Compassion is no stranger to any of us, we know in our hearts what it feels like to be deeply moved by pain and suffering. We all receive our own measure of sorrow and struggle in this life. Loved ones experience illness, pain and heartache and we long to ease the burden of their suffering. Our bodies age, our health is fragile, our minds can be beset by confusion and obsession, our hearts can be broken. On a daily basis we are exposed to the large and small sorrows that are woven through the fabric of countless lives. We see the many people in our world being asked to bear the unbearable – starvation, tragedy and hardship beyond our imagining. The human story can be a story of love, redemption, kindness and generosity. It is can also be a story of violence, division, neglect and cruelty. Faced with all of this we can soften, reach out and do all that we are able to do to ease suffering wherever it is found. We can also live with fear and denial – doing all we can to guard our hearts from being touched, afraid of drowning in this ocean of sorrow. Again and again we are asked to learn one of life’s clearest lessons – to run from suffering, to harden our hearts, to turn away from pain is to deny life and to live in fear. As difficult as it is – to turn toward suffering, to open our hearts in all of the places we are prone to close, to commit ourselves to understanding and easing sorrow, is the most direct path to transformation and liberation. It is the path of compassion.
We may be tempted to see compassion as a feeling, an emotional response we occasionally experience when we are sufficiently aware to be touched by an encounter with acute distress or pain. In those moments of openness the layers of our defences crumble, intuitively we feel an immediacy of response and we glimpse the power of understanding non separation. Milarepa, a great Indian sage expressed this saying, “Just as I instinctively reach out to touch and heal and wound in my leg as part of my own body, so too I reach out to touch and heal the pain in another as part of this body.” Too often these moment and glimpses of profound compassion fade and once more we find ourselves protecting, defending and distancing ourselves from pain. Yet they are powerful glimpses that encourage us to question whether compassion can be something more than an accident we stumble across. The Buddha spoke often of the path of liberating the heart through loving kindness and compassion. A path in which compassion in something much deeper than a fleeting emotional response, but is an embodiment of profound understanding cultivated and nurtured moment to moment in our lives.
Compassion and wisdom are placed at the heart of the path of awakening taught by the Buddha. In the early Buddhist stories we find young men and women asking the same questions we ask today. How can we respond to the suffering and pain that is woven into the very fabric of life? How can we discover a heart that is truly liberated from fear, anger and alienation? Is there a way to discover such a depth of wisdom and compassion that can genuinely make a difference in this world, outer and inner, that feels so often lost in confusion and destruction? We cannot make ourselves feel compassionate as hard as we may try. It is possible to incline our hearts toward compassion. In one of the stories in the early literature, the ascetic Sumedha reflects upon the vast inner journey to discover unshakeable wisdom and compassion. He describes compassion as a tapestry woven of many threads. Generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving kindness and equanimity cultivated together, embodied in our life, culminate in the compassion that has the power to heal suffering.
An elderly monk arrived in India, having fled from prison in Tibet. Meeting with the Dalai Lama he recounted the years he had been imprisoned, the hardship and beatings he had endured, the hunger and loneliness he had lived with and the torture he had faced. At one point the Dalai Lama asked him, “Was there ever a point in all these years that you felt that your life was truly in danger?” The old monk answered, “In truth, the only time I felt truly at risk were the moments I felt in danger of losing compassion for my jailers.” Hearing stories like this when human beings have met unimaginable suffering with equally unimaginable courage and compassion we are often left feeling sceptical and bewildered. We may be tempted to idealize both the individuals and the quality of compassion itself. We imagine these people as saints, possessed of qualities and powers inaccessible to us and can feel even more personally disheartened. Yet stories of great suffering are often stories of ordinary people who have found greatness of heart. To discover an awakened heart within ourselves it is crucial not to idealize or romanticize compassion. It grows in our willingness to meet pain rather than to flee from it. Compassion can emerge in the darkest moments of our life, when all doors of escape are closed and our hearts feel to have turned to stone.
