“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief…” – The Talmud
The words of The Talmud and the words of my dear friend I shared with you in my last meditation, “We are not to be absorbed by the suffering of the world…,” continue to dominate my thoughts and experience these days. When I add Chardin’s words which point to our true identity: “You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” – This is where I must always continue my journey in this temporary existence we call “life”.
What does it mean to “not be daunted” or “to not be absorbed”? Given the horror of global current events and its consequences, the uncertainty about the future which dominates all our lives, the reality of a way-of-life we all were told was a “dream” only to discover it’s really a nightmare; is it at all possible to practice these two essential teachings? And when I move from out there to right here in Shamong, NJ and even closer to home in my own heart and mind, “What’s a Monk to do?” “What can anyone do?”
“In the Buddhist tradition, the purpose of taking refuge is to awaken from confusion and associate oneself with wakefulness. Taking refuge is a matter of commitment and acceptance and, at the same time, of openness and freedom. By taking the refuge vow we commit ourselves to freedom.” – Chogyam Trungpa
Fundamental to Buddhist Spirituality is the practice of “taking refuge”. When I find myself in times of trouble, in times of uncertainty, in times of pain, what is my reaction, where do I turn?
We are most certainly living in troubled times marked by uncertainty and dominated by what Buddhist call The Three Poisons of life – Greed, Anger or Resentment, and Indifference. Many of us, myself included, often find ourselves stressed by the news of current events and the unknown about where we are headed both as a species and a country. The historical resources we have relied on in the past to support us by providing unbiased and well informed, fact-based information, continue to disappoint us. We are bombarded everyday not with information designed to inform and empower, but rather biased opinions and propaganda of a few whose agenda is exclusively a personal self-serving one. Even when we turn to our neighbors and friends we can find ourselves more frustrated and frighten of the future when our conversation is rooted in fear and distrust rather than hope and vision.
“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds…Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.” ― Thomas Merton
I recall watching a documentary on Japan, one of the scenes a fisherman was being interviewed. The fisherman happened to be a Buddhist. The interviewer asked if he believed in God. He replied, “When you are in the deepest parts of the ocean where the waves are 40 feet tall crashing against your boat, and you fear being throne off the boat while pulling in your nets, you can be sure I believe in God.” Life is difficult these days for all of us, myself included. There seems to be so much uncertainty about the future, our trusts violated, our beliefs challenged, and our very existence increasingly threatened by failure to be good stewards of this beautiful planet we all live on. So many families threatened daily by mental diseases stealing precious time away from them and money they don’t have. War continues and seems like it will never end. Extreme poverty continues to visit so many people here at home and around the world. But worst of all, polarization continues to push so many of us away from each other when we should be moving towards each other.
“Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
You and I are designed for relationship, we are born to be “in relationship” with everyone and everything else. The purpose of life, and if we are ever going to find any meaning, is found in relationship, living my life as a benefit for others. “Community is the Spirit, the Guiding Light…” which when lived functions as a compass, a means of navigating through a reality marked by impermanence and uncertainty. Thomas Merton wrote, “It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but for others. When we do this we will be able first of all to face and accept our own limitations. As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be ‘as gods’. We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.”
Community is not just some nice sentimental idea or romantic notion but a force for fulfillment and sustainability. It is a context which naturally creates confidence, courage, true self-esteem, contentment, and love as the content of our lives. Community is the only conducive environment for personal and global fulfillment and spiritual practice.
Enlightenment, is to live one’s life at the level of full self-expression. The work of “being spiritual” is to discover who I am and realize my true self. The first step toward Enlightenment begins with the realization that, “Who I think I am is not” that the self I call “myself” is conditional or what Buddhist call “the conditioned self” and is not my “true self”. This self is who I have come to identify with after years of cultural, social, religious and political conditioning, including the most unyielding of all false identifications, identification with my parents. My happiness as well as my emotional and psychological maturity and well-being is dependent on distinguishing between this self I call myself which is conditional, and who I truly am. Our hearts will remain restless until we do.
In his book, “The Book of Awakening” Mark Nepo quotes Parker J. Palmer who writes, “The spiritual life is about becoming more at home in your own skin.” Nepo says, “The aim of all spiritual paths, no matter their origin or the rigors of their practice, is to help us live more fully in the lives we are given.” This is contrary to most contemporary spiritual approaches which are too often rooted in emotional greed, resentment, or what Chogyam Trungpa called, “Spiritual Materialism”.
There is another saying older than Palmers, “When the student is ready the teacher appears.” Here the reference to the “teacher” may or may not necessarily be a person. We are to understand that, “Life” as it is showing up in our lives and in the world is “the teacher”. As a young Catholic I remember the Sisters and Priests often saying, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” If both sayings are true, and I believe they are, then the only matter left is whether or not the student is going to attend class.
“We say Buddha Nature pervades the entire Universe or God is Omniscient, Everywhere. Therefore we cannot say, “Not now” or “Not here.” For wherever we are there is Buddha or God. In Zen we do not look for Buddha or God outside ourselves, they are within us. We are the gateway. Everywhere we are is The Pure Land, the Kingdom of God. What are you waiting for? If not now, when?”
– Seijaku Roshi
I often say that in our modern world, “A persons word is equal to their excuses.” It would also follow that, “A persons potential is equal to their excuses.” This would include our potential for real changes in our lives which would result in ending our pursuit of and search for what is and always has been with us, and finally enjoying our birthright — joy, contentment, and love. The only thing that prevents us from “here and now” is our deluded perceptions of “when and where”.
On April 15, 2013 Americans and the world once again witnessed the very worst in humanity and the very best, when fellow human beings chose to bring tragedy to the lives of Bostonians, while other fellow human beings chose to bring love.
Each of us must wonder, “Is this ever going to end?” As a parent I wonder, “Is this my daughters future?” Is this part of humanity to become so common place that we will become so accepting that not only will it never end, but so much of the “best of humanity” may be weakened by it or worst jaded.
For now I believe that any hope for the future lies in the past, in history as proven in this account of another time the world witnessed the very worst and the very best…”We who lived in concentration camps can remember those who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a person but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl