“Demon” is an old word, an ancient idea conjuring up images of devils and other fiercely intimidating embodiments of the forces of evil. Perhaps you, like I, instinctively recognize your own demonic nature. We all have within us the capacity to think speak and act in ways that are harmful. What we do with these demons, our demons, is a central project of the spiritual path.
Many of my demons thrive in the growth medium I nourish with generous doses of pride and arrogance. In this fertile soil, judgement blossoms like the first green clover in the open fields, popping up everywhere right now, no additional cultivation needed.
Other of my demons also find homes in soil enriched with arrogance: Resentment, strong opinions, angry impatience. Noxious weeds, every one.
“Noxious” is a word that sounds like what it describes: Anything toxic and harmful. Noxious weeds, like my demons, aggressively multiply, are harmful to the environments they inhabit, were introduced by ignorance or mis-management and are difficult to eradicate.
The very first of Buddhism’s Three Pure Precepts is, “Do No Harm.” My demons are the blossoms on the plants that orient toward more and better, toward like and dislike, push and shove. These are noxious weeds I use to over-run whatever seems in “my” way. Such poisonous, aggressive demons tend to rub off most painfully on those with whom I am the closest. Like stepping on a thistle plant in bare feet, or getting the juice of a wild parsnip flower on one’s skin, my demons HURT.
It is heart-wrenching when I see clearly the harm my toxic negativity has caused to the environment, to beings both near and far, those who I love and even those who I barely know. My
poisonous words and actions spread out in ever-widening circles from their origin in my tight, grasping heart/mind. Why do I choose to add poison to this world? This negative energy like invasive garlic mustard, steadily taking over the fields and woodlands, choking out native wildflowers and grasses.
My son once worked on a 400-acre biodynamic farm in New York, a farm which is legendary for the enlightened practices of its farmer-owners which have all but completely eliminated the insect and plant pests that typically plague farmers. This feat was accomplished not with herbicides and pesticides but with decades of environmentally thoughtful farming practices: organics with the addition of spirituality, a cosmology with nature at its heart.
Similarly, my stubborn demon weeds invite me to cultivate the spiritual purity of uncritical satisfaction, humility, kindness and self-control. I wonder what stops me from choosing that? I recognize that with this question, couched in horror at my failings, I risk falling into the ego’s shadowy underbelly of self-blame. Like seeding a new invasive species, this is an additional form of mis-management. Harmfulness, like garlic mustard, thistle and purple loosestrife will not be eradicated through the application of additional forms of harm.
My gardening mentor teaches that the gardener’s way involves some sharing of the land. We accept that for now, some noxious plant varieties will be our neighbors, but in the meantime, we work to create spaces free of these harmful varieties for crops, flowers and indigenous species. To share my world with my demons, I can take my remorseful heart into the garden of my life with clear eyes, an open heart and all my tools, intent on making more space for harmlessness.
The peace and beauty of a garden in mid-summer belies the hard work that begins in early spring
as plants, both wanted and unwanted, thrust themselves forth into a new life cycle. With spring now warming our world, I will direct my own quickening energies toward noticing the poisons emerging from my pushy small mind. In every step, in every thought and in each interaction, I will attend to pride and judgement with my caring and curiosity and with my deepest love for the Buddha Way.
This Way asks of me that I surrender, that I bow down to a path through my life that I do not control or shape, except with my commitment to follow the truth of the Dharma. Buddha-Dharma asks of me that I get out of the way, that I put behind me all the likes and dislikes, all the judgements. Thus, I make way for that which is naturally arising, the indigenous plants, species, circumstances, events and unfoldings of this time and place. The natural arising, the flow of existence through time and space, all of it emerges from vast purity, from the eternity of creation’s deepest truths. Even thistle and wild parsnip have a place in this great unfolding. Finches gorge on the seed of the thistle flower, bees hibernate in the hollow stems of the wild parsnip plant. My demons also have their place, here in the vast Mystery, as they teach me how to share my life with all beings, how to stay open and caring even towards the poisons I cultivate in my own craving heart.
Author: Lao Huo Shakya
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Image credit: Fashi Lao Yue