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Exemplars of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (continued)

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer, another Nobel Peace Prize winner, was multitalented, seemingly endowed with a thousand hands, like Avalokiteshvara. A trained and accomplished biblical scholar, philosopher, and concert pianist and organist, Schweitzer became a physician in order to minister to people in need in Africa. He personally constructed a hospital and leper village in Gabon, in what was then French Equatorial Africa. While continuing medical mission work throughout his life, Schweitzer also studied religious philosophy and was often in respectful disagreement with the orthodox dogmas of his European missionary neighbors.

Schweitzer wrote of the centrality of compassion to our humanity:

The purpose of life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others. Only then have we become true human beings.

Echoing the bodhisattva vow, Schweitzer was also definite about the universality of compassion, about “reverence for life” and the necessity to care for all beings.

Ethics are complete, profound, and alive only when addressed to all living beings. Only then are we in spiritual connection to the world. Any philosophy not respecting this, not based on the indefinite totality of life, is bound to disappear.

In accord with Avalokiteshvara's relationship to sound and harmony, Schweitzer loved playing the organ, especially the sublime spiritual music of Johann Sebastian Bach, about whom he wrote an important biography.

Visitors to Schweitzer's hospital noted that he lived very simply, personally carrying out the necessary physical chores, responding in whatever way was needed to maintain the facilities of his hospital and care for his patients. Schweitzer stated that he kept in his heart as a motto one word: service.

Mother Teresa

Perhaps the single contemporary person most often associated with the virtue of compassion is Mother Teresa. Many have been inspired by the story of this petite, Albanian-born nun's simple and clear dedication. While working as a schoolteacher in India, she heard a call to care for the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. At first she took on this mission by herself, abandoning all personal comfort or security to put herself in the midst of others' extreme suffering. She spoke of her contemplation and response to the cries of the world in terms of Jesus' choosing to be present in the meek, the hungry, the sick, and the homeless. She envisioned cleaning maggots from the infested wounds of homeless beggars as cleansing of the body of Christ.

Good works are links that form a chain of love.

Eventually an order of nuns gathered around Mother Teresa, ministering to the poorest of the poor. Now her order has spread through many countries of the world. In recent years, some criticized Mother Teresa for not addressing the systemic social causes of suffering and also for accepting financial support from some donors with otherwise questionable conduct. She replied that her calling was not to analyze social systems and economic ideologies. Rather, she responded personally and individually to those she saw suffering most desperately, who were still too weak to feed and care for themselves. She said she was happy to accept generosity and support for her work without making discriminations about the givers.

Mother Teresa's approach—responding personally and immediately to suffering while not addressing underlying societal factors—reflects a characteristic of the Avalokiteshvara archetype. Avalokiteshvara usually does not engage in the struggles of political or social activists, unlike Samantabhadra.

Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart.

Mother Teresa may only be problematic as an example of Avolokiteshvara because she seemed larger than life, capable of saintliness beyond the reach of ordinary humans. We may feel that we cannot express bodhisattvic compassion unless we are also saints. But Mother Teresa said that everyone can be a saint. The compassion represented by Avalokiteshvara is especially the province of ordinary people in everyday situations.