2020-12-15 Brahmavihāras: Compassion (2 of 5)
4:36PM Dec 15, 2020
Now continuing with this second talk on compassion, 'karuṇā.' As I said yesterday, there are many different definitions of compassion. There may be as many forms of compassion as there are people. With compassion – as wonderful and profound as it is – we should be very careful not to put it into just one box – like there's one thing we know compassion is. Even so, in the range of what compassion can be, the Buddhist idea of 'karuṇā' has its own flavor, its own particular way of being or aspect. It's quite worthwhile to learn and understand this flavor of compassion.
I don't know exactly if it's the case, but I have been told or read that the word 'karuṇā' comes from the same root as the word karma, meaning action. In the pre-Buddha's time, 'karuṇā' referred to something called "sacred action" – which the Buddha, or the religious world of his time, utilized to refer to something close to what we call compassion.
One of the characteristics of the Buddha's discussion about 'karuṇā' is that he primarily talked about it as something that's cultivated and experienced in meditation. He had another word, 'anukampā,' which is the expression of care (maybe compassion) in how we act in the world – act with care, act with compassion.
This very important word, 'karuṇā,' is primarily cultivated in meditation – discovered in meditation – for many of us. What makes that special is that meditation is a place where we're settling in to discover how to be free of the hindrances, among other things. To be free of ill will, to be free of compulsive desire, sloth, torpor, restlessness, anxiety, regrets, and doubt. To discover how not to have any clingings, to be deeply at ease and at peace – here.
The experience of encountering suffering, or being concerned with the suffering of oneself or that of others – when the hindrances and clinging are not there, or not in the forefront – not complicating it – gives compassion a very unique flavor. It's compassion that is free of tension, clinging, and the distress that arises from clinging.
In particular, one of the forms of distress that can be born out of contact with suffering, is related to all the ways in which we cling to self – all the ways in which the self is wounded, hurt, easily triggered, or made frightened. When the sense of self gets rectified, harmonized, softened – dissolved in this wonderful field of goodwill of meditation – then self and self-concern, self-preoccupation, egotism, doesn't get tied up in the compassion.
Compassion then becomes free of what's called the near enemy of compassion. Near enemy is something that looks like compassion, but isn't. Sometimes it's pity. We feel pity for people, or a certain kind of distressed feeling of horror or alarm. We really feel strongly motivated, concerned, and caught in the experience of suffering, and in the suffering of others. We might worry about people, and we might call that compassion, but maybe it's not quite compassion. It looks like compassion. But it isn't the kind of 'karuṇā' compassion, where the reference point is a deep sense of inner well-being.
If we have that sense of well-being and happiness within, which comes from letting go of clinging and self-preoccupation, then one of the confusions around compassion can be that if we're compassionate, we're altruistic. That we don't have any concern with ourselves. We just give ourselves completely over to caring for other people as if we don't matter. And it's fine for us to stay up all night, and exhaust ourselves, and do whatever we can, because we're supposed to be compassionate. But when the reference point is the sense of well-being in meditation, then it becomes obvious that we're harming ourselves when we don't give any attention to ourselves.
Compassion, as 'karuṇā' in Buddhism, is not altruistic compassion, but it's also not selfish compassion. I like to think of as compassion glowing from the inside from our heart outwards. It takes care of the first human being it encounters, glowing from the heart. And the first human being this compassionate care encounters will be yourself – everything from the center of your heart outwards.
That also warrants care, love, goodwill, and wanting well-being for you, yourself. It flows out from us because as we get centered, nothing gets stuck. Nothing gets limited – our feelings and attitudes. There's openness that is inclusive of the world around us and others. But it's not inclusion or concern for others where we lose touch with what's here – because 'karuṇā' flows from the heart through us and out into the world. The sense of well-being in meditation, for example, that allows us to connect to the heart is the very well-being or openness that allows our compassion to flow outwards.
