Shared Unity

Jack Kornfield is a Buddhist teacher who knows all about bringing people together. The unity he fosters is not about folks crossing the gap from one separate being to another. It’s not about being a good listener or being compassionate to someone outside of yourself. The communion instead is people being immersed in the same reality, feeling as if they’re one body, pouring love to the fingertips and toes … and far beyond.

Another thing that’s really made a difference, for me and so many people who have undertaken a path of practice, is to have a place to practice and to have friends (sangha, community) because when we lose it someone else reminds us. I’ve been reminded as much by all the people who come on retreats. And the level of courage and the beauty of people’s devotion to awakening or genuineness, I see over and over again.

I’m thinking of myself being up there on retreat. There was a woman in the community whose teenaged daughter had died and she was on the retreat a year afterward over the anniversary of her daughter’s death. So it was really a tough, grief-filled time. And the day came and I talked with her. I said “Why don’t you do a little ritual? This morning while we’re sitting quietly, why don’t you go out at the time you know that your daughter died, and ring the bell 108 times – the great big bell that’s up there? It’s a traditional way of paying respects or honor. 108 is a kind of mystical or sacred number in India. It means everything included. Ring the bell 108 times in her honor.”

We’re all sitting in there meditating, and all of a sudden I hear her ringing this bell right outside the meditation hall. People have been quiet for a long, long time. She was really hitting that bell, as if the sound of it could somehow reach her daughter.

Usually we have the bells to begin or end sittings or call people together, so people were kind of wondering “What’s happening?” In the middle of the sitting, I said “The bell you’re hearing is because someone’s child has died a year ago today, and she wants to honor her.”

I heard this woman ring the bell, and everybody else was sitting there listening, with tears streaming down their cheeks, as if she was somehow needing to talk to her daughter’s spirit. Then she came back and sat with us.

What Is Hidden?

Jack Kornfield is a Buddhist teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center near San Francisco. In his book The Wise Heart, he tells us of a wonder:

In a large temple north of Thailand’s ancient capital, Sukotai, there once stood an enormous and ancient clay Buddha. Though not the most handsome or refined work of Thai Buddhist art, it had been cared for over a period of five hundred years and had become revered for its sheer longevity. Violent storms, changes of government, and invading armies had come and gone, but the Buddha endured.

At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot, dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took his flashlight and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images of Buddha ever created in Southeast Asia. Now uncovered, the golden Buddha draws throngs of devoted pilgrims from all over Thailand.

The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest. In much the same way, each of us has encountered threatening situations that lead us to cover our innate nobility.

Just as the people of Sukotai had forgotten about the golden Buddha, we too have forgotten our essential nature. Much of the time we operate from the protective layer. The primary aim of Buddhist psychology is to help us see beneath this armoring and bring out our original goodness, called our buddhanature.

This is a first principle of Buddhist psychology: see the inner nobility and beauty of all human beings.

The statue stands ten feet tall. It is made of solid gold and weighs five-and-a-half tons.


I’m sitting on the patio of the Prenup Pub on College Street in downtown Toronto.  Let’s see who walks by:

1. A young blond woman, hair sparkling in the late afternoon sun, tenderly holding supper in styrofoam

2. An intense young sweatered man, walking head down, cell phone at the ready

3. Dave, my jolly waiter of the encyclopedic beer memory, all decked out in a Union Jack tie

4. A nut-bearing black squirrel, apparently being chased off by two pigeons.  He doesn’t seem too concerned – apparently a rodent on a mission

5. A white woman and a black man, gesturing vigorously, in a sweet way

6. A worn-weary fellow with ponytail and black leather jacket, head bowed, perhaps feeling the weight of the world

7. An elderly Oriental woman, dressed in flecks of purple and white, checking out the three university guys sitting near me.  Her face is poker.  Can’t tell if it’s appreciation, disdain or neutral

8. Mom kneeling down, buttoning up her 10-year-old girl’s sweater.  The kid doesn’t look too pleased with the attention

9. Old gent with two full grocery bags, plopping chunks of bread on the grass across the street.  Ten or so pigeons descend

10. A glom of maybe 25 people, laden with shopping bags and backpacks, nestled in a whole bunch of conversations.  Attending a conference?  An extended family?  Strangers going for a first contact?  Who knows?


