Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

January 4, 2005—January 31, 2005

January 4, 2005
I’ve always been amazed that Buddhism could entertain the idea of a heaven and hell, and today it occurs to me why it is especially odd. To hold out an idea of heaven is to encourage the ultimate paradigm of attachment, while the notion of hell stimulates the ultimate in aversion. It’s almost as if Buddhist practitioners, in tossing out their attachments and aversions could not quite complete the act, and let them all accumulate in a dark, secret place to be returned to after death.

Later of course I came to understand that the realms of hell and heaven can be seen as existing here and now, and I came to read and appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s reframing (in Finding Our True Home) of such concepts as the Buddha’s use of compassionate skillful means.

I am very slowly trying to teach myself about accepting physical pain. I have little enough of it, and I also find ways to avoid learning those lessons that I tell myself I am eager to learn—for example, I am still sitting in a chair for meditation in order to escape even the discomfort of crossed legs. Today I tried the meditation posture using the mantra “It just is.” I also paid attention to the little fear that comes up with the pain. I tried on Thich Nhat Hanh’s mantra of self-compassion, “Darling, I care about your suffering.” I call myself “sweetheart” sometimes, but somehow “darling” feels more adventurous and fun. I like both of these ways of approaching discomfort.

I’ve been aware lately that if it’s cold and rainy, as it’s been uncharacteristically here in San Diego lately, or if I am aching and not feeling well, while I tend not to add to my suffering with worries or fussy attention, I still easily lose the ability to be mindful. Instead of being present, I escape—substituting a flight into the emptiness of spaciness for the very different emptiness of mindfulness.

Spaciness is not spaciousness.

Later Jo remarked that spaciness can be a baby step towards spaciousness, since at least it releases us from the mind’s busyness.

January 8, 2005
It’s coming clear to me that Buddhist teachings make a great mistake in (famously) translating dukkha as suffering. It leads to a serious misunderstanding. Dukkha may be very, very painful but it is not the same as suffering. It is the junk we overlay on suffering—the anxiety, the dissatisfactions, the anger, the fear, the aversions, and so on, and the “believed thoughts” that lead to those conditions. Suffering is entirely different, and we need to grasp that distinction clearly.

Suffering, if you like, is “pure,” and in its purity is valuable because it is reality. My best personal example is the suffering that I experienced in the waves of deep grief after Barbara died. They were intense, but because—I think—I had “squeezed the sweetness” (a phrase from a dharma talk at Spirit Rock on a tape that Jo lent me) from our life together, they were free from dukkha—I felt the reality of the loss intensely, but without grasping, or guilt, or anger or some other overlay. In his book on dying, the Dalai Lama describes a time when he was being rushed to a hospital with an incredible pain (he had, I believe, a hole in his intestine). Out of the window of his automobile, he saw people on the streets of India in the most extreme poverty. As he describes it, he makes it clear that the pain (suffering) continued in its original intensity but, as he exercised compassion towards these other miserable people, he was free of the dukkha and so was peaceful with it. Of course there will be occasions (as we all know from our sitting meditations) when, if we remove the dukkha, the pain disappears at least for awhile. But it seems unwholesome to use a language that seems to claim that suffering is what we should hope to get free(r) from. Suffering is not a hindrance.

How language—as well as my own ignorance of usage—is a trap! Of course by now I bow to the common use in which dukkha=suffering but understood to be different from pain, and recognize that the distinctions I was making so forcefully are already the accepted ones.

January 9, 2005
One of the ways that we can see that Buddhism is not some unique and mysterious invention of the Buddha, but the reality of our lives when we are living them to the fullest, is in our experience of art. For instance, Buddhism (and therapy for that matter) calls on us to be observers, using our “Buddha nature” to observe the small self, moment to moment, with interest and cool compassion. Both the poet and the painter exercise this ability to observe in a profoundly focussed way, which like the monk, leads them to perceive the interdependencies of things, to travel into their deeper value. Painter and poet move to a place beyond superficial judgments, until the “ugly” (think of Van Gogh’s painting of old, muddy boots), seen with such mindful attention, shines with the beauty of its reality.

The novelist and dramatist also operate from a realm that is entirely beyond judgment, so that they can share deeply in the joys and sufferings of all manner of people, until they can exercise compassion for saints and serial killers.

The composer and the choreographer engage with impermanence, with a beauty that is in constant change, even more beautiful because it can never be held, and so exposing the folly of clinging.

The experience of creation is a deliciously selfless one. The small self is dropped, we feel the rapture of the spaciousness in and around us. And of course, the creator opens for the rest of us the door into that way of being. The artist is the dharma teacher of our everyday lives.

January 15, 2005
I’ve used the image of riding a horse off into the blue as a way of thinking about how we often straddle a feeling or an anxious preoccupation and urge it to gallop off in a chosen direction. But there’s another image, too, that can, on another day, describe the way we cling to feelings. I picture a great bird, like a vulture, that circles endlessly round and round some painful preoccupation of ours—only, instead of waiting for this dukkha to die, the great bird of our egos is waiting for it to stand up and reveal something quite new and valuable and usable. What should I do to impress my boss? What can I do about that difficult co-worker? How can I make my partner see how unhappy her messiness makes me? Why did Ruth seem so warm to me on Friday and then ignored me on Tuesday? The circling continues until the bird drops from weariness, since her very act of circling has prevented whatever our preoccupation was from ever revealing its understanding or solution.

January 16, 2005
M has died, and B is saying that she needs to let L know because L had admired him so much. B and I didn’t particularly admire H, finding him self-centered and pretentious, so I ask: “Really? admired him how?” “As a writer.” “I didn’t know L read M’s poetry.” “Well, she never did, but she was impressed that he was a writer.”

I think, one more time, how little we can use the bad or good opinion of others to guide us. It may feel confirming to be liked or admired, or dismaying to be criticized or condemned, but such reactions to us can be no more than salt in our stew. It’s not useful as the only way for us to decide if we’re mixing our ingredients in a wholesome way. I respect L, but even someone we respect can admire others—or ourselves—for reasons as absurd as that somebody calls himself a writer.

January 31, 2005
Compassion is not empathy,if by empathy we mean entering into the feelings of another, feeling as he or she feels. If compassion were that, the more enlightened we became, the more immobilized we would be by the suffering of others—as, in fact, people often are. It is also presumptuous for me to assume that I have that power to know what you are actually experiencing.

However: If I have not denied my own suffering; if I have experienced it with its power and immediacy as it welled up from the springs of childhood; if I have recognized it and honored it before letting it go, the quiet memory of that pain will help me to want to end, or at least accompany you in, yours.

If your situation awakens my own unresolved pain and if I arrogantly assume that yours is the same as mine, I will be listening to myself and not to you. I will be traveling on my own path and leaving you behind.

Instead of empathy—“I feel your pain”—we need to offer a more discriminating and respectful attention: “I’ve known pain intimately, and so—if you want me to—it would have meaning to me to attend closely to yours and to accompany you while you go through it.”