In honor of independence day, my friend Julie, a Yoga teacher, posted this question on her studio's Facebook page this week: “What do you consider the definitive moment or event of independence in your own life?”
I commented “When I completely accepted my interdependence.”
I wasn't being coy or purposely trying to answer with a Zen-like paradox. The comment popped out of me, as I was thinking about an experience I had a few years ago, in the first year of my Bright Dawn training. It is an experience I refer to as my Buddhist-Born-Again moment.
The experience was initiated by a story Rev. Al Bloom shared with our class about a woodpecker felling a gigantic tree after a few pecks. Feeling powerful, he thought, “Wow, I DID that!” What he didn't know was that there was a tree crew sawing down the very tree he was pecking at. Bloom Sensei used the story to illustrate the difference between the Shin Buddhist terms, Self Power (Jiriki) and Other Power (Tariki).
Hearing the story helped me finally grasp what had always been a “greased pig” for me. Just when I thought I understood Self Power and Other Power, I decided I really didn't understand it all. The understanding I had the evening of the class was a rational, self-power type understanding. Then, a few days later while meditating, I was overcome with a feeling of relief and complete trust, as if I had finally arrived somewhere.
I was thinking about that woodpecker and realized I was that woodpecker and had been completely unaware of the fact there was always a crew helping me. I describe the feeling I had at that moment as utter relief—so much so that I began to cry—almost as if I had just realized that someone or something saved my life. That cry was my personal declaration of interdependence, the most freeing experience in my adult life.
I have since come to see the experience with a wider perspective, realizing that for many years prior I had been deeply embroiled in Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhist study and practice. I had taken up that path in the typical achievement-oriented way I had done everything in my life. I was convinced that I could perfect myself and become a Buddha, if I just had enough commitment and practiced harder and harder. The teachers I studied and took teachings from seemed to indicate that was the case. And, since there was not much in my life I hadn't been successful at if I really tried, then I thought I was capable of this, too.
But I became disillusioned and depressed when I didn't see any results. I was still the same person I had always been. I resigned myself to the fact that I was a Vajrayana flunky—and maybe even a Buddhist flunky. So I enrolled in the Bright Dawn Institute training to see if there was another way. And there was.
I finally learned what the Buddha taught. Now I see that one of—if not THE most important foundations of Buddhist practice—is becoming aware of your inherent ignorance and the limitations of self. It is surprisingly freeing to realize that we are NOT really the masters of our destiny, because the choices we make about the thoughts we will think and the actions we will take are a product of a complex web of experiences, surroundings, and relationship—of which everyone else is a part. This is a declaration of interdependence.
This declaration is stating that you understand and actively accept your own ignorance. It is a deep and personal understanding of the second Noble Truth, about the origin of suffering, and the first of the Eightfold Path, Right View.
It is a seeming paradox that accepting our ignorance can provide our ultimate freedom. It is the freedom Shinran and Honen discovered. This freedom is not won by ourselves, through our own actions to become a Buddha, but through an active acceptance that we aren't capable of doing much by ourselves at all—and that through trust in the Dharma, in the teachers that gave us the teachings, and in a broader trust in life and its web, we are always supported and given more than we are capable of giving back. In that humble, yet active acceptance that my teacher, Rev. Koyo, points to as “acceptance IS transcendence”, we are declaring our interdependence.
Recognizing that we can't do it by ourselves, we stop struggling. Like rolling over on your back and floating, rather than continuing to tread water when you become tired of swimming—the ability to float, this buoyancy, is a gift from life itself. Not something you created in yourself. It is a gift from those before you that taught you you COULD float.
Despite all our failures we are taken care of. If we look at this interdependence with gratitude and humility, we automatically loosen our grip on self grasping. We let the little self drop away and let all that we think we know become open to interpretation. No one to protect and nothing to defend. A freedom I've given the code name "the complete OK-ness of everything."
Happy Interdependence Day!
About these blog posts
A mix of older posts I wrote for the blog, Suchness: It's All Good - Buddhist Ramblings, LinkedIn articles, and Career Coaching blog posts.