Francis of Assisi and Perfect Happiness

Earlier this week I recorded a film from 1961, Francis of Assisi, directed by the great Michael Curtiz and starring Bradford Dillman as Francis, along with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 “hippie” version of the St. Francis story, Brother Sun Sister Moon with music by Donovan.  Last night on PBS I watched a documentary about Francis traveling to Egypt where he met with the Sultan of Egypt while trying to bring peace to the Crusades.  I guess you might call it a St. Francis binge.

Sunday night, TCM Imports aired The Flowers of St. Francis, a 1950 effort by Roberto Rossellini.  The script was a collaboration between Rossellini and Federico Fellini based on “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” a text from the 14th century.  The cast was made up of real Franciscan monks, including the man who played the future saint.

There is a scene where Brother Francis and Brother Leone are walking through the countryside.  Francis tells his companion of the many things that do not bring perfect happiness, such as restoring sight to the blind, healing the crippled, casting out demons, converting heretics…

Frustrated, Brother Leone stops and says, “Please, Brother, where does perfect happiness reside?”  But Francis does not answer him.  Instead, he leads Brother Leone to a house and they ask the man who lives there for alms.  He refuses.  The friars persist and the man beats them with a club.  When the incident is over, Francis turns to Brother Leone and says,

“O Brother Leone, lamb of our good Lord, now that we’ve borne all this for the love of our blessed Christ, know that in this resides perfect happiness.  Because above all the gifts Christ bestows on his servants is the gift of triumphing over ourselves and bearing every evil deed out of love for him.  In this alone lies perfect happiness.”

For St. Francis, personal transformation is a gift.  The present of happiness that we have always had but never opened.  Winning over our faults, our weaknesses, bad habits, prejudices, fears – making better people out of ourselves, the opportunity is a very precious gift.

Bearing every evil deed doesn’t mean to go out and search for them, but to willingly bear suffering when it comes.  Francis thought like this out of  his love for God but he also loved nature and its creatures and he loved people.  He taught that we are all brothers and sisters, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon and Brother Wind, all together in the unity of existence.  He practiced poverty, giving away all material possession, and spiritual poverty in that he surrendered his entire life to God.  Gave over everything so that all he had in life was his robe and his relationship with the Lord.  In living simply and altruistically like this, Francis reminds me of the bodhisattva and the Taoist sage.

Religion  doesn’t matter.  This message is universal.  We should engrave it on our hearts, as we open our hearts to compassion to all.

This is the Way.

There is no other.

Share

“When the mind is free…”

I’ve had the opportunity to attend quite a few teachings by the Dalai Lama over the years.  If you have too, then you know they are usually 3 or 4 day affairs, 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon, and the Dalai Lama gives deep teachings.  It is unfortunate that he is more renown as a sort of Buddhist celebrity.  In my opinion, his real contribution to all of us is being the foremost teacher and interpreter of Madhyamaka philosophy in the world today.  I can’t think of any other teacher who comes close.

Here are some notes I took at a 2001 teaching on Shantideva’s “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.”  I thought I would share them with you:

If you wish to overcome hatred you must cultivate loving-kindness just as you turn on heat to dispel cold or turn on a light to illuminate darkness.

In itself, the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality.

Samsara has a powerful antidote and the power of this antidote can be increased infinitely.

When the mind is free from mental afflictions, the mind can then permeate and perceive both conventional and ultimate truth simultaneously.  

We who recite the Heart Sutra should accept the Buddha as the embodiment of the object of ultimate realization.  Bodhicitta [‘thought of awakening’] is the aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the welfare of all beings. When bodhicitta arises, all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva.

If you have insight into emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not realize full awakening.  If you have no insight into emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what.  Bodhicitta is a benefit both temporary and long term.  You should practice bodhicitta as an antidote to pride.  It is also powerful when you are depressed.

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.

To develop compassion first cultivate a sense of closeness to all sentient beings, then a real empathy with them.  A practice that is very powerful for cultivating compassion is seeing others as your mother, who symbolizes the one who has shown you the greatest kindness.

It is important to have some understanding of what kind of sufferings you wish others to be free from.  The wish to free oneself from suffering is true renunciation.  To wish others to be free is true compassion.

Bodhicitta has two elements: 1) closeness to others and 2) understanding of suffering.

To achieve the kind of liberation we are talking about requires great courage.

