issue 19 winter 02
15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | current

Extending a hand

Seeing that aspiring to save all beings is not beyond the reach of ordinary people, Manjusura is making the Bodhicitta a living practice, not just a remote ideal.

Late last September my friend Thomas drove me to a cottage on England's north Norfolk coast. I was beginning a two-week solitary retreat for which I'd been longing for several months. Tom helped me in and shared a pot of tea, and then he drove off, leaving me to an unfamiliar house, to the beach and woods nearby, and to two unplanned weeks. I had no idea what would emerge.

Since September 11, radio, television and the Internet had reported the impending US retaliation for the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. There are several US army and airforce bases in Norfolk, and there had already been some movement of troops and equipment. When I walked on the beach, I heard military aircraft flying high above the obscuring clouds. One day they circled out over the sea, back into land, back out to sea for hours, their engines an ominous, ghostly roar, distant but deep and resonant, that seemed to fill the entire afternoon. Another evening, as the sun was setting, two fighter jets emerged from a break in the clouds, flying low and slow over the water, returning to base.

I had brought on retreat a book by Pema Chödrön, a western Buddhist nun in the lineage of the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rimpoche. I had chosen this book because the title fitted how I was feeling: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. For the previous few months I had been occupied with the many tasks of running an urban Buddhist centre, and tired by trying to sort out difficulties in the men's community where I lived. Reading that book and being alone, I realised I'd been feeling sorry for myself. Later, when I told my friends what I realised on retreat, I held my hand up close to my face, so my palm grazed the tip of my nose. I realised with some shame that my own difficulties were in such close focus that I was incapable of seeing beyond them to take in the lives of people around me. Not that I was unconcerned, but my own suffering was in the foreground, and that made it harder to take in others, except in the most blurry, peripheral way.

I had also brought with me a Buddhist magazine with a headline article on the subject of 'bodhicitta'. It had attracted me from among the many magazines arrayed in a local bookshop – as across its cover was printed: 'Even ordinary people like us have this mind of Enlightenment called bodhicitta'.

Citta means 'heart' or 'mind'; bodhi means 'awake' or 'Enlightened' or, according to Pema Chödrön, 'completely open'. 'Bodhicitta' is sometimes translated as 'thought of Enlightenment', or – as in that headline – 'mind of Enlightenment', or 'heart of Enlightenment'; sometimes as 'awakening mind'. Sangharakshita, founder of the Order of which I am a member, translates it as 'the will to Enlightenment,' by which he means to communicate that it is not just an idea or a thought, but 'an immensely powerful drive'. Over the years I have read about and heard several talks on bodhicitta, but it has always seemed remote – concerning rescuing beings from suffering. That seemed a grand and distant aspiration to which it felt naïve and presumptuous for me to aspire. I had heard people discussing the best context for the 'arising of the bodhicitta', as though that would be a huge surge of energy shooting up through my body, or through the floor of a warehouse or shop where Buddhists were working together, and the world would never be the same again. Something in me switched off when people started speaking about the bodhicitta. It seemed 'not-yet-relevant' to me.

That was partly why I was drawn to that headline: 'Even ordinary people like us have this mind of Enlightenment called bodhicitta'. I had decided that ordinary people like me couldn't understand the bodhicitta and should just get on with trying to lead a harmless life. So, while I'd heard such pronouncements, I hadn't paid them much heed.

But somehow the events I'd witnessed on television on September 11, and subsequently pored over in newspapers and magazines, had shifted something inside. And as the first week of my retreat passed, I became aware of how I had been affected by what I had seen and heard. Those events that had wrenched apart other lives had touched my own. This was mainly as a reminder of the vulnerability of my own life and the lives of people I love. These events felt much more immediate than most disasters, having happened in a culture that resembles my own. But chaos and human suffering are pervasive: the life – at least the stability, happiness and health – of everyone, everywhere, is always under threat. The images of people much like myself leaping from the 100th floor of a building reminded me of the terrible fragility of the human body, and I could easily imagine myself in a similar position. With reflection, my awareness of this vulnerability seemed to spread wider and wider. I reflected that every day thousands of people die in pain and fear, whether in accidents, at the hands of other humans, through cataclysms of nature, or through disease.

