Out of Bounds: The Bodhisattva’s Way
Since yesterday I’ve been thinking about a question someone asked: Is there ever any mention of compassion in this Zen practice? Is there any emphasis on compassion?
I was thinking about how best to address that question, all the while asking myself that question. I have many answers for it, and I offered some of those answers yesterday when the question was first posed. But I am rarely satisfied with the answers that I provide in response to questions that people ask; in fact, part of me is never satisfied. Everything is always open-ended.
So I’m not sure how to approach this question, apart from telling you some stories, offering you my experience, which is what I do everyday. I am not telling you anything that I have learned in a book, or that I have memorized or that someone has told me; everything I share with you is from my own experience.
So I wanted to start this discussion today with a story from my experience. Some years ago, as I was leaving a retreat in England – I was a young practitioner then – I was with a few other people from the retreat on a train, going to London early on a weekday morning. It so happened that most of the other people on the train were going to work, or so it seemed. We had been in a town close enough to London so that people who lived there could travel to London to work every morning. My comrades from the retreat and I were all feeling very good – happy, laughing, enjoying one another’s company – and we were not really paying much attention to anyone else. We were not even paying attention to the fact that we were not paying attention to anyone else.
At some point, however, for some reason I looked up at all of the people around us – many of them were standing, because all the seats were taken (it was very crowded) – and I was suddenly overcome by the sense that they all looked terribly uncomfortable. My first thought was: Their clothes don’t fit right. Or: they have clothes with a rough or synthetic fabric that isn’t soft. I was assuming that something about their clothing was uncomfortable. That was a discomfort that I could easily recognize.
I knew that feeling – pants that scratch, or shoes that are too tight, or a tag on the neck of a sweater or t-shirt that is irritating. I know that discomfort very well! And the overriding desire in that case is to make the discomfort stop. You become obsessed with it. The more you think about it, the worse it becomes, much worse than if you hadn’t been thinking about it at all.
The pants just itch much more, and the sensation seems to spread. The tag grows more and more annoying.
So I looked at these people, and I wondered: “Why are they uncomfortable? Why are they all wearing clothes that don’t fit right?’’
But before an answer came, I quickly turned back to the pleasurable company of my friends. Only later, after we had arrived in London and gone our separate ways, did it occur to me that the discomfort was not about the clothing. I realized that I had turned away from it and back to my friends because I didn’t want to know about the discomfort. I didn’t want to see it.
At the time, I was in what I call my “prophet of bliss” stage: I saw everything as blissful and beautiful and I wanted to tell everyone about it. I wanted to travel the Earth and spread the word. So my first thought was to go to these people and say to them: “Why are you unhappy? Don’t be unhappy! The world is beautiful! Everything is perfect!” If I had had flower garlands, I would have draped them around every neck at Heathrow airport. Fortunately, I didn’t! If I had, I might well have been taken away and locked up.
I realized, as time went on, that what I had perceived that morning was what in the Buddhist teachings is called the basic suffering of life. This was the young Shakyamuni Buddha’s first teaching, in fact: To be alive is to suffer. When we hear this, we might think: “Basic suffering of life? Life is suffering? Oh, how awful and pessimistic!” But it’s not what we think. It’s nothing dramatic. It’s just as if your clothes don’t fit quite right. There’s some indescribable displeasure, which can be experienced to varying degrees – it can manifest as extreme sadness, disappointment, or frustration. It can be a longing,, or anger, jealousy, impotence, fear, doubt. Sometimes it can be subtle, annoying, dull, sometimes very pronounced. Sometimes you don’t even notice it; you are not paying attention to it. You learned long ago how to not pay attention to it – to return to the laughter with friends – or to tell yourself that it’s nothing. As a child, your parents probably told you as much: “No, no, no, it’s nothing, it’s nothing…Have a cookie… Don’t you like this pretty red balloon?” You learned very quickly not to pay attention to it. Just like everyone else around you.
But it’s there. And it comes back in ways we don’t even expect. It’s like the fly buzzing: Sometimes we don’t notice it, sometimes it stops, but then it starts up again.
