Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden
A wisdom teaching at The Rothko Chapel, Houston
June 29, 2014
At some point in this long, troubling year, I started pulling up into the school driveway to pick up my daughter after school, ending a two-year banishment to the street a block away, where my instructions were to sit in the car don’t get out don’t wave don’t talk just wait for me. What changed? Her various complaints and entreaties, the weeks on crutches, a friend’s betrayal, her math teacher’s dismissal, the weight of her backpack, the heat, the stress fracture in her left navicular, or maybe just the compounded angst of an emotional eighth-grader and her overwrought mother.
Most days found me idling in line with the parents who arrive twenty minutes early for the 2:30 bell. That’s when I started to see them, the special kids.
The special kids get out of school ten minutes early to board the special bus before the crush of the four hundred others. At first, I was reluctant to look, really look at them, seeing the slow-moving pack of kids and attendants only as a sign of my daughter’s imminent appearance. But I did start to see them and even knew them in a way. I knew who would be talking to themselves, head nodding, arms waving, running ahead or lingering behind, and who would be tugged by the hand or nudged roughly ahead with each shuffling step.
Every day I saw the boy with the bandana. I began, in fact, to look for him. He never missed. He was short, at least a foot shorter than either the girls or the boys so that he looked like a young child with a broad forehead, drooping mouth and thick glasses. His back was hunched and both feet turned out by forty-five degrees. He pulled a wheeled backpack behind him, and with a rolling totter on the inner edge of his shoes, he passed out of sight.
The bandana tied around his neck looked sporty, I thought, and he was always smiling. I wanted to believe that he was always smiling, that he was happy and proud, with friends and classmates, toting a backpack full of books and a sense of belonging. Then one day I realized what the bandana, gathered under his chin like a mop, must be for. It wasn’t sport. I saw him for real then, and I thought about his parents. Chastened, I wondered why the hell I thought I had any problems.
School will be over next week. My daughter and I will leave all of this year’s worry and stress behind. She will have a fresh start and new friends. Both of us are ready for that. But there is someone I will never be able to say goodbye to, the one I’ve never even said hello to, the boy in the bandana, being shoved to the bus and leaving me behind with nothing to wipe the tears.
Or, what a buddha does not say.
An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgments,
Watches and understands.
— The Dhammapada
Why would a Buddhist have to think twice about lying? Admittedly, lying is disagreeable. If we don’t agree on that, there’s no sense having a conversation about honesty. “Right speech” is codified into the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s teaching on the way out of suffering. It’s there in black and white: “Don’t lie.”
Only it’s not black and white and it’s doesn’t say that. The “right” in right speech (and each element of the path) does not mean the opposite of “wrong.” It is not a dualistic comparison. Right speech is whole, perfected, wise, skillful, appropriate, necessary, and non-divisive. That’s a lot of words to describe the language that arises out of the nondistracted awareness of your awakened mind, free of judgments about this or that, right and wrong, if and when, you and me. That’s why right speech is so often expressed by silence.
The Abhaya Sutra categorizes what a buddha does not say:
1. Words known to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others.
2. Words known to be factual, true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others.
3. Words known to be factual, true, beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, because it is not yet the proper time to say them.
4. Words known to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.
5. Words known to be factual, true, but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.
Right speech is not only a lesson in how to speak. It is an admonition to practice: to watch and wait until the mind opens and intuitive wisdom finds its own compassionate expression. In the real world, abstract discussion about honesty doesn’t go far enough, because living beings are not abstractions. That’s the most inconvenient truth of all.
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things.
— Tao Te Ching
Excerpted from my review of Sam Harris’s book Lying in the March 2014 Shambhala Sun on newsstands now.
Years ago when I was doing one of my first internet interviews the host said something that caught me off guard. She said, “Isn’t it hard for you to live in a place like that?”
I couldn’t fathom her meaning. It’s not hard to live in Los Angeles — a beautiful place with nearly perfect year-round weather, where you can go outside any day under a blue sky and climb a mountain, see the ocean, and gather fruit from the trees in your own yard.
But she didn’t mean that. What she wondered was whether it was hard for someone like me to live in a place with people who weren’t like me. A place known for its vanity and pretense, empty dreams and false promises, shallowness, selfishness, fear, lies, and addictions.
In other words, a place like everywhere with people like everyone.
“All I see is suffering,” I answered.
I’m remembering that conversation because Thursday is the day we adorn the table and feel blessed, fed, loved, warm and secure — or at least pretend that we are — among the people who might be the hardest to live with: our own families.
What will you see at your table? And more to the point, whom will you serve?
I’d just posted this list over on Facebook and here it was, playing out in real life. As I slowed at the light, I rolled down the window, knowing there was fresh green in my wallet.
In the car with me were three middle-schoolers and another mother. I passed the dollar out the window, and in that opening, he took the opportunity to look me in the face and explain himself. He wasn’t going to be here long, he said, but he’d lost his driver’s license and he when he got it back he was going to drive somewhere and work. It spilled out quickly, so long held, the awful jam he was in.
“Do you need a blanket?” the other mother offered from the passenger seat. We’d had fall’s first cold spell the night before. I wasn’t sure why she had spoken. Was this her gift?
“Sure,” he answered. “Do you have one?”
There was no blanket, just the idea of a blanket, and that doesn’t cover it.
“Now we have to bring him a blanket,” her daughter commented from the back.
“If I bring you a blanket will you still be here?” The mother folded up what had gotten out of hand.
“I’ll wait,” the man said. And the light turned green.
There they were in full-length habit, an unlikely sight on a Sunday morning hiking Mt. Wilson. Out of the blue, three nuns rounded the switchback straight ahead of me. They were coming down; I was heading up. No matter how promising the skies at the start of the trip, the southern trail descends into a merciless sun. They had to be broiling by now.
These suburban mountains lure all sorts of pilgrims on weekends—mostly first-timers, families, and well-meaning health-seekers who are ill-equipped for the incline. One minute you’re strolling in the park and the next you’re crawling up an unforgiving peak. It’s a lot like life: the path is steep. That’s why I’d found refuge in my practice as a Zen Buddhist priest. Zen teaches you to take each moment, like each step, one at a time.
This morning my step was heavy. I’d taken to the hills after an angry talk with my teenager and a tiff with my husband. I was still steaming as I stopped and stood to the side of the narrow path, letting the first two sisters pass.
They were talking and barely took notice, but the third was falling behind and as she approached she said, “So much farther to go.”
“Always farther to go,” I said, and then, struck by the words, went a little further, asking where she was from.
“From the Motherhouse in Alhambra,” she said, taking a card from a rubber-banded batch in her hand and holding it out to me. A meeting on a mountain is not without purpose, and she had come prepared to save someone’s life. Despite our religious differences, maybe that someone was me. I ventured another step.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Sister Imelda, like Imelda Marcos. Except I don’t collect as many shoes, but more souls.”
We both laughed, and my burden lifted. Two souls meet on a mountain, and although they come from different sides, they close the distance one step at a time.
I am concerned that in the process of making a business out of all this your sense of compassion is going out the window. I do not see a person in tune with others’ suffering. I see a lack of humility.
This is the kind of correction that can knock you back a bit when it appears in your inbox. I suppose I don’t get much criticism, all things considered. I’m sure it can’t compare to the uninvited trouble foisted onto the rich and famous—but even a near-miss can level you, make you stagger and tumble onto the rocks where you scuff your knees and pick the scabs for a good while after.
He thinks this is a business?
That’s when you might see that the unwelcome blow was in fact an act of compassion. Why? Because it stops you. It interrupts your monologue. It commands your attention. And if you feel unjustly injured, you can take a good look at where that injury comes from, where it resides, and what sustains it.
Only the thoughts in my head.
Anything that interferes with the flow of thoughts in your head is compassionate. Why? Because what we think isn’t real. It is delusion. More than delusion, it is death. And that’s how we live most of the time—as if dead—arguing, defending, judging and debating with ourselves, by ourselves, and then projecting our upsets onto the real world. The internet seems to make this projection easier and even painless. It’s so easy to sound smart and clever, raw and biting, in a comment box. It’s so easy to argue, attack, and rebut. But it’s hard to stop.
All this digital carrying-on while we might not even pause to say hello to a single real, live person we pass on the street today.
Real compassion requires that you go out the window.
There is a part of the message that would have been laughable if I’d been of a mind to laugh: the “business” part. This isn’t a business. I don’t ask you for money. There is no enterprise here. I’ve dressed up the joint, but behind the curtain I’m just an old, poor, woman. By old I mean I turn 57 on Thursday. By poor I mean I don’t earn any money. The amount I’m paid to write a book every four years falls beneath the one-person poverty line. I write to myself and for myself, and if you encounter it, it is free or next-to-free for the taking. And by all means, be compassionate with yourself and discard whatever I say if it doesn’t make sense to you. Suffering is voluntary. You can opt out at anytime.
Compassion is a stick.
In the Zen tradition, there is something called a “waking stick.” It is a long, flat wooden stick used during meditation periods of long retreats. A monitor walks behind the backs of meditators, stick in hand, totally alert and watching for people who place their palms together and bow slightly, which is the gesture that means, “hit me.” Ask to be hit? Would anyone ever ask to be hit? If the business at hand is waking up, and you are cramped, sleepy, bored, or in pain, yes, you might ask for the stick. The monitor wields it swiftly, delivering a jolt of energy to the soft pad of muscles between the shoulders. It hurts! But you wake up, the pain dissipates, and then you realize, “That jerk saved my life.”
The stick is called the stick of compassion. It comes only when you ask for it.
The business of a buddha.
This is not a business, but there is a business here, and it is the only business worth pursuing. Compassion is the business of a buddha. A buddha’s work is to wake up. I’m here because I have more work to do. I always have more work to do. I offer this commentary as proof of how much work I’ve yet to do.
Good advice from a good friend.
That’s what I wrote back to the guy. And it’s true. But the real correction is what comes after.
Don’t make anything more out of it.
Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
Of all the things I could share, what matters is that you are not alone, and I will never judge you.
All things pass but not all pass gracefully. Years ago I found myself easily, impossibly, pregnant. I was not alone, but I was unmarried. It was the year that what I thought was true love had come and then spun around and left. It had not yet left on the day suspicion overcame doubt and I mouthed the most shocking of certainties when I came out of the bathroom with the telltale pink strip. He had smiled. To me, he looked boyish. This had happened to him before, but it had never happened to me. I felt suddenly and totally on my own.
I’ll support you in whatever you decide to do, he said.
Encouragement had never sounded so feeble, not that I was listening. Before my belly had bloated into the slightest round I had turned against it, mean and quick, making furtive calls to a yellow-page ad answered by a receptionist who counseled, Honey, you have to wait at least six weeks. When that day came, I drove myself to the clinic and back to work, making false excuses but taking no blame, making no apologies, seeking no comfort and giving none in return. It was August 27. And I had thought then, too, that I had my life back again, in charge, in control, to do all the right things in my own time and my own way. Then everything else happened instead, because things are never what you think.
We make of our life what we must, and we learn from it. But we do not judge, because we are always doing our best, and no matter what, it hurts. I hope this helps someone.
In much of the country today it is really hot, and anything helps.
I’m usually in the center lane when I stop at this light, ready to shoot straight through the intersection on green.
Most days there is someone or another on the corner with a sign. I don’t always turn my head, but today I knew I had a dollar in my purse.
He was old – probably not as old as he looked. It was sunny today, hot. He was sunburned and dirty. I rolled down the window and he came right over.
Thank you, bless you, he said, his face crumpled.
Thank you, sir, I answered, and rolled the window back up.
