In The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-Neng, Hui Neng, the sixth patriarch of the Tang dynasty, relates to the reader that Buddha nature is inherent in all beings and that it is not something that must be created, because it exists already in all things sentient. He explains that the only thing one must do to access this nature inside is to be completely present for a single breath. This self-realized bodhisattva inside is always accessible and only takes using your breath to be in the moment you are in. Conversely of course, you can move away from the moment of present being just as quickly. But return is ever possible. This book sits on my shelf and is one of my treasured possessions.
I read it with my mother on a long car ride when I was in my early 20s. We were traveling to Albuquerque and I remember the windy road of the Black Range as we discussed what it meant, and intermittently cried at the beauty of the sutras contained within. For example, this one gets me, every time:
Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream (53).
And I take comfort in remembering that my own illuminated self is always within and just waiting for me to, with a little effort, appear and reveal the truth of my existence. In the copy of the book my mother gave to me, the inscription reads like this: To Anicca Rose, with all my love, Mom. This is the woman who taught me what love means and I have spent much of my adult life in gratitude for the gifts she gave me: asking me to think deeply about my own experience, teaching me to trust myself by offering her complete trust, showing me what unconditional love looked like.
But my mother wasn’t perfect. Who is? She had some serious flaws that were obstacles to her own happiness and I see myself carrying some of those same difficulties lately. They are crushingly painful and I have had to try to work out in my mind and heart, how to be my own person and not let go of the love I have had for her in the process. This might be a question of lineage. How do any of us, carry the gifts we have been given by our loved ones before us and still do the work of “seeking our own salvation with diligence?”
Part of what makes this process of pulling out the threads of my past and making choices about the future difficult is that I can’t ask her about it. After all, she and I always resolved everything through conversation. I can’t call her up and tell her how I’m feeling and ask the questions I sometimes feel I need to ask. I can’t ask her about her motives or experience. I can’t tell her I’m angry with some of her choices and that I want to understand them so I can forgive. I can only work through the memories of what it meant that my mom would spend months where she slept a lot but didn’t want to admit she suffered from depression, years where she carried rage towards a man who had betrayed her, endless hours telling and retelling the stories of her own heartbreak that got her nowhere, but rather, created a semi-permanent narrative of disempowerment.
I feel a lot of those same things lately. The angry, obsessive thoughts come unbidden and overtake me. I will suddenly realize I’ve spent minutes or hours imagining how I might do harm to the people who have broken my heart, those whose decisions have caused me to suffer so deeply. In these moments, I don’t always remember that I have a place to turn, inward, to my breath, to the center of my body, in its innate and perfect wisdom. That the way through, is in.
Luckily for me, it’s autumn in New England. This is—and this is saying a lot being as devoted to the mountain west as I am—one of the most stunningly beautiful seasons I have ever witnessed. The colors are prolific and October has been long, with perfect conditions for changing leaves. At dusk, the trees come alight from the inside in hues of crimson, umber, russets, yellows, you name it. A single leaf can contain an incredible variety of color depending on which way it is turned to the light. Every morning, I walk my little dog in the park by my house and am awed.
This morning, however, I found myself in despair. Feeling so bound in so many aspects of my experience right now, my deepest fear is that scared, confused, heartbroken, angry, will always be the way I am. In writing this I know of course, how ridiculous this sounds. But I’ve felt so helpless over some of my emotions lately that my capacity to see a bigger picture has gotten a little limited, to be honest. I’ve not managed to remove myself from the cause of my suffering and so every time I feel like I’ve made some headway, the pavement seems to rise to meet my face again. It’s been pretty terrible. This morning as I was somewhat helplessly ruminating again over how angry I feel, I took a moment and looked up at the changing sycamores and thought to myself, feel your breath, feel your feet on the ground, look at the light, feel the cold in your fingers, breath deeply and try to be in this moment.
That simple prayer was transformational. Within a few minutes I felt myself washed over with gratitude for the experience of being alive. I felt myself humbled. It also sounds hokey to even write that. But it’s true. It’s the best way I could describe it—total and complete gratitude for my life, for the chance to just be here in this moment and see the colors changing in a New England autumn. Maybe even a little gratitude for the lessons I’m learning in my life right now, for the experience of knowing what it feels like to be so bound, so trapped, so that maybe in the future I will have more compassion for those that suffer in this way too.
Hui Neng explains that some of this stuff is intuitive. You can’t simply follow a set of rules and get there. You can devote yourself to practice and there will be merits of that practice that will arrive over time. I take this to mean that not only must you follow what you have learned with your mind, but also the wisdom of your own experience. The breath and the body are wise teachers on this path. So are the seasons, and the way that even things dying away can be spectacularly beautiful in their interaction with light and form.
My mother taught me how to love in many ways. But I am left thinking that even some of that must die away for another thing to become, inside of that space. My mother loved without bounds, with a whole heart and it was magical. I’d never want to lose that gift. In fact, I carry it into my darkest moments. But much like others, an understanding of the commitment to respect and integrity was not inherent in her definition of loving. This is a lesson I have been on the receiving end of recently.
So, through my own practice, and the sporadically diligent efforts of my coming into the moment with a beginner’s mind, I am finding a new truth, it is from love of self that love for others comes. It is from forgiveness that comes joy and freedom. I was instructed to pray for my enemies today. I was told that if I can’t do this, I would not be able to let go of my anger. I’d like to believe I could feel incensed at injustice and be righteously angry and still come free of my pain. But if that were possible, I would have done it. Instead, like Hui Neng says, to be the conscious one, you must let go of these distinctions. At the end of the day, my anger is not what I want to remember; it is only and deeply, my joy and the joy I have been able to share with those I love. A high mountain road, a small truck, the light in her two-colored eyes, the sharpness of knowing she is gone that makes the love even deeper, the knowledge that if you know and love yourself it is possible to love others, wholly and without the distinction of fear.