Lying in bed last night, I remembered that the Buddha believed he was a failure. Alone on a riverbank, split off from his yogi brothers, he broke his vows and took food offered by a young woman. Nourished by this simple act of kindness, he remembered a simple time from childhood. He had sat alone under a rose apple tree, watching his father and other men from his village plow the fields for spring planting. Peaceful and happy, with no adults bothering him, he could be open and attentive to life as it flowed around him.
The boy Buddha (Siddhartha) saw insect families tossed about by the plowing and felt a pang of compassion. He took this impression of equanimity, of being open to the flow of life, to joy and sorrow and all that arises, under the Bodhi tree. This memory of being kind and humble and selfless, became the bedrock of his enlightenment.Lying in bed in the dark, it dawned on me that the meaning of life, the real purpose of our presence here, is being attentive, being willing to go on seeing and keeping our hearts open…..not just for our sake but for the sake of others. We make ourselves available to life, opening our hearts to the passing flow of it, knowing we will blunder and get it wrong, but sometimes, more often than not, we will get it right. We do this even knowing that hearts will inevitably break because life is uncertainty and change and loss…..and sometimes life can be terribly harsh…..people can be brutal, jealous, petty and mostly ignorant (this I know to well). But sometimes when we are open, light floods the darkest chamber.
The following fable from the Vedic tradition serves as a beautiful reminder of something essential that is all too easily forgotten.
Many, many centuries ago, God was looking for a place to hide. You see, in those days She was receiving any and all who wanted to have an audience with Her. God’s doors were open 24/7. All you had to do was knock on Her palace doors, wait your turn, and you would be received. It’s no surprise that there was an endless line of devotees and seekers, as well as a lot of people who wanted stuff and who wanted to deliver their prayers directly to Her.
As was Her policy back then, God felt obliged to listen to each request. You can imagine that neither God, the angels, nor any of their attendants had a moment’s rest. There were far too many people to attend to and too many requests to be heard. Some people were asking for their next child to be a girl; others were asking for a rich harvest, for it to rain or to stop raining, for more money, for healing for a sick relative, for help to see the future or to attain some extraordinary power, or that God would relieve them of grief and fear. It all got to be so much that God didn’t have any time to attend to any godly business.
Having determined that something had to change, She convened all the greatest sages in order to discuss with them how to stem the constant flow of those looking to Her to fulfill all their desires and solve all their problems. The first sage suggested that they build Her a new palace at the highest point in the Himalayas, on Mount Everest. “No one has ever scaled Mount Everest,” the sage said. “You will be undisturbed for eternity, and thus the natural order will be restored.”
God shook Her head. “No,” she said. “In a day or two [the ancient teachings tell us that a day in God’s life is equivalent to a hundred thousand years in ours], human beings’ desire and determination will allow them to get to the top of Everest. We’ll need a different plan.
A second sage offered, “Let’s build your new castle on the moon. Human beings will never get to the moon. There you will have all the quiet and peace you can imagine, and the order of things will be restored.”
God just sighed and said, “No. In two or three days, human beings will find a way to get to the moon.”
At a loss, all the sages fell silent.
I have the answer,” God said. “I’ll put a small part of myself inside every person’s heart. It will be the last place they’ll look.
The clear moral of this fable is that a small piece of God is in every person’s heart. Indeed, this is one of the paramount and most enduring messages of the Vedic tradition and, as I’ve said, the basis for being able to savor your work in the world while never becoming enslaved by it. Knowing the unconditional and boundless joy whose permanent abode is in your heart is the foundation for living your life with moksha, a true sense of freedom and fearlessness. This should remind all of us how enriching…..in fact, invaluable…..it is to learn to be in your heart. However, the tantric tradition provides us with another way of interpreting this fable.
According to tantra, just below your heart center is something called the “ananda kanda“…..the “root of bliss”…..which is the source of the sublime contentment “enshrined” in or near your spiritual heart. If you are experiencing bliss, the teachings say, you are tapping into this root where your heart’s blissful nature blossoms completely and endlessly. Within this root of bliss is the “kalpa vriksha“, the wishing tree. The teachings suggest that when you bring your desires with enough resolve to this tree, the tree then bestows on you the fulfillment of those desires.
How do you place your desires by your wishing tree with enough resolve?
