Overcoming laziness

I Could Go Faster Funny Lazy Dog MemeToday is *. Seriously, wow. Actually, that sounds quite appealing… but not really a very good idea. Coincidently, I was just listening to a teaching on effort this morning, so I’m feeling inspired to reduce the global laziness quota a bit with this post.

Effort, the opposite of laziness, is a mind that delights in virtue. So you can be very busy, but still be being lazy in a spiritual sense. Alternatively (and I like this part!), we can be sitting with our feet up and be applying effort – if we are, for example, rejoicing in others’ good qualities. Like with any Dharma practice, it’s all about our mind, not our physical actions.

‘Effort’ sounds heavy, but by its very definition, it is a light mind. You know what it feels like to be delighted: imagine feeling the same delight at the idea of meditating as you feel about going on holiday. If we train to overcome our laziness, we could be filled with that delight all the time!

So, what makes us lazy with regards to our spiritual practice? Well, first of all, we procrastinate, thinking we’ll put it off until later. This is a bad habit that most of us have with our ordinary daily activities, and we carry it across into our spiritual practice. And we know how it makes us feel: like we are carrying a burden of unfinished business, weighed down by worry. I find it also makes me easily bored: I try to distract myself from all the things I know I should be doing, but can’t really settle to anything else because they are nagging at me. Sound familiar? The solution is to meditate on death. I know that may not have an immediate appeal, but remember that it will cut through all the anxiety caused by procrastination. Recognising that we may not have much time left in this world helps us to prioritise and clear away all the excuses; it makes us very clear and focused. (You can find more on this point here)

Image result for lazyAnother way laziness manifests is in an attraction to meaningless things. In The Bodhisattva Vow, Geshe-la says:

Most of us are very familiar with the second type of laziness. We give in to it whenever we watch television for hours on end without caring what comes on, when we indulge in prolonged conversations with no purpose, or when we become engrossed in sports or business ventures for their own sake. Activities such as these dissipate the energy we have for practising Dharma. Though they may seem pleasant, they deceive us – wasting our precious human life and destroying our opportunity to attain real and lasting happiness.

So, what, I’m not allowed to watch TV anymore? I never said that: of course, we need to rest and relax, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying ourselves… but we do need to honestly ask ourselves whether what we’re doing is actually relaxing or deeply enjoyable. I think the reason this sort of attachment is called a laziness is because what we’re really doing is avoiding our spiritual practice. You know that feeling where you’re not really enjoying watching Antiques Roadshow, but you just can’t quite be bothered to go and do something meaningful instead? If we cut through this laziness we’d actually enjoy ourselves more, because we’d be able to feel fulfilled and contented with our lives. So don’t tell yourselves off about all the time-wasting garbage (ahem, facebook…!); tell yourself how much more rewarding a meaningful life can feel.

The third type of laziness is discouragement. Interesting, isn’t it, that discouragement is a form of laziness? But it does make us feel disinclined to practice virtue, strips us of delight in our practice. Why? Because we don’t have confidence that our practice will bring us results. Bodhisattva Maitreya gave some beautiful reasons to help us overcome discouragement: we have Buddha nature, we can receive Buddha’s blessings, and we have met the Dharma. That really is everything we need to attain all our spiritual goals. It will take time, that’s all – time and effort.

Some people begin their practice with great enthusiasm and then give up when great results do not appear, like a waterfall caused by a sudden storm cascading furiously for a short time and then trickling away to nothing. Our effort should not be like this. At the very beginning of our practice, we should make a firm decision that we shall persevere until we attain Buddhahood no matter how long it takes, even if it takes many lives. Then we should practise gently and constantly, like a great river that flows day and night, year after year.

 

* Well, yesterday now, because I procrastinated about writing this for too long!

How delusions develop

When I was about five, I got knocked over by a taxi.

I remember it very clearly: my mum and I were crossing a road outside King’s Cross station; the lights changed when we were halfway across, and the taxi driver got impatient and nudged forward onto the crossing. The front of the car bumped into my mum; she bumped into me; I fell over. My mother, naturally, got very cross and started yelling at the taxi driver (this bit was rather entertaining).

As a result of this experience, I developed a deep distrust of taxi drivers and nursed this resentment for at least the next ten years. Then, for some reason, the topic came up in conversation, and I said to my mum, ‘Remember that time I got knocked over by a taxi?’

She said, ‘No: I don’t remember that.’ I described it in detail, but she was adamant: ‘Believe me, if someone had run my daughter over there is no way I would ever forget it!’

