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Author of this essay:

Fa Tian Shakya
(July 6, 2006)

by Upasaka Fa Tian

"The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.
Nor all your piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel even half a line,
nor all your tears wash out a word of it. "
- Omar Khayyam.

A pitiful existence was created for me by the circumstances of another's life. Or so I believed for a very long time. Whether we believe in rebirth or not, we must see that we start out as nothing more than the sum of that which came before us, the truth of which has nothing to do with the misguided idea of divine retribution. The story of our life is begun by others; by our parents and their parents back through the ages, by the society and religion we're born into, and the country we inhabit. Every single thing that has happened, no matter how insignificant or remote, up to the point of our birth, is part of who we are. Countless hands guide the pen that writes the opening chapters of our lives. With any luck, we're properly developed when we take up the pen ourselves.

Though I didn't fully understand its implications, I didn't feel too much sorrow that he left when he did, or even in the way that he left. Many years later I found out that he was going to leave when I was ten, but something made him stay around a few more years. I guess he finally decided that the time was right. He simply didn't come home one night, or the next. It came as no surprise the day the papers arrived. The official break was a long time coming; and even I, young as I was, knew that it was inevitable. The late night arguments, the muffled crying, the sounds of violence - things that had gone on for years; when I look back at it, I see there was only one acceptable outcome. And he left.

I was sorry that I couldn't do to him all that he had done to me. God knows I wanted to treat him with the same disdain and disapproval that he always showed me. But he wasn't there, and all I was left with was his legacy of antagonism. Without realizing that he was teaching me, he had passed on all those things that had helped him to survive in the world. He was never defenseless in any situation; and the skills he taught me insured that I would remain non-reactive... strong... and alone, just like him. I also gained from him the ability to withhold love or to use it as a weapon to force others to behave the way I wanted them to. I learned manipulation, guilt, and the mistrust of others. He taught me that no one could ever measure up to my standards, not even me.

These skills and many more became my shield against any intrusive or dangerous relationships. For many years I polished those skills until I was adept in their use, and they became so second nature to me that I didn't even notice I was using them. Alone, I scripted my life, adding footnotes to mostly empty pages to account for my wanderings - until the book of my life was filled with only a few sketchy chapters. Never connecting with anyone for more than a short period of time, I prided myself in being devoid of emotion, regarding isolation as independence.

Just how much do we put up with before we realize that enough is enough? Like the inevitability of my father's departure, so too was the emotional collapse that was waiting for me. When it came, it nearly cost me my life - a life that held little meaning for me or for anyone else. It was so empty that I felt the best thing to do was to compose a final chapter. It wouldn't be a triumphant conclusion, one that recounted a life filled with joy and grace that ended while surrounded by loving friends and family. It would be like the rest of it, a muffled whine, a life that drained its emptiness away, a life shared with absolutely no one.

But then, typically, I changed my mind. I decided that the final chapter was not ready to be written after all. And then I'd experience another bout of depression in which I was sure that this time I'd lay the pen down for good. And then I would do nothing. Something wouldn't allow me to compose that final farewell.

It's said that we become our parents regardless of how hard we fight against that destiny. I'd give a lot if this were not true in my case. But I was one of the multitudes who hadn't been able to break free from the chain of familial abuse; and I had turned, bitterly, into the man I loathed.

I like to think that I'm an "enlightened being" now, that I would never cause my child and wife the kind of suffering that my mother and I suffered. Surprise of surprises - I found that the parallels of our lives, my father's life and mine, were too precisely drawn to be ignored. And so, as I've stated in my opening paragraph, I was born with the legacy of the sum of everything that came before me - good and bad. And as long as I remained oblivious to that simple fact, I was destined to continue with the habits I developed while I was living - not as myself - but as the legatee of my forefathers.

