2020-12-14 Brahmavihāras: Compassion (1 of 5)
5:08PM Dec 14, 2020
With this talk, I begin a five-part series on the brahmavihāra of compassion. It's hard to imagine Buddhism without compassion. It's one of the primary forces that has brought Buddhism down to us down through the ages. It's one of the primary movements or things that are awakened in us with awakening. The more awake we become, the more compassion there is, the more care and love, goodwill.
And I'd like to think of awakening, this famous English word for liberation, enlightenment, includes the awakening of compassion. And certainly, for me, one of the big surprises and treasures of Buddhist practice was the slow and gradual awakening of my compassion. It was so gradual and slow that I didn't really recognize that it was happening while it was happening. I wasn't oriented to notice it, even though I was changing.
In retrospect, after a few years of practice, I look back and see that, well, maybe I didn't get enlightened. But I certainly became 'compassioned' and discovered this wonderful quality in myself. And to my surprise, it was a quality that was very satisfying to feel. It has kind of a sweetness and a settledness, and a 'rightness' to it.
In and of itself, compassion is not troubled by anything. To come to this untroubled compassion is one of the great tasks of a lifetime. It's certainly easy to experience the suffering of oneself, the suffering of others, and have alarm and upset and distress around it. It's also possible to have qualities of compassion, together with distress. But to be able to have compassion without any distress, is one of the great gifts that we can give to the world and to ourselves, and that come from Buddhist practice.
What is compassion? I almost don't want to define it too much. And sometimes I like to think that I don't really know exactly what it is, even though it's been one of the central organizing principles for my life, for much of my adult life. I can think of very few things that are more important for me in how I live and what motivates me and how I orient myself to the world than this compassion that's been awakened in me.
It's clearly very important for me. And so it may be a little bit odd for me to say I can't really define it exactly. And perhaps it's because over the years of my practice, what I have called compassion has changed over time. It may be, as I've developed, or as circumstances have changed, that the quality, the characteristics of compassion, have not stayed the same. And, in fact, maybe there are different forms of compassion. And, so in the course of time, we tap into these different forms, shapes, and characteristics of compassion. So we don't want to narrow it down to just one thing, "This is what it is."
So I'm a little bit reluctant to give a definition that way. But it's also helpful to understand some of the classic definitions of it. Probably the most classic Buddhist definition in our tradition, the Theravādan tradition – it doesn't come from the Buddha who never actually defined karuṇā. And so it's a little bit a guessing game really to understand what he actually meant by this word karuṇā, the Buddhist word for compassion.
Buddhaghosa, a teacher who lived about 1000 years after the Buddha, provided a wonderful description of compassion, karuṇā. He begins with what he loves to do, and which many Buddhist teachers in Asia love to do, namely to connect the meaning of a word with words that are similar sounding. Not quite an etymology game, but a correspondence game of similar sounding words. So karuṇā starts with 'k-a'. And so he has all these words that coincidentally start with 'k' or 'k-a-r' in Pali, which he sees as resonating with compassion or gives the reason why it's called karuṇā.
So the word compassion, I've translated these words, with English words that starts with 'c', 'c-a', or 'c-o' to go along with this 'c-o' at the beginning closest in meaning to what the Pali words are. So it is compassion, because it causes the hearts of good people to be moved by the suffering of others.
So the hearts of good people to be moved by the suffering of others. And first, what is it, what does it mean to be a good person? The word can also mean an ethical person, someone who lives trying their best to not live from hatred and greed, lust, trying to live from qualities of friendliness and goodwill and kindness and wisdom.
People who have discovered, and this is why meditation is so helpful, I think meditation helps us to become good people. It helps free us from these forces of hostility, or ill will or the things that we can do that hurt other people, and to be strongly motivated not to hurt. And if we're such a person who's able to be in the present moment, it's such an important place to be as a reference point, as a discovery of this life. Then to be in the presence of other people's suffering or know about it, something inside of us moves. Some people translate this word as trembles or shakes. This is we're moved by the suffering of others. And the question is, how are we moved? How are we moved so there's no distress?
