Lamrim playlist

Related imageIf you’re someone who listens to music, this is a post about how you can transform that activity into a spiritual practice by listening out for Dharma teachings in the songs. Everything can teach us something – it’s all a matter of how we interpret it. If we want to, we can develop our own personal playlist of music that helps us to generate virtuous minds.

The first time I remember doing this was on the way to a branch class many years ago; I had taken precepts that morning – a strict moral discipline practice that we keep for a day, which includes not listening to music. But one of my students was giving me a lift to class, and she put the radio on really loud – I didn’t want to upset her or freak her out by asking her to turn it off (she was really new to Buddhism), so I thought ‘I absolutely have to transform this music into something meaningful!’ I still remember the song that was playing: I’m a believer by the Monkees. I’d always found it rather annoying, but I made a real effort and decided: ‘this song is about Green Tara, my favourite Buddha.’ And I developed loads of faith listening to the song; to this day, whenever I hear it I instinctively think of Tara.

I’m building up a playlist for the whole of Lamrim, the 21 meditations on the stages of the path to enlightenment. Of course, the way music affects us is very personal, so everyone needs to make their own selection, but I thought I’d share the teachings in some of my more obvious favourites.

My top tune for reminding me of death and impermanence is Pink Floyd’s Time:

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Do you feel like you bounded off the starting line, or are you still standing in line at the coffee shop beside the track, not even aware that the race has begun without you? The race towards death started at the moment of our birth, and we do not get to pause for a breather even for a moment. I used to find this song a bit depressing (as though I was, indeed, just hanging on in quiet desperation); but now I find it motivates me to make the most of my life.

For another example, Bridge Over Troubled Water reminds me of bodhichitta. The lyric, ‘Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind,’ makes me remember that the way we are trying to help others through our spiritual practice goes beyond the mundane: we don’t just want to make their samsaric lives easier, we want to lead them to real peace of mind. Did Simon and Garfunkel intend this meaning when they wrote the song? Probably not; but it’s my freedom to choose to interpret it in that way, and that brings far greater results than listening with an ordinary mind.

What songs are on your lamrim playlist? Please share them in the comments and you might inspire someone else to start transforming music into positive minds!

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

Be mine

We grasp onto so many things as being ours, but are we correct in doing so, and what effect does it have on our minds?

This possessiveness is an aspect of our attachment, which only ever functions to disturb our mind. Maybe we have a special coffee cup at work: how do we feel when someone else dares to use it? What about when people borrow our prized possessions and fail to return them?

We even regard other people as our possessions: my spouse, my child. I thought we’d banned slavery generations ago? When we get possessive, we start expecting people to act like an extension of us, for example expecting our children to adopt our own ambitions, and this can only put pressure on our relationships.

What does it really mean for something to be ours? If we truly possessed something, we would be able to take it with us when we die; but there is nothing outside of our own mind that we can hold onto after death. Even our own body – our most treasured possession – will be left behind. We do not possess any external thing.

Everything is impermanent: our material possessions, our family, even our youth and beauty and health. We can’t hold onto any of it, so grasping at them as ‘mine’ only causes pain. If we can learn to recognize their transitory nature, we can enjoy these things without grasping; in fact we can appreciate them more because we know they cannot last.

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.

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.

Now is the time

I’ve been procrastinating about writing this post all week, so I thought I’d write a post about procrastination. Why is it so hard to just get on with things?! I think there are two big reasons: (1) we think we have all the time in the world, and (2) we are frightened of failure.

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by ~ Douglas Adams

It’s easy to put something off if we think there will be plenty of time to do it later. What we do (or don’t do) is all a matter of priorities: when we give something a high enough value, we will make time for it. We all make time to eat, don’t we, because it gives us an immediate sense of gratification (note: if you do not find time to eat, you really need to read this article!).

So, how do we prioritize? In particular, how do we prioritize a spiritual practice? It should be easy, because it’s only our practice of meditation that gives us real peace and happiness, and what could be more important than our happiness, right?

Yes, but (I hear you say), there is always something urgent that I have to do first, because it has an immediate deadline – I need to pick the kids up right now or they will be waiting at the school gate, I need to send this report right now or my boss will mount my head on the office wall… the list goes on. And on. And on. It will never end, until we die. Now that’s a real deadline.

It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It’s called living.   – Terry Pratchett

Recognizing that life has a deadline is one of the most powerful ways of overcoming our procrastination: when we live with an awareness of our mortality, we really begin to question what’s important to us, what we should actually be doing first. I’m not saying that we should sit down and meditate instead of picking the kids up from school or finishing that report for work; but if we remember death then we will be motivated to do those things as a part of our spiritual life, not instead of it. We will make holding onto peaceful and positive states of mind our priority.

Which brings me to the second point: fear of failure. If our main focus is on developing our positive states of mind, we will not be so caught up by our usual criterion of success and failure. When things go wrong, we can learn from them; and if we’re able to keep a positive mind, that counts as a success even if our external activities have been a complete bust. Of course, sometimes we’ll fail at staying positive as well! That’s OK too, because we have still learnt something: we’ve learnt a bit more about how our mind works and how we respond, what our triggers are; and that knowledge will help us to succeed next time. As long as we keep our priorities straight, we can never fail, because our good motivation will always be leading us in the right direction.



Seeing the first flowers open up at this time of year makes me recognize the hopeful nature of change, of impermanence.

It’s easy to just look at the negative aspects of change – most of us don’t like it when even small parts of our daily routine are pushed out of their accustomed place. But everything is the nature of change; if things didn’t change, growth would be impossible.

When you see those snowdrops pushing up through the frozen ground, see how that new life comes from the continuous process of change. Try and visualize the life-cycle of that plant in fast-forward: see how the seed transforms into the sprout, the sprout into the flower, the flower into a new seed, which falls to the earth and waits for the cycle to begin again.  This cycle is moved forwards by impermanence, by change. In fact, these changes are happening moment by moment, on the most subtle level; you cannot find the exact moment the bud became a flower, the bud and the flower are both part of the continuum of constant transformation.

We can think of ourselves in the same way. We, too, are a continuum of constant transformation. Everything about us changes moment by moment – our body, our mind, our sense of self. And like the snowdrop that dies each year to grow again the following Spring, we die and are born again. This change is the nature of things; we do not need to fight against it. Accepting impermanence give us real freedom: we stop being held back by ideas of who we are, our limitations. The person who got angry yesterday has ceased, today we are a different person so we do not need to get angry again. The person we got angry with yesterday has also ceased, and the person we meet today is a new person, so there is no basis for any resentment. So you see, embracing impermanence allows us to make sure those moment-by-moment changes in us are positive ones; it will help to ensure that the bigger changes we experience from life to life will be positive ones as well.

Who knew a little snowdrop had so much to say?