Monthly Archives: September 2009

There Are No Others (Marveling at Paradox with Dharma Eyes)

I recently attended a Buddhist retreat led by monks and nuns in the Order of Interbeing tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). Thay was not at the retreat, as he was being treated for a lung infection in a Boston hospital (he has since recovered, and is out of the hospital now). In his place, the monastics gave dharma talks to an assembly of 900 retreatants.

Brother Phap Niem was a gentle, soft-spoken monk who talked to us about “cultivating dharma eyes to see things as they are.” He said, “We see an orange and think, ‘I know oranges.’ But the thing we call orange is only an appearance.”

Looking with dharma eyes, we see that the orange isn’t what we think it is. It’s not a separate entity. It’s not solid or permanent. The orange is made of all the elements that created it – sunshine, rain, dirt, insects that turned the dirt, farmers that fertilized and tended the tree. The orange is also made of all the elements that created these elements: the cloud that changed into rain, the farmer’s mom and dad. And the orange is also all the elements it will become: worms that eat its rind, you who eat its sweet wedges.

In the great kaleidoscope of life, none of us can exist without all the others. But it gets deeper: each of us IS all the others. So, really, there are no others.

Brother Phap Niem explained: “Inside of you, you can find everything. There is only one thing you do not contain – a self.” This is a Zen master’s way of saying: a) you’re purely made of stuff that isn’t you, and b) everything that seems to be outside you is actually part of you. The fancy spiritual term: nonduality. Also known as oneness.

I know people who’ve had direct experiences of oneness. They realized their true self, inclusive of everything and everyone, in moments of divine interconnected bliss. I sometimes access oneness in fleeting instants, when I feel someone else’s emotions, or know what they’re going to say before they say it.

Practicing Reiki (hands-on energy healing) brings me closest to that feeling of oneness. In Reiki, my body becomes a conduit for energy, like a hollow straw. Healing energy pours through my palms into the other person. Sometimes I let my consciousness extend out through my hands, into the other body, and I sense colors, shapes, dark blockages, currents. I see dreamlike images. Once while giving Reiki to a client, I envisioned her practicing non-violent martial arts, not in self-defense but to cultivate inner strength and integrity. After the session I asked if she had ever done martial arts. She said no, but she’d been wanting to take a class. Many other times I’ve seen and felt clients’ inner truths. How could I perceive these visions if we weren’t all one?

But my mind protests. Even if we’re all one, we are also separate. I don’t feel pain every time somebody stubs a toe (thank goddess). It’s a bewildering paradox. How is it that we are separate bodies, and also all one consciousness, one vast ever-moving organism?

I understand nonduality best when I think about holograms. In a hologram, every fragment contains the whole. (The fact that our minds can conceptualize this miracle might be evidence that we are indeed holographic.) In a brilliant article called The Universe as a Hologram, Michael Talbot explains that “if we try to take apart something constructed holographically, we will not get the pieces of which it is made, we will only get smaller wholes.” He describes a remarkable scientific experiment in which electrons instantly communicated with each other, no matter how far apart they were. Physicist David Bohm proposed that “the reason subatomic particles are able to remain in contact with one another regardless of the distance separating them is not because they are sending some sort of mysterious signal back and forth, but because their separateness is an illusion. … at some deeper level of reality such particles are not individual entities, but are actually extensions of the same fundamental something.”

At the Estes Park retreat, I sensed nonduality as over 900 bodies moved as one organism, slowly walking in a meditative river, and bowing to our monastic teachers, continuations of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Buddha. One thousand bodies bowing, each one a form transforming. One thousand Buddhas breathing as one body.

What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt a moment of oneness, non-separation, holographic magic? Tell me about it…..


A Lamp Unto Yourself

“Make of yourself a light / said the Buddha / before he died.” – Mary Oliver

Today, August 21, 2009, is the first day of our retreat in Estes Park, Colorado. The retreat was meant to be led by our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). But Thay is not here. He is in a hospital in Boston, receiving intravenous antibiotics for a problem with his lungs. His lungs? The one who taught us all to breathe so beautifully? My lungs are aching for him. Is he in pain? Is he able to breathe comfortably? My heart is hurting for him too.

Two very strong feelings are in me. The first is grief, not only for Thay’s absence, but for his mortality. Someday he will be gone from bodily form. Along with 900 retreatants, I came here to practice mindfulness, but also to bask in the light of his presence. His awakened Being ignites our own awakening. In his embodiment of sweet, pure love it is natural to feel the love in us, the love that we are. I anticipate many tears, profound disappointment, and grief from the 900 people gathered here.

In truth, Thay is never gone; he always exists in some form. So, besides grief, I am experiencing another strong feeling. It is a powerful sense of Thay’s presence in me. His Being is wakefulness, and it exists not only in his physical form, but in many other forms too. As Thay’s students, we contain wakefulness. With our Being we carry on his purpose, his energy of Being. All sangha members are emissaries, vehicles, for Being.

Now that he is absent, we have a chance to practice more fiercely, with sharper focus and deeper compassion. It is time to find and become the Buddha within ourselves. No one can do it for us. Awakening can’t be externalized. We must abandon the hope that Thay, or anyone else, will hand it to us, or be it for us. It’s up to us. It’s up to me.

I imagine Thay was in this position, too, when his teacher passed away. The Buddha’s students were in this position when their teacher left his form. The Buddha’s last words to his disciples: “Be a lamp unto yourself.” Today each of us is faced with a choice: we may see the absence of our teacher as a form of darkness. Or we may realize our own nature of illuminating light.

Here we are, nine hundred strong, transforming together into lamps. With so many of us alight, the face of the earth will be beautifully illuminated.