Walking up the hill to Doi Suthep, a touristy Buddhist monastery high above the Thai city of Chiang Mai, I saw a woman loaded with a pile of cages holding little birds. Just then three women approached. Coins and a cage changed hands, the three moved aside, stood with hands held palms-together, chanted briefly, bowed, and … released the birds.
My guide-book told me that this road-side ritual followed a circular protocol designed to generate merits: karmic bonus points resulting from good deeds, acts, or thoughts, which carry over to later in life or the next life. By setting the birds free, the women earned merits by doing a good deed. The one renting out the birds, by making their act of generosity possible, similarly earned merits. In addition, she made her living from the earnings. The birds, meanwhile, having been in the care of the vendor since birth, returned to their cage after a short flight, ready to repeat this amazing cycle of spiritual commerce.
I was reminded of this when talking to a person who’s facing death from a steadily encroaching cancer. She expressed her reluctance to ask friends and family for support. I’ve always been independent, she told me, and would feel guilty burdening others with my troubles. “Imagine,” I suggested, “the gift you’ll be giving to people who love you: to be able to practice compassion … an opportunity to do good.”