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ReVision, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall 1993, pp. 83-86
the most important questions we come to in spiritual practice is how to
reconcile service and responsible action with a meditative life based on
nonattachment, letting go, and coming to understand the ultimate
emptiness of all conditioned things. Do the values that lead us to
actively give, serve, and care for one another differ from the values
that lead us deep within ourselves on a journey of liberation and
awakening? To consider this question, we must first learn to distinguish
among four qualities central to spiritual practice -- love, compassion,
sympathetic joy, and equanimity -- and what might be called their
"near enemies." Near enemies may seem to be very close to
these qualities and may even be mistaken for them, but they are not
The near enemy of love is attachment. Attachment masquerades as love. It says, "I love this person as long as he or she doesn't change. I'll love you if you'll love me back. I'll love that if it will be the way I want it." This isn't love at all -- it is attachment -- and attachment is very different from love. Love allows, honors, and appreciates; attachment grasps, demands, needs, and aims to possess. Attachment offers love only to certain people; it is exclusive. Love, in the sense that the Buddha used the word metta is a universal, nondiscriminating feeling of caring and connectedness, even toward those whom we may not approve of or like. We may not condone their behavior, but we cultivate forgiveness. Love is a powerful tool that transforms any situation. It is not passive acquiescence. As the Buddha said, "Hatred never ceases through hatred. Hatred only ceases through love." Love embraces all beings without exception, and discards ill will.
One near enemy of compassion is pity. Instead of feeling the openness of compassion, pity says, "Oh, that poor person is suffering!" Pity sets up a separation between oneself and others, a sense of distance and remoteness from the suffering of others that is affirming and gratifying to the ego. Compassion, on the other hand, recognizes the suffering of another as a reflection of one's own pain: "I understand that; I suffer in the same way. It's a part of life." Compassion is shared suffering.
Another near enemy of compassion is grief. Compassion is not grief. It is not an immersion in or identification with the suffering of others that leads to an anguished reaction. Compassion is the tender readiness of the heart to respond to one's own or another's pain without grief or resentment or aversion. It is the wish to dissipate suffering. Compassion embraces those experiencing sorrow, and eliminates cruelty from the mind.
The third quality, sympathetic joy, is the ability to feel joy in the happiness of others. The near enemy of equanimity is unintelligent indifference or callousness. We appear serene if we say, "I'm not attached. I don't care what happens anyway because it's all transitory." We feel a certain peaceful relief because we withdraw from experience and from the energies of life. But true equanimity is not a withdrawal; it is a balanced engagement with all aspects of life. It is opening to the whole of life with composure and with balance of mind, seeing the nature of all things. Equanimity embraces the loved and the unloved, the agreeable and the disagreeable, and pleasure and pain; it eliminates clinging and aversion.
Although everything is empty, we nevertheless honor the reality of form. As Zen Master Dogen says: "Flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds spring up with our aversion." Knowing deeply that all will cage -- that the world of conditioned phenomena is insubstantial, we are fully present and in harmony with it.
Attachment, pity, comparison, and indifference are all ways of backing away from life out of fear. Spirituality is not a removal or escape from life. It is seeing the word with a deeper vision that is not self-centered, a vision that sees through dualistic views to the underlying interconnectedness of all of life. It is the discovery of freedom in the very midst of our bodies and minds.
In the Eightfold Path the Buddha talks about Right Thought or Right Aspiration, which has three aspects. The first is cultivating thoughts that are free from desire, discarding transitory experience, and developing a sense of inner contentment. The second is cultivating thoughts free from ill will and resentment; this means cultivating thoughts of compassion and gentleness. The third is cultivating thoughts free from cruelty; this means nourishing the forces of kindness and active love within us. With a sense of Right Aspirations we can use all the different situations we face as stepping stones, This is the thread that unites all the moments of our lives. Each moment becomes an opportunity.
