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Lions Roar : November 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 36 bolted to a concrete slab under a white pine near the public sidewalk. One night, a thief came with a bolt cutter and in the morning just a few sparrows and a jay crisscrossed the empty space. Sometimes I imagine the thief sitting in a weedy alley on a green and white plastic lawn chair, gazing through a haze of cigar smoke at St. Francis leaned up against a cinder block wall. Why did the thief steal the saint? What a scoundrel. What a loser. Or maybe not. A thief may be called a moral failure and as such a failed human being, but such an as- sertion could be wrong. Imagine that his grasping impulse sprang from a longing to be a better man, the image of which eluded him until, on the way to the convenience store, he saw Gilbert’s statue and he felt its magnetic pull. What had always been ab- stract and missing was now suddenly and solidly before him—life-sized, made of hickory, and with- in his clever grasp. The St. Francis heist reminds me of frustrated ancient seekers of buddhahood, students of the Zen master Rinzai who lived roughly between 810 and 866. If the thief ached with longing, so did Rinzai’s students. They made themselves anxious and incomplete by their failure to get this thing called buddhahood and they didn’t stop scanning the Earth for what they were missing even as their master scolded, “What good does it do to look un- der rocks and pine trees for what can only be found inside yourself?” Then, just before whacking them on the head with a stick, he shouted, “Have faith in yourselves!” The one thing that can’t be stolen from the curbside or found under a rock is one’s own true nature. It’s a hard thing for people to understand and words don’t make it much easier. The clue in- herent in the word failure is “lure.” “Failure,” a soft and beautiful sound, requires a curl of the tongue, a purse of the lips. It breaks on the “l” and seeps into the sand with no definitive end. It’s like wind coming and saltwater going, back into itself. If you think it unlikely that the thief of Gil- bert’s St. Francis had anything in common with Rinzai’s students—that he was more likely a com- mon thief trading saintly bird feeders on the black market—then let me assure you that he certainly had something in common with St. Francis him- self, as Francis began his spiritual journey with a morally questionable theft of his own. He heard the voice of the Lord command him, “Go Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” Francis, in eagerness to act, took the words literally, and, having no funds, stole from his fa- ther’s shop in order to buy the building materials. When he returned home, his enraged father beat and bound him. Disappointing one’s father cannot be called failure—it is what many must do to live truthfully—but Francis did fail to understand the voice’s subtle meaning. He failed in his methods, he failed in relationship, and only some time after failing into the cave of himself could he compose songs of praise for “every kind of weather.” MY INTERNALIZED DEFINITION of failure, as not being able to be what you want to be or PHOTO©THEBRETTWESTONARCHIVE/CORBIS