Posts Tagged ‘Impermanence’

why buddha sits

November 4th, 2018    -    4 Comments

Let me tell you a story about Buddha. This story is often mischaracterized as mythology or parable, because we like to approach things that way. Oh I get it, it’s a fable— rather than facing it as stark reality.

Buddha was born and his parents adored him in that misguided and dangerous way that all parents adore their children. Because daddy was king of the clan, they had the resources to raise their son with considerable advantages. At the same time they had been warned about certain dangers. They had consulted a seer, who said, “Look, your son is either going to be a great warrior king or become a spiritual freak.” So they tried to prevent him from becoming anything other than a king with power and wealth. They didn’t want any damaging influences to detour his ascent to greatness. What spiritual seekers did at that time was . . . weird. They were ascetics. They didn’t eat. They didn’t dress. They didn’t sleep. They didn’t have homes or shelter. The parents had to rule out that nonsense entirely.

Like all of us, they were very afraid that their child would suffer pain or misfortune. So they baby-proofed the house. They put a lock on the toilet lid, the kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator door. They set out to eliminate all hazards, because this is how much they loved their son and feared for his future. As he grew up, he was surrounded by servants to care for his every desire so he didn’t have to go anywhere. And they weren’t just servants. They were the best-looking servants: only young, fit, beautiful people bringing him the finest food, most beautiful music and freshest flowers. Nothing decayed; nothing unpleasant.

I understand a couple of things that are going on here. I understand love, and how as parents we feel the need to protect and control. But I also get what we feel as children. We grow up, and by degree, we keep peeling back the curtain. We’re hungry for the truth. We feel trapped, smothered, and fooled. We know our parents might have good intentions, but after a while all that confinement begins to feel like bad intentions.

Even though Buddha had everything he ever wanted, he wanted more. He said, “What’s the real world like?” He and his adolescent friends decided they were going do the unthinkable. They jumped over the wall and they went down to the city, that forbidden place. He was gonna have fun!

Only he didn’t have fun. That’s because the first thing he sees is an old person. And he’s like, “Whoa, what happened to him?” Because when you’re 15, you think you’re gonna be 15 forever. When you’re 20, you’re gonna be 20 forever. And then, when you slide over into 30, you think, “Well, at least I’m not 40!”

So Buddha says to his buddy, “What the hell happened there?” And his friend says, “That’s just an old person. We all get old.” That was a downer.

They go on, and pretty soon they see somebody sick on the street. You don’t have to look far to see something like that no matter where you live. Even now when you see it, do you really see it? Nowadays if you get sick, what’s the first thing you think about? Prevention. “If only I’d . . . worn a mask on the airplane . . . hadn’t eaten sushi . . . gotten a flu shot . . . taken a different elevator.” What we’re always trying to do is engineer a different outcome: perfect health, happiness, and the fountain of youth.

A whole lot of what we buy feeds into that delusion. You’re not going to get sick if you use this. You’re not going to get wrinkles. You’re not going to get gray hair. You’re not gonna get old. What’s implied in everything we buy is you’re not going to die. Because the same night Buddha sees the old guy and the sick guy, he sees a dead guy.

Old age, sickness, and death. That’s reality, not a myth.

So what does Buddha do when he comes away dazed and confused from the most shocking night of his young life? He looks around at the hordes of people – his friends, his family, the crowds milling around town, buying and selling crap — and says, “How can you live like this? If you know you’re going to get old, sick and die, why do you live as if it’s not going to happen?”

He’d been born into brocade and jewels. He’d come from a palace. And he saw what it wasn’t. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t true. He realized that he needed to relinquish his false identity of privilege and immunity. He needed to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, irrefutable and irreversible truth that we grow old, we get sick and we die.

Right then, he dedicated himself to resolving this dilemma: How can we live if it’s for nothing? What do we do and where do we go, if there’s no way out?

“This is where we start,” he said, and sat down to see it through.

Excerpted from a Dharma Talk, “The Truth of Your Life” which you can listen to via this link.

***

Photo by Henley Design Studio from Pexels

what brings you back to earth

September 24th, 2018    -    21 Comments

Gravity
by Donna Hilbert

What binds me to this earth
are the hands of my children,
as I hold my mother
holding her mother
back to the mother
who begat us all.
This is gravity.
This is why we call the earth Mother,
why all rising is a miracle.

