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    Nga tama o Punga

    Nga tama o Punga is the name of the last design in the book, and in the Maori language it means “the children of Punga.” It is inspired by the author’s personal tattoos.

    Punga was the son of Tangaroa, god of the sea, and also a god himself. He had two sons, called Ika-tere and Tū-te-wehiwehi, who fled Punga’s home to avoid the wrath of another god. Ika-tere hid under the sea, where he became the ancestor of fish, mantas, and other sea creatures, while Tū-te-wehiwehi took refuge in the forest, where he became the ancestor of reptiles.

    The manta and the lizard in this design share a common characteristic: they are both related to personal growth and achievement, as mantas can represent knowledge and lizards are symbolic of wisdom and interaction with the spiritual world. These are the main meanings that led to the choice of elements in composing this design. On the wings of the manta, the author incorporated the Maori symbol called te ara poutama, “the road in steps,” which represents the path to knowledge that is never straight nor easy. The Hawaiian pattern called “path of Kamehameha” was included to depict a challenging path that leads to success. It is placed between the enata (person) in the center and the ancestors on top, depicted as guides bestowing their knowledge and teachings upon the enata below them.  Shark teeth were added for protection along the path, and as symbols of adaptability and strength. The bird next to the enata symbolizes both voyage and reaching a higher perspective above the world.

    The lizard extends this concept and its elements by representing the voyage of the wise person (the enata within the head of the lizard, at the end of the row of birds) who has reached a higher perspective after a long, winding, and challenging path.

    The alteration of black and white areas within the design brings balance and reflects the concept of interconnection between ao (light, place of the living) and po (darkness, place of the spirits), as darkness is the place of origin from which all knowledge comes to the world of the living. This dualism also shares many analogies with the concept of Yin and Yang, opposites that interpenetrate to generate unity.

    Nga tama o Punga (Polynesian Tattoos)

    The Sun

    The sun is a universal symbol of eternity and life. In Polynesian cultures it is also regarded as a symbol of health, welfare, success, joy, purity, and fertility. It’s considered a male symbol, associated with fire. The rising sun symbolizes a fresh start, new life, and growth, while the setting sun can be a symbol of rest and peace, with the continuous cycle of day and night symbolizing eternity.

    The sun in this tattoo is a symbol of protection, like the guardian tiki in the center of the design. The elements surrounding it represent protection from adversities (symbolized by the moray eel), cooperation, strength, and good luck in order to achieve stability, prosperity, and unity.

    Click on the image below to save or print.

    The Sun (Polynesian Tattoos)

    Roberto Gemori draws Polynesian tattoos for the site www.tattootribes.com and collaborates with specialized magazines under the nickname GiErre. Passionate about Polynesian cultures for years, he is among the site's founders and likes to share his works to shed light on this beautiful and meaningful form of art. Learn More.

  • First Session of Day One | An Excerpt from Perfecting Patience

    Perfecting Patience

    On the Path of Self-Betterment

    Generally speaking, all the major religions of the world emphasize the importance of the practice of love, compassion, and tolerance. This is particularly the case in all the traditions of Buddhism, including the Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantrayana (the esoteric tradition of Buddhism). They all state that compassion and love are the foundation of all the spiritual paths.

    In order to enhance one’s development of compassion and cultivate the potential for compassion and love inherent within oneself, what is crucial is to counteract their opposing forces. It is in this context that the practice of patience or tolerance becomes very important, because only through patience is one able to overcome the obstacles to compassion.

    When we talk about patience or tolerance, we should understand that there are many degrees, starting from a simple tolerance, such as being able to bear a certain amount of heat and cold, progressing toward the highest level of patience, which is the type of patience and tolerance found in the great practitioners, the Bodhisattvas on the high levels of the Buddhist path. Since patience or tolerance comes from a certain ability to remain firm and steadfast, to not be overwhelmed by the adverse situations or conditions that one faces, one should not see tolerance or patience as a sign of weakness, but rather as a sign of strength coming from a deep ability to remain steadfast and firm. We can generally define patience or tolerance in these terms. We find that even in being able to tolerate a certain degree of physical hardship, like a hot or cold climate, our attitude makes a big difference. If we have the realization that tolerating immediate hardship can have long-term beneficial consequences, we are more likely to be able to tolerate everyday hardships. Similarly, in the case of those on the Bodhisattva levels of the path practicing high levels of tolerance and patience, intelligence also plays a very important role as a complementary factor.

    In addition to the value of the practice of tolerance and patience from the Dharma point of view, even in our day-to-day life experiences tolerance and patience have great benefits, such as being able to sustain and maintain our calmness of mind, peace of mind, and presence of mind. So if an individual possesses this capacity of tolerance and patience, then even if the person lives in a very tense environment, one that is frantic and stressful, the person’s calmness and presence of mind will not be disturbed.

    The text from which I am teaching in this series of lectures is a Buddhist text and specifically a text of Mahayana Buddhism. Many of the practices outlined in this work are presented from the point of view of a practitioner who is engaged in the Mahayana path of cultivating bodhichitta and living a way of life according to the Bodhisattva principles. However, many of the techniques and methods which are presented are also relevant and applicable to individuals who do not engage in Bodhisattva practices, or who do not subscribe to Buddhism as a personal religion.

    This text is called the Bodhisattvacharyavatara in Sanskrit, which is translated as Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. When we speak of the activities of a Bodhisattva, there are three levels. The first is the entry into the Bodhisattva path, which principally involves generating bodhichitta, the altruistic aspiration to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. That is the first level of practice. This is followed by what is known as the actual practice, which consists of the practice of the six perfections. Among the six perfections, which are the main precepts of generating bodhichitta, one is patience or tolerance. The third level of Bodhisattva deeds comprises the activities at the state of Buddhahood, which results from this practice.

    In the first chapter of the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva talks about the merits and benefits of generating bodhichitta, the altruistic aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. He states:

    I bow down to the body of him

    In whom the sacred precious mind is born.

    I seek refuge in that source of joy

    Who brings to happiness even those who harm him.

    (Guide, I:36)

    In this verse, he states that since this altruistic aspiration develops to the infinite capacity of helping all other sentient beings, the person who generates that kind of infinite altruism is truly an object worthy of respect and reverence. Because this infinite altruism is the source of joy and happiness not only for oneself but also for countless other sentient beings, any interaction that other individuals might have with such a person, even a negative one, will leave a very powerful imprint on that individual’s life. Even if one commits a negative act or has a negative relationship, although its immediate consequences may be negative, in the long run the very fact that one had an interaction with such a person will lead to positive consequences and benefit in the future. Such is the power of this infinite altruism.

    The true foundation of this infinite altruism is compassion, and because compassion is the root of infinite altruism, Chandrakirti—unlike other authors who at the beginning of their text pay homage to the Buddha or a Bodhisattva or a meditational deity—in his text called the Guide to the Middle Way pays homage to compassion and points out that its importance and its value remain throughout all time. At the beginner’s level, its value cannot be underestimated. While the individual is on the path, the value of compassion and its importance cannot be underestimated. Even at the resultant state of Buddhahood, compassion still retains its importance and value. We find that all major world religions, although they may have different ways of teaching compassion and different ways of explaining why enhancement of a compassionate attitude is important, converge on the single point that compassion is the root. It is crucial.

    Compassion and love are the foundation of all the spiritual paths.

    Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent and nonharming, or nonaggressive. Because of this there is a danger of confusing compassion with attachment and intimacy.

    So we find that there are two types of love or compassion. On the one hand is compassion or love which is based on attachment or which is tinged with attachment. That type of love or compassion and feeling of intimacy is quite partial and biased, and it is based very much on the consideration that the object of one’s affection or attachment is someone who is dear or close to one. On the other hand, genuine compassion is free from such attachment. There the motivation is not so much that this person is my friend, is dear to me or related to me. Rather, genuine compassion is based on the rationale that just as I do, others also have this innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering; just as I do, they have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration. Based on that recognition of this fundamental equality and commonality, one develops a sense of affinity and closeness, and based on that, one will generate love and compassion. That is genuine compassion.

    It is also very clear that one’s level of intelligence or wisdom is a complementary factor that will determine the intensity and the depth of one’s compassion. In Buddhism, there are discussions of three principal types of compassion. One is a compassion which is not complemented by any wisdom factors. A second level of compassion is complemented by insight into the transient nature of sentient beings, their impermanent nature. At the third level of compassion, called nonobjectified compassion, the complementary factor is wisdom or insight into the ultimate nature of reality. At this level, one sees the empty nature of sentient beings, and that insight reinforces one’s compassionate attitude toward sentient beings. Even though this type of genuine compassion and infinite altruism is something that needs to be consciously cultivated and developed, we all possess the basis or potential for such enhancement and such development.

    One of my fundamental beliefs is that not only do we inherently possess this potential or basis for compassion, but also the basic or fundamental human nature is gentleness. Not only human beings but all sentient beings have gentleness as their fundamental nature. There are other grounds upon which I base this belief, without having to resort to the doctrine of Buddha-nature. For example, if we look at the pattern of our existence from an early age until our death, we see the way in which we are so fundamentally nurtured by affection, each other’s affection, and how we feel when we are exposed to others’ affection. In addition, when we ourselves have affectionate feelings we see how it naturally affects us from within. Not only that, but also being affectionate and being more wholesome in our behavior and thought seems to be much more suited to the physical structure of our body in terms of its effect on our health and physical well-being, and so on. It must also be noted how the contrary seems to be destructive to health. For these reasons I think that we can infer that our fundamental human nature is one of gentleness. Now if this is the case, then it makes all the more sense to try to live a way of life which would be more in accordance with this basic gentle nature of our being.

    However, we do find a lot of conflict and tension not only within our individual mind but also within the family, when we interact with other people, and also at the societal level, the national level, the global level, and so on. How do we account for that?

    One of the factors, I think, that contributes to this conflict is our imaginative faculty, or in other words, intelligence. It is also our intelligence which can find ways and means to overcome this conflict. So in using human intelligence to overcome this conflict which is created by human intelligence, the important factor is human compassion. I think if we look at the reality, it is quite clear that the best way to overcome conflict is the spirit of reconciliation, even within oneself. That spirit has very much to do with compassion.

    One aspect of compassion is to respect others’ rights and to respect others’ views. That is the basis of reconciliation. I think the rule of the human spirit of reconciliation which is based on compassion is working deep down, whether the person really knows it or not. Therefore, because our basic human nature is gentleness, no matter how much we go through violence and many bad things, ultimately the proper solution is to return to the basic human feeling, that is, human affection. So human affection or compassion is not only a religious matter, but in our day-to-day life it is quite indispensable.

    Now with this as a background, if one looks at the practice of tolerance, it is really worthwhile. No matter how difficult, it is worthwhile to do this practice. The first verse of Shantideva’s “Patience” chapter reads:

    (1) Whatever wholesome deeds,

    Such as venerating the Buddhas and [practicing] generosity,

    That have been amassed over a thousand eons,

    Will all be destroyed in one moment of anger.

    The implication of this first verse is that in order for the individual practitioner to be able to successfully cultivate patience and tolerance, what is required is a very strong enthusiasm, a strong desire, because the stronger one’s enthusiasm the greater the ability to withstand the hardships encountered in the process. Not only that, but one also will be prepared to voluntarily accept hardships that are a necessary part of the path.

    I think if we look at the reality, it is quite clear that the best way to overcome conflict is the spirit of reconciliation, even within oneself. That spirit has very much to do with compassion.

    The first stage, then, is to generate this strong enthusiasm, and for that what is required is to reflect upon the destructive nature of anger and hatred, as well as the positive effects of patience and tolerance.

    In this text, one reads that the generation of anger or hatred, even for a single instant, has the capacity to destroy virtues collected over a thousand eons. Another text, the Entry into the Middle Way by Chandrakirti, states that a single instant of anger or hatred will destroy virtues accumulated over a hundred eons. The difference between these two texts is explained from the point of view of the object of one’s anger or hatred. If the object of one’s anger or hatred is a Bodhisattva on a high level of the path, and the person who is being hateful or angry is not a Bodhisattva, then the amount of virtue which will be destroyed is greater. On the other hand, if a Bodhisattva generates anger toward another Bodhisattva, maybe the virtue destroyed would be less. So it is in this regard that the differences are explained.

    However, when we say that virtues accumulated over eons are destroyed by a single instant of anger, we have to identify what sort of virtues are destroyed. Both this text and Entry into the Middle Way agree that it is only the meritorious virtues, not so much the wisdom aspect but rather the method aspect of the path, which are destroyed. In particular, these include virtues accumulated through practicing giving or generosity as well as virtues accumulated on the basis of observing an ethically disciplined way of life. On the other hand, virtues accumulated through the practice of wisdom, such as generating insight into the ultimate nature of reality, and virtues accumulated through meditative practices, wisdom acquired through meditation, remain beyond the scope of destruction by anger and hatred.

