Flavor #1: All Things are Impermanent.
All things inevitably vanish, like dewdrops evaporating in the morning sun; however, while intellectually we may accept this, in our daily lives we ignore the stark fact that not just our relationships and possessions, but also our bodies and minds, are hurtling inexorably towards destruction. Let’s say my lover presents me with a magenta orchid in a delicate porcelain bowl. I perceive this orchid as having permanence, but soon it begins to wilt and then it dies. And it is this same wrong feeling of permanence that we humans attribute to all parts of our lives and which causes us to suffer. For instance, I may believe that my marriage will last forever, and when divorce or death loom, I react with fear, disbelief and anger. Or I may be sure that my home will stay mine forever; then a financial crisis prevents me from paying the mortgage, and the bank repossesses it. Had I trained myself to see all things as transient, I could apply a major antidote to all the pains of mundane living— for the bald truth is that the orchid, home and spouse are but flashes on an infinite timeline, comets streaking across the screen of my life.
So the invisible machinery of karma is busily at work, giving and taking according to immutable laws about which we ordinary humans don’t have a clue. The good news is that if I practice seeing all things as impermanent, and digest the truth that I don’t really own a thing, I’m bound to experience increasing freedom and peace.
Flavor #2: You Don’t Own A Damned Thing
Most of us live with the feeling that we own our lives. But do we truly control destiny? Take my home in the hills, I bought it with an inheritance from grandma and really believed I owned it, but that didn’t stop the bank from stealing it away from me, did it? If I accept that I don’t control the destiny of my possessions, then I must admit that I don’t even own my relationships or even my own body and mind. If I did, I could stay young forever and be ecstatic all the time.
Why do even those who intellectually accept impermanence and the lack of ownership still get upset when they face loss? Because there’s a killer gap between what we can accept and the corresponding lag in our emotions. As we close this gap through personal practice, our suffering decreases. Master the art of accepting impermanence and the lack of ownership, and you turn into a really cool customer. Tragedy could strike, and while not discounting the initial shock factor, you’d soon learn to say, yes, of course, that’s the nature of relative reality: Everything is impermanent and I don’t really own a damned thing, so let’s get a move on.
Flavor #3: Nothing Happens by Accident.
Mahamudra claims that nothing that happens is an accident. Say I stop for petrol in a quiet Himalayan town and bump into a pal I haven’t seen since high school. Not an accident—my friend was brought there by certain karmic energies, and so was I. This is a particularly important view to cultivate when we encounter tragedy—because it’s when things go drastically “wrong” that we go nuts. Accepting that a horrid experience is the result of our own past karma, and that we are in effect creating our own experience of reality by how we think, speak and act, can make all the difference to how we transcend the negative effects of hard times. Practiced with understanding, all these flavors can help ground us in the reality of what is.
Flavor #4: Our Judgments are Mere Constructs.
Who decides that a scallion should be called a scallion? We do. The problem is that humans forget that labels are merely mutually accepted constructs. Say a professor you admired stated that communism is the ideal state of government for everybody—and you believed him! Years later, the failure of communism-in-practice forces you to accept that his statement was a personal construct that does not universally apply. The truth is that whether we perceive an anorexic supermodel as the most beautiful creature on the planet, or as aesthetically repellent, is, in the end, merely a personal construct.
Mahamudra slowly begins to strip away our justifications for seeing as we do: first, we stop thinking that things last forever; second, we stop thinking that we control the destinies of our assets or our relationships; third, we stop thinking of things as accidents. And fourth, we stop thinking that our judgments are right. As you can imagine, if everyone practiced these four flavors, the conflict that flares up not just in our personal lives, but between castes, classes, races and nations, would dissolve into thin air.
Flavor #5: Transforming Problems
If a great chef and a lousy cook are given the exact same ingredients and asked to prepare a meal, chances are the chef would produce a feast, while the novice would offer up a mess. Well, Mahamudra says that the circumstances of our own life are like those ingredients—what we have on our plates is the result of our own past karma; what we do with them depends on our skill as chefs.
Flavor #6: Our Personal Karma Creates our Reality.
According to Mahamudra, everything that happens in our lives is the result of past karma. Long ago in a monastery in Dharamsala, a group of us listened to a high lama speaking on the nature of relative reality. “Everything you experience is only the result of your past thought, speech and action,” he pronounced. “You are the only one responsible for your happiness and your suffering.” We’d all heard this before, but this time it had terrific impact. A German lady sitting under a whirring fan raised her hand. “Are you saying that every little thing we experience is the result of our past karma?” He nodded. “Right,” he said. “Even the breath of that fan on your cheek is the result of your past karma. But keep in mind that while you cannot manipulate your current experience of reality, you can create a magnificent future by learning to think, speak and act positively.”
So these are the six flavors of samsara in a nutshell. And bizarrely enough, soon after I’d digested them, Angelica fought with me as we rode the subway back home from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights and I was shocked by her ferocity.
Flavor #7: Inherent Imperfection
Shaken, I rode the elevator to my apartment. The thought flashed that here was a perfect opportunity to see whether Mahamudra worked. So I sat in lotus position before my altar and watched the flow of my breath until I felt calmer. Then I pulled up the embarrassing scene in the subway. Other passengers had watched Angelica go nuts: some had smirked; some had shot us looks of irritation. Holding this scene in the foreground of my mind, I applied to it each of the six flavors of Emptiness. Tears welled up as I re-lived the humiliating experience, but when I was done, I felt peaceful and grounded. Surely Angelica’s outburst had been the result of some inexpressible agony. Compassion for her arose and I knew that Mahamudra did work!
A couple days later, Angelica called to apologize: she’d cracked up on the subway, she explained, because the following day was Mother’s Day and she’d dreaded spending it with the woman who’d battered her for years. Unable to deal with her volcanic feelings, she’d vented on me. Could I forgive her? It gave me a real kick to tell her that, thanks to Mahamudra, I already had.
Now that I was further convinced of the power of Mahamudra, instead of running away from pain, I began to apply the six flavors to difficult situations and people. As I grew stronger in the practice, I began to teach it to friends. One fine day I added another flavor to my own practice—that samsara is inherently imperfect. This conclusion had leaped out at me while practicing the other six—for beneath my suffering I found lurking the insidious expectation that my life should be perfect. If we are already perfect in our essence—which is the liberating teaching of the East—and if we incarnate for some mysterious reason, then it follows that the identity we form, as well as the circumstances into which we are thrust, must be imperfect in order for us to grow. Today I accept that some inscrutable power has designed all of life to be deliberately imperfect—and that’s a thought which restores me to peace.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to help us strip away the unreal from the real, so we can rest in the peace and bliss of our immortal Self!