I have written this post (which I had published in another blog in May 2017) in response to an interesting phenomenon that I have experienced relying on Lyft for transportation in various places since I ordained as a Buddhist nun two years ago after a thirty year dance with the precious Buddhist teachings.
As a Buddhist nun, my maroon robes and shaved pate draw many, many questions, most of them from genuine interest. I never imagined that living in this monastic uniform as an itinerant nun would pique the interest and curiosity of so many people everywhere I go, whether to Trader Joe’s (where an employee once approached me with a PAID stickered bouquet of flowers on the eve of the anniversary of my late Teacher’s passing) stores, airports, libraries, bookstores, etc.
While my naturally optimal habitat is the silence of cavernicolous retreat where I can cultivate the qualities advocated by the Buddha as being most beneficial for oneself and others, due to circumstances, I am invited, to put it gently, to resurface and engage regularly.
While social ills of every kind proliferate and escalate, it seems that people’s yearning for meaning escalates and proliferates alongside them. People are thirsty for meaning, for peace, for deep healing, and the Buddha’s teachings in my view have never had more relevance. Never has the Noble Truth of Suffering been so in our faces, thank you Facebook, including in relatively privileged nations which are no longer shielded from unspeakable forms of personal and collective suffering in the form of addictions, economic uncertainty, bullying at every level of social interaction, social decay, misinformation, aggression, and violence. Never has the need been greater to understand the causes of our misery as being not merely external to us. Never has the need been greater for each one of us to do the hard work of tackling within ourselves our own suffering which becomes aggression (from the subtlest thoughts of annoyance to our worst unchecked impulses to act out) our own ignorance, our own reactivity and defensiveness, and our own unacknowledged tendencies toward bullying, before demanding that change be imposed from the outside in, instead of from the inside out.
There is no greater revolution at hand than the inner revolution of thousands of awakening people now inspired to unlock the mystery of human consciousness, which no amount of reductionistic, materialist, or dogmatic rhetoric can any longer suppress, since there’s nothing like direct experience to topple dearly cherished if grossly limiting beliefs. Whatever our orienting framework to the transcendent deepest aspect of experience, we cannot leave aside an investigation of what it means to have awareness.
These explorers of the stunning landscape beyond “inner” and “outer” will be the ones who can nurture the critical mass of individuals required to halt the runaway train of deluded thinking. There is no greater form of social action than uprooting aggression and ignorance in oneself before forcing it out of the next guy/s and expecting that to go well in the short or long term.
For indeed, what Peter says about Paul says more about Peter than Paul. Make no mistake. Plank in my eye. Out. Enough said.
I have come to appreciate my Lyft drivers as among my best Teachers, in that they ask questions that remind me of why I got inspired to follow this path in the first place. While this isn’t a verbatim record of my most recent conversation since I don’t record conversations (though maybe I should start to!), it is a close reconstruction, with occasional elaborations for clarity.
I had just come off Amsterdam-Paris-Newark flights exhausted and ill. It was 24 April and I had been ill with flu or walking pneumonia or both since 14 April. I had traveled from Paris to Amsterdam after an 11-day retreat in France, about an hour away from Paris. I had managed to keep my symptoms under control with megadosing vitamin C and taking ibuprofen. As the plane touched down in Newark I thought, just hang on. I waited in line to get to customs and just as I was thinking how slowly the line was moving a customs agent opened another line and invited me to it. He asked where I had come from and I told him, “a meditation retreat in France.” He looked at me and said, “are there a lot of Buddhists, you’re Buddhist right? in France?” I grinned, surprised at the question, and answered, “yes actually, and some remarkable teachers as well.”
Everywhere I go I am met with interest and curiosity. This is not exactly standard garb. But it seems that on some level my external appearance serves as a symbol of an alternative lifestyle, an ethic, and while I don’t expect any pride parades to celebrate my lifestyle or my coming out as monastic, I am often called upon to respond to all kinds of people and situations relying on the tool kit of the precious teachings I have received and the inspiration of my incredibly kind spiritual mentors.
I made my way through customs and baggage claim unusually quickly, powered, I feel, by the blessings of the Buddha, of the meta-intention of bodhicitta, and got into my Lyft ride with a driver I will call Rodrigo. What I have felt is an urgency to share these liberating and transforming teachings in an accessible way not in any doctrinal format, not as any catechism because the essence of the Buddha’s teaching is anything but catechism, but in a way that is more immediate and personal. As my late Teacher once said, “the Buddha’s myriad teachings are like a ball of candy; no matter where you lick, it’s sweet.”
