Dharma Topic:Cultivating Compassion

Dharma Topic:Cultivating Compassion

Discussion date: Thu, May 11, 2006 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, May 11, afterour meditation period, we will recite the five mindfulness trainingsand focus our discussion on the phrase “cultivating compassion”from the first mindfulness training:

Awareof the suffering caused bythe destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion andlearning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, andminerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and notto condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in myway of life.

In the Western cultural tradition compassionmeans literally “to suffer with,” that is, to physically andemotionally feel the pain of another. When Thich Nhat Hanhwrotethis training, however, he was thinking not of the Western notion ofcompassion, but the Buddhist notion contained in the Sanskrit word karuna. In Teachings on Love,Thich Nhat Hanh differentiates the Buddhist concept ofcompassion defines karunaas “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering andlighten sorrows.”  Suffering with, while sometimes helpful, isnotenough.

Similarly, Lorne Ladner (in TheLost Art of Compassion)notes that in the West we often confuse altruism, definedbehaviorally by psychologists as helping anotherperson, with compassion/karuna. Focusing only on thebehavior, however, and excluding from awareness the underlyingintention,  can result in a joyless dutifulness or aself-centeredfaux generosity. Emerson said it well: 

Weknow who is benevolent, by quiteother means than the amount of subscription to soup-societies. It isonly the low merits that can be enumerated.

For Ladner, “It is not thebehavior butthe state of mind motivating the behavior that determines the presenceor absence of compassion.” His definition of the compassionate state ofmind is very precise:

Idefine compassion as a state ofmind that’s peaceful or calm but also energetic, in which one feels asense of confidence and also feels closeness with or affection forothers and wishes that they may be free from suffering.

Robert Thurman (also in The Lost Art of Compassion)draws attention to the pivotal dynamic in developing karuna byexplaining that the etymological origin of the term karunais “suspending happiness,” He explains “To feel compassion, you mustturn away slightly from your own focus on superficial happiness tosense the true condition of others, honestly facing their pains.”

And why do it? Lama Zopa Rinpoche saysit concisely: “Real happiness starts when you begin to cherish others.”

In our discussion this Thursday wewill address “cultivatingcompassion” very concretely. How do we do it? If we really committedourselves — made it our highest priority —  for a week, or ayear, what would we do?

Also this Thursday evening, the Beginning onthe Path of Mindfulness Discussion Groupwill meet from 6:15to 6:45. It is an opportunityfor new practitioners and others to cometogether to talk about basic practices and the joys and challenges ofmindfulness practice. It is helpful but not essential to notify Rachel(at rach_ander@yahoo.com) ahead of time that you will be attending thisdiscussion group. 

You are invited to join us This Thursday for our discussion group, meditation, recitation, and program.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


On Compassion
by ThichNhat Hanh from Teachings onLove

[Karuna is] the intention andcapacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karunais usually translated as ‘compassion’, but that is not exactly correct.’Compassion’ is composed of com (‘together with’) and passion (‘tosuffer’). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from anotherperson. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ sufferingwithout experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer toomuch, we may be crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find abetter word, let us use ‘compassion’ to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves,we need to practise mindfulbreathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describesAvalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practises ‘looking with the eyesof compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world.’Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person issuffering, so you sit close to her. You look and listen deeply to herto be able to touch her pain. You are in deep communication, deepcommunion with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action, orthought can reduce another person’ssuffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence,destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, oropen the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life orhelp him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do thesame, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. Withcompassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring abouta miracle.

When I was a novice, I could notunderstand why, if the world is filledwith suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t hedisturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha hasenough understanding, calm, and strength; that is why the sufferingdoes not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because heknows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to beaware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strengthso we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drownus if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

Discussion Date: Thu, May 11, 2006


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