“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”
~ Unknown Buddhist Monk
Our suffering is killing us, and it’s destroying what sustains life on earth.
We suffer, in part, because we crave or desire material objects – a newer iPhone, a nicer car, a bigger house – as well as emotional safety, such as the illusion of stable relationships and certainty about life’s path.
No amount of material possessions can ever satisfy our longing because happiness and peace in life cannot be obtained from external belongings. Nor can we ever count on our relationships with other people, with our work, or even with our family for emotional grounding because these things are constantly in flux: friends move away, careers change with time, children grow up and leave home and loved-ones die. Happiness and peace are not found outside of the self; only within.
Across much of western society, and around the world, we have either forgotten this simple truth or have never learned it in the first place. We continue to try and ease our suffering through the accumulation of wealth and by denying the most basic fundamental truths of human existence: everything changes; everybody grows old, gets sick and dies; and everything is part of everything else.
Our difficulty grasping the interconnectedness of everything, not only on earth, but across all of time and space, leads us to feel a profound loneliness and a sense of isolation from one another. In turn, we try to ease this pain by filling our lives with material possessions, rather than practices that help us erase the barrier between ourselves and the rest of existence.
As humanity struggles to address the most pressing global issues of our time – a changing climate that will irrevocably alter life on earth, crushing poverty and inequality, and the loss of biodiversity that will cripple global ecosystems of which we are inextricably a part – we need to address not just the outcome of these challenges, but their root cause: our suffering’s impact on the world that sustains us, and on one another.
For almost twenty-five years I’ve been an environmental and social activist. I’ve taken a straight-forward approach to advocating for what I believe in: a patch of wilderness that I cherish is threatened, so I work with my community, scientists, and with other activists to fight oil and gas development, logging, mining or road building. An important animal like the grizzly bear or the bull trout is threatened with extinction so I rally the public to fight for stronger laws and regulations to protect it. I’ve had some success, but I’ve also watched so many things that I cherish slip away.
My advocacy was often fueled by anger, and its underlying cause fear, because of what we were losing. Around ten years ago that started to change; I realized that letting my love for other people, for wild places, and for the dignity of humanity fuel my work to make change was far more effective – and personally sustainable – than being driven by my fear. In 2006 I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership to outline what I thought was a better path for people who want to make the world a better place to follow.
Since then I’ve been trying to use the three pillars of the Tao – restraint, compassion and love – in my everybody life, first as a consultant to non-profits and business, and once again as a leader in North America’s conservation movement.
In doing so I’ve stumbled upon a difficult reality: all of our victories to protect the fabric of life on this planet, all of our efforts to provide dignity, food and shelter for people who are in need of it, are temporary. Everything we do to protect the backbone of the globe’s biodiversity only lasts until our own insatiable appetite for whatever riches lie buried beneath that place as goal, oil and gas, or growing on it as merchantable timber, are needed by an ever more desperate human population.
Nothing is safe and no place is so sacred that we won’t one day sacrifice it if we grew desperate enough. There is no law that can’t be rescinded; there is no United Nations status that is so prestigious that it won’t be ignored if humankind continues on its current trajectory. Witness the status of South Africa’s black rhinoceros: hunted to near extinction for the aphrodisiac believed to be continued in its horn. Laws and even an armed militia aren’t enough to keep poachers from shooting these animals and leaving them to rot, and for what? So that someone somewhere can satisfy their sexual desire.
Witness also the full-out assault on Canada’s laws to protect our environment; laws that once made us the envy of the world, and now leave us the laughing stock. In just a few short years Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper have dismantled the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waterways Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, once the strongest piece of legislation in Canada for safeguarding the Environment. The Species at Risk Act, which I helped advocate for from 1997 through late 2002, is next on the chopping block. Why? To make it easier for petrochemical companies to drill for oil and ship it to refineries around the world.
Until we address the underlying cause of the rampant destruction of the natural world, until we address the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor around the globe, every effort to protect life on earth will be fleeting. We need another approach; we need something in addition to our political and community advocacy in order to address what Wade Davis calls the “fire burring over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”
Through the practice of meditation, which I began in earnest during a period of personal upheaval in 2006, I began to understand the nature of my own suffering, and that of every other human being. Suffering is at once deeply personal and universal. We all suffer; it is the nature of humanity to feel the pain that comes from life, and our perceptions of it.