    Here there is a mention of the word “eons.” A particular Buddhist system of measurement is used here, based on the Abhidharma system, in which “eons” refers to a “great eon,” which is composed of twenty middle-length eons. This is also related to Buddhist cosmology, the theory within which the whole evolutionary process of the universe is explained. For instance, according to Abhidharma cosmology, we divide the time of evolution into four stages—the time of empty space, the time of evolution, the time of abiding, and the time of destruction—and all of these are divided according to this precise system. It may be interesting to compare that with the current cosmological theory based on the big bang theory, in which evolution is explained in terms of fifteen to twenty billion years.

    According to this verse, the virtues which are complemented by the factor of wisdom, particularly insight into the ultimate nature of reality (the realization of emptiness), and also any virtues which are based on the realization or attainment of shamatha (calm abiding or single-pointedness of mind) remain beyond the scope of destruction by anger and hatred. Therefore, we see the value of generating shamatha and insight into emptiness.

    The second verse reads:

    2) There is no evil like hatred,

    And no fortitude like patience.

    Thus I should strive in various ways

    To meditate on patience.

    Generally speaking, there are many afflictive emotions such as conceit, arrogance, jealousy, desire, lust, closed-mindedness, and so on, but of all these, hatred or anger is singled out as the greatest evil. This is done for two reasons.

    One is that hatred or anger is the greatest stumbling block for a practitioner who is aspiring to enhance his or her bodhichitta—altruistic aspiration and a good heart. Anger or hatred is the greatest obstacle to that.

    Second, when hatred and anger are generated they have the capacity to destroy one’s virtue and calmness of mind. It is due to these reasons that hatred is considered to be the greatest evil.

    Hatred is one of the six root afflictive emotions according to Buddhist psychology. The Tibetan word for it is zhe dang (Tib. zhe sdang), which can be translated as either “anger” or “hatred” in English. However, I feel that it should be translated as “hatred,” because “anger,” as it is understood in English, can be positive in very special circumstances. These occur when anger is motivated by compassion or when it acts as an impetus or a catalyst for a positive action. In such rare circumstances anger can be positive whereas hatred can never be positive. It is totally negative.

    Since hatred is totally negative, it should never be used to translate the Tibetan word zhe dang when it appears in the context of tantra. Sometimes we hear the expression “taking hatred into the path.” This is a mistranslation. In this context, hatred is not theright word; one should use “anger”: “taking anger into the path.” So the Tibetan word can be translated as either “anger” or “hatred,” but “anger” can be positive; therefore, when zhe dang refers to the afflictive emotion it must be translated as “hatred.”

    The last two lines of the second verse read:

    Thus I should strive in various ways

    To meditate on patience.

    Since the goal is the enhancement of one’s capacity for tolerance and the practice of patience, what is required is to be able to counteract the forces of anger and hatred, particularly hatred. One should use all sorts of techniques to increase one’s familiarity with patience. These include not only real life situations, but also using one’s imagination to visualize a situation and then see how one will react and respond to it. Again and again one should try to combat hatred and develop one’s capacity for tolerance and patience.

    (3) My mind will not experience peace

    If it fosters painful thoughts of hatred.

    I shall find no joy or happiness;

    Unable to sleep, I shall feel unsettled.

    This verse outlines the destructive effects of hatred, which are very visible, very obvious and immediate. For example, when a strong or forceful thought of hatred arises, at that very instant it overwhelms one totally and destroys one’s peace and presence of mind. When that hateful thought is harbored inside, it makes one feel tense and uptight, and can cause loss of appetite, leading to loss of sleep, and so forth.

    Generally speaking, I believe that the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness and fulfillment. Even from the Buddhist point of view, when we speak of the four factors of happiness, or four factors of fulfillment, the first two are related to the attainment of joy and happiness in worldly terms, leaving aside ultimate religious or spiritual aspirations such as liberation and enlightenment. The first two factors deal with joy and happiness as we understand them conventionally, in worldly terms. In order to more fully experience that level of joy and happiness, the key is one’s state of mind. However, there are various factors that contribute to attaining that level of joy and happiness, which we conventionally also recognize as sources of happiness, such as good physical health, which is considered one of the factors necessary for a happy life. Another factor is the wealth that we accumulate. Conventionally, we regard this as a source of joy and happiness. The third factor is to have friends or companions. We conventionally recognize that in order to enjoy a happy and fulfilled life, we also need a circle of friends we trust and with whom we can relate emotionally.

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  • Brain Control of Sleeping and Dreaming States | An Excerpt from Where Buddhism Meets Neuroscience

    Where Buddhism Meets Neuroscience

    Allan Hobson, MD

    Neuroscience and Tibetan Buddhism have both devoted a great deal of attention to sleep and dream states, and there is a clear overlap of interests in this area. In fact, the topic generated so much interest on both sides that it was to become the focus of the fourth Mind and Life Conference.

    Allan Hobson provides a general tour of current scientific knowl­edge on sleep and dream states, and the implications of these findings for our philosophical understanding of consciousness. Most signifi­cantly, consciousness is understood to be a natural condition of the activated brain, and most of the brain activity associated with various states, whether waking, dreaming, or in deep sleep, is generated inter­nally by the brain itself, rather than being driven by sensory input.

    Control of the regular cycles of sleeping, dreaming, and waking states is governed by reciprocal systems of neurotransmitters. Because of their role in controlling relaxation, these chemical systems may prove to play a role in meditation also.

    Lucid dreaming, in which the subject is conscious of dreaming even as the dream occurs, is another area of particular interest, having only recently been recognized, let alone studied, in Western science. Tibetan Buddhism has a long tradition of dream yoga which includes training in lucid dreaming.

    Allan Hobson: I plan to identify some important themes in the science of sleep and dreams, and to orient the discussion toward the clinical and philosophical implications of this work.

    Those implications include the following: I think we can now conclude that good sleep and good waking are reciprocally related, as Buddhist philosophy has long held. More particularly, I think we can identify within the brain some of the structural bases of these reciprocal relations. Further, I think we can help understand how some of the practices that the Buddhist tradition has devel­oped actually work in relation to specific brain mechanisms. That is particularly exciting with respect to future experimental prospects.

    Obviously, in the West we also believe that sleep is important to health, and to the degree that we can help people learn to sleep without pills, we will be in a much stronger position. One of the great afflictions of the West now is the overuse of sleeping pills. So behavioral techniques, such as those Buddhists have developed, that can be used to help people achieve peace of mind and good sleep are very welcome.

    The second point about the clinical implications has to do with dreaming itself. I think we can now objectively identify the brain states associated with dreaming and help people, if they so wish, to have access to their dreams. In other words, we are now in a posi­tion more easily to control dreaming, if we want to. I will discuss dream control later.

    There are a number of other interesting topics that are of great importance to philosophy and to clinical practice. Philosophically, these issues really have to do with the relationship of brain activity to consciousness. Perhaps the most important general conclusion coming from sleep research is that consciousness in all its varieties is specifically related to particular brain states. Consciousness seems to be a natural condition of the activated brain. Further­more, most of the activity of consciousness is internally generated. In other words, the brain contains its own mechanisms for creat­ing information, and most of brain activity is concerned with pro­cessing its own information, input from the outside world being relatively modest. Previously, in the West, models of brain function were largely input driven. Now, I think we see that the brain has highly organized spontaneous activity, such that the main rudi­ments of consciousness are inherent, self-organized, and built into the system.

    So I hope these three themes—the clinical implications for sleep and its relation to waking, the nature of dreams and our capacity to access them, and the implications for theories of consciousness will be discussed following my presentation.

    In such a brief time I can’t possibly cover the wealth of mate­rial now known about these issues, so I will review five major conclusions.

    Measuring Sleep and Dream Cycles

    The first is that sleep can be objectively measured. We can, for example, measure activity of the brain, we can measure activity of muscles, we can measure activity of the eyes. When we make these three measurements, we can clearly distinguish three states: wak­ing, sleeping, and sleeping with dreams. Furthermore, we can iden­tify these three states in another way, simply by observing behavior, and using either photography or time-lapse video to keep track of changes in body posture that are associated with the underlying changes in brain state responsible for the shift from sleeping to dreaming. In time-lapse video, a picture is taken at regular inter­vals, typically every seven and a half minutes, using a video cam­era instead of a still camera to record a history of postural shifts throughout the night.

    We have found that sleepers never make fewer than fourteen major body shifts during the night. They shift from right side to left side to right side to left side during six to eight hours of sleep. And when sleep becomes less sound, they make more movements. With respect to some of your traditions concerning sleeping on the right side, the real issue is, can a trained subject suppress body movement shifting and still have normal sleep? This is a very simple experiment which could be performed with very simple techniques such as time-lapse video, which is easily portable.

    Using measurements of the brain, eye, and muscles, we can iden­tify three states: waking, sleeping without dreams, and sleeping with dreams. Nondreaming and dreaming sleep alternate in a reg­ular cycle, which lasts about ninety minutes, with about the first sixty to seventy minutes being nondreaming sleep, the last fifteen or twenty minutes being dreaming. This means that in a night of six to eight hours of sleep, you are going to have four or five dream periods, each lasting fifteen to twenty minutes, or longer. This means that in any given night of sleep, we have as much as two hours of dreaming, distributed at regular intervals throughout the night. There is a lot of time spent dreaming.

    Dalai Lama: Are there any differences due to age?

    Allan Hobson: Yes. Sleep generally becomes shorter and shal­lower with age. And with aging, there is a slight decrease in the amount of time spent in the state of sleep associated with dreaming. The cycle duration remains fixed throughout the life span, once we are adult. Babies have a shorter cycle, and the cycle lengthens as the brain increases in size. The newborn infant has about four times as much dream-state sleeping as the adult does, which is a very inter­esting point to consider with respect to developmental issues.

    Dalai Lama: Is there any biological evidence to determine when the infant starts dreaming?

    Allan Hobson: Biological evidence could never prove when someone starts dreaming because dreaming is a psychological expe­rience, but we know that REM sleep begins in utero. (Here we must be dualists with respect to language. There is an important distinc­tion between language dualism and deep philosophical dualism.)

    The three physiological phases that are associated with wak­ing, sleeping without dreams, and dreaming, are characterized by measuring brain wave activity and that of the eyes and muscles. The stage of sleep associated with dreaming is called “rapid eye move­ment” or REM sleep because the eyes move around very dramati­cally. At the same time, muscle activity is blocked. Our muscles are paralyzed except for the eye muscles. And the brain is activated. This phase of sleep is clearly identifiable in the human fetus as early as thirty weeks of gestation, and it probably begins at least ten weeks earlier in a more primordial form. So as early as at twenty weeks of gestation, the brain has organized and differentiated sufficiently to generate this kind of alternation between brain states. But the dream state is much more prominent in the fetus even than in the newborn, so that at thirty weeks of gestation, the estimates are that this state occupies about 90 percent of all the time.

    I think we can now conclude that good sleep and good waking are reciprocally related, as Buddhist philosophy has long held.

    Neuronal Controls of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Waking

    We know that sleep is organized as an alternating cycle. The next question for the Western scientist is: How is the cycle organized within the brain? We know that it is controlled by brain structures localized in part of the brain stem. The brain stem looks somewhat like the base of a flower. It connects the stem of the flower to the blossom just as in a lotus plant. The bulb of the flower, by this anal­ogy, is the brain stem. This small but very important part of the brain, between the spinal cord and the rest of the forebrain, sup­ports our conscious activities. Neuronal machinery which controls the alternation among sleep stages and wakefulness is located in a small region of the brain stem called the pons or bridge.

    This location is obviously strategic. It can control inputs and outputs for the whole body. It can control activity throughout the whole upper brain, the forebrain, which we consider to be the organ of consciousness. Our third point, then, is that this regular alternation in sleep is controlled by the brain stem.

    The obvious next question is: How does the brain stem do this? Within this pontine region are two populations of nerve cells that have distinctive chemical signatures. One is the neuronal population that supports the waking state, and we suppose it to be responsible for arousal and even anxiety. Its chemical signal­ing involves the release of amino acids, hence it is known as an aminergic system. When this system is very active, we are very alert, but we may also become too alert. We may become anx­iously alert.

    It is the proper regulation of this system that I think constitutes one of the goals of Buddhist meditative practices. And this same system is obviously of great significance also to Western medicine. This is so not only because this population of aminergic neurons controls arousal, wakefulness, alertness, and anxiety, but also because outputs of this system affect vital functions like breathing, blood pressure, and other visceral as well as cerebral contributions to our experiences.

    This aminergic system in the pontine part of the brain stem is also involved in energy regulation and energy flow, and probably also with aggressive behavior. I think it is a key to understanding a number of very important aspects of human life. Moreover, it seems to play a significant role in many functions of prime impor­tance in Buddhist thought and training.

    Dalai Lama: Are such emotions as aggression, love, and attach­ment also associated with that part of the brain?

