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Four Immeasurables – Compassion – Talk 3 – 2010 Series

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/20/2010
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Pali Canon

Norman speaks on Compassion, the third of the Four Immeasurables.

Compassion – Third of Four Immeasurables

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 20, 2010

Transcribed and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

Editor’s note: This talk contains guided meditations on compassion. You might consider pausing during the reading of the talk to do this practice. The pauses and bells that end certain stages are indicated in the text.

Compassion. This is the other side of mudita. Mudita is to feel other people’s joy. Compassion is to feel other people’s pain, other people’s suffering. After all the wonderful discussion of mudita, this might sound like a downer. Who wants to go out of their way to feel other people’s pain and suffering? Yuck! Nobody wants to feel pain. It’s so much nicer to feel pleasure, and then to increase our feelings of pleasure by feeling other people’s pleasure. That seems to be the natural thing in life, right? To seek some happiness and some pleasure and to avoid some unhappiness, some pain.

So compassion, in a way, at first glance, seems like a bad idea. Evolution is the seeking of thriving, well-being, positive states. Creatures seem to be programmed for that, including us. To seek for something that is unpleasant, like suffering, seems really twisted and strange. Who would want to do that? Is it a good idea? It seems unnatural in a way. And yet, when you say, “Is compassion a good idea?” most people would say, “Compassion is so wonderful. It touches my heart. It is so beautiful.” So we like compassion, even though we all understand that compassion is opening ourselves to other peoples’ pain.

So why would that be? I think the reason for it is because the feeling of compassion is so close to the feeling of love. I think we understand that these two things completely depend on each other. The idea that we could love somebody, but then if something went wrong with them, and we had a bad feeling and ignored them and wanted to get away from them – I think we are all smart enough to know that there isn’t going to be any love if that happens.

We all get it that love is something very powerful. We all want love, so we all get it that compassion is very close to love. In fact, love depends on compassion, because you can’t love someone if you’re not willing to be there with them in their suffering. Even that in itself, just being willing to feel someone’s suffering, if you care about them – that is already love, right? Compassion, in a way, even though it is associated with suffering, feels good, because it already is love.

So it’s strange. The whole way that we set things up in our mind seems not to be exactly the case because, although you know that suffering is negative, the feeling of love that you have when feeling the suffering of someone you care about is – in a different way, and a more important way – pleasant. So, oddly, love and compassion, and what’s pleasant and what’s painful, seem to be really closely associated, to the point of almost being the same thing. It’s kind of odd, when you think about it.

We have all these different words and ideas: pain, pleasure, compassion, love. We make these distinctions because we believe that thinking and feeling are characterized by opposition. Distinction and opposition are how we experience things. But the closer we look at our actual experiences, the less distinct and the less firm these different distinctions are. If we are caught by them before feeling them deeply enough and experiencing them deeply enough – by being attached to what is pleasant and being averse to or afraid of what is painful – we could really mess ourselves up. Once you get the hang of the real complexity and richness of your human experience, you realize that things are just not that simple. Self-protection and grasping pleasant feelings turn out to be bad strategies for happiness; whereas, opening up the self to all feelings – whether one’s own or those of others, pleasant as well as unpleasant – turns out to be a much richer and truer way to live. So generating compassion, which allows us to feel suffering, is a necessary practice for opening ourselves to real love and genuine happiness.

In studying the Four Unlimited Abodes, we keep coming back, over and over, to Buddha’s central insight that the difference between self and other is more a conceptual habit than an ultimate reality. It turns out, quite strangely and paradoxically, that the most selfish thing is the most altruistic thing. If you really want to be selfish about your own happiness, love everybody. That’s the way to be happy. It’s a strange thing, but that is really what it comes down to in actual experience.

Avalokiteshwara, as you all know, the speaker in the Heart Sutra, is the bodhisattva of compassion, and yet it is Avalokiteshwara who teaches us that all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They do not appear and do not disappear. Suffering and the end of suffering are empty. This is the great secret of compassion and what makes a wide and deep feeling for the suffering of other people – and for all of us collectively – sustainable. Avalokiteshwara sees the pain of the world and hears the cries of the world, and yet she remains serene, because her hearing and her vision are unimpeded by limited objects. She knows that there are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no object of sight, no object of sound – nothing to impede the free flow of love. Even suffering does not impede it. Her heart is wide open. She feels all of the suffering. But she understands that that’s okay. Everything is lightened by and sustained by emptiness. The unbearable is bearable. The pain is the love. All things are suffering, even the things that don’t look like they are. And all suffering is peace.

