Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

my mother’s music, Mother’s Day, & Buddha nature ~

My  mother was incredibly beautiful, from as far back as I can remember. She was also unbelievably nice. And smart enough to have a top-secret clearance during WWII, as a secretary in the government. And funny. And a gifted gardener. And a damn near perfect mother. I miss her daily.

She use to sing & dance w/ me when I was small. She would put on Glen Miller, or the music from South Pacific, and we would dance around the living room & dining room. Sometimes she would put on old jazz, and we would dance to that. She loved Louis Armstrong, as do I. Even into the 80s & 90s, she had favourite bands, singers, songs. Music was as much a part of her as her love for orange or her love of charm bracelets, both of which I also share. :)

As her memory began to fade, and pieces of her past fell through the widening cracks in her mind, she remembered less & less. Sometimes this was darkly funny, as when she asked me who was dead:

Is Dudley [my father] dead? Yes, I responded, Daddy’s dead. Is Mother dead? Yes, Grandma’s dead too, Mother. How about Aunt Bonnie? Yes, Mother, she’s also dead. And Ina? And Mom? I would nod, and nod again. Well…. I guess they’re all dead? And yes, they all are…

My sisters & I learned to just shake our heads and laugh — what else is there?

But up to the deeply sad end, my mother had her music. In the early days, she could still run a CD player. And she would play it over & over — we bought her oldies from the 30s, 40s, 50s. And Christmas music. My sister has inherited that passion — she has Christmas music on much of the year. Eventually we had to turn the CD player on for Mother, but she would always hum and sway. And in the end, as we gathered around her, we held on to her and sang: Que será, será…Whatever will be, will be…

Even as she curled into herself, my mother would respond to us, would smile and brighten. Like Henry in the youtube cut that follows, she came alive:

YouTube Preview Image

I would have taken on fear, if it would have meant my mother slept peacefully in those first difficult years. And later, as I watched my youngest sister’s name drift like smoke from Mother’s memory, I would have offered up my left foot to stop it. If I could somehow have held off Mother’s unraveling, the fear that haunted her early nightmares, there is very little I would not have done. And that’s the point of this Mother’s Day meditation: for the lucky among us, our mother is our first and longest love. So that modeling on that first love is easy when we reach out towards lovingkindness. I remember that when I practice, that my love for others should be as deep & true as mother-love, my daughter-love for my mother & mother-in-law and other mother-figures; my mother-love for my two amazing sons, my daughter-in-law, my nieces and nephews, the children of my heart.

It’s one more gift my mother left me: my practice, infused w/ her humour, her goofy charm, her courage and her faith. Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy. I miss you.

 

when paths part: a contemplation on beginner’s heart ~

One of my students just unfriended me on Facebook. First, however, she sent me a lengthy email, hurt & angry that my posts reflect poorly on her political party, and her political hero. I fully accept responsibility there — as an old journalist, I’m appalled at how much actual news ‘falls through the cracks’ of today’s corporate media. I want people to see what doesn’t make Fox News :).

But I don’t accept several other things she said:

  1. that I bash her  personal politics;
  2. that I have contempt for her political party;
  3. that I hate her religion;
  4. that I’m unfair.

Certainly I’m passionate about politics. An an engaged Buddhist, as a teacher, I see every day that if I don’t take ownership of my beliefs out into the real world, then people who are cruel, greedy, dishonest, and downright MEAN are going to ‘win.’ They’re going to pass laws that disenfranchise my loved ones. They’re going to make it impossible for many of my beloved friends, family, and students to lead the lives they dream of, to work the jobs they’re aiming for, to be the people they have every right to be.

Because I’m both an engaged Buddhist & Unitarian, I try hard to put my beliefs in social justice in practice. So when politicians make dumb-ass pronouncements, then change their tune, then change it yet again, I’m going to make that known to as wide an audience as I can. That’s actually the whole reason (for me) behind Facebook: to connect w/ people who may not even KNOW a Buddhist, a Unitarian. Who may see ‘liberals’ as horned beasts (I have family who feel this way :)). If you like me, then you know a liberal you like. And it’s often — at least in the reddest of red states — that simple.

Freedom of religion is a big deal to me. I grew up in a Buddhist country, lived for years in Muslim countries. Have family and dear, close friends who are Buddhist, pagan, Wiccan, Hindu, Catholic, Methodist, and Muslim. And Presbyterian, and Taoist, and Jewish and atheist and agnostic and and and…:) They have the RIGHT to everything that each White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant framer of our amazing Constitution assured them of.

Freedom to love is another big deal to me. Does my niece Mary not deserve to spend her life w/ her chosen partner because Susie is female, too? Is love only about reproduction? That’s what some politicans would seem to be saying: you can’t fall in love w/ your own gender; and you can’t use birth control, and God Forbid (literally) you should ‘make a mistake.’ Just ‘lean back and appreciate it,’ as one politician said. And yep: HE really said that… Continue Reading This Post »

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.

 

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