“The art of blessing,” says poet Marge Piercy is ‘compressing attention to each little and big blossom of the tree of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit, its savor, its aroma and its use.’ This language connects us heart to heart within the tapestry of humanity and this beloved earth.
I’ve been listening and experiencing some of the charged conversations lately around town politics, the school vote, town meeting, and for me more personally, conversations about undocumented workers with prison staff and other folks who strongly disagree with me. And it seems that to be engaged in the world these days, to live our values, something more is needed if we are to serve and keep our best selves intact. I just read a transcript of a conversation between Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hahn, or Ty as he is commonly known and his fellow peace activist and Jesuit priest Dan Berrigan from the 1970’s while the Vietnam War raged. Ty says to Dan “it is a very difficult thing to be a human being” And Dan, just released from serving time in prison for burning draft records, agrees and says “to be conscious today in some way means sharing in the feeling of being in exile.” Ty adds- “yes, when you decide to do something to become yourself, when your thinking and your aspiration become one, you will feel the least like a stranger, and also the most alone.
I take this to mean that to be fully you invites a sense of exile, a choice that feels like you are leaving one home in search of another. Zen Master Karlfried Graf Dürckheim born in 1896 wrote in his book, The Way of Transformation “The man, who, being really on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and comfort and encourages his old self to survive. Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it. Only to the extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring.”
That which is indestructible within is what the Buddha called our Brahmavihara, our most noble home were the four most beautiful and hopeful aspects of our human nature dwell.
-our loving kindness, our deep sense of connection to others,
-our compassion, this ability to abide with pain,
-equanimity or balance even in the midst of it all,
-and the ability to experience another’s joy. Qualities we discover within when we chose to transform what is most difficult with in us. We can open to this or we can run from it, but this awakening is a necessary waypoint on the spiritual journey. A waypoint that sooner or later will bring us to cross roads and the choice will lie before us, to retreat in the illusion of our separateness, or leave what we have known and awaken to our interdependence. Robert Frost describes the choice this way
“Two roads diverge in the yellow woods, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler. Long I stood and looked down one as far as I could where it bent in the undergrowth. Then took the other and just as fare and having perhaps the better claim because it was grassy and wanted wear, though the passing there had worn them just about the same. And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
What would it mean to us, to you, and the world to seek and celebrate this view and choose to take the road that wanted wear? How do we faithfully and inexorably help ourselves and each other so that together we may take this risk, face the difficultness and pass through it courageously? American Buddhist Teacher, Pema Chodron, in her talk “Don’t Bite The Hook,” says the key thing is to use difficult situations of everyday life to wake our compassion rather than buy into polarization. In true Buddhist fashion, she lays it out in three steps. Number one, stay with the pain, develop a revolutionary non- violent practice of patience until you feel tender and loving, free from any bias fueled by fear and anger. I don’t know about you but staying in pain is the number one thing I like to avoid, so patience is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I was taught to repress my anger, I think that is a cultural thing at least in the Midwest, so my challenge was to learn all the clever and logical ways I expressed it, and then to see the damage my veiled anger caused.
I remember at my first Buddhist retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre a few years ago Sharon Salzburg said, “Anger burns down all of your house in an instant. Her words echo Shanti deva, an 8thC Indian monk who became famous those years ago for his teachings about patience. Shanti devas said “Good works gathered in a thousand ages, such as deeds of generosity or offerings to the blissful ones, a single flash of anger shatters them.” Who wants to hear that one moment of anger shatters all that is most precious to you? My mom was known for her flashes of anger especially in those moments she was compelled to make a stand against sexism, in her marriage, in her work. I grew up thinking anger was an expression of empowerment. After I learned to see my anger, I had to learn not to justify it. Think of your relationships, do you remember a moment when you got angry, and how it took years and months to build back the trust? And do you still sometimes get nervous it will happen again? For a while fear and my anger were so mixed up I couldn’t see one for the other. But now I check in with my anger everyday, especially in my gut, the place it starts to register. I don’t catch it all though, sometimes sadness at a loss in a certain quality, or closeness in a relationship is a clue that aggression slipped undetected into my words and actions. Shanti devas says that anger is our sorrow bearing enemy. Be vigilant about listening for your anger, checking in every day to sit with its restless energy, and not escalate it with a story line, until you understand what you desire. You may find it’s an old habit. It’s amazing how contagious this small act of peace making can be.
