[go straight to Sujata's Offering - story and entire commentary - p. 299-301]
A powerful story from long ago and a powerful story by a present day teacher - Vimalasara - in her order they use their ordination names in everyday life. In my order we're more flexible about that and I usually use mine only in the context of formal Buddhist practice. My Buddhist name Nomon Doan means "responding gate, peace & harmony" which is also an encouragement towards generosity and constancy just like the life long ago of Sujata and the powerful experiences of Vimalasara when she was growing up at Valerie.
We don't pay a lot of attention to the meanings of names. Maybe they did more back when. The birth name of the teacher who wrote this amazing commentary, Valerie, is from the Latin Valerius: means Meaning. Strong, brave (valiant), "Fierce". It certainly sounds like she is that. And also very insightful, generous, and understanding.
What does your name mean? My given name of Timothy means "honoring God" which always struck me as odd being from a totally non-religious family - we never went to church as a family ever - and yet to my great surprise I ended up ordaining into a religion. And also surprisingly my family has been very supportive of that. I may have seen American Zen as not like that kind of religion - about meditation and enlightenment - but still. And I'm only lately feeling any comfort at all with the word "God" - it's always I have to admit been a word that I found disturbing - and yet I seem to have devoted my life to honoring God nonetheless. God or Spirit or Awakening or something. I'm more likely to think about presence or kindness or just-being or maybe a technical Buddhist term like "emptiness" or some complex sounding philosophical thing like "remembering to feel the interpenetration of the relative and the absolute".
What have you honored in your life?
Our Deep Winter retreat's source material is from this wonderful book The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-FIve Centuries of Awakened Women. It's a collection of stories of women practitioners - they are almost all Buddhist stories. I put they were all Zen women on the website but that's not really so. And the amazing thing is that Florence Caplow and Sue Moon organized contemporary women teachers to write commentaries about each story. I was flipping through the short bios of these contributors at the back and there are so many. I don't know how they managed to coordinate such a massive effort. I remember Florence telling me something about she and Sue going on retreat in a little house her family owns on the Washington Coast and spreading the pages of the manuscript all over the floor of the entire place trying to figure out how to organize the stories. But I can't imagine the number of emails and calls and backs and forths with all of the women teachers. And the effort of editing them. Sue was the editor for the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship for many years so I know she had great editors chops. It's an amazing effort. A real treasure.
My teacher, Norman Fischer, is also the teacher and friend of Sue and Florence and I remember him telling the story of how he started to "get it" more deeply what a deep problem it is that the stories of Buddhism, like with other traditions, are so utterly dominated by men.
In the daily routine at Zen temples there's a recitation of the names of our ancestors. Another practice of gratitude. Part of the day there. Well one time a woman Norman didn't know very well came to see him in tears after that morning ritual. He was surprised and asked her why she was upset. It was because she was feeling the deep pain in her heart because the women were missing from the list. Of course he knew this. In his head, but he started then to feel it much more deeply in his heart. And then he says she left the interview room and he never saw her again. Which is strange in that setting - usually you see people day after day. Makes one wonder if she was somehow the manifestation of the missing women in our traditional lists.
I want to share just a little of what Norman wrote in the introduction because there's an interesting point there about ways of practicing with these powerful stories.
[bottom of page xi and top of page xii]
Back to today's story. Sujata had a practice of gratitude. Once a year making and offering at an important natural spot - where a lovely tree grows. We all have gratitude practices like this. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Thanksgiving.
And nothing is stopping us from adding more. It's very normal in Asia to have a little ceremony on the death days - anniversaries of the passing - of family members - often the local monk or nun comes to help you with this. It can be a full time job for them running around helping families with these memorial ceremonies but that's another story. We could do that too. And we could also choose to celebrate good things happening in our lives every year, or every month, or every week, or every day.
A beautiful practice of this is as soon as you wake up tomorrow morning see if you can remember the intention to be grateful today and a good moment of practice is to pause when you first swing out of bed and your feet are on the floor - on the earth - just say to yourself "grateful" and pause and breathe a moment. Even if you usually skitter right off to pee and start breakfast or whatever maybe you can pause there for a breath. Grateful. You don't need to fish around in your mind for what you're grateful for either: just grateful. Just the practice of gratefulness.
And amazingly - one year when it was the day for the special offering to express her appreciation for her good fortune in this life it was also a pivotal day in the Buddha's journey. He'd just spent six years on hard core practice. Really hard core. Eating just a grain of millet a day. Meditating all day and all night. There are all kinds of hard core practices described like standing in a cold lake without moving for 3 days. The idea he and his practice buddies had was the only way to be free from suffering was to be free from desire. And the way to become free from desire was to cut yourself off from absolutely everything that's pleasant. They got so into this they nearly starved themselves to death. And while they were having powerful visions and deep deep deep meditations the Buddha noticed it wasn't really working. His heart wasn't at rest, he wasn't feeling any kind of lasting peace. It was so hard.
And not surprisingly I guess the five of them were all men. We do have a way of over-doing it don't we? And along comes Sujata with a commitment to a much softer way of life and practice. A life of gratefulness. And she came along at just the perfect time. The Buddha was basically taking a breather - "wow that sure didn't work. what now?" - and here she comes with a golden bowl of thick rice-milk smiling at him, offering it to him with heart. To the mild disgust of the other four hard core aescetics he right away feel a big YES - yes, I accept. I am grateful.
And the way the story's told he's not mad at himself for getting side tracked for 6 years of hard core. He just receives the teaching and offering of this woman and moves on. I think my mind might have been tempted to tell me what an idiot I was for straining and suffering and trying too hard all those years. But then again maybe we need the hard periods we go through. And when we can finally relax we appreciate it all the more. Whew.
Our wonderful commentator on the story Vimalasara doesn't say a lot about herself but what she shares is so powerful. An orphan. A woman of color. A feminist. Clearly a deeply committed practitioner of Buddhism. Here's the paragraph again where she shares about a moment of awakening around race and gratitude.
[bottom of page 300]
She doesn't share about her years of hardcore practice but you can feel they're in there can't you. And then a moment of accepting the offering of sincerity and generosity around her from the white women she was in retreat with one day.
I've had many powerful women teachers in my life and I'll share a little about them as we go along. And I want to apologize in advance for anything I say about all of this that comes off as less than skillful or sensitive. I know I have massive blind spots as a privileged person - it's been powerful gradually getting it through the thick skull how advantaged and lucky I've been to be born into the body of a white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class, American guy who received a good education. I don't know what I did to be so fortunate and I haven't yet come up with an annual offering to make at a tree for this. But I've also been learning these last years that with that good fortune comes great responsibility and that there is a lot I'm not sensitive to yet. I'm working on it. I know we all are. We're working on it.
How can I be real, and grateful, show up for my life fully, and be a blessing for others? A blessing for the world? I don't use that word "blessing" in my everyday thinking but if I pause to really feel into this stuff I can remember, on a good day, that that's what this is all about. This thing called life. Can I feel more fully my good fortune and express my gratitude in that way? By being a blessing for this world and not veer down one of the many other self-centered or blind pathways that are here? The good thing is that it's not a burden to practice in this way. When I am more in harmony with receiving and giving this bowl of rice-milk I'm a lot happier, calmer, more joyful. To be a blessing is to live a blessed life. And maybe I can come closer to living up to my Dharma name of "responding gate, harmony and piece" and my given name of "honoring God" - how about you?
I want to close with an image from a Malaysian painting of the scene of Sujata offering the Buddha-to-be the rice milk. Isn't it interesting how feminine the Buddha is portrayed?