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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.

Defeating anger with love

Image result for geshe kelsang gyatso quotesWe can all see the destructive impact that anger has on our state of mind and our relationships; it is not hard to see that retaliating to anger with anger only causes more problems. It takes a lot of mental effort to re-train our mind to respond to other people’s challenging behavior in a different way, but we can learn to transform those situations that usually provoke anger into causes of love instead. We just have to look into things a bit more deeply than we normally do, instead of reacting on instinct.

The simplest way to do this is to recognize that there is always a reason for the way they behave. The reason may be a bit messed up, but if we look beyond our immediate gut reaction and ask why? then we will find a whole set of causes and conditions that have forced our adversary into a position where they feel they have no choice but to lash out. People only hurt us when they are hurting themselves; the people who harm us are suffering from delusions, so we should feel compassion for them.

As Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

“Buddhas see that delusions have many faults but they never see people as faulty, because they distinguish between people and their delusions. If someone is angry we think `He is a bad and angry person’, whereas Buddhas think `He is a suffering being afflicted with the inner disease of anger.’ If a friend of ours were suffering from cancer we would not blame him for his physical disease, and, in the same way, if someone is suffering from anger or attachment we should not blame him for the diseases of his mind.”

We know we can’t help becoming deluded – anger, resentment, jealousy and so forth are deeply ingrained habits. So if we have trouble controlling our own minds, why do we expect other people to be able to control theirs? It’s not their fault: they may try their best, but still get angry. It’s not as if that were something they would choose to do: who says ‘Oh yes, I really fancy flying into a blind rage right now, that will really win me some friends’? OK, maybe the Vikings were into that – but generally, we know people would prefer to be calm and happy: they just can’t manage it. It’s not fair to blame them for that – it would be adding insult to injury really. If they’ve become angry, they’re already miserable, so they don’t need us making it worse. In fact, we can make it better for them and for ourselves if we recognize they are suffering from the inner sickness of anger and wish for them to be freed from that suffering.

 

 

Find out more: weekend course

What’s your problem?

Image result for leaky roofWe all think we know exactly what – or who – is our problem, but we always identify that problem as being outside of our mind. And so we fix our problem by changing our job or our partner or our car or our hairstyle… and we still have problems. It can become a bit depressing after a while: all that effort, and what do we have to show for it? Nothing but a whole new set of problems. It’s not that it is impossible to solve our problems: it’s that in order to solve them, we first have to accurately identify what they are.

In Universal Compassion, Geshe-la uses the analogy of having a hole in the roof. It’s not enough just to put a bucket under it to catch the drips – you have to go and find the leak, fix it at its origin. I’ve always rather liked this example, because a friend of mine told me that a long time ago in the Brighton Centre they had this exact situation: a stain appeared on a bedroom ceiling, so they went up into the attic and put a bucket under the drip. Sorted: no more water in the bedroom. Then six months later the ceiling collapsed! This story shows that 1) we need to fix the root cause, not just deal with the symptoms, and 2) Buddhists are much better at fixing internal problems than external ones!

Image result for blame cartoonsIn Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe-la helps us identify what we really need to change:

Whenever we have a problem it is easy to think that our problem is caused by our particular circumstances, and that if we were to change our circumstances our problem would disappear. We blame other people, our friends, our food, our government, our times, the weather, society, history, and so forth. However, external circumstances such as these are not the main causes of our problems. All our problems are mainly caused by our own past actions, and once their effects are ripening there is no way we can avoid them. Therefore, instead of trying to run away from our problems by constructing new situations in life, we need to recognize these painful experiences as the consequences of our own harmful actions and develop a heartfelt wish to abandon their causes.

What are the causes of our own harmful actions? Our delusions, those mistaken habits of mind that lead us to harm both ourselves and others. Being able to identify the internal causes of our problems is good news: it’s the first step to fixing things once and for all. Instead of feeling disheartened when things go wrong, we can think ‘now I have the opportunity to change my mind and stop responding to this kind of situation in a negative way.’ This is really the first step to being a spiritual practitioner: we have to be willing to take responsibility for our own mind, and not keep blaming other things for our problems. We need to be brave, to accept that we are unhappy because we have delusions in our mind and not because of our external conditions.