Twenty-five hundred years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama felt that pain too. Raised in opulent luxury and sheltered from the world of sickness, disease and death, the young prince came face-to-face with these realities and fled his life of privilege and began to follow a spiritual path. After six years of wandering, meditation, and self-deprivation, the man who would become the first Buddha was no closer to solving for himself what is a universal paradox: life ends, everything we love is taken from us, and we and everybody we care for will one day die. Nothing we can do will stop that; we have to make peace with it.
Siddhartha sat down under the Bodhi tree and meditated on this quandary. He recalled that in his youth he had found the greatest peace of his life enjoying a profound interconnectedness with nature, and with all life on earth, and in that moment realized what Buddhists now call the two Great Truths: that everything is temporary and everything is interconnected with everything else.
In that moment he ceased to be Siddhartha the prince and he became a Buddha; one who has conquered suffering; an enlightened being.
All the riches in the world could not fulfill the young prince’s soul; he had to confront the most basic facts of human existence, and make peace with them, before he could be happy. From that moment on he dedicated the rest of his life – another forty-five years – teaching a simple message: that we are all the Buddha. Every human being who has ever lived and ever will are Buddha, and all that is needed is a profound understanding – not just intellectually, but an actual emotional and spiritual acceptance – of the basic conditions of life.
Let me be clear about this: I have not surmounted the obstacles to suffering. I have not achieved enlightenment; not even of the 25-watt kind. Enlightenment isn’t even my goal; peace of heart and mind is my simple ambition. But the world is careening toward disaster and I am no longer convinced that activism alone will abate the destruction, so I find myself writing about an end to suffering out of a moral imperative to preserve what, and who, I love.
In concert with activism of all kinds, I believe that a spiritual and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching could ease the pell-mell ruin of the earth’s wonders. Once we have experienced, first hand, the simple truths of the Buddha’s teaching, and put into place some basic tenants to guide our behaviour, we no longer feel the need to satiate our appetite for material objects to fill the hole in our hearts. It does not mean that we must live the life of an aesthete, shunning any material possession or pleasure. It means that we control our desire, rather than the other way around.
The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that we must confront before we can do so.
The first is the truth of suffering. We all suffer. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that all life is suffering, but that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught us that life entails suffering.
Second he taught that there is a cause to this suffering. Our suffering is caused by our lack of understanding of the two Great Truths: that everything changes and everything is connected. We become attached to things, to people, to loved ones, to objects of desire, and that attachment, our desire for these things, causes us to suffer when we can’t have them, or when they change. We suffer also because we perceive ourselves as separate from one another and the fabric of life on earth and across the universe.
Third, the Buddha taught that there is an end to suffering. If we can experience the interconnectedness of life and make peace with the nature of change, we can conquer our suffering.
Finally the Buddha taught that there is a path that we can follow to peace, joy, liberation from suffering and ultimately nirvana: the magic of living fully in the present moment in a state of enlightenment. That path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and it remains a guide that we in the 21st century can use to achieve peace while addressing the underlying cause of the suffering we inflict on the world.
The Noble Eightfold Path is not a mystical passageway that leads to a conversion or to a religious belief: it is a set of guidelines for living a life free of suffering. The Eightfold Path is right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right concentration. Right in this case means “in the right way” or “straight” or “upright.”
For example, right view means developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how to end it. Right view means developing personal insight into these truths and believing in our hearts that there is an end the pain caused by our misperceptions of life and having faith in ourselves that we can overcome this pain because many others have already.
When we have come to grips with the nature of suffering through right view, we then automatically begin to think more clearly about our lives and the choices we have to make, and so on. In this way we see that each of the Noble Eightfold Path’s steps are at once a logical progression from one to another and all interconnected.
My purpose in writing this book is simple: I want to help ease human suffering so that we in turn can ease the suffering we cause the world and one another.
The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, nor is that my purpose. While I identify myself as a Buddhist – one who has accepted the basic truth about human suffering and who is trying to ease it – I also am a father, a husband, an activist, a writer, a community member and a friend. The teachings of the Buddha are not aimed at converting people to a certain religion. People from any faith can learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – along with many other teachings – and adopt them as part of their own personal trajectory towards happiness and peace. While there are certainly schools of Buddhism that verge on the worship of the man who was Gautama Buddha that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught that we are all Buddha, and that each and every one of us can wake up to the peace that comes with liberation from suffering.
