Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

tragedy, great sorrow, and the breath ~

I have nothing to say after a tragedy of this magnitude. My heart hurts — I have to catch my breath, thinking of sending a child or children off to school, and never seeing them again… My mind races: what have we come to? How did this happen? What can we do to stop these horrific tragedies?

I have been breathing for the families whenever I remember. And Newton, Connecticut has been in my thoughts often today… Tonglen helps, but it doesn’t stop the anger or the grief. When I become incensed with someone on FB who sees the national outrage as a threat to her right to own a gun, I try to channel that reaction for the families, whose anger & horror and grief so certainly outstrip anything I can imagine…

And when I’m missing my younger son, who will not be coming home for the holidays, I channel that, for these families who will be missing a child every holiday from now on…

I offer only this: great sorrow. Deep breaths. And a heartfelt hope that somehow, we find a way to stop these tragedies…

a soul story ~

This week’s UU Weekly has a piece on the baby Jesus. We know very little about the historical Jesus, as the essay notes. The Christian Bible is the source for most of our Jesus history, and it’s not necessarily an historical exercise — that isn’t its purpose.

Author Meg Barnhouse makes the case that the story of the baby Jesus is, perhaps, what she calls a ‘soul story.’ “A soul story is a dream from the depths of a culture, not an individual,” Barnhouse writes.

I love this. The writer in me is seduced by this eloquent metaphor, even as I realise that members of my own family believe devoutly in the actual birth of Jesus, the Nativity story, and the subsequent Christian narrative. But for me, the inclusive, poetic Buddhist Unitarian I am, I love this ‘baby Jesus as metaphor for the soul’s journey’ idea.

Yesterday my doctor asked me — during a discussion of my mother’s skin cancer history, among other things — if I believed in the baby Jesus story. I had to confess I didn’t, pretty certain he wouldn’t disown my medical care, but still not sure how he’d take it.

If he asked today I would have a much better answer. Because today, thanks to Meg Barnhouse, I have another take on ‘belief.’ Each of us — I do believe — has a soul, a fragile seeking heart clothed in all the layers of protection we can amass. For me, my seeking often takes place on a page, or a screen. In a poem, an article, a blog post. Sometimes even in a piece of a class lecture or prep for one. For me, words are like the clear white stones Hansel & Gretel threw behind them in that other soul story. Words will take me where I need to go, almost always. If not my own, I can count on those of others.

Yesterday a friend posted that he loves reading the reflections in his students’ portfolios.  Students will tell you that a class in poetry — in writing about their own growth, or the growth of others — changes their lives. I told him that I really believe poetry can save lives. It saved mine, certainly, at a time when nothing else could get through.

So the idea of the soul as a tiny baby, born naked & trembling into a cold dark night, poor in material goods, but rich in blessings…? That is beyond appealing. And it is, I realise, what lies at the heart of so many Christians’ beliefs — the ‘Jesus Christians,’ as I call them, not the Leviticus ones who seem to believe only in punishment…

This winter holiday season (Christmas! Hannukah! Bodhi Day! Kwanzaa!), I wish you a journey of redemption. I wish for you a soul journey that culminates in transcendence. And I hope your days are full of light.

wake-up call (and a peaceful Rohatsu to you, too!) ~

Tomorrow is Bodhi Day, or Rohatsu ~ the celebration of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment, the transformation of the man into the  spiritual teacher we know as the Buddha.  I’ve written elsewhere about Bodhi Day, here and here. But it bears repeating. :)

Because we all need a wake-up call. We need to remember how ephemeral life is, how transient both pain and joy, and pay attention.We need to remember that we can do this.

It seems a bit disingenuous to note, once again, that everything passes. And that a certain sadness underlies much of life. It’s a human state of mind, this suffering — Proverbs 14:13 details it  lyrically: Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness. Buddhists call it dukkha — not exactly sorrow or suffering, more like the ‘heaviness’ Proverbs  references.

So Bodhi Day is a time of celebration — someone got beyond this. Not a god, or a demi-god, or an angel or anyone divine. A guy. And that means there’s hope for me. Which in the middle of a chilly grey day, when the sun seems like it might well have gone to sleep for the winter, is a warm & lovely thought.

