Particularity and the Poison Tree

There is a parable that I learned from the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield about a poison tree. It goes something like this:

Near a village there is a poison tree. The poison is very potent, and it deeply wounds the hearts and spirits of all who ingest it.

One day, someone from the village discovers the tree and runs back to the village in great fear and agitation. "There’s a poison tree nearby! There’s a poison tree nearby! We must do something!"

The villagers hastily assemble to decide what to do about this dangerous enemy. Many argue loudly and urgently for the destruction of the tree: "It is a menace—it must be completely destroyed!"

Some counsel restraint: "This tree is not ours to destroy. The Creator made it. We can put a fence around it, and warning signs, and no one will be harmed."

The argument went on throughout the night. Everyone was exasperated and exhausted.

As the villagers sat numb and bewildered in the first light of day, a stranger in strange garb walked into their midst. "I am a healer," she said. "I have heard you have a poison tree here. Wonderful! Just what I was looking for! I need this tree in order to make medicine that will cure a deadly disease."

This parable, embodying as it does the various reactions I have to unfamiliar situations and people, came to mind as I reflected on a workshop I participated in recently on racism. Like the villagers, my first, visceral reaction is often "Danger! Danger! Make it go away!"

When I can move beyond the rejection response, I often look for ways to make the situation comfortable, or at least tolerable. Sometimes my efforts are gross, like keeping my distance. Sometimes they are more subtle, like retreating into a safe generality such as "we’re all God’s children." While there may be a truth in these nostrums, there is also a lack of intimacy.

And so I aspire to learn the healer’s response: "Terrific! Just what I need!" "These new people are exactly who I need to meet now. Their unique particularity is what will enliven a sleeping room in my heart. The discomfort they release in me pinpoints yet another strangling idea I’m gripping."

This response also resonates because I have sometimes tasted God’s own delight in particularity. Why else create a thousand butterflies, ten thousand beetles, endless ways to say "I love you"? The God who knows every hair on my head surely and specifically blesses every atom, every rain drop, every unique snowflake, each child.

And so, as I strive to be healed from the deep, unsettling, embarrassing, and almost reflexive racism I find in my own heart and mind, I pray to be filled with God’s delight. May we all be so filled.

Tom Clinton-McCausland

Tom Clinton-McCausland is a member of Twin Cities Meeting in St. Paul, Minn.