How are you feeling? Musings on karma continued…

(You may want to read this article first to get up to scratch. I’ve divided the article up into two parts to make it easier to read in a coffee break.)

Feelings

Going back to the discussion in the last article, as there are three types of object, there are three types of feeling that experience these objects – pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings.

“It is impossible to cognize an object without experiencing it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.” ~ Understanding the Mind

photo 3Feeling that things are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is part and parcel of living beings’ subjective experience, whether we are a baby, an old person, an animal… Right now my cat is pursuing pleasant feelings by trying to get real comfy on the sofa next to me, with a choice view of the birds outside — birds who luckily are safe right now from experiencing unpleasant feelings to do with his murderous paws, the “same” paws that give me the warm fuzzies.

Again, if you check your own feelings or experiences, have you ever had a feeling that is not pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad) or neutral? Even during your dreams?!

So why, if my friend and I are both given a bowl of Haagen Daaz’s vanilla ice cream, does he experience it to be yummy whereas I would have preferred chips? It is mainly due to our karma. Understanding the Mind says:

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma.

Karma gives rise to all our pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Feelings and experiences are the same. In other words, all our feelings or experiences come from karma, which are the intentions or mental actions we created in the past. Pleasant feelings come from positive actions, unpleasant feelings from negative actions, and neutral feelings from neutral actions. Pleasantness and unpleasantness do not exist from the side of the object, but depend entirely on our karma. Therefore, as it says in Understanding the Mind:

Two people might eat the same food and one find it delicious while the other thinks it is revolting. 

Milarepa

Have you heard of Milarepa? He was one of the most beloved Tibetan saints or yogis because he gained incredible, deep realizations, in fact actual enlightenment, and then sang beautiful songs of realization that became known and sung throughout Tibet. There were no CD players back then, let alone MP3s or Spotify, so these songs passed down orally through the ages and he became very famous. He lived many years ago (1452-1507).

Milarepa's caveMilarepa spent many years in retreat as an ascetic living in caves and isolated places. Wherever he went, it seemed there would be an abundance of nettles. (These are a green plant with stingy bits on their leaves, and there are, arguably, way too many of them in the English countryside.) One famous fact about Milarepa is that he ate these nettles. He was miles away from anywhere and so he’d have nettle soup, nettle tea, nettle sandwiches… (maybe not, no bread). For him, nettles utterly nourished his body and sustained his spiritual practice. He ate so many nettles that he turned green. But he was perfectly healthy.

So Geshe Kelsang once asked how anyone living on nettles could be healthy? It would appear to be impossible. Frankly, even though, as mentioned, there are plenty of nettles in England, if I had to live on them I would not be healthy. I would be complaining vociferously; this would not be a 5-star hotel in my opinion. Milarepa was living in a 5-star hotel because everything he needed was in those nettles. Geshe Kelsang explained that this was the ripened karma of his practice of generosity, which meant that he had everything he needed to sustain his life and spiritual practice.

We can share a similar set of external conditions and yet have radically different experiences. Our karma does not ripen, therefore, as external conditions, so much as our experiences of those conditions. Whether those experiences are good or bad depends on whether our karma is good or bad. For Milarepa, eating nettles was good karma ripening – he was nourished by them and able to gain profound spiritual attainments, and even being green proved to be no problem. For me, having to eat nettles would be horrible karma ripening as I haven’t created that same karma of generosity. This is one example Geshe Kelsang uses to show how the quality of our experience doesn’t depend on the object but on our previous karma.

We can do something, everything, about causes, but once an effect is ripening it is too late to change it. Therefore, it is futile to run after pleasant feelings with attachment or to try to avoid unpleasant feelings through aversion. We need either to enjoy the pleasant feeling without attachment, or be patient with the unpleasant feeling. If we want to create the life we want, we have to pay more attention to improving the numerous intentions or karmic causes we are creating on a daily basis than to our ripened feelings.

(Funnily enough, just after writing that last paragraph I went to a nearby greengrocer to buy some fruit. On the way back I overheard a young man advise his girlfriend: “You should do the right thing, even if it seems a bit inconvenient and doesn’t immediately deliver you results.” Apropos, I thought.)

Back to the case in point, the blue bike …. 

karma paintingWas it F’s karma, as technically the bike had been given to him by N, or was it N’s karma? And if so, what kind of karma – good, bad, or neutral? My guess is that N won’t give a hoot, unless he gives into nostalgia for the fun in the sun he used to have with that bike when he lived here (and that in turn would depend on him finding out about his old bike, which may never happen). Some might argue that it was no longer even his bike, so all his karma related to that bike has gone. I don’t know if that is true or not. For example, if I give my cat away and then something happens to the cat, will I or will I not be experiencing the ripening of karma?

Also, F probably won’t give a hoot because (1) he never gives much of a hoot about anything; and (2) it is not directly affecting him as he has moved to New York. But any neutral feelings he may have are still the result of neutral karma ripening.

