“Not to do any evil, to cultivate good. To purify one’s mind, this is the advise of the Buddhas.” ~ Inscription of bell at Denver Buddhist Temple
I joke quite a bit on twitter and on my blog. I seem to be known as a (sometimes) funny and (occasionally) insightful joker but for the most part an ass but I need to express something more serious ~ something closer to my practice.
This post is beginning to have the scent a long-time nicotine addict smells when he hears someone click a lighter open. I know that there is something happening and I know that something is about to be released.
Compassion is a lesson learned hard. Buddhism is a religion and a practice that barely even scratches the surface of our existence but it provides some mighty strong tools to start hacking away at it.
My own practice began in college. Mostly, a fluffy, ignorant sort of exploration at first but certain events pushed it along and began to help define it. I took a class on Buddhist philosophy (earned a ‘D’) so that provided some experience with the philosophical foundation of Buddhism despite the ‘D,’ but still the actual practice was lost on me.
Then there was James.
James was a good friend of mine. Kind, honest and troubled, he ran the gamut of manic excitement and depressed loner. One thing that laughing little bastard was good at was being present with wisdom, compassion and insight when it was needed and applying it generously.
He was also good at running back to the river dorms, mid-winter, naked and drunk because he tried to sleep with his girlfriend’s cousin and got kicked out of the lady’s hall. Why he thought it was a good idea to take a shower afterward and not get redressed – I will never know. That was one cigarette break I probably will always remember. It isn’t everyday you watch a naked Korean running at you (wearing shoes, mind you) from a mile out. It gives you plenty of time to try to figure out exactly what you are going to say when he finally reaches you. It was simple: “wanna cigarette?”
And then you realize you are probably lucky you didn’t need to head out to the lady’s hall and try to wrestle a wet, naked, wirey Korean into a pair of pants and a set of steel-toes Doc Martins.
I have always described my practice as “compassion tempered by wisdom” where our innate ability to love and care is balanced by the learned ability to reason and apply experiential knowledge. If you lean too much to the side of compassion you become a fool, blindly trying to aid with little or no foundational base of understanding. Lean too much to the side of wisdom and you become detached and aloof; always rethinking or analyzing without following intuition.
For me, Buddhist compassion needs to be defined by both these aspects, balanced throughout our lives by our own experience. Keeping this balance is no simple thing – it isn’t easy. It isn’t centered on simply believing or understanding the Dharma (or any religious teaching). The compassionate path transcends definition and requires fortitude, patience, flexibility and wisdom. In essence, compassion is the culmination (or at least the expression) of our practice.
My experience with James didn’t apply any of these attributes. My practice was poor.
For some reason, lost to me now but assuredly important at the time, I turned my back on him in a time of need. For the life of me, I can’t recall the reason, but I do remember deciding that “tough-love” was the wisest course of action.
Then during that Summer break, sitting on my parents’ front porch, smoking a cigarette, I received the call that James fell to his death on campus. Drunk and/or stoned he fell from a roof. Barely alive, his friends abandoned him there to die, drove home and from the security of their apartment, called 911. Too late for James. He died on the asphalt, abandoned by friends both near and far.
People snorted coke at his funeral. I snorted my own self-worth.
I am not so arrogant to consider my actions to be so karmic as to have been the sole cause of this event. Nor am I so foolish to believe that any other action would have deferred Jame’s fate, but in the process of cause and effect both desirable and undesirable acts produce results in an sequence that effects not only yourself but those around you. We are born of a state that is being constantly created and destroyed by our actions. At the same time our actions can either nurture or destroy karmic seeds in others. Those seeds lead to either desirable and undesirable results.
Part of compassion is understanding whether our actions nurture or destroy. I’ve sat with this koan for quite sometime now and it far outweighs anything produced in a Zen Center. I’ve sat with it since that funeral.
“Do my actions benefit?”
It’s a simple question, with an impossible answer. Christian priests couldn’t answer it, although they tried their damnedest to convince me that all will be fine if I accept Jesus. Jesus doesn’t answer koans.
Neither does Buddha.
File this under “Things that are the impetus to my practice.”