One day a Buddhist monk stopped me on the street in Manhattan, offering me peace for the rest of my life. I was running late, so I just shook my head no and hurried on. I had no time for peace. This is worth noting, since I was rushing to teach a class on mindfulness meditation and the Buddhist path to happiness.
But that monk was persistent. He followed me, repeating “Lifetime peace. Lifetime peace.” He smiled broadly and I smiled back without really looking at him, a streamlined New York City street smile that was meant to convey that I didn’t want to be bothered. Both of us walked fast, both of us smiling our different smiles, me shaking my head no. Finally the weirdness of running away from a Buddhist monk, although probably a fake Buddhist monk, stopped me in my tracks.
He wasted no time, holding up a picture of a monastery on a Himalayan mountaintop, nodding and smiling to indicate that I too could contribute to this Shangri-La. From another fold in his worn orange robes, he produced a notebook listing names and accompanying donations, most of them for $20 or $30. I stopped smiling.
Dimly, I recalled seeing a news story about fake Buddhist monks soliciting donations on the streets of New York and other major cities. Real Buddhist monastics don’t solicit. They take vows not to lie or steal. They may carry begging bowls, but they don’t take what isn’t freely offered. Accepting what comes without grasping or resistance seemed to me an extraordinary effort, arguably the heart of all spiritual practice, and especially in a place like New York. I once heard the Brooklyn-born scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi describe the experiment of carrying a begging bowl through Manhattan. He made a Buddhist joke of it, saying that he received “the greatest gift of all: emptiness.”
It was outrageous, making a hustle out of such vows. I shook my head firmly no. But he just stood there smiling. His face was tan and deeply lined, his eyes dark and watchful but with no sharp edges. Here was a man who was used to roughing it, to being no one to others, an obstacle in the path. With a good-natured shrug, he put away his picture and notebook, swiftly handing me wooden wrist beads and what looked like a shiny golden ticket.
True to the fake monk’s word, the golden ticket read LIFETIME PEACE and also WORK SMOOTHLY. The other side featured a picture of Guan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, who hears the cries of the world. It was an amulet, supposedly inhabited by the spirit of the goddess herself. In spite of my outrage, I was a little bit thrilled to have it.
The monk pointed at me. It was my turn to give. He smiled and shrugged, indicating that it could be less than the suggested amount. He was rolling with the punches, as my old father used to tell me to do. “Roll with the punches, honey,” he told me when I suffered too much or too long over some turn of fortune. “What kind of father gives his daughter boxing metaphors?” I once asked him. Did life have to be a battle? My life was going to be big and exciting but also happy. My father laughed. In this case learn to roll with it, he told me. This infuriated me at the time.
And here I was many years later, rolling with it. I handed the fake monk the change from the overpriced coffee I had bought just before our encounter. “You with the Starbucks cup,” I thought to myself. “Care for an extra shot of lifetime peace with that skinny latte?” Oh, how I loved New York. Yet as I rushed off, already transforming the experience into anecdote, I found myself looking directly into this man’s eyes.
I saw flashes of determination and fear, guardedness and basic human warmth, a wish to be friendly. He was just like me. Our circumstances were very different, and I was firmly convinced that what he was doing was wrong. But we were equally caught in a net of causes and conditions. I saw that he wanted to be happy, just like me. But he—we—was tangled and bound by circumstances. He was not free. I saw that my judgment wouldn’t help. Tentatively, I smiled, really looking at him this time. He smiled back.
Appeals for money are a daily fact of life on the streets of Manhattan, as in cities everywhere. For many years, I gave spare change to anyone who asked, some of it to people who were clearly only pretending to be homeless or disabled or stranded. But one day, I stopped giving. I started fretting about what they did with the money.
What if they were buying drugs or alcohol? What if I was helping keep them from getting the help needed? Once I gave to someone who had lost his wallet, only to see him in almost the same spot the very next day, pretending again to have lost his wallet. Don’t worry about it, my mother told me. Just give.
