This essay was originally published in 2000 in Universalist Friends, the journal of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.
Atop the small bookcase-altar at the front of my office, an ivory-hued statue of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, sits in serene meditation, a concrete metaphor of the Buddhist ideal that inspires me. The androgynous bodhisattva is flanked by a small vase of blossoms and a white votive light. Before the statue, sandalwood smoke ascends from a long stick of incense standing lingam-like in a gray ceramic bowl.
As the sun sets outside, I take my seat on the zafu, a plump round cushion, a few feet from the altar. The half-lotus posture is the best I can manage. Sitting erect but relaxed, an imperfect image of the bodhisattva, I bring my hands together before my chest. With my attention focused on those folded hands, I gassho in a small bow before the altar, expressing respect for the symbols there, for the practice in which I am engaged, and for myself. My hands return to a position just below my navel, helping to center me in the hara, the body’s hub. I begin recitation of my evening gathas, or verses, speaking them to the statue that I know is only stone.
I am of the nature to be diseased.
I am of the nature to die.
I am of the nature to decay.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.
Later, I might reflect on the contrast between that gatha and the Christian prayers I learned as a child, prayers that seemed designed to deny the reality of death. But this verse’s words deny nothing. They sober me now, and sadden me. I give my sorrow some moments before continuing.
I take refuge in the Buddha, who teaches a way to peace.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the Buddha’s way of compassionate mindfulness.
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of the Buddha-Dharma.
The three refuges do not diminish the truth of the first verse. But they begin to answer the question in my heart: how can I live in a world of sorrow and death? I can open my heart to compassion, first of all for myself. I can wish myself well.
May I be free of enmity.
May I be free of hurtfulness.
May I overcome all troubles of body and mind.
All beings suffer under sentence of death. All deserve my compassion. Indeed, I see that we are one in our impermanence and suffering. What I wish for myself, I wish for all.
Whatever beings exist,
May they be free of enmity.
Whatever beings exist
May they be free of hurtfulness.
Whatever beings exist,
May they overcome all troubles of body and mind.
Through the gathas, I have recognized impermanence, taken refuge in the way of the Buddha, and permitted myself to feel compassion for all of us who live in the shadow of death. What remains is to put that compassion into practice, developing mindfulness through meditation, living in such a way that my compassion translates into meaningful action for the relief of suffering.
The day is now ended; my life is shorter.
How have I lived this day?
I resolve to practice with all my heart,
that I may live deeply, as a free person,
always aware of impermanence,
lest my life drift away meaninglessly.
My focus turns again to my hands, which I raise slowly to my chest in gassho and then return to their position before the hara, one hand in the other, thumb tips touching as if I hold an empty world lightly but lovingly. As night falls, I settle into the calm alertness of zazen, “sitting Zen” meditation. My mind is focused on my gently moving breath, but thoughts come and go. Sometimes I get caught up in concerns or memories; sometimes I get caught up in wondering about what I’m doing and why. But always I return to my breath, at times counting the exhalations, at times simply watching. Rarely, I become aware that my center has shifted to the hara. But neither centering in the hara nor focusing on breathing is the goal of zazen. Zazen is a journey of exploration. The journey itself is the goal. If zazen has any conceptual lesson to teach me, surely it is that.
Behind me, a computer casts its soft light into the room. The machine is keeping track of time for me, and at the moment appointed to end my meditation it plays a recording of a small temple bell. Before rising, I gassho once more. As I blow out the candle, I recall that “nirvana” means extinguishment, not of the self (for Buddhism denies that a self exists), but of the ignorance that leads to the grasping and suffering of a life centered on illusion.
I place a fresh stick of incense in its holder, the action an unintentional metaphor of sexual differentiation, and my gaze moves up to the bodhisattva, in whom the sexual opposites are inseparably united. I am reminded of the saying of Jesus in the Gospel According to Thomas: “When you make the two one, … and when you make the male and the female one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, … then you will enter the kingdom,” and of Lao-Tzu’s
Knowing the male, be female;
Being the entrance of the world,
You embrace harmony
And become as a newborn.
In thirty years of Buddhist study and practice, I have learned that enlightenment is the experience and expression of that harmony here and now, and that it begins with recognition of the nature of existence. That all life is impermanent and involves suffering is the first principle of the Buddha’s teaching: no one escapes sorrow and death. That all beings are devoid of self is the second principle: each thing that exists is related to all other things, and nothing exists autonomously. Beginning with a theoretical understanding of those principles, we apply ourselves to meditation in order to move from theory to practice. As the clear mindfulness of zazen infuses our daily living, we come to know firsthand the fluidity and ultimate unreality of boundaries. We exist, yes, but inseparably with all that seems other than we. In awakening to our deeper identity, we meet ourselves as if for the first time.
Like zazen, Quaker worship can serve as a gate to that awakening. In a recent article, I used the metaphor of hearing the cries of suffering humanity to express something of my experience in our silent worship. Others, Friends without Buddhist backgrounds, have spoken of similar worship experiences. Deep, mindful silence dissolves borders and illumines our relationship to all that is. Silence, therefore, is a door to wisdom, the “gateless gate” of enlightenment. Metaphor can help guide us on the path to that gate, leading us to life. The metaphor of the Body of Christ, for example, is one of the most powerful in all of religious literature: those who can imagine themselves as members of one divine body understand that whatever we do to one another, we do to the life we all share. But metaphor is no longer needed when the (metaphorical) gate is reached. When we enter the inner silence of worship or meditation, the fruit of which is the practice of compassionate mindfulness in our daily lives, metaphor is both realized and transcended. Gazing upon the Bodhisattva of Compassion, I recall something that Huang Po wrote more than a thousand years ago: “All that is represented by the great bodhisattvas is present in each of us.”