In the Bodhicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”, Shantideva wrote,

All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others.”

When human beings think of nothing but their own cares, they become selfish and small-minded. Self-cherishing is like a cold abyss in which a person flounders, numb, without real feeling.  Many people in our modern society have lost sensitivity. They feel isolated. Alone.

Buddhism teaches that we are not isolated.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche says,

Throw a pebble into a pond. It sends a shiver across the surface of the water. Ripples merge into one another and create new ones. Everything is inextricably interrelated.”

The Buddha said that understanding the interdependent nature of phenomena was equal to understanding the dharma itself. He taught interdependency to demonstrate how selfishness stems from the false notion that we are independent and isolated from others, and how this is the root cause of suffering. The Buddha wanted to empower people. He wanted people to understand the causes of suffering so they could change those causes, change their lives, change the world . . .

Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence… Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation…

It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Robert F. Kennedy

I saw this on ABC news; maybe you did too: in Atlanta, GA, 8-year-old students practicing “compassion meditation.” All the kids interviewed agreed that daily meditation made them “nicer.”

The reporter remarked,

“There is now an explosion of cutting edge science suggesting that compassion meditation can physically remodel your brain for kindness. At the University of Madison Wisconsin they studied Buddhist monks and found that when they did compassion meditation they produced levels of certain brain waves that were simply off the charts.”

Back in January, in a post entitled, The Challenge of Mindfulness, I wrote about a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts that showed meditation increases the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) and stimulates positive changes in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

It would seem that science is just catching up to something that the Buddha and some others knew thousands of years ago. In fact, maybe some Buddhists are just catching up with the power of compassion, too.

According to one scholar, Professor Richard Gombrich, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, the Buddha not only stressed the propitiousness of compassion but also its redemptive power. I just recently ran across this interview of some years ago. When asked about new discoveries in Buddhist scholarship, Gombrich replied,

Probably the most important single one relates to the Theravada doctrine, which said that kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity are very desirable, but if we only achieve those, we will only be reborn in a higher heaven called the ‘Bratna-world.’ This is a complete misunderstanding of what the Buddha actually meant. The Buddha was simply using brahmanical language at the time. What he meant was that they are salvific states and that we reach nirvana through them . . .

I think the implications are pretty massive in a way. If, for instance, you show that the Buddha thought that compassion was salvific, it could be of interest to many Buddhists.

I think from the Mahayana point of view, it is taken for granted that’s exactly what the Buddha was saying. However, the point is not about which Buddhist branch has had a keener view on compassion. It’s simply how central the practice of compassion is to the Buddhist path. A point I don‘t think can be restated too often. One of the reasons that I mention it so frequently is really just to remind myself. Left to my own devices, altruism is not necessarily the direction I would lean. I have to work at it. And I think that’s true for many people. Selflessness is a quality that most of us have to cultivate.

The transformative power of compassion and altruist action is hardly a new discovery. For years now, studies have shown that altruism has many tangible benefits, many of them physical. Some fifteen years ago I gave a dharma talk in which I mentioned that altruism or “helping” had been shown to help alleviate chronic problems such a hypertension, arthritis, depression, allergies, headaches, back pain and multiple sclerosis. I noted how helping also strengthens the immune system and enhances feeling of well-being and confidence, and I talked about a phenomenon called a “helper’s high” that accompanies altruistic acts. This high, possibly the release of endorphins into the bloodstream, appears to have two stages: an initial rush of euphoria, followed by a longer period of calm.

I don’t think any of that has changed since then. Nor is it been any secret that meditation offers many of the same benefits. But now, we have empirical evidence about the changes that actually take place in both the compassionate and the meditative mind.

This is good news. But the best news was delivered by the ABC reporter, who said that meditation is “not just for Buddhists. This is totally secular. Anyone can do it.”

And, it makes you nicer.

