Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

August 8, 2006—September 21, 2006

August 8, 2006
In the past weeks I’ve been moving, as I tell myself, along the spectrum of acceptance of impermanence and well into the place where it becomes groundlessness. I suppose I must have been here many times before, I assume we all have, but this is the first time I’ve felt myself enter that space so fully as more than a temporary condition. Even with Barbara’s Alzheimer’s, I saw the uncertainties of our lives as conditional, and though not fearful of the unknowns we faced, I sought, however calmly, to preserve what ground I could. Key for me is that for the first time I can now feel myself—even as I initially resisted the experience-welcome it into my consciousness, embrace it as my connection to ultimate reality, recognize the power in that embrace. Not that I’ve taken this in for all time, by any means, but it feels a turning point.

Probably all craving—for a new car, popularity, a lover, an ice-cream cone, an award, a drink—is at its secret heart a craving for ground.

August 11, 2006
Groundlessness appears as terrifying until it occurs to us not just to accept it but to embrace it. The words for the terror are: “The rug was just pulled out from under me.” What we know when we embrace it is: “There never was a rug.”

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the Pure Land within us. I’ve been telling people that I am “on retreat,” meaning that I want to spend this time as much as possible without other distractions, living more of my day in Pure Land. It occurs to me that if we found ourselves in whatever we would consider Paradise, we would not even consider turning on the tv or cell phone or computer or seek out other ways to distract ourselves from the precious present moment. Of course the reality is that it is the tv that keeps us from being in Paradise, which is the present moment lived fully without distraction.

I remember one Spring day on the desert six or seven years ago, before I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh or meditating. I was walking in a wash near our cabin, the desert was in full bloom, a light wind was moving the clouds across the face of Whale Mountain, and it came to me more clearly than I had ever seen it that this was literally Paradise—not the exaggeration that we usually mean when we say that. I have never believed in Paradise or been attracted by the idea of it, but I’ve never forgotten this moment and what it told me: Your Paradise is here. Its abundance, its joys, its perfection (to use a rigid word for the flowing rightness of things), belong not only to this Spring morning but to every day if you can see them. This Spring morning is only the messenger for a larger reality, and only you stand in its way.

I’m using this time, now, to get out of the way of Paradise.

August 24, 2006
Barbara used to say, The purpose of life is growth, and I came to believe that myself, not because she said it but because it felt right to me. But yesterday I thought, “how do I define growth?” and that led me to a clearer understanding: for me, the purpose of life is clearing away distortion.

It has been, I now see, what my life has been about. Whether through therapy, feminism or, these past years, Buddhist practice, I have been busy deconstructing: first, deconstructing what Bettina’s workshop calls “the family system,” then the deep assumptions that bolster the structure of patriarchal society. Now I am clearing the distortions of an even larger reality, the distortions that linger from the believed thoughts underlying kleshas, the distortions of automatic judgments, the false assumptions about separation, about how the universe is structured.

September 14, 2006
In this period of time in a new apartment, with a new partner, I feel as never before how the river of life is moving through my being, under my thoughts and actions, changing me in ways that often seem beyond my ability to express. That is doubtless why I have written so little in these months. But entirely for my own understanding, I want to at least suggest some of the ways I feel difference.

I wrote earlier about an acceptance—ever deeper even if never complete—of groundlessness. Groundlessness is on intimate terms with impermanence, of course, though it is more profound than impermanence. Impermanence is what I came to know with Barbara’s Alzheimer’s—the understanding that what we take as part of life’s givens can change at any moment. Groundlessness says more: that we, and everyone and everything we know, are not only in the river, but are the river. What is “unsettling” is what we assume to be settled, what is unstable is our one true stability. Groundlessness is also on intimate terms with not knowing, with our coming to be deeply comfortable not only with not knowing this and that, but with the vastness and totality of our not knowing, until this too becomes a place not of insecurity but of peace and comfort.

These days I feel more than ever how non-attachment not only can coexist with love, but is so different from detachment that it takes us to a deeper place of love.

Love is not clinging. Love is open. Need seeks to close.

Speaking of love, a moment in Bernie Glassman’s talk last month has taken me to a deeper experience of interbeing. I still love my practice of looking at strangers and seeing their faces transformed by their Buddha natures, their smiles of inexpressible joy, eyes wide with wonder and amazed yet trusting delight. Bernie carried me farther, with his metaphor of the world as body. The right hand, he says, feels very very separate from the left hand, barely perceiving any connection. There is, after all, quite a distance between them. If the left hand is wounded, says Bernie, with blood pouring out from the gash, the right hand has three choices. She can shrug and say, “It’s too bad, but I have other things to do and this really has nothing to do with me.” She can say, “This is absolutely terrible, I feel awful, it hurts me as if it were my own pain, but I have no medical training. I don’t even have a bandage!” Or she can say, “I only have a crumpled kleenex in my pocket, or maybe just my hand itself, but if that’s all I have I’ll press against the left hand’s wound and do what I can to stop the flow.” Of course, if she doesn’t make that third choice, she will die along with the left hand.

