Thursday, August 26, 2004

Islam, Emptiness and Realisation

Having been asked on a List to give my views on Islam, Muslims, and the actions and suffering which are associated in some way with them, I attempt to give it here. As it's a huge and complex subject, I can only cover some aspects. And this is all just that, just my own views, which I hope are lightly held, and offered for consideration.

I think it's quite difficult to approach this by responding point by point and without making some very general points, so I will try to map out what I believe to be general points and guidelines, and necessarily be brief on what the consequences of those points are .... and I will set this out a some length, for which I ask forgiveness, as I believe it important to follow this through, and establish whether the conclusions are based on Dharmic principles or not.

In a sense, the issue is ... how to we act in the world? By which of course, as a Buddhist, I don't just mean how do I act in terms of acts of the body, but also in terms of speech and mind. How do we act?

The teachings are very clear that certain types of acts bring harm to both ourselves and others, and certain acts are beneficial to both. Those acts which are based on ignorance, ill-will or craving bring harm. And this is always the case, according to the teachings.

Ill will and craving are straightforward to see, I believe. If you feel *anything* of the nature of these two when you are acting with body, speech or mind towards anything or anyone, then you will bring harm to yourself, and the other, either now, or later on. I think it is relatively clear when there are these mental states involved in ones actions.

Ignorance is rather harder, and the key in a sense. Ignorance here means those actions based on something other than realisation of emptiness or dependent arising. It means actions based on believing that things are 'real', that things solidly exist from their own side, that our concepts are the thing itself, etc etc.

It means actions which don't spring from the three-fold purity. That is, from a mind that is free of the conceptions of a 'really-existing' subject or person doing the action, a really existent object, or person receiving the action, and free from a really existing action, or the thing being done. If there is, for example, a notion of either a giver, of giving, or of someone being given to, then this action is not pure, and is clouded by ignorance.

So this is very much a matter of realisation, of realising emptiness and dependent origination, and is one which goes to the heart of the the Buddhist path.

The degree to which we act based on the three-fold purity, is the degree to which I actions will help or harm ourselves or others. In a sense, it's not ultimately about whether the actions are based on generosity or greed, on ill will or love, but rather whether they are based on the threefold purity. Why? Because acts of ill will or greed or pride etc etc cannot by nature be pure in this sense, only those based on love or generosity etc can be three-foldly pure.

So this is the guide to our actions, and this is based on our realisation. And this has important consequences as to where our emphasis on the path is, as only but realising the nature of mind and of all appearances, can we be in a position to act in a beneficial way. This doesn't of course mean 'just meditate until enlightenment, and then act in the world', but it does mean that here is a clear emphasis ... realisation is our primary concern *if* we really care about others, *if* we really want to help others. If we are serious about our Bodhisattva vows, then we *must* gain realisation, otherwise we cannot help. And if we indulge in actions of body, speech and mind which make that realisation harder, then we will be less able to help others.

So, coming back to the three fold purity - actions not tainted by either a sense of a do-er, a receiver, or an action itself (described so well in the Prajna paramita teachings, as well as the Vajrayana teachings) .... coming directly to our issue - Islam, when one is acting, we can examine our minds, and see if this three-fold purity is present.

The three-fold purity will be present to varying degrees, dependent on our realisation - it's not black or white ..... and this is important, as the greater our realisation, the more 'free' we are to act in greater and more far reaching ways to the benefit of beings. But, the less our realisation, then the more careful we must be in how we act due to the consequences to ourselves and others.

Any notion that there is an Islam, or Muslims, or something truly happening 'out there', or it 'should' be like this, or like that etc is a sign that something is very wrong, from a Dharmic point of view. Of course when we converse in a relaxed way, we use these sort of terms to describe things. But, here we are concerned with Dharma, and how to attain enlightenment to help all beings, so here we are talking in a way which is relating to how things actually are.

Here we get to the heart of things: If we have a notion of a 'thing' out there, we are mistaken. The teachings are very clear, and I would hope that from the basis of one's practice it is clear, that there are no 'things' and they are not 'out there'.

There is no 'Islam'. And it is not 'out there', outside of my own mind.

I think that this bears reflecting on deeply.

There is nothing out there which is fixed, which exists from it's own side, which is truly 'real', other than that which arises dependently, dependently on conditions, dependently on our own mind.

Things appear the way they do because of all the factors which come together in our mind at that point. All our past actions condition what we see and think.

