Awakening Together - Selections
For every center, organization, or individual who wishes to create a welcoming community for all, this book is a must-read.
From Suffering into Freedom
Over the years I have come to a deep commitment to and faith in the teachings of the Buddha. These are teachings that have fed and nurtured my spiritual needs and development as a human being. In this life that has been given me, the Dharma of the Buddha has been transformative.
It might be an easy assumption to make (or maybe a stereotype) that an Asian American, born to rather traditional parents who emigrated from the outskirts of Shanghai in northern China, would gravitate to a Buddhist spiritual practice. Indeed, my mother was raised in a household whose members were devotionally Buddhist, and my father, who was a Confucian Taoist, was not unfamiliar with Buddhist temples and practice. However, the cultural equation of connecting my own Asian heritage to the Buddhist tradition (or any spiritual tradition at all, for that matter) was not so direct or simple.
Much of my early childhood was spent in Levittown, Pennsylvania— the epitome of those postwar suburban developments of affordable, homogenous homes of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the ones that Pete Seeger sang about. For me at the time, though, Levittown did not seem to have the monotonous, uninspired uniformity Seeger’s lyrics evoked. After all, it was the world of my childhood. And as for most children, even this most mundane environment was exciting and interesting.
Levittown was a place with a hill for shooting down on a bike whose weight and design would be embarrassing in today’s sophisticated choices of racing, recumbent, mountain, touring, and BMX models: a “Schwinn-built” American Flyer. And in bright maroon, it was the coolest thing to show off on as a seven- or eight-year-old.
Levittown was a place with a creek—though English being my second language, I remember having trouble with whether the word should be pronounced “creek” or “crick.” That creek provided an illusion of wilderness for a young, wide-eyed, mock scientist who dissected bugs, poked at frogs, and tried to catch minnows with awkward little fingers. My scientific methodology was undeveloped, but the intention of curiosity was already well into formation.
It was in Levittown on November 22, 1963, that I remember running up the front lawn (it wasn’t that big, but to my short, stubby legs it seemed like a track field) telling my mother that President Kennedy had been shot. My mom had not been listening to the news that day, but I had been listening to the radio in the carpool coming home from my Quaker elementary school. I knew that it was an event that was really important and really sad. We sat in front of our RCA black-and-white TV set transfixed by the unfolding tragedy along with millions of other Americans that day.
And it was in Levittown where I had my first experience of racism.
I can remember running up the same lawn with different news for my mom. Instead of bursting inside without a care in the world, I carefully opened the screen door. I turned the brass knob of a front door painted as red as my Radio Flyer wagon, and let the screen door gently close without the typical crash that followed me.
I guess I didn’t look too happy: my mom came up and knelt so that her face was at the same level as mine. We weren’t a physically affectionate family; that hasn’t been my experience of the Asian or Chinese way of doing things. Love and other emotions were shown through behavior, rather than gesture or verbal expression. But this time, she reached out to my shoulder, “What’s the matter, Larry?”
I almost didn’t want to answer.
“Ma, what does chink mean?”
My mother’s prolonged pause reinforced what I already knew—that this, like the news of Kennedy’s assassination, was a life experience that was really sad. It was a lightning bolt that illuminated for me how people perceive each other and treat each other badly based upon how different they seem. I didn’t know the words race, culture, or ethnicity, but I could still feel the nausea and tension in my little body. It was one of those aha moments that children can have, and it came in a flash.
It wasn’t an experience of understanding—as a kid, I couldn’t understand what was happening—but I did recognize that it was something important. It simply was what it was: a moment of awareness— awareness of suffering in my life. And that is what my mother reflected back to me.
She said after a moment, “Sometimes that is just the way things are in the world.”
It was an unsatisfactory response to the racism of which I was just beginning to become conscious. But it was also the best she could offer at the time in a world rife with the cultural complexities of post-McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. I was too young to grasp anything beyond the immediate experience of my own suffering and pain.
Much later in life I read a passage in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son that resonated very deeply with me. At the end of his description of the experience of being refused service at a diner because they didn’t serve “Negroes” there, Baldwin writes, “And I felt, like a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut.”
