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Homages  //  GESHE KELSANG GYATSO

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There are pivotal years in life. These are not the happy years. Happiness doesn’t alter the course of our journey. The pivotal years are of another kind. Everything collapses, not around us, but within us. Something breaks in our inner house. The continuity of our psyche is fractured so that we will never be able to tie in the person we were with the one we will be, if there is any future for us. To picture those dark years, I can't imagine any other image than that of a massive iceberg whose front collapses in an apocalyptic crash before melting in the ocean as if it had never existed. A pivotal year presents the same dynamic: a whole section of our life tragically disappears. Of everything that used to make us, sometimes, nothing remains.



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The first of these dreadful collapses occurred when I left my native country. Not only external elements such as the bearings of my culture and the familiar space in which I had lived, but also the structures of my psyche as well as my certitudes, everything was stolen away from me. Like an iceberg collapsing, large swaths of what was my previous self fell little by little. Within two years, nothing was left of my old being. The second pivotal year was that of my resettlement in Australia in 2008. This time, the opposite happened: was I going back to Australia or was I coming back home? The same tragic split resulted in two identities facing each other without recognizing each other. What I had accumulated over the years as experience was no longer useful. Experience is a double-edged sword. For a long time, it gives the illusion that we have hoarded a fortune, because by mid-life, we have rarely been spared from misfortunes and betrayals, so many twists of fate through which we’ve matured and learnt to be circumspect. Yet even though I searched for answers among what had hitherto assuaged me, I found nothing helpful.    ​
 


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A compassionate hand warded off the temptation of resentment, as I was assailed each morning by a cynical “What's the point?”  What's the point of fighting? What good is it to write? A compassionate hand which I have never seen but which has always protected and guided me, no matter the danger, intervened. A strong hand. A hand that has always cleared the way for me and pushed aside the thorny bushes. God's hand. I could say it was a fluke, a combination of circumstances, the fact that I was working on a novel that led me to turn to Eastern religions, yes, I could give so many explanations for what isn’t a coincidence. I know God’s hand took action instead of mine.  

 


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In the novel I was writing, one of my characters converted to Buddhism. My knowledge being limited to a handful of folk clichés, I realised I had to fill in the gaps. A few days later, I walked into a shop. On the counter were a few leaflets advertising for a weekly Buddhist teaching. It was nearby. I decided to go, because I have a passion for study. In the department stores I visited in India, when I saw one of Gandhi's famous sentences replicated on plastic squares and sold for a few rupees: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever,” I felt a great moment of bliss while reading his judicious advice. I learnt a lot indeed. But first and foremost, I was so enthusiastic about what I heard that a few weeks later, I enrolled in a Buddhist center. And there, I discovered a world which matched somewhat what I imagined, a timeless vision of shaved heads monks, dressed in saffron robes, composed, friendly, seated on a throne from which they dispensed pure Buddhist teachings based on the commentaries of the Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a Buddhist master who gave new impetus to the ancient Kadampa Buddhist tradition. The discipline which I followed for several years suited perfectly my nature. It was a profound life-changing experience.  

 


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I will only stress two points dear to me for they helped me a lot. The first is the advice to “let go.” I confess that letting go was one of the commitments I found the most difficult to put into practice, and I am not sure that, despite my efforts, I really know how to let go. Because we never let go entirely. On the one hand are the goals we have set and to which we hold firm, yet the achievement of which slips away like a mirage. The more we persist in wanting them, the less they seem ready to be granted. Thus, we’d like to let go, but we never do. Frustration prevails. Part of us understands that we mustn’t go on wanting to control our existence, and the people around us at the same time, so that things will agree with our desires. Yet we continue to wring life’s neck. While reading Jung's commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower - an esoteric Chinese text from the 7th century called T'ai I Chin Hua Tsung Chih - I found a page enlightening the idea of “letting go.” Most of the following text is a letter from a patient of Jung. “I recently received a letter from a former patient, explains Jung by way of introduction, which pictures the necessary transformation in simple but expressive words. She writes: “Out of evil, much good has come to me. By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive, hand in hand with that, by accepting reality - taking things as they are and not as I wanted them to be - by doing all this, rare knowledge has come to me, and rare powers as well, such as I could never have imagined before. I always thought that, when we accept things, they overpower us in one way or another. Now this is not true at all, and it is only by accepting them that we can define an attitude towards them. So now, I intend playing the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow that are for ever shifting, and, in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus, everything becomes more alive to me. What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to my idea. »
 

