By AYYA YESHE, Art by PABLO MEDINA
I never grew up thinking that I would one day run a temple in the slums of Central India, or a charity for that matter. But I suppose I should have known better when my favorite movie was ‘The Sound of Music’ and my vision was of being a nun was running over hills, climbing trees, and occasionally helping people!
What first drew me to spiritual practice was the death of my father, when I was 14. That sent me into a suicidal depression and existential crisis. If life was finite (which no one around me seemed to live with the comprehension of, with their 30 year mortgages and reinsured and reimbursable spider webs of administration) what was the most important thing to do? Who are we, why are we here and where will we go? I could no longer accept mundanity, the pressing urgency of finding a way out of suffering pushed me to leave my Catholic girls school and to embark on life on the road.
After a few years as a hippie, having tried drugs, sex, relationships, mindful communities and so on, and having found nothing lasting, I headed to India where all my hippie friends said ‘You’ll really find the meaning of life there’. What I did find was life- in your face, maximum volume life in its beauty and misery. Anyone who has seen the amazing crowds, splendor and poverty of India will understand why ancient Sages went to the forest to seek inner clarity. It is too overwhelming to comprehend. I saw a book in a shop window and was immediately drawn. It was called ‘re-born in the west’ and it used a quote ‘When iron birds fly in the sky, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants and the Dharma will go to the land of the pink faced savages (Westerners).’ For me this was very poignant. In the back of the book was the address of a monastery that taught Buddhism to Foreigners. I went there, and never looked back. It was like coming home.
Trekking through the Himalayas, I saw people who had nothing, whose houses were regularly washed away by mudslides and who lived on potatoes and rice every day endlessly, and yet I encountered more smiles and resilience there than on the streets of an Australian city. What is it these Himalayan people, these Tibetans who have lost their country have, that we, Westerners who can fly to the moon but do not have a way to find peace, lack? I realized they had profound inner methods of transforming suffering, developing spiritual resilience and compassion. I wanted that. I wanted an end to my uncontrolled, confused and unskillful way of being. Once I got beyond all the symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism and the rituals, which I found very appealing, I saw that compassion and the exposure of the delusion of self-clinging are at the root of it all. When you just see your own delusion and pain and then let go and get a little taste of peace, you can become a little dismissive of daily life and perhaps (not always) become very inward looking. This is not a bad thing in itself, but I don’t think it was the final state the Buddha intended. It’s the beginning of spiritual practice.
In the end, our practice of exposing the rawest parts of our delusion and suffering and transforming it, should lead to a profound understanding of inter-connectedness and empathy for others. Beings who are mothers from our past life, who are so many more than us, who seek happiness, but so seldom find it, floundering in the waves of birth, sickness, old age and death, tying the noose of karma tighter and tighter around their necks. Once you see interdependence and understand that your very existence is intimately tied to others – that your food and clothes and the fact you have eyes to see a sunset or a body to embrace your loved one, or can even sign your own name and use language, is all due to the kindness of others. When you understand this, bodhicitta – the mind of transcendent compassion, wishing to become a Buddha to free all beings from saṁsāra – is born.
When bodhicitta is born, we have to do something with it. A bodhisattva is a person who has bodhicitta and is endowed with compassion. Bodhi means endowed with all good qualities, devoid of defects, and Sattva is someone with the courage to strive for the liberation of others.
“As long as space remains, as long as there are beings who suffer, May I too remain, to remove the darkness of the world.” Shantideva
The six perfections (or 10 pāramis in Theravada) become our vehicle for untying the knots of delusion that keep us so firmly tied to the wheel of existence.
There are three kinds of generosity:
- Giving material things (i.e. offering food to the poor)
- Giving fearlessness (i.e. providing protection to people fleeing war, human rights abuses, etc.)
- Giving Dharma: giving Dharma is said to be the supreme gift because Dharma is the path that allows one to become free from suffering once and for all, but should only be given to those who express interest
Generosity should also be undertaken by implementing the other six perfections; for example, being ethical so that no one is harmed by you, practicing generosity, having patience and not expecting too much in return, making an effort to benefit others in a way that suits their needs, and finally applying the seal of emptiness (seeing deeply into interconnectedness) when you give so that there is no giver, no object given, and no receiver. By seeing that everything is interconnected and that you are just a condition in compassionate cause and effect, that there is no permanent you – only a body mind in continuum, arising, abiding, and ceasing in the luminous present – that way your giving has skill, is of benefit, and is not caused by egotism or expectation.
Ethics mean to control one’s body, speech, and mind in such a way that no harm is done.
- Restraining from negativities: If you are trying to liberate all beings, obviously you can’t harm them or yourself
- Gathering virtue: Merit is like the petrol of the spiritual life, and to gain realization, virtue and good karma are necessary. Virtue here does not just mean good actions, but also developing the mind through study, reflection, meditation, and keeping precepts. This is also gaining the necessary realization to really be of benefit to others.
