Tendrils of sweet smoke rose into the silver sky above the carved stone altar that sits on a hilltop on Putuoshan. Putuoshan is an island in southeastern China revered as the home of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. I watched as three Chinese nuns dressed in gray robes lit sticks of incense, placed them in the ash-filled bowl on the altar, bowed, and then walked toward the edge of the cliff.
The beat of ocean waves was muffled by the steep rocky cliffs between the hilltop and the Eastern China Sea. In the stillness, the Chinese coins I dropped into the red offering box chimed as they joined the coins others had offered. I lit a long stick of incense and placed it beside those already burning. The tendrils of smoke gathered to form a small cloud that rose upwards, lifted on the currents of the light afternoon breeze.
The tallest of the nuns turned to me. “Amituofo,” she said, using a Buddhist greeting I heard often on the island.. Her head was cleanshaven and smooth. Dark almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones rested above a slender smile. She nodded to me and gestured gracefully with her long fingers, indicating I could follow them.
The nuns walked lightly down a narrow dirt trail that wove along the cliffside facing the sea. Their long gray robes swayed lightly against their ankles as their soft-shoed feet nimbly navigated the rocky path.
They stopped beneath a large boulder perched on the cliff above us. Uncountable twigs and branches had been wedged into a dirt ledge that jutted out below the exposed belly of the boulder. Each wooden stick reached from the earthen ledge to the face of the rough rock, creating what I saw as a wall of offerings—a collective, prayer-filled action to prevent the boulder from rolling down the hill and crushing everything in its path before it reached the ocean.
The nuns silently added their sticks, carefully wedging them into the dirt. I picked up a branch from under a mass of bramble bushes and wedged it into the ledge alongside the others. Just one more slender stick, another small prayer to keep the boulder in place. That boulder is still there, I believe, along with those slender twigs.
To me each stick was an offering made to support the boulder, to uphold something that needed to be upheld. They spoke to the importance of making a gesture of support in whatever way we can. And each gesture, each offering, is a statement signifying our willingness to be part of an action that has meaning, not because our contribution is grand, but because, together, our collective actions and the values they demonstrate support life.
“Small actions done with great love,” as Mother Teresa might say.
What moves us to make our own small offerings to the welfare of the world? To discover the action that is ours to take, I believe we must first know what losses we would mourn. We must first know what would break our heart and bring us to our knees in grief—because our grief shows us the depth of our love. And love is what moves us.
Mother Teresa said this of love and the pain of love: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”
Turn gently now to your grief and listen. Grief will tell you what you treasure. It will name what you are called to tend and protect.
Just for this moment set down your plans and agendas, the spreadsheet of goals and measurements. Just breathe. Breathe and let your heart break open to the world that is calling for your attention. And from the depth of your broken open heart, know what you love.
Feel the grief that arises when you think of the environmental disasters, the end of species, the disappearance of forests and wetlands and lands of snow and ice. The grief that chills your heart when you think of a world without butterflies, or bees, or blue skies and fresh breezes. The piercing pain of grief you feel when you see a future that holds little hope for the rivers, forests, deserts, mountains, and jungles of our world.
That grief is the wild, keening cry of love. It is not a hopeless despair. It is a declaration of love and a lament over the possible loss of what is loved.
Now breathe and let your heart open wider. What images of love rise in the spaciousness of your being? What landscape beckons?
Is it a field of medicinal herbs or miles of waving grassland? Or the wide-eyed face of a child? Is it the song of a stream that calls to you as it cascades down a granite mountain face, frothing into a swirling pool and flowing to the ocean? Are you beckoned by the majesty of a necklace of waterfalls tumbling in streams that turn to rivers and irrigate miles of rich land? Or does your heart sing seeing a welcome oasis of a city garden of wisteria, ivy, and roses? A communal city landscape of cabbages and onions, carrots and herbs?
Is it rows of ripening corn, squash, and beans that call out to you or rice paddies or fields of hemp? Does your heart rejoice imagining herds of elephants, pods of dolphins, or the alive bustle of the marketplace of your hometown, with all its fragrances and bright colors?
We are called to know that our love is a part of the Love that has cradled life since life began. We are called to speak the names of what we treasure, loudly or in whispers that encircle the globe, carried on winds that know no boundaries.
We are called to declare our love. To know what it means to tend what we love, to respect and protect what we love.
To love deeply is go beyond the joy of love and be willing to feel the pain of love. This takes courage, and the word “courage” comes from the word “heart.”
Love: earthy, “lotus growing in the mud love.” That is what we need now. And to be fully alive in the joy and pain of our love, we must act now in ways that are born of love.
We can fall in love wherever we are. It is not enough to fall in love with the quiet, spacious forest, or the rain-drenched greening hills; not enough to love only the roar of the ocean, the blanket of stars gleaming overhead, or the cold magnificence of a full moon; not only the wide-open space of our deserts, the flight of falcons, or the vast expanses of Arctic blue ice. We can also love our city streets—the rush of sound and scents and lights. We can feel love as we walk on sidewalks that are sprinkled only with an occasional tree, but adorned with a rainbow of people who jostle and talk and laugh as they make their way through this world.
We can fall in love amongst the cacophony of city sounds. We can adore the man selling hot pretzels or the lady who makes fresh, corn-husk-wrapped tamales. We can love the girl with waves of black hair and sparkling eyes standing at the truck where we buy our hot, chili-smothered burritos, or the grandma setting out freshly baked bread. We can swoon over the enticing scent of spicy Thai noodles served up by the tattooed fellow on the corner, the hot cups of fragrant coffee handed to us by an almost toothless man selling magazines and newspapers, or the person who sells us a hot cup of creamy, cardamom-rich chai.
To love life is to love it in all its forms and to know that each of them . . . Matters . . . Deeply.
Fortified with love and the fierce, brightly burning light of love, we can go out and do what love does. We can go forward and give life to life.
Are our small actions enough? Yes. Together our small actions become significant. Like the twigs and branches placed with love and intention beneath the boulder on Putuoshan, our actions combine to uphold life.