The Four Reminders

Fourth reminder: The defects of samsara

ocean

Samsara
Is an ocean of suffering,
Unendurable,
Unbearably intense.

Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

So what is Samsara? Most of us have heard of Nirvana. And assume Samsara is the exact opposite. Nirvana is more the juxtaposition of Samsara that can give a feeling of balance. Nirvana and Samsara are here, in this present moment. Both of them right here, right now. If we have suffered from an addiction we would have experienced a taste of what Samsara could be.

I’m not sure it is helpful to define either concept. Though of course Samsara is some of what I have alluded to before. Our lack of recognizing that we have had a precious birth, our denial of our own death, the karma of taking a human body, all this is Samsara. It is the cycle of life, and it’s consequence of decay and death.

All beings have suffered for eons, and will continue to do so until Nirvana is attained. Nirvana is more than a state of bliss or peace. It is indefinable. But I would say that we are moving towards it if we can cultivate, equanimity, simplicity, stillness and contentment in our lives.

The Four Reminders

I’m aware of having spoken much about the finality of life, or the part of the cycle of life which is death. But there are many of us who will get sick for a prolonged time before we die. Many of us who will age, and loose much of our mobility and even our faculties before we die. Samsara is right in this moment of not accepting, old age and sickness. It is possible to be happy in sickness, happy in old age, and happy at the point of death.

How can this be? The Buddhist path offers a path of liberation, a path of ethics, meditation and wisdom. This threefold path can lead us to the point of seeing that there is an end of suffering, and if we take this path it will lead us away from suffering. It will point us in the direction of Nirvana.

There is much hope in life, if we take the opportunity and invite the full cycle of life into our hearts and minds. I find myself reflecting on the following questions often.

  • How do we hold death lightly?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may be diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to an old age with little mobility?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to be a 100, be well, but have no friends or family alive around me?
  • How do I live?

I must live in the now. Moment by moment without the distraction of the past or the future.

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Happy New Year

Vimalasara

Many of us in the world use the new year as an opportunity to let go of the past and make new beginnings. I thought I would acknowledge the new year as one of those GIFTS — a Great Indicator For Throwing Stuff Out.

We are the fortunate ones to be reading this right now, because for some people the world did end on December 21st or thereafter. So here we are, having survived another end of the world date. There have been many such apocalypses predicted in the past and none, of course, have come true. We could spend the rest of our lives worrying about predictions of the end of the world, or we could begin to think about how we truly want to live our life.

  1. What direction do you want your life to be heading towards? Aspirations?
  2. What conditions need to be cultivated to make your aspirations true?
  3. What is holding you back? Externally? Internally?
  4. What are the steps you need to take to help support your aspirations?

If we are wanting to live a more mindful life, more in sync with Buddhist teachings, we would be placing every efforts to transform our body, speech and mind. We would be aware of our actions having consequences and would apply mindfulness to recreate actions that only promote kindness.

The Four Reminders

Perhaps go back to the four questions and see how many of your aspirations are to do with body, speech and mind? Ask yourself, will your aspirations lead you in the direction of moderation? A direction that is free of self indulgence or denial and self mortification? The Buddha taught us the middle way – the path of ethics, meditation and wisdom to free us from our suffering. Perhaps that could be an aspiration to investigate the middle way in 2013.

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The third reminder: Karma

Wheel of Life

Karma can be scary. Does it mean if we get sick we have done something wrong in our life? This was one of the question on my friends lips in her dying process. ‘What had she done so wrong to get pancreatic cancer?’

Nothing, she had done nothing wrong. The only karma in her dying is that she was reborn as a human, and if we take a human birth we will inevitably get sick, or age, and die.

If I get a cold it does not mean I have been unskilful. It could mean though that I went out in the cold, didn’t wrap up well, and so I caught a cold. Hence my action had a consequence. But someone else may have done something unskilful, gone out in the cold weather without wrapping up well and not catch a cold. Their actions had a different consequence. They may well not have been under the weather. There can be so many factors to why if we commit the same action, why the consequence is not the same.

In 1999 the captain of the England Team preparing for the world cup Glen Hoddle was sacked because of his misguided and ignorant views on karma. He believed that the: ‘disabled, and others, are being punished for sins in a former life.’ This was also once an ignorant view of black people and sadly today some people can think this of the Dalits of India.