Rodrigo jumped out of his black Toyota RAV at Terminal B to help me with loading my suitcase into the back of his car. I had texted him from Terminal B to let him know that I was a Buddhist nun in maroon robes waiting outside Level 2 Door 9 of Terminal B.
I hastily got in the car and felt relief sweep over me. One more hour and I would be “home”, provisionally, at a friend’s who offered to host me for the time being.
After asking where he was from and learning he was from the Dominican Republic, I switched to speaking in Spanish. Doubt he expected this Buddhist nun to be a Boriqua, and that definitely endeared me to him a bit more, there’s just something about sharing a mother tongue, leaving an opening for him to ask his next question. The whole conversation proceeded in Spanish.
“You know, I’ve been curious about Buddhism. Can you tell me about Buddhism?” I laughed a bit, and asked him, “how much time do you have?” Rodrigo insisted on using the formal “usted” instead of “tu” to address me, and I asked him to please use “tu” and he switched for about five minutes and then returned to using the formal and delightfully respectful “usted,” which I found very sweet and touching, since basic respect is quickly becoming a lost art in our sometimes broken infuriated world. He said, “I’m so sorry it’s just the way I was raised, to use the usted.” I said, “there is great beauty in respectfulness, don’t apologize and thank you, but if I slip and use the “tu” myself, please forgive me as I was not raised in Puerto Rico and I often make lots of blunders in Spanish.”
We spoke for some time about his family, his children, his work. He then asked again about Buddhism.
“So what would you like to know about Buddhism?” I asked him.
“Well for example, do Buddhists believe in God?”
I replied, “what do you mean when you say God?” He replied, “well, the creator, lord of the universe, maker of heaven and earth.” I said, “and how do you understand that God to have done all those things? If I plant a seed in the ground, it newly creates a plant that was not there before. Would you say that God created that particular plant?” He got quiet, and as if anticipating a debate that he was not prepared to enter, he said, “You know, I am not an educated person, I can’t answer those sorts of questions, I guess I am just wanting to understand what Buddhists believe.” I paused for a moment, waiting for words to come to me that might serve to connect with his direct, lived, experience.
“You know, Rodrigo, I was raised Catholic. I love and appreciate my Catholic upbringing. I used to do retreats at a Catholic nunnery about an hour from where I lived. I love the saints. I love the Jesus teachings. But there came a time when I literally felt that Jesus called me to learn from Buddha. I have been on the Buddhist path since my early 20s. And I am fifty something now. My mother is a devout Catholic. She has told me that I am a better Christian now that I have been practicing Buddhism.” This really piqued Rodrigo’s interest and with his left hand on the steering wheel and the right in the air waving his index finger enthusiastically, he declared with the Latin enthusiasm that only Latin people have, “Now that is really very interesting, now you have said something that I am very happy to hear.” I replied, “Oh, really? How so?” He responded by repeating my mother’s words to me: “your mother says you are a better Christian having been a Buddhist, that’s fascinating! Can you talk more about that please?”
“Well,” I offered, “while Jesus may be the way Buddha outlines the way, gives us the instruction manual on how to be more loving, for example.” I had written this in a graduate school paper at Harvard Divinity School in the 80s and caught plenty of heat for it. What I had meant to say even then was that Buddha’s teachings help us to become the loving people that Jesus invites us to become by giving us a reasonable and rational framework for how and why we need to respect the law of causality. The teachings of the Buddha, at least in the tradition I follow, are step-by-step methods to help us to understand and improve our behavior of body, speech, and mind, and better behavior, kinder behavior, in no way contradicts Christian understanding, on the contrary. In other words, if you can’t be a good Christian you won’t be a good Buddhist, and if you can’t be a good Buddhist you won’t be a good Christian either.
