Norman’s third talk at the Mar de Jade December sesshin is on Love and Grief.
Love and Grief
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Dec 07, 2009
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Yesterday I was talking about the Buddha and the Buddha’s heroic path. Maybe you detected a note of irreverence or humor when I was discussing this. Maybe I am just getting old. Or maybe I have met one too many Zen Masters in my life! But I begin to feel there is something a little comical about this heroism. I can’t give it up entirely, because, yes, it’s true: we must be heroic in our practice. We have to make an effort.
It reminds me a little bit of games that boys play, the kind of games that I played when I was a boy. It is not so surprising that this would be the case, because for most of its history, until just a little while ago, Buddhism and religion in general have been imagined and defined by some men who are still boys.
This is why yesterday, when I was speaking of the Buddha and his great heroism, I used the masculine pronoun, although Laura, in Spanish, corrected me! As we know, women can be heroes too, but there is something about being a hero that is more about boys. This is the way that boys grow up, imagining that they are heroes. Maybe, now, these days girls also grow up this way.
How do we know the story of the Buddha? Because men remember the story in the way that they like to tell it, and they passed it on from one to the other, and then they wrote it down. Maybe it’s not even a true story. In fact, I think we can count on it not being a true story in the way that we usually think of a true story, like something that we read in the newspaper. If you have ever been involved in something that was written about in the newspaper, you realize that the newspaper is not always a true story!
If the Buddha is a hero in this story, it is because men imagined him in this way. The Buddha leaves home. He leaves his wife and his child behind. Not exactly an admirable thing for a person to do. But maybe the Buddha does not physically leave home. Maybe that is not what the story is really telling us. Maybe it does not mean so much that he abandoned his family, but that he realized it was necessary for him to love them by letting them go. Maybe he realized that love of one’s self and love of another means letting go, and that this is the only way that there can be respect and full love.
It’s hard to let each other go. It’s painful sometimes, but this is what we have to do to overcome suffering. It is the only way to overcome our own suffering and to help others to overcome their suffering. We have to let them go, let them be independent. So maybe that is what the story actually means.
The Buddha taught letting go, letting go of self. He taught that the self that we cling to is the fundamental human illusion. How much sense does it make to think the Buddha was a great person in the way that we think of a hero or a conqueror? Actually it is very un-Buddhist to think of it like that. What person would we be talking about?
So it is really most true to say that the Buddha, the hero, is the person within our human heart, the person who is free of being a person. In Zen practice, when we appreciate and respect the Buddha, this is what we mean.
Here is another famous story from the early times of the Buddha. It is a story of a nun named Kisagotami. She came from a very poor family, but married the son of a rich banker. Like most women in Asia at that time, she moved to the home of her mother-in-law, where she was very badly treated. She received no respect until she gave birth to a son. Then they gave her respect.
The child, when just a baby, died. Of course, the death of children was common in Asia then. Nevertheless, Kisagotami was a very young woman. She had never had seen death and did not expect such a thing . So, when her child died, she couldn’t stand it, and she went insane. She took her child and ran around, looking for someone who would bring her child back to life. Running from person to person, holding up the dead child, and saying, “Do you have medicine that will bring this child to life?” Of course, no one knew what to say to her. Finally, some kind person directed her to go visit the Buddha. She said the same thing to him, “Can you give me some medicine to bring this child to life?” The Buddha said, “Yes, I can. Go find a house where you can find a mustard seed and bring the mustard seed to me. But there is just one thing: the mustard seed must come from a house where there has never been any death.”
Feeling great hope, Kisagotami ran around the village, knocking on every door, asking for one mustard seed. Almost every house had one mustard seed, but she couldn’t find any house where there had not been a death touching someone in the house. After going to many, many houses, little by little, she understood, because she could feel the shared grief with every person she asked. Eventually the shared grief broke the shell of her madness, and she came back to herself. Finally she could recognize that her child had died, and she let him go.
Then she went to the Buddha, and she asked him if she could become a disciple, if she could become a nun. She became one of the most important practitioners in the early days of the Buddha.
We have a poem by Kisagotami, written so many generations ago:
I have practiced the great eight-fold path straight to the undying.
I have come to the great peace.
I have looked into the mirror of the dharma.
The arrow is pulled out. I have put my burden down.
What had to be done, has been done.
Sister Kisagotami, with a free mind, says this.
There is another story in the Buddhist scriptures about Kisagotami. This is a time when she is a nun, and she is going to meditate in the forest. Mara, the Lord of Death and Evil, comes to her, just as he came to the Buddha. This is what happens:
Thus have I heard. Once when at Savati, the Buddha stayed at Anathapindika’s jeta grove. The nun Kisagotami woke and got dressed and went into town with her bowl to beg for food. She came back and ate her food and then went into the dark forest to spend her day in meditation. Just like the Buddha, she sat down at the foot of a tree. Then Mara, the evil one, came. He wanted to scare her and ruin her meditation. He spoke this verse to her:
“What is going on, Kisagotami? You look as if your child has just died. You sit alone. Tears are streaking your face. You have come to the woods alone. Are you looking for a man?”
She thought, “Who is this? Is this a human being or not? I think it must be Mara. He spoke this way to frighten me and ruin my meditation.” It took a while for her to understand Mara’s words and to understand who he was. When she understood, she spoke the following verse:
“I am finished with the death of my child. Men belong to the past. I don’t grieve. I don’t cry. Friend, I am not afraid of you. Everywhere the love of pleasure is destroyed. The great dark is torn apart. Death, you too are destroyed.”
This is very interesting, because clearly she was crying, and yet she says, “I’m not crying.” Clearly she was grieving. That is how Mara knew to come. But she says that she is not grieving. It is a very interesting story to me.
