Four Years Of Compassion College
Jan 13, 2015
Yesterday, as I was speaking with a bunch of college students, I started wondering what my FY (first-year), SY (second-year), TY and FY stages of generosity were. In the US, we would call it freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years.
If I went to Compassion College, what would I be learning in those four years?
In the freshman year, in the earlier stage of the journey, we're tentative, uncertain and dealing with a lot of unexplained fears. That inevitably leads to a lot of missed opportunities. A big part of us gravitate towards an alignment with the good but a part of us says, "Should I really do that right now?" We may feel like hugging someone, or thanking someone, or leaving a big tip for a waiter, but then all these doubts creep in and we wonder how the act will be perceived, or if we'll look to be a fool. That freshman-year mindset still creeps into me many times.
My wife's birthday just passed. This year, we hopped on a plane on September 24th and landed on September 26th, so her birthday was up in the air. :) But I remember last year. We usually don't make a big deal of birthdays, but it's a nice day to excuse for expressing gratitude. Now, she likes flowers and she likes me to exercise daily – so I thought I'd be crafty and go running to the flower store. Two in one! Double brownie points. So I went. At the store, I saw a nice bouquet of roses and her favorite stargazer lilies – so I got them both. On the way back home, just imagine – an out-of-breath bald man with two bouquets in his hand.
Right as I’m nearing our apartment building, I cross a young, high school girl. In my mind, I'm thinking, "Oh, the finish line!" Before that, though, the teenager looks at me and say, "Oh, for me? You shouldn't have." I smiled but mostly I was preoccupied with catching my breath, and surprising my wife. Five seconds later, I was at the door and I thought, "Wait, why didn't I just give her the flowers? At least one bouquet?" Imagine her story. "Oh, for me?" "Yes, for you. It's my wife’s birthday, she loves flowers and in her honor, these are from her to you." She would've been totally touched.
Yet, I missed that opportunity. Because I was too preoccupied with my agenda and returning to my comfort zone, I lost that chance to make someone's day.
Bit later in the day – it must've been one of those days – I was walking to another meeting, and I saw this homeless man sleeping comfortably on the streets, basking in the sun. Something about his demeanor really appealed to me. A moment flashed in front of me, about a conversation with Wavy Gravy. In his early years, he would do poetry readings in the evenings; then, the host would pass around a hat and Wavy was offered whatever people gave. Often, it might be past midnight when he'd be walking back home, and he'd see a homeless person and he would take all that he had in his pockets – sometimes over a hundred dollars – and just stuff it silently in a sleeping homeless man's pocket. Just imagining the glee of the homeless man's discovery in the morning brightened his night walk.
Here I was, though, seeing a homeless man and a surge of gratitude arose in me. I wanted to open up my pockets and do the same thing with all the cash I had in my pocket. Until, of course, the freshman-year thoughts start parading themselves. "Am I just being emotional? What if he wakes up? I'll probably get late to my meeting." Soon enough, I'm eight steps ahead and find convenient excuses – "It's already back there. Maybe next time. I'm sure there's many other opportunities."
Our freshman year is full of such missed opportunities. But it need not be like that. Gandhi, for example, was once on a train and he dropped one of his sandals. Immediately, he threw away the second one. The person next to him asked why he did that and Gandhi replied, "Well, this way, whoever finds that one sandal can now have a pair." Clearly, Gandhi was not a freshman. :)
As we grow a bit more, we start taking some of those opportunities – and it informs our deepening. A couple of months ago, I met with a man I didn't know anything about – Mark Dubois. Turned out he's a true love warrior. Growing up as a lanky, clumsy 6-foot 8-incher, it was a local river that changed his life. It taught him many things, for which he was grateful. When he learned that the government was going to dam this river, the 23-year old said: "No! If you do that, you'll destroy a rich ecosystem of critters that I have grown up with. The river looks like it's just water, but it's a whole world in here. It's my teacher. You can't do this." But he was just one voice, and no match against the US Army, so the plans went on. Mark, in a moment of quiet gratitude, then decided: "If the river goes, I must die with that river." He chained himself to a rock. It wasn't some orchestrated ploy to get attention – it was a submission of his profound affinity to the river. The next day, it so happened, he was on the front page of every newspaper in the country. That particular river, Stanislaw, didn't get saved but Mark's work has ended up saving thousands of miles of rivers over the next thirty years and became an international legend of sorts. "Some people applauded me because they hated my opponents, but I would try to tell them that I felt no hatred towards anyone. It was all love," he said.
