Small Things That Really Aren’t

When the eyes and the ears are open, even the leaves on the trees teach like pages from the scriptures.”                  Kabir

The newspaper is getting old and rumpled and yellow. Written entirely in Chinese; I have no idea what it says. It has traveled with me around the world. Decades later, it rests on my altar at home, a sacred object that continues to teach a most treasured lesson.  I’ll try to explain with words…

My husband was one of the first to visit China years ago when the country first opened its borders to western businessmen. I traveled with him sometimes, often to very rural areas. That trip was an awkward and difficult and lonely one for me. We traveled in the middle of winter, a time of freezing cold and fierce Siberian winds that did little to disperse the leaden coal-fired smog. There were tensions around a new business that was still finding its legs and mistakes on all sides as two foreign cultures bumped against each other. Nevertheless, I loved the dusty dirt paths that wound around the towns, the pristine gardens, the wandering geese, the friendly bicyclers emerging endlessly out of the gray air. The ancient Buddhist temples spaces were just then coming back to public life after decades of cultural persecution. We often stopped to visit. An ancient temple: that is where I met him, and where he gave me the gift.

The man appeared to also be a visitor. As we wandered about together, he looked up, startled, it seemed, to see a white western woman in that out of the way place. His face lit up in surprise and curiosity, his smile widened.  He came to me and, in vain, attempted conversation.  We had no common language. As he stood before me, beaming and open hearted, he thrust into my hands the only gift that he could offer: that day’s newspaper, pulled quickly from his back pocket. It was such a touching gift of his heart, needing no translation.” I am here,” it said, “I see and welcome you; I am glad.”  My own heart broke. Open. I can still feel the holy goodness of receiving such grace.

It was such a small thing, that moment, that newspaper. And yet the nourishment of his open heart remains. There is something about the purity of it. A used newspaper, one that I couldn’t read: it obviously made no conceptual sense. But the gift landed firmly in my own heart and nourished a tired traveler in a way that no words or logic could have. And it reverberates still, so I tell you about it.

Today, I contemplate the ways that virtue and the goodness of simple presence can pierce the clouds of a heart that is burdened by habit or fatigue or disconnection. I contemplate the challenge of allowing my own heart to remain open and receptive when I am surprised or shy or impatient or uncertain.  I contemplate the goodness of receiving as well as giving. I think about Sujata, who, centuries ago, saw a hungry, dying ascetic in a public square and offered him that small bowl of rice milk. I think about how he opened to receive, softening his insistence that his life, his spiritual practice, must unfold according to mental concept and heroic effort. I contemplate how the two of them, together in their simple openness to one another, changed the course of history. Siddhartha lived.

With simple presence, we each can recognize and be nourished in the everyday temples of the sacred. I am reminded.

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