COMPASSION AT THE CORE
The peaceful path of compassion is at the core of all the wisdom traditions, the conduits by which grace flows into our lives. If our species is to overcome current conflicts and truly be at peace with ourselves, we must tread the compassionate path and we must do it with bone and muscle as well as heart and mind. It must be a path where service and meditation converge.
In the Summa Theologiae, the great work of St. Thomas Aquinas, he suggests just that. He defines mercy (a virtue) as “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” He describes mercy as having two aspects “affective” – or emotional – and “effective,” which is positive action.
We all have something to teach. We all have something to learn ~
People from varied traditions come to Buddhism – not to convert – but to learn the meditative skills that Buddhism teaches. Buddhists also have lessons to learn from other religions:
“…many Buddhists are interested in learning social service from Christianity. Many Christian traditions emphasize that their monks and nuns be involved in teaching, in hospital work, caring for the elderly, for orphans, and so on . . . Buddhists can learn social service from the Christians.” H.H. 14th Dalai Lama, The Buddhist View toward Other Religions
Meditative practice is central to Buddhism. Along with devotions (prayers and religious observance), action (good works) is central to Christianity and the other Abrahamic traditions, which is not to imply that there are no meditative practices or that inward practice is more important than outward action. Rather, each has its place and they are complementary. Our meditative practices enhance tranquility, ensuring that our good works are appropriate and done in the right spirit.
A compassionate heart is moved to embrace and not to judge. A compassionate hand is moved to work and to sacrifice for the greater good. Selflessness, well-seated in compassion, implies action that both materially and spiritually benefits others. The Dalai Lama and Thích Nhất Hạnh, social activists as well as spiritual leaders, are the very breath of compassion and they and the people in the organizations they lead endlessly provide selfless service and share spiritual solace with all.
Buddhism in the West is a relatively new practice. To my knowledge it is only recently that American Buddhists have organized for relief efforts with Buddhist Global Relief (BGR), which in its short life has implemented quite a number of effective projects. The main mission of BGR is hunger, not simply addressing it in its immediacy but also advocating for changes within our global food systems that will ensure social justice and ecological sustainability. BGR was started by American Buddhist monk and scholar, the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, calling attention to the “narrowly inward focus of American Buddhism” and its neglect of social engagement. Moslems, Jews, and Christians have long-standing organizations for global relief and social activism.
It is healing grace when social services are delivered on a nonsectarian basis and without the expectation of conversion. The Koran admonishes (2:257): “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”
We’re each born into a path or choose (or forego) one. Our devotion to one religion shouldn’t prevent respect for the others. Abū al-Muġīṭ Husayn Manṣūr al-Ḥallāğ (Mansur Al-Hallaj, 858-922), the Persian Sufi teacher and poet wrote from his own perspective:
“My heart has opened into every form. It is a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka’ba of the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah and the book for Koran. I practice the religion of Love. In whatever directions its caravans advance, the religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.”
Maybe we humans will come as close to peace and perfection as we can when we combine the “specialties” of Buddhism and the Abrahamic traditions ~
Compassion without meditation can result in cruelty and confusion. Compassion without action is insufficient to address concerns of the human condition.
Orthodox Christianity offers us guidelines for corporal (material) works of mercy:
- feed the hungry
- give drink to the thirsty
- clothe the naked
- house the homeless
- visit the sick
- engage in conscientious activism
- bury the dead
The guidelines for spiritual works of mercy are:
- share insight with the spiritually curious
- counsel the fearful
- provide brotherly support for those who live unwisely
- bear wrongs patiently
- forgive offenses willingly
- comfort those who are suffering
- pray (unify with the Ineffable) for the welfare of the living and the dead
In the ideal, these guidelines are not simply implemented in the privacy of our own prayers and meditations or with detachment in supporting civic and religious charities, but one-to-one in our everyday lives and in a spirit of unity. Mystical Judaism teaches us that: “Kindness gives to another. Compassion knows no other.”
There are 114 chapters in the Islamic scriptures, the Koran. Each begins with the principled: Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate). This reminds me of the classical Christian ideal expressed in the Koinḗ Greek agápē, the love of Christ or God for humankind. I suspect it is also – like agápē – a call to action: to live in harmony with the Divine and all creation, that is to live with grace and mercy.
Charity, self-control, and compassion are the central virtues of Hinduism. Ahimsa (do no harm) is part of the Hindu ideal of compassion. This implies action, not just abstinence.
Perhaps this wisdom from an unknown saint or bodhisattva provides us the best advice for our own peace of heart and our species’ survival ~
“The true happiness that man has searched for since the dawn of time, that inner gold that awaits any person who holds compassionately the key of generosity: Do something for your fellow-man … and you shall truly have the gold.”
Gratitude is compassion’s fulcrum ~
“The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.” H.H. 14th Dalai Lama
Gratitude is also the emotion that compels us to give back by caring compassionately for our fellow humans and providing responsible and loving stewardship of the animals who are our companions in nature and this mother earth that sustains us. This does, of course, preclude war which is a danger to all living things.
Expressing gratitude in some way to those who are kind and caring is what nurtures their gift of compassion so that the giver can continue to give and also learn to receive. The natural law of balance is then honored.
May our compassionate paths be fully human and traveled quietly, without pronouncement, conceit, sectarianism, or self-righteousness. May our compassion be a thing of the heart and mind -yes! – but also bolstered with bone and muscle and seasoned with gratitude. May all sentient beings find peace.
© 2012, essay, Jamie Dedes All rights reserved
Illustration ~ religious symbols by Rusus via Wikipedia and released into the public domain