A Complicated Burden (May 2012)
A Complicated Burden
was nothing SANDY BOUCHER could have done to prevent the tragedy. Yet
decade after decade, she has carried the burden of guilt. This is a
meditation on living with what cannot be undone.
After months of intensive study of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva in
a class with Pema Chödrön, my classmates and I were invited to take the
bodhisattva vow, which is a commitment to dedicate oneself to all
beings that is at the very heart of the Mahayana Buddhist path. The vow
was explained as an aspiration only, not necessarily a strict obligation
to future selfless action, and many Buddhists after some consideration
do not have any difficulty taking it. But I hesitated, wondering how I
could make such a promise. I did not trust my willingness to give or
sacrifice for the benefit of others. For decades I had carried with me
the question: What could I have done, what sacrifice could I have made,
to change my brother’s circumstances so that he would have wanted to go
brother George—a stocky, dark-haired, handsome man, shyly smiling—shot
himself at the age of twenty-eight and disappeared from our lives. Just
nineteen at the time, I was so traumatized by his death that I floated
solitary and desperately lonely for days and months that stretched into
years. In the half a century since he died, I have spent countless hours
trying to understand, accept, and mourn his violent exit—grieving for
George because apparently he thought he had no other option, and sorry
for myself because my precious, only brother disappeared, robbing me of
knowing him as he aged and changed.
believe that George killed himself at least in part to punish our
father, with whom he had struggled all his life and who had broken his
spirit by constant denigration and occasional physical abuse. Dad was a
carpenter, a big, blunt, outspoken man who was king of our house. He was
served the first and largest portion at dinner; he held forth at length
while my mother and we children kept silent; and he criticized us
children with cold contempt. Each night at dinner my father berated
George for his dissolute lifestyle. I would watch my brother’s head
lower in angry shame as Dad called him a loafer, a ne’er do well, a bum.
On the one hand, I agreed with my dad that George seemed disreputable
in his grease-stained pants, beer in hand, puffing a fat cigar, and I
knew he often acted crudely and carelessly, but, on the other hand, I
felt George’s humiliation as the blood rose in his cheeks.
the youngest child, I was my father’s favorite, identifying with him
and loving him deeply. When he held me on his lap, his large workman’s
hands clasped my tummy with warm reassurance. When he lifted me in his
arms, I knew the world was safe and that I was protected. When I pranced
around the living room showing off and he laughed at me, I felt
showered with grace. My sister and I loved to watch him and my mother,
all dressed up like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, twirling across the
floor together at the lodge-hall dances. In the kitchen he demonstrated a
wacky Charleston for us, his long legs scissoring out to the side,
while we choked with laughter.
I grew up, I came to understand that my dad had wanted to be a doctor
and had even made it through pre-med school at Ohio State, but his hopes
had been destroyed by the Great Depression. He was eaten up by the
conviction that he had been denied his chance in life, and so he handed
to his only son the task of realizing his dream. When George chose to
smoke cigars, drink beer, and work on jalopies instead of going to
college, my dad vented upon him his relentless, frustrated rage.
role as daddy’s girl brought with it a complicated burden of confused
loyalties. Standing with my father meant I had to denigrate or dismiss
my brother and sister and many others in our environment. This pressure
caused a creeping discomfort in me and, so, as I grew from child to
teenager, I developed a pattern of secret rebellion while offering a
smoothly accepting facade to the family. After my brother’s suicide, I
escaped my father by leaving my Midwestern home, sacrificing the support
of family ties and a connection with my birthplace in order to create a
life less distorted by his bitter view of the world.
one never fully escapes one’s family. I still often feel the pull of my
relationship with my dad, and also my mom, who are both dead now. I
wonder if my brother would have survived if my mother had acted to
protect him. I saw her put herself between them only once, when after a
shoving match my father lifted my sixteen-year-old brother above his
head and, from a landing several steps up the stairway, poised to throw
him to the floor. Mom begged my father to put George down, and he did,
turning away with trembling arms and a weirdly hangdog look, his fury
crumbling into shame.
