Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

nieces … & beginner’s heart ~

The movies featuring family holidays are all disturbing, even when comedy is the intention: Thanksgiving stress, Christmas dysfunction, loud drunks and childhood grievances. So that’s all too often what we expect. And sometimes we don’t even realise it until it’s so obviously a perfect day that I wonder what I expected…

This has been three of the nicest high-energy days I can remember. Family and food and more family and more food and … and… and. :) Until you would think you’d be full. And, as a friend punned on her FB, I am. ThankFULL. Bear with me as I tie this back to beginner’s heart…

Sometimes people have the bad luck of feeling sorry for me, as I ‘only’ have sons. Are you kidding? I have two of the nicest sons possible: funny, smart, thoughtful, and nicer than you can imagine. They phone regularly, tell great jokes, buy the BEST presents (you should see my bee pins!) and generally are perfect. Really.

‘But you don’t have daughters,’ they say with pity. No, I have (wait for it) nieces! (And two GREAT nephews, I might add, so they know I never take them for granted :)) I have these amazing young women — several! — whose mothers and fathers raised them to be the incredibly smart, funny, thoughtful and nuanced people they are today. They drive long  distances to see me. They have lunch with me in town. They give me hugs that speak louder than their deeply private selves are able to. They Facebook me and send me their writing and generally are the best gift you can imagine. And I had nothing to do with this.

Sometimes, in the hectic patter of our everyday lives, we forget that wonder and grace surround us. In our frantic pursuit of life, liberty and the right to happiness (not contentment, a very different flower…), we can become so set on what ‘should be’ that the very real joys of what ‘is’ elude us.

This holiday weekend that too often becomes a tag game of retail darkness, an excuse to OD on tryptophan, a nightmare of family expectations, can also be a gentle reminder. Happiness may be right in front of us. It just takes a re-framing, a refusal to be the victim of circumstance. And nieces. And nephews. And sons.

 

‘even air is political’ ~

photo Christian Science Monitor

In my life, I’ve had a lot of jobs. But my current one — teaching at a state university — is by far the one with the most impact. And the one thing I’ve learned in the 20+ years I’ve taught at universities is that we are the grown-ups. We are the models for appropriate behaviour, for what is right and what we expect from our students. And until today, I’ve never written a letter to a university that expressed my shame at being associated with the profession. Today I did.

I was at a conference this past week, returning only late yesterday evening. It was a wonderful, if bittersweet, meeting, where old friends came together to celebrate the best things about education. I returned home to this picture. And it rang familiar, haunting chords…

When I was a student, President Reagan called in the Guard — many of whom were Vietnam Vets — to use whatever force was necessary to quell a protest in People’s Park. UC Berkeley student James Rector was killed, and Alan Blanchard was blinded. According to local hospital records, no Berkeley police were seriously injured, despite claims to the contrary by Berkeley police.

We seem doomed to repeat history. I didn’t understand Reagan’s acts then, and I don’t understand why — and how — we could return to that divisive time of hatred and ‘failure to communicate.’ What it gains us.

I teach university students. They are, as all human beings are, the beloved sons & daughters of mothers & fathers. They are grandchildren, wives, husbands, mothers & fathers themselves, often. They are learners of American culture, of its strengths and its flaws.  They are us.

My beginner’s heart is deeply troubled by the violent hatred exhibited these days: marchers against public schools (the envy of many countries for their egalitarian entry system), marchers being beaten and pepper-sprayed, the shooting of Congressional representatives. In my university town, we recently suffered a tragedy: the airplane crash of two beloved coaches. At at time when students are reeling with loss, Westboro Baptist Church prepares to descend on us. My students — many of them devout Christians — struggle in class discussion to make sense of what kind of Christianity this is. How a religion founded in love can become a means of propogating hatred. The non-Christians struggle as well, as do I.

Because I feel the same way, and I see parallels in a country founded on the right to assembly, the right to free speech calling down violence on its children. On its poets. On its teachers. This is not my idea of freedom. This is not my idea of love. This is not what universities are about, and it most definitely should not be the example we set for our young. Or the world.

Today, love somebody. Love your family, your spiritual advisor, your significant other, your child. Love the person in front of you at the cash register. Love the guy on the bus who’s snoring. Love everyone you come across, if you have the energy. And do it in the name of beginner’s heart. Take a step across the aisle, the street, the political or religious divide, and love somebody. Take America back.

the Buddha was a teacher, too ~

Yesterday in the undergraduate class I teach, everyone was quiet. Working. Drawing and colouring.  Thinking. I often use ‘childish’ tools and practices in my classes, even though I teach university students. Or retired adults. I do this because of the effects: it makes learning almost effortless. The assignment wasn’t easy ~ to construct a metaphor for what your portfolio shows about your writing (thus what you’ve learned) this semester. I asked them to draw and colour this ‘metaphor,’ calling the whole process ‘drawing the arc of your portfolio.’ What would have been an ‘OMG!’ moment instead became a moment of discovery, of happy sharing and quiet intention.