Was it my other friend’s karma, then, the person who always used the bike? He professed to feeling a “little disappointed” and, although he quickly got over it, one could argue that the unpleasant feeling was a result of some negative karma ripening, even if he didn’t own the bike. Or else, as he managed quickly to overcome his disappointment and be very positive again, was it good karma ripening overall?!

Or was it my karma, as the custodian and lender of the bikes? And if so, given my relative calm on discovering its theft, was it neutral, good, or bad karma ripening!? And what exactly did I or the others all do for this to happen? And did we do it at the same or at different times?!

As for the person who stole the bike, well, I can’t judge his karma because I have no idea of his intention, and karma depends entirely on intention. He might have needed the bike to go visit his mother on her deathbed, for all I know. We figured he probably needed it a lot more than we did, so we mentally gave it to him, which protected him from incurring the full karma of stealing and created good karma for more bikes to come our way later. In fact, the very next day we sold our old car for a couple hundred more dollars than we were expecting, and were able to go ahead and buy another bike!

See, karma is a curious thing! It is far from being fatalistic or simplistic but is a constantly changing, complex play of causes and effects. The immensely mind-boggling interdependence of all conventional appearances hinges on karma, individual and collective. Karma is the other side of the coin from ultimate truth, the emptiness (lack of inherent existence) of all phenomena.

Keep it simple

karma 5Still, however much fun we can have discussing whose karma and what kind of karma it all is, when it comes to actually observing the law of karma on a daily basis it helps to keep it simple. When I want to put good into the world, that’s what I’ll get out, one way or another. Same for my bad and neutral intentions. We can understand the general principles of karma (such as explained in Joyful Path) and leave most of the detailed, subtle stuff for once we’ve fully realized the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth. At that point we’ll be omniscient and can see exactly which actions lead to which effects while simultaneously seeing their emptiness.

I learned a couple more interesting things from this bike situation, which I might as well share now.

No bike 

When we first came off the beach, we both saw it, a rather significant absence, a space where the bike had been. “No bike!” In the meditation on emptiness, we are also seeking a significant absence — lack of inherent existence. That absence is filled with rather cosmic meaning. It means that nothing exists from its own side, so nothing is fixed, and everything depends entirely on the mind. As the great Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible.

Perspective = reality

While I was using the restroom before our long walk home, my friend happened upon a police aide and mentioned the theft of the bike. He was a jovial elderly Mid-Westerner with a moustache, who drove his blue and white cart up and down the beach all day, just waiting to help people like us, so he took it more seriously than we expected and called it in. Another police aide, his boss, a young friendly Latino turned up, and we chatted about all sorts of things while we waited the hour for the actual police officer to show.

Why didn’t they show sooner? Because they had things like murder and home break-ins to deal with – it seems fair enough. In fact, just as I was wondering whether I should perhaps be a bit more upset about the theft of this fine $700 bike, a crackling message came over the first police aide’s radio: “Woman distressed, male intruder in her house, over.” Yikes. Then this police aide told us that just the previous day his son, a police officer, had been called to a homicide – the victim had been shot in the back of the head for the $400 drug money he had just collected from the shooter.

The theft of our bike and the prospect of the long walk back home were becoming less and less significant the longer we hung out with our friends in blue, and indeed we were beginning to feel really rather lucky! If perspective can change in the light of other thoughts and/or events, it shows there is no “real” situation out there to begin with.

The kindness of strangers

Yet despite our trifling complaint, the police were still attentive and courteous to us, as if they had nothing better to do, and this in turn reminded me of the kindness of strangers and increased my love. So, all in all, a good day’s meditation work …

Postscript: I wrote this article months ago, and, apart from the Buddhism in it, pretty much all my personal circumstances have changed since then, showing the unpredictable nature of karma and how you never know what karma is going to ripen next.

Over to you: Have you been in any situations recently that particularly reminded you of karma and/or emptiness?

Delusions be gone!

I had one more article on delusions up my sleeve, quickly finishing off the six causes of delusion as these are so practical. They show how delusions arise in dependence upon other factors and so, if we avoid those factors, we don’t have to experience the delusions.

overcoming delusions and negative mindsFirst it is worth remembering, as always, that it is our dualistic mind of self-grasping that is distorting our reality – reality itself is fine. We grasp at self and we grasp at other, and so we have a problem. And, believing in our own flimsy projection of our limited self, solidifying it, we grasp at negativity and impurity that are not actually there; they are the infrastructure needed to hold up this projection. “How is it even possible for me, me of all people, really to be free from all delusions?! I’m made of them!” we think. Instead of recognizing that the nature of our mind is fundamentally pure, our ego minds project impurity where it does not exist. Without the deep, abiding, confident recognition of and identification with our Buddha nature, although we may try to clean up our acts a little, we cannot help but reify our sense of an impure, unworthy self with the notions that we are deluded now, we will always be moreorless deluded even if we practice meditation, and we will probably die deluded.

 Buddha nature clouds of delusionsLuckily, these deluded projections have no power from their own side to stick because they are not the truth. They are momentary and extrinsic, like clouds in the sky – they can never become part of the pure, spacious, sky-like mind itself. Our own mind has always been naturally pure and brimming with every blissful potential for happiness and liberation, it is pure now, and it will always be pure. What we call delusions are superficial clouds arising from temporary causes and conditions that can be removed. They are fantasy. Once we start to relate on a daily basis to our Buddha nature, everything becomes easier and more joyful, and we find there is in fact no room in our space-like, empty mind for heaviness or mawkishness.