    Allan Hobson: Not specifically, no. But, as part of the gen­eral continuum of activation, other forebrain structures will be engaged, which will then, according to external inputs, govern the emotional state of the individual. The emotional system is rather farther forward in the limbic part of the forebrain, including the hippocampus, which was discussed yesterday. This brain stem acti­vation site is not a specific system for the control of emotions. It is a specific system for controlling the level of arousal of the individual as a whole, which thereby affects other systems, including emo­tional controls.

    The aminergic system is one group of neurons in this critical region of the brain stem. The other group of nerve cells in this same region is called a cholinergic system because it’s chemical signa­ture—its neurotransmitter—is acetylcholine. We can identify these two neuronal populations in the pontine brain stem, localize their cells precisely, determine their major connections, their chemical neurotransmitters, and record their patterns of electrical activity.

    The cholinergic system is apparently held in restraint by the ami­nergic system. Thus, when the aminergic system is functioning at a high level, the cholinergic system is functioning at a reciprocally relatively low level. That is the situation in the waking state. As we go to sleep, the aminergic system decreases in its activity, and the cholinergic system becomes relatively more active. The cholinergic system becomes progressively more active throughout the period of deep sleep without dreams. Ultimately these two neuron pop­ulations become radically differentiated: the adrenergic system shuts off completely, and the cholinergic system reaches its highest level of activity just when you enter the dream state. Activation of the cholinergic cells generates signals that contribute to eye movements, to inhibition of muscle tone, and to activation of the forebrain.

    These reciprocal shifts of functional states can probably also be influenced through meditative practice.

    Dalai Lama: Are you indicating that in the dreaming state you are even more relaxed than in the nondreaming state?

    Allan Hobson: It is a paradox, because the muscles are com­pletely paralyzed. To speak of relaxation in this case is misleading. The muscles are actively suppressed, or inhibited. But the upper brain, the forebrain, is very active electrically. In contrast to the waking state, this electrically active brain in the dreaming state is chemically distinctly different because of the shift in the neu­rotransmitter ratios. The dreaming brain is very highly cholinergic, the waking brain is very highly aminergic, while in each of these states the forebrain is highly electrically activated. We believe that this is very important for understanding the differences between the waking state and the dreaming state.

    So we now know that sleep is organized into a succession of states. We can identify and measure distinctive sleep states. We know that the brain stem controls the succession of waking/sleep­ing/dreaming states. And we know that the brain stem controls that succession of states by altering the production of specific neu­rotransmitters which are represented in two reciprocal systems of neuronal control.

    The fifth and final point I want to make about the science of sleep is that we have tested this theory by making microinjections of very small amounts of chemicals into specific, localized regions of the brain stem of experimental animals. By this means, we can control the overall brain states of wakefulness and sleep. In other words, by imitating the activation by acetylcholine in very specific, localized parts of the brain stem, we can convert the whole brain from the waking state to REM sleep almost immediately and keep it there for many hours. If we put the same chemical, acetylcho­line, into another part of the brain of experimental animals, we can produce waking. The differentiation of these control systems is specific and precise.

    So we have obtained experimental control of the state of sleep in animals. To some extent, similar experiments have been rep­licated in humans. Obviously, we don’t inject chemicals directly into the brain stem in humans. We use human subjects to measure states of sleep and wakefulness and to obtain reports relating to conscious experiences. We use animal studies to investigate what’s going on neuronally within the brain stem during different sleep and wakefulness states. All mammals share identical organization of alternating states of wakefulness, deep sleep, and REM sleep (presumably dreaming) behavior. They all have obvious waking states complete with apparent awareness and interactive behavior with the environment. Such waking states alternate with slow-wave sleep, which lacks rapid eye movements and is associated with high-amplitude, low-frequency electrical activity through­out the brain. These slow-wave sleep states cycle regularly into the kind of sleep state associated with globally inhibited body move­ments except for rapid eye movements, specifically accompanied by low-amplitude, high-frequency electrical activity throughout the brain. In this latter state, all of the objective phenomena are equivalent to the state that in humans is identified by subjective testimony of dreaming.

    In humans and other mammals we see a complete suppression of muscle tone during REM sleep, so the motor output is actively inhibited. Otherwise our dream states might be accompanied by our getting up and running around—still asleep—acting out our dreams. Our dreams are typically characterized by the halluci­nation of movements by ourselves and among other animate and dynamic things. That’s because the upper brain, the forebrain, is actually generating elaborate visual and motor patterns which are not allowed to be acted out by our muscles, perforce the general inhibitory control exerted by brain stem mechanisms. Only the eye muscles are permitted to express this internal sensorimotor dreaming state.

    Meanwhile, during REM sleep, the brain is electrically activated, even more so than in quiet waking. The brain is intensely inter­nally activated: hence we imagine that the dream arises because the manifestly activated brain is actively processing signals that would ordinarily be associated subjectively with direct, vivid experiences and outgoing behavior. We hallucinate the experiences and the inhibited behavior as if it were not inhibited. And that is our dream!

    During REM sleep, the brain is electrically activated, even more so than in quiet waking. The brain is intensely inter­nally activated.

    Dalai Lama: What accounts for the rapid eye movements? The rest of the muscles of the body are paralyzed in the dreaming state, and yet the muscles associated with eye movements are not. Why is that?

    Allan Hobson: The answer is that the eye muscle system is a very different sort of motor system from the skeletal muscle system.

    Most of the skeletal muscle system is engaged in maintaining pos­ture against gravity, and that system is obliged to use a lot of tonic inhibition. The eye muscles don’t have to do that. The eyes are essentially weightless, their specific gravity is about equivalent to their surroundings in the orbit. The activity of the eyes is to sweep about swiftly and relatively effortlessly. Because they work with straight beams of light, often from very remote objects, they have an enormous leverage and target speed as well as accuracy in rela­tion to the visualized world. The eyes are never completely static and they don’t have to work against gravity.

    Secondly, the eye motor nuclei which control eye movements lie upstream in the brain stem, forward of aminergic and cholinergic state control systems in the pontine brain stem. All other direct motor systems, for face and lower muscles, lie within the pons or below the pons along the lower brain stem and spinal cord. Hence, the eye motor nuclei are most anterior of all direct muscle con­trol mechanisms. They are relatively so far forward of other direct muscle control systems that they are really a part of the forebrain systems that serve conscious experiences and higher mental life.

    A third observation is that moving the eyes does not contribute to skeletal motions and other bodily effects that might have the consequence of jarring us awake.

    Antonio Damasio: Accepting your idea that we have an active suppression of antigravity muscles in order to keep us from moving around, it is clear that the eye muscles would not do that. But do you ever see a lot of movement of the facial muscles, which are con­trolled only slightly lower, in the lower pontine and bulbar brain stem? They would not have much skeletal motion effects except by way of jaw movements. Moving muscles of the face presumably wouldn’t have the consequence of waking you up.

    Allan Hobson: You don’t see a lot of facial muscular movement, but you do see some. In the human infant, the facial expressions in REM sleep are particularly visible and dramatic, and quite charming. There is automatic smiling that is produced during rapid eye movement sleep. If you watch a mother nursing a baby, you will often see the baby, when he or she becomes satisfied with milk, begin to close the eyes as the sucking movements become very regular and rhythmic. Shortly, the eyes start to move actively, and the baby has gone into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Then you see dramatic, spontaneous facial expressions, especially smil­ing. And the mother believes the baby is sending her a message of contentment and happiness. You can observe this and talk to mothers about this, and they will uniformly interpret the baby’s behavior as meaningfully related to their generosity in giving the baby nourishment. That’s quite an important ethological concept, this intergenerational signaling system that is so adaptive and use­ful in contributing reinforcement to the mother for this uniquely mammalian, altruistic feeding behavior.

    Dalai Lama: Dogs make limb movements, and on occasion when a person has a rough dream, like a nightmare, the arms may flail about.

    Allan Hobson: Yes, but then it is not a nightmare. There are two kinds of frightening experiences that occur in sleep. Bad dreams, or nightmares, in which you imagine a scenario and frightening things happen to you may occur in REM sleep. They can erupt, which usually results in the subject’s spontaneous waking. There is another kind of night terror, which tends to occur in nondreaming sleep but not in REM sleep. This is a purely emotional experience, lacking the associated hallucinatory activity that accompanies dreaming. It is this night terror that may be accompanied by flail­ing limb movements.

    There are some human subjects in whom the brain stem fails to inhibit the skeletal muscles. When they have REM sleep, they act out their dreams. This is a very dangerous brain stem defect.

    Now let’s look at the way the sleep cycle is organized. First, as the night progresses, come phases of sleep associated with little or no mental activity. Next are periods of sleep associated with dreaming.

    The dream periods tend to become longer as the night progresses, lasting thirty, forty, even fifty minutes at a time. So the best time to obtain dream reports is in the early morning when these dreaming periods are quite long.

    The cyclic alternation of non-REM and REM sleep is very regu­lar. This suggests that the brain stem neuronal controls themselves constitute a clock, or that they observe an accurate clock, whereby they trigger activation of the dreaming state at regular intervals throughout sleep. This is an automatic, intrinsic process. It looks, therefore, as though this activation of the brain for dreaming pur­poses must be very important in some way. We need to understand this better.

    H.H. the Fourteenth Dalai LamaHis Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is considered the foremost Buddhist leader of our time. Learn more. 

  • Q&A with Ralph De La Rosa | Author of The Monkey Is the Messenger

    Meditation and What Your Busy Mind Is Trying to Tell You

    The Monkey is the Messenger Author Q&A

    Ralph De La Rosa Answers the Top 5 Questions About The Monkey Is the Messenger

    Could you give us a brief summary of The Monkey is the Messenger?

    It’s a book that, at the onset, is about the nature of repetitive thoughts and rumination—why we have them, the evolutionary purpose they serve, and some evidence-based techniques on how to effectively calm them. The book covers a lot of ground, though, and gets into how our emotions work and the nature of trauma. Toward the end, it becomes about bringing psychotherapeutic techniques into our meditation practice to go beyond mere coping and affect deep healing and transformation. There are 15 guided meditations for doing so, which can be streamed online.

    What inspired you to write this book?

    So much has been said in the wellness world about accepting ourselves fully, self-love, and the like. And yet I kept noticing—both within myself and in other meditators—this tendency to shame oneself for experiencing repetitive thoughts, ruminations, and distractions, both in meditation and in daily life. The more I noticed it, the more incongruent it felt. So, I began to ask myself the question, “If we were to apply a growth mindset—that is, take this universal human experience of overthinking (what the Buddha called, ‘monkey mind,’) as a teacher—would it have anything to show us?” As I sat with this question over weeks and months, a wealth of insights began to arise for me—so much so that I managed to fill a book with them.

    Can you say more about these insights on overthinking?

    First of all, repetitive thoughts are far from being the only repetitive patterns we experience in life. We tend to go ‘round and ‘round with cycles of emotions, patterns of habitual behaviors, repeat episodes in relationships (especially the intimate and familial), all the way up to sociopolitical arenas. And yet, one of the key things I realized along the way is that the self is an ecosystem—that we are not so much a solid entity as we are a dynamic system of moving parts that have a primary organizing principle of survival and wellbeing. In the literal ecosystems of the natural world, all parts and events serve some sort of purpose in service of the whole. One example of that would be the way that forest fires ultimately replenish nutrients in the soil; it may seem terrible that forest fires happen, but they actually promote the longevity of the entire forest at the end of the day. And our lives are not unlike that. The repetitive patterns we experience are very meaningful and aren’t at all random or happening because life is unfair. Just like the how out of control wildfires on the West coast are a sign that climate change is real, and something needs to change (and soon), the repetitive patterns in our lives are actually our unconscious body-mind’s way of grabbing us by our shirt collars. We are being alerted to the fact that something in our life is calling for our attention and our care. Repetitive patterns in our lives are messengers, and there’s research to back this idea up. It’s present in psychodynamic theory as well as Vedic philosophy and Buddhist philosophy. The problem is, most people don’t know how to decode the message. This book teaches one how to do exactly that.

    So, what is the take-away here?

    The message is manifold, but it all comes down to disconnection. One example from the book is regarding the way in which we’ve become disconnected from our bodies. To paraphrase comedian John Mulaney, we tend to treat our bodies as if they’re these things that carry our head from room to room. Our conscious awareness tends to reside above the neck, and this actually accounts for much of our overthinking. There’s neuroscience that suggests that when our awareness descends into the torso and limbs, we switch to an entirely different neural network: one that is pre-language, quieter, and more directly attuned to our sensual experience of life (where the good stuff is). So, we can logically posit that one of the main reasons our minds are so out of control is that our connection to the body has been compromised. That said, the discomfort of having these overactive minds that stress us out and keep us up at night is actually a calling to resolve that matter. Hence, we see droves are flocking to meditation in an unprecedented manner. It gets much deeper than this, but this is one example.

    Your book focuses a lot on Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. What is IFS therapy?

