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 

Quiet in there, I’m trying to concentrate!

Is this what you think retreat is about?

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.

Retreats at Nagarjuna Centre: January Retreats | Relaxation Weekends | Heart Jewel Retreat

Who is Dorje Shugden?

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.

More: Dorje Shugden Empowerment 12 – 13 December 2015

Six impossible things

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:

  1. That big hairy biker is really my mother
  2. One day, I will have a dragon (Pema Shugden has one; I want one too)
  3. Time is merely imputed, so Monday morning is actually longer than Friday afternoon
  4. My invisible friend is with me always, like the shadow of my body
  5. The Pure Land in my head is real
  6. I will become a Buddha

Please share your six impossible things!


P.S. If this all sounds impossible, try reading: Holding on to rainbows | We are such stuff as dreams are made on

 

A children’s play

This is a play, not a post. I wrote it for our Family Weekend, but I thought you might like it too. You can find the original story in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, on page 42.


 

The Story of Lam Chung

Cast:

Lam Chung
Narrator / Buddha
Teacher
Lam Chen
Farmer

Lam Chung is sitting as a desk looking bored. The rest of the cast sit at the front of the audience.

Narrator

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.

Teacher:

Tell me, Lam Chung, what did Shakespeare mean when he said ‘All the world’s a stage?

Lam Chung:

I couldn’t even finish Harry Potter, how am I supposed to know what Shakespeare was talking about?!

Teacher:

You stupid boy!

Rest of cast:

Stupid! You idiot! Etc

Narrator:

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.

Lam Chen:

Hey little brother! What are you doing here?

Lam Chung:

I’ve got nowhere else to go.

Lam Chen:

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?

Lam Chung:

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.

Lam Chung:

Ok, I can do this! May… everyone.. be… happy. [closes eyes] May everyone be…? Arrgh!

Narrator:

Lam Chung studied hard, but it just wouldn’t stick.

Lam Chung bangs his head on the desk

Lam Chen:

[calling from audience] it’s been two days already. Have you got it yet?

Lam Chung:

Almost!

Narrator:

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

Lam Chung:

May everyone feel crappy? May everyone be free from happiness?

Farmer:

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!

Farmer:

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.

Lam Chen:

Do you know the verse now, little brother?

Lam Chung:

No.  I’m too thick; I’ll never learn it.

Lam Chen:

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.

Narrator:

Hey, what’s wrong? Why are you leaving?

Lam Chung:

Because I am so stupid I can’t memorize even one verse of scripture. Now even my own brother has given up on me.

Narrator:

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?

Lam Chung:

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.

Lam Chung:

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.

Narrator:

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.]

Lam Chung:

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]

Narrator:

[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!

Lam Chen:

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]

Lam Chung:

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.

Narrator:

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]

Science & Religion

It seems like more and more people are viewing science as an alternative to religion, believing in the views of science because they are based on emperical evidence. Scientific knowledge is based on experiments, on seeing the same result produced again and again; but Buddhist practice is also emperical. In Modern Buddhism, Geshe-la says that these teachings are a scientific method for increasing the capacity of our mind – they are called scientific because they depend on conducting experiments. We are told ‘try developing inner peace and see if it makes you happy’; we try it and it works, consistantly, time after time.

Consistantly stable results are what science calls proof; really, it just proves a probability. The philosopher Hume pointed out that making an empirical study of swans might lead you to conclude that all swans are white; but this is only because you haven’t seen a black swan yet. In the same way, we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. Why? Because it always has. This establishes a high probability that it will do so again tomorrow; but it does not prove that it definitely will.

The Buddhist methodology offers empirical evidence, like science does; but it also provides a logical basis. The logical reasoning establishing ultimate truth underpins all of Buddha’s teachings – so we can be confident not only that having inner peace makes us feel good, but that there can be no other true cause of happiness. Empiricism and logic together can give us a faith that is beyong the mere belief we have in scientific theory. I’m not saying science is wrong: it does generally seem to explain things quite well. But I still have more faith in my religion. For example, quamtum physicists can predict the behavior of quantum particles by analysing their previous behavior; but the teachings on emptiness can explain why the behavior of sub-atomic particles is affected by our perception.

I love science, it made this computer; but I don’t have faith in it, because I don’t believe it can take me anywhere fundamentally different. Science can manipulate the world, but because it is purely empirical it can only make changes to what we already have in front of us. Only Buddha explains that the very nature of this world depends upon our mind: that logic gives us the power to form a different kind of empiricism, one that is based on internal, not external, observation.

Revision!

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!

