The Knife of Compassion

A teaching story of anonymous origins from Once Upon a Time, a collection of ear-whispered tales that pass among Western students.


anger feature image summer 1998Once upon a time a young Tibetan lama was living in the West. He was a very high-ranking tulku. In addition, he had always manifested an unusual inclination for the wisdom and compassion of the dharma; and the crazy wisdom masters of his lineage had nurtured him with special attention and unbounded affection.

He lived humbly in a small house with two Western students, a man and a woman. The two Westerners did not get along. The woman was always irritated with the man. She scolded him for the careless way he left his boots, for putting dishes in the sink without washing them, for not folding his towel in the bathroom, not putting away the bread knife, using too much hot water for his own bath and on and on. The lama never commented on this situation.

One morning, the woman filled a saucepan with water to make tea in the kitchen. The lama was sitting at the table. When she returned, she saw that the man had placed his eggs in her tea water. This was the last straw. She started yelling at the man, screaming, shaking violently with rage. The lama just sat there.

The woman picked up the pot with the eggs and threw it into the sink and continued to sputter and bark. Suddenly the lama was standing at her back. In a very precise tone, he said: “Do you want to really know aggression? I'll show you aggression.” When she turned around, he was standing with the bread knife at her throat. She screamed in fright and ran out of the kitchen. The lama ran right behind her, repeating, “Do you really want to know aggression? I'll show you aggression.”

SHE RAN ALL OVER trying to get away, too terrified to face him, but he stayed on her back with his knife raised. Finally, she bolted through the front door and into the car. He smashed at the windows while she fiddled with the key. Then she drove off. It became dark and the woman had not returned. The lama sent the man into the village to make inquires. He found her at an inn. He said the lama wanted her to return. Then he said: “He said to tell you: Marpa did it. Milarepa did it. And you can do it too.”

Image: Untitled, 1985, Copyright © The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe, used by permission. 

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