While in India, I spoke with Vimala Thaker about the question of meditation and activity in the world. Vimala had worked for many years in rural development and land redistribution projects when, as a result of her longtime interest in Krishnamurti's teachings, she began to teach meditation and devoted many years to this. She has recently returned to development work and to helping the hungry and homeless, teaching much less than she once had. I asked her why she decided to go back to the type of work she had been doing years before. She replied: "Sir, I am a lover of life, and as a lover of life, I cannot keep out of any activity of life. If there are people who are hungry, for food, my response its to help feed them. If there are people who are hungry for truth, my response is to help them discover it. I make no distinction."
The Suds have a saying, "Praise Allah, and tie your camel to the post." Pray, but also make sure you do what is necessary in the world. Meditate, but manifest your understanding of this spiritual experience. Balance your realization of emptiness with a sense of compassion and impeccability to guide your life.
Seeing emptiness means seeing that all of life is like a bubble in a rushing stream, a play of light and shadow, a dream. It means understanding that this tiny planet hangs in the immensity of space amidst millions and billions of stars and galaxies, that all of human history, is like one second compared to the billions of years of earth's history, and that it will all be over very soon and no one is really going anywhere. This context helps us to let go amidst the seeming seriousness of our problems, and to enter life with a sense of lightness and ease. Impeccability means that we must realize how precious life is, even though it is transient and ephemeral, and how each of our actions and words affect all beings around us in a most profound way. There is nothing inconsequential in this universe, and we need to respect this fact personally and act responsibly in accordance with it.
One could make a very convincing case for simply devoting oneself to meditation. Does the world need more medicine and energy and buildings and food? Not really. There are enough resources for all of us. There is starvation and poverty and disease because of ignorance, prejudice, and fear, because we board materials and create wars over imaginary geographic boundaries and act as if one group of people is truly different from another group somewhere else on the planet. What the world needs is not more oil, but more love and generosity, more kindness and understanding. The most fundamental thing we can do to help this war-torn and suffering world is to genuinely free ourselves from the greed and fear and divisive views in our own minds, and then help others to do the same. Thus, a spiritual life is not a privilege; it is a basic responsibility.
But there is also a convincing argument for devoting oneself entirely to service in the world. I have only to mention the recent horror of Cambodia, the violence in Central America, the starvation in Africa -- situations in which the enormity of suffering is almost beyond comprehension In India alone, 350 million people live in such poverty that one day's work pays for only one meal. I once met a man in Calcutta who was sixty-four years old and pulled a rickshaw for a living. He had been doing it for forty years and had ten people dependent on him for income. He had gotten sick the year before for ten days; within a week money ran out and they had nothing to eat. How can we possibly let this happen? Forty children per-minute die from starvation while 25 million dollars per minute are spent on arms. We must respond. We cannot hold back or look away. We have painful dilemmas to face. Where should we put our energy? If we decide to meditate, even choosing which type of meditation practice can be confusing.
The starting point is to look directly at suffering, both the suffering in the world and the suffering in our own hearts and minds. This is the beginning of the teaching of the Buddha. and the beginning of our own understanding of the problem of world peace. At this moment on our planet. there are hundreds of millions of people who are starving or malnourished. Hundreds of millions of people are so impoverished that they have little or no shelter and clothing, or they are sick with diseases that we know how to sure, but they cannot afford the medicine or do not have access to it.
For us to begin to look directly at the situation is not a question of ceremony or of religion. We have a mandate to took in a very deep way at the sorrow and suffering that exists now in our world, and to look at our individual and collective relationship to it, to bear witness to it, to acknowledge it instead of running away. The suffering is so great that we do not want to We close our minds. We close our eyes and hearts.
Opening ourselves to all aspects of experience is what is asked of us if we want to do something, if we want to make a change, if we want to make a difference. We must look at the world honestly, unflinchingly, and directly, and then look at ourselves and see that sorrow is not just out there, external, but it is also within ourselves. It is our own fear, prejudice, hatred, desire, neurosis, and anxiety. it is our own sorrow. We have to look at it and not run away from it. In opening ourselves to suffering, we discover that we can connect with and listen to our own hearts.