So, that being said, here is a whistle-stop tour of the last three conditions of delusions, explained beautifully in Understanding the Mind. (The first three causes are the seedthe object, and inappropriate attention.)

Cause # 4: Familiarity

Geshe Kelsang says:

The reason we develop delusions naturally, whereas we have to apply effort to cultivate virtuous minds, is that we are very familiar with delusions. ~ Understanding the Mind

Right now, although delusions have no actual leg to stand on in the space of our Buddha nature, following our delusions is the path of least resistance because it is the path we have always trodden. In certain situations, for example, we are always going to get annoyed because we always have. But if we practice patience in that situation, everything will change.

familiarity with delusionsOn a long hike some years ago in Andalucia, I got amazingly lost in the mountains when I followed the goat trails mistaking them for some kind of human path going somewhere useful. As darkness fell, me and my companion, a dog called No No, realized that just because a path is well trodden doesn’t mean it’s the best path to take. Luckily, No No (so-called as he was a very affectionate, grubby stray and everyone in the village was always saying “No, no!” when he jumped up on them) not only stayed perfectly cheerful, but also had a better sense of direction than I, so we got home eventually. Thing is, we have to start treading new, positive paths until they become clearer and easier to follow than the old ones, which will meantime become overgrown through lack of use. We come to the point where it’s easier for us to be patient than to be angry, it’s easier for us to feel love than to feel dislike, it’s easier for us to feel spiritually energetic than to succumb to the laziness of attachment. We even eventually get to the point where we’d have to work at it to develop delusions! Not that we would work at it, but if we wanted them, we’d have to. Imagine! Definitely this will happen.

We know from our own regular day-by-day experience that everything becomes easy with familiarity.  When I first started to drive a car, for example, it seemed almost impossible! In fact, I was relieved, aged 17, when I failed my test because it indicated that there were no drivers like me on the road. I thought I was never going to learn all this stuff! But we do. Next thing we know, we have music playing, we’re talking to other people in our car, we’re eating crisps, (some people these days even seem to be watching TV), and we’re still driving, effortlessly!  Effortlessly. In the same way, when we become familiar with positive minds, they will start to arise effortlessly regardless of what we’re doing. We won’t have to work at it. Until we get to that point, we need to work at it; but the end is in sight.

Cause # 5: Distraction and being influenced by others

We naturally imitate those with whom we associate. ~ Understanding the Mind

In fact, there is nothing wrong at all with having love and compassion and feeling close to everybody, but this cause of delusion seems to be talking about whom we are influenced by, whom we allow ourselves to influenced by; so we can check. If we are coming under the influence of people who are leading us into more delusions, who have no interest in developing their minds, then this will rub off on us. We are a bit like sheep, aren’t we? (Or goats, judging by my example.) Let’s face it, we copy the people around us, and we especially copy the people we admire. (We do it consciously and unconsciously). We don’t much like breaking ranks. That is fine if they are doing good things, but a cause of going backwards if they are not.peer_pressure

Geshe Kelsang talks about this cause of delusion over a couple of pages, there is a lot to it; but what I mainly take from it is that we’re easily influenced by our friends, so either choose good friends and be influenced by them, or make sure we’re not coming under the baleful influence of people doing destructive things. Watch our minds. Don’t succumb to negative peer pressure. Maintain integrity. Just because other people are, for example, engaging in some kind of gossip fest about someone, slandering people, developing angry minds, doesn’t mean we have to join in. That kind of thing. 

Cause # 6: Bad habits

Bad habits are the main cause of strong delusions arising in our mind. ~ Understanding the Mind

Examples given are stealing, sexual misconduct, talking meaninglessly, etc. For example, if we watch a lot of violent movies or play violent video games, thinking, ‘Kill them, kill them, kill them!’, this doesn’t seem very conducive to peaceful, loving minds. We want to check what kind of junk we’re putting in our minds, and see if we can do something about it, in terms of our lifestyle. Because we’ll always justify our lifestyle, even if it’s a bad one, with our delusions. Mmm?

That was just a whistle stop tour. There’s lots more to discover in Understanding the Mind and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

reality checkSomeone asked me once: “How do we know that the minds like love are not just delusions, good delusions?” Good question. Minds like love and compassion are based on reality, whereas anger and so forth are not. For example, there’s no exaggeration in the mind when you’re wishing someone else to be happy out of love or wishing to protect others from their suffering out of compassion. You have an understanding of what suffering is and a wish for them to be free from it, and there is no exaggeration or inappropriate attention there. Our peaceful, positive minds are in tune with reality and our Buddha nature. Not only do we feel positive and peaceful when we are generating these minds, but they aren’t in any way undermined by our wisdom realizing the way things are. In fact, they are increased by our wisdom, whereas our delusions all automatically diminish as our wisdom improves.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Karma and us

Some of you may remember the inappropriate attention I paid to the supposed theft of two bikes two summers ago… bikes that turned out not to be stolen at all.

clear sky cafeWell, some months ago, the big blue bike was stolen “for real”! Someone really wanted that bike. We’d locked them to a palm tree on a relatively busy pathway near the Clear Sky Café, and whoever it was must have pretended to be busily opening the lock whilst actually sawing through it. We figured he must have needed it for himself, rather than for sale, as he left the other bike standing there.