Step number two says Pema Chodron is too see how complex the emotional landscape really is. Usually we are reacting to either not getting what we want or getting what we don’t want. Get to know the source of charge behind your anger says Pema then you will be able to truly see the complexity of the person challenging you. Stay open and curious until you get to a place where you can hold their different opinions and needs without the emotional charge. Shanti deva tells us “There is nothing that does not grow light through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares, I train myself to put up with great adversity.” In other words, we can practice on the little things. I love this teaching. Let me just say it again, its worth memorizing. “There is nothing that does not grow light through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares, I train myself to put
up with great adversity.” I taped this quote on my car dashboard to remind myself not to beep my horn when someone beeps at me. Usually the first beep I can sit through, and I get all proud at my equanimity, but the second one, I let it rip. My charged energy is always checked by the horn on my van, which in its age can only hit the highest note of what use to be its robust range. I always laugh when I hear my (high) beep as a response to the other cars (deep) BEEP. I am sure all of this has nothing to do with my driving. When I think about this habit to “Beep back” I realize it comes from childhood years with my twin, something we in the present have for the most part outgrown.
When you think of it life is rich with moments we can train by. Traffic jams, someone too tall sits in front of us at the movie theatre, we go to a favorite restaurant and its closed, or we get a middle seat in an airplane. What moments do you use to practice? Pema calls all this “Bourgeois Suffering,” ways we can just sit with our impulses of aggression until we free ourselves from habits that make us miserable. The beautiful thing is that when we do this, we start remembering more and more pleasant moments, and we are touched more by the world. We come to know the warm and spacious qualities of patience.
Which brings us to step three of the practice of patience. We start to feel the pain of others and want the same spaciousness and peace for them. Pema again quotes Shanti deva “I come to realize if I repay harm for harm, others will not be helped, nor will I,” which means that when we are patiently present in the face of another’s aggression, we burn up the karmic seeds of aggression planted over our lifetime and maybe even that of our parents, and with that sense of freedom we feel compassion for the other person, a tenderness because we know the pain they are perpetuating for themselves.
I had a chance to practice with this recently when I read the reader’s comments on the recent Boston Herald article about my decision to sponsor an El Salvadoran mother who is seeking asylum. All the comments seemed to be projections of the commenters own misery and I felt compassion. I was challenged the most by the bald man who made fun of my haircut. I almost responded to that one-but I didn’t.
There is a key moment, says Pema Chodron, when we make the choice between peace and conflict. When we chose to stay with our pain, see the complexity in each situation, and feel the pain of another. A choice, that can feel like exile unless we have each other to walk the path with, to help us risk all for all, and to share the moments we find ourselves blissfully in our most supreme home of acceptance, compassion, equanimity and joy. Karlfried Graf Dürckheim describes what this was like for him. “Suddenly it happened! I was listening and lightning went through me. The veil was torn asunder. I was awake! I had just experienced ‘It’. Everything existed and nothing existed…I knew I was linked once and for all to the circuits of True Life.” Our awakening to our soul deep interconnectedness may or may not be so dramatic. I have had moments, but they feel to brief and complex to put into words. They always take me by surprise. I find hope in the words Ty wrote in our reading, that we can see “Buddha in all places, his light reaches in all directions, his understanding in all happenings, his love in mountains and rivers.” I find hope in the reality “that this love is unconditional, absolute, present in all moments, waiting for us to know this, to truly feel it within. When we do all our afflictions vanish and the precious lotus within is blooming on the throne of awakening.” But as the Buddha said, “don’t take my word for it ‘, discover this for yourself, for you have the capability of being a Buddha. Let us practice together, and chose the road less traveled, celebrating in our shared sense of exile. Maybe sometime today, tomorrow or “ages, and ages” hence you, me, us, and those to follow will know this choice has made all the difference. I am so grateful to be walking this way with you.