The Bengali Tea Boy & Be Grateful to Everyone, Change Yourself

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.

When to be practical

When to be Practical – A somewhat revised version of a Sufi Story by Mohammed Gwath Shattari 

 The good Sisters of Mary Magdalene were grieving the loss of Sister Visentia. Some of the sisters found themselves holding Sister Septimus culpable – for leaving Sister Visentia on her own with the bear chasing her, for not marshalling a search party of the other sisters sooner, and just because they just really liked Sister Visentia better (although none of the good sisters would admit this last reason). To help them deal with their grief and to heal their relationships, Sisters Bryda, Ludwika and Septimus decided to set off on a retreat together. For their retreat, they elected to hike the Appalachian Trail.  As they hiked the trail, the good Sisters discussed the importance of putting into practice everything they had learned in the cloister, and they committed themselves to helping each other sink their roots more deeply into a spiritual life of social justice.

Together the good sisters discussed the nuances of love and compassion, they talked about the golden rule, the platinum rule, about the importance of self love as a foundation for loving others well. They found themselves talking about Sister Visentia, her embodiment of all they cherished in the rule of Mary Magdalene. They found themselves chuckling at some of Sister Visentia’s odd little habits – the way she would poke out her lower lip when she was thinking and when she was pouting or sulking a bit. And the laugher helped to ease their loss. They walked and talked, and soon they we so engrossed in their thoughts and conversation that it was quite late at night when they realized that all they had with them was one piece of somewhat stale, hard bread.  And they concurrently realized that they were well along the most remote portion of the Appalachian Trail where they were not likely to encounter others and they would not come to a town for a few days more journey.

But, all in all the day had been a sweet one, and so the Sisters decided not to discuss who most should/would eat the bread; since they were pious women, they decided to leave the decision in the hands of the Mary Magdalene to patron saint of their order. They prayed that during the night their patron would inspire them with the wisdom to know who should eat the bread.

The following morning, the three women rose together at sunrise.

“This is my dream,” said the Sister Ludwika. “I was taken to places I had never visited before, and enjoyed the sort of peace and harmony I have sought in vain during my entire life on earth. In the midst of this paradise, our mother, Mary Magdalene said to me: “you are my chosen servant, you never sought pleasure, always renounced all things of this world. This hard, dry bread holds with the path you have chosen, and I choose you to partake of its sustenance.”

“That’s very strange,” said the Sister Bryda. “For in my dream, I saw my past of service and devotion to the sisters, to our order and to our patron Mary Magdalene. Our Patron spoke to me and affirmed my future role within our cloister. As I gazed at that which is to come, I heard our mother Mary Magdalene, saying: “You are in great need of food for I have called you to works of service that will require strength and energy.”

Then Sister Septimus said:”In my dream I saw nothing, went nowhere, and found no wise women. However, at a certain hour during the night, I suddenly woke up and was overcome with hunger. So I ate the bread.”

The other two were furious:”And why didn’t you wake us up and consult with us before making such a vital decision that effects us all!?”

“How could I?” Said Sister Septimus, “You were both so far away, talking with our mother, Mary Magdalene, and having such holy visions! Yesterday we discussed the importance of putting into practice all that we learn in the cloister. In my case, God acted quickly, and had me awake dying of hunger!”

 This story illustrates the need to nurture ourselves, and the importance and place of self care, as well as the dilemma of balancing self care and caring for others, and the ability to laugh at ourselves and with others.

A family of bears, a pack of coyote and the strawberry: delight in the present moment

Parts of New Jersey really do justify its label as the ‘garden state’. Out in Hunterdon County where I live, there are still acres and acres of farms and forests. And, increasingly there have been sightings of black bears. For the most part, bears will retreat at loud noises. So, if you are walking in the woods and you carry bells with you, you should be safe. A major exception to this is if the bear is a mother bear with young cubs. Then all bets are off, and the mother will defend her cubs from anything she perceives as a remotely possible threat – and that includes any human silly enough to be in her line of sight or her range of smell. Be forewarned.

Those of you who have been regularly following justalchemy stories will remember the cloistered convent of the good sisters of Saint Mary Magdalene which is tucked in a corner of  rural Hunterdon County. Well, one day two of the good sisters were out for a walk along a forest trail near the convent and they came across a mother bear and two of her cubs.  The sisters both saw the bear family at the same time, and together they broke their vow of silence and whispered to each other, “RUN!

As you read this, you may find yourself wondering how fast you have to run to outdistance a bear? Common wisdom says, just a bit faster than the other person with you.

And, so Sister Septimus fairly quickly outdistanced Sister Visentia and made it safely back to the doors of the cloister.

Sister Visentia was a bit more Rubenesque than Sister Septimus, and so she lagged behind in the sprint for safety. Soon enough she found herself on the edge of a cliff overlooking a quarry. Just as she was about to despair, Sister Visentia notice a honeysuckle vine draped over the edge. She very quickly wrapped the vine around her arm and leg and lowered herself over the edge of the cliff. And just in time too as the mother bear was in close pursuit!  

