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Forging a Kind Heart in an Age of Alienation
by Heidi Singh
Those who lived in Los Angeles during the riots of 1982 will rememberthe alienation, mistrust, anger, frustration, and tremendousfear that permeated every segment of the community andevery level of society. Frustration was a major component of theexperience: a feeling of helplessness, coupled with an overwhelmingdepression over the present and anxiety concerning the future.However, after the riots, after much contemplation and discussionwith friends and strangers, I was convinced that the principles ofreconciliation can be applied not only to our families, but to ourcities as well. The teachings of Buddhism are very clear about compassionas an antidote to alienation and anger, whether on the personal,civic, or global level.
There are two guiding principles found in the Buddhist scriptureswhich have tremendous importance for all practitioners. Thefirst is a segment of the twin verses of The Dhammapada:
Hatred is never overcome by hatred;
Hatred is overcome only by love.
This is an eternal law.
The second is contained in the Karaniya Metta Sutta, or Discourse onLoving Kindness
As a mother would risk her own life
To protect her only child,
Even so let one cultivate a boundless heart
Towards all living beings.
Let one's love pervade the whole world,
Without any obstructions,
Above, below and across,
Without hatred, without enmity.
It was inspiring to meto discover that Venerable MahaGhosananda, the beloved and respected monk and teacher, citesthese two passages in a special prayer he composed for the peaceof Cambodia and the world. I also use these verses from the Tibetantradition:
With the determination to accomplish the highest welfare for all sentient beings, who excel even the wish-granting gem, may I at all times hold them dear!
Whenever I associate with someone, may I think myself the lowest among all and hold the other supreme in the depth of my heart!
In all actions may I search into my mind, and as soon as delusion arises, endangering myself and others, may I firmly face and avert it!
When I see beings of wicked nature, pressed by violent sin and affliction, may I hold these rare ones dear as if I had found a precious treasure!
When others, out of envy, treat me badly with abuse, slander and the like, may I suffer the defeat and offer the victory to others!
When the one whom I have benefited with great hope hurts me very badly, may I behold him as my supreme Guru!
In short, may I, directly and indirectly, offer benefit and happiness to all my mothers; may I secretly take upon myself the harm and suffering of the mothers!
May all this remain undefiled by the stains of keeping in view the Eight Worldly Principles; may I, by perceiving all Dharmas as illusive, unattached, be delivered from the bondage of samsara!
These deceptively simple words are very difficult to fully understand,and even more difficult to put into practice. In 1972, whenmy husband and I were first married and living in India, His Holinessthe Dalai Lama gave us a copy of this text. I have treasuredthis small booklet for the past twenty years and have ponderedover it at many stages of my life. I am not sure I understand it evennow, but I am convinced that it is a valuable teaching to put intopractice and a worthy ideal to strive toward.
There is no doubt that the regular practice of meditation is a fundamentalrequisite for any kind of reconciliation. I doubt if onecan attempt any real healing of relationships without it. Of course,psychotherapy is a great help, particularly in cases where one hasbeen abused and/or is in a co-dependency situation. More andmore, psychologists and psychiatrists have begun to see the valueof meditation as a tool in dealing with family dynamics.
Personally, I am convinced that the reconciliation I have experiencedwith my parents could not have been possible without mymeditation practice. This is particularly true in my relationship withmy father, who passed away in March of 1991, and who was a lifelongalcoholic. A brief exploration of that relationship will illustratethe role of Buddhist practice in family reconciliation far betterthan any theoretical explication.
First, it is essential to point out the very important role of loving-kindnessmeditation in this process. My own teacher, VenerableBalangoda Anandamaitreya (who is now nearly ninety-eightyears old), never ceases to emphasize the power and importanceof this practice, particularly in personal relationships. Whenever Ispeak to him, he urges me most insistently to practice loving-kindnessmeditation toward my husband and especially toward myparents. Communication had previously been a missing aspect ofmy relationship with my father. Even when we spoke to each other,it was never on a heart level, but only about superficial matters.Although the situation looked particularly hopeless with regardto my father, Venerable Anandamaitreya assured me that if I practicedloving-kindness toward my father every day at the same time,without fail, things would improve.
An Unexpected Result
Just a few months after my teacher's instruction, after he had returnedto Sri Lanka, my family suddenly learned that my fatherwas very sick. Indeed, he was dying of lung cancer that had metastasizedto his bones, a fact which he had known for some timebut had hidden from me, my mother, my husband and son. By thetime I discovered his secret, my father was entering the final stagesof his life. In the end there remained only one week to say ourgood-byes and come to an understanding.
A major breakthrough had occurred about twelve days beforemy father passed away. I was visiting my father in a regular wardof the VA Hospital in Los Angeles. He was angry as usual, at everythingand everyone except me, it seemed. He suddenly turnedto me and said with eyes glassy from unrelenting pain and an ever-increasingdosage of powerful drugs, "The thing I can't understandis, why me? I've never hurt anyone in my entire life!"
Of course, I was dumbfounded and had to take a moment tocollect my thoughts. How could I reply to this? My immediate reactionin the past would have been anger. Here was a man whohad caused endless pain to a great many people during his lifetime,particularly my mother and me. How could he possibly claimhe had never hurt anyone? At the time, however, I realized that hewas gravely ill, though I did not yet fully understand that he wasdying. I knew that retaliation on my part would not be helpful,either to him or to me. Another route was available to me: to playthe co-dependent role of "Mary Sunshine," a lifelong learned patternof behavior. This would enable my father to indulge his self-pity,while assuring him that indeed he had done nothing to hurtanyone and didn't deserve his suffering.
At that moment, however, I chose a middle path. I was honestwith my father for perhaps the first time in my life. I took a deepbreath and said in a very calm voice, "Dad, I don't think it hasanything to do with that. Everyone is subject to suffering and illness.We are all vulnerable to disease. This is just part of beinghuman." He looked at me quietly, with a little surprise. He seemedcalmer than before. This was the first episode in a whole series ofevents that paved the way for our reconciliation.
On his sixty-seventh birthday, my father was moved out of theregular ward and into a hospice a few floors down. A long conversationwith the hospice director helped me deal with the shock ofwhat was happening. Just the night before, my father had telephonedme, raving about an operation the doctors could performthat would be his last chance. His being so out of touch with realityis not uncommon among terminally ill patients, who sometimesgrasp at straws for any hope of recovery. My confusion was compoundedby my father's lifelong tendency to fantasize and fabricatea whole reality of his own. The hospice director assured methat my father knew he was dying and had made the decision toenter the hospice himself. She added, however, that he could usemy support to bolster his decision.
That evening, my husband, my young son, and I visited myDad in the hospice to celebrate in a quiet way his last birthday. Inthe days ahead, there was much to do. My father communicated asense of urgency and asked me to take care of some personal mattersfor him. I also called my mother in Sacramento immediatelyand told her gently that if she wanted to say good-bye to my Dad,she should come right away. Although my parents had been divorcedfor twenty years, my father was my mother's first and onlytrue love, in spite of all the suffering their marriage caused her.
Thus, my mother and I were able to be with my father in hisfinal days. Looking back, my great regret is that, being overwhelmedwith practical matters at the time, I did not have the opportunityto be completely reflective about the tremendous eventthat was taking place. Nevertheless, whenever I had the chance,usually late at night, I meditated and prayed and considered howbest to help my father through the transition he was about to undergo.It was at this time that I sought help from a small volumethat a Zen monk friend had given me about fifteen years earlier:Philip Kapleau's The Wheel of Death. In this small and clear book, Ifound the necessary strength and assistance to prepare for myfather's death. Particularly helpful to me were the ten (Mahayana)precepts as formulated in the section entitled "Dying: PracticalInstructions":
I resolve not to kill but to cherish all life.
I resolve not to take what is not given but to respect the things of others.
I resolve not to engage in improper sexuality but to practice purity of mind and self-restraint.
I resolve not to lie but to speak the truth.
I resolve not to cause others to use liquors or drugs which confuse or weaken the mind, nor to do so myself, but to keep my mind clear.
I resolve not to speak of the misdeeds of others but to be understanding and sympathetic.
I resolve neither to praise myself nor to condemn others but to overcome my own shortcomings.
I resolve not to withhold spiritual or material aid but to give it freely where needed.
I resolve not to become angry but to exercise control.
I resolve not to revile the Three Treasures [i.e., the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha] but to cherish and uphold them.
These were my guiding principles as I recited the Heart Sutra andprepared daily for the task of being with my father and comfortinghim as all of us awaited the momentous imminent event.
