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Monday, October 15, 2001

A Return To Normal? Please No!!!

One day, soon after the Buddha's enlightenment, a man saw the Buddha walking along the road towards him. The man had not heard of the Buddha, but he could plainly see that there was something different about this man who was approaching, so he was moved to ask, "Are you a god?" The Buddha answered, "No." "Are you a magician, then? A wizard, perhaps?" the man persisted. "No," the Buddha replied. Using all the categories the man could think of, he asked, "Are you a deva? An angel? Some kind of celestial being?" And again the Buddha replied, "No." Some reports say that the man, exasperated perhaps, asked, "Are you a human?" To which these same reports say the Buddha again responded, "No." "Well then, what are you?" demanded the man. The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

The first time I heard this story, the query about whether the Buddha was a human or not was left out, and I responded strongly to the story. When I first heard the version where he is asked if he is human and he says, "No," I admit caused me some concern, for I have always been drawn to the Buddha and Buddhist practice because I see and trust the Buddha as a human. I find it inspiring that a human can achieve such awakening. Not to see him as a human at first made it seem to me to be saying that it was a state bordering on divinity. I feel the strong suit of the Buddhist path is that the awakening of a Buddha epitomizes the highest and deepest achievement of human potential, so I was wary of this denial of his "humaness."

But now I see that he is simply saying that the state of being awake is so qualitatively different from the normal state of being human, that it defies catagorization. And what is the normal state of being human? How do we humans actually go about our daily lives? Asleep! That's the whole point right there. We are asleep, I might say obstinately and willfully so. Asleep to "the way things is," as Suzuki Roshi would put it. Asleep to what is real and what is true, living in a numbed state of denial. So much so that when (if) we awaken to things "as it is," it as if we are no longer human! And the paradox is that this is indeed the highest and deepest of our human potential.

The attack on September 11th shook us and woke us up a bit. New Yorkers, -- New Yorkers -- were suddenly looking into each other's eyes and asking, "How are you?" and actually waiting for a reply. They were being patient. They were being generous with thier time, their presence, their blood! In a ceremony held at the Energy Center on the 16th of September, I mentioned that already people were explaining away this authentic response as "just the way New Yorkers respond in a crisis." Yet, from the Buddhist and Yogic perpective, every moment is a crisis in the sense of the urgency and necessity to wake up. "Death comes without warning. How can one bargain with it?" says the Buddha in The Bhaddekaratta Sutta. One of the Yoga Upanishads says, "The yogi walks with death at his back and truth in his face." Nothing fundamentally changed on the morning of September 11th. We just got a shocking dose of reality. "We are of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death." How is it that we can live even a day and not remember this truth? 6,000 children die every morning because of hunger and we don't feel the horror of that!? Why? Why are we asleep to this reality? If we were as aware of this truth as we are of the nearly 6,000 who died in that fiery attack (and not just intellectually, but as viscerally as we were aware of it that morning) we would not let another moment go by without doing something. We could not let another moment go by without doing something.

So, how do we keep this truth alive when our culture and society seem to conspire to keep us asleep? "Go back to normal," we are told by our "leaders." And to the extent that they mean we cannot let this tragedy cause us to live in fear, I agree. But to the extent that "normal" is too often a synonym for denial or forgetfulness, I pray that we never go back to normal.

This past Sunday, our sangha spoke about how we may practice in such a way that we do not grow numb or forgetful of the truth of impermanence. The following are some of the practices given to us by the Buddha so that we may stay awake and sensitive to this essential truth. As S. N. Goenka points out, there is nothing morbid or pessimistic about this teaching. It is at heart a mixture of "optimism, realism and workism." Optimism because it leads to open-heartedness and compassion, true peace and joy. Realism because it neither denies the truth nor palliates with fantasy. And workism because to do this practice, to wake up, goes against the stream. Against the stream of our cultural, societal, psychological and even biological conditioning. What could be more "natural" than to shrink from the unpleasant and grasp after the pleasant? Even a microbe does so. Yet, this practice asks us not to shrink from reality merely because it is at times unpleasant, nor to lose ourselves and our balance by grasping onto the impermanent pleasant in a desparate attempt for a happiness it is unable to provide.

I offer the following practices to those who wish to experiment. And I invite all those who join me in this experiment to join the e-mail list and share your thoughts and insight. We can continue the dharma sharing of sangha practice online in order to continue to learn from each other. Start with this Gatha For Waking In The Morning

Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.


Before our sitting practice we can recite or simply read and contemplate the Five Remembrances.

  1. I am of the nature to to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

  2. I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.

  3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

  4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

  5. I inherit the results of my actions in body, speech and mind. There is no way to escape their consequences. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Throughout the day, utilize whatever you have in your environment to wake up and come back to yourself periodically. Examples are a clock that chimes every hour. The ringing of the phone. The sound of a car alarm. We can use the following as we follow our breath:

Listen! Listen!
This sound brings me back to my true home.


At the end of the day, we can remind ourselves to look deeply with the following Gatha On Impermanence

The day is now ended.
Our lives are shorter.
Let us look carefully at how we have acted.
Sisters, brothers, with all our heart
let us diligently engage in the practice.
Let us live deeply, as free people
always aware of impermanence
so life does not drift away meaninglessly.


Brothers and sisters in the dharma, let us practice and share the fruits of our practice with all beings.

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 9:12 PM


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