Posts Tagged ‘Suffering’

beside still waters

March 15th, 2017    -    15 Comments

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He leadeth me beside the still waters:
he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake:
he restoreth my soul.

This is not quite how it goes. I know it is not quite how it goes. I don’t remember how it goes, but I mumble it anyway. It is the least and the most that I can do.

Standing by the bed in the ICU, the respirator inflating my father’s chest like a pipe organ, I leave aside the Buddhist incantations that I’ve memorized and whisper remnants of the old soul song. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This is a passage from Hand Wash Cold that I’ve been thinking about lately and a lot. Soon after my father died 10 years ago, I told my sisters that I would take his dog to live with me. That’s how the old girl ended up here, in a picture I took this morning.

On the far side of 15, she’s not quite on her last leg but clearly on her last three legs, as arthritis hobbles and sometimes topples her. I’ve pulled her from the pond twice. And yet she still wants to wander in and out, not hearing, perhaps not seeing, and not managing much of what she used to do so dependably. So I’m at her side most days, all day, watching for the wordless word she will give me, when we both know beyond knowing what time it is.

I’ve had a number of visitors to the garden lately, and the subject of nearly all these encounters has been life and death. Not surprising since it’s the only subject there is. Some people have seen the warning light of a crossroads ahead. Others are investigating how to be with the sick and dying. I always tell them not to make too much of the dying part, since it happens by itself and without us ever knowing quite how or when, but rather to work on the being part, since only when we know how to be can we be not afraid. Oh, to be not afraid. That is quite simply everything you can do for everyone.

I rattled around Amazon last week and picked up George Saunders’s new and brilliant novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It is wonderful in the most daring and difficult way, and I recommend it.

The author has imagined life in the graveyard, populated by grotesquely self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are dead. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to leave all suffering behind.

I can imagine life in a garden, populated by self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are alive. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to show goodness and mercy forever.

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walking to rite aid

March 7th, 2017    -    14 Comments

When Friday rolled around I didn’t much feel like doing anything special. Just about every day I haul myself to a certain place for yoga, or another place for a workout, or charge up my Fitbit and conjure up a route by which to “get in my steps.” But it seemed to me that I should just use my body in an everyday way and so I decided to walk to Rite Aid and pick up a refill that was ready. I didn’t know how far Rite Aid was from me but it was far enough that I had never been there without driving. So after a half day of doing regular Friday stuff I set off.

Before I’d even walked to the end of the block I’d noticed how much was going on in my neighborhood. Three folks were having new yards put in—yards without any grass and with a lot of wood chips and rock— and two more had already completed theirs. Driving by, I’d seen it all happen, but I hadn’t really taken it in, focused on getting somewhere. Because I know what even a small landscape re-do can cost in time and money it seemed to me that my own street was a pretty hopeful example of good citizenship. It’s now fairly common in California to rip out a lawn, given climate change and water rationing, but these new yards are more than a way to save on a utility bill. Each one is not only an investment in a single household’s water savings but also an investment in the whole world’s water supply. Everyone benefits when one person does the right thing.

After awhile I noticed that a lot of rain gutters need cleaning, including mine. It’s not so bad to feel as if you have something like a mucky gutter in common because it’s, well, common. There’s grace in realizing that we all have a responsibility to take care of something messy without blaming anyone else for the trouble.