It is good I’d had the rehearsal earlier! And it would have been way too much of an indictment on my progress as a meditator if I had gone through all those mental acrobatics again… So this time, when we returned from two hours on the beach to the sight of no bike, I was prepared, and stayed totally calm. Imagine that!

(The cynical amongst you might say that I stayed calm because it wasn’t actually the bike that I ride that was stolen – my red bike was still next to the palm tree … Or you might ask who doesn’t feel relaxed after 2 hours on the beach?! You’d have a point. But I still claim a small victory.) stolen bike

A few conclusions from this latest bike saga:

Everything has a cause

As we started to walk with the remaining bike on the long journey back home by foot, we wondered whose karma it was and what kind of karma it was.

Everything has a cause. Nothing arises from nothing – a phenomenon arises from something that’s in the same substantial continuum. Physical things must arise from physical causes. The cause of an oak tree is an acorn seed, the cause of a flood is rain, and the cause of our human body is the union of our mother’s egg and father’s sperm.

Buddha was a scientist of the mind who penetrated the actual causes of our mental experiences. He observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience or feeling of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by delusion, such as anger, it is the actual substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences. Buddha talked in detail about actions that cause negative effects and those that cause positive effects. He helpfully listed ten negative actions to avoid: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, hurtful speech, idle chatter, ill will, covetousness and wrong view. By abstaining from these, we avoid having to experience their painful results. By practicing positive actions, such as generosity, kindness, patience, cherishing, love, compassion and wisdom, we create the causes for happiness. In this way, we can gain control over the experiences of our life and make it successful.

Bill Meyer put it this way:

Every thought is a seed.  If you plant crab apples, don’t count on harvesting Golden Delicious.

Purification and accepting what is

VajrasattvaIt is worth remembering the teachings on karma often, and especially when we are really suffering deeply– that way we can assume some responsibility and feel less like a hopeless, hard-done-by victim. We can start getting the control back over our lives by purifying all the crud causing this kind of suffering since beginningless time so we don’t have to go through it ever again. Vajrasattva purification is immensely helpful for this, makes you feel lighter again inside, optimistic for the future. The complete blissful purity of all enlightened beings appearing as Buddha Vajrasattva obliterates the heavy karmic load we are bearing, which has been weighing us down year after year and life after life without our even realizing it. If we let our suffering remind us to purify what is actually causing it, this suffering itself leads us straightaway to far less suffering now and in the future! Therefore, suffering is not inherently bad and we can accept it.

We can also accept patiently if we understand this is all karmic appearance to mind — deceptive appearances with no existence from their own side. Our unbearable situation is the reflection of our own delusions and the karma they spawn, no one else’s fault, which means, very fortunately, that to be happy again we don’t actually have to wait helplessly in the (often futile) hope that others might improve. A good friend once said:

“Leave the object alone. Change the mind.”

Real deep, inner refuge and peace comes from doing this, rather than from struggling with the external situation that seems so inherently painful but in fact is not.

Whatever we think and feel depends on our karma

In this very useful manual explaining everything you need to know about your mind and how it works, it says:  

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma. ~ How to Understand the Mind

Feeling is defined as a mental factor (or state of mind) that functions to experience pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral objects. Feeling accompanies every fleeting moment of mind – there is never a time when we are not feeling or experiencing something.

Have you ever come across an object that doesn’t feel pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad), or neutral? I can’t think of any; if you can, please let me know in the comments.

In truth, objects are not good, bad, or neutral from their own side – what they are depends on our minds apprehending them, and specifically on the mental factors of feeling and discrimination. Discrimination distinguishes one object from another and, when associated with conceptual minds, functions to impute, label, or name objects. As Geshe Kelsang says:

The defining characteristics of an object do not exist from the side of the object but are merely imputed by the mind that apprehends them.

How we discriminate and experience things depends entirely on our states of mind and our karma. This is rather a significant observation by Buddha.

What are your thoughts on ice cream?
Ice cream makes you happy
Nice try, Wall’s!

Do you like ice cream? And don’t you think it’s funny how if we like something we assume it is nice from its own side? We project or label niceness onto the object and then think that niceness inheres in it. We do this all the time. “Ice cream is great!” you may say, really believing that. However, if ice cream was really great, everyone would think so, yet I for one am more likely to say “Ice cream is okay, sometimes,” which is a fair enough comment from my point of view, and some Eastern cultures just as validly (from their point of view) say “Ice cream is disgusting, it is like eating snot.”

If the people who think ice cream is inherently great just because they like it insist that everyone else thinks that too, then we are in for trouble. And we do this kind of thing all the time, getting into conflict by assuming that the world is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) and therefore people must have a screw loose not to feel good about the things and the ideas we like, such as our politics, our religion, our country, our friends, and so on.

