« Return to this article

Know the West

Compassion can be dangerous to your health


It feels to me as if the Dalai Lama left a weapon of mass destruction in Idaho when he visited this September.

I’m not a Buddhist, but I have admired the teachings and tolerance of the Dalai Lama for years. So I couldn’t miss the chance to visit the prayer wheel that he blessed at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden in Ketchum. The centerpiece of the newly created Garden of Infinite Compassion is an exquisite prayer wheel carved by Tibetan artisans in India.

I followed the instructions posted in the garden and walked clockwise around the wheel, sending compassionate thoughts to the people of the world as I circled the ornate spinning cylinder. As is customary in my spiritual experience, I felt uncertain that any higher power or universal force had received my transmissions.

But, by the time I had driven back home to Salmon, a few hours later, I had developed a nasty case of shingles on my right eyeball. Message received.

When you wish, be careful about wishing for compassion. Keep in mind that compassion comes more easily to those who know suffering or affliction. The pain in my eye made me instantly aware that my grandfather’s recitation of his ailments from A to Z was not because he desired to annoy people, but because he honestly couldn’t think about much else.

The prescriptions I picked up for the shingles outbreak sparked a new compassion for the thousands of people struggling to afford a trip to the doctor. Despite an above-average insurance plan, my two measly bottles set me back a cool hundred bucks. I swallowed the bitter medicine, knowing that for some people, paying for medicine would mean pleading with landlords or skimping at the grocery store.

Weeks after the blisters had healed and my eye had cleared, I still felt the aftershocks of the prayer wheel. I was in a courtroom reporting on a case when I locked eyes with a baby-faced jailbird. He looked so young, I could easily imagine him as a first-grader; his county-issued black and white striped suit resembled nothing more than a clever Halloween costume. When they called the boy’s name, I realized the woman sitting behind me was his mother. She was shaking. The judge rebuked the boy for a long line of alcohol-related crimes and sentenced him to a hard-core hospital for in-patient rehabilitation.

"You’ll kill somebody or yourself if you don’t straighten up," the judge lectured sternly.

I was as surprised as anyone to see the starry pattern my tears were making on my note pad. I feigned an allergic reaction to the cologne of the man seated next to me as I tried in vain to erase the heartbreak of the boy’s mother from my mind. This cracked shell of defense I’d been left with was starting to become a problem indeed. And it sounds like it may even get worse.

In Ethics for the New Millennium, the Dalai Lama writes, "…When we enhance our sensitivity toward others’ suffering through deliberately opening ourselves up to it, it is believed that we can gradually extend out compassion to the point where the individual feels so moved by even the subtlest suffering that they come to have an overwhelming sense of responsibility toward those others."

For these reasons, I maintain that the peaceful Buddhist leader left his own weapons of mass destruction in Idaho — the prayer wheel and the Garden of Infinite Compassion. During the course of one gorgeous autumn afternoon, a barrier between my fellow man and me was destroyed, or at the very least severely damaged. Part of me hopes the damage is permanent. The other part knows to be careful what I wish for.

Gina Knudson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Salmon, Idaho.