Sunday, June 17, 2007

melody of compassion

Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

There are moments in our lives when you know that today is not the same as yesterday, and that consequently tomorrow will not look as it might have done. Actually, life is always like this, but so often I stumble through with little or no understanding of the depth and breadth of impermanence.
One thing we all share, with absolute certainty, is that each breath, while being the source of life, also brings us closer to death. There is no turning back, no putting it on hold. Nothing. At some point we will breathe our last breath and be lost from the world that we cling to. All that we have held dear will no longer be ours, and even the tears of those that love us most deeply will not be salve to the final wound of death.
For so many of us, the process of dying and the moment of death may not come easily. Our minds may be filled with fear, with regret, with anger, with grief. It is after all the separation from all that is familiar, including the very bodies that have carried us forward, year after year.
Many of us, especially those of us who have lived for more years than now lay before us, have probably experienced death in some form - colleagues, family, parents, children, pets. I remember the process of my mother dying quite vividly, although I was not with her at that final moment, I had nursed her for some months and lived with and through so much of her pain, denial, regret, anguish. Fortunately, her last moments with me before she fell into a coma were light and joyful, a gift that soothed both my mind and hers.
There seems so little we can do as we watch our those that we love - people and animals alike - slip from our life and theirs; no hand grip is strong enough to pull them back over the precipice. We can bathe them, and read to them, and ease their pain, and care for them in any and every way possible. And we do. But so often we wish we could do more.
We can.
I spoke at the beginning of this post about those moments in life when the fabric is re-woven, the pattern re- shaped. Such a moment has occurred, most directly in my life, but because my life and yours are connected through our hearts, also in yours.
This week my beloved teacher Jetsunma offered us a gift beyond measure; it is a prayer, a lullaby of compassion, the tune of which arose from the depths of her heart, that beats always and only for the benefit of others. The words are a traditional Tibetan prayer for those who are dying, but the tune is extraordinary, lovely, comforting; it is the cadence of compassion itself. If we could put our ears to the seashell of hope and love, of all the goodness we wish for others, if we could record the prayers of every being who has passed from our lives, if we could hear the echo of clarity and wisdom, if we could recognise the sound of our very own hearts, as they cry out for the end of all suffering, this is what we would hear.
Having brought this prayer to the world, amidst the chaos and busy-ness of NYC, Jetsunma's wish is to share it, as far and wide as our thoughts can stretch, and beyond to that place we all seek through our lives. It is not about being Buddhist, or embracing our faith, it is simply about opening our hearts to receive this gift in the way it was intended, founded in unconditional love, like that of a mother for her child.
This prayer is especially for those who are dying, so to play it in a hospice, or as someone passes from this life, or where animals may be killed, is very potent; it will comfort them in ways we may not be able to see or measure, but nonethless are there. It is available free as a CD.
There is so much in life we are unsure of or hesitant about, but please don't let this be one of them. I do not pretend to understand the true wealth inherent in this prayer, but having listened to it again and again as I type on the keyboard, I know it is a melody that flows in my blood, that permeates my pores; I know this tune from before time and space existed, because it is the sound of every beating heart that ever did or could exist. Compassion has no boundaries, yet it will appear in shapes and sounds and forms we recognise, like drifing clouds that appear so robust and solid, yet dissipate into space. This prayer is the echo of the compassion in our hearts.
So whatever your faith or beliefs - if you have ever wished for a better world, for the end of pain, that your loved ones may pass from this life into a place of kindness and joy, please listen and share this gift. So that where there is hardship, there may be comfort. That where there is fear, there may be courage. That where hope is lost, it will again be found. And that at the final moment, when we are so alone, we shall all be bathed by perfect compassion, and know the truth of our hearts.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Lucky is!

