Monday, July 27, 2015

Joy is Hidden in Sorrow

Ayya Medhanandi

During these days of practice together, we have been reading the names of our departed loved ones as well as those of family and friends who are suffering untold agony and hardship at this time. There is so much misery around us. How do we accept it all? We've heard of young and vibrant people lost to suicide, aneurysm, AIDS, and motor neurone disease. And so many elderly who still cling to life even while suffering chronic poor health, physical and mental pain, poverty, disability, and isolation.

Death is all around us especially as we come to the end of the year and the start of the winter season. This is a law of nature. It's not something new. And yet we go about our lives oblivious to the fact or acting as if nothing will ever happen to us–as if we're not going to grow old or die, as if we'll always be healthy, active, and independent.

We are inclined to identify with our body and mind, defining ourselves by our appearance, profession, our possessions, social connections, even our thoughts. But when tragedy strikes, these habitual perceptions can destroy us: "I'm ugly, I'm redundant, I'm depressed, nobody loves me, I'm a traumatised person, I deserve better".

Dwelling in such negative perceptions, we are not able to stand like those oak trees along the boundary of the Amaravati meadow–patient through the long winter, weathering every storm that comes their way. In October they drop their leaves so gracefully. And in the spring they blossom again. For us, too, there are comings and goings, births and deaths–the seasons of our lives. When we are ready, and even if we are not ready, we will die. Even if we never fall sick a day in our lives, we still die–that's what bodies do.

When we talk about dying before we die, that does not mean that we commit suicide to avoid suffering. It means that we use this way of contemplation to understand our true nature. In meditation we can go deeply into the mind to investigate who it is that we really are. Who dies? Because what dies is not who we are.

Death can be peaceful. A peaceful death is a gift, a blessing to the world; there is simply the return of the elements to the elements. If we have not realised this, it can be frightening and we might resist. But we can prepare ourselves to live consciously. Then when the time comes, we can die consciously – totally open–just like leaves fluttering down the way leaves do.

Chasing shadows–what is it that we are really looking for in life? We're searching for happiness, for a safe harbour, for peace. But where are we searching? We desperately try to protect ourselves by collecting more and more possessions, having bigger locks on the door, and installing alarm systems. We are constantly arming ourselves against each other, increasing the sense of separation with more wealth, more control, feeling more self-important with our college degrees and our PhDs.

In our culture of instant gratification, we expect more respect and demand immediate solutions. So we are always on the verge of being stressed or disappointed–if our computer seizes up, if we fail to get a promotion at work, or we don't find the perfect partner.

This is not to put down the material realm. We need material supports: food, clothing, and medicines. We need shelter, protection, and a place to rest. We also need warmth and friendship to make this journey. But because of our attachment to things and our efforts to fill and fulfil ourselves through them, we find ourselves plagued by hunger and restlessness–because we are looking in the wrong place.

When someone suddenly falls ill, loses a limb, has a stroke, or faces imminent death, what do we do? Where is our refuge?

Before his enlightenment, when the Buddha was still Prince Siddhartha, he had everything. He had what most people run after while they push death to the edge of their lives and shove the knowledge of their own mortality to the farthest extreme of consciousness. He had a loving wife and a child. His father tried in vain to protect him from the ills of life, providing him with all the pleasures of the senses including a different palace for every season. But one day the prince rode out and saw what he had to see: the Four Heavenly Messengers.

The first messenger was an old man, weak and decrepit. What's so heavenly about a withered old man struggling along the roadside? He assumes the role of a divine messenger simply because suffering is our teacher. Through our own experience of suffering and our ability to contemplate it, we learn the First Noble Truth.

The second and third messengers were a sick person and a corpse riddled with maggots, ready to be fed to the flames of the funeral pyre. These heavenly messengers opened the eyes of the Buddha-to-be to the truth about life and death. The fourth heavenly messenger, a monk, inspired him to renounce all the riches of his worldly life to discover the Truth within himself.

Many people want to climb Mount Everest. But actually, there is a Himalaya here within each of us. I climb this Himalaya to reach the pinnacle of human understanding by realising my own true nature. Everything on the material plane–the fame, success, pleasure, and happiness that we avidly seek–pales in comparison with this potential transformation of consciousness.

So that's where these four celestial signs pointed the heroic prince. They set him on his journey. And they can do the same for us. These messengers can direct us to the Way of Truth and release us from the shroud of ignorance, selfishness, and sorrow. However distant we are from our pain, our fear, our sense of loss–that is the distance we are from our true nature.

