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Multitudes and uni-forms Print


Multitudes and Uni-forms

"When we dress uniformly we can return to nakedness," says Barry Boyce, "to even a nakedness beyond nakedness, revealing the fundamental humanness beneath our trappings."

At one point or another, every child asks their parents why people wear clothing. Why don't we just go around naked? Children usually make do with the typical answers about protection from the weather and not necessarily wanting to see everybody naked, but they are not really satisfied. And of course, the next question becomes why people wear so many different kinds of clothing and why men wear ties and why are skirts feminine but what about kilts... and so on and so on.
My daughters wear uniforms to school. They balk a bit from time to time, but it sure keeps things simple. I found out just how simple on my younger daughter's eleventh birthday, when we gave her a pair of tear-away pants. These fabulously expensive baggy pants (coming in either soft fabric or nylon) have snaps down the side, enabling them to be niftily torn off in a moment, usually revealing athletic shorts beneath-although their popularity has extended far beyond the athletic field.
Madeline was thrilled. That evening she strutted about and practiced tearing away the pants. She considered wearing them to bed. The next day when she changed for gym class, to her surprise her friends ribbed and razzed her mercilessly, because her tear-aways did not have the requisite number of stripes to make them cool. She was hurt. Her excitement had been met with ridicule and derision. So that night we had to go find new ones that would meet the grade. I never felt more happy that the school requires uniforms.
Clothes are obviously so much more than a skin covering. They hold meaning. The French, who brought us haute couture, also brought semiotics, the study of the world as a complex of signs and symbols. Roland Barthes wrote that a beret means something different from a bowler. A suit refers to an uptight corporate type and casual clothes mean an accommodating demeanor. To understand that clothes convey something, we need look no further than the universal symbol for a women's bathroom: a figure with a skirt. (Does that work in Scotland where highlanders once referred to pants as "the effeminate dress of the lowlanders"?)
When I go to buy clothing, I end up buying what others expect me to wear, the uniform that communicates the sort of person that I am. (College students don't think it's cool when I try to dress like them.) Clothes themselves are clothed in meaning and tend to identify us as a particular sort of person, whether we want to be so identified or not.
Even though there is a quality of uniform in just about everything we wear, most of us find the notion of uniforms constraining, if not frightening. Dress the same; think the same. No spine, no flair. And yet when we are in a crisis, we rely most on people in uniforms-doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and the military. A group of uniformed firefighters will put out a fire much more quickly than a band of well-meaning individuals. The uniform can create a communal bond that enables people to work together selflessly. It extends more than the skin: it extends the mind.
Religious orders have always dressed alike, because when we dress uniformly we can return to nakedness, even a nakedness beyond nakedness, because regardless of skin color, monastic robes can reveal the fundamental humanness beneath our trappings. Some countries require a year of uniformed service of their young, at least partly for the same reason-to instill a bond with the community, something beyond individual pursuit.
Society used to demand formal dress for formal occasions, but now, often as not, casualness (the apparent lack of uniformity) is the key ingredient. So my mother is upset when people dress the same in church as they would at the mall. She feels it conveys a lack of respect. The code has been broken and the code is part of what holds the community together.
The sameness emphasized by a uniform or formal dress can be a sacred sameness, a fundamental quality of being human. It can also be an oppressive sameness, but does the oppression lie in the uniform or in its application? Are peaked caps and epaulettes inherently aggressive? Are uniforms any more oppressive than fashions, which create such pain for those whose bodies (or paychecks) don't make the grade?
Plato said that one of the dangers of democracy would be that it would create a multiplicitous world, splendidly arrayed with every conceivable hue and idiosyncratic flair but lacking a fundamental sense of community-that quality which makes us uniform in the best sense of the word.
What might we see about each other if just for one day-as if for a ceremony-everyone wore exactly the same clothing? I'm sure Tommy Hilfiger or Nike would be glad to oblige us.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

Multitudes and uni-forms, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, March 1999.

The Denial of the Universal Print
Shambhala Sun | March 1999

The Denial of the Universal

By: "If there is nothing universal-and that is the claim of the extreme postmodernists-then there is nothing genuinely spiritual anywhere in the universe, nor can there ever be."