In the heart of each of us, a great potential exists for realizing truth, for experiencing wholeness, for going beyond the shell of the ego. The problem is that we become so busy and lost in our own thinking that we lose our connection with our own true nature. If we look deeply, we discover that the wholeness of our being comes to know and express itself both through meditation and through sharing ourselves with others, and the course to take is very clear and immediate. Whether it is an inner or an outer path, it has enormous power to affect the world.
I spend most of my time teaching meditation. A few years ago, when many "thousands of Cambodian people were fleeing the violence in their homeland only to face starvation and disease in refugee camps in Thailand, something in me said, "I've got to go there," and so I went. I knew the people and a few of the local languages. After being there for a short time, trying to assist, I returned to this country to guide intensive meditation retreats. I did not deliberate much at the time about whether or not I should go to work in the refugee camps. I felt that it had to be done, and I went and did it. It was immediate and personal.
The spiritual path does not present us with a stylized pat formula for everyone to follow. It not a matter of imitation. We cannot be Mother Theresa or Gandhi or the Buddha. We have to be ourselves. We must discover and connect with our unique expression of the truth. We must learn to listen to and trust ourselves.
There are two great forces in the world. One is the force of killing. People who are not afraid to kill govern nations, make wars, and control much of the activity of our world. There is great strength in not being afraid to kill. The other source of strength in the world--the real strength--is in people who are not afraid to die. These are people who have touched the very source of their being, who have looked into themselves in such a deep way that they understand and acknowledge and accept death, and in a way, have already died. They have seen beyond the separateness of the ego's shell, and they bring to life the fearlessness and the caring born of love and truth. This is a force that can meet the force of someone who is not afraid to kill.
This is the power Gandhi called satygraha, the force of truth, and the force that he demonstrated in his own life. When India was partitioned, millions of people became refugees -- Muslims and Hindus moved from one country to another. There was horrible violence and rioting. Tens of thousands of troops were sent to West Pakistan to try to quell the terrible violence, while Gandhi went to what was then East Pakistan. He walked from village to village asking people to stop the bloodshed. Then he fasted. He said he would take no more food until the violence and insanity stopped, even if it meant his own death. And the riots stopped. They stopped because of the power of love, because Gandhi cared about something -- call it truth or life or whatever you wish -- it was something much greater than Gandhi the person. This is the nature of our spiritual practice, whatever form it may' take. Living aligned with truth is more important than either living or dying. This understanding is the source of incredible power and energy, and must be manifested through love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
One of the exquisite experiences of my travels in India was going to the holy city of Benares by the Ganges River. Along the river bank are ghats where people bathe as a purification, and there are also ghats where people bring corpses to be cremated. I had heard about the burning ghats for years and had always thought that being there would be a heavy experience. I was rowed down river in a little boat, and up to the ghats where there were twelve fires going. Every half-hour or so, a new body would be carried down to the fires as people chanted "Rama Nama Satya Hei," the only truth is the name of God. I was surprised. It was not dreadful at all; it was peaceful, quiet, and very sane. There was as a recognition that life and death are part of the same process and therefore death need not be feared.
There is a deep joy that comes when we stop denying the painful aspects of life, and instead allow our hearts to open to and accept the full range of our experience: life and death, pleasure and pain, darkness and light. Even in the face of the tremendous suffering in the world, there can be this joy, which comes not from rejecting pain and seeking pleasure, but rather from our ability to meditate and open ourselves to the truth. Spiritual practice begins by allowing ourselves to face our own sadness, fear, anxiety, desperation -- to die to the ego's ideas about how things should be, and to love and accept the truth of things as they are.
