Already Broken: A Buddhist Perspective on the Season of Spring
It was Spring. At long last there was no hint of snow on the ground. It was even warm, sort of. Birds and bugs had, at last, returned to Milwaukee. And so in the great flush of Spring madness, Jan and I decided it was time to barbecue. As I walked out into the back yard and toward the garage to haul out the old Weber, I glanced across the greening grass at my concrete Ho-tei. And, I thought I saw a crack, a really big crack running right through him.
"Rats!" I exclaimed, walking over to give him a little closer examination. Sure enough, an enormous line ran up from the ground right to his neck. The damp and wild extremes of Midwestern winters had finally proven too much. As I realized this I thought back to how he had been given to me by Joel Scholefield and the congregation of the Marin Fellowship, when I was leaving to join the fellowship up in Sonoma County.
It had been hinted at that I was to be given a Buddha by the congregation, and I was sort of looking forward to it. But, when my friends presented me with the cast concrete yard Ho-tei, I felt a wave of disappointment wash over me. Ho-tei, also known as Pu-tai, while frequently called the laughing Buddha, is not a Buddha at all. In fact I had always found him a little annoying because in popular American imagination he frequently is the Buddha--a fat jolly guy seen either standing with his hands raised above his head, or sitting on the ground with one knee up.
Ho-tei always has a wide grin and an even wider stomach. Sometimes the sitting version has kids crawling over him. In fact, Ho-tei is rather more like Santa Claus. He was an historic Zen monk who wandered from village to village with a bag of treats he gave to children. Together with the Bodhisattva Jizo, he is a patron, a protector of children in East Asian culture. Altogether an admirable figure. But he isn't a Buddha.
My Ho-tei is one of the sitting versions, rather finely detailed. At this point I had lived with him for a number of years, and over those years had become very fond of him. I found I liked to sit out in the yard with him and contemplate the bugs and birds. His weight had become a household joke in a family that has moved a great deal over the last few years. I frequently would say we will probably still be hauling him around when Jan and I retire to the Winnebago. At this point I realized this wasn't very likely. Sure, I knew I would try to patch him up. But, I more than suspected his fate had already been written.
It was a small disappointment. I can't call it a broken heart, but certainly a bruise. I felt the loss of something I'd come to be familiar with and fond of, and with which I associate many memories. Then, as I was pouring charcoal into the Weber, I found myself thinking of something Achaan Chah Subato, the great Theravandan meditation master once said about broken glasses. I have it framed and hanging on a wall in my office:
"One day some people came to the master and asked 'How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?' The master held up a glass and said 'Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.'"
This was a season when a number of people I know and care about had lost loved ones. Always it is complicated. In a very few cases the death had been what can be called "good." There was enough time to draw affairs to a close and to communicate messages to those who needed them. And when the time came loved ones were there. Other times this wasn't the case. Totally unexpected loss--accidents or blindingly quick illnesses. Sometimes these deaths were marked with feelings of bitterness and regret that will never be addressed with any satisfaction.
And so, in that bright Spring afternoon, that season of renewal, of rebirth, of new hope--I found myself thinking about loss, and how precious and precarious all things are. This is true of glasses, and concrete statues, of pets, of lovers and spouses, of parents and children and friends. It is very hard to just enjoy it incredibly.
But, as we all consider the many Springs of our lives, the new beginnings, such as this church year: I hope we will take one good look at the passingness of things, the precious fragility of everything. A single blade of grass, a much loved coffee mug, a fading photograph, a quick kiss; all speak of the wonder and transitoriness of life-and-death within the interdependent web. There is beauty and wonder in this existence. And as hard as it can be to face, the simple truth is this very moment is the only place we will find life and love and meaning.
I think of this and realize it is time to kiss a child, to pack a lunch and take a walk, to have that conversation I've been putting off. Perhaps we all should take the opportunity to do some such thing. This is a new season, a new beginning. Hope is with us, hope reigns, so long as our blood pounds through our bodies.
And so, as we go out into the world and the year, with our human hope bursting from deep within us, I also hope we remember the glass really is already broken. This pause is important--it awakens us. Now such a pause should not awaken us to despair or hopelessness; it is an invitation, a call to enjoy it incredibly! Our appreciation of even the smallest things in our lives is the very majesty and magic of our human existence. We must hold everything lightly, for everything passes. But, and I really believe this, such a holding is enough--when we give it our whole hearts, our full attention.
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