The Buddha’s teachings are dedicated to answering that question. In many ways, answering it is its abiding message: Know that the world and everything in it, including you, is inherently sacred. Honor your place in it by respecting yourself and committing to becoming what you truly aspire to be. Understand that there is a truth that lies within you and can only be known by a still mind. Resolve to discover your Higher Self by looking inward. Once you glimpse this inner dimension…..Essence, Source, Spirit…..ask what desires it would have you fulfill. Set out in service of these desires and the greater good. Then, in full faith, take the loftiest of these desires back to your Source, which dwells in your heart, and let it lead you to them.
Let the wisdom and love in your heart show you what and who you really are, then let it guide you. Present your heart with a vision of what you know it longs for and it will help you fulfill the aspirations that have been in it all along. Make these steps your life’s practice. In time, you will be richly rewarded and discover that for every step you have taken toward fulfilling your dreams, your dreams have taken a step toward you.
Love and compassion are qualities essential to our stature as true human beings, and jointly might be considered the capacities that most distinguish us from the animals, except that animals sometimes display more kindness towards one another…..and towards people…..than we do. In the teachings of the Buddha, love and compassion are regarded as the foundation of ethics and important criteria of right speech and right action. They are also qualities to be developed by meditation. The Buddhist texts call love and compassion brahmavihara, “divine abodes,” for they manifest our inherent divinity even while we dwell in a human body. For Buddhism, love and compassion should be balanced by wisdom, insight into the real nature of things, which alone can permanently eradicate the mental defilements that bind us to samsara, the “round of birth and death.” But the meditative practices of love and compassion purify the mind of such constricting emotions as resentment, ill will, anger, and callous indifference, which cause misery for ourselves and others. They promote communal harmony and break down the barriers that confine us in the prison cage of the ego. By developing love and compassion, our hearts can expand and radiate immeasurable good will to everyone we meet.
In popular Buddhism, love and compassion are sometimes spoken of as if they were near-synonyms, but Buddhist philosophical texts represent these two qualities by different words, each with its own distinct meaning. In Pali, the language of the oldest surviving Buddhist texts, these words are metta and karuna, which I render respectively as “loving-kindness” and “compassion.” While the two are closely connected, they are distinguished by a subtle difference in tone. The Visuddhimagga, a fifth-century meditation treatise, explains loving-kindness as the wish to promote the welfare of beings, and compassion as the feeling of empathy that arises when we feel the suffering of others as our own (chap. IX, §§93-94)1. Loving-kindness is opposed to ill will and hatred, while compassion is opposed to cruelty and violence. A person of loving-kindness doesn’t bear ill will or resentment towards others. A compassionate person doesn’t wish harm for others. Such a person’s heart is stirred on seeing others suffer, and he is moved to act to remove their suffering.
Loving-kindness is said to be the basis for compassion, for in order to feel empathy with those who suffer we first must sincerely wish for their well-being, and precisely this is the function of loving-kindness. It is the feeling of love for beings that makes us care about their happiness and suffering. Consequently, when they meet suffering, we feel their pain as our own and make an effort to relieve them of their pain.
PUTTING COMPASSION INTO ACTION
One of the strong points of Buddhism is its powerful meditative methods of developing loving-kindness and compassion. While all great world religions praise love and compassion, Buddhism stands out in offering precise, step-by-step techniques for awakening and cultivating these sublime virtues. It is perhaps because of this valuation of love and compassion that so many people who have visited traditional Buddhist countries have found their citizens warm, kind, and friendly.
At the same time, however, I believe that traditional Buddhism has a critical weak spot. This is an insufficient emphasis on expressing love and compassion in concrete action aimed at promoting a more just and equitable social order. We Buddhists tend to treat love and compassion as exalted mental states, which we value because they help us overcome negative personal qualities like anger, hatred, ill will, and spite. In my opinion, which some might find provocative, traditional Buddhism does not sufficiently stress the need to mobilize love and compassion as motives for pursuing social justice and a more harmonious world. While Christians have shown a keen interest in learning from Buddhism how to live a contemplative life, I feel that Buddhism has much to learn from Christianity about how to express love in action.