Nor is my purpose in writing this book is not to replace what I think of as traditional activism with a spiritual practice. Buddhism has existed on earth for more than two-thousand, five hundred years; the process of seeking and finding nirvana – everyday freedom from suffering – is a slow process. We will need to use all of our skills and tools to save what we love about the earth, its cultures and its people. We must continue with political pressure, with protests and marches, with letter writing and economic pressure; but to win in the long term, we must remove the desire that drives the hunger for more; more things, and the precious resources that must be consumed to make ever more material objects.
My purpose is this: if we want our success in preserving life on earth and human dignity to be lasting then we must quench the fire that burns in the heart of humanity that must constantly be fed by more and more material demands. Until we do nothing will be sacred. Once we begin to make peace with our selves and the basic truth of human existence everything will be sacred.
This is the first piece of writing in a series of essays I am completing for a book. What do you think? I want your feedback to improve the ideas, and to collect first-hand examples. Please chime in.
 Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.
 From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.
NOTE: I’ve been editing my forthcoming book Running Toward Stillness (Rocky Mountain Books, 2013) for the last three or four months, but wasn’t comfortable with the ending. Yesterday something happened that helped me find the words to rewrite the final essay. Feedback, as always, is welcome.
* * *
I went for a run yesterday for the first time in six months. I hadn’t run since April. It’s the second time I’ve taken such a hiatus in the last eighteen months and I was beginning to worry that maybe my days of trail running were coming to a close. But yesterday it was a perfect blue-bird day; the aspen’s that cloak the hillsides above my Canmore home were ablaze in yellows and gold, and I’ve been itching to feel the steady rhythm of motion I’ve come to love.
My knees have been in rough shape of late. In April I woke one morning limping and it persisted for weeks. I took a break. I finished the ski season and then rode my mountain bike three or four times a week and learned to see the world at a very different speed. It was a lot of fun, and I got in decent shape, and my knees didn’t hurt as much.
But yesterday the sun and the colours made me throw caution to the wind. I took it slowly, worried that my knees might protest, or my lungs give out or my legs turn to stone. But none of this happened. I glided up the trail like I hadn’t taken six months off, and after an hour and a half of running on the dazzling aspen benchlands, I felt very good indeed. I didn’t care if it was my first run or my last; I wasn’t running for anything but the sheer joy of being in motion on a stunningly beautiful day. I felt once again the sensation of inseparability between myself and the landscape – between myself and everything else in the universe – and didn’t worry if it would ever happen again. It was enough to be alive, in motion and perfect stillness all at once.
I thought about the months when I hadn’t been running as a prolonged period of stillness, even though I’d been riding my bike and walking nearly every day.
Inside of motion there is stillness, and in stillness, motion. The ancient symbol of Taoism is the Tai Chi: the black and white swirl with a dot of black in the white and a dot of white in the black. These two halves are not opposites coming together, but parts of the same whole, working in harmony.
There is a still point in motion that occurs when the runner, the rider, the walker, moves in a way that is completely free of effort, and in a manner where the barrier between ourselves and nature evaporates. At this moment we touch the perfection of creation and open a door to the mysterious fabric of the universe to reveal itself in us.
Just so, in stillness – meditation – there is motion. The circle of breathing that creates a rhythm also opens the door to a glimpse into the infinite between our cluttered thoughts.
Motion and stillness, working in harmony, can be a portal through which we glimpse the true nature of the universe, and our beautiful place within it.
The sun was setting as I wove my way home, the bright woods breezing past. I felt the familiar cadence of breath, the steady beat of my feet on the leaf strewn path, the rhythmic pulse of heart and blood and bone as I trotted down familiar trails.
Don’t be afraid to stop, I told myself, and don’t be afraid to start again. That’s all this is, a simple rebirth. Every single day.
Compassion is the “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relive it.” Lao Tzu, the hero of Carry Tiger to Mountain: the Tao of Activism and Leadership, says that the sage activist is “saturated with compassion.”
It is the second treasure of the Tao te Ching’s three treasures: restraint, compassion and love.
It is easy for us to feel compassion with those we are closest too: our partners, family, children, friends, and close colleagues.
And while they need and deserve it, if we wish to make the world a better place, not just in the short term, but for the long journey of humanity, then we must practice compassion with those who oppose us. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama says that we must “remove negative feelings towards our enemies.”
I believe that we must stop thinking about people as our enemies. Simply put, we oppose other people’s actions. We oppose what they do, and sometimes, their world view. But they are not our enemy. We do not wish them harm; we want to stop what they are doing that is harming the world and its creatures.
