A light in the darkness

7 mins read.

In this last article, When the student is ready the teacher appears, I was in the middle of talking about Venerable Geshe-la — there are just so many things to say about him, but I had to stop in order to give you time to eat your supper and scream at the TV.

Joking of course. But having said that, I do hope you’re finding time to tune into Dharma books and Buddhist TV (livestreaming meditation classes) as an antidote to all the crazy stuff going on. In these “unusual times”, and I speak here to myself as well, one thing that can be quite unhelpful is spending too much time imbibing bad news on TV or social media. If we find our anxiety, depression, irritation, or sense of powerlessness are increasing as the weeks and months go by, this could mean that we are consuming life’s appearances passively, not working with them actively*.

(*Getting pulled down the rabbit holes of addictive game-like conspiracy theories or spending hours trying to convince others of how free-thinking and right we are doesn’t count, btw. And life is so short, just a matter of months, do we even have time for that?)

Reminds me of Shantideva’s question — if there is something you can do about it, why worry? If there’s nothing you can do about it, why worry?

Legit question: How can we stay involved in social media but still cut through the noise? Samsara is nothing if not beginningless and endless noise. If we find we are getting totally caught up in it, experiencing frustration, might it be more effective and sanity-restoring to just get away from the deep diving online dialogues (monologues?!) for a while? The world probably won’t end if we stop discussing it for a bit. We could spend more time instead filling our hearts with love (and even bodhichitta) and doing something practical and “real” to help the people immediately around us, in our families and communities? Civic engagement. Volunteering. Helping our Dharma Centers. What do you think?

I think people have just spent too much time online of late, not surprisingly. We know it’s addictive. We know conspiracy theories spread in this environment. The thing I mainly don’t appreciate about conspiracy theories, as a Buddhist, is that we are supposed to be in the business of vanquishing mental elaborations and samsaric narratives, not seeking out more. We are in the business of training our minds because all of us are creating our reality with our minds. And the biggest conspiracy theorist and yarn spinner of them all is our mind of self-grasping ignorance – we have to see through its convoluted sad-world-creating lies before it’s too late.

I personally think a lot of conspiracy theories fall into the category of what Buddha described as intellectually-formed delusions, which we pile up as so much clutter on the prison floor of our innate self-grasping and other delusions, in front of the escape route. Plus holding false views as supreme, holding wrong views, and so on. Buddha knows our psychology very well, he left no stone unturned in his description of the human mind and what games we could play on ourselves. Check out How to Understand the Mind for more. We all need to be hyper-vigilant these days with respect to our own minds, not just what everyone else seems to be up to. As the saying goes:

More Dharma, less drama.

We could instead choose to take charge and advantage of how creative our mind is by using Buddha’s wisdom and compassion teachings to check what’s meaningful AND create the causes for freedom and happiness. So simple! So effective. Rather than fall victim to negative unpeaceful thoughts and hallucinations that make us feel worse and worse (and cause us to fall out with our oldest friends), we can use every appearance and experience actively to create compassion, love, unity, joy, and lasting mental freedom. Becoming more and more like those who have truly freed their minds and become a lasting source of happiness for others.

Two practical suggestions

Next time we’re about to read or see a video or article or discussion online, and are in any danger of getting sucked into yet another dystopian narrative, we can ask ourselves: “What would Buddha believe?” I find this helps me.

The other is to spend far less of our valuable days online altogether — to read Dharma books or listen to more teachings instead, schedule these in, be more disciplined.  I don’t think it’s any accident that Venerable Geshe-la’s message for us at the beginning of the last two International Kadampa Festivals has been Aryasura’s incredible benefits of listening to Dharma. We need to give ourselves this chance to stay inspired and happy. That’s really important.

What IS “in fact” going on?!

In another of Venerable Geshe-la’s recent messages to everyone, he said:

There is not much reason to worry. With respect to the difficult situations that are appearing to us, we do not know whether they are good or bad. So, we should make our own life peaceful and happy through putting Dharma into practice. This is our job. We can solve our problems through the practice of Dharma. Everything is uncertain. This is samsara’s nature of impure life. So we ourself should be an example. We can solve our problems, we should maintain a peaceful and happy mind all the time through putting Dharma into practice.

One reason we don’t know whether these difficult situations are good or bad is because everything depends on the mind, everything is empty of existing from its own side, objectively. Difficult circumstances, for example, can be immensely helpful, not harmful, if we use them to increase our renunciation or compassion.

What CAN we trust?!

In a world of hallucination, what can we actually trust? What can we beneficially believe? If we open our eyes and look with real empathy, coming from an understanding of who we all really are, we see so much more.

