Come, Let Us Reason Together…

We often think of ‘renunciates,’ i.e., those living lives of “ascetic self-denial,” as holy people who have given everything away for the purpose of living lives of poverty and contemplation. Yet, even after giving away all of our material possessions, we can still be encumbered by immaterial ‘possessions’ such as anger, greed, and delusion. And lately, it seems to me that if we could free ourselves of our delusions, we’d be done with anger and greed.

If we cannot stop clinging to our delusions, we might as well keep our money, fine clothes, big houses, or just the hard-earned pittances of the grueling 9-5 minimum-wage existence because nothing will change, and as the old saying goes, it’s easier to be miserable with money than without it. Nothing will change until we ‘let go’ and stop clinging to our puffed up sense of ‘self’; our delight in others’ misfortune; our need for others’ approval; and our “right” to revenge. I know this because I’ve lived “with” and “without,” and additionally, despite being aware of some of my delusions, my actions often tell me, at the most disheartening times, that I am still  under the influence of those delusions.

In the  Dhammapada, the book to which I like to refer to as the “Buddhist Bible,” the final verse of chapter 7 says:

Delightful to the worthy
are the places where others
find no joy.
Being free of the pull of passions,
the worthy rejoice anywhere
precisely because
they seek no delight.

That verse means something to me because I’ve read it about a million times. And it was, perhaps, the 999,998th time that it really started to mean something to me. It is now a quite common experience for me to reread something in the Buddhist canon that I’ve already reread, maybe hundreds of times, only to discover that it had either completely gone over my head or hadn’t even entered it before.

I keep mentioning my deficits, not because I want people to think how “humble” I am, but rather because it’s so scary to write about these topics because I am not a monastic, monastic scholar, or initiate. Also, as someone who has always loved words, and was an English major in college, I’ve learned, through my studies, and as a result of my meditation practice, that words are all but useless. The Buddha told his followers NOT to believe what he said because he said it, but rather to believe it because they’d EXPERIENCED it. Now,  that’s  humility. But it’s also true. We will not attain nibbana (nirvana) by reading “just the right book,” and even the Buddha, himself, if he still walked this Earth, could  not  grant or give us nibbana (nirvana) with a magical wave of his hand. As he directed us, we must be our own saviors:

“Monks, be islands unto yourselves,[1] be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands unto themselves… should investigate to the very heart of things:[2] ‘What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?’ [What is their origin?] — from the Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself. translated from the Pali by Maurice O’Connell Walshe

I must say, here, that I am so fascinated by this directive to be islands unto ourselves. Prior to this, as any good English major, I’d always quoted the great poet, John Donne:

“No man is an island…”

Mr. Donne was very right — and very wrong…

It’s very different “knowing” something because someone (even a reputable someone) has told us something, and knowing it because we’ve experienced  it. This is why someone could tell us the ultimate “secret to happiness,” but their words might mean nothing to us because we are either not ready to “hear” or “see” it, or simply because they are simply not the right words for us.

“Eureka moments” are usually quite personal and uniquely fashioned.

Namaste.

Freedom: Illusive or Elusive?

“Only a man himself can be the savior of himself, who else from outside could be his savior? With oneself controlled, one obtains a savior that is difficult to find.” (Dhp XII:160)  –Translation of The Dhammapada by Narada Thera.
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When someone insults, hurts, or “makes” us angry, and we react in kind, we often express our regret by saying, “Look what s/he made me do!” Then, we wonder,”How could they have done that to me?” In truth, we should be asking, instead, “Why do they have more control over my emotions/actions/kamma (karma) than do I?”

While I ‘know’ this on ‘good’ days, I sometimes demonstrate, by words or actions, that I’ve forgotten the same, i.e., haven’t yet  realized  this.

No one can “make” us anything but dead; and even then, we do not ever truly die. Nonetheless, ‘knowing’ is not enough, and thankfully, this, in itself, is a realization…

Namaste.

Of Doormats and Compassionate Beings…

We’ve all had the experience of someone simply looking at us and hating us. We, too, have experienced immediate repulsion upon meeting someone “new.” The reason for this repulsion could be as obscure as a kalpas-long karmic connection (or dis-connection), or it could be a reason rooted in ignorance. Mind you, here, that the denotation for the term ‘ignorant,’ does not mean “stupid,” but rather and simply, ‘uninformed.’ Most of us are not all-knowing – even if we don’t realize it.

