Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Life on the Other Shore

That it feels different here on this shore than you thought it would does not negate the enormity of the distance you traversed and the strength it took you to do it.  from Dear Sugar, May 17, 2012
Go ahead and read the letter and Cheryl Strayed's answer, which includes the above sentence.  Then come back here.

Now.  I want to talk about enlightenment, something the legitimate Teachers seldom do, because they want you to stop striving to reach it.  Over and over we chant in the Heart Sutra, "no attainment, nothing to attain."  But we don't believe it.  We believe there is something far better than human life that we can achieve if we just hold the pose, so to speak.  And the desire for Shangri-La can motivate us to practice.  

As Dear Sugar says so eloquently, 
We want to believe that on the other side of whatever crap we had to swim away from there’s a crap-free beach where we can lounge in the sun at last. Free and at peace.
She goes on to assure Haunted that many things in his life attest to the fact that he is on the other shore. And I agree.  But . . .

But, boy, there's a lot of crap on this beach, too.  Insects eating up beautiful plants, for example.  Well, the insect likes it.  Needs it.

There are still bugs in Haunted's life, which is why he is writing to an advice columnist.  He's sober and has a good relationship in his life and still doesn't feel good a lot of the time.  He isn't perfect yet.

And that's where an advice columnist can't help you the way an authentic spiritual teacher can.  A pat on the back from Sugar, a hug from a therapist, a gold star, the Nobel Prize, these things elevate your serotonin and dopamine for a while, but not for long.  What a Teacher can do is remind you of The Path.  It is a path of vows and practice that is not particularly about looking for personal happiness, and that promises not perfection but authenticity.  This is true of every path, but here is where I move toward the path I know best, Zen.  This path emphasizes awareness, and growing awareness can be like awakening from a fall off a cliff in a full body cast:  ouch, this hurts, ow, that hurts too!  my toe!!

In other words, awake is the opposite of anesthetized.  It means experiencing new and different kinds of pain, though perhaps less dramatically, not for quite so long.

This is generally a well-kept secret of Zen though Dainin Katagiri was heard to mutter, "You don't know what suffering is until you get enlightened."  I have been quoting that these days as I go through the preliminaries to cataract surgery.

I winced as I wrote that.  I am really afraid of this, and I know it.  Through many years of practice I have awakened to my body -  the part below my neck - and my body flutters with anxiety about letting someone cut my eyes.  Twenty years ago I would have responded to my deep fear with an unrelenting headache and irritable bowel syndrome. And, I suppose, irritable and distracted me.

Is now better than then?  Yes, it is.  My earlier self would have been mindlessly spreading unhappiness wherever I walked, building bad karma that would be flung back in my face.  To return to the metaphor, there is a lot of crap on this beach despite years of practice, but I'm not kicking it at other people.  And I also feel the suns of the Heavenly Abodes and the rhythm of the waves.  And I know crap when I see it, and can sometimes walk around it if I stick to the path.

Or sit down and put on my hip boots.  Not a bad metaphor for the dharma, which reminds us of reality - human life entails suffering.  This is it.  It's okay.


  1. Stay on the path.

  2. Mirroring the above commenter, but adding in that the suffering need not be seen as such. I recently went to a different temple to hear a Swami teach about Patanjali's Yoga sutras which predate Buddha, but also influenced his wisdom. He mentioned that any path of wisdom needs to triggered by some major life changing event in some of us, to set aflame clear thinking. I have heard this before, and felt it in my particular version of such. It is a gift.

  3. Yes. Thank you both. Was Once, I date my commitment to practice August 12, 1997, when I had surgery for breast cancer.