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Lovingkindness: The First Abode
by Joan Halifax Roshi
"Every time we narrow the vision of what we really are, we become afraid and fall out of love."
The first abode, lovingkindness, allows us to transform our sense of separation and alienation into love. We might feel identified with our bodies, as if we are our bodies. We may spend a lot of time trying to save the body and care for it. In truth, however, we are not the body, nor can we really control it. Old age, sickness, and death are part of the natural order of life. In the flow of change, sooner or later the body will die. The elements that form the body will return to their sources and find another way of manifesting themselves.
It is helpful to see that we are part of a greater whole. We are more than our bodies, more than our thoughts, more than our feelings. Every time we identify with some fixed point in space or time, we close our hearts to the vastness of our being. Every time we narrow the vision of what we really are, we become afraid and fall out of love. A contemplative practice like this one can remind us that we are part of an ever-changing continuum.
When I think about what it means to be a wise person, I contemplate those whom I consider wise. My father was a wise man. He was naturally kind, a person to whom others turned for support and counsel. Through him I realized that wisdom and kindness give birth to each other.
As he lay dying, my father did not seem to be afraid of death. He had included old age, sickness, and death in his life as he was letting go of it. He included the memory of my mother; the presence of his new wife; his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild; nurses, doctors, and aides; and his sickness and humor. Nothing was left out. As he was giving away his life, his wisdom and kindness grew even deeper. He let go of opinions, concepts, and ideas. He let go of all of us. His true nature shone through his dissolving body as boundless love, completely free of clinging, for everyone around him.
Lovingkindness is supremely relational: it works only if it is offered, given away, or shared. We cannot bank love; it grows as we give it away. The more we give it away, the greater our capacity for love. This is how lovingkindness becomes limitless.
Years ago I participated in a small meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Several weeks before, I had undergone eye surgery to remove some growths on my sclera. Following surgery my eyes were subjected to radiation therapy. Unfortunately the radiologist did not fractionate the dose of radiation enough and my eyeballs were burned. I was forced to wear bandages for several months as my raw eyes were healing.
Since I was virtually blind, I considered not attending the meeting. Then I realized that I felt well enough to participate in some minimal way. His Holiness was very kind to me during the meeting, and after it was over, he asked if we could spend some time together. I knew that he was busy, so busy that he had given no private audiences to anyone during his six weeks in the United States, and I almost refused his invitation because I didn’t want to bother him. In truth, I didn’t feel worthy of his attention. But his assistant called and insisted that I come.
When I arrived in the private home in which His Holiness was staying, he threw his arms around me in a big embrace. He then led me to a chair and asked me what had happened. After I briefly told him the story, he said that he hoped I had not suffered too much and that he was happy that my mind was clear and strong even though my eyes had been injured. He was kind without pity, loving without neediness. He then put his hands over the bandages and prayed.
At the moment when His Holiness touched the bandages, my fear disappeared, and I was truly happy. I had been touched by the essence of lovingkindness and compassion. It reminded me of something he had said in a talk: “My religion is kindness.”
Joan Halifax Roshi – Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, civil-rights activist, and author – is Founder and Abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As Director of the Project for Being with Dying, she counsels dying people and teaches health-care professionals about the dying process. Our thanks for her gracious permission to reprint a series of chapters from her book Being with Dying: The Four Boundless Abodes (Prajna Mountain Publications, 2003).