Always remember that your opponent is human
Treat her with love and compassion
Those we oppose are human, and humanity is all interconnected. Even those who we most vehemently oppose are capable of loving their children. Our most ardent opponents have fears that drive them to make wrong-headed decisions that harm the earth and make other people’s lives very difficult. Treating them with compassion will unlock the possibility for long term solutions to the problems that vex our society and our planet.
What do we do when compassion doesn’t feel like it’s enough? How do we respond when it feels as if the world is on a collision course with doomsday and people are suffering and dying?
We meet anger and fear with love. Next week, the third treasure: L.O.V.E.
There is a whole chapter on the Three Treasures: restraint, compassion and love in Carry Tiger to Mountain, The Tao of Activism and Leadership. You can read more about the book here.
The book was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is available by ordering it directly from the Press, or by asking for it in your local bookstore or library. If all else fails, you can always buy it online.
Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault as I post stanzas from the Tao te Ching all week related to compassion.
The foundation of the Tao te Ching are the Three Treasures. These have been interpreted in many ways over the last 2,500 years; in Carry Tiger to Mountain, The Tao of Activism and Leadership I interpret them as Restraint, Compassion and Love.
Restraint is sometimes know as “daring not to be first,” in various translations of the Tao te Ching. Ostensibly, it requires us to control our own ego, to step aside while allowing others to step forward. The Tao te Ching says:
Our finest effort will flow like a river
Rocks, boulders, even a dam, in time, will succumb
to the current
We can learn to act with such patience and perseverance
In doing so, be like the Tao
Together, patience and perseverance form a yin-yang equilibrium. Patience is the yin side of the equation – the light, the yielding part – while the yang, or assertive part, is the perseverance. Yin and Yang do not work against one another; they are not opposites: they are two parts of the same whole, working in harmony. Knowing when to step back, and when to step forward and provide a needed injection of energy and enthusiasm is one of the hardest challenges facing leaders, in both business and in non-profits.
Restraint does not come naturally to those of us working to protect what we love, either through non-profit organizations or by running ethically driven businesses. We’re afraid that if we step back, more of what we hold dear will disappear. But sometimes, practicing restraint is what we need to do to advance our efforts. Lao Tzu says:
When you speak, do so clearly
And then remain quiet
Be like nature
A tempest doesn’t last all day
Afternoon heat is followed by a thundershower
One of the themes I’ve explored in Carry Tiger is ego. Ego can be very helpful; it propels us forward, it provides us with “appropriate self worth.” But for an activist working to create a better world, it can be very harmful. Ego can keep us from allowing others to step forward and share the burden of leadership; ego can keep us too long in the spotlight, casting long shadows on others. Practicing restraint allows us to step aside and let others step forward.
One final thought on restraint: the most important time to exercise it is with those we oppose. When we win, do not be boastful; simply “step back and be watchful.” When mired in conflict, retrain from inflammatory accusations. These only harden our opposition, and prevent us from long term progress.
There is much more about this theme throughout Carry Tiger to Mountain. And in the coming weeks and months, I will explore this further through Twitter (@stephenlegault) and through this blog.
Next week: the second of the Three Treasures: compassion.
I’m going to share bits and pieces of my interpretation of the Tao with friends on Twitter using #carrytiger as a hashtag. Please follow me @stephenlegault and retweet when you can.
You can read more about the book here.
Carry Tiger to Mountain was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is available by ordering it directly from the Press, or by asking for it in your local bookstore or library. If all else fails, you can always buy it online.
Join the conversation: tell me about your experiences exercising restraint, or when in retrospect it might have been a good idea:
In 2006 Arsenal Pulp Press published my first book, Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership. I’d been thinking about this book for almost as long as I’d been an activist – applying the ancient principles of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching to my own work in the conservation movement – and had started compiling ideas for the book some years before.
The premise of Carry Tiger to Mountain is that we, as people who are trying to make the world a better place, might experience more success if we use the three treasures of Taoism as talismans: restraint, compassion and love. The centrepiece of Carry Tiger is an interpretation of the 81 stanzas of the Tao te Ching specifically for activists and leaders in the social profit, and socially-minded business world.
There are also chapters on strategy, collaboration, conflict, leadership, fundraising and self-care.
I’ve been surprised, and pleased, by the resilience of Carry Tiger to Mountain. People still contact me to tell me how much this book has meant to them, and how it has helped them improve their own lives, and the world around them. Over the next while, I’m going to share bits and pieces of my interpretation of the Tao with friends on Twitter using #carrytiger as a hashtag. Please follow me @stephenlegault and retweet when you can.
