By Devadatta Kali Jaya
Devadatta Kali Jaya (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti.
The article below was given as a lecture in the Hollywood Vedanta Temple on May 11, 2008 and the Trabuco Ramakrishna Monastery on June 1, 2008.
This morning’s topic is “Bodhisattva of Compassion.” During the month of May, on the full moon day, it is customary in our Vedanta Societies to celebrate Buddha Purnima. This immensely sacred day, known to Buddhists as Vaisak, is considered thrice-blessed, for it commemorates the birth of the Buddha, his enlightenment, and his departure from this world, three pivotal events in human history.
Originally I intended to give a brief account of Buddhism’s origin and a few of its basic teachings as a background, then to explain who the bodhisattva of compassion is and to explore how any of this can be put to practical use in our own lives. The more I learned about the bodhisattva of compassion and the more I tried to make sense of the enormously disparate information, a tension began to emerge between the popular religion of the masses and the inward quest of the spiritual aspirant. The facts seemed to lead in an unintended direction. Certainly since unity is, in one form or another, the goal of all religious and philosophical endeavor, this presented a challenge. Further reflection led to the idea of integrating faith, philosophy, and action into an all-embracing spiritual process. That, it turns out, is the underlying idea of everything you will hear this morning.
Most of you are probably familiar with how Buddhism came to be founded. We cannot be sure of the actual facts, and the story as it has been handed down is more legendary than historical. Nevertheless the founder of Buddhism was a flesh-and-blood human being, and his story, however artfully it is presented, reflects overall the outward conditions of the times as well as the inner psychological and spiritual forces that shaped a new religion.
According to tradition, Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in the year 563 bce in the kingdom of Kapilavastu at the foot of the Himalayas. Because his father was the chieftain or king of a warlike tribe, the Sakyas, he was born to an immensely privileged and luxurious life. Destined to inherit a throne, Prince Siddhartha seemed to have everything in his favor. But here the narrative takes on a fairytale quality. When his father summoned fortunetellers to predict what the future would hold for the newborn prince, they foretold that his life would go in one of two directions. Either he would unify all the petty kingdoms of India and become a world conqueror, or he would renounce the world and become a world redeemer. The king, wanting his son to be a conqueror, devised a plan to insure that nothing would get in the way. He went to great pains to give his son a life of hedonistic enjoyment, where nothing unpleasant was ever allowed to intrude. On those rare occasions when Siddhartha left the palace and ventured into the surrounding world, runners went ahead to clear the way of anything that might be disturbing to the young prince. Of course, it is difficult to keep up a deception forever, and one day the orders were not carried out properly. Siddhartha caught his first glimpse of something unimaginable: an emaciated, broken-toothed man, bent over with age, leaning on a staff and trembling. On another day he saw a second disturbing sight, a person whose body was ravaged by disease, lying by the side of the road. On a third occasion he witnessed a corpse being carried away. Having encountered old age, illness, and death for the first time in his twenty-nine years, he was devastated. Then, on a fourth outing Siddhartha beheld someone who moved serenely through the crowd of suffering humanity. Who was that, and what made him different? He was a monk, ochre-clad, shaven-headed, and carrying a begging bowl.
You can image the impact that this dramatic turn of events had on the mind of the young prince. Returning to the palace, he could not stop thinking about what he had seen. Vowing to find the inner serenity that took one beyond suffering, he quietly slipped away one night and embarked on a search for enlightenment. First he sought out two of the foremost yogins of the day and under their guidance reached deep states of meditation—but not deep enough. He left them to join a band of wandering sadhus and practiced austerities so severe that they almost killed him. In his life he had now known the extremes of indulgence and denial but found that neither led to lasting satisfaction or peace. He deduced that there must be a middle way. On the full moon night of the month of Vaisak, he sat down under a bodhi tree and resolved not to move from the spot until he knew the truth. It was a night destined to change the course of human history, for when the morning star appeared in the sky, he was no longer Prince Siddhartha. From then on he would be known as the Buddha, “the awakened one.” From then until his death at the age of eighty, he taught others that what he had experienced, they too could experience. A new religion had been born.
