Would you work in the mines for your brother? Albrecht Dürer and the Praying Hands

The Praying Hands is one of the more widely reproduced art works. Many people who are not aficionados of art and who don’t know who is responsible for the work could still describe the picture. There is an interesting apocryphal, mythological story about the image and the artist, some credit the telling of the tale to Og Mandino; Og credits Rabbi Louis Binstock for the story. Here is my version:

Albrecht Dürer is the German artist who drew the praying hands, probably around 1508.  Mythology has it that Albrecht and his twin brother Alexander were a pair among 15 siblings. Albrecht’s father was a hardworking goldsmith who took on any additional work that he could find to keep food on the table for his large family. Early on Albrecht and Alexander both showed considerable artistic skill. But early on it was clear that their poor struggling father would never be able to afford to send either of them to the academy to study art. The family barely had the ability to keep food on the table.

But their father recognized his children’s abilities. One Sunday, after church services and the noon mean, their father summoned Albrecht and Alexander and set out a plan. He proposed that they would toss a coin. The winner of the toss would be trained in painting and would have the opportunity to develop his artistic skills. The other would stay at home, take a job in the mines, and would support his brother’s education and apprenticeship. The boys thought about it for some minutes, looked at each other, and then both nodded in agreement even as they both exhaled a breath of hope and anticipation.

Alexander called heads, Albrecht took tails. Their father flipped the coin. It swirled high into the room, twirling for interminable seconds as it wound its way downward. They let it land on the floor, where it spun on its edge for seconds more before it finally came to rest, with the tail side up. Albrecht looked at his brother with tears in his eye, and promised to hone his skill to excellence. Alexander took his brother’s hands, squared his own shoulders, and promised to work diligently. “Come back to us, Albrecht, I will be waiting.”

Shortly Albrecht set off for Nuremberg, and Alexander went into the mines and worked to finance his brother’s study. Albrecht learned quickly, and very soon his work surpassed that of his teachers. His sketches, woodcuts, and oil paintings quickly became a sensation, and he was soon collecting commissions and earning considerable fees for his works.

As he concluded his studies, Albrecht returned home, and the Dürer family celebrated his return with a feast. They had roasted meats, and stewed vegetables, and freshly baked breads. There was much banter and laughter among the siblings. All were delighted to see Albrecht after his years away. And Albrecht was delighted to be home again among his much loved family. As the meal neared completion, Albrecht lifted his goblet, and proposed a toast to his brother, Alexander. Albrecht stuttered and stumbled over his words as he tried to express the depths of his gratitude. And then his stood a bit straighter, squared his shoulders, and pledged, “And now, Alexander, it is my turn. Now you shall journey to Nuremberg and begin your studies in earnest. And I will support you with the commissions of my work.”

Tears flowed down Alexander’s face as he shook his head. “No, Albrecht. It is too late for me. My dear brother, look at my hands. Every finger had been broken in the mines. My right hand pains me so badly that I cannot even hold a glass in it to return your toast. To hold a pen or a brush, to draw delicate lines on parchment or canvas, these are beyond me now. My brother, the inspiration and the art must flow through you. For me it is too late.”

When Albrecht looked at his brother’s hands, he too wept. He knew the debt that he owed his brother could never be repaid. In tribute to his brother, he meticulously drew his brother’s hands as he remembered them before the mines, palms together, fingers pointing to heaven, a simple, powerful tribute to love. Albrecht simple called this work “hands” but it quickly came to be known as “the praying hands.”

Over 500 years have passes since Albrecht Dürer’s painted “the praying hands.”  His paintings, sketches, woodcuts and copper engravings are in museums across the world. Nothing is known of Alexander’s life. But if it were not for the generosity of Alexander’s heart, Albrecht might never have become the artist he was. This story reminds us that no matter who we are, no matter how unique and powerful our gifts and skills might be, still sooner or later, we all need help. We all need someone who believes in us. We are all but threads in Indra’s Web . . .

