My catalyst in this life to becoming a Buddhist occurred when I was a teenager visiting Asia with my parents. In Nepal, we encountered Tibetans in exile, who radiated the most amazing peace and joy despite having lost everything in their flight across the Himalayas. I spent my fifteenth birthday with three new friends, an American woman, an Australian man, and a Nepalese man who were all practicing Tibetan Buddhists. They took me on a tour of the awe-inspiring Buddhist sites of Bodhnath and Swayambhunath and gave me an living example of Western converts to Tibetan Buddhism.
For a few years afterwards I corresponded with the American woman, who was in process of ordaining as a nun. She expressed great joy when I took refuge (formally converted to Buddhism), but when I wrote to tell her of my impending engagement to my now-husband, she was the only person who didn’t offer me congratulations. The gist of her reply was that if I got married I would be tying myself down with ever-increasing attachments that would bind me to samsara, this world of suffering. She urged me instead to embrace spiritual practice. Only through devoted practice, preferably as an ordained nun, could I achieve enlightenment quickly and thus benefit not just myself or a few people but all people.
I was eighteen and in love; I didn’t like her response and I didn’t know how to react to it. I stopped writing to her. A couple years later I got married to a wonderful man. I considered myself incredibly lucky (and still do). But I have to admit, she was right. I am thoroughly tied to samsaric existence. The height of my spiritual practice is striving to be a virtuous householder; I am a long way from renunciation.
Perhaps this early experience set up in my mind that the ideal of Buddhist practice was renunciation. Back in college, when my primary practice was in a Tibetan tradition, I idolized renunciation as the only worthy long-term goal for a Buddhist. I knew of Tibetan Buddhist masters who were not celibate renunciates – such as the great historical lineage holder Marpa and my own teacher, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, who is a Tibetan lama and also a husband and father. However, I always felt that lay practice was inferior to being a full monastic or at least taking temporary renunciation in form of the three-year retreat and I felt that my own practice had a necessarily limited and small potential because I did not aspire to renunciation.
Around this time, I read the wonderful First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening by Susan Murcott, which is a translation of the Therigatha, or verses of the elder nuns, the earliest known collection of women’s religious poetry. Here are inspiring poems and songs by wives, mothers, teachers, courtesans, prostitutes, and wanderers who became the first Buddhist nuns. They tell tales of dead children, failed marriages, being valued only for their physical beauty, getting cast out as widows to wander with no support. Their poems are insightful and direct, expressing joy at the freedom they have attained through renunciation, rather than self-pity for what the immense personal loss and suffering endured before it.
Similar themes abounded in a book I read quite recently, Healing: A Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun by Sister Dang Nghiem. An Amerasian woman born in central Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, she experienced terrible sexual and emotional abuse as a child, came to the United States as a teen and cared for her younger brother in a series of foster homes, worked to benefit incarcerated youth, graduated from medical school, and then experienced the devastating sudden death of her partner. That tragedy was the ultimate catalyst for her ordination by Thich Nhat Hanh and the beginning of her path as a nun, through which she has found true peace and joy.
I often attributed my disconnection from renunciation to the fact that, while I have faced mental anguish in my life, I have been fortunate enough to not have known the deep trauma that many of the Buddhist nuns I’ve read about have experienced. Compared to the living conditions of most other humans on earth and considered from the vantage point of the six realms of rebirth in Buddhist cosmology, I live in a heaven realm. There is a reason that such a rebirth in Buddhism is considered spiritually undesirable. Beings with lives of ease lack strong personal motivation to attain enlightenment. They tend to neglect spiritual and virtuous practices and thus use up all of their positive karma. As soon as their ease-full life ends, their remaining negative karma causes them to plummet down to rebirth in one of the lower realms. Thus the most spiritually desirable life from a Buddhist perspective is one of sufficient suffering to provide motivation for spiritual and virtuous practice combined with sufficient ease to allow the time and resources to carry out that practice (as opposed to so much suffering that all time and resources must be used for mere survival). In my own life I have seen this balance between suffering and ease tilt many times and my spiritual determination and practice oscillate accordingly.