The same goes of course for thinking things are bad just because we personally discriminate them as such.

Buddha’s observation that everything depends on how we are discriminating and feeling it, both of which are states of mind, might seem obvious once it is pointed out, but we would behave quite differently if we were to live by it. We over-trust our highly subjective and fleeting discriminatory labels and feelings, believing that they are telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the way things actually are. Then we generalize the way we think and feel out to everyone else, often with disastrous consequences.

More on the bikes in part 2 later … meantime, do you believe in karma? Have you got any karma stories you’d like to share?

 

In praise of integrity

I recently re-read a good article on Heart of Compassion on honesty and keeping it real, well worth reading twice. It has also prodded me to finish writing down some thoughts on integrity that I’ve had up my sleeve for a while.

Integrity definitionThe dictionary definition of integrity is:

Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

One of the things I love most about the old Kadampas is their integrity. They seemed to practice Dharma as if no one was looking, totally for its own sake, with no side-tracking worldly concerns. (The 8 worldly concerns are attachment to praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and fear of or aversion to their opposite.)

A few years ago, when I was about to go on quite a long retreat, a friend said: “You’ll be setting a great example!” I remember thinking, and replying, “I don’t want to set an example, though. I just want to practice as if no one is looking.” I don’t know if that thought was a cop-out or not, but I know at the time it helped me enjoy the retreat a great deal.

integrity and Understanding the Mind TharpaAlthough it can obviously be helpful to set a good example, it is counterproductive if there is pretension or concealment involved. (Perhaps it is better to be a good example than to set one?)  If I look to someone for inspiration or advice, for example, I am not worried about their faults per se because we all have those. What will destroy my confidence in their ability to help me is if they don’t seem to be doing anything about these faults, particularly if they don’t seem to believe or care that they have them, and even more so if they are trying to cover them up or being prideful. (Others probably evaluate our advice using similar criteria.)

A Bodhisattva promises to work for the welfare of all living beings without pretension or deceit. Here are some useful definitions from Understanding the Mind (where you can read all about them) that have helped me understand what integrity is and aspire to it, since it seems free from these faulty attitudes.

The definition of pretension is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to pretend that we possess qualities that we do not possess.

The definition of concealment is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to conceal our faults from others.

If we have wealth or reputation, we have to be particularly careful because we have the grounds for attachment to arise every day – trying to hold onto our wealth or popularity, fearing their loss. Our behavior will no longer have integrity if it is motivated by these concerns and results will not be as good as they could be, even if we are ostensibly helping a lot of people.

Here’s another good one, self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth, or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development.

If we count among our “other good qualities” the fact that everyone right now loves us, praises us, and does what we ask, we develop a spiritual smugness that means after years of supposed practice and example we have not taken an actual step forward toward liberation or enlightenment.

Crabs in a bucket

If you put a crab in a bucket and it can climb out of that bucket, it will climb out. But if you put two crabs in the bucket, when one of the crabs tries to climb out, the other will pull it back in. (Apparently. I’ve never tried this.) Neither will ever escape. It doesn’t matter that it is possible to escape; the crabs will hold each other back from doing so.

Atisha
Atisha, founder of Kadampa Buddhism

Sometimes we may not believe in the idea of our own limitless potential and instead have a jealous or insecure sense that someone else’s success somehow diminishes our own. With that mentality, even if we are not fully aware of it, if we see others improving we will naturally if unconsciously reach out to hold them back, or at least experience that most ignoble of  feelings, schadenfreude, when we see them fall back.

However, we don’t only hold each other back by criticizing each other, putting each other down, or rejoicing in their misfortune. Actually, I think we are more effectively held back in samsara when people shower us with praise, power, and gifts, especially if we take it seriously and buy into it. Words of fame and praise do nothing to advance us spiritually, especially if we become dependent on them for our self-image and self-esteem. As Venerable Atisha says in his quintessential Advice for all wannabe Kadampas:

Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.

Profit and respect are nooses of the maras, so brush them aside like stones on the path.

Geshe-la in Tibet
Geshe Kelsang in Tibet

I was once on a little pedestal by dint of my position – not a huge pedestal like Nelson’s in Trafalgar Square, more like one of those plastic pillars a foot high in a MacDonalds playground, but still not quite on the level playing field. When I was pushed off my pedestal (as we all are sooner or later), I took incredible inspiration from the old Kadampas, and still do. The real Kadampas would hide their best qualities in plain sight. On the outside they were a pure example by observing moral discipline motivated by non-attachment and contentment, on the inside they were motivated by a fiercely kind bodhichitta, and, even more deeply and secretly on the inside, they were relaxing in the bliss and emptiness of Tantra. 

It is not what you do but why you do it. There is no such thing as ordinary activity without an ordinary mind. With an ordinary mind, even seemingly pure activities will have ordinary results.

Part 2 of this subject is here. Meanwhile, over to you, do you agree with this or not?

