As I write this, I am struggling to get a good fire going in the woodstove. We are in the middle of a freak October snow storm—the third freak storm since August—and we have no lights, no heat, and no running water since we depend on a well. A few months ago, during Hurricane Irene, I wrote about tending the stove and feeling a connection to my ancestors. In the midst of this particular massive and record-breaking storm (there are getting to be so many we have to distinguish), I am feeling a particular connection to my ancestors who lived in very cold climates (I’m washing dishes in snow!) How hearty they had to be. It takes an enormous act of will to get up in a cold, dark house and light a fire. Yet, as I kneel here shivering , I am also thinking of those who are younger than I am. I am wondering if they will wonder why in the name of all that is good the deeper cause of this wild weather didn’t quite sink in last time. I’m talking about what the Buddhists call the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion.
By firelight and flashlight, or in my bedroom under about nine blankets, I am reading and reflecting on a teaching of the Buddha called the “Fire Sermon,” translated from Pali, the earliest Buddhist language, by the Buddhist scholar monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. For a future issue of Parabola called “Burning World,” he adds a brilliant commentary. In plain language, the Buddha talks about the way life goes—that everything human is burning or impermanent, all our impressions and feelings and our life itself, all fleeting. Yet, as Ven. Bodhi points out, on top of this natural burning, there is the “parasitic” burning of greed or grasping, hatred or aversion to people and things we don’t like, and delusion or the denial of what is really happening. These are natural tendencies in all of us, and most of us do our best to overcome them through meditation, prayer, or sheer live-and-learn common sense. Yet, we now live in an age where we aren’t just impacted by greed, hatred, and delusion on a personal or local level. There are vast systems fueled by greed, hatred, and delusion—and those systems effect all us, in the economy, in climate change.
Huddling by the woodstove, I suddenly realize that as much as I may want to I really can’t separate myself from the global situation. But I bring good news. Having the power cut off has a way of drawing out the power of kindness and generosity. In the midst of dramatic news reporters talking about what was happening being beyond anything in recorded history and the millions without power in our region, individuals and groups quietly set about helping their neighbor. The Salvation Army set up a warming station in the local Middle School. My neighbor came over and told us about it and over we went to charge phones and laptop. It was incredibly warming illuminating, watching the look on peoples’ faces as they entered and saw tables set out with food and big vats of coffee. I live in a middle class pocket of a generally very affluent area, and it was especially touching to see people coming in who looked just astonished to see smiling Salvation Army and other volunteers there offering not just basic necessities like food and army cots and blankets but smiles. For a time, the gym looked like an old time town square, kids watching movies on lap tops, groups of old people talking. It made me realize how wonderful it would be, to have more community life, not just Manhattan and rushing home to your own house.
But the real food for thought came with simple individual acts of generosity. My neighbor Keith, who was getting up at 4:30 to start a fire for his family before heading for his job in the city, came over after dark to see if we needed water. He was headed to the fire station where there was a hose for everybody’s use. I remembered what our ancestors knew, that survival depends on cooperation. And not just practical cooperation—but offering a smile and a laugh, fellowship. Love your neighbor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you–or don’t do what you would you would not have done—however you frame it, I learned that this is a very profound and spiritually developed way to live.
In his commentary on the Fire Sermon, Ven. Bodhi offers that our culture has to shift our notion of success, away from the achievement of more and more wealth, power, and domination, to the actualization of truth, goodness, and beauty. When the lights and heat went off, I realized that this shift really is possible in the moment—and there is a great deal of good will and generosity out there that just seems to flower when it is needed. I had five long cold, dark days to reflect on what is really essential to a good life, and what is not. I feel a little bit like Scrooge on Christmas morning, resolved to live by different lights (not that I ever did amass wealth or fame. I realized that I the direction I want to move in is out of separation into no separation. Now how do I remember this when the lights and the heat come back on.