Edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Snow Lion Publications

Copyright 1995 Karma Lekshe Tsomo. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-55939-047-6


1. Forging a Kind Heart in an Age of Alienation by Heidi Singh......15
2. Being Buddha by Prabhasa Dharma..................................25
3. Reflections on Impermanence: Buddhist Practice in the
Emergency Room by Margaret Coberly..................................31
4. Mothering and Meditation by Jacqueline Mandell...................47
5. Everyday Dharma by Michelle Levey................................61
6. Bringing Dharma into Relationships by Karuna Dharma..............71
7. Dealing with Stress by Ayya Khema................................75
8. Abortion: A Respectful Meeting Ground by Yvonne Rand.............85
9. Buddhism and the Twelve Steps by Rachel V........................90
10. Karma: Creative Responsibility by Karma Lekshe Tsomo............97
11. The Bodhisattva Peace Training by Tsering Everest..............105
12. The Monastic Experience by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Eko Susan
Noble, Furyu Schroeder, Nora Kunli Shih, and Jacqueline............121
13. Eastern Traditions in Western Lands by Eko Susan Noble.........149
Continuing the Conversation........................................155
Further Reading....................................................171
About the Contributors.............................................175

Chapter One

Forging a Kind Heart in an Age of Alienation

by Heidi Singh

Those who lived in Los Angeles during the riots of 1982 will remember the alienation, mistrust, anger, frustration, and tremendous fear that permeated every segment of the community and every level of society. Frustration was a major component of the experience: a feeling of helplessness, coupled with an overwhelming depression over the present and anxiety concerning the future. However, after the riots, after much contemplation and discussion with friends and strangers, I was convinced that the principles of reconciliation can be applied not only to our families, but to our cities as well. The teachings of Buddhism are very clear about compassion as an antidote to alienation and anger, whether on the personal, civic, or global level.

    There are two guiding principles found in the Buddhist scriptures which have tremendous importance for all practitioners. The first is a segment of the twin verses of The Dhammapada:

Hatred is never overcome by hatred;
Hatred is overcome only by love.
This is an eternal law.

The second is contained in the Karaniya Metta Sutta, or Discourse on Loving Kindness

As a mother would risk her own life
To protect her only child,
Even so let one cultivate a boundless heart
Towards all living beings.
Let one's love pervade the whole world,
Without any obstructions,
Above, below and across,
Without hatred, without enmity.

It was inspiring to me to discover that Venerable Maha Ghosananda, the beloved and respected monk and teacher, cites these two passages in a special prayer he composed for the peace of Cambodia and the world. I also use these verses from the Tibetan tradition:

With the determination to accomplish the highest welfare for all sentient beings, who excel even the wish-granting gem, may I at all times hold them dear!

Whenever I associate with someone, may I think myself the lowest among all and hold the other supreme in the depth of my heart!

In all actions may I search into my mind, and as soon as delusion arises, endangering myself and others, may I firmly face and avert it!

When I see beings of wicked nature, pressed by violent sin and affliction, may I hold these rare ones dear as if I had found a precious treasure!

When others, out of envy, treat me badly with abuse, slander and the like, may I suffer the defeat and offer the victory to others!

When the one whom I have benefited with great hope hurts me very badly, may I behold him as my supreme Guru!

In short, may I, directly and indirectly, offer benefit and happiness to all my mothers; may I secretly take upon myself the harm and suffering of the mothers!

May all this remain undefiled by the stains of keeping in view the Eight Worldly Principles; may I, by perceiving all Dharmas as illusive, unattached, be delivered from the bondage of samsara!

These deceptively simple words are very difficult to fully understand, and even more difficult to put into practice. In 1972, when my husband and I were first married and living in India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave us a copy of this text. I have treasured this small booklet for the past twenty years and have pondered over it at many stages of my life. I am not sure I understand it even now, but I am convinced that it is a valuable teaching to put into practice and a worthy ideal to strive toward.

Meditation Practice

There is no doubt that the regular practice of meditation is a fundamental requisite for any kind of reconciliation. I doubt if one can attempt any real healing of relationships without it. Of course, psychotherapy is a great help, particularly in cases where one has been abused and/or is in a co-dependency situation. More and more, psychologists and psychiatrists have begun to see the value of meditation as a tool in dealing with family dynamics.

    Personally, I am convinced that the reconciliation I have experienced with my parents could not have been possible without my meditation practice. This is particularly true in my relationship with my father, who passed away in March of 1991, and who was a lifelong alcoholic. A brief exploration of that relationship will illustrate the role of Buddhist practice in family reconciliation far better than any theoretical explication.

