Recently while walking through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto, Japan, I was able to study the delicate balance among water, soil, plants, and animals. One of the lessons taught in the Bamboo Grove is that man can change this balance of nature for the good by stabilizing it at new levels and by adding new harmonious elements, as when he stores the water of ephemeral streams to create green oases. Or he can throw it out of balance by selfish or ignorant use of resources, so as to set in motion a vicious chain of destruction, as when he slashes a forest and launches a whole new cycle of soil erosion. I believe that each of us finds the greatest use and greatest satisfaction in a life which respects and kindles the spark of the divine that is found in the conscience of every other human being and which nourishes the harmonious growth of individual human beings.
The greatest art in spiritual life is finding balance. The entire teachings of the Buddha are summed up in his encouragement to find and travel the middle path…..to seek neither the extremes of mortification and aversion for life, nor the extreme of indulgence, losing ourselves in pleasure-seeking. The balance between these two is the path of awakening and freedom. The path of balance is to be with what is true in life and to love that, to be committed to the truth on every level of our being.
The deepest joy we can find in life comes from within our own being and not from the circumstances around us. To find deep joy, which is radically different from being busy, distracted, or entertained, always takes a balance of heart. As one meditation teacher put it, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”We cannot control or stop the changing circumstances in our lives, but we can learn to balance amid them and to bring balance to them. Learning that poise and balance is the greatest skill in spiritual life: knowing when energy and resolution is needed and when it is time to soften and surrender; knowing when we need greater faith or greater inquiry; listening to the rhythms of our own heart as it tells us it is time to seek greater solitude and simplicity or a time for service, to make our care and love visible. There is no formula for this responsiveness. We must simply learn to listen with and open heart to what is ever in this moment, this day, this life.
A great mystic once said, “Of what avail is the open eye if the heart is blind?” True wisdom never divorces us from the travails and sorrows of the world but teaches us to live with greater integrity and compassion in the midst of them. Wisdom reveals to us that serenity is not some lofty peak we inhabit after transcending the world but is in learning how to respond to the challenges of this very life with great love. Wisdom is not an attainment but a way of being, a way of responding in which we neither resist the challenges life brings to us nor are overwhelmed by them. It is a question of balance. The visible expression of wisdom lies in the skillful means through which we manifest it. Integrity, forgiveness, and honesty are the responses of a living wisdom. They are the qualities that enable us to walk in the spirit of freedom and to learn the lesson of life.
We are witness to an age of endless conflict and destruction. Our planet suffers, human relationships break down, and individuals live in alienation. The wealth of ideas and formulas that have been produced have yet to bring about any meaningful shift in this cycle of pain. The pain of our world will not be changed by yet more ideas. What is needed is a profound change in the human heart. Let us not respond to the pain that surrounds us with righteousness, pious formulas, or withdrawal; let us learn how to respond with love and integrity. Let us not allow our lives to become a record of all the things we wish we had done, might have done or should have done.
The good life, the middle path, like the balance of all the complex elements of a river valley, is founded upon friendly adjustment. It changes slowly, but it leads always towards a more fruitful development of individual beings in service of each other. It embraces confidence in fellowship, tolerance in outlook, humility in service, and a constant search for the truth. To seek it in our own lives means imperfection and disappointment but never defeat. It means, I believe, putting ourselves in harmony with the divine order of love, with the great stream of forces that slowly are shaping…..in spite of man’s ignorance and selfishness…..an enrichment of the human spirit.
As I sit to write this blog, I am drawn to think about my dear Teacher Sudharma.She was the most resilient woman I have ever known and the most honest with both herself and others.She was a simple, humble, self-taught, honest, and loyal woman….all traits difficult to find in our modern-world Teachers, mostly consumed by money, vanity, fame, greed, misconceptions, and dishonesty.With so much going on in the world at the moment, it can be easy to feel that survive rather than thrive is the new normal.Reflecting on Sudharma’s personal traits led me to write this blog.
In even the worst landscape of human darkness and difficulty there shine beacons of light. They are not necessarily cast by particularly powerful or holy people who possess grandiose strategies for changing the world. They most often radiate from simple, ordinary people who in their intimate encounters with tragedy, injustice, and terror have been transformed and have learned how to respond to the world around them with the simplicity and power of their faith, love, and compassion. The Dhammapada (a collection of sayings of the Buddha in verse form) often notes that there is no power greater than the power of love, no shadow that can withstand the power of compassion, no demon that can overwhelm the power of openheartedness. Through their example our eyes are opened to the possibilities of bringing light to our own shadows.