In hindsight of my own string being cut, I appreciate that I recognized some part of my experience as a moment when cultures intersect. I was fast-tracking out of childhood, and I was losing my innocence.
My childhood home was a place where my everyday companions and best friends were the kids of our immediate neighbors on both sides of our house. A pair of brothers, Steven and Burton, lived to the left of my house, and another pair of brothers, Buddy and Randy, lived to the right. There was about three years’ difference between the two pairs, enough at that age to completely separate them into different interests and different preadolescent worlds. I was exactly in the middle age-wise, allowing me to hang out with either pair of boys.
It was a confusingly tender time for me—the naive simplicity of rolling down freshly mowed lawns, hiding from grownups in the hedges, and plotting not to be seen by the “nerdy” girls—because I was hiding one more secret from everyone else, a secret kept hidden in the safe recesses of my own mind where I thought I could control and manage it. My secret was that I was a boy who felt the need for more connection and relationship with other boys.
As with the racism I encountered, I didn’t even have a word for this feeling, much less comprehend terms like sexual orientation, homosexuality, or gay. I just knew that I felt even more different from other kids around me, beyond my skin color, the shape of my eyes, and the details of my cultural background. I felt different from those whom I felt I belonged to—my family. And I knew almost as soon as I had the feelings, whatever it was called, that people did not treat it with acceptance, kindness, or love. The cultural worlds I found myself torn between began to expand in number.
In the balance of things, for me life usually felt more painful than not back then. There was tremendous pain in not knowing where I belonged and not feeling that I belonged anywhere with anyone. I imagine some version of this arises in many people during adolescence, regardless of culture, race, or sexual orientation, but those issues simply heightened the angst of a young person who had yet to develop any life skills that would be of guidance or support. And it created in me a tremendous desire to get rid of the pain and suffering. I became determined to become a person who I was not.
I lost interest in my language of origin, my cultural heritage, and some of the deep sources of my identity—even in my childhood friends who were Asian. Family history and lineage became quaint stories that I tolerated to humor my parents and relatives over holidays, but they did not concern me in my “real life” in the “real American” white world.
I measured myself against the achievements of others who looked as if they belonged to the American mainstream and who seemed successful in the dominant culture. I wanted to assimilate without condition—to be accepted by them. The feelings of unmitigated separation produced a craving for connection, a desperation to belong. In a determined exertion of willpower as I came of age, I remember having the fixed conviction that if it is this difficult to be a racial minority in this world, there is no way that I will be gay—thereby adding another padlock to an already hidden closet door.
But the locks wouldn’t hold; the closet and the closet door were rotting from the inside out.
I was deeply unhappy even though I had no idea why. My attempts at assimilation into a white, heterosexual culture took me further away from my identity as a gay Chinese man. This gap between realities became deeper as the internal dissonance lengthened in duration. The void was filled repeatedly with excessive amounts of alcohol, drugs, caffeine, and nicotine—anything at all but the real feelings emerging from my experience with my life.
When I encountered the Buddha’s teachings, I was a deeply tortured soul.
Though I might have had many elements in my life (including, at the time, a partner) that might have looked good from the outside, inside my psyche was ruptured. Even during my recovery from substance abuse, the pain did not abate.
When the Dharma entered my life, I realized that my life was deeply unhappy because I was turning away from who I was. I was trying to be who I was not. In turning toward all of the aspects of myself that I had denied and repressed earlier, I was beginning my path of mindfulness, of being aware of who is living this human life as “me.”
I turned toward the familiar stranger within myself. I turned my attention to the pieces of my personality and history, my successes and failures, my dreams and depressions, I was afraid to get to know, much less become intimate with. I turned toward my sexual orientation and identity and my racial and cultural background.
This path of Dharma was the beginning of the healing process, of recovering who I saw myself to be in this world and who I could become. From that deeply tortured soul, this path has shown me greater and greater amounts of ease, peacefulness, and—dare I say—freedom. What more can I ask for? This path of Dharma has shown me where to start, where to continue, and how the path has no end to possibilities of freedom—even amid the myriad forms of suffering.
