The meaningful & the mundane

Image result for geshe kelsang gyatso quotesI think we all have a deep-seated craving to feel that our life has meaning – but what makes something meaningful? Nothing is meaningful from its own side: it all depends upon our motivation.

You probably expect me to tell you that you should meditate to make your life meaningful – but without the right motivation, even meditation won’t do that much. Don’t get me wrong, of course I think you should meditate! But why are you doing it?

The value of our meditation, and indeed of any virtuous action, depends primarily upon the motivation with which we engage in it. If we meditate with the motivation just to relax and improve our physical health, our meditation may accomplish these goals but it can hardly be considered a spiritual practice. The highest motivation of all is bodhichitta, the wish to attain full enlightenment to help all living beings. If we meditate with this motivation the merit of our meditation will be limitless.

Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

If you want a meaningful life, focus on improving your love and compassion. This is something we can be doing in conjunction with all our activities, not just when we sit down to meditate. To quote Eight Steps again:

Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. For example, when we talk to our friends our motivation is usually mixed with self-cherishing and we say whatever comes into our head, regardless of whether or not it is beneficial. We can however talk to others with the sole purpose of benefiting them, encouraging them to develop positive states of mind and taking care not to say anything that will upset them. Instead of thinking about how we can impress people, we should think about how we can help them, recalling how they are trapped in samsara and lack pure happiness. In this way, talking with our friends can become a means of improving our love, compassion, and other Mahayana realizations. If we can skilfully transform all our daily activities in this way, instead of feeling drained and tired when we sit down to meditate we shall feel joyful and inspired, and it will be easy to develop pure concentration.

Image result for geshe kelsang gyatso quotesWe can make everything meaningful if we just have the intention to do so. When you sit down to watch TV, if you develop the intention to learn from the experience then you can use what you see to improve your love, compassion, and renunciation. If you don’t develop a special intention, though, you will probably just vegetate on the sofa and go to bed feeling bored and unsatisfied!

Living a meaningful life means always keeping Dharma in our hearts. It doesn’t mean spending all day doing meditation or reciting prayers (although if you fancy doing that for a day, don’t let me stop you); it means doing all our usual daily activities with a positive motivation. I think it’s quite common that, once we have labelled ourselves as ‘a spiritual practitioner’, we make ourselves feel guilty whenever we do anything ‘mundane.’ That guilt accomplishes nothing: we need to remind ourselves that what it means to be a spiritual practitioner is changing our mind, not anything else. As long as your actions don’t hurt anyone, they are not a problem: just develop the right motivation, and they will become a part of your spiritual path.

Just a little problem

elephant scared of mouse

Why are we scared of something so insignificant?

A friend said to me today, ‘Self-cherishing is just a little problem.’ I gaped at her in amazement, thinking, ‘My self-cherishing is pretty huge, actually!’ But then I let myself accept her view. Self-cherishing is a small problem; it’s only our self-cherishing that makes us think it’s so large.

Let me explain: self-cherishing is our ordinary view that sees ourselves as important and neglects the happiness of others. Geshe-la says that we have never had a single moment of our lives without this mistaken view, and for us, it is almost as natural as breathing. That sounds pretty big, right? But only because we are thinking about ourselves.

When we occupy the centre of our thoughts, self-cherishing seems like an insurmountable problem, because when we are focused on ourself we are feeding into our self-cherishing. As soon as we stop thinking about ourselves and focus on others, self-cherishing is reduced to a little problem: it’s just one mistaken thought in the mind of just one person.

Image result for eight steps to happinessIt really is that simple: move the focus of your attention to other people, and the problem disappears. That only seems difficult from the point of view of our delusions; stop letting our self-cherishing tell us how hard it is and just get on with it.

Whatever you’re doing, just ask yourself, ‘Who am I doing this for?’ If you are eating, stop eating for yourself and start eating in order to nourish your body to give you the energy to help others. When you wash, instead of being concerned with prettying yourself up, think ‘I’m cleaning myself so I don’t upset others by smelling!’ If we just keep forgetting about ourselves in a virtuous way, we stop letting self-cherishing puff itself up into something huge. It’s like we’ve taken our head out of the stormcloud and can see the vast space of the sky-like mind, because our mind has expanded to fit in our concern for all living beings.

