(Second launch attempt) Here in the mountains of India there is so much to be grateful for. Just the ability to have come here from Australia and to be able to spend nine weeks exploring some of this great country is such a gift from the universe. And each day there is so much to trigger appreciation and thanks. The courtesy, charm and helpfulness of the many men and women looking after our basic needs in hotels and restaurants is outstanding.
Arriving in a new town, our taxi or tuk-tuk driver rarely knows where to find our hotel but when they ask, quickly a group of eager helpers form to give directions. On two occasions a man has actually jumped into the front seat to show our driver all the way to the hotel! How often would this happen in Australia, I wonder?
When I think of all the delicious food we have been given, without us raising a finger – except to make the effort of choosing what delicacy to have today – I am filled with gratitude. So many people and other life forms have been involved in planting, pollinating, fertilising, harvesting, storing, transporting, and now cooking, presenting and serving this delicious food and drink. They fill our rice bowl and we fill their rice bowl indirectly with our cash. And if I think of the many, many hands our cash has passed through, my mind spins!
Then there is the majesty of the mountains; the wonder of the engineering and architectural skills that have built these numerous buildings, apparently one on top of the other, up the steep mountain sides. Outside our window – and the windows of most of the hotels we have stayed in – there is a sheer drop, followed by several rooftops to look over to distant hills with more carefully inlaid buildings to house our ever-expanding human race!
View from our hotel, through the cloud
Another of my particular pleasures is watching the brightly coloured tunic outfits, dresses and veils of the women parading the streets of these cool, holiday mountain towns we have the privilege to be visiting. It is with great joy and thanks that I have been able to join these Indian women in wearing such beautiful, feminine and comfortable clothes and ephemeral veils. It feels like at last I have come home as a woman! And, again, I am filled with gratitude.
Friendly Indian princesses
And the Sikh men with their coloured turbans are also beautiful to watch!
Here in Simla, the cool mountain escape from the vast plains so India, I am aware that this is a place of privilege, largely visited by the wealthy middle class. Beggars and gross poverty are much less visible here, unless you go down the many small alleys.
He had such beautiful eyes and made a great job of my filthy shoes, even gluing bits of the sole that were loose.
I had my first experience of having my shoes cleaned, a few days ago after several long walks in rain and mud. Here was another example of generosity, appreciation and sharing of goodwill. The young man doing me the honour spoke good English, learned on the street, and told me proudly how he had never gone to school but was a very good shoe doctor. He was a delight!
And several of the regular people asking for alms in McCloud Ganj were also inspiring – with their shining eyes (my two favourite old women) and warm thanks as they cradled my hands and face. What teachers to remind me of my enormous good fortune!
Such warm thanks she would always give me!
The common attitude towards photographing each other is also marked by generosity and inclusiveness. Certainly, the most common photo shoot is of the loved one or family group but, if anyone sees you pointing your camera in their direction, they quickly pose for you and we all exchange greetings. Frequently, we are asked to be photographed with their friend or loved one and then, again, friendly greetings and thanks are exchanged. So much warmth and friendliness!
Photographs were taken all round, even by a man standing nearby!
All this contemplation of the gratitude inspired by my senses, reminds me of the much greater gratitude for this precious human rebirth. I feel around me the multitude of teachers – speaking simultaneously in many tongues and one tongue – who have guided me, and continue to guide me through this precious life and their support is of inconceivable value. Thank you! Thank you, I say to them.
Just one small example of my dharma teachers’ help comes to mind as I notice my increased trust and consequent reduced fear as I am driven on these narrow, winding roads, hugging the cliffs, with numerous blind corners that bus or taxi driver persistently overtake on, with horns blaring! I am amazed but not frightened! I put this relatively new ability to trust down to a combination of moment-to-moment mindfulness, ever-deepening awareness of impermanence and the consequent inevitability of unknowing what the next moment may bring. So there is no point in dwelling on possible outcomes and much more satisfying to enjoy the discovery of finding oneself still alive! Letting go of each moment and just being present seems to make one so much more appreciative of what is there.
Mindfulness personified in deity form!
I feel my experience of confronting fear when riding a motorbike also has helped me let go of attempts to control the future and just relax. Finding my way through that learning time of stress and fear was also much helped by dharma exploration and teaching.