My approach to postmodernism has been that it contains some important but partial truths, and that what needs to be attacked are the extremist versions that take relativism, constructivism and contextualism to be the only truths in existence-at which point they all become self-contradictory and unworthy of respect.
    Buried in the postmodern agenda are several noble impulses, I believe; yet in order to salvage them, they must themselves be placed in a larger context, which both limits their claims and completes their aims. The noble impulses are those of freedom, tolerance, aperspectival embrace, and liberation from unnecessary or unfair conventions.
    The liberal/postmodern agenda has been to cherish cultural differences and multiple perspectives, including previously marginalized cultures and groups (women, minorities, gays, etc.). That stance-namely, universal pluralism-is a very high developmental achievement, coming into existence only at the worldcentric, postconventional level of growth. The liberal/postmodern stance, at its best, is generated at that high level of consciousness evolution.
    But in their zeal to "transgress" and'subvert" conventional levels in favor of postconventional freedom, the extreme liberal/postmodernists ended up championing any and all stances (extreme diversity and multiculturalism), including many stances that are frankly ethnocentric and egocentric (since all stances are to be equally valued). This allowed, and often encouraged, regressive trends, a devolution from worldcentric to ethnocentric to egocentric-to a rampant subjectivism and narcissism, in fact, which then anchored the entire (and at this point completely misguided) agenda. Noble impulses horribly skewed-there is the best that can be said for liberal/postmodernism. The noble vision of universal pluralism was devastated, the universal part was completely ditched or denied, and rampant pluralism, driven by rampant narcissism, came to carry the sad day.
    It is against this vulgar pluralism-which actually dissolves and destroys the liberal stance itself, destroys the demand for evolution to the worldcentric, postconventional levels which alone can support and protect the liberal vision-that recent attacks have been directed. Habermas, Nagel, and crew are simply pointing out that the very claim of pluralism has, in fact, a universal component, and unless this universal component is acknowledged and included, the entire liberal/postmodern agenda self-destructs.
    I totally agree. But let us not forget the noble impulses hidden in that agenda, and let us not forget that those impulses can be redeemed, and the original liberal/postmodern vision can be fulfilled, if we retire pluralism and return to universal pluralism and unitas multiplex: universal deep features, local surface features. These universal features are accessed by empathy and compassion. And the liberal/postmodern vision itself can be protected only if it includes, in its own agenda, a cultural encouragement that individuals do their best to grow and evolve from egocentric to sociocentric to worldcentric, there to stand open to universal spiritual glories.
    Freedom-the core of the liberal values-does not lie in egocentric or ethnocentric realms. Real freedom, true freedom, lies in the vast expanse of worldcentric awareness, which itself opens onto the infinite expanse of pure Spirit and primordial Self, a Self common in and to all sentient beings as such, and therefore a domain in which Freedom radiates in all directions. That is why we must move in a postliberal, not preliberal, fashion.
    So it is the irony of ironies that liberal/ postmodernism, in searching for freedom for all, has championed modes of intense unfreedom: the egocentric is not free, for he is a slave to his impulses; the ethnocentric is not free, for he is a slave to his skin color. Only in worldcentric awareness, which sets a mature individuality in the context of all individuals and moves easily in that vastly expanded space, does a real freedom begin to dawn, a freedom that opens onto pure Spirit in a timeless embrace of the All. Let liberalism continue to move in that original direction, of progressive growth and evolution, and cease the self-contradictory and mindless championing of any subjectivist impulse that comes down the pike.
    It is the narrow, misguided, narcissistic, relativistic sludge that is being so effectively demolished by critics, and rightly so. Make no mistake: if postmodernism is right, there is and can be no Spirit whatsoever. If Spirit is anything, it is universal. If Spirit is anything, it is all-encompassing. If Spirit is anything, it is the Ground of manifestation everywhere, equally, radiantly. But if there is nothing universal-and that is the claim of the extreme postmodernists- then there is nothing genuinely spiritual anywhere in the universe, nor can there ever be. So while I hold open the noble impulses in the original vision-that of universal pluralism and unitas multiplex-I join in the attack on those who have forgotten the unitas and offer only the multiplex.

Material in this column appears in One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, from Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston. © Ken Wilber 1998.

    The Denial of the Universal, Ken Wilber, Shambhala Sun, March 1999.

Good Medicine For This World Print

Good Medicine For This World

& in Conversation

Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön and novelist Alice Walker on how tonglen meditation practice opens our heart, expands our vision, and plants the seeds of love in our lives. From an evening of discussion at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theater.

Alice Walker:
About four years ago I was having a very difficult time. I had lost someone I loved deeply and nothing seemed to help. Then a friend sent me a tape set by Pema Chödrön called ďAwakening Compassion.Ē I stayed in the country and I listened to you, Pema, every night for the next year. I studied lojong mind training and I practiced tonglen. It was tonglen, the practice of taking in peopleís pain and sending out whatever you have that is positive, that helped me through this difficult passage. I want to thank you so much, and to ask you a question. In my experience suffering is perennial; there is always suffering. But does suffering really have a use? I used to think there was no use to it, but now I think that there is.

Pema Chödrön: Is there any use in suffering? I think the reason I am so taken by these teachings is that they are based on using suffering as good medicine, like the Buddhist metaphor of using poison as medicine. Itís as if thereís a moment of suffering that occurs over and over and over again in every human life. What usually happens in that moment is that it hardens us; it hardens the heart because we donít want any more pain. But the lojong teachings say we can take that very moment and flip it. The very thing that causes us to harden and our suffering to intensify can soften us and make us more decent and kinder people.

That takes a lot of courage. This is a teaching for people who are willing to cultivate their courage. Whatís wonderful about it is that you have plenty of material to work with. If youíre waiting for only the high points to work with, you might give up, but thereís an endless succession of suffering.

One of the main teachings of the Buddha was the truth of dukha, which is usually translated as ďsuffering.Ē But a better translation might be ďdissatisfaction.Ē Dissatisfaction is inherent in being human; itís not some mistake that you or I have made as individuals. Therefore, if we can learn to catch that moment, to relax with it, dissatisfaction doesnít need to keep escalating. In fact it becomes the seed of compassion, the seed of loving kindness.

Alice Walker: I was surprised how the heart literally responds to this practice. You can feel it responding physically. As you breathe in what is difficult to bear, there is initial resistance, which is the fear, the constriction. Thatís the time when you really have to be brave. But if you keep going and doing the practice, the heart actually relaxes. That is quite amazing to feel.

Pema Chödrön: When we start out on a spiritual path we often have ideals we think weíre supposed to live up to. We feel weíre supposed to be better than we are in some way. But with this practice you take yourself completely as you are. Then ironically, taking in painóbreathing it in for yourself and all others in the same boat as you areóheightens your awareness of exactly where youíre stuck. Instead of feeling you need some magic makeover so you can suddenly become some great person, thereís much more emotional honesty about where youíre stuck.

Alice Walker: Exactly. You see that the work is right ahead of you all the time.

Pema Chödrön: There is a kind of unstuckness that starts to happen. You develop lovingkindness and compassion for this self that is stuck, which is called maitri. And since you have a sense of all the other sentient beings stuck just like you, it also awakens compassion.

Alice Walker: I remember the day I really got it that weíre not connected as human beings because of our perfection, but because of our flaws. That was such a relief.

Pema Chödrön: Rumi wrote a poem called "Night Travelers," It's about how all the darkness of human beings is a shared thing from the beginning of time, and how understanding that opens up your heart and opens up your world. You begin to think bigger. Rather than depressing you, it makes you feel part of the whole.

