” which has only led her to fear and paralysis. To keep going each day, to surmount each hurdle, she told me she remembers this self-confidence and wakes up smiling with purpose, not trying to make a non-existent, small, limited self happy or successful. This is such a relief, she said, and a freedom, and has led to lots of interesting opportunities arising unforced.

Steadfastness

people on banks of riverThese three types of self-confidence covered here have a great deal to do with being steadfast, which we need if we are to help others, especially over the long haul. Steadfastness is part of the Bodhisattva’s perfection of joyful effort, and I like to remember Buddha’s example for this – to be like a wide, calm, steady, flowing river that never stops on its journey to enlightenment, rather than an excitable, short-lived, somewhat panicky waterfall.

In the context of this big vision of ourselves and others, we can work out what we are capable of and then set out to do it. If I want to overcome my delusions, get from here to enlightenment, and free all living beings, then today — practically and spiritually — what am I going to do about this?

There is a fourth type of non-deluded pride or self-confidence, which is taught in Tantra — divine pride. I have talked about this a lot in these articles on Tantra, if you’re interested in checking them out.

Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome – especially anything you have personally found helpful for increasing your self-confidence and overcoming your self-doubts.

(Beautiful photos in this article courtesy of Happy Fox Photography.)

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Overcoming self-doubts

Buddha kindThis week it is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day and Easter, both good occasions it would seem for overcoming self-doubts, sloughing off despondency, and resurging our spiritual practice.

I’ve been writing about the four types of self-confidence or so-called “non-deluded pride” we need for this – the first two are pride in realizing our potential and pride in overcoming our delusions. Today would seem like a perfect occasion for a conversation about the third type, called “Pride in our actions”. This is:

a strong determination to perform virtuous actions, for example a mind of superior intention thinking “I myself will free all sentient beings from suffering.” ~ How to Understand the Mind

So many people …

Back in New York this January, I found myself thinking about this type of self-confidence a lot, maybe because wherever there are lots of living beings, there is also lots of suffering. Which is what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said when he visited Manhattan years ago – after a glamorous “sight seeing” tour in the car, he shook his head and said:

So many people. So much suffering.

Cars DriveI walked home each day via a homeless pregnant young woman. One one occasion it had started raining and she was more bedraggled than ever. I gave her a juice, but it was so inadequate to her enormous needs that it brought to mind that Cars song they played at Live Aid back in the day:

Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Did you wake up happy today?

One morning I woke up feeling stiff and sorry for myself, but then I opted to remember her and the umpteen others living under cardboard boxes, at which point my own pathetic problems vanished.

Later that day I asked a large group of New Yorkers if any of them had woken up really happy. To my slight surprise, with just one or two exceptions, they all laughed and said “No”.

dinosaurs eating humansI don’t really like that no one is even waking up happy. We haven’t even got out of our nice warm bed yet! Nothing has gone wrong! What chance do we have of being happy for the rest of the precarious day?

The thing is, we all have the potential to be happy all the time. But our delusions are ruining this for us. We wake up and cast around for things to blame for our malaise — surely there is something or someone out there I can pin this feeling on?! But in fact we only wake up unhappy because our mind is out of control.

This is why we need to develop compassion, superior intention, and bodhichitta, for both our own and others’ sake. We need to become, as my friend Gen Samten says, protectors, not victims.

Benefits of bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is the wish to attain enlightenment so that we can liberate all living beings from their sufferings permanently. It starts off as a nice idea, then we get more and more familiar with it until it sticks and replaces our hitherto selfish motivations. At which point, day and night, we experience outrageously huge benefits.

One of these, possibly my favorite, is that we have a state of mind that is a source of peace and happiness for all living beings!

superior intentionI don’t know about you, but I love the idea of being of instant benefit to this world before we have even lifted a finger. We should never underestimate the power of our mind. Just look at what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is pulling off for example, through his ideas and his blessings, even though he spends most of his time in his room. We can become like his emanation, a servant helping him and all enlightened beings in their work of liberating everyone. We can become part of that enlightened society and invite everyone else to join us.

