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The generous doctrine of Skillful Means.

The special, poignant case of Harold and John

There is a Buddhist doctrine called Skillful Means. Found in the Lankhavatara Sutra, it tells of the generosity of the Buddha. According to the doctrine, all things have a redemptive dimension, even those that seem to negate redemptive possibility. It is one of the most generous doctrines I have ever read.

A disciple listens intently to the Lord Buddha as he speaks of the way to bliss, and after the discourse confesses to the Lord Buddha that he fears for those who are deaf and therefore never hear the words that assist to salvation. How then, he asks, shall they be saved?

The Lord Buddha assures the disciple that, out of a compassionate need to save all sentient things, he will take on what is most weak and scorned, and in that very becoming shall make of human weakness a vehicle. He assures the disciple that deafness is indeed his very presence. It is through such Skillful Means that weakness becomes salvific, for the Lord Buddha is in all things.

I first saw Harold and John at a Monday night novena. They came with their little prayer books and rosary beads, and did so every Monday night for nine weeks. They were in their mid-50s. John was a slightly built man, with reddish hair that never was combed. He always had a smile on his face and asked all sorts of questions about getting to heaven. There was something childlike about him.

Harold was heavier. He wore baggy pants and red-flannel shirts and seemed to keep a watchful eye on John. They both smoked nonfiltered Pall Malls and their fingers were yellowed. They would wait after the novena to chat with me on the church steps and, over the weeks, I learned something of where they came from and how they found each other.

Both had been married. Both had suffered through various constellations of mental illness and had been forcibly institutionalized. John seemed less able to cope; he was constantly on tranquilizers. Both had gradually lost touch with their pasts or had been abandoned by them. They were living in a rooming house not far from the church. They met each other there and more or less looked after each other. I could see them walking together up and down the main street of the town.

Both were concerned about salvation.

John once came to see me and we sat on the steps of the rectory. He was upset and started to cry as be told me he was going through a painful depression and was afraid that he would be sent back to an institution.

I did not know what to say, other than I had read that sometimes depression is therapeutic, as painful as it is. It could mean, I told him, that there is a process going on in his heart, a process that would lead to something good. I related to him that creative people frequently suffer such periods. He looked at me with a definite sense of hope and asked whether I thought he was creative. I assured him he was, in that Harold would be lost without him. He smiled, he really did, and said that he would feel better about that. Harold came to church alone not long after that night and I asked him where John was. He said that John had to be sent away for a while but that the hospital was not too far away. Would I go see him and bring cigarettes? I did. I brought a carton of Pall Malls. Heavily sedated, John was despondent. He said he had failed again, and cried from his anguish that he had no control over the waves of anxiety that would overwhelm and then so depress him. I gave him the carton of cigarettes and told him to try to take one day at a time, not to think too far down the road. He was grateful that I had stopped to see him.

He eventually was released from the hospital and went through a fairly peaceful period, until the day when Harold felt things slipping fast and disappeared for several weeks. John slid into another depression and had to return to the hospital for a few weeks. The longer I knew them, the more I became familiar with such being the pattern of their lives. What so moved me was how they managed, in the best of times, to offer such sensitive and concerned support for each other. In those times, they found comfort in novenas, daily Mass and the like, listening to holy words and hoping they had some claim to such a hopeful largess.

Such a small fraction of human consciousness is intentionally directed toward such lofty ideas as salvation. We get by, somehow, and manage to direct our thinking and planning along the gathering of simple leisures of life and the avoidance of pain. In their better moments, John and Harold directed their need toward holy things. The raw and painful circumstances of their lives carved a ready appetite for the immediately salvific. Periodically, overwhelmed by the merciless darkness of depression, they would always bounce back on a sunnier day to listen and smile and hope.

Most Christians assume the Kingdom can only be had through some sort of feat, as if we must be someone or do something to arrive there. Be strong, be loving, be wise and this ye shall have.

There exists in every human life a fundamental weakness, an inability to fashion to our satisfaction the optimum personae that we project beyond our known and weak selves. Creation is flawed at its heart, and no power is ours that can heal the flaw that we feel and are, and make things all right.

From their hurt, out of their weaknesses, John and Harold found and responded to each other as best they could. I doubt very much that they translated such as religious, salvific or whatever. They sat in a pew waiting to hear good news and never realized how it was somehow incarnate in them and revealed precisely through their pain and concern for each other.

To such as John and Harold belong the Kingdom. It must have seemed so very far away from them, but I felt it so very near, in their gestures, in their hopes, in their so wanting it, in their doing what they could to ease each other's life with a touch of grace. Indeed, their hunger for such, for a Kingdom, for lasting goodness, convinces me that there is such a place.

They would sit in church, gazing ahead at the enshrinement of divine mysteries, wondering about salvation, hoping that some redemptive grace would fall their way. And I saw in them humankind, weak and in such need, awaiting a God who was born unto us all though pain and discouragement.

They looked for a strong deity, a healing one. I would think of the good Lord Buddha as I watched John and Harold walking down a street, wondering about the plight of their lives as they listened to each other with kindness and patience, giving to each other something of the very thing they were in such hope of finding.

I have read about salvation and still wonder. As I would see Harold fumble through his pockets to find a Pall Mall for John, the printed word and human life emerged.

What is salvation and how do we get there?

The Lord Buddha smiled and spoke.

Harold offered John a cigarette.
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Title Annotation:Spirituality
Author:Behrens, Jeff
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 26, 1993
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