Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

February 22, 2015—February 27, 2015

February 22, 2015
The arts—literature, theater, film, dance, opera, music, painting—serve as dharma doors. By exposing us to human suffering as an audience rather than a participant, they may instruct us in the nature of Buddhist compassion, allowing us to take in the pain of others deeply without being drowned in it. Through these doors we can come to view human pain in a larger context of it just is. Through the doors of “La Boheme,” Goya’s paintings, Oedipus, Middlemarch, we can experience that life is suffering even while we feel its beauty, and even—perhaps because of the artistry of the composition—recognize its ultimate rightness.

Certainly the arts are dharma doors for their creators, and we get to look over their shoulders. The fiction writer writes novels to fulfill her desire to spend her days in a world of interbeing. While she is writing, thinking about writing, there is no separation between her “self” and the characters of her invention—she inhabits them seamlessly. She knows them so well that famously they can surprise her, taking on a life of their own.

Shakespeare was the ultimate shape-shifter in these ways, with Tolstoy perhaps puffing along behind. We go to see “King Lear,” read War and Peace out of the same motives as their creators—to find ourselves drawn into interbeing with lives that are apparently different from our own. That experience of I-Thou gives the artist, the reader or viewer peace, joy, catharsis, even—sometimes especially—when the suffering is great.

Nevertheless these are dharma doors, not dharma. They are ferries that take us, not to the other shore, rather to the great ship. The writing or reading of fiction is not a substitute for the rewards of serious Buddhist practice, with its insights into the ultimate nature of reality. The novelist or playwright’s experience of interbeing does not usually translate into how she experiences her partner or her children or the uncle who molested her. Without a larger context of understanding, the writer, artist, actor can interbe in the world of her imagination and be aversive, grasping, deluded, perhaps cruel in her daily life.

As readers and viewers we need to value these precious opportunities to widen our compassion, our capacity for interbeing, without believing that the world of art alone can lead us to the deepest understanding, our largest capacity for transformation and freedom.

February 25, 2015
At some point we come to a place in our practice where we feel the pull of the future or the past as if it were a cheat. We can see clearly that they want to cheat us from the present, from the preciousness of our lives in the here and now, and we resist the pull. It’s rather as if we were four years old, reading a wonderful picture book, and someone—a jealous older sister perhaps—keeps calling us to come to the window, telling us there’s a parade with an elephant outside and later shouts that a naked man is running down the street. After awhile when she calls, we just stay with our book.

February 27, 2015
Joshua Bell, world-renowned violinist, performed an experiment by playing his violin on the street or in the subway. People, who might have paid $125 to hear him in Carnegie Hall, walked past without stopping. It’s called the Julian Bell Effect. Only some children stopped to listen to his miraculous music.

The Joshua Bell Effect also influences how we respond to the natural world. We may, if we’re invited to a rich man’s garden, admire and wonder at the amazing colors of his roses, while we might never think to pause to appreciate the amazing colors of a leaf lying on the street. Only children stop to look, and we adults often show little interest in their leaf—instructing them early in the Joshua Bell Effect.

Linda, a fellow yogi, tells me how a colleague of hers, when she brought him a shell from the Caribbean, looked at it with conditioned evaluation exclaiming, “Linda, who created this? It’s such an amazing design!” Perhaps it had less value for him when she informed him that she had just found it on the beach.