Editor's Note: The following meditation was written by Diana Gallaher. Diana works for the Tennessee Justice Center - Erie Chapman
When one piece of
china hits another piece of china, they easily break.
If one of the pieces were soft, both would be all right.
Let’s keep hearts soft.
-Poem by Aida Mitsuo, quoted in Women Living Zen by Paula Arai
While I was in Divinity School at Vanderbilt from 1999-2001, I lived with my 90+ year old aunt. Margaret was an amazing woman, having attended Vanderbilt University in the days when they had a quota on the number of women that could be enrolled in the school. She taught history in the public school system in Nashville for years – North Nashville High School is where she taught most of her career. I loved and respected her. But after living with her a couple of months, I said to a friend, only half-joking, “I understand now why some caregivers get impatient with elderly people.” It can be difficult...
That first semester
in Divinity School, I took a class on Women in Buddhist Traditions taught by
Paula Arai. Professor Arai’s principal
area of study is Japanese Soto Zen nuns.
Monastic life for these nuns is austere and difficult. They live an extremely disciplined life that includes a constant state of sleep deprivation, a meager diet (especially by standards here in the United States), exposure to the extremes of weather (when it is cold, the monastery is cold, when it is hot, the monastery is hot), and long hours of work and study.
Which one of the things listed above do you think the nuns identified as the most difficult about their monastic lifestyle? The answer is none of them. Rather, the nuns said that it is the invariable interpersonal conflicts that arise that is the hardest thing about living in monastic community.
The nuns have an understanding, however, of these interpersonal bumps, dings, and crashes as an opportunity for spiritual formation. Instead of just complaining, or giving up, or any number of unhelpful or potentially harmful responses, the nuns seek to respond in ways that cultivate compassion and wisdom.
They liken the opportunity afforded in these interpersonal clashes to a mundane, concrete experience in their lives. The Japanese yam is hairy like a coconut. When it comes out of the ground, the yams are full of dirt. In order to clean the yams before cooking and eating, the nuns put them in a bucket of water and bump them against each other. The result of the bumping? A bucket full of clean yams.
Against our American culture where many of us never have to clean our produce beyond a quick rinse under the kitchen sink faucet, Paula Arai offers another analogy. How are rocks polished? You put them in a tumbler, they hit against each other, the sharp edges are knocked off resulting in mutually polished stones. The key term here is mutually.
How does one cultivate compassion when the person before you is getting on your very last nerve? As the Vietnamese Zen nun, Chan Khong says, you first try to understand from their point of view by “getting into the skin of the other person.” Understanding the point of view of the other means you are more likely to respond with compassion rather than judgment. Self-reflection on how my actions are affecting the other person is also necessary. Responding with compassion and wisdom to alleviate suffering is the goal.
Getting into my aunt’s skin, I experienced a woman who was living with a sharp mind but a body that was more and more failing her. She could not leave the house, even to get the mail, without assistance. She was lonely and she missed all the family and friends, including her husband, who had already passed. Perhaps more than anything, she was bored.
She was not living to aggravate me. We were two beings living together when in fact if either one of us thought we had a viable alternative we probably would have chosen it. I tried to live the ideal that I learned from studying the Soto Zen nuns. But I did not always respond with compassion to my aunt. In fact, frequently I responded with avoidance, frustration, and anger.
I continue to strive to respond with compassion when interpersonal conflict arises. The opportunities to practice cultivating compassion are endless. The Journal of Sacred Work helps hold me accountable to self-reflection on how my actions impact others.
Sue Monk Kidd, in a wonderful article titled “Live Welcoming All” in the Christian journal, Weavings, wrote of an experience that exemplifies this kind of mutual knocking off the sharp edges. She tells of an experience after giving a workshop on women’s spirituality in which an attendee angrily approached her saying, “People like you make me sick.” While her first response was anger, Sue Monk Kidd “takes a moment to breathe, to step back, and become as empty as I can.” In that moment, she understands that the attendee is reacting from a place of fear. She takes him aside and tells him that she will listen to whatever he wants to say. Ultimately, the man apologizes. He gradually came to the understanding that they were more than their differences.
The sharp edges were knocked off. The heart was polished. Mutually.
Note: The concept of “polishing the heart” comes from Paula Arai from her study of Japanese Soto Zen nuns.