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Lions Roar : March 2019
attitude adjustment. I thought maybe I’d had wrong experiences. My new gurus contradicted the old ones, too. I sat in on a discussion between a Burmese Sayadaw and a Tibetan Rinpoche. They good- naturedly agreed to meet up in their next life. If they did meet, they agreed, the Tibetan would have been right. To clear things up I undertook ngondro practice, the profound preliminaries of Vajrayana, infa- mously consisting of 500,000 prayers, recitations, visualizations, offerings, prostrations. I got angry that I had to make obeisances to a patriarchal image. I didn’t believe in praying, either. There were sexual scandals every where, and finishing took lon- ger because of it. Yet I had vowed to finish and did, ten years later. My dear old Rinpoches had all died. A new, younger Tibetan teacher suggested I spend a month in retreat rejoicing at having completed the ngon- dro. I was glad, but a whole month? Should Bud- dhists be that optimistic? I began to see this wasn’t about congratulating a self, nor did meditation require any particular form. I could open my heart like a hand, intuitively. I could also close my hand, holding on to things. I got married to a nice man who was more complicated, I thought, than I. When you experience strong difficulty, you can open your eyes and look around. Maybe there’s a pleas- ing visual object to rest your gaze on. Or with eyes closed, discover some rarely visited area inside where there’s ease, maybe the corner of a shoulder or the bottoms of your feet. At fifty-four, I quit my day job and began leading Buddhist retreats. It would take a decade to realize what an impostor I felt. Luckily, for once, seeing was disbelieving. Poof! Impostor vanished on rec- ognition, leaving a tender, flawed, slightly braver human being. Around the same time, my practice exploded into another unrecognizable form. With friends of color, LGBTQI folks, disabled people, and allies, we’ve begun unraveling the white privilege, patri- archy, and oppressive attitudes camouflaged deep in the goodness of Western and Eastern Buddhist communities. This has not always been fulsomely received— applying modern notions of justice to an ancient tradition appals purists. Mindfulness was always supposed to be applied externally, I argue (yes, argue). And once you’ve seen oppression, who can look away? Clearly, in his day the Buddha was inter- ested in undermining the caste system. You can tell by how he set up his monks’ order by seniority, not caste. People fought about it back then, too. And even if nuns were not as subjugated then as they later became, there’s just no excuse! This more outward-facing practice feels like a purifying fire—uncomfortable, loving, and fraught. I must let myself trust, even need, the love of other people. I feel lucky when I remember to melt objective situations back into embodied personal experiences that are fluid and more work- able. Other people’s subjectivities are fascinating, and feeling interconnected is food for one who thrived on self-sufficiency. I yearn for longer quiet times of retreat. Who knows if I’ll get such chances? Buddhism has hurt me, too, I must say, with its strictures and institu- tions full of all too humans. Yet through it I’ve understood rejoicing, the instruction that puzzled me before. Rejoicing is naturally there when so-called “ego” patterns—the tightness, strange beliefs, vaguely unsavory dishonesty—dissolve. The unmade, unborn, unformed is known in glimpses, as a subtle presence. Mahayana Buddhists say everything is Buddha by nature; Theravadans say the wholesome overcomes the unwholesome. Six of one... It’s just such a relief. “Fletchers straighten arrows; the wise straighten their minds,” the Buddha sang, reminding us of who he used to be, a warrior in a patriarchal society. Centuries later, Zen painters and poets praised knotted crooked trees whose wood was useless for militarism. But the Buddha was already there, ironically repurposing arrows for nonharming. Let’s dwell for a moment with the arrow- maker, turning a stick in skilful hands, shaving away unneeded wood. Mistakes are inevitable, yet there’s joy in the occupation, making beautiful things that work. Ah, practice, that humble and relentless invita- tion. Aren’t we always practicing something, mak- ing some kind of difference or other? Who or what knows and feels all this? (Hint: there is no “right” answer.) ♦ LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2019 63