Alice Walker: I like what you say about understanding that the darkness represents our wealth, because thatís true, Thereís so much fixation on the light, as if the darkness can be dispensed with, but of course it cannot. After all, there is night, there is earth; so this is a wonderful acknowledgment of richness.

I think the Jamaicans are right when they call each other ďfellow sufferer,Ē because thatís how it feels. We arenít angels, we arenít saints, weíre all down here doing the best we can. Weíre trying to be good people, but we do get really mad. You talk in your tapes about when you discovered that your former husband was seeing someone else, and you threw a rock at him. This was very helpful (laughter). It was really good to have a humorous, earthy, real person as a teacher. This was great.

Pema Chödrön: When that marriage broke up, I donít know why it devastated me so much but it was really a kind of annihilation. It was the beginning of my spiritual path, definitely, because I was looking for answers. I was in the lowest point in my life and I read this article by Trungpa Rinpoche called ďWorking With Negativity.Ē I was scared by my anger and looking for answers to it. I kept having all these fantasies of destroying my ex-husband and they were hard to shake. There was an enormous feeling of groundlessness and fear that came from not being able to entertain myself out of the pain. The usual exits, the usual ways of distracting myselfónothing was working.

Alice Walker: Nothing worked.

Pema Chödrön: And Trungpa Rinpoche basically said that thereís nothing wrong with negativity per se. He said thereís a lot you can learn from it, that itís a very strong creative energy. He said the real problem is what he called negative negativity, which is when you donít just stay with negativity but spin off into all the endless cycle of things you can say to yourself about it.

Alice Walker: What gets us is the spinoff. If you could just sit with the basic feeling then you could free yourself, but itís almost impossible if youíre caught up in one mental drama after another. Thatís what happens.

Pema Chödrön: This is an essential understanding of vajrayana, or tantric, Buddhism. In vajrayana Buddhism they talk about how what we call negative energiesósuch as anger, lust, envy, jealousy, these powerful energiesóare all actually wisdoms in disguise. But to experience that you have to not spin off; you have to be able to relax with the energy.

So tonglen, which is considered more of a mahayana practice, was my entry into being able to sit with that kind of energy. And it gave me a way to include all the other people, to recognize that so many people were in the same boat as I was.

Alice Walker: You do recognize that everybody is in that boat sooner or later, in one form or other. Itís good to feel that youíre not alone.

Pema Chödrön: I want to ask you about joy. Itís all very well to talk about poison as medicine and breathing in the suffering and sending out relief and so forth, but did you find any joy coming out of this?

Alice Walker: Oh Yes!. Even just not being so miserable.

Part of the joyousness was knowing we have help. It was great to know that this wisdom is so old. That means people have had this pain for a long time, theyíve been dealing with it, and they had the foresight to leave these practices for us to use. Iím always supported by spirits and ancestors and people in my tribe, whoever theyíve been and however long ago they lived. So it was like having another tribe of people, of ancestors, come to the rescue with this wisdom that came through you and your way of teaching.

Pema Chödrön: I think the times are ripe for this kind of teaching.

Alice Walker: Oh, I think itís just the right medicine for today. You know, the other really joyous thing is that I feel more open, I feel more openness toward people in my world.
Itís what you have said about feeling more at home in your world. I think this is the result of going the distance in your own heartóreally being disciplined about opening your heart as much as you can. The thing I find, Pema, is that it closes up again. You know?

Pema Chödrön: Oh no! (laughter) One year of listening to me and your heart still closes up?

Alice Walker: Yeah. Itís like what you have said about how the ego is like a closed room and our whole lifeís work is to open the door. You may open the door and then discover that youíre not up to keeping it open for long. The work is to keep opening it. You have an epiphany, you understand something, you feel slightly enlightened about something, but then you lose it. Thatís the reality. So itís not a bad thing.

Pema Chödrön: No

Alice Walker: But itís frustrating at times, because you think to yourself, Iíve worked on this, why is it still snagging in the same spot?

Pema Chödrön: Thatís how life keeps us honest. The inspiration that comes from feeling the openness seems so important, but on the other hand, Iím sure it would eventually turn into some kind of spiritual pride or arrogance. So life has this miraculous ability to smack you in the face with a real humdinger just when youíre going over the edge in terms of thinking youíve accomplished something. That humbles you; itís some kind of natural balancing that keeps you human. At the same time the sense of joy does get stronger and stronger.

Alice Walker: Because otherwise you feel youíre just going to be smacked endlessly, and whatís the point? (laughter)

Pema Chödrön: Itís about relaxing with the moment, whether itís painful or pleasurable. I teach about that a lot because thatís personally how I experience it. The openness brings the smile on my face, the sense of gladness just to be here. And when it gets painful, itís not like thereís been some big mistake or something. It just comes and goes.

Alice Walker: That brings me to something else Iíve discovered in my practice, because Iíve been doing meditation for many yearsónot tonglen, but TM and metta practice. There are times when I meditate, really meditate, very on the dot, for a year or so, and then Iíll stop. So what happens? Does that ever happen to you?

Pema Chödrön: Yes. (laughter)

Alice Walker: Good!

Pema Chödrön: And I just donít worry about it.

Alice Walker: Good! (laughter)

Pema Chödrön: One of the things Iíve discovered as the years go on is that there canít be any ďshoulds.Ē Even meditation practice can become something you feel you should do, and then it becomes another thing you worry about.

So I just let it ebb and flow, because I feel itís always with you in some way, whether youíre formally practicing or not. My hunger for meditation ebbs but the hunger always comes back, and not necessarily because things are going badly. Itís like a natural opening and closing, or a natural relaxation and then getting involved in something else, going back and forth.