(There’s an insect trying to leave the room…)
Like that insect here trying to find a way out of this room: That’s our story. We want to get out, but we don’t know how. We want to get rid of this clothing that doesn’t fit, but we don’t know how. Sometimes we pretend that we don’t want to get out or that the clothing is really no problem. Sometimes we look for the exits in all the wrong places or for better, more expensive, more fashionable clothing, or for a different body to put the clothing on. Sometimes we try building a different cage: Maybe if it is golden, the cage will be better. Maybe if the car is a convertible, I will be better, or if the car goes faster, or if it is new or blue, or if I have an Audi rather than a BMW. Or maybe if my husband is more handsome or strong… We laugh, but this is absolutely what we do.
To come back to the original question: In this practice, what we learn by sitting is to be present beyond our likes and dislikes, beyond “I like this room” or “I don’t like this room,” beyond “I wish she would ring the bell ”or “I wish she wouldn’t ring the bell,” beyond “That’s really annoying,” or “I don’t even notice it; you can do whatever you want.” We learn to be present with whatever it is.
Sometimes it’s not difficult to be present, and sometimes it’s very difficult. It tends to become most difficult when it involves things we don’t like: discomfort, pain, or suffering that we don’t want to experience, or pleasurable feelings, thoughts, emotions that don’t stay, that are slipping away from us. Either situation gives rise to some sort of discomfort, displeasure.
So we just sit with it. We just sit here. And then we stand up after sitting and we take a step forward. This sitting – learning to be present beyond likes and dislikes – is learning to have compassion for myself. It is learning to recognize that pain, to see it as mine. I observe that I would like to keep things as they are, I would like to control things. I would like to never be angry or jealous or hurt, I would like to always have my favorite food and be loved – I recognize that. And I just sit with it.
Then when I stand and take a step forward, I can learn to be present “beyond my likes and dislikes” with others in the world. And this is to learn compassion, and express compassion, in action and relationship.
There is often misunderstanding about Zen practice, although there are also often misunderstandings about an unlimited number of things in the world. Mostly we misunderstand when we are attached to our ideas and opinions, to our likes and dislikes. One of the basic misunderstandings about Zen is the belief that it is a negative or nihilistic practice. Whereas it is the opposite: It is an affirmative, all-inclusive practice; it affirms the whole of life. To be present beyond likes and dislikes is simply to affirm the whole of life, to be present with all of it, to acknowledge all of it.
As we were sitting here all together before this talk, I was listening to the building – to the cracking and creaking of the roof, for example – and I was so moved by that, by the effort and the willingness of the building to give itself to us entirely. We could actually hear it giving itself. And hearing that, I was touched by the building giving itself to us and expecting nothing in return. It asks nothing of us. Yet if we hear and receive it – just be present – we probably will treat the building differently than if we didn’t.
During these days of retreat, all of us have learned in one way or another to be present beyond likes and dislikes. Although you may not be aware of it, it is obvious and it manifests in many different ways. Just look around.
Before we came to sit, I was sitting outside having tea. There was Nuno scrubbing the covers of the trash bins – entirely! There was no gap; he just was cleaning the bins thoroughly!
I don’t know what was going through his head and it doesn’t matter. He was beautifully showing an act of compassion. He was putting into action what he has been doing here for days.
And then Marlene came walking along with a basket of aromatic herbs that she had been able to collect thanks to Ivone, who grows them, knows about them, cultivates them and shared the experience. I don’t know what Marlene will do with the herbs, but I’m sure it’s not just for herself. Maybe she will share them with Tozé or with other people. It doesn’t matter so much. What moved me in that moment was the act without a gap, without a thought of “I’m doing something good,” or “I am doing this.’’ It is what we call a free act, acting freely without expecting anything in return.
Then I went into the house. I wanted to dispose of my tea bag properly, but didn’t know which bin was appropriate — paper? compost? neither? Tozé was standing nearby, and he just took my tea bag and did what needed to be done with it. I don’t know what that was, but there also was not gap in his action. He just acted according to what presented itself to him.
