My family was not one that embraced religion overtly; although we went to church on special religious days, I attended Sunday school as a child, and my education from grade school through graduation was at a Church of England school for girls. My parents, at least in my growing up years, were not actively religious in any defined traditional sense. What they offered us, however, was respect for qualities inherent in so many faiths: honesty, tolerance, integrity, equality, kindness, and a sense of social justice.
My father was a famous man during my childhood, a federal labour judge, who became Chief Justice of that court until retirement, and who helped define Australia’s history with decisions that supported fairness and equality in wage and living conditions, such as equal pay for women (some of his work now sadly dismantled as the tides have turned, the world a different place). My mother was a social worker who worked in prisons and with orphans and, later, with university students. Our comfortable home was a place of discussion and learning, where we were encouraged to develop an open mind.
Once, in my early and very rebellious twenties, I did something inherently dishonest that abused my father's trust in me, and could have destroyed his career, although he was in no way directly involved. I was thoughtlessly defiant in my action. When he found out, he did not get angry or chastise me, but spoke gently with me about what I had done, and its implications. This had an enormous impact on me; I remember sitting in his spacious office, walls of windows leaning into the magnificence of Sydney harbour, and feeling small and sad that in my blind arrogance I could have hurt someone who had loved and cherished me, each and every day of my life. That exchange taught me not only about my father, and why he was respected by so many, but more importantly I learned about integrity, consideration, and how one’s actions impact others. And he showed me that lessons could be taught through kindness, not harshness.
Of my own volition, I went through two very religious periods in my childhood. The first at about eight, where I thought a lot about Jesus, and would weep at how much he had suffered for us, and wished that I could take his pain away. Then again, for some time in my early teens, I attended church and Sunday Fellowship, a program for youth; I wanted to be one of Mother Teresa’s nuns, though would never have had the confidence to take such a journey.
Some years ago I found an essay I wrote for religious class at about age 15; the topic: “Buddhism”. I was startled to come across it, and it was an odd sort of concoction in some ways – I don’t know what my research sources were, but there was my first exploration of the faith that so many years later has cracked my heart open wide.
I prayed as a child: the more formal prayers in church or school, but also prayers from my heart. Sometimes the prayers were fervent, even desperate, trying to reach ‘out there’, across that invisible distance, with a clear voice. Prayer as a method to communicate with God or that essence or whatever I could name it, which always seemed so potentially vast, yet so separate from me. Beyond the stars.
Jetsunma urges us to pray, especially in these troubled times. When we recently offered to do a 24-hour prayer vigil one day each month at Dakini Valley, she said “Good, we need all the prayer we can get”. And, as many of you know, at her instigation KPC has for over 21 years held a 24-hour prayer vigil dedicated to the end of suffering and world peace. Unbroken. Day and night, every single moment. For over 2 decades. As Jetsunma reminded us some years ago, “Wherever you lay your head at night, someone is praying for you.” What a gift of love.
However, as I pray now, and even in the depths of despair as for Nyima the other night, prayer has a different meaning for me than in my childhood. Of course, I am still drawn to pray to the Guru or the Buddha of Compassion, as if they were somehow somewhere else. But I know they are not. They are as close to me as my breath, they are the beat of my heart, the blood in my veins. They are the source of the words that I utter, as well as the response. The turbulent storm and resultant calm both arise from the same great sea of potential.
For me, now, prayer is an expression of being; one’s life s becomes prayer. It is not something only to say, it is a method to realise that those very qualities we call out to are already present in our hearts and lives. The compassion is ours; the kindness is ours, the wisdom is ours, the courage and perseverance. The gift of prayer is that it changes the heart, and by changing the heart, the whole world shifts. This is its absolute magnificence and potency. Mother Teresa was one precious example of life as prayer. But we are really no different.
I am grateful for prayer. It is a solace in the darkness; it is the joy of laughter and gratitude. It is what unites so many of us, drawn to create an environment in which tolerance prospers. Whether we whisper or cry out in anguish, it is the softening of the heart that is so potent. As our hearts and minds become pliable, we will recognize the qualities in others and ourselves that will create the changes we yearn for. Prayer is not only an act, it is a state of mind. It is a commitment to basic goodness. It can be the moment we wake from sleep to embrace another day. It is who we are, what we are. We are the force of change, prayer helps us to remember this, and to know the strength and courage and compassion of our nature.
Both my parents are long dead, and I hold them in my heart. They laid the foundation that brought me to the precious place I now find myself in. They taught me honour and respect and kindness, to know one person can make a difference. Although I would not have thought it then, my childhood was never separate from the essence of prayer.