Three elements to attain Buddhahood: 1) bodhicitta, the heart of the practice, 2) compassion, and 3) understanding of emptiness (through tranquil abiding and penetrative insight).

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind and mind training.

Both the Buddha and Nagarjuna had unobstructed vision.  One should think that in their presence, ‘I have nothing to hide, I have no guilty conscience.’

Great guidance! As you know, a bodhisattva is an individual who begins his or her practice by generating bodhicitta, the aspirational wish to liberate all living beings from their sufferings.   The Tibetan term for bodhisattva is jang chub sem pa, which translates roughly as “mind-hero.”

Bodhisattvas are heroes of the mind.   They have learned to master their minds, rather than letting their minds master them.  Why are they heroes?  They have the “great courage” the Dalai Lama talks about, the bravery, the audacity to aspire for liberation.

It reminds me of the line in the David Bowie song “Heroes”: “We can be heroes, just for one day.”  That is all it takes… small acts of random kindness… beginning with just one day.  Be a hero for just one day and it expands from there like a ripple in a still water when there is a pebble tossed… which reminds me of another song…

 

Share

Study: Generosity makes you happier.

After conducting a study to investigate how brain areas communicate to produce feelings of well-being, researchers at the University of Zurich have concluded that “Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous.  People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy.  Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier.”

This is hardly news.  It’s what Buddhism and other philosophies both religious and secular have always maintained.  Yet, insight into how this works is useful.

In the study, the researchers took 50 people and divided them into two groups, one ‘generous’ and the other ‘selfish.’  The ‘selfish’ group was asked to think about spending 100 Swiss francs on themselves and the ‘generous’ group were to consider spending the same money on another person.  Although I’m not sure how they did this, they measured happiness levels before and after the experiment, and found that those in the group asked to think about spending money on others had a larger “mood boost” than the other group.

The bottom line is both simple and encouraging:  Prof.  Philippe Tobler says, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier.  Just being a little more generous will suffice.”

The Buddhist term for generosity is dàna, a Pali word that literally means “almsgiving,” but in general refers to the practice of giving.  The first step (paramita) on the Bodhisattva path is giving of oneself.

Some years ago, in a series of dharma talks on Lamrim ((Tibetan: “stages of the path”), Thubten Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist nun and founder Sravasti Abbey*, drew a distinction between worldly generosity and what she calls the “far-reaching attitude of generosity” :

“[The] far-reaching attitude of generosity [is] sometimes called giving.  It’s not just generosity as we normally think of it.  Generosity is giving things, which is great; but the far-reaching attitude of generosity is combined with both compassion and wisdom.  It’s different from ordinary generosity, because it is motivated by the wish to become a Buddha in order to benefit others.  It’s very different from ordinary generosity that happens at Christmas time or at Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Valentine’s.  That kind of generosity is very much based on the happiness of this life.”

To achieve the far-reaching attitude of generosity, one must first achieve true selflessness.  This means to practice generosity without making distinctions, without discrimination or preferences.  To practice generosity without preferences is to help others regardless of who or what they are, and it also means giving without any purpose in mind, without thoughts of reward or benefit.

Ultimately, the idea is to dissolve the concepts of subject and object, self and others, because as Seng-ts’an wrote in the “Faith-Mind Inscription” (Hsin-hsin Ming),

“One thing, all things; move among and intermingle, without distinction.  To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about nonperfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality, because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.”

“Trusting” corresponds to the Chinese character hsin or “faith, belief.”  We could also call it confidence.  It’s trusting that the mind’s true nature is awakened mind or Buddha-nature.

The kind of generosity that Thubten Chodron speaks of, the kind of true selflessness that wrote about – these are far-reaching goals.  We might be tempted to doubt ourselves and think, I can’t achieve that sort of all-embracing attitude.   And we can’t, not all at once.  We begin with small steps.  As the University of Zurich shows, just thinking about being more generous can make us happier.

If with kindly generosity
One thinks, “May I relieve living beings
Merely of headaches,”
This produces a boundless positive force…

– Shantideva

– – – – – – – – – –

* Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.

Share

More Precious than a Wish-fulfilling Jewel

Chiron was a centaur, and if you know your Greek mythology, you’ll recall that centaurs are half-human, half-horse. Chiron, however, was a something special. He was extremely wise, and he was an immortal god to boot. One day he was accidently struck by Hercules’ arrow. The wound was so agonizingly painful, Chiron wanted to die. But he couldn’t, because he was immortal. One of the downsides to being a god, I guess.

