Hope this finds you well. I am in Massachusetts, at the home of a woman who makes fur garments out of roadkill animals. Her little daughter, Naia, lives here too, and likes to launch herself from the top of the hammock down onto any unsuspecting guests who may be laying in its depths. Not very far away is a whole sprawling mess of exurban greed, but here, mostly, I hear birds, with low traffic roar only in the distance. There’s a teepee, with old walnut trees nearby, between whose trunks the hammock is slung. We are here because our beloved mutt, Chloe, is getting knee surgery nearby, and needs to be in hospital for a few days. Then, when we get home, it will be my turn under the knife. Before, I did not understand what you were going through, but now, though the lens of my own pain, I do.
My handwriting has been a source of consternation to many. Imagine that same script, written on random greasy found scraps of croissant bags, in leaky fountain pen… now I am typing. Rejoice!
You have very legible writing, careful and particular, with a wide variety of o’s: forward, backward, whole, and implied. You ask some really good questions.
You say, everything that happens, happens in an orderly, compassionate universe. How can the universe be orderly, compassionate? What do you mean by universe?
I’m so glad you asked those two questions together.
When I was about your age, I was staying at Thich Nhat Hahn’s monastery in France. I had been practicing meditation intensively for about 7 months, and was fasting with a small group of people who were staying on to help with a big retreat that was coming up. In exchange, we got food and lodging, and were invited to take part in the retreat. The evening after we broke fast, I was sitting with the community for evening meditation when suddenly everything broke open & I saw that this body & breath & mind were no other than the body, breath & mind of the entire universe. Time, space, separation, inside, outside all fused together into one intensely beautiful, loving, aware, and connected sense of Being. I saw that what people call God is inside of everything and at the same time utterly beyond what we usually tend to imagine the world and ourselves to be. I saw this was not a truth about me as some special being, but a truth about Being itself and all beings.
Over time I have come to see that initial, overwhelming vision manifest in the “ordinary” workings of day-to-day life. If I listen deeply enough into each situation as it presents itself, there is always a way in which it proceeds from a central space of sacredness. There is always a way in which I can speak / think / do / be coming from that place. When Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is with us, and it is within us, I think this is what he means.
I agree. Permaculture, and making beautiful fur hats from animals killed needlessly, and composting, and being creatively frugal, are all expressions of this one basic truth: the sacred and the ordinary are one.
Do you believe each person is unique, not reincarnated? If you believe in reincarnation, why?
I believe each person is unique AND reincarnated, and each life we live is an opportunity to become more & more compassionate and awake. The whole world is a school and a school bus. When we don’t understand something – what it might be like to live with a certain physical limitation, or to be greedy and power-hungry – BAM! Life presents us with an opportunity to experience those things firsthand. We then have a choice: glom blindly onto the situation as me, my, & mine, or be mindful of what is happening. What is this like? What am I feeling? Does this remind me of anything? Where is suffering arising in this? Where can I let go? What might be skillful here, if I’m not primarily concerned with armoring myself, or grabbing what I can, or running away?
And I think this learning process is so immense that it takes us literally thousands and thousands of lifetimes even to get to the point of feeling secure enough, informed enough to begin thinking about waking up. Nothing is wasted. The lives I spent as a tree, as a crazy weasel, as a slave, as a slave-driver, taught me compassion and made it impossible for me to get all sniffy when Rick Perry is being an idiot (again). Compassion doesn’t mean I am not going to fight hard to make sure he doesn’t come to power, but it does mean I can’t act all righteous: well I would never… Bullshit. X lifetimes ago, when I was Rick Perry, I did exactly the same things. Thich Nhat Hahn used to tell us: this is like this because that is like that; that is like that because this is like this. We are all in this together.
Why follow one religion, when the “good” is to express kindness, and not to convert the world to one’s personal beliefs?
Well, in short, because there’s a lot of work to be done, and if someone’s already invented a set of tools that prove themselves effective to do that work, I’m going to use them, rather than trying to reinvent them from scratch. People like Jesus and the Buddha show up here from a very evolved consciousness that chooses from compassion to come help us out. What we then choose to do with those teachings when we turn them into organized religions is a famously mixed bag. Sorry tales of religion gone wrong – though useful as warnings – needn’t become impediments.
