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Compassion - The Natural Expression of Awakening
last public talk I gave was in a very hot hall. But even in a cool,
air-conditioned hall such as this, people can get rather heated, because
the external coolness sometimes doesn't reach the heart. The heart can be
on fire with all the emotions that overwhelm it. This is of great interest
in Buddhism, because Buddhism is primarily concerned with the heart, or
In Buddhism we don't make a distinction between the heart and the mind, they are one and the same. In English we do make a distinction. We use the word 'heart' not only to refer to the physical organ in the chest, but to the aspect of feelings and emotions. We use the word 'mind' for the more analytical processes associated with the brain: thinking, remembering, planning and so on.
Many people feel that Buddhism is a very intellectual religion, if it can be regarded as a religion at all. They see it as something to do with the intellect, about thinking, philosophy, about training the mind in some technical meditative procedure. For most Western people Buddhism seems cold, lacking in emotions, lacking in warmth of heart. This is not true to the real nature of Buddhism, but it is the way many people from Western countries perceive and encounter it.
Because most Western people who come to Buddhism do so through an intellectual approach, through the study of books or listening to public lectures, they approach it from a more intellectual angle. When they listen to talks about Buddhism they hear teachings which seem to satisfy the intellect, because in Buddhism we do place a lot of emphasis on logic and reason. An intellectual understanding is very important for one who wants to follow any path, be it religious or otherwise. So most of the people who teach Buddhism in the West, and most of the Buddhist books that become popular, will tend to approach it from this very analytical point of view, stressing its logical nature. They emphasise teachings like the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Dependent Origination and numerous other analytical expositions which are very logical. These teachings are important and true, but it all seems to be up in the head. It all seems to be a matter of cold-blooded logic and intellect. Quite often people say Buddhism seems to be too intellectual.
However, this perspective is not a true representation of Buddhism. Many members of this evening's audience are Asian people, who were born into Buddhist cultures. Others amongst us have had the opportunity to travel and live in the traditional Buddhist cultures of Asia, and have seen how people in these societies relate to Buddhism and live this teaching. Rather than being cold, it is a very warm religion.
The heart is very much a part of the religious path. This is something that needs to be pointed out and explained, and I hope to do so this evening. The topic of tonight's talk is compassion. Compassion is obviously something to do with feeling. It is a quality of the heart, not an intellectual experience. It isn't just a philosophical thought or idea: compassion is a feeling that we all can and do feel. Compassion is one of the essential qualities of Buddhism, and in Buddhist practice this quality will be present. As the title to this talk suggests, it is a natural expression of awakening. The path of Buddhism is the path of awakening.
Those talks that you have heard and those books that you have read all emphasise the Four Noble Truths, which are the heart of the Buddha's teaching. If one had to summarise what the Buddha taught, every sect of Buddhism would have to agree that the essence or heart of the Buddha's teaching is the Four Noble Truths. These, stated briefly, are:
The Buddha said that these Four Noble Truths could be discovered and verified within each person. The rest of his teaching is an explanation, a very comprehensive one, of these truths. Put more briefly, the Buddha once said, 'I teach only this: suffering and the end of suffering' - very brief and very simple.
When we hear talks about the Four Noble Truths, they seem to dwell quite a lot on this Pali word 'dukkha', which is usually rendered as 'suffering' or less emotionally charged, 'unsatisfactoriness'. But 'suffering' is a good enough word, because it //is// suffering: unpleasant, difficult to bear, a state of dis-ease, a state of discomfort, both physical and mental, the presence of a problem - that quality is called //dukkha//, suffering. It is an existential fact of existence.
Hearing this, some may think: "Gosh, this Buddhism - not only is it intellectual, it's also very depressing. Suffering... another talk on suffering!" People tend not to notice that the Buddha said: "I teach suffering //and the end// of suffering." It's very inspiring to know that there really is such a thing as an end to suffering.
But before you can treat the problem you have to recognise that there is one, otherwise you won't do anything about it. The Buddha said suffering was a truth to be known - suffering must be seen. It must be known before it can be dealt with. People seem to think that by noticing suffering, by fully and consciously acknowledging suffering, it will be depressing and will somehow have a detrimental effect. In fact it has the most wonderful effect on the human being, as we awaken to the nature of life, as we awaken to the predicament of mortal existence. And as we awaken to the nature of suffering, the natural consequence is the opening of the heart into compassion and love.
What is compassion? Compassion literally means 'to feel with', 'to feel for'. It is quite different from passion. Passion is not the natural expression of awakening. It is the natural expression of delusion. Passion is always associated with very strong emotions, and these emotions always come from the ego. 'Me' is always at the centre of passion, regardless of whether that passion is in a positive form, such as desiring, or in the negative form, such as hating. Hatred is a very strong passion - you can passionately hate someone. In this world there are many strongly felt passions of hatred between human beings. Quite often passionate love can turn into passionate hatred. This is because they come from the same centre, from the idea of a separate self which must be gratified and protected. There are barriers between 'me' and others, there is no bond.