Although I didn't really know what it was, I sensed that bodhicitta was what I needed – that in this concept that had so long confused me I would find guidance. The magazine article described bodhicitta as 'a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound'. This was so different from my own understanding. Having seen bodhicitta as a remote aspiration, I hadn't taken in its aspect of tenderness. I was focusing on the distant goal, not what it would feel like to want to aspire towards that goal. This image of an open wound made sense to me, though, because the world suddenly felt more vulnerable. I hadn't understood that bodhicitta is about not just aspiration, but also action – how we respond to suffering in the world.

I decided I would work to understand bodhicitta, and since my way of being in the world is oriented towards writing, I realised that this would be through writing about it. I thought of the opening of the Bodhicaryavatara, a text by an eighth-century Indian monk called Shantideva, which I have studied and always sensed to be an important book for me, though I never understood why. Shantideva writes that his text will not say anything new, but that he is presenting these teachings 'to perfume my own mind'. I decided while on retreat, at a time when my heart was tender, that I would write about bodhicitta as a way of understanding it myself, and of 'perfuming my mind'.

Returning to the idea of my vision being blocked by my difficulties, I recalled that Shantideva also used the image of a hand. He described how we automatically reach down to protect an injured limb, and asked why we don't usually respond with the same immediacy and concern when it isn't our own but another person's limb that is hurt. He then wondered, 'Why can I not also accept another's body as my self?' And he resolves that, 'in the same way one desires to protect oneself from affliction, grief, and the like, so an attitude of protectiveness and compassion should be practised towards the world'.

In Tibetan tradition bodhicitta is described as having two aspects: relative and absolute. Absolute bodhicitta is seen as an aspect of, and sometimes as an equivalent to, Enlightenment itself. Relative bodhicitta is spoken of as a disposition and an orientation for practice – the 'attitude of protectiveness and of compassion' that Shantideva describes. I think it is with this distinction between absolute and relative bodhicitta that my confusion arose. Relative bodhicitta eluded me, and along with it the practice-orientation that makes it meaningful day-by-day. I had thought of bodhicitta as a goal, one of those distant no-goals of the Mahayana, so I was unable to engage with the practice of bodhicitta, the work of cultivating an 'attitude of protectiveness and compassion', of realising my connection to other beings and seeing beyond myself.

Early on in my Buddhist practice I understood that practising the Buddha's teaching involved cultivating wisdom and compassion. I remember reading that these qualities were the two sides of the coin of Enlightenment. But I discovered that it is possible to engage with compassion as a useless ideal, a theoretical caring that remained in the realm of thought, seldom translating into real concern for the lives of people around me. The scholar Paul Williams makes an interesting distinction in his book, Mahayana Buddhism: 'A purely spiritual compassion is of very limited use and benefit.' By 'purely spiritual', I understand, 'as opposed to practical'. And then Williams asks, 'Why should the compassion of a great Bodhisattva be limited only to the spiritual?' An abstract compassion that makes no difference on a daily level is hardly useful or beneficial. Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche made a similar point. 'Compassion by itself is not enough; [beings] need actual help.'

Buddhism asserts that mindprecedes all things. So mind is the fundamental level on which we must approach the cultivation of compassion. This is a slightly knotty point: surely if actual help is needed, then we must do something useful to relieve others' suffering? But people rush off to war zones for all kinds of wrong reasons – sometimes with motivations that have more to do with their own psychology than any compassionate impulse. War zones aside, people try to help in everyday situations for reasons other than those they reveal, or even acknowledge to themselves. Training the mind towards compassion includes clarifying our motivations, becoming aware of what needs doing, then cultivating a genuine longing to help.

I have found one practice outlined by Shantideva in the Bodhicaryavatara particularly effective. 'Whoever longs to rescue quickly both himself and others should practise ... exchange of self and other.' There are several formulations of the 'exchange of self and other' as a formal meditation practice, but all share imaginatively identifying with and taking on the hardships of other beings, and sending to them all our positive qualities, and our freedom, security and pleasures. The way I have approached this practice derives from the Tibetan lo-jong or mind-training tradition, and is known as tonglen or 'sending-and-taking'. The meditation involves breathing in the sufferings of beings, which one visualises as black smoke, and then breathing out to them a bright, pure light. It's a simple practice, but it dramatises the desire to identify with others.

I was re-introduced to this practice a few months before my retreat, having first encountered it 10 years ago when I began practising with a Tibetan Buddhist group. At that time, I had found it simply too confronting – I felt unable to hold the degree of suffering that I saw and could imagine in the world. In Norfolk I started slowly, by introducing 10 or 15 minutes into other meditation practices I was doing daily. This was enough for me to notice a feeling of my heart opening wider.

Pema Chödrön elaborates the tradition in recommending what she refers to as 'on-the-spot tonglen': a moment-by-moment identification with others. She says that the formal meditation practice is simply a reminder to practice spontaneous tonglen. When we notice a desire to pull away from another person, or to protect ourselves from a situation we find frightening or uncomfortable, or when we feel a painful emotion, we shouldn't immediately follow the impulse to escape. Rather, we should try to stand our ground, and then practice well-wishing, which we can visualise as taking in dark smoke and giving out pure light.

For me, this has been an effective,though often difficult, way to lower the hand that obscures my vision. That is not to claim that I've managed to put that hand to useful work in the world of suffering beings, but occasionally I have seen beyond it, just enough to respond appropriately to another person. Or at least I haven't strengthened my tendency to self-protection and isolation by pulling away from them. Travelling on the London Underground a few weeks ago, a tattered, strong-smelling man settled down beside me. My first thought was to find another seat; it took an act of will to remind myself that he wanted the same things from life that I want, to remain open, and not to run away. So I practised on-the-spot tonglen, and I saw that it does have an effect.

An appropriate response doesn't necessarily involve doing something. It can simply be staying with a difficult or uncomfortable situation. This seems to go against the points made by Williams and Dilgo Khyentse, but I am discovering the importance of seeing suffering without pulling away. Before we can help, we have to learn just to look.

About five-to-ten in the morning I switched on the kettle. Tom is a man of his word, and the doorbell rang as the clock struck 10. As we had initiated my retreat with a shared pot of tea, so we now closed it, Tom filling me in on events in Cambridge. As we drove back I tried to communicate the themes that had emerged from the retreat, beginning by holding my hand close up to my face.

More recently, on a trip to Manhattan, I spent time walking slowly through the area around the World Trade Centre. There is to those streets a sense of irretrievable loss. In his book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chögyam Trungpa discusses bodhicitta in a chapter entitled 'The Genuine Heart of Sadness'. 'The genuine heart of sadness' comes from feeling that your ... heart is full. You would like to spill your heart's blood, give your heart to others'; and, 'this experience of sadness ... occurs because your heart is completely exposed'. Identifying with another person, really suffering with them (the root meaning of 'com-passion'), Trungpa suggests, is the basis for bodhicitta.

In New York I found it easier than usual to do the meditation practice I was given at ordination, which involves visualising the 1,000-armed form of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Meditating one afternoon while riding the ferry across Hudson Bay back to Staten Island, I could easily visualise the Bodhisattva in the clear sky over Manhattan, his 1,000 arms radiating around his body, reaching out to beings in need. Each arm ends in a hand opened in the gesture of giving, and in the centre of each hand is a wide-open eye, which is said to see the particular suffering of each being, enabling the Bodhisattva to respond appropriately.

This strikes me as a fitting image for what my work entails. It involves bringing down the hand that habitually obscures my vision, and slowly transforming it into the wide-open, clear-seeing hand of the Bodhisattva.