***

From Gravity by Donna Hilbert
Photo by Markus Spiske

Tell me, what brings you back to earth?
I will award one commenter the lyrical wisdom and loving company of this beautiful new book.

what always is

August 31st, 2018    -    5 Comments

Art by Bonnie Rae Nygren

jewels in the dust

August 7th, 2018    -    13 Comments

When my daughter was three, she played all morning in a broad and shady yard at her preschool. There, she was instructed in the most ingenious way by having free range to climb, run, sing, swing, laugh, cry, fall down and make stuff up. The teachers had spread bag after bag of tiny beads and plastic jewels into the sand, and she and her friends made a treasure hunt of them every day, perfecting the pincer skills necessary to holding a pencil and using scissors, the final summit before kindergarten. The girls hoarded these shiny baubles into collections that were the subject of much intrigue and negotiation between them. A good day meant Georgia came home packing equal parts dirt and dazzle in her filthy pockets.

These days folks send me kind solicitations about the “transition” or “passage” I am going through as the nest empties. “I can’t imagine the feelings you must both be going through,” or “Let me know how you are handling it,” and I am embarrassed because the truth is mostly that I can’t wait. It feels the way it does when you are too pregnant and ready to burst. You’re not relishing the thought of labor but you can’t stand the delay of another day. I tell people that this is all natural and organic and such, that our current relationship is unsustainable because it is hard to share a home with someone who is 1) never home or 2) won’t come out of her room. At some point your child can come to feel like a stranger and worse, a squatter.

I’ve told most people that it reminds me of when she was three, the very age of all those treasure beads. Age three is competent enough to become bossy, as I recall, with none of the sweetening that surfaces at age four. A friend once told me that when her sons were young, her exasperation would reach a pitch where she would think, “If they don’t change I’m going to throw them out the window,” and right then they would change. In the old days I read books that affirmed this very thing: child development goes through cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium, ease and difficulty, compliance and rebellion, with the goal that everyone simply gets out alive and with a good probation officer.

It’s interesting too that all this is happening in the same month of her birth, an unforgiving August of incinerating heat and astrological omens: lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and that pesky Mercury gone retrograde. I don’t know what any of that means except that the dog got sick, the AC died, the dryer broke, the garden gate collapsed, and the bears are tearing into the garbage cans nightly. Today I was rescued by my trusty appliance repairman who made it out to fix the dryer. It was a simple thing, just a two-bit fuse, but there was a rattle in the drum, probably spare change trapped in the cylinder, so he would open it up and fix that too.

A little bit later he’d finished the job. In front of the dryer he’d swept up a 20-year mound of dust, topped by a myriad tiny jewels once washed out of her preschool pockets. They’d been rattling around all that time, but here they were, freed at last to shine.

where the fun stops

July 11th, 2018    -    7 Comments

Two years ago we took a summer vacation to Hawaii. Nowadays weather is unpredictable all over, and here it was unseasonably wet. Roads flooded and bridges washed out. One day the clouds lifted. Housebound and bored, we signed up for a kayaking tour that would have us paddling up a river and hiking to a waterfall.

The guide told us that because of the rain, this was the first day in a week that any boats had gone out. When we launched, the river was wide and placid. About two miles in, we pulled out to start the hike. They gave us sandwiches and cold drinks for a picnic in the shade. Then they told us that to start on the trail, we had to cross a ford over slippery rocks in high water with a churning current by holding onto a rope. We’d have to do the same on the way out. There was no way around it.

For some of us, this is where the fun stopped.

I spent last weekend sitting with a group of people in Cincinnati. Anyone who has ever been on a meditation retreat knows that the principal reason you come to sit, whether you realize it or not, is because life is difficult. Sure, meditation helps you focus and calm down. But no one with a half-opened eye comes to Zen just to chill out, be a better person, or get more out of life. This was never clearer to me than when folks began to tell me their troubles. Inside this silent room, amid a rainbow of stained glass, illuminated with the dappled daylight of the glistening garden beyond, disease was spreading, surgeries were pending, marriages were ending, parents and partners had perished, children were stumbling, money was scarce, worry was rampant, and fear flooded our hearts. The sky was falling and the earth was burning. Up ahead, the current was swirling.

Knowing what we know—the swiftness of change—and what we don’t—the miles of uncertainty ahead—how do we live?

There’s a rope over the river and we cross it together.