When I’d made it about half a mile west, I turned south to head down the hill to the shopping center. I started thinking about the last time I had made a long walk sort of like this one, not just to mark off the distance but to get somewhere. It was during the summer when I was 15 and I had a woeful crush on a boy who would never like me, and I lived invisibly in a small tract house on the barren side of town while he was living large on the leafy side, and I set out one day in the 500 degree heat that is a peculiar feature of your North Texas anguish to walk the 3.5 miles in his general direction for no other reason than I thought he might drive by and see me, the only person out walking on the sidewalk anywhere in town. Or maybe it was that I might see him, because he was someone you couldn’t help but see, being a spoiled son of an airline pilot who had given him a yellow 1973 Jaguar XKE for his 16th birthday. I try to think of how that day went and I can’t remember anything except the long stretch of hot sidewalk along Finley Road because nothing at all happened. I just made the seven mile round trip without anyone ever knowing what I’d done or how sad and silly I was. This boy’s name was Pete but a long time later I learned that his real name was an old-fashioned one, after his dad, a name that would have killed a teenage boy to say out loud, and I only learned that fact from his obituary which I certainly wasn’t thinking I’d come across anytime soon, having a persistent sense of my own youth. Reading between the lines, he appeared to have died without a family or a home of his own, no job, no biography, in his early 50s, and I saw it as the sad end of a dissolute life, a long flight from fear and pain. But what the hell do I know? I didn’t even know his name.

Then I got to Rite Aid where I couldn’t give a dime to the guy sitting at the table outside the entrance because I didn’t have a cent, but I gave him a decent hello.

How long is the walk to Rite Aid and back? About 12,000 steps and 45 years.

Today I’m starting on the gutters.

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what I could have said

December 3rd, 2015    -    5 Comments

Stillness-1

Though I think not
To think about it,
I do think about it
And shed tears
Thinking about it.

—Ryokan

I could have said good morning.
Are you hungry?
Did you sleep okay?
Are you warm enough?
They say it might rain today.
You look happy.
Sounds like fun.
Sounds perfect.
Have a good time.
Enjoy yourself.
Love your shoes.
Love your hair.
Sure.
Relax.
Not a problem.
It will work out.
I wouldn’t worry if I were you.
You’re a hard worker.
You’re a good person.
You’ll figure it out.
You’ll do the right thing.
You can always change your mind.
I think you’ll do just fine.
It will be OK.
Take your time.
There’s no hurry.
I understand.
I trust you.
I love you.
I’m proud of you.
I’ll be here when you get home.

Because bad things really do happen to people we love, and we might wonder if we could have said something different.

 

not the story you wrote

September 27th, 2015    -    61 Comments

lista

A couple of weeks ago I saw one of those charity appeals scroll past on my Facebook feed. Someone was sick and needed help. I let it pass at first, and then it came back again. So I clicked on the link. It was for this fellow I’d never met, who lived across town, a Facebook friend who was always kind and—get this—encouraging. He’d been hit with a triple whammy on the health front: lymphoma, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. I hesitated before I signed up. My choices were to give money, make a meal, or ignore it altogether. His location wasn’t exactly convenient, so maybe money would suffice. Or I could drive a meal over. In the end, I decided that if I couldn’t do that little, my friendship wasn’t worth that much. So I put my name next to a date, cooked that morning, and showed up on his doorstep.

I apologized when I got there, because the food I brought didn’t even taste good. There were dietary restrictions to follow, and anything cooked without salt ends up tasting like wet cardboard. But it turned out we had a lot in common and had a nice visit. The meal I brought, and the meal he needed, wasn’t my tasteless stuff in the plastic containers. The meal was the company we shared. I told him I could drop by and hang out anytime, and I meant it.

The next day he learned that his lymphoma had progressed even further throughout his body. He was devastated.

This isn’t the ending you’d like for this story, is it? And yet, it’s the ending we all share.

There’s a New Age mantra that tells us if we own our story and reframe the story we can rewrite the story. We can turn down into up, failure to success, pain into promise, and fear into courage just by changing the way we talk to ourselves. It’s true up to a point, and it’s not a bad way to spend a few days if you find yourself in a career or lifestyle funk. But the suffering I see all around me is too real for that.

The other night I flipped open a Buddhist magazine and saw what are called the Buddha’s Five Remembrances. These are the remembrances that we spend our whole life trying to forget.

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

With every true thing staring me in the face, I stopped flipping through the pages.

