My granddaughter Iris was delighted when she discovered what a Butterfly kiss was. “Come closer Grandpa” she said as she fluttered her eyelids against my check. “Now it’s your turn” We went back and forth for ages. She was completely lost in the joy of the moment and I thought of the Buddha’s teaching that happiness resides only in the present. Do not dwell in the past; do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. By living in the present we are so much more likely to be happy than in the past or the future. Happiness then depends on living as much as possible in the present and in showing compassion with to others.
In my last congregation one of my members was a postal carrier. For his entire life he had carried the mail on the same route. He brought letters (remember letters?) bills and checks, good news and sad. He knew his route so well that they would chat with them if they were home, sometimes opening the mail right in front of him and sharing their lives. But his personal life was a mess. His wife died years ago and he had struggled to raise their children. He took care of his mother as she battled Alzheimer’s until she died. He was looking forward to retirement; to spending time with his grandchildren, being able to volunteer at the church, working on his garden. Several months before he was due to retire he asked to see me. He told me he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was inoperable and terminal. He only had a short time to live. He wanted to know why God did this to him. I told him I wasn’t sure that God did. But more importantly I asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his time? What would make him happy? Without hesitation he told me that he thought he would keep working. That doing what he did best for as long as he could would make him happy. And so he did. He never told his postal patrons he was dying. He just kept working and living in the present. More than three hundred people came to his memorial service. It was a testament to his life.
Ultimately we are only drops in the great ocean of life. And when we die, the Buddha teaches, we become the drop in the ocean, no longer cognizant of us as being but only one with the ocean. Compassion is the fastest way to realize in this life that you are already that ocean. Several years ago there was a terrible incident in Belgium of a man who kidnapped and tortured six young girls. Three of them died before he was captured. A Buddhist monk by the name of Claude Thomas went to visit the mother of one of the dead girls. For hours she spoke with anger and vengeance. Finally Claude asked her “how can you best acknowledge the meaning of your child’s life by killing her killer or working to change the world in which such crimes happen?” What a challenge! Claude was connecting the mother’s suffering to the suffering of all people. He was connecting her happiness to the happiness of others. Those who take refuge in the present must not ignore the suffering but accept it and seek to change it. Ultimately we are only drops in the great ocean of life. And when we die, the Buddha taught, we become the drop in the ocean, no longer cognizant of us as being but only one with the ocean.
Living in the present. Needing what you have, being who you are, doing what you can. I go by the same coffee shop every morning, and there are the same old men talking about the way things were. Are they happy? It seems to me that the ones who are happy are the ones who talk more about what they are doing now; sharing their stories and their time. I thought to myself, what if each of them, turned over just three hours a week to helping others whether in this church or with an agency instead of watching television, the great teat of consumerism? I am sure some of them do volunteer. But what if we all did. What if we all gave ten percent of our tine and income to making the world better than it is; whether feeding another or building a home for a family in need? What if we saw the world through the eyes of a child? Wouldn’t that make us happy?
With Grace and Grit, John