I’m a believer!

By now many of you know that Colin Chase died on Saturday. Because it turns out that this man is extraordinary, this past week has been a surreal, heart-breaking, yet also curiously peaceful journey for many hundreds of people. I can’t begin to capture this collective experience, but I can share what I thought about it at the time it was happening.

Wednesday August 11th: A devoted disciple of Venerable Geshe Kelsang had a motorcycle accident last night, on August 10th, leaving him with catastrophic brain damage.

I can’t believe I am writing those words. Not least because Colin Chase is also one of my closest friends.

I am going to write stuff down now because I have been making non-stop prayers and I will be praying again soon, and in the meantime I don’t know where else to put myself. I am so very sorry for all of you close family and friends, I think I can guess at some of how you feel.

I just spoke to him via phone. I knew what to say. But it’s not enough time. There’s so much more that was supposed to happen. There were still so many more conversations to be had, so many more adventures in the mandala, so many more mountains to climb. I even want to tell him about the strangeness that is going on now.

Colin made me laugh and was kind enough to find me humorous too. He has been a very reassuring, loving presence in my life, and not just mine, of course. He was a great listener. He genuinely loved helping people. You could learn a lot from watching him interact with others even in difficult negotiations or tense situations – smart, worldly-wise, diplomatic, always thoughtful. His effortless kindness is the first thing I noticed about him many years ago, watching him in some interaction I’ve now forgotten at Manjushri KMC, before we’d even exchanged a word. There is nothing he would not do to help bring about Geshe-la’s wishes to establish a Pure Land for all living beings. “I’m a believer!” he joked with me recently, and this combination of devotion and love made his life amazing. He was kinda epic, to be honest.

Endless lives

All appearances in my dream teach me that all my appearances while awake do not exist. Thus for me all my dream appearances are the supreme instructions of my Guru. ~ Lord of all Lineages

Last week Colin reminded me of the vivid dream I had when he was visiting in June. He said he had been thinking about it all the time since then. This was the dream as I recorded it at the time:

I was standing on the edge of the virtual reality show of this life, but a vast abyss of empty space had opened up that I knew plunged to all my previous rebirths. I was tipping over – I could scramble back on to this life or I could let go. For some reason I decided to let go and fall to see what was there.

I fell fast and was seeing all my human rebirths, thousands of appearances and versions of me as a different human being in different places doing different things, sometimes male, sometimes female, etc.

I wanted to stop before I got to all my previous lower realm rebirths, starting with animal rebirths — that felt too scary, as if I may not be able to get out again. So I went for refuge to ask to return to the albeit even more obviously temporary appearances of this current life.

A special aircraft appeared and the pilot told me to buckle up while he flew me back up past all those lives. We stopped at one life where he introduced me to someone who I recognized, though he didn’t recognize me yet – I could tell he was a previous different-looking version of a someone I know in this life. In that life I was a woman with yellow hair and a round face.

I asked the pilot why I hadn’t gone all the way to the lower realms and why he was able to appear so I could get back up to my human life; and he said it was because I had purified a lot of the karma of killing, which was protecting me from lower rebirth. However, he also cautioned that I didn’t necessarily have enough good karma next time to come straight back up if I fell again. I had used some up and needed to create more.

Past and future lives exist, I have believed in them for as long as I can remember. I felt the need for all of us to go for very strong refuge because this life is entirely dreamlike, fragile, and impermanent. And where we go/what appears to us depends entirely on our karma.

Colin asked how if I, with all my merit, might not be able to get easily back into the human realm if I fell, what chance did he have? I replied that he had created astonishing merit, far more than me. He replied by generously listing all the things he thinks I’ve done. I replied by listing his good qualities and accomplishments. Anyway, you get the drift. He was always rejoicing in other people, never pulling them down.

Death on our minds

And in the last few months, death was on his mind. We had several conversations about it, and the fleeting nature of this life and our fragile silly bodies. Including his knees – he was due for double knee replacements next week (August 17), repayment for a lifetime of daredevil bodily risks. Talking of which, I said he’d be needing a wheelchair if he insisted on having both knees done at the same time. “No, I won’t. I’ll have crutches.” “You do know how crutches work, right?!”

And now he lies in Newark hospital, the need for knee surgery gone.

In an astonishing coincidence, the main spiritual director of Newark Hospital happens to be a New York Sangha member, Helen, charged now with taking care of Colin and the family. Her assistant is called Tara.

Testament to his outsized role in our tradition, at very short notice hundreds of people attended Tara puja live at KMC New York City and at the upstate NY and Grand Canyon World Peace Temples or tuning in online. We could see KMC NYC’s beautiful city temple on one side of the screen and Colin on the other. All the way through puja his chest was exaggeratedly inflating and deflating with the life support machine. Seared into many minds now is the image of his beloved mother Marsha, same cheekbones and red hair, sitting by his bed and stealing glances at his poor damaged head. What a gift she gave us in Colin.

Colin’s vital signs improved during puja. That has to mean something, right?

Conversations on life and death

Like I said, over the last few months we were having conversations about the brevity of life, how quickly each decade had flown by, and how little time we had left. We are moreorless the same age and have both been caring for our mothers lately, in the front row seats to great old age. I hoped we’d grow old together, hanging out, building centers (the architects’ drawings just landed for KMC CO’s new building, and I would love nothing more right now than to hear what Colin has to say about them). At the same time I kinda figured that Colin might not stick around for the ravages of extreme old age.

I am still taken aback by how early he checked out and, if I’m honest, a trifle annoyed. When I sent a photo of him in Colorado in June to a mutual friend, he replied: “Should Colin really be climbing trees?!” Of course not, nor ignoring my protests to climb onto the roof of KMC Colorado’s new building (the views, though, turned out to be worth it.) Nor should he have been riding motorbikes between hip and knee surgeries, but I have to acknowledge that this was typical Colin. He was probably always set to go out in a blaze of glory (from his perspective, not so much ours). Sitting it out in an armchair for years wearing slippers was probably never going to happen.

Maybe his mother knew this too. I hope she did. I guess we all have to accept now that he was made to live fast and die too soon.

I just re-read the last text I had from Colin yesterday afternoon (August 10) on my way up this mountain for a week to look after four dogs and cats while attending the remainder of the Summer Festival:

“I am very happy that you’re getting away!! When you get settled, please let me know when we might connect again. Enjoy the mountains, and please say Hello for me. I miss them, and look forward to returning soon!”

He didn’t reply to the text I sent back at 7.39pm MST. Turns out he was climbing onto his motorbike. And it also turns out that I am not the one who is getting away.

“Be joyful”

A friend of mine is part of a healing energy group and they just spent time tuning into him. I don’t know if you believe in these things or not, but I am going to share this anyway because it honestly does sound just like Colin.

Curiously to their minds, because they are not Buddhists and don’t know Colin, they kept getting a strong message from him, “Be joyful!”  After helping to clear out his chakras they normally infuse the person with a lot of energy, but they said that he was already completely full of positive energy and there was nothing to add. (They had no idea about the Tara pujas being held for him worldwide.) They also said that he was very determined. And the word “Rinpoche” kept coming to them, even though they didn’t know what it meant. (“Rinpoche” is the Tibetan word for “precious” and is applied to reincarnate Lamas.)

Today, Thursday Aug 12, I woke up today feeling hopeful that maybe Colin can be healed after all. I understand that quite a number of people dare share this optimism, quoting Colin’s lack of boundaries, how many crazy accidents he has pulled through before, and the power of the prayers. A lot of people are praying for his full recovery in today’s Tara prayers. Helen said today: “In general you do not come back from this and, if you do, you wish you hadn’t. But I’ve seen miracles. He is in the right hospital.”

Later on Thursday: But now, later this same day, we have heard the deeply sad news that the doctors could not stop the bleeding. Colin is brain dead. Again, I cannot believe I am writing these words, but Colin will be taken off life support tomorrow. Powa is planned for just after he dies.

Right-hand man

The last time we spoke on the phone, Colin told me he had just spent a 14-hour day at KMC NYC making sure everyone could tune in online to the Vajrayogini empowerment and teachings. He was very happy and we talked for over an hour. Thousands of people received these empowerments, and to begin with he was doing all the tech himself. Then he handed it off to 3 people he’d trained — rejoicing in them when he saw them on CCTV (he loved his CCTV, lol) – and headed off to see his family.

