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)