Sunday Lecture

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Story of Parvati and ...(?); falling in love - never alone; the entire universe in ten directions is the true human body; Coming of Age Program; samsara/dukkha; parenting a teenager; the love of mother for a child

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So, I've chosen a myth, a story from the Hindu tradition to share with you today, and it's a story from India in the time of the gods and the goddesses, about a boy who became the elephant prince. The boy's mother's name was Parvati and she lived with her family in a city of amber palaces and rose-colored temples. More than anything, Parvati loved to daydream and to tell stories. One day, the lord Shiva, maker of the world, met the lovely Parvati and soon each had fallen in love with the other, and so they were married. After the wedding, the couple left the city and moved to a palace on the top of a mountain high above the clouds, and together they were


very happy. Unfortunately, Shiva was often away doing his work of building the world and Parvati was left alone in the palace. Even her love of stories couldn't fill the emptiness of their mountain home. She longed for her family, for her friends, and most of all, for a child of her own. Shiva, however, was not ready to begin a family, and yet he couldn't stand to see Parvati so sad. So he told her that if she promised to think about a single wish and only that wish for one whole year, it would come true. So from then on, each day, she dreamed only of having a child. One year later, as Shiva had promised, Parvati found a baby boy laying in her bed as if he


had always been there. His face was round and bright as the moon and she loved him instantly. So, recently I was visiting at my daughter's grandmother's, her name is Linda, and Linda and I were talking together and she told me a story from about 14 years ago when she'd gone with me and with my partner Grace to visit the intensive care unit at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital to see a baby. And Linda said, I watched you, talking about me, I watched you as you put your hands behind your back and slowly walked toward the cradle where the baby was laying. And then I watched you as you looked at that baby for a very, very


long time. And I saw you fall in love. That story made me deeply happy, and not because I didn't remember falling in love, I did remember because it's never ended. But I didn't know there was anyone there, and I didn't know that I wasn't alone. So this story, for me, stimulated kind of a massive insight that my entire life, all of those moments, including the ones I've called falling in love, have never been mine alone. Loving each other affects everyone, and hating each other affects everyone, and


so does ignoring each other. We are born from our relationships to other people, and it's the only reason that we even survive. In Norman Fisher's book, which is called Taking Our Places, The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, he talks about how each of us must find our unique place in this world. And he tells us that the Bantu people sneak into their children's bedrooms at night and whisper in their ears, be who you are. Be who you are. And yet finding our places is not work that we do by ourselves. We are relational beings, and truly we belong to one another. All of the work of growing up comes through our ability to know and to love one another. At the time of the Buddha's enlightenment,


he clearly saw how he himself was dependently arisen from everything and everyone around him. And he said at that time, the entire universe in the ten directions is the true human body. The entire universe in the ten directions is the true human body. This is what we call the Buddha's enlightenment. So this enlightenment or this truth of our existence is also the truth of our responsibility, a grave responsibility to care for everything that is ourselves. So I think we all know about this fierce global competition between the forces of love and nurturance and the forces of hatred and destruction. And in between the two is the great force of ignorance. We don't know what to do, and


we don't know how to help, and neither does anyone else, apparently. Now, none of us are going to see the outcome of this competition, that's pretty clear. However, we do have the responsibility to choose sides, and that's what growing up has been for each of us. And I propose that that's what we have to offer to our children, some encouragement about choosing sides. Choosing sides is pretty much the core of the Buddha's teaching. Basically, our task is to learn how things work, and then to teach others so that they too can see how it is, how to make good choices, and that good choices are actually what's best for us and what's best for the world. When the Dalai Lama was asked how to teach children not to hate, he said, teach them


interdependence. Tell them about all the ways that they are not alone. So today, 14 years after that visit to Santa Rosa, my daughter, Sabrina, and 18 other young people are going to come into this room at about 11.30. I've been told to keep my eye on my watch. And what we're going to do is to witness them, to see them, and to show them our respect. Many of us here in this room today have fallen in love with these children as individuals and as ideas, as our hope for the world, and we're deeply loyal to their well-being. So, we're going to be celebrating what we've called our Coming of Age program here at Zen


