What’s the difference between us?

8.5 mins read.

You may know this already, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, that people the world over are all the same in the ways that really count.

Observatory 1For one thing, samsara sucks for everyone. Birth, sickness, old age, and death – who is immune from these four great rivers or from having to watch loved ones helplessly tossed around upon them?

Carrying straight on from this article,where I started talking about transforming adverse conditions into the path.

The day I arrived in South Africa, I heard that my beloved cat Rousseau, the king of the neighborhood, had met his match. He was torn to death by a coyote.

No words, really. A nightmare for him. Despite his own murderous ways, he had a heart of sweetness under those terrible instincts, and he deserved so much better. Everybody does. I am so very grateful for the hundreds of prayers that many of you offered for him, and that Venerable Geshe-la enquired after him. As cats go, despite his terrifying and painful death, he was still blessed. Only a tiny fraction of wild animals get to die peacefully in their sleep, and infinitely fewer still have anyone paying any attention to them, let alone a great spiritual master. However, it still makes me ask, for the thousandth time — how do people cope with losses like this without Dharma?

RousseauOver a month later, the panther is still on my mind. But that is not him anymore. Where are you, my dear? Why can we never know where people have gone. A friend of mine once went missing in Florida – two agonizing weeks for everyone who loved her, the just not knowing. Then she was found drowned, her car having overshot a bridge in the middle of the night; and everyone was “Well, at least we know now.” But of course we don’t know; she is still missing. We have no clue where she is. That alone is reason enough to become a Buddha, if you ask me – so that we can keep eyes on everyone always, like Avalokiteshvara with his thousand arms and eyes, because they are now always mere aspects of our omniscient blissful mind.

Rousseau’s other mom Donna asked for my input into his gravestone and I chose a stone Buddha statue from Walmart. I hope through seeing Buddha that she and all the other humans and animals in his old stomping grounds will receive continuous blessings. Even the coyote.

Outer problems

Taxi in SA

Outer problems in South Africa can clearly be a good deal more challenging than my own usual first-world problems. For example, I don’t need the daily fear of a deadly crash in the crazy communal taxi I rely on to get to work.

These taxis are everywhere, sidling alongside your car in the same lane, viewing every gap in the road as an opportunity to get ahead because, at the end of the day, payment depends upon meeting impossible quotas. South African traffic is crazy!!! As my old friend Cas put it in his laconic way when I asked why people didn’t follow the road rules, “They are more like guidelines.” (Some of you know Cas as no-shoes John from the Festivals – and it may please you to know that he was the first Kadampa in South Africa, requesting the first teachings.) Or I could be living in a place with zero privacy, several family members in a noisy one-roomed house, or no electricity, or insufficient money for supper. And so on.

But life is not easy back here in the States either, despite it still being the richest country in the world. For example, a friend of mine, JW,  who is doing a study on senior homelessness often tells me stories of his clients’ wretched conditions in Oakland CA. This one just in:

senior homeless

Work today was nonstop. It was also a bit gloomy. I had an interview with a homeless gentleman who is in extremely poor health. He has a broken bone in his shoulder, another broken in his leg and has had countless falls in the past couple of months due to having problems with his balance. He is outside and the rains are beginning to fall. He is in serious need of help but is having a hard time finding it.

JW is not allowed to “interfere,” because this study is to reveal what senior homeless people need and so those results cannot be skewed. So:

All I could do for him was to give him a few large garbage bags to us as a poncho or for shelter. Sad.

Inner problems

As mentioned in this article, our role model in Mahayana Buddhism, called a “Bodhisattva”, works on solving both outer and inner problems — trying to come to the aid of those in need whenever the opportunity is there to do so.

But although outer problems vary from place to place and time to time, our inner problems do not — they come from our delusions grasping at me and mine, they distort our perceptions, they destroy our peace, and inside they feel the same. And these problems can only be finally solved for any of us when we get around to purifying and transforming our minds.

Our states of mind feel exactly the same – whether that be worry, irritation, or the pleasure of changing suffering. If you are really p***** off with George, does that not feel the same as someone else feeling really p****** off with Mary? Your grief or your annoyance or your depression or your attachment feels the same as mine, for example; only the object varies. we are all the same

We are funny really – all feeling like we are the center of the universe and somehow different and unique. We have so little real clue about the vast majority of the world’s population of humans, let alone animals; but I think we are safe in assuming that everyday life everywhere is a mixture of the same array of negative, neutral, and virtuous minds, just in varying ratios. That makes our stories and priorities similar, world over, regardless of our background or culture; and knowing that could help us to understand and empathize with each other.

