Uppalavanna’s Courage

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Mountains & RIvers: Zen Dharma and Practice journal, Sangha News, Teachings

This dharma discourse by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold is excerpted from Mountains & Rivers: Zen Dharma and Practice, 2020 available here.

The bhikkhuni Uppalavanna said to Mara the Evil One: Though a hundred thousand rogues just like you might come here, I stir not a hair, I feel no terror; Even alone, Mara, I don’t fear you. I can make myself disappear. Or I can enter inside your belly. I can stand between your eyebrows, yet you won’t catch a glimpse of me. I am the master of my own mind, the bases of power are well developed; I am freed from every kind of bondage, therefore, I don’t fear you, friend.

Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, “The bhikkhuni Uppalavanna knows me,” sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.

Of all the many things we might imagine, as we begin practicing the dharma, we might not think of courage as being something we will need to draw upon, and yet it’s there in the teachings, from the beginning.

The word courage has its root meaning in the heart, the seat of emotions—to have heart, to have inner strength—means to be connected. It’s interesting how when we are afraid, the heart flutters, so in finding courage the heart needs to be strengthened. Losing heart—losing that inner strength—can lead us to turn away, seek escape. But when we turn away from our inner strength we are usually seeking refuge in something else—doubt, hesitation, fear, a sense of inadequacy—which results in disappointment and discouragement.

We bow in deep respect to Prajnaparamita, the mother of all Buddhas, wisdom beyond wisdom. She illuminates our delusions and dispels all of our fears. In the Prajnaparamita sutras, the Buddha speaks about facing truth and the need to have courage, because we will experience fear. So many of the teachings are aspirational, speaking of realization and our fully manifested compassion. So when I first read this it really struck me that he was speaking to the student who is still unsure. Here the Buddha is saying that if in encountering what is true we don’t turn away, then we may very well be ready to engage the Dharma. And for this we need courage.

Monastery residents in sesshin, April 2020

In the Ten Values of Beyond Fear of Differences, we describe the element of courage as “the ability to step forward, to be vulnerable, to tolerate discomfort and to hold space for new ideas.” Tolerating discomfort is so important; there really is no practice without this. In a sense there is no learning without this; there’s so often some discomfort in stepping into anything new. And if we don’t practice tolerance and the capacity to be at ease within our discomfort, we can lose access to and confidence in our resilience. The capacity is there but it has to be developed, strengthened and made flexible, and this only occurs through lived experience.

To tolerate means to allow without interference. It’s a profound acceptance. In other words, to tolerate discomfort is to allow ourselves to experience without interference, without trying to control it, which is really the nature of dukkha—trying to change the reality of this moment—because it’s not the reality we want.

It’s like when we first engage practice, we want to free ourselves of attachments, we want to go into the dragon’s cave and face the demon, but when it actually happens we can easily recoil. From the very beginning of practice—the newness of being in this zazen posture, sitting on the floor, turning in—we experience various kinds of discomfort and disappointment. To meet this in mindfulness—without interference, with forbearance—is to learn how to hold the sensation without getting lost in the story. So whether we’re tolerating pain, or dissatisfaction, or impermanence, or fear, or sadness—or whether we’re tolerating joy, relaxation, a feeling of peace, stillness, silence—we discover we can experience discomfort without moving away.

First blooms of spring

Every time we experience aversion, that’s dukkha—a subtle or not so subtle form of suffering—where we don’t want what we’re being presented with. We want to push our experience away and get another one. That moment is really a pivot point, a turning, in which we either strengthen and perpetuate the karma that has brought that forward, or interrupt that cycle.

Shantideva says, “When you face such a moment, if there’s something you can do then what’s the use of frustration? If in such a moment there is nothing you can do, then what’s the use of frustration?” In both cases, the reactions we add— irritation, anger, pain, blame, excuses, worry—they’re not actually helping. He’s saying that the frustration is not in the situation, the anger is not in the person we are encountering. It’s not in the action or the outcome of the action, and yet our mind may seek it out. Maybe it gives us a sense that we are doing something because we are preoccupied, so we must be getting something done.

Practice is to stop and enter into the subtle mind, having faith that this very moment is a purposeless, measureless, vast moment that need not be managed.

Dogen says don’t cherish what’s close at hand and hate what’s far away. Hold it lightly and don’t give it unnecessary weight, just let your eyes and ears be sharp and awake. And so, to become utterly familiar with every perception, with all things. Become familiar within the body, within emotions, within relationships, within our world, within our discomfort. “Familiar” means to experience it directly, intimately, without interference or concept. When we don’t do this, the dis-ease that we then experience deep within ourselves is that which appears outside of ourselves in all we create.

When we face what we call our internal obstacles, or when we face the challenges in our everyday lives, we will experience the discomfort of the self trying to maintain its view, its position, and to avoid all threats. Whether we’re facing our own karmic patterns, our own insecurities, regrets, loneliness, ordinary physical pain, aging; whether we’re facing demagogues, climate change, racism, sexism, oppression, patriarchy; as long as we grasp at a sense of self, we will experience an anxious tension. When we practice these moments through mindfulness and skillful meditation—on and off the cushion—we are developing our capacity, our stamina, patience, trust, and skillfulness within that very discomfort.

A person may have seen into the emptiness of self and other and still be blind to racism, to sexism and other forms of injustice. A person may have realized mind, yet not see various aspects of their social conditioning, their whiteness, their maleness. We may have opened the great heart of compassion but not be responding to our climate emergency. I believe that the bodhisattva path is to bring our study, practice and realized activity to these many worlds. We need to understand practice-enlightenment as integrating the Dharma within every aspect. Naturally this can seem overwhelming. In fact, if we’ve never felt overwhelmed than we may not be paying attention.

Mother Teresa once said, “They say my work is just a drop in the ocean. I say the ocean is made up only of drops.”

If you liked this excerpt, find more here from Mountains & Rivers: Zen Dharma and Practice, 2020 at the Monastery Store here.

NextOne Continuous Thread: Virtual Sesshin