There’s a familiar saying, “Even a journey of a thousand miles necessarily begins with a first step.” Which is to say that, no matter how long the path, we have to actually begin it if we’re ever to reach its end; that, really, there’s no substitute for beginning, however humble, however tentative and faltering, our first steps might be.
A number of years ago, I lived in a small Buddhist monastery, a wat, on a tiny island off the southeast coast of Thailand. There were only three of us there, two Thai monks – only one of whom spoke a little English – and myself. Over the many months that I spent there meditating, I would at times become lonely and down-hearted and I would question just what I was doing there so far away from everything that I knew, everything that had any meaning for me – the people who I cared about and who cared about me, my interests, my habitual pleasures and distractions – living isolated, with few physical comforts, struggling with uncertainty, and for what I wasn’t sure.
Sometimes, when we came together in the afternoon for a hot drink, I would share these difficult feelings with the English-speaking monk and he would always listen with great attentiveness and patience. And though I was never sure if he understood even half of what I said, when I had finished, invariably he would smile and say, “Begin again.” That was all, just, “Begin again.” Since then I’ve learned that this is something of a common saying amongst Thai monks.
Perhaps the point is that we’re always free to begin, to start all over again if need be. No matter who we are or what we may have done, no matter what our story was up to even just a moment ago, still, we can start from just there, from just where we are at right now. From moment to moment we can choose to put one foot in front of the next in the choosing and re-choosing of what it is we want for ourselves, the direction we want our life to take. We can begin now to make a habit of the person we want to be, just as we have in the past formed the habit of who we currently are. We can create a new fate for ourselves; we can go beyond our present selves if only we have the imagination and the will for it.
This is, perhaps, our greatest of human gifts – our capacity for free and conscious choice, the ever-present possibility to begin again, and with that the opportunity to transcend our histories, the residue of our chain-like repetitive pasts. What was once true of us and for us need be true no longer if we so choose.
Whoever you are and whatever your real and imagined constraints may be, in some form or other, however limited, however narrowly circumscribed, the chance is always there to stop drifting into the old patterns, to stop yielding to the push of circumstances, and to choose in that moment – and if only for that moment – a new life-story for yourself, to reinvent another version of yourself: who you might be and the kind of world you want to live in.
Jampa Gendun is resident Western teacher at FPMT’s Buddha House, Adelaide, Australia. Prior to this, he was a teaching assistant at the Master’s Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Italy. He says: “Through whatever virtue there may be in the writing and publishing of this piece, may the holy spiritual friend, Geshe Jampa Gyatso, return to us quickly.”