It’s important to remember this about the Tao te Ching: its an enigma. Its paradox wrapped up in contradiction. The first thing Lao Tzu wrote was “The Way that can be spoken is not the only way.” I was conscious in penning Carry Tiger to Mountain that everything I said could be wrong. Or then again, it might not be. It’s up to each of us to determine the Way and its Virtue for ourselves.
You can read more about the book here.
The book was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is available by ordering it directly from the Press, or by asking for it in your local bookstore or library. If all else fails, you can always buy it online.
A Conservative majority may not be the best thing for the environment, or social programs, or for Canadian priorities like healthy care, diplomacy or even Parliamentary values like transparency and fairness, but a Conservative Majority is what we’ve got for the next four years, so we better figure out fast how to get what we want from it.
There has never been a time when thinking creatively, and acting with courage, was more important. And despite moving Canada back into the dark ages of climate-denial and finding ourselves at the back of the bus when it comes to global diplomacy, the Harper Conservatives have provided some important leadership on issues such a National Parks. There’s a small opening there – a chink in the armor maybe – where we can work to advance progressive issues.
The Conservative government of the last five years, as someone recently told me, doesn’t like to be criticized. Who does? We can make the mistake of trying to teach them a lesson about democracy and being “grown up” about it, but look what happens when you spend your time trying to teach Canadians a lesson about democracy: You end up losing your seat and your party.
Instead, people across Canada who want to make this country a better place, and restore its standing as a leader among nations on issues like climate change and poverty reduction, should take a lesson from Loa Tzu: “This is the universal truth; the soft shall overcome the hard.”
There’s no arguing with the fact that the Conservative majority will pose a hard obstacle to progress in Canada. We can spend our next four years battering ourselves against it, or we can find a way to move slowly around it, over it, under it, through it. In Taoism this is called Wu Wei, which means “not forcing.” Nobody is going to force Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do anything. We’re going to have to, as Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, suggests: “capture our opponent whole.” That means moving carefully to make it so our values, our vision, our passion, slowly becomes their own. We must find what they respond to – be it positive reinforcement or public accolades, as difficult as that may be to stomach – and exploit them as an opportunity to advance a progressive vision for Canada.
If we do not, we’ll find ourselves on the outside looking in, and watching all that we cherish about this beautiful nation slipping from our grasp. And we will only have ourselves to blame for its loss. Every moment in life is a choice. This choice is clear: accepting the reality of a polarized politic and gaining what we can, or raging against it, and losing it. It’s that stark a dichotomy.
And while we do this, organize for the future. The political environment across Canada has been dramatically recalibrated. Michael Ignatieff has resigned. And the BLOC Quebececios has been reduced to a fringe movement; this is maybe the best of all the outcomes from the May 2nd vote. And though separatism is by no means dead, at the very least one of the key factors keeping the centre-left from uniting and moving forward together has been eliminated.
While we work to find ways to advance our goals under a Conservative majority, we must do exactly what Stephen Harper did to capture it: unite. It’s time to put ego and hubris and the fallacy of worn-out political history aside and come together under a single banner. It’s time to find common ground, and learn to live with our differences, and embrace the future as a united positive alternative. I simply can’t listen to people complain that with only 40% of the vote the Conservatives formed a majority any longer without demanding that the progressive voices in Canadian democracy join together to form an united, positive alternative.
And within that the Green Party will finally find its place in our House of Commons. Next to the defeat of the BLOC, the election of Elizabeth May in Saanich-Gulf Islands is the single greatest thing that has happened for Canadian democracy in many, many years. She will make Canadians proud.
I hope that people who want a better Canada won’t spend too much time moaning about what may happen now under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. We may not like it much, but it’s what we’ve got; the sooner we make a choice to move forward, smartly, carefully, like water slowly but patiently wearing away at that which stands between us and our vision of Canada, the better. Our future is at stake; we are the ones who must make the choice about how we advance towards it.
Before 2011 gets away on me, I thought I’d put down on paper a set of ideas I feel resolve for this year. I wouldn’t say these are resolutions as much as strong notions that I am humbly committed to. I’m sort of hooked on the idea of there being eleven of them:
1) To live fully in the place my family has chosen as home – the Bow Valley of Alberta – and to rediscover the majesty of the Rocky Mountains and its communities.
