Compassion (and how to survive it)

Posted by on Nov 27, 2012 in Buddhism | No Comments

When we think of Buddhism, the first thing a lot of people think of is compassion.

The Buddha taught, not out of a personal need or desire to teach, but out of compassion for all beings. HH the Dalai Lama is always going on about it.

The ideal of the ‘bodhisattva’ is perhaps the key symbol of Mahayana Buddhism. And a bodhisattva is someone who vows to attain enlightenment, not for themselves, but for the benefit of all beings.

If you’ve ever tried living on this basis, you may have found that it can be exhausting. You may also have found a slow but steady build up of resentment: “but what about me!?”

And finally, you can end up feeling like a burned-out failure. A million miles away from your ideal, and still surrounded by a world filled with suffering beings.

What do we do about this? Give up? Or keep pushing until we end up broke and ill?

One of the first Buddhist talks I heard was about this very subject. Strangely, the teacher made use of a model that isn’t Buddhist at all. Years later I found out this model came from a book by Stephen Covey called ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. Not your usual Dharma fodder.

Focus on what you can change

The teacher drew a circle on a flipchart. Then he drew another much smaller circle inside it.

The outside circle is ‘the circle of concern’. All the things that are wrong with the world. All the wars, suffering, exploitation, cruelty, etc etc. Everything you’d change if you could.

The inside circle is ‘the circle of influence’. That’s all the things you can change. You can change how you behave towards people. You can change things on your street. You can lobby your MP. You can donate to charity. Etc etc.

The burn-out scenario happens when we focus on the circle of concern instead of the circle of influence.

The key is, focus on what you can change, keep a vague awareness of all the other stuff, and then develop your capacity so that your circle of influence grows.

This is a highly empowering approach to life. It gives you energy. It allows you to feel successful, and to build on that success.

Although it wasn’t designed for the path of the Buddhist practitioner, it sure works for people like us!

The birth of Tara

Tara is one of the architypal bodhisattvas. She represents compassion. The myth of her birth is, for me, a moving story. So I thought I’d share it. My version is not word for word. I like to paraphrase 😉

Avelokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion (who, incidentally, the Dalai Lama is supposedly an emanation of) was sitting on a cloud somewhere, feeling extremely committed.

He was counting off the ‘Om mani padme hum’ mantra (which is his mantra).

Such was the power of his meditation, every time he uttered just one syllable of the mantra, a being was saved from suffering.

He continued to chant, determined to liberate all beings from suffering.

He was so into it, he kept it going for aeons.

After a few aeons of blissful chanting, he figured he’d open an eye and have a squint at all his good work.

He surveyed the Earth, expecting to see happy faces everywhere. Ice cream for everyone! A Buddha on every block!

Alas, when he looked around, all he saw was suffering.

Though he’d helped countless beings, there were countless more still in pain.

He began to cry, yearning for an end to all this suffering.

His tears flowed for aeons, eventually forming a lake.

Out of the gunk at the bottom of the lake, a lotus began to grow. It grew up until it reached the surface. Its petals opened out to the sun.

And there, sitting on the lotus flower, was Tara. Born of compassion. A beautiful being made of pure compassionate light, who works tirelessly for the benefit of all beings.



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