This dharma talk is about seeing with eyes of love. The Dalai Lama is renowned for viewing all sentient beings with a loving gaze. In 2010, His Holiness wrote, “To all people, religious and unbelieving, I make this appeal. Always embrace the common humanity that lies at the heart of us all. Let your heart be softened by the balm of compassion, reflecting deeply on the needs and aspirations of yourself and others. Let not differences from the views of others come in the way of your wish for their peace, happiness, and well-being. When we see another person, let us feel our basic affinity. In this place there are no strangers. All are brothers and sisters in their journey through life.”
Tonight, I’ll share some stories that remind us of the transformational effects of seeing people with loving eyes, even in very challenging circumstances.
About a month ago, the New York Zen Center hosted panelists from The Prison Terminal project. They presented “The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” a documentary film that tells the story of one prisoner’s experiences in a hospice program at Iowa State Penitentiary. In most of our nation’s 1800 prisons, terminal inmates die alone, unattended in their cells. Iowa State is one of only twenty penitentiaries that have a Humane Prison Hospice Project in which inmates volunteer to undergo training as caregivers.
Filmmaker Edgar Barons met Jack Hall, when the prisoner was so weak from a heart attack and pneumonia that he was preparing to transfer to a hospice bed. With hopes that a documentary film might inspire other prison systems to start similar hospice programs, Jack gave Edgar permission to record the last months of his life.
Jack reminisced about being trained to kill as an army Private in WWII. Traumatized after the war, he drank heavily, had bouts of rage, and murdered a man in a fight. Jack felt betrayed when his own son reported the crime to the police and during his first seven years of incarceration refused to communicate with him. A prison chaplain helped Jack to forgive himself and to reconcile with his son.
The most touching scenes of the film show fellow inmates caring tenderly for Jack, massaging his hands and feet, serving him water and encouraging him to “Rest easy now, Brother.” Softened by their kindness, he surrendered to their care, and whispered words of gratitude. Like Jack, the caregivers were serving life sentences for murder, and like him, they were transformed through this loving exchange. The prison hospice became a sacred space. Jack’s son was deeply moved to witness his father’s peaceful, dignified death.
One of the promoters of this Humane Prison Project is a former death row inmate from San Quentin prison. Marvin was wrongly accused of killing a man and was incarcerated for 41 years. He was finally released when another prisoner confessed to being the actual murderer. Marvin is remarkably free from bitterness about his life behind bars. Because he understands so intimately the needs of inmates, he has become an authoritative advocate for prisoners’ rights. Some of his most gratifying experiences have been serving fellow inmates in San Quentin’s hospice program.
Marvin tells the story of a prisoner who had a reputation as a “cop killer.” San Quentin guards detested him and went out of their way to make his life difficult. When the inmate became terminally ill, he was about to be transferred from his cell to the prison’s hospice. A guard objected: “He doesn’t deserve special treatment.” After a nurse explained, “He has less than six months to live, and he can’t care for himself,” the guard retorted, “I wouldn’t give him six days to live.”
And yet, over the course of the following weeks, the guard was amazed to see men, whom he had known only as hardened criminals, serving as attentive caregivers. He observed how gratefully the dying man received their caring gestures and how the patient’s face softened until he looked like an innocent child. It was clear that the man who had killed a policeman so long ago no longer existed. As the inmate took his final breaths, the guard was present, with his head bowed respectfully. The process of witnessing loving care had a transformative impact that transcended divisions between the guard and the prisoners.
At a recent virtual summit honoring Pema Chödrön, I heard another love story that took place in an unlikely site—the center of violent gang territory in Los Angeles. There, Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle administers Homeboy Industries, which offers former gang members employment in a bakery, psychotherapy, tattoo removal, tutorials for high school equivalency exams, and job placement services. Father G. cherishes each gang member who comes for help at Homeboy Industries. Most gang members arrive burned out by burying too many friends. During the past few decades, the priest has officiated at funerals for over 250 young men and women.
