Sunday, January 15, 2017

6 Key Lessons in Life from Gandhi

gandhi 140 years young
Post written by Arvind Devalia.
On 30th October 2009, it was the 140th anniversary of the birth of  Mahatma Gandhi. So he would have been 140 years old now had he not been  assassinated in 1948.

Gandhi may not be around anymore but his  legacy and his message of non-violence lives on and he is indeed  the light the world needs today.

He has always been one of my heroes from a young age and I remember crying after watching  Richard Attenborough’s famous film Gandhi.

We had made a special trip to London and watched the film in Leicester Square just a few days after its release – watching it was a defining moment in my life.

I have watched this remarkable movie about a remarkable man many times since then.
“Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood.” –  Einstein
I have read a lot about Gandhi since then and also been influenced by  my late father who collected a huge library of Gandhi’s teachings.

It is now up to all of us to apply Gandhi’s teachings in our daily life – after all his message about peace and non-violence is more pertinent than ever before today.

On this 140th anniversary of his birth, here are 6 keys lessons for all of us to apply in our life from today

This is possibly Gandhi’s most famous phrase and tells us that before we can go and change the world, we have to change ourselves.

From the being, comes the doing and ultimately the having.

So we now have the message – “Do the change you wish to see in the world”.

Focus on changing yourself and being the change you wish – and soon we can begin to look at the bigger picture and solve the world’s challenges.

There is this anecdotal story about how a mother came with her son to see Gandhi. She wanted Gandhi to tell her son to stop eating too much sugar as it was harmful for his health. He asked her to come back a month later by which time he himself had cut down on his own sugar intake.

The point is that before you can get anyone to take on your own teachings, you have to apply them to your own life. There are various phrases to reflect this message such as “practise what you preach” and “walk the talk”.
“Let your life be your message” – Gandhi
Is your life the message you want to give the world?
When will you be the change you want the world to be?

2. Reduce, reuse and recycle
“There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed” – Gandhi
Even in Gandhi’s time there was vast disparity in the world between the rich and the poor. He could see how the world’s resources were being pilloried to satisfy the excessive demands of the West whilst most people in the rest of the world were barely surviving.

Today I would argue that the way we are all living in the West and elsewhere, there is not even enough for everyone’s needs. We must revisit how we live our lives and truly learn to reduce, reuse and recycle – the 3Rs.

The time has come when we cannot just rely on others – each one of us has to do our bit. Increasingly, more and more people and also businesses are waking up to their responsibilities to the environment, the larger community and the global implications of their activities.

Start today and apply the 3Rs in your life.

3. Live a simple, minimalist life.

Gandhi lived a very simple, frugal life. He died with very few possessions and he preached simplicity and minimalism in all areas of life.

He also dressed simply and even persisted with his simple Indian loin cloth when he visited England and met the King. When asked if he was under dressed for a meeting with the King, Gandhi replied that the King had enough clothes on for both of them!

Minimalism is something I am beginning to apply in my life too. To get you started, please check out this excellent “Minimalist Guide” from my blogging mentor and friend  Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

Leo is a man Gandhi would have approved off for his humility, sharing, compassion and also his hairstyle:-)

Please get your copy of Leo’s minimalist ebook here.
Start living a simpler minimalistic life from today – and you will release a lot of time and energy to bring more of Gandhi’s teachings into the world.

Walk your path no matter what others do

Believe in your cause, follow your truth and stick to your journey even if you have to walk the path on your own.

Gandhi at the end of his life was said to be heart broken with the partition of India as millions were killed and displaced. Even then, he still had a message for the world – it takes just one man to make a difference.
If no one responds to your call, go forward alone.
If no one talks to you, oh luckless one,
If everyone turns away from you in fear,
Reveal your thoughts and express your ideas to yourself.
If everyone leaves you while you are travelling a dangerous road,
If no one wants to look after you,
Walk on alone, on the road strewn with thorns, trampling on them with bleeding feet.
If no one shows a light, if in the dark stormy night everyone shuts their doors,
Use your rib as a torch, lit from the fire of thunder. –  Rabindranath Tagore
So anything and everything you do counts and will make a difference.

5. Get your power through humility

be humble and powerful

Gandhi was a very humble, down to earth, ordinary human-being but therein lay his power and authority. His power came from being very clear about who he was, his values and his mission.

So the clearer you are about who you are and what you stand for,the more power you will exert in the world, whilst remaining humble and as down to earth as you wish.

Of course, by power what I mean here is not the power that corrupts but one that changes the world and makes a positive contribution.

6. Start today
“The difference between what we do, and what we are capable of doing, would solve most of the world’s problems” – Gandhi
Believe that what you do matters, and that it will make a difference.

You can’t save the whole world single-handedly, and we can’t all be a Gandhi or a  Mandela, but you can certainly make a difference to one person at a time. So look for ways to contribute.

