fluid wisdom

I’m enjoying reading Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain & Simple.  Part of my final project for the Chaplaincy program is an exploration of different perspectives of the Four Noble Truths and his book was the only one in the Zen tradition I’ve read so far that takes an organized approach to teaching these fundamentals of the buddha-dharma.  (It’s an approach more typical of the Theravadin teachers.  But I’m sure it’s not the only Zen perspective to do so.  If you have any suggestions please let me know.) 

After a very compelling explanation of the first three Noble Truths, he begins to work on the Eight-fold Path with Right View.  By describing it as a fluid process, something constantly in motion, he opens the way to clearly see how we facilitate our mind of suffering through a false certainty about our reality. 

Take the banner picture of this post.  If asked, I would say, “Oh, that’s my apple tree in bloom.”  Actually, I did say that and watched my “are-you-sure-mind” kick in.  Well, it’s not really MY apple tree.  If it were I should be arrested for floral neglect given the minimal attention it’s received from me.  And actually, it’s not in bloom but perhaps blooming because even as I was playing around it, the sun was warming the buds coaxing them open.  Or maybe it wasn’t really blooming but dying because the wind was lifting petals off the stems and depositing them on the lawn. 

And all that would be wrong too.  It’s not an apple tree in bloom at all.  It’s a picture, a two-dimensional representation of a slice of time and space.  It’s a bracketed moment holding sensations of eyes, nose, hand, and desire.

Not too many books take me into these treacherous philosophical waters.  But I like it.

This is how we commonly deal with the world.  By our very attempt to grasp an explanation, we leave things out.  In just such a manner, to take any frozen view is to leave out a piece of Reality.  What we repeatedly fail to notice is that there is never a static object to observe – nor, for that matter, a static, clearly-defined observer.

Hagen goes on to point out the fallacy of a fixed identity and the pitfalls of latching onto it.  Frozen in static awareness, we become fearful and, through that fear, we adopt a rigid stance to our experience.  “I am” becomes the separator, the device to keep us from truly connecting with the world, relating to it in skillful ways.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The fact is, I’m not anything in particular.  Nor are you. Nor is anyone.

meeting the demons

Right Mindfulness is the last node of the Eightfold Path in our mandala of practice. I was reading a dharma sister’s publication in the new journal called Mindfulness where she wrote about her mindfulness practice and how it helped to deal with her husband’s illness and death.  I’ve never met (physically) Karen Hilsberg or, when he was alive, her husband, but connected with them deeply through correspondences for a short year before he died.  After his death, Karen and I continued our correspondence both as ordained members in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing and as mental health professionals.  Karen writes of the various practices that sustained her through the ordeal of managing the strain and eventual loss of her beloved partner as well as holding their children close through it all.  I hope you can access the article; it seems available to the public.  It is a rare piece of hard-hitting writing that manifests a deep mindfulness practice as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches without any of the white-washing or naiveté I often read in articles about personal journeys in mindfulness.

As I write this, I have Karen’s husband’s article in front of me; he had sent it along when he and I were discussing the challenges of bringing mindfulness practices into psychology.  He wrote:

One thing I dream of is a time when in the context of work, these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention prior to conducting the meeting.  This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

I have kept his article on the shelf over my desk under a statue of Jizo Bodhisattva since I first received it.  It reminds me over and over again that many of us share this dream of moving past our autopilot and into a space that is beyond labels.  Although his dream addresses our view of the patient who is the focus of the treatment planning meeting, it applies equally – if not more – to each of us around the table who get caught in the auto-pilot of our professional identities.

In the personal realm, there are all these autopilot identities too.  The identity of well-being, recognition, and many others become entrenched as rights to which we feel entitled.  As I read through Karen’s article and looked into my own life, I could see the ways in which mindfulness practice tore away the need to have a limited experience of life.  Karen writes of diving deep into practice – the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, the Four Noble Truths, the teachings of impermanence, relational self, and letting go – and it provided her the freedom to be with what was unfolding.  A dharma teacher who lead a day of mindfulness at our sangha described equanimity as freedom; when we can be with someone just the way they are in this moment, non-preferentially, non-judgementally, we give them the freedom to be.  Just be.  And in that freedom a hundred thousand miracles occur.

The precepts, engagement, and vision of our lives make up the practice of Mindfulness, a way of meeting the demons that visit regularly.  It folds into itself being both a node in the mandala of the Eightfold Path and the over-arching robe of liberation that we put on each moment.

I bow deeply to my dharma sister, Karen, and thank her for her wisdom and generosity in bringing her practice to all of us.  May the merit of her journey and her husband’s constant presence in our lives bring freedom from suffering to all beings.

Thank you for practising,

Genju