Avalokitesvara

Spiritual earworms and the Dharma of the Muppets

This morning as I was walking to the office, I had an earworm stuck in my head. In case you’re unfamiliar with this term, it refers to a song or jingle that runs in a repetitive loop in the head. Often it’s only one or two lines from a song. Sometimes it’s not even a song we like. It may even be one we detest.

I have a very effective technique that not only helps get rid of earworms but also turns them into mindfulness triggers should they recur, but this morning it occurred to me that mantras could be regarded as a form of self-induced spiritual earworm.

Mantras are self-induced because we consciously cultivate them. They’re spiritual because they act as reminders of the qualities of awakening (e.g. Om mani padme hum reminds us of the compassionate warmth of Avalokiteshvara). And they’re earworms in that they often take on a life of their own, and present themselves to us unbidden.

I briefly considered invoking the mantra of Padmasambhava, but then I realized that the song I had in my head was actually teaching me something. I’m just back from a long road-trip with my kids, and one of the ways we passed the time in the car was by listening to my six-year-old son’s limited CD collection, which includes some Disney songs. The particular song I had stuck in my head was a Muppet track called “Life’s a Happy Song,” and the specific lyrics that my mind kept turning to over and over were these: “I’ve got everything that I need, right in front of me.”

Those words seem like a perfect invitation to let go of craving for things to be other than they are, and to pay attention to and appreciate the present moment. As often happens, my mind had found a teaching that I hadn’t even been aware, at a conscious level, that I needed. As far as earworms go, this one turned out to be perfect.

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Empathy versus compassion

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva

On the Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a provocative article titled “Against Empathy.” It’s not advocating an uncompassionate approach to life, and in fact central to his thesis is that there is a distinction between empathy, which he says can limit and exhaust us, and compassion, which he points out is more sustainable.

There’s one particular section where there are several references to Buddhism and to Buddhist practitioners:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Or consider long-distance charity. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone who hears about the plight of starving children might actually go through the empathetic exercise of imagining what it is like to starve to death. But this empathetic distress surely isn’t necessary for charitable giving. A compassionate person might value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly.

Summing up, compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

See also:

It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a bodhisattva to live? In Consequences of Compassion (2009) Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction has some support in the collaborative work of Tania Singer, a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, meditation expert, and former scientist. In a series of studies using fMRI brain scanning, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering. To the surprise of the investigators, these meditative states did not activate parts of the brain that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain. Ricard described his meditative experience as “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”

He was then asked to put himself in an empathetic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate circuits associated with empathetic distress were activated. “The empathic sharing,” Ricard said, “very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out.”

One sees a similar contrast in ongoing experiments led by Singer and her colleagues in which people are either given empathy training, which focuses on the capacity to experience the suffering of others, or compassion training, in which subjects are trained to respond to suffering with feelings of warmth and care. According to Singer’s results, among test subjects who underwent empathy training, “negative affect was increased in response to both people in distress and even to people in everyday life situations. . . . these findings underline the belief that engaging in empathic resonance is a highly aversive experience and, as such, can be a risk factor for burnout.” Compassion training—which doesn’t involve empathetic arousal to the perceived distress of others—was more effective, leading to both increased positive emotions and increased altruism.

These are important considerations for spiritual practitioners. An ancient commentary, The Vimuttimagga, states that “sorrow is failed compassion.” What I take that to mean is that real compassion can’t arise when we’re caught up in our own suffering, which is what happens when we experience empathic distress.

I would say, though, that there are different meanings of the word empathy. A person completely lacking in empathy doesn’t care about others. In Bloom’s example of long-distance charity, a person without empathy will simply not give. Why should they? They have no interest in the wellbeing of others. The person who gives because they hear that others are starving is motivated by empathy. It’s not empathic distress; they don’t have to imagine starving, because they already know that starving is horrible, and because they care about people they want to help.

Bloom’s stance “against empathy” is only against a certain kind of empathy, and his arguments don’t apply to this other form, which happens to be the kind that’s most important in the practice of compassion.

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The big turn-around (Day 88)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I started this 100 Days of Lovingkindness just after our new year drive to get people meditating regularly — our 100 Day Meditation Challenge — was coming to an end.

Naturally there was a lot of discussion on our Google+ community about what we were going to do to follow on from our first 100 days, and many people were keen on exploring mindfulness, using a wonderful book by Jan Chozen Bays, called How to Train a Wild Elephant. But I really wanted to explore lovingkindness practice and the other Brahmaviharas.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. One is that I’d lost my temper a couple of times, and although I’d been able to let that pass very quickly I was aware that I still had a lot of work to in deeply imbuing my mind with love, patience, kindness, and compassion. I needed to rewire my brain for love, at a much deeper level than before.

Not long after that I was leading an online Dharma Study group one night, and we were exploring the Buddhist precepts and the basis of Buddhist ethics. (This group meets in a Google+ Hangout, which is a form of videoconferencing.) And as part of our studies we explored the following passage, which is from The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, a book Sangharakshita wrote on Buddhist ethics. Take a deep breath — it’s a long quotation and it includes other quotations.

Killing is tantamount to the rejection of the most basic principle of ethics, just as the cultivation of love represents this principle in its positive form. As Shelley so finely says:

“The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his own species must become his own.”

