Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

December 4, 2005—December 30, 2005

December 4, 2005
On the desert I’ve been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, once again very glad that I didn’t read about concepts until I had already experienced them—what Sharon Salzberg, on a tape Jo lent me, calls “self-witness truth.” So these ideas did not rattle around in my head, like empty wooden balls along with all the other concepts that might or might not be true, so that I didn’t have to waste time wondering if they actually went too far, if I were actually going too far in letting them into my brain—as if the brain were where they belonged, anyway.

As I begin grudgingly to stop extrapolating from my own experiences, I can see that perhaps it is not so for everyone. Still, I think that teachings, whether sutras or dharma talks or contemporary writings, are like a heavy heavy rain. It’s as if we were an expanse of unwatered earth. Over time our practice digs little holes of experiential understanding here and there in the earth, and when we have dug such a hole, the rainwater, which barely seeps into the rest of the ground, and would dry up quickly in a spell of drought, can flow in and become a well from which we can draw. In time there are many such wells for the water to fill, and over more time, the wells connect to form a great and trustworthy reservoir. So the teachings or the experience of others have a place, but provide their real gift only when we have prepared the ground.

The same image applies when we are unmoved by, for example, a dharma talk that may be very wise but whose content we have entirely incorporated. That happened when Diane and I went to Deer Park and Thich Nhat Hanh spoke. He reviewed the fundamentals of meditation, and both Diane and I, who had been eager to hear him, found ourselves nodding off to sleep. At the same time, a woman we know attended and told everyone what a remarkable talk he had given. This is to be expected. However lovely the rain, if the well is filled, the water will not sink in, while our friend had prepared a well that was ready to be generously filled by T’hay’s talk.

December 6, 2005
“I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

To my amazement, these words that Humphrey Bogart spoke to Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” resonated in my head in a wholly new way the other day, suddenly transformed by practice from World War II heroics to something illuminating and usable.

I begin to see, only just begin to see, how taking in the suffering of the world with compassion at a deep level can transform our own suffering. If we see the rest of the world as basically a nice, orderly place, where most people are going along pretty fine, and suffering is, if too common, still just a deplorable blip in this smooth course, then we will cry out “Why me?” or at least spend energy struggling to come to terms with our personal pain. But if we experience—at a more than intellectual level, because moving past that level is key— the world’s pain as our shared reality, as the norm of our existence as human beings, we are free of the burden of exceptionalizing and exaggerating our individual pain. I suspect this was what happened when the Dalai Lama, riding in a car to the hospital with excruciating pain from a punctured intestine, looked out and saw the throngs of wretched, hungry poor on the streets and—while still feeling the pain—ceased to suffer.

I am not sure this can be done before we have explored our own pain in its uniqueness, in the acuteness of our particular suffering. Certainly this is not therapy on the cheap—oh, gee, I guess everybody suffers, so I shouldn’t be making such a deal about mine. Only when we have had deep compassion for our own pain can we begin to feel the deepest compassion for the world’s suffering, and only when we have that fullness of compassion can we take in the fullness of that reality. The first noble truth is not a one-dimensional concept (though for some it may begin that way)—it is an ever-expanding revelation of the larger terms of life.

When we have taken that longer path—when we have allowed ourselves, with compassion, to truly open ourselves to our own suffering, and then allowed ourselves, with compassion, to truly open ourselves to the world’s larger pain—we come out in a place that looks simplistic and is if we shortcut our way to it: Since I truly know that everybody suffers, it is only natural and not so hugely important if I suffer.

December 12, 2005
I’ve written about how sometimes, watching people on the streets or in the Y, I’ve looked for what might be their particular suffering, the dukkha they carry through life. Mostly it lives in the eyes when they’re unguarded, and I’ve been surprised at the variety and specificity I seem to find there—disappointment, anger, sadness, confusion, self-protection, bafflement, anxiety, bitterness, a sense of injustice, alarm, loneliness, defiance, that seems to simply live there, not triggered by anything that just happened.

Lately, I’ve taken a different path—I look inside to see who they are without their dukkha, which means (she said with some self-consciouness) in their Buddhahood. In place of the universality of suffering, this has put me in touch with the universality of “goodness”—who we are when we feel and act from that part of ourselves that is free of suffering. Always before I’ve felt contempt on hearing the stories of the Nazi or the Chilean torturer who is so loving to his children. Now I begin to feel differently, to see that it is not impossible for Buddha nature to be free to express itself in one context while the person is dominated by his dukka in most others.

Today, I began to use this understanding in a new way. Walking in Balboa Park this morning, Sande told me about her great admiration for Joan Didion’s book about grieving for her dead husband. I never cared for Didion, so I could truthfully tell Sande that I had always found her cold towards others, and I didn’t care to read about her suffering now. But even as I spoke, I knew there was more. For a long time, I have been surprised by the little twinge of alarm and jealousy that rises when I hear about somebody who has published something about caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or a partner who has died. Even though part (most) of me is deeply at peace with what happens to my work in the world, I’m still connected to a part of me that wanted a dyke’s story (my story) of Alzheimer’s and death to be in the world before everybody in the world climbed on that train. The twinge is also the ancient jealousy of my childhood—especially when it’s someone as admired and cold as Joan Didion (or my sister).

