Buddha's Brain

"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha

Not Knowing

Posted on April 21, 2020

Discounts at Partner Institutions | Rubin Museum of Art

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” — Thomas Merton

At times, I wish I had more funny things to say to buoy spirits. But this particular time doesn’t lend itself to humor. Nor is it a time for self-improvement. It’s a time of collective sorrow and grief and fear, a time for sheltering in place (those of us who can) and waiting for what is to come. We are told that staying home, saves lives. What if we considered our efforts to be present to ourselves, to be open to what is happening inside and outside, to be for the collective good as well?

Last week brought Passover, a celebration of liberation. One of my friends wrote about how amazing it is, to celebrate Passover, while sheltering in place, hoping to be spared from a plague. We can imagine how frightened and vulnerable those humans must have felt. I am not a Jewish scholar, but I am pretty sure no one was telling them to practice “positivity,” or to consider this the “New Normal.” All that they were feeling, fear and faith, joy and terror, is treated as part of the sacred story. Our greatest stories are invitations to remember our own deepest humanity. We are very limited, but also blessed.

The root meaning of “understanding” is to be in the midst of something, to know it by living through it. This global pandemic is not a time for personal lessons but for a collective knowing, a remembering of our humanity, our frailty and also our capacity for moments of joy and goodness. I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to make our practice one of noticing small moments. The sun is out today! Just for a moment, we may feel this as a blessing and a source of hope and joy.

In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, “sati” or mindfulness literally means to remember the present moment.  All great spiritual traditions emphasize the power of remembering and recollection, each in their own way. When we are more present, a small moment may become huge, something cosmic and profound. A moment of feeling the sun may suddenly open like a lens and we remember that we are standing on the Earth and under the Sun, being given the gift of life.

We all long for this to pass, to be able to go out and see our friends and loved ones, for the danger and the dying to stop. Please remember that we are going through a time of collective trauma. This is a time to accept all of our feelings as they are. This is a time for not knowing, for being like little children or like our ancient ancestors. Here is a fragment of a letter Rilke wrote to a young poet, urging him not to try to be a busy, successful adult:

And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn….

Don’t try to understand with you’re thinking right now. Just let yourself sink down into your embodied experience and notice how it feels to be here.

The Buddha based his enlightenment on a memory from childhood.  He came to point where he realized that all his mighty efforts and sacrifice had not led him to liberation. According to the great story he split off from his fellow ascetics and collapsed by a riverbank, broken and despairing. A young woman riding an ox offered him food and he ate. That small act of goodness, of offering and eating food, caused a memory from childhood to bubble up. The Buddha remembered being a young child, sitting alone under a tree, watching his father and the other men from the village plowing the fields in a spring festival.

The boy who would be Buddha remembered the good feeling of being by himself in nature on a pretty spring day. He was alone yet not alone. He was secluded but also communing with life, the way it feels to be out in nature. According to the great story, the little boy saw some insects whose homes were being torn up by the plowing.  His heart opened to them. Secluded yet deeply connected to life, he felt joy and compassion at the same time, safe in his solitude yet also aware of other beings. This is the attitude the Buddha took under the Bodhi tree to reach full awakening.
It wasn’t an easy night, heaven knows. The devil Mara launched assault after assault, alternating terror and desire, anything that might get the Buddha up off his seat and “out the door “so to speak. But the Buddha didn’t move. He slowly reached down and touched the Earth, asking it to affirm his right to be there. We belong here. We are limited and going through our own dark night. But we are also connected to that which is unlimited.

Last week was also Holy Week in the Christian calendar. Last  Sunday was Easter, a celebration of love triumphing over death. But first came the somber days when all seemed lost. I remember one particular Good Friday, as a child.  It was a beautiful spring day, and I was lying outside in the grass, inside a circle of big purple and white lilac bushes. Who knows why, but I was singing. I remember the warmth of the sun and the scent of lilacs and the beauty of the sky and the clouds and the budding trees that arched above me. I remember feeling suffused with a love of life and an extraordinary sense of hope and promise.

My mother called me to come in the house and be still. Reluctantly, I went in and sat on the couch, not at all sure what I was actually supposed to be doing. My mother wasn’t much for explanations especially about religion, but she indicated that it was a kind of vigil. Why is it called Good if it is so Sad? She ordered me to sit down and not talk and eventually understanding would come…or not. In retrospect, her approach had a Zen-like simplicity: just sit. So I sat there, assuming a child’s attitude of not-knowing, marveling that I had just felt a connection to the future, and now I was supposed to feel a connection with an extraordinary event from the past.

