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Lions Roar : May 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2006 68 Again and again we are asked to learn one of life’s clearest lessons: that to run from suffering—to harden our hearts, to turn away from pain—is to deny life and to live in fear. So, as difficult as it is to open our hearts toward suffering, doing so is the most direct path to transformation and liberation. Compassion and wisdom are at the heart of the path of the Buddha. In the early Buddhist stories we find young men and women asking the same questions we ask today: How can we respond to the suffering that is woven into the very fabric of life? How can we discover a heart that is truly liberated from fear, anger, and alienation? Is there a way to discover a depth of wisdom and compassion that can genuinely make a difference in this confused and destructive world? We may be tempted to see com– passion as a feeling, an emotional response we occasionally experience when we are touched by an encounter with acute pain. In these moments of openness, the layers of our defenses crumble; intuitively we feel an immediacy of response and we glimpse the power of nonseparation. Milarepa, a great Tibetan sage, expressed this when he said, “Just as I instinctively reach out to touch and heal a wound in my leg as part of my own body, so too I reach out to touch and heal the pain in another as part of this body.” Too often these moments of profound compassion fade, and once more we find ourselves protecting, defending, and distancing ourselves from pain. Yet they are powerful glimpses that encourage us to question whether compassion can be something more than an accident we stumble across. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves feel com– passionate. But we can incline our hearts toward compassion. In one of the stories in the early Buddhist literature, the ascetic Sumedha reflects on the vast inner journey required to discover unshakeable wisdom and compassion. He describes compassion as a tapestry woven of many threads: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. When we embody all of these in our lives, we develop the kind of compassion that has the power to heal suffering. A few years ago, an elderly monk arrived in India after fleeing from prison in Tibet. Meeting with the Dalai Lama, he recounted the years he had been imprisoned, the hardship and beatings he had endured, the hunger and loneliness he had lived with, and the torture he had faced. At one point the Dalai Lama asked him, “Was there ever a time you felt your life was truly in danger?” The old monk answered, “In truth, the only time I truly felt at risk was when I felt in danger of losing compassion for my jailers.” Hearing stories like this, we are often left feeling skeptical and bewildered. We may be tempted to idealize both those who are compassionate and the quality of compassion itself. We imagine these people as saints, possessed of powers inaccessible to us. Yet stories of great suffering are often stories of ordinary people who have found greatness of heart. To discover an awakened heart within ourselves, it is crucial not to idealize or romanticize compassion. Our compassion simply grows out of our willingness to meet pain rather than to flee from it. We may never find ourselves in situations of such peril that our lives are endangered; yet anguish and pain are undeniable aspects of our lives. None of us can build walls around our hearts that are invulnerable to being breached by life. Facing the sorrow we meet in this life, we have a choice: Our hearts can close, our minds recoil, our bodies contract, and we can experience the heart that lives in a state of painful refusal. We can also dive deeply within ourselves to nurture the courage, balance, patience, and wisdom that enable us to care. If we do so, we will find that compassion is not a state. It is a way of engaging with the fragile and unpredictable world. Its domain is not only the world of those you love and care for, but equally the world of those who threaten us, disturb us, and cause us harm. It is the world of the countless beings we never meet who are facing an unendurable life. The ultimate journey of a human being is to discover how much our hearts can encompass. Our capacity to cause suffering as well as to heal suffering live side by side within us. If we choose to develop the capacity to heal, which is the challenge of every human life, we will find our hearts can encompass a great deal, and we can learn to heal—rather than increase—the schisms that divide us from one another. In the first century in northern India, probably in what is now part of Afghanistan, the Lotus Sutra was composed. One of the most powerful texts in the Buddhist tradition, it is a celebration of the liberated heart expressing itself in a powerful and boundless compassion, pervading all corners of the universe, relieving suffering wherever it finds it. Ju-i-Lun Kuan Yin CHINESE,LATERZHOUDYNASTY,WALLPAINTING,TEMPERAPAINTONCLAY.THENELSON-ATKINSMUSEUMOFART,KANSASCITY,MISSOURI.PURCHASE:NELSONTRUST,52-6.PHOTOGRAPHBYJAMISONMILLER.