Hence the wake-up call idea… It’s so easy for me, this time of year, to whine about my 1st world problems: putting up the tree is such a hassle… shopping for stuff they might not even like… cooking… wrapping… All in the middle of my everyday life. But this IS my everyday life — this moment, this day. Today, it’s going to be working on an upcoming deadline project — not something I love, but something I committed to finishing. And I’m going to try (hard!) to remember how much I’ve learned doing this task that is far more complex than was billed. :)

I’m going to wake up to the little enlightenments that now & then wing through my days like bright birds. If, as Thích Nhất Hạnh says, we  pay attention to — are mindful of –what we are doing, then small daily tasks can become amazing: the smell of fresh warm laundry on a cool evening, taken from the luxury of a dryer that works. The oceanic whisper of a dishwasher, once loaded and turned on. Even the crisp white path a mop makes over a grimy floor, or the cool sweep of sheets shaken over a bed. Each of these will never come in the same way again.

Bodhi Day — Rohatsu, if you’re Japanese :) — isn’t until tomorrow. But it’s not too early to get ready. So ahead — streeeettttch… And wake up!

material girls: or, how a nice Buddhist girl found happiness giving Christmas presents ~

I love presents. Getting them (of course!), but also buying them, wrapping them, giving them. I like French ribbon in loopy old-fashioned bows. And shiny foil paper. I like looking for tiny ornaments — feathers, vintage tags, a candy cane, maybe — to put in the center of the bow.

And I love stocking stuffers: buying fingertip flashlight guns for the guys in the family. A kaleidescope for one my grand-nieces. Pawning off the many ‘free’ calendars I receive: cramming them into the recycled gift bags we use for the stockings all 15+ of us still exchange.

Yesterday my husband and I went out for breakfast, as we do this time of year, to discuss what we’ll be giving various family members for Christmas. For years I’ve been trying to get everyone to do lists. Initially, there was some resistance (actually, there was ALOT, but I ignored it…). Now? There’s still some resistance… :) But they’re wearing down. I can tell.

Because while I may not buy off the list, it gives me an idea of what you like these days. And as the nieces & nephews and sisters & sons and daughter-in-law and all become increasingly busy, it’s hard to keep up. So I may not buy the cooking gear on my youngest son’s extensive list (then again, his list is sooo good it’s hard to go one better!). I may instead buy something his list suggests to me. A better knife. A slow cooker cookbook to go w/ the slow cooker he asked for.

Much of my life is like this right now, and it feels like good Buddhism. When I play with the dog, he loves it. But so do I. So: is my duty to the dog — all dogs need (heck! they deserve!) love & play — coopted if it brings me joy? If it makes me feel good too, is that wrong? Am I doing it because I enjoy it or because I should? Isn’t a lot of life that way?

I love shopping. I know: most of you reading this don’t. And neither do I when it’s crazy, or I’m tired or hungry or ALL of the above! But I really do love buying presents for the important people in my life. These days, I even enjoy sending holiday cards. The thinking about each person as you address the cards. Isn’t it a kind of loving meditation…?

I didn’t always feel this way. Having more time has softened many of my rougher edges :). Much of what I once saw as a hassle has now become a joy. This year at Thanksgiving we used the china and the crystal (well, except for the folks who thought the Eskimo Joe’s cups for the little ones were the ‘crystal’!), because the effort washing it afterwards became an opportunity for visiting. And besides, it turned out the others washed it up!

That’s how you know you did the right thing (and no, it doesn’t always happen… :)). But when you decide to use all the china, and your sister & husband & nieces clean it all up? That means you are incredibly lucky. And just think: you also gave them a chance to be the good guys!

Seriously — it doesn’t have to be a big gift. I guarantee you that one of the favourite gifts for someone on my list this holiday is one that cost less than $5. And it gave me hundred$$ worth of joy to find it, and wrap it for him.

Just because it brings me joy, too, doesn’t mean it isn’t good Buddhism. So go ahead — indulge in giving. It’s a relatively guiltless pleasure. :)

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