So, so much to be grateful for and so much more that has not come to mind as I write this morning. My heart is singing and it is reaching out to all of you with love and appreciation of our various expressions of life.
May you be well and happy,
PS: You may like to read about our journey to Manali and our time there, described here by Alan.
One of the wonders of leaving home and going off to see the world – or at least a few new corners of the world – is that the joy of discovering the new is set against the loosening of attachment to the familiar. I’m thinking here of attachment to one’s home and the possessions that fill it; attachment to the routinised ways of living each day and attachment to the clothes, foods and practices of one’s culture, families and friends.
It has been interesting to reveal a possible source of another stream of conditioning (predisposition to shopping) just through wearing the Indian female outfit!
And what of the increased sense of ‘belonging’? Belonging to the human community and the community of all living beings.
Invited by a group of Tibetans to squash into a little gap of mattress on the floor of the temple where the Dalai Lama is giving an initiation of 1,000 Armed Chenrezig – the embodiment of compassion and the wisdom of emptiness of independent existence – to a huge throng of men, women and children drawn to him from all over the world, how can I feel other than at one with this many-faceted manifestation of life?
Crowds start gathering for Dalai Lama teaching
What a privilege to be receiving teaching and an empowerment from the Dalai Lama in his home town of McCloud Ganj/Dharamsala, as I sit on the floor amongst the many nuns, monks, Tibetans, Indians and other people from the nations of the world! How wonderful to hear him honouring and directing the Indians who have invited him to give this teaching as he reminds them of their history of religious tolerance and urges them – and all of us – to always remember that there are many spiritual paths and traditions, all leading to the same place of wisdom and compassion.
The tears fall as I feel the power of his transmission of compassion and wisdom. And all around me I feel the devotion and mantras from thousands of beings, all pressed together for this special occasion. Here, the superficial differences of language and appearance fade into insignificance and only the loving kindness and acceptance of those around me is felt. Here I belong. There is no me and no you. Just life manifesting!
Looking around at the sea of many-coloured beings, I see the many distinctive waves of the ocean, manifesting briefly and also one with the ocean.
Warm wishes from McCloud Ganj,
PS: You may like to read a more extensive and lively expression of some of our experiences in McCloud Ganj, described here by Alan.
Gompa and mass of flags below the Dalai Lama’s residence and temple
My understanding around the teaching that there is ‘no one right way’ and that there are numerous paths to awakening, continues to unfold.
A week ago, I was deeply moved by the devotional singing and devotional attitudes and mudras of the thousands of people paying their respects to the divinity and guru perceived at the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The beauty of the architecture and the holy lake the temple stands in was matched by the beauty of the men, women and children respecting, bathing and praying in the sacred space of the temple and it’s waters. Beautiful, melodious sounds were added as prayers were continuously sung and broadcast over loudspeakers, further complimented by the crowd around me joining in at their favourite verses.
We appeared to be the only westerners present but we felt completely accepted and belonging amongst the throng of women, in beautiful saris and colour-coordinated veils, and the men with their turbans or head scarfs. We felt the truth of ‘all beings are equal’ and we rejoiced in our common humanity and devotion to the sublime.
And now we are in McLeod Ganj, the centre for Tibetan refugees and their leader, the Dalai Lama. Our hotel is perched high on the edge of the foothills of the Himalayas, looking down on the village below and the monastery of the Dalai Lama and the numerous monks and nuns living here.
Mountain view from our hotel rooftop restaurant
View from our hotel balcony
Yesterday we visited the main temple and were astonished at the huge numbers of lay Tibetans (easily identifiable in their traditional dress) surrounding equally impressive numbers of monks chanting their puja in Tibetan. Together, these Buddhist devotees presented another spectacle. But what surprised me was that – despite being a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist teachings for over thirty years – I did not initially feel I belonged.
Was it the language? Yes, partly. But it was also the form of practice. Chanting seemingly endless prayers in a language I do not understand (or perhaps in any language) is not my thing. Not a useful path for me.
Curiously though, on other days when I have gone to the temple I have quickly blended in and felt very much part of the whole. The difference seems to be whether the people are being led in a service and language I can’t understand or we are all doing our own thing. The murmuring of numerous mantras – a low buzz of private prayer – provides a powerful ambience of devotion to participate in.
