“When Christ said: ‘I was hungry and you fed me,’ he didn’t mean only the hunger for bread and for food; he also meant the hunger to be loved. Jesus himself experienced this loneliness.”
“Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and his hand in every happening. This is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. Seeing and adoring the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread [Holy Communion], and in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
Next month I will take my students again to the Foshan orphanage, as I have many times over the last 20 years, for a 4-day weekend as part of the Humanities I in Action course. What brings me back as an educator year after year is the raw, potentially transformative power of the experience. Over and over again the simple bringing together of my students with children who live in a state-run institution in China breaks into my students’ lives like no other event.
As someone who at the same time teaches World Religions, I wonder – in the dual sense of both explanation and awe – why visiting orphans is so powerful. Perhaps it is the understanding that an orphan is without a home, without a family, without the care that we consider essential for every human being – that shakes students and teachers out of our ordinary mindsets and opens us to something new. Somehow it seems that the visit to the orphanage brings to our attention the felt-sense of being homeless; at the same time we become sensitized, it seems, to the positive power of its opposite, homecoming – where we are totally accepted for whom we are for no other reason than that we have the breath of life. We understand the symbolic power of coming home most poignantly in its absence.
Jesus in Disguise
In my wonder, I turn to the world’s great wisdom traditions. As a Christian, Jesus’ revelatory statements in Matthew 25 have spoken to me more powerfully than any other about the sacred task of service. The setting of this scene could not be more dramatic. It is the Judgment Day and Jesus, now revealed as the divine Son of Man seated at his throne with his angelic entourage, has gathered all the nations for the Final Judgment. What are the criteria for entrance into the Kingdom of God? In speaking to those whom he has rewarded, Jesus provides a disarmingly simple and concrete answer: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
The reaction of the righteous is not self-congratulatory, nor relief that they have “passed the test” of Judgment Day. Rather, they seem naively incredulous: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” Their offer of homecoming to those suffering, we assume, was of similarly pure motivations. “We witnessed need, and so we acted,” their response suggests. The enthroned Jesus then reveals the higher order truth that lies beneath their humble attendance to human fragility: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
The unambiguous power of this passage seems as undeniable to me as the potency of a visit to the Foshan orphanage, and for the same reason. Jesus makes the dramatic assertion that serving those in need brings a person face to face with the Divine Presence. Or, as Mother Teresa explained, the poor are Jesus in disguise. Those who serve the needs of others come into contact with the sacred, the awesome, the numinous. As someone who has always sought the power of education, how could I not bring my students to an orphanage? It is an essential pedagogy.
For my affluent students and myself, that such a latent power could be contained in not only a state-run orphanage, but, to be more descriptive, in the faces of the minimally cared for special needs children that we meet, seems as incredulous to us as to those whom Jesus welcomed into his kingdom. As privileged international school teachers and students in Hong Kong who routinely book exotic vacations in Asia, assured that we will enjoy the richness of various Asian cuisines, the natural beauty of beach and mountain resorts, and the over-the-top comforts of 5-star hotels, the weekend disturbs our ordinary sense of memory-making. For we love to be pampered, and often report to our friends the thrill of these moments as highlights of our time in Asia.
Yet somehow meeting a child in an orphanage, whether physically attractive or disfigured, cuts through the illusion that such luxury will truly satisfy the longings of our hearts, which were intended as sacred dwellings of compassion and intimacy. This is the true homecoming we are searching for, a sacred space in which giving and receiving love, rather than 5-star opulence, is the currency of exchange. The passage allows for no other interpretation: serving those in need brings one face to face with the Presence of the Risen Christ. Or, as Jacob exclaims after waking from his dream of a stairway to heaven: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it . . . How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17). Homecoming at last!
Buddha in Disguise
These reflections about the orphanage were prompted by the reading of a book of rare insight, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age by Stephen Batchelor. The author recounts a story of Gotama (the Buddha) in which a man living in a monastic community has been abandoned and is lying unattended in his own excrement. When the Buddha asks why the man is not being cared for, he is told that this neglect is because he is of no use to the community. Reminiscent of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Gotama asks his companion Ananda for water and then bathes the man himself. Later he instructs the sangha:
“Bikkus, you have not a father, you have not a mother, who might tend you. If you do not tend to each other, then who is there who will tend to you? Whoever would tend to me, he should tend to the sick” (228).
The teaching of the Buddha has that same undeniable ring of truth as Jesus’ instruction, and in strikingly similar language. Those in Jesus’ Kingdom or the Buddha’s sangha create family-like bonds beyond bloodlines. The most important quality of such a community is unconditional love for those in need. A spiritual family has been created, and the first task is taking care of each other in a physical sense. The otherworldliness often associated with Buddhism is certainly called into question as Gotama “non-metaphorically get[s] his hands dirty by caring for a sick person” (228).