If you want to check whether Buddha’s explanation of all living beings’ negative, neutral, and virtuous states of mind actually applies to you or not, I recommend you read How to Understand the Mind. Go see if he has left any of your thoughts out.

Mind-training

On the basis of allowing our delusions to subside temporarily through allowing the mind to settle even a little, for example with this meditation, connecting with some natural inner peace, we can then gradually learn strategies or ways of thinking to (a) pre-empt our future problems and/or (b) deal with them or transform them as they start to arise.

With the help of mind-training (Lojong) in particular, in which we learn to apply Buddha’s teachings directly to our difficulties, we can develop a huge repertoire of coping mechanisms.

Google skin cancerJust for starters, whatever problem we are having today, instead of thinking of it as inherently bad we can try labelling or imputing it as a useful teaching. For the sake of argument, let’s say that today you notice a strange lesion on your skin – you had been thinking it was a scratch but it’s been there 2 months and is now ominously growing. You send a photo to a friend, who sends it to a dermatologist, who texts back, “Skin cancer until proven otherwise.”

Meantime you have been chucked off Medicaid due to not filing the correct paperwork in time.

Okay. After the initial freakout — spending a panicky half hour looking at all the Google images for skin cancer and discovering that, yes, it could be benign, as your friend is trying to tell you, but on the other hand it could also be the worst possible most malignant melanoma and you have approximately 2 years left to live — you decide to slow down and, for the sake of your sanity, think about this from a Dharma point of view. Instead of grasping so tightly at me and mine, maybe you decide to let those thoughts dissolve into the peaceful clarity of your own mind, like  bubbles into water, going for refuge in the peace of your own Buddha nature and/or in holy beings.

Within the mental flexibility or freedom that opens up in that space, this small but very present skin lesion can now remind us of all sorts of things, such as:

  • I need more inner peace, in fact lasting inner peace; and I need to identify my self with this peace, not with this mental pain and possible physical suffering.
  • SadFamilyDoctorThis is what life is like for others, so it’s giving me a window into empathy – for example for people experiencing dread or fear when they receive bad news from a doctor. When we get over ourselves, we finally start to relax.
  • This is not inherently bad because it can make me stronger. Me myself, this lesion, and my experience of this lesion, far from being solid or fixed, all depend upon my thoughts. I can come to enjoy the challenge of transforming this problem into a solution! Why? Because I want to be a better person.

This is a true story that happened to someone I know, probably many people actually — and this way of thinking has worked for them, they feel peaceful again, inner problem solved for now. They are also dealing with the outer problem by getting on the phone to Medicaid and finding a doctor who can see them next week.

This also works for transforming other people’s problems. Someone in Joburg told me that all vegans are depressed, including her, because things are changing so slowly – and how can she transform that kind of stress? Again, heart-rending as it is when it comes to animals and other vulnerable people, we cannot immediately sort out all their outer problems, any more than one drowning person can save another drowning person, pighowever much they want to. But as well as doing the best we can, knowing that every little bit helps someone, we can use these situations to increase our compassion and our wish to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for their sake.

As we progressively free ourselves from depression, discouragement, and other delusions and as we increase our wisdom, patience, and good heart, we can become more skillful, creative, and full of the tireless courage we need if we are to free everybody.

Over to you. Comments please!

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What do we do now?

Guest article. I put out the following question on Facebook, receiving replies from all over the place, and would like to give Kadampa Life’s floor to these voices 😊

What do you think you can do best as a spiritual practitioner to help the world practically, given its current circumstances?

(I have grouped the answers in sections for convenience, despite overlap.)

Conquer delusions, including anger

buddhaFight evil…. in our mind. Flat refuse to be stirred into hatred. See the facts for what they are and support those taking a stand against harmful actions with encouragement and resources.

Keep calm, stay loving, do a bit of meditation every day, call out evil when I see it, but be careful to manage my time well and not get sucked into too many debates and mud-slinging.

I will try to use these situations to show me where I need to work on my own feelings of pride, anger, fear, etc. There seems to be never ending opportunity. Sometimes I forget that many people are overjoyed at the things I find most disturbing. Practically, I will do all I can to support tolerance.

Be mindful of the 3 poisons in my mind, just waiting to divide everyone I meet into friends, enemies, and strangers. Remember that everyone wants to be happy, and, if engaging in debate on the state of the world, I need to always (gently and without attachment!) argue with that motivation in mind.peace-quote-2

Unwavering determination to never give up.

Renunciation and patience – samsara has always been like this

Use it to increase renunciation, grow bodhichitta, and focus on my practice more.

There are certain people for whom I have a tough time generating love. I’m noticing how much fear arises when I attempt to release grudges/old anger/hurt from my heart. I’m trying to sit with the fear, and identify it, rather than identify with it, in an attempt to loosen the grasping to an “I” that has been hurt, and to an “I” that is still angry.

Realise that the actions of others are merely a reflection of my own mind and previous actions, and joyfully accept the training each day brings.

It also occurred to me later today that samsara was always bad, and always had the potential to get worse. All that’s changed now is what is manifesting for us. Samsara being a bit more honest about its true nature if you like.

My main job is to keep renunciation, compassion, and bodhichitta to the forefront of my mind and quickly attain liberation so that I can really help all my mothers to do the same.patience-quote-3

For me, I am using patience, “I stop wanting things to be otherwise.” Then I contemplate what I can do to help with resistance to these dire times, imo. I donate to organizations that I think are positively involved in supporting the people. It is the best I can do.

Purify my mind — a pure mind perceives a pure world.

Compassion and love

Really, sincerely work on developing compassion for everyone. This experience is making us dig deep in our practice!

Keep supporting the idea of love and compassion for all beings (including — especially — those who disagree with us), and the effectiveness of a peaceful, focused state of mind.

Keep compassion as our main practice and be the change we want to see in the world.

Really wish for others to be happy – equalising self and others.

Promote unity/foster empathy. We need to remember we all want the same things, and stay united against divisive “isms”.

The point is exchanging self with others at all times and giving compassion to all living beings.

I have been having different things arise to practice at different times, but today’s theme has been to see how we are more the same than different. Equalizing and equanimity.

Allove-quotel living beings have two things in common: they want to be happy all the time and free from suffering. But out of ignorance they destroy their happiness like a foe. I wish all living beings could find permanent happiness and freedom from suffering. I don’t care who they are. We are all the same in our long-standing two wishes – in that respect there is NO difference. We need to dwell on our common goals and wishes. Not our differences as these maintain the continuum of dualistic appearances. There is no limit to our patience, our love, and our forgiveness. We could not cultivate these without the objects of our patience, love, wisdom, and forgiveness. How kind other living beings are. I must repay their kindness. I will repay their kindness. Then we can realize that there was nothing to forgive other than a simple appearance created from the ripening seeds of our karma. Let’s sow some beautiful seeds in our mental garden. Heal our mind and be like our Spiritual Guide, full of humility and wisdom.

Internally – lots of taking and giving or remembering pure view. Practically – encourage and point out people’s good qualities, relate to everyone’s potential, and give Dharma in all its guises wherever needed.

While this state of the world is dividing people, it is actually galvanizing the rest of us to try harder, reach out more, understand others, help those who need it.

Remember that Donald Trump is our kind mother and meditate on that. Of course all beings are, but sometimes I like to zone in on an individual whom I am manifesting as a challenge to my peaceful mind at present.

Our main practice is the practice of the six perfections: giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration/meditation, and the wisdom realizing emptiness. We need to become enlightened to benefit all living beings. In the process we do our best with pure intentions. Our daily practice of reliance on the Three Precious Jewels, renunciation, bodhichitta, unwavering faith, and cherishing others will take us there, with a happy peaceful mind.🙏

Can we really ignore the suffering and in-humanity, and should we remain silent? What would a Bodhisattva do? What would car-hornBuddha do? Jesus?

Showing kindness to those experiencing suffering. Showing compassion and love towards all. Practicing purification. Wishing for enlightenment with a strong faith in my Spiritual Guide. Seeking his help for myself and everyone I meet throughout these degenerate times.

One thing I am practicing is looking at people and smiling if their eyes meet mine. Most people smile back. We are all the same … frightened, alone, and wishing it were not so. I try giving my own human presence and acceptance in that moment. It is a small thing. I am really just trying to train myself to be kinder — but I think it is also helping the world practically.

Smile at others with Geshe-la at our heart. Find creative ways to make others feel good. Mentally bring people and animals into the mandala. Try not to forget the unseen suffering of animals and lower realm beings — they need our help so much.

