No skin

During the time when Laura was doing much better on Avastin, I landed in the middle of a media firestorm.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture had poisoned a flock of birds that were eating a local farmer’s crops.  The dead birds started dropping in the middle of a nearby neighborhood. The USDA had not notified local officials, and everyone was caught by surprise.  When the story spread in the national media, as township manager I started getting a lot of angry calls asking how could I kill those poor innocent birds. Usually people calmed down once I explained that we had nothing to do with what the USDA had done.  In the meantime I was talking not only with angry residents, callers and emailers from around the country, but also with many print and electronic media. After it was all over, a local politician commented, “You must have skin of iron.” Without thinking, I said to him, “More like, no skin.”  I could see he had no idea what I was talking about.  So I didn’t add what also came to mind, “More like, no me.”  My first thought had been that I had let the arrows just pass through. My second thought was that there was no “me” there to be harmed.  No ego that had to be protected with a thick skin.

The rain pours down upon the well-roofed house.
It falls not upon the house that is roofless,
Therefore open wide that which is closed,
And the rain will not descend upon it.
— Uposatha Sutta,  Ud. 5.5

The translation of the Udana that I had at the time completely misses the point and claims this saying can only be understood with respect to some mythological incident.

These verses are only intelligible, taken in connection with an incident in the Buddha’s life, when he sent his disciples to a poor man to ask for firewood.  The poor man gave the beams which supported the roof of his hut.  And, as the story goes, when it rained everywhere else, it did not rain upon the poor man’s roofless hut.  (G.M. Strong, 138 fn. 33)

This footnote misses the point entirely.  The verses can be understood without reference to a miracle story like Jesus’ loaves and fishes. The problem is not the translation, which is quite close to that of Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

The Pali is more direct and doesn’t mention roofs or houses.

vivaṭaṃ nātivassati;
Tasmā channaṃ vivaretha,
evaṃ taṃ nātivassatī”ti.

Rain pours down on the open,
rain does not pour down on the closed.
Therefore, open the closed
so that it won’t get rained on.

“Open wide that which is closed,” and you won’t get soaked in the rain.  I loved this. This saying captures all that I had been studying from Lǎozǐ, beginning with section 11 of the Dàodéjīng.

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

In the year after my wife’s death, “Open wide” applied especially to how I tried to face the grief which was raining down on me.  Open wide to the grief and the grief has no one to land on.


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