Listening to Mark's first-hand story, and feeling the very present transformation in his presence, I was deeply moved. Our conversation spontaneous flowed for three straight hours. At the end, as we were leaving, I felt moved by love. I wanted to do something, offer something. And I didn't want to get mired in a freshman mindset: "That's silly. What will he think? What if he refuses it and you look like a fool?" This time, I didn't indulge in those thoughts. Instead, I took out my wallet and crumpled whatever ten, twenty bucks I had – I didn't even look – and nestled my fist into his big palms. "Mark, this may sound silly. But I just feel like I want to give something. This is a very cheap currency, and it's not much, but I just wanted to give you everything I had. It's just my overflowing of gratitude." Instead of laughing at my gesture, he teared up. We're still friends today. :)
As we walk into more of those opportunities, it feels like the right thing to do. It leads us to the second year, the sophomore year. A big insight in this phase is that compassion connects us, generosity reconnects us.
Earlier this summer, a nunnery in Taiwan invited me to speak at their event. It was beautiful, in so many ways. At the end of one of the talks, one of the nuns came up and offered me a stipend. Growing up as I have, we are taught to make offerings to monks and nuns – not take from them :) – so I tried to refuse it, but she insisted it was part of their protocol. While this was unfolding, a young kid, who was quite moved by ServiceSpace ideals, just wanted to take me on his scooter to get "Mango Shaved Ice", which apparently was the in-thing for young hipsters in Taipei. So I told the nuns, "Okay, I will receive this kind offering, but let's all get Mango Shaved Ice and then pay forward for everyone behind us in line." Considering that I had just shared some Karma Kitchen stories, a bunch of us got jazzed.
Eight of us, including some nuns, ended up going. One was Gwyneth – an open-hearted pianist from Taiwan – whose heart really got the idea of gift ecology, but her mind simply couldn't understand how paying forward would work in "real life". So at the street-side ice-cream store, right before it's our turn in line, I told Gwyneth: "Hey, I don't know Mandarin. So you explain this to them, okay?" She freaked out. The usual freshman-year confusions arose in her also. To top it off, the person behind the counter didn't look all that engaging. But Gwyneth was on the spot, so she started describing it in Mandarin: "Here's the money for our order, but with the rest of the money, we'd like to anonymously pay for the people behind us." Immediately, the cashier lit up. "What? Why?" "No reason but to make them smile." "Really?" "Just tell that they too can pay it forward in some other way and make someone else's day."
At this point, we haven't even done any act of generosity, but the mere thought connects us. The impersonal cashier behind the counter who didn't care to make eye contact, all of sudden, felt like our best friend. Gwhyneth's mind went quiet as her heart kicked into overdrive. I couldn't understand a word but felt exactly what was going on.
We move out to the side, we get our ice-cream – we weren’t that selfless :) – and there's an active buzz of joy amongst all eight of us. Soon, people start getting their gifted ice-cream. It was to be anonymous, but something leaked and now everyone is coming over to our table to say thank you and hug us and bless us. A mini love-riot, one can safely say. :) All strangers, but very much connected. Right before we were departing, two college-aged employees come up to share a hug, say thanks and signal that they want to take a photo. No words were exchanged, but love was in the air. With a universal thumbs-up sign of goodwill, we all part ways – but not before feeling deeply connected.
It's impossible to be kind, to be generous and feel disconnected. A kid, an adult, king or a pauper, it works just the same. Inevitably, an act of generosity is going to rekindle a connection. It may not always manifest in a particular way, but the bond is alive.
The more we practice it, the deeper we are embedded in these bonds of generosity, these bonds of love. Over the last several weeks that I've been in India, I've hardly spent any money. Travel, food, lodging, logistics, everything. I'm happy to pay, but the occasion doesn't arise because there's is that network of wholesome connections, where things are flowing in and out with gratitude. In today's world, we are taught that money in the bank is our security but that's hardly going to be helpful in limited contexts. It is actually these affinities of generosity that are a far greater resource, and they're applicable across all time and space. With a dense interconnection of such strands of love, you can land anywhere, and boom, you feel connected to others and vice versa. Everyone feels like a brother and sister. Even if there's no human life, you're related to plants, animals. Even if you're sitting alone in a cave, you feel connected. You belong. Buddha is the one who gives us the ultimate stamp of approval on this, when he tells Anand that the greatest resource on this very long path of awakening is noble friendship.
