Updated: Apr 23
I have now been studying Esoteric Buddhism with MahaVairocana Dharma King Dechan Jueren for eighteen years, four of which were spent in Beijing China learning Mandarin Chinese from 2004-2008. Learning Chinese, especially at 38, was no easy feat, even with excellent teachers and a dedicated heart. However, the more I came to be able to understand my teacher’s weekly lectures (given in Mandarin Chinese), the more I understood that learning Chinese was not my only assignment in Beijing—actually my greater assignment was to change myself, to become a better person. This I discovered was quite a bit more difficult than the enormous challenge of learning Chinese. I pressed on anyways.
Those who have lived in another country or another culture other than their own can understand how being in a foreign world is an excellent opportunity to come face-to-face with one’s own strangeness and with one’s own shortcomings. While under this extra pressurized magnifying glass, I was able to see all too clearly my shortcomings, for example how easily I became angry or withdrawn after small exchanges, such as feeling like I was being overcharged when buying almost everything. I realized how ill-equipped my nature was to deal adequately with such minute issues. You see, in China, everyone, foreigner and local, deals with the challenge of buying in a bargaining-market culture, and with the fear (& fact!) of being cheated somewhere along the way. It really is nothing personal, as I took it, especially in the beginning, as is most nothing in China. In China, it really is “not all about you,” personally. So it is best to just get over it--to overcome yourself.
You see, I was in China, where sacrificing one’s self for the group and where helping one another are not only normal, but are elevated moral values for all to live up to. They are also values that my teacher Dechan Jueren found sorely lacking in my character. At some point, I took it as my personal mission and challenge to learn how to value the group and to value working together as a group over the personal, to try and embody these Chinese values as if they were my own. Actually, I was daring to make a bold and broad cultural leap across the divide of the American thinking which values individual rights and freedoms as most important to the Chinese thinking where the word “personal” is the same word for “selfish.” Is it? Is having “personal …” actually being selfish?
This cultural divide shows up all the time. For example, one time one of my teachers of Chinese expressed dismay, trying to understand us foreigners. She had been hiking with an “older” woman (in her 50’s I believe), a foreign teacher who was working in the same University. As they were hiking, the Chinese teacher tried to take the woman’s hand to help her along. My Chinese teacher couldn’t understand why her show of respect and concern and camaraderie was met with a brush off and disdain. My explanation that perhaps the older woman might have been offended at being treated “old” was met with further disbelief and sadness at the cultural miscommunication. Hers is a culture (Chinese) that reveres and honors aging and where helping each other at any time is the right time and appropriate respectful behavior.
The longer I lived in China, the more I came to understand this new way of being in the world. One morning I woke up with the words “无私而同” (wu si er tong) flashing through and sticking in my mind. You see, I had been immersed in a group project and it was not going smoothly. “无私而同” (wu si er tong) is my own Chinese saying (my Chinese teachers thought of it as a quirky albeit strange grouping of words). Literally it means “unselfish, therefore/so together” or more completely –if one acts unselfishly, is unselfish, then the group will come together and will work together harmoniously. And now I also understand it to be, “unselfish, therefore join with/become one with the Guru/Buddha.”
Another example of my learning this truth came through my living situation in China and was expected to share a room with others. Here I had plenty of opportunities to witness how by giving up something for my “self” created more peace and joy than hanging onto it desperately. LaMu came and she got the princess bed, I took the hard cot. Zhang Zhu came and she got the cot, I took the floor. She left and Tyger came, I got the floor again. LaMu left then Tyger got the Princess bed. I was so proud of my spiritual advancement –Look at how I kept giving up my bed! I didn’t realize how selfish I still was.
Buddhists are a lot like Catholics (my birth religion). We like incense and know its healing properties. Being the good practitioner that I was, I was used to lighting incense on the altar next to my bed often to begin my meditation in the morning when I got up, and in the evening before I went to bed. Did I mention that Tyger was allergic to all most all incense smoke? Really allergic?! Like, she "had to go out of the room and breathe through a mask and take pills" allergic? After she had moved in, I didn’t ask her if it was okay for me to light the incense, after all, as I felt it was “my” room too. I was so blind, even after she left the room and didn’t return for a very long time, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with what I had done.
Later I realized my mistake, but not until I really got it. “Hello! the woman can’t breathe!” I finally realized that that was what it meant for her when she explained that she was allergic to incense smoke. Finally I realized that her right to breathe (and live!) more important than my “right” to light incense. Of course it is. Of course letting go of my personal needs was the only sane answer in this situation.
Over and over again I realized how when I gave up my attachment to my personal comforts, my personal opinions, even my personal space needs, there was an easy peace in every relationship. As soon as I began to focus on how I could make the others happy and help them to manifest their visions, that is when we had magical togetherness and that is when we were able to forge a team that cared about one another and that was successful. And interestingly enough, after letting go of my attachment to the “personal,” I didn’t miss whatever I was supposedly “giving up.” I found that there was no giving up, I was actually receiving blessing after blessing. Maybe the “personal” is “selfish?” I finally understood this Chinese truth.
So it is, then, that I came to realize one of the foundations of my awakening through embracing Chinese culture and understanding of the world--无私而同. It is through being unselfish—and when we are unselfish—that we can actually work together as one, and it is also when we can experience the miracle of joining in oneness with Buddha.
© Dari Rulai ZhiMen Temple, April 2020 Charlotte M. Steen
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