The Practice of Compassion

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The Practice of Compassion



For Jiun, Compassionate Cloud

They say to become a Master

takes ten thousand hours of practice.

But how long does it take to find

your original luminous mind?

Long hours of sitting in silence

may reveal the wisdom flower.

But the instant, the gift, of emptying

restores the heart’s true power.

A child lies down in soft grass

and finds the emptiness here.

The clouds now float inside him

and the sky of freedom comes near.


When your husband is a Buddhist prison chaplain . . . Late one night Mike is reading me the rough draft of a talk he will give at our local Zen Center. His topic this time is about emptiness, a particularly challenging and yet also fundamental concept in Zen Buddhism. “Tell me an experience you’ve had of emptiness.” And he shares about being a kid in the backyard, staring up at the clouds in the sky, and how a moment came when he was no longer thinking and no longer separate from anything at all, near or far. “Put that in the talk!” And he does. The next morning at the center we are all invited into that spacious moment, into that oneness, with him.

Later I was telling a friend about Mike’s work as a chaplain at the prison . . . and maybe my friend would “go and teach yoga there some day?” . . . which would be so appreciated!I found myself sharing the story of the one time a few years ago that I had gone with Mike. After the two hour drive to Clermont and the security clearance to enter, we went first to the library to prepare it for the Buddhist service (moving chairs, sweeping, setting up a small altar). Then the guys came in and we had meditation, the Dharma talk and a great discussion. I loved it–it was just like a service anywhere except that I was the only woman and Mike and I were the only people that would leave that place at the end of the day. That fact came home to me as we left the library and went to Confinement, where Mike had a book to give someone. It took a while to find which cell his student was in. There were two levels of cells all positioned around a center open court. Everything was metal and concrete. The steel doors to each cell had a slot at waist level for food trays (and the only way one could see in or out). Mike’s friend was on the upper deck. At one point I noticed eyes watching me from the slot in the door. 

(At this point in the story I stopped talking. I was feeling again the disquieting strangeness and sadness of that moment . . . and realized this was probably not a good speech for recruiting volunteer yoga teachers! He graciously said he was not put off by my words). 

On the ride home from the prison that day, my mind was stuck on who hadn’t or couldn’t love these men, these boys, enough. I  wanted to run home and hug my grandson (which I did later, rather ferociously). And then much later, I realized that my own discomfort in confinement was that, in that moment, I was the one who didn’t love them enough. Or at all. The dehumanization of inmates–which is purposeful in prisons–had succeeded. If they weren’t real “humans” like me or Mike or the guys in the library, or like people in any place without bars or cages, then they weren’t safe to love. My mind had made them “other” and the steel door of my own heart had clanged shut. And when the heart closes, we have just ‘dehumanized” our self. For the essential nature of a human being is to love.

My husband’s Dharma name is Jiun which means Compassionate Cloud. Sensei Al gave him that name at the Jukai ceremony, a simple Buddhist initiation ritual in which one kneels before one’s spiritual community and basically vows to be a good person. I wrote the poem “For Jiun” the morning after our conversation about his talk. And as I’m writing this now, I am grateful for the example of goodness that I get to live with and practice loving . . .  enough.

A Prayer ~

May we all be set free from our prisons.

May we recover the children inside us who have never forgotten true emptiness . . .

and the openness of the sky.

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