Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

'Now' and 'Then'

I've just finished reading "Teachings on Love" by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk who is also a poet, scholar and human rights activist.

It was assigned reading for my class with Kwok Pui Lan on 'Spirituality for the Contemporary World'.

I read his book, "Being Peace" years ago. I am embarrassed to admit it now, but I  think I pretty much dismissed it then with the attitude that his spirituality was so high, it was personally unattainable.

I took what I could - a few small morsels which you will discover scattered here and there in this post - and left the rest in my naivete and ignorance.

To be honest, until then, all I really knew about Buddhism was what I learned by watching the television program "Kung Fu" with David Carradine. Never mind that this was a Caucasian man. It did become the vehicle of my curiosity, as I went through my prerequisite young adult phase of leaving the church to find a "better path" of my own spirituality.

I read and learned just enough to - much later, after I came back to church and eventually became an Episcopal priest - to teach Buddhist principles in my Confirmation Class.

We always did a component on World Religions, based on my belief from my own experience that knowledge of world religions is not only a "good thing"; it also helps you gain a better perspective on your own religion.

I have usually done an overview of all the religions of the world, and then focused in on one of the religions in more depth, depending on the curiosity and interest of the class.

I discovered that kids at that age - well, at least in the past nine years in a Northern NJ suburb - are keenly curious about Buddhism.

So, I taught about The Four Immeasurable Minds - loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. And, the Five Elements (or skandhas) of the body - form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.

I told the kids that I had no problem embracing Buddhism because it was not a religion but rather a philosophy of life. One could, therefore, be a good Christian and a Buddhist, I said.

What I was really saying, I now know, was, "See how 'cool' I am?"

Indeed, I think one can take the spiritual and meditative practices of Buddhism and use them to become a better Christian. In fact, I do, myself. I practice "walking meditation" as well as meditation on the scripture of the day.

I taught one Confirmation Class how to meditate. They asked for it. Begged me to teach them. And, they loved it. They loved it so much that, from that point on, we started each class with a one to three minute time of meditation, gradually building up to five minutes.

Some of the kids told me that they used the techniques before taking an exam. One young man who was on the football team said that he used meditation before he went out on the field and found that his game had improved. "Even my coach says so," he joyfully declared.

The Buddhist principles are ideals, I remember saying to them, cautiously, but they are probably not attainable.

That young man stopped me short with a question: "But, Reverend Elizabeth," he said, "if what you are saying is right, then what you are really saying is that Buddhism is better than Christianity. I can be a Christian without breaking a sweat. I was baptized a Christian before I even knew I was a Christian or had anything to say about it, yes or no. Now, I come to class once a week for a year, I get a new suit, and some cool presents. I let the bishop put his hands on my head. Done. But, it takes real work to be a Buddhist. Is that what you're saying?"

The Buddha said, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

What he didn't say is that sometimes, the student becomes the teacher.

Ah, grasshopper!

I believe I gave that young man an answer that went something like well, yes, anybody can be a Christian through baptism, but it takes many, many years of work to become a good Christian.

I think he was okay with that answer, but I wasn't. I think what my answer revealed is just how little I knew about Buddhism.

I've been sitting with that question for two years. I thought I was just reading a book assigned to my class. I have begun to realize that Thich Nhat Hanh has come into my life at this moment to teach me how to better answer that question for myself - not just recite to others the things I know about Buddhism or other religions.

It came slowly, with just one concept. It was about the difference between happiness and joy.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that if you are very thirsty and you see a glass of water, you will experience joy. After you drink the water, you will experience happiness.

Insert cartoon of light bulb turning on here.

Let me explain.

I've been having a wonderful time here at EDS. I love being on campus. I love my classes. I think my professors are brilliant educators who are genuinely kind and compassionate and deeply spiritual people with a commitment to justice. I love conversations with students in class and in the Refectory. I love Cambridge and Boston.

Every now and again, I've experienced a wave of sadness as the thought enters my mind that this will, all too soon, come to an end. I'm happy here. Indeed, I'm beyond happy. I am often, and without explanation, positively joyful.

That's because I'm still thirsty and the glass of water is still here.

