Living Ishfully Ever After
William (Dufford) Levwood
Rev. Joe Cherry
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[We put the opening words, chalice lighting, children's story and meditation on a separate page. They are a preface to the sermon. Ramon, mentioned below, is a character in the children's story.]
Ram Dass tells us: "There is no form that in and of itself is closer to God. All forms are just forms ... not better to stay single or to marry; not better to marry or to stay single. Each individual has his or her unique karmic predicament; each individual must therefore listen very carefully to hear her or his dharma or way or path ... To live another's dharma, to try to be Buddha or to be Christ because Christ did it, doesn't get us there; ... This game is much more subtle, we have to listen to hear what our path through is, moment by moment, choice by choice.
Zen teacher Barry Magid tells us, "Who you are is exactly what you've been looking for." This accurately describes Ramon's experience of the world and his place in it. As another Zen teacher, Maezumi Roshi, describes it, all of us are equally absolute, equally precious, equally splendid, wherever we are at this moment." Until the moment when our world is shattered. This happens to each of us, sooner or later, at some point in our lives, often in childhood.
For Ramon that shattering is the contempt in his brother's voice. The laughter haunting him. Ramon has lost his sense of contentment, in himself and in his relationship with the world around him (Commentary 7 on Dogen's Genjokoan, Maezumi). Drawing after drawing is crumpled and thrown to the ground. His wandering has begun.
Describing this experience of losing touch, Maezumi shares a story, told originally by the Buddha, of a "millionaire's son who, having forgotten who he is, starts wandering as a beggar from place to place. After many years spent wandering in this way, trying to discover his identity, he finally arrives at his original home and suddenly remembers who he is."
There is also a story like this in the Jewish tradition. A man dreams that there is a treasure buried beneath a certain man's house in a far away town. He travels to the town to find the treasure and there he meets the man, who scoffs at his dream, saying, "if I were to listen to my dreams I would travel to", and he names the far away town the traveler has just come from, "and look for a treasure buried under so-and-so's house", speaking the name of the traveler, who, of course, returns to his home where he digs up the buried treasure.
As Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen, puts it, "when one first seeks the truth, one separates oneself far from its environs." Which is to say that the separation is part of the journey. The journey is necessary even when we know that the treasure is hidden below our own house, hidden in this very moment. We still don't really know it. We have to experience it. We have to make the journey.
Ramon doesn't know all this. He just knows that where before he felt special just as he was, now he feels ordinary and lacking. This sends him on a desperate search, a kind of self-improvement project to distance himself from his ordinariness and attain some ideal, to become special. As Magid explains, "Having lost that original identity of the ordinary and the special, we typically give up on the ordinary and look to new special experiences to compensate for our loss. Although what we've lost is the most ordinary thing in the world, we go looking for something special to replace it. And thus, by pursuing the special, we are, in effect, forever condemning ourselves to be looking in exactly the wrong place for exactly the wrong thing" (Psychology of Buddhism Reader 83, Magid, 48).
Perhaps you can relate to these words. I certainly can. We'll return to Ramon's story soon but first I want to share a story from my own life.
For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a superhero, a caped crusader out to save the world. I blame television. I blame Batman and the Mickey Mouse Club and MTV! Perhaps you have your own version of wanting to be a superhero and your own reasons. Maybe you wanted to be an Olympic swimmer or figure skater, a professional baseball player or rock 'n roll star. Perhaps your proclivities run more literary. Did you dream of writing the Great American Novel? Of becoming a poet laureate? I'm sure I'm many things out. What grand gift did you dream of giving to the world? What grand way of drawing attention to yourself?
When I was four-years-old my parents took me to a car show to see Adam West, the man who played Batman on TV. Perhaps some of you remember this TV show with its comic book captions: "Zing!" "Bang!" "Zoom!" "Kapow!" I was a four-year-old dressed in a Robin costume made by my mother when Batman invited me onstage and said: "So Robin, are you ready for our next Caper?"
Another aside, Rabbi Simha Bunam of Pzhysha, one of the early Hasidic masters, always kept two kvittel, two scraps of paper, one in each pocket. On one scrap of paper he wrote "I am nothing but dust and ashes." On the other scrap of paper he wrote "For my sake the world was created." The trick was to choose which scrap of paper to read at any given moment (Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy, 81). When Batman asked me whether I was ready for the next caper, I didn't even know to look in my pockets. In fact, I'm pretty certain my Robin costume didn't even have any pockets.