I couldn’t ignore however the fact that personal loss and suffering were not the catalyst for the renunciation of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, born Prince Siddhartha. While the prince’s mother did die shortly after his birth, he is said to have been nursed and raised with great love by his aunt Mahapajapati (who would later become the first Buddhist nun). After almost 30 years of great ease, the prince was shocked by awareness of the universal reality of sickness, old age, and death, and the sight of a peaceful ascetic. Thus the prince left his wife and newborn son to become a monk and seek enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings.
For a very long time, I struggled with Prince Siddhartha’s act of renunciation in the face of his responsibilities to his family. I suspect this is because his circumstances felt much closer to my own than many of the Buddhist nuns who I’ve described above. I could understand how incalculable personal suffering would lead someone to renunciation. I could easily see myself choosing that path in the aftermath of personal tragedy. More difficult to see was how realization of the incalculable suffering of others led to making that choice, a choice that would require breathtaking compassion, courage, and faith.
Last year, I was sporadically reading Thay’s book Path of Compassion: Stories from the Buddha’s Life with my kids as part of our very occasional morning mindfulness practice. We reached the part that has always thrown me. Prince Siddhartha’s son has just been born. His wife, Yasodhara, is plagued with nightmares that suggest Siddhartha is about to leave her. Both Siddhartha and Yasodhara have long been troubled by the pervasive suffering in the world. She has chosen to address this through energetic social work, but Prince Siddhartha feels that this approach, while good and noble, is little more than a band-aid on a gaping wound. He’s seen that even his father the king lacks the power to make lasting positive changes to benefit all people. He’s certain that there must be some other way to free all sentient beings from suffering. As Thay tells it, Yasodhara asks her husband whether her dreams mean that he is soon to leave her. He tells her not to worry:
You are a woman of depth. You are my partner, the one who can help me to truly fulfill my quest. You understand me more than anyone else. If, in the near future, I must leave and travel far from you, I know you possess the courage to continue your word. You will care for and raise our child well. Though I am gone, though I am far away from you, my love for you remains the same. I will never stop loving you . . . With that knowledge, you will be able to endure our separation. And when I have found the Way, I will return to you and to our child.
Thay continues that “Siddhartha’s words, spoken so tenderly, penetrated Yasodhara’s heart. Comforted, she closed her eyes and slept.”
As I read this to my children I thought, really? Yasodhara must have been a remarkably selfless person to be not only comforted enough by those words to fall asleep but also, in Thay’s account, able subsequently to arrange the details of her husband’s departure. It’s hard for me to imagine a parent with a young child being that understanding of his or her spouse’s spiritual pursuit. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a Western culture that is inherently suspicious of renunciation and that strongly emphasizes the needs and wants of the individual (or at best the individual family unit) over the needs of society. Perhaps therefore Yasodhara’s understanding came from belonging to a culture with a long tradition of renunciation as a desirable stage of life. More likely it arose from her deep practice of compassion and wisdom. Or perhaps, I couldn’t help thinking, the story is white-washed so that we can all feel good about the Buddha’s decision on behalf of all sentient beings, without worrying about his responsibilities to his wife and son.
That sneaky thought raised the ultimate question to me about renunciation: what are the true responsibilities that we owe to others and to ourselves? Prince Siddhartha was not leaving his family bereft; his wife and young son were well-supported both materially and emotionally by their extended family. Later Mahayana stories would tell of bodhisattvas proving their selflessness by “giving away” their wives and children, in didactic stories I find far more troubling. But looking at the Buddha’s life as historical reality rather than purely didactic tale, I had to wonder whether at that crucial moment of choice Prince Siddhartha had already grasped the truth of interdependent existence? Or was he choosing renunciation based on the sort of compassion that led him as a child to weep over the insects and worms killed by the plows in the field?
I ask these questions at the perspective of the relative level, which is where I principally operate. On the ultimate level, as seen from the Hua-Yen perspective which I blogged about last time, there is no one leaving and no one being left. I’m not there yet, but perhaps the Buddha realized that truth even before his full enlightenment.
