I’ve been lucky to have met and learned from many spiritual teachers. In 1979 I first saw His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom I consider my root guru, and have taken teachings with him yearly ever since. Through my work with different monasteries I have been able to take teachings with many of Tibet’s greatest teachers.
This story is not about a Tibetan teacher, nor is she a Buddhist as far as I know. Still, I consider her my first Buddhist teacher, someone who taught me the essence of all the Buddha’s teachings.
Miss Reno was new to my school the year I started fourth grade. She was nearly six feet tall, in her early 30’s, and unkempt looking no matter what. She’d curl her hair but it would go unevenly limp. She seemed to have only 2 dresses, a red one and a blue one, worn always with her old slip showing, or a run in her nylons. She wore old shoes. If she wore makeup it would smear, leaving red or black where it shouldn’t be. It seemed that no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t be pretty.
One day in the dead of winter she came to school in a new white dress. The fabric was silky and fit her well. She had on new heels, which made her walk with pride. Her hair was in beautiful curls piled on top of her head. Her makeup was perfect. I wondered-did she have a new boyfriend? Is she going somewhere after school? I felt confused looking at her new beauty-it seemed like she was a different person.
After lunch, we began our science class. Suddenly there was a loud scuffle outside. We all looked to the far side of the muddy playground where a large dog had cornered a white cat up against the wire fence and was charging it. The cat screamed back in terror. In a single instant Miss Reno dropped the textbook and ran out the door, pumps, white dress and all, straight across the muddy field to the dog and cat, who had become one tumbling ball of flying fur and screams.
We all looked out the window in shock. Miss Reno had chased off the dog with a stick. She walked back towards the classroom cradling the bleeding cat in her arms. Her new white dress was torn and bloody. Her nylons hung in strips from her muddy legs, and she’d lost a shoe. Her arms were scratched and bleeding and her hair hung around her head in clumps. All her new clothes were ruined and the cat was all torn and bleeding. I felt sick to my stomach, but when I looked at her face, which glowed with the light of Mary.
When I think back on the life experiences that have awakened the dharma in me, this story is one of the first and most profound. Now, after being a dharma student for 34 years, I see that this one heroic act taught me the essence of all the teachings: Impermanence, generosity, altruism, patience, compassion, understanding, wisdom, courage, diligence, the truth of suffering, interconnectedness…I am forever grateful to her.
“If you possess the wealth of bodhicitta
it doesn’t matter if you are attractive or not,
it doesn’t matter if you lack fame and honor,
it doesn’t matter if you have no other virtue!”
Khunu Rinpoche, vs 268
“Vast as the Heavens, Deep as the Sea;
Verses in Praise of Bodhicitta”
(written for the Mahayana Buddhism module)