Because any religion is a living organism, its natural tendency is not to remain static or monolithic. As a religion grows and reaches more people and acquires ever more avenues of transmission, it splits into diverging lines, each with its own subtle distinctions that reflect the personalities of those who teach it and the needs of those who hear it. As a religion reaches into new territories, its teachings and practices become colored by the customs and cultures and beliefs that already prevail in those places. As Buddhism spread from India into Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia, as well as into Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, in all those lands to the north, south, east, and west, it took on many different aspects and forms.
Today the major division in Buddhism is more or less geographical and ideological. The Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia is sometimes called the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, but its adherents prefer the term Theravada, meaning “the teaching of the Elders.” They claim it is close to the Buddha’s original doctrine. The Buddhism of China, Korea, and Japan is known as the Mahayana, or the Greater Vehicle. This began to develop four or five hundred years after the Buddha’s lifetime. One of its divisions, the Vajrayana, is mostly associated with Tibet but practiced also in Mongolia and Japan. The Buddhism of Vietnam is a blend of Theravada and Mahayana.
All forms of Buddhism are built around the core of teachings that are the historical Buddha’s legacy, but each of the many sects has added its own interpretations and elaborations. A major difference between the Theravada and the Mahayana has to do with the goal of enlightenment. The Theravada emphasizes the individual’s quest for nirvana, which leads to the end of suffering—what we would call liberation. A practitioner endeavors to became an arhat, one who is worthy of nirvana, and then enters that blissful state. In a sense it is possible to think of Theravada Buddhism somewhat in terms of Samkhya-Yoga or jnana yoga. The goal according to Samkhya-Yoga is release from suffering; according to jnana yoga it is knowledge of Brahman or Self-realization. Like Samkhya, Theravada Buddhism is a rationalistic, nontheistic system that emphasizes the observation and management of one’s own awareness. The Buddha is not a god, but a human being who attained the highest knowledge and became known as the Awakened One.
Mahayana Buddhism is equally concerned with enlightenment and the release from suffering, of course, but it has made the Buddha into a godlike figure among a host of other superhuman beings. Not surprisingly then, the ideas of devotion, faith, and grace also are present in the Mahayana sects. In that regard Mahayana Buddhism has something in common with the Hindu path of bhakti yoga or even with the Christian idea of salvation through faith.
When we Vedantins speak of the Buddha, we tend to think of the historical figure, Siddhartha Gautama, prince of the Sakya clan, also known as Sakyamuni Buddha. But as Buddhist doctrine developed and grew increasingly elaborate, he came to be recognized as one of many Buddhas, past and future. Each one has the mission of taking humanity beyond suffering, and each does so in a specific way. This idea of past and future Buddhas developed in all branches of the religion.
One of the most important and popular of the Buddhas in the Mahayana tradition is Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, who symbolizes compassion and wisdom. According to tradition, Amitabha was a king who was moved by Buddhist teaching to renounce his throne and become a monk named Dharmakara. He vowed that after attaining buddhahood he would sustain all beings on their path to enlightenment.
Along with multiple Buddhas, a related concept that developed in the Mahayana tradition is that of the bodhisattva. The word means “one whose essence is perfect knowledge.” In contrast to the arhat of Theravada Buddhism, whose goal is his own release from samsara, a bodhisattva is a soul that has postponed its own attainment of nirvana in order to help other living beings reach that same goal. This idea goes back to the full moon night in May when Siddhartha Gautama struggled for enlightenment under the bodhi tree. During those long hours he faced every sort of temptation linked to worldly power, but his final test was whether to pass into the bliss of nirvana or to remain in the world and show others the way. Only the greatest of souls could resist the temptation of timeless beatitude and have the strength and the love to put the welfare of others before his own. Thinking of humanity, Siddhartha thought, “There will be some who will understand.” That thought put the final temptation to flight and established the foundation for the bodhisattva ideal. Following the example of Sakyamuni Buddha himself, a bodhisattva is a living being committed to the awakening of others.