What we see, is thoroughly tainted by how we have acted in the past, ie, our physical actions and speech, but most importantly, our mental actions. How we see the world is based on our previous thoughts and emotions. *How we see the world is conditioned primarily by how we see the world.* This is the crux of the matter here.

There is no really existent thing out there, or issue. There is, however, the appearance of things, largely based on how we have previously seen the world. So, how we see the world conditions how we see the world, and what we see is, in effect, what we want to see, or more accurately, what we are able to see.

This is very clear in the teachings, of all levels and schools, and very clear in the words and actions of the realised ones.

But this is most difficult to come to terms with, I believe, if one has not yet developed realisations. It flies in the face of 'common-sense', and is contrary to our notions. And that is because the non-dual wisdom of the Buddha is so radical, and so very different to our samsaric way of seeing the world. If we do not have realisations, then we will tend to distrust this teaching, even though the teachings are clear.

I believe that there are a number of common ways in which we tend to somehow dismiss the full import of the Buddhas teachings here. For one, we might misunderstand the nature of the teachings on the two truths, and think that somehow we are *in* relative truth, and that somehow this means that these teachings are not for us, for where we are at now, but only for the Buddhas, as they are somehow *in* absolute reality.

Or, we think that we are less developed, and therefore we somehow must operate at the relative level, and therefore these teachings might be true, but don't actually apply to where we are at.

Or, we think that this understanding must somehow lead to inaction, that realisation of emptiness and dependent origination leads to inaction somehow. I think there are other common misunderstandings, but perhaps I could just address these two?

Realisation doesn't lead to inaction. The three-fold purity of action *is* action, it's just that it doesn't come from ignorance (and ill-will, craving, pride, jealousy etc). What it comes from is wisdom, which sees things as they are. And how it manifests is as compassionate action. What it means is that we don't see 'things out there' ... Islam, Nazi's, Vegetarians, Buddhists, or anything else, as being more than convenient labels, convenient to talk with, it means that our actions are not based on misunderstanding the world, taking things as solid, and then acting on that mistaken solidity with mistaken actions. It means that we see things as they are, as fluid, ever changing, ever un-graspable, and in response, we spontaneously act with compassion, doing what needs to be done, and leaving undone what does not need to be done. We do not act from ego, we do not act from ignorance, and we do not act from mistaken views.

So, if someone is being attacked, one spontaneously knows the right thing to do, based on wisdom, and the compassion that naturally flows from it. It's not inaction, but, it's action that is in accord with seeing things as they are.

The other misconception I mentioned was to do with somehow we are *in* relative reality, or we are not advanced enough yet to act in accord with ultimate reality. This is based on not truly seeing the truths of emptiness and dependent origination, and not realising that we are *in* both relative and ultimate reality, that all things are of both, are both relatively and ultimately true or existent. There is no thing which is solid, and yet things appear. The extent to which we grasp onto things as solid, and then act on that, is the extent to which we harm ourselves and others. The ultimate is right here and now .. all things that appear to our mind are illusory, they melt before our awareness, and there is nothing in them which we can find, or grasp, or take as ultimately existent. And yet they appear - they have relative existence.

So, in this case, things truly are not ultimately existent, and this *is* the way things are, it's not that it's the way things are only for Buddhas, and we are not ready ... it's how things are now .... and acting in accordance with this brings good, not harm.

We cannot put off this understanding as if it is for later, or as if it doesn't apply to us. It is how things are, and it is the guide for our actions.

How can we check up on ourselves, and see if we are acting in accordance with the teachings, in accordance with our bodhisattva vows, in accordance with the path we have committed ourselves to?

Do we have the idea that there is something that really exists? Do we think that there is such a thing as Islam, or the Qur'aan, or of Muslims etc? Do we think that these exist as somehow separate from mind, as a thing that is solid and real, rather than something which has come together through causes and conditions in our mind? Do we think that these things exist other than in a way which is the result of how we have previously thought they exist?

If any of these are true, then alarm bells can usefully go off, as there is nothing which actually exists, as a solid thing, which is not conditioned by our past ideas and actions, and which is not compounded by numerous conditions at this very moment.

Do we think that there is something 'out there' ... that Islam, Qur'aan, Muslims exist somehow 'out there', externally from our minds, and that 'yes, we hold views which colour what we see, but these things actually exist out there, regardless of how mistaken or karmically coloured our views are'? If so, alarm bells can usefully go off, coz there is nothing that exists 'out there', separate from our minds.

