Widening the Circle of Compassion II

Radical Acceptance:  Enhancing your Life with the Heart of the Buddha (pp 221-245)

The Way of the Bodhisattva

In the previous chapter, Awakening Compassion for Ourselves, 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.” (p.200) This leads to another key aspect, “May my life be of benefit to all beings.” (p. 223). The way of the bodhisattva is to dedicate his or her life and practice to relieving suffering both in self and in others.

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

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.” (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, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 332-333).

Tonglen:  Awakening the Heart of Our Compassion

There is a meditation practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as Tonglen that supports the development of compassion.

It is translated as “Sending and Taking.”

It is a powerful process designed to undermine our self-absorption (which blocks the arising of compassion) and to support us in filling our hearts with compassion towards others.

Normally we choose those things in life that build up our ego or sense of self, and reject those things which threaten it

In the practice of Tonglen, we learn to take into ourselves that which we have typically rejected, and to send out to others what we have always desired for ourselves

This practice “rides with the breath.” With our in-breath we breathe in the sufferings of other living beings, and with our out breath we send forth our healing thoughts of compassion with deep feelings of health, happiness, and good wishes.

This practice can feel very threatening for some people since it feels like we are taking in physical, psychological, and spiritual poisons, and at the same time breathing out our own source of good health and joy.

Paradoxically, this powerful and effective process actually increases our inner well-being as our hearts learn to transform misery or suffering into a profound experience of compassion, love and peace.

This practice is not a show of our personal bravery since ultimately, because of the interdependent nature of the universe, it is our own suffering and joy that we are breathing in and out.

The experience of Tonglen should be free-flowing where we release and accept without any strain or effort

In effect it is like rubbing two sticks together. One stick is our habitual self-centeredness. The other stick is our other centeredness that comes from exchanging self with others. As we rub these two sticks together they both catch fire. We are left with emptiness, free from attachment, and with a heart as open as the sky.

TONGLEN PRACTICE

Begin by sitting quietly and allowing the mind to settle.

Place your attention on your breath.

Feel your breath in the area of your chest, as if you could breathe in and out of your heart.

With each in-breath we are going to breathe in all the pains and sorrows of all those who are suffering. This will be visualized as hot, black, grimy smoke or tar.

With each out-breath, we will breathe out deep compassion that reaches the innermost hearts of those individuals who are suffering. This will be visualized as rays of white light.

When the suffering enters our heart through the vehicle of the breath, our heart will act as a transformer, changing the suffering and sorrow into the warmth of compassion, which we will then be breathing out.

Imagine in front of you, as vividly and poignantly as possible, someone you deeply care for. Try and imagine every aspect of that person’s pain and distress.

As you feel your heart opening to their pain, imagine that all their suffering is gathering together as a great mass of hot, black, grimy smoke.

As you breathe in, visualize that mass of smoke coming into the very core of your heart.

Experience your heart transforming both the suffering of that other being, and your own self-grasping attitude.

Now breathe out rays of the cooling and healing white light of compassion, joy, peace, and well-being. Visualize that white light of compassion touching their inner-most heart.

Deeply feel that the suffering of your loved one has been abated through this process.

Now imagine in front of you, as vividly and poignantly as possible, someone with whom you are having difficulty. Try and imagine every aspect of that person’s pain and distress.

Once again, as you feel your heart opening to their pain, imagine that all their suffering is gathering together as a great mass of hot, black, grimy smoke.

As you breathe in, visualize that mass of smoke coming into the very core of your heart.

Experience your heart transforming both the suffering of that other being, and your own self-grasping attitude.

Now breathe out rays of the cooling and healing white light of compassion, joy, peace, and well-being. Visualize that white light of compassion touching their inner-most heart.

Deeply feel that the suffering of that individual has been abated through this process.

Follow the same procedure for the following categories of people:

Breathe in the sorrows of those who are hungry, and breathe out compassion for their pain.

Breathe in the sorrows of those who are caught in war, and breathe out compassion for their terror

Breathe in the sorrows of those who are very ill, and breathe out compassion for their feelings of weakness and despair.

Breathe in the sorrows of those who are dying, and breathe out compassion for their fear.

Breathe in the sorrows for all the pain you have caused in the world, and breathe out compassion for all you have hurt

With each in-breath, let the suffering of all living beings touch your heart, and with your out-breath, feel the healing force of your compassion touching them.

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • Practice being with suffering in yourself and others. Remember “May all circumstances serve to awaken compassion.” and “May my life be of benefit to all beings.”  Use the Tonglen practice on and off the cushion.
  • Adopt an ongoing practice giving kindness to yourself and others.

Meditation

  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice with concentration and mindfulness.

Next: Recognizing Our Basic Goodness I Previous: Widening the Circle of Compassion I