Sentient Beings Are Numberless, I Vow to Save Them

No one can say that Buddhists don’t aim high. Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them is the first line of the bodhisattva vow made/taken by Buddhists of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. This past sesshin, Myotai Sensei encouraged all of us to take up these vows in a concrete, personal way.

In one sense, realizing the unity of all things is saving all sentient beings—I save them by saving myself. But that is only one side of it. The other side is how that vow functions in the world of this and that, me and you, self and other.

Never mind that I don’t know how to save myself (breathe, let go, breathe, let go? Okay, so maybe I do know), never mind that I feel utterly inadequate to rise to the challenge of the suffering of the world. Never mind that keeping myself focused, grounded, and sane so I can function for myself and my family seems to take most of my energy and effort. Never mind that I cook, and clean, and raise a child, and have a full-time career and can hardly find time to breathe let alone take care of self and others. Never mind that when I raise my eyes and look around I see a world of infinite pain and suffering so immense that I have not a fucking clue as to where to begin.

Never mind all of that. Sentient beings are numberless and I vow to save them.

What will my particular focus be? I’ve been working with the issue of depression for a long time. I could advocate for better treatment options for people suffering from mental illness, especially for children. The other focus is food safety, something that has arisen as part of my tenzo practice. I feel like I don’t have time to do both, so I want narrow my focus and pick one issue.

Advocating for mental health feels like part of my past—looking back to what I’ve dealt with and gone through, which is no small thing. Yet, at the same time, I think that my Zen practice has done more for my mental health than all the therapy. In my case, it really is the medication that has made the difference. When I let go of my resistance to taking it (the new generation of medications with reduced side effects make this easier), my brain function improved. Yet, there is a generation of children who are suffering and need assistance. Wait times need to come down for mental health services and children of people with serious mental health issues still fall through the cracks. There is a need there, a real and profound need. The answer may be a combination of political advocacy and volunteering with organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The issue of food and security, quality, locality, et al. is something that keeps coming up for me currently and is a concern going forward in my life and the life of my family, as well as my community and nation. The way we produce food and eat it in North America is killing us. Let me repeat that.

The way we produce food and eat it in North America is killing us.

Not only that, we are losing our knowledge of human-scale food production methods, knowledge built up over thousands of generations of agriculture-based humanity. When our current system fails, and I am convinced that it will, how will future generations of human beings feed themselves if we’ve lost all that data?

When I look at it this way, the answer is obvious. If we can’t eat, if we can’t feed ourselves and our children, then we won’t be around to care about our mental health. I can still help in that arena by writing letters to my MP and others and voting on the issues. But I truly feel called to address our food issues.

For example, on our recent trip to the U.S., I was introduced to the practice of gluttony in a new way. Why in the hell is a “large” iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts a full quart of drink?!?! How big is the extra large that was on the menu? We also made the mistake of stopping at Wendy’s while on the road. The medium soft drink we were given is bigger than the super-size option here in Canada! No wonder Americans are the fattest people on earth!

Unrealistically cheap food, especially food that is based on the corn industry, is causing a host of weight-related health problems. High-fructose corn syrup, the prime sweetener in the Wendy’s soft drink, is a truly evil concoction of corporate America. A cheap food substance that the body does not recognize as food, so you can keep pumping as much of it as you like into a human body and it will not register as satisfied even as it converts the sugars to fat. Truly a marketers dream.

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them. My community desperately needs to change how it eats and how it produces food. I vow to work for that change, not only for myself and my family, but for my community, my nation, and all human beings. This is my vow.

Home Again

We made it! We’re home again after attending sesshin with Myotai Sensei and then stopping by Doshinji for a visit. More to follow later, as it is late and we have been driving most of the day. I do want to note that I am extremely proud of my daughter (and my partner too!). They both had great first sesshins. And, for the record, I had a good one as well.

Now, it’s time to sleep and prepare for back-to-work tomorrow. A great gassho to the universe.

Clarity, or the lack thereof

The mayhem of the last few weeks has really thrown me for a loop. It’s so easy to forget who I am, really who I am, deep inside when the winds of change start kicking up a storm. Old habits reassert themselves and I tend to do things to try and relieve my stress that aren’t really helpful at all.

What helps? Sitting still. No, really. Just plunking down and breathing allows me to see where I have bought into the tale of woe that is spinning out of control in my brain. It’s not a quick or instant fix and much of the time I start spinning again as soon as I stand up, but even brief glimpses of another way of being serves as a beacon or a guidepost.

I may have been angry, upset, out of control but I don’t have to stay that way. And beating myself up for the stumbles doesn’t help either.

I keep getting a mental picture of something my Zen teacher once spoke about: feeling like one of those people at the carnival whose act consists of spinning a bunch of plates on top of a bunch of poles. When it’s only a couple, it’s easy to keep them going. But what happens when there are a lot of them and they start falling and breaking? This isn’t a carnival act, it’s my life, and I can’t stop right now to berate myself for breaking one or two of them. I have to concentrate on the really important ones: my family, my spirit. It’s like realizing that all of the plates I’m spinning are not equal—there are a couple that are irreplaceable. Those are the ones I need to focus on. Getting distracted by the ones that fall (I lost my temper or work is a major source of stress) isn’t productive.

I guess it’s the same thing as saying “Don’t get caught up in the story you tell yourself.” So simple really. And so not easy.

How does one practice “never falter” when one’s existence feels like nothing more than a series of stumbles? Spin, spin, juggle, juggle, sit. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That, and plug in my iPod at work and listen to some wonderful tunes that make me feel good inside. :^)

The latest rumour going round is that the next round of layoffs at $work will occur next week. Next week, I am travelling, with Bryan and Brianna, to New York to do sesshin. No calls, no email, no outside distractions. I don’t know if I’ll have a job when I get back. But I can’t wait to go. I want to sit, to let go, to just be and I so want to do it in the context of my family. Never before have I been able to bring together the two most important elements of my life. Words cannot express how fundamentally important this is to me, this coming together of my two worlds. I am so profoundly grateful for the opportunity to practice my life in this way.

Perspective yields clarity. Zazen yields perspective, clarity, and so much more. Nine bows to the universe and this glorious spring day.