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Lions Roar : May 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2012 23 AFTER MONTHS OF INTENSIVE STUDY of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva in a class with Pema Chödrön, my class- mates and I were invited to take the bodhisattva vow, which is a commitment to dedicate oneself to all beings that is at the very heart of the Mahayana Buddhist path. The vow was explained as an aspiration only, not necessarily a strict obligation to future selfless action, and many Buddhists after some consideration do not have any difficulty taking it. But I hesitated, wondering how I could make such a promise. I did not trust my willingness to give or sacrifice for the benefit of others. For decades I had carried with me the question: What could I have done, what sacrifice could I have made, to change my brother’s circumstances so that he would have wanted to go on living? My brother George—a stocky, dark-haired, handsome man, shyly smiling—shot himself at the age of twenty-eight and disappeared from our lives. Just nineteen at the time, I was so traumatized by his death that I floated solitary and desperately lonely for days and months that stretched into years. In the half a century since he died, I have spent countless hours trying to understand, accept, and mourn his violent exit—grieving for George because apparently he thought he had no other option, and sorry for myself because my precious, only brother disap- peared, robbing me of knowing him as he aged and changed. I believe that George killed himself at least in part to punish our father, with whom he had struggled all his life and who had broken his spirit by constant denigration and occasional physi- cal abuse. Dad was a carpenter, a big, blunt, outspoken man who was king of our house. He was served the first and largest por- tion at dinner; he held forth at length while my mother and we children kept silent; and he criticized us children with cold con- tempt. Each night at dinner my father berated George for his dis- solute lifestyle. I would watch my brother’s head lower in angry shame as Dad called him a loafer, a ne’er do well, a bum. On the one hand, I agreed with my dad that George seemed disreputable in his grease-stained pants, beer in hand, puffing a fat cigar, and I knew he often acted crudely and carelessly, but, on the other hand, I felt George’s humiliation as the blood rose in his cheeks. As the youngest child, I was my father’s favorite, identify- ing with him and loving him deeply. When he held me on his lap, his large workman’s hands clasped my tummy with warm ILLUSTRATIONSBYVIVIENNEFLESHER There was nothing SANDY BOUCHER could have done to prevent the tragedy. Yet decade after decade, she has carried the burden of guilt. This is a meditation on living with what cannot be undone. A Complicated Burden