A Woman’s Way

A woman named Alice Duer Miller was born 141 years ago today.  She was a woman’s suffrage activist and during her time, a very popular poet. Miller was also novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and (with Dorothy Parker) one of the two female members of the famous Algonquin Hotel Round Table, that “Vicious Circle” of writers, critics, actors, wags and gladflies who met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s and ‘30s

ADMillerHer first novel, Come Out of the Kitchen, published in 1916, was a best-seller. Soon afterward, in addition to writing more novels, she became a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, McClure’s, and Scribner’s magazines. Many of her stories were turned into movies such as Roberta (1935), a musical with Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Irene (1940), another RKO musical.

Her most famous work is The White Cliffs, a verse novel published in 1940 that also showed up on film, as The White Cliffs of Dover, again starring Irene Dunne, along with Van Johnson, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. The film transformed one of England’s most recognizable landmarks into a reassuring symbol of hope during the WW2 years.

Miller campaigned for women’s suffrage and her mightiest sword was the written word. She published a series of satirical poems in the New York Tribune that were later published as Are Women People? in 1915, five years before women were granted the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It is probably as the suffragist poet that Alice Duer Miller is best remembered. Her Are Women People? poems were thought to be clever and brilliant during her day. I am not sure how they are viewed by contemporary readers, nor how her non-feminist poetry is critically appraised. I suspect most of it is considered undistinguished. I am a poor judge of poetry myself. I only know what I like, and I have always thought the best poems are the simplest ones, not simple in meaning but in language, for as Walt Whitman said, “Simplicity is the glory of expression.”

“The Way” is a term used quite frequently in Buddhism and here at The Endless Further. This is Alice Duer Miller’s short, simple and expressive take on The Way:

The Way

There is a magic pathway through the wood,
There is a current in the troubled stream,
A happy course to steer, if one but could,
A meaning to the dream.

And some in love and some in dogma find
The hint eternal as they kiss or pray;
Some through the crystal circle of the mind
Discern the way.

And some no hint, no pattern of the whole,
Nor star, nor path, nor channel can perceive –
Attempt no answer to the questing soul,
And yet believe

There is a magic pathway through the wood,
There is a current in the troubled stream,
A happy course to steer, if one but could,
A meaning to the dream.

Alice Duer Miller

Two Pairs of Sandals

I saw this photo of a man giving his sandals to a homeless girl in Rio de Janeiro on Facebook. It was in black and white with the caption: “The world is full of good people. If you can’t find one . . . be one!”

man-giving-sandalsI looked for the original and discovered that it’s been posted all over the Internet for several years, so likely you’ve seen it before. I hadn’t. One reason why I found it so interesting is that it reminded me of this story about Mahatma Gandhi:

In India, during those days, rail was the fastest and most affordable way to travel across the country. The British rail company would only stop at a station if white people were waiting, otherwise they would merely slow down so that non-whites had to run and hop aboard the still moving train.

One day as Gandhi scrambled on to a train, one of his sandals slipped off and landed on the track. With the train rolling, he was unable to retrieve it, so he took off his other sandal and threw it back along the track where it landed close to the first one.

Asked by a fellow passenger why he did that, Gandhi replied, “If some poor man finds one sandal, he will surely find the other and then he have a good pair he can use.”

We have to accept both the photo and the story with a certain amount of faith. I have not been able to find the original source of either. The photo might have been staged, or it might actually depict something quite different from what it’s supposed to be. As far as the Gandhi story is concerned, well, there are a lot of stories about the Mahatma and I doubt if half of them are true.

It doesn’t really matter. What is important is the positive messages they convey. In the Gandhi story, there are two points. One is about how compassion and kindness can become so deeply ingrained in someone that they instinctively, without a moment’s hesitation, think about the welfare of others. The second point is about non-attachment. If Gandhi had been attached to his shoes, the loss of one might have caused to give in to anger or some other negative emotion. Instead, he was calm about the loss of his shoe, and he turned his misfortune into possible good fortune for another person.

