In most of human history, people have lived in small communities among those with whom they had lifelong associations and intimacies. Distant plagues, mass starvation in foreign countries, wars in far-off lands, even destruction of unfamiliar civilizations—all these events passed by, unknown to those who were remote from them.
Today we live in transient groupings among people we have met only recently, if at all. But internet and television make us vividly aware of the many forms of suffering everywhere on the globe. Hourly we see the bloody faces of the casualties of war, the wracked and wasted bodies of starving children, the cries and tears of the murder victim’s family. These images of suffering around the world are often more familiar to us than the gravest difficulties of our neighbors, even as social media presents the most private kinds of desperation and pain of people we scarcely know.
Increasingly, as the distant face of suffering becomes more intimate, our isolation becomes more intense. But now we share our loneliness and helplessness on a global scale. Our immediate longing to relieve the pain of those we encounter on television or the internet becomes our own desire for relief, and we are locked together in an encompassing experience of frustration.
As our helplessness drifts into apathy and then a weary resentment, we look for ways to distance ourselves from the pain and suffering that crowd around us. Our own needs are going unmet. Why can’t those other people help themselves? Aren’t they, in one way or another, the cause of their own misery? And so we come to see the victims as members of a mindlessly aggressive society, or of a culture irretrievably attached to faulty agricultural methods, or of an ethnic group that simply won’t sustain normal family patterns. If only they would move, get an education, or somehow just disappear.
Surrounded by continuous violence, destruction, sickness, we feel burdened by caring and resentful of our innate sympathies. In such circumstances, the experience of compassion as real and available becomes deformed, and confidence in the power of compassion fades.
In ordinary usage, according to the OED, “compassion” means first: “suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow feeling, sympathy,” and second: “the feeling or emotion as moved by the distress of another and the desire to relieve it.” Buddhism, however, understands compassion as something far more extensive than merely a feeling or emotion, with all the itinerant qualities which those words imply.
The Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of Tibet maintains that the complete and entire basis of our life in this world is compassion. According to this view:
In the infinite expanse of the natural state
Free from the limits of conceptual mind,
All the realms of life and death and their inhabitants
Arise spontaneously from the radiance of Great Compassion.
The Tibetan word for compassion, nyingje, literally means “noble heart,” and this refers not simply to one’s own heart, but to the heart of the world as well. It is called “heart” because compassion is at the core of all our responses to external and internal phenomena. It is the basis of why our minds always move outside ourselves, why our perceptions lead us out into the world of phenomena, and why we are spontaneously moved by the sight of beauty and suffering, the smell of early spring or rotting garbage, the memory of the taste of lemonade, the sound of thunder in the afternoon.
Compassion is mind’s innate movement outward. It is the underlying momentum of our emotional and perceptual experience. If we examine even our most self-absorbed thought, we always find it is prompted by the vivid awareness of something we consider outside ourselves. Even when we are concerned with pain in our own body, that pain is somehow viewed as “other,” as something alien to our “real” self. In fact, no matter what the emotional twist, all our thoughts begin with the sense of “other.” So, at the core, our heart places others before ourselves. Thus, because our mind is naturally inclined to concern with others, it is called “noble.”
At the center of all our mental functioning, as the natural basis of all our perceptions, instincts, impulses, and more elaborated motivations, is this primordial awareness of other, this “noble heart.”
Tibetan Buddhist traditions describe three aspects to the experience of compassion:
1. There is compassion as occasioned by awareness of the specific suffering and pain of others.
2. There is compassion arising from awareness of the inescapable causes of
3. There is compassion without reference point, free, omnipresent, ever-expanding and continuous.
One afternoon, I sat with my wife’s colleague and friend Iván in a Budapest bakery renowned for flódni, a confection with layers of poppy seed, walnut, and apple. We were in the old Jewish neighborhood only a few blocks from the Great Synagogue.
