Tag Archives: death

To Live and Be Lived

Ethics, or sila in Sanskrit, is the second of the six paramitas or practices of an awakening being called a bodhisattva. Ethics is at the very root of the Buddhist tradition. In fact, much of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching was an exhortation to turn toward wholesome actions and states of mind, and away from unwholesome actions and states of mind. In this he was extraordinarily successful, convincing even murders, petty thieves, and ruthless political leaders to take up a path of morality, peace and freedom. The Buddha taught many people to consider the consequences of their actions, so that they might realize how much of the difficulty they experience is a direct result of their own unskillful behavior.

This is the teaching of karma, the fundamental law that each and every intentional thought, spoken expression, and action has a consequence at some point in the future. It is a fairly complex teaching, which takes into account factors such as forethought, one’s motivation, and celebration or remorse afterward. However, at its heart, it is simply about doing good and not doing bad, offering compassion instead of aggression, helping and not harming.

3559084-Ruins_Sarnath

Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first teaching

Thus when the Buddha began teaching, monks and nuns committed to only 10 precepts or rules of conduct. Later, as difficult situations arose, more rules were added until the list reached a length in the hundreds. Even later, as the path of practice called the Mahayana emerged, some Dharma teachers began to emphasize the ways in which compassion spontaneously emerges from the experience of inter-connectedness. So, with that understanding, in Zen the precepts became vows rather than rules. They became expressions of intention to act from the realization of non-separation. Thus, some of the Mahayana schools reverted back to 10 precepts, though they are a different 10. These together with the refuges and the pure precepts are known as the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts. They are:

The three refuges

I take refuge in Buddha.

I take refuge in Dharma.

I take refuge in Sangha.

The three pure precepts

I vow to refrain from all evil.

I vow to do all that is good.

I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

The 10 grave precepts

I vow not to kill.

I vow not to take what is not given.

I vow not to misuse sexuality.

I vow to refrain from false speech.

I vow to refrain from intoxicants.

I vow not to slander.

I vow not to praise self at the expense of other.

I vow not to be avaricious.

I vow not to harbor ill will.

I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

 

rakusu

rakusu – the robe of one who has taken the 16 Bodhisattva vows

For today, I’d like to focus on the third of the pure precepts. Taken as a whole, the three pure precepts carry a strong message. They imply that it’s not good enough to simply refrain from harmful actions and to perform skillful actions. To be truly skillful, one must also commit to a life of service. That is what it means to “live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.” This vow is the foundation of the bodhisattva way, a commitment to everyone’s welfare and an acknowledgment of the way in which their welfare is intrinsically tied to our own.

One my experiences as a hospice chaplain clearly demonstrates this dynamic. On one particularly intense day, I was told that one of my colleague’s patients might be close to death. Knowing that my fellow chaplain was out of town, I went to visit the dying woman and offer her spiritual support, though I felt I had little left to give.

When I arrived, I heard from the nurses that the patient was feeling a bit better, but that I was still welcome to pay her a visit. She was lying on a couch in her darkened room, seemingly asleep when I walked in. She awoke as I knelt by her side and gently spoke her name. I introduced myself, and told her that I was with the hospice team. The woman began speaking gently to me, but what she said was incoherent. She was a bit confused, as is common with folks near the end of life. Still, I asked permission to take her hand and continued talking to her.

At some point she seemed to wake up a bit more and asked “why here?” I replied, “I’m just here to bring you blessings.” “Ah, blessings. Blessings. Blessings!” She continued to repeat the word over and over again until I realized that she was offering me blessings. She had received my blessings and she was returning them, not just politely, but with enthusiasm. She held my hands strongly, looked into my eyes, and spoke emphatically, giving me her blessings. I had to smile and laugh and, after thanking her, I walked out of this woman’s room with much more joy than I had when I came in. This gift, from a woman who didn’t have much to give, was invaluable. She was a bodhisattva.

This is the kind of ethics that a bodhisattva practices, the kind of ethics that begins and ends with the recognition that we belong to each other in ways we cannot fully know. It is the kind of ethics that emerges from the wisdom that a skillful person doesn’t see oneself as separate from action or separate from others.

As Dogen wrote in Shoaku Makusa, a fascicle whose title translates as “Refraining from Unwholesome Action,”

…one moves from the aspiration for “refraining from unwholesome action” toward the practice of “refraining from unwholesome action.” As unwholesome action becomes something one is unable to do, the power of one’s practice suddenly appears fully.

What is the power of one’s practice? The power to give and receive joy, the power to live and be lived, the power to benefit all beings. That’s a pretty awesome power, if you ask me.