It is no wonder that there is an outpouring of people now, saying “he helped me”; he was always there to help. Within minutes of arriving at a Festival he knew everyone and everyone knew him. He has been instrumental in the success of KMC New York City, from the day he turned up and went off roller blading on the hunt for a new building. For Colin, nothing was a problem. No vision was too big. He found that beautiful space in a huge cooperative skyrise, and not only managed to acquire it for the Center but also became the most important board member in the whole building. Later Greg showed up and took on all the day to day volunteer projects, allowing him to be full-on visionary along with KMC NYC’s wonderful EPC Simone.

I’m also going to go right ahead here and call out the quiet heroine Laurie, assistant AD, who worked tirelessly by Colin’s side the whole time he was there — never one to steal any limelight, she was nonetheless the right-hand woman to the right-hand man.

The barefoot Bodhisattva

In his occasional day job, Colin was a fixer for the one-percenters, so he often had plenty of resources. (Sometimes he was broke, too). However, that wasn’t his lifestyle and he was usually just trying to give money away.  Colin’s leased apartment wasn’t really his – and indeed it never looked very lived in to me. Instead it hosted everyone and anyone who came through town, if they needed a place to stay. Colin was always barefoot, unless the occasion demanded shoes, such as the opera, when he might wear flip flops. He only drank sparkly water, no tea, coffee, or any other beverages. He would often camp at Festivals despite being easily able to afford something more comfortable. He loved sailing on the open seas. He loved the freedom of his motorbike. A few years ago he wanted to go riding in the Rockies:

Colin: Maybe you will consider taking a ride with me, through the mountains, if I reschedule my visit. xx
Me:  haha, i may consider it — but not sure about my precious human life 😃
Colin:  You don’t trust me?!?!
Me: aha, i do.

Colin told me, and I witnessed several times, that he didn’t really mind physical pain. During a painful lung infection a few years back, for example, he replied to my text: “In truth, I am fine now. My body just has a few challenges. There are so many people out there, who are truly suffering.”

He was astonishingly successful and made everything fun at the same time. A friend told me that he reminded her of what Heruka would be like if you met him:

“He managed to make everyone feel happy and strong. When you were around him, that was the quality he had. He was heroic and gave you what you needed, whether that was a hug if you were cold or helping to negotiate a million-dollar building. And it wasn’t like there was anything in it for him.”

Within seven lifetimes

Last week Colin called me with a question about Vajrayogini practitioners definitely going to Keajra within seven lifetimes, asking if that was a rumor or was it true. I replied that it is in The New Guide to Dakini Land:

It is said that even those with the least fortune who do not attain Dakini Land in the intermediate state will be led by Vajrayogini to her Pure Land within seven lives.

He was very excited for some reason, and wanted to know which lifetime I thought he might be in. I said not the first, because it is unlikely that he could have all these unusually good conditions coming together in his life on a first encounter with Guru Vajrayogini, given that each of them needs a lot of good karma to create. “So, who knows, maybe your 4th or 5th, or perhaps even your 7th!” Turns out that might have been right.

Helen

When this picture was taken of Colin and Helen in front of Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara, no one had a clue that she would be able to orchestrate at his bedside not only all the Tara pujas but the transference of consciousness puja, when Avalokiteshvara could lead him to the Pure Land.

Helen is a force of nature herself. She trained hard for years to be a Buddhist Chaplain, the very first person in the Kadampa tradition to do so. She landed this job very quickly afterwards because she excelled in her training. I asked her yesterday how many people and families she had helped die, and she said hundreds. She tries to make the right situation for people to die peacefully, and I asked her how. One woman wanted so badly to go home to die in Puerto Rico, but could not be moved. Helen asked her what exactly about home she missed and, upon hearing that it was the scents and the plants and the food, she recreated that for her in the ICU.

She didn’t have time for attention to detail last year, however, when she had to help six or seven different people and their families every day during COVID. “That was a different world.”

What a meaningful job! Venerable Geshe-la has said that helping people die well is the kindest thing we can do. And helping their families find some measure of peace at one of the very worst times of their life is also no small feat. If any of you are looking for a career path … but I do believe this is not for the faint-hearted.

Helen said that she hopes that Colin’s death will also spark conversations about the end of our own lives and whether or not we want DNR and so on. (I did my Living Will a couple of months ago, it only took about 15 minutes, FYI.)

“Nothing gets in the way of that!”

It is thanks to Helen that I was able to talk to Colin in his last two days. I asked if I could say a few words into his ear and she did one better, organizing a WebEx between the end of visiting hours at 6 p.m. and the nighttime shift at 7 p.m. Talking to him for what turned out to be well over an hour was surprisingly not difficult. Here is the jist of some of what I said.

“Hello my beloved friend, and farewell for now, just for a short while though, I will see you on the other side. I know you’re going to enjoy being in Keajra so much sending emanations to help us all and everyone else — it’s what you’ve been practicing for the whole time I’ve known you, you were made for the Pure Land! You will so enjoy helping Geshe-la help everyone now on a grand scale. I do believe this was your seventh and final lifetime in samsara, just like we were speculating the other day.

Thousands of people have been praying for you because it turns out that you helped too many people to count. People are wondering when you had the time?!

Your family were very happy to discover about your life, and the powa we are doing tomorrow will bring your birth family and your Sangha family together in a way that you would love. The mother of all sendoffs awaits you, you created the cause for hundreds of people to send you the Pure Land. We insist you go. You are going anyway, but we’re going to make sure of it.”

I did make him promise us two things because he always liked to keep his promises: (1) he needed to visit us all with his emanations, including KMC NYC and KMC CO to finish those projects he started; (2) if he insisted on leaving early, he needed to set things up for me and everyone else to join him in the Pure Land. After all, that’s what he did. As he texted himself the other day:

This is Geshe la’s work, and NOTHING gets in the way of that!!!

Before I left, I asked the nurse to touch his heart to indicate we are all going with him, and then to touch his crown.

I thought that was it, but the following morning one of Helen’s assistants called again unsolicited to see if I’d like to talk to him. Of course I wanted to. Then again in the afternoon, I got this rather wonderful call:

Hello L, this is Tara. I have Colin here. Will you talk to him?

So that was lucky for me.

I also talked to him a lot about what the Pure Land is like from things I’ve read, “without even the name of mistaken impure appearance”, where even stepping on the ground gives rise to bliss. How it is full of all the things he loves, but all completely pure and known to be illusory, like dream oceans and dream mountains. How he will send emanations. It was me doing all the talking, of course, but a conversation nonetheless, because, along with Helen, I believe that people in this situation can hear “beyond words and sounds” as she put it. This is not least because I had this experience with Bob — his brain was also gone when Cheryl and I talked him into the Pure Land, yet “it worked”. That story is here.

I also shared with him several beautiful messages, such as from Sara Wendt, his “little red-headed childhood friend”, who did us all the big favor of introducing him to our tradition. And this one from Gen Samten:

“Please tell him that a life lived with kindness is a life lived without regrets. Please tell him that he has brought happiness to so many people in so many places. And please tell him that it is time for him to leave now, to let go of this life and to move on to a pure world where he can work with Geshe-la to bring happiness to many people.”

August 14th: I dreamt vividly of Colin last night, he was very youthful and joyful, it was blissful to see him, and it felt like he was on his way to the Pure Land.

In a dream, a girl meets a boy and sees that he is dying. She is happy to meet him but unhappy to see him dying. We should understand that all phenomena are like this. ~ Buddha

I have been contemplating how Colin is mere name not other than emptiness and therefore can be Heruka. It is worth pointing out that all this has been going on during the retreat section of the Summer Festival, (good timing Colin!), where Gen Rabten has been giving profound instructions, including on what Buddhas experience. The suffering hallucinations of Colin’s gross mind are about to be all over for him, and indeed could be for us too, if we really want them to be.

Accepting the sorrow

Talking to myself … There are a million ways to transform this sadness, but I have to accept that it is there first, not paper over the cracks. Use the heartbreak to allow my heart to grow. Practice the yoga of equalizing samsara and nirvana. Not be attached to my sorrow, nor the ordinary narrative of our friendship.

Accepting the suffering means not repressing it, but at some point we know it is empty and we let it go, to be replaced by compassion and joy. I did this this morning, which is the day of his powa.

