Buddha's Brain

"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha

Box Full of Darkness

Posted on January 30, 2018

How deeply we fear being nobody. One way to think of the ego is as a defense against pain, particularly the pain of being no one. It shores us up, reminding us that we are somebody. We update our internal resumes and narratives constantly. We seek new skills and go on self-improvement regimes of all kinds, including the practice of mindfulness meditation. And we may improve a little. We may feel a little more peaceful, a little more resilient and less quick to anger.
And yet, deep down we may sense that we are still seeking to plant a flag in ground that gives way under our feet. Nothing we do can stop time’s passage and all the things that keep happening that we don’t want to happen, like aging and loss. Even with a very deep and well-established practice that has grown new neurons and reduced stress and accomplished everything else that scientific studies promises, even then we still touch the sadness of life. And that fear of being no one….of being hopeless.
I believe that giving up on hope is giving up on life. I believe that the sun is still shining behind the storm clouds. The hard part is remembering that it’s always there and that the storm will pass.
Three years ago, I began my struggle with Major Depressive Disorder. The clouds of self-hatred began to roll into my mind. My world was quickly darkening as I felt hopeless, out of place and inadequate in so many realms of my life. Despite the constant support of my Sangha and family, I kept slipping farther into my dark hole of depression. Thoughts of self-mutilation and suicide attempts entered my mind and my life. The light was gone. I could see no other way to escape this darkness then to permanently end it.
I was sitting on my bed, cupping a bottle’s worth of sleeping pills in my hand. The thoughts that had been attacking me hadn’t stopped raining down and I wasn’t able to push them aside any longer. I felt like a burden and a waste of space. The constant love that had been shown me had to be a lie. Who could love someone as messed up as me? After all, I was there to solve problems, not be one. My mental storm was blowing hard and I was sure I wouldn’t survive. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I looked around my room for what I thought was the final time. I saw pictures of my Teachers (Ven. Sudharma, Swami Rishi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama) faces smiling back at me. Memories that had once kept me going were now going to see me off. The small calendar hanging on my wall looked curiously at me as the future plans it held had no relevance anymore. All my hope was gone and with it I was giving my life. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths to prepare myself. Any sense that I had once had was gone. Consumed by what I thought was impossible. I was lost and knew I wouldn’t be found.
As I opened my eyes a picture caught my eye. I wiped the stinging tears from my eyes to clear my vision. It was a picture from the United Nations Upasanti Village bio book of one of the children that had recently been rescued from the atrocities of human trafficking. Next to her photo was a picture she had drawn for the on-site social worker in Myanmar…..a picture of her crying and Buddha with his arms wrapped tight around her. A gray cloud above her head poured rain upon the duo, but in the corner of the paper there was a sun.
When my dear Teacher, Ven. Sudharma was in the process of passing, she told me that even though it’s raining there will always be sun, which means there has to be a rainbow. I couldn’t see it yet, but it would be there. A rush of hope flooded my body as I realized that the children I’ve worked so hard for…..dedicated my life to….were actually saving me. My hands shook and the pills that were going to be my answer cascaded to the carpeting beneath me. The sun was there, the rainbow was coming, and the rain would finally end on that July evening when I boarded a plane for India….the “no one” I had been, was finally shed.
It may come as a relief that in ancient times, when people first heard of Buddha’s teachings on emptiness or no self, it was considered most auspicious to feel not joy but terror. One classical explanation is that to feel fear is to intuit what must come. The ego must volunteer to abdicate the throne in the center of your life. It must agree to die or at least diminish and let you be no one at least some of the time. These days the secular mindfulness movement takes the sting out of this death. It practices a kind of bait and switch, benevolent but still a bait and switch. It promises people a little more peace and inner spaciousness, a better brain, and so on. And slowly, slowly it leads on to the realization that real peace and freedom come in those moments when we are no one. When we are willing to give up. We notice that when we are more awake we are not thinking of a self. We find that being nobody is not deadness. It is awakening to the flow of life.
Before leaving India for Myanmar, and after sharing my experience with His Holiness, he hugged me and seized both my hands and held them for a long time in His, and looked at me with a smile. He assured me that without rain, the beauty of a rainbow wouldn’t exist and that the sun’s light has been there all along. Storms are temporary but the sun is permanent. The sun is a symbol of hope. And, like all conversations, this one led us to a peaceful silence.

Need a Mantra?

Here are 10 Prescribed Mantras that calm the Mind and Heart


Posted on May 17, 2017

yad-yad ācarati śreṣṭhas / tad-tadevetaro janaḥ / sa yat pramāṇaḿ kurute / lokas-tad-anuvartate A great person leads by example, setting standards that are followed by others all over the world.    ~~Bhagavad Gita III.21

The streets of Calcutta were dangerous and dirty. Thousands were infected with leprosy, cholera, and other contagious diseases. At overcrowded hospitals, nurses were forced to turn away dying patients onto the cockroach-infested streets. A group of activists, led by Mother Teresa, risked their own health to treat the sick and poor, even though most could not be saved. Why would Mother Teresa dedicate her life to working in the most unsettling conditions for people who did not have anything to give in return? She responded by saying, “I see the divine in every human being. When I wash a leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?”

The great leaders of the world ….. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai ….. all share certain characteristics. They are clear communicators as well as great listeners. They have a firm and steady grounding that reflects an unwavering commitment to their cause. They inspire and empower. They are also confident, honest, and discerning. There is another quality each great leader has, that perhaps outshines all the others …..humility.

Business philosopher Jim Rohn says, “Humility is almost a God-like word. A sense of awe. A sense of wonder. An awareness of the human soul and spirit. Humility is the grasp of the distance between us and the stars, yet having the feeling that we are part of the stars.” In other words, humility is seeing yourself in others; it is seeing all life as holy.

