Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Living Dharma

In this 16x20 mixed media piece the clothes were cut from little pieces of canvas and applied to the larger canvas.  Layers of  medium and grey and white paint were applied and then some charcoal was added.  I was intrigued by a challenge a local gallery owner gave asking artists to do a painting  using only blacks, whites and greys.  I found it so much fun I did a number of them.  The words on this painting say: "How great and wondrous are these clothes of enlightenment.  I vow to unfold the Buddha's teaching so that I may help all living things."  This quote is from a verse recited by monks as they put on their "kesa" (a part of their robes)  each morning.

This small recitation is a helpful reminder of why we are doing our practice.  If  we only accumulate knowledge  in our head we could be filled with it but  how will our everyday lives unfold?  We might be able to wax eloquently on the differences between Theravaden  Buddhism and Zen or recite the many lists of Zen (the 4 noble truths, the 5 skandas, the 3 marks of existence....someone once said to me Buddhism is a religion of lists!  I found this amusing.)  But if  our practice doesn't penetrate our lives what good is it?  

Zen is full of stories, wisely showing, rather than telling.  In one case a father is doing his meditation and his teenage daughter interrupts.  He shouts at her "can't you see I'm doing my loving kindness meditation?"  Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun tells a wonderful story of how she is sitting on a crowded bus weeping as she reads about loving kindness but then realizes that she is feeling annoyed by the jostling of the passenger, the real flesh and bones body, next to her.  So why are we studying or practicing Zen or any other spiritual tradition for that matter?  If it doesn't alter our actions, ultimately making us kinder and more compassionate what are we doing?  Are we putting in hours, days, months, years on the cushion and still the same angry person that started on the path?

One of the really important aspects of training I have found, is to be patient, to remember we are not going to change our deeply ingrained habits overnight.  It took a lifetime (perhaps many lifetimes) for these tendencies to take root.  To expect instant change is not realistic.  (If you're looking for instant you might just have to go to aisle 6 and pick up a jar of coffee, and you know what that stuff tastes like?)  You might have moments of insight (aha moments as they have come to be called) but really it is the ongoing work that carries us over the long haul.

I find I only really understand some tenet of practice by deeply experiencing it myself.  I can hear talks and read books on some aspect of practice but until it becomes real for me in my life I don't really get it.  My teacher and her teacher before her, talk about "understanding something in your blood and bones," understanding things in the deepest fiber of your being.

I have learned a lot through the relationship I have with my mother which could be described as a difficult dance.  It wasn't until I was in the middle of the gazillionth bout of anger, complaining to someone about something my mother had done, that I realized, it wasn't my mother that made me angry, it was ME that was making me angry.   It was my reaction to what my mother was doing that was the problem.  She didn't have any great power over me.  I was making myself crazy and it was only at that moment when as my teacher would say "the penny dropped".  I finally got it and found I could pause in the middle of some situation and make the choice to react or not.  Annoyance still arises but I can watch it arise and with varying levels of success choose to act compassionately.  The repeated experience of sitting on my cushion allows me to find the millisecond of space that's needed to pause and make that choice, to see my mother as trapped in her own little prison of unhappiness, to see that she is really doing the best she can.  And that allows compassion to arise, for the poor, tiny, stuck being in front of me and for myself.

So this is where I find the dharma, in the small instances of everyday life.  This is where I work, in the messy trenches of life.  And it fills my life with richness, finding the small gems of dharma amongst the dust bunnies of life.  And while I may not notice it on a daily basis I can look back and see a different me than the one who started out on this path 4 years ago.  The changes may be so small and subtle that no one notices but me.  It's like any exercise, the muscle builds slowly, yet in a real way as we use it.  There are many sayings in Buddhism that would make a fitting quote for this work of the heart that we are doing.  Going, going, going, always going beyond, always becoming Buddha" is really what we're doing, don't you think?"  So here's to your Buddha Nature.  I see it shining through, always there, waiting patiently for you to discover it.



  1. i heard this inside myself just now: "zen is not special, and it doesn't make us anything special. it can help us realize that within our very limitations as human beings we can still strectch beyond our previous limitations. we can then extend compassion to ourselves and others even in the most difficult situations."

    "our very limitations as humans is part of what makes us great. to acknowledge our human limitations in honesty and humor and work with them compassionately instead of against them; i think that this can be helpful."

    thank you again for your inspiration. may we all discover our Buddha nature together everyday: in the richness within the depths of our humanity.

    deep bow,

    -Steve @ fluxlife

  2. Joko Beck, one of my favourite Zen authors has a book called "Nothing Special." so I think you've hit the nail on its metaphorical, pointy little head! Really the essence of any spiritual or humanistic practice is the same isn't it?

    And what you say is so true. Really our limitations are our grist for the mill, the raw material. Strangely the more suffering there is in our life the more we have to work with, the more we are called to wake up and pay attention. (So yay for suffering! eek) And as you say, we are fine just the way we are. And it used to puzzle me when my teacher said yes, this is true but it doesn't stand against the fact that sometimes we can do better which is what I think you are saying as well. Though these two statements used to seem contradictory to me I have come to see how they coexist quite nicely. It is our willingness to keep on "chipping away" at what needs our attention that is important.

    And humour, a thousand votes for humour! Think of how much trouble could be averted in this world if we could all just poke each in the funny bone, instead of the other places we seem to aim for or defend.

    a bow in return

  3. Wow! I have so much to learn from the both of you. Om,Om