Happy Valentine’s Day to Everyone

A good day to talk about love, I think. This is the annual “love day”. For most of us, our love is a mixture of two things – attachment, which is not in fact love at all, and love, which is.

I like Valentine’s Day in America. Everyone sends everyone Valentines. In England, Valentine’s Day is just about romantic love, or it was when I last lived there. You send a Valentine’s Day card to someone you are in love with or someone you’ve been admiring from afar. It is often mysterious, “from a secret admirer.”  But here you may get a card and flowers saying “love from Grandpa.”  In England, that would be very strange, you would be worried. When I first got over here I learned about this difference, and then entirely forgot what Valentine’s Day is like in England. I sent my Dad a Valentine’s Day card, and he was touched, but a bit mystified.

But, as I said, I like it. The multimillion dollar card industry may have it made in the States, but I’m with them on this one. So Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad, and everyone else!*

What is desirous attachment?

It is not the same as desire – we need desires, but we don’t need attachment. Attachment is “dö chag” in Tibetan, which literally means “sticky desire”. There is a stickiness, neediness, dependency, and self-centeredness associated with attachment. It’s “I need you to make ME happy”, as opposed to “I want to make YOU happy”, which is actual love. Attachment weakens us, and we give away the key to our happiness. Love strengthens us, and we stay in charge of our happiness.

Attachment is all about me and what I can get from you, and love is all about what I can give or do for you. There are three kinds or levels of love, affectionate love, cherishing love, and wishing love. Briefly, affectionate love is just liking people, having a warm, fuzzy feeling, the way our mom feels when she hasn’t seen us for awhile, just unconditionally delighted to see us without that needy, “I want YOU to do something for ME.” On the basis of affection, if we think about how kind someone is, we come to cherish them – we find them special, we want to take care of them, their happiness matters. So because we cherish this person, our question is “Are they happy?” The answer is usually, “Well, they could be a lot happier,” and we wish for them to have what they need, what they want, to be happy now and always. This is wishing love.

Attachment stands in horrible contrast to all types of love, but to begin with it can be quite hard for us to tell them apart as our relationships are so mixed up. It is one of Buddha’s great kindnesses that he distinguishes between them so clearly. It can save us from immense heartache. We can learn to reduce the attachment and increase the love in all our close friendships, which is guaranteed to bring us more meaning and joy.

Here is a definition from Understanding the Mind:

“Desirous attachment is a deluded mental factor that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it.”

“Contaminated” means tainted by the ignorance of self-grasping, which makes it seem as though the object or person we are attached to is real, “out there”, independent of our mind, as if we are uninvolved in bringing it into being. Attachment externalizes happiness, thinking it inheres in things and people, as opposed to being part of a peaceful mind. It can be a cream donut or a person – neither one has anything to do with me. It seems to be capable from its own side of giving me the happiness I want. And because our happiness is out there, we need to go get it.

(In the case of attachment, the object or person seems to have the power to make me happy. In the case of anger, it seems to have the power to make me unhappy.)

Are you a spiritual person?!

Having strong attachment is the opposite to the spiritual life. If I ask you, “What is a spiritual person? Are you a spiritual person? Do you have to wear open-toed sandals to be spiritual? Do you have to wear robes? What do you have to do to be a spiritual person?” and then go ahead and answer my own question, I would say that a spiritual person is someone who knows where happiness and suffering come from. They know their source lies in the mind. They know they’re on a journey to happiness. They still can be doing the same things that everybody else does – they can have a job, raise a family, eat donuts — but where they seek happiness and fulfillment is on the inside, in the mind. Do you agree?!

Attachment is the opposite. That’s why Buddha called the rest of us “worldly people” – someone is worldly if they are always looking outside of themselves for their happiness, and don’t recognize that their happiness comes from within.

As mentioned, desirous attachment is not the same as desire. There are many non-deluded desires that it is suitable to cultivate, such as the wish to help others, to accomplish pure happiness, even to overcome desirous attachment! And there are neutral desires too, such as the wish to open the door. If we got rid of all desire, we would cease functioning at all. We need to work on what we desire.

How do we develop desirous attachment

Very simply put, attachment exaggerates the apparent qualities of an object until we feel we have to have it. Here is another definition from Understanding the Mind:

“First we perceive or remember a contaminated object and feel it to be attractive, then we focus our attention on its good qualities and exaggerate them. With an exaggerated sense of the attractiveness of the object we then hold it to be desirable and develop desire for it. Finally our desire attaches us to the object so that it feels as if we have become glued to it or absorbed into it. Only when all these stages are completed has desirous attachment occurred.”

This is quite unlike love, which does not distort its object but recognizes it for what it is, for example as kind or lovable. Our neutral minds also don’t distort the attractiveness of their object — you go to the sock drawer to decide what socks to wear today, but you don’t spend hours thinking about it, unless you’re a sad case. With attachment, there has to be an exaggeration of seeming desirable features going on in the mind.

