Category Archives: Metaphors

You Are Not Your Armor

wabi sabi BuddhaWe are not our armor. We are not the protective layer that covers up our essential goodness.

Yesterday I wrote about a huge clay Buddha in Thailand. For centuries it had sat in various temples, moved around as people saw fit. One day, stories differ as to why, the enormous clay Buddha cracked open. It cracked open enough that the monks tending it looked inside and were astonished to find, not the hollow space they expected, but a statue of luminous gold.

Jack Kornfield tells this story to illustrate the Buddhist core belief in “Buddha nature” – the inherent nobility and goodness shining inside of every woman, man, and child.

This idea of Buddha nature isn’t only a tenet of Eastern religion, philosophy, and psychology. It’s not only expounded by those with a background in Eastern methods, such as Thomas Merton.

This idea is all over the place in Western religious and psychological thought, in various disguises.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English Victorian poet and Jesuit priest, described our real, true selves as an “Immortal Diamond.”

Franciscan priest and prolific author Richard Rohr uses the term “True Self.”

Life coach and Harvard-trained sociologist Martha Beck talks about our Essential Self and our Core of Peace.

Psychologist James Hollis uses the terms “Self” (with a capital “S”) and “soul.”

Rumi says, “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Oh, phooey. Rumi’s Eastern.

Our armor, the clay covering our hearts of shining light, is not the problem. The problem is when we’re confused and we believe our clay coverings are WHO WE ARE, and we strive to protect that armor.

That armor, that clay, is useful. This part of ourselves, the inevitable accretion of daily living, is variously called our small “s” self, our false self, our social self, our ego, and I’m sure there are many more labels. This part of ourselves is necessary because it keeps us safe, sometimes, and it helps us be smart.

But it isn’t US. We suffer when we think that it is.

We suffer when we try to live our lives from our armored surfaces of clay, rather than from our luminous shiny good hearts.

We Shine Like the Sun

wabi sabi BuddhaThere was once a large ancient Buddha, made of clay and plaster, resting in an old temple in Sukotai, Thailand. Over time, this Buddha found its way to a minor temple in Bangkok, but it was so big it was housed in a shed covered only by a tin roof. Eventually, a larger building was constructed to house this Buddha. When the Buddha was being moved to its new home, the plaster cracked. Inside the plaster and clay, which had covered the Buddha for centuries, the people found a statue of solid gold. Speculation is that during the time of war with neighboring Burma, monks covered the gold Buddha with clay to protect it.

Over time, the people forgot that their Buddha was in fact made of gold.

Jack Kornfield tells this story in The Wise Heart, his book about Buddhist psychology. He uses the story of the clay Buddha that’s discovered to be precious gold to illustrate this core idea of “Buddha nature.” He says, “The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest. In much the same way, each of us has encountered threatening situations that lead us to cover our innate nobility. Just as the people of Sokutai had forgotten about the golden Buddha, we too have forgotten our essential nature. Much of the time we operate from the protective layer. The primary aim of Buddhist psychology is to help us see beneath this armoring and bring out our original goodness, called our Buddha nature.”

Dr. Kornfield refers to American monk and mystic Thomas Merton’s experience, one ordinary March day in 1958, as an example of a Western mind experiencing Buddha nature. In Merton’s words: “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the Divine. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed …. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I notice that Merton takes many words to describe what Buddhists can do in two. This Buddhist starting point and core belief – humans are fundamentally good and shiny – is a radical, revelatory experience for Merton.

I disagree with Thomas Merton. I want us to go around telling each other that we’re shining like the sun. Let’s treat ourselves and each other like the light- and life-filled beings we are.

Hope, Again

In my last post I dissed Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is a thing with feathers.” I contrasted fluffy feathery (I called it “wimpy”) hope with hope that has muscles and a plan. A dear friend took the time to point out the ways in which Emily’s hope lines up with what I termed “holy hope” — hope that is willing to get its hands dirty and make actual things happen.

I see her point. And I still see that damned bird, singing and singing and not getting anywhere.

And then I ask, what else is a bird supposed to do? After all, a bird’s job is to simply be a bird — eat enough calories to survive, reproduce, avoid predators, and generally fill its ecosystem niche.