You could see that the near enemy of compassion is despair. You open your heart to suffering. You start looking around, and pass this person in front of you, who is suffering, and the next person and the next person and the next person, and when you look far enough, you could see a lot of suffering. And this could result in despair. But despair is not the same as compassion. I think this is what blocks our compassion: we’re afraid that if we were really to open ourselves to suffering, even the suffering of one person, even the suffering of ourselves – maybe especially the suffering of ourselves – we wouldn’t be able to stand it. We would start feeling that things are completely hopeless, and then we would be plunged into despair, depression, hopelessness, and our heads would explode. So we feel we should protect ourselves from this eventuality. Better not to think too much about people suffering. Better not to think about people being killed in Afghanistan, or the unbelievable, horrible things that go on as a matter of course, every day, in almost every country of Africa. Better not to think about that. Who knows how many ocean creatures – fish and mammals – have been harmed in this oil spill in the Gulf, that nobody seems to want to say how extensive it is? Let’s not think about it. Too much! Too much! Too much! The virtual impossibility of our ever slowing down, let alone reversing, the pace of climate change: let’s not think about it too much. Even our one friend or two friends or three friends, who are dying of cancer right now – too much. We could fall into despair easily. It could be too much for us.

So, as I always like to point out, meditation practice is extremely humbling. That’s its great virtue, I think. It is very humbling to sit there on our cushions. If we are honest about it, and if we open to what’s going on, we can’t help but notice all of our fear, all of our confusion, all of our anguish, and all of our jealousy and rage and cynicism. Everything. It’s all there. Just sit down long enough, and you see it all. At first we feel humiliated or wonder what’s wrong with us. “My practice is not going well. I should be better. I thought I was a pretty nice person before, but now I am really wondering about myself! How come I’m not any better than this?” But then it dawns on us, “Oh, this is just everybody’s ordinary, everyday stuff. This is just being human – whatever is there, good or bad.” It’s just being human. There is suffering built right into the middle of it. We’ll see that on our cushions.

This is exactly the root of compassion. As I suffer, so do all beings suffer. As all beings suffer, so do I. We all have bodies and minds. Because we have a body, we all want to be healthy and attractive and young forever, but that is not going to happen. Because we have minds and feelings, we want to be joyful and satisfied and ebullient all the time, and it’s not going to be like that. In other words, because we have bodies and minds, we have expectations and needs, and they are sometimes dashed. And sometimes unpleasant feelings will arise, and then we’re going to suffer. Of course, bad social conditions, bad physical conditions will bring on suffering; but even if there weren’t any bad social conditions, even if there weren’t any bad physical conditions, even if there wasn’t any poverty, even if everybody was really nice, there would still be suffering.

When I am willing to recognize my own suffering and understand its root causes, the natural consequence of this is compassion. I stop condemning myself, I feel compassionate for myself, and I feel compassionate for others. I see the difference between having compassion for myself and for others. It is very slight. There is really no difference at all. Compassion is the way that we connect with our own lives. It’s the way that we connect with each other. Far from being something to fear, suffering turns out to be our great human treasure. We may not like it all the time, but we know that it is necessary for us, and that it’s good for us, because it brings us closest to reality. It brings us closest to love. So it is a very good idea to generate compassion. It’s very gritty and rough, but it is very good.

Buddhadharma magazine just came in the mail. There is a whole section called “Loving Deeply, Loving More.” So I thought that for the rest of my talk, we could do some practices, and I wanted to read some things that are written here in Buddhadharma magazine. The great contemporary master of the compassion teachings in Buddhism is Pema Chodron, whose books we all know, I’m sure. So let me read you what she says about compassion. Here she’s talking about Tonglen practice, and then we will do some Tonglen practices, and a few other practices, all for the purpose of generating and understanding compassion a little better.

So here is what she says in this current issue of the Buddhadharma magazine:

In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves. In particular, to care about other people who are angry, fearful, jealous, overcome by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean – you name it. To have compassion and care for these people means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves. In fact, one’s whole attitude toward pain can change. Instead of fending it off and hiding from it, one can open one’s heart and allow oneself to feel that pain, feel it as something that will soften and purify us, and make us far more loving and kind.

Tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering – ours and that which is all around us, everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.

We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person whom we know to be hurting and whom we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. And then as you breathe out, you send out happiness, joy, or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in others’ pain, so that they can have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.

However, we often cannot do this, because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, our own anger, or whatever our personal pain, or our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment. So at that point in the practice, you should change the focus and begin to do Tonglen for what you are feeling – your resistance to your practice of Tonglen. Do Tonglen with that resistance! And also for yourself, and the millions of others who – just like you – are feeling the same stuckness and the same misery.

So, in other words, “I can’t do this; this is too hard,” doesn’t make any sense. If you can’t do this because it is too hard, you breathe in, “I can’t do this; this is too hard,” with compassion, and you remember at that moment that many others are also feeling that way. You breathe in for yourself and them, and then you breathe out relief.

So you breathe it in for all the people caught with that emotion, and you send out relief for whatever opens up the space for yourself and all these countless others. Maybe you can’t name what you are feeling, but you can feel it. A tightness in the stomach, a heavy darkness – whatever. Just contact what you are feeling and breathe in, take it in for all of us, and send out relief for all of us.

