Monthly Archives: January 2015

Jeff, the Charlottesville airport bodhisattva

I got home from a PZI 7-day retreat Byron SHadow chair girl croppedyesterday.  I felt sad, wallowing a bit in the special kind of grief I often feel at the end of a retreat. Stepping off the plane into sharp winter Virginia air, it felt like I was being thrust into a foreign country. Surely people will not understand me here, I thought. I do not belong.

As I looked for my car in the airport parking lot, I wondered if there was someone I could bum a cigarette from. I don’t usually smoke, but there’s something I like about having a cigarette or two after retreat. I peered over at the ashtrays and by where the taxis park. I glanced furtively at anyone I saw, looking for a telltale puff of smoke or a thin white stick protruding from a hand. Nothing. I gave up and went to find my car.

PortraitI wandered over to the long-term parking lot and, lo and behold, I saw a guy in a Charlottesville Airport uniform smoking a cigarette. Late 40s, mustache. I held up two quarters and said, “Excuse me, could I buy a cigarette from you?” He turned around, smiled, deftly pulled a Marlboro halfway out of his pack and said, “No man, you don’t have to pay for it.”

As we were smoking, I asked him what he did at the airport. He said, “You mean what I don’t do! I help people. I’m all over the place, fixing things, carrying things. I like to think I help people out. I just do whatever needs to be done.”

I said, “In the Buddhist traditions, they call those people bodhisattvas.”

He nods, “Yep, that’s me.”

He seemed like a pretty straightforward guy. Competent, quick, handy.

I said, “It’s good to have a job where youCantaloupe feel like you’re helping, isn’t it?” He nodded vigorously. “You hang out in an airport for any length of time and you’re bound to run into all kinds of people that need help. I’ll see someone come in the front door, some older person or someone struggling around, and I just see their entire life story, right there–I know who they are and I go help them. What do you need? Sometimes I’m hanging art or putting together sculpture installations, and man, working with artists…”

I laugh and nod. Yeah. Artists. I know.

country road“But I just try to smile and be helpful. Cause you know, everyone’s got problems, I got all kinds of problems in my life. But when you help someone, that stuff always comes back around. It may not come back like, you help someone with their luggage and they give you a $20 bill, but maybe it comes around in some other form.”

I say, “Yeah, like you step out your front door and it’s a beautiful sunny day. All for me!” I’m surprised when he seems excited at that idea. He grins and exclaims, “Yeah!”

 Just then his radio babbles something. We shake hands, exchange names, and he goes running up the stairs.

I think, maybe this could be home after all.

(Photo credits: Thank you to Byron Young for the picture of the child in the dark and Sandra Cardin for the cantaloupe.)


That’s a good question

When we take up with a good question, themore difficult cropped 2 entire universe is there with us inside our questioning. The birds chirp our question, people smile it, and our emotions paint it in jagged lines or swirls. We don’t have to take anything for granted as being true, and actually we don’t have to do that for things we think of as false, either. We can experiment with stepping out of all our assumptions. It can be very uncomfortable at first to live inside a question (why do you think we have so many answers for things?), but it can also be absolutely exhilarating.

WP_20150124_057If we have a question, often we also have some idea about what the answer will be, or at least an approved list of possibilities. Many questions are born inside answers and live out their entire lives there. Various explanations may trot out at different times during our questioning, often awkwardly cobbled together from used materials that don’t quite fit flush, but we may notice that their interchangeability subtracts from their credibility. Like a charging bull being attacked by tiny mice, a good question will just keep on trucking, no matter how clever and complex its hopeful answers may be. It will pare away our certainties about the answers we come upon, the beliefs we hold that spurred the question, and identity of the questioner itself.

We might say that the least interesting thing in questioning is to receive a satisfying answer. Many kinds of answers provide something I’ll call closure; they rescue us from the vast ocean of ambiguity that comprises the universe. But if we accept them, we are like a gutter-dwelling beggar who believes he is a king. On the other hand, there is a breed of truly helpful answer; they are actually more like a question wearing an answer mask. These dubious answers entice us with promises of certainty, only to turn and push us deeper and deeper into our questioning, widening our field of experience and enlivening the demons of ambiguity. If we are tricked into freedom by one of these answers, we become the beggar who really is a king.

Deep questioning of this kind is a bleeding ground short croppedparadoxical activity. Rather than asking good questions to secure certainty, we ask in order to release ourselves from it. When we pursue a good question with the entirety of our being, when we really listen, the barrier between us and the world begins to dissolve. We forget who or what we thought we were and surprising other possibilities emerge. As provisional answers fall away, we may forget the original question we started off with, being left to bear the heart of questioning itself. When we are open in this way, we might discover that we are nestled in the wide arms of the world. Everything is nourishing. Everything is speaking the answer to us and it is incomprehensible by our usual way of thinking.