Us and Them in Buddhism

As I was saying the other day, there are two main obstacles standing in the way of our spiritual growth. The first is the ignorant feeling that I am the real me, therefore you are real and secondary other, somewhat less important. Self-grasping ignorance apprehends a gap between me and everybody else, which means that when it comes to stretching love and compassion to another person I can only do it for a certain length of time and, generally and ideally, they need to have done me a favor, or be likely to do me a favor down the road, or something.

US-Them

Carrying on from this article.

Expiry date

The second obstacle is self-grasping’s inseparable mate self-cherishing, which wants to serve and protect our own self over others. We are not completely selfish, of course we are not, we have a lot of genuine compassion and love – these are our Buddha nature, who we really are. But our concern has an expiry date. We can love others, even unconditionally, for a while, until we get a headache or something else goes wrong in our life, when it’s like, “Uh, hang on, I will get back to you guys later.”

As is always pointed out, self-cherishing is not the same as liking ourselves, caring for ourselves, or even loving ourselves, ie, wanting to be happy. We need to do all these things – and indeed seeking liberation and enlightenment is the best way we can care for ourselves and fulfill our own purposes. No, self-cherishing is a mind that believes that this self, this me, is the real me and therefore its happiness comes first.

A day in San Francisco

SF airportThis “us and them” mentality is a horrible mind, responsible for all our callousness. I’m writing this in a shiny SFO, the flight to Denver delayed for an hour. San Francisco is as beautiful as ever on the surface, but its soul seems to have changed – the gulf between rich and poor, over-housed and homeless, being one of the largest in America now, which is saying something. And a widespread recognition that we are all in this together — fellow living beings who all want to be happy — seems to be sorely lacking.

A friend, JW, advocates for the homeless – he has been doing it for over a decade and told me today that there is nothing more important to him. He doesn’t get discouraged because his passion to tell their stories still motivates him; and he wants everyone to know that one of the worst problems these days is that the homeless population is rapidly ageing. It is bad enough being on the streets when you are relatively young and healthy, but there are now more seniors than ever before who are homeless for the first time, and they quickly age ten or twenty years. No one ever sees it coming, but seniors find themselves priced out or, along with low income populations, red-lined out of their neighborhoods by greedy developers putting up fancy apartments for people who have so much money they don’t know how to spend it all. homeless senior

As a local newspaper put it: “Most of San Francisco’s current homeless population is on the street not by choice, but because of skyrocketing rents. According to the city’s 2015 Homeless Count, 71 percent of SF’s homeless were city residents before they became homeless. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people having to stay outdoors has risen, from 28 percent in 2011 to 46 percent in 2017.”

(Pretty sure I read this somewhere …) Buddha said that although happiness depends on the mind, there are four basic things human beings need to be well: clothing, food, medicine, and shelter. Basic human well being starts with housing. As a senior, it is hard enough to get offered a job even if you are fit enough to work; but, at whatever age, there is only a slim chance of getting back on your feet if you are not housed. No job in this country = no money = insufficient food, medicine, and clothing.

Tekchog, a Buddhist monk, who has been working on Needle Exchange on Market Street for 15 years, concurred that if you cannot have a shower you’re not going to be aceing any job interviews. And that he has noticed that when someone comes to needle exchange who has been lucky enough to find housing, they look a hundred times healthier and happier. But although that Exchange has been there for decades, people who have just moved into one of the swanky new apartments routinely come over to complain that they object to having the needle exchange in THEIR neighborhood.

sit lie lawTents and tent cities rise up everywhere, but sooner or later the tents get “confiscated” and the tent inhabitants do not see it or any of their possessions again. How can it be viewed as any sort of civic virtue to rob from the destitute, to make them start all over again?