I see that day in the living room—in the stillness after my brother had
escaped out the back door and his jalopy had roared out the driveway—as
my father’s chance to stop and take a look at himself. My father might
have gone out on the porch or into the backyard and pondered what he had
done. He might have made a choice, alone or with my mother, to do all
in his power to stop himself from continuing the cycle of disrespect and
dominance in which he was caught. As an adult, in my own practice, I
try to catch myself—I try to stop the forward thrust of anger and pull
back into attention. After all, so many times I watched my father start
on the path of rage, amp up the feelings, and stoke the conflict until
any self-awareness he might have had was consumed by the roar of his
emotions. My father never took that opportunity to stop.
the family dynamics in our home, I could not help my brother and yet,
against all reason, for years I found it difficult to forgive myself for
not saving George’s life. I watched my father abuse him and did not
speak; while I could not muster the contempt my father expected me to
feel for George, I did nothing when my father shamed him; I participated
in his being pushed outside our circle. Even now I wonder how I could
have acted to show him that he was loved and if that would have helped.
How could I have sacrificed my own safety and comfort to secure his? In
Buddhism we find many stories of sacrifice, including the dramatic saga
of Princess Miao Shan who sacrificed her eyes and hands to save her
father’s life and in the process transformed into the Celestial
Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kwan Yin. From one perspective, I can see
that her self-sacrifice was an expression of the highest spiritual
attainment. She gave up the illusion of a stable self or her
“independent position,” you might say. That is, she honored the truth of
the interpenetration of all life, so that self-sacrifice became a
creative form of participation and action. On the other hand, as a
woman, I am leery of the societal expectation that I was put on this
earth to serve others, even at the expense of myself. I have, however,
found a corrective in Chögyam Trungpa’s definition of compassion as
“doing what is appropriate in the moment,” which seems to strip away
concepts and identities to place one in the truth of the here and now.
as a child, would have been appropriate for me? If I had spoken in
George’s defense, would I have sacrificed my favored place as daddy’s
girl and been pushed outside the circle of family warmth and approval,
as George had been? Eight years younger than my brother, I admired him
with all my heart and I maintained a secret relationship with him when
my father was not around. While George sometimes acted the loud, pushy
big brother, he was often kind to me. He let me sit next to him on the
back step while he contemplated the jalopy he was fixing in the
driveway, and we rested in companionable silence. Sometimes he teased me
with word-games from the boogie-woogie records he listened to.
Sometimes he took me with him on errands and I’d sit proudly erect in
the rumble seat of his Model T. This makes me unutterably sad to
remember, for it brings home my loss.
day, at a cancer support group I attended, a young man, a Buddhist like
me, talked about his suffering as his condition worsened. He was a
handsome man with curly dark-brown hair and thick-lashed, sable eyes. I
sat next to him at the meeting and after he had told us of his latest
bout with pain and despair, I put my arm around his shoulders. Rather
than keeping a rigidity or distance as some men might have done, he
leaned against me and put his head on my shoulder, surrendering to
receive the comfort I offered.
was inordinately moved, feeling a great rush of tenderness and a sort
of relief. It was not until I arrived home that day that I realized it
was as if I had been holding and comforting George.
this experience in the next few days, I remembered the Buddha’s
response to a woman who was caught in unbearable grief at the death of
her children. He told her that he could not help her with her present
predicament; through countless previous lives she had been crying for
lost children, her tears enough to fill all the oceans. Hearing him and
recognizing that she’d already cried enough, she felt her grief begin to
thought about all the brothers who have died throughout all time and
all the siblings who have felt guilty or helpless at their brothers’
death. And I found myself breathing in regret and sorrow, not just for
my own situation, but also in solidarity with everyone in the world who
has lost a brother. I breathed in all our pain as I’d been taught to do
in the ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen,
and breathed out compassion for all of us. As immediately as I had with
my cancer friend, I felt the stability of strong human contact
when I think about the past and am confronted with my complicity in
someone else’s misfortune, I do this practice. The regret doesn’t go
away, yet I am returned to the feelings I experienced in the cancer
support group. Comforting that young man, I realized that my brother is
alive in people who suffer, and while I cannot reach back in time to
change his reality, I can aspire to touch him in others, to make myself
available to act with delicacy and compassion toward my fellow human
beings. Sometimes I cannot manage this brave maneuver, but at other
times it is possible.
after several days of practice with the Tibetan Buddhist nun Tenzin
Palmo, I and others were invited to take the Bodhisattva vow with her.