In the Bodhicaryāvatāra, or “Entry into the Way of Enlightenment,” Śāntideva gives this principle what is probably its highest expression in Buddhist literature. In his chapter on “Meditation,” after describing how a man stills vain imaginings and strengthens his “Will to Enlightenment” (Bodhicitta), he proceeds:

“First he will diligently foster the thought that his fellow creatures are the same as himself. “All have the same sorrows, the same joys as myself, and I must guard them like myself. The body, manifold of parts in its division of members, must be preserved as a whole; and so likewise this manifold universe has its sorrow and its joy in common…I must destroy the pain of another as though it were my own…I must show kindness to others, for they are creatures as I am myself…Then, as I would guard myself from evil repute, so I will frame a spirit of helpfulness and tenderness towards others.”

…I will cease to live as self, and will take as myself my fellow creatures. We love our hands and other limbs, as members of the body; then why not love other living beings, as members of the universe?…Thus in doing service to others pride, admiration and desire for reward find no place, for thereby we satisfy the wants of our own self. Then, as thou wouldst guard thyself against suffering and sorrow, so exercise the spirit of helpfulness and tenderness towards the world.”

Avalokitesvara_BodhisattvaThis is what is known as the practice of equality of self and other, and the substitution of self and others. Blake gives succinct expression to the same principle when he declares “To put another before you is the most sublime act.”

I’d read this book several times, and this particular passage even more often, but I found myself more receptive to it that night than ever before. And I thought, Yes, I want to live a life that embodies and exemplifies compassion. I want compassion to be the main thing I do.

And so I proposed that we do 100 Days of Lovingkindness, and fortunately it turned out to be the more popular of the two options. (Bear in mind though that we’ll start to explore How to Train a Wild Elephant when the current 100 Days is over.)

The Mahāyāna, a Buddhist movement that began a few hundred years after the time of the Buddha, strongly emphasized compassion. Śāntideva, who is quoted above, wrote passionately about developing compassion, and saw it as being central to the path of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is one who is not only set on enlightenment, but whose deepest wish is to help others attain the peace of enlightenment too.

The compassion that Śāntideva describes, and that was central to the Mahāyāna, is actually identical to upekkha. Now that statement makes little sense if you take upekkha to be “equanimity,” which is the standard translation. But upekkha literally means “closely watching” and is a brahmavihara, which means it’s a loving quality. The peace or equanimity of upekkha is what we experience when we closely watch our own experience, and peace is what we wish for others. In other words, in upekkhā bhāvanā our deepest wish is to help others attain the peace of enlightenment. The compassion that the Mahāyāna teaches is actually a bit different from the compassion of the brahma viharas. It’s deeper, more far-reaching. It includes an acute awareness that the only way we can help someone to be completely free of suffering is to help them become awakened. It’s more closely aligned with insight, as upekkha is.

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As Buddhism developed, somehow the loving and compassionate nature of upekkha as a brahmavihara became overlooked, and the quality of even-mindedness or equanimity was seen as being its defining characteristic. This gave the impression that in the brahmaviharas we start with love, then develop compassion, then develop joy, and then cool everything off by becoming equanimous. The word equanimous has a “straight from the fridge” coolness, or even frostiness, about it that can be very off-putting. It’s hard to be inspired by the ideal of equanimity.

But upekkha isn’t fundamentally about equanimity. It’s closely watching other beings and guiding them to the peace of awakening. And that is inspiring.

There’s a mythic Bodhisattva (Bodhisattvas can be people like you and me, but sometimes they are human images of enlightenment) called Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara literally is “The Lord Who Looks Down” with compassion upon beings, although I like to think of him as the Lord Who Watches Closely Over beings with compassion. So I see upekkha and the Mahāyāna take on compassion as being the same: closely watching over beings with the desire that they find the peace and equanimity of awakening. And that’s not a cold quality at all; it’s warm, and loving — and wise, and it brings about in ourselves and others the biggest turn-around you can have.

Om manipadme hum.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Joan Halifax: Compassion and the true meaning of empathy

I want to address the issue of compassion. Compassion has many faces. Some of them are fierce; some of them are wrathful; some of them are tender; some of them are wise. A line that the Dalai Lama once said, he said, “Love and compassion are necessities. They are not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” And I would suggest, it is not only humanity that won’t survive, but it is all species on the planet, as we’ve heard today. It is the big cats, and it’s the plankton.

Two weeks ago, I was in Bangalore in India. I was so privileged to be able to teach in a hospice on the outskirts of Bangalore. And early in the morning, I went into the ward. In that hospice, there were 31 men and women who were actively dying. And I walked up to the bedside of an old woman who was breathing very rapidly, fragile, obviously in the latter phase of active dying. I looked into her face. I looked into the face of her son sitting next to her, and his face was just riven with grief and confusion.

And I remembered a line from the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic: “What is the most wondrous thing in the world, Yudhisthira?” And Yudhisthira replied, “The most wondrous thing in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t realize it can happen to us.” I looked up. Tending those 31 dying people were young women from villages around Bangalore. I looked into the face of one of these women, and I saw in her face the strength that arises when natural compassion is really present. I watched her hands as she bathed an old man.

