A few weeks ago, Kittisaro’s former high school Baylor School in Chattanooga Tennessee sent an email asking if he could address the student body in these Coronavirus times. Kittisaro has a long history with Baylor alongside his two brothers, who are all held in high esteem for their many academic and athletic successes.
However, when Kittisaro returned to his home town as a Buddhist monk in the 1980’s, there was uncertainty how his old beloved community would react. The headmaster, Herb Barks, (author of The Magic Bridge and brother of Rumi translator and author Coleman Barks), was himself just beginning to enter into an inner practice of meditation and silent listening, so Kittisaro’s appearance felt timely.
Herb didn’t hesitate to invite Kittisaro, with shaven head and robe, to talk to the Student Body of about a thousand students. As news spread, a local powerful donor called Herb in his office. “Herb, if you let that Buddhist monk speak at the school, I’m going to withdraw my three million dollar donation for the new chapel.” “That’s OK“, replied Herb. “You can do that, but what’s more, you should come listen to this boy, you might learn something.”
So now, many decades on, Kittisaro still speaks from time to time to his old school. This may also be timely, not only for students, teachers and parents, but for us all.
MESSAGE TO PARENTS & TEACHERS
Do you have any general advice for people of all ages in all areas of the country and the world at this time?
What I said to the Baylor students (see below) is relevant for everyone. They are not just words for young people at a school in Tennessee. I’m encouraging myself in the same way.
This is an intense time of massive transition – a global confrontation with mortality – that is not easy to bear. Multiple interconnected systems are collapsing, our normal routines have been abruptly stopped, and we face profound uncertainty individually and collectively. As we shelter in place at home, we need to be kind and patient with ourselves and each other, so that we can metabolize this new reality. To reflect on death, loss, and impermanence, is vitally important and deeply transformative. If we receive this challenging experience as a mysterious gift from the universe, and deeply contemplate it, we can discover a deeper abiding, an inner ground of clarity, compassion, serenity, and safety. This isn’t easy, but I believe it is the task that lays before us.
In a mythopoetic sense, the storylines of our culture and individual lives have been radically upended. The old world is gone and the new world has not come into focus. It’s disorienting and scary, an in-between place – a liminal space – where we most likely feel unmoored. Listen in to those uncomfortable feelings, and honor them. As the wise ones of old have taught, there is an important Heavenly Message here. The structures and patterns of life are fragile, uncertain, and impermanent. This Is the true ephemeral nature of the conditions of life – all that we take to be me and mine, internally and externally. Wanting things to be different, creates more stress and panic. In mindfully recognizing, accepting, and honoring the changing nature of our lives, we can discover an inner ground of stability and resilience.
Before Covid-19 we were always going somewhere. As Charlotte Du Cann says, we’ve now been “thrown into intimacy with home” and “brought back to the hearth.” We have a chance to come home to ourselves. Many of us have been refugees from our own heart. The hearth is the fire place, the vital and creative center of the home dwelling. As we mindfully and patiently listen in to the various difficult feelings that have been evoked in this pandemic “lockdown” – being afraid, trapped, isolated, lost, hopeless, resentful, discouraged – we deepen our capacity to be real and human. As we listen inwardly, breathing with and through the various sensations and feelings, we realize that they naturally keep transmuting, shifting, and dissolving back into an unmoving awareness – ever listening, ever awake. The sacred hearth of the spirit is this timeless awareness, always here and now, underlying everything, and yet so easily overlooked when we get enchanted by the external circumstances of our lives always pushing us on to the next thing.
It is a time to rediscover the magic of pausing, listening, mindfulness, kindness, and empathy – the widening of awareness into compassion. It’s like we’re living through a Biblical event – a worldwide flood – or wandering through the wilderness together as we search for a Promised Land, a new trustworthy, beautiful, and safe home. It’s a spiritual pilgrimage, and however overwhelming and scary it gets, there’s an opportunity here, if we heed the message, to awaken to precious timeless truths hidden right here in our own hearts, revealing deeper sources of strength, stability, belonging, and security that we’ve overlooked. The sacred ground is right here, and cherishing that attitude portends the dawning of a new beautiful world.
Seniors, perhaps, have lost the most as the shelter in place order has caused the closing of the campus for the rest of the year. How do you think you would have felt had something like this happened during your senior year at Baylor? What advice might you give our seniors?
If this had happened to me in my last year at Baylor, I would have been upset and frustrated. It’s a great loss not being able to be with your classmates for the final months of your senior year: the formal and informal times together with your friends savoring and celebrating your life at Baylor, the senior trip into the wilderness, and the graduation ceremonies marking the rite of passage as you embark into the hopeful potentialities of your future. But, this is how it is. Wanting it to be different just creates more pain and distress. Feel the feelings. You’re human. Share them with your friends (in whatever ways you can) and listen to yourselves and each other patiently and kindly without judgement. But don’t cling to them. Let the feelings come and go, and know that your graduation is mysteriously consecrated, blessed, and potentized by a worldwide corona phenomenon.
