A PONDERABLE POINT
by Petr-Karel Ontl
SEVERAL YEARS AGO my mother and I were living in rural northern Vermont, in a rambling old farmhouse. A very dear friend, an American Buddhist lady, came to visit and to do a Vipassana retreat. After spending a day with us and catching up on things, she went upstairs, chose a small, Spartan-bare room with but a chair and a bed, and settled in with her tiny satchel of belongings, not to be seen nor heard from for a week.
WHEN THE VISIT was over, this devout lady warmly thanked us for the hospitality and the opportunity to do the retreat. Then, just as she was leaving, she turned to bow solemnly three times in the living room... apparently to nothing in particular. I was a little surprised, as my shrine was in another part of the house, and there was nothing overtly Buddhist in sight.
SENSING MY PUZZLEMENT, this wise lady taught me a valuable lesson. "I have lived in this house for over a week," she said. "It has kept me warm, safe, and sound throughout my stay. As the Buddha showed gratitude and appreciation to the Bodhi Tree for the shelter it provided Him, so do I thank this house for,, the shelter it has given me.
THANKING A HOUSE? The concept is one which would seem thoroughly alien, even ridiculous, to most Westerners, especially today when the prevailing culture glorifies crudeness, arrogance, and insensitivity, and openly mocks those who still abide by manners, politeness, and restraint as wimps, nerds, and weaklings. Can you just see the field day the late night TV' comedians ' , who unfortunately are anything but funny, would have with the idea of showing gratitude to animals, plants, or inanimate objects?
SADLY, IT HAS gone out of fashion for people to show common courtesy, consideration, and respect even to each other. Those who ask with a "Please," and acknowledge with a "Thank you," seem fewer by the day. Gone are the times when folks smiled at strangers, nodded, and greeted, "Good morning !" or, "Fine day!" Today we hurry coldly about our business with sour, frowning faces, ignoring whom we can, and all too often rudely snarling at those we can not avoid. Oh, I'm not saying that you and I specifically do it, but the general trend is undeniably there, and growing fast. Just last week a TV reporter observed that in New York City rudeness has "attained the level of a high art." What a comment on our society!
IN CONTRAST, AT certain Zen temples, I am given to understand, the retreatants customarily bow to the Buddharupa, to the monk or teacher, and to each other. And then, just before they meditate, they bow yet again to the cushion upon which they are to sit. If we see this as honoring a mere cloth bag stuffed with kapok, yes, it does seem bizarre. But if we see the symbolism of the act, as well as what the cushion symbolizes, the beauty and meaning of the bow become immediately obvious.
OF COURSE I am not advocating that we go about bowing publicly to every chair we sit on, every building, car, or bus we enter, and every utensil that we have occasion to use. That would indeed cumbersome and a bit silly-looking, and understandably would raise eyebrows everywhere. We would however do well to relearn to respect ourselves, one another, and the other beings and things with which we share existence, and on special occasions outwardly, and unceasingly inwardly, it would be good to acknowledge, and be mindful of, our indebtedness to all on which we depend in our everyday lives, for where would we be without them?
AN ANECDOTE COMES to mind: Some time ago, when the latest wave of feminism began to wash over America, legend has it that a man was about to enter a building, and, noticing that a young woman was right behind him, he swung the door open, and held it so that she could also pass. The young woman, a militant feminist, commented stridently to the poor fellow: "Y'know, there's nothing wrong with me. I'm perfectly capable of opening doors for myself. You don't have to do that for me just because I'm a lady!" To this he cheerfully replied, "Miss, I am not holding the door because you are a lady. I am doing so because I am a gentleman, and because it is the proper and polite thing to do -for anyone. Good day !"IT IS EASY to be friendly, grateful, and kind to those who are friendly and kind to us. (Not that we always are... ) But the same consideration and goodwill should be extended to the strangers, and the enemies we meet. And to animals as well.
IN OUR BEGINNINGLESS wanderings through Samsara, throughout the innumerable lives we have lived, whether here on the human plane, in our evolutions to the heavenly realms or in our devolutions to the animal and hell-realms, we all have met before, and been related one to another, in many different ways, over and over again. Today ' s stranger or enemy was someone dear to you in some past life. One traditional Tibetan story has it that every being, at some point in the endless past, was our mother, giving us life, nurture, protection, and love, and thus is even now deserving of our gratitude.
BUT WHAT OF those who hurt us in the distant past, or here and now, often badly and willfully so? Well, have we ALWAYS been perfectly kind and fair to others? If so, what are we still doing here in Samsara? Let us recall the Buddha's word in the Dhammapada, "Not by hatred does hatred cease in this world, but by love alone. This is the law eternal."
BE THEY REMEMBERED or forgotten, for past and present kindnesses let us always be grateful, and for past and present hurts, let us always be forgiving. We do not know the harm and pain we ourselves may have done to others in past lives. It is conceivable, even probable, that in our beginningless sojourn in Samsara, each and every one of us more than once has risen to levels kindness, generosity, and wisdom, and just as surely, every one of us must also have fallen to the level of the Pol Pots, the Saddam Husseins, and the Idi Amins.
IT IS GOOD to admire and respect the great benefactors among us, but the villains are the ones who need our forgiveness, and our metta the most. Let us not forget the compassion, forgiveness, and love the Buddha extended to His enemies and detractors, among them Devadatta and Angulimala!
