For today’s dharma talk, I want to ask first a question, and then I want to share a story. Now I am going to ask you a question, and I want you to think about the question for a few moments and really think about it –
What are you still carrying? What are you holding on to?
Now before you settle on an answer, I want to share a story with you. Here is the story.
Two traveling monks reached a river where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated, but the other quickly picked her up onto his shoulders, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other bank. She thanked him and departed.
As the monks continued on their way, the one was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!”
“Brother,” the second monk replied, “I set her down on the other side, while you are still carrying her.”
Now I want to ask you the same question again, what are you carrying with you what have you still not put down?.
In this story we can ask ourselves, what is going on with this young monk? What is he worried about? Why is the older monk teaching the younger monk? Now think in your own life – which are you the young monk or the old monk? Many of us are like the young monk, carrying something with us long after it is over.
The heaviest burdens we can carry are the burdens of the past- either for something that was done to us or done by us, and we spend so much time there. I have talked about this before, that we are constantly time-traveling from the past to the future and rarely present in the flow of now. We fix ourselves firmly in the past or because our dissatisfaction with the present or our unwillingness to change in the present, we travel constantly to the future, where everything is controllable, and the outcomes can be as expected. As Gyomay Kubose Sensei teaches,
“Many people get attached to the past or to the future and neglect the important present. We must live the best “now” with full responsibility.”
I think we understand this though many of us do nothing about it. I think that is why Gyomay Sensei ends his teaching with the idea of living with full responsibility.
In the flow of now, the past and the future already exist. The myriad causes and conditions of our life wave have brought us to this moment with one another. All of it brought you here. What a blessing our pasts have been, our karma has been! In the Zen tradition, this is the opening prayer for their services.
The teachings are incomparably profound and exquisite Is rarely met with, even in hundreds of thousands of millions of lifetimes; We are now permitted to see it, to listen to it, to accept and hold it; May we truly understand the meaning of the Buddha’s words!
In traditional Buddhism, and for many of us here, learning the teachings of the Buddha has transformed our lives. How great it is that we found it and all that brought us here. Our karma, our lives in their entirety, the painful and the joyful, the good and the bad, the laughter and the tears – the injustices and disappointments have all brought us to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, like kind teachers to show us the way. Namu Amida Butsu.
Sometimes it is hard to see this, and we demonstrate our ignorance of this reality when we try to go back and fix the past. How many of us get stuck in the past? From something that happened 15 minutes ago to some that happened years ago. Some of us get stuck because of trauma, others of us get stuck because of habitual ways of thinking. We have a tendency to replay disappointments, offenses, resentments, and injustices real or imagined over and over again. We may get stuck in our griefs. Lost childhood, lost relationship or marriage, the death of a loved one. One writer shared this,
“Some people experience an extreme type of mourning, in which they have convinced themselves that moving forward is a betrayal of the person they lost, and of themselves as a responsible person. That is, they think that moving forward equals giving up on the person they lost and giving up on being able to have done it better. So they stick to the past, and feel they are true to something.
What is it about being human that we memorialize our suffering, our stories, we would rather live in the past that be present in the moment, we live as a testament of something or someone long gone, while life moves past us? We hold on so tight maybe because as the same writer has written,
Fear of being happy is part of this process. The idea, that if they felt true joy, that would prove that they have moved on, and that would prove that the loss is completed.”
We get stuck in our unhappiness, suffering. It becomes part of our identity all to avoid the loss of something we have already lost. This is what the Buddha meant about us being delusional.
How many of you would say that at times you are stuck in the past? I did and still am at times. But once upon a time, I spent night and day in one form or another in a Carnival I created of my history. There we scarry ass roller coasters, Thors Hammers, endless halls of mirrors and clowns. OH GOOD GOD so many clowns everywhere – with names like King of Disappointment, The Great Jester of What Should Have Been, and the scariest was the Clown of Much Injustice his laugh…. bone and heart chilling.
Everything I did, everything I was, was shadowed by this. During the day, I went to work, school hung out at friends, but once I was alone, I hurried back to my carnival trying to figure my way out- ironic isn’t how I would run back into it trying to find a way out. I did this for years and took it with me into my first marriage.
My first wife and I had a good life for a time. But we were different in our approach to life. I spent a lot of time back into the past, trying to figure out my wounds. Linnea, my wife and I call it “dig and burn baby” My ex tried, but it only made her life more painful. Her path was different. Back then I thought the right way was my way – it is not it is just one of many.
From a young age, I was convinced that if I could figure out why I was so screwed up, why my parents hurt me or were so selfish. If I could just figure out what I did wrong, then I could correct it. I would be happy, and this would never happen again – with enough understanding of the past, I could have a secured, painless future. But what I learned is that there is so little than you can really figure out – How can we know the motivation, thoughts, fear, and karma of others?