If our meditative practice of love truly plants in our hearts a genuine concern for others, we should do something positive to promote their welfare. If we truly have compassion for beings, we should work to relieve their suffering. Suppose we were to come home one day and see that our house had caught fire. Knowing that our children are inside, we would not merely stand outside, thinking, “May my children escape from this burning house!” Rather, we would do whatever is necessary to save them, and we would not desist until we were sure that our children had been rescued. Similarly, we should think of all humanity as our own children, beset by various sufferings, and do our best to bring them relief.
The ideal Buddhist practice, in my opinion, is one that unites inner meditative development with external action in the world. When we cultivate love and compassion as a meditative practice, we create in our hearts a powerful force that can be unleashed and effect momentous transformations, bringing benefits to many. But the love and compassion in our hearts have to find channels to flow out in the form of concrete action. How we express love cannot be left to chance or to the whims of raw emotion. For love to be an effective agent of change, we need to examine the opportunities available to us to help others. Then we have to select a movement or a worthy cause that awakens our passion and inspires our wish to be of service.
What exactly should one choose? The choice we make will vary from person to person. To find a suitable way to be of service, we should carefully consider the problems the world faces today, our own capacities, and the opportunities available to us to make use of these capacities. Such problems that call for our attention and concern include: global warming and the need to develop a sustainable economic model; poverty and economic inequality; hunger and chronic malnutrition; war and militarism; social oppression and the denial of basic human rights; cruelty and other forms of unethical behavior towards animals.
In this present age, so full of danger and confusion, spirituality and social engagement cannot remain separate domains each sealed off by rigid boundaries. The major social upheavals of our age have an internal origin. They all stem from a deep crisis at the core of the human soul. To heal the maladies that afflict humanity calls for something far more potent than international treaties and technological innovation. A more stable solution must be ethical and spiritual. The only solution that can truly work must begin at the foundations, within the depths of human consciousness. Most of all we need a global awakening of the wisdom that embodies timeless standards of justice, and a boundless love and compassion that extends to all living beings. But to heal the crisis of our age, love and compassion must serve as more than lofty spiritual ideals. They must become spurs to action, moving us to work indefatigably to eliminate the suffering of others and to promote their long-term welfare and happiness.
“I believe that deep down, all human beings are really good.”
I thought of those words of Anne Frank recently, when I met a little boy in Bangladesh. A little boy who grabbed my finger and aimlessly led me around a refugee camp. A little boy with an empty plate and eyes, oh, a hundred years old, and a tiny behind as wrinkled as an old man’s…Listen Anne Frank: How can all people really be good if he…like millions of other children who’ve had to give up their right to live, to smile, to learn, and to grow…has had to suffer so much?
You were so young, Anne Frank…your trust in humanity so extraordinary. Sitting there in your small loft. Writing. Hoping, Dreaming. Believing. Surrounded by so much evil. And finally, listening to Evil itself hammering on the door behind which you had been hiding for such a long time.
Did you still believe when they brought you to Auschwitz? When your mother was sent to her death? As your sister lay dying? And then you…?
More than seventy six years after you wrote your words, there is still war, poverty, child exploitation and neglect. One hundred eighty million children are homeless around the world. It is estimated that 1.6 billion people around the world live in “inadequate shelter”. An estimated 6.3 million children under the age of 15 years died in 2018. 5.4 million of them were under the age of 5 and 2.5 million of those children died within the first month of life. This translates into 17,261 child deaths per day or 720 per hour.
We are defined by those deaths.
Anne asked, “Why can’t people live with each other in peace?…Why must everything be destroyed?…Why must people go hungry while surplus food elsewhere in the world rots aways?…Oh, why are people so crazy?” Yes, why are people so crazy, Anne? Or would you today, as a ninety-year-old woman, have given it another name? Why are people so cynical? Maybe because it is easy and fashionable to be a cynic, to shrug one’s shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do, really.” It is easy to turn one’s back, turn off the television news. But I ask you, where do the children turn? They do not disappear at the push of a TV button. Their suffering does not cease, their cries do not hush, even though we can’t (and often choose not to) hear them.
Deprived of freedom in a small loft, Anne painted a portrait of herself that has survived. Survived not only because of the circumstances of her life, but because of her belief in Life. Her belief in you and me. And in our ability to change. To protest. To care. To make good what is evil.
“I believe that deep down, all human beings are really good.”
We owe it to her to listen. We owe it to her to be good. We owe it to her to believe in the possibility of Good, within all of us, and then in our daily life to demonstrate this belief. Because Anne believed in us.
In spite of everything.