This I did, experiencing it as the continuation of what I had been doing
with tonglen and a support for further explorations. I breathe in guilt
and sorrow and breathe out peace.
Inside the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine
Inside the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine:
Change: Eleven teachers and writers on life’s central challenge and the
key to the Buddhist path. Plus, the inspiring life of Thich Nhat Hanh’s
closest collaborator, running with the mind of meditation, how thoughts
can free us (rather than control us) and much more.
Click on titles below to view full articles, excerpts, and related web
exclusives. Click here to order a copy of this issue.
this issue's editorial:
By Shambhala Sun Editor-in-Chief Melvin McLeod.
She's Thich Nhat Hanh’s invaluable collaborator, and a dedicated activist and gifted teacher in her own right. Andrea Miller tells her extraordinary story.
We continue our presentation of never-before-published teachings by
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of this magazine. In this issue: how our relationship with the teacher evolves in the three vehicles of Buddhism.
RELATED SHAMBHALA SUN SPOTLIGHT:
MORE FEATURES FROM OUR MAY 2012 MAGAZINE: Tsokyni Rinpoche on how to experience two of mind's most profound qualities; Michael Stone on the uncle who helped him to think in new ways.
special section: embrace change
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
starts our special section with an overview of Buddhism’s unique
approach to this universal challenge and reality. Change, he says, isn’t
just a fact of life we have to work with. It’s enlightenment itself,
manifesting moment by moment in time.
Plus ten other leading
Buddhist teachers and writers offer personal stories, teachings, and
meditations to touch our hearts, open our minds, and help us embrace the
change in our own lives:
Meditating and running go hand in hand, says Sakyong Mipham. Exercise can be a support for meditation, and meditation can be a support for exercise.
RELATED SHAMBHALASUN.COM SPOTLIGHT:
There was nothing Sandy Boucher
could have done to prevent the tragedy. Yet decade after decade, she
has carried the burden of guilt. This is a meditation on living with
what can not be undone.
Working with our thoughts is the greatest challenge in meditation — maybe in life. Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche tells us how we can experience them as freedom and not imprisonment.
Whether they get an F or an A+, most kids can't separate their grades from their self-worth. Kyo Maclear on eliminating grades so children can focus on what really matters in life.
the mindful society
on the latest thinking about how and why kindness, caring, empathy, and
other mindful values might be brought into our children's classrooms,
and the people who are leading the way for it to happen.
John Tarrant reviews Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Andrea Miller reviews The Huston
Smith Reader, Making Space by Thich Nhat Hanh, Moh Hardin's Little Book
of Live, and five other new titles worth your
about a poem
Shambhala Sun, March 2012,
Volume Twenty, Number 5.
To order a trial subscription to Shambhala Sun, click
ON THE COVER: The waxing gibbous moon; photo by Kenneth Williamson.
Books in Brief (May 2012)
Books in Brief
BY ANDREA MILLER
Leaning Into Sharp Points:
Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers
By Stan Goldberg
New World Library 2012; 232 pp., $14.95 (paper)
man’s wife was hooked up to an oxygen regulator. “How do I do this?” he
whispered to hospice volunteer Stan Goldberg. “We’ve been married for
forty years, but God help me, I don’t know what I should be doing.”
This, says Goldberg, is a question that millions of people ask every day
when they find themselves thrust into the role of caregiver for someone
with a chronic or terminal illness, and for just this reason he offers Leaning Into Sharp Points.
Among other important topics, this book addresses how to begin talking
about what your loved one has meant to you and how much they will be
missed; how to balance your needs against theirs; and how to deal with
any abuse or negative behavior they may direct at you due to their
illness. Goldberg, whose writing appeared in The Best Buddhist Writing 2010, is also the author of Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life.
A Little Book of Love:
Heart Advice on Bringing Happiness to Ourselves and Our World
By Moh Hardin
Shambhala Publications 2011; 160 pp., $15.95 (cloth)
is said that all the Buddha’s teachings can be divided into two broad
categories: skillful means and wisdom. The wisdom teachings offer
insight into the nature of reality, while the skillful means teachings
offer instruction for practices. In that vein, Moh Hardin presents both
skillful means and wisdom teachings in A Little Book of Love.