Living In the Moment

We try to escape from the present moment because we are not happy with where we are; we feel like the past or the future can offer us something better. We are often so dissatisfied with our life and the choices we feel are open to us. But from a spiritual perspective, we are in the best possible position: we have the opportunity to change our mind, and learn from every situation we find ourselves in. The Kadampa teachings allow us to make anything into part of our spiritual path; because we have these teachings in our heart, we have the perfect conditions for spiritual growth. It doesn’t matter how busy we are or how many problems we have, we can make it all a part of our inner development. Because we have such perfect conditions for spiritual growth, our choices are actually limitless. So why would I want things to be other than the way they are? If we keep a spiritual perspective, we won’t want to waste our life being trapped in the past or worrying about the future; we will be glad to be in this moment, thinking ‘I am so happy to be exactly where I am right now.’

I find the teachings on karma to be very helpful in maintaining this perspective. That seems strange at first, because karma means thinking about our past actions and the future effects of our actions – how is that keeping us in the present moment? Remembering karma helps us stay in the moment because we realize that it is our actions in this moment that create our future. In each instant, I am forming my future experiences; every moment is a potential goldmine… or a minefield. I don’t want to miss a second of it.

Using mindfulness to stay focused on our present intentions and actions keeps our mind clear of all concerns about the past or future. We can still make plans for the future, but we won’t get caught up in them because we know it is the good karma we can collect now that is the main condition we need to fulfil our wishes.

 Further reading: Modern Buddhism

We are such stuff as dreams are made on

That’s a quote from The Tempest, if you didn’t recognize it:

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

I don’t know if Shakespeare was actually giving a teaching on ultimate truth here, but it sounds to me like he received Buddha’s blessings before writing this. This world that we perceive as so solid and real is an insubstantial pageant, that dissolves when we search for it with wisdom.

Buddha said it more clearly (if a bit less poetically): everything is dependent upon other things. Je Tsongkhapa gave prehaps the most succint teaching on dependent relationship: ‘From this comes that. How wonderful!’ That really does say it all… but for those of us with slightly less developed minds, a bit more elaboration is required.

All things depend upon causes, so they are in a constant state of change; our view of their fixed nature is incorrect. Geshe-la says:

“If all the necessary atmospheric causes and conditions come together, clouds will appear. If these are absent, clouds cannot form. The clouds are completely dependent upon causes and conditions for their development; without these they have no power to develop. The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds, and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend upon factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent, or independent, existence and are mere imputations of the mind.”

Eight Steps to Happiness

Without its causes, a rainbow cannot appear; and one of those causes is us, the observer. We can understand clearly that without our viewing the rainbow from our particular location, there would be no rainbow. This example can help us to see that everything is a dependant arising that cannot exist under its own power. Like a rainbow dissapears when you go in search of it, when you search for anything with wisdom, it disappears into emptiness.

All things depend on parts; not even the smallest atom is independent. Our body is made up of parts such as the hand; the hand is also made up of parts, such as the fingers; each finger is likewise made up of parts, right down to the atomic level. And each atom is also made up of parts; there is no such thing as a partless particle. Physicists keep looking, but they haven’t found one yet, and they never will, because it’s a logical impossibility: everything can be mentally divided into its directional parts, its past and presents moments, etc.

Sorry, got a bit technical there – but it’s important, because if we know that everything depends on parts, we can let go of it having inherent, or independent, existence. If our body, for example, is made up of lots of parts which are not the body, then what makes all these different parts into a body? Our mind. We call the assembly of parts ‘body’, and body appears. This shows that everything is imputed by mind, like things in a dream.

Since the world is not fixed, we can create the world we wish for by changing our mind.

Defying gravity

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When we’re really young, we generally what to be something exciting, like an astronaut; then as we get older we adjust our dreams for the sake of practicallity. In general, this is sensible – we can’t all become pop stars, and I’d dread to think what the world would be like if we did! But, I think this is a bad habit to bring into our spiritual life: we have to rediscover that child-like capacity to dream big.

In terms of our spiritual life, we are like babies, just finding our feet. And the world is full of possibilities. We have been given the freedom to decide what we want to become, and we shouldn’t limit ourselves, because it is our motivation that will determine the whole direction of our lives. We can aspire to become a bit kinder or a bit less stressed, and we will certainly accomplish these goals; or we can aspire to lasting inner peace and the ability to bestow that peace on each and every living being, every day. If we are motivated by this highest spiritual goal (bodhichitta) then all our actions become meaningful and rewarding. We’re reaching for the stars, but this time without a spaceship and those wierd liquidized meals you have to drink through a straw.

We have to stay focused on the goal. OK, I know that sounds a bit strange: goal-orientated Buddhism. But aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition is a whole mess of emotions: wanting to prove something to ourself or others, wanting recognition or approval, needing to outshine other people. A spiritual aspiration isn’t conditional on what other people think, we want to become a better person not to be better than others but only to help them better.

This goal of becoming a Buddha so we can help others is the most supremely self-confident mind. It’s a big dream, but a realistic one. We can’t all become astronauts (I’d never pass the physical), but we do all have the potential to become enlightened beings. The most important step to realizing that potential is to maintain the wish to do so.

When I grow up, I want to be a Buddha.