Lotus Sutra 16: The Empty Room
Sometimes when I’m sitting in meditation, when I’m sitting here with you, I’m an empty room and the wind is blowing into it, and the wind is blowing out of it. The wind of the breath. It’s just there, it’s just happening, the way that sound, can you hear that sound? Oh it doesn’t matter it’s gone. Can you hear this sound? Oh it doesn’t matter it’s gone. The way those sounds come and go, the wind is blowing through the empty room. There’s so much space there, in the empty room of this body, the wind just seems to go and on. As if there was no end to it.
But sometimes when I’m sitting, when I’m sitting here with you, I’m not an empty room. You know those super corny events where they hand out these ugly department store stickers that say, “HI, I’m…” and there’s a big blank space where your name goes? And secretly you’re glad for these stickers because you never remember anyone’s name, maybe it was all those subtitled movies you watched when you were a kid. Well sometimes when I’m sitting I take one of these stickers, the one with my name written in large, day-glo letters that are so big it can be read from the hospital room where I was born, I take that sticker and I lay it on every breath. That’s mine. HI, I’m… the inhale. That’s me. That’s my breath. Though I wish my breath wasn’t like that. I wish had deep breath, I wish I was a little deeper. Don’t you? This is my fantasy, that I could come here to the Centre of Gravity and I’d walk through the door and I’d just start this one long killer inhale. I’d just draw in every atom of the room and let it pass through me really slowly and then I’d release it, I’d let it all go, I’d breathe out my entire exo-skeleton until I was so relaxed I’d just be a puddle of bones on the floor, and when I was finished with my exhale the evening would be over. Hey, good session at Gravity tonight, excellent breathing! I’d breathe in once and then I’d breathe out once and two hours would be gone just like that.
Instead, there’s this thing I do with my name tag — call it a tick, a quirk, a habit I can’t let go of — but I keep putting the sticker onto my breath, and then I send it out into the world. That’s my cushion, that’s my idea, that’s my bike. You’re wearing my pants, that’s my point of view. Can’t you see you’re stepping on my feelings?
When I’m sitting, when I’m sitting here with you, I can feel you trying to help me. I can feel you working, doing the work of the present moment, granting me the gift of your silence. Of your care, of your dedication. And I want to be here, I want to respond — in kind, as they say — only it would mean feeling my feelings, you know, or if not my feelings, the ones that pass through the empty room, the empty room that the wind is blowing through, and every time a feeling runs through it — hey, hey wait, sadness, don’t go so fast! Despair, confusion: come sit down on this comfy couch. I’ve made this beautiful designer couch just for my confusion. It’s so perfect, so comfortable, so easy. On some Friday nights I just like to, you know, dim the lights and curl right up into my delicious confusion, the blindness, that’s all mine. HI, I’m… sadness. HI, I’m… confusion. HI, I’m the happiness that comes only at the expense of others. It’s a regular crowd scene in here.
My stories, my feelings, myself.
What did the old bard say? To thine own selves be true. But which one? How to choose? What description of yourself do you prefer? I’m such a smart person. I’m such a stupid person. I’m in so much pain right now, that’s what makes me so special. I love animals more than people. I love books more than people. Does that make me a bad person? I love myself more than people. I know that makes me a bad person. What does your description of yourself do for you, what does it make possible? What if you could let go of those old tunes of self punishment, would you still be you?