No man is an island. Indeed, it does take a village. It is inspiring to look at Albrecht’s work, and to appreciate Alexander’s sacrifice. But, it is not so easy to stand in Alexander’s shoes and to see Albrecht’s life. And yet, there may well be inspiration to be found  from Alexander’s standpoint as well.

As I think about this story I find myself resonating first with the ‘working in the mines’ element, as I think about my own family. I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania where anthracite strip mining was the primary source of employment for my grandparent’s and my parent’s generations. There are family stories of one of the mine shafts flooding, my uncle being in the mine wearing the new boots that he bought just the day before. As the tunnel started to take on flood waters the floor turned to muck — serious quicksand like muck — and he and his boots began to sink into the muck and stick. He was bending to unlace his boots to get a better grip on pulling them out of the muck, even as he sank deeper into the muck and the water lever began to rise. Two of his buddies grabbed him by the arms and carried him out of the mine kicking and screaming that he would make them pay for the boots they were forcing him to abandon – penny wise and pound foolish? and gratitude? Hmm. Well, and then the story about my father refusing to work in the mines, rather he enlisted in the army. My dad choose fighting in World War II rather than work in the mines. That kind of gives me a bit of a sense of what working in the mines must have been like – more dangerous than a war. And Alexander willingly agreed to work in the mines for his brother.

Bask in the love between brothers for a bit, and then since I really do intend for the blog to eventually come around to alchemy for justice,  think for a few minutes too if you will … Do you think this was an ethical plan? Why is it that we recognize and remember the brother who benefited from the love but not the one who made the sacrifice? What would render these actions ethical or unethical? Did Alexander really have the freedom to say ‘no’? If justice is fairness, what would be justice/fairness for Alexander? From Albrecht?  What would you have done in this situation – if you were the father? If you were Albrecht? If you were Alexander? Who would you go to the mines to support?

Please call me by my true names by Thich Nhat Hanh with comments from Ivan M. Granger

I have been in love with this poem by Thich Nhat Hanh for years. Every time I read it I am touched more deeply by the implications of the poem, by its call for compassion and justice. By its demonstration of the inherent unity of all that is, of all of us. And then recently I cam across a discussion of the poem by Ivan Granger. Beautifully said, Ivan (who I don’t know — yet). so, I thought I would share both with you all … think deeply, please.  … Mary

Please Call Me by My True Names

by Thich Nhat Hanh (1929 – )

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.


— from Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This is a lovely, unflinching meditation on how all of being and all of human experience weaves together into a single tapestry of the whole. It can even draw comparisons with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” where everything, terrible and beautiful, is one, is witnessed, and is found within oneself. 

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow — 
even today I am still arriving.

Most of us have learned to anticipate what will happen next, and we end up mentally dwelling in our fantasies and fears about the future. But the future is merely an idea; it never has reality. The present moment is all that is ever real. And that is where we must dwell if we want to truly be alive and know what is real.

The present is a state of “still arriving.” Because the present moment is not a fixed space in time, you can’t say that anything encountered in the present is fixed and settled either. The present is a gossamer thin and moving point of light where all things are just barely stepping into the visibility of being… as the moment keeps moving. Everything, everyone, in every second is always just arriving. The present is a continuous becoming. 

Look deeply: every second I am arriving 
to be a bud on a Spring branch, 
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, 
learning to sing in my new nest…

Another fascinating thing is discovered when we truly, deeply perceive the present moment: Not only are we and all things “still arriving,” but the illusion of boundaries and separate being falls away. The notion of identity expands and recognizes itself just as naturally in all things witnessed. We find we are not just the person watching the bud on the Spring branch, but in our arriving we are equally the Spring bud, the young bird, the caterpillar in the flower, the jewel waiting in the stone. This is not some poetic game of words; it is what we actually perceive.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death 
of all that is alive.

When we finally see this truth then, for the first time, we can truly witness the world as it is. And that is what this poem is most about: witnessing. Thich Nhat Hanh invites to courageously witness the panorama of life, wonders and horrors alike. Through this form of true witnessing, we are not spectators watching others from a distance; no, it all unfolds upon us and in us. We are witnessing ourselves in many forms. We recognize that anything that happens anywhere in the world, is truly happening to ourselves and no other. And everything done, is done by ourselves and no other.

Please call me by my true names, 
so I can wake up, 
and so the door of my heart 
can be left open, 
the door of compassion.

This is why compassion is not altruistic and service is no effort. When we finally see things as they are, it is all oneself. When we offer our heart, when we offer our hand, we are simply helping ourselves. Who among us, when he touches a hot iron, doesn’t immediately pull back and then soothe the burn under cool water? That’s not altruism, it is the natural response to pain in one’s body. When we see clearly, we see we are all of one body, and the joys and pains of any other is yours as well. 

Compassion and an open heart are the natural result of being awake to this truth, and no effort at all.

Hanging by a spider thread

As with all good stories, once upon a time in a place very near to your heart, the mother of all wisdom was walking in her garden enjoying the flowers when she looked over the cliff and saw Melissa, one of her daughters struggling in the depths of hell. This young soul (we are all young souls to the great mother), this young soul had been an assassin, an arsonist, a burglar and generally an all around criminal. A lifetime of lawless actions put her in hell, where she was in the company of others much like her.  

The mother of all wisdom looked deeply into Melissa’s life and saw a moment where the woman had come upon a spider. She had raised her foot to stomp on the spider, but then she had remembered a story one of her teachers told in class about how the Native Americans honored spider woman as one of the world’s creators. At that one moment, Melissa smiled to herself, and thought, “maybe this spider is a descendant of the first spider woman.” And so, the woman picked up the spider and moved it to a safer place.   

Seeing this one act of kindness, the mother of all wisdom took a spider thread and lowered it into the depths of hell with the intention of saving Melissa. 

Melissa saw the thread, reached for it, and found it strong enough to hold her weights. Using all of her strength she began to life herself from hell.  As she was making some progress, she looked down and saw hundreds of others behind her climbing up on the same spider thread.  Melissa looked back and yelled, “Get off! This is my thread.” And looked down and shook the thread to dislodge the others, the thread broke and Melissa fell back into hell.

This story also kind of reminds me of the story about fear, generosity and spoons with long handles. I guess a world of justice and respect will include forgiveness and second chances and openness to community, which by its nature requires forgiveness and second chances. People! community! it can be a pain to live with them, and you can’t live without them. … forgiveness and second chances. Somedays it really does seem that we are all just hangin by by a spiders thread!

Hillel, yoga and fairness

Hillel and yoga? Really? In what world might there even conceivably be any kind of connection? Well, in my world where I have the time to let my mind ramble, wander, and bounce off  the walls a bit. So, here goes.

First, a bit of yoga. One of the more challenging basic yoga poses is Vrksasana the tree pose. You begin by standing in mountain pose – stand strong with both feet square on the ground, and your body nicely aligned square and tall. Then shift your weight slightly onto your left foot, keeping that foot strongly on the ground, and bend your right knee. Bring your right foot up and place the sole of your foot against your left inner thigh. Keep your pelvis directly over the left foot. Bring your hands to prayer position and take 5 slow, deep breaths. There you have it! The tree pose. Easy, yes? Hmm. You might think so. Just stand up, step away from your computer, tablet, put your smart phone down, and give it a try.

Now, Hillel. There is a wonderful story of someone challenging Hillel to teach the Torah while standing on one foot. It seems to me that there was some, shall we say reward (never a bet), if Hillel could accomplish this teaching.

And, here’s the link, at least in my mind: Hillel gracefully takes the Vrksasana, tree, pose, and replies: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is mere commentary. Go and study.” And, Hillel continues to breathe deeply for a few more breaths, and calmly places his right foot back on the ground.

Let’s have a look at how this injunction might be realized in an ah ha moment in India, the mother land of yoga….