***

The response American crowds gave to Pope Francis last week was not surprising. We are drawn to his being because we suffer deep ills that cannot be fixed by ego’s clever devices, wounds that cannot be healed by the shallow salve of American self-help. We need a real priest for real times. The times we’re in.

So here’s the purpose of this post: I’ve been handed two beautiful books that I’m going to give away to folks who are ready to read them. If you’re interested in winning either one or both, leave a comment on this post by this Saturday, Oct. 3. Let me tell you what you’re in for.

410mchq-dOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Taste of Silence: How I Came To Be at Home With Myself  by Bieke Vandekerckhove. This is the most profoundly brilliant book I’ve read in a long time, and it took me completely by surprise. When she was 19 and in college, the Belgian author was diagnosed with ALS and quickly became paralyzed from the pelvis up. Facing the certainty of approaching death, she took refuge in the silence of a Benedictine monastery and Zen practice. Remarkably, she experienced an unheard-of remission, and from her extreme forbearance came this small book of shining teachings. A week after I read this long-awaited English translation, I learned that Bieke had died after 27 years with the disease.

41HyRSSg4xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness by Toni Bernhard. Fourteen years ago, Toni was traveling in Paris when she fell ill with an acute virus. She never got better. She is still sick. Toni is no longer a law professor or college dean. She is instead a tireless author of books about the unavoidable presence of pain and the power of sickness. Her work is wonderfully honest, practical and wise, proof that living ill can be living well. From the midst of suffering, Toni is generous and clear. This book is a bountiful gift to caregivers too, so they can keep giving when they’ve given just about everything.

A taste of hard wisdom offered with love and delivered to your doorstep. If you could use the company, just tell me so.

how to be satisfied

May 19th, 2015    -    9 Comments

il_fullxfull-152079237One day in a Lutheran church in Texas, a miracle happened.

I had taken my baby daughter on a trip to see my mother, a trip carefully timed for one of the rare “good weeks” during a punishing course of chemotherapy. At seven months old, my daughter would be baptized. The faith was not my own; it was not my husband’s. All things considered, that mattered not one whit. The baptism was a gift. But it was not the miracle.

During the middle of the service, I took my restless girl into the church nursery. There, bobbling in the middle of the room was a contraption known to cognoscenti as a baby saucer. This was not the kind of thing that would ever land on my wish list. I thought they were hideous and huge, and I could not imagine giving up half of my living room to yet another baby thing, especially one combining all the crude amusements of a video arcade: garish colors, spinning balls, whizzers and bells. Then the miracle happened: Georgia liked it. I thought to myself: Hallelujah! I want to make her happy.

Home again, I went straight away to Sears and charged the $60 model. I impressed upon my husband the urgency of assembling it that night. He did; we rearranged the furniture.

She never willingly sat in it again. Oh, I’m sure there was a time or two. In a pinch, I would plop her there for the half-second before her screaming began. I thought: Maybe I should get the $99 one.

This was my first experience with the rule called Other People’s Toys. The emphasis is on the “other.” You like them precisely because they are not yours. The corollary to this rule is Other People’s Kids, precocious and polite, who make you think: Why can’t my kid be more like that?

We held onto the baby saucer for a while and then priced it to sell at a garage sale. I hope it delivered hours and hours of saucer happiness and satisfaction to generations of families thereafter. For me, it was the beginning of an up-close analysis of human desire as expressed by Georgia. What I saw was that her desires were spontaneous, impermanent and never-ending. Just because she wanted something now only meant that she wanted something now. Desires change. Satisfaction eludes. That’s what it means to be human, with infinite, insatiable desires. It’s not about the saucer! It did start me thinking: I want to have a separate playroom.