As I’ve mentioned many times, in Buddhism, compassion begins with bodhicitta, the thought or wish to awaken for the welfare of all living beings. Bodhicitta has two stages, intentional, or the aspiration, and active bodhicitta, the practical engagement or the performance of altruistic acts. The Gandhi story is an example of both. Even though he was not Buddhist, Gandhi certainly aspired to be altruistic, and through his practice of meditation, he had trained his mind so that the welfare of others was nearly always his first thought.

The Dalai Lama, at a teaching I attended in 2001, put it this way:

Bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or offering a prayer, but you can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.”

Delight: Thunder over Earth

Remnants of former Hurricane Dolores off Baja California barreled through our area this past weekend, bringing much needed rain along with a few other things. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works captured 245 million gallons of storm water from the downpours. That much rain is highly unusual for Southern California at this time of year. Normally, we see no rain, I mean nada, from say, May to October. The storm also gave us several days of cloudy skies, severe flooding in some areas that caused a bridge to collapse, washed out part of Interstate 10, closed beaches due to widespread  lighting strikes, and the loud thunder rolled.

I-Ching-yuWe often think of storms and dark skies as something gloomy. In the I Ching there is a hexagram called Yu: Thunder over Earth. (Shown on the right.) In his translation of I Ching, Alfred Huang interprets the hexagram as “Delight.” Richard John Lee, translating Wang Bi’s interpretation, has it as “Contentment.” Wilhelm as “Enthusiasm,” and in Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Buddhist I-Ching, it is “Joy.” All are good, but I prefer “Delight” because the preceding hexagram is “Humbleness” and in Huang it reads:

When one’s harvest is great and one can still remain humble, there is sure to be an outburst of delight. Thus, after Humbleness, Delight follows.”

Now, thunder over earth is indicative of a storm, and regardless how great or small one’s harvest in life may be, to find contentment, enthusiasm, or joy in the midst of life’s storms is a sublime delight.

Ou-i, in the Buddhist I-Ching wrote,

In terms of contemplating mind, this is the realization of the truth that nothing is as pictured by the imagination, and the experience of indescribable bliss.”

Here, imagination is used in the sense of to parikalpita, a Sanskrit word meaning imaginary. It is what Nagarjuna means in the Middle Verses when he says that the various factors of existence are all merely like an imaginary city in the sky, and what the Diamond Sutra means when it says, “you should view this fleeting world as a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a mirage, and a dream.”

Contemplating mind refers to using meditation to dispel the dark clouds of ignorance so that we may see the truth of reality, that is, existence as interdependent and empty of inherent self-being. “The experience of indescribable bliss” means there is joy, contentment, and delight in seeing truth, which should make us enthusiastic about living.

This is just a glimpse in the meaning of the Yu hexagram, thunder over earth, there is much more. Huang explains that the prime point of the hexagram is to explain the concept of harmony and delight. However, the ancient text accompanying the hexagram depicts circumstances that are neither harmonious nor delightful. The hexagram, then, also serves as a warning against contentment in the way of complacency and self-satisfaction.

The point for me is that with all the negatives that came with the storm, it brought rain, beautiful nourishing rain, and after four years of drought here in California, it was indeed a delight.

Crime and Punishment

The United States is world’s largest jailer, with 2.2 million people currently incarcerated. That is a statistic I would expect to see for a totalitarian regime, not the “land of the free.” But we have more of our people in prisons than Russia, China, and North Korea combined. Nearly half of the people jailed in the U.S. are there because of non-violent crimes, or because they are mentally-ill, or too poor to pay court-ordered fines.

Last week, President Obama in his remarks to the N.A.A.C.P. annual convention addressed the situation and he noted that “There are a lot of folks who belong in prison.” But he also said, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off. And we need to do something about it.”

