Friday, July 6, 2007

Pondering the meaning of liberation from suffering, part 4

If you missed part one or part two of the series, check them out! When we left off last time (part 3), I was pondering the following:

One of the obstacles to generating or sustaining the required compassion, however, is judgment. This person caused their own suffering. They don't deserve my attention or assistance. It is true that people are often responsible for the causes of their own suffering, but should that have any real bearing on our response to that suffering?

This is I think another case where the answer seems like a no-brainer (in fact that's true, it's an all-hearter) that is harder than it sounds - our response to suffering should be *unconditional* compassion.

In Buddhism, the four immeasurables are translated into English into loving-kindness, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and compassion. The first, loving-kindness, is obvious - opening our hearts and caring. Equanimity is tougher- it requires us to open our hearts and be present for everyone for all sentient beings, whatever our "relationship" is to them. The next two are the natural outcome of the first two - that is, if one expresses loving-kindness fully and equally to all, then sympathetic joy and compassion will arise spontaneously in the proper circumstances. Sympathetic joy refers to being happy for successes and virtues of others, not jealous or oblivious. Compassion is the sister of sympathetic joy. Whereas sympathetic joy celebrates the best in others and wishes them well, compassion is the response to those who suffer, the desire to see them free of their misery. It is solidarity with the "worst" in others - their doubt, their anguish, their darkness.

To recycle an analogy I've employed twice before (hey, what works works)...
Imagine you are standing (or sitting) near a set of steps. Really imagine you are there and seeing what I describe. A very pretty, sweet young woman, who happens to be blind and pregnant, is walking down the steps with a large bag of groceries. Tick-tack-tack-tick-tick-tack-tack-tick goes her cane. Then she stumbles and the groceries go flying. She tumbles down the stairs and crashes to the bottom...

What would be your reaction? Do you pause or hesitate? Do you think about yourself? Do you consider whether or not to help her? I am going to bet that most of you would simply run (or wheel yourself) right over to her as fast as you could and ask if she is alright. You would offer to get some additional help if she needs it and would likely help gather up her groceries. No hesitation. You would just spring into action. Just like that. That is no-self, the selfless mind, the other-centered view. The difference between a regular person and a Buddha/Bodhisattva is this: They would have the same reaction if they saw the guy that just cut them off/flipped them off in rush hour traffic sitting by the side of the road with a blowout and no spare. They would have the same reaction if a convicted murderer was scared and alone before his execution. That is, I personally believe (and obviously take that for what it is or isn't worth), the expression of Bodhi mind.

Which is found in the actualization of the previously mentioned qualities. But that sounds like a pretty tall order, doesn't it? Certainly to have a heart large enough for all sentient beings sound like the province of a Buddha or otherwise Enlightened Being. Which interestingly intersects with a recent entry on love (including the comments): It strikes me that the four immeasurables sound just like the passages cited in the New Testament as the basis for the concept of Agape, or divine love. The passage include Matthew 25:

"Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

As well as 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

Now I am not going on a tangent to make an interfaith connection, though that is not an ignoble goal, but rather because I think there is an important aspect in the convergence between the two traditions. That is, I have heard the suggestion made that when we rely on the ego to get things done we are limited by our own preconceptions, so instead of "I will", just use "Will" (to hear an example of this kind of dharma talk search this blog for "fearless" and "ying-fa"). That is, open ourselves to Buddha-nature, to inexhaustible virtue. In many branches of Christianity, especially progressive ones, we see a similar act of surrender. Rather than our own strength, relying on God. This is not the same attitude some have of "sitting back and letting God do the heavy lifting". It is being open to the Source in the person of Christ and his example/teachings, akin to being open to Source in the person of the Eternal Buddha or Amitabha. In this sense, at least, we have a vital intersection between the concepts of Christ-nature and Buddha-nature.

And also in that sense, it should be made clear that we are not "subjugated" or "dominated" like mindless sheep in this actualization - to paraphrase from yet another recent entry (down in the comments): The self or ego is never dissolved, negated, or otherwise done away - it is simply completed within/made whole as an aspect of the Other, or more precisely, by directly realizing the inherent unity with the Source. As I alluded to above and as I've written before: "My own love, for example, might be stingy. It might be conditional, forgetful, inconsiderate, or limited. But the image of love coming from Being itself, from THAT WHICH IS, is one of love that is always present, always open, always accepting, and that never runs out."

We all bear each others burden of suffering in our response to the call from the Source, whether we name it God, Tao, Shunyata/Dharmakaya, etc, whether we encounter it in the person of Jesus, or Amida, etc. Because in seeing our deep interconnection and our true nature, how can we turn our backs? This relationship simultaneously functions as a call to action and the strength to answer the call.

But is that it? We hear and answer the call - we respond to the plight of others. Our suffering can be transformed into liberation and serve as a motivator to act to relieve the suffering of others as well, but is that all we can do? Is it enough?

In Buddhist terms, when we talk about being mindful, or about being engaged, or about exemplifying the four immeasurables of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, what is the impact? Or to put it another way, when we talk about interdependence, what are we really saying? Is the extent of the benefit of our attitudes and practice limited to our mundane interactions (i.e. I write something, it inspires someone else, it causes that person to do great things, which then benefits still more people, and so on)? Or are we connected on a deeper level? If I were stranded on a deserted island and everyone had forgotten about me, but I still kept practicing, would that in and of itself still benefit any sentient being, even if I were never rescued and no record of my life or activities on the island were ever recovered?

(Note, you aren't the only one wondering what the answer to this question is, so, stay tuned!)

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