Good Morning. I’m calling this dharma talk, “How to get permanent marker off of a white board”. Now, those of you who attended Rev. Harada’s Saturday afternoon workshop last month know exactly what I’m talking about. During the first segment of the workshop he was writing on a white board. When he went to erase the board to prepare for the second part of his talk, it became apparent that the marker he had been using was a permanent marker and not a dry erase marker. Nothing happened when he rubbed the erasure on it. During the break that followed many ideas were tossed around. People said, “This has happened before, now what did we do?” and “Let’s try this, let’s try that”. When the solution was finally recalled, it was so simple and elegant that my thought was, “Wow, I’m going to have to remember that, that could come in handy some time.”
If you were there, and if you use white boards in your life, you probably made a note to remember that trick too. If you remember nothing else about the workshop, you’ll always know how to get permanent marker off of a white board. My most distinct memory from that workshop is of Talia Marr cleaning the board. Even as I made a mental note to remember this, it struck me as ironic that here we are listening to a great teacher instruct us on what Buddhism has to say about life’s greatest challenge, the fear of death, and what I’ll remember most is how to erase permanent marker.
That is exactly how we live our lives. We are so stuck in this world of samsara that even when we are presented with the life changing teachings of the Buddha, we relate to and remember something mundane and practical. That’s just the way we are. So in an attempt to remember what was taught in the workshop, I’ve tied what Rev. Harada taught together with the trick for getting the marker off the whiteboard. If you weren’t there and have been waiting to hear the trick, here it is. You write over the permanent marker on the board with a dry erase marker. The permanent marks are absorbed into the dry erase marks and then they both wipe off just fine with the regular erasure. No special chemicals or scrubbing or anything needed. Just write over it and erase like normal. A very simple solution to what at first seems like a potentially permanent problem.
That is also what Rev. Harada provided to address the fear of death; a simple solution to what seems like a permanent problem. We fear death not only because it represents change and the unknown, but because it seems like a potentially permanent change. Whether we know it or not, all fears come from the fear of death. In my yoga training, there is a term in Sanskrit, abhinivesa, that means, the fear of death, and it is considered the root of all fears. It’s easy to see how a fear of heights, or snakes, is directly related to a fear of dying. What about a fear of public speaking, of not wanting to be embarrassed or make a mistake? There have been times in our evolution when it was potentially life threatening to make a mistake. Maybe you would have been banished from the tribe and would be unable to survive on your own. Even though that is no longer the likely result of making a simple public mistake, the unconscious fear of death can still be attached to it.
So in Sanskrit this term for the fear of death is ultimately the fear behind all fear. It’s also related to the concept of attachment or clinging. The fear of death is really the same thing as clinging to life. Rev. Harada described this life as being like a wave on the ocean. Each wave exists as a separate entity for a short period before crashing into the shore and becoming part of the larger ocean again. (And yes, he drew a permanent picture of waves across the white board.)
Our lives are just like those waves. All life comes from and is a part of the same source, just as all waves are part of the same ocean. When we limit how we see ourselves to the wave of this life, then we think we are separate, unique and individual. We become attached to the attributes of this one wave and compare them to other waves. We do not sense the ocean of oneness that connects all life. All the individual waves are interconnected and interdependent, not separate. When we do not see this, we fear the destruction of our wave at the end of its life. Yet death is nothing more than returning to the oneness of the ocean.
That was the essence of the Buddha’s awakening. We can end fear and suffering in this life by realizing that we are not separate, that we are already part of the oneness of the vast ocean. This was the teaching that Rev. Harada shared to deal with life’s greatest fear, the fear of the end of this life.
So what does that have to do with getting permanent marker off of a white board? We are like the permanent marker. We think we are stuck the way we are and the only way to get off the board is to destroy it. However, if we are fortunate, we come into contact in this life with the teachings of the Buddha; teachings of non-attachment and oneness. As we are exposed to the teachings they are like the dry erase marker writing over the parts of us that we thought were permanent. Our small vision of ourselves is disrupted and we arrive at a greater sense of oneness and connection, just like the permanent marker being absorbed by the dry erase marker. Then, when the time comes, the board can easily be wiped clean. Nothing is lost or destroyed because it was never really separate or permanent to begin with.
Please join me in gassho. “Hard it is to be born into human life and difficult it is to hear the teachings of the Buddha.” In this time of thanksgiving, we can be grateful that we have been given both a human life and an opportunity to hear the teachings. We can also be grateful that our condition here is not permanent, with right understanding, we too can be absorbed, wiped clean, and re-connected with the underlying Oneness of life.
