My 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.
If 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!
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.
Thanks to ArtificeBlade for the image.
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.
January is traditionally the time for retreat, so I thought we could take a look at what retreat is. In Heart Jewel, it says:
On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. There are three kinds of retreat: physical, verbal, and mental. We engage in physical retreat when, with a spiritual motivation, we isolate ourself from other people, activities, and noise, and dis-engage from extraneous and meaningless actions. We engage in verbal retreat when, with a spiritual motivation, we refrain from meaningless talk and periodically keep silence. We engage in mental retreat by preventing distractions and strong delusions such as attachment, anger, jealousy, and strong self-grasping from arising, and by maintaining mindfulness and conscientiousness.
I think most people think of retreat as being about getting away from external things, taking a break from distracting activities; but it’s easy to forget about mental retreat, which is the most important. We can cut ourselves off from all contact with work, for example, but if we keep worrying about the things we have left undone then work will still interfere with our retreat. In my experience, retreat is mainly a state of mind. To quote from Heart Jewel again:
If we remain in physical and verbal retreat but fail to observe mental retreat, our retreat will have little power. Such a retreat may be relaxing, but, if we do not prevent strong delusions from arising, our mind will not be at peace, even on retreat. However, keeping physical and verbal retreat will help us to keep mental retreat.
Of course it’s useful to have some physical space, some time off from our usual commitments and responsibilities so that we have the time we need to engage in focused spiritual practice. And silence is very useful: it really helps us turn inwards and pay more attention to our mental chatter. But we should remember that these are just tools to help us keep control over our mind.
On retreat we talk about ‘boundaries.’ Setting boundaries means establishing restrictions for ourselves that will help our meditation be more successful. For example, we may set a verbal boundary of silence for part of the day, or a physical boundary of not using our phone or the internet. We also need to establish our own mental boundaries. We need to make a firm decision not to let our retreat be de-railed by delusions. For example, we can set ourselves the goal ‘I will not think about work’ or ‘during this meditation I will not allow myself to speculate about what’s for lunch!’ Having these boundaries are what lets our concentration develop. We may moan about noises that interfere with our meditation (those blooming sheep!), but let’s face it, most of the noise is in our own head. Even in a perfectly quiet environment, we will still have to deal with that mental noise. Our boundaries are like building walls around that still, quiet place inside our hearts.
This understanding of retreat is also quite encouraging if you can’t find the time to go away someplace and do lots of meditation: retreat is mainly about your mental attitude. Even if there is no opportunity for you to establish physical or verbal retreat boundaries right now, you can still have mental boundaries – walls in our mind to keep out distractions – and these will make your daily life a kind of retreat.
We have an empowerment here in a couple of weeks, which is an opportunity to be introduced to the Buddha called Dorje Shugden.
Sometimes people can be a bit put off by his rather ferocious appearance, but he’s a big teddy bear really. When he looks at us, he’s always smiling; but when he looks at our delusions, he pulls a fearsome face and chops them up with his wisdom sword. He’s the sort of guy you really want on your side; and he is always on our side, he’s a freedom fighter fighting to free all living beings from the inner enemy of delusions.
Because Dorje Shugden helps us to battle our delusions and keep hold of our positive minds, we call him our Dharma Protector: he protects the Dharma experience in our hearts. If we ask for his help in difficult situations, he will bless our minds so that wisdom thoughts arise instead of delusions. In Heart Jewel, Geshe-la says:
Dorje Shugdän will bless our minds to help us transform difficult situations into the spiritual path, and he will open the wisdom eyes of his faithful followers, enabling them always to make the right decisions. Although physically they may find themselves alone, inwardly those who put their trust in him will never be apart from a powerful ally and a wise and compassionate guide.
Whenever I am having problems, I like to visualize Dorje Shugden bounding up to me on his snow lion (which symbolizes fearlessness – I’ll have some of that, thanks!). I remember when I was having driving lessons I was initially really nervous, so I started imagining Dorje Shugden sitting in the back seat, giving me a wink every time I glanced in the rear-view mirror, and he definitely helped me to keep a peaceful mind.
So, this is an introduction to my best friend. I hope you’ll come and meet him; I think you’ll get along famously.
