Arrows into Blossoms: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen to the wayside these days.  It would be wise for me to return to it.  In November 2009, I was tired of a lot of things, and some Buddhist reflections were helpful.  In particular, I spent time thinking about the writings of Pema Chodron, a tattoo of the Buddha under the bodhi tree, and how hard times and irritating people are opportunities for growth.  My thoughts on these subjects appear below.  The upshot: being pissed off is not so bad, really.

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I’ve just finished reading Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. If you’re not familiar with Chodron, she is the world’s most famous Tibetan Buddhist American nun, and her works are meant to help Westerners understand the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and apply them usefully in their own lives.  I found Taking the Leap, like all her books, inspiring, reassuring, and helpful.

At one point, she describes a famous Buddhist image that I hadn’t heard of before.  Before mentioning the image specifically, she tells a part of the story of the Buddha that many people are familiar with.  When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree (where he eventually attained enlightenment), Mara, “the evil one,” came along and tempted him with beautiful women, delicious food, insults, and all other sorts of distracting objects.  Chodron says,

In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all.  I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through.  The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away.  They didn’t set off a chain reaction.

This state of being – the ability to experience emotion without being “hooked” by it, without being dragged into a whole self-feeding narrative of, say, anger, self-righteousness, and more anger – is the subject of Taking the Leap and some of Chodron’s other works.  I’d be willing to spend the rest of my life working toward this state of mind.

For example, I’ve been seething because the students in my most difficult class absolutely refused to cooperate with an activity I asked them to do last week, an activity that is essential in preparing them to do their next assignment.  They talked when I asked them to work alone and quietly.  They insisted that they “had to leave class now” and that they should be allowed to finish the assignment at home, even though I had clearly explained that this activity was practice for an essay they would have to write entirely in class.  They refused to press themselves beyond the simple declaration that “I don’t understand this story.”

I couldn’t calm my irritation, my sense that their stubborn resistance was a personal attack.  There is, of course, room to explore whether the assignment I gave them was too difficult, whether they haven’t had adequate preparation, whether I’m expecting something they can’t deliver.  But the deeper problem is that I was angry with them, and couldn’t shake it.

It’s possible to see any difficult situation as an attack from Mara.  We’re under threat, and we can react angrily or with panic or self-loathing.  But there’s another possible approach.  We can see the attack as food for our growth, as an opportunity for us to develop loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  Difficulties are fertile soil for training our minds, and can be greeted with eagerness and gratitide.

A situation like mine, for example, is an opportunity to develop compassion.  The day after this frustrating lesson, my Philosophy of Education teacher returned an assignment to me, and I didn’t do as well on it as I always expect to do on my coursework.  In reading through his comments, it became clear to me that I simply hadn’t understood the criteria he was evaluating me on, and didn’t understand the process of philosophical inquiry he wanted me to go through – in fact, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what a “philosophical approach” entailed, and so had no way of engaging in it.  At first, I was furious and defensive.

And then I remembered my class from the previous day.  This is exactly what they were feeling, I realized.  They were feeling it for a number of different reasons, and the fact that they don’t understand is due to a number of factors that they could have controlled – by showing up to class more often, for example – but the feeling is the same.  I get it.  And understanding where they’re coming from, and why, can relieve some of my feelings of helplessness and irritation.

After Chodron retells the above snippet of the story of the Buddha, she mentions the image I’ve taken all this time to get to.  She says,

This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers – warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms.

Immediately after reading these lines, I put the book down and ran to Google Images to find a depiction of this moment.  I wasn’t satisfied with the images I found; none captured the beautiful scene in my imagination, the blazing arrows morphing into a shower of soft flowers and cascading around the Buddha like snow.  If I could hold a pencil steady, I would’ve tried to draw or paint it myself.  Finally, though, I found this image, by the artist Austin Kleon:

buddhaflowersarrows

He describes the process of creating this image, a tattoo for a friend, here.  If I someday decide to get a tattoo, I may ask permission to use this.  In the meantime, I may have to post it on the cover of my course binder, to remind myself that every challenge can be transformed into flowers if I can only see it, not as a battle to be fought, but as an opportunity for growth and for deeper understanding of the human mind and the human condition.

