Let’s just be kind

storm sky
Storm Jonas Sky

Geshe Kelsang was in a car being shown around New York City some years ago – people were trying to point out the sights, he wasn’t unduly excited. At one point he shook his head, and said:

So many people, so much suffering.

Suffering can be seen on many faces in this towering concrete jungle. The overly entitled have affluenza in their penthouses, for example, while down below over 20,000 kids are homeless, including the frozen girl outside the Path subway stop with her cardboard sign. (Unbearable, she is still only a teenager but has been there for years. What future?) But there was a change in pace and noise over the weekend with the landing of Storm Jonas, when many were given temporary shelter, no cars were allowed on the roads, the snow muted all other sounds, and the usually high-octane New Yorkers were obliged to take it down a notch or two and cozy up inside.

I had my snow days over the water in Jersey City – we dug the car out but clearly weren’t going far on those roads, and the train was closed, so we stayed mainly on the sofa instead, along with millions of other East Coasters. Except I did go for some magical walks around the neighborhood with the dog – kids were making snowmen and tobogganing down their front stoops, everything felt far more peaceful than usual, graveyardthe cars were neatly buried, the blue sky and whiteness showed the colorful Journal Square houses off to good effect, even the cemetery looked good. It was like the olden days, like the 1950s or something, everyone convivial, the narrow or unpassable sidewalks forcing us to stand courteously aside for each other and smile. And everywhere, just everywhere, people were shoveling snow.

I had Winston with me, in his warm winter overcoat but his belly soaked. (Some people were dismayed by a photo I posted of him on Facebook because he was submerged to his nose, but what you might not know is that he is a Tibetan spaniel with snow in his DNA who chose to jump into the deepest mounds.) On shoveling snowMonday, as I was about to go inside, a friendly voice called me, “Hey! I didn’t recognize you!” I turned around. “Oh, it’s not you! But it is Winston! Where is Julian?” I told him that I was staying with Julian and France again, and that he and I had bumped into each other last year, which is true, his name is John. We got to chatting, he’s a very genial man, and he asked, “Have you come to live over here?” I said no, I still lived in Denver, to which he replied, “You should come and live with us! And meanwhile look at all this snow you brought! But it is a beautiful day.” We chatted a little longer and had some laughs. This was a good encounter and, though brief, left both of us feeling a warm connection. Life did not seem so rough in this neighborhood for a change.

John's home
Home?

Later as I was getting ready to go to Manhattan, the whole street for some reason filled up with emergency vehicles – a fire truck, 2 ambulances, a police car, all lights flashing. A queue of adventurous cars behind, no way they could pass on the snow-narrowed street. One ambulance left, one stayed. Emergency crew were coming and going with bits of equipment, and pushing snow fast to make a pathway for the stretcher. Clearly someone was in distress. “Perhaps it is the old Chinese man who lives next door?” said Julian. “I hope not, but maybe it is. Often people have heart attacks when shoveling snow.” I’d never heard that. I waited quite a while until someone was finally brought out on a stretcher, the ambulance crew still trying to pump his heart. To me, he looked dead, he had gone, only a body was left. And I said, “Julian, is that John?”

IMG_6645
Home?

We never know. Then we saw his distressed wife and 12-year-old daughter getting into the police car. I have heard since that he died in the house, that the first responders were never able to resuscitate him.

This has made me think, not for the first or for the last time, that life is way too short to waste in anger, frustration, disappointment, or intolerance. We have a few hundred months left at most. Life can end anytime so do we want to waste any of these valuable years, months, weeks, days, or even moments being angry or unkind? John was holding his shovel while we were talking. He was around my age, he looked perfectly fit and hJohn Caldwellealthy, he was having a beautiful day — but he still had a heart attack while shoveling snow. I was possibly the last person he talked to, an hour or so earlier, and if I had known then what I know now I would have asked him to go inside and sit on the sofa instead.

But that is not even all. On the Kadampa Buddhist Prayer Request FB page, someone has asked for prayers for her brother Thomas, aged 53 with a clean bill of health, who also died in New Jersey on Monday night while shoveling snow. He has left behind a “devastated” wife and teenage son. Please remember John, Thomas, and their families in your prayers.

IMG_6647Bodhisattvas, those intent on attaining full enlightenment to free every living being from their suffering and its causes forever, have a prayer, beautifully articulated by Shantideva:

Therefore, in whatever I do, may I never bring harm to others;
And when anyone encounters me, may it always be meaningful for them.

