Ram Dass encouraged us to embrace our foolish selves rather than try to fix them.
I heard the news as I was driving home from work this past Tuesday morning. Ram Dass was dead.
Maybe I will remember this drive home like I still remember that bleak winter day in late November in 1963. I was seven years old that morning our 2nd grade teacher told us that JFK had been shot.
I flash on the Beatles singing “I heard the news today, Oh, boy…”
be here now
Ram Dass made a huge impact on my life back in 1972, when I read his book Be Here Now, published the year before; I was just getting into yoga and meditation.
Be Here Now opened my eyes like nothing else had.
My pump had been already primed. I read many of the Beat Poets by the time I reached high school. My 17 year old son is reading them now, on his Christmas break from his senior year.
I like to think of Ram Dass as a Merry Prankster with soul. Playful and deep, his talks are ear-worms with substance. I listened to them over and over, finding something new each time.
we’re all fools … all the time
I flash on someone else I was reading at the time. Ray Bradbury, in the Illustrated Man:
We’re all fools… all the time. It’s just we’re a different kind each day. We think, I’m not a fool today. I’ve learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we’re not perfect and live accordingly.
Ram Dass made fun of the fools we all are. He especially poked fun at the growing number of self-proclaimed enlightened teachers, chiding them with a line particularly apropos to this holiday season:
“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”
Then we’ll really see how enlightened you are, I can just hear him chuckle, with a twinkle in his eyes.
our identity costumes
And his line about our relationships:
“We spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.”
Ram Dass encouraged us to embrace our foolish selves rather than try to fix them. I had taken on a Buddhist identity, trying to do the ultimate self-help fix: to see, through intensive meditation, that it never existed.
No self, no problem.
But there was a problem; this self is a hard nut to crack.
embracing our essential foolishness
While the Theravada, or old school Buddhism, sees the self as a problem and the Mahayana, coming along many centuries later, lauds our “essential goodness,” Shin Buddhism, a very late development in Japan, embraces our foolishness, our karmic shortcomings.
Embracing our selves as foolish beings, we open our to Infinite Compassion and Infinite Light. I flash on the healing depth of this view. It would do our sometimes uptight Buddhist selves some good to truly laugh at our selves the way Ram Dass did.
we all have clay feet
Buddhists have feet of clay just like everyone else. The Buddhist world has plenty of alcoholic lamas, and power hungry, womanizing roshis.
I know, my first Buddhist teacher ticked all three of those boxes.
And was my second teacher turned out to be a pedophile.
For every Buddhist saint there are a thousand struggling practitioners, and even the saint may be having secret dalliances.
Aung San Suu Kyi – quite the fool
Aung San Suu Kyi made a serious fool of herself on the international stage a couple weeks ago, defending the very generals that held her under house arrest, from charges of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in their homeland.
For some, waking up to the imperfections of Buddhism and Buddhists shatters an idealism that really needs to be shattered.
But bitterness and depression sometimes follow.
Ram Dass helped us see these as costumes we all wear. That sinner and saint are already free, if only they let go of stubborn egos.
let’s raise our glasses
Let’s raise our glasses to toast: everything is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete!
Or stated negatively, as Buddhists like to do: nothing lasts, nothing’s finished, and nothing’s perfect!
If we stick with our meditation practice we eventually appreciate the wisdom and beauty of imperfection. Our bodies age, our minds wander, let’s raise our glass!
Perfection is fine when we fill out our taxes, the electrician re-wires the kitchen, and we have that arthritic hip replaced. But it doesn’t do us much good on or off the cushion.
the path is more about joy than perfection
For me Buddhism is more about joy than perfection. It’s about being who we are, just as we are, right now.
Let’s end this year with a reflection from an elder I hold very dearly in my heart. The American born monk Ajahn Sumedho, now 85 years old, and one of the senior Western representatives of the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism, had this to say in his book The Way It Is, freely available on the Internet:
To practice, we must start exactly where we are. Of course, we can always imagine perfect conditions, how it should be ideally, how everyone else should behave. But it’s not our task to create an ideal. It’s our task to see how it is and to learn from the world as it is. For the awakening of the heart, conditions are always good enough.
We are all “just walking each other home” as Ram Dass would say.
So, cue the music:
“Have your self a foolish little Christmas,
Let your heart be light…”