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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
SPRING 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 65 well-meaning generalizations. To hear, in the midst of a psychiatric crisis, that “all is emptiness” and “what you feel is ultimately transitory,” ortobetold“thisisawayto purify your negative karma,” leaves those of us in the throes of such a crisis alienated and with the rawness of our distress untended. Like so many others suffering emotionally, I’m drawn to the idea of the Buddha as doc- tor, the dharma as medicine, and the sangha as nurses and helpmates. The question that we, and I, don’t know how to address directly con- cerns the exact nature of psychiatric suffering and what “skillful means” are necessary to work with it. If any of us developed stomach cancer, no one would suggest prostration practice as the highest means of cure. But when brain chemis- try and emotional suffering interact, the dharma immediately runs the risk of becoming a fuzzy, if not fatal, misapplication. With the best of inten- tions, I had misapplied the teachings to myself because I was adhering to an ideal, and often following others’ opinions, without reference to myself. So I went back on my meds. No one judged or chastised me; again, the sangha supported my effort. Indeed, if anyone treated me punitively, it was myself. Occasion- ally I still feel it—the same hovering sense of failure that arose as I became more questioning of the dharma in its traditional applications—as I move from one community to another, toeing the line between faith and doubt, tradition and innovation, medicine and spirituality. I know I am not alone in this. This is the dilemma of our current times. We are not “lamas in the lab” but people in the midst of “full catas- trophe living,” in the words of Kabat-Zinn. Deeply worn down from a life of chronic stress and constant change, our mental illness or just plain neurosis has its own quality and dimen- sions. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and teacher, cautions there are more factors to suffering than simply attach- ment. “To say ‘Life is suf- fering,’ is too general... We need to say, ‘The basis for this suffering is such and such an affliction,’ and then call it by its true name. If we have a stomachache, we need to call it a stomachache. If it is a head- ache, we need to call it a headache. How else will we find the cause of our suffering and the way to heal ourselves?” It’s important to know what we experience, in all its formal and informal components, even if the antidote involves dismantling each part back into emptiness. To do this, the changing nature of Buddhism will involve teachers and students looking directly at the illnesses of the Western mind, not simply translating our illnesses into another framework. Buddhism is not only enter- ing the West through psychology, but psychol- ogy, as its come to describe our emotional and mental suffering, is entering Buddhism. Some of the most compelling images of wise and compassionate activity come from the Vajra- yana tradition, such as the luminous thousand- armed Chenrezig, whose many arms reach out not only because of the pervasiveness of our pain, but because we all differ in our conditions of it. The exquisite Green Tara possesses numer- ous eyes, on hands, feet, and forehead, signifying that her wisdom sees in all directions. For those of us who seek to embody these qualities, it’s our responsibility as well to see in all directions and to reach for skillful means in all its forms so we can help ourselves and others. For me, it is medication that allows me to be more fully human, and without it, I cannot practice. For another, this may not be true. But so long as we continue to work with the mind in all its manifestations, the four truths—we suffer, there are reasons for it, there are solutions, and there is a way to apply them—cannot be bound to absolute answers. It will be the questions and our willingness to ask them that will deepen our practice, and allow us to help each other.