Every act of generosity, no matter what its physical outcome, gifts us the possibility of a rich connection. That is a very big lesson as we get settled into our sophomore year.
Then comes the junior year. In the third phase, we learn how to cultivate that field of friendship with skillfulness.
Many times, our invitation to connect will get rejected. That could point to a lack of generosity on our part, or a lack of skillfulness. In the third year, the skillfulness comes into clear focus. For example, it's one thing to say, "Look guys, I love to sing so I’m going to inflict a song onto you. Whether you like it or not, here is my act of generosity, and I want to feel connected to you." Clearly, that's not going to work. Like a hammer looking for a nail, we often give without mindfulness of the context. Instead, if I know your favorite song, if I know you're going through a rough patch in life, and if I gently record that song on my phone and email it to you without much fanfare, it will land very differently. Such skillfulness isn't just strategy with pre-set conditions, but rather a dynamic dance with all the conditions of a present moment.
Just a few days ago, I was with an elderly couple – Arun Dada and Meera Ba. Now in their eighties, their entire life has been rooted in generosity. The bonds of love in the sophomore year? These guys were so deeply rooted that they have never earned a salary in their life. As students of Vinoba, Arun Dada and Meera Ba have never put a price tag on their labor. And he would send people out with a broom, a scripture of their choice and a musical instrument to communities in the farthest corners of India. Not knowing anyone, not having any money, you have to build it all on the fly – armed with the power of service and love. You can imagine that after decades of such work, your street-savvy skillfulness would be profoundly tuned.
"Nine years ago, we were gifted this house," Arun Dada told us. The week they moved in, they discovered that their neighbor was a drunkard, prone to fits of violence. Just a couple days after their move, they noticed that their front yard was filled with food items and alcohol. It turned out that the neighbor also ran a catering business, and thought he could use Arun Dada's front yard for storage space. Arun Dada naturally protested. "Sir, this is our home now, we don't drink or take non-vegetarian food, and this is inappropriate." Somehow he managed to convince the catering staff of their error.
But that night, at 12:30am, the gates of his bungalow shook violently. "Who is Arun Bhatt?" a loud voice screamed. Meera Ba is wheelchair-bound and immobile, but she woke up and looked out the window. Arun Dada put on his glasses and walked out to the gate.
"Hi, I'm Arun," he said while greeting the ominous drunk man. Immediately, the man grabbed 73-year old Arun Dada by his collar and said, "You sent my staff back this morning? Do you know who I am?" It was the next-door neighbor, bent on inflicting fear and punishment. While cursing vehemently, he struck Arun Dada's face, knocking his glasses to the ground – which he then tossed into a nearby creek. Undeterred by the violent actions, Arun Dada compassionately held his ground. "My friend, you can take out my eyes if you'd like, but we have now moved into this house, and it would be great if you could respect our boundaries," he said. "Oh yes, you're that Gandhian type, aren't you? I've heard of people like you," sneered the intruder. After some more verbal assaults, the drunken neighbor gave up for the night and left.
The next morning, the neighbor's wife apologetically approached Arun Dada and Meera Ba. "I'm so sorry. My husband gets very unruly at night. I heard that he threw away your glasses last night, so I've brought this for you," she said offering some money for a new pair of glasses. Arun Dada responded with his usual equanimity, "My dear sister, I appreciate your thought. But my glasses were rather old and my prescription has gone up significantly. I was long overdue for new glasses anyhow. So don't worry about it." The woman tried to insist, but Arun Dada wouldn't accept the money.
A few days later, during the day, the neighbor and Arun Dada crossed paths on their local street. The neighbor, embarrassed, hung his head and looked down at the ground, unable to make eye contact. A common response might be one of self-righteousness ("Yeah, you'd better look down!"), but Arun Dada didn't feel good about the encounter. He went home and reflected on how he might be able to befriend his difficult neighbor, but no ideas surfaced.