I could cite an example of similar acts for everyone here. Everyone, just by sitting and without you even knowing it – fortunately, because if you knew it, it wouldn’t be it! We learn to be present beyond dislikes and likes, just by sitting and letting things be as they are. At some moment we may see the true nature of what is before us, of ourselves – that we are not what and who we think we are, that everything is connected with everything else. The natural functioning that arises from that realization is what we call compassion.
This is not an idea of compassion, though. Say you are walking along the beach on a winter day and the water is cold and you have your clothes and shoes on. You see a child who has wandered into the cold water and is in trouble. Probably, you will not think, “The water is too cold, I’m not going in, I don’t want to ruin my shoes…” You don’t even have time for that. You will act. This is an extreme situation, and so it seems easy: We don’t have to even think about it. We don’t worry about “me” in that moment – how “I” will look, evaluating what “I” am doing, judging the child.
Every moment, though, is like that. In each moment, we have an opportunity to function in that same direct way. It’s nothing dramatic! It starts here, with “me.” It starts with compassion here. As the Dalai Lama says, “Disarmament begins with disarming ourselves first.” Before the governments can do away with their nuclear bombs, individuals have to disarm. Otherwise, there can be no disarmament.
And the same is true for every moment.
Very specifically, in this Zen tradition – in fact in most Zen traditions, and also in some other Buddhist traditions – there are what we call The Four Vows, or the Bodhisattva Vows. Usually, at the end of the day, after the last sitting period, we chant these vows together.
A bodhisattva is someone who hears, sees, feels, experiences, the cries of the world, the pain, the suffering, the discomfort… and acts in order to relieve that. Having realized the oneness of life, the true nature of self and other, a bodhisattva acts from his experience of life beyond his own personal likes and dislikes. The bodhisattva does not act because he thinks what he does is good, or because he likes it or dislikes it, or because he thinks he should do this or that. His action is wider and deeper that. The bodhisattva is someone who is letting the others go ahead. It’s the equivalent of: someone who takes my tea bag – seeing what needs to be done – so that I can go ahead.
So these Four Vows…
The first of these bodhisattva vows is: Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them. Sentient beings are all living beings, not only human living beings, and they are said here to be numberless, which means too there are too many to count. They are without number, they can’t be counted. And I am vowing to save them… This raises some questions.
When we first hear this vow, we probably think: “Well that’s impossible! That’s absurd! If they are numberless, how can I possibly save them all?” And what does “save” mean, anyway? “That’s absurd as well,” we may think. “Who am I to ‘save’ anyone?”
Yet we make this vow, even though it’s incomprehensible, even though it defies logic. Zen, the vary notion of Zen, defies logic! It cannot be defined: It’s not a school, it’s not a doctrine, not a religion; it’s not a belief, it’s not a philosophy. It can’t be understood; it can only be experienced. And the first vow in this incomprehensible practice is incomprehensible: The number of living beings is beyond the limits of my thinking mind, I can’t count them all, and I am going to save them, although I don’t know what “save” means?
This vow is illustrated by a story I once read. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of starfish have been washed up on a beach. It is low tide and the creatures have been stranded on the sand. A child is walking among them, filling her pail with a few starfish, which she then carries to the water. As she goes back and forth, returning a few starfish at a time to the sea, an adult comes along and asks her what she is doing. “I’m saving the starfish,” the child replies, “putting them back in the water. If I don’t, they will die!”
The adult laughs. “That’s very sweet, but you’re wasting your time!” he tells her. “You can’t possibly save all these starfish, with your little pail, going back and forth like this.”
“Maybe,’’ the child says. “But for the one starfish that I return to the sea, it makes all the difference in the world!”
It’s the difference between life and death. That’s how we approach this vow. We recognize that they are numberless, that it is an endless task! But the point is that while starfish – and sentient beings – are numberless, every single one matters, every moment matters. All we need to attend to is this one, right now. The vow is simply to be present right now, beyond my likes and dislikes, beyond my opinions, my logic, my intellectual understanding and knowledge, my notions and beliefs. What is here right now? What needs to be done at this very moment?
The next vow is: Desires (delusions) are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
This one, too, raises a lot of questions (and controversy, and rejection) and touches on one of the basic misunderstandings about Zen. This vow is not about extinguishing desires, this is not about shutting off, becoming inhuman or cold, or having no feelings. On the contrary, this vow is about recognizing the constant flow of desires. This flow is inexhaustible. It’s like a source endlessly springing forth. This flow is the expression of life. If we did not have it, we would not be alive.
