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Developing Compassion

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 07/27/2004
Location: Zen Hospice Project
In Topics: Emotion

Final Dharma Seminar Talk, July 27, 2004, based on the book by Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman, “Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?” Bantam Books, 2003.

Chapter entitled “Encouraging Compassion.”

I suppose what I am most interested in in this question of working with emotions is not emotions per se, but rather that we live our lives completely and accurately. And the reason I am interested in that is that I know that if we don’t live completely and accurately we suffer a lot and we make other people suffer too. I don’t want to suffer, it is too difficult, and also I don’t want to make others suffer because since I can feel my own life I can also feel the lives of others and their suffering makes me suffer too. In other words, I am not so much interested in emotion for emotion’s sake. It’s just that if you look closely you find that emotion is life and life is emotion; emotion isn’t something you can choose to be concerned with or not.

Anyway, this is how I feel and so when we take up the issue of cultivating compassion I am interested not because I think compassion is good or nice or that we ought to be compassionate as a general principle, that it is noble or feels good to be compassionate (though it is noble and does feel good) but simply because it seems to me that living in a way that reduces suffering and is therefore necessarily, as I say, a complete and accurate way to live would certainly and simply bring you to compassion. This is what Dalai Lama means in our chapter when he says that compassion is to be cultivated with a self interested perspective- in other words, not so as to be good or nice, which might in the long run be a shaky motivation, but because compassion is most practical and the best way to live – for one’s self. To be narrowly self interested and self identified is simply a very dangerous and unhappy way to live- the wider your interest and the large your sense of identity, the happier and the stronger you will be. This is just logical and experientially true. In Zen the sense is that compassion is reality itself- that reality simply is, most accurately viewed, the sharing and mixing of all things, so to be for others, and to want to benefit others, is clear and in accord with the way things are. It is not an optional ornamentation. This isn’t a faith requiring belief- it is an insight and an experience we gain through our years of practice and work on the cushion and off: when we are stuck on ourselves we suffer, the world shrinks till it chokes us off; when we are broad and expansive with our hearts we are happy, even if often we suffer on behalf of others.

Last time we spoke about emotions, moods, temperaments, and we explored our personal history with them. These concepts are mentioned again in this chapter in relation to training the mind and the heart toward more compassion. Emotions, as we have been saying, arise in response to conditions in the present and are influenced strongly by experiences from the past. The arising of a particular emotion is not our fault but it is our responsibility to meet the emotion arising now, whatever it is, with mindfulness and patience. This is how we train. We engage the mind and remain as firm and as clear as we can with what is there. Depending on how we relate to an arising emotion we will extend the emotion to a mood and that mood if repeated enough will eventually harden into a temperament and we might then be known as or think of ourselves as a cheerful or an angry or depressed person. It turns out that the physiology of the brain is constantly changing in response to reactions and experiences so we are in effect changing our brains with our habitual ways of reacting emotionally with anger or happiness or depression. This means that the reverse is also true: that training is possible, and that if we will work with emotion mindfully over time we will actually develop a different temperament, our brains will be different, our spontaneous style of feeling and being will change.

In traditional Tibetan Buddhism there are said to be three stages to this emotional training, and I would say that we work on all three all the time. They are called hearing, reflecting, and meditation, but as usual in our practice we just collapse them into one thing which maybe we call, “just keep making effort in practice.” Hearing: we try to constantly introduce into our mind things like I have been saying tonight; the necessity and simplicity and advantage of compassion. Not only for ourselves, but for our world. All human beings recognize that they are part of a larger world and I think there is a human need to feel that one is doing what one can to effect that world in a positive way. So you listen to teachings that give you this sense. So this is hearing the dharma, studying the dharma, going to talks, reading, listening to tapes, and so on. It’s a form of training; we are changing our minds, our hearts, our brains through the act of actually hearing, with a focused receptivity.

Next comes reflection- we think about what we are hearing, we relate it to our own experience so that it is not just conceptual but more personal, maybe, as in our small group discussions, we talk about it, go over it many many time, test out to see how it is actually true for us, in our own way.

