I’m waiting in line at the bakery, the one with the “fabulous concoctions that will add that extra flair to all your special events.” I’m hoping they’re right. I’m hosting a special event tonight and I need all the help I can get, flair-wise.
The morning has not gone well so far. While putting gas in my car, the stupid pump-hose-thingie leaked all over my gloves. I tossed them in the trunk hoping there might be a way to clean them. (They were really good leather gloves my husband gave me; no way was I throwing them out.) Coming here, the check-engine light blinked on and off, and then just started fluttering. I’m not even sure what that means. Then my co-host for the night’s festivities called to say she was really, really sorry but she hadn’t had time to make her famous homemade biscotti after all and could I grab some when I picked up the cake? I’d ordered this cake a week ago because I wanted tonight to go well and wasn’t taking any chances. I’m a terrible cook, an iffy baker and a jittery host and this was a chance to return at least a few of the lovely invitations we’d had to other people’s parties. People who were good cooks, terrific bakers and charming hosts, people whose parties we wanted to continue being invited to. I’ve been nervous about this for days.
Checking out the pastry cases, I did not see biscotti. I’ve got about 18 more stops to make before I can go home, finish the last little tweaks on a project due tomorrow and then get myself cleaned up, dressed and ready to party. I’m standing in line wondering if gas fumes building up in my trunk could make it explode, when a snarky voice says, “Yeah?”
The young girl behind the counter has blue streaks in her hair, a pierced lip and a nose ring. I explain I’m here to pick up a special order and she disappears for a minute only to return empty-handed. “It’s not there.” I show her my receipt. She looks at it and shrugs. “I’ll look again but I didn’t see anything.” She leaves. I can hear the man behind me sighing impatiently. Finally the girl returns with a large box and while I’m checking to make sure it’s the right cake, she starts ringing it up. I tell her I want biscotti. She says, “We’re all out.” I say, “Cookies, then,” pointing to the nearest tray in the nearest case. “Two dozen of those.” She leans down and pulls out a flat piece of cardboard and slowly begins putting tab A into slot B. The man behind me goes to find someone else to wait on him. After what feels like an hour and a half, the cookies are in the box and the girl punches buttons at the register. She gets the price wrong. Really wrong. I’m about to respond in a sharp, withering voice when I remember— The Vow.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there’s this thing called the Bodhisattva vow. When you take it, you are promising to:
1) try to become enlightened
2) once you do, to stick around and devote your life to helping others.
It’s kind of a big commitment.
Years ago, as a young practitioner, I was seriously hesitant to take this step. To tell the truth, I didn’t even really understand what “enlightenment” might look like in real life. The pretty pictures of auras, beatific faces and lotus blossoms were nice and all but what, exactly, would enlightenment look like in my comparatively drab existence here in 20/21st century America? You know, boots on the ground, so to speak.
When I learned that enlightenment meant you were no longer trapped in your own narrow sense of things but could see clearly what was needed at any given moment and would know how to act without adding more tsuris—or troubles—to whatever was going on in the first place, and you would be happy doing it, I despaired anew. What kind of insane optimism was that?
The teacher explained: the vow was an aspiration, not a contract, and he warned against what he called “idiot compassion.” This being the act of service or kindness that is undertaken in order to convince yourself and others that one is a good person. For instance, when you really want to say: “Look, you lost your job a year ago and you’ve been drunk pretty much ever since. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay anymore—get a grip,” But you don’t. You commiserate yet again, murmuring how hard it must be and how sorry you are, and you do this because you are the greatest, kindest, most compassionate person in the world or, if not the world, in the circle of friends you used to have together but now everyone has stopped talking him or her. This is idiot compassion, a kind of social fear. You want to be seen to be “good.” But it’s not good and it’s not, in the long run, helpful. This is why the basic Buddhist tenet has two components – compassion and wisdom. It takes wisdom to know how to be truly compassionate.
So that was a useful distinction but I remained hesitant until I learned that for most of us seeking guidance on how to cope in the world, the Bodhisattva ideal, isn’t about becoming a perfect being. It’s more like this: If we have an honest wish not to make things worse for ourselves or others, we can, maybe, possibly, occasionally, experience a flash of enlightened awareness where compassion might arise. And every little moment of being aware in this way slows down the general craziness and contributes to the greater good. When you take that vow, you’re promising to pay attention to this possibility, to give it a shot, to keep trying.
Here, now, within this crowded bakery full of rushed, impatient people, all trying to get what they want, all with their sincerely held reasons for wanting it, I remember again. I take a deep breath and look in the girl behind the register’s eyes. I see that behind the gruff bluff, there’s something else. She seems almost hurt. She doesn’t want to be here but she has to be. Like she’s kind of trapped. In that moment, my irritation drains away, leaving room for something else. Instead of a curt call for the manager, I say, “That’s okay. Let’s start again.”
She looks up at me, surprised by the soft tone in my voice. Her shoulders drop a bit. Then she bites her lip and says, “I’m sorry.”
“No, really honey, it’s okay.”
She smiles shyly. “Thank you,” she whispers.