I saw this photo of a man giving his sandals to a homeless girl in Rio de Janeiro on Facebook. It was in black and white with the caption: “The world is full of good people. If you can’t find one . . . be one!”
I looked for the original and discovered that it’s been posted all over the Internet for several years, so likely you’ve seen it before. I hadn’t. One reason why I found it so interesting is that it reminded me of this story about Mahatma Gandhi:
In India, during those days, rail was the fastest and most affordable way to travel across the country. The British rail company would only stop at a station if white people were waiting, otherwise they would merely slow down so that non-whites had to run and hop aboard the still moving train.
One day as Gandhi scrambled on to a train, one of his sandals slipped off and landed on the track. With the train rolling, he was unable to retrieve it, so he took off his other sandal and threw it back along the track where it landed close to the first one.
Asked by a fellow passenger why he did that, Gandhi replied, “If some poor man finds one sandal, he will surely find the other and then he have a good pair he can use.”
We have to accept both the photo and the story with a certain amount of faith. I have not been able to find the original source of either. The photo might have been staged, or it might actually depict something quite different from what it’s supposed to be. As far as the Gandhi story is concerned, well, there are a lot of stories about the Mahatma and I doubt if half of them are true.
It doesn’t really matter. What is important is the positive messages they convey. In the Gandhi story, there are two points. One is about how compassion and kindness can become so deeply ingrained in someone that they instinctively, without a moment’s hesitation, think about the welfare of others. The second point is about non-attachment. If Gandhi had been attached to his shoes, the loss of one might have caused to give in to anger or some other negative emotion. Instead, he was calm about the loss of his shoe, and he turned his misfortune into possible good fortune for another person.
As I’ve mentioned many times, in Buddhism, compassion begins with bodhicitta, the thought or wish to awaken for the welfare of all living beings. Bodhicitta has two stages, intentional, or the aspiration, and active bodhicitta, the practical engagement or the performance of altruistic acts. The Gandhi story is an example of both. Even though he was not Buddhist, Gandhi certainly aspired to be altruistic, and through his practice of meditation, he had trained his mind so that the welfare of others was nearly always his first thought.
The Dalai Lama, at a teaching I attended in 2001, put it this way:
Bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or offering a prayer, but you can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.”