I am in Rewalsar, India, a holy place to Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains alike. The Dalai Lama will be here tomorrow to consecrate the massive statue of Guru Rinpoche who compassionately gazes, wide-eyed, over the sacred lake and the world at large. I don’t know this yet, but I will see His Holiness up close again tomorrow afternoon and it will be just as moving and inspiring as always.
But for now I am trying to rest in my room after a hot, dusty, bumpy, eight-hour bus ride across the Kangra valley and back up into the Himalayan foothills. I am almost asleep when I hear the commotion explode outside my window. It’s a puppy yelping in agony and the sound stabs me in the heart. “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” I say to myself forgetting that I’m anyone, too.
When I do remember, I jump out of bed and run down the stairs onto the street. There is the taxi that ran the ten-week old pup over. The driver is wincing, holding the steering wheel tight, not wanting to move forward or backward, afraid that the cries are coming from the poor creature stuck under one of his tires. But the puppy is not under the tires. He’s in the middle of the road, his back leg extended out from his body as if he is trying to push the source of his pain as far way from him as he can.
The driver rolls forward slowly and when the puppy doesn’t stop screaming he just takes off down the narrow street of ramshackle guesthouses, dhabas, and shops. This leaves me, the puppy, and the puppy’s mother now in the middle of the road. The mother is frantic. She runs to her pup, sniffs him and whines. She looks helpless and frightened as she runs back and forth from him to me. I swear that the look in her eyes says, “Help me, please.”
So I try. The puppy is trying to walk but each time his back leg even brushes the asphalt his cries of pain only get louder. I have no idea what to do but I move forward thinking that if I can pick him up, at least I can keep him from standing on his leg. He backs away and braces himself on the injured limb. He screams one more time before scurrying off to the side of the road where he and his mother disappear into the brambles and down a trash strewn hillside.
I am left wondering if I did more harm than good. But at least they’re off the road.
I go back to my room. I feel helpless just like the mother. I am thinking now not just about her and her pup but of all the beings in this world who are suffering. They are so many! And they are all crying out: please, help me.
As Mahayana Buddhists, we aspire to be of help to everyone. But now I see just how huge that aspiration is. I see all the beings who are suffering in this world, like a snapshot in my mind’s eye. All the insects, the birds, the fish, the human beings, the puppies with broken legs spread out across the world, shoulder to shoulder. They are an endless throng and suddenly I feel so small.
The sight of all of this brings me to tears. Sobbing, cleansing, free-flowing tears. But it’s not just the realization of the quantity of pain in the world. What really brings on this flood of emotion is the awe that I now feel knowing that beings like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, and my own precious teacher are undaunted by it. They vow, fearlessly, each and every day, to help others despite the seeming impossibility of success.
This is the risk of the open heart. It’s facing the reality of the suffering of this world and not turning away. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it’s scary. But we can cultivate the courage to do what we can. This is what our teachers are telling us.
My heart is aching softly now. But it doesn’t hurt as much as I once feared. To say yes to the world and all the beings in it, to say that I will at least try to help, even if my set of skills is still woefully incomplete, is a kind of freedom that I never expected or imagined. And as I wipe the tears away, I know that to keep trying is the only thing to do.