Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

August 6, 2007—August 10, 2007

August 6, 2007
I’ve been attending to what they call metta, or the practice of loving-kindness for a long time now, and in my times of greatest centeredness I begin to see the world of people differently. It has come as a slow surprise to mySelf because it is so different from my experience for seven decades, where I ignored people or quickly tried to decide if I approved of them or not.

I am beginning now to see all people—anybody, everybody—as not only possessing a “buddha nature”, a true and loving nature capable of freedom and joy, but of being that nature in their essence. I experience this not as an idea, a buddhist article of faith, but as a matter-of-fact perception that that nature is his or her fundamental being, his or her basic reality. His rude behavior, her sullen expression, his low self worth, her false cheeriness, his cruelty, her arrogance, his defensiveness, her need to control, his sentimentality—all of the menifestations that can seem to be the definition of people we encounter, that may seem written across their faces, branded on their eyes—all of these seem like the immaterial kleshas of their ignorance, the suffering that comes from not knowing their own true nature or that of others, no more than a miasmic, ever-shifting cloud of pollution between themselves and the sun. We don’t mistake the pollution for the sun or define the sun in terms of the miasma that covers it. Some of this new way of seeing comes from my practice of seeing strangers with troubled or angry or empty or embittered faces as they would be and feel in a moment of pure joy—how that would transform them, revealing their buddha selves.

It has occurred to me that when someone is in an emergency room with serious burns or last stage cancer before they have received treatment, we do not expect them to be wise and compassionate and gentle. Maybe they will be, but if the patient is angry at a delay or sobs with self-pity or cries out demanding help or is sullen and unresponsive, we do not decide that this unreasonable person is who she is in her essence; we do not write him off as unworthy. We do not assume that her labored breath is the quality of breath she has when not in pain. We seek to ease the pain and provide the best treatment—though not necessarily what they are calling out for—so that they can be themselves again.

Most of us are carrying within us a great cancerous mass of suffering, are so inured to it that we do not even name it suffering, but it distorts our perceptions, interferes with the free flow of our true natures just as the pain of the burn patient interferes with the free flow of her breath.

More and more often now, on my own equanimous days, and they come more and more often now, I can look at someone and take for granted in a deep way their natural goodness: feel tenderness for the cloud of suffering that keeps the heart tight and dims the perceptions. More often now, I can “see” the buddha nature first, and then take in the cloud. I was briefly puzzled that the buddha nature I “saw” was not only one of joyful peace, but also of a kind of intelligence, not the academic kind of course, until it was obvious to me that, yes of course, the end of ignorance would be the beginning of wisdom.

I think it easiest to do this with strangers, maybe only because we can furtively study them without needing to interact, though Bettina pointed out to me that for years I have found great joy in doing what I could to allow others to see their own natural goodness—I think I did this as a young woman when I was teaching writing. I am no saint—I’ve attacked people harshly, taking satisfaction even in twisting a knife, when I saw myself as defending someone, including myself. But I have loved—have sought out—being present when someone is opening to her authenticity, even as I went through the more ordinary routines of life ignoring, being judgmental, or even contemptuous. Today I can feel myself bringing my perceptions of basic goodness out of the context where I am in some way the “helper” to a simple recognition about the nature of everyone I meet. For me, retaining this perception is most difficult with people who have power over others and misuse it, but it begins to grow there too—not simply the recognition of their suffering but the recognition of what may be good and pure in a George Bush, a Sadaam Hussein, a Hitler.

This is what the Dalai Lama is seeing when his face warms the space with his smile.

August 7, 2007
As Buddhists, or Buddhish folks, we often speak of the freedom that comes from loosening our hold on identity—as in ”I am the kind of person who...” This letting go brings freedoms in our relationships too, leaving more space for the easy freedom of love. By my holding rigidly to my identity—”I always...I never...I can’t have...I must have...” and you holding rigidly to yours, we are planting the seeds for hundreds of conflicts, small and great, when we come together. Or else we learn to “compromise” (we will each be a little displeased with the pink sofa, since you really wanted a white one and I really wanted a red one), or we will take turns (“We can go to your vegan restaurant today if we can go to my steakhouse tomorrow”), which is a little like trading off pleasures in lovemaking, which may be done in a loving way but is not what making love is really about.

For women especially, it’s important to see that a Buddhish letting go of identity is not at all the same as submission. Submission says “I really want this but you want that so I will agree to that because I am afraid of you/ am afraid of losing you/ believe you always know what is best/ don’t trust my judgment/ am not as worthy as you.” Loosening the hold of our aversions and our grasping, which are such a part of our self-definition (maybe the entire package of what we think of as our Self), has nothing to do with surrender to the will of others. It is about surrender to the nature of existence.

