By Roshi Eve Myonen Marko
posted originally on her blog on May 21st 2016
Today is Vesak, a Buddhist holiday commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. In his honor, people all over the world meditate, chant, walk, make prostrations and offerings, give charity, and vow to awaken.
My husband, Bernie, has shared that during the first months after his stroke, while resting in bed, he has gone into a state of deep meditation that’s effortless, restful, and at the same time fully alert. He said that it has taken him into the most profound space of not-knowing that he has experienced so far, and that it felt so natural and organic that he thought nothing of it—didn’t think to himself Wow, this is something! or label it as special in any way—until someone asked him if he was bored lying in bed and staring out into space. It was only then, as he began to explain what was happening, that it occurred to him that perhaps something unusual was taking place.
I was glad to hear this on his account, and also because it’s nice to know that when our body isn’t responding as it always has or when our energy level isn’t what it once was, this makes space for new things to happen. For myself, I’d always hoped that if and when I get older and weaker, I would have the alertness of mind to do prolonged meditation.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of all the things that enable Bernie to experience the state he described. People prepare and serve him food, people have helped him walk wherever he needed to go (now he can walk mostly on his own with a cane), someone makes the bed, someone sets up the table adjoining his bed with the things he needs to have on hand, someone makes sure to adjust the blanket and pillows when he can’t do this. Generous friends all over the world have given us money towards his recovery and have prayed and meditated on his behalf. All these things enable him to not just recover, but also explore a deep meditative state. Hunger and thirst would be distractions. Discomfort and pain, with no one on hand to help out, would hinder and obstruct. If we didn’t have the money for the things he needs for his wellbeing, if the therapists and caretakers didn’t do their job, if the food we get from friends and sangha wasn’t nourishing, if the messages we get from all over the world weren’t loving and supportive, I’m not sure he would have that experience.
That is one reason why the Buddha is reputed to have said, upon his awakening, I and the entire earth have simultaneously achieved the Way. It wasn’t just he alone, as a separate being, who had that awakening, it was all beings. It had to include the parents who gave him birth and the aunt who raised him, the wife who nurtured him, the girl who brought him milk and honey when he was too weak to go on, the tree which provided him shelter as he sat, the earth that held him and the morning star that came up that auspicious day. Even Mara, known for sending delusions and temptations his way, played a role. Just like our own dog Stanley, the Great Obstructer, who tries to obstruct Bernie in his walking, forcing him to take detours and fortify his focus, Mara provided the Buddha with just enough challenges to his focus and determination, pushing the ascetic monk into deeper and deeper realms of concentration. Where would we be without those thorns in our discipline? The entire earth awakened that day, not just the person named Gotama.
But we prefer our “great man” approach to history and religion. We put someone on a pedestal for having achieved this and that and we ignore the system, the infinite encounters and events, the many small gifts and kindnesses that must take place so that that person can achieve what he does. Instead of bearing witness to the many, we attach to the one person (usually a man), build statues in his image, and lay down garlands in his memory.
Individual achievement matters. We each have our work, we have our separate roles to play. Bernie likes to say that if he could move things just the tiniest of hairbreadths, he would be satisfied. On this Vesak day, I light incense and acknowledge with deep respect and appreciation the Indian man who awakened two and a half millennia ago, forever changing my life. And I write this in deepest thanks to the many many beings that have supported my life and practice, beginning with my orthodox Jewish parents and continuing with my teachers, husbands (yes, the first, too), family, friends, fellow meditators, fellow activists, fellow lovers, the dogs that sat at my side and the coffee that kept me awake those early mornings, the light green leaves that flutter outside as I sit, reminding me of the visible and invisible energies that have been there from the very beginning of my life.