This article is adapted from a dharma talk given at the April 3, 2017 Monday Night Dharma Talk & Meditation.
In thinking about what I might talk about tonight, I asked myself, what is most alive in my life right now? It’s compassion. My practice is to be present in places where I’m open to giving and receiving compassion and those areas where I am challenged to offer compassion. The reason this topic is alive for me is because in the past month-and-a-half I’ve lost my only living parent, a friend who was a 24- year cancer survivor, and a student/friend who was a Dharma supporter. And the kindness that I’ve received during this time from family, friends, and strangers has opened me into the practice of compassion.
The Buddha taught that when we stay present with our suffering and allow it to wash over us, the pain arises and passes. There are gaps in between and our mindfulness practice is to see these gaps in our suffering. As we stay receptively open to the suffering in the moment, the suffering breaks us open. And for me, it broke me open to the tremendous amount of compassion flowing through these gaps.
To prepare for this talk tonight, I Googled “kindness” in the New York Times and found 38,000 articles on the subject. I didn’t read all of them! But I read summaries, and it is heartwarming to see so much kindness in ordinary life. Did you know that you and I are the recipients of a gift of 14 cows from an African warrior tribe? I want to share that story with you tonight. It’s about a young Maasai warrior, Kimil Naiyomah, who grew up around the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and worked hard to come to the US to study. As a child he attended school under a tree in a neighboring village, then went to another village nine miles away for high school, and finally applied to universities in the US. The village elders raised $5000 for him to attend college. A Washington Post reporter caught wind of Kimil’s story and traveled to Enoosaen, Kenya, to write a story about Kimil’s doctoral dreams. That story was published on the front page of the paper. The article inspired an outpouring of kindness and support, including a scholarship offer from the University of Oregon, a plane ticket from a businessman in Florida, and clothes and other materials he would need for living in the US.
Kimil was in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked and was deeply affected by what he saw. When he went back to his village in May 2002, he spoke to his elders about the experience. They had never heard about such tall buildings or so many people living in one place. The only planes they knew about were the ones they saw high up in the sky. Kimil told them he wanted to buy a cow to give to America. In the Maasai tradition, a cow is the most precious property one can own. And it is believed that a cow brings great comfort to its owner because it is useful both living and dead. As one elder told a reporter, a cow is a “handkerchief to wipe away tears.”
Kimil wanted his elders’ blessing for his plan. Unexpectedly, the elders stood up one-by-one and said they were so inspired by his plan that they wanted to do the same. In the end, 14 cows were pledged to the American people to help bring peace in their hearts. The US ambassador accepted the cows in a ceremony where hundreds of people turned out. However, the cows couldn’t be sent to the US for public health reasons. So the Maasai are taking care of the “American” herd, and if you ever go to Masai Mara, you can identify the herd, which has grown to 25 cows, by the Twin Towers symbol on their ears.
Kimil did not fall into “comparing mind.” He lived in the US, so he knows how well off we are. A $10 lunch in San Francisco could feed his entire village for a week or two. He also did not fall into “judging mind.” America has done many things that have been detrimental to the African people—to their lives, environment, and economies—and endangered their wildlife. We have a history of slavery with Africa. Instead, Kimil stayed true to the quiver of his heart. He was there in New York City on 9/11, saw the pain that followed, and responded.
Many more such stories exist, and there is a common thread that ties them together: it is the suffering of another that melts your heart in kindness. Compassion is a natural response to seeing suffering, what the Buddha called "the heart's quiver." In this quiver of your heart, there is no place for self-judgment or judgment of the others. No space to withhold compassion. But we are human and there are places where we do withhold kindness. So, where is the edge of your compassion practice? Where is it difficult for you to practice compassion?
For me, I have a hard time having kind thoughts towards President Trump. Every day when I hear the news, I am caught in aversion. He doesn’t even know I exist, and yet I suffer from aversion every day. That is the edge of my practice—to have a few kind thoughts for this man who is making significant decisions about our country, our economy, our people, our children, our environment, and our planet.
So I seek refuge in the Dharma. I practice with patience and persistence. When President Trump was first elected, I had 1,465 days to practice. I figured that if I stay with my intention to be kind and I’m diligent in my practice, I will succeed a few days before the end of his Presidency. That is a good start. But how do we practice compassion for a difficult person? The Dharma says, don’t start with the most difficult person. Instead, bring to mind someone you love dearly and imagine the difficulties they are going through. Stay in touch with your heart and either say Jack Kornfield’s phrases (below) or create your own phrases:
May you be held in compassion.
May you be free from pain and sorrow.
May you be at peace.
Then bring to mind other dear friends, family members, and even your precious pets. Imagine their pain and sorrows and wish them well. Slowly, one step at a time, open your compassion practice to include the pain and suffering of your neighbors, acquaintances and people you have small contacts with, like the grocery store clerk. Only after the fire of compassion has consumed you do you move to the difficult person. Then you continue your compassion practice to include your beloved communities and all beings around you. Sense your tenderhearted connection with all living creatures.
To me, it’s important not just to practice compassion on your zafu, but also to practice compassion in daily life—when you are holding your baby after she has awakened you several times in the night and you are so tired you can’t think straight, or when you’re in the midst of a disagreement with your partner and you are about to say something that would cut them deeply. These are moments to practice compassion—towards yourself and others.