Posts

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

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

 

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.

Imagine Better

This title comes from one of my favorite quotes by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling:

“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.”

The imagination is incredibly powerful: we all know how a seductive daydream can take us to a different place and leave us unaware of the world around us, or how running through a worst-case scenario can leave us sweating and anxious. We need to learn to harness the power of our imagination, because actually our imagination is creating our whole world. In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

“It is a remarkable quality of the mind that we first create objects with our imagination and then bring them into our everyday reality. In fact everything starts in the imagination. For example, the house we are presently living in was first created in the imagination of the architect. He or she then made a design on paper, which acted as the blueprint for the actual building. If no one had first imagined our house it would never have been built. In reality, our mind is the creator of all we experience. All external creations such as money, cars, and computers were developed in dependence upon someone’s imagination; if no one had imagined them they would never have been invented. In the same way, all inner creations and all Dharma realizations, even liberation and enlightenment, are developed in dependence upon the imagination.”

If we lack imagination, we live in a fixed world where everything feels inflexible. The first step towards creating a better world is to be able to see – and believe in – that world in our mind. Although Buddhism is supremely logical, we place a lot of importance in meditation on visualizing and creating a mental image of purer people and places. For example, we practice seeing beyond people’s present faults and limitations and focusing on their potential. That can require a lot of imagination! But by applying our imagination in this way, we are changing our reality just a little bit: the person we view in this way is encouraged to live up to the good we see in him, and so his experience and ours becomes a bit brighter.

I think the most beautiful example of using our imagination in meditation is the practice of taking and giving, where we envisage having the ability to take away the suffering of others and give them happiness. It may not ‘really’ be happening, but it does have an effect: it fills us with a joyful determination to fulfil our spiritual goals. The pure world we visualise may just be in our mind – but if we can’t hold something in our mind’s eye, how can we ever make it something real? Things don’t just happen; they must have a cause. And the root cause can always be traced back to the mind. First, we build a better world in our imagination: we revel in it’s beauty, we enjoy the belief that everyone is free and joyful, we rejoice that it is our actions that have brought this about. Then, because we have this vision of what the future could be, we strive to make it happen.

There is a real magic to be found in taking control of our imagination.