Written within stones: Lockdowns, Chittadhar & the epic of the Buddha

We’re approaching the end of 2020. When the year began I had little to warn me of the massive changes to come, in my life and writ large on the global tablet. Ten months. How did you fare? As we enter the next year, what have you let go of and what was taken from you/not you? What have you picked up and what have you woven a new into your life practice?

Has your life become an epic you could write about in captivity?

In February, I started a new path of practice: gardening. Enrolled in the Master Gardener program at Dalhousie University, I was well-armed with cardboard germination trays, potting soil, seeds, and batches of fertilizer for an experiment in nutrient impact on sunflowers. As each seed germinated and cast off the seed case, I would cheer them on! Because I tend to over-identify with my plants, when one little one remained stuck in the seed case, I agonized about releasing it or letting nature take its course. Perhaps nature is equanimous or indifferent; that’s a fine line to discern. Perhaps I tend to express wishful thinking as wise and discerning hope.

I set the little cotyledons free one morning and noted studiously that being held captive longer than its siblings, the lack of exposure to light had left its core streaked. I doted on it as it sprouted its true leaves – a fascinating realization that the first leaves or cotyledons are part of the embryonic package with the endosperm. No seriously, I was obsessed with this little plant. It was a labour of attending without power to effect any directional change. And the lesson was in the attention to those streaks of yellow as they did their job of nourishing the plant.

There must be an epic poem in this or even that Next Book. Alas, as the lockdowns and restrictions wore on my time was diverted to reactivating my work to online meetings and tending the vegetable garden.

However, the season of flowers and fruit taught me that being enclosed in safety is not sufficient for the germination of creative expression. It’s easy to fall into the mundane, distract with a sidebar of progress, or be absorbed into the constructed drama of rights and liberties. Try as we might, we cannot isolate ourselves from the tremendous tragedies, losses of lives and livelihood. The societal fractures that lay just below the surface, that persistently emerged pre-pandemic and were quickly dismissed as special-interest dramas are now inescapable for their truth – unless one wears one’s mask over the inner eye. Forced awake in the last ten months and in seeking safety through self-isolation, we have discovered that the true nature of safety is not in the external stones of our lives. It is in the choices we make with the intention to save all beings – from our darkest nature, from the consequences of our reactivity and ignorance. Under pressure, we forget that every thought, speech, and action is a gift we have given and received.

Yangshan said: Do not betray (what you have received by people’s support)… when it is cold, to wear socks for others is not prohibited.

(Case 47 Shōbōgenzō)

In gardening terms, the cotyledons have done their job giving us the energy to start. It is time to become nourishment for ourselves and others. For that, we will have to adapt, evolve, find the light, and turn towards it.

Now to Chittadhar Hrdaya. A Newari writer/poet in Nepal, he was imprisoned in 1940 for writing a poem titled “Mother”. The police considered it seditious claiming it was intended to accuse the government of “depriving the Newars of their mother tongue.” Despite Hrdaya’s insistence that the poem expressed his grief over the loss of his mother, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment. Initially depressed by the sentence, he responded to the death of his mentor a year later by committing to writing again. Under somewhat improved conditions in the second year of his imprisonment, he began to write the story of the Buddha’s life on scraps of paper torn from his prayerbook. These were smuggled out in food boxes that had a false lid. Published after his release in 1946, it became part of the surge in publishing when the Newari gained the freedom to publish in their own language.

The Epic of the Buddha or Sugata Saurabha (“The Sweet Fragrance of the Buddha”; Shambhala Publications) is a vibrant and lyrical poem of couplets. The rhythm and pace of the words (translated wonderfully into English by Todd Lewis and Subarna Man Tuladhar) conjure movement in every stanza. From the first chapter, Lumbini, to Entry into Nirvana, it flows breath after breath. The chapter, Yashodarā, is deeply moving as it begins with her heart-rending discovery that her beloved has gone. In fact, it is a welcomed view that the Buddha’s actions had painful consequences – an understanding not often explored. Initially, she is filled with fears that “something happened to the Noble One.” She progresses through consigning his absence to a “cruel fate”, trying to find solace in her newborn yet feeling abandoned to raising him without a father, hope when Chandaka returns, and rage when it is apparent her beloved is not with him. Yasodarā’s progression from the security of love to the realization that she had a higher calling is the moral teachings we need.

In Devadatta’s Sacrilege, Chittadhar gives new life to the story of the grieving mother who wanted the Buddha to bring her child back to life. In her pleading words, we see the investment we make in others – children, spouses, colleagues – to create a present and future reality for us. We discern that the “just world hypothesis” is deeply ingrained in our beliefs of reward- & blame-worthiness. The later sections of this chapter focus on the many ways Devadatta pours poison in the ears of the vulnerable and insecure around him. Again, intentions, actions, and consequences.

This is a book to savour. Place it on the shelf beside you. Pick it up and relish a chapter, a stanza, a couplet. It’s not fast food, take-out, or even a well-prepared dinner that’s done in a few minutes. It’s a cotyledon, willing to give its energy for our growth and later to nourish us through the winter into spring.

And, put on your socks – for yourself and others.

start with the seed

 “I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies of the religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”

Leonard Cohen – prelude to Ain’t No Cure for Love, Live in London Disc I

There was a time during which I woke up every morning, and in that waking felt intense anger that I had woken up. Physically and mentally, that is. Not deeply in any sense of the word. Woken up to the reality that I had not died in the night – quietly, softly, without fanfare. When people ask me if meditation has helped or why they should practice mindfulness (secular, therapeutic or otherwise), I veer away from this story because it’s just not that believable. What can I say to them? “Oh well, I felt profoundly suicidal all my life until one day I didn’t. Gee, I think that was the meditation! Well, it could have been psychotherapy but heck, the therapist had transference/attachment issues which really sank that ship.”

Let’s face it, friends. We all know our share of dharma teachers and longtime practitioners with serious Icky Disorders that we should be careful about assuming meditation/mindfulness is sufficient for insight and transformation. I’ll leave this here for the moment. Let’s go back to a time before pandemics and mindfulness wars.

The last few years have been a heady journey into the bowels of the many worlds of mindfulness. I mean that deliberately to point to the challenges of taking a path without a clarity of intention and insight to the consequences of our actions. Shit can happen and does. And the mindfulness worlds are no different in containing the good, bad, and ugly. More than that, I discovered it is a landscape in which the good needs the the bad and ugly in order to germinate, sprout, and bear fruit. I’m not naive – being a survivor of decades of throat-cutting academic studies, employment in highly competitive venues, and just plain dealing with toxic family issues. And yet. And yet, I fell into the hell realms with an ease that was impressive!

Good things happened though. I think – I’m told – our work made a contribution to setting a course towards the role and importance of sila in teaching mindfulness. More than that, thanks to the evolving conversations around intersectionality, uncovering our biases, and decolonizing our perspectives, the zeitgeist of mindfulness now seems to curve our life towards compassionate care for each other. The core intention of mindfulness is the arc of opening our heart/mind and with that we can let go of the dualistic discussions of mindfulness.

But… there is still the issue of practice and transformation. Practicing good intentions is not sufficient for cultivating wisdom and insight. Our transformation is firmly rooted in our ability to feel the consequences of our action. As skillful as we may believe we are, the fruit of our action informs us of our skillfulness – and the honesty of our intentions. Our willingness to experience the bitter taste of (hopefully unintended) consequences or the sweetness of wholesome outcomes is the teaching, is karma. It fuels our willingness to change our actions, evolve through the lessons of experiential consequences, and learn the nuances of being blameworthy.

Because each of you has his or her own death, you carry it with you in a secret place from the moment you’re born, it belongs to you and you belong to it.

Jose Saramago, Death with Interruptions

Now let’s return to those waking moments when I felt betrayed by Death. Honestly, to hope that death would be an extension of falling asleep is a misunderstanding of responsibility and a vast ignorance of belongingness. This sense that my practice was in cultivating belongingness wasn’t some great insight or a jolt of connection. In fact, it arose from the pain of all the not-belonging I felt day by day, moment-by-moment. As our dear Leonard Cohen did, I tried everything – meditation groups, sanghas, sesshins, dokusans, mindful self-compassion, teaching, reading, learning, writing, and way too many talks. Through all the disappointments, it came back to practice.

Practice – call it meditation, zazen, koans, what have you – has been a continuous thread of saying mu, no, neti-neti, slowly eroding away that craving to belong to be proven worthy of the tribe. And slowly, slowly “cheerfulness” kept surprising me. One morning I woke up, not just literally and caught my breath in the silence, in the empty space when anger had been. One day, I felt the gut punch of someone saying to me, “It hurts when I hurt myself.” One night, I fell asleep without expectations of living or dying.

There’s no magic in practice or prostrations. There’s only the embodied feeling of the consequences when they don’t align with my intentions to be kind, supportive, compassionate, caring, loving. Therein is the seed of liberation and the transformation of our unskillfulness.

I’ve missed you all. Thank you for being here waiting.

For an incredible ride into the world of transformation and insight, give C.W. Huntington’s powerful novel Maya a whirl.

Genju