Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

January 2, 2008—January 26, 2008

January 2, 2008
Asking “what is it?” of our physical and emotional states sharpens our practice of awareness and now and then can yield surprising riches. Sometimes at the start of my day I discover low-level muted sadness, not difficult to wave aside with some distraction, but today I gave it my full attention.

First I practiced with the wonderful habit of telling it that it didn’t need to go away, it could stay forever if it wanted to, and I would “live through it,” not in the usual temporal sense of waiting for it to come to an end, but living past it in a spatial sense, as when we say, “I can see the garden through the window.” The feeling is still pain, but becomes a clear pane, something permeable that can allow me to experience the messages from a world that has nothing to do with it.

But today before I gave myself the chance to carry that practice through, I lingered a bit with the “what is it?” This “what is it?” has, of course, nothing in common with “why?”, which is rarely a useful question, though sometimes—today in fact—it can become an answer.

The image that followed that purely physical question “what is it?” was that the sadness was collected tightly in my throat and down to my chest, and it was like a “ramrod.” That description seemed odd to me, and then I flashed that the sadness was the appropriate response of Little Cynthia to the conditioning that had been ramrodded down her throat stifling and subduing her buddha nature. The excitement of that discovery made the sadness fade, but that was not at all the point. With more and more solidity I know that practice is not about eliminating pain but keeping it good company. Still the gift of that insight brought me the sweet peace of compassion and understanding.

January 7, 2008
When I first read Thich Nhat Hanh on interbeing—how the piece of paper contains the tree, the logger, the sun, the rain, the logger’s mother and so much more—or heard about mindful eating, having such a consciousness sounded wonderful but a great deal of work. It took a great deal of time, as my fork rose to my mouth, to include the farmer and the soil and the trucker and the shelf stocker and more in that bite, but also I decided it might be impossibly challenging for me to experience the world in that way, because of my attention disorder. I felt that I had no awareness of how things are made, or even out of what materials—the world has always tended to slip a little through my fingers because of learning and memory problems and, simply, inattention when things were being explained. Why bother to do that work of paying attention to how plastic is made when you are only going to forget? Sande even bought for me a little child’s book How Things Are Made, but it didn’t really change my sense that I would never be able to penetrate the ultimate reality of inter-relatedness.

Oddly, though, I have lately experienced an easy flow of that kind of understanding about the web of interdependence that everything is enmeshed in, and I’m rather interested at how forced and labored it felt to me at the beginning. Although many of my reactions are intensified by the attention disorder, I begin to think that it was neither the hard work, nor my ignorance of the world that held me back and that maybe holds others back too. It was, I think, more the simple power of conditioning—that everything has a separate and independent existence. The great leap made by the infant is supposed to be that she loses the sense of wholeness and interconnectedness, and comes to recognize that separateness and independence as the true nature of the world. Mother is separate from her, she is separate from bottle and blanket and toy. Mother may bring bottle or toy but is an entirely different entity from them and from Self. And of course to operate in the phenomenal world we will need to maintain those differences. Our problem is that we come to see separateness not as conditional but as fundamental, as invalidating our early experience of interbeing, until no consciousness that science tells us otherwise can shake our persistence. When we decide that we choose to view the world in its real form, the effort seems as great, as self-conscious and forced, as trying to relearn the alphabet backwards. I haven’t yet learned to recite the alphabet of inter-relationship backwards with the same fluency as forwards, but it begins to flow.

January 14, 2008
Bettina and I were talking about someone who always gives with “strings attached,” that is, with an expectation that you will appreciate in the moment, appreciate how much was given, and continue to appreciate.

Although her hunger for appreciation is extreme, it occurred to me how often we attach strings to our gifts. Whether they are gifts of money, time, attention, love, whatever, we listen, consciously or unconsciously, for the spoken or unspoken ‘thank you.’ And yet the truth is, we do not give for the recipient of our gift, we give for ourselves, for our own purposes. Giving may provide us with simple delight or with satisfaction or self-importance or relief from our own low self-esteem or to obtain love or because we feel another’s need as our own, or, if we give grudgingly, to avoid the guilt we might experience if we did not give. Whatever our motives, we give for ourselves. What is mudita if not the joy we ourselves feel when we encounter another’s joy?

It is our failure to recognize that we are always giving for ourselves that makes us want something back from the other person and sometimes makes us hurt or angry when it doesn’t come. “After all I gave her!” as though it was ever about her and not about our joy or relief or self-importance or freedom from guilt.

I used to have on my bathroom door the saying of some Italian writer: “I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received.” I no longer need that reminder on my door, but now I see something more: that if we are to give without attachment, without “strings attached”, we need to be very clear—in the moment of giving—that, whatever the nature of our gift, what the gift is about is our own giving to ourselves.

January 23, 2008
While we may need to use it sometimes in our casual exchanges with others (“I’d love to go, but I’m busy that night”), we might find it very helpful to our practice if we could entirely eliminate the word but.

