By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given November 30, 2021
I wanted to start tonight's talk with a poem:
The Buddha's Last Instruction, by Mary Oliver
“Make of yourself a light,” said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
It thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire -
Clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
Sunday I worshiped in the tradition of my family at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The preacher, who was a child during the Cold War, remembered practicing “duck and cover” at school, the fear that arose in her with the loud and shrill ringing of sirens, images that played in her mind of victims from the nuclear bombs dropped in Japan. In 2018 she was visiting Maui when, you may remember, there was a false missile alert. The alert stated that there was an incoming ballistic missile threat, advised residents to seek shelter, and concluded: "This is not a drill". The preacher commented that once again she was paralyzed with fear. She wondered what had become of her faith. And she contrasted standing strong in faith and hope to a state of fearful paralysis. There is a really huge gulf between those states of being, isn’t there? I think this is at the heart of our spiritual practice--the good news that draws us to this practice like a moth to the light. It’s the message of a cross-stitch sampler that hangs on my wall and reads, “Fear knocked on the door, Faith answered. No one was there.”
In a recent dharma talk on Dharma Seed, Brian Lesage described the spiritual journey in the following way: Exploring what can help our hearts to be here fully for this journey--this spiritual journey from birth to death, a journey that I hope this practice brings us more depth, kindness, love and wisdom. So we can have a wholeheartedness to our journey.
Today I want to explore the practice of gratitude as an element in “mak(ing) of ourselves a light,” of cultivating wholeheartedness. We are in the season of harvest and thanksgiving and I hope that each of you enjoyed Thanksgiving Day last Thursday. For me it was a pleasurable and meaningful day as members of my family came together from out-of-town, there was plenty of food on the table, and I gave thanks for both the physical and social and emotional nourishment, for being part of a loving family. Expressing gratitude reminds me that I am not separate, but part of an interconnected web of life that involves both receiving and giving.
By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given March 16, 2021
I’m sorry to report, but last week there was fake news that was shared and spread in our Sangha. It was reported that I would have the last word on “suffering.” Do you want to know the truth? The truth is that as long as we are alive in these particular body-minds, the worldly winds will blow. Like that wind yesterday on the Ides of March; a date that coincided with the first full moon of the Roman calendar and when tributes were paid to gods and goddesses. That wind wore me out. The dogs and I climbed into bed and under the covers at 8:00 last night. I had started the day paying tribute to a 7-year old girl whose grandmother requested that I bake cupcakes for her birthday. The first cupcakes I’d ever made, marbled cake with chocolate buttercream frosting and blue and white sprinkles.
A couple of weeks ago I held up the computer video for you to see the calligraphic sign I taped to the wall for the month with the word, “suffering.” I found that I didn’t really want to look at the sign. Although the calligraphy turned out pretty well, there was something I found aversive, dark and heavy about the word. To suffer, from the Latin sufferre meaning “to bear.” An image that comes to mind is of the god Atlas, on one knee, bearing the weight of the world. In our study of Ajahn Chah, he often used the phrase “patient endurance.” To bear, to endure.
Over the weekend I participated in a Zoom retreat with Brian and Sebene titled Cultural and Spiritual Bypassing. We explored what gets left out, such as the feminine, in Buddhism. The Thai Buddhist tradition, the birthplace of Insight Meditation, will not ordain women. We can bring to mind multiple examples of American cultural dominance and oppression, such as the historical disenfranchisement of African-Americans, Native Americans and people of color. Last week the pope declared that any person who is not cisgendered heterosexual is
a sinner. LGBTQ persons are left out. There is the present scapegoating and violence directed at Asian-Americans, a clear reaction to Trump’s blaming China for the pandemic, calling it the Chinese virus, and his dog whistling to white supremacists. And in all of this there is both personal and collective suffering. Besides the physical blows of violence, such as those we read about weekly now directed at elderly Asian-Americans in our cities, there is the hardening of hearts, the loss of rights and dignity, the pains of poverty. Last night on the PBS Newshour there was a report on Yemen and the millions of people there who are at risk of starvation, 600,000 children who are now dying of starvation. I felt consumed by pain watching the video documentary of their small bodies immobile, limbs shrunken to bones without muscle or flesh, stomachs bloated, huge eyes vacant, hauntingly filled with pain. And their parents and families bearing the pain of losing a young family member -- the impacts of war, climate change, famine.
By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given in August, 2020
Note: This piece is primarily a synthesis of two talks on Dharma Seed with text borrowed directly: Spiritual Hope by Tara Brach and Hope, Hopelessness and Equanimity by Jill Shepherd.
I suppose I wanted to investigate hope to cheer myself up. I felt like I got clobbered over the head last month with a long bout of insomnia that threw me off balance. My mood was unstable with high anxiety related to lack of sleep, personal issues, and the background clamor of the pandemic and politics. I suffered. I was also aware that I wasn’t in this alone, that humanity as a whole is suffering at this time as the pandemic disrupts lives and livelihoods. And I appreciated the expressions from my doctor, and the director of the clinic where I work, who reminded me that many, many people are going through exactly what I was going through. Our suffering is universal.
This time of massive transformation and uncertainty is both scary, with many of our old moorings loosened or lost, and also cause for new hope that a more fair and just world will emerge. Rebecca Solnit, in her essay “The Impossible Has Already Happened: What Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Hope,” writes “I have found over and over that the proximity of death in shared calamity makes many people more urgently alive, less attached to the small things in life and more committed to the big ones, often including civil society or the common good.”
I imagine that some of you watched the televised funeral for John Lewis. Listening to stories from his life I felt great hopefulness. What a remarkable man, known for his “moral clarity,” a conscience backed by tireless action that for 60 years worked for equality and justice. A man who lived by his motto of “making good trouble,” civil disobedience, putting his body on the line as he led 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 for civil rights. He suffered a fractured skull, but that did not lead him to hate his attackers, but to continue making good trouble through non-violent means. Lewis said, “We must be bold, brave, courageous, and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself, where no one will be left out because of race, color, or nationality.” He recently expressed pride as he watched his legacy in action: a new generation of activists fighting for equality. Lewis’ example of living into the promise of greater equality gives me inspiration and hope. Tara Brach would call this “spiritual hope”, this growing into a greater potential, the hope of what’s possible.
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission