A tad nippy out there today. The weather networks say it’s only -10°C but my body says they are messing with my mind. This brings me to note that my mind is very messy these days. We’ve just ended the lease on our office in the city and will be working from home for the remainder of our debt load reduction. That may take a generation. It’s hard letting go of 25 years in one place, meeting and sharing the sorrows and joys of everyday life. I’m practising it as preparation for that final letting go. Grief, not for the object lost but as an adjustment to new surroundings.
Thankfully practice has been a buoy in both these calm and turbulent mental states. But practice has fallen off the edge since Pandemic 1.0 began and I’m becoming aware that I’m immensely talented at avoiding the cushion because it holds far more than my well-padded butt. Another awareness is a seed I planted about a year ago about exploring the intersection of the core suttas and their impact on my life. No, not a biography; more a series of prompts – the suttas and/or the events – to dig deeper into skillful practice.
It’s also a commitment to write, to breathe, to open the hand of thought and release clinging to that single moment when all will happen the way I want it to.
In a recent interview with a cherished colleague, I was asked how I came to the space of advocating for ethics in mindfulness based psychological interventions. What was the path that made this aspect of mindfulness so important to me that I would devote my work and practice to it? The question woke up deep memories of the people in my life who planted and cultivated the seeds of the Buddhadhamma and how they lived sila.
This is my grandmother. Daw Khin Myaing. A devout Buddhist who was also a cheroot-toting, wooden slipper-slinging mother of a wild band of children including my father. She was horrified by my parents’ Sunday afternoon poker parties and would sweep me off to Botatung pagoda. There, we would feed the turtles and chant the suttas with the monastics. A powerful seed that began to sprout decades later when, in stressful moments, I would hear the chants as an inner voice. But this was so long after we had immigrated that they were merely syllables with no meaning.
More years passed until out of curiosity – and a bit of anxiety that I was “hearing voices” – I discovered what they were:
Buddham saranam gacchami I go to the Buddha for refuge. Dhammam saranam gacchami I go to the Dhamma for refuge. Sangham saranam gacchami I go to the Sangha for refuge.
The lineage from the Buddha to my grandmother is unbroken, as it remains unbroken for all of us who remember what our commitments are.
Wake up and all beings awake with you.
The next few posts will explore the key suttas (sutras, stories) that have enriched my life practice (hopefully but no promises!). I hope you join me in this exploration of living skillfully in difficult times.
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.