Alice Walker: I was surprised to discover how easy it was for me to begin meditating many years ago. What I liked was how familiar that state was. The place that I most love is when I disappear. You know, thereís a point where you just disappear. That is so wonderful, because Iím sure thatís how it will be after we die, that youíre just not here, but itís fine.

Pema Chödrön: What do you mean exactly, you disappear?

Alice Walker: Well, you reach that point where itís just like space, and you donít feel yourself. Youíre not thinking about what youíre going to cook, and youíre not thinking about what youíre going to wear, and youíre not really aware of your body. I like that because as a writer I spend a lot of time in spaces that Iíve created myself and itís a relief to have another place that is basically empty.

Pema Chödrön: I donít think I have the same experience. It's more like being hereófully and completely here. It's true that mediation practice is liberating and timeless and that, definitely, there is no caught-up-ness. But is is also profoundly simple and immediate. In contrast, everything else feels like fantasy, like it is completely made up by mind.

Alice Walker: Well, I feel like I live a lot of my life in a different realm anyway, especially when Iím out in nature. So meditation takes me to that place when Iím not in nature. It is a place of really feeling the oneness, that youíre not kept from it by the fact that youíre wearing a suit. Youíre just in it; thatís one of the really good things about meditation for me.

Judy Lief: I assume, Alice, that as an activist your job is to take on situations of extreme suffering and try to alleviate them to some degree. How has this practice affected your approach to activism?

Alice Walker: Well, my activism really is for myself, because I see places in the world where I really feel I should be. If there is something really bad, really evil, happening somewhere, then that is where I should be. I need, for myself, to feel that I have stood there. It feels a lot better than just watching it on television.

Judy Lief: This is where you bring together your private practice and your public action.

Alice Walker: Yes. Before I was sort of feeling my way. I went to places like Mississippi and stood with the people and realized the suffering they were experiencing. I shared the danger they put themselves in by demanding their rights, I felt this incredible opening, a feeling of finally being at home in my world, which was what I needed. I needed to feel I could be at home there, and the only way was to actually go and connect with the people.

Pema Chödrön: And the other extreme is when our primary motivation is avoidance of pain. Then the world becomes scarier and scarier.

Alice Walker: Exactly.

Pema Chödrön: Thatís the really sad thingóthe world becomes more and more frightening, and you donít want to go out your door. Sure thereís a lot of danger out there, but the tonglen approach makes you more open to the fear it evokes in you, and your world gets bigger.

Judy Lief: When you are practicing tonglen, taking on pain of others, what causes that to flip into something positive, as opposed to being stuck in a negative space or seeing yourself as a martyr?

Alice Walker: I think itís knowing that youíre not the only one suffering. Thatís just what happens on earth. There may be other places in the galaxy where people donít suffer, where beings are just fine, where they never get parking tickets even. But what seems to be happening here is just really heavy duty suffering.

I remember years ago, when I was asking myself what was the use of all this suffering. I was reading the Gnostic Gospels, in which Jesus says something that really struck me. He says basically, learn how to suffer and you will not suffer. That dovetails with this teaching, which is a kind of an acceptance that suffering is the human condition.

Pema Chödrön: It is true people fear tonglen practice. Particularly if people have a lot of depression, they fear it is going to be tough to relate with the suffering so directly.

I have found that itís less overwhelming if you start with your own experience of suffering and then generalize to all the other people who are feeling what you do. That gives you a way to work with your pain: instead of feeling like youíre increasing your suffering, youíre making it meaningful. If youíre taught that you should do tonglen only for other people, thatís too big a leap for most people. But if you start with yourself as the reference point and extend out from that, you find that your compassion becomes much more spontaneous and real. You have less fear of the suffering you perceive in the worldóyours and other peoplesí. Itís a lot about overcoming the fear of suffering.

My experience of working with this practice is that it has brought me a moment by moment sense of wellbeing. Thatís encouraging to people who are afraid to start the practiceóto know that relating directly with your suffering is a doorway to wellbeing for yourself and others, rather than some kind of masochism.

Alice Walker: I would say that is also true for me in going to stand where I feel I need to stand. I feel I get to that same place.

I also appreciate the teaching on driving all blame into yourself. We need a teaching on how fruitless it is to always blame the other person. In my life I can see places where I have not wanted to take my part of the blame. Thatís a losing proposition. Thereís no gain in it because you never learn very much about yourself. You donít own all your parts. There are places in each of us that are quite scary, but you have to make friends with them. You have to really get to know them, to say, hello, there you are again. Itís very helpful to do that.

Pema Chödrön: One of the things the Buddha pointed out in his early teaching was that everybody wants happiness or freedom from pain, but the methods human beings habitually use are not in sync with the wish. The methods always end up escalating the pain. For example, someone yells at you and then you yell back and then they yell back and it gets worse and worse. You think the reason not to yell back is because, you know, good people donít yell back. But the truth is that by not yelling back youíre just getting smart about whatís really going to bring you some happiness.

Judy Lief: The lojong slogan says ďDrive all blames into one,Ē that is, yourself. But there are definitely situations where from the conventional viewpoint there are bad guys and good guys, oppressors and oppressed. How do you combine taking the blame yourself with combating oppression or evil that you encounter?

Alice Walker: Maybe it doesnít work there. (laughter) Pema why donít you take that one. (laughter)

Pema Chödrön: Well, here would be my question: does it help to have a sense of enemy in trying to end oppression?

Alice Walker: No.

Pema Chödrön: So maybe thatís it.

Alice Walker: I think itís probably about seeing. As Bob Marley said so beautifully, the biggest bully you ever did see was once a tiny baby. Thatís true. I mean, I've tried that on Ronald Reagan. I even tried that on Richard Nixon, but it didnít really work that well.