Image result for it was all a dream typographyThat was when I realised that the whole thing had never happened at all: I must have dreamt it and, being so young, been unable to distinguish the dream from reality. I had spent a decade being annoyed about something that took place only in my head. All that anger towards taxi drivers had absolutely no basis.

This is actually true of all our delusions: they are all completely without basis in reality. The object they focus on does not actually exist, because what we see is an exaggeration of what is actually there.

The deluded mind of hatred, for example, views another person as intrinsically bad, but there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad person. Desirous attachment, on the other hand, sees its object of desire as intrinsically good and as a true source of happiness. If we have a strong craving to eat chocolate, chocolate appears to us to be an intrinsically desirable object. However, once we have eaten too much of it and start to feel sick, it no longer seems so desirable and may even appear repulsive. This shows that in itself chocolate is neither desirable nor repulsive. It is the mind of attachment that projects onto it all kinds of desirable qualities and then relates to it as if it really did possess those qualities.

~ Eight Steps to Happiness

We exaggerate good and bad qualities and this gives rise to attachment and anger; but the greatest exaggeration of all is exaggerating the way in which things exist. In just the same way that my dream taxi driver formed the basis for what seemed like a totally justified anger, so too all the dream-like appearances of our daily lives are misinterpreted as a valid basis for our negative thoughts.

All our delusions are called ‘mistaken awarenesses’ because their objects appear to them to be truly existent when in fact they are not. Everything is just a mere appearance to our mind that arises from our karma, but we exaggerate its degree of existence and believe it to exist separate from the mind. This ignorance then forms the basis for all the further exaggerations: we go from ‘this is truly existent’ to ‘this is truly good’ or ‘this is truly bad.’

Really and truly… just like my taxi driver.

Do you have a dirty mind?

While I was busy doing someone else’s washing up (ah, the joys of communal living), I gave a bit of thought to how the state of my mind was creating my world. I constantly perceive a dirty kitchen, but where does that dirt come from?

Because our world, our self, our enjoyments and our activities are the nature of our mind, when our mind is impure they are impure, and when our mind becomes pure through purification practice they become pure. When we completely purify our mind through Tantric practice, our world, our self, our enjoyments and our activities also become completely pure – this is the state of enlightenment. Attaining enlightenment is therefore very simple; all we need to do is apply effort to purifying our mind.

We know that when our mind is impure because we are feeling angry with our friend, we see him as bad; but when our mind is pure because we are feeling affectionate love for the same friend, we see him as good. Therefore, it is because of changing our own mind from pure to impure or from impure to pure that for us our friend changes from good to bad or from bad to good. This indicates that everything that is good, bad or neutral for us is a projection of our mind and has no existence outside our mind.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Modern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom – Volume 2 Tantra 

Interesting… my dirty kitchen is a manifestation of my dirty mind. This is actually wonderful news because it means that at some point this pile of washing up will end. I mean end permanently and not magically reappear overnight. It is incredible to think that just through the power of purifying our mind, our whole experience can change. If you don’t know the story of Lam Chung, look it up in Joyful Path of Good Fortune – it’s so inspiring. At the end, after years of cleaning the temple, Lam Chung realises that all the dirt is just coming from his mind, and attains a direct realisation of emptiness without needing to do any study or meditation!

Image result for kadampa vajrasattvaOn one level, all the spiritual practice we do is a purification: as the quote above tells us, every time we change our view from anger to love, for example, our mind becomes purer. But we can also engage in specific purification practices to speed up the process and make it easier to change our minds. The practices of Vajrasattva or the 35 Confession Buddhas are designed especially to help us purify negative karma – even if we just give ten minutes a day to one of these practices, it will have a very powerful impact.

When I have cleaned the kitchen, for some strange reason I expect it to stay clean. I’ve done that job once, and now it’s sorted forever. As if! And it’s the same with our minds: we can’t just purify once and thank ‘job done.’ We need to keep scrubbing until all the ingrained dirt has been removed. We will know we have finished purifying when we no longer experience any mental or physical suffering. And the kitchen will look clean too because we will be living in a pure land.

I’m not suggesting that you abandon doing any washing-up until then – you can make cleaning into a purification practice too. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, it says:

While we are cleaning we should regard all the dust and dirt as the filth of our own non-virtuous actions and delusions, thinking `This is the dirt of my ignorance – I am removing it. These are the stains of my destructive deeds – I am eliminating them.’ If we have an especially strong emotional problem, such as strong desirous attachment, we can concentrate on it and clean vigorously, thinking `This is the grime of my attachment. I am extracting it from my mind.’ 