There’s nothing wrong with desires. This vow is not saying: “I vow to get ride of desires.” What it says is, “I vow to put an end to the desire to constantly satisfy the desires.” That insatiable desire to satisfy desires is expressed by attachment, by clinging to the desire: “I have this desire and I want it satisfied now!
With this vow, then, I am saying, “I recognize the desires, I allow them to be.” By doing this, I am putting an end to the control that the desires have had over my life. I am vowing to be present to the desires, with the desires, beyond my likes and dislikes – beyond wanting to have them satisfied, beyond not wanting to have them satisfied, just aware of them.
The Dalai Lama tells a story about this. He was giving a conference in Los Angeles over several days. Los Angeles is a sprawling city, and to get almost anywhere, you have to drive long distances. So every day he had a long car ride between his hotel and the conference center where he was teaching. Along the street were many shops. (America is full of shopping, busy with consuming — desire.) Many of these shops were selling electronics of one kind or another. The Dalai Lama readily admits that he loves electronics; he loves radios, watches, appliances, airplanes, mechanics of all sorts, including that of the mind. After a few days of traveling back and forth along this street, driving past these shops and seeing all these electronic objects in the windows, he realized that he wanted all those things that were on display! He wanted all the appliances, all the equipment.
The Dalai Lama wanted all those things. And he realized that he didn’t even know what most of them were! He didn’t even know what this or that appliance was and yet he desired it!
This is the desire we are talking about. This is how it works. We want what we don’t have, usually. We maybe want a car, O.K.; but then what we really want is our neighbor’s car. His is certainly better than mine. We always want what we don’t have because whatever we have will never be enough, never be satisfactory. The desire is insatiable!
This vow intends to put an end to desires in the sense of just acknowledging them. The Dalai Lama put an end to those desires by just acknowledging them, and realizing the nature of desire – he didn’t even know what those things were! He didn’t need to have them, but he acknowledged that he wanted them. And he didn’t need to act on them, he didn’t go buy them. Or ask for them. If he had asked for them, someone, no doubt, would have bought everything in the store and given it to him. He didn’t need to. He just acknowledged that the desires were there.
The third vow is: Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it. Again, if something is boundless, how can I perceive it? What is this reality and what does boundless mean? And what does it mean to perceive? It sounds like I’m committing myself to something impossible, something that I’m not going to be able to do – from a logical point of view, at least.
Usually we think of perceiving something as seeing the boundaries, so that we can identify it, close it in, and therefore limit and understand it. But this vow is saying something different. This is a compassionate act of acknowledging that I cannot see the end of it. It’s boundless; I cannot see the boundaries. I cannot perceive the boundaries because there are no boundaries! And I vow to perceive that fact. But how?
I sit. And I learn to be present – beyond the likes and the dislikes. I perceive the boundless reality here (me) first. I see that I am not limited to what I think I am. I’ve been looking around you and me, trying to figure out where the boundaries of this “property” are. I’ve been trying to draw the borders so that I might feel safe. But really I have no clue! If I look inside, really look inside, I see that I am not limited; I look out and then – because I have seen it here, in me – I see that in each and every one of us. I see the boundless potential in everyone.
Boundless reality is all right here.
The Dalai Lama said that “even Mao,” who had certainly done same nasty things to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, has Buddha nature and has the potential to realize it. The Dalai Lama did not limit his view of Mao to whatever acts he committed, whatever beliefs he had, whatever positions he took and held. This reflects what we call Buddha nature, which is the essence, the true nature, of us all: It’s not limited, it’s boundless! It doesn’t only manifest in good people, it doesn’t only exist in beautiful flowers. It is beyond likes and dislikes. Boundless.
So by vowing to see that, I am vowing to let go of my limited views, of .my attachments to “my” limited space and “my” limited reference points. I acknowledge them, they are part of the boundless reality, but I’m vowing to not be stuck there, to step beyond these likes and dislikes that limit my perception of reality.