Sound and movement in the valley are shifting with the season. The sycamores are laden with green; walking beneath their canopy, along the edge of tumbling water, my ears overflow with incessant buzzing of bees. Activity, life, renewal. The garden is blossoming, and this year, for the first time, butterflies in many shades are feasting on the red and yellow blanket flowers. As I walk by, they arise in a swirling of cream, yellow, white. The finches chatter outside the window near the computer; I love these tiny birds! The wind swells and abates, the chimes following suit.
So - it seems that dear little Lucky had the karma to come here, after all. Following her first escape and rescue, literally, from a coyote attack as it occurred ( the story brings chills to my spine), she escaped again. I received a frantic call from her foster carer, concerned for her well being; she had chewed through several leashes. Options of transport were explored, as the solution needed to be immediate. In the end Sam headed off on a 16 hour round trip journey, to the CA border. Lucky didn't travel in a crate, but lay happily on the seat.
I have spent some time with her; hard to describe, but there is something special about this old dog. She is content here - has made no attempt to escape, stays in the quiet of the dog garden, but surrounded by sounds and activity no doubt familiar to her from her outdoors life in Taiwan. I don't knows what the future will bring - who ever does - but I , too, am content to sit with her and stroke her toughened hairless skin, and say mantra to her. Her presence, her stillness, her gentleness, and gratitude to be safe and alive, are the gift she offers to us. Her story somehow encapsulates so much of what we all strive to do in our lives - to see where there is need, and act from the core of our hearts. Multiply that again and again, and the very planet itself will be renewed with joy and life and hope.

Friday, June 08, 2007

many paths, one journey

A week ago today I crossed a great swathe of treeless land, heading to the ocean. I travelled with Sam, our on-site dog carer, in a massive white van; our mission was to finally meet the dogs of Ms Wu, whose stories and faces have already brought tears to my eyes. I loved the journey; those desolate mountains rising from the earth, barren yet ripe - to my eyes - with potential: a sense of spaciousness, enormity. I told Sam I could live on one of those mountains tops, and look from yesterday to tomorrow and beyond; he laughed, and said he would rather be eaten alive by ants, or something similar - he likes lush humidity. But I am drawn to those landscapes where nothing evokes the promise of everything. I have crossed the Nullabor (tr: no tree) Plain in Australia - which is famous for the longest straight stretch of road in the world - several times, mile after mile of the very same view. There it's pretty much flat - though extraordinarily, at some spots if you deviate but a short distance, you meet the stark edge of the continent, which truly is a sheer drop into the ocean, like a great piece of land bitten off and cast away, the sea roiling hundreds of feet below. So the appearance of drab flatness belies what is really close by, simply hidden.

It was evening time as we courted the edge of civilisation. We stopped once for a real home-made pizza, but there was nowhere to stay, so we drove on, my eyes panning the exits for safe harbour. I spied a very low-key place, the American Inn, in a setting that would not rate reviews. Perched at the edge of the freeway, old and worn, perhaps seedy. But it was cheap, and the clerk was friendly, and, it tuned out, German. I lived in Germany for some years, and love the language and the country - still sometimes feel homesick for that culture. Better still, I had visited his hometown, so there was a shared journey, a connect of our past.

Appearances are so superficial; in fact, the room was lovely: old, but immaculately clean and welcoming, just perfect. However, it was early the next morning we discovered that the narrow dead end street of a few plain, small homes contained some jewels. Kwan Yin, the Chinese Bodhisattva of compassion stood just a few doors way, eternally pouring her compassion forth from a jar in her hand, and next to her, magnificent cactus flowers. The Guru was there, we were sure.

We hit LA proper some hours before the flight, and, when close to LAX, randomly detoured off the freeway to find breakfast. We found ourselves in a nice part of town - cute houses being renovated, lush yards, beautiful windswept trees. And a French cafe! We pulled into a side street, and walked back. There, next door to the cafe, was a white picket fence garlanded with red and white flowers - the colours of Bodhicitta, or awakened compassion. We looked up - prayer flags flying in the breeze. We knew the Guru was there.

