dharma monkey 佛法猴

embrace the monkey

July 22, 2014
by Sean

A lesson in compassion from behind the wheel

I left the house a bit later than usual this morning, and in a densely populated urban neighborhood, that often means congestion on the one-way streets that form a tight grid around the main arteries across my section of Washington, DC.

OK...this isn't my neighborhood, but this is a good illustration of what it feels like on some days!

OK…this isn’t my neighborhood, but this is a good illustration of what it feels like on some days!

After running a quick errand, I started heading toward the office, and as I turned onto a single-lane one-way street, I could see trouble ahead.  A vehicle was sitting in the middle of the narrow roadway with the engine in reverse, most likely trying to get the parking space that was four car-lengths behind it.  As other drivers tried to squeeze by, there was horn-honking, gesture-making and yelling by the impacted motorists.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the situation until I was within 10 feet or so of the car, at which point my mind kicked into auto pilot.  Muttering “Geez, stupid ________,” is my usual response, with the blank containing a handful of select adjectives or nouns.  Today, it was obvious that the driver was desperately holding out for that parking space, but didn’t have enough room to negotiate back to it without some clearance from the other cars.  I wasn’t in a big hurry, so I kept my mouth shut and focused my attention on getting past the obstacle, sending a few unpleasant thoughts in the direction of the person behind the wheel.

As I pulled by, however, I noticed the driver was an elderly man, dressed in a dark suit with a very wide tie and a sharp porkpie hat.  In the passenger seat was an elderly woman wearing a finely detailed off-white dress with lace gloves and a hat of her own.  I’m left to guess that the couple was on their way to the church or elementary school on the next block, perhaps for a funeral or a special classroom program.

If I had been in a hurry this morning, I would be just as guilty as those other drivers (though, admittedly, I have all but abandoned using my horn as a form of complaint during my commute).  But fortunately I wasn’t in a hurry, so I’m glad that I didn’t compound the frustration being felt by the charming elderly man and his wife, who were, in fact, infinitely lucky to find that parking space on a street packed with parked cars on either curb.

Few things are more effective in (re)awakening my own compassion than interactions or images of elderly people, as I am immediately reminded of my Grandma and my love for her.  This can instantly pull me out of a foul mood, or snap me back into the proper frame of mind when I’m in a patience-trying situation like the one above.  At a minimum, today’s experience is a reminder of the power of compassion practice: rather than thinking, “That driver is another me, and I am a version of them,” I thought, “That driver could be my grandmother; how would I want other people to respond?”

I don’t need to know who is behind the wheel of the other car, because it doesn’t matter.  What’s important is that I treat every person I encounter as if they were another’s loved one, or as if they were my loved one.  That’s the only way this crazy world is going to start getting any better.

June 7, 2014
by Sean

We do not live in a “post-gay world.”

I am perplexed by the voices in popular media asking whether or not we, as a community, should continue to celebrate Pride in a “post-gay world.” What concerns me most is that there are people who think the “world” is “post-gay” just because SCOTUS narrowly ruled in our favor on DOMA, or because we are blessed to live in a District of Columbia where the recognition of fundamental equality for all people no longer takes a back seat to the narrow view of a dwindling minority who think their beliefs trump my right to have the local, state and federal government recognize and respect my marriage to the person I love.

I would suggest that we live in an age that is anything but “post-gay,” and we have an obligation to continuously remind our fellow citizens, from the East and West Coasts and all points in between, that the strides we have made to attain full equality before the law have not and will not be taken for granted…not now, and not in the future. When the day arrives that “the first gay X” or “the first lesbian Y” is no longer news — and is no longer used as red meat for a political fringe that seems to have an extraordinary amount of influence in our national dialogue — when that day arrives, only then can we think about putting down our flags and wrapping up our parades.

I grew up in a time and place where I felt marginalized by society and the government, simply for the way I was born. I had the means to move away from that place, but there are still many people who live there, and still many allies who are willing to fight for the cause.

Make no mistake, I am proud today of what our community has accomplished…and amazed at the speed with which generations of institutionalized homophobia is being swept away. But I am also proud because I know the future is bright for the gay or lesbian teenager in rural South Carolina who, like me some 30 years ago, is struggling to come to terms with their sexuality in a place that has the power to make them feel less than human.

Happy Pride 2014. Until the battle is completely won, we have a lot of celebrating to do.

January 26, 2014
by Sean

Compassion is universal…

Just finished an inspiring weekend teaching with Patrick Gaffney, Sogyal Rinpoche’s senior-most student, entitled “The Wisdom of Compassion.”  Patrick shared this poem, which is engraved on the entrance gate of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan.

Sa'di in a rose garden, from a Mughal manuscript of the Gulistan, ca. 1645.  Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Sa’di in a rose garden, from a Mughal manuscript of the Gulistan, ca. 1645. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,
Having been created of one essence.
When the calamity of time affects one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If you have no sympathy for the troubles of others,
You are unworthy to be called by the name of a Human.”

