Amazing Grace: Change is Possible
When I look back on my late teens and early 20’s, I did lots of crazy things. Reflecting on those days I realize I was walking nonchalantly and unconsciously through a minefield of potential dangers that could have spelled disaster. I have immense gratitude that one of those mines didn’t explode spiraling my life in a very different direction. Somehow, I saw the light before that happened.
But, even if it did, I believe it’s never too late to turn our life around. This is a source of great inspiration to me. Going through a disaster can be a profound wakeup call. No matter how far we’ve strayed off course, in one mysterious moment we can see the light and get back on track. We all know moving stories of people who’ve somehow woken up from the hole they were in and realized they could face in a different direction. I think of this as an indication that there is a benevolence to life if we allow ourselves to open to it.
I remember attending a lecture by the Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Someone in the audience asked if there was a Christian equivalent to the Buddhist doctrine of karma. To my surprise he replied, “Yes, there is.” Then he leaned into the microphone and, with a hushed tone, whispered, “Grace.” Whether you call it karma or grace our lives can change on a dime.
Each of us has our own journey to follow, our own lessons to learn as we live our lives. For some, that means wandering in the wilderness of confusion for a long time—with many years of struggle and resistance—before they discover that life has been here waiting to support them if they’re willing to shift their attitude. Others spend their whole lives, unfortunately, and never figure this out. The true blessing is that we can wake up to the possibilities life offers us and hear some call deep within that faces us in the direction of goodness, truth and happiness. The fact that radical change is possible is truly amazing grace.
No matter how fixed we seem in our ways, miraculous transformation can take place. That Buddhism is still a major spiritual tradition on the planet is proof of this fact. Although the Buddha’s teaching flourished while he was alive, within two hundred years of his passing it was close to dying out. That it survived and has impacted humanity for twenty-fine centuries is largely due to one man’s shift of intention, something we can all be grateful for.
King Ashoka, who came into power in 268 B. C., ruled over a large part of the India increasing his empire through brutal conquest. So ruthless were his methods that he earned the moniker of Ashoka, the Wicked. In the eighth year of his reign he experienced an epiphany that changed the direction of his life and, in the process, changed the world. The Kalingas to the southeast had the last coveted territory that would fulfill his ambition of uniting his empire over a major swath of the sub-continent. They were tenacious in their resistance engaging in a fierce fight to the death. In the aftermath of his brutal victory, the victorious Ashoka surveyed the battlefield.
As he walked through the human carnage and comprehended the death and destruction he had wrought, he broke down in remorse. Just then a monk, bowl in hand, wearing the saffron robes of the Buddhist order walked calmly through the scene. (We could speculate that he was engaged in the classic charnel ground meditation designed to develop equanimity in the face of suffering and death.) As the king watched the renunciate walk serenely through the land, he asked himself, “How is it that I, who have everything, weep in misery while this monk who has nothing but his robe and bowl radiates such peace?”
While deeply pondering his question an inner transformation occurred. Understanding that the monk’s serenity was worth more than any conquest, he vowed to change his ways. Realizing that would bring him the happiness he longed for, he set an intention to live a life of non-violence and benevolence. He became a convert to Buddhism and his decision led to the flourishing of the teachings throughout Asia. The rest of Ashoka’s reign was a golden era marked by religious tolerance and rewarding of good works. Ashoka built hospitals for both humans and animals, created rest houses for travelers, planted trees for all beings to enjoy shade, and responded compassionately to the needs of his people. He set up guidelines for virtuous conduct in his famous Rock Edicts that would be carved in stone throughout the land for all to see:
Do not perform sacrifices or do anything else that might hurt animals…Be generous to your friends…Do not get involved in quarrels and arguments…Try to be pure of heart, humble and faithful…Do not think only of your good points; remember also your faults and try to put them right…
By changing his intention Ashoka, the Wicked became known as Ashoka, the Righteous. Whatever our past tendencies, once we commit to facing in the direction of greater well-being and awakening joy, change is possible.
When did it change for you? Think back to the turning points in your life that led you to where you are now. Could you have written that mysterious script? How does that happen? And just what put you not only in the right circumstances but allowed you to hear the call that would help you face in the right direction? Perhaps you’re in the process of changing right now, as you get clear on your intention to go for true happiness and awaken the joy that’s inside you. If so, let yourself feel gratitude for the fact that it’s never too late to change and that you’re in the process of learning how.