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Every Breath We Take
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My religion is kindness.
—His Holiness the Dalai Lama
There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a Buddhist act of compassion. A genuine Buddhist practitioner would never be interested in labeling any act Buddhist, let alone one of compassion. In the Buddhist teachings, compassion is universal. Even Mother Theresa has said, "Religion has nothing to do with compassion."
And yet there is a very special flavor that the Buddhist teachings can bring to the understanding and experience of compassion, no matter what one's religious affiliation may be. It is said that the Buddha Shakyamuni himself did not suddenly achieve enlightenment from the efforts of one lifetime; rather, it was the merit accumulated from a thousand lifetimes of selfless acts that created the ground for his ultimate enlightenment. By the time he lived as a prince, and even though his father desperately wanted to shield him from the harsher realities of life, Prince Siddhartha held deep within his mindstream the desire, the passion, to achieve enlightenment for the sake of others. Indeed, his ultimate experience of enlightenment only further clarified that compassion is inseparable from the view that all life is both impermanent and yet inextricably interrelated, and that the root of all suffering is to imagine it otherwise.
Why does anyone pursue the truth of the Buddha? It was the search to understand my own personal suffering that led me to the study of meditation and the Buddhist teachings. In 1978, following the loss of my singing voice in music school, I was thrown into a deep depression and began a spiritual quest, intuitively sensing that the search for my voice and the search for the divine were the same. One weekend I found myself deep in the hill country of Texas at a meditation retreat led by ösel Tendzin, the senior-most student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan master responsible for first bringing the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. All weekend I either fell asleep or fidgeted painfully, but whenever ösel Tendzin spoke, I sat on the edge of my cushion; here was a spark like none I had ever seen. In a private interview, as we sat perched on two chairs alone in the middle of a vast meadow, he told me how to heal my voice and my spirit.
"Develop 360-degree vision," he said.
It sounded impressive, but I didn't have a clue what he was talking about until several years later when, as a music critic, I interviewed the great jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin. A daring improviser, McFerrin is known for using his voice in both playful and profound ways, in techniques drawn from deep meditative states. When I asked why it seemed that his performances were all marked by an extraordinary compassion, he told me, "I don't know why, but sometimes at the end of a concert, there's no me, no performer left; there's only an audience."
Strange as it may seem, there was something in that statement that helped me begin to understand the nature of the Buddha's compassion. More than anything, compassion as taught by the Buddha is not about a giver and receiver, an "I" and an other. In fact, the various Buddhist meditation practices taught to develop compassion are all focused on the dissolution of the abyss between that which gives and that which receives—that is to say, the dissolution of the perception of that abyss. No me, no you, only a sea of sentient beings suffering for endless eons, all looking for a way out. The Buddha says the "way out," the cure and the antidote, the medicine and the balm, lies deep within us, in the very nature of who we are.
In order to understand the nature of that suffering and the nature of liberation, the Buddha's teachings have traditionally begun with looking into oneself, into the roots of one's own anger, resentment, passion, jealousy, ignorance, and greed. At the core of human misery, the Buddha said, is our self-centeredness, our clinging to a solid frozen self that we imagine to be permanent. The practice of meditation helps awaken our awareness to this fundamental habit of clinging and allows the possibility of cutting through it. Slowly, by coming to know one's own habits of mind intimately, we can choose to be no longer imprisoned by them, and we can actually begin to work with other sentient beings as they are, without the obstacle of our own neurotic projections.
As we slowly peel away the layers of our projections and "undress" our minds, what arises in our experience, the teachings say, is something so vast, so vibrant, so healing and miraculous, so beyond concept, as to be accessible only though direct experience. For most of us, even after years of meditating, such an experience comes first only in the merest of glimpses, no longer than the blink of an eye and just as ephemeral. For fully realized masters, however, the state is all-pervasive, beyond time and space, and able to be transmitted to others who are open to it. There are no words to describe this state, except un-words, for it is the very lack of mental labeling that defines it. But what is truly extraordinary, the Buddha says, is that this state, though beyond construct, is not static but rather full of "life," the ultimate union of wisdom and compassion. In fact, this state is us and has always been us. It is our birthright and our very being's inheritance, merely obscured by our mental clouds of passion, aggression, and ignorance.