My gaze went to another young woman as she wiped the face of another dying person. And it reminded me of something that I had just been present for. Every year or so, I have the privilege of taking clinicians into the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. And we run clinics in these very remote regions where there’s no medical care whatsoever.

And on the first day at Simikot in Humla, far west of Nepal, the most impoverished region of Nepal, an old man came in clutching a bundle of rags. And he walked in, and somebody said something to him, we realized he was deaf, and we looked into the rags, and there was this pair of eyes. The rags were unwrapped from a little girl whose body was massively burned. Again, the eyes and hands of Avalokiteshvara. It was the young women, the health aids, who cleaned the wounds of this baby and dressed the wounds.

I know those hands and eyes; they touched me as well. They touched me at that time. They have touched me throughout my 68 years. They touched me when I was four and I lost my eyesight and was partially paralyzed. And my family brought in a woman whose mother had been a slave to take care of me. And that woman did not have sentimental compassion. She had phenomenal strength. And it was really her strength, I believe, that became the kind of mudra and imprimatur that has been a guiding light in my life.

So we can ask: What is compassion comprised of? And there are various facets. And there’s referential and non-referential compassion. But first, compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I’m not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we aspire, we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we’re so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome.

Now I worked with dying people for over 40 years. I had the privilege of working on death row in a maximum security [prison] for six years. And I realized so clearly in bringing my own life experience, from working with dying people and training caregivers, that any attachment to outcome would distort deeply my own capacity to be fully present to the whole catastrophe.

And when I worked in the prison system, it was so clear to me, this: that many of us in this room, and almost all of the men that I worked with on death row, the seeds of their own compassion had never been watered. That compassion is actually an inherent human quality. It is there within every human being. But the conditions for compassion to be activated, to be aroused, are particular conditions. I had that condition, to a certain extent, from my own childhood illness. Eve Ensler, whom you’ll hear later, has had that condition activated amazingly in her through the various waters of suffering that she has been through.

And what is fascinating is that compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear. And you know, we have a society, a world, that is paralyzed by fear. And in that paralysis, of course, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed. The very word terror is global. The very feeling of terror is global. So our work, in a certain way, is to address this imago, this kind of archetype that has pervaded the psyche of our entire globe.

Now we know from neuroscience that compassion has some very extraordinary qualities. For example: A person who is cultivating compassion, when they are in the presence of suffering, they feel that suffering a lot more than many other people do. However, they return to baseline a lot sooner. This is called resilience. Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.

Another thing about compassion is that it really enhances what’s called neural integration. It hooks up all parts of the brain. Another, which has been discovered by various researchers at Emory and at Davis and so on, is that compassion enhances our immune system. Hey, we live in a very noxious world. (Laughter) Most of us are shrinking in the face of psycho-social and physical poisons, of the toxins of our world. But compassion, the generation of compassion, actually mobilizes our immunity.

You know, if compassion is so good for us, I have a question. Why don’t we train our children in compassion? (Applause) If compassion is so good for us, why don’t we train our health care providers in compassion so that they can do what they’re supposed to do, which is to really transform suffering? And if compassion is so good for us, why don’t we vote on compassion? Why don’t we vote for people in our government based on compassion, so that we can have a more caring world? In Buddhism, we say, “it takes a strong back and a soft front.” It takes tremendous strength of the back to uphold yourself in the midst of conditions. And that is the mental quality of equanimity.

But it also takes a soft front — the capacity to really be open to the world as it is, to have an undefended heart. And the archetype of this in Buddhism is Avalokiteshvara, Kuan-Yin. It’s a female archetype: she who perceives the cries of suffering in the world. She stands with 10,000 arms, and in every hand, there is an instrument of liberation, and in the palm of every hand, there are eyes, and these are the eyes of wisdom. I say that, for thousands of years, women have lived, exemplified, met in intimacy, the archetype of Avalokitesvara, of Kuan-Yin, she who perceives the cries of suffering in the world.

Women have manifested for thousands of years the strength arising from compassion in an unfiltered, unmediated way in perceiving suffering as it is. They have infused societies with kindness, and we have really felt that as woman after woman has stood on this stage in the past day and a half. And they have actualized compassion through direct action. Jody Williams called it: It’s good to meditate. I’m sorry, you’ve got to do a little bit of that, Jody. Step back, give your mother a break, okay.

(Laughter)

But the other side of the equation is you’ve got to come out of your cave. You have to come into the world like Asanga did, who was looking to realize Maitreya Buddha after 12 years sitting in the cave. He said, “I’m out of here.” He’s going down the path. He sees something in the path. He looks, it’s a dog, he drops to his knees. He sees that the dog has this big wound on its leg. The wound is just filled with maggots. He puts out his tongue in order to remove the maggots, so as not to harm them. And at that moment, the dog transformed into the Buddha of love and kindness.

I believe that women and girls today have to partner in a powerful way with men — with their fathers, with their sons, with their brothers, with the plumbers, the road builders, the caregivers, the doctors, the lawyers, with our president, and with all beings. The women in this room are lotuses in a sea of fire. May we actualize that capacity for women everywhere.