    Just about every therapist I know lights up whenever I mention it these days. IFS is a newer modality of therapy that’s just 20-ish years old but very much evidence-based. It’s a really accessible way to access the deeper aspects of our emotional minds, gain insight and clarity, and affect radical change in our lives. Therapists love it because it’s very direct and efficient; one doesn’t need to spend years unpacking their entire life saga with this modality. Clients love it because it teaches a process called “parts work” that one can do on one’s own, without a therapist present, and with astonishing outcomes. It's actually quite aligned with this view I've developed of self-as-ecosystem. It gives people a direct experience of how there's truly nothing wrong with any of us—we're just lacking in clarity and compassion. “Parts work” helps us develop that clarity and compassion so that we can love from our most authentic selves more and more often. So, I've adapted “parts work” for meditation practice and have been teaching it for years now in NYC, and the response has consistently been very powerful. And now I have the great fortune of presenting these methods to a wider audience.

    Ralph De La RosaRalph De La Rosa, LCSW, is an integrative therapist, meditation teacher, transformative life coach, writer, and musician. Learn more. 

  • Compassionate Action | An Excerpt from Start Where You Are

    Start Where You Are

    We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.

    How do we help? How do we create a saner world or a saner domestic situation or job situation, wherever we may be? How do we work with our actions and our speech and our minds in a way that opens up the space rather than closes it down? In other words, how do we create space for other people and ourselves to connect with our own wisdom? How do we create a space where we can find out how to become more a part of this world we are living in and less separate and isolated and afraid? How do we do that?

    It all starts with loving-kindness for oneself, which in turn becomes loving-kindness for others. As the barriers come down around our own hearts, we are less afraid of other people. We are more able to hear what is being said, see what is in front of our eyes, and work in accord with what happens rather than struggle against it. The lojong teachings say that the way to help, the way to act compassionately, is to exchange oneself for other. When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then you know what is needed, and what would speak to the heart.

    I recently received a letter from a friend in which she dumped all over me and told me off. My first reaction was to be hurt and my second reaction was to get mad, and then I began to compose this letter in my mind, this very dharmic letter that I was going to write back to her using all the teachings and all the lojong logic to tell her off. Because of the style of our relationship, she would have been intimidated by a dharmic letter, but it wouldn’t have helped anything. It would have further forced us into these roles of being two separate people, each of us believing in our roles more and more seriously, that I was the one who knew it all and she was the poor student. But on that day when I had spent so much energy composing this letter, just by a turn of circumstance, something happened to me that caused me to feel tremendous loneliness. I felt sad and vulnerable. In that state of mind, I suddenly knew where my friend’s letter had come from—loneliness and feeling left out. It was her attempt to communicate.

    Sometimes when you’re feeling miserable, you challenge people to see if they will still like you when you show them how ugly you can get. Because of how I myself was feeling I knew that what she needed was not for somebody to dump back on her. So I wrote a very different letter from what I had planned, an extremely honest one that said, “You know, you can dump on me all you like and put all of your stuff out there, but I’m not going to give up on you.” It wasn’t a wishy-washy letter that avoided the issue that there had been a confrontation and that I had been hurt by it. On the other hand, it wasn’t a letter in which I went to the other extreme and lashed out. For the first time, I felt I had experienced what it meant to exchange oneself for other. When you’ve been there you know what it feels like, and therefore you can give something that you know will open up the space and cause things to keep flowing. You can give something that will help someone else connect with their own insight and courage and gentleness, rather than further polarize the situation.

    “Drive all blames into one” is a pivotal slogan because usually driving blames into other comes from the fact that we’ve been hurt and therefore want to hurt back. It’s that kind of logic. Therefore the exchange—putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes—doesn’t come from theory, in which you try to imagine what someone else is feeling. It comes from becoming so familiar and so openhearted and so honest about who you are and what you do that you begin to understand humanness altogether and you can speak appropriately to the situation.

    When you’ve been there you know what it feels like, and therefore you can give something that you know will open up the space and cause things to keep flowing.

    The basic ground of compassionate action is the importance of working with rather than struggling against, and what I mean by that is working with your own unwanted, unacceptable stuff, so that when the unacceptable and unwanted appears out there, you relate to it based on having worked with loving-kindness for yourself. Then there is no condescension. This nondualistic ap­proach is true to the heart because it’s based on our kinship with each other. We know what to say, because we have experienced closing down, shutting off, being angry, hurt, rebellious, and so forth, and have made a relationship with those things in ourselves.

    This is not about problem resolution. This is a more open-ended and courageous approach. It has to do with not knowing what will happen. It has nothing to do with wanting to get ground under your feet. It’s about keeping your heart and your mind open to whatever arises, without hope of fruition. Problem solving is based first on thinking there is a problem and second on thinking there is a solution. The concepts of problem and solution can keep us stuck in thinking that there is an enemy and a saint or a right way and a wrong way. The approach we’re suggesting is more groundless than that.

    A key slogan is “Change your attitude, but remain natural” or “Change your attitude and relax as it is.”

    In order to have compassionate relationships, compassionate communication, and compassionate social action, there has to be a fundamental change of attitude. The notion “I am the helper and you are the one who needs help” might work in a temporary way, but fundamentally nothing changes, because there’s still one who has it and one who doesn’t. That dualistic notion is not really speaking to the heart.

    As expressed in the lojong teachings, that fundamental change of attitude is to breathe the undesirable in and breathe the desir­able out. In contrast, the attitude that is epidemic on the planet is that if it’s unpleasant we push it away and if it’s pleasant we hold tight and grasp it.

    This change in attitude doesn’t happen overnight; it happens gradually, at our own speed. If we have the aspiration to stop resisting those parts of ourselves that we find unacceptable and instead begin to breathe them in, this gives us much more space. We come to know every part of ourselves, with no more monsters in the closet, no more demons in the cave. We have some sense of turning on the lights and looking at ourselves honestly and with great compassion.

    We could begin to get the hang of changing our attitude on an everyday level: when things are delightful and wonderful we give our pleasure away on the outbreath, sharing it with others. That also allows for enormous space—not just for us, but for everyone. When we do this, all of our inner obstacles that keep us from connecting with our inherent freshness and openness begin to dissolve. This is the fundamental change of attitude—this working with pain and pleasure in a revolutionary and courageous way.

    When we work with pain by leaning into it and with pleasure by giving it away, it doesn’t mean that we “grin and bear it.” This approach is a lot more playful than that—like dancing with it. We realize that this separateness that we feel is a funny kind of mistake. We see that things were not dualistic from the start; we can wake up to that realization. The basis of any real kind of compassionate action is the insight that the others who seem to be out there are some kind of mirror image of ourselves. By making friends with yourself, you make friends with others. By hurting others, you hurt yourself.

    Another slogan says, “Always abide by the three basic principles.” The first basic principle is always to abide by any vows you have taken—the refuge vows that you take to become a Buddhist and the bodhisattva vows taken later as an expression of your wish to benefit others. The second principle is to refrain from showing off, or from outrageous conduct. The third is always to cultivate patience. So these are the three basic principles: keeping the vows you have taken, refraining from outrageous conduct, and cultivat­ing patience.

    The basis of any real kind of compassionate action is the insight that the others who seem to be out there are some kind of mirror image of ourselves.

    Keeping the Vows You Have Taken

    The first principle, to keep the vows you have taken, speaks specifically to those of us who have taken the refuge vows and bodhisattva vows, but it may be helpful for everyone to hear a little bit about these vows. The refuge vow is basically about making a commitment to become a refugee, which in essence means that rather than always trying to get security, you begin to develop an attitude of wanting to step into uncharted territory. It’s a vow that you take because you feel that the way to health and becoming a complete human being is to no longer hold so tightly to yourself. You long to go beyond that situation. You are no longer afraid of yourself. You can become a refugee because when you aren’t afraid of yourself, you don’t feel that you need a protected place to hide in.

    The image of the bodhisattva vow could be, “Not afraid of oth­ers.” When you take the bodhisattva vow you open the windows and doors and invite all sentient beings as your guests. Having understood the futility and pain of always holding on to yourself, you want to take the next step and begin to work with others.

    You might think that you are working with others because you are much more sane than they are and you want to spread that sanity. But a more profound insight is that you realize that the only way to go further is to open those doors and windows and not protect yourself any more but work with whatever arrives. That’s the only way to wake up further. The motivation for mak­ing friends with yourself becomes wanting to help others; these two work together. You know you can’t help others if you’re not making friends with yourself.

    Refraining from Outrageous Conduct

    The second basic principle is to refrain from outrageous conduct. If you have this ideal of yourself as a hero or helper or doctor and everybody else as the victim, the patient, the deprived, the un­derdog, you are continuing to create the notion of separateness.

    Someone might end up getting more food or better housing, and that’s a big help; those things are necessary. But the fundamental problem of isolation, hatred, and aggression is not addressed. Or perhaps you get flamboyant in your helper role. You often see this with political action. People make a big display, and suddenly the whole thing doesn’t have to do with helping anyone at all but with building themselves up.

    In the seventies there was a famous photograph in which the National Guard were all lined up with their guns at an antiwar rally. A young woman had walked up and put a flower in the end of one of the guns, and the photo appeared in all the newspapers. I read a report in which the soldier who had been holding that gun—who later became a strong peace activist—said that he had never before experienced anything as aggressive as that young woman coming with her flower and smiling at everybody and making this big display. Most of those young guys in the National Guard were already questioning how they got on that particular side of the fence anyway. And then along came this flower child. She never looked in his eyes; she never had any sense of him as a person. It was all for display, and it hurt. So that’s part of the point of this slogan. You have to question what’s behind your ac­tion, especially if it is making a big splash.

    Cultivating Patience

    The last of the three basic principles is to cultivate patience, which is the same as cultivating nonaggression. Patience and nonaggres­sion are basically encouragement to wait. Sometimes I think of tonglen that way. You are in a situation in which you would nor­mally just yell back or throw something or think of the person you are with in the same old stuck way. Instead it occurs to you to begin to do the exchange for other. This whole solid sense of self and other begins to get addressed when you cultivate patience. You learn to pause, learn to wait, learn to listen, and learn to look, allowing yourself and others some space—just slowing down the camera instead of speeding it up.

    It’s a little bit like the old advice to count to ten before you say something; it makes you pause. If you become afraid or angry, there is a natural kind of adrenaline principle, when the camera actually starts to speed up. The speeding up itself can bring you back to the present. You can use it as a reminder just to slow down and listen and look and wait and develop patience.

    “Abandon poisonous food” and “Don’t make gods into demons” are warnings that only you know whether what you are doing is good practice (“gods” or “good food”). Anything could be used to build yourself up and smooth things over and calm things down or to keep everything under control. Good food becomes poison­ous food and gods become demons when you use them to keep yourself in that room with the doors and windows closed.

    Another slogan that concerns compassionate action is “Work with the greatest defilements first.” Developing loving-kindness for yourself is the basis for compassionate communication and rela­tionship. The time is now, not later. The greatest defilement is what you consider to be the greatest obstacle. This slogan is suggesting that you start where you feel most stuck. Making friends with that will begin to automatically take care of the smaller obstacles.

    Because the larger obstacles like rage or jealousy or terror are so dramatic, their vividness itself may be a reminder to work with the practice of tonglen. We may so take for granted the multi­tude of minor daily irritations that we don’t even think of them as something to work with. To some degree they are the hardest obstacles to work with because they don’t reveal themselves. The only way you know that these are arising is that you feel righteous indignation. Let righteous indignation be your guide that someone is holding on to themselves, and that someone is probably you.

    If you begin to work with the greater defilements, or the major stuck places, these little ones tend to become more obvious to you as well. Whereas if you try to work with all of these little ones, they are like your hands and your nose; you don’t even think of them as anything but you, and there is no sense of them as obstacle. You just buy them every time they happen.

    Our greatest obstacles are also our greatest wisdom. In all the unwanted stuff there is something sharp and penetrating; there’s great wisdom there. Suppose anger or rage is what we consider our greatest obstacle, or maybe it’s addiction and craving. This breeds all kinds of conflict and tension and stress, but at the same time it has a penetrating quality that cuts through all of the confu­sion and delusion. It’s both things at once.

    When you realize that your greatest defilement is facing you and there seems no way to get out of it because it’s so big, the instruction is, let go of the story line, let go of the conversation, and own your feeling completely. Let the words go and return to the essential quality of the underlying stuff. That’s the notion of the inbreath, the notion of making friends with ourselves at a profound level. In the process we are making friends with all sentient beings, because that is what life is made of. Working with the greater defilements first is saying that now is the time, and also that our greatest obstacles are our greatest wealth. From the point of view of wanting to stay cozy and separate in your room, this work is extremely threatening. Part of the path of compassionate action is to begin to explore that notion of the inbreath and test it, to see if it rings true for you.

    Related Books

    Pema Chödron is an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of the Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa. She is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery for Westerners in North America. Learn more.

