A Practice Story: Compassion

Submitted by a Zen Student at Kannon Do

I started sitting zazen when I was in college many years ago. My initial reasons for starting to sit were fairly typical for beginning meditators. I wanted to reduce the stress in my life, to help focus my mind and to help compensate for the lack of sleep I was getting due to late night study sessions.

In fact, meditation did fulfill my initial goals but after a few years I started to see myself more clearly. I could easily see how I was selfishly focused on my career and trying to get ahead and make money. It wasn’t that I was unkind or mean but I was not actively helping others. Soon after this I joined the Sangha of Kannon Do where I noticed a lot of unselfish and compassionate behavior. People donated a lot of time in maintaining and supporting the Sangha as well as participated in out-reach programs such as feeding the poor.

The more I sat the more the feelings of compassion and empathy arose within me. I felt my mind slowly transformed from small-mind to big-mind. It was if compassion was a muscle where one had to train to maintain it. If I stopped sitting for a while I noticed myself slipping back to my old self. Over time it became easier and more natural to be more aware of others and practice compassion. As I started to see my own mind more clearly I could then see others’ minds.

In the beginning it was easy to be more compassionate to my friends and families since I truly cared for them. This is when I started to notice the reflectivity of compassion. For example, after helping someone I often noticed that a greater kindness was returned either by the person I helped or from someone else that was indirectly connected. Many times I would do a small favor for a friend and later they would return the favor in a much more generous fashion than the original favor even though many years might pass. It was if the original action was reflected and amplified back in return.

Or sometimes the returned kindness would occur in very unexpected ways. One time I lent a friend some money and later she paid back the debt. I had forgotten all about it until about a year later I had a gardener do some work for me in my yard and when I asked for the bill he insisted on not taking any fee because he was also a friend of the woman I had lent the money to and he appreciated what I had done and wanted to thank me by doing the gardening work for free. I was quite surprised, as I didn’t even realize that they knew each other.

But over the years I noticed that for many being compassionate in a work environment was difficult due to the competitive nature of Silicon Valley. It seemed that people didn’t want to be perceived as ‘soft’ or be in the position that they could be taken advantage of. But in fact over the years of managing teams of engineers I noticed that the team was more productive and relaxed if managed more through kindness than from any set of strict rules. People worked harder and put in extra effort when it was really necessary if they had been given the time off to be with their family during a difficult time.

I especially remember one instance that truly had an expansion of reciprocal compassion in dealing with a personal problem of one of my team members named Tim (not his real name). Tim had become increasingly more unreliable at work and was arriving later and later in the morning. He had had his driver’s license taken away and had to take public transportation to work. He often called in sick on Mondays and I was worried that he may have a severe drug or alcohol problem. This was confirmed abruptly one day as someone saw him selling drugs from a company car he had borrowed in order to pick up some supplies for me.

The personnel department recommended that I terminate him immediately due to his drug problem. But I was worried that he would just get worse without a job and his life would just spiral out of control. I was able to convince our employer to pay for a residential drug rehabilitation program where Tim was able to stay for several weeks. Afterwards he returned to work for me again. Tim really made an effort to give up drugs and became a very hard worker and loyal employee. In fact he gave lectures to the local high schools on drug addiction and volunteered a lot time in helping others give up drugs.

About once a year he continues to contact me to keep in touch and he appears to be drug free and still volunteers his time to help other addicts. He often mentions that my helping him enter a rehabilitation program completely changed his life and may have saved it in the long run. He has paid back that favor many times by returning to the work force and by helping others with a similar problem.

Time and time again I have noticed this reflection of compassion where a kind action has created an even larger reaction in returned kindness. But sometimes it may take a long time for me to notice, as it is often subtle or indirect in its nature. This is the true power of Zen practice.