a thousand hands of compassion – book review

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Some time ago, one of my dharma friends sent me this lovely book. A Thousand Hands of Compassion: The Chant of Korean Spirituality and Enlightenment by Seon Master Daehaeng¹. I was strangely moved. Strangely because I have never really believed that people who haven’t met face to face actually have the capacity to activate a resonance that one might call a bond, a quiet joy, a sense of being considered kindly. More strangely because I thought I’d done enough work on my own walls and thickets, been the recipient of enough gifts from people I’ve not yet met and those I may never meet to have these walls become porous enough for kindness to flow in.

But there you have it. I am one gnarly, snarly nut to riddle with holes.

Kindness is an interesting thing. It’s one of those behaviourally-based activities that is only known when seen. I do find it easy to be kind. Ultimately it doesn’t cost anything and there is a feel-good factor when all is said and given.

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Compassion, however, is something else all together. It costs everything. And it requires that we are willing to be in the presence of everything. There are no options or substitutions allowed.

My one mind is the root of all things.
All things arise from it,
so all things I completely entrust to it.
This letting go
fills my heart with light. (p. 36)

This book is an amazing opportunity to practice just that fortitude. Taken from different sutras, it is compiled as a single text and chanted daily in Korean temples. The verses call on us to devote ourselves to that one mind that is the mind of all Buddhas. Some read as short recitations that almost evoke a full prostration. Others are slightly longer tracts that evoke an inner call-and-response. Each page carries a verse, Korean on one side, English on the other, and is enriched by the stunning art of Hyo Rim.
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The minds of all Buddhas are my mind.
Nothing I see, hear, or do
exists apart from
the truth they realized.
My one mind itself is the Buddha-dharma,
present throughout all aspects
of my life. (p.24)

Tomorrow Frank and I leave for our respective retreats. He’s off to something somewhere that hopefully won’t have him terrorizing other meditators with his death stare. I’m off to learn a bit about self-compassion. It seems an oxymoron this term “self-compassion” but I do recall spending about two years on the first two lines of the Metta Sutta.

May I be free from suffering
May I be at peace

So I’m taking this book and my mala beads and an appreciation for T.S. Eliot.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

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¹You can read more about Seon Master Daehaeng here.

digging out dukkha

DSC_0101It’s been a rough few days. My heart goes out to the families in Newtown CT and globally in places we never hear about who are going through what, to me, is unimaginable loss. I have no wise words, no salve, no offers of hope for ease and peace. Often, when such tragedies strike, I find myself watching it all unfold, mesmerized by the way online characters respond to words written on this posting or that. Often, when I read cruel and mean-spirited comments or just plain ignorant ones, I find myself turning to Frank and asking him to explain (yet again) the mentality I think is reflected in the words I’m reading. Together, we sit and he tries his very best to explain this aspect of his birth culture and I fail (yet again) to grasp the senselessness of the physical, verbal, and emotional violence so many witness and endure.

For so long I have deeply wished we could eradicate all the weaponry of emotional and physical hurt. I have this delusion that the suffering left will be manageable, witness-able, containable.  But I know that is not likely to be the end result.  So I’ve vowed to stop trying to make sense out of something that cannot make sense – not even in how we reference it because “senseless” violence is the oxymoron of oxymorons.  In fact, to call it that subtly opens a door to discussion for what constitutes “sensible” violence.  And caught in our deluded states of mind (often armed with statistics), there is no end to what we each believe is sensible in these circumstances.   However, nothing can ever justify violence or our reluctance to do what is necessary to prevent it.  But, couched in these discussions, there is a subtle “bait-and-switch” that leads us away from the real issue.  Because violence and death are often dramatically coupled, violent deaths become the salient aspect of an event and the focus of all our energies.  Caught in our passion, we miss that it is the finger pointing to the moon.

Embedded in these events is a deeper truth and it opens to the possibility of digging further into our practice.  In sangha, after we honoured the pain and suffering of all grieving families in the ten directions, we shared our thoughts about the events at Newtown and other occasions of profound suffering.  One sangha friend pointed out wisely that even if we managed to prevent these and other deaths, we are still left with the reality of suffering that is inherent in living.  This is the intimate truth of all living beings; being born is the most predictable cause of dying and it is  not preventable.  Furthermore, there is much suffering that arises in the process of getting from birth to death.  These many variants of suffering themselves become the roots of all forms of suffering – including but not exclusive to pre-mature death, sometimes from violence.  These are, in large part, preventable.

This First Truth of suffering is the touchstone to which we must return each and every time we are confronted with the inexplicable.  Only then can we begin to see the bigger picture of what is necessary and possible.  Only then can we embody our practice of compassionate action through our civic, spiritual, and personal paths as we take determined steps to dig out the roots of many forms of suffering.  If not, if we focus only on weapons or violence or drugs or whatever is salient in this moment, we are only cleaning out the compost bin and not the septic bed it sits atop that itself needs to be dug out.