What works for me is meditation, in both sitting and walking forms.
This is the path I walk each morning, taking about an hour
What definitely works for me is joining a steady stream of monks, nuns and lay people, all walking the sacred path around the Dalai Lama’s temple, monastery and residence, and all quietly murmuring their mantras. It is enormously supportive to be chanting the mantra, accompanying the sadhana I am currently practicing, in such an environment. It is also a delight to feel free to use my mala anywhere, without attracting any negative attention.
Numerous mantras on rocks and stones along the pathway
Ah! The delights of multi-coloured Sanskrit sacred syllables painted on stones and rocks, massings of prayer flags, rows of prayer wheels and beautiful path side shrines.
What is interesting to me is that coming here to what might be described as the Buddhist equivalent of what Rome is to Catholics, has really brought to my attention how individual each person’s reading is of any teaching and spiritual tradition and how the essence of a teaching is not in the rituals and external structure but in the heart opening and wisdom ripening effect of the chosen spiritual practice.
Gompa on temple path below the Dalai Lama
So from my Catholic origins, signified by this 19th century church below that we visited, I notice the spiritual decorations around my adult spiritual practice have become more flamboyant, while I have gradually learned to distinguish and drop the ‘church’ and structured group rituals of both Christianity and Buddhism.
Sitting on the steps of St John’s in the Wilderness
One of the delights of being here in India – and in particular – Dharamsala – is the sense of all religions practicing side by side in this wonderful world of ours. The hotel we are staying in is run by a delightful pair of Muslims; we were blown out by the strength, beauty and inclusiveness of the Sikhs in Amritsar; we visited the catholic church above in the company of many Hindu families and the temple and streets here are shared by people from many of the religions and spiritual traditions of the world.
Note the Dalai Lama poster on right and prayer wheels on left in this busy street scene
It is impressive to notice how India has so generously provided refuge and freedom to the people of Tibet and has allowed them to set up and develop an alternative government in exile. It is also very satisfying to see the many Indian Hindus who come here in a steady flow to sample the flourishing industry of largely Tibetan Buddhist rupas, thankas, spiritual practice aids – such as malas, bells and minature prayer wheels – and, of course, jewellery, clothes and food.
The Tibetan spiritual stalls attract a flow of attention from Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists
Long live respect for the many and varied spiritual paths we all take!
With warm wishes,
PS: You may like to read Alan’s stories of some of our experiences here.
We were all set for our first train journey in India, from Delhi to Amritsar, loaded up with rucksacks and filled with anticipation, when we were hijacked near the entrance to our platform. A man we thought was a ticket inspector insisted we needed a boarding pass to accompany the e-tickets we showed him. He declared we could not board the train without a boarding pass and we would be fined $190 each if we tried to! To cut a long story short, there was much animated talking on mobiles and replacement of one “official” after another, each presented as more senior and determined to help us.
So we found ourselves whisked off in a taxi with No 3 man to an office presented as The International Tourist Office, where the delightfully sympathetic and friendly 4th man managed to persuade us – with the help of a computer screen we couldn’t quite read the data off – that all seats in first, second and third class were booked for the next few days. Similarly, we were handed a phone where the supposed bus company told us the buses were all booked out! The only proferred solution was a very, very expensive taxi and an eight hour drive.
Finally, in our desperation to get to Amritsar and our pre-booked hotel, we agreed to the private car. It then took another hour or so before we realised we had been duped. Stung! Taken for a ride!
tanks, trucks, rickshaws and tuk-tuks share the road
But it had all been done so nicely (the beautiful in the unbeautiful) and so skilfully. They played the helpful part so beautifully and with such charm and smiles and cups of tea. We thanked each one profusely and only No 4 man in the supposed tourist office appeared a little uneasy at our thanks, protesting “don’t thank me. I see you as my parents!” I wonder now, is that really how he would treat his parents…
But the aspect of this experience that I find most interesting is that we never lost our equanimity, even once we saw how we had been tricked out of our train ride and our money. Instead of anger, we found ourselves contemplating how thoroughly conditioned we were to believing people who appeared official. Indeed, both my husband, Alan, and I have a strong bias towards believing anyone who seems to be treating us with respect and doesn’t sound hostile. So we were sitting ducks and oh so grateful for the apparent help.
