Rain is trammeling down the twilight. The drops form a shower of diamonds in the blue-grey light of evening. I am sitting under the gentle parabola that caps the Institute and listening to two brave souls from this winter’s study retreat on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation recap the explanations on the precious human body. This body is precious because it is difficult to obtain. Precious because it is easy to lose. Precious, for, once obtained, it travels unerringly towards its end. This body allows us to reflect on our suffering, to act to alleviate it, and to aid others with their suffering as we develop understanding through such reflection.
Let’s say the suffering of beings is like a vast desert of cracked earth (me talking now, not Gampopa). Then I suppose compassion and the just action that unfolds therein is the nourishing rain which allows the tender shoots of wellbeing and clarity to set forth their first leaves and all that follows. In the face of such immensity, at times I feel like a single drop of water destined to evaporate upon immediate impact with the steaming heat of so much anguish.
Perhaps this is melodramatic. Also, perhaps–from another point of view–this is the answer. For though we experience our selves and our lives and all of our manifest suffering, this experience is also illusory. We are not formed and fixed as we believe ourselves to be. Our suffering is subject to change, as our self is subject to change. As a drop of water is wont to evaporate and the most parched earth is blown away by a gentle wind, so our suffering may be soothed, if we awaken to its temporality. Change is kind. It feels cruel when we do not welcome it, but in fact, change can be a balm.
It’s a harsher form of change to accept that that this body will not last. But there’s work to be done in the meantime. Reflection to call the rain.
For me, reflection pairs well with manual activity. This way, the benefit of beings gets accomplished not only through deepened understanding, but also through better afternoon snacks. Plus, this precious human body needs loving nourishment. Lately, the dining hall kitchen has taken to fielding me puff pastry scraps that can’t be reused for big group meals, and I’ve taken to turning them into tasty spirals to go with post-lunch coffee or tea. This is the perfect happy ending for all those homemade spinach triangle leftovers or times you needed a round sheet of puff pastry but could only find a square one.
You can fill a puff pastry spiral with just about anything: nut butter or, duh, Nutella, sweetened cream cheese, good old-fashioned cinnamon-sugar. I chose to get a little ambitious here and make a batch of fresh apple preserves. It’s remarkably easy and totally ups the schmancy factor. You end up with a crispy, tender, gooey, sweet moment of worldly, impermanent, totally delicious happiness. (Bite me post-modern literary and grammar mores; I will use as many adjectives as I want to, and I nearly ended this sentence with a preposition.)
So apparently there’s this not so new phenomenon in the English language where people use the word “because” followed by a noun rather than an independent clause (grammar and context can be found here). There’s a whole meme cult around “because racecar.” Which is funny to begin with, and beyond that, as a lover of both language and the absurd, I’m a fan of the general proposition. Even if I’m around two years late to the party.
For instance, if some one asks, “Why are you late to lunch?” you say, “Because banana bread,” smile adorably, and hold up a plate of warm bread, which wafts heart-melting deliciousness. Tardiness absolved.
I’m not sure this evolution (devolution?) of language has made it into French yet, but as we know, I’m a fan of inter-continental exchange. Thus the banana bread. A staple of American comfort food, which is readily embraced by every other culture I’ve tried it on. It’s been well-received in New Zealand and Ghana as well.
This version is spiked with honey and orange zest, plus a pinch of nutmeg. Because creativity. Also because leftover oranges, but it’s a welcome mix so no worries over the initial motivation. It’s moist and chewy and sweet and everything banana bread is supposed to be, plus a tiny bit exciting. Honey, citrus, oooh. Because we can (what can I say? Independent clauses are great too.)
I am sitting at my desk in the office, tapping away in the ever-too-few minutes before dinnertime. Dinnertime here is a fixed affair. If you don’t show up to the dining hall between seven-thirty and eight in the evening you’re out of luck, your soup and salad and quiche or other go to some hungry Jack on the prowl for leftovers and, what’s more, you get a light slap on the wrist for missing a meal you signed up for. Thus, this time is precious, as it is limited. Whatever activity I choose to engage in must be done in twenty-six minutes. I can stretch it to forty-six if I don’t mind dirty looks or guilt-inducing jokes from the kitchen crew for showing up at the last minute.
Not that I mind, just that I’m conscious and try to be conscientious of the fact. Which isn’t easy on a day like today, when my brain jangles with ideas edging their way hurriedly toward the exit, but my fingers can’t type fast enough and the thoughts seem to risk disappearing out my ears or back into the vortex of dark matter that is my cerebral functioning or intangible mind or whatever you prefer according to your tradition.
Apparently, sudden doses of concentrated sunshine makes me slightly high, if we take this rush of thoughts and words to be the effect of springtime. Could also be that I just got handed the schedule of events for this summer, and the anticipation of future activity revs my excitement-ometer far beyond its recent norm.
Last week I wrote about sadness and hardship and an ineffable vision of pain. I also made a remark about how joy seems to be deeply entwined with future happiness. Now, I’m noticing some nuances. The levity I feel today comes both from this and from the simple fact of being occupied. My thoughts have things to do other than observe the parts of themselves that are rooted in fear and doubt, which is what they seem to do when they lack distraction. Also, my vision of the future is tied to meaningful work. Summer means lots of visiting teachers, lots of coordination and big, fancy meals and content people with sated appetites and tickled palates. Summer means using the random assortment of talents and skills I’ve got in this life for the easily-observable benefit of others. Summer means affirmation.
