By David Guy
Every Snowflake Is Different
On a recent visit to Brooklyn, where I visit my grandchildren, I had a free morning, because their favorite babysitter was coming over and my daughter in law thought it best that I not be there (things get wild). I had a few hours to do my favorite things. My plan was to wake up, sit zazen, have coffee in my room while I read my Buddhist book (I always do some devotional reading), go to a diner for breakfast, then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. My hotel is less than a mile from the bridge, so walking into Manhattan and back gives me just the right amount of exercise.
I was reading in the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition. One of my friends at our Zen Center has been sitting with us since he moved to the area, but before that practiced for decades with Tibetan teachers. He had given me this book as the one Tibetan book I should read, and I’d read it the summer before. But good Buddhist books are different every time. I’ve read some many times.
Something I read that morning gave me a radically new notion about the world. I’m not sure the notion was in the book, since I’d read it before and didn’t notice. Maybe it prompted the notion in me. But I had the feeling it was in the book.
The idea was that every being in the world was supposed to be exactly as they were, because the world is complete as it is, and if something changes things will be thrown out of balance. It isn’t that everything is good, or fine. Plenty of beings are perfectly awful. But we need awful in this world, so we’ll know what good is, but also in order to make the world complete. The important thing is that the world be complete. That’s the way it is now, so nobody needs to change.
I had heard this teaching expressed before as something like: if you remove even a mote of dust from the universe, the whole thing will collapse. This seemed another version of the same teaching, but with specific reference to beings. We don’t want to get rid of any dust motes, or any beings.
The notion seems radical because it stands in contrast to what people normally think when they practice a religion. It’s more natural when you’re practicing Buddhism to think that everyone should practice, and they should change in a way that will make them wise and compassionate, also much happier. That’s what all religions seem to say. Just act this way (the way we tell you), and become this person, and the world will be better. We’ll get along beautifully.
This teaching said something completely different. The world is the way it’s supposed to be. Be as you are. (That seemed to correspond with a famous teaching of Suzuki Roshi: when you are you, Zen is Zen. I’ve spent years pondering those words.)
This wasn’t some Fred Rogers type teaching: You are my friend you are special. I like you just the way you are. It was more radical. The most grossly obese person, the most physically deformed person, the dirtiest most scum-sucking drunken bum: all those people are important. They make the world complete. Without that drunken bum, we would be deficient in scum sucking.
I’m not saying this notion is correct. I may have made it up. I’m not dead certain it’s in the book. What is fascinating is how much different the world looks when you walk around with that notion in your head. It’s a Copernican revolution. All of your judgments cease.
I could eat a continental breakfast in the hotel lobby. It’s free. But when I’m in Brooklyn I love to go to diners, because things seem livelier there, and lately I’ve preferred a diner next to the Fulton Street Mall, an African American enclave in the middle of a neighborhood that is becoming trendier and trendier. When I walk my grandson to school we go through the Mall, and people are out on the sidewalk hawking gold chains, CD’s, offering great deals on cell phones. Everybody’s friendly (they’re all trying to get their hands in your pockets). It’s a lively place.
The morning before, a Sunday, many of the people who walked by were dressed for church, I mean dressed for church, and a woman who was dressed up and waiting for a bus had somehow slipped and fallen on the sidewalk, chose to stay there for close to fifteen minutes, yelling at people about her problems in the world while they just stepped around her. The folks in the diner know many of the customers, and know what they wanted, so a guy came buzzing along in a wheelchair to a huge welcome, and ordered his usual breakfast, scrambled eggs with cheese and a side of French fries. He slathered the whole thing with ketchup. He was obese, obviously not getting much exercise, but he was supposed to be the way he was, so my usual judgments flew out the window. Eat those fries! Get a double order of cheese with the eggs!
I was fascinated by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. All of New York is like the United Nations, but the Brooklyn Bridge is in particular: many people from far away make a point of walking the bridge, and having their picture taken (more than once they’ve handed me the camera. Not something you want to do too freely in New York!). I heard all kinds of languages, saw all kinds of people, every shape and size, happy faces, sad ones, hysterical, angry, vaguely melancholy, troubled, tormented: you name it, I saw it.
You’re supposed to be just the way you are, I wanted to tell them. Do you realize that? Few people seemed to have any idea. Not a lot of people met my gaze, or met it with more than a glance. But every now and then, more often than I would have thought, somebody looked directly into my eyes, met my gaze, and smiled. They know, I would think. They know everything’s the way it’s supposed to be.
When I was a schoolchild, one of the most startling things I heard was that every snowflake is different. Although they all look alike, sit together and form a huge pile, actually, if you examine them under a microscope, each one has a different structure. No two snowflakes are alike.
How do you know that? I used to think. It sounded preposterous. Have you looked at every snowflake? How could you even look at a snowflake under a microscope? Wouldn’t it melt?
But what I didn’t believe about snowflakes, I believe about people. The problem isn’t the way they are. It’s that they keep trying to change.