“Monks, all is burning…. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of greed, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion….” ~ The Buddha
Sitting again with my teacher, Ajahn Sona, was a cool breeze of ease in the heat of these summer days. It was the first time in nearly two years that I was in his presence at a weekend retreat after his own one year silent retreat at Birken Forest Monastery where he is the abbot. He shared with us brilliant, funny, insightful teachings that flooded my parched heart with renewal and fertile understandings. One of his lessons asked us to notice when we experience greed or hatred and to bring to mind the words, “Ah, I am deluded.” What a simple and kind way to acknowledge dukkha, suffering, in ourselves and others.
Walking in meditation outside the church where our retreat was held I practiced another of his instructions, concentrating on joy and its arising in my being. As each step softened in the exploration of happiness the silence was suddenly punctuated with the sound of a weed-whacker whirling to life. My previous encounters with similar sounds would be to immediately label such a product of my hearing as noise and then sequester it to the category of unpleasant. To my surprise what arose instead was immense gratitude. The words “I can hear!” exalted in that present moment and I felt a glorious expansion of my being, enabling me to witness a profound shift in the way I could be in the world.
Unfortunately being in the world of late can be very hard and the news is not so joyful. There are downed planes, some missing and others shot from the sky. There are neighbours killing neighbours in Gaza and Ukraine and Burma. There are girls and women kidnapped in Cameroon, and increasing threats to the sustainability of our planet taking place around the globe.
I’ve found it immensely painful to read the news these past few years. The politics, the scandals, disasters heaped upon disasters, the hatred seeping from the headlines was more than I thought I could bear. Perhaps it was avoidance; perhaps it was that I thought I needed to strengthen my capacity for compassion before I could impart it to the beings I read about in my daily internet news feeds. I see now that my aversion to all the suffering and unthinkable malevolence is also just another form of delusion. Where I am contracted, where I pull away is exactly where I need to lean in, where I must open and be with whatever exists in this moment, only this moment.
When I see pictures of sobbing Palestinian children and surreal remains of crumpled airline fuselage scattered amidst a field of brilliant sunflowers I know I am witnessing unfathomable suffering. Turning away is no longer an option and labeling the people and events with any surety is as misguided as the condemning of a sound emanating from a piece of garden machinery.
The world is burning. The sparks of greed, hatred and delusion, the three “roots of the unwholesome”, fuel all of the cravings of this existence. As Bhikkhu Bodhi, the eminent Buddhist monk and scholar writes, “They exist not only as motives in individual minds but as forces that energize colossal social systems spread out over the world, touching virtually everyone. Thus they are now much more malignant than ever before.” The hard truth that the Buddha spoke could easily have been delivered in the context of dark times, of shadowy sides to us humans and thus hard to see, things that can be dismissed for their elusiveness. Yet he used the simile of burning, of flames, of something that cannot be avoided, something that threatens every being to its core.
So what can we do? Is remembering “Ah, yes, we are deluded” enough when the flames of discontent rise higher and higher? A shift in any course can only begin with a change of mind, a new way of seeing. Perhaps it starts in knowing that Israelis and Palestinians, Buddhist and Muslims, factions of all beliefs and systems, all of us can and must wake up in this burning building and recognize the dire outcome if nothing is done. Greed, anger and delusion are the incendiary devices. Generosity, loving kindness and wisdom are the cooling waters that will ultimately extinguish the flames.
For me it begins with opening the next news article and noting what arises in me. It could be sadness or revenge, despair or anger. Maybe there will be joy and tears for a survivor found in wreckage or compassion for the person who fired a misguided missile. It’s recognizing the delusion in each expression of our separateness and hearing the echo of a mother’s wail on the other side of the earth as a wail for the suffering in each of us to cease. What I must do is be aware of each and every moment and be open for all of it. For wars and floods and weddings and funerals and gasoline powered weed-whackers that remind me of the madness and beauty of this precious world.
In a Dark Time
By Theodore Roethke
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood –
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks — is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is –
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
From The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, by Theodore Roethke
Excerpt of The Buddha from Adittapariyaya Sutta (The Fire Sermon) (Samyutta Nikaya, 35:28)
Please read more of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s insightful article, Reflections on the Fire Sermon, in Parabola Magazine, Winter 2012 Edition.
Gaza Conflict by Associated Press via HuffingtonPost.co.uk