For me, who we are as human beings is defined by the stories we choose in our lives. These narratives define who we are; they shape how we grow; they illustrate our values and priorities. They give us perspective and meaning and define our purpose and place in the universe. They are how we will be remembered.
Our narratives include not only our own autobiography, our memoirs, and family legends, but also the stories, myths, allegories, parables, morality tales that are important to us.
Taoist stories have long been an important part of my narrative toolbox, and now, as a very new student of Zen Buddhism with Roshi Enkyo O'Hara at Village Zendo, I'm learning a whole new perspective and dimension. I think of enlightenment as a direction, not a destination. For me, it's like health or happiness. One doesn't really ever become "completely healthy" but through practice, one can become healthier, or happier, or more enlightened.
I am inspired by the Buddhist stories of the bodhisattvas, or enlightened beings, because I think each of us can choose to be a bodhisattva and, through practice, become more enlightened and help others along the same path.
I particularly resonate to the story of Avalokiteshvara, who had such compassion, such empathy and awareness, such a desire to "give a helping hand to those in need" that the universe gave her one thousand helping hands and arms.
In my experience, the universe really does provide this sort of thousand-arm ability to help people who have put their whole being into helping others. A few years ago, my husband Vinny was in home hospice care with end-stage liver disease, with just "weeks to live". He had dementia, was on oxygen and morphine, yet somehow had an unstoppable desire to help others. For Vinny, one way is by giving beautiful haircuts. Vinny had been a teacher with Vidal Sassoon, and giving haircuts is his art form—and his way of helping others. So, if we had a visitor who seemed to need a hair cut, Vinny would will himself to get out of bed and, steadied by the home health aide, would give a beautiful precision cut. You could literally see the life-force, the chi, flowing through his body for the rest of the day. Helping others was his own miracle cure.
This part of our personal narrative leads to another story: our search for a statue of Avalokiteshvara for our household altar. All the statues I found were priced beyond what we, living on disability, could afford. Then, one day, in a little shop near the Village Zendo, I found a beautiful one for only $28. This Avalokiteshvara had once had twenty-four hands and arms, and now only had twenty-three. Because it was broken and imperfect, the shop owner considered it to be nearly worthless.
But aren't we all broken and imperfect? Vinny and I are perhaps more imperfect and broken than many. We have both been living with HIV/AIDS—I for 26 years, Vinny for 20. Between us we have hepatitis B and C, diabetes and a half-dozen serious medical conditions, including Vinny's narcolepsy.
Vinny and I may be badly broken, but we're not done yet. Our Avalokiteshvara, broken and imperfect as she is, is the perfect symbol to motivate us each day as we dedicate what we have of our lives to helping others.
©2009 Mark de Solla Price mark@MarkandVinny.com