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Relationship: The Ultimate Frontier

By Jean-Claude Gerard Koven

In early October 1989, my wife, Arianne, and I attended the Second Mind and Life Conference in Newport Beach, California — and both of our lives were changed in ways we have yet to fully appreciate. The conference's purpose was to explore a possible bridge between Western cognitive science and Tibetan Buddhism. Arianne and I were two little petunias in a doctorate-laden onion patch with row upon row of ripe experts in philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and neuroscience, on one hand, and His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama of Tibet, and his entourage of monks, on the other.

I learned three life-changing lessons at this event, though none of them were directly connected with the conference's stated purpose. They revealed parts of me I had not known existed and taught me more about relationships than all the volumes written by the erudite academics in attendance ever could. Moreover, I feel certain that the success of my marriage of more than twenty years owes much to what I discovered there.

The first lesson arrived on the opening day of the conference, when it was announced that the Dalai Lama had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His Holiness, having himself heard the news only moments before, came quietly to the podium at the front of the room and spoke of how he hoped such public acknowledgment of his work would not cause the Chinese government to inflict greater pain upon his people.

In Norway, Egil Aarvik, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, said in the formal announcement of the award: "Ever since 1959 the Dalai Lama, together with some one hundred thousand of his countrymen, has lived in an organized community in exile in India. This is by no means the first community of exiles in the world, but it is assuredly the first and only one that has not set up any militant liberation movement. This policy of nonviolence is all the more remarkable when it is considered in relation to the sufferings inflicted on the Tibetan people during the occupation of their country. The Dalai Lama's response has been to propose a peaceful solution which would go a long way to satisfying Chinese interests. It would be difficult to cite any historical example of a minority's struggle to secure its rights, in which a more conciliatory attitude to the adversary has been adopted than in the case of the Dalai Lama. It would be natural to compare him with Mahatma Gandhi, one of this century's greatest protagonists of peace, and the Dalai Lama likes to consider himself one of Gandhi's successors."

What I saw was exactly as Aarvik suggested. Upon receiving one of the most coveted awards bestowed on any human being, the Dalai Lama addressed us in complete humility. His Holiness was the exemplar of nonviolence; rather than grasping the moment to further a political cause and focus attention on the travesties befalling his people, he reiterated his wish for a peaceful solution that would satisfy Chinese interests. There was none of the fist pumping, self-congratulatory antics adopted by our modern sports heroes when they sink a long putt, make a passing shot, or score a touchdown.

Differences are an integral part of all relationships that present us with two distinct choices: finding a solution that satisfies the interests of our antagonist or holding firm and duking it out. One only has to look at the world today — both geopolitically and within our own families — to see where the second option takes us. The teaching here seemed to run counter to the grain of human nature: If, in the course of any dispute, I devote my energies to finding a solution that totally satisfies the other person rather than myself, I will ultimately benefit as well.

The second lesson was far less grand but no less instructive. The conference format allowed for frequent interactions between His Holiness and the audience. A young doctor from New York asked a fairly specific question comparing certain new concepts in the field of neuroscience with Buddhism. The Dalai Lama spent some time in thought before responding: "What an interesting question. What do you think?" He was totally present with the question, fully appreciative of the uncharted nuances it addressed, and genuinely interested in any insights the doctor might share.

My God, if the Dalai Lama, one of the most venerated beings on the planet, didn't need the world to perceive him as omniscient, why would I ever have to assume such a foolish role in any of my relationships? The stated purpose of the conference — to build a bridge — was accomplished in a single stroke. In the absence of a hierarchical power structure, participants interact as equals, with equal right to express a point of view under the clear understanding that neither expects the other to have a definitive answer. If I could master the art of building such connecting spans in my relationships, I would have gained a great insight indeed.

