“When the mind is free…”

I’ve had the opportunity to attend quite a few teachings by the Dalai Lama over the years.  If you have too, then you know they are usually 3 or 4 day affairs, 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon, and the Dalai Lama gives deep teachings.  It is unfortunate that he is more renown as a sort of Buddhist celebrity.  In my opinion, his real contribution to all of us is being the foremost teacher and interpreter of Madhyamaka philosophy in the world today.  I can’t think of any other teacher who comes close.

Here are some notes I took at a 2001 teaching on Shantideva’s “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.”  I thought I would share them with you:

If you wish to overcome hatred you must cultivate loving-kindness just as you turn on heat to dispel cold or turn on a light to illuminate darkness.

In itself, the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality.

Samsara has a powerful antidote and the power of this antidote can be increased infinitely.

When the mind is free from mental afflictions, the mind can then permeate and perceive both conventional and ultimate truth simultaneously.  

We who recite the Heart Sutra should accept the Buddha as the embodiment of the object of ultimate realization.  Bodhicitta [‘thought of awakening’] is the aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the welfare of all beings. When bodhicitta arises, all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva.

If you have insight into emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not realize full awakening.  If you have no insight into emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what.  Bodhicitta is a benefit both temporary and long term.  You should practice bodhicitta as an antidote to pride.  It is also powerful when you are depressed.

Bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or offering a prayer, but you can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.

To develop compassion first cultivate a sense of closeness to all sentient beings, then a real empathy with them.  A practice that is very powerful for cultivating compassion is seeing others as your mother, who symbolizes the one who has shown you the greatest kindness.

It is important to have some understanding of what kind of sufferings you wish others to be free from.  The wish to free oneself from suffering is true renunciation.  To wish others to be free is true compassion.

Bodhicitta has two elements: 1) closeness to others and 2) understanding of suffering.

To achieve the kind of liberation we are talking about requires great courage.

Three elements to attain Buddhahood: 1) bodhicitta, the heart of the practice, 2) compassion, and 3) understanding of emptiness (through tranquil abiding and penetrative insight).

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind and mind training.

Both the Buddha and Nagarjuna had unobstructed vision.  One should think that in their presence, ‘I have nothing to hide, I have no guilty conscience.’

Great guidance! As you know, a bodhisattva is an individual who begins his or her practice by generating bodhicitta, the aspirational wish to liberate all living beings from their sufferings.   The Tibetan term for bodhisattva is jang chub sem pa, which translates roughly as “mind-hero.”

Bodhisattvas are heroes of the mind.   They have learned to master their minds, rather than letting their minds master them.  Why are they heroes?  They have the “great courage” the Dalai Lama talks about, the bravery, the audacity to aspire for liberation.

It reminds me of the line in the David Bowie song “Heroes”: “We can be heroes, just for one day.”  That is all it takes… small acts of random kindness… beginning with just one day.  Be a hero for just one day and it expands from there like a ripple in a still water when there is a pebble tossed… which reminds me of another song…

 

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Study: Generosity makes you happier.

After conducting a study to investigate how brain areas communicate to produce feelings of well-being, researchers at the University of Zurich have concluded that “Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous.  People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy.  Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier.”

This is hardly news.  It’s what Buddhism and other philosophies both religious and secular have always maintained.  Yet, insight into how this works is useful.

In the study, the researchers took 50 people and divided them into two groups, one ‘generous’ and the other ‘selfish.’  The ‘selfish’ group was asked to think about spending 100 Swiss francs on themselves and the ‘generous’ group were to consider spending the same money on another person.  Although I’m not sure how they did this, they measured happiness levels before and after the experiment, and found that those in the group asked to think about spending money on others had a larger “mood boost” than the other group.

The bottom line is both simple and encouraging:  Prof.  Philippe Tobler says, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier.  Just being a little more generous will suffice.”

The Buddhist term for generosity is dàna, a Pali word that literally means “almsgiving,” but in general refers to the practice of giving.  The first step (paramita) on the Bodhisattva path is giving of oneself.

Some years ago, in a series of dharma talks on Lamrim ((Tibetan: “stages of the path”), Thubten Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist nun and founder Sravasti Abbey*, drew a distinction between worldly generosity and what she calls the “far-reaching attitude of generosity” :

“[The] far-reaching attitude of generosity [is] sometimes called giving.  It’s not just generosity as we normally think of it.  Generosity is giving things, which is great; but the far-reaching attitude of generosity is combined with both compassion and wisdom.  It’s different from ordinary generosity, because it is motivated by the wish to become a Buddha in order to benefit others.  It’s very different from ordinary generosity that happens at Christmas time or at Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Valentine’s.  That kind of generosity is very much based on the happiness of this life.”

To achieve the far-reaching attitude of generosity, one must first achieve true selflessness.  This means to practice generosity without making distinctions, without discrimination or preferences.  To practice generosity without preferences is to help others regardless of who or what they are, and it also means giving without any purpose in mind, without thoughts of reward or benefit.

Ultimately, the idea is to dissolve the concepts of subject and object, self and others, because as Seng-ts’an wrote in the “Faith-Mind Inscription” (Hsin-hsin Ming),

“One thing, all things; move among and intermingle, without distinction.  To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about nonperfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality, because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.”

