The piper was asked to play a graveside funeral service for a homeless man. He had no family or friends, so the service was held in the pauper’s section of the cemetery. The piper got lost on the way to the cemetery and by the time he got there, even the funeral directors were gone but he saw some workers sitting around the grave site eating lunch. So he arrived at the site, apologized to the men and started playing his bagpipes.
The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. He played with heart and soul for this poor man with no family and friends. As he played ‘Amazing Grace,’ the workers began to weep. They all wept together. When he had played for about 15 minutes, he packed up his gear and headed for his car. He felt heavy hearted but good about giving the poor deceased man a proper send off.
As he was opening the door to his car, he heard one of the workers say, “Wow, I never seen nothing like that before and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”
The man skulked into his car and drove quickly away.
I associate bagpipes with childhood because we lived near enough to some sort of bagpipe practice center that it sounded like they were in my bedroom every night. Even though I agree with the saying, “You’ve heard one bagpipe tune, you’ve heard them both” I find the sound strangely calming and peaceful.
Like the piper in the story, I was called to lead a funeral for a homeless man in the pauper section of the cemetery. In this case, there was NOONE present; the funeral directors waited in their cars, there were no family or friends, no piper and no workers. It was just me and the grave-site. I wondered what to do. Do I just say something brief and move on, or give the poor man a proper send off?
I was so moved by compassion at the thought that someone could live their whole life and not have a single person present at their funeral, that I gave the man a full 20 minute service. I even broke out in song, stood in silence, said prayers, gave a eulogy of sorts and sprinkled dirt on his coffin.
It was one of those times in life that didn’t fully compute. Looking back it was one of my better moments. But at the time, it didn’t make much sense. To an onlooker, I may have appeared insane, talking and singing to myself.
Unconditional compassion is like that. It doesn’t always compute. It needs no reason. It’s pure feeling, a raw sense of common humanity. There’s only a fine line between any of us, piper and pauper, hopeful and homeless, dead and living. To be honest, I sometimes wonder how many will attend my own funeral after living in a lot of different places. Its eerie to imagine your own funeral.
Conditional compassion is easy. I can feel compassion for my kids without a problem. I can feel compassion for victims of awful crimes easily. It’s no stretch to feel compassion for a homeless person. It’s a small, but doable stretch to feel compassion for life’s detractors and nemeses. But stretch to include perpetrators of violence or corrupt politicians, and I find myself searching for reasons. Why should I feel compassion for people who know exactly what they’re doing and how much harm they’re causing and do it anyway?
The point is that there is NO reason to feel compassion for these people. But unconditional compassion needs no reason. It feels compassion without question.
Buddha said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” That’s a great starting point for unconditional compassion but I would take it further. If your compassion does not include EVERYONE, it is incomplete. Conditional compassion is incomplete.
I’m yet to meet anyone who is unconditionally compassion. I certainly have my conditions. But I will keep stretching, to demand fewer and fewer reasons to feel compassion and to include more and more beings in my compassion, on the path towards unfettered, unreasonable, extravagant compassion that doesn’t compute. I will start by having compassion for my lack of compassion and see where that takes me.
The expectation that people need to prove themselves, meet our standards, give us a reason to love them is an insatiable beast. It’s a prison built with bars of judgment. I like Einstein’s words,
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.