This is what the cardboard sign said that a homeless man was holding a couple of weeks ago on Sunday morning. I was on my way to the yoga studio to practice before coming to the temple for service. He was standing on the corner of 2nd and Ash and I was stopped at that stoplight. I drive this route almost daily so I’m used to seeing beggars at that location, as well as elsewhere downtown. Sometimes I believe them; sometimes I wonder if it’s a scam. We’ve all heard stories about someone with a sign that says, “Will work for food” and when offered work they say “Can’t you just give me the money?” So I don’t usually give them money but if they really do look hungry and I happen to have food with me I will offer them the food. Sometimes they seem to appreciate that and sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t really matter to me. I just drive on when the light changes and go on with my day.
Well I could tell by looking at this man that when his sign said, “I have nothing”, he meant it. I happened to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I had packed to have for breakfast after practice and before coming to temple. I quickly dug it out, rolled down my window, and offered it to the man before the light changed. He took it, looked right at me and said, “Thank you, baby”. Just then, the light changed. As I pulled away I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that the man had immediately dropped his sign and was walking away hurriedly unwrapping the sandwich.
In that instant I experienced one of those rare and beautiful moments when we truly connect with humanity, and in that connection open up to something larger than ourselves. Call it experiencing interconnectedness, experiencing Amida’s compassion; whatever you call it, it is beyond words. I was suddenly overwhelmed by this feeling of connection. Tears filled my eyes. He truly had nothing, I thought, and I have everything. I like to be frugal, but it was only a minor inconvenience for me to have to stop by a Starbucks and buy an apple bran muffin for my breakfast instead. Giving away my sandwich didn’t prevent me from eating. Instead the simple act of giving away my sandwich opened up a glimpse into the reality of our
As the day went on, this encounter reminded me of one of my favorite Buddhist stories. It’s a story that illustrates our interconnection and it goes
something like this: From a Buddhist perceptive, hell is a room with a large banquet table full of the most delicious foods. Beings sit around the table
with 3 foot long forks and spoons attached to the ends of their hands; so that no matter how hard they try they cannot get the food to their mouths and
they starve. On the other hand, heaven is a room with a large banquet table full of the most delicious foods. Beings sit around the table with 3 foot long
forks and spoons attached to the ends of their hands, and they are joyously feeding each other across the table.
Anything helps-I have nothing, the sign said. For most of us that statement does not describe our reality as we see it. Yet from the perspective of our
spiritual growth and evolution, it describes our current condition pretty well. Most of the time I’m lost in my own petty concerns and my to do lists.
Spiritually I have nothing. Anything helps; anything that breaks me out of my daily distractions and brings me into the single present moment.
Anything helps-I have nothing. For the tiny price of a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a single meal for a homeless man, I received this
priceless jewel of momentarily seeing reality as it truly is. I could see in his eyes how grateful he was for the meal, I only wish he could know the larger
gift he unknowingly gave to me. I believe that this is the essence of interconnection. When we see it we suddenly remember that in that moment
we do have everything. What a gift.
A few days ago, I was on the north side of town, near Audubon Park. I was traveling north on one of the neighborhood side streets and wanted to turn right on to Northwest Blvd. I approached the intersection and pulled up behind a 1980’s-something sedan. I looked to the left and saw a few cars way down the Boulevard. There’s plenty of time make the turn. My view to the right was obscured by hedge row. The car in front of me wasn’t moving. It was just sitting there. I looked closely and saw a gray-haired, elderly woman at the wheel. I could see her face clearly in her side view mirror. She appeared to be quite old, well into her eighties. She wore thick glasses and ...well....she was just sitting there. What’s wrong with her?, I wondered. The traffic is light; way is clear, why doesn’t she turn right? Can’t she see, there’s someone behind her?
In an instant, I surmised her delay was due to her advanced years. After all, one grows more cautious as one grows older. Maybe she was waiting for no cars on the Boulevard before turning right. Worse still, maybe she was having one of those “senior moments” and couldn’t remember whether she had turned off the coffee pot. Worst of all, maybe she had forgotten where she was going and was spooling through various possibilities in her mind.
Whatever.... But, if this old woman didn’t turn right, right now, we’d both have to wait for the next train of cars to pass. I was in a hurry. My impatience flared to anger and I beeped her with my horn. She glanced in her side view mirror. Our eyes met. “Well....?” I gestured. Finally, she started to move, just as a large truck on the opposite lane passed in front of us. The lady crossed the street and continued on her way.
I sat there utterly dismayed and ashamed at my behavior. What came to mind was Bombu, the person of blind passions and ignorance. I had assumed she was turning right, ...because I was turning right! I assumed because she was an old person, she had forgotten to put her turn signal on! Have I learned nothing in my two year study of Buddhism? I purport to be a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, a follower of the Nembutzu, yet I continue to behave in ways that confirm again, and again, I am a creature of blind passions and ignorance. I continue to do things, I don’t want to do; and I don’t do things I know I should. Why is that? For days, this incident (which took place in the interval of 20 seconds), haunted me until I resolved to put down on paper, whatever lessons, if any, I thought it might contain;
So, here then, if you will, are my three Buddhist Traffic Lessons.