With the awakening to this quality of mind, which is called in Sanskrit bodhichitta, compassionate action takes on unlimited dimension. Loving sentiment begins to arise out of our deepest connection to all life, not from a concept or romantic illusion. Action become appropriate to the situation, without leaving any messy imprint of the "do-gooder." Generosity becomes unlimited, yet there is no danger of martyrdom or self-sacrifice for there is simply nothing to lose. Energy needed to accomplish a task becomes no different than the motivation that propels it. There are many stories of the Buddha throughout countless lifetimes giving himself body and soul to the benefit of another—for example, the time he offered his flesh and blood to a hungry tigress who needed food for her cub. But in viewing this story from the point of view of bodhichitta, we can see that the Buddha was only acting as naturally as he could, the only way he could, in total and undilutable joy.
Such selflessness, however, seems almost unattainable by normal standards, or is it? Once, in a snug, comfortable loft in New York's Soho district, I remember hearing a teaching by Kyabje Gelek Rinpoche, a vibrant Tibetan master, in which he asked what would we do if someone armed with a gun stormed in and threatened to kill us all. Most of us agreed we would probably duck under a chair at the first hint of threat. But how many of us, he asked, would actually throw ourselves in front of the gun in order to protect another? The dilemma he proposed to us seemed vaguely hypothetical until three weeks later, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, when a math teacher los this life throwing himself in front of his students in order to protect them from two gun-wielding classmates. Dave Sanders wasn't a Buddhist, as far as I know, but nothing could more symbolize the selfless courage of the Buddha's compassion than that singular act. Truly he deserves to be called what is known in the Buddhist tradition as a great Bodhisattva, one who has totally and uncompromisingly dedicated his life to saving other sentient beings. One can only imagine how deep the wish, the prayer, to be of benefit to others, must have been implanted in his heart, to have acted so swiftly, so surely, without thought. The potential to be a Bodhisattva, says the Buddha, is inside all of us.
For most people, however, the development of compassion must necessarily start small, and the various Buddhist traditions have a richness of methods to cultivate loving-kindness even in the most intransigent of beings. In the Tibetan tradition, there is a practice called Tonglen, a meditation in which you mentally inhale the suffering of other beings in the form of dark clouds or smoke, and exhale love and compassion in the form of light. In Theravadin Buddhism there is a practice called Metta, or loving-kindness, in which you extend the wish to all beings that they may be happy, well, and free from suffering.
These are emotional-spiritual exercises of the mind that must be done over and over again, especially for one's enemies, but they are powerful, for they reach far into the dark recesses of one's heart, into the very resistance of that self that clings to one's own happiness at the expense of others. In the back of this book, you will find short versions of these practices, and I urge you to try them. In a sense, they are a form of active prayer, for the more you do them, the more you will feel their effects, and the more you will cultivate not only a deeper understanding of yourself, but also the wisdom, empathy, generosity, equanimity, and patience to work with others. In essence you will lose yourself and gain the world.
More than anything, this book is about the living Buddha in all of us, and many stories shared here show the power of these practices in ways both marvelous and miraculous; I assure you they are true. In visiting patients as a hospital chaplain, in working with those suffering from catastrophic illnesses, in dealing with the everyday relationship problems of my own life, I have found these practices to be indispensable, not only in keeping my own sanity but also in developing into the kind of person who at the very least aspires to relieve the suffering of others, not cause them further grief.
Not all of us, however, are interested in standing up to snipers or running off to Bosnia to negotiate cease-fires. But even the smallest act of compassion can have enormous effect. The latest environmental theories in vogue these days recognize that even the tiniest flutter of a butterfly's wings can affect life on the other side of the planet. This book, full of stories drawn from both masters and students in many traditions of Buddhism, including Zen, Tibetan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and nondenominational, is meant to inspire by the examples of those who have taken the Buddhist teachings to heart and struggled to apply them to their daily lives. You will find stories about compassion in the workplace, on the city streets of New York, behind prison walls, in the middle of war. You will find stories about the power of meditation to transform the so-called justified anger of social protest into a shared well of understanding. You will find stories about the magical power of prayer—to heal wounds, stop bullets, to change the flow of the elements. Simply, these stories show that when the mind and heart unite in the view that the separate self we imagine ourselves to be is an illusion, anything is possible. And it is possible today, not just in the Buddha's time.