Once upon a time, in a three generational family lived together in a small home in rural India, just on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. Johar, his wife Mira, and their son Deepak struggled to keep home together and food on the table, but they were happy together even as they worked hard. Then Amar, Johar’s father moved in with  the family when Amar’s wife passed away. The family initially welcomed Amar, but his presence in their home was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There just was not enough space. There was not enough food. Soon the family’s harmony was replaced with discord. They all worked to make things work. But, the discord and frustration grew in spite of their best efforts.

One day Johar and Mira were working alone in the field and as the sun reached its zenith, they sat under a shade tree to take a bit of a break. Soon they fell into conversation about the conditions in their home, and they concluded that something must be done, and sooner rather than later. The situation was rapidly becoming intolerable. Shivaratri, the great festival of Shiva, was just a few days away. Johar and Mira lit upon a solution. They would carry Amar to the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar in a basket. During the night while the pilgrims were praying in the temple districts, they would leave him there in the basket, and hopefully one of the rich devotees would find him, and take pity on him and care for him.

Deepak was working among the trees as his parents spoke, and he quietly listened in on their conversation. His heart was broken as he heard their plans. Then he became angry. He decided to plan a way to punish his parents, because he had come to love his grandfather very deeply in the time that they had all lived together. Quietly, he went to his grandfather, and warned him of his parents plan. He told his grandfather of his desire to punish his parents for their cruelty.

Amar was a compassionate and kind man. He listened thoughtfully to Deepak. Then he helped Deepak to understand his parents struggles and frustrations. Together as Amar and Deepak talked, they formulated their own plan.

Later that evening, Johar sought out Deepak and told him of the plan to carry Amar to Lingaraj in the basket and to leave him there in the basket for a devotee to find. Deepak listened carefully, to his father. He nodded as he listened, and then he asked his father, “Pitaa Ji, could we leave grandfather at Lingaraj just as you say, but please, let us bring the basket home. Otherwise, what will I use to carry you to Lingaraj when you become old?”

Johar was stunned at his son’s words. Tears came to his eyes before he could speak. In his astonishment, he remembered the words of that Jewish fellow who practiced yoga: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your family or friends. And as he remembered, he went to his father, begged his forgiveness, and redoubled his efforts in the fields glean more food for harvest. He worked with Deepak to build a small additional room onto the family house for Amar.

Life was not nirvana, but a new level of community and harmony was built among the family as they more often remembered that which is hateful to you, they did not do to each other.

Harry, The Lord Gives and the Lord Takes Away and The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

For the most part, I focus on posting stories in this blog that point to paths towards respect for all human beings and the increase of justice in the world.  As I type the words “point to paths” I am reminded of the Buddhist injunction to not mistake the teacher’s finger for the moon. Of course we need to pay attention to the pointing, but we need to keep our focus on the goal. Our eyes should be on the moon. (Which is not to say that we should be mooning over justice and human rights, but then, this may be that kind of free associating blog? So stay awake. Watch out for slippery slopes!)

 So, here is a story for you. A bit of an old chestnut (well worn story) I think.

 Once upon a time in middle America there was a god fearing farmer named Harry. Harry was a devout member of his church, a well respected and generous member of his community, married with a son and daughter. He and his wife, Matilda, were deeply in love. They worked together tending the farm that had been in Harry’s family for untold generations. From the farming, some crafts they sold, they managed a comfortable living. They worked hard, but by and large life was sweet.

 And then Harry’s wife was taken ill. They used up all of their medical benefits, and still the doctors could not diagnose her illness. She just kept wasting away. Harry prayed. All the members of the church and community prayed. But Matilda’s illness persisted. Harry consulted with the local pharmacist to see if Kohlberg might be right, but the pharmacist had no remedy to suggest, not for any price. And all too soon, Matilda passed gently into the light at the end of the dark night.  Harry was bereft. And then his faith carried him, he dried his eyes, looked up to the moon, and with a heavy heart said to his children, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And life on the farm went on.