It also means working like a crazy person until I fall on my face, come Semptember–in a caffeine-and-possibly-sugar-induced stupor and the waves of befuddled loss that accompany too much free time after having none at all. Interesting fact about vision, at least at the level at which I’ve got it: seeing what happens inside of me doesn’t change what happens. At least not very fast. Understanding the source of my anguish, when it arises, doesn’t make it go away. Realizing the temporal nature of my anticipation doesn’t make it any less consuming. But perhaps it does give me a bit more patience with the ups and downs and ins and outs.
And this is a worthwhile affair. Because whether I’m overwhelmed with anguish or carried away by joy, there are things to be done in this life. And it is useful to be capable of action, regardless—no, not regardless—with great regard and kindness for the storm inside.
In the meantime, it is springtime, and impermanence is showing its finer features in a sudden flurry of fleeting floral display. Possibly too much alliteration; I apologize. In any case, as a cook, springtime means to me short windows of awesome flavor potential. Trees that have edible fruit also have edible flowers, and many that don’t have edible fruit also have edible flowers (but in this case it’s best to ask some one who’s very well informed). Springtime flowers taste at once familiar and unexpected. We’re all used to vanilla, which is, at its base, a floral flavor, and many of us have also come to know orange blossom, lavender, rose, and others that have recently become popular. So why not walk out your front door and try the neighborhood special?
My favorite way to capture a clean flavor in a dessert without it getting lost in a bunch of caramelized sugar/flour/cake madness, is in a cream. Panna cotta is the simplest, purest way I’ve found, and it’s also ridiculously easy to make. I used the flowers of an ornamental Prunus variety, a close relative of almond and apricot trees. The flavor is lightly astringent and well…flowery. Basically, find a flower that smells great and comes from a plant that produces other things you can eat. Be bold; have fun; it’s springtime.
(Four minutes to get to dinner and hopefully not too many typos!)
It is spring, and I could cry with joy. Not that winter was so bad. It was mild in fact, with just a bit of frost and nary a snowflake in sight. But three days hence, all decked out in sunshine, I am nothing if not grateful.
Lately I’ve developed a habit of collapsing unexpectedly into a puddle of tears, and usually not for joy. I generally flee human company at such times, marvel at the unpredictability of my experience of the world, and try not to judge too much. Emotion–it’s a thing sometimes.
It’s a thing a lot these days. I find myself overcome with paralyzing sadness or desperate hope, none of which lasts but all of which shakes me around like an acorn on an oak branch in the midst of a winter storm. It’s all I can do to hang on.
So that’s what I try to do. Hold it together when I can, let it go when I can’t. Ask for help; accept that help. And also just generally try not to leak overwhelmption all over the place. Because that’s heavy, overwhelmption is, and most people have enough of their own to carry without me dousing mine all over them unbidden. And, um, I think it’s generally working.
But the thing about being an acorn in a storm is you can either watch the storm or close your little acorn eyes and just not. Erm, duly noted that acorns don’t have eyes and this analogy has overstayed its ability to be applicable, but you see what I’m getting at here…I’m trying to be an acorn with my eyes open.
And in the storm of my emotions, there’s a lot to see. I see how joy is based on believing in future happiness. I see how sadness comes from a vision of future loss. I see how pain grows from witnessing others’ hardship and my own, and feeling trapped in an inability to fix or often even lessen that hardship in the moment.
As far as I can tell, looking and holding on is what there is to do. The ability to be helpful, to others and myself, increases with understanding. I’m not useless, even if I feel like it on occasion. I’m just a lot less useful than I’d like to be.
But this is the deal with keeping our eyes open. The more we pay attention to all the uses we could fill in this world, the more we experience the limits of our present usefulness. Which is hard, but it’s not bad. I am doing the best I can do. I’m pretty sure we all are. And if I keep paying attention, and somehow learn to balance sadness and vision and motivation, my best will continue to grow. And I think that’s all I can ask for. Storms are not that comfortable, but acorns need rain to grow into oaks (usefulness of analogy regained–ha!).
Losar Tashi Delek! I.e., Happy Tibetan New Year.
This is the New Year’s card I designed for the center. It was, um, kind of a giant headache trying to produce an image I like and feel confident offering to represent Dhagpo in a limited amount of time, but it’s also very cool to be able to put my artistic background to use in service of others (and myself, but hey, a little publicity never hurt). It was also not this psychedelic in Illustrator, but whatever WordPress color coding, it’s fine.
Other than that, this week and this day have been filled with irresolute half-summer, half-winter weather, sudden baking extravaganzas, and joyful bouts of group practice. Seven o’clock this morning found me in the temple listening to a drum beat and long Tibetan horns, invoking the New Year in the protection of the lineage.
If this year is as wild as a wind horse, let it also be as graceful.
Let the clouds bring quiet, and let them lift to reveal the clarity of blue sky and undistracted mind.
Let every sweetness be an offering.