A meaningful encounter I had just over a year ago.
“I just read in the morning paper that coffee can reduce your cholesterol level” he said. I smiled politely as I handed the Thai woman money for the water I just bought. “This coffee is really nice” he continued as I was waiting for change. I’m not sure how the conversation went on but a few minutes later C. R was sharing with me his life story. He was 77. A heavy set American waiting for his wife who was uphill on Doi Sutap, a famous temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I spent a couple of weeks resting between two intensive meditation retreats.
He wasn’t very explicit but from what I understood, many decades ago, C. R was recruited as a sniper by the CIA or the black operation or some other dark American force. He was sent to Cambodia and Vietnam. His main task was to stop or slow down the flood of refugees in order to provide the U.S allies a head start when they needed it. The way to do it was to purposely shoot and injure one or two of the refugees. It had to be a severe enough wound which would require the whole group to stop and take care of the wounded person, thus buying time for the USA allies. I never asked how many people he had injured in this way.
Then one day C. R and his men were based somewhere on the Cambodian- Vietnam border and from their position they saw Paul Pet- the Cambodian leader and war criminal. The American snipers could have captured or even kill the crazy Cambodian relatively easy from their position and probably save the lives and agonies of millions of people for many decades to come. However, they received an order from above not to touch him or his men as they were assisting the US Army in Vietnam. I thought That was the horrific part but the story didn’t stop there.
The Cambodian group entered a small village which one of it’s’ residents was an opponent to the regime. They burnt down the village. When C. R and his fellows entered the burnt village, they were shocked to discover that the Cambodians burnt down the fields, the crops and the residential huts and shot dead all the cattle and all the members of all the twenty families that used to live there. There was only one survivor – a baby girl, severely burnt, crying helplessly.
The boys didn’t know what to do. The baby was suffering and there wasn’t much they could do for her as none of them had any medical background. The nearest hospital was three days walking away and they didn’t think the baby would make it. And they needed to continue their intelligence mission.
C. R was the one who shot and killed the baby girl.
He stopped there to see the effect his stories had on me and with tears in his eyes he asked me what I would have done in this situation. I looked at this old man and in a flash I saw all the sleepless nights and all the nightmares. I saw the regret and the guilt. I saw all the secrets he couldn’t share and all the ways he hated himself. I saw the helplessness and the hopelessness. I heard the judging voice telling him over and over again how bad he is. And I realized that this man has been living in hell most of his life, reliving that awful day with constant accusations and blame. A shiver went through my whole being. I breathed in and all I could say was “what an awful situation, I don’t know”.
There was a moment of silence then C. R continued, telling me in many different ways how lonely he is. How impossible it is for him to share his past with anyone, fearing they will hate him the way he hates himself. Then he paused and waited for a respond and I understood he wants to know if I too hated him now.
But I didn’t see the beast. What I saw was a kind, friendly, sensitive grandpa. I saw the wit and the humor. I saw the whole spectrum of life experiences, the good and the horrible. I wished he knew I didn’t hate him and didn’t need the verbal confirmation. When I try to explain love and compassion it’s never coming out the right way. I’m much better at just being, just loving. But I also knew that at that moment I represented humanity and C.R. needed to hear that he has been forgiven. So I talked a little about the web of conditions and situations that led him to the position he found himself in which resulted in the decisions and actions he had taken. I pointed to the bigger picture. I also acknowledged the goodness I had seen in him.
The conversation went on for a while and ended with him telling me that he and his wife spend half of every year living in Thailand and that the couple next door have a baby girl and how much he loves and spoils her. When he talked about that baby his whole face lit up and his eyes were shining and I knew there has been a closure to our conversation.
A month later, back on intensive retreat, trying to generate infinite loving kindness to all beings in all ten directions, it hit me that this experience has been genuine metta manifesting in me. And I finally understood what metta means. Metta is not a phrase we repeat to make ourselves concentrated or feel better. It is a selfless state of consciousness of total acceptance and no judgment. It’s the unconditionality of being with things, the spaciousness, the loving boundless emptiness. It’s the capacity of the heart to just be with the contradictions, with the joys and the sorrows, the dragon and the prince.
I also realized that at the time, the heart wasn’t just holding C. R’s pain, it was holding also the pain of Paul Pet the Cambodian mass killer, and the pain of anyone who has ever killed a human being, and the pain of all the soldiers, all the wardens, all the bullies and the tyrants and everyone who has ever hurt another being. And also the pain of all innocent victims. The heart was holding the pain of all parents and all children and also my pain and the pain each and every one of carry every single day, as we regularly “kill” ourselves and others in so many different ways.
I don’t know if our encounter meant anything to C. R. It sure meant a lot to me. Mother Theresa says that the success of love is in the loving and not in the result of loving, but if I had known back then what I know now, I would have done one more thing. I would do everything I could to help C. R find forgiveness for HISMELF. I would insist that HE could see, that under the circumstances, he had done the best he could, given who and what he was at that time. I regret not being wise enough back then because no one should die with so much guilt and grief and self hatred, not even killers.
And since we never know when we’ll die, none of us should live with so much pain. Regardless of what anyone has ever done to us. Despite the pain we have inflicted on ourselves and others. Despite all the secrets we cannot tell and all the fears to be discovered, there is beauty and tenderness and goodness in each and every one of us.
May we all recognize our beauty. May we all learn to live peacefully with all the contradictions. May we all be willing to let go (at least of some) hatred, resentment and guilt “to give ourselves more space to be”.
Inspired deeply by Stephen and Ondrea Levine whom I have never met. May I live and love like they do.