While I was living in a monastery at Berkeley, a Presbyterian Minister from the neighboring city of Oakland gave us a phone call because he would like talking 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 black man in his eighties, tall and feeble, dressed elegantly with the full range of browns, rang the doorbell.

“I always admired the fortitude of Buddhists,” he began to say while sipping from the cup of green tea I had offered him.

“Personally, I’m not doing that well these days, I’m suffering from excruciating shingles,” I complained with gestures of pain.

He looked at me through his brown glasses and said:

“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 to keep open the church where I live… Life has these spells.”

There was not irony in his voice, but I could not help feeling terribly self-conscious. It was not clear to me what was the reason of his visit, but his last sentence, uttered as he slowly stood up, 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’s only now, when everything falls apart around me, that I’ve learned something else: gratitude.”

I was shocked, unable to say anything.

“In fact, the only thing I’ve really learnt in life is gratitude. This is the door of my liberation.”

I accompanied him to the exit and will always regret not having escorted him to the Bart station. (The last thing he said was that someone had recently stolen his car!)

I had just arrived from a long retreat devoted to the study of the Gandavyuha Sutra, the last chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra. The protagonist of that text is Sudhana, a young pilgrim who visits fifty two teachers. Each teacher gives Sudhana a lesson, tells him where to find the next teacher, and bids farewell with the same formula: “Good young man, I only know this door of liberation.”

The old priest mentioned  “door of liberation,” an expression that you don’t hear every day, yet it appears often in a two-thousand-years-old book written in Sanskrit. His message sounded arcane, ancient, timeless. Patience with suffering is not too surprising, but gratitude?

The old man had found that door of liberation. Meanwhile, I keep on chewing on his lesson.