Center. For this past year, we have all held to this single wish to benefit these children in any way we can. They've been meeting together for almost a year with mentors, they've been talking to each other, and they've had the privilege of confidentiality. So the parents have been wondering, what are they talking about? We don't know. But we really would like to provide the circle of support and love around them as they move through this passageway, this mysterious passageway from newborn to child to adolescent to young adult. And even though all of us have come through this very same way, it's not possible for grown-ups to remember what it was like to be three years old, or ten years old, or fourteen


years old, to say nothing of twenty years old, thirty years old, forty and fifty years old. All of those people we were have vanished from this body and mind. But I think what we do remember pretty vividly is how people treated us at various stages of our lives. The things they said to us and the looks on their faces, their rewards and their punishments, or whether they failed to react to us at all. And I think that the strategies we developed as children are the same ones that we're pretty much using now in order to try to manage our lives. When I was a child I taught myself to freeze when I was afraid or angry, and not to speak at all. So people told me I was shy. I don't think so.


So, I propose that all of you probably discovered some technique for dealing with them, some technique that whether it's working well or not, you may continue to be doing. These behaviors in Buddhist language are called karma. Karma very simply means action, actions we take, actions of body, speech and mind. And karma, when it goes on over time, forms these habitual patterns that act kind of like a wheel. And I think that's why we sense this familiarity, you know, oh not this again, oh not that again, oh not them again, you know. Same ways of thinking, same ways of reacting. This same way of reacting the Buddha called samsara. Samsara means endless circling, you know, like a little gerbil in a cage, around and


around and around and around. So when we're trapped by our karma we experience life as kind of mostly irritating, you know. Something's missing, something's off, something's not out of round. Dukkha, the word for suffering in Buddhism, means out of round. Of course this can be big out of round too, terrible anguish, terrible sorrow, we all know. So basically all of the practices in the Buddhist tradition are designed to help us to escape from the trap of samsara and to find freedom, which is why it's so important that we find ways to help our children before things get too solid. They're still pretty fluid, even though we don't like that so much, you know, they're still moving around.


So, in the Buddhist tradition I would say that the work of maturing beings is the primary work and the way we mature beings is by helping to lift the veil of ignorance, which is the primary force driving this wheel, this spinning wheel of samsara. Ignorance and the desire for things to be other than they are, not an uncommon sentiment. And that's what causes this disease or this discomfort for us. So when we lift the veil and see how things work, we can relax a little bit, like, oh, oh that again, oh this again, oh them again, have some tea, you know, not so bad. I remember being really drawn to a phrase in Buddhism that went like this, to patiently abide with the continuous arising of non-existent


phenomena. Patient abiding in the continuous arising of non-existent phenomena. So, in Buddhism, the decision to make good choices, to make good karmic choices, to behave well, is highly regarded. And people who make good choices are called sons and daughters of good family. So in many of the sutras, the Buddha begins by addressing the congregation as sons and daughters of good family. Isn't that a wonderful thing? That's who we are, sons and daughters of good family. So I've been trying to learn how to raise my child in the best possible way, and I was forewarned some years back by what I consider a reliable


source, my own therapist, who I hope, anyway, he's a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, kind of appreciate covering all the bases. And he said that people in our culture for the most part are afraid of teenagers. They scare us. And as a result, parents tend to back too far away from them, give them too much space. So I don't know if that's true for all of you, but I certainly confronted my parents with that when I was in my twenties. I said, you know, you gave me too much space. It's an accusation. And they said, but honey, we trusted you. It sounds kind of innocent. And maybe they are, you know, I think so. But the result of that was that the destructive forces in myself and in my culture began to


hold sway. I wasn't doing so well making choices all on my own, or so I thought. But what I've been told again and again by my therapist is that the job of the parent of a teenager is to create a seawall against which the passions and the energies of a teenager can continuously pound. Okay. In other words, formidable boundaries. So I'm working up to this, you know, and I can see the need for it. That's already clear. So recently I was driving my car, listening to NPR, which I really like to do, and Terry


Gross was talking to Alice Cooper. Do you all remember Alice Cooper? I don't remember anything Alice Cooper sang, but I remember something about their look. And so this man, who seems like a very nice saying man actually, I forget his real name, he's written a book about the beginnings of his band. He was saying, well, you know, we were a pretty good band, but we weren't getting any of their good jobs. We were sort of like the lead band, you know, to the big guys and stuff. So they really thought long and hard about what to do, and they decided that they would change their persona into something that was intended to terrify parents. And they thought, you know, the kids will really like this if their parents hate it. And they were absolutely right. They became very famous. So even though I really enjoyed listening to this man and, you know, appreciating how clever


he was, and I had this thought, you know, when, where, and how are we parents going to strike back? Are we going to, you know, reclaim the hearts of our children and of our culture? You know, when, where, and how can we establish, again, maybe with fresh ink, standards of morality, of ethics, and of propriety in our communities? And even as I was thinking about these words, I thought, now that's pretty old-fashioned, you know? Nobody's going to like that. I don't even like it. I like Alice Cooper, you know? And yet, truly, I do admire the people throughout history who have been motivated by corny sentiments,


you know? Martin Luther King, Jr., and Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, Shakyamuni Buddha, Nelson Mandela. Corny, you know? So, I think we're faced with pretty overwhelming odds in this culture today. I'm sure parents have always felt that way, though. You know, I read something Mark Twain wrote just to that effect, oh, kids today, you know, impossible. But it does seem that the profitable industries of the material world and their clever enhancements of our desires are really the ones that are really taking hold, you know? Now, all of the designer clothing and the DVDs, I don't even know the names of these things anymore, they're so fast. But they've got to have them. iPods and, you know, going to camp, flying a jet plane. What could be more exciting than that?


A fighter jet. Every boy's dream. Either that or organic farming. We usually get the latter. And I was thinking of this image of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, you know, it's like this big eye of industry has turned its gaze onto us and all of our kids. The global economy. When Parvati's new baby was born, all of the gods descended from the heavens to gather around the baby boy and his loving mother. Arriving first was the chariot of the sun, pulling the dawn behind it. And then of the moon, pulling the night. Next came Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. And finally, the blue planet, Saturn, whose god name was Shani.


Parvati proudly showed her baby to each of them and the gods smiled brightly upon him. But when Parvati came to Shani, the shy god lowered his head and turned away. She insisted that he look. Not daring to disappoint her, he turned to the boy and the boy smiled. Parvati smiled too, but her joy soon turned to horror when she remembered that whatever powerful Shani gazes upon is destroyed. It was too late and her child's head turned to ash and blew away. Well, when I got to this part of the story, which was quite a surprise, I was touched by a terrible sadness. You know, not only for the kind of abstract loss of our children into the haze of consumer society, but also


the real loss of real children to the forces of destruction, of war, of abuse, genocide, all the acts of violence that right now, right now, this very minute, are killing children and mothers and fathers. Senseless, heartless, stupid, and we don't know how to make it stop. Parvati's grief is both prevalent and unimaginable. When I became a mother myself, I really experienced in my cells, in my guts, and through my dreams, that something had changed inside of me, that my primary self-concern had been transformed into a concern for somebody else. It was like


a miracle. I never thought that was possible. I didn't even imagine it. I didn't even notice my self-concern. It was just me and the world. But now there was me and this other person, very vulnerable, very tiny. So in all the world, a mother and a father's love for their own child is sort of the standard by which we measure all other kinds of love. But it's also the standard by which we measure all kinds of grief. In the Metta Sutta, the loving kindness meditation, the love of the mother is extended as a blessing to all living things. May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety. All living beings, whether weak or strong, in high or middle or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible,


