Dharma at the Dollar Store
I was thinking the other day about where this all began. I recalled a teaching I received: there is no beginning.
The boy in the film, The Matrix, said to Neo, “Do not try to bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you will see, it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.” If you change “yourself” to “your mind,” you’ll understand the basis of the teaching to which I am referring.
The Dollar Store, a type of variety store that has become a phenomenon in North America, sells every item in the store for one dollar or less. They feature a variety of items from food to picture frames. I’ll use their dollar picture frames as an example to illustrate the beginning-less nature of things.
Let’s say a frame is made of wood, has a piece of glass on the front, cardboard backing and is held in place by some fasteners, like staples.
We see there is the wood. It comes from a tree, planted, cut down and milled. In between these steps are countless other processes which have to happen. Factories need to be designed for chain saw production; chain saws built; people trained to make them; others who make the chains for the saws; tools collected to sharpen the chain saw teeth; people to develop the chain saw brand, to make the screws and fasteners, to determine fonts on the logo, to make the ink to print the logo; and others to test manufactured saws….
More? Everyone involved in making the bottles that the ink comes in and everyone involved in the process it takes to get that ink into the bottle; the development of the silk screening and other methods to get that logo onto whatever tool we require.
There are quality control people and companies which employ all of these people. There are computers which keep the records of the factory for the ink, wood, glue, paint, fasteners, fonts, logos and its methods of packaging and delivery. Electricity needs to be generated to run the computers. Back it goes, on and on, infinitely.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of how many steps it takes to come up with a piece of raw wood which then has to be cut with precision, painted and put together. This takes even more people to develop even more tools to cut the wood, design templates and logos for each machine. Each step is assocaited to a person with a job title, back and back and back.
And yet, not one thing has been assembled for the frame. There are thousands of steps, people, tools, gallons of gasoline, barrels of oil and refineries involved. Men and women who drill for oil; men and women who design, develop and build the oil rigs. These rigs also have workers to paint the machinery and design the method to drill; people who operate those platforms and drive delivery trucks which run on gasoline. Still other people design and build those trucks. There are drivers, rubber factories, rubber trees – all involved in making tires. There are compressors which fill the tires with air, air valves, and the designers and factories to make air valves. All the other mechanics of just one of those trucks … and still, we haven’t made the final cut of the wood to be put together into a frame!
Now, we have what seems like an infinite amount of people working on the wood of the frame. I ask anyone, at any time, to tell me how far back the process goes and where it began.
It is endless. It is not independent; it is relative in its entirety.
Look at this simple list and tell me where it began and how many people it took:
the electricity, the gasoline, the transportation, the wood, the glue, the paint, the ink, the staples, the cardboard, the grommets holding it all together, the glass and all it takes to make, cut, prepare, ship and deliver these things to a frame factory which has employees and health benefits managed by insurance companies. Oh, on and on and on! After all of this, explain to me how one frame can only cost one dollar!
The main thing I learned in the teaching (I was taught using a microphone as the example) is that everything is relative.
Frames are tangible. They have a physical presence. We can see, feel, and smell a frame. It exists, but it can only be empty.
I can apply this to space and time, as well. They have so many causes and conditions and we cannot trace it back. I can’t trace my day back to when I woke up. Maybe I can’t trace as few as ten minutes.
Space and time are not tangible. We cannot hold space, or see it or feel it. Time passes, but we don’t have anything to prove time passes other than our body ages, or the car is over there when it was just over here. It is, however, relative. I know this to be true and I can prove it. I was born five years before my husband was born. So although I am five years older than him, however, there was at least one time I was twice his age. I was ten, he was five. The very next year it returned to me being five years older than him and no longer twice his age. If time were not relative wouldn’t I always be twice his age? It’s an interesting thing, space and time.
The mind is like this. We can’t trace it back to its beginning. It cycles around and around and, with great fortune and extremely hard work, in one precious human life, we are able to clean up much of our non-virtue so that possibly we can stop cycling around in samsara. That is the aim of practice. At least it’s the aim of my practice. I am not perfectly stable, but I’m aspiring to be.
The Dollar Store is a magical place. I never know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing when a teaching I had will come together and become part of my reality. I had my experience of this one idea in the Dollar Store. Where did you have yours?
Victoria Rainone lives in Austin, TX, is a student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and volunteers for Liberation Prison Project.