After months of intensive study of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva in a class with Pema Chödrön, my classmates and I were invited to take the bodhisattva vow, which is a commitment to dedicate oneself to all beings that is at the very heart of the Mahayana Buddhist path. The vow was explained as an aspiration only, not necessarily a strict obligation to future selfless action, and many Buddhists after some consideration do not have any difficulty taking it. But I hesitated, wondering how I could make such a promise. I did not trust my willingness to give or sacrifice for the benefit of others. For decades I had carried with me the question: What could I have done, what sacrifice could I have made, to change my brother’s circumstances so that he would have wanted to go on living?
My brother George—a stocky, dark-haired, handsome man, shyly smiling—shot himself at the age of twenty-eight and disappeared from our lives. Just nineteen at the time, I was so traumatized by his death that I floated solitary and desperately lonely for days and months that stretched into years. In the half a century since he died, I have spent countless hours trying to understand, accept, and mourn his violent exit—grieving for George because apparently he thought he had no other option, and sorry for myself because my precious, only brother disappeared, robbing me of knowing him as he aged and changed.
I believe that George killed himself at least in part to punish our father, with whom he had struggled all his life and who had broken his spirit by constant denigration and occasional physical abuse. Dad was a carpenter, a big, blunt, outspoken man who was king of our house. He was served the first and largest portion at dinner; he held forth at length while my mother and we children kept silent; and he criticized us children with cold contempt. Each night at dinner my father berated George for his dissolute lifestyle. I would watch my brother’s head lower in angry shame as Dad called him a loafer, a ne’er do well, a bum. On the one hand, I agreed with my dad that George seemed disreputable in his grease-stained pants, beer in hand, puffing a fat cigar, and I knew he often acted crudely and carelessly, but, on the other hand, I felt George’s humiliation as the blood rose in his cheeks.
As the youngest child, I was my father’s favorite, identifying with him and loving him deeply. When he held me on his lap, his large workman’s hands clasped my tummy with warm reassurance. When he lifted me in his arms, I knew the world was safe and that I was protected. When I pranced around the living room showing off and he laughed at me, I felt showered with grace. My sister and I loved to watch him and my mother, all dressed up like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, twirling across the floor together at the lodge-hall dances. In the kitchen he demonstrated a wacky Charleston for us, his long legs scissoring out to the side, while we choked with laughter.
As I grew up, I came to understand that my dad had wanted to be a doctor and had even made it through pre-med school at Ohio State, but his hopes had been destroyed by the Great Depression. He was eaten up by the conviction that he had been denied his chance in life, and so he handed to his only son the task of realizing his dream. When George chose to smoke cigars, drink beer, and work on jalopies instead of going to college, my dad vented upon him his relentless, frustrated rage.
My role as daddy’s girl brought with it a complicated burden of confused loyalties. Standing with my father meant I had to denigrate or dismiss my brother and sister and many others in our environment. This pressure caused a creeping discomfort in me and, so, as I grew from child to teenager, I developed a pattern of secret rebellion while offering a smoothly accepting facade to the family. After my brother’s suicide, I escaped my father by leaving my Midwestern home, sacrificing the support of family ties and a connection with my birthplace in order to create a life less distorted by his bitter view of the world.
Yet one never fully escapes one’s family. I still often feel the pull of my relationship with my dad, and also my mom, who are both dead now. I wonder if my brother would have survived if my mother had acted to protect him. I saw her put herself between them only once, when after a shoving match my father lifted my sixteen-year-old brother above his head and, from a landing several steps up the stairway, poised to throw him to the floor. Mom begged my father to put George down, and he did, turning away with trembling arms and a weirdly hangdog look, his fury crumbling into shame.
Now I see that day in the living room—in the stillness after my brother had escaped out the back door and his jalopy had roared out the driveway—as my father’s chance to stop and take a look at himself. My father might have gone out on the porch or into the backyard and pondered what he had done. He might have made a choice, alone or with my mother, to do all in his power to stop himself from continuing the cycle of disrespect and dominance in which he was caught. As an adult, in my own practice, I try to catch myself—I try to stop the forward thrust of anger and pull back into attention. After all, so many times I watched my father start on the path of rage, amp up the feelings, and stoke the conflict until any self-awareness he might have had was consumed by the roar of his emotions. My father never took that opportunity to stop.
