True Self

In recent posts I have mentioned the false sense of “self” several times.  But what about the self we call True Self?  True Self has many names: Buddha nature, original nature, mind – to mention just three.

Tsung-mi (780-841) was an important figure in Chinese Buddhism, regarded as both the fifth and final patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master of the Ho-tse School. For Tsung-mi, True Self was the Real Mind revealed through the process of awakening.  Here are some of his thoughts about the subject from Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings”:

“All sentient beings have been endowed with the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”

Ultimately, this True Self is unknowable.  Beyond all concepts and words.  Yet, in order to experience healing, find wisdom, and create harmony, we need to uncover True Self, remove the veils of delusion, lose our ego.  This allows us to drop off the feeling of separation from others and world.

Meditation is the indispensable tool, the most effective method for making thoughts of “I” disappear.  By intuitively realizing that we are not ego, that we are interconnected with the world and all living things, which is greater than self or ego, we have an opportunity to experience the harmony, the unity, we so urgently need.

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Can Meditation Bring About a Process of Healing?

When we suffer we experience pain.  Whether it is mental, emotional, and/or physical, pain is a message that something is out of balance, that we are lacking harmony.  Healing is the restoration of harmony.

In Taoism, everything is energy.  Pain and stress arise when energies are off balance or when they clash.  Taoism teaches how to achieve harmony.  Balance or harmony is also important in Buddhism, which holds that the main disturber of harmony is the false concept of “self,” “I,” or “ego.”

Both philosophies prescribe the same cure:  meditation.

Can meditation really bring about a process of healing?  That was the precisely the question posed to the great   philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti during a 1969 talk.  He answered,

“Most of us have had pain of some kind – intense, superficial, or pain that cannot be cured.  What effect has pain on the psyche, the brain or the mind?  Can the mind meditate, disassociating itself from pain?  Can the mind look at the physical pain and observe it without identifying itself with that pain?  If it can observe without identifying itself then there is quite a different quality to that pain…  The more you are attached to the pain, the more intense it is.  So that may help to bring about this healing, which is an important question and which can only take place when there is no `me’, no ego or self-centered activity.  Some people have a gift for it.  Others come upon it because there is no ego functioning.”

Krishnamurti considered meditation “the natural act [that] brings about the harmonious movement of the whole.” Healing is about becoming whole.

The word ‘whole’ comes from the old English ‘hale’, which means to be in good health, to be whole and healthy.  The original meaning of ‘whole’ implied “keeping the original sense,” “that which has also survived,” and “to heal.”  The prehistoric German root of whole is also the origin of ‘heal’, ‘health’, and ‘holy’.

To heal means to be whole and to be whole means to heal.

I don’t think we should ever expect to achieve complete wholeness or perfect harmony.  Because we are human beings, we will always be incomplete, imperfect.  Completion is the journey of life, and perfection, an endless further.

But we can expect to heal.  And naturally I am going to tell you that meditation, or what in the T’ien-t’ai/Tendai tradition is called kuan-ksin (Jp.  kanjin), “observing the mind,” is a powerful healing tool on all levels – mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and social.

“Meditation develops your innate energies. With practice, you can take charge of your mind and body, preventing disease before it arises. Shouldn’t everyone make an effort to learn something like this?”
– Yin Shih Tzu, Tranquil Sitting

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Thoughts and Prayers and the Violence Within

In the aftermath of tragedies like the Las Vegas massacre, we hear the familiar counsel to offer “thoughts and prayers.”  This week some voices have spoken up to suggest that this phrase is simply a by-word for inaction, that thoughts and prayers are simply not enough to overcome the spiral of gun violence in this country.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted, “Thoughts and prayers are NOT enough,” Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, during his show Monday night, lamented the lack of political action and said, “Your thoughts and prayers are insufficient.”

While I agree that more action needs to be taken to help curb gun violence, the interesting question to me is whether offering thoughts and prayers actually accomplish anything .  My feeling is they mainly help the person generating  the thoughts and/or offering the prayers.  They help us process our grief.  They make us feel that we are taking action, at least spiritually.

This begs another question: do thoughts and prayers transcend space and time?  I would say, yes.  Metaphorically speaking.  Do one’s prayers actually touch and help the person prayed for?  I’m doubtful.  In this context the kind of thoughts and prayers we’re talking about are externally directed, and as a Buddhist, I am skeptical about relying on external solutions.  If we really want to stop violence then we must look within ourselves, for that is where the causes for violence lie.

Thich Nhat Hanh from his book Creating Peace:

“Violence is never far.  It is possible to identify the seeds of violence in our everyday thoughts, speech and actions.  We can find these seeds within our own mind, in our attitudes, and in our fears and anxieties about ourselves and others.  Thinking itself can be violent, and violent thoughts can lead us to speak and act violently.  In this way, the violence in our minds manifest in the world.”

So, to find a real solution to violence, we must look within.  Like “thoughts and prayers,”  “looking within” has become a bit of a cliché, but what it represents, inner-directed reflection, is a universal truth.  Just as universal, I think, is the idea that real social change is only possible when each individual accomplishes a radical change within themselves.  It’s what the famous Gandhi quote means about becoming the change you wish to see in the world.  (There is no evidence he actually said that, but he did say this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”)

Changing the world through changing ourselves is not like sending out thoughts and prayers.  As Thich Nhat Hanh mentions, looking within, developing self-awareness, and actualizing positive inner change manifests in the world through our thoughts, speech, and actions just as our inner violence does.

At Psychology Today, Allen R McConnell Ph.D. writes,

“A variety of theories on self-regulation (i.e., how people direct their behavior in the pursuit of their goals) emphasize that change requires two things: a goal, and an awareness of where one currently is in order to assess the discrepancy between the two.  In short, we cannot reach our destinations without knowledge of our current location on the map.”

If our goal is stop gun violence, then we must to look within ourselves and develop an awareness of our own inner violence.  Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

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Death to the Concept of Death: Lama Zopa Rinpoche on Labels, Disease and Death

Lama Zopa Rinpoche is a scholar and teacher in the Tibetan Gelug tradition and the spiritual director of The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.  I’ve gotten a lot out his teachings on Medicine Buddha and healing.  However, with this teacher it is sometimes necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff.  By that I mean he might suggest as a way to evoke protection from natural disasters, you should make offerings to the beings who control the weather.  That’s a bit too mystical for me.  But if you can get past that kind of stuff, he has much wisdom to share.

Here is an excerpt from Medicine Buddha Retreat in which Lama Zopa offers a grounded and insightful explanation of one of the biggest obstacles to healing, and awakening.  The prayer he mentions is the standard “Going for Refuge” with an additional verse:  “I will lead all beings into the heart of enlightenment.”

The words you say in the bodhicitta prayer include your parents, your family and your enemy.  It includes the person you call your enemy, the person who has abused you and toward whom you have built up hatred because of your projections.  You put a negative label,” bad,” on that person and “abuse” on that person’s action.  Your mind made up the label, believed in that label… and you then allowed your mind to believe in that label.  That then made you generate hatred in your heart. I will say here… that when you analyze the situation, you find that the abuse actually came from you.  Why?  Because it came from your mind.  If your mind hadn’t labeled and you hadn’t believed in your label, you wouldn’t see yourself as having been abused…

It’s difficult to heal. Because you never change your concept, your problem never changes; your hatred never changes. The hatred is always there, because you never change your mind, your concept.

This explanation is talking about only this life, about how this problem of abuse came from your present life, from your mind making up the label “abuse” and believing in it. Here we’re not talking in terms of reincarnation and past karma.

Labeling is a problem.  According to Lama Zopa, labeling not only gets in the way of healing, it actually helps to cause disease.  Labeling leads to bias, seizing, clinging.  For Nagarjuna, the tendency to label things (prapanca) is one of the major roots of suffering.  Yet, we live by labels.  If we did not label or name things, we could not communicate.

So we label labeling as “bad.”  But it’s not all bad, there is a positive side:

Everything is created by the mind.  Everything is labeled by the mind.  The existence of a label does not mean there is an actual reality for something labeled, because all things and labels are empty (sunya).  In Ultimate Healing: The Power of Compassion, Lama Zopa tells us that disease is a label.  Death is just a label too.

Death is a concept, something that comes from our mind… death itself is not the problem; it is our concept of death that is the problem.  We have a concept of death as something that exists from its own side… that makes us frightened of death and does not allow us to relinquish our attachment to this life…  Death is merely labeled by our mind in dependence upon its base, the consciousness leaving the body.  This is all that death is.  Therefore, there is no death that exists from its own side.  There is no death in the sense of one that exists inherently.  It is a hallucination.

Disease and death are empty.  From the view of ultimate truth, they are only thought constructions, concepts produced by the mind, created by us.  We can learn to control our thoughts.  We can transform them.  Understanding this should by empowering.  As Lama Zopa suggests, “Knowing how much freedom we have should inspire us and give us hope.”

 

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Dedicating My Death to Others

Here is some advice that Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave to someone who was very sick:

“Think that I am the most fortunate one, that I have this sickness, I am the most fortunate one.  Why?  Because by having this sickness now I can practice pure Dharma.  I have been given the opportunity to practice pure Dharma.  So I can experience all sentient beings’ pain, disease, spirit harm, negative karma, and obscurations, and they can all achieve the Dharmakaya.”

Among other things, Dharmakaya represents the true nature of the Buddha, which is not separate from reality.  I look at it as our natural state of mind.  Lama Zopa is talking about attitude.  Some people believe that attitude is everything, the most important thing for business and personal success.  Attitude is important in awakening, too.  In Buddhism, we want to generate a bodhisattva attitude.  In secular terms, we would call it an altruistic attitude.

I can tell you from my own experience that seeing your ailment as an opportunity to deepen your practice is illuminating, while having the thought of using your sickness or injury for the benefit of others is liberating.

In February 2015, I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.  My oncologist said it would kill me.  Well, dying time is getting closer.  My left leg is riddled with tumors.  Some tumors elsewhere.  The doctors say that my life expectancy is now three months to a year.  A year and a half is possible.  Two years, highly doubtful.  But I have beaten the odds so far, no one expected me to last this long.

In a sense, I have already overcome death.  Because I have changed my thinking about it.  It’s been a long process that didn’t just begin with the cancer diagnoses.  Using thought transformation, I’ve changed my attitude.  It’s nothing special, anyone can do it.

Death is a natural process.  There’s no real need to be troubled by it.  However, Buddhism considers untimely death, like mine, to be unnatural.  Damn right.  It’s also unfair and unreasonable…  but I can give my untimely, unnatural death a purpose.

Dedicating one’s sickness or death to the welfare of others is a bit abstract.  Yet, in the world of mind, for the person who is sick or dying, it has a healing quality.  Bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, has power.  It’s not supernatural power, but the power of attitude that comes from mind-development (bhavana), insight, and having purpose, and it is therapeutic both emotionally and psychologically.  We can start to transcend sickness and death, or any other suffering, by viewing them as empty thought constructions rising from our luminous mind.

There are times when I am depressed, and frustrated, especially in regards to the physical pain I experience, but then I think of the pain of others…

“All that mass of pain and evil karma I take into my own body . . . I take upon myself the burden of sorrow; I resolve to do so; I endure it all. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair. Assuredly, I must bear the burdens of all beings . . . for I have resolved to save them all. I must set them all free, I must save the whole world from the forest of birth, old age, disease, and rebirth, from misfortune and sin, from the round of birth and death, from the toils of illusion.”
– Vajradhvaja Sutra

The word ‘purpose’ comes from purposer, which means “to intend.”  In Tibetan Buddhism, bodhicitta is often called “altruistic intention.”  Some psychologists maintain that people with a sense of purpose tend to live longer.  I don’t think I will get a chance to test that theory.  However, the heightened sense of purpose I’ve felt has enhanced the quality of my life, and sometimes quality is more important than longevity.  Most of us have a sense of purpose already or feel that our life has meaning, but this is a different meaning, this altruistic intention has a nobler sense of purpose.

Bodhicitta is not a new concept for me.  I’ve written about it before.  My first real insight into the thought of awakening came from a Dalai Lama teaching in 1996.  Since death is such a heavy thing, I find my intention, my sense of purpose, charged with new energy.  When we realize that our ultimate purpose for everything we do is to be of benefit to others, we turn the Buddha’s First Noble Truth around and life is no longer suffering, rather it is joy, fulfillment, nirvana.  That was his intention, his purpose, for us to turn it around.

This is not a Pollyanna vision of life.  Joy is not always constant.  Fulfillment is often challenged.  And nirvana is a dynamic state of mind that must be steadily nurtured and protected.

“Our spiritual destination is personal nirvana.”
– Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen

My impending death has become a new path to get there.

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