It is our joy, compassion, love, wisdom, and pure view that will help Colin get to the Pure Land, not dragging him with our sadness. But this is a process for everyone, it has to be natural, not forced nor pretended. We can’t tell people who are grieving: “Think like this and you’ll stop being sad”, and assume that’ll work. We cannot be disconnected from our sadness; it is the sadness which gives us the realization that suffering is unbearable. From there we can develop authentic renunciation and compassion, hence “Suffering had good qualities.” Then we can also view it as mere name. It is mere mistaken appearance blocking us from seeing the truth of bliss and emptiness.

The powa, 2.25pm EST, August 14th

Nearly 1,000 people attended Colin’s powa, joining in from all over the world. And it was very powerful. This has got to be a first. Who were you, Colin Chase?! As a friend said:

“Colin really did get a Powa Express, not too many have 500+ people on stand-by for your last moment in this life to send you off to the Pure Land. His kindness & bodhisattvaness touched countless beings ”

I think many people now feel deeply supported to know that we are united not only in our grief but also now in the knowledge that we can do this for each other – we can send our friends, Sangha, and family to the Pure Land. It is inspiring to see how our Sangha is open-ended because everyone is welcome, and that none of us has a monopoly over anyone else’s affection or memory, we are all learning to love one another.

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. ~ The New Guide to Dakini Land

During his death and for about an hour after I had an unexpected and good experience that I won’t share here, but that was in keeping with everything else that has been happening these last few months and days. It convinced me that Colin is now in the Pure Land of the Dakinis.

For such practitioners, death is just mere name – they are simply moved from the prison of samsara to the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka. ~ Heruka Root Tantra

I will just say that we are usually so dualistic about samsara vs nirvana, for the Pure Land is mere name away at all times. We go where our mind goes. How many different ways has Guru Heruka explained this to us?!? He couldn’t have made it clearer.

Enlightenment is reality, it is right here. So of course the Pure Land is right here.

Living meaningfully, dying joyfully

I feel that Colin’s life and death have had a large impact on our Kadampa tradition, that something has shifted for a lot of people. It was a meditation on death par excellence, our own life of approx 4,000 weeks not to be taken for granted, not even a day of it. Of course we all die – we don’t all die on a stage, though, in a five-day drama watched by hundreds of practitioners. It revealed what happens if you do spend your whole life being kind — living meaningfully does mean you’re going to die joyfully. We have seen the power of the Guru and the power of the Sangha. We can do this for each other.

Honoring him

When someone I love and respect dies, I try to honor them by adopting some of their good qualities; and that may merit another article. Colin would read this blog from time to time and generously told me: “Your writing draws people into their heart, and leaves them yearning for more. That, my dear lady, is an unparalleled talent.” So perhaps he will be reading this along with all the comments I hope you will leave below. Please leave comments! Tell your stories. Let us be encouraged by this man’s life and works.

(Since I posted this, a lot of you have kindly sent inspiring comments below, thank you! This includes people (and good writers!) who knew Colin well such as Greg and Michelle — very well worth reading if you get the chance.)

Colin, if you are reading this … you may not fully appreciate how much you are loved and by how many. That, and riding a motorbike, might be the worst faults you had. But it doesn’t matter now because the Guru and Dakinis have you. I know we’re going to be hanging out again in the mountains of Keajra one way or another. We’re all going to be having endless fun with the Heroes and Heroines of Geshe-la’s mandala, a mandala that you’ve already been a huge part of creating. It is your home, where you belong, where we and our families all belong. Indeed, where else could you be now but there already, inseparable from your beloved Spiritual Father — paving the way, as ever, for us all to see through the illusion and join you.

 

Transference of consciousness for those who have committed suicide

10 mins read

This week (Sept 9-15) is suicide prevention awareness week. I would submit a week is not enough. We need more awareness every week, as suicide is on the rise and it is destroying lives – not just those who kill themselves but those who are left behind.

BuddhaAvalokiteshvaraIn this final article on suicide, I want to say something about a powerful practice we can do for those who have died in general, and suicide victims in particular.

Back to my thoughts on Denis at the time

Denis believed in transference of consciousness (Powa in Tibetan, pronounced Poe Wa). In a letter written a few months ago to a mutual friend, he said:

“My dear friend my dog Jake died last weekend. I think I told you he had heart problems. His heart stopped early Sunday morning while he slept so he was in peace. He had sat with me through many meditations and listened to many prayers. I completed Powa for him the day after he died so I know he exists in a pure land now, but I experienced many feelings of loss and sadness.” 

In his suicide note, Denis also asked for me to guide Powa as his funeral. So of course I did. I mention some of the things I said below.

If someone you love has committed suicide, please feel that you can pray for them, whenever it happened – it is never too late. And you can also ask for this Powa practice to be done for them at Kadampa Buddhist Centers. Here too is a beautiful Facebook prayer request group.

What is Powa?

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains:

Transference of consciousness was taught by Buddha in both the Sutras and the Tantras. According to the Sutras, transference is accomplished primarily through the power of aspiration, while according to the Tantras it is accomplished primarily through the power of controlling the winds. Tantric practitioners who can dissolve their winds into the central channel through meditation can eject their consciousness and take rebirth in a Pure Land through their own power. 

A Pure Land is a place or an experience beyond suffering. We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell, as it were. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we cultivate and water.

According to Buddhism, the “Pure Land” is the experience of a purified mind, whereas “samsara” is the experience of an impure mind that is still contaminated by the inner poison of delusions. Here is a short description taken from Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully:

In a Buddha’s Pure Land everything is pure; there are no sufferings, no contaminated environments, and no impure enjoyments. Beings born there are free from sickness, ageing, poverty, war, harm from fire, water, earth, and wind, and so forth. They have the ability to control their death and rebirth, and they experience physical and mental suppleness throughout their life. Just being there naturally gives rise to a deep experience of bliss.

LMDJThe Pure Land could be considered similar to the Christian idea of heaven (or other religions’ idea of paradise), but in Buddhism a Pure Land is the experience of a pure mind — there is no external creator who rewards us with it (or who, alternatively, can send us to hell.)

The mind is the creator of all. To attain a Pure Land primarily involves purifying and mastering our own thoughts. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.

As does doing Powa for people who have died, which is a very powerful spiritual practice. I share some of my first-hand experience with it in this article. You can read all the details of how to do it in Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully. Many Kadampa Centers around the world also offer it once a month.

Denis’s Powa

The room was packed with 120 people — Sangha friends, his daughter, his brothers, his ex-wife, other family, clients, and a lot of Veterans. Most people in the room had never set foot in a Buddhist Center, some had no clue that Denis was a Buddhist. His family and friends packed the sitting room before Powa started, watching videos of him and crying. After the Powa, the atmosphere was very different. Many family members thanked us and said they felt real peace, a peace they were not expecting. His daughter said she felt huge relief and could start to move forward. People said they deeply appreciated being part of the ceremony, doing something so active to send him off.

chink of light

These are some of the things I said at Denis’s Powa:

“We are all here because we love Denis. We also know his good qualities. We want to help give him what he so yearned for, which is freedom, finally, from his pain.

Buddhism and other religions explain how the person is not their body. There is a lot more to Denis than his body. His formless mind, or awareness, continues now, past death; and so now through our connection we will help him, act as a bridge between him and the holy enlightened beings, however you envisage them, and especially the Buddha of Compassion.

Denis asked for this Powa and he had faith in it. He did it for many people himself, including his dog.

Denis had a lot of faith in the Three Jewels and a lot of love for his family and friends. From a Buddhist perspective we would say that he was not in his right mind last Friday and his uncontrolled, unpeaceful thoughts, or delusions, got the upper hand over his pure and kind nature. But the actual Denis is not these inner demons who tormented him — he was their victim. We are all very sad about this, but we can channel this sadness into compassion, sending him to a Pure Land where his body no longer hurts and these inner demons can harm him no longer.

Denis led a very caring life, creating huge good karma and many connections with us and with enlightened beings, so there is no doubt we can help him. Venerable Geshe Kelsang, Denis’s spiritual teacher, wrote to say he had done Powa for Denis and was praying. We all have love and compassion for him, and so now all we need is some openness or faith, and some concentration on the words and meditations. I will guide it a bit.”

What else can we do?

