Several years ago, I was a participant in a Christian-Buddhist interfaith conference at Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky. For a while, the dialogue was somewhat stilted and excruciatingly polite, as anyone who has ever been to an interfaith conference can probably identify with.
Then Norman Fischer, abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, got in front of the room and spoke from the heart. He prefaced his question by saying he meant no offense, asking, “Why do you find the iconography of the crucifix, with the figure of Jesus hanging off the cross, inspiring?”
He just didn’t understand.
Norman’s question, because it was so sincere (and one could feel that), broke open the dialogue. People started talking about suffering, about suffering that has nowhere to go, about suffering that doesn’t have an easy fix or any fix at all. We started talking about love, about unfathomable love, about love being the only thing that could meet that depth of suffering. It turned into an extraordinary conversation.
I thought of that encounter this week while looking at the website of one of my teachers, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who lives in Nepal but who has been out of the country since before the earthquake. He posted three pictures depicting the sadness of suffering juxtaposed with the beauty of love.
One photo, apparently from a movie, shows an infant trying to suckle at the breast of the baby’s mother, who has died. The two other photos are from current times: in one a rescue worker is carrying an infant out of the rubble. Because of the loving efforts of that worker the baby survives.
The last photo is of two bodies nearly buried under rubble, clearly dead, somehow holding each other with the greatest tenderness and protectiveness. Looking at it, as Tsoknyi Rinpoche wrote, it seemed that nothing else was left at that last moment but love and trying to help each other. It was heartbreaking and awe-inspiring at the same time.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche posted them to remind his students:
“Life begins with love, is maintained with love, and ends with love. Right now, while we’re alive, is the time to practice and express love. So please take care of your love. Love is capable of reaching so many people.”
There were also some pictures of him, after he had seen the photos and reflected on them and noted, “…tears streamed from my eyes. I couldn’t stop crying.”
I’ve known him for over 20 years, and I honestly had a hard time recognizing him in the photos. He looked so stricken. I know, too, that that earthquake might well affect the course of the rest of his life: taking care of people and rebuilding — himself looking directly at suffering over and over again, cherishing the power of love, and reminding us to do the same.
I come back often to what I learned at Gethsemani monastery: if we truly want to meet each other, that mysterious junction of suffering and love could well be the most truthful and potent place.