Heart Homework

When I first learned about the Pure Land sect of Buddhism in college, I understood that the monks said the name of Amitābha Buddha over and over in hopes of saying it with perfectly attentive consciousness because then they would attain enlightenment. I thought, that’s stupid, what does saying the Buddha’s name over and over have to do with enlightenment?

Turns out I wasn’t listening very well. First, according to that master spiritual resource Wikipedia, this chanting is a mindfulness exercise that can lead to a high state of consciousness different from enlightenment. Second, what you say matters much less than whether you pay attention when you say it. If you can say Cheez-Its with perfectly attentive consciousness, enlightenment might be right around the corner.

I recently read an explanation of how our interactions with the same wisdom teachings change over time. The author (apologies for not remembering who it was) pointed out that the teachings remain the same but we become more “transparent” to them. The interior stuff blocking their entry gets removed over time.

God must have wiped off a tiny pin head of space on my interior window recently because I’ve been seeing myself trying to figure out with my mind teachings that can only be grasped by the heart. Up until now, I simply resisted them, concluded they were wrong, and complained to God that I couldn’t get to wherever it is I’m supposed to be going.

This approach is like trying to solve an algebra problem using arithmetic and, after failing, saying that algebra doesn’t work. It’s true—algebra doesn’t work when approached solely with the rules of arithmetic. But that doesn’t mean algebra isn’t true. You just need to learn an entirely different way of approaching mathematics in order to do algebra.

I never took this, if I can’t do it, it’s not true approach in school. I assumed it was true, paid attention in class, did the homework, and learned. In life, on the other hand, I often start with resistance, especially in matters of the heart.

I’m not recommending that we throw away our ability to approach things critically, but I might try setting aside that tool occasionally and doing the heart homework to see what I can learn.

Minding Your Peas and Quinoa

When my brain gets really out of control with its negative messaging, sometimes I believe it and curl up in a ball and go to sleep. Other times, I remember that there are some things that help.

One thing that helps me is using these slightly adapted gathas (verses) from Thich Nhat Hanh as a mealtime prayer:

While serving food: In this food I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence.

Looking at the filled plate: All living beings are struggling for life. May they all have enough food to eat today.

Just before eating: The plate is filled with food. I am aware that each morsel is the fruit of much hard work by those who produced it.

Beginning to eat: With the first taste, I promise to practice loving kindness. With the second, I promise to relieve the suffering of others. With the third, I promise to see others’ joy as my own. With the fourth, I promise to seek God’s peace. (The original says, “With the fourth, I promise to learn the way of non-attachment and equanimity”—I have a hard time with “non-attachment,” so I changed it.)

Finishing the Meal: The plate is empty. My hunger is satisfied. I vow to live for the benefit of all beings. (Thanks to The Endless Further for putting this online.)

I find that paying attention in this way quiets my mind for a few reasons. First, I have to slow down, at least for the first four bites. It’s hard to rush through a promise of loving kindness because it’s a rather large promise and always makes me gulp a little.

Second, these verses have a bunch of gratitude built into them, and it’s hard to think either that you’ve recently ruined the world or that the world is out to get you while recognizing how fortunate you are.

And third, this practice puts other thoughts in my brain. I usually mentally cross my fingers during “I promise to relieve the suffering of others,” the way you did when you were a kid and were promising to do something but knew you were lying. It seems such an onerous thing to promise. But tonight I thought, if I just worked on relieving my own suffering, other people wouldn’t have to deal with it, and that would probably do them a heap of good.

Thanks, Thich.