My Last Guru (October 2004)Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:18
My Last Guru
An ancient Zen story tells how there was a monk who, on his travels from place to place, had abandoned each of his possessions until he was left with nothing but a pottery bowl. One day when he was crossing a stream the bowl slipped from his fingers and lay broken on the pebbles. The monk looked at the bowl and said, ‘That was my last guru.’
A guru is somebody or something from which we learn. The monk’s last lesson was that we do not need possessions in order to survive.
I read this story a long time ago when I was discovering the wisdom of Zen, Taoism and Buddhism. I read it again told in another way in an email sent to me by a Saga reader whom I’ll call Jacqui. She told me how her mother had been moved to a residential home as she now needed 24 hour care. Jacqui wrote, ‘Surrounded now by strangers, and strange furniture in an area she has never visited before, she is happier than I have seen her for a long time. During her moves she has lost pictures, photographs, records, ornaments and clothes. I have been surprised at how upset I have become while my mother seems oblivious to her loss.’ Jacqui went on to tell me how as a child she lost the chance to have a happy childhood. As an adult, despite her great efforts to keep them, she lost her marriage and her family. Now she faces losing her mother and ‘my place as her daughter’.
Just as we can lose physical possessions we can lose the things that we feel define who we are, things such as son/daughter, mother/father, brother/sister, husband/wife, teacher, plumber, homeowner, artist, singer, cook, cricketer, dancer and so on. Thus we define ourselves in terms of our relationship to someone else or in terms of what we do. These are all things which we can lose. The people we relate to can die or disappear from our life. The opportunity to do what we do may no longer be available to us, or we may become incapable of carrying out such an activity any longer. As these definitions of our identity disappear we can feel that we have disappeared, that we have become a no-thing, a non-entity. This terrifies us and destroys our self-confidence.
Often when we’ve lost something we’ve been able to replace it with something else. Lose a spouse and find another, lose a job and retrain for another, give up mountaineering and take up rambling. But there comes a time when replacements are no longer available or when what has been lost is irreplaceable. Such losses can seem to be unendurable because we cannot let go of what we have lost.
Buddhism defines suffering as the desire to make reality repeatable. Life is change, but we can find it hard to accept this when we have lost or fear that we may lose something that we see as being essential to us, defining us and giving our life its meaning. We fight against the endless changes that life brings and as we do so we suffer. How can we stop the suffering that loss brings?
Suffering and sadness are not the same. In sadness we acknowledge that something we loved has been lost. There’s no sense of conflict in our feeling of sadness. We acknowledge that something we loved has been lost or that something we wanted can never be ours. In suffering we fight against accepting that what we loved has been lost and that something we desire can never be. We tell ourselves that it isn’t fair that this has happened to us. Haven’t we always worked hard to be good? We don’t deserve what has happened. Then we tell ourselves that this loss is our fault. If we’d been really good it wouldn’t have happened, that our loss is our punishment for not being good enough. When we complain about the injustice and blame ourselves we are trying to hold on to our precious possession, believing that if we complain enough, berate ourselves enough that which we have lost will be restored to us. Trying to make reality repeatable we suffer.
We cannot let go of what we have lost because we believe that without this possession we are nothing. It is this belief which lies at the heart of our suffering. The story of the last guru teaches us that we do not have to have possessions in order to exist. Thinking of yourself as being a good person is just as much a possession as thinking that you are a daughter, a singer, a cook. Babies come into the world experiencing themselves just as they are. Then they get taught that that won’t do. They have to be good children and take on various roles by which to define themselves. We all go through this process, and in the course of it we lose the ability just to be ourselves. We acquire possessions and then we fear to lose them. We suffer. We need to learn that we do not need to define ourselves to ourselves. Other people may demand definitions of who we are but to ourselves we are simply ourselves. We exist. We don’t need possessions to assure us that we do.
When Jacqui looked over her life she could see that she had lost many things in her life yet she had survived. She had done this because she had let go of the things she had lost. She acquired other things but instead of regarding these things as possessions which defined who she was she saw them as things which simply gave her satisfaction and pleasure. At the end of her email she said, ‘I survived losing my childhood; I survived losing my choice; I will not be annihilated; I will survive as a person.’ Her mother had been her last guru.