It’s up to me

So this third non-deluded pride has to do with our actions, with benefiting living beings. It includes superior intention, taking personal responsibility for everyone. On one level, there is such audacity in this! Because normally we think so far beneath our potential — for example we hear teachings on compassion and we think, “Okay, then, I’m really going to try to make up with my second cousin who beat me up in fourth grade” – whereas what we need to think is “I am going to do that, but I am also going to liberate all living beings without exception.”

Not just help them, but liberate them. Take them out of samsara. Take them away from all their suffering, lead them to liberation and enlightenment. I’m going to liberate all living beings without exception. I’m going to do that.

We can put ourselves in that frame of mind. Step out from our limited self-perception and go there.

money doesn't buy happinessIt might be helpful to consider how it’s not possible to find lasting happiness from our possessions, friendships, and so forth; but it is actually possible for us to attain the lasting happiness of enlightenment and liberate all living beings. So why invest all our energy and time into happiness that is impossible, as opposed to happiness that is possible?

That’s what a Buddha is – a Buddha is a very blissful being who has the power or capacity to liberate all living beings. We need this big vision of ourselves, and what better day to think about this than today?

With superior intention, we have this thought, “It’s up to me. If I don’t liberate everyone, who is going to do it?!” If a mother sees her child drowning, she doesn’t just think, “How nice it’d be if someone would dive in and rescue her!” – she jumps in herself. That is like superior intention – it is a compassion that assumes responsibility, knowing that we can, and have to, take it on.

This non-deluded pride overcomes discouragement, self-pity, and self-indulgence. Imagine sitting on the bank of the river feeling sorry for yourself just because no one gets you or acknowledges you, while meantime others are drowning right in front of you. It is a fairly sad state of affairs.

Sandwich Man

I love riding the subway. So much food for practice, so much scope for connection.

New York subway 1One day I was covertly watching the people around me, each in their own worlds and/or Smartphones, furrowed brows, far from the present moment, far from each other. But a man then entered the carriage with a trolley full of plain white-bread sandwiches. And he asked, simply: “Is anyone hungry?”

Everyone was snapped into the present moment — something about this man was making us smile, at him and also at each other. He then declared: “You don’t have to be homeless to be hungry!” A man wrapped up in the corner seat then asked if he could have one, which he devoured before asking for a second. Then someone else asked. Then people started giving Sandwich Man money. All of a sudden there was so much connection there, so much meaning, so much hope.

(And affectionate love brought everyone out of the past and the future and into the here and now, as virtuous minds always do. We all shared a moment.)

This man had taken personal responsibility for feeding all the hungry people on the subway, and it was making all the difference. Imagine taking that kind of responsibility for everyone everywhere, I thought. Our life would be entirely different, as would the lives of all the people we met and worked with.

Our worries and self-doubts diminish straightaway when we develop this big heart as it is no longer about us. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said to someone recently:

What is there to worry about? All you are trying to do is help others.

One more article on this third type of self-confidence in the pipeline. Meantime, over to you for feedback … how do you overcome self-doubts on a daily basis?

Related articles

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Do you ever feel discouraged?

Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

Compassion ~ the quick path to enlightenment

 

Going wide means going deep

Yesterday I ran into a cool guy at the Colorado Mills Outlet Mall – he was smiling so broadly as he served his customers that I couldn’t help saying to him when it was my turn,mountain-1 “You’re in a really great mood!” And he replied, “Yes, I’m always happy. It’s a choice, you know. I have also spent a lot of time in the past not being happy.” And then apropos nothing, except, who knows, maybe apprehension about this Tuesday’s election (or perhaps that’s just me), “Being black in this country is not always easy. But I have made a choice.” I told him I was a meditator, and he was of course all over that; and then he asked me if I had made the mala on my wrist myself (I hadn’t, I never make anything, but I liked that he knew the word.)

Encounters like this are more and more frequent with the passing years – this has just reminded me that an immigration official at Atlanta airport, upon noticing the mala on my wrist, recently reached below the fingerprint machine to pull out his well-thumbed copy of Eight Steps to Happiness. This is all a far cry from the start of my interest in meditation (1981), when people looked at me funny if I even mentioned the word, let alone that I was into Buddhism — “You, ermm, what?!”

i-had-help
Had help writing this article.

