Shortly after meeting my wife Laura, 30 years ago, she told me the ultimate story of compassion where the Bodhisattva Quan Yin gives her arms and eyes to her dying father who had abused her throughout her life and had even ordered her beheading! I had recently received my Masters in Women Studies and my first thought was, “Wow, this Quan Yin needs to read some Mary Daly. She is one sister who desperately needs a consciousness raising group.” In 1987 I was an angry, fire-spitting feminist and if this was compassion, I wanted nothing to do with it.
Flash forward 24 years later to my first meeting with Ben, one of my new Clinical Pastoral Education classmates. We were sharing what our root religious traditions were and found we both had been raised Catholic. He told me quite frankly that he believed women and gays should never serve as priests in the Catholic Church and in fact he would leave the Church if that ever happened. I immediately thought, “Quan Yin, give me strength!”
A lot of life experience, seeking, and meditation has happened between my initial perception of Quan Yin as a dangerous role model for women and calling upon her to help me maintain compassion in the face of Ben’s fear and ignorance. Over time, I have come to love the beautiful ideal of the Bodhisattva who though they are able to reach nirvana, delays remaining in that transcendent state of freedom and continues to reincarnate out of compassion in order to help suffering beings reach their own enlightenment. I now keep a statue of Quan Yin on my altar to inspire me to strive towards the depth of compassion that the Bodhisattva embodies.
To my classmate Ben’s great delight, he found me an easy target for his sarcasm and sexism. In my mindless moments I take his bait and engage in fruitless debate about the patriarchal practices of the Catholic Church and in more mindful moments, I mentally roll my eyes and just smile. But I still found myself nowhere near the state of compassion as an expression of presence that does not hold attachment to outcomes. I just wanted Ben, as a weekly irritant in my life, to go away.
Laura watched my suffering and in her infinite compassion pulled out her Maharatnakuta Sutra and read this to me:
“Furthermore, there are four things that can cause a Bodhisattva to become a friend to all sentient beings:
- To wear the great armor of patience
- To benefit sentient beings without expecting any reward
- Never to regress from great compassion; and
- Never to forsake even those who often annoy and hurt”
Meditation on this sutra motivated me to keep trying to find compassion as I interacted with Ben. I was committed to seeing through Ben’s persona of the sexist homophobe to his essential Self.
Over time I begin to see his other personas – the caring connector, the frightened boy who was continually criticized, and the Ben who yearned for warmth but was desperately afraid of appearing needy or vulnerable. I tried to hold all of his personas in my heart as Ben provoked me with his barbs. I wanted to see the enlightened being that lives beyond the personas. When Ben presents a case study (describing a recent pastoral visit) I give him positive feedback and would witness his warm connector persona appear. At every positive comment, I see a relaxation in Ben’s shoulders and a shy smile. I feel his pleasure in being seen as the compassionate being he tries to be.
I begin to think there is a change in our relationship. That maybe my prayers to Quan Yin are being answered and Ben is softening around the edges and willing to show his essential Self. But I’m forgetting that true compassion has no expectation of outcomes and this lesson is brought home to me one Monday when after presenting my own case study that I felt was a successful spiritual care visit, Ben turns to me, smiles condescendingly as he says, “I found your pastoral visit to be….very superficial.”
Oy, Quan Yin, give me strength.