Bani Adam, or The Children of Adam, by 13th-century Sufi poet Sa’di Shirazi

December 21, 2013
by Sean
1 Comment

‘On behalf of a grateful nation…’

A poignant photo from yesterday’s LA Times…and a reminder of the obligation we have as a nation of grateful citizens.

Clara Gantt, the 94-year-old widow of Army Sergeant 1st Class Joseph Gantt, weeps as his casket arrived at LAX early Friday morning. After a tour of duty during World War II, Gantt was captured in the Korean War and was missing for more than 63 years. His remains were only recently identified, providing closure for his family.

(Photo credit: Andrew Renneisen / For the LA Times)

December 3, 2013
by Sean

Of cloud forests and buddha nature

One of the Monteverde Cloud Forest's hanging bridges.

One of the Monteverde Cloud Forest’s hanging bridges.

At the beginning of this year, my spouse and I traveled to the cloud forests of Costa Rica to celebrate his birthday.  I didn’t know much about the area before I started researching the trip, which was a Christmas present, but I had taken a class with a Buddhist nun who lived in a Nicaraguan cloud forest, and the descriptions of her home and day-to-day life piqued my interest.

We ended up traveling to Monteverde, an area that was settled in the 1950s by Quakers from Alabama who objected to the military draft for the Korean War. It’s a small, compact town at about 4,200 feet above sea level, set on a mountain ridge just below the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  This part of Costa Rica is perhaps best known for two things: the grueling, 90-minute drive up the mountain on a treacherous, winding gravel road to reach Monteverde, and the suspension bridges and zip lines that one finds high above the cloud forest floor once you arrive.

Looking at photos of hanging bridges is a very different experience from actually standing at the base of one.  From the very first step, I was forced to deal with my near-paralyzing fear of heights. The steel-grate flooring decks of the bridge tend to move up and down with each step, while the cables that double as handrails move in the opposite direction, so the entire bridge twists as you walk across, and the twisting gets worse the further away from you get from the towers at either end.  The experience is made all the more harrowing when you look down to see how high you are above the tree tops.

It took me a few minutes to work my way out on to the first bridge, and as I stood there, I made a rather snap decision: for once in my life, I would force my mind to abandon the fears and anxieties and stories that constantly bombard my consciousness.  In short, I decided to simply be present — to accept that the current moment was the only moment I should be concerned with — and to put one foot in front of the other without obsessing about whether I would fall off the bridge and plunge to my death below.

It was an amazing feeling to be free from those feelings, and to simply enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  After a few minutes of loosening up, I may have even intentionally bounced on the bridge a few times, much to the chagrin of my spouse.

"Thoughts are like clouds. Even though the clouds sometimes seem to cover the entire sky, if you take a plane you can go beyond them into a vast space that is never even touched by the clouds. The clouds of our ordinary thoughts are just temporary and changing, whilst the deeper nature of our mind is unchanging, like the infinite space of the sky." -Sogyal Rinpoche

“Thoughts are like clouds. Even though the clouds sometimes seem to cover the entire sky, if you take a plane you can go beyond them into a vast space that is never even touched by the clouds. The clouds of our ordinary thoughts are just temporary and changing, whilst the deeper nature of our mind is unchanging, like the infinite space of the sky.” -Sogyal Rinpoche

This whole experience came to mind yesterday as I re-listened to a teaching that Sogyal Rinpoche gave at a retreat in New London, Connecticut, in June on buddha nature, the potential for enlightenment that every sentient being possesses. Although the various denominations of Buddhism have differing views on the subject, the path I study has perhaps the most optimistic viewpoint — each and every being not only has buddha nature (which is innate and primordially pure), but, as Rinpoche puts it, “Your buddha nature is as good as any buddha’s buddha nature.”

While contemplating this profound teaching, I was reminded that our limitless potential is obscured by the emotional and cognitive delusions that we have created through lifetimes of bad habits, negative actions and self-grasping.  “Once you recognize that a delusion is just that, it ceases to exist,” Rinpoche said in the teaching.  “Just like turning on a light in a dark room.”

If only it were as easy as flipping a light switch…but the experience of putting my fear of heights aside for a long weekend of hiking in Costa Rica is a tangible example of the point Rinpoche made about delusion, which is one of the biggest roadblocks to my own spiritual practice.  If I suddenly found myself on one of those bridges in the cloud forest again, it would only take me a few minutes to come to grips with the situation, shake off my fear and then enjoy the raw now-ness of the present moment, even if I’m swinging back and forth in the treetops of Central America.

It know it would take a great deal of practice to dispel that fear on a permanent basis, just as it will take a great deal of practice before I am able to banish the obscurations that keep my from realizing my own potential buddhahood.  But I know it’s possible, and I’m grateful for the masters — including my own — that have shown us the way.

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