With this as our foundation, we can see the source of suffering in our lives and in the world around us. We can see the factors of greed, hatred, and ignorance that produce a sense of separation. If we look directly, we can see the end of suffering because its end is an acknowledgment and a clear understanding of the oneness of light and dark, up and down, sorrow and joy. We can see all these things without attachment and without separation.
We must look at how we have created and enforced separation. How have we made this a world of "I want this; I want to become that; this will make me safe; this will make me powerful?" Race, nationality, age, and religion all enforce separation. Look into yourself and see what is "us" and what is "them" for you. When there is a sense of "us," then there is a sense of "other." When we can give this up, then we can give up the idea that strength comes from having more than others, or from having the power to kill others. When we give this up, we give up the stereotype of love as a weakness.
There is a story from the Zen tradition about an old monk in China who practiced very hard meditation for many years. He had a good mind and became very quiet, but never really touched the end of "I" and "others" in himself. He never came to the source of complete stillness or peace out of which transformation comes, So he went to the Zen Master and said, "May I please have permission to go off and practice in the mountains? I have worked for years as a monk and there is nothing else I want but to understand this: the true nature of myself, of this world." And the master, knowing that he was ripe, gave him permission to leave.
He left the monastery, took his bowl and few possessions, and walked through various towns toward the mountains. He had left the last village behind and was going up a little trail when there appeared before him, coming down the trail, an old man carrying a great big bundle on his back. This old man was actually the Bodhisattva, Manjusri, who is said to appear to people at the moment that they are ripe for awakening, and is depicted carrying the sword of discriminating wisdom that cuts through all attachment, all illusion, and separateness. The monk looked at the old man, and the old man said, "Say, friend, where are you going?" The monk told his story. "I've practiced for all these years and all I want now is to touch that center point, to know that which is essentially true. Tell me, old man, do you know anything of this enlightenment?" The old man simply let go of the bundle; it dropped to the ground, and the monk was enlightened.
That is our aspiration and our task -- to put it all down, to drop all of our clinging, condemning, identifying, our opinions and our sense of I, me, mine. The newly enlightened monk looked at the old man again. He said, "So now what?" The old man reached down, picked up the bundle again and walked off to town.
We want to put it all down, which means also to acknowledge where it begins. To see sorrow, to see suffering, to see pain, to see that we are all in it together, to see birth and death. If we are afraid of death and afraid of suffering, and we do not want to look, then we cannot put it down. We will push it away here and will grab it again there. When we have seen the nature of life directly, we can put it down. Once we put it down, then with understanding and compassion we can pick it up again. Then we can act effectively, even dramatically, without bitterness or self-righteousness. We can be motivated by a genuine sense of caring and of forgiveness, and a determination to live our lives well.
A number of years ago I attended a conference at which Mad Bear, an Iroquois medicine man spoke. He said, "For my presentation I'd like us to begin by going outside," and we all went out. He led us to an open field and then asked us to stand silently in a circle. We stood for a while in silence under a wide open sky, surrounded by fields of grain stretching to the horizon. Then Mad Bear began to speak offering a prayer of gratitude. He began by thanking the earthworms for aerating the soil so that plants can grow. He thanked the grasses that cover the earth for keeping the dust from blowing, for cushioning out steps, and for showing our eyes the greenness and beauty of their life. He thanked the wind for bringing rain, for cleaning the air, for giving us the life-breath that connects us with all beings. He spoke in this way for nearly an hour, and as we listened we felt the wind on our faces, and the earth beneath our feet, and we saw the grass and clouds, all with a sense of connectedness, gratitude, and love.
This is the spirit of our practice of mindfulness. Love -- not the near enemy of attachment, but something much deeper -- infuses our awareness enables us to open to and accept the truth of each moment, to feel our intimate connectedness with all things, and to see the wholeness of life. Whether we are sitting in meditation or sitting somewhere in protest, that is our spiritual practice in every moment./.
Source: Center for
Buddhist Studies, National Taiwan University,
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