Monday, 30 December 2013

'The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles'

 Such was astronaut Chris Hadfield’s comment from the international space station in February 2013, as he watched the earth-rise over the moon: it was for many an affirmation of a deeply profound truth.  Accompanied by brilliantly evocative scenes, captured both on camera and through his personal narratives tweeted and emailed back to earth as the ship travelled through space. He invited us to stand back and look at our home, presenting us with fresh perspectives and insight into the place where we are.  
In 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan responded to a photograph of the earth seen as the tiniest blue speck on a ray of sun, it was taken from Voyager 1 spaceprobe at a distance of  an astonishing 6 billion km as it entered interstellar space:

Consider that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’

Back home in 2013, an unusual year of extreme global weather, violence and significant loss is coming to a close and as that happens there’s a growing feeling that we are surfing the waves of an accelerating and uncertain tide, while politics, economics and meteorological events roll out and threaten to tip us into unknown waters. 
And we are the lucky ones:  money may be tight, but most of us here in Ireland have a roof over our heads, enough food and drink, medicine and healthcare. 
The Irish weather is pretty bearable and we have a general sense that whatever storms have been breaking across the country in the last few weeks will be temporary, not too harsh, we may experience some power cuts, but we can trust that we will have warmth, clean water and something to wear as a matter of course.  We also trust that our material needs will continue to be met.  In fact we are told by recycling agencies that the quantities of waste packaging has risen at an alarming rate this year, so it seems most of us here have more than enough.
But how many of the world’s population at this moment can rest in the safety of that feeling, and how does this discrepancy in equality come about on a boundary-less dust mote caught in the rays of the sun; on our blue dot of a planet? 

After his moonwalk in 1971, astronaut Edgar Mitchell described what he later came to understand as a Savikalpa Samadhi moment: during his flight in Apollo 14, his physical body dissolved into a greater consciousness and he understood that his body and the stars in the heavens are not separate things, but that “ a learning, self-organizing principle” underlies all creation.  He said, Part of my epiphany in space was recognizing that beneath the blue and white cover of Earth, we humans were behaving like juveniles. We are a juvenile species. By and large, we are so consumed with greed and self-service that we miss the larger point. This is what the great mystics in all religions have tried to get us to see. No one who has had such an experience could be violent”.

Mitchell described what meditation practitioners seek to achieve and stabilise;  an irreversible cognitive experience that provides the impetus for the practice of limitless compassionate action through wisdom and skillful means.   In his book A Hierarchy of Needs, psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term peak experience to describe how a cosmic shift in awareness such as this allows for a whole new attitude to emerge in a person’s thinking.   When experienced it will prompt irreversible changes in the brain/mind – from personal to transpersonal.

What is it then, that causes humanity to organise itself in a way that belies this natural intelligence? 
In Buddhism we study the Four Reminders to help us to become familiar with the concept of interdependent existence, to contemplate the fact that all we do with body speech and mind has a wider effect beyond ourselves: that we are intimately connected to the whole universe – we are a minute organism dancing in the cosmos with far reaching effects, because in essence we are the cosmos.
There is nothing we do or think that doesn’t impact upon others, whether it is sitting in meditation or prayer, or sending our redundant computer to Ghana to be stripped of its metals and burnt by young boys who should be at school.
When on a visit to Naropa University 16th Karmapa, was asked to summarise Buddhism in a sentence, he said simply,  ‘Everything changes’.  But when we contemplate what change means we often make the mistake of believing it is the domain of someone else, the prerogative of something outside ourselves, we think of change coming our way in manageable bite sizes, whereby we’ll retain an element of control.  We can also be caught in the notion that change in this context is a negative thing. Change can be slow and insidious or it may come crashing down like a tree in last nights storm, what is important is the way in which we respond to it: to the sudden onslaught of anger from a distraught child; or in the face of unexpected redundancy, or a financial windfall, or a diagnosis of a serious illness, or,  in the way we appreciate how the spacecraft window can casually frame a miracle. 

The key lies with our capacity to be skilful, to look beyond the immediate impact of an ending or a beginning, and to know what is needed; to go beyond a juvenile response or deluded thinking, or the urge to go to war, and become aware of the dissonant emotional response that is generated within us by any irksome news of a difference.  It requires a personal discipline inspired by an altruistic outlook that is guided by knowing inwardly that what Edgar Mitchell experienced is true for us all.  The Buddha knew it, Christ knew it, the ancient mystics knew it. 

Sadly most of us won’t be able to travel in a spacecraft, so we need another tool.  The  Tripitaka, or ‘Three Baskets’ of Tibetan Buddhism contain all the teachings need to train,  step by step,  in this way of being.  As Mattieu Ricard says, it is a skill to be learned and you have to put some effort into it.
For the last three years Ringu Tulku Rinpoche has been teaching a shedra online, on  the Bodhicharyavatara by Shantideva.    The Bodhicharyavatara summarises the heart of the Tripitaka, the Buddha’s teachings.  Shantideva was  an 8th century Mahasiddha, who was born of a noble family in Sri lanka, and refused a palatial home life in order become a monk and join a monastery. He was known as the original Lazy Lama because he shirked his studies, but in fact he was a brilliant man, blessed by Buddha Manjusri, who after being teased by his sangha for his lazy ignorance imparted the complete teachings in one sitting, from memory.   It is said that as he taught he rose from his seat and disappeared into the sky.
The text Rinpoche is using is a commentary on Shantideva’s text by Dza Patrul Rinpoche, a 19th century vagabond monk from Dzogchen, again, famed for his laziness,  but who also wrote two important books and many useful letters of advice to himself.
The text contains advice and trainings for the mind, and includes detailed discussion on the Paramitas, a word meaning ‘moving toward the other shore’ through the 
diligent use of the disciplines of patience, generosity, right conduct and equanimity, until eventually  wisdom arises. The advice given is practical and accessible for our modern times, relating to the development of bodhicitta;  the kindly, open and wise heart that recognises it is not separate from you, me, or the stars in the sky.
The shedra is broken down into chapters, and Rinpoche teaches in 15 minute mp3 sessions that arrive into your email mailbox often weekly, depending on his schedule. They can be watched, listened to or read as transcripts, according to your mood and Ringu Tulku will answer questions and elaborate points when requested. 

With great gratitude to Ringu Tulku Rinpoche for giving us this unique opportunity and also wishing him, his family and all of his Irish and extended sangha wherever you are - a peaceful 2014, with joy, health, and love and everything else you need in equal measure! 

Dr. Edgar Mitchell with Dwight Williams (1996) The Way of the Explorer, An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds. Putnam Adult
ISBN 0-399-14161-8
Maslow, A. H. (1962). Towards a Psychology of Being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company.
Sagan, Carl; Freeman J., Dyson; Jerome, Agel (2000). Carl Sagan's Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective. Cambridge University Press. pp. XV,302. ISBN 0-521-78303-8.

Dr Chris Hadfield
The Four Reminders

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