The Poetry of Giving
by Catherine Slocock
December 6, 2016
Carl Wheeler was a generous man. He was also a humble man, so if he were still with us, he would probably blush at receiving such public praise. Having read and digested the underlying intent of these words, however, my hope is that he would have let it go. Generosity can sometimes be about letting go and allowing the greater good to surface. May that be the spirit that emerges from this piece!
As I type, a memorial service is being held at Vajrapani Institute, celebrating Carl and marking his recent passing from this life. Though I never met him personally, I know a little of him from community members’ anecdotes and from a stack of letters our director, Fabienne, recently shared with me. Carl and Fabienne had a deep friendship that was anchored in their mutual passion for Buddhism and was also informed by the travails of the cancer journey Carl was tasked with in his final years.
By profession, Carl was a scientist, but his letter-writing style points to a mind that also resonated with the poetry of life. Generosity and the rhythms of giving and taking were themes he often turned to in his letters. There’s a logic to this, as his words were often accompanied by generous donation checks, but his interest in the topic clearly went far beyond the realm of superficial niceties. The spirit of generosity was something his letters explore repeatedly and in depth within the context of his impassioned engagement with Buddhism. It was something he clearly sought to embody, both through his giving and also through his practice of rejoicing.
Rejoicing is a form of generosity that features strongly in Tibetan Buddhism and the “positive psychology” movement now also recognizes its usefulness. Rejoicing, simply put, is to feel delight in the good fortune or good deeds and qualities of another. It’s a selfless, celebratory “How wonderful!” often just said quietly as a prayer in the heart. One of the psychological benefits is that it brings an experience of sweet expansiveness to the one who says it while also carving out new, “feel-good” neural pathways. Carl’s letters are peppered with this kind of upbeat, other-oriented attitude, a particularly memorable example being his delight in a former Vajrapani Institute staff member’s decision to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk: “I cannot fully describe the pervasive positive energy aura in which I am now operating – feeling that I am meshing with all that is good, and glowing with shining energy that can be soaked up by others to help propel them on their spiritual paths. I truly feel a deep Spiritual Vicariousness, a sense of joyful participation in Eric’s taking such brave steps forwards ..” he writes.
Another instance in Carl’s letters where his rejoicing feels particularly vivid and poignant is when he expresses his thought processes around his relationship with Vajrapani Institute. He was keenly aware that the time he had to enjoy this precious haven was limited; yet his mind also turned to the future, to others who would come after him and would enjoy and receive sustenance from the place he had grown to love as a spiritual home: “Soon enough I will, as will we all, no longer be able to enter the door, to pass beneath the Redwood arch welcoming me to the land .. I want Vajrapani’s door to remain open wide and inviting to all of those wishing to become a part of Lama Yeshe’s vision for each and all of us.”
This was the spirit and the poetry behind Carl Wheeler’s giving to Vajrapani Institute. It feels uplifting to celebrate his generosity and to pray that his hopes that the Institute might serve as a haven and inspiration to future generations might indeed come to fruition. We can then dedicate the waves of positivity generated by our goodhearted rejoicing to the ultimate good cause: the benefit of all. In the words of the prayer carved on the back of the redwood arch that bids visitors farewell as they leave the property: “May all beings be happy.”