Do we think that 'things should be a certain way'? If so, alarm bells can usefully go off. The word 'should' is always a give-away, one which points directly to a wrong notion, to grasping the world as 'really existent'. If we think that things should be a certain way ... we should be free, people should oppress, or act unskilfully etc etc, then we are grasping at really existent things or actions. 'Should' is a big give-away.

Do we generalise? If so, alarm bells can usefully go off. Generalisations are based on partial views, based on solidifications of what isn't solid (and that was just one!!!!)

We commonly mistake things as being solid. We may think 'there is such a thing as Islam', or 'Islamic countries are like this'.

What does this mean? It means that we take how things are, and from that, we select those aspects that arise in our minds, and we make a 'story' out of them, we generate an 'idea' or view, or notion, and it is one which 'fits' our previous ways of acting in body, speech and mind. And it is one which falsifies reality, which is not in accordance with how things are, and it is one which creates harm and suffering for both ourselves and others.

We may think, to use your example, that in a Muslim country, Buddhist are not free to meditate, or practice. I lived in a Muslim country for 7 years, was free to do both, attended Dharma centres and retreats there, my teacher Shangpa Rinpoche is currently giving initiations there. How can this be? All Muslim countries are not the same. Within a Muslim country, things vary. At different times, things vary. Different people in the country vary. Different people understand teachings in different ways. Etc etc. There is nothing fixed and solid there, and the grasping onto an idea that 'this is how things are in Muslim countries', or 'Islam is like this', or the Qur'aan says this' are all falsifications of reality, and mere reflections of our views, of our past actions, of our karma and obscurations. Things are fluid, they change, they are ungraspable, and that is the nature of things. Being open to how things actually are enables one to act in accordance with compassion, on the basis of wisdom. Having ideas of how things are as being solid always gives a misleading picture, which leads to actions which create harm.

If we say that this happened in a part of the world, due to Islam, then we most likely see things in a partial (but entirely wrong - as dualistic) way. We see the problems caused by Muslims in former-Yugoslavia, but we don't see the problems caused by non-Muslims. We see the problems in the world from Muslim countries right now, but we don't see the problems caused in the past, by colonial powers, but those that are somehow 'us'. We see our values, our modern, liberal democratic values as really existent, eternal, and true, and don't see that these are mere appearances, which appear a certain way, based on our past views and actions. We then clash them with other views, other ways, and of course they come out top, they make sense, and the others are 'wrong'. But, the conclusions we arrive at are the only possible outcome of seeing the world the wrong way, of dualistic thought, of seeing things as truly existent, and being attached to those views. It must come out that way, and challenging the views on the level of 'your view is wrong, Islam is not all bad, how about taking this, or this into consideration' will make little difference to you, because given your past actions of mind, speech and body, these things don’t carry the same sort of weight that those views you already have do. We have emotional commitment to our views, as they are in accord with our past actions, views and karma. It is only be dropping things on that level, and realising the truth of the Buddhas teachings on emptiness and dependent origination that we can see how wrong our views are, and begin to let them go, and act with compassion born of wisdom.

If you think the Qur'aan is evil, then whatever you see will tend to confirm this. We will notice that which confirms it much more than that which contradicts it, and it simple gives you even more conviction that these views are right. Our views colour what we actually see. More accurately, there is nothing out there objectively which we see in a coloured way .... more accurately, we see what we want to see, we see what our past actions allow us to see, we see things which are dependent on our past views and actions as being actually existent, out there, and objective. But it's all a falsification of how things are, and our actions bring harm based on that.

What I am suggesting is that whenever we have a 'story' in our minds, about the way things are, then we stop, don't act on it, but examine it from the perspectives of dependent origination and emptiness. Is that story conditioned by our past experiences, actions and views? Is it really existent? Is it objectively out there, beyond our minds? If so, don't act on it.

If we think 'should be this way', then we stop, and examine deeply this thing that relates to 'should'.

I'm suggesting that we are extremely careful indeed with how we act in body, speech and mind, and that we act as must as possible from wisdom, with compassion, and with as much threefold purity as we can muster.

I'm suggesting that most of what we believe about the world is most likely false, and acting on it will harm us and other beings.

I'm suggesting that if there is a hint of 'us vs. them' then we are on dangerous territory.

And, above all else, I'm suggesting we take the Buddha's teachings really seriously, and not justify our own ignorance, but really try to see the teachings through, and be very careful of acting without really taking the teachings onboard in their fullest way.

