That Bastard, Your Greatest Teacher
Hidden lessons in Compassion
" Kind words feel good from someone you respect, but the the real guru's job is to test your progress, to even break you, and he or she does so with great compassion to reveal the weaknesses that prevent you from becoming all that you can be".
- Venerable Kabir
We have had someone who has encouraged us at some point, a caring teacher, a helpful friend or maybe a kind mentor. Some have offered an empathetic ear, others have taken time out of their day to help us through a tricky spot. These people reaffirm our faith in humanity, but in a way, they never test us.
Compassion for a gentle grandmother might be natural, but compassion for a screaming old lady that spits in your face while cursing you, is something else entirely. This article is a loose compilation of ideas from a weeklong retreat at Kopan Monastery on "Open Heart, Open Mind", conducted by Venerable Kabir. Let's explore awakened heart compassion, deconstruct the idea of an enemy, and understand the role of the mind in interpreting all this.
In Buddhism, a bodhisattva refers to anyone who has generated a deep aspiration & a compassionate mind to attain an understanding of the nature of reality for the benefit of all sentient beings. All of them. This means extending compassion beyond family & friends, to people we are indifferent to, people we don't like, people we hate, and even beyond that.
Compassion to those we like makes sense. For those that we don't like, it can be challenging. Underneath the reasons that make us dislike or even hate the those we do, we may be more similar to them than we think. Just like us, they experience the human condition in all it's extremes.
Unlike us, they may have had very difficult conditions growing up, not had the same opportunities as they got older, and may be scarred by trauma. Disconnected, some float further away, lost in a sea of indifference & apathy. In that lonely world, extremist views have fertile ground to take root, rage against society that has forsaken them almost justified.
For us, ignoring this & withdrawing into ourselves may be seductive. It is tempting to cut the annoying, hurtful and challenging people we encounter out of our lives, but in doing so, we miss something deeply valuable they offer us. The obstacle is the way. By extending compassion to all sentient beings, we build our muscle of turning towards those who suffer, feeling their struggle, and cultivating the hope that perhaps one day they can find peace. Intension leads to thought, thoughts lead to speech, and speech leads to action.
" Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as
the path to compassion for all beings."
- Pema Chodon
We know about the compassion of Jesus to those who nailed him to the cross, and how Nelson Mandela, the Apartheid-era civil rights leader who forgave people who put him in prison, even recommending them to government positions when he was released. Saints exist in all great spiritual traditions, but if we look closer, there may be stories that play out much closer to our lives.
On April 19, 2015, a pizza delivery man was stabbed to death in an apartment complex, robbed of the little money he had. In 2017, Trey Relford was charged with murdering Salahuddin Jitmoud. He could have been given the death penalty, but Salahuddin's father intervened.
Speaking directly to his son's killer he said, "I'm angry at the devil, who's misguiding you and misleading you to do such a horrible crime. "I don't blame you. I'm not angry at you. I forgive you." Embracing him, he reached out. "Don’t worry, it’s over, you have a new chapter in life.”
The courtroom was in tears. Drawing on his Islamic faith, Mr. Jitmoud continued.
“This is a new beginning. You have to go and do righteous deeds, and you can start in the confinement. When you come out in the real world in 31 years, you’ll prepare yourself to be a productive person for those around you.”
What is an enemy?
Let's imagine a war-zone. 2 groups of young men, convinced by older leaders on their respective sides that their fight is noble, their reasons just. Even though they may be of a different nationality or race, those young men who enter combat will bleed red blood together. A song performed by American singer-songwriter and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, captures the reality of war, not from the perspective of greying politicians back home, but from a young soldier in the dirt.
“Oh, and I thought when I was there,
God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was
when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
- Bob Dylan (John Brown)
In order to kill someone, we need to separate ourselves from them. Exaggerate their differences, hate what they stand for. Demonise. We cannot see them beyond this reduction, our strong aversions preventing us from understanding complex truths. Perhaps, It's easier to pull a trigger that way.