  • Free Download | A Chapter from The Future Is Open

    The Future Is Open

    Good Karma, Bad Karma, and Beyond Karma

    The Future Is Open

    “Karma is like a game of chess. Wherever you are on the board at this moment is the result of your past actions. But whatever you are going to do in the next moment depends on the present situation.” 

    —Chögyam Trungpa


    We are all familiar with the concept of karma, but Chögyam Trungpa offers a unique approach on the subject while addressing common misunderstandings about the spiritual principle. Learn from a Tibetan Buddhist master about what lies beyond meditation practice.

    In this chapter, Chögyam Trungpa extends his insights to us and challenges our beliefs about karma and its cycle. 

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  • Preparing the Mind | An Excerpt from The Complete Foundation

    For the Benefit of All Living beings

    Complete Foundation

    One’s motivation at the beginning is very important, because whether or not one’s practice becomes successful and effective depends upon the initial motive and attitude. For the development of the right attitude, the practice of refuge and the generation of bodhicitta are vital. Through the practice of the two one should be able to bring about some discipline and transformation within one’s mind.

    So, on a comfortable meditation seat you should adopt the right physical posture and then generate the appropriate motivation. After you are seated facing eastward (or imagining that you are facing eastward), reflect that you are very fortunate to have this opportunity to engage in the practice of dharma, and that you will make this session most worthwhile. Rejoice that you have this opportunity, and think that, at this juncture, when you have obtained most of the important conditions for making progress on the path, there is hope that you can embark on the right path and make some spiritual progress.

    It is almost like being at a critical crossroad and taking a new turn in your journey, embarking on a path leading to the achievement of the omniscient state—not for your own sake alone, but rather for the benefit of all living beings.

    Also reflect that you possess within yourself, as do all living beings, the potential or the seed of buddhahood, and also have access to the means by which this potential can be successfully activated. Think: I shall explore this potentiality to its fullest extent, and I shall make the most of the present opportunity. Furthermore, you should reflect upon the fact that you have been extremely fortunate to have received many teachings from the master and that you are equipped with the knowledge to undertake the practice properly.

    You should understand that the whole purpose of listening to teachings, taking teachings, and studying them is to put them into practice, just as after having learned how to prepare a certain dish, you utilize that knowledge to make the dish and derive full nutritional benefit from it. What you know should be put into practice immediately; you can thus derive the benefit of having some transformation within your mind. Even though it might be a very minor effort, a very small practice just leaving imprints within your mind, still you must think that it is worthwhile to do. Otherwise, your knowledge of dharma will be quite fruitless, and like merely playing something on a tape.

    At the initial stage it is important to have short sessions, as many of them as possible in a day. Generally speaking, the texts speak of four sessions, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, but you could make it into six. The length and the number of the sessions should be judged according to your own personal disposition. Your practice should be enduring, and you should undertake it with sustained effort. But because at the initial stage much depends upon your physical condition—the body’s influence on the mind is very powerful—you have to take the body’s condition into account. So it is very important to be careful. Some practitioners who put the body to a severe test in their practice of dharma may end up losing it, as such an act is very destructive.

    Once you have made good progress on the spiritual path, you will gradually gain control over your body and mind through meditative stabilization. Particularly when you have gained control over the subtle energies, you will be able to employ your body for any length of time without there being any danger of imbalances being caused by your spiritual practices. This stage is quite difficult to attain; therefore at the initial stage it is very important to be cautious and very skillful.

    I make this remark for the people who are undertaking the practice of dharma very seriously as solitary meditators in the mountains. For you, it is crucial right from the beginning to be skillful and cautious so that you can maintain a sustained effort. If you can undertake such a practice when you are young, you will be able to make great progress, whereas if you start when you are already too old, you may not be able to make much progress.

    You can do the sessions at the initial stage for about half an hour or maybe an hour, depending upon your own conditions, and after that you can end the session and do other practices or take a rest.

    For those of you who are not able to devote all your time to meditation, there is nevertheless the possibility of engaging in practice in a serious way. For example, the students at the monastic universities in South India can, with some effort, do meditations during the prayers. When you recite the prayers, you can mentally do the contemplation. The lifestyle and daily routine at these monasteries have been structured by the great masters of the past in a way that is most conducive to individual practice as well as to the flourishing of the dharma.

    If you find that your mind is in a very fluctuating emotional state—displaying anger, hatred, attachment, and so forth—then you should first try to calm down that state of strong emotion. This should be done by first transforming it into a neutral state of mind, because there is no way that one can switch directly from a negative state of mind to a positive one. Therefore, you should first reduce the force of these emotions and fluctuations and try to bring about some sort of calmness, using any means—such as taking a stroll or concentrating on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath—that will enable you to forget what you are immediately feeling. This will help you to reduce the force of strong emotion, thereby giving you the calmness necessary for the practice of dharma. Like a white piece of cloth which could be dyed any color that you desire, such a neutral state of mind could then be transformed into a virtuous state of mind.

    You could also engage in the preliminary practices of performing 100,000 prostrations, recitations of the Vajrasattva mantra, and so forth. When you undertake these practices, you should do them properly, not being only concerned about the number. Many great masters of the past of all traditions have emphasized the importance of these preliminary practices—they will enable you to have a very firm start. If through them you can acquire a fertile mind, then when the seed of meditation is planted, it will readily bear the fruits of realizations.

    Having successfully neutralized the emotional fluctuations within your mind and having restored a reasonable degree of calmness, you should then engage in the practice of taking refuge and generating the altruistic aspiration to attain full enlightenment. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is the factor that distinguishes one’s practice from that of an erroneous path, and the generation of the altruistic mind makes it superior to the paths aiming at individual liberation.

    Think: I shall explore this potentiality to its fullest extent, and I shall make the most of the present opportunity.

    Taking the Preliminary Refuge

    First of all, visualize the objects of refuge. This should be done by visualizing, above and in front of you in space, your own spiritual master in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni. His hands are in the normal position, the left arm in a meditative posture, holding a bowl full of nectar symbolizing victory over death and all forms of obstruction, the right in the gesture of touching the ground, signifying his victory over the divine youth mara.

    Visualizing one’s own root guru as the object of refuge allows one swiftly to obtain inspiration; visualizing him in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni makes such an inspiration more extensive and vast. Thus you should visualize the spiritual teacher in the form of Buddha Shakyamuni, possessing all the major and minor noble marks of the Buddha such as the crown protrusion, in the nature of light, crystal clear, very radiant. This clarity symbolizes the union of the illusory body and Clear Light.

    The guru is seated in the vajrasana cross-legged position. This position of the legs symbolizes the Buddha’s having realized the completely enlightened state through the four vajrasanas (inseparable crossings): the asanas of the legs, the channels, the energy winds, and the vital drops. This position further symbolizes invulnerability to any form of obstacle.

    Your spiritual master in the form of Buddha Shakyamuni is seated in the center of a very vast and expansive throne, surrounded by four small thrones, on a variegated lotus and sun and moon disks. In front of him, on a small throne, is your own root guru who is kind to you in all three ways, the guru to whom you feel most close. You should visualize him in his normal appearance, excepting any physical defects he may have. Then visualize him being surrounded by all the gurus from whom you have taken teachings directly.

    I found that some commentaries state that even though your root guru may be a lay person, when you visualize him in the merit field you should see him in the aspect of an ordained bhikshu.

    On Shakyamuni’s left imagine Manjushri surrounded by the lineage masters of the Profound View, on his right Maitreya surrounded by the lineage masters of the Vast Practice, at the rear Vajradhara surrounded by the lineage masters of the Experiential Practice. These lineage masters form what is known as the “five groups of lamas.”

    All of them are surrounded by the meditational deities of the four classes of tantra, bodhisattvas, arhats, heroes, heroines, and protectors. There are different ways of visualizing the heroes and heroines: heroes on the right and heroines on the left, or, in some traditions, heroes and heroines in union.

    For us, what is of prime importance at the beginning is to develop a deep conviction in the Three Jewels in general, and in particular, the possibility of achieving dharma, Buddha, and sangha within ourselves. If we do not develop this conviction, we will not have a very firm and stable foundation. Without such a conviction, if we complement our practice with various visualizations of dharmapalas, heroes, heroines and so forth, instead of benefiting us, this diversity might actually harm and confuse.

    For this reason it is most important to have a very clear understanding of the Three Jewels. This in turn requires an understanding of the dharma, which requires an understanding of what is called the truth of cessation, which requires a good understanding of profound emptiness.

    So, first of all you should have the deep conviction that cessation of the sufferings and the delusions is possible, and also that it is possible within your mind. True cessation is a state where you have destroyed the delusions at their root so that there remains no potential for their re-emergence. Such a cessation can be realized only through the true paths that penetrate into the nature of reality.

    When you develop this conviction, you will also be able to develop faith in a being who has really mastered cessation, who is the Buddha—a person who has fully accomplished the realization of the dharma. If you contemplate along such lines, you will be able to develop a very deep faith and conviction in Buddha Shakyamuni and see him as an incomparable master.

    What distinguishes Buddhist practitioners from others is the factor of taking refuge. But merely seeking a refuge out of the fear of suffering is not unique to Buddhists; non-Buddhists could also have such a motivation. The unique practice of refuge that Buddhists should have is that of taking refuge in the Buddha out of a deep conviction in his exceptional qualities and realizations. If you think in such terms you will be able to understand Lama Tsongkhapa’s profound praise of Buddha Shakyamuni: “Those who are far from his doctrine always reinforce the illusion of self-existence that they have within themselves, whereas those who follow his guidance will be able to free themselves from such confusions.”

    The conviction that cessation of suffering is possible will furthermore enable you to develop deep faith and conviction in the sangha, the spiritual community that will provide you with companionship on your path. If you develop this proper understanding of the Three Jewels, you will have developed a good understanding of the general framework of the entire Buddhist path. Only then will you be able to understand the particular significance of various visualizations, such as those of meditational deities, heroes, heroines, protectors, bodhisattvas, arhats and so forth, because then you will see the importance of their differing appearances.

    Just as Sakya Pandita said in his Domsum Rabye (The Divisions of the Three Vows), unless one develops a good understanding of the Three Jewels, one will not understand the significance of the protectors and so forth. I have a German friend who is quite familiar with the Buddha’s teachings; when she visited monasteries in the Himalayan regions, some people pointed out to her that protectors and meditational deities are superior to Buddha Shakyamuni. My friend told me that she didn’t find that assertion to be very convincing. She is right, because if you do not have a proper understanding of the Three Jewels, then when you see all these different images, you will have the notion that they are totally different from, and unrelated to, each other, as though they were inherently existent, thus giving you a misunderstanding of their relationships to each other.

    Therefore, I think that if you base your knowledge of Buddhism on a proper understanding of the Three Jewels, which is a common foundation for Buddhist practice, then your understanding of the meditational deities will be good. Then you will also understand the importance of the different kayas, the various bodies of the Buddha, and the importance of the path that has the aspect of union of method and wisdom. Only at that point will you be able to understand the significance and importance of these meditational deities that are the physical manifestation of the union of method and wisdom. Without the proper understanding of the Three Jewels and the general framework of the Buddhist path, if you simply visualize a very impressive and wrathful-looking deity, your practice, instead of being beneficial, may turn out to be quite harmful and may increase anger and emotion.

    If you find such complex visualizations quite difficult at the initial stage and disturbing to your main practice of taking refuge and generating the mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta), then a shorter version of visualizing the Three Jewels may be more suitable—that is, visualizing your spiritual master alone, but seeing him as the embodiment of the entire merit field. Visualize him in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni and perceive him as the embodiment of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. This simpler practice is known as the Jewel Embodiment (Kuntu Norbu Lug). For some people, the visualization of many different figures in a merit field is more beneficial and effective, but for others the visualization of just a single figure alone, such as the Buddha Shakyamuni or your own spiritual master in the Buddha’s form, may prove more effective and powerful.

    Whether to undertake a very extensive visualization or to use a short and condensed visualization is a matter that you yourself should decide on the basis of your own mental attitude and disposition. The point is, whatever is more beneficial and effective for you should be adopted, since the purpose of all this visualization is to bring about some effect and change and progress within your mind. So, if you can achieve these with a condensed form of visualization, that’s fine, and if you think you need a more elaborate version, choose that.

    Visualizing one’s own root guru as the object of refuge allows one swiftly to obtain inspiration.

    If you want to do the practice of taking refuge in a more elaborate way, then—just as you find described in the first chapter of Abhisamayalankara—begin by reflecting upon the ultimate nature of all phenomena that makes it possible for them to function on the conventional level. All these phenomena have dual aspects, the ultimate nature which is the empty nature, and then, on the conventional level, their individual appearances and various characteristics such as production, disintegration, and so forth. Reflect on these dual aspects, the Two Truths of phenomena, and then elaborate these Two Truths further and reflect upon the Four Noble Truths. Although all phenomena lack inherent existence, when they appear to us they appear as if they had an inherent nature and existed in and of themselves. It is ignorance that grasps at the belief in the true existence of phenomena and serves as the root cause of all subsequent delusions. Once we realize that ignorant mind states are deceptive and distorted, we will be able to see through their illusions and be able to free ourselves of ignorance, thus enabling us to achieve the state of cessation.