So passion is not a synonym for compassion. Compassion is to feel with, to feel for. It is not like passion. Passion is always hot, obsessive, and blinding. It weakens the faculties. Compassion is always cool and associated with awakening. It is a natural pair with wisdom. Compassion arises naturally from awakening, because awakening means that we are beginning to clearly see how things are.
And how things are is suffering. How things are is that we're all in a common predicament - not only us, not only human beings, but all living creatures. All living beings are in exactly the same boat, the 'boat' of birth, old age, sickness and death, the vulnerability of mortal existence. To be born means to be mortal. When we are mortal we are vulnerable. We have these bodies, we feel pain, we get old, we experience sickness. Emotionally and mentally we are very vulnerable. We all fear rejection, we all fear failure, we all fear pain and mental anguish. We fear loss of all kinds and we fear the unknown.
These are common experiences. To all human beings, all living creatures, regardless of sex, race, or age, regardless of being human or animal, these are very common experiences. To be human, to be mortal, to be born into this experience, means to be vulnerable.
Compassion is already there
To become awakened, to be more awakened, means that we are beginning to appreciate this. We are beginning to look closely at this experience called 'life'; what it feels like to be a human being, and what it is to feel the experiences of pain, fear, sadness, wanting and all that we can feel during one lifetime. We begin to notice what the Buddha pointed out - //dukkha//, suffering, dis-ease.
As we notice this in ourselves we can recognize it in others, we can recognise it in every living being. That is how we can feel compassion in the heart. Quite often we think that we have to develop compassion. "I just don't have enough compassion, I have to develop more compassion." You don't have to develop compassion, you have all the compassion you need in your heart. Compassion is naturally in the heart, but something is blocking it.
Compassion is there, it comes out on occasions. Have you noticed it? It comes out when certain barriers are down. What are those barriers? What are the obstacles? It is when the mind is caught in darkness, when the mind is so preoccupied with 'me' and 'mine', with protecting the self and with getting, that the mind can no longer see suffering. And that is a very common experience. We don't see others because we do not feel with them, compassion doesn't manifest. It's not that it's not there, but it doesn't come through.
Just contemplate your experiences in your own daily life, as you get up in the morning and go about your business at home. Notice your brothers, sisters, father, mother, friends, husband, wife... obviously there is love there, but notice how rarely it is expressed. Notice how rarely it manifests. What is blocking it? All the activity based on //me// and //mine//, what //I// want, what //I// have to get, what //I// have to prove. The tensions and conflict of competition blocks love from manifesting. It's there, it's just that it doesn't manifest.
When we leave home and go to work on the bus, or on the road as we drive our cars, we don't feel much compassion. Why not? Because at that moment there is competition. You want to get in front, you want to get to that seat before the other guy gets it. At that time you can't see others, you can't feel for them. At that moment, other people are competitors, adversaries. At that moment it's //me// against //them//: 'I have to get what //I// want, what //I// need - //I// have to protect.' There's the possibility that other people will get it, resulting in contention, fear and everything but compassion.
In the workplace, it's much the same. Even just sitting here, I could feel rather intimidated... you're all looking at me. "What are they thinking?" And you may be sitting there thinking in much the same way, it does happen. People erect barriers so that they forget to see others. They fail to see others in themselves or see themselves in others. That is what is blocking the natural expression of compassion from arising: competition. With this way of relating, with these barriers, with this investment and contention, very little compassion can operate.
But then if you saw a little kitten walk in here, with its big eyes, what would you feel? I imagine every one of you, even if you don't like cats, would think, "What a cute little kitten, it must be hungry." That's compassion! Why, in that moment, is there compassion in your heart? Where did it come from? What meditation did you do to develop that compassion? Was it some secret technique that you learnt from some yogi or guru who somehow zapped you into feeling compassion? No, compassion is a natural expression, you experience a natural response when the barriers are down, when the fear is down, when the craving is down, when there is no competition. What do you see there? A tiny little being, so helpless, so vulnerable.
Compassion flows because it is natural, because you know what it is to suffer, you know what it is to feel pain, you know what it is to be hungry, you know what it is to be alone. You know this because you can feel for another being, one that is obviously vulnerable to suffering. It is spontaneous, natural. It happens all the time. We all feel it on occasion, but we don't usually notice it. We haven't consciously, clearly noticed it or fully observed what is going on.
We might even feel that it's a bit of a weakness. We see the little kitten - poor little kitten - we might go and stroke it. Then somebody walks by and we mustn't let them see our mushy feelings. We're supposed to be strong and independent, so we don't want to acknowledge this natural state.