Taking the meaning “practically” to mean “action”, I’d suggest: Listening without judgment.

Being what others need you to be. Holding boundaries without anger. Intention without self-grasping, delusion, or self-indulgence.

To most sincerely follow the advice of my Spiritual Guide with respect to authentically living, to the best of my current ability, the Bodhisattva’s way of life.

Integrate my bodhichitta motivation into all my actions in protesting racial, societal, political, and environmental injustices … Emphasize to myself that my social justice life and my spiritual life do not in fact have to be separate and that they can empower each other in the best way. Inner peace and outer peace are a dependent arising …

… I agree. I think that we can think of ourselves as Heroes and Heroines when protesting injustice, putting our bodhichitta motivation into practice by protecting others. We also pray and meditate. The meditation break and meditation session support each other.

Love the spontaneous peaceful demonstrations. Please let’s keep it peaceful and respectful, for it is for ALL OF US … as they did in Standing Rock, keep it prayerful and peaceful. Our lesson here I think is to learn how to transform adverse conditions …”always keep a smiling face and a loving mind, and speak truthfully without malice.” As we know, sometimes you have to make a stand, but you can do this creatively, and with a loving mind …

If we are a member of a dominant group (white people, males, straight people, upper income people, etc.), then humbly seek out, listen to, honor, and act in solidarity with people who are experiencing oppression (people of color, women, gay/lesbian/bi/trans folks, low income people, etc.). It’s unhelpful – harmful actually – for those of us in dominant groups to remain silent and inactive when others are suffering.

We need to protect others, using our compassion and wisdom.🙏

Be the ‘best’ me I can be. Remain as centred as I can without falling prey to the delusional dramas playing out in multitudes here on FB/internet/TV etc. Keep a strong mind of love, compassion & patience for all beings, no matter what their views or actions; & rely with strong faith on my Guru at my heart & all the Buddhas & Bodhisattvas to know what is best for me at each & every moment. Also to hold a strong wish to become just like Arya Tara so that I may help her to liberate all living beings from suffering and sorrow … And if I struggle to achieve this, I try to remember to breathe 😉

Become an enlightened being as soon as I can. Otherwise, I have no real power to help anyone.

Be kind!

Wisdom

emptiness-quote

The main thing: seize the day NOW! by increasing my efforts to train in realizing emptiness in this life, recognizing this is the most powerful act of compassion there is. Also, give love and fearlessness to those who are suffering by peacefully voicing my support for inclusive policies and leaders.

Gen-la Khyenrab once taught us that the best thing we can do to help others is to meditate on their emptiness.

Keep repeating over and over – “For though it appears, it does not truly exist — like a mirage.” “Although it does not exist, it appears — like an illusion.” Remember emptiness like this … let the solidity dissolve a bit … then act out of compassion for all living beings. Be a protector – without anger – without grasping – protect all living beings. (Something i aspire to 😊 – work in progress.)

I’ve been having fun – and a bit of a breakthrough – offering my mandala as the absence of all the things I’m (normally) seeing and fearing in the world right now.

None of our ordinary judgments or ways of looking at and reacting to the world will ever change the world in any significant way. The acts of the Bodhisattva, however, can change everything in every way. All things are appearances of our karma — if we purify our karma by opening up the great treasury of merit within ourself by giving birth to a Bodhisattva, everything will just purify. From joy to joy, from purified appearance to purified appearance, our very presence can transform everything for everyone in a radical, magical way.remain-natural-quote

I too will try to remember emptiness and work at making progress on the path. But we also live in this world, where we act “normal” while changing our aspiration. I think it is important to speak up in your community and to donate money to organizations that try to protect our democratic institutions, and to try to talk across the divide, without rancor, whenever that possibility arises.

At the end of the day, remembering none of it is separate from my mind.

Power of prayer

Pray.

Call a representative. And pray.

prayerI think we need to try and remember the power of prayer and that we are heading towards degenerate times, as Geshe-la has previously warned us many times. Also by aiming to control our own mind and show an example.

“We can always pray” — when I move to remember this more swiftly and more flexibly, I simply feel more spiritually confident and refreshed in blessings.

Maintain love and compassion for all, and make prayers for world peace.

Not to discount the importance of helping in worldly ways, but I feel we should never underestimate the power of our concentrated prayers and sadhanas such as Tara and Kangso, Migtsema ritual actions, mantra recitation of the four actions with precise objectives, pacifying fire pujas and so on. If they weren’t practical and effective for solving daily problems, they wouldn’t be taught.

