Thursday, December 29, 2011

Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes?

Lately some TV shows have me thinking about character and integrity. Yes, I have been enjoying some entertainment lately… But I always am very reflective about it. There are dhamma lessons to be learned sometimes in certain stories that are meant to entertain us.

In the show “Lost,” the Nigerian drug smuggler, Eko, has ruthlessly killed many people. However, in a Robin Hood style, he offers the Church money for vaccines if his priest brother will agree to help him dress as a priest in order to smuggle heroin out of Nigeria. His brother reluctantly agrees. But when the drugs are being loaded onto the plane, the military comes. His brother is shot and killed, and Eko doesn’t make it onto the plane in time. When the military find him there, dressed as a priest, they address him saying, “Father, are you alright?” He then takes his brother’s place, living and practicing as a priest from that day on.

In the TV/comic book series, "The Walking Dead," a virus has caused the dead to walk and bite the living in order to pass on the virus to create a world of zombies. The few living left are struggling to survive and avoid becoming one of the walking dead. I had a dream last night that the living character Rick was bitten by and became a zombie. But he was a unique zombie. He still had a moral compass. He could feel the urge to bite, but he was able to restrain himself. He was able to stay peacefully among the living. Of course, the living were cautious around him. What if he were to run out of restraint?

The character of Rick is a strong leader with a good heart and ethics. And because he is such a good person through and through, the zombie bite did not bring him completely down. He looked like a zombie and had urges like a zombie, but he was true to his inner goodness in spite of it. People were suspicious that he was not good, but he actually was. “I’m a zombie, but I’m not going to bite you,” is what he said.

Good souls are not affected by evil, because nothing can break that goodness that is deep down inside. Just ask Angulimala. Angulimala, Pali for “finger garland,” was a cold hearted killer who took a finger from each of his 999 victims and strung them into a necklace which he wore. His goal was 1000 fingers. As he waited in the forest for his one thousandth victim, his mother came through the forest. He would have killed his mother, but the Buddha knew Angulimala’s heart and he intervened. Angulimala was ready to kill the Buddha instead.

“Then the Blessed One performed such a feat of supernormal power that the bandit Angulimala, going as fast as he could, was unable to catch up with the Blessed One, who was walking at his normal pace. Then he thought: ‘It is marvelous! Formerly I caught up with even a galloping elephant and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping horse and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping chariot and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping deer and seized it. But yet, though I am going as fast as I can, I am unable to catch up with this monk who is walking at his normal pace.’ He stopped and called ‘Stop, monk! Stop, monk!’
‘I have stopped, Angulimala. Do you stop, too.’”

“Then he addressed the Blessed One in stanzas thus:

‘While you are walking monk, you tell me you have stopped;
But now, when I have stopped, you say I have not stopped.
I ask you now, O monk what is the meaning of it;
How is it you have stopped and I have not?’

(The Blessed One:)

‘Angulimala, I have stopped for ever,
Foreswearing violence to every living being;
But you have no restraint towards things that breathe;
So that is why I have stopped and you have not.’”

“Angulimala: A Murderer's Road to Sainthood” by Hellmuth Hecker

This was Finger Garland’s wake up call. Upon hearing these words, he was able to see the pure heart inside of himself that had been covered up by hardness and evil. He was so moved that he asked to become ordained as a monk and a follower of the Buddha. The Buddha, being an excellent judge of character, agreed.

Some say “A tiger cannot change its stripes,” but I beg to differ. There is a seed of goodness even in the most heartless murderer. Redemption is available to anyone and everyone. All one has to do is see their own goodness inside, make the choice to stop doing evil things and water the seed of goodness inside.

The path of the Buddha is simple:
Do good
Refrain from wrong
Purify the mind

Monday, December 5, 2011

You and Me Against the World

It just occurred to me today that in an individualistic society such as the one in which we live, it is no wonder why anxiety and depression are so rampant. The majority of us are not meant to be so “independent.” Based on all I have read about attachment theory, it is clear to me that humans of all ages thrive better when they have a primary object of attachment. They are more happy, content, and less anxious.

From my own experience, I certainly had a more difficult time getting my attachment needs met when not in a committed relationship. I managed just fine on my own. I am as independent as they come in this society. And I have a good support network of family and friends that I can count on in times of trouble. But still it felt like something was missing. There was no one looking out for me on a daily basis for all the little things. Someone personally interested in and invested in my welfare. Someone to be a sounding board for my ideas and mundane concerns. Someone to feel really connected with and safe with.

I suspect it is possible to have a feeling of connection and safety like that if you are devoted to spiritual practice. I know that I have felt this way during times of intense meditation practice and times when I have been immersed in nature and away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. But I can’t be on meditation retreat all the time. I can’t leave my children to join the monastic community or become a hermit in the forest. I must be part of the world. And it is rough out there. Two heads are better than one in dealing with the demands of daily life in the world. A loving and committed relationship is like a safe haven.

For three years after the break-up of my marriage, I tried to find safe haven in myself. I took to heart all the advice that stresses the importance of “being happy on your own,” and that you don’t need a relationship to be happy. But I can honestly say now that it is not for me. I reached a certain level of independence and happiness as a single person, but there was always a nagging feeling underneath that I could not fight. The feeling that something was missing. The feeling that I belonged in a relationship. This is my nature. This is my karma.