The people I used to choose, well perhaps choose is the wrong word, but the people I would accidentally on purpose choose to be my friends are the ones with whom I could perform a version of myself that I felt comfortable inside. It’s like walking into a furniture showroom and sinking down into a couch and saying, “Yeah, I like this, this makes me feel good. Even when I’m not feeling good, this couch makes me feel good.” The people I used to pick without picking – what if they were the ones picking me? – were the ones who allowed me to live inside a story that I could live with. So what if I love books more than people, books are people too ok? Or they have people in them. But these days, I watch as my feet take me to the Centre, okay, okay the edge, the very fringes, the suburbs of the Centre of Gravity. I know you’ve come here with your whole heart but I’m still out there in the suburbs. I don’t know if that’s for me, it looks like so much work, and some people, when I look into their faces, they look kind of virtuous and to use a word I usually reserve only for butter, pure, and it makes me feel bad, sometimes. In other words sometimes I like to use this place as a setting, a launching pad, a thrust stage for the bad stories I like to tell myself, I like to set them right here, and every one of you has a part to play. But sometimes, with some of my new friends, that I’ve even met in this room, you don’t feel like my old friends. I mean, it’s not about performing some old version of myself, like some hair band from the 70s that is back on a re re re reunion tour and has to keep playing those three hit songs they wrote when they were still checking the mirror each morning for new acne rashes. No, with my new friends sometimes I’m not lying back into a holding pattern, I’m not staking a claim, sometimes I can feel myself falling, falling, falling into this moment, we fall into this moment together, where we are perfectly empty, and I don’t need to hold onto a version of anything at all because it’s all right here.
You know in The Lotus Sutra there’s a couple of times when the Buddha, who has this little tuft of hair between his eyebrows, he shoots light through it, and on my way over here tonight I passed this guy on the corner with a monobrow, you know he just has this one eyebrow running across his forehead, and I almost fell off my bike, “Oh forehead spotlight machine!” When the Buddha is asked: “What does the Buddha body look like in that floating stupa in the sky? he sends out this beam of light and all the other worlds light up, and all the buddhas walk towards him on this beam of light. Do you remember that? One of my best friends is a seven-year-old girl named Emma. And she’s always busy turning everything around her into playtime. Like me, like you, she lives inside her descriptions of the world. And her descriptions of the world converts a chair into a boat, or a bicycle, or a magic castle. “Get into the castle!” she says, and I run over and there’s no more time to be carrying around all of my important opinions, my analysis of the situation. “Magic castle, mm hmm. Do you feel some need to escape the insufficient reality that your parents have constructed around you? Is there an existential void, a lack, an emptiness that you are forever covering over in your attempts to create a self-form, a svarupe? “Get into the castle!” Master! Are you there master? In her off-screen hours, in her unregulated time, she is busy playing, and when she does she calls me with the beam of light that is her whole body, the whole body at once, the teacher. She calls me to this moment, this chair castle, a Buddha and a Buddha.
I think the beam of light, this calling to the present, is not the exclusive preserve of my friend Emma, though she does perform it better than most. There is also the laughter of my friend Pat, for instance. She is Dr. Pat to some, but even there, in the clinical frame, I know that she is bringing the gift of her laughter which is the whole of her practice. The whole of her practice is in the way she laughs, it rings through the room and it calls you, and it calls me, to be here in the empty room. Like the lotus flower of Grant’s smile that is forever opening, I think that the practice, the touch of the practice, the way your practice reaches out to touch others, resides in each of us in a different way, according to your svarupe, your self form. And how does that practice touch others, how does your beam of light call others to this moment? Dogen says, Dogen compares it to hands reaching behind you in the middle of the night to adjust the pillow. When I hear this I think: They must have had pillows in the Zen monasteries of Japan in the Middle Ages — is that kind of a comforting thought to you? A little touch of softness in all those hard Zen trials. How does my friend Pat practice? She doesn’t save up her laugh, knowing that she has only has a fixed amount of laughter left in the jar – even though sometimes I want to ask her, “Don’t you worry that laughing so much will make your laugh lines deeper and then your face will get, you know, wrinkled and then you’ll be an old person and no one will respect your opinions or notice you… No no, I don’t speak these true anxious lies out loud to her, instead I delight in every time she laughs. How does she laugh? The way you reach your hands behind you in the middle of the night to adjust the pillow. That easily and readily, the practice comes forward, it issues, it flowers in this space between us, her laughter, Emma’s magic castle is a flowering of space because everything is there in that moment.
