Recently my friend Wang Bo and I went for a walk. Wang Bo is a monk who was raised from the age of eight at the Shaolin Temple in China. He is a Master martial artist and an amazingly beautiful soul. At 24 years old, he is at once my adopted son and my teacher.
So there we were out for a walk the other day. We often walk and have long talks about life, discussing our respective and collective journeys. This particular day Wang Bo had just returned from a trip to a temple in Texas where some of his brother monks live. I noticed he had a new bracelet, a humble yet beautiful set of black prayer beads. I complimented him on them and he shared with me this story.
In the temple he visited in Texas is a statue of The Buddha. The statue has been there, sitting on an altar, for many years. Each day the monks sit for hours in silent meditation with this statue of the Buddha in front of them. The statue, like the Buddha himself, is a symbol of grace, balance, and perfect love. While he was visiting the temple, Wang Bo noticed that the statue was shimmed on one side with something. He looked closer and noticed there were prayer beads under one side of the Buddha. When he removed them the Buddha wobbled. It turned out that the statue was ever-so-slightly off balance and someone, many years ago, had slid his prayer beads under the Buddha to give it a little support.
Wang Bo held out his arm and told me that the bracelet I had admired was made those beads. The monks offered them to him as a gift for visiting. At first I thought how beautiful it was that he was wearing beads that had been blessed by the statue of the Buddha and the prayers of the monks for so many years. I imagined they were infused with the essence of years and years of graceful meditation. But as we walked on, I began to see another message in the story, one that was much stronger and applies to us all.
We often perceive the ascended Masters in their perfect states in images that project balance and grace. We hear their abbreviated stories and have the impression that they floated through life, above all of the day-to-day struggles, and enjoyed continual bliss and enlightened joy from birth to death. I know for me, this has often created a sense that I was failing on my spiritual path when I felt angry, jealous, scared or sad. After all, the Masters didn’t feel these sentiments, right?
That’s what the statue of the Buddha was made to inspire, the image of perfect balance. Except it was imperfect. The statue itself was out of balance. And so a well-meaning monk gave the Buddha a hand — or better stated, a bracelet — and filled in the gap to restore his balance.
Isn’t that life? Isn’t this a perfect story of how life actually works? And isn’t it probably how it worked for the Masters as well? Just like us, despite their best intentions of saintly presence, they had days when they were a little out of whack. Days where work, family, friends, and even strangers just pushed the wrong button and threw things a little off kilter.
If that’s true, then what the Masters mastered were their tools, the daily practices they employed to keep their lives on track. And that’s what the bracelet was for the Buddha statue, a tool that restored its balance. We become empowered when we approach the lessons of the Masters from this vantage point. We take the stories and lessons and we create useful practices to find our way back to center when one of life’s surprises has tilted us a bit. I like to make life easy, so I have a smorgasbord of tools — a kiss from my wife, a yoga set, a moment of quiet meditation, wrestling with my son, chanting OM MANI PADME HUM, playing with my dog, reading a passage from a beloved book, or sometimes just a good deep, long breath of fresh air. Each of those simple actions is a tool that brings me ease and joy, a shim in my life to restore balance just like a set of prayer beads under the statue of the Buddha.
In my bathroom I have a marble statue of Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion. She is a favorite of mine. Most times she is depicted with many arms as a symbol of her compassion, each arm in loving service to someone. But this depiction of her is different and it’s fitting for this conversation. The statue in my bathroom is Quan Yin emerging from a cocoon, no arms and no service to the world, just a beautiful head emerging … the birth of her compassionate nature.
Just like the unbalanced Buddha, this Quan Yin isn’t perfect – she is in a state of transformation on her path. Like you and me, day by day, finding the beauty inside ourselves and in the world we live. Peeling back the layers of ourselves, looking in the mirror, and growing and changing as we learn. The path is perfectly imperfect and so are we … and (gulp) so were the Masters.
I think Wang Bo knew this when he told me the story of his bracelet. It’s how he teaches, innocently sharing a story and allowing its meaning to emerge on its own in its own time. That day when we finished our walk he look at me and said simply, “Thank you Papa Jason for being there to give me balance when I lose my way.”
The Buddha said that existence is suffering. At times, that teaching has brought me anguish. “What’s the point?” I have quietly asked myself. “If I’m going to suffer anyway, why not have a cheeseburger and a Budweiser?” But lately I have chosen a different interpretation of this phrase, one that helps me find beauty in the imperfection of life.
The “suffering” of my life gives me an opportunity to rely on my tools, my daily practice, and my loved ones the way the Buddha statue leaned on Wang Bo’s bracelet. And I now wonder, without the imperfection, what would life be? Without the moments of imbalance how would I know myself? And if it weren’t for those times when I needed to reach out to a friend, how would I experience love and support?
I think that’s what the Buddha meant, that life is imperfect and it’s okay. That we will all suffer at times. We will all stumble and fall. To know this, the Buddha had to experience the same. I find comfort in imagining the Buddha saying, “All is well. It’s okay. THIS is the path.” It warms me to know the next step, whatever it may be, is perfectly designed to teach me what I need to learn just as the Buddha’s path taught him.
In my own life I know this is true. With a little distance, I can now see how the deaths of my mom and grandma — events that rocked my family to the core — also gave us the most beautiful liberation and permission to be our true selves. My divorces once made me feel like a failure in love; now, from a more mature perspective, I appreciate how they helped me cherish the love I have in my life. And from the pillow on which I am now meditating, I can see how losing the fancy title on my business card was one of the richest steps on my path, provoking the deepest lessons and perspectives that I share today.
And so the realization that life is imperfect has become a warm blanket that I wrap myself in when things don’t go the way I think they should. I look back on my journey with gratitude for all of the people and experiences that have shimmed me up over the years, helping me to find my version of level. And with the innocent curiosity of the little boy inside me, I wonder what amazing experiences will come next.
Big hugs of love,