There’s a sutta in the Pali Canon where the Buddha draws an analogy between appreciating the good in someone you’ve got issues with, and lapping up water from a cow’s footprint in the middle of a scorching desert. Getting down on hands and knees, putting your face right into that animal puddle, feels problematic—compromising—but you need that clear water, just like you need the goodness and clarity in the person who also acts in a way you can’t abide. Ignore the things you don’t like, says the Buddha. The water in that hoofprint in the dirt could change everything. Ultimately, it’s not a compromise at all.
This image has been much on my mind of late, inspired by—of all things—the Pope’s recent visit to the United States. In media-time, Francis’s tour is such old news as to be unmentionable, and is generally treated as disposable like virtually every piece of the news we consume. But it’s still got me thinking. As a non-TV-watching feminist Buddhist, I hardly recognized myself in the person who was caught—hook, line, and sinker—in the man’s thrall. There’s much to admire about Francis, and then there are two millennia of Church shenanigans and abuse and brutality masquerading as doctrine to despise.
Still, while the pope was here, I followed a live stream of his every step, and hung on his every word from Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. I even ran home early one evening to watch as the humble black Fiat drove past my apartment building en route to the United Nations. I saw the pope’s arm, waving, and I yelped and jumped up and down—surprising my bemused son as much as I surprised myself.
But really, it’s not hard to figure where the thrill came from. What enraptured me, and plenty of others who don’t usually give pontifical things much positive thought, was the phenomenon of hearing profoundly countercultural messages, disseminated for five solid days, to a mass audience over mass media: “Beware the lure of materialism, because it is empty.” “Practice generosity.” “Spread goodwill.” “Take stock in the state of your heart.” “There is good in renunciation”—a term repeatedly translated from the pope’s Spanish as “sacrifice.” But renunciación means renunciation in the way Buddhists use it, and I want to think that’s how Francis meant it, too.
These are some of the same messages we hear in the dharma, however distinct the soteriological goal might be. Receiving this particular gospel over the same airwaves that incessantly deliver reality TV and Fox News and monetized everything was a revelation. I, along with thousands if not millions of others, drank it in like so much fresh water. Most of the time, our culture leaves us completely parched.
The hoofprint surrounding that water, though, jumped into sharp relief when I read about the pope’s conversation with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, in defiance of a federal court order. Suddenly, I felt like a dupe. Did that sub rosa meeting mean everything about the pope that sounds righteous to me is a sham? Is his simplicity, and that wonderful smile he shares with his companions in sickness, old age, and death (to quote some Thai Buddhists), a big political put-on?
Yes, the Vatican insists that the Kim Davis encounter had nothing to do with her objecting to gay marriage, and I followed the reportage that maybe, in fact, it was the pope who had been duped—into taking the meeting in the first place. I’d like to believe that’s true.
But as the specter of the hoof reasserted itself, I realized how I dupe myself. What I don’t like about Francis’s views—or what I perceive them to be—is not the problem. The problem is my own attachment to views, to my own egotistical sense of righteousness. Pope Francis is Pope Francis, before and after Kim Davis. His exhortations to examine our greed and cultivate generosity are the same, before and after his meeting with Washington’s bishops. The authentic value in his message is unsullied by whatever I might think is abhorrent in the past and present actions of the Church hierarchy. I need the clear water in the footprint of somebody else’s religion, of somebody else’s goodness, as much as I need anything.
The cowprint metaphor comes from the Aghatavinaya Sutta—the Subduing Hatred Sutta. The title used to bother me. I loved the imagery and the advice the Buddha gives, but I rarely consider my aversion to people to be hatred. Why couldn’t it be the dosa (aversion) sutta instead? It took my mental contortions over the pope to remind me how aghata flares up the moment I think someone has violated my views, and how that sense of violation is what muddies the precious water in the desert puddle. I have Pope Francis to thank for driving a good dharma lesson home.
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