Find, and You Shall Seek

1378382_10101152404054923_2046409647_n

When ignorance is overturned, it transmutes into enlightenment. It is like melting ice into water; it is not something apart and does not come from elsewhere. All is contained in a single moment of mind.

– Chih-i

I seek a single moment of mind. And I find it, every single time, right where I left it. Right here. With me, in me, behind me, ahead of me, beckoning, waiting, answering and asking at once.

A single moment of mind, leading to single moments of mind, pointing to single moments of mind. Moments of mind that, collectively, constitute my self, intermingled with your self, and scattered amongst the infinity of Self itself.

The third of the Four Great Vows of the bodhisattva says: “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.” Or, as Thomas Cleary interprets it, it is the vow “to study all truths” (Cleary, Glossary to Stopping & Seeing, 1997). Of the four, this is the one that most clearly resonates with me: the search for Truth within all truth, the quest to ask all the answers through learning all the questions. My questions, your questions, their questions, today, tomorrow, and yesterday. The questions go on, they are continuous; how can the answers be other than the questions through which they are sought?

Chih-i also wrote: “Temporary expedients do not contain the true; it is the true that contains temporary expedients.” In other words, whereas we often envision answers as endpoints, in reality they are mere waystations in an ongoing journey. Today’s answer, properly understood, becomes tomorrow’s question. And so on. Infinitely. We always find, so we never arrive. And this is life. And life is enlightenment.

Another quote, from Stargate SG-1: “If you immediately know the candlelight is fire, then the meal was cooked long ago.” To assume I have the answers is to miss the point of the questions asked: it is to choose a solution before hearing the problem; it is to decide my fate before knowing who I am. It is to abandon the journey before it ever begins.

The path to Truth is not linear, although we often believe it so. The path to Truth is not even really a path. We stand simultaneously at the beginning and the end; the beginning is the end. The path to Truth is not a path. Truth is the path, and the path is truth: no more and no less. It is not ahead; it is not behind; it is not outside of us. Truth is not a destination, it is a realization.

We are never really there, because we are already here. We never really arrive, because, in truth, we never really left.

Two (or More) To Tango – Revised Ed.

Agnolo_degli_Erri_,_Dominicain_prêchant

I thought I heard the captain’s voice
It’s hard to listen while you preach
Like every broken wave on the shore
This is as far as I could reach

– U2

Listening is the hardest thing we will never learn to do.

Why? Because we take ourselves far too seriously. We give too much weight to the things we have to say. We assume our contributions to be greater than they really are.

Take this very blog, for instance: I would like to think that, from time to time, I say something someone might find encouraging or useful. But in and of itself, my little corner of the blogosphere really isn’t that important. To me, the Toad’s adventures may be truly great, but to others–to quote Randy Jackson–they may be “just alright.” Especially if I ignore everybody else’s.

Blogs are an excellent example of the fact that we’re far more willing to be heard than we ever are to listen. Case in point: Do we “follow” others because we really want to know what they have to say, or are we merely fishing for followers of our own? Mea culpa. If I’m honest, I’d have to say that even fifty-fifty is an estimate hopelessly lacking in self-awareness. I find myself “following” a couple hundred people, and paying attention to maybe a third of them. So I “purge the list” and heave a sigh of relief, only to find myself three months later back in the same over-crowded boat.

What I’m saying is this: I have 950 followers. To think that means I have 950 readers is just absurd. How do I know this? Because truth be told, I ignore most of the people I supposedly “follow.” There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Each of my however many followers each follow however many people, and will have just as hard a time keeping up with me as I with them. Bilbo Baggins said it best: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” And for this I sincerely apologize.

The truth is, I would rather have a small group of dedicated readers, of whom I could be a dedicated follower and with whom I could have a meaningful conversation, than a neverending list of faceless, unidentified “followers” and “follow-ees” with whom I never ever interact. This is do-able. There are enough hours in the day for that, easily. As long as I remember why I ought to be here.

At the end of the day, though, I find I don’t always want a conversation. I often just want to hear myself talk. And then I wonder why no one’s responding to questions I’ve never bothered to ask. Even now, see? Here I am, preaching again. No matter how hard I try, the sermon must go on.

Here’s the problem: by definition, we are pushers of what we believe in, simply because we believe in it. There is nothing wrong with that, and there’s really no way around it. But there is a very fine line between arguing that what we believe is right, and arguing that unless our interlocutors accept the rightness of what we believe, they are wrong. Once we cross that line, dialogue is dead. We’ve decided we know, which is a dangerous decision to make. More importantly, we’ve decided we cannot know more, which means we’ve decided there’s nothing more we can be taught.

If that day comes, we might as well pack it in and head for home. If, as the soldiers of GI Joe used to say, knowing is half the battle, then learning is the other. If I refuse to do that, then I’m fighting with one hand tied perpetually behind my back. And I can’t learn unless I listen.

