Saturday, October 22, 2011

The easiest question. The hardest answer.


Taking a break

Imagine that today a very important letter arrives in your mailbox. It’s an invitation to attend a private meeting with the most powerful person in your world and you have to RSVP in the next ten minutes. For a brief moment you are flooded with conflicting thoughts and emotions. On the one hand you’re thrilled and flattered, and on the other hand you’re perplexed. Why in the world does this person want to meet with you? How did they even know of your existence? Did someone you know tell them about you? And if they did what could they have said to result in this invitation?

These and a thousand unanswered questions pop into your head and you don’t know the answer to any of them. It’s a mystery but nevertheless you decide to say yes anyway. The meeting is scheduled for tomorrow AT YOUR HOUSE. Oh my God! Your house hasn’t been kept as tidy as you’d like and you don’t think you have proper clothes for meeting with such an important person. You’re in a panic. You’re going to have to reschedule everything you had planned for today including that doctor appointment it took you six months to arrange and you’ll need to work like a slave to get ready. A thousand things need to be done and you only have one day before the expected knock on your door.

But somehow you get through the crunch and sooner than you thought possible sitting next to you on your old beat up sofa is the President of the United States! The moment of truth is here. He opens his mouth to speak and you are stunned by what he says. He didn’t ask your opinion regarding world affairs, or the many dilemmas facing us all. He didn’t ask any of the things you imagined he would ask. He asked only one question: “Who are you”? Are you kidding me! You totally altered your life for the day and worked like a slave to get ready and that’s it? The President of the United States came to your house to ask that??? Doesn’t he have anything important to ask? No wonder our world is in such trouble!

But wait: That is the most important, yet the easiest question you’ll ever be asked, and if you’re completely honest you must admit that it is the hardest of all to answer, because he isn’t asking about surface stuff. He doesn’t care about the expensive clothes you bought yesterday. He doesn’t care about your beat up sofa. He isn’t asking for your name, your history or your family. He already knows these surface things and so do you. But that isn’t what he’s asking. He wants to know who you really are, down deep in the core of your being. He wants to know who you are, before any of those additions ever took place, and you don’t know the answer. You’ve never known the answer even though you’ve always wanted to know, and now you’re exposed as a pretender, a charlatan of life, just moving along with your expensive clothes, job titles, name and other accoutrements.

Don’t be embarrassed. As important as that question is, it’s impossible to answer. Not even the father of Zen (Bodhidharma) knew how to answer that question when he was asked by the most important person in his world: Emperor Xiāo Yǎn. The Emperor was the equivalent to the President and he asked Bodhidharma “Who stands before me”? And Bodhidharma answered, “I know not, Your Majesty”. 

You see the question is not the right question anyway. The right question is the flip side: “Who are you not?” Now that is easy to answer but rarely asked. Have you ever been asked that question? No. Never. But that is the right question because until you answer that question you’ll never try to answer the other question: “Who are you”?  

Who you are has no clothing, no name, no defining characteristics whatsoever. Nothing to point to. Nothing to find. Yet that is precisely the answer to the easiest of all questions. The real person that you are is timeless, selfless and transcendent to any and every handle. The part of you, me, Bodhidharma and the President of the United States is likewise transcendent and with no defining characteristics. The real person of us all is the part that can’t be found and that part is the same for everyone. You see what the President wanted you to acknowledge with his embarrassing question is that you and he are brothers and that all of us are family members. We are one common human family, always united. And if we could all genuinely experience that unity all of the problems of our world would be solved and he could go and play golf, and he really needs a break.
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