Just as there came to be many Buddhas, there eventually came to be many bodhisattvas, and among them there is probably none that is so widely known and so widely loved as Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Through this virtue of compassion he is closely linked to Amitabha Buddha and is considered his manifestation. At the risk of putting a Hindu spin on Buddhist doctrine, I’ll say that one way to understand their relationship is to think of the bodhisattva as the sakti, the manifest power, of the Buddha. It is through the loving Avalokitesvara that the quality of compassionate mercy is available to everyone who calls on him, for his name is generally taken to indicate something like “the lord who looks upon suffering humanity,” or “the lord who hears the outcries of the world.” Because he represents limitless compassion, he is sometimes also called Mahakaruna, “he whose compassion is great.”
We first hear of Avalokitesvara in the Indian sutras, where he is said to have emerged from a beam of light that issued from Amitabha Buddha’s right eye. Immediately upon materializing, this celestial being intoned the mantra Om mani padme hum, and it is by this same mantra that any soul in distress can call upon him for help and be assured of rescue.
Because in Indian tradition name and form go hand in hand, Avalokitesvara has his own iconography. There are thirty-three different ways in which he is represented, having varying numbers of heads and arms and objects held, all symbolic of some spiritual principle. Often he holds a blue lotus blossom, signifying purity; a mala, symbolizing knowledge and devotion; and a vase of nectar, symbolizing bliss. Sometimes he has a thousand arms, with an eye on the palm of each hand to indicate that he is all-seeing and ever ready to reach out in all directions to help anyone in distress. Another form is the eleven-headed one, known as Ekadasamukha Avaloki-tesvara. The eleven heads consist of his own, crowned by three triads of bodhisattva heads, each triad representing the powers of compassion for living beings, of righteous wrath against evil, and of joy concerning good. Finally, this pyramid of nine heads is topped by the head of Amitabha Buddha himself, representing the transcendental state or the buddha-nature that is the ultimate truth.
Wherever Mahayana Buddhism spread Avalokitesvara also traveled. By the first century of the Common Era, the bodhisattva of compassion was being regularly evoked in China through his mantra, Om mani padme hum. In the seventh century, when the Kashmiri monk Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism to Tibet, Avalokitesvara was quickly adopted as that country’s patron and renamed Chenrezi (sPyan-ras-gzigs), which is Tibetan for “looking with clear eyes.” In the ninth and tenth centuries Avalokitesvara also journeyed to southeast Asia, into the kingdoms of Cambodia and Champa, or present-day Vietnam.
But in China, around the tenth century, something strange happened. Nowadays, it’s something we see with increasing frequency and talk about openly. There are TV documentaries about it, activists for it, and legislation concerning it. Avalokitesvara changed his sex. In China, the male bodhisattva of compassion became a woman, known as Guanyin. The name means “hearer of cries.” From China by way of Korea, Guanyin traveled to Japan and became known there as Kannon. We do not understand exactly how this sex change came about. Some scholars propose that in the Chinese imagination the qualities of mercy and compassion were more naturally associated with the female temperament than with the male, and they offer that as an explanation for Avalokitesvara’s gender reassignment. It sounds plausible, but it’s probably a lot more complicated than that.
John Blofeld, an authority on Chinese Buddhism and a devotee of the bodhisattva of compassion, offers a more nuanced explanation, one nevertheless based in part on circumstantial evidence. He proposes that the White Tara, the Tibetan deity of salvation, is the missing link. In Tibet Avalokitesvara retained his male identity, although he was renamed Chenrezi, and Tara sprang from his tears as the embodiment of compassion. In Tibet, and farther north in Mongolia, where she is also widely venerated, Tara has two functions. She rescues from present woes those who call upon her, and more profoundly she helps us to rid ourselves of the delusions that bind us to samsara. Thus, the bodhisattva of compassion is at work on two levels—as a savior in popular religion and as a guiding principle and power in a deeper, more psychologically penetrating spiritual practice.
John Blofeld observes that at first the male and female forms of Avalokitesvara and Guanyin coexisted in China. But the Chinese, he argues, prefer their deities with human characteristics, and the eleven-headed or thousand-armed forms of Indian iconography, although greatly venerated in Buddhist tradition, were just not that easy to cozy up to. In the lovely, youthful, feminine, and natural figure of Guanyin, they found someone motherly to whom they could relate. And so, eventually Avalokitesvara and Guanyin blended into one and kept the lovely female form. Still she retained the two functions of rescuing suffering humanity from present woes and of showing spiritual aspirants the way out of the delusion that binds.
