Not long ago an elderly man came to my temple and asked if he could do some cleaning for me. I said he would be most welcome and he started coming once or twice a week. Diligently but without hardly ever speaking to me, he vacuumed, scrubbed and generally made himself useful. However, he always looked rather sad, as if he was carrying some heavy inner burden. One day as we sat sharing a 10 o’clock tea, I asked him about himself and why he was volunteering to clean. After some equivocation he told me his story.
He was poor man with little education. For much of his life he did backbreaking work unloading cargo on the Singapore River. Some 15 years previously his father died leaving his house to him and his sister. She maneuvered him out of the house and for the next 10 years he lived on the street; begging, dodging the police and eating out of garbage cans. During this time he stole a bunch of bananas from one temple and $100 from another. Eventually things turned around for him and he got a job, a place to live and since then he has been okay. Except for one thing. He still felt profoundly ashamed and guilty for having stolen from temples and feared that he will have to suffer what he called “kammic retribution” in his next life. After telling me about his thieving he quickly reassured me that as soon as he got his first pay packet he put $10 in the donation box of the temple where he had stolen the bananas and made a $100 donation to the other one. He was cleaning my temple he said because he was trying to ‘clean away’ the “evil kamma” he had made. I told him that his thieving was to some extent understandable given his circumstances at the time, and the fact that he has made amends for it as soon as he was able indicated that he was basically a good person. This did nothing to brighten him so I changed to subject and asked him about his life as a navvy.
During his reminiscing he mentioned in passing that once he had saved two people who had fallen off a boat from drowning. This interested me and I asked him for the details. Apparently his bold and quick actions in saving the people had briefly made him a minor celebrity and he even got his picture in the paper. It fascinated me that he was still torturing himself over his thieving but had barely remembered that he had once saved two lives. I mentioned this to him and added: “If you had a large pair of scales and you put a bunch of bananas and a $100 note on one pan and two people you saved on the other, which do you think would be heaviest?” “The two people” he replied. I continued: “It is quite possible that those people you saved still remember you and bless you for what you did for them. And yet you hardly remember this noble deed. Stealing is not good, but saving a life is good enough to cancel out that bad many times over. And you saved not one life but two!” Over the next weeks I reminded him of this when we talked and even started jokingly referring to him as Lifesaver Cheng (Cheng was his name). He started to become more talkative, smiled a bit more and the last time I saw him he seemed to have become noticeably less morose.
I am often amazed and saddened by the way some people fixate on their mistakes, their failings, the wrong they have done, and dismiss as unimportant their good deeds, if they remember it at all. If ruminating on the negative changed their behavior for the better perhaps it would be justified but all it seems to do is make them unhappy.