And—whether he’s addressing listening and speaking with love or
building trust or letting go—he always has practical and transformative
suggestions. “This is a little book about a big word: love,” Hardin
writes in the introduction. “Love is not just a feeling we have toward
our spouse, our family, or our friends. It includes these relationships,
of course, but love is a way of being present and awake in the world
A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction:
A Step-by-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust and Restore Intimacy
By Paldrom Catharine Collins and George N. Collins
Adams Media 2011; 256 pp., $14.95 (paper)
A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction is
by husband and wife team Paldrom Catharine Collins and George N.
Collins. Paldrom is a former Buddhist nun who helps couples work through
sexual addiction through Compulsion Solutions counseling in California.
George, a recovering sex addict, is the author of Breaking the Cycle.
According to the authors, sex addiction is a compulsive urge to engage
in sexual activity, be it having affairs, using prostitutes, or
excessively viewing pornography. For the addict, sex is an escape or a
balm in a way that is detrimental to the individual, their family, their
friends, and/or their work. This book is for couples who have decided
to stay together and work through breaches in their relationship caused
by sexually compulsive behavior. Part one explores how to come to terms
with the shock, hurt, fear, and shame surrounding addiction; part two
unpacks the skills required to rebuild the partnership; and part three
deals with ways of deepening emotional and sexual intimacy.
The Huston Smith Reader
Edited by Jeffery Paine
University of California Press 2012; 280 pp., $29.95 (cloth)
was no such thing as comparative religion; if you knew someone of
another faith, you ignored them, persecuted them, or tried to convert
them. Then, with his 1958 classic, The Religions of Man,
Huston Smith showed America another way. He was born in 1919 to
missionary parents in China, and he planned to become a missionary
himself. Instead, he became what was considered an eccentric college
professor. He discovered Hinduism and threw himself into it not just by
studying it, but by practicing it for ten years. After that, he spent a
decade immersed in Buddhism and another immersed in Islam. Smith’s
writing, which spans six decades, is renowned for being highly
accessible, and this newly published reader offers a fascinating
selection of his work.
Man Seeks God:
My Flirtations With the Divine
By Eric Weiner
Twelve Publications 2011; 368 pp., $26.99 (cloth)
over in pain one evening, Eric Weiner found himself in the emergency
room terrified that he had cancer or some unimaginable illness worse
than cancer. The nurse, smelling his fear, leaned in to draw blood.
“Have you found your God yet?” she asked. As it turns out, the only
illness Weiner had was bad indigestion and it quickly passed. The
nurse’s question, however, lingered on, eventually evolving into Man Seeks God—an
open-minded, if irreverent, exploration of eight different religions.
To tackle Buddhism, the wisecracking spiritual seeker traveled to Nepal,
where he had a semiprivate audience with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche; tried
to meditate but mostly fixated on the nail clippers he’d forgotten to
pack; and circumambulated the stupa of Boudhanath, or in his words,
“walked around the Giant Marshmallow.” In the end, Weiner didn’t convert
to Buddhism or any other faith; instead, he constructed his own God.
The foundation is Judaism, he says, but the support beams are Buddhist.
Creating a Home Meditation Practice
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press 2011; 96 pp., $9.95 (paper)
places create peace in our minds and bodies. “That is the intention of
sacred space,” it says in the introduction of this new release. “But we
don’t need to wait until we can find a church, temple, mosque,
synagogue, or other space designed for sacred contemplation… If we make a
space for contemplation and meditation right in our own homes, then
peace and joy are always available to us.” In Making Space,
Thich Nhat Hanh begins with the how-tos of stopping, breathing, and
sitting. Then he delves into the importance of creating a “breathing
room” or “breathing corner,” a calm place at home that you can go to
when you’re feeling uneasy, sad, or angry, and thereby come back to
yourself. Later chapters explore topics such as how to invite the bell,
how to make an altar, and how to make your bed a real place of rest and
How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy
By Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
New World Library 2012; 256 pp., $14.95 (paper)
weather events, a mushrooming population, and dwindling resources—the
world’s problems are so big that many of us feel powerless. We do not
believe in our ability to change things, so we don’t even try. Yet in
this new release, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone argue that we don’t
need to be optimistic to make positive change. Instead of weighing our
chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we can instead be
guided by our intentions. This is a three-step practice, which the
authors call Active Hope. First, we take in a clear view of reality.
Second, we identify what we hope for. And third, we take steps to move
ourselves or our situation in that direction. Activist Joanna Macy is a
scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Chris
Johnstone, author of Find Your Power, teaches on resilience, happiness, and positive change.
Ten Poems to Say Goodbye
By Roger Housden
Harmony Books 2012; 125 pp., $16 (cloth)
Housden’s new release is the perfect poetic accompaniment for this
issue’s special section on embracing change. It features ten poems by
ten poets, and to accompany each poem Housden offers a thoughtful,
lyrical essay. The theme throughout is impermanence, personal loss. Yet
the lens is wide and takes in not just grief and sorrow, but also
healing and joy. “A goodbye,” says Housden in the introduction, “is an
opportunity for kindness, for forgiveness, for intimacy, and ultimately
for love and a deepening acceptance of life as it is instead of what it
was or what we may have wanted it to be.” Ten Poems to Say Goodbye stands strongly on its own. That said, it is the final volume in a series of six by Housden, the first being Ten Poems to Change Your Life, which was published a decade ago. The poets featured in Ten Poems to Say Goodbye include Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings, and Buddhist practitioners Leonard Cohen and Jane Hirshfield.
Impermanence is Buddha Nature (Embrace Change/May 2012)
Impermanence is Buddha Nature
Change isn’t just a fact of life we have to accept and work with, says NORMAN FISCHER.
The scene of the Buddha’s passing, as told in the Pali canon’s Mahaparinibbana Sutta,
is starkly beautiful. The Buddha, having previously “renounced the life
force” and announced the time and place of his passing, is surrounded
by his disciples. He asks them if they have any last questions or
doubts, and through their silence (and his clairvoyance), he realizes
that they are all well established in awakening. He then pronounces his
final words to them and to all subsequent generations of practitioners:
“Now monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things have the nature of
vanishing. Keep on diligently with your practice!” Then the Buddha
journeys back and forth through the various meditation states, finally
passing from this life. Those monks not yet fully awakened “tore their
hair, raised their arms, threw themselves down twisting and turning, and
cried out in their extreme grief, ‘Too soon! Too soon!’” But the fully
awakened monastics remained mindful, saying, “All compound things are
impermanent. What’s the use of crying?”
have always understood impermanence as the cornerstone of Buddhist
teachings and practice. All that exists is impermanent; nothing lasts.
Therefore nothing can be grasped or held onto. When we don’t fully
appreciate this simple but profound truth we suffer, as did the monks
who descended into misery and despair at the Buddha’s passing. When we
do, we have real peace and understanding, as did the monks who remained
fully mindful and calm.
far as classical Buddhism is concerned, impermanence is the number one
inescapable, and essentially painful, fact of life. It is the singular
existential problem that the whole edifice of Buddhist practice is meant
to address. To understand impermanence at the deepest possible level
(we all understand it at superficial levels), and to merge with it
fully, is the whole of the Buddhist path. The Buddha’s final words
express this: Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes.
Therefore there is nothing more important than continuing the path with
diligence. All other options either deny or short-shrift the problem.
while ago I had a dream that has stayed with me. In a hazy grotto, my
mother-in-law and I, coming from opposite directions, are trying to
squeeze through a dim doorway. Both of us are fairly large people and
the space is small, so for a moment we are stuck together in the
doorway. Finally we press through, she to her side (formerly mine), I to
mine (formerly hers).
not that surprising to me that I would dream about my mother-in-law.
Her situation is often on my mind. My mother-in- law is nearing ninety.
She has many health problems. She is usually in pain, can’t walk or
sleep at night, and is losing the use of her hands to neuropathy. She
lives with her husband of more than sixty years, who has advanced
Alzheimer’s disease, can’t speak a coherent sentence, and doesn’t know
who or where he is. Despite all this, my mother-in-law affirms life 100
percent, as she always has. She never entertains the idea of death, as
far as I know. All she wants and hopes for is a good and pleasant life.
