Never Miss an Opportunity to Hear the Dharma

From "Zen Speaks," by Tsai Chih Chung

“How can I see straight?  How can I get to be real?  How can I live a life of no lie?”  These were the questions she had.


“I had three choices that I could see in front of me:  Escape, insanity, or suicide.  The doctor had proscribed me meds that didn’t make me feel like myself.  Had I continued taking them, I think I would have gone crazy. 


“I was taking my car down the road and contemplating crossing the double yellow line, though I never did.


“I chose the third option: escape.”


Is the above monologue that of a real person?  Perhaps it describes how you or I or any of us feel at some time in our lives.  What does it take to hear the Dharma and to practice it?


How lucky we are to be in a place to hear the Dharma.  Can we afford to forget this?  There is a teaching from Pure Land Buddhism:


Never miss an opportunity to hear the Dharma.


How lucky we are to be born in a human body, to have encountered the teachings of the Buddha and to have chosen to put them into practice.  The Buddhadharma is something we must choose to practice, not something we are coerced into or doing under duress.  When we see the intensity of our life and death flashing in front of us, we always have the option, if we so choose, to put our faith in the Three Treasures – a balm for our pain.


There is the compassionate Buddha who provides for us an example of what we are capable of.  There is the wisdom of the Dharma, helping us to make good choices.  There is the company of the sangha, providing us support along the way.


It’s like we’re all in that story of the man running from the tiger in the jungle.  The jungle is symbolic of delusive thinking.  The tiger is like the Buddha, waking us up from our upside-down views.  We trip and fall down a cliff, quickly reach out and grab whatever we can hold on to, a root, or something, and stop ourselves momentarily on the side of a cliff going straight down.  Below us is a pit of venomous snakes ready to strike.  Above us is the hungry tiger.  The root we are clinging to is being chewed on by rats. 


This scenario is what life can feel like at times.  We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.  However, there is something else that we may miss in moments like this….


Right there in the side of the cliff we see a small patch of strawberries.  With our free hand we reach out for the shiny red and gold-speckled globes and begin to taste.  When the berry touches the tongue it sends signals to the brain helping us to remember to relax and enjoy each moment, for we don’t know what the next one will bring.  “Ahh,” we say to ourselves.


Eating those strawberries is like hearing the Dharma.  They provide relief whether it’s from the everyday stressors of our life or the life and death situations we find ourselves in from time-to-time.


The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that we can enjoy our sitting, we can enjoy our breathing and we can enjoy our life.  There are no “D” words that make this enjoyment an exception.  The “D” words include death, disease, deluge, disaster, divorce, etc.  The path of the Bodhisattva is to turn our suffering into joy.  This is the challenge the Buddha offers to us.  It requires faith in the Dharma, and it requires our own efforts towards practice.  Practice, as the yoga sutras define it, is “effort towards steadiness of mind.”


Seeing what is wrong is like ripe fruit falling into our hand.  Seeing what is not wrong often requires effort.  We need to get out our ladder, put it next to the tree, climb up, and feel whether the fruit is ready to be picked or not.  The same is true for wholesome modes of thought.


In the middle of life and death we have the opportunity, if we can see it, to choose freedom from fear.  Dogen Zenji offers up an image about the iron ox lying down in smoke and sand.*  Our tendency is to run away from smoke.  It stings our eyes and causes us to choke.  Who would intentionally lie down in sand?  Sand is what we sweep out of our beds.  Smoke and sand are symbolic of the aversions of our life.  The iron ox is the symbol of Enlightenment.  Enlightenment isn’t a place to go that is totally free from pain and suffering.  We each must face our life’s difficulties that make us want to harm ourselves or others, to go crazy, or to escape this world, and learn ways to transform that suffering into healing and well-being.


* See Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura in Dogen’s Extensive Record:  A Translation of the Eihei Koroku.  Boston:  Wisdom Publications 2010.  Dharma Hall Discourse 161, pages 186-187.

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