From "Buddhist Acts of Compassion," compiled and edited by Pamela Bloom. Published by Conari Press. Used by permission.

BEYOND PROTEST, by Barbara Brodsky

In the sixties I spent a lot of time working with human rights. In the early years, I was sometimes more motivated by fear and saw some of the painful results of that ego at work. I remember a sit-in at a small Southern lunch counter. We were two Northern students, and so self-righteous. We had no idea what those in the town were thinking and feeling and we did not want to know. We only wanted to express our viewpoint and righteousness. We wanted to change them.

We came into the lunchroom and sat at the counter, two young women, one white and one black, facing the glares of those sitting around us. The cook just looked at us and asked what we wanted. "Coke, milkshake, doughnut," came our replies. We were feeling smug; was it really this easy?

He gathered some items and carried them to the counter. I remember how he approached me with my doughnut and the large glass of Coke, sweat-covered from its icy contents. I looked at the glass with pleasure since the day was hot. He reached out with the glass, and with no hesitation poured it over my head. While I sat there in shock, he crumbled the doughnut over me too. The second counterman did the same to my partner. Then he nodded, and the others at the counter simply picked us up, carried us out the door, dumped us on the curb, and locked the door behind us.

In those early days, I totally lacked compassion for this opposition. They were wrong and I was right; it was that simple. I had no ability to be present with their pain nor to hear them. I had no ability to be present with my own fear nor hear myself.

Years passed and I did learn. No one incident was my primary teacher, but I do remember a few hours in a small jail. One of my cell partners was an older, Southern black woman, large of body and with soft, deep eyes. She wore a black dress covered with red roses and a tiny hat still adorned her head. I was angry at what had happened that particular day, an incident not too different from the one in the lunchroom.

I was expressing that anger, muttering, pacing the cell. After about an hour she walked up to me so sweetly and in a kind voice invited me to sit down. "Aren't you angry, too?" I asked her. "Yes," she replied, "but I also love them, Sweetheart, and they are so afraid." She hugged me gently as I wept. She taught me with those simple words that anger and compassion were not mutually exclusive. It was the first time my eyes really opened to what was happening around me, and from this sister, whose name I never even knew, I began to learn the power of love.


I was on a retreat in the south of France when a visiting master was introduced to the group. He was about forty years old, quite tall and broad-shouldered for a Tibetan, with an enormous presence like a mountain. As he spoke, he repeatedly wiped at his draining right eye, as if something in him was constantly crying, but his voice remained strong. Soon his personal story unfolded.

For fifteen years, as a young man, this Rinpoche and his elderly master had been imprisoned inside Tibet as victims of Chinese persecution. The conditions they had to endure were of the roughest sort, with many days spent chained together in their dark, dirty cell. Their captors, not content with normal torture, were determined to persecute devout Tibetans in the worst possible way--by denying them the right to meditate. Every time their eyes closed, they were beaten. But because Tibetans actually meditate with their eyes open, the two were able to continue their prayers and meditations in secret.

As the years went by, the abuse only got worse; in fact, Rinpoche's constantly tearing eye was the result of beatings from that time. He even had to endure the loss of his master, who died next to him one night in their cell. After many years of torture, escape from this living hell had come to seem impossible.

But then one day, out of the blue, two of the jailers addressed him directly. "What are you doing?" they said. "No matter what we do to you, no matter how we hurt you, nothing moves you." Apparently the jailers had practiced all sorts of martial arts, but they had finally met a power they didn't understand. "You know something we don't," they told him. "and because we are the jailers, we must learn it in order to become stronger than you."

So because he had no other weapon, he taught his jailers the Tibetan meditation called Tonglen, which is the practice of breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out light. It was the same practice many of us had been learning at this retreat with some struggle, for actually to take on the suffering of others with no sense of martyrdom or resentment is a great affront to one's ego. So, to imagine that this monk and his master had found the inspiration to teach it in the middle of hell to the agents of their suffering...well, that is the essence of Buddhist compassion. And, as a result, the unbelievable happened.

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