So, what about other kitchen-users who are always leaving me a mess to clear up – how do things appear to them? I tend to assume (with my grumpy mind) that they are being inconsiderate… but what if the dirt doesn’t appear to their minds? Some people really do seem oblivious: are they being lazy, or do they just have purer minds than I do? Maybe, from their point of view, there is nothing that needs cleaning at all. I’d better do a bit more cleaning to catch up.


Take this further: Purification Retreat

The light of wisdom

Image result for manjushriWisdom is our best friend, an inner voice that never leads us astray; and our best friend looks like this, the beautiful Wisdom Buddha Manjushri.

Right from the first time we hear a Dharma teaching, we are being encouraged to develop our wisdom realising that happiness depends upon the mind. Gradually, this simple understanding develops into the wisdom realising emptiness, seeing directly that everything arises from mind. To help us make this journey, we can rely on Manjushri. A lot of people get a bit discouraged about Buddha’s wisdom teachings – maybe you’ve read a chapter on ultimate truth in one of the books and thought ‘that’s way too intellectual and complicated for me.’ If it seems complicated, we can ask for Manjushri’s blessings to help us understand; and if it seems intellectual, we can ask for Manjushri’s blessings to help us realise that we’ve missed the point and need to focus on the practical value!

Buddha Manjushri carries a wisdom sword that can cut through our ignorance and unknowing. In the prayer Homage to Manjushri, it says:

‘Your sword held aloft dispels the darkness of ignorance,
And cuts through all roots of suffering.’

The closer we get to Manjushri, the more our wisdom will grow; but to get close to someone, you first have to meet them! An empowerment is where we are introduced to a Buddha. The teacher granting the empowerment will have spent some time in retreat, developing a deep connection with Manjushri; a connection that they then share with us. On the basis of this introduction, we can then form a close relationship with Manjushri, until he becomes like a friend we can rely on and trust with anything.

No automatic alt text available.There’s a wonderful story about Manjushri in How to Understand the Mind, where a famous teacher called Dharmakirti is trying to write a Dharma book. He keeps trying to explain the topic to a neighbour, but the man doesn’t understand and keeps getting angry and erasing everything Dharmakirti has written. Finally, Dharmakirti gets totally discouraged and decides there’s no point writing about wisdom because no-one ever gets it. He throws his manuscript up in the air, saying ‘When this book hits the ground, I’m giving up.’

But the manuscript never comes down. Dharmakirti looks up and sees that Buddha Manjushri has appeared in the middle of space and caught the book before it could fall. So he realises that he has to carry on with his task.

I love this story because it shows how important it is to keep on trying to understand and to teach Buddha’s wisdom, and it also shows that Manjushri is always there to help encourage us.

More: Manjushri Empowerment

Sunny side up

Image result for optimismMy New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to be more optimistic. I’ve always been a bit wary of optimism before: isn’t it just burying your head in the sand or putting on a pair of rose-tinted glasses? Now I’m beginning to understand – real optimism isn’t pretending things are perfect, it’s having the confidence that you can make things better.

This means believing in your potential, knowing that you can change. One day you will be a Buddha, for goodness sake, what is there to be pessimistic about?

Every living being has the potential to become a Buddha, someone who has completely purified his or her mind of all faults and limitations and has brought all good qualities to perfection. Our mind is like a cloudy sky, in essence clear and pure but overcast by the clouds of delusions. Just as the thickest clouds eventually disperse, so too even the heaviest delusions can be removed from our mind. Delusions such as hatred, greed, and ignorance are not an intrinsic part of the mind. If we apply the appropriate methods they can be completely eliminated, and we shall experience the supreme happiness of full enlightenment.

~ Eight Steps to Happiness

That’s from the introduction to Eight Steps; right from the very beginning, Geshe-la has been telling us this incredible truth. If we just had faith in these words, there would be no basis to ever be discouraged. As Shantideva says:

Having mounted the steed of bodhichitta
That dispels mental discouragement and physical weariness,
The Bodhisattva travels the path from joy to joy.
Knowing this, who could ever be discouraged?

We need to make a habit of relating to our potential rather than our present limitations. We are not confined by the self we normally see; this is just an illusion. Stop listening when that self insists on being ordinary: tell ourselves ‘I can be something better instead.’

Most importantly, optimism is a choice. We can actively decide to have faith in a better outcome; we don’t have to wait for the world to provide us with something to be optimistic about. We already have ample cause to be encouraged: this precious human life, a supreme Spiritual Guide, our Buddha nature just waiting to be discovered.

