Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Heart of Compassion

     A woman progresses from love to prayer; a man progresses from prayer to love. (—old saying)

     Theravada Buddhism, great as it is, is not a predominantly heart-oriented system. This is largely because it arose in a male-dominated culture, and was developed almost entirely by philosophically (more than religiously) oriented men. At first, by very tough and strong ascetic men with no women in their lives. There is some considerable mention of love and compassion in the texts, for example in the famous Metta Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta; however, loving kindness (mettā) and compassion (karuna) are considered to be less advanced and of less value than neutral equanimity (upekkhā), and other forms of love such as fondness (pema) and affection (sneha) are considered to be positively unwholesome forms of clinging. Also, the sharing of love and compassion is usually described in a generalized and abstract manner: instead of singling out and attending to one person in need of love, the meditator-monk universally beams loving kindness disinterestedly to all beings, to all categories of beings, in all directions systematically. Furthermore, the instructions for sending this love are reduced to standardized formulas designed for easy memorization, essentially drying the life and inspiration out of them. To top it all off, opportunities for intense, real compassion for another being are limited, as the Pali texts encourage monks to be recluses—"Go alone like the horn of the rhinoceros"—and intimacy with anyone aside from other philosophical recluses is discouraged, especially intimacy with the stereotypically more heart-oriented half of the human race, i.e. females. "Beware of the monster with two soft horns on its chest," and so on. This is certainly not to say that Theravada is emotionally dead; and modern developments of it are certainly warmer and friendlier (largely due to feminine influence); but the ancient tradition has a rather dim view of emotion and glorifies the intellect, the supreme example of this orientation being the Abhidhamma philosophy which, like Science also nowadays, attempts to comprehend all reality by systematically thinking about it. 
     In addition to all this, although I have a natural adoration for trees, animals, starry skies, and beautiful women, I personally have rather shallow emotions and have told people for years that I have a "heart of wood." Of the ten perfections (pārami), I would tell my friends that mettā, loving kindness, was my least perfected one. I was apparently born like this, and so I accepted it as a pretty much unavoidable character trait, like a lack of musical talent or a dislike for black licorice. And then I went out and lived as a cave-dwelling Buddhist hermit for many years.
     So it should have been no surprise that after returning to the USA and interacting with American laypeople who are not inclined simply to worship me, many of these people being heart-oriented "monsters" with two soft horns on their chest, I began occasionally receiving feedback to the effect that I lack care and compassion for others. I do have consideration and some sensitivity, but I was informed that this is not enough—I should be more "heart-opened." This issue has caused my heart a fair amount of turmoil.
     Sometimes what would happen is like this: A person would be very unhappy about something in life, and with my Buddhist training in observing and not identifying with mental states I would try gently to advise them that it is unnecessary to be unhappy, that in each moment we have a choice…the result often being that the person would become more vehemently unhappy, seemingly insisting on their misery. It is still something I cannot relate to very well. If someone tells me a philosophical truth that I can't deny, then it has an effect; but people living in and of the world, bless their hearts, can reject philosophical truths pretty easily.
     People say that if someone is very unhappy, they need a compassionate hug much more than they need philosophizing or to be told to "snap out of it." With most people I realize that this is right, and I'm developing more discernment with regard to whether the person is waking up or still relatively lost in the dream of the world. Most people don't want to be told that their misery is a matter of choice in each moment, especially when they are in the thick of it.
     On the other hand, I keep remembering a television documentary that I saw many years ago about a dog psychologist. He was explaining to a client's owner why the client was so afraid of heights, and seemed to be increasingly afraid of them with time. He pointed out that when the dog would act afraid its owner would comfort it with petting and cuddles and sweet words. The dog learned that if it was afraid it would be rewarded, and thus the fear was reinforced and entrenched. I think this principle may apply to humans also, at least in some cases.
     In the Buddhist texts there is little if any mention of hugging. A monk who is having troubles may be treated gently by the others, and will probably receive an exhortation of some sort, but then again he may be left alone or even treated harshly. The harshness is particularly graphic in Zen Buddhism. A Zen monk might have the misery beaten out of him, or even beaten into him. There is a famous story, for example, of the great monk Rinzai when he was still a student of the master Ōbaku. Whenever he would ask the master for instruction in Dharma, Ōbaku would drive him away with a beating. Finally Rinzai left and went to a different master, Taigu. When Rinzai told Taigu of Ōbaku's beatings and asked what he had done to deserve them, Taigu responded saying, "Ōbaku has been striving for your sake with such grandmotherly kindness. How can you ask where you are at fault?" At this Rinzai suddenly became enlightened, and he duly returned to Ōbaku. In later years Rinzai became a great master himself and the founder of one of the two main branches of Zen in Japan. And incidentally, almost every story I have read about Rinzai involves him hitting somebody. 
     Although a system like Hinduism may teach a gradual evolution into total, full-blown sainthood, with perfection of heart and head in harmonious balance, Buddhism tends to see this more as optional, putting somewhat more emphasis on simply letting go of Samsara regardless of what stage of development one is at. Instead of necessarily reaching the lofty summit of spiritual evolution, one may bail out of the system sideways, so to speak. At least this is seen as a possible option, and one involving less time and effort, yet still arriving at Nirvana just the same. And so I am still not entirely convinced of the absolute necessity of being heart-opened for the sake of becoming enlightened.
     Even so, people here whose advice I respect, most of them women, assure me that a compassionate hug is still of inestimable value, despite the possibility that in some way it might reward and reinforce someone's unhappiness. I suppose it is not the hug itself but the love that is really essential. To have someone accept you totally, even in your misery, to have them see divinity and perfection in you even when you are at your worst, may have incredible transformative power for both of you. To have someone open-heartedly believe in you, no matter what, is so uplifting and empowering that its value is beyond words. Cultivating a relationship like this with another person would be a true spiritual union; and cultivating relationships like this with all life would result in a profound transformation of this earth.
     Also, compassion may allow us to reach another person, to make contact. If we can feel what they are feeling we can arrive at the place where they are at, so to speak, and perhaps even gently lead them away from there, if appropriate. But without feeling what they feel trying to serve them may seem more like calling to them from the other side of a chasm, increasing their sense of helplessness and isolation. (This is one reason why laypeople often can be helped by other laypeople better than by monks—cloistered monks can't relate so well to the miseries of life in "the world.")
     Of course, the ultimate ideal is the transcendence of all boundaries.
     Yet is compassion, true compassion, something that can be deliberately cultivated? It doesn't really come from the self. It is a connection between two beings or a union of them into something higher, not something the two beings deliberately create. Perhaps the best we can do is to consider the possibility of this state, and the sublime beauty of it, and to be as open and available to it as we can manage. If we can just consciously relax and let our walls down we may find that it's already here.
     Finally, I ask you women reading this to please have mercy on us men and do not close your hearts to us, even if we happen to be exasperating heart retards.