It’s Mandela Day, formally known as Nelson Mandela International Day. The celebration was officially declared by the United Nations in 2009 and is held each July 18th, Mandela’s birthday. Today, he is 93. says, “The Mandela Day campaign message is simple: Mr. Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. All we are asking is that everyone gives 67 minutes of their time, whether it’s supporting your chosen charity or serving your local community.”

For Buddhists it’s a good day to practice loving-kindness meditation, to reflect on the nature of compassion, to perform some sort of Bodhisattva action. But, of course, as in the same spirit of the logo above, every day is a good day for that.

I find Nelson Mandela inspiring for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the way he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment without hatred or bitterness. But rather than read my words about this, here are the words of someone who has actually met Nelson Mandela. This is what former president Bill Clinton wrote a few years ago:

Mandela made a grand, elegant, dignified exit from prison and it was very, very powerful for the world to see. But as I watched him walking down that dusty road, I wondered whether he was thinking about the last 27 years, whether he was angry all over again. Later, many years later, I had a chance to ask him. I said, ‘Come on, you were a great man, you invited your jailers to your inauguration, you put your pressures on the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all I’ve not been free in so long. But,’ he said, ‘when I felt that anger well up inside of me I realized that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me.’ And he smiled and said, ‘I wanted to be free so I let it go.’ It was an astonishing moment in my life. It changed me.

He’s got so much to teach us about forgiveness. It isn’t about being soft-headed and kind-hearted and essentially weak or forgetful  . . .  Mandela found that forgiveness was a strategy for survival. Because he found a forgiving heart under the most adverse circumstances, because he learned to hate the apartheid cause without hating the white South Africans, he had space left inside to learn and grow and become great.

To me he represents a great political leader. He had the discipline to stay the course for almost three decades, through enormous punishment, to achieve the political objective he sought. And he did it in a way that, in the end, had the support of people across the racial divide. In the process he freed not only black South Africa but, as Martin Luther King said about America, he freed white South Africans, too. It’s a terrible burden oppressing someone else; it’s like being in chains yourself.

What makes Mandela so special is that he’s a real human being. He laughs, he cries, he gets mad, he fell in love with Graça Machel. He’s got a real life. And the fact that he is so flesh-and-blood real makes his greatness and his sacrifice and his wisdom and his courage in the face of all that has happened to him even more remarkable. He never pretended to be somebody who didn’t like soccer or wouldn’t like to be able to go to a boxing match again. He’s not just great: He is a good man. Not because he is perfect—he still has his flashes of anger and regret—but in the big moment, in the big ways, there is nobody like him.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Kuan Yin is a celestial Bodhisattva (Pu-sa), the female emanation of Avalokitesvara, regarded by many in Asia as the “goddess of compassion”. While some may see her as a cosmic being who exists above our everyday reality, Kuan Yin actually represents the universal capacity of human beings to give love. Kuan Yin is not an external being, but rather an interior state of being anyone can realize.

Barbara E. Reed, who teaches in the Religion Department and Asian Studies Program at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, does an excellent job of summing up the significance of this bodhisattva at the beginning of her essay entitled “The Gender Symbolism of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva”:

Somehow during the assimilation into Chinese culture Kuan-yin Bodhisattva underwent a sexual transformation. The male Bodhisattva from India, Avalokitesvara, became a white-robed Chinese woman. In addition to the sex change, the female symbolism of the bodhisattva was expanded further by the addition of yin symbols (for example, moon, water, vase) from the yin-yang polarity of Chinese thought. In a Chinese culture dominated by Confucian social values, Chinese women saw this female symbol as particularly relevant to their problems as women. Not only was Kuan-yin an object of devotion, she also was a popular subject for women artists from at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

As we break out of the traditional notions of gender,  the image of Kuan Yin stands for the fact that all people, regardless of sex,  posses both male (yang) and female (yin) qualities. Through the identification of love and compassion with a female persona, Kuan Yin continues to be an important archetype in our age.

