New Civilization News: THE PATH OF COMPASSION    
picture 28 Oct 2004 @ 14:03, by Scotty

"Compassion is where peace and justice kiss," says the psalmist...We're divine, start acting divine--that means start acting compassionately. It's not very complicated.

"Please Call Me By My True Names" by Thich Nhat Hanh

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a catepillar in the heart of flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the
surface of the river,
and I am the bird, which, when spring comes,
arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the
clear water of a pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who,
approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly
weapons to Uganda.
I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee
on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after
being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with
plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his
"debt of blood" to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes
flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it
fills up the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs
at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

"Bill Elliot notes in his book that the Dalai Lama was the only person he interviewed who laughed when he was asked about death. Deeply moved by the Dalai Lama's laugh, Bill wrote this poem:

Oh Dalai Lama,
your laugh is all I came to hear.
It bellows from deep within.
Give me no words, I ask no questions.
Only laugh.
If I were to describe your laugh,
it would be the fullness of living,
together with the sufferings of Tibet.
It is a laugh of folly,
for we do the best we can,
but still,
in the end, we must laugh.
The Bible has erred.
The beginning was not the Word.
In the beginning was the Laugh.

Now the Dalai Lama has plenty of reason not to laugh. He has seen more than his share of tragedy and suffering. As a youth thrust into a position of leadership at a most difficult time, he witnessed the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, his beloved homeland. For the past forty years he's lived the painful life of an exile. In his book of interviews with the Dalai Lama, the French filmmaker Jean-Claude Carriere summarizes the sufferings of Tibet under Chinese occupation. Up until the last few years, most of these atrocities have taken place without the world much noticing or caring:

(There is) the extermination of more than a million Tibetans (one out of six), repressive measures of all kinds, population transfers, expropriations, internment in concentration camps, brutal application of birth control policy, and forced sterilization of women. Then there is the deforestation, the use of Tibetan territory as a nuclear waste dump, and above all, a systematic Chinese colonization. Nowadays their techniques are being refined: while young Chinese, after three years of military service, must return to their home province, those stationed in Tibet are obliged to stay there. Estimates put the current Chinese population in Tibet at around 9 million, so the Tibetans are now a minority in their own homeland.

In the face of all this and from a place of painful exile, the Dalai Lama speaks and acts for justice. And he laughs. In his nonviolent words and actions, you can see how deeply and faithfully he stays true to Buddhist principles. In his laughter and good, gentle humor, you can see how he is able to let go, and how deeply he embraces a Buddhist sense of perspective and serenity.

Look at the Dalai Lama and you will see a person who in the midst of our world's pain and suffering embraces the whole of life. You will see a person who can cry oceans of tears over his own nation's and the world's suffering, and then a minute later laugh a deep belly laugh. Look at the Dalai Lama and you will see hints of the Buddha's own life. Think about the Dalai Lama as a young, awkward, unsure youth leaving his familiar land and pursuing truth in other lands. Then picture the young prince Siddhartha leaving the familiarity of his palace and seeking truth in unfamiliar places. Siddhartha's departure becomes the Dalai Lama's exile. The contours of the story are similar--what I talked about in the first sermon as the hero's journey. The Buddha's life is an example of the path toward Enlightenment. So, now, is the Dalai Lama's. But again, as with the Buddha, the point is not that the Dalai Lama has become Enlightened--or at the least taken great strides toward Enlightenment. The point is that you and I could do so, too--right here, in the concrete reality and the laughter and tears of our own lives.

With good reason, the Dalai Lama has become the poster child of Buddhism. This is because he is a wonderful exemplar of becoming awakened and then living a compassion-filled life. And this is the heart of the Buddhist path. Both parts are vital. Awakening is not enough in itself. It must lead to living compassionately. This is what the Buddhist path is all about: inner understanding and illumination, and outer acts and words of compassion.