So my issue must be with the metaphor itself. Metaphors are powerful and I think we should choose our metaphors carefully. And hope as a bird doesn’t satisfy me. 

If a bird’s job is to simply be a bird, then what is human hope’s job? To just BE?  I don’t think so.

I think our hopes and desires and yearnings have a purpose beyond simply existing.  I believe our deepest desires and yearnings and hopes are holy. They are given to us by God (Source, Oneness, Whatever). They are our marching orders in the world. Our hopes tell us who we are. They lead us forward and light our way.

So here’s an alternative metaphor. Hope is a seed.

Hope as a seed can simply lie there in parched ground being a seed, and that’s okay. It still has value. A seed has immensely more value, though, when it cracks open and becomes the mature version of what it wants to be — a sunflower, a sheaf of wheat, a redwood. (I stole this metaphor from Jesus.)

We know how to cultivate growth in seeds — sun, water, and soil, with a little weeding and protecting and waiting. But what that seed wants to be is totally up to the seed. It’s a mystery, a gift, a grace. And absolutely completely out of my control. And Monsanto’s.

My hopes are like seeds. I can align myself and flow with the hope that wants to grow in my soul, or I can choose not to.

If I nurture my hopes, they will more likely grow and mature and be of use in the world. (And bring me joy, no small thing.)

If I choose to let my hopes lie dormant, those hopes will lie there like seeds waiting to germinate, fine in and of themselves, good for bird food or animal fodder.

But they’re just not what they could have been and wanted to be. And that’s a loss, for me and for you and for the world.


Wow! All those seeds from one seed!





Hope Is Not a Methodology.

Emily Dickinson says “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul… .” I don’t know about you, but that sweet sweet sentiment sticks in my craw. I think that Emily’s feathery hope is just a wish. And although wishes are fun and entertaining and while away the days, they aren’t really much use to me. Weak hope is worse than useless. I believe that weak wimpy hope is dangerous, because it gives me the illusion of doing something when all I’m really doing is sitting there.

I am writing today in favor of robust, muscular hope.

Hope is not a methodology.

Hope no. 1

What are some characteristics of robust hope?

  • I am clear on what I yearn for.
  • I am willing and able to let the old me die in order for something new to be born.
  • I have a plan.
  • I actually implement my plan, and I’m willing to change it as needed.

(Each of these characteristics deserves its own post. Or book.)

So why do I stick with wimpy hope all too often?

Because I feel afraid. Afraid of the unknown, afraid of attracting attention, afraid of criticism, afraid of feeling incompetent and making mistakes… Because I don’t trust my yearnings.

Here’s the thing, though. My deepest yearnings are planted in me by God; they have their roots in my soul where God lives in me, and it’s my job to manifest them in the world. When I take my time and use my tradition to discern what I yearn for, that’s prayer. That’s contemplation. And nothing that I truly yearn for ultimately be destructive. Ever. Yearnings aren’t selfish. Yearnings are HOLY.

How do I turn wispy wishes into holy hope? How do I take those yearnings I say are holy and make them amount to something? Here’s where coaching meets contemplation, for me.

  • I recognize old patterns and griefs and resentments and limiting beliefs that no longer serve me or the world.
  • I grieve what needs to be grieved, release what needs to be released, and replace dead thoughts with life-giving beliefs.
  • I make a plan, recognizing that in all probability I will fail numerous times, and that failure is part of the process. Then I break the plan down into manageable steps.
  • I gather tools– information, knowledge, resources, people to cheer me on and hold me accountable. While I’m ultimately responsible for my own journey, I know that I can’t and shouldn’t go it alone.
  • Then I go forth and do. I implement, even though I feel scared, because finally not-doing is worse than feeling the fear. I celebrate my progress every turtle step of the way.
  • I pray a lot (when I remember), then do it all over again. Thank God tomorrow is another day, because I need lots of fresh starts!

W.H. Murray says about planning the Scottish Himalayan Expedition:

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!

May we trust our yearnings. May we stop clinging to our dead places and rise up. May we turn our wispy wishes and feathery hopes into reality, and give a hungry world what it needs.

Hope is not a methodology.

A plan and some tools.

Thanks to Margie Farber for “Hope is not a methodology.” The drawing is original and is under construction.