Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Coming up: Oprah’s interview with Buddhist monk & Nobel Prize nominee Thích Nhất Hạnh

Once, when my life was going very badly, and I was so angry every moment that it was like a white-hot inferno raging inside of me, Thích Nhất Hạnh soothed me. Actually, he probably saved me. At the very least he made it possible for me to live the life I have now, (relatively) peaceful. In a cooler, calmer place.

His Taming the Tiger Within lay beside my bed, on my night table, for weeks, as I read and reread each chapter. I’d read the monk from Việt Nam’s other books. I’d even done walking meditation for awhile. But the Nobel Prize nominee’s words on anger were powerful, a kind of healing cool against the incandescence of anger.

But even as I read his books, his poetry, practiced as he recommended, I wasn’t particularly curious about the man behind the monk. Or perhaps, more accurately, the man who is also the monk. So I’m looking forward to Oprah’s Sunday interview w/Thích Nhất Hạnh, to hear him speak of his life, his practice, the impact this quiet monk has had on so many hundreds of thousands of people.

Join me Sunday as I tune in. Here’s an excerpt, just to pique your interest. :)

death, not taxes ~

I am working on my death. Well, actually, it’s more like I’m working on my life up to my death. But I’m trying to hold that singularly discomforting goal in mind — the one event no one avoids.

My friends are dropping around me. Like petals from a perfect white Iceberg rose, they drift into fatal diseases, into disability, into such thick depression that medication becomes impossible. While I work hard to remain some kind of calm centre for them. Somewhere they can park, for a moment, and know they’re loved and safe.

When I think about it that way, it seems like it shouldn’t be so difficult. Shouldn’t take all I can muster, at a moment, to hug a dear friend diagnosed with absence epilepsy and crack the dumb jokes she needs to distract her. To let her know my love for hasn’t changed, even though so much of her life has.

But if I call it like it feels, then I’m preparing for my death — learning how to live so that when death arrives black milk  of morning we drink you at dusktime we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night  – I can greet it. Not back up, not hide.

When I read poetry like Celan’s, above, I wonder how the Jews & Romanys and gays and disabled and the college professors and the intellectuals and artists — all rounded up by Hitler’s gangs — lived from day to day. I wonder how the men and women (and the children… the rare and precious children who survived) faced nightfall. What they dreamed, if they did, given the physical deprivation, the exhaustion. The desperation. And I wonder how they lived. Within the minutes of each hour. How they managed to draw breath, in the face of such relentless pain and sorrow.

Buddhism isn’t clear about the after life. Although some Buddhists believe in reincarnation — many, in fact — another large number of us don’t know. I have no idea what (if anything) comes after death. I don’t believe that I’ll see my mother, my father, my old ladies whom I miss more each year. Or my beloved father-in-law, whom I wish I could tell about his two amazing grandsons. His amazing granddaughter-in-law. Nothing really helps with missing the dead. At least not for me. I just have to breathe through it. Turn my quiet grief to good use through tonglen.

Since I don’t believe I’m going to heaven — or hell, for that matter :) — there’s neither a carrot nor a stick to shape my living behaviour. I could do just what I wanted, if I weren’t a Buddhist. If I weren’t a Unitarian, as well.  Neither of  these belief systems offers carte blanche just because they don’t proffer dogma. Buddhism offer lists — the Four Noble Truths, the EightFold Path, the Three States of Existence, the Three Refuges, the Five Precepts… There are more! Unitarian Universalists eschew dogma, also turning to a list — the Seven Principles.

Both Buddhists & Unitarians like guidelines, but not moral dictates. Even when there are strong suggestions — the Buddhist Precept that says don’t kill any living creature, for instance, is seen as a call for vegetarianism, by most Buddhists — not all Buddhists follow them. A lot of Buddhists  eat meat, up to & including the Dalai Lama, I once read. So neither of my spiritual belief systems is much on absolutes. :)

But death? They’re both pretty clear on the biology of that one. So here I am: trying hard to figure out how to live a good life, as I clear the hill that’s middle age. May Sarton wrote Plant Dreaming Deep  before she was 60, talking about her ‘middle years.’ Mine are upon me.

Buddhism is all about the here & now. So that’s where I’m trying to live. Here. Now. In this middle space. Hoping like hell the pale horse takes his time ~

 

 

a circle of desks, with the Buddha in the middle ~

The Buddha talks quite a bit about teaching, about learning. He did almost almost all his teaching outside, to my knowledge (which isn’t as encyclopædic as I’d like!). Not in a circle of too-small desks, in a room w/out windows, dominated by a green chalk board and a broken clock. Not in anything remotely resembling my classroom, in other words.