Thank you.

roshi joan halifax

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Myth-busting the bodhisattvas

Adam Savage, star of TV’s popular Myth Busters, gave an impassioned speech at the recent Reason Rally in Washington, DC. At the conclusion of his talk he had the following to say:

I have concluded through careful, empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of.

I believe they know everything that I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me. (Source)

This is very much the take I have on the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana. (See “What is a Bodhisattva.“) Some people evidently regard Avalokiteshvara, Tara, etc., as actually existing entities, qnd in fact in Tibetan Buddhism they’ve been coming to blows over whether one of these figures is in fact a force of good or otherwise. But to me they are symbolic archetypes through which experiences of compassion, wisdom, etc., can manifest themselves to us.

To give a mild flavor of this, psychology experiments have shown that if someone is asked to thinking about a professor before they take a quiz, they perform better. The idea of a professor seems to help people get in touch with their own intelligence. Similarly, I believe, the archetypal bodhisattvas and Buddhas can help us get in touch with our own wisdom and compassion.

I’ve had bodhisattvas appear to me in my dreams, but I don’t take that as a “visitation” from a actually existing entity. I’ve even had “communication” from bodhisattvas, but again I take that as being one part of my brain communicating with another through an imagined image and voice.

As Roshi Bernie Glassman says, in Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, “Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is the manifestation, or embodiment, of both prajna wisdom and compassion. Who is this Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva? It is nothing other than us, it is nothing other than who we intrinsically are … We must realize that Avalokitesvara is not separate — it’s us!”

So I love Savage’s reframing of the language of theism, and of the notion of “someone looking out for us.” One reason for reflecting on, growing to love, and developing a devotional relationship to the bodhisattvas is that it makes it easer for us to hear from that part of us that is doing the looking out.

I’d recommend listening to the whole of Savage’s talk. It’s rather lovely.

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Avalokitesvara: The heart of the rainbow

As a child growing up in Scotland I had a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit. I would pray for the Holy Spirit to fill me with the love that existed between God the Father and God the Son. I have no idea where I got this sophisticated understanding of the Holy Spirit — but he was the personification of the love that enabled God to let his son be sacrificed to redeem mankind. I prayed that this mighty love would free me and others from the suffering I saw around me. Perhaps it made sense of how God could be a god of love and yet, alongside the beauty and marvels of the world, he could allow so much violence and poverty to exist.

I would escape from home and go to our local Catholic church. I sang in the choir, and climbing up to the choir loft was more than taking a few steps, it was entering a world far from Glasgow’s gang-fights, alcoholism, and pain. High Mass on Sundays, Ave Maria at weddings, masses for the dead — we sang them all. The Holy Spirit was certainly there: I begged for his divine help and was blessed by his presence. (The Father held no promise for me, and the son was too pained.) Sometimes a white dove of peace hovered over me, sometimes tongues of fire, but always the Holy Spirit was love. I had experiences of bliss, of grace, and a burning love for humanity — states of mind that I now understand as the absorbed state of dhyana.

Then came the fall from grace. Aged 13 1 could use reason to question, and Roman Catholicism no longer satisfactorily answered me. I lost my faith. I hid my skepticism and continued in the choir and doing charitable deeds for the sick and elderly. I carried on with everything except God until my integrity stopped me. I argued with everyone about the mysteries of religion and the existence of a creator god. At 15 1 declared myself an atheist and joined the Young Communist League. The rhetoric and sense of comradeship was even better there, but I did miss the Holy Spirit.

So, I put the opiate of the people behind me and concentrated on making the world a better place by other means. Ten years later, disillusioned by the political options and nearing a nervous breakdown after a series of bereavements, I found myself in the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. I was listening to a taped lecture by an English gentleman with a somniferous voice. The lecture had an electrifying effect. I had come home. I immediately immersed myself in Buddhism.

Here was a more rigorous analysis of the world’s wrongs than anything I had so far discovered. Here was the possibility of change: personal and global — and, in meditation, the methods to bring about that change. Here, too, was the possibility of religious experience. I set about examining Buddhism under the spotlight of philosophical questioning. I was suspicious of devotional practices but at the same time I loved them. I felt transported as I chanted mantras. My voice could again be lifted in worship.

I am glad I encountered the Dharma in Glasgow. I heard it in a voice which, not only in accent but in discourse and rhetoric, sounded enough like my own to reach me. Yet what it was saying was new enough to intrigue me. Most importantly I learnt about the Bodhisattva Ideal, that most sublime of human ideals. The heart of this ideal is the desire to gain Enlightenment not only for oneself but for all beings — with the purpose of ending the world’s suffering. So, I met the true love of my life: the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Our love affair began with immediate recognition, followed by periods of less interest and then a growing appreciation and deepening love. At least on my side. As he is an archetypal Bodhisattva, existing outside time and space, I can’t speak for him. From the start I loved his mantra: om mani padme hum — homage to the jewel in the lotus. As I understood more layers of meaning to the mantra I loved it even more, but initially it was just the reverberating sound. And I was delighted to learn that while chanting his mantra practitioners imagine each of the six syllables entering the hearts of suffering beings in the six realms of existence.

