…The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep. Jalaluddin Rumi
I love to rise early each morning and sit with my tea before I meditate. Even the kitty still sleeps; it is quiet and the beautiful forest around me slowly comes alive in a magical first light of green and gold. The wood thrush sings its piercing song and the air is sweet with the perfume of the bushes-that-will-not-be-named.
I was sitting there a couple of weeks ago, pondering the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist rallies coming to Charlottesville. In the midst of the sounds and the smells and the light I had images of white sheets and pointy hats and hate speech and, perhaps, violence. On the day of the KKK rally, I had planned to be at the ocean with my family, wandering the beaches, catching up with grandchildren’s lives and laughing together over good food, impromptu board games and splashes in the ocean. Maybe like you, I pondered, “What should I do? Should I stay at the ocean? Leave my family and join my other clergy friends at the rally? That too, would be wholesome; we intended to be a strong presence of love and care in the midst of hatred and division.
What to do? I saw my resistance and my reluctance to even think about it all, wishing that it wouldn’t intrude on the peace of the day, wishing for a life of ease, wishing I didn’t have to think about this or make the multiple decisions about my own energies and my own life.
It strikes me that this was Siddhartha’s dilemma as he contemplated leaving the comforts of his family and home to begin his quest for freedom from suffering. How was he to be with this? As legend has it, he, like me, lived a pretty comfortable life. When he had encounters with sickness, aging and death, these woke him up to the limitations of even the comforts to which he was accustomed. “Terror” is the word that Thanissaro uses: “(Siddhartha)… saw aging, illness, and death as an absolute terror…”
With a stout and determined heart, then, he set about on his quest for a path and a practice that would bring a deeper freedom from these inevitable sufferings: the limitations of life as it is ordinarily lived. Later, after enlightenment, he again hesitated, thinking that it would be too hard to teach. “It would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me,” he reportedly thought, “The teachings are subtle; no one will understand.” He pondered and decided.
We know the Buddha’s decision…and so we have, today, the legacy of his practice and his teaching: guidance for us on a path of practice that claims to help us navigate the perils of stress, impermanence and out-of-personal-control-ness of this human life. He was able to follow and to share the deepest intention of his heart.
It is what we each practice every day as we encounter all of the difficulties that arise when we just bring ourselves to first sit and then stay on our cushions. Why else would we do this silly-seeming thing? And still, when faced with the apparent evil of hatred and injustice in our own town we understandably are confused as we continue to inquire: “What does the path really mean for me: here and now? I have a decision to make. What is mine to do?”
It’s not so different, really from the ordinary decisions that we must make every day, in our personal life and in relationship choices and behaviors. Some years ago, there was a TV commercial in which a grocery clerk brightly asks her customer “Paper or plastic?” He becomes paralyzed in indecision. “Paper or plastic? Paper or plastic? Paper or plastic?” We watch his thoughts churn indecisively through all of the conceptual pros and cons as the clerk and other customers impatiently await his response. The punch line of the commercial was something like “Some decisions are easy.”
Perhaps some may be. When we really look, though, those apparently easy decisions may be the ones that are informed by overwhelm in which we are driven by a habitual disregard of the actual experience of the moment and we retreat to either concepts, rules and expectations or to the pressure of our friends and neighbors. We might easily ignite into raging emotional reactivity. In the other direction, we can allow ourselves to collapse in numb avoidance, overwhelm and shut down as we fail to fully recognize or evaluate our own internal and external resources.
In actual practice, so many life decisions require a highly personal assessment that is guided by the clarity of our ongoing practice in concentration, wisdom and kindness: Where is suffering? Where is the ending of suffering? Like Siddhartha in his search, these are not always so easy for us to see and not always so easy to act on. In this, as in every moment, really, we are invited to follow the Buddha’s guidance. We have heard, though, that he said: “I have taught you; now look yourself to see what’s true.”
What does this mean, I wondered, when it comes to KKK rallies on a beautiful summer day? I thought about the teaching on “Hatred never ceases by hatred…. this is an ancient and eternal law.” I thought about my new affection for Buddhist chanting and my plan to speak about chanting in my next dharma talk. I became curious about the relevance of chanting to such momentous social issues. I thought about my children and grandchildren and the potential delights of my long-anticipated week at the beach. I thought about the potential dreariness of the long and solitary early drive back home. What was mine to think, to teach, to speak, to do?
We all know this place.
Where to look is crucial. In this teaching, the Buddha is not inviting us to look to our own views and opinions. He isn’t even inviting us to follow simply what seems logical or reasonable according to our own minds or those of our teachers and colleagues. He isn’t inviting us to simply follow what is easy or pleasant. He is inviting us to look, deeply and clearly at the presence of suffering, its cause, its end and the very personal and immediate path to its end. He is inviting us to look to the deepest intention of our hearts: the energy and inquiry that caused us to begin and that keeps us engaged in this crazy meditation practice.
As we ponder the deepest intention of the heart – here, now – and “What is mine to do,” as we ask this question in difficult matters large and small, we often begin with confusion, which is, perhaps surprisingly, a perfect place to start. When we are sure that we know, what we likely are relying on may be simply a well-practiced thought or a view about something in the past which may or may not have any relevance to what is here in front of us. Now. Zen masters famously speak of resting in, delighting in, beginner’s mind or “Don’t know mind.” When we open to emptiness, to a mind that doesn’t know, we have the possibility of something new entering into us. We have the possibility of opening our minds and hearts to see and understand something of the deep mystery that has always been here but that we’ve never known in quite this way before.
The invitation that arises in difficulty is one of curiosity: a diligent and kind and very personal inquiry. And magic. Of being willing to allow ourselves to enter into receiving, into being guided by beings seen and unseen, into being surprised. What is this? Where is suffering? Where is the end of suffering? Here? Now? What is mine to do? What is a response of wisdom? Of kindness? What is my response?
While this is not a launching into reactivity and doing, please know that it also is not passive collapse. It is truly entering into the mystery of life. This life. Our life. Your life. My life. How am I called to show up? What is this? What are the needs? What are my resources? What am I called to do?
So, I invite us each to listen in a most alive and personal way. Listen to our own internal silence. Listen to the silence and wisdom of a mysterious universe, of the deepest intention of a heart that isn’t ruled by hungers or concepts or emotion or division.
And then we decide….and we see how it goes…