So let’s practice this for a bit, if you will. We’ve done this before, but I don’t think we have exhausted it so far. So let’s begin with someone we know who is sick. Many of our sangha members are ill right now. I can think of several that I want to practice with. Think of someone who is really in need of compassion, in need of support. Whether physically ill, or some pain or anguish. Imagine the person. The next time you breathe in, physically breathe in their suffering – their anguish, their pain, their disease, even – as a dark, smoky substance that comes in through your nostrils and all the pores of your body. Bring it in through your breath, and through the power of the Buddha-nature that pervades your body, transform it, so that when you breathe out, you are able to breathe out light and ease and relief and relaxation and acceptance. It just flows out of you toward the person. Let’s keep practicing with that person, breathing in darkness, and breathing out light.


If there is more than one, you can go from one person to another. And, as Pema says, if you feel some resistance when you do this, some fear, then breathe that in. Breathe in not only your own fear and resistance, but the fear and resistance that beings all over the world are feeling in this very moment, just as you’re feeling. Breathe in the dark smoke and feel this light, easeful acceptance, flowing out in all directions. All around.


Now let us practice with all of us sitting in the room, breathing in the suffering of each other, breathing out ease and relief. Whatever unfulfilled hopes, whatever wounds, whatever fears, breathe it all in, breathing out healing and relief.


And then let’s extend that through the walls of the building, the ceiling, the floor, so that our awareness takes in all the beings everywhere – in all directions, above, below, and all around, without limit. Whatever anguish, whatever pain, whatever illness – breathing in all the suffering as a dark substance, transforming it into light and ease and compassion. Sending the exhale into limitless space, in all directions, coming out of every pore of our bodies. If this seems too hard to do, and we feel frightened and just can’t do it, then breathe in that limitation for ourselves and for everyone else who feels it. Breathing out healing and acceptance of it.


Now following the sequence that we have been doing, think of someone who is difficult for you, someone with whom your human relations are stuck or fractured or not happy. Maybe someone who has hurt you. It could be someone now, or it could be someone long ago. Recognize that whatever this person’s actions or character, it all comes as a result of suffering. So allow yourself to breathe in that person’s suffering, a dark suffering, and breathe out ease and relief. If there is limitation or resistance, breathe that in. Just continue to practice.


Now let’s practice with ourselves. Breathe in your own pain – your physical pain, your emotional pain, your longing, your anguish, your wounds. Can you actually breathe them in and say, “Yes, I will actually take this in”? Transform it in your body and breathe out ease and lightness and relief and healing for yourself.


One more practice. This one is elaborate and hard to do, maybe. It’s a Tibetan Buddhist practice of generating compassion, and it involves a lot of visualization, which I find very hard to do. Maybe some of you are used to it. So what I will do is I will slowly read to you the steps that you are supposed to be visualizing. If you can do that, then do it. If not, then just listen, and do the best you can. It is very beautiful. This is from Alan Wallace’s book, The Four Unlimiteds, in his compassion chapter:

Begin with your motivation that you would really like to alleviate the suffering of others. That is really the effort you are making in your practice, to practice in such a way that you find happiness yourself and do that by alleviating the suffering of others. That’s your motivation for your practice in general and this practice in particular.

Imagine, now, that you are seeing in front of you, in your mind’s eye, Avalokiteshwara full of light and joyful. Imagine Avalokiteshwara in front of you, and she is looking at you with warmth and affection and love. She is the embodiment of the compassion that you would like to feel. The mantra associated with Avalokiteshwara is Om Mani Padme Hum, which means the jewel of awakening is right there, the lotus that grows out of the mud of suffering. Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum.

As you repeat that mantra – maybe you are seeing it somehow inside – you imagine a cascade of light coming out of Avalokiteshwara’s head. It flows and arcs over and goes inside your head. It flows down your body, and your whole body is saturated, every cell of your body, Now, very politely, you ask Avalokiteshwara if she wouldn’t mind shrinking down to around one inch in size, and in that size would she mind sitting on the top of your head, facing the same direction that your face is facing. You can imagine tiny, light-infused Avalokiteshwara sitting on top of your head.

Now imagine that your heart is a soft, glowing, white lotus. Invite Avalokiteshwara on top of your head to come down there inside your heart and sit inside that lotus. And she does. She sits there. Imagine a tiny, pure, radiant point of white light in Avalokiteshwara’s heart, sitting on that lotus inside of your heart. This is the light of your own Buddha-nature. And now it begins to radiate out in all directions and fills your whole body and flows out of your body through every pore, reaching out without limit throughout all of space and to all the beings living there. As soon as it touches every being, it removes their suffering and the source of their suffering. It touches every human being, every animal. It just keeps going around the globe, beyond this world even. The whole universe is infused with this light.

Imagine the light coming back now to your body, where Avalokiteshwara sits in your heart. Let your body dissolve into the body of Avalokiteshwara. Let the body of Avalokiteshwara dissolve into that point of light in the middle of her heart. Let this point of light dissolve into empty space. Now let the empty space resolve itself into your body again – softly glowing light, serene, and strong. Within this body, feel the movements of energy as you breathe. Then rejoin the practice just to feel your breath.

Could you do that? It’s nice, isn’t it?

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