I tried to keep the big picture in mind when we went to Other People’s Houses and played with Other People’s Kids and Other People’s Toys. I’d see Georgia clutch something, somebody else’s something, with the fervor of new car fever. I didn’t have to buy it. She didn’t have to own it. It would probably never come up again. Desire comes up again and again, you see, not the momentary object of desire. Still, I thought: I wish she could learn to share. read more

half the parent, half the child

May 7th, 2015    -    16 Comments

Beautiful branch buds in spring HD wallpapers 1440x1280 (01)I had a bad morning the other day. Something unexpected happened, and in the span of five minutes, my future unraveled, my schemes died, and the only way forward seemed straight off a cliff. In other words, I had to change my plans. On the drive to school, I told my daughter what was going on and how it could affect her. I said this while I was driving in circles, making wrong turns and getting lost. She was quiet and let me be. At midday I got a text from her.

What are you going to do?

I don’t know, I replied.

Just do what you need to do. I will support you.

This is where I might congratulate myself for raising such a wise and compassionate child, with the emotional intelligence and resilience instilled by conscious parenting, who returns the unconditional love and acceptance I’ve given her.

Only she isn’t, because I don’t.

She doesn’t speak to me as I have spoken to her; she speaks to me as she wishes I would speak to her. She doesn’t mirror who I am, she shows me a person I can become. And if I am the slightest bit charitable in my recollections, I must concede that she has been doing this all along with clear-eyed consolations.

It’s not always going to be easy.

I am thankful for my life.

Everyone makes mistakes.

I never get mad when you don’t do your best.

It takes more practice.

Everything happens when you don’t expect it.

By fair assessment, I am only half the parent she is, and she is only half the child I perceive her to be. I can’t parcel the roles out one way or the other. I only know that in the midst of a dark and lonely trial, my pain is shattered by an innocent utterance, and life is born anew.

The life of a mother is the life of a child: you are two blossoms on a single branch. One more thing someone said to me once.

To my dear mother and all mothers before, to my daughter and all daughters to come, I leave this promise and conviction: Your babies will be okay. Together we find the way.

***

Just in time, there are copies of Momma Zen on giveaway here.

shoveling gutters

February 22nd, 2015    -    10 Comments

18335467I’m biding my time today until the sun is higher in the sky, the air warms a bit, and I can get out and clean the rain gutters. This is a chore that stands in for all the snow shoveling that might go on where you live. It is a solitary job. No one but me notices that it is time to do it. No one but me will do it. It does not diminish me. On the contrary, cleaning the gutters will give me power and purpose, direction and rhythm: spiritual guidance that doesn’t come when I spend the day merely thinking about what I could be doing, say, tomorrow.

My dear and sensitive friend Katrina Kenison recently sent me a marvelous book, out of the blue, which is what makes something a gift, descending like a bird into your hand from who-knows-where, a memoir by Mary Rose O’Reilley, a poet and author hitherto unknown to me, who once apprenticed herself to a sheep farm. Going to work every day in a barn made no sense in a literal way, her lofty mind knowing nothing about sheep or lambing or castration or shearing or sudden virulent sickness and death, any of the activities that make up the muddy substance of a sheep farm. Perhaps she had an inkling that the experience would spiritually ground her, rescue her from the reaches of her poetic inclinations, and it did. The farm rescued her, and reading about it rescued me too.

I haul the ladder from the garage and put on oversized gloves. I always start by using a trowel to dig out the gutters but before long I’ll pitch the gloves and tool because they don’t quite get at the depth of the matter, the sweet oozing muck, the marriage of last summer’s dust, wind-brittled leaves and December’s forgotten rain. You have to use your hands.

Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel greatly alone and sad. Especially these days, I have to remind myself that I keep company with the earth and sky, and that I alone mother the myriad things in-between. That I am a farmer and a friend, and still an apprentice at both. I have to come back to this wholesome earth and shepherd myself in the best way I can. That’s about the time a gift arrives, and I am saved.

The ladder is shaky because at no spot around this house, which sits on a mountain, is the ground level. I’m not afraid. This old path is muddy, but my aim is straight, and maybe I’ll see a bird.

Going out now.