We can exaggerate at the speed of light!  Exaggeration is like a top notch advertising agency in the mind. We just meet someone, “Oh, he’s got nice eyes… I bet he’d make a great husband. I wonder if he’ll marry me?” The whole advertising industry feeds into our attachment, they know us – think how glued people were to the commercials in last week’s Super Bowl. The producers didn’t spend a million dollars on them just to provide us with entertainment. They know they’ll work to make us buy stuff  because we have attachment that is all too ready to go along with a gross exaggeration of the apparent qualities of a product. “Oooh, if I buy this dream car …” 

I’ll take this subject of love and attachment up again in a few days — Valentine’s Day will be over, but I’m betting it’ll still be relevant 🙂 And here is that new article… Falling in love (again) according to Buddhism.

Over to you: what do you think about all this?!

*This article originally appeared as Love, attachment and desire according to Buddhism. I am currently in England and, as of 9.19 am, only one person has sent me a Valentine’s Card… I rest my case.

It all depends how we’re looking at it

dolphins and meditationSo I have recently moved from Florida (80 degrees, wall to wall sunshine, sea breezes, pelicans and dolphins) to Liverpool (frozen lake, not quite wall to wall sunshine, bracing wind, swans and Lambananas.)

Just now I was scooting down the stairs to the World Peace Café that is conveniently placed inside the large house I’m living in, meaning I don’t have to go outside, ever, if I don’t want to. At 3.48pm, it is already getting dark out there, and I was wondering whether to feel sorry for myself when I ran into J on the stairs.

“How are you doing, J?” “Great, thanks.” “What about this getting dark at 3.30, then?” “Oh, I love it! I love the winter.” “You do?!” “Yes, I love it. I love the spring and the summer too.” “Hmmm. I daresay you love the Fall, erm Autumn, as well?” “Oh yes, I love it! I love all four seasons.” Just as I was pondering mentally how anyone could love winter with such enthusiasm, and perhaps he had nothing to compare it with, he added, “I lived in Fort Lauderdale and Miami for three years when I was younger, and it was lovely, but I really missed the seasons!” lambananas in liverpool and kadampa life

“Well”, I told him, “That really shows how everything depends on the mind! And now I’m going to love the four seasons too.” So, dear reader, if you catch me complaining, please remind me of this conversation. As a friend told me the other day, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. (It reminded us of Shantideva’s famous analogy about leather on the feet.)

In the last article on delusions, I talked about the object of delusion. While our delusions are still rampant, there is not an awful lot we can do about objects of delusion. Geshe Kelsang sums this up:

Even if we were to live in an isolated cave there would be some parts of the cave that would appear more attractive than other parts, and some kinds of weather that would seem more pleasant than others. We would soon find ourselves preferring this sort of birdsong to that sort of birdsong, and we would still have all the memories of other objects of delusion. ~ Understanding the Mind

It sounds like a pretty nice idea to me: “I’m going to get away from it all, get away from all these trying people and/or objects of temptation that surround me wherever I go. I’ll go to the countryside on retreat, or on top of a mountain in Brazil or Switzerland, or perhaps even a cave in the Himalayas. Hey, that’s awesome, that’s the answer!” meditating in a cave retreat season in NKT

Actually, it can be very helpful to go away sometimes from our usual environment and work on our minds, for example in meditation retreat. January is retreat month in the New Kadampa Tradition and it provides a refreshing and significant start to the year. However, by itself, getting away from it all is not going to solve the problem because, as they say, wherever we go, there we are. Our deluded mind comes along for the ride.

Cause of delusion # 3, inappropriate attention

As mentioned in this first article on the delusions, there are six causes of our delusions. These are like a chain that bind us to suffering and problems. To break a chain, especially one as strong as this, it makes sense to find its weakest link.

We just saw how the object is not the weakest link – it is hard to isolate ourselves from all objects of delusion because they are going to pop up wherever we take our deluded minds. We can run, but we cannot hide. Sooo, what to do?

Now we come to the weakest link in the chain that binds us to suffering, insofar as it is the easiest one for us to break at the moment. This is very lucky for us. We can work on all six causes of our problems to a certain extent, of course, but this is the one where we can really get in there and stop the course of the delusion.

I keep saying a delusion is an unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind, and this is true, but strictly speaking the actual definition of a delusion is “An unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind that arises from inappropriate attention.” Even if our mind meets an object of anger, say, we will only get angry if we let inappropriate attention develop. delusions distort

Inappropriate attention is that function of honing in on a jelly donut, for example, and exaggerating its power to make our day, or honing in on someone who annoys us and letting our peace be destroyed ostensibly by that person but actually by our inappropriate attention toward that person.

There are many levels of inappropriate attention, from very subtle to very gross. At the moment, whenever we see an object we naturally apprehend it as being inherently existent, as independent of the mind, nothing to do with us. This itself is an exaggeration and the most subtle form of inappropriate attention. It is also our ignorance of self-grasping.

attachment to jelly donutBecause we are grasping at things as if they were outside the mind, we then believe that their apparent desireability or distastefulness inhere in them, and have nothing to do with the way we are perceiving them. If something out there looks nice, we naturally want to pull it toward us, and attachment is born. If something out there looks nasty, we naturally want to push it away from us, and anger or aversion is born. Due to our initial exaggeration of the object’s ontological status as being inherently existent as opposed to a mere projection of our mind, like a dream object, we then engage in even more exaggeration: “That donut out there on the cake dish is really nice (ie, from its own side) – just look at that red jelly oozing out of it, and the sugar sprinklings, and think how well it will go with the Cappuchino from the World Peace Café downstairs?!” This is gross inappropriate attention, leading to attachment.

