Lessons at the Crosswalk

By | Wednesday, January 10, 2024 1 comment

I often find lessons in the Dhamma (better known to Americans as the Sanskrit word pronounced “Dharma”) while driving. The other day I found Dhamma as a pedestrian crossing the street.

Last week Richard Shankman, the leader of my meditation group, gave a talk on the Buddhist ideal of metta, usually translated as “Loving Kindness”. He said that it is his goal to always have an open heart; to never close off his heart to anyone.

The next day I was walking in downtown Oakland, CA, when I came to an intersection. The light was against me so I had to wait to cross. Just as the light changed and I stepped off the curb, a large van at the far side of the street attempted to make a right turn on red, but was stopped by oncoming traffic. This left the unusually long van blocking the crosswalk.

I felt annoyed that I was going to have to go around this obstacle. My first thought was “what a jerk.” But almost immediately I stopped myself. I thought, “I’ve done that.” I never try to end up blocking a crosswalk while driving, but sometimes it happens anyway, through error or misjudging the traffic conditions. As I was walking around the van, a trivial extra effort, I thought, "I don’t know anything about this driver." Perhaps they strive to always be as courteous as possible. Perhaps blocking the crosswalk this afternoon was something they virtually never do. Maybe they were sitting in the van feeling incredibly embarrassed at having screwed up and blocked my way.

I realized I had no way of knowing if the driver even owned that vehicle. Maybe they had just gotten it, or rented it, or had been directed to drive it by an employer. Maybe unfamiliarity with the van caused them to drive it poorly. 

Maybe they tried to make that right turn on red because they were in a genuine hurry for some reason. I was near the hospital district, so possibly the van was full of medicines or medical equipment needed quickly at a doctor’s office. Perhaps they had learned that a friend had been hurt and so they were rushing to get to the hospital to be with someone that needed them.

Or maybe the driver was a jerk. Maybe they did this all the time. Maybe they really didn’t care about pedestrians or other drivers. 

Either way, I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. So instead of feeling anger or annoyance, instead of judging this person, I opened my heart to them.

I am no saint and I'm certainly not a Buddha. I am a work in progress. I can only hope to be as I was that afternoon, opening my heart more often in more situations, and finding the Dhamma everywhere.
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