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Last night we attended the final talk of a 4 part series by a Tibetan teacher. The talks were based on the teachings of Dodrupchen Jikme Tenpe Nyima. We started by going around the room and each reading a portion of the text. There was something simple and lovely about this. Then Kalzang gave a little talk based on the text. He told a wonderful teaching story about a Tibetan lama, who was confronted by a thief. The thief asked the lama his name which turned out to translate as "golden leg". The thief poked him in the leg with a needle and the lama cried out and winced in pain. "You don't have a gold leg. You are the same as me. You wear a sheepskin coat, you ride a horse, you eat meat," the thief chided him.
At that point, the lama realized the truth of what the thief was saying and bowed to him. In an instant he saw his pride in his position, his belief that he was somehow better and different than others and he saw that his behaviour did not always correspond with the Dharma. After that, as the story goes, when reciting the names of his teachers he added the thief in as his root teacher because he had helped him see the truth.
It was a great tale and posed the question to us, when someone tosses an uncomfortable truth in our face, are we willing to look or do we just feel righteously indignated? Do we criticize their behaviour (how rude of that person to say that to me!) or do we lob an insult of equal weight back in their direction (your mother wears army boots!) Can we, are we willing to learn from these encounters? Or do we simply want to protect our vulnerable little self, build a larger protective shell around our delicate coating of ego? Can we accept that tapping on our shell, do we let it crack open and grow and expand to become our true self?
It is pretty humbling to face the truth in this way. An encounter with a neighbour years ago showed me that I had a lot of anger inside. Her "poking of me" offered insight into the depth of that anger and how close to the surface it was actually riding. I liked to think of myself as kind and quiet, reasonable and gentle. But I got to see the unforgiving, prideful, vengeful side of me, how I clung with great self righteousness to my position. It was a very painful picture to behold! Yet it was the beginning of my sincere dedication to the Dharma.
I see these events as some of the most difficult teachings. Teachings that are really thrown in our face, most often by people we find difficult. Our habitual way is to grumble about these people and justify our own behaviour but if we really are dedicated to the work of the spirit (in whatever tradition that might be) we will sit up, pull out the thorn, mop up the little pool of our own blood, and have a good look at our bruised egoic self. What made me so angry, so defensive? What truth am I avoiding about myself? It is really the work of going deeper, the work of purifying the heart. It is one of the most difficult things for us to do, to bow down and say thank-you to those who have criticized or offered us the bitter taste of humiliation. It is one step on the journey toward loosening the grip of the self; a step toward true freedom. We can use these painful experiences to help us see who we really are (or who we are not).
So where will we find our teaching today; when we get cut off in traffic, when a shop keeper treats us with indifference or rudeness, when our mother-in-law offers us unwanted advice? Where are the frayed edges of our tolerance? I suspect we will all meet this teaching out in the world today, in big or small ways. Are we willing to mix the bitter taste of this offering with our double tall eggnog latte?