Artificial Intelligence

shutterstock_119131858.jpgDo you think it could be possible to be reborn as a computer? Probably, most of you immediately answered ‘no,’ but I’m not so sure…

Let’s think for a minute about the nature of rebirth, and what constitutes a person. Before we take rebirth, we spend some time hanging around in the intermediate state, or bardo, waiting for the right karmic conditions to come together for our rebirth. If we have the karma to be a human, for example, then we are waiting for our future parents to do the dirty and for conception to take place; our subtle consciousness then enters into that union of sperm and egg and we start grasping onto it as ‘my body.’ In short, we are waiting for a suitable basis upon which we can impute body.

What is a suitable basis? Well, simply, something that can perform the function of a body. That is quite a broad definition. We can see how it is possible to impute ‘I’ upon a human body or an animal one. An animal body is more limited, it does not provide the scope for the mind to function on such a high level, but it is certainly a body: it provides an interface between the mind and the rest of the world. It is also possible to impute I on other bodies that we do not presently have the karma to see, such as gods, spirits, and nagas. Geshe-la has explained that some beings even use fire or water as the basis for imputing their I (Berlin, 2005).

So, imagine that a computer was built that was complex and adaptable enough to mimic the function of the human brain. Why, then, could some poor bardo being with the appropriate karma not see that lovely silicon circuitry being turned on and think ‘That’s my body.’ Their mind would then enter into that machine – the moment of conception has occurred! – and it would cease to be an inanimate machine and become a living being.

Our body, our brain in particular, is really just a machine with enough complexity and processing power to allow our mind to function at a (relatively) high level.

Image result for Artificial Intelligence

Does that make it seem like a possibility? Of course, I’m not saying this could happen yet – computers are still pretty basic, really. But I don’t see why they couldn’t develop to a level where they became a suitable basis for imputing I. And of course, I’m not saying this is right – I have no idea if this is actually correct, I’m just throwing out an idea. All I can say is that no-one has yet managed to convince me with logic that I’m definitely wrong… so if you have any arguments to put forward, I would love to hear them!

I think it’s interesting to look at this from a Dharma perspective. Usually, when scientists talk about artificial intelligence, they look at it from (I believe) completely the wrong angle, thinking that they are trying to create consciousness. Most scientists conclude this is impossible – and of course it is. Every stream of consciousness has existed since beginningless time, no computer programmer will ever be able to code a mind into existence. But that’s completely missing the point – because we understand that the mind is separate from the body, all you would actually need to do is create a suitable body, and a mind would come and inhabit it.

I can’t decide if this would constitute a good rebirth or a bad one…

Lamrim playlist

Related imageIf you’re someone who listens to music, this is a post about how you can transform that activity into a spiritual practice by listening out for Dharma teachings in the songs. Everything can teach us something – it’s all a matter of how we interpret it. If we want to, we can develop our own personal playlist of music that helps us to generate virtuous minds.

The first time I remember doing this was on the way to a branch class many years ago; I had taken precepts that morning – a strict moral discipline practice that we keep for a day, which includes not listening to music. But one of my students was giving me a lift to class, and she put the radio on really loud – I didn’t want to upset her or freak her out by asking her to turn it off (she was really new to Buddhism), so I thought ‘I absolutely have to transform this music into something meaningful!’ I still remember the song that was playing: I’m a believer by the Monkees. I’d always found it rather annoying, but I made a real effort and decided: ‘this song is about Green Tara, my favourite Buddha.’ And I developed loads of faith listening to the song; to this day, whenever I hear it I instinctively think of Tara.

I’m building up a playlist for the whole of Lamrim, the 21 meditations on the stages of the path to enlightenment. Of course, the way music affects us is very personal, so everyone needs to make their own selection, but I thought I’d share the teachings in some of my more obvious favourites.

My top tune for reminding me of death and impermanence is Pink Floyd’s Time:

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Do you feel like you bounded off the starting line, or are you still standing in line at the coffee shop beside the track, not even aware that the race has begun without you? The race towards death started at the moment of our birth, and we do not get to pause for a breather even for a moment. I used to find this song a bit depressing (as though I was, indeed, just hanging on in quiet desperation); but now I find it motivates me to make the most of my life.

For another example, Bridge Over Troubled Water reminds me of bodhichitta. The lyric, ‘Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind,’ makes me remember that the way we are trying to help others through our spiritual practice goes beyond the mundane: we don’t just want to make their samsaric lives easier, we want to lead them to real peace of mind. Did Simon and Garfunkel intend this meaning when they wrote the song? Probably not; but it’s my freedom to choose to interpret it in that way, and that brings far greater results than listening with an ordinary mind.

What songs are on your lamrim playlist? Please share them in the comments and you might inspire someone else to start transforming music into positive minds!

