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Growing in Place with Mark Nepo — The Temple is the World

Who or What Are the Teachers in Your Life?

For today’s Growing in Place, I’m reading The Temple is the World, a story from THE BOOK OF SOUL: 52 Paths to Living What Matters about a man on a journey to find the meaning of his life.

The Temple Is the World

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. —The Buddha

So much to take in, only to let out. So much to learn, only to accept how little we know. So much to resist, only in the end to surrender. We’re refined as we go, made translucent enough to reveal the hidden qualities of being alive. All to regain the simplicity of a dog or a plant. All to find that the space under trouble is our home.

            Here’s a story of a young man determined to find the meaning of life begins his walk in the world. At first, he thinks everything he sees holds the secret. He crosses a river and feels certain that life is like the river, washing us, against our will, into a greater sea. Then he climbs the mountain on the other side of the river and feels certain that life is like the mountain, bare and unmoving the higher we climb. Then he enters a city and feels certain that life is like the crowds of people, everyone so close though we know very little about each other. In time, he starts to forget what he was after.

            It’s then he meets his teacher, quite unexpectedly. She knows, before he speaks, of all he’s seen and wondered. She greets him with this question, “And so do you want to know how all this works, or would you rather apprentice in your true inheritance?”

            He doesn’t understand all that she says, but her presence makes him stay for several years. They talk in the mornings, but mostly he mimics what she does. After she chops wood, he sharpens the blade. After she empties the water, he goes to fill it. After she talks of the inheritance of being, he asks question after question. And more than finding answers, he grows to love her. This seems to be the answer for everything. Shortly after he grasps this, she dies, as if she were waiting for him to learn how to love, before she left.

            In his grief, he tends her chores for months without her. And then in a dream, she whispers, “You must go now and widen your circle.” And so he leaves and continues his walk in the world. Except everything is more colorful and he senses the presence of his teacher everywhere. And so he meets everyone with love.

            He wanders through cities listening to strangers. He wanders through farm country listening to cows. He wanders into the forest where he listens to the birds and trees. For all he sought as a young man, he’s now finding the same moment, no matter how far he travels. And when the same moment opens, he walks through that moment into the Center of Things. All this makes him terribly sensitive to the plight of others.

            In time, a young man like himself finds him and calls him his teacher. He laughs, never thinking of himself this way. But remembering the goodness of his teacher, he gently deflects his student’s admiration, saying, “We’re only helping each other stay awake.”

            And so it goes. I wish this journey for you. I hope that everything in the world will speak to you—the river, the mountain, the city, the forest. And I wish you many teachers who will bring you to yourself.

            When we lift the pail together, something happens, akin to stars sparking in the night. I have run out of ways to describe the journey. Only know this—that in place of wings, God gave us love.


[i]“Thousands of candles…” attributed to Buddha, a paraphrase of Section 10 of the “Sutra of 42 Sections” in a Japanese text, The Teaching of Buddha.

The World is the Temple is from Mark Nepo’s new book, The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters (St. Martin’s Essentials, May 2020).

During these trying times, Mark is offering a 3-session online webinar in June 2020, as a way for us to deepen and strengthen our roots as we endure this storm.  If you’d like more information or to register, visit: live.marknepo.com

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