As I mentioned last week, the theme of the March retreat at Spirit Rock was “Identity,” an exploration of who we really are.
Jack Kornfield mentioned that a while ago he gave a presentation with Thich Nhat Hanh at UCLA for 3000 psychotherapists.
Thich Nhat Hanh spoke about his mother dying in Vietnam, when he was a young monk 21 years old.
In the midst of his grieving, she came to him so vividly in a dream that he realized that death is just an idea.
After he awoke from dreaming, Thich Nhat Hanh walked slowly through rows of tea plants and recognized the mystery of incarnation, as he sensed himself embodying all his ancestors.
According to some tribal elders, babies sing in the womb, “Don’t let me forget who I am,” but, as soon as their umbilical cord is cut, newborns promptly forget.
Most of us spend the rest of our lives trying to return to our essential nature.
In Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Father Gregory Boyle writes about working with gang members in Los Angeles. One particularly tough young guy told him that his name was “Sniper.” Father Greg asked, “What else do they call you?” The defiant answer was “Cabrón!” Greg persisted, “But what did your mother name you?”
After a pause, the gangster admitted, “Napoleon.”
Softly, Father Greg suggested, “She must have had a nickname for you.” Looking as if he might cry, the boy whispered, “Napito is what my mom called me when she wasn’t pissed off at me.”
Beneath whatever roles we play in society, we long to be called by our affectionate childhood nicknames.
At a vulnerable moment during the retreat, I heard my mother’s reassuring voice inside my head saying tenderly, “My little girl.”
I sighed and sensed “Everything’s all right now.”
It doesn’t matter that she is now 87 years old, or that I just became a senior citizen; on a primal level I am still her little girl.
Jack recounted the story of a clay statue of the Buddha that sat for 800 years in a temple in Thailand until a tempest destroyed part of the building.
Afterwards, stewards of the temple discovered on the statue’s clay surface a crack, which revealed inside a Buddha figure made of pure gold.
Centuries earlier, temple guards hid the valuable statue under a coat of clay to protect it from invading warriors.
Over time, worshippers forgot the original nature of the Buddha figure—just as we forget the pure Buddha nature that underlies all the facets of the self.
We know how a mirror shows us only the appearance of our body.
From within, our awareness observes our aging process agelessly.
Jack cautions us, “Don’t identify with the body of fear. We tend to be loyal to our suffering.”
We can become used to old ways of defining ourselves, limiting our adaptation to new situations and relationships.
In February, Jack met with Ram Dass on the island of Hawaii, where they were attending a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, after her release from house arrest in Burma (Myanmar).
Ram Dass reminisced about his Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, whose “glance of mercy” bathed in love all those in his presence.
When Ram Dass mentioned that he felt unworthy to teach, Neem Karoli Baba carefully inspected him all over, up and down, and replied, “I see no imperfection.”
The Tibetan Book of the Dead reminds us, “O Nobly Born, O you of glorious origins, remember your radiant true nature, the essence of mind. Trust it. Return to it. It is home.”
When we meditate, it’s important to witness our pain and fear with tender, healing touch of kind attention.
After my mind became quiet on retreat, my heart opened, and I could see that I am not my suffering.
I remembered that I am part of Loving Awareness that permeates all life, and that serves as a witness for the 10,000 joys and sorrows that we experience.
Identity is such a mystery—its meaning shifts depending on our situation.
We speak about “my” feelings, “my” work, “my” family, “my” nation, etc.
In our consumer society, the message is that we are what we buy and what we own.
Even on retreat, I notice myself wanting my “money’s worth” in valuable insights.
No matter how seasoned they are, meditators can strive to achieve desirable meditative states of peace and joy or become attached to pleasant moments when they seem to be floating in pure light or when their feet are “being walked” effortlessly.
Jack’s mentor, Ajahn Chah, told a story about his youthful days as a forest monk, when he reported to his teacher Ajahn Mun a list of his wondrous and exalted states of meditation, and paused, expecting to receive the master’s approval.
Instead, Ajahn Mun cautioned the monk not to become caught in meditative experiences, no matter how dramatic, but to become “That Which Knows,” the awareness that witnesses all changes without greed, aversion or delusion.
With dedicated practice, our personality doesn’t go away, but we learn to accept changing events and relationships more lightly and gracefully—not reacting or taking so personally all that is unfolding.
After taking vows of simplicity, a Zen priest reflected, without a trace of self-judgment, “Last year a foolish monk. This year no change.”
The phrases “This is me, and that is them” are empty of real meaning, because our identity morphs according to ever-changing causes and conditions.
Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about Interbeing,
In the The Heart of Understanding– Thay’s commentary on the Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra – he writes:
“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in a sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.
The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.”
There is no independent self – the perception of self, of “me”, of “mine” is an illusion. Awareness that “I” am made of “non-I” elements leads to realization of non-self, which brings an end to suffering.
On retreat, I find myself identifying with trees.
Alice Walker writes, “If a tree is cut, I will bleed.”
In one of her poems, Mary Oliver describes how she tamed a little bird to fly to her hand. One day she arrived a bit late for her daily rendezvous with the Nuthatch, only to find it sitting in another person’s hand.
She muses, “Nobody owns the sky or trees or the hearts of birds, but I’ll come tomorrow quite early.”
Here Mary Oliver captures so skillfully our human tendency to grasp and cling to what we love, even while we know that ultimately we own nothing.
The Buddha taught that incarnation is a river of passing sensations, feelings, perceptions, thoughts and moments of consciousness.
When we learn to live in the river of change and to rest in “That Which Knows,” we develop a deep trust in Awareness and live gracefully in the reality of the present moment.
I’ll close with excerpts from a poem by Paul Tillich:
We experience the presence of the eternal in us and in our world here and now.
We experience it in moments of silence and in hours of creativity.
We experience it in the conflicts of our conscience and in the hours of peace with ourselves…
We experience it when we discover a lasting truth and feel the need for a great sacrifice…
We experience it in moments in which we feel
This is a holy place, a holy thing, a holy person, a holy time…
Where this is experienced, there is awareness of the eternal,
There is already, however fragmentary, participation in the eternal.