    First, it is essential to point out the very important role of loving-kindness meditation in this process. My own teacher, Venerable Balangoda Anandamaitreya (who is now nearly ninety-eight years old), never ceases to emphasize the power and importance of this practice, particularly in personal relationships. Whenever I speak to him, he urges me most insistently to practice loving-kindness meditation toward my husband and especially toward my parents. Communication had previously been a missing aspect of my relationship with my father. Even when we spoke to each other, it was never on a heart level, but only about superficial matters. Although the situation looked particularly hopeless with regard to my father, Venerable Anandamaitreya assured me that if I practiced loving-kindness toward my father every day at the same time, without fail, things would improve.

An Unexpected Result

Just a few months after my teacher's instruction, after he had returned to Sri Lanka, my family suddenly learned that my father was very sick. Indeed, he was dying of lung cancer that had metastasized to his bones, a fact which he had known for some time but had hidden from me, my mother, my husband and son. By the time I discovered his secret, my father was entering the final stages of his life. In the end there remained only one week to say our good-byes and come to an understanding.

    A major breakthrough had occurred about twelve days before my father passed away. I was visiting my father in a regular ward of the VA Hospital in Los Angeles. He was angry as usual, at everything and everyone except me, it seemed. He suddenly turned to me and said with eyes glassy from unrelenting pain and an ever-increasing dosage of powerful drugs, "The thing I can't understand is, why me? I've never hurt anyone in my entire life!"

    Of course, I was dumbfounded and had to take a moment to collect my thoughts. How could I reply to this? My immediate reaction in the past would have been anger. Here was a man who had caused endless pain to a great many people during his lifetime, particularly my mother and me. How could he possibly claim he had never hurt anyone? At the time, however, I realized that he was gravely ill, though I did not yet fully understand that he was dying. I knew that retaliation on my part would not be helpful, either to him or to me. Another route was available to me: to play the co-dependent role of "Mary Sunshine," a lifelong learned pattern of behavior. This would enable my father to indulge his self-pity, while assuring him that indeed he had done nothing to hurt anyone and didn't deserve his suffering.

    At that moment, however, I chose a middle path. I was honest with my father for perhaps the first time in my life. I took a deep breath and said in a very calm voice, "Dad, I don't think it has anything to do with that. Everyone is subject to suffering and illness. We are all vulnerable to disease. This is just part of being human." He looked at me quietly, with a little surprise. He seemed calmer than before. This was the first episode in a whole series of events that paved the way for our reconciliation.

    On his sixty-seventh birthday, my father was moved out of the regular ward and into a hospice a few floors down. A long conversation with the hospice director helped me deal with the shock of what was happening. Just the night before, my father had telephoned me, raving about an operation the doctors could perform that would be his last chance. His being so out of touch with reality is not uncommon among terminally ill patients, who sometimes grasp at straws for any hope of recovery. My confusion was compounded by my father's lifelong tendency to fantasize and fabricate a whole reality of his own. The hospice director assured me that my father knew he was dying and had made the decision to enter the hospice himself. She added, however, that he could use my support to bolster his decision.

    That evening, my husband, my young son, and I visited my Dad in the hospice to celebrate in a quiet way his last birthday. In the days ahead, there was much to do. My father communicated a sense of urgency and asked me to take care of some personal matters for him. I also called my mother in Sacramento immediately and told her gently that if she wanted to say good-bye to my Dad, she should come right away. Although my parents had been divorced for twenty years, my father was my mother's first and only true love, in spite of all the suffering their marriage caused her.

    Thus, my mother and I were able to be with my father in his final days. Looking back, my great regret is that, being overwhelmed with practical matters at the time, I did not have the opportunity to be completely reflective about the tremendous event that was taking place. Nevertheless, whenever I had the chance, usually late at night, I meditated and prayed and considered how best to help my father through the transition he was about to undergo. It was at this time that I sought help from a small volume that a Zen monk friend had given me about fifteen years earlier: Philip Kapleau's The Wheel of Death. In this small and clear book, I found the necessary strength and assistance to prepare for my father's death. Particularly helpful to me were the ten (Mahayana) precepts as formulated in the section entitled "Dying: Practical Instructions":

I resolve not to kill but to cherish all life.

I resolve not to take what is not given but to respect the things of others.

I resolve not to engage in improper sexuality but to practice purity of mind and self-restraint.

I resolve not to lie but to speak the truth.

I resolve not to cause others to use liquors or drugs which confuse or weaken the mind, nor to do so myself, but to keep my mind clear.

