Ms. Compassion, Kwan-Yin, stands in back of our garden, palm up. This is the story that I have heard of her creation. I can’t vouch for it, but here it is:
A schoolteacher who lived down the road had a high-school student who was learning carpentry. He was also a member of a neo-Nazi group. Feeling close to her, he approached her one day and said he’d like to make something for her, what would she like? She said, make me a Kwan-Yin, the Goddess of Compassion. He did, and she had it in her back yard for many years till she died. She willed it to the Montague Farm, where Zen Peacemakers had its headquarters for a number of years. There Kwan-Yin looked over weekly lunches for the community (precursor of the Stone Soup Café in Greenfield) in warm weather and icy puddles in cold.
When we closed up shop there we brought her home temporarily while the new owners of the Montague Farm decided her fate. But they’ve been slow reaching a conclusion so she’s been here all this time, though I’m concerned about the cavities in her wood providing a home for critters. Each morning after sitting I light a stick of incense, put it in the earth at her feet, chant the Kanzeon Mantra in Japanese and English, and invoke—what? Compassion?
Actually, no. Lately I’m invoking kindness. Such a tepid-sounding word, isn’t it? Brings up an image of weak, milk-diluted American coffee, the kind that gives you no punch at all, barely wakes you up in the morning. Now compassion—there’s a word! Strong, evocative, archetypal, even mythic. Who do you think of? The Dalai Lama. Who do you think of in connection with kindness? The girl scout offering her hand to an old woman crossing the street. Big deal, right? Didn’t we all do that when we were kids? Put the Dalai Lama and the girl scout in a boxing ring and there’s no contest, compassion wins in the first round.
Compassion appears in titles, e.g., Most Benevolent, Most Compassionate. Do you ever see Most Kind, other than polite British civilities such as: You are most kind? Compassion hovers up in the air, demanding to be visualized detail by detail. Kindness, on the other hand, is the little spider trying to climb up the toes of Kwan-Yin. Kindness is moving the chair out of Stanley’s way otherwise he’ll end up smack in his water bowl, or trapping the moth inside a glass and freeing it outside.
In my life, there’s nothing small about small acts of kindness. They’re my lifeblood, the reason I open windows in the morning. It’s the emails I read—How are you? How’re you doing? What do you need? It’s the sound of Rae rolling down the trash barrel from the road or offering to make me a feta cheese omelet. It’s Rami Efal taking time out to help Bernie on the computer in the middle of so much work developing Zen Peacemakers, Genro Gauntt taking long train rides from New York to come here for a few days, walk with Bernie in the back to say hi to Ms. Compassion, wash dishes in his quiet, self-effacing way. Sally and John Kealy coming over for coffee and always bringing their terrific apple sauce with cloves, sangha members sitting with Bernie over dinner when I’m gone. Leeann offering to pick up Stanley for his outings when I can’t bring him.
I know, I know, there’s compassion everywhere, including in the light shining on the leaves outside. I’m more interested in palpable kindness, the things I once thought were small. As I realize the smallness of my own private scale, the things I notice get smaller, too, more quiet, less pretentious. Did anyone ever design a Ms. Kindness, neo-Nazi or not?
Please don’t qualify it with the word loving in front, as in loving kindness. It’s the Buddhists’ sly attempt at pretending they invented kindness, which they didn’t. Kindness needs no qualifier; it has no pedestal to stand on. I prefer it standing closer to our size rather than towering over us, something I can look at eye-to-eye, never miss a wrinkle or a wart, earthbound and doable, nothing subtle or mysterious about it. A boy scout can do it, a girl scout.