So, for example, when we see people doing or saying things we don’t like, rather than falling for the blame game and becoming upset or angry, we can remember that they are not their delusions, that they are being controlled by their delusions. Hating them is not helpful. Instead we can do the internal work of developing love and compassion for everyone concerned, and this will lead to sustained patient, skillful, and joyful actions on others’ behalf, really trying to help people in whatever practical way we can, without us succumbing to bitterness, exhaustion, or despair.

We can remember, for example, the Kadampa motto for a meaningful life, which is to harm our delusions as much as possible and help others as much as possible. Now is the time to be proactive and creative! Our world is not as solid as it appears, rather more like an illusion or a dream. Our thoughts are infinitely flexible and changeable, and we can vastly improve our own and others’ reality.

Which brings me back to the main subject of this article …

What does this have to do with relying on a Spiritual Guide? A lot, as it happens, because he or she shows exactly how we can harm our delusions and help others as much as possible – through his teachings, practical encouragement, and own uplifting example. He is a light in the darkness of the confusion, and we can follow that light right out of here — if we decide not to lose sight of it by falling down a rabbit hole.

Venerable Geshe-la has written 22 books that are extraordinary – if you haven’t read all or any of them yet, you are in for a treat (just ask Prince Harry, who recently listed Eight Steps to Happiness as his favorite motivational book.) These books flowed out from Geshe-la’s extensive learning, practice, and wisdom — for us — so that people in the modern day could practice Dharma in their everyday lives. He changed the whole presentation of this rich tradition of Kadam Dharma without adding anything or leaving a single thing out. He received permission from Trijang Rinpoche to teach the entire path of Sutra and Tantra to you and me so that we could actually practice it with all our modern issues, with everything that’s going on – in our jobs, in our families, in our societies, in our lives.

It was not always like this – there was a time when Buddhism was the precinct of monks (and to a lesser extent nuns) in monasteries, not just in Tibet but in other Buddhist countries the world over. Lay people would be considered the less serious practitioners, whose main job was to support the ordained community. Tibetan Buddhism came over to us from a monastic tradition, and in the very early days you could be forgiven for thinking you had to be a monk and sit in your room all day long to get anywhere, both spiritually AND in the organization. (Not that there is anything wrong with sitting in your room all day long, in fact it can be very helpful — I would submit that we probably all could benefit from more study and meditation if we can carve out the time, especially in these turbulent days. Point being, though, that we can go far by applying the teachings in the midst of a “normal” daily life.)

I had an hour-long conversation with Geshe-la back then about whether or not lay people could become enlightened. (The answer is ….. wait for it …. Yes!!!) The only reason I needed to ask him this was because of an attitude around at the time that to be ordained was the only proper way to be. Geshe-la never said this and, in fact, pretty much the day he landed on English soil he said he wanted there now to be four types of teacher – nuns, monks, lay women, and lay men – and that they would study together and be equal. He has always aimed for equality, but has had to skillfully offload the baggage that came over with that generation of Tibetans.

I will finish this article for now with a quote from Venerable Geshe-la:

I am working very hard to spread Kadam Dharma throughout the world because I wish each and every living being to attain real happiness, the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment. This depends on each and every living being having the opportunity to practice Buddha’s teaching. I am strongly applying effort to prepare this precious opportunity and with sincere strong prayer. This is my cherishing of all living beings in a practical way. You can do this too.

And, would you look at that, I am out of space again! There’s more on its way. Meantime, please share comments, stories, or anything you like in the box below.

Related articles

More Buddhist views on conspiracy theories 

Why rely on a Spiritual Guide?

What can we really know about anyone? 

What is modern Buddhism for?

I watched 13th recently. And “I Am Not Your Negro”. (You can get them on Netflix and Amazon, respectively.) They are both such well observed and eye-popping documentaries that I now want everyone to watch them – well, especially if you are anything like me and have been living in a bubble of privilege, uncomprehending and shocked as to why the USA “suddenly” seems to be so racist and mean, suddenly seems to be going “backwards” (when perhaps it was never progressing quite as forwardly as some of us thought.)

13th.jpg

The questions stirring my mind these days are how I, as a modern Buddhist, can help bring an end to racism and all other forms of discrimination, selfishness, and intolerance – and not just in some distant, delayed Pure Land, but here and now in this world, given that we are all in this together. I know Buddhism has the ideas. I know some of these ideas, such as love and fairness, are of course shared by other traditions too. My questions are how to share these ideas wider, most effectively and appropriately.

It is a work in progress and I welcome your comments on how you are doing it – some of you have already shared some useful observations on the last two articles.  For me, I will contribute by chatting on this blog and to anyone else who may be interested. I have been listening most recently to people, both lay and ordained, who have brought Buddha’s insights into prisons, to great effect, and into the favelas in Rio and townships in Cape Town, and into film-making, and into brave new visions for renewing our broken social systems.