I resolve not to speak of the misdeeds of others but to be understanding and sympathetic.

I resolve neither to praise myself nor to condemn others but to overcome my own shortcomings.

I resolve not to withhold spiritual or material aid but to give it freely where needed.

I resolve not to become angry but to exercise control.

I resolve not to revile the Three Treasures [i.e., the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha] but to cherish and uphold them.

These were my guiding principles as I recited the Heart Sutra and prepared daily for the task of being with my father and comforting him as all of us awaited the momentous imminent event.

    During this time, my compassion toward my father grew, and I began to see him as a being whose whole life, since his early childhood, had been eaten up by suffering. This suffering caused him to lash out at others and cause more pain in a cycle that he did not understand and was therefore powerless to stop. The time for recriminations and judgment on my part had long passed. I realized that the task at hand was to help my father die with as peaceful a heart as possible.

    Another thing that happened was that I was finally able to feel a deep love for my father that had long been dormant in my heart due to abandonment and fear of rejection. This was the great gift of non-fear that I derived from the recitation of the Heart Sutra. This was the fearlessness I needed to see my father through the great passage which all humans fear above all else.

The Last Day

Spiritually, my Dad was in pretty good shape. He had been visited regularly by the Catholic chaplains of the hospital and had received the last rites more than once. The day before he died, my mother and I had brought a priest friend to see him as well. That was fortunate, because this same priest would be the celebrant of my father's funeral Mass. I brought my father some small prayer books and a new rosary because he had lost his old one. But nevertheless, I knew my father was feeling afraid and alone.

    The day he died, a strange thing happened. My father emphatically refused all medication. It seemed he was very determined to have a clear mind when he made his transition. That morning, when I went to see him alone, the sight of his physical condition was appalling. His body was shrunken and his face was emaciated. He looked like a corpse already, although he was fully conscious. I felt helpless. I did not want to do anything to upset him or cause him more pain. Gently, I spoke to him and touched his arm. He was glad I was there, but could no longer speak.

    Finally, I asked him if I could recite a Buddhist prayer for him. I still don't know why I asked this, but I knew it was more for me than for him. He nodded somewhat enthusiastically, so slowly and calmly I recited the Heart Sutra near his ear. To my surprise, as I was reciting, he kept his eyes closed and tears streamed down his face.

    When I finished, I suddenly felt an outpouring of love for my father, along with the courage to unlock my tongue and tell him all the things I could never say before. Here he was a captive, and the gift of non-fear exercised itself in me. Gently I told him how much I loved him and that I was grateful to him for all the good things he had done for me. I reassured him that I would pray for him always and do whatever I could for him. Tears continued to stream down his face. Fearing that I was upsetting him, I asked him if he wanted me to leave. He shook his head emphatically, "No." Then I asked him if he wanted me to stop talking. He nodded, "Yes." And so, silently, I stood by him for some time and mentally did the loving-kindness and healing meditation that I had been doing for him every day.

    After awhile, I told him that I had to leave but would be back soon. I brought my mother and son to the hospital to see him in the afternoon. Then, knowing my husband wanted to say goodbye, I picked him up and we all returned to the hospital. My husband and son talked to him, and my husband took our son out to the car after a few minutes. My mother and I remained, somewhat confused and anxious. We looked at each other helplessly. My father's death seemed imminent and we did not want to leave him alone, yet we could not possibly know exactly when it would occur.

    Suddenly, just before eight o'clock, my father sat up in his bed with a great struggle. Instantly we knew he was dying. He looked at us with eyes wide open, though by now his sight was gone, and tried desperately to speak. Both my mother and I were somewhat awestruck by the enormity of what was happening and by the sudden energy with which my father was urgently trying to communicate. Yet both of us stood our ground and gently but very firmly talked to him. We reassured him that we loved him and that we would stand by him and pray for him. Somewhat impulsively, I told my Dad that he had nothing to worry about and not to be afraid. For the first time, he was going to be really happy. Over and over, my Mom and I just told him gently that we loved him. I also told him that nothing remained undone. He could not speak, but he opened his mouth and mouthed the words, "I love you." And after a few minutes of struggle, he lay back down on his pillow, closed his eyes, and after a few more breaths, with some difficulty, died. He had been just eight days in the hospice.