Tantra

Transform it all by training in shepherd-like bodhichitta in conjunction with the four complete purities in Tantra.

The power of Heruka increases in degenerate times. Now, in these times, I feel my inner love growing. I think these are the times to grow our love, compassion, tenderness, and understanding. All is always changing, fields of illusions — have courage and faith in our loving-kindness in all moments, progressing to a pure, loving state.

Being a good example

Try to show people around me that Dharma really does work by showing patient acceptance, love, compassion, and refraining from all non-virtuous actions.

Set a great example by protecting and standing up for the less fortunate and doing it with love rather than anger or self-righteousness. peace-quoteCompassionate action!

Be a calm, peaceful, patient, reasonable example to others and control my mind.

I need to flourish Kadam Dharma. I need to flourish it in my heart first – really practise from the depths of my heart because it feels like we’re running out of time. If I can increase my wisdom and compassion I’ll be better able to help people. And I need to help Kadam Dharma flourish in the world through strong prayers and physical action. The world needs Kadam Dharma more now than ever before. People need a reliable source of refuge that gives them hope for a happier future.

I’m learning that being a Dharma teacher forces us to deal with our own deluded ways of responding to the current situation – being a good example is probably the best thing we can bring to this suffering world.

Speak out against injustice — participate at whatever level necessary, be it taking part in protests, writing letters to senators and representatives, giving money to organizations that help your cause (human rights, amnesty international, doctors without borders…) Be a good role model by showing kindness and respect, compassion and love. Use our spiritual practice to maintain a good heart – when we are with others, keeping our thoughts and mind mixed with our Guru. Try not to sink into negativity by guarding our mind, and remembering impermanence. And that love is the Great Protector.

I think we need to model patience, love, and compassion; and speak from wisdom, speak from wisdom, speak from wisdom only. Teach people to have compassion when someone is doing outlandish things and separate him/her from his/her delusions …. in other words, LIVE Dharma. SHOW people a way that’s very different from acting out of fear, hatred, or judgment.

Not spreading anger, and taking a calm stand when necessary. Also, showing a good example according to particular circumstances, helping others with love patience-quotein practical ways. In Chile, for example, there are big fires right now, so it’s important to do our best to help all the victims. Another example, there are lots of stray dogs in our country and a couple of days ago we saw a big bucket filled with fresh water fixed to a house fence — dogs stopped by and drank happily, one after the other. We shouldn’t lose this kind of detail, whatever the circumstances are.

To be an example … to live as best we can as Buddha taught … to not be a crusader but to follow the teachings to the best of our ability.

Sounds easy, but keeping a happy mind is the best thing we can do for anyone.

“Rely upon a happy mind alone.” This means really noticing when my own mind is not peaceful and then not trusting it to be giving me suitable guidance about anything. It also means remembering to rely upon the purest of peaceful minds that I know, and taking my guidance from there instead.

Over to you! How would you answer this question? Would love to hear from you.

 

 

Facing ageing with strength

Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were. ~ Neil Young

Continuing from this article, how can we remain positive when we’re getting old and our body starts to go wrong? I have a few people in my life who have grown old so well that I intend to copy them as I age. One of them is Eileen.

A widow’s story

One of my dearest friends, Eileen, is now a 91-year old widow, physically frailer but still 39 inside. Eileen first met Geshe Kelsang in the late 1970s. In 1996, when she was a spry 70-something, Eileen came to Florida and ran around (pretty much literally) for years helping set up Buddhist centers, before returning to England to live in her cottage in the grounds of Madhyamaka Centre. Eileen Stead Madhyamaka Centre

I first met Eileen years earlier, when her husband was dying, and she has been no stranger to sickness, ageing, loss, and death. So I asked Eileen recently to tell me how she copes so well with it all, and this is what she wrote:

How does one deal with the sufferings of old age? I remember with a wry smile Geshe Kelsang’s description of an old person. He said they were bent over and walked like bird catchers. I thought at the time (20 years ago), “How amusing,” but wait – if you live long enough, you too will walk like a bird catcher. I am aware that recently I am walking with small unsteady careful steps. I make an effort to be sure I’m standing upright and attempt to stride out. I stumble a little, and my lovely Grandson grabs my arm, and says, “Careful Granny.”