But, I wonder, if you pause now for a moment and consider, what is it that is written on the notes in each of your pockets?
Reb Simha's kvittel sound challenging but I think he is in good shape. I don't know about you but often the scraps I pull out of my pocket are not so full of wisdom. They are similar to the Rabbi's quotes but different in an important way. The first scrap of paper, instead of saying "I am nothing but dust and ashes," says something more like: "I fear that I am rotten to the core." And the second scrap of paper doesn't say "For my sake the world was created." It says "You are the anointed Savior of the World. Now get busy!" I think this second scrap gave birth to the first scrap. I'm convinced that my superhero delusion, since I am never able to live up to its demands, leads to my rotten fruit delusion.
Since I have been anointed Savior of the World I should be perfect, fulfilling my perfect life, in a perfect, or almost perfect world (wouldn't want to work myself out of a job). But I am far from perfect, my life far from perfect, the world far from perfect. So when this anointed Savior of the World screams "I just can't take it anymore!" (or something like that) at the top of his lungs right before storming out of the house, well, it is at that moment that I reach into my other pocket, and pull out a rotten pear, once fragrant, now: putrid smelling. Christ Consciousness gives way to Original Sin. A story as old as Adam.
Maybe I can't blame television. Maybe it is just human nature to pursue happiness in some fantasy of perfection, some heaven of eternal life that magically appears. We think there is another way to be, another life in which to find the meaning of life, but we must find meaning here, in this life (c10, Maezumi).
Returning to Ramon's story, he has pulled the umpteenth scrap of paper out of his pocket, crumpled it up and thrown it to the floor when miraculously, in an everyday miracle sort of way, his younger sister appears and snatches up his most recent crumpled failure. Rushing after her and into her room Ramon enters a gallery filled with his own rejected drawings, including the vase of flowers. "It was supposed to be flowers, but it doesn't look like flowers." "Well, it looks flower-ish."
Suddenly, Ramon is able to see his drawing in a new light. With the gift of this new way of seeing the world, Ramon begins drawing again, filled with joy and creativity Experiencing the world ishly, I think Ramon experiences something like what Barry Magid describes as, "no separation between [himself] and [the] moment just as it is, ... no separation and therefore no sense of a separate `self' and instead just the oneness of the whole universe" (Psychological Aspects of Buddhism Reader 82, Magid, 47).
When Ramon enters completely into the action of drawing, rather than trying to capture some ideal representation of the `real' world, then he is able, through his drawings, to experience this non-separation, this oneness of self and world.
Living "ishfully" he accepts the buddhahood of each moment, arising between self and world and encompassing both. This new way of experiencing the world, expressed through the creative activity of drawing ishly, can serve the same function for Ramon as zazen, sitting meditation, serves for the practitioner of Zen. Engaging in a spiritual practice, whether its drawing or sitting meditation or something else, can, over time, stitch the ordinary and the special together, bringing wonder to everyday living.
The discipline of spiritual practice includes being so true to yourself, so true to yourself that you transcend the self, forgetting yourself by entering completely into the action, whatever that action is, whether it is drawing or zazen or doing the dishes or listening to a friend who just gave birth to a stillborn child, whatever it is you enter into it completely. This doesn't mean you attempt to do it perfectly. Do it ishly! Do it in such a way that it reveals the unity of the moment, of who you are in that moment in conversation with the moment. Do your zazen zazen-ish, listen to your friend ishly, do those dishes with one hundred percent of that five percent of energy you have left at the end of a long difficult day.
Apply the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to your living, acknowledging that our interaction alters the world we are interacting with (c5, Maezumi), and the world we are interacting with alters us. And that's ok! In fact it's better than ok, that's what we're after, that's what it means to enter completely into the moment. "Let the beauty you love, be what you do."
And let's not forget Marisol. Ramon doesn't learn to live ishfully ever after all on his own. None of us do. The truth is: Superheroes don't exist. And I'm not just talking about Batman, or Spiderman, Superman or the Green Lantern. I'm also talking about the superstar Jesus Christ, and about Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa. As Howard Thurman points out in his essay "Jesus and the Disinherited," Jesus is born from the journey of a people, a long-standing tradition of survival and sanctification. This is also true of Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Junior. They are the tip of the iceberg, anchored by communal majesty. There is no such thing as a Lone Ranger. Our heroes are the flower and fruit of a tree, rooted in, and branching out from, the struggles of past generations.
