03 Oct Reminders of the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition
In the last issue of Kula, I wrote about two of the Four Reminders, according to the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, Precious Human Birth and Impermanence. To briefly recapitulate, these reminders act as cattle prods to get us on to the meditation cushion, and to keep us inspired and ready to practice, rather than letting our lives pass us by in a morass of habitual tendencies. Most of us find it very difficult to find motivation for a daily practice. That’s where the Four Reminders come in, to provide the inspiration for practice.
The traditional first reminder is that of Samsara, the round of existence. Essentially, this teaching is all about habitual patterns, which I have already briefly mentioned above. When we really look closely, we see that what we thought was free will was actually an inexorable process of interconnected habits we carry around with us every moment of our lives. Different external stimuli create a variety of habitual responses, with no window for actual change or creativity in sight for most of us, unless we train that facility. This perhaps challenging statement is backed up by modern neurological study, whereby it is now demonstrated that whenever we “make a choice” the neurons in the brain have already fired BEFORE we actually seem to make that decision.
There is a simple and very instructive little phrase in Buddhist traditions we would do well to contemplate: this being, that becomes. This is the essence of the teaching of Samsara, the fact that everything that happens does so as a part of a constant chain of causality. Everything does indeed happen for a reason, but that reason is, in most cases, not some cosmic force looking out for us and leading us down a certain pathway, but is simply the result of previous actions and situations bearing fruit NOW.
In a way, this reminder is the external situation of our lives, whereas the other reminder I would like to mention in this article, Karma, is the internal situation of our lives. Every single thing we have experienced leaves an imprint, leaves an impression. If we throw a stone into a deep lake, the stone immediately causes a splash and some ripples, before sinking down to the bottom of the water’s depth. Even though the splash and ripples fade away relatively quickly, the presence of the stone remains in the hidden deep, and does so unless it is actively taken away by someone willing to dive into the lake to retrieve it and gaze upon it.
This is a decent metaphorical representation of how karma works, except for how this has a bearing on our future. Imagine that the stone is eventually touched by a particular ray of light, shining down from a certain angle, on one brief moment, on one exact day. The light touches on the stone, and the stone breaks open, being revealed to be in fact a seed. Out of the seed grows a tree, erupting out of the surface of the lake with alacrity and power.
Every action, which includes every thought, we have ever taken, lands in the depths of our unconscious minds and given the right impulse, will ripen and once again take corporeal form in our external reality.
Every single thing we have ever done or thought becomes a part of the storehouse of this habitual matrix that is “me”.
The implications of these reminders are sobering. Essentially, what is being said here is that no matter how free we think we are, we are basically meat robots, and acting purely based on our previous external and internal situations. When I first contemplated these teachings, I felt a sense of grief at the state of the world and all of our mindless living.
Yet among all of this darkness lies a jewel of unutterable beauty.
All of this is only one option, one choice of how to live.
Yes, we can take it. Or we can practice. We can work within a framework of skillful meditation and other practice, and we can find a way to truly become creative, free, and more alive than we could ever have imagined. Out of the darkness of feeling ourselves as robotic and life as pointless, we find that we DO have infinite potential – infinite potential for joy and creativity and love and compassion and abiding peace, not to mention wildness and raw, unbridled passion.
If I find, on any given day, I am uninspired to practice, I simply remind myself of the alternative, described in bleak fashion in the words above. That is no way to live. So I sit on my meditation cushion, and start to find a life beyond the lake, the stone, the ripples, or even the sun. When I thought I was a lake, I discover I am the vastness of the ocean.
And I begin to suspect that I am far more still, that the totality of the entire universe is nothing other than my true nature.
By Bernd Windhofer