ordinary everyday teachers
The other day I posted about the importance of the spiritual teacher in a general kind of way. The three texts that I drew from, by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, Milarepa, and Gampopa respectively, all highlight different approaches to how we benefit from out teachers. These are our ‘ecstatic’ or extraordinary teachers. What I would like to focus on today are the ordinary teachers, our everyday teachers.
Recently I met a patient in the hospital where I’m doing my clinical chaplaincy training. He had undergone extensive surgery several months ago to remove cancerous tissue that was spreading throughout his abdomen. He had also received radiation to help destroy any last bit of the cancer. He was young, only forty years old, and had only recently had the chance to experience life outside of the hospital. His cancer had gone into remission, he went home for the holidays and spent them with friends and family. All of the sudden, quite recently, he had begun to feel pain in his abdomen and went to his doctor to have it checked out. His doctor suggested that he come into the hospital for some tests. This is where I met him. He was laying in bed, his mother sitting by his side expectantly. As we started talking he described all of the tests that had just been done on a variety of his organs all of which presented the possibility of cancer. He was thin and animated despite being hooked up to a morphine drip to control his pain. As our conversation continued he started to cry and describe how angry he was with god about his present situation. As we spoke I asked him how not knowing, how the uncertainty of his present situation made him feel, and this lead to his anger with god or whatever force put him in his present situation. I asked him if he could share with me all the ways in which he was pissed off, to which he offered a lengthy, articulate and powerful list of feelings that lead to his anger. One of the feelings that he described involved his relative youth and what the reason for his being on earth actually was. He was afraid that he would never truly help others, that his desire to be a positive force for change in the world would be cut short by his illness. I was struck by his openness and the kindness with which he shared his fears, his pains, and also his joys, his hopes as well as his dreams. I felt so included by him in his life and in his story that I told him that I found him to be a graceful, compassionate and caring teacher- someone who I will never forget, who has touched me with gentle simplicity. I also mentioned that his mother may feel similarly, at which she started to cry as she said, “Yes, yes, he is wonderful.”
This patient has become a profound teacher for me. Part of his impact may have come from his circumstances, his illness and vulnerability, as well as his clarity and honesty with which he could share his feelings with me; but I tend to feel that we connected. His heart was open towards me, and mine towards him: we entered into relationship. It was meaningful for both of us. Towards the end of our meeting we seemed connected and full, we gave to, and supported one another.
There are an estimated 6,897,395,150 people on Earth, and the person who I just described above is just one of them. How amazing it is that we feel transformed in connecting with just one person, and yet there are so many others that we don’t or can’t open up to. I find this very humbling. Perhaps this is what an open heart truly is.
I am reminded of a portion of a text on mahamudra that was composed by Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche; it was his distillation of a much larger text by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, entitled the Ocean of Certainty. In his text (Opening the Door to Certainty) Bokar Rinpoche describes the different types of lamas, or teachers. These are, the lama as a human being belonging to a lineage, the lama as awakened word, the lama as appearance, and the lama as ultimate nature. The lama of appearance is described as appearance as teacher; that all that we see, hear, touch taste, and smell, all of our thoughts are all our teachers. How do we react to them? What do they cause to arise in us? There is a beautiful simplicity in appearance as teacher; it is loose and freeing; it allows us to go out and interact with the world around us; it allows us to enter into relationship with everything around us. This is wonderfully special. We are constantly surrounded by countless ordinary, everyday teachers, all of whom offer us the possibility of connection and growth.