Suzuki Roshi when asked what is the heart of Buddhism.
“Our passage writes, maybe on water…”
Every summer, our artist son builds magnificent sand sculptures during our family holiday at the ocean. Or rather, he inspires and then supervises our motley crew of various ages, patience and skill as the family together constructs the “Brindley sand critter of the year.” Bucket by bucket, grain by grain, the sea and the sand become transformed into monuments, works of art. One summer a mother dinosaur and her baby arise; in another July a sleeping elephant is constructed; in yet another, an exquisite sea turtle takes form. Each year, we all then happily gather on the cottage deck, to contemplate together our day of play as the light turns golden and slowly fades across the land. Inevitably, in the new day, all is gone; what was built so carefully has melted away as the sea has, overnight, reclaimed its water and sand. For our family, there are often twinges of sadness as we each inevitably navigate a shared mix of tender mind and heart around the experience of impermanence and loss.
Human life is like that. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, millennium by millennium, everything in this world of form arises and passes away. Nothing in our fabricated world stays the same. Physical sensations and their associated pleasant, unpleasant or neutral qualities, our perceptions and ideas about how things are, the words we give to experience, the narratives and stories we make about these, the very consciousness of it all: all of this is in constant flux and change, influenced by causes and conditions that are too many and too complex to fathom. In his deep reflection, the Buddha saw that the origin of suffering lay in our human struggle to stabilize, to grasp, to control, to cling to these forms – to try to make permanent somehow – what is a fluid, impermanent, ever-changing process of unfolding. Humans suffer as we try, over and over, to make this process into something solid. As he investigated deeply, the Buddha saw directly this process of arising and passing away.
— Mahaa-Parinibbaana Sutta (DN 16)
At some level, we all know this. We all “know” conceptually that human life and everything in it is impermanent. We know with our minds that the weather will flux and change, that the sunflowers we planted in spring will wither as the season fades, that our finances and our health will go up and down, that our children will grow and leave home, that our parents will age and need our care and die, and that all of our bodies and every one of our relationships, having arisen, will pass away. We know for certain that, for me and for you, this life will end in death. Nevertheless, for most of us, we come to pass our days in a sort of delusion. We get sick and we wonder “why me; what have I done wrong?” We suffer a financial loss or the loss of an important job and we suffer with shame or blame. We lose an important relationship and imagine that we can’t go on.
In the Buddha’s day, Kisa Gotami was just like us. Desolate at the death of her child and fearful of judgment and the resulting loss of status in the eyes of her husband and his family, she convinced herself that her child was only sick and that the Buddha could heal him. For the most part, members of her community met her suffering with derision, convinced that she had a mental illness, that she had gone mad. Finally she came to the Buddha, asking him for healing for her son. With great care and kindness, the Buddha offered healing for her delusion, not by esoteric teaching, or by instructing her in some behavior change, but by inviting her to investigate her direct experience. He instructed her to attempt to find a mustard seed from a home where no death had occurred. As she searched, she slowly came to her senses. She saw clearly the impersonal nature of her suffering. She was able to let go, finally and deeply grasping the inevitability of death and loss for all beings without exception. She went on to ask the Buddha for a teaching about death, about what might lie behind and beyond death, and what in her, if anything, would not die.
In modern times, our psychotherapy clients come to us in their own “madness,” seeking relief. One is dying, and distraught at leaving his children in the care of an alcoholic wife. Another deals with damage from the generational suffering of racism. Another has been laid off in an economic downturn, in grief over losing the career she spent a lifetime building. A teenager cuts her arms trying to navigate years of family violence. A young man comes to cultivate a sense of a balance and self worth that might ease his gender confusion and shame. A mother struggles with breast cancer. An elder reels from a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. A couple struggles with the loss of yet another pregnancy. Another family works through sorrow and rage to care for a child who is permanently disabled after an auto accident with his teenage friends. Every family, every person, then and now, has its suffering: its own version of Kisa Gotami’s search: places where we fear that we ourselves or those we love are going mad.
In my own family of origin, a journey with our mother brought us to the brink. Peg was a strong and vigorous woman. Raised an independent farm girl , she took up cross country skiing, painting, bird carving and international travel when she retired from nursing in her late 60’s. In her 80’s, first her body and then her mind began to slip away. For over a decade before she died, each moment with her was startling in its newness. Over and over and over and over my brothers and I would watch our minds go through various forms of suffering: the denial, fear, aversion that arose as we struggled to ignore, to fix, to understand, to control, or to gain some traction as her world and ours became more and more unsteady. As soon as we would get a toehold, a place of conceptual refuge and think “Ah, this is how it is going to be,” something wholly new would arise to challenge and cause us to back up, reverse ourselves, change course, reconsider, and begin again. Once I gathered all of my brothers from two countries for a final meeting with our obviously dying mother, only to have her rise from her bed and travel to my house, joining us all in a rousing birthday party with shrimp and presents and cake.
For our family in this journey the elusive mustard seed needed to come from a house where things were predictable and under some control: where they stayed the same. Nevertheless, over time, our family all together learned more and more to let go. We learned to respect and cherish the unique perspectives and skills that we each brought. We learned to laugh at the confusion and messiness and total impossibility of it all. We learned ever more deeply how to be in hardship with love, together. Letting go of expectations led to a sharing with her – even in her demented state – of moments of profound mystery, magic and transcendence and learning with her an unconditional love that none of us had ever imagined to be possible.
One lesson from the Buddha’s teaching to Kisa Gotami is that this freedom from suffering does not come about by conceptual thinking or by looking only at the surfaces of things. It does not come about by changing the world. We learn impermanence by first understanding, but then by reflecting upon and finally being willing to directly experience the unyielding changes of each moment of life. We cultivate, slowly, with patience and persistence, a willingness to let go, simply, into each present moment. “It’s like this. Now.” We learn to release our clinging to any particular forms of life, to let go of our thoughts and preferences about how we think this life ought to be. This does not mean that, in our human living, we move toward nihilism or that we passively abandon wholesome doing. With my mother, we learned at times a fierce advocacy on her behalf.
The Buddha’s great teaching, however, is that, no matter how noble or necessary or effective or fierce or dedicated our efforts are, at some point they will all fail. We will lose all that is constructed. Everyone near and dear to us will be lost. We will all die. We DO, indeed, all die in each moment, as life moves through its processes, arising and passing away in each moment through infinite causes and conditions, processes largely out of our control. Far from being a cause for pessimism, however, the Buddha directs us to bring awareness to the deathless; to let go of trying to prop ourselves up, clinging to dubious lifelines. We learn to find profound happiness and ease as we learn to practice dying, opening fully to what is here, just now, just now. In doing so, we can remember to delight in each moment. We can practice a love that is patient and at ease. We can, over and over, release ourselves from the expectation that we can make stable or fix what is impermanent.
As therapists, we can meet our clients and our work with vigor and care and energy. We can show up, with all of our skills and training and wisdom and experience. We also, though, can learn to not take ultimate refuge in what is insubstantial. We can practice, with kindness and care – a sense of perspective and, even, humor as the seas of human life relentlessly reclaim all that is constructed. We can learn, in our own spiritual practice to first experience for ourselves and, as timely, to offer for others the real secrets of healing. With diligence and patience we can practice a letting go of the constructions of human life in a way that reveals a deep knowing of, and resting in, the only thing that is real: awareness of unconditional love in the imperfect perfection of every moment.