As Reed noted above, Yin-yang is a traditional Chinese concept. The yin here is not the same character as the Yin in the bodhisattva’s name, but it does present an intriguing parallel. Kuan Yin is the Chinese transliteration of Avalokitesvara, which means “one who hears the cries of the world.” Kuan is to see or have insight, and Yin in this case refers to sound. Actually, Kuan Yin is short for Kaun Shih Yin, with shih (pronounced sher) standing for world or reality.

Here is my interpretation of the verse section of the 25th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, “The Universal Gateway”, Avalokitesvara/Kuan Yin’s first appearance in Buddhist literature. It’s meant to be recited as part of a meditation service or during one’s daily practice:

Kuan Yin Sutra

Namo Da Bei Kuan Yin Sher-Yin Pu-sa

Bodhisattva Infinite Thought said to the Buddha,

Thus-gone One, full of knowledge, one question I will ask again:
How did this serene disciple earn the respected name of Kuan Sher Yin?

The Buddha replied,

Come and I will tell you how she well responds to every side;
She has served countless Buddhas, her vows are like an ocean, deep and wide.

Who sees her face or hears about her, whoever calls this Bodhisattva’s name,
Will leave behind the sorrows of existence, and so this meditation is not in vain.

If you be pushed into a pit of fire, by enemies with intent to harm,
One thought of Kuan Yin’s compassion and the pit will become a pond.

If cast adrift upon the ocean, with sharks and demons all around,
Call out the name of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva and you will not be drowned.

If thrown down from Great Diamond Mountain, with its peak so steep and tall,
Call out the name of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva and the air itself will catch the fall.

If chased down Great Diamond Mountain by evil people wielding arms,
Just think of Kuan Yin’s compassion and you will not be harmed.

If caught by a band of callous bandits, with evil hearts and murder on their minds,
Put your mind on Kuan Yin’s compassion and their hearts will turn soft and kind.

If you are sick and on the brink of sudden death,
One thought of Kuan Yin will guarantee another breath.

If set upon by demons, or spirits in the night so hard to see,
Say the name of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva and all will be made to flee.

If threatened by a snake with poison flowing from its deadly fangs,
Evoke the sound of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva and the snake will shrink before her name.

Beings live in a world where incessant pain like rain does fall;
The power of Kuan Yin’s compassion can serve to liberate them all.

True Kuan Yin! Pure Kuan Yin! The power of love is truly great!
Wise Kuan Yin! Vast Kuan Yin! We vow to ever praise and emulate!

O wisdom light that shines through darkness! O lamp of light for all the world!
The One who Hears the Cries of Others, your universal love unfurls!

Compassion’s power! The precepts’ thunder! A wondrous cloud that protect us all;
Extinguishing the fires of life’s afflictions, Dharma-rain like nectar falls!

To those who are immersed in trouble, or trembling in the midst of fear,
With just one thought of Kuan Yin all suffering disappears.

The sound of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva is like the ocean’s mighty roar,
A name for every heart and mind to ever keep in store.

Do not doubt the healing power of this pure and holy sage,
To those who look within themselves, she will come to offer aid.

O Kuan Yin, bright with virtue, in your eyes all things are seen,
A boundless sea of every blessing, we offer now our high esteem.

Namo Dai Bei Kuan Yin Pu-sa

These verses should not be taken literally of course. Again, Kuan Yin represents our inner capacity for showing compassion, and should not be regarded as some being outside of our lives.

Happy New Year to all.

© 2011 dmriley

It seems that some people liked my recent post “Are We Enlightened Yet?”, especially the Dalai Lama quote which I have seen re-posted several places. In that post, I questioned why anyone would want to claim that they have attained enlightenment, and previously, I have stated why I am suspicious of such claims (presumptuousness, egotism, etc). The Dalai Lama said that ultimately it doesn’t make any difference if we become enlightened or not because if we are striving to be of benefit to others then we are already fulfilling our life’s true purpose.