 “What do we do with the information that those whose lives we admire cannot bear to live … What hope is there for the rest of us?” ~ Time magazine, reporting on the celebrity suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade 

Perhaps we can develop more compassion for each other, both the people we know personally and the ones we don’t.

be kindRather than feeling envious, competitive, or annoyed when we see the lives of people more rich, famous, or powerful, here is an insight from Time magazine:

There’s also a case to be made for having more compassion. If people’s lives aren’t as amazingly blissful as they appear, perhaps people are not as evil or stupid as they appear, either.

I need to pay more attention to the people close to me who may be silently suffering. Not assume they are okay. Not neglect people for years on end. It doesn’t take much to reach out in genuine interest.

Correspondence with a friend

I would like to conclude these articles on suicide with emails I had with a friend whose husband of nearly 40 years killed himself in 2010. At the time she told me this correspondence helped her a great deal, so I repeat some of it here in case it might help other people too.

After she first told me M had committed suicide, I replied:

“You are strong, but I can only imagine how hard this is. It surely is one of the largest challenges we can face in a life full of challenges — having to let go so completely and utterly of our person whom we love very deeply, knowing there is nothing we can do to control or change his own path and karma, however much we want(ed) to. All we can do is to love him unconditionally forever, wherever he is, staying connected. And it helps to love and connect more closely with those who are still here, your beloved children, your friends. We can always ask holy beings for help, and prayer works very well when we are so close to someone.

If there is anything I can do, I will do it, please let me know. Meanwhile, I am going to continue to make many prayers for M so that he is protected and pain-free and takes rebirth in a Pure Land. I am also praying for you and your children to find all the support and inner resources you need to get through this time.”

A few weeks later she sent this:

birds flying image.png

In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M … wanting him back on earth …. Can you give me guidance to passages that could ease my pain?

I replied:

I think that mourning is the process of letting go of our attachment and loneliness and being left with the love and feeling of being alive again. Everyone has to move through this when they suffer a great loss, but you can help this process along and even get something valuable out of it.

Almost any teaching would help as it will give you a bigger perspective and so diminish the pain. Sometimes when I am in pain I just pick up any of Geshe Kelsang’s books to a random page and see what happens, and the medicine always seems to help.

However, the Lojong or mind-training teachings are often the most helpful of all in combating severe pain because that is what they are designed for, to enable us to transform any adverse conditions, however desperate – Eight Steps to Happiness and Universal Compassion. Suffering doesn’t have to end up being bad. Understanding that in itself can lead to a certain mental freedom. My favorite Geshe-la quote for dealing with suffering is in Universal Compassion:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

Tara prayerDon’t underestimate the power of prayer, “wish paths”. Through prayer you’ll get blessings and your mind will be lifted. There are many stories documenting how radical blessings can be in helping us. As you know, a Buddha is someone who has overcome all distorted perceptions (mistaken appearances) permanently and has the power to help each and every living being find mental peace every day by blessing their minds.

Please ask the holy beings for help, they want to help you, they are waiting to. Tara for example. From the depths of your heart ask Tara to help you by taking refuge and reciting her mantra OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA. When we are feeling sad and vulnerable, we understand our existential situation and can go for deeper refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and our spiritual friends; and as a result we experience more blessings than usual.

Personally as well I like to do the equanimity meditation (eg, taught in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and The New Meditation Handbook) when I find myself finally parted from someone I love. I find it broadens my mind and scope of interest so that, in the words of that song, “if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one(s) you’re with.” Everyone is a suitable object of our love and you have been as close to everyone as you are to M. You can use your great love for him as an example to help you increase your love for others, and that love then becomes truly transformative. Imagine if you loved and wanted to protect everyone as much as you love and want to protect M. You have a lot of love in you already.

Over to you. I have been really appreciating your comments, stories, and other feedback on previous suicide articles, so please feel invited to contribute anything that might be helpful to yourself or other readers. Thank you.

Further reading

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out

A first-hand experience of transference of consciousness

What is a Pure Land? 

A brother’s suicide

This too shall pass

 

 

 

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.)

Related articles

Overcoming discouragement

Overcoming self-doubts

Change our thoughts, liberate our self

 

 

 

Living fearlessly

You know the thing I like most about Buddha Tara? That she is fearless. That she never gives up. That she never backs down. That she will never give up on anyone until the very last living being is rescued from the prison of samsara.

Someone wrote this earlier today on Facebook, and I reckon some of you can relate to it:toddler-in-aleppo

I’m mourning for the people of Aleppo, as well as ALL victims of war and genocide. I feel paralyzed, unable to help. Even in the midst of financial uncertainty, my life is so very comfortable and blessed in comparison with theirs, and I wish I could give them some of my good circumstances. I’d happily do with less to allow them to have safety and shelter and food. But I don’t know how to help when I have no financial resources to share.

Yes, I offer prayers and dedications, and I try to spread awareness; but I want to be able to do something more concrete and immediate. I do use their suffering as a motivation to become enlightened in order to save them and all other living beings from suffering, but some days that seems like such a distant and ethereal goal.

I want to be able to swoop in like a superhero right now and save the people from their hell on earth, but I cannot. It breaks my heart.

Fearlessness

Buddha Tara is a superhero.tara

She does not get discouraged or overwhelmed. And this is a quality we need if we are to be able to grow our compassion until it reaches all living beings. Because there are a lot of people experiencing a lot of suffering, and this can be terrifying and hard to cope with when we open our eyes to look at it. Without fearlessness, we will shut our eyes again; I think this is only a matter of time.

Earthlings

Human suffering is bad enough. But I have now watched Earthlings, having put it off for a long time, which shows the monstrous (I don’t have the words) suffering inflicted by humans — us — on millions and millions of bewildered fellow beings every single day. Within a few miles of where you are sitting — wherever that is — no doubt there are animals who, although they want to be loved just as much as our dog or cat, or at least left alone, are being stabbed and tortured and murdered instead.

Earthlings was almost impossible to watch; I knew it would be. But it also got a lot of things into perspective and brought out a compassionate, if somewhat desperate, wish to do whatever I could to bring an end to the suffering. However, I need a powerful ally. There is no way I can do this on my own, of course; I don’t even know where to begin, hence the desperation. So I was thinking a lot about Guru Tara — how she would never flinch in going to the aid of all the animals and human beings involved. And how I want and need that kind of ally and that kind of courage. Or I am never going to follow through, I am just going to switch channels.

earthlingsReader discretion is advised

I don’t know if you ever intend to watch Earthlings, but I hope you don’t mind if I mention here some of the reactions I had to it. As the movie says at the outset, “viewer discretion is advised.” Which, before the first harrowing images even appeared, made me realize the privilege, the luxury, of being a mere spectator, able to turn off this unpleasantness whenever I felt like it – unlike those who were actually experiencing it.

I think we need context for watching something like Earthlings or it will just make us angry and depressed, or cause us to stick our head even further into the sand. Same with Aleppo. Same with all the intense tragedies and catastrophes all around the world all the time.

Might doesn’t mean right

The film makers are making the case for us not harming animals with our own actions directly or indirectly – in all five categories where animals are misused, namely (unwanted) pets, food, clothes, entertainment, experimentation.

Just because our species happens to be more powerful is no excuse for exploiting people in other species. Any mark of humanity is surely that the powerful are supposed to look after the vulnerable, not take advantage of them. We kind of get that for human beings, but not for some sad reason for animals. And this despite the overwhelming and increasing evidence that animals and fish are just as feeling of suffering as we are, they have nervous systems, pain receptors, and so on.stop-it-thats-horrible

I think it is not correct to turn the other way when animals are suffering within our own realm, within our own neighborhoods, hidden within plain sight. As Edmund Burke was quoted in the movie:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Very few people visit slaughterhouses. Many people hope and assume that the meat they eat has come from humanely killed animals. Generally, this is a pipe dream. We need to know what and who we are eating or wearing. Ignorance is not bliss, especially not for the animals. As it says in the movie:

They all die from pain.

What will be enough?

Not misusing others for our own purposes, as the film makers want viewers to conclude, is a very good start – probably an essential one if we are to claim any conscience at all — but it is not ever going to be enough. It is not ever going to be nearly enough.

