by Wayne Ren-Cheng
In the Sigalovada Sutra the Buddha talks to Sigala about the six key relationships he realized as important to human existence. The child/parent, student/secular teacher, domestic partners, friends, employer/employee, and student/spiritual teacher relationships, as well as that of material goods are offered in the sutra. Considering the social aspects of Siddhartha’s time and culture these were the relationships that had direct impact of each person’s life. Today, considering the global nature of society there is another relationship that has tremendous impact, moment-to-moment in each person’s life . . . that of strangers.
The dharma of strangers is that they hold the place of both form and emptiness in each of our lives. For some, strangers are to be feared and avoided; for others, strangers are possible friends or at the very least probable acquaintances. There are people viewed as strangers whom little is known about such as the sales clerk in the store where you buy your shoes, and those viewed as strangers who contribute greatly to your life but who you know absolutely nothing about such as the coders who make the virtual world of Second Life possible. There is in an emptiness of knowledge and contact while they take on a form by how they impact your life.
Strangers are people that we categorize by gender, race, profession and physical characteristics. That is often the full extent of our knowledge of them and so it is how we can come to judge them. Becoming aware of the consequential aspect of those we see as strangers offers a wholly different perspective. Most of us probably intuit that there is a strata of people between stranger and friend. We recognize that there are people we are connected with beyond family and friend but that connection is so subtle its value can go unnoticed. Often the term acquaintance is used as the bridge between friend and stranger. They might earn the description, “my friend the . . . (hairdresser, bank teller, car mechanic)” but in reality they are acquaintances. In their book “Consequential Strangers”, Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman creatively re-describe this category of strangers and acquaintances in our lives. They give the people we once classified as strangers and acquaintances stronger connections to HOW we are.
“The term ‘consequential strangers’ captures a fascinating paradox about casual relationships. They are as vital to our well-being, growth and day-to-day existence as family and close friends.” Consequential Strangers, Melinda Blau/Karen Fingerman PhD, 2009 W. W. Norton Co.
The concept of consequential strangers didn’t come out of a Buddhist perspective but from a human being perspective. It offers a paradigm slant that brings into clearer focus the reality of casual human connections that have a profound effect on how we are, and how we live. There is a factor in casual relationships that most people don’t acknowledge. They readily give credit to the impact that friends and family have on their lives while failing to recognize the value of those people who exist on their societal periphery, people we might see only once a week, or that we encounter once a month, once a lifetime, or don’t every encounter face-to-face. There are people from the past whose influence still resonates even though they haven’t been physically near in decades, and there are those we will never meet, yet without them our lives would not be as rich and our needs could not be met.
Examples of consequential strangers from my own life are:
The guy at the car dealer’s maintenance shop. He sets appointments there and makes recommendations to clients. His contribution to HOW I live is that he makes sure our transportation is taken care of, and takes the time to explain things.
The librarians who not only hold books for me but guide me to new reading and research opportunities. They enrich my life not only with their smiles and kind words. Through their efforts my knowledge is greatly expanded.
Many of you behind your avatars here at the Buddha Center right this moment.
The consequential strangers in our lives add zest, originality, knowledge and assistance in our day-to-day lives. They are personal connections that also enhance our Buddhist practice. Take another look at Blau’s quote above and substitute the word “causal” for “casual” a change in wording that removes the paradox as the causal relationship becomes the focus. “The term ‘consequential strangers’ captures a fascinating paradox about causal relationships.” A person we encounter casually will have a causal effect, most subtle, some dramatic. This must be true if we ascribe to the ideal that what we do matters, then what a stranger does must matter, too. This must be true if we recognize that every experience brings about a new “not-self”. Each instance of causal encounter benefits the social self of all involved. The ability for us to experience connections outside our circle of friends and family supplies a holistic interconnection with the Universe.
Once aware of their existence it isn’t difficult to recognize the effect that consequential strangers have on us. What about our role as the consequential stranger in the lives of others? As Buddhist practitioners we must be aware of how we interact with others, that we be always mindful of our speech, action and thoughts. We don’t only have causal effects on those close to us but now can realize the more broad ranging effect we have on the people around us due to the realization of the effect that consequential strangers can have on us. Engagement with, or the act of being a consequential stranger is an opportunity to further develop mindfulness of HOW we are in relation to others. Are we being a positive influence? Are they being a positive influence?
What about the consequential strangers we never meet? The laborers who stitch our clothes and repair our streets. The truck drivers who deliver everything from food to clothing to the stores we shop at. The medical researchers who discover ways to ease our suffering. The farmers who grow the food we eat. The miners who dig up the coal and drillers who bring up the natural gas that heats our homes and the fuel for our vehicles. We’ll likely never meet these consequential strangers, still they have such dramatic effects on how we are.
The Mahayana tradition realizes the positive effect that friends and family can have on our practice, and in fact places a great value on friends who encourage us to walk the path, or walk the path beside us. Realizing that our engagement with consequential strangers can also have a positive effect on our practice, and on the lives of those we encounter must empower us to be more mindful of our actions and thoughts. What we don’t about these important people in our lives is an emptiness of knowledge, but the form they have in our lives is undeniable, unavoidable and worthy of the honor and respect we must offer to each and every one of them.