And yet, why did these things happen to me? The answer to “Why me? is ultimately an unknowable question. Maybe it is the first “koan” we are ever given. In my own experience, I have spent so much time in the past that I missed so much of what was in front of me. The flow of now carried me along regardless.
An important lesson along the way was that memory is another form of story. Memory is shaded and shaped, though real, memories are not facts in and of themselves. True and factual are not always the same thing. The other thing I came to realize is that the past is not fixable. I can’t change what I did, who I hurt or who hurt me – and there isn’t really anything to figure out. I discovered that when we get stuck in the past, we become nothing more than spectators looking backward. Our lives are so much more than that. At the heart of every living thing is its innate suchness, an inherent beingness that can only be found in the flow of now, ultimately everything else is either wake or illusion.
Now I want to be clear and say that I am not saying that we can’t learn from the past; we can. The past can be an essential teacher, but when that becomes our only teacher, that is fraught we difficulties. It is easy to get lost, get stuck in all the stories, and half of them are not even our own. We need to be fully aware of the limitation of the past.
I really appreciate this from –
Ajahn Brahm a Theravada Buddhist teacher and monk. At first, I was resistant because it challenged my world view,
“Some people think that if they contemplate the past, they can somehow learn from it and solve their problems. But when we gaze at the past, we invariably look through a distorted lens. Whatever we think it was like, in truth, it was not quite like that at all! This is why people argue about what happened even a few moments ago.
Do not linger on the past.
Do not keep carrying around coffins
full of dead moments. If you do,
you weigh yourself down with
heavy burdens that do not really
belong to you. When you let go
of the past, you will be free
in the present moment.
I think the important point he is making is that we do not OVERVALUE the past. I like the image of carrying around small coffins on our shoulders and whole new meaning about having a little baggage from my childhood!
From the Pali Canon – in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta, the Buddha taught,
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
Or in other words, the past is already gone, the future is not yet here; there is only one moment for you to live right here right now.
I want you to observe your mind and observe how many times your mind travels from the past to the future – you can just quickly label it Past – Future. It will astound you how much time you spend in general going back and forth, but I also want you to observe when you get stuck in one or the other – one way you can tell is when you start spending a lot of time in the past you may start to feel down, depressed, lose energy or feel anxious about the present moment or the future –
I appreciate this quote I found – the author is unknown.
“If you live in fear of the future because of what happened in your past, you’ll end up losing what you have in the present.”
There is another form of time travel where we get stuck in the nostalgia of when life was good (normal) and we have no vigor for the present. This happens most often when the changes that are happening in our lives are overwhelming and our resistance to the present has us seeking out the past before the great Oz was unmasked. But the present is all that there is. Right here right now – THIS. in all of its convoluted manifestations. The past is gone like the water of the river gone to the sea. Living in the past, we are not living but setting up camp in a dark cemetery talking to ghosts.
Living in the past is a heavy burden that can keep us stuck. Our aspiration, our deepest yearning is to be carried by the flow of life, but we are afraid to let go. It is exhausting because when we get stuck, we are resisting the flow of life, we are standing in the middle of a stream walking against the current of time. No matter how hard you try, the flow of now, the flow of life is pushing you along with it – let go – let the flow carry you.
The Buddha taught that all his teachings were about freedom – liberation. Do you want to be free? How many times did I choose not to be free? Again, from Ajahn Brahm,
It is amazing how free you can be if you don’t limit yourself to your past.
Our lives can only be fully lived in the flow of now because that is reality as it is, the dynamic ever-changing unrepeatable flow of our lives is the everyday miracle if we can only let it be that.
I love this from Thich Nhat Hahn,
To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”
Life can only be in the present moment, enlightenment can only be in the present moment and in that same present our past and future can be reconciled – as Gyomay Kubose Sensei has taught,
“The enlightenment of the present IS the enlightenment of the past and the future.”
“To one who is grateful now, his past is also grateful.”
What does that mean? As I was sharing earlier, it means that all I have been through the abandonment, the poor choices, the disappointments, the injustices, the suffering all have brought me here, to where I am right now, have brought me to the dharma and the compassion of the Buddhas to the right here, right now. Gyomay Kubose sensei calls it the eternal present.
“Only when one discovers for himself -what he or she is and what he really wishes to live for – does he find life very significant and appreciate it. Then his entire past becomes significant and grateful, and his entire future becomes important, bright, and meaningful.
“Today” exists only today, and it cannot be in the past or the future. In other words, this “today” does not come again in the eternal future. Today is the most unique, noble, and only “today” in the eternal past and eternal future.”
Let us let go of the past – and return fully present to the flow of now – let us unbind our hearts so that we can fly.
I want to close with this poem by Mary Oliver.
“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
Namu Amida Butsu
Christopher Kakuyo Sensei
Salt Lake City, UT