The rope is love. Take it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat in Upstate New York
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia NY
Register here

it always comes out of nowhere

June 29th, 2018    -    13 Comments

We have more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats. We are smarter than they are. We are the elite. — Trump in Fargo ND, June 27, 2018

In the light of an early morning last week, I was on a 58-foot boat motoring the 22 miles to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The sky was gray, the clouds were low and the water, smooth. We hadn’t seen much—a handful of seals, a scattering of water birds, and nothing at all on the horizon—when the island suddenly penetrated the mist.

“It always comes out of nowhere,” the captain said.

I’d never been to Catalina, although I’d long heard that there wasn’t much there. As soon as the clouds lifted we set off walking. To my mind, the only way to get to know a place is on foot. A mile-and-a-half stroll across the tiny harbor town takes you a century back in time to the island’s brief heyday, when a chewing-gum magnate bought the whole of it and vowed it would never leave his hands. Mr. Wrigley aimed to turn his investment into “the people’s island,” a tourist mecca to be known all over the world.

It didn’t take me long to reconstruct what happened instead. The Wrigleys built their mountaintop home here 1921, their son’s mansion in 1927, the country club in 1928 and the Casino boasting “the world’s largest circular ballroom,” in May 1929. Yes, that 1929. In the long and great aftermath, who would dare to boast? The island was closed to visitors during WWII. Big bands died, and with it, ballroom dancing. Commercial air travel would soon make far more exotic locales accessible to tourists. Dreams disappeared like mist.

Decades later the island remains what it has always been, a lovely little spot to see the endless wash of wind and waves, which leave their mark without a word.

Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature [man], who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole? — Michel de Montaigne

This sad week has felt, politically speaking, as if nothing will ever change, that the deck is stacked, the course is set and the outcome is irreversible. The vain and vile talk of “more money, more brains, and nicer boats” recalled, for me, the nicest boat of all, the world’s largest ocean liner, built by the richest men with the biggest blindest egos and ambitions, a vessel that nonetheless took only 2 hours and 40 minutes to submerge completely under the North Atlantic and a scant 5 minutes more to reach the ocean floor. All because something always comes out of nowhere, and things really do change overnight.

Photo by Matthew Johnson

I just want to encourage you

May 1st, 2018    -    11 Comments

My first Zen teacher was Japanese, and although he spoke English, he was nearly impossible to follow. In his soft voice and heavy accent, a good part of what he said was indecipherable. Because of that, he had a reputation for giving terrible Dharma talks, or teachings, and this caused him regret.

“I just want to encourage you,” he would say as he set off on a discourse that no one could make heads or tails of. But that was enough, at least for me. I’ve realized that encouragement is the essence of teaching. I think it’s just about all we can do for one another, and all we need to do. With encouragement, you see, people can do anything and will. A little encouragement goes a long way. You might even say it lasts forever.

Nowadays I’m grateful for the encouragement I’ve been given, which seems to be the most useful thing I can pass along.

A few years ago there was some new research into how toddlers learn to walk. The study said that a baby learning to walk falls on average 17 times per hour. 17 times! Can you imagine that? Seventeen times the shock, hurt, and tears. More than 200 failures in one 12-hour stretch! And 200 times to start over at square one. Even with all that, there has not yet been a baby who gave up on the whole enterprise. It’s a remarkably efficient learning process. Forward motion dissolves fear.

This information has factored into a lot of the advice I’ve given to people since then. Most of us, most of the time, encumber ourselves with the terrible weight and responsibility for teaching our kids everything so they turn out to be something. By that I mean something successful or prized, happy or well. Starting out, we look at them as shapeless clay, putty, or goop. I like to remind parents that we don’t actually teach our children how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, or how to sleep, regardless of how many expert opinions we seek on those subjects. An acorn becomes an oak, I say, lacking any other explanation for how human development happens. And on this basis, our children are completely and wholly themselves at every age and stage, lacking nothing, only absorbing time and encouragement to keep going.

Back when my daughter was in preschool, her teacher made a handout for parents called 4 Steps of Encouragement. When your kids are about 4 years old, you might start to worry about the really important stuff they aren’t doing, like riding a tricycle, holding a pencil, writing their name, or drawing a person with arms and legs. You’re pretty sure they’re already behind, and then where will they end up?  The teacher assures you it’s not late, there’s no hurry, children learn and grow at their own pace, and for heaven’s sake please confine your contribution to repeating these four things:

1. “I understand, I know it’s hard.”
2. “I think you can handle it.”
3. “Want to give it a try?”
4. “When you’re ready . . . “

Last week my daughter texted me during a school day, one of the last of her senior year, and said “I’m getting sad to leave.” I was surprised to hear her express affection for high school, but that wasn’t it. She meant sad to leave home, which really means sad to grow up. Isn’t that true? Isn’t reluctance at the root of all sadness? The reluctance to change, let go, fall down, get up and move on?

