Up Against It

Making my way across the desert of understanding, I found, when I was so exhausted and dehydrated that I didn’t know if I could go on, a dry creek bed leading into the distance as far as my eye could see….  and I followed it, assuming it had to take me somewhere eventually.  At least it gave me some kind of direction to follow.

And it did.  Take me somewhere, that is.

One day, I came to its source:  a huge, craggy rock face that was so wide I couldn’t see its ends, and so high I couldn’t see its top, and it was planted firmly in the dry desert sand, and…

There it was.

As to the creek bed, it was here that I found, in a small crack at the base of the rock face, the merest trickle of water oozing into the creek bed, drying up in the hot dry sun before it could get very far, because there wasn’t much of it, and the dry sand soaked it up immediately.

I vowed to stay there and whenever I could, I moistened my eyes, my face, my hands with that tiny trickle of water, and it kept me alive while I waited.

I’m still there, waiting.  Really, there isn’t much else to do.

A Good Story by Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a story about Buddha and Mara, who represents the forces of evil.  One day the Buddha was in his cave, and Ananda, who was the Buddha’s assistant, was standing outside near the door.  Suddenly Ananda saw Mara coming.  He was surprised.  He didn’t want that, and he wished Mara would get lost.  But Mara walked straight to Ananda and asked him to announce his visit to the Buddha.

Ananda said, “Why have you come here?  Don’t you remember that in olden times you were defeated by the Buddha under the Bodhi tree?  Aren’t you ashamed to come here?  Go away!  The Buddha will not see you.  You are evil.  You are his enemy.”  When Mara heard this, he began to laugh and lag.  “Did you say that your teacher told you that he has enemies?”

That made Ananda very embarrassed.  He knew that his teacher had not said that he had enemies.  So Ananda was defeated and had to go in and announce the visit of Mara, hoping that the Buddha would say, “Go and tell him that I am not here.  Tell him that I am in a meeting.”

But the Buddha was very excited when he heard that Mara, such a very old friend, had come to visit him.  “Is that true?  Is he really here?” the Buddha said, and he went out in person to greet Mara.  Ananda was very distressed.  The Buddha went right up to Mara, bowed to him, and took his hands in his in the warmest way.  The Buddha said, “Hello!  How are you?  How have you been?  Is everything all right?”

Mara didn’t say anything.  So the Buddha brought him into the cave, prepared a seat for him to sit down, and told Ananda to go and make herb tea for both of them.  “I can make tea for my master one hundred times a day, but making tea for Mara is not a joy,” Ananda thought to himself.  But since this was the order to his master, how could he refuse?  So Ananda went to prepare some herb tea for the Buddha and his so-called guest, but while doing this he tried to listen to their conversation.

The Buddha repeated very warmly, “How have you been?  How are things with you?”  Mara said, “Things are not going well at all.  I am tired of being a Mara.  I want to be something else.”

Ananda became very frightened.  Mara said, You know, being a Mara is not a very easy thing to do.  If you talk, you have to talk in riddles.  If you do anything, you have to be tricky and look evil.  I am very tired of all that.  But what I cannot bear is my disciples.  They are now talking about social justice, peace, equality, liberation, nonduality, nonviolence, all of that.  I have had enough of it!  I think that it would be better if I hand them all over to you.  I want to be something else.”

Ananda began to shudder because he was afraid that the master would decide to take the other role.  Mara would become the Buddha, and the Buddha would become Mara.  It made him very sad.

The Buddha listened attentively, and was filled with compassion.  Finally, he said in a quiet voice, “Do you think it’s fun being a Buddha?  You don’t know what my disciples have done to me!  They put words into my mouth that I never said.  They build garish temples and put statues of me on altars in order to attract bananas and oranges and sweet rice, just for themselves.  And they package me and make my teaching into an item of commerce.  Mara, if you knew what it is really like to be a Buddha, I am sure you wouldn’t want to be one.”  And, thereupon, the Buddha recited a long verse summarizing the conversation.  –Thich Nhat Hanh, in Soul Food, by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman

We are three, You are three


When I was a doctoral student, I used to attend graduate residentials that were held at a wonderful place called Santa Sabina, in San Rafael, California.  Although the first time I went there was for this very earthy academic event,  I learned immediately, because of the wonderful, holy atmosphere of the place, that Santa Sabina was something very different than I’d thought it would be.  At that time–and perhaps now, as well–it was a Catholic convent on the campus of Dominican College in San Rafael, a convent that was no longer a convent, but had been turned into a conference and retreat center.  It hosted many different kinds of groups, from the one I first attended to contemplative retreats for numerous spiritual groups.  Its atmosphere is beautifully universal:  Mary shared space with Buddha in the Garden, and the entire place echoed with an atmosphere of peace and holiness.  After that first visit, I always arranged to stay there for a few days when I was in that part of the world, and I came to know and love the women who ran the place.  It was my “home away from home,” in the highest sense of the word.  I haven’t been able to go there for many years now, but I carry it in my heart, always.  It may well be the place I have felt most at home on this planet and in this world.

One morning when I was there many years ago, I found myself in conversation with an elderly nun, one of the last of those who still wore the habit, a very wonderful soul.  She told me a story, and I have tried to remember that story for many years, until I just found it in a book called Soul Food, by Jack Kornfield and Christian Feldman, a collection of transformative stories from many different traditions.  A wonderful book.  Here is the story:

When the Bishop’s ship stopped at a remote island for a day, and he determined to use the time as profitably as possible.  He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets.   In pidgin English they explained to him that centuries before they had been Christianized by missionaries.  “We are Christians!” they said, proudly pointing to one another.

The bishop was impressed.  Did they know the Lord’s Prayer?  They had never heard of it.  The bishop was shocked.

“What do you say, then, when you pray?”

“We lift eyes to heaven.  We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.’”  The bishop was appalled at the primitive, the downright heretical nature of their prayer.  So he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer.  The fishermen were poor learners; but they gave it all they had, and before the bishop sailed away next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without a fault.

Months later the bishop’s ship happened to pass by those islands again and the bishop, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, recalled with pleasure the three men on that distant island who were now able to pray, thanks to his patient efforts.  While he was lost in the thought he happened to look up and notice a spot of light in the east.  The light kept approaching the ship and, as the bishop gazed in wonder, he saw three figures walking on the water.  The captain stopped the boat and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.

When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognized his three friends, the fishermen.  “Bishop!” they exclaimed.  “We hear your boat go past island and come hurry hurry to meet you.”

“What is it you want,” asked the awe-stricken bishop.

“Bishop,” they said, we so, so sorry.  We forget lovely prayer.  We say, ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come. . .’  then we forget.  Please tell us prayer again.”

The bishop felt humbled.  “Go back to your homes, my friends, he said, “and each time you pray, say, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!’”  –from Soul Food:  Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the heart, by Jack Kornfield and Christian Feldman, Harper San Francisco, 1991

The sister who told me the story told it just a trifle differently.  When the fishermen (which is how she referred to the three men, and told the story as if they said their prayer from their boat on the often dangerous and frightening high seas) came flying across the surface of the water and spoke to the Bishop, they confessed that they could not remember the Lord’s Prayer as he had taught them.  They said that they could only remember their original prayer:  “Three in a boat, Three in Heaven, have mercy on us.”

The old nun paused here, and her face twisted into an ironic grin.  She winked at me as she told me what the Bishop said to them:  “Keep it up.”

I will always remember this woman’s last words to me:  “We all need more faith.  That’s all we need.  More faith.”