I think this growing awareness is a very good thing because the world could do with more people making the conscious effort to be happy, for lord knows there are enough unhappy people about, as my teacher Venerable Geshe-la once put it. And if the cover story of this week’s Time magazine, “Anxiety, depression, and the American adolescent” is anything to go by, unhappiness would appear to be on the rise in our modern society, and society needs help.

(I also hope that article will raise attention that will help stem the tide for young people. For it’s important that possible medical diagnoses of clinical anxiety and depression are considered by all concerned and treated where necessary by qualified authorities.)

I think the choice to be happy is one of the main choices we have to make in order to succeed in life – probably even more important than the choice of President (though please go vote in any case!) Luckily Buddha gave loads of practical advice that anyone can follow on how we can make that choice and stick to it. It’s not just for our own sakes either — if we are happy, we are in a far stronger position to make others happy. That guy in Aeropostale was helping make people’s day.

Getting over ourselves

As Buddha pointed out again and again, the best way to become happier is to get over ourselves and cherish others instead. But this can give rise to some trepidation; namely, if I care more and more about others, and take responsibility for them, won’t I just end up more stressed out than I am already?! It’s already bad enough worrying non-stop about the kids and the aged parents and the people at work and the refugees and the shelter animals — how can I add limitless living beings to the mix and not go mad? And when will I ever get another moment off? There’ll always be something to worry about, something that I have to do.

The other day I told the story of Patti Joshua in South Africa, who brought Buddha’s teachings to over 11,000 children in the rural areas of KwaZulu Natal; and I quoted her friend as saying, “There was always space in her heart for one more.” But she never worried. She had such a huge heart that there was plenty of room in it for everyone, with space left over. By increasing our compassion we can widen our own heart space, and with wisdom we can deepen it.mountain-3

Spread too thin?

With compassion to liberate all living beings, we understand that everybody hurts sometimes, and we want to take the suffering away from all of them, until we feel responsible for everyone — possessing the superior intention of a Bodhisattva. But we need to learn to do this without being overwhelmed or anxious.

Worry and existential tiredness, however, do not come from the concern we have for others but from a tightness born of ignorance about our true nature, and attachment to externals, to appearances. So to go wide, I think, without spreading ourselves thin, we have to go deep.

As Buddha pointed out, our mind is like a vast clear boundless ocean, with limitless potential. All his teachings are relating to that potential, which we all share – the spiritual path is about accessing more and more of that inner peace, love, wisdom, compassion, faith, and utter happiness, where we end up with not a care in the world even as we work for the welfare of all.

Take time out

There are many ways to go about this, to go deeper so we can go wider. Simply taking some time out each day to meditate and experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mountain-4minds, even through a simple breathing meditation for example, is invaluable. And I bet we can all find ten or fifteen minutes for this if we really want to. For me, absorbing in meditation each day has always been the happiest and sanest part of my life, setting me up for the rest of the day. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. Since the real purpose of meditation is to increase our capacity to help others, taking time each day to meditate is not selfish.

You know what happens if you never get off the couch to exercise, the results are not pretty. In a similar way, we need to tune daily into our Buddha nature and faith in our own potential — ideally in our own enlightenment — or we are almost bound to get swept up in superficials and feel overly busy and out of our depth.

If we are so busy changing externals that we have no time to change our mind, we are, according to Buddhism, being lazy and wasting time. It’s a bit like trying to chop down an old oak tree with a blunt axe for hours or days on end, not taking out the necessary few minutes to sharpen it.

Your happy seat

But if we enjoy some time out to relax into our hearts and experience the peace and clarity of our mind, observing in our own experience how all our thoughts arise from and fall into our root awareness, we will be able to let go of our busy, overwrought imaginings for we will no longer be grasping at them. If we make our deep ocean-like mind peaceful, wise, and loving, its emerging waves will be too. Otherwise, we can become so identified with mountain-2the waves and froth on the surface of the ocean that we forget where they’re coming from and think that they are arising under their own power, out of our control. And the detail then feels overwhelming; we easily lose the plot. As Geshe-la says:

We have to manage our time and energy in such a way that we can be of maximum benefit to others, and to do this effectively we need time alone to recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.