One of the characteristics of 'karuṇā,' which I mentioned yesterday, is that it is not tied up in sorrow. It's not tied up in distress. We don't take it on as a burden. Actually, there's a feeling of lightness, or sweetness in this, even though the heart might be broken. My heart gets broken regularly with the suffering of the world, and what people tell me they've experienced in their life, or what I read in the news.
There have been times when I've sobbed after reading the news because of what I see there. But I don't feel that I'm distressed. I don't feel upset, or that I feel sorrow exactly. I just feel deeply heartbroken, and maybe sad without sorrow, or sorrow without sadness – a kind of poignant feeling that has no clinging. It's not self-preoccupation. It's not feeling sorry for myself, or feeling distressed in myself. I'm quite welcoming and willing to have my heart broken – and feel this kind of poignant sadness in the world. But it has no weight. I don't feel like I'm suffering with it.
And so, this compassion, 'karuṇā,' which is neither altruistic, nor self-centered – where we ourselves are as important to care for as anyone else. There's balance in our compassion with self-care and other care. Buddhists tend not to like to use the word self-care, because it's such a magnet for self-preoccupation. The idea of self-centeredness is so powerful that even in our language, we probably should be a little bit careful, so that it doesn't become a magnet for self-concern.
We can begin to discover this inner capacity for compassion, 'karuṇā,' which comes from letting go of distraction, clinging, the hindrances. As I keep saying, for many of us, it starts in meditation. Then compassion is in a field, in a context of a certain degree of freedom, ease, or absence of clinging that supports all kinds of transformations.
With compassion and this deep letting go of the hindrances and selfishness, resentment can turn into forgiveness. Hostility can turn into friendliness. Anger can turn into kindness. Compassion is a force that prompts or encourages the movement of letting go of further clinging. Why hold on to anything when we keep hurting ourselves if we hold on to it? Jealousy is holding on. Hostility is holding on. Ill will is holding on.
The combination of this connection to deeper well-being and compassion is like medicine or a balm, which transforms these places that are tough and hard inside of us. Whether that's hostility to ourselves or to others, whether it's being angry with ourselves, critical of ourselves, or of others. All the different ways we suffer. If we're deeply afraid or deeply hurt, to meet that with softness, compassion, kindness, and nonclinging. To meet ourselves suffering, with that part of us that's not self-preoccupied. To be able to be present in a loving and careful way.
One of the things that meditation does for many of us is to help us meet our own suffering. Really knowing our own suffering helps us better understand the suffering of others. That helps us to have compassion for them.
But also, as we understand ourselves better, we understand the complications that might arise when we're encountering others – when we give birth to the near enemies of compassion, or the far enemies of compassion – horror or deep distress. Or even the far, far enemy: cruelty. Some people will respond to distress in the world – it's so painful and so unacceptable to be present for it – they just want to push it away. And sometimes even into forms of cruelty.
So the reference point for 'karuṇā,' this particular kind of compassion in the teachings of the Buddha, is meditation practice. Hopefully, over time, we discover the freedom that comes with meditation, and how that can give rise to a certain kind of compassion, which is very clean.
Maybe it's compassion that's like purified gold. It's purified of all the dross and impurities that come along with it. Then we understand that compassion doesn't diminish us.
Compassion is not stressful in and of itself. It's not sharing in the suffering of others in the sense of feeling their suffering so we feel it the same way. But rather, it's being with their suffering with tenderness, care, concern, and empathy. We're bringing a soft, tender attitude of care and love to meet them. To care for people, support them, and be their friends – to be with them.
It is said that, if you want to be happy in your life, be compassionate. Easier said than done. But the reference point for this little saying is the 'karuṇā' we discover, evoke, or develop in the freedom from clinging – the freedom from the hindrances, which meditation can lead to if we can really be present, here.
And if we can't be fully present here, then it's a wonderful thing to be compassionate for that. To be caring and loving for all the challenges we have. Sometimes it's through compassion that we finally learn how to really be present here for our lived experience.
I hope that you will spend some time thinking about, exploring, and reflecting on the relationship between compassion and the absence of clinging – the absence of self-centeredness – but with the presence of self-love.
Thank you all very much.