Weeks passed. It was still challenging being neighbors. For one, the man next door was always on the phone, negotiating some deal or another, and every other word out of his mouth was a curse word. They didn't have much sound insulation between their walls, but Meera Ba and Arun Dada were constantly subject to foul language, even though it wasn't addressed at them. Again, with equanimity, they quietly endured it all and continued to look for an avenue to this man's heart.
Then, it happened. One day, after one of his routine conversations peppered with foul language, the neighbor concluded his call with three magical words: "Jai Shree Krishna". An homage to Krishna, an embodiment of compassion. At the very next opportunity, Arun Dada approached him and said, "Hey, I heard you say 'Jai Shree Krishna' the other day. It would be nice if we could say the same to each other, every time we crossed paths." It was impossible not to be touched by such a gentle invitation, and sure enough, the man accepted.
Now, every time they passed each other, they exchanged that sacred greeting. “Jai Shree Krishna”. “Jai Shree Krishna”. Pretty soon, it became a beautiful custom. Even from a distance, it was “Jai Shree Krishna”. “Jai Shree Krishna”. Then, as he left home in the morning, “Jai Shree Krishna” he would call out. And Arun Dada would call back, "Jai Shree Krishna". And one day the customary call didn't come, prompting Arun Dada to inquire, "What's wrong?" "Oh, I saw that you were reading so I didn't want to disturb you," came the response. "Not a disturbance at all! Like the birds chirping, the water flowing, the wind blowing, your words are part of nature's symphony." So they started again.
And the practice continues to this day, nine years later.
While concluding this story, he reminded us of Vinoba's maxim of searching for the good. "Vinoba taught us there are four kinds of people. Those who only see the bad, those who see the good and the bad, those who focus only on the good, and those who amplify the good. We should always aim for the fourth." It hit a deep chord with all of us listening to the story, particularly since it came from a man who practiced what he preached.
Amidst the sea of negativity, physical threats, and curse words, Arun Dada found those three magical words of positivity – and amplified it. Jai Shree Krishna. I bow to the divine in you, the divine in me, and that place where there is only one of us.
Finding those three words in the maze of tension is skillfulness.
Then we come to the senior year, graduation year. If we have practiced, if we’ve taken the opportunities, we've seen the potential of noble friendships, and we've cultivated skillfulness, we arrive at the fourth stage: humility.
Generosity now becomes very effortless and spontaneous.
In the late nineties, Duane Elgin was among the forty people to spend five days in deep dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Every time the Dalai Lama walked into the room, everyone would stand up and bow and the Dalai Lama would first scan the width of the room, smile big with folded hands and love-filled eyes, then bow himself. That was the ritual. After a while, though, Duane saw what was going on. While scanning the room, Dalai Lama would spot the person who bowed the lowest and made sure he bowed even lower!
Such humility. He is not trying to do that; he is just constantly in that mode. He is not even saying, "Look, I'm the famous teacher. Let me tell you how to get out of your suffering." No, instead, he is saying: I'm indebted to you for your kind bows, and I will bow even lower to seek your blessings.
A while back, one of my friends invited the Dalai Lama to speak in Portland, Oregon. So many people RSVP'd that they moved the venue to a park. They were expecting to hold 10 thousand folks but 15 thousand showed up! People are tramping over each other, and the police are trying to keep order. The Dalai Lama gives his talk and at the time he was a head of state, so he had certain security protocols to follow. The exit pathway was clearly laid out for him. But the Dalai Lama said, in his usual joking manner, "No, I feel like going the other way." I'm sure the security team went into a code-red panic, but it was the Dalai Lama after all, so he walked the other way and exited to a back road.
Right there, on the sidewalk, was a woman sitting in her wheelchair. This woman had never met the Dalai Lama, and was deeply eager to just get a visual of him. Alas, in the mad rush of the 15 thousand people, she couldn't make her way through the crowds. Very disappointed, she strolled her wheelchair back out of the park and went to a side street, where at least she could hear him clearly. So imagine her joy when the Dalai Lama actually approaches her, kneels down, holds her hand and says, "So wonderful to meet you." With profuse tears rolling down her eyes[KM1] , she tells him of her sincere wish to see him in person – and how elated she felt to speak to him and get his blessing. Not only she is in tears, so is the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama wasn't just generous, connected and skillful – but also effortless and humble.
