two possibly unrelated things, or, the man with the donkey

I subscribe to a newsletter from the Satipanya Buddhist trust in the UK. The guiding teacher there, an English monk by the name of Bhante Bodhidhamma, usually posts a short column called the Tip O’ the Day. Here is today’s post, titled Impulsive or Spontaneous?:

“When we act impulsively, we do so out of habit. A thoughtless reaction. There’s no reflection involved. And the word impulsive suggests that it is not skillful. We often regret what we have done. Somebody asks us to come and help in the garden. And we find ourselves saying, ‘Yes, I’d love to!’ And immediately comes that sinking feeling that we really didn’t want to do it. And that we don’t have the time. We would prefer to be doing something else. It scratches on the mind and we think of excuses. It can lead to fibbing. ‘Woke up feeling terrible. I’ve got a job to do. Someone I must see. Forgot all about it.’ Of course, we are prolific in our apologies. But it leaves an uncomfortable feeling. That’s the dread of being found out. The shame of it. There’s a Mullah Nasruddin story. He is tired of his neighbor asking for the use of his donkey. So on the next request, he tells him the donkey is being used by someone else. Just then the donkey brays. And when his neighbor raises his eyebrows, he asks, ‘Who are you going to believe? Me or my donkey?’ We all want to be spontaneous. It suggests skillfulness and joy. And we think that spontaneity should arise spontaneously! But it’s hard work to train ourselves towards a genuine, unaffected naturalness about what we do. Consider sport! How many times do tennis players practice their shots? And in the immediacy of the game their strokes are spontaneous. Not that they are always as accurate as they would want them to be. Consider performance artists whether actors or musicians. Although their performance seems so natural, there has been an enormous amount of practice beforehand. So it is with virtues. We need to consciously develop them – goodwill, generosity, patience and so on. And then every so often we shall surprise ourselves at our spontaneous, wise and joyful response.”

I recognize myself in Bhante Bodhidhamma’s words. I am the chronic promiser. I promise to call, to write, to send the package, the card, the email, the thank-you note. I promise to pick up someone else’s children. Call me if you need me, I say. We should get together some time, have dinner. I’ll cook. But like the man with the braying donkey, I usually get found out. I want to be perfect first, and only after I have attained perfection will I be ready to help others. Reading this essay made me think of Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey, which touches on the the notion that the only person you can save is yourself. There is a constant struggle within me between selflessness and selfishness. There is a Buddhist idea that we can’t save all beings until we save ourselves. But an equally forceful Christian idea is that by saving others first, we simultaneously save ourselves. What do you believe?



  1. Heidi

    I believe that I am driven to save others, or at least help them attain a happier life experience, and that on the continuum of life I don’t think there is time for me to save myself first. For one, because “saving myself” implies that I am lost and that isn’t necessarily true. I love you for making me contemplate these beliefs, and for the many other ways you bring me peace.

  2. Tara

    Michael, So well written and everyone can relate to this but I am left feeling that in the end…we must go through our own “storms” and reach through the other side before we can truly “be” there for others. I feel like I am now on the other side and it “fills me up” to help, write and nurture others. You are such a great writer and so insightful, thanks!!

  3. Leslie Trundy

    Michael – I liked this and it reminded me of something I heard at the 1st Bar Mitzvah I attended in late March of this year. It was for my co-worker who at 46 was becoming a 13 year old again and a man.

    At a Bat or Bar Mitzvah, wherever the congregation is within the Torah is the piece that the person having their Bar or Bat Mitzvah will read, study and for which they will make modern day meaning and speak about as part of their ceremony. Joanne spoke about the practice of the religion and the requirement to follow the rules – something she admitted she was not very good at doing (with which her husband agreed.) She said she was a recovering workaholic and she didn’t understand the reason behind lighting a candle at the start of the Sabbath – but she did it because she was told she had to – Over time she began to trust in the process of it – to internalize it and eventually she realized – lighting the candle helped her to draw the curtain around her family life an her religious life as separate from her work life.

    She went on to talk about a Austrailian Jazz Singer she had met that talked about the importance of learning the scales in music. – How it was only when she had practiced those scales so many times – to the place where she took them for granted – when her whole foundation in music was grounded within the scales that she had the freedom to move about.

    Joanne spoke about how the work of learning the Torah and preparing for her Bat Mitzvah had grounded her within her chosen faith in such a way that she had freedom.

    Your blog reminded of this need to be grounded before we can be free and spontaneous.

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