All nice folks, I do believe.

Just A Human Being

I was reading an advertisement recently when I came across this description:

Buffet included soap, salad bar, about 6 entrées, and a selection of deserts

The first thing that drew my eye was “soap”.  That’s pretty funny, imagining myself with a knife and fork chowing down on a beauty bar.

Then I saw “deserts” and moved into critical mode.  Why can’t people learn to spell?  I know how to spell.

After a time of better-worse, I paused.  And it came to me … we’re all human.  Maybe I can spell because I love writing and reading.  Perhaps the author of this ad isn’t so focused on the written word.  What if the writer didn’t finish high school or had parents who didn’t care about reading?  What if he or she was in the middle of some traumatic experience?

This person struggled with the ad.  I can’t swim, can’t skate and am afraid of heights.  We’re all so imperfect and marvelous.  Next time, may my first seeing be of compassion, not criticism.


Two Men

I was having breakfast at a restaurant this morning and the TV monitor on the wall facing me showed Washington, DC.  There were uniforms, a band, fluttering flags … one of which was Canadian.  Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was visiting Barack Obama.

The two of them strode to the podium.  They stood still, not speaking.  The sound was off but I knew what was happening: the band was playing our national anthems.  I was moved.

First of all, it was just two human beings who stood before me.  Each doing their best in life to be happy.   Then it was two men, not puffing out their chests and uttering a Tarzan call, but instead being in the moment.  Then it was the leaders of two nations, with all the responsibility and heartaches that this entails.

I was glad to be watching.  I felt a part of it.  I’m no less nor more than the brothers I saw.  And I say “brothers” knowing that the two leaders have policy disagreements, differing personalities and divergent histories.

Justin and Barack walked over to a small crowd of onlookers who stood behind a flimsy barrier.  They walked down the line, shaking hands with young and old.  I smiled.  I also gulped.  My brain created a memory of Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.  1963.  Smiling faces greeted a smiling president as his motorcade proceeded down Elm Street.  The rest is history.

Many times in my future life, I will stand beside another person.  May I be present for the humanity near me, glimpsing the beauty within, thanking my lucky stars that I am not alone.

David Francey

Off I went on the subway last night to the first of my three concerts at Hugh’s Room, a small folk music venue. One of my musical heroes – David Francey – was the reason for the evening.  I was given a table for one tucked into a corner at the back.  I had a great sightline to the stage and “back” was actually pretty close.  I arrived really early because I had made a dinner reservation.

As people started coming in, I looked at them.  Almost all couples (sigh) and hardly anybody as old as me (no sigh).  Lots of laughing, lots of hugging … the room was bright and sweet.  I sat back in my little alcove and smiled a bit.  The universe was flowing along as it was meant to do.

A couple maybe in their 60s took their seats at the table in front of me.  She was on the left and he on the right.  I didn’t see them touch.  As David began singing, the gentleman leaned his head way to the right.  At first, I concentrated on maintaining the tiny window I was left with, but later I let in the distance between man and woman.  I urged them closer in my brain but that was not to be.

At intermission … how wrong I was.  My unknown friends shared large smiles.  He put his arm over her shoulder and she rubbed that arm lovingly.  And so my persona as keen analyst of the human condition frittered away.

In front of these two was a waist-high wall.  Beyond that towards the stage, the seating was lower so all I could see of those folks was their heads.  During the break, I saw a grey-haired fellow right at the front, looking ahead.  A woman was leaning the back of her head against his back.  How lovely, I thought.  Just the type of relationship I enjoy observing.

How wrong I was.  It was a trick of the eye, my view of this couple.  In fact, they weren’t a couple.  They weren’t even at the same table.  She was leaning forward, talking to her friends.  Gosh, a fellow can only be wrong so many times.  Can’t he?

And then there was David’s music.  He creates word pictures that any human being can relate to … all the emotions that bubble up over the course of a lifetime.

