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The Buddha at Work - "Vacation, All I Ever Wanted"


We ate, drank, swam, slept, played Scrabble, ate some more, drank some more, swam some more. The wifi we'd been promised was mostly absent, so there was very little e-mailing or Facebook-ing. I got to meditate when I felt like it, run when I felt like it, and read when I felt like it. I know what you're thinking: How did you survive? But survive I did; most days I woke up thinking I could get used to this. There were very few demands on me outside of making sure my kids were covered in SPF50. Truly a world of comfort, pleasure, and relaxation. What's not to like?

But then I started to find myself feeling unease, knowing the vacation would eventually end, and I began constructing scenarios in my mind about how to prolong it. I thought about how to make my entire life full of the same sense of escape, with no demands on me, no pressure, nothing to do but relax. We could sell the house, I thought. This would be great for the kids. Wouldn't it be great to always be on vacation?

I brought a little light reading for the trip, of course––a little Lama Surya Das, a little Joko Beck––all on my iPad. But Pema Chödrön's No Time To Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva was a real paper-and-ink book, and it was easy to read by the pool in the bright sun. And here's what I read right at the start, in Shantideva's words:

So hard to find such ease and wealth

Whereby to render meaningful this human birth!

If I now fail to turn it to my profit,

How could such a chance be mine again?”

To render meaningful this human birth. Pema points out the things that might keep us from doing something meaningful with our lives. We might get sick, we might die (actually, we will die), we might be in too much pain to “concentrate on a Buddhist text, let alone live by it.” We might get too busy with work, with “worldly pursuits,” or we could be faced with outside circumstances which might “be so pervasive that we won't have time for honest self-reflection,” and we might “no longer have the leisure to free ourselves from the rigidity of self-absorption.”

I found myself facing a different kind of trap:

...we might fall into the trap of too much comfort. When life feels so pleasurable, so luxurious and cozy, there is not enough pain to turn us away from worldly seductions. Lulled into complacency, we become indifferent to the suffering of our fellow beings.”

I'm being lulled into complacency. I'm in the deva loka, I thought, the god realm where everything is easy. As Chögyam Trungpa described it in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, “the monkey [a metaphor] dreams of strolling out of his house, walking in luxuriant fields, eating ripe fruit, sitting and swinging in the trees, living a life of freedom and ease.” And I was rapidly descending into the asura loka, the realm of the jealous gods, where I'd desperately cling to my experiences, fearful they'd be taken away.

Of course, the thoughts started to pop up, as they always do. I'm entitled to a vacation. I've worked hard. I care about others. I give to charity. And it hit me that there's nothing wrong with vacation––but there are innumerable suffering beings out there, and it just doesn't work for me to live a life of complacency and apathy while suffering continues in the world.

It'd be easy to say fuck 'em. It's not my problem. I've done my part. I've paid my taxes. Let someone else deal with it. And that's not hard to do when suffering remains faceless––when you read about an epidemic somewhere, a natural disaster. But when I open my eyes to the suffering of a single human being, it's impossible not to feel that flash of bodhichitta. Pema describes bodhichitta:

Bodhichitta is a basic human wisdom that can drive away the sorrows of the world.

Bodhi means 'awake'; free from ordinary, confused mind, free from the illusion that we're separate from one another. Chitta means 'heart' or “mind.' According to Shantideva and the Buddha before him, the unbiased mind and good heart of bodhi hold the key to happiness and peace."

His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches us in his book on the same text, A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night:

“As for the wish to work for the benefit of others, this comes from realizing that, just like ourselves, all beings, not just humans, want to be happy and not to suffer. In fact, we all have compassion: we want to free others from suffering. And to some degree, we all love and want each other to be happy. These feelings may not be very strong or extensive, but everyone has them in some measure. When, for example, we see someone in agony, we spontaneously think, How terrible! and we want to relieve them of their pain. Just as we ourselves do not want to suffer but to be happy, we can have the same wish for others. Although we may have very little compassion and love at the moment, these are things that we can develop. As they grow, so also will our wish to work for others.”

Everyone has them in some measure. As Trungpa Rinpoche used to say (and Pema has often quoted), “everybody loves something, even if it's just tortillas.” We all have something that melts the hardness in our hearts, that brings our natural compassion to the surface––even if at first, it's only for a moment.

For days after opening this book, I found myself drawn to the faces of the people I encountered in the street, imagining their sufferings, their joys, and wishing them happiness. It would come in a flash––suddenly noticing the lines in a woman's face, a child looking after its mother, a man staring into his glass of beer. And sitting by the pool these images would flash back into my mind, accompanied by a deep heaviness in my heart, and a wish to make a difference. On the cushion each day, I'd find myself noticing a heaviness, a sadness, and even sometimes a feeling of helplessness.

As Shantideva tells us:

As when a flash of lightning rends the night,

And in its glare shows all the dark black clouds had hid,

Likewise rarely, through the buddhas' power,

Virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.”

It's this flash of lightning that's opened my own eyes a thousand times. But Pema tells us that the flashes, when cultivated, can infuse our whole being.

Shantideva knows that we can trust these glimpses of bodhichitta and that by recognizing them and nurturing them, these glimpses will grow....everything we encounter becomes an opportunity to develop the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart...When we get hit hard, we look outward and see how other people also have difficult times. When we feel lonely or angry or depressed, we let these dark moods link us with the sorrows of others.”

That was what came to mind anytime I found myself longing for my vacation to last forever. That, and the obvious fact that if it did last forever, it wouldn't feel like vacation for long. Hooray for impermanence! And each time I thought, how great would it be to just sit here on the beach forever, by trying to prolong the feeling, I was missing the magic of the present moment itself; while I was thinking about the future, I wasn't getting to watch my son swim in the surf and my daughter build sand castles.

So I say this as much to myself as I say it to all of you out there: Wake the fuck up! Cultivate your bodhichitta, your genuine heart of compassion, because the world desperately needs you. Stop playing fucking Farmville. 6,000 children will die today from water-related diseases. Stop watching Charlie Bit My Finger. A child dies of starvation every five seconds. Stop numbing yourself to the world's suffering––take the brave step to truly feel it in your bones. Start paying attention.

I want to be clear. I am no authority on Buddhism, on the bodhisattva vow, or on meditation. I'm just a guy who's fumbling my way through this stuff and learning along the way. But working with my own mind has made it clear to me that as long as there are suffering beings in the universe, I can't pretend that they don't exist. The Shambhala website describes the bodhisattva vow as, commitment to put others before oneself and to work wholeheartedly for their benefit.” Knowing that others suffer, that others need our help and we have the capability to help them, how could we do otherwise unless we choose to numb ourselves and hide in our ignorance, pretending that we don't know the truth. Until the next time that flash of lightning swells up in our hearts. Do we choose to cultivate it, or push it back down?

Wake the fuck up. The world doesn't need you to buy Remember Me on Blu-Ray. The world needs you to show up and make a difference for others in whatever way you can. In Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, one child in four does not reach his or her fifth birthday. Wake the fuck up. Stop acting like you're powerless, and that you have infinite time left to do something with your life other than desperately grasp after every little whim.

Use this precious human birth well, because you're going to die soon. It could be any minute. So use the time you have to be a contribution. Take your vacation, renew and recharge so that you can come back to the plate ready to work for the benefit of others.

At least that's my plan.

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Thanks Jon! I'm inspired and see that I've got my own 'Charlie bit my finger' time wasters. Purge the junk... live now for others!


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