This is exactly what Siddhartha experienced as a young boy when he caught a glimpse of Enlightenment. Sitting underneath the rose-apple tree watching the ceremonial first plowing, he saw the true nature of life. He saw the beauty of the day and he saw the young grass and insects and eggs destroyed in the plowing. He understood that life is truly a mixture of joy and sorrow. He laughed and he cried. He was full of awe and full of sorrow. For a moment at least, he was fully awake to the true nature of life. But it didn't stop there. He also felt deep compassion for all the beings harmed in the plowing. And that led him to feel compassion for all beings who suffer--in short, for everybody, because everybody suffers.

Compassion is the central ethic in Buddhism. It springs from the Buddhist understanding that all life is interrelated and interdependent. If you realize in your heart this basic truth about life, you will understand that everyone and everything are your relatives. And if you look upon the suffering of one of your relatives with this understanding in your heart, you will feel compassion. How could you not feel compassion for a suffering relative? How could you not feel compassion for your relative if you understand that the suffering that visits your relative inevitably visits you, too? We are all in the same boat that is our small world. "Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves," Chief Noah Sealth said. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," said Martin Luther King, Jr. These truths are very much affirmed by Buddhism.

The source of compassion is individual awakening. Awakening begins with seeing the world as it is. It begins by embracing with your mind and heart all the beautiful and terrible things that happen to us humans and all of our relatives in this world. Compassion is born out of looking with an open heart at the world's suffering. "The
hidden treasure in sufferings, sorrows, and pains of the world," Jack Kornfield writes, "is compassion itself."

To understand the Buddhist concept of compassion, it is important to realize that compassion is not merely a feeling. If it were just a feeling, it could so easily become superficial and sentimentalized. This is what we too often do in our culture with compassion's nearly identical twin: love. We reduce love to a Hallmark concept. The same can happen to compassion.

But there truly is nothing sentimental or superficial about either love or compassion. They both begin as a feeling and a thought, but to be real they must also then be translated into words and acts of loving kindness. Action is an integral part of the path of compassion. "Don't just sit there like an idiot," one Zen master succinctly instructs his meditation students. Be like the Buddha--or the Dalai Lama--and live your compassion.

What is compassion? My dictionary defines it as pity and mercy. But that's not a sufficient definition. Compassion is looking at the suffering of another being and realizing that that being is your relative. Compassion is understanding that another's suffering is also in some sense your suffering. And compassion is not just a feeling, but needs to be acted on.

For the Dalai Lama, the greatest challenge to his compassion is the Chinese occupiers. If he is to be true to this path of compassion, he must feel compassion even toward the Chinese. What an incredible challenge! To an amazing extent he has been able to find compassion for the Chinese, even as he holds them accountable for their oppressive and unjust actions. You can hear it in his words when he talks about the Chinese. He doesn't dehumanize them. He doesn't paint them as wholly evil. Think about the Chinese occupiers in your life, the people whom you have the hardest time feeling compassion toward. Can you look at them with the wisdom and heart of the Dalai Lama?

So the Dalai Lama embodies the central Buddhist path: waking up, and then living with compassion for all beings. This is how all the Buddhas before Siddhartha lived. It's how Siddhartha whom we call Buddha lived. It's how the Bodhisattvas live: they become awake, but rather than depart the wheel of life for the release of nirvana, they stick around for awhile to help other beings get further on their paths.

Where can you start this path of compassion? In the only place you can ever start in Buddhism: with the here and the now of your own life. Compassion starts with you. If you cannot feel compassion toward yourself, you will never be able to feel it for anyone or anything else. This is the same truth that's implicit in the Golden Rule: loving your neighbor as yourself won't be worth much if you don't first love yourself.

So begin with yourself. Get in touch with your own body. I think this was one of the central points of the "Vagina Monologues" which many of us saw this week. Feel your body. See its beauty and power and joy--even as you understand its impermanence. In fact realizing its impermanence only adds to its incredible beauty and the need to appreciate it. Feel compassion for your body.