The joy of youth, as revealed in the song “Paper Boy”:

And my feet flew in the morning light
Racing the dawn as the sky grew bright
And everything in the world was right
When I was a paper boy

The angst of teenage passion (“Broken Glass”):

Saw you standing in the cafeteria line
I’d have given the world just to make you mine
Saw you at your locker, in the high school hall
And it didn’t take a minute for my heart to fall

The loss of love (“The Waking Hour”):

She was once my heart’s delight
My need and my desire
She was my day, she was my night
My water and my fire
And I was once the same to her
When we still walked together
But the heavy heart at the waking hour’s
Expecting heavy weather

Thank you, David, for your humanity
And the same gratitude for my fellow audience members

Day Eight … Folks Just Like Me

I often see myself as unusual, not of the norm, a little too silly for some.  Just plain different.  Looking more closely, though, we’re all pretty similar.  When I taught blind children, it was so easy to fall into the trap that they were really different from other kids.  After all, they can’t see.  And seeing stuff is a big part of my life.  But as I got smarter and looked more carefully, those young non-see-ers wanted the same things that their classmates did – to be loved, to be included, to make a mark and thus say goodbye to invisibility.

Yesterday I experienced a parade of humanity.  Here they are:

Eleanor (Jody’s aunt)
Cam (Eleanor’s son and Jody’s cousin)
Veronica (Jody’s late aunt Joan’s daughter and Jody’s cousin)
Real (Veronica’s boyfriend)
Fernando (Real’s friend)
Frank (Jody’s uncle)
Shirley (Frank’s wife and Jody’s aunt)
Carey (Frank and Shirley’s daughter and Jody’s cousin)
Pierre (Carey’s husband)
Taylor (Carey and Pierre’s daughter)
Taylor’s boyfriend (I’m sorry that I’ve forgotten your name)

Eleanor – Presented me with assorted foods and a warm smile, as well as showing me where Jody sat in the family farm’s kitchen as a 15-year-old.  I loved sitting where Jody did.

Cam – Smiled when I was enjoying a flavour of Mike’s Hard Lemonade that I hadn’t tasted – pink.  He loves hunting.  I don’t.  So what?

Veronica – She of the smiling Buddhas adorning her home.  “Life’s too short to hold grudges.”  As she and I were leaving Carey and Pierre’s place, she approached her Uncle Frank and said, “You’re not getting away without a hug.”

Real – Loves riding his Harley and is a member of a biker club that stands for integrity and non-violence.  In the pub, I asked him to sing, and he replied, “Only if it’s a Frank Sinatra tune.”  He has a beard and wears a biker jacket.  I couldn’t grow a beard for the life of me and favour t-shirt and shorts.  So what?

Fernando – Another biker club member who laughed with us as Veronica and I resurrected memories of Jody and her mom Joan over a steak sandwich (her) and nachos (me).  He was comfortable sitting beside me.

Frank – I sold real estate with Frank in the 80’s.  Well, he sold real estate – I “prospected” and dreamed of sales and listings.  Last night, he talked of family, of how important his wife, children and grandchildren are to him.

Shirley – Had a mischievous little smile on her face most of the evening and actually used that very word to describe Jody as a kid.

Carey – The lady of the house who cried when she talked about Jody.  As kids, they stole neighbours’ flowers and placed them under their family’s power mower so there’d be a flower shower upon start up.  I saw photos of the miniature Christmas scenes that she creates all over her house during the holidays.

Pierre – Is a night supervisor on a oil rig in Kuwait for six months of the year – 28 days on and 28 days back home.  Temperatures can reach 44 degrees Celsius … at night!  I couldn’t do that.  He can.  So what?

Taylor – She laughed at a few goofy things I said.  I liked her immediately.  As a young adult, she seemed totally comfortable with all those older folks yapping away.

Taylor’s boyfriend – (Okay, Bruce.  Let go of trying to remember his name > But a person’s name is important > I know, but you can appreciate him just as much without knowing it > All right)  He joined into the conversation, especially enjoying his talk with Pierre about oilfield adventures.  When I was leaving, he looked me right in the eye and said that he hoped we’d meet again.  He meant it.

