Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was a 13 century Muslim poet, theologian and Sufi mystic in Persia, today’s Iran. His thoughts and ideas continue to offer a wealth of wisdom and inspiration. The one that I find myself thinking about today says: “yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Well, not that I have any claim to wisdom, but if charity begins at home, then maybe social change begins at home as well.
Pema Chodron is one of my favorite Buddhist teachers. In her book, “Start where you are: a guide to compassionate living” she tells a story about Atisha, a renown Buddhist teacher from northeast Bengal, today’s Bangladesh, who lived between 980 and 1050 CE. Atisha was preparing to travel to Tibet where he was going to share his knowledge of Buddhism with the people there. As he prepared for his journey, he heard reports that the Tibetan people were very good-natured. His scouts told him that the people of Tibet were earthy in their understanding of the world, flexible in their thinking, and open to new ideas. On one level this was very reassuring and gave Atisha great joy, as he hoped he would be welcomed and his teachings well received. On another level Atisha was afraid that his personal spiritual growth would be stunted. One of his beliefs was that our greatest teachers are those people we find most obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible because they mirror and reflect back to us those very aspects of our selves that are obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible – what we most dislike in others is that which we do not accept in ourselves.
As he developed his itinerary and roster of traveling cmpanions for the trip to Tibet, Atisha invited his tea boy to go along with him on the trip to Tibet. All of the other monks in the traveling party were quite surprised by the invitation, as the tea boy was known for his mean spirited irritability, but the young man was also from Bengal, and the monks thought that perhaps this was Atisha’s was of keeping his home culture close to him. When Atisha caught word of the monks’ presumption, he laughed, and corrected their misconception. Rather he told them he wanted the Bengali tea boy near him to ensure that his spiritual growth would not be stunted by the equanimity of the peoples of Tibet. The story has it that once Atisha arrived in Tibet he discovered much to his delight and chagrin that he need not have worried about his need for the Bengali tea boy, the Tibetans themselves were just as obnoxious, frustrating and contemptible as the rest of humanity. Challenges to foster Atisha’s spiritual growth were bountiful – the people there were not as pleasant as he had been told.
And so it is, we are all, each of us obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible each in our own way. And so we can each work to change ourselves as a foundation for building virtues and a vision of a world where fairness and dignity are respected and honored. And, in the meantime, we can each be grateful to everyone who as they visit us with their obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible behavior stands as a mirror inviting us to witness those very characteristic in ourselves.
Now, I am a child of the 60’s – OK, really the 70’s, but it is still so much cooler to claim the 60’s – the point is, I remember pacificism, and “Be grateful to everyone” is not a naïve all accepting defenselessness. If you are in danger of getting mugged, defend yourself or run for safety. “Be grateful to everyone” gets to at a complete change of attitude. Pema Chodron reminds us that the slogan actually gets at the guts of how we perfect ignorance through avoidance, not knowing we’re poisoning ourselves with our ways of being, not knowing that we’re putting another layer of protection over our heart, not seeing the whole picture. In our own lives, the Bengali tea boys are the people who, when you let them through the front door of your house, go right down to the basement where you store the things you’d rather not deal with, pick out one of them, bring it to you, and say “Is this yours?” “Be grateful to everyone” means that all situations teach you, and often it’s the tough ones that teach you the best.
So, be wise, change yourself. Be grateful to everyone, even – maybe especially your very own Bengali tea boy.