Saints are what they are not because of their sanctity, but because the gift of
sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everyone else. – Thomas Merton
Each time we meet another human being and honor their dignity, we help those around us. Their hearts resonate with ours in exactly the same way the strings of an unplucked violin vibrate with the sounds of a violin played nearby. Western psychology has documented the phenomenon of “mood contagion” or limbic resonance. When a joyfully expressive person walks into a room, we can very readily feel their state. In the same way, if a person filled with panic or hatred walks into a room, we can feel their state immediately. And unless we are very mindful, their state will begin to overtake our own. When we see the goodness of those before us, we affect them. The dignity in them resonates with our admiration and respect.
This resonance can begin very simply. In India, when people greet one another they put their palms together and bow, saying Namaste, “I honor the divine within you.” I see your Buddha Nature, who you really are. If, as some believe, the Western handshake evolved to demonstrate friendliness and safety, to show that we are not holding any weapon, we must go a step further. The greeting of Namaste goes beyond saying, “I will not harm you” to “I see that which is holy in you.” It creates the basis for sacred relationship.
When I began my training as a Buddhist monk in the ancient grove of the forest monastery of my teacher Ajahn Chah, I found a taste of this sacred relationship. Around Ajahn Chah was an aura of straight-forwardness, graciousness and trust. It was the opposite of my early family life, and though initially strange and unfamiliar, something in me loved it. Instead of a field of judgment, criticism and unpredictable violence, here was a community dedicated to treating one another with respect. It was beautiful.
In the forest, the training of sacred perception extended to all. The walking paths were swept daily, the robes and bowls of the monks were tended with care. Each person was treated with dignity. The lay people deeply appreciated the monks. The monastic vows required us to treat every living being with compassion, to cherish life in every form. We carefully avoided stepping on ants, we valued birds and insects, snakes and mammals. We learned to value ourselves and others equally. When we had conflict with one another, we applied practices of patience and forgiveness and we had councils of elders who demonstrated how to approach our failings with mindful respect.
Whether practiced in a forest monastery in the west, Buddhist psychology begins by deliberately cultivating respect, starting with ourselves. When we learn to rest in our own goodness, we can see the goodness more clearly in others. As our sense of respect and care is developed, it serves us well under most ordinary circumstances. It becomes invaluable in extremity.
One 38 year old Buddhist practitioner tells of being part of a group taken hostage in a bank in St. Louis. She describes the initial confusion and fear that spread through the hostages. She remembers trying to quiet her own racing heart. And then she tells how she made a decision not to panic. She used her meditation and her breath to quiet her mind. Over the hours, even as she helped others in her group, she addressed her captors respectfully and expressed a genuine concern for them. She saw their desperation and their underlying needs. When she and the other hostages were later released unharmed, she gratefully believed that the care and respect they showed to their captors had made their release possible.
When we bring respect and honor to those around us, we open a channel to their own goodness. I have seen this truth in working with prisoners and gang members. When they experience someone who respects and values them, it gives them the ability to admire themselves, to accept and acknowledge the good inside. When we see what is holy in another, whether we meet them in our family or our community, at a business meeting or in a therapy session, we transform their hearts.
Some years ago, I heard the story of a high school history teacher who knew this same secret. On one particularly figgity and distracted afternoon she told her class to stop all their academic work. She let her students rest while she wrote on the blackboard a list of the names of everyone in the class. Then she asked them to copy the list. She instructed them to use the rest of the period to write beside each name one thing they liked or admired about that student. At the end of class she collected the papers.
Weeks later, on another difficult day just before winter break, the teacher again stopped the class. She handed each student a sheet with their name on top. On it she had pasted all twenty-six good things the other students had written about them. They smiled and gasped in pleasure that so many beautiful qualities were noticed about them.
Three years later this teacher received a call from the mother of one of her former students. Robert had been a cut-up, but also one of her favorites. His mother sadly passed on the terrible news that Robert had been killed in the Persian Gulf War. The teacher attended the funeral, where many of Robert’s former friends and high school classmates spoke. Just as the service was ending, Robert’s mother approached her. She took out a worn piece of paper, obviously folded and refolded many times, and said, “This was one of the few things in Robert’s pocket when the military retrieved his body.” It was the paper on which she had so carefully pasted the twenty-six things his classmates had admired.
Seeing this, Robert’s teacher’s filled with tears. As she dried her eyes, another former student standing nearby opened her purse, pulled out her own carefully folded page and confessed that she always kept it with her. A third ex-student said that his page was framed and hanging in his kitchen; another told how the page had become part of her wedding vows. The perception of goodness invited by this teacher had transformed the hearts of her students in ways she might only have dreamed.
Sacred perception becomes healing to all those we meet. When our inner beauty is seen, we begin to release our confusion and unworthiness and return to our original goodness. It changes our perception of ourself. It can change our life.
We can each remember a moment when someone saw this goodness in us, and blessed us. On retreat, a middle aged woman remembers the one person, a nun, who was kind to her when – as a frightened and lonely teenager – she gave birth out of wedlock. She’s carried her name all these years. A young man I worked with in juvenile hall remembers the old gardener next door who loved and valued him. The gardener’s respect stuck with him through all his troubles. This possibility is voiced by the Nobel Peace Laureate, Nelson Mandela, “It never hurts to think too highly of a person; often they become ennobled and act better because of it.”
American spiritual elder Ram Dass describes his experience of sacred vision when he was told by his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, that it was now time to return to America to teach. In 1972 Ram Dass had completed a long period of training in India, yet he was reluctant to leave, feeling that he was not ready, telling his guru, “I am still too caught in my own neurosis and impurities.” In reply, the guru got up from his seat and slowly circumambulated Ram Dass’ seated form, peering carefully at him the whole time. When the guru reseated himself, he looked into Ram Dass’ eyes and smiled, saying “I see no imperfections.”
To see with sacred perception does not mean we ignore the need for development and change in an individual. Sacred perception is one half of a paradox. Zen master Suzuki Roshi remarked to a disciple, “You are perfect just the way you are. And… there is still room for improvement!” Buddhist psychology offers meditations, cognitive strategies, ethical trainings, a powerful set of practices that foster inner transformation. But it starts with a most radical vision, one that transforms all whom it touches, a recognition of our the innate nobility and the freedom of heart that is available wherever we are.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart“