There is a true person of no rank who is constantly coming and going from the portals of your face. Who is that true person of no rank?  Linji

Once there was a baker who had two daughters. The elder daughter was clever and had built up her father’s business by getting the most she could out of each sale. The younger daughter was not as clever but had a quiet kindness about her. One rainy morning a disheveled old woman shrouded in a dark cape hobbled into the shop. The stranger asked the clever daughter, “Could you spare a crust of bread? I haven’t eaten in days.” The girl sized her up and decided that she was just an old vagabond, not likely to be a future customer and so not worth the effort. The girl said, “If you have no money you’d best move along. We’re not in this business to give things away.” The old woman left the shop. The next day the younger daughter was tending the shop. (do you see it coming?) The old woman came in and asked, “Could you spare a crust of bread for an old woman? I haven’t eaten in days.” The younger daughter responded, “I think there is something here for you.” and gave the old woman one of the loaves off the shelf. The old woman removed her cloak revealing herself to be a beautiful, powerful genie. She said, “For your generosity and kindness I will make your greatest dreams come true.”

As a child listening to this story I wondered, how would I act if I met that old woman in the dark cloak? Would I be generous? Would I be stingy and protective of my possessions? Since that time I have met the old woman in many guises and my responses have varied, running the gamut from generous to stingy. I’ve also encountered the baker’s daughters. Raised in an upper-middle class home, I went to one of the best private schools in Los Angeles and then to Bennington College to get a degree in painting and sculpture. All in all, a privileged upbringing. I married a man who was a good provider and lived happily in my country castle, until we split up and my income plummeted. I needed to find a way to make money- fast. Nursing seemed like it would provide me with the flexibility to be both a mother and a bread winner so I applied to the local JC program. The first hoop the nursing students needed to jump through was nurses aid training. This aspect of nursing, with its hands on patient care, really interested me. It felt natural, even joyful, to take care of people this way. As a middle class girl, and as a doctor’s wife, I had been accustomed to a degree of respect from others. When I walked into the nursing home in my nurse’s aid uniform suddenly I found myself at the bottom of the social ladder, ignored and dismissed by RN’s, doctors, patient’s families and administrators. They assumed I was poor and uneducated, why else would I take this lowly job? This nurses aid job was my cloak of invisibility. From within a crisp, white cape I was witness to a layer of behavior that was previously unavailable to me. The very same body in which I had received respect instantly became lowly. A powerful lesson in perception.

We all perceive ourselves and others through a skewed lens. Perhaps that is why these two daughters and the genie are so well traveled. Stories about mysterious strangers who appear in one form then, usually through an act of kindness, reveal their true nature, are found in cultures throughout the world. The actors appear in various guises. Sometimes the baker’s daughter shows up as a fisherman throwing back a magical fish who grants him three wishes, sometimes the genie is disguised as an animal who is set free and rewards it’s liberator. But in these stories there is always a powerful stranger disguised as a lowly being. The reverse is also true. In the story of Hansel and Gretel a woman appears to be a kindly old lady and turns out to be fattening up the twins for her dinner! All these stories present the listener with the question- when you meet someone, who are you really meeting? What is the true nature of the person in front of you? They may appear lowly, but might they be a goddess, or a genie, or a Buddha? Or maybe they are someone who is fattening you up to throw you in the oven!

What if you knew that the Buddha could appear in any form at any time? Would you approach the janitor, the nurses aide, the mailman, the soccer mom, your own face in the mirror, differently?

This story about a powerful stranger disguised as a lowly nobody is universal because it reveals our common human predicament. We humans create self images through education, physical appearance, number of meditation retreats completed, economic position and abilities. We then use these accumulated titles and accomplishments as cloaks of invisibility, hiding even from ourselves. We compare our cloak to others. The ensuing judgments become dark and light threads tightly woven into our cloak. “She’s poorer than I am because I’m more industrious.” “She’s beautiful so she must not be too smart.” “He’s got a PHd so his perceptions are more valuable than mine.” We forget that titles and achievements are just inventions of man, patinas covering our true nature. Still, we hold tight to our stories, even in the face of contrary evidence. The threads we’ve shrouded ourselves in make us feel like our life is safe and has substance. But when a lion, or an earthquake, or marital problems, or illness, or death, come knocking on our door they do not ask to see our degrees, bank accounts or titles. Things get real fast.

The question ultimately comes down to, Who am I? Who is the true person coming in and out of the portals of my face? This inquiry is the beating heart of all spiritual practice. It opens the door to all other spiritual qualities; compassion, right action, wisdom, kindness and generosity. The reemergence of our true face is the gift we receive when we are brave enough to look at the stranger in the mirror with fresh eyes. If only for an instant, our greatest dream has come true!

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