Friday, July 01, 2005

Field Notes on the Compassionate Life

A couple of months ago I attended a panel discussion by a few religious leaders in Portland, and wrote on it for the Northwest Dharma News. I am reading the book they were talking about, or were inspired by, as the case may be. Now that I am reading it, I realize one way they did not do it justice is in conveying the multitude of stories that fills the pages. I feel like I've been carpet-bombed, not with deadly things but with compassion, love, loving-kindness, forgiveness, and radical empathy. I do find myself wondering, what would this man say about the burgeoning movement of polyamory? Because as I read it I find myself thinking, oh yeah, i recognize that, thanks to learning from love in so many ways from living polyamorously. More on that when I finish the book. For now, here is the article about the author visit that got cancelled:

Author Marc Ian Barasch cancelled much of his book tour to attend to his dying mother, but in Portland the April event still occurred without him, with his encouragement. In “Field Notes on the Compassionate Life,” the author looks to history, science and personal stories to draw out the subject. Portland’s event included a panel of a Christian teacher, a rabbi, and three Buddhist teachers. Together they offered perspectives on compassion as related to their religious traditions, and then opened it to questions from the audience.

Kyogen Carlson read a statement by Marc Barasch. He began with a quote from Rumi, “Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being. …You set out to find God, but then you keep stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses.” The theme was captured with a quote from Marc’s mother a few weeks before her death, “I love to love.” Marc said that the “underlying principle of compassion is radical empathy.” The book, admired by all those on the panel, is full of stories of radical empathy in action.

Gyokuko Carlson [in link, 3rd photo down] moderated. Lama Michael Conklin focused on the selflessness of the people in the book, remarking on their happiness. He advised that if we wished to accomplish such altruism, we “hold the view that who we are is a reflection of our bundles of self.” I understood him to mean we could cultivate selflessness through deeply understanding the transient nature of self.

Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield reminded us of the parting of the Red Sea, and related how ancient Jewish teachers reflected on the suffering of the Egyptians. He spoke of a passage in the book on a program devoted to resolving differences between Israeli and Palestinian children, and their visit to the Holocaust Museum in New York. An Israeli girl is overcome with emotion and leans on a Palestinian girl. Meanwhile a Palestinian writes in Arabic in the guestbook, “Death to all Jews.” Rabbi Hirschfield reflected that as so often happens they could only see pain as a reflection of their own pain, and not the same pain.

Later, Kyogen Carlson referred to the same passage: later in the program an offhand remark, “well maybe one less bomber,” caused a Palestinian girl to find that empathy, when she vividly understood, “you think we’re all terrorists.”

Jacqueline Mandell told a touching story from her own past. She grew up in the rural south, with the Ku Klux Klan marching regularly in the streets. When Jacqueline’s grandmother first moved there, she quickly learned that generosity must be secret when she was informed by neighbors she must never pay her maid overtime. When Jacqueline first encountered Buddhist teaching on generosity in Bodh Gaya, India, she broke down and cried in recognition. She found a home in that open-hearted generosity, and wanted no more secrecy.

Paul Metzger, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, focused on stories of Christians in the book. He told of a German Christian who stood in opposition to Hitler, and a Christian man who was called by God to work on race reconciliation after being nearly beaten to death.

Questions to the panel consistently carried the theme, “How do I incorporate this in my own life?” Responses in essence were, “Cultivate the intention, and remember we all struggle.” Rabbi Hirschfield said that for him it was a “constant mantra.” He spoke of “plowing and seeding the field of my soul,” and cultivating a “constant repetition of that attitude.” He said, “There is no place the divine is not…and each moment can reveal the divine.” Dr. Metzger went further than the book, believing an important task is learning “how to work together while holding our differing beliefs.”

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