Just like Jesus’ punch line in Matthew 25, the Buddha states at the end of this passage, “Whoever would tend to me, he should tend to the sick.” If we esteem the Buddha, Gotama exhorts, then we should take care of the needs of the poor with the same devotion.
Batchelor comments further:
“To comprehend suffering means to embrace concretely the condition of those who are unwell by regarding them in the same way as one would regard the Buddha. The helpless newborn, the person tormented by disease, the elderly man who can no longer take care of himself, the terminally ill woman aware that her life is drawing to an end – these people reveal the dharma to us as effectively as the Buddha himself. In the presence of such suffering, there is no room to ponder the meaning of the term dukkha [suffering] or to speculate about what its end might be. We are challenged to the immediacy of the situation in a way that is not determined by our habitual reactivity. There is no correct ‘Buddhist’ way of speaking or behaving in such cases. We are called upon to say or do something without hesitation – just as Gotama and Ananda immediately attended to the sick mendicant’s needs” (228-229).
Next month when I take my students to an orphanage in China, they will walk into a space where innocent children live in an institution, not a home, and without hesitation or instruction they will offer these children who suffer their hands, their smiles, their eyes, their words, their love. To those who lack the security and sustenance of familial relations, they will paradoxically offer, both wholeheartedly and unconsciously, the embrace of homecoming. In their naïve innocence, they will imitate those accepted by Jesus in Matthew 25. They will, at least in that moment, act in a way that is free of habitual reactions of self-focus, a potential turning point that Bachelor defines as nirvana itself (41). Perhaps it is that collective, sustained, if temporary, weekend experience of the Kingdom of God, in the imagery of Jesus, or nirvana, in the Buddha’s teaching, that etches this orphanage experience into their memories like a shooting star.
The Joy of Homecoming
In Christian terms, the presence of an undeniable and irreducible Imago Dei bequeaths a sacred dignity to every human being. In Buddhism every sentient being contains the Buddha Nature, the seed of wakefulness beyond all illusions. Both traditions speak of something truly transcendent, ineffable, mysterious, and full of awe. Tending to those who so obviously lack such human dignity touches us at our core and reveals what our true heart desires: to be welcomed home by the embrace of love.
The archetype of homecoming lies at the heart of Jesus’ most famous parable, “The Prodigal Son,” where the grief-stricken father welcomes home his missing, ungrateful son with no time for an apology. In the face of the sulking older brother, the father announces with exuberant joy: “Bring quickly the best robe and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again, he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:22-24). This is Jesus’ image of God: a joyous father running to embrace a wayward son. Homecoming at last!
Next month my students and I will walk into the Foshan orphanage and for three days we will take care of needy and abandoned children. It was experiences like this more than 20 years ago that spoke of the power of service learning as a pedagogy. In the last 6 years I have come to explore the practice of mindfulness with the same energy and intention. Both pedagogies have been enthusiastically welcomed and implemented by the secular mainstream, and for good reason, for they have the power to relieve suffering, teach compassion, and offer students an opportunity for deep personal change.
What students remember, of course, is the time with the children in the orphanage. However, for those of us in institutions with a religious heritage, we also have the opportunity to consider deeper truths that lie hidden beneath the pedagogies of compassionate action and contemplative practice. As a World Religions teacher, I marvel at what Buddhists call the living heart of the dharma and what Christians understand as the living presence of the Risen Christ. We are all searching for that visceral experience of loving and being loved for no other reason than that we have been gifted in this moment to be animated, sentient beings in a world full of aliveness. We are invited to be resonant waves in a field of love. To paraphrase Augustine’s famous line, the great spiritual traditions speak in unison that our hearts are restless until they rest in this divine embrace of love. This is the homecoming we seek; it is the homecoming we offer. Homecoming at last!
More on the Foshan Orphanage Experience
For more than 20 years I have been taking students to an orphanage in southern China in the city of Foshan. The trip continues to work magic in the lives of our students as they take time away from their normal routine to simply provide care for children at a state-run orphanage. It remains a powerful shared experience for many grade 9 students.
- “The Role of Caring for Children in Social Conscience Education.” This article describes one of our Humanities I in Action experiences at an orphanage in Foshan, China.
- “Foshan Orphanage Trip: A Journey into Karuna.” During the Foshan trip we take students to visit an enormous statue of Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, to help us process our experience at the orphanage.
- “Discovering Empathy in a Chinese Orphanage.” This entry shares a number of student reflections on our weekend visit to Foshan.
- “Kanyini in a Chinese Orphanage” by Nikki Kwan. When we return from Foshan, students write a personal narrative about their experience. Here is an excellent piece of writing by Nikki Kwan.
- “Room for Compassion: Finding Presence in a Chinese Orphanage” by Yash Bardoloi. Another student, Yash, writes his narrative about how the experience helped him pause his frantic schedule of achievement to consider the needs of the Foshan children.
- See this review of Bachelor’s book by Roger R. Jackson of Carleton College.