Looking strenuously through the swishing movement of the front screen wipers and beyond that, a translucent sheet of pouring rain, I gingerly drove to Clearwater yesterday morning. The warning signs were already present early in the morning: overcast sky darkened by ominous rain clouds. My passengers: my wife and her retinue of Buddhist friends. And the mission: release life activity followed by a vegetarian lunch at a Largo Thai food restaurant to be graced by Bhante Dhammawansha.
Upon reaching Bhante’s residence and joined by Tom of the Middle Way Buddhist Association, we found ourselves confined in due to the seemingly incessant rain. The decision was then made, while I was browsing through the collection of Buddhist books on the bookselves (Bhante’s residence also doubles as the meeting venue of the Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society) to have Bhante deliver a Dharma talk to us while waiting for the rain to subside. [In what follows I would be paraphrasing what Bhante actually said as gleaned from my notes and my recollection, including those in quotation marks, which have been inserted to break the monotony and secondarily, to add emphasis. I have also taken the liberty to sprinkle my own thoughts here and there, to stretch the imagination a bit if you will.]
We congregated in the front room, facing a gleaming white stately status of the Buddha, with Bhante seated to one side. “When you wake up early in the morning to do something good, be it engaging in releasing fish, helping others, reading a spiritual book, or doing any wholesome activity, it’s always a very auspicious, very lucky day,” Bhante started the session. Forget about what the horoscope says as Buddhism has no place for superstitious beliefs. And we can change the prophesies of the horoscope by changing our mind, Bhante continued.
In view of the wholesome deed we had set out to do, one that resonates with compassion, Bhante elected to speak on compassion. It so happened that compassion was also what I had been reflecting on after I finished Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes as blogged here. I don’t think this is coincident, not even for a minute, but rather symptomatic of what the world sorely lacks, and that reiterating and reminding ourselves of this universal value would surely go a long way toward alleviating the world’s suffering, one step at a time, and one sentient life at a time.
What is compassion? In a nutshell, compassion is the ability to see the world’s suffering in its many manifestations: poverty, sickness, anger, difficult situations, etc., and to feel the warmth, the hurt that emanates from these observations, and to melt in the sea of suffering, and to act on these feelings, driven by the overarching desire to help the needy. At the fundamental level, Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, connotes compassion to all. Bhante further quoted His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: My religion is compassion. And King Asoka, one of the two great people of the world from India out of the seven listed by HG Wells of the History of the World fame, the other one being the Buddha, was credited with building the first hospital for animals.
How to be compassionate? We can cultivate compassion if we know the answers to the flip-side question: Why can’t we be kind?
Firstly, we are blind to suffering. We see, but we don’t notice. We hear, but we don’t listen. We read, but we don’t ruminate. We choose to personify the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, nor do we have any qualms in embracing the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) one.
Secondly, this detachment (I guess this is one occasion where detachment is less than welcome) translates into our inability to understand that one day we will be like them too (old, helpless and hopeless).
Therefore, we can be compassionate when we can identify with the suffering around us, and we can realize that we are not immune to suffering. Just like we need medical treatment for the sick, we need mental uplifting to relieve suffering, and compassion is that spiritual antidote that can work wonders for a troubled mind.
Why do we need to cultivate compassion? Because compassion does not come naturally while cruelty can be dispensed almost effortlessly. And one way to manifest compassion is Right Speech (one of the Eight Noble Paths). And no speech is part and parcel of Right speech too. When the Buddha was engaged in a discourse with his followers, he listened most of the time, always smiled, and seldom talked. We should do the same, especially when we are angry: Don’t talk and don’t react.
Bhante then related two stories to illustrate the point: first, the frog story:
The Buddha used honey words, not in the sense of sweet-talking, but words that are not hurtful, and his delivery can best be characterized as “the beauty of sound” that not only captivated the crowd of followers, but also animals, drawn in by the melodious renditions. One of these animals was a frog, which positioned itself to “listen” on one occasion. Then a man who had spent some time searching for a lost cow in the forest walked in. Feeling exhausted, he propped himself against the long stick used to herd cows, one end staked into the ground, without realizing that the stick had rested on top of the frog, which was engrossed in listening to the Buddha’s delivery. It was said that the dead frog was born into the deity realm in its next life.
The second, the parrot story:
It was said that one of the Buddha’s past lives was as a parrot. One day, two baby parrots, nestled in a nest perched up on a tree, fell off the tree in a wind storm. One fell into the community of ascetics, who practiced Right Speech, and the parrot picked up the same when it grew up. The other parrot fell among a group of thieves. Day in and day out it was bombarded with foul words that were meant to kill, to rob, and the like. So that became this parrot’s vocabulary, swearing and bad-mouthing.
The second story also brings forth the message that Buddhists teach by way of examples. That’s why Buddhists practice Buddhism, and they are Buddhist practitioners.
By way of another analogy, Bhante equated our mind to the blue sky, infinite in all directions. Sometimes there are dark clouds, which may dampen our spirits somewhat. But these clouds will come to pass. So just let them pass, and let go as they do.
We then stepped out under a blue sky, and proceeded to the Clearwater Beach for the release life activity. While there, the rain resumed, but in a drizzle. So armed with umbrellas, and led by Bhante, we accomplished the compassionate act of releasing life, under the watchful eyes of a pelican which had settled on the water surface nearby, but it was kept at bay by the group’s admonitions and shooing hand gestures, and the water canon shot from a hose by the owner of the tackle shop, who has grown accustomed to our regular release life activities.
The last business of the day was the vegetarian lunch at the Thai House in the Largo Mall. It turned out that the day of our visit also coincided with the birthday of the proprietor of the eatery, a Thai and a devout Buddhist. And to honor the presence of Bhante, he gracefully offered the lunch treat as on the house. So the day turned out to be one of compassionate shower all round.