I was wearing an oversized white cowboy hat, boots, three sizes too big, two pistols, and nothing else. The woman I was with refused to take me to the fair till I put some clothes on. I stomped my foot and shouted, “But grandma, I don’t want to put any clothes on.” It was the feast day of Santo Antonio, my patron saint, which for me was like a second birthday, that I looked forward to all year. My grandma took me by the hand, after I had dressed, of course, and walked me, what seemed a long, long way, to Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering Church.
Pink cotton candy melted on my tongue as I stood in a crowd of other excited children, our noses pressed up against the fence as we waited impatiently for our turn to ride the carousel, which went round and round. Amid the flashes of red, white, and green, each of us secretly selected that horse, that perfect horse that we would mount, when the time came. For me, the choice was easy. There was a tremendous white stallion, which looked identical to the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver. The Lone Ranger was a major hero for me. I lived with my grandmother, because my mother had died when I was a baby. I always felt small and weak. But the Lone Ranger was big and strong. I had no control over who I was or where I went. But the Lone ranger was independent and could ride his horse anywhere he wanted to go.
When the attendant raised the red velvet rope, it was like opening the starting gate at Bellmont raceway. A throng of laughing, screaming children sprinted to the carousel, praying that they would get the horse they wanted. Unbelievably, no one had taken my horse, and when I got close enough, I vaulted onto his back. (Actually, the attendant had to help me.) In my childish mind, the only thing that separated me from the Lone Ranger was my clothes and my lack of a horse. I believed that ridding that horse, wearing my hat, pistols, and boots would change me into the Lone Ranger. “Hi Yo, Silver!!” I screamed.
There was a mirror at the side of the carousel, and as we came around, I expected to see myself transformed into the Lone Ranger. But instead, what I saw was the same small, weak boy I had been when I started. By the third time we had gone around, I threw my hat on the ground. When the ride finished, my grandmother picked me up off of the horse. Seeing my disappointment, she said, “No matter where you go, or what you do, no matter how far you ride that horse, you will always be you. You are wonderful, and I love you just the way you are.” Then she smiled and she said. “But if it makes you happy to dream you’re The Lone Ranger, then do it, and don’t ever stop dreaming, for the rest of your life.” She put the hat back on my head, and I fell asleep in her arms on the subway on the way home. When I woke up, I was thirty-four years old.
I was a successful investment banker working on Wall Street. Money played a principal role in my life. Most of my day was spent sending out letters to people, asking them to buy my products, calling people on the phone, and asking them to buy my products. Mired in paper and consumed by visions of wealth, I had forgotten who I was, although, I did have a picture of the Lone Ranger on the wall in my office. The feast of Santo Antonio had just passed, and rather than celebrating, I had worked a twelve-hour day. On a quiet Tuesday morning, the concussion of two planes crashing into the side of the World Trade Center woke me from my slumber. Ironically I woke from my life and stepped into an horrific dream. When the buildings in Manhattan were evacuated, I joined the press of terrified humanity, wandering aimlessly through the silent and crowded streets. The air was full of a white powder, which I believed was anthrax or some other chemical or biological agent.
Thinking I had been sentenced to death, I made my way to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The pews were full, and the doors were jammed with people praying silently, tears streaming down their faces. I would later learn that the dust that clogged my nostrils, burned my lungs, and gummed up my eyes, was the vaporization of 3,000 innocent people, who had lived like me, concerned only with the rise and fall of the Stock Market. For many, the single legacy they would leave behind was the money they had earned. Faced with death, money means nothing. We are all mortal, which by definition means, we are all faced with death every minute of every day. And so, money has no meaning any moment of any day.
I vowed to change my life, to become a different person. And so, I flew to Asia, to follow another path. My first stop was Taiwan, where I lived with my Kung Fu team. They took me in and gave me a place to sleep. They fed me. They gave me clothing. They trained me. They taught me Kung Fu and culture, and especially, they taught me about their religion. In Taiwan, my teammates weren’t monks, but Kung Fu practitioners are generally very deep into their practice of Buddhism. In the west, when we feel indebted to someone, we can make ourselves feel better by paying them. But there was nothing I could give them. When I tried to give them money, they refused to accept it.
And this confused me, because back in New York, I didn’t know anyone who refused money.
Later, after I could speak the language, I talked to them about it. I asked them, “Why do you always refuse when I try to give you money?” They called me by my Chinese name, An Dong Ni, and they said, “An Dong Ni, money is a prison. The things we own wind up owning us.”
Over a period of months, as my understanding of the language, the culture, and the religion grew, they explained further. The Buddhists believe that each time we die, we are reincarnated at a higher or lower level, depending upon our good and bad deeds in our last life. Their goal is to reach the highest level, but they believe that the things we own will weigh us down. If you took all of your money and possessions, wrapped your arms around them and jumped in a swimming pool, you would sink to the bottom and die. The only way to save yourself would be to let go of those things; then you would be free. My friends told me that money and possessions form golden chains, which prevent your soul from soaring to the next level. The only way to get free is to cut those chains.
