Buddhism blossoms with compassion

by Anne Elizabeth Wynn, Your Words, May 27, 2011

Austin, TX (USA) -- ‘Look, Buddhas everywhere!" I chirped. At the Fo Guang Shan Xiang Yun Temple in Northwest Austin, the walls of the pretty and airy main hall are completely paneled with nearly identical images of many Buddhas.

Kyrie asked, "You mean ‘The' Buddha, don't you, Mom?"

Our gracious guide, Hwi Allen, explained that Mahayana Buddhists believe there have been and will be many Buddhas, or enlightened beings, and that we all have the capacity to become a Buddha. That capacity is our Buddha Nature.

This was news to my girls, so I added, "?‘The' Buddha, an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama who lived around the 6th century B.C.E., was just the one who did the serious work of figuring out how to become enlightened and then offered a way for anyone to become enlightened. That's why he's the super-popular one!"

We laughed. With such straightforward and rational teachings as encouraging relief from suffering and enlightenment for all, Buddhism is an easy religion to like. But with abstruse notions like "emptiness" and "nonduality," it can be a hard religion to comprehend.

After years of reflection and study, I am now a Buddhist, even as I still grapple with the full meaning and implication of that. Grappling with Buddhism's cerebral and abstract ideas seemed to put Kyrie off. Both daughters confessed that they didn't want to even try meditation. Even the otherwise warm and fuzzy ideal of enlightenment seemed to almost intimidate Larkin. She asked Hwi if being enlightened meant you had to be perfect.

"Oh, no!" Hwi reassured. "Even Prince Siddhartha wasn't perfect. He just perfectly understood, so he became perfectly compassionate. That's the biggest enlightenment in Buddhism, just to be compassionate to everyone and everything!"

Rick Pearson is Larkin and Kyrie's eighth-grade science teacher and a student of Theravada Buddhism who offered to visit with my girls.

"Enlightenment isn't meant to suggest a perfection of experience, some state where you'd have no more troubles, et cetera. It's about dealing graciously with troubles. It's your response to the world that is changed or ‘enlightened,' not you."

Larkin lit up at this idea. Kyrie asked him what Buddhism meant to him. He reflected carefully, then simply said, "I suffer less."

He recalled the Buddha famously declaring that fundamentally he taught only one thing – suffering and the end of suffering. One of his most famous sermons, the Flower Sermon, occurred when he stood before his disciples and did not speak a single word. He simply held up a lotus blossom. One disciple smiled. According to the Buddha, that simple smile affirmed the disciple's realization of pure wisdom, or prajna.

Zen, the unique distillation of Buddhism that developed in Japan, aims above all for this kind of immediate and unmediated understanding, called satori, through disciplines ranging from years of rigorous monastic meditation to the carefully cultivated art of a tea ceremony.

So, on a nippy Sunday, we were honored to meet Sheila Fling, a 75-year old Urasenke Master of Chado, or the Way of Tea, at the teahouse of the Tanaguchi Japanese Garden inside Zilker Park's Botanical Garden. My girls were transfixed as much by her words as by the ritual itself.

"Peace begins right here, right now, between you and me, with this bowl of tea," she began.

"You know that we are all One, right? Well, One-ness is better said as Not-Two-ness. That is what is meant by nonduality. And you have heard about this idea of emptiness? That is not nothingness. It's No-Thing-ness."

Kyrie lit up. "Oh! I get it!"

A little satori in a 12-year-old is a beautiful thing.

Austin writer Anne Elizabeth Wynn and her daughters, Larkin and Kyrie, are spending 2011 studying the world's religions, large and small. Their experiences and discoveries appear monthly in this column and at www.thethoughtfulspot.wordpress.com.