We may never find ourselves in situations of such peril that our lives are endangered, yet anguish and pain are undeniable aspects of each of our lives. Every human journey has its stories of tragedy and loss, disappointment and fear. None of us can build walls around our hearts that are immune to being breached by life. Facing the sorrow we meet in this life we have a choice – our hearts can close, our minds recoil, our bodies contract and we can experience the heart that lives in a state of painful refusal. We can also dive deeply within ourselves to nurture the courage, balance, patience and wisdom that enables us to deepen and care. Compassion is not a state but a way of engaging with this fragile and unpredictable world. Compassion is embodied through our willingness to engage with tragedy, loss and pain. Its domain in not only the world of those you love and care for, but equally the world of those who threaten and disturb you, who cause harm and the countless beings you may never meet who are facing a life that feels unendurable. The ultimate journey of a human being is to discover how encompassing our hearts can be. Anger, hatred and cruelty as well as forgiveness, generosity and loving kindness live as possibilities within all of our hearts. Our capacity to be a cause of suffering as well as a healer of suffering live side by side within us. The challenge and invitation of every human life is to discover the wisdom and compassion that can heal the schisms that divide us from one another.
In the first century A.D. in northern India, in what is now possibly Afghanistan, one of the most graceful and powerful texts in the Buddhist tradition was composed in Sanskrit, know as the Lotus Sutta. It is a celebration of the liberated hearts expressed in a powerful and boundless compassion, pervading all corners of the universe, relieving anguish, pain and suffering wherever it touches. When the Lotus Sutta was translated into Chinese, the Kuan Yin, ‘one who hears the cries of the world’ emerged, an embodiment of compassion that has continued to occupy a central place in Buddhist teaching and practice ever since. Over the centuries Kuan Yin has been portrayed in a variety of different forms. At times she is depicted as a feminine presence, her face serene, arms outstretched and her eyes open. At times she holds a willow branch, symbolizing her resilience – able to bend in the face of the most fierce storms and winds of life without being broken. At other times she is portrayed with a thousand arms and hands, in the center of each hand an open eye depicting her constant awareness of anguish and her all embracing responsiveness. Sometimes she takes the form of a warrior laden with a multitude of weapons embodying the fierce and fearless aspect of compassion that is committed to uprooting the causes of suffering and pain. She is a protector and a guardian, she is engaged with life.
To cultivate the willingness and capacity to listen deeply to anguish and sorrow wherever and whenever that are met in our live is to take the first steps on the journey of compassion. Our capacity to listen follows on the heels of our willingness. Heroic efforts are made in our lives to shield ourselves from the anguish that can surround us and live within us. We can become master of avoidance and denial feeling it is simply too hard to open to the ocean of sorrow. In truth it is much harder on us not to take the step to listen deeply. A life of avoidance, a life of defence is a life of anxiety and painful separation. True compassion is not forged at a distance from pain but in its fires. We do not always have a solution for suffering, we do not always have the power to repair anguish, we cannot always fix pain – we can find the commitment to stay connected and to listen deeply. Compassion does not always demand heroic acts or great words. In the times of darkest distress and pain it is not always actions or words that are needed. What is mostly deeply need and is most healing is the fearless presence of a person who can be wholeheartedly present and receptive.
It can seem that awareness and opening our hearts to sorrow makes us suffer. Awareness brings with it an increased sensitivity with our inner and outer world. Awareness teaches us to read between the lines and to see beneath the world of appearances. Awareness opens our heart and mind to a world of pain and distress that previously only glanced off the surface of our consciousness like a stone skipping across water. We begin to sense the loneliness, need and fear in others that was previously invisible. Beneath words of anger, blame and agitation we hear the fragility of another person’s heart. Awareness deepens because we choose to listen and we hear more acutely the cries of the world. Each of those cries has written within it the plea to be received and understood. We can be afraid of this intimacy with pain because we are afraid of helplessness. We fear that we don’t have the inner balance to embrace suffering without being overwhelmed. Yet each time we find the willingness to meet adversity and affliction, rather than resisting them, we discover we are not powerless. Awareness rescues us from helplessness, teaching us the ways of kindness, patience, resilience and courage. Awareness is the forerunner of understanding, understanding is the prerequisite of bringing suffering to an end. Awareness is born of intimacy. We can only fear and hate what we do not understand and from a distance. We can only find compassion and freedom in intimacy.