Who doesn’t love vacations!? Most people I know love the idea of being able to get away from their worries and enjoy space and freedom. Frankly, we could be doing this every day of our lives if we wanted to, sans the expense and jet lag. Tibetan meditators called their meditation seat “the happy seat” for good reason.  

This ability to relax and go deep, to access our own inner peace in order to cope, has always been important. But in our complicated, fast, over-stimulated modern society, I would argue that it is now a crucial life skill that everyone needs to learn as soon as possible.

More in the next article. Meanwhile, I’d like to invite you to share any practical experience on how you cherish others without letting the responsibility worry you.

Related articles:

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Want quicker results from your meditation? Start where you are.

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Compassion: the quick path to enlightenment

I was walking with an old friend yesterday evening on the beautiful beach at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre in the English Lake District, discussing how we could improve our compassion. We have to get ourselves more and more out of the way, for sure, and train in the time-honored Buddhist methods for improving our love and compassion. And we can just take a genuine interest in how others are — entering into their worlds monk on beachempathetically without fear, finding out what is going on for them, somehow, even simply by asking them when we can. We can actively want them to be free from any problems they may be having, and from all the pains queuing up endlessly for them in samsara. We can practice this again and again (and again) until it takes.

My friend and I also discussed the helpfulness of watching documentaries or movies that bring others’ lives home to us, for example Earthlings, a documentary I confess I have so far been too squeamish to watch.* But, a question for you, can we shy away from looking at unbearable suffering if we are to develop the compassionate wish to free those people from that suffering? Thinking “I can’t bear to watch this” is not necessarily what is meant by “unbearable compassion” for the suffering of others.

*Update: I have now watched it and wrote an article about it here.

What could be more fun?!

The other day I stumbled on a live webcam streaming a national park in Alaska. They asked, and I quote: “WHAT COULD BE more fun than watching brown bears fishing for bear and salmonsalmon?!”

I could think of a lot of things, but I still gingerly clicked on the link and spent a few relatively, I suppose, fun minutes watching some brown bears loll around in the river while silvery salmon jumped upstream. Could almost have been an idyllic scene, until one brown bear suddenly yanked a salmon from the water with its huge claws. The fish thrashed around in terror while the bear carried it in its mouth to a nearby rock. Then he tore a strip of flesh from its side. I gasped, as this was being shown live, and the salmon did not die – she carried on thrashing around in agony, bleeding. And there was nothing I could do.

Thirsty man’s wish for water

This line has struck me recently, even though I’ve read it many times:

If we train in taking and giving for a long time, our love and compassion will become very powerful and our wish to free others from suffering will be as strong as a thirsty man’s wish for water. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

Imagine having that urgent wish to free others from their suffering. It would do two things, it seems to me:

cows
Local cows, branded, their lives not their own.
  • It would drive all other deluded thoughts out of my mind. There would be no room for them. If you’re desperate for water, it’s all you can think about.
  • It would mean that nothing stops me from trying to help others. This is a short thought away from thinking, but how? I need to get into a position where I can help others, ie, I need to attain enlightenment.

The stronger our wish to free others, the stronger our efforts, and the quicker the results. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra Geshe Kelsang says that in general Highest Yoga Tantra is known as the quick path to enlightenment, but in the Sutras compassion observing all living beings is explained as the quick path:

If we have this mind, then through its power we will never waste a single moment, but draw closer and closer to the attainment of enlightenment every moment of the day and the night.

Taking and giving

monk on beach 2So, judging by the quote above, the so-called “magical practice” of taking and giving seems to be the way to get here. There is a lot that can be said about this practice and you can read all about it all over the place, including in Transform Your Life and the free eBook Modern Buddhism. But taking basically involves taking away others suffering in the form of smoke that dissolves into our heart and destroys our self-cherishing. And giving basically involves imagining giving others whatever they want, which bestows upon them endless, pure happiness.

Taking and giving has, when I last totted it up, at least 22 pretty amazing benefits, including obvious ones such as increasing our love and compassion, and slightly less obvious ones such as increasing our concentration and purifying our mind. And once we are used to doing it in meditation, we can then “mount taking and giving upon the breath”, which means breathing in others’ suffering and breathing out pure happiness – all as we wander about doing the regular things we do. There is then not a breath that need be wasted. Our whole life becomes meaningful. We feel incredible ourselves, and we become a walking, talking, breathing source of comfort and happiness for others, like Je Tsongkhapa, of whom his disciples said:

O Protector, even your daily breath brings benefit to countless beings.