Finding a Spiritual Path
We are all seekers.
We are seekers regardless of which spiritual tradition we affiliate with. We are seekers even if we do not espouse any religious faith at all. We all search for meaningful experiences, satisfying objects, compatible people, useful knowledge, fulfilling activities, well-being—and more. Seeking is part of our humanity. When we seek, inquire, and explore, we open up to our own life and to the world. This openness is a tender place for both our minds and hearts. From this tender place, we look for things that we hope will create more happiness and contentment for ourselves.
This begins so early in our precious lives.
We are on this earth for such a short period of time. It’s no wonder that moments after we enter this life we start looking, learning, and seeking that which will make the best of this life. Even before we have any words to describe it, there is the message implicit in a baby’s cry of “What will satisfy me?” “How do I get my mother’s milk?” “What is that flashing color?” “Look at this thing that is a ‘foot.’ I don’t even know the word foot, but look at what it can do!”
As we are parented, cared for, and nurtured, we reach further into the world, recognizing the pleasant sensations of a pillow or blanket or favorite stuffed animal, and, later, begin to wonder “why?”
Why is the sky blue?
I remember lying on the grass in the warmth of a sunny day— daydreaming or maybe day-wondering—simply staring into the sky with amazement and openness. I was content to watch the clouds, looking on as scenes and objects and beings appeared, dissolved, and reappeared amid the ever-shifting curves and wisps of white billowing puffs. Those early memories are the first time I had a sense of presence, of peace— even if it was fleeting, or not fully recognized by me in that moment. We all dream as children.
In the Buddhist tradition, there is a story of a prepubescent boy having a similar childhood experience. Even though the story is specifically set in a distant culture, in a distant time more than 2,500 years ago, in what is now northeastern India and southern Nepal, I feel a connection to the tenderness of this child—and indeed any child who is seeking. That boy was named Siddhartha and was the son of a local king. At the age of seven, Siddhartha attended a celebratory festival and party over which his father was presiding. His attendants (whom we would perhaps now call his daycare providers) got attracted to the party themselves and left the youth to his own resources in a vast field under a great tree.
As with many cultures and human traditions, the tree has tremendous significance in what it represents. Even in those times of ancient India, one association was the tree of life—the feet of which are anchored with roots deep into the earth with a summit reaching into the heavens in all directions. This image is embedded in our collective psyche, regardless of whether our cultural origins are from Asia, Africa, the Americas, or Europe. The Great Tree encompasses and shelters all experiences in our life, just like it was protecting the youthful Siddhartha. Indeed, that tree echoes Siddhartha’s birth into the world beneath the boughs of another ancient tree and presages the Buddha’s enlightenment sitting underneath the spreading limbs of the great bodhi tree.
As the boy sat in the field, a sense of stillness and peace cascaded into his awareness. He wondered, “As I am sitting in the shade of this tree, removed from the distractions of senses and difficult states of mind and heart, allowing the mind to settle into a natural joyousness, can this be the path that I am searching for?”
Whether we are totally conscious of it or not, our spiritual lives begin when we are children.
Our spirituality has always been with us, and the seeker has always been present.
I grew up in a family that had immigrated to the United States during difficult global and cultural times, encompassing situations not unlike the challenges facing many culturally displaced peoples today. My parents emigrated from China just at the ending of World War II and the resurgence of the Chinese Civil War. They settled into the American Midwest during the time of Joseph McCarthy in the turmoil and cultural xenophobia of the 1950s. Their survival strategy was to assimilate and acculturate as quickly as possible—always trying to not make waves and not to stand out or be noticed.
Part of their survival-by-assimilation involved letting go of many traditions they might have carried into a life in a new culture. I suspect that many immigrants must go through the painful process of trying to honor the ways of life supported by their culture of origin even as they try to assimilate into a new world with very different values and norms—trying to discern what must be given up when survival overrides comfort. At the time of my birth, the status of Asian immigrants was legally still tenuous because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880 was still nominally in force (not fully remedied until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965).