2) To learn to let go more: long a part of my spiritual practice, I am resolved to stop clinging to those things which were never in my grasp in the first place.
3) To rededicate myself to maintaining the temple of my body, so that it can be a vehicle long into the future for spiritual fulfillment, love, adventure and excitement. I’m in good shape, and I want to be in great shape.
4) To continue to write every day. It is my dharma.
5) To find a meaningful way to earn a living, because my dharma isn’t cutting it quite yet. This could mean taking a terrific job (I interviewed for one in mid December that would be perfect) or the continuation of my consulting work.
6) To make peace part of my every day practice. For so long I’ve been journeying towards this goal: 2011 will certainly be a seminal year in that pilgrimage. To calm the fires.
7) To reignite my daily practice of meditation. Along with daily study and finding opportunities to gently show others the opportunities to conquer suffering and strive for peace, this will be the foundation of my undertaking as a dedicated, well-meaning but somewhat distracted amateur Buddhist and Taoist sort-of-person.
8) To let go of more: of more things, of ideas, of pre-conceived notions, of iron-clad ideas. And to let go of the idea of letting go: sometimes its OK to hold on tight. The world is spinning pretty fast, and hurtling through space at thousands of miles per second. Holding on makes good sense sometimes.
9) To continue to love people – as many as I can – as much as I am able. Starting with my family: Jenn and our boys, my parents and Jenn’s, our siblings and their amazing families, and our extraordinary friends; and radiating out beyond that to random people I meet on the trails and on our travels, in café’s and in Safeway and Costco. To try and stay out of jail while doing this.
10) To be a caring and nurturing friend, husband and parent who embraces restraint, compassion and love; the three pillars of the Tao, and the fundamental teachings of the Buddha.
11) To let go of the silly idea that there needs to be eleven of this things so it jives with 2011.
My statue of Gautama Buddha broke the other day. Broke again, I should say.
I bought this eight inch tall statue shortly after moving out of my family home almost four years ago now, and into a 100-year old character home in Victoria’s Fernwood neighborhood. I bought it before I had any real furniture or even a bed for my kids. After looking at dozens of different figurines, I selected this particular effigy because of the particularly serene look on “the conqueror’s” face. It was to be a symbol of my new approach to living, and day after day I used it as an aide memoire for the peace I was hoping to bring into my life.
This statue sits perched in my entrance way, watching over my family and I as we come and go. Silas and Rio both recognize his placid smile as other children might recognize Big Bird or that crazed purple dinosaur that haunts so many parent’s nightmares. When Silas was learning how to build with Duplo, he made his own characters and would present them to me and say “look, it’s the Buddha.” And of course it was.
I keep the Buddha on ledge with a slight slant, in a prominent place in my entrance, in part to have a touchstone, and in part to announce to those entering and exiting that I for one am at least making an effort to clean up my act. The Buddha’s prominence is part ego and part beseeching for patience with my indiscretions.
The house I live in is very old, and more than a little cranky, and is listing precariously to, well, all sides at the same time. Put a marble down on any of the century old Douglas Fire floors and off it goes, careening one way, and then the next, racing for a wall or stairwell. The doors in the house suffer the most. Their frames are ancient, and the wood is well past its prime, and all of the hinges require regular lubrication (don’t we all) and every three or four months I have to take them all off, fill in the decaying screw holes and re-hang them.
But sometimes more than three or four months pass and the doors start to sag and we have to lift the door to close it. And sometimes we don’t even do that, and a great shudder is sent through the frame as the prehistoric door is rattled on its primeval hinges.
And sometimes they get slammed.
Fear is the root of anger. Behind most everything that I become angry about lurks a silent fear that won’t show its face, but sends anger in its stead. When I get angry I yell, I stomp around, I bolt. I sometimes rush from the house, frustrated and afraid and fuming not understanding where my anger was born or why it is rearing its head again, but knowing that I have to get away from it. That I have to run from it; that if I can just put enough distance between myself and my fear and my anger that I might finally outrun it.
The door, hanging on its hinges, comes between me and the outside world.
And the Buddha sits on its slanting ledge next to the door.
I can’t remember if the first time the Buddha lept from his ledge I was slamming the door, or just closing it forcefully so that it would stay closed.
But I know that the most recent time the Buddha called me to attention was when the door got between me and escape.
And down he came.
His head broke off, a piece of his shoulder came apart and the funny little pom-pom on his head came off. It stopped me in my tracks.
I stood there looking at him on the ground, trying to feel nothing. Trying to let go of my disappointment with myself.