1. Because my ignorance is profound and my knowledge is limited; I am bound to err. It cannot be otherwise.
Despite what I’ve read in the writings of Shakyamuni and Shinran, I continue to operate from the delusion of a permanent, enduring ego-self which exists separately from everything else. It’s the old: “I”,“me”, “my” and “mine” of self versus the “not-I” “other stuff out there” mode of thinking. This is dualistic thinking. When we think in this way, we set up expectations about “the stuff out there” We develop cravings, expectations and attachments about the “stuff out there.” We expect things to happen, and people to behave, in certain ways and become angry when they don’t. Similarly, we become upset when pleasurable end. On and on it goes. We make ourselves miserable this way. Shakyamuni articulated this as the second noble truth: the Truth of the Origin of Suffering.
My ignorance is profound. All my negative expectations about this woman were based on nothing more than her advanced age. How unfounded and ill-conceived my criticism.
My knowledge is limited. I could not see the truck barreling toward the intersection.
I am bound to err. I expected her to turn right, because I was turning right.
It cannot be otherwise, because I like you, forget that life is a “bumpy road” (duhkha); full of disappointments, fear and sadness. These bumps cannot be avoided; they are a natural part of our existence. Buddhism describes these bumps as birth, death, being separated from loved ones, not getting what we desire, and being attached to the notion of a being-self.
In short, Ignorance means we forget our true nature which as the Buddha taught, is one of impermanence and interdependence. I certainly forgot that truth as beeped my horn.
2. My second Buddhist Traffic Lesson is “Everything and everyone are my teachers.” Every encounter teaches. Sadly, most of the time we miss what can be learned. Our delusions, prejudices, hatreds, anxieties and fears, obscure the truth of these encounter. For a mere 20 seconds or so, this woman and I were in a relationship. I was a reality in her world; she in mine. What was the truth of this encounter? What did I miss? In this case, I believe that lady was offering me an opportunity to practice patience, to slow-down, and behave kindly. She was reminding me that driving was serious business and that impetuous actions could have disastrous consequences. Finally she offered me a mirror of what I could be in the not too distant future, a really old person. This same scenario could easily play out again, only this time it is my bespeckled hands on the wheel, trying to cross the street safely, amidst the honking of some foolish being behind.
In the larger view, we all learn from the people we encounter, the objects we use, and the things we do. If you follow that line of logic far enough, you arrive at the Buddhist truth that all is One. We are one with all. The Law of Interdependence. I certainly forgot about that, when I beeped my horn.
3. My third Buddhist Traffic Lesson is that Wisdom comes in seeing through my delusions to the questions. Asking the right questions leads to right view. Wrong views lead to narrow and restricted lives. My experience could easily have led to statements like, “Old people really have no business behind the wheel.” “Speed limits are O.K. for ordinary people, but skilled drivers like me should be allowed to drive faster.” How to break out of such dogmatic thinking! How can you see through these delusions to the truth that things are the way they are; without labels, without judgments. You start by cultivating awareness. You do that by asking the right questions. You continually ask, “What am I aware of? What am I learning? Is what I’m doing promoting harmony? What is the meaning of my impatience? How does it arise? Buddhism is all about asking the right questions. In doing so, we stay anchored in the here and now. We’re more apt to be aware of our motivations, more likely to see our deluded thinking. If we can but cultivate mindful awareness, we can begin to notice the cycles of impulsive, thoughtless and automatic behavior and thereby improve the quality of our lives.
I’m such a beginner at this. I know I spend too much time trying to understand what is right. The Four Noble Truths, The Eight Fold path, The four marks of existence, the five precepts....how all this fits together. I forget that in the study Buddhism intellectual understanding can only take you so far. You reach a point where ordinary language, --symbolic language-- just can’t explain some things. At some point, you’re left with the disquieting feeling you don’t understood it at all. This is the point where intellect and reason are left behind, and one simply apprehends the truth in an almost intuitive way.
In that 20 second encounter, that woman helped me to glimpse the Bombu in me. Without words, without rational understanding, I apprehended the depth of my ignorance. And for a brief time afterward, I saw things differently.
Most of us drive along, without a thought to the many lessons available to us while driving, --if we could but see them. But I say, better to receive Three Buddhist Traffic Lessons, that Three Municipal Traffic Tickets. It is always better to be wise than sorry.
Thank you for your kind attention.