There she was dangling precariously over the edge, calculating how long the vine is and how deep the cliff was when Sister Visentia heard a coyote pack snarling below her. As she lifted her eyes to the heavens and began to take some calming breaths, Sister remembered her mantra and meditation practices. Just then Sister Visentia also noticed the mice who were gnawing at the vine that was suspending her between the bear and the coyotes. She deeply inhaled and exhaled. She looked to her left and noticed a wild strawberry plant with a deep red berry on it. Reaching out with her left hand, she plucked it, tasted it, and her last thought was a prayer of gratitude and appreciation for the wonderful sweetness of the delicious strawberry.

Viktor Frankl reminds us that there is always hope if we are but open to noticing it. Remember to celebrate the joy and delight of the present moment!

Mila Repa the Eagle Tower Caves of the Red Rock Jewel Valley

Mila Repa was a great Tibetan Buddhist yogi.  But, before he became a yogi, Mila Repa was a bit of a scoundrel. I mention that only to highlight that indeed change is possible – if you are committed to it and work at it.  So this story is known as the tale of Mila Repa in the Eagle Tower Caves of the Red Rock Jewel Valley. 

 Mila Repa had been studying with his guru Marpa for a number of years, working to overcome the negative karma that he had accumulated during his years as a scoundrel.  Our Mila Repa was not yet the most patient man, and so he was not satisfied with the pace of his progress. Eventually Mila Repa convinced Marpa that he should go off to the caves to pray and meditate in solitude, to get away from the distractions of day to day life. Marpa merely smiled a Mila Repa’s insistence, and finally gave his blessing to his student’s insistence.

 One day, after Mila Repa had been living in the caves for some time he went out to collect firewood from the valley just below his cave. While he was out, a serious strom blew up. The wind was fierce, and as quickly a Mila Repa could pick up wood, the wind blew it out of his arms. The wind whipped his robes around and promised to tear off even that bit of protection.  As his frustration grew, Mila Repa remember the Buddhist injunction to be free of ego and attachments. And he chastised himself, saying something like, “What is the point of my great devotions and solitary practice if I cannot manage to control my own ego! Let the wind take my robes away if it wants to.”  And, just as he became aware of that thought, he fainted from the exertion and the struggle. When he came to, he observed that the storm had blown itself out, and he saw his tattered robe tangled in the branches of a nearby scrub tree.

 Necessity being necessity, Mila Repa gathered up his robes, put them on, got himself back together, and gathered up the firewood that he had set out for. After a bit more work, he got himself and the wood back to his cave.  When  he arrived at the cave, he was surprised to find that his cave had been invaded and taken over by five of the ugliest, most ferocious looking demons that he had ever seen. They were huge, smelly, drooling with large fangs and claws. Mila Repa was shocked to see them in his peaceful dwelling space. But, he had his own history of villainy, so, undaunted he introduced himself to the demons and asked them to leave. The demons took this to be impudent effrontery, and became menacing. They destroyed his food stores, they ripped up his books of prayers and scriptures, and generally wrecked havoc in the cave. Then they surrounded Mila Repa, growling and taunting him maliciously. The demons made it clear that they were serious in their malevolence. Now, Mila Repa was alarmed and afraid. This was no mere halucination. He was in mortal danger.

 Seeing their growing hostility, Mila Repa thought about his options. He thought about his years as a villan, and rejected violence as a possible response. He reaffirmed his committment to his Buddhist vows. He recited prayers of exorcism, with no effect. He preached Buddhism to them, he chanted Buddhist prayers and teachings to them, he told them of great acts of compassion from the history of Buddhism.  All of this to no avail. Indeed, all of this had the opposite effect, only increasing their hostility toward him.

Despairation was descending on Mila Repa. He thought about all he knew. He thought about his years of study of Buddhism, he remembered that our experience and interpretation of reality is but a projection of our own mind. He remembered that all of our experiences are but teachers, intended to open our heart to greater awareness and love. … Mila Repa laughed out loud as he realized how romantic and lofty he always thought those teachings sounded. And now, his life seemed to hang on his ability to put those teachings into practice. Mila Repa remembered all that he had learned about love and now understood it with a new fearlessness. He welcomed the demons into his home and his life. He invited them to talk and eat and play together. He listened to them, even as he challenged them to listen to him. They engaged in a dialogue. He listened and learned — not to their taunts as they presented them, but to the meanings of those taunts within the context of awareness, love and enlightenment. And Mila Repa’s understanding and practice grew deeper and more refined. The demons did not leave – they never leave. But, Mila Repa’s relationship to them was transformed. They became his greatest teachers. Crisis is both danger and opportunity.

Fear, Generosity and spoons with long handles

Once upon a time in a place both very near to my heart and very distant from here and now, there were two villages, Metus and Gratia.

In the village known as Metus, the people lived in fear. They have learned to distrust each other, and the communal belief was that each person had better take care of his or her self, because no one else could be trusted to so. The most common saying among the villagers was that help’s sir name was Godot, and there was no point in waiting for Godot!  