In either case the bodhisattva of compassion is equally at home in the popular religion of the masses and in the inner or hidden tradition meant for the serious spiritual seeker. Before exploring this idea further, I’d like to introduce a few basic teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha.
Buddhism is often thought of as an offshoot of Hinduism, but that is not entirely correct. Historically the six orthodox philosophical schools—Nyaya-Vaiseshika, Samkhya-Yoga, and Mimamsa-Vedanta—came into being after the founding of Buddhism. In the case of Advaita Vedanta, for example, the first recognized philosopher was Gaudapada, who lived around a thousand years after the time of the Buddha. It would be more correct to say that Buddhism and modern Hinduism grew out of a common source or sources—the ancient Vedic, Brahmanical, and yogic traditions of India. While the Buddha rejected the institutionalized Brahmanical religion of his day, with its emphasis on ritual, he nevertheless imbibed copiously of the teachings and practices of the seers and yogins for whom religion was a matter of experience. There is much in Sakyamuni Buddha’s teaching that shares a common source, common views, and common practices with Hinduism, and especially with the Samkhya and Yoga darsanas. Buddhism is in that sense not a new or different religion but a particular restatement of India’s sanatana dharma.
The Buddha’s teachings were first passed along orally, as was the custom in those days. None of what he taught was written down until four or five hundred years later, and then it was first recorded in Sri Lanka in the Pali language and only later in Prakrit and Sanskrit. The Buddha himself probably spoke the Magadhi dialect of Prakrit, so none of his teachings have come down to us in the actual words he spoke. However, Magadhi is related to Sanskrit and Pali, and the Sanskrit terms familiar to us will yield fuller insight into his teaching than their usual English translations.
The religion that the Buddha established rests on a few basic principles, given in his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath near Varanasi. They are recorded in a Pali text called the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta, or in Sanskrit, the Dharmacakrapravarttanasutra (Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma). First he taught the Middle Way, the avoidance of extremes. As you will recall, from his own experience the Buddha had learned that neither excessive pleasure nor excessive mortification had any power to grant the serenity he sought.
Next, he presented what he called the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering. That, in some people’s minds, is enough to brand Buddhism as a pessimistic religion and therefore an unappealing one. We must not allow such a superficial judgment to get in our way. The Pali word for suffering is dukkha, close to the Sanskrit duhkha. The word duhkha can mean what we ordinarily think of as pain, misery, or suffering, but what it means here is something much broader. It means existential discomfort, the imperfection of our human condition. It does not mean that we are in a constant state of physical agony or mental anguish or profound unhappiness. We are not. But everything is not entirely right either. Lurking in the back of most of our minds is the thought that if this or that were different, I’d be happier, more contented, or more fulfilled than I am now. In the Buddha’s time the word duhkha also referred to a wheel that was off-center. Such a wheel creates a bumpy ride with constant ups and downs. As surely as there is the one, there follows the other. In the same way, human life bumps along. Duhkha does not mean that our existence is all suffering, but it does mean that we do not experience the uninterrupted joy and peace which remain in its absence.
Still, Buddhist doctrine does not call on us to despair. The Buddha called suffering a holy or noble truth, because it has the capacity to lead us to liberation. It is only when we are dissatisfied enough with our existence that we feel moved to do something about it.
When Prince Siddhartha studied with the foremost yogins of his time, the practices he engaged in were most likely some early form of what later crystalized into raja yoga. It was in all likelihood a highly rationalistic course and must have helped to develop the spirit of logical inquiry that is a hallmark of the Buddha’s own teaching.
Logically it follows that if there is duhkha, then duhkha must have a cause. This idea of cause and effect is, of course, fundamental to the Upanishads as a whole, so the idea was nothing new. The Second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is desire. Again, the Svetasvataropanishad tells us that desire is the cause of human existence—in happiness and in all else (sukhe-tareshu). This Upanishad does not emphasize suffering. In contrast we might say that Siddhartha’s weird upbringing led him to emphasize the duhkha part of life’s equation, or he might have been restating the Samkhya outlook, which also begins with the premise that life is duhkha and that there is a way to relieve it.