Last week I helped my parents move out of the house they’ve lived in for the last 44 kalpas. Give or take an iron age. They moved in 44 years ago, during the year of the yellow submarine, when successful peace negotiations concluded between India and Pakistan, nuclear materials were stolen in Brazil, 20,000 Buddhists marched in protest against the military government in South Vietnam. In this particular kalpa the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, and the Nobel Peace Prize wasn’t awarded to anyone at all. How many lifetimes did my parents live in that house, and what were they leaving behind exactly, now that my father has Alzheimer’s? He spends days without saying a word, calm and quiet and completely lost. He’s not here and not anywhere really, like me sometimes, like you sometimes, lost in some private dream, as if dreams could ever be private. As if every dream we ever had hasn’t come back to become that park, that mayor, the city-world we live in.
I want to stroke my father’s head as if he was a small dog and say, “It’s OK doggy, you can come back now, back here to this place. There’s a large empty room waiting for you, just for you, where the wind blows day and night.” But instead he prefers the company of his television avatars. His show biz presentation models do the talking, and in the corporate grammar of pictures, every shot has a reaction shot, so he is spared the duty of having to make even that effort. Instead, he can watch, or pretend to watch, as his cranial circuits misfire and draw blanks and the cloud of confusion slowly descends on everything he used to call home. Please don’t leave me dad. Please don’t leave us dad, not like this. When the only words he can mutter are, “Let’s Make a Deal.” Or, “Where is Oprah?” As if she was his best friend. And maybe on some days, and maybe on most days, that’s exactly what she is.
What does my mother say? “He’s not the man I married.” “This is not the man I married.” She says it to me like an outraged shopper at a supermarket bringing back a piece of merchandise. This isn’t the couch I ordered. This isn’t the dining room set I picked out. Take him back, take them all back. What do you do with the man you promised to have and hold, the one who breezily announced that he wasn’t going to serve in the army so the two of you were going to have to leave the country and come to this land of strangers. The one who never seemed to need friends, except for you, the one who has never stopped loving you even though you get angry with him, again and again, even through his confusion, his laziness, his inabilities, what do you do with that? How do you forgive him for that exactly? How do you forgive him for doing the one thing you could never manage? How do you forgive him for loving you for all these years? Maybe you decide that it’s not the kind of love you want. It’s lemon lime and you wanted chocolate. It’s stripes and you’re solid. It’s liquid and you’re gas. In other words, you tell a story, you make up a version, and then you pull out your handy trust of name tags and you stick it onto your story. There, that’s mine now, that’s my life, that’s my opinion about my life, and that’s my feeling about my opinion about my life. It makes me feel shitty in just the right way so don’t be messing with it, OK?
Dad just sits there propped up against the wall as the movers come and take the remains of his boxed-up life away. The last day, the last hours of the house of 44 kalpas are animated by four young strangers, one of them with a fresh set of jailhouse tats still shining off his forearms. He is the most polite and kindest of them all of course. Mother can have a conversation with this one, unlike dad, for instance, she can find a common sentence inside all that politeness we reserve for strangers, while the anger and the bitterness are left for the ones we love. Even if they don’t behave like the ones we love. Even if we can barely recognize them anymore – he’s not the man I married – there’s still the bad feelings, there’s still some terrible sense that she did everything she was supposed to. She said, “I do,” she followed the rules, she tried as hard as she could, and then he turned into someone else. He’s lost his mind, and now something she never had is gone. And the way he left reminds me, reminds everyone here, that we don’t have anything, that we’re only an empty room with the wind blowing in, with the wind blowing out. And when the movers hoist the last box onto their perfect shoulders you start to walk through that house, stripped of every reasonable excuse and defense, of everything that made it yours, of every time you laughed in that hallway, or told stories to your sister on her bed with the afternoon light making everything sparkle, or ate angel food cake without your hands. And you can feel your footsteps get lighter, as light as air perhaps, as you become part of the breeze that is floating through that newly emptied house, all of its contents secured in the moving truck. It’s just a large, empty house now, it might belong to anyone. It hardly belongs to you. And then you realize that you don’t have to believe in second chances, you just have to show up here, here in this moment. Because this moment is as large and empty and perfect as the house you’ve always lived in. The house you’re seeing today for the first time, the day you’re finally leaving.