So I'd like to emphasise that compassion is not something you have to develop: you have compassion, your heart is full of it. Every one of us has plenty of compassion, but it needs the opportunity to flow out. We need to drop the barriers, we need to break down the barriers that prevent the expression of compassion. We don't have to do any meditation to develop compassion. That may sound somewhat contrary to some of the Buddha's teaching, but it isn't really. You can call it cultivating compassion.
I found it very useful to appreciate and understand that compassion is natural. I had an interesting experience in the monastery in Perth where I live. As I am the senior monk, the abbot, I am supposed to run things. A very difficult monk came to stay with me for one year. He suffered from a sense of paranoia, which made him stubborn and difficult to have around. There was a lot of conflict because he would try to manipulate things and was always scheming.
By nature I'm a fairly authoritarian sort of person. I like to have things run smoothly. I don't believe I'm too extreme, but being in such a position, one knows what should be done and how things should run. So there was some conflict.
One day it came to a head. I felt that it just couldn't be resolved. It had become too much of a personality clash. So he said, "I want the whole community of monks (there were only six of us) to resolve it." It seemed like a good idea, so we all met together, bringing up the conflict in the midst of the community, in the midst of the Order of monks: "This is the problem. This is the way I see it, this is the way he sees it, so who's right? How are we to deal with this?"
I had quite a lot of aversion and resentment towards this monk, and in fact I wanted to get rid of him. I just saw him as a troublemaker, somebody who had to be put down by winning the argument. After the initial preamble, the first monk to speak said, "Well, Ajahn Jagaro is the abbot and I think he has the perfect right to make the decisions about what should be done. If this monk was a good monk he would just do what he was told. I'm quite willing to do what I'm told about anything like this."
As soon as he said that, I was very surprised by my reaction. I looked immediately at the troublesome monk, but I didn't see a troublesome monk. All I saw was a human being, and the thought that came into my mind was, "Oh no, what if they all say that - it will crush him." I felt immediate compassion for this monk, who just a minute ago I was very averse to. I sensed that he was a vulnerable human being, that he would be humiliated.
But of course, life has many teachings for us, and in a few minutes my mind changed again, because all the other monks took his side! But I do have tremendous gratitude for that experience, because it was from that point on that I realised that compassion is a very spontaneous, natural feeling; we all have it. It's not something that you have to cultivate. What you have to do is to remove the barriers that stop the flow of compassion. You don't need to build compassion, it is there. When we see others in ourselves and ourselves in others, when we see the vulnerability of others and recognise the suffering that is common to us all, compassion will flow. It will come spontaneously, and you can see it over and over again if you are watchful.
Once you recognise this fact, once you know this is the potential of the heart, then it is easy to be compassionate. It simply means opening the eyes, seeing others, seeing the vulnerable living being rather than seeing the enemy, the rival, the ugly man, the desirable woman. These perceptions create barriers to seeing the common existential experience of vulnerability.
Now that is not too difficult to do, but it does mean an awakening of the mind. It means waking up and actually noticing, recollecting, seeing in this way. So that if I, sitting here, see you as them, out there, either favourably or not, then of course I don't feel very much compassion. I can feel threatened or I can feel attracted, one or the other. But if I see each and every one of you as a human being, then I see myself in you and I know you all feel very much like I do. I don't feel competitiveness, nor do I feel that sense of fear, but quite naturally, I feel //with// you. You can call it compassion, or a sense of communion. We can experience this with anyone. It simply means seeing oneself in others and seeing others in oneself.
A quite touching story was related to me by another monk. Our monastery in Perth is situated about ten kilometres from a low-security prison farm. The prisoners there are given a lot more freedom and opportunity to work than in ordinary prisons. On the farm, there's work to do and they get paid for it. Some time previously the education officer at this prison farm had invited one of our monks to teach meditation to a group of prisoners. The monk who went most often told me this story, which was related to him by one of the prisoners who attended his meditation class.
In that prison they had a slaughterhouse, and one of the jobs in the prison was working in the slaughterhouse. This prisoner was a slaughterer. He was killing the cattle without thinking much about it; usually the cattle just came in and he knocked them off. One day a cow came in very passively. It wasn't fighting at all, but standing very passively. He looked its way and just happened to catch its eyes, a thing which he'd never done before. Usually he just thought, "It's only an animal - knock it out." But this time, because the cow was quiet, he looked at it, straight into the cows eyes - and cows have such big eyes. He noticed that the cow was crying, he actually saw tears in its eyes. The cow was crying and at that moment he saw another living being. He felt with this living being, he saw himself in this living being, he saw that this living being felt just like him. I wanted to live, the cow was afraid. He couldn't do it; he put down his tools and walked away - never again!
