Monday, January 13, 2014

Staying Buoyant Amidst Suffering

Jacqueline Kramer

Typhoons destroying cities and killing thousands in the Philippines, complete devastation in the already beleaguered Haiti, thousands of men, women, and children fleeing their homes in Syria, children enslaved as soldiers and prostitutes in the Sudan—there has been widespread suffering somewhere in the world—holocausts, land grabs, rape, and natural disasters—since the beginning of time. But we humans have not been exposed to the suffering of others outside of our communities to the extent that we are today. Were our human hearts designed to hold the vast, constant awareness of suffering offered up each day in our media-connected world? What’s a person with a human-sized heart to do? We don’t want to shut our heart down. Even if that were possible, hearts seem to seep through the cracks in our control systems. If we shut out the pain, we also shut out the joy. A closed heart is impervious to feeling. Still, we don’t want to become overwhelmed by sadness. We’re of no use to ourselves or others when we’re paralyzed by sorrow.

Joanna Macy talks about the need to feel our grief in order to effectively respond to the pain around us. I find that getting in touch with grief is a lot like peeling an onion. Our heart is wise and will only take in as much as it can handle at any given moment. Gently, sensitively, we peel back as many layers as we are able to feel, remembering that grief is not a bad thing. It’s part of our human nature to lose and miss what is lost. There is no way around this, regardless of how much meditation we do or how deep our understanding of life becomes. The Zen master Issa, at the death of his infant child, wrote:

It’s a dewdrop world,
And yet …

Because he was a master, with deep understanding of life, people expected him to be beyond grief. His response was, no matter how deep my understanding is, I am still human, I still grieve. Rather than imagine utopias and worlds where we no longer feel life’s betrayals, inequities, and losses, we have the option to embrace our beautiful human vulnerability. After all, without pain there would be no compassion. A broken heart can become an open heart.

The Buddha taught the truth of suffering and the way out of suffering. It’s easy to read this and imagine that enlightenment will put an end to all uncomfortable emotions. But, although the Buddha’s teachings promise a way out of suffering, they do not promise an end to pain. Whereas pain is part and parcel of being human, suffering is self-created phantom pain. When we divide things into good and bad, when we become attached to things and ideas and when we do not see life clearly, we suffer. The way out of this suffering is remembering who we were before our parents were born. Who is feeling the pain?

Although the concept of awakening has been built up to superhuman proportions, all beings experience awakening. We all have the same Buddha nature; it’s just who we are, so we’re bound to bump into it every now and again. Usually our moments of awakening go unacknowledged and fade away like wisps of smoke. Thankfully, Buddhism gives us a context for noticing and building on these misty threads. As our practice deepens, the experience of our Buddha nature becomes more pervasive. Eventually suffering has no place to take hold.

As we are expanding our fledgling awakening, the simple joys of everyday life can serve as antidotes to the experience of suffering. If someone is starving in India, starving ourselves doesn’t alleviate their hunger. In fact, not enjoying everyday gifts—a warm bath, a delicious meal, loved ones, a tree in bloom—only makes us less equipped to lift others up. By being present for our life in this moment, feeling gratitude for whatever this moment holds, we fortify ourselves. Wearing sackcloth and ashes is simply not an effective strategy.

In Zen we take the bodhisattva vow, sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all. This is not only a vow to live an openhearted life, it is also a koan inviting us to think in fresh ways about service. Trying to make sense of karma and how or why pain is created is a fool’s errand. The Buddha said that karma-result was one of the four “unthinkables,” and warned against trying to figure out how and why things are unfolding the way they are. Rather than try to make sense out of the depth and breadth of human trials, we can surrender into not knowing. Rather than label pleasure as good and pain as bad, or pleasure as bad and pain as good, we can watch feelings and sensations freely rise and fade. When clinging and repulsion are released an authentic response to the pain of the world rises up in the emptiness created. We surrender into not knowing. From there we can lend an unencumbered hand.

Our ancestors left behind bountiful gifts to support us as activists in the cause of alleviating suffering in our communities and around the world. One gift is the great joy in knowing, really knowing, that what each one of us is, behind all appearances, cannot be hurt in any way. This understanding can help alleviate a sense of helplessness at unfolding karma. The joy arising from contact with our true self keeps us buoyant during challenging times. Another gift is the guidance to observe the moment without judgment. We no longer think we need to do more or be better, who we are right now is enough. The moment lets us know our next move. The gifts of daily practices and rituals can help by reminding us of the bigger picture. They make us more vulnerable to awakening. Most importantly, our sangha can help remind us of our true nature when we inevitably forget and get caught up in life’s details. When one of us feels weak and forgets, a dharma buddy may be feeling stronger that day and able to help us remember. Maybe that’s why the Buddha answered Ananda’s question “Is the sangha important to the spiritual life?” by saying, “No, the sangha is the spiritual life.” Our little “I” cannot accomplish the task of saving all sentient beings. It’s the big “I,” the “I” that is everything, that saves all beings. We touch that bigger "I" in emptiness.

Mother Teresa was able to walk through hell realms and serve tirelessly, largely due to a deep, abiding connection with her God. With a deep, authentic connection to our Buddha nature our hearts can remain free and open while walking through heavens and hells. We feel grief without pulling away from it. We feel joy without feeling guilty. From that place we can be of use to others.

Jacqueline Kramer: Author

Jacqueline Kramer, author of Buddha Mom: The Path of Mindful Mothering and 10 Spiritual Practices for Busy Parents, has been studying and practicing Buddhism for over thirty years in the Sri Lankan Theravadin tradition, and Zen for eight years. When she became pregnant with her daughter she applied Buddhist principles to her pregnancy, birthing, and mothering to good effect. This led to her books and teachings. In 2008 Jacqueline received the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award at the UN day for women in Thailand for her work teaching Buddhism to mothers. She is the director of the Hearth Foundation, which offers online lay Buddhist practice classes designed for mothers, a monthly newsletter and other resources for today’s mothers seeking spiritual support and inspiration. Hearth has students in Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Europe, the US, Canada, and throughout the world. Jacqueline is past vice president of Alliance for Bhikkhunis, has been on their editorial board, and actively supports female monasticism. She has studied koans with John Tarrant, written on femininity and Buddhism for Turning Wheel and other magazines, and developed teachings for laywomen that are informed by feminine spirituality. Jacqueline lives in Sonoma County, California.

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