Cultivating Awareness, Compassion, and Action
Memorial Altar in Thầy’s Hut at Từ Hiếu Monastery
Photo taken by Mitchell in 2023

Cultivating Awareness, Compassion, and Action

Discussion date: Thu, Feb 08, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

One of the most powerful spiritual imperatives in the teachings of Thầy (Thích Nhất Hạnh) is for me the first sentence of the First Mindfulness Training: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.”

Let me try to explain why. I believe there are three components in this sentence: awareness, compassion, and action.

The sentence begins with awareness as a precondition. We are to be aware of “the suffering caused by the destruction of life.” When I read this phrase the word “destruction” jumps out. I am curious to know what it really means. The word is derived from the Latin destruere, which is a compound word: the de indicates the reversal of struere, to build. To destroy is to end the existence of something that has been built.

In the world we live in there are innumerable cycles of life and death in which one species feeds on another. The robins eat the worms. The whales eat the plankton. Billions of microbes live and die in our body each day. And out of all that and much more comes an animated, evolving biosphere. For me, to destroy life is to reduce the diversity and vibrancy of some part of the biosphere. It is what DDT does to bird life; what fossil fuels are doing to our planetary environment; what greed, hate, racism, and discrimination do to the flourishing of human beings. We are encouraged to become aware of the destruction of life in its many manifestations.

And when, as practitioners, we have this deep awareness, we are led to commit our lives to “cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.”

Compassion comes from another Latin word, compati, to suffer with. For many English speakers, that meaning is still dominant in the sense of feeling sympathy or pity for those who suffer. However, in the mindfulness tradition, compassion is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word karuna, the meaning of which does not fully coincide with our meaning of compassion. In Teachings on Love Thầy writes that karuna is:

The intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. …  We do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may be crushed and unable to help.

How do we cultivate compassion? One practice that Thầy  and many others teach is metta (lovingkindness) meditation, which Buddhaghosa, a fifth century Sri Lankan monk, included in his compendium of the Buddha’s teachings, the Visuddhimagga. In Teachings on Love Thầy introduces a metta meditation that begins with offering lovingkindness to ourselves:

May I be peaceful, happy and light in body and spirit.
May I be safe and free from injury.
May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear and anxiety.

 We begin practicing this love meditation on ourselves (“I”). Until we are able to love and take care of ourselves, we cannot be of much help to others. After that we can practice on others (he/she/they). Practice first on someone you like, then someone neutral to you, then someone you love, and finally someone the mere thought of whom makes you suffer.

The practice of metta meditation opened up for me after reading Thầy’s The Energy of Prayer and understanding the power of connection for prayer in general, and for metta meditation, which is a form of prayer. Thầy identified the two most important elements of effective prayer. The first is to establish a relationship between ourselves and the one we are praying to. It is the equivalent of connecting the electrical wire when we want to communicate by telephone. The second element we need for prayer is energy. We have connected the telephone wire, now we need to send an electric current through it. In prayer, the electric current is love, mindfulness, and right concentration.

Thầy explains that although it may seem that the one who prays and the one prayed to are separate entities, they are not:

The one who prays and the one prayed to are two realities that cannot be separated from each other. This is basic in Buddhism, and I’m quite sure that in every religion there are those who have practiced for a long time and have this understanding. They can see that God is in our heart. God is us and we are God.

And when we have awareness and compassion, action arises, Thầy tells us in Peace Is Every Step:

Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?

We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.

My sense is that “learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals” comes to us bit by bit. As individuals and as communities, we are all looking to identify that place that is the intersection of what the world needs now and what we can freely and joyfully give. Sometimes our actions may be small and personal, such as offering metta or planting seeds of love and peace with each step. Sometimes we are able to spiritually and financially support peacemakers and relief workers motivated by boundless love. And sometimes our actions take us directly to where the suffering is. In Peace Is Every Step, Thầy writes about how the suffering of the Vietnam War motivated him to take action:.

During the war, we could not just sit in the meditation hall. We had to practice mindfulness everywhere, especially where the worst suffering was going on. Being in touch with the kind of suffering we encountered during the war can heal us of some of the suffering we experience when our lives are not very meaningful or useful. When you confront the kinds of difficulties we faced during the war, you see that you can be a source of compassion and a great help to many suffering people. In that intense suffering, you feel a kind of relief and joy within yourself, because you know that you are an instrument of compassion. Understanding such intense suffering and realizing compassion in the midst of it, you become a joyful person, even if your life is very hard.

Each of us does what we can: to be aware, to grow our compassion, to build life more and destroy it less, and to offer aid and comfort to those who suffer. These days my heart is particularly broken by the ongoing destructive conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The conflict has many deep roots, including European wars, colonialism, anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism, hate, fear, and opportunism. My response has been to pray for a lasting peace, to offer lovingkindness to all those involved, to support the openhearted peacemakers in both Israel and Palestine, and to contribute to organizations offering aid to those who are suffering.

You are invited to join us this Thursday evening. We will begin with a guided metta meditation. After a short break and introductions, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma Sharing on the First Mindfulness Training, Reverence for Life.

  • In what ways does reading and reflecting on the First Mindfulness Training move you to cultivate your awareness, compassion, and action?
  • What else arises for you when you read and reflect on this training?

The full text of the First Mindfulness Training, along with an excerpt from Thầy on offering metta to someone we see as an enemy, are below after the Still Water announcement.

Sending warm wishes and many blessings,
Mitchell Ratner

The First Mindfulness Training: Reverence For Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.
I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life.
Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.


Excerpt from Teachings on Love by Thích Nhất Hạnh

Finally, meditate on someone you consider to be your enemy, someone whom just thinking about makes you angry. Put yourself in his place and give rise to the thought, “May he be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.” If you are not yet able to love yourself, you will not be able to love your enemy. But when you are able to love yourself, you can love anyone. When you do this, you will see that your so-called enemy is not more or less than a human being who is suffering. “May he be safe and free from injury.” During the Vietnam War, I meditated on the Vietnamese soldiers, praying they would not be killed in battle. But I also meditated on the American soldiers and felt a very deep sympathy for them. I knew that they had been sent far away from home to kill or be killed, and I prayed for their safety. That led to a deep aspiration that the war would end and allow all Vietnamese and all Americans to live in peace. Once that aspiration was clear, there was only one path to take to work for the end of the war. When you practice love meditation, you have to take that path. As soon as you see that the person you call your enemy is also suffering, you will be ready to love and accept him. The idea of “enemy” vanishes and is replaced by the reality of someone who is suffering and needs our love and compassion.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Feb 08, 2024


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