All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Venerable Master, Dharma Masters, and other Good and Wise Advisors, Amitabha Buddha! My name is Lori Cabansag.
Many years ago I lived in the west African country of Liberia where I was working as a health education volunteer for the Peace Corps. My work with a team of health care workers brought me to some of the most remote villages in the country which were inaccessible to cars and trucks. The only way to get to some of these places was by hiking through lush forests, taking canoe rides on and across rivers, and/or walking miles along coconut tree-lined beaches.
For many of the children in these villages, I was the first non-African they’d ever seen in their life. Some children would scream and hide their faces from me or run behind their mothers. I was a tangible fear to these young ones—a strange-looking being with straight hair, different clothes, and lighter-colored skin.
On Sundays, I always attended Catholic mass in the little whitewashed church on the hill at the edge of town. Eventually, the priest there asked if I would be a reader during the service. So every Sunday, I read the gospels, a reading from one of the apostles of Jesus Christ.
One day, almost a year-and-a-half since I moved to Liberia we received orders from the Peace Corps headquarters in Monrovia to pack our bags and come to the capital city. Within a week all of the volunteers were flown out of the country because fighting between government soldiers and rebel forces had escalated. The civil war in that country had begun.
Back in the place where I lived, I had a feeling we volunteers might be evacuated from the country because government soldiers had been coming into town by the truckful. They made me nervous with their heavy black boots, scary-looking rifles slung over their shoulders, and menacing facial expressions.
After I’d left the country, a Liberian friend of mine wrote to me of the violence and destruction that was happening at the hands of both government and rebel armies. Many people were fleeing areas where fighting was taking place. Innocent civilians, women and children, were dying and being killed. I received a letter from my friend saying that her husband had disappeared—one day he just didn’t come home. My father confessor, the priest of the church I’d been going to, was killed on the road in an ambush. Before long, Liberia’s infrastructure collapsed, and letters from my friend stopped. My own letters to her were returned unopened, stamped “Undeliverable”.
I left Liberia before the situation got really bad, yet I often had fear. I feared losing my family, and I feared the future—not knowing what would happen in the world and in my own life. I also had other fears. I feared getting older, being lonely, not finding peace, not finding happiness and fulfillment, and dying.
My life changed, though, when my future husband gave me a book to read called
The Life of the Buddha written by Robert Mitchell. It told the story of the Buddha’s life and outlined the Buddha’s sermons to his disciples. I felt with my whole being that the Buddha explained things exactly as they were. From the moment I encountered the Buddha’s teachings to his disciples, I knew I was a Buddhist and could no longer call myself a Catholic.
When I first came to live at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in July 2001, I still had some of the same fears about the future and death—my own, my family’s, and my friends’. The future was unknown—a big uncertainty—and I was uncomfortable with that, too.
Now, war is again in my consciousness with the war in Iraq going on. Every time I bow to Medicine Master Buddha I have in my mind the people who are suffering because of that conflict. At the very moment I am thinking about the people who are suffering, I feel guilty because my life here at CTTB is comparatively easy and peaceful. I don’t have to face enemy attacks and ambushes.
How can fear be overcome? How can happiness and peace be attained? The straightest and simplest answer I’ve heard is to get rid of the self. If you have no self, you have no desires, no greed, hatred, and no stupidity. People with good roots and sincere cultivators are able to realize this through constant practice—through daily sitting meditation, reciting sutras, mantras, and/or names of Holy Ones, making vows, and following other practices that lessen a person’s attachments and bad habits, and which promote the development of wisdom and compassion.
Sometimes during the day or upon waking in the morning, I feel the old fears again—the fear of an uncertain future, the fear of losing loved ones. But why fear the future when it is intangible? And when things happen because of the law of cause and effect? One way to stop distracted thinking, to put everything back into perspective and bring the focus back to the present, the here and now, is by practicing mindful breathing. When you’re thinking about your breathing—as when you are reciting mantras or the names of Holy Ones—you are, at the very least, minimizing the arisal of or movement of “false thoughts”—thoughts which increase desires, dissatisfactions, fears, and worries.
A Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, who has had much experience with war, uncertainty, and death, focuses on conscious breathing—the awareness of each breath—as a way to quiet distracted thinking and come back to the present moment. By breathing mindfully you notice the blue sky, a child’s smile, and the beautiful sunrise. You appreciate the present moment, and you find happiness and peace. He says, “If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.”
He explains a couple of exercises to help us breathe consciously. One that I’ve found helpful when my thoughts begin to become overwhelming is one where you coordinate your inhalations and exhalations with conscious thoughts of the action of breathing and smiling. Just the action of smiling can be relaxing. Recent studies have shown that smiling produces the effects on our nervous system that go with real joy. I’d like to share this particular exercise with you.
When you breathe in, you recite, “Breathing in, I calm my body.” When you breathe out, you inwardly say, “Breathing out, I smile.” On the next in-breath, you say, “Dwelling in the present moment”. And on the next out-breath, you say, “I know this is a wonderful moment!”
These four lines can be recited silently as we breathe in and out, at any time of the day or night, and wherever we happen to be: Breathing in, I calm my body. / Breathing out, I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I know this is a wonderful moment! As we follow our breathing, you can say to yourself simply, “Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.”
I have found this exercise to be very helpful. The Buddhadharma has been very helpful for me to understand the way things are, to help me see things more clearly. And this one technique is something I can do immediately to snap myself back to the present, and to keep myself from needlessly worrying about the future and the uncertainties of life.
That’s all I have to present for tonight. Please correct me if I’ve made any errors. I wish everyone peace. May you reach your goals quickly. Amitabha Buddha!