After breakfast we headed for the ocean; I have not seen the sea up close for more years than I remember, though I grew up splashing in its brisk salty welcome. We took off our shoes, and my toes remembered warm sand.

Santa Monica beach was greyed by clouds as was the water that stretched to kiss the horizon, frills of foam dotted with surfers in wetsuits. Sam wandered into the water, i stood further back and allowed the space and the air and the sand and the water to hold me; i looked around and recited the Seven Line prayer to the Guru, there was nothing else to say.

Finally, our destination loomed and we were at the airport, circling in the loop, trying to find our bearings. The wait was long, but suddenly there were two luggage trolleys laden with dog crates, and I cried, "There they are!" and smiled, as the airport guys relentlessly moved on and out and up to the curbside, unstopping. I looked at them all, smiling greetings. Mostly they looked saucer-eyed and unsure. I searched out Lucky - although not coming to us, she remains for me the signature dog of this event, epitomising Ms Wu's love and dedication for bringing life where there was nearly death; somehow she has a corner of my heart. She was thinner, older than her picture suggested - all grey whiskers. I gave her biscuits and said "Om mani pedme hung" - the mantra of Compassion, again and again. This may have been the one moment i ever have with her, I wanted it to be the gift of her life.

The extraordinarily kind men that escorted these dogs were executives from an international company - they had flown first class, but had generously spent 2 hours in customs on behalf of these dogs. They passed on documentation and pineapple cakes from Ms Wu!!

So at 4.30 pm, van filled with dogs, we turned westward, from chaos and sea to the silence of the desert.

We drove straight through the night, our passengers silent, sleeping. They awoke, I am sure, for the last bumpy hour and a half on the corrugated washboards of forest service roads. It was 4.30am when we arrived - the hillsides softened by moonlight and the suggestion of dawn. The others here for the event got up to meet us, and we carried the crates into the newly built dog gardens. Then, one by one, we opened their doors. It was not easy for most of them to come out - the fear and strangeness of a journey that had begun in a foreign country,with sounds and smells now torn away. They were timid, scared of the newness. Eyes still large, questioning the loss of the familiar. Gingerly they came out, and looked around and, after a brief time, we tethered them, at Ms Wu's request, to ensure their safety.

Now they are settling in, and play and explore together when we are there. We still keep them tethered when unsupervised, a decision I do not regret at all. This morning I received a phone call from someone who said she had found my lost dog in Ramada Hills. Confused, I questioned her. Lucky!! Ms Wu had been scrupulous in her organisation, and had put my name and number on every dog. Lucky had escaped over a day ago, unbeknowns to me, and had just been caught by a very kind woman. She has been injured by coyotes, but not too badly. i was so distressed to hear this, but grateful she was found. With a few phone calls, I tracked down the lady who had taken her - also extremely distraught, and who had no idea how Lucky could have even got out of the yard; she had been desperately searching for her. She told me what a lovely, dignified old dog she is.

It's a miracle Lucky survived a coyote attack, given her age and frailty. Last night we did a Tsog practice - a ceremony where we offer food and prayers for the nourishment and end of suffering of all. I offered Ms Wu's pineapple cakes on behalf of her and her beloved dogs; it was after this Lucky was found. I am sure the Guru was there.

Our Taiwan Babies are gorgeous - smaller than I imagined, and just delightful. I hope we find them all homes very soon. And then I hope we save all of Ms Wu's dogs; I read on a website that Taiwan is considered one of the worst places in the world for animals.

So their journey began across the ocean, and joined ours, which began across a desert.
On the way I was reminded again and again that the journey is not about the apparent beginning and the end, it is each moment. Each moment contains the seed and fruition of the entire journey, if we stop to look and breathe, and know with our hearts. This was a journey of compassion embraced by many people, including strangers we met on the way, and it began before I was born and will be a path trodden by many, long after my bones have blended with dust. In just 2 days I traversed more than the landscape, my eyes and heart were opened to the possibility that every breath, every view, every second contains that place of refuge we all seek, and we all share.