We can overcome subtle inappropriate attention with wisdom, and we can overcome gross inappropriate attention with mindfulness, alertness, and conscientiousness, applying the opponents to delusions as described here.

More on this subject later … over to you for now 🙂

Awakening the Santa within

This is continued from this article for the holiday season. So, what’s wrong with miserliness. Well, for starters:

Due to miserliness we sometimes wish to hold onto our possessions forever, but since this is impossible we experience much suffering. If our possessions dwindle, or we are forced to give them away, we experience great pain. The more miserly we are, the more concerned we are about our possessions and the more worry and anxiety we suffer ~ Understanding the Mind

miserliness and generosity
dead weight

With miserliness, we are tied to externals. We are tied to our things. They become like dead weights — we’re worried about them, anxious about them, holding onto them tightly, weighing ourselves down. But possessions do not equal happiness. Wealth doesn’t equal happiness. Happiness comes from a peaceful, positive, happy mind. There is nothing actually out there that has the power from its own side to make us happy. They’re just things.

What does it mean to be a generous person?

Happiness is a state of mind, so its real causes lie within the mind.  Buddha Shakyamuni said in one Sutra that if people only understood the incredible good results of not clinging so tightly to their things but instead sharing them with others, then even if they had only a few scraps of food left to eat they’d still want to share it. If they could find someone to share it with, they would.

Even though there is a recession on, we still actually have an awful lot of things, don’t we, compared to many people in our world? These great resources are due, karmically speaking, to generosity we’ve practiced in the past. One question is, are we holding tightly onto a lot of things that we don’t necessarily need?

No one is suggesting you rush out and sell your house (if you still have one) or empty your bank account, because being homeless would just cause a whole lot of problems for a lot of other people. When we talk about “giving” in Buddhism, we are really talking about just that wish to help others through our resources, that wish to share, the wish to give when the time is right, and so on. (There is actually a type of giving that’s called “keeping”, where we don’t rush off and give everything away but instead look after resources like a custodian so as to help people most effectively when the time is right. The great Tibetan Yogi Marpa practiced this type of giving, and you can read about it in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

When people who are very generous go into a situation, such as walking into a room, they think to themselves: “What can I contribute here? What can I do to help? What can I give — can I give my time, my enthusiasm, my love, my attention, my support, any of my possessions?” This is the practice of giving.

me v. others

With miserliness, if we walk into a room, it’s like: “What can I get out of this situation? Who here can help me get what I want?”

I think this kind of sums up the difference between miserliness and the spirit of generosity, which is what we’re actually talking about here, not actually giving away our last cent. I’m trying to make this clear because otherwise people can start getting nervous when they hear advice on giving! (Though at this time of year we at least are more predisposed to it, hence the timing of these articles ;-))

The one-year rule

So if we are really holding tightly onto things we don’t actually want to use, we might want to ask ourselves why that is the case. (I’m actually talking to myself here.) Perhaps we’re holding onto things that we feel might come in handy fifteen years down the road — a bunch of stuff we know we’re never going to use but still there’s a sense of, “Ooh! What if I give it away, I might need it one day!” I know people who subscribe to the “one year rule” – if they haven’t used something in a year, the chances are they’re not going to use it, so they give it away. (One good friend of mine is down to pretty much two suitcases! And it makes him feel very light on his feet, free and flexible). But with our miserliness we get anxious at the thought of even giving something small away. We think “Maybe I’ll have a two year rule. Or maybe a ten year rule. Or how about a death rule – I’ll give it away when I die.” (It is a bit late by then – as Milarepa pointed out, it is far better to give stuff away while we’ve still got the choice to do so, before it is ripped  from us.)

“Heck, why did I give that away?!”

Understanding the Mind continues:

Miserliness is the opposite of the mind of giving. Sometimes miserliness prevents us from giving at all, and at other times it causes us to develop a sense of loss or regret when we do give.

Have you ever had the experience of managing to give something away but then thinking: “Heck, what did I do that for?!”

Although miserliness might appear to be a prudent attitude that assures our material security in this life, from a long term point of view it is very foolish. By preventing the wish to practice giving from arising, miserliness causes poverty in future lives. ~ Understanding the Mind

From a Buddhist point of view, we talk about past and future lives and about karma, that all our actions have consequences. In the short term they have consequences, and in the long term they have consequences. Buddha Shakyamuni explained that from giving comes wealth whereas from miserliness comes poverty.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Even psychologically speaking, if we’re holding tightly onto our things and not giving them away, we can sense that we’re not really creating the cause to get things back, are we? But when we give, we’re creating the cause to receive.

If you have any observations or questions, please share these in the comments so I can try and address them.

And please do share this article for Christmas 🙂

(I wrote this last Christmas, but I think it still applies… 😉