This is one of the Lojong or Mind Training Slogans used in Tibetan Buddhism.
I first came across the slogans posted on the walls of Gampo Abbey during the month-long retreat I did there in 1991. I pondered them like Zen koans while taking off my boots and hanging up my coat in the entry. I suspected they were part of a teaching that took place at the Abbey prior to the start of dathun I attended.
The meaning of some slogans, like the one above, seem relatively clear at first glance, but there are others-- like, "Keep the three inseparable," or "Whichever of the two occurs, be patient,"-- which obviously require some instruction. I was grateful when Pema Chodron's book, Start Were You Are, came out in '94 offering insight into the slogans.
"Don't transfer the ox's load to the cow."This slogan appealed to me immediately-- I appreciated its non sequitur, out-of-time quality, but I had no idea how to make heads or tails of it. What can this possibly mean? I have come to understand it this way:
You cannot expect someone to do what they cannot do-- and you shouldn't ask them to.We all have strengths and weaknesses. And, truthfully, if we are really paying attention, most people will tell us just exactly who they are. But often we are not paying attention. We are thinking of the next thing we'll say, or wondering what that person thinks of us, or we may may even be a million miles away, wondering where they bought those great shoes, and if they come in our size...
My own fall-back position is to automatically assume everyone else is kinda like me, with my same quirks and idiosyncrasies, and a similar world view-- (after all, its the one that make sense to ME!) It is always a bit of rude awakening to discover, Oh, right, this is a whole other person, with a whole other world going on in their head.
I find that the closer I am to the person, the more surprising-- maybe even threatening-- it is to discover our differences. It reminds me of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, one of my favorite books about friendship: Gentle Wilbur (the pig) has to come to terms with the fact that his new BFF, Charlotte (the spider), actually DRINKS BLOOD! Why does she do that? Because that is who she is. She couldn't change that for him even if she wanted to. Wilbur's love for Charlotte expands beyond his idea of who she is and comes to embrace the reality of who she is. ( Thich Nhat Hahn calls this a person's "suchness." I love that expression.)
I had a glorious weekend with some dear and wonderful friends. It reminded me again of how lucky I am in that regard: I am well-loved-- and by that I mean I feel known and appreciated for who I really am. That has been remarkably consistent in my friendships and, when I remember to remember that, I am overcome--and I mean like truly pounded into dust-- by gratitude. It makes being alive worth the hassle and heart-ache.
But the slogan is not "Be Grateful When Your Friends Love You." Most of us do not need a reminder for that. But, "Be Grateful to EVERYONE"?
There is a story about a famous Buddhist teacher who had a terrible tea-boy. He was rude and lazy and disrespectful, but the master kept him until his death. Why? Because the master considered his servant to be his teacher; the tea-boy, in bringing up the master's irritation and impatience, was kindly showing him where he was still clinging to the world as he would prefer it, rather then embracing the world as it is. So the master saw his servant as an essential part of his path, as the gift of a generous universe to help guide him toward the highest good.
Contemporary Zen teacher Jiko Beck says relationships don't work. Or at least they don't work in the way we usually interpret that phrase. We are happiest when our relationships are comfortable, like an old shoe. But the purpose of relationships, according to Beck, is exactly the opposite: They generously show us our rub spots-- the places where we are not comfortable, our rough edges. And by constantly rubbing those precise spots, relationships offer us a powerful tool and a tremendous gift-- if we are willing to accept it: They show us precisely where we hold back and where we might consider letting go. They are like personalized maps of our path to enlightenment.
I am not saying I am always open to using my irritation and aggression as a map of where I need to do even more road-work, thank you very much. I am particularly susceptible to wondering why I seem to be the one who always has to fill all the pot-holes-- isn't this a two way street, after all? (To stretch my metaphor to near-breaking point.)
But working with the slogan can give me pause, which is a good thing when we are about to spin off into habitual reactions: It can remind me to remember what gratitude really feels like. And it asks me to consider how I might possibly be able to convert whatever I currently see as an obstacle into part of the path.
And in attempting to accomplish this, I have found it very helpful if I can learn distinguish my oxes from my cows...