‘Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. ‘It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.'
― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit
Recently I had the pleasure of stringing a rosary.
The reason this task fell to me is one of those practice stories that one is compelled to share. This particular incident calls to mind the old Zen story of a teacher who had been given a string of beautiful prisms that were accidently shattered by a novice in a moment of inattention. “These were given to me for pleasure not suffering,” was the teacher’s compassionate response to the horrified student who, we can project, was quaking under an onslaught of self-hating voices.
In our story, momentary inattention resulted in a practitioner losing their rosary.
“What does losing one’s rosary say about an awareness practitioner, on retreat, training to pay attention,” says a voice in the head mockingly.
“Don’t say anything,” whispers the con artist.
“Don’t let them know that you can’t pay attention,” says ego.
“You’ll just reveal who you really are,” says self-hate.
“Don’t Suffer, Communicate” is the guidance.
Going against the impulse to collude with the conditioning to say nothing, or present the situation in a way that preserves the ego, the practitioner courageously brings the process to guidance and group.
As the practitioner leaves the retreat, the Guide removes her own beads and hands them to the practitioner. “When one is in integrity with one’s Heart,” the Guide says, “one doesn’t have to suffer.”
And so now I have the privilege of stringing a rosary for the Guide.
In the busy schedule that is the Summer of Sangha, conditioning turns stringing the Guide’s new rosary into just another task on the to-do list, the thread and beads on the counter, a reminder of one more thing that has to be attended to. Three attempts to “squeeze” the task in result in errors. Five noble truths not four. A missing Blessed Path. No bead to represent the Blessed Knowledge of Emptiness.
Urgency only seems to breed inattention!
Begin again at one.
And then, as is often the case, Life offers a space, an unexpected window of time to execute this sacred duty. The Daily Recollection is printed out. Another rosary is laid out for reference. And the real task of stringing a rosary, paying attention, begins…. Each bead is recited as it goes on the string. There is time to recount the recollection with the addition of each marker bead. An insight about a practice with a particular bead drops in. There is even time to record it. Eventually, a new rosary emerges, a loving homage to all the teachings that have been given.
But what about the old rosary, the reference used to string this new one, the rosary given to this practitioner? A memory rushes in of the golden moment these beads were received from the Guide, a moment suspended in time under the whispering blue oaks of the Dharma meadow at the west end of the Monastery. There is a visceral recollection of the excitement of having received this symbol of inclusion in a Sangha, this tangible guide to the Wisdom of the ages, this reminder that the Dharma is imbibed through the intimacy of practice, from touching each friendly brown bead in a daily morning recollection. For many years, the act of putting on the rosary was a ritual of reverence, an act of acknowledging the sacredness of one’s life choice. But like all things one relates to with love, delight fades through lack of attention. As the saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” or just indifference. “Taking things for granted” is just another con game, a way for the sparkling vivacity of each moment to recede from conscious awareness into the realms of the ignored, the unacknowledged.
A commitment arises to renew the ritual of reverence for the rosary, not to recapture the excitement of the first encounter but as obeisance to its form as a venerable circle of beads, a constant companion, well-worn but trustworthy, utterly reliable, ever present, steady and wise, more tenderly cherished now after years of intimacy.
Enlightenment in the words of Dogen is “intimacy with all beings.” Just as a rosary goes from being novel to becoming “Real” through repeated use, we too, through practice, are polished into becoming who we really are. And as the Skin Horse says, “It doesn't happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time.” And sometimes, we need to be reminded to look at what ego takes for granted--practice, life, this human being as symbolized by the old rosary--with fresh eyes, eyes that can see the Real and how Beloved and Beautiful it is.
And so we can tell a story of not one but two practitioners saved by the rediscovery of what they had lost.
Oh Happy Blessed Opportunity!