I want to come back to Sister Dang Nghiem and what I’ve learned from her so far. I finished her dharma talk on how to grieve last night and over and over I was astounded by her incredible equanimity and restraint. You see, throughout the entire hour and 23 minutes of her lesson, there was a gnat buzzing around her head and she never once lost her focus, she never once batted it away. Not once. She clearly knew it was there (how could she not!) – there were a couple of tiny winces apparent early on, but you could almost see her getting a firmer grip on her mind and her own attention as she willed herself to not to be distracted by the gnat and to keep doing her thing. It was a powerful example of someone truly walking the walk, of someone listening to herself and what she was teaching and making use of her own wisdom in real time.
She showed us by her example that perception is the cornerstone of right speech and right action – she could have perceived that gnat as a terrible bother, as a barrier to her ability to deliver her talk, as a lesser being that could just be batted out of the air. But this isn’t what she did. She acknowledged the gnat (with the tiny wince), she accepted it’s presence, and whether she had to consciously remind herself of the gnat’s right to existence or this is just so second nature to her now that it wasn’t an issue, she made no move whatsoever to assert dominance over the gnat. Her words were powerful and illuminating, absolutely, but I had to raise up the gnat and how beautifully she modeled living alongside something that most of us wouldn’t have given a second thought to killing for our own immediate comfort.
Sister Dang taught us that our learning histories can skew our perceptions such that we come to see other beings as truly other, as not only apart from ourselves, but less than. She quietly and gently taught that such perceptions are not right views, that they are not grounded in love and they obscure the reality that we are really not apart from one another. In Buddhism this concept is called ‘inter-being’ and it’s meant to convey that we are all actually, literally part of one another – as hard as this is, I carry some of you in me and you carry some of me in you.
Whether we grasp the reality of inter-being, it influences how we frame the house that gets built on the cornerstone of perception. Of course if we reject the idea of inter-being and frame our house predicated on the idea that we have to protect our individual territory, that we are above others, apart from “them” or “those people” who must be kept out, then we are apt to construct a bunker. Bunkers keep others out, for sure, but they also keep the inhabitants trapped inside, living in very mean quarters.
Imagine for a moment what life would be like if instead of building fortified bunkers and sitting locked and loaded inside our doors, we allowed that the idea of inter-being might have some merit, that maybe we really are all parts of one another. What kinds of homes would we build? What kinds of communities, cities, countries would we build? Would we even have countries? What would the windows and doors of our homes be like? What about the walkways, gardens, and streets? What if we extended our inter-being ideas out beyond other humans to include all beings, how would we inhabit the earth?
I know all this probably seems very far off the topic of how to grieve and I may come back to this tomorrow, but for now I’ll just say that Sister Dang taught us, reminded us really, that in line with the First Noble Truth, pain is inevitable and that in line with the Fourth Noble Truth, suffering is optional, that grief is inevitable, but trauma is optional. How we perceive our losses, how we understand our connections with one another, how we choose to live our lives, how we build our homes and communities – all of this informs our current reality and shapes our futures. It influences whether we can see one another across police barricades, whether we can take a knee together, whether we will embrace and affirm one another, whether we will finally dispense with police barricades and all the rest of it, whether we choose to dedicate our lives to creating a world where all people can breathe until it is their natural time to slip away.
May we be safe until our peaceful dying breaths.
May we step back and consider our perceptions, how we are framing our homes.
May we support one another through the challenges of enacting deep, structural inquiry and change.
May we accept that this is the work we must do.