Some other observations in random order:

When I look at my teacher, Shangpa Rinpoche, can I imagine him acting on the basis of 'Islam is like this, therefore I must act like this', in a way which has a solid view of it, which is as if it was really existent, or in a way which is 'us vs. them'? .... and the answer is 'no I cannot'. It is inconceivable to me that Rinpoche would hold onto views in this way, and act on their basis. One of my guides to action is to always imagine what Rinpoche would do, and I have to say, it's always very clear what the response or answer is. His actions are so exemplary, and such a guide, that it always shows me my wrong views and wrong actions as if in a mirror.

Having lived in a country which is utterly different to mine, culturally, intellectually and behaviourally for many years, it showed me in a dramatic way how biased my views were when I had previously imagined them to be objective. All the values of ethics, common sense, humanitarian etc etc were all conditioned by my past experiences, and not universal or objective. What you see is not coloured, what you see is what you are able to see. There is nothing out there objective which is distorted, there is only what comes together in your mind, based on your past actions and views. And my views on 'Islam' changed as a result, amongst others, including my views on Dharma. Having lived in a Muslim country was extremely illuminating.

Having Muslims in my family, and as friends, has opened me up to how conditioned my views were, and how they falsify reality.

Having some small realisation, I realise now not how my views were slightly wrong, as against, it's like this, rather than like that ... but how 'wholly' wrong they were, as things are not like this ... as in something solid, but things are fluid, ungraspable, and not objective, but merely appearances which are empty, empty of solid existence which is separate from my past views and actions.

Being attached to our views is a sure sign way of knowing that they are based on ignorance. If we are really strongly committed to defending our views against others, and jump in at all costs to defend them or spread them, then we are most likely very attached to them. And it is only possible to be attached to views based on ignorance. And if you look around on the web, at the mass of views about religion, for example, you will see what appears to be a mass of attachment to views which are not how things are.

Arguing on the basis of trying to prove others wrong, of winning the argument, and of trying to convert others to ones view is surely based on wrong views, of misunderstanding how things are.

Of course, these last points, and indeed all my points, are not directed personally at you, nor a characterisation of how you are or think, but are general observations of how I believe things to be, in accordance with my understanding of the teachings of the Buddhas. I'd just like to make sure that is clear :-)

So how do we act in respect to all these things which appear to be going on in the world, which appear to be harmful, ugly, and which appear to be all around us?

Well, I think I've made clear that what appears to be so may or not actually be so, so the primary thing is to check up on what appears to be so for us.

And I think I've made it clear that I believe seeing things as they really are leads inevitably to our acting, to acting with compassion based on wisdom.

In terms of our Bodhisattva vows, then yes, we are impelled to act for the benefit of beings, and are impelled to act to try to minimise the harm caused by others to others. But I hope I've made it clear that this harm, or its causes are not as clear as they seem to be, are not solid, and that clear seeing is not a taking of sides, but more a matter of realisation. So we constantly attempt to let go of wrong views, and are extremely careful of acting on the basis of them.

In terms of priorities, I hold the view that primary for us as Buddhists, and especially so for those of us in the Mahamudra lineages, primary is the development of non-dual wisdom, of self-illuminating awareness, of seeing things as they really are. Only this heals the world, and heals beings sufferings. Changing laws, and acting in the world, in and of itself, cannot ultimately help beings. Only acting in the world on the basis on ourselves having realised the true nature of mind can really help anyone. And this is a much harder thing to do than seemingly external pursuits and actions, or hobbies, and which requires single minded devotion to the development of otherwise it will not happen. I'm not saying just sit on a meditation cushion, please don't mistake me, but I am saying that resting in self-illuminating awareness at all times is the means to help ourselves and others. And that anything which makes that harder makes us less able to help others. And being caught up in mistaken views, and acting on them makes it harder to develop rest in that, and to act on the basis of that.

Personally, I've found that I can have most effect, most deep long lasting effect, on those who I have a personal relationship with, on those that I can effect directly through my words, actions, and mental states. There the effect can be deep, and it can be long lasting. I have not found that long range actions, as it were, on those I don't have a substantial relationship with, has born much fruit that is of ultimate benefit. I believe that to be a good guide to getting involved in movements, or campaigns, or types of work. In seeking to help the world, does this bring me into deep relation with beings where I can have an effect. Or does it encourage long range actions which most likely will lead to the opposite of the desired effect?

