Following a lecture, somebody asked: “What should we do with a mentally
ill person?” This is not a medical question, inquiring about
therapies and medicines that can be effective treating a troubled
individual. It is a religious question, asking us to go beyond a
scientific “how to” for curing an illness and to consider our own
attitude in relating to the individual. If our attitude is one of
caring - not indifference - our first step should be to reframe the
question so that we can view it in a way that avoids negative labels
that tend to isolate, stigmatize, and are hard to remove. From a
spiritual orientation, the question becomes: “How should we respond to
someone who is out of harmony?”
To the individual who is out of
balance, we should respond as a mother to her to baby. An infant
disrupts our routine with its constants needs and demands and its
inability to express or take care of itself. The caring mother does not
isolate the child out of frustration or impatience; she instinctively
knows how unnatural that attitude would be and how it would lead to
suffering. So our attitude must start with selflessness for the person
who is not in harmony. It is part of the responsibility we have to each
The orientation of spiritual practice is outward,
towards “other.” If our attitude is towards our self, it will
encourage the separation and isolation that we want to avoid. If we
turn away from someone who is out of balance - because we feel
uncomfortable or feel engaging with him is “too much trouble” - we
create disharmony. If we say we care, then we need to explore our
A fundamental principle of the nature
of existence, of our relationship to each other and all things, that
guides the spiritual life, is expressed dramatically and concisely by
Zen master Dogen. In a story introducing one of his writings, he
relates that the layman Sotoba had a profound understanding of the
truth while hiking in the forest and composed a poem to illustrate his experience. It begins,
The sound of valley stream is his great tongue, The colors of the mountains are his pure body.
is seen here to have human qualities, meaning that nature inherently
affirms our life. And it explains why we love nature and why we want
to be close to nature and preserve it. At the same time, this poem
shows that we humans affirm nature, that our life affirms the lives of
others, and that lives of others affirm our life. Dogen remarks,
It is regrettable that many only appreciate the superficial aspects of sound or color.
we have the basis for the religious life, the understanding that our
relationships are inherently affirming, beyond the superficial
sensations of our senses.
Everyone of us is out of balance
sometime in our life, temporarily out of harmony, temporarily “mentally
ill.” But most of us have the resilience to come back to balance and to
continue our lives in relative harmony with society. Others are not
so fortunate. Harmony eludes them, they spend much of their lives in
isolation. Our job, our practice, is to affirm life as we meet it.
When we encounter isolation, we try to encourage harmony. If we do
not know precisely what to do, we experiment, intuitively try
something. And when we ourself feel out of harmony, that is, when we
are “mentally ill,” we quiet our mind and return to balance.
The following lines of Dogen are perhaps his most well-known:
To learn the Buddhist way is to learn about oneself. To learn about oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to perceive oneself as all things.
other words, we are affirmed by all things. By extension, all things
are affirming all things. And this affirmation is not passive. It is
continuously active, continuously practicing, like mountains and
rivers, continuously aware of what is going on, continuously engaged.
In his book “Essential Cha’n Buddhism, ” The Cha’n master Guo Jun Fashi wrote: Sitting itself will not give you enlightenment. Meditation will not give it to you. It will only lead you to the brink. Retreating from the world will not liberate you. Happiness is not found in a secluded forest or isolated cave. Enlightenment comes when you connect to the world. Only when you truly connect with everyone and everything else Do you become enlightened. Only by going deeply and fully into the world do you obtain liberation.
practice of bowing to each other is an expression of affirmation; in
this act, we are not be passive or indifferent, but instead we fully
connect. By giving up ourself in this way we discover the joy of
being with the other person, without concern for like or dislike. As
Sometimes we bow to cats & dogs.
In the same way, we should be ready to bow to everyone.
in meditation with others is an act of affirming each other, with
acceptance, without judgement. Being together in this way helps
dissolve any sense of isolation, a problem in the modern world created
by our growing technology. Technology brings great benefits to our
lives, but in our excitement for it, we don’t recognize how it isolates
us. We have to reflect on how to use our technology, considering when
we use it, where we use it, its value in that moment, measured against
its impact on our relationships with each other. In the same way, we
should reflect on how to use our life. Do we want to encourage harmony
or isolation? Do we want to be active in the continual affirmation of
When we meet a difficult or out of balance person,
our spiritual practice - our inherent nature - demands that we become
spiritually creative, that we find a way to affirm, as the starting
point of taking care.