But really, when youíre standing face to face with someone who just told you to go to the back of the bus, or someone who has said that women arenít allowed here, or whatever, what do you do? I donít know what you do, Pema, but at that moment I always see that theyíre really miserable people and they need help. Now, of course, I think I would love to send them a copy of ďAwakening Compassion.Ē (laughter)

Pema Chödrön: Itís seeing that the cause of someoneís aggression is their suffering. And you could also realize that your aggression is not going to help anything.

So youíre standing there, you are being provoked, you are feeling aggression, and what do you do? Thatís when tonglen becomes very helpful. You breathe in and connect with your own aggression with a lot of honesty. You have such a strong recognition in that moment of all the oppressed people who are provoked and feeling like you do. If you just keep doing that, something different might come out of your mouth.

Alice Walker: And war will not be what comes out.

Judy Lief: It seems to me that Dr. Martin Luther King had the quality of a tonglen practitioner. Yet he didnít ask us not to take stands.

Alice Walker: He was from a long line of Baptist preachers, someone who could really get to that place of centeredness through prayer and through love. I think the person who has a great capacity to love, which often flowers when you can see and feel the suffering of other people, can also strategize. I think he was a great strategist. I think he often got very angry and upset, but at the same time he knew what he was up against. Sometimes he was the only really lucid person in a situation, so he knew how much of the load he was carrying and how much depended on him.

As activists, it is really important to have some kind of practice, so that when we go out into the world to confront horrible situations we can do it knowing weíre in the right place ourselves. Knowing weíre not bringing more fuel to the fire, more anger, more despair. Itís difficult but that should not be a deterrent. The more difficult something seems, the more itís possibile to give up hope. You approach the situation with the feeling of having already given up hope, but that doesnít stop you. You said we should put that slogan about abandoning hope on our refrigerators.

Pema Chödrön: Give up all hope of fruition.

Alice Walker: Right. Just do it because youíre doing it and it feels like the right thing to do, but without feeling itís necessarily going to change anything.

Pema Chödrön: Something that I heard Trungpa Rinpoche say has been a big help to me. He said to live your life as an experiment, so that youíre always experimenting. You could experiment with yelling back and see what that happens. You could experiment with tonglen and see how that works. You could see what actually allows some kind of communication to happen. You learn pretty fast what closes down communication, and thatís the strong sense of enemy. If the other person feels your hatred, then everyone closes down.

Alice Walker: I feel that fear is what closes people down more than anything, just being afraid. The times when I have really been afraid to go forward, with a relationship or a problem, is because there is fear. I think practice of being with your feelings, letting them come up and not trying to push them away, is incredibly helpful.

Question from the audience: Thank you both for being here and bringing so much pleasure to so many people tonight. Iím asking a question for a friend who couldnít come tonight. She was at Pemaís three day seminar and she left on Saturday feeling badly because she had got in touch with her anger and couldnít stay. Now she feels sheís a bad Buddhist, a bad practitioner. Iíve been trying to tell her itís okay but I think she needs to hear your words.

Pema Chödrön: Well, tell her weíre used to using everything that we hear against ourselves, so itís really common to just the dharma teachings and use them against yourself. But the fact is we donít have to do that anymore. We donít have to do that. Itís just like Alice saying that the heart opens and then it closes, so she has to realize thatís how it is forever and ever, Sheíll get in touch and then sheíll lose touch and get in touch and lose touch. So she has to keep on going with herself and not give up on herself.

Question from the audience: This is really hard on her because you two are her favorite people in the entire world.

Alice Walker: And she didnít come?

Question from the audience: Sheís so broken-hearted.

Pema Chödrön: She didnít come because she was so ashamed of herself for not being able to stay with it...thatís not true, is it?

Question from the audience: Yes, it is.

Pema Chödrön: Really. Wow. You should tell her that sheís just an ordinary human being. (laughter) Whatís a little unusual about her is that she was willing to get in touch with it for even a little bit.

Question from the audience: My name is Margaret, and I have practiced Tibetan Buddhism for a number of years. About eighteen months ago, right around the time that for the first time in my life I fell in love with a woman, the Dalai Lama made a number of comments pointing out where the Tibetan tradition did not regard homosexuality as a positive thing, in fact an obstacle to spiritual growth. It reached the point that I left the sangha I was connected with and found a different part of the spiritual path thatís working for me now. I have gay and bisexual friends who are interested in Buddhism but some of them have been stopped by what the Dalai Lama had to say and by the lack of coherent answers from other people. I think it would be a big service if you could address that.

Pema Chödrön: Well, listen. I have so much respect for the Dalai Lama and I think thatís where people get stuck. I didnít actually hear those comments, and I heard there were also favorable comments. But aside from all that, as Buddhism comes to the West, Western Buddhist teachers simply donít buy that. Itís as if Asian teachers said that women were inferior or something. I mean, itís absurd. Thatís all there is to it. (applause) Itís just ridiculous.

Question from the audience:
Let me ask you to say that often and loud.

Pema Chödrön: Sure! I go on record. And Iím not alone, itís not something unique with me. Western teachers, coming from this culture, we see things pretty differently on certain issues and this is one, for sure.

But the Dalai Lama is a wonderful man, and I have a feeling that if he were sitting here heíd have something else to say on the subject.

Alice Walker: You know, when he was here at the peace conference he was confronted by gay men and lesbian women and he readily admitted that he really didnít know. He didnít seem rigid on it.

But also, when there is wisdom about, we should have it! Wisdom belongs to the people. We must never be kept from wisdom by anybody telling us you canít have it because youíre this that or the other.

Question from the audience:
I have a question about the connection between tonglen and joy, because I kind of understood the question of the moderator, anyway, Judyís question when you breathe in so much suffering how do you avoid becoming so burdened or martyred by it, and what Iím understanding about tonglen is that thereís something kind of transformative about it, when you breathe in suffering and then you breathe out relief and healing. I keep thinking about that prayer of St. Francis of Assisi about being an instrument of peace, and where there is hatred, let me sow love, and where there is despair, let me sow hope. Iím wondering if joy has a place in the ability to make that transformation.