All to say that when I sat in the little garden in Balboa Park to meditate, I began to see that there was another way for me to come at the twinges of jealousy. I realized that the jealousy comes out of an unreal world of my dukkha and her dukkha, my small self resenting her (imagined) small self, so that our little egos are locked in a competition in which one of us wins and the other loses and I know which is which. Suddenly it came to me that I could apply to Didion what I had been beginning to apply to strangers or the kindly Nazi—that she too not only had suffering (long before her husband died) but also Buddhahood. That some, or all, of the new book might be coming from that place, even if much of her was still governed by dukkha, and that even if that weren’t the case, as soon as I could imagine the Buddha part of her, my jealousy and resentment melted away, I wanted good for her. I got it that in that space we were merged, so how could she be a threat to me? How could I not wish her well?

I just looked back at my entry of March 30, 2004. To see the first noble truth, to see how we all suffer, to refrain from killing sentient beings because it might cause their suffering, is essential understanding. To see the universality of suffering frees us, including in the way I began to understand on December 6. But there are myriad ways to kill without causing suffering, and we don’t kill, my theory of March 30 goes, in part because we are also killing their buddhahood. To see the goodness, the Buddhahood, in all sentient beings is, I suppose, the third noble truth, and it frees us in other quite lovely ways, including, perhaps, freeing me from the necessity to envy Joan Didion.

December 23, 2005
More and more I see that a lot of judgmentalism is about control— or rather, of course, our illusions about control. Some of us feel compelled to form judgments about absolutely everything we encounter, as if were our job—this is good, that’s bad, she should have done it this way not that way, this is pretty and that’s ugly, dark meat is obviously better than white meat, on and on, as if we were hired to do quality control for the world. Or as if there’s an underlying fantasy that, even if we don’t control everything in the world today, at least if we were made king or God tomorrow we would definitely be ready: we would have made all those decisions, settled all those issues, we could control and perfect the universe. Such a comfort to build those certainties!

And such a relief when we realize we can quit that weighty responsibility and nothing is at all the worse for it.

When Barbara’s Alzheimer’s let me take in the absurdity of imagining that I could have—or need to have—control, it made a difference to my judgmentalism. If we can see either one as delusion, it will loosen the hold of the other.

December 24, 2005
Sande talks about how some of us need to approach the world habitually with “explanations”—for example, we look at the variegated colors on the fall leaf and respond to them by trying to find some scientific reason behind the pattern. Of course there’s a place for that—for explanation, for naming and categorizing—but when it’s our automatic way of being in the world it can keep us from the mystery, the joy, the presentness of the pure experience of this leaf we are holding. So why would we do that?

When any automatic habit keeps us distanced from the present moment, it usually means that we feel an anxious need to shore up our egos. We hurry back from the richness and expansiveness of life to take care of our selves, to make sure we are still there, still o.k. So the search for explanation—as a habit—is the attempt by our small selves to feel more in control, less powerless. We give our anxious selves the reassurance of our store of acquired knowledge, the reassurance of how smart we are, how nicely we can build on what we know, can figure things out.

Our response to this understanding, of course, shouldn’t be self-criticism. Instead we can see our habit more as a cry for help, informing us that we need to pay closer attention to our neediness, telling us we need to provide a different kind of care-taking of our small self—more compassion and tenderness for its insecurities.

December 27, 2005
When someone does something rude or insensitive, we often react with anger and hang onto that anger longer than makes sense even to ourselves. Sande helped me to see why that might be so. The rude remark, the insensitive behavior disrupts our sense of order, of how things should be in our world. She used the word jarring and I wrote it down right away to remember it, because it feels important and useful.

When those disruptions occur, we focus automatically on the person who has just caused this alarm in us. So we leap headfirst into judgments (how could she?), then hang onto those judgments, elaborating them (and what’s more!)—so that we can feel justified in our anger or resentment at this disturbance to our world. But Sande’s insight tells me that instead of focusing on that person, we can focus directly on the alarm itself, recognize it, note it, honor it. Instead of the personalizing of “how could she?” we can go immediately to “jarring,” to acknowledging and appreciating the power of that impersonal force.

If we take the moment to recognize that our world has been temporarily placed out of kilter, and that that is alarming to us, we don’t have to jump blindly aboard the anger and the judging, don’t have to be carried off on some crazy ride that we often know has little value even as we go careening forward.

December 30, 2005
But I begin to see that it’s more than that. I see that clearing away judgmentalism is not just a huge relief from a burden we often don’t recognize as the useless weight that it is. I see that clearing the space makes room for other lighter, richer experiences. I stopped to be aware of this the other day when Y behaved towards me in a way that, a few years ago, I would have almost thought it my obligation to dwell in horror at. Instead, clear of the judgmentalism, the how could she? I entered into a space where I could see her life, the conditions that shape it, with a pleasurable clarity and caring—not making “excuses” for her rude behavior but placing it in a larger context where, like most of us, she was struggling to do the best she could with issues that assaulted her, that stirred up her private dukkha.

I see clearly now that, once we remove the how could she?, we create at least the possibility for insight and understanding about how she could.