The Little Old Lady from Brooklyn

Sunday is a good day to begin with a joke.

This little old lady from Brooklyn called her travel agent and asked to book a flight to a small village in the mountains of Nepal.

“Oh,” the travel agent said. “That’s a much too arduous journey for you. Why don’t I arrange a week for you at a nice beach resort in Florida?”

“No,” said the woman, “I need to go to Nepal.”

GrandmaSo the travel agent booked her onto a flight to Kathmandu, but when she got there and told the customs people she intended to visit the small village in the mountains, they also tried to dissuade her. “You’ll need to hire a Sherpa crew to get you there, and the climb is treacherous.”

“No, I need to go. There’s a holy man there I need to see.”

So, shaking their heads, they stamped her passport and let her in, and she hired a Sherpa crew. The Sherpas were dubious but got her to the village where the holy man lived in a tiny hut. There was a long line outside in the snow waiting to see the holy man.

As the little old lady took her place in line, the others waiting beseeched her to go back home. “It takes several days of standing in this cold and windy line before you get to see the holy man,” they explained. “And then when you get to see him, you are allowed to say only three words.”

“That’s OK,” she replied. “I need to see him”

So the little old lady persevered and lasted through three days and nights before entering the holy man’s hut. Finally, she stood before him and said: “Sheldon, come home!”

That story came to mind as I thought today about Eastern religions evolving to meet the West and Western religions evolving to reflect Eastern thought. There’s no denying a strengthening of the fundamentalist ideologies that threaten the future of the world, but there are also quieter voices speaking across boundaries for a universal awakening to the oneness of us all.

I have benefited from many of these teachers with cross-cultural wisdom. Here are a few, along with links to their writings:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese Buddhist monk who for most of his life lived in France and traveled often to the United States and many other countries. Fluent in several languages, he makes it his mission to understand deeply the cultures in which he teaches, and he speaks and writes with clarity and simplicity. For the last year he has been disabled by a stroke and largely unable to speak.
  • Jack Kornfield served in the Peace Corps and as a monk in Thailand, Burma and India. One of his teachers was the highly respected Theravadan forest-tradition monk Ajahn Chah. Kornfield returned to the United States in 1974 and is a leader in teaching vipassana/insight meditation worldwide.
  • Lama Surya Das, who was born Jeffrey Miller in Valley Stream, New York, has lived in Japan, India and France as well as Tibet, where he twice completed three-year meditation retreats. The authorized lama and lineage holder in the Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism still talks like a guy from Long Island and says things like: “Come on! Try it! If I can do this, anybody can.”
  • James Ishmael Ford is the first person to have been both a Zen Buddhist priest and a Unitarian Universalist minister. He is a leader of Boundless Way Zen, an emerging Western Zen movement with roots in Japanese Soto and Korean Linji. He often uses Christian references in his writings.
  • Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (Bhante G) was ordained a monk at age 12 in Sri Lanka and came to the United States almost 30 years later, in 1968, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from American University in Washington. Fluent in English, he founded the Bhavana Society, a forest tradition monastery, in West Virginia, where he remains as abbot. His best-known book is Mindfulness in Plain English.
  • After first posting this list, I realized I had put no women on it. One of my teachers, Anh-Huong Nguyen, translated at least one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books but has published little under her name. I highly recommend her if you can get to see her. It has not been easy for Western women to study in Eastern monasteries, but another teacher I can recommend personally is Tara Brach, who has several books and CDs available.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list and is limited to teachers with whom I am most familiar,  which means following a Buddhist path. There are many more Buddhists as well as Hindus, Christians, and so on who are crossing cultural divides.

All of the people I mention write clearly in English and, with the exception of Thich Nhat Hanh because of his illness, are accessible personally in retreats and other teaching opportunities. I’ll be taking a one-week retreat January 2-9 with Lama Surya Das, whom I have not yet met in person.

So, to come back to where I started, maybe the fictional Sheldom came home and brought his wisdom with him.

Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine

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