If desire is the cause of suffering, just what is desire? Again, the English word does not give the full idea. The Pali word is tanha, from the Sanskrit trishna. In one definition trishna is the thirst for life, the craving to experience our existence through the five senses and the mind, and in the Upanishads this wish originates in the divine consciousness, when Brahman says, “Let me be many; let me propagate myself.” In the Candi the divine power of consciousness is presented as the Devi, the Divine Mother, who is said to abide in all beings in the form of thirst (ya devi sarvabhuteshu trishnarupena samsthita), again to experience the creation. In Buddhism tanha is the desire that arises through the contact of the sense organs with their objects and gives rise to the resulting sense of attachment. This tanha to which the Buddha refers is the kind of desire that the individual holds for personal gratification. This is the desire that binds us to our own particular interests, and all too often those conflict with the particular interests of others and cause—you guessed it—duhkha, that vast aggregate of worldly woes.
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh points out that by desire the Buddha implied a longer list of afflictions (klesas) of which desire is merely the first-mentioned. Just as in many sutras the word eyes implies all the senses, so, he contends, desire is verbal shorthand for a whole list of pain-causing factors, such as anger, ignorance, suspicion, arrogance, and wrong views.
Just as the Second Noble Truth follows logically from the first, the third follows logically from the second. The Third Noble Truth is that there is a cessation to suffering. This was in fact, not a new teaching either. The existing Saiva sects of the time defined the spiritual goal of liberation as duhkhanta, the end of suffering. The Buddhist term is nirodha, which means “restraint” or “cessation,” and it was probably current at the time among the yoga masters. We know that several centuries later Patanjali used this very word in his classic definition of yoga as cittavrittinirodhah—the cessation of activity in the medium of consciousness (Yogasutra 1.2).
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests another take on understanding the Third Noble Truth. Instead of thinking of it as the cessation of suffering (duhkhanirodha), we can express it positively as well-being. Interestingly there is a Sanskrit word that does just that. It is sukha. Although it is usually translated as “enjoyment” or “pleasure” or “happiness,” its full meaning is something like existential well-being. The idea is to reach a state of transcendental joy independent of any circumstances or conditions. Here Thich Nhat Hanh brings up another basic Buddhist idea, that of mindfulness. He explains that mindfulness is appreciating the well-being that is already present; the alternative is forgetfulness, a state of mind distressed by thoughts of past and future, in other words, our ordinary state of distraction.
The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a way that leads to the cessation of suffering. That way is the Noble Eightfold Path, the aryashtangikamarga.
The Noble Eightfold Path consists of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. A detailed explanation of these lies beyond this morning’s scope. However, it must be made clear that in the Buddhist context right does not imply a moral judgment, even though Buddhism calls on its followers to live up to the highest moral and ethical standards. The point is that Sakyamuni Buddha did not engage in philosophical discussions of right and wrong. Rather, by right he meant that which is helpful in ending suffering and by wrong he meant that which is not helpful. The Noble Eightfold Path sets out the ways to apply this principle of rightness in our attitudes, our thought processes, our communications, our worldly activities, and our spiritual practices. In essence, this path is an all-embracing yoga and a matter of simple practicality.
We have already touched on the fact that there is a gulf, sometimes a wide gulf, between the popular religion of the masses and the esoteric teachings meant for the serious spiritual practitioner. That is true worldwide in every religious tradition. The beauty of Avalokitesvara or Guanyin is his or her ability to bridge that divide. In the Buddhist world the bodhisattva of compassion has universal appeal and relevance. In China for example, the folk tradition abounds in fanciful stories of Guanyin and her unconditional grace. There are many tales of her miraculous and merciful intervention in human affairs to rescue people from present difficulties. These are lovely stories that appeal to the popular imagination even while embodying deeper spiritual truths. We find similar miraculous tales in every culture the world over. Such stories sprang up around the Virgin Mary throughout medieval Europe and were disseminated by the hundreds through the songs of the troubadors.
