Who once was heedless,
but later is not,
brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud. Dhammapada
The story of the Buddha and Kisa Gotami is familiar to many. How she was desolate at the death of her little boy, how she was crazed with fear that she would lose future status in the eyes of her husband’s family, how she was delusional as she begged the Buddha to heal her fear and sorrow by bringing her child back to life, how he invited her to attempt to find a tiny mustard seed from a home where there was no experience of loss or death, how she failed, how she slowly was able to see for herself the truth of impermanence and then take refuge in admirable friends, in her own value and in a deeper reality.
I love the story. What touches me most about it goes beyond the deep impermanence teaching itself to how the Buddha taught it. He could have judged and scolded her, dismissing her as an ignorant, foolish and, in that culture, an unimportant woman. He could have turned his back on her and her obvious delusions. He could have launched into an esoteric teaching on causes and conditions and form and emptiness. Instead, in such a kind way, he listened; he saw and welcomed her exactly as she was. He was sturdy and clear of course, but fundamentally, he was just simply and fully present, not treating her as broken and not immediately shattering her hope. Rather, he invited her to, slowly and in her own way, digest her own loss and, with that emerging awareness, to remember her place in the family of things. For her part, she asked; she was open to receive. She was willing to explore a new way. With his guidance and with those foundations, she slowly found her own path forward.
I came to a spiritual path out of a perhaps similar sense of trying to fix something that seemed broken. I had practiced hard and very early to be the most perfect and spiritual Catholic girl. Needing a refuge from ongoing family tensions, I would get my little self out of bed early each morning and walk alone down the street to our neighborhood church to attend daily Mass. The lights, familiar ritual and presence of Jesus were comforts to me before a long day of measuring my value by how much I could please the demanding nuns at school and how much I could get my overworked and overstressed parents to smile.
After eighteen years of this, it was a logical next step that I would enter a convent where I would spend the next eight years buried away from the world as a Catholic nun. There, however, I encountered my own Buddha; Mary, a wonderful elder, saw me. With kindness and persistence, she challenged my own fixed views about worthiness that had long kept me confined in rigid, patriarchal and at times, abusive systems. A nun herself, she encouraged me to find my own way, to leave. To this day, she is shocked that her small moments of wisdom and kindness had such an impact on me. Eventually, I did leave. I wandered out alone and without money or home or job or friends into an unknown and chaotic world. I made my way, soon abandoning all allegiance to what I perceived to be the heartless structures and rules of all organized religion.
Years later, as a new clinical psychologist, like Kisa Gotami, it was the dying children in the hospital where I worked who helped to lead me back to spiritual practice. As I, too, struggled to deal with loss and my own clumsy powerlessness and profound ignorance, I came face to face with brokenness; intimacy with the suffering of others brought me to see more clearly my own. I was drawn again to spirit, this time to the Buddha’s teachings on love and forgiveness, on compassion and presence. Over the years, there have been many more teachers and friends who, while not perfect, have relentlessly manifested that kindness and care.
Nevertheless, even now, I can still reel with theories and rules about how I “should” be. I can so easily land in an inner self-critical voice that can direct the shame and inadequacy born in those early years back upon myself. I can even think that there are others “out there” somewhere who actually are immune from confusion and mistake and who therefore are much more perfect than me. I smiled and recognized when I heard Ajahn Sucitto’s descriptions of a self-critical voice that “drives, but doesn’t nourish, sets unattainable goals or timelines, thinks in the absolutes of ‘should’ and ‘never’ and ‘always,’ and offers a general mood that sees without love or grace. Didn’t quite make it…and not likely to.”
Over and over, my practice now remains to let go of all that thinking and come back to a tender and kind discernment of what does, or does not, wound my heart and my life. There is inquisitive presence, first of all: here, now.
Today I am very tired. There are serious health issues in my family that require my attention, understanding and help. My mind reels and my body aches from the challenge. Nevertheless, I have interrupted this writing to take part in an emergency meeting with other faith leaders of Charlottesville to develop a response to community tensions following an incident of police racial profiling in our city. This feels nourishing: to be in relationship with other admirable friends. We listen. We challenge one another as we honor our weaknesses and limitations and delight in one another’s wisdom. Despite our many differences, we have learned to come together in our collective intention to be a source of healing and goodness and justice for ourselves and others. We laugh. Together we decide on speech and action without requiring ourselves or anyone else to be perfect. Over the years, we have grown to love each other; we remain committed to keep exploring together. Reverend Edwards asked me to offer our prayer for today; in the midst of all those fervent Christians, I gave my own voice to a form of a Tibetan prayer:
May we consider our own being precious.
May we always respect ourselves and others.
May we face our own inner darkness and investigate its intention and how to turn it to wholeness and healing for ourselves and others.
May we be moved with compassion for all pain, whatever its form.
When we are hurt by others, may we care for ourselves without retaliation.
May we know all difficulty as a sacred teacher.
May I offer joy to myself. May we all offer joy to one another.
May we be free from measuring ourselves by this moments’ apparent loss and gain.
“Amen,” they said.