Of course we can give help where it is needed, attention when it is lacking, and patience when time is short. But there’s one more thing that bears repeating.

I just want to encourage you.

how to raise an adult

April 4th, 2018    -    4 Comments

Today I walked to Rite Aid, something I’ve done a few times — okay, exactly twice. On the sidewalk ahead, I could see a bowlegged man shuffling toward me. When he got up close he pointed to the intersection behind me with his cane.

Is that Huntington? he asked.

No, that’s Sierra Madre Boulevard.

OK, he said, I just have to cross that street.

Huntington and Sierra Madre boulevards are three miles apart and not in any way like the other. So I wondered for the rest of the afternoon whether he was: 1) following a peculiar exercise regimen, or 2) genuinely disoriented and lost. I didn’t look back to see if he made it across the street, nor did I see him on the return walk home, but he stayed with me, that old traveler did.

When I encounter a stranger who tells me something unexpected — the lady in the Whole Foods parking lot who said she loved the shape of my head; Sister Imelda, a nun in full habit on the hiking trail telling me she was collecting souls — I figure they have a message for me. The message is to wake up. After 10,000 or so steps, I realized the man had given me an answer I’d been looking for.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about how to raise an adult, an activity that’s occupying me these last hundred days before my daughter leaves home. But I couldn’t, because I don’t know how to raise an adult. I was thinking I’d come up with a handy list of steps, like, say, the steps for growing corn. But it turns out growing corn isn’t that simple to sum up either. There’s the matter of soil, weather, temperature and pests: so many variables, too many unknowns.

When you’re a parent, every question you have is how, and every answer is do. All those ages and stages, milestones and thresholds, tests and percentages, transitions and regressions, variables and unknowns. But that’s in your head. In real life, to get where you’re going you just have to cross the street.

Forward motion: it happens.

Last week, a vote-by-mail ballot for the city election came addressed to my daughter. I sat beside her as she read the instructions, asked thoughtful questions and filled in the bubbles. Then she signed her name with a signature I’d never seen and wouldn’t have recognized. An adult.

Guess that’s how.

***

Coming up next:
What is Zen: A Retreat in Kansas City, April 13-15
Still Summer: A Zen Retreat in Ohio, Cincinnati July 5-8

 

already you

February 26th, 2018    -    7 Comments

You have always been you. It sounds a little bit silly to say that, because it doesn’t come close to expressing what I mean. As the person who has spent nearly every one of last 7,000 days and nights in silent wonder and raging worry over every aspect of your life—your eating, sleeping, feeling, and thinking; your hair, bones, blood and skin—I mean it as an admission. It wasn’t me. It isn’t me. It will not be me that makes you who you are.

I have a memory of the first time you waved bye-bye. A sitter was holding you in her arms near the front door and I was walking out of it. When your baby waves bye-bye to you it’s a moment that really sticks. But it’s not quite right to say you were a baby then. You were already you when you did that, already a perfectly functioning human being. You were on a path that was uniquely yours, that had begun in a time and place before me, and that would progress in a completely intact and natural way after me.

Why did I think I had so much to do with it?

Every now and then my Zen teacher will say something (that he has said many times before) to point to the truth of life. It goes sort of like this: “Once you were a little child, then a teenager and now an adult. You were 10 then 18, 30 or 50. Was any of that hard to do?” No, we chuckle to ourselves, since it’s a given. It happens by itself.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin.

A lily does not become a stalk of corn either. It never becomes anything but itself, by itself. This is another revelation that sounds stupidly obvious and unremarkable. But we should reflect on it. We should study it: the obvious and effortless perfection of the way things are and how they come to be.

I grew up in another time, a time before the dawn of the Industrial Parental Anxiety Complex. This is to say that my mother did the mothering, such as it was, and my father did the fathering, for better or worse, but nothing that they did or didn’t do was formed by this new attitude of expertise called parenting. Parenting is not something that anyone knows how to do or will know how to do. It cannot be taught, except by children, who have the sometimes charming and often infuriating ability to be no one but themselves.

