In the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, we do not wish people “Happy Birthday” because at the ultimate level of insight, there is no birth and no death. To be born would be to imply that something (someone) arose from nothing, which is an impossibility. The First Law of Thermodynamics explains this truth just as well as Buddhism: energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.To say that I did not exist before I was born ignores the truth of interbeing – that I am composed entirely of “non-I” elements. If you try to remove from “me” the sun, the rain, my parents, the food I eat, the agricultural producers who grow that food – if you try to remove any part of the whole cosmos from “me”, “I” would not exist. I am in all and all is in me. Like a river, which can never be stepped in twice because the water is constantly flowing, I am a stream of consciousness and karma, impermanent and constantly subject to change.
Thus we use the phrase “Happy Continuation Day” to mark our conventional birthdays, although Thay points out that in truth every day is a continuation day. The day of our so-called death is no less a continuation day than the day of our so-called birth; both are marked by transformation, as is every moment of every day. Today, March 20, 2015, is not my birthday and I do not believe it is my death day, though of course none of us know when or how our deaths will occur. But today is an important continuation day for me because 19 years ago I first took refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I received the refuge name “Karma Metok Karmo” and formally became a Buddhist, a path I have continued to walk ever since.
I recently returned from the Level I Dying with Confidence training offered through the Phowa Foundation. In the beautiful and intensive teachings given by Anyen Rinpoche over five wonderful days, he spoke at one point of three different types of faith that we can have. Clear or natural faith is like the joy that a child experiences when it sees its mother; this type of faith I felt shortly before my 15th birthday when I saw the stupa at Boudhanath in Nepal for the first time – a spontaneous swelling up of great devotion, like recognizing something I had been missing and searching for, without realizing what it was. I felt this sort of faith again in 1996 when Bardor Tulku Rinpoche gave the Green Tara empowerment shortly after I’d taken refuge from him. Afterwards, I walked out into the sun feeling thoroughly infused with brilliant green energy.
Wishing faith is faith based on a determination to be free of samsara. It is a hungry faith intent on practicing the Dharma in order to be able to help oneself and others be free from suffering. My wishing faith has been inconsistent over the years. Early on, it was fueled by a remarkable lay teacher who ministered to our little Karma Kagyu sangha in Gainesville, Florida. Her name was Frances and she was a manifestation of all three types of faith. After every empowerment we received from a visiting lama, she would lead intensive study sessions so that we could learn the melodies, mudras, mantras, and visualizations that accompanied the latest sadhana practice. She would call me up to make sure I was coming to practice; if I couldn’t make a session for some reason, she would come to my home to share information personally. Her devotion and dedication to the Dharma was palpable and deeply inspirational. When she moved and then died, I felt a great loss that accompanied me for many years. I became disassociated from sangha and my practice became sporadic.
Last August, when I was at Upaya Zen Center, I was telling a fellow retreatant and fellow Vajyarana practitioner about Frances and the loss I still felt at her passing. She gave me a bemused smile. “You are so lucky to have had a Frances in your life,” she said. “Now she continues in you.” A light bulb went off! All this time I had bemoaned the loss of Frances rather than celebrating the intersection of our lives, a rare and wondrous occurrence. And just as Thay talks about continuation days, he also talks about continuation bodies, such as how a teacher continues in her students. So long as I am faithful in my own Dharma practice, Frances’ devotion and dedication continue in me.
Inspired by that conversation and by rereading Dying with Confidence, I realized last fall that I needed to fully commit to a consistent daily practice. Since then I have completed one 100-day daily practice cycle and am more than two-thirds through my second. Every single day I have chanted the Avalokitesvara practice and recited the accompanying mantra many times. This consistency has greatly strengthened my wishing faith and my dedication to to practice.
Lastly, there is irreversible faith, which arises from a place of pure certainty. Irreversible faith is not blind, because it must be preceded by thorough examination to allay all of our fears and doubts. This examination should include study of the Buddha’s words and spiritual commentaries and use of our own intelligence to analyze the path, view, and result, so that once our mind is made up, no hesitation remains. Once we reach this level of faith, we are totally committed to the path and our commitments will never waver. Our pure perception and devotion will become inseparable and we will be able to abide in the Dharma regardless of what challenges we face. As Anyen Rinpoche says, we will be able to live in the Dharma, die in the Dharma, and abide in the Dharma after death.
On this anniversary of my refuge day, I realize that what I did 19 years ago, what I have done in the years since, and what I choose to do today, are all part of the continuum that is the karmic stream of my mind consciousness. Every day that I wake up and turn my mind towards the Dharma is a continuation of the refuge vow I first took 19 years ago, and, I suspect, of other vows and practices made long before this lifetime’s particular manifestation. May the vow continue beautifully into the future.
My teacher talked often about the importance of making vows. It took me many years to understand that vows are at the core of practice, actually are the “nuclear” core of the energy pile that is our life. An interviewer once asked Maezumi Roshi if Buddhists believed in something like a soul that continued after death. Maezumi Roshi said, “No. It is the vow that continues.” A vow is like a seal that imprints itself on the wet clay of another emerging life, but it is more than a passive seal. It has a propelling energy. It proples us into the search for an end to suffering and into finding ways to help each others. Finally, when all the various schemes we have developed to do those things fail, it propels us into practice.
from Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers, and Other Voyagers by Jan Chozen Bays