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My Brother’s Keeper? October 8, 2007

Posted by mm69 in Uncategorized.

Barack Obama is a feisty guy. Aside from his wife –who might consider less conjugal dressing-down in public — the presidential candidate doesn’t seem to be scared of very much, including political incorrectness. Asked recently about social responsibility, Barack tossed caution to the conservative winds, announcing that, “I am my brother’s keeper!” This comment was striking to me — not only because the gangly, cigarette-smoking, Abe Lincoln-drawling, baby-faced, would-be President seemed to be turning a cliche on its head — delivering a commie-sounding social ideal as fodder to his Republican opponents — but because it forced me to realize how often I (and many other mind-your-own-business types) hide behind disinterest in the name of detachment, unhelpfulness in the name of non-interference. But am I my brother’s keeper, I wondered? Or was this socialist clap trap? Is it virtuous or cowardly to turn our backs on problems which might not affect us directly, but cause others clear and present danger? Where is the line between us and them? When is it right to cross it? Barack’s audacious remark made me wonder, or was the belief in such a line merely a license not to care? Not to be troubled with others’ pain? I was brought up in the church of To Each His Own — the temple of Mind Your Own Ps and Qs — where self-obsession was next to godliness. But where did this church lead, exactly? Which brothers, in its shallow gospel, were actually worthy of my keeping? Only me and mine, I realized. This left the family of man outside the circle of what I needed to worry about in any direct or responsible way. And yet, how cold and incomplete, how isolating and insufficient such an ethos could become. With his candor, Barack made me rethink this old saw; to consider that, maybe, I was the keeper (i.e. the direct relation) of needy brothers and sisters I’d sought to keep at a distance. Maybe minding one’s business is never enough when the world is on fire and burning fast. Barack seems to think so.

– Mark Matousek, Contributing Editor



1. Andy - October 8, 2007

I think that Obama’s conclusions chime both with his own Christian tradition and with the teachings of Buddhism. We cannot, after all, easily separate ills which affect us directly and ills which do not. Everything is interdependent.

Obama alludes to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which is prompted by someone asking ‘Lord, who is my brother’s keeper?’ Buddhism has its equivalent, I believe, in the story of Asanga. Here’s how David Edwards tells it in his incredible book, The Compassionate Revolution:

“Asanga, we are told, decided to remove himself to the seclusion of the mountains to meditate as a hermit and devote himself to achieving the blessing of a vision of the Buddha Maitreya (that is, an experience of truth, wisdom and compassion). For twelve years, Asanga meditated in extreme hardship and appeared to achieve nothing. In dismay he eventually decided that enough was enough and abandoned his retreat. That very afternoon, however, as he descended from his mountain, Asanga came across a terribly injured dog lying by the side of the road. Though alive, the dog’s front legs were missing, the lower half of its body a seething mass of maggots. Despite its pitiful condition, the leg snapped aggressively at passers-by, trying to bit them by dragging itself along the ground with its two remaining legs.
At the sight of such dreadful suffering, Asanga was overwhelmed by compassion. In an attempt to provide some relief he cut a piece of flesh from his own body and fed it to the dog. Then, seeing that the dog was literally being eaten alive by the maggots, he bent down to remove them from its rotten flesh. But fearful that the delicate bodies of the larvae might be damaged were he to prise them off with his fingers, Asanga determined that the only way to remove them safely was with the tip of his tongue. Kneeling down, he took in the terrible, writhing mass, closed his eyes, put out his tongue and… found his tongue was touching the ground where the dog had been, but no more.
Opening his eyes, the hermit looked up and beheld an awesome sight: before him stood the Buddha Maitreya, shining in an aura of light.
“At last,” said Asanga, “why did you never appear to me before?”
Maitreya spoke softly: “It is not true that I have never appeared to you before. I was with you all the time, but your negative karma and obscurations prevented you from seeing me. Your twelve years of practice dissolved them slightly, so that you were at last able to see the dog. Then, thanks to your genuine and heartfelt compassion, all those obscurations were completely swept away, and you can see me before with your own eyes.”
Maitreya then demonstrated to Asanga how few people were able to perceive the vision of the crippled dog – not only could they not feel compassion for the suffering animal, they could not even see it. Asanga put Maitreya on his shoulder. “What have I got on my shoulder?” Asanga asked. “Nothing,” most people replied. Only one woman answered “You’ve got the rotting corpse of an old dog on your shoulder, that’s all.”
Now at last, it seems, Asanga finally understood the transforming power of compassion.
It is surely not difficult to translate these symbols into modern terms. The monstrous and pitiful dog writhing in agony represents the horror and suffering of our world. It is, for example, the monstrous truth of Third World torture and suffering, of environmental collapse, of the misery and despair of our own hedonistic lifestyles, and the origins of these tragedies in our greed and ignorance. Our inability to perceive or care about these tragedies is conditional not merely upon our self-deceptive aversion from anxiety, but on our lack of compassion, on our unwillingness to see the truth behind our greed.
Compassion, then, as the tale of Asanga makes clear, is not merely about giving money from a position of ignorance, but about overcoming our selfishness sufficiently to want to see the truth – it is not a lack of charity but a lack of understanding born of a lack of desire to understand that it at the root of Third World torture and environmental collapse. It is compassion, and the understanding of the causes of suffering it brings, that is the greatest gift we can offer those suffering innocents.”

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