Inspired by our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, I decided to believe six ‘impossible’ things. There are many things I believe in now that would have seemed impossible to me before I discovered Buddha’s teachings, and still more things that it would be helpful to stretch my imagination around. For example, do you really believe it’s possible to be happy all the time, regardless of external conditions? Many people would say that’s an impossibility, and because of mistakenly holding onto that view they limit their own potential for happiness.
When Alice says ‘One can’t believe impossible things’, the Red Queen replies ‘I dare say you haven’t had enough practice.’ This is true for us as well: with familiarity, we can expand our mind to fit in new ideas, realizing that they only seemed impossible because of our limited view.
In particular, we expand our mind by increasing our wisdom realizing emptiness. Our faith in all Buddha’s teachings, and in our own potential to realize them, will be supported by this wisdom. For example, I believe in Pure Lands – the pure world created by an Enlightened mind – because I understand that this world is no more than a dream-like appearance that will become gradually purer as I purify my mind.
Nagarjuna said ‘for whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.’ My favorite ever story is from Ocean of Nectar:
“One day, his Abbot decided that it would be beneficial if Chandrakirti were to demonstrate his meditative powers and mental freedom to the other monks. To this end, he appointed Chandrakirti as storekeeper to the monastery, a post that involved the great responsibility of looking after the cows and buffaloes kept by the monastery to supply its dairy produce. Chandrakirti, however, refused to take milk from the animals because he felt it should be saved for their young, and he left them to wander freely on the neighboring hills. Nevertheless, he still managed to provide the monks with an abundant supply of dairy produce!
One day Chandrakirti and his assistant Suryakirti were summoned before the Abbot and the assembled monks and asked to explain how they managed to provide such an abundant supply of food while the animals were roaming unattended on the hills. To the great delight of the entire assembly Suryakirti explained that Chandrakirti had painted a picture of a cow on a wall and was drawing from this picture all the milk that was required:
Glorious Chandrakirti perfectly sustains and nourishes the monks
By drawing milk from pictures of cows!”
When I fully understand Buddha’s teachings on the union of the two truths, I will see how it is possible to milk a picture of a cow; until then, how can I say what is impossible? A more useful question is what is it more beneficial to believe? Why don’t you think of your own list of six impossible things, six beneficial beliefs that are made possible by your understanding of Dharma. Here’s mine:
Please share your six impossible things!
The Story of Lam Chung
Narrator / Buddha
Lam Chung is sitting as a desk looking bored. The rest of the cast sit at the front of the audience.
Once upon a time there was a boy called Lam Chung who hated school. He found it difficult to remember anything. He was probably dyslexic, but nobody cared.
Tell me, Lam Chung, what did Shakespeare mean when he said ‘All the world’s a stage?
I couldn’t even finish Harry Potter, how am I supposed to know what Shakespeare was talking about?!
You stupid boy!
Rest of cast:
Stupid! You idiot! Etc
Lam Chung failed his exams, and when he left school he didn’t know what to do. His brother was a Buddhist monk, so Lam Chung decided to go and live with him.
Lam Chung gets up from desk and mimes knocking on a door. Lam Chen opens it.
Hey little brother! What are you doing here?
I’ve got nowhere else to go.
Well, you can’t just move into a Buddhist Centre without being involved with the community, you know. You have to be on lots of rotas and study programmes.
Lam Chung looks terrified
OK, tell you what: I’ll just give you one little thing from Buddha’s teachings, and if you learn that you can stay, alright? May everyone be happy; may everyone be free from suffering. That’s it: you got that?
Yes, that’s great, I can do that! Err…. Can you write that down for me so I can practice?
Lam Chen hands him a piece of paper and sits down. Lam Chung sits at desk.
Ok, I can do this! May… everyone.. be… happy. [closes eyes] May everyone be…? Arrgh!
Lam Chung studied hard, but it just wouldn’t stick.
Lam Chung bangs his head on the desk
[calling from audience] it’s been two days already. Have you got it yet?
He thought maybe if he practiced outside the fresh air might help him think, so he went and sat in the farmer’s field with the sheep.
Farmer stands downstage with the rest of cast behind him as sheep
May everyone feel crappy? May everyone be free from happiness?
Come on, son, it’s not that hard! You’ve read it out so many times that I’ve learnt it by now.
