I Want a Ph.D. in Bodhisattva

I have a soft spot in my heart for animals.

For example, to me there’s nothing sadder than a bird with a broken or deformed wing. There’s a goose in our neighborhood born without feathers on his wings. He waits around every winter for his friends to return to the pond.

There’s a female duck with a broken wing waddling from pond to pond that we just discovered. She’ll never leave this earth again. That breaks my heart.

And the baby doves in the top of our carport are down to just one.

For some reason, that also makes me sad – even though that’s what happens.

Birds June 4They started out a family of three – mom and two babies. (This first picture was taken June 4.)

She fed them daily. Protected them always.

Birds June 5

(The second picture was taken June 5.)

A couple of days ago, she stopped showing up.

I supposed it’s because she knew it was time for her babies to fend for themselves. But maybe she had been killed by a car, a cat, or old age. I have no idea. I prefer to think she knew what she was doing and was only following the rules of her kind.

This morning before breakfast, there were two babies in/near the nest. Both looked down at us, blinking as birds do.

When we returned from breakfast, there was just one baby. His brother had flown away.

Birds June 8

(The third picture is dated this morning, June 8th. One left!)

It’s hard not to anthropomorphize the situation.

What were the babies thinking without mom? What is this sole baby thinking now? Is he worried about flying away? Worried that he might not be able to? Sad that his family is gone?

Or is he just sitting there blinking, getting hungry, not thinking anything at all?

Nature is often held up as being our role model, a shining example of compassion and innocence, something to which we can all aspire.

However, I don’t see it that way. Animals behave according to their kind, instinctively without either malice or compassion. Birds build nests and make babies – often returning to the same nesting spot year after year – just as frogs mate and have tadpoles each spring. It’s their way. Not good. Not bad.

When I watch birds do their thing – painstakingly constructing nests from bits of string, sticks, mud, and whatever else they can find, then yank worms out of the ground and take them back to the nest once babies are born – I often think, “These poor creatures. They work so hard, in good weather and bad. Then it’s all over and they go about their lives again for another year…only to do it all over again – until they die.”

But isn’t that how life is – for all of us?

Strangely, it seems we can offer compassion and give the benefit of the doubt to animals immediately, when all they’re doing is behaving according to their kind. By rote. It’s in their DNA.

Yet, we don’t seem to be as quick to extend that same level of compassion and patience and understanding to fellow human beings.

Why is that?

I can’t speak for others. What others do – and why – is their business.

To me, it seems skillful – even Bodhisattva-like – to cut fellow human beings more slack, extend more patience, compassion, and love.

We do that for animals. Without question. Without judgment. We see them and feel sadness or joy or compassion for them. Just because of what they are. We go to great lengths to rescue them from storm drains, help baby ducks over a curb to their waiting mom and siblings, expend considerable time and energy (and cost!) to nurture an abused dog or cat back to health.

But we don’t seem as quick to be that way with those of our own kind.

Again, why?

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because we approach animals on our terms, doing for them what we think best. They ask nothing of us. They usually do not snap at us, or threaten us, or hurt our feelings.

Fellow human beings can. And sometimes do.

Showing compassion for animals is easy. It’s kindergarten for Bodhisattvas. They respond with what appears to be gratitude. And unconditional love. We like it that way. Neat and tidy. Makes us feel good about ourselves, all benevolent and noble.

Showing compassion for fellow human beings requires an advanced degree in Bodhisattva. Because they don’t respond the way we think they should. They can be bitey. Ungrateful. We don’t like that as much. It’s painful. And messy.

When it comes to fellow human beings I think we realize we have to be vulnerable. Take risks.

That requires setting aside anthropomorphizing. Deal with what is. Things as they are. Not “making something.” Not reading into each moment what we want to see in it: animals good and kind…I will help them; people nasty and bitey…I will judge them rather than help them. Sentient beings in need are sentient beings in need. Period.

Of course, that will likely mean getting kicked in the teeth. Betrayed. Lied about. Mistreated in spite of our efforts.

But that’s life. Life as lived. Full on.

One of my aspirations is to obtain an advanced degree in Bodhisattva, a Ph.D. in Bodhisattva if you will.

I may get beat up. I may emerge with bruises. Emotional scars.

But at least I will have tried my best to show compassion and love for all sentient beings. Not just those whom I deem worthy.


    • Rev. Charama

      Thank you, Rev. Songmin!

      I appreciate you stopping by.

      You’re always a blessing to me…and to our whole sangha.

  1. Janet Pal

    Such a thought provoking article, Charama. My heart breaks a little bit each time I see a dead squirrel or an injured bird. My heart broke a lot when my dog died last October and I still cry almost everyday thinking that he suffered for a couple of hours at the end. A member of our sangha, whom I had never met, was executed recently for a heinous crime committed 20 years ago. I cried for him, the confused young man he had been and the Bodhisattva he had become while incarcerated, for the victims of his crime, the executioners, the lawmakers. My boss and my stepdaughter, on the other hand, you’re right, it’s messy, there’s too much ‘me’ in the way. I’ll be working on that PhD right alongside you 🙂

    • Rev. Charama

      Thank you, Janet. I appreciate your comments, although I daresay with your big, compassionate heart, you’ll get your Ph.D. in Bodhisattva before I will.

      But that will just make me strive all the harder to obtain mine. 🙂

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