Where did the girl go, the one who ran up and down the Lake District hills, and swam in freezing Scottish seas or the warm waters of Florida? I must not fall into the danger of nostalgia, longing for the things that are gone forever. I can remember them, though, with love and gratitude, and maybe when the sufferings of old age become more apparent they will help me. I know for sure that I have deep gratitude for all the wonderful experiences of this life, my husband, my friends, the music and flowers in the garden, and so much more. How could I not be grateful?!  

thank you for kindness

Widows – what do widows do? What do they feel? How do they react? Some, I know, have become very angry – “Why did you leave me?!” Some sink into depression, and some actually take their own lives. I’m sorry to say that these reactions are not helpful, and can only cause more bitterness in the mind. A far better way, I believe, is to acknowledge that all life in samsara has to adhere to the cycle of unending birth, death and rebirth, and nothing anyone can do will change that, so why give way to anger when the inevitable happens?  

We lose our friends too, particularly if we have a long life and they do not. To attend their funerals, and know that yet another good companion has disappeared from your life – that is hard too. These losses have to be met with patient acceptance. It is the only way. As long as we are in samsara we shall have to experience the conditions of samsara and have to deal with our ripening karma, unless we can purify the negativities in our mind. Just as anger can destroy our positive imprints, so compassion and love can purify the negative ones. That is a good thought, and we can work at it with great diligence. 

If through the teachings of Buddha we can become less self-centered, free from our self-grasping mind, and learn to trust in the spiritual path, a new contentment will pervade our lives and we can ride the waves of our suffering and will not drown. We can become a pure being, a Bodhisattva.

Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?

Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.

In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)

My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.

kitten finding forever home
See below for (ir)relevance of kitten photos.

There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering.  If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others.  We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.

It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happiness pages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.) cat going to his forever home

Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.

I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.

My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.

In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.

Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?

As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.  

On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.

So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)

(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)

A sliver of life, finger food for thought


Rousseau, Buddhism
I just went out to buy a collar for Rousseau* at a local supermarket, as he managed to lose his during his nocturnal ramblings. I got him a pink one this time – embarrassing for a Real He Man Cat but, I figured, more visible.

The 30-something Salvation Army guy outside had appointed himself as guardian of my bike. He praised me for taking the exercize and volunteered that he had just put on 30 pounds in two months. The way he spoke about it, it was like as if something had happened TO him, without him even noticing. “I used to exercise but for the last two months I was just laid about on the couch after work.” “Did you have an injury?” “Oh no, I just felt like laying around. And I ate a lot. In fact, I noticed that I had drunk a crate of sodas in the last two weeks. Weighed myself on that scale in there today, 30 pounds! Bit of a shock! Yeah, when I come to think of it, my clothes don’t fit so good neither.” If he lost that 30 pounds, he’d be a very decent weight, so how did he not notice that the pounds had been creeping on? He just didn’t. He sort of answered a question I have about people who put on a lot of weight without seeming to notice; the way he was talking, it was as if it was an unfortunate accident. Perhaps it was. (Perhaps it is time for me to weigh myself again, something I usually studiously avoid, weighing yourselfpreferring to rely on the scientific method of how tight my trousers feel.)

He was a nice guy, and I was thinking that although this was curious and a little disappointing for him, far worse is our inability to notice when our mind is becoming incrementally more heavy or sad, without our taking early or preventative steps to exercise it with positive thinking or feed it with the healthy food of meditation. In any event, we agreed that if he didn’t buy any more sodas he’d not be inclined to drink them, and that if he took up exercise again he’d be 30 pounds lighter when I next saw him. I hope so. (Though I think dieting can be harder work than training our mind…? Or, to put it more encouragingly, training the mind can be easier than dieting… What do you reckon?)

A few minutes later I found myself caught up in a small military parade of infantry men who had definitely kept themselves together physically. They were marching right where I normally bike home, for some unknown reason, and I ended up having to follow them. They were crisply dressed in their deep blue uniforms with yellow piping, their pressed trousers ending just above their shiny black shoes, in exactly the same point on the ankle. They were holding sleek but intimidating rifles with bayonets and they walked in step beautifully, effortlessly throwing the bayonet from one hand to the other. I found myself thinking: “I hope they have as much control over their minds as they do over their bodies.”

On the home stretch, my bike chain came unstuck and I got my hands all oily fixing it.

Rousseau the cat and Buddhism Then, remember that pink collar I just bought?! Well, when I got home, I noticed something blue and shiny dangling from my postbox. Much to Rousseau’s relief, some kind stranger had returned his manly collar.

