Many years ago, Veera and I attended a lecture on Buddhism in Bombay by a certain Behram Ghista, a Parsi Zoroastrian who is also a Buddhist teacher. Behram works mostly in two countries – India and the United States. During the lecture, Behram touched upon several aspects of Buddhism and those of its teachings that help us to manage our negative emotions successfully in daily life.
The lecture was well attended (a majority of the audience were women) and well received. A number of meaningful questions were raised and Behram answered them all patiently. Several answers were as interesting as the questions, a few were unconvincing, but the one that really electrified me was the one he gave to the following question: “Behram, you say we must practise compassion, but what about the beggars on our streets? Most of them are able-bodied but too lazy to work. Don’t they realise that it is far more dignified, honourable and self-respecting to earn by toil rather than to beg for a living? Don’t they have any shame, pestering and harassing pedestrians and motorists on the roads, at our traffic signals?”
Now, as many of you know, the beggars wait for the traffic lights to turn red for the vehicles and then walk up and down between the traffic lanes, asking for alms. They are a truly motley crowd. Many are able-bodied, while a few are handicapped. Some feign blindness, some are really blind. There are more than a few young unwed mothers with starving infants. The beggars can often be quite annoyingly persistent, sometimes putting their hands inside the car close to the driver’s face, tapping persistently on the door glasses, pleading in cringing tones for alms, and generally provoking you, if you are short-tempered and intolerant by nature, to shout at them to get lost, which only serves to strengthen the resolve of the more determined among them. So you shout at them, ask them to “scoot” and/or to find work, request them politely to excuse you, ignore them until they go away, or give them a coin or two. But the moment you do the last thing, a swarm of other beggars appears as if from nowhere, and you are back to square one. You are then in a soup of sorts. If you are short-tempered, you get very hassled indeed. If you are kind-hearted, you give something to each one of them because you don’t know how to say no, to arbitrarily turn some away empty-handed, and perhaps even feel frustrated when you realise that for every beggar helped out, there are a many others who are equally needy whom we don’t even know. It is said that some beggars make hundreds of rupees a day, by just begging. Some regard it as an occupation with better prospects than working at a job.
I could understand perfectly the woman’s irritation when she asked Behram that question. And Behram’s answer took our breaths away, and really made us feel like worms, both individually as well as collectively. He said, somewhat aggressively, with the compassion that is a hallmark of the Buddhist faith (words mine): “Why do say that they are lazy and do not do any work? Don’t you realise how hard they work for what they earn? They stand from dawn to dusk at the traffic signals, waiting for the vehicles to come to a standstill and then walk up and down, up and down, in the blazing sun or driving rain, braving the barbs, insults and floods of humiliation and rejection poured over them by irate motorists barely struggling to cope with their own stresses and strains that bring out the worst in them. And what’s more, they have to work fast, be very alert and scurry back to their safe posts each time the lights turn green, to avoid getting knocked down by the onrushing automobiles, released like madly excited racehorses from the starting gates. “Do you realise, Freny (not her real name), that it’s really, really hard work? How many of us could do this, really keep it up for 10 to 12 hours a day, day in and day out, for a lifetime? We must admire their spirit and have compassion for them.”
Freny and all the rest of us were absolutely dumbfounded, stunned into numb silence. Everybody felt utterly sheepish, and any counter-argument was absolutely out of the question. It was a lesson that compassion should be unconditionally shown towards our less fortunate brothers and sisters.
A few years later, I found somebody who has become, over the years, my favourite beggar. He is radiant, with bright, expressive eyes, and his smile is glorious. He is slim, dark and perhaps in his middle to late thirties. He is genuinely handicapped, having lost an arm presumably in an accident, also somewhat deformed, and carries an aluminium mug on his wrist in which you drop the money if you feel up to it. He is really energetic, and walks briskly and purposefully among the cars and buses. He always wears a spotless white vest and blue shorts, stands before every car window glass for a moment, and moves off immediately if refused. I would say he maintains himself well, from a holistic point of view. He is dignified, cheerful and well-behaved. I actually miss him when I don’t see him, and keep a lookout for him at the signal. I was quite anxious a while back when I did not see him at his usual post at the Khodadad Circle, Dadar T.T. traffic signal for almost a month. I asked my driver, Harish, “Have you seen our friend lately?” And then, a few days later, I was very happy and relieved to see him again. On giving him something through the window, I said, “Where were you, brother? Are you all right?” And he said with that lovely smile, “Sir, I am fine. I had gone to my native place. And how are you?” I generally give him or not give him something as the spirit moves, and there is this perfect understanding between us. He has no expectations, for which I salute him, and in fact, makes me feel more generous towards him. In not having expectations, he is a better human being than many. And, on receiving something, he never walks off without a gesture of gratitude.
Thank you, Behram; perhaps you had something to do with shaping my attitude towards Radiant. I must confess, however, that I have not as yet fully carried out your teaching. I still get bugged when they tap at my window, though I am somewhat more patient now. Yet, some of them are so miserable. I am still your student in this.