Bringing the Ultimate Dimension into the Present Moment

Colorful Nebula, Photo by NASA

Bringing the Ultimate Dimension into the Present Moment

Discussion date: Thu, Apr 06, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

The Buddha’s path to liberation began with his recognition of his own duhkha, a Sanskrit word that is usually translated as suffering, but also has a more expansive meaning that is captured in words such as unsatisfactoriness, unpleasantness, distress, and anxiety. The Buddha wasn’t suffering from ill health or physical deprivations. He was young, healthy, in training to be a ruling prince, accustomed to a life of ease and pleasures. However, his spiritual world view, his underlying philosophy of life, made it difficult for him to accept, much less embrace, the hard realities of life — old age, sickness, death, and loss. One night, as he looked at the drunken bodies sprawled around him, he realized that along with the pleasures offered by the palace, there was a deep abiding sadness. Later, he saw from his chariot four divine messengers — an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic holy man — and left the palace to find another way of being.

I, like many others, came to mindfulness practice and to Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) because of my sadness, my suffering, and my persisting sense of disconnection from life. It was soothing just to be around Thay — to hear him talk, to watch him walk. I remember being fascinated during one Dharma talk by the way he repeatedly picked up and put down a piece of chalk, always with great mindfulness. In addition to teaching from his physical presence, Thay also offered a huge range of teachings, from working with our emotions to instructions for washing the dishes, from historical novels to commentaries on two-thousand-year-old sutras, and, especially, ways of responding to the suffering of our time. Woven into all of Thay’s verbal and non-verbal teachings is a very consistent spiritual world view, reminiscent of what the Buddha found. In a section of Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet entitled “Engaged Action” Thay focuses on that inner core of his teachings:

We coined the term “Engaged Buddhism” in the 1960s when the war was very intense in Vietnam. We practiced sitting meditation and walking meditation, but we could hear the bombs falling outside and the cries of the wounded. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on, and what was going on at that time was suffering and the destruction of life.

Once you know what is going on, you’re motivated by a desire to do something to relieve the suffering—both in you and around you. And so, we had to find a way to practice mindful breathing and do walking meditation while helping those wounded by the bombs—because, if you don’t maintain a spiritual practice during the time you serve, you will lose yourself and you will burn out. And so, we learned to breathe, to walk, to release the tension so we could keep going. These are the origins of Engaged Buddhism; it was born in a difficult situation, where we wanted to maintain our practice while responding to suffering. In such a situation, anything you do in mindfulness —whether it is social action, drinking your tea, sitting in meditation, or making breakfast—you do it not only for yourself. You are preserving yourself so you can help the world.

This is the attitude of bodhisattvas: to practice meditation not only for yourself, but for the world, to relieve the suffering. And, when others suffer less, you suffer less. When you suffer less, they suffer less. That is interbeing. There is no separation between yourself and others. You do not live just for yourself; you live for other people. Your peace, freedom, and joy also profit others; you are already helpful. And so, when you breathe mindfully or walk mindfully and create joy and peace, that is already a gift for the world. Lighting up the energy of mindfulness in the heart of your family, your community, your city, or your society is engaged action. Compassion and peace radiate from your person.

Later in the section, Thay addresses how practitioners can reduce suffering by learning to shift between the perspectives of the ultimate dimension (in which existence flows, changes, and is inextricably interconnected), and the historical dimension, (full of distinctions and names for things and the individual and collective duhkha that accompanies everyday life).

We know that we have the “ultimate dimension” where you don’t have to do anything. It’s very nice to dwell in the ultimate dimension. We should all learn how to do it. And then you have the historical dimension, where there is suffering, injustice, inequality, exploitation, and so on. The question is, when we suffer in the historical dimension, how can we touch the ultimate dimension so we can stop suffering from fear, despair, and loneliness? How can we bring the ultimate dimension to the historical dimension?

I propose that we need another dimension, the action dimension. The action dimension is the realm of the bodhisattvas, the kind of energy that helps us bring the ultimate into the historical so we can live our life of action in a relaxing and joyful way, free from fear, free from stress, free from despair. Every one of us should be a bodhisattva, bringing the ultimate dimension into the present moment so we can arrive and stop running, so we can be relaxed and joyful, so we can make peace and enjoyment possible for humankind and for other species on Earth.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation time, we will read together this section from Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet. In our Dharma sharing we will explore what touches us, surprises us, moves us, or possibly annoys us in the reading. In particular, in what ways are we encouraged by this teaching? Are there ways it is applicable to our lives and challenges?

You are invited to join us.

Warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Apr 06, 2023


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