    Generally speaking, when we talk of refuge we are referring to different types of refuge: outer, the practice of refuge that is common to the lesser vehicle; inner, the unique refuge of Mahayana; and secret, the unique refuge of tantra. This latter refers to the practice of going for refuge to the meditational deities, heroes, heroines, et al., which also has its own division into outer, inner, and secret refuges. We find that the practice of refuge is very important as well as vast, and that it should conform to the kind of practice we are undertaking.

    Having visualized the objects of refuge, imagine in front of them the scriptures composed by great beings, in the aspects of texts and in their nature created of light. These scriptures should be imagined also as resounding with the sounds of the letters as though they were being read.

    All the objects of the merit field should be seen as looking pleasantly at you. Different commentaries explain the reason for the merit fields gazing at us with pleasure as follows: Although our own states of mind are very weak and inferior, and therefore there are no grounds for the merit fields to be delighted with us, since we are now embarking on a path that will lead us to a spiritual transformation, we imagine that in order to encourage us in our initiative the merit fields gaze at us with delight. This explanation is according to the tradition of the late Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. Another tradition maintains that the significance of this visualization is that these noble beings display such a gesture in order to give us more courage and determination. On your part, you should cultivate deep respect for and faith in the members of the merit field by reflecting on their great qualities and kindness.

    After having visualized the merit fields, reflect upon the fact that you have experienced intense sufferings over infinite lifetimes, and that if you pursue your present state of mind and action, you will continue to torment yourself with sufferings in the cycle of existence. Therefore, right now determine that you shall engage in the practice that will bring about some change, and will undertake this practice of taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha as well as in the guru.

    With such reflections, repeat the refuge formula:

    I go for refuge to the Guru.

    I go for refuge to the Buddha.

    I go for refuge to the Dharma.

    I go for refuge to the Sangha.

    While doing this recitation, visualize yourself surrounded by all the mother sentient beings in their human aspect. This is done because human beings possess the highest potential for making spiritual progress. Other masters explain that all these sentient beings, although visualized in the aspect of human beings, should be thought of in the nature of their individual forms of existence and actively undergoing the sufferings of their particular realms.

    When you recite the refuge formula, imagine that you do so in unison with all these sentient beings around you. Imagine that all of you possess the basic factors of fear of the sufferings in this cycle of existence and the conviction that the three objects of refuge have the power and capacity to help free you from this fear. Whether or not your practice of refuge is successful depends upon whether or not you have the right attitude, these basic factors. So, equipped with these two factors—fear of cyclic existence and deep conviction in the three objects of refuge—if you repeat the refuge formula as much as possible, your practice of refuge will be successful. On the other hand, if you are not equipped with the two basic factors, even though you might repeat the refuge formula many times, you won’t make much progress.

    You should also reflect upon the acute sufferings of all the sentient beings around you, the general sufferings of cyclic existence, and the specific sufferings of the individual states of existence. Sentient beings like yourself, human beings, although not actively undergoing the acute sufferings of hell realms and animal realms, are nevertheless in the process of aggregating conditions for such sufferings in the future because they are actively working for their own downfall. Therefore, it is only a matter of time until you actually experience such sufferings. By reflecting upon the sufferings of cyclic existence, you should develop fear of them; this should immediately be followed by a deep conviction that the Three Jewels have the power and capacity to relieve you from such sufferings.

    Among the Three Jewels, the actual refuge is the dharma, because it is only by bringing about the realization of dharma within yourself that you will be able to free yourself and relieve yourself from the sufferings of cyclic existence. Therefore, dharma is the actual refuge, and the Buddha is the master who shows you the path leading to realization, and the sangha is the spiritual community that provides you with companionship on your path. Thus, these Three Jewels have the potential and power to relieve you from the cycle of existence, but you should not have the attitude that those who entrust themselves to them are automatically relieved without the need for practical initiative on their own parts.

    So that your taking of refuge accords with your basic ideals as a practitioner of the bodhisattva path, you should complement your practice of refuge with the generation of a deep compassion toward all beings. You should think that not only yourself but all other sentient beings revolve in this cycle of existence fraught with misery and suffering; although they seek happiness and wish to avoid suffering, still they have to undergo this fate, against their wishes.

    So, equipped with these three factors—the fear of cyclic existence, the conviction that the Three Jewels have the power to relieve you, and a genuine sense of compassion for the sufferings of all other sentient beings—then, as a physical expression of your sense of the unbearableness of the sufferings of cyclic existence for yourself and other sentient beings, you should recite the refuge formula. The recitation is an expression of what you feel inside, one that is spontaneous and natural. It is only when you have very strong anxiety and emotion that your cry of anguish comes out spontaneously and naturally.

    It is important that the meaning of the verses should be integrated into your own mind. If you merely recite the verses with a distracted mind, you might accumulate certain virtues of reciting religious teachings, but you will not be able to derive much benefit.

    You should do the repetition with the hands folded, taking refuge in the guru as many times as possible. When you do the repetition, visualize the five groups of gurus, focusing upon them especially and thinking that all the negativities that are committed in relation to these gurus, and particularly the Three Jewels, are being purified. To do this, visualize nectars of five colors descending from the bodies of these gurus; the nectars enter your body and purify your mind of all the negativities committed in relation to the Three Jewels and particularly your own spiritual root guru. You receive the inspiration of body, speech, and mind of all the gurus, particularly your own spiritual master. Then imagine that you are now placed under the kind care of the spiritual master. These three visualizations—purifying the negativities, receiving the inspirations from the objects of refuge, and finally being placed under the kind care of these refuges—are vital.

    The three phases of visualization should be done when you take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Generally speaking, you should not have the notion that there is a separate guru from the Buddha. A qualified guru should be a buddha possessing all the great qualities of the Buddha. Therefore, there isn’t any being called guru apart from the Three Jewels, particularly in the context of Mahayana practice and especially that of the tantric path, because in all these practices all realizations depend upon receiving the right inspiration from the spiritual master. Particularly in the practice of tantra, one takes vows and pledges from the guru, seeing him as inseparable from the principal deity of a mandala. Therefore, receiving a transmission from a living person becomes an extremely important element in the practice of tantra. This point is demonstrated by the simple fact that although in the Perfection Vehicle practice the bodhicitta vow can be obtained from a representation of the refuge, such as a statue, tantric vows can be received only from a living person.

    It is important that the meaning of the verses should be integrated into your own mind.

    Although you do not have the opportunity and fortune to have direct access to Buddha Vajradhara himself, you do have access to the inspiration that comes from him in an uninterrupted lineage. Because it is the guru who transmits this uninterrupted lineage to you, he is the link between you and Vajradhara. Therefore, he is regarded as the only entrance through which you receive the inspirations of the Buddha. Because of the extremely vital role that the guru plays in your spiritual development, a specific refuge is taken in the guru.

    Light rays emanate from the hearts of the spiritual masters of the five groups. Visualize these light rays in the form of straws of light that enter through the crown protrusions of yourself and all sentient beings. Through these flow streams of nectar; thus you purify the negativities that you have committed in relation to the Three Jewels and receive all their inspiration of body, speech, and mind. You should imagine, as a result, that you are placed under the kind care of the Three Jewels and particularly of the spiritual master. This practice of taking refuge should be followed by the generation of bodhicitta.

    Preliminary Generation of Bodhicitta

    The etymological meaning of the Tibetan term for bodhicitta, sem kye, is “to enhance one’s courage or mental attitude.” Therefore, bodhicitta is an altruistic state of mind that aspires to attain the completely enlightened state for the benefit of all other sentient beings.

    In order to generate such a powerful altruistic mind, it is important to focus upon all the sentient beings around you and realize the fact that, like yourself, they have the wish to achieve happiness and avoid suffering. You should think: I can help them fully only when I myself have achieved the completely enlightened state, the noble state that the objects of refuge in front of me have all realized, for the benefit of all sentient beings.

    The actual generation of the altruistic mind is done by reciting the following formula:

    I go for refuge until I am enlightened

    To the Buddha, the Dharma, and the highest Assembly.

    From the virtuous merit that I collect

    By practicing giving and other perfections,

    May I attain Buddhahood

    To be able to benefit all beings.

    Recite this verse three times, seven times, or as many times as possible. While reciting, do the visualization of generating bodhicitta as powerfully as possible, so as to lead you to the conviction that without achieving the completely enlightened state, you will not be able to help all other sentient beings.

    With such a genuine and strong attitude, you should imagine that, due to the force of such generation of the mind, Buddha Shakyamuni in front of you is pleased, and a replica of him emerges, comes to the crown of your head, and dissolves into you through your crown aperture. Your body, speech, and mind become inseparable from those of the Buddha. Then you dissolve into emptiness; at that point meditate on emptiness and from within it arise into Buddha Shakyamuni, sitting on a throne upraised by lions. Imagine that you have achieved the resultant state that you were aspiring to achieve.

    Alternatively, you may imagine replicas—in the form of light rays—of the Three Jewels, particularly your spiritual master, entering through your crown and dissolving into you, whereby you yourself dissolve into emptiness. From within emptiness, you arise in the aspect of the enlightened being that you have been seeking, that is, as the Buddha endowed with all his exceptional qualities. Imagine that you have turned yourself into such a being, and then emanate infinite light rays around you to all sentient beings, transforming them into Buddha Shakyamunis. Rejoice, thinking that you have been able to fulfill your aim of working for the benefit of all beings.

    This practice could also be done in conjunction with the visualizations of tantric deity yoga as well. Visualize that due to your intensive practice the gurus are delighted and the force of their appreciation causes them to dissolve into you through your crown aperture. The merging of your guru with you now causes you to gradually dissolve from above and below into the Clear Light of emptiness. This kind of visualization should be performed only by practitioners who have been initiated into tantra.

    At this point it is effective to reflect upon emptiness, thinking, Who is the being that has dissolved into me, and who am I? By contemplating on the five-point analysis as outlined in Tsawa Sherab (The Root Wisdom) by Nagarjuna, reflect upon the fact that “I” is a mere imputation on the basis of the physical and mental aggregates. There is no inherently existent guru apart from the self, that is a mere label imputed upon his physical and mental aggregates. Therefore, we will find that the spiritual master in whom we entrust ourselves and in whom we take refuge, himself lacks an inherently existent nature.

    Similarly, for we who take refuge in him, there is no inherently existent self in the sense of a self that is the master of the physical and mental aggregates and is totally distinct and separate from them. Thus, you will be able to understand the lack of inherent existence or, in other words, the emptiness of the self. This reflection on emptiness will enable you to dissolve yourself—in imagination—into emptiness, from which you arise into Buddha Shakyamuni as described above. The practice of complementing compassion and love with wisdom realizing emptiness is very effective, particularly the reflection upon the ultimate nature of your own mind and on the fact that the buddha-potential is inherent in all sentient beings—the essential nature of your own mind is pure and never polluted by delusions. Delusion has never penetrated into the core of the essential nature of the mind; therefore, delusions are adventitious.

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  • Free Download | A 15-Minute Guided Audio Meditation from The Monkey is the Messenger

    The Monkey Is the Messenger: Meditation and What Your Busy Mind Is Trying to Tell You

    The Monkey is the Messenger Meditation

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  • Teaching the Dharma | An Excerpt from A Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle

    Feast of the Nectar

    Investigating the Dharma

    1. Showing Why It Is Worth Teaching Others the Dharma Unstintingly

    When bodhisattvas thoroughly investigating the Dharma have received the teachings and gained unmistaken realization of them, they explain them unstintingly to sentient beings and thereby complete their own transcendent perfections and bring other sentient beings to maturity. There is no better means for doing so than this, and one should therefore do whatever one can to teach.

    If steadfast bodhisattvas joyously and forever give away immense gifts to beings who suffer—

    The lives and riches they have won with such great difficulty and yet devoid of essence—

    Need one mention their unstintingly giving of the vast Dharma that benefits beings in every way,

    That is found with no great difficulty, and even when given away entirely grows inexhaustibly? (XIII, 1)

    Steadfast bodhisattvas have realized that even though their bodies or lives, won with great difficulty by accumulating virtue in the past, and their wealth, acquired through great hardships such as journeying overseas, belong to them, these finally come to an end and are meaningless and unreliable. So it is with sheer delight in practicing generosity that they are forever giving away material gifts to suffering beings—vast riches or dominions that can completely fulfill others’ wishes. If they can do this, then need one mention their giving away—and not just once—the vast and sacred Dharma, which will never be exhausted? Of course bodhisattvas will teach others, once they have investigated the teachings, for the Dharma benefits beings in every kind of way in both this and other lives and therefore, unlike material gifts, is utterly reliable and worthwhile. At a time when the Buddha has appeared in the world and his doctrine endures, anyone seeking the teachings can receive them quite easily without going through the enormous difficulties—setting out to sea, and so on—involved in the acquisition of material riches. And the gift of Dharma, even if given away completely, not only never runs out in the bodhisattva’s mind stream but will grow more and more, spreading from one person to the next. (The Tibetan syllable lta in the last line has no significance other than completing the meter.)