The last vow is: The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it. What is the Buddha way? Buddha means awakened. And awakened? This means to wake up and see things just as they are. It’s as if we have been living with a veil covering our eyes, and suddenly it is lifted and we see things as they truly are! It’s as if we have been asleep. If we can be present beyond our likes and dislikes, then we can see things as they are.
The Buddha way is the way of experiencing things as they are, freely, openly. And when we say it is unsurpassable, we are not saying it is better. It’s not a question of this way is better than that way; it’s not a judgment, and it is not a belief in something transcendent, above, superior. It’s unsurpassable in the sense that it is just what is: There is nothing above it, there is nothing below it, nothing on either side of it. It is simply what is.
I vow to embody that. Such a way can be lived only by you. Reading, thinking, talking about it are not it, although here I am, talking about it to you day after day… Talk is just talk. Awakening can only be lived, here and now. There is no other way. And I vow to do that. I vow to embody it.
This Zen teaching unfolds like a fan. (I use these two words, Zen and teaching, to group together something that has no limits.) This teaching, this practice, it unfolds like that. And the more we sit and become present, the more it unfolds, and the more it unfolds, the more the many dimensions of life unfold. And in each of those dimensions of life this practice is alive! This is compassion.
Maybe it starts just here with me, like this, and then I stand up, and it begins to unfold. And the more I become present, the more I look around and just see things as they are, the more alive suddenly it is and the more I act in accordance with the situation and what needs to be done, with whatever arises before me.
That’s what these vows are addressing. And these vows are not something that we use only within formal context. To bring this practice into my everyday life, I live in these vows, which means that I am living my everyday life present, beyond my personal desires, and likes and dislikes. I acknowledge them, I acknowledge fully that I have these personal likes and dislikes – there are certain kinds of cheese I like, and others I don’t, certain films I like, others I don’t, I would like to sleep sometimes and can’t, and then am not happy. I acknowledge it all!
But these vows come from somewhere wider and deeper than my opinions, likes and dislikes. And the more that we sit and remember to be present, the more we realize that sitting is just about learning to be exactly who I am: nothing else, nothing extra, nothing missing, just this.
Which frees me, therefore, to then see others just as they are, and to welcome them all! And to see the building just as it is, and to welcome it, and the fly just as it is, and to welcome it, and the flowers…
This group is called the Wild Flower Sangha, because it grows and grows, wildly, freely, beyond what we see and know. This practice is not limited to one place, one person, one language, one situation; it’s everywhere, every moment… unstoppable. It just gives and gives and gives. Like wild flowers, which are just what they are, where they are – wild. That is what we aspire to in sitting: to realize that I am just exactly who I am.
In a famous Zen story, a monk named Basho (who later becomes a great master) was sitting diligently when his teacher came along and asked, “What are you doing?”
Basho replied: “I’m sitting so that I can become a buddha, so that I can become awakened.”
His teacher said nothing, but picked up a tile that was on the ground nearby and began polishing it. Basho asked him what he was doing. “I’m polishing this tile so it will become a mirror,” the teacher said.
“That’s ridiculous!’’ Basho said. “That tile can never become a mirror, no matter how much you polish it!”
And the teacher replied, “It’s like you trying to become a buddha by sitting.”
As long as we have this idea that we will become something, that sitting will bring us something, that we will accomplish, arrive, or obtain, we are missing the point. There is nothing to obtain: We already “have” everything – we are what we seek to get. We cannot arrive somewhere: We are already here.
Our attempts to obtain, arrive, accomplish can only fail. And so we will eventually come to say: “Oh! I’m not going to sit now, it’s worthless! I’m not becoming anyone else… Forget it! I’m tired. I prefer to sleep. I’m not going anywhere, I’m not getting anything, from sitting. Better to read a book, have some coffee, go to a movie, take a nap, talk with my friends.”
Which is fine, because that’s acknowledging the truth. This practice is not going to do what you think it will do. So go have another cup of coffee.
If you can stay present, however, and just do it, without being caught by your likes and dislikes (“I like this, I’m accomplishing something; I don’t like this, I’m not accomplishing anything”), if you can just sit with that – not deny it – sit with it, be present to it, as if including it all, what happens?