There was an instance when FBI agents in their classic black hats and trench coats visited my mother while my dad was at work. They wanted to know why our family was receiving Chinese language newspapers in the mail, and we all found the encounter intimidating and frightening. I don’t know whether the explanation that my mom gave was satisfactory or not—but fear came into the house. My then twelve-year-old brother slept with a baseball bat when he went to sleep at night for the next several months.
I suspect my parents coped with that kind of fear by further assimilating our family into mainstream American culture. When I was growing up, I saw no culturally specific spiritual practices among my parents’ families. As far as I knew, being Chinese meant eating delicious food that no one except my mom knew how to cook. That was the only distinction I could see.
I knew more what it felt like to be American than to be Chinese. I recall doing a report on China for my fifth grade class and not knowing that China had a communist government. I remember writing the report “as if” I were an “American” learning about a foreign land that I was not a part of. I didn’t feel connected with my culture of origin or even particularly recognize it as my culture of origin. My report ended in the year 1948, one year before Mao Zedong took over the government—and I thought that things had continued to develop as they had before 1948.
I marvel now at the naivety no one in my family or school chose to correct.
When I was old enough, we went as a family to a local Baptist church, mimicking the suburban white dominant culture around us. We joined the congregation, which was more progressive in its attitudes than other Baptist groups. I remember our local church circulating a copy of the Black Manifesto for review by the general congregation and the heated conversations around the document. My family and I didn’t have a sense of connection or resonance with the congregation—only a sense of obligation and a feeling of this-is-what-an-American-family-does.
This American Baptist church usually baptized children when they reached adolescence when it was viewed that they could be responsible for their own personal choices. By the time I was in my teens and approaching the conventional time for baptism, I had distanced my personal beliefs from anything religious. It was then the mid-1960s, and the secular culture and the sociopolitical revolution of the younger generation was the call with which I resonated. I was an atheist, or perhaps an agnostic (I wasn’t sure)—but I was adamant that I didn’t care about any religious faith or tradition.
When I declined my pastor’s invitation to go through the baptismal rites of passage, I stopped going to church—and interestingly enough, when I did that my parents also stopped going. I realized they were only going for the benefit of my acculturation into American society. From my family, I felt the strong pull to assimilate, and from the pastor, I felt pressure to go through with the baptism. But I also saw it was possible to not accede to either pressure.
This was a baptism of sorts within my own internal experience.
I realized that I could act on my own set of beliefs and not be swayed by external demands. I realized I had a choice: I could pick what path I followed. But before I could make that decision, I had to become aware of my options.
I would rediscover the importance of this awareness, over and over again, much later on in my life, but in the meantime, I was making spiritual decisions, even as I eschewed anything spiritual or religious. We are all spiritual beings. Spirituality is hardwired in us—even when we negate it.
At times in my life I have been explicitly religious, spiritual, and existential; at times I have experimented lightly or devoted myself deeply. It is all part of a grander path. There is always a larger picture even if I cannot see the whole canvas in the moment. Even pushing away spirituality is a spiritual decision.
By the time I came into the lineage of the Buddha and found my spiritual home, I had begun to see in Buddha’s teachings much that resonated with the way my parents had brought me up. While they shifted away from their culture of origin in many external ways, they could not and did not negate the inner cultural values with which they themselves were imbued from their own heritage. For this reason, as soon as I came into contact with the Buddhist tradition, I felt a kind of visceral recognition even before I made a cognitive connection. All I had to do was pay attention.
Of course not everyone will have a similar cultural story or related familial circumstances, but there may be aspects that others might recognize beyond the details of my personal experience: the seeking, the path even when there is uncertainty, and the support one feels in finding a spiritual home.
These are important components of awareness as a spiritual practice.
Recognizing the components of one’s spiritual path and spirituality supports the path itself. Awareness that a spiritual path exists is a mindfulness practice itself. Awareness of a spiritual path offers options to deepen what works for us and to create more freedom around it or minimize what does not.
And awareness of our own paths is so very useful in determining how and where to meet others on a similar path. Walking together in communal support with mutual aspirations for living this life with more grace and more freedom is a beautiful way to grow and connect with others—to live in community and awaken together.
