Once, while I was living in a monastery at Berkeley, a Presbyterian Minister from the neighboring city of Oakland phoned because he would like to talk to a Buddhist monk. I replied that the resident monk was absent but, if he did not mind talking to a novice, he was totally welcome.
That same afternoon, an old African-American man in his eighties, tall and feeble, dressed elegantly with the full range of brown tones, came to the monastery.
“I always admired the fortitude of the Buddhists,” he began to say while sipping from the cup of green tea I had offered him.
“I’m personally not doing so well these days,” I replied. “I am suffering an excruciating attack of shingles,” I complained with a painful expression in my face. He looked at me through his brown glasses and said affectionately:
“I have cancer. My sister, the only member of my family still alive, is undergoing, as we are talking, heart surgery. I came to Oakland to replace a priest who suffered from Alzheimer and recently passed away. My congregation has not funds enough to keep open the church where I live… Life has these spells.”
There was not irony in his voice, but I could not help but feel ridiculous because of my previous comment. It was not clear to me what was the reason of his visit, but his last sentence, uttered as he sat up slowly, stunned me:
“I’m very fortunate. Thanks to my pastoral work, I could meet, help and share my life with many people. In the hardest times, I learned to be patient, but it is only now, when everything falls apart around me, that I’ve learned something else: gratitude.”
I was shocked, unable to say anything. Then he added:
“In fact, the only thing I really learned in life is gratitude. This is the door of my liberation.”
I accompanied him to the door of the monastery, and I’ll always regret for not having escorted him to the Bart station (subway)… his car had been stolen recently!
I had just arrived from a long retreat devoted to the study of a Sutra (Buddhist sacred text) called Avatamsaka (Floral Garland), specifically its last part called Gandavyuha. In this text, the protagonist is a young pilgrim named Sudhana who is visiting several teachers, each of whom gives him a lesson, tells him where to find the next teacher, and always bids farewell to him with the same sentence: “Good man, I only know this door of liberation.”
The pastor mentioned the very same expression ‘door of liberation’, not one you hear every day, but one that appears in a two-thousand-years-old book written in Sanskrit. Moreover, his message sounded arcane, as when it is given another turn to what seems to have already reached its limit. Patience with the suffering does not surprise anyone, but gratitude?
The old man had found that door of liberation. Meanwhile, I keep on chewing on his lesson…