Then get in touch with your mind and your soul and with your suffering and your joy. Get in touch with the reality that who you are at this moment is an incredible, sacred and mysterious alchemy of body, mind and soul. Feel compassion for this impermanent, flawed, yet also beautiful and perfect whole that is you.

And then focus beyond yourself to your relatives and friends. Feel compassion for them. This may be the hardest compassion of all to muster. To help me do this better, I decided this Lent not to give up beer or sweets or red meat, but to try to be nicer to a few people in my life whom I'm having a hard time being nice to. This is my Lenten discipline: to feel compassion toward them. Just this intention is shifting my stance toward them in a very powerful and healing way.

And then move from your relatives and friends feel compassion for your neighbors, and for people you do not know where you live and across the world. Think about what the Dalai Lama calls your "apparent enemies," and see if you can kindle some compassion for them. Think about all the non-human beings and spirits your life impacts: other animals and the air and the rocks and the waters and the trees and the plants, and see if you can feel compassion toward all of them. See the whole of the great web of life and feel compassion for this great whole. This is what the Buddha did. This is what the Dalai Lama does. This is what you and I can do if we truly wake up.

Then you will be ready to practice ahimsa--trying to live without bringing harm to other parts of the web. This is the action component of the path of compassion.
I cannot end this sermon series without noting that I have presented a very positive picture of Buddhism these past four weeks. This picture would be incomplete if I did not acknowledge that Buddhism--like every other religion or spiritual path--is only as good as the people that practice it. And since Buddhists have the same flaws all other humans have, Buddhism is not a perfect religion. In human hands, no religion is perfect. If we believe otherwise, we lift up a false idol.

In Sri Lanka I talked with devout Buddhists who advocated killing Hindus in order to make Sri Lanka a Buddhist nation. There is no doubt that perhaps the greatest engine fueling hatred of Hindus and a horrible civil war in Sri Lanka is none other than Buddhist monks. Needless to say, this does not represent a mature practice of compassion and ahimsa. In Thailand today, the Buddhist monastery is rocked by sex scandals potentially far worse and far more pervasive than what is coming to light among our Catholic neighbors in New England. And Buddhism continues to struggle with misogyny--as it has for 2500 years. Many Buddhists -- particularly many monks -- remain convinced that women are inherently inferior to men and that orders of Buddhist nuns have no legitimacy. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge these truths.

At the same time, I do believe Buddhism presents a path that holds much wisdom. Actually Buddhism presents a series of paths, for Buddhism is so focused on the individual that there truly are billions of individual paths rather than one path. Buddhism presents each of us the possibility of a path that can wake us up to the here and now of this life, allowing in Kornfield's words the "the flavor of goodness to permeate our life." And it presents a compassionate path with heart--for ourselves, for everyone and everything.

I close with a blessing from the Metta Sutta:
Let us cultivate boundless goodwill.
Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.
Let none in anger or ill-will wish another harm.
Even as a mother watches over her child, so with boundless mind should one cherish all living beings,
Radiating friendliness over the whole world,
Above, below, and all around, without limit. "
( ~ Roger B. Bertschausen )

[< Back] [New Civilization News]


Other entries in
31 Jul 2010 @ 16:29: Innovation Yantra
31 Jul 2010 @ 16:01: Randy Paush - Lessons for Life
30 Jul 2010 @ 16:30: from Baudrillard to Verger: Diversification Vs Global Norms
22 Jul 2010 @ 13:16: Cartographers of No Man's Land
20 Jul 2010 @ 14:24: Getting other people to do stuff
16 Jul 2010 @ 22:57: Considerations on writing
14 Jul 2010 @ 14:53: Therapy Dogs Serve our Wounded Warriors
14 Jul 2010 @ 13:35: Consciousness of Pattern
13 Jul 2010 @ 17:04: What is Consciousness? - My answer on

[< Back] [New Civilization News] [PermaLink]?