Since she doesn’t have this right now (though she hasn’t given up hope
for it), she is fairly miserable, as anyone in her situation would be.
on the other hand, am fairly healthy, with no expectation of dying
anytime soon. Yet from childhood I have been thinking about death, and
the fact of death has probably been the main motivator in my life. (Why
else would I have devoted myself full time to Buddhist practice from an
early age?) Consequently, almost all my talking and writing, and much of
my thinking, is in one way or another in reference to death, absence,
this dream intrigues and confuses me. Is my mother-in-law about to pass
over from life to death, though temporarily stuck in the crowded
doorway? If that’s the logic of the dream, then I must be dead, stuck in
that same doorway as I try to pass through to life. Of course this
makes no sense! But then, the longer I contemplate life and death, the
less sense they make. Sometimes I wonder whether life and death isn’t
merely a conceptual framework we confuse ourselves with. Of course
people do seem to disappear, and, this having been the case generally
with others, it seems reasonable to assume that it will be the case for
us at some point. But how to understand this? And how to account for the
many anomalies that appear when you look closely, such as reported
appearances of ghosts and other visitations from the dead,
reincarnation, and so on.
It is very telling that some religions refer to death as “eternal life,” and that in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta the Buddha doesn’t die. He enters parinirvana,
full extinction, which is something other than death. In Buddhism
generally, death isn’t death—it’s a staging area for further life. So
there are many respectable and less respectable reasons to wonder about
the question of death.
are a lot of older people in the Buddhist communities in which I
practice. Some are in their seventies and eighties, others in their
sixties, like me. Because of this, the theme of death and impermanence
is always on our minds and seems to come up again and again in the
teachings we study. All conditioned things pass away. Nothing remains as
it was. The body changes and weakens as it ages. In response to this,
and to a lifetime’s experience, the mind changes as well. The way one
thinks of, views, and feels about life and the world is different. Even
the same thoughts one had in youth or midlife take on a different flavor
when held in older age. The other day a friend about my age, who in her
youth studied Zen with the great master Song Sa Nim, told me, “He
always said, ‘Soon dead!’ I understood the words then as being true:
very Zen, and almost funny. Now they seem personal and poignant.”
conditioned things have the nature of vanishing.” What is impermanence
after all? When we’re young we know that death is coming, but it will
probably come later, so we don’t have to be so concerned with it now.
And even if we are concerned with it in youth, as I was, the concern is
philosophical. When we are older we know death is coming sooner rather
than later, so we take it more personally. But do we really know what we
are talking about?
may be the ultimate loss, the ultimate impermanence, but even on a
lesser, everyday scale, impermanence and the loss it entails still
happens more or less “later.” Something is here now in a particular way;
later it will not be. I am or have something now; later I will not. But
“later” is the safest of all time frames. It can be safely ignored
because it’s not now—it’s later, and later never comes. And even if it
does, we don’t have to worry about it now. We can worry about it later.
For most of us most of the time, impermanence seems irrelevant.
in truth, impermanence isn’t later; it’s now. “All conditioned things
have the nature of vanishing.” Right now, as they appear before us, they
have that nature. It’s not that something vanishes later. Right now,
everything is in some way—though we don’t understand in what
way—vanishing before our very eyes. Squeezing uncomfortably through the
narrow doorway of now, we don’t know whether we are coming or going.
Impermanence may be a deeper thought than we at first appreciate.
is not only loss; it is also change, and change can be refreshing,
renewing. In fact, change is always both good and bad, because change,
even when it is refreshing, always entails loss. Nothing new appears
unless something old ceases. As they say on New Year’s Eve, “Out with
the old, in with the new,” a happy and a sad occasion. As with the scene
in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, there’s despair and equanimity at the same time. Impermanence is both.
one of his most important essays, the great twelfth-century Japanese
Zen master Dogen writes, “Impermanence is itself Buddha Nature.” This
seems quite different from the classical Buddhist notion of
impermanence, which emphasizes the loss side of the loss/ change/renewal
equation. For Dogen, impermanence isn’t a problem to be overcome with
diligent effort on the path. Impermanence is the path. Practice isn’t the way to cope with or overcome impermanence. It is the way to fully appreciate and live it.
