Yesterday over 2,500 years ago, the founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha, passed away, entering Nirvana, the ultimate enlightenment state.
On his deathbed, surrounded by all his disciples, sentient beings, and deities, the Buddha imparted his last teaching, the Great Nirvana Sutra. In this last teaching, he preached for the first time about how the essence of his enlightenment — wisdom, loving-kindness, and compassion — would never extinguish but would always be found in the ever-present Dharma Body. He shared that the inner goodness all sentient beings possess connects us with the dharma body, enlightenment.
In this way, the Buddha opened up the possibility that we too can find all-encompassing interconnectivity and, like him, attain the state of bliss and enlightenment, here and now.
My answer is gratitude.
Gratitude is the first door that opens a path to bliss and enlightenment.
It is also the last door that keeps us open to bliss.
Humility invites us to gratitude.
Gratitude is not given by accident or by chance.
Gratitude is not a conditional but conditioned state, a cultivated state of mind.
Wholeheartedness empowers its process of cultivation.
Tommy and Omi are nine-year-old tabby siblings — a ginger-orange boy and a blackish-grey girl, respectively — who my late husband, Patrick, and I adopted from our local Humane Society. They were little kittens weighing only a couple of pounds each when we got them. Back then, Patrick and I were deeply grieving for our previous cat, Toto, who we’d lost a few weeks earlier. Patrick spotted Tommy in the shielded viewer window while we were going back and forth with tons of unused in-kind items we were donating to the society, and he fell in love.
I have a daily, often semi-daily, ritual and service that I engage in with my beloved cats. Let me tell you about their brushing rules — rituals. When I brush Tommy and Omi, two identical brushes in my hands, I brush them “intently” and “attentively.” Please don’t laugh, but I do this every single time wholeheartedly. If my heart is elsewhere, they become a mirror of my attitude. They are no longer interested in brushing or me, and they leave. Our brushing time has become my test of how sincere I can be with them.
Another rule is that I usually brush Tommy first. Tommy is my baby; he hangs around me very closely, waiting for his brushing for hours. So, I do him first. This is “the must,” the unbreakable rule. Then Omi comes in. She is a smarter one. With patience, she gets more of what she wants in the end.
The other night, Tommy got brushed first as usual. I applied one stroke with my right hand and the other with the left, repeating them. I was modifying the strokes as he wished me to with the two brushes on his orange coat. He was purring heavily and drooling a drop of saliva at each stroke. He stretched his throat, asking me to move the brush to that spot. He was in a state of ecstasy, melting away and having such a blissful moment.
Then Omi walked by and gently rubbed her body against me. (She is a full-figured kitty, bigger than Tommy, always giving him a bit of threat.) All of a sudden, Tommy stood up, snorted once, and walked away. He was upset! It was so abrupt. “Tommy?” I called. But he couldn’t fix his mood.
Well, too bad. I began brushing Omi, giving her the same attention I’d given Tommy. When I finished with her, she walked away.
I looked at Tommy. He was already in his tree bed but clearly still having difficulty forgetting what had happened or regaining a better mood. I was sure that he would be better after a short nap.
This was just my cats’ story.
But I see this “bliss turning into hell” situation quite often in our lives. The best, most blissful moment can go into the garbage depending on what we perceive and attach to it. Happiness is derived from unique, personal, and sharable spiritual experiences. But the ego-centered mind — particularly, comparison with others regarding opportunity, wealth, possessions, or even ability — can interfere with happy experiences and cause us sadness, disappointment, lack of confidence, greed, and even anger.
The world we live in is never and will never be perfect. As this pandemic has unfolded, more and more underlying problems in our society have come to the surface. But in this uncertain and frequently problematic world, are we simply making ourselves more vulnerable to the outer world or keeping ourselves more grounded? When we train ourselves to stay in the present moment, we can be more grounded, humble, and grateful, and vice versa.
When I got my second injection of the COVID vaccine recently, I had serious reactions all over my body. I hadn’t previously researched common adverse effects from the second dose, so this came as a bit of a surprise.
It started with severe pains on my left arm, where the injection was rendered. My arm became too stiff and swollen even to lay it on the bed. This was followed by nausea and severe aches on the muscles of my extremities, joints, back, and even stomach. On Day 2, it worsened with additional symptoms like occasional chills, an electrified headache, and nighttime coughs. I was amazed that I had developed these various inflammatory reactions so quickly.
While coughing, I thought about those who had suffered from COVID and the victims who had died from it. During my sleepless nights, I prayed sincerely for them. I didn’t know what might develop next, but I didn’t have fear. I experienced all my pains and symptoms as if I were floating in a river, not offering any resistance.
On the third day, when I woke up from a short night’s sleep, I knew I was better. I welled up with immense gratitude — not because I’d gotten better, but because I’d had the opportunity to experience COVID, though it was an attenuated version of sickness with the vaccine. My symptoms were short yet severe enough to imagine how dreadful COVID could have been for me and how terrible it must have been for those who had suffered and/or died from it. I appreciated the experience of the suffering I’d had for two days.
Soon later, I’ve found myself in much appreciation of just being alive and of life in its entirety. Life is precious just as it is — here and now.