A Bowl of Compassion
First published February 2017
In the year 2007 I cut all strings to the life I knew and purchased a one way ticket to Asia. I had no job there, no apartment, no return ticket and no fixed itinerary. These seemed to be the perfect conditions for starting a new life. The day of departure approached and I waited excitedly for my great escape.
I’d promised myself I would be open to new experiences and spontaneous adventures, but the beginning of my odyssey was ill fated. During my stay in a rural village in China I became seriously ill.
It was the first time in my life I had to depend totally on strangers. My hosts, a local family, took care of me with great patience. These people didn’t know me but seemed ready to sacrifice their last bowl of rice to me. Although we spoke no common language, our communication transcended words. Never will I forget their kind smiles and hospitality. Deeply touched, I realised how lucky I was to receive so much love far away from home. Though they never knew it, these people and their generosity taught me valuable truths about love and compassion. I felt liberated by a newfound knowledge of what is important in life.
Once recovered, with this flame burning inside of me, I travelled slowly and deliberately through eleven Asian countries, using only local transportation. My first choice of accommodation was always a family homestay in the countryside. Candle-lit wooden homes became my new classrooms, and I found lesson after lesson in appreciation and humility.
The longer I was en route, the more I realised that I did not really need much in order to be happy. I gradually reduced my luggage to travel more easily. By the time I reached Bangladesh I was equipped with only a cotton sack and five items of clothing. Surprisingly, I felt richer than ever.
I started reading the literature of the great philosophers and spiritual leaders in the hope of finding confirmation of my thoughts in their writings. And I found confirmation! The Indian philosopher Swami Vivekenanda once said: Service to mankind is service to God! This beautiful phrase has influenced me ever since.
Motivated by my reading, I wanted to transform knowledge into action. I never forgot the generosity of the family that had taken care of me when I was ill.
The purpose of my journey became clearer and everything came together like the pieces of a puzzle: leaving home, reducing my luggage, and living an ascetic life.
I continued my journey and after two years of traveling I finally arrived in India. It was here that I witnessed a new level of poverty. Shocked to see countless undernourished children in the streets begging for food, I had sleepless nights. I felt that I had to do something for them, and thought of ways to take action. I was nearing the end of my travels, but returning home now and ignoring what I had just seen was out of question. But where should I begin? I needed help.
I made a trip to the city of Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment. One morning I went out for breakfast and discovered a fried potato dish that reminded me of home. The name of the dish is Asha Nasta, which means Breakfast of Hope. And hope came to me at that meal in the form of a new friend.
An Indian man sat down next to me and introduced himself as Murari Singh, the owner of the restaurant. Soon we had a lively conversation going. I related the story of my journey, from time spent with farmers in China to the insights I had gained when confronted with the immense poverty of India. I spoke of my hope of helping. Murari is very kind and a great listener. After I finished talking he said: Let’s make a change! We were both smiling broadly and I knew that Murari would be the right person for me to work with. We sat there the rest of the day and shared ideas for potential projects.
In Germany I had always admired the work of soup kitchens that provide free food for people who cannot afford to pay for a meal. When I described them to Murari he loved the idea of starting one.
We calculated a budget for a soup kitchen in Bodhgaya. The result made me speechless: 5 Euros would suffice to cook a daily meal for one person for a whole month! I gave Murari a big hug, promised him I’d be back in six months, and booked a flight to Germany.
At home in Germany my friends and I founded the organization A Bowl of Compassion and commenced promoting the charity. At the same time, I took a job, saving as much money as I could. With the help of my friends within six months we had raised enough for a budget of 500 Euros a month to last two years.
Amazed and excited, I returned to India, where Murari and I began cooking food for the people. The soup kitchen counted 50 visitors daily, and with the support of our donors we launched two primary schools. Now, local teachers and international volunteers educate and feed more than 200 students at A Bowl of Compassion.