I feel that I have recognized many Christian values absorbed early in my childhood in those in my current Buddhist faith. Whereas unconditional kindness, compassion, patience, ethical integrity, and spiritual wisdom might be languaged differently in different cultures and different traditions, the living feeling is the same for them all. Across the amazing breadth and diversity of linguistic expression, cultural forms, and personal stories, there is still only one way to feel compassionate, there is still only one way to feel kind: the human way.
These days I feel more congruence than dissonance between religious faiths and spiritual traditions. While prayer is not ostensibly part of the Insight Meditation lineage to which I am currently connected, I nonetheless feel a resonance with this human form of expression. My understanding of prayer is that it comes ultimately from the root “to ask.” Whether the request is made to God; to Allah; to named, unnamed, single, or multiple deities; to the Great Spirit or many spirits; or to the impersonal forces that come together to create life—prayer has been around since before recorded time. We can describe prayer as opening to the vulnerability of asking sacred questions, and meditation can be experienced as creating the tender, open, and humble space for receiving the sacred answer.
In receiving what life has to teach us, it helps not to be distracted by the multitude of pressures, obligations, information, and activities that all of us in our current society tend to multitask. Filling the mind does not allow the subtle nuance of life’s teaching to reach us. Preoccupied with how we think we should live our lives and how life should be, we deny attention to how our life is already being lived. Often we are so compulsive and obsessive about finding answers rather than learning from the questions that we miss the reality: the answers we seek are not provided by any definitive resolution but by how we are asking the questions and by how we are relating to the questions themselves.
Rainer Maria Rilke describes this gracefully:
Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you
now, because you would not be able to live them. And the
point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps
then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without
even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
The dance between inquiries and answers, between prayer and meditation, between what our cultural heritage offers to us and what we are able to create in this lifetime, between where we have been and what we are seeking—this dance is a place of incredible energy, opportunity, and richness.
Even if we have lived many years into our adulthood, it is useful to reflect and remember that we all have been seeking for the length of our lives. This is how we begin to be conscious and aware of our yearnings beyond material pleasures and beyond anything that is outside of us to give us satisfaction.
All great wisdom traditions speak to our own ability to have happiness and freedom. These experiences do not lie outside of ourselves. In this great diversity of spiritual paths, they all lead to the same mountaintop—from where the most expansive view of humanity is the same.
When did you become aware of your spiritual path?
When did the glimmer of the seeking become clearer for you?
What were the internal movements of your heart and mind that pointed you to goodness in the world and a sense of connection?
How did you recognize something larger than “yourself”? In what ways do you currently feel your spirituality?
What are your current spiritual aspirations and what do you currently seek?
This Precious Life
My father was a small man of slight build, but he was always quite hardy and healthy.
I remember him forever mowing and tending the lawn of our suburban home by himself. He could rarely convince me to assist him—only those times when I noticed him working alone and my guilt about not helping rose up. He never hired anyone to do it for him, except when he was ill. Even in his late eighties he was puttering around in the garden beds of his assisted living facility, weeding, pruning, and parenting his outdoor plant-children.
A few years ago, when he reached the age of ninety-two, his lower back pain became unmanageable for this man who had had a tolerance of discomfort that would rival the fiercest ascetic. He was diagnosed with myeloma, a form of cancer that resided in his bones—particularly in the vertebrae of his lower spine. It seemed quite sudden, even though there were probably several unexamined symptoms leading up to it for several years. In the language of my father, a mathematician and engineer all his life, the number of undiagnosed symptoms was directly proportional to the level of pain that he had to tolerate. In the week after his cancer diagnosis, we almost lost him. My mother was in shock—they had, after all, been married for sixty-six years and together for sixty-nine. To this day, I still have no idea what it would be like to be connected so intimately with someone for longer than many people’s lifespans. She always thought that she would leave this world first, but he was fading rapidly, getting weaker, unable to take care of his bodily functions, and lapsing in and out of consciousness.
