When we focus outside ourselves, ultimately we realize the equality of ourselves and all other beings. Everybody wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer. Our attachment to our own happiness expands to an attachment to the happiness of all.
~Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche
Many years ago as a seminary student I had occasion to know an elderly woman who confided in me that on several occasions she received visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary. These encounters always happened in the dead of night and so I assumed they were simply pious dreams, but the woman’s experience was of something unlike ordinary dreams. Now, I’m not one for visions or inspired dreams — I regard them as little more than distractions from the greater mysteries that surround us in every waking moment — but I felt unable to dismiss out of hand the woman’s accounts for this reason: her entire demeanor changed and she became almost radiant whenever she recounted to me her other-worldly spiritual experiences. She was, in some way and for at least some passing moment, transformed. Even transfigured. In addition to the positive emotional content of her experience, the rational, discursive content (the storyline) was simple, useful, helpful and entirely traditional.
Luckily I had been formed by spiritual teachers and personal confessors who honored the experience and respected the conscience of anyone who might seek spiritual counsel. So I simply encouraged the elderly woman to be thankful for her dream-visions and then to get on with life as best she could, carrying the positive mental states — joy, hope, loving-kindness — into her difficult daily life. Naturally, I have no personal experience with extraordinary dreams or mystical visions, but I imagine that being thankful and then moving on would be the only way I myself would be able to deal with that sort of situation, as the weight of so intense an encounter with transcendent reality might be too much to bear. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. Truth be told, I think taking a walk with the dog or savoring a proper meal or spending time with family would be more useful and beneficial than a thousand visitations from gods or angels or saints.
Not so long ago I wrote a letter to one of the world’s most important Buddhist spiritual teachers to ask his thoughts on this sort of thing. Much to my surprise, he personally responded with a warm, direct, thoughtful opinion, even though he did not know me and surely already had too many people demanding his attention. This great spiritual teacher put it in Buddhist terms: While a madman might think himself sane, an enlightened person would not regard himself as mad, even though to the world he might seem mad — just as Jesus was called a madman in one Gospel account. The enlightened person would recognize that the true madness arises from the habitual, delusional ways we think, feel, and live. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the experience: either we are so overwhelmed by a clear vision of reality that we retreat to our comfortable delusions or else we accept the reality we encounter and when we share this with others who stand outside our place of experience we are regarded as foolish or mad or even wicked.
It is a shame and unfortunate that through our own fault we don’t understand ourselves or know who we are.
~Saint Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
Somewhere I wrote of the lessons my parents taught me when our family dog died. My mother consoled me, wiped my boyish tears, and taught me not to run away from the pain of life. My father taught me to be strong enough to rise up from the place of tears and honor the suffering of the present moment by burying the dead dog. He told me that if I’m strong enough to do this as a boy, as a man I will be strong enough to triumph over any obstacle I might encounter. How lucky I was to have such wise parents!
Today, midway through life’s journey, it is clear to me: The Two Lessons — the lesson of the mother and the lesson of the father — are both necessary. We become more truly human, free from the madness of life, when we look at our experience of the world for what it really is, when we stop pretending that we can escape loss and pain and sadness. And once we dwell in the place of tears for as long as we need to, we have the ability to rise up and start our journey, offering a saving hand to those still lost in the place of darkness.
The journey begins with one person. If one human being can make the journey from darkness to light, pass from death to life, it means all of us can do it. No matter how unlikely or impossible it seems.
May 24, 2017