The third lesson turned out to be the most life-altering of all. During the breaks between presentations we met in small study groups to discuss the material of the preceding session. At one of these informal get-togethers a fellow participant asked a particularly incisive question: "What would it be like for a youngster to be brought up as the Dalai Lama?" The group, however, quickly lost the potential of this extraordinary query by focusing on the process that guided the lamas on their search for the two-year-old child who proved to be the incarnation (and therefore, the natural successor) of the previous Dalai Lama.

I let the group travel their chosen path while I wandered alone down mine, transfixed by what began unfolding before me. I was reminded of the often-told story about Michelangelo, who claimed that he saw the David encased in a beautiful block of marble in the quarries of Carrara long before he executed the deft hammer and chisel strokes to create what many consider one of the world's most magnificent works of art: "In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."

I pondered: Today many of the glorious blocks of marble hewn from the same Carrara cliff face that yielded the David as well as Michelangelo's Piet are crafted into stone pillars and bench slabs. Is this because these mundane shapes are all that is contained within the stone, or is it because this is all that today's more commercial craftsmen are able to perceive? One can only wonder how little two-year-old Tenzin Gyatso might have fared if the lamas had not knocked at the door of his father's modest home; if he had been raised as the child of a simple farmer in Tibet's Eastern Region.

I then looked across at Arianne and, for the first time, beheld her physical body as an exquisite block of Carrara marble. What if I shifted my perspective from the point of view of ego and revisited her anew through the eyes of a Michelangelo, or those of a learned lama entrusted with finding the reincarnated form of his departed master? What would I behold encased deep within her that was invisible to those parts of me who only knew how to make columns and benches?

In that very instant, I made one of the most remarkable decisions of my life: I vowed to allow Arianne to guide my hand in gently chipping away the bits of stone that separated her from her true, divine essence. I was determined to venerate the goddess within her so that one day she might emerge. That was some seventeen years ago, and the process continues still. With each passing day, I expand my ability to transcend personal egoic preference to create sufficient space for her to reach her infinite potential. Looking back, I can see that I had made a conscious choice between sharing my life with a functional piece of architecture and sharing it with a transcendent work of art. By dedicating my life to serving the goddess within my life partner, I have advanced my own life beyond all possible expectation. I suspect the same is true for those lamas who live in service to His Holiness. For in the Oneness of Creation there is no separation. Each time we recommit ourselves to a life of service we uncover yet another level of the mystery of our own nature.

As each day passes I celebrate that decision anew. For as Arianne expands more fully into her infinite nature, she carries me with her. Consider a volume of gas sealed in a glass container: As long as the glass remains intact, the molecules of gas can travel no further. But once the glass is shattered, who can say how far any molecule might venture into the illimitable void?

Human relationship is the most effect means through which we begin our journey back home. It provides the intimate space in which we are invited to learn to transcend right and wrong, where we can experience the many parts of ourselves vying for control and supremacy, where each time we succeed in moving beyond our need to prevail we discover even more about who we truly are. To enter into this arena, we must come, like the Dalai Lama, willing to explore uncharted waters, regardless of where the current may carry us. When we allow judgment to define and thereby limit the scope of our playing field, we prevent ourselves from shattering the glass container holding our preconceived expectations.

There is a curious fractal nature in creation captured in the phrase "as above, so below." It teaches us that every lesson, whether personal or global, scientific or theological, is about relationship. When I consciously shattered the glass that held the previously acceptable limits to my relationship with Arianne, I simultaneously cracked open other barriers that had separated me from all other aspects of the creation. In the process, I learned that, ultimately, the most important relationship we ever have is with ourselves. Each human being is like a slab of the purest Carrara marble holding within it unlimited potential. Each of us is like a two-year-old child growing up in one of the Earth's remote provinces, waiting to be recognized and acknowledged. Perhaps our highest purpose is to bring this gift to one another.

Copyright © 2007 Jean-Claude Koven / All Rights Reserved.
Jean-Claude Koven is a writer and speaker based in Rancho Mirage, CA. He is a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and the author of 'Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense,' recipient of both the Allbooks Reviews editor's choice award and the award for the best metaphysical book of the year.

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