The Gift of Hospitality- Counselling and the Dharma

There are several links between counselling and Buddhist practice. One of them is the aspiration to offer genuine hospitality. A counsellor makes room for the client, thus making available the gift of therapy. Some philosophers like Adorno rightly point out that in our day and age we have forgotten how to make a real gift, let alone the gift of one's heart and mind, the gift of authentic and active listening. Years of training, placement work, self-care and professional development are all geared towards honing and refining this subtle capability: to provide spacein one's being in order to receive an other.

Some have argued that therapy is a form of potlatch.
The term, loosely translated as gift, refers to the primary economic system practiced by indigenous people of the Pacific Nortwest coast. Theirs was a gift economy rather than an economy based on profit. It was banned in the late nineteenth century at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it to be a practice contrary to civilized values. A real gift is impossible to match;it does create a subtle (and at times not so subtle) obligation. The gift of therapy is in a sense most unusual, and hard to match.

Perhaps the client’s payment represents a way – our accepted ways as modern westerners – to respond to this extraordinary gift. Of course this gift is remarkable only if the counsellor has practiced the ways of hospitality. What makes a good host? First of all, the recognition that an isolated existence is a delusion: no one is entirely self-sufficient nor can exist in isolation. Secondly, hospitality is active, in so far as the attributes of concern and care do not dwell automatically within the domain of ‘being’, as
some philosophers like Heidegger want us to believe. In other words compassion has to be cultivated and practiced and by far the most important point is the fact that the host must be first of all a guest. Interestingly enough, the Italian language has one and the same word to describe the host and the guest: ospite. In receiving the guest, the host is himself received by his own dwelling.

What do we mean when we say ‘welcome’? Are we simply saying 'this place is mine and you can come in for a while'? Or are we recognizing that as hosts we are also guests on planet Earth, and that no one can really own anything for very long? Adorno called he recognition of this simple yet powerful fact transcendental homelessness. The poet Rilke remarked in one of his Elegies that houses of brick or stones survive much longer than its inhabitants.

Similarly with the practice of the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), the practitioner aspires to become a bodhisattva, or ‘awakened being’.  In its long history from early iconography to the present day, the figure of the bodhisattva has gradually shed the otherworldly garment of a Buddhist archetype in order to take the aspect of an ordinary human being. If once ‘awakened being’ referred to someone akin to a saint or a person worthy of a special revelation, the term can now be understood existentially, describing one who -- having realized the unsatisfactory nature of life and the inherent suffering of our condition - has developed an aspiration to be useful to others. Rather than performing miracles, the bodhisattva is one who aspires to act with wisdom and compassion for the benefit of all beings. Rather than being the holder of special messages from ‘above’ the bodhisattva is one whose heart/mind is spacious enough to make room for another human being. Rather than being a Platonic archetype outside everyday reality, he or she is
an ordinary person like you and me, living and breathing in the phenomenal world.

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