The entire room was raptly writing.  Open windows flooded the room with autumn light. Music from one student’s laptop gave us a soundtrack from Florence & The Machine. This is when a writing teacher’s heart is happiest ~ when the room is broken only by the clatter of pencils, the soft swishing of crayons and pastels on paper. An occasional walk to the centre of the room to pick up new colours, or another of the home-made chocolate chip cookies one of my students had brought to share. Writing as learning.

I’m not sure why this kind of learning — learning that’s engaging, where you’re comfortably  enjoying the process — isn’t felt to be ‘rigourous.’ Why must learning be ‘not-fun’ to be legit? What dark legacy of Puritanism is this, that the joyous exploration of knowledge we have at 2, or 3 or 4, should become hated slogging by 20, 30, or older…

It’s much the same way, I think, w/ beginner’s heart. If we’re enjoying our practice, if we begin to feel good about compassion, or derive pleasure from helping someone else, we begin to question our motives. Am I in this for the strokes? we ask ourselves. What if my motives aren’t pure?

But when I pet the cat’s silky fur, I give us both pleasure. Do I pet the cat just to feel the softness on my own skin? Don’t I also enjoy the throaty purr, and the cat’s happiness? Isn’t the tactile comfort just a bonus? Why is it we distrust the pleasure that giving pleasure brings?

Every day I teach, it’s my beginner’s heart that learns the most. I think about the Buddha, teaching us 2,000 years ago  how to be happy. And I’m absolutely certain that brought him happiness. I also bet he did not disavow that happiness. But he may not have had a third chocolate chip cookie…

an Okie girl finds the Buddha ~

Occasionally people ask me how (why?) I became a Buddhist. And the deal is… I didn’t, actually.At least , not until quite late, and then only if you count my bodhisattva vow a few years ago. Long after I identified as a  Buddhist, in other words.

So what turns an Okie girl, raised in the Methodist church (at least some of her life), into a Buddhist? How did I go from competitive Bible verse memorisation and vacation Bible school to following my breath? Or have I been a kind of Buddhist since I was a small girl, growing up in a villa on a street in a city far, far away…?

I grew up, I wrote once, in a house with bars on the windows. In a country whose very name has come to mean war, for Americans ~ Việt Nam. Buddhism, Taoism, animism and Catholicism were all around me. They smelled like incense and strings of flowers and rice and rain. Protestantism was, by far, the least interesting option. Protestant Sunday School was held at the American School. Another kind of school — albeit w/ colouring, just held on Sunday.

The Buddhist temple I remember was carved from the ropy interior of a banyan tree, at the zoo. Inside, a saffron-robed monk — like the ones who came each day to the iron gate at the end of the drive, holding out their bowls for rice and vegetables — burned incense to the Buddha. This, I remember thinking, this is where God lives. And it may have been. But the Buddha lived there, too.

As a child, I went with the family servants — the cook Chị Tám who ran our house like happy clockwork; the amah, Chị Bốn, her niece; the baby amah, Chị Ba; the driver and the gardener and all the people who made our house the happy mash-up it was — to Taoist temple; to offer paper clothes to the ancestors at Tết; to serve the Buddhist monks who came early each morning for the food served them in their beggar bowls. And I went with Jeannie Adams to catechism and mass, when I stayed over w/ her. And to Hindu temple with Chantharack, my best friend in 3rd grade.

And when we went back to Oklahoma, which soon ceased to feel like home, I went to the small rural Oklahoma church where my cousins went, walking from my grandmother’s house south, up the hill and over the railroad tracks. I had access to more religions than most children know exist.

They all seemed a lot the same: you offered your money, your incense, your prayers or mantras, and you promised to be better. To do better. And then you tried to keep your promise. I liked that the Catholics got to go tell on themselves — confession is a bit scary, but very good catharsis. And I liked that we sang with the Methodists and other Protestants.

But from the very beginning, I felt at home with the Buddhists. And when the Buddhist monk set himself on fire, just around the corner from the villa where we lived, to protest a war I knew very little about as a child, I felt some kind of door open. This, I remember thinking, this is true faith. This is what people who care about others can do.

I am not the stuff of martyrdom, I assure you. But I believe deeply in standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. And social protest was something I recognised as immensely powerful even when I was a young child. It is, I think — coupled with the banyan tree, and the visceral mystery yet practicality of Buddhism — what caught me.

So that’s the start, the ‘once upon a time’ part. There are other reasons, but it really all began, like the movie say, long ago & far away….

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