I will forever be happy that I had this time here as Proctor Scholar. Right now, I am joyful because I am here. Still seeing the glass of water in front of me. Still learning. Still thirsty. Still questing.

Yes, my time here as Proctor Scholar will come to an end. It must. But, I do not have to be anxious or sad about that. Indeed, because my time here will come to an end, I can be more joyful now so I can be happy later. In fact, because my time here is limited, it makes it even more special.

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

Jesus said, "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:24-34)

What Jesus didn't say is that this practice will bring you joy. Maybe he did and his disciples just forgot to write it down. Or, it got lost in translation.

The Buddha also taught, “To understand everything is to forgive everything”.

I understand now, I think, why I had earlier dismissed Thich Nhat Hanh's book, "Being Peace" as a lovely ideal that is, ultimately, unattainable. Well, I don't claim to understand completely, but I have a better insight to my behavior.

At the time, I still needed to be at war with parts of myself. There were things that I had not forgiven - things done and left undone - that were still churning in my soul.

As I have found greater understanding, I've also found forgiveness. I think the hardest part of the work of forgiveness is the forgiveness of self.

Once one is able to forgive the self, it becomes easier to forgive others.  What I now understand is that the things that made me angriest in others were the very things I disliked most - but denied being - in myself. Forgiving that quality in myself frees me to forgive others with that same quality.

The Buddha says, “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.”

I cannot know the path of forgiveness until I become the path of forgiveness. I cannot know the path of joy until I become the path of joy. I cannot know the path of peace unless I become the path of peace.

In speaking about Compassion, Thich Nhat Hanh says,
"When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn't he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha has enough understanding, calm, and strength; this is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna (compassion) is there. That is why the Buddha's smile is possible."
And, I would add, so impossibly beautiful.

That takes a great deal of work - a lifetime for some - but it is attainable. I understand that, now. I know it now, not just with my mind but in my heart and in my soul.

I think knowing this will, in fact, make me a better Christian. I say that with deeper conviction - from a place of essential truth in me - than I was able to do even two years ago.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, "If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha's spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy."

John J. Thatamanil is a Christian theologian who calls us to "Binocular Religious Wisdom" to learn more about God and our own religious experience through multiple religious participation.

He's written a wonderful essay for Huffington Post which also appears on the EDS Blog "99 Brattle". He writes:
"In an older era, a person was accounted wise if he or she attained to a practical mastery of one tradition. Think St. Francis of Assisi. But our age requires also (not instead of) a new kind of wisdom: the capacity to see the world through more than one set of religious lenses and to integrate into one life, insofar as possible, what is disclosed through those lenses. Think Mahatma Gandhi. His theory and practice of nonviolent resistance integrated ideas and practices drawn from Jainism, Christianity (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in particular), and, of course, Hinduism.

For lack of a better phrase, I call this binocular wisdom, an extension from binocular vision, vision generated by both eyes, the only kind that yields depth perspective."
You can find the entire essay here. I encourage you to read it.

It took me awhile to adjust to my own 'bifocal' glasses when I got them a few years ago. Walking up or down stairs became a lesson in being more aware of the placement of my feet and the movement of my body. Managing and escalator was, at first, a fairly intense opportunity to practice mindfulness.

Once I got used to wearing them, I became deeply grateful for them. I was able to see so much more - things I didn't even know I had been missing.

The Buddha says, “When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.”

I imagine Jesus and Buddha, walking together. They are not just in the 'then' of happiness, they are in the 'now' of joy. And, they are laughing at the sky.

I understand that the work of life - my life, anyway - is to be more and more in the 'now', and, finding joy there, to discover that, every now and again, I have joined them, laughing at the sky.


Kwok Pui Lan said...

Thank you very much for sharing this journey with Buddhism. Indeed, when the student is ready, the teacher will come. When world religion becomes not a subject to be learned or mastered, but a way of life to be appreciated and learned from, our relation to the spiritual paths of humankind changes. I especially like what you said about keeping your own roots while learning from others to deepen our spirituality. In the face of so much suffering in Japan, I was so impressed by the calmness, strength, and the common purpose of the Japanese people I saw on TV. There is a spiritual quality that I admire.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Pui Lan