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Meetings & Partings

December homily

Last week I had a couple of moving goodbyes or partings with friends. Last Thursday we finally said goodbye to Leigh, who is off to Cambridge to live and work for a Triratna organisation, the Windhorse Trust. I also said goodbye to Kusaladana, who many of you know, as he was journeying to Basildon for a major heart operation. We never know whether the current parting will be the last time we see that person so there is always a sense of sadness and grieving, however small, but also a sense of joy that they are moving on. I have known many people who have moved from the Ipswich to the Cambridge sangha, and many people have had major operations. Some I have seen again after these partings and some I have not.

I can remember that when I was a young child, my mother would always say ‘goodbye’ rather than ‘goodnight’ as we fell asleep. It was a left-over from the war years she had lived through, when she would never know if an overnight bombing raid would be the last time she saw her loved ones again.

There is one piece of Buddhist literature that always moved me as I grew up within Triratna. It was often read aloud during Pujas, and so formed a constant background to my emotional integration. The text is called ‘The Song of Meeting and Parting’. The song still has a strong influence on me and occasionally I hear it sung, which adds a special poignancy and emotional depth to the words.

The piece in question is by Milarepa, a guru, poet and saint who lived in Tibet in the 11th Century. He lived a very simple wandering life, sometimes meditating for years on-end in caves and eating nettles. I suppose, today we might see him as a ‘rough sleeper’. This piece comes from a book called ‘The 100 thousand Songs of Milarepa’, which is a large collection of poems, which are really songs as he sung them to his audience of disciples and followers.

I unfortunately don’t have space to share with you the full song, but it starts:

In the immense blue sky above…”

You can find the song in the large book of readings we have at the Centre in the Shrine room, page 340.

The song uses three metaphors to describe the interaction between objects: a rock and a vulture; a river and a fish; and a flower and a bee.

‘…On the mountainside a great rock stands, the great vulture circles round. This meeting and parting mark the flow of time…’

The song is about meeting friends and leaving friends, and gives a sense that these events mark places in the time continuum which is our life. Thus the whole of the dharma can be seen as being contained in the two acts of meeting and parting.

Milarepa has no possessions, not even clothes. He lives from moment to moment and the most significant events in his life are his meetings with people. With friends or disciples. Those friends might be strangers, but often they are close spiritual friends or Kalyana-Mitras.

So when all else is abandoned, and we have taken fully on-board spiritual death, this process of meeting and parting is key.

Interestingly it is not just being with someone that is of dharmic importance. It is these two ends, when we are starting to grasp, or our grasp is being broken, that are significant. It is in these two times that we enter a Bardo, or an in-between state, where at these gateways, our sense of self is questioned deeply, an emotional rent occurs. You may have come across this idea of Bardos from the Mantrayāna tradition which uses the Six Bardos, which in turn is an expansion of the root Bardo between Birth and Death.

We can see that this topic can be viewed as two dharmically significant Bardo experiences. The Bardos between Meeting and Parting, and between Parting and Meeting.

Even Milarepa who appears content mostly leading a solitary life, who is talked about as an Enlightened one, is well aware of what these meetings and partings mean to him and to all of us.

My current ‘bed-side’ reading is ‘Travel Sketches’ by Bashō. A 16th Century Japanese poet. Famed for being the greatest exponent of Haiku poetry. He was also a very serious Zen Buddhist practitioner, but was not a monk or a priest or layperson either. He went on many pilgrimages around Japan, visiting temples and natural beauty spots, but importantly meeting people, some being old friends, along the way. Like Milarepa, Bashō travelled very light, just paper, pens and a raincoat. These pilgrimages took several years and his reason for doing them was to leave behind, or overcome his sense self and gain full and perfect Satori or Awakening.

His short poems chart that inner spiritual journey whilst the prose that accompany them gives details of who he meets along the way. Often he would compose a poem for the people he meets, describing in terse verse the inner dimension of that meeting.

His poems, even when translated into English can be very moving. I found this one particularly so, as they often speak of spiritual death in an accessible way:

Warming myself

At an ashy fire,

I saw on the wall

The shadow of my guest.’ translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa

Moving even further back in time from these two poets, by a thousand years or so, we come to the age of the Buddha.

To gain Enlightenment Gotama had to part from his friends who had been his companions on the ill-founded spiritual life of austerities he was previously leading, and travel on alone. Like Milarepa and Bashō, on their journeys, the Buddha had few possessions, all he had of value were those five friends and they had to be left behind. It is through our closest human relations, whether they be family or friends, that we must come to understand our final letting go. We are group animals. We may not fully realise it, but we rely on other people for security and refuge. But people, blood relatives or friends, cannot ultimately lead us to Enlightenment, that final denouement is only available to those who take refuge completely in the Three Jewels. Like the Buddha, we have to part from them all and travel alone on the final leg of our journey. In this way each parting is leading us to this conclusion. That the spiritual life has to be lived by us, decisions made by us. We are the only ones who can go beyond self and the endless-round of the three poisons of Greed, Anger and Ignorance.

The Sangha, like Gotama’s five friends, can only help us part of the way. The final steps can only be taken alone.

We are constantly meeting and parting. Especially so during this coming mid-winter festival and holiday period. We meet people and we stay with them for a while, but eventually, we must part from them. Sometimes we make the decision to part and sometimes that decision is out of our hands.

To view, or realise our spiritual journey as a constant process of meeting and parting can be painful. We crave stability but Buddhism lets us see, and eventually come to accept that impermanence and change is a natural part of life, that we cannot grasp forever onto our relationships.

So value the meetings and partings, for in those moments the Dharma is revealed to us, if we have the vision to see.