 And as time went on, Harry Junior was walking down the road to school when a drunk driver struck the boy and killed him. Harry Junior’s death was instantaneous. Harry Senior was inconsolable for a time. And then, he heaved a sigh, looked up to the moon, and said to his daughter, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And life on the farm went on.

 And life went on for a while. And then the draught came. And Harry had to take out a mortgage on the farm. And he and his daughter worked even harder to make ends meet. And then the daughter got wanderlust, enlisted in the army, was sent to Afghanistan and was killed when her truck drove over an IED.  Harry was devastated. He wept – an act that was unheard of for a middle American farmer, but he wept. And then, sighing deeply, he looked up to the moon, and said to no one in particular, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And his life on the farm went on.

 And then a draught came, Harry had to take out a mortgage on the farm to pay the bills. His heart was breaking. One day he was out in the middle of the fields working the land that he loved. The land that he had grown up with. The land that had nurtured him body and soul. The land that was now so dry he could barely coax subsistence from it.  And the winds began to pick up. Soon the winds were howling.  As Harry looked up from the field where he was working, he saw a tornado the size of a New York skyscraper thundering right towards him. Before Harry could think to react, the tornado was on him. It lifted Harry and the tractor like they were bits of wheat, tossed them about like a child playing with her first baseball, and then dropped them like a hot potato – with the tractor landing squarely on top of Harry squishing him like a pancake. Harry died, walked toward the light, and found himself at the Pearly Gates where indeed he met his maker. Harry looked up, took a deep breath, and said, “Dear god, why? Didn’t I honor you? Didn’t I follow all your commandments? Didn’t I …”

 And at that point, god grimaced, and said, “Harry, I don’t know, there’s just something about you that pissed me off.”

 Now, that was a too long story. And what does it have to do with respect for human dignity, what does it have to do with human rights and social justice? Not much – except that sometimes we just can’t know. Sometimes you do all the right things and everything goes wrong. Sometimes there is no knowing why. But all the time, you just have to dust yourself off and keep going. Because even as we gaze at the moon, even at the time of the waning moon, we can always know that the sun will come out tomorrow!

 Be of stout heart and good cheer … the sun will come out tomorrow. And then together we can sing our songs of hope and peace.

Gifts: to accept or not to accept that is a question; and The Gift of Insults

The sagas and myths associated with Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido are legend. I’m not sure that this particular one is attributed to him in particular, but it is a bit of a classic Zen story that could be about him. Or it could be about you …

Once upon a time, there lived a great warrior. Even when the warrior was quite elderly, no one was able to best the fighter, every challenger was defeated.  The reputation of this great sensei extended far and wide throughout the land and many students gathered to study in the dojo.

One day an infamous young warrior arrived at the dojo. He was determined to be the first man to defeat the great master. Along with his strength, the stranger had a unique ability to spot and exploit any weakness in an opponent. He would watch and wait for his opponent to make the first move. In that first move, weaknesses were revealed, and the stranger would then strike mercilessly with both speed and force. He would dance like a butterfly and sting like a scorpion.  He would poke and jab and taunt and test. No one had ever lasted with him in a match beyond the first move.

When the stranger challenged the great master, the old master gladly and graciously accepted, much to the concern of the students in the dojo. As the two squared off for battle, the young warrior began to hurl insults at the old master. He threw dirt and spit in the face of the master. For hours he verbally assaulted the sensei with every curse and insult known to humanity. But the sensei stood calmly, motionless waiting. Finally, the young warrior exhausted himself. He recognized and acknowledged his defeat and left feeling shamed.

Somewhat disappointed that no blows were exchanged with the insolent youth, the students gathered around the old master and asked “How could you endure such an indignity? How did you drive him away?”

“If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it,” the master replied, “to whom does the gift belong?”

Hmm …  everyone is a teacher. Everything offer to us, everything hurled at us is a gift. It is always and everywhere our choice as to whether and how we will accept the gift.


Happiness: exuberant, shy or essential

Mostly I post stories in this blog. Stories that I’ve written or revised or that I found here or there and like a lot. Today is a bit different.  Today, I want to share three quotes about exuberance  and happiness with you.