Until something happens… something so traumatic that it shakes the very foundations of our beliefs… we remain ignorant. The necessary jolt - the right set of circumstances, causes and conditions - has to occur; and when it does, we are given a great gift, the first of many gifts, but the one I believe matters most. That is the gift of a sudden, and maybe violent, wake-up call to the suffering that we have felt, but more importantly, to the suffering that we have caused others.

I was stunned by the revelation. I wondered how I could have ever believed that my behavior was normal or acceptable. For the first time in my life I saw how selfish and immature I had been and how impossible it would be for me to make up for any of my actions. No apology could cover the things I had done and no explanation could excuse the person I had become. There was only one thing I could do and that was to use those skills - well taught, well learned, and well executed, not as a way to survive, but as red flags that would help to warn me when I was headed the wrong way.

It had been years since I had last spoken with him. We were never on good terms, and our last encounter had been filled with recriminations and insults. I tried to close the chapter of my life which included him. On the outside I refused to acknowledge his existence. I made no reference to him and considered myself an orphan. Yet inside, I harbored such anger and resentment towards him that even though I had been given the wonderful gift of seeing my suffering for the first time, I still couldn't find my way past any of it. What made matters worse is that I liked that anger. I must have because I held on to it as if it were an integral part of who I was. And so I allowed myself to define myself based on that anger. I allowed the identity that I had created to dictate my relationships with people. It was imperative that I maintain that anger. Who was I without it? Who was I if I didn't have that anger? Who was I if I didn't have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I thought of him?

And then one day, in a very Zen moment, I suddenly understood that while it is true our lives start out as nothing more than the sum of those who came before us, we wake up to the knowledge that this doesn't give us the right to make others responsible for our actions - which is exactly what I had been doing by blaming my father for everything. I didn't know why I had always assumed that all my father's faults were self-generated, that he was a miserable human being for no other reason than that was what he wanted to be. I had never seen him as a person who inherited his own traits and had adjusted as best he could to his environment - his home, parents, school, teachers, friends, antagonists - all the people around him. And what if his father had been cruel to him? Should I blame his father? And if his father's father had been cruel? I could see the karmic chain stretch back into infinity. Why I suddenly understood this, I can't say. I only know that one moment the bitterness and anger were there, and in the next moment they were gone. I just let it all go. What I had held onto so tightly for so long simply dropped away.

I felt like a new person, one who looked at the world through different eyes. I was no longer defined by my own ignorance. Then, instead of being self-pitying, of blaming him for all my faults, I started to see things I had never bothered to consider before. I had a degree in engineering. He had no higher education at all. And yet he was an intelligent man. One revelation followed another. Freedom can give a person a true ganzfeld, a complete, uncolored visual field.

Of all the people whose forgiveness I had asked for, his was the one I thought I would never want or need. Yet I asked, not knowing if it was for his benefit or mine. For me the anger was gone, and I was at peace for the first time in years.

I've learned over the course of my Zen practice not to indulge in expectations. I had absolutely no idea what would happen. But I prepared myself to accept any outcome. I wrote to him. He could have told me to go to hell - it wouldn't have been the first time - and I would have accepted that without a second thought. He could have ignored my overture and left me wondering if he was even alive. Instead, he responded, and we began a polite dialogue. It is unlikely that we will ever be "best buddies" like some fathers and sons. We are just too different now. We may never get close at all, and that's all right, too. But today I can say that I have welcomed him into my house - where he saw his granddaughter for the first time since she was 6 - she's 17 now.

What's past, is past. We can't rewrite a single line, much less an entire chapter. But as long as we're still alive to write, we can stop scripting tragedies.

Forgiving and forgetting sounds good on paper, but in life that noble philosophy doesn't work. What does work is seeing that we're all human - which means that in this mechanical, material world we act and react according to the laws of cause and effect.

It's not until we transcend our ego-primed perspectives that we can close that bitter and painful record. And then, with a fresh, new point of view, we can begin to write a better chapter.

Humming Bird

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