Don’t take my word for it — do read all about this practice in the various books as soon as you get a spare moment.

Superior intention

To develop the motivation of going for enlightenment, the force of our compassion needs to grow until it becomes so-called “superior intention”. An analogy for this is given in the scriptures:

If we see a child fall into a river we will naturally want the child to be saved, but the child’s mother will wish so strongly that she will decide to act to save the child herself. ~ Great Treasury of Merit 

drowningEveryone standing on the bank (well, hopefully everyone) wants that child to be saved, but the mother jumps in after him. If we have superior intention we don’t plan on leaving it up to someone else, we take personal responsibility — we can’t help but take personal responsibility due to the force of our compassion. If my compassion for that agonized fish was strong enough, and I was close by, I would be compelled to help her if I could. And if I couldn’t, my wish to get into a stronger position to help her (and the bear) would grow naturally.

Superior intention leads to bodhichitta, which is the wish to free all others from suffering by developing all the qualities needed to do so, such as the requisite skill, omniscient wisdom, and freedom from limitations and faults.

Become their Buddha

So why, someone asked the other day, do WE need to become enlightened — why can’t Buddhasall the other Buddhas take care of the suffering of that fish and everyone else? After all they are already enlightened and have all the qualities needed to protect all living beings — isn’t that the whole point of becoming enlightened!?

What do you think about that? To me, it seems to be a question of timing – for others to be freed sooner rather than later. The ability to help others directly and practically — for example by removing them from suffering situations or teaching them — depends on karmic connections. It is a two-way street, a dependent relationship – we need a connection with an enlightened being from our side, too, to receive the full force of their help.

So, all the Buddhas want to help that brown bear and that fish, for example, not to mention my family etc; and they bless everyone’s mind every day. But I share some karmic two-way street with these particular living beings, meaning that I will be able to help them directly and soon, if I attain enlightenment.

We can strengthen our connections every day with a lot of living beings through love and compassion, through taking and giving, through prayer. Which means that one day, as a monk friend put it so beautifully, we will become “their Buddha”.

Over to you, comments welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

“I am the master of my fate” ~ a tribute to Nelson Mandela

SOUTH AFRICA MANDELAA light has gone out in the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013)

I like millions of others around the world am very sad that such a great being departed today. He is leaving a hole in too many hearts to count. President Obama said it the other day:

He is personal hero. But I don’t think I am unique in that regard. He is a hero for the world.

For decades, Mandela has been one of my greatest heroes – a shining example of how it really is possible to be a very good person, full of patience and love, and yet because of this, not in spite of it, able to effect enormous changes. He showed a different paradigm for dealing with conflict that resonated around the world.

I was trying to think today of anyone else in my lifetime who has been so universally well regarded and appreciated for their good qualities. I can’t think of anyone. My friend’s face dropped when I told her, and I knew it’d be the same if I told anyone else in the Denver coffee house where I heard the news. Around the world, I believe, the news, “Have you heard that Nelson Mandela has just died?”, is being met only with dismay.

President Zuma called him “the father of democracy” in South Africa. I believe he was a bona fide Bodhisattva in our midst, an obvious guiding light on the world stage, who managed to pull off the seeming impossible in South Africa and inspire people everywhere to behave just that little bit better.

I could talk about his good qualities all day. I hope and believe that others will be rejoicing in him today in the global media, in a thousand more qualified tributes–but I would like to join in. I sometimes think that the best way not to miss someone so important to you is to try and adopt his or her good qualities as your own. If everyone who loves him took on even a fraction of Madiba’s qualities, the world would transform overnight. For me, amongst many good qualities, it was Mandela’s genuine patient acceptance and strength that inspires me the most and that I would most like to possess myself.