Image result for eight steps to happinessKISS. No, don’t kiss everyone: that may be taking cherishing others a step too far! Keep It Simple, Stupid. I really think that Dharma practice could be simple if we let it. Even profound teachings like emptiness are in fact simple – it’s our minds that are complicated, we obscure the simplicity. Buddha said we become ‘exhausted by our elaborations’ – eventually, we get so tired of making things difficult for ourselves that we actually start to practice cherishing others!

The path to enlightenment is really very simple – all we need to do is stop cherishing ourself and learn to cherish others. All other spiritual realisations will naturally follow from this.

Eight Steps to Happiness


Take it further: Universal Compassion 

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.

Keep karma and carry on

Image result for british wwii postersDon’t panic! Everything is not under control, but keep calm and defend your mind from delusions and your courage will bring victory!

Hmmm, that was meant to be encouraging; not sure if it worked. It can sometimes be hard to see how the law of karma provides encouragement: it can seem pretty heavy, to accept that we have the responsibility for creating all our suffering. So in this post I want to look at how believing in karma does give us the ability to ‘keep calm and carry on’, because accepting responsibility gives us hope that we can take control.

If you’re anything like me, you try to keep things under control as much as you can; but it doesn’t work. Maybe you can arrange a picnic, maintain control of all the people and pets and pickles; but then it rains on you. The reason we cannot maintain control of our external conditions is because we cannot control our own mind; it is as changeable as the weather. But it is most empowering to realize that if we just learned to control our mind, everything else would look after itself. In Transform Your Life, Geshe-la says:

Once we have purified our mind of self-grasping and all other delusions, all our actions will naturally be pure. As a result of our pure actions or pure karma, everything we experience will be pure. We shall abide in a pure world, with a pure body, enjoying pure enjoyments and surrounded by pure beings. There will no longer be the slightest trace of suffering, impurity, or problems. This is how to find true happiness from within our mind.

Like all spiritual practices, this will take some time to work: we can’t just start being good today and expect to live in a pure world by tomorrow. But if we keep being good – holding only pure minds – then gradually all our negative karma will be exhausted and that perfect world will appear.

Find more inspiration: Keep Karma and Carry On day course  |  How to Transform Your Life

Exam preparation

I have a study programme exam looming, and I’m trying to prepare for it by mixing my mind with the text and keeping the teachings in my heart; but, as Geshe-la says:

“The real exam is daily life.”

The point of all the effort we apply to studying is to be ready for whatever life throws at us: and we need to be preparing right now because we never know when the next ‘exam’ will be. Study programme exams are easy, really, because the date is set and we know exactly when it’s coming; life doesn’t work like that! I always find challenges easier to deal with if I know they’re coming: like the dentist, for example – it’s scheduled pain, so I can take the time to prepare for it in advance, do some taking and giving meditation. When suffering takes me by surprise, it’s much harder to have a positive response. But that’s the problem, isn’t it – somehow we always seem to be surprised by suffering, even though it keeps happening. Once we accept that things will always go wrong, we can start preparing a positive response to them ahead of schedule. That’s what we do every day: revise for the exam that is always just around the corner.

The real exam, the test of what we have learned, is our own death. We may not have been given a date for that examination, but we know it’s definitely coming: now is the time to prepare. How do you revise for that test? Not by memorizing things from a book – by training to face adversity with wisdom.

Every day, ask yourself ‘am I ready to face death with equanimity?’ If the answer is no, then use the rest of that day to practice letting go of all your worries and anxieties about this life. When the answer is yes, you have nothing left in this world to fear.

 

Take this further: Building Self-Confidence

The Wisdom of Wizards

So, this is probably the oddest topic I have ever chosen for a blog post, but I plan to impersonate a wizard at our Fundraising Fancy Dress Picnic next month and I am transforming this activity into a teaching on wisdom by seeing what inspiring words the great magic-users of literature have to share. Milarepa said that everything he encountered was his teacher, and Albus Dumbledore certainly gives some good Dharma advice:

‘To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.’