Ask yourself what special skill or knowledge you have that can solve a problem or make the best of a situation and that will help or support others.

And actually, maybe we can all be a Gandhi or a  Mandela:-)

Start small – and get started no matter what. They too started small one day at the beginning of their own life journeys.

So fear not – you already have and know enough – new skills will come for sure as you progress on your journey. And whatever you choose to do, it will make a difference.

The point is that everything we do matters and makes either a positive or a negative impact on everything around us.

You can start today to apply Gandhi’s message in your life, simply by focussing on this one question:

-How can I bring more love and peace into my life today?

Just know that every little bit helps and by you being more loving and peaceful, the rest of the world becomes more loving and peaceful too.

After all, we all have a “Gandhi” inside of us, just waiting to emerge.

As for me, I too shall continue to work on letting my own Gandhi emerge, but perhaps not his dress sense!

The way forward – become crazy to change the world!

What makes one person a Gandhi or a  Dr Martin Luther King? Is it pure coincidence or do such inspirational historic figures have some special powers?
 Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify and vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as crazy, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” –  Steve Jobs, Apple
So just how crazy are you?

And how will YOU change the world?
To get you started right away, please check out this related post at once:

6 Simple Buddhist Principles To Practice Daily, That Will Change Your Life

Here’s another one you’ll want to bookmark. Concise, quick and infinitely wise, these fantastic points are a breakdown from a wider, free, mini-library by Beatrice Santorini. For more, you can go here, or you can check out the original source, from the wonderful online book Moon Journeying Through Clouds.
Consume mindfully.
  • Eat with awareness and gratitude.
  • Pause before buying and see if breathing is enough.
  • Pay attention to the effects of media you consume.
Pause. Breathe. Listen.
  • When you feel compelled to speak in a meeting or conversation, pause.
  • Breathe before entering your home, place of work, or school.
  • Listen to the people you encounter. They are buddhas.
Practice gratitude.
  • Notice what you have.
  • Be equally grateful for opportunities and challenges.
  • Share joy, not negativity.
Cultivate compassion and loving kindness.
  • Notice where help is needed and be quick to help.
  • Consider others’ perspectives deeply.
  • Work for peace at many levels.
Discover wisdom.
  • Cultivate “don’t know” mind (= curiosity).
  • Find connections between Buddhist teachings and your life.
  • Be open to what arises in every moment.
Accept constant change.


Consume mindfully.

Be aware of what you put into your body, be thankful for the nourishment good food provides.

Consider carefully before purchasing material objects. Ask yourself if it’s really something you need, or just a transient desire. Take a deep breath, and see if breathing is enough.

Pay attention to the effects of media you consume. Is it helping you grow or learn? Or is it a distraction or form of escapism? Does it destroy your mindfulness of the moment?

Pause. Breathe. Listen.

Consider your words carefully. When you feel compelled to speak in a meeting or conversation, pause. Will your words bring harm or foster love?

Breathe before entering your home, place of work, or school. We must first choose to notice what is present before we can become comfortable with its existence.  Much counterproductive coping comes from “checking out” or trying to avoid places or situations that leave us feeling uncomfortable, or stressed.

Listen to the people you encounter. If we talk to others and listen when they talk, we create the possibility of mutual sympathy, understanding and tolerance.

Practice gratitude.

Notice what you have. Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life and the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding.

Be equally grateful for opportunities and challenges. The practice of gratitude is not in any way a denial of life’s difficulties. We live in troubling times, and no doubt you’ve experienced many challenges, uncertainties, and disappointments. The understanding you gain from practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each moment as it rises.

Share joy, not negativity. Learn to rejoice in the good fortune of others and your own happiness multiplies – it’s the best cure for envy.

Cultivate compassion and loving kindness.

Notice where help is needed and be quick to help. Selflessly act to alleviate suffering wherever it appears.

Consider others’ perspectives deeply. Observe your reactions with genuine interest and non-attachment. If we find it difficult to listen compassionately and patiently to the woes of others, we can almost be certain this is because we haven’t been able to sit still and listen to our own heart’s cries.

Work for peace at many levels. Whatever you experience internally is valid, it is there for a reason, whether you understand it or not.  It is not always necessary to understand the origins of an experience or a reaction in order to come to peace with it.

Discover wisdom.

Cultivate “don’t know” mind (= curiosity). With wisdom we become better at solving the problems in our own lives and are able to offer insightful guidance to others. Thus, the knowledge converted into wisdom brings happiness as a result.

Be open to what arises in every moment. The mind can focus in so many directions:  past, present, future, abstract notions or analytical problem solving, to name a few.  All forms of thought have a useful role. Try to prioritize awareness of the present moment.  Cultivate the ability to tune into sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts and emotions that are occurring in the present moment.