Alice Walker: I think the practice of tonglen is really revolutionary, because youíre taking in what you usually push away with everything youíve got, and then youíre breathe out what you would rather keep. This is just amazing. I mean, it really shakes you up. Iím sure there are many people who canít believe that youíre being asked to breathe in the dark, breathe in the heavy, breathe in the hard and the hot. They want to breathe in the white light. But the time has come for all of us to breathe in what is the most difficult, to own it, to get to know it, to feel it out. And then to really think about what the world needs, and to try to send that out. I think thatís the transformation.

Question from the audience: So itís the courage to face the suffering and the darkness?

Alice Walker: To bring it into yourself. Think of all the people who donít think that there is any darkness in them. There are millions of people who think they donít have any darkness. But itís something that we all have, and part of the problem is that weíve been pushing all this stuff away and denying it, so of course itís the biggest shadow you can imagine. Thatís whatís clobbering us, everything we pushed away.

Pema Chödrön: My feeling is that itís like taking off something thatís been covering your eyes and hindering your ability to see. Itís overcoming your fear of whatís painful, although actually youíre training in opening to both joy and suffering, You see if itís just aimed at joy, then suffering always seems like then you blew it, like this poor woman who didnít come tonight because she felt she wasnít living up to the instructions. Thatís very common. People want it all on the joy side or the success side or the victory side. Then when itís just naturally is part of life just naturally flips, or the mood changes, or the energy changes, you feel that youíve made some mistake or youíre a failure. So it has to include all of that.

One of the basic tonglen instructions, sort of like the tonglen outlook, is that when anything is delightful in your life, you wish that other people could have it. That heightens your awareness of even those fleeting moments of appreciate you usually donít notice. You start catching the moments of delight and pleasure, just the smallest kinds of happiness and contentment.

The other part of the instruction is that when you feel suffering, you also think of all the other people who are suffering. It covers everything: you share whatís good and you also realize weíre in the same boat with the suffering. So itís all bigger. Some kind of joy comes from that, strangely.

Judy Lief: Pema, how do you avoid the trap that has come up in these questionsówanting to be the perfect practitioner and feeling worse and worse because you canít accomplish it?

Pema Chödrön: You could do tonglen with that feeling of failure and include all the other imperfect failure people. So thereís nothing that can happen to you that you canít use. It takes a while to get the hang of that, but when you start to hear yourself saying ďbad dogĒ or whatever, you stop right there and acknowledge what youíre feeling and the billions of other people feeling the same way. Somehow that shakes up our ways of getting stuck.

When Iím teaching, Iím so aware that most people are hearing with a filter of turning it against themselves. I try very hard, as do most Western teachers, to address that, but it still keeps happening. You just have to keep addressing it. You know, it takes practice. Thatís why itís called practice.

Alice Walker: Itís also important to accept and even embrace the fact of our imperfection. Our imperfection is probably our one perfection. Also I think itís really good, when you have periods of happiness, to say , I am happy. I think that focuses you in the moment of being happy, and you really know that youíre happy. Otherwise, especially in this culture where youíre always being told to buy something or go somewhere or do something, you lose that moment of being happy because youíre projecting happiness as being somewhere or something else. So when you feel happiness, you just say it, even to yourself, maybe especially to yourself, but aloud, I think it helps to say it aloud, Just say, Iím happy.

Pema Chodron: I hadnít thought of making it so simple, but thatís right, just say it. Then you could also say, could other people have this, too. Words are powerful in terms of brainwashing ourselves. (laughter)

Pema Chodron is director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

 Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple. She is the author of By the Light of My Father's Smile.  

Good Medicine For This World, from Shambhala Sun, January 1999

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There Are No Words Print

There Are No Words


In a moving personal essay, Roshi Bernard Glassman discusses his practice of bereavement following the death of his wife and dharma partner, Sensei Sandra Jishu Holmes.

I follow a daily schedule. In the mornings I take a bath. Then I sit in front of my wife's picture. Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes I look at the birds outside. I read and re-read the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, whom she admired. I play with her dogs. I read her journals.

During the rest of the day I work on the formation of the Peacemaker Order and develop its web site. I'm available to teachers and senior students, usually by phone. I sometimes laugh and say that in comparison to the way I've worked over the past thirty years, I'm not doing anything. But when the sun goes down I'm exhausted and I go to bed early. For I'm actually working very hard. I'm bearing witness.

In March, 1998 my wife, Sensei Jishu Angyo Holmes, and I left our home in Yonkers to move to Santa Fe. We were accompanied by three associates and four dogs. We drove two cars and two trucks across the country, pausing for six hours in Pennsylvania to fix an oil leak in one of the trucks and for three hours at the Federal Penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri, to visit one of our Peacemaker priests, Fleet Maull.

Jishu and I had worked in the inner city of Yonkers since 1982, from the beginning of the Greyston Bakery. We lived in Yonkers since 1987, all that time focusing our energies on developing the Greyston Mandala, a group of organizations which built housing and provided jobs for homeless families and people with HIV/AIDS in Yonkers.

But once we'd co-founded the Zen Peacemaker Order in 1996, we began to look elsewhere for a place to live. We were on the road half the time, visiting ZPO sanghas and peacemaker groups all over the world, and we were getting older. The idea of a refuge, a sanctuary where we could both breathe and rest between trips and engagements, became very important.

Finally, last December, Jishu saw a house in Santa Fe. It was a square adobe home with an inner courtyard, hacienda-style, perched over the Santa Fe River. It needed to be rewired and replastered. It needed new windows, doors, and bathrooms. She loved it. We would live in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There would be room for her dogs, for new trees, for a big garden. She invited her parents to move down so that she could live close to them. It would be the start of a new
life, for her and for me.

On Tuesday evening, March 3, we left Yonkers. Jushin, our housekeeper and a student of Jishu, took a picture of her teacher smiling through the window of one of our giant trucks just before we pulled out. It was the last photo taken of her alive.

We arrived in Santa Fe on Monday morning, March 9, and closed on our new house. Six days later, in the midst of unpacking on a Sunday afternoon, Jishu complained of chest pains. She was rushed to the hospital; the doctors said she'd had a heart attack.

For four days she seemed to be getting better and stronger. But on Thursday night she had a second attack, and after struggling for almost twenty-four hours, she passed from this sphere of teaching late on the evening of March 20, the day of the spring solstice. She was several days shy of her fifty-seventh birthday.

A week later we held her funeral. We brought her back to the home she'd loved and hardly lived in, bathed and dressed her in her bedroom, then laid her out to rest in the canopied inner courtyard. We kept her company all night and in the morning returned her to the funeral home. There we talked about our life with Jishu. Her mother talked about her when she was a child, while her brothers talked about how they'd grown up together. I was the last.

When it was my time to speak I looked at her as she lay in her casket, draped in the kesa she had sewed, wearing her mala and a beautiful Hawaiian lei, and said, "There are no words." It was all I could say. Then we covered her entire body with flowers, hundreds of flowers, and sent her to her fire samadhi.

In the afternoon we planted a plum tree in the yard so that birds could nestle in its branches and the dogs lie in its shade. Then we went and brought her relics home. They lie beneath her photo in the living room across from the altar where she did her Zen and Tibetan Buddhist practices every morning. She's always in the house. In fact, I call the house Casa Jishu.

At first I was in shock. We had just come here to begin a new life in a place she loved. Our bedroom looked out at the mountains and she had loved to wake up to the dawn each morning. She was full of joy and exuberance when we'd arrived here. But all she had been given was five dawns. A week after Jishu's death an advance copy of my new book, Bearing Witness, arrived. In it I had written about the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order: not-knowing, bearing witness to joy and suffering, and healing ourselves and others. As I looked over the book, I realized what the shock had done for me. I was in a state of not-knowing.

What had happened was inconceivable, unthinkable. Most people couldn't believe it. Over and over, people talked about Jishu's lighthearted, happy smile, a smile that none of us was going to see again. What are you going to do? they asked me. I'm going to bear witness, I replied. I cancelled my schedule of public appearances for the rest of the year, including a book tour. I put off hundreds of friends, associates and students who called or wished to fly over. I knew from the beginning how easy it would be for a man like me, surrounded by people and programs and plans, with schedules finalized two years in advance, to throw himself into his work. Instead I chose to do a plunge. I chose to plunge into Jishu.

Plunges are trademarks of our order. They're retreats designed to jar us out of our usual way of doing things, out of our usual concepts, and we bear witness. I have done plunges on the Bowery of New York City for many years; I have done plunges at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This is my hardest plunge of all.

This is the schedule I follow for my plunge. I get up early and take a bath. I learned about baths from Jishu, who found them a wonderful way to relax. Then I sit in front of her picture in the living room. Sometimes I put on music, especially Mahler's Fourth Symphony, which she loved. Sometimes it Ūs Philip Glass. Sometimes it's Shlomo Karlbach, the singing rabbi and an old friend, who sang songs to the daughter he named Neshama-my soul.

Recently I've been putting our tapes and CDs in order. Jishu started doing that back in Yonkers, arranging the music by composers in their respective centuries. I just finished the job. The birds are singing outside the window. She loved birds, and before joining the Zen Community of New York had gone on birding expeditions around the world. So her bird books and binoculars are close at hand, so that I can look at the birds that she loved. She also loved doing jigsaw puzzles, the bigger the better. So there's a jigsaw puzzle out on the round table by the cushion where I sit. The pieces are in disarray. That way, whenever people come in they can find a piece that fits and put it in the puzzle. It'll take a while to finish, but there's no hurry.

In the beginning I wasn't sure I could do this. In the spring, purple and white lilacs blossomed so profusely that they appeared inside our windows and doors, their smell overpowering the incense I light in the mornings. Hummingbirds looked through the window, the trees sprouted leaves, the twilights were longer and golden. It seemed as if I was surrounded by the things that Jishu loved. I couldn't look anywhere without thinking of how she would have loved to see this, how she would have exclaimed over that. Instead I watched the hummingbirds, I sniffed the flowers, and I didn't want to. I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave the house, leave Santa Fe.

This is not my kind of place, I told people, we came to the Southwest for Jishu's sake. This house, the canyon, the mountains-these are the things that she loved, not me. I'm more comfortable in the inner city, not here. I talked about selling the house, leaving, and getting myself a studio in the Bowery.

And in fact a buyer for the house came quickly forward, a neighboring family I had just met and liked. They would take care of the house, they promised. They would take care of it for Jishu. But I've stayed. So far I haven't left. So far I haven't sold. Letters are lying on my desk, offers of homes where I can rest and get away from it all: Malibu, New York City, Santa Barbara, Hawaii, London, Switzerland. So far I haven't left Santa Fe, except on two occasions.

In early June I went to Philadelphia to install a group of students into the Zen Peacemaker Order as Buddhists. They had begun their studies with Jishu and I installed them in her name. The other was when I visited San Francisco to see Ram Dass. Some time ago R.D. had suffered a terrible loss, too, a major stroke that had left his right side completely paralyzed. Jishu had also suffered such a stroke in 1994, only she had recovered most of her powers. I could have talked to R.D. on the phone, but I needed to do it face to face.

So I visited him at his home and we talked quietly. And as we talked I began to realize what was happening from my bearing witness, from my grief for Jishu. She was integrating with me. I was becoming Jishu-Bernie. When she was still alive, Jishu had brought into our relationship certain energies that lay dormant in me. She had brought her softness, her femininity, her down-to-earth practicality and deep empathy into our life together. Now, with her death, I either had to manifest them myself or watch them disappear from my life. Jishu was not the only one to die on that first day of spring. Bernie died, too.

Someone else is now emerging, someone else is coming to life. For lack of a name, I call that person Jishu-Bernie. That new human being is unfolding. I still don't know who that person is or what that person will do. There are many things I still don't know. The third tenet of the Zen Peacemaker Order is healing ourselves and others. But often I think that what's really happening is more basic than that. When we don't know-when we let go and sit with shock, pain and loss, with no answers, solutions or ideas, with nothing at hand but this moment, this pain, this grief, this absence-then out of that something arises. And what arises is love. I don't have to do anything. I don't have to create anything. Love arises by itself. It's been there all the time, and now, when I'm less protected than at any other moment in my life, it's there.

People ask me every day how I'm doing. I don't know how to answer them; there are no words. So I just tell them I'm bearing witness. It must be hard, they say. No. But isn't it sad? they ask. Isn't it painful? No, I say. It's raw, that's all. It's bearing witness, and the state of bearing witness is the state of love.

Jishu continues to lie in peace in her home, by candlelight that is never extinguished. At some point I will build a stupa by the plum tree and her relics will go there. At some point I may travel again; I may appear in public again. Right now I don't know who that "I" will be. Jishu kept a journal for many years. When I get low it helps me to read it. On December 23, 1992, two days before Christmas, she wrote the following: "I have reached a crossroads. The old ways of being don't work anymore. I can't just `do' anymore. God has taken away my capacity for that. I am in a state of not-knowing: not-knowing who I am, what my values are, what my goals are, how I will get along, what will become of me. It's frightening and at the same time I feel hopeful."

And on April 9, 1995, she wrote this: "I want results instead of process. What a trap. As I create and listen, I will be led. As I create and listen, I will be led. As I create and listen, I will be led. The process takes care of itself. Just listen. As I create and listen, I will be led."

Roshi Bernard Glassman is co-founder, along with Sensei Jishu Holmes, of the Zen Peacemaker Order and the Peacemaker Community. His is the author of Bearing Witness: A Zen Master's Instructions in Making Peace (Bell Tower). For information about the Peacemaker Community, visit their web site at

There Are No Words, Roshi Bernard Glassman, Shambhala Sun, January 1999.

I Vow Print

I Vow

A teaching by the late SENSEI SANDRA JISHU HOLMES.

When we take the precepts of a Bodhisattva, with every one we say, "I Vow." What does this mean? The vow exists on both the absolute plane and on the relative plane. Bodhisattvas make a public announcement that they have raised the bodhi mind in the form of the Four Great Vows and the Sixteen Precepts.

I vow to liberate all beings.

I vow to cut down all desires.
I vow to study and practice well to master the Dharma.
I vow to realize the Supreme Way.

Why do we do this? What is it all about? Looking at these impossible vows, how do we practice? Having taken these vows, don't we still get angry, depressed, frustrated?

In the beginning we think that these feelings are obstacles on our path and a sign that we are not good practitioners. But gradually we come to understand that this is our practice; that this is the actual material that we have to work with in our practice.

This is actually an AHA! experience: "Oh, now I see it. Now I know what my practice is. Now I see where to put my effort: to save all sentient beings I must work with my own anger, ignorance and aggression. Paying attention to all this stuff is my spiritual practice of being a Bodhisattva."

However innumerable the sentient beings, I vow to save them all.
However inexhaustible the passions, I vow to extinguish them all.
However immeasurable the dharmas, I vow to master them all.
However incomparable the truth of Buddha, I vow to attain it.

When I first started practicing I wanted the practice to turn me into a saint, or at the very least into someone I could approve of. But our job is simply to learn to see, not to worry about who we are. As long as we are trying to improve ourselves, we can be sure that we have a self to improve. Egocentricity loves self-improvement. Ramana Maharshi said that you should act without thinking that you are the actor. The actions go on despite our personal egos. A person comes into manifestation for a purpose and that purpose will be accomplished whether the person considers oneself to be the actor or not.

I vow to save all beings from difficulties.
I vow to destroy all evil passions.
I vow to learn the truth and teach others.
I vow to lead all beings toward Buddhahood.

Dogen Zenji said that it is through the daily actions of our body and mind that we directly become enlightened. There is no need to change our existing body and mind, for the direct realization of the Way is neither to be bound by old viewpoints nor to create new ones. To practice the Buddha way is not to look aside. It is to be with whatever you encounter right now. This itself is called samadhi, or shikan (doing something wholeheartedly).

Our lives shimmer with samadhi, only we don't see it. Sawaki Kodo Roshi said, "You don't eat in order to take a shit. And you don't take a shit in order to make manure." We don't practice in order to become a better person; we don't become a better person in order to achieve enlightenment. Sitting in the midst of our passion, aggression and ignorance, we have boundless material for working with any situation. The way we work with the next situation is not by trying to get rid of anything or to become a better person, but by finally acknowledging our real situation.

I vow to deliver all beings from suffering.
I vow to cut off all afflictions.
I vow to study all approaches to truth.
I vow to fulfill the way of universal enlightenment.

We do not practice for the sake of gaining enlightenment. We are constantly being pulled around by enlightenment. Our practice is to guard our heart, so that our first reaction is openness to what is actually happening and willingness to be present to it without having to modify, correct or improve the situation or ourselves. In other words, the ordinary events of our daily life is our practice. Being open and present is our practice.

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to ferry them across the ocean of suffering.
Confusion is inexhaustible, I vow to uproot it all.
The gates to Dharma are endless, I vow to know them all.
The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to actualize it fully.

In this very moment I have the opportunity to fulfill my Bodhisattva vows. After making this Great Vow, the Bodhisattva belongs to the entire universe. The vow itself possesses universal significance; the vow itself is a cosmic force.

From a talk given by Sensei Sandra Jishu Holmes in February, 1996.

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