What should I focus on?

Mindfulness is basically deciding what to focus on. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it really is the key to our happiness, because what we focus on dictates how we feel. When we dwell on something negative, eg the faults of a person, it causes a negative mind; if insted we make the effort to focus on their kindness, we stay peaceful and positive.

It is our choice: one object can be either negative or positive depending on where we focus our attention. Focusing on the negative is called inappropriate attention because it causes unpleasent feelings to arise in our mind; that bad feeling does not come from the object, it comes from our own unhelpful view. It is so liberating to realize that we have the freedom to choose how we feel: no-one and nothing has the power to make us feel bad, it all depends upon our mind. Simply, it depends on what we focus on.

We need to get to know our own triggers – what conditions encourage our mind to become negative – so that we can overcome these tendencies.


Appropriate attention means choosing to focus on things in a way that generates positive feelings. Shantideva compares our mind to a wild elephant; we need to use the rope of mindfulness to tie this elephant to the stake of our virtuous object. This way of training our mind is huge; our mind is very complex and there are many positive and negative impulses arising moment by moment. But if you want one thing to stick your attention to, you can’t go wrong with cherishing others. If we maintain a strong intention to cherish others, this will counteract all our negative tendencies and be the cause of only pleasent feelings.

There are so many things we can choose to focus on; in fact, I sometimes find it difficult to decide between all the wonderful possibilities… and so I end up not having much of a focus at all! Cherishing others pretty much covers all the bases. Geshe-la once said that the best way to keep all of our vows is to cherish others, because this naturally makes us want to behave in a pure way. So if at any time you don’t have a clear positive focus for your mind, then put in this intention, ‘I will help others in everything I say and do today.’ Keep repeating it to yourself until your attention is firmly stuck on, and you will be able to enjoy the beautiful peaceful feeling of love in your heart all day.

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.

Holding on to rainbows

Do we want a life of meaning or a life of happiness?

A guest article by Michelle E Grimwood 

A friend was talking to me recently about an article she had read which posed the question of ‘What is more important in life, happiness or meaning?’ The inference was that people chose either a life of happiness or a life of meaning. The article she described considered these were two were separate and conflicting choices. People either worked towards securing one or the other.

This raised an interesting repose from me.  As a Buddhist and having studied many of the texts explaining the path to enlightenment, it was very clear to me that the question in itself was  flawed, it showed a lack of understanding that meaning and happiness are not  conflicting and contradictory terms, in fact they were co-dependent and inter related.  One was not in possible without the other. The fault in this line of this questioning in my view was mainly in understanding what happiness is, and what we mean by the expression a meaningful life.

In the extensive teachings Buddha gave, which he shared to help humans achieve their potential for both happiness and meaning, he asked the question of  “what is the most meaningful thing one could do with a human life?“ When he encouraged humans to contemplate deeply the point and purpose of their life, he asked “what is our deepest wish for ourselves?”  Expanding on this further he asked “when we think about others that we care for, what are our deepest wishes for them?“ He concluded that as humans we share a common wish, a universal wish, as humans our deepest and most consistent wish for ourselves and those we cherish, is that we wish for happiness.

He went on to explain that the most meaningful thing we can do with our life, the greatest meaning in  human life was to achieve our potential to be happy. In this way we could help others to never be separated from their happiness.  Therefore meaning and happiness were dependent related and one was not possible without the other.

It was from this understanding and motivation that he went on to give one of the most extensive and comprehensive discourses on human happiness  known as The Four Noble Truths.  In this he explained that if we understood the true causes for happiness we could develop it.  In order to do this he focused on the need to understand the things that stand in the way of our happiness, the nature and origins of human suffering.  Through having considered and understood these, then through developing wisdom, it was possible to follow inner methods that would eventually  release all living beings from these sufferings . In this way we humans can overcome the  inner obstacles  which stand in the way of  our happiness.

If we want success in our strive for happiness, according to Buddha compassion and wisdom are the two key principles to cultivate.

Compassion is the mind that helps us understand suffering and  is how we recognise our  deep wishes for ourselves and others. Wisdom is a mind that helps us consider truth and the true nature of things, which helps us overcome our mistaken views, so we can relate better to our self, others and the world.

Compassion in Buddhist philosophy is defined very simply as ‘the mind that wishes others to be free from suffering’.   Love is defined as ‘the mind that wishes others to be happy.’ Behind these simple definitions there are extensive method practises explained in order to understand and  cultivate minds of love, compassion and wisdom.  These include the  teachings on the six perfections.