The challenge to you – to each of us – is to reconcile the three quotes.

Have a read … think about it …

From Natalie Goldberg’s Waking up to Happiness. In Shambhala Sun July 2012, p. 26. . . . Happiness is shy. It wants to know you want it. You can’t be greedy. You can’t be numb – or ignorant. The bashful girl of happiness needs your kind attention. They she’ll come forward.

From Living My Life (1931) Emma Goldman. . . .  The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society.

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. (p. 56)  A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having. If I can’t dance, I won’t be part of your revolution.

And from that great American Bard, Mark Twain: Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching; and live like it’s heaven on earth.

Happiness may well be the heart of a world where respect for the dignity of all living beings is the foundation of societies of compassion, peace and justice.  Let work together to build a world where the gross national happiness is more carefully measured than is the gross national product!




Suffering, King Arthur, Empathy, Learning & Doing

Suffering, dis-ease, frustration, dissatisfaction, pain, misery, torment and grief – the disjointedness of so much of life – caused by desire, greed, and clinging attachments that manifest in possessiveness, ignorance, and aggression – suffering is ubiquitous. Suffering manifests in injustice and distortion of basic human rights. What do we do about this? For me it actions need to be grounded in recognition of and respect for the profound importance of empathy, and of empathy with all living human beings – deep, powerful empathy that evokes passionate and compassionate action. We need to understand each other, in each others’ terms, context, culture, history, and beliefs.  And we need to think about the implications of our culture, history and beliefs for other people – how does all of that effect their lives?  Then we can ask them to consider how all of their stuff affects our lives … and then we are ready to make some changes.

And all of that begins with understanding, understanding based on real knowledge …In his book, The Once and Future King T.H. White (1958, p. 183) presents a conversation between Merlyn and the young Arthur.  Arthur is still a child, and has no idea that he will one day be King of England.  He is anguishing over the loss of his childhood playmate and best friend, Sir Kay who is preparing to become a knight and so has abandoned his relationship with Arthur.  Merlyn counsels Arthur,

“ The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

             Then when you know something, when you understand with your heart and mind, then go out and get your hands dirty (well engaged) and DO something. The Dali Lama once said, “compassion is not enough, you must act.” Truth be told, I think he was a little wrong. It’s not really compassion if you don’t act!

Good By to Sister Ludwika & The story of the mustard seed

Hurricane Sandy has passed, the east coast is recovering, and the Sisters of Mary Magdalene have decided that it is time to return to the cloister. They are concerned for Sister Ludwika’s wellbeing and they are also concerned about the condition of the cloister buildings. So, they convince their neighbors, the Sisters of the Loose Habit to drive them back to the cloister. As they arrived at the cloister grounds they immediately knew that Sister Ludwika was in trouble.  The winds and rains of Sandy had utterly altered the landscape. Trees were tumbled like so many twigs. Buildings were off their foundations and some were tossed and tumbled like doll houses in the aftermath of a child’s temper tantrum. But, where was Ludwika? Surely even she would have had sought safety somewhere – but where in all of this devastation and chaos?

 Then the sisters heard Sister Bryda gasp as she sobbed Sister Ludwika’s name. And the community knew that Ludwika had been found, and that she had left them to meet her maker. “Blessed Mary Magdalene protect her soul” as one, the prayer was on the lips of each of the sisters.

 Mother Magdalene quickly found Sister Bryda cradling the remains of Sister Ludwika’s body. It had been a few days since the storm wrecked its havoc and claimed Ludwika. Time and their feral neighbors had not been kind to Ludwika’s remains. Taking it all in was too much for Bryda. Mother Magdalene quickly understood that Bryda was on the edge of hysteria and shock. Mother Magdalene gathered the young sister into her arms, separating her from Ludwika’s remains. Sister Bryda was inconsolable, “We should have insisted. We should have made her come with us to higher ground.”