Corona means crown, and the Commencement ceremonies that you were preparing for, signify a new beginning, a threshold marking your entrance into a new territory of heightened responsibility. Christ had a crown of thorns. There’s no resurrection without a crucifixion. When suffering, hardship, disappointment, and adversity is respected, profoundly received, and contemplated, it mysteriously reveals a new beginning, a truly fresh start, and an end of suffering. It might not be what you want to hear. It’s counterintuitive, but all the saints and sages of old – and many of our heroes too – have realized this eternal truth.
The future is for those who can adapt. It’s easier to be agile and let go when you are young. As Dr. Rick Hanson says, “When everything falls down around you, you’re left with what’s inside you.” Don’t be afraid to feel the turmoil, if that’s what is happening. As you patiently tend to your inner world, there’s a wondrous alchemy that takes place. You can cultivate a resilient mindset that is not easily overwhelmed, an unshakeable core of well-being.
This is work. It takes practice to cultivate resilient well-being in the midst of turbulence. You can do it. My good friend Dr. Herb Barks, the visionary former headmaster of Baylor, told me that education should include 3 things: silence, wilderness, and community. In moments of silence, we give ourselves the opportunity to listen and bless the inner world with careful attention, infusing the various sensations of the body, thoughts, and emotions, with awareness and wise reflection. As we gain skill, we find an inner steadiness and appreciate the simple joys of being alive.
Although you won’t be able to join your friends in the wilderness for the senior trip this year, you can walk outside and appreciate that Mother Earth offers you each and every breath from her green trees, sustaining your life. All the food that nourishes every cell in your body comes from her fertile soil and life-giving waters. Everything we own and wear comes from Mother Earth, and returns to her. Mother Earth is our root support and only home. But, we’re not honoring her carefully enough.
As silent listening and appreciative awareness deepens and widens, it includes Mother Earth and all our fellow beings. Contemplation reveals that our life is deeply interwoven with all things and all creatures. We literally would not be here without our precious planet, ancestors, and parents. In times like this we realize we need each other. We are in this together. We are part of a wider community. How can we serve this community of interbeing?
In times of crisis like this, as we shelter in place, consciously choose the most precious principles you want to embody and become. Let them be your compass and guide, so that no matter how bad it gets, you preserve your integrity. If we all do this, helping each other, we will get through this time, and the new post Covid-19 world will be a beautiful place to live.
Can you offer any encouragement or positive thoughts about our future, post-coronavirus?
In this in-between time, the old world collapsing, and the new world unknown, we have a critical choice. Do we recreate the old story of the self-centered mind, intent on acquisition, domination, and control that we have seen playing out in so much of the pre-coronavirus world? Or, do we heed the powerful shock from mother nature and listen deeply to her message. We must learn from this. The seemingly insignificant and earthbound caterpillar, eating everything that’s green, suddenly stops, hangs upside down, and spins a cocoon. In that self-imposed isolation, deeply digesting and metabolizing all that is within, there is a wondrous and unexpected transformation into the vibrant color, vitality, and flight of a butterfly. Psyche is the Greek word for butterfly. May this sheltering in place be a conscious cocoon, allowing for an urgently needed transformation of our personal and collective soul.
We have treasures within us, but they are forgotten when we’re too busy going somewhere, imagining that all the good stuff is out there, somewhere else.
A very important teacher in my monastic training, who’s been a huge inspiration in my life for the last 40 years, is Chinese Buddhist monk Master Hsuan Hua. Through all the ups and downs in the many different cultures, geographies, and life situations I’ve encountered – some of which have been deeply challenging – his verse has been a guiding light.
All living beings are my family.
The universe is my body.
All of space is my university.
My nature is empty and formless.
Kindness, compassion, joy, and giving are my way. — Master Hsuan Hua
Kittisaro, May 7th, 2020 – Also published here in the Baylor site.
MESSAGE TO BAYLOR STUDENTS
Hello Guys. How are you doing? This corona virus has really turned the rhythm and shape of our lives upside down. My good friend Tim Williams just wrote me and asked if I would offer a few words for you, the Baylor students.
I hope you and your families are staying well. However, this is a challenging time where a lot of our fellow human are not well. Quite a few of our friends, people near and far and in the world around, are ill and facing all sorts of difficulties, anxieties, and fears about the future. I’d like to encourage you today not to judge or be harsh with yourself for any feelings and reactions you are experiencing, but to take this opportunity to be kinder to yourself and others. Welcome all these feelings and uncertainties. Listen into them. Listen to this moment.
Sheltering in place. How are we sheltering in place? Where is true shelter? I know that many of you, and me too, have seen our plans and expectations upended. I have a dear young family member, like you, who was travelling abroad, but then was suddenly stopped. She had to come home. Her exciting summer job, all lined up, was put on indefinite hold because of this unexpected disruption of all the norms of our life. Naturally she felt sad and a sense of loss.
How are you doing with the loss of your normal routines? The disappointment of not being able to have certain events, not being physically together with your friends and colleagues, your teams and activities, your classes and vacations, and the social gatherings where you can celebrate.
