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I’ve been quiet here all week because my home computer went kaput. It’s in good hands now–the same hands that fixed the laptop I’m currently working on–so I’m hopeful.

Tomorrow’s sermon is on open minds and open hearts, and because of the devastation in Japan, what might have been a paragraph or two about how to keep an open heart in the face of tremendous suffering is now the major part of the sermon. I think we close our hearts because we fear that one chink in our gates will let the floods in and we too will be swept away.

The best guidance I know on this topic is Buddhist. In an interview for the Shambhala Sun, bell hooks asks Pema Chodron about the suffering people endure when they are miserable in their jobs, and the answer goes beyond that situation and speaks to this question that’s on my heart, about keeping a heart of compassion when others’ suffering threatens to overwhelm us. You can change your job, Chodron says. (I think: You can turn off the radio, stop paying attention to the news, stay in your car so you don’t have to encounter the homeless people sleeping in the street.)

But just changing the outer situation doesn’t get at the root of the discontent. This gets down to the truth of suffering again. As human beings, we need to look directly at suffering, at what causes it, at what makes it escalate, and at what allows it to dissolve. So the first thing is to acknowledge, with a lot of honesty and heart, that no matter where we go or what we do, there are always going to be both positive and negative feelings and that this is a fertile situation.

That’s why some teachings say that no matter what is happening in your life, it’s always showing you the true nature of reality. No matter what movie you’re in, no matter what the plot is of the current film you’re starring in, it is the vehicle for showing you the true nature of your mind.

So I feel the whole thing comes down to being very, very attuned to one’s emotions—to seeing how one is attached to the pleasant and has an aversion to what is painful. You work again and again on trying to discover how to get unhooked, to open and soften rather than to tighten and close down. It comes down to realizing the wisdom and compassion that are contained in this life that we have, just as it is. No matter how simplified or complicated life gets, it can make us miserable or it can wake us up.

We live in a culture that puts tremendous energy into escaping suffering, and if that means ignoring it–our own or others’–then that’s what we’re supposed to do. So we often pervert Buddhist teachings to make them sound like they are about escaping suffering, putting the laws the Buddhist perceived in the same basket as pretenders like “the law of attraction.” What grabbed me about Buddhism when I was 18 and James Stone, who would later be my senior thesis advisor (*bows*), stood at the front of a lecture hall and said, with that hand-rubbing relish of his, “Life is dukkha!,” was that this was not a religion that was going to dismiss suffering as an illusion. It is all about ending suffering, but the way is always through, not around. I love that Chodron refuses to make feeling good the goal. The goal, if one can even have a goal while being a Buddhist, is to open our hearts.

From an unknown source, Chodron again:

If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.

People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.

photo by Gary Vanderlinden

While the monks of Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery were at our church this week, they had for sale malas (beads used for counting mantras or prostrations), flags reading Om Mani Padme Hum, wall hangings with various writings of the 14th Dalai Lama, and so on. This quote caught my attention, especially the part I’ve emphasized.

Let me explain what we mean by compassion. Usually, our concept of compassion or love refers to the feeling of closeness we have with our friends and loved ones. Sometimes compassion also carries a sense of pity. This is wrong–any love or compassion which entails looking down on the other is not genuine compassion. To be genuine, compassion must be based on respect for the other, and on the realization that others have the right to be happy and overcome suffering just as much as you. On this basis, since you can see that others are suffering, you develop a genuine sense of concern for them.

As for the closeness we feel toward our friends, this is usually more like attachment than compassion. Genuine compassion should be unbiased. If we only feel close to our friends, and not to our enemies, or to the countless people who are unknown to us personally and toward whom we are indifferent, then our compassion is only partial or biased.

Genuine compassion is based on the recognition that others have the right to happiness just like yourself, and therefore even your enemy is a human being with the same wish for happiness as you, and the same right to happiness as you. A sense of concern developed on this basis is what we call compassion; it extends to everyone, irrespective of whether the person’s attitude toward you is hostile or friendly.

I have wanted a proper mala (all 108 beads) for some time, but as with all such purchases, have felt the tension between the wish to have one and the desire not to be acquisitive, especially about spiritual things. This week, offered the excuse that I was helping the monks build more dormitories for their monastery, I bought one from them. I will not be using it to count prostrations, the way the Tibetan Buddhists do, thank you very much, but on my walks I’ve been using it to meditate as I go, and trying to work up some respect, and thus genuine compassion, for people I tend to pity or dislike.

Previous post on the monks’ visit

Several Tibetan Buddhist monks are creating a sand mandala this week at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (photos here). The mandala is beautiful, and it is also instructive to watch the monks work. A daycare and a school rent our space, and children gather around the monks to watch. When a kid touches the table, the translator patiently tells him or her to stand a couple of feet back (we also have chairs for them to stand on for a better view), but the monks show no anxiety that anyone will brush their arms or bump the table, even though either one would mean recreating many hours’ work. It’s happened, too, the translator told me.

I like to build marble runs, a childhood pleasure I have been reliving since Joy bought me lots of Quadrilla for my birthday a couple of years ago. Munchkin is now old enough to place the blocks carefully, but she still sometimes brushes against it and brings it down by mistake, or semi-mistake. After even ten minutes’ work on a marble run, I find it difficult to stay calm about the prospect of its being knocked down. I mean, what if I can’t remember how I built it? Attachment, anger, yep, the Buddha had my number. I was not clear on how the creation of a mandala was supposed to increase compassion, but I’m starting to get it.

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