‘Dharma’ is a rich and bounteous concept. Common translations give us words or phrases such as truth, teaching (particularly spiritual teaching), natural law, law of nature, phenomena, process and ‘thing’. It’s difficult to grasp in all its dimensions – as is our life. What does it mean to ‘live a life of dharma’? To devote yourself to dharma? Living truth, living teaching, living natural law, living phenomena, living process, living thing. It takes an entire evolving staggeringly alive planet to bring forth just one innocent, vulnerable, freshly born human being. And yet . . . this was how each one of us began.
A mother; a living being, a person, a weaving of relationships happening simultaneously at many levels: water, soil, sun and air; molecules, cells, organs and organism; bacteria, fungi, plants and animals; and all of these mysteries, embedded in the worlds of her mother and father, grandparents, great grandparents and extended communities; oceans of hopes and fears, beliefs and uncertainties, potentialities and possibilities. And joining with your mother is an entanglement of motives and movements, neurons, hormones and matrices of distant families tracing a pattern through time – your father.
Egg nuzzling with sperm, mysteriously revolving in space, chemically morphing to allow in, not any sperm but that particular sperm. Two cells of germination, beings, not even vaguely human looking, coming together and dying to their separate self-ness in the process of becoming a symbiont called you. I once read that we share 50% of our genome with a banana! Chemically, at the stage of fertilization, we are not much different from a chimpanzee. We are a co-creation of lives and species and cultures and mystery, and we need all of this to exist. We are conceived from, in and with, a living world. This is our home. It’s what we are. It is our body and it’s total functioning gives rise to our mind – the field of knowing that we are. We are bigger than most people think! Please pause and breathe and settle into the fullness of being what you are, where you are. Welcome to the mystery of your living.
A human being is so much more than a particular biological form. A human being is also a potential, flowering into the universe – a potential that is different from the potential of bananas and chimpanzees. In a spiritual sense, physical birth doesn’t seem to be enough to make us fully human. We are born as animals with roots in the worlds of plants, micro-organisms and the natural environment. As such, we have an in-built potential for self-oriented awareness and self-interest-driven caring. We share this mode of awareness with dogs and cats, with birds and fish, in fact, with all other animals. With education, either intentional or serendipitous, some of us slowly continue the adventure of becoming human. Lex Hixon, in his beautiful book, “Mother of the Buddhas” states that a human being is not merely an outer physical form but an “inward potential for panoramic awareness and selfless compassion”. Each one of us emerges from the ineffable dance of life-unfolding, through a symbiosis of vast multi-dimensional awareness and selfless compassion. To realize fully what we are is to realize our potential. This is what it means to live a life of dharma, to devote ourselves to truth in all its mystery. The central purpose of all dharma practice is to bring forth this panoramic awareness and selfless compassion, in other words, to cultivate a well balanced, thoroughly integrated, vibrantly alive, humane human becoming.
Respect for nature, love of life,
the blessing of the human birth.
Born from nature, all of us,
I will remember and give thanks.
I am a human being,
endowed with nature’s gifts.
Unique, alive, each one of us,
I will remember this. (by Lama Chime Shore – “Foundation Chorus”)
Many Buddhist texts present a vision of six realms, or modes, of experience. Although some people insist on regarding the six as descriptions of the objective world, a more sophisticated understanding might see them as six common modes of experience that we all encounter, at least to some degree, in the course of our growing into human-ness. A hell state is a way of living that is dominated by anger, hatred and irritation. The hungry ghost or preta state is one dominated by chronic hunger/need/desire. Look at how much of your life is taken up by shopping and acquisition. ‘Globalization’ can look suspiciously like ‘preta’-ization! Animal states reveal a marvelous potential for awareness and certain degrees of caring and co-operation, but it is pretty much self referencing. Titan states are dominated by aggressive competitiveness and jealously, chronically comparing themselves and their achievements with those of others. Think of the huge drive of the upwardly mobile executive class. Deva or radiant states are dominated by complacent satisfaction and the take it for granted-ism of class privilege and material wealth. Finally, as we mentioned earlier, the human state reveals a potential for panoramic awareness and selfless compassion.
Take a good look at your life. We are shape shifters, constantly morphing from one state into another. What kind of creature are you, right now as you read these words? Are you an dancing expanse of panoramic awareness and wide open, all-embracive compassion? Or are you a manifestation of longing and hunger, or a tight ball of reactivity, or a tightly conditioned tunnel of me-centred awareness? Have you actually realized your humanness or are you something else?
I don’t think there is much value in seeing the six realms or states as levels or hierarchies of being, with hell at the bottom, devas at the top and human conveniently, though somehow usefully, situated in the middle. The six describe a range of common modes of being, ways of perception and engagement, and it’s likely you know most of them if not all of them, with considerable intimacy.
In ancient Buddhist teachings a true human being was synonymous to being what was called a true bodhisattva, a being (sattva) in the process of (bodhi) awakening to their human birthright, that mysterious potential for panoramic awareness – think multi-dimensional responsiveness – and selfless compassion. From this perspective, to live a life of dharma is do all that we can to realize that potential; to bring to sublime perfection the art of opening – lightly, gently, and wondrously into the fullness of all that we are. A profound realization on the path of dharma is when it dawns on us that we are all in and on this journey of life unfolding together. In the real world, relationship is not optional. We live with each other. We need each other, in this case, ‘we’, meaning all participants in this unfolding world.
With this in mind we remember our ‘life practice’ – bringing forth an attitude of friendship and open hearted attentiveness in the midst of all our life engagements. Our dharma practice is to become fully human! May we do it richly and well!
I am a human being.
Endowed with nature’s gifts.
Unique, alive, (and this applies to) each one of us
I will remember this.
This life of dharma doesn’t have a fixed idealized form, not monk or yogi, social worker or recluse, When you are human, this life of dharma looks like your life. When I’m human, it looks like my life. When we live together as a healthy, evolving community, beautiful forests, pristine reefs, healthy soils, bountiful oceans, caring families and tribes, then we will recognize that this living world, this awakening Being is truly our home.
Imagine you hear a knock on your door. You go to answer it and find to your delight a dear friend that you have not seen for some time. You instantly smile. A smile of surprise, of welcome, of inviting in. Life is constantly knocking on our door. We answer and find a feeling, a thought, a memory, a physical sensation. How do we meet them? With suspicion, irritation, a sense of obligation or salivating desire? Or can we sense a smile of welcome.
Soften into your body for a moment and sense your muscles, bones and organs. They are constantly relating with each other. Cells are relating to cells. Molecules are relating to molecules. Might it be possible to soften in a way that allows each one of these ‘beings’ to meet in a stance of welcome – to touch each other in ways that bring forth smiles rather than ‘frowns’. Then, our body/mind/community begins to sing!
This is how we begin, at least, this is how true humans begin. We emerge from the mothering/fathering universe of everything. We grow into the world of oneself with gifts of unique competence and individuality. Then discovering our humanness, we plunge passionately and reverentially back into the universe. Bodhisattvas birthing bodhisattvas for the benefit of all.