Not all great quotes have known authors. Some great lines and thoughts are quoted so often that one or another of the 'echoers' gets credited. If you google the following, ‘Ask not what your country can do; ask what you can do for your country’ you will find many websites containing the quote. They will attribute it to a man called John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America (1961-1963).
The sentiments were expressed several decades before by the Lebanese mystic philosopher, poet and writer. He was imploring his countrymen to revolt against the Turkish occupation of Lebanon. Kennedy is dead. Kennedy is accused of plagiarism because Gibran had something down in print that resembled what he said.For all we know, Kennedy may have not heard of Gibran or the relevant lines. For all we know, Gibran may have picked his lines from some record of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Memorial Day speech in Keene, New Hampshire on May 30, 1884: ‘It is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return’.
The long preamble is a gentle reminder that we don’t own the words we use. They were born elsewhere, lived within us for a while, and then proceed to destinations we’ll never see and even die, sooner or later. And sometimes they come back to us wearing new clothes and fresh accents, and we hear them as though we are hearing them for the first time.
I remember reading somewhere that a man travels the world in search of the truth and comes home to find it. I don’t know who said it first nor will I know who will say it last. I know there are truths I’ve travelled the world to discover and come home to find. There are also homes that contained truths which I never labeled ‘home’.
If home is metaphor then the ultimate residence has to be self. Siddhartha Gauthama, our Budun Wahanse (‘our’ because Word belongs to no one and therefore to everyone), spoke of self-homes and the truths therein waiting to be discovered. This home and this truth are both ever-present and yet so elusive.
A few hours ago I listened to a bikkhu. We recognize readily effect but seldom think of cause. In fact we first comprehend effect and then focus on cause. We don’t reflect on the thilakshana or anicca (impermanence), dukkha (sorrow) and anatta (non-self), and if we did, we are better able to understand the world. The bikkhu used a story to illustrate the point, that of the Arahat Chula Panthaka (younger of the two Panthakas who attained enlightenment after listening to our budun wahanse). Here’s a nutshell version.
Chula Panthaka could not even memorize a four-line stanza. Poverty of intellect had been his lot lifetime after lifetime because at one point in the sansaric journey, as a teaching bikkhu of an order founded by a previous Buddha, he had ridiculed a student who was slow of mind. The Bikkhu Chula Panthaka nevertheless quelled all his defilements (kleshas) consequent to reflection on a single white cloth which got soiled by and by as drops of his sweat fell upon it. Our Budun Wahanse had offered that particular koan because in a previous lifetime Chula Panthaka, as a king had chanced to wipe sweat and discover discolouration in a pure white handkerchief. Sansaric memory was stirred, perhaps, and Chula Panthaka, the slow of mind, discovered through reflection of ‘self’, the truth about non-self, impermanence and sorrow.
Our answers perhaps are not elsewhere but within us. If this is so, it should be applicable to both individual and collective. We can talk of our ‘impermanences’, our sorrows and our lack of self or rather the non-tenable nature of self. Neither is my word mine, my body does not belong to me either. Likewise ‘self’ is untenable. Our home contains these truths whose dimensions we would do well to examine. Our collective defilements are resident within an artificial boundary that defines nation. It is precisely this recognition of transience and artificiality that yields humility as well as wisdom, both so necessary in making the best of what we have and who we are.
The beads of sweat and the other impurities that soil our national flag, are our own. It is by recognizing this that we can make a symbol more meaningful, i.e. by seeing symbol as reflection of substance and that it means nothing if in substance we are lacking.
Why roam the world in search of truths that are right here at home? Why ask what others can do to enhance self when reflection on self can show how silly enhancement-seeking is and indeed that the thing sought to be inflated is transient, made of and for sorrow and of course is not?
The most telling of defilements are not those etched upon us by the outside but the product of our own greed, ignorance and ill-will.
For the individual, it’s about deconstructing self so its constituent parts, their impermanence and illusionary qualities become apparent and therefore meaning recovers relevant dimensions. For a collection, for example a nation, it is about getting the particular house in order.
Self, perhaps, is not a bad place to start. Or end.
This article was first published on July 4, 2011 in the 'Daily News' under the title 'Reflections on the beginning and end of certain explorations'.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: malindasene