EVEN TO THOSE WHO hate us and seek to do us harm let us show gratitude, because they too are teaching us valuable lessons, lessons on HOW NOT TO BE. Moreover, they deserve our pity too, for they hurt themselves far more than they can ever hope to hurt us.
WE IN THE WEST neglect the non-human world completely. We laugh at the Hindu, who venerates the cow. We dismiss narrow-mindedly "the primitive savage" and his "animistic superstition" of regarding all things in nature as sacred. But the Hindu holds the cow as 'sacred' because it is in fact the foster mother of India. It has for millennia provided milk and butter for sustenance, it has been a willing bearer of burdens, and pulled the plough of the farmer as well. It has turned the grinding stone, and the water wheel. It has fertilized the soil, and its fresh dung, mixed with straw and mud has supplied the poor with excellent building material, while its dried dung provides, even today, fuel for their warmth and cooking. Hindus, out of gratitude for these and other services, hold the gentle cow in high esteem. And most Hindus, respecting life in general, are vegetarians THE AFRICAN, ASIAN, and Native American forest dwellers know well that the forest is a fragile place, and are careful in selecting what they take to fill their needs. The ceremonial seeking of permission to disrupt the forest even minimally, proceeds from a deep awareness of, and respect for, the interconnectedness of all things.
THE NATIVE FARMER, too, is instinctively aware that the earth will sustain him so long as he does not abuse, damage, and waste its generous gifts. The native peoples understood far better than we, the complex interplay, or as the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh now puts it, the INTERBEING of all phenomena.
WE IN OUR modern sophistication laugh at the myths, the religious symbolism of the so-called "primitive peoples," not bothering to seek the deep wisdom and meaning within. And it is we who, in less than two centuries, have so widely and brutally savaged the life-giving purity, and the aesthetic beauty of this wondrous planet that has sustained life for four billions of years. Who is the fool? Who is the wise?
IN OUR SELFISHNESS, in our self-centeredness, in our greed and ignorance, we forget what binds us all together -man, woman, and child, beast and bug, plant and stone. We bring unnecessary suffering to ourselves and to each other.
WE TAKE SO much for granted. Everything really. We need to realize how much we all owe to each other, how indispensable we all are to each other quite apart from our encounters for better or worse in past existences.
SOMEONE MAY SAY, "I am a self-made man," or "I earned my fortune all by myself, no one helped me, I owe nothing to anyone!" Another will say, "Just give me enough money, and I ' 11 show you I need nothing and nobody." Not so, Mr. Big-Businessman. Were it not for your parents, you ' d never have been born when and where you were. Your past kamma-vipaka certainly has much to do with your inborn talents, but innumerable teachers and individuals taught you to walk and talk, to read and write, to count and to manage your money, to invest it. Others helped you over the hard spots giving you a place to sleep, lending you a twenty when you were broke, steering you to a part-time job, or a 'dynamite' interview, and they gave you your 'lucky breaks'. You may have worked like a horse, but still, you did not do it all alone.
NOT SO, MISS Meager-Star Entertainer, you of the great singing voice. Where would you be if Edison hadn't invented the phonograph? If hundreds of strangers since hadn't perfected his invention into today's tape and CD players? If other hundreds of people hadn't evolved Radio, Television, and the whole music-video industry, which today brings you to the attention of a vast international public that, one person at a time, spends a few dollars each to buy your recordings, and so make you a multimillionaire? Realize that without them all you might well be serenading a herd of goats fifty miles north of nowhere.
WHAT GOOD WOULD it do us if we had millions or even billions of dollars at our disposal? We would be paupers still, or even worse, were it not for others who through their labors provide all the things and services we need and want. And each of them in turn is supported by ever-branching networks of people and things and conditions complex beyond imagining.
FLICK A SWITCH, and a light comes on. Now, think -really think in depth- of all that is involved to make this possible. Now look at your dinner plate. Take just one item. That tomato, or this lettuce leaf. Some one had to plant it and tend it. Someone had to pick it, sort it, pack it, transport it, and get it to the market shelf for you to purchase. All of the people involved, all of the machines, tools, boxes, pencils, scraps of paper involved have their own histories of who and what created, supported, and maintained them.
THE HEART MEDICINE that your mother takes may come from a non-descript plant. The cancer drug that saved Uncle Lee came from the bark of a jungle tree. No bees -no honey. And while we are at it, no bees -no pollination, no pollination -no crops, no crops: famine ! The rain forests are the lungs of the planet, providing us with fresh air, the plant world provides fruits and vegetables, lumber and paper, and sadly the flesh of animals is still eaten, too. The list is endless.
EVERY LIVING AND inanimate thing has its place in the economy and ecology of life on the planet. Be grateful even to the fly and the maggot, for without them the earth would have vanished under a blanket of corpses. The rocks and the winds and the tides and shifting sands perform their part in sustaining life in general, yours in particular. LET US LIBERALLY show gratitude and appreciation to others. We know how to communicate these to people. Show them to animals through kindness and gentleness, harmlessness and non-killing. And to inanimate objects by wise use, gentle handling, proper care, and appropriate disposal when at last they wear out, or break. Waste nothing ! And every so often you might bow mindfully, humbly to 'nothing in particular.'
(from Bhavana Society Newsletter, Vol.9, No.3 July-September, 1993. Copyright 1993, Bhavana Society)