Thursday, November 17, 2011

Not dead yet?Are you sure?

Imagine yourself sitting across from Aunt Susan at Thanksgiving dinner as she shares her opinions about Occupy Wall Street, Barack Obama, and the Defense of Marriage Act -- of which are the opposite of your own. You're biting your tongue, recalling the paramita of patience, when she asks: "So, what's this I hear about you joining some cult?"

Close your eyes and find your breath. Check in. What are you feeling?

Now imagine that you're at Aunt Susan's wake or memorial service. Your mother, her sister, is at your side. Your cousin, who you've known all your life, is crying in the reception line.

Again, close your eyes and find your breath. Do you feel differently?

Here’s a story:

Venerable Ajahn Chah was the abbot of Wat Nong Pah Pong Monastery, which follows the strictest rules of monastic conduct as laid out in the Pali suttas, believed to be the Buddha's earliest teachings. As a monastic, even though he was the abbot, Ajahn Chah’s only possessions were his robes and his begging bowl. Imagine no possessions … it’s not easy, no matter what John Lennon sang.

But a westerner who had come to study at the monastery noted that Ajahn Chah seemed to have a preference for a particular glass, that he would choose that glass for his tea. Being a westerner, he confronted Ajahn Chah with this seeming contradiction.

The abbot admitted that he did, in fact, have a fondness for the glass. Whatever it is that makes us fond of inanimate objects, that glass contained it for Ajahn Chah – the shape, the weight, the color. But, he added, the glass, even in its existence, contained its non-existence. It would fall to the ground and break, or develop a crack, or get lost. Maybe a monk would take it outside and forget to bring it back.

When he looked at the glass, Ajahn Chah said, he saw that it was already broken.

Noah Levine of Against the Steam Buddhist Meditation Society told this story in a talk on death. What if, Noah asked, instead of merely accepting the inevitable truth that everyone will die, we saw them as already dead? Does that subtle shift make a difference?

Try it out (in silence).

I work next to a person I occasionally refer to as The Swirling Vortex of Negativity. She is my irritating Bengali tea boy (a story for another day), the difficult person in my metta practice, the reminder throughout the work day to strive to embody kind, compassionate detachment.

But seeing her as already dead, my heart broke a bit. The things that bother me are just the confused end of characteristics I would admire: energy, loyalty, clear focus. Were I writing a condolence card, there would be qualities I could truly say I loved in her.

Can I appreciate them now, when she’s not dead yet?

And if that doesn't work, I recommend finding a quiet place and repeating this mantra, courtesy of the Buddha: The happiness or suffering of others depends on their actions, not my wishes for them.

In other words, you can't make someone else happy; you can only make yourself miserable.

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