What is satisfying to notice about our experience is that we really were able to see the beautiful in the unbeautiful. We admired their skill and were grateful for the lack of any apparent ill will from them, or from us. What we still remember are all the smiles and the attitude of helping us out of a [constructed] difficulty. We remembered that we could choose how to react and what stories to run through, introspectively and to each other, on that very long eight hour journey. We each knew that keeping our focus on the beautiful would keep us happy and support our equanimity. And so it did!
And even as we contemplated how it was that we were now driving rather than sitting back in our booked first class train carriage, the view from our window gave ample opportunity to further reflect on the beautiful in the unbeautiful and the unbeautiful in the beautiful. The road was shared by military vehicles of all types, numerous multi-coloured trucks, modern cars, tuk-tuks, rickshaws and bicycles and the view constantly changed from beautiful temples to tent cities of plastic and sacks; flat, sun-dried, barren land to lush reticulated crops and green trees.
So many different vehicles and different sights to see
Ganesh and billboards
We passed several tent cities of torn plastic, sack cloth and bits and pieces.
Future posts will, I hope, have more exciting photos than these but you can imagine my difficulties taking photos with a slow camera on a bumpy road, sitting in the back seat of the car. These do at least make the point!
So just to further contemplate the dharmas of impermanence and consequent uncertainty about what is to be found in present and future experience, I will throw in today’s contrasting example of outstanding beauty and devotional intensity experienced during our morning visit to the Golden Temple of the glorious Sikh tradition. It was one of those very particular, very strong, emotional and spiritual experiences.
Purity and devotion
Enough for now. In our first three days, India has already thrown us contrasting deception and sublime beauty of form and spirit. We have been reminded of the benefit of seeing the beautiful in the unbeautiful and the unbeautiful in the beautiful.
PS for Alan’s version of events see his blog here.
Purity and devotion
The wonderful, playful, purifying, connecting festival of Songkran has just run its course in Thailand. For three days, between April 13 and 15, the whole nation – and its visitors – perform a ritual dance of purification and connection as they welcome in the new year.
In the words of my reporting daughter, rapturously enjoying this dance of togetherness:
“The name Songkran comes from the Sanskrit meaning ‘passing’ or ‘approaching’ and is celebrated in Thailand as the traditional New years day (actually running over three days from the 13th-15th of April) and coincides with many New year calendars across asia. This is a time of national holiday where all work stops and a giant play ground and free-for- all of mischief and mayhem is created. Using water guns, buckets, hoses, trucks and whatever else the imagination might conjure, the entire nation (as well as many internationals) comes to the streets to drench each other in an endless supply of water. Streets are closed with giant concerts and dance parties filling the city and thousands of smaller celebrations speckled throughout all the back alleys and expanding outwards beyond the old city walls. Many Thai’s will also carry small bowel’s of beige coloured talc which they mix with water and smear on the faces of random passerby’s as a blessing for the new year. Despite appearances, rather than having intention to fight, this throwing of water is a way of showing respect to people, used as a way to bless and be blessed by others as all are cleansed and renewed as one”.
What I find particularly interesting is her observation of how the appearance of hardness in the faces of the people absorbed in busy city life before the festival, dissolved into joyous smiles and fun-filled spontaneity as they entered the spirit of Songkran. As she describes it in her blog on http://poppylikestodance.tumblr.com/:
“I had noted the significant lack of smiles and sensed a hardness to the people here. But as the festival began, through this simple act of throwing water, I saw it all crack open before me to reveal a soft, open childish joy which poured out of every being on every street. Never in my life have I seen so many smiles, nor heard so many squeals of delight. The water had worked like a country wide tidal wave of joy which smashed down all the walls of separation and time so that now both the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the local and the foreign, the monks and the lay people; where all one”.
Perhaps more countries could institute a festival like this to help people rejoice and renew as they realise they are not alone. Not separate individuals but an expression of a limitless, dynamic, every-changing ‘whole’. Might this be one small step to reduce the sense of alienation and isolation that blights so many in our wealthy countries of the West?