near or far, born or to be born. May all beings be happy. Let no one deceive another nor despise any being in any state. Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another. Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world, above, below, and without limit. So let one cultivate an infinite goodwill toward the whole world, standing or walking, sitting or lying down, through all one's waking hours. Now, I really appreciate this meditation. I always appreciate it, whenever I hear it, whenever I say it. But at the same time, I would really like a lot more control over


the welfare of my child. In fact, I would like a guarantee. I want no harm to come to her. I don't want anyone to be mean to her, or to hurt her, or to disappoint her. And yet, I really know that that's not possible. I want her to live forever, and I know that she's not going to, and neither am I, and neither are any of you. This is another part of growing up, understanding the limitations of our power, of our wishes, of our great effort, truly understanding what it means to let go. When a great Zen Master's wife had died, he sat outside of his home pounding on a drum


and weeping. His students came up to him and said, Master, why are you weeping, if this world is entirely made of illusion? And the Master said, Yes, it is a world of illusion, but at the moment, it's a very sad illusion. In the time of the gods, Vishnu stepped forward, promising to bring the boy back to life. Then he flew to the jungle to tell the animals what had happened to Parvati's beloved child. A wise old elephant bowed deeply and offered himself to save the boy. Vishnu placed the elephant's head on the boy's shoulders while all the gods held their breath. For a moment, the world was silent and still, except for the buzz of insects and the hush of birds' wings. Then to his mother's delight, the boy slowly opened his eyes and laughed. Sweet golden bees made a crown around his head.


The gods celebrated with a great feast. Then after they had eaten hundreds of sugar cakes and their bellies were full, they blessed the elephant prince. Each gave him a small gift, a garland of marigolds, a string of beads, a bowl of sweets, a parasol, a conch shell, a lotus. The sun gave him a pair of ruby earrings and the moon a great pearl necklace. The earth gave him a tiny pet mouse. And then the gods gave the boy a name, Ganesh, the elephant-headed one. Parvati had a gift for him too, a silver pen and crystal bottles of colored ink. And then she told him stories, stories her mother and her mother's mother had told to her, and stories of her very own. And Ganesh wrote them down. But what happened to the elephant, the boy asked his mother. The elephant, she said,


will live forever. And what about the boy with the elephant's head, he asked. Why, his mother smiled, he is loved by all, but most of all, by me. This story seemed to please the elephant prince for he wrote it down word for word for word. I think what moved me most about this ancient Hindu myth wasn't the actions of the gods in creating a child or destroying a child or bringing a child back to life. What touched me was the pure love of this mother of Parvati for her child, you know, boy-headed, elephant-headed or no-headed at all. And I think that this loving gaze of the mother is the greatest medicine on this earth. And it's also the gaze of the father, of the uncle, of the sister, of the friend, it's all of


us looking at each other with that kind of unconditional regard. I don't know if anyone ever told you that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with you. But if they haven't, I hope you can hear it now. There is nothing wrong with you. And I really believe that this is the way that we can save this world. We have to tell each other over and over again. During our New Year's celebration here at Gringotts, we chant a verse from the Lotus Sutra. Eyes of compassion observing sentient beings, assemble an ocean of blessings beyond measure. Eyes of compassion observing sentient beings, assemble an ocean of blessings beyond measure. So in


a little while, we're going to invite our own sons and daughters to come into this room. You're all, of course, welcome to come join us at that time, 11.30. And we're going to meet them with our gaze and offer them some small gifts. And afterwards we're going to celebrate with a great feast. Pasta salad, green salad, sweet cake and tea. And again, all of you are warmly welcome. I don't know if what we're doing here today is enough, or if the time we spent with the kids this year was deep enough or long enough or wide enough. But I do think we have to try. And I'm grateful to all of you for being here right now. Thank you very much.