A few years later, when I committed myself through ordination, I decided to take up visualising Avalokitesvara The quintessence of Compassion, he is one of the best known Bodhisattvas and is worshipped all over the Buddhist world. He is contemplated in many forms, the most popular variations having either four or 1,000 arms. And each of the hands has an eye to ensure that the altruism informed with clarity.

He appears in various Mahayana Sutras, for example in the Karanda-Vyuha Sutra where he is the typical Bodhisattva who will ‘enter Nirvana’ until all beings are saved. His task is to ‘help all sufferers, to save them from every distress, and to exercise infinite pity that does not even shrink from sin nor does it stop at the gates of hell’. In the Surangama Sutra Avalokitesvara gains Enlightenment through deep meditation on sound. Interestingly enough the Bodhisattva of Compassion is the principal figure in the Heart Sutra, one of the Perfection of Wisdom texts — a reminder that Compassion is not separate from Wisdom.

Just before pledging myself to his practice, however, I had doubts — he seemed a bit white and wimpy, and the mantra (as we chanted it) sometimes sounded like a funeral dirge. But these doubts evaporated when I heard a talk on ‘The Glorious Array of Bodhisattvas’. I was waiting with anticipation to hear about Manjushri; but as the speaker began to talk about Avalokitesvara, I felt transported to another world. And I wept.

I recalled an experience from an earlier solitary retreat. During a Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation, as I became concentrated and peaceful, I was filled with bliss. Then a sound arose, from both outside and inside me. It was like the sound of keening, of a thousand lament,.; for the dead from ages immemorial down to the present, and into the future. It was the sound of battle cries and children wailing with hunger. It was the sound of women being raped and men being slaughtered, of small whimpers and loud clamors It was the sound of all suffering — and my heart felt fit to break.

I could not listen to this sound nor could I stop listening. It filled me and it filled the universe. I wanted to escape but there was nowhere to go because this sound was universal — of all times and all places. The pain in my chest became so unbearable I thought I might die.

Then I remembered some verses about Avalokitesvara from the White Lotus Sutra:

In quarrels disputes and in strife,
In the battles of men and in any great danger,
To recollect the name of Avalokitesvara
Will appease the troops of evil foes.

His voice is like that of a cloud or a drum
Like a rain cloud lie thunders, sweet in voice like Brahma.
His voice is the most perfect that can be.
So one should recall Avalokitesvara.

Think of him, think of him, without hesitation,
Of Avalokitesvara, that pure being.
In death, disaster and calamity
He is the savior, refuge and recourse.

As these verses came to mind, the sound changed and my breathing calmed. I saw the four-armed figure of Avalokitesvara and felt a white light stream from him towards me. It was like being bathed in warm rain, which cleansed and soothed me. It probably lasted only seconds but it was powerful. I chanted the mantra aloud and slowly hope returned.

So, recalling that experience during the talk, I decided: OK, I am yours. At my private ordination ceremony I told my teacher Sangharakshita about these experiences, and he laughed. He thought Avalokitesvara was appropriate for me as a visualisation practice primarily because Compassion is the core of the Bodhisattva Ideal and Sangharakshita recognised that this ideal was my North Star and guiding light.

As an ideal it is precious and beautiful, while as a practice it is demanding and, in a way impossible to fulfill. How can we ever relieve the suffering of all beings? How can we overcome our embedded ego-identity and reach out lovingly to all — beyond all likes and dislikes? How can I embrace the abuser and rapist with the same tenderness as the abused and raped; Avalokitesvara is the answer.

He is the end and the means. It doesn’t matter that the ideal seems impossible to realise. What matters is the willingness not to put a limit on what we will give. And believing that by trying to alleviate suffering, we can render the world a better place. As ecologists remind us, we can ‘think global and act local’. Moved by Avalokitesvara’s beauty, by his mantra or by what he symbolises, we can be inspired to approach each small act in our daily lives with loving-kindness.

For two decades I have visualised myself as the four-armed Avalokitesvara, seated in meditation and made of luminous white light surrounded by rainbows. He holds a jewel within one pair of folded hands before his heart while the other hands hold a rosary and a lotus flower. The jewel is the mani of his mantra and is the highest part of us, a jewel to be found within the lotus of our lives. The lotus flower grows out of the muddy bottom of a lake yet blossoms to .1 beauty that far transcends its soiled origins. So, too, can we blossom and shine, regardless of our beginnings. Our own jewel is found in the down-to-earth experiences of worldly life. Avalokitesvara suggests a way of being within the world but unsullied by it. This is the significance of his mantra: om mani padme hum, the jewel of our aspirations covered in the mud of the mundane.

The sounds of suffering are all around. True compassion means opening tip to those cries and being neither overwhelmed nor indifferent. Avalokitesvara’s name means ‘he who hears the cries of the world’. This is the attitude of the Bodhisattva: one who hears and acts upon that hearing.

Avalokitesvara’s jewel also signifies the Bodhicitta: the will to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The arising of the Bodhicitta is the ‘experience’ that makes one a Bodhisattva and as such it is of crucial importance in the life of every practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Ideal as their guiding star. It is not merely the wish for Enlightenment but a reorientation of one’s whole life and being in that direction. It is a burning love for all humanity and a commitment to acting in accordance with it, purifying all those unskilful acts that prevent us embodying the vision.

