Dharma Talk: Be a Real Human Being

by Larry Ward mb36-BeAReal1I love the smells here. They’re old, been around a long time. I can feel the ancient presence of the native peoples, in the rocks and in the mountains, in the trees and in the river. It makes me very happy to be here in this space.

Compassion is very concrete practice. Compassion can make a huge difference in how we live our daily lives, how we make our daily decisions. And our practice is to feed ourselves those things that nourish our compassion. That’s what a bodhisattva does. The bodhisattvas feed themselves the spiritual food, the emotional food, the physical food that nourishes and cultivates their mind of love. That’s the second characteristic of a bodhisattva. The wisdom of nondiscrimination is one, and cultivating the mind of love is the other.

At retreats this past summer I heard Thay say something that I’ve never heard him say before.  He said, “Be a real human being.”

So I’ve been meditating on that. When Peggy and I led a retreat in Oklahoma City recently, we were doing walking meditation at the Murrah building site where the bombing happened several years ago. It only took a minute for that devastation to happen. At the east gate, “9:01 a.m.” is carved in stone, and at the west gate, “9:03 a.m.” Between them are 161 empty chairs, for the people who were killed at 9:02. The first row is made of smaller chairs for children, because there was a daycare center there.  And as we walked around that memorial, it became really clear to me that Timothy McVeigh never had a chance to be a real human being. How do I know Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a real human being? Because a real human being does not perpetrate violence. That’s not the act of a real human being. Violence is a dark cloud floating across the blue sky of a real human being. A real human being is not trapped in or addicted to conflict and jealousy. Yes, we all have seeds of conflict and jealousy in us, but our seeds of conflict and jealousy are a dot against the blue sky of a real human being

We all have the capacity to be greedy, to want too much, to give too little—to ourselves as well as others—but that is not the motivation of a real human being. That’s a shadow passing across the ground of a real human being.

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A real human being is like this camp—this camp is our host. The earth is here, supporting us and holding us; the trees are here, the creek  is  running.

Just holding us, whether we’re short or whether we’re tall, whether we’re young or whether we’re old, whether we’re black or whether we’re white, whether we’re straight or whether we’re gay, whether we’re this or whether we’re that. A real human being is a host, welcoming everything. In the morning when the sunlight strikes the sky for the first time, you can look in it and see dust in the sunlight. A real human being is the sunlight, not the dust.

Our practice is to water those seeds in us, to create an environment around us that gives us a chance of being a real human being. What I’m trying to do with this practice is to cultivate my best self, the best Larry possible. And when I do that I manifest the way of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is another name for a real human being. Thay told a story this summer about a wonderful woman from Holland that he met who saved thousands of Jews from the gas chambers in World War II, all by herself.  Bodhisattvas are real people.  Recently I started thinking about a brief encounter I once had with Martin Luther King; he was a real human being. Mother Theresa, whom I met when I lived in Calcutta, was a real human being. She was so real that when she thought something, you just did it.  [Laughter.]  It was astounding!

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Thay is that way. Peggy and I had promised Thay last year that we would join him on a trip to Korea last spring. But as April approached, we were moving from one side of the country to the other and we were extremely busy. So we wrote Thay a beautiful letter saying why we couldn’t come to Korea. We got a note back: “Thay is very sad. Here’s the schedule in case you change your mind.” [Laughter.] That’s all a real human being has to do. Being near a real human being is so rare an opportunity that any time we can, we go because it is a chance to be trained. To be trained in what? It’s a chance to be trained in becoming a real human being.

So we went to Korea, and it was a profound experience of the bodhisattva way. One day in Korea, five thousand people joined us in walking meditation, as we walked into the subway where a man had committed suicide and had killed 200 other people. He left a note, saying he did not want to die by himself. We did walking meditation into that subway where family members were still gathered, with candles, altars, and pictures. It was powerful to go from the daylight down those steps into that dark subway. You could still smell the fire. It was profound practice in offering compassion without saying a word.

The world needs real human beings. In the Lotus Sutra there is a section called “arising up from the earth,” and in it the Buddha is having a conversation with hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas from all over the galaxy. One of the reasons they’ve gathered is that they’re concerned about planet Earth, and they asked the Buddha, “Do you need reinforcements?”  [Laughter.]  “Do you need help?”

And the Buddha said no, at this very moment bodhisattvas are rising up from the earth. Real human beings capable of living like the blue sky, like the sun and the moon that shine on everything. Shine on confusion, shine on clarity. Shine on sadness, shine on happiness. Shine on birth, shine on death.  Rising up from the earth.  It’s a powerful statement.

If you want to do something with your life, be a real human being. If you want to do something for your children, your grandchildren, be a real human being. If you want to do something for America, be a real human being. In everything you need to be a real human being. And it’s already inside of us; it’s in every cell of our body. However, we have to be trained to develop it, cultivate it, and to apply it. This is one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights—that one has to be trained to live life deeply. Most of us assume you have to be trained to be a doctor or a nurse or a pianist or a schoolteacher or a cabdriver or a cook. The idea that we have to be trained to live profoundly, seems to have never crossed anybody’s mind! You have to be trained to live. It’s one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights, and that training is lifelong.

The Buddha designed his life so that nine months of the year he was in public service, and three months of the year was spent in in-depth training. He designed his day that way also. He had very long days, lots of people coming and going, lots of teaching. But three times a day he withdrew for his own training, his own practice.

I think the dilemma for every one of us in this room, right now, is how do we design a life that allows that to happen for us? Our society is not structured for us to be real human beings; it’s structured for us to be consumers. And you don’t have to be a real human being to be a consumer. Our education system, our economics, our political process, don’t give us the time or create the environment for us to train ourselves in being a real human being. The training every bodhisattva has had for over two thousand years, is training in six things, and it’s the same training the Buddha had when he was a bodhisattva-in-training.

These six things are called the paramitas. They are practices that take us from the shore of fear to the shore of non-fear. From the shore of greed to the shore of non-greed. From the shore of hate to the shore of non-hate.

The first one of these practices is generosity. First, it means learning to give physical things we have without reluctance. Sharing. Basic kindergarten kinds of issues: “I have a cookie, and you don’t have one. What do we do now?” [Laughter.] Generosity. We have to train ourselves. Even though the impulse is deep inside of us, buried in ourselves, to share and to give, we are so quickly trained out of it by our society, by our culture. This is not just our culture, it’s every culture: “Don’t you do that, don’t give them your cookie.” Why? Because they may come back tomorrow for another one. We have tremendous rationales for cutting off and killing our true human being. Generosity: giving without apprehension, giving without fear.

There’s a great story about the Buddha’s generosity. The Buddha and his cousin Ananda were out for a stroll, and a man came up, bowed and said, “Dear sage, my mother has a medical emergency, and in order for her to be healed she needs another eye.”  So the Buddha took his eye out and gave it to the man. The man took the eye from the Buddha, threw it in the dust and stomped on it. And while he was stomping on it, Ananda said, “Hey, wait a minute!” But the Buddha said, “Ananda, the gift has already been given.”

Generosity. The practice of generosity is the practice of giving. For most of us, if people don’t do what we want with our gift we’re upset. That is the practice of non-generosity. When a gift has been given, it’s no longer yours, it’s no longer mine. And of course, there is no greater thing a person can do for their friends than to lay down their life, as Jesus reminds us. And the laying down of your life could be something as dramatic as martyrdom, but it could also be something as undramatic as going to a classroom full of children every day for forty years. It could be as mundane as going through your social work files for the thousandth time and not giving up on yourself and not giving up on humanity. It could be the fifty-fifth conversation with your daughter about the same thing, and you know you’ll do number fifty-six, you won’t withhold that from her.  Generosity.

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We train ourselves so well that eventually our generosity becomes like the Buddha’s.  It’s spontaneous – sure, here’s my eye.  But for most of us now we have to think about the cookie—the eye’s a long way off! And that’s the purpose of the training. The training takes us on a journey from the cookie to the eye. And we don’t get there without training. I know how hard that is for Americans who want things fast. It takes practice. It takes training.  It takes time.

The second paramita is diligence. It’s called Right Effort in the Eightfold Path. How can we be diligent? The first step of diligence is figuring out how to be consistent in your practice. Once a day, twice a day, once or twice a week with the Sangha, My own personal experience is that you cannot practice too much.