While I was once again attempting to understand the Buddha’s renunciation decision, this time in the context of wondering how my own children were understanding it, I read a blog post by an adoptive mother who wrote beautifully about the tremendous struggles often inherent in adoptive parenting. The post contained this story:
When I worked in social services, I had a little speech I liked to give potential founders about why the preventative program I worked for needed their dollars.
A man was fishing downstream when a baby floated by in a basket. He quickly pulled it out of the water, but then another baby was right behind it. He called for help and people ran down the bank to help him pull the babies out of the water.
More and more townspeople came to the river to help, as the number of babies continued to multiply. Suddenly, the original fisherman walked away. The people called out to him, asking where he was going. They didn’t understand why he’d leave when there were so many more babies to catch.
He said he was going upstream to figure out where the babies were coming from so he could stop it.
You can either pull babies out of the river all day, or figure out how to stop them from being put in the water to begin with.
I read that story and thought to myself: this is the bodhisattva motivation of bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment, which strives towards awakening out of compassion for the suffering of all. This was why Prince Siddhartha left his wife and child, and that was why Yasodhara understood his decision. He might have been able to help his immediate family relieve their suffering, but only in bits, only temporarily, and never would he have been able to help the wider world of suffering beings. Even if he stayed with his family and helped them in the short-term, he would have to leave them at his or their death. His renunciation was born of love for all beings, faith that there was an answer to find, and determination to actually find it. He sought to get to the root of suffering, to upend it from its source. Yasodhara’s acceptance and support of his decision also required love, courage, faith, and great awareness. I marvel at them both; I know I’m not there yet.
Practicing now in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, I have come to have a more balanced view of all parts of the Fourfold Sangha: male and female lay practitioners as well as monks and nuns. Thay established the Order of Interbeing, a community of monastics and lay people who commit to living their lives in accordance with the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Thus monastic renunciation is not a prerequisite to becoming a bodhisattva-in-training. I’ve realized that the point is not to strive towards or idolize monasticism while denigrating lay life but to practice as best as I can in whatever my present situation is.
My recent reading has also shown me that the issue of monastic versus lay practice has concerned Buddhists for centuries. Thay’s wonderful Cultivating the Mind of Love discusses some of the fascinating historical tensions:
. . . in the centuries following the Buddha’s life, the practice of the Dharma became the exclusive domain of monks and nuns, and laypeople were limited to supporting the ordained Sangha with food, shelter, clothing, and medicine. By the first century B.C.E., Buddhist practice had become so exclusively monastic that a reaction was inevitable. The early Prajnaparamita literature, the Ugradatta Sutra and the Vimalakirti Sutra were born in that context. . .
Because [these sutras] were responding to the exclusivity of earlier Buddhism, their tone is one of attack even through their understanding is abundant and deep. But by the time of the . . . Lotus Sutra in the later part of the second century B.C.E. Mahayana Buddhism was already an institution with schools, temples, and a solid foundation – a real Buddhist community of monks, nuns, and laypeople working closely together. So, because it came from a stronger position, the tone of the Lotus Sutra is one of reconciliation.
Just like the historical conflict, I too am coming to a place of reconciliation. I’m accepting myself as a 50-percent dakini, striving to be what Thay so marvelously called “a part-time Buddha”, which seems like quite a challenge in itself. And I’m also starting to understand that thinking of the practice as a challenge to be surmounted is a mistake. In Cultivating the Mind of Love, Thay writes:
You only have to allow yourself to be there, to touch deeply each thing you encounter, to walk mindfully, and to help others with the whole of your being. This is the practice of non-practice. Straining your intellect only creates more obstacles. Listen deeply without using your intellect, and you will find yourself in the Avatamsaka world, touching light, jewels, and lotuses. When you are there, you only have to touch and be touched, and one day you will penetrate the truth of interbeing, and it will penetrate you.
There are so many practice opportunities right here and now in every single present moment. The path is to practice where I am now, not to cling to some ideal of a better starting place.
Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells
in stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who
dwells in mindfulness
night and day
‘the one who knows
the better way to live alone’.
– From the Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone, translation by Thich Nhat Hanh, Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries