When I first started out on this meditation path decades ago, I was awed by the people who would show up at the Zen Buddhist Temple for the 5:00 a.m. services and sit like mountains. Meanwhile, I was a regular Sound of Music Maria, tripping over the ties of my robes, falling asleep in the meditation hall, forgetting the words to chants I was supposed to be leading, and making up my own chanting practices.
All of those mountain buddhas are long gone, and here I am still head-over-heels in love with this path, heart wide open, grateful for every timeless minute of every timeless day.
Looking back, on my lowest days it was remembering the stories of the awakenings of other misfits that kept me going. As one example, Soma was a woman who lived more than 2,500 years ago. The mother of 10 children, she began her married life with a man who was deeply devoted to her. Over time, though, his devotion wavered until he decided that he would rather be a monk. Soma was a good sport about it but when all of her children also abandoned her—that was another story. She was furious, lonely, and just plain miserable.
When she asked him for advice, Buddha recommended that she focus on spiritual work instead of clinging to her own story. Soma was an old woman when she decided to heed his advice. Throwing herself into her practice, she ended up with such a strong awakening that her enlightenment story is still shared in Zen temples today:
“Then the other bikkunis
Left me alone in the convent.
They had given me instructions
To boil a cauldron of water.
Having fetched the water,
I poured it into the cauldron;
I put the cauldron on the stove and sat—
Then my mind became composed.
I saw the aggregates as impermanent,
I saw them as suffering and nonself.
Having expelled all the cankers from my heart,
Right there I attained arahantship.”
When Buddha heard her news he praised her effort, saying that the sincere energy she put into her practice was worth more than a hundred years of living what I’ll call an unwatched life.
Then there is Ohashi, a woman who lived in eighteenth-century Japan. When she was very young, Ohashi sold herself to a brothel to support her family after her father lost his job. As she aged, she became a poet and calligrapher, as well. Obsessed with a sadness that came with her way of life, Ohashi finally went to see a monk named Hakuin for advice. He told her that enlightenment was possible in any circumstance. Any. Circumstance. His advice was to sincerely do her spiritual practice without judging herself so much.
One day, during a thunderstorm, Ohashi was sitting in meditation on the veranda of the brothel when a bolt of lightning struck the ground in front of her. In that moment, Ohashi awakened.
Some of the most awake people I’ve ever met were elderly Korean women who had been sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. When I met them, I could not wrap my mind around the stories they told—of “servicing” 100 soldiers a day for months at a time—of watching other women commit suicide or go so crazy that they were taken away and most likely killed.
The kindness and compassion of these women was palpable. They had shiny eyes, huge hearts, and cared for everything around them. They shrugged off their own stories like water from a light rain. This did not mean that they stopped protesting in front of the Japanese embassy every Wednesday—it meant that they had outgrown the clinging to their own stories, transforming rage into a fierce compassion that any visitor could feel when walking through the front door of their shared house.
This is an important point. Our life situations do not determine our potential for waking up. Ever. Nobody is too lost, too cruel, too angry, too broken. The only difference between us is the length of time it takes for us to set aside our cunningly seductive egos so that awakeness can come forward. And that can happen anywhere. So it does.
Geri Larkin is spending the summer perfecting the fine art of painting temple walls.