One of my favorite verses of the Dhammapada (17:227) says:

“O Atula! Indeed, this is an ancient practice, not one only of today: they blame those who remain silent, they blame those who speak much, they blame those who speak in moderation. There is none in the world who is not blamed.” –The Dhammapada: Chapter 17, Anger

So, we really don’t have to do anything to offend someone. Just being there, and alive, is enough for some folks. An example of this is when someone is offended by everything we say, then offended when we give up and stop talking to them (because then, we’re “stuck-up”). These are the instances when we “can’t win for losing.”

Currently, I’m deeply considering how to deal with someone who has repeatedly inconvenienced me. I honestly don’t think she intentionally means me harm, but rather that she’s simply self-absorbed, inconsiderate, and lacking in compassion. A few months ago, she asked me to do her a favor which required my getting up at 6:30 AM and going somewhere to meet her. I agreed. The next morning, upon arriving at our agreed-upon designation, she wasn’t there. The next time I saw her, I said, “Where were you? I waited for some time!” She said, “Something came up.” End of explanation. Recently, she did the same thing, again. Her excuse: “It was only a little favor. What’s the big deal?” Again, there was no apology for the repeated rudeness and inconvenience. Admittedly, and for reasons I haven’t space to discuss, I, alone, put myself in the position to have her do this to me again.

This woman is not ignorant regarding what it feels like to be mistreated, as evidenced by her constant complaints about how others have “screwed [her] over.” Nonetheless, she’s completely incapable of acknowledging that when she “screws someone over,” they might feel the same way she feels. In fact, part of her excuse for acting the way she does is, “Well, everyone treats other people badly.” Additionally, she has no concept of the laws of karma, even though one of her favorite expressions is, “What goes around comes around.” Of course, this applies to everyone but her.

This last time, I told her, “I won’t give you the opportunity to do this to me again.” I don’t believe that being a “good person,” or a “good Christian,” or a “Good Buddhist,” or simply “good,” requires being a doormat or an idiot. I won’t refuse to help her if she falls down and needs help getting back to her feet, but I’m not going to go out of my way to do her any personal favors anymore, particularly if it means doing any kind of traveling when she won’t even bother to show up.

When I was a little girl, my mother taught me the following prayer to say each night, as I knelt by my bed before going to sleep:

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

Look upon this little child,

Pity my simplicity,

Suffer me to come to thee.

Amen.

As an elementary school-aged child, I didn’t understand this prayer. Once I reached adulthood, I reconsidered it and wondered at how anyone could think of Jesus as “meek and mild.” He was bold, engaged, outspoken, dynamic, and though not fearless (as evidenced by his “Father, if you can take this cup away from me” prayer), obviously impervious to that fear. Surely this big, strapping carpenter’s son was not some sniveling, 100-pound weakling-at-the-beach. But this is the image that domineering, manipulative people like to call to mind when you won’t let them walk all over you; and it’s also why many folks tend to eschew “turning the other cheek” in this “dog-eat-dog” world.

As I work to develop compassion, I’ve found that it’s crucial to understand the role of ignorance in the human equation. About a year ago, I was appalled to discover my own ignorance regarding a relationship with a family member some 30 years ago. This understanding has tempered how I view others who try to harm me, especially because the biggest difference between us might be that between the two of us, I, alone, am aware of the disease of ignorance. Perception is everything. My awareness does not make me better than that person – only more fortunate. Often, people don’t realize that the way they treat, or have treated, others has something to do with why their own lives aren’t quite what they’d wish. And I am ever mindful, as so many Buddhas have stated, that “it is a fortunate thing to be born a human.” Just as the Christian Bible reminds us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), so many Buddhas have advised us to do the same.

In his book, Meditation on Perception (2014), Bhante Gunaratana says:

“Under the control of ignorance, our cognitive faculties filter the world in such a way that things that are really impermanent, deficient, empty of self, and repulsive appear to us as their exact opposites: as permanent, as enjoyable, as our true self, and as desirable….Thus we not only conceive things in a distorted manner, but we even perceive the world around us, and most intimately, our own being, as testimony to these flawed notions of permanence, enjoyment, selfhood, and sensual beauty.”

Admittedly, I have problems sending  metta  (lovingkindeness) to some folks. So, all I can do in the present is keep reminding myself that I cannot judge someone for not yet realizing what it took me a good hard 40 years to realize, myself. And this realization requires me first, to have compassion on myself so that I can then extend that same compassion to others. A prime motivation for this is so that I don’t continue a (bad) karmic connection with someone, or create a “new” one (if there’s anything “new” under the sun).

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Related Readings:

The Dhammapada, Chapter 17:227 from Buddha.net

Gunaratana, B. (2014). Meditation on perception: Ten healing practices to cultivate mindfulness. Wisdom Publications: Boston, MA.