And so for those of you who would like a full description and a look at more of Pippa’s photographs, you can go to her blog at http://poppylikestodance.tumblr.com/
Some of you may have noticed that this site has been dormant for a long time. I have been ‘away’ on other business and asleep to East West Wisdoms until this morning. Today, a joyous, wisdom-bearing sprite awoke me with her words and pictures. Some might call this sprite my youngest daughter; some a passionate photographer on a spiritual journey of sharing and discovery; others would name her as inspiration and guide. I shall ask her where you, too, can find her…You may like to hear some of her contemplations and see some of her pictures. But first I must get her permission to link with this site.
In the meantime, here she is being welcomed by warm hearts in Thailand:
A fitting example of East meeting West!
A reminder of our common humanity, love and connection…
And so, why now to start speaking again? Today I am filled with the joyful sense of connection: inter-connection or interbeingness of all humanity, all beings and all phenomena. We live in a dream world filled with ever-changing appearances that we mistakingly believe are solid and real. Many of us believe that we – and all things – are separate and independent.
But all that we see, touch, smell, taste, hear and think are but the creations of our conditioned feelings, perceptions and mental formations – our thought chatter. All is in a constant state of flux and all is dependent on prior causes and conditions. Mistakenly, we have been conditioned to freeze into a presumed reality that which our senses pick up. We see what we expect to see and each of us see differently.
We think we know what will make us happy but our minds are so cluttered with numerous contradictory learnings that prompt us to attach and hang on to a confused jumble of helpful and unhelpful perceptions and feelings, based on the past or imagined future. Discriminating between the positive and destructive requires wisdom. And wisdom can only flourish in a spacious, clear and calm mind attentive to what is arising right now.
At Peace With The Light
In our moment-to-moment travel through life, how much spaciousness is there to allow us to be fully present to what is arising? Or do we see what we expect to see? What we have been taught by previous experience and learned beliefs to see? My daughter is my teacher. She can relax in the spaciousness of the present moment and so there are no barriers to the spirit of interconnection, joy and love. Being present, her photographs capture the mind states creating the form.
Enough for now from me. But I cannot resist sharing how my joyous sprite describes the spirit of her most recent venture into the unknowns of a new and distant land:
“After rising from one deep and vivid dream reality I awoke into another…to find myself in Thailand, my ears filled with the sounds of roosters and cicadas..my nostrils filled with the sweet scent of frangipani and bamboo homes..my eyes filled with scenes of forested mountains behind me and an expanse of lakes and little wooden paths and huts ahead of me..my mouth filled with liquid from the coconut I cracked open myself grown a few metres up the road and my heart filled with fresh life, hope, joy, mystery, adventure and of course…love ❤ resting in the ever changing winds of the world…I am home.”
And this is one of the many pictures of shared fun that she captured in her first days of this unfolding dream:
With warm wishes,
We all have elements of narcissism – otherwise known as self-centred preoccupation and blindness to others – but is this a necessary defence against the hazards of life or is it the prime delusion that causes our suffering?
In Western psychotherapy these days the common emphasis is on strengthening self esteem and the evaluating ego. A strong ego has sufficient confidence not to be preoccupied with defending itself and can therefore develop interest, empathy and compassion for others. Another psychological ethic is to be non-judgemental. The client is ‘always right’. These professional ethics have been a necessary counter-balance to widespread discrimination based on religion, class, ethnicity, age and gender.
However, there is a risk that the psychotherapeutic relationship that focusses exclusively on the preoccupations, hopes, fears and desires of one person – the client – without the more usual reciprocity involved in social life, can encourage narcissistic tendencies if the therapist does not skilfully check for positive values congruence and probe for the consequences on others of the client’s actions and aspirations. While it is not for us (as therapists) to judge, it is our role to increase the client’s awareness of the bigger picture that surrounds them.
It is only when we appear as entirely self-centred that we are called narcissistic. Significantly, a strong narcissistic defence system appears to accompany much mental illness and consequently has supported the idea that it is indeed a defence triggered by poor attachment to the initial main caregiver or by intrusive, neglectful or abusive conditions in early childhood. “What narcissistic people all have in common is an inner sense and terror of insufficiency, shame, weakness and inferiority… “Their compensatory behaviours might diverge greatly, yet they still reveal similar preoccupations” (Nancy McWilliams, 1994). Or, as Sydney-based, Jungian analyst, Neville Symington, describes in his book ‘Narcissism’: “the hated, vulnerable, dangerous state of being a child at the mercy of others is repudiated and the false, grandiose adult self, which is actually a caricature, is created” (Symington 1993).
