By Svein Myreng
I had mixed feelings when Thay introduced a new translation of the third paramita as “inclusiveness.” This paramita had previously been translated as “patience” or “forebearance.” I could relate to patience. I could meet a difficult experience in my life, such as illness or painful feelings, and then I could stay with the feelings without trying to push them away. My patient waiting was rewarded when the feelings – sooner or later – would change into something else. With this practice I often was rewarded by learning something about myself. I knew the value of patience as I had frequent practice through illness.
Thay’s way of seeing the third paramita is more radical. I think he’s saying: “Live your life fully even when it’s not pleasant.” I remember a practitioner at Plum Village saying to Thay, “You say present moment, wonderful moment, but sometimes the present moment isn’t wonderful at all. It’s very painful.” Thay replied something like this: “It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it is still wonderful.” This is a deeply non-dualistic attitude. Thay often reminds us that the pleasant experiences depend on the unpleasant ones. If we don’t know hunger, we can’t really enjoy eating. If we don’t know illness, we can’t appreciate our health. By including the difficulties, we open our hearts. There is no separation between what is and what we would wish to be. In contrast, patience implies that I accept the difficulties but hope things will change. This creates separation between our present experience and our desired experience. We are still not at peace.
After having major heart surgery in 1997, I had a period with intense pain and frequent moments of depression and fear. I cried frequently when I was depressed. When fear was in my mind, I was really afraid. I was almost like a child, physically helpless and direct and in the moment with my emotions. Only to the smallest degree was I burdened with thoughts of how I, as an experienced practitioner ought to react. Looking back, I realize this is the practice of inclusiveness. I experienced life vividly, and in the moments when I was not depressed or afraid, I experienced fully the joy of being alive. I savored each small accomplishment. It was a rich time.
The contrast is clear between this situation and experiences where I search for ways to blame myself or others. Ironically, I find myself falling into blame more frequently with smaller difficulties. When I judge a situation as unpleasant or difficult, I start looking for ways to change it, or make sure it will never happen again. Judging a situation in this way, and then finding someone to lay the blame on, I harden myself and remove myself from a direct experience of life.
Married life has provided me with insights about this pattern in myself. I have seen how mixed ideas of how something “should be done” easily leads to blaming. When two people come together with different ways of looking at what it means to live as a family, how to do household work, and raise children, there are ample opportunities for blaming. It can be very hard even to see that my way of doing something isn’t the only one, let alone actually letting go of my preference. When something goes wrong – the toddler throws a temper tantrum, dinner is delayed or burned – it’s so easy to think that it must be because my partner handled the situation in a different, less skillful way than I would have done.
People who are married within our tradition receive “The Five Awarenesses” to read together at every full moon. The Fifth Awareness is a strong reminder that blaming and arguing are destructive: “We are aware that blaming and arguing can never help us and only create a wider gap between us.” The point about the wider gap is important. Judging and blaming creates separation, preventing us from seeing both the situation and the other person(s) involved with clear, compassionate eyes. Reading the Awarenesses makes me more aware of the patterns which lead to this way of being. I can observe myself more clearly, apologize when I see that I am unfair, and rejoice in the times when I act responsibly without blaming.
Inclusiveness is easy when life is pleasant. It is including the things we don ~ like that is the challenge. When we don’t accept a trying situation, again we create separation and conflict. Acceptance doesn’t mean being passive or condoning injustice. Acceptance is to calm down inside, and see the situation clearly. Sometimes, this leads to change quite naturally. At other times, we see that we have to just be with the situation as it is. We may find we can have space in our hearts for difficult situations or people, or we may find this just too difficult. Our limits vary according to our well-being at a given moment. Sometimes, we have to accept the fact that we aren’t accepting of the present moment.
We often judge a difficult situation by making a fixed image of it and comparing this image to an ideal. This is too simple. Even a difficult situation contains elements that are joyful, but the fixed image makes it impossible for us to see them. Thay’s poem about the tree that’s dying in his garden is about this. Even if one tree is dying, there are other trees that are alive and beautiful. By looking only at the dying tree, we make the situation much worse than it needs to be. By changing our perspective a little, it is easier to have an open, inclusive attitude. We can develop our ability to change perspectives through practice.
We also blame ourselves. When something goes wrong, it must be because someone made a mistake – perhaps it was me? Often, we are quick to blame ourselves before others blame us. Blaming can be a very intricate business. Behind the tendency to blame, there are fixed opinions of what is the “Right Way” and behind the fixed opinions, we often can find fear. The little child within us who was afraid of being blamed, the self-image that we keep on gluing together, these are the fearful ones. Can we meet them – in ourselves and in others – with acceptance and tenderness?
When we don’t accept ourselves, we create a separation between the way we are right now and the way we think we ought to be. I’ve been surprised to see how harshly I can judge myself. However, when I am able to embrace my humanness fully, I experience real peace, because the conflict between reality and ideal disappears. I can also be the garden with many beautiful trees even if one of them is dying.
Many spiritual teachings, including teachings of Buddhism, are focused on helping people change themselves, which support our tendencies to not accept ourselves as we are. Thay’s teaching is revolutionary as it deals with living in a good way right now and not trying to change into someone else. Instead of striving to reach a future promise of self-improvement or even enlightenment, Thay’s teaching deals with no striving at all. The beautiful paradox is that precisely when we don’t strive, a real change can come about quite naturally.
Svein Myreng, True Door, is a Dharma Teacher who lives in Oslo, Norway, with his wife, Eevi Beck, and their two-year-old son, Kyrre.