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sharing everything this Christmas

December 11th, 2014    -    13 Comments

unwrapping-gift-croppedIt was close to 7 p.m., pitch dark and cold by California standards, and I was stopped at a red light on the way to pick up my daughter from math tutoring. The light was long and I let my gaze drift to my left, across the street, where I watched two men waiting for the bus. One wore shorts, the other jeans, both in dark hoodies. I knew they were strangers because they stood apart and ignored each other. In the same moment, each raised a cigarette to their lips, an orchestrated pair invisibly attuned. And then the traffic moved.

Earlier that evening my daughter asked me how we used to Christmas shop. “When you were little did you order from magazines?” she asked, stretching her imagination to conceive of a life without computers. For Hanukkah she was given money and the same day spent most of it on Christmas gifts for friends. The spree had made her happy and it had made me happy too, being much more fun than my grumpy sermons on generosity. She ordered everything online (with my help) and the UPS man delivered the first box today. She went to the front gate and took it from him. I think that was a first, too.

I told her about my grandparents, who seemed crazy rich to us but crazy poor to everyone else. There was a book in those days called the wish book that was really the Sears catalogue. Since my grandparents lived far away from a department store they waited for the wish book to come every year. Then they handed it by turns to three little granddaughters and told us to make a mark by anything we wanted. I’m serious. That’s what they said, and then they went in the other room. It was a big book and a tall order for us little girls, but knowing that I could have it all made me less greedy. I remember pausing my pen over a page, empowered with a Midas touch, thinking of my grandparents, and not wanting quite so much as I thought I did.

Last weekend we saw A Christmas Carol at a local theatre.  My daughter was in four such productions since the age of 8, so I have seen and heard Mr. Dickens’ tale brought to life dozens of times. On Saturday I saw it and cried again. I cried because you cannot receive that story and not have it tenderize your heart. There can’t be one of us who isn’t afflicted by anger, frustration, cynicism or a shitty mood around the holidays. There isn’t one of us who isn’t sometimes blind to goodness or stingy with sentiment; who isn’t isolated or afraid. To see a human being transformed by joy, generosity, and belonging — and to feel it for myself — I don’t want anything else just now.

When people say they like the work I am sharing, I look around for the work. This doesn’t feel like work. It feels like life, which is inseparably shared by all of us. If you’re not sure you have anything to share, I will understand. I feel like that sometimes, too. Then I see differently, and my heart is bared. I have to give more. I have to give all of it.

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come together in grace

November 23rd, 2014    -    7 Comments

knives forks and spoons in cup of dry food dishes“From an early age I knew that I was different.”

Last weekend I went to a place far away that I’d never been before and sat in silence for two days in a small room with people I’d never met. All of us who find ourselves in that kind of predicament — even if we’ve done it a hundred times — are a bit uncomfortable at the outset. First, we don’t know the people we are sitting with, we don’t know what will happen, we don’t know what we are doing, and we aren’t able to talk about what is bothering us.

So when it was over, we went around the room and said our names and gave a parting word or two. What I said was that, no matter what we presumed about the strangers sitting next to us, everyone in the room had been sitting in a world of hurt. It is a guarantee.

No matter what, we hurt. We have trouble in our lives. We have pain. We have pain even when there’s no pain because the things we cherish won’t last. This universal suffering, this eternal ache, is our greatest blessing, in a way, because through it we realize that we are not different, we are not better or worse, we are not special or chosen, we are just alike, and this recognition allows us to get over ourselves and care deeply for one another. Very few realize it, and so we live at war, wars big and small, public and private, and they go on forever. Our world is a world of hurt. It is a guarantee.

There is a kind of standard-issue biography among spiritual entrepreneurs that goes something like this: “From an early age I knew that I was different. Teachers recognized that I was spiritually gifted. I possessed a profound awareness that I was meant to do something special. I decided to go out into the world and share what I was born to do.”

From an early age, know that you are not different.

Being different has not been a transformative experience for me. Neither was it the experience of Buddha, who from an early age knew that he was not different. His spiritual awakening began when he left the phony shelter of his delusions and realized that he would get old, get sick, and die. Like the rest of us, he had no special gift, no deferment, no way out or around reality. This stone-cold clarity is the root of wisdom and the source of compassion.