A Nepalese image of the many masks, or personae, we adopt
Symington’s description of the false, grandiose self as a caricature fits the Buddhist perception that all ideas of ourselves as separate, independent entities are a socially constructed fiction that have no substantial basis. Well, perhaps ‘fiction’ is a bit strong.
Essentially, the Buddhist teaching is that the nature of existence has two simultaneous faces: relative truth and absolute truth. In other words, we – and all that we observe – appear as separate but are actually interdependent with all that is and are therefore empty of separate existence. We experience the ego – and our sense of self – as a stream of thoughts, constantly judging and conceptualising what we see, hear, smell, taste or touch. There is a strong tendency for us to believe that this stream of thoughts is proof of “me”. However, when examined and analysed carefully, these same thoughts and feelings have been observed to be constantly changing (impermanent), impossible to separate from other (also impermanent) phenomena and are therefore empty of separate existence.
This conceptualising in our thoughts consequently overlays the perceived objects of our senses with learned associations that separate experience into subject (our sense of self) and object (everything else). These learned associations are always based on the past and are therefore likely to distort present appearances with what we often call negative or positive conditioning taught by our culture, previous experience and adopted belief systems.
This process is often easy to see when one travels to a new and very different culture with a different language and customs. The food considered desirable – and the reasons for this desirability – may seem very undesirable to us. The examples of eye balls, animals’ testicles and live witchety grubs come to mind! In some cultures dogs are seen as pets and valued human companions, while in others they are seen as food. There are, of course, many other examples of numerous different interpretations of what might empirically be observed as the same object.
The distorting effect of our conceptualising may seem a long way from the question of narcissism as a defence or a delusion. However, placing ourselves at the centre of the world – where ‘me’ always comes first is both narcissistic and explained in Buddhadharma as the grand delusion responsible for all our suffering. By continually focussing on our desires and fears, including the desire for life, we are trying to hold onto, or avoid, that which is constantly changing and impossible to control. The result is, at best, disappointment or frustration and, at worst, leads to hate, fear, insatiable greed and jealousy. And this is called suffering!
Narcissism is but a concept and, like all conceptualising, narcissistic interpretations and projections form a screen that separates and distorts the nature of reality. The concept of anatta – no self – in Buddhadharma is another concept but also a central Buddhist doctrine that is very complex and takes a lot of testing before it is fully understood.
Today I am offering only a little taste of these concepts of no separate self, versus narcissistic self-preoccupation, as an introduction to the three days of teaching I will be giving in Melbourne on February 24, 25 and 26 on behalf of Sophia College. Even this three days will only be a slightly larger taste of this central Buddhist teaching. If you are interested in this teaching, you can go to Sophia College’s website at http://Sophiacollege.com or ring 08 9726 1505.
Wishing you all well and happy,
We all know that Christmas is a time for giving and receiving but, unfortunately, for some this expectation is a burden or a prompt to contemplate the absence of loved ones and the sort of friends you feel drawn to exchange gifts with. Like many of you, I have friends who find Christmas a particularly challenging and potentially painful event as it highlights lost close relationships or the absence of a loving family to spend time with.
I started writing this blog in the week before Christmas but unfortunately got diverted and Christmas day has now passed. However, the Christmas holiday period will be with us for quite a while yet and, anyway, the time for focussing on giving and receiving should never be limited. It is just that in every culture certain times or events are particularly strongly associated with celebration and gift giving.
So thinking of those people for whom Christmas evokes a sense of loss or painful lack, I am moved to share this sticky teaching on “the greatest gift you can give is your interest”. My precious teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche, who introduced and guided me in Buddhadharma for many years before he died, frequently spoke about generosity of heart and the power of giving undivided attention, permeated by loving kindness.
Personification of generous attention
A warm smile to friend or stranger transfers the gift of love and warms the heart of giver and receiver. Paying attention to whoever is in front of us simultaneously honours their uniqueness and our interdependence. It transforms the hypnotic spell of isolation that mesmerises many of us. Even modern science now talks about how mirror neurons in our brains transfer emotional states from one to the other. We do not have to be in a close relationship for these mirror neurons to do their mirroring work! The genuine warm smile to the young man at the supermarket checkout can still lift his spirits through this mirroring process, even though the shopkeeper’s automatic enquiry, “how are you today?” fails to transfer a sense of connection because it feels repetitive and phoney. The interest behind the question is often absent.
