Compassion

A Dharma Talk by
Ryuei Michael McCormick
September 2003


Last month I introduced the four immeasurable states of mind, also known as the four divine abodes, which are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. I specifically focused on loving-kindness and the ways in which it is the foundation of the rest, how it appears in our practice and in the Lotus Sutra, and how we can consciously develop it through a series of short reflections which can be combined with the Shodaigyo Meditation. This month, I would like to focus on compassion.

Compassion is the feeling which arises when one regards all beings (beginning with oneself and one’s own family and friends but not stopping there) with loving-kindness but then perceives the universal experience of suffering. This suffering can range from a subtle feeling of being ill-at-ease all the way to horrific tragedy. According to the first noble truth, suffering is all pervasive in one form or another, so compassion - the ability to empathize with the suffering of all beings should likewise be all pervasive. Compassion can be characterized as the desire to free all these beings of their suffering and even more importantly from the causes of suffering. Compassion does not just alleviate the symptoms, but also hopes to uproot the fundamental causes of suffering - the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance.

The all-pervasive nature of compassion is a major theme in the Lotus Sutra, and particularly in chapter 25, “The Universal Gate of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World” which is regularly recited in almost all schools of East Asian Buddhism. Regarder of the Cries is the English translation of the name Avalokiteshvara who is called Kuan Yin in China and Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan. The whole chapter deals with Avalokiteshvara’s compassionate perception of all the world’s cries of suffering, and his (or her depending on the form she takes) response to this suffering when anyone call upon his name and thereby draws closer to her in spirit.

There is another chapter which also deals with compassion, and does so not from the perspective of a celestial bodhisattva interceding for us in our weakness, but from the perspective of the teacher of the Lotus Sutra. The chapter is of course chapter ten, “The Teacher of the Dharma.” Last month I cited the passage from chapter ten which states that the teacher of the sutra should enter the room, wear the robe, and sit on the seat of the Tathagata: “To enter the room of the Tathagata means to have great compassion. To wear his robe means to be gentle and patient. To sit on his seat means to see the voidness of all things. Expound the Dharma only after you do these three things!” (p. 179, Murano translation of the Lotus Sutra) Chapter ten also says, “Anyone who keeps the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, know this, has compassion towards all living beings because he is my messenger. Anyone who keeps the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma should be considered to have given up his pure world and come here out of his compassion towards towards all living beings.” (pp.173-4) This is an amazing passage. It is saying that keeping the Lotus Sutra, and chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is itself a vow to keep and uphold the Lotus Sutra, is compassion. It even says in chapter ten that “They should be considered to have appeared in this world by their vow to expound the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma out of their compassion towards all living beings, although they had already attained Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi [in their previous existence].” (p.172) This as well as the statement about having given up “his pure world” is saying that those who do this and have this compassion are already fully enlightened but are appearing here in this world as ordinary human beings striving to uphold the Lotus Sutra out of compassionate solidarity with all beings. This is quite a radical statement! It is saying that keeping the Lotus Sutra, which we do when we chant Odaimoku, is not only the fulfillment of the compassionate vow to relieve all beings of suffering by sharing with them the ultimate truth of Buddhism, but it is in fact the activity of a fully enlightened buddha manifesting in this world.

This should not make us proud however. It should give us pause and remind us of the great power and dignity of this practice which we have taken up so that we can take it beyond lip service and bring to it a more complete awareness of what we are doing and what it can accomplish. Compassion in this sense is not just feeling sorry for ourselves or for other people. Rather, it is the selfless impulse to relieve that suffering with the teaching of the Lotus Sutra that there is more to our lives than just suffering and that in fact the incalculable merits, dignity, and abundant good causes of buddhahood are at work in the depths of our lives and can help us transform our suffering and the suffering of others into true happiness, joy, and peace. I would like to suggest trying the following exercise (which can be developed over time in conjunction with Shodaigyo Meditation as I explained last month with the loving-kindess meditations) so that we can become more familiar with this aspect of our practice:

1. Take a few moments to just sit with yourself and breathe. Maybe do a cycle of ten breaths or more counting the breaths if necessary. Non-judgementally take notice of your physical and mental state. Then begin to cultivate compassion for yourself and the suffering that you may be feeling and imagine yourself free of suffering and the causes of suffering. You may even want to repeat to yourself, “May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” Do this for a few minutes at least.

2. Now take a few minutes to extend compassion to someone you know who is suffering, someone that you would like to see free of that suffering. Repeat to yourself “May [insert name] be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”

3. Now take a few minutes to extend compassion to a person who is a benefactor or friend, but preferably not someone we have or would like to have an intimate relationship with as this would generate strong feelings of attachment. Wish that they be well and happy. This part should be fairly easy as one is already well-disposed to benefactors and friends.

4. Now take a few moments to extend compassion to a stranger or to someone about whom one does not have any particularly strong feelings one way or another. This exercise is a bit more challenging as it begins to take us beyond the boundaries of our own self-interests.

5. Now imagine someone that one has a problem liking or getting along with and extend to them the wish that they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. This is the most difficult of all, as it goes directly against our own inclinations and feelings. This exercise is not meant to condone bad behavior (whether real or perceived) or to prematurely forgive others. Rather, it is to create more positive feelings on your part. Hopefully this can bring about a deeper understanding of the other person’s point of view. At the very least one may realize that people who are difficult are often suffering and if these people were truly free from suffering and the causes of suffering they would be easier to like and get along with.

6. Now spend some time extending compassion simultaneously to oneself, someone who is suffering, a friend or benefactor, a neutral person, and to the person who is hard to get along with. This is for the purpose of equalizing one’s compassion so that there is no longer any bias or partiality. This can be extremely difficult to do as it takes a universal perspective and not the perspective of our own sentiment or self-interest.

7. Finally one should spend some time imagining that all beings in all directions are free of suffering and the causes of suffering thereby extending the feelings generated in the previous exercises. This part is more abstract but its point is to enable us to cultivate or at least imagine a compassion that has no boundaries and leaves no being out.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2003.

Dharma Talks on the Four Divine Abodes:
Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, & Equanimity



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