Do you understand that you’re leaving the house, dad? And all the people you used to be in this house? Is it unforgivable that it should cause you so little pain, so little difficulty?
The year is 1916, which means that for two years all of the dragons, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras, mahoragas, human and nonhuman beings, an assembly of thousands, ten thousands, millions have been busy killing each other across muddy patches of real estate in a slaughter named the war to end all wars, until World War One turned into a prelude for World War Two.
What was it the Buddha said? I’m paraphrasing, I’m putting words into the dead man’s mouth… Is that what language is? Putting words into someone else’s mouth, the way a mother robin chews up food and puts it into the mouths of her young? The Buddha said that if you plant the seed of a bitter melon in good soil and water it hoping it will grow into sweet corn, and then you begin to pray and make prostrations, and do good deeds – it’s not going to work. If you plant a seed of a bitter melon, then you’ll get bitter melons. And if you turn what is supposed to be armistice and peace into another form of war, you plant a seed, a bitter seed, that grows into another world war.
So it’s 1916, and the doctor from Vienna, Sigmund Freud, is out for a walk with a young Italian poet. Freud says, “These mountains, this air, it’s so beautiful here.” The poet looks at the same scene, haunted by all the dying happening just beyond the visible borders of the frame, and says, “But can’t you see that everything is dying? Look at that grass, it wilts and fades. That snowcap melts, those leaves will fall.” And Freud turns to him and says, “Exactly, that’s exactly right. It’s because everything dies, that we love them. Each moment is passing, each moment, is also a moment of mourning, a moment that might be grieved. Each moment is a house you’ve lived in, and you have to let go, because those houses are gathering dust, they’re burying you, we’re burying ourselves, with every idea we ever had about ourselves, you know, your excellent ideas, the ones you like to put the sticker on with your name on them. Freud writes, “The beauty of the human form and face vanish for ever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lends them a fresh charm.” What he’s saying I think is: what if there is no God? No hell below us, above us only sky. Hey, I feel a song coming on. That means that all of that eternity, all of those otherworldly worlds, all those heavens and hells must be here, must be here, must be here, in this moment.
Here is another reliably excellent sentence from Adam Phillips, the Brit child psychologist. “If we are not fallen creatures, but simply creatures, we cannot be redeemed.” We can’t be saved, in other words, we can’t be rescued from this place because there is only this place. Phillips writes: “If we are not deluded by the wish for immortality, transience doesn’t diminish us.” That perfect way you smile, the way your face opens when you walk into a room, it doesn’t last forever, it’s here and then it’s gone. This moment of being here, here, in this moment, is so precious, exactly because it doesn’t last. How could I be flexible enough, bendable, porous enough, so that I can let the wind — the wind of whatever is happening right now — blow through me, so that I can actually feel what is happening? Instead of looking at everything through my stickers. My likes, my dislikes. My reliable dukkha machines.
The traditional religious belief is that we need to be saved or redeemed. What is the purpose of all this suffering? We need to be lifted up, up and away, to be liberated from the bondage of our habits, our reliable bad feelings. Phillips: “The secular equivalent (of being saved) is the belief that we should perfect ourselves, that we are in need of radical improvement.” Tell me: is that why you come here? Are you in need of radical improvement? Is that why I come here? Because I’m trying to perfect myself, sharpen my head to a point so it can write better sentences? Maybe this is the story I tell myself: I am coming here, here to the Centre of Gravity, for a spiritual make-over. Pimp my ride. Pimp my mindfulness ride. Doesn’t this assume that I am somehow insufficient, somehow not enough? Am I dragging around this not-enoughness everywhere I go? Is that the point of my going to a yoga studio, because it gives me a place where I can put my bag of not-enoughness? Oh this looks like home. It feels bad here, in that old familiar way. I must belong here. Must work harder. What does Phillips say? “Tyrannical fantasies about our own perfectibility still lurk in even our simplest ideals, so that any ideal can become another excuse for punishment.” Ow. Please do it again. That feels so bad it feels good.
