Birthday pastoral letter from Acharya Susthama

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  • #2893

    @susthama writes:

    Dear friends,

    It’s my birthday today and I want to celebrate it with all of you. The Dutch (and probably some other cultures) celebrate birthdays so differently from the way that Canadians and Americans do. In Canada, the birthday girl has a party and the guests bring her a present. In The Netherlands, the birthday girl would bring in a box of chocolates or cakes and share them with whomever they happened to meet that day. This pastoral letter is my equivalent of sharing a box of chocolates or cakes, or whatever it is you love to eat, with all of you.
    I was born 45 years ago, and when I was a teenager, I remember thinking that I did not choose to be born. I did not really care that it was my birthday, or rather, I did not care to celebrate my existence. I was the last of 6 children and I also suspected that my parents did not choose to have me. My parents were 38 and they already had 2 boys and 3 girls. When I was born there was at least 4 of us all under the age of 5. As a mother of two small children I really do not think I would choose to have more than 4. Even 4 is just an idea that sounds nice in theory but might possibly kill me in reality. So, from about the age of 11 until I came across Buddhism, my whole existence felt like a mistake, I was the accident that happened, how could I celebrate that?
    Buddhism has helped me to see things very differently. Here we all are, a love child or an accident, we are all living beings born in this precious human realm. We may have been here before in another life, and we might even have to endure living yet another lifetime or more until we achieve nirvana. And if there is such a thing as rebirth then accordingly I am responsible for my birth in this lifetime. And if I am responsible for my birth in this life time then I am also responsible for my death. Although I have no way to prove this, I have a deep suspicion that we choose how we die. For example, my mother died with all of her family around her, and my dad died alone in his sleep, I have heard of stories of the loved ones dying in the room alone after they said good bye to everyone for that day, and vice verse. All these stories and my own experience seems to hint at a longing that was important for that particular person.
    Another interesting dimension of this is what makes a person survive very difficult conditions. I thought my life was finished at age 29. I was ready to throw the towel in and fade away as a homeless person in London. I was flying from Vancouver to Warsaw, with a transfer in Heathrow and I just couldn’t face my life in Poland, so I went through immigration and ended up in London with nothing but my backpack.
    Faith has been an important factor in my life, and in many ways I feel as though I have already experienced a kind of rebirth in this lifetime. I am really just 15 years old in Amida’s Pure Land, an adolescent that is very much rebelling against society’s conventions, trying to see things differently from the average grown-up, and learning how to stand still in a river that is constantly rushing around me.  Thank goodness my Dharma teacher and sangha are in the river as well, teaching me how to walk against the main stream. If I were a rock in the river, then fifteen years ago I would have had pretty rough edges but now I feel like the other rocks and water in the river have smoothed my edges. I still bump up against things but I can see how important it is to rub up against each other. It is in those bumps that we can learn about the Dharma. If we are held and supported, then it is possible to learn how to behave differently, and our practice of saying the nembutsu can transform us. When life throws us surprises and difficulties, our faith teaches us to take refuge in Amida. Cultivating a more generous attitude and spirit is possible, just like planting a seed and growing a beautiful flower is possible given the right conditions. Spiritual friendship is like that, without others on the path, I would have no soil for my roots, and without pain and suffering, I would have no rain to water my growing faith, and most importantly, I would not experience fellow feeling.
    With Amida’s light, I can accept that I have thorns, but I can transcend this and not let it stop me from generating sweet rose petals. So, today is a day to celebrate this precious human rebirth. Even if I can’t remember being born, I got a glimpse of it when Selena and Dorian were born. Giving birth to a baby is a miracle. But it is also suffering. The pain of labour and the uncertainties around the birthing process are the same for everyone. We are the fortunate ones for we have survived to this day. The chances of any one individual being born are really small, and we are indebted to our care givers for without them we would not have lived very long. Our well being as a baby is completely out of our hands and although we are dependent on others for the first few years of our lives it never really changes after we reach adulthood. We are still dependent on others for our well being which is why the Buddha tells Ananda that spiritual friendship is the whole of the path.
    My friendships with many of you are like a lifeline for this journey that I am on. I am not the most intrepid traveller. I prefer to have a guide, or stick to a well known route. I still get nervous driving to Eleusis, France, even though I have done it several times. Given the choice between joining someone and going to their destination or going it alone to my ideal destination, I would naturally join someone else, but I know that a spiritual journey means that each and everyone of us needs to make our own track. The only problem with my spiritual friends is that I don’t get to see you as often as I would like, but when we do, such as at the retreat last week, I feel like we can just pick up from where we left off. The atmosphere was so friendly and relaxed that we could go deeper and still feel at ease in each other’s company. It felt very much like we were tending to the most fundamental part of us that kept us connected and feeling loved, and thus alive and moved by Amida’s grace. Honen says that meeting the Dharma is very rare, so not only is it a miracle that we are alive, but it is a miracle that we have a teacher who can help us understand the Buddha’s teaching, the Dharma to show us the way, and a Sangha with faith in Amida.
    For a while now, I have enjoyed celebrating my birthday but I didn’t really know why until now. All of my friendships along the spiritual path have helped me to stay on this journey with ease, and I have no real idea where I am going except that when I die I hope to be reborn in the Pureland.
    Namo Amida Bu


  • #2895

    Thank you for this beautiful letter. Namo Amida Bu!

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