My mother never once hid broccoli in the mac and cheese. She never hounded me to practice the piano as a way to elevate my math scores or letter in lacrosse to polish my college prospects. These kind of manufactured agonies were simply beyond the few extra hours available in her day. She had other concerns, great matters, and her children did not appear to be chief among them. Oh happy day!

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

This is not to say that we don’t have our hands full, as parents. Not to say that there isn’t much to learn or do, but it concerns our children far less than we think. Our job is to raise ourselves upright as half-decent people and self-managing adults. To be honest and reliable. To be patient. To have confidence in ourselves and trust in nearly everyone else. To keep going through the rough patches, with a resilient hope and idiotic optimism that all will be well. To shine light equally on the lilies and the thistles, the flowers and the thorns, the rocks and the mud and the grass that grows every which way in the field without applying a fence or force. To simply be, faithful and true, because that is how our children grow strong in themselves as themselves, lacking nothing, functioning perfectly, the amazing humans they already are.

starting to change

January 5th, 2018    -    46 Comments

This morning I went into the backyard and took this photo of the Japanese maple, which is just now starting to change color. You might look at it and think, isn’t that lovely, and it is, but the color change used to take place in early November. The old calendar is obsolete.

This is my daughter’s final semester of high school. In the fall, she will be moving to New York to start college. I don’t know any more than that. I don’t know what will happen then or after. It’s not my life. I might have pretended I wasn’t obsessed with the future for these last 18 years or so, but that was a lie. Before our children leave home we have a pretty clear idea of what we expect to happen the next day, week, month and year. We’re all in. But now the future has finally escaped my grasp, leaving my hands ready for—ready for what?

A new year always brings with it the drive for change and renewal, but this one seems pointed straight at my keister. Everywhere I turn I see the message: What will you do with your days? What will you try now? What is it time for? How far will you go?

My friend Mary Trunk has a new documentary project, Muscle Memory. A former dancer and choreographer, she reunited with her college dance buddies after 30 years and filmed them learning new dance steps while they talked about how they’d changed since their glory days. Were they still willing to take risks, create, and discover new things about themselves? I find the answers mesmerizing.

Muscle Memory #1 from Mary Trunk on Vimeo.

A few months ago my daughter asked me the very question lurking around these margins. “What will you do after I leave?” She beamed her electric smile at me, buzzing with her approaching freedom. I shrugged. “You could write a book about raising a teenage daughter!,” she said. She was trying to help, and she meant it. She was giving me her permission. It was a kick, a jump, a start. Let’s see how far I’m willing to take it.

***

Maia Duerr has written a handy new book right up this alley, Work That Matters, a wise and realistic step-by-step guide to finding a livelihood that you love. If the questions on my mind are the questions on your mind, this book can start you off in the right direction. Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a brand-new copy and a brand-new you.

you are born

January 4th, 2018    -    24 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

letter from my 16-year-old self

November 1st, 2017    -    30 Comments

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Yesterday I reached into the bottom of a drawer and rediscovered my English Composition notebook from my junior year in high school. I knew that I had kept it, and flipping through the pages of my tightly curled script, spaced so sincerely between faded blue rules,  I remembered why.

We often think that if we had the chance we would go back in time to illuminate our younger selves with mature insights, to foreshorten expectations and prevent cruel disappointments. Drop the notion that you’re wiser now than you were then. What did your 16-year-old self know that you’ve forgotten? Before your last hour, can you remember again?

My Last Wish
English III
October 23, 1972

My life is a collection of small occurrences. In looking back over sixteen years, I remember incidents which, when they happened, seemed quite forgettable. A handshake with a friendly dog, a gift of bubble gum from my father, and a playground chase are a few of the scenes that come to mind.

When confronted with the possibility of only one more day of life, I immediately respond with a desire to experience all of the thrills our earth has to offer. But, after considering further, I reject that idea as a way to conclude my life.

What experiences, after all, has my memory chosen to include in its vast enclosures? The everyday happenings remain most clearly in my mind’s eye. They have influenced and molded me into the complex person that I am.

If I had one day left to live, I wouldn’t want to circle the world or sail the seas. I might wash my hair, play cards, clear the dinner table, fight with my sister, say my prayers and go to sleep.

We must become the ones we always were. How else to explain the sublime recognition when we meet ourselves again.

 

nine eleven seventeen

September 11th, 2017    -    11 Comments

In this hush
between the rising and dusk
of one minute and month
a season arriving
a circle recycling
we see sharp and know cold
that not one thing stands
or stands still
Not one thing untouched
but all carried intact
by love
deep, far and beyond.

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