 “Ah, Bryda. You more than any of us know Ludwika. No one made her do anything. If we had bound her and dragged her with us, she would have found a way to return her to this place were she found and knew her peace. No one – not even I as Mother Superior of this Cloister – no one told Ludwika what to do if she did not already want to do it. By now, I expect she has met our patron, Mary Magdalene and her great love, the Carpenter. Now we must find our peace with her passing.”

 “But, Mother, her faith was so great, why did her faith not protect her?”

 “Bryda, we will all miss Ludwika. We will all grieve her passing. And, we will celebrate her life and her passage into the eternal. It is for all of us one day to die and to pass into the nextness of our creation. Bryda, in your heart you know these things.”

 “But, Mother, Lazarus was brought back to life after many days in the tomb. Why not Ludwika? We could all pray? Why her? Why now? When her faith was so strong.”

 “Bryda, let me tell you a story I once heard at the feet of  Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche. It is the story of a young mother, Kisa Gotami  . . .

Kisa was happily married to a wonderful man, and together they had a young son who was just learning to walk. Her life was full, and she was happier than she had ever dreamt might be possible. Then one day her son was out playing and he was bitten by a poisonous insect. The infant died in his mother’s arms. And, as you can imagine her grief was without measure. She was completely and utterly inconsolable. Being a devout woman, she sought out the village wise man and asked who might heal her son. What prayers could be said?

The wise man told her there was only one who might effect a healing, it was the Buddha himself. Undaunted, Kisa sought out the Buddha, and invoked his aid. The Buddha took pity on the young woman and told her that she must bring him a mustard seed in order for his to heal her son. Kisa’s eyes lit up, and hope grew in her heart. A mustard seed! Certainly she could secure a simple mustard seed. Ah, but the Buddha said, this must be a special seed. You must receive the seed as a gift from the house where no one has lost a loved one to death.

Kisa went from house to house in her village. At each home she would ask for a mustard seed, and in each home it was given to her freely and generously with great kindness and compassion. When she asked if anyone they loved had died in that home, each family responded with sadness, saying ‘the living are few, but the dead are many. Our grief is as full as the river Ganges.’ There was no home in her village where someone had not died in it.

And Kisa was overcome with hopelessness and sat down and wept. And she thought about her experiences and the task that the Buddha had set for her. ‘He is man of compassion,’ she thought, ‘there is a lesson here for me.’ And she discovered and experienced the universality of grief and of death. ‘If we love, we will grieve. If we live, we will die,’ the realization came to her – as it must come to each of us. She touched the ground, looked up to the stars and released the isolation of her anguish into the common suffering of all those in her village who had shared their pain with her.”

Mother Magdalene sighed deeply, cradled Sister Bryda in her arms for a few minutes more as she softly said, “Bryda, pain is ubiquitous, but suffering is optional. Rilke once said that our greatest fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures. We have lost Ludwika. Now we are confronted with the dragon of our grief at her loss. It is up to us, alone and together to confront and engage that dragon to claim the treasures beyond that grief. Let’s walk that road together, in community.

And, as we walk, let us pray the great prayer from the heart sutra: Gate, Gate, Paragate, Para Sam gate y Bodhi swaha … gone, gone, they are all gone to the other shore.

It is good to remember now our evening meditation: Life and death are indeed grave matters. All things pass quickly away and so each of us must be completely alert: Never neglectful, never indulgent.  We have borrowed this meditation from our Zen brothers and sisters for good reason. May we continue to honor it well, with deep thought and compassionate action even as we remember Sister Ludwika.”

And Sister Bryda shed a more peaceful tear as her she let go of Ludwika’s body and touched her memories of their days together. “Ah, Mother Magdalene,” Bryda said, “she is indeed gone to the other shore.” And they both wept even as they smiled at the aptness of the prayer.

In memory of my mother, Celia (January 1, 1925 – October 25, 2012), and all our mothers, families and friends who have gone before us. May they rest in peace. May we all find the treasure beyond the dragon of our grief.