When I was three or four years old, I would stand out on our front lawn and say to myself, “I am in god and god is in me” over and over again until the paradox became clear to me. Then I’d fall down on the grass with laughter.
I don’t know where that little mantra came from. I didn’t know anyone who would have taught it to me. But it knocked me into a pleasurable state of feeling integrated rather than isolated.
Had my atheist father and agnostic mother known what I was up to they might have been concerned, but it was my private little chant that gave me delight. When I was five I began kindergarten and a girl my age moved into the neighborhood and became my constant playmate, so I had no time for such solitary activities. But the memory has stayed with me.
Seventy years later, choosing to spend part of my shelter-in-place time expanding my study of various forms of Buddhism, I discovered the Avatamsaka Sutra that talks about a Buddha named Vairocana: All phenomena emanate from him, and at the same time he perfectly pervades all things. Aha! (hahaha!) That sounded familiar, yet I’d never heard of this Buddha who apparently is considered the transcendent Buddha who doesn’t take human form but is present in all life without exception.
You may wonder how I can be a Buddhist teacher without knowing about this. I am a longtime student of western Insight meditation, rooted in the Theravada Buddhism of SE Asia—Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and parts of Vietnam—where the sole focus is on the historical Buddha Gautama, whose wisdom teachings were passed down and recorded in the Pali Canon. Previous Buddhas are noted but not studied. This is the Buddha for our time, with teachings we need.
But in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism of Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, and parts of Vietnam, there are many Buddhas honored, both historical and in a celestial realm. There are infinite Buddhas in all directions. I wasn’t aware of this. I was focused on investigating, considering, and sharing what I was learning from other western teachers in the Insight meditation tradition that comes from Theravada. I could spend many lifetimes in my tradition and continue to learn. So dedicated am I to this tradition and the great gifts it provides to me and so many others, it felt like a natural fit when I joined the Board of Directors of the Buddhist Insight Network, the international hub of sanghas and teachers in my tradition, And once in that role, I realized I wanted to know more not just about the teachings but about the history of its roots and how it came to the West.
I took an online course at Harvard titled ‘Buddhism through its Scriptures’. It wasn’t just about my tradition, but all schools of Buddhism. All the better, I thought. I needed a challenge to sit out this extended shelter-in-place experience of 2020.
Until that heady exploration, I had always assumed that the differences between the Theravada and Mahayana schools were merely ones of cultural variations in customs, rituals, practices, and focus of the teachings. But no. While the Buddha Gautama is honored and his lessons revered, the Mahayana branch focuses on other Buddhas, and the language is lush, poetic, filled with metaphors, magic, and celestial beings. Going from the wise but somewhat dry repetitive wording of the Pali Canon to the sumptuous sutras of Mahayana schools was like arriving at the Emerald City in the Land of Oz.
I wasn’t sure I was ready for that yellow brick road. First, I was put off because the sutras seemed to be more about how much better Mahayana is than Theravada. The word Mahayana means greater vehicle, and they call Theravada ‘Hinayana’, lesser vehicle. “How rude!” as my granddaughter would say. I’m not aware of the Theravada school ever dissing the Mahayana. Nothing to prove, nothing to defend. I guess because Mahayana came later, it felt it had to prove itself? But, hey, let it go! It’s all good.
Once I smoothed my ruffled feathers, I enjoyed the exploration. And after completing the course, I have continued reading extensively. The more I explore, the more I see that the way I shared my understanding of the nature of being before discovering Buddhism (in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living), and the way I share the Buddha’s teachings, have much in common with the Mahayana schools. Not the mystical realms, but some key points. If you have followed this dharma blog and/or listened to my guided meditations on Insight Timer, then you may recognize them as well.
When I lead a metta practice, I emphasize the infinite nature of loving-kindness. And when I say “May I be well”, I add, “Open to the infinite wellness, all the systems and networks of the body and beyond collaborating for nourishment, regeneration, and healing. When I say, “May I be at ease”, I add, “Open to the infinite ease pouring through the body-mind. Ahhhhh!”