This presumes that there is a purpose or meaning to life. Joseph Campbell once said, “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it.” However, meaning is not a meaning by itself alone; rather it is a meaning only of some expression that serves as a sign or symbol for some thought or fact. Meaning is often subjective, and that is why Campbell added, “The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.”

Some persons may want to ascribe no meaning to life, seeing existence as something that just “is.” Others believe that meaning can be ascribed but have differing opinions as to what that meaning may be. Therefore, not everyone will accept the idea that the purpose of life is to be of benefit to others.

Almost all religions and spiritual philosophies do see meaning and purpose in our existence. Again, there are differences of opinion, and yet, in one way or another, they all embrace the idea of altruism or service to others. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is the prime point, and in fact, it is considered more important than enlightenment itself.

To understand, we need to look at the Mahayana ideal of the Bodhisattva. Following the passage I quoted the other day, the Dalai Lama went on to say,

These are also the kinds of sentiments that resonate in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, where the bodhisattva practitioner makes prayers that even the smallest elements of earth, such as atoms, should be of service to others. This kind of sentiment is summarized in Shantideva’s verse, which reads, ‘As long as space endures, for as long as beings remain, may I remain also, to dispel the miseries of the world’.”

Symbolically, bodhisattvas forgo entry into “final enlightenment” in order to remain in the world serving others.  Not only is this the bodhisattva’s individual aspiration, but also the aspiration that he or she wishes for all beings to cherish.  To the bodhisattva, nirvana is a world of people helping people.

It is said that bodhisattvas invariably make the Four Vows, but if he or she does not fulfill the first vow to save all beings, then the fourth vow to attain enlightenment can never be achieved. Realistically, it is impossible to save all beings, so in the absence of any caveat, we can choose to take it literally or understand it as allegory. Either way, the same meaning is expressed, which is the idea that enlightenment is not the real goal of Buddhist practice, and not the purpose of life.

Neither is it the meaning of life to end suffering, for as long as there is life, suffering will be a part of it. Without suffering, there could be no freedom from suffering on any level.

This is the message of Mahayana Buddhism, which views enlightenment for the sake of enlightenment as fundamentally selfish. Ron Epstein, of the Philosophy Department San Francisco State University, explains:

The goal of the [early Buddhist] practitioner is that of ending attachment to self and, thereby, becoming an Arhat, who undergoes no further rebirth. Although those on the path of the Arhat help others, often extensively, that help ends with the entering of nirvana  because the Arhat is not reborn. The Mahayana practitioner does not treat Arhatship as an ultimate goal, and is on the Path of the Bodhisattva, which leads to becoming a Buddha.

The point here is not about which ideal is better, for ultimately terms such as Arhat, Bodhisattva or Buddha are only signs or referents that serve to bring attention to different modes of approach, or different aspects of the same path.

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to look at the motivation behind the Buddha’s decision to teach his dharma. It was not because he felt the world needed another philosophy, or because he wanted fame, or because he was lonely and he wanted to gather up a group of followers. He realized that the purpose of his life was to be of benefit to others by showing them a way that suffering could be transcended.

With this motivation, which we call bodhicitta, enlightenment is no longer an abstract idea, it becomes something real and attainable. When we touch others with our compassion, we touch enlightenment.  As Epstein says, the Path of the Bodhisattva leads to becoming a Buddha, and yet this path is only a guide, a symbol. In this sense, then, we could say that altruism is the path to enlightenment, or even that it is enlightenment, that compassion is enlightenment. When we practice loving-kindness, when we have the kind of empathy for other beings that motivates us to engage in compassionate acts, we are becoming Buddhas.

The meaning of life is the meaning we bring to it and the highest meaning we can bring is that the purpose our lives is to be of benefit to others.

Of course, there is also the notion that we are already enlightened, already Buddhas. But that will have to wait for another post.

Rabindranath Tagore remarked that way of the Buddha was “the elimination of all limits of love, the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself.”

Love is not a word used very often in Buddhism, and Tagore was not a Buddhist, but he understood the essential purpose of Buddhist practice. Others have