2020-12-18 Brahmavihāras Compassion (5 of 5)
4:51PM Dec 18, 2020
This is the last talk on the Buddhist concept of karuṇā, a word often translated as compassion. In the early Buddhist tradition, the reference point for karuṇā is meditation practice – meditation where we become free of the hindrances, free of clinging and hatred, and free of preoccupation. And with that, we become free of obligation, free of idealism, and free of all the things that keep us locked in, limited, closed down, or agitated. What is it that gets born out of this freedom that has to do with caring for the suffering of oneself and the suffering of the world? With that reference point, what is the flavor and character of compassion which has a quality of freedom within it?
Certainly, many of us can have the experience of being touched in a compassionate and caring way for others. In the very movement of compassion, something opens up – something different from self-concern or the usual reference points of me, you, the self, and others.
I don't know if this story touches on this for you, but it does for me. I don't know if it's a true story, but maybe that doesn't matter. It takes place in Washington, DC, on a beautiful spring day with some of the great trees flowering with big, beautiful white flowers, and a beautiful blue sky and crisp, clear air. Everyone is delighted by the freshness of it all.
A person who goes to work every day walks by a man sitting on the sidewalk begging with a cup – a blind man hoping for some spare change. On that day, the passerby noticed that there was no money in the man's cup. So they asked, "Can I make a sign for you"? And the blind men said yes. So they wrote a sign, propped it against the cup, and went on to work.
Coming back at the end of the day, the man was still sitting there, but now there was money in the cup. The passerby stopped and said, "How is it? How's it going"? And the blind man said, "Oh, it's going great. I've never received so much before. What did you write on the sign"? And the passerby said, "I wrote, 'today is a beautiful day, and I'm blind.'"
Our sense of common humanity, empathy, and the understanding of what they mean, tells us that many sighted people are really enjoying something special, unique, vibrant, and alive. It's something uplifting – a beautiful day. And a person who's blind may be able to smell the freshness of the day, but can't see the blue sky and the flowers we can see. It touches something in us. And in wanting to extend ourselves to support such a person – write a sign, offer some support, money maybe – something in that movement is no longer about self. This is especially true if we're coming out of meditation and not so busy, self-preoccupied, and caught up in ideas and thoughts about what should and shouldn't be. There's something that opens in us – "Oh. Of course, I feel for this person. I have compassion. I'm with this person."
That movement, I'd like to propose – to care in this kind of situation for someone like this – for it to be karuṇā coming out of meditation or a similar place – is nourishing for the person it's offered to, and nourishing for the person who gives it. Nourishing and being nourished are the same thing. We can have that as a reference point for compassion. We're looking for that, or we're being careful if it's not that. If we don't feel nourished, then we're probably operating under obligation, duty, a big 'should,' even a kind of harshness inside: "Gil, you're supposed to be compassionate. Better do it now. Otherwise, you'll be, somehow, a bad person."
We can feel – really recognize, and know in oneself deeply – what it's like to be nourished and nourishing. And that can be for oneself, but also in our relationship to the world around us – to be generous and have that be a kind of a nourishment for ourselves. To have goodwill and have that be nourishing for ourselves. And to have compassion and that be nourishing for ourselves.
So this karuṇā, then, has a very close relationship to liberation or freedom in Buddhism. The more free we become in meditation or in other ways, the more we have a reference point for understanding the simplicity, clarity, and beauty of compassion which helps us become happy – a certain kind of happiness.
When happiness is not really appropriate because the tragedies of the world are so big, there is a response to that tragedy. Maybe we don't feel happy, but there's a nourishment in it. There is a radiance of goodness that's there when we don't get caught up in thoughts of horror, dismay, anger, agitation, or it lands in a place of self like: "Oh. I have to do something and I'm confused and what should I do"? It's simply a place that: "Oh. Today's a beautiful day, and I'm blind." "Oh." Something in us opens. "Oh. Oh. Let me offer something here. Let me share something with this person."
So compassion practice – as Diana taught you yesterday – can be a formal meditation practice as well. We don't leave the cultivation or our compassion to chance, we can actually cultivate, develop, and let it grow. It's been one of the great gifts of my life to watch and develop my sense of compassion. I had no idea when I started meditation that it was such a fantastic thing to have compassion be awakened in me. So it's possible to do that intentionally and develop it.
It's also, then, one of the great parts of that is the way in which compassion both becomes a form of freedom and also teaches us more about freedom – freedom from self, freedom from clinging, freedom from hatred, freedom from sensual desires and comfort, freedom from our opinions and stories, and freedom from self-preoccupation, self-attachment.
And so, the deeper we go with meditation on compassion and being nourished by it, the more we experience a nourishing alternative to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, a nourishing alternative to being caught in stories – whatever stories we have, opinions we have – an alternative to self-preoccupation. And it isn't as though we let go of self-preoccupation and have nothing. We have a place of tenderness and nourishment within.
The deeper our compassion – the stronger it becomes, the more concentrated we become – it then, itself, sets the stage for the deepest liberation that Buddhism offers or points to. When the mind is really peaceful, at ease, settled on itself, then there can be insight into the nature of things, including insight into the nature of compassion, the insight that even compassion is impermanent, inconstant, and changing. Even compassion is something that arises out of the constructing forces of the mind, the heart. There's something beyond the constructing forces of the heart and the mind – something beyond, outside of what's inconstant and impermanent.
And that which is beyond and outside of it is not a thing. But it's the absence of all clinging, the absence of all self-preoccupation. Such a radical, radical, radical absence that it really gets our attention. And really, "Wow! It's possible." It really is possible, after all, to experience, to have, to live this life without any clinging, or attachment 'whatsoever.' It's a phenomenal thing to know that.
That freedom from clinging, itself, clears the dust, in a sense, from our hearts – from the windows of our hearts – that now, it's so much easier to have compassion. It's so much easier to have love. Because there are no smudges. There's no dust. There's nothing in the way of that tenderness, that warmth. Nothing in the way of being touched by the world and the heart touching the world.
So we find that there's a whole new level of what compassion can be after some really deep letting go happens. Compassion can be part of the path to letting go, because it really is supportive. It helps us relax, and it can be very compelling to really settle into a strong sense of compassion. Then it can also be the stepping stone for a deep releasing that goes on.
Once a person has experienced deep release, the heart is open, and compassion is awoken in a greater way, then the Buddha's instruction is to go forth into the world for the welfare of humans and gods, for the welfare and happiness of all beings. In other words, live caring for this world, live for the welfare of the world. And not because we should. I feel it's because that's what the heart wants to do. Acting on compassion is an extremely important thing to do.
To not act on our compassionate impulses is a kind of restriction, a kind of closing down. It's a kind of diminishing or, sometimes, even a kind of a wounding of ourselves. If we have an impulse for compassion, act on it. It's a feedback loop there too. The more we act on compassion – as pure a compassion as we can – the more that compassion then feeds back to us and supports us. Just the idea of compassion – and the thought "I am compassionate" – just meditating on compassion – really shortchanges us. It's in the enactment of compassion that compassion really comes to fulfillment, to completion.
Sometimes the practice of compassion is to practice acting as if you have compassion, knowing very well you're acting "as if." But sometimes, acting "as if" evokes, awakens, and clears the space for an innate capacity of compassion to grow, develop, and catch up to what we're actually acting out.
So, the brahmavihāra of compassion – one of the great gifts and treasures of this tradition of practice, of Buddhism. May it be that you treasure whatever capacity for compassion, karuṇā, that you have hints of, that you've touched into. Treasure it. Value it. Make room for it. May it have a strong place in your life. May you benefit from that. And may you benefit all beings from that. Thank you.