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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 10 22 helplessness and reveals the pure and open space of being, which is the very source of compassion within us. In this way, instead of perpetuating suffering we become part of the solution. Think- ing “I cannot do anything” is a way of solidifying or reinforcing the sense of “I” and “other,” which perpetuates the illusion of duality. We must understand the value and power of compassion and know that feeling pain is itself a great practice. Staying open and aware in the presence of suffering is necessary to the development of compassion. What begins as pain can arise as com- passion and become the path to libera- tion. Just as a bird needs two wings for flight, the practitioner needs wisdom and compassion for liberation. Wisdom is the fearless recognition of openness in the presence of suffering; compassion is the result of one’s suffering releasing into the clear and open expanse of mind, the mind of this very moment. narayan liebenson grady: How do we make sense of the immense suffering in this world? How do we bear it and help alleviate it without being overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness? These are the most human of questions. I don’t know that understanding the causes of the suffering of others changes anything for the better. What we do know is that everything happens because of conditions coming together. We can’t know what all of those conditions may be in any given situation, but when it comes to the suffering of others, less analysis and more compassionate action may be the better approach. Compassion is caring for and respond- ing to suffering. It is easy to fall into conditioned patterns of reactivity: we withdraw, become indifferent, get stuck in anger or lost in fear, and allow a sense of powerlessness to control us. Our prac- tice is to see that sometimes situations do seem hopeless, and yet at the same time to summon up the courage and heartfulness to do our best to make them otherwise. I remember being surprised when I first learned that the Buddha had defined compassion as “a trembling of the heart” and “a pleasant sense of care.” Until then, I had always thought that compassion meant “to suffer with.” The Buddha’s words helped me to see that being compassionate means being vulnerable and yet very strong. To me, a trembling of the heart means encourag- ing our hearts to stay open in the face of suffering. And a pleasant sense of care implies confidence and capability, the ability to hold the distress of others in such a way as to be effective in our efforts to help. Feelings of helplessness and power- lessness are normal and human, and as we come to understand suffering as well as the end of suffering, we tap into the ways in which we are really not help- less at all. I’m not sure you want to accept the suffering you see around you as much as to try to alleviate it. The fact that you can’t tolerate it points to a tender heart. This tenderness needs to be balanced with a sense of confidence so that you can respond wisely and skillfully, rather than becoming paralyzed and frozen. Where do we begin? Recognizing and opening to our own pain allows us to open to the pain of others without being overwhelmed. Also, it’s important to remember that the practice is to see not only the agonies that afflict us but the strengths we have as well. In other words, to see that which is not suffering. To know this in oneself allows one to know it in others. Thus we are training ourselves to have faith in the true nature of all beings, not to think of others with pity and a sense of separation. When we are practicing in this way, something remarkable may happen, at least at times: we may want to stay open to this possibility. When we think of someone like Nelson Mandela, we think of the horrors he experienced as well as how profoundly inspiring he has been. Somehow, he was able to sustain his faith and compassion in the midst of truly ter- rible conditions, and to come out of these conditions transformed and with great love. Perhaps we all have such untapped capabilities. My latest inspiration for how to live is this quotation attributed to the Dalai Lama: “Every day, think as you wake up: Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself to expand my heart out to others for the benefit of all beings.” tenZin Wangyal rinpoche: The suffering you feel when experiencing another’s pain does have to do with the root causes of ignorance, attachment, or anger. Suf- fering is always connected to a sense of self and to attachment. However, the pain that you feel for others can be trans- formed into the path of liberation. In fact, experiencing the pain of another’s suffer- ing is necessary for the development of compassion, and compassion is necessary for liberation. The cultivation of compas- sion is based on empathy, or the ability to feel the suffering of others. If you cannot feel the suffering of others, you cannot cultivate compassion. Rather than simply feeling helpless when you experience the suffering of others, let that moment be an oppor- tunity to cultivate bodhichitta, to rouse the sincere desire to attain liberation from the three poisons in order to truly benefit others. This motivation is no small thing. Even though you may not see how compassion directly affects another’s suffering in an immediate or obvious way, it is always possible that because of compassion something shifts energetically toward the situation. Clearly something shifts in oneself. Sometimes we are overwhelmed with the amount of suffering we perceive in the world around us and we shut down, contract, or turn away. But it is impor- tant to stay openhearted in connection to the suffering we experience. When we allow ourselves to fully experience the sensations and emotions that are pres- ent within us when we are touched by others, these very feelings become the doorway to compassion. Compassion arises spontaneously from our open awareness. Feeling our pain directly releases the bondage of