I turn 70 next month and this seems like a particularly auspicious birthday. Of course, for me that is not saying much. Birthdays have not had much meaning for me in the past. I remember one year I was at work preparing to go home when I suddenly realized that it was my birthday! So needless to say, birthdays have not been a big event for me.
Bur turning 70 feels different, and I think that is because it feels like a real cause for celebration. I have had an extraordinary life, one that I could not even have imagined when I was a child. I grew up in a rather sheltered way, and yet I have gone on to a great life with great adventures.
But having said that, it could have gone terribly wrong.
Yesterday I was driving through the Cottonwood district of Albuquerque. I go through there a lot, and there are often homeless people there asking for help. Curiously the Pāli word for monk is “bhikkhu,” which literally means beggar.
So I was stopped at a red light and I offered up a $5 bill to just such a homeless person. But when I looked into his eyes, I did not see an “other” person. I saw myself. I felt like I was looking into a different manifestation of me.
This is, of course, what the Buddhist teachings tell us. Whatever person or animal or any being you see, you have been that person in the past. You may be that person in the future.
Like most people my life has had its ups and downs. Life can be like walking on a narrow plank. If you step one way you fall into misery and despair. If you step the other way you land in joy and happiness. And I have had times in my life where it all could have gone terribly, disastrously wrong.
I think that is why when I see someone like my homeless friend, or someone who is in despair—even committed suicide—or in prison, I think about what my Christian brothers and sisters say: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
But for whatever reason, whenever I was on the brink of disaster, something happened to save me. And the greatest thing that saved me was the Dharma, and the Dharma is the greatest savior of all.
The world is a very uncertain place. Does anyone not believe that? This is the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, inconstancy.
Look at where we are now. The pandemic. Political instability. Climate change.
But has the world really ever been different? When I hear people talk about how bad things are, I invite them to read Barbara Tuckman’s book A Distant Mirror. If you think things are bad now, take a look at the Middle Ages. Even in our recent past we had Nazis and the First World War. It goes on and on and on back through time. And someday the sun will go supernova. The whole planet will blow up. That is really going to ruin your day.
But inside of all this incredible chaos is shelter from the storm. In Buddhism we call them the Three Refuges: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṇgha.
I have always loved the image of a refuge. I lived in New England for most of my life, and New England is largely a story of the sea. The coast is full of refuges, safe harbors. Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Portland, Maine. Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, and Boston in Massachusetts. There are the iconic whaling harbors of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and New Bedford.
When you see these places from land, they look one way. But when you see them from the vastness of the ocean, they look quite different. If you were a sailor in the 19th century, you may have spent two or three years on the uncertainty of the oceans. It is quite the metaphor for life.
But then you arrive home. There it is, the glassy stillness, serenity, and safety of Salem Harbor.
This is what the Three Refuges are. They are the one place of safety in a dangerous, uncertain world.
There is a great deal of comfort in that. But it isn’t some superficial kind of comfort. It is substantial. We look around at all of the uncertainties of life. It is just as the reflection on the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection [AN 5.57] tells us:
I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging.
I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness.
I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
I find that last line particularly poignant. Everything you know will disappear. Everyone you know will die. The planet itself will vaporize.
And yet, there is this great big, warm security blanket. And it is reliable. It is constant. It is the glassy stillness of Salem harbor. And ultimately it brings us to final liberation and release from the relentless wandering through the uncertain existence that is saṃsara.
But as the infomercials tell us, wait! There’s more! And that is the unimaginable joy that Dharma practice brings us.
Because of the way that the Dharma is sometimes couched, it feels rather negative. We hear a lot about renunciation. We see monks and nuns who are celibate. They only eat one meal a day. They live in little huts and only wear simple robes. It seems pretty dismal, from the outside, at least.
But as your practice deepens—and I truly hope that you get to experience this if you have not already—there is a joy that goes way beyond anything you can experience in the conventional world. The pleasures of the conventional world seem gross and even revolting. The Pāli word is nibidda. It means “revulsion.”
A way to understand this is through food. Suppose you ate at this wonderful, world class restaurant and you had this amazing meal. And the next day your only option was to eat at McDonald’s.
This world class restaurant is the joy of a deep Dharma practice.
The Three Refuges are also called “The Three Jewels.” I remember years ago reading a description of The Three Jewels by a Tibetan lama. I think he was a tulku, a reincarnate lama. And the way in which he described The Three Jewels was so vibrant that it felt to me that this was not just some metaphor for him. He really saw The Three Jewels as literal jewels. They were overwhelmingly bright and dazzling and sparkling. They dominated his space like bright sunlight.
Ayya Khema uses this image to practice metta, lovingkindness. She invites us to imagine a bright sun glowing in our hearts and minds, our citta. This light is metta. It fills our whole being. We are completely immersed in it. It shines on everyone without discrimination. It makes us radiate with lovingkindness. We are lovingkindness. In fact, we disappear. There is only metta.
And as your practice deepens, you may experience metta in just that way. You may experience The Three Jewels in just that way. And the world, with all of its uncertainties, pain, anger, hostility, violence, and greed… it all falls away.
A lot of people criticize this as being escapist. Yes! It is! It is escaping from the prison of saṃsara. If you were in an actual prison, wouldn’t you want to get out?
And when you do escape, as Ayya Khema once intimated, you enter the world of nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa lies beyond time and space. It is the very fabric of being, or perhaps more properly, non-being. In entering that world, your boundless love, compassion, and wisdom also become part of the fabric of being/non-being. And from that, all beings throughout time and space benefit.
In this context, wearing robes and eating one meal a day and abstaining from sex hardly matter. I mean, crikey.
The fact is, I may not make it to 70. It is still nearly a month away as I write this. This, too, is a teaching of the Buddha. We are only, perhaps, ever a moment away from this life ending. But it is not really an ending, is it? It is just a transition from this life to the next. But the good news, especially if we have found and practiced the Dharma, is that we take that with us. In fact, it is the only thing we take with us. Whatever good qualities we have developed, our kindness, our compassion, our wisdom and generosity, they go with us. The goodness we have received from good friends, that we take with us. And that is a cause for joy, not grief. It is a cause for celebration.
And so as I face 70—ailing, creaky body and all—I celebrate.