Popular traditions are not a mere palliative, however, and we must not dismiss them as superstition or wishful thinking as Karl Marx did when he condemned religion as “the opiate of the people.” There are simply too many stories from every part of the world involving some sort of unexplainable providence to dismiss them as fantasy. You may have had something like that happen in your own life, or you may know someone who has. Such stories of the miraculous may not appeal to your rational nature, but how can you deny your own experience? Would it not be better to leave our rational minds open to a wider range of possibilities?
A clear way of reconciling this comes from the philosophical teaching of the nondual Saivism of Kashmir, which says that there is one reality, and that is consciousness, what Vedanta calls Brahman. Whatever you choose to call it, the divine consciousness expresses itself as this universe through its own powers of will (icchasakti), knowledge (jnanasakti), and action (kriyasakti). Those same infinite, divine powers are manifest in each of us in a limited way as the abilities to feel, to think, and to act. Obviously, the miraculous tales of Guanyin’s merciful intervention in human affairs appeals to our feelings. And obviously, our ability to think causes us to seek a rational explanation that will satisfy that facet of our awareness. Since feeling and thinking are both essential to who and what we are, it would be unwise to embrace one at the expense of the other.
Accordingly the esoteric tradition, meaning the one that is hidden except from those who can properly understand it, coexists with popular religion all over the world. When we appeal to the bodhisattva for help in ridding ourselves of the delusion that binds us to this ever-turning wheel of samsara, we are thinking in terms of the inner tradition. From this point of view, the form of Avalokitesvara or Chenrezi or Guanyin is not a supernatural savior but the power of our own awareneness to awaken to the reality of who we truly are. Vedanta calls this paramatman; Buddhism speaks of the buddha-nature.
Avalokitesvara is both the embodiment of compassion in the popular imagination and the power of compassion within our own awareness in the esoteric sense. The ultimate act of compassion is, of course, to lead another to enlightenment, for in the Buddhist view suffering ceases completely only in nirvana. Avalokitesvara’s unconditional mercy is inextricably linked to enlightenment. We find this highest truth in a text known as the Mahaprajnaparamitahridayasutra (The Heart Sutra of Perfect Wisdom). It is a short but highly concentrated text that gives the supreme Buddhist message through the lips of Avalokitesvara himself. And what is that? It is the realization of the highest nonduality—what Vedanta calls nirvikalpa samadhi, consciousness free of all vikalpa or conceptual thought. Summed up briefly, this eloquent sutra says that there is neither form nor void but only sameness; there is neither ignorance nor the extinction of ignorance, neither suffering nor its cause nor its remedy; there is no attainment for there is nothing to be attained; being free from the hindrances of mind, one is enlightened. Then Avalokitesvara concludes: “Thus we know that the highest wisdom is a great and holy mantra, a great mantra of knowledge, unsurpassed and unequaled. Truly and unfailingly it can end all suffering. Therefore utter this mantra of highest wisdom: Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha (Gone, gone, gone beyond, utterly gone beyond! Enlightenment! Svaha!)
That, of course, is setting our sights very high, in fact to the very highest goal of nondual realization. That goal may seem far off, but let’s remember that the original teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha is highly practical. We all need to start just where we are. Where else could we possibly begin?
In the here and now, whatever our level of understanding and ability, we can appeal to the ideal of Avalokitesvara, of our own embodied compassion. Let that serve as a practical inspiration and guide in our spiritual journey. We can begin by merely thinking of the bodhisattva. After all, in the Yogasutra Patanjali teaches that the mind takes the form of the object it contemplates, just as water takes the form of the vessel that holds it. So, to think of Avalokitesvara is to refashion the mind in terms of compassion.
A good first step, but just what is compassion? The word in Sanskrit is karuna. There are two opinions on its derivation. It may come from the verbal root kri, which means “to do or to act, to perform or to carry out.” This explanation fits in well with the Hindu definition that karuna means any action that relieves the suffering of others. Alternatively karuna may derive from kri (long vowel), which means “to pour out.” In that sense compassion is the empathy with others that leads us to pour out our feelings and to give generously of ourselves. In either definition compassion is not merely taking pity on someone but doing something about it.
