A THEORY OF RELATIVITY
Every so often, my belief that nobody reads the blither of this blog gets shaken by an emailed comment from someone who has. In the past few months, when I’ve written mostly about loss of hair, loss of money, loss of family and face, the occasional comment condemns me. I have offended some reader or other by not always writing about Dharma with the high falutin’, high brow poetry of there being no there there. I’m chastised for making a big deal of stupid little events in everyday life.
Actually, since there are already more Buddhist philosophy texts than we can all read in the next six lifetimes, stupid stuff is supposed to be my point. The details of daily life are where we trip and trick ourselves. It’s one thing to wait at a bus stop thinking there is no bus, that bulbous vehicle is just an illusion, and quite another thing to board with your ticket ready, mindful of the people in front AND behind you, not push or pull or grunt at all those folks who got seats and whose Buddha nature gets harder and harder to imagine as you bump along straphanging for dear life.
Asking for his blessing on this blog, I told my teacher, over the years I have noticed with great lament how many Dharma students keep a firewall between their practice on the cushion and the raw doings of their daily life. It’s almost as if they’ve checked their Dharma like heavy baggage and come into what’s called post meditation with only carry-on habits. I said I wanted to use the blog to strengthen my own effort at integration with hope that it might encourage others to try it as well. Otherwise, why bother to be Buddhist? “Yes,” he said. “Good.”
Yesterday a friend dropped off a bunch of back issues of Bodhi, the Voice of Vajrayana Buddhism, and as fate would have it, the first thing I found this morning, opening the first of them with my coffee, was this Middle Way teaching from the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: …”how are we to relate to all the things we see and feel in our day-to-day lives…? Is it all just nothing, to be ignored? No. …To help sentient beings form a path to ultimate realization while still living and taking part in the everyday world, the Buddha taught the two truths: the relative and the ultimate truth. The relative truth, the appearances and experiences all ordinary people believe to be real, can become a stepping stone to realizing the ultimate truth… In fact, there is no other stepping stone for realizing the ultimate than the relative.”
Most of us, or so it seems to me in my unenlightened confusion, are not tucked into the serene seclusion of a monastery where we can sit imagining a bus to be an illusion. We are running around in relative truth, stuck in the slambang of Samsara, looking for a way out. So why tuck the Dharma teachings away for later or somewhere too high for our reach? The lotus, remember, comes out of mud, fertilized by a lot of filth. Hopefully you can read all about it here, the fertilizing filth of 21st Century life that gets you on board a Dharma vehicle.
Down here where all the ouch becomes grr-ouch, it may be helpful to remember the Lojong slogan variously translated as: if you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained, or the ability to practice through distraction is a sign of progress. As I said in an earlier post, last fall three great teachers came to San Francisco, all saying the same thing: sitting in serenity in a cave is easy; walking in the world and keeping the equanimity you can get in that cave is the true test of practice. The point of enlightenment, Jetsun Tenzin Palmo said fearlessly, is: are you a happier person day by day? Do you breathe easier?
Ponlop Rinpoche has asked his students to practice the paramitas this year in a personal way by dedicating each month of the year to one of the six. March was patience, May will be meditation, which in the Mahayana context, he says, means focusing enough to become intimate with the Bodhisattva qualities of compassion and kindness to others. Mother’s Day is in May, a good start for such a focus.
April has been Diligence, or Exertion, which doesn’t mean becoming workaholic, but rather overcoming the huge obstacle of laziness by delighting in practice. Obviously, something delightful is not something you want to drop, so pleasure in practice turns it into a favorite carry-on, a reach for, a cloth to polish up your Buddha nature. One particular aspect of laziness Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche pointed out is no self-confidence, basically shrugging off practice because you think you’re too stupid or busy or weak to bother. Or you are not good enough. Diligence is getting a grip on that old “I think I can, I think I can” little train that could attitude. It helps you to notice when you’re backsliding into “I can’t deal with this”, as I did with the hair cut and financial loss.
Someone once asked Tulku Urgyen how to maintain a daily practice when they had to run off to work, chores, family obligations that took up almost their entire day. Rinpoche replied—at least in the book transcript I read: “Start your practice in the morning and go up to the mantra. Stop there and carry the mantra with you through the day as the continuation of practice. Close when you come home. That makes your whole day practice.”
Every little bit helps so I mumble some mantra or other through the day, and it does magically open up a space in which steam dissipates. I know because I have a ridiculously low threshold for annoyance. If I pay attention to practice—don’t just read the elegant texts and leave their lessons on the shelf, nobody gets to notice it too much these days. I’ve somehow managed to raise the bar so that I’m only ticked off maybe twice an hour instead of ten times, and catch it faster and faster. Sorry to say, I am still a fount of frustration behind the wheel of a car—remember Woody Allen in Sleeper? But at least I notice, and sometimes when I catch myself ready to scream at a slow driver in the fast lane or somebody who turns abruptly without a signal, I scream Karmapa Kyenno instead as a cry for help.
My personal trick to take Dharma to work is to use it to remember which floor of the parking garage I find space on. Since this is a spontaneous happening, every day my car gets left on a different floor and most days, the rigors of the job wipe out all memory of where the car is. Having spent way too much time wandering from floor to floor wondering where the now damn Toyota is, I’ve developed a little dharma device. If I’m end up on floor two, I go up in the elevator thinking about the absolute and relative truths. On three, I take refuge in the three jewels three times before starting work. On four, I recite the four noble truths, on five name the Buddha families. If I end up on six, I name the paramitas three times in the elevator going up, on seven I think of the seven branch prayer and do the seven offering mudras, as long as I’m not carrying anything. If I have to go all the way to eight, I remember there are eight auspicious symbols, but truth told, I end up singing to myself that famous old Contadina tomato paste advertising ditty: Who put eight great tomatoes in that little itty bitty can?” Know the rules so you can break them, Trungpa Rinpoche supposedly said, and never lose your sense of humor.
Finally, because getting a street parking spot in San Francisco is nothing short of a blessing, I always dedicate the merit when I turn the motor off, going as it were from one vehicle to the other.
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