Eventually, he was able to renounce his immortality and before he went off to Elysium (the afterlife), he taught the art of medicine to man, and to gods, including Askelpios, who became the god of medicine. For this, Chiron is known as the “father of medicine” and the “wounded healer.”

Carl Jung borrowed “wounded healer” to describe an archetype he saw in the relationship between an analyst and patients. An analyst, or doctor, is able to treat others because “The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.”

If we unpack that idea a bit, then we can say that generally speaking, as we are all wounded in some way, for we all experience pain and suffering, and because each of us has the capacity to help others to alleviate their pain and suffering, we are all healers. Furthermore, as the myth of Chiron represents the ideal of compassion and selfless service, it is similar to the ideal of the Bodhisattva; so, we can be Bodhisattvas, too.

Jung, in outlining his concept of the wounded healer in Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy (1951), said he believed disease was the best training for a physician.

Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”
Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”

There is no doubt that the experience of sufferings is beneficial training for the practice of altruism, but in Buddhism the prime cause for helping others is much more fundamental. In Supplement to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti wrote, “Compassion alone is seen as the seed . . . as water for its growth, and as ripening into a lasting source of usefulness. And so, first, I pay homage to compassion.”

He’s talking about Bodhicitta, the wish to realize awakening for the benefit of all living beings. There are two kinds of bodhicitta: “aspiration bodhicitta”, generating the thought, and “action bodhicitta” or putting the thought into practice.

Year ago, at a meditation class I was leading, a first time visitor, a rather cynical young man, wanted to know why we should practice compassion. He thought there should be a reason for it. I must admit that I failed at making him understand that compassion does not need a reason. It is a kind of vicarious identification, you see the suffering of living beings and you feel empathy, you feel compassion. I realize now that he suffered from an acute sense of separation from others and consequently, he thought he needed some rationale for practicing compassion.

That is why it is important for us who understand the inseparability, the interdependence of all things to reflect on thoughts like the one we find expressed in Geshe Langri Thangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind:

By thinking of all sentient beings
As more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel
For accomplishing the highest aim,
I will always hold them dear.

Share

Use Life

Once at a four-day teaching in Los Angeles, during a question and answer period, the Dalai Lama was asked, “What is the quickest and easiest way to attain enlightenment?” The question caused the Dalai Lama to break down in tears. When he recovered his composure, he began to tell a story about the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who facing death, was giving his last instructions to a disciple and showed him the calluses on his behind. Milarepa said, “Look at this, this is what I’ve endured, this is the mark of my practice.” Just as the translator was relaying this, the Dalai Lama interrupted and, in one of the few times he spoke English during that teaching, exclaimed, “Don’t think quickest, easiest, cheapest!”

The next day, the Dalai Lama said that it really doesn’t matter if one becomes enlightened or not. The purpose of existence, he said, is to be of benefit to others, “and if a person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose.”

Consider the words “purpose of existence.” It implies that there is purpose to life. Naturally, people see that purpose differently, according to their own world-view. The view the Dalai Lama was speaking from was that of the bodhisattva, who undertakes the mission to relieve the suffering of others.

Shi Ming: “Use Life”
Shi Ming: “Use Life”

The Chinese term for “mission” is shi ming, which is made of two characters when put together literally mean “use life.” Outwardly, the bodhisattva’s mission is an altruistic one, but there is a more fundamental task at hand, and that is to use life, not to waste it.

There are those who fear that in service to others they will become subservient, or that in the practice of compassion, others will take advantage of them. But these fears are based on a limited view of what service means, what to be of benefit to others entails. Creating art is a benefit to others. Building a road serves others. A smile can help relieve someone’s suffering.

The point is to go beyond the routine of life, to use life, not merely live it. It means to regard each present moment as an opportunity to do something. Great or small, it doesn’t make a difference. Just do something that goes beyond yourself.

One of the greatest challenges of life is learning how to use it. When we use life in a meaningful way, we gain a sense of purpose. When we gain a sense of purpose, we have a mission. When we are dedicated to the fundamental mission of using our life for something worthwhile, we find myriad ways to be of benefit to others. Then everything we do can be a form of service. Nothing is wasted. Each moment is like a small drop of water poured into the ocean that lasts until the ocean itself evaporates.

So, use life.

 

Share