Speaking to the same group a day later, former President Clinton acknowledged his role in exacerbating the situation when in 1994 he signed into law a omnibus crime bill that increased prison sentences and “made the problem worse.”

As a proud American, I am embarrassed, and outraged, by the statistics cited above. However, I doubt that anything will change anytime soon. Not as long as so many people cling the notion that vengeance is justice and focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation. I might add that according to Craig Haney, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, , rehabilitation was a key part of U.S. prison policy, until the mid-1970s when it began to recede in favor of a “get tough on crime” approach that sees punishment as prison’s main function.*

It’s an old debate. In terms of legislation or reforms, I’m not certain about the best solution. However, as I am always interested in Buddhist ideas for modern problems, I feel we can take a cue from a few verses by Nagarjuna. It is not the specifics in his words that are important, but rather the spirit of compassion behind them.

I may be guilty of repeating myself on certain topics, such as compassion. However there are concepts which require constant repetition. In Buddhism, repetition is very important. As Shunryu Suzuki once remarked, “If you lose the spirit of repetition, your practice will become quite difficult.” This wise maxim applies to study, as well as practice.

Nagarjuna’s The Precious Garland (Ratnavalli) is a classic Buddhist text, written in the 2nd century (CE) for a Shatavahana king. Naturally, the bulk of the text deals with dharma, but for the 4th chapter, “Royal Policy,” Nagarjuna chose to give the king some practical advice. The excerpted verses here are from the translation by John Dunne and Sara McClintock prepared especially for the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the work in Los Angeles in June 1997.

Even if they rightly fine, imprison
or corporally punish (wrongdoers),
you, being always moistened by compassion,
should show kindness (to those punished).

King, out of compassion you should always
make your mind focused upon
benefiting all beings, even those
that have committed the most serious sins.

You should particularly have compassion for
those that have committed the serious sin
of murder; these ones who have ruined themselves
are indeed worthy of great persons’ compassion.

Either every day or every five days
release the weakest prisoners.
And see that it is not the case that the remaining ones
are never released, as is appropriate.

From thinking that some should never be released
you develop (behaviors and attitudes) that contradict your vows.
From contradicting your vows, you continually
accumulate more negativity.

And until they are released,
Those prisoners should be made content
by providing them with barbers, baths,
food, drink, and medical care.

As if you had the intention of making
unruly children behave properly,
you should discipline them out of compassion –
not out of anger or the desire for material gain.

Having properly examined and indentified
particularly hateful murderers,
you should send them into exile
without killing or harming them . . .

If the tree your kingship offers
the shade of tolerance, the open flowers of respect,
and the great fruit of generosity,
then the birds, your subjects, will flock to it.

More on the Dalai Lama and The Precious Garland

– – – – – – – – – –

* Craig Haney, The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2001

Breaking Through

I once heard a teacher in a dharma talk tell everyone “Our troubles are not the problem. Our problem is that we don’t see our Buddha-nature.”

I always like to remind people that Buddha-nature is not a ‘self’, soul or spirit. It is more like emptiness, or a spaciousness of being. What prevents us from seeing Buddha-nature is precisely the false perception of self.

IMG_3809b3This echoes something Dogen wrote in his work Bussho (“On Buddha-nature”), which according to one translation reads, “Nagarjuna said, ‘If you want to see the Buddha-nature, first you must eliminate self-egoism.'” Dogen later explains that “Seeing is in itself the elimination of self-egoism.”

It seems to me that one of Dogen’s main points throughout his core writings was to make people recognize their Buddha-nature. Then it becomes a matter of how much you can see Buddha-nature inside of you. When I first began to learn about Buddhism, I was told that meditation is the key that opens the gate to Buddha-nature.

The idea is to break the barrier between Buddha-nature and our life, to go beyond the dimension of “yourself” and see the Buddha-nature in others.

Stop your wandering,
Look penetratingly into your inherent nature,
And, concentrating your spiritual energy,
Sit in meditation
And break through.

– Bassui (1327-1387)