“Trusting” corresponds to the Chinese character hsin or “faith, belief.”  We could also call it confidence.  It’s trusting that the mind’s true nature is awakened mind or Buddha-nature.

The kind of generosity that Thubten Chodron speaks of, the kind of true selflessness that wrote about – these are far-reaching goals.  We might be tempted to doubt ourselves and think, I can’t achieve that sort of all-embracing attitude.   And we can’t, not all at once.  We begin with small steps.  As the University of Zurich shows, just thinking about being more generous can make us happier.

If with kindly generosity
One thinks, “May I relieve living beings
Merely of headaches,”
This produces a boundless positive force…

– Shantideva

– – – – – – – – – –

* Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.

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More Precious than a Wish-fulfilling Jewel

Chiron was a centaur, and if you know your Greek mythology, you’ll recall that centaurs are half-human, half-horse. Chiron, however, was a something special. He was extremely wise, and he was an immortal god to boot. One day he was accidently struck by Hercules’ arrow. The wound was so agonizingly painful, Chiron wanted to die. But he couldn’t, because he was immortal. One of the downsides to being a god, I guess.

Eventually, he was able to renounce his immortality and before he went off to Elysium (the afterlife), he taught the art of medicine to man, and to gods, including Askelpios, who became the god of medicine. For this, Chiron is known as the “father of medicine” and the “wounded healer.”

Carl Jung borrowed “wounded healer” to describe an archetype he saw in the relationship between an analyst and patients. An analyst, or doctor, is able to treat others because “The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.”

If we unpack that idea a bit, then we can say that generally speaking, as we are all wounded in some way, for we all experience pain and suffering, and because each of us has the capacity to help others to alleviate their pain and suffering, we are all healers. Furthermore, as the myth of Chiron represents the ideal of compassion and selfless service, it is similar to the ideal of the Bodhisattva; so, we can be Bodhisattvas, too.

Jung, in outlining his concept of the wounded healer in Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy (1951), said he believed disease was the best training for a physician.

Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”
Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”

There is no doubt that the experience of sufferings is beneficial training for the practice of altruism, but in Buddhism the prime cause for helping others is much more fundamental. In Supplement to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti wrote, “Compassion alone is seen as the seed . . . as water for its growth, and as ripening into a lasting source of usefulness. And so, first, I pay homage to compassion.”

He’s talking about Bodhicitta, the wish to realize awakening for the benefit of all living beings. There are two kinds of bodhicitta: “aspiration bodhicitta”, generating the thought, and “action bodhicitta” or putting the thought into practice.

Year ago, at a meditation class I was leading, a first time visitor, a rather cynical young man, wanted to know why we should practice compassion. He thought there should be a reason for it. I must admit that I failed at making him understand that compassion does not need a reason. It is a kind of vicarious identification, you see the suffering of living beings and you feel empathy, you feel compassion. I realize now that he suffered from an acute sense of separation from others and consequently, he thought he needed some rationale for practicing compassion.

That is why it is important for us who understand the inseparability, the interdependence of all things to reflect on thoughts like the one we find expressed in Geshe Langri Thangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind:

By thinking of all sentient beings
As more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel
For accomplishing the highest aim,
I will always hold them dear.

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Use Life

Once at a four-day teaching in Los Angeles, during a question and answer period, the Dalai Lama was asked, “What is the quickest and easiest way to attain enlightenment?” The question caused the Dalai Lama to break down in tears. When he recovered his composure, he began to tell a story about the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who facing death, was giving his last instructions to a disciple and showed him the calluses on his behind. Milarepa said, “Look at this, this is what I’ve endured, this is the mark of my practice.” Just as the translator was relaying this, the Dalai Lama interrupted and, in one of the few times he spoke English during that teaching, exclaimed, “Don’t think quickest, easiest, cheapest!”

The next day, the Dalai Lama said that it really doesn’t matter if one becomes enlightened or not. The purpose of existence, he said, is to be of benefit to others, “and if a person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose.”

Consider the words “purpose of existence.” It implies that there is purpose to life. Naturally, people see that purpose differently, according to their own world-view. The view the Dalai Lama was speaking from was that of the bodhisattva, who undertakes the mission to relieve the suffering of others.

Shi Ming: “Use Life”
Shi Ming: “Use Life”

The Chinese term for “mission” is shi ming, which is made of two characters when put together literally mean “use life.” Outwardly, the bodhisattva’s mission is an altruistic one, but there is a more fundamental task at hand, and that is to use life, not to waste it.

There are those who fear that in service to others they will become subservient, or that in the practice of compassion, others will take advantage of them. But these fears are based on a limited view of what service means, what to be of benefit to others entails. Creating art is a benefit to others. Building a road serves others. A smile can help relieve someone’s suffering.

The point is to go beyond the routine of life, to use life, not merely live it. It means to regard each present moment as an opportunity to do something. Great or small, it doesn’t make a difference. Just do something that goes beyond yourself.

