Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

March 12, 2006—April 28, 2006

March 12, 2006
Last night I watched “Shanghai Ghetto,” a documentary of the Jews who escaped to Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the rise of Nazism. It wasn’t Auchswitz, but in some ways, because there were more of the outward signs of familiar life—work, cooking, school, it was easier to take in their suffering. While they went about ordinary tasks, every one of those routines involved a challenge that—except in their Jewish genes—was of a kind wholly foreign to these middleclass Germans in the 1930s. Families packed into tiny rooms without toilet or bathtub, one in a garret where you could only stand up in the middle of the room, streets reeking of the sewage that was hauled away in open trucks, temperatures reaching 140 in the shade when the powerful humidity was factored in, cold in winter, no drinkable water, food scraped from the streets and then picked over for stones and broken glass, so that people “shrank in their clothes,” and always the knowledge that, as hard as it was for them, it was even harder for the Chinese, who were kind and welcoming to these strangers.

Yet they created a lively cultural life, with newspapers, comic entertainers, poetry, sports for the children.

I thought of the phrase quoted by Pema Chodrun, “bourgeois suffering,” that can sum up all the kleshas we can feel when someone looks annoyed with us or cuts ahead of us in line or forgets our birthday or when the hot water stops in the middle of our shower. It occurs to me that, dropped into the Shanghai ghetto from affluent Berlin, people must have learned fairly quickly not to entertain the aversions that for us often feel just normal—to powerful stenches, dank air, incredible heat and piercing cold, to bugs in the rice, to the continual diarrhea. In order to make a life, and they did, they would need to have dispensed, at least most of the time, with the burden of those add-ons to the challenges before them—so that they could use their energies to pick the bugs and glass from the rice, devise ruses to scrape a little money, to keep fairly clean, to invent a soup that could serve ten—and write poetry and recognize that the Chinese suffered more.

For us, with our hot showers and airconditioning and tasty, nourishing meals—what energy we can release when we let go of our aversions, all of that tiresome bourgeois suffering. We can begin to make a life.

LATER (March 28)
A few weeks ago, in Balboa Park, I saw my first full-grown bodhi tree. At Deer Park monastery, they had planted two, but those were still saplings. The bodhi is a beautiful tree, with leaves of a strange and simple but elegant shape, but what I found most moving when I thought about it, was, maybe in contrast to my imaginings, its delicacy. One might think the Buddha would have chosen a tree whose thick-leaved branches would shelter him as completely as possible from the hot sun and heavy rains day upon day upon year. It was like a gift from the Buddha to see the great bodhi tree and to realize that its network of branches was no more than a light shelter—it would give him only a dappled shade of dancing leaves and a slight easing of the force of the rain. Sitting there day upon day upon year, with so little protection, the Buddha could practice releasing his aversions. He made a life.

March 18, 2006
I’ve told some of my friends who practice about how “the Buddha” helped me to resolve my dilemna of how I could be mindful without a mind. That is, his sutra telling us that the practitioner is aware when her mind is composed, when her mind is free, when her mind is capable of reaching a higher state. I’ve been asked what these different states mean to me, and I can say. Usually, my mind is composed— it is quiet and uncluttered, without difficulty of any kind, it just is. My mind is free when it is not just composed in the moment, but feels open to move in any direction without hindrance—no agenda, no klesha, no need to influence reality in any way, nothing that I cannot look at with equanimity, nothing to stop it. I may say, “My mind is composed,” and yet acknowledge that there are small or large barriers to its movement: “My mind is not free.” “My mind is capable of reaching a higher state” means to me that I can, at the least, reach and stay with a way of being that is delicious in its freedom, without hindrance, suffused with insight.

March 19, 2006
Jo told me last night about her experience of performing onstage, in a way she wouldn’t normally sign up for, and being totally free of anxiety. “I don’t know why these things make me so happy,” she said with the happiness there in her voice, “it doesn’t really have to do with the thing itself.” “Maybe,” I find myself saying, “it’s not so much what you’re doing as what you’re not doing.”

These moments are important. In Balboa Park today, I overheard, as they walked past, a five-year old African American boy in round glasses talking to his father whose hand he held. He was looking up all that distance to his father’s face and saying, in Jo’s voice, without bragging, just in a kind of pleased wonder, “There was a big big dog there and I wasn’t scared at all.”

We need a Pali or a Sanskrit word for this moment of change—the moment when we think, or live out with that kind of wonder, “I don’t have to do that anymore,” or “I can do that now.” Sande called it a “shift,” and that’s the sense, though the word needs more weight. It’s as real as though some internal organ had shifted—we suddenly can feel that the liver is on the right instead of the left, and we will not be the same after this.

We have kleshas and insights and hindrances, but no word that I know for these simple and profound shifts in our consciousness that change our lives forever.

April 8, 2006
A corollary to our practice of mindfulness is that every hour is as important as every other hour. I haven’t heard others speak of this, but I am beginning to experience it in a deep way—the understanding that the hour we spend washing dishes or ironing clothes is as important as the hour we spend receiving the Nobel Prize. The hour before our lover arrives is as important as the time we spend with her. This is not at all to flatten life into some grey morass of indifference. On the contrary, it means that we have raised the ordinary moments of life into the extraordinary.

April 24, 2006
Karma seems to have different meanings for different people, but here is something simple I could give that name to. When we don’t entertain kleshas, we tend to reduce other people’s kleshas, so that their distresses and confusions are less likely to come at us with full force, and we then have fewer occasions for our own kleshas to be stirred into motion. We can call that karma, a simple cause and effect.

April 28, 2006
For a relationship to flourish—which means that both persons can use it as a rich soil for growth—there must be security. But paradoxically, the deepest security comes in part from our acceptance of impermanance and uncertainty. We are then not expending energies in grasping after an illusory permanance. We can dig our roots down deeply and securely in the present, knowing that is all we have and recognizing that that is enough.