This might sound a bit heavy, but it makes us feel much lighter because at last we can see an actual solution to our problems. No more buckets needed, I’ve learnt how to fix the roof!

 

More on this: Keep Karma and Carry On

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

Transforming adversity

Sorry I’ve been quiet for a while, I was nursing a horrible cold – so I thought I’d transform that experience into something meaningful by using it as the basis for this post.

One of the most wonderful things about Buddha’s teachings is the array of practices we can use to transform adversity into the spiritual path. Even if we take just a little bit of this advice and put it into practice, we fell a little better – like a diamond, where even a small sliver is worth something. We can use our problems to help us develop:

  • Patience
  • Renunciation, recognizing we will only be free from suffering when we escape from this imperfect world
  • Compassion, by using our suffering to help us empathize with others
  • Wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of all our experiences

Our suffering can be the entire path to enlightenment, but we can’t use our adversity to gain deep experience until we are able to apply patience to it. Patient acceptance is the key to all the other practices because it allows us to relax into our situation. I know it sounds strange to talk about relaxing when we’re suffering or in a challenging situation, but we can’t really transform our mind into virtue unless it is relaxed and comfortable. That’s why we always do breathing meditation at the beginning of classes: we need to start from a peaceful place. In the same way, when we encounter challenges we have to start by being patient, which allows us to relax.

Patience is a mind that has stopped fighting against reality. We say ‘yes, it does hurt; that’s the way it is.’ We simply accept our present reality, we let go of all the ‘it’s not fair, I don’t like it, why does it have to be this way, I want it to stop’ and just accept. That is a very relaxed mind, free from all inner conflict; from that mental space, we can move on to develop a positive and constructive view. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe-la says:

Our real problem is not the physical sickness, difficult relationship, or financial hardship that we might currently be experiencing, but our being trapped in samsara. This recognition is the basis for developing renunciation, the spontaneous wish to attain complete freedom from every trace of dissatisfaction, which in turn is the foundation of all the higher spiritual realizations leading to the boundless happiness of liberation and enlightenment. But this recognition can only dawn within the clear and open mind of patient acceptance. For as long as we are in conflict with life’s difficulties, thinking that things should be different from the way they are and blaming circumstances or other people for our unhappiness, we shall never have the clarity or spaciousness of mind to see what it is that is really binding us. Patience allows us to see clearly the mental habit patterns that keep us locked in samsara, and thereby enables us to begin to undo them. Patience is therefore the foundation of the everlasting freedom and bliss of liberation.

Patience really is the key that unlocks the door to our spiritual development. In my experience, trying to engage in the other practices without establishing the baseline of patience first feels inauthentic. We can gain some good feeling, and that’s wonderful; but for it to be really transformative it needs to be built on the bedrock of patience.

In order to be patient with our suffering, we can remember karma, recognizing our present problems as the result of our previous actions and seeing them as the payment of a long-standing debt. When we experience the suffering, that karma is purified; so our current difficulties are cleaning our mind and smoothing the path of our future. If we recognize that a pain is performing a useful function, it’s much easier to accept. For example, if someone stuck a needle in your arm for no reason you would probably yell blue murder; but if that needle contained an antidote you needed you would hardly even register the pain of the injection. If we can see all of our sufferings as performing a useful function – purifying our mind of negative karma – then it will be easy to be patient. We may still feel it, like the pinprick of an injection, but there will be no mental pain associated with it. We can relax.

If we learn to accept unavoidable suffering, unhappy thoughts will never arise to disturb us. There are many difficult and unpleasant circumstances that we cannot avoid, but we can certainly avoid the unhappiness and anger these circumstances normally provoke in us. It is these habitual reactions to hardship, rather than the hardship itself, that disturb our day-to-day peace of mind, as well as our spiritual practice.

If we keep training in developing patience, eventually our suffering will no longer disturb our mind. Instead of interfering with our peace of mind, our problems will become the springboard for our spiritual life.

Special cases

In Training the Mind in Seven Points Geshe Chekawa advises ‘Always meditate on special cases.’ For example:

If there is someone with whom we always seem to get angry, we should make a special point of meditating on being patient with them.

