I was asked by my Zen teacher, Kozen, if I’d like to join him on a trip to Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). My immediate reaction was, “Yes.” He recently asked me why I accepted his invitation, and my answer was, “How could I not?” It’s occurred to me that this is a rather superficial answer, and while true, the question deserves a more in depth answer.
I recently had an experience that demonstrated to me the power of looking at things from a different angle. At one time in my life, I was confronted with a very painful recurring situation. It caused me great suffering, and I learned what it is like to be pushed past my breaking point. On one occurrence, I did truly break. It’s a feeling I hope no one else ever experiences. Then I read about tonglen, a meditation practice in which one inhales and exhales. On the inhale, one focuses on another person’s suffering and tries to take that suffering from them; on the exhale, one tries to give that other person one’s strength and happiness. This is, of course, just a mental exercise or a mental visualization; nothing more. Yet when confronted with this very same painful situation, I tried practicing tonglen and instead of a feeling of sinking despair, I felt compassion and calm. This hit me like a ton of bricks, “Wow, this stuff really works!” Given the same situation, one can feel either despair and suffering, or compassion and calm, just by looking at the situation differently. How cool is that?
Kozen and the other monks he hangs around with look at things differently than I do. Given the chance to spend time with them and perhaps learn a little more about how they look at things, I’d be a fool to miss an opportunity like that.