RADICAL OPTIMISM

DEATH AND OPTIMISM

My friend, Susanna Valadez, as a young anthropologist staying with Huichol Indians in Mexico, encountered a large Huichol family as they passed through the village in which she was living. The baby seemed to be quite ill and neglected. When she asked what was happening with the baby, the mother told her it was dying. When she asked why they were not doing anything for the baby, the mother simply replied that it was going to die. Susanna then said, “Give me the baby.”

She washed and fed her, put the little one into her bed, and they both fell asleep. When she awakened in the morning, the baby was dead. The parents of the dead child reminded her that they had told her the child would die. As she related this incident to me twenty years later, she said very simply that she would do nothing different.

Death is inevitable. All beings, including you and me, are heading straight down the highway of death. So what is there to be optimistic about anyway? When I sit with a dying person or men in max in the local penitentiary, if one thought of outcome rears its head, I kill the truth of the moment.

People often ask me about having a “good death.” Death is just death. Each being does it his or her way. In the view of the radical optimist, there is no good death, no bad death. Death is, that is all.

For the man on death row who is in lockdown, the one who raped and killed an eleven year old girl, the one whose eyes stare into mine through the food port in his narrow cell door, any thought about “saving his soul” destroys the truth of the moment. I watch a thought of outcome arise and let it go with a breath.

NO GAINING IDEA

Radical optimism is a big view of the moment that does not include outcome. Another way of saying this is that the radical optimist is not undertaking an investment plan. Rather he or she is involved in a plan free of design.

Bearing witness in Auschwitz or on the streets of the Bowery is just bearing witness. Only a radical optimist can bear witness; if there is a thought to outcome, then one cannot be with the truth of what is actually happening.

Since we are already Buddhas, happy and suffering Buddhas, wise and confused Buddhas, we are already Buddha. Why then are so many of us looking for the big spiritual payoff? We will all be dead soon enough. So what’s the big deal? Are we hoping to have a good death? Is that what drives us? Or do we want to make it in the spiritual big-time here and now?

Trungpa Rinpoche, when he used the phrase “spiritual materialism,” was not just referring to the material adornments of the spiritual path, the material bells and whistles of practice. He was directly addressing our desire to “get enlightenment,” the big bell and whistle.

In our lives, there are endless dharma events; each moment is a dharma event, a truth event. If practice is self serving and a means to a so-called greater end, then practice becomes an investment where you expect a profit. How can we be at one with a particular moment if we are expecting something?

Practice not entered for the goal of enlightenment is simply being in life. When thoughts of outcome guide our actions, then we are caught in the great dilemma of dualism. Being with no gaining idea is the practice of radical optimism, an optimism free of time and space, object and subject, yet embedded in the very stuff of our daily lives. It is an optimism that arises from what Bernie Glassman calls not knowing, or what Vimalakirti called the inconceivable.

Dogen reminds us that to raise the mind of compassionate awakening (raising the bodhimind) is none other than the whole of daily activity with no concern for one’s self, no thought of outcome, no sense of self-gratification. This is radical optimism. It means that whatever is, is the best that there is at this moment. Just this, wholey this, only this.

Pursuing enlightenment is one big problem. It is an undisclosed admission of alienation, of dualism, of a belief in an enduring self. What are we running after anyway? Dogen puts it directly: “If you wish to practice the Way of the Buddhas and Ancestors, you should follow without thought of profit the Way of the former sages and the conduct of the ancestors, expecting nothing, seeking nothing, and doing nothing. Cut off the mind that seeks and do not cherish a desire to gain the fruits of Buddhahood.”

FAITH AND ALTRUISM

But what about faith, so important to Dogen? And what about helping all beings, essential in our Mahayana practice? In the beginning of our practice, we use the skillful means of faith and altruism to give our practice juice. After all, besides being Buddhas, we are also humans, and we need to have faith in the truth of the teachings of the Buddha. When we discover that we are already Buddha, faith is replaced by experience and insight.

And altruism? This is a skillful strategy helping us to move away from our self-centeredness. Our practice is about the abandonment of the small self, and the realization of nonduality, or the absence of a separate self identity. Therefore, practicing for the wellbeing of others is a step away from the local self. The radical optimist, however, has realized that there is no self, no other; there is no self concern and no concern for others. There is as well no action based on outcome. The radical optimist is a wooden puppet seamlessly responding, without will or care, to the world. For the radical optimist, faith, altruism, and good aspirations disappear like snow disappearing in spring. The good moisture of human kindness has done its work and the seeds of unconditional optimism are sprouting.

CHANGE

Radical optimism is also a path of reconciliation with change, with impermanence. It is a way of being continually one with and nonresistant to the waves of change. There is the image of the Bodhisattva surfing on the waves of birth and death. There she is, simply going along, no destination in mind, no “Other Shore” to head for. She is not acting willfully as she rides along. Choice has disappeared in her world.

Radical optimism is as traceless as the nonpath that the Bodhisattva has lain down in the great ocean of change. She rides with effortlessness and with total involvement. She is thoroughly alive. She has nothing to fear. If she had a goal, a destination, surely she would resist the truth of the moment, and you can guess when she would find herself! She has realized choiceless awareness and abides in the perfume of Radical Optimism. Just doing it, just being it. Utterly, thoroughly. No half-hearted tourist is she. No gaining idea.

As Dogen points out, engaging in the Way, in the life of continuous practice, means that we are constantly awakening with each new moment. Awakening is not a single event in time. Rather it is a continuous event through time. The Zen master and poet Basho wrote: Let me be called traveller. He did not mention any destination. Just traveller. Indeed the Way is endless for the Radical Optimist.

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