Last month, I met a big 7-foot rugby legend named Francois Pienaar. In the movie Invictus, he was played by Matt Damon. Francois was the captain of the South African rugby team that won the World Cup for the first time, under Nelson Mandela's tenure. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela had spent time in a small jail cell, for 27 years, for inciting revolution against the status quo. When he was released, he went on to become the president. It so happens that soon after he came into power, the South African rugby team had a chance to win the World Cup for the first time in its history. Rugby is a huge deal in South Africa – the biggest sport. Lots of the previously oppressed South Africans were asking Mandela to change the team's name, mascot, jersey colors to symbolically portray the dawn of a new era. "This is our chance to show the world that we're now in power," some of them said. Mandela, however, used this opportunity to rally them and say: this is our opportunity to embody a higher moral ground, forgive them and show solidarity. Mandela got his way.
That year, 1995, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup. In the trophy presentation, with 64 thousand people going wild in person and millions more around the globe, Mandela tells Francois: "Thank you for what you have done for South Africa." And without any thought, Francois responds: "Mister Mandela, thank you for what you have done for the world."
Francois, who grew up calling Mandela a "terrorist", became close friends with Madiba – as Mandela was known. Madiba would later invite himself :) to Francois' wedding, and became godfather to his two children.
So when Guri and I were sharing a car ride with Francois, I asked him: "Of all virtues that Madiba embodied, what would you say was the most present, most overriding?" Without even a moment's thought, he turned around and said, "Selflessness." Then, after a pause, he continued: "He was always selfless, always thinking about other people. And that made him extremely humble." When they first met, Madiba (despite being the president!) humbly went out to meet him in the lobby; when they first spoke, he spoke in Afrikaans (which is Francois' native tongue); when he first came out to meet the rugby team, everyone was nervous, lined up and with scripted lines to say – until Madiba reached out to shake each player's hand, and even knew their first names! He just deeply cared for others.
So the senior year roots our generosity experience in that kind of humility. It is not something to be acquired, but something that emerges organically when the time ripens. If we practice through enough opportunities, experience a deepening inner transformation through those acts, our deepening inter-connection naturally brings us to this state of reverence for others. It is not that we are not great, but rather that our greatness depends on seeing the greatness of others.
Let me conclude with a final story that has recently moved me.
I met this young man for coffee, someone I had never met before. As we were leaving, he tells me a story of Buddha Kassapa's disciple. His chief donor was a potter named Chatikara; he was very poor, but Buddha would send even kings to him so they could learn generosity from him. One monsoon, the monastery roof was leaking so Buddha asked the monks to visit Chatikara's hut and get the straw from his roof. Of all the places to get the straw hut, they were asked to get them from a poor man's home. So it was. When the monks visited his hut, Chatikara wasn't home so they explained the situation to his blind parents. Immediately, the parents agreed: "Please take as much straw as you need." They knew of Chatikara's admiration for the Buddha, and were only happy to help. However, being a humble hut, there was no extra straw laying around. "Shall we take some from your roof?" "Oh yes, yes, please do." When Chatikara returns home, he first notices a gaping hole in his roof. So he asks his blind parents if everything was okay, when they tell him how Buddha had summoned "straw from Chatikara's hut". Just hearing this, Chatikara was so deeply moved that it is said that a deep state of happiness arose in him and it did not leave him for a full two weeks.
Similarly, one of the 18 disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa was Nag Mahashay. He was so poor that he couldn't afford the fare to visit his teacher, but his teacher gave him these instructions: "Everyone who comes to your doorstep is me." Nag Mahashay took it to heart. There are stories where he can't afford to buy milk to make tea for his guests, and so he saws his bed frame in half, sells the wood and buys the milk. It's not that he didn't care for his bed, or that Chatikara and his parents didn't care for the roof, but rather that the service opportunity was far more important.
That's our potential, to cultivate that spirit in every moment, no matter what state we're in – freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. And with generosity, these years aren't so linear. "Oh I graduated, so I'll never hold a freshman mindset again." It all keeps rotating organically, doing its dance. We keep doing the best we can to learn the lessons that each state is offering.