This afternoon I saw yellow sparks at the end of some forsythia branches at the Rodin Museum. I also saw the brightly colored gear that a homeless person had put among some other bushes.
After last summer’s homeless encampment was closed, a chain link fence was installed all around the grounds of the Rodin. The chain link part was removed last week. The poles still remain, but the grounds are open again. Even before the encampment, the steps of the Rodin were frequently occupied by homeless people. I remember walking through on a snowy day in the winter of 2019-20. Two or three men were rolled up in blankets on the steps above The Thinker. As I walked by, one of them rolled over and asked me what time it was. I told him. He said thanks and started gathering his stuff. I’ll be glad when this winter is over. It has not been kind to people living on the streets. All I have to worry about is sidewalks not shoveled.
Sparks also brightened my meditation before going out for that walk this afternoon. This past Sunday Princeton Insight Meditation had Andrew Olendzki as a guest teacher. He spoke about many of the similes for mindfulness in the Pali canon. Out of curiosity I looked up the sutta for the first simile he discussed: balancing like acrobats with one holding a bamboo pole on his shoulder and the other perched at the end of that pole.
The main point of the sutta isn’t about concentrating on keeping one’s balance. The main point is about taking care of oneself and others. For years I have felt a gap between my practice of meditation and my activist work in the community. In this sutta the Buddha talks directly about how the two work together.
When the apprentice was getting up on the pole, the acrobat said, “You look after me, and I’ll look after you.” The younger, female apprentice replied,
That’s not how it is, teacher! You should look after yourself, and I’ll look after myself. That’s how, guarding and looking after ourselves, we’ll display our skill … and get down safely from the bamboo pole.
And the Buddha said she was right. “Looking after yourself, you look after others; and looking after others, you look after yourself.”
But how does that work, the Buddha asked.
How do you look after others by looking after yourself? By practice, meditation, and continuous practice.
And how do you look after yourself by looking after others? By patience, non-violence, love, and caring.
Since finding this sutta, I’ve been thinking a lot about its lessons. This afternoon during meditation I started thinking about the Pali word (khanti) translated above as” patience.” It’s also translated as acceptance, forbearance, and sometime as forgiveness. Long time readers of this blog know that I have questioned the emphasis on forgiveness among some contemporary moralists and spiritual teachers. Like so many current spiritual practices, I sense a tendency towards promoting me-myself-and-I. The I, who has power or authority over you or grace to bestow on you, the all-giving I … forgives you. That’s the model behind the argument that you’ll be a better person by forgiving.
Thinking about khanti as patience or forbearance, I saw an irony. When we are patient with someone, when we put up with the stresses they occasion, and yes, when we forgive them, we are not really giving them anything, though we like to puff ourselves up with that thought. No, when we are patient, forbearing, or forgiving, we are changing ourselves. We are clearing away some of the hard feelings, dislike, and confusion we have about them. The irony is that the more we focus on getting our own self straight, the less of a self we have to be smug about.