     (I make no claims to be an authority on compassion, obviously, so feedback would be very welcome. Let's all just do our best.)


  1. Greetings Bhante
    Views on spirituality in America are vastly different than in other parts of the world. people consider someone spiritualy available if they can sit with them and process emotions about their early childhood, or about a lame spouse or boyfriend. Or, if they can do advanced yoga positions and wear mala beads. And yah, some of these people have progressed far on the path and others are just buying into another form of materialism. (in my opinion). (well, this is all my opinion actually).
    I dont have the experience, but from my little bit of study, it seems that to break through Samsara and reach Nibbana takes serious...perseverance (viriya/khanti) This cultivation of perseverance doesnt neccesarrily have to do with learning how to show a reflection in a way that an american (western) spiritualized person can grok <---familiar? Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein, it sorta means "to know fully, to take in")
    We in the west are super touchy feely. Everyone is always hugging and cuddling, showing their affection in this physical way. i am around heaps of burmese people recently, and only one puts their hand on my shoulder. the only hugs i get are from Damon and Stacy. The Asian show of affection is vastly different than what i am used to, as is their pursuit of spirituality, religion, union, however one wants to put it.

    I agree that compassion is a state to be as open and available to as we can manage. I dont agree with "It is a connection between two beings or a union of them into something higher, not something the two beings deliberately create." i just dont really see this. where is compassion a union of two beings into something higher? and i have often seen how two beings have to deliberately cultivate compassion towards one another to be able to come to terms with what has occurred between the two. i think a cultivation of compassion towards another can bring us to the state of seeing the innate divinity within each other. preferably we would not have to deliberately cultivate this, and would reside in this state, but until then, i will be using a mix of american woo woo ness, and eastern spiritual science to forge my way :P

    well, that got a bit long winded. my friend is stuck in traffic coming from downtown, and it takes hours to get anywhere in Yangon right now, i guess the wait has inspired me.
    I hope to see you soon Sir!

    1. As a friend told me in an email the other day, it makes a lot more sense if we remember that Buddhism teaches No Self. True compassion is not a creation of the ego, the "self." It involves a transcendence of the individual personality, at least to some degree. It appears to be definitely not the same as ordinary sensitivity or consideration for another's feelings or well-being. There really is a letting down of walls involved, a merging into something not limited to the usual "self," a deep connection. But again, I'm no authority on the subject, and am still just considering the matter, trying to be open to it. I'm not yet declaring it to be the only viable way.

      Thanks for reading the blog, and for sending your cool feedback.

  2. In this incredibly challenged world, compassion acts like a salve. This world is filled with suffering and misery. Anyone with any big attachment has misery to some degree. In this way, compassion can be an exceptional tool for navigating this world and learning how to just "be" with people.

    For anyone truly wanting to wake up there is no great danger of "reinforcing" anything by having compassion or giving a hug when someone is in an acute state of suffering. When a person is suffering it is all consuming. In this moment, compassion, just being with someone, holding them, or whatever, is best. Then later on, if appropriate when one comes out of the intense experience, some gentle understanding can be brought, especially if the suffering is habitual and self created. Yet suffering is so natural and learning how to just be with someone who is suffering is an art form and very rare indeed. Often people want to give advice, or help alter the experience, or simply don't want to get involved. Usually the one's that have the most compassion are the one's who have "been there" and have come out of it. Compassion cannot be forced, yet one can certainly practice by simply being and not judging the situation.

    You are right when you say having compassion may help a suffering person feel more supported and less isolated. When we suffer we often feel separate. Feeling separate lowers one's vibrations and make it even more difficult to "come out of it," and help ourselves. Love in the form of compassion can help someone "come out of it." No one wants to suffer. If they could do better, they would, naturally.

    P.S. I love the picture you choose to use!