I could see Rodrigo’s face light up in his rearview mirror. So I asked Rodrigo, “Do you feel that you have to believe in a creator God in order to be a good person?” He paused for a moment to reflect, and said “no.” This answer revealed to me that he had done some serious thinking about the nature of belief. So I continued, “are there not people who claim belief in God yet treat others very poorly?” He admitted immediately the truth of this. But not wanting to be unfair I added, “and likewise in all the traditions there are some rotten apples.”And then he asked me, “well then what do Buddhists believe in?” I said, “well for starters we respect the law of cause and effect and strive to observe it closely. If we want to have pleasant experiences we need to plant the causes for them. We never ask ourselves, where does this feeling come from? This feeling of sadness, depression, rage, joy, gratitude, etc. So you could say that Buddhists start out their training by learning and practicing to observe the law of cause and effect through cleaning up our behaviors of body, speech and mind, and once we’re well established in the ethics department we can move on to meditating to gain wisdom. But these days a lot of folks want to meditate without preparing the soil so to speak, without cleaning up their actions. You can’t be a liar or a bully and get very far on the meditation cushion. Harmful actions agitate the mind too much and an agitated mind cannot gain the ultimate calm and stillness required to develop true wisdom. The wisdom that I’m talking about here is the wisdom that frees the mind from suffering.”
Rodrigo was fascinated. I asked him, “What was it that Jesus said to Mary Magdalene in front of her accusers? Didn’t he address both the hypocritical accusers: ‘who has not sinned can cast the first stone’, and her: ‘go and sin no more’?” What good is it to talk about being saved and forgiven if there is no evidence of a change of heart in our behavior toward one another and toward ourselves?” Rodrigo agreed and added, “you know that’s exactly right. I’ve been searching for years for a pastor whose behavior inspires me because preaching the gospel and then behaving with greed or lust or cruelty leaves me cold.” I responded, “understandably so. Hypocrisy is toxic and faith destroying. But in order to be better people we need to understand the mechanisms that drive our suffering. We need to understand why things like anger destroy our peace of mind. The worst victim of anger is the person who gets angry and then acts on it. Such people are necessarily unhappy. But they don’t connect their misery with their habit of allowing anger to hijack their minds. They firmly believe that everything else causes their anger. There are plenty of things in this world we can get angry about. But who does that help? How does that help? We add to the misery by tuning into the same rage station.
How is it that we think we can do nasty stuff and not suffer the consequences? As sophisticated as we think we are with all our fancy gadgets and ultra-complexities, our models and depictions, our critiques and commentaries, we remain kinda stone age when it comes to living kindly. What’s that about? Buddha’s teaching helps us to identify the causes of our suffering. The Buddha’s first teaching was called the Four Noble Truths.” Rodrigo was literally radiant as he listened. I thought, he’s probably a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. You never know when the Buddha is going to manifest as a so-called ordinary person…and there I was thinking I was educating him. Laughable. Just a pop quiz.
At this point Rodrigo had missed his exit to get on the turnpike. I paused and apologized for distracting him. “No, it’s me who has to apologize this is such a great conversation!” I waited until he was back on the turnpike before continuing. He leaped on, “You were saying? About the Four Noble Truths?”
“Yes. The First Noble Truth: there is suffering. Stress. Dissatisfaction. It pervades our condition; we fix one problem and a whole army of other problems emerges; we are constantly going from fixing one problem to addressing another. Is this not true? In your experience I mean, not just theoretically.” He could not deny it. It seemed like a relief; oh good, no need to be in denial about the facts. It’s our condition. “This is not a dogma, or a belief you have to follow blindly. It’s a fact. There are three kinds of suffering. There’s the suffering of suffering, which is the gross obvious misery like illness, pain, loss, unhappiness, of any kind, etc. And then there’s the misery of change as illustrated by when we’re hungry we eat to remove that discomfort and then maybe we overeat and what we were doing (eating) to remove one kind of misery (hunger) becomes another kind of misery or freedomless experience: indigestion, reflux, or the grotesque heaviness after Thanksgiving dinner.
Yet we do the same thing again year after year after year as if we didn’t have a choice in the matter to say no to stuffing ourselves. Really? What is that about?”
Rodrigo laughed in recognition of this pattern. “And then the third form of suffering is referred to as pervasive or conditional suffering. This one is harder for us to detect. It’s that suffering or stress of the inevitable movement toward decay. I mean, we don’t grow younger, even if they put our sorry sack of skin in a freezer to be brought out later (excuse me but how pitiful is that?), things don’t get newer or unbreak. Our socks don’t get brighter with every wash. We keep buying stuff so we can have that moment of the shiny new which lasts as long as it takes for our shoes to get scuffed, our painted nail chipped, or our car dented. Meanwhile, do we ask ourselves, is this good for me? Is this good for the planet?”
As an aside, I love the book Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, and film Minimalism: A Documentary, with authors Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, who skillfully and lovingly advocate another approach to life on the planet that leaves us time and space to mine our inner treasures.
