“It is not just a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
When our dear Sangha friend Claudia Brandenburg died in December, many of us noted that she had truly lived her life in the Dharma. We knew this through the focus of her attention, through her words and actions, and through her steadiness. Increasingly, she rested in a deep faith in the immediacy of the truth of the moment. Those of us around her could feel this in the tender strength and resiliency of her presence. As it true for all of us, Claudia’s life had moments of great happiness as well as a fair share of challenges, which often became inflection points from which she wisely made the various “course corrections” required in a long life. And always, hers was an intentional life, one of kindness and care, a life of gentleness committed to wholesome, robust joy—for herself, for others, and for the whole world. It was a life based on the deep wisdom of the Four Noble Truths, which steadily remind us that our lives are vulnerable—subject to aging, sickness, disrepair, and death. We shall again and again grow separate and different from all those we hold dear.
For those who know this, quarrels end. — Dhammapada, v. 6
This foundational Four Noble Truth teaching also assures us that even in the midst of our precarious existence as individuals, as a species, as a planet, peace is possible. Love, freedom, and a path of practice that leads to less suffering are not only possible but near at hand. Our thoughts, words, and actions make a difference; and it is extremely important that they be based on an understanding of “how deeply our lives intertwine.”
In a teaching discourse called “The Elephant’s Footprint” (MN, 28), the Buddha explained that this paradigm of the Four Noble Truths is big enough to hold all of his teachings. It is the answer to how to intentionally live a life in the Dharma. With a beautiful, almost formulaic approach, the Four Noble Truths offer a simple, profound, and usable understanding of our mind’s role in creating and directing the subjective experiences of our life. The fourth of the Truths, which is the Eightfold Path, presents a strategic plan for living our lives in ways that lead to greater happiness for ourselves, for others, and for the world. It offers three categories of instructions on how to deconstruct our mind’s past harmful habits and reconstruct a new way of being: (1) study and reflect in order to understand things wisely: don’t turn away; (2) act mindfully from kindness and care: don’t turn away; (3) train and gladden the mind through meditation to not turn away. We are given invaluable guidance in mindfully facing the “ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys” that are our lives.
This Eightfold Path is the path our dear friend Claudia took. May her life and her death inspire us as we live forward into 2023, continuing on, tenderly and with care.
The venerable Sāriputta said this:
“Friends, just as the footprint of any living being that walks can be placed within an elephant’s footprint, and so the elephant’s footprint is declared the chief of them because of its great size; so too, all wholesome states can be included in the Four Noble Truths. In what four? In the noble truth of suffering, in the noble truth of the origin of suffering, in the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, and in the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” (MN 28)