Then meditation maybe has two aspects- first literally meditation practice on our cushions, which will deepen these ideas and commitments. Sometimes we work directly on compassion, with techniques like loving kindness meditation or tong len practice, and sometimes we work indirectly just through the breath or mindfulness of the body until we discover spontaneously the feeling of compassion as it naturally arises in us as our own life force. That’s the first sense of meditation practice. The second sense is meditation in action, applying our reflections and thoughts about compassion in daily living, actually being compassionate, cultivating feelings of compassion, doing acts of compassion, seeing how this really works in our own lives. This meditation practice strengthens, deepens, and makes more accurate our compassion. And so in this way over and over again, we work on a grounded and insightful sense of the teachings.

Bodhisattvas are compassionate. They have a powerful experientially based sense that compassion is the boss because compassion is the way the world actually is- even though of course there is a lot of confusion and trouble; but that too, tragically and mysteriously, is also a part of what compassion is. So in the end, in the long run, compassion always wins. Bodhisattvas know this so they are never discouraged. Sad maybe yes. But never discouraged. And as bosses they know they have to serve others humbly and to keep on doing this- they know this is the best way for they themselves to be happy and to fulfill their human destiny. In fact we all have this destiny to be compassionate, it is a fruition of our human consciousness. So bodhisattvas are always trying to figure out how to spread this teaching about compassion and how to bring more peace to the hearts of others. There are an infinite number of ways, it’s always a challenge to discover what’s appropriate, and the work will never be done.

Dogen writes about the bodhisattva’s four methods for guiding others: giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and identity action, which means acting side by side in identity with others. In this chapter Dalai Lama mention another list of four actions of a bodhisattva to help others, particularly others who are already strongly conditioned toward violence and other destructive emotions and might require stronger medicine. The four methods are peaceful speech, giving teachings or gifts, asserting power or dominance to prevent further wrong doing, and, finally, the use of compassionate wrathfulness or ferocity, where this is practical, to help the person to turn things around. This list might be interesting to think about in terms of dealing with terrorism or various lesser forms of terrorism closer to home- the recognition that sometimes drastic measures are necessary, but that these are applied with the sense that they are compassionate devices, last resorts, and that as soon as possible they will be dropped.

In any case this work of compassion is really challenging, various, and interesting, and does not always go the way we might think it should go- sweetly and nicely. In Zen, in which compassion is always the primary motivation, there is the sense that compassion is sometimes best served by sternness and a swift kick in the pants. But with kicks in the pants- as with the waging of war- one better be very careful. Probably 99 per cent of the time we employ this device we are only using the idea of fierce compassion as a cover for our confusion or self interest, either cynically justifying our willfulness, or deceiving ourselves about our true motivations. It is so easy to fool one’s self! I have seen this a lot with Zen teachers and I think we are seeing it now with our current war in Iraq, which is hard to see as an act of compassion, despite what we are told.

I had a friend years ago who told me that her father taught her, “happiness is for cows.” In other words, human beings, smart enough to know the world as it really is, should give up the notion of being happy- maybe just survive as well as possible, perhaps be good or ethical, but certainly forget about being happy. And in fact, as we learn in this chapter, scientific studies show that people who consider themselves happy very often have quite unrealistic views about themselves and the world. Clearly then the happiness we seek is different than conventional notions of happiness that depend on goals being met and pleasant experiences appearing frequently while unpleasant experiences are scarce. For us, seeing the world as it really is, and letting go of limited senses of satisfaction in favor of wider views and goals – inexhaustible views and goals- is the way to happiness.

Our world of today can be quite cynical because it is so well informed. There is very little naivete left. We know that all views are partial, no one is without bias or self interest, and no person or ideology has the answers. In such a world we practice compassion not because we have a belief about it, or because we oppose some other world view or belief, but because we know through experience that this is the best way for us to live.

® 2004, Norman Fischer