I turned 48 this week. My friends and family helped me feel loved. My 14-year old son Michael, for example, tweeted “Happy Birthday father o’mine.” And a new dear friend sent me a photo from the Tibetan Plateau:
She wrote it just days after helping a few dozen boys, students at a monastic school in Tagong, move into a new home and school–a building that a few of us came together to purchase on behalf of the monastery.
I first met the monks in Tagong in September of last year when a few of us drove for four days on fairly tricky roads to bring supplies from Chengdu into Yushu where an earthquake had destroyed so many homes. Depending on the roads, Tagong is a day or two drive from Chengdu. (See this post: How I Spent My Summer Vacation)
When I first encountered the boys, I could barely contain my desire to help. That September, though, we had another mission–to get to Yushu.
Later, last January, I came back…to Yushu, to Chengdu, and to Tagong. I wrote a post at the time asking, quoting Tracy Chapman, if you knew you would die today, saw the face of God today, would you change? I vowed to help move the boys from a shelter that was little more than tree branches and plastic sheeting into something safe and warm.
Months of discussion, planning, more discussion, lots of tea (sweet and butter), lots more discussion (this is, after all, Tibet), and just about a week ago, the boys moved into their new home–a recently renovated, three story traditional Tibetan-style building. They are warm and safe and the snows have just begun.
My new dear friend wrote to a few of us:
We just returned from a trip to Tagong to help students and teachers move to the new school. Everything went smoothly and every one was very happy about the new school…on the 9th we had breakfast at 9:00 am, and then went to the old school to help the students move. Students, teachers, and helpers from the town had already started moving…the school also had five tractors to help haul large items like furniture and firewood.
Everyone was happy to work and help with the move. Everything but firewood was moved before lunch. For lunch we had a very simple and delicious meal prepared by the students in their new kitchen. After lunch the students drew numbers for their new beds, then they made their beds and put all their things away. The helpers from town, the TVP [Tibetan Village Project] team and the teachers started moving and stacking firewood. We spent the whole afternoon on this task; it was tiring work but we are happy that students have a stockpile of firewood for the winter. We worked until 5:00pm but there was still some firewood left to move.
On the 10th we had breakfast at 9:30am and then went to the school to visit the students and teachers. It had snowed overnight, so the students were busy outside clearing the snow, in addition to stacking the rest of the firewood…on the morning of the 11th [we] visited the school’s greenhouse. We were excited to see that the vegetables in the greenhouse were growing very well…the students were still busy cleaning the new school, and they expressed happiness and satisfaction with the new school. When we asked for their opinion of the new school, they told us that the new school is warmer and bigger than the old one, and that the new school has a big yard outside where they can play, eat, and enjoy sunshine. They also said that they want to study very hard and be beneficial to people in the future.
A few weeks ago, during that last trip to Tibet, I traveled with some old dear friends. They rightly asked if, given the enormity of the poverty in the region and the systemic changes that will need to be made to create enduring prosperity, for people to move from trying, as they do now, to live on 12 cents a day to be lifted into the magical realm of living on more than a dollar a day (and thereby no longer be classified as “ultra-poor” but merely poor), did it make sense to invest in one school, one village, one building.
The begging bowl of the Buddha, Thomas Merton has said, “represents the ultimate theological root of the belief, not just in the right to beg, but in the openness to the gifts of all beings as an expression of the interdependence of all beings…The whole idea of compassion, which is central to Mahayana Buddhism, is based on an awareness of the interdependence of all living beings…thus when the monk begs from the layman and receives a gift from the laymen, it is not as selfish person getting something from somebody else. He is simply opening himself to this interdependence.”
I knew then that I would make the gift that would catalyze the purchase and enable the boys to be warm before the snows came.
Over the course of five days I did six talks. My talks ranged from the pragmatic to the esoteric; from How to Lead and How to Raise Capital to How to Survive the Startup Life. The latter talk, essentially a distillation of the workshop Ann Mehl and I developed around my post, Disappearing into the Fire, seemed to be especially poignant for people.
The night before that talk I woke from a hazy jet-lag troubled sleep and, sitting in my room at the Union Hotel, I changed the presentation, adding some pictures from my trips to Tagong.
I was nervous when the talk began because I had shifted things and didn’t know how the 150 or so folks in the audience would respond. I had nothing to fear; from their tears I knew I had touched their hearts.
My intent was to use the photos to talk about the work being done in Tagong. I shared that work as an example of a way in which I try to embody my one-third, one-third, one-third life balance rule. One third for the inner you; one third for the outer you; and one third for the Other–those who embody our interdependence, those to whom, out of the depths of our compassion, we save not only them but, in the process, ourselves.
In my mind the Indigo Girls are singing She’s Saving Me. And the last lines–She’s saving me I don’t really think she knows it/It’s a strange way to show it as distant as last night’s dream unravels/She’s saving me I’m a very lost soul/I was born with a hole in my heart as wide as my land-locked travels–repeat as if the needle is stuck in the groove.
Earlier this week I saw my Buddhist teacher, the one who gave me the gift of “the one-third rule.” He asked me about my trip to Slovenia. With just the slightest hint of pride in his student, he said, “Ah, I see. You are giving them, the Others, the strategies you’ve used to save yourself.”
The gift of giving to the Other is the most powerful salve for closing that hole in your heart, the one that’s as wide as your land-locked travels. Placing alms in the bowl (be it a building in Tagong or a strategy to survive the every day violence of work) feeds not only the begging monk before us but the begging monk within.
Jerry Happy Birthday.