Of Buddhas and Samaritans…
I’ve long felt that the spiritual calling is not really so different from one religion to the next. At their core, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Paganism, Native American traditions, all of them are looking at things that are as mysterious as looking up into the sky at night, all those stars, all that infinity… and looking for a response.
But back here on earth, the question is a little more immediate—how are we to survive if we can’t help each other? But even this call to compassion can be as mysterious as the call to find some sort of meaning in life.
When I first read Jessica Weisberg’s article, “Desert Samaritans,” I found myself deeply impressed by the people she described, the work they were doing, but it was more than just warm-hearted people doing compassionate work that impressed me. For me, the deeper resonance of their work comes from the Christian parable of the “Good Samaritan.”
Basically the story goes that a man traveling to Jericho is set upon by thieves, beaten, robbed, stripped naked, and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite walking down the road pass the wounded man by. Finally a Samaritan comes down the road, and moved by compassion, he treats the man’s wounds, puts him on his mule, and takes him to an inn where he feeds and cares for him through the night, and then the next morning, gives the innkeeper money and instructions to care for the man until he is well. The traditional interpretation of this story is that the Samaritan’s actions are the model of how we should treat each other—love thy neighbor as thyself.
But there are many ways to interpret this parable, and for me the most interesting part of the story is lost without some historical context. For the Jewish people first hearing this story some 2,000 years ago, Samaritans were very much despised. That a priest and a Levite—both deeply pious people, in positions of great religious authority—should callously walk past a desperately wounded man lying at the side of the road, and that a Samaritan should offer such generous compassion would have been heard with the same kind of disbelief that Americans today would have hearing that a Taliban warlord had risked his life rescuing a wounded American from the battlefield.
When viewed through that lens, one begins to wonder if the parable is suggesting that if we allow for the possibility that compassion can come from anywhere, this is actually bringing compassion into the world. Or as Eihei Dogen puts it, “When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. And yet they are actualized buddhas who go on actualizing buddhas.” To recognize deep compassion and wisdom as part of anyone, especially those we least expect it from, is to allow compassion and wisdom to flourish all over the world.
And it is in that way that this issue of Turning Wheel examines compassion from shifting perspectives. Our special report on homelessness doesn’t look only at the homeless as people who need help—Satyavayu presents the homeless life as a model of generosity and virtue. Noah Jennings and Rider Conway look at the ways those who seek to help can actually further alienate the people they wish to aid. Lin Jensen examines the courage it can take to bridge the gap between “me” and “you,” convicted criminal and compassionate chaplain. Michael McAlister studies the impact a homeless crack addict had on his spiritual practice and the suffering that shines its light on us all, however comfortable our home may be.
Compassion can come from many surprising places, and sometimes even a small act of kindness can ripple out in ways that change the world. A sympathetic Japanese prison guard gave a copy of R.H. Blyth’s book Zen in English Literature to a young Robert Aitken during World War II, who went on to become a great Zen teacher in America and a key figure in the founding of not simply the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, but in the wider peace movement. In this issue of Turning Wheel, five of his students and colleagues reflect on his life and legacy, and four spiritual activists from the next generation reflect on the future of spiritual activism.
Wherever it comes from, true compassion is a deep mystery. I hope you will share our journey as we seek to explore compassion in all of its depths and colors.