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.
A girlfriend who is considering a change wrote me last night. She wondered how hard the transition was for me, as a teacher, leaving the thriving Connecticut community for the quieter solitude of the Massachusetts Green Mountain Forrest. I admitted, the actual change wasn’t difficult at all. But before I could embrace this new life I love…..I had to face a fear I didn’t even know I had.
It was the fear of being obsolete and forgotten. Of not being seen and thus, I would no longer matter. As if only by my exposure to the world could my relevance be measured.
I wonder how many of us feel that way? Compelled to put ourselves out there constantly, relentlessly…..for fear the world will forget our worth. And it will. That’s the truth. The hoard of anonymous numbers we work so hard to amass and maintain are far quicker to dissipate than ever were to grow.
You don’t have to trust everything out in the world, but you need to be able to connect inside and learn to trust your heart. And maybe that’s one of the beauties of age, is that you become so much more secure in that…..intuition suddenly becomes stronger and more clear. I find it easier to listen to myself, to the signals I get…..I’m learning to respond much more efficiently.
And what I’ve realized is, that’s ok with me. Because I’m ok with me. This was my most challenging transition. Bigger than a move. And a place of far greater significance.
And so to my friend I wrote, yes it was hard. As all good and wonderful things tend to be.
On Monday, Namgyal Institute for Buddhist Studies will release a new episode of the Westchester Meditation Center podcast with teacher, Monica Gauci…..a remarkable and brilliant woman who mostly lives off-the-grid. We chatted for hours, as butterflies flew in and out of her open-air sitting room, overlooking the valleys and distant coast. I’m reminded that these are the connections, the moments, that will always matter most. And the ones that the Namgyal Teachers and I are grateful to be able to share…..with you.
HOMEWORKHere’s a twist for the 10 year-challenge we offer students at Namgyal Retreats…..what would you go back and share with your decade-younger self?I look back and remember what a time she was going through. I wish I could tell her this: I know you can’t feel the hand that guides you but that’s the way it must always be. So you will feel lost, but it’s only because this way is new to you. You will feel helpless, but you are stronger than you know. And this time will help reveal to you your power. You will feel like you are losing the battle all the way up until there is no battle at all.It’s all by design. We cannot recognize the Universe’s (God, Paramatma, Brahmin, Waheguru, Jah) face when she stands before us….you will only recognize her back, as she lifts her hand to leave. That’s when you will realize, the Universe was with you the whole time.That’s the way it always is, of course. We never see what is happening while it’s happening…..only after. And why history books are never written in the moment. We must wait for time to pass before the questions ever make sense. We need time. We need space.And so I would reassure my 2009 self this: Don’t trust the people who use your kindness to their advantage. You are perfect where you are and as you are. In a few years, you will see. You will understand. But until then, make friends with the questions. They are not to be feared. In fact, I’m starting to think….these questions ARE the face of the Universe.
Dedicated to my all my Teachers, Family and Friends…most especially Jean L., Val S. and Stephanie C.
Earlier this month, while sitting at a desk, overlooking a frigid Columbus Circle in New York City, I couldn’t help but think about the life thresholds I’ve recently crossed. Years ago, I had a faint dream that I could teach yoga, a practice I admired, respected and loved with all my heart. I dreamt of a deeper connection to the spiritual practice and the daily practice of each of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. I suppose I dreamt of this because I saw so little of the practice actually taking place in daily life around me. Sure, I attended yoga classes and while most students scrambled to show off their best backbend or impress with the strongest and straightest handstand, my deepest wish was to know how to actually practice yoga in every move and breath taken in my daily living. I had often hoped to learn more but throughout my almost 17 years of practice, no class satisfied my appetite enough to appease my curiosity. At one point, I thought the best way to learn would be to actually learn to teach yoga – perhaps all those teachers out there teaching extraneous poses knewthe deep secrets and the only way to learn them was to actually go through the trainings. I remember asking a teacher of mine once, her opinion on whether this would be wise, and her words were less than encouraging. So I gave up on the notion, and therefore never crossed that threshold.
As I sat observing, I realized, within the grip of winter, it is almost impossible to imagine the spring. The gray perished landscape is shorn of color. Only bleakness meets the eye; everything seems severe and edged. Winter is the oldest season; it has some quality of the absolute. Yet beneath the surface of winter, the miracle of spring is already in preparation; the cold is relenting; seeds are wakening up. Colors are beginning to imagine how they will return. Then, imperceptibly, somewhere one bud opens and the symphony of renewal is no longer reversible. From the black heart of winter a miraculous, breathing plenitude of color emerges.
The beauty of nature insists on taking its time. Everything is prepared. Nothing is rushed. The rhythm of emergence is a gradual slow beat always inching its way forward; change remains faithful to itself until the new unfolds in the full confidence of true arrival. Because nothing is abrupt, the beginning of spring nearly always catches us unaware. It is there before we see it; and then we can look nowhere without seeing it.
Change arrives in nature when time has ripened. There are no jagged transitions or crude discontinuities. This accounts for the sureness with which one season succeeds another. It is as though they were moving forward in a rhythm set from within a continuum.
To change is one of the great dreams of every heart….it was a dream for me….to change the limitations, the sameness, the banality, or the pain. So often we look back on patterns of behavior, the kind of decisions we make repeatedly and that have failed to serve us well, and we aim for a new and more successful path or way of living. But change is difficult for us. So often we opt to continue the old pattern, rather than risking the danger of difference. (Or in my case, I opted to listen to the words of someone who did not have my best interest at heart.) We are also often surprised by change that seems to arrive out of nowhere. We find ourselves crossing some new threshold we had never anticipated. Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality beings to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.
At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it?
A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossing were always clothed in ritual. It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds; to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.
To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging. This becomes essential when a threshold opens suddenly in front of you, one for which you had no preparation. This could be illness, suffering or loss. Because we are so engaged with the world, we usually forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It takes only a couple of seconds for a life to change irreversibly. Suddenly you stand on completely strange ground and a new course of life has to be embraced. Especially at such times we desperately need blessing and protection. You look back at the life you have lived up to a few hours before, and it suddenly seems so far away. Think for a moment how, across the world, someone’s life has just changed….irrevocably, permanently, and not necessarily for the better….and everything that was once so steady, so reliable, must now find a new way of unfolding.
Though we know one another’s names and recognize one another’s faces, we never know what destiny shapes each life. The script of individual destiny is secret; it is hidden behind and beneath the sequence of happenings that is continually unfolding for us. Each life is a mystery that is never finally available to the mind’s light or questions. That we are here is a huge affirmation; somehow life needed us and wanted us to be. To sense and trust this primeval acceptance can open a vast spring of trust within the heart. It can free us into a natural courage that casts out fear and opens up our lives to become voyages of discovery, creativity, and compassion.
So, what threshold had I crossed? I went and took a yoga teacher training. Then I took another. I traveled and taught. I put myself out there, but always carrying those negative words with me. So I continued to teach, and teach, and teach. And then I went to yet another teacher training, which would be my last (for now)….and I learned that I had indeed crossed a threshold….one that has changed my life dramatically because I have finally let go of the unnecessary noise in my life….those words from so long ago. The noise from the people who chose to not practice any part of what they teach and who choose to live ingenuous lives. And then, as the snow began to slowly fall over Columbus Circle, I realized, no threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise. Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust.