A funny thing happened last week on a quick trip in and out of Trader Joe’s.
I was headed up the aisle where the glass-bottled drinks are, when I came upon an interesting sight.
Hunched over her grocery cart and looking totally perturbed was an elderly, light-skinned caucasian woman with close-cropped gray hair and a heavily lined face. She was dressed in the unmistakable garb of a Tibetan Buddhist nun. They wear a burgundy colored wrap-around type robe with their right arm uncovered and bare.
I am startled whenever I see a monastic walking on the street or in a store. It’s not uncommon in the Berkeley area as there are, here, a number of Zen and Tibetan centers and a cluster of theological schools near UC Berkeley. I love it when I catch sight of a monk or nun in a public place. They are, in the classic teachings, one of the four “heavenly messengers,” and I take note.
The young Prince Siddhartha, who would become the Buddha, was finally, at age 29, able to step out of the sheltered palace he grew up in. Behind the palace walls, his father had kept him from viewing the suffering that is a true characteristic of reality.
Once outside, Siddhartha saw for the first time an elderly person, a sick person, and a corpse. He had no idea what this meant, yet he knew he had a lot to learn. (In the classic teachings, the messengers are actually divine beings in disguise, sent to awaken the young prince as he sets out on his path.)
Siddhartha also saw a fourth messenger, a wandering ascetic, with the message that there is a path leading toward the end of suffering.
I witness a lot about aging, illness and death, particularly in my work as an estate attorney and in viewing the trajectory of my own current life. I am not often startled by these first three messengers, though maybe I should be.
When I occasionally see a monastic on the street, I am a bit startled. I am reminded of the path leading toward the end of suffering and I do a little mind exercise: Quick, what’s my mind-heart state, right now?
As I headed up the bottled drinks aisle, I smiled at the nun and wondered if I should strike up a conversation with her. I reached on the shelf for the drinks I was looking for, and I said “hi.”
“These things used to be 43 cents, and now they’re a dollar.” She grimaced, holding a bottle of Reed’s Jamaican style ginger ale.
“But wait,” I said. “They may be less if you buy the pack of four.”
I thought it was unusual that here was a fully-ordained nun groaning about the price of ginger ale.
I also thought it was odd because just that morning, I had dropped off a care package for a neighbor friend who’s going through chemotherapy and I had included my remaining bottles of this very same Reed’s ginger ale. It’s good stuff, and I had drunk a lot of it during chemo, but I no longer drink it, both because it’s so sugary and because it reminds me of chemo.
“No,” she said, “it’s just as bad if I buy four. I can’t believe these cost so much. Everything’s costing more and more and more.”
I liked this lady, standing in the grocery aisle kvetching about rising prices. She sounds like me!
“Yeah,” I said. “Everything’s costing more and more.”
“And social security,” she said, “that only goes up one percent a year.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s really bad. It’s the way things are.”
Then I turned my cart and headed away. I glanced back, and the burgundy-clad nun was still holding the bottle of ginger ale in her hand.
That was weird, I thought. I’m telling this nun that “this is the way things are.” Isn’t she supposed to be telling me that? Why is she so worked up about a bottle of high-priced sugar water? What’s going on?
Often, life presents us with little vignettes that are mirrors for our own state of mind. Look and listen closely, and the teaching will reveal itself.
I know nothing of this woman’s life except for seeing her outward appearance as a committed spiritual seeker and hearing her very human cry about the ridiculousness of an overpriced drink.
How ordinary and how real. How uncovered and unpretentious.
How pervasive is our dissatisfaction, how embedded into the fabric of life, our robes, is our recognition of unfairness and lack.
How noble is the spiritual path when it leads us not to an ivory tower but, instead, to a shared moment of compassion with a passing stranger.