Awakening the Heart, Blue Moon over Warsaw

On July 31st, the second full moon in July, I was invited to give a dharma talk at the Warsaw Shambhala Center. Since Namkhai Norbu, a famous Tibetan teacher, was also teaching in Warsaw that evening, we were surprised that more than twenty people showed up. They were apparently attracted by my topic “Awakening the Heart.” But the talk turned out to be a bit sobering—about our deep vulnerability and how we end up shutting down in order to feel less of it, and about how to be with suffering.

After I invited questions someone asked, “But why should we focus on suffering and push ourselves to feel it?”

“Isn’t it important to feel joy and happiness?” asked another.

I answered that it was our habit of always trying to protect ourselves from suffering that made our hearts dull and without feeling. Joy and happiness were just as important, but we didn’t resist experiencing them usually.  Other people commented that they felt calm and open whenever they had an experience of genuine sadness.

Though I felt okay about the evening overall, on the way home with the full moon beaming down at me through the windshield of the taxi, I wondered how I could have forgotten to mention that outside our crowded meditation room, that perfect globe of lunar light had been shining like an enormous luminescent pearl while the sky fell deeper into darkness.

I had planned to mention the full moon but my logical mind had somehow backed out, minimizing it as happenstance, a mere coincidence, so why make a big deal of it?  Even though the Buddhist image for awakened heart, the essence of compassion, is exactly this full moon. In Vajrayana practice sometimes we even visualize a full moon disk in our hearts. Why didn’t I point out something so obvious and available in the moment?

At one point during the evening a woman had asked “Do the teachings really say one has to touch these vulnerable places in order to have an awakened heart, or is it your own opinion?”

I told her that was what the teachings said, but also confessed that my need to explore sadness and vulnerability might be more pronounced because of the sense of loss I carried all my life related to the Holocaust. Opening to this sadness had been a kind of salvation for me. As I said this a pregnant moisture filled my eyes. Did I really need to explain this here in Warsaw? Since my family history had been mentioned earlier to this audience, apparently I was not the only person bypassing the obvious.

The next morning I continued obsessing about why I hadn’t mentioned the full moon. Meanwhile something in me still felt perplexed. Why was the moon a metaphor for compassion? And then it hit me. Unlike the sun whose brilliance completely eliminates darkness, the moon co-exists with the darkness, is surrounded by it, and enchants us for just that reason. Somehow I’d never quite made this connection. As Chogyam Trungpa writes . . . if you see the actual darkness, that will inspire light or sunrise.

Though everyone has the potential of an awakened heart, its full expression is not always realized. When a teacher touches us with this awakened heart, we might temporarily feel we have received an extra heart, an extra full moon, though it was there inside of us all along. Apparently it’s the obvious that often eludes us and then comes back to give us a second chance.