Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Recently I had the privilege to attend the DC Buddha Fest. It is the second year for this film/talk/meditation festival in the area, but my first time there.

All of it was inspiring. But I went to hear Enkyo Pat O'Hara talk.

I was not disappointed. I have only heard her twice before, but what draws me to her is her pithy storytelling and gentle firmness. I felt like I was witnessing the best possible combination of Zen starkness and clarity with Vipassana loving-kindness. No matter how complex life is, compassion and simplicity are really the point.

My first sitting with her was at a retreat that the Philadelphia Meditation Association (PMA) held a few years ago. Her message was to just show up and breath.

She taught me that centering and returning to the breath is a fundamental practice one can use when one gets lost. And one is often lost.

I can do that. And, that was about all I could do for several years. Everything else seemed too complicated.

The next year, I attended the PMA retreat again. She was the invited speaker. She taught the story of the spiritual seeker who showed up at a religious center. The spiritual teacher asked if the person had their breakfast. If not, get your breakfast, nourish yourself. If so, then wash your bowl and break it. Clean it out, and break away from your past spiritual forms. Truly become empty, free.

The next year she was unable to attend.

That year I attended Jackie Erskine's retreat on joy. Everyone else either had a direct experience of joy to report or sounded like they were trying to force some notion of joy on their experience. I could only say that I showed up and breathed.

But somewhere along the line since then, two year later, my practice has grown just a little. Quiet, simple joys show up as I also became more present to emotions, sensory data, and thoughts.

All of these teachings have come in potent doses: short talks with lots of meditation and reflection in between. This is taking years. This is the work of an older person. I could not have imagined commiting to such slow, deep work as a younger person.

At this recent event, I experienced one of the sweetest teachings, but probably the most challenging. It was on compassion.

Enkyo talked about the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenrezig, the one sometimes personified with a thousand arms and hands. In some cultures it is portrayed as male or as female.

As the story goes, Chenrezig vowed to liberate all beings from suffering. Eventually as she looked out over the problems of humanity and suffering, she exploded into thousands of pieces. The gods put Chenrezig back together with many arms and hands. In the middle of each hand an eye was placed in the palm to see the truth of the matter.

In some forms there are a few arms and hands, in others a thousand. In some versions, it was given eleven heads, which signify the sacred number of infinity, seeing in all directions the suffering that takes place in the world. In some versions, the hands are depicted with tools to help deal with each kind of suffering: right action for the right situation.

This kind of seeing is at its core about witnessing suffering and not turning away. This most holy way of being, open and able to be with the suffering no matter what, is the core to being compassionate.

Enkyo made one further point about the personification of compassion. Chenrezig energy is in every cell in our body. We have the capacity to be and see with those compassionate "eyes" and act with those compassionate "hands" when we are fully present to ourselves and the world.

Then Enkyo told a story of two brothers talking about this ancient story. The younger brother talked to the older brother about his understanding of compassion. But a question was raised that had to do with burnout.

The older brother responded that being compassionate was like the natural act of sleeping and adjusting the pillow behind your head. You reach back and make a slight shift. In this simple act, an open-hearted response is freely given. A small thing really. You know, just a little readjustment and ahhh.

As she told that part of the story, I could feel the release of so much tension I'd been holding. A realization of how much I hold my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop, always the other shoe. The "what-if's" that hold me back, fearful, withholding, calculating.

In this story, there is no shoe to drop. Just a simple reaction to discomfort, and moving on.

Thank you, Enkyo. Blessings to you and your zendo.