In Buddhist teaching karuna is unconditional compassion extended to all sentient creatures, not just to human beings, because it is based on the knowledge of oneness. Note the word knowledge. To be effective, karuna must go hand in hand with prajna, which is wisdom or spiritual knowledge. And compassion is not mere pity. Pity can be passive or condescending, but true compassion is always active and selfless.
In our Vedanta tradition selfless activity means karma yoga. The Ramakrishna Order, especially in India, has a rich tradition of service, stemming from the ideal that Sri Ramakrishna awakened in Swami Vivekananda. This is the practice of worshiping the Divine through selfless service to our fellow human beings. It is the principle by which the Ramakrishna Mission, the service wing of the Order, engages in any number of humanitarian activities, such as education, health care, and disaster relief. There is nothing to stop us from applying that noble principle in our own lives—seeing where there is need and doing what we can to address it.
If I have inadvertently put a Vedantic spin on some of the Buddhist teachings this morning, then I apologize for any possible misrepresentation. But now I shall knowingly place a Buddhist spin on a Vedantic teaching. If our karma yoga is directed specifically toward relieving the suffering of others, why not call it karuna yoga, the yoga of compassion?
A logical first step in this yoga of compassion is embedded in the Sanskrit and Chinese names of our bodhisattva. Avalokitesvara means “the lord who looks upon suffering humanity,” or “the lord who hears the outcries of the world.” First we must look beyond our own self-centeredness and recognize the need that is out there; we must be attentive to the duhkha of others. The name Guanyin means “hearer of outcries.” Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that listening is an important part of the practice of compassion. Think of a time when you felt that no one was listening; how lonely and helpless you felt. Compassionate listening allows the person being heard to unload a burden, maybe one that has been carried for a long time. The simple act of attentive listening thus allows us to relieve the suffering of others. It also benefits the one who listens, because for it to work, the listener must put aside all prejudice and judgment and personal opinion. This principle is reflected in the Tibetan name Chenrezi, which means “one who sees clearly.” Right listening requires us to put aside our own ego, and in that way the compassion we practice leads us to wisdom.
Mahayana tradition teaches that we fly to the isle of enlightenment on the two wings of wisdom and compassion. Karuna is feeling and acting; prajna is thinking. Our own enlightenment depends on the management of all three, for in a successful and integrated spiritual practice they must balance and support one another. And then something remarkable happens. The deeper we go, the more we understand how closely they are connected.
The human heart has an immense capacity for love. The human mind has the capacity for an ever-expanding spiritual awareness. These powers of feeling and thinking—of karuna and prajna—work hand in hand. Whether we choose primarily to direct the mind or the heart to our preferred ideal, in either case an attraction grows; and with growing attraction comes growing attentiveness, growing concentration. With concentration comes a stillness, an inner silence. Once we have experienced this blissful stillness, we cannot deny love, or we would be denying our own being. In the fullness we know that feeling and thinking are not different; they are a single experience. A few moments of this blissful stillness is enough to bring blessings that we can impart to others, and that is where the acting part of our nature comes in. Compassion in serving the poor, the hungry, the sick, the distressed, and all those in need is an expression of the power of our silence in meditation, transformed into action.
Action, when guided by wisdom and compassion, without any thought of personal gain or recognition, is a powerful spiritual discipline. Acting in ways that are beneficial to all living beings reinforces our sense of interconnectedness with others, our sense of the shining oneness beyond all the manyness. The more we serve others, the more joy we know, because more and more we are interacting with the Divine.
But it doesn’t end there. Compassion itself is transformational, and the transformation takes place at both the giving and the receiving ends. On the receiving end, for those in need, compassion reduces the sense of isolation or alienation. A single act of kindness can help to open a heart long closed by bitterness, resentment, or despair. Maybe it brings only a brief moment of relief, but sometimes it can mean the first step to a new life. On the giving end, when all our attention is focused on the needs of others, where is the ego? Momentarily forgotten! Practiced with diligence, selfless action continues to erode that troublesome wall of separation that has for so long kept us captive in the smallness and imperfection of “I, me, and mine,” in our own private realm of duhkha. So karuna yoga is a win-win proposition. The same mindful practice of compassion that relieves the suffering of others advances us, the practitioners, steadily toward the threshold of nirvana, toward reawakening to our own original freedom and perfection.