The word humility is derived from the Latin humilis, which is translated as “grounded” or “from the Earth.” The Chandogya Upanishad teaches tat twam asi or “you are that.” This mahavakya, or great saying, relates to the idea that everything is Brahman, that the supreme Self and the individual self are one and the same. If you are Brahman, and the tree is Brahman, then you and the tree are one. The yogi has the humility to understand they are the same as all that exists on Earth. Its natural resources support life, so it is our responsibility to support the Earth just as much.

According to Vedic scripture, we are currently living in the Kali Yuga – an era of conflict and struggle – and great leaders are especially needed. If we want to see peace and happiness in the world, then we must live the kind of life we want to see. There was a point in time when humanity lived in harmony with nature. We only took from the Earth what was necessary to survive. Now, each year, humans kill billions of animals and destroy millions of acres of land. We are fighting wars over natural resources and the Earth can no longer sustain us. The business of taking all the earthly resources we want was once thought of as progress. We have instead regressed, causing billions of humans, animals, and plants unhappiness.

A great yogi offers strength to others so that they too can learn to be steady and joyful. Humility allows the yogi to be the change they want to see in the world. We can consider progressing in a different way, one that would help us rediscover our higher consciousness and realize that we are the same as the stars and shine just as bright. We can also lead by example, setting standards that are followed by others all over the world.

With Metta Always to You. 

Universal Compassion

Posted on March 16, 2017

Shri Krishnah sharanam mama

I take refuge in the all-attractive Lord who is the true identity of all being.
Sharanam means refuge. This beautiful initiation mantra from the Pushtimarg tradition in India invites us to seek refuge, particularly when we are driven by strong emotions. Anger, hate and fear close us off to love and compassion. Seeking refuge means having the capacity to step back and to use particular tools or techniques….in this case, the repetition of mantra…..to protect us from reacting immediately. Instead, we engage the mind with something calming, which buys us time and gets us back in touch with our true essence: boundless love and compassion, Buddha and Krishna. Resolving a situation from this place yields much more constructive results. It means responding instead of reacting. It gives us the ability to stop cycles of violence and the escalation of conflict. Even if the other party refuses to cooperate or feels threatened, taking refuge in the mantra cleanses our heart and spirit, and moves us from separateness toward oneness.

Mantra transcends the calculating intellect and awakens a feeling of love and sweetness, gradually melting away the hard walls we have built around our hearts. The vibration of the Sanskrit language has a profound, transformative effect on a cellular level. My Teacher, Yogi Swamiji always described how chanting mantra affects our electromagnetic field and brain patterns, the master glands and even the stability of the blood. Mantra can totally remake our psyche. Asana and meditation practices have similar effects, inducing a mental focus and an energetic shift that become stronger than habitual, conditioned, reactive behavior.

Every major spiritual tradition agrees that love and compassion are the most important qualities for sustaining and protecting life. Each tradition has a figure who embodies perfection in love and compassion. In the Hindu/yogic tradition it is Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. He is often depicted as a child whose disarming qualities inspire us to love without inhibition. In Buddhism it is the supreme bodhisattva,

Avalokiteshvara, who made a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has helped every one of them achieve nirvana. His mantra is Om mani padme hum, meaning that, in the same way that the lotus flower grows out of the mud, compassion is often deeply understood through great suffering and huge spiritual challenges. In Christianity the iconic figure is Jesus, whose story holds many parallels to Krishna’s. Krishna was born in a prison, Jesus in a stable, and both had to spend much of their lives in exile. Through the practice of sincerely contemplating these divine, enlightened beings, we do our very best to awaken their luminosity inside us, and to tailor our lives according to their examples.

Sister Chan Khong, a Buddhist nun, and dear friend of my Teacher Ven. Sudharma, ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh, endured unimaginable suffering during the war in Vietnam and has become one of the most outstanding living embodiments of compassion in our times. Although she had a degree in biology, her main mission was always to feed the hungry and the poor. What makes her service even more powerful is that she has had to serve anonymously, under a false identity, so as not to put the recipients of her aid in danger. Many times she risked her own life, dodging bullets and bombs while riding her bike through the streets of Saigon. One day, after a bombing, the streets were littered with dead bodies, and the government did not clean them up. The community of monks, nuns and peace workers took it upon themselves to remove the bodies and give them a proper burial. They could accomplish this extremely difficult task only by seeking refuge in the breath and in mantra. When boat people started drifting ashore in neighboring Southeast Asian countries, those governments ordered them pushed back out to sea, where they would eventually drown. For Chan Khong the first priority was saving lives, and in order to circumvent senseless rules and inhumane practices, disguises had to be used, laws had to be challenged in nonviolent ways and violations of human rights had to be reported to the international press. She was exiled from Vietnam, separated from family and friends and expelled from countries that did not want their cruelty exposed to the world. Sometimes she would be overwhelmed by strong emotions and start sobbing uncontrollably, until she remembered to take refuge in her breath. She and her sangha practiced walking meditation to learn the art of calming their feelings before taking action. From this practice came the ability to understand and have compassion for the people committing atrocities.

Compassion is a big word that is often trivialized. Most of us have been conditioned to be selective about our compassion. We may be able to express some degree of compassion to our family and friends but are unconcerned about those who live on the other side of the world, don’t look like us, or speak a different language. Chan Khong describes returning to Paris after being expelled from Singapore and being appalled to see people eating, drinking, laughing and enjoying life in cafes. Did they not know that their fellow human beings were drowning at sea?

Through the practices of Manta, Pure Practice and Yoga we learn that compassion does not discriminate.