The Buddha’s core teachings, to me, are like the shovel, clippers, wheelbarrow, saw, axe, and twine I can pick up and get to work with. They are the handbook that tells me a garden is a possible outcome (when I am standing in a thicket), helps me identify dangers and successes, suggests possible plants to cultivate and to avoid, and gives me confidence to keep going even when some crops fail and others come out completely unexpectedly. It is my responsibility to tend and cultivate my patch of land. Shovel-worship’s not going to do that. Mistrusting shovels isn’t going to do that. Reading the handbook over and over while agonizing over what kind of garden I might like to try to grow someday isn’t going to do that.
It’s easy either to mistrust all religion, or to want someone else to tell us what’s good and bad, but neither of those approaches yields good results. In the first case, we deprive ourselves of tools. In the second case, we deprive ourselves of power, and we abdicate from our responsibility as chief gardener of our own lives. If we're lucky, we have good teachers to mirror back what they see of our efforts, and to show us tools we might not have known about, for new tasks we are becoming aware of as we get on with the work.
I teach meditation now, and Buddhist practice, not from a point of view of conversion, but from a sense of making tools available to people to help make sense of their lives. It’s definitely not for everyone. People come and go as they wish. Teaching is: Try this one & see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, tell me why. You may need a different tool, or a different teacher. If it does work, tell me how. What tools do you know about that I may not? Teaching requires me to keep learning, so that I can offer something alive and interesting, something that's making me grow, so that I can be growing alongside others. There’s always much more.
What do you mean about how trusting ourselves takes practice, purification, and faith? what does practice mean, or entail, or do? What is purification and how does it happen and why is it necessary?
Practice, on one level, is setting aside some time every day to develop a relationship with Being itself. Without that, especially in this culture, it is easy to get swept away by doing & by small ideas of who and what we are. On another level, practice is deciding that every aspect of your life is something you are willing to be interested in. In Buddhist terms, that all-encompassing attention is the Eightfold Path.
On yet another level, practice is recognizing that we often need to do things mindlessly many times, before we even begin to notice them, and that as we notice them, they take on a certain transparency. We notice with more wisdom: Yes, this is worth doing. Or: No, this does me & everyone else no good. We abandon what does not serve waking up. We are careful not to pick up new bad habits. We try to pick up new good habits. The good habits we do have, we take care of and nourish. That’s purification – and the results of it are that we feel happier, clearer, more confident in our ability to approach life with wisdom and good heart. We aren’t worried we are going to fail, because we see that everything is workable – and even valuable – if we take it moment by moment, with interest and awareness.
Does the question what is the point of living ever go away?
When I was younger, I felt much more anxious that I might miss something big, and wind up in some backwater, away from the current of what my life was supposed to be. Now I see life is much more resourceful than that, and also much less of an external event. It wells up. It flows. Situations arise, offer themselves, change, and end. There is a Jewish song that says: All of the world is just one narrow bridge which we must cross, and above all is not to fear. Wherever we are, we are on that bridge, and our hearts are there to open.
Studio practice, movement practice, meditation practice, teaching, taking care of friendships and family relationships, living, as you say in the best way yet seems enough. I wonder What is the right thing to do here? Is this worth pursuing? What’s the benefit of this? What am I afraid of here? What is this person thinking? What goes on here? There’s also a sense of resting in things as they are, and of things revealing themselves clearly. Oh! That begonia over there is glowing flame-red. It’s enough. People are so interesting. I have work to do. My dog’s leg is in a purple bandage & hopefully she will be able to walk and run soon. It’s enough. I am grateful.
I hope some of this is useful to you. I love hearing from you & it’s been very useful and enjoyable for me to write this letter. My sense is that you are living very well indeed, to be sticking with questions like these. Keep asking, keep feeling deeply into the answers and questions you find in your body, heart, and mind.
Back in North Carolina after your travels, I hope your crops are doing well. I wish you thriving of all kinds.