The benefits of Buddhist wisdom during difficult times.
Sylvia Boorstein | September 2011 Issue
In the Zen Buddhist tradition, teachers save their pithy instructions for their last breath in this life. As they’re dying, with their final-exhalations, they utter the culmination of their understanding.
Years ago, a friend recounted a story she’d heard from a Zen practitioner whose teacher’s final utterance was, “Thank you very much. I have no complaints.” I admire that. I would like to have that as my final utterance. It would be a great statement about wisdom to be able to leave this life saying, “I have no -complaints.”
To complain would be to think that things could have been different. The fundamental wisdom we seek to connect with is that things are the way they are as a result of myriad causes and conditions—things are what they are, we do what we can, and we work with what we’ve got. “Thank you very much. I have no complaints.”
I sometimes remind students, “Try not to duck. Try to see the truth of your experience right now. Try to be there.” When we are in contention with the moment, we push it away, and then we don’t see it clearly. When we see things clearly, we can usually figure them out. And when we see things cordially, or at least when we allow ourselves to see them this way, then they’re not distorted by our liking or not liking. Another way of putting this is, “Let’s see the truth of every moment, and let’s see it without contention.”
As human beings, we are always subject to loss, personal and communal. We all experience the loss of our bodies as we get older and the loss of our friends, our hopes and our dreams. We are always accommodating loss, from the beginning to the end of our lives. I try to cultivate a mind that accommodates in a gracious way so it has energy left to connect with benevolence. I think this is the key to being able to make it to the end of my life in a way that is warm, lively, energetic and useful.
So many things are problematic in society and in the world. We live in awesome times. But times have always been awesome for whoever was living in any historical period. I want to tell you a contemporary story of difficult times—of financial insecurity, of economic stress, of so many people losing their jobs—and of the relevance of understanding, wisdom and practice in meeting those challenges.
A friend of mine, my age, expecting to retire, and a longtime meditation practitioner, had all of her money invested with Bernie Madoff. I learned of this a week or two after the news broke that Madoff had lost all of his investors’ money. I contacted her, and we went out to lunch together. I wanted to find out how she was and how she was dealing with this.
She said, “Well, I’m really frightened because this is my entire life savings. My friends told me it was foolish to put all my eggs in one basket. But every month in my statement I saw how the profits were going up, and Madoff seemed to be a person of great repute doing wonderful things. I’d not only invested my life savings from all the work I’ve done, but I’d entrusted him with the small inheritance from my parents I was saving for my children. My partner doesn’t earn a lot of money. Here I am at 72. I haven’t got a lot of time to work. How am I going to make it?”
I asked, “How did you feel the moment you got the phone call?”
She said, “Well, the moment I got it, I didn’t understand it. Someone called me and said that this is what had happened, and I couldn’t believe it. They had to tell me several times; it just didn’t go in. Finally, it did go in. I got it, and I got terrified. It’s like the whole bottom fell out of my world. I got frightened. I’d get up in the middle of the night and think, ‘What am I going to do, and how am I going to take care of myself and my partner for the rest of my life?’”
We talked like that for a while, and then she said, “You know, the only thing I didn’t get was angry. I didn’t get angry, because I thought, ‘It’s extra. I have enough problems in my mind and in my life without getting angry; anger is extra.’ And who would I get angry at? Am I going to get angry at Bernie Madoff? He’s not like a real person—he’s something else—I can’t get mad at Bernie Madoff. Should I be mad at the Securities and Exchange Commission for not having enough oversight? Should I be mad at everybody who worked for Madoff, who didn’t report him earlier? Should I be mad at myself? I am mad at myself when I think about it. My friends told me, ‘Don’t do this.’ But, you know, the profits looked so good on paper, and I really wanted that money and it seemed like a good thing; maybe I should be mad at myself. The thing is, I just knew all the time that ‘mad’ was the last thing I needed. I’m just barely making it as it is.”
Then she said, “I couldn’t have done this without the years of practice. I know that anger is not going to do me any good. I need all my wits about me to figure out how to do the rest of my life. If I’m confused by anger, it isn’t going to be helpful.”
This story is exactly relevant to our times, just as it is exactly relevant to every time. I think our practice is about -cultivating the kind of mind that’s able to say, “Whoa, I didn’t foresee this, and it isn’t what I wanted, and it’s what I got, and I’m going to have to figure out what to do next, and I don’t know how. But I need to keep my wits about me so that somehow, so long as I don’t let my mind become clouded with confusing energies, I’ll be able to do it.”
I take a lot of courage from this story, because if she was able to do that in her circumstance, maybe I’ll be able to do it in another circumstance, because we’re each going to have our particular challenge sooner or later, one way or another.