When I see my ex-wife though the eyes of my views, though the eyes of my past experience, then I see her wrongly, and I necessarily act wrongly. When I see more truly, as empty and dependently arisen, then I see her as she is, and my actions are more compassionate and wise. It's not as if she really is out there, objective, and like 'this', and I miss-see her, but, what appears to my mind is the result of my past actions, or my experiences, and the 'her' that I see is a dependent origination, and is mind. I see what I can see, and sometimes mistake it as being real, out there, and self-existent. But, it's fluid, ever changing, and entirely dependent on my mind, my past actions and views, and all the conditions that pertain at this very moment.

How very different my views and actions are in relation to her, when I am able to accord with my realisation, and with the teachings, than when I cling to mistaken views. The difference is massive, and affects her, myself, our children, and all that I and her and they come into contact with, then and thereafter. Like ripples of waves, every action we have has infinite consequences, for all beings. One moment of clear seeing and action, has infinite consequences, and so does its opposite.

Finally, I don't believe that the options are sitting on the cushion, or acting in the world. Nor do I believe that sitting on the cushion and developing realisation has no effect on others. I do believe that each moment that we dwell more closely to the way things are has infinite effects on all beings. Each moment we may dwell, resting in the nature of mind, in self-illuminating awareness, we affect all other beings, and have an impact which cannot be measured. All things affect all other things, and each moment of profound meditation, each moment of action which is three fold pure has unlimited consequences. And each moment of action based on ignorance also has unlimited consequences.

I have no idea if any of this helps?!

In my defence, I'd justify writing such a long email in a number of ways. Firstly, as having lived in Muslim countries, and having friends and family who are Muslims, it's close to home. Secondly, caring about the world, and living beings, it's close to home. Caring about Dharma, it's close to home. And caring about the consequences of my actions, it's close to home.

For those reasons, I've reflected on this a great deal. For those reasons, I have tried to look at it from a Dharmic point of view, and present that view step by step. I believe that the issues involved are so important that it is worth making the effort to follow that through.

I also know that my views are clouded by my ignorance, by my heavy karma, and by my failings to take the teachings seriously, and my own mortality seriously, and to generate the necessary realisations. I can only hope that there is some glimmer of light in my mind, and that some spark in others is generated by engaging with this.

Sentient beings are beyond count, and so are their sufferings. And yet, nobody exists, and nobody suffers.

Seeing the emptiness of all Dharmas, and that Islam or Muslims don't exist is the nature of the practice of the Kagyu teachings.

But alleviating the (illusory) suffering of (illusory) beings (including Muslims) is our very path to Enlightenment.

May all beings realise the self-illuminating awareness that is beyond all conception.

With very best wishes in the Dharma,


> Hi again Karma Dungyu:
> I think that anyone should have the possibility to be free. I
> suppose that such an utopic system should be based upon a perfect
> balance between what each individual does or does not do. That is
> what I mean with the need for intelligence. So there is indeed a
> moral dilemma here, as you point out, and others discussed: what
> should be done when we run into unfavorable situations? (BTW I find
> it very interesting that you had no trouble with your practice while
> living in a Muslim country, were you open about it? could you invite
> friends home to show them your Tangkas or statues or pictures?...).
> The most important thing of course is that we practice. That keeps
> us a bit detatched from personal viewpoints and a bit of clarity
> arises. What if we would be persecuted for doing this? I think it
> would be useful to at least try to keep this freedom we have here.
> With all of this I am not advocating any kind of violence, nor am I
> chastizing anybody else's lifestyle, opinons, or culture, as long as
> I am allowed to. But I also see a necessity to take a stand when
> this freedom to grow is in danger. I don't mean to take a machine
> gun, but just to try to do what we are doing here. To think
> independently, to be aware, to try to be useful.
> In other words, I don't think that we should just disappear into
> some cave out of the way and let samsara go on its own. Stop the
> world, I want to get off. That would be more in the style of
> Hinayana practitioners. Most of us here gave the Bodhisattva promise
> and would just *have* to do something when need and opportunity
> arise to be useful to other beings. It's a commitment don't you
> think? Totally beyond personal opinions and views.
> What is your view on this subject? It is clear that we should avoid
> the 10 negative actions, what is the correct action when others
> enforce the view that the 10 negative actions are actually virtues?
> Most modern societies would consider such views as criminal and
> would strive to prevent actions based on such criminal views. Should
> Buddhists just go on with their mani chant when society is shifting
> this attitude around in dangerous ways. Soon European contries may
> begin to allow the enforcing of the religious laws, there is talk
> already in Canada. I don't have an answer that makes me completely
> happy, do you? Honestly, I am asking.
> ---*****

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