2009 Introduction – Written by Jack Kornfield and Elizabeth Share
We wish to express our deepest gratitude
to His Holiness the Dalai Lama
for being a living example of compassion in action.
May I be a guard for the protectorless
A guide for those who are lost
A raft to help all across the waters of life.
May I be a lamp for those in darkness
May I be food for the hungry
May I be medicine for all who are ill
And for boundless multitudes of beings
May I be their sustenance, enduring
Until all beings are liberated from suffering.
— Bodhisatva vow from Shantideva
A favorite of His Holiness the Dalai Lama
In 1999, during a private audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dick Grace shared the
kernel of an idea he was formulating: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do a better job of
transforming our contemplative practice into compassionate action. His Holiness enthusiastically
embraced the idea replying, “We have to work hard on that.”
As anyone who has met him knows, the phrase “work hard” is music to Dick’s ears, particularly
when the aim of that work is to alleviate the suffering of our disenfranchised brothers and
sisters around the globe. Dick sprang into action, gathering friends and philanthropic “angels”
willing to help him shine a light on the healing power of compassion in action. From this inspiration,
the first Unsung Heroes of Compassion event was created.
This book of stories commemorates the third Unsung Heroes of Compassion ceremony since
2001 to be blessed by the presence of heroes from around the world and His Holiness the
Dalai Lama. It is a book about forty-nine people who in the Buddhist tradition are known as
bodhisattvas — those who joyfully serve the world, dedicated to compassion and the liberation
friends with a few drops of water in order to try to save them.
Bodhisattvas are found everywhere. They appear in a million forms, from Christian saints to
preschool teachers, from social workers at the local homeless shelter to compassionate business
leaders. Bodhisattvas express the truth of interdependence, understanding that their own welfare
is inseparable from the welfare of all.
In Buddhist cosmology, the life of a bodhisattva is illustrated in five hundred children’s stories
about the Buddha’s past lives and the lessons he fulfilled before he was born as Siddhartha
Gautama. In one, the Buddha was born as a brave and loving parrot that immersed herself in
the river and then repeatedly flew through the flames of a raging forest fire to sprinkle her
friends with a few drops of water in order to try to save them. The courage of this small parrot
so touched the hearts of the gods that they wept, and their tears became the rain that put out
In another story, the Buddha grew up to be the king of the Banyan deer. When the Banyan
deer herd was trapped and threatened by royal hunters, the deer king put himself in the line of
fire to protect the life of a pregnant doe and her unborn fawn. Seeing his nobility, the human
king ordered his hunters to stop shooting. He was so inspired by the deer king’s selfless action
that he dedicated his reign to the protection of the creatures of the forest.
These stories have been beloved by children across Asia for thousands of years. They are
beloved because they touch the innate bodhisattva, the compassion and nobility born in the
heart of every child.
This volume adds forty-nine new bodhisattva stories to these ancient tales. Each is a tale that
resonates and inspires. Each shows how the heart of compassion has manifested in the lives of
those honored here.
Today’s honorees — twenty-five women and twenty-four men — represent all of humanity.
They range in age from twelve to seventy-seven and come from a variety of ethnicities,
cultures, religions and backgrounds. Gathered from the far corners of the earth, each demonstrates
the timeless and universal human goodness celebrated by every wise culture.
It is said that for a bodhisattva the practice of compassion and selfless service is to be
undertaken not only for five hundred lives, but also for one hundred thousand Maha Kalpas.
One Maha Kalpa is described as a world cycle, the length of time it takes for a crow with a silk
scarf in her beak to erode Mt. Everest by dragging the scarf across the mountain once every
hundred years. One hundred thousand Maha Kalpas is unimaginable, a time so great it is timeless. This means
that we (for in reading this book you are already showing your bodhisattva nature) can relax,
embody our goodness, practice generosity and enjoy our acts of compassion without worrying
that we must right all the world’s wrongs in one lifetime.
The Christian mystic Thomas Merton counsels: “Do not depend on the hope of results.
You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result
at all, if not perhaps bring about its opposite. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more
to concentrate not on the results, but on the value of the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
The remarkable beings whose lives are recounted here and who are being blessed by His
Holiness the Dalai Lama have learned to live with this truth. Although they come from many
countries and work in widely different ways, they have much in common — first and foremost
a remarkable sense of timeless purpose, one that seems increasingly rare in modern society.
Though the problems they address are often immense and their efforts but a drop in the ocean,
they act with the certainty that every action, no matter how small, makes an important difference.
They measure their success in small increments, encouraged by the knowledge that at the very
least one child is no longer hungry, one illness has been treated, one community is no
longer abandoned in its time of need.
Though others sing their praises, all are reticent to accept personal honors, wishing instead to
shine the light of gratitude on their co-workers, families and those they help. “I receive so
much more than I give,” is their most commonly shared refrain. They want us to know that
compassionate work is its own reward.
In opening themselves to the suffering of others, they have allowed their hearts to break open
— something they assure us is not fatal, but rather the first step in a journey toward spiritual
and emotional abundance.
Finally, they have set the course of their hearts toward truth and love. In doing so, they have
become beacons, lanterns, mentors, inspirations and exemplars for us all. “Make of yourself a
lamp” were the last words of the Buddha. These forty-nine stories show us how.
From their inspiration, we can each set the compass of our heart toward compassion and illumination
for all. We can find our own way to serve, to give, to act. The deeds of these unsung
heroes become a challenge to us to embody our own bodhisattva path.
The story of an inner city school principal shows how this works:
This principal used to make sandwiches for the many homeless people in her neighborhood.
Several days a week, when she got home from school, if she was not too tired, she would go to
her kitchen and make several dozen sandwiches. She took pleasure in preparing and distributing
this food. She didn’t care if she was thanked for it or mind if her offering was refused. She
was doing it because it simply felt right to do.
After some time, the local media found out about her after-school activity and she became a
minor celebrity in her area. Inspired by her work, other teachers and friends began to send her
money for her ministry. To their surprise they all received their money back with a short
note that read, “Make your own damn sandwiches.”
Before you go out to make your sandwiches, take time to slowly digest the stories here,
savor them and let them touch you. Then find a way to bring your best sandwiches to the
— Jack Kornfield and Elizabeth Share