Accept constant change.

Impermanence and change is the undeniable truth of our existence. What is real is the existing moment, the present that is a product of the past, or a result of the previous causes and actions. Because of ignorance, an ordinary mind conceives them all to be part of one continuous reality. But in truth they are not.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Life is Tough. Here Are Six Ways to Deal With It

Illustration of a man on a branch.

An ancient set of Buddhist slogans offers us six powerful techniques to transform life’s difficulties into awakening and benefit. Zen teacher Norman Fischer guides us through them. Illustrations by Keith Abbott.

There’s an old Zen saying: the whole world’s upside down. In other words, the way the world looks from the ordinary or conventional point of view is pretty much the opposite of the way the world actually is. There’s a story that illustrates this.

Once there was a Zen master who was called Bird’s Nest Roshi because he meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. He became quite famous for this precarious practice. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shih (who was also a government official) once came to visit him and, standing on the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to live in such a dangerous manner. The roshi answered, “You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!” Living normally in the world, ignoring death, impermanence, and loss and suffering, as we all routinely do, as if this were a normal and a safe way to live, is actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate.
Illustration of man walking.

While trying to avoid difficulty may be natural and understandable, it actually doesn’t work. We think it makes sense to protect ourselves from pain, but our self-protection ends up causing us deeper pain. We think we have to hold on to what we have, but our very holding on causes us to lose what we have. We’re attached to what we like and try to avoid what we don’t like, but we can’t keep the attractive object and we can’t avoid the unwanted object. So, counterintuitive though it may be, avoiding life’s difficulties is actually not the path of least resistance; it is a dangerous way to live. If you want to have a full and happy life, in good times and bad, you have to get used to the idea that facing misfortune squarely is better than trying to escape from it.

This is not a matter of grimly focusing on life’s difficulties. It is simply the smoothest possible approach to happiness. Of course, when we can prevent difficulty, we do it. The world may be upside down, but we still have to live in this upside-down world, and we have to be practical on its terms. The teaching on transforming bad circumstances into the path doesn’t deny that. What it addresses is the underlying attitude of anxiety, fear, and narrow-mindedness that makes our lives unhappy, fearful, and small.

Transforming bad circumstances into the path is associated with the practice of patience. There are six mind-training (lojong) slogans connected with this:
  1. Turn all mishaps into the path.
  2. Drive all blames into one.
  3. Be grateful to everyone.
  4. See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness.
  5. Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help.
  6. Whatever you meet is the path.

1. Turn All Mishaps Into the Path

The first slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path, sounds at first blush completely impossible. How would you do that? When things go alright we are cheerful—we feel good and have positive spiritual feelings—but as soon as bad things start happening, we get depressed, we fall apart, or, at the very best, we hang on and cope. We certainly do not transform our mishaps into the path. And why would we want to? We don’t want the mishaps to be there; we want them gone as soon as possible.
We are not talking about miracles. We are talking about training the mind.
Yet, the slogan tells us, we can turn all of this into the path. We do that by practicing patience, my all-time favorite spiritual quality. Patience is the capacity to welcome difficulty when it comes, with a spirit of strength, endurance, forbearance, and dignity rather than fear, anxiety, and avoidance. None of us likes to be oppressed or defeated, yet if we can endure oppression and defeat with strength, without whining, we are ennobled by it. Patience makes this possible. In our culture, we think of patience as passive and unglamorous; other qualities like love or compassion or insight are much more popular. But when tough times cause our love to fray into annoyance, our compassion to be overwhelmed by our fear, and our insight to evaporate, then patience begins to make sense. To me it is the most substantial, most serviceable, and most reliable of all spiritual qualities. Without it, all other qualities are shaky.

The practice of patience is simple enough. When difficulty arises, notice the obvious and not so obvious ways we try to avoid it—the things we say and do, the subtle ways in which our very bodies recoil and clench when some- one says or does something to us that we don’t like.

To practice patience is to notice these things and be fiercely present with them (taking a breath helps; returning to mindfulness of the body helps) rather than reacting to them. We catch ourselves running away and we reverse course, turning toward our afflictive emotions, understanding that they are natural in these circumstances—and that avoiding them won’t work. We forestall our flailing around with these emotions and instead allow them to be present with dignity. We forgive ourselves for having them, we forgive (at least provisionally) whoever we might be blaming for our difficulties, and with that spontaneous forgive- ness comes a feeling of relief and even gratitude.

This may strike you as a bit far-fetched, but it is not. Yet it does take training. We are not, after all, talking about miracles; we are not talking about affirmations or wishful thinking. We are talking about training the mind. If you were to meditate daily, bringing up this slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path, in your sitting, writing it down, repeating it many times a day, then you could see that a change of heart and mind can take place in just the way I am describing. The way you spontaneously react in times of trouble is not fixed.

