A car mechanic’s over-the-top generosity taught Lama Surya Das that bodhisattvas come in all guises.
By Lama Surya Das
Excerpted from “Buddha Is As Buddha Does; The Ten Original Practices for Enlightened Living,” (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007). Reprinted with permission.
“The bodhisattva is like the mightiest of warriors but his enemies are not common foes of flesh and bone. His fight is with the inner delusions, the afflictions of selfishness and ego-grasping. . . . He is the real hero, calmly facing any hardship in order to bring peace, happiness, and liberation into the world.” —the thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876–1933)
Exxon Ken is a hero in my life. I haven’t seen him, or talked with him, or even heard about him in twenty-five years, but he continues to inspire me. He was a real backyard bodhisattva, hidden among the gas pumps and clamor of a small-town mechanics shop.
In 1978 I was living at the newly founded Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery on top of Meade Mountain overlooking Woodstock, New York, and Ken Reynolds owned the local service station down below on Tinker Street, the main drag. Superficially, we seemed like complete opposites. I was a politically liberal, conscientiously smiling monk, raised in the Metropolitan New York city area and just back in the United States after years of esoteric studies in Asia. He was a gruff, politically conservative Korean veteran with crew-cut gray hair, and by every appearance, he was a Catskill Mountain good ole boy.
At the time I drove an old, $300 jalopy that didn’t start unless I parked it on a hill so I could pop the clutch as it rolled forward. I spent much of an exceptionally snowy Catskill winter either doing that or waiting beside the car for someone to help me push it or jump-start the battery with cables. I couldn’t bring myself to approach Ken about getting a new battery or an electric starter because I still owed him money on the four snow tires I’d bought at the beginning of the winter. It wasn’t only shame, however, that made me avoid him. I found his whole bearing somehow daunting, and he probably would have intimidated many people with sixties peacenik backgrounds similar to mine. Ken looked as if he belonged to a different species of human being.
One snowy day I pulled up to the Exxon pump and left my car running while I filled the tank with gas. Ken ambled up to me, clutching a big can of his favorite colt 45 beer, and barked in his usual brusque voice, “Big man, don’t you know it’s dangerous to leave the car running while you pump gas? Any teenager should know that!” (I was then twenty-eight years old.) I bashfully admitted why I was letting it run—because I wouldn’t be able to start it and drive away if I turned it off. Ken immediately said, “You can’t drive around like that! Bring it in tomorrow, early, and I’ll fix it. I’ll just put it on your account. Pay me when the winter’s over. Pay me when you can. Pay me when your ship comes in!”
When I later told this story to friends in Woodstock, I discovered that he often did the same thing for others in need, especially welfare recipients and struggling single mothers. Some people told me that he never sent them a bill or brought it up again. I often wonder what happened to him and pray for his good all-American soul.
Exxon Ken is a bodhisattva. You can find the everyday heroes in the most surprising places. More recently, I met one in the form of a bald security guard working the metal detector at an airport, who aided my foreign friends and me with alacrity as well as a smile. Bodhisattvas are individuals who exhibit an unusually strong and instinctive tendency to relinquish their own apparent gain and self-interest in order to help others, even if it requires a great deal of effort or abandonment of their own personal agenda. Sometimes they act with exceptional generosity. Other times they demonstrate great patience, profound wisdom, or unimpeachable moral character and ethical integrity. Sometimes it can be just a little unexpected kindness, helpful word, or a smile that expresses the hidden bodhisattva deep within, coming at precisely the right time and place when one is truly in need of a boost. In every case, they inspire us by the extent to which they apply these qualities for the benefit of others rather than themselves. I believe there are innumerable, ordinary-folk bodhisattvas like Ken Reynolds among us.
Think about those you know who offer genuine help and service wherever they go, and sense the gratitude and appreciation they evoke in your heart. Consider more particularly those humble, unheralded individuals who have made a crucial difference in your own life or the lives of people you know. Maybe one of these ordinary bodhisattvas helped you, a family member, or a friend learn a significant lesson or showed you how to step up to a higher level of consciousness at some important turning point in your life. Bodhisattvas both ascendant and human are our benefactors, allies, guides, and protectors, whether we are aware of it or not.
