Zen mom, overextended mom

Central Tibet, 17th Century, Rubin Museum of Art

This picture on my home altar because it is not only beautiful but because I feel very connected to the imagery.  Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, is my favorite bodhisattva insofar as one can have a favorite bodhisattva.  I guess if I was Catholic, and she was too, she would be my patron saint.  Her name means “The Lord Who Looks in Every Direction”.  In Japan she is known as Kannon which means Watchful Listening, or “The One Who Sees and Hears All”.

From the Lotus Sutra:

Living beings are beset with hardships,
And oppressed by limitless sufferings.
The power of Kannon’s wondrous wisdom
Can rescue the world from suffering.

Undefiled pure light,
The sun of wisdom that breaks through the darkness
Is able to quell calamities of wind and fire
As it shines on all worlds.

Compassionate substance: the thunder of precepts.
Kind intent: a wondrous great cloud.
He rains down sweet dew and Dharma rain,
Which extinguish the flames of affliction.

I love the idea of rescuing the world from suffering simply by offering compassion.

But here’s the thing.  When I first sat with this image, I didn’t see it.  For a long time, I saw something more like this:

No matter what I did, it wasn’t enough.  If I had 1,000 arms I should have had 1,001.  Either I was saving the world single-handedly or I was failing.  The harder I worked, the more I began to feel like this:

(You don’t see me in the picture; I’m the half dead animal on the side of the road.)

I became exhausted, resentful, overwhelmed.  In my efforts to embody Infinite Compassion, I was pushing it away.

But as I sat with Avalokiteshvara, I noticed that she isn’t running around, frazzled, putting out fires.  She isn’t shape-shifting, trying to be all things to all people.  She is seated, centered, focused and wise.

She is simply, beautifully, herself.

John Daido Loori says,

One of the characteristics of Avalokiteshvara is that she manifests herself in accord with the circumstances. So she always presents herself in a form that’s appropriate to what’s going on. In the bowery, she manifests as a bum. Tonight, in barrooms across the country, she’ll manifest as a drunk. Or as a motorist on the highway, or as a fireman, or a physician. Always responding in accord with the circumstances, in a form appropriate to the circumstances.

In other words, I am just one of Avalokiteshvara’s arms.  I am in a particular place at a particular time, and my job is to realize my Buddha nature within the context of my particular form: Suburban(ish) Middle-Class Mom.  My manifestation is just as valuable as any other.

My work is not to do it all, but simply to do what is in front of me, right here, right now.

Over time, I began to notice something else.  The bodhisattva is not surrounded by tired, poor, tempest-tossed huddled masses.  She is surrounded by Buddhas.  Her work is not only, or not necessarily, about serving the wretched refuse.  Her work is about living from her own Buddha nature and recognizing the Buddha in everyone else.

Despite slight variations, all the Buddhas are basically the same.

There is not one that is more deserving of, or in need of, compassion.  Each person’s needs look different, and they are all equally valid.  I am not failing to manifest compassion because I sit in a warm home with a full stomach while I deal with first-world problems like car repairs and whether Harry should go to preschool or not.

The problems that my peers and I face may be less critical than those of others, but they are no less valid.  Perhaps our disconnection from community and spirituality leaves us more in the need of Infinite Compassion.  Perhaps it is in touching the Buddha nature in each other that we will begin to responsibly use the power we have to affect the lives of others and the health of our entire planet.  Perhaps I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.

On compromise

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

As part of my Certificate in Nonviolent Studies, I’ve been studying the conflicts going on in places like Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.  In almost every radio and podcast interview I’ve heard, the following question is asked:

What will it take for the two sides to reach a compromise?

I have studied the Ukraine conflict most closely, so I’ll use that as an example.  Naturally these things are always much more complicated than what you hear on the news, but in a nutshell the problem is this: ethnic Ukranians want to become more closely allied with the EU, while ethnic Russians living in Ukraine want to maintain close ties with the Kremlin.

Within this context, what would a “settlement of differences by mutual concessions” look like?   Either you are of Ukranian heritage or you are ethnically Russian.  Either you are from the city in the west or from the countryside in the east.  Either you think the economic future of Ukraine lies with the EU or you think security will come from Russia.  These things are mutually exclusive and stable.  Concessions may lead to a cease-fire, but they are unlikely to lead to a decrease in hostility.

As long as we frame this issue in such either-or terms, compromise seems impossible.  But maybe it’s all about perspective.  Looked at in a different way, maybe the chasm isn’t quite so wide.

Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing.  All Ukranians, whatever their ethnic heritage, want economic security, freedom and self-determination.  While they may have differing opinions as to how this can best be accomplished, the dispute is in the details.

What is true writ large on the global stage is also true in the microcosm of our personal relationships.  We all want the same thing out of life.  We want to feel cherished, important, worthwhile, safe, happy.

While we may choose to employ vastly different strategies for getting these needs met and we may not understand the choices other people make, we ultimately aren’t so different.

I have this conversation with my 8-year-old daughter all the time.  There is one girl at school who really rubs her the wrong way.  This girl always wants to be the center of attention, always has to one-up the other children, always has to be an expert on everything.  While I understand why Bess finds this annoying, and I don’t expect them to be BFFs, my daughter has to learn how to get along with all kinds of people.

So we talk about it.  We discuss how, just like Bess, just like all of us, this girl wants to feel special and loved.  Obviously she has decided or learned that the way to get her emotional needs met is to seek attention and approval from others by any means necessary.  We may not like or understand the behavior, but certainly we can understand the motivation.  That’s not to say that one must be willing to be a doormat.  If this girl is doing things that are hurtful or dishonest then it is okay, even necessary, to speak up.  But even though she is frustrating, doesn’t she also deserve our compassion?

And after having had this conversation eleventy thousand times, gradually, my daughter is gaining the skills she needs to compassionately deal with difficult people while demanding respect from them.

The world isn’t made up of right and wrong, me and you.  As long as we think it is, we will continue to have all sorts of unresolvable conflicts.

But when we see that the world is actually made up of 7 billion other people who are just like me these conflicts become manageable and compromise becomes truly possible.  Maybe all those people don’t look, talk, act, eat, or worship like me, but they are just like me in the ways that count