I received this message of wisdom from Krishna Das today. Krishna Das is a Bhakti Yoga practitioner who also practices and studies Buddhist meditation and dharma. What he shared with us from the poet Rilke is not Buddhism at all, but it is profound wisdom. I am no longer limiting myself to only Buddhist teachings or practices—not that I ever did. Buddhism is too narrow, too self-referential in its teachings. Like Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, and Lama Surya Das, I am looking both within and outside of Buddhism for the wisdom I need.
“Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if sadness or anxiety casts a shadow over your life. Something is happening within you. Remember that life has not forgotten you. It holds you in its hand and will not let you go. And after all, why would you want to live without pain and unease? You don’t yet know what mysterious work these feelings are accomplishing inside you.”
– Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
Moreover, I have developed my own test for Buddhist teaching and practice, or any spiritual or religious practice: does it increase people’s capacity for relationships? Relationships with intimate partners, relationships with friends and community, relationships with people who are different and diverse, relationships with animals and nature, relationships with the environment.
And relationship with the self. Buddhism lists the three poisons as “greed, hatred and delusion.” Well here’s a clue: self-hatred is a form of hatred, and that’s also a psycho-spiritual poison. That’s why the quote from Rilke speaks to me so much, because its about undoing self-hatred. And when we learn to stop hating ourselves, we stop projecting hatred, resentment and aggression toward other people as well. When we learn to love ourselves, forgive ourselves, and have compassion for ourselves, we learn to love, forgive and have compassion for others.
The test that I have devised for myself is: does this Buddhist teaching or practice increase our capacity to relate to others? Or does it increase isolation, alienation, and withdrawal from others? This is why I reject most of the teachings on emptiness, because it actually negates the significance of relationships, and decreases people’s capacity to relate to others and the world around us. It makes us focus on emptiness, rather than focusing on relationships, which are not empty, but full of complex issues and challenges.
If a Buddhist teaching or practice does not increase our capacity for love, connection, communication, empathy, kindness and relationship, then it is not only a waste of time, it is actually doing more harm than good. That’s how I will evaluate Buddhism from now on, and I will actively select teachings and practices that increase my capacity to relate, whether it’s within Buddhism or some other spiritual or humanist tradition.