The other day, I read a great post by Jack Daw on his Zen Dirt Zen Dust blog. You really should read it. In case you’re not wanting to read anything more than my blog (and I can’t blame you if you do) the very short and condensed version of the article is that when someone practices compassion or charity or peace in the name of something else, in this case Buddhism, they are being deceptive and manipulative. Jack makes a great point that compassion and peace and charity are things that we should be doing regardless of who or what we are or what spiritual or religious path we are on. Whenever we help someone or perform some act in the name of something else, what is it we’re doing? In reality, we’re performing a kind of bait and switch. As someone who has been on the giving and receiving end of this type of action, I truly understand the seriousness of what Jack is saying in this post.
Once upon a time, when I was in college, I took a class that was all about compassionate ministry. This class was concerned with how churches can help the homeless or those in need; usually in urban areas, but also in other areas where there are great needs. The class was led by a very wonderful and compassionate man who cared very deeply for those who were in need. One day, in a conversation, he said that it was his goal to get through life without anyone ever knowing he was a Christian. Saying something like this to a group full of people who so strongly identify with doing things in the name of their religion that they call themselves evangelicals is kind of like farting loudly in a crowded elevator. Everyone notices and nobody likes it. In the ensuing discussion, the teacher tried to make a point similar to the one that Jack makes in his post but at the time those of us who were young and morally certain and obviously dedicated evangelicals just didn’t get it. It’s a frame of reference that is so far removed from the evangelical mindset to be almost in a foreign language. The reason that we were learning about how to help others whs to get them in the door of the church wasn’t it?
A few weeks later, our class was in Washington D.C. and we were spending the day on the street. In January. Looking like homeless people. Smelling like homeless people. During that long and cold day hanging out with a bunch of real homeless people a church group came by to “minister” to us. Their idea of ministering to the homeless was to provide us with bowls of chili that was just a few degrees warmer than the air temperature. Unfortunately, they had run out of spoons so I just got a bowl of piping cold chili. Fortunately, one of the homeless guys was more than happy to share his spoon with me so I was able to enjoy my chilly chili. In addition to food, they were also giving out big warm blankets. This was something we were actually interested in getting because it was January in Washington D.C. and it was freezing outside. Before we got the blankets, we got the opportunity to be photographed receiving the blankets. The group was also nice enough to make sure that the tag bearing their name was visible so that it would show up in the picture. As I received my blanket, I was also the recipient of a speech from a guy telling me that even though he didn’t know my situation, Jesus did and he could make it all better for me if I’d just give my heart to him. I’m not sure what was more offensive: the fact that he thought that this was doing the homeless people on the streets any good or that he believed that if you were homeless it was because you were obviously not a member of his faith. I just mumbled a few things to him and kept quiet about the fact that I was a religion major playing homeless for the day so that I could actually learn what it’s like to have to live on the street in the middle of winter. After the group went off to the next batch of needy people, we sat back down on the lawn of the justice department and tried to keep warm under our new blankets.
After that day, I understood what our teacher had meant about wanting to help others without making a big deal about who or what I am. The fact is that all people in this world are hurting in some way or another. We are all dependent on one another to make it through our lives every day. When someone else suffers, it means that we are suffering too. Compassion shouldn’t be something we do, it should be something we are. Living with the awareness of the suffering of others will naturally give rise to compassion within us. No one group or religion has a monopoly on compassion. No political party, no philosophy, no country, no celebrity, no lifestyle has the ability to claim that they are the sole holders of a way to end suffering. When we try to make compassion a thing that we do to someone else in order to spread whatever message we have, we’re cheapening the value of our actions and really helping no one. Instead of trying to wave our flag or teach the Dharma to others under the banner of compassion or political engagement, we should just be compassionate and let the truth of the Dharma shine through in our lives. That’s the most we can hope for. If I address the pain and suffering of others with the same intensity and passion that I address my own pain and suffering, I will be doing more for them, and for me, than any contrived act ever could.