Dear Still Water Friends,
This week I heard a local Tibetan teacher, Lama Kalsang Gyaltsen, talk about one of his teachers, Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk, who was imprisoned for 21 years by the Chinese regime. Following his release in 1980, he was invited by the Tibetan monastic community in India to join them, which he did by secretly walking across Tibet and over the Himalayas. In India, the Dalai Lama asked him what had been the most difficult part of the imprisonment. Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk replied that his greatest difficulty was his fear that he would lose his compassion. To keep his compassion alive, he prayed every day for the well-being, and future well being, of the prison guards.
I was awed by the monk’s commitment to compassion. It seemed to be his most precious possession, without which he would feel bereft.
In English, the primary quality of compassion, implicit in its Latin roots, is the capacity to suffer with others, to experience their pain. In the mindfulness tradition, karuna, although translated as compassion, has a different emphasis. One way I’ve heard it described is in terms of the reaction we might have when a small child running past us trips and falls. I wince, and I also have an unconscious response of wanting to reach out, to pick up and comfort the child. It is that reaching out that is the core of karuna. Thich Nhat Hanh says it is: “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.”
It is said that compassion spontaneously arises in a calmed mind. Once we glimpse the interconnectedness of life, the urge to reduce the suffering of others is as natural as the urge to reduce my own suffering.
However, although it is a natural urge, in our daily lives compassion is often stifled. Sometimes it is because we are simply too focused on “me” and “mine” – what Tibetan teachers call self-cherishing. Sometimes compassion is stifled because, although we would like to act, it seems too complicated, too many choices, too many unseen consequences.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will reflect together on Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk’s commitment to compassion:
- Are you touched by his response to his imprisonment?
- Is there something in you that is deeply stirred?
You are invited to join us in spirit or in person.
You are also invited to participate in the following upcoming Still Water special events:
Spring Flower Walk and Picnic – Sunday, April 26
Spring Community Retreat – May 1–3
Morning of Practice – Sunday, May 16
Meeting Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk
The photographer Don Farber, met with Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk in India in 1997. In his portfolio, When the Light Shines Through: Portraits of Tibetan Masters,Farber offers these notes:
Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk, a highly revered master of the Sakya lineage, trained under the late Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro at Dzongsar Monastery in Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has received teachings and empowerments from him. He is the head abbot of the Dzongsar Institute, but in recent years has been mainly in retreat. He shared with me the following: "The main merit of the practice of Buddhism is in the improvement or the evolution of the mind and the way of thinking. It stops evil thoughts and instills the power of positive thinking. This will bring, in this life, a harmonious coexistence with all sentient beings. It will end the will to harm, it brings peace, and it instills the will to help and to be compassionate and caring. This thought will grow during a man’s life, during his death, after his death, even when he is reborn, and through many other rebirths until finally reaching the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice, enlightenment, which will be devoid of any suffering of the body or of the spirit. These are the merits of Buddhism, which are not only for this life but also for all the coming lives until the attainment of buddhahood."
Compassion as a State of Mind or Heart
From Lorne Ladner, The Lost Art of Compassion : Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology
So a valuable definition of compassion must begin by recognizing that it is a state of mind or heart. Buddhism defines compassion as mental state of wishing that others may be free from suffering. Compassion is closely related to love, which Buddhism defines as cherishing others – feeling a sense of closeness with and affection for them – and also as the state of mind wishing that others may be happy. I use state of mind rather than emotion here because Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t have a word corresponding to emotion. Buddhism does not distinguish strongly between thoughts and emotions. The Buddhist view is that our thoughts give rise to and underlie our emotions, so emotions might be described as thoughts combined with a strong component of affect or feeling. Whether we’re aware of it or not, thoughts, beliefs, or cognitions always do underlie our emotional experiences. For example, when we feel angry we believe that others are inherently unpleasant and are causing our unhappiness, and when we feel loving we believe that others are precious and are deserving of happiness. From a Western psychological perspective, compassion is an emotion, but here I define it primarily as a state of mind to avoid the dualistic, Western assumption that as an emotion it is somehow opposed to reason. In fact, from a Buddhist perspective, healthy emotions like compassion are grounded in valid and reasonable thoughts about ourselves and others, while unhealthy emotions like hate or anxiety are grounded in mistaken, inaccurate thoughts. This is why Buddhism views wisdom and compassion as closely related; as we develop the sort of wisdom that correctly understands reality, we naturally become more compassionate, and as we become more compassionate, we naturally become wiser and more reasonable in our approach to life.