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Home > Uncategorized > Why was I born? What can I take with me?
Ajahn Chah, one of the great spiritual and intellectual leaders of the Thai Forest tradition of Buddhism, gave a talk very near the end of his life. This was a man who had been a monk since he was nine years old and had given many hundreds of talks on how to lead one’s life. But at the end of his life, at the end of this talk, he gave the following advice.
Here’s your homework. Whether you’re in the fields or working in the city, take these words of mine and reflect on them. Ask yourself, “Why was I born? What can I take with me?” Ask yourself over and over. If you do, you’ll become wise. If you don’t you’ll remain ignorant. If you don’t understand it all right now, maybe you will later.
These words seem profound to me, but I think I don’t understand. I hope others can help me along the way.
“Why was I born?” I don’t know. Is there a reason that I was born? Am I supposed to try to uncover that true Self, as Parker Palmer or Otto Scharmer seem to suggest. Or is it just the other way around? Is there no reason that I was born? Instead is that no-reason my call to create one, as Sartre or Heidegger would argue? I don’t know. I lean toward the latter.
“What can I take with me?” Nothing? My soul? My karma? On the whole this question seems more straightforward to me. I’m not sure what I can take with me, but whatever it is it must be less than the effect that I can have on the world. If I focus solely on creating the conditions of my own happiness and well-being, then even full success would only accrue to one person. If, on the other hand, I devote myself to service, to improving those same conditions for – a reasonable number of – others, then what I take with me will be less important that what I leave behind. Thus, the I should not be my focus. It should be the world.
These questions both seem useful to me in community building because they help define my attitude toward myself and toward my community. Why was I born? I don’t know, but I have the great fortune to be here and have the opportunity to help other people in some way. What can I take with me? I also don’t know, but I can try to create the conditions for others to prosper, thereby making this world a richer place. How important am I personally? Not very, for I did little to get myself here and can do nothing more when I’m gone. As long as I am still here, though, may I have the energy and clarity to do my best.
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