Immense compassion springs forth spontaneously toward all sentient beings who suffer as prisoners of their illusions.
- KALU RINPOCHE, Luminous Mind: The Way of the Buddha, translated by Maria Montenegro
Imagine spending your life in a little room with only one locked window so dirty it barely admits any light. You’d probably think the world was a pretty dim and dreary place, full of strangely shaped creatures that cast terrifying shadows against the dirty glass as they passed your room. But suppose one day you spill some water on the window, or a bit of rain dribbles in after a storm, and you use a rag or a corner of your shirtsleeve to dry it off. And as you do that, a little of the dirt that had accumulated on the glass comes away. Suddenly a small patch of light comes through the glass. Curious, you might rub a little harder, and as more dirt comes away, more light streams in. Maybe, you think, the world isn’t so dark and dreary after all. Maybe it’s the window.
You go to the sink and get more water (and maybe a few more rags), and rub and rub until the whole surface of the window is free of dirt and grime. The light simply pours in, and you recognize, perhaps for the first time, that all those strangely shaped shadows that used to scare you every time they passed are people - just like you! And from the depths of your awareness arises an instinctive urge to form a social bond - to go out there on the street and just be with them.
In truth, you haven’t changed anything at all. The world, the light, and the people were always there. You just couldn’t see them because your vision was obscured. But now you see it all, and what a difference it makes!
This is what, in the Buddhist tradition, we call the dawning of compassion, the awakening of an inborn capacity to identify with and understand the experience of others.
THE BIOLOGY OF COMPASSION
Those with great compassion possess all the Buddha’s teaching.
- The Sutra That Completely Encapsulates the Dharma, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group
The Buddhist understanding of compassion is, in some ways, a bit different from the ordinary sense of the word. For Buddhists, compassion doesn’t simply mean feeling sorry for other people. The Tibetan term - nying-jay - implies an utterly direct expansion of the heart. Probably the closest English translation of nying-jay is “love” - but a type of love without attachment or any expectation of getting anything in return. Compassion, in Tibetan terms, is a spontaneous feeling of connection with all living things. What you feel, I feel; what I feel, you feel. There’s no difference between us.
Biologically, we’re programmed to respond to our environment in fairly simple terms of avoiding threats to our survival and grasping for opportunities to enhance our well-being. We only need to flip through the pages of a history book to see that the story of human development is very frequently a tale of violence written in the blood of weaker beings.
Yet it seems that the same biological programming that drives us toward violence and cruelty also provides us with emotions that not only inhibit aggression but also move us to act in ways that override the impulse for personal survival in the service of others. I was struck by a remark made by Harvard professor Jerome Kagan during his presentation at the 2003 Mind and Life Institute conference, when he noted that along with our tendency toward aggression, our survival instinct has provided us with “an even stronger biological bias for kindness, compassion, love, and nurture.”
I have been told many stories about the number of people who risked their lives during the Second World War to give refuge to European Jews hunted by the Nazis, and of the unnamed heroes of the present day who sacrifice their own welfare to help the victims of war, famine, and tyranny in countries around the world. In addition, many of my Western students are parents who sacrifice an enormous amount of time and energy shuttling their children between sports competitions, musical activities, and other events, while patiently putting money aside for their children’s education.
Such sacrifices do seem, on an individual level, to indicate a set of biological factors that transcend personal fears and desires. The simple fact that we’ve been able to build societies and civilizations that at least acknowledge the need to protect and care for the poor, the weak, and the defenseless supports Professor Kagan’s conclusion that “an ethical sense is a biological feature of our species.”
His remarks resonate almost completely with the essence of the Buddha’s teachings: The more clearly we see things as they are, the more willing and able we become to open our hearts toward other beings. When we recognize that others experience pain and unhappiness because they don’t recognize their real nature, we’re spontaneously moved by a profound wish for them to experience the same sense of peace and clarity that we’ve begun to know.
THE AGREEMENT TO DISAGREE
Hot seeds will produce hot fruits.
Sweet seeds will produce sweet fruits.
- The Questions of Surata Sutra, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
From what I’ve learned, most conflicts between people stem from a misunderstanding of one another’s motives. We all have our reasons for doing what we do and saying what we say. The more we allow ourselves to be guided by compassion - to pause for a moment and try to see where another person is coming from - the less likely we are to engage in conflict. And even when problems do arise, if we take a deep breath and listen with an open heart, we’ll find ourselves able to handle the conflict more effectively - to calm the waters, so to speak, and resolve our differences in such a manner that everyone is satisfied, and no one ends up as the “winner” or the “loser.”