Encouragement not only to contemplate our death, but to prepare for death by working with our own mind. If we use our life wisely, then death will no longer be something to fear:

‘When death actually comes we shall feel like a child returning to the home of its parents, and pass away joyfully, without fear.’
– Geshe Kelsang, Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully

Professor Dumbledore is also very encouraging when it comes to focusing on our potential:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

We are not fixed, we change in dependence upon our choices: with every action we are shaping ourselves into new people, eventually into Buddhas. I may have a great ability to deceive others, for example, but this does not control who I am: I can choose to act against this harmful instinct and through my choices become a better person.

We can also gain some insight into compassion from Gandalf:

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

Magic gives the wizard great power, and so they can teach us about how to use power wisely – which is, in essence, the practice of moral discipline. This is from one of my favorite books, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea:

“The truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing but does only and wholly what he must do.”

Moral discipline is walking a narrow path – but it does not feel restrictive because it is a path chosen by our wisdom that knows right from wrong. As our practice of Buddhism deepens, we do find that our choices are simplified: as we see more clearly how to bring happiness to ourselves and others, then it is obvious what we need to do.

And to conclude, some words of wisdom from the creator of Harry Potter, who tells us that we all have our own magic:

‘We do not need magic to change the world – we have all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.’

Help us make the magic happen: Fancy Dress Fundraiser

Do we really want peace?

When you really wish for something, all your efforts are directed to achieving it, and you can accomplish incredible things. We all say we wish for world peace: so why haven’t we attained it? I think we need to question what the aspirations of our global society really are.

Historically, I would say that many human societies did not wish for peace. Battle was seen as a way of proving yourself, and a wish to avoid conflict was associated with dishonour. People’s pride was proven stronger than the wish for peace. Even as little as 100 years ago, a nationalistic pride was driving this country to create and maintain an empire. I would say there was not just pride but also competitiveness in this: little England saying to the other European powers ‘we may be small, but look what we can do!’

Churchill said:

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

We like to think of these days as far behind us; surely now, after ‘the war to end all wars’ (twice), we have learnt to value peace? Certainly, more people try to avoid wars… but have we let go of the causes? Is that pride and competitiveness just focused on a different arena? In many ways, the same battles as have been fought throughout history with swords or guns are now being fought in the arena of economics. If the cut-throat world of business is all about beating opponents to win a higher profit margin, then isn’t this still moving just as far away from the wish for peace?

And when we play or watch competitive sports, are we not encouraging a glorification of conflict? I’m not saying sports are necessarily deluded: we can enjoy the game without having attachment to any particular outcome, we can learn to win without feeling superior and lose without feeling we have lost anything of ourselves. But it’s challenging to manage this! If we don’t make an effort, we are likely to default to pride and competitiveness; and in so doing we undermine not only our own inner peace but the development of outer peace.

So when you say you wish for world peace, check you really mean it; check that you want from your heart to let go of the delusions holding you back. When you really want it – when you want peace more than you want to prove yourself or come first or chase the honour and the glory – then you can and will make it happen. Geshe-la tells us:

“Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds.”

 

So I think we need to ask ourselves – as individuals and as a society – if we are really ready to accept the cost of peace. Peace comes at a price: it will cost us our pride and our competitiveness. When we are willing to lose those, we will win a far greater prize.

New Year’s resolutions: a work in progress

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions when I realized that come the 1st February I couldn’t even remember what I had promised anymore. So I’m going to try and re-inspire myself – and hopefully you too – to make resolutions that are sustainable.

I think the first thing that lets us down is not believing that we can achieve the goals we set ourselves; fundamentally, not believing we can really change. But our minds are infinitely flexible. We know we are constantly changing: we start off the day all optimistic, and my the time we get to work we’re grumpy again. Although we often see this changeability moving in the wrong direction, it does show us how fluid the state of our mind is! This should give us confidence that we can learn to channel that change in a positive direction. That starts with our imagination. We need a mental image of the person we want to become, and we believe we can become that person because who we are is not fixed.