Back to Christmas and the long tradition of gift giving to mark the birth of Christ. I hear many critiques today of the consumerising of this Christian feast day and the diminishing of traditional spiritual meaning. If one is not a regular church-goer – and even if one does attend church regularly – one way we can counterbalance the dominant materialist interpretation of celebratory gift giving is to determine that, around this holiday period, we will focus on giving our full attention to whoever is in front of us and to imbue this attention with loving kindness and the wish for them to experience love, peace and contentment.
Innocent attention; background contentment
The beauty of giving the gift of interest is that one does not need to have a loving family or group of friends in order to practice this kind of generosity. One does not have to be clever, witty, funny or even have an interesting story to tell. Every single one of us has the capacity to give our interest and to wish others well. And when we are really present to the other we break the spell of perceived isolation and encourage awareness of our interdependence and the power of love.
It never ceases to amaze me how we live our lives shrouded by several layers of veils! We think we know the assumptions that are guiding our actions but, so often, we don’t. The veils shield them from our view. And then, one day, a wise being gently prods one of these veils, saying something like: “I think there’s something underneath your question that is niggling you”. And this riddle gets you thinking.
And so it was for me, a short while ago while I was on retreat. I was finding myself conflicted over my loyalty to a particularly ornate, daily, tantric Vajrayana practice given to me in a Tibetan Buddhist empowerment several years ago. Specifically, I was struggling to relate to some of the language and symbols in the meditative visualisation that appeared to belong to an ancient and alien culture. As part of the conflict, I was drawn to spend more time ‘just sitting’, mindfully watching experience unfolding in the present moment. So it was no coincidence that I chose this retreat, organised around Anapanasati, or mindful breath meditation.
Many paths or just one right way?
Another aspect fuelling my uneasiness with this particular Tibetan Buddhist meditation that I had undertaken to practice daily was that, for some years now, I have been noticing and holding question over the wide range of spiritual beliefs and practices that are so fervently believed in by us humans. Whether these are based on belief in one God, many gods or no god, there is evidence that many people are prepared to give up their freedom, be killed (or kill the unbeliever) in defence of their belief. There is evidence that great wisdom and compassion, or blind prejudice and persecution, can accompany these many disparate religious explanations about the human condition and the world we live in.
So if there are many paths to the same place of wisdom and compassion, why is it that many of us are so determined to find the ‘right’ path? Thankfully, in many parts of the world, there is now more religious tolerance – and even respect – of different religions and spiritual paths.
The veils of ignorance
My conflict and question about ‘the right path’ is at a much more subtle level than an overt belief that there is only one right way. Intellectually, and from a values perspective of inclusiveness and respect for difference, I was unaware that I was seeking a ‘right’ way when I expressed my doubt about practicing this particular daily meditation. So we’re back to the veils that cover the assumptions that drive us!
When I looked deeply (in a meditation session) at what was behind my uneasiness, I was truly surprised to discover a hidden assumption of only one right way. One spiritual truth. One set of best spiritual practices. As I followed the trail, I found that it led back to my childhood and early youth, immersed in the Catholic faith. This teaching of exclusive righteousness was backed up by the threat that to disobey or leave this religion landed you in hell! Ironically, one of my overt criticisms of Catholicism – once into my teens and now – is their claim to being the only ‘true’ (or right) faith. Ah ha! What a shock to discover that this piece of religious indoctrination was, at a very deep level, secretly guiding my present spiritual practice.
The light of awareness liberates!
Sunrise brings a new view
The interesting thing is that, like all insight, once seen, the hidden assumption dissolves under the light of awareness. It has also been interesting to observe how the demise of this assumption dissolved the spiritual conflict I was experiencing. In its place I have found myself free to blend a form of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice with mindfulness practice, uncluttered by alien cultural forms. I am no longer frightened to improvise. The unseen threat of damnation or excommunication is gone.
I am sharing this particular experience with you as I am aware that many of my peers who identify with Tibetan Buddhist teachings and practices, grew up under the Catholic umbrella and were, like me, spiritually conditioned by Catholic views at a vulnerable age.
