Hospitality and generosity: Opening the 'universal door'

by Rich Heffern

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The people of Kazakhstan are generous in their hospitality. There’s a saying: “Kazakhs’ hearts are like the steppes – wide, kind and generous.” Regardless of the hour of arrival of guests, Kazakh women will immediately set to work to prepare a dahsterhahn – a table full of food. If guests arrive and the table remains empty, the host is greatly shamed. Each guest must sit for tea, which includes bread, fruits, nuts, sweets and cookies.

We all have our dahsterhahns, feasts of remarkable generosity that have been extended to us in our lives.

Years ago, a friend and I boarded a westbound Amtrak train in Kansas City, getting off when it made a short stop in a Wyoming town. From there we hitchhiked up to the eastern side of the great Wind River Range. We rode in the back of a VW bug with our heavy backpacks on our laps. The driver, a young woman with a German Shepherd, drove 40 miles out of her way to drop us at the trailhead we sought.

With her generosity fresh in our minds, we hiked on foot up to the Continental Divide, across the Wind Rivers. We spent four days – more than we had provisioned for – at a place called The Cirque of the Towers, where granite faces and spires a thousand feet high circled a lake flooded by snowmelt. One night while we sat by our campfire an enormous meteor flashed over the Cirque, bright enough to light the faces of the stony spires around us.

The lavish beauty of the mountains and skies renewed in us the sense of generosity we had begun with.

On the way down the western side of the range, we encountered an extensive rock fall that took hours of sweat and labor to negotiate, costing us another day we hadn’t planned for.

Finally, after a week in the high country we reached the end of the trail, with still 70 miles of dirt road to negotiate before we reached the nearest town of Pinedale. We had exhausted our water and food supply days before. We sat on a bridge waiting for a driver to come along who would pick us up. After a few hungry, parched hours, a van on its way out pulled over, a door opened.

Three rock climbers from Seattle cordially invited us into the cavernous back of the van. One pointed out a cooler there that was loaded with beer and sandwiches, saying “Help yourself. We’ve got too much.”

From there we hitchhiked down into Utah to see the slickrock country there. Outside of Salt Lake City, an older man in a big truck picked us up and asked where we were headed. When he heard “Moab,” he replied, “Then that’s where I’m going, to Moab.” He was lonesome, hungry for conversation, with time on his hands, so he drove us the 100-plus miles to our destination.

Outside of Arches National Park, we got a ride in another truck. The driver had worked as a geologist who had explored the remotest canyons on this awesome country in the 1950s looking for uranium. He went out of his way, taking back roads that revealed landscapes we never would have seen otherwise.

Finally, in western Colorado, a temporarily unemployed musician from Las Vegas picked us up and carried us all the way to Denver where we could catch the Amtrak, ending an epic adventure that has stayed with me: repeated encounters with generosity, sustained feelings of wholehearted gratitude toward people, along with the deep joy that comes from such gratitude.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said: “Many people think they will be able to practice generosity only after they have accumulated a small fortune. I know young people who dream of getting rich so that they can bring happiness to others: ‘I want to become a doctor or the president of a big company so that I can make a lot of money and help many people,’ they say.

“They do not realize it is often more difficult to practice generosity after you’re wealthy. If you are motivated by loving kindness and compassion, there are many ways to bring happiness to others right now, starting with kind speech. The way you speak to others can offer them joy, happiness, self-confidence, hope, trust and enlightenment. Mindful speaking is a deep practice.

“In Buddhism, the Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva is a person who has learned the art of listening and speaking deeply in order to help people let go of their fear, misery and despair. He is the model of this practice, and the door he opens is called the ‘universal door.’ If we practice listening and speaking in this way, we too will be able to open the universal door and bring joy, peace and happiness to many people and alleviate their suffering.”

Mindful speaking and listening that open that universal door seem like worthy spiritual disciplines. We can all find ways to dish up a daily dahsterhahn.

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