“Lives dominated by impossible ideals… are lives experienced as continuous failure.” Is that what happens when I visit a yoga studio? Am I trying to get somewhere, still looking for redemption, trying to be saved from something? Trying to perfect something? When will I ever do an upward facing dog that looks like – that even vaguely resembles – an upward facing dog? This has something to do with the first noble truth, right? To know the origin of dukkha, the origin of suffering. HI, I’M… the origin of suffering. I’M the origin of suffering. It’s me, it’s whenever I attach me onto certain “ideals,” which turn out to be another way of saying God, which turn out to be another way of rigging the deck so that every time I play, I lose. I play, I lose. Because I’m playing. I’m playing at I, at me and mine. I’m holding on, I’m busy day and night attaching my sticker to the events of my life. That’s my traffic light, why is it always red when I come to it? Those are my shoes – why did that dog crap on the path that my shoes always walk? Hasn’t the whole city been designed, haven’t you all been created, so that I can experience you? Or am I just an empty room, with the wind blowing into it, and the wind blowing out of it. What do you think dad, which is it exactly? Sticker queen or empty room? So hard to leave these either/ors behind.
If there is no God, if there is no other place to be, to long for… imagine if you and your face and your life aren’t some kind of metaphor or reflection or fallen idea of God. What if you weren’t only a cheap, bootlegged, low resolution hacker’s version of heaven… No wonder there’s so much suffering, we’re still running an early version of the program, there are glitches in the code. Just wait until Earth 2.0 comes out, then it will all be perfect, and we can stop killing animals in factories because, you know, they’re only animals. And some people are kind of like animals too, at least according to the settlers on the West Bank, the ones who are holding their fixed ideas out in front of them like a flag so they don’t have to be here, to be here, in this place. Instead they can take their sticker, the one with their name on it, HI, I’m… and they can stick it onto an idea, and then lay that big fat sticker over the face of someone’s daughter, the face of someone’s grandmother and say, “Those aren’t people, they’re animals, and they deserve to die.”
My stories, my feelings, myself.
This is the question that Freud is asking, when he’s up there on his mountain walk with his young Italian poet friend. What if there were no God? What if there was only this, these mountains, this moment in these mountains, this moment in this room. What if there is no God, dad? What if you’re not going to a better place, Dad? What if Oprah isn’t going to be waiting for you on the other side, because there is no other side? What if this was eternity, this right here, this confusion, this stumbling halting temporary uncomfortable itch in my ribs. What if this itch was eternity? Would that bother you, dad? Would you come back to us, if you could swap your description, your delusion, your dream, your version of things, for my delusion?
The empty room, the empty father. The father that isn’t there anymore. The Lotus Sutra seems to alternate in a divine and transcendental hysteria between the terrifying prospect of never having a father around – say good-bye to the Buddha – and always having him around. You can hear in this Mahayana text, written centuries after the death of the Buddha, a certain kind of anxiety that the tradition, the dharma, the practice, might not survive. “I am the father of the world,” says the Buddha in The Lotus Sutra. How does the father survive? And how does the empty house stay empty, even while the father, the law, the dharma, goes on? These are amongst the questions posed in chapter 15 of The Lotus Sutra.
The Buddhas of the future ask this question of the Buddha, who is still floating in the stupa in the sky. Can we help you? Should we take this beautiful dharma, The Lotus Sutra itself, the great vehicle, back to the future with us, so that you’ll know, so that we’ll know it will survive. Can you hear the anxiety in this question? Do you need help? This question means also: you look like someone that needs help. And the answer comes in the form of a word that is also an action. Sometimes, perhaps even earlier today, you might have spoken a word like this, a word that is also an action. In our rites of passage for instance, in a marriage, the words of the couple are also the act itself. I give you my word. And the words of the Buddha sound like a horizon of ancient people rising up from the ground. The ground opens as if in response to this question, and the ones who offer assistance are held by all of these helpers. Don’t worry, everyone is already helping. Don’t worry everything is already here, can’t you feel that? Can’t you feel that the space is filled with flowers? That the space is already flowering.