One day the Queen mandated a communal feast. And, all of the villagers were summoned to sit around at a huge table full of food. The Queen’s men saw to it that the bowls on the table were always full and overflowing. The villagers of Metus cursed the Queen and her men, they knew the food on the table was a cruel joke meant to taunt them. As part of the feast day celebrations, each of the villagers had spoons with long handles attached to their arms and they couldn’t reach their own mouths with the spoons, because the handles were too long. When they tried to feed themselves the food fell uselessly to the table. Their bowls were overflowing but they were all starving to death at the feast. They saw the feast as cruel punishment by a cynical and uncaring Queen.

In the village of Gratia, the people grew up living lives that were steeped in gratitude, generosity, and love. Like their distant relative in Africa, they understood relationships in the spirit of Ubuntu, “I am because you are.” The villagers of Gratia shared a sense of deep interconnectedness and a commitment to love, nurture and to see to the well being of each of the members of the community

As with the villagers of Metus, one day the Queen called for a communal feast in the Village of Gratia. All of the villagers were invited to be seated at a huge table full of food. The Queens men saw to it that bowls of food on the table were always full and overflowing. The villagers of Gratia knew the food was a joyous gift of generosity from their beloved Queen and they thoroughly enjoyed the day of celebration. To highlight celebration of Ubuntu that wove throughout the day, everyone had spoons with long handles attached to their arms. While in fact the handles were so long that they could not feed themselves, no one in Gratia noticed. They were all laughing and joyously feeding one another.

When we share with each other there is always more than enough, yet when we are afraid of sharing there is never enough.

When we open our hearts and share with each other there is always more than enough love, power and food. Will we see the spoons as obstacles or connections? Any crisis can be rendered into danger or an opportunity.

Two Nuns, Chastity and the Drowning Young Man

Not far from Flemington there is a cloistered convent of the good sisters of Saint Mary Magdalene. Sisters living in a cloister have chosen to set themselves apart from the rest of society, and have dedicated themselves to a simple life of prayer, work and community within the walls of the convent.  Sisters of this Order have pledged themselves to pray always, and as do all religious, to honor the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. 

As it happens, this convent is very near to the Raritan River, and so, on occasion, the sisters will walk along the river, often in pairs, as they chant their devotions. One balmy spring afternoon, just after one of those torrential ‘spring showers’ that we are wont to have in central New Jersey, two of the good sisters were strolling along the banks of the river which was rushing past them with three times its normal volume and twice its speed, struggling to carry off the drainage from the rains. As the sisters walked and prayed in silence, they noticed a young man in the river, obviously in trouble, going under for the third time. Without hesitation, Sister Visentia shed her outer robes, jumped into the river, pulled out the young man – who she soon noticed was quite, well, shall we say, unclothed – and administered mouth to mouth resuscitation to him to help restart his breathing.  Very quickly he was revived. He concurrently noticed his own nakedness and saw that the two women were Sisters from the cloister. Embarrassed, he profusely thanked Sister Visentia, covered what he could with his hands, and ran off down the river away from the convent grounds.  Sister Visentia put her robes back on, and the two Sisters continued their prayerful walk along the river.

Sometime later, after they had walked and prayed for a goodly while, Sister Septimus turned to Sister Visentia, looked at her accusingly and said, “How could you so callously break your vows without any hesitation or remorse? You tore your close off in front of a man, you touched his body in all of its nakedness, and you pressed your lips to his! And now you continue to walk and pray as if nothing aberrant has happened! Have you no shame or remorse? Have you no respect for your vows?!?”

Sister Visentia looked very calmly at Sister Septimus and replied, “Well Sister, I only did what was necessary to save the life of one of our Creator’s blessed souls. What could be greater respect for my vows, for the commitment of our community to honor the Creator’s work in all that we do? How could I let such a fine example of that creation be lost before its time? And, besides, my dear Sister, I put that young man’s body down a long time ago, right there on the bank of the river where I found him. Why are you still carrying his naked body with you all this time later?”

Why indeed. The letter and the spirit of the law, the letter and the spirit of our commitments and goals can at times seem to be in conflict.

I really like this story because it reminds me of the importance of remembering what is really important, the essence of our goals and commitments. It also reminds me of the importance of letting go; of the importance of forgiveness; of the self incrimination and futility of judging others. 

If I were REALLY doing a total rewrite of the story instead of the minor tweaking liberties that I took, I would have Sister Visentia turn to Sister Septimus and sing song: “I am rubber and you are glue, and whatever you think or say about me, bounces off me and sticks on you!”  But I guess that really doesn’t fit with the spirit of the story, so I won’t.  I will indulge in one more moral though: remember Fritz Perls assertion that 80% percent of what we see is a projection of our own stuff.  That should give us pause when we are ready to indict someone for what their words or actions implied.  Was it implied, or are we reading our own fear, guilt or suppressed desires onto the canvas of someone else’s life? Indeed, “I am rubber and you are glue, and whatever you think or say about me, bounces off me and sticks on you!”