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feature: politics & culture
April 12th, 2004

Holy Thursday Foot Fetish

Buddhist Monk Teaches Kindness, Compassion, and Christ

 
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I never understood the washing of the feet.

For newcomers, an explanation: each Holy Thursday at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, there is a ritual washing of at least twelve people’s feet in imitation of Jesus doing the same to his disciples at the Last Supper.

Holy crap
In CCD classes many years ago I was told that Jesus’ washing the disciples feet was significant because in those days people walked either on the bare earth or with a minimum of footwear, and, as sanitation was often lacking, there was a good possibility that the disciples had fecal material on their feet. So what Jesus did was probably pretty icky. I hope that at the time there was more to the CCD explanation than that, but none has lingered in my head.

The ritualization of that event as I experienced it in my Newman Club years at Holy Thursday Mass didn’t shed much light on it either. By then I knew the academic basics, the master as servant etc. etc., but what I didn’t appreciate was what that meant. I was even up on the altar as a washee one year, but without revelation. However, there are rituals we perform during Holy Week that I likely will never comprehend, and so I determined it to be one of those in concert with a “guess you had to be there” biblical episode and left it at that.

My Lenten Buddhist retreat
This past month I made use of a gift I’d received from an organization

that grants “dreams” to cancer patients and survivors (I am one) and spent three weeks traveling in Southern California and Hawaii. For one of those weeks I was on a personal retreat at an interfaith Tibetan Buddhist temple and retreat center at the edge of the forest reserve on the Big Island of Hawaii.

It was a strange place for me. Including myself there were only four people, along with eight peacocks, one wild turkey, and “Foxy” the feral cat on the spacious grounds. I knew I wanted to go to meditation with their resident monk, but I had no idea of what that would mean or that it would just be the two of us. Used to priests, nuns, and brothers, I didn’t know where to place this smiling 60-something man from northern India with a shaved head and dressed in yellow and maroon robes like the Dalai Lama.

It’s all about the shoes.
One needs to remove one’s shoes
in a Buddhist temple. Because of my physical disability, walking without shoes was problematic. So after helping me up the stairs, the monk and I developed a routine where he would take my shoes from me when I sat down and bring them back for me to put on at the end of meditation.

One night he put them down, knelt down, put my feet into them and tied my shoelaces. In words it doesn’t look like much, but in that moment, watching a man who was for that time my teacher kneeling on the floor over my feet, I suddenly had a clue about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Like the disciples I protested and like Jesus he insisted.

I felt something between humbled and embarrassed. I wanted it to be over quickly and I wonder if the disciples felt that way too. We didn’t talk much as verbal communication between us proved to be confusing. But by his actions I learned volumes about kindness, compassion, and Christ.

 
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The Author : Elizabeth Bonwich
Elizabeth Bonwich writes from New York City.
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