When I read The Lotus Sutra the covers always seem to fall apart in my hands, the book seems to be always opening, and parts of it fall out of the mouths of my friends, I find parts of it written on the hands of my father, and some of it comes out of the radio, CBC Radio, Eleanor Wachtel, on a program called Writers and Company. I didn’t realize that she was going to dedicate an entire program to The Lotus Sutra, and that she would do it by introducing me to Alaa Al Aswany, the most popular Arab writer working today. You might know his monster second novel, The Yacoubian Building, which has become both a movie and a TV series, or his follow-up Chicago, set in the city where he studied dentistry. He’s one of a relatively small group of people who have been working hard to plant the seeds of revolution, to organize demonstrations for many years, daring to speak out against the American-supported dictator Hosni Mubarak. He gets up in the morning and he’s about to run off to Tahrir Square for the annual demonstration, but before he does he turns on the television and is astonished to see that there are thousands of people already there. And when he arrives there is some new feeling of solidarity and conviction in this streets, and the people come out by the thousands, the tens of thousands, the millions all across the country.
Mubarak the dictator is alarmed, and in Cairo, the capital city, he posts snipers on the rooftops of a stretch of downtown buildings. They aim for the eyes of the protestors, they shoot out the eyes of the protestors, and Alaa Al Aswany describes how he is on the square and talking to a young man, hey you’re a really great writer, thank you, thank you, but you really have to write about this, I will ok, I will, and then the young man turns and Alaa hears a terrible sound and the young man falls down on the ground. He’s been shot dead. They are surrounded by people, filling the square. And then hardly 40 minutes later, there is another man to the left of him, who makes a small turn into the crowd and again the same sound, and he drops dead on the ground.
Alaa: “…usually when people are shooting at peaceful protestors, protestors should run away or even step back. What happened was the contrary. The people after realizing that they’re shooting at us, people were more determined. They kept on going. I remember that day when I went back home, as I told you, for a few hours, I read some papers who were asking how people could not get scared at some point. I found that in a revolution the “I” at some point, the “I” becomes “we.” People don’t feel themselves as individuals anymore. They feel that they are like elements of a huge thing, and they become more and more determined to achieve what they want. They don’t care about their personal security anymore. I think this is the only explanation of what I saw.” (CBC Radio, June 2011)
The government is desperate, the snipers kill more than 1,000 people but it’s not working, more people keep coming, there are 20 million people in the street. Can you imagine what that looks like? What that feels like? Perhaps like a horizon of bodhisattvas rising up from the ground. So the dictator comes up with a plan. He orders the police to go to the prisons and release all the prisoners — 30,40,000 prisoners, who are instructed to attack the people in their homes. They’re trying to get people off the street, they’re trying to get people to stay at home. So what happens?
Alaa: “The popular committee was organized by civilians, by young people, to protect every street. So every street in Egypt was protected by its inhabitants, by ourselves. Nobody withdrew. Everybody was helping. Everybody was bringing food, bringing drinks. I must tell you here the revolution was not Tahrir Square. Tahrir Square has become for some reason a symbol of the revolution but what happened in Tahrir Square happened in every city in Egypt. We had all kinds of people, rich people, poor people, the women played as usual a very important role in the revolution.”
Eleanor: “You’ve described an important encounter with an older woman when you were smoking.”