August 8, 2007
Sitting on a stone bench in Balboa Park after meditation, I was practicing with Joko’s understanding (July 12) of the reciprocity of our relationship to the objects of our world—tables, bricks, glasses, shoes, feces. As I welcomed the relationship between myself and the great green glistening leaves of a huge plant across the the courtyard, I suddenly grasped intellectually what I was experiencing. What I was feeling now was something more than appreciation, which I now saw as one-sided and isolating, a one-way flow. In the mutuality of this flow I could see an underlying material reality—the glistening green leaves sent me their gifts of joy and beauty, but the leaves were brought into visual existence only because of the gift of my presence. It was not only that they depended on me to react to their beauty and to feel the joy. Without my eyes they could have no such existence—even if other people were there to see them, the leaves would not exist in this way, presented from this angle, as any painter might tell you.

My eyes brought the green plant into being, activated its greenness. The tree that falls in the forest when nobody is there makes no sound. After it falls, its massive trunk does not lie on the forest floor until someone or some animal comes to see it there. Even then it exists, not as a single fixed entity, but as a mass of relationships with others who see or touch or smell it in different ways and from different angles. The tree created in the interaction between itself and the forest hare is not the same as the tree of the hiker and it is different from the tree of her companion. Unless I bend over it, the rose on the fence has no odor.

I do not just appreciate, I create the world I see, smell, taste, hear at the same moment that it flows back to me, bringing me its interest and delight. The universe—leaf, puddle, pencil, stone, rusted can, moon—is clamoring to be known in its different shades and modes just as we—when freed of our conditioned fears of loss or shame that we call shyness or privacy—find pleasure in being known.

Lovemaking of course is in its essence not an alternating of my pleasure with your pleasure—its nature is this kind of indistinguishable flow. Teaching in its essential form—whether of the dharma or of molecular biology—is such a mutual transmission, in which the teacher is changed and enriched by the student as the student is changed and enriched by the teacher.

Appreciating, trading pleasures in bed, lecturing in a darkened lecture hall, all of these may have their brief places, but just as when we choose to watch a movie we do not mistake it for our daily reality, they should not be mistaken for life.

August 9, 2007
I have practiced with my body after death, seeing my flesh crawled on by flies, seeing the dry bones of my skeleton, my organs opened to be extracted—for me that is not too difficult. Recently it has occurred to me that my habit of imagining myself on a nursing home bed, in pain and discomfort and lethargy and incontience, is actually a 21st century version of the practice of imagining the charnel house with its rotting and putrefying bodies.

In earlier times, without the medications and operations and technologies of modern medicine, disease ended life more quickly—to die at forty after a painful but brief illness was commonplace. Today, at least for older people, who feel closer to their final years, there is more immediate fear of our bodies slowly decaying while we are alive than decaying after our death.

Perhaps this meditation is more timely today, and instead of a visit to the charnel ground we should substitute a stay—hopefully not voyeuristic—among the inhabitants of a long-term nursing home.

August 10, 2007
Yesterday, Bettina was telling me how her friend Ofelia, after her grown son became manic-depressive, could never quite get over her sense that life was unfair.

The idea of life’s fairness and unfairness, of good and evil, is an important one. I’ve never read When Bad Things Happen to Good People but I know it sold megacopies. When we are very young we usually accept the unfairness of our world by taking responsibility for even terrible things that happen to us. Daddy used me sexually because I am a bad little girl. Mommy divorced Daddy because I wasn’t good enough. Our world of childhood may be painful or frightening, but at least we have the comfort that it is fair. We may not know the rules, but we can make them up to make sure that nothing is really unfair. Our need to believe that our world is basically ordered and good is stronger than our need to know that we are basically good.

As we grow older, often around nine or ten, we change, and we begin to see that things can be unfair. My sister’s piece of cake is larger than mine. I was blamed for what Johnny did. Around the less important things we develop a sense of justice and a comforting self-righteousness, although because we’ve internalized our responsibility for the pain in our early childhood, we cannot trust in our own goodness, and it is still unthinkable that Mommy and Daddy could be “bad”—that is, responsible for the most painful things that happen to us.

As we grow up, we demand of life more and more fairness and are horrified to discover how much of life is unfair, though our own earliest pain, because long buried, still remains unexamined. We turn to religion to straighten out and correct the intolerable unfairness. The cruel person whose life goes so smoothly will go to hell; the good person whose good family is killed by a drunken driver will be reunited with their loved ones in a place where there can be no pain, no unfairness. The buried pain that we took on as our badness rather than believe in the badnesss of our parents tells us that we have original sin, but we have the comfort that if we are good, life will in the end be fair—we will be rewarded and bad people will be punished.

It is only when we come to a larger place of understanding that we can see that fairness and unfairness, good and evil, do not exist as material realities. Another less childish way of seeing is opened up. We can see beyond good and evil.

Still, and this is always my theme, before we can discard good and evil, fairness and unfairness, we must have revisited that old buried place of childhood pain and unearth the judgments that we learned to direct against ourselves out of our early need not to believe that the universe of our childhood could be unfair.