During this time, my compassion toward my father grew, and Ibegan to see him as a being whose whole life, since his early childhood,had been eaten up by suffering. This suffering caused himto lash out at others and cause more pain in a cycle that he did notunderstand and was therefore powerless to stop. The time for recriminationsand judgment on my part had long passed. I realizedthat the task at hand was to help my father die with as peaceful aheart as possible.
Another thing that happened was that I was finally able to feela deep love for my father that had long been dormant in my heartdue to abandonment and fear of rejection. This was the great giftof non-fear that I derived from the recitation of the Heart Sutra.This was the fearlessness I needed to see my father through thegreat passage which all humans fear above all else.
The Last Day
Spiritually, my Dad was in pretty good shape. He had been visitedregularly by the Catholic chaplains of the hospital and had receivedthe last rites more than once. The day before he died, my motherand I had brought a priest friend to see him as well. That was fortunate,because this same priest would be the celebrant of myfather's funeral Mass. I brought my father some small prayer booksand a new rosary because he had lost his old one. But nevertheless,I knew my father was feeling afraid and alone.
The day he died, a strange thing happened. My father emphaticallyrefused all medication. It seemed he was very determined tohave a clear mind when he made his transition. That morning, whenI went to see him alone, the sight of his physical condition wasappalling. His body was shrunken and his face was emaciated. Helooked like a corpse already, although he was fully conscious. I felthelpless. I did not want to do anything to upset him or cause himmore pain. Gently, I spoke to him and touched his arm. He wasglad I was there, but could no longer speak.
Finally, I asked him if I could recite a Buddhist prayer for him. Istill don't know why I asked this, but I knew it was more for methan for him. He nodded somewhat enthusiastically, so slowly andcalmly I recited the Heart Sutra near his ear. To my surprise, as Iwas reciting, he kept his eyes closed and tears streamed down hisface.
When I finished, I suddenly felt an outpouring of love for myfather, along with the courage to unlock my tongue and tell himall the things I could never say before. Here he was a captive, andthe gift of non-fear exercised itself in me. Gently I told him howmuch I loved him and that I was grateful to him for all the goodthings he had done for me. I reassured him that I would pray forhim always and do whatever I could for him. Tears continued tostream down his face. Fearing that I was upsetting him, I askedhim if he wanted me to leave. He shook his head emphatically,"No." Then I asked him if he wanted me to stop talking. He nodded,"Yes." And so, silently, I stood by him for some time and mentallydid the loving-kindness and healing meditation that I hadbeen doing for him every day.
After awhile, I told him that I had to leave but would be backsoon. I brought my mother and son to the hospital to see him inthe afternoon. Then, knowing my husband wanted to say goodbye,I picked him up and we all returned to the hospital. My husbandand son talked to him, and my husband took our son outto the car after a few minutes. My mother and I remained, somewhatconfused and anxious. We looked at each other helplessly.My father's death seemed imminent and we did not want to leavehim alone, yet we could not possibly know exactly when it wouldoccur.
Suddenly, just before eight o'clock, my father sat up in his bedwith a great struggle. Instantly we knew he was dying. He lookedat us with eyes wide open, though by now his sight was gone, andtried desperately to speak. Both my mother and I were somewhatawestruck by the enormity of what was happening and by the suddenenergy with which my father was urgently trying to communicate.Yet both of us stood our ground and gently but very firmlytalked to him. We reassured him that we loved him and that wewould stand by him and pray for him. Somewhat impulsively, Itold my Dad that he had nothing to worry about and not to beafraid. For the first time, he was going to be really happy. Overand over, my Mom and I just told him gently that we loved him. Ialso told him that nothing remained undone. He could not speak,but he opened his mouth and mouthed the words, "I love you."And after a few minutes of struggle, he lay back down on his pillow,closed his eyes, and after a few more breaths, with some difficulty,died. He had been just eight days in the hospice.
Reconciliation and Daily Practice
In the days and weeks following my father's death, I wholeheartedlydid the practice outlined in The Wheel of Death, reciting the tenprecepts and the prayer suggested by Philip Kapleau, followed bythe Heart Sutra, and the bodhisattva vows. In the week after hisdeath, we had several services for my father, including a CatholicMass (where I gave the eulogy), a Buddhist service at my temple,and a full military funeral at the VA cemetery. Several Buddhistmonks conducted services and we observed the forty-ninth dayafter death. There was a special service at the temple on the ninetiethday, in accordance with Sri Lankan custom. My husband andhis family in India offered prayers in the Sikh tradition, and Hindufriends and relatives also did puja for him.