So then the definition goes on further and says, it is compassion, because it combats, strikes and destroys the suffering of others. It's a little bit paradoxical or ironic to use such violent terms, in relationship to compassion, but it does speak to the strong motivation to really make a difference, to really try to overcome suffering in this world. And not to just accept it in some kind of deep way, but really have this goal, this idea that it can end in some way or other.
And it is compassion because it covers or moves, covers those who suffer. The word can also mean in Pali 'moves' or 'affects' other people who suffer. So the compassion touches other people. So it moves, covers those who suffer, reaching out... Actually, here is a different translation: "reaching out to pervade those who suffer. It is compassion, because it covers those who suffer." It moves us. So we reach out from the heart with the idea of suffusing or spreading compassion.
Now is this fanciful thinking to think that compassion can spread from us out into the world? Is there a force like electricity – like wavelengths of vibration that spread out? What is it? I don't know. And I'm disinclined to call it anything specific.
But we do affect each other. We do pick up the cues, the tone of voice, the mannerisms of others. We can feel sometimes the intentions of others. And to know that this spreads out, to know that somehow people are touched by it. It resonates in people. And for us to open our hearts and spread loving-kindness and compassion to the world as if we're suffusing, we're touching other people who suffer.
There's a little bit more I want to say about this ancient definition: "Compassion is characterized as supporting what reduces suffering." I like this definition, because it's not necessarily saying we work directly to end suffering, but we help reduce the support for suffering, the underlying causes for suffering. And that can be many things. Sometimes it's things in the external world, sometimes it's things within – but whatever it is that is a condition for people to suffer, that is addressed by people who have compassion.
This next one is very important: "Compassion functions to not carry the suffering of others." Compassion has the quality that when we have this karuṇā kind of compassion, we're not burdened, distressed, by the suffering of others. And that is one of the key qualities of this compassion – to not be distressed or burdened by it, and to be interested in alleviating suffering elsewhere. "It manifests as the absence of cruelty. Its proximate cause is to see the helplessness of those overwhelmed by suffering."
That really can touch the heart in a deep way. People suffer. But there are some people who have no ability – because of circumstances or what's happening in the world – they can't really help themselves. And that really tugs the heart. If they can't help themselves who's going to? "Let me help them." People are in war zones. People are in tremendous experiences of oppression where there's no way out of the terrible state they're in. And the idea that people are helpless sometimes in their suffering tugs on the heart and awakens this kind of karuṇā compassion.
"Compassion succeeds when it makes cruelty subside, and fails when it produces sorrow." So, when cruelty subsides, hostility subsides and it doesn't elicit sorrow or distress in us. To have our hearts moved in such a way that we're not burdened and not distressed. There's an absence of hostility and anger, but a strong motivation to help and support people to suffer less.
Those are the general parameters of what compassion is. I think many times this quality doesn't involve being burdened. There's no distress or sorrow involved in compassion. That is the art. That is like the magic or the specialness of it. Some people cannot believe that or cannot justify that. They feel like there has to be sorrow and distress, and a sense of the weight of the world on their shoulders.
But to have this compassion that is sweet. This compassion is one of the great sources of being happy in the world. If you want to be happy, live compassionately. The compassion of karuṇā, this particular kind of compassion that the Buddha emphasizes or Buddhaghosa here emphasizes, is a very special thing.
In these few words that I had to talk about compassion, I hope that it will awaken in you a curiosity and interest in the question, "What is compassion for you?" What does your compassion feel like? What reference do you have for compassion that is sweet? Or compassion that is a source of well-being – compassion that is deeply moved by the suffering of the world, but is not burdened by it or distressed by it? What is that? Do you have any reference point for it?
If not, maybe you can reflect on this and think about it and talk to people over the next day about your relationship to compassion and how you understand it. Thank you very much.