Given the family dynamics in our home, I could not help my brother and yet, against all reason, for years I found it difficult to forgive myself for not saving George’s life. I watched my father abuse him and did not speak; while I could not muster the contempt my father expected me to feel for George, I did nothing when my father shamed him; I participated in his being pushed outside our circle. Even now I wonder how I could have acted to show him that he was loved and if that would have helped.
How could I have sacrificed my own safety and comfort to secure his?
In Buddhism we find many stories of sacrifice, including the dramatic saga of Princess Miao Shan who sacrificed her eyes and hands to save her father’s life and in the process transformed into the Celestial Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kwan Yin. From one perspective, I can see that her self-sacrifice was an expression of the highest spiritual attainment. She gave up the illusion of a stable self or her “independent position,” you might say. That is, she honored the truth of the interpenetration of all life, so that self-sacrifice became a creative form of participation and action. On the other hand, as a woman, I am leery of the societal expectation that I was put on this earth to serve others, even at the expense of myself. I have, however, found a corrective in Chogyam Trungpa’s definition of compassion as “doing what is appropriate in the moment,” which seems to strip away concepts and identities to place one in the truth of the here and now.
What, as a child, would have been appropriate for me? If I had spoken in George’s defense, would I have sacrificed my favored place as daddy’s girl and been pushed outside the circle of family warmth and approval, as George had been? Eight years younger than my brother, I admired him with all my heart and I maintained a secret relationship with him when my father was not around. While George sometimes acted the loud, pushy big brother, he was often kind to me. He let me sit next to him on the back step while he contemplated the jalopy he was fixing in the driveway, and we rested in companionable silence. Sometimes he teased me with word-games from the boogie-woogie records he listened to. Sometimes he took me with him on errands and I’d sit proudly erect in the rumble seat of his Model T. This makes me unutterably sad to remember, for it brings home my loss.
One day, at a cancer support group I attended, a young man, a Buddhist like me, talked about his suffering as his condition worsened. He was a handsome man with curly dark-brown hair and thick-lashed, sable eyes. I sat next to him at the meeting and after he had told us of his latest bout with pain and despair, I put my arm around his shoulders. Rather than keeping a rigidity or distance as some men might have done, he leaned against me and put his head on my shoulder, surrendering to receive the comfort I offered.
I was inordinately moved, feeling a great rush of tenderness and a sort of relief. It was not until I arrived home that day that I realized it was as if I had been holding and comforting George.
Pondering this experience in the next few days, I remembered the Buddha’s response to a woman who was caught in unbearable grief at the death of her children. He told her that he could not help her with her present predicament; through countless previous lives she had been crying for lost children, her tears enough to fill all the oceans. Hearing him and recognizing that she’d already cried enough, she felt her grief begin to dissipate.
I thought about all the brothers who have died throughout all time and all the siblings who have felt guilty or helpless at their brothers’ death. And 1 found myself breathing in regret and sorrow, not just for my own situation, but also in solidarity with everyone in the world who has lost a brother. I breathed in all our pain as I’d been taught to do in the ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, and breathed out compassion for all of us. As immediately as I had with my cancer friend, I felt the stability of strong human contact steadying me.
Now, when I think about the past and am confronted with my complicity in someone else’s misfortune, I do this practice. The regret doesn’t go away, yet I am returned to the feelings I experienced in the cancer support group. Comforting that young man, I realized that my brother is alive in people who suffer, and while I cannot reach back in time to change his reality, I can aspire to touch him in others, to make myself available to act with delicacy and compassion toward my fellow human beings. Sometimes I cannot manage this brave maneuver, but at other times it is possible.
Recently, after several days of practice with the Tibetan Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, I and others were invited to take the Bodhisattva vow with her. This I did, experiencing it as the continuation of what I had been doing with tonglen and a support for further explorations. I breathe in guilt and sorrow and breathe out peace.