College classrooms, as I’ve written elsewhere, are abysmal. They’re either too small or too big. Too cold or too hot. Dominated by technology or bereft of it. They have stadium seating, too often, so you can’t even move tables & chairs to work in groups. Short word? Impersonal. At best.

We sit in circle in my classroom, even big Oklahoma guys. And I try to move around the  class, so I get to sit next to each student. They laugh at this, but it gives me the opportunity to be within their space physically, to pat their arms when they say something smart, to whisper a one-liner just to them. I think it’s important.

As a teenager living in Thailand, I worked for a short while at an orphanage. There were infants there, the children of American servicemen and Thai prostitutes. Beautiful babies, some w/ the soft full curls of their black fathers, others w/ the bright green eyes of mixed-race children. Some days when I would come in to help, a baby would be missing. At first I hoped s/he had been adopted. But soon I began to dread the empty cribs. Almost always the deadly ‘failure to thrive‘ syndrome had claimed another tiny victim. Overcrowded to begin with, the orphanage was no place for quiet infants, wilting into lethargy from lack of touch. Enough food, proper diet, but too few hands. Too little contact. No one to snuggle or dote for more than 1/2 an hour, maybe two. I know human touch, and connection w/ the natural world around us, is necessary.

The Buddha did nothing ‘by accident.’ So there’s certainly a reason that his lessons weren’t taught in windowless rooms. I have to make my students stand up, sometimes, to ‘get the blood out of their butts.’ (And yes, I tell them that.) I have to make them shake their hands & heads and feet (we look like wind-blown scarecrows). Even outside, I sometimes make them stand up, if the wind stops, and the Oklahoma sun is as warm as butter dripping off of Sunday waffles.

You don’t learn sitting in rows. A sterile environment distracts; it doesn’t ‘fade into the background,’ as one explanation claims. Which leads me back to yesterday: My students finished our last class of the year. Responding to a plea from a later class in the same room, they ‘put their desks back.’ But not in linear rows. Not the way they found them.My students piled their desks in total chaos, each desk high upon another. They laughed the entire time they did it. And they slapped each other on the back, high-five-ing, totally connected.

There was contact, physical and emotional.This is what exuberance looks like in a classroom. Not always controlled, but healthy. Happy. And it reminds me every time I encounter it how lucky I am to teach. And that the Buddha is always sitting in the middle of the circle. Even in my sterile college classroom. With us.

every day, the laundry: a tale of Buddha nature ~

I hate laundry. Really — I mean it. I once told my sons, in a fit of I’ve had it! that I would remember their childhood years as great mountains of laundry. And while I also remember games and hugs and shared confidences and the smell of baby hair, I still remember laundry, too.

It’s just that laundry NEVER GOES AWAY. It’s always there, multiplying in secret corners — a closet, a bathroom, a floor, the top of a washer… And as soon as you do it, you find stuff you missed. What can we say about that except ARGH!?

So it’s kind of like Sisyphus, rolling the rock upwards eternally. Which even Camus casts as a kind of  Buddhist meditation: as Sisyphus accepts the inevitability of his fate, he ultimately achieves contentment, Camus says.

And that’s what happened this morning. Not that I had some moment of happiness doing the laundry, but that these past months of working consciously, in an ongoing fashion, at accepting what I can’t change, led me to see laundry as a gift. Obviously if you have a lot of laundry, you have a lot of stuff. Not so good, on one level. But on another? We’re not hurting for clothes.

Or hot water. :) Having lived in places where hot water — or any water! — may run only 2-3 times weekly, I never take it for granted. And clean sheets — what transient bliss is better than sinking into a bed made w/ freshly laundered sheets?

If I take time, laundry becomes a meditation. Not a joy, ever — I’m not trying to change my nature! But I can rest in the actions of folding, filling washer compartments, burying my face in a warm sheet. If I work at it, I can see laundry as a fight against entropy, even. Creating order from the chaos that seems to be just one day away at our house. I remember that the Buddha said everything has Buddha nature — including actions. So the laundry has… Buddha nature?

Once I read that happiness is making peace with (even learning to enjoy) the necessary tasks of life. Laundry’s that for me. And I’m making my peace with it. At least today.

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