“You see that door over there?” He pointed a thick hand at a faded green door across the street which, no doubt, gave onto an interior courtyard. I turned and peered. There was nothing special about it.
“My cousin, Tomi, you know him?”
“Yes, we spent last night wandering all along the river with him.” Iván’s cousin was a retired chemical engineer, a great connoisseur of all kinds of local history, and a delight to wander with though the city.
“Well, you know that shit Eichmann, just a few months before the war ended, rounded up all the Jews.” I nodded. “He loaded them in barges on the Danube to take them to Auschwitz. And they were all herded along this street right out front.”
“Tomi and all his family were in the crowd being pushed down the street. And someone opened that door and suddenly grabbed them, told them to shut up, pulled them into the courtyard. That’s why they lived. Tomi, all of them. They risked their lives, the people who saved them.” I shook my head. “And you know what? We never knew who those people were, and we never found out.”
And it seemed, at that moment, that what Iván was telling me was not so much a Holocaust story, or a Jewish story, or even a family story; he was showing something miraculous woven into the fabric of an ordinary street.
Generally, our most direct experience of compassion is occasioned by the awareness of suffering itself.
When we hear of the illness of someone we love, when we see a wounded animal, and even when we hear of someone whom we despise suffering the loss of a child, we feel that pain well up in our heart. Here we experience the utter spontaneity of compassion, which rises up past all distinctions and differences, predilections and conceptual frameworks.
However, our habitual second thought, particularly with respect to those who are not close to us, is to draw away from the sight of others’ suffering, just as we try to distance ourselves from our own experience of pain. Just as we feel isolated within our own pain, we tend to isolate others in theirs. In doing so, we tend to justify ourselves by referring to a body of conventional concepts and secret fears; we try to secure our own “needs” and “preserve our boundaries.”
But no matter what conceptualizations we may make use of in these circumstances, we cannot quite ignore that this life is filled with disappointments, sorrow, sickness, death, and continuous sufferings of many kinds. Suffering is universal and unavoidable. This cannot be escaped, no matter how we invoke the decency of our aspirations, the excellence of our successes, the virtue of our goals, or the reality of our powerlessness.We cannot escape what arises in our hearts, even if we are unable to prevent the sufferings around us.
We can cut through the morass of reflexive ego-clinging in many ways, but the essence of how to do so is always the same: we put the needs and concerns of others before our own. This is practiced in simple acts of courtesy, as well as in many kinds of attention, generosity, care, and consideration. Parents routinely put the lives and aspirations of their children ahead of their own satisfactions; people often make sacrifices to take care of parents and friends. These kinds of actions, which go on continuously and unremarked, are the essence of social life. Acting in this way, we constantly discover that we do not need to rely on compulsive ego-centered logic. There is a vast range of possibilities alive right before us, revealed in the light of how we take care of the world around us.
Compassion that is occasioned by suffering itself brings us into this world ever more fully. We cannot escape what arises in our hearts, even if we are unable to prevent the sufferings around us. The wellsprings of primordial compassion rise in us constantly to dissolve the limits we have set for ourselves and our view of the world.
The renowned biologist, Scott Gilbert, has taken pains to demonstrate how much of our human body, fate, and identity are reliant on genes and processes recognized to be human:
We have about 160 major species of bacteria in our bodies, and they all form complex ecosystems. Human bodies are and contain a plurality of ecosystems. Our mouths are different ecosystems than our intestines, or our skin or our airways. The volume of the microbial organisms in our bodies is about the same as the volume of our brain, and the metabolic activity of those microbes is about equivalent to that of our liver…we are not anatomically individuals at all.
(The) alleged genetic basis of individuality is scientifically wrong. The symbionts (non-genetically human micro-organisms in the human body) are another mode of (our) inheritance. Indeed, while humans have about 22,000 different genes, the bacteria in us bring approximately 8 million more genes to the scene. We get our symbionts primarily by infection from the mother as we pass through the birth canal after the amnion breaks. These bacteria are supplemented by those from the mother’s skin and from the environment.