This movie shows pretty conclusively in my opinion that, despite its occasional pleasant moments, samsara is not a pleasure garden and we are idiotic to be skipping around fecklessly as if it is, as if it cannot suddenly twist into something very very nasty.Geshe-la turtle.jpg

And it shows too that nothing less than waking these living beings up forever from the nightmarish hallucinations of the sleep of ignorance will ever be enough.

Snapshots of hell

An “earthling” is someone who inhabits the Earth – any sentient being sharing our planet.

Some searing moments among too many: a stray dog was thrown into the back of a garbage truck, and he stared out at the humans incomprehendingly before he was crushed along with all the other “trash”. Each week thousands of unwanted dogs and cats, just as lovable as yours or mine, are tossed into gas chambers like useless sacks, their bodies later pulled out and piled up, because the shelters cannot afford the cost of putting them down humanely with an injection.

Have you ever communed with a cow in a field? They are so curious, they’ll always come gather around you if you sit there long enough. I have sat meditating with cows in the English Lake District on more than one occasion, and I remember a particularly friendly cow once licked me all the way up the front of my dress. And these are the same kind of gentle big-brown-eyed beings with long eyelashes who are are branded on their faces and have their horns ripped out without anaesthetic; all this long before they get to the killing cows-on-hillroom. Where they can have their throats slit while still conscious because the steel bolt into the brain has been administered so carelessly, and where they can still be thrashing around on the assembly line. So much blood. It’s like watching a horror movie, only these are not special effects.

Intelligent sows are confined their entire lives in cages barely bigger than themselves – imagine someone chucking your dog in a closet filled with excrement and not letting her out her whole life. Piglets meanwhile squeal with agony as their baby ears are clipped, tails docked, teeth cut, and genitals removed. Ruptured flesh and abscesses make the rest of their lives wretched, not helped by being stomped on and yelled at, in insult upon injury, “Go you mother fucker, go, go!!! Come on, you bitch!” I had just been thinking, “Why don’t any of these workers ever want to try and let the pigs escape?”, when I saw a worker filmed laughing as he clubbed a pig to death.

I wonder how any human being can work at a slaughterhouse without becoming at least partly a hell being. The karma is hideous. The desensitization too common but necessary to do the job. The additional cruelty and harshness legion. There are hundreds of thousands of poor human beings being paid to maim and kill. Yeah, you can say it is a job like any other, you have to put food on the table, but still …. And reports like this one do show that even in this life it impairs people greatly …. Hard to watch this and deny the existence of hell realms, including the karmic experiences similar to the cause.

I don’t think you can stay hating the protagonists if you know Dharma; compassion for them is almost greater. For they are part of that same hell, and you know full well that if they remain oblivious of the reality they are creating for themselves, and don’t purify their harmful actions, it will soon be their turn on the killing room floor.cow-in-factory-farm

Earthlings is scary. Yet Earthlings shows just snapshots of the lower realms in terms of the amount of sentient beings in agony and the length of time they must suffer. Buddha taught that there are countless world systems in samsara, and countless living beings in pain. He also taught that we living beings have been suffering in samsara since beginningless time due to our delusions and bad karma.

I kept wishing for the animals I was watching to be able to die as quickly as possible and for the humans to stop, please stop, just clock off and go home – but the fact is that death may close that particular chapter, but the endless tale of suffering will continue in the next. This book of samsara is millions and millions of chapters long. Longer.

The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra says:

The flesh and bones of all the bodies I have previously taken if gathered together would be equal to Mount Meru,
And if the blood and bodily fluids were gathered they would be equal to the deepest ocean.
Although I have taken countless bodies as Brahma, Indra, chakravatin kings, gods and ordinary humans,
There has been no meaning from any of these, for still I continue to suffer.

If having been born in the hells drinking molten copper, as insects whose bodies turned into mud,
And as dogs, pigs and so forth who ate enough filth to cover the whole earth,
And if, as it is said, the tears I have shed from all this suffering are vaster than an ocean,
I still do not feel any sorrow or fear, do I have a mind made of iron?

Hang on Buddha, we may be thinking, it can’t be that bad. Watching Earthlings, it is not hard to see that it can. The whole of samsara is rotten to the core.

Time to wake upsuperheroes

Hence the need for Buddha Tara and her countless emanations, including us. “Buddha” means Awakened One. We can become an Awakened One ourselves. This need not be a “distant and ethereal goal”, not now when we have access to the wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of reality and the Awakened Ones’ help.

Once we have woken up from the sleep of samsara, and are abiding in the reality of bliss and emptiness — universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — we will be a position to wake everyone else up. What’s the alternative? What lies in store for us if we do not wake up?

I wanted to tell Tara’s story to show what I mean about her fearlessness and cheer you up a bit, but we are out of space. Coming up soon — here in fact! Meanwhile, comments as always are welcome.

Related articles

Caring for others and helping ourselves

Compassion: the quick path to enlightenment

Being Buddha Tara

 

 

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible

During an idyllic mountain retreat on the emptiness of the mind not long ago, we spent all weekend looking for our mind and failing to find it; and then I drove home. On the way I picked up a watery coffee in a garage, thought, “I guess I should just practice WIFI.jpgcontentment with this horrible coffee”, but then a few miles down the road was magnetically drawn into a passing Starbucks against my will. This was in a distant mountain town called, rather charmingly, Loveland.

A first-world problem

As it happens, giving into my attachment like that might have been a mistake. I walked from the car to the coffee shop, ordered my flat white, oh yeah!, and then glanced down at my hands. They were holding a credit card, but that was all.

I looked at my empty hands and thought “Oh dear, help!” The barista looked at me staring strangely at my empty hands and thought “That is a mad woman.” She just saw empty hands. But I saw a very significant object, the lack of car keys.

A very meaningful absence

driving-homeNew terminology alert! Bear with me for a moment …

Emptiness is also known as a “non-affirming negative phenomenon”. It is the mere absence of inherent existence or, to put it another way, the mere absence of the things we normally see. It is “non-affirming” because it does not affirm any other phenomenon.

For example, if I tell you, “My cousin is not female”, that would be called an “affirming negative phenomenon” as the object you perceive is the lack of my cousin being female with the implied observation that my cousin is male. (It is called a “negative phenomenon” not because it is bad, by the way, but because you have to negate something else to get to it, namely a female cousin).

But if I say, “There is no elephant in this room”, all that brings to mind is the lack of an elephant in this room, it does not imply there is a bishop, for example, here instead. You’re just left looking at a mere lack or absence of an elephant in this room, without any other object being implied or affirmed in its place.

Some absences or lacks can be quite significant. If you park your car, do some shopping, and then go back to the parking lot with heavy bags to find an empty space where your car was, what are you seeing? Are you seeing an empty space or are you seeing a lack of car? A mountains-1passer by will be seeing just an empty space, but you will be freaking out because what you are seeing is a very meaningful absence. Not dissimilar to the absence of car keys in my hand.

This sounds a bit technical, I know, but it is actually exceedingly helpful to know that “emptiness” (also known as “selflessness”) is just a mere lack of something. What exactly? Emptiness is the mere lack of everything we have ever thought existed! Knowing this lack is quite significant, to be honest – it is profound knowledge that will free our mind if we become familiar with it.

Why? Well, you know that thing you are worried about? It’s not there. That person you are so hung up on? They are not there. That body which feels sick, not there. The politics you are so mad at, not there. They only appear to be really there because of our ignorance. Everything exists in a state of freedom. Everything is mere appearance to our mind with no substantiality, nothing behind the appearance. So, change your mind, change your world.

It takes time to get a direct or non-conceptual realization of emptiness, at which point all our problems are over forever; but even a slight taste gives us a liberating sense of possibility.

Centered in the solution

After this recent article my dad said: “Still trying to understand what the following means. ‘Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution.’”

mountains-3What is the solution? The simple answer is that it is the realization that everything depends upon the mind, so change the mind and the worry goes away. We already know this a bit because when we are able to calm down and get perspective, for example by taking a few minutes out to breathe and connect to the peace in our heartand perhaps connect to blessings, the situation always seems to improve, become manageable. This means not just that our perception of the situation improves, but the situation itself improves, because there is no situation outside of our perception of it, as explained here.