The fact of the matter is that in toppling to the ground, Gautama Buddha alerted me once more to my suffering, and my need to address it. Suffering, according to the Buddha, is the basic human condition. But suffering can be ended, and there is a clear path – the Eightfold Path – to put a stop to it. Enlightenment is the permanent end of suffering. The Buddha is called The Conqueror because he was the first to vanquish suffering and gain as a reward freedom and peace.
I’ve been walking this path consciously for five or six years. I’ve been aware of it for much longer than that, trying in my furtive way, to ease myself onto this path without actually doing the hard work to address what stands between me and freedom from suffering.
I picked the Buddha up that morning, collecting the little pieces, cradling his decapitated head in my hands, and brought him downstairs to the workbench. He seemed beyond repair that morning. Sometimes everything seems beyond repair. I walked away from him believing that when I returned from my research and book tour of Alberta, I’d have to throw him out and start over again.
But I didn’t.
Sometimes it seems, in my effort to achieve peace, to free myself from the illusions and fears that cloud my vision of reality, that I have to start from scratch again and again. I burn up any progress made over the last half decade – over the last 40 years — in the heat of my passions, my anger and my fear.
But the Buddha foresaw this in his own effort to conquer suffering. Anybody who walks a spiritual path does. We take our tentative steps forward, peel back another layer of illusion and come face to face with whatever it is we’ve hidden beneath the veneer of day to day existence. Sometimes it sends us reeling. And when it does, we wonder if we will ever be forgiven; if we will ever truly be free.
All of my spiritual teachers would remind me that when I feel as though I have to run away from my fear, from my anger, from suffering; that is the time to sit. To sit with the ghastly discomfort that surges through my body and make we want to slam doors and run away.
Gautama Buddha called me to attention: my Teacher was in the room that morning, and he crashed to the floor so I might relearn a lesson. Once again. It was a Buddhist monk, after all, who counseled that if we met the Buddha on the road that we should kill him. There is no ultimate orthodoxy in the path to peace: only the tearing away of illusions and the compassionate, loving embrace of reality, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done.
I didn’t toss my statue of the Buddha in the garbage. Yesterday morning I carefully glued his head back in place, even delicately bonding the little pom-pom back atop his tranquil head. We don’t have to start over; we can start so much further down the path than we ever imagined, and we can be forgiven our indiscretions and transgressions along the way.
But I am going to find a better place for my statue. Just to be on the safe side.
Day breaks over the Continental Range; the cold hard light of dawn edges out the cloudless night. Its minus five but predicted to hit plus twenty today. The remaining snow here in the highest community in Canada will certainly be all but gone come the weekend. Mount Temple, viewed out my friends’ window, is a familiar sight; its a triangular, glacial clad massif that looms more than 6000 feet above Paradise Valley and the Bow Valley below. Its my favorite mountain in the world, so far. Its hard and angular and imposing, like the landscape that circles it for a hundred kilometers in every direction, like the landscape that stretches two thousand kilometers north and south along the axis of the Great Divide, the stalwart chain of the Rocky Mountains.
It’s an adamantine landscape. Its all perpendicular angles and abrupt edges. Its often very cold except for a few brief months when it can be very hot. And while the dales that finger like green filaments between the imposing walls of limestone have a gentleness to them, most of this landscape is rigid and unyielding.
It’s a hard place on the body. When I lived here I felt as if I was always about to crack open. My body itched with the dryness. My head ached from the Chinook winds that pressed down on the mountains with accordant regularity.
When I moved to the west coast five years ago I remember feeling relief. The verdant coastal forests, the soft rounded hills, the gentle pulse of the ocean; each of these things heralded an abatement to the hardness that had predominated my life.
It was more than physical: I was like the mountains too. Hard, unyielding. It had made me rigid in my approach to life. The coast helped take the edge off.
The sun slips down the flank of Mount Temple, illuminating it’s snow plastered northern face. Temple’s glacial cap wears a blue tinge, catching the morning light in its pocks and folds and fissures.
I worry that as I spend more time in this landscape of hard edges and angles that I will take on those characteristics once more myself.
“This is the universal truth: The soft shall overcome the hard,” says Lao Tzu.
I’ve been preaching this in my work as an activist, and as a leader.
“All living things are soft and flexible / All things in death are hard and brittle / The hard and the brittle will be broken / the soft and the flexible will endure.”
How can I embrace this truth in my own life?