Pope Francis was once asked about panhandling by an Italian magazine. What if a panhandler uses the money for a glass of wine? he was asked. The Holy Father answered by opening questions: What if this was his only happiness? What happiness do you secretly seek? What other sources of happiness do you have that he doesn’t have? How do you pass by helping such a man, leaving it to another? Give and focus on how you give, this was the pope’s counsel. Look into eyes and touch hands, remembering that this is a human being with a life of equal value to your own.
Love your neighbor as yourself: this is the way to happiness. Come out of the isolation of the ego, and open to the life around you. The paradox is that we heal our sense of separation as we shift our focus from outside to inside, from the remove of thinking about what will happen to actually sensing and observing how we are in this moment. Focusing on how we give, we touch our own deeper humanity—not just our generosity and compassion but our fear. We remember that under all our strivings for happiness is a love of life and a wish to be part of it.
Decades ago, in the “Wholeness” issue of Parabola, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked by Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman what it means to be a whole human being. He said: “What I call the human qualities are love, compassion, tolerance, will. To be warm-hearted—that is true human being.”
Asked to sum up the ultimate task of the fully realized or “Whole Man,” he answered: “The task of the Whole Man is to help others; that’s my firm teaching, that’s my message. That is my own belief.”
Asked his own deepest question and purpose, he said: “Relations.”
Just before she died, I asked my mother what really mattered in life. “Relationships,” she answered. “Love.” In her final year, it was like watching snowmen melt, a gentle ebbing away of substance and force. It was heartbreaking. How can someone you love disappear? And yet my mother showed me that there is a happiness that survives change and loss.
“Don’t worry about things, honey. Money, accomplishments, all kinds of things come and go, and life can change awfully fast.” She would know. During her final year, as she lost her vision, her breathing, and her heart, she also lost her home and her beloved beach retreat in a series of hurricanes. “I’m too old to cry over things,” she told me.
Everything is impermanent. Everything and everyone exists in relationship, subject to forces beyond themselves, part of a web of cause and effect. The Buddha taught that because we don’t see this, we suffer. The suffering can be subtle: not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, the disappointment in even good things. The sunny day grows too hot, our favorite dish grows cold. And inevitably, there is sickness, aging, and death. And yet happiness is possible.
“Don’t think about yourself too much,” my mother told me when I was young and tortured by self-conscious comparison with what other kids were wearing or doing. “Enjoy your life. No one is really focusing on you anyway. They are too busy worrying about themselves.”
“To know yourself is to forget yourself,” taught the Zen sage Dogen. “To forget yourself is to become enlightened by all things.”
Peace appears as we unclench the fist of self. Western scientists observe that when we are awake but self-forgetting, alone in nature or engrossed in a task, we escape the default network in the brain that is concerned with “I, me, mine,” and narratives about the self. In those moments, we recall that our deepest happiness is a love of life itself. For a flash, we remember how wonderful it is here on Earth, and how happy we are, to be part of it.
I knew this. And yet the deepest part of my brain didn’t get the message. The ancient and unenlightened reptile brain secretly hoped that the shiny paper ticket that I paid for with coffee change would alter the laws of reality so that I would not suffer. But it did not work. In the weeks and months that followed, all kinds of things happened that disrupted my peace and happiness. I lost my voice and it didn’t come back for six weeks. I lost my wallet, and along with millions of other citizens I lost a national election. As I recovered from those changes, I started noticing a little fuzzy vision at night, learning that I had an age-related degenerative eye disease for which there is no cure. Age-related? No cure? Me?
One winter night, I drove to teach meditation in a local yoga studio gripped by fear. I looked out at the snowy landscape seeing everything slipping away: my country, my health and hopes for my own future. What did I have to share? Maybe I could hold up that golden ticket that I still kept in my wallet. Everything I thought I knew seemed like posturing and wishful thinking in the face of the huge impersonal forces at work in the world. Knowing this, how on earth could happiness be anything more than denial?
