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Compassion is a medicine against poverty of mind

Bhikkhu Dhammawiranatha

 It's strange how people create problems by letting the influence and power for things lie with factors outside of themselves. Some people even allow their meditation to be affected by their meditation cushion. Isn't that strange? Does the ideal meditation cushion really exist? Just imagine that the "ideal" cushion you used last time is now being used by someone else. Perhaps that person is now also experiencing a good meditation. If so, be happy for them. Or, is it just a normal cushion?!  

Objects are reasonably reliable because they all have their natural laws, but with people that is more difficult. People do or say A today and B tomorrow, and then the day after they do or say C and then D. Then sometimes they come back to A, but that A is slightly different -- it is no longer imaginable without B or C and D. With all of this complexity we make ourselves dependent in our emotional world, in our thoughts, in our behaviour and in our speech. That is of course too foolish for words; we should get rid of it. 

That is why we should develop compassion, because compassion sees the illness. Compassion is a medicine; a medicine against our poverty of mind, our meagreness, our illness. Then when we go outside, when we come into contact with the illness, the poverty and the meagreness outside of ourselves we can take that medicine with us. Going outside means; that we enter that enormous hospital called samsara, or conditioned existence. It is one enormous hospital in which all beings (except the super beings like the Buddha, and his enlightened disciples) are sick. Our medicine is compassion, having a feeling of empathy, compassion with our surroundings, to approach even the smallest animal with compassion. Most of the beings in our world are animals. Five billion people, is in comparison, not many. In the garden of Buddhayana Vihara there are more animals then there are people living in the rest of The Hague. Therefore animals are also an important source of compassion. Our compassion automatically flows towards sick and poor people, but it is always less easy when someone is healthy or when somebody is wealthy. It requires more examination when we want to have compassion with a rich person.  

Sometimes I drive through Wassenaar (a wealthy suburb of The Hague) and there you can see houses with orange lights outside. If someone touches the door knob at a certain time then an alarm goes off at the police station. There are also people living there who are frightened of being kidnapped. If you don't possess anything then you don't need to be afraid for these things. For example who would want to kidnap me? The only thing they can get is my patta. But if they were to kidnap me you know one thing for sure: "He's contemplating on compassion." 

It is very difficult to have compassion for those people who have an angry, bad attitude, because that is threatening to our own existence. It's very difficult, but when we see that it is necessary, when we see how some one is crushed under such an attitude, then again it is easier. 

Therefore it is very complicated how we can have or don't have compassion for our surroundings. That is why the Buddha pointed out that we should begin with simple, direct impressions, and from there out develop compassion.

As soon as we begin to develop compassion and we have a certain care for other people then there are always other people who say: "You should also think about yourself". That is because it is very confronting if someone is very busy with others or who thinks about others. That often confronts others with their own incapacity to be able to do that, and in order to get rid of that awful sense of guilt people say: "You should think about yourself sometimes". If they say that then people also have a reason not to do this. This is a very complicated working. 

But if we feel how important compassion is, then we would never say to another person that they should think about themselves; because then we would know that such a person would automatically have compassion for themselves. If we were not to think about ourselves in order to care for ourselves then being able to give compassion to the world is soon over -- because there are more people who call upon our compassion than there are people who are able to give compassion. Therefore you are kept very busy, you have more than a full time task on that. But compassion has a special factor in itself, it cannot be stopped, but also, it doesn't want to be. Once you have it, you can't stop it. 

When I was with my teacher, both here and in Indonesia, I noticed that when people came to him, he was busy with them until twelve or one o'clock at night. Then you saw the people leave less emotionally loaded down, but at a given moment I said: "Bhante, wouldn't you like to do a little less? You are seventy and it is quite heavy?" To which he replied: "Can a father deny their child if they come to him with problems?" That puts into words that feeling of not being able to stop. At that moment I did not understand it, but during the years I came to see that compassion sometimes means that you are unable to say no. But that not being able to say no is not something which has a negative result, or something which means you don't take care of yourself. You can't say no, it can't be stopped. You gain more energy from it than you lose. Of course, you can't continue for night after night, that is very unhealthy. But with compassion we can mentally take much more than without compassion, and with wisdom much more than without wisdom, and with friendliness much more than without friendliness.

