I was walking with an old friend yesterday evening on the beautiful beach at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre in the English Lake District, discussing how we could improve our compassion. We have to get ourselves more and more out of the way, for sure, and train in the time-honored Buddhist methods for improving our love and compassion. And we can just take a genuine interest in how others are — entering into their worlds empathetically without fear, finding out what is going on for them, somehow, even simply by asking them when we can. We can actively want them to be free from any problems they may be having, and from all the pains queuing up endlessly for them in samsara. We can practice this again and again (and again) until it takes.
My friend and I also discussed the helpfulness of watching documentaries or movies that bring others’ lives home to us, for example Earthlings, a documentary I confess I have so far been too squeamish to watch.* But, a question for you, can we shy away from looking at unbearable suffering if we are to develop the compassionate wish to free those people from that suffering? Thinking “I can’t bear to watch this” is not necessarily what is meant by “unbearable compassion” for the suffering of others.
*Update: I have now watched it and wrote an article about it here.
What could be more fun?!
I could think of a lot of things, but I still gingerly clicked on the link and spent a few relatively, I suppose, fun minutes watching some brown bears loll around in the river while silvery salmon jumped upstream. Could almost have been an idyllic scene, until one brown bear suddenly yanked a salmon from the water with its huge claws. The fish thrashed around in terror while the bear carried it in its mouth to a nearby rock. Then he tore a strip of flesh from its side. I gasped, as this was being shown live, and the salmon did not die – she carried on thrashing around in agony, bleeding. And there was nothing I could do.
Thirsty man’s wish for water
This line has struck me recently, even though I’ve read it many times:
If we train in taking and giving for a long time, our love and compassion will become very powerful and our wish to free others from suffering will be as strong as a thirsty man’s wish for water. ~ Great Treasury of Merit
Imagine having that urgent wish to free others from their suffering. It would do two things, it seems to me:
- It would drive all other deluded thoughts out of my mind. There would be no room for them. If you’re desperate for water, it’s all you can think about.
- It would mean that nothing stops me from trying to help others. This is a short thought away from thinking, but how? I need to get into a position where I can help others, ie, I need to attain enlightenment.
The stronger our wish to free others, the stronger our efforts, and the quicker the results. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra Geshe Kelsang says that in general Highest Yoga Tantra is known as the quick path to enlightenment, but in the Sutras compassion observing all living beings is explained as the quick path:
If we have this mind, then through its power we will never waste a single moment, but draw closer and closer to the attainment of enlightenment every moment of the day and the night.
Taking and giving
So, judging by the quote above, the so-called “magical practice” of taking and giving seems to be the way to get here. There is a lot that can be said about this practice and you can read all about it all over the place, including in Transform Your Life and the free eBook Modern Buddhism. But taking basically involves taking away others suffering in the form of smoke that dissolves into our heart and destroys our self-cherishing. And giving basically involves imagining giving others whatever they want, which bestows upon them endless, pure happiness.
Taking and giving has, when I last totted it up, at least 22 pretty amazing benefits, including obvious ones such as increasing our love and compassion, and slightly less obvious ones such as increasing our concentration and purifying our mind. And once we are used to doing it in meditation, we can then “mount taking and giving upon the breath”, which means breathing in others’ suffering and breathing out pure happiness – all as we wander about doing the regular things we do. There is then not a breath that need be wasted. Our whole life becomes meaningful. We feel incredible ourselves, and we become a walking, talking, breathing source of comfort and happiness for others, like Je Tsongkhapa, of whom his disciples said:
O Protector, even your daily breath brings benefit to countless beings.
Don’t take my word for it — do read all about this practice in the various books as soon as you get a spare moment.
To develop the motivation of going for enlightenment, the force of our compassion needs to grow until it becomes so-called “superior intention”. An analogy for this is given in the scriptures:
If we see a child fall into a river we will naturally want the child to be saved, but the child’s mother will wish so strongly that she will decide to act to save the child herself. ~ Great Treasury of Merit
Everyone standing on the bank (well, hopefully everyone) wants that child to be saved, but the mother jumps in after him. If we have superior intention we don’t plan on leaving it up to someone else, we take personal responsibility — we can’t help but take personal responsibility due to the force of our compassion. If my compassion for that agonized fish was strong enough, and I was close by, I would be compelled to help her if I could. And if I couldn’t, my wish to get into a stronger position to help her (and the bear) would grow naturally.
Superior intention leads to bodhichitta, which is the wish to free all others from suffering by developing all the qualities needed to do so, such as the requisite skill, omniscient wisdom, and freedom from limitations and faults.
Become their Buddha
So why, someone asked the other day, do WE need to become enlightened — why can’t all the other Buddhas take care of the suffering of that fish and everyone else? After all they are already enlightened and have all the qualities needed to protect all living beings — isn’t that the whole point of becoming enlightened!?
What do you think about that? To me, it seems to be a question of timing – for others to be freed sooner rather than later. The ability to help others directly and practically — for example by removing them from suffering situations or teaching them — depends on karmic connections. It is a two-way street, a dependent relationship – we need a connection with an enlightened being from our side, too, to receive the full force of their help.
So, all the Buddhas want to help that brown bear and that fish, for example, not to mention my family etc; and they bless everyone’s mind every day. But I share some karmic two-way street with these particular living beings, meaning that I will be able to help them directly and soon, if I attain enlightenment.
We can strengthen our connections every day with a lot of living beings through love and compassion, through taking and giving, through prayer. Which means that one day, as a monk friend put it so beautifully, we will become “their Buddha”.
Over to you, comments welcome.