Your mind, your heart, can be trained. Once you have a single experience of reacting differently, you will be encouraged, and next time it is more likely that you will take yourself in hand. When something difficult happens, you will train yourself to stop saying, “Damn! Why did this have to happen?” and begin saying, “Yes, of course, this is how it is. Let me turn toward it, let me practice with it, let me go beyond entanglement to gratitude.”

Because you will have realized that because you are alive and not dead, because you have a human body and not some other kind of a body, because the world is a physical world and not an ethereal world, and because all of us together as people are the way we are, bad things are going to happen. It’s the most natural, the most normal, the most inevitable thing in the world. It is not a mistake, and it isn’t anyone’s fault. And we can make use of it to drive our gratitude and our compassion deeper.

2. Drive All Blames Into One

The second slogan on transforming difficult circumstances is famous: Drive all blames into one. It, too, is quite counterintuitive, quite upside down. What it is saying is: whatever happens, don’t ever blame anyone or anything else; always blame only yourself.

This is tricky, because it is not exactly blaming ourselves in the ordinary sense. We know perfectly well how to blame ourselves. We’ve been doing it all of our lives. We don’t need Buddhist slogans to tell us to do this. But clearly this is not what is meant.

Illustration of two men walking.
Drive all blames into one means that you can’t blame anyone for what happens. Even if it’s actually some- one’s fault, you really can’t blame them. Something happened, and since it did, there is nothing else to be done but to make use of it.

Everything that happens, disastrous as it may be and no matter whose fault it is, has a potential benefit, and it’s your job to find it. Drive all blames into one means that you take full responsibility for everything that arises in your life.

This is very bad, this is not what I wanted, this brings many attendant problems. But what am I going to do with it? What can I learn from it? How can I make use of it for the path? These are the questions to ask, and answering them is entirely up to you. Furthermore, you can answer them; you do have the strength and the capacity. Drive all blames into one is a tremendous practice of cutting through the long human habit of complaining and whining, and finding on the other side of it the strength to turn every situation into the path. Here you are. This is it. There is no place else to go but forward into the next moment. Repeat the slogan as many times as you have to.

3. Be Grateful to Everyone

Be grateful to everyone: this is very simple but very profound.

My wife and I have a grandson. We went to visit him when he was about six weeks old. He couldn’t do anything, not even hold up his head, much less feed himself. If he was in trouble, he couldn’t ask for help. Unable to do anything on his own, he was completely dependent on his mother’s care and constant attention. She fed him, cuddled him, tried to understand and anticipate his needs, and took care of everything, including his peeing and pooping.

We were all at one time precisely in this situation, and someone or other must have cared for us in this same comprehensive way. Without one hundred percent total care from someone else, or maybe several others, we would not be here. This is certainly grounds for gratitude to others.
There could not be what we call a person without other people.
But our dependence on others did not end there. We didn’t grow up and become independent. Now we can hold up our heads, fix our dinner, wipe our butts, and we seem not to need our mother or father to take care us—so we think we are autonomous.

But consider this for a moment. Did you grow the food that sustains you every day? Did you make the car or train that takes you to work? Sew your clothing? Build your own house with lumber you milled?

You need others every single day, every single moment of your life. It’s thanks to others and their presence and effort that you have the things you need to continue, and that you have friendship and love and meaning in your life. Without others, you have nothing.

Our dependence on others runs even deeper than this. Where does the person we take ourselves to be come from in the first place? Apart from our parents’ genes and their support and care, and society and all it produces for us, there’s the whole network of conditions and circumstances that intimately makes us what we are. How about our thoughts and feelings? Where do they come from? Without words to think in, we don’t think, we don’t have anything like a sense of self as we understand it, and we don’t have the emotions and feelings that are shaped and defined by our words. Without the myriad circumstances that provided us the opportunities for education, for speech, for knowledge, for work, we wouldn’t be here as we are.

So it is literally the case that there could not be what we call a person without other people. We can say “person” as if there could be such an autonomous thing, but in fact there is no such thing. There is no such thing as a person—there are only persons who have co-created one another over the long history of our species. The idea of an independent, isolated, atomized person is impossible. And here we are not only speaking of our needing others practically. We are talking about our inmost sense of identity. Our consciousness of ourselves is never independent of others.

This is what nonself or emptiness means in Buddhist teaching: that there is no such thing as an isolated individual. Though we can say there is, and though we might think there is, and though many of our thoughts and motivations seem to be based on this idea, in fact it is an erroneous idea. Literally every thought in our minds, every emotion that we feel, every word that comes out of our mouth, every material sustenance that we need to get through the day, comes through the kindness of and the interaction with others. And not only other people but nonhumans too, literally the whole of the earth, the soil, the sky, the trees, the air we breathe, the water we drink. We don’t just depend on all of this; we are all of it and it is us. This is no theory, no poetic religious teaching. It is simply the bald fact of the matter.