I offer this up today so that we can be a bit less uncomfortable in the days ahead. So that we can experience things in a new way. We can be tolerant of one another. We can be generous. We can be forgiving. We can be at ease in a crowded airport, house or kitchen. We can clasp hands around the table, giving thanks not only for life’s abundance, but for its scarcity, its brevity, and its painful guarantee of impermanence. Until we realize that we are not different, we can never, even for one moment, come together in grace.

Amen.

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all I see is suffering

November 26th, 2013    -    6 Comments

fresh-modern-thanksgiving-table-setting-lYears 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?

Happy Thanksgiving.

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prayer list

September 14th, 2013    -    56 Comments

imagesWhenever I am feeling injured or ignored, which I’m sorry to say is quite a bit, all I have to do is open my eyes to someone who has real suffering, not just the imaginary kind like me.

That’s what I’m feeling now as I consider the devastation and despair passing through every news stream in front of me. I feel a triple, quadruple whammy of sad helplessness, which is a powerful invitation to pray.

I’m saying a prayer service today, and tomorrow, and the day after, and after, and after. Let’s assemble a prayer list, shall we? I’ll start the list, and please leave a comment or two and add to it. Tell me who or what to pray for. You can give me actual names if you like. In the face of our suffering world, I can’t imagine doing less, and I don’t know how to do more.

I’m praying for:

All the people of Syria.
All victims of war.
All victims of the Jersey boardwalk fire.
All victims of the Colorado floods.
All victims of natural disasters.
Our mother the Earth.
All children who are troubled and want to die.
All children who are sick and want to live.
All parents who need strength and guidance.
All animals suffering from abuse and neglect.
All beings suffering the pain of parting.

So far it is a short list, but it is a neverending need. Please add your prayers to the list.

prayer

April 21st, 2013    -    7 Comments

goldenkuanyin

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
not quick
not done
I will not forget
cannot untie
every child
every child
every child leaves a mother
and the mother is me.

A prayer of compassion
A plea for peace
A word of truth
Amen.

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.”

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you are born

February 19th, 2013    -    21 Comments

eggshellFor everyone.

You are born.

Let’s consider the facts before we get carried away.

You are born and no one—neither doctor, scientist, high priest nor philosopher—knows where you came from. The whole world, and your mother within it, was remade by the mystery of your conception. Her body, mind and heart were multiplied by a magical algorithm whereby two become one and one becomes two.

You inhale and open your eyes. Now you are awake.

By your being, you have attained the unsurpassable. You have extinguished the fear and pain of the past, transcended time, turned darkness to light, embodied infinite karma, and carried forth the seed of consciousness that creates an entire universe. All in a single moment.

Now that you are here, you manifest the absolute truth of existence. You are empty and impermanent, changing continuously, turning by tiny degrees the wheel of an endless cycle. Just a month from now, your family will marvel at the growing heft of your body. They will delight in the dawn of your awareness. You will grab a finger and hold tight, turn your head, pucker your lips and eat like there’s no tomorrow. You will smile. Six months from now, the newborn will be gone. Within a year, you will be walking the earth as your dominion. And although your caregivers might think that they taught you to eat, walk and talk, these attributes emerged intuitively from your deep intelligence.

You are born completely endowed with the marvelous function of the awakened mind. You are a miracle. You are a genius. You eat when hungry and sleep when tired.

You are a Buddha. But in the same way you will forget the circumstances of your birth, you will forget the truth of your being. And by forgetting what you are, you will suffer in the painful, fruitless search to become something else, striving against your own perfection to feel whole and secure. By your attachment to desires, you will squander the chance of infinite lifetimes: the chance to be born in human form. Luckily, the chance to be reborn—to wake up—arises every moment. Your body is the body of inexhaustible wisdom. When will you realize it? read more

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