    2. The Reason for Teaching the Dharma

    Because it is to be known by oneself, Lord Buddha did not teach the Dharma;

    Yet with the breath of his teachings, rationally explained, the embodiment of compassion, like a python,

    Draws beings onto the path, setting them perfectly in the mouth of total peace,

    Utterly pure, vast, common, and inexhaustible. (XIII, 2)

    Consequently, no practitioner’s meditation is pointless,

    And thus neither are the teachings of the sugatas pointless.

    If one could see the meaning simply by listening, there would be no point in meditating,

    And if one could practice meditation without having listened, there would be no point in teaching. (XIII, 3)

    Although the ultimate realization that the noble beings are to know by their own individual experience is beyond the realm of words and letters, it is impossible to ever attain it without listening to and reflecting on the Dharma of transmission that is indicated by words and letters. This is why Lord Buddha taught the Dharma of transmission, which can be heard and reflected upon, as the means for realizing that personally experienced wisdom. It is impossible to show the Dharma of realization, the individually experienced wisdom present in the minds of noble beings, directly to beings who have not realized it personally. So because that Dharma of realization can only be known by actual personal experience, the buddha bhagavāns have not taught such a Dharma in the form of words and letters. They cannot demonstrate how it is with words and letters, saying, “This is the point that has to be realized individually.” It is beyond the expressions, concepts, analogies, and reasoning of ordinary people, which is why we say that it can only be known personally. It is not like the mundane knowledge of compounded phenomena such as vases and uncompounded phenomena such as space: suchness is something that is realized personally by those who have the gnosis of the noble beings. If the object of experience of those who have attained mundane dhyāna cannot be imagined by beings who have not attained it, then it goes without saying that the object of experience of supramundane gnosis is not something that can be conceived of by an ordinary person listening and reflecting.

    How is it, then, that the profound sūtras are said to explain the certain meaning—the Buddha’s realization, the point that can only be realized personally? This is explained by a metaphor comparing Lord Buddha, who is the embodiment of compassion for sentient beings, to a giant snake. There is a giant snake, a python, that leaves behind it a furrow the size of a river, filled with the saliva flowing from its mouth, so that from a distance it looks like a huge river. The deer, thinking that it is a river, go to drink from it, whereupon they are killed by the poisonous saliva and sucked into the python’s mouth as it breathes in. Thus it is that the Buddha (illustrated by the python) draws potential disciples (analogous to the herds of deer) onto the correct path to buddhahood by means of the Twelve Branches of Excellent Speech, which are capable of drawing in others (like the python’s breath)—the Excellent Words that he expounds perfectly logically and reasonably, that is, with no mistake in any points, for they possess the four kinds of rational application. Drawing them in, he finally places them in buddhahood (the snake’s mouth)—the body of truth, nirvāṇa, in which suffering and the origin of suffering are completely pacified; the transcendent state of sublime purity (in which the two obscurations have been purified), of sublime bliss (which is endowed with the vast qualities of the ten strengths and so forth), of the sublime “self” of a great being (for it is common to all the buddhas), and of the sublime eternity (for it will never know an end).

    The Dharma benefits beings in every kind of way in both this and other lives and therefore, unlike material gifts, is utterly reliable and worthwhile.

    This is the truth-body buddha, the culmination of personal realization, and there are no sentient beings who have ever attained buddhahood through its being directly indicated by words and then realized accordingly. Nevertheless, the causal factor that leads one to attain that ultimate truth body is the Dharma of transmission that indicates, without any error, profound thatness and skillful means. By means of the path—that is, by correctly listening to, reflecting on, and meditating on the Dharma of transmission—one unfailingly acquires the personally experienced gnosis of the noble beings. With that gnosis, one unerringly realizes thatness, the inconceivable object of personally experienced wisdom, and finally one realizes the Buddha’s gnosis, the body of truth. Thus, the object of personally experienced wisdom, while not being indicated directly by words, is based on, and indirectly indicated by, the Dharma of transmission.

    Consequently, the meditation of a practitioner who possesses sustained calm and profound insight is not pointless, for it is in dependence on such meditation that the personally realized gnosis will arise. Meditation is indeed worthwhile, and thus the sūtras and other teachings, which the sugatas have given in order to enable one to meditate correctly, are not pointless either. For in contrast to non-Buddhist practices such as meditation on the self that are not related to the path of meditation on thatness and which are no way to attain liberation, the Dharma unmistakenly teaches the thatness of things, meditation on no-self, and so forth; and through one’s hearing it, reflecting on its meaning, and meditating in accordance with the certainty one has thereby acquired, the personally experienced vision of thatness will occur.

    If it were otherwise and one could directly see that very meaning simply by hearing the teachings on no-self and so forth, one would be liberated there and then, and there would be no point in meditating on the meaning of those teachings. And if one could practice meditation on no-self without listening to the relevant teachings, there would be no point either in teaching the Buddha’s Excellent Words. But it is impossible that the Buddha would have taught without reason. To acquire the gnosis of the noble beings, the personally experienced wisdom that realizes ultimate reality as it is, one must first listen to the sacred Dharma, then reflect on its meaning so that one acquires certainty, and subsequently meditate one-pointedly on that meaning. First of all, therefore, it is necessary to give rise to the wisdom that comes from listening, and it is for this reason that the Dharma of transmission, which involves listening to the teachings and explaining them, is very worthwhile and very necessary.

    3. How to Teach the Dharma

    This topic is divided into (1) the manner in which bodhisattvas teach the Dharma and (2) the manner in which the buddhas teach the Dharma. The first of these two is further divided into three sections: (1) different ways of teaching; (2) the excellence of the import; and (3) the excellence of the words.

    a. The Manner in Which Bodhisattvas Teach the Dharma

    i. Different Ways of Teaching

    The teaching of sublime bodhisattvas

    Occurs through transmission, realization, and mastery:

    From the mouth, from form of every kind,

    And from space it issues forth. (XIII, 4)

    On the level of earnest aspiration, bodhisattvas explain the Dharma as they have heard it from other spiritual masters—buddhas and bodhisattvas. In other words, they teach by relying on the transmission. From the first bodhisattva level up to the seventh, they teach through the power of their realization of the expanse of reality. On the three pure levels, they explain the Dharma through their spontaneous mastery of nonconceptual gnosis and preternatural knowledge. This makes three categories.

    Furthermore, on the eighth and higher levels, through the blessing of their mastery, the sound of Dharma teachings issues forth as melodious song from their own and other people’s mouths, from the sounds of musical instruments, and so forth. From all kinds of form—walls, musical instruments, and other forms—come the sounds of the Dharma. And from the sky, too, comes the sound of the Dharma being taught.

    ii. The Excellence of the Import

    Extensive, doubt-dispelling,

    Acceptable, and indicative of both natures—

    This, a bodhisattva’s teaching,

    Is said to be perfect. (XIII, 5)

    As a result of their having heard a lot of teachings, bodhisattvas’ own teaching reveals or elucidates the extensive topics of the Dharma and their meanings connectedly. Since they are themselves free of doubts with regard to the teachings, it dispels others’ doubts. Since they live the Dharma themselves, their words are acceptable to others—what they say is worth listening to and is also termed “pleasing.” And they explain both the nature of defilement and that of purity. It is in possessing these four qualities that the Dharma teaching of a bodhisattva is said to be perfect. This is as stated in the Sūtra of the Questions of Brahmaviśeṣacintin. Having received numerous teachings, bodhisattvas explain the extensive Dharma so that the sacred doctrine may endure in the world for a long time. Through their explaining the teachings and training in them, their own wisdom becomes increasingly sharper, and they can remove others’ doubts. Because they abide by the Dharma themselves and thus perform the activities of holy beings, others value their words. And since they teach both ultimate and relative truths, or the defilement aspect and the purity aspect, embodied in the four noble truths, their teaching is of great import.

    The Dharma teaching of a sublime bodhisattva

    Is gentle, free of conceit, tireless,

    Clear, diversified, rational,

    Intelligible, disinterested, and universal. (XIII, 6)

    Furthermore, there are nine features in their perfect Dharma teaching. In teaching the Dharma, sublime bodhisattvas are gentle, since they never utter harsh words even when others argue with them. Even if they receive praise and veneration, they are free of conceit. In teaching the Dharma, they are never discouraged by difficulties. Their teachings are clear, for they teach unstintingly and explain the topics in full. They teach a wide variety of subjects without repeating themselves. They teach rationally, never contradicting valid cognition. They express themselves with words and letters that are perfectly familiar to ordinary people, so that others understand them well. Since they have given up any desire for gain and honor, they are not motivated by material offerings. Learned in all spiritual means, they expound the subjects of all three vehicles, and in this respect their teaching is universal. It is on account of its having these qualities, and of the excellent import revealed thereby, that it is termed “perfect teaching.”

    iii. The Excellence of the Words

    The bodhisattvas’ words are not faint,

    They are pleasing, well expounded, and conventional;

    They are appropriate, free of material motives,

    Moderate, and likewise abundant. (XIII, 7)

    The words that bodhisattvas use to teach the Dharma are not soft or feeble. Their voices are not faint, so that some people hear them and others do not—they are audible to their entire following. Their words are pleasant; they are gentle and good—pleasing to both ear and intellect. They are excellently or beautifully expounded—clear sentences whose meaning can be understood. If bodhisattvas were to express themselves with unconventional words, nobody else would understand them, but by using words and language that are familiar to everyone, they make them aware of the meaning—hence, their words are “conventional.” Expounded in a way suited to their disciples’ minds, their words are “appropriate,” and their teaching in this way will be to their disciples’ liking. As bodhisattvas are not seeking riches and reverence, their words are disinterested or independent of material gain. A surfeit of words makes people bored, so bodhisattvas adapt their words to just the right amount that is easily retained. Similarly, their words are abundant, meaning that when bodhisattvas give detailed explanations, they are able to do so without ever running out of things to say.

    It should be understood that the above are related to the eight qualities of bodhisattvas’ words described in the sūtras, which speak of them being pervasive, good, clear, intelligible, pleasing to the ear, disinterested, adapted, and inexhaustible.

    Their words are pleasant; they are gentle and good—pleasing to both ear and intellect.

    Being disinterested in people’s offerings and reverence is, of course, a mental quality, but here it is a question of not, for example, praising and teaching people who offer riches and reverence while reproaching and refusing to teach those who do not, so I feel that perhaps this quality should be explained in terms of its being a causal factor that prevents faults from being introduced into a bodhisattva’s words.

    Because they indicate, and likewise explain,

    Correspond to the vehicle, are pleasurable,

    Conventional, and appropriate,

    Lead to certain deliverance, and are concordant— (XIII, 8)

    The syllables uttered by the sublime bodhisattvas

    Are described, in short, as perfect. (XIII, 9ab)

    There are also eight good qualities with regard to the manner in which bodhisattvas deliver their teachings: (1) Because they indicate topics in a condensed form, the essential meaning is easily grasped. (2) Similarly, as a result of their explaining those topics in great detail, certainty as to the meaning is acquired. (3) Whichever of the three kinds of potential their disciples have, in teaching each individual their respective vehicle, bodhisattvas give explanations that correspond to the vehicle. (4) Since they teach without mixing up the order of the words, syllables, and topics, their teachings are a pleasure to listen to. (5) They teach using familiar phrases and spellings. (6) They teach appropriately in a way suited to their disciples’ minds. (7) They teach the noble path that gives certain deliverance from the three worlds. And (8) they give teachings concordant with the eightfold noble path. On account of these qualities, the syllables of these sublime bodhisattvas, in short, are said to be “perfect.”

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  • Contemplate the Interdependent Nature of Reality | An Excerpt from Radically Happy

    Radically Happy


    When I was around ten, I used to think a lot about how I would use time travel. My interest came after hearing family stories about the great hardship my mother’s parents and grandparents went through in Russia during the early years of the twentieth century. My grandmother was still a young girl when her village was burned by white Russians or Cossacks, and the family endured an arduous journey, first on foot to France and then by boat to the United States. My grandfather’s family escaped village pogroms by smuggling themselves into St. Petersburg, nearly getting my grandfather and his little brother impaled on pitchforks in the process. There are rumors that as a young teen Grandpa passed out flyers for Trotsky. Anyway, they eventually had to leave St. Petersburg too. I loved science fiction and watched a show called The Time Tunnel, where each episode involved using the time tunnel to go back in time.