Although the self-sacrifice of these bodhisattvas may be illogical from a worldly point of view, it’s clearly not pathological—in other words, it doesn’t show any signs of coming from sheer madness or any neurotic or psychotic need for approval or self-flagellation. Nor does it stem from codependent, would-be healer behavior or a savior complex, which can lead to burnout, bitterness, and feelings of martyrdom. Instead, these individuals radiate a sense of peace, joy, fulfillment, and naturalness in accomplishing the good things they do. Whatever their external appearance or life situation may be, they seem more deeply in touch with, and empowered by, universal values than their more self-oriented peers are. Doing the right thing is the only reward they need.
Christians sometimes call such people saints or knights, people of honor, and guardian angels. Jews often refer to them as mensches. In every culture, humans consider them heroes, not necessarily in a physically mighty way but certainly in a spiritually effective one. They are the individuals who save us in countless different ways just by being who they are. I’m sure if you take a quiet moment of reflection, you can call to mind special benefactors who have functioned as bodhisattvas in your life. This recalling of benefactors and their selfless kindnesses is a traditional Buddhist practice to help us open up, soften our hearts, cultivate gratitude, and develop lovingkindness for others. I especially remember my Tibetan Buddhist teachers in this way. They acted as beacons and models in my life and continue to accompany and guide me as an invisible yet almost palpable team of angels, guiding and inspiring me every day.
The title “bodhisattva,” meaning “awakening being,” was applied solely to the Buddha in the earliest years of Buddhism. It was used to describe him during the pre-enlightenment period of his lifetime when he was known as Siddhartha Gautama (also Sakyamuni, chief of the Sakya clan), who, by most calculations, lived from 563 to 483 BCE and became enlightened in 528 BCE at age thirty-five. Additionally, the title “bodhisattva” was used to identify him in every one of his previous lifetimes as an animal or human being. During these prior existences, recorded in the beautiful and instructive Jataka (or “birth”) tales, he steadily evolved and developed the qualities that eventually led him toward his enlightenment. He later recorded these qualities, the attributes of a bodhisattva, in the ten transformative practices—the subject of this book.
In a Jataka tale that I especially like, the bodhisattva (that is, the future Sakyamuni Buddha) was born long, long ago as a dull, gray parrot. One day a fire broke out in his forest. As he instinctively flew out of the forest to safety, he saw many animals below that were trapped, as well as many plants and trees that were being destroyed, so he resolved to do whatever he could to save the forest. He flew down to the river, scooped up water with his wings, flew over the center of the fire, and shook the drops onto the flames. He did this over and over again, even though his small actions had no noticeable dampening effect on the raging inferno, and even though his feathers were becoming more and more charred by the flames.
On a cloud high above, several gods (in Sanskrit, devas) were leisurely feasting and watching the parrot. Some were poking fun at his futile efforts, but one of them secretly felt pity for him. This one changed himself into a huge eagle and flew down to urge the parrot to give up his effort and save himself. When the parrot refused, the eagle was moved to tears by the parrot’s compassion. These abundant divine tears put out the fire and saved the forest. What’s more, some of the tears fell on the parrot’s feathers and turned them from gray into a whole rainbow of bright colors.
This Jataka tale moves me on many levels. I admire the parrot’s gumption and fearlessness. I delight in the explanation of how parrots got their colorful feathers. But what I like most about this story is its lesson that we don’t need to do great, powerful, spectacular things to make a genuine difference or to become heroes. Nor do we need to be powerful beings or important leaders. We simply need to do the best that we can, even if it seems impossible that we’ll wind up doing anything special in the long run. It is purely our motivation and great-hearted bodhicitta in action that counts, not any attachment to a specific outcome.
Another way of putting it is that we need to focus on what we can do right now rather than wonder about how, specifically, the future is going to unfold. Who knows what wonderful, unexpected things may happen simply because we offer what we can? How easy it is for us to forget that our thoughts, words, and deeds, however insignificant they may seem to us, can affect others in many different, unpredictable, and profound ways. Who knows what help may come from the invisible array of bodhisattvas and spiritual friends surrounding us?