So to practice Be grateful to everyone is to train in this profound understanding. It is to cultivate every day this sense of gratitude, the happiest of all attitudes. Unhappiness and gratitude simply cannot exist in the same moment. If you feel grateful, you are a happy person. If you feel grateful for what is possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are, if you feel grateful that you are alive at all, that you can think, that you can feel, that you can stand, sit, walk, talk—if you feel grateful, you are happy and you maximize your chances for well-being and for sharing happiness with others.

4. See Confusion as Buddha and Practice Emptiness

The fourth slogan, See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness, requires a bit of explanation. This goes beyond our conventional or relative understanding to a deeper sense of what we are. Though conventionally I am me and you are you, from an absolute perspective, a God’s-eye view, if you will, there is no self and other. There’s only being, and there’s only love, which is being sharing itself with itself without impediment and with warmth. It just happens to look like you and me to us, because this is how our minds and sensory apparatus works. This love without boundary is emptiness practice.

See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness means that we situate ourselves differently with respect to our ordinary human confusion, our resistance, our pain, our fear, our grief, and so on. Rather than hoping these emotions and reactions will eventually go away and we will be free of them, we take them to a deeper level. We look at their underlying reality.

What is actually going on when we are upset or angry? If we could unhook ourselves for a moment from the blaming and the wishing and the self-pitying and look instead at the actual basis of what is in fact going on, what would we see? We would see time passing. We would see things changing. We would see life arising and passing away, coming from nowhere and going nowhere. Moment by moment, time slips away and things transform. The present becomes the past—or does it become the future? And yet right now there is no past or future. As soon as we examine “now,” it is gone. And we cannot know how or where it goes.

This may sound like philosophy, but it doesn’t feel like philosophy when you or someone close to you is giving birth. If at that moment you are standing in the delivery room or are yourself, in pain and joy, giving birth—in that first bursting-forth moment, you are amazed. This small life you think you have been living, with its various issues and problems, completely disappears in the face of the miracle of visceral life springing forth in front of your eyes. Or if you are present when someone leaves this world and enters death (if there is such a place to enter), you know then that this emptiness is not just philosophy. You may not know what it is, but you will know that it is real. You know that this reality is powerful and makes you see your life, and the whole of life, quite differently. A new context emerges that is more than thought, more than concept. When you view your daily human problems in the light of actual birth and actual death, you are practicing with this slogan. Every moment of your life, even (and maybe especially) your moments of pain or despair or confusion, is a moment of buddha.

So do attend births and deaths whenever you can and accept these moments as gifts, as opportunities for deep spiritual practice. But even when you aren’t participating in these peak moments, you can repeat and review this slogan, and you can meditate on it. And when your mind is confused and entangled, you can take a breath and try to slip below the level of your desire and confusion. You can notice that in this very moment time is passing, things are transforming, and this impossible fact is profound, beautiful, and joyful, even as you continue with your misery.

5. Do Good, Avoid Evil, Appreciate Your Lunacy, Pray for Help

Now the slogans bring us back down to earth. If spiritual teachings are to really transform our lives, they need to oscillate (as the slogans do) between two levels, the profound and the mundane. If practice is too profound, it’s no good. We are full of wonderful, lofty insights, but lack the ability to get through the day with any gracefulness or to relate to the issues and people in ordinary life. We may be soaringly metaphysical, movingly compassionate, and yet unable to relate to a normal human or a worldly problem. This is the moment when the Zen master whacks us with her stick and says, “Wash your bowls! Kill the Buddha!”

On the other hand, if practice is too mundane, if we become too interested in the details of how we and others feel and what we or they need or want, then the natural loftiness of our hearts will not be accessible to us, and we will sink under the weight of obligations, details, and daily-life concerns. This is when the master says, “If you have a staff, I will give you a staff; if you need a staff, I will take it away.” We need both profound religious philosophy and practical tools for daily living. This double need, according to circumstances, seems to go with the territory of being human. We have just been contemplating reality as buddha and practicing emptiness. That was important. Now it’s time to get back down to earth.

First, do good. Do positive things. Say hello to people, smile at them, tell them happy birthday, I am sorry for your loss, is there something I can do to help? These things are normal social graces, and people say them all the time. But to practice them intentionally is to work a bit harder at actually meaning them. We genuinely try to be helpful and kind and thoughtful in as many small and large ways as we can every day.

