Looking in the Box
Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?
I went to see the Dalai Lama two weeks ago. He spoke at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at the Minneapolis Convention Center. To be in his presence was exciting and emotional in a lot of ways. He is simple and present, a joy to behold. I went to see him because I believe(d) he is special.
He took time when he came in, during the talk and at the end to walk to the edge of the stage and look at us. I mean he tried to make individual eye contact in a convention center room filled with people. We all sat silently looking back, connecting with our eyes. His answers to deep, complicated, angst filled questions were starkly honest, often peppered with laughter. During his talk, I was tearing up, but I wasn’t sure why.
He spoke simply about connecting with each other as human beings. He repeatedly said we are all the same, but that when he was younger, he identified himself as different. First as Tibetan, then as a Buddhist, then as a monk, then as the Dalai Lama. He gave a hearty laugh as to suggest, “Can you believe that?” But finally, he said over and over again, “I’m a human being just like you. We are the same.”
But, I was having none of it. He, I told myself, is special.
At the end, in a formula straight out of talks like this one, the last audience “question” was one where the person asked him to give us a blessing. He looked surprised. We obviously weren’t getting it. He quickly said, “I’m Buddhist, I don’t give blessings.” Then he giggled.
But this was not how the formula was supposed to go. Despite what he had been trying to communicate for over an hour, we still wanted to assert his specialness. Surely he could give us something if he wanted to, and if others were like me it was the peace he emanated that I wanted. After a pause, he said simply, “It is impossible for me to bless you. Blessings come from your actions. It comes from within you. No one can give it to you, it is in you.”
This made me cry. When I turned around, the two women behind me were crying too. I don’t know why they or I was crying. Was it relief? That everything, all the conditions for happiness, as he said, are already there? Or was it a feeling of small terror that he couldn’t give me what I had come for that day, and that somewhere I had known it all along?
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There is a Hindu story about a man sitting on a box, begging every day in the street. The beggar is sitting on a box filled with great wealth. Yet, he continues to beg from others, hoping for a penny, a dime, maybe a quarter thrown his way. He never thinks to look in the box until a stranger suggests it. It is a sad story, a human story.
Really many religious “practices” seem to point the practitioner to look inside, to suggest to us, the beggars, that we stop begging from the world, and look in “the box” that’s been there all along. It is the Catholic season of Lent now, a remembrance of Jesus fasting in the desert. The holy month of Ramadan for Muslims seems similar in the retreat from the world of senses. Taking away these things we are so attached to, the small pennies, dimes and quarters thrown our way, we commit to draw our attention within. It is hard practice, but only because it is so different, so subtle from the heightened world of the senses.
The Dalai Lama that day seemed merely to be pointing somewhere I haven’t been. Maybe even someplace I’ve been unwilling to go. He was not proselytizing, not giving advice, not teaching doctrine. He was definitely NOT giving blessings. Instead, he was pointing to the box joyfully, seeming to say, “I’m not special, I just looked in the box. Why don’t you look for yourself and see?”
The great transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes Jesus as someone who was special because he was truly human. Instead of writing of Jesus as the savior, as God’s only son, he writes, “Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with an open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of [humans]. One man was true to what is in you and me.….He spoke of miracles, for he felt that [human] life was a miracle.”
It seems then that we the beggars sit on the box filled with severe harmony, ravishing beauty, and miracles. The Kingdom of God is here, Jesus said over and over again. But the people in the crowd, kept saying, “Can you bless us?” Throw us some pennies, Jesus, how about a dime?
Two centuries later, here I am still looking to the outside, suffering and begging for pennies from the world, over and over again.
Why wait and look for the Kingdom of God to come later, to be given over? Why wait for the Dalai Lama to bless me? Why, as Rumi asks, do I stay in prison when the door is SO wide open? Why indeed.
Let’s have a look in the box.