The Buddha Next Door
“Shaving one’s head cannot make a monk out of one who is undisciplined, untruthful, and driven by harmful desires.” The Dhammapada 19:264
You never know when you might be walking by a Buddha. You never know when you may encounter an enlightened being at a wedding. You never know when you might be sitting next to a really powerful person on the bus. You may never see this, because often the Buddha, one who is awake, looks just like everyone else. They rarely appear as we think they should.
The archetype of the wise teacher often lives in very ordinary, even secluded surroundings. At least outwardly, there isn’t anything all that special about them. They look like everyone else, often live a fairly ordinary life, and may not even have any of the “spiritual trappings” we may associate with a really powerful person. But when you are in their presence, there is something in the quality of their attention and way of being that is different. We often feel calmer around them. They seem to be able to see right through us, and there is a sense that something has settled within them. They are not pulling on the energetic fabric of the encounter, they are simply there, and they are really paying attention. There is no internal warfare going on in their minds, no agenda, they are just there.
Sometimes we may not notice these qualities because we are too wrapped up in the container in which they appear. We say, “they can’t be spiritual they smoke cigarettes” or, “they can’t have great understanding, they’re drinking coffee and swearing like a truck driver.” We think, “wait a second, they’re not playing the harmonium and meditating 4 hours a day, they can’t know anything.” So we walk right by, often to people who have donned the external trappings we associate with being spiritual. Now it’s not that people who have donned the external spiritual trappings can’t be really powerful or have not woken up, but those external trappings are not essential to being one who is awake nor are they the indication that someone is awake. We don’t realize it consciously, but we have created expectations of what this “teacher” will look and act like. When we do this, we are oblivious to their powerful qualities of being because the outer presentation doesn’t match our mental expectations of what “spiritual” should be.
If we stay honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that even after chasing the spiritual look and identity, even after going into rarefied spaces of consciousness, even after learning to stand on our heads and read minds, after traveling to teachers all over the world, after proclaiming there is “no self” and there is “only self” and there is “self sometimes and not others”, after buying every book and going to every seminar, we still wind up right back with our fundamental problem. We still wind up back with ourselves. We think, “oh Jesus not this, not who I am, I’ve just spent 10 years trying to get away from that, to fix that, to shun that, to tidy that up, escape that, and I keep winding up back there.”
Well, it’s the only place you can wind up. And, it’s such good news.
Then, ironically often because there is no other choice, we might just find a sense of true self-compassion and self-love. We might really sit with ourselves. We might stop running, stop hiding, and stop layering on spiritual identities. Then we might see something really amazing:
Who we are is the answer.
We realize there is nothing wrong with us.
Even with all we have done, all the screw-ups, all the self-sabotage, all the hurt we have caused, there is nothing wrong with who we are. Sure, we make mistakes, and sometimes really big ones. Sure we need to seek forgiveness for those mistakes and own up to them and do better. But making mistakes is not the same as saying what we are is wrong or bad. In fact most of the time we made those mistakes because we believed something to be wrong with us. We should certainly clean up our act where we need to. When you really do the work and sit with yourself, you’ll come right up against every screw up you ever made. You’ll come right up against all your control issues, all your manipulations, all your equivocating, all your unhealthy rationalizing, all your superiority complexes, and all the stuff from which you tried to escape. But as you sit with all of this and recognize it, as you listen to it, as you realize why you acted the way you did, then you start to develop compassion. You see the reasons for behaving in these ways as explanations and not excuses. With this deeper sense of self-love you can own up to mistakes without fear of being bad. You are more humble, more relaxed, more understanding. You are able to love all of yourself, and then realize “what you are” was never flawed or wrong and you don't need to escape from it. When that settles, when we really feel and know that, then we can really relax.
To a large degree, this is what we feel from “the Buddha next door.” They are at peace with themselves as the unique being they are. They don't need to look or be a certain way to escape who they are. They are not above being human; they are fully human. They have not escaped life; they are fully living life. They aren’t fighting with themselves all the time. They’re not running from poor behavior; they own up to it. They’re not afraid of seeing all of themselves because they love all of themselves, even the tender messy places. In the end, spiritual practice is not about being special. It’s about just being who you are. It’s about realizing that under all the roles we play, we all have the same heart. And in a further twist of irony, that makes us all uniquely special and completely ordinary at the same time.