By Darren Chittick
I’ve interpreted for His Holiness the Dalai Lama on several occasions. On one of those occasions, I received a blessing from him, and a blessing scarf.
I recently cut that scarf into pieces.
It all started with this obsession I’ve had lately with two concepts from Judaism, Ein Sof and Yesh. While difficult to translate from Hebrew, the fastest access to meaning that I have found into these notions is that Ein Sof points toward that which is infinite, no thing, nothing, and has neither beginning nor ending; and Yesh is the opposite of that, some thing, something, and finite.
I first came upon these understandings through the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in his interview with Krista Tippet on her NPR program called On Being. I’ve listened to this episode of the program probably a dozen times, rewinding and rewinding so that I could hastily type out parts of the conversation I found particularly helpful. Even though there is a transcript available, I want these ideas to take root in a way that copying and pasting will never accomplish.
In my work as a pastor, I have used these words and the understanding they bring over the course of a few Sunday morning services. What they articulate, what I have held as true for a very long time without this language to encapsulate it, is there is more to existence than what is visible, and it is not separate from what is visible. The “illusion” that so many traditions discuss is not that this world we interact with is not here. That, to me, is nihilistic and unhelpful.
This world of Yesh, having a beginning and an ending, is all there is, that is the illusion. This world of Yesh, to borrow from Kushner, is really Ein Sof in disguise.
In his book The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition, Rabbi Kushner shared these words from contemporary Jewish theologian Richard L Rubenstein:
“Perhaps the best available metaphor for the conception of God as the Holy Nothingness is that God is the ocean and we are the waves. In some sense each wave has its moment in which it is distinguishable as a somewhat separate entity. Nevertheless, no wave is entirely distinct from the ocean which is its substantial ground. The waves are surface manifestations of the ocean. Our knowledge of the ocean is largely dependent on the way it manifests itself in the waves.”
In an effort to help offer a practical application of what seems an abstract notion, I recently spoke about what it means to offer blessing to others in the context of Ein Sof and Yesh. To do so, I borrowed again from Rabbi Kushner. In that same book he shared:
“Even when you are engaged in the physical activities required by your body, your soul must not budge from its cleaving to the Divine…. In any deed you might perform, you do not depart or move from God. In this way even the physical objects you use actually become more elevated because you have used them.” Kushner quoted these words came from Moses Chayim Luzzatto.
Blessing, then, is how we intentionally reveal the Ein Sof in a moment, another person, or an object.
As examples of acts that do this, I spoke of the Priestly Blessing offered by Jewish Kohanim, the Vulcan blessing of “Live long and prosper,” which was heavily influenced by that Jewish blessing, the sacrament offered at Catholic Mass, and the common Muslim greeting “As-Salaam-Alaikum” and the usual response of “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.”
I carried with me that day the khata that I received in blessing from His Holiness the Dalai Lama after one of a few occasions I’ve had to offer ASL interpretation of his talks for the Deaf community. It was this item that I used to help us understand the key to offering blessing comes with mindful intention. I don’t believe his His Holiness has magical powers. I wish he did, because I could then believe that I could somehow develop them as well. I believe he is very practiced at mindful intention. When he squeezed my hand and placed that scarf across my neck while laughing, it was a blessing. I felt it. It was incredible. I’ve kept that scarf apart from my regular items, and I’ve worn it as a stole when officiating weddings and funerals.
At this particular Sunday service, I cut it up. This was not planned.
I folded it in half and cut the center portion of it into small squares. I invited our retired pastor and another minister to help me pass those squares out to each person in the chairs. It had crossed my mind that morning to bring a khata I had bought myself to cut up for that purpose, but I decided the logistics would be too complicated; this is an error in thinking I repeat regularly.
This day, though, even had I planned that, I believe I would have ended up cutting up my blessing from His Holiness.
Right before I stood up to deliver what I call “the Sunday message,” someone offers a time of guided meditation and prayer. This Sunday, it was the same minister I asked to help ensure that everyone got a piece of that scarf. What she offered called to mind a person followed by the words, “We are one.” She described a Syrian refugee, a hungry child, someone dying from disease. We are one with their suffering. She described a suicide bomber walking into a crowded place, too. We are one with their suffering. Again and again, we are one. We are one. We are one.
Something turned in me, and I knew I had to share the blessing I had received.
We are one. I walked up, I stood silent for what felt like an eternity, and I quietly asked a young woman in the congregation to please bring me a pair of scissors. Then I began just as I’d planned. I talked about the ideas we’d been discussing from those Hebrew words. I gave examples. I picked up the scarf at some point, and I think that was the moment when people began to guess what was going to happen. I learned later folks were angry that I was considering “defiling this holy and whole sacred object.” I learned folks were “very resistant” to the idea that I would destroy this gift from the Dalai Lama. A couple folks said they wanted to stand up and yell at me to not do it. They said, one to another, “Had I known there were others who would stand up with me, I would have done it.” That’s a whole other Sunday message, I think.
To a person, everyone who shared having anger, resistance, or an urge to tell me no, the moment that piece of scarf was pressed into their palm, they had a shift. They became able to recognize I had not destroyed something holy, I had made it more holy by sharing it. I believe they are right.
As I stepped back behind my podium, I took up the two pieces of scarf left, and I tied them together at the middle-ends. I placed them on my neck. I still had a scarf. It had become a very long scarf; it now touched an entire room filled with people all at once.
Moses Chayim Luzzatto also wrote, “Everyone and everything is latent with holiness awaiting our touch.” When His Holiness blessed me, my latent holiness flared up, even if for a moment. As I was reminded again and again by Reverend Heidi Cass-Morris, “We are one,” that Sunday, it was that same touch. As I spoke for those 20 or so minutes, as I processed whether or not I was really about to cut up this object that I had held so close and safe for years, that holiness burned brighter than I could contain, and I could do nothing other than share the truth: when the Dalai Lama blessed me, he didn’t mean to bless me alone.
His whole practice of living as a Buddhist monk is dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings. Who am I to try to capture a portion of that dedication just for myself by hoarding what a simple scarf had become through his mindful intention?
It was a call to reveal the sacred, the holiness that resides in every person we are lucky enough to encounter.
Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Humanist, and all, I think this is what we are called to in our lives, no matter the language that gets us there. It was an opportunity to not only awaken the holiness within an object with my touch, but also to allow that object to awaken within me and all those with whom I had the opportunity to share it, that same holiness.
Our lives are filled with this kind of opportunity. We have to develop the eyes to see them. Seeing these opportunities, we must then develop our hearts enough to enact them. This isn’t just about giving away pieces of a scarf. This is about letting go of that which is Yesh, the scarf, and sharing that which is Ein Sof, the blessing it conveyed from being to being. Enacting this kind of opportunity is to be always willing to relieve suffering outside ourselves and within ourselves simultaneously by releasing attachment to that which is temporary.
“Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.” _ Dalai Lama
Darren Chittick is the pastor of The Church Within, a Sensei at Broad Ripple Martial Arts, and resists calling himself an artist even though he does dedicate time to making art. He and his husband grow food in their yard in Indianapolis, IN and live with two seemingly-immortal cats. Hear recordings of him teaching on Sunday mornings at thechurchwithin.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
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