“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness”. – Dalai Lama
Kindness? How wimpy is that? isn’t that for your Aunt Matilda rather than a world-changing philosophy? Surely there is more to all this Buddhist stuff than that?
Traditional Zen practice, as opposed to ‘magazine-Zen’ where it has become a byword for cool, or minimalism, can be tough and certainly to the outside can seem unduly harsh, particularly in its Japanese, monastic face. As a young man some of this both scared and challenged me in equal measure. I was able to dip my toe into it in Japan and step back, but there were always those bone-grinding stories of the old masters confusing my soft self, and certainly my early experiences with my first Zen teacher seemed full of toughness and kindness in equal measure. However, while I took pride in sitting like a mountain regardless of the pain, I quickly learned what could be said and what not. The whole experience was heavy on the ‘masculine’, precious little of the ‘feminine’, in an almost all-male Zen culture.
To talk about kindness in the Zen context then may seem to some a little out of place. Where are all the sweet words, happy songs and warm embraces? Well actually, today, while there is still no Zen music culture, there is definitely more warmth, plus a good healthy dollop of humour. But kindness and the ‘great matter’ can seem odd bedfellows for some. To see into one’s true self seems such a daunting task at times given the ever-resourceful ‘I’ always ready and willing to co-opt everything and anything for its own further ‘fake-news’ story.
However after all those years of naively getting cross with myself, at each and every seeming misstep, I slowly realised how foolish that was and how my discovery of my own missteps was, rather than the error I harshly marked myself down for, a sign of my gradual, if slow, awakening from my sleep. Like a billion drips on a stalagmite, each discovery of how I was not doing what I thought a ‘Good Buddhist Practitioner’ should be doing, was the practice itself. Phew, some folks are slow to catch on!
In asking us to cut suffering at its root, Buddhism turns everything upside down in a radical and revolutionary way. Robert Thurman had a nice word for it, meditators as psychonauts, boldly going…to the infinite, silence, within. German writer Karlfried Graf Dürckheim called it being ‘transparent to transcendence’.
There is then a deeply serious, awe-inspiring side to the journey we are attempting to travel. At the same time we make this journey not on some high tech space shuttle, but rather cleaning our own house, smiling at the ticket collector on the train, opening our heart to those around us, equanimity in the face of discomfort, befriending others and ourselves.
It requires great effort and vigilance to practice. Perhaps not easy to do in our sometimes ill-disciplined culture. If we, for a moment, assume that discipline and effort as a given, if we are not vigilant it can lead to us becoming hard, effort-bound and stiff in our determination to ‘do the right thing’. So we need to balance it with that grandmotherly kindness that Zen can both embody and warn its teachers not to over-indulge in. It is a hard balancing act. Larry Rosenberg, in his excellent book Breath by Breath says:
“Effort is needed to launch the art of mindful living, but not effort loaded down with comparison and self-condemnation. Mindfulness actually makes your mind lighter and freer”.
As I get older I find myself appreciating kindness as a core part of our practice, more and more.
Can I be kind to the inanimate and animate world I interact with hour by hour, not to bang the door or kick the cat? Can I be kind to those whose path crosses mine each day in simple ways, remembering to make friendly eye contact with people serving me coffee, being truly kind as if I really, really knew that we are all part of the oneness of life? Can I be kind to those who I live with and love and maybe, sometimes, take for granted? Can I be kind to myself as I witness my pratfalls from the perfection I had in mind? Can I be kind to my silent self as I see my mind wander off on its zillionth journey as I sit zazen, knowing that thinking and not thinking are both part of life? In short can I let kindness, in its most revolutionary and radical way, permeate my life and my being, so that I and possibly those whose lives I touch, are infected by the sweet, life-giving virus? This is the challenge as I remember that I cannot do this practice for myself alone. Who, after all, is that?
It is quite easy to contemplate kindness when the sun is shining and all is well with the world. However, the true test is to look up at the dispiriting state of a world where virtue is crushed, lies masquerade as truth and untold violence is a common feature, and try and find a place where a sliver of kindness can squeeze through. As one-time Zen student, Leonard Cohen, reminds us:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Even with the humdrum and prosaic I can easily slip and lose it in the face of the madness that is the public square. It is not, that we should always be kind, in a ‘nice’, ‘soft’, ‘smiley’ and mawkish way. Zen practice does give me other options, some swords of truth of a robust and muscular kind, to cut to the essence of things. But if I can revert to a quieter stream of kindness as soon as is appropriate, then I have a compass that can keep resetting my course, when the storm is abated.
Few of us, thank goodness, are tested in the Nelson Mandala way, of decades of imprisonment, injustice and degradation. Kindness 101, as the Americans might say, could start when “John Smith,” from Bangalore, rings you about your gas bill, for the umpteenth time. How did you score on that little test?
So while it is an eternal work in progress, and a daily, hour by hour challenge, aspiring to let the light of kindness in, as my default mode, is a key part of my Zen practice. As Pema Chödrön puts it:
“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already”.