I determined to cut all of the chains with my old life. The first chain I cut was when I left my country. Next, I cut my money, my job, my language, and my culture. I lived like my Chinese brothers and I learned to love them.
The one chain I still maintained was my religion. I was still Catholic. And, as much as I loved studying with my friends, and even going to prayers with them, in my heart, I just didn’t feel that I could ever give up my religion.
I told my Buddhist advisor, “Gwo Su, you are the best person I know: serene, peaceful, kind, generous. I want to be like you. Should I become Buddhist?”
Gwo Su shook his head. “Have you learned nothing from us?”
He continued. “We weren’t teaching you to become one of us. We were teaching you a lesson in tolerance.
Tolerance Is learning to accept people who are different. If you can learn to accept and love people who are different, if you can learn to see their differences as beautiful, then you have achieved tolerance. But, if I ask you to become like me, this is not tolerance. Tolerance is accepting people the way they are.”
I realized that although I had been going through the motions for the previous two years, I had failed to learned the central lesson. That they allowed me to live as an American among Chinese, without asking me to change, this was a truly great thing. “How could I have been so stupid?” I asked.
“You Americans are so full of yourselves that it is impossible for you to learn anything new.” He said, flatly. “If you have a glass full of water, you cannot put Coca Cola into it, unless you first empty it. You must empty your glass that it may be filled.” Lou Gwo Su went on to say, “Only by loosing everything are we free to gain anything. You are who you are. The Buddhists believe that each time we are reborn, we are reborn at a certain level based on past deeds of good and bad. They believe we are born at just the right level to learn the lessons that we need to learn, in order to progress spiritually. So, sometimes a cruel king may be reborn as a beggar. So that he may learn humility. They believe that if you are born as a man, a woman, a horse, disabled, rich, or poor, it is because these are the lessons that you need to learn. They also believe that your race, your religion, and sometimes even your profession, the core aspects of who you are, are all carefully chosen, and you cannot change them. The way you are born is the way you should be. You can change your actions. You can change your behavior. But you cannot change your core. And, you shouldn’t try.”
My next stop was Mainland China, where I lived with the monks in The Shaolin Temple, the birth place of Chinese martial arts. None of us worked or went to school. We spent all of our time learning Kung Fu, and learning more lessons in Buddhism. When I left Shaolin, I took up residence in Hong Kong, where I wrote a book, called the Monk from Brooklyn, which was a daily account of my experience in the temple. I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to adventure, to learning and studying, and through my writing and my public speaking, I wanted to pass those lessons on to other people. But to do that, I would need money. And the only way I could think of to get money was to sell my books and my magazine articles.
Next thing I knew, I had set up an office in Starbucks in Hong Kong. I had my computer and my cell phone, a Mocha Frapuccino and my Lone Ranger screen saver. I spent all day sending email, asking people to buy my books and magazine articles, and calling people on the phone, asking them to buy my books and magazine articles.
One day, in the midst of a heavy negotiation with a publisher, I just burst out laughing. I had traveled half-way around the world, and I wound up back where I started. I was a salesman again, doing exactly what I had done on Wall Street.
But the monks had taught me that that was OK. I am a salesman, and that is who I am.
If I had just listened to my grandma all those years ago at the Feast of Santo Antonio, I could have saved myself a lot of miles and a lot of heartache. She had told me, “No matter where you go, or what you do, no matter how far you ride that horse, you will always be you. You are wonderful, and I love you just the way you are.” Then she smiled and she said, “But if it makes you happy to dream you are The Lone Ranger, then do it.” I guess my grandma would be happy because sometimes, if the work gets too monotonous, I step away from my desk, put on the cowboy hat, the boots, the two pistols, and nothing else.
My grandma had also told me “Don’t ever stop dreaming, for the rest of your life.” Those words remind me of a story the monks told me. Sometimes, I believe I will wake up and discover that I am a little boy, sleeping on the subway, dreaming that he is a man. And the monks would tell me, it is all the same. It is just another form of the same person.
The one lesson that I wish to give people is this: You are who you are, and that is OK. If you are a man, a woman, rich, poor, fat or skinny, old or young, you are fine the way you are. If you are Black, White, Asian, Latino, Hindu, Sihk, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or other. It is our differences that make us special. If you make a conscious choice to change jobs, start a business, earn more money, lose weight, finish a degree, or achieve any goal or dream, then do it. If it will make you happy, then do it. But don’t ever let anyone bully you into feeling bad about who you are. You are the way you are supposed to be. And you are beautiful.