The drums of propaganda beat in the background, celebrating perceived victories in the brutal conflict. But, rejoicing in the death of a terrorist prevents us from exploring how a child becomes one, and ignores the hard work of understanding the conditions that will create the suicide bombers of tomorrow. An eye for an eye ultimately makes the world blind.
The mistaken idea that we are hard, static & unchanging beings, solidifies our ego. Instead of listening, more shouting, instead of understanding, more stereotyping. In this fog, the complexity of a person and the suffering they face becomes reduced to an piercing insult to their entire being. One man's terrorist, is another man's freedom fighter, it just depends on what you decide to look at.
Projection of this mistaken consciousness is the root of not only external conflict, but conflict within oneself. We have always been changing. Think of the toy that you would give up everything for as a child. Does it still matter as much today? The things we value evolve, because we are always changing.
Think of a flowing river you know, reflect on its name. Imagine resting a foot in its waters, lifting it, and placing it in the river again. Is it the same river? Does the name of the river point to any kind of permanence? Banks forming and eroding, plants blooming and dying, no drop of water that running over it the same drop.
This doesn't mean the river does not exist, it does. Just not in the way we think it does. The river has a name, a label, but the term doesn't point to it's nature. There is a profound difference between intellectual understanding and the insight of direct experience. Words only point to meaning, they cannot fully capture it.
If they could, then you could give someone a lecture series on how to ride a bicycle. You could teach them about mechanical parts, calculate the forces of balance using physics, and tell them stories of great bicycle riders from history. You could fill them with every drop of knowledge in the world on riding a bicycle, but once they get on, after a few seconds, they will fall off.
Direct experience comes from riding the bicycle, and understanding it through our own insight. We roll down a small hill, with our feet on the ground, trying to get a sense of balance. Falling off is part of the journey, we learn the limits of how far we can lean, or hard we can brake. After a few years, something strange happens.
We start to be able to ride without thinking. The 'I' slowly fades away, and the bicycle moves like an extension of one's own body. All the concepts we learned in the beginning dissolve. With people, listening deeply to their story, we become connected on an unconscious level. The more we empathise, the more the gap between us fades into a revelation of the common threads that bind us all.
The terrorist, the river and the bicycle exist due to interconnected causes and conditions, therefore, exploring interdependence through direct experience is crucial in developing compassion for others.
"All events and incidents in life are so intimately linked with the fate of others that a single person on his or her own cannot even begin to act. Many ordinary human activities, both positive and negative, cannot even be conceived of apart from the existence of other people. Even the committing of harmful actions depends on the existence of others. Because of others, we have the opportunity to earn money if that is what we desire in life. Similarly, in reliance upon the existence of others it becomes possible for the media to create fame or disrepute for someone. On your own you cannot create any fame or disrepute no matter how loud you might shout. The closest you can get is to create an echo of your own voice. Thus interdependence is a fundamental law of nature."
- H.H. Dalai Lama
Suffering is part of the human condition. It's shit sometimes. Wise gardeners create conditions that allow for wonderful plants to grow from that shit. The nature of the present moment of mind is the result of pervious intension, thought, speech & action. Seeds of morality lead to wisdom, seeds of ignorance lead to blind hatred.
Without constant practice, even the virtuous plants will eventually wither. The deep insight of the bodhisattva approach lies in accepting the 'burden' of compassion as a joyous task, a chance to reinforce the qualities of loving kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity from the mind to the world.
The scale of suffering in the world can lead to empathetic distress, a feeling of anguish due to overwhelming problems that we face. We can't save everyone. Through non-judgemental self compassion, we can balance our aspiration, intension and action toward compassion with the limits of where we find ourselves right now. We will never be perfect.
However, starting with the desire to alleviate all others of suffering, we open our hearts to connect on a person to person level, there might be the possibility of alleviating some suffering, or even extending the practice to an ant that has slipped into the bottom of your sink as you brush your teeth.
Every intension plants a seed in your mind.
'True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realising our kinship with all beings.'
- Pema Chodon
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With gratitude to Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, Kopan Monastery and Venerable Kabir.