Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

December 28, 2008—February 3, 2009

December 28, 2008
As writing these dharma gleanings becomes more and more challenging to me, with—except on rare occasions—more forced effort and less flow, I am fortunate that my “work” in the hospital takes me into the same river as these entries came from.

I see more and more what I am doing when I visit patients in the hospital. I didn’t have an agenda when I started, beyond listening, and I don’t have an agenda now. Instead it is as though my reason for being there has decided to reveal itself to me. What I did instinctively has now reached my understanding. I see the gift I am giving to them, and I see how they have become my teachers.

There are a couple of questions I almost always ask. The most important is: where do you get your spirit? what gets you through this difficulty? Often I suggest, was it your parents? a grandparent? a teacher in school? a mentor later in life? Sometimes they answer immediately, knowing the gift they received from their mother or grandmother or an AA sponsor. Often they have never thought of this, and find it interesting to pursue—it’s certainly not their parents, so who was it? Recently one woman decided it was her developmentally disabled uncle who lived with her and taught her a way of being with life. What I really mean by spirit is their buddha nature, which very often I can see more clearly than I might in ordinary life, shining through pain and uncertainty and the confrontation with mortality that the hospital brings to foreground.

I see now that my reason for coming to the hospital is to let people in pain and difficulty know that a stranger can see that spirit. At a time of vulnerability, I can affirm their spirit’s preciousness, how it has helped them to survive, how it has been a gift to others in more ways than they may know as it is a gift to me, the stranger walking into the room.

My being a stranger oddly enlarges my authority, since I am not someone who already loves and values them—I have no dog in this hunt. My authenticity, I think, comes from the fact that I never pretend to see a spark that I don’t see.

And this is how they become such teachers, such gifts to me. After we talk as much as they need to about the physical challenges that have brought them here, with all that pain and discomfort and anxiety, we become together focussed on the light of their spirit, and as we do so, I am able to affirm for myself that this marvelous light lives in every one. Sometimes in the world outside I can still forget this knowledge, especially with someone where I sense a wall. Each session in the hospital allows that experience of the reality of buddha nature to seep more deeply into my cells, expanding me with an unconditional love that astounds me, though it shouldn’t, since the place where our spirits live is entirely separate from the place of the conditions that qualify or constrain our love.

I see now that, as I go knocking on the patients’ doors, I am mining for gold, and the beauty of my search is that I always find it.

January 4, 2009
I showed this entry to Jo, who gently suggested that not all koans are questions. Acknowledging my ignorant arrogance, I still find what follows helpful.

I think I have penetrated the secret of koans, and it seems pretty obvious to me today. The monastic in training who is continually being asked to contemplate questions, and who is continually baffled in her search for the answers, is being introduced at a non-rational level to the idea that, in the realm of ultimate reality, all questions are koans—that is, have no meaning and therefore no answers. Where do you live? What is the best way to cook oatmeal? What color is her hair? What job should I take? What time is it? Is there a God? are all on a plane with What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Even those of us who spend much time in conventional reality, where questions supposedly have answers, do well to limit the number of questions we ask ourselves. Every question, with its neat answer, interrupts the natural flow of our being, lifts us out of that river of connected life that can carry us where we need to go and sets us down on a cold hard rock of false certainty. By limiting our questions, we can learn how to replace asking with listening.

January 5, 2009
When we listen to life, instead of trying to force the world into answers to our questions, we open ourselves to possibilities. Often it’s so exciting to feel the first possibility reveal herself that we may be tempted to seize her, clutch her to our breast, claim her as our answer and so shut the door again. It’s important then to stay with the possibilities, recognize that first one as just one among many, live a bit longer with uncertainty, in the fertile space without answers. When we grasp at the first possibility that shows herself, she is most often not the best, and like a disappointed lover who closes his heart, we may find ourselves rejecting even the idea of having opened to possibilities. “It’s impossible, I will never find the answer,” we may think, forgetting that it was by not looking for answers that we saw the first possibility at all.

January 28, 2009
There is no ego in the breath. It is Us and it is equally Not Us. The breath is the ultimate experience of being in the flow.

February 3, 2009
When we first begin practice, very often we are in considerable pain, and all we want is to be relieved of our suffering, to not experience so much misery.

It may be only later, when our suffering is peeled away that we realize that what was waiting for us there all along was the Pureland, clear, obvious, calling out to us on every side, and it is only now that we have the eyes and ears to experience it.

I can feel now how bliss or nirvana is not some exalted state of Buddhism—it is our natural state of being. In that natural state, except when we are interrupted with intense physical pain, there is a delicious flow of energy throughout our being. Kleshas, dukkha, stresses great and minute, are what form the obstructions, like clots that slow or halt the—perfectly ordinary—flow of bliss. Bliss is the norm, stresses are the interferences.

The “end of suffering” is not an absence but a presence.

Maybe the fifth noble truth should be: When suffering is ended, what remains is bliss.