Shantideva, a deeply compassionate master of the past, taught “Whatever you are doing, be aware of the state of your mind. Accomplish good, this is the path of compassion.” How would our life be if we carried this commitment with us through our days and into all of the encounters we meet – to be aware of the state of our mind. To ask ourselves what it is we are dedicated to when we meet a homeless person on the street, a child in tears, a person we have long struggled with or someone who disappoints us. We can not always change the heart or the life of another person. Neither awareness or compassion are magical devices that can instantly dispel all suffering. We can always take care of the state of our own mind. Can we let go of our resistance, our judgments, our prejudice and fear? Can we bring into all of those encounters a commitment to listen wholeheartedly, to find the empathy to understand another person’s world? Can we find the patience, tolerance and courage to remain present in all the moments we are tempted to flee? Can we equally find the compassion to forgive our own very wish to disconnect, dismiss and distance? Compassion is a journey, every step, every moment of cultivation is gesture of deep wisdom.
Living in Asia for several years, I encountered along with all travellers, the endless people begging on the streets. Faced with a forlorn, gaunt child I would find myself judging a society that couldn’t care for its deprived children, sometimes would feel irritated, perhaps dropping a few coins into the child’s hand while ensuring I kept my distance from him. I would debate with myself whether I was just perpetuating the culture of begging by responding to the child’s pleas. It took me a long time to understand that, as much as the coins may have been appreciated, they were secondary to the fact that I rarely connected to the child. Compassion is our ability to ‘feel with’ that involves a leap of empathy and a willingness to go beyond the borders or our own experience and judgments. What would it mean to place myself in the life and heart of that begging child? What would it be like to never know if I will eat today and to have my life dependent on the handouts of strangers? Caring for the state of our mind is to make that journey beyond the borders of our own fears, assumption and prejudice. Then our hearts can tremble, we have the possibility of accomplishing good.
Milarepa once said, “Long accustomed to contemplating compassion, I have forgotten all difference between self and other.” Genuine compassion is without boundaries or hierarchies. The smallest sorrow is as worthy as compassion as the greatest anguish. The heartache we experience in the face of loss or betrayal asks as much for compassion as does a person caught in the midst of tragedy. Those we love and those we disdain ask for compassion, those who are blameless and those who cause suffering are all embraced in the folds of the tapestry of compassion. An old Zen monk once proclaimed, “O, that my monks robes were wide enough to gather up all of the suffering in this floating world.” Compassion is the liberated heart’s response to suffering and pain wherever it is met.
When we see those we love and care for in pain, our compassion is instinctive. Our heart can be broken by seeing a loved one in pain, it can also be broken open. Our capacity for forbearance, patience and courage is most sorely tested when we are faced with a loved one’s pain that we cannot fix or heal. We reach out to shield those we love from harm or sorrow but life continues to teach us that our power has limits. Wisdom tells us that to insist that impermanence and frailty should not touch those we love, is to fall into the near enemy of compassion which is attachment to result and the insistence that life must be other than it actually is. Compassion is to offer a refuge to those who have no refuge. The refuge is born of our willingness to bear what at times feels unbearable- to see a loved one suffer. The letting go of our insistence that those we love should not suffer is not a relinquishment of love but a release of illusion – the illusion that love can protect us or our loved ones from life’s natural rhythms. In the face of a loved one’s pain we are asked to understand what it means to be steadfast and patient in the midst of our own fear. In our most intimate relationships love and fear can grow simultaneously. A compassionate heart knows this to be true, does not demand that fear disappears but knows that it is only in the midst of fear that we can begin to discover the fearlessness of compassion.