Once we have a daily practice rhythm, diligence means looking deeply within ourselves. It’s going into great inquiry. As Master Empty Cloud would say, “Great inquiry into our fundamental face.” That’s the practice. To have the courage to look into our real face. Not our five year-old face, not our ninety year-old face, not our American face, not our female face, our male face. Our fundamental face. Our original face, some have called it. Our Buddha nature, others have called it. The face of nirvana is our fundamental face. The face of a real human being. Great inquiry. Diligence. Looking into who we really are. And when we begin to see who we are, we begin to see who everybody else is.

For a long time I’ve been estranged from my son. I’ve written him letters over the years, but we have never been reconnected at the heart level. This year while practicing, I discovered the last threshold that stopped me from reconnecting with him. I realized that I didn’t know who he was: I didn’t know his fundamental face was the same as mine! I forgot about his Buddha nature. I forgot about his blue sky. And I forgot that because I forgot that about my face. As soon as I had that insight, within three days I got a phone call from a friend who said, “Your son’s looking for you.” And I’m looking for him. When we leave this retreat, Peggy and I return to Boston where we’ll be for a month, and we’re staying about two miles from where he lives, and he and I have plans to hang out.

Inclusiveness is the third paramita. That’s a very popular word in diversity circles. You want to be inclusive. Okay. Inclusivity is the practice of developing the capacity to receive what life gives us. To receive the pain, the suffering and the disappointments and to develop the capacity to take it in and to transform it into compassion.

Some years ago Peggy and I had our house burn down in Boise, Idaho, by an arsonist who had been sent by the Aryan Nation. I was working in California when the fire started. Because the fire occurred at two-thirty in the morning, they expected us to be there sleeping, and they meant to do us real harm. Peggy called me at three o’clock and told me that she and our dog Reggae were safe but the house was a total loss. I said, “Okay, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The whole time I was rearranging my schedule I was so stunned at the very idea that somebody would do that. I realized I didn’t know how to think like that.  I realized I didn’t know how to feel like that about anyone. I asked myself, how could somebody do that?

So over the next year as we rebuilt the house, I began to look into what kind of person joins that group. And I found out that they come from very poor economic backgrounds.  That most are high school dropouts. See, I’m moving toward inclusivity. That, if you look a little deeper, you’ll discover that nine out of ten of those people have been abused as children, emotionally and sexually. That’s how somebody could do that. Just looking for something to do to somebody, to strike out with the rage, with the anger, with the pain that’s just sitting there, growing.

Inclusivity practice takes time -this is about patience. This is not about having a Pollyanna attitude. For two years, Peggy had post-traumatic stress symptoms from being there when the fire started. But what is most important about this experience is that we were not harmed. What I mean is that we did not find ourselves having to be cruel. We did not find ourselves wishing ill will. We did not find ourselves having the seeds of hatred watered and developed at all. Anger, yes. Disappointment, yes. Shock, yes. But we did not become possessed and cruel. We did not have our focus turned around and reoriented to try to eliminate someone who tried to eliminate us. Protected by compassion.  Protected by inclusiveness.

There’s a wonderful story of the Buddha. Around his time of enlightenment, Mara came and sent armies who fired arrows at the Buddha, and as the arrows got closer they turned into flowers and dropped to the ground. Now, I want to be like that. [Laughter.] And we can! That’s just the practice of inclusivity. I’ve seen it happen with Thay. I’ve seen an arrow coming at him, and by the time the arrow got to him it was a flower. Peggy and I were sitting with Thay and Sister Chân Không and a few others when Thay got the phone call about his sister passing away in Vietnam. And we watched him receive that news, knowing he couldn’t go to be with his family. We watched that news go in and come back out as compassion for the person on the phone who had to give the message. Inclusivity.

Mindfulness trainings, the fourth paramita, are characterized in the Eightfold Path by right speech, right action or conduct, and right livelihood. The first role of the mindfulness trainings is creating stability and safety in and around ourselves. You know, it is very difficult to reach tranquility and profound insight in sitting meditation if you’re constantly looking out the window to see if your neighbor is looking for you with a gun because you stole his chicken! [Laughter] The first function of virtue is to create stability in ourselves, so we can calm down.  So the sand in the glass can settle at the bottom.