He tells the story of a tough, drug-dealing gang leader named Bandito. When he entered the Homeboy office, Bandito was full of self-hatred and despair. He was tired of witnessing friends dying of gunshot wounds. Greg listened compassionately to the young man describing horrible abuse that he had suffered as a child.
Bandito was not used to anyone seeing him or caring enough to hear his life story.
He decided to sign up for an 18-month program of working in the Homeboy Industries bakery. Upon completing the program, he received training for an entry-level job to unload deliveries in a warehouse. After six months of hard work, Bandito was promoted to floor manager and then became a warehouse supervisor. Eventually, he earned enough money to buy a home in a safer barrio. By then he was ready to marry his high-school sweetheart.
Years passed with no contact between the former gang member and the priest. Then, out of the blue, Bandito surprises Father G. with an urgent phone call asking him to bless his oldest daughter. Greg’s first response is, “What’s wrong? Is she sick or hurt?” Bandito answers, “No, but next week Jessica’s leaving for Humboldt College. She’s the first in our family to go to a university. You’re the only person I know who’s gone to college. She’s so young, and we’re afraid for her because Humboldt is far away from our barrio. Will you give her a blessing?”
Greg invites the whole family to meet with him at his church the very next day for a send-off ritual. After greeting Bandito, his wife, and children, he asks Jessica to stand in front of the altar as the family surrounds her and places hands on her head, shoulders and back. Everyone stands with bowed head and closed eyes while Father G. prays for Jessica’s safety and success. By the end of the prayer, nobody has dry eyes. There is an unspoken recognition of Bandito’s miraculous transformation from a drug-dealing gang member to the proud father of a bright, courageous, college-bound daughter.
To lighten the mood, Greg asks Jessica what she plans to study at Humboldt. She replies instantly, “Forensic psychology.” Bandito explains, “She wants to study the criminal mind.” Grinning, she points at her dad, and he jokes, “I’ll be her first subject.”
After farewell hugs, the family walks outside to the car. Bandito hangs back to talk with Father G., and the priest confides, “I give you credit for the man you’ve chosen to become, for choosing to walk in your own footsteps. I’m proud of you.” Bandito’s eyes fill with tears, and he responds, “Sabes que, I’m proud of myself. All my life people called me a lowlife and a good for nothing. I guess I showed ‘em.” Greg affirms him, “I guess you did.” It is Father G’s capacity to perceive the loving essence within even the toughest gang members that allows them to see themselves as lovable.
The last love story is more personal. One of my close friends, Jerry, is a 54-year-old nonverbal man with autism. He lives in New England, where we met 35 years ago in a special education classroom for sessions of music therapy. Even though he was an angry, frustrated teenager at that time, I sensed his sensitivity and his musicality as we danced together and improvised on musical instruments. With a method called Facilitated Communication, Jerry learned to type messages slowly on a keyboard. When he conveyed his love for classical music and art, I adapted Guided Imagery and Music sessions so that he could draw pictures and write about inner journeys inspired by music.
In the process, he revealed telepathic abilities, a belief in reincarnation, and a spiritual quest. He typed, “I asked God to make me autistic because I wanted to learn how it felt to be a soul in a body that could not talk or move easily…. I know about the power of love in a way that I never would have known otherwise…. Every autistic person has chosen to be here to help the world love better.”
The themes of many of Jerry’s music sessions revolved around living more independently and expressing his creativity. He was able to move out of a group home to reside with a couple who assist him with shopping, cooking, and finances. His work supervisor, Dianne, invited Jerry to be her partner in a graphic design business, where he creates greeting cards and calendars and publishes poetry.
In a recent e-mail message, Jerry wrote me that he and Dianne have written a film script about the hero’s journey of a young man with autism who attends Yale University. Jerry’s mission is to spread the word about the rich inner life and spirituality of many people who have difficulty talking and interacting. He sees others with compassionate eyes.
These love stories show the rewards of seeing beyond appearances to appreciate the divine essential nature that connects us all. We are reminded of the Dalai Lama’s words, “All are brothers and sisters in their journey through life.”