In fact, we can learn to regard our ‘special cases’ as our closest friends.

It all depends on what we want. Do we authentically want to develop inner peace? Do we see this as more important than our external conditions? If we do really want to attain spiritual realizations, then we should value the challenging people in our lives and cherish them for the precious opportunities they give us.

The problem is, we tend to think of preciousness as being an intrinsic quality, based on a person or thing having some innate value. But it is all defined by our wishes. For example, I was once driving with a friend of mine, and we passed a farm displaying a sign:

Well rotted goat’s manure: bring your own bag!

I immediately developed some rather unpleasant mental images… and my friend said ‘Wow! That’s exactly what I need, let’s pull over and get some.’ Oh joy. So, because it was useful to him for growing vegetables, that manure appeared to him as something precious. Let’s apply that to other people: some of them may seem reminiscent of well-rotted goat’s manure, but they are precious because they are the basis for our training in virtuous minds. In Eight Steps, Geshe-la says:

How can we learn to love with no one to love? How can we practise giving with no one to give to, or patience with no one to irritate us? Whenever we see another living being we can increase our spiritual qualities such as love and compassion, and in this way we come closer to enlightenment and the fulfilment of our deepest wishes. How kind living beings are to act as the objects of our love and compassion. How precious they are!

If people just left me alone (as I generally want them to do) then I would frankly never get around to training my mind. It’s true, isn’t it? I only really try when I’m being pushed. I practice giving because people demand my time and energy; I practice patience because it would just be too stressful not to. If other people weren’t offering me that encouragement, I would never develop a stronger mind, and so I would remain unhappy. When people challenge us they are leading us directly towards happiness.

Thanks, guys. Bring it on.

Who is Dorje Shugden?

We have an empowerment here in a couple of weeks, which is an opportunity to be introduced to the Buddha called Dorje Shugden.

Sometimes people can be a bit put off by his rather ferocious appearance, but he’s a big teddy bear really. When he looks at us, he’s always smiling; but when he looks at our delusions, he pulls a fearsome face and chops them up with his wisdom sword. He’s the sort of guy you really want on your side; and he is always on our side, he’s a freedom fighter fighting to free all living beings from the inner enemy of delusions.

Because Dorje Shugden helps us to battle our delusions and keep hold of our positive minds, we call him our Dharma Protector: he protects the Dharma experience in our hearts. If we ask for his help in difficult situations, he will bless our minds so that wisdom thoughts arise instead of delusions. In Heart Jewel, Geshe-la says:

Dorje Shugdän will bless our minds to help us transform difficult situations into the spiritual path, and he will open the wisdom eyes of his faithful followers, enabling them always to make the right decisions. Although physically they may find themselves alone, inwardly those who put their trust in him will never be apart from a powerful ally and a wise and compassionate guide.

Whenever I am having problems, I like to visualize Dorje Shugden bounding up to me on his snow lion (which symbolizes fearlessness – I’ll have some of that, thanks!). I remember when I was having driving lessons I was initially really nervous, so I started imagining Dorje Shugden sitting in the back seat, giving me a wink every time I glanced in the rear-view mirror, and he definitely helped me to keep a peaceful mind.

So, this is an introduction to my best friend. I hope you’ll come and meet him; I think you’ll get along famously.

More: Dorje Shugden Empowerment 12 – 13 December 2015

How to love terrorists

I have said many times – and I think most people will agree – that without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. This is not just a trite saying: it means we have a chance, and a responsibility, to make things better. Part of having peace in our hearts is to love and accept everyone with equanimity. Many people would say this is unrealistic, that we can’t treat people with equanimity when there are that minority who engage in such harmful actions – but this is a misunderstanding. Loving someone does not mean we passively condone their negative behavior, but I firmly believe that the only way to change someone’s actions is to begin by accepting and loving them:

Being accepted feels very different to being judged. When someone feels judged, they automatically become tight and defensive, but when they feel accepted they can relax, and this allows their good qualities to come to the surface.