We’re all the same height when we’re lying down

Elton John

Shimmering Humans

Jade, Andy and Cole
Claude and Denise
Hieu and Rick
Kelsey and Michelle
Fulya and Katie
Zach, Kristi and Alexa
Dorelys, Aldinai and Jumi
Kendra and Matt
Juan Carlos and Patricia
Crystyna and Nadia
Keija and Laures
Michaela, Kylie and Julie
Pierre and Helene
Nadia, Pascal, Alison and William
Pola, Andrei, Nancy and Madelaine
Marija and Devin
Helen and John
Barb and Arden
Ian and Tabitha
Liz, Luc, Amy, Angel, Tristan, Kaden, Chantale and Joanne
Sammy and Amanda
Pilar and Sylvia
Louise and Rejeanne
Colette and Paul

These are folks I met in Cuba in December.  I was looking through random pieces of paper today, and I came across this list.  It sat on my hotel room desk for the whole two weeks.  Every day I’d add the names of people I talked to.  Good conversations all.

A few of these fine men, women and children are crystal clear in my mind right now.  Most are not.  I can’t remember their faces.  I can’t remember what they said.  But I can remember how very happy I was when I was with them.  We made contact.  We laughed.  A few grieved with me about Jody.  And now they’re gone, as I am gone for them.

I remember you down deep, dear ones.  Go well in the world.  Smile at someone else now.

Many Over the Land

I was driving back from south London’s Costco this afternoon, having accumulated a good share of groceries and meds for Jody.  After rounding the Glanworth Curve, I saw some dots of white far up on the right.  As I got closer, I saw that the dots were seagulls, feeding on the dark brown of a farmer’s field.  Perhaps a thousand of them.  I was struck by the beauty, by the white and brown contrast, and by something else.  Something unspoken but so clearly present in the moment.  All these beings on God’s brown earth.

Five minutes later, far up on the left, was an orange stippling of the ground. Soon I could see that pumpkins protected part of another field.  The contrast this time was orange on brown, but no less lovely.  The gourds were another type of being, resting gently on the soil, waiting for pies and Jack O’ Lanterns.  Struck again.

Why did these displays draw me so?  And why did they happen one after the other?

My brain transported me back to 1992.  October.  The sixth game of the World Series, between the Atlanta Braves and my beloved Toronto Blue Jays.  I and 47,000 other faithful showed up at the SkyDome to watch the festivities. Except there was no baseball in Toronto that day, nothing happening on the field.  The game was in Atlanta, and we were watching it on the JumboTron.  I spent a lot of time looking at my fellow parishioners, worshipping at the shrine of the slider and the long ball.  Look at all of us, watching TV!  I loved them a bit.  They were my family of the evening.  And the moving sway of multicoloured dots filled nearly every seat.

As Mike Timlin threw the ball to first for the final out, we rose as one body, cheering and high fiving … the Blue Jays had won their first ever World Series.  Minutes later, maybe 20,000 of us were walking noisily up Yonge St. Such a flow.  Such joy.  And no looting, no overturned cars.  I walked north for the seven miles it took to get home, feeling the loss of the folks who turned left here and turned right there.  Family.

During the summer of 2008, Jody and I took the train to Quebec City to help celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary.  We decided to go see an evening concert on the Plains of Abraham, the site where the British defeated the French in 1759.  “Simple Plan” was playing.  We started up the trail which left the boardwalk by the Chateau Frontenac Hotel.  As we climbed higher, we could hear the band above us.  Finally it felt like the next rise would be our last … and it was.  As we reached the peak, we gazed down at a tiny stage very far away.  Between us and the band sat and stood and danced 100,000 people. So said the paper the next day.  Knolls of folks.  Meadows of folks.  A rolling blanket of humanity scattered on the plain.  I was struck dumb.  The music was fine but the spirit among us was … big.  So infinitely big.  I rocked and rolled inside my soul for hours.

Seagulls, pumpkins, baseball fans and concertgoers – spreading out to cover the planet.