Compassion in Action
Tonight we will be coordinating with many events that Compassionate Houston is sponsoring this week in our city. For this occasion, I’ve adapted a story and a guided meditation from the book Pass It On: Five Stories That Can Change the World by Buddhist activists Joanna Macy and Norbert Gahbler.
The story that I have selected takes place in a town named Dalhousie in the Himalayan foothills of northern India, where Joanna Macy and her family visited a group of Tibetan refugees led by Khamtrul Rinpoche. The monks and laypeople had escaped from Kham in eastern Tibet, and they were struggling to combat foreign diseases and to find employment, while adjusting to living in crowded, derelict conditions. Joanna helped a Peace Corps volunteer develop an economic base to enable the refugees to stay together as a community. With some enterprising refugees, they set up a cooperative marketing scheme to produce and sell traditional Tibetan crafts.
Joanna was impressed by the resourcefulness and deep faith of the Tibetan Buddhist practitioners in the community. An English-born Tibetan nun, who founded a school to educate young Tibetan monks, allowed Joanna’s older son to attend classes. One day Joanna heard the nun teaching the boys, “So countless are all sentient beings, and so many their births throughout time, that each at some point was your mother.” The nun recommended developing compassion by viewing each person as your mother in a former lifetime.
Soon after receiving this lesson, Joanna walked down a mountain trail and encountered a low-caste laborer, bent over from carrying the heavy trunk of a cedar tree, as he slowly ascending the dirt path. Suddenly she transcended her background as a social scientist, skeptical of reincarnation theories and judgmental about oppressive economic systems. Instead, her heart trembled with compassion for this particular, precious, irreplaceable human being. She viewed him as both “My mother” and “my child.” When they passed one another on the path, she prayed that he would reach home soon and that loved ones would greet him with a nutritious meal and encouragement to rest after his labors.
Shortly afterwards, Joanna accepted an invitation to tea with Khamtrul Rinpoche and some other monks. Just before she took her first sip, a fly fell into her teacup. Noticing her reaction, an 18-year-old tulku, a reincarnated lama named Choegyal Rinpoche, asked with concern, “What is the matter?” She replied, “It’s nothing—just a fly in my tea.” She laughed to indicate that as an experienced traveler in third world countries, she was not bothered the way most foreign tourists are by insects or unsanitary conditions. The young monk leaned forward and gently plucked the fly from her cup, leaving the room with the wet insect. When he returned, Choegyal Rinpoche reported happily, “The fly will be all right.” He described to Joanna and the monks at the tea party how he had placed the fly on a leaf of a branch by the door so that his wings could dry. The monks were delighted that the fly was still alive, because he had fanned his wings.
The pleasure on Choegyal Rinpoche’s face showed Joanna Macy the benefit of extending compassion to all beings, including flies. Afterwards, Joanna urged the reluctant young tulku to share stories about how Chinese oppressors had tortured and murdered monks in the once great monastery of Dugu in eastern Tibet. His response was, “Poor Chinese, they make such bad karma for themselves.” His tears of compassion were not for himself or for his fellow monks, but for those who had destroyed his monastery. At that moment, Joanna realized that although she could not herself emulate that high level of compassion, she had recognized the human capacity for it. She tells this story to inspire others to share that recognition.
What follows is an adaptation of a heart-opening practice from Joanna Macy’s book:
Sit comfortably with eyes closed and breathe into the area of your heart.
Now bring to mind someone whom you love dearly. Either sense the presence or visualize the face of the loved one you have chosen. Silently say the name of that person. Remember how this person has experienced moments of joy and times of sorrow. Sense a current of compassion flowing from your heart to theirs. Connect with how much you want this beloved person to be free from fear and from greed, ill will and delusion, which are the primary causes of suffering.
Continue to focus on generating compassionate energy in your heart. Now imagine those with whom you share your daily life: family members, close friends and colleagues—the people with whom you live and work. Visualize them standing in a circle around you. Behold them, one by one, and silently say their names. Recalling that everyone has a measure of joy and sorrow, direct the flow of compassion towards each person in turnAmong those beings may be some with whom you feel uncomfortable or in conflict. With these difficult people in particular, sense your wish that they may be free from fear and the causes of suffering.
Now visualize, appearing in wider concentric circles, more distant relations and acquaintances. Let the light of compassion shine on them too. Sense how you want all those beings to be free and happy.
Beyond them, in even wider concentric circles, imagine all the people with whom you share the planet—those of all ages, genders, races, colors, ethnicities, cultures and nationalities. Although you have not met them, your lives are interconnected in mysterious ways. To all these people, direct energy from your compassionate heart, experiencing how much you want them to awaken from fear and suffering.
And opening your heart to all sentient beings, direct your sincere wish that all beings everywhere be free from fear, greed, hatred and confusion.
Now, as if you had an interstellar view of Earth, the planet we call home, watch it suspended like a blue and green jewel, illuminated by its sun and revolving in in the vast blackness of space. Approach the Earth slowly, drawing nearer, returning to this hemisphere, this country, this region, this very place, and finally seeing the person you know best of all—the one it has been given you to be in this lifetime.
Sense this person’s pain, struggles, hopes, and longing for love….Behold the face of this being—your own face—and silently say the name that you are called in love. Experience the strong energy of compassion flowing towards yourself, wishing yourself freedom from fear, greed, hatred, ignorance, confusion, and all causes of suffering. The great compassion and loving kindness linking you to all beings is now directed towards yourself. Know that fully.
Placing your hand over your heart, gently sense yourself sitting in the circle of our sangha. At your own rhythm, open your eyes with appreciation for this community of meditators whose efforts support your practice.