There is another problem we have with the development of compassion, and that is a much more annoying enemy. That is the enemy we call pity. Some dictionaries say that compassion is pity, and that pity is compassion, but that is not so. Pity is something totally different from compassion.

Both pity and compassion are emotions that makes your heart quiver and shake when seeing another's pain, but with compassion the individual maintains their inner strength and clarity. It is a helping hand which says: "Oh, you are sitting in the blubber, you are sitting in a swamp. Come, I will help you. I'm busy, but at this moment I think it's more important to help pull you out of the swamp, or in any case to help you to help yourself get out of the swamp." That's compassion.  

Pity can be found in may different degrees. The first degree is not the worst, it thinks: "Oh, how terrible that you are sitting in a swamp!" and then it goes and sits under a near by tree to watch. "O, how terrible for you! I don't know what I can do. It's so awful that you are in the swamp." The worst form is to jump into the swamp with the other person: "Now I know how terrible it is!" Some people do that; they are so swamped in the others grief that they themselves are effected by it. It sometimes even happens that these people are still troubled by it long after the original sufferer. Then they see each other and the second person asks the first one: "How are things now?" And the first one says "What are you talking about? What do you mean?" They had forgotten all about it, they had forgotten what had happened, but the second person had been busy with it all that time.

Pity is sitting crying together on the stairs, suffering together. Shared suffering is double suffering. Both people sitting to moan and complain. This is an important enemy to compassion. Having too much attention for the suffering in the world leads to pity. A emotional bond is felt with the person or thing suffering. These are all limitations. We give ourselves these limitations, because what pity actually does is this: we see someone carrying a heavy emotional load and we add to this by saying: "I've also got such a heavy load, at least you are not the only one carrying such a load." Whilst compassion says: "It's ok. Accept that you have to carry this heavy load," then it gently and softly picks up a piece of the load so that it is less heavy.

Self interest and pity are hindrances contained in the limitations of our mind. In our practice of compassion we try to make this as boundless and limitless, as possible and not to limit it to a particular group, or a particular person, a particular sort of person or a particular sort of being, but to have compassion for all that lives. In that process of development we need to keep an eye on these two hindrances or barriers: self interest and pity.  

When we practice compassion during meditation we can try to emphasize that boundlessness, by directing our compassion towards all beings in a particular direction. A systematic practise can sometimes help our practice. It is much more difficult when we sit and think: "Good, now I am going to have compassion." It can happen that after a few minutes we think: "And now? What should I do actually?"

The practice of compassion is not something which is dependent upon time. It can take place at any time. The practice of formal meditation helps to further develop the power. It always reminds me of gratefulness. Sometimes people ask me: "For how long should I be grateful?" Usually I answer: "For your whole life." Gratefulness is there for your whole life. Compassion also. To feel in ourselves that the world is in constant strife, the struggle for existence, the struggle for life, means that there is always a reason to develop compassion. There is always someone in this world trying to rid themselves from the suffering and grief in their life.

In order to be able to solve this strife, we need to solve the strife in ourselves. We do not need to fight with the world when we are busy with the Dhamma. The only thing is that the world will fight with us; as the Buddha said: "I'm not fighting the world, but the world fights with me". The Buddha did not place any power outside of himself he had fully freed himself.  

If we practice the Dhamma, and therefore also this Dhamma of Compassion, then we will notice that this brings a great freedom. This freedom gives us the opportunity to fight less and to be able to support others in their fight for existence. This is not in order to confirm their existence, but in order to make their existence free from this sturggle. The less we fight with life, the easier it is. This is what we try to develop in our practice.

Source: Buddhayana, Netherlands, http://www.buddhayana.nl

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