Saint Sernin. We Are Invited

“We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.”                                                                  Kalu Rinpoche                                                                                                               

He was a remarkably unattractive man, a dusty and rumpled beggar, seated on the edge of the path to Saint Sernin, the magnificent Toulouse Basilica. I had skirted past him on my busy way to hear the Sunday organ music and to light holy candles. Once inside, enchanted by the majesty of light and power and sound and mystery, I couldn’t forget him. There was an opening, a willingness, a desire to share. I thought of stories of pilgrims offering alms to a beggar and realizing that they were seeing Jesus. “Maybe,” I thought, “he is the Buddha in disguise, waiting patiently for me to show up.”  I decided to receive the inspiration, to offer a donation and, at least for a moment, to be willing to see.  Once outside, I offered my full presence as I offered the largest bill I carried: Presence. Here. Now. Just this.

That small and quiet intention opened deeply to the sacred. He paused. He turned and looked directly and at me with something like the eyes of god. His look pierced my heart as I too paused and recognized, quietly returning his knowing. For just that moment, all barriers dissolved and we were one.  All barriers. Dissolved. We each saw the other. We each knew that we saw. It was a truly magical dip into the infinite, all the more exquisite because it was so clearly not about the details of the moment or our personal selves. It was a quiet and real moment of grace, in which we touched – together – into pure awareness: what our Buddhist practice calls “the fundamental nature of mind.”  There were no separate selves to explain or defend.  My heart sang with the seeing and the knowing of it. My heart sings in the telling, even now.

I think of Thomas Merton’s story of his experience on an ordinary day at an ordinary crosswalk in ordinary downtown St Louis. “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.”


It makes me consider: how very, very many of these magical and sacred awarenesses I miss because I think I know what I’m doing: times when my body or my mind is so busy and preoccupied with getting from a place where I used to be to a place where I (think I) will be next. I miss the pause, the being, simply…. here, where I can be available to receive the grace of seeing clearly, if only for a moment, what is most deeply realUnless I pause to truly see, I mistakenly believe that the mind’s constructions are real, that division is real. True reality is that all separation, all division is a mental illusion. We are one. It is the heart of our spiritual practice. It is, indeed, the fundamental insight of all of the great spiritual traditions: that the ordinary way that we perceive things – the ordinary ways that we take ourselves and others to be real – is ordinary and useful and functional, but it is not the end of the story.  Deeper levels of awareness are available to us. They are not somewhere else; they are not in some other “better” world or “better” person. There is just this moment; full and loving presence. Here, now: this is the path.

“All things are teaching you at every moment…So throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know. This is very important…You become empty mind. This is before thinking. Your before thinking mind, my before thinking mind, all people’s before thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one.”                                                                                        Sang Seung

Any awareness of suffering, of constriction or turning away, offers the special gift of a signal: Here. Look here. There is liberation available here. Where are you trying to ignore or stop or control in this river of impermanence and of infinite causes and conditions? Where are you asleep, identifying with phenomena and holding on to some fixed notion of self or other? Look more deeply. Into the dark. Receive goodness and light. There is a gift here. 

Like my first impulse to resist the flow of generosity on that Sunday morning in France, my struggle against the call of generosity was a signal, a blessing in disguise, an invitation to open, to be, simply, here, available. All of our spiritual practice is an invitation to explore and discover how wise and kind attention allows these deeper levels of awareness to “miraculously” unfold. Moments of mystery and miracle and grace.

 “It seems to me that angels and bodhisattvas are everywhere available for consultation if only we can see them clear; they are unadorned, and joyous, and patient, and radiant, and luminous, and not disguised or hidden or filtered in any way whatsoever…and that simply to perceive them is to be blessed beyond the reach of language…is to be graced beyond measure or understanding…”
Brian Doyle, in One Long River of Song

Pause. Receive. We are invited.



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