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In Praise of Limitations

I’ve been thinking a lot about my limitations. In his book Everyday Suchness (Dharma House 2004), Rev. Gyomay Kubose touches on this theme. He uses the word not to mean that we should place limits on ourselves, but as an encouragement for us to be clear about who we are. What is our family history? What kind of society were we born into? What upbringing did we have? What is coded into our genes? As he says, it is  “. . . knowing what you are and living accordingly.” (13)

I have a dual reaction to this position. The first is immense relief. There are parts of me that don’t believe I do, or should, have limits. These parts of me say: “If you just worked harder or longer or smarter, you could do whatever you wanted. You could be a famous writer, or solve the climate crisis, or eliminate suffering completely from your life.” Of course, my experience is that I often can’t work harder or longer, or certainly that there are consequences if I do so, with periods of “recovery” where all I can do is watch Netflix. I haven’t solved the climate crisis or eliminated suffering either. What Rev. Kubose says offers me a glimpse of a different way of living, in which I work with the reality of who I am—and how others are and how the world is—rather than fighting against it.

My second reaction is righteous indignation. What about the many of us in oppressed groups? Should we just roll over and accept the limitations thrust upon us? What about our autonomy? Who says I have to accept the limits of my time or gender or occupation or family status? We need systemic change now more than ever. How will we achieve that if we all meekly go around accepting things?

I suspect that I am misinterpreting Rev. Kubose’s teaching. I understand that he was a quiet, humble man, but he certainly wasn’t meek. He lived a courageous life, bringing Japanese Buddhism to America. He endured two years in a Japanese-American internment camp in Wyoming during the Second World War, and founded the Buddhist Temple of Chicago. As I read his teachings, I don’t hear any fatalism. He’s not saying that there’s no point in trying because our limits will trip us up regardless. Rather, I have a sense of him nudging me toward reality and encouraging me to work with whatever materials I have been given—with gratitude, fortitude, and a deep acceptance.

Another way of putting this might be, “What does the Buddha want me to do with my life?” When I ask this question to the Buddha directly, the answer I receive is usually much more prosaic than I would like. As an example, I was becoming tangled up earlier this week in thoughts about how we should grow our sangha here at the Bright Earth temple. Should we present the Dharma in this way or that way? What new systems might we create that would deliver the Dharma in a “perfect” format? When I asked the Buddha, the answer that came back to me was, “Don’t worry about any of that.” I had a strong sense that my job was to simply keep running practice sessions; simply to keep responding to people as they are, and allow the temple to continue unfolding as something bigger than me. I have a small part to play in this unfolding, but probably not as much as I’d like to think!

Thinking about limitations also makes me wonder about my work as an activist. I expend a lot of energy wondering about how I might persuade people to step into the kind of activism I engage in: civil resistance. I am convinced that civil resistance is the best hope we have of provoking the massive systemic change necessary to save humanity. And so, of course, I want to influence others to join me in this work, for all of our sakes. I am also increasingly aware of how uniquely suited I am for this work. I have always been one to step forward and “speak the unspeakable” in groups, and I now find myself doing the same in a bigger context. My life choices mean that I have no dependents—unless you count the two little dogs—and the freedom to take time off work to join rebellions. Although it has been a stretch for the people-pleasing parts of me to cause disruption and to be unpopular, there is another part of me that has always rather enjoyed it. It is almost as if I was “made” to do this work at this particular time, and although sometimes it feels like a burden, mostly it feels like a privilege and a joy.

How helpful is it to spend time trying to convince others to follow me, if they are made of different stuff? Would they be better off joining me on the streets, or should they be planting trees in Scotland, caring for their sick relatives, or delivering letters? If their systems are different to mine—and they are—who am I to know what their appropriate limitations are and what the Buddha has in store for them?

So far, I have more questions than answers, and that’s okay. Rev. Kubose says we should live “just as maple leaves fall, as water falls from higher level, just as moon shines—that kind of life gives us peace and serenity.” (12) Yes, there will be suffering, and yes, we should continue to ask ourselves what we can offer the world. Sometimes we are called to do things that feel frightening or are outside of our comfort zone. And if we can, we should do them. And maybe we can trust that our limitations are there to show us the offerings that we were born to make. Maybe we can make these offerings as best we can and, regardless of all the things we don’t do, feel satisfied. Just one leaf, just water falling from a higher level. This gift of our unique and beautiful life.  


Kubose, Gyomay. 2004. Everyday Suchness. Chicago: Dharma House

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