Then, remarkably, the physicians gave him a certain drug combination that caused a surprising reversal. It was quite dramatic, sudden, and gave us all another chance to appreciate life—his life, but also all of our lives. Within another two weeks, he recovered most of his baseline functioning and could even return home to continue living the sixty-ninth year of his relationship with my mom.
We woke up a little more to the gift of life, as clichéd or sentimental as that sounds. Awareness is like that: it is awareness in the ordinary moments of living that makes it such an extraordinary practice for life. Awareness delivers messages that are often right before our faces, even if we are looking beyond what is currently present in our lives.
While we had two more years with my dad, his recovery did not last. Right before my fifty-fifth birthday, he journeyed into another semicomatose state after losing most of his communicative abilities. Over the course of the subsequent days, his ability to communicate in English left him first (even though he was as fluent as I am), then his speech in Chinese faded. For a short time, he could write a few words or characters in a sometimes shaky, indecipherable script on a small marker board we held in front of him, but then that escaped him too. We could sense he was letting go of everything that was outside himself. The veils separating the world of life and that which is after were beginning to reveal themselves more clearly. At times, his movements were restless in his coma-induced silence as if the body needed to express some residual tensions or anxieties. Those too subsided, as the only visible signs of movement became the rhythm of his breathing. It seemed “stable”—whatever that meant. Did we feel that he would live forever in this state? Of course not. But it is so curious that in the minds of all of us there still was a hope for “stability” and seeming certainty, even for a moment or two.
But it is his last hour that remains so poignantly seared into my memory . . .
It was getting toward dinnertime. My brother and I volunteered to go and get some takeout food for everyone else who was holding vigil—my mom, my husband, and my brother’s partner. With my attention turning to taking care of others, almost as a casual gesture of courtesy rather than a real intention to connect, I said to my father, “We are going to get some food for dinner. We will be right back.” As we began to walk out the door, my mom called us back. After several days of not moving or expressing himself, my dad was making an effort to communicate—unintelligible as it was.
We all now converged at his bedside.
My own awareness was heightened, and I found myself intentionally trying to stay with all the details of my experience and his. The only sounds in the room were his textured breaths as the air passed in and out of his open mouth. The rise and fall of his chest was getting slower. In that moment, I realized that it was all about the breath—life is all about the inhale and exhale. How can we be with these last precious moments of breath, of life? Is it possible to meet these moments with their simple arising and passing away without needing them to be any different than what they are?
In that moment, I sensed that there is peace in that ability; I sensed that there is ease in that process.
A memory flashed through my mind of my father coming to a daylong meditation retreat I was teaching for people of color ten years previously at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California. I had to smile with the remembrance because, in his life, he never identified himself as a person of color. It was a term that did not have much meaning for his generation, but he was aware of how the phrase resonated with me and others of my generation—an illustration of the complexity of how diverse we hold our identities even within one family.
And another memory arose for me, of my dad recounting how when he first arrived in the heartland of the American Midwest, there were public restrooms still segregated for “whites only” and for “colored people”— and he never could figure out which door he should go through. I could feel his awakening to the racial realities of this culture being as complex as my own awakening to my own realities. But in spite of not needing to identify or label himself, he came to Spirit Rock to see what I actually did when I taught meditation.
Dad was already hard of hearing and couldn’t hear all of what was said in the meditation hall. When the schedule moved to walking meditation, he came up to me and said, “I think I got what you said about the breath—I actually can follow it. But I couldn’t hear what you said about walking meditation. Can you teach me how to walk?”
How sacred is that tender question coming from one’s own parent!
As our archetypal life roles reversed, I invited his awareness to simply be with the sensations of the lifting, moving, and placing of his feet— even if his gait was unsteady or slow—and encouraged him to use all the support he needed. He had a way of touching my shoulder while looking away, as if to moderate any expression of intimacy—he did that then and just said, “Thank you.”
At his bedside I imagined he might be able to follow his own breath now, just as he said he could at the daylong retreat. Maybe that was a fantasy on my part, but it comforted me. The pause between the exhale and the inhale began to linger and then to extend from seconds to many seconds. Over the next thirty minutes, the pause between out-breath and in-breath first became thirty seconds, then forty, then a minute. Not only was the breath pausing, but it felt as if life for all of us was pausing reverently in the silence.