In ‘Eights Steps to Happiness’ and ‘Universal Compassion’ the author Venrable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains the methods Buddha outlined in developing  love and compassion,  he explains how we can consider suffering in ways that are helpful in developing  both our own good qualities and our potential to be happy.  The key messages in these teachings are that there are many good qualities in suffering and through deeply contemplating these, we can learn more about the mind of  renunciation, affection, cherishing and  love.  It is love and compassion that will both protect us and motivate us on this path of finding happiness.

Wisdom and compassion are described in ‘Modern Buddhism’ as like two wings of a bird, just as a bird needs two wings to fly, we humans need both wisdom and compassion if we are interested in actual happiness, an enlightened mind that is free from suffering and its causes.  We may be able to develop the best intentions through cultivating compassion; however, compassion alone is not enough for us to be truly happy. We also need wisdom.

In the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, wisdom is defined as a mind that realizes the ultimate nature of all phenomena.  The wisdom teachings explore truth as a concept  and the true nature of all things.  Generally speaking there are two divisions in truth, conventional truths and ultimate truths.  The former relate to how things appear and the later relate to how things exist.

Buddha explained that as humans we make a fundamental mistake as we go about our daily lives, we believe the things that appear are real and true and so we  relate to this appearance accordingly.  That is why we get confused, continue to create suffering and in our search for happiness we are actually often destroying our chances of achieving it.  We are mistaken.

It is only through understanding our mind, that we can consider deeply the conventional nature of  all things and  understand what we see, how the things that appear to us differ from how they actually exist.

The wisdom teachings are as easy as they are complex.  The easily read version concludes, things do not exist in the way they appear.  Everything we experience is created by mind. There is no creator other than mind. Everything is dependent on the mind that perceives it.   Our experiences and perceptions are simply the result of causes and effect.  Conditions coming together and conditions dissolving.

Once we understand this profundity, that things do not actually exist in the way we perceive them, that the way things appear and the way things exist  differ, we are close to understanding the distinctions of conventional and ultimate truth. Once we understand this, we will no longer hold mistaken views.  Our happiness will then be possible as we will be able to relate to our world and all things in it correctly.

Ultimate truth, as set out by Buddha, is that all things lack inherent existence, there is no permanent phenomena to be found in the world we inhabit. All things are in a state of change, conditions are changing moment by moment.  Things appear when the conditions come together and then dissolve or cease when the conditions change.

There is no permanence. Everything is simply a transitory experience of conditions, causes and effects, things coming together, arising, appearing and dissolving.  This is the essence of the teachings on emptiness; things lack the solidity we ascribe to them. Once the causes are created, we experience the effect; therefore everything we know is in a state of coming and going, either arising, appearing or dissolving.

We do in part understand this, but also as humans we have a great skill in ignoring or denying this. This is our fundamental mistake in our search for happiness, meaning and real freedom.  We have a tendency to think this logic applies to some things, but we deny this applies to everything.

We know for example that when certain causes come together certain appearance will follow; on a sunny day when it also rains it is quite likely that a rainbow will appear in the sky.  Although we know that the rainbow is simply a transitory appearance, appearing through certain conditions coming together, what appears is a rainbow.   A rainbow appears to anyone who may happen to be looking in  that part of the sky at that time, for those in other places or not looking at the sky, no rainbow appears for them.  The rainbow will only appear to those who apprehend it and it is simply an appearance caused by certain conditions coming together.

If we are looking at the rainbow and it appears for us, we also know that the rainbow will dissolve, as soon as the conditions change, we recognise it is not permanent it is transitory,  it will dissolve, disappear as an appearance, at some point  it will no longer appear.

We also know that if we search  closely for the rainbow we will not be able to find it, it is just an appearance to the mind that apprehends it.  If we are trying to take a picture for example  of the appearing rainbow and we zoom our camera lens  in very closely, we will not find the rainbow, the closer our lens takes us, the more elusive the appearance becomes.

We may at a certain point find a coloured spectrum of light, but  if we continue to zoom in, the closer we  get to the appearing rainbow, the more elusive it becomes, the quicker it will dissolve. The more obvious its lack of existence becomes. Yet  when we take our eye from the camera, again a rainbow may vividly appear.  It is the same with the blue of a blue sky, the closer we get to it, the more we realise we cannot find it, it is but an appearance.

In understanding the way the rainbow appears, due to causes and conditions,  we also understand that the only thing for us to do is consider the appearance as it manifests,  enjoy it whilst it appears, and understand it is temporary and  will dissolve.

