Friday, July 15, 2016

Look for the Buddhas

When bad things happen -- as they do with blinding regularity these days -- along with the  news of the latest atrocity, a quote from Fred Rogers comes up often on social media: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

It's good advice. It takes our focus off the pain and suffering, the blame and sadness. It reminds us that while bad things happen, good things also happen. As the Zen saying goes, life contains 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Maybe, these days, the number of sorrows seems larger, seems infinite. But that also raises the number of joys. They may be small joys -- wildflowers growing in a random spot, a sunset that stops you in your tracks, rocks on a beach, a kiss from a child, a smile from a stranger, strong coffee -- but they are there. Make your own list of what brings you joy. Please do. It's important to remember that those things, those people exist.

To put it in Buddhist terms, look for the bodhisattvas, the helpers, the ones who've vowed not to attain enlightenment until everyone can come with them. Look for Buddhas, the awakened beings.
You never know where there might  be a bodhisattva ... so just consider anyone who arouses bodhicitta in you as being a real Buddha, whether a deity, teacher, spiritual companion, or any else. -- Patrul Rinpoche
 Examples of bodhisattvas -- helpers -- and Buddhas, or awakened beings, don't exist only in texts and stories. They are all around. Do you know Naomi Shabib Nye's poem "Gate A-4"? It is a lovely story of how a tense, miserable four-hour flight delay became a veritable party, a event celebrating our shared condition.

Maybe that story resonates with me because I had my own experience of finding an unlikely bodhisattva during what turned out to be an overnight flight delay. There was one woman -- who I'd dismissed early on as an aging sweetheart of Sigma Chi due to her impeccable hair, matching outfit, and sorority luggage tag -- who kept the crowd from turning surly, who turned the energy in a positive direction. After the first announced delay, she learned the gate agents' names, and with each subsequent announcement, as people started to groan, she would loudly thank them, by name, for sharing the information they had. When the delay dragged on and the airline bought pizza for the passengers to share in the gate area, she pronounced it lovely. And when we were told we were being bused to a hotel an hour away and would fly out the next day, she made it seem like an adventure. Yes, it was frustrating and inconvenient. But her attitude kept the crowd from falling into the pit of despair, kept reminding us of our resiliency, our own choice to be miserable or cheerful. Sometimes that's what a situation needs -- an outlier to remind us there's another way to see things.

That's what the Buddhas do -- they help us to see our own enlightened nature, the joy of our interdependence. They remind us that everyone loves something, even if it's cookies (or tortillas). And we can build on that.

As Shahib Nye writes:
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, Thisis the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in thatgate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive aboutany other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
While the world seems dire, look around. Look for the buddhas. Be a buddha. Do what you can to help others see their true compassionate nature instead of condemning them and shutting them out.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Preliminaries are practice

Two years and 11 months ago, I started ngondro, the preliminary practices in vajrayana Buddhism. A week ago, I reached the required number of accumulations of prostrations, offerings, and mantras.

I didn't know I could do this. In fact, two days into the weeklong retreat where I and others learned the ngondro practices, I went up my lama during a break in teachings and told her tearfully that I didn't think I could. She laughed gently and said, "you don't have to do this," pointing out another path of study that I could follow.

I went through the next few days taking notes and doing practices, all the while thinking that I would not be doing them again, thinking I was good with that. Then I met with my mentor, my kalyanamitra, and immediately burst into tears, telling her that I didn't think I could do this.

She also laughed gently. "You can't do it perfectly," she said. "No one can. ... But you can do it."

And so I did it, imperfectly. One hundred thousand prostrations, 100,000 times to stand, slide, lay my body on the ground, and rise back up. One hundred thousand mandala offerings, more than 1 million mantras, sliding mala beads between my thumb and forefinger.

Along the way, I had to give up the idea that I could not do this. I had to give up a lot of ideas about myself: that I was incapable, that I couldn't take this time for myself, that I was not someone to mumble in a foreign language and perform ancient ritual practices I couldn't always parse out.

Over almost three years, I learned to hold my selves much more loosely, to not expect them to perfectly match my own or others' projections. I learned to let go of the things that I thought defined me, to see them washed away without giving myself time or space to explain or justify why they were there, to just let them go. And that meant forgiving the other players in those stories for their parts -- letting go of their storylines freed them to be new people in our relationships.

I learned to sit, to stay when I wanted to get up, to come back to the focus, to offer the mistakes and the errors as gifts of sincere effort, imperfect but genuine. To see the beauty of the imperfect but genuine, which is deeper than the merely lovely. To trust in the process, the map laid out hundreds of years ago, and to keep moving step by step through the fog of confusion until I found clear views again.

I had to prioritize in order to finish in three years; that was the deadline for the program I'm in to move on to the next practices. I don't know that much about what they involve. I'll find out. I'm more comfortable with uncertainty now.

You can learn more about the program here