The Buddhist teachings are vast, and the greatest merit a book like this can achieve is to inspire you to delve more deeply into the traditional teachings. If the words and stories of the dedicated practitioners in this book touch your heart, I encourage you to seek out a living teacher who can bring to full life the thoughts, words, and actions of the Buddha himself. To meet an enlightened master is to be afforded the opportunity to take part in a living transmission of wisdom and compassion that has been in effect ever since Shakyamuni himself achieved enlightenment—a breathing, vibrant lineage of those dedicated without the slightest hesitation to work for the benefit of others. For Tibetans, and now for many around the world, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the epitome of the greatest Bodhisattva, and there are numerous stories in this book about personal contact with him that has changed the course of lives forever. Surely, there is nothing more contagious than pure compassion, but its power is often mysterious and one never knows exactly when seeds planted long ago in a moment of rare openness will suddenly sprout.
In 1983, while on a three-month retreat in Pennsylvania, I decided, after much consideration, to take the traditional Bodhisattva vow in ceremony with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. As was Rinpoche's habit in those days, the student would enter his study for a minute, wait nervously for his attention until he finally looked up, flashed on your essence, then retreated privately to write in beautiful calligraphy the name he had chosen for you. When I finally received my name, Compassion Dharma Lake, I was hugely disappointed. A lake did not sound so big and certainly not as glamorous and fierce as the name my friend received, something having to do with a tigress! But traditionally a Bodhisattva name is one you must earn, one that shows the qualities you must struggle with and develop in your lifetime with regard to other people. How did Trungpa Rinpoche know that even though I come from a family deeply devoted to service, I myself would spend the next twenty-seven years of my life in a constant struggle to learn how to apply compassion to every aspect of my life? So it is my deepest prayer that this book, filled with the compassionate hearts of so many, become a lake of compassion for each reader, one in which you may ultimately realize something of the Buddha's teaching and catch a glimpse, a reflection, of your own true nature. If this book sparks even the slightest awareness that life on this planet could be something other than a morass of conflict, violence, and despair, its efforts will have been well worth it. For those seeking to relieve suffering and develop the ultimate source of healing within, may this book be a boat, a bridge, a passage.
A beautiful word or thought that is not accompanied by corresponding acts is like a bright flower that bears no fruit. It would not produce any effect.
—The BuddhaCHAPTER 2
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from Victim to Liberator
I was on a meditation retreat in the south of France when a visiting master was introduced to the group. An audience of over three hundred Western students of Buddhism waited quietly for him to speak. He was about forty years old, quite tall and broad-shouldered for a Tibetan, with an enormous presence like a mountain, though he barely smiled. As he began to talk he repeatedly wiped at his draining right eye, as if something in him was constantly crying, but his voice remained strong. Soon his personal story unfolded.
For fifteen years, as a young man, this Rinpoche and his elderly master had been imprisoned inside Tibet as victims of Chinese persecution. Although he did not go into details, the conditions they had had to endure were of the roughest sort, with many days spent chained together in their dark, dirty cell. The Chinese, he said, not content with normal torture, had been determined to persecute devout Tibetans in the worst possible way by denying them the right to meditate; every time their eyes closed they were beaten. But because the Chinese did not understand that Tibetans actually meditate with their eyes open, the two were able to continue their prayers and meditations in secret. Unfortunately, as the years went by, the abuse only got worse; in fact, Rinpoche's constantly tearing eye was the result of beatings from that time. He had even had to endure the loss of his master, who died next to him one night in their cell. After many years of torture, escape from this living hell had come to seem impossible.
But then one day, out of the blue, two of the jailers addressed him directly: "What are you doing?" they said. "No matter what we do to you, no matter how we hurt you, nothing moves you." Apparently the jailers had practiced all sorts of martial arts, but they had finally met a power they didn't understand. "You know something we don't," they told him, "and because we are the jailers, we must learn it in order to become stronger than you."
So because he had no other weapon, he taught his jailers the very practice he and his master had been doing—the Tibetan meditation called Tonglen, which is the practice of breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out light. It was the same practice that many of us had been learning at this retreat with some struggle, for to actually take on the suffering of others with no sense of martyrdom or resentment is a great affront to one's ego. So, to imagine that this monk and his elderly master had found the inspiration to not only practice compassion but to teach it in the middle of hell to the very beings who were the agents of their suffering ... well, that was a level of compassion that transcends the ordinary mind.
Excerpted from the Power of Compassion by Pamela Bloom. Copyright © 2000 Pamela Bloom. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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