Giving it All Away



Sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child, Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, AZ

Selflessness in action is humbling to behold.  I was reminded of this after driving to a nearby town to be in the presence of Mata Amritanandamayi.  Amma, or “the Hugging Saint,” as she’s also known, travels from India to the seemingly inauspicious hamlet of Marlborough, Massachusetts every year as part of her North American tour.  Those who come for darshan, or the blessing of seeing her, have the opportunity to wait in line to receive a hug.  Part of Amma’s mission on this planet is to put her arms around as many human beings as she possibly can while she’s here.  Her love and service to humanity goes way farther than that, though;  charitable organizations in her name have made significant advances in the areas of housing, education, and public health in her home country and beyond.  Her foundation is called “Arms Around the World.”  It all comes back to the hugs.

I didn’t get a hug this year, unfortunately, as Amma’s arrival in the States was a little earlier than usual, and it sort of snuck up on us.  To be able to get the full Amma experience, you really need to schedule in a day off.  The hugs are an all-night affair, beginning around 9 at night and continuing until the wee hours.  The hug line is long, and the people in it come from far and wide; on the way through the parking lot, we counted license plates from over a dozen states and Canadian provinces.

What I did get, however, was nearly as great as physical contact with a living saint… I got a chance to witness the continual outpouring of unconditional and unapologetic love.  I sat among the rows of folding chairs facing the raised platform where she receives her devotees, alternating my gaze between the stage and the large monitors that offer up-close views of Amma and her inner circle throughout the night.  Her smile doesn’t fade.  The enthusiasm with which she greets each new person that approached her didn’t wane.  She doesn’t get up from her seat, even for a bathroom break, until the last person in the hall receives a hug.  Her energy seems inexhaustible.

I didn’t know that people could do that.  I’m not just talking about sitting all night without using the bathroom; I didn’t know that a person could just pour out their love like it flowed from an endless fountain.  No one ever told me that that was something you could do.  The instruction I got seems to be that you’ve got to hang on to some love, you can’t just give it all away… What happens when it’s all gone, who are you then?  It’s uncharted water, and there’s a lot of fear there… What’s the price of that much openness, that much selflessness?  I can’t say that I know, I’ve never taken the risk.  It’s nice to know that someone else has, and has lived to take that risk again and again.

I might not be ready to throw my arms around the world and hug it like it’s my only child, loving every last drop of its tragically flawed, misguided and beautifully brutal, cruel insanity, smelling its hope and fear as if it’s the same aroma… but I can definitely do more than I’m doing now.  These are dicey times, to say the least.  A little more love certainly won’t hurt.  No one’s asking me to sit all night on a platform hugging the multitudes, but I can ask myself to be a little kinder to whomever happens to be in front of me in any given moment, maybe even to ask, “are you okay?  Is there anything I can do for you?”

How about you, reader?  Are you okay?  I haven’t blogged in a while.  Please consider this final post of the year to be my sincerest wish for you to be happy, healthy, and free of suffering in the new year.  Wherever you are…


The Difference Between love and Love

Sunrise over the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Since becoming what’s known in the Kwan Um School of Zen as a Dharma Teacher in Training by formally taking the second Five Precepts of Buddhism, I’ve come to notice something interesting about myself. I dislike correcting people even more than I dislike being corrected myself. Ours is something of a noodgy practice. There are lots practice forms and rituals, lots of dos and don’ts, and it’s taken me a while to let go of my resentment of being corrected. What’s arisen in its place, however, is hesitancy at correcting those who are new to the practice.

I was acting as Head Dharma Teacher at a recent sitting session, and someone was there who was attending for the first time. There’s generally some sort of brief orientation for newcomers to familiarize them with the Temple Rules, but there’s really no time to cover all the bases. As I’ve mentioned before, this practice is largely a game of follow the leader facilitated by periodic correction by more experienced students. This particular newcomer was the boyfriend of my partner’s friend, and I really wanted him to have a good first impression of the zen center. When his turn came for an interview with the zen master, however, he left the dharma room by walking in front of the cushions of those seated, rather than behind, as is proper. This particular faux pas I could overlook, as practice is a little looser at Open Meadow than it is at the zen centers in Providence and Cambridge. What was completely unforgivable in my mind, though, was that he didn’t bow to the Buddha when passing before the altar. How could anyone be so oblivious and disrespectful?

I elected to chew on the dilemma that this presented in lieu of doing anything resembling mindful meditation. As Head Dharma Teacher, it was up to me to keep everyone in line, and this guy was clearly out of line. I knew that I should correct him, but I didn’t want to sour his zen experience. What if he thinks I’m a jerk? What if he never comes back? (Incidentally, he never did come back. As to whether or not he thinks I’m a jerk, I have no idea.) When I passed him in the hallway between the dharma room and the interview room, I had only a couple of seconds in which to act or remain silent.

“When you pass in front of the altar, please bow to the Buddha,” I whispered as evenly and respectfully as I could. Time precluded any mention of the lesser infraction. He nodded and entered the Dharma Room. An appropriate comment and a spontaneous response. Nothing more. As I related my dislike of correcting others to the zen master, he responded with a remark I’ve heard from his lips many times.

“This practice is not about preferences.”

Although my misguided and selfish concern in this instance was to avoid alienating another, letting go of preferences is essentially the gateway to widening one’s circle of compassion. The living Indian saint Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma, has said that there is a difference between “love” and “Love,” that being that we love our family, but not our neighbor’s family. We love our spiritual practice, but not all practices. Hence, we experience “love,” but not the “Love” that is available when we love without discrimination. The purpose of our practice is to make this shift from “love” to “Love,” letting our light shine without preference, like the light of the sun itself as it rises in the morning.