In the eyes of many, the entirety of Buddhist virtue is found through meditation. This is a much contested viewpoint, but whether or not one is of the opinion that the whole of the dharma is made available through meditation, it certainly does not follow that meditation is the only way the dharma is made available.
There are, it is said, countless dharma gates, and simply seeing past how you want things to be to what is really there before you is probably a big part of them all, including the gate of meditation. Maybe it is a gate in itself. There is certainly much precedent for making the relinquishment of attachment to views the touchstone of a life of practice. In the earliest texts, attachment to views is a primary obstacle to liberation. For the great philosopher Nagarjuna (ca. 150–250 CE), widely regarded as the second most important figure in the whole of Buddhist history, analyzing the contingent, or “empty,” nature of all views was itself an emancipatory practice.
It is our lot as human beings to live in error. The world is always bigger than our attempts to explain it; it always outruns our efforts to fix it; it always eludes our desire to grasp it. It just does. The tough disjuncture between how we want or believe things to be and how they are plays itself out in countless ways in daily life, in matters large and small, grand and intimate, obvious and hard to see. It is difficult to recognize that the beliefs we hold about the world—political, philosophical, moral, and so forth—whatever their merits and value, are simply what we happen to believe. Held one way, they help us better navigate through life; held another, they devolve into ideology and thus block the possibility of any real understanding. In our relationships, it is difficult to see past our ideas about what we want from someone else or how we want that person to be and to recognize the living person who stands before us.
A couple of months ago, my father, Nathan Cooper, died. My dad was a good man and he led a good life. He was kind and generous and smart and gentle and loving. He was also very funny. We loved each other very much. We also clashed often and occasionally harshly. I think this was painful for us both.
A little more than a year ago, my dad spent close to two weeks going in and out of a coma-like state. My wife, Liz, our daughter, Alana, and I stayed with him and my mom, helping out as best we could, sitting bedside, talking and, in Alana’s case, singing to him. I don’t know what he experienced during those days, but I can say that his close brush with death brought a deep change to our relationship. Somehow, he and I were able to find our way to each other and to what most matters better than we ever had. We found, I would say, what we had always sought in the other. Liz and Alana were embraced by this and felt it is well.
We humans have a way of touching each other’s lives deeply even despite ourselves. In finding our way to each other, we find what is, after all, already there, waiting to be found, wanting to be found. But somehow things—or rather, we—keep getting in the way. Sometimes, though, fortune is good to us and we get to see past ourselves, to ourselves.
Related: Death Is Not an Emergency
A couple of weeks before my dad’s passing, Liz, Alana, and I were sitting around, just hanging out. I got to recalling how, when she was little, Alana would always run, never walk, up and down the stairs. For some reason, the recollection ushered in one of those gracious moments that somehow get suffused with quiet affection. Sitting in the shade of such congenial feeling, I reflected on our life with Alana—I guess her upcoming start of college had much to do with it. Of course being a parent is not easy, and being a child even less so. But all the trouble and conflict and stress and worry seemed, for a few minutes, to recede into the background—not to disappear but to be surrounded by a bigger picture. I think that somewhere, from some perspective, that is how most things look. Maybe it’s how everything looks. Saturated by loveliness.
It is often said that life is absurd, that we are mere specks in an uncaring universe, that life is just a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. I don’t subscribe to that story, though I do think we are indeed pretty absurd. All around, other people and things and the whole world are calling out for and giving care, and we each call out and answer as well. Like an underground spring that nourishes living things but goes unseen, the care we share is the underpinning of our life, its hidden support. And yet somehow, absurdly, this life easily gets lost in the concerns of living.
It is simple yet it is true that our closest relationships—parent and child, teacher and student, close friends and intimate partners—sustain us. They are the near-at-hand model of the wholeness of that vast web—Indra’s jewel net—in which all things abide in and through boundless mutual support. But the wish to shape the other to one’s preferences and the wish to shape the preferences of the other to one’s expectations can make it all but impossible to see something most marvelous and vital. Somehow, though, we—wondrously—keep trying to find each other, there, in that secret spring, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. Calling and answering; asking for care and giving care. Few of us ever get very good at it, but we’re working on it, together, as we must.
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