Last winter, I attended a silent Zen retreat up in the mountains. At one point in our tightly regulated schedule, the retreat staff didn’t have our noon meal ready on time. Generally, when we walked in, our two teachers, Tony and Darlene, went to the head of the line and served themselves first, and we all followed after. But now, we found ourselves milling about in the dining room, momentarily purposeless.
At last, the meal was ready. I turned, and gestured towards Tony, who stood at the back of the room. He shook his head, and waved me forward. So I went on, got in line, and helped myself.
Moments later, one of the other priests approached me. Taking me aside, she said in no uncertain terms that we never serve ourselves before the teachers. Point taken. As a relatively new student, I am used to being corrected on this path. I nodded, and sat down.
At the conclusion of the retreat, this same priest approached me again. She said, “I need to apologize to you.” She told me she uses three guidelines to govern her behavior, taken from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. They are: Is it beneficial? (Will it be helpful?) Is it skillful? (Will my words be kind, and cause no harm?) Is it my domain? (Is it my place?)
She said after speaking to me, she realized she could answer yes to the first two questions, but not to the third. It was not her place. She was not in a position of authority at the retreat. It was not her duty to instruct me. And so, she apologized.
That last lesson, “Is it my place?” stuck with me. So often I have found myself in situations where I wanted to weigh in, to get involved.
A friend’s mother said something cruel and inappropriate. I was sorely tempted to phone her and explain what was really going on. Someone petitioning for an application with the planning commission is taking an approach that might be damaging to his case, and I have an opinion about that. Just yesterday, I chatted with a young man with a dog, and saw that the dog had a foxtail embedded in his foot. I mentioned it, yes. But to go further?
In each of these cases, that line comes up in my mind: Is it my place? It reminds me that if people want my advice, they will ask for it.
Of course, there are times when it is our place. When it is time to act. And then, I will act. I am not afraid to take the right step when it is time.
It is also interesting to me that what this priest taught me came from her mistake. That in itself is something for me to hold onto as an example.
Yes, I did learn not to cut in line in front of the teachers. But the lasting lesson I received, the true teaching, came when she made a minor correction regarding my behavior, then came back and apologized to me.
It was her willingness to be vulnerable in front of me, her willingness to look at her own actions. I was holding no grudges. I had already let it go, and would have forgotten it. But she did not. And because of that, I received this teaching.
Every day, I thank her for it.