In those moments, I felt time, space, and life itself being transformed, even as impermanence was revealing itself in unrelenting detail.
In the pause between his breaths, in the stillness, my dad was giving us one last teaching: that it was possible to transition in peace. He was showing us how to die peacefully and, perhaps, how to die well. It is not an opportunity that everyone in this life has—and it may not even be an opportunity that is given to me—but in that moment my father was showing me that it is possible.
What an amazing gift to receive.
In the midst of the surrounding silence, each micro-moment was as precious as it was fleeting. We thought we had lost him when the pause between his breaths reached two and a quarter minutes, but the breath came back and life returned. As we reached the inevitable outcome when his inhale was nowhere to be seen, heard, or felt, it was my husband’s voice that shifted the silence when he whispered, “He is gone.”
I never would have thought I would say that my father’s death was so precious and valuable, but I feel so blessed to have been offered every detail and every moment of that experience.
In the fourteenth century, Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism and the lineage of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, wrote (as translated by Thubten Jigme Norbu):
The human body at peace with itself
is more precious than the rarest gem.
Cherish your body:
it is yours for this one time only.
The human form is won with difficulty;
it is easy to lose.
All worldly things are brief,
like lightning in the sky.
This life you must know as
the splash of a raindrop,
A thing of beauty
even as it comes into being.
Set your goal.
Make use of
every day and night to
In the Dhammapada, an early collection of teaching verses from the Buddha, it is said that mindfulness practice is so precious that living a single day with its wisdom is better than living without it, even if we were to live a hundred years in this lifetime.
My father was not able to achieve centenary status before he died. Over 2,500 years ago on the Indian subcontinent, in the time before recorded history and when the average life expectancy was likely one-third at most of ours today, it was three times more difficult to reach the age of a centenarian. This chronological context makes this teaching all the more prominent. Translated into today’s life expectancy, we could say that living a single day with mindfulness, moment to moment, is more precious than living three consecutive lifetimes.
Why are the mindfulness and awareness practices of the Buddha’s teachings so valued, not just as a spiritual technique but as a way to live every day? It is not only that the practice yields such valuable benefits, although current psychological and neuroscientific research has identified tremendous cognitive, behavioral, psychological, and even professional benefits. It is also that life is precious itself. Awareness allows us to experience directly the aliveness of life with as much of our mind and heart present and available as possible.
Mindfulness allows us to actually experience life while we are living it. This is often called the “present moment,” the “here and now.” It is life. The irony is that we take so much for granted in this precious life that we can feel it is our entitlement to live on this planet. It is my “right” to live. However, when we are experiencing a severe illness or a close family member or friend passes away or a traumatic accident happens, we can feel how the description of precious life really means “delicately fragile life.” It is fleeting and can leave us at any time. This precious life is worth our attention and our ever-expanding awareness—and so living life for a single day with mindfulness is precious.
A classic image in the Samyutta Nikaya (one of the collections that record the Buddha’s teachings) describes this intrinsic value to our lives. The Buddha says that in the Great Ocean (a metaphor for the ocean of all life), there is a single ring-like wooden yoke that floats every which way, buffeted to and fro by the winds from all directions. In the depths of the Great Ocean resides an ancient, blind sea tortoise that needs to break the surface of the water only once every hundred years to get a breath of fresh air. The Buddha asks his followers what the chances are of that blind sea turtle coming to the surface once every one hundred years sticking its neck through that yoke. The reply by the gathering was, “It would be a sheer coincidence, lord, that the blind sea turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, would stick his neck into the yoke.” The Buddha goes on to teach that attaining a life in our human form is as rare, coincidental, and precious as the sea turtle poking his head through the yoke.
