“…a moment of enlightenment is a moment when we realize the blessings that are always pouring forth.” Nyoshul Khenpo
“If defilements were with us day and night without ceasing, who would ever stand them? Living things would either die, or become insane first and then die. One survives because there are periods when the fires of defilements do not burn. Periodical nirvana keeps all of us alive and well, and is a nourishing condition, normal to life.” Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
7 AM. The morning traffic races past; the markets are bustling. Days literally burst forth loud and early in Bali. Birds sing; roosters crow, dogs bark, scrabble with each other and eagerly poop on the sidewalk. Shop awnings creak open, vendors push and call. I walk early, weaving among screeching cars and motorbikes, bicycles and buses, school children crashing through on bicycles, gym classes already in the soccer field, women offering fruits or teas or spices, taxi drivers out and eager for work. At this hour, the morning air is still cool; in a bit it will be stifling, sauna-like, and it will become a chore to even move.
It would be easy for the senses to be overwhelmed. So many sights and sounds and smells and human encounters. One can move only a few feet before being warmly greeted, engaged in conversation, or asked to buy something. How to have ease, freedom from suffering – joy, even – with all of this knotted and tangled data? The Buddha speaks of so very many ways of working with this. There is mindfulness, attention: not to abstractions but to the present moment: “It’s like this now.” There is attention to stress: its impersonal nature, its causes, the ending, the path. There is “appropriate attention:” yoniso manasikara. One learns what is worthy of attention, what is not. One learns to practice discernment, restraint, avoidance, patient tolerance. MN 2
Still, I wonder: practically, how do I navigate? With this? This? This: the impermanent, out-of-personal control, messy and ever flowing river of life. Asking this in my morning Bali walk is not so different from the challenge of any life, anywhere. We are invited to develop wise and skillful attention – both internally and externally – as daily life bombards our senses, our bodies age, emotions erupt, the mind spins.
From a strictly biological perspective, we can get out of balance. The nervous system can get so overloaded and depleted that we fall out of coherence; we become caught in biological responses of fight or flight or freeze and lose the capacity for wholesome attention. It’s not unlike, I think, the state that Siddhartha found himself in when, having practiced extremes of asceticism, he found that he was near physical and mental death and no longer able to even attend wisely. He chose to receive from Sujata the ordinary nourishment of rice milk. More balanced, his ability to bring appropriate attention returned.
Like Siddhartha, we too can struggle with wise attention if the heart and body and mind get out of balance and we get caught in all the data and forget to receive ordinary nourishment. Anagarika Munindra, when asked why he meditated, is said to have replied “So that when I walk from here to the town square, I’ll notice the purple flowers that bloom along the way.” He wasn’t proposing that the wise attention of meditation would bring only happy sensual pleasures to which he could cling and which would then last. He was proposing that appropriate attention would bring about an ease, a gladness and tranquility of heart, which, in turn, would allow ever deeper untangling of the causes of suffering and, ultimately, to its end. The Pali word for this kind of gladness is sukha. It’s my understanding that sukha originally referred to a chariot wheel that was well grounded, allowing the wheel to turn easily and efficiently: sukha: a happiness that allows the chariot to move well.
When I go out in the morning, even in the midst of all of the chaos, there is the practice of simply receiving this kind of happiness: the opening to recognize and to receive what is precious. Beauty, joy, kindness, gladness is everywhere; there are heart connections to it all, even the dog poop and the screeching traffic. There are flowers that have fallen from the lush trees through the night onto the roads and walkways. I gather them into my arms before they are swept away. Opening to receive their soft loveliness, brings an ease to my heart. It is a good way to nourish and orient my day. I carry them back to my residence here. Though they quickly are gone forever, their momentary beauty reminds and feeds me. It is good. This, too, is appropriate attention.
Teachings on attention to goodness can be confusing when we encounter the classical teachings on indulgence, on the very real limitations of sensory pleasure, on clinging, and letting go. Misunderstood, it can seem that delight in the beauty and wonder of life is to be shunned. Rodney Smith speaks of a monastic who turned his back on a magnificent sunset with just such a misunderstanding. The issue, however, is whether or not any contact, any movement, any thought or word or action leads to continued suffering or to its end. Is this delight leading to an increase in clinging? A landing in solidity and greed and holding on? Or is it – even a bit – a turning toward the mystery and wholesome goodness of non-separation, kindness, compassion and joy?
Careful attention to the teachings and to our own deepest experience brings the wholesome awareness that every being – and every aspect of our own being wants and deserves profound liberation: unshakable happiness and freedom from suffering. For each of us, the root of this yearning is the fundamental expression of what is already here: our own – and others’ -basic goodness, called Buddha-nature in some traditions. This is the seed that wants to sprout in every being.
So, it is important that we not neglect the Buddha’s teachings on goodness, on joy and blessings. In the Mangala Sutta, he lists, for our contemplation, dozens of ”highest blessings,” including honorable friends, wholesome occupation, and our own virtues. Remember these, he instructs; contemplate them. Open to know all goodness, even the mundane goodness of everyday life. Like Siddhartha, we too can open to attend in a wise and balanced way to the nourishment that inclines us toward freedom. We can question: Is this delight one that leads to the further suffering of clinging and self-absorption, or is it inclining the mind and heart toward vastness, toward mystery, toward release?