We do not get sad when the rainbow dissolves, because we understand that is its nature.  We do not  think  we could put the rainbow in a box and take it home to enjoy whenever we fancy, because we understand the rainbow only arises from certain causes and conditions.

This is how it is with all phenomena. There is nothing in our appearing world that is exempt from this. We can only realize this with wisdom. Wisdom helps us to overcome ignorance, and gives us confidence and logical methods to understanding the nature of truth,  this truth and all truth. The true nature of all things.  Ultimate Truth. With wisdom we understand  that we do not need to be angry or afraid of what we might lose if we accept the true nature of things.

With wisdom and compassion, happiness and meaning are not only possible but inevitable.  There is no contradiction between happiness and meaning just as is there no separation. With both we are more like a person seeing a rainbow and smiling, enjoying it while it appears. Knowing  and appreciating it for what it is.

Without wisdom and compassion, we are more like  a person wanting to  take the rainbow from the sky and keep it for ourselves,  foolishly thinking we can claim and hold on to the rainbow, put it in a box for own pleasure, only to be surprised  and disappointed, feeling it unfair that someone else had stolen our rainbow, when opening the box we find it empty.

A pure society

I’m off on holiday to the Pure Land today! It’s time for the Spring Festival, which Geshe-la always called ‘our spiritual holiday.’ It’s not like a normal holiday in that it’s quite hard work (and involves no beaches), but it’s better than any other holiday because you bring home something really useful: the inner wealth of Dharma, which never becomes less even when you use it, and increases when you give it away to others.

For me, what’s most inspiring about our festivals is seeing the sort of pure society that is formed when everyone practices cherishing others. There are thousands of people gathered in somewhat-less-than-perfect external conditions (no 4-star hotels on this holiday), queuing for everything, it’s the lake district so it is always raining (that’s where the lakes come from, don’t you know?)… but somehow it’s just perfect. Why? Because everyone is being kind. And that’s not because these are all amazing spiritual practitioners: it’s just a bunch of normal people, but brought together in this special environment we all become more than the sum of our parts. We all become a pure society because for those few days we are all united in our sincere effort to put Buddha’s teachings on cherishing others into practice.

This really gives me hope that one day we can make the whole of our wider society into something better.

Further reading:

Who are all these Buddhas?

I’m writing this post because we’re got a couple of events coming up that are a bit obscure. Most of Buddha’s teachings seem so common-sense: you know, ‘happiness is a state of mind’ and ‘be nice: it really does work.’ And then then occasionally we come up with something really wierd like ‘the blessing empowerment of the Great Mother Prajnaparamita’ – what?!

Buddha-ShakyamuniSo, first of all: there are lots of Buddhas. (I know that this is a foreign concept because my spell-checker keeps telling me that ‘Buddhas’ is not a word.) But in fact, it makes a lot of sense – a Buddha is someone who has completed the spiritual path by removing all their imperfections, and Buddha Shakyamuni (the founder of Buddhism) taught that we all have the potential to achieve this. If it’s possible for everyone to become a Buddha, it would be a bit depressing if there was only one! Over the last 2,500 years, lots of people have followed the spiritual path to it’s completion, so now there are lots of Buddhas. They have all been where we’re at, and know how hard it can be; so they make it their mission to help us acheive happiness too.

Looked at from another point of view, the different Buddhas all represent different aspects of the enlightened mind. The mind of enlightenment, which we aspire to, has many qualities, such as love, compassion, and wisdom. So if I want to emphasize developing compassion, for example, I might make requests to Avalokiteshvara, who is the Buddha of compassion: helping others become more compassionate is his speciality. Or to improve my wisdom, I might try to get to know Prajnaparamita a bit better (as I will be doing in a couple of weeks’ time at the weekend course with Kadam Bridget).

A lot of people are surprised to find that we say prayers in Buddhism. Maybe it’s a bit different to the common conception of prayer: we’re not asking or expecting Buddhas to do things for us. In Buddhism, we accept responsibility for our own happiness or suffering – when we ask Buddhas for help, we’re saying ‘please help me to change my mind; please help me to develop your good qualities so I will be able to take control of my own life.’ Buddhas don’t need or expect our prayers: it’s entirely up to each individual to do what they find beneficial.

So, I don’t know if that made things clearer… it probably just raised more questions. Good! It’s important to question how things work if we’re to find answers that work for us. I think that, like with anything, you have to try it and see. As I said, we have a couple of events coming up that are based on making a connection with a particular Buddha, so take the opportunity to come and see what it’s all about for yourself.

Check out:  Prajnaparamita Empowerment  |  Medicine Buddha Retreat