You can crack the game of life and condition yourself for worldly success in myriad ways. You might secure incredible wealth, celebrity, honor, and pleasure for you and yours. But what you won’t gain thereby is lasting and unchanging freedom. That requires a different set of strategies. You will still get sick, age, and die, and though you may die relatively fulfilled, you may also die terrified because you didn’t really think, having the success and power that had you convinced of your invincibility, that you could and would definitely die.
We might have enormous material success and satisfaction, fulfillment even, but this does not constitute a lasting form of unchanging joy. We might, for example, have celebrity, material success, and have a cold war going on at home, have children that hate us and want us dead so they can collect our fortune. We might wield enormous power at work and be miserable at home, we might have enormous power at home and have no influence anywhere else. We might be satisfied with our small circle of influence and do our best to be good people. We might also know there’s something missing, as if we were missing out on Something.
We don’t detect the wrinkles emerging on our faces while they are emerging and yet we can see this change when we look in the mirror. Somehow we are convinced that we will always be here, that we will never die that we are not a part of nature that we can stand in the back of the classroom and not be called on to answer.Rodrigo kept saying, “Eso es así,” which means something like, “that’s for sure.”
“How is it that we all know we will die but that knowledge doesn’t budge, scare, or move us?”
In Tibetan Buddhism one’s own mortality is taken as a meditation object. The effects of that meditation can only be understood by the one who does it. Suffice to say that meditating on one’s mortality has kaleidoscopic effects that profoundly impact one’s spiritual development by opening our hearts in compassion to others. We’re all in the same boat. What do you think?”“You have not said a single thing I can disagree with!”
“I think all of the religions are an attempt to grapple with this suffering nature we all share. But while Christianity often frames suffering as ennobling (and it can be if you relate to it with understanding), Buddha identified the causes that lead to the experience of suffering, and offered practices that help us eliminate those causes. In Buddhism the only time suffering is ennobling is when it’s informed and conscious such as being able to accept suffering in order to achieve some higher purpose. As long as suffering remains unconscious or unmoved by a higher call, it cannot be ennobling, because it is a result of unwholesome causes we planted in the past.
The question is, though, do our beliefs increase or reduce our suffering? Do our beliefs heal or harm? Do our beliefs promote love, joy, forgiveness, healing, or do they promote misery, division, fear, hatred, and strife? Do our beliefs serve to grow or limit us? So yeah, this was the first Noble truth and every sentient being, every living being is subject to this regardless of race, religion, caste, orientation, class, etc. Rich or poor, weak or powerful, no one escapes being born, getting sick, aging, and dying. How this truth continues to be overlooked and/or denied is simply beyond me. We walk cocky as though we’re forever in this show. How did we get to the place of having convinced ourselves that we can do any old thing we want, that behavior doesn’t matter, that what we do doesn’t matter, when in fact what we do with our body, speech, and mind determines every moment of our experience?”
At this point we were well along the turnpike toward my destination. Rodrigo was taking this in with fullest attention. He said, “And the second Noble Truth?” “Second Noble truth is: there is a cause of suffering. In other words, if we can identify the causes of suffering we can elect to stop enacting them in our behavior of body, speech, and mind. Okay I’ll stop there with that one. It would take a while to go into it.”
Third Noble truth I had trouble translating this one into Spanish so instead of saying there is the cessation of suffering I said there is a way stop or end suffering; does this mean we stop growing old, getting sick and dying? No, but these conditions no longer cause us to lose our mental equilibrium. Rodrigo asked, “and the fourth Noble truth?” It seemed he wanted the full scoop on the Four Noble Truths before I arrived at my destination in about ten minutes. I said, “the truth of the path.” Camino. “The path? he asked as though wanting to verify that I said that word.” I said, “yes, the way to go, the direction to take, the safe, good, absolutely reliable direction, in order to reduce the experience of suffering and gain freedom and peace of mind.” I was glad it was night at this point, because my eyes filled with tears as a wash of incredible warmth came over me having articulated just a few words about the Fourth Noble Truth. Verily verily, the precious Buddha Dharma guarantees inner peace and boundless love and compassion.
In that moment Rodrigo’s Toyota RAV had become a little tiny Buddha field, a little tiny Temple, a little bright light on the earth carving its way down the New Jersey Turnpike. I was reminded of the quote from Necklace of the Fortunate:
On each atom, as many Buddhas as atoms,
Each one surrounded by bodhisattvas
Thus I view every bit of space
Completely filled with Buddhas.
I was also reminded of a teaching from one of my beloved mentors Kyabje Dagpo Rinpoche that he gave in India, saying that it’s not necessary to just teach Dharma from the throne in front of a big audience, but that sharing the precious Dharma can happen anywhere. It seems that the Kadam Masters of old also preferred this style of exchange. I too am inspired by it and relish the utter richness of exchanges that can occur in the most surprising of contexts with people of any and every stripe. This to me is the most rewarding aspect of Dharma, offering it according to whoever stands before me in their oceanic inscrutability according to what they ask of me.
Rodrigo then pronounced, half to himself and half to me, with great exuberance: “how could it be that just days after my sister-in-law mentions to me something about Buddhism that I would meet with a Buddhist nun and have her sitting in this very car? I mean, that’s incredible, I can’t believe it!” I laughed and said, “easy, you were just ready.” “What did your sister-in-law say?” I inquired. “Oh,” he went on, “she was telling me about some words that you can recite, darn, what are they called?” I said, “a mantra you mean?” He said, “yes that’s it! A mantra. What is a mantra?” Well mantras are sacred syllables or syllables that are associated with a particular quality of enlightened energy. So, for example, the mantra of the Buddha of compassion is Om Mani Padme Hum. Rodrigo said, “That doesn’t sound like the one my sister-in-law was telling me about, is there another one?” I answered, “Ah, I am guessing she may have told you: nam myoho renge kyo. Rodrigo squealed, “Yes! That’s it!” I continued that that tradition originated in Japan and its founder was a thirteenth century Buddhist sage called Nichiren. I mentioned that Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner both practiced Nichirin Buddhism. Curious, he asked, “and what do you get from saying mantras?” Not wanting to get much further into the question of mantras, and certainly not wanting to reduce the Buddha’s teachings to a modified form of the potentially narcissistic manifesto The Secret, I tried to steer the conversation to something I felt much more important at this point, which was the question of intentionality. So I said to Rodrigo, “Well that depends on your intention. For example, let me ask you a question. Why do you go to work? What is your intention for going to work?” Rodrigo answered, well to support my family, to pay the bills.” I said, “Yes, great, nothing wrong in that. Totally correct, responsible and noble.” Then I added, “What might happen if you cultivated a sort of meta-intention? Say for example, ‘may my going to work serve as a cause for my own and all others’ highest benefit.”?
“Wow!” Rodrigo answered, “so you can basically get more bang for your buck?” “Exactly,” I said, pleased that he grasped this so quickly. “You can basically turn straw into gold by the force of expanding your intention to include all beings in this sphere of kindness and remain mindful that none of us is alone in the condition of suffering we all necessarily share. Because is it not true that we are all identical in wanting to be happy and not wanting suffering?”
I think all of the world’s religions started out as ways intended to make us better people. Rodrigo asked me if my parents were okay with my being Buddhist and I reminded him that my mother told me I was a much better Christian since becoming a Buddhist. “Being Buddhist”, I added, doesn’t mean me wanting to convert other people to Buddhism at all, but rather me wanting to facilitate others’ waking up according to the path most meaningful to them.” Rodrigo really appreciated this. I said, “Does one medicine work to help all those who take it?” “No,” he replied. “Do all diets suit all physiques?” “No,” he replied, “those are really good examples.” “Just so,” I said, “different paths are necessary for people at different stages of development. Some may benefit from a belief in God while others may feel suffocated or inhibited by such a belief. Others might benefit from a period of exploration of developing faith in themselves and their own capacities and potential. Others may develop better as adults and overcome an infantilizing relationship with their God or Guru by exploring meditation and other techniques that strengthen awareness and critical thinking.”“Yeah but what about people who harm through their religion?” Rodrigo asked. “Good point,” I said. “Such people will suffer the consequences of their actions. Just because you don’t believe in karma doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Harm wrought against another harms oneself. Help delivered to another helps oneself. Since, as one of my teachers has said, I don’t have it in me to give each and every human being on this planet a hundred million dollars (as if that would solve their problems), imagine if instead I could give them the tools to free themselves from all forms of misery. Can you imagine any greater gift?”
Rodrigo pulled up to my hosts house and got out of the car and brought my luggage to the door with incredible respectfulness. I was very deeply touched. I turned to face him. In front of me stood a middle aged man, bowing from the waist, with eyes shining like two stars.He expressed his gratitude for the conversation, his smile stretched across his face like a brand new clothes line.
“Thank you from my heart,” I said. “It’s been a great pleasure.”