Our May ministry theme is compassion. I realize I’m not going to be preaching about compassion this month as it is time to preach my auction sermons! (See the worship calendar in this newsletter for brief descriptions of those sermons.) The last time compassion was our ministry theme was November, 2011. At that time, I quoted from the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.” These words come from his 1991 book, Peace is Every Step. The story Thich Nhat Hanh gives as background to this quote is still, for me, one of the most powerful descriptions of the source of compassion in human beings I’ve ever encountered. What follows is an excerpt adapted from my sermon on compassion in 2011.
Thich Nhat Hanh received a letter telling a tragic story about a young girl—a boat person, a refugee —who, having been raped by pirates, threw herself into the ocean and drowned. In Peace is Every Step he writes, “When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate…. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we 5/become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.” When Thich Nhat Hanh says “call me by my true names,” he is saying, essentially, not only am I me, I am also the young girl. And not only am I the young girl, I am also the pirate. He asks: “Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other?” Can we look at a tragic situation half-way around the planet and recognize the people in that situation in ourselves?
We are interconnected—with each other, with the entire mass of humanity, past, present and future. Thich Nhat Hanh would add we are each interconnected with all there is, past, present and future. He uses the term “interbeing” to express this fundamental condition of interconnectedness. We have many true names. This is not just something Buddhists teach, nor is it just abstract liberal religious language. It’s a truth claim. We are interconnected. I remind us of this truth in part because it’s easy to forget; because we wake up to it from time to time, but then fall back to sleep; because we learn it but then quickly unlearn it; because even though we know it in our heads, we don’t always live it. I remind us of this truth because our capacity to be compassionate people ultimately depends on our ability to remember it, to wake up to it, to relearn it, to feel it in our hearts. “Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.” 5/we all learn to call each other by our true names!