My practice now is to look at strangers and feel them as my left hand. The sensation is one of entering their space lightly and feeling how whatever they might be feeling—guessing works perfectly well here—belongs to the same basic nature as feelings I have in what Thich Nhat Hanh calls my storehouse. The right hand does not know exactly what the left hand is experiencing at a given moment, but she can know in a profound way that they are made of the same stuff and that the variations—unless we focus, as we usually do, on the differences—are insubstantial.

September 15, 2006
Perhaps this is not part of the river, or else it is the river at its deepest flow. Reading Thich Nhat Hanh in Finding Our True Home about the necessity for suffering has helped me to comprehend the world in another way. I have had spurts of understanding, without understanding the basis for my understanding. On my closet door I had written a sign in red ink: “the limitless perfection of everything that is,” so I must have “gotten this” briefly at least, some months ago. Enough so that I could see for a little past my resistance to such an apparently smug, Pollyanna-sounding gloss on the world’s terrible suffering. These days, though, I can embrace it as the reality, without in any way softening the edges of torture, famine—or the torture and famine that can exist in people’s suffering minds. Thich Nhat Hanh, better than I can, makes clear that everything we value in this world could not possibly exist without suffering, be it compassion, courage, love, will, kindness, justice, tenderness, understanding, service, more. This does not of course mean that the slow death of a hungry child from AIDS is somehow redeemed by the compasssion I feel seeing her face on a magazine cover. Her individual agony is her individual agony. But the larger design is flawless, and within that design her torture or mine is flawless—part of “suchness.” To see this is in no way to shrug our shoulders and cease to care. Such suffering in the world, whether in a context of perfection or not, must call out from me an ever larger compassion, a larger service to match the reality of that pain.

September 17, 2006
Yesterday talking with Sande, I saw the world differently. I was talking about a fundamental contradiction in our personal suffering. On one hand, we can feel that our patterns of suffering, our familiar kleshas, are so ancient to us, so powerful, so woven into our psyches from earliest memory, that they must be by now an intractable part of who we are. Yet on the other hand, we can on occasion—from meditation or therapy or some other gift of life or death—see what was an embedded pattern, a part we would almost have said of our own nature, drop away suddenly, soundlessly, without the least effort or special fuss. A great fortress has collapsed, without even the rumble of bricks falling. As simple as that—given of course, the causes and conditions, some of which we can create. It’s what I’ve called “shedding” or the quiet but for us world-shaking awareness, “I don’t have to do that any more.” When I imagine the people around me released to their Buddha natures, see the changes in their faces, in their way of being in the world, it is this sudden possibility that my act of imagination is affirming. It helps me see the hand that holds the possibility of such profound and simple change. It says, the possibility is always present, right there, for the wall to silently disappear. It is, of course, important to give true respect to the first hand, the hand that sees our patterns of suffering as powerful because woven so early on into the fabric of our being, and in no way to be trivialized or discounted. Both perceptions are equally correct—just as the table is a mass of molecules in motion and also a sturdy resting place.

What came new for me in talking of this with Sande was another way of looking out at global suffering. If what I’ve just described is true in our individual lives, why not in the larger world. I’ve felt a kind of pained cynicism about the possibility of peace in the world—seeing only that wars, hatred, oppression have existed before early memory, believing that they are so embedded and so powerful that to imagine an end is an absurdity that deserves the sassy response of the popular bumpersticker: “Visualize Whirled Peas.” But I see now that I do not need to minimize the terrible history, the forces that create the intractibility of all that self-imposed human suffering, to believe in the possibility that, under some causes and conditions, that suffering too could drop away. I still don’t believe in operating from hope, which focuses on outcomes, but now I can recognize that there may be two hands that govern not only our individual suffering, but the larger suffering of the world.

Cognitive therapy and Buddhism say that our negative believed thoughts create suffering. True, but also it may be that when it becomes too painful to live at the center of our suffering, we create negative thoughts because as painful as they are they are still less painful and frightening than staying with the wordless suffering. To think “I don’t deserve to live” may even be—dare one say this?—a relief because it brings the world into a kind of order, takes us into the mind, a world of thought instead of feeling.

September 21, 2006
Another nugget from Bernie Glassman, this one especially for activists. Like other activists, I’ve known what it is to be discouraged by the apparent intractibility of the kinds of suffering we work to repair. I was discouraged, that is, until I recognized the value of process, and how it can count for as much or more than outcomes, which are at best uncertain. But Bernie offers another way of thinking that I find moving and true and surely Buddhist. He reminds us of the importance of no expectations, and gives an analogy. When we wash the dishes, we do not think, “Wow, I never have to wash those dishes again!” When a toddler we are caring for falls down and we go to pick her up, we do not think, “Wow, I’ll never have to pick up that child again!” Why should it be different for activism, or for anything else that needs doing? We do it, he says, because it needs to be done.