At its most profound, the solution is realizing emptiness, the mere absence of the things we normally perceive. Because the things we normally perceive are not there at all – which is a meaningful non-affirming negative or absence — we don’t have to get upset, worried, anxious, angry, etc., on our own or others’ behalf, any more than we have to get upset in a dream, if we only knew we were dreaming. For when we wake up, we realize that the situation that seems to be so real is not there — it is mere appearance with no existence from its own side. This doesn’t mean that situations, whether asleep or awake, don’t exist at all, but it does mean they exist in a state of fluidity and freedom, and that just by changing our thoughts we will change the situation.

My dad also asked what was mean by Nagarjuna’s quote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You know that scene in Kung Fu Panda where Po defeats Tai Lung wuxi-finger-hold-1after a lot of tedious fist fighting. They are fighting each other “out there” to begin with — pretty tiring and tiresome if you ask me — but then with a little twist of Po’s finger, the Wuxi finger hold, everything is dissolved away in all directions. I find that a nice visual for the power of realizing that everything is empty and therefore depends entirely upon our mind, meaning we can change everything effortlessly and immediately if only we realize this.

Does that answer your questions, Dad? If not, let me know 😉

That’s why as soon as we realize we are mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, like Buddha Heruka, we can send light rays out to purify and transform HUM.jpgeach and every living being instantaneously and effortlessly. For they are not outside the mind. (And I may as well point out that we are not outside our mind either, and nor is our mind outside our mind – a subject for another day.)

Emptiness — the mere lack of the things we normally perceive — can be accessed through searching for things with wisdom, through reasoning our way into reality in the traditional meditation on emptiness. You can read how to do this search in Transform Your Life and other books, and I’ll try to come back to it later if I live long enough.

Back to my predicament …

Back to my predicament in Loveland… Well, I ran out to look for the car keys and, dear reader, I had parked all of 100 feet away but they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere — even when another young barista decided to come out and help me comb the grass for them. So then, in my usual turn-to when I lose something, I started saying Tara mantras, requesting her help. Immediately a charming man appeared and, hearing of my predicament, helped me look and then said he’d stay and call people for me.

Because of course I had left everything in the locked car, including my phone. And mountains-2including, as it happened, every single telephone number that I might ever have use for. That is one moral of this tale. Failing to dredge up even one phone number from my computer-addled mind, we tried emailing the only two emails I could remember. To no avail. We stood there for a while, me foolishly, both wondering, and then a cop showed up randomly.

Happened they knew each other. And then the cop started googling for break-in companies because he said he was not allowed to break into cars himself any more. But then Tara blessed his mind or something, for he changed his mind, “Hang on, I think I have a colleague who will break in for us.” (Yes, he really said “us”.) So I then had one charming man and half the Loveland police department trying to solve my problem, and lo and behold they did break safely into the car. Whereupon I was able to call one of my usual guardian angels, who appeared a mere 45 minutes later with a spare set of keys. During which 45 minutes I managed to memorize all of 3 phone numbers, including my own, for future eventualities. I wonder if I still remember them …

Moral of the tale

Okay, what was all that about? That mini-first-world panic went to demonstrate:

(1) A great example of a meaningful absence.

(2) The kindness of strangers and how we ALWAYS depend on others, it’s just that we can forget that when seemingly ensconced in our comfort zone cocoons/cars.

(3) An external problem doesn’t have to lead to an internal problem and can even be a source of happiness. For I was happier after all this happened then before it started, and I was already in a great mood from the retreat. I could not help but feel the warm fuzzies due to those 5 Lovelandy men spending their Monday afternoon helping me. And in another twist there was a huge thunderstorm while I was waiting in the car, but instead of being a problem it actually cleaned the car beautifully from the red sticky dust of the unpaved mountain roads.

(If my skin had been a different color it may [or may not] have been a different story – I was conscious of that too; and it gave me some more ideas for an article I have been wanting to write on the subject of discrimination.)

More articles on the emptiness of the mind coming up soonish. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.

Related articles:

Emptiness of the mind 

The kindness of others 

The non-thingyness of things 

 

Being Buddha Tara

Who is supposed to be looking after all these animals?

stargazerMost of the animals we can see are in our human realm, of course, because that is where we are. But there are countless more. According to Buddha’s explanation of the six realms of samsara, the vast majority of animals are packed together in the animal realm. In Washington DC a few weeks ago, at the Smithsonian museum, I watched a short documentary showing the outlandish creatures not long ago discovered right at the bottom of the ocean, under the seabed, all stacked one upon the other, much like the scriptural description of the animal realm.

And we don’t have to look far to see that most animals inhabit a terrifying and hostile world. In the summer of 2009 I went to the aquarium in Plymouth with my good friend Kelsang L, and I wrote at the time: “I need to remember these images. A large flat fish with a distinct face is flailing out of the water at L, perhaps some part of him recognizing her robes, who knows, and working his mouth as if to cry “Help me!” Tiny sea horses, the size of a fingernail, have no future to write home about. Sharp-teethed sharks move incessantly around a large tank above our heads, avoided for dear life by the terrified fish forced to share their space. L and I didn’t realize we had come across the tank for fighting crabs until we spotted their body limbs strewn all over the ground, all the remaining crabs lying on top of each other in exhaustion. Limpets and other crustaceans are stuck fast to the rocks, with such settled ignorance of their surroundings that they could be the very epitome of self-cherishing. Enormous salamanders and eels are confined in cruelly tiny spaces. Unsuspecting prawns are dumped in the tanks with the anemones, to serve as their supper.

Dumbo octopusThe “HOMES” display is a poignant reminder of how every creature in the sea desperately wants one – they try to make their homes on rocks, under rocks, under the sand, even in the waves of the water itself. In samsara, we all have attachment to places, enjoyments, and bodies — but real estate in the Ocean is hard to come by, and most people down here are not able to keep their home even when they do manage to find one.

“Who is looking after these living beings?”, I find myself asking, as thousands of mouths open and shut in a Munchian scream for help. “How am I going to get you out of this lower realm?”

Buddha Tara, you are needed

Tara is the embodiment of swift compassionate action, so it seems to me that to become more like her we need to ripen our potential for this by taking on others’ suffering both in and out of meditation. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook:

We should alleviate others’ suffering whenever we can and happily accept our own suffering as a method to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way … the power of our compassionate activities will strengthen.

Tara 5

Taking away everyone’s suffering is Tara’s very nature. As a Buddha, she has already exchanged self with others, imputed her I on all living beings, including the prawns; so living beings’ suffering IS her suffering and she has already happily accepted it, purified it, and transformed it into bliss. We can do that too, generate ourselves as a Buddha, purify everyone through imagination that becomes reality. Everything starts and ends in the imagination. We need to be part of that creative solution if samsara is ever to stop.

During meditation, we mentally take on the suffering of others upon ourself, using imagination. Having gained deep experience of this meditation, we shall then be able happily to accept our own suffering in order to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way, we are physically taking the suffering of others upon ourself. ~ The New Meditation Handbook

Tara’s legs remind me that it is pointless rushing around like a headless chicken – one of her legs is out, showing her readiness to leap up to help, but the other is drawn in, showing that she can help others precisely and only because  she is an ever-present manifestation of bliss and emptiness. In fact, she only ever need take one step.

Please give me that!

To be like Tara, we can learn to take on others’ burdens, first mentally, then physically — “Hey, let me carry that for you!” “Give me your suffering!” Walking one day up one of those notoriously steep hills in San Francisco, and seeing an old hunched woman trying to ascend an even steeper set of stairs to her front door carrying two huge shopping bags, I ran up and carried them the rest of the way for her. However, although it worked that time and she seemed relieved, a friend’s similar but different story reminded me that we need to be happy to help others in the way that they want, without imposing our ideas of what that may be. In his case, seeing a homeless man pushing a trolley with three wheels that got stuck on the tarmac he also ran up, only to be greeted with outrage: “I don’t know you! I don’t want your help!” It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.Tara picture

Suffering sticks to a real me – ageing, sickness, death, and so on – and it is hard to stop obsessing on that for long enough to focus on others. To develop a depth of compassion, we need to realize that the self we normally see and cherish does not even exist, so we can get it out of the way.

And as we can impute whatever we want — choose how we discriminate the world as Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind — we can impute that others are our mothers, that they are kind, that they are more important than me, that they ARE me. We can make that work, as Buddha Tara does.

