In my previous tradition, we used to recite a prayer*, which named many Buddhist masters from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha to the present day. Each section began with the words "I open my heart to you" and was followed by a number of guiding lights from various schools of Buddhist thought: the Sarvastivada, the Avatamsaka, the Lotus lineage, and many others. I loved him so much. And as I recited the long list of names, I spoke of their energy, their wisdom and their great love. I actually opened my heart to all those precious teachers and received blessings in return.
One section listed a dozen disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, each name followed by their most precious quality:
“I open my heart to you, first disciples:
Sujata, above all in kindness,
Upali, first in vinaya,
Ambapali, above all in the understanding of impermanence,
Anuruddha, first in vision,
Sona, above all in practice,
Anathapindika, above all in generosity. . .”
I was drawn to this passage and returned to it again and again. It matched the stories my teacher at the time, David Brazier, was telling. He said that one of the signs of a good teacher was that his disciples had distinct personalities and they each had their own special talents. He said that as Shakyamuni Buddha's followers spent time with him, they became more and more unique. He said that when the disciples seem to be carbon copies of each other, then we should worry about what the teacher is teaching.
I think those stories were important to me because I had spent so many decades trying to transform myself into someone else. As a child, I learned to mold myself to the wishes of those around me. If I was praised when I was smart, then I'd be smarter. If I was reprimanded when I was late, I would make sure I was always on time. If it was too much for those around me when I was expressing my emotions, then I would find ways to modulate them and present only the “right” emotions in the right intensities. I was good and I still am. In addition to the people around me, I was inspired by society: that's how you have to succeed; this is how you should be productive; that's how you have to be compliant.
These stories about the disciples of the Buddha remind me that we are all different, and that is a good thing. We don't complain about a daisy because it's not bigger or a different color. We don't want our sunflowers to be blue or our bellflowers to be yellow. We appreciate each flower in its uniqueness, and we appreciate those that most embody their own qualities: the modest daisy; the large sunflower with golden fringes; the thick carpet of luminous bluebells.
Many years later, the teachings of Reverend Gyomay Kubose reflected those teachings for me. It also encourages us to become “more ourselves”. In his book The center inside (Heian International Publishing 2009), he says that we should “look within, find ourselves and be ourselves”. In his book Daily: Buddhist Essays on Daily Life (Heian International Publishing 2004), he says: “Modern man has too many masks to wear. We need to unmask ourselves and be ourselves, sincerely, earnestly, and really live as we are” and “May we be freed from the tyranny of our expectations of others”.
As Buddhists, we must place this advice in the context of impermanence. My body and personality are constantly changing and will continue to change until I die. I shouldn't cling to my identity as if it's going to save me, or sustain me, or bring me security or wealth or whatever. I know from experience that it doesn't work, and I also know that it's impossible anyway.
I can, however, be realistic about who I am right now – the kind of person my particular causes and conditions have created. I know myself better now than before. I am more able to be realistic about my flaws and limitations, and more likely to be proud of my qualities. It helps me to be more useful to the world. I don't waste my time on tasks that are better suited to someone else (except when no one else wants to do them and they have to be done!). Instead, I say yes to projects that I'm passionate about and that I know I'll be good at. These days, I try to resist projects that might bring me more money, praise, or fame, unless they're also good for me.
In this season of my life, I am called to write, to have kind and honest conversations with my psychotherapy clients, and to help develop our ministry trainees here in the Bright Earth community. I'm Satya, the first to tell the truth, and not the first in all those other things I'd like to be good at. How are you.
Over the past year, I have moved away from activism to focus on these other tasks. I felt some guilt about it, because I know we need activists at this point in our history, perhaps more than at any other time. Sometimes I would like to do what many of my friends and colleagues do: disobey without violence to speak on behalf of dear Earth, walk in and out of courtrooms, and walk in and out of prison.
For the moment at least, I am not that person. I recently came across this paragraph in Cole Arthur Riley's beautiful book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, liberation and the stories that make us (Convergent Books 2022):
For a time, the only activism portraits I had were Dr. King and Malcolm X. Marches, rallies, sit-ins – sacred incarnations that must be deeply respected, as they protect and guide us today. today. But the first time I took on James Baldwin, I finally saw myself. It occurred to me that I could be an activist from my own source of power: words.
Words are also my source of power. It makes me happy to be affirmed in this, and I am encouraged to continue on my path, to make offerings that only I can make. I pray that the energy will persevere, despite the results I get from my work. I pray for the courage to say 'no' more, because without those 'no's, there will be no more time and energy for 'yes'. I pray for more time, so that I can continue to explore what “Satya” is here to do.
I trust that when we come into a relationship with the Buddha, we are encouraged to become more of who we are. We are all unique and we have different callings. Like the disciples of the Buddha, we will grow more and more in our uniqueness – we will bloom into the particular flowers that we are.
* Prayer of all lineages (Amida Order)