A thought for a new year…

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

As the sun passed another milestone and the earth was beginning another orbit, the Buddha gathered his followers together on the side of the mountain to tell them a story. A wise village brahman was known across the country for his ability to ask the right questions. While this may seem far less important than giving the right answers, scholars and teachers and lay people alike came to him for one reason — he had the ability to ask them questions they could answer themselves. He had no need to take a position or give his view but his questions would lead his audience to an enlightened answer, solving problems with words that others solved with money and force, the power of their office rather than that of their mind. He had begun as a teacher with little material wealth but after years of asking questions of the land’s most powerful rulers, his store of gold and silver and precious stones was beginning to rival that of princes — yet he still lived in a simple one-room dwelling on the edge of the forest. Rumors abounded that he buried his wealth between the trees but nobody had ever seen him so much as carry a shovel and even the most hardened criminal would think twice before stealing from one with such powerful friends so he could have kept the gold piled behind his hut and it would have remained safely there — yet he didn’t.

The mystery was solved unexpectedly when a elderly prince travelled several months with his closest advisors to see the brahman and tell him his troubles — the recent death of his three children from three sudden accidents, each in a different city of his lands. The wise brahman asked him a single question. “Who gains by their deaths?”, a question he had often asked himself but had been too afraid to answer. With his own health failing and his brother’s eldest son in line for the throne, the clarity that ensued and coincidences that now fell led the prince to prostrate himself at the brahman’s feet and offer him his own cloak of gold thread interwoven with silk. The brahman couldn’t refuse, although he tried, and bowed at the prince’s feet in return as he was showered with silver and gold and more precious stones than he imagined possible for one person to count in a lifetime. He left his hut the next day, that brahman, without leaving word where he was going and six months passed without his face being seen, many believing him dead and mourning his loss as someone truly wise and compassionate for the people he lived among.

His return was just as unexpected but far more welcome yet he had no gold, no silver, no gemstones and no fine cloak of gold and silk. Word began to filter through, though, with the arrival of travelers from other parts of the land of miraculous gifts appearing overnight spread among the poor from one end of the land to the other, not gold and silver but baser metals — the meaning was the same, though. Six months of trading gold and silver for more common things of value and pressing them on the poor to ease their suffering but not so much as would give them cause to find new suffering in greed. It was the cloak the people couldn’t understand, though. It was not something that could be easily turned into everyday goods or simply given to someone without attracting vibrant attention and commentary, not to mention the wrath of an incensed prince if his gift was not treasured as he imagined it should be.

The mystery was solved one morning when a traveler, on the road for many months, arrived from the far eastern reaches of the land, telling stories of a humble statue of Lakshmi who had overnight been given a beautiful cloak — what prince could possibly object to his clothes being worn by a goddess? A sign of wisdom, avoiding the pride of keeping the cloak while not bringing wrath down on his head by offering the gift to another. The statue was rumored to be the site of much devotion and healing power since her new clothes had appeared.

So there was no gold, no silver, no gemstones, no cloak. The simple-living brahman, on his death, was found to have had the most valuable gift of all, wisdom, but had kept no other beyond what he required to live. Every handful had been offered immediately to save the lives of those in the land around him. Suspecting this to be the case, as the brahman lay dying, the same elderly prince whose cloak now enveloped the shoulders of Lakshmi’s statue had made a pilgrimage to see his friend, two old men alone in the small hut baking in the late-summer sun’s evening heat. Reversing the roles, the prince asked his question, “why, when even the wisest of brahmans across the land take refuge in their wealth when they have been honestly given it, as you have been, have you given it away — not simply most, to ease the suffering of others, but all of it? Could you not have eased your own suffering somewhat and still been an honorable man?”

His answer was clear and his friend, the prince, left the next morning after the life had departed from the brahman’s eyes. “If I value the robe I wear as more than simply the comfort of covering my skin, it has become a source of pride and self and I must give it up or all the wisdom I have been given has been for nothing. If I cling to a single grain of silver when it would give comfort, it is no more than dogmatic allegiance, ritual where compassion would better serve. It was either to keep all and give up a life of service or keep none and smile at death this night.”

It is a new year and a new life. The Buddha teaches us that there is no past except in its effect but that we must make our choices now and live this moment. Each day is the beginning of our lives but it is customary to celebrate that newness in recognition once per year and in the west, that day is today.

So what do the teachings tell us in recognition of having woken into a new year — a new decade, in fact, by our calendar? I believe this story gives us three lessons, echoed in many places, that would be wise to reflect on. In spite of the fact that the brahman in the story is not explicitly a Buddhist, which he certainly couldn’t have been, as he predated the Buddha’s life likely by centuries, he is walking the path well enough that he is being used as an example by Shakyamuni-sensei himself.