Whether we are in positions of power, or in poverty, we will be tested.We will be asked to summon the spirit of greatness, of compassion, of openheartedness over and over again in our lives.Perhaps this is what we are here for, to learn this single lesson.In the end the strength we have to fall back upon is not our credentials or accomplishments or the ideals we hold but our humanness itself.Our basic ordinariness underlies all our attainments and experiences.The fact is that we, too, like the seasons and the sun and the moon and all the other living creatures, are born and die.We awake each morning and go to sleep each night; we eat and walk and feel in deep ways the preciousness and mystery of our very humanness.
We also hold within ourselves an extraordinary precious gift…..our capacity to be aware.This is the blessing that allows us to make choices, to sense the possibilities open to us.It empowers us to learn and grow through life’s tests rather than be swallowed by them.The gift of our awareness allows us to nurture our capacities for forgiveness and understanding rather than be driven by self-protective instincts, hostility, and fear.
We have not yet plumbed the depths and possibilities of our own awareness.How close can we come to another person?How deeply can we feel the wind that seems only to brush us with its touch?How attuned can we be to the changing rhythms of our universe?What is the extent of freedom?The only thing that is certain about awareness is that it removes all distance, it shatters mistaken notions and superficiality, it connects us with the heart of all life.It allows us to meet the tests in our life with greatness of heart.
As you go through your day, reflect on the challenges in your life.Bring to mind the times you have been tested, and recall the forces that you have brought to those tests.What would it be like to touch those tests with your utter humanness, to be vulnerable and through that ultimate honesty to be strong and balanced in your heart?Has worthiness, ambition, fear, or pride prevented you from learning from and growing through the challenges?What other qualities do you have to bring to those same challenges that would truly make a difference?
It is so much easier to grow love and compassion than it is to grow hate and fear. Yet all too often we find ourselves drifting away from our humanness. Love is so much stronger than fear and it is something that every one of us carries an unlimited supply of.
There is no better time to love like there is no tomorrow, grow in grateful awareness, and to beautifully bloom in the absolute face of adversity.
I am often asked why I begin each teaching and retreat with stories of great triumphs and revelations. The answer is, not because they are impossible, but because they are possible. They convey the power of love, faith, and courage. They speak of the capacity that deep compassion and integrity have to touch the hearts of others and to transform the world. If we read these stories wisely, we will not try to create saints or ideals from their message but will try to discover the same faith, wisdom, and courage within our own hearts.
We would do ourselves a great disservice to use the wisdom and example in these stories as a measure to judge our own imperfections and failings. Rather, these stories can inspire us to see beyond our frailties and doubts, to appreciate the strength and love that lie within us. Each one of us will be profoundly touched by pain, betrayal, and conflict that is part of the human experience. Our capacity to respond with grace and courage is the truth that is expressed in these stories.
There is a place within each of us that is the source of fearlessness, compassion, and integrity. It is this place that inspires us to reach out a hand of comfort to a friend in need, to intervene to prevent the infliction of pain upon another. It is this place that grieves at the pain in our world and rejoices in the happiness and love that is found. When we are vitally connected to our own hearts, we know that all living beings wish to be free from pain and to live in peace and freedom.
It is not just a saint who can forgive, not only Jesus or Buddha who can make great sacrifice. Compassion and love do not need grand gestures and dramatic expression. Our opportunities for love, forgiveness, and reverence are manifold. Each time we respond with love we create a world of peace and integrity. Every response is worthy, significant, each makes a difference.
The greatness of our hearts lies in not demanding proof that our responses of care and love make a difference. Our faith in love itself sustains us, the richness of our caring nurtures us. In not asking for confirmation, approval, or reward we are free to live simply in the spirit of reverence and love.
The stories teachers (including me) often open retreats or teachings with speak of this love and faith. They invite us to look anew at our own loves. What in our lives now could be healed by forgiveness? What discord and division exists that could be reconciled by patience and love? What conflicts could be ended by tolerance and compassion? In each day, in each moment, what opportunities do we have to truly make a difference?