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.

Are we nearly there yet?

The sounds of childhood: ‘I’m booooored! Are we nearly there yet?’

The spiritual path is really all about repetition. We do the same meditations every day; in our culture that constantly chases new thrills, this is quite revolutionary. So how do we do this without getting bored?

In my experience, we only get bored with spiritual training when we don’t really get something: when it is intellectual, rather than experiential. I have been to many introductory talks about meditation, where I hear the same things I’ve heard hundreds of times before; but I don’t get bored with being told that happiness is a state of mind, I sit up and go ‘Yes, that’s so true!’ The words mean something to me because they’re backed up by my experience. So if we find ourselves becoming bored with a practice, it’s a sign that we don’t have a deep experience of it yet – in which case, we need to do it more, not follow our boredom away to something else!

Remember that boredom is a delusion, it’s tricking us: there isn’t really something else out there that is going to remove our dissatisfaction. Boredom is a subtle type of anger that will not be content with things as they are. If we recognize this then we can actually use it to help motivate us: our spiritual practice is not a cause of boredom, it’s the only way to stop being bored, because for as long as we have an ordinary deluded mind we will inevitably be dissatisfied by everything. So just sit with it, see how deceptive our dissatisfaction is, and keep on repeating our meditations for as long as it takes.

Take this further: Weekly meditation classes | A calm mind

Thanks to ArtificeBlade for the image.

Give & Take

I’ve often heard people say that love is about give and take, but I think that’s missing the point. Love is all about giving: it’s attachment that wants to take. If we want to get things right in our relationships with others, we first have to apply this to our relationship with ourself.

If we love ourselves, we want to give ourselves happiness; renunciation is a form of love, because we are wanting ourselves to possess the supreme happiness of liberation and working to give ourselves the opportunity to attain it. This is completely different from self-cherishing, which in my experience more closely resembles attachment: we want to take happiness for ourselves, even to the detriment of others.

Watch your mind to try to see this difference. I think you’ll find that when you are wishing to give yourself happiness, you are naturally more inclined to virtue because you want to create opportunities for inner peace. Contrast this to the feeling of wanting to take happiness: it’s like the world owes us this and we’re just waiting to receive it.

I often get asked ‘Isn’t it selfish to cherish others if we’re doing it because we know it will make us happy?’ No, it’s not selfish. When we cherish others, we are sharing in their happiness. All living beings deserve to be happy, and we are a living being. It is only selfish to grasp after our happiness whilst neglecting that of others. That’s why self-cherishing is a part of the ignorance of self-grasping: with both minds, we are grasping at a self divorced from others. We stop being part of ‘all living beings’ and become our own little island… and then when we think ‘may all living beings be happy’ we do not include ourselves and think that makes us more virtuous. Leaving ourselves out is self-cherishing. Geshe-la says in Eight Steps ‘when we abandon self-cherishing we do not loose our wish to be happy.’ It’s very important not to confuse the two, or it will undermine our ability to love others – we will remain unable to separate the give and the take.

 

Learn more: In-depth Study  |  The Art of Kindness day course

Feedback Loop

You know those conversations that go round in endless circles and refuse to die? Like here when dinner is ready: “After you”; “No, after you”; “No, please, after you” until I go “aarrgh!” and walk to the front of the queue! I think they are an excellent analogy for karma, which can cause our lives to feel like one of these giant feedback loops. For example, we constantly find ourselves confronted with people who put us down; even people who hardly know us may treat us like this for no discernable reason. And it is also karma – the tendencies similar to the cause – that make us keep responding in the same unhelpful ways again and again.

Understanding where it’s coming from can help us break the pattern. If we recognize that it’s potentialities within our own mind that maintain that cycle, we can start to respond in a different way. When we see a pattern in our lives start to repeat itself, we immediately remember ‘oh-oh, feedback loop!’ That recognition will change our view: we will stop blaming others, stop feeling like the world is victimizing us, stop feeling powerless. We can break the cycle by choosing not to respond in the way that feels hard-wired into us by our karmic tendencies.

By remembering that the whole situation – including our emotional response to it – is just karma, we can let go of our anger and resentment and just accept it the way it is. That acceptance will help to break the cycle because patience functions to purify our negative karma. The more we let go of our negative responses and stay at peace with the situation the purer our mind will become, until we have cleared away the potentials that were creating that feedback loop.

More about karma: on kadampa.org | on kadampalife.org