But almost always undermines the words that proceed it: “I’m tired today but I’m happy,” “He’s a difficult person but he’s my brother,” “I want to apply for that job but I lack the confidence,” “I’ve been practicing for a year but I’m still not enlightened.” Whatever the message is, the but does not allow for the absolute coexistence of the two ideas—there is a violence, or at least a friction between the two realities, rather than a full acceptance of the light and dark of the universe, a recognition that there can be harmony in difference.

The but tells us that we are attached to a notion of how things should be: if I’m tired, I shouldn’t be happy, if he’s my brother he shouldn’t be difficult, if I want to apply for that job I should have the confidence, if I’ve been practicing for a year I should be enlightened. If we want to eliminate the shoulds in our life, we might try to eliminate the buts.

“I’m tired today and I’m happy,” “He’s a difficult person and he’s my brother,” “I want to apply for that job and I lack the confidence,” “I’ve been practicing for a year and I’m still not enlightened.” The and takes us to another level of reality, where the universe opens up a little to show us how she really operates.

Outside the window in the living room where I’ve been meditating I can see the pear tree in all its winter variety—green leaves, red leaves, a couple of fragile white blossoms, dead brown leaves clinging to a high branch. Today I meditated watching one green leaf with red cheeks that danced in the air from an invisible thread that somehow held it to the branch above. She became an embodiment for me of our life, especially our life towards its known end, expressing at once a persistent attachment (here, literally an attachment!) to our known life, a refusal to be parted from it, even when all that holds us is the slimmest thread—and the thread is always slim—and an equal desire to be free, to be released, not to dangle but to come to the ground.

On this side of the window I’d placed a tall red candle. There was no moving air and so the flame was unusually still—if I didn’t know better, I would think it was fixed, unchanging. The candle expressed to me our illusion of the independent self, which seems so obviously a stable separate reality, and is always in flux and always connecting to the black wick, to the pool of wax below and to the air above, which always sustains it as well as receiving from it.

January 26, 2008
Thich Nhat Hanh reads the Pureland sutra in two ways. For practioners who—perhaps out of the desperation of their lives—need such a concept, Pureland can be understood as a distant though attainable heaven. Thay sees the Buddha as allowing for this interpretation as a profoundly compassionate skillful means to introduce the wonder of the universe to those who otherwise would not be able to see it in the life around them. For those who are more settled in their practice, he sees that the Buddha was providing, in Pureland, an accurate description of our world here, today, available at any moment when we can lift the veil of our suffering enough so that we can see it.

When Bettina broke her watch, I gave her an old ten-dollar Casio watch of Barbara’s, identical to the one I wear. She discovered that it could set off a tiny alarm on the hour, and she used it to stop for a second or two to say “thank you.” She set mine, and I’ve been doing the same. It is sweet when our watches emit their little beeps within a few seconds of each other, and it was especially sweet when Bettina was in Hamburg to know that we were hearing the sound at the same moment.

I’ve been using my alarm to say “thank you” and also to look deeply at whatever my eye has settled on at that moment. My “thank you” goes out to that object or that person and I take the moment to feel gratitude and love for whatever is there—a coat hanger, a tree, a lampshade, a pipe. I see it through the eyes of love, which is to say I see it.

The effect for me has been to extend the way of being in the world that I described as Pureland or Paradise a year and a half ago (August 11, 2006). Lately I’ve been able to see Pureland for many hours and sometimes for days. That is, the common world around me has been bright, shining, cleansed as when the clouding of my eye receded after cataract surgery. Ordinary objects are amazing, miraculous, deeply and naturally interconnected with everything that went into creating them. This is how we see the loved person—appreciating the remarkable and unique beauty of her presence, and also the beauty and miracle of all that goes into making her who she is, the joy and the gratitude for it all.

The modest little beep brings me to attention, to the full attention, the deep seeing of love.

Reading Sacred Passages by Margaret Coberly here on the desert made me wonder what I would say to someone I didn’t know who was grieving. While I think I would not actually say this, it feels useful: “Pay attention to your grieving, and see what it has to tell you. Some grieving, often our first grieving, is about us. It is ego-driven: it is about our loss, and it may be mixed with fear for ourselves: ‘what will life be like without this person?’ ‘how will I manage?’ ‘will I be able to bear this loss?’ 'is life really this uncertain?'” Listen to this grieving and see its value: it is teaching us to live with the most profound recognition of impermanence, which is also teaching us to live with the terms of life, deepening our understanding of the universe.

There is also the grieving of guilt, which is also ego-driven: ‘I didn’t do enough,’ ‘I spoke harshly to her the night before she died,’ ‘I didn’t show my love enough.’ This grieving seems to have messages about how we should be a better person in the future, but the messages are probably much more from our conditioning, that is always ready to tell us that we are never good enough, that we are failures, that we are undeserving of love. It is better to listen to this grieving as a signal that we need to love ourselves more, not less, and that a time when we are open and vulnerable from our experience of this death might be the time to explore that.

Other grieving, which may come later, although it is also about us, is much more about the person we loved, much more respectful of her. This is the grieving of gratitude, of full appreciation for everything she was, and our personal loss is a much smaller part. Death is an opportunity to take the measure of another human being as we can never do in life while the person is constantly changing, while we are constantly changing. If we listen attentively to this purest of grieving, this larger appreciation, it expands and profoundly enriches our capacity to love.