For me personally, the reality of my father's death intensifiedand deepened my own practice, particularly through the recitationsthat I was making on his behalf. The first days after his death,I was especially intent on helping him make the transition in whateverway I could and reassuring him that we were all doing ourbest to help him through. The precise instructions given to me bymy revered teacher and those few months of intense practice hadprepared me, though I had had no idea what I was preparing for.
Looking back, I see that the road to reconciliation had been pavedby my own acceptance of my father. In the previous year and ahalf, we had resumed contact. I had accepted his strange visits andgifts without rancor and had made the effort to get together forhappy, if somewhat tense, celebrations of birthdays and holidays.He had made a great deal of effort to meet me, too, and only afterhis death did I realize the urgency with which he had approachedthese get-togethers. I regret not knowing that he was dying. Yetmy acceptance of my father was probably that much sweeter tohim, precisely because I didn't know.
Bloomfield and Felder, in their book Making Peace with YourParents, sum up the most compelling argument for attemptingreconciliation:
To make peace with your parents, you may have to give up a lot. You may have to give up your resentments, your anger, your annoyance, your desire to punish and your need to blame. You may have to give up resisting your parents and be prepared even for times when it appears that they win and you lose. You may have to learn to admire and respect a parent for whom you may now feel a degree of contempt and hate. Indeed, you may need to learn to accept your parents exactly the way they are rather than the way you think they should be.
"Why bother?" or "Who cares?" you might say. It is not primarilyfor your parents, but for you. Your peace of mind, your loveand work relationships, and your moment-to-moment alivenessmay be at stake.
There are many ways to go about the work of reconciliation.Getting in touch with your anger is one approach, but it isn'tenough. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh observes, we need to get tothe roots of our anger and achieve real transformation throughunderstanding and mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh also claims,in a way that touches me deeply, that true reconciliation can bedeveloped through the development of true compassion:
We can also meditate on the suffering of those who cause us to suffer. Anyone who has made us suffer is undoubtedly suffering too. We only need to follow our breathing and look deeply, and naturally we will see his suffering. A part of his difficulties and sorrows may have been brought about by his parents' lack of skill when he was still young. But his parents themselves may have been victims of their parents; the suffering has been transmitted from generation to generation and been reborn in him. If we see that, we will no longer blame him for making us suffer, because we know that he is also a victim. To look deeply is to understand. Once we understand the reasons he has acted badly, our bitterness towards him will vanish, and we will long for him to suffer less. We will feel cool and light, and we can smile. We do not need the other person to be present in order to bring about reconciliation. When we look deeply, we become reconciled with ourselves, and, for us, the problem no longer exists. Sooner or later, he will see our attitude and will share in the freshness of the stream of love which is flowing naturally from our heart.
For me, reconciliation would not have been possible without allthe components that make up my practice: meditation, recitationand chanting, study, and the observance of precepts. They all gotogether toward forging a kind and compassionate heart, whichwe want to achieve. And these components of practice pave theway to liberation for all beings, for in liberating ourselves fromanger, hatred, and ignorance, we help liberate from their sufferinga great many others, especially those beings with whom we havean immediate karmic connection.
Just weeks after my father's passing, the abbot of my templecalled and asked if I would be willing to observe the traditionaleight precepts permanently. When he explained them in detail, Isaid, "No problem." I also expressed a wish to add a few. Workingwith three eminent Sri Lankan scholar-monks, we developed a newministerial ordination utilizing twelve precepts and emphasizingthe long-standing bodhisattva path in the Theravada tradition thathas been overlooked in the past. During the celebration of Vesakin 1991, I was ordained as a bodhichari along with two others atour temple in Los Angeles. My ordination, I believe, was my father'sgift to me. As the Shobogenzo says:
By accepting and upholding the precepts in your deepest heart you can eventually attain to supreme enlightenment.... Who could possibly reject this? Buddhas have shown to countless living beings that when they wholeheartedly take into their life the moral precepts they do in time attain Buddhahood, becoming Perfectly Enlightened.... The wind and fire [the inner energies] fanned by the profound influence of Buddhas [as a result of accepting the precepts] drive one into the intimacy of enlightenment. This is the awakening of the wisdom mind.
Excerpted from BUDDHISM THROUGH AMERICAN WOMEN'S EYES by . Copyright © 1995 by Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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