One of the greatest challenges of life is learning how to use it. When we use life in a meaningful way, we gain a sense of purpose. When we gain a sense of purpose, we have a mission. When we are dedicated to the fundamental mission of using our life for something worthwhile, we find myriad ways to be of benefit to others. Then everything we do can be a form of service. Nothing is wasted. Each moment is like a small drop of water poured into the ocean that lasts until the ocean itself evaporates.

So, use life.

 

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The Children of Jizo

Sunday night in Newtown, President Obama asked, “Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?” His answer was a resounding “No.” How everyone else will answer in the comming days and weeks will remain to be seen, but I suspect that since Friday many have pondered this same question in one form or another.

In Buddhist mythology, the protection of children, especially deceased children, is the mission of Bodhisattva Jizo. While this Buddhist icon has a Sanskrit name, Ksitigarbha, meaning “Earth Store”  or “Earth Womb,” I believe that most scholars are of the opinion that the sutra in which he first appears is Chinese in origin. Jizo is how the Bodhisattva is known in Japan.

Kshitigarbha with his staff and mani jewel, from a Korean painting, c. 14th century

The Sutra of The Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva relates how Jizo followed a path of filial piety in previous lifetimes and became a bodhisattva, making great vows to liberate other sentient beings. Jizo’s primary vow is that he will not attain Buddhahood until “all the Hells are empty.” This great determination is symbolized by the shakujo or sistrum, the “monk’s staff,” which the Buddha is said to have asked mendicant priests to carry. According to E. Dale Saunders “In China, the shakujo is used in the ceremony for the salvation of ancestors. It is carried by a monk who represents Jizo going through the Hells, forcing the demons to open the doors of cells where the dammed are caught.”*

In China, Jizo is called Ti-ts’ang, or Dizang, and the reverence afforded him is superseded only by Kuan Yin and the Buddha. Jizo is the protector of women and travelers. In Japan, ceremonies are offered to Jizo to help ease the suffering of women who have lost children. Evidently, it was only in Japan where Jizo also became the protector of children. Bodhisattva Jizo is said to help deceased children navigate the transition between life and death.

Children are considered too young and innocent to have a deep grasp of the Buddha’s teachings, and therefore they are unable to attain enlightenment. In Japanese Buddhist mythology, when they die at an early age, they are “in limbo” and go to a place called Sai no Kawara (“Children’s Limbo,” originally from Shintoism), a mystical riverbed where they stack piles of stones into small towers that symbolize help the children offer to their parents to accumulate merit for their own journey through the cycle of birth and death. Each night demons destroy these towers, and so each day the children must pile them again. The demons also appear during the day, scaring the children as they play or as they build their towers.

Bodhisattva Jizo helps the children on the banks of the Sai no Kawara. When they are frightened by the demons, they can jump into the sleeve of Jizo’s robe, where they feel safe.

Jizo statues in a Japanese cemetery. The wool hats and bibs are placed by parents in hopes that Jizo will cloth their dead child in his protection.

In Japan, Jizo statues are found outside of temples, in cemeteries, and at crossroads. The features of the statues are childlike to resemble the children Jizo protects. Often people will pile stone pebbles before them as an offering to departed children, or they leave toys, candy or fruit.

The Ksitigarbha Sutra contains a beautiful story, too long to include in this post, of how in a previous life, Jizo was a Brahman girl who became the Earth Store Bodhisattva. We may ask ourselves what relevance stories like this have for us today, how all this symbolism relates to real protection for children who seem to be under siege and, as Robert B. Reich wrote yesterday in the Chicago Tribune, “shortchanged on almost every issue we face as a society.”

The answer is fairly obvious. President Obama said it the other night: “[We] bear responsibility for every child, because . . .  we’re all parents, that they are all our children.”

We have to be the Jizos of the real world, the protectors of all children.

I can’t imagine what it is like to be a child in today’s world. Those of us, of a certain age, were lucky in that our childhoods were mostly innocent affairs. The only bad guys I ever saw growing up were on television. The only shootings I witnessed were not real.

“When [the] qualities of Jizo become our own, then . . . we do not know boredom or loneliness. We are always accompanied,” says Jan Chozen Bays in her book on Jizo.**

I would add that when we take on Jizo’s qualities, we then accompany others. When we assume the responsibility – when we share responsibility, for all living beings, that is when we are never lonely.

Every person can open the sleeves of their heart to become a Bodhisattva Jizo in the real world. There are myriad ways in which each of us can contribute to the protection of children. They are in limbo, for they are helpless without our support. In the spirit of the Metta Sutta, “just as a mother protects with the life of her child,” let us use the staffs of our compassion to unlock the cells that have caught our most precious treasure.

Two Jizo haikus by Issa:

suzume no ko jizô no sode ni kakure keri

baby sparrow
safe in holy Jizo’s
sleeve

(1814)

takenoko no ban shite gozaru jizô kana

kindly guarding
the bamboo shoots…
holy Jizo

(1821)

—————–

* E. Dale Saunders, Mudra, A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture, Bollingen Foundation/Pantheon Books, Inc., 1960

** Jan Chozen Bays, Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers, and Other Voyagers, Shambhala Publications, 2003

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