What I Can Give

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“If I must surrender everything, it is better that I give it to sentient beings […] I have given my body to them.” From Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva. The nature of life is impermanence. Whether we want to or not, we eventually surrender everything. So while we’re around, it’s useful to work on giving things up willingly.

In a life before becoming the Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni walked by a starving tigress and her cubs. He felt so much compassion for them that he offered himself up for dinner to sate their hunger and save their lives. I love this story, but it’s, um, an advanced example. In The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa recommends offering one’s body in this way to train in generosity. As it is one of things we tend to be most attached to, learning to give it up can help loosen our hold on a lot of other things too. But you gotta do so intelligently. He also throws in a disclaimer that warns beginners not give up a leg, say, or an arm, not to mention the whole affair, as regretting an act of generosity sows the seeds for even deeper clinging, a major bummer.

Over here, I’m a beginner. Uber-beginner. I like my arms and legs. Attached to me. In working order. But there are other things I’ve learned to give. Blood, for one thing. Today, a few of us piled into the car and drove forty minutes to give blood. Going to Nepal means we won’t be able to donate for the four months after our trip, so we made sure not miss our chance before heading out.

Watching the red line snake through the tube, out of my arm and into the sterile plastic pouch, I realized how lucky I am to be able to give part of my life to some one else. It doesn’t cost me more than a few bucks for gas and an afternoon of my time, and on top of that it’s a good excuse to drink Coke and eat lots of fruit jellies.

I’d be surprised if I ever face a hungry tiger or the like, and though I sincerely wish it, I’m not terribly sure I’d be up to the task of giving up my whole body freely. At the same time, I’m grateful to be able to give what I can, at the level where I’m at. It’s galvanizing to be reminded that I have things to offer and that I can give and make a difference for others. There are a lot of kinds of generosity that aren’t as easy as giving blood–like being generous with my time or my listening–but I’m glad I have somewhere simple to start. Fruit jelly fo’ lyfe.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

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Dharma Doodles, Real Words, And Blueberry Chèvre Salad

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Pre-study session whiteboard doodles. “When we take to the road, we don’t know where we will wind up in the end.” Walking the Buddhist path, the goal is to wind up enlightened. In order to do that, I have to understand where I am now, as this allows me to choose the road that leads from here to there. My life is a constant ping-pong between developing an understanding of what enlightenment means and developing an understanding of myself. I wanna connect the right dots, you know?

Yesterday my friend Katya and I presented a segment of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation in the main hall of the Institute.  Gampopa wrote the text in the eleventh century, and it describes the path to enlightenment in logical, step-by-step detail. Gampopa wrote it based on his own experience of realizing enlightement. Thus, what he described was not an abstract philosophical treatise, but something more along the lines of his field notes. “Go left at Bodhi tree to find spiritual master. Pause for homage to Three Jewels.”

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I, as it happens, have not attained enlightenment. Presenting this text put me face-to-face with my actual experience of the world in relation to the experience I aspire to embody. I can say the words. I did my best to say them clearly and with a touch of humor to keep things lively. I can grasp that old age is painful and death is frightening. I can even cogitate that we will all experience these difficulties and thus, we are all in this together. Better to care for each other than go it alone, in other words. But I don’t know it in my bones, not really.

You want to know what surprised me the most about presenting a teaching for which I have the utmost respect and which I feel ill-prepared to truly transmit? Rather than dragging me down, the enormity of the gulf between my understanding and my aspiration became an anchor. Crossing this gap is why I am here. If I want to get where I am going, I have to start somewhere. And the only place I can start is where I am. So here we go.

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I’ll choke on a French word or two, talk a little too fast, and my answer to most questions will be that I don’t know, because I don’t, and that’s perfect.

In the meantime, people keep having birthdays, so I highly recommend this pineapple upside-down cake from Epicurious. And for my birthday, some one gave me organic dried blueberries, which turned into a Perigord-inspired (minus the duck confit, but I guess you could add that if you had the fancy) salad of endive, walnut, aged goat cheese, fresh pear and dried blueberries. Tossed with walnut oil, lemon juice, and a smattering of fresh parsley, it proves both that I live in an awesome region and that I am capable of making food other than cake. I encourage you to give it a go. If you also live in a place where you can find local walnuts and goat cheese, A+.

Precious Human Body And Apple Jelly Spirals

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

Recipe…

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