BV — Compassion for Human Imperfections

Tonight, I will speak about bringing compassion to our human imperfections. This summer I attended an online 90-Day Commit to Sit course offered through the New York Zen Center by my esteemed dharma teachers, Soto Zen monks, Koshin Paley Ellison and Chodo Campbell.

Chodo gave a talk about practicing compassion for ourselves and others. I will do my best to transmit to you some of his main points. Chodo confesses that he never expected to live to the ripe age of 70. With his long practice of honest self-examination, he is not afraid to admit his vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Chodo tells the story of his birth in England to a teenage single mother who was a drug addict and a prostitute. In his early childhood, he grew accustomed to finding her passed out on the floor and helping her into bed. On many occasions he was hungry because there was no food in the home. By the age of 16, he recognized that, despite his pleas, his mother kept initiating short-lived toxic relationships with abusive men.

Feeling abandoned and desperate, Chodo left home and lived on the streets of London. He experimented with heroine and other drugs and found work as a cross-dressing disco dancer. Coming out as gay, he had a series of sexual partners.

In his early 30s, Chodo accepted an invitation to dance at a club in NYC. At that point, he was diagnosed with AIDS and alcoholism. His knees were wrecked from wildly dancing at all-night disco parties. Depressed and exhausted, Chodo reached out to a meditation teacher named Dai En Friedman. Her instructions were to “Sit and don’t move until you face yourself.” For weeks, he sat for many hours, in physical pain and in withdrawal from drug abuse, weeping about the tragic circumstances of his life. After months of hard practice, Chodo dedicated himself to following the dharma path and to being of service to others who suffer.

Without a trace of self-pity, Chodo says that his aging process has been difficult. He has had two knee replacements, and surgery to remove gall bladder stones. Throughout these challenges, he feels ever deepening gratitude for the steady love of his husband Koshin and for ongoing support from the New York Zen Center sangha.

Chodo starts each day by chanting three times the Buddhist verse of Atonement:

“All evil karma ever committed by me since of old, on account of my greed, anger and ignorance, born of my body, mouth and thought, now I atone for it all.” He is aware of times that he breaks the five basic Buddhist precepts to protect all life, to take only what is freely given, to use sexual energy wisely, to speak truthfully, wisely, kindly and in a timely manner, and to protect the clarity of the mind. Regularly, he renews his vows to undertake the precepts. He does his best to show up fully for his life and for all those whose paths he touches.

More than anyone I know, Chodo embodies compassion. He tells the story of serving a mother and daughter in his role as a Zen hospice chaplain. The 86-year-old mother had COPD and struggled to breathe on an oxygen tank. Her 56-year-old daughter had stage four lung cancer. Both were receiving home hospice care. Chodo emphasized the opportunity they had to share precious time together. With them, he sat zazen, focusing on each moment, right here and now. Too weak to sit upright, the daughter lay on a sofa, dozing off during the meditation periods. Chodo joked with her that she had mastered the art of “dozing zazen.” He exchanged poetry with the two women and listened to their concerns. Neither of them wanted to die before the other because each wanted to be the other’s caregiver. Each morning, the mother would make her daughter’s favorite blueberry pancakes and serve her breakfast on a tray with a flower in a beautiful vase. Often no words were necessary between them.

With great compassion and tenderness, Chodo observed their bedside zazen practice. He was able to bear witness to their last days together and to be fully present, holding space for them. After the daughter died, Chodo sat zazen with the grieving mother each day via zoom. He declares that his practice is to be honest about his imperfections and to be of service in the world. He integrates his temple practice seamlessly into his daily interactions.

Chodo cautions us not to take any breath for granted. Each in-breath takes in life, and each exhale lets go of life. I love to hear him chant the evening gatha with its solemn message: “Let me respectfully remind you that life and death are of supreme importance …. Do not squander this precious life.”

May Chodo’s example inspire us to practice together the brahma vihara of karuna or compassion:

Sit comfortably and allow your attenditon to settle into the present-time experience of the body. Relax the eyes and jaw, softening the belly, and lowering the shoulders.

Reflect upon your deepest desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. Be aware of your heart’s longing for truth and well-being. With each breath, sense in the heart center how much you wish to be free from harm, to be safe and protected, and to experience compassion for all beings.

Slowly offer yourself compassionate phrases, with the intention of uncovering the heart’s caring responses. Let go of expecting to feel compassion instantly. Sometimes we are struck instead by our lack of compassion or by judgments of a resisting mind. Other times, the mind gets lost in stories, memories or fantasies. Simply return to the practice. Be as friendly and merciful with yourself as possible. Notice what is happening, and continue to repeat the following phrases like a mantra or a statement of positive intent.

May I care about those with suffering and confusion.

May I respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May I be filled with compassion.

Allow the mind to relax into the reverberations of each phrase. PAUSE….

Now bring to mind someone who has inspired you with their great compassion towards you or others. Recognize that just as you wish to be cared for and understood, this benefactor too wants to be met with compassion. Begin offering the benefactor compassionate phrases:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.

May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May you be filled with compassion.

Release the image or felt sense of the benefactor’s presence, and return to the sensations and emotions of the heart, breathing softly into that area.

Then bring to mind someone whom you do not know well, someone who is neutral, whom you neither love nor hate—perhaps someone you don’t know at all, a person you passed on the street or saw waiting in line at a store. Understanding that the desire for freedom from suffering is universal, begin offering that neutral person phrases of compassion:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.

May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May you be filled with compassion.

Release the image or felt sense of the neutral person, and return to the heart’s sensations and emotions.

Now extend compassion practice to include family and friends towards whom your feelings may be a mixture of love and judgment.

May you all care about those with suffering and confusion.

May you all respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May you all be filled with compassion.

After sending compassion to the mixed category, bring attention back to your breath and your heart.

Then expand the practice to include the difficult people in your life and in the world—those you have put out of your heart or those towards whom you hold resentment. Remember that all beings wish to be met with compassion—even those who act in ways that are annoying, unskillful, violent, confused, and unkind.

With an intention to free yourself from hatred, fear and ill will, allow someone who is a source of difficulty in your life to be the object of compassion practice:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.

May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May you be filled with compassion.

Now slowly expand the field of compassion to all who are sitting around you, to all who live in Houston, to all those in Texas, in the USA, and in this hemisphere. Let your positive intention to meet everyone with compassion spread out in all directions everywhere.

Imagine covering the entire world with these positive thoughts. Radiate an open heart and a fearless mind to all beings, including those being born and those who are dying. With boundless and friendly attention, repeat the phrases of compassion:

May all beings care about suffering and confusion.

May all beings respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May all beings be filled with compassion.