Consider the advantages
of this rare human existence.
- JAMGON KONGTRUL,The Torch of Certainty, translated by Judith Hanson
Among all living creatures studied thus far by modern scientists, only human beings can be said with absolute certainty to have been endowed with the ability to make deliberate choices about the direction of their lives, and to discern whether those choices will lead them through the valley of transitory happiness or into a realm of a lasting peace and well-being. Though we may be genetically wired for temporary happiness, we’ve also been gifted with the ability to recognize within ourselves a more profound and lasting sense of confidence, peace, and well-being. Among sentient beings, human beings appear to stand alone in their ability to recognize the necessity to forge a bond between reason, emotion, and the instinct to survive, and in so doing create a universe - not only for themselves and the human generations that follow, but also for all creatures who feel pain, fear, and suffering - in which we all are able to coexist contentedly and peaceably.
This universe already exists, even if we don’t realize it at present. The aim of Buddhist teachings is to develop the capacity to recognize that this universe - which is really nothing more or less than the infinite possibility inherent within our own being - exists in the here and now. In order to recognize it, however, it is necessary to learn how to rest the mind. Only through resting the mind in its natural awareness can we begin to recognize that we are not our thoughts, not our feelings, and not our perceptions. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are functions of the body. And everything I’ve learned as a Buddhist and everything I’ve learned about modern science tells me that human beings are more than just their bodies.
The exercises I’ve presented in this book represent only the first stage of the path toward realization of your full potential, your Buddha nature. On their own, these exercises about learning to calm your mind, becoming familiar with it, and developing a sense of loving-kindness and compassion can effect undreamed-of changes in your life. Who wouldn’t want to feel confident and calm in the face of difficulties, reduce or eliminate their sense of isolation, or contribute, however indirectly, to the happiness and well-being of others, providing thereby an environment in which we ourselves, those we love and care for, and generations as yet unborn can flourish? All it takes to accomplish these marvels is a little patience, a little diligence, a little willingness to let go of conditioned ideas about yourself and the world around you. All it takes is a bit of practice in waking up in the middle of the dreamscape of your life and recognizing that there is no difference between the experience of the dream and the mind of the dreamer.
Just as the landscape of a dream is infinite in scope, so is your Buddha nature. The stories surrounding Buddhist masters of the past are full of wonderful tales of men and women who walked on water, passed through fire unharmed, and communicated telepathically with their followers across great distances. My own father was able to undergo the experience of a surgeon slicing through the sensitive layers of skin and muscle around his eye without feeling pain.
I can also share with you a few interesting stories about a man who lived in the twentieth century who achieved his full potential as a sentient being. That man was the Sixteenth Karmapa, the previous head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. In the wake of the difficulties that shook Tibet in the late 1950s, he and a large group of followers resettled in Sikkim, in northern India, where he founded a large monastery, several schools, and a variety of institutions to support a thriving community for exiled Tibetans. Once the community in Sikkim was securely established, the Karmapa began traveling the world, teaching the growing number of people who at that time were just beginning to become aware of the special nature of Tibetan Buddhism. In the course of his travels through Europe and North America, he performed what might be described as miracles, such as leaving his footprints in solid rock, and bringing rain to drought-stricken areas of the American Southwest - on one occasion causing a spring to appear spontaneously in a desert region occupied by Hopi Indians.
But it was the manner of the Sixteenth Karmapa’s death that offered those who witnessed it the most vivid demonstration of the qualities of natural mind. In 1981 he was treated for cancer at a hospital outside of Chicago. The course of his illness bewildered his medical team, as his symptoms seemed to come and go for no apparent reason, disappearing altogether at times, only to reappear later in some previously unaffected area of his body - as though, according to one description, “his body were joking with the machines”. Throughout the ordeal, the Karmapa never complained of pain. He was much more interested in the well-being of the hospital staff, many of whom stopped by regularly simply to experience the enormous sense of tranquillity and compassion that radiated from him despite the ravages of disease.
When he died, the lamas and other Tibetans who’d stayed with him throughout his treatment asked that his body remain undisturbed for three days, as is the Tibetan custom after the passage of a great master. Because the Karmapa had made such a profound impression on the hospital staff, the administration granted their request, and, rather than immediately removing his remains to the hospital morgue, they allowed his body to remain in his room, seated in the meditation posture in which he’d died.
As documented by the doctors who examined him over the course of those three days, the Karmapa’s body never underwent rigor mortis, and the area around his heart remained nearly as warm as that of a living person. More than twenty years later, the condition of his body after death defies medical explanation, and still leaves a profound impact on those who witnessed it.
I suspect that his decision to be treated and to leave his body in a Western hospital was the Sixteenth Karmapa’s last, and perhaps greatest, gift to humanity: a demonstration to the Western scientific community that we do indeed possess capacities that cannot be explained in ordinary terms.
FINDING A TEACHER
You must be guided
by an authentic spiritual mentor.
- THE NINTH GYALWANG KARMAPA, Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
The interesting aspect regarding the masters of the past and present is that they shared a similar process of training. They began by practicing many of the exercises in calming the mind and developing compassion presented in this book, and then reached their full potential by following the lead of a teacher wiser and more experienced than themselves.
If you want to go further, if you want to explore and experience your full potential, you need a guide. You need a teacher.
What are the qualities of a good teacher? First of all, the teacher must have been trained according to a lineage - otherwise, he or she may just be making up the rules or guidelines of practice out of his or her own pride, or perpetuating a misunderstanding of what he or she has read in books. There is also a great but subtle power in receiving guidance from a teacher trained in an established lineage tradition: the power of interdependence discussed in Part One. When you work with a teacher trained in a lineage, you become part of the “family” of that lineage. Just as you learned unspoken yet invaluable lessons from your birth family or the family in which you were raised, you will gain priceless lessons just through observing and interacting with a true lineage teacher.
In addition to having been trained in the disciplines of a particular lineage, a qualified teacher must also demonstrate compassion and, through his or her actions, subtly make clear his or her own realization without ever mentioning it. Avoid teachers who talk about their own accomplishments - because that kind of talk or boasting is a sure sign that they have not achieved realization at all. Teachers who have had some experience never speak about their own accomplishments, but tend, instead, to speak about the qualities of their own teachers. And yet you can sense their own qualities through the aura of authority that envelops them, like the light reflecting from a nugget of gold. You don’t see the gold itself, but only the brilliance of golden light.
Intention is the karma of the mind
- GUNAPRABHA, The Treasury of Abhidharma, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
Just watch a child playing a video game, obsessed with pushing buttons to kill enemies and win points, and you’ll see how addictive such games can be. Then take a step back and see how the financial, romantic, or other “games” you’ve been playing as an adult are just as addictive. The main difference between an adult and a child is that an adult has the experience and understanding to step away from the game. An adult can choose to look more objectively at his or her mind, and in doing so develop a sense of compassion for others who haven’t been able to make that choice.
As described throughout the preceding pages, once you commit yourself to developing an awareness of your Buddha nature, you’ll inevitably start to see changes in your day-to-day experience. Things that used to trouble you gradually lose their power to upset you. You’ll become intuitively wiser, more relaxed, and more openhearted. You’ll begin to recognize obstacles as opportunities for further growth. And as your illusory sense of limitation and vulnerability gradually fades away, you’ll discover deep within yourself the true grandeur of who and what you are.
Best of all, as you start to see your own potential, you’ll also begin to recognize it in everyone around you. Buddha nature is not a special quality available to a privileged few. The true mark of recognizing your Buddha nature is to realize how ordinary it really is - the ability to see that every living creature shares it, though not everyone recognizes it in themselves. So instead of closing your heart to people who yell at you or act in some other harmful way, you find yourself becoming more open. You recognize that they aren’t just jerks, but are people who, like you, want to be happy and peaceful; they’re only acting like jerks because they haven’t recognized their true nature and are overwhelmed by sensations of vulnerability and fear.
Your practice can begin with the simple aspiration to do better, to approach all of your activities with a greater sense of mindfulness, and to open your heart more deeply toward others. Motivation is the single most important factor in determining whether your experience is conditioned by suffering or by peace. Mindfulness and compassion actually develop at the same pace. The more mindful you become, the easier you’ll find it to be compassionate. And the more you open your heart to others, the more mindful you become in all your activities.
