On Tuesday, May 12th, 2015, I was honored to be the guest speaker at Won Buddhist Temple.
How does one know him/herself?
A good and complicated question, am I right?
How do we know ourselves?
A simple answer would be:
Simply introduce yourself.
But it’s not easy to do that, is it?
Take me, for example. I was raised in the Midwest—Indiana and Iowa. I have many memories from those places. Religiously, my parents raised me as a Christian. Vocationally, while in college in Iowa, I decided to pursue theater. After that, I ended up on the East Coast for the first time—Princeton, NJ, in order to study theology, philosophy, and religion. Eventually, I became an ordained minister, started working in churches and other organizations, and found myself in a variety of places like Mexico City, Detroit, Honolulu, Honduras, Cuba, and Philadelphia. I got married to Maria Elena. I started working in interfaith organizations like the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.
All these places, people, and experiences are part of my story. Seemingly, they define me. If someone doesn’t know me, and then asks me the question: who are you?
How do I answer?
Do I say that I’m a minister, a husband or partner, a son, a brother, a consultant, a Midwesterner, a Christian, an actor, a crazy person—how do I answer?
You see, in my experience, we most often define ourselves by all those external things: places, situations, jobs, nationalities, religions, etc.
But is that who we really are? Do we really know ourselves?
A few years ago, I started working on a grant project. I was funded to work with high school and college students from Greater Philadelphia and other places, including other U.S. states and other countries in South Asia and the Middle East. The concept of the project was: know your neighbor, know yourself. In essence, what I did was to help organize different experiences for these students in which they would meet and get to know students from other religious backgrounds. The point was to break down the walls of misunderstanding and prejudice and to promote peacemaking and cooperation. Sounds great, right?
But something else actually happened in the process.
Though our funders and the religious institutions that supported the project loved the idea of peacemaking and breaking down barriers, that is not really the most significant thing that happened in the end.
A Muslim student from Saudi Arabia met a Christian student from Wisconsin. They talked, they got to know each other; they participated in the silly but fun theater games I asked them to do, they did service projects together, and they shared about their own religious practices. But they also became friends. Before they knew it, they weren’t talking to each other as before. She was no longer a Muslim and he was no longer a Christian. They started to see each other so very differently than before and they were challenged to see themselves in a different way. No longer could they hide behind their religions or nationalities; they were challenged to know themselves as they were and to know others as they were.
Having done many of these projects, I can tell you that each time I am transformed by these students and the friendships they develop. And each time I am more and more convinced that we must know ourselves in a deeper way; this self-knowledge will enable us to know others as they truly are.
And yes, there is peacemaking and cooperation and justice that can result from this knowing.
But we as humans struggle with this kind of knowing.
We are so very conditioned to see ourselves through the eyes of others and through the eyes of our external experiences.
I am a case in point.
My entire life, I have searched for knowledge. I’ve read books, scriptures of many religions; I have studied philosophy, theology, and psychology. All of the knowledge I gained from such study has been beneficial, but to a point. It is accumulated knowledge and clearly reflects particular worldviews and biases of society. It is limited knowledge, to be sure.
But there is a book that I should definitely read without hesitation.
It is the book of knowledge of the self.
Perhaps I can even say that we are all books ourselves. For some who believe in one Creator-god, we are then books written by this Creator. In Buddhism, we are books containing Buddha.
I have discovered [and still am discovering] that this book of self is the one I must read. I must continually look within myself to notice the creator in me; I must continue to know myself so as to recognize the Buddha in me and in others.
It is true that people will continue to write books about us. These books will tell us who we are and define our identity. But these books, written by others, are second and third-hand knowledge. If we read about ourselves in these books, then we are not real.
We are just someone else’s story.
And these other books written about us can prevent us from looking within, from reading our own book—to know our true selves.
There is a Hindu story from India that goes something like this. A very learned prince received scriptures from Krishna. Every time the prince read a new scripture, he would get confused and frustrated, saying: No, no, this scripture says something else than the other books I’ve read. And so it was again and again. Finally, Krishna laughed and said: When the light has risen within a human being, all your scriptures are like a tank full of water when the flood has come.
At times, when I was in a desert place in my life, certain books [written by others] provided some comfort and knowledge for me—a tank full of water. But the flood came when I started to read my own book, to know myself fully, and I was no longer in a desert place, but in a vast ocean.
This is recognizing that all the external identities I have been given are lesser than the true nature of myself.
It is like the venerable Sot’aesan, Founding Master of Won Buddhism once wrote:
As I do not hold the mind which wanders out,
Nor receive the mind which comes inside,
So now I obtain the One Mind which neither comes nor goes.
Lots of identities wander in during our lifetimes. But the true knowledge of self is in knowing the self that stays—the self that doesn’t come and go.
This is who we are.
When our minds are free of distractions and conditioning, desires, and attachments, we are as clean and as vast as space. This is often called beginner’s mind—who we really are at our core. To this space, we can always return. Within this space, our religious affiliation or lack thereof; our nationality; our cultural background; all the external identities given to us by the world–are of lesser importance. In this beginner’s mind, the sacred space, we are free to see ourselves just as we are and others just as they are.
A motto of Won Buddhism is “Everywhere a Buddha Image and Every Act a Buddha Offering.” My understanding of this is that it means we should recognize each person we meet as a Buddha, and treat others as you would treat a Buddha.
It is related to Grace, which expresses our interdependency and interconnectedness to all living things. Master Sot’aesan awakened to that truth and realized that nothing can exist without being interrelated with others.
And so I close with this story: Master Sot’aesan once met an old couple on their way to temple. They were going to pray for Buddha to help their troubled daughter-in-law.
But why go to a Buddha statue, Sot’aesan asked them, when you’re surrounded by living Buddhas? Why pray for someone else’s enlightenment when you can achieve it together? Your daughter-in-law is a living Buddha, so make your offerings directly to her, the same as you would to a Buddha statue. See as she sees, not as a piece of stone sees. We forget that the only way to understand another person’s problems is to look through their eyes.
Yes, I think this is true.
We must know our true selves first. And to do that, we must continually re-evaluate our own perspectives, our own opinions, and our own solutions. We must recognize the limitations of the identity that the world has given us.
And in this space we can join together with others in spite of our perceived differences. We can recognize our interconnectedness. We can cooperate across religious and social lines and bring about justice, peacefulness, and even joy.
May it be so.