Compassion III

The Way of the Bodhisattva

In the chapter Awakening Compassion for Ourselves (Radical Acceptance), Tara Brach notes that “In the Buddhist tradition, one who has realized the fullness of compassion and lives from compassion is called a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva’s path and teaching is that when we allow our hearts to be touched by suffering—our own or another’s—our natural compassion flowers. The bodhisattva’s aspiration is simple and powerful:  “May all circumstances serve to awaken compassion.” (Tara Brach p.200) This leads to another key aspect, “May my life be of benefit to all beings.” (Tara Brach, qp. 223). The way of the bodhisattva is to dedicate his or her life and practice to relieving suffering both in self and in others.

Another dimension is how we can remind ourselves of our specific values relating to compassion:  “And when we act in ways or treat people in ways that are counter to our moral compass, we use a variety of strategies to disengage from that morality and thereby reduce our inner conflict. Said another way, our poor actions are not a result of moral defect but of moral slumber. If we want to behave better, we need to wake ourselves up.

Here is one example of how you might do that: Write a note to yourself that awakens you to your values and then review it regularly. Write down what it means to you to be a good person or why you care about other people. Put it on a card that your carry in your wallet or a Post-It note on your computer monitor. Put it in your phone. Set an alarm to read it regularly. Wake yourself up again and again to who you are and who you want to be.

The note in my office that is directly beneath my monitor screen and that I read several times a day is, “Never let a problem to be solved be more important than a person to be loved.” This is meaningful to me because I am a problem-solver. A fast problem-solver. Far too often, when I am in problem-solving mode, people become barriers between me and the solution. But while it is true that in moments of moral disengagement, I can become so focused on a problem and solution that I forget people, it is also true that I have a deep, abiding respect for humans and humanity. I love people and I want to be the person who connects with other people. It is not about changing who I am, but simply reminding myself of who I am.” Emily Hoffman

This practice of intentionally reflecting on suffering—our own as well as that of others—is the basic form of Buddhist compassion meditations.  (p. 226) This way of practice is beautifully expressed by Shantideva in his great classic “Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.”  Shantideva was an 8th century Buddhist monk and one of the most esteemed figures in Mahayana Buddhism.  H was born into a royal family, and like the Buddha, he left his father’s kingdom for the wilderness and became awakened.

Here are a few stanzas from his work that reflect the practice of service:

For all those ailing in the world,

Until their every sickness has been healed,

May I myself become for them

The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.


Raining down a flood of food and drink,

May I dispel the ills of thirst and famine.

And in the ages marked by scarcity and want,

May I myself appear as drink and sustenance.


For sentient beings, poor and destitute,

May I become a treasure ever plentiful,

And lie before them closely in their reach,

A varied source of all that they might need.


My body, thus, and all my goods besides,


And all my merits gained and to be gained,

I give them all away withholding nothing,

To bring about the benefit of beings.


Like the earth and the pervading elements,

Enduring like the sky itself endures,

For boundless multitudes of living beings,

May I be their ground and sustenance.


Thus, for everything that lives,

As far as the limits of the sky,

May I provide their livelihood and nourishment

Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering.

(Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (p. 332)

Widening Our Connectivity

Susan Bauer-Wu in Leaves Falling Gently, notes, “Mindfulness plus compassion meld to create a rich sense of connectedness – connecting you with your inner wisdom, your significant relationships, others near and far who may be suffering, the natural world, and, for some, a higher being, like God.”  (p. 128)

Connecting with others takes time and commitment:

When a friend calls to me from the road

And slows his horse to a meaning walk,

I don’t stand still and look around

On all the hills I haven’t hoed,

And shout from where I am, What is it?

No, not as there is a time to talk.

I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,

Blade-end up and five feet tall,

And plod: I go up to the stone wall

For a friendly visit

A Time to Talk by Robert Frost


Poet Gary Lawless writes:

When the animals come to us,

Asking for our help,

Will we know what they are saying?

When the plants speak to us

In their delicate, beautiful language,

Will we be able to answer them?

When the planet herself

Sings to us in our dreams,

Will we be able to wake ourselves, and act? (pp. 240-241).

“If we see ourselves as small and separate individuals trying to take on the world as our responsibility, we set ourselves up for delusion and failure. Rather, our aspiration to be of benefit arises from the radical realization that we all belong to the web of life, and that everything that happens within it affects everything else. Every thought we have, every action we take has an impact for good or for ill. An aboriginal woman from Australia speaks from this sense of relatedness in a powerful way: “If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your destiny is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (Brach p. 241).

“Mingyur Rinpoche, in his book The Joy of Living, highlights this connection between our practice of awareness and compassion: But the best part of all is that no matter how long you meditate, or what technique you use, every technique of Buddhist meditation ultimately generates compassion, whether we’re aware of it or not. Whenever you look at your mind, you can’t help but recognize your similarity to those around you. When you see your own desire to be happy, you can’t avoid seeing the same desire in others, and when you look clearly at your own fear, anger, or aversion, you can’t help but see that everyone around you feels the same fear, anger, and aversion. When you look at your own mind, all the imaginary differences between yourself and others automatically dissolve and the ancient prayer of the Four Immeasurables (the Brahma Viharas, Divine Abodes) becomes as natural and persistent as your own heartbeat:

May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.

May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

My all sentient beings have joy and the causes of joy.

May all sentient beings remain in great equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.”

{Goldstein pp. 332-333)

“Our practice is about the transformation of consciousness that makes compassionate responsiveness the default setting of our lives. Compassion requires both openness and equanimity. It requires learning to let things in without drowning in the difficulties and without being overcome by sorrow. It means learning to simply be with the truth of things as they are. This is the great gift of mindfulness that opens us to compassion. Being with the truth of what is present is what we do every time we open to our own pain or difficulty. As we practice opening to and coming close to the suffering in our own lives with compassion, we then have greater strength and courage to be with the suffering of others.”  (Goldstein pp. 327-328).

The Way of the Bodhisattva

May all circumstances serve to awaken compassion

May my life be of benefit to all beings.”

Never let a problem to be solved be more important than a person to be loved.

Being more kind is beautifully expressed in the song by Beth Neilson Chapman in How We Love:

Life has taught me this

Every day is new

And if anything is true

All that matters

When we’re through

Is how we love


Faced with what we lack

Some things fall apart

But from the ashes new dreams start

All that matters to the heart

Is how we love


How we love

How we love

From the smallest act of kindness

In a word, a smile, a touch


In spite of our mistakes

Chances come again


If we lose or if we win

All that matters in the end

Is how we love


How we love

How we love

I will not forget your kindness

When I needed it so much


Sometimes we forget

Trying to be so strong

In this world of right and wrong

All that matters when we’re gone


All that mattered all along

All we have that carries on

Is how we love


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.
  • Practice becoming a Bodhisattva!

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