When I moved to the Pacific coast, I felt as if my body relaxed for the first time. Coming home to these mountains doesn’t need to mean I grow rigid once again.
I’ve been pondering this conundrum for more than a year. Its no surprise that the answer to this question might be found in water.
“Water is as soft as anything on earth / yet mountains and canyons have been sculpted by its force,” adds Lao Tzu.
The other day Jenn and I stood at the confluence of the Pipestone and Bow Rivers. We were scouting scenes for my novel The End of the Line. When I lived in Lake Louise in the early 1990′s I used to come to this place high up on the Bow River watershed to watch these two rivers seamlessly come together. I dreamed then that my life might emulate this confluence; now I am caught in its joyous flow.
These mountains, of course, have been shaped by water. The frozen sort, the massive glacial ice sheets that covered this landscape in a kilometer or more of ice ten thousand years ago gouged the V shaped valleys into broad U shaped dales. We see their work in the sheered off cliffs and sculpted domes all around us. But it would be a stretch to categorize the last ice age as a soft. The last glacial epoch lasted for millions of years and covered much of the northern hemisphere and I would imagine to all but the hardiest of creatures would have seemed unyielding. Its unlikely it was very relaxing.
Of course, in geologic time, the ice age too yielded to the tilting of the earth, the periodic wobble of the earth’s rotation around the sun.
Maybe its all a matter of temporal perspective.
I think that for my purposes I will look to water’s liquid form. See how it moves across the surface of the earth, gently pulling at the stones until they pry loose and succumb to water’s patient tug? Watch as it ebbs and flows; sometimes raging in a torrent, pulling entire canyon walls down in the flood, and sometimes placid, a crystal pool as clear as the sky.
“Be at ease,” advises Loa Tzu. “When turmoil swirls around you / be as the stone in the river’s flow / allow the waters to come and go/ come and go.”
And be like the water too, soft and yielding and at ease, but with the force and power to move the earth itself.
It occurred to me for the first time the other day that I am already home. For more than twenty years I’ve believed that someday I would reach the apex of the spiritual journey – Nirvana, enlightenment – and that I would find myself…well, somewhere, free from worldly suffering. I would arrive at the journey’s end, like a road weary traveler, grateful to be finally home.
Sitting on a rock at sunrise, looking over the tapestry of tea plantations of Munar in southern India, reminded me that I’ve never been seeking enlightenment through all my running and my stillness.
If pressed I would say that what I am seeking is peace.
Just peace; a quiet heart; a moment of freedom from tiresome striving. Freedom from striving for wealth, striving for recognition, striving for health, striving to be loved, striving for well being, for security. From illusion. Freedom from the promise of enlightenment.
And even freedom from striving for peace.
At times throughout my life I’ve worked very hard to find peace. The obstacles have been almost entirely of my creation, but they have proven to be formidable barriers. At times the passage has been arduous, leaving me disenchanted. If only I knew that I could simply end the search and return to the start. If only I could remember that at those times of disquiet I was as close to peace as I had ever been, then I might have simply sat down on the path and realized I was already home.
When we stop seeking enlightenment, when we cease the wearisome quest for peace, we see that it has been ours from the very start. From the moment of creation peace has been the gift from the creator: Tao, God, the quantum field.
We are already home.
I watch Rio and Silas asleep in their beds, arms splayed above their heads, their faces a perfect reflection of quiet serenity. There is no searching here; there is nothing to strive for.
“Seek nothing and find everything you need,” says the Tao te Ching. But we forget. We strive. We hope to wash ourselves clean of life’s anguish through meditation, prayer, stretching before exercise, Brussels sprouts and herbal tea. And it helps. But all striving is a form of suffering, including striving for an end to suffering.
So we return to a clear moment of peace and remember that we have always been enlightened. We have always been pure peace. We are born Buddha and remain Buddha throughout every moment of our life. We’ve just forgotten.
Maybe enlightenment isn’t so crazy a notion, if only I can keep myself from seeking it, and simply experience it, and then let it go.
Father Thomas Keating, of the Christian contemplative movement, says in the movie One: “In the beginning the spiritual journey is the realization, not just the information, but the real interior conviction that there is a higher power, or God. Or, to make it as easy as possible for everybody, that there is an Other. Second step, to try and become the Other. And finally, the realization that there is no Other. That you and Other are one. Always have been. Always will be. You just think that you aren’t.”
This doesn’t mean that the journey is over. Far from it. Its just starting.
But we start knowing that we are already home.