Our minds create that chasm. What will take us across to discover who we really are? How can we touch the centre of our being with pure awareness and wise insight? To realise pure love itself–that sublime peace which neither grasps nor rejects anything–we must be able to hold every sorrow and pain in one compassionate embrace and endure. And as we come closer to that truth, we learn the difference between pain and suffering.

What is grief really? It's only natural that when someone dear to us dies, we grieve. We have memories of times spent together. And we've depended on each other for many things–comfort, intimacy, support, and friendship. So we feel loss.

When my mother was dying, her breath laboured and the bodily fluids already beginning to putrefy, she suddenly awoke from a deep coma. Her eyes met mine with full recognition. From the depths of Alzheimer's disease that had prevented her from knowing me for the last ten years, in that moment she became fully conscious, smiling with an unearthly, resplendent joy. A light fell upon both of us. And then in the next instant she was gone.

Where was the illness that had kidnapped her for so many years? As I watched her in the moment of her dying, I glimpsed the emptiness of form. She was not her body. There was no Alzheimer's and 'she' was not dying. There was just impermanence to be realised, and my witness to the falling away and dissolution of the elements returning to their source.

Through knowing the transcendent and recognising that we are not our body, we come to the realisation that we are ever-changing. We touch our very essence–that which is deathless. We learn to rest in pure awareness so that in our personal life journeys and relationships with each other, wisdom becomes our refuge.

That doesn't mean that we don't love or that we don't grieve for those we love. It means that we're not dependent on our relationships with our parents, partners, children, or close friends for our well-being. We no longer believe that our happiness depends on their love for us or on having them near. Though we may suffer when we lose them, we learn to surrender to the rhythm of life and death, to the natural law–the Dhamma of birth, ageing, sickness, and death.

When Marpa, the great Tibetan meditation master and teacher of Milarepa, lost his son he wept bitterly. A disciple asked: "Master, why are you weeping? You teach us that death is an illusion." And Marpa said: "Death is an illusion. And the death of a child is an even greater illusion."

Marpa showed him that–while he understood the truth about the conditioned nature of everything and the emptiness of forms–he could still grieve. He could completely surrender to that loss and weep unabashedly.

There is nothing incongruous about feeling our feelings, touching our pain and, at the same time, understanding the truth of the way things are. Pain is pain; grief is grief; loss is loss–we can accept them. Suffering is what we add when we resist.

Today, while I was reading the names of my grandparents who were murdered during World War II together with my aunts, uncles, and their children, their naked bodies thrown into giant pits, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a grief that I had not been conscious of. Unable to breathe, I felt a choking pressure. As the tears ran down my cheeks, I continued to bring awareness to the physical experience while breathing into this painful memory and allowing it to be. I'm not a failure for having felt these emotions. They are not a punishment but an intrinsic part of my human journey.

The difference between pain and suffering is the difference between freedom and bondage. If we cannot be with our pain, how can we hope to accept, investigate it, and heal? And if it's not okay to grieve, be angry, feel frightened or lonely, how will we ever feel what we are feeling or hold it in our hearts and find our peace with it? When we run from life, we are further enslaved because where we cling is where we suffer. But when we open to pain, our suffering dies. That's the death we need to die.

Through ignorance and not understanding who we are, we create prisons. We are unable to awaken, to love the people closest to us or even ourselves. If we can't bare our hearts to our deepest wounds, if we can't cross the abyss the mind has created through lack of wisdom, how can we know love or realise our true potential? We can never finish the business of this life.

When we take responsibility for what we feel, and for what we say and do, we lay the foundation for the path to freedom. We know the good result that wholesome action brings for ourselves and for others. When we speak or act in an unkind way, are dishonest, critical, or resentful, we are the ones who suffer. Somewhere within us remains a residue of that posture of the mind, that crippled attitude of the heart.

In order to become whole, we have to approach that brokenness to see it clearly. We have to be honest about every imperfection, to acknowledge and fully accept our humanity, our desires, and our limitations with compassion. We have to nurture the intention not to harm anyone, including ourselves, by our actions, speech, or even our thoughts. Then, if we do, we must try to forgive ourselves, and start again. We understand karma: how important it is to live heedfully and walk the path of compassion and wisdom from moment to moment–not just when we are on retreat.

Meditation does not take place only in formal situations. It is to be practised at all times so that we can experience complete peace with all conditions. As long as we're holding one negative thing in our hearts–towards ourselves or anyone else–we cannot be free.

So how can we truly take responsibility for our actions? By engaging in this very process of reflecting on our choices–guided by moral conscientiousness and knowing that our virtuous conduct supports our practice. The momentum of our mindfulness, wisdom, and trust, and the purity of the mind's energy keep us going.