I can’t recall any insight meditation teacher I have sat with using that phrasing. While I plan my dharma talks, I never plan what words I will use to lead a guided meditation. It’s all as new to me as it is to my students, as I let my wise inner voice lead us. Every week is slightly different, often building on the last and offering a new way in.
That wise inner voice is another thing I haven’t heard about from my teachers. It came from my own experience before I began attending classes at Spirit Rock. But in the Mahayana school, it is an intrinsic part of the experience. In Zen it is called Buddha Nature, and in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche refers to as the Inner Guide.
Another aspect of my guided meditations is the quality of light. The way I experience it, we receive infinite metta, it fills us full to overflowing, and we become radiant with it. When that happens we are able to share it with others without depleting ourselves. “Because it is infinite it cannot be contained, and it grows and glows beyond these walls and out into the community, shining its radiant loving light into even the darkest places.” Again, definitely not something I was ever taught.
So when I read in the same book about ‘advanced light teachings’, my jaw dropped. On my nine-month horizontal retreat, as I call the period in my life when I was ill and rediscovered the power of meditation, one of many things my inner guidance shared with me was ‘light lessons’. I gratefully received all the wisdom shared, but was uncomfortable with light lessons. They sounded so woo-woo. I wonder where all those writings are. Maybe I’ll look for them and see if I’m able to see their value now without my fear of being judged as too ‘out there’.
Coming back to the Avatamsaka Sutra upon which Huayan Buddhism is based, I was stunned to learn that it means the Garland Sutra. My name Stephanie comes from the Greek for garland. This sutra and I seemed destined to meet. (Along with every other Stephanie? Hmm, careful about magical thinking!)
In the same book, there is the description of the Net of Indra. I remember learning about it long ago, and being drawn to it. It’s a way of imagining the nature of being and our own place in it that is so much more helpful than the dreadful inner landscapes so many of us struggle with: all those barriers, walls, mountains, cliffs, canyons, etc. Let’s replace those harsh landscapes with the Net of Indra! Picture it using the photo in this post. All that is, without exception, exists as a jeweled interconnected infinite web, each intersection a radiant gem, reflecting and affecting every other. Each of us is intrinsically connected, valued, radiant, powerful. What we radiate is reflected back on us. In this way, what we project on our surroundings seems true because it bounces back in confirmation. In this way we can see how important it is to rest in awareness of simply being, shining bright, offering kindness, and yes, light.
So, wow. Just wow! Suddenly I feel all the puzzle pieces of my own understanding have fallen into place. The disparate parts have context. Nothing is left out. It’s like when you find that pieces you never thought would fit into a jigsaw puzzle suddenly do.
Like my book that came out of my conversations with my wise inner voice, for example. Although Sylvia Boorstein called Tapping the Wisdom Within “jargon-free dharma”, I didn’t quite see how it fit into the Buddhist pantheon, and I never approached the Spirit Rock bookstore to see if they would carry it. But it does fit into the Buddhist pantheon. Just in the Huayan school. Yay!
But then, does that mean I am in the wrong Buddhist tradition for me? No! While I am enjoying this exploration of Mahayana and sense of recognition, there are other ways it doesn’t feel like a fit for me, including taking on customs, wardrobe, and rituals of other cultures. Insight meditation in the West is a perfect fit, especially as it is shared at Spirit Rock with its ease in relation to all wisdom teachings. I remember the first day I arrived there in 1994, already a meditation teacher, bringing my class on a field trip. I felt I had come home. Home to nature, home to the Buddha’s teachings that helped me make sense of my own insights, and home to a sangha that accepts all of who I am, wherever my explorations take me. These explorations have taken me home again, seeing how pieces of me I thought didn’t fit actually do.
But it does leave me wondering how a four-year-old in 1950s Ohio was practicing a form of Buddhism from the Tang Dynasty of China. And seemingly understanding it with a delight that had her rolling on the grass with laughter? Wha? Ha!ha!ha!
I’ll never know. And I don’t need to! I can rest joyfully in the I don’t know mind.