BV-Compassion & Parsifal

Tonight, I will be speaking about the brahma vihara of compassion or karuna and leading a guided meditation to practice this divine abode.

Two weeks ago, Mark and I had an immersive experience at the Houston Grand Opera. We were awed by John Caird’s symbolic staging of Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, which premiered in 1882. When I invited Mark to accompany me, I persuaded him that he would resonate with the classic story of the Hero’s Journey to seek the Holy Grail. Although I play recorded excerpts of Wagner’s ethereal, transcendent music in sessions of Guided Imagery and Music, I had never attended the entire opera. Mark had no idea that the opera itself would last 4 hours and 45 minutes, apart from two 20-minute intermissions.

Wagner was inspired by Eschenbach’s 13th century version of the medieval legend about Percival, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Mark and I recognized that the underlying theme of the legend is the Knight’s development of compassion and wisdom.

The plot involves a suffering king named Amfortas.  Klingsor, a lustful sorcerer, whom Amfortas had rejected as a Knight of the Round Table, took revenge by tempting the king with a beautiful woman. While Amfortas was lying in her arms, Klingsor snatched the King’s Holy Spear, which had pierced Christ’s side, and stabbed Amfortas. According to an ancient prophecy, the wound could be healed only by “an innocent youth made wise through compassion.”

Parsifal’s entry is anything but compassionate. He horrifies the Knights by shooting an arrow at a beautiful swan and killing her. After Knight Gurnemanz reprimands him for this vile deed, Parsifal throws away his hand-made bow and arrows in shame but cannot explain his conduct or even state his name. A wise woman named Kundry witnesses the interaction and tells the youth’s history. Parsifal’s father died in battle and his mother reared the boy in a forest, where she sheltered him protectively from all weapons, until her own death.

Gurnemanz leads the remorseful orphaned man to the castle of the Grail, where Amfortas and his knights are preparing to celebrate the Last Supper. As wine is offered from the holy vessel, Parsifal watches uncomprehendingly. But when Amfortas cries out in agony, he is moved and seems to suffer with the King.

Holding the stolen Holy Spear in his dark tower, Klingsor plots to inherit the Grail by destroying Parsifal, whom he knows is the salvation of the Knights’ order. The sorcerer summons Kundry and transforms her into a beautiful siren to seduce the innocent youth. But when she kisses Parsifal, he recoils in pain, suddenly understanding the mystery of Amfortas’s wound and his own mission. Kundry responds by asking if Parsifal’s compassion for Amfortas can extend to her. Because she laughed at Christ on the Cross, she has been cursed to serve Klingsor against her will. When her plea is rejected, Kundry curses the boy to wander lost in the forest and calls for the sorcerer, who hurls the Holy Spear at Parsifal. Courageously, the youth catches the Spear in midair and makes the sign of the cross with it, causing Klingsor’s castle to fall into ruins.

Years later, a strange knight approaches Gurnemanz, who is now an old hermit. The former knight recognizes Parsifal, carrying the Holy Spear. The young man describes his long, cursed journey to find his way back to Amfortas and the Grail. Gurnemanz removes the tired knight’s armor, and Kundry arrives to wash his feet. In return Parsifal forgives and baptizes the aged woman, and he declares how lovely the springtime is.  Gurnemanz replies that the spell of Good Friday is renewing the whole world.

Chapel bells toll to announce the funeral of the King’s father. Solemnly, Parsifal, Kundry and Gurnemanz walk to the castle and find Amfortas begging the knights to end his anguish so that he can join his father in death. Parsifal assumes leadership and touches the weary King’s side with the Holy Spear, healing the long-festering wound. The opera ends with Parsifal accepting the homage of the Knights of the Round Table as their new king.

Inspired by this 13th century story of compassion and transformation, let us practice a guided karuna meditation adapted from one of Noah Levine’s books:

Sit comfortably and allow your attention to settle into the present-time experience of the body. Relax the eyes and jaw, softening the belly, and lowering the shoulders.

Reflect upon your deepest desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. Be aware of your heart’s longing for truth and well-being. With each breath, sense in the heart center how much you wish to be free from harm, to be safe and protected, and to experience compassion for all beings.

Slowly offer yourself compassionate phrases, with the intention of uncovering the heart’s caring responses. Let go of expecting to feel compassion instantly. Sometimes we are struck instead by our lack of compassion or by judgments of a resisting mind. Other times, the mind gets lost in stories, memories or fantasies. Simply return to the practice. Be as friendly and merciful with yourself as possible. Notice what is happening, and continue to repeat the following phrases like a mantra or a statement of positive intent.

May I care about those with suffering and confusion.

May I respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May I be filled with compassion.

Allow the mind to relax into the reverberations of each phrase. PAUSE….

Now bring to mind someone who has inspired you with their great compassion towards you or others. Recognize that just as you wish to be cared for and understood, this benefactor too wants to be met with compassion. Begin offering the benefactor compassionate phrases:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.

May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May you be filled with compassion.

Release the image or felt sense of the benefactor’s presence, and return to the sensations and emotions of the heart, breathing softly into that area.

Then bring to mind someone whom you do not know well, someone who is neutral, whom you neither love nor hate—perhaps someone you don’t know at all, a person you passed on the street or saw waiting in line at a store. Understanding that the desire for freedom from suffering is universal, begin offering that neutral person phrases of compassion:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.

May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May you be filled with compassion.

Release the image or felt sense of the neutral person, and return to the heart’s sensations and emotions.

Now extend compassion practice to include family and friends towards whom your feelings may be a mixture of love and judgment.

May you all care about those with suffering and confusion.

May you all respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May you all be filled with compassion.

After sending compassion to the mixed category, bring attention back to your breath and your heart.

Then expand the practice to include the difficult people in your life and in the world—those you have put out of your heart or those towards whom you hold resentment. Remember that all beings wish to be met with compassion—even those who act in ways that are annoying, unskillful, violent, confused, and unkind.

With an intention to free yourself from hatred, fear and ill will, allow someone who is a source of difficulty in your life to be the object of compassion practice:

May you care about those with suffering and confusion.

May you respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May you be filled with compassion.

Now slowly expand the field of compassion to all who are sitting around you, to all who live in Houston, to all those in Texas, in the USA, and in this hemisphere. Let your positive intention to meet everyone with compassion spread out in all directions everywhere.

Imagine covering the entire world with these positive thoughts. Radiate an open heart and a fearless mind to all beings, including those being born and those who are dying. With boundless and friendly attention, repeat the phrases of compassion:

May all beings care about suffering and confusion.

May all beings respond with mercy and compassion to pain.

May all beings be filled with compassion.