Our culture proclaims that it values the individual, individuality, and uniqueness. However, like so much else about us, this is totally illusory. What it really promotes is a kind of atomized individualism and a frenzied kind of self-centeredness, self-assertiveness. It believes that by crying out “I am different,” that you establish your own individuality–or like that old pop song by Frank Sinatra, “I Did It My Way.” However, true uniqueness is a deeply spiritual reality and cannot be had or found by simply asserting one’s own illusory ego identity in contrast to all other such assertions, etc. It will inevitably require a “death” of that ego-centeredness—like the Gospel tells us: “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it will remain alone, but if it dies it will bear much fruit….” And one of those fruits will be one’s true uniqueness and individuality. The spiritual life is totally marked by paradox at every step of the way, and this is one such instance–one has to transcend one’s ego identity in order to find one’s true uniqueness. And the still deeper paradox will be that this “individuality” will also be a communion with all others so that you will know their pain and their joy as your own.
In Jewish mysticism, among the Hasidim, there is the story of a very holy rabbi by the name of Zusya. There are several variants of the story, but basically it goes something like this: Zusya has a dream in which he has died and finds himself waiting near the throne of God for his final interrogation as it were. He is really sweating it out as he worries that God will ask him why he was not Abraham or Moses or Joshua, doing the great and holy things they did. He tries to prepare an answer, but God surprises him with the question: “Why were you not Zusya?” Indeed! That may be THE only important question we need to consider! But to be truly “Zusya,” to be truly “me,” means that I cannot live by any superficial social identity or even take on a copy-identity of a holy person. You have to plunge into the gift of your own uniquness which is nothing what society or culture or even Church tells you it is. One of the problems even a spiritual seeker may have is thinking that God is more present somewhere else, in someone else’s life, in some other “better” conditions for a spiritual life, wishing that he were in Abhishiktanada’s shoes or Merton’s for example(!). But it is you, in your totally and infinitely unique, irrepalaceable, non-interchangeable reality in which God has placed Himself. No matter how many twists and turns your life has taken, no matter how many mistakes, your Heart is truly Paradise, the Abode of the Absolute, and there you walk with God as with a Friend. He calls you by a name that you alone have from Him–no one else, and your spiritual task is to recognize that name and respond to it—because only you can do that—no one else will be able to respond to that name. And furthermore, God has planted His secret name in your heart that you alone have and by which He wants you to call Him, and by which no one else can call him. And the amazing thing is that these two names may very well be the same. This is the true source of your uniqueness and the uniqueness of every man, woman and child that exists. Your life is the field spoken of in the Gospel in which a treasure is buried and a man buys that field with all he has and claims the treasure.
Consider three very unique holy men from three very different spiritual traditions:
A. Benedict Joseph LaBre. 1748-1783. Born into a well-to-do family in France before the Revolution. He grows up during a period of great decadence and the peak of the enlightenment. Right from his youth he shows a strong proclivity to prayer and living a life oriented totally to God. He attempts to join both the Trappists and the Carthusians, but both groups reject him. He strikes them as an “oddball” and perhaps a “mental case.” Catholic religiosity at this time is very rigid, very formulaic, very external oriented, very institutional, very progam oriented, by the book kind of thing. So you would think he was finished with that kind of rejection by those kind of folk! Not in the least. Benedict takes up a life hardly ever seen in modern Western Christianity: the wandering beggar. He lives a life of total poverty and total pilgrimage. Officially he is nobody. He spends his time mostly in silence and in continual prayer and in wandering from one church and one holy place to another. He begs for his food, and he has only the clothes on his back. In Eastern Christianity they would recognize him as a “fool for Christ”; among Hindus he might be considered as a kind of sannyasi, but where he was, there was no one like him! Eventually he ends up in Rome where he sleeps in the ruins of the Colosseum and spends his days in the Churches. He dies in Rome, and about a 100 years later he is canonized by Pope Leo.
B. Kabir 1440-1518 One of the greatest poets in Hindi and a mystic revered by Sikhs, Sufis, and Hindus. Born in India near Varanasi, born into the lowest caste, he never learns Sanskrit, so all his poetry is in Hindi. He is left parentless as a little child, and though coming from a Hindu family, he is adopted and raised by a family of Muslims. He is another one of these people who is totally intoxicated with the reality of God. You would think that such a one would take up being a sadhu, taking sannyasa, having a guru, etc. However, he never goes beyond being a householder, marries, and is a weaver by trade. His religious/mystical poetry is marked by intense experience, and even though he grew up in Moslem home his poetry is replete with Hindu spiritual concepts, especially within the bhakti vein. But he also spurned the Hindu caste system, and Sufi ideas can be found in all his poetry. Considering how violent the Hindu-Islam encounter has been from time to time, Kabir is that unique expression of another way. Legend has it when he died that Hindus and Moslems were arguing about how to properly deal with his body. When they lifted the covering, there were only rose petals there. So the Hindus cremated part of the petals as they are accustomed and the Moslems entombed another part of the rose petals according to their custom. So today you will find both shrines to Kabir.
C. Han-shan Chinese hermit. Taoist, Buddhist, Zen figure. Lived during the great Tang period, around 650 AD. He was a contemporary of China’s greatest poet, Tu Fu. Not much is known about him, but he did leave behind a bunch of scribbled poems. He also was not an “official monk” but more like a hobo. A contemporary official who had heard of him from some early Zen master sought Han-shan out. He discovered him living in a place called Cold Mountain, which is also the meaning of the name, “Han-shan.” There was a major temple in a nearby town where Han-shan would come down to often. He befriended the kitchen master who was also something of a spiritual adept. Anyway Han-shan would get food leftovers from his friend and together they would often sing and laugh and joke around. When the official first found him, Han-shan was with his friend in the kitchen, and the official came in and bowed to them. Han-shan laughed and shouted, “Why has a big official bowed to a pair of clowns?” The town people called him a “mountain mad man”—he was always singing, laughing, talking to himself, but the official commented that “everything he said had a feeling of the Tao.” After Han-shan’s death several hundred of his short poems were gathered together, and very quickly he became one of the great legendary figures of early Chinese Zen. In an earlier posting I had quoted from this poetry, and here is another sample–and it would be good to point out that “Cold Mountain” refers simultaneously to his place of residence, to himself, and to his state of mind: (Gary Snyder’s translation)
Borrowers don’t bother me
In the cold I build a little fire
When I’m hungry I boil up some greens.
I’ve got no use for the kulak
With his big barn and pasture–
He just sets up a prison for himself.
Once in he can’t get out.
Think it over–
You know it might happen to you.
In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place–
Bird–paths, but no trails for men.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here–how many years–
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
‘What’s the use of all that noise and money?’
Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here.
When men see Han-shan
They all say he’s crazy
And not much to look at
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don’t get what I say
& I don’t talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
‘Try and make it to Cold Mountain.’