Alaa: “Of course I spoke in public thousands of times but making a speech before 2 million people at 3am is a very very very particular experience. So once I was very exhausted and I smoke, so I was very tired and threw an empty packet of cigarettes on the ground. There was a lady of at least 70 years old and she said, “Hi, how are you?” She said, “I love your writings.” “Thank you very much.” And she said, “Take this packet back please.” I felt like a kind of guilty child so I said “Fine, I’m sorry,” I took it and she said, “You must throw it there, in the garbage.” I said, “Fine, I’ll do that.” When I got back she said, “We are building our new Egypt and don’t you think that our new Egypt should be clean?”
It takes a Buddha and a Buddha. Do you remember that riff from The Lotus Sutra? In order to arrive at this moment, here, in this moment, to find awakening, to light up, it takes a Buddha and a Buddha.
It takes a Buddha and a Buddha and a garbage can. And a package of cigarettes, already gone, already used up, the last breath taken, already discarded even, lying unnoticed on the street. Until this packet of cigarettes becomes something else. You could say that it turns, you could say that this object makes a turn, beneath the watchful eye of the 70-year-old Buddha who sees it in the light of her enlightenment, in the light of her revolution, which is also his revolution, which is also the revolution of the cigarette pack. The revolution doesn’t leave anything out, it doesn’t leave anything behind. And so she invites him to join her in this place, a Buddha and a Buddha. Every object, every breath, every gesture between us, is part of this revolution, is part of this waking up, in fact, is all of this revolution. When Alaa describes the revolution, the people’s uprising that overthrew a dictator who had been in power for 30 years, he says, “Everyone helped.” You know there have been many pundits on the left who have been calling for Egyptians to come here, to Canada, to help us out with this project of democracy, to show us how to create a real democracy here. How do we create a revolution, a revolution of real democracy? “Everyone helped.” Even the cigarette packets. And in every city in Egypt. He says, “The revolution was not Tahrir Square. But every square in every city in Egypt.”
Isn’t this the realization, a realization of the project — could we call it a project, the goal-less goal, the end of the road that has no end — to enlighten all sentient beings? Such beautiful words. To enlighten all sentient beings. What could these words mean? “I found that in a revolution the ‘I’ at some point, the ‘I’ becomes ‘we.’” In other words, collectively, altogether, as a people, they uncover the emptiness of the government, the designated power, the authority that you grant your representative, and they realize interdependence. They live interdependence. How do you live interdependence? Maybe you pick up a crumpled cigarette pack. You approach the famous novelist, the one that everybody has read. Oh I love your books so much they’ve changed my life. You know you go up to Margaret Atwood, “Excuse me I love your writing so much I’ve never stopped surfacing, I look out of my cat’s eye and wonder what was life before man like, but you’ve thrown this bit of trash down on the ground. And that’s our ground now, mine and yours. It doesn’t belong to me, so therefore it belongs to everyone, and that piece of trash doesn’t belong to you, it’s part of the revolution.” Can we look at what we throw away, at what is beneath our notice — oh I didn’t notice — and see those relationships, those qualities, as part of our own revolution?
In The Lotus Sutra the Buddha says to the buddhas of the future: there’s no need to worry, you don’t have to feel the heavy burden of carrying the great vehicle, the great vehicle of the revolution, the great vehicle of The Lotus Sutra, and then his words stop. This is what happens over and over again in The Lotus Sutra, have you noticed that? At some point the words always stop and something happens. Some happy monk takes his shirt off and starts dancing. Flowers start falling from the sky. A stupa rises up from the ground. What is the revolution of The Lotus Sutra? There are parables, suggestions, incantations, descriptions — but at some point the words stop and something happens. Perhaps the revolution is when something happens. It’s something you do, and it’s something you do with someone else. You wake up together, you make this revolution together.
