Ever have one of the moments when you really, really wish you hadn’t said something? I have. Actually, I’ve had many…too many to count. But one stands out in my memory. It was so bad I can’t even tell you what it was. I was a teenager, I didn’t know I was a Buddhist…but it was so vile, so out of character even for the person I was then, that I still cringe when I remember it.
Ever do something you wish you hadn’t done? I’ve got a few of those too…here’s one. I was at my best friend’s birthday party. She had invited a man she was interested in, whom she thought was showing signs of being interested in her. She was an accomplished pianist, and I sang. We had tried performing together, but I wasn’t used to a piano accompaniment, so I ended up singing a capella. Somehow, after I’d finished singing, I found myself out on the porch with “the man”, reluctantly accepting a kiss from him. I don’t remember being especially attracted to him, but I was flattered that he seemed attracted to me. I had to let him know that nothing more was going to happen without letting him know why. It was a horrible, awkward moment. In an instant I felt myself transformed from sophisticated chanteuse to inarticulate, clumsy friend-betrayer. Things got worse when I found my friend sobbing in the kitchen, surrounded by her other female friends who all looked daggers at me, and I started crying too as I tried to explain what had happened. Eventually she forgave me, but our friendship was never the same. After I married a man she despised, and she married one I thought was just as bad if not worse, we lost touch, and I never saw or heard from her again.
And then, of course, are the times when you wish you had said or done something…not just esprit d’escalier moments, but real soul-searing, wee hour insomniac regrets for feelings not expressed, or actions not taken…you ask yourself why, why, why didn’t I?
A Buddhist maxim is to live your life so that you have no regrets. Another important concept is “from this moment on”…in other words, whatever regrettable things you may have done in the past, what’s important is what you do now, because that’s what truly shapes your future. And then there’s the quasi-Buddhist saying “be in the now”, which sounds kind of exotic and cool until you try to figure out what it actually means. To be “present”, to be “mindful”, to “live each moment as if it might be your last”…how does that work, what does it mean in terms of reality? And why, why, why, despite our best intentions, do we find ourselves doing something that we instantly realize was a big, big mistake.
Remember T’ient’ai? His studies of the Lotus Sutra led him to formulate the theory of ichinen sanzen, or “three thousand realms in a single moment of life”. This sum of three thousand was meant to include the entirety of one’s life. Here’s how he arrived at that number: he took the ten worlds (see previous post, Seeing the Elephant) and multiplied them by ten because each of them also possesses all the others, then multiplied that by the ten factors (describing the nature of life itself; read more here http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php) and then multiplied that by the three existences of past, present, and future. So that’s 10 x 10=100 x 10=1000 x 3=3000. Each moment of life thus presents many more possibilities than it seems to, which is something to think about at those times when it seems like our choices are limited to only one or two.
How, then, can we insure making the best possible decisions in life? Buddhism speaks of the “crucial moment”, but if we’re supposed to “be in the now” and live each moment as if it might be our last, isn’t every moment crucial? Being on high alert at all times, afraid of failing to make the most of every moment, sounds like a miserable way to live. Plus, those moments are not ours alone, so we can’t simply eliminate those who might diminish the quality of our “now”. The reality is that as human beings, we rely on a certain amount of infrastructure, a status quo, so that we don’t have to agonize over every moment. The downside of this approach is that we can become attached to our present circumstances when they’re good, devastated when things go wrong, and paralyzed when it comes to decision time.
That’s when a Buddhist practice comes in handy. Being mindful doesn’t have to mean agonizing over every moment. When we chant twice a day, we are in effect renewing a vow to live in the wisest, most compassionate way possible. And if we do happen to say or do something (or not say or do something), it’s usually not irreparable.
If the world is an ocean, our lives are like sailing ships. If we fail to chart a course, we can still sail, but we’ll drift along at the mercy of tides and currents, and we may never arrive at whatever we hoped our destination might be. Even if we’ve planned everything to the last detail, there will be storms, or maybe icebergs, other ships that aren’t being steered, or pirates. We don’t sail alone, either, so there’s always our “crew” to consider. Any of these factors can lead to a “crucial moment” where the wrong decision could result in the ship running aground, or worse. Nichiren says, “One who listens to even a sentence or phrase of the sutra and cherishes it deep in one’s heart may be likened to a ship that crosses the sea of the sufferings of birth and death.” By centering our lives on the law of cause and effect through our daily practice, we develop a depth of understanding that enables us to move freely and joyfully across “the sea of suffering”.
Now. And for the rest of our lives.