The story of Kisagotami shows a person who is both very vulnerable and, at the same time, very strong. Here grief overcomes her, and yet, in the end, she overcomes her grief, and overcomes Mara, the Lord of Death, just as the Buddha did. But her story, despite her courage, doesn’t sound like the story of a hero. Kisagotami is not on a heroic mission. She is simply trying to save herself from her unbearable pain. It doesn’t seem as if Kisagotami made a decision to do what she did. It seems that she simply had no choice. She was lucky that with the help of a kind person, she ran into the Buddha at just the right moment. If she had run into the Buddha sooner, maybe she would not have paid any attention to him. If she had run into the Buddha later, it might have been too late. So it was just exactly the right moment.
Maybe we could say that there are two things that brought Kisagotami to peace: very bad suffering and a piece of good luck. She was able to make use of these things, instead of being eaten alive by her suffering, as so many people are. For Kisagotami, death was not something that she could avoid, something she could forget about or ignore.
There are lots of kinds of suffering in this lifetime, but it is possible that the suffering of a mother who loses a child, especially a young child, is the worst possible suffering that there could be. I have practiced closely with several mothers who have been through this. I know from them, a little bit, how hard it is and how long it takes to digest this reality.
So this was Kisagotami’s practice. She says in her poem, “The great dark is torn apart.” The dark is her grief and her fear. When something like this happens, the realization of your worst fear, the whole world and everything in it, outside and inside, becomes fearful. The fear is like a dark curtain that separates yourself from your life. She doesn’t say, “I tore the curtain apart.” She says, “The curtain is torn apart.” When she is willing to come closer, to become quieter, more intimate with her fear, it opens up of itself. She says, “Death too, you are destroyed.”
Maybe you were struck yesterday, as I was, when I read one of the lines that Zen teacher Maurine Stewart wrote. She was talking about the Buddha’s awakening. She said, “He realigned himself with the situation around him.” That was her description of the Buddha’s awakening: “He realigned himself with the situation around him.” The basic human situation is a given. The particular situation of our lives is given to each of us. We don’t turn it into something else, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. We realign ourselves with the situation, and the whole world then becomes different.
When we sit down on our cushions, we are realigning our body and heart to our situation. If sitting is sometimes painful in the body or in the mind or in the heart, that is why. Because if your body and mind are distorted, it is painful to realign them.
Sickness, old age, and death are not something at the edge of our lives. They are something at the center of our lives, always. The Bible sounds like it is telling us that sickness, old age, and death are somehow a mistake. These things wouldn’t exist, but we sinned, and that’s why they exist. But I don’t think this is what the Bible really means. God gives us life, and there is no life without sickness, old age, and death. On every moment, there is sickness, old age, and death. The beauty of our lives is inseparable from sickness, old age, and death. Where there is a body, where there is a world, there will always be sickness, old age, and death. It’s right there.
One or two of us sitting here in the room, myself included, are not so far away from old age. Maybe some of us have parents, who are not so far from old age or who have already died. Of course, we try not to think about old age. After a while, it becomes impossible not to think about it. But old age might not be so tragic or so terrible. Yes, there may be many unpleasant sensations, but there were unpleasant sensations before. When you are really able to feel the unpleasant sensations, it’s not that bad, as long as you don’t make an inventory of them, and then make a theory about it: I am getting old, and now I am scared that it is going to get worse. If you can avoid putting those labels on those things and feel what you feel every day, it’s not so bad.
Also, old age brings tremendous advantages. I don’t know about here, but in the States, you get discounts! Also, I think in old age, there can be a lot more peace. If we are lucky, and we pay attention to our lives, when we are old, we can say just as Kisagotami says, “What had to be done has been done.”
This makes a big difference. You don’t have the pressure anymore of finding a life. It’s very hard to find a life, and you don’t worry about that so much in old age, unless by then, you have still not found a life.
Death brings peace, and as Maurine said, “great peace.” Those were almost her last words. In the story of the Buddha under the tree, he attains awakening like the great hero. We are celebrating that this week. At that time, the Buddha was still a young man. He went on to practice with others for many years and lived to old age, speaking dharma talks every day, with no days off. As we say in Zen, “Without ever uttering a word.”
The tradition tells us that Buddha did not attain complete awakening. As long as he was living in a human body, there was still some sin. Still some work to do. In Zen we say of the Buddha, “He is only halfway there.” Practice goes on. Awakening is just the beginning. It continues to unfold. In the Buddha’s case, he did attain complete awakening. He lay down between two sala trees and entered nirvana completely. This was his true and final awakening. To us, on the outside, it looked like the Buddha died, but actually there is no death. There is only letting go of our life and coming home. At that time of our lives, we are all the Buddha. Until then, and possibly even after that, we continue our practice.
There are many paintings which depict the moment of the Buddha’s ultimate nirvana. In these pictures we see the Buddha lying down on his right side, between the trees. Usually, in the middle of the picture, or slightly lower than the middle, there are plants and animals and people and all kinds of creatures. If you look closely, you notice there are two kinds of people. There are celestial bodhisattvas that have beautiful smiles on their faces, with jewels and beautiful hairdos. Then there are monks and nuns who look miserable and are crying. To grieve at the time of loss is human. To cry when we are about to leave this world, or to cry when someone we love is about to leave this world is natural and painful. Our teachers, our loved ones, our parents, our spouses, even sometimes our children die, and we cry bitter tears. But also, with our practice, we become celestial bodhisattvas. We see love in the middle of the loss. We feel the joy of letting go, and we feel the love coming to fill the absence created by the loss. This is what Kisagotami found and what many others have found. This is how she can be crying tears and say, “I’m not crying.”
So, our heroic journey is complete, and it is just beginning.