We can learn to love people who are engaging in negative actions by learning to distinguish between a person and their delusions. Where we might see a suicide bomber and think ‘this is a bad person,’ a Buddha would think ‘this is a suffering being afflicted by the inner disease of delusions such as anger.’ This distinction is subtle but so important for us: we can learn to see that there is no such thing as an evil person. Everyone has the potential for goodness, even if that may presently be obscured by the clouds of delusion. In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la uses the example of a child throwing a tantrum. Although the mother is not blind to her child’s destructive behavior, she does not give him up as a lost cause – she continues to see him as beautiful and full of potential. That doesn’t mean she won’t correct his behavior; but she will do so with a loving mind, not judging but only wanting him to grow into his full potential.

If we blame others, it only leads to resentment. If we blame their delusions, it increases our compassion. Instead of wanting that person to suffer for what they have done, we recognize that they are already suffering; they are suffering from the disease of anger. If we could remove that suffering, cure them of that disease, then their negative behavior would cease. So the most appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is to wish for them to be happy, because then they would have no reason to harm anyone. At the very least we should not add more delusions into the mix by becoming angry with them!

Another way of thinking that can help us to see beyond a person’s negativity is to recognize the vast web of causes and conditions that bring about any situation. Geshe-la says:

Our normal view is that there is an inherently existent aggressor harming an inherently existent victim. This is a complete misconception of the situation. In reality, the aggressor and the victim are interdependent and utterly without inherent, or independent, existence. If we try mentally to isolate the aggressor from everything else in order to pinpoint someone we can blame, we cannot do so, for the aggressor has no existence independent of the other elements of the situation. The aggressor depends on his delusions and on the karma of the victim that impelled the aggressor to behave in that way at that moment; as well as on the circumstances of the situation, his personal and family background, the society in which he lives, his previous lives, and his being trapped in a samsaric body and mind. When we search for the aggressor in this way, he disappears in an endless web of relationships, causes, and conditions – there is no inherently existent person we can find to blame.

When we look at all the different causes that made that person who they are, we will find only one thing left to blame: delusions. Not just the delusions in that person’s mind, but in everyone’s; the negative views that are perpetuated from generation to generation, that become a part of a society, that result in a division between ‘us and them.’ If we can remove those delusions from just one person – ourselves – then we have already made a change in our society. We are all interconnected, so that change affects everyone. By choosing to love instead of blame, we will have made a start towards unraveling that web of causes and conditions that brings about terrorism.

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

Queuing up for happiness

Once, when I was looking for the right place to buy a ticket for something, I asked a woman standing in a line ‘what is this queue for?’ and she replied ‘I don’t know.’ It’s amazing, isn’t it – us Brits actually like queuing so much that we will stand in queues even if there is nothing to be queuing for! With all this constant queuing, one might think that we’re very patient people. The thing is, it’s not that we actually enjoy it: we just like having something to complain about. That’s not patience: standing around displaying our stiff upper lip is more like having a passive-aggressive argument with the universe, whereas real patience is a happy mind. That’s right: not just putting up with it, but actually being perfectly content with things going wrong.

That’s why the practice of patience is so essential in our modern world: because things are always going wrong. We can’t change that – we can only change the way we respond. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam on your way to an important meeting, you have two choises: you can be late and stressed, or you can be late and happy. Neither option will take the traffic jam away: the only control we can take in that situation is over the state of our mind. We can choose to accept the situation we find ourselves in, not wishing it was different or saying ‘it isn’t fair’, and through that acceptance we stay at peace.

Geshe-la describes patience as ‘an open, accommodating, and peaceful heart.’ We always need patience; even if there are practical things we can do to improve our external situation, it is only patience that can solve the inner problem of stress and frustration. For example, our computer crashes; we feel irritated; we restart the computer and find it has miraculously saved all our work, so our external problem has gone away; but we still have a horrible state of mind because we allowed anger to take hold. So, we need to practice patience when there is nothing we can do to change our situation, and we need to practice patience while we are fixing those situations we can change.

Whatever our situation, we just recognize that it simply is the way it is. No amount of complaining is going to change that. If we can do something constructive to make things better, then good, go ahead: but at this moment, right now, this is what we’ve got and we must accept that for what it is. If we can do this, just accept ‘this is the way it is,’ then we relax, we stop fighting with the reality of our experience; then we can honestly say ‘it’s OK; this is the way it is and that’s OK.’

Take this further: Dealing With Anger day course