According to the Pali Canon, the earliest compendium of the life and teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, the Buddha’s last words of his final sermon before he died were, “Transient are all conditioned things. Strive on with diligence.”
I like that a lot. It reminds me of impermanence. Things pass. With very difficult times, when the mind or the body may be deeply in pain, it helps when we have the awareness that however painful this moment is, it will change. We’re always dealing with shock. We lose a job. We lose a love relationship. Someone we care for dies. Something in our body goes wrong. After a while, even if things aren’t better, we get over the shock. At that point, understanding the transient nature of things can buoy up the mind.
I think about transience in terms of -contingency. Things happen, and as a -result, other things happen. We need the understanding of impermanence. And we need the understanding of contingency, of interconnection, that things happen because other things happen. This is the meaning of karma. Finally, we need to have the insight that suffering is the tension in the mind when it is -unable to accommodate the truth of our experience of impermanence and -contingency.
Recently, my husband and I left home to do an errand in town. While we were gone, a huge branch from an oak tree fell across the road that goes to our house. When we came back, a truck was pulling the branch off the road. The oak tree has probably been there for 150 years. That branch fell down in the half hour that we were gone—but not in the two seconds that we were under it. I thought, “If not for this, then that.” Everything is contingent on other things.
The fact that I’m here and well in this moment is because I wasn’t under the oak tree branch when it fell, and that was because of who I was with and where and when and how long my errands took and all of the millions of conditions that caused that oak tree branch to fall down exactly when it did.
My friend is without funds at this moment because Bernie Madoff wasn’t a well man and because the Securities and Exchange Commission’s oversight was flawed and because of her own particular yearning to increase her money and because we live in a culture in which we use money to make more money and because of a million other things—and also because she’d heard of Bernie Madoff. I hadn’t heard of him, but if I had, I might be in her position.
Everything is contingent; when I think about that, it removes blame from everyone. It’s not her fault and it’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just what is. Things happen because they do, and I do the best I can.
The second part of the Buddha’s last utterance is usually translated as “strive on with diligence.” My friend Andrew Olendzki, director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, says a better translation is “move with confidence into the future.” To me this means that what we do makes a difference. We’re not individually in charge of the world. We don’t run the world. But what each of us does makes a difference.
This doesn’t contradict contingency. I can feel at the same time that things are out of my hands—I don’t need to feel in charge or take responsibility for everything—but I also can’t renege on doing my part. I find it tremendously inspiring and tremendously consoling. I think it’s the gist of being mindfully aware, which leads to wisdom.
I once met a person who said to me, “I don’t pray, but I wish.” It’s a normal human response to wish that things go well for people, to wish that they don’t suffer, and to wish they get well from their illnesses, even when we know they are likely to die. We wish that they won’t suffer.
Thirty-two years ago in 1977, I went to a two-week mindfulness retreat. Before that, I hadn’t practiced at all. At the end of the two weeks, I didn’t know if anything substantial had changed in me. The headache I’d had for the first five days had gone away, and I felt the colors and the leaves were a little clearer and the smells a little sharper, so I knew my senses were more alert. Otherwise, I felt normal.
However, on the last night of the retreat when I telephoned home to talk with my husband and arrange for him to pick me up the next day, I learned that my father had been diagnosed with cancer and would probably die within two years. I loved my father enormously, and it was terrible news to hear. I felt tremendous sadness. In no way did the fact that I’d been practicing and on retreat for the past two weeks make the news all right with me. I felt the pain very sharply.
I remembered the feeling I had experienced at other times in my life when people dear to me had either been seriously ill or had died. I felt, on those occasions, as if I would fall through the floor. It had been impossible news to hear. I remember myself standing in that phone booth, listening to that news and feeling terribly pained.
But there was also something in me that stayed steady. The ground didn’t feel as though it was opening, and there was something in my mind had changed. At that moment, I certainly didn’t say to myself, “Aha, I see this meditation practice is working and this is what I need.” But I remember that the moment was different than those that came before. I never left the practice once I’d started.
Years later, I remembered how I felt when I heard about my father. I think I knew in that moment that there was a way the mind could be steady enough to hold any experience. By steadiness, I certainly don’t mean indifference. I mean that the mind can feel something deeply and hold it in balance. Sometimes I feel that having gotten the news of my father’s illness right then, not three weeks before or three weeks later, was a moment of grace.
Sylvia Boorstein, founding teacher of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in -Woodacre, California, has been teaching vipassana and metta meditation for more than 25 years. This is an edited excerpt from Solid Ground: Buddhist Wisdom for Difficult Times (Parallax Press).
Photo by: eschipul via Flickr