The sit/lie law meantime means that homeless people cannot sit or lie down in public places, despite the lack of anywhere else to seek shelter. What are you supposed to do if you are forced to keep moving, if you cannot sit or lay down your head, yet you are old, or tired, or sick? There is a scarcity of public toilets because they have shut them down at the Bart stations, and just lately they have dismantled the handles from the water faucets so that you can no longer even quench your thirst.

That is a huge amount of suffering. I often ponder whether I could last a week outdoors, let alone the rest of my life; and many senior homeless people had the same thought once upon a time. If we could use our imagination, see that every homeless person is just as much Me as I am, and mentally exchange places with them, would this suffering be allowed to go on?

Vision needed

San FranciscoThere is hope, there is always hope, because there is nothing fixed and we have everything we need inside us to create a better future for everyone, spiritually and practically.

Being in SF made me more determined to destroy samsara by destroying the self-grasping and self-cherishing that perpetuate it. And we can concurrently do stuff to help others practically, like JW and Tekchog for example, knowing that this is also taking us closer to our ultimate goal. There are good people everywhere who are working day and night to change things practically and socially, driven to end human suffering. Regardless of the immediate outcome, every single time we do something to try and alleviate the suffering of others — motivated by compassion, inspired by vision, seeing everyone as Me — we are creating the causes for our own and others’ well being.

Over to you, comments & ideas most welcome.

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What about me?!

Just who do you think you are?!

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

Carrying on from this article.

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

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

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

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

Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who do you think you are?!

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

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

Steadfastness

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

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

The next article on this subject will be on the fourth type of self-confidence, which is taught in Tantra — divine pride. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome – especially anything you have personally found helpful for increasing your self-confidence and overcoming your self-doubts.

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

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Unleashing our potential

sarcasticI asked a bunch of people the other day what their New Year’s resolutions were, and most of them told me they hadn’t bothered making any because they never stuck to them. And it is true that New Year’s resolutions often don’t work because our minds are kind of too much all over the place, scattered.

If we find we can’t stick to our obviously worthwhile resolutions each new year, or any other time for that matter, it could well be because our habits and real desires go way deeper than our new plans, so they keep winning. Luckily meditation helps, perhaps more than anything.

We need to change from deep within, not just on a superficial level of consciousness – our thoughts are too changeable on the surface of our minds, like waves or froth on an ocean, so even if we manage to change them they don’t stay changed. I find it is always pretty much vital, therefore, to start the process of self-transformation by diving below the waves of chatter and thoughts directed largely outward, to access a deeper level of awareness.

Reboot

amplutihedron_spanEven the simplest breathing meditation, designed to overcome conceptual distractions, brings us inward and helps us to connect to our Buddha nature, which is in fact unfathomably deep, and we can sense that.

We don’t feel things in our head – we feel them in our heart. We don’t really change in our head — we change in our heart.

So we start by dropping into our heart, and experiencing already some peace and space opening up. The slightest experience of peace shows lasting deep peace and change is possible, so we identify with that, thinking, “This is me.”

An even more powerful method for accessing deeper awareness is meditating on the clarity of the mind.

And above all we can mix with the blessings of all enlightened beings — their all-pervasive omniscient, compassionate minds — because then for sure we go deeper and deeper and deeper. And our mind is purified and inspired.

On this basis we can reinvent ourselves — dissolve all our stale habitual thoughts away and start again! Reboot. Especially if we can bring even a little understanding of emptiness into the equation.

I plan to share more on how to do everything I’ve just said because it’s useful – but later. For all this to work, to really change, we need to get in the habit of relating to this potential — our spiritual depth — and identifying with it. And this brings us back to the development of self-confidence, carrying on from this article.

colorado mountains 1.JPG Pride with respect to our potential

The first type of self-confidence, also known as non-deluded pride, is called “pride with respect to our potential”. This state of mind is:

… based on a recognition of our spiritual potential and leads us to think, “I can and will attain Buddhahood. ~ How to Understand the Mind

With this we identify with our Buddha nature, our potential for lasting happiness, total freedom, universal love, omniscient wisdom, etc. In short, our potential for enlightenment. We trust our Buddha nature, not our superficial desires and aversions, however seductive or on our side these may pretend to be.