Mindfulness trainings are the ground upon which awakening can occur. And they are also evidence of the awakening. They’re both. But it’s a journey. The first step in practicing the mindfulness trainings is to notice your own behavior. Not improving yourself. The first step is noticing yourself with gentleness, with compassion. And the second step is slowly beginning to try to shift the pattern. The third step is healing the pattern. And the fourth step is transforming the pattern. Most of us want to go from step one to step four. Be compassionate with yourself. The key is to continue to practice. Mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating.

There’s also a secret of the Eightfold Path that’s not written down. It’s called right association. During a retreat last summer one of the children asked Thay, how did he get so peaceful? And Thay said, “Well, first I wanted to be peaceful. Second, I had an image of what that might be like.” And he referred to a time when, as a young person he saw his first picture of the Buddha sitting mindfully on the grass. “Third, I surrounded myself with peaceful people. Fourth, I added to that an environment that would support my practice of peace.” Right association.

Many of us want more peace, but our associations are not peaceful. We  have to take  charge,  and create the environment that cares for us, that supports us, that will sustain us in becoming real human beings. We have to learn to set boundaries that protect our practice. We have to learn to protect ourselves from others with gentleness and kindness, with kind caring.

Meditation is the fifth paramita that takes us to the other shore. And the other shore is always right here, right now. The practice of meditation is not an escape from life, it’s an escape into life. The classical description of meditation is the practice of stopping, calming, and achieving tranquility, stillness of mind, imperturbability. And the practice of deep seeing, deep looking into life, vipassanya, insight. This must occur for that to occur, and of course they inter-are, as Thay would say. But most of us want insight without stopping, without calming. For example it’s not that we aren’t smart enough to solve the problem of education in America, it’s that we haven’t meditated on it. We haven’t stopped long enough to settle down, to calm ourselves, and to look deeply into it.

Sometimes at Plum Village Palestinians and Israelis gather together. Because the first part of the peace process is about peace with oneself, they’ll spend several days sitting and walking and eating mindfully, and only later will they start to talk about peace with each other. It’s only a political problem because it’s a spiritual problem.

Einstein said the same level of consciousness that created a problem can’t solve the problem. You can only reinforce the problem with that kind of thinking. It’s astounding what can happen through spiritual practice, when, eye-to-eye across the table, father-to-father, son-to-son, daughter-to-daughter, mother-to-mother, all of a sudden we see each other’s children lying in the street and we get it! We get it in the very cells of our body, the possibility of being a real human being, and we know real human beings are not warmongers, that real human beings are not driven by revenge and prejudice. Revenge and prejudice and war are dark clouds floating across the sky of a real human being.

Meditation: stopping and calming and looking deeply into life. Meditation: sitting and walking and eating and lying down. Meditation is more than stress reduction. The purpose of meditation is to transform the quality of our minds. We say we want peace in the world, but we don’t have minds capable of it. We wish people were more kind, but we don’t train our minds to be more kind. Master Tang Hoi from Vietnam used to say that meditation is the process, the practice, of eliminating those clouds in the blue sky that is our mind.

Right view, right understanding, is paramita number six. The realization of perfect understanding is the bodhisattva’s only career. It’s very important that all these practices are done with wisdom. Generosity without wisdom, without understanding, is pity. Generosity without right understanding means you’ve died for the wrong cause. History’s full of examples of that tragedy.

Right view is detachment from views. It doesn’t mean we don’t have views. It means when we have views we know that that’s what they are, just views. Opinions are easy to come by; most of us have opinions that are created by our culture. We have opinions created by our family, by our ancestors, about ourselves and about each other, and we think they are our own. Right view is insight. Right view, right understanding, is about moving from the shore of speculation into the shore of direct perception. To practice developing insight into life, our whole life long,

The way of the bodhisattva is the way of the real human being. It is the way, as Thay would say, of walking with our Buddha feet, so that with every step we enjoy the miracle of being in the present moment. We touch the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God with every step–that’s where we live. With our Buddha eyes, everywhere we look we see wonder.

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