As well as developing this confidence in our potential, we also need to be able to accept who we are right now. Otherwise, we expect the changes we want to happen immediately and become discouraged whenever negative mental habit-patterns arise again. Although we want to change, we can only do that from the foundation of where we are. If we don’t understand ourselves, there is no basis to grow. For example, lots of people every year make a resolution to do more exercise – why doesn’t that resolution stick? To answer that, you need to be able to identify what internal roadblocks you are putting up, what fears and insecurities are preventing you wanting to engage. Only by knowing our own mind, and accepting that as our starting point (however messy it might be) can we move on and make positive changes.

I think it can be easy to lose touch with who we are. We have so many different roles and responsibilities, people expect so much of us, we become so busy being what other people demand of us that we don’t really know who we are anymore. And we can use that as a way of hiding from the parts of our self we don’t want to acknowledge… but without accepting ourselves as we are we have no foundation to build on. We have to be happy with ourselves if we are to become better people. Geshe-la says:

If we are excessively self-critical we shall turn in upon ourself and become discouraged, and this will make it very difficult for us to turn our mind to cherishing others. Although it is necessary to be aware of our faults, we should not hate ourself for them… Abandoning self-cherishing completely is not easy and will take a long time. If we are not happy with ourself, or foolishly neglect our own well-being, we shall have neither the confidence nor the energy to effect such a radical spiritual transformation.

We should not feel discouraged when we identify our delusions because this is the first step to overcoming them. We simply accept ‘this is where I’m at right now; I’m a work in progress. Now I can let this go and become the person I want to be.’ The only thing that can ever prevent us from achieving that is our own discouragement – as long as we stay focused on our potential we will gradually move towards it.

More inspiration for the New Year:  New Year Course  |  January Retreats

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

 

Buddha thinks I’m awesome

buddhaThis is a post for all those practitioners who tend to get discouraged and give themselves a hard time about not being good enough. I think if you have those tendencies, it’s very easy to practice incorrectly, especially when it comes to the teachings on abandoning self-cherishing.

Yes, we try to be altruistic and think of others before ourselves; but we also have to be happy with ourselves and recognize our good qualities. It’s all too easy to think that decreasing our self-cherishing means that we should find fault with ourselves; it doesn’t. We should not think less of ourselves: we should think of ourselves less. In fact, if we’re reducing our self-cherishing, we should pat ourselves on the back! Yes, we need to recognize our faults and not hide from them, but becoming obsessed with them is just another form of self-cherishing. The point of Buddhist practice is to make us happy, remember?!

In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

We might also ask, `If I had no self-cherishing, would that not mean that I dislike myself? Surely it is necessary to accept and love myself, for if I cannot love myself how can I love others?’ This is an important point…This [commitment] advises Lojong practitioners to be happy with themselves. If we are excessively self-critical we shall turn in upon ourself and become discouraged, and this will make it very difficult for us to turn our mind to cherishing others. Although it is necessary to be aware of our faults, we should not hate ourself for them.

Hate ourselves? That sounds a bit extreme, but I think it’s worth really checking our mind to see if we have turned in upon ourselves and are focusing exclusively on the negativity in our mind to the exclusion of our pure potential. We can’t grow into a better person if we are holding onto our faults and believing they define us.

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la lists three types of non-deluded pride which help us to be confident and happy practitioners. These are: pride in our potential, pride in our virtuous activities, and pride in being able to overcome our delusions. These types of pride are not about puffing ourselves up, because we’re not thinking ‘I am something special,’ we’re thinking ‘I will be something special.’ I will defeat all my delusions because Buddha said so. And who’s more likely to be right, him or me? When we fail to believe in our potential, we’re basically thinking that we know better than Buddha does! Buddha thinks you’re awesome, so you’d better believe it.

Thanks to Luna Kadampa for inspiring this post.

Lots more on this topic: Eight Steps to Happiness | In-depth Study