you want to understand Buddha Nature,” Dogen writes, “you should
intimately observe cause and effect over time. When the time is ripe,
Buddha Nature manifests.” In explaining this teaching, Dogen, in his
usual inside-out, upside-down way (Dogen is unique among Zen Masters in
his intricately detailed literary style, which usually involves very
counterconceptual ways of understanding typical concepts), writes that
practice isn’t so much a matter of changing or improving the conditions
of your inner or outer life, as a way of fully embracing and
appreciating those conditions, especially the condition of impermanence
and loss. When you practice, “the time becomes ripe.” While this phrase
naturally implies a “later” (something unripe ripens in time), Dogen
understands it is the opposite way: Time is always ripe. Buddha Nature
always manifests in time, because time is always impermanence.
course time is impermanence and impermanence is time! Time is change,
development, loss. Present time is ungraspable: as soon as it occurs it
immediately falls into the past. As soon as I am here, I am gone. If
this were not so, how could the me of this moment ever give way to the
me of the following moment? Unless the first me disappears, clearing the
way, the second me cannot appear. So my being here is thanks to my not
being here. If I were not not here I couldn’t be here!
words, this becomes very quickly paradoxical and absurd, but in living,
it seems to be exactly the case. Logically it must be so, and once in a
while (especially in a long meditation retreat) you can actually,
viscerally, feel it. Nothing appears unless it appears in time. And
whatever appears in time appears and vanishes at once, just as the
Buddha said on his deathbed. Time is existence, impermanence, change,
loss, growth, development—the best and the worst news at once. Dogen
calls this strange immense process Buddha Nature. “Buddha Nature is no
other than all are, because all are is Buddha Nature,” he writes. The phrase all are is telling. Are: existence, being, time, impermanence, change. All are: existence, being, time, impermanence, change is never lonely; it is always all-inclusive. We’re all always in this together.
other day I was talking to an old friend, an experienced Zen
practitioner, about her practice. She told me she was beginning to
notice that the persistent feeling of dissatisfaction she always felt in
relation to others, to the world, and to the circumstances of her inner
and outer life, was probably not about others, the world, or inner and
outer circumstances, but instead was about her deepest inmost self
itself. Dissatisfaction, she said, seems in some way to be herself,
to be fundamentally engrained in her. Before realizing this, she went
on, she’d assumed her dissatisfaction was due in some way to a personal
failing on her part—a failing that she had hoped to correct with her Zen
practice. But now she could see that it was far worse than that! The
dissatisfaction was not about her, and therefore correctable; it was built into her, it was essential to her self!
seems to be exactly what the Buddha meant when he spoke of the basic
shakiness of our sense of subjectivity in the famous doctrine of anatta,
or nonself. Though we all need healthy egos to operate normally in the
world, the essential grounding of ego is the false notion of permanence,
a notion that we unthinkingly subscribe to, even though, deep in our
hearts, we know it’s untrue. I am me, I have been me, I will be me. I
can change, and I want to change, but I am always here, always me, and
have never known any other experience. But this ignores the reality that
“all conditioned things have the nature of vanishing,” and are
vanishing constantly, as a condition of their existing in time, whose
nature is vanishing.
wonder we feel, as my friend felt, a constant nagging sense of
dissatisfaction and disjunction that we might well interpret as coming
from a chronic personal failing (that is, once we’d gotten over the even
more faulty belief that others were responsible for it). On the other
hand, “all are is
Buddha Nature.” This means that the self is not, as we imagine, an
improvable permanent isolated entity we and we alone are responsible
for; instead it is impermanence itself, which is never alone, never
isolated, constantly flowing, and immense: Buddha Nature itself.
writes “Impermanence itself is Buddha Nature.” And adds, “Permanence is
the mind that discriminates the wholesomeness and unwholesomeness of
all things.” Permanence!? Impermanence seems to be (as Dogen himself
writes elsewhere) an “unshakable teaching” in buddhadharma. How does
“permanence” manage to worm its way into Dogen’s discourse?
come back to my dream of being stuck in the doorway between life and
death with my mother-in-law: which side is which, and who is going
where? Impermanence and permanence may simply be balancing
concepts—words, feelings, and thoughts that support one another in
helping us grope toward an understanding (and a misunderstanding) of our
lives. For Dogen, “permanence” is practice: having the wisdom and the
commitment to see the difference between what we commit ourselves to
pursuing in this human lifetime, and what we commit ourselves to letting
go of. The good news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that we can
finally let ourselves off the hook: we can let go of the great and
endless chore of improving ourselves, of being stellar accomplished
people, inwardly or in our external lives. This is no small thing,
because we are all subject to this kind of brutal inner pressure to be
and do more today than we have been and done yesterday—and more than
someone else has been and done today and tomorrow.
