Becoming Mountains: A Vesak Day Reflection on Grief and Gratitude

APEN
5 min readMay 20, 2022
View of Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo of Hawaii. The sun is peeking over rolling hills and mountains. The blue sky in the background is illuminated and you can see silhouettes of a statue and small building in the foreground.
View of Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo of Hawaii (Photo by Christine G. Cordero)

All over the world today, including in many of the communities we work with at APEN, Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha with good deeds, lantern-making, ceremony, prayer and reflection. The diverse festivities celebrate all that the Buddha taught thousands of years ago that still lives on today as a philosophy and religion.

This Vesak Day, I feel the weight of grief and loss along with the festivities and celebrations. I hold the passing of a friend’s spouse and coworkers’ beloved grandmother and cousin. The Covid-19 death count has surpassed one million people and our country is rolling back decades of rights to bodily autonomy. As ice shelves slip into the sea, we continue to fight for who gets to breathe clean air, shop safely at the grocery store, or gather at places of spiritual community without fearing for our lives.

In the swirl and chaos of life, most days and especially today, I return to practice.

A few months ago, I went to the restroom, washed up, and decided to check my phone one last time before regular evening meditation at my dojo-temple. I read a text message I was not expecting at all: My godmother, who many in my family lovingly call Mommy Hai, was in the hospital and unlikely to make it out. She was love through sniff-kisses, spam and yellow soup, and teasing words lilted by her Vietnamese accent, “You in trouble, cu’ng!” or more often, “Mommy Hai love you, dah-ling.” She would be gone within the day.

An closeup of the face of Mommy Hai Paragas, an older Asian woman with short hair and a big smile. She is wearing a black sweater and has a white scarf tied around her neck. You can see parts of the bright green leaves and big pink and red flowers on her scarf.
Mommy Hai Paragas

I couldn’t breathe. Grief welled up from my gut and I could feel it making its way up my chest into my eyes. I had one, two minutes tops, before I had to get into the dojo and sit. I manage to make it in and am seated on the firm cushions, ready to go. I follow the instructions I learned over three years ago, and have trained almost everyday since.

Sit up big and tall, the back center of my head lifted towards the sky. Hands folded and resting in my lap against my body. Eyes open and relaxed, taking in a spot in front of me and my full peripheral vision, including the other meditators — solid, silent, present. Hearing the distant hum of traffic over Likelike Highway, and the call of geckos who lived in the rafters and kolea birds patrolling the grounds. Feeling the cloth of my training clothes, air lifting hairs on my arms. I could smell and feel my breath against the mask, taste the dryness of my mouth and throat.

My breath began to slow down, my exhale extending out, a steady stream of air. And I began to count each exhale in my head, “One……………….. Two………………..” Up to ten. And again. And again. And again. As I sat and paid attention to sensations, passing thoughts, waves of emotion, slowly memories of joy and gratitude surfaced along with the pangs of grief.

I felt regret for the times I saw her incoming call, and let it go to voicemail because I was too busy with work. The years that I didn’t try hard enough to see her on her birthday. But I also remembered the warmth of a towel and her strong arms after the evening bath, as she hugged me before carrying the now clean and sleepy me to my mom. I can see her smile at my college graduation, and hear her telling me, “Mommy so proud of you, cu’ng.”

Francis Weller, a psychotherapist who specializes in grief writes,

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”

As I sat among my community, my sangha, grieving, I felt big and unshaken as a mountain. As solid as the mountains surrounding the valley within which our temple is located. The grief didn’t go away, but I had space for gratitude and joy to live next to it. This to me is what my Buddhist training and practice is about.

I celebrate the gift of that space between breaths, between thoughts — the one between an external or internal stimulus and a response. In that barest of pauses, I have come to find truth and freedom — and this is the gift from Buddha, and all of the sanghas (communities) that came after that I try to live everyday.

It is not an overstatement to say that Buddhist training has saved my life — the ability to pause, find clarity and calm amidst suffering and chaos, before responding or acting. And to be clear, there is action.

I acted quickly and decisively to make it to Mommy Hai’s services, be with our family as we grieved and celebrated. I was able to be still and listen, hold immense amounts of suffering and grief, and simply provide comfort without trying to fix, repress, or dismiss. Often, the next steps are small, but they become clear and emerge from that pause. Much of the time it is as much about being the most grounded version of myself than anything I need to do or solve.

The work of love and justice is one that demands rigor and courage, to see clearly what is before us and act confidently for the collective good.

Okyo (chanting) training w/ traditional instruments. (Photo from IG: @chozenjihawaii)

I often recall these words on training:

“Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations, but fall to our level of training.” — Bruce Lee

From the very small and mundane actions of how I place my slippers, greet a stranger, or wash dishes; to the more obviously challenging and formal training of long hours of meditation or physically taxing martial arts — every day I train my body and being to stretch large by all that arises, and hold solid, calm, and ready.

And it is from here that I face the suffering, grief, and injustice in the world, see it eyes wide open, and ready to move in community. Ready to move in this work at APEN. I look around at our team, our members, you, our community, and I see the mountain range spread out before me — massive, strong, calm. Ready.

Christine Cordero is Co-Director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). She is committed to spiritual training and enjoys nerding out on sci-fi/fantasy books, tea, gaming, meditative practices, and strategy.

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APEN

Asian Pacific Environmental Network is an environmental justice organization with deep roots in California’s Asian immigrant and refugee communities.