A tribute from a South African friend

nelson mandela fear quoteI had quite a number of close South African relatives and friends. A good friend teaches Buddhism in Cape Town. My key ring is the South African flag in the shape of a miniature sandal that I bought in Langa. I visited a few years ago, finding Cape Town to be the most beautiful and yet most incongruous place – the stunning natural beauty sitting side by side with the appalling aids-abetted poverty of Langa and other townships. I shared a birthday with Nelson Mandela. I named a beloved cat for him. I have some connection with South Africa, but an old friend of mine has even closer karma with it as he was born and adopted there. I want him to do the honors, therefore, and include here something he said about Mandela in the context of patience some years back.

The patience of non-retaliation

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

I see difficult people and the suffering they cause as apparently unpleasant, yet actually useful, because without them I could not practice patience. I want to become more patient because it brings me great peace of mind and helps me make spiritual progress. Who will help me to increase my patience? The people causing my difficulties! Actually, they exist for my benefit. They behave appallingly because I require and want them to for my spiritual well-being. I owe them.

mandela in prisonThe people who inspire me most are those who transcend seemingly unforgiveable grievances and end up helping untold numbers of people – heroes like Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela and my own Teacher Geshe Kelsang (who had to flee from his homeland). I was born in South Africa about the time Mandela was sent to break rocks in Robben Island, and I was 27 by the time he was released. Those first 27 years of my life felt like a really long time, and I would often wonder how “Madiba” was doing?

If anyone had a right and provocation to be angry, it was he. Yet he famously left the prison with a huge heart of forgiveness and love that saved an entire nation from a bloodbath. How did he do it? He said it was by patiently understanding that he was working for a task greater than himself.

He also had a huge sense of personal responsibility, as can be seen in the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus that helped him through the long years of captivity:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

To practice non-retaliation involves compassion, the wish for others to be free from their suffering and also its causes, delusions and negative karma. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. Negative karma refers specifically to the negative mental intentions that motivate each negative action we perform, and it is these intentions that sow the actual seeds for the experience of suffering. Think about how much negative karma angry minds and angry people create, thus sowing the seeds for intensely unpleasant experiences to manifest in their future. I don’t have to make it worse. young Nelson Mandela

Instead of thinking “This is an angry person,” we can think, “This is an unfortunate person who is being controlled by their enemy of anger.” By never seeing faults in people, Buddhas are able to maintain their love and compassion for them at all times. Anger is the enemy; the person is not. Compassion for them, not more anger, is the best response.

Perspective
Mandela quote about love
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

As a Buddhist, I too am trying to work for a task greater than myself – enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Suffering is all relative. As it says in Meaningful to Behold, we have experienced aeons of great suffering but it has not bought us any benefit. Now is different because we have a different perspective on what we are trying to get out of life:

We have the unique opportunity, by enduring comparatively insignificant suffering, to work for the benefit of others and thereby attain the supreme state of enlightenment.

We can therefore joyfully accept the hardships we face – which doesn’t mean gritting our teeth and putting up with it, but actually accepting fully and happily, without judgment or disapproval, whatever arises. We can do this if we are confident that we can learn to use absolutely any situation to train our minds in wisdom and compassion, thus bringing an end to suffering.

In Mandela’s broad smiles as he left the prison in friendship with his captors, I find that he discovered this truth.

Mandela quote about freedom of othersAs a Buddhist, I too am striving for a superior intention that takes personal responsibility for freeing all my kind mothers from their suffering and its causes. I have therefore learned from Nelson Mandela and seen in his actions, with my own eyes, how patience is possible if I keep this big perspective. And it was because of this patience, not in spite of it, that he also got everything done, as he could work toward getting everything done all the time without being derailed by anger. Patience is not a passive, doormat state of mind that leaves us standing there doing nothing. It is an active, dynamic, and immensely creative state of mind that enables us to accomplish all our tasks.

The greatest tribute

reacting to Nelson Mandela's death

My endless gratitude to you, Nelson Mandela.

Wherever you are now, I believe you will still be helping people. I am not worried about you, only the rest of us.

I don’t want to say goodbye. I have been dreading this day. Everyone is so sad. Zuma said “We need him with us.” I agree. But as we cannot have him with us, we can at least let his inspiring qualities live on.

The greatest tribute I believe we can pay Nelson Mandela is to become more like him.

The sooner, the better.

__________________

(Please feel welcome to leave your own tributes in the comments.)