Big vision

In How to Transform Your Life, which you can now download for FREE! here, the author Geshe Kelsang says: httyl-bookcovers

In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom. Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure essential nature of every living being… Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

“Everyone” includes ourselves. We are all future Buddhas. In our society, we have phrases like, “You gotta have vision of yourself”; but our vision tends to be who we are now, just a little bit better, right? In Buddhism, we develop a really big vision. We say “Identify with your Buddha nature ~ you can become an enlightened being.”

With this first non-deluded pride, we aren’t just saying I CAN become a Buddha, we are saying “I WILL become a Buddha.” I am going to become someone with perfect love, perfect compassion, perfect wisdom, total patience. A mind pervaded by joy. I’m going to do that. That’s proper vision, isn’t it? And if we identify with that, well, that’s a big sense of self. But this self, unlike our ordinary, painful, limited sense of self, is imputed on the truth. I have the potential and I am going to become a Buddha. It’s true.

Some people might think, “Hey, that’s a bit arrogant or far-fetched.” But you know what? It’s possible. It’s actually possible for us to become a Buddha.

happinessWhereas it’s not possible for us to develop lasting happiness or meaning through our looks. Or through our ability to sing. Or through our ability to make money. Or through any of the other things we tend to develop pride in. We might or might not get a temporary happiness hit, but sooner or later these things all just disappear.

In other words, it is MORE possible to achieve enlightenment than to achieve lasting happiness through external things.

We are by nature unlimited, and once we have purified our mind we will have purified our world.

So why put our efforts into trying to achieve happiness through external things that will never amount to anything, instead of into something that we know is possible, and infinitely more desirable, which is to achieve enlightenment? The first non-deluded pride helps us overcome this discrepancy because we identify with our potential and with our wish for enlightenment.

Try it out

In meditation, in our heart, we can just try it out. Just allow that self-confidence to resonate deep inside, just that insight and determination, “I have the potential for enlightenment, that’s who I really am, and I am going to realize that potential and become a Buddha.”

Actual enlightenment is a mind, and anyone can develop that mind of pure love, pure wisdom, and pure compassion, from which we manifest in whatever form benefits living beings.

Enlightenment is a state of total freedom, for which we all have the potential. So why not go for it? Why not develop a big vision? And say deep inside, “I’m going to do that!” Unless you have a better idea. But what could be a better idea?

not-way-to-relate-to-potentialIt may seem a fairly outrageous thought if you are new to Buddhism, it may even seem slightly terrifying; but it is actually a very relaxing thought. Why? Because we’re no longer identifying with our limitations. It is identifying with our limitations that’s the main reason for our laziness of discouragement — looking at ourselves and thinking, “I’m such a twerp. I’m such a deluded being — I’m so angry, and I’m so jealous, and I’m so attached to my stuff, and I’m incapable of moving on, and that’s me.” And then we’re walking around trying to improve an inherently existent twerp, which is really tough. We’re thinking, “I’m useless, I’m so inadequate, I’m a stupid person, but at least I’ve made some New Year’s resolutions here, at least I’m trying” – but we can’t move away from that if we think it’s the truth, if we feel intrinsically useless.

Luckily, it’s not the truth. We’re just creating it with our mind. An intrinsic twerp is just an idea. And it’s a useless idea at that, it’s a wrong idea. We’re not useless. We are by nature empty, which means we are by nature free. If we think we’re a limited being, we’re a limited being. But if we think we have an unlimited potential and we identify with that, that’s what we have.

If you think you’re someone who is going to become a Buddha, that’s exactly who you are. So go for it.

Ok, enough for today. Maybe you’d like to try this out for a few days and report back in the comments below?! And here is the next article on the subject.

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