On my way home from the supermarket a few minutes ago, the idea popped into my head that I should write about something that happened in India in 1985.
This story doesn’t seem very interesting, and it’s not related to enlightenment in any obvious way, so I rejected the idea.
But the idea won’t leave me alone. It’s so persistent that I can’t help wondering if God wants me to write this story because it will have a special meaning to somebody who reads it. So here goes.
While I was in Varanasi I hired a guide to walk around the city with me. He was wearing a torn shirt that was almost a rag, and he told me proudly that he was a Brahmin. His thread was visible through the holes in his shirt. He was very intelligent, and he did an excellent job as a guide.
At the end of the day I paid him. As I put the money in his hand, my fingertips grazed his palm. A look of weary exasperation and self-pity came over his face. His expression said, “Why am I surrounded by such inconsiderate fools? Why does my life consist of one irritating thing after another? I am so tired of this.”
I had no idea what he was annoyed about.
He said, “Why did you touch me? Why didn’t you drop the money in my hand? Now I have to go to the river and bathe again. I already bathed today. Now I have to go do it a second time.”
And then I understood.
That’s the first half of the story. The second half is that many years later I described these events to an Indian friend. She became terribly embarrassed. To my astonishment she felt responsible for this man’s behavior, because he was Indian and she was Indian. It had never occurred to me that she would react this way and I was sorry I had told her.
“I feel ashamed,” she said.
“There’s no reason to feel ashamed,” I said. “You’re not responsible. And anyway, it didn’t bother me. It was interesting. I learned something from that experience.”
“He was a bigot!” she said. “It’s prejudice! It’s a horrible custom! And you were the victim! I’m so ashamed!”
I said, “I know these attitudes hurt people, but I was a foreign tourist so they couldn’t hurt me. I feel lucky that I experienced his behavior first hand so I know something about it beyond what I’ve read in books and seen in movies.”
The main thing that interested me, though, was that the guide thought I had been inconsiderate. This was shockingly strange to me because never in a million years would it have occurred to me that my touch is unclean. Actually I don’t think he thought my touch was unclean; I think he merely felt obligated to follow caste rules. And yet despite the strangeness, I was able to see the situation through his eyes and recognize that yes, from his point of view, I had been inconsiderate.
This ability to see things from his point of view filled me with a kind of joy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I recognize that this ability is one of the many Holy gifts, one of the divine powers, one of the gateways.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” He could equally well have said, “See things from your enemies’ point of view.” I think the second formulation is easier to put into practice. The guide wasn’t my enemy, but then again, if you follow Jesus’s advice you don’t have any enemies.
I don’t know what the point of this story is supposed to be, but maybe there is a message here for somebody in the audience.