As you will see elsewhere in the newsletter, this month Valley Insight will again join Buddhist sanghas around the world to celebrate Vesak, which marks the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death––all on one day. This threesome, of course, holds a metaphor for one of the primary understandings pointed out to us in his teachings––anicca, or impermanence. Everything in our lives arises, persists, and passes away. To add to this built-in instability, not one of these three episodes of life experiences is entirely under our control in any reliable or predicable way. The Buddha’s very pregnant mother was traveling towards the relative safety of a planned home birth, but instead had to deliver her baby on the side of a road. She died there, in childbirth. The Buddha himself died unexpectedly of dysentery while he was on a teaching pilgrimage far from the loving camaraderie of his monastic sangha. And, perhaps, it is the time in between our birth and death––the middle period, our lifetime of “persisting”––that is the one most out of our direct control. In any given moment we may not believe this to be true, but, honestly, when you look at this “long party that is your life,” how many of the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows were mapped out ahead of time by you?
For the Buddha, finding enlightenment during his “persisting” years––however long or short the period might have been––was not a given. He had left home, relinquished every other pursuit, and practiced hard for over six years––probably too hard––in an attempt to find it for himself and for others. In her first book Loving Kindness, Sharon Salzberg described the enlightenment that the Buddha was looking for as he realized a steady “experience of lasting happiness in a world where everything changes”: a world in which sometimes mothers die young; illness strikes us unexpectedly; grief feels relentless; we fall off our bicycles; pandemics outwit science; people starve; others flee their homes in the face of war, crime, and environmental destruction; and young black men are killed randomly, senselessly, heartlessly––again and again.
Fortunately, the Buddha did find lasting, unshakeable joy. He found it in an ease of heart that is free from denial and filled with compassion. He mapped out the path to it for others. Walking this path requires just three things to get started: first, a bit of trust in the very natural human desire for peace, harmony, and safety; second, and essential, a growing, mindful awareness that is able and willing to be with the direct, honest truth of how things are in every given moment, without turning away; and third, just enough mental and physical effort to sustain the mindful “clear seeing” and the connection with joy.
We’re hard-wired to wake up, but our bodies, hearts and minds need clear
and honest information to do so. –– Taraniya Gloria Ambrosia
I worked as director and social worker at a small community hospice for many years. During those days, we noticed that sometimes, when friends and family were sitting with a dying loved one, carefully taking turns, the person would die in the brief moments when no one was there. I used to help the survivors understand this by saying that perhaps it is easier somehow to let go when those whom you love dearly, and don’t want to leave, are not present. Maybe that explanation has some validity, but once a doctor comforted the disappointed loved ones in a different way. She confidently stated that they had, in fact, been present at the death. She said that death doesn’t take place in one moment, but rather it is a process that takes place over time. That wisdom holds a deep truth for me, and I now begin to think of the Buddha’s enlightenment in this way. Perhaps it was an evolving process that didn’t really happen in one moment but instead unfolded over the entire time of his “persisting”: before, during, and after his direct experience of the unbinding that is nirvana. Maybe that is what is happening for us too.
The Buddhist monastic teacher Bhikkhu Analayo repeatedly states that our progress along the path to full awakening is not measured by how many or what kind of profound mind states we experience along the way. Those can be important at times, but what truly reveals our development are the ways our personality has changed. Has there been a transformation in how we relate to difficult people and situations? In the quality and level of enjoyment and contentment with life? In the openness of our heart towards ourselves, as well as towards others?
In his work describing the patterns of change found over the course of an individual lifetime, the psychologist Erik Erikson identified what he called the “stages of human development.” They are all named as a question that is being lived, a kind of task. The final and overriding one for all of us he referred to as “integration versus despair.” Maybe, from the point of view of the Buddha’s teaching, the task of our between-birth-and-death time, our persisting, could be understood as Awakening versus despair? Enlightenment versus delusion? Kindness versus indifference? Curiosity versus narrow-mindedness? Mindfulness versus heedlessness?
Appreciative awareness leads to life;
Heedless avoidance is the path to death.
Those who are aware are fully alive
While those who are heedless
Are as if already dead.
Dhammapada v.21 (Ajahn Munindo)
Spring in northern New England, with the slow back and forth of its unfolding and its joyful perseverance, seems the perfect time to celebrate the constant change that is found in birth-persisting-and-death. Always, the new growth reminds us that
One who transforms old and heedless ways into fresh and wholesome acts
brings light into the world like the moon freed from clouds.
Dhammapada v.173 (Ajahn Munindo)