"The bodhisattva is like the mightiest of warriors but his enemies are not common foes of flesh and bone. His fight is with the inner delusions, the afflictions of selfishness and ego-grasping. . . . He is the real hero, calmly facing any hardship in order to bring peace, happiness, and liberation into the world." —the thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876–1933)
Exxon Ken is a hero in my life. I haven’t seen him, or talked with him, or even heard about him in twenty-five years, but he continues to inspire me. He was a real backyard bodhisattva, hidden among the gas pumps and clamor of a small-town mechanics shop.
In 1978 I was living at the newly founded Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery on top of Meade Mountain overlooking Woodstock, New York, and Ken Reynolds owned the local service station down below on Tinker Street, the main drag. Superficially, we seemed like complete opposites. I was a politically liberal, conscientiously smiling monk, raised in the Metropolitan New York city area and just back in the United States after years of esoteric studies in Asia. He was a gruff, politically conservative Korean veteran with crew-cut gray hair, and by every appearance, he was a Catskill Mountain good ole boy.
At the time I drove an old, $300 jalopy that didn’t start unless I parked it on a hill so I could pop the clutch as it rolled forward. I spent much of an exceptionally snowy Catskill winter either doing that or waiting beside the car for someone to help me push it or jump-start the battery with cables. I couldn’t bring myself to approach Ken about getting a new battery or an electric starter because I still owed him money on the four snow tires I’d bought at the beginning of the winter. It wasn’t only shame, however, that made me avoid him. I found his whole bearing somehow daunting, and he probably would have intimidated many people with sixties peacenik backgrounds similar to mine. Ken looked as if he belonged to a different species of human being.
One snowy day I pulled up to the Exxon pump and left my car running while I filled the tank with gas. Ken ambled up to me, clutching a big can of his favorite colt 45 beer, and barked in his usual brusque voice, “Big man, don’t you know it’s dangerous to leave the car running while you pump gas? Any teenager should know that!” (I was then twenty-eight years old.) I bashfully admitted why I was letting it run—because I wouldn’t be able to start it and drive away if I turned it off. Ken immediately said, “You can’t drive around like that! Bring it in tomorrow, early, and I’ll fix it. I’ll just put it on your account. Pay me when the winter’s over. Pay me when you can. Pay me when your ship comes in!”
When I later told this story to friends in Woodstock, I discovered that he often did the same thing for others in need, especially welfare recipients and struggling single mothers. Some people told me that he never sent them a bill or brought it up again. I often wonder what happened to him and pray for his good all-American soul.
Exxon Ken is a bodhisattva. You can find the everyday heroes in the most surprising places. More recently, I met one in the form of a bald security guard working the metal detector at an airport, who aided my foreign friends and me with alacrity as well as a smile. Bodhisattvas are individuals who exhibit an unusually strong and instinctive tendency to relinquish their own apparent gain and self-interest in order to help others, even if it requires a great deal of effort or abandonment of their own personal agenda. Sometimes they act with exceptional generosity. Other times they demonstrate great patience, profound wisdom, or unimpeachable moral character and ethical integrity. Sometimes it can be just a little unexpected kindness, helpful word, or a smile that expresses the hidden bodhisattva deep within, coming at precisely the right time and place when one is truly in need of a boost. In every case, they inspire us by the extent to which they apply these qualities for the benefit of others rather than themselves. I believe there are innumerable, ordinary-folk bodhisattvas like Ken Reynolds among us.
Think about those you know who offer genuine help and service wherever they go, and sense the gratitude and appreciation they evoke in your heart. Consider more particularly those humble, unheralded individuals who have made a crucial difference in your own life or the lives of people you know. Maybe one of these ordinary bodhisattvas helped you, a family member, or a friend learn a significant lesson or showed you how to step up to a higher level of consciousness at some important turning point in your life. Bodhisattvas both ascendant and human are our benefactors, allies, guides, and protectors, whether we are aware of it or not.
Although the self-sacrifice of these bodhisattvas may be illogical from a worldly point of view, it’s clearly not pathological—in other words, it doesn’t show any signs of coming from sheer madness or any neurotic or psychotic need for approval or self-flagellation. Nor does it stem from codependent, would-be healer behavior or a savior complex, which can lead to burnout, bitterness, and feelings of martyrdom. Instead, these individuals radiate a sense of peace, joy, fulfillment, and naturalness in accomplishing the good things they do. Whatever their external appearance or life situation may be, they seem more deeply in touch with, and empowered by, universal values than their more self-oriented peers are. Doing the right thing is the only reward they need.