Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sure Heart's Release

There is a very interesting documentary I saw a few years ago called Wheel of Time, directed by Werner Hertzog. It follows the events leading up to the Kalachakra festival in Bodhgaiya, India, the site of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment. In the film, there is a sequence where a young Mongolian monk purchases several small birds from a street vendor, and after offering a short prayer, releases them into the sky. When Hertzog asked him why he let the birds go, the monk replied, "All the living beings are equal. All creatures have the right to become a Buddha, but to become a Buddha, you have to be free."

How, then, do we become free? How do we let ourselves out of the seductive cages created by our minds that have kept us prisoner for most of our lives? As the monk rightly suggested, all beings have the capacity to awaken, to find their "Buddha within."

A dharma friend of mine, who is a dedicated Zen student, once told me that her practice helps her have more confidence that she will be able to handle the inevitable difficulties in her life. The word confidence is defined as "a feeling or consciousness of one's powers or of reliance on one's or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way...trustful, certain." This attainment of confidence may be as close as the Buddha ever got to the concept of "faith" as it is understood in other spiritual philosophies. As the Buddha himself said:
The reason for my teaching is not for merit or good deeds or good karma, or concentration, or rapture, or even insight. None of these is the reason that I teach, but the sure heart's release. This and this alone is the reason for the teaching of a Buddha.
Again and again, the Buddha returned to the concept of freedom and liberation as essential for our ability to find some kind of relief - or release - from the suffering of life. Like the Mongolian monk releasing the birds, we must, in some way, release our own captive hearts and minds.

Just before he let the birds go, the monk cradled each one gently in his hands for a moment, said a silent prayer of loving kindness, and then opened his hands to allow them to fly away. This is the answer. This is the way to relieve suffering: opening the grasping, clinging hand, and releasing whatever is holding us in its grip.

Even a cursory reading of the Buddha's teachings shows us that he did not stop experiencing unpleasant things in his life. He was, however, able to receive and accept these experiences, recognize them for what they were, note them with reflective awareness, and allow them to be there, or to pass through. And, like the monk releasing the birds, this process must be moved through with a deep sense of compassion and loving kindness.

In his last days on earth, the Buddha told his beloved disciple, Ananda, "Be a lamp unto yourself." The Buddha was telling Ananda that he, too, has the potential to awaken and be free in any moment of his life.

He was telling all of us.

From the Buddha's words in the Udana:
Just as all the great oceans of the world have but one taste - the taste of salt - so too do all the teachings of the Dharma have but one taste - the taste of freedom.

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