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Gifts that Pass Through Your Hands

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Pleasant Hill view

At the time of the dawning of the Mahayana the paramitas were described as six lights on the awakening activity of a Buddhist practitioner. This was near the beginning of the Common Era (CE), and it was a period in which the Mahayana was neither a school nor a sect of Buddhism. Instead, it was a clarification of the path of a practitioner whose aspiration is to turn all beneficial karmic activity into the ultimate gift, the gift of awakening. The Mahayana was an exposition of the practice of a bodhisattva.

The Sanskrit paramita is often translated as “perfection,” though to understand it as a final objective is to miss the mark. The paramitas are actually mutually interdependent activities that inspire and inform any being dedicated to awakening, just as much as they benefit others. Thus, to expect that the paramitas might one day be completed is to forget the virtuous circle of practice in which the giver also receives, in which the giver is also the gift.

Perhaps for that reason the first of the paramitas is dana (pronounced like “Donna”). This word means giving or generosity, and it is said to encompass all of the other paramitas which are: sila or morality, kshanti or patience, virya or energy, dhyana or concentration, and prajna or wisdom. In fact, it can be said that each paramita is a complete practice because each paramita includes all of the others. Taken as whole, I see the first two paramitas as based in compassion, the last two as based in wisdom, and the entire path balanced by allowing what is and applying oneself wholeheartedly.

Returning to dana paramita, it was traditionally understood that the laity gave material goods and the monastics gave the teaching of Dharma. In many ways this is a balanced approach when monastics are renunciates who depend on others for their food, clothing, medicine and lodging. However, over time this distinction was blurred as monastics came to own land and other material goods, and lay practitioners became respected as disciples and teachers. In China, for example, alms collection was not as well received as in India, and Ch’an monasteries began tending rice paddies to sustain themselves. Also at that time, roughly estimated to be the 8th and 9th Centuries, Layman Pang and his daughter Ling Zhao became renowned as examples of profound and playful Dharma.

jizos 2006

Today when I think about giving, the underlying intention seems at least as important as the thing given. Giving might be motivated by a desire for one’s own benefit – such as to accumulate merit, or to influence someone to like you or to give you something in return. It might be motivated by a wish for another’s well being or progress on a spiritual path. Or it might be motivated by the wish to benefit everyone.

However, it is not until I see that the gifts I give are not mine that dana paramita can be practiced.  Even the teachings or material objects which I seemingly produce temporally arise out of interconnectedness, and therefore cannot truly be seen as my own. Knowing this I can give because all of life is a gift. I can give because these gifts must pass through my hands. I can give because I understand that karma is the only gift that persists, the only true legacy anyone leaves.

So please let the many gifts pass through your hands that they might awaken the whole world.

The Sword That Cuts Through Violence

During a recent meeting of the Spanish study group “Dharma en Español,” several students asked me to address the topic of violence and the recent killings of four young men of color across the street from San Francisco Zen Center. I spoke about the events, how multiple shots rang out one Friday night as a stolen car was riddled with bullets. The four people inside were barely men, between the ages of 18 and 21. They were all killed nearly instantly, though the police officers who responded tried to resuscitate them, blood spilling out on the sidewalk. The incident has been called “gang-related” in the press. I spoke of attending the community meeting and the march, the tears and the pain and the anger of so many. I spoke of how great the sense of separation must be for the one could commit such an act, how fixed the view of self and other, how desperate and alienated, how angry.

HV March Scott Strazzante The SF Chronicle

Scott Strazzante/The SF Chronicle

 

It was this last part that seemed to touch something profoundly personal for them. One young, Mexican man began to talk about his experience growing up in Los Angeles. His neighborhood had been home to several houses where crack cocaine was manufactured, where fires and fights would often break out. He said that he has come to understand in recent years, having arrived at his late 30s, that immigrant people like those of his own family fled lives of desperation, poverty and violence, but often ended up recreating those very conditions all around them here in the States. This young man felt that it was the anger, misunderstood and often obscuring other feelings, that fueled the violence. Adult members of the community were willing to turn away because they too were part of the system that had been built up. They too had recreated lives of desperation and violence.

I asked the others in the room whether they felt similarly. They too shared stories of their reasons for coming to the US, and reflected on how remarkably easy it would have been to slip into a similar way of life. The chain of events, as these Latinos saw it, was a familiar one to me. I recognized that story of arriving and encountering the barriers of language and education. I remember how they lead to feelings of frustration, sadness, and fear that were expressed as anger and a strong drive to exert control. This story had also played itself out in my family. I was touched to know that this dynamic had a larger context.

Then, I went to see the movie “Selma.” In it there is a scene in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in jail, and he reflects on the value of the work he is doing on behalf of voting rights at a time when black Americans across the South were struggling with poverty and a lack of education. Again the barriers became visible for me, the ways in which language and education had kept so many oppressed, and the anger that arose as a result. Painful. When he renews his commitment to the cause, it is a poignant moment. Truly the role Dr. King played in the passage of the Voting Rights Act lead to an enormous improvement in the lives of blacks and many others. His leadership of the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights Movement were brilliant.

So there is no question in my mind that secular education is one key to dismantling the structures that enforce inequality. Yet my own experience showed that even the most prestigious education could not relieve the suffering of my Latina and basic human legacy. I needed another education – in the Buddhadharma. I needed to learn how to be aware of my body and mind, the bodies and minds of others, my environment. I needed to learn how to accept, to be able to acknowledge what is as it is, though not necessarily as okay. I needed to learn how to sit with it. I needed to learn how to respond, rather than react to the states in which I find myself.

This is what I learn on the cushion. This is what I learn from the ancient teachings. This is the most basic message of the Buddha. He taught that sitting encountering the basic stillness and activity of body and mind will show us that violence will not bring us the life that we want, the life of fulfillment and peace. He taught that skillful action can only arise from a skillful view of the world and our place in it. For that reason Zen teaching is called the sword of wisdom, cutting through our confusion about life, cutting through the idea that violence is necessary.

So today I offer my profound gratitude to Dr. King for the wisdom of reflection and of non-violence. His sword is still very sharp.

The One who is Really Busy

It is so easy these days to get caught up in thinking that you are busy. Maybe you feel there are lots of chores to do, or emails piling up in your inbox, or texts arriving on your phone. Maybe you feel that you simply don’t have time for everything, that you simply can’t keep up with all of the people who need or want something from you. When this happens, the thought, “I don’t have time for that” can arise even when “that” is something you want to do, like answer the phone when your loved one calls or clear a space on your desk. But the pressure you feel is too high, so you cannot connect to the positive in that moment. As Zen Master Dogen says:

You fail to experience the passage of being-time and hear the utterance of its truth, because you learn only that time is something that goes past.

Messy Desk by Robin Wulfsson M.D.

Messy Desk by Robin Wulfsson M.D.

What Dogen is pointing at here is the fact that we live in each moment, and the moment is expressing the truth of interrelatedness, the truth that we are actors in our world. So your experience of time could be entirely different. You could turn that thought of not having time into your helper. You could see “not having time” as something of a tool for discerning what is skillful in your life. This is called “turning on the basis,” a practice of shifting perspective so that it aligns more closely with the Dharma. You could have a shift that enables you to live within the moment now, with all the results of the past and the possibilities of the future.

A shift in the view of not having time often happens to those who are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Suddenly a person comes to the realization that life is precious, and that they must be thoughtful about the way in which they live. Many times, for the people I visit, this creates a sense of sadness as well. If you have been postponing the things you really want to do for a long time, when you find out that you no longer have the time or the health to do them, it can be a big disappointment.

Yet you don’t have to wait for that moment to begin changing your perspective on “not having time.” You can simply take up a practice of acceptance, discernment and skillful response. Seeing clearly the moment as it is, you hold it up to the light of the Dharma, and then make a conscious choice about whether and how to respond.

For example, how would it be if you simply said, “I don’t have time for that worry” or “I don’t have time to watch violence for the sake of entertainment.” Or “I don’t have time to be angry with that person that just walked too close to me,” or “that person who took the parking place I had my eye on.”

So you can see that, with a bit of a twist, not having time can begin to open up new potential for presence, patience and for letting go of pettiness. It can help you stay focused on responding, rather than reacting. It can put things in perspective – which reminds me of a saying that a friend of mine who is a nun mentioned many years ago:

“In Zen three minutes is an eternity.”

 

Your Most Present Concern

So often, in everyday modern American society, we receive the message that we are defined by what we don’t have – the latest cell phone, the ideal job, the perfect family, the nicest car or the right insurance. We judge each other by our failure to acquire these things. And we judge ourselves equally harshly, fueling a drive that is based in anxiety and comparing mind. This message is encapsulated in commercials, in packaging, and in the ways we talk about what it means to be successful. For most of us, not a day goes by that we don’t receive this message.

So tonight I want to offer you a completely different message.  I want to encourage you to release yourself from a life driven by a sense of inadequacy, and to turn instead to a life that revels in the incredible fullness of all that you are simply by being human. Tonight I want to release you from living a life defined by what you lack.

