Responding to Suffering, Experiencing Joy

Responding to Suffering, Experiencing Joy

Discussion date: Thu, Dec 10, 2009 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This past Saturday I was at the Takoma Park Alternative Gift Fair. My daughter and I went around the all-purpose room of the Presbyterian Church talking to staff and volunteers from 16 non-profits, each committed to a particular effort to make the world a better place. Bikes for the World collects used bikes to send to community development programs in Africa. Hungry for Music provided instruments to disadvantaged school-age musicians in the United States. Friends of Sligo Creek works to restore the ecological well-being of a local watershed.

Outside it was blustery and raining, inside it was a joy-fest. When we asked about the programs, invariably those answering had bright eyes and smiles. At one table after another we encountered engaged, happy people, and I found my own joy growing just being around them. And I happily bought more gifts than I intended to, among them a five-month training course in sewing for an Afghani widow, a set of bike tools to be sent along with the bikes to Africa, and four books to be sent to young men from DC serving time in federal prisons.

In the mindfulness practice tradition, one of the most cherished states of mind is karuna. One experiences it when one is touched by the suffering of others and is able to respond to with meaningful actions. Karuna is often translated with the English word “compassion,” which is somewhat similar. However, compassion usually emphasizes that one directly feels the suffering of the other – etymologically, compassion is “to suffer with.” With karuna, however, one is touched by the suffering, but also enlivened, like the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra practicing joy on the path of service, or like the staff and volunteers at the Alternative Gift Fair.

Buddhists believe that we are all born with karuna / compassion in us. However for it to appear regularly and with vigor, it has to be nurtured. Lorne Ladner notes in The Lost Art of Compassion that “When you’re stressed out or overwhelmed, you can’t generate healthy compassion.”

This Thursday evening, after our sitting meditation, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Our program will focus on the first training, reverence for life. We will begin the discussion exploring our experiences of karuna / compassion. When have we felt it strongly? How did it make us feel? How have we learned to nourish it?

You are invited to join us.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

Karuna and Compassion
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from True Love

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as “compassion,” but that is not exactly correct. “Compassion” is composed of com (“together with”) and passion (“to suffer”). But 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. Still, until we find a better word, let us use “compassion” to translate karuna.

Healthy Compassion
by Lorne Ladner, from The Lost Art of Compassion

I define compassion as a state of mind that’s peaceful or calm but also energetic, in which one feels a sense of confidence and also feels closeness with or affection for others and wishes that they may be free from suffering. This is real, healthy compassion. Such compassion can be directed toward one person or any number of living beings.

On Compassion
from a 1950 letter by Albert Einstein

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.



in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Dec 10, 2009


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