    So I indulged myself in a few fantasies about what I would do with the time tunnel. For one thing, I thought that I could somehow stop Grandma’s village from being destroyed by bringing them a few modern weapons. But most of my time was spent thinking about how to help the Trotskyites. I was pretty sure that Trotsky wouldn’t have been the horror Stalin was and would have been nice to Russian Jewish families. Furthermore, at this tweener age I was convinced that Trotsky would have allowed democratic institutions to be established.

    As it turned out, I had to conclude that there was no way to change the course of history and ensure that my grandparents would meet. Even if I could think how to maybe arrange that, how would I get my parents to meet too? And if they didn’t meet, I wouldn’t exist. And then there was the problem of growing up in Russia. Would that Russian kid still be me? Was I willing to sacrifice my life and most likely my parents for the good of millions? Not only Russians but the whole Cold War in my mind would have been avoided. It was lot to think about.

    Nearly every movie and TV show about time travel demonstrates how hard it is to not mess things up in the present by changing something in the past, no matter how innocuous the change may seem. This is because everything and everyone is connected; everything that happens is based on prior events. This seems pretty obvious; nothing in the universe comes into being without a cause. And every cause or action has an effect. Change one small thing and a whole bunch of others things change too, and over the course of enough time, the effect is nearly limitless.

    Everything is interdependent. Nothing exists without being dependent on causes and conditions. Based on causes and conditions, we are born, galaxies arise, atoms form. By the same token, other causes and conditions lead to our passing, great galaxies are no more, and atoms fissure. When we are self-absorbed, we are exaggerating our separateness, making a big deal out of decisions that are often just conditioned responses. We think making choices represents our freedom, but it could actually be reinforcing our slavery.


    Every day we make decisions, from super important, potentially life-changing decisions to many more that are pretty mundane. We may even pride ourselves on our decision-making abilities, perhaps thinking this ability is what “separates us from the pack.” But most decisions are in reality a reflection of the pack. In other words, our decisions are usually the result of our conditioning, our biology, and the group of people we identify most closely with, rather than a completely unique expression of our individuality.

    Let’s consider a fairly ordinary example and take a look at what it means to choose a bottle at our local wine shop.

    For starters, how did that bottle get there? The person who runs the shop had to decide the bottle was sellable. That usually depends in part on at least one well-regarded wine critic praising that particular wine or the person who made the wine, the brand (château), or (if the grapes were purchased from the grower) the vineyard itself. Sometimes, the shop’s wine buyer simply liked the taste.

    But all of these factors depended on a great deal of other factors, such as the fact that we live on a planet that supports both plant and animal life and that grapes and people were the product of evolution. Quite a few fortunate coincidences needed to occur in order for people and grapes to come into being. Then human beings needed to discover fermentation, and, of course, there was the further discovery that fermented liquids brought on the pleasant feeling of being slightly inebriated. But even more important was the fact that someone noticed that these liquids were often safer to drink than water. Over time, people became better and better at making fermented grapes taste more and more delicious. All kinds of agricultural and mechanical innovations had to take place, and these depended on a series of unrelated events such as the invention of gears and the replacement of ox and plow with gas-powered tractors. Roads were built that facilitated transportation and commerce.

    None of these innovations were directly linked to making better-tasting wine, yet they were all part of a bigger interconnected picture. The more you look at all the different dependencies and interdependencies, the more you realize that all of the developments of humanity, if not the entire universe, are somehow connected to the arrival of the particular bottle of wine we chose to enjoy with our friends. So much so that the actual act of choosing a particular wine—a decision we may be very proud of—is the smallest, most insignificant part of the whole chain of events. It is hardly our choice at all.

    Choosing a bottle of wine is not the only way in which we think we are making a unique, independent decision when we are really being governed by our connections. Most of the actions we take are a habitual response to the cultural, social, and environmental conditions around us.

    Our decisions are usually the result of our conditioning, our biology, and the group of people we identify most closely with, rather than a completely unique expression of our individuality.

    In an experiment dubbed “The Cookie Monster,” researchers studied groups of three random people who go to the same university. In each group, one person was randomly selected to be the leader, and the groups were tasked with a pretty boring project, working on some policy decisions the campus is facing. After twenty minutes, someone arrives with a plate of four cookies. In almost every case the person who was assigned to be group leader (a mere twenty minutes earlier) ends up with the extra cookie. Usually no one says, “Hey, let’s divide that extra cookie into three pieces,” nor does one of the two nonleaders reach out to take the cookie him- or herself. The extra cookie usually arrives into the mouth of the head honcho.

    Why should we be making a big deal out of choices and extra cookies? After all, at least we get a bottle of yummy wine and a cookie. We’re pounding away at this point because these examples illustrate that a lot of what we attribute to free will and being “our decisions” are actually just manifestations of the interdependent nature of reality. Our interconnectedness with our environment, other people, and circumstances has a lot to do with why we act the way we do and what choices we make. And as we can see through the lens of Erric’s imagined time machine, the choices and decisions of people who seemingly have no connection with us at all, and died years ago, can have an impact on us right now.

    This invites us to ask ourselves a question: Do we live in accord with the interdependent nature of reality, what we refer to as “interconnectedness,” or is the way we live actually denying it? And if we are denying our interconnectedness, what does that cost us? Another way to put this is: Do you want to be a slave to an unconscious conditioned response to people and things, or is there a more authentic way to interact with this constant dance of interconnectedness? And is there an upside to freeing the slave?


    “Happiness is love. Full stop.” That is the conclusion of George Vaillant, the director of a seventy-five-year study conducted by Harvard University that followed 268 men over the course of their lives. Vaillant summarized the study’s conclusion as the “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’” People who enjoyed warm relationships during their lives were much more likely to consider life a success. Here are some of the findings:

    They lived longer.

    They made considerably more money, while IQ beyond mediocre had no effect on earnings.

    They had better marriages.

    They were much more likely to find satisfaction in life.

    Growing old with grace and vitality has more to do with how we live our lives than with our genetic makeup.

    Love, really? That’s the solution? Perhaps you’re thinking we’ve gone soft. Okay, so let’s be practical about it. Rather than focus on a big abstract thing, like love, let’s think simply in terms of the kind of warm relationships mentioned on the previous page. We feel someone is warm toward us when he or she acts in a kind and caring manner, don’t we? So perhaps that’s the point, not some kind of airy-fairy notions of love but basic human kindness and care, which you can do anywhere.

    During the first dot-com boom, which started in the late 1990s, companies in Silicon Valley were dealing with staff turnover of at least 35 percent per year. It was almost as though anyone who could fog a mirror was able to go out and get a job that paid way more than they were currently earning. Trying to manage projects in that kind of atmosphere was quite a challenge. Quickly it dawned on those of us who were leading companies that we were managing volunteers, rather than employees, since everyone who wanted to get another job could do so with seemingly little more effort than a finger snap. Where I was working at this time, the human resources department figured out which teams had better-than-average retention and interviewed employees to see if they could identify a trend that would account for a higher retention rate.

    A few departments had performed extremely well, with less than 10 percent yearly turnover. Employees on these teams talked about their manager very differently than employees did in many other departments. It turned out the biggest factor in determining whether someone was likely to stay was the relationship the person had with management. In low-turnover groups people said things like, “My manager is interested in me, in how well I am in my job, not just whether we are making deadlines or not.” Furthermore, departments that had lower turnover had managers who were more likely to use constructive criticism as feedback.

    In high-turnover teams, the manager may have been well liked, but people said things such as, “My manager only gives me the good news about how I am doing but never where my shortcomings lie or what we need to do about them.” And perhaps this kind of approach to managing was happening more than ever. Well-intentioned managers were afraid to say anything negative that might lead an employee to quit. However, in the low-turnover teams people said things like, “My manager gives it to me straight, not only what I am doing well but where I can improve. But not only that, she works with me to come up with a plan to help me excel. This is what I need to grow in my career: a manager who cares enough about me to tell me the bad news as well as the good.”

    Being kind doesn’t mean just being a wimp. It means taking your caring far enough that you’re willing to be brave enough to give it to someone straight. And also to engage with others to help them flourish. Who wins? Well, according to the Harvard study, the kind and caring person. The more open, kind, and caring we are, the better off we are, and maybe even everyone else as well. Like a disease, it spreads. Except that unlike a disease, we are all healthier having caught the bug.

    In the previous part on basic happiness, we talked a lot about the benefits of the present moment. When we are fully present, we are better able to enjoy the good times, whenever they arrive. In non-distraction, Erric can enjoy his time on the beach free from useless “Too bad every day can’t be like this” thoughts. Basic happiness is the kind of contentment that comes from enjoyment, the fruit of non-distraction. But interconnected happiness is a little different: it’s the kind of satisfaction that comes from finding meaning or purpose in our lives. And what does this meaning or purpose arise from?

    That is the big ah-ha in the Harvard study. “Warm relations” lead to feelings that one’s life has meaning and a sense of satisfaction with life. Cultivating interconnected happiness doesn’t have to be a big deal—putting a smile on someone’s face when you pour them a cup of coffee at a diner, helping a disabled person onto the bus, or just generally being kind—all these things add up. And that eventually leads to life satisfaction.

    It’s pretty easy to see a glimpse of how this might work in your own life. Think of a time in the last month when you helped someone for no other reason than because you saw a need. When you recall this moment, don’t you get a little bit of a warm feeling inside?


    The Nepalese earthquake occurred in the middle of the monsoon season, on Saturday, April 25, 2015, at 11:56 a.m., with its epicenter approximately fifty miles northwest of Kathmandu. This initial quake lasted approximately fifty seconds. There is some disagreement about the magnitude, 7.8 or 8.1. All I know is that it was far stronger than anything I could have imagined, and those fifty seconds were the longest seconds of my life. Immediately, in less than a minute, our world was turned upside down. Buildings were destroyed or so badly damaged that it was unsafe to be inside them; we had more than forty-five aftershocks ranging in strength from 4.5 to 6.6. Like nearly everyone else, my wife, two very young children, and I spent the next two months living outside in a tent.

    Initially we were in a small one-person camping tent where four of us slept like sardines. When the rains started seeping through, we had to use our shoes as a kind of improvised dam against the stream of water trying to enter our tent. My parents were living right next to us, also in a very small tent, which was not as modern as ours. Behind their tent was the young boy who is the reincarnation of my grandfather. We used makeshift toilets, dug out of the ground with plastic wrapped around the hole. We were some of the lucky ones, since we at least had a bit of shelter from the torrential rain. My father’s health can be a little fragile, so in this situation I was quite concerned about him. We went without showering for some time, my kids got head lice, and we were eating mostly rice and lentils. Honestly, it was hard to ever completely relax because of the constant shaking from the aftershocks.

    The afternoon of the earthquake we were mostly in a state of shock and were literally counting aftershocks. The first indicator of an aftershock was the dogs barking, the birds flying, followed by the humans shouting! In the confusion, we could barely find the presence of mind to look to make sure our many neighbors, family, and friends were safe. The next morning, I went around the monastery compound to see if all the monks in their makeshift tents were comfortable and to assess the damage to the monastery caused by the earthquake.

    The monks were shaken but intact, but our monastery—which was built by my grandfather, grandmother, uncle, and father, along with our senior monks and students—was badly hit and had incurred major structural damage. It was truly heartbreaking, but because of all the blessings, our monastery, which was built in the old-fashioned style with no iron beams, was still holding up—sitting upright like an old dignified meditation master. Just when I stepped outside and into the courtyard, one of our younger monks came walking toward me and dropped into my arms crying. His mother had died when her house collapsed in a nearby village, and that moment shook me out of my own self-absorbed concerns.

    No one was immune to a situation like this, and so instead of waiting for help to come, we all had to take matters into our own hands. Our monastery needed to organize a relief effort. My wife and I joined in and helped to bring food, medicine, and shelter to surrounding villages almost nonstop for the next two months. It was a struggle to be both a survivor and to find the inner strength and presence of mind to constantly be there for those in need.

    Strangely, when I think back to that time, while I do remember the suffering, my most vivid memories are quite different. I remember little things. I remember my wife’s sense of humor—the way she teased me about how much better organized nearby Shechen Monastery was than ours, especially when they came around first thing in the morning to offer hot tea for everyone camped outside. I remember the faces of the villagers when we handed them tarps to sleep under and to shelter them from the rain. I remember how kind and considerate our group of monks and nuns were, not only to all the people we helped but toward each other. But mostly I remember the quiet satisfaction that came from being part of a team that was making at least a small dent in the devastation.

    It wasn’t an easy time—there was sadness and heartbreak, frustration and despair—but there was always something positive that needed to be done, that could be done, and really no time to dwell on anything else. Even though I am what people might call “a member of the clergy,” and my job is to respond to people in need, I never faced such a challenge before, nor was I ever so inspired to do something. All of us who were there were victims and caregivers. All of Nepal, it seemed, was connected—depending on one another just to make it through another day. When I look back now on that time, although I was surrounded by tragedy, it was also a time of joy. There was a lot of satisfaction to be had just by being able to provide for those in great need.

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