Thus our life is interwoven with, and dependent on, many more non-human than human genetic offspring. Scott concludes that we are not individuals by any biological, physiological, developmental, genetic, or evolutionary criteria. As he puts it: “Symbiosis is the strategy that supports life on earth… it is the way of life on earth.”
From believing that we are single, unitary, independent beings, we view the world as for or against us. From clinging to our survival, to the survival of our world, and adhering to the specific concepts believed to support them, come all the fears of those who wage aggressive war, and the pitiful terrors of those who are war’s victims. From this single source comes the predatory search for wealth, the sufferings of poverty, the longings of passion, and the ceaseless dissatisfactions of restlessness.
And with these emotional states comes the logic devoted to their perpetuation. Thus our inner lives become circumscribed by the vicious defensive logic of warfare, the economic logic of need, the lonely logic of relationships, the calculating logic of ambition. And we live a life of anxiety and confusion as we try to find our way amid the competing claims and conflicts of these logics.
Caught by anxiety about our own future, we only appreciate those beings, things, and expressions which further our version of survival. The rest of the world seems shadowy, threatening, or possibly helpful, depending on its congruence with our own conceptions.
We can regard other beings only according to whatever logic we have adopted as necessary to our happiness. Thus we come to believe that the world is populated with beings whose view of life is inimical to us, and with a far smaller group whose explicit goals and aspirations we share. We evaluate all the world around us in this way. We judge rain, sunlight, wind, and stones according to their utility in our scheme of things.
Such an outlook is not so much a departure from the spontaneous expanse of great compassion as an attempt to limit it. The sufferings we experience, and those we cause, all arise from the effort to reduce and categorize the overwhelming diversity of experience into the single framework of our own survival and posterity.
In a glimpse of the vastness and depth of the great compassion without reference point, we see mirrored the terrible and ferocious pettiness which has masqueraded as individual grandiosity and reasonableness. We see our own inescapable craven clinging. We see how we and all others are prisoners of our own individuality. We may have some choice in whether to perpetuate this condition, but we did not choose or create this delusory clinging in the first place.
In the Avatamsaka Sutra, it is said:
Vast and small,
One body, countless lands;
One land, countless bodies.
Comprehend their becoming and decay
Of the numberless lands
Of past, present, and future.
Of all the worlds in the ten directions,
Some are forming, some decaying:
Infinite though they be,
The truly compassionate comprehend them all.
In any given instant, no matter what our own individual suffering, if we sit still and look around us, it is evident that we are always the recipients of an infinite array of manmade and natural phenomena. We may glimpse the limitless compassion which is itself spontaneous, unfabricated, free from concepts or views of any kind. We have the solidity of earth within and below our bodies; we have the cooling clarity of water; we have the warmth of fire and the movement of wind; we have an infinity of space articulated as sky or imagination. We have the perceptions of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, all as vivid as a shimmering rainbow of light. We have unending primordial awareness. And through all the realms of life and death, there is the ceaseless pulse of life force.
We have no existence apart from this array, nor are we independent from the ways of thinking, feeling, and knowing about our world, which have been developed by countless others before us. We carry out our daily lives in reliance on language evolved and wisdom discovered by others, inspiration fostered by others, laws enacted by others, information, opinions, and expressions derived from others, art created by others, technologies created by others, machines and houses made by others, energy produced by others, and food grown by others. There has never been a minute in our lives in which we have not relied on the efforts of many other people. We cannot exist independent of the lives of millions of viruses, microscopic organisms, molds, plants, insects, fish, reptiles, animals.
Nor is it possible to act in such a way that others are not influenced or affected by what we do. On a purely psychological level, even our most private thoughts and feelings inevitably influence our outer moods and our behavior. Sadness hangs in the air; private irritation turns into a more general atmosphere of tension; enthusiasm is infectious. However we are stirred up moves the air around us, touches even strangers. When we see a dog stretch in the sun, an old man stumble, a child lose her temper, or lovers touch, we too are moved, and we carry that movement into whatever comes next.
