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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 Chögyam 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 I 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.

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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