You realize exactly who you are!
My teacher gave me a dharma name when I participated in the ritual acknowledgment of this awakened nature that is ours: Tu es cela. You Are That. Not: I Am That, but You Are That. This is an ancient phrase, predating Buddhism, coming from the Vedantic tradition in India. For me, this name remains a constant challenge, in the sense that I cannot understand it with my intellect; it makes no “sense” intellectually, logically. But I know it; my experience is that. My experience is you are that.
At the same time, it’s like this vows; it’s ungraspable. It’s not conceptual. It’s not intellectual, it can’t be understood; it can only be experienced. And what is indicated by this name is the essential experience of this practice: You realize exactly who you are! And this realization does not correspond to your ideas about who you are. This is what we call wisdom.
Our basic suffering – what I described earlier as the clothing not fitting right – derives from our failure to realize that. We don’t realize who we are, and so we suffer. It’s true that the clothes don’t fit right! It’s as if we are in someone else’s clothing because we don’t realize exactly who we are. This is what we call ignorance or delusion.
Throughout generations and generations, ages and ages, in my lineage – but not only – hundreds, thousands, millions of people, have realized exactly who they are. Because of that realization, they have turned to another and spoken, showed other people the way to realize the same thing. This is compassion, what we call the natural compassionate expression of the wisdom.
In another favorite Zen story, there were two dharma brothers, two comrades in the practice who had been in a monastery together, had the same teacher, and had gone through years and years of struggle and joy together. One, Ganto, had realized exactly who he was. The other, Seppo, had not realized this and he was full of despair. He said to his friend: “I’m leaving. I must get to the bottom of this. But I would really like you to come with me.”
He was leaving the monastery to go off on a traditional pilgrimage, which at the time, in ancient China, meant basically wondering around, stopping at monasteries from time to time, listening to different teachers. He asked his friend to come with him.
And Ganto said: “Well, O.K. I don’t really want to, but I will.” He is thinking, “I will go beyond my likes and dislikes, my preferences, and I will accompany him.’’ So he said: “O.K., I will come with you. However, there are a few things that you have to accept and that I cannot do for you.”
Seppo asked what those things were.
“I can’t carry your bones, and your muscles, and your flesh,’’ Ganto said. “Your hair, your eyebrows – you have to carry that yourself.”
“That’s fine, I can do that,” Seppo replied.
“I can’t eat for you, you have to eat for yourself,” Ganto then said.
“I can do that,” said Seppo.
“I can’t go to the toilet for you; you have to do that yourself,” Ganto said.
“Of course!” said Seppo.
“And I can’t sleep for you, you have to do that yourself,” Ganto said.
“Yes, obviously!’’ Seppo replied.
“Nor ,’’ Ganto added, “can I wake up for you.”
Seppo had still not realized what was being said to him. He didn’t realize that Ganto was saying that you have to be who you are yourself, no one can do that for you. Ganto knew that Seppo hadn’t heard that, and he accepted to go with him anyway; he accompanied him for that reason.
Because Ganto had had the same experience, he knew that the best he could do – he had taken these bodhisattva vows – what needed to be done, was to accompany him, to go with him on the path. Accompany him, but knowing that ultimately only Seppo could be Seppo, and in fact Seppo already was Seppo and had always been Seppo.
Zen literature is full of these stories. So when we ask about compassion in Zen – it’s everywhere!
We call Zen the radical, “direct” approach, as opposed to some other Buddhist practices, which are “gradual.” Zen just goes right to the point; it doesn’t bother with dwelling upon different aspects. At the same time, Zen is also gradual, and the gradual approaches are also direct. So, neither one is fixed, anywhere.
In Zen practice we don’t take a specific act, or a specific aspect of the practice, and say, “This is compassion, and we will focus on this; this is wisdom and we will focus on this.” Sometimes in the Zen stories, for reasons that are cultural, what is actually a compassionate act appears to us as strange, or abusive, or cruel. In one of those stories, a teacher whose name was Gutei used what he called the teaching of one finger. Whenever he was asked, “What is the essential teaching? What is the essence of Zen?” he would hold up one finger. Just this…
There was a young boy who was his attendant and who knew his teaching very well. One day when he was asked what his master’s teaching was, he held up one finger. When the master heard about this, he summoned the boy.