This errand took all of half an hour from beginning to end. Just a normal slice of life, taking its unexpected small (in this case) twists and turns. But it was another reminder that the appearances of life, whether good or bad, are always changeable and unpredictable.

Although we like to feel we have tabs on the general narrative of our lives, we have really no idea who or what we are going to meet from one minute to the next, let alone from one year to the next, and forget about from one lifetime to the food for thought and meditationnext!

The only thing we can learn to control is our mind; and seen in that context every one of our encounters is food for thought, with a potential to nourish our compassion and/or wisdom.

*(I wrote this article six months ago. Nowadays, I’ve given up on collars for Rousseau, manly or otherwise.)

Your turn: which encounters have fed you the most food for thought recently?

 

Martin Luther King and the power of love

This short article below appeared on Kadampa Life in 2011, but the blog was in its infancy so not many of you have seen it. Here it is again, to celebrate Martin Luther King Day today.

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A Kadampa nun gave the annual Martin Luther King lecture at Montana State University last Monday, speaking to about 400 students, professors and community members.

King proved power of love, nonviolence, speaker says

Martin Luther King Jr. achieved incredible changes in American law and society, yet it all sprang from what was within his mind, a philosophy based on love, compassion and wisdom, a Buddhist nun told a Bozeman crowd Wednesday.

Gen Varahi spoke in Washington DC, a breath of fresh air in a city known at the moment mainly for its partisan bickering.

Democrat or Republican, the only way to make a lasting difference in our world is to have a good intention — beginning, middle and end. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in Mahamudra Tantra (page 9):

Wherever we go and whatever we do depends upon our intention. No matter how powerful our body and speech may be, we shall never be able to do anything if we lack the intention to do it. If our intention is incorrect we shall naturally perform incorrect actions, which give rise to unpleasant results, but if our intention is correct the opposite will be true.

As Gen Varahi, a former medical doctor, points out:

King was a hero, who led a movement that took America out of a “very shameful” position to one we can be proud of”… “We can be like Martin Luther King if we train our minds to react with compassion and wisdom…. King’s use of the practical philosophy of nonviolent worked. It showed us the power of love.”

I read last Sunday’s papers yesterday and came to my usual conclusion that the world is a mess.

Africa — disaster
Arab world — disaster
Afghanistan — disaster
American job situation — disaster

And that is just the A’s.

And why? We can point the finger at any number of external causes and conditions, and usually do. In politics different people point fingers at different causes, and then spend most of the time arguing about what they’re pointing at.

But the real causes are the delusions — i.e. unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — of everyone involved. Anger, greed, ignorance, pride, hubris, hypocrisy, selfishness, the eight worldly concerns… These are all states of mind, nothing external.

Imagine if  they were replaced by love, generosity, wisdom, humility, straightforwardness, honesty, unselfishness, equanimity…?

“King realized that you cannot separate the ends and means”, Varahi said. “Over time, violent methods do not result in peace.”

(See the article for her reply on the efficacy non-violence in the face of violent dictators).

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang is fond of saying:

“Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.”

Atisha, the original Kadampa Teacher, said:

“Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.”

It might sound obvious when we see it, so why do we keep pointing the finger elsewhere when things go wrong? After all, whenever we point a finger, there are four fingers pointing back at us.

Five ways to deal with criticism, part 3

This is the final installment. For the first two installments, see Five ways to deal with criticism and Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2.

How about us criticizing others?

Most of you agreed that it is best avoided. This is because our criticism can hurt others and is often not that helpful. If we can’t take it (and even if we can), perhaps we need to avoid giving it, unless we are quite sure of our motivation 🙂 As Nicola Bear Davis said on Facebook: “I know how I feel when I’m criticized, so if tables are turned I will advise someone with enthusiasm and compassion.” We have to know who we are talking to and be free from delusions such as aversion or pride.

If you have some belief in karma, it’s worth remembering that harsh words (motivated by delusion) are one of the ten non-virtuous actions identified by Buddha Shakyamuni as being karmic pathways to immense future suffering. As Jas Varmana put it: “Minds being paths, do we choose the malicious speech path to suffering realms, or the loving-kindness path to higher rebirth? (Both when giving and receiving criticism?)”

A good time to remember karma is when we are on the the receiving end of hurtful criticism — we wouldn’t be hearing this if we hadn’t created the causes through previous criticism of our own. Time to catch the ping pong ball; it stops here.