Once we share her realizations, we will also be completely free from any mistaken appearances or hallucinations (and hallucinations don’t get much weirder than those to be found at the bottom of the ocean or in the Plymouth Aquarium). We will be able to bestow blessings/peace on each and every living being every day, including every forgotten sea creature in existence. They need this. We all need it.

Happy Tara Day!

Who ARE we?!

Have you ever wondered this …?!

who_are_you

Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

It is a good thing to figure out as our sense of self dominates our entire life and everything we do.

We are, by and large, who we think we are. Because we don’t exist from our own side, but are merely a projection of mind — the object of a thought, a notion or collection of notions – with training we can change into whatever we want to be.

However, this will only happen if we first stop buying into our own and others’ superficial and generally wildly inaccurate stories about us.

The other day, I was talking with a teenage girl who is beautiful and intelligent, but try telling her that (!) for she also has a very low sense of self-worth. She is not alone in hating herself, a lot of people do it, and in particular it is a common reaction to being put down, over-teased, criticized, or bullied. We can end up believing what deluded people say to us, take it on as the truth about who we actually are. (This can even be the case when we know we are being falsely accused of something; just through the force of others gossiping about it we can end up feeling less worthy.) Then even if those who love us and know us best say how beautiful we are, etc., we don’t believe it. As a result, we find it inordinately hard to get our act together. We may even engage in crazy self-sabotage or self-destructive behaviors, which in turn make us feel even more substandard and worthless.fun house mirror reflection of our own mind

I think most of us do this — self-sabotage in some way — to a greater or lesser extent, at least at times, holding ourselves back from happiness and progress. Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve noticed that someone really doesn’t like you, for example? And perhaps they are spreading the word?! And, even if you are generally quite self-confident, this time it gets to you and undermines your effort? It discourages you?

We need to find a way not to be influenced by others’ opinions of us. See if this technique helps.

Who are they really looking at anyway?

If we understand that we all suffer from delusions based on self-grasping ignorance, and that the world is a reflection of our own minds, we can understand that we are all currently moreorless in our own worlds. When people look at us in a certain way, what are they really looking at?

A mirror.

This can be very helpful to visualize. Next time you are in the presence of someone who doesn’t like you, imagine they are looking into a mirror and not actually looking at you. Do this whenever you think of them thinking of you. They are seeing the distorted appearances arising from their own delusions, their own baggage, bouncing back on themselves, harming them more than you. The chances are that the pattern in the mirror is quite familiar to them at other times too, when they think they are looking at other people. They are themselves locked up in their own un-fun house of mirrors, which are reflecting back their painful anger, hurt, and lack of self-confidence. Understanding this, you can disregard what they are seeing as not having anything to do with who you actually are. You need not rise verbally or mentally to what they say. Let it die down.

Wiping the projector

what do cats thinkWhen people say hurtful things to or about us, it is of course also an effect of our own past karmic actions of saying unkind things to or about others. We can cleanse the grimy obscurations from our own karmic projector as well, and one powerful way to do this is to learn to look at our detractors with love and understanding instead of dislike. (This is not the same as being unnaturally nice or polite to them out of the wish to please or out of fear of their potential anger, which makes us feel and act even more like a helpless victim – the love we develop and express has to be genuine, self-confident, and strong.)

I’m Starting With The Man In
The Mirror
I’m Asking Him To Change
His Ways

Once we are feeling more confident and loving, and have our mojo back, we can also check to see if any crticisms they are leveling at us have any validity — in which case, if they are pointing out a fault we may actually have, we can take steps to remove it, but without identifying ourselves with it. (See these articles on how to deal with criticism.)

(Also, of course, it’s worth pointing out that sometimes that person likes us just fine, or at least more than we think they do, and we are projecting dislike onto them because we already feel dislikeable, in a vicious spiral. Something to watch out for.)

Tara reflecting on usWho are we? We can relate to ourselves as our pure potential for happiness, goodness, and change, where our faults and delusions are temporary and not us, like silt temporarily obscuring the purity and clarity of water – that view is far closer to reality. We can stop relating to ourselves as others’ version of us, unless it is a Buddha’s version of us!

(By the way, at the other end of the spectrum, if we believe others over-the-top praise and hype about us, we can end up proud and limit ourselves in that way as well. We need to come to know our own minds and capabilities and faults, and believe in our own potential to cleanse our perceptions and change completely.)

This article is part of an occasional series about overcoming discouragement. More later.

Over to you: in what ways do you stay self-confident?

Finding my heart

I am only a parent of cats and take my hat off to parents of small humans, who seem to have to work 24/7 for others. But I think even pet parents have some of the same experiences, and also some of the same concerns when it comes to balancing love and attachment and avoiding undue worry and stress when things go wrong…♥)  So, when Kadampa working dad recently had the good idea of starting a Facebook page for Buddhist parents, I joined the group too. And to let more parents know about this forum, I thought it was a good excuse to post this guest article by him. Scroll to the bottom of this article to read the Facebook About. 

Just before I was to get married I was at the New Kadampa Tradition Summer Festival in England.  I went up to what was then the Protector Gompa (a special meditation room dedicated to the Dharma Protector).  I felt like getting married was the right thing to do for my spiritual practice, but I still had doubts.  So I made as sincere of a request as I could that my path be revealed to me.  What happened next was the only time something like this has ever happened to me.  I was meditating, my eyes were closed, but in my mind a Buddha who I understood to be Tara approached me.  She was made of a silvery metalic liquid, but very much alive.  In her hands was a baby – in normal flesh and bones that I could see as clearly as I could see any person out of meditation.  She then handed me the baby and said, “This is where you will find your heart.”  And then everything vanished.  I can still vividly remember and see this within my mind.  All doubt was then dispelled and I knew what my path was to be.  Thirteen years later, I now have five kids!

Prior to my being a parent, I was very much a Vulcan – heart-felt emotion wasn’t really part of my personality, and I was very intellectual in my approach to the Dharma (I still am, unfortunately, but it is slowly changing…).  I really struggled with feeling any Dharma realizations like love and compassion in my heart, and as a result I tended to shy away from such meditations and instead to focus on emptiness and other philosophical or technical topics.  “Finding my heart” was (and still is), in many respects, my greatest spiritual challenge.

To my surprise, the love I have for my children is not some sappy, mushy sort of thing, but is rather very active.  It can best be described as “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.”  It is a feeling of a fortunate assuming of personal responsibility for their welfare – I am glad it is me who is responsible for them, because I wouldn’t trust that anybody else would look after them the way I would and I very much want them to be taken care of.  It is a love that ‘knows them’, in many ways better than they know themselves.  I know and understand how they work and think, so I am always sensitive to what is best for them.  It is a love that happily works for their benefit.  It is a love that would rather me have the hardest tasks or the worst things so that they can have the best.  It is a love that somehow can see past all of their faults and understand where those faults are coming from and develop compassion wishing to protect them.  It is a love that literally laughs out loud when I see their summer portraits and the unique goofiness in each of their expressions!

And here’s the thing:  all of this comes naturally.  I haven’t worked to develop this love, I just naturally feel it.  Venerable Geshe-la explains the reason for this is because we have special karmic connections with these particular beings from our previous lives where we now spontaneously feel a pure love towards them.  Of course there are times when our minds are full of delusions towards our kids, but compared to everyone else we feel the most natural love for our kids.  It is thanks to my kids that I ‘found’ my heart, I realized what it means to feel an active love for somebody.

How wonderful if we can extend the love we feel towards our children to all living beings, where we can view all living beings as our children.

Here is the Facebook forum: https://www.facebook.com/groups/288032664659782/members/ 

About: The purpose of this group is to provide a platform for Kadampa parents to share their experiences of how they use the Kadam Dhama to be better parents and to ask questions about how to apply the Dharma to common parenting challenges. Through this, we can all learn from each other’s trials and tribulations as we seek to unite the Kadam Dharma with modern parenting. Over time, this page will become like a repository of the accumulated wisdom of Kadampa parents, which will then hopefully prove helpful to future Kadampa parents for generations to come. The group is open to parents and non-parents alike, because in the end our job as Kadampa Bodhisattvas is to help others grow. Please add all of the Kadampa parents you know to this group. The group is also open to Kadampa teachers who wish to better understand and help their students who are parents. And yes, parents are free to post pictures of their little ones doing all of the silly things they do! Please note, the views expressed in this group are those of individual practitioners and do not represent those of the New Kadampa Tradition itself. This is an “unofficial” group of practitioners. For the official New Kadampa Tradition Facebook page, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/kadampa

“If you do not help us, we will be killed.” What can we do about large-scale sufferings?