I encourage you to remember that we are not the first ones to have the routines of our life upended. The structures and patterns of life are fragile. They are uncertain. Many peoples around the world have lives that are totally disrupted by wars and natural disasters. This is not the first pandemic or sickness that has swept over societies. About 100 years ago during the flu pandemic tens of millions were stricken sick and died.
In the midst of this corona virus pandemic, there is a lot of political polarity, conflicting views, and confusion. But on the human level, I encourage us to take this opportunity to reflect on what’s important. With sheltering in place, rather than just seeing it as just something that is imposed upon us, a great loss, reflect on the gift that we make to one another when we are patient, relax, and align with this policy, which is helping mitigate and slow the surge of infections. Even though we might not be worried about getting sick ourselves, as we stay at home, practicing physical distancing and maintaining care around our interactions, we are making an offering to protect those who are more vulnerable – perhaps protecting your parents or grandparents, and those of us who are more immunodeficient or have weaknesses or underlying conditions that make someone, you likely don’t know, more susceptible to being really stricken by this COVID-19.
I suspect many of the people you and I have admired in our lives, in history or around us, have faced challenges and hardships, things not going the way they wanted. But in the midst of a real challenge, they persevered. Through patience, wise reflection, and beginning again, they discovered qualities, beautiful noble human qualities that are forged within the hardship, within challenge, within the unexpected.
Many great wisdom traditions see challenges like these as heavenly messengers that convey important truths from a deeper dimension of this mysterious journey we call life. The external forms of our lives are very transient, very fragile, and very changeable. All of us at some point or other, will encounter the ageing process, sickness, and death – the dying of this body, the dying and fading away of forms we’ve loved, of circumstances, of various phases of our life.
To reflect on this uncertain nature of our life is important. If we listen to this message, it reminds us that what seems reliable – our strength, our vitality, things unfolding the way we expect them to be – is impermanent. If we just hold on and want things to be a certain way, then when they are gone, we get rocked and shaken. We get distressed. But those very feelings, those very reactions, also are a significant message. They help us see, “Wow, I’m suffering because I wish things were different. But things are this way.”
Sometimes we can’t change the outer circumstance, but we can change our responses. In being able to let things be the way they are – relax into them, breathe into the sensations of now – we can discover something deeper, something enduring that’s not affected by uncertainty. The school year is not unfolding the way we thought. Our normal activities, going around doing this and that, meeting with our friends, are gone. But what is still here? This quality of heart, this quality of presence, remains. Why is this heavenly message something precious? Sometimes in being so attached to all the external activities, we miss what makes them meaningful and real. What is witnessing, responding, and experiencing our lives? Have we ever looked at that?
May this shelter in place be a time of discovering awareness, your own heart and its inner silent listening. This is the core of your being where you touch into stillness, presence, and peace. These deeper, more mysterious dimensions of yourself, are places where sometimes there are no words. But we can listen in, especially when we pause. While there’s still a lot going on, all the online activity, maybe this time of being at home can also be an invitation to listen inward.
If we’re feeling isolated, missing our friends, also listen in to those feelings, discovering that we can bear the feelings and thoughts, “I’m lonely, I feel cut off. How long will this last, what about all my hopes and plans?” These longings, these disappointments and worries – can we breathe with them, listen into them? Awareness, which can inwardly observe as the thoughts and feelings come and go, remains peaceful.
As we shelter in place, we begin to discover a deeper shelter. We can discover that timeless awareness has a quality of quiet inner listening. Awareness can widen to include your body and how you feel. It can include your family members, listening in to your little community at home, including the frustrations and irritations with one another, which is natural. We can widen this inner listening, so our siblings, parents, pets, relatives, or whoever is with us sheltering in place, are all within unifying awareness. The whole world we experience is also within our awareness. We are not so much ALONE, but part of an ALL ONE-ness
We can also use this time to check in with friends. When we share with each other how we’re doing, then we see we are not the only ones struggling. I encourage you to expand your awareness, realizing that we’re in this together. As you develop this inner listening, you will experience a deeper connection to life, to friends, to all you meet. As you relax into being a bit more patient and at ease, it not only helps you, but it will help others to feel more relaxed.
Finally, I encourage us to honor Mother Nature. Let’s appreciate that we are all on this one Earth, sharing this one presence, one spirit, this one mysterious awareness that allows us to be conscious beings. Can we be open to the possibility that this disruption, while difficult, is also a heavenly messenger that is giving us a chance to appreciate what we have been given here.
May we touch this Earth lightly. May we treat one another well. May we learn to appreciate the simple things. One breath. One kind word. One kind deed.
We will get through this.
I’m grateful to have the chance to share a few thoughts with you today. I wish you well. May you take advantage of this opportunity to hear the whispering of deeper truths.
Blessings. Take care
Kittisaro (Randy Weinberg, Baylor Class 1970) – April, 16th 2020
Kittisaro returns to his old school as a Buddhist monk, early 1980’s