The Four Reminders

Most Buddhists do not talk of sin. We speak about unskilful and skilful actions. And furthermore there is no devil to punish us for our sins in Buddhism. There is only the mind that can haunt us like a tormented ghost. The leader of the Dalits, the late Dr Ambedkar once referred to caste as nothing more ‘than a notion of mind.’ Most definitely not a sin, or a punishment due to past lives. Therefore he believed we could liberate the mind, and he changed the Karma of his people by converting to Buddhism because this was the religion that would emancipate their minds. His mass conversion in 1956 allowed hundreds of thousands of people who were called ‘Untouchables’ to rename themselves as Buddhists. It was the beginning of the uplift of his people. If we were to recognize the potency of the mind we would be able to step out of the confinements of the body we are born in and free ourselves from societies oppressions.

My karma as a black woman was that I used to let society’s prejudice oppress me. I in fact oppressed myself with my own thinking.

Karma is about our actions having consequences. And each consequence may be a gain or a cost. That’s it, in its simplicity. It’s not that if you do an unskillful deed you will be punished by the wrath of God. But yes, if you do an unskillful deed there will be a consequence, which may mean that it will prey on your mind, prey so much that you turn to another unskillful action to get rid of the thoughts in your mind. Creating a vicious cycle.

My karma is this. My actions will have consequences. Full stop. If I don’t accept reality, see things as they really are. If I don’t accept that I am going to die, my living will be full of suffering. My dying will be full of suffering. This is the law of karma. My actions of denial will have a consequence.

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The second reminder: Death and impermanence

Dead, withered rose

‘One day I will die. I can not escape it. Death comes to everyone, including me.’

As I write this I have goose bumps. It enlivens me as well as scares me. There are many days I don’t want to die, and yet I know this is the cycle of life. Once I am born I am old enough to die. I remember speaking with one of my friends when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wanted to know how long she had? Little did she know she only had seven weeks. Reflecting on this question, I realized she had 49 years to live, it took 49 years for her to die. How long did she have? She had now.

And yet so many of us, including myself live life as is we are immortal as if we are immune to death, as if it will not happen to us. As if our first terminal diagnosis is the first warning that we get that we will die.

The Four Reminders

I remember once saying to a friend who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago: “Hold on, hold on I could die before you. Your husband could die before you. Some of your friends could die before you. There is no guarantee you will die first.” Life is immediate for all of us, our death is immediate to all of us, if we wake up to that reality. I know that to be so true. I have woken up in the morning, felt on top of the world, had a great day at work, jumped on my bicycle and been knocked down by a car, more than once. Life is fragile, we do not know when it will end, but we know it will end. The uncertainty of not knowing can be more stressful than the actual dying.

A dear friend of mine died at age 44, from ovarian cancer. Initially she was given five years to live. But during surgery to remove her ovaries the surgeon punctured her bowel. This accelerated her living. She was terrified of dying, and her partner asked her: ‘What is so awful about dying?’. She couldn’t answer, but after this question her life changed. She accepted her dying process, to the extent that we gave her a living funeral. I remember telling her we wanted to celebrate her before she died. She lit up, and then proceeded to tell me what food she wanted, which people she wanted to attend. She said: “I want this celebration to help me pass over.” Her mom, brother, extended family and friends came to say goodbye to her. We all rejoiced in her life, told her we loved her, and said goodbye to her. She sat through every single bit of it, present and alert. Two days later she died. My friend taught me not to fear death.

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

Support local bookstores: Buy from Indiebound (US) or Bookshop (UK)

One of my best friends has just died. Was it a shock? Was it sudden? I know that my friends, family and i will die. And yet it still comes as a shock. I realize I still do not accept impermanence. I am in resistance to the change, that my dear friend will no longer share long talks with me, no longer laugh with me no longer support me. My selfish mind continues to cause me suffering. I have multiplied my pain by resisting it. I want Georgina to still be here, so I can here her call me V, so she can tell me everything that is going on back home in England.
I am more prepared for my own demise than the demise of those I love and know in my life.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers this practise. When we part with people we love – we hold each other – and look at each other with loving kindness and say: “I love you and one day you will die”

I leave you with this quote from Pema Chodron – “It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.

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The first reminder: My precious birth

Newborn baby

I hope it is not too late to realize that joyful is my precious birth. If we are deep in the disease of an addiction it is impossible to realize and to take advantage of our precious birth. When we are sober, clean and free from anything that obsesses or controls the mind we have emotional and spiritual health. Only then can we begin to appreciate our precious birth.