Second, avoid evil. This means to pay close attention to our actions of body, speech, and mind, noticing when we do, say, or think things that are harmful or unkind. Having come this far with our mind training, we can’t help but notice our shoddy or mean-spirited moments. And when we notice them, we feel bad. In the past we might have said to ourselves, “I only said that because she really needs straightening out. If she hadn’t done that to me, I wouldn’t have said that to her. It really was her fault.” Now we see that this was a way of protecting ourselves (after all, we have just been practicing Drive all blames into one) and are willing to accept responsibility for what we have done. So we pay attention to what we say, think, and do—not obsessively, not with a perfectionist flair, but just as a matter of course and with generosity and understanding—and finally we purify ourselves of most of our ungenerous thoughts and words.

The last two practices in this slogan, which I have interpreted as Appreciate your lunacy and Pray for help, traditionally have to do with making offerings to two kinds of creatures: demons (beings who are preventing you from keeping determined with your practice) and dharma protectors (beings who are helping you to remain true to your practice). But for our purposes now it is better to see these practices more broadly.

We can understand making offerings to demons as “appreciate your lunacy.” Bow to your own weakness, your own craziness, your own resistance. Congratulate yourself for them, appreciate them. Truly it is a marvel, the extent to which we are selfish, confused, lazy, resentful, and so on. We come by these things honestly. We have been well trained to manifest them at every turn. This is the prodigy of human life bursting forth at its seams, it is the effect of our upbringing, our society, which we appreciate even as we are trying to tame it and bring it gently round to the good. So we make offerings to the demons inside us and we develop a sense of humorous appreciation for our own stupidity. We are in good company! We can laugh at ourselves and everyone else.
In making offerings to dharma protectors, we pray to whatever forces we believe or don’t believe in for help. Whether we imagine a deity or a God or not, we can reach out beyond ourselves and beyond anything we can objectively depict and ask for assistance and strength for our spiritual work. We can do this in meditation, with silent words, or out loud, vocalizing our hopes and wishes.

Prayer is a powerful practice. It is not a matter of abrogating our own responsibility. We are not asking to be absolved of the need to act. We are asking for help and for strength to do what we know we must do, with the understanding that though we must do our best, whatever goodness comes our way is not our accomplishment, our personal production. It comes from a wider sphere than we can control. In fact, it is counter- productive to conceive of spiritual practice as a task that we are going to accomplish on our own. After all, haven’t we already practiced Be grateful to everyone? Haven’t we learned that there is no way to do anything alone? We are training, after all, in spiritual practice, not personal self-help (though we hope it helps us, and probably it does). So not only does it make sense to pray for help, not only does it feel powerfully right and good to do so, it is also important to do this so that we remember we are not alone and we can’t do it by ourselves.

It would be natural for us to forget this point, to fall into our habit of imagining an illusory self-reliance. People often say that Buddhists don’t pray because Buddhism is an atheistic or nontheistic tradition that doesn’t recognize God or a Supreme Being. This may be technically so, but the truth is that Buddhists pray and have always prayed. They pray to a whole panoply of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Even Zen Buddhists pray. Praying does not require a belief in God or gods.

6. Whatever You Meet is the Path

This slogan sums up the other five: whatever happens, good or bad, make it part of your spiritual practice.

In spiritual practice, which is our life, there are no breaks and no mistakes. We human beings are always doing spiritual practice, whether we know it or not. You may think that you have lost the thread of your practice, that you were going along quite well and then life got busy and complicated and you lost track of what you were doing. You may feel bad about this, and that feeling feeds on itself, and it becomes harder and harder to get back on track.

But this is just what you think; it’s not what’s going on. Once you begin practice, you always keep going, because everything is practice, even the days or the weeks or entire lifetimes when you forgot to meditate. Even then you’re still practicing, because it’s impossible to be lost. You are constantly being found, whether you know it or not. To practice this slogan is to know that no matter what is going on—no matter how distracted you think you are, no matter how much you feel like a terribly lazy individual who has completely lost track of her good intentions and is now hopelessly astray—even then you have the responsibility and the ability to take all negativity, bad circumstance, and difficulty and turn it into the path.

© 2013 by Norman Fischer. Excerpted from “Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong.” Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.


Two Truths—Indivisible


When we enter the path, we are working at the level of relative truth, and with practice we may gain insight into the absolute. But we don’t enter the final stage of practice, says Tsoknyi Rinpoche, until we realize these truths were never separate.

The art and beauty of practicing dharma becomes more and more subtle and profound as we learn the dance of the relative and absolute truths. Since the natural state is timelessly present in both, their indivisibility or inseparability is like a single thread interwoven throughout all the teachings, functioning at every level and stage of practice.

It is important to recognize that practice solely at the relative level, or even at the level of the absolute, is not so difficult when we keep it separate. The real art comes in uniting the relative and absolute in practice.

When we first start practicing, we are typically at the conventional or relative level, which when practiced well can eventually lead to a realization of the absolute. However, the final stage, which we are speaking about here, is the realization of the inseparability of the two. When we talk about this unity or indivisibility, it’s not that we have to somehow figure out how to fit two separate, distinct things together, like gluing two blocks of wood into one piece. That would be forcing a conceptual notion of emptiness to connect to clarity.

