People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep. Rumi
He was a remarkably unattractive man, a rumpled beggar, seated on the dirty ground just outside the doors of 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 beggars and 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 turned and looked directly and at me with something like the eyes of god. His look pierced my heart. I recognized, and quietly returned his knowing. In the pause, for just a moment, 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 moments I miss because I think I know what I’m doing: times when my body or my mind is so busy getting from a place where I used to be to a place where I (think I) will be next. I miss being, simply, in the bardo of…. here.
“Bardo” is a Tibetan word that means an “intermediate state” and most often refers to the transitions between this earthly life and what happens when we die. It is not just a reference to the afterlife, however. The words simply mean a “transition” or a gap between the completion of one situation and the onset of another. Bardos are everyday moments when gaps arise, interrupting what otherwise appears to be a continuous trajectory that we project onto our lives. These gaps can be confusing; they are, by definition, moments of not knowing what comes next. Andrew Holecek, who teaches often on these things, speaks of a bardo as a time of vulnerability and bewilderment, but also of “… opportunity…when…all kinds of miraculous possibilities can materialize, a time (inviting)… a complete openness to whatever arises(when)…surrender is more important than control.” Other spiritual teachers remind us that these bardos are occurring constantly in our daily lives as we awaken into each moment, suspended between the past that has vanished and the future which is yet to come.
This is 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 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. Any sense 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 stop or control the river of impermanence and of infinite causes and conditions? Where are you identifying with phenomena and holding on to some fixed notion of self or other? Look more deeply. There is a gift here.” 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. Bardos. Moments of mystery and miracle and grace.
We are invited.