Extraordinary ordinariness of Dalai Lama and David Souter

5 05 2009

One of my favorite stories is of the Zen Master Rinzai.

He was asked, “What did you do before you became enlightened?” And he answered, “I chopped wood and carried water.”

Then, came the follow-up question, “Well, now that you’re enlightened, what do you do now?”

“I chop wood and carry water,” Renzai replied.

I’ve thought of this story a lot recently as I’ve read media coverage of David Souter’s retirement and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Boston.

In both cases, there has been an unbridled obsession with the sheer ordinariness of these two men:

  • Justice Souter lives in a simple farmhouse that is “not even the nicest farmhouse in a very middle-class community”, sniffed the Globe.
  • “The Dalai Lama likes to laugh” was the lead on more than one story.  TV stations played and replayed a moment from his visit to Harvard when he, gasp, sprinkled water on a tree that had just been planted in his honor (“from his own water bottle”, one paper exclaimed.)

How very telling about the times in which we live that it is news that an official of a representative government has remained, well, representative.  Or that someone pauses from the pomp and circumstance of a photo opp to perform the simple act of giving water to another living thing.

Is this newsworthy because we all aspire for that ordinariness?  Or because we view it with disdain?

Why is it that we insist that beautiful voices like Susan Boyle can’t be ordinary in their appearance?  That her inner talent isn’t enough?  That she must look the part, whatever “the part” is (who’s the keeper of guidelines for “the part” anyway?).

Is it because we’re so busy trying to be extraordinary—which, of course, means being what we are not–that it’s shocking to run across folks who are comfortable with themselves, just as they are?  Folks who don’t need outside adulation or stardom or wealth because they have realized that the only acceptance that really matters—and the hardest to achieve—is that which comes from within?

Someone I’ve read in the past three years—I think it was Lao Tzu—said that there was a time when there was no religion, there were no saints.  Because everyone carried religion within.  Everyone was saintly.  Everyone was ordinary.

Such a world might not be good for Oprah or the self-help gurus or televangelists, but it’d be damned good for the soul…and the trees!




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