Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

learning to understand ~

I can’t stand my  next door neighbour. There. I said it to the thousands of people who may read this. But it won’t be him, because he doesn’t seem to read much… And yes, that sounds horribly snarky. But really? He doesn’t.

An example: He traps sparrows. Live -traps them. Because they sometimes nest in (empty) purple martin houses. And he has one, an (empty) purple martin house. Note: had he read, he would know that you need three things for purple martin houses to fill w/ purple martins (2nd note: NONE of them is live-trapping sparrows):

  1. close water — so that the martins (which are swallows) can swoop over it for bugs;
  2. the house has to be HIGH, several feet higher than Mr. Neighbour’s is;
  3. the correct siting and facing to open space, again, for swooping.

While Mr. Neighbour’s purple martin house does face an open area, it’s a street. With a lot of traffic. Not where you’d expect to have a lot of purple martins. Nonetheless, he has put up three ‘songbird/English sparrow/ starling traps’ (I looked them up online) around the pole supporting the martin house.

True confession time: I let a sparrow out yesterday. Walked over, brave as brass (as my grandma would have said), and popped open the lid. The sparrow had been there several hours, in the hot Oklahoma sun, beating frantic wings against the wire trap. I had hoped that someone else would free it, one of the many  joggers who run down our street, 6′ (or less) from the martin house. No such luck.

And of course that’s my point. Don’t we often do this? Hope like hell that someone else will do what we know needs to be done? From something as minor (although not to the sparrow, of course) as freeing a live-trap, to recycling, to living more simply, to standing up against injustice. And that’s what live-trapping sparrows is, in my none-too-humble opinion. An injustice.

My father used to tell me that good leadership is not asking your soldiers (my dad was an Army lifer) to do things you know they won’t do. Or things that are stupid, w/ no point. It undermines both your credibility and your men’s trust in you. Live-trapping even three of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of sparrows in our neighbourhood, when you haven’t even done your homework on purple martins, is about as stupid as I can imagine. And cruel. It reminds me of the ways in which we place a hierarchy of worth on life, on lives: sparrows inferior to purple martins, which are inferior to, say, eagles. Which of course are superior to turkeys, despite what Ben Franklin said.

Because I have to admit ~ I would free the sparrows even if Mr. Neighbour had sited his purple martin house w/ exactitude and precision. I don’t believe that some birds deserve death, so others can live. I have a hard time w/ that ideology on any level. If you want purple martins, then do the necessary research. And figure out a non-lethal way to keep out sparrows. Or, if all you care about is mosquitos? Put up a bat house. Far easier to populate, and they’re endangered right now.

Still, I’ve learned something from the whole infuriating incident:  Stand up for what I think is right. But do my homework first. And don’t expect someone else to do the hard things for me.

It’s not enough to redeem the sparrows I now have to watch for, to free, but it beats just getting mad. And I’m thinking it’s a lot better beginner’s heart ~

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Việt Nam, & my very first Buddhist ~

When I was a young child, I knew very little about the lines drawn by religions to set themselves apart. It all seemed one universe, one Divine Plan, as accessible as my hands & toes. I made bargains w/ the gods I thought ruled it all — bartering my behaviour for the crises common to childhood: a ribbon at the horse show, a win in the spelling bee. Even in Việt Nam, my belief in what started everything was fairly simple. Like a fish, I swam in the wide sea of my believing. I was 10 or 11 before I began to realise there were differences.

The first Buddhists I recognised as separate from my own life weren’t the monks who came daily, to the iron gate at the end of the drive. Chi Tám, our cook, would take out their morning alms of breakfast, bowing as she handed them rice in round blue & white bowls. The monks, even robed in saffron as they were, didn’t seem a lot different than the frocked priests at Jeannie Adams’s Catholic catechism class, or the collared pastor at the ecumenical church we attended Sundays. Or even the rabbi at Sydney Maynard’s synagogue on Saturday service. After all, Aunt Lois was a 7th Day Adventist, and they kept Sabbath on Saturday. Already a child of a polycultural life, what people wore to serve divinity seemed pretty irrelevant to the child me. (Still does :).)

The first Buddhist I knew was not distinguished by his dress, or even his faith, but by his actions. He was completely different from any religious believer I had ever encountered. His name was Thích Quảng Đức (born Lâm Văn Tức), and he burned himself to death, just three blocks from our house.

I was young, but I heard about it anyway. We all did. And the idea that someone would burn himself up — quietly, w/ dignity and grace — in protest of the war my own father and his colleagues were enmeshed within… I couldn’t fathom it.  This revered religious figure sat down in a circle of his friends and colleagues, and poured gasoline over himself. And then he put a match to it all…And he sat there, immobile, the bystanders said. While his body and his life went up in scarlet flame and thick black smoke

The thought of Thích Quảng Đức’s conscious sacrifice ignited something inside of me — some tiny but similar flame that said war has to be wrong, if a man would do this, out of his faith. For peace.

Earlier encounters with Buddhism were far less dramatic, although equally profound. I’ve written elsewhere about the temple in the banyan tree, and later visits to temples in Bangkok, where I graduated from high school.

But Thích Nhất Hạnh has a special hold on me. For one, he’s Việtnamese. This has always been important to me. I spent almost 5 years of my childhood — formative years — in Saigon, and Thích Nhất Hạnhwas from the beginning a connection to that time and place. He also was anti-war, in the quietly powerful fashion of a monk who inherited the legacy of Thích Quảng Đức.

Thích Nhất Hạnh’s also a gifted poet, something that became increasingly significant as I found my way into the craft and art of poetics. Poets see things differently, and to know that he too sees with the kaledeiscope eyes of the poet meant much as I learned my craft. When asked about his 39 years of exile from his home country of Việt Nam, he replies to Oprah: I was like a bee taken out of the beehive…

And finally, Thích Nhất Hạnh loves tea. Watch his face light up in this excerpt from the upcoming Oprah interview.

This Sunday you can watch Oprah’s complete interview with this very special man on OWN, Oprah’s TV network. It airs at11 a.m. Eastern Time.

 

Other paths: Thích Nhất Hạnh speaks with Oprah about possible lives ~

Yesterday I wrote a bit about  Oprah’s upcoming Sunday  interview  w/Thích Nhất Hạnh. In the excerpt, she asks him if he has regrets — if the Nobel-nominated, quiet Buddhist monk ever contemplates a path that might have held a wife, children. And the answer reassured me:

Yes, he answered. Walking once, he saw a beautiful young woman, w/ a lovely child, and thought for a moment — if I were not a monk, I might have had a wife and child like that.

I found this simple admission profoundly comforting. Here’s Thích Nhất Hạnh — Nobel Prize nominee, major influence on so many lives, resister of a horrific war… And he sometimes has 2nd thoughts. The difference, of course, is that (as he told Oprah), “I don’t get lost in that kind of deviation …. I recognize it and I overcome it very quickly.” In other words? He doesn’t dwell on things. Just goes on w/ his life, knowing that “the intention is so strong that it can protect and keep you alive.”

Hmmm… It doesn’t work quite the same for this far more flawed vessel. But at least I realise — once again — how hard this work we set for ourselves is. If Thích Nhất Hạnh has questioned the choices he made — even if only once, in a park in France, then it’s hard. And like meditation teaches us, it’s not putting thoughts ‘out’ of our heads and hearts. It’s the coming back to this point, this practice. It’s the stepping back from those other, possible lives (air castles, fictions, distracting thoughts of nevermore…) that constitutes the practice.

So thank you yet again, inimitable monk. Thank you for reminding me that to be human is to have to return, over & over & over, to the business at hand ~

 

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. :)

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