I believe in Buddhas because they’re not real

“We should understand that ultimately nothing is true except emptiness.” ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

Human beings have a deep craving for absolute truth; the idea that we cannot find any such thing may be frightening, but is also liberating, because our tendency to ascribe things too much validity is a very limiting factor. Take for example our relationship to science: we relate to the things we’re taught in school as scientific fact.

“In science, there are no universal truths, just views of the world that have yet to be shown to be false.”
― Brian Cox, Why Does E=mc²?

Actual scientists understand that the model of the universe we work with is not an absolute truth: it is simply correct in so far as it works (most of the time, except when quarks mess up the measurements). It functions, and we can use it, that’s all. The problem is when we grasp onto it. For most of us, gravity is a fact: real and fixed and obvious through our own experience. Apparently not – gravity is seriously outdated, it’s all something to do with the curvature of space-time these days. Of course, our feet stay on the ground either way; but if we grasp onto one unassailable fact, there is no longer any room for progress.

I use scientific progress as an example here because it’s quite easy to see, but the same is true of our more metaphysical explorations. There are no facts to hold on to. But again, we want to make things more real than they are, holding onto the one and only correct way of filling an offering bowl and a host of other things. To quote my teacher, Kadam Bridget Heyes, ‘there are many shades of right,’ because there are many different ways of doing things that can have the same function: it all depends upon our mind. I believe in Buddha’s teachings because they function to produce a beneficial result – which they can do only because nothing exists inherently.

“Conventional objects such as people, trees, atoms, and planets have a relative degree of reality that distinguishes them from non-existents such as square circles and unicorns; but only the ultimate nature, or emptiness, of phenomena is true, because it is only emptiness that exists in the way that it appears. Objects exist only in relation to the minds that cognize them. Since an object’s nature and characteristics depend upon the mind that beholds it, we can change the objects we see by changing the way we see them. We can choose to view ourself, other people, and our world in whatever way is most beneficial. By steadfastly maintaining a positive view we gradually come to inhabit a positive world, and eventually a Pure Land.”

Everything is dependent-related: if we see our Spiritual Guide as a Buddha, he functions as a Buddha for us. Does that mean that if you don’t believe in Buddhas they don’t exist for you? No; emptiness doesn’t mean that you can just believe in anything, because a conventional truth must be able to perform its function. Things appear out of emptiness in dependence upon our karma – the state of our mind – and we all have the karma for Buddha to have appeared in this world and function to bestow blessings. Of course, we can’t see that function directly, but establishing emptiness through valid logical reasoning shows us how the existence of Buddhas is possible.

When we meditate on emptiness we let go of everything. Although that emptiness really is a universal truth, it is merely an absence; there is nothing to hold onto. Then we start to understand conventional truth: things can function only because they lack true existence. Everything becomes less real, like a dream; but Buddhas are just as real as anything else. All the Buddhas are just an appearance to my mind, but that doesn’t make them less real than me; from their point of view, I am just an appearance to their mind, after all.

Purification

calmEverything we experience is karma. Both our external conditions and the instinctive way we react to them arise from the potentials of our past actions. If you think that every single thought or action is creating potentialities in our minds, then how many potentialities must we be carrying around? It’s a good thing they don’t weigh anything, or we’d be flattened. And it’s a mixed bag: some good seeds, some bad. If we could ensure that there were only positive potentials in there, we would essentially have attained the Pure Land.

How do we do this? By making sure we don’t create and more negative potentialities, and by removing the ones already in there. Fortunately, we don’t have to just wait for those bad seeds to grow in order to be free of them – we can practice purification.

To purify, we transform our mind into the opposite of the negative mind that created the problem; we do this by cultivating four ‘powers’:

  • The power of regret
  • The power of reliance
  • The power of the opponent force
  • The power of promise

First, we deeply regret our negative actions because we recognize that they bring harmful results for both ourselves and others. Then, the power of reliance means that because our negative actions harmed either the Buddhas or ordinary beings, we now develop the opposite intention: refuge in the Three Jewels and compassion for everyone else. In order to purify we also need to be determined to break our bad habits and stop engaging in harmful actions – this is the power of promise.

The power of the opponent force is any positive action that we engage in with the intention to purify. There are some specific practices designed to speed our purification along – for example this weekend we’re doing a retreat with lots of prostrations – but any positive action can function to purify our mind. Patience is a particularly powerful purifier that we can practice all the time; if we remember the opponent powers, then every time we patiently accept any difficulty we are clearing away vast amounts of negative karma.

The more we purify, the easier it will be to keep a positive mind, because we will no longer be held back by the weight of our negative karma. The more positive our mind is, the easier it will be to purify’ and we will be racing towards the Pure Land.