- The work of benefiting and working for the liberation of all beings: This is the work of lifetimes. Whether it’s practice, service, or study, the most important thing is to have a bodhicitta motivation and do what is most beneficial.
It can be very hard to have patience when you are slandered, betrayed and hurt. But anger destroys all good karma, so patience is the guardian of merit and bodhicitta. One should develop three types of patience:
- Patience when wronged
- Patience to bear hardships for the Dharma: Tibetans walked across snow and ice, sometimes losing their lives to carry the Dharma, but often we won’t drive across town!
- Patience to face the profound truth of emptiness without fear: The belief that things are truly existent is very strong and creates a separate self-identity, clinging to self, and aversion to others; but the nature of mind is pure – obscurations are adventitious.
Diligence and exerting power and effort are essential to progress on the spiritual path. It takes courage and fortitude to face delusion and unravel it. But in the end, with wisdom, the unraveling becomes more effortless. The beginning of practice is more like pushing a big rock up hill, but in the end it goes down hill on its own.
- Armor like diligence enables us to take on heavy burdens to benefit others
- Diligence in action allows us to gather virtue
- Insatiable Diligence means we can benefit beings without becoming disheartened.
Patrul Rinpoche encouraged his student to make greater effort each day, taking delight in objects of virtue. It is said that a precious human rebirth without effort is like a boat without oars – we will never reach the shore of Nirvana. There is no time to lose to practice.
Focus is the fifth perfection to be developed.
- Giving up distraction means renouncing excitement and distracting preoccupations (or at least simplifying your life)
- Actual concentration means going through the stages of concentration and developing unbroken Samādhi. In this deep concentration one can stay in meditation for a day or more and the mind is one-pointed, light, malleable and blissful.
Wisdom refers to the final understanding of interdependence, interconnectedness, and emptiness and is gained from:
- Hearing (the teachings)
- Reflecting (analytical meditation)
- Insight (a deep non conceptual realization of things as they really are, facilitated by ethics, generosity, all the perfections, reflection, and listening you have done).
Wisdom is when the cocoon of selfhood falls away and we see the cause and effect relationship we have with all existence – that we are not one with, but also not separate from, all things. Many conditions bring about the existence of our mind body continuum, and mind, like a river, cannot be said to be the same any moment, as the moment has already flowed on in time. Thus in Buddhism we do not use the term ‘soul’ or self which implies something truly existent, but we use the word mindstream, which more accurately and lightly describes the subtle and conditional existence we have (or at least appear to have!). To understand selflessness and interconnectedness is not to find oneself in a void, but rather to see that all of heaven are contained in each other – that emptiness is fullness and fullness is emptiness. To see emptiness is to become free, but also profoundly compassionate, because one sees that what we do effects others, and that they are connected to us – we inter-are. From this understanding, compassion and skillful action are born.
THE WINGS OF THE BODHISATTVA
“It is clearly impossible to cover the whole surface of the earth in leather to avoid stepping on thorns, but if you cover your own feet in leather (transform your own mind), the whole world is thorn free.”Shantideva
It is said that because of their great compassion, nirvana will not hold Bodhisattvas, and because of their realization, they are not imprisoned in saṁsāra. Bodhicitta is to feel real love for all beings and be touched by their misery, but also have the panoramic skillful means and view to transform it. It is not the limited love that is attached to one particular person and so often leads to attachment, co-dependence, or disappointment. Since finding bodhicitta and becoming a nun I feel I have had more love and satisfaction in my life than I ever did from the conditional love of relationships. I think we all need to try to cultivate this transcendent love, no matter whether we are alone, together, married, single, monastic, or householder; we will burn with the fire of great-heartedness, and every action will bring peace, joy, and meaning to ourselves and others. When I was in Catholic school, I saw the sacred heart of Jesus with a thorn crown around it. I think it’s a pretty profound symbol for compassion. The thorns are the sharpness and wisdom that insight brings when our suffering has shown us the truth of interconnectedness, impermanence, and non-self. But these things are not dry or without love, they reveal a luminous spaciousness and richness – the burning heart of bodhicitta.
Bodhicitta is to feel real love for all beings and be touched by their misery, but also have the panoramic skillful means to transform it.
Sometimes we have romantic ideas about Dharma, that it will allow us to ‘have it all’, that we can practice without sacrifice. I know people who question whether monastics are still relevant. Why can’t we just meditate half an hour a day and work 40-50 hours a week, marry the perfect partner and build our dream home? We can, but Dharma takes time, it is about stripping away, not adding more. Sooner or later all our falsehoods and self delusions will be stripped away. Whether we are a householder or monastic, the Dharma is the stripping-paint of truth, to remove all that is not gold. For me, that means stripping life to its essential elements, living with awareness, simplicity, compassion, generosity and sustainability. The Buddha set up the four-fold sangha, and we are all in this together. To throw away one will damage the whole sangha body. We are not a threat to each other, we complete each other.
Ayya Yeshe is a Bhikkhuni, socially engaged activist, aspiring bodhisattva and mystic traveller.