Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why did the Dalai Lama laugh?

The Dalai Lama has been in Seattle for the past week or so, for a conference entitled "Seeds of Compassion." A friend told me yesterday that she'd seen him interviewed on TV by some particularly sober Seattle newscaster. Apparently the newscaster asked the Dalai Lama some variation of this question: "Okay, now that we GET compassion, what do we DO with it?" and the Dalai Lama burst out laughing.

So why did the Dalai Lama laugh? I was reading the Gospel of Thomas again this morning, and I'm up to Logion 21, which begins with Jesus describing his students. "They are like small children living in a field," he says, "and when the owners of the field return and tell them to leave, they take off their clothes and stand naked in the field."

There are lots of ways to interpret this, but to me, this morning, it just looked like the kids didn't understand the question. They weren't asked to become naked and vulnerable, they were just asked to park themselves elsewhere. But they are so eager to please, so caught up in their own visions of reality they completely miss the point. We who long for a more compassionate universe sit at the feet of the wise but are so lost in our internal drama we can't see either each other or the stage.

Because compassion isn't about DO-ing. It's about BE-ing. What we DO is what we have always done: we work, we drive, we shop, we eat, we weed our gardens and tend our sheep, interact with our fellow workers, neighbors, family and friends, vote, worship, sing in the choir or read the newspaper, walk in the forest or surf the web, work out at the gym or write up contracts... but we DO all these things WITH COMPASSION.

Perhaps what the interviewer was really asking was this: But what does doing things with compassion LOOK like? My guess is that the answer has something to do with paying attention, with being aware that there is more going on around you than just the thoughts inside your own head, with being conscious of the connecting threads that hold us all together in the delicate web of life.

Which means, I think, that when we work, we pay attention to our fellow workers, do our part to the best of our ability, and try to be conscious about the end result of our labors: what would most benefit those who use our service or buy our product. When we drive, instead of always rushing and pushing and cutting in front of other drivers, or blithely weaving in and out of lanes while talking on our cellphones, we pay attention to other drivers, stay aware that they, too, are probably in a hurry, and attempt to strike a fair balance between their need to push forward and our own.

When we shop, we can stay conscious of what we are buying and what effect that purchase can have on our own lives, on the economy, on the environment... do we need this or just want it? Are we buying local? Is the packaging biodegradable?

When we interact with others, we can listen as well as speak, hear not just what they are saying but what lies beneath; come to the conversation with information and ears, but be willing to set our agendas aside. When we vote, vote for what we honestly believe is best for all, not just the candidate who will support our particular project or point of view.

Whether we walk in the forest or surf the web, work out at the gym or write up contracts, if we are BEing compassionate, we are paying attention, waking up to the effects of what we are doing, both on ourselves and on those around us.

So why does the Dalai Lama laugh? Because the point is so simple: just wake up! Pay attention! Listen to what is being asked or said, and take appropriate action. And yet, like the children in the field, we often just don't understand the question. We go to ridiculous lengths to LOOK like we get it, but we don't take the simple steps that are asked of us. Caught up in the often bizarre fantasies that play inside our own heads, driven by the desire to please, or to win, or to get what we want or need, we fail to hear or see or move in concert with that which surrounds us.

Compassion calls us to notice, to listen and respond. But for us humans, lost in our own self-constructed vision of the universe, it's probably the most challenging task we can possibly set for ourselves.

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