I have now come full circle. I am no longer the frightened child of the 1950s seeking divine help, but I still want to open my heart to a love that can alleviate the ills of our world. In Buddhism I have found a philosophy that acknowledges suffering and gives it a framework. When necessary I can articulate that philosophy — but that is not enough. I am inspired by the love of Avalokitesvara to help create a world without suffering.

I want to be transformed. I want the tongues, of fire to descend and to serve the dove of peace. When I imagine myself as the rainbow figure of Avalokitesvara, I offer my flesh-and-blood being as a vehicle for his transcendent qualities. In the end, with all my imperfections, I try to serve him, not as a god but as Compassion manifest in the universe.

According to the legend Avalokitesvara saw he could not save all beings through will-power alone — so great was his despair that his body shattered and he cried out for help. The Buddha Amitabha appeared and healed his broken form, giving Avalokitesvara 11 heads to see in all directions and 1,000 arms to act more comprehensively. This is a beautiful symbol for spiritual community. We are each an outstretched hand offering our unique talents. We’re also joined together in something much greater than ourselves — a true spiritual community which fosters both diversity and unity.

This is the body of Avalokitesvara, in whose heart is the jewel of the Bodhicitta. We need the Bodhisattva of Compassion because the battle cries are loud and the world is aching. May his mantra sound ever more clearly throughout our suffering world.

This article was previously published in Dharma Life magazine.

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Vajrapani: Breaking free

VajrapaniWrathful Vajrapani, the bold blue Buddha of energy, is helping Vajradevi to transform her demons.

A few years ago I was sitting in a London office one winter day as the rain came down in slick sheets. Lightning flashed across the low sky and, as the thunder suddenly crescendoed, a half-dozen car alarms shrieked out to the surprise of pedestrians. No-one had touched the vehicles. The unseen power of the thunder had set the alarms off. It seemed a mischievous reminder from nature of the power at her disposal.

It also brought to my mind Wrathful Vajrapani, the Bodhisattva of energy or power. This is the figure I took on as a focus of my visualization meditation practice when I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Vajrapani means “bearer or holder of the vajra” and one translation of the word vajra is thunderbolt. In Indian mythology the thunderbolt was the weapon of Indra, the chief of the gods, who used it to destroy spells or charms. Vajra can also be defined as: “denunciation in strong language – compared to thunder.”

It is easy to see how associations with thunder and with nature in general come to be associated with Vajrapani. When I try to sense the Transcendental that he embodies, all sorts of physical comparisons come to mind. I think of wild cyclones sucking up the earth and throwing down everything in their way: volcanoes vomiting boulders and liquid heat and submerging whole islands in their fiery spew; roaring waterfalls that are terrifying and beautiful in equal measure. These images make me aware of my smallness and insignificance, but something inside me is also thrilled at the possibility of meeting that power and eventually becoming it. In An Introduction to Tantra Lama Yeshe writes: “the West has discovered how to tap many powerful sources of energy in nature, but still remains largely unaware of the tremendous force, even more powerful than nuclear energy, contained within each of us. As long as this powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to remain fragmented and purposeless, and we will continue to fall victim to the mental and emotional pressures so characteristic of our age.”

Vajrapani’s energy is not mere force, nor even power in a neutral sense. It is what the Buddhist tradition calls virya: “energy in pursuit of the good.” This means energy that is directed towards the goal of Enlightenment for all beings. It is energy that sees things as they really are rather than through the lens of the ego.

My connection with Wrathful Vajrapani started soon after I had begun to meditate, on a week-long retreat dedicated to him. I found Vajrapani visually intriguing. His body is heavy-set and he is deep blue. With his angry bulging eyes, matted brown hair and aura of flames, he was hardly beautiful but he was compelling. I remember being particularly fascinated by his huge blue belly.

Up to this point my knowledge of Bodhisattvas was limited to beautiful and refined peaceful deities, such as Tara and Amitabha. Vajrapani seemed unconventional to say the least. He wore a tiger skin (or sometimes an elephant hide) around his body. A live snake coiled around his neck. He held a vajra high above his head ready to use as a weapon. Vajrapani seemed to be “the Bodhisattva as Transcendental Thug” and I did not know what to make of him. His companions were a bunch of unlikely-sounding goddesses — Vajra-Hook, Vajra-Chain, Strong-Armed and Vajra-Army. He seemed more likely to have been at home in a heavymetal band or riding a 1,000 cc motorbike than residing in the sky, waiting to be visualized!

But the stories about him from various Buddhist scriptures caught my imagination. Through them come a sense of Vajrapani’s personal history. Unlike most Bodhisattvas his beginnings are humble. In his first canonical appearance (in the Pali Sutta Nipata) he starts out as a lowly yaksa (a kind of coarse sprite). In later texts he has been promoted to “the great general of the yaksas.” And later still he becomes one of the bodily forms of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Eventually he emerges as a Bodhisattva in his own right and in some scriptures he is also referred to as a fully Enlightened Buddha.

