“Grief is how we love in the face of loss,” wrote Joan Sutherland in the Fall 2019 issue of Buddhadharma. Now, in this new time of so much loss, her teaching on coming to terms with grief feels especially relevant.
The United Nations says that a million species could go extinct in the coming decades. What will that look like coming across our news feed? Imagine that the extinctions are announced one by one as they occur: How many alerts per day will that be?
We’re entering a time of unimaginable losses, including the possible end of human life on Earth. If we hope to change this, we have to reckon with the fact that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working, since we’re still headed for the cliff, and something is preventing most people from engaging with the emergency, despite all the warnings. It’s possible that an important part of that something is a fear, conscious or unconscious, of the sorrow to come. How will we bear this grief? And won’t grieving make it harder for us to act? But I’m wondering if it is not grief that weakens us, but all we do to avoid it. Perhaps we need, instead, to include it. Grieving won’t keep us from acting, but it will change how we do so, in ways that make a great difference.
Grief is a buddha.
Grief has strengths that are different from anger’s, as water is different from fire. Many contemporary cultures tend to valorize what some consider masculine traits over what some consider feminine ones, which means fiery virtues over watery: outrage over sorrow, assertiveness over receptivity. Is grief seen as feminine? Does it feminize us to feel it, and is that one of the reasons some are afraid of it? Anger tends to feel for (I don’t like what is happening to you and I want to change it), while sorrow tends to feel with (Your pain is my pain, and I care about it). Feeling for and feeling with complement each other. If we valued both, we’d be able to employ fire or water according to need. They could temper each other and combine in as-yet-unimagined and powerful ways. Each of us would be able to draw on more of ourselves in response to the crisis; each of us would have more with which to strengthen and console ourselves. We see the results of fiery action all around us, for good and for ill. I’m wondering if at least some of the burning rage so characteristic of our time is actually a defense against grief. I’m wondering if free-floating, unacknowledged sorrow is a larger influence in our communal life than we give it credit for. If that’s true, perhaps we should spend some time with sorrow and grief and mourning, here at the end of the world.
Grief is a buddha. Not something to learn lessons from but the way it is sometimes, the spirit and body of a season in the world, a season of the heart–mind. Grief is a buddha, joy is a buddha, anger is a buddha, peace is a buddha. In the koans, we’re meant to become intimate with all the buddhas—to climb into them, let them climb into us, burn them for warmth, make love with them, kill them, find one sitting in the center of the house. You’re not meant to cure the grief buddha, nor it you. You’re meant to find out what it is to be part of a season of your heart–mind, a season in the world, that has been stained and dyed by grief, made holy by grief.
A long time ago, a young woman is lost in mourning after the death of her husband. She leaves everything behind and goes to a monastery to ask for help. “What is Zen?” A teacher replies that the heart of the one who asks is Zen: her broken heart is the buddha of that time and place. She decides to stay and find out what that means. Sitting in the dark, the woman runs her fingers over the face of the buddha of grief, learning its contours. Over time, she discovers a kind of grace in that dark, with grief as her companion: a deep humility, a deep stillness, a deep listening.
In its Latin roots, grieving is related to being pregnant.
One day the woman hears the cry of a deer from a nearby stream. “Where is the deer?” the teacher asks. She listens, concentrated, ripe with something. “Who is listening?” The ripe thing bursts in her; the deer’s cry echoes through the trees and rises simultaneously from her own scarred heart. She is there, cloven hooves wet, and she is here, wondering—and everything is listening to everything.
Later she is at the stream with a lacquer bucket meant for flowers, only she fills it with water. She sees the moon’s reflection in the water: her grief radiant. Later still, she says, the bottom falls out of her bucket: water and light soaking into the earth. All that wet: the stream, the watery moon in a bucket, the deer’s moist eye, the woman weeping.
Her tears become a solvent for what is unyielding within, the defenses we erect to keep from feeling the pain of life all the way through—which also keep us from feeling its beauty all the way through. The tears soften, unstick, breach, topple, and fill. They run like water under the ice, and suddenly the frozen is flowing again.