Every human that is born has a precious birth. The difference is that some of us have the perfect conditions to realize our potential while others are born into conditions where their potential can be hindered by external factors they had no control over, like sickness, diseases, war, famine and natural disasters. Those of us living in countries without these factors can also hinder our potential by the internal factors created by the mind; greed, hatred and delusion.

The Four Reminders

I have gratitude right now in this moment because I have my physical health, energy, and more than enough food to eat. What do I have to complain about? I currently live in country that is free of war on its own territory. I can walk outside my house and not fear I may walk on a land mine. I have my freedom as a woman, and yet I still complain. If I get sick, I can go to a doctor and not worry about the cost, and know that I will be treated with decent care. Yet I still complain. How fortunate I am. And If I don’t realize this good fortune I will be wasting my life. Wasting my precious birth. I will be at risk of turning to alcohol, food, or any other false comforter to fill the void in my life.

Knowing all of this, how should I live my life? I choose to live each moment as if it were the last. ‘I do that ‘ an addict may well say. However most addicts live life as if there is no tomorrow. The addict lives life chasing yesterdays experiences and tomorrows desires. The addict lives in complete denial of seeing things as they really are. Not just the addict, but most people live their life like this. Our minds are so full of delusions, stories we tell our selves, resentments and craving that it is impossible to see things as they really are.

If I could live my life as if every moment was the first and the last my life would be different. How? I don’t know. But I do know if my mind was not attached to the past, or the future it would be different. Free of mental turmoil, without the craving for something to dull my feelings.

If tomorrow I get sick or, tomorrow I get knocked off my bicycle and lose a limb. I know that if I hold onto the past of when I was well, and had all my limbs, I will suffer even more. If I was able to be in the moment of my life, I would be able to see my precious birth despite my physical disability. I shudder at the thought of this, and I know that there are people in the world who can live with that acceptance and awareness. Not letting a physical disability take away their precious birth.

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

Support local bookstores: Buy from Indiebound (US) or Bookshop (UK)

I’ve had two cancer scares. The first was when I was 24. I remember thinking “I have to change my life”. It worked, the cancerous cells disappeared. But I didn’t change my life. I was most definitely on the path that led to more suffering. I numbed everything out with work, social life and denial. Before my next cancer scare, I was attacked. It took being almost strangled to death at age 27 for me to change my life. It was my wake up call. I wasn’t meant to die. I got away, alive. So what was I going to do with my precious birth?

Exactly this. I told myself this was not going to be another thing to pull me down. It never has. I have never been a victim of this incident. Sometimes it’s as if it never happened. I didn’t hold on to it. I let it go, and moved into the next moment. Yes it had an impact, that lasted a few months, in dreams. But the only pain that took time to go was the physical side effect in my neck.  Even that subsided. I turned to Buddhism soon after and woke up to my precious birth.

My second cancer scare was at 35. I remember walking out of the clinic and thinking I’ve had a good life, it is okay to die. I’ve lived 35 long years, yes it would be good to live some more, but you could hardly say poor thing she died so young. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

I could never have thought so positively if it wasn’t for my Buddhist training. It so happened my doctor was wrong. It wasn’t cancerous cysts, just fibroids.  And so I am still here. Still trying to live this precious life ethically with mindfulness and wisdom. Rather than live it mindlessly by numbing out in front of the tv, on the computer, eating food, alcohol, substance abuse, depression or anger. Life is too short for that, which is why our birth is so precious.

We have the mental factors to see things as they really are. If we were to nurture our faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom we would be moving towards the good, have awareness, focused concentration and intelligent understanding.

The five hindrances of craving, aversion, restlessness, sloth and torpor and doubt would no longer obscure the mind. We would have made use of our precious birth.

As I write this month’s blog I can’t but help think about the tragedy in America. It is so sad. A precious life wasted, many precious lives lost. What happened to that poor kid James Holmes for him to be caught up in a delusion and use his intellect to massacre innocent people? Why did he waste his precious birth?

We live in a world today where our children are indoctrinated by greed, hatred and delusion. Just watch the video games that are marketed to youth. Kids are rewarded, given points for killing someone. Young people I have worked with, have told me that: ‘video games are screwing up some of their friends’.

We have to wake up to reality. We are nurturing a generation of young people who have different values than their parents. Video games are just one example where we are teaching young people about violence uncritically.

We have to take responsibility. It’s not just about our birth. It is about the precious birth of generations to come. In living our lives wisely we will help those born after us to realize their full potential.

How are you making the most of your precious birth?

Next month a reflection on the first reminder.

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