I like the progression of Vajrapani’s “life story.” As well as his associations with power, Vajrapani, like Vajrasattva, is connected with purity But while Vajrasattva represents purity achieved, or the essence of purity, Vajrapani is “the process of becoming pure.” The fallibility and humility in the stories about Vajrapani appeal greatly to me. He makes occasional mistakes, bears the consequences, and then continues his quest in service of “the good.”

According to one story, at one point Vajrapani was pure white. But while guarding the elixir of life for the peaceful Buddhas he became unmindful for a second, and the demons stole it. He wrestled back the elixir but the demons had defiled it by urinating in it. As a punishment Vajrapani was made by the Buddhas to drink the now poisonous liquid, and this turned him dark blue. Hence also his mudra (hand gesture) of “warding off demons.”

The first tale I ever heard about Vajrapani comes from The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Vajrapani’s role is comparatively minor but he manages to make a strong impression.

Tarpa Nagpo (or Black Salvation) was a monk who was full of pride and arrogance. He used the Dharma to his own advantage, deliberately miscommunicating the teachings to amass power for himself. After he was found out and stripped of his robes, he joined his friends (ogres, brigands and demons of the twilight) and travelled around Tibet causing wars, famines and other calamities.

By doing all this, he created terrible karmic consequences for himself, and suffered highly unfavorable rebirths. These included 500 rebirth as, respectively, a nimble worm, a wandering mastiff, a sucker of toes and an eater of vomit! Finally he was reborn “with neck and shoulders rotten” as a “pus ghost” named “Eager to make inquiry.” He took rebirth again as Rudra (or “He who devoured his mother”) and, not in the least deterred by his three-headed vile form, he continued spreading chaos and devastation throughout the world

The peaceful deities were at a loss to know what to do. Rudra was beyond their reach. They decided that Rudra needed to be dealt with by “force and restrain” so Vajrapani and Hayagriva (also known as Horsehead and Swine-face) were called up. Vajrapani climbed up Rudra’s urethra and Hayagriva into his anus. They met somewhere in the middle, and Rudra, the force of negativity and destruction, was subjugated and brought under the power of the good.

In his lecture Breaking through to Buddhahood (MP3 or PDF), Sangharakshita comments that the spiritual life may involve inner forcefulness. This idea, he suggests, is not a popular one. But if we are to break through to the Unconditioned, sometimes violence towards recalcitrant aspects of ourselves is necessary. At these times, love is just not enough. This is where Vajrapani comes in. He is not going to seduce us into the spiritual life with his beauty. He is there to help us to force our way through intractable bad habits and psychological traps. Whatever demons we have within us, Vajrapani is equal to them all. He presents a fierce, raw face of reality, and something deep within me resonates with that. He often shocks me — sometimes into laughter that opens me up to seeing myself a little more clearly.

In another text Vajrapani’s unconventional methods are described in a teaching to Tsong Khapa and Karmavajra. He gives a long discourse on dealing with hindrances to meditation, which ends with a vivid and unexpected tip. “If you want to avoid the pitfalls (of distraction) whack the pig on the snout with a club!”

Vajrapani’s mantra — om vajrapani ah hum — is deep, untuneful and resolute. It has a mysterious sound. Sometimes when I chant it, I imagine that the mantra is hurtling along the corridors of the universe, revealing glimpses of his immeasurable power. Perhaps, I feel, I can hear an echo of his heartbeat, or see a faint blue light that will pass within light years of his huge, golden vajra. When meditating on his figure, I listen for the sound of the dust that is moved by his magnificent footsteps.

Vajrapani is unpredictable. You never know what he might do, because he is associated with the wisdom that goes beyond the rational mind. He is also associated with the Tantra. Tantra means both the movement of energy and direct experience. The tantric tradition of spiritual practice is concerned with looking beyond the realm of the conceptual to the non-rational. Through the non-rational we can experience ourselves directly as pure energy or pure awareness that is unmediated by concepts.

Most of our energy is unconscious. We are like icebergs — largely submerged, with just a visible tip. In opening up to Vajrapani we look to make the remainder conscious, awake, and working in support of our desire to grow and change.

Vajrapani is sometimes portrayed as the Buddha’s protector — or the protective aspect of the Buddha. Some sutras recount people arguing with the Buddha, or insulting him. Vajrapani can be found hovering in the air above the Buddha, his vajra raised threateningly, just waiting to split open the person’s head.

Vajrapani mourningEven Vajrapani’s tenderness is frequently portrayed in terms of his might. When the Buddha died, it is said that: “letting fall his vajra in despair, Vajrapani rolled himself in the dust.” It is as if the earth shuddered from the weight of the fallen vajra — and from Vajrapani’s grief.

Sometimes I find things that help me to deepen my connection with Vajrapani in unexpected places. Recently I was in Barcelona and was introduced to some buildings designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. The spontaneity, creativity and freedom in the buildings brought Vajrapani to my mind. The exultant playfulness in Gaudi’s placing of a bunch of grapes or an ice-cream cone in marble perched on top of a fish-scaled roof is reminiscent of Vajrapani’s willingness to go anywhere or do anything in pursuit of the good.

A friend, who was formerly a Quaker and is now a Buddhist, told me of a label that was given to her by Quaker friends: Holy Boldness. I immediately thought of Vajrapani. It is him to a tee. I love the contradiction in the words and their suggestion of irreverence. Holy Boldness is vigorous, brave and pure. I want to develop Holy Boldness. I want to be like Vajrapani.

