Compassion is catching

The owner of a small wine-shop in a not very prosperous district of Tokyo had to be a tough man, if only to deal with penniless alcoholics demanding a drink.

One such wine-shop proprietor related this incident to a Buddhist priest. It was the end of the year, when debts have to be settled.

Those who have collected the money owing, spend some of it on drink; those who cannot pay, hide from the debt-collectors or sometimes vanish to another part of the country.

One evening just before the New Year, a little girl of about seven came into his shop and asked for a bottle of Lao-shu wine, for which she offered three small rin coins, which would be only a fraction of the price. He was going to refuse abruptly, but something about the pure innocent little face made him pause.

He thought: “Of course she doesn’t know; perhaps she intends a surprise present for her father.” So on impulse, he gave her a tiny bottle of Lao-shu and took the money.

But next evening she was back with the little bottle and a single rin coin. He said impatiently: “No, I’m not going to do it.”

She burst into tears, and again he felt the impulse. He refilled the tiny bottle and took the coin.

Next evening she was back again with the bottle, but with no money.

He said: “No.” She just stood there, looking (as he described it) as if the world had come to an end. He refilled the bottle and gave it to her, Then he quietly followed her down the street, till she came to a tumble-down shack.

He went in after her, found no-one but a little boy of three lying on a mat. The girl was using the wine to massage his feet, which were swollen. She had apparently heard someone say that wine would cure swelling in the feet.

He learnt that the parents had abandoned the children and fled to escape creditors, and the few neighbours were not interested in looking after the two children.

He told the priest: “Though I suppose I am formally a Buddhist, I have never had much use for it: I just thought it could not be applied in ordinary life. I had no children of my own, and when I looked at that little girl rubbing the little boy’s feet, I felt a sudden rush of something in my heart. I picked him up and said to her: You’re both coming back with me to live with us in my family.”

“Since then, I have been coming every week to worship at your Kannon temple. And you know, for a good time I felt I was worshipping the spirit of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, in what the little girl did for her brother. And she is growing up into a real angel. But now I am realising what she did for me. The first time it was just a drop of generous feeling; then it was more, and finally – well, maybe that was the first time in my life that I had done any big action without calculating my own self-interest as well.”

“Yes, the compassion ration certainly went up and up, didn’t it?” agreed the priest. “My own teacher used to say that Compassion is catching.”


© 1999 Trevor Leggett

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