And sometimes it seems I’ll never learn.

Enter the Romanians

Recently, I mentioned to a friend an experience from long, long ago that I hadn’t really thought about in years. Imagine my surprise, then, when while sifting through old family photos I stumbled across this:

232

If you’re wondering, I’m the little guy at the bottom right wearing the giant Smurf…

In 1985, two displaced Romanian families came to Marshfield, Missouri, having defected from the Soviet bloc. At the time, my dad (the guy in the back row with the stripey tie) was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Marshfield. All the teenagers you see crammed into the picture were members of his youth group. Scattered throughout are the Borza family–mother Maria in the back center, son Audie in the second row, and daughter Diana beside me and my Smurf.

That Christmas (which is when this photo was taken), First Baptist decided to pull together gifts and supplies for the newly arrived families, to help them feel more connected to our community. And I had an idea: I raided my toybox. There was this Transformers car (or Go-Bots–I don’t remember which), a little blue convertible number, that I absolutely loved, and I seized on that as the perfect gift. I don’t remember if Mom wrapped it or not; I just remember the feeling of happiness that came with handing it over to my new friend. Strong enough that today, almost thirty years after the fact, it’s still clear as a bell in my mind.

I don’t say all this to toot my own horn. I was eight years old in 1985, just a kid, and I did what came naturally. The older I get, the harder it seems to be to make such sacrifices, even ones as small as giving up a favorite toy. (If there is, by the way, a moral to this story, perhaps that is it: as we grow out of our childish openness and generosity, it becomes more and more important to rediscover those qualities on a regular basis. We spend so much time teaching children to share, a lesson quickly forgotten by the jaded adults we’re all on our way to becoming.)

As I said, this story is not about boasting, but about making connections between myself and my past. None of what I’m about to say was at all clear to me at the time. Little of great significance to our lives and identities ever really is. There’s a reason they say what they say about hindsight. As I think back over all those unobtrusive, apparently inconsequential moments in my history; as I’m reminded of fleeting memories through sharing them with others; as I begin to exegete my own experiences–only then does an image come into focus and begin to solidify before me. Things begin to make a sense I didn’t ever realize they had.

“The world is full of so many lonely souls.” That moment of connection with the Borza boy was an eight-year-old’s first inkling of the truth of that statement. At the time, I didn’t know from communism or dictatorship or political repression. It would be years before I could formulate a decent definition of the Soviet Union, and by the time I could it didn’t even exist anymore. But here was this kid, not so different from me, a kid who enjoyed Christmas presents and little toy cars every bit as much as I did. A kid who, given other circumstances, might have been me, and I him. And for the briefest of spaces, our lives intertwined, became one. And I learned, albeit unconsciously. As I told my friend upon relating the story, I couldn’t even remember the family’s name, not until I read it off the back of the photo. Couldn’t remember the year. Just the faces. And the feeling. Of connection. Of camaraderie. Of compassion.

Those are feelings I’m trying desperately to cling to as I travel farther and farther away from that eight-year-old’s perspective, a perspective both limited and startlingly limitless. I struggle to remind myself that the line between myself and “the other guy” is so tenuous as to be nonexistent. I seek to feel and understand the pain that might so easily be mine, as one hopeful that others care about the pain that so often is. Mine. And yours. Ours.

Because in that understanding resides my humanity. Without it, I exist, but alone, not as part of anything. And I feel a burning need to be part of something, something that matters, something that changes…something.

The world is full of problems to which I want to help find solutions. That Christmas I began to figure that out. Here was a family who couldn’t have a holiday because they’d had to run away from home. That’s probably about as far as my comprehension took me, back then. But it was enough. I knew what running away from home meant; I knew that I didn’t want to do it; and I knew that I didn’t want anyone else to have do it, either. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, my little plastic toy represented my best effort to help normalize their world, to allow them to feel at home again. To give them a home again.

And while they didn’t know it, as I reached out to them, they reached out to me and taught me one of the most important lessons I think we can ever learn: not that giving is better than receiving, but that in a very real sense, giving is receiving. And what did I receive from them? The greatest gift of all:

The first glimmers of an awareness of love–what it is and how to do it. True, love can be expressed through grand gestures, but more often it inhabits the little things. Love is in the approach. Love is forged in the fires of similarity and given form by the iciness of difference: I love you because you are like me, and because I could so easily be in your shoes.

They taught me to begin to love you. And I do. All of you. Even you crazy spammers filling up my inbox everyday with odd phrases that are rarely in good English and therefore always amusing. I love each and every one of you. If I could, I’d give you all a giant hug and invite you in for a cup of coffee or a beer or iced tea or whatever–pick your poison.

The Borzas taught me to begin caring. And I still do…