A Story by Carolyn Atkinson

At Everyday Dharma Zen Center, our theme for this Autumn Practice Period has been The Willingness to Look Again.  The willingness to look again at our minds, our hearts, our lives—this is what we are trying to do as we sit down together, over and over again. And this leads us to consider what we are doing with our lives, what we are choosing to do.  What are our deep intentions, in living these lives?

Many of us wonder about this question, even such a well-known man as Aldous Huxley. This great man of letters, when asked on his death bed to summarize what he had learned in  his long, distinguished life, is said to have replied: It’s a bit embarrassing to tell you this, but it seems to come down mostly to just learning to be kinder.  Imagine:  it may be simpler than we realized.  It comes down mostly to learning to be kinder.  I think we can work with that.

My teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi, visited Everyday Dharma just a few weeks after 9-11.  A number of people were still upset, frightened, and angry.  One young woman raised her hand and asked Kobun: What can I do about all these painful feelings of fear and grief and despair?  What should I do?

Kobun pondered carefully for a while, looking at the tatami mat in front of him. Finally he rocked his body back and forth a bit, tilted his head to one side and replied in a soft voice, Do one kind thing for someone every day.

Do one kind thing for someone every day—so simple, so clear.  Just choose to do one kind thing for someone every day. We don’t need to make grand gestures; we don’t need permanent resolutions. We can just reach out, with kindness.  As Aldous Huxley said:  . . . it seems to come down mostly to just learning to be kinder.

Here’s a poem called Kindness, written by Naomi Shihab Nye.  At the end of the poem, she pens the word: Colombia.  She was talking about being in Colombia, so we could say to ourselves that probably what she’s writing is not really about our lives here in the United States.  Surely, she’s writing about another time and another place?  But actually, this poem is about us. It’s our story too. I would like to share her poem interlaced with a small story, so that we can perhaps imagine . . . oh this could be us! This could be each of us.  All of us. It could be me.  It could be you.


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.

The phone call comes; someone you love is gone. Disappeared. Your life will not be the same.  Suddenly, the future that you’d planned, the ideas about the way it would be—all this is gone, dissolved in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,

The coins of planning, the security of ideas, the stability of hope and expectation.

all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Life can change in a moment. We don’t know what’s coming. What we hold in our minds is mostly the idea of safety. We live—as animals, we need to live—counting on a plan;  but  everything can change . . . in a moment.

Here it is again, she says:

What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Have you been on that bus?  Come with me; let’s take this journey together. It’s an old bus, rounded corners, belching smoke.  At one time, it was painted a beautiful, brilliant white color, it spoke about dreams coming true, this bus.  Now, it’s become grey, and a bit grim—years of smoke and rain and dust have turned the bus gradually into a rolling piece on the unpaved road.

But, there it is—there’s the bus. We should get inside, because it leaves whenever it’s filled.  There’s a seat near the back. A young woman sits next to the window cradling a much younger child in her arms. She’s the sister, maybe—she looks so young herself.  She has big brown eyes, a shy smile. She shushes her little sister who is snuffling, the sobs that come after crying hard.  You sit down next to her, you smile—it’s OK. She looks relieved.

In front of you, to the right, there’s a man sitting near the aisle, he has long black hair streaked with gray, it’s pulled back with a rubber band. He has a soft felt hat jammed on his head; he wears a white poncho and  faded grey pants. In the rack over his head there are two live chickens in a crate. He seems pleased—is it a present to take to the sister he goes to visit?  He looks up frequently, to see that the chickens are all right. He smiles softly to himself.  Other packages spill over the floor around him.  He dozes in his seat off and on, during the long ride.

You ride and ride for hours. Finally the bus stops for the rest rooms, to get gas. You climb out, over the spilled packages, stretch your legs; too soon you are told it’s time to get back on. You’ve bought a bottle of Fanta orange drink, as a treat for the continuing journey.  You sit down in your seat and glance to your left—the little girl, the crying girl looks silently at you with big eyes. She looks at the Fanta.  And then she turns away to the window.  You reach over, you tap her on the arm and gesture to her—would you like this drink? She looks at you, she doesn’t know how to respond.  She turns to her big sister who smiles down at her and nods. Gratefully, shyly—she reaches out to take the drink.

You stand up and walk to the front of the bus, you ask the driver to wait just a moment, and you go back to the little push cart selling Fanta drinks. You buy two more—two more orange Fanta for the journey.  You climb back on and give one of these to the big sister. Now you each have a bottle.  None of you say anything.  Their eyes are large and dark. Their eyes are grateful and shy.

The bus powers up and you leave again, slowly, lurching away from the rest stop. Only, when you look up and to your right, the old man isn’t in his seat anymore. You glance out the window, to the left, beyond the young girl carefully cradling her drink, and you see him. He’s outside. He’s there. On the ground.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,

Oh–it could so easily be you. It could be me. He lies partly on his side, partly on his stomach, as if he’s only gone to sleep for a moment. But people walk around him, as if he isn’t there. He’s not sleeping. He’s dead. You can see it, by the particular stillness in his body. He’s lying dead by the side of the road.  No one seems to notice. People keep walking around him.

You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

He was bringing chickens, live chickens, to his sister.  He hadn’t seen her for years. They were both so excited that he could come home at last.  But she won’t see him now. She will wonder where he is. She will sit late into the night at her small kitchen table, one light burning so he can find his way home. She will wonder and wonder.

And this could be you. It could be your son. Your sister. Your mother.  Your father. Your daughter. It could be me. It could be us.  It could be all of us.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

This cloth of humanity—all the threads are  woven together. You can’t pull out just the grey threads, the black threads, the red threads. They are all woven together into a poncho. A white poncho, a black, red and gray poncho. This is your life. This is my life. This is our Life.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Only kindness makes sense anymore. Only kindness.  When we look closely, we can see that this life is so fragile. It’s so tender and so precious. And yet most of the time, we can’t make this life be what we want; we can’t make it be some grand and glorious thing that we construct. But here’s what we can do:  as Kobun suggested, we can try to be kind.  Perhaps we can make this our intention, that we will do one kind thing for someone every day?  Maybe we can do this.  I find it helps me to remember the Indian by the side of the road. I remember the little girl. I remember myself.  And I remember you. This could be you. This could be me. Life is short and it is unexpected. And also this:  it is infinitely precious. So, let us be kind. It seems to come down . . . mostly   . . . to learning to be kind.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness,” in Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Portland, OR: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1995, p. 42.


© 2019 by Carolyn Atkinson. All rights reserved.