During a Q & A session following a lecture, somebody asked: “What should we do with a mentally ill person?” It was not a medical question, inquiring about therapies and medicines that can be effective treating a troubled individual. It was a religious question, asking us to go beyond a scientific “how to” for curing an illness and to consider our own attitude in relating to an unhappy person. If our attitude is one of caring – not indifference – our first step should be to reframe the question so that we can view it in a way that avoids negative labels that tend to isolate, stigmatize, and are hard to remove. From a spiritual, rather than a medical, orientation, the question becomes: “How should we respond to someone who is out of harmony?” To an individual who is out of balance, we should respond as a mother to her baby.
An infant disrupts our routine with its constants needs and demands and its inability to express or take care of itself. The caring mother does not isolate the child out of frustration or impatience; she instinctively knows how unnatural that attitude would be and how it would lead to suffering. So our attitude must start with selflessness directed towards someone who is not in harmony. It is part of the responsibility we have to each other.
The orientation of spiritual practice is outward, towards “other.” If our attitude is towards our self, it will encourage the separation and isolation that we want to avoid. If we turn away from someone who is out of balance – because we feel uncomfortable or feel that engaging with him is “too much trouble” – we create disharmony. If we say we care, then we need to explore our inward-facing orientation.
A fundamental principle of the nature of existence, of our relationship to each other and all things that guide the spiritual life, is expressed dramatically and concisely by Zen master Dogen. In a story introducing one of his writings, he relates that the layman Sotoba had a profound understanding of the truth while hiking in the forest and composed a poem to illustrate his experience. It begins,
The sound of valley stream is his great tongue,
The colors of the mountains are his pure body.
Nature is seen here to have human attributes, meaning that nature inherently affirms our life. And it explains why we love nature and why we want to be close to it and preserve it. At the same time, this poem shows that we humans affirm nature, that our life affirms the lives of each other, and that lives of others affirm our life. However, if the mind is too logical, too self-concerned, it will be confused by the metaphor. About such individuals Dogen remarks,
It is regrettable that many only appreciate the superficial aspects of sound or color.
Here we have the basis for the spiritual life, the understanding that our relationships are inherently affirming, beyond the superficial sensations of our senses.
Everyone of us is out of balance sometime in our life, temporarily out of harmony, temporarily “mentally ill.” But most of us have the resilience to come back to balance and to continue our lives in relative harmony with society. Others are not so fortunate. Harmony eludes them, they spend much of their lives in isolation. Our job, our practice, is to affirm life as we meet it. When we encounter isolation, we try to encourage harmony. If we do not know precisely what to do, we experiment, intuitively try something. And when we our self feel out of harmony, that is, when we are “mentally ill,” we quiet our mind and return to balance.
The following lines of Dogen are perhaps his most well-known:
To learn the Buddhist way is to learn about oneself.
To learn about oneself is to forget oneself.
To forget oneself is to perceive oneself as all things.
In other words, we are affirmed by all things. By extension, all things are affirming all things. And this affirmation is not passive. It is continuously active, continuously practicing, like mountains and rivers, continuously aware of what is going on, continuously engaged.
In his book “Essential Cha’n Buddhism,” The Chinese Cha’n master Guo Jun Fashi wrote:
Sitting itself will not give you enlightenment.
Meditation will not give it to you.
It will only lead you to the brink.
Retreating from the world will not liberate you.
Happiness is not found in a secluded forest or isolated cave.
Enlightenment comes when you connect to the world.
Only when you truly connect with everyone and everything else
Do you become enlightened.
Only by going deeply and fully into the world do you obtain liberation.
Our practice of bowing to each other, known as “gassho” in Japanese, is an expression of affirmation; in this act, we are not passive or indifferent; rather, we fully connect. By giving up our self in this way we discover the joy of being with the other person, without concern for like or dislike. As Suzuki-roshi said,
Sometimes we bow to cats & dogs.
In the same way, we should be ready to bow to everyone.
Sitting in meditation with others is an act of affirming each other, with acceptance, without judgement. Being together helps dissolve any sense of isolation, a problem of the modern world. Great benefits have come into to our lives through technology, but in our excitement to embrace it, we don’t recognize how it can isolate us. We have to reflect on how to use our technology, consider when we use it, where we use it, and its value in that moment, measured against its impact on our relationships with each other. In the same way, we should reflect on how to use our life. Do we want to encourage harmony or isolation? Do we want to be active in the continual affirmation of all things?
When we meet a difficult or out of balance person, our spiritual practice – our inherent nature – demands that we become spiritually creative, that we find a way to affirm, as the starting point of taking care.