“What is my teaching?” he asked. The boy held up his finger, which Gutei then sliced off! The boy ran screaming to the door, holding what was left of his finger, and the teacher suddenly called his name. The boy turned back, and at that moment he got it!
What did he get? Why was that a compassionate act? What was the teacher trying to show him? What was the teacher’s intention by cutting off his finger? What was the teacher’s teaching?
The boy was repeating someone else’s experience, presenting the tool. The point of this practice is not repeating. We all learn to walk and to speak by imitating, but at some point we have to let go of it. We all have a different way of walking, we all speak differently, using different words. And if we just repeated exactly what someone else was saying, we would be stuck. We would be dead. Life is movement. We would be suffering greatly if could not express ourselves just as we are.
It’s really endless. As Nisargadatta said:
When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom.
When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love.
Between these two, my life turns.
This really says it all. That’s where my life happens. That’s how my life unfolds.
If I say I’m nothing, and I don’t see that I am everything, my life can’t turn! If I only see that I am everything – that is, if I am caught by everything – without seeing that I am nothing, my life can’t turn. Wisdom is to see that I am not what I think I am; love is to see everything exactly as it is. In fact, there is no wisdom without love, there is no love without wisdom. The two go perfectly together as one.
Love is another word for the compassion that we are speaking of in this practice. When I see that I am nothing, this means I have no fixed identity; I am not what I think I am; I am not an object; I am not my anger – there is anger, fear, jealousy, but that’s not who or what I am. When we see exactly who we are, when we realize exactly who we are, that is to realize I am nothing. Not nothing in the nihilistic, negative sense of “nothing exists.” It is to see that I am not who I think I am.
When I look outside and see that I am everything – and this naturally follows if I look inside and see that I am nothing – naturally, when I look out, I will see that I am everything. That’s the natural flowing of the wisdom. Because I am not this one thing that I think I am, I look out and I see that I am everything! “I” is everyone, everything!
When we laugh together, we are sharing joy; we are one in the laughter. Pain serves the same function, suffering serves the same function… Any emotion, any experience serves the same function: It’s not just mine. This is boundless love.
A few months after the September 2001 attacks, the Dalai Lama was interviewed on French television. It was in December, just after the Americans had started bombing Afghanistan. The journalist asked the Dalai Lama: “What would you have done if you were George Bush?”
The Dalai Lama laughed that hearty laugh of his. Then it seemed to me that there was a long pause, but maybe it was only a few seconds. I was wondering what he could possibly answer to that question. After he laughed, he paused, and then said: “Well… I think it was interesting that he waited a month before he acted.”
Before the bombing had begun in Afghanistan, there had been a period of a collective not-knowing in the world, a pregnant moment, when it seemed like something else might happen. It seemed that what had led to those horrific terrorist attacks could suddenly lead to something else, something positive, that the world could change and heal in that moment. In that moment, the rest of the world was feeling compassion for the Americans, and the Americans weren’t feeling their usual arrogance and righteousness, they were suddenly extremely vulnerable; even George Bush seemed to be in a moment of doubt, of not-knowing. There was a palpable sense of enormous possibility in the world at that time.
What might have happened didn’t happen, of course. The path that was chosen was one of separation and righteousness. It led the world to wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and finally to Barack Obama…. And to what else? To right now, here! But what that is, we don’t “know”!
What the Dalai Lama had been pointing to was that no-solid-ground moment before. That potential in which there are no fixed points of reference exists in every situation. He was also indicating that he, the Dalai Lama, could not be anyone but the Dalai Lama! He cannot be George Bush, and he could not answer that question any other way! There can be nothing other than what there is. He could not say what he would do if he were George Bush because if the Dalai Lama were George Bush, he wouldn’t be George Bush!
He can only be what and who he is. And he could only offer that statement, at that moment, in that context. He could not have given another response. The same thing is true for each of us in every moment. The journalist, meanwhile, moved on to something else.
Talk in August 2009, Portugal
Out of Bounds: The Bodhisattva’s Way
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