For example, I have a Tibetan friend in India who lived next door to a man who had a bad-tempered dog. In India, unlike in other countries, the walls surrounding the front yard of a house are very tall, with doors instead of gates. The entrances to my friend’s yard and his neighbor’s yard were very close, and every time my friend came out of his door, the dog would tear out of his neighbor’s door, barking, growling, fur bristling - an altogether scary experience for my friend. As if that weren’t bad enough, the dog had also developed a habit of pushing through the door into my friend’s yard, again barking and snarling, making a terrible disturbance.
My friend spent a long time considering how to punish the dog for its bad behavior. At last he hit on the idea of propping open the door to his front yard just a bit, and loosely piling a few small, heavy objects on top of it. The next time the dog pushed open the door, the objects would fall, teaching him a painful lesson he would never forget.
After setting his trap one Saturday morning, my friend sat by his front window, watching and waiting for the dog to enter the yard. Time passed and the dog never came. After a while my friend set out his daily prayer texts and started chanting, glancing up from his texts every once in a while to look out the window into the yard. Still, the dog failed to appear. At a certain point in his chanting, my friend came to a very ancient prayer of aspiration known as “The Four Immeasurables,” which begins with the following lines:
May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
In the middle of chanting this prayer, it suddenly occurred to him that the dog was a sentient being and that in having deliberately set a trap, he would cause the dog pain and suffering. If I chant this, he thought, I’ll be lying. Maybe I should stop chanting.
But that didn’t feel right, since the Four Immeasurables prayer was part of his daily practice. He started the prayer again, making an earnest effort to develop compassion toward dogs, but halfway through he stopped himself, thinking,
No! That dog is very bad. He causes me a lot of harm. I don’t want him to be free of suffering or to achieve happiness.
He thought about this problem for a while, until a solution finally came to him. He could change one small word of the prayer. And he began to chant:
May SOME sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May SOME sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
He felt quite happy with his solution. After he’d finished his prayers, eaten his lunch, and forgotten about the dog, he decided to go out for a walk before the day was over. In his haste, he forgot about the trap he’d set, and as soon as he pulled open the door to his yard, all the heavy things he’d piled up on its edge fell on his head.
It was, to say the least, a rude awakening.
Yet, as a result of his pain, my friend realized something of great importance. By excluding any beings from the possibility of achieving happiness and freedom from suffering, he had also excluded himself. Recognizing that he himself was the victim of his own lack of compassion, he decided to change his tactics.
The next day, when he went out for his morning walk, my friend carried with him a small piece of tsampa - a kind of dough made of ground barley, salt, tea, and lumps of butter - that Tibetans usually eat for breakfast. As soon as he stepped out his door, the neighbor’s dog came rushing out, barking and snarling as usual; but instead of cursing the dog, my friend simply threw him the piece of the tsampa he was carrying. Completely surprised in mid-bark, the dog caught the tsampa in his mouth and began to chew - still bristling and growling, but distracted from his attack by the offering of food.
This little game continued over the next several days. My friend would step out of his yard, the dog would come running out, and in mid-bark would catch the bit of tsampa my friend threw him. After a few days my friend noticed that even though it kept growling while chewing on the tsampa, the dog had started to wag its tail. By the end of a week, the dog was no longer bounding out ready to attack, but instead ran out to greet my friend, happily expecting a treat. Eventually the relationship between the two developed to the point where the dog would come trotting quietly into my friend’s yard to sit with him in the sun, while he recited his daily prayers - quite contentedly now able to pray for the happiness and freedom of all sentient beings.
Once we recognize that other sentient beings - people, animals, and even insects - are just like us, that their basic motivation is to experience peace and to avoid suffering, then, when someone acts in some way or says something that is against our wishes, we’re able to have some basis for understanding: “Oh, well, this person (or whatever) is coming from this position because, just like me, they want to be happy and they want to avoid suffering. That’s their basic purpose. They’re not out to get me; they’re only doing what they think they need to do.”
Compassion is the spontaneous wisdom of the heart. It’s always with us. It always has been, and always will be. When it arises in us, we’ve simply learned to see how strong and safe we really are.