1 – Practice is the goal, not reward. This one is rather obvious but I must admit that I often forget it. And I forget it for days and weeks and months, not simply for moments of confusion. Delusion is our humanly state, not something that only happens when one puts poisons like alcohol down our throats pretending it is permissible in recognition of a special day. I forget that it’s living this moment that is the point, not in preparing for tomorrow or next year. Enlightenment happens now and is not about achievement. It’s about accepting that every choice I make in this moment is mine and taking ownership of it, then using those choices to serve others rather than just myself. You indeed may not have forgotten this, or at least not nearly as often as I have, but I know I rarely get through a day when I do not. This is, I believe, my greatest weakness in the face of human delusion.

2 – Your robe is meaningless. Not the spirit in which it was given, of course. But we often take refuge not in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha but in ritual and dogma. How many times is the bell invited to sound? How many bows? Who addresses the statue and where is it placed? Does the bowl of water sit to the right or the left? Do I give offerings with my left hand or my right? How deeply do I bow? It is being a student of the Buddha that gives our lives meaning, not the names we put on it — priest, teacher, layperson, follower, Buddhist, arahant, bhikkhuni. Those are certainly noble pursuits and this is certainly not a judgment of those those labels apply to, myself obviously included. It’s not that being a teacher of the way is not how we should spend our lives — in many ways, that is exactly how we must spend our lives if we are truly to be of service and those who do this are worthy of our respect and thanks, our bows and words of praise. But there is a difference between practicing the way and being wrapped up in its traditions. Putting on your robe to meditate on a teaching may open your mind and prepare you and that is its goal. Hearing the sound of a bell lovingly invited to sound may remind you to stop and breathe and live the path in this moment, not be consumed by thoughts and actions that are habit rather than compassion and wisdom — the bell is our friend in ways mere humans often cannot be. But when we teach others “how to practice”, “how to get it right” and think of it as something we must learn, not the lessons of the Buddha and the wise ancestors but those of temple ritual, we have lost the path, strayed from the way. The Buddha would not be impressed with us. Buddhism is not a straightjacket, nor is it a cult, a religion or a tradition. I often find myself straying into uncomfortably deep waters here, losing my devotion to the path and the truth of oneness and interbeing in favor of the safety of three bells and three bows, familiar chants and recitations, incense offerings and silent sitting, as if those were more than the way to learn and get to know ourselves but an end in themselves, which they can never be — the bodhisattva path is service to others, not only to ourselves and when we serve only our own traditional desires and need for stability, we have lost our footing. I admit that this is my second-largest failing and hope that a new year will strip me of my error.

3 – Sitting meditation is not the answer, only the question. The wisest of our ancestors sat in meditation. The story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, pledging to sit under the bodhi tree tempted endlessly by Mara, the symbol of grasping and clinging to wealth and desire, until he found the answer (often read enlightenment) to human suffering, is the foundation of our belief in the power of self-reflection. And meditation is incredibly valuable, hence its preeminent position in Zen teachings. The Buddha practiced many different forms of meditation — contemplating specific questions, focusing on his breathing, watching a single spider spin a web for hours or a bird build a nest. Meditation is not about clearing the mind or being empty of thought. It is not about eliminating thoughts or anger. It is about letting our human nature, the monkey-mind, go about its work without having to acknowledge it, accepting our thoughts and feelings without suppressing, repressing or judging, finding answers for ourselves. It is not enough to simply sit — “just sitting” is worthless if we do not search for answers. Finding them, that’s a whole other question and one we often cannot accomplish but it is in the attempt that meditation finds its value. It’s not a workout or a physical exercise. If you are stiff, if it makes you sore, if you don’t feel like you want to sit for another hour when you are done, you are doing it wrong. We sit because we love to sit, meditate on koans or teachings, questions and answers, focus on our breath and our bodies, the beauty of a sunset or the sound of a river in the distance because it helps us to be more connected to ourselves and our path of compassion for the world. Meditation is not the answer but it is, if we do it right, a pair of winged shoes to wear as we walk the path. We should all sit. We should all meditate. We should all come together in peace, relax our backs and necks and shoulders and be on the floor, equal and as one sangha body, fluid both in our physical natures and in our minds. And I give thanks for the two teachings of meditation — that I must always take time to breathe and that I must never be rigid either on the cushion or in my life.

It is a powerful story and I see myself as the confused aging prince or the inquisitive villagers seeking the guidance of the wise brahman. More than two millennia after the Buddha walked his path among us, I still see my own blinders and traditions getting in the way of following him. This is my new year’s reflection. I offer its merits to you in the light of a new life just beginning.

May you walk in streams of peace and taste the love of compassion.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.