In Dzogchen, rigpa, or recognizing mind’s essence, has three qualities or aspects: empty essence, the lucid or cognizant nature, and their indivisible unity. When our meditation practice strays from rigpa, two things can happen: we can overemphasize the empty aspect, causing a kind of blockage, because although it is thought-free, it still involves subtle clinging; there is a kind of stuckness—a lack of naturalness, fluidity, and awareness of the unconfined capacity or totally open nature of genuine rigpa. If, on the other hand, we overemphasize the clarity or lucid aspect, we can become fixated on that and lose the awareness of inner space. Therefore, this subtle art involves unifying the experience of empty nature and lucidity such that the “third” quality of inseparability (the union of emptiness and clarity) may naturally and spontaneously manifest.

The inner space, or empty aspect, is completely free from any of the four or eight philosophical extremes taught with great precision by Nagarjuna and others. It is also free from birth, abiding, and cessation and from the three divisions of time: past, present, and future. It has neither center nor circumference and is completely devoid of all reference points. When the conceptual mind is dropped, there is still a nonconceptual cognizance, which is without reliance or dependence upon conceptual signs and symbols and is aware of its own nature as emptiness, or inner space.

Mind then has two aspects: its own basic nature, which is primordial wisdom, and dualistic consciousness. One way of putting this is that it can either be confused lucidity or the lucidity of wisdom. In either case, the empty aspect is always completely open and free.

In the Tibetan language, this naturally lucid or clear aspect of mind is called salwa, and it is emphasized mostly in the Vajrayana tradition. In the sutra system, the emphasis is more on the empty nature, and of course when we speak about the indivisibility of lucidity and the empty nature, then it is the same for both sutra and tantra. The differences in emphasis are related to where we are on the various stages of the path. In the Vajrayana system, when we talk about the fundamental luminosity of mind, it is described as the vajra heart, and in Dzogchen, it refers to clear light or luminosity. In these teachings there’s more emphasis on the clarity or lucid aspect.

Terminology can be a bit confusing, so keep in mind that the Tibetan word salwa is translated variously as luminosity, lucidity, cognizance, consciousness, knowing, or clarity, depending on the translation and the specific teaching context. But the basic point here is that salwa can either be confused or not, and the empty aspect is always free and open.

Normally our day-to-day experience is at a gross level of consciousness in which there’s no awareness of the inseparability of the empty nature and lucidity. The natural state of mind appears divided, and the natural unity of the two truths is mistakenly separated into seemingly distinct entities of subject and object. However, within that split mind there is a seed of primordial wisdom through which we can realize the indivisibility of the empty and lucid natures. Through the timely methods and direct instructions of a genuine teacher, confused mind is cut through, allowing us to experience a taste of what I call “baby rigpa,” which with continued practice goes through various stages of growth and development.

When we practice rigpa, we become naturally aware of the nonconceptual lucidity and its open nature. It is not something complex; in fact, it is actually quite simple. It involves a subtle shift in our view, because rigpa is there and not there. It’s like rediscovering our true home, which has always been present. It has a kind of naked beauty that is potentially very rich, yet at the same time utterly ordinary—nothing has to change or be modified. Of course, clear and precise language is tough here and much too coarse to describe this essentially indescribable experience.

The Buddha said:
My dreamlike form
Appeared to dreamlike beings
To show them the dreamlike path
That leads to dreamlike enlightenment.

—from the Bhadrakalpa Sutra
Experience is dreamlike because appearances are a product of many kinds of causes and conditions temporarily coming together, such that nothing ever remains the same; everything is dependent on other things for its existence and is compounded, made up of many parts. In this sense, appearances are absolutely empty and relatively mere, which in Vajrayana is called “appearances devoid of inherent existence.”

It is not easy to know how things actually exist because our normal everyday experiences seem so vivid and compelling, and everything around us feels real—as if it truly existed independently. We get confused because our limited conceptual mind cannot grasp the view of the absolute, and yet we can use this mind to a certain point in our practices. But eventually we have to shift our practice and include other methods, such as samadhi meditation and contemplation. Through these practices, the conceptual grasping mind recedes, revealing the natural and luminous mind, which has the capacity to know the indivisibility of the two truths, a state of simplicity free from all kinds of conceptual limitations.

