May 28, 2012

Engaged Buddhism And A Policy Of Exchange.

I’m back in the States for a few weeks before heading back to India in June.

I’m tooling around Colorado, visiting friends, sneaking up on them when they least expect it.

I just popped in to see an old friend of mine at the Tibetan imports shop in Colorado Springs. He’s from Nepal and has been practicing Buddhism his whole life. All I can say is, it shows.

The shop is slow this time of year. There are no customers and we spend a half hour catching up under the silent gaze of Buddha statues and Himalayan ritual masks. I feel like I haven’t left north India at all.

A woman comes to the door and I think “Oh good! A customer for my friend!”

But she’s not here to buy anything. She wants to return a candle holder she bought a few days ago.

“I’m sorry,” my friend says. “I told you when you bought this that we can’t accept returns, only exchanges.”

The woman goes on the attack. She’s not having any of that. The customer, after all, is always right.

I stand nonchalantly next to a display case, pretending that I’m shopping for trinkets. I’m replaying the scenes in my mind from twelve years in the restaurant business. I imagine being in my friend’s shoes. The blood rushes to my face as I feel embarrassment for the woman making the scene and sympathy for my friend. I remember the salty, metallic taste of biting my tongue, holding back a self-righteous stream of profanity that would put the unruly customer in her place. Then I imagine putting on my best fake smile and politely, if not unwillingly, giving her money back.

The woman is unyielding and my friend winds up doing just that. She is about to walk out, huffing with satisfaction. But then my friend leans over the counter, and without any trace of anger or indignation, gives her the Dharmic low down.

“Getting angry only hurts you,” he begins. “It doesn’t affect me at all. It only brings you unhappiness. Think about what you’re getting upset about. $6. A cup of coffee. Is this really worth all the pain you’re causing yourself?”

I’m expecting the woman to explode, to go on a rampage, to really cause a scene. Maybe it’s the Buddha statues all around us. Maybe it’s the look in my friend’s eyes and the non-threatening, loving tone in his voice. In any case, the woman doesn’t freak out. Instead she does just the opposite.

“You’re right,” she says obviously embarrassed. “You’re right and I’m sorry.” And you know what? She means it.

I am filled with awe and a kind of rejoicing bubbles up inside me at this little interaction, this one-act play that is being rehearsed to perfection day after day throughout the world.

This is truly engaged Buddhism. This is the fearless action and conduct of the bodhisattva.

I think many of us, myself included, have the misconception that being Buddhist means being passive. But this is not the case at all. Really embodying the teachings in daily life means that we have to be skillful when dealing with another’s unskillful behavior. Sometimes we have to engage others by calling them out. We can do this with kind, loving hearts without taking the situation personally, without being defensive or aggressive ourselves, without clinging desperately to our own egos.

As the woman leaves I imagine that she has a lot to think about. I know that I do and I smile at my friend, grateful for the teaching and hoping that I will be able to take it to heart as well.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta


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