At the Catholic elementary school in which I was enrolled in the 1950’s, the usual curriculum routine was occasionally set aside for “Audio-Visual” presentations. Students were gathered into the auditorium, lights were dimmed, and the whir of a film projector signaled the beginning of another movie about precautions to be observed in the event of a nuclear attack. This one was different, however. I was 9 years old, and as I watched the flickering images of babies, covered with swarming flies, dying of starvation in some country I had never heard of, my own young heart was in a desperate turmoil.
By the end of the film, I was on the verge of passing out from the ordeal, until the lights came on and an earnest missionary appeared in front of the assembled students. As I listened intently to this “Soldier of Christ”, the mission which was soon to dominate the first half of my life took form. In a fantasy vision of service not unlike shouldering the cross of the sweet savior Jesus, the task before me was suddenly and undoubtedly made clear.
The missionary promised that, if each student was able to somehow contribute $5.00, they would be able to adopt one of these “pagan babies”. Not only would it be “saved” but, as a side benefit, each child would get to share the name of the contributor who had donated the sum.
Five dollars seemed like a lot of money, but no obstacle was going to deter me in my newfound crusade. I immediately threw myself into a fervor of coin collecting. I started out using all of my milk money, but found that wasn’t nearly enough. Every minute another child was dying! I began going into my father’s pants pocket at night, after my parents went to sleep. Each time I would take just a few dimes or nickels to contribute, reasoning that they didn’t need the money as much as the pagan babies. I approached all of my visiting relatives, as well as my parents’ friends, soliciting spare change for the mission. I would search the street on my way to and from school, looking for any fallen coins that might go to the cause.
Soon I broadened my view to include the neighborhood as potential recipients of goodwill. I began to take my bagged lunch and parcel elements of it into people’s mailboxes as I walked up the hill to school. I felt that it was better for me to go hungry than to have anybody else in the world go hungry. By the time I arrived at class, I had an empty bag but my heart was a little fuller.
Next I got a job as a paper boy, rising when it was still dark to travel the streets delivering the news and forwarding my earnings towards the pagan babies. I felt that I was doing something, but it was just not enough. The pagan babies needed all the help they could get.
The nuns were amazed at my fund raising. Somewhere in Africa there were now, hypothetically, at least a dozen people bearing my name, saved from a life of certain starvation. I did not feel good about this, however. There were so many more! So many! It seemed the task was hopeless. How could I save them all?
Meanwhile, my parents started getting calls from the neighbors, thanking them for the bananas and sandwiches, but asking for the rationale behind such postal contributions. When my father and mother confronted me, I told them about the starving children, the desperate suffering pagan babies. They were not as convinced as I that giving my lunch to the neighbors was the best tactic, nor were they amused when I confessed that I had been taking their money to fund my campaign to alleviate world hunger.
I sank into a profound dilemma about the whole thing. I wanted to give everything — my life even — to save others from suffering. I could not bear to see anyone suffer! I felt no peace, knowing that the pagan babies were crying for milk somewhere. The situation seemed unresolvable.
By the time I turned 12, I had already decided to enter a Catholic seminary to become a priest and dedicate myself completely to a life of unselfish service. Everyone seemed to agree that this was the best thing, given my unusual inclinations.
Over the course of the next 7 years in the Seminary, I spent a great deal of time studying the various texts, performing the many prescribed rituals, and was always at the top of my class academically, though I found that the more I examined how this religion had become rigidly institutionalized, focusing on fear and guilt, dogmas and prohibitions, as opposed to love and freedom, compassion and forgiveness, the less I was convinced that it had any actual merit, beyond serving as a social control mechanism operated by questionable people with even more questionable motives. Finally, I asked for a personal interview with the Archbishop of San Francisco. This went rather poorly, and I left with the clear sense that this person had never actually experienced anything that he preached about. He was dead inside.
After too many years barking up the wrong tree, I walked away disgusted with the whole decrepit institution and moved to the high Sierras to cleanse myself, spending the next 6 months living as a hermit in a small tent by a river. This was quite refreshing, and then one day an old friend dropped by to visit, and left me with a copy of a book on Zen. I devoured this book, since it was like a reminder of my time prior to getting involved with the salvation-business. When I came upon one particular passage – a little poem about trees just treeing – everything suddenly fell into place. How obvious it all was!
Not long afterward, I returned to San Francisco, looked up “meditation” in the phone book, and came upon the San Francisco Zen Center. I called them up, they said “Come on down!” There I met Suzuki Roshi, and I became his student that night. It was the right thing to do!
What followed included a stint as a Child Care worker (to satisfy the requirements of Alternative Service to the Government), then several years dedicated to training as a Zen Buddhist monastic, which in turn was followed by a 30 year career as a successful businessman pioneering the introduction of Natural and Organic products across the country. It seems I still wanted to feed the people, so I figured it might as well be with the best food I could find. I helped start the largest whole foods chain in the nation, and then went on to support and guide hundreds of farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and distributors in converting to Natural and Organic products and cultivation methods.
Somewhere along the way a simple recognition dawned (perhaps stimulated by a rather dramatic near death experience resulting from a harrowing automobile accident), a clear and obvious realization that my whole life-long quest had been based on a false premise. All along, I had assumed myself to be a separate individual, trying to bridge an assumed chasm in my own being. I had superimposed on this simple being all sorts of beliefs and solipsistic judgments about myself as the one who is “doing” all of this, and then projected that dreamy made-up stuff out into “the world” — as if “the world” was somehow separate from myself. All along I had been repeatedly graced with clues, but I have always been a stubborn sort. In my earnest fixation on an idea of what I needed to become, and what the world needed from me, I overlooked some plain and simple truths:
I can’t become what I already am. I only need to cease presuming myself and the world to be other than what I and it have always been. In fact, the very notion of doership is an arrogance and a trap that blinds and binds. Everything, just as it is, is already saved, perfected, and free beyond any limiting ideas I could ever superimpose on it.
As layers of self-inflicted dilemma melted away, I finally realized how arrogant my stubborn belief had been — the assumption that I could ever be in a position of “saving” anybody. The crusade story I’d been acting out was full of holes. As that house of cards came crumbling down, the whole fictional fist of contraction loosened its grip.
How could I have ever imagined myself to be in any kind of position to impose my will on life! I came to realize that we are not here so much to change human life as to be changed by our experience of it. When I recognized that I was the “Pagan Baby”, everything returned to an ordinary happiness, fatefully interrupted by that schoolhouse movie so many years ago. I was somehow gracefully relieved of the concern that anything be other than what it is, or that I be anything other than what I am.
I could finally stop pretending. I could peel off the various costumes, or perhaps maintain the costume — knowing that it is just a costume, and even enjoying the unique beauty of this and any costume. I came to see that all these costumes will slip off on their own accord, in their proper time. All we need do is let them go, without resistance or regret.
There are no barriers in life, except what we might imagine in our innocent misunderstandings. Even these are a kind of perfection and grace. Even our apparent hardships are gifts, granted to us so that we might deepen in self-awareness. In truth, there is nothing and nobody to save. There is neither freedom nor bondage as we’ve imagined. In reality, all is and has always been and will always be well.
Q: I may remove my causes of sorrow, but others will be left to suffer.
Nisargadatta Maharaj: To understand suffering, you must go beyond pain and pleasure. Your own desires and fears prevent you from understanding and thereby helping others. In reality there are no others, and by helping yourself you help everybody else. If you are serious about the sufferings of mankind, you must perfect the only means of help you have – yourself.