Some people fear this kind of dissolving. Will I still be me? Will I disappear or go mad? Will I be able to fight climate change? If we begin this weeping, if we open ourselves to the pain and the poignancy and the terrible, wounded beauty of life on this Earth, perhaps we won’t be able to stop, and we will drown.
We do not disappear, nor do we drown. Neither do we cry forever. But if from time to time these tears are called from us, they’re no longer frightening; they are a small ceremony keeping us close to the world. They make us less brittle, more resilient. We weep because something is pouring in and we’re overflowing, because it is impossible to say anything in some moments and it is equally impossible not to offer something back. The salt tears are remnants of our oceanic beginnings, and they are also the residue of the difficult sea we cross in this life. We contain both, the timeless depths and the waves washing over the fragile raft that carries us from birth to death.
Right now it is difficult to imagine loving the future we believe is coming, but someday soon we will have to.
The woman in the story, whose name is Mujaku, went on to accomplish great things, helping other women meet their own hearts. Generations of nuns wrote poems about her; one said that the water from her bucket filled many puddles. She was able to do this not because she found a way around her grief but because she went quiet inside and listened for what grief was asking of her. Her cry for help, the cry of the deer, moonlight pouring from a broken bucket—her grief spread further than the edges of her skin, belonged to more than her particular heart. And so did her awakening. As she was held, so could she hold. That is what awakening is.
Grief is a form of love, how we go on loving in the absence of the beloved. It is the transformation of love through loss, and how we are initiated into a new world. Like all initiations, it begins with a purification. In the case of grief this can be particularly intense, because the loss of what we love is so intense: shock, memory, sorrow, rage, regret, tenderness, depression, gratitude, guilt, fear, numbness, longing, disappointment, betrayal, relief. We are scoured by gales, the old life stripped away. The grief of our time is a strange one, because in some part we’re mourning what will disappear in the future. The loss won’t be sudden and unexpected, like a plane crash. We have predicted it, it will go on for a very long time, and, even as we mourn, we’ll try to salvage as much as we can.
Eventually we might find our way into the eye of the storm, as Mujaku did. There’s a difference, though. In Mujaku’s time it was possible to love the natural world innocently; her awakening is entwined, in an ancient and uncomplicated way, with deer, stream, and moon through the trees. She could take something for granted we can’t anymore, that the natural world will, eternally and self-sufficiently, be here to heal and open us. We can no longer love the Earth innocently like that, ignoring the effects of the way we treat it. How do we love now, past innocence? How do we stay with that love even when it near kills us with hurt?
Perhaps letting loss stain our love will help, because it will keep us closer to what’s actually happening. Perhaps letting remorse stain our love will help us do what a genuine love must do now: acknowledge our debt.
Peter Hershock once said that in the Chinese koan tradition, remorse is the foundation of morality. He didn’t elaborate, so I’ve carried his thought around with me since. As best I understand, remorse begins with listening without interrupting, and then feeling with, experiencing the pain I’ve caused as my own. The natural result is a desire not to do whatever it was again. And so remorse becomes inquiry: How did this happen? How can I keep from repeating it? How can I make amends?
This too is the activity of love. Grief is how we love in the face of loss, remorse is how we love when we’ve caused harm. How could they not be part of the work of this time? Right now it is difficult to imagine loving the future we believe is coming, but someday soon we will have to. How can we if we’re still drenched in unacknowledged grief, if instead of attending to remorse, we’re lost in guilt and denial?
We don’t cry forever. Grief changes, growing from its wild beginnings into a kind of dignity. Remorse becomes a noble companion. They fit the season—as unexamined innocence no longer does, as outrage only partially can. We can’t know from here what our love of what’s coming will look like, but we can decide how we’ll walk out to meet it. Right now we are so pregnant with the future, pregnant without entirely knowing what’s about to be born. We’re entering a great mystery together. We bring to this invisible ceremony our warrior skills, our hungers and our strivings, the genius of our minds—all the things that got us here—hoping we’ll do something different with them this time. Perhaps we could also bring washed hearts humbled by what we have done, and a willingness to follow love wherever it takes us, as we step into the great ceremony of the rest of our lives.