The Buddha stops talking and then all of these bodhisattvas rise up out of the ground, like words from a page, like flowers from a garden. As Michael said a couple of weeks ago, they don’t appear from the sky, they come from the ground, the ground of your own life, the ground of your own country. Where did all the revolutionaries in Egypt come from? They didn’t come from America, or from any of the Canadian planes that are busy killing civilians today in Libya. They came from the woman cooking lunch for her kids next door. They came from the man selling fruit on the corner. There were organizers of course, there were people hard at work preparing, daring to speak out against the regime even though some of them would be jailed and tortured, the organizers who were busy for years planting the seeds of awakening, taking the risks of awakening. The revolution happens, the bodhisattvas rise up out of the ground when I, when me and myself, gives way to we, to us, the project of us, the necessity of us, of what only we can do together. Of the awakening that only we can make possible. Someone somewhere, is throwing away a pack of cigarettes. Can you see them? And when you do, will you pick them up using both hands?
But wait, wait. This is Canada, OK? We don’t have dictators here. Right? Right? I don’t have a dictator inside me saying: why aren’t you working harder? Why can’t you be a better person? You can’t even do a downward dog, you better go to the yoga studio right now, and when you get there, you better work really hard because, you know, we need to see a looot of improvement around here. My friend Joanne – perhaps you could call her a “sravaka,” a voice hearer. A few weeks back she’s standing in front of the mirror and she hears this little voice, this tiny squeak of a voice that says, “Why are you so mean to me?” Do you ever hear a little voice like this? I mean a voice that’s able to stand up and speak in front of the great dictator, the great bully, that lives inside you? Could you make the revolution, could you live the revolution, inside yourself, not by doing the most perfect downward dog the city has ever seen, but by breathing into every light and dark place of the present with your soft hands, by holding yourself with your soft hands, even if your mother never did? Even if there was no example, no clues left at the scene of the crime of your childhood? Could you make hands soft enough to hold yourself, because if you could do that, if you could hold your own dictator, your own nemesis in your soft hands, hold the worst thought you ever had, the worst judgment you ever made, then surely you would be able to give that softness, that listening, that open heart, to someone else as a gift.
Even the great writer, the great novelist, needs your soft hands. Even your father.
That softness can appear at each moment, at each moment, at each moment of mind-ful-ness, at the moment when we return, oh where was I? Oh, such a beautiful dream, but now I’ve come back here, here, to this moment. The way I make this turn to this moment, like a parent calling back, gathering back their child who is starting to wander too close to the edge of the trail, you don’t have to grab your child and throw them back onto the path, you move so softly, you touch them with your soft hands and just guide them back. Each moment is an invitation to enter this softness, even as we lose this moment on the cushion, wandering, I’m not even hungry but I want to eat potato chips. I really hope he doesn’t go on for too much longer, I really want to catch the end of Dancing with the Stars tonight. And then this turn, this soft turn, this oh, this quiet that is waiting here, like a thousand thousand buddhas in the ground, just waiting here in your once and future home, if you can be soft enough to touch it, or to allow it to touch you back. This is the revolution, no longer filled with monsters that need to be hunted down and killed, but a revolution of softness, as soft, as soft, as soft as a lotus flower, for instance, as soft as the face of that 70-year-old woman, call her the mother of the revolution, softly asking, softly insisting that this ground is our ground, that this land is our land, that it’s possible to work within ourselves, and to work with our friends, and to work with those who are not our friends, to make our dictators small, and our softness so large.
Perhaps the last words could go to Terry Tempest Williams, the celebrated American author and environmental activist. “The heart is the first home of democracy. Can we offer our attention before our opinions?”
What if everything was already OK?
What if there was no face more beautiful than your face?
What if you could heal people just by giving them the gift of your face?
What if you could extend the kindness you offer to others to yourself?
What if you already have everything you ever wanted?
What if you didn’t have to offer some perfect version of yourself in order to be loved?
What if you let someone love you just the way you are?
What if the place they call heaven – the happy, shimmering, deluxe, open-hearted eternity – was your own life?
What if the place they call hell – that circling, painful, unseeing darkness – was your own life?
What if you could open to that too?
What if that wasn’t too much?
What if nothing was ever too much for you?
What if you could just keep on loving, even if it meant feeling more pain?
What if there was only us together, in this place, in this moment?
What if there was no practice, and no room, and no sangha?
What if emptiness was only the beginning of love?