Can any of you relate to this experience of discovering hidden religious assumptions, laid down in childhood, that have covertly ‘muddied the waters’ of current spiritual practice? I’d love to hear about them.
I am writing to you from Queensland where 70% of the State is severely effected by our recent torrential rains and overflowing rivers and dams. While many thousands of people throughout much of Queensland and northern New South Wales have had to abandon their houses and businesses to the flood waters, I feel so fortunate to have a relatively dry and waterproof house, situated on a high hillside that allows the water to rush past, rather than into our house.
And so the question arises, how can we help those afflicted by the devastating destruction, damage and losses of life, livelihood and property? Of course we can and should give money to aid the recovery process. However it is equally obvious that this incredible flooding has huge social and spiritual implications, as well as the obvious material losses. I feel that each of us – wherever we are in the world when we hear of this and other disasters – can help in a powerful way by opening our hearts and practicing some form of the traditional Buddhist Tonglen practice: a practice of taking in suffering and giving out love and relief from suffering.
This Tonglen practice of opening our hearts to take in the suffering of others can take many forms and the essence idea can be done as one goes about one’s ordinary life, washing dishes, cooking, cleaning and watching the TV news as it shows pictures of the destruction and reports on the developing situation as the consequences of the continuing rain and flooding rivers flow south through Australia.
Essentially, the idea is to feel one’s heart open and pure (perhaps filled with light) and then draw into this clear, open heart space the fear, grief, despair and concerns of the many, many people suffering from the effects of this particular natural disaster. Feel their suffering – in whatever forms that come to mind – as black smoke and see that as the smoke of their suffering is drawn through your heart space it is transformed into white light that returns to fill their hearts and bodies. I generally choose certain values – such as determination, confidence, patience, endurance, peace, compassion and wisdom – to also permeate this light and fill their being. This practice can be done many times a day, in your own particular way, but always focussing on your open heart and the sending of your mind gifts as you connect with those whom you know to be in need.
For those of you who are familiar with formal meditation practice, here is one particular version of Tonglen practice that you may like to practice, or draw from, in a meditation session targeted at the flood victims. You will note that it begins with clearing your own being before moving on to addressing the suffering of your loved ones and those you have difficulty with. At times such as these when there is a major disaster triggering your compassionate response, I generally choose to begin with clearing my being and then move straight to those beings I am concerned about.
First, establish yourself as a being of light.
Second, feel the stickiness and darkness of the particular negativity or form of suffering you are addressing in yourself or others and exchange it with the cool, soothing light of love, joy and wisdom in your heart.
Third, project a mirror image of yourself, also as a being of light, but covered in dark blotches of unhelpful emotions – negativities of mind.
Fourth, breath in the negativities of your mirror image in the form of black smoke and filter this through the sun of your Buddha nature [essential purity of being], returning as the golden light of love, joy and peace.
Fifth, do the same with your loved ones [or anyone you are concerned about and want to help].
Sixth, do the same with someone you have, or have had, difficulty or conflict with, or groups of people [such as those who are perceived as enemies] whom you perceive to have hurt or threatened you or your loved ones.
Seventh, finish by seeing the objects of your meditation as surrounded by your family, friends and all beings. Breath in their suffering, seeing it transformed in your heart as you breath out love, peace, joy and wisdom [or the particular qualities you feel would be of most benefit].
A further enhancement to this practice would be to begin with the visualisation below, to help you feel yourself as a being of light.
Transforming to a being of light
Imagine a ball of light – all the colours of the rainbow – above your head.
Feel it massaging your head and body, turn first your head and then, one by one, all the organs and limbs of your body to light.
Feel the ball of light running down your spine and chest; up and down your legs; over your shoulders and down your arms, massaging your hands and turning them to light.
Stomach, liver, spleen, kidneys, bowels, intestines, lungs, heart, glands, brain – all turned to light.
You are a being of light with the sun of your true, pure nature shining brightly at your heart centre.
Then proceed with the Tonglen practice described above.
I hope you can draw something from this practice that will help you feel connected in a compassionate, loving way to the many people you are witnessing – through the media or directly – as suffering severe loss, discomfort and uncertainty through the destruction of rain and floodwaters.
If you wish to add any further suggestions of how to help, or any reflections on this natural disaster we are all witnessing, directly or indirectly, these would be much appreciated.
With warm wishes,