By Dana Gornall
One of my favorite types of candies when I was a kid was Gobstoppers.
They came in a cardboard box and after ripping open the side, turning the box upside down, one would fall into my open palm. Yellow, green red, no matter the color, you could pop them in your mouth and wait. Each piece was layered in sweet flavors, and if you could hold out till almost all of the layers melted away, deep inside was a crunchy, tart sweet treat that would bite your tongue slightly. They were addicting, and as soon as I finished one I was tipping the box up for another.
Reading Awakening My Heart, by Andrea Miller of the Buddhist publication Lions’ Roar, is kind of like these Gobstoppers with layer after layer, each chapter as engaging as the previous one. Awakening My Heart is a collection of stories, interviews, and articles that originally appeared in Lion’s Roar. Each story holds another theme; like tiny rounded beads on a mala.
The chapters range from her experiences at retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh and interviews with Jeff Bridges (the Dude) and Bernie Glassman, Tina Turner, Jane Goodall, and Ram Dass. Articles highlight Buddhist fiction authors, and topics such as feminism and racism and some of the prominent people that have led causes within Buddhism. Each story weaves another thread into this Buddhist anthology, and Andrea Miller breathes moments of her personal life throughout.
One of the main themes throughout this book is the importance of community, or sangha, such as the chapter about the necessity for diversity within the Buddhist community. Thich Nhat Hanh lectures on the need for it in one of his retreats, telling the story about his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and the act of bring everyone together for compassionate change. Tina Turner explains how she joined together with artists of other faiths to create the Beyond album, in an effort to encourage people to find God within, no matter what belief or faith they practice.
Story after story, Ms. Miller writes with vivid imagery, drawing us right in, as if we are right there listening to Thich Nhat Hanh’s soft broken voice, or Jeff Bridges’ rough drawl. The narrative takes us through the writer’s eyes as she meets with people most of us have only read about, along with personal stories on everyday life in Buddhism:
With two children under four and a full-time job, another thing I have little of is time and energy. As a result, my dinner solution is frequently to order pizza or Chinese food. Dogen would not approve. He was very clear: “Do not just leave washing the rice or preparing the vegetables to others but use your own hands, your own eyes, your own sincerity.”
As all the Zen teachers agree, Dogen’s classic text Instructions for the Cook is about more than making meals: it’s a set of instructions for how to live. But I think I need to start small. I decide to see what happens if I bring just a taste of Dogen’s teachings into my modern condo kitchen….
According to Dogen, “Put whatever goes to a high place in a high place and whatever goes to a low place in a low place so that, high and low, everything settles in the place appropriate for it.”
This makes cleaning sound easy. “To place” is not the verb of dirty work. Try “to scrub,” or “to scour” – that’s my reality. Frankly, I am suffering from deep kitchen ennui, and it’s been going on for months. Even the thought of making a simple salad makes me feel exhausted, let alone mopping the kitchen floor. I can almost hear Dogen say, “Get over it already.”
And she takes us through incredibly heartfelt accounts:
In October 2008, I had just fallen asleep at my grandmother’s house when my aunt Peggy shook me awake. “No,” I said, sitting bolt upright.
“Yes,” she said. “Quick.”
I was already dressed, so I threw off the covers and ran down the dark stairs after her. But I didn’t understand: If yes, why this rush? Wasn’t it over? Didn’t death look like falling into sleep? I imagined the transition being like a kite disappearing into the sky. The kite would go higher and higher – deeper and deeper into dreams – then the cord tying it to earth would release, all the kite colors peacefully swallowed up in blue.
But no kites, no open sky—in the TV room turned hospice, my father was gasping, struggling to find air for his body swollen with cancer. There were five women gathered on and around his hospital bed—me, my two aunts, my grandmother, and my father’s third wife—and each of us was shouting last minute messages to him. “Let go, Stephen,” my aunt Valerie urged, making it sound like “push” in a delivery room. “There’s nothing to worry about here.”
The gasps got further and further apart and his eyes glazed. Aunt Peggy checked his pulse. “He’s gone,” she said.
It wasn’t yet dawn; we had hours before the people from the funeral home would come with their black bag. So I stayed sitting on the hospital bed—between the wall and my father slowly going cold. I wanted to sob, but held back because I didn’t want to make this more painful for my grandmother or the others. My grandmother, I was pretty sure, also wanted to sob, but held back for me and the others. Maybe this is how families always support each other: individuals keeping themselves glued together for the benefit of all. I talked quietly with cousins, aunts, and uncles.
“The people from the home will be here in half an hour,” my aunt Peggy finally said, and my heart contracted. Sobbing I could do later, alone. What could only happen now was wedging myself into the crook of my father’s arm. I tried to pull his elbow to the side, and it was like ice water in my face when I realized I couldn’t—he’d gone stiff. Still I crawled between his arm and his chest—that small, rigid space just as it was—and there I breathed for both of us, following the breath.
This was a rare moment in my life—I had my father all to myself for half an hour.
This is a book about Buddhism, but it is more than that. This is a collection—layer upon layer of people, stories, thoughts and their experiences all rolled into one book.
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