At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited, or to remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned, and incapable of being harmed. You can remain in the sleep of ignorance, or remember that you are and always have been awake. Either way, you’re still expressing the unlimited nature of your true being. Ignorance, vulnerability, fear, anger, and desire are expressions of the infinite potential of your Buddha nature. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right with making such choices. The fruit of Buddhist practice is simply the recognition that these and other mental afflictions are nothing more or less than choices available to us because our real nature is infinite in scope.
We choose ignorance because we can. We choose awareness because we can. Samsara and nirvana are simply different points of view based on the choices we make in how to examine and understand our experience. There’s nothing magical about nirvana and nothing bad or wrong about samsara. If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so, and that the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.
In essence, the Buddhist path offers a choice between familiarity and practicality. There is, without question, a certain comfort and stability in maintaining familiar patterns of thought and behavior. Stepping outside that zone of comfort and familiarity necessarily involves moving into a realm of unfamiliar experience that may seem really scary - an uncomfortable in-between realm like the one I experienced in retreat. You don’t know whether to go back to what was familiar but frightening or to forge ahead toward what may be frightening simply because it’s unfamiliar.
In a sense, the uncertainty surrounding the choice to recognize your full potential is similar to what several of my students have told me about ending an abusive relationship: There’s a certain reluctance or sense of failure associated with letting go of the relationship. The primary difference between severing an abusive relationship and entering the path of Buddhist practice is that when you enter the path of Buddhist practice you’re ending an abusive relationship with yourself. When you choose to recognize your true potential, you gradually begin to find yourself belittling yourself less frequently, your opinion of yourself becomes more positive and wholesome, and your sense of confidence and the sheer joy of being alive increases. At the same time, you begin to recognize that everyone around you has the same potential, whether they know it or not. Instead of dealing with them as threats or adversaries, you’ll find yourself able to recognize and empathize with their fear and unhappiness and spontaneously respond to them in ways that emphasize solutions rather than problems.
Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them. I can’t promise you that it will always be pleasant to simply rest in the awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, and to recognize them as interactive creations between your own mind and body. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that looking at yourself this way will be, at times, extremely unpleasant. But the same can be said about beginning anything new, whether it’s going to the gym, starting a job, or beginning a diet.
The first few months are always difficult. It’s hard to learn all the skills you need to master a job; it’s hard to motivate yourself to exercise; it’s hard to eat healthfully every day. But after a while the difficulties subside, you start to feel a sense of pleasure or accomplishment, and your entire sense of self begins to change.
Meditation works the same way. For the first few days you might feel very good, but after a week or so, practice becomes a trial. You can’t find the time, sitting is uncomfortable, you can’t focus, or you just get tired. You hit a wall, as runners do when they try to add an extra half mile to their exercise. The body says, “I can’t,” while the mind says, “I should.” Neither voice is particularly pleasant; in fact, they’re both a bit demanding.
Buddhism is often referred to as the “middle way” because it offers a third option. If you just can’t focus on a sound or a candle flame for one second longer, then by all means stop. Otherwise, meditation becomes a chore. You’ll end up thinking, Oh no, it’s 7:15. I have to sit down and cultivate happiness. No one ever progresses that way. On the other hand, if you think you could go on for another minute or two, by all means do so. You may be surprised by what you learn. You might discover a particular thought or feeling behind your resistance that you didn’t want to acknowledge. Or you may simply find that you can actually rest your mind longer than you thought you could - and that discovery alone can give you greater confidence in yourself, while at the same time reducing your level of Cortisol, increasing your level of dopamine, and generating more activity in the left prefrontal lobe of your brain. And these biological changes can make a huge difference in your day, providing a physical reference point for calmness, steadiness, and confidence.
But the best part of all is that no matter how long you meditate, or what technique you use, every technique of Buddhist meditation ultimately generates compassion, whether we’re aware of it or not. Whenever you look at your mind, you can’t help but recognize your similarity to those around you. When you see your own desire to be happy, you can’t avoid seeing the same desire in others, and when you look clearly at your own fear, anger, or aversion, you can’t help but see that everyone around you feels the same fear, anger, and aversion.
When you look at your own mind, all the imaginary differences between yourself and others automatically dissolve and the ancient prayer of the Four Immeasurables becomes as natural and persistent as your own heart beat:
May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all sentient beings have joy and the causes of joy.
May all sentient beings remain in great equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.