I knew the basic story of Good Friday, of course. And I thought of it at first. I thought of Jesus suffering and dying and facing the darkness of the unknown. I thought of him giving up control, putting himself in God’s hands, and the great forces of love and compassion that came to help him. I wondered if this really happened. I wondered if it happened for ordinary people also. Did love come to you in your darkest hour? Maybe not in such a big public way but maybe in a small private way? I just knew I had to wait there and be open until I was released.

Venerable Upasanti
Chuang Yen Monastery – 莊嚴寺
Namgyal Institute of Buddhist Studies
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – Junior Diplomat
Co-Founder: Upasanti Village Children’s Homes (Myanmar, India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand)


Who is the Real Persecutor?

Posted on January 27, 2020

Be the Light

Recently, on a trip to week-long visit my Teacher at Chuang Yen Monastery in New York State, I took a day to visit with some friends in Stamford, CT.  It was so wonderful to visit with them and to visit some of my favorite places.  During our visit, one of my dear friends announced that she had something rather serious to talk to me about.  The look on her face was concerning.  As she began, I could tell that she had to have struggled with whether to tell me what she was about to tell me.
It’s come to my attention that several of your old friends have been calling you a bully, they are accusing you of bullying them.
I was shocked, and didn’t really know what to say.  I didn’t know what to think.  I didn’t know how to feel.  This news was particularly disturbing given the work I do with Upasanti Village and the the adult bullies that torture children mentally, physically, financially, verbally, sexually.  I was stunned and my friends were angry.  Such derogatory language, defamation and name-calling are not behaviors we are accustomed to among friends.
Upon my return to CYM, I explained what had happened to my Teacher, Bhikkhu Bodhi.  “These are people with small minds, small worlds and even smaller hearts.  All we can do is wish them well and learn how not to be in our own lives.  We learn how to make this world a better place, and by recognizing how we do not want to be, we grow into who we want to be. Full of compassion, empathy and joy.”  His words helped settle my heart and I was able to dismiss the comment as nothing more than people who are stuck in life….stuck in the same cycles their own misery. And as we all know, misery loves company.
Instead of hurtful words, be the light.  Share a compliment or don’t say anything at all.
A well-placed kind word has the power to make someone feel seen, that they matter, and that you care.
Try and recall the last time you received a compliment. Maybe it was from a stranger at the grocery store who told you they liked your sweater. Perhaps it was a friend who let you know how much they appreciate your advice. Regardless of the source, you probably felt a lift, a boost of self-confidence…..it may even have put a smile on your face.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Put quite simply, compliments make us feel good, both when we get them and when we give them. They’re an expression of gratitude that elevates both the giver and the receiver…..a form of awareness, a way of paying attention. It costs us nothing to give someone a compliment, but the rewards can be great.


What Are You?

Posted on November 8, 2019

Soon after he attained enlightenment, the Buddha went walking. He was probably wild to stretch his legs because he was sitting under the Bodhi tree for forty days, according to legend (some scholars believe this not a literal number but an ancient expression for “a very long time”…..forty days in the desert, at sea, under the tree, etc.). But he also walked in the spirit of looking at the world with new eyes. What else would you do after you saw the very heart of reality? Everything probably looked astonishing.
His radiance, his je ne sais quoi, was so striking that another man passing by stopped him in his tracks.
What are you?” the man asked the Awakened One. “Are you a god?
No,” the Buddha replied, probably with a serene smile.
An angel?
Are you a wizard, then?
Are you a man?”
This last answer probably confounded the man. What was left? It annoyed me when I first heard it because a big draw of Buddhism is the repeated assurance that the Buddha is an ordinary human being just like the rest of us. His example is meant to inspire us. If he can do it, we can do it! And yet here comes the news that he is not like us. What changed after his enlightenment?  It wasn’t what he gained but what he lost. The fear, craving, and distraction you see in most eyes…..the endless flight and fight and freezing out of pain that drives the ego and our lives…..was gone. Completely gone.
The Buddha was not a man in the sense that he was liberated from all the “hindrances” that give the rest of us our charming quirks and trip wires. The glow he emanated was utter relief. He woke up from the fever dream of fearful separation that most of us endure. Lightened of all his emotional baggage, all his defenses, he looked at everything as if it was family. This did not mean a snake was not a snake. It meant it was familiar to him. He saw it through and through, so he didn’t have to fear it. It could not take him by surprise by pretending to be a stick.
The Buddha is sometimes called a doctor. He knew the best medicine for poisonous negativity, for destructive emotions and inside and outside, is not positivity but warmth, acceptance. From that first walk, he expressed the ease of attitude and kind attention that literally shares a root with kin. He woke up to see all life was kindred, intricately and inextricably related. And he was part of it.