In "The Quantum and the Lotus," a book-length dialogue between astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan (born a Buddhist), and former scientist Matthieu Ricard, who left the Pasteur Institute to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Ricard writes of why he abandoned his scientific career for the monastery. He says, "I followed where my passions led, while trying not to waste a single moment of this priceless human existence." More:
I think what everyone should be doing, before it's too late, is committing themselves to what they really want to do with their lives. Scientific research was interesting, of course, but I felt as though I was just adding a tiny dot of color to a pointillist canvas without knowing what the final composition would be like. So was it worth giving up all the unique opportunities of a human existence for that? In Buddhism, on the other hand, the point of departure, the goal to be reached, the means to that end, and the obstacles in the way are all perfectly clear. All you have to do is to look into your own mind and see that it is so often dominated by egoism, and that egoism derives from a deep ignorance of the true nature of ourselves and of the world. This state of affairs inevitably makes us and others suffer. Our most urgent task is to put a stop to this.
This passage brought to mind an email I'd sent to a mutual friend of Ruthie's and mine, who'd written this morning asking how she was doing. I told our friend that she was living in a state of blessedness. The phrase sounded odd coming from me, but I don't know how else to describe it. On the phone the other night, Ruthie told me about an hour she'd spent talking to a needy stranger, and what a wonderful time that was. Ruthie was almost ebullient discussing all the people coming into her life now because of the cancer. I mentioned to our friend that, given the particulars of this stranger's life and situation, I probably would have been fidgeting to get out of there. Ruthie has always been a nicer and more patient person than her brother, but nevertheless, I honestly don't think she would have given this stranger that much time before the cancer. But now she finds she wants to spend time with people like that -- with people who need someone to talk to, to disburden themselves, to balm their own suffering.
She is ... happy. She really is. God knows she'd rather not have cancer, but she's finding that it has brought her to a state of enlightenment. Ruthie doesn't talk like that, but that's exactly what she's living through. Somehow, facing the very real prospect of her imminent death has unleashed the floodgates of compassion within her. It's awesome. And to think: the opportunity to experience that is always there! Every single day, we can choose to see the world differently, and to act differently towards others. With love. With compassion. And yet, every day, so many of us choose to remain in deep ignorance ... or to read about how we ought to be compassionate and loving instead of actually do it, and live it, and be it. Why? This is my question. This is my problem.