It is important to understand what egolessness means at both the relative and absolute levels. Relatively, our mere I exists and functions in the same way as other things merely exist, such as forms, smells, and sounds. We do have a mere I that acts, has relationships, takes refuge, and makes decisions, in the same way that the earth, sky, and water function and have a relative existence. The mereness of things actually allows us to intelligently, compassionately, and creatively engage in the drama of life without a lot of attachment and grasping. It is the light touch: open, fully present, flexible, and gutsy. This I is neither something truly existent (permanent, independent, singular) nor nonexistent—it is simply mere. What is refuted in the dharma is the solid or reified I, not the mere I.
When we try to find the essence, or true nature, of the mere I, we run into problems. No matter how hard we try, we cannot find it upon investigation; this also applies to all phenomena—whether subjective, such as our feelings of self, or objective, such as objects of perception. Even if we look at one of the billions of cells that make up our bodies with a sophisticated microscope, we see that no ultimate or true cell can be located, nor can the label “cell” be found. Any label we apply to the next level of complexity also falls away. We can’t find an object (or subject) that is permanent, singular, or independent. It just keeps changing into smaller and smaller parts swirling into smaller and smaller parts.

In this sense, the deeper we look into what we perceive as reality, the less we find. The opposite is also true: the less we investigate and feel the nature of things, the more solid the mere I and phenomena can feel. A mantra that’s helpful to repeat in situations where we feel hooked by our clinging to phenomena is: It feels real, but it is not true.

The label of mere I is simply an imputation, or conceptual designation, that we make on the basis of the temporary aggregation of parts called the five skandhas. The crux of the problem is that we have a very basic root misconception about all this. Why? Because when we assign an intrinsic or true reality, we reify the mere I (and phenomena) due to our fixating tendencies and habits accumulated over countless lives.

Why does our sense of self feel so real, permanent, and solid? It’s because we have frozen the naturally light, fluid, and open experience of the mere I, creating endless arrays of conceptual boxes. Even when we investigate and see that all phenomena, including the mere I, lack real existence, we typically do not feel it—it remains in the head and can have a cold, arid, lifeless quality that is not fundamentally transformative. The reified I changes with new information but does not transform. We try repeatedly to change our lives and do this and that practice, but we continue to get stuck and frustrated; then we end up going the wrong direction and losing our way. This is because the cognitive mind, so strongly developed and employed in the speedy modern world, can know feelings but does not feel the feelings fully. So like a bird with one wing trying to fly, we don’t get very far.
We need to train and educate the clarity aspect of mind in harmony with the subtle body, the underlying nature of which is essence love. The Tibetan term for essence love is nying-je, which is translated as “noble heart” or “lord of the heart.” It refers to a quality of heart that is completely unconditional and free from all attachment. This kind of love—a spark of buddhanature that resides within all of us—is contrasted with conditional love, which is based on various levels of giving and receiving love. Essence love is the pure feeling within and behind all conditional feelings. Once we connect again and again with this essence love, having cultivated a nonjudgmental mind, our dharma practice can be authentic and life changing. Otherwise there is the danger of using dharma as a kind of pretense, a game of self-deception.

Over time, all of us can learn to dance and feel the rhythms and movements of the heart and the head, wisdom and compassion, thinking and feeling, and ultimately that of the absolute in the relative and relative in the absolute.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche is a meditation master in the kagyu and nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and son of the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. He teaches widely in the West and oversees nunneries and monasteries in Tibet and Nepal. His latest book is Open Heart, Open Mind. He will be teaching at the Shambhala Sun's meditation retreat at the Omega Institute, August 26 to 30, 2015.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Becoming a Better Person

At some point in our lives, many of us find ourselves overcome with the desire to become better people. While we are all uniquely capable of navigating this world, we may nonetheless feel driven to grow, expand, and change. This innate need for personal expansion can lead us down many paths as we develop within the context of our individual lives. Yet the initial steps that can put us on the road to evolution are not always clear. We understand that we want to be better but have no clear definition of "better." To ease this often frustrating uncertainty, we can take small steps, keeping our own concept of growth in mind rather than allowing others to direct the course of our journey. And we should accept that change won't happen overnight--we may not recognize the transformations taking place within us at first.

Becoming a better person in your own eyes is a whole-life project, and thus you should focus your step-by-step efforts on multiple areas of your existence. Since you likely know innately which qualities you consider good, growing as an individual is simply a matter of making an effort to do good whenever possible. Respect should be a key element of your efforts. When you acknowledge that all people are deserving of compassion, consideration, and dignity, you are naturally more apt to treat them in the manner you yourself wish to be treated. You will intuitively become a more active listener, universally helpful, and truthful. Going the extra mile in all you do can also facilitate evolution. Approaching your everyday duties with an upbeat attitude and positive expectations can help you make the world a brighter, more cheerful place. Finally, coming to terms with your values and then abiding by them will enable you to introduce a new degree of integrity and dignity into your life.

As you endeavor to develop yourself further, you can take pride not only in your successes, but also in the fact that you are cultivating consciousness within yourself through your choices, actions, and behaviors. While you may never feel you have reached the pinnacles of awareness you hope to achieve, you can make the most of this creative process of transformation. Becoming a better person is your choice and is a natural progression in your journey of self-awareness.