And when it comes to our standards of living which we long ago took for granted, it is now all too clear that the material bases for our daily life, from computers to toothbrushes, have a huge impact on the planet. Our food, clothes, transportation, housing, information, all are supported by a network of energy usages that cannot be sustained. The environment may already be so compromised that it will not support a similar life for our children and children’s children.
Thus, regardless of whether we are kind or ruthless, selfish or generous, we live in an immeasurable ocean of phenomena that arise from our interdependence with an inconceivable range of other phenomena. We might wish to have individual autonomy and to be independent of the world we find ourselves in, but this is not in any way realistic.
When we open our hearts and rest in the free expanse of what is given in our lives, we meet the vast mind of primordial compassion which goes far beyond any individual preoccupation, belief, or fear. All our unique and individual efforts are simply part of this endless and anonymous outpouring. We sense our unconditional linkage with this world, and with all who dwell and have dwelt here. Complete openness in this way is the experience of compassion without reference point.
Even as the expanse of great compassion is without limit, calculation, or bias, the experience of it is not necessarily comforting. Though we may recognize that we are completely reliant on this world and its history, the world will not necessarily confirm us, give us what we want, or bring everything we have striven for to a successful conclusion. Even though we may find ourselves unaccountably happy in unsought moments, still we may not be able to find meaningful work, make those who love us happy, or keep our children safe. Except momentarily, we will not be saved from death, nor will we be able to save anyone else from death.
Trungpa Rinpoche grew up and was trained in remote eastern Tibet. His principal teacher was Jamgön Kongtrül of Sechen, a hard bitten, no-nonsense mountain man. Despite his harshness, Trungpa Rinpoche had complete faith that Kongtrül was teaching him not just words, but a deeper truth. Nonetheless, there was a time when Rinpoche, who was maybe nine or 10 at the time, felt caught up in doubt and resentment. Sechen Kongtrül took him for a long walk in the mountains, and Trungpa Rinpoche went along begrudgingly. With every step he felt more wretched. Finally, Kongtrül stopped and they rested. Trungpa Rinpoche couldn’t let go of feeling completely and stubbornly alone. They sat for quite a while until Kongtrül turned to him. “Do you love me?” he asked.
At that, as Rinpoche later said, something broke open inside him, and he sobbed uncontrollably. He understood something that had eluded him until then. On the sole occasion when he told this story, it was to point at the unsparingly personal dimension at the heart of the entirety of Buddhist teachings.
The three aspects of compassion are actually and completely inseparable. They are not exterior to us, and thus, the teachings themselves are an expression of that love.
In the face of real suffering and continual frustration, we feel a separation which we strive to understand and justify. At the same time, we also feel, however awkwardly, a wave of deep and inescapable connectedness. At the edge of awareness, we sense that every moment of our life moves within a kind of vast, luminous pulse, uncomfortably free and freeing from all limits of any kind. Inseparable from the ever-changing dance of phenomena, it is stable. Unwavering, it arises within all the displays of temporary circumstance.
In this world where pollution, continuing isolation, uncertainty, selfishness, conflict, and fear vie in our minds with the loftiest aspirations and longing, compassion is the path which represents the innate unity of relative appearance and ultimate truth. As such, compassion is not a path which is undertaken because it leads somewhere else. It does not lead to an escape or transcendence of the world, nor does it lead to some form of worldly happiness per se. It does not require the rejection of our daily experience, nor the rejection of our yearning for ultimate reality. All that we encounter, all that we experience, is this path. Compassion is not a way of living, but is living itself.
From The Age of Waiting by Douglas Penick. Used with the permission of Arrowsmith Press. Copyright © 2021 by Douglas Penick.
Watch a conversation between Penick and James Shaheen on Jan. 24.