Recently I came across a short spiritual aspiration known as Shantideva’s Parting Words taken from his famous work, The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhisattvacharyavatara). Some months ago I wrote about one of Shantideva’s descriptions of the Bodhisattva and observed that to a Christian the qualities of the Bodhisattva fit quite nicely with the theology of the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas.
It’s true that Shantideva lived some 1300 years ago but the desires of his heart well might belong to a contemporary social worker in Brooklyn, a political activist in San Francisco, or a monk in Minnesota:
To the Buddhas residing in all directions
With my palms pressed together I make this request
Please continue to shine the lamp of Dharma
For living beings lost and suffering in the darkness of ignorance
May I become an island for those seeking dry land
A lamp for those needing light,
A place of rest for those who desire one,
And a servant for those needing service
Another way of putting Shantideva’s sentiment might be the well-known injunction of Mohandas Gandhi: Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
We take much for granted in life, above all those fortunate and beneficial realities we experience, but every once in a while we are forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that if we wish for the world to be a place of goodness and life we have our work cut out. It’s not enough to desire, or wish, or hope for, or pray for the well-being of our family and friends who pass through this world. We must do something.
I think of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement. During her life Day had no patience with the empty words respectable people toss about in an attempt to seem sincere and admirable in the eyes of others. For Day’s community, words are not nearly so important as deeds. Feeding the poor, finding a bed for the homeless, stretching out a hand to the mentally ill — these things are urgent. Words around taking care of the poor or helping the sick or visiting the imprisoned, as good as they may seem, are of no value without concrete, radical, compassionate action. In fact, words without action are worse than total silence — we might as well not give a damn about the plight of the poor, the sick, the suffering, the outcast, the refugee, the single mother, the veteran with PTSD.
If we want the hungry to eat something, if we want the homeless to be safe while they sleep, if we want those affected by mental illness to feel a little less alone, we ourselves must act in this very moment.
Shantideva doesn’t simply voice his desire for the well-being of all sentient beings. He commits himself to the task of making compassion real, of bearing unconditional love in his own flesh. You and I are more likely to hide behind beautiful words than to transform ourselves and the world through compassionate action. If we were more like Shantideva and Dorothy Day the entire world would be a better place on account of the mystery of compassion and love revealed in our lives.
March 27, 2017