This doesn’t mean I can make my students do what I want.  But maybe it means I can suffer less as I try to help them.

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14 responses

  1. Good, good stuff here. There are so many oppotunities to become frustrated or to practice peace in teaching. That image is a good reminder to choose peace. I will check out Chodron’s book. Thank you so much for the recommendation!

  2. Man oh man, I just love EVERYTHING about this post.

    Also, I swear I’ve seen an animation of the arrows-to-flowers image, though not in an explicitly Buddhist context. A cartoon? Fantasia or something from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film? A more recent music video? I can’t remember, and I haven’t found it yet. But I’ll keep looking. :)

  3. It is so ironic cause every time I seem to encounter a problem in my own personal life I’d read up on just the right subjects and words that I needed to hear on the blogs feed. Yesterday I also had a great challenge with peer tutoring students who for some reason made it so difficult upon themselves to write an expository essay – enough so that my teacher and I had gotten all wired up and confused and reaching to the stage that was desperate and ascending to very frustrated, but I know one of the many reasons I took peer tutoring as a course was to extend my empathy, compassion and patience so thankyou for the great advice (:

  4. You’re on your way..! Your willingness to look within for the answer to difficulties with others makes you an amazing,and enlightened person. I’ve learned two important things in my life that have helped me deal with life on life’s terms… (1) We are all one, thus, know and love thyself, and – (2) what we think of as “reality” is just an illusion. Stay on your amazing journey!!

  5. I sometimes think of ways after the fact how arrows could have been changed to flowers, but I wish I could be better at making it my default reaction (instead of having a head-smacking moment a week later).

  6. “the ability to experience emotion without being “hooked” by it”–wow! Seems exactly right to me.

    That’s how Buddha teaches us to remain/become(?) fully human. To experience what we cannot avoid experiencing–after all, our brains simply generate all this stuff–while also using our very human thought processes to learn how not to be controlled by the biological aspects of our selves. He solves the brain/mind problem by teaching us to use the mind to control the brain.

    I just discovered your blog today via HigherEd. Your blog is great.

  7. Thank you all so much for your comments! My ability to turn arrows into blossoms is being put to the serious test right now, as today’s blog post will attest…It helps to know I’m not alone with it.

  8. I really enjoyed this post, since I feel it typifies a common teacher/student dynamic, and one that I experienced only last week with my fourth graders. I’ve come to see that when my students won’t rise to my expectations, it is (1) my teaching is lacking, or (2) they are just damned tired of rising to my expectations. However, I am persistant if nothing else, and I will keep after the results I’m looking for until I get them.

  9. Siobhan,

    Beautiful and gorgeous blog you have got there. For a moment, I actually wanted to imagine that you are a cat, and I wouldn’t be surprised these days should a cat know how to blog. Still, on the benefit of the doubt, I imagine you have got a humane personality AND PERHAPS A FINE ONE that I may royally speak of. The post that preceded this one said to “give thanks”, and even though I do not have any idea what is it exactly on the blog that I would like to give thanks for, still, after almost several years reading business english, and even zen english, we all know how buddhist monks and nuns go… there and then, we see them sitting there physically in front of us, and the moment they begin to teach anything, they say, “I look like I am talking, but there is actually no me” (it looks as if there is somebody there that’s all).

    Cats are excellent zen teachers. They sleep 18 hours a day, and the six hours when I am asleep they learned how to blog..

    Nice piece of english you have learned to speak, and type even.. *meow?*
    :) Or as the zen teacher genkaku often reminds himself and others – smile just one smile..

    Just passing through, needn’t reply. Have a good day

    Rgds,
    Lin Rongxiang (I needed Windows 8 Narrator to pronounce your handle-name)

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