Compassion without Drowning, by Diana St Ruth

Sea at Bay Saint Louis during Hurricane Katrina. 2005.

` . . No other being has such a dwelling as the Bodhisattva, the great being, except of course the Tathagata. And why? Because these sons of good family, when they course in the perfection of wisdom, aspire for the great friendliness, and see all beings as on the way to their slaughter; they aspire for the great compassion. Dwelling in that dwelling, they rejoice with the great sympathetic joy, and aspire for the great sympathetic joy. But they do not become intimate with that sign, but acquire the great impartiality . . .’

(Buddha; The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, p. 442 Translated by Edward Conze, Berkeley)

Over the last few months many of us, I am sure, have been feeling some anguish and despair over the state of the world. Where is it all leading? Where are we going? What can Buddhists actually do for the world and for themselves when faced with the full horror of samsara (the conditioned realm)?

Buddhism, by its very nature, leads practitioners towards compassion for all beings. This aspect is often represented in Mahayana Buddhism by Kuan-yin (Ch.), for example, a figure which brings out the feminine characteristics of one’s nature and often thought of as female. Another such form is Avalokiteshvara (Skt.), which is variously interpreted as `The Lord Who looks Down,’ or, `He who hears the cries of the world.’

AvalokiteshvaraOne story has it that Avalokiteshvara’s head simply split from the pain of seeing the full horror of the world. The Buddha Amitabha, his spiritual father, put the pieces back together again which resulted in the multi-faced depictions that we sometimes see today.

These Buddhist symbols can tell us a lot about ourselves. We can contemplate them in light of our own predicament. Can we contain the compassion of Kuan-yin or Avalokiteshvara? Can we save the world, or are we likely to drown in it? Compassion is definitely a result of Buddhist practice, there is no doubt about that, but it needs to be compassion with wisdom, otherwise it will be sentimental or self-righteous. And if we do contemplate the suffering of the world without much wisdom, we could well drown inside our own heads full of thought of all that sorrow.

Buddhism teaches that we save the world by awakening to its true nature and seeing the nonduality of it; the emptiness and oneness of it beyond the notion of `self’ and `other’—this is something that we need to remind ourselves of, perhaps, when the world looks as though it is falling apart.

There was an inspiring reminder of these truths one day—strangely and marvellously—during a Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) interview with an Afghani doctor. There he was in a small hospital surrounded by air-attack victims in various states of pain and misery. The journalist asked him, `When you see all the death and destruction, do you feel a sense of hopelessness at the thought that there is little you can do to help?’

`No!’ he said emphatically, `In the Koran it says: Save one life and you save all beings. Kill one life and you kill all beings.’

This, one could say, is an expression of the nonduality of compassion.

Diana St Ruth First published in Buddhism Now February 2002

Read more posts by Diana here

Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, Diana St Ruth, Foundations, Mahayana, Metta

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4 replies

  1. True the world becomes more SPACIOUS when we focus on the moment and thus see that to save one life is to save the world. This is why it is important to translate spaciousness as spaciousness and not emptiness.

  2. “Buddhism teaches that we save the world by awakening to its true nature and seeing the nonduality of it; the emptiness and oneness of it beyond the notion of `self’ and `other’—this is something that we need to remind ourselves of, perhaps, when the world looks as though it is falling apart.” This is perhaps what I struggle with the most. The world, or the Earth, anyway, IS falling apart; evil men are winning, and the planet with its innocent creatures struggle unnecessarily as a result of human actions. The problem itself creates an anger inside me against others who I would perceive are the perpetrators, or at the very least, indifferent to the harm that their actions cause to others. What suggestions can there be for me to find peace?

    • The Buddhist way is to create sympathetic joy (Mudita) to overcome ill-will. Have put up a post dealing with this issue here.

      To be getting on with, the Buddha, said:

      Here, O, Monks, a disciple lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of unselfish joy, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, everywhere and equally, he continues to pervade with a heart of unselfish joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, without hostility or ill-will.


      • Thank you – That does make sense. I see that in this way, my mind would be at peace, while more importantly, I would be helping others with filling the world with joy. I look forward to the next post.


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