Reconciliation and Daily Practice

In the days and weeks following my father's death, I wholeheartedly did the practice outlined in The Wheel of Death, reciting the ten precepts and the prayer suggested by Philip Kapleau, followed by the Heart Sutra, and the bodhisattva vows. In the week after his death, we had several services for my father, including a Catholic Mass (where I gave the eulogy), a Buddhist service at my temple, and a full military funeral at the VA cemetery. Several Buddhist monks conducted services and we observed the forty-ninth day after death. There was a special service at the temple on the ninetieth day, in accordance with Sri Lankan custom. My husband and his family in India offered prayers in the Sikh tradition, and Hindu friends and relatives also did puja for him.

    For me personally, the reality of my father's death intensified and deepened my own practice, particularly through the recitations that I was making on his behalf. The first days after his death, I was especially intent on helping him make the transition in whatever way I could and reassuring him that we were all doing our best to help him through. The precise instructions given to me by my revered teacher and those few months of intense practice had prepared me, though I had had no idea what I was preparing for.

    Looking back, I see that the road to reconciliation had been paved by my own acceptance of my father. In the previous year and a half, we had resumed contact. I had accepted his strange visits and gifts without rancor and had made the effort to get together for happy, if somewhat tense, celebrations of birthdays and holidays. He had made a great deal of effort to meet me, too, and only after his death did I realize the urgency with which he had approached these get-togethers. I regret not knowing that he was dying. Yet my acceptance of my father was probably that much sweeter to him, precisely because I didn't know.

    Bloomfield and Felder, in their book Making Peace with Your Parents, sum up the most compelling argument for attempting reconciliation:

To make peace with your parents, you may have to give up a lot. You may have to give up your resentments, your anger, your annoyance, your desire to punish and your need to blame. You may have to give up resisting your parents and be prepared even for times when it appears that they win and you lose. You may have to learn to admire and respect a parent for whom you may now feel a degree of contempt and hate. Indeed, you may need to learn to accept your parents exactly the way they are rather than the way you think they should be.

    "Why bother?" or "Who cares?" you might say. It is not primarily for your parents, but for you. Your peace of mind, your love and work relationships, and your moment-to-moment aliveness may be at stake.

    There are many ways to go about the work of reconciliation. Getting in touch with your anger is one approach, but it isn't enough. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh observes, we need to get to the roots of our anger and achieve real transformation through understanding and mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh also claims, in a way that touches me deeply, that true reconciliation can be developed through the development of true compassion:

We can also meditate on the suffering of those who cause us to suffer. Anyone who has made us suffer is undoubtedly suffering too. We only need to follow our breathing and look deeply, and naturally we will see his suffering. A part of his difficulties and sorrows may have been brought about by his parents' lack of skill when he was still young. But his parents themselves may have been victims of their parents; the suffering has been transmitted from generation to generation and been reborn in him. If we see that, we will no longer blame him for making us suffer, because we know that he is also a victim. To look deeply is to understand. Once we understand the reasons he has acted badly, our bitterness towards him will vanish, and we will long for him to suffer less. We will feel cool and light, and we can smile. We do not need the other person to be present in order to bring about reconciliation. When we look deeply, we become reconciled with ourselves, and, for us, the problem no longer exists. Sooner or later, he will see our attitude and will share in the freshness of the stream of love which is flowing naturally from our heart.

    For me, reconciliation would not have been possible without all the components that make up my practice: meditation, recitation and chanting, study, and the observance of precepts. They all go together toward forging a kind and compassionate heart, which we want to achieve. And these components of practice pave the way to liberation for all beings, for in liberating ourselves from anger, hatred, and ignorance, we help liberate from their suffering a great many others, especially those beings with whom we have an immediate karmic connection.

    Just weeks after my father's passing, the abbot of my temple called and asked if I would be willing to observe the traditional eight precepts permanently. When he explained them in detail, I said, "No problem." I also expressed a wish to add a few. Working with three eminent Sri Lankan scholar-monks, we developed a new ministerial ordination utilizing twelve precepts and emphasizing the long-standing bodhisattva path in the Theravada tradition that has been overlooked in the past. During the celebration of Vesak in 1991, I was ordained as a bodhichari along with two others at our temple in Los Angeles. My ordination, I believe, was my father's gift to me. As the Shobogenzo says:

By accepting and upholding the precepts in your deepest heart you can eventually attain to supreme enlightenment.... Who could possibly reject this? Buddhas have shown to countless living beings that when they wholeheartedly take into their life the moral precepts they do in time attain Buddhahood, becoming Perfectly Enlightened.... The wind and fire [the inner energies] fanned by the profound influence of Buddhas [as a result of accepting the precepts] drive one into the intimacy of enlightenment. This is the awakening of the wisdom mind.

Excerpted from BUDDHISM THROUGH AMERICAN WOMEN'S EYES by . Copyright 1995 by Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.