Coming full circle

The Philippine STAR 03/18/2007

It’s Sunday and you may have already heard a homily by the time you read this but allow me to share with you a little Zen story. I posted this on my class e-group and one of them suggested I ruminate on it for my Sunday column.

‘There was once a stone cutter who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life. One day he passed a wealthy merchant’s house. Through the open gateway, he saw many fine possessions and important visitors. ‘How powerful that merchant must be!’ thought the stone cutter. He became very envious and wished that he could be like the merchant.

“To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined, but envied and detested by those less wealthy than himself. Soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession. ‘How powerful that official is!’ he thought. ‘I wish that I could be a high official!’

“Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around. It was a hot summer day, so the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence. ‘How powerful the sun is!’ he thought. ‘I wish that I could be the sun!’

“Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and laborers. But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. ‘How powerful that storm cloud is!’ he thought. ‘I wish that I could be a cloud!’

“Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone. But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realized that it was the wind. ‘How powerful it is!’ he thought. ‘I wish that I could be the wind!’

“Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him. But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it — a huge, towering rock. ‘How powerful that rock is!’ he thought. ‘I wish that I could be a rock!’

“Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface, and felt himself being changed. ‘What could be more powerful than I, the rock?’ he thought.

“He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stone cutter.”

This has got to be the modern parable for everyone. Every day, the world sends us messages about how terrible our lot is, how much we are in need of improvement and that only the newest, latest, biggest, fastest, best product, gadget, process or service available will save us. And so we should rush out and buy it.

I fall for this quite often. The pitch of modern living is steeped in materialism and says, basically, that we are not enough as we are. We are incomplete and do not make the grade. We need to be saved, made over, improved, rescued, polished, altered, refurbished, added on to, delivered, born again so that we can begin to feel better about ourselves.

I have met many people who by the standards of the world seem to “have it all” but are so desperately lonely. Their low happiness index is not anywhere commensurate with the abundant material blessings showered on them. It makes me realize that what we strive for is usually overrated. And I suspect it is not so much because the world over-promises but because we over-expect. We imbue upon material, transient objects and longings the unquantifiable quality of eternal bliss, which these things just can’t give us.

It may also have something to do with lack of gratitude. People who have no sense of gratitude are never happy with what they get. They are stuck, hung up on some ideal they just won’t let go of. The result is, almost always after they get something, they immediately devalue it because there is something better out there, or it was less than what they had imagined it to be. They view life as a continuous cycle of disappointments and letdowns and lash out at the world for their own loneliness and inability to find contentment.

Grateful people, on the other hand, can be happy with anything that comes their way. Whatever shows up is accepted, processed, integrated and converted into something of value. They are able to cull wisdom and joy even from seemingly tragic events that come into their lives. The ungrateful ones, on the other hand, feel that they are forever singled out and victimized by life.

Happiness and sadness are simply states of being that, oddly enough, we choose to be in. But those who choose happiness choose it consciously, while lucid and awake. Those who choose sadness do so while asleep.

And there’s the paradox. Man will always search for happiness as he has done since the beginning of time, even if the search, as immortalized in books and movies, like the search for God, is ultimately a lost cause. Why? Because you cannot find something that was never lost to start with. So stop searching. Instead, wake up to life as it is and see the grace in that, because therein lies deliverance.

Everything we need is inside us. The spirit, the force, the kingdom is within us. If happiness depends on the external world, how come there are poor, crippled people who are happy and rich, healthy ones who lead wretched lives?

T.S. Eliot put it so well: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Like the stone cutter, we will all travel full circle.