When the light turned he was back on the corner, waving at me. I waved back.
He blew a kiss and cupped his hand to his heart. I saw the sign then. It read, “Anything helps.”
Anything helps. How true, how kind, how wise. For a dollar.
How can we live fearlessly?
With more freedom, kindness, joy and compassion?
By living differently.
1. Blame no one.
2. Take no offense.
4. Do not compare.
5. Wash your face and leave it bare.
6. Forget about your hair.
7. Grow old.
8. Have no answers.
9. Seek nothing.
10. Go back to 1.
Last weekend I gave a dharma talk in Kansas City based on this list. You can download a recording of the talk by clicking here. (Be patient; the podcast takes several minutes to load and 38 minutes to listen in full.)
Nowadays I spend most of my time sitting in a chair pounding into a keyboard. It’s long and silent work, and I lose myself in it, but I know where to go for a kick of adrenaline. I click over to a social media site where I’ll find a new skirmish gathering speed, inciting the community’s opinion, anger, and rebuke. I understand why we do that—I, too, can be self-righteous—but I am battle fatigued. The world cries for compassion. It craves acceptance and belonging. It needs our attention, a kind word, a smile, a wave, a handshake, or a hug. Are we against everything? Angry at everyone? Sometimes it seems the only thing we’ll speak up for is a fight.
I push back from the fray and step out into the garden where the leaves rustle and bend in gentle rhythm with the wind. The air is fresh. The sky is blue. It’s an amazing place we live in when we’re not at odds with it. Who can contain the love that this one life brings with it? It is boundless.
On the street outside the gate, a woman walks a dog. I’ve glimpsed them nearly every day for what must be years. Her dog is old and the woman goes slow, the two now inseparable on the steepest part of the hill.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I say.
“It sure is.”
Someone once asked Maezumi Roshi why he practiced.
“To make my heart tender.”
– from Paradise in Plain Sight, coming next spring.
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.
Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. This single phrase is the summation of the Buddhist path, the culminating insight of the Way. But having uttered it, I’ve already strayed from it. Having read it, you’ve missed it, because now your mind is running amok trying to understand it, and here I am trying to chase after you. So let’s come back together in one big, empty place, and start over.
What looks solid is not solid; what has no shape comes in all shapes. In a physical sense, bamboo is strong because it is hollow. It is supple and resilient; it bends without breaking. It supports incredible weight. It grows unimpeded by any known barrier, spreading outward everywhere. This is true of you, too. Where do you think you begin and end? Your feet? Your head? Your skin? Your eyes, nose, mouth, ears? Your thoughts, memory, feelings? The way we limit ourselves imposes a bunker mentality and defies scientific reality.
It helps to remember what you took on faith in fourth grade science. All matter is composed of atoms. Atoms are mostly empty space. By definition you can’t see emptiness, but you can be it. Now, to live and let live in emptiness. That’s the secret to paradise.
First, be quiet. Give away your ideas, self-certainty, judgments, and opinions. Let go of defenses and offenses. Face your critics. They will always outnumber you.
Lose all wars. All wars are lost to begin with. Abandon your authority and entitlements. Release your self-image: status, power, whatever you think gives you clout. It doesn’t, not really. That’s a lie you’ve never believed.
Give up your seat. Be what you are: unguarded, unprepared, unequipped and surrounded on all sides. Alone, you are a victim of no one and nothing.
What appears in front of you is your liberation. That is, unless you judge it. Then you imprison yourself again.
Now that you are free, see where you are. Observe what is needed. Do good quietly. If it’s not done quietly, it’s not good.
Start over. Always start over.
I am crying every mother’s tears
waking in every mother’s night
deafened by the blasts
bleeding in the street
broken to the bone
I am not brave
I will not forget
every child leaves a mother
and the mother is me.
A prayer of compassion
A plea for peace
A word of truth
Kuan Yin in the bodhisattva of compassion. The name Kuan Yin is short for Kuan Shih Yin which means “Observing the Sounds of the World.”