Contemplating things that we don't feel good about can bring a cloud over our consciousness. In fact, this is wholesome because it means that we are experiencing a sense of moral shame and moral fear, hiri-ottappa. Once we admit that we've done something unskilful and feel compunction, moral fear becomes the seed of our ethical recovery. And our pure intention and resolve not to harm further propel us towards goodness and harmony.

This process unfolds through understanding that greed conditions more greed, and hatred conditions more hatred–whereas loving-kindness is the cause and condition for compassion, well-being, and unity. Knowing this, one would think that we would be dedicated to living more skilful lives. But are we willing to acknowledge our poor choice, limitation, or weakness? Can we forgive–and begin again?

Once, when the Buddha was giving a teaching, he held up a flower. And the Venerable Mahākassapa, one of his great devotees, smiled. What did he see in the flower? The ever-changing essence of conditioned forms. In the flower we can see the nature of beauty and decay. We see its 'suchness'. And we see the emptiness of experience. All teachings are contained in that flower: the teachings on suffering and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. And if we bring these teachings to life in each moment of awareness, it's as if the Buddha is holding up that flower for us.

Why are we so afraid of death? Because we have not understood the law of nature and the truth of non-suffering. If there is birth, there is death. If there is the unborn, then there is that which is deathless: the Undying, Uncreated, Love, the Supreme, the Magnificent, Nibbàna.

When we are in pain, we burn. But with mindfulness we can use that pain to burn through to the ending of pain. This is not negative. It is sublime – a moment of freedom from suffering born of intuitive insight–not because we have rid ourselves of pain or hold only to what is pleasant. We may still feel pain, but we accept it just as we learn to accept illness or death. We are no longer afraid or shaken by them.

If we are able to come face to face with our direst fears and frailties, we can step into the unknown with courage and openness and penetrate the mystery of this life with authenticity. Touching what we fear the most, we transform it. We see the emptiness of it. In that emptiness, all things can abide, all things come to fruition. In such a moment of penetrating insight, we can free ourselves.

Nibbàna is not 'out there' in the future. We have to let go of the future and let go of the past. This does not mean we discard our duties or commitments. We have jobs and daily schedules to keep and families to take care of. So in each thing that you do, pay close attention. Open to and allow life to come towards you instead of pushing it away. Not bound by mental and emotional habits, see things the way they really are. Let this moment be all that you have.

Each candle on the shrine gives light. One little candle from this shrine can light so many other candles without itself being spent. When we are not defeated by tragedy nor by our suffering, we shine. If, with grace, we accept the fiercest emotion or unspeakable loss–death itself–we can free ourselves. And in that release, there is a radiance. We are like lights in the world, and our life becomes a blessing for everyone.

Rumi wrote: "The most secure place to hide a treasure of gold is in some desolate, unnoticed place. Why would anyone hide treasure in plain sight?" And so it is said: "Joy is hidden in sorrow." Did Marpa's tears invalidate his wisdom? Or are they the expression of a humble man who both feels the natural grief of a father while making peace with the inherent impermanence of every conditioned thing?

I encourage each one of you to keep investigating. Keep letting go your fear. Remember that fear of death is the same as fear of life. What are we afraid of? When we deeply feel and, at the same time, truly know that experience, we come to joy. It is still possible to live fully as a human being, completely accepting our pain. We can grieve and still rejoice at the way things are.


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Photo 6: Ayya Medhanandi

Ayya Medhanandi

Born in Montreal (1949), by the time she became a Buddhist nun in 1988, she was at the height of her professional work with international development agencies including UNICEF and WHO. What propelled her into spiritual life were karmic intuitions in early meditations from the age of twenty-one and studying in India under the guidance of an Advaita sage. In the dozen years after ordaining as a ten-precept nun, she trained and practised at the Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha in Myanmar and Amaravati Monastery in England. Leaving the security of community, she set out to live as a solitary mendicant in New Zealand and later Penang. In 2007 she was ordained as a bhikkhuni in Taiwan.  Eventually, after eight years, the time was ripe to face new spiritual hurdles, not the least of which would be planting a hermitage in Canada and standing at its helm at an old age. But the conditions were right to establish a monastery where women could train as Theravada bhikkhunis. Through this life's journey, she learns universal lessons: "Wherever we are, whatever our vocation, unseen Himalayas appear on the path just when we think we've reached the top. If we put forth our best effort to scale them, we discover our true home nowhere else but in the temple of our own heart."

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