Cindy Corey said: “I think most of us don’t quite have the skill or non-attachment that would allow non-harmful criticism. I would almost define criticism as trying to use negative feedback to get someone to do something our way and that’s a failure — as people are different and why should people do things our way? I was just doing some reading today with regards to happiness and better relationships and criticism was certainly in the list of 7 deadly habits that create more problems and unhappiness. I think we can help people see or discover what is not working for them through caring and encouraging dialogue, but our interior dialogue is so negative already that I don’t think judgments from others are helpful. In the end, what is important is the intention — to help someone or control them?” Eileen Quinn agrees: “Motivation is key, isn’t it? If someone is criticizing you through irritation/dislike/anger, you will be more likely to put up walls/dig your heels in/get angry etc. I remember a key incident now when this happened to me a few years ago, I didn’t react positively, well more with bemusement than anything, but then the criticizer’s words did seem to me to be from a position of personal dislike and irritation.” Maria Tonella chipped in: “How can you say ‘I don´t like the way you are doing something’ without hurting any feelings…?”

Most of us prefer criticism of us to be indirect (ideally prefaced by some praise?!), but some brave souls do prefer brutal honesty. JB Christy said: “I wish I would get more honest feedback. Mostly people seem to just stop talking to me rather than speaking honestly about what’s going on for them. If they’d talk to me I’d have a chance of doing better. As it is I have to guess what happened. I’m apparently a terrible guesser.” Eileen agreed: “I deal best with directness. If someone is indirect with me I can tell they’re ‘beating around the bush’ and find that kind of frustrating. I would rather someone honestly and straightforwardly said something to me.”

So, if we do decide we really must go ahead and give those invaluable words of advice out of a pure motivation, it seems we need the skill to know whom we are speaking to as well – some people might be okay with the direct approach, but others would prefer us to beat about the bush, giving constructive comments in an accepting context.

Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas

The ancient Kadampas were experts when it came to criticism, flourishing on it as the peacock flourishes on hemlock. And luckily all their advice has survived to this day.

As Neil Toyota pointed out: “Remember Langri Tangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind in Geshe-la’s Eight Steps to Happiness, which includes liberating methods to deal with criticism and view/cherish all living beings as spiritual guides.” Wong Tho Kong agreed: “All Vajrana Buddhism practices the Eight Verses of Training the Mind. Criticism is a welcome teacher. It depends on how much you are ready to let go.” And as Isabel Golla reminded us: “Remember Atisha’s advice: praise binds us to samsara so in order to overcome pride we don’t hold on to praise and instead practice non-attachment to reputation.”

Atisha and Geshe Langri Tangpa were old Kadampas and fully realized Lojong (training the mind) practitioners. I love reciting Eight Verses of Training the Mind regularly, including the verse:

When others out of jealousy
Harm me or insult me,
May I take defeat upon myself
And offer them the victory.

The Lojong teachings on exchanging self with others are probably the most powerful methods in existence for helping us to accept and even enjoy criticism, and thereby make rapid spiritual progress.

The emptiness of the self we normally see

When we are criticized it is a great time to check and see how our understanding of emptiness is doing — how sharp still is the pain of self-grasping? If we are still becoming angry or anxious in these situations, and blaming the other person and trying to get free from them, we can make a mental note that we need to improve our understanding of the object emptiness. These are signs that although we may have an intellectual understanding of emptiness we are not meditating on it.

The emptiness of the self we normally see every day is what we are trying to meditate on and realize. Being criticized gives us an enjoyable challenge — the bigger or closer the target, “How dare they criticize ME!!”, the easier and more fun it is to knock it down, and the deeper the understanding of emptiness and resultant joy. We can therefore use specific difficult situations that cause this inherently existent self to appear strongly to deepen our understanding of its utter non-existence. I find this the most blissful and liberating method of all, and it means no criticism (or problem) need ever go to waste!

Summary: Five ways to deal with criticism

To summarize what everyone has been saying:

(1) Ask yourself, “Is it true or not?” Follow Geshe Kelsang’s advice above.

(2) Identify with your pure potential, not your faults, and then you can accept and use criticism without feeling bad about yourself.

(3) Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas, who were the experts.

(4) Use criticism to realize the non-existence of the self we normally grasp at, and destroy all your delusions once and for all.

And last but not least …

(5) Avoid criticizing others unless you really have to!

Your comments are welcome on any of these three criticism articles, and please share and rate (press the stars on) the articles if you find them helpful. Thank you.