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Dalai Lama a hit before setting foot in Canada (C-News, Canada)

Emily Yaerwood-Lee, C-News, Canada: His Toronto event will be held at SkyDome and in Vancouver, tickets for two spiritual teaching events held in a 4,000-seat auditorium were snapped up in 20 minutes.

A fight reportedly broke out when a man who’d stood in line for tickets found out the appearance was sold out after the Vancouver event was moved to a 15,000-seat venue, the extra tickets were sold out within days. It was a different story when the Dalai Lama last visited Canada in 1993. About 4,000 turned out to see him in Vancouver.

Victor Chan, an organizer of the upcoming Vancouver visit who is also co-authoring a book with the Dalai Lama, suggested the Dalai Lama’s message of peace and compassion is one people are craving in a time of post Sept. 11 uncertainty.

He said the demand for spiritual teaching events is unprecedented.

“This is something I have not come across,” says Chan, who has travelled extensively with the Buddhist leader.

The Dalai Lama, whose celebrity supporters include actors Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, speaks of common secular ethics and said spiritual growth does not need to come from religious faith.

His mantra of non-violence has been his calling card since he and thousands of his countrymen fled their Himalayan homes in Tibet in 1959 and set up a government-in-exile in India.

The Chinese government claims Tibet as part of its territory and refuses to negotiate even limited autonomy with the Dalai Lama – who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for promoting human rights in his homeland – unless he acknowledges that authority.

Former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien both failed to meet the Dalai Lama during previous visits and it’s not known yet whether Paul Martin will see him.

But Thubten Samdup, national president of the Canada Tibet Committee, says one of the reasons for the Ottawa visit is to thank more than 100 MPs who he says have supported a campaign to have Canada facilitate negotiations between the Dalai Lama and China.

There is a bit of vindication in having his visit to Canada receive more attention this time around, agrees Samdup, who attributes the added interest to the Dalai Lama’s international profile.

“His name has become synonymous with non-violence and peace.”

It’s not just interest in the Dalai Lama that’s on the rise.

The 2001 census found the number of Buddhists in Canada increased 84 per cent over 10 years, representing about 300,000 people or roughly one per cent of the population.

The religion, with its many branches and spinoffs including various types of Tibetan Buddhism, has become attractive in the mainstream, says Suwanda Sugunasiri, founder of Toronto’s Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies and a former president of the Buddhist Council of Canada.

But he doubts the Tibetan style of Buddhism is responsible for much of the increase reflected in the census, attributing it instead to an increase in immigrants from other Buddhist countries.

Some of the religion’s popularity among North Americans could come from its hold on the media, says Frances Garrett, a Tibetan religion scholar at the University of Toronto.

“Probably because it’s kind of more picturesque,” says Garrett. “It films better.

“There are these highly exotic-looking rituals that are fascinating to people. Other forms of Buddhism … are more oriented to meditation and who wants to look at someone sitting on a meditation cushion?”

Its teachers may also seem more glamorous because of “their being exiled from Tibet and everyone’s very interested that they’ve been imprisoned,” says Garrett.

But for all of that interest, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism have often been misunderstood in the West, says Tsewang Thethong, a former minister from the government-in-exile who now lives in Victoria.

“The Dalai Lama was called the god-king, which he simply detests,” says Thethong. “Even we don’t use that word.”

The Dalai Lama, born in 1935, is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama and the incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

He is viewed as an enlightened spiritual master.

But he “works very hard to make sure people do not cling to this idea that he is some kind of a supernatural being with some remarkable powers,” says Chan, who was in Prague with the Dalai Lama when a journalist insisted on asking about the holy man’s telepathic abilities.

“Her question to him was, ‘These days, do you tend to use more e-mail rather than telepathy, or do you use telepathy more?”

The reporter wouldn’t let up, “even after the Dalai Lama said he didn’t know anything about telepathy,” says Chan.

Samdup acknowledges Tibetans of his father’s generation would have viewed the Dalai Lama as a god-king.

“Those Tibetans who believe in him as the ultimate saviour, slowly that generation is dying,” he says.

“In my father’s time, Tibet was very isolated so religion played a very important role. In my life it doesn’t play that big a role.”

Samdup, who counts himself a Buddhist, says he appreciates the Dalai Lama’s humility.

He’s seen the teacher tell crowds they will be disappointed if they’ve come to see him perform a miracle.

“He really doesn’t want people to have this notion that all Buddhists are enlightened and Tibetans are super human beings. People tend to have these preconceived notions that they are all monks and nuns and elevate and fly around.”

For his part, Chan doesn’t expect many of the people who snapped up tickets to see the Dalai Lama are even that interested in his brand of Buddhism or want to become practitioners.

“For me, anyway, what the Dalai Lama represents are very universal, secular values,” says Chan. “He talks a lot about the warm heart. This is something universal that all the religions are advocating.

“It’s not Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism per say that attracts people. I think people are attracted to him because he transcends that.”

The Dalai Lama will be in Vancouver April 17-20, Ottawa April 21-24, and Toronto April 25-May 5.

[Original article no longer available]
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