How many times has that kind of thing happened to you without you really noticing it? When we feel with another, when we look at another and see ourselves in that person, there is a natural communion, there is compassion and empathy. When that happens you can't exploit, you can't hurt. This feeling for others, compassion, is quite a natural experience as we open up to the true nature of life, as we open up to the universal truth of suffering in all its forms, to which we are all subject.
If you saw yourself in others and others in yourself, you couldn't go out and kill, rape, hurt, or exploit them. Those things can only be done when we forget, when we drown real knowledge and superimpose it with falseness and ideological lies, created by desire and aversion. They are not the natural expression of the heart, they are defilements of the mind, conditioned into the mind, from where they overwhelm and block this natural space of the heart.
If you want somebody to go and do terrible things to others, don't tell them that those people have wives and husbands and children, or that they are afraid and feel pain. You can't tell them that. When you want your soldiers to go to war, to fight and kill, you can't tell them that the enemy are human beings, that they feel pain, that they feel just like you do. They have to become monsters, they have to become cold, unfeeling aliens. "Go out there and get rid of those aliens!" When you want people to work in a slaughterhouse, when you want people to go shooting, hunting and fishing, don't tell them that the animals feel and they're afraid and sensitive: "Animals, they're just dumb animals. They were put on earth for us to make use of." As soon as you awaken to the fact that this creature experiences pain, that this creature is afraid, that this creature is mortal and therefore much the same as you, you can't harm it.
So I do not think that compassion needs much development. Compassion is already there in everyone. It is there in the heart. It's just that sometimes, most times, it is blocked by our selfishness and delusion.
I would like to emphasise this in education. You know there is great emphasis on trying to keep law and order, trying to stop many of the terrible things happening in society today. I think if we could make more people more sensitive, in the sense of being aware of this existential truth of suffering, that all living creatures feel, that all living creatures suffer and are vulnerable, then the world would be a much better place.
We can bring this awareness into our minds by awakening to this truth, by noticing this over and over again, consciously bringing it into our minds. Use it as a meditation. Try to see yourself in others and see others in yourself.
People will ask, "Can you really feel compassion for some of the monsters that are around in the world?" Well, even monsters suffer. But you don't have to put yourself to such an extreme test straight away. What about your neighbour, people on the train, people sitting here now? We can bring up this awareness with ordinary people. When we bring this awareness into the mind, compassion will arise naturally. Compassion transcends all differences because we are all in the same boat. Whether it's a little kitten, whether it's a bird, a snake, a frog, a man, woman, father, son - we're all vulnerable, we are all subject to //dukkha// and we can all feel for each other.
Don't wait for others to set the ball in motion. Just by awakening to this truth, compassion will flow. It happens to every mother: how can she be so patient? How can she be so compassionate? Because she sees the vulnerability of her child.
I've noticed that this happens with people when relating to monks, because monks are like helpless babies. We need to be fed just as a little baby has to be fed. I have to wait for someone to bring me my food everyday. People provide us with the things we need - if ever we need shoes or clothes, people provide them for us. So we're very vulnerable. If no one brings food for us, we don't eat. I've noticed that the result of this is that somehow it does bring a lot of compassion out of people. People generally feel a lot of compassion towards monks.
I noticed one particular case of this when I was in Thailand. One year I spent a Rains Retreat in the north, my first experience of living in northern Thailand. There was one particular lady, an elderly woman who used to come to the monastery occasionally. We used to go on alms-round every morning. Monks would go out with their bowls and walk through the town, but because in that province of Northern Thailand they weren't accustomed to forest monks, we used to get very little food on these alms-rounds. It was a large village of around five hundred houses, but only some ten or twelve people would put food in our bowls.
One household that we went past was a very poor house where this particular woman lived. Either she or her grandson, who was only a small boy, offered the food. She had a husband - poor man. She was a really ferocious woman; she used to shout at the top of her voice and she had a very aggressive way of shouting at her husband. She looked very hard. The way she would shout and scowl was quite frightening - obviously she was quite a tough woman.
But a magical transformation would take place every morning when the monks came by. As soon as she saw the monks she'd immediately get the pot of rice and come and kneel down on the road. She would get right down on her knees, a lovely smile would appear on her face and her features would soften so much. When she said something she spoke so gently, it was like a magical transformation - this compassion for these helpless little monks! Obviously it was always there, it was just that at that moment it would come out because of the way she saw the monks. It was different from the way she saw her husband, who was a bit of a nuisance. The barriers went down and the compassion flowed.
This is something that we call all contemplate. When we contemplate and understand this, we will know how to allow this natural potential to express itself, to manifest. This is the path of Buddhism. Compassion is the natural result of following the path, the natural result of awakening to the truth of suffering. Such an awakening is not depressing, not cold or indifferent, but leads to true love and compassion.
Sincere thanks to Antony Woods (Sydney, Australia) for
making this digital copy available
(Binh Anson, July 2004).
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last updated: 11-07-2004