91645.jpg

Modern Buddhism is surely not about escapism; it cannot be about navel-gazing. I think we need to gain gradual experience of these teachings while sharing them in as many practical ways as we can. I know Buddhist software developers, social activists, doctors, healers, artists, directors, performers, prison officers, entrepreneurs, and so on, who are increasingly bringing these ideas into play to change their professions and their own and others’ lives, to change society, to reimagine our world.

quote

This may sound obvious — that there are Buddhist practitioners appearing in all fields — but it was not always so. When I first got involved with the Kadampa Buddhist tradition 36 years ago, it had just come out of Tibet, not surprisingly dragging along the cultural accretions of a monastic-oriented and somewhat archaic values of a very static society. I hate to say this, but there was a view for a few years back in the day that if you were not a monk or a nun, you were not a full or proper Buddhist. If you were not living in a Buddhist center, you were not a proper Buddhist. If you had a regular day job, you were not a proper Buddhist. And if you had children, goodness me, you had pretty much thrown your precious human life away.

Those anachronistic basically Tibetan notions all went out of the window a very long time ago and surprisingly rapidly, thanks in large part to the vision, skill, and courage of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Working closely with his students, he has modernized the presentation of Buddhism in umpteen far-reaching and radical ways, all while managing to keep the meaning of the teachings intact and flourishing the lay and ordained community. This means that there is an ever increasing number of good examples of how to be a Buddhist, Bodhisattva, and Tantric Yogi.

As a result, this tradition has exploded in size and relevance. And I believe this modern Buddhism is still evolving to catch up with Geshe Kelsang’s vision!

planet earth

Which of Buddha’s insights could be of benefit to help our modern world? If you ask me, all of them! They are all methods for purifying and transforming our minds and actions, and thereby purifying and transforming our actual world, including everyone in it. And they boil down to wisdom and compassion, as explained in this last excellent guest article. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Developing compassion and wisdom and helping those in need is the true meaning of life.

For example, wisdom can be seen to range from an understanding that happiness and suffering are states of mind whose main causes depend upon the mind, right through to an understanding that everything, even the tiniest atom, depends upon our minds. The things we normally see, vis a vis things outside the mind or independent of the mind, do not exist — everything is mere name, mere projection. Everything is dream-like, everything is illusion. Our ignorance veils the truth; we need to pull that veil aside. We need to help ourselves and everyone else overcome their ignorance on every level because ignorance is what keeps us trapped in systems that have never worked and never will.

Compassion ranges from an understanding that we are all equal and interconnected, breaking down the pernicious “us and them” mentality, through to a universal empathy that finds the suffering of all living beings more unbearable than our own and seeks to permanently dispel it.

All these ideas are rooted in the idea of our potential for change — our innate compassion and wisdom — a potential that is enormous, infinite, and that can start functioning right now if we let it. And if we add the transcendent vision of Tantra, we are able to bring about results very quickly indeed.  prism

It also seems to me that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso — in many ways the modern Buddhist master for our time – has been pointing for a long time to the possibility of Buddha’s teachings bringing about actual world peace. In his Buddha Maitreya teachings of 2009, for example, he said, as I quoted earlier:

If everybody followed this view — sincerely believe there is no enemy other than our delusions — all our problems that come from fighting and war will be ceased permanently. Following this view is the best method to make world peace. Unfortunately, everybody denies or neglects Buddha’s view, his intention. So we want world peace, everybody says, “World peace, world peace!”; but no-one understands how to do this.

My feeling is that it is on us to help people understand, alongside gaining experience ourselves. How? Through our own practice, example, conversations, and social engagement. Through not hiding away these ideas or ourselves out of modesty or a fear of offending, but engaging our bodhichitta into the world around us, sharing any experience far and wide in as many contexts as we can.

Not trying to make everyone into a Buddhist either — most people will not become Buddhists but they are still welcome to apply these ideas.

To finish, here is some food for thought from a comment on this last article:

Compassion that is based in wisdom is the only effective way to change this dreamlike world. Geshe Kelsang explains why so eloquently at the end of the Great Compassion chapter in How to Transform Your Life. Changing our mind directly changes the experience of the world because there is no world outside of our experience of it! With wisdom and faith, we can experience that change directly and others will experience it through our example and influence. World peace is possible if we change our mind today.

Summer Festival.jpg

More to come, including hopefully some of your comments and/or guest articles. Also, the Kadampa Summer Festival is about to start, meaning that thousands of lay and ordained practitioners from around the world will be sitting around chatting in cafes … maybe see you there.

Related articles

A Buddhist way to world peace

A vision of hope in troubled times

A modern Buddhist master

Hey, what’s going on!

Time to rebel!