Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rosetta Stones

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and was instrumental in allowing scholars to decipher the intricacies and meanings of the hieroglyphic writings of ancient Egypt. Its importance and impact were so great that the term "Rosetta Stone" became a metaphor or synonym for anything that offered a key to perfect understanding of a complicated subject...the pivotal piece in some intricate and compelling jigsaw puzzle.

I guess everyone longs for some Rosetta Stone in their lives, some something-or-other that will provide a key to uncertainties or fears or confusions. An explanation that explains all other explanations, perhaps. Something to put a period on a sentence that never seems to end. A safe haven that brooks no contradiction or back-sliding. And I guess we're all lucky that such Rosetta Stones are more metaphor and synonym than concrete artifacts: The original Rosetta Stone weighed 1,700 pounds.

Generally, I think people settle for Rosetta Stones that aren't exactly Rosetta Stones, but they seem to come pretty close ... "love" or "freedom" or "enlightenment" or "compassion" or "Buddhism" ... stuff like that, stuff that fits pretty much anywhere, and yet fails to fulfill the imagined perfection of a Rosetta Stone because it's never exactly the same as a 1,700-pound stone ... immutable and fershur. Our Rosetta Stones are often pretty close, but never right on the gnat's ass. Our Rosetta Stones await our actualization ... a time when our answers become true answers.

But in the meantime, well, the Rosetta Stones we choose will have to do. And we may cling to them with an adoring ardor. They probably are Rosetta Stones, but we haven't discovered that yet so we settle for calling them "Rosetta Stones" and ... get out of bed in the morning.

One of the Rosetta Stones I have always liked comes out of the world of Buddhism. A touchstone of sorts, it concerns a question put to Gautama Buddha and his response. I cannot remember who asked the question or under what reported circumstances it was asked. And who knows if Gautama actually gave the answer he was said to have given? I just remember reading about it in a book and gathering up another Rosetta Stone:

Someone asked Gautama, "What is the highest teaching?" And, "using all his powers," Gautama replied, "It's not intellectual."

For me, as someone who likes a Buddhist approach, the notion that Gautama would use all his powers, his whole life-experience from start to finish, and then reply as he did ... well, at a minimum, it left me paying attention ... speechless with attention. This was worth heeding ... at first because someone I admired had said it, but later because the implications began to sink in ... the intimate stuff that Rosetta Stones point to with an inviting and insistent voice.

If the highest teaching was not intellectual (and by necessary extension not emotional), what the hell could the highest teaching be? Any approach was the wrong approach because "it's not intellectual" is an intellectual construct ... spoken in words that under ordinary circumstances excite more words ... words like these. The confounding nature of the assertion, assuming anyone were to take it on as a Rosetta Stone, was enough to make a blind man weep. Where could anyone turn when there was no place to turn? More important than "anyone," where could "I" turn?

And as if the investigation weren't confounding enough on its face, there was the recognition as well that Gautama did not say, "it's not not-intellectual." If the highest teaching is not intellectual and not not-intellectual ... well ... how about it?

All this and more like it was just a Rosetta Stone for me. Someone else might find it a delightful conundrum over an afternoon cup of coffee. But I chose to make it a Rosetta Stone that made carrying a 1,700-pound rock seem like child's play.

I guess that's the way with Rosetta Stones. We recognize their importance in our lives and then set out to discover their importance. Sometimes our travels are fruitful and a success. And sometimes we're just left with 1,700 pounds of rock.

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