The poet Saul Williams, reciting the wisdom of the Buddha, himself also the fragrant fruit of generations, says: "from swamps blossom lotus." And he continues:
Muddy water blue daughters of infinity
"We rise with the tides towards divinity." The world rises towards divinity on the tides of a great ocean of communal effort. This is because nothing exists outside of its relation to everything else. This is why "we should take care of everybody & everything else in the same way that we take care of ourselves" (c2, Maezumi), because we are inextricably interwoven with all beings and all things.
We know this instinctively, from an early age. When Batman called me, in my Robin costume, onto the stage, at that car show in 1980, and asked "So, Robin, you ready for our next caper?" Halting, stuttering, stumbling, I reminded him of the community that I was embedded in. I told Adam West, "I'm not really Robin ... my ... my mom ... she just made this costume ... I'm really just a kid." I knew wasn't a superhero! At least not all on my own.
But life, that television and the nature of the human ego, keep pulling the blindfold over out eyes, or the superhero mask, as it were. The seduction to be a superhero re-emerges again and again. Ramon lives ishfully ever after because he has found a way of approaching the world that reveals the wonder in each moment. But when the story ends he is still very much at the beginning of the journey. He still seems ... I don't know ... kind of, well ... superhero-ish, happy to just ish his way blissfully from moment to moment.
But where is Marisol? Where, in fact, is anyone else? He isn't companioning his little sister along her journey as she did for him. He has not yet come to the place where wisdom gives birth to compassion. But we can imagine this flowering, because by learning how to enter fully into the moment Ramon has planted the seeds for this flowering of compassion. Sooner or later he is going to encounter another rough patch and when that happens we can trust that he will draw a picture, rough-path-ish, crying-ish, loneliness-ish, grief-ish, frustrated-ish, angry-ish, scared-ish. By practicing entering fully into each moment during moments of joy and pleasure, drawing afternoon-ish and excited-ish, by entering into these moments, Ramon is preparing himself to enter into the painful moments. While touching in with our own pain is not a guarantee that we will be compassionate, not a guarantee we'll include others in our circle of concern, it does lay the groundwork for empathy.
Lotus flowers, which can be seen as the roses of the East, blossom from swamps, from mud. In Buddhism lotus flowers are an icon of awakening. The full flowering of compassionate action, which is the fulfillment of awakening, grows from the mud. If we desire a fulfilling life we have to be willing to get our hands dirty. We have to enter into the pain, into the grief and the fear. How can we reach out to others if we've never experienced any suffering ourselves, if we've never fully entered into the experience.
Being compassionate doesn't mean we give in to the temptation to be a masked crusader, upon whom rests the sole responsibility for the salvation of the world. This leads not only to delusions of grandeur but also, in the wake of these great expectations, flies a sidekick of shame, a huge behemoth of debilitating despair. Instead I suggest we transfer our focus from individual greatness to communal support. Together we can nurture each other to overcome whatever despair comes our way (Siddur Sim Shalom). We can remind each other that, as it says in the Talmud, we are not required to finish the task alone. When we remember this we won't be overwhelmed and we can fulfill the second half of the Talmudic saying, as strands in the interdependent web, we can do our part to bring harmony to the whole. We can do our own small part.
Living ishly is an ongoing process. Ramon, I imagine, is still drawing. Whatever note is sitting in your pocket today is not necessarily tomorrow's note. My practice, which I offer to you as well, is to keep rewriting the notes, to remember the four-year-old wisdom, that we don't need to leave home to become superheroes. I wanted to stay with my mother, who had stitched love into my costume. In our heart of hearts, we all want to emulate the love-stitching mother. We don't want to carry on the legacy of some masked crusader. We want to carry on the legacy of those who, like Martin Luther King Jr., clothe the world in love. To just be good human beings, members of a community that covenants to support each other along the journey.
[Delivered January 15, 2012. William (Dufford) Levwood was, in January 2012, a Master's student at Starr King. Born William Dufford, he and his wife changed their surnames to Levwood when they married.]This is a (copyrighted) Guest Sermon from our collection. If you enjoyed it, or if you'd like to use part of it, please contact us via E-mail:
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