Our usual pattern of going through our lives is actually not to be aware of life unfolding as it happens. Sometimes we are caught in the multiplicity of how much there is to do, how much to be entertained by, how much to think about, and how much we are consumed by how our life should be, or could be, or would be, or is not. This preeminently multi-tasking culture we live in has also become global. It is the new normal to have several conversations going on at once, in person, on a smartphone, through email, through texts, on Instagram, and with tweets—not just in our culture but in most every culture of our world. Popular trends, behavioral patterns, information and knowledge—both useful and not useful—traverse spans of latitude and longitude in days, even minutes and seconds, rather than the months, years, or decades of previous generations. All this serves to emphasize our collective unconscious conditioning toward the state of mind called greed—that more is better. This is the view that accomplishing more tasks is better; more speed is better; more communication and connection are better; more things are better. Greed never leads to happiness, even though we so often believe, think, and feel that it does.
Beyond the motivations of unconscious greed, we are often not living the direct experience of life because we are always trying to change it. When there is minimal mindfulness, we are constantly acting on our desires for our life to be different than it actually is. Why? One of the classical teachings on mindfulness is that when we are not mindful we tend to do one of three things: (1) deny and get rid of things that we don’t like; (2) try to get more of the things that we do like; or (3) simply not pay attention to or notice things that we are indifferent toward.
Mindfulness allows us to get familiar with and get real with our life and the full range of our experience, not just the portions we enjoy. From the teachings of Chuang Tzu, the Taoist master to whom my father would often refer, we learn each individual human existence has its share of the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows of this universe. As a child when I heard this, I thought, “Gee, ten thousand is a lot of anything,” but then my dad told me that “ten thousand” is the numerical metaphor for “infinite” within Asian cultural traditions—so it was even more than I thought!
The extension of Chuang Tzu’s teaching is that no individual life is only about sorrow (although we can think it is when we are caught in what feels to be interminable suffering), and no individual life is only about joy (although we would like to think that this is where life should be, or even that this is the purpose of life itself). Each life has an innumerably full spectrum of joys and sorrows. To only focus on either joy or sorrow—much less a single joy or sorrow—for whatever reason is to miss the wholeness of our existence. It is to be unaware of how broad and expansive our life really is.
We actually take most of life for granted. We take for granted that we should be able to push away, deny, repress, or get rid of things that we do not want. We take for granted that we deserve more of the things that we do want. We take for granted that when something is not a high or low, when something is not a peak or valley, when something is not “great” or “awful” that it is not even worth attending to. And so we miss so much of our life. We miss learning from difficult experiences because we are trying to get rid of them; we miss enjoying positive things because we are trying to get more of them; and we miss neutral things because we overlook them in boredom.
In the book Darkness Sticks to Everything the poet Tom Hennen vividly describes this tendency:
Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks which can easily be seen if you look closely. But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people. But usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, like autumn ones full of red maple leaves and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t the one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by perfectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze scented with a perfume made from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.
This is why even the simple act of being mindful of the breath, attending to the inhale and the exhale, is so radically different than how we usually live our lives. We most often take our respiration totally for granted until we suffer from an illness, or asthma, or some other medical condition that interferes with our ability to breathe. Then we begin to feel how truly precious this energy of breath is. Instead of waiting for an unwanted and frequently unexpected limitation to teach us not to take life for granted, what would it be like to be completely aware of it now? What would it be like to connect the energy of breath with the energy of our life and become aware of how precious and delicate life truly is?
As we strengthen our human ability to be aware by returning over and over to the direct sensations of an experience like the breath, we begin to expand to a larger landscape that mindfulness can also hold. We exercise awareness, just like we would exercise any muscle of the body through physical activity, or the mind through intellectual activity, or the heart through emotional connection. As we increase the capacity of our mindfulness, we open the field from the physical sensations of the body to sensations of the mind and heart—the terrain of our thoughts and emotions. And we begin to include both easy and difficult experiences; those things that are pleasant for us and those that are unpleasant for us.
We value and hold tenderly all the infinite joys and sorrows of our life and not overlook any moment—including our last.
How often do you pay no attention to your breath?
How often do you take your ability to breathe for granted—this energy of breath that feeds the energy of your life?
What else might you take for granted in your life?
What do you not give a second thought to in your life’s activities?
What or whom would you miss dearly if they were taken away from you or absent from your life?