I wanted to curl up and hide under my bed. Evolutionary biologists theorize that the ancient impulse to fight or flee or freeze serves a social function, governed by a fear of abandonment by the tribe. Instinctively, we feel that vulnerability may be cause for shunning. I was afraid of being left alone in the dark to die. The Buddha taught that the ultimate source of suffering is clinging due to ignorance of the true slippery nature of things. Nothing stays fixed. Everything changes. We are constantly trying to plant a flag in ground that gives way.
What happened next was so simple and ordinary I wouldn’t have noticed it as anything more than pleasant on another day. I walked in from cold and darkness and isolation into warmth and light and company. Someone swung open a door and welcomed me in. We settled onto cushions and chairs. We smiled and spoke a little: good to see you after so long. But I looked around and noticed that no one there was a stranger to fear. Young and old, they knew uncertainty and pain and loss. There was not one exception. One person was recovering from a heartbreaking loss; another from heart surgery; still another from addiction. One person once felt ashamed of being gay; another for not going to an Ivy League school; still another for living with a chronic illness.
Asked what enlightenment was, a contemporary Zen master once said: “Small moments, many times.” Life opened like a lens. I slipped out of the isolation of thought and entered the present moment, glimpsing its true height and depth. For a flash, I felt how vast and open it was, felt that we were in the hands of many forces. I noticed what usually goes unnoticed, small things: smiles, the basic warmth of human connection, the sharing of stories. I saw that these things are not small. They are connected to great forces.
For a second or two, I saw life as a feast spread out before us, waiting to be received. It dawned on me that this might be a way to understand the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Something that seems like almost nothing, a loaf of bread, a fish, is suddenly revealed to be miraculous, the end result of a chain of causes and conditions stretching back to some mysterious source. Blessed are the poor in spirit. The feast appears in those moments when we know our true poverty, when we know that we don’t really know reality or what may come, when we recognize that our lives are given.
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Often, it is when we are bereft that we notice what has supported us all along. These lines remembered from childhood seemed to come from my essence, not my personality. They weren’t thoughts so much as echoes from the heart of the mystery, expressing my secret question and wish: to know that I was part of a responsive world, that I had a place and was welcome here.
I felt love for these people. This was not a grand gesture but as natural as breathing, as a mother opening her arms to a suffering child, or a friend to a friend. I just gave, as life was given to me. They were neighbors. They were kin. We were all in the same boat, the same inescapable situation. We were human beings, subject to impermanence. For a moment or two, I knew that happiness wasn’t something to be added but a state that appears when the usual state of distraction and delusion is cleared away. Fearlessness wasn’t an absence of fear but a willingness to be open to life, moment by moment, trusting that inner and outer resources would appear that would help me meet the challenges that arose.
In the days and weeks that followed, a new understanding came like snow softly falling and settling. I saw how we habitually treat life as an enemy. Some days, I, and other people that I encountered, were brave warriors in a dark and alien world, braced for a fight. Other days, life was an occupying army rolling over us. I saw how suffering and fear shut us down.
Fearful thoughts trigger the doors and gates to swing closed and lock. Instantly, we go from being open to the world to becoming embattled fortresses in a dangerous land. People describe being blindsided and thrown for a loop (when it happens, we understand the meaning of such expressions). We are pushed out of the brain’s civilized circuit, out of the realm of comfortable stories and certainties, and pulled down into the wilds of the reptile brain.
There is a powerful undertow to fear. Fear can pull us down into our earliest or most painful memories, and under them all is the primal fear of dying. We discover at such moments that it is not just physical death we fear but ego death, the death of the person we think we should be. When life overwhelms us, we may also see things about ourselves that we don’t usually see. The ego is suddenly exposed as a scheming little creature, endlessly spinning a better, shinier version of ourselves and our lives, lives that would not include suffering.
And yet we discover that under the mind that is panicking, there is another mind, a vastly more quiet and receptive mind. A mind that is not self-enclosed but shared like sunlight, an awareness that is open to what is beyond us and notices what is small. In the midst of suffering, we find our way to a happiness that no storm can shake. ♦