Passion comes from a word meaning "to suffer," and compassion means shared suffering. As with last month’s blog post, "A Better Mousetrap: The Heart of Com-passion,” this month’s post describes a second encounter I've had that cuts to the heart of compassion, and has taught me a powerful lesson about shared suffering:
My mother once told me that as a child I would occasionally steal into my older brother’s room and vandalize some architectural project he had spent weeks working on in his uncommonly meticulous fashion.
I don’t know why I did that. In fact, I don’t remember doing it. But according to my mother, my brother would simply say, “It’s all right. I was done with it anyway.” And she, astonished, would think to herself, “This cannot be my child.”
I was reminded of this in the aftermath of an incident some years ago which provided me with an object lesson in both the emotional physics of violence—the terrible ease with which a sense of being wronged can escalate into a never-ending ping-pong of vengeance—and in the power of a solitary act of forgiveness.
I had gone to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to see an exhibit called “Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet.” A group of monks from the monastery of the Dalai Lama were creating a six-foot-wide circular mandala—a sort of spiritual rendering of the cosmos—made of colored sand ground from gemstones.
For nearly a month, they worked silently, bent over the low platform that cradled the growing sacrament. They laid out their intricate geometry of devotion by hand, surrounded constantly by onlookers who stood sometimes for hours, as I did, simply watching, our busy lives uncharacteristically forgotten.
Although the mandala didn’t fit my taste in art, I was nonetheless absorbed by the artistry and concentration that went into it. I was also astonished that anyone could stoop for so long without complaint. But the greatest measure of the project’s drama and poignancy lay in the fact that it was temporary. In the Buddhist tradition of non-attachment, the monks intended from the very start to dismantle their creation after a few months on exhibit, and scatter its remains in the sea.
All that work wasted, I thought to myself.
The day before the mandala’s completion, however, just as the monks were putting the finishing touches on it, a madwoman jumped over the velvet ropes, climbed onto the platform, and trampled it with her feet, screaming something about “Buddhist death squads.”
It was as shocking as it was inconceivable, and an awful and profane misunderstanding of someone else’s intentions. When I read about it in the newspaper the morning after, my head filled with images of frontier justice. But when I reached the end of the article, my rage turned into disbelief. In stark contrast to my own malevolent response, the monks’ was one of exoneration. “We don’t feel any anger,” said one. “We don’t know how to judge her motivations. We are praying for her for love and compassion.”
Sitting in my kitchen, I felt as incredulous as my mother once had. Coming from a long line of avengers—people who have demanded eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth—I’ve always had a difficult time with forgiveness. I have hung on to certain betrayals all my life, refusing to let go of things I long ago lost forever.
Still, when I heard that the museum officials were considering pressing charges against the marauder, it seemed that this would almost dishonor the monks’ gesture of absolution—an act that greatly defused the situation, drained much of the bitterness from it, and set a very hard example to follow.
Afterward, I took a critical look at my own reaction, at the awful instinctiveness of it, and at the alternative provided by the men who should have been the most outraged, but weren’t. I understood that I was moved by this incident precisely because I saw the mandala with my own eyes; perhaps I would have found forgiveness more readily had I similarly seen this woman for myself, bathed myself in her presence just as I did in the mandala’s, wondered how many grains of sand she is made of, and who it was who worked on her.
The real teaching of the mandala turned out to be not in its destruction but in how its creators responded to the death of their creation. Once again, life imitated art: we know it’s going to end, but it’s still shocking sometimes how it ends, and how little any of it turns out the way we intended. The grace is in how we respond to the challenges fate puts in our way to test our resolve.
The monks have reminded me that to forgive is indeed divine, but that ordinary people can do it. Although I'll admit that revenge can be unmistakably sweet, I also believe that the succor of revenge is no competition for that of forgiveness—not in the long run. It’s all well and good to have laws that punish wrongdoing, but they can’t set your soul to rights after you’ve been wronged. This is the hard, human work, although the monks showed me that there's a kind of divine contagion to even a single act of amnesty.
What is, for me, permanent about this impermanent exhibit is that I'll take with me a few grains of the wisdom and compassion that were demonstrated there. I'll honor the monks’ message all the more adamantly for knowing how the mandala was destroyed. And the madwoman, under psychiatric supervision somewhere, turns out to have been a great teacher.
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