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I have probably never been able to perfectly “let go”, but what this letter expresses, I have sincerely experienced through Buddhist practice. If large segments of my old personality have melted away forever, no longer giving me the solid platforms on which to stand, the outcome was nevertheless beneficial. “Out of evil comes good,” old people used to say. This proverb came back to me while I was reflecting on the letter quoted above. My grandparents repeated this adage, a saying with a disaster-prone flavor whose accuracy appeared clearly when the pivotal years made my life creak. My existence no longer twirled around my wishes. My future plan was not the plan that a supreme being, much wiser than me, had chosen for me. Drawing on my ready-made answers -well-rehearsed over the years - was of no use. I had two options: rebellion against my destiny coupled with sourness, dangerous and toxic, for bitterness fossilizes our psyche and leads us down the path of resentment so well analyzed by Cynthia Fleury in her essay Ci-gît l'amer, guérir du ressentiment, or on the other hand, accepting trustfully to be healed by the therapy of Buddhism, understanding that one must “let go” and accept life as it comes, accept it wholeheartedly with its uneventful years as well as its tragedies, without concluding that they are a form of punishment from heaven, without feeling burdened by the guilt of any past mistake, two wrong reasons. Peaceful acceptance leads to healing. After expounding on the principle of individuation which is at the heart of the Chinese text he is commenting on, Jung writes that his patient's attitude is “religious in the truest sense of the term, and therefore therapeutic, for all religions are therapies for the sorrows and disorders of the soul.” The peaceful acceptance of our destiny, whatever it may be, tragic or happy, is indeed at the core of every religion. It is present in every chapter of the New Testament. It is present in the letters of the apostle Paul. This acceptance is not passive, I should add. I sometimes hear from people who look at Buddhism from afar that this discipline advocates passivity or even indifference in the face of adversity. This is inaccurate. Acceptance of life, whatever it is, is far from being passive. It is dynamic, almost joyful but without masochism, for it is nurtured by faith and by the incessant effort to pacify the conflicts raging within our inner house. It requires endurance. In the same way, one goes through a snowstorm, blinded by the tempest and chilled to the bone. We go on step by step, slowly, applying the desperate determination of a person determined to survive. This step by step effort, any believer knows, is never carried out on our own. We are assisted by the infinite mercy of the One who watches.

 


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The second point, another delicate practice in my apprenticeship, was to apply the principles of love and compassion advocated by Buddhism. Again, I tried to be a good student without becoming the best example to follow. I oscillate between light and shadow and despite my efforts, my balance shakes. There is, however, a meditation that helps me to climb the steep mountain of universal love that I have never succeeded in ascending to the top. This is an incredibly efficient contemplation. It consists in “remembering the kindness of others”. This contemplation is part of the cycle of twenty-one meditations of the Lamrim practice. The Tibetan Buddhist Master Je Tsongkhapa wrote commentaries to Atisha’s Lamrim teachings. In turn, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso brought together Je Tsonkhapa's commentaries in his New Meditation Handbook were the twenty-one meditations are explained in detail. If I happen to get carried away when watching the disastrous state of the world we live in, if I feel nauseated by the way social media trap and infantilize us, if I happen to feel frustrated by the helplessness of our human nature, especially when we realise how powerless we are when it comes to assist those who suffer physically or emotionally, this contemplation quietens my thoughts and instantly sweeps away any traces of resentment. It reminds me of the kindness of those who have accompanied my journey on earth. I added the “homage” section to this site to remember every day and without failing all those who have been by my side, in good and bad times, those who inspired me, my high school and university teachers and those who taught me the practice of Buddhism, the friends who helped me to grow, the men and women who supported and encouraged my work, those who comforted me and held my hand through hardship, those who helped me out with generosity without asking anything in return, those who made me smile, laugh and love my fate, whatever it may be. And if I remember the wounds, if the sting of a painful memory prickles, I turn to the remedy of this meditation and remember that those who hurt me had been my friends before our roads parted. I can thus “let go” of the offenses, and “forgive those who have sinned against me” as the prayer teaches. This meditation reminds me of the precious gift of the living and the dead, those who brought me into the world, parents and ancestors, it also reminds me of all the poets, painters and musicians returned to ash but whose works continue to inspire me, for no line, no note, no brushstroke of theirs was lost overtime, whether they were famous or unknown, whether they live in wealth or in misery. They doubted, suffered from lack of recognition, gave themselves body and soul to Art, paid dearly for wanting to be poets or artists, but none of their thought, still alive, was offered in vain.  

© Catherine Rey 2022 - All rights reserved  

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