As I watched my father in what the family thought to be the last hours of his life (he fooled us all, living on for more than a week after this moment,) I recalled the days when I was a small child, and he the rector of a parish in the diocese of St. Albans, just north of London. Too young to partake in the eucharist--not yet, then, “confirmed”--I was always led to the altar rail by my mother and would receive, each Sunday, a blessing as my father distributed the communion wafers and the wine. He would lay a gentle hand on my head and say a quick prayer before passing on to the next communicant. I could think of no better way to bring our relationship to closure. Since he was by this time too weak to move his hand, I had to take it myself and lay it on my forehead, and to say for him the words that came back to me then--but which I have since forgotten.
It was a moving and a memorable moment, and the student was curious to know what that blessing meant to me. The truth is that, as an unbeliver, I was for much of my life somewhat embarrassed by the notion of blessing. It seemed to me to suggest a call to a spiritual authority in which I did not believe, a paternal, not to say paternalistic act of faith that my skeptical mind found impossible to accept. It is only in very recent years that I have found in myself the wish--and I might even say the power--to bless, though without recourse to a "higher power" for the authority to do so.
It has come about perhaps in part as a simple function of age, because in the work I do in The ManKind Project, younger men have asked it of me. At first I was as embarrassed by their requests as by the act itself. Who was I, of all people, to offer blessings? What right did I have to give them? By whose authority? But I found myself, despite those hesitations, responding to the requests, finding simple words that somehow felt right for me without suggesting in any way that they came from anywhere but my own heart. (I was also embarrassed, for most of my adult years, by the very word "heart," but that's another—if related—story.)
So the student's question went to the heart--there I go again!--of something I had struggled with for many years, and I found myself formulating an answer to in the light of what I have learned from the Buddhist teachings: the kind of blessing I can believe in comes out of compassion. It's not that I have earned any right to bless, by means of my superiority to other beings; it's rather a heart-to-heart exchange, what I described to the class as an "I see you" moment, an act of recognition and oneness. Our culture tends, I think, to associate blessing with a hierarchical sense that the blesser has some special gift or qualification which he or she imparts upon the blessee from that superior place. I have come to see it otherwise, perhaps more humbly, as more of an expression of compassion and goodwill. As I told the student, I can receive wonderful blessings from the least expected quarters.
The act of blessing, then, for me, is no more than the conscious opening of the heart to another being at some special moment, accompanied, perhaps--though by no means necessarily--with words of recognition and appreciation. To return to my father's blessing on his deathbed: what I needed in that moment, quite simply, was to know that I was seen and acknowledged. The fact that he was approaching the God that he believed in lent a special gravity to the gift, but the meaning of the blessing did not require me to share in his belief, but rather to accept it from his very human heart.
I googled “Buddhist” and “Blessing”, and came up with this poem/chant…
Just as the soft rains fill the streams,
pour into the rivers and join together in the oceans,
so may the power of every moment of your goodness
flow forth to awaken and heal all beings,
Those here now, those gone before, those yet to come.
By the power of every moment of your goodness
May your heart's wishes be soon fulfilled
as completely shining as the bright full moon,
as magically as by a wish-fulfilling gem.
By the power of every moment of your goodness
May all dangers be averted and all disease be gone.
May no obstacle come across your way.
May you enjoy fulfillment and long life.
For all in whose heart dwells respect,
who follow the wisdom and compassion, of the Way,
May your life prosper in the four blessings
of old age, beauty, happiness and strength…
…which speaks not of God but of the goodness of the human heart. Which is, perhaps more elegantly put, exactly what I’m trying to talk about. I don't know who to thank or acknowledge for this poem, but may whoever posted it enjoy those same blessings he or she has offered those of us who read it.