Rest of cast:
[imitating sheep] may everyone baaaaaaaaaaaa happy!
See, even the sheep know it better than you!
Lam Chung sits back at desk looking miserable. Rest of cast except Lam Chen return to their places.
Do you know the verse now, little brother?
No. I’m too thick; I’ll never learn it.
Well then, you can’t stay here. Go home to mum and dad and they can think of something else to do with you!
Lam Chung, trying not to cry, begins to walk off stage. The narrator as Buddha intercepts him.
Hey, what’s wrong? Why are you leaving?
Because I am so stupid I can’t memorize even one verse of scripture. Now even my own brother has given up on me.
Oh, don’t worry about you brother; my name’s Buddha Shakyamuni, and I’m in charge round here, not him! You don’t have to leave. Buddhism isn’t just about learning things out of books, there is something for everyone. I’ll give you a job that you’ll be good at, and you are welcome to stay. You can be in charge of cleaning the meditation room, and when you clean just imagine that you are cleaning all the bad thoughts out of your mind. OK?
That’s wonderful! Thank you, Buddha… what was your name again?
Narrator laughs and returns upstage. Lam Chung collects a hoover and begins hoovering stage right, humming happily.
Perfect! My mind feels cleaner already. Now the other side!
[moves to stage left and hoovers, then looks to the right]
Oh! I swear it was clean a minute ago, but it needs hoovering again now. How wonderful! I love my new job.
For years, Lam Chung was happy to keep cleaning the meditation room, and as he did this his mind became freed from all negative thoughts. He never ran out of things to do, because whenever he finished vacuuming one side of the room, Buddha would magically empty the dirt back out onto the other side! But Lam Chung never got upset, because he knew that it was helping him to be happier and happier.
[Lam Chung continues to hoover one side, then the other.]
Phew! I’ve been doing this a long time. I wonder where all this dust keeps appearing from? Oh! I understand now! It’s all just coming from my mind! When my mind is dirty, the world appears to be dirty too.
[He sits on the throne and meditates]
[comes downstage as Buddha] Well done Lam Chung. I think it’s about time you gave a teaching to show everyone what you have learnt. Come on everybody, come and listen to Lam Chung!
You can’t be serious! My brother’s an idiot. He’s done nothing but clean for years, what can he possibly teach us?!
[the cast sits around the throne]
I will now give a teaching on one verse of Dharma. It’s the verse that previously I couldn’t learn, even after months of trying: may everyone be happy, may everyone be free from suffering.
The teaching lasted for three days, and Lam Chung never ran out of things to say, because he now understood all of Buddha’s teachings. All of the people listening were amazed and became very peaceful and happy.
[cast prostrates to Lam Chung]
We’ve got a TTP exam on Monday, and I’m trying to cram my head full of facts this weekend. Dharma study involves lots of memorization. Memorization seems to have gone out of fashion – why learn stuff when you can just look it up on Wikipedia? That’s fine if you’re trying to finish a crossword, but it doesn’t work quite so well if someone is shouting at you: you can’t ask them ‘please hang on a minute while I look up how to practice patience!’ To be able to practice something you need to really know it. Memorization is hard work, but it makes both meditation and daily practice so much easier. How frustrating is it when you spend the first five minutes of a meditation trying to remember what Lamrim object you are supposed to be focusing on today?!
When I was at school there was a real rebellion against rote learning (I never even learnt my times tables – I’m still paying for this gap in my education every time I go shopping). I guess the idea was to encourage us to really understand the topics rather than just knowing the answers… which is a good theory, but I think it missed the point. In my experience, you can’t really memorize something you don’t understand: it just doesn’t stick. So memorization can be a vilid learning technique, it doesn’t just turn us into parrots.
And, of course, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Yes, memorization gets harder as you get older (everything does!), but the more we exercise this aspect of our mind the stronger it will become. In Training the Mind in Seven Points, it says:
To remember this,
Train in every activity by words.
Geshe Kelsang explains:
‘These two lines from the root text advise us to memorize certain words to recite at appropriate times so as to remind us of our essential practice.’
Just memorizing one verse, or a sentence that particularly inspires us, can help to keep us on track.
Right, back to my books – wish me luck!
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