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Lions Roar : March 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2007 89 said. But telling me this, she seemed pretty excited about the prospect. She would get a friend to trade shifts at the theater and we could meet at her apartment at four the next afternoon. “Am I being too bold?” she asked. “Now don’t just take off and disappear,” she added, perhaps sensing some- thing of my hesitation. “It’ll be fun,” she said. “You’ll see. I’ll bring some flowers.” But I did just take off. I said I’d be there and then I wasn’t. I simply wouldn’t face my own misgivings or talk to her about them or meet her at her apartment when she came home with her prospects for making love. Afterwards, I avoided the places where we were likely to meet and soon was shipped overseas. It wasn’t that kindness required me to make love to Malaya, though I really wanted to. But I’d recently been di- vorced in a disastrous early marriage that had left me fearful and guarded. I think Malaya had misgivings of her own and might have chosen me as a partner because she knew I’d soon be sent overseas. But the thought of Malaya making her ar- rangements to get off early and coming home with a grinning mouth full of gold and a fist full of flowers to find out she’d been stood up simply breaks my heart. It is just such failures of honesty and loving-kindness that bring me the heaviest sense of guilt—how I once injured a high school teammate, showing off my physical prowess in football practice; how I provoked Ms. Talbot to tears in front of the whole senior English class, the one teacher who’d looked beyond my behavior and found talent she had hoped to pro- mote; how I repaid the kindness and support of the plant foreman at Rinshed Mason Automotive Paints by abruptly quitting without giving notice. So, burdened with the pain of such memories, I asked my Zen teachers for help. Among the things they gave me was a contrition verse: All the ancient twisted karma From beginningless greed, hatred, and ignorance Born of my body, mouth, and thought I now confess openly and fully. From that day to this, whenever I feel like a thoroughly bad person, I chant this simple confession. The chanting is an offering to those I’ve wronged, people who have since died or whose where- abouts are lost to me, peo- ple to whom I can no longer make direct amends. Even if Malaya or Ms. Talbot or the shop foreman can’t hear in per- son how sorry I am, there’s still something about the whole- hearted self-admittance of wrongdoing that softens the hard edge of guilt. The words of contrition drop like tears that come unbidden, and a tender and regretful remorse arises, a sorrow for whatever harm has been brought by my doings. It is this exposed heart of sorrow, vulnerable and unguarded, that heals the wound of guilt and allows sympathy and for- giveness to do their work. I’d had the contrition verse in my keeping for some time before I became curious about the word “beginningless.” How is it, I wondered, that greed, hatred, and ignorance are said to be beginningless? In time, I came to see that I hadn’t personally invented my own wrongdoings. They came ready made for my use, and in fact the whole human catalogue of potential wrongs was an inheritance. The “ancient twisted karma” of the contrition verse was a vast impersonal stream into which I’d been cast at birth. The genesis of greed, ha- tred, and ignorance was itself unknown, lost in antiquity and impossible to imagine. The possibility for wrongdoing must have been present before the birth of the universe it- self, an option for harm that we humans fell heir to. And the same must be true of generosity, love, and wisdom, which were always here and for which I can claim no individual merit or lack thereof. But that doesn’t absolve me of responsibility. I can choose, and it is this exercise of volition, an equally ancient potential of human behavior, that holds me accountable for the con- sequences of what I do. I did not set in motion the karmic stream, but it’s up to me how I negotiate its currents. I can go with the current, swim against it, or seek a shoreline, but the currents and eddies of the stream are forever shifting and leave me no option but to continually decide what to do. My choices bear upon the stream itself, for it is a mutual stream in which all of creation swims. I can do nothing that will not affect you. You can do nothing that will not affect me. We are