Some time has elapsed since I wrote this article on Homs, Syria; but the question “What can we do?” seems just as relevant to what’s going on today — which at the time of writing (January 4 2016) includes the rise of ISIS, the flood of desperate refugees, the floods in the north of England, the crazy political discourse, and one mass shooting a day on average in the US. Amongst other things.

********************************************

This sign held by a child trying to reach the world was the first thing I saw about the slaughter taking place in Homs, Syria, a few days ago. Then a newspaper today had the headline: “Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents.”

“We are seriously dying here. It is really war,” Waleed Farah told the Guardian, speaking via satellite phone. He said: “It isn’t war between two armies. It’s between the army and civilians. You hear the rockets and explosions. You feel you are at the front. The situation for civilians is pitiful.”

What, if anything, are we supposed to do, as individuals in a country far away?

This question comes up again and again and again. Daily. With your help, I looked at this subject at the time of the Japanese earthquake. We decided there is never nothing we can do.

This time I wanted to examine how hard it is not to look away when we hear news like this. How tempting it is to turn away, or even close our heart, thinking “It is too awful, it is too far away, it is not part of my life, and what can I do anyway?”

But this suffering is part of my life. It is part of my suffering world. It is appearing in my world. I turn away at my peril.

I often come across links to footage I’d really rather not see, such as starving humans and skinned cats. Where does my squeamishness come from though – does it come from compassion or is there something else at play? After all, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas never shy away from following Buddha’s advice to know suffering (the first noble truth). How can we know something without looking at it? Can we? How am I going to go about removing myself and others from hellish situations if I can’t or won’t look at them? What do you think? (I’m not advocating we all start watching horror movies, perhaps there is a balance to be had here; but I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.)

A lotus grows from mud

One thing I do know, I cannot conveniently box away all seemingly irrelevant or unworkable suffering without increasing my own dullness or carelessness.

Back to the case in point, what did I try and do to help today? Here is a quick summary of my meditation. This is not the only way to do it, of course, it is just the way I did it today (and I always like to begin and end with bliss and emptiness!) Meditation is very creative, and you can do whatever works best for you.

  • I invited all the holy beings into my heart and mixed my mind with theirs like water blending with water, experiencing bliss. I knew I wanted to start from a peaceful, blessed place, or I would have nothing to bring to others, and I definitely wouldn’t want to focus on their gruesome pain.
  • With my mind of bliss I dissolved me, them, and our whole world into its ultimate nature, emptiness. There is no inherently existent world, “out there”. There are not even any inherently existent suffering beings in Homs. (See this article for why this is not escapism but holds the solution.)
  • I meditated on how I’m deeply connected to all living beings in my world, including those in Homs – we are all waves rising from the same ocean, each wave containing elements of all the others, entirely dependent related.
  • In that context, from my heart, I invited the residents of Homs inside. I exchanged self with others.
  • Then I thought about what they are experiencing right now. Beheaded people lie in the street, there are no ambulances to take away the dead, and people are cowering in their houses waiting for bombs to drop on them. And “the problem is that no one can get out”, as one resident put it. I usually prefer to start with an individual, for example I imagined what it must have been like to be this mother before, during and after the militiamen broke in: “The shabbiha (Assad’s militiamen) broke into three houses overnight and slaughtered a family of five — the father, wife and their three children…” And where are they now?
  • I developed a wish for them to be safe and free.
  • I did some taking and giving and imagined that they were safe and free, now and always.
  • I prayed to all the holy beings to bring this about swiftly. It is impossible to overestimate the power of completely pure minds. We can act as a conduit for blessings to flow from holy to ordinary beings, transforming them. There are no inherently existent suffering beings – we would all be doomed if there were, and there really would be no point in thinking about their suffering.
  • I brought everyone in all six realms into my heart to stay with all the enlightened beings, in bliss and emptiness. I stayed here as long as possible.

That much I owe them at least. If I was in their position, I would want to know that the world was at least looking at me, that the world cared. If we are in a position to do anything practical, then we do it, just as it suggests in the Bodhisattva downfall:

Not going to the assistance of those in need.

We can call upon our own government, wherever we are, to step in on behalf of the civilians, or sign a petition. I just donated to Avaaz here. And mainly, unless we have a direct line to the Syrian government, we can develop compassion and we can pray, knowing that these actions do make a difference.

One more point: although it is tempting to become angry at those who are attacking them, we can remember that the deluded and karmic causes of suffering go much deeper — the wheel of sharp weapons swirls round and round, perpetrators and victims continuously changing places. Michael said it this way in this article about his murdered brother-in-law:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

Over to you: What are you doing about all these massive-scale tragedies? I look forward to your comments.

Tara Day

(I wrote this article on 8th September shortly after Rousseau first came to my house, and he has relaxed quite a bit since then! Still, a story is a story…)

Buddha Tara

Today, and the 8th of every month, is Buddha Tara Day, so here is a quick anecdote to celebrate her.

I just got a rescue cat, a panther to be more precise. A dream cat just like the ones painted by Henri Rousseau, and hence his name.

Rousseau stands on his back legs without leaning on anything and growls deeply like a bear if he sees or hears anything out of the ordinary outside. Out of the ordinary at this point includes anything with skin, fur, feathers, or scales.

Can you see Rousseau in this painting?

So he was growling at the door in the dark of night when my Russian neighbor ran up to it, all in a fluster, saying that there was a man who needed an ambulance but her phone was dead and I had to “hurry help”.

We ran over a couple of streets while I spoke on the phone to 911, to find a large rather respectably dressed man in the midst of a psychotic episode, yelling into a cell phone with no one the other end, staring blankly at everything and nothing, lurching violently around, repeatedly slamming his body hard on the pavement, and, most alarmingly, staggering into oncoming traffic.

…and/or Buddha Tara

Irena is about 5 foot 2 but she was trying to touch him: “Please seet down sir, you hurt self.” The policeman on the line (I’d called medical emergency but they decided I needed the police too) heard him scream and told us firmly to “Step away from him immediately and wait at a distance.” We didn’t have to wait long, and I guess this is the point of my story. The fire/rescue paramedics turned up in minutes, sirens blazing, followed fast on their heels by the ambulance and police. It seemed that Irena and I were no longer needed 🙂

It was the same when someone, probably Mr. Magoo, flew off an embankment, having mistaken the gas pedal for the brake, and smashed onto my car several years ago – the entire rescue brigade was there in no time at all. And what struck me then and now was how kind all these emergency people are. They didn’t know (me or) this psychotic fellow personally, but they were still going to do what they could to help him. The fact that they felt sufficiently responsible for him to appear within minutes of the call for help was impressive, and shows the power of community and our dependence upon others. We can say skeptical things like, “Yeah, well, they’re paid to do it”, but when we meditate on the kindness of others we can see that a kindness is a kindness, regardless of motivation (and in any case, let’s face it, we find it hard enough figuring out our own motivation half the time, let alone that of others ;-))

Their speed reminded me of Tara, the “swift one, the heroine”. She is right there, swift as the wind, whenever we need her. If human beings can show up that fast, clearly it is no problem for her to show up the instant we call.

Tara is seated but her right leg is outstretched, showing how quickly she will jump up and help us, her total commitment to us. But Tara doesn’t run around like a headless chicken focusing exclusively on the outer world, getting entirely stressed out. Her left leg in the meditative posture shows how we need to focus on compassion and wisdom in our heart so that our actions of helping others flow naturally from there. Responsibilities born from compassion and love are not stressful or burdensome but joyful; hence her beautiful smiling face and energetic posture.

(On that point, we can be very busy doing the things we naturally want to do and not find it in the least stressful e.g. a child having fun in crowded DisneyWorld, as opposed to feeling pressurized at having to work hard every day because we feel we need something in return.)

As for Rousseau, he likes Tara and all the Buddhas. He stares at their pictures for ages each day without growling at all. He just has to work a bit more on the sentient being part.

Do you have any Tara stories to share in the comments?

Please “like” Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do!

And please share this article with anyone who might enjoy it.

****************************************************

Meantime, check out Losang’s immaculately beautiful statue of Tara: