Several years ago, I heard a tale. While it resonated with me at the time, it is only recently that the story has become a defining parable for my life.
In the early 19th century, the King of Thailand decreed that all the images of Buddha residing in abandoned, ruined temples be gathered and brought to his new capitol in Bangkok.
From all over the countryside all manner of statues were rescued, including one giant painted statue made of mud. The statue had lain forgotten and neglected in a ruined temple of a kingdom that had been annihilated some fifty years prior.
The twelve foot tall statue was fashioned of mud plaster, carefully painted and decorated with bits of colored glass. Although beautiful, it was generally considered valueless. Regardless of its worth, it was a statue of Buddha and a King’s decree is a King’s decree. Thus, it was moved to a minor temple in Bangkok where it sat for over a hundred years.
In the 1930’s, the temple where the mud Buddha resided was abandoned. The statue was moved to another temple in Bangkok. However that modest temple simply had no room for the huge statue inside. Since it was made of mud plaster, it couldn’t be left outside unprotected. So it was housed under a simple tin roof for the next twenty years.
Plans to expand the temple were made in the ‘50’s. At long last the mud Buddha would be housed properly. In order to construct the new addition, the statue needed to be moved. The tin shelter was torn down and a crane was brought in. As the heavy statue was lifted from its resting place it began to rain heavily. Worried about the rain damaging the statue, the crew began to rush.
The situation grew worse when a rope broke. The Buddha fell into the mud. The construction crew decided to wait until the next day to try moving the heavy statue again and covered the plaster statue with a tarp.
A monk volunteered to keep watch over the fallen Buddha to ensure that the tarp did not blow away in the rain and wind. All night, the storm challenged the monk, but he kept the tarp in place as best he could, until exhausted, he fell asleep.
The monk was so tired he slept through the rain, dreaming as he lay at the base of the Buddha. He dreamed that the Buddha was divine, that it was very precious. The dream was so vivid and profound that he awoke with a start.
The monk was panicked to discover that while he lay dreaming, the tarp had blown off exposing the statue to the driving rain. The monk became distraught, realizing that he had fallen asleep on his watch and therefore was responsible for the ruin of the divine statue.
As he stood helplessly watching the rain wash away the paint, a stroke of lighting lit up the night sky. In that moment the monk saw a brilliant yellow glint shine from beneath the mud. Peering closer he saw that when the Buddha had fallen, the plaster had cracked. The rain had been washing over the split, widening the crack along the surface.
The monk began to push away the mud, revealing a miraculous sight. Under the painted mud was the gleam of gold! He ran to wake the other monks and soon they set to clearing the mud from the statue. Under the plaster they found a massive solid gold statue of Buddha!
It seems that when the fallen Kingdom was facing destruction they had saved their most precious icon by covering it up with mud. As years passed, the memory of the golden Buddha had faded. Over the years more mud was added, more paint applied until to all it seemed a crude and worthless object.
Today, the Golden Buddha sits in the temple of Wat Traimit in Bangkok, Thailand. It is the largest solid gold statue in the world! There are several variations of the tale. The above story is the one I was told and it is consistent with all versions. What sometimes appears without value on the surface can be solid gold underneath.
How does the Golden Buddha apply to my life? Over the years, I have hidden my true self. I compromised in life until I became someone other than who I truly am. I put faith in what other people said I should do or not do. I became the person they thought that I should be. I sought to make everyone happy–everyone except myself, that is.
The cost of pleasing others required that I put my own needs aside for many years. My success only strengthened the tendency to pile on more layers of plaster until the person I truly was became forgotten. I became a very successful counterfeit version of myself, although deeply unsatisfied and unhappy.
A little over two years ago I was faced with a series of ground-shaking challenges. My carefully constructed world was cracking. Someone saw the glint of gold in one of those cracks and poked their nose in discovering the long-forgotten person under all my mud. This curious friend chipped at the crack, wanting to see the truth beneath the lie.
It was easy for others, especially those who benefited from my counterfeit self for so many years, to try to repair my cracks, to reapply the mud, to maintain the status quo, thinking only of their own satisfaction.
I don’t blame them. I am the one who sublimated all my dreams, who buried myself beneath everyone else’s expectations. I too applied plenty of mud until the gold was forgotten. While I recognize the impact that my emergence creates, there is no going back now. The sleeper has awakened.
Given the choice of being who I truly am or returning to the lie, there is no ambivalence. This is no mid-life crisis, no crazy whim. I am not reinventing my identity. I’m remembering myself and clearing away the mud so I can shine again.