Mural of Life at SFO

Mural of Life at SFO

At times I wonder whether the modern day preoccupation with distraction and material acquisition is actually based in a fear of death, a fear of facing that which is inevitable for each and every one of us. Perhaps, you might think in secret, if I just have that big, beautiful house and a device that gives me driving directions, then I won’t have to worry about the fact that I am passing out of this existence.

Yet even death is not our most present concern. Our true concern is to live fully while we are alive – to release ourselves from a limited view of who and what we are – to reconnect, over and over again, with that which is greater than our self, but arises through it – to discover that the true meaning of enlightenment is a direct experience of the wisdom that runs through all things, even the horrible ones.

Mind you that by ‘living fully’ I do not mean living large, or fulfilling all your sexual and material desires, or even being the most calm or the most wise. I mean actually experiencing firsthand the incredible fullness of each moment, the magnificent transformation that is taking place in every instant. Notice the incredible revelation of truth that is expressed by the fact that everything is dependent on everything else – not some things are dependent on some other things, but everything needs everything else in order to exist. This noticing is the foundational Buddhist practice of mindfulness – paying attention to this very moment so clearly that there is no one who pays attention and no moment that can be measured. Life is simply the bare threads woven together to make an infinite fabric.

Sound impossible? Well, consider how many times things have actually turned out exactly as you expected them. They may be something like what you expected, but are they truly arising exactly in ways that you can predict with precision? I didn’t think so. This unpredictability is the weaving, the activity of impermanence, that change upon change. Still, we know that things do not change at random, but are governed by the laws of cause and effect. Awakening to these laws at work in our lives, we can find bright clarity about how to live and we can find deep compassion in understanding that nothing separates us.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross put it beautifully when she said,

“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather our concern must be to live while we are alive – to release ourselves from the spiritual death that comes from living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.”

So please check in with yourself. What is your most present concern?

Buddhist Grave

C. Ansel Adams

C. Ansel Adams

Your Personal Messengers

It is said that Shakyamuni Buddha received four messengers: a sick person, an old person, a corpse and a monastic. Seeing the suffering of the first three, he was moved to pursue the life of the fourth, transforming his body and mind to discover a new way of experiencing the way things are. It is that way for each one of us as well. We encounter people or events that reveal some vitally important information, and it is up to us to receive and actualize those messages. In my case, one such messenger was a little fish.

It was New Year’s Day at Tassajara, the monastery in the mountains just inland from Carmel, California. I was walking alone toward the western edge of the land on which the monastery sits. There the creek is fairly shallow and narrow. It was a bright day but I didn’t have a lot of time, so I had chosen a short walk. Arriving at the stream, I stood there for a moment, taking in the warm sunshine. Then, a small fish seemed to jump right out of the stream – hop, hop, hop – landing right at my feet. baby salmonIt was grey with dark stripes and pink spots all lined up on its side. I looked at it for a second before realizing that it was lying there dying, gasping for air.

I recognized the need to do something to help the fish. So I knelt down and tried to pick it up, but the fish struggled with all its might and wouldn’t let me get a hold of it. I tried again and again, but the fish wouldn’t allow it. What to do?! Suddenly, I had the idea that I’d try to scoop the fish back into the water, helping just enough to let it swim away on its own. So I cupped my hands together and, gathering a bit of water and a bit of fish, I pushed it away. It worked! The fish landed in a bit more water and, with a swish or two of its tail, was hurtling itself down the stream. I cheered and wished the fish well.

In the next moment it seemed to me that this was just a small detail, and I looked around for other fish in the creek. After several minutes I still hadn’t seen even one more, though the water was clear to the bottom. There was only the one little fish. Then the message was instantly clear to me, and I laughed out loud and started yelling again, “Yes, yes, I will! Yes!” I grinned from ear to ear, and couldn’t contain the feeling of joy in my heart, because for me the message was so clear. The message I heard was that it is my job to help free all beings, just as in the first of the Four Bodhisattva vows. In each and every moment I have the intention and the opportunity and the responsibility to carry out that vow. And in each and every moment I am in exactly the right place to fulfill the vow, if only I am awake enough to see it and to be of service without interfering. Wow! This tiny, fierce fish was my personal messenger and I had received the message, loud and clear. I couldn’t prevent the fish’s suffering, but I could help it to perform its natural function, and thereby ease its own suffering.

So I invite you to consider the messengers in your life, and the messages that they are offering. May you all discover your oneness with the stream.