Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wisdom beyond her years

Monday evening, I had dinner in my Faculty Resident’s apartment with a remarkable young woman. I already knew this to some degree, which was why I wanted to set aside time for an extended conversation. She had been recognized for her achievements and singled out by mentors as someone worth getting to know. Too often, it seems to me, faculty members devote the preponderance of their one-on-one time to problem students and too little to the exceptional ones. While I don’t neglect problem students, I have always sought out the very best and offered them individual attention.

My student-friend is deeply religious, but has no calling to be a missionary. She is uncomfortable seeking to impose her values, however deeply held, upon others. Last summer, on her own initiative, unconnected with any program, she spent three months in a developing country, living with the family of a distant relative. Her goal was not to ‘make a difference’ except, perhaps in herself. She simply wanted to observe and learn. She returned to Washington with increased skepticism about ‘international development’ (which is my own professional field). She wondered how many of us really know enough about ourself, let alone others, to embark on changing someone else’s life.

In his book, How To Practice: A Guide to Meaningful Life, the Dalai Llama offers a parable which I see as relevant to those of us who are committed to ‘improving’ other people’s lives. He writes:

There are three different styles of altruistic attitude found in three different types of people. The first type is like a monarch, desiring to achieve Buddhahood first as the most effective way to help other beings. The second is like a boatman, desiring to arrive at the other shore of enlightenment together with all other beings. The third is like a shepherd, desiring that all others should achieve Buddhahood first, before his or her own enlightenment.

The last two analogies only indicate the compassionate attitude of certain types of practitioners; in actuality there is no case like the boatman, of everyone attaining enlightenment simultaneously, nor like the shepherd, prior to oneself. Rather, enlightenment always comes in the first way, like a monarch, since Bodhisattvas eventually decide to become enlightened as fast as possible so that they can more effectively help others on a vast scale.

Like most parables, this conveys multiple lessons. A lesson I have drawn is the importance of being deeply grounded in oneself, before embarking on missions to change others, perhaps against their will. The parable’s message is that ‘there is no case like the boatman...nor like the shepherd...’ And attaining Buddahood takes practice, which may require the whole of one lifetime or many lifetimes.

Somehow, at a very young age, my young friend seems to have internalized this message. Though she is not a Buddhist, there were times, in our evening together, when I felt I was in the presence of a Bhodhisatva. She possesses wisdom beyond her years.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home