Walking down the street this evening with Winston, I saw the tree John planted for France and Julian outside their house, his black landscaping truck that has stood still for 3 days even though the road is now clear, and his blue home with all the curtains closed, perhaps his beloved poodle waiting by the door. And I thought how the remaining piles of once innocent snow, now grubbying and yellow, might be reminding his wife and daughter of their unfathomable loss, and how they might always find snow sinister after this.

John's truck
The snow is shoveled but this truck is going nowhere.

It makes me want to remember at all times that we are all on our way to dying and our next lives, so whoever we think we are and wherever we think we come from, we are all in this together. So let’s just be kind to each other on our way.

World of kindness

By a guest blogger.

world of kindnessWe are all connected in mutual acts of kindness. We often think people are not kind unless they are trying to be nice to us in unselfish ways. But this is not true; a kindness is any act from which we derive benefit, irrespective of the other person’s motivation. In September 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle ran this story:

 Socialite Paris Hilton thrilled a homeless man in Hollywood Tuesday night when she handed him a $100 bill. The cheeky beggar raced up to the wannabe singer’s car as she was leaving a McDonald’s and asked her for $100. A source says, Paris reached down beside her and handed the man a crumpled $100 bill. She then stopped to pose for pictures with the homeless guy, who offered to wash her windows, before racing off.”

This beggar did not question the selflessness of Paris Hilton’s motivation before accepting the gift; he just appreciated having the $100 … In the same way, if we benefit in any way from the actions of others, then for us they are kind, irrespective of motivation.

I became an American citizen last year. Even pre-warned by my aunt, who had been at her own Ceremony a few months earlier, I still couldn’t quite believe that I teared up to Neil Diamond singing Coming to America. During the Ceremony you watch a film montage of faces of immigrants from the last 100 years – photos of travellers of all ages coming through Ellis Island to start again, to be reborn, with nothing in their pockets, but with a burning hope that their future will be a better place. (And due to the kindness of others, it often was.) I was struck by how all my enjoyments here in New York have arisen from the kindness of immigrants I never knew who built this city.

statue-of-liberty-pictureThere is a walk in Manhattan you might enjoy sometime. It takes you from the Hudson River Park on the Lower West Side down to the Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I sit there sometimes, looking out toward that iconic figure holding the flame of freedom in her outstretched hand, the symbol of opportunity, and meditating on just how lucky I am — on how every single cell of my body arises in dependence upon the kindness of others.

I woke this morning with a body conceived by my parents, and grown from enormous amounts of food provided by them and others. My parents also gave me my name, which I use all the time! As I slept, my head rested on a pillow made by someone I never knew in the Philippines, on sheets sown by Indians, under a duvet stitched together by Californians. People in Philadelphia filled my mattress. I stepped out of my bed to land on a rug woven by Tibetans in a house built by Americans in the 1920s. I drank Indian tea planted, grown and harvested by hundreds of workers, in a tea-cup designed by someone in China, stirred by silver spoons welded by people from Sheffield. I put on clothes fabricated by numerous people, all able to do it by being supported by numerous others, in Pakistan, Indonesia, America and England. And that was all in the first five minutes of my day! I greeted my neighbors in the English language created from the German and Romance languages, improved in large part by Chaucer and Shakespeare, carried down through countless generations, and gradually taught to me by many different caregivers. I commuted to the library to work on sidewalks laid by others, avoiding cars by following traffic lights invented by others. Others created my job and the demand for my work, and even the money I earn for my labors was invented and printed by others. For entertainment this weekend I might check out a movie, which if I bother to stay and watch the credits I will see was produced by a team of thousands. I will also read a Buddhist book that has come to me by some miracle from generations of wise Teachers who practiced these teachings and so kept them alive for me today.

I live in a body and a world constructed entirely from others’ kindness. Precisely what did I do to create the necessities and comforts of the world I enjoy moment by moment? Almost nothing. If I had to give back everything others have given me, what would I have left? Nothing at all.

Do I remember that I live in a world created by the kindness of others? My answer is, “Yes, I will try to, now, today, and always.”

Being confident

As well as increasing my feelings of gratitude, I find this meditation makes me confident – I don’t feel the need to go grasping at friends because I feel full of love already. And I think it can also have the side effect of helping us become popular! It is an awful irony that when we are lonely and desperately need a friend, our loneliness can give off an unattractive energy that makes a lot of people uninterested in coming anywhere near us. We seem like altogether too much hard work. Conversely, when we look like we can take it or leave it, we have that genuine air of confidence that makes us irresistible.

Postscript: I asked a friend for this article as I have been traveling a lot recently and unable to blog. I’m pleased I did, as I really like it. Please feel welcome to contribute articles yourself, sharing your own experiences of putting meditation into practice in daily life.

Over to you: Do you live in a world of kindness?