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Complicated/Simple Compassion

by Fleda BrownJanuary 23, 2012
Complicated/Simple Compassion

“This compassion thing is so much more complicated than I thought,” said Mary Elizabeth as our local group continued with the chapter in One Dharma on “Compassion.” We think we’ll just “be compassionate,” but then, as Michael said, there’s the question of how little or how much—and how— we need to be supporting behavior that’s hurtful to the other person or to us, personally. Goldstein brings up other big questions: “How can our hearts stay open given the magnitude of suffering that exists in the world?”

The Latin roots of compassion  are com = together and passion = suffer. The roots of sympathy tend more toward sym = together, and pathy = feeling.  But the Latin compassio is an ecclesiastical loan-translation of Gk. sympatheia. So except for our tendency to hear nuances in each, the words tend to mean the same thing—something like “to be with” a person who is suffering.

The issue is, though, what does it mean to “be with”? Goldstein tells a story of a Tibetan doctor, Tendzin Choedrak, who was held by the Chinese for 21 years. For the first 17 of those, he was beaten and tortured daily, both physically and psychologically.  He says he survived by observing four points of understanding:

1. In the face of great suffering, he could practice love.

2. His enemies were humans like himself. They were in adverse circumstances just like him. They were creating their own karma that would cause them future suffering.

3. He could let go of pride and self-importance.

4. He understood that hatred and ill-will will never cease if they’re met with the same kind of feelings.

Goldstein says that compassion is greatly enhanced when it’s met with wisdom. He has another story here: there was a monk named Channa who was lax in his monastic duties. The Buddha and others had chastised him many times. When the Buddha was dying, he told the other monks not to associate with Channa. Channa became so ashamed that he practiced very hard until he was also one of the enlightened ones, like the others. This was compassionate action by the Buddha, although it might not have seemed like it. It was compassion guided by wisdom.

It seems that we can tell ourselves over and over to be compassionate,  but it won’t necessarily happen. In the middle of the situation, we may behave in ways we wish we wouldn’t. It surely has happened to all of us. Goldstein says we must “cultivate the seeds of boddhicitta” (compassionate action) , and that if we even simply have the aspiration to have this motivation, the seeds will begin to germinate.

How can we do this? We can learn from others who have, for one thing. The Indian sage Shantideva, in The Way of the Boddhisattva is a good place to turn for inspiration and advice. There are some good translations of his work—the Dalai Lama, for one, is a great devotee of Shantideva.

And then we can sit, sit, sit. Meditation is the only way we begin to see through the confusion that muddies our actions. We can act truly and exactly, with wisdom, when our understanding isn’t clouded.

And, thinking of Michael’s question, it seems that this would mean we would remain in the moment, not acting out of our concepts but out of our heart’s awareness in that moment.

And, as Karen said, this is all a matter of seeing that we are not-separate. When we are aware that we’re separate/not-separate (both, together, simultaneously) we simply act, in the same way that if we were driving and had to stop suddenly, we would instinctively throw out our arm to keep our passenger from flying through the windshield. We know what to do when we’re aware, with compassion, in the moment. But we come to that moment bringing our basket of goodies: our aspiration, our intention, and the wisdom we’ve gained from our regular practice.

Next week our local group will be reading from Chapter 10, “Liberation Through Nonclinging.”


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.


This entry is tagged with:
MeditationCompassionBuddhismSangha

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