…there are things to be considered . . .
Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
– attributed to an unnamed Hopi elder
“Overcome your uncertainties and free yourself from dwelling on sorrow. When you delight in existence, you will become a guide to those in need, revealing the path to many.” Sutta Nipata
I used to have a rather idealized view of what the Buddha’s life was like after enlightenment. I’ve imagined that his profound peace, clarity and freedom meant that external life had also become fairly serene. I’ve come to learn that my romantic view was not so; even after his awakening, the Buddha experienced plenty of external hardships. His cousin Devadatta was jealous of his fame, wealthy support and flourishing monastic communities and tried to take over leadership of the community. He intrigued with political figures to try to undermine the Buddha, even attempting, at least twice, to kill him, once causing a serious and painful injury. Like us, the Buddha was not always able to keep others from choices that only deepened their own suffering and, as he aged, he experienced the inevitable pains of illness and frailty in his own very human body. External life was not always the serene and rosy picture that we often see when the Buddha is portrayed or that I imagined.
Our own lives, of course, are like that, too. We find, in our modern world, all of the experiences that the Buddha encountered: political wranglings, floods and fires and streams of refugees, racism and violence, climate change, homophobia and bigotry and sexism, rancor and jealousy, disappointment, loss and ill will. In our closest circles, there may be dear ones for whom we deeply care who continue to struggle and, even closer to home, we daily encounter the private sufferings of our own unenlightened minds and aging bodies. Like the Buddha, there may or may not be something specific and personal that we can do to address the external realm, or even the decline of our bodies. But in our spiritual practice we can address what happens internally, in the mind, and we can cultivate a path to the same freedom that Siddhartha found.
The spiritual practice taught by the Buddha calls us to directly see that suffering is caused not by what happens but by how we respond, both internally in our minds and hearts and externally in the mind’s overflow into speech and action. The teachings call us to the freedom from suffering that responds to life’s challenges not with reactivity but with deep wisdom, unconditional love, and universal compassion. We are invited to cultivate these whole-hearted qualities both with respect to all aspects of ourselves and with an ever deepening capacity to include all beings everywhere. All aspects of ourselves. All beings. Everywhere. This is not the same as passivity or even acceptance of harm; the Buddha clearly denounced these in all their forms. In our practice, we are asked to become wise, loving and committed spiritual warriors.
Spiritual Warriors. How do we do this? How do we nourish and heal our own hearts and minds, address external divisions, and bring the presence of our lives to fierce and loving presence, speech and action in our troubled inner and outer worlds? There is no easy or universal answer. In the teachings, there are said to be “84,000” skillful means. Which ones support our practice at any given time are likely to be different for each of us. We can find many general principles in the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way, however, remembering that he had found a path that avoids extremes: one that neither indulges nor resists whatever that life offers to us. This includes our relationship to the joys and the nourishment of our lives.
In this, I find much inspiration in Siddhartha’s wisdom on the night of his enlightenment. Near death from the extremes of his ascetic practice, he found that he was too weak to sustain his spiritual search. As described in a rendering by Ajahn Sucitto, “…his mind (was no longer)…steady and clear. Strained and driven only by willpower, it could neither open nor settle into calm…A despondent inertia hovered over him like a vulture.” A realization arose: that if he was to continue, if he was to “open (and)…settle into calm,” he needed the support of more food. Against all rules of the practice he had been taught, he accepted and ate a bowl of rice milk. Life flowed through his system like the sap that fed the tree under which he sat. ‘Why not?’ he thought. ‘Let Nature look after nature. What good is there in fighting against its laws? Why not let it support me in this quest?’ He had found his way to the middle path. After many years of investigation, trial and error, Siddhartha opened to a practice that was not too tight and not too loose with respect to various forms of nourishment and gladness,
On a scorching day early last summer, I made a similar discovery on a hike to find a waterfall that was hidden in the desolate Sonoran Desert. There was a sign at the head of the trail reminding that I was in arid and challenging territory and that I should carry at least one quart of water. Simple. A quart of water.
I missed the sign.
The hike was harder for me than it needed to be as I wandered into the parched land without clearly assessing my capacity and with not quite enough resources. In a moment of inattention, I had neglected a simple way of caring for myself on a challenging journey. Mercifully, I was saved from my ignorance and I made it back, thirsty but intact, and quite a lot more wise about hiking in deserts.
For each of us, an important invitation of our practice is to remember, over and over, directly and personally, what is nourishing: what it is that leads truly to the ending of suffering. What is good food; where is our water? What nourishes our own courage, serenity, freedom, happiness, insight and wisdom and the courage, serenity, freedom, happiness, insight and wisdom of all others? There are teachings that guide us, but for each of us and in each moment, we are called to make these teachings our own and to answer this question for ourselves. In order to do this, we must look directly at the suffering in our lives and investigate how it works, not to be overcome by it, but quite the opposite. We explore suffering in order to see clearly the path to freedom, the path to what it is that best nourishes and guides us on our journey to the complete ending of suffering. It helps if we read the signs at the head of the trail, posted by those who know the territory and who have gone before us. Central among the signs are the teachings of release: the letting go of everything that breeds or maintains the poisons of greed, hatred and delusion.
We can misunderstand “release,” however, imagining that letting go and release means to turn our backs on life’s joy and goodness. This is the mistake that Siddhartha relinquished on the night of his enlightenment as he discovered the middle way. In this aspect of the middle way we are invited to receive life’s goodness and nourishment, releasing only our demand that these arise according to our own views and schedules, letting go of our efforts to hoard these gifts or to hang on when they pass. In every way, we are invited into opening. Where is the water that will nourish our journey? How is it to find goodness in the simplicity of breathing or in opening to the blessing of a body that works well enough? How is it to open and receive sound? To delight in hearing? Can I receive without greedy grasping but also without turning away? Might we be present to receive sight or taste? Might we simply take in and delight in the countless blessings of ordinary goodness that support us as we journey through life? Our practice invites us to allow a receiving of the many bowls of milk-rice that are offered to us in each moment, each day.
Over and over the Buddha spoke to this. He taught a reminder and an example that we are not to venture into our daily deserts without support. Where is our water? In what form is there food for our journey? May we each investigate, open, receive and be nourished.