When I started college I was confident that it would provide the foundation for what I would need to live the American dream. At the time, prospects for engineers were on the rise, promising interesting, lucrative careers and comfortable lifestyles. I felt no need to think about studying anything else. But a college experience exposes and stimulates the young mind to wider possibilities, and liberal arts classes opened my imagination to a world beyond logical, scientific thinking. An experience from more than sixty years ago remains vivid today.
In September, with football in the air, Literature 101 began with the study of Greek drama. It was like nothing I had ever come across. Until then, I was interested only in the objective, modern worlds of technology and sports. Lit. 101 introduced me to subjective realms – myth, poetry and literature – subtle worlds, undefined, beyond the ordinary.
The semester started with the study of “Prometheus Bound,” said to have been written by the playwright Aeschylus sometime in the fifth century BC, based on the myth of the half-god – half-human Prometheus. In the legend, Prometheus looks down from heaven, sees the suffering of mankind and gives it the gift of fire. This act infuriates Zeus. The most powerful of the gods punishes Prometheus in a cruel and painful way: chained eternally to a rock in space where an eagle returns each day to eat his replenished liver. The myth of Prometheus is far more complex than this brief highlight; I was relieved to learn that he is eventually freed.
Being half-god, Prometheus knows what was in store for him. Yet he makes the most profound personal sacrifice out of his sense of compassion for the suffering of the race of men. The legend dramatically illustrates – proclaims – the caring nature of the hero whose sensibility is not confined to myths, or to a few uniquely gifted individuals on the planet. Without exception, everyone has this inherent heroic potential. It is our true nature.
Extraordinary heroic actions of ordinary people are the greatest of gifts: risking one’s life to save the lives of strangers. Firefighters ignore their own safety to enter burning buildings. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. On January 6th in Washington, D.C., a lone Capital police officer diverted members of the mob from entering the Senate chamber, possibly saving lives. For the past year, ICU nurses have been working incredibly long hours at great risk to their own health and well-being. Their passion for the work and sense of caring is compelling. In a March letter-to-the editor, a nurse in Virginia summed up the heroic quality:
If you don’t know a nurse, you don’t know somebody who has compassion
the size of the universe – so we’re going to be there and we’re going to make
sure that patient doesn’t die alone.
Yet there is as well a less dramatic type of hero among us – unnoticed, quietly living modest lives. In some religions, they are known as saints. In Buddhism, they are the Bodhisattvas who work to relieve spiritual confusion and suffering by teaching the Dharma, engaging others with kindness, and giving of themselves in the moment. In Mahayana mythology, Bodhisattvas forsake their own entry to Nirvana so they can remain in the troubled world and guide all beings to enlightenment.
Compassion can be expressed wherever help is needed, not only in life-threatening circumstances or heroic deeds. Its only prerequisite is selflessness – the motivation to live without too much concern for personal wellbeing. It is beyond measure, manifesting from understanding life’s true value-added: taking care of each other and the world we live in.
The indifferent, cruel and all-powerful Zeus is the personification of the unpredictable, often harsh life on earth. The humanity of Prometheus, his inherently caring nature, leads to the relief of suffering. It is the foundation of our spiritual practice.
Abbot of Kannon Do