Some people, carrying long histories of a lack of self-worth or denial find it most difficult to extend compassion toward themselves. Aware of the vastness of suffering in the world they may feel it is self-indulgent to care for their aching body, their broken heart or the confusion of their mind. Yet this too is suffering and genuine compassion makes no distinction between self and other. If we do not know how to embrace our own frailties and imperfections with generosity, patience and forgiveness, how do we imagine we could find room in our heart for anyone else in this world. The Buddha one said that you could search the whole world over and not find anyone more deserving of your love and compassion than you, yourself. Instead too many people find themselves extending inwardly levels of harshness, demand and judgment that they would never dream of extending to another person, knowing the harm that would be incurred or else in the pursuit of an idealized compassion become self-neglectful. Compassion ‘listens to the cries of the world’ and we are part of that world. The path of compassion does not ask us to abandon ourselves on the alter of some idealized state of perfection. A path of healing makes no distinctions – within the sorrow of our own frustrations, disappointments, fears and bitterness we learn the lessons of patience, acceptance, generosity and ultimately, compassion.
The deepest compassion is nurtured in the midst of the deepest pain and suffering. Faced with the struggle and sorrow of those we love or those who are blameless in this world, compassion and empathy arise naturally and instinctively. Faced with people who inflict harm and pain upon others we are asked to dive deeply within ourselves to find the steadfastness and understanding that enables us to listen deeply and remain open. Connecting with those who perpetrate harm is ‘hard’ practice, yet compassion is somewhat shallow if it turns away those who, lost in ignorance, rage and fear, harm others. The mountain of suffering in the world can never be lessened by adding yet more bitterness, resentment, rage and blame to it. Thick Nhat Hanh, the beloved Vietnamese teacher said, “anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is made”. It is not that the compassionate heart will never feel anger. Faced with the terrible injustice, oppression and violence in our world our hearts tremble, not only with compassion but also with anger. A person without anger may be a person who has not been deeply touched by the acts of violence, oppression and prejudice that scar the lives of too many people. Anger can be the beginning of abandonment or part of the fabric of commitment.
We can be startled into wakefulness by the exposure to suffering and this wakefulness can become part of the fabric of our own rage or part of the fabric of wise and compassionate response and action. If we align ourselves with hatred and bitterness we equally align ourselves with the perpetrators of harm. We can also align ourselves with a commitment to healing, to bringing to an end the causes of suffering. It is easy to forget the portrayal of Kuan Yin as an armed warrior, profoundly dedicated to protecting all beings, fearless and resolved to bring suffering to an end. The courage, balance and determination needed to end suffering are made manifest through the words and acts that are our bridges to the world we live in. Rarely are words and acts of healing, reconciliation and wisdom born of an agitated and enraged heart. One of the great arts in the cultivation of compassion is to ask if we can embrace anger without blame. Blame agitates our hearts, keeps us locked in contractedness and ultimately leads to despair. To surrender blame is not to surrender discriminating wisdom that knows clearly what suffering is and what is it’s cause. To surrender blame is to surrender the separation and disconnection that too often makes compassion impossible.
The path of compassion is altruistic but not idealistic. Walking this path we are not asked to lay down our life, find a solution for all of the struggles in this world or immediately rescue all being. We are asked to explore how we may transform our own heart and mind in the moment. Can we understand the transparency of division and separation? Can we liberate our hearts from ill will, fear and cruelty? Can we find the steadfastness, patience, generosity and commitment to not abandon anyone or anything in this world? Can we learn how to listen deeply and discover the heart that trembles in the face of suffering? The path of compassion is cultivated one step and one moment at a time. Each of those steps lessens the mountain of sorrow in our world.