the other hand, the bad news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that
it’s so big there isn’t much we can do with it. It can’t be enough
simply to repeat the phrase to ourselves. And if we are not striving to
accomplish the Great Awakening, the Ultimate Improvement, what would we
do, and why would we do it? Dogen asserts a way and a motivation. If
impermanence is the worm at the heart of the apple of self, making
suffering a built-in factor of human life, then permanence is the petal
emerging from the sepal of the flower of impermanence. It makes
happiness possible. Impermanence is permanent,
the ongoing process of living and dying and time. Permanence is
nirvana, bliss, cessation, relief—the never-ending, everchanging, and
growing field of practice.
the Buddha’s final scene as told in the sutra, the contrast between the
monastics who tore their hair, raised their arms, and threw themselves
down in their grief, and those who received the Buddha’s passing with
equanimity couldn’t be greater. The sutra seems to imply disapproval of
the former and approval of the latter. Or perhaps the approval and
disapproval are in our reading. For if impermanence is permanence is
Buddha Nature, then loss is loss is also happiness, and both sets of
monastics are to be approved. Impermanence is not only to be overcome
and conquered. It is also to be lived and appreciated, because it
reflects the all are side
of our human nature. The weeping and wailing monastics were expressing
not only their attachment; they were also expressing their immersion in
this human life, and their love for someone they revered.
have experienced this more than once at times of great loss. While I
may not tear my hair and throw myself down in my grieving, I have
experienced extreme sadness and loss, feeling the whole world weeping
and dark with the fresh absence of someone I love. At the same time I
have felt some appreciation and equanimity, because loss, searing as it
can be, is also beautiful, sad and beautiful. My tears, my sadness, are
beautiful because they are the consequence of love, and my grieving
makes me love the world and life all the more. Every loss I have ever
experienced, every personal and emotional teaching of impermanence that
life has been kind enough to offer me, has deepened my ability to love.
happiness that spiritual practice promises is not endless bliss,
endless joy, and soaring transcendence. Who would want that in a world
in which there is so much injustice, so much tragedy, so much
unhappiness, illness, and death? To feel the scourge of impermanence and
loss and to appreciate it at the same time profoundly as the beautiful
essence of what it means to be at all—this is the deep truth I hear
reverberating in the Buddha’s last words. Everything vanishes. Practice
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a Buddhist teacher, writer, and poet. He is the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, whose mission is to open and broaden Zen practice through “engaged renunciation.”
This Morning (Embrace Change/May 2012)
By JUDY LIEF
woke up this morning, and my sleeping died. I stood up, and my lying
down died. I brushed my teeth, and the toothbrushing came to an end. My
coffee was in the mug, and then it wasn’t. I thought about what I had on
my schedule, and then I thought about something else, and the first
thought was gone. I sat down to meditate, and a feeling of virtue arose.
Then that feeling died and changed to a feeling of restlessness. I
shifted position and then I was still. There was a gap and I
disappeared, but then I noticed my breath. A thought arose—where was I?
And then another—what time is it? I thought—what changes and what stays
the same? I thought—be present now. But now kept slipping into the past.
Then I noticed that the instant it was past, the more solid and gone it
felt. Then I felt some kind of force pushing me in the direction of old
age and death. A thought occurred—what lies ahead? A flurry of
fantasies and possibilities arose as fleeting thoughts. Those thoughts
spontaneously dissolved and there was a gap. Something noticed the gap
and destroyed it. Then I tried to get it back. A memory arose of my
teacher saying, Don’t alter your experience or try to make anything
happen. Then I tried to not try to make anything happen. A strong
feeling arose of—what a joke. It occurred to me that I was fighting
something. I felt frustrated and my shoulders got tight. Then I saw an
opening and I went for it. It was as if the arising and falling and the
noticing what was arising and falling and the struggling with what was
arising and falling collapsed under its own complexity. Then there was a
feeling of stillness and simplicity. But that changed too.
Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the author of Making Friends With Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality.
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