Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What's the point?

The Tibetan syllable "hung" (see below)

I discovered this story in Wake Up To Your Life (WUTYL) by Ken McLeod:

According to the Tibetan tradition, Avalokiteshvara ( also called Lokeshvara, Kwan Yin), the bodhisattva of awakened compassion, received the awakening-being vow from Buddha Amitabha. Avalokiteshvara vowed that he would work for the benefit of beings without limit and, to convey the depth of his aspiration, he resolved that should he ever succumb to despair his head would burst into a thousand pieces.

For time beyond reckoning, Avalokiteshvara worked to free beings from the cycle of existence. He worked for eons and eons and finally took a break to see how he was doing. To his dismay he saw more beings suffering in cyclical existence than when he had begun. "What's the point?", he groaned, and his head burst into a thousand pieces.

Buddha Amitabha appeared before him and reminded him of his vow. Avalokiteshvara resolved to work again to help beings, but this time without any expectation or idea of accompanying anything. Through the power of Amitabha's inspiration the thousand pieces of Avalokiteshvara's head became a thousand arms, each with an eye in the palm.

To formulate a new vow of awakening mind, Avalokiteshvara looked over the world of beings and saw three things: beings were suffering from poverty, reactive emotions had grown stronger, and being needed help fast. Now truly present, Avalokiteshvara experienced the suffering of the world for what it was. Direct awareness took the form of a syllable in his heart, a blue-black hung, the syllable of pristine awareness.

The syllable hung transformed into the Fast-Acting Protector, the six-armed form of Mahakala, the embodiment of the wrathful energy of compassion. The Protector represents how the clarity of compassion, free from subject-object dualism, cuts through all confusion and works for the welfare of all.

I like this story for its crazy 'over-the-top' symbolism of exploding heads and forests of eye-waving arms, all in the interests of suffering humanity. I also relish Avalokiteshvara's taking an evaluative break to audit his performance - a very Twenty-First Century thing to be doing. One can almost see him, sweating into the monogrammed ("AV") leather seat of his Porsche soft-top as he punches data into his blackberry, pulling at an uncorked magnum of Veuve Cliquot, and groaning: "What's the ****ing point?"

Perhaps allegories like this were written to resonate with people's everyday experience, to illuminate it, and to show us that we are not alone. In the story the hero Avalokiteshvara reached "rock bottom", the pit of despair, a place of darkness from which there was no way out. He was, as so many people say nowadays when stark reality impinges on fantasy, "shattered". Despair is, for many, the point at which we wake up, 'see the light', 'turn round in the seat of consciousness', 'find salvation'. For alcoholics, it's the First Step.

I've been in that place and so, I dare say, have most of you who read this. At such a time all our elaborately-constructed edifices of thought and opinion about what we are, who we are, and what we think we ought to do, all crumble to nothing, leaving nothing for us to do except what lies in front of us, directly, nakedly. This is the moment of awakened compassion, a moment of pristine immediacy. Christina Feldman describes it like this: "We are all beginners in the art of compassion". And our first act of compassion is, as it must be, for ourselves.

A few weeks back I met Claire Breeze, a disciple of Joan Halifax Roshi. Claire is currently undertaking chaplaincy training with Upaya Institute and Zen Centre in the US, and we arranged to meet at Jamyang in South London for a chat about the Trust and her chaplaincy work. It was while talking with Claire that I realised how parched and arid my practice has become, and how much in need of spiritual refreshment I am. Claire teased me gently for my slightly curmudgeonly take on things, but we found we have much in common, and her account of Joan Halifax's influence and orientation inspired me and lifted me up. Claire told me later that our meeting had inspired her, too: "Something small and simple. I am going to make an offering in my local area to simply be with people who are chronically ill or reaching end of life. Nothing complicated or highly sophisticated, just simple sitting, bearing witness and befriending."

How wonderful this is. How perfectly and simply Claire's offering captures the essence of the Ananda Network's mission of "being present, bearing witness, and befriending" - a statement that bears resemblance (dare I suggest) to the hung syllable that lay in the heart of Avalokiteshvara as he experienced the suffering of the world, and embodied that wrathful energy to overcome it.

For several years now I have despaired at the inadequacy of my chairmanship of the Buddhist Hospice Trust, at how ineffectual have been my efforts to 'modernise' or 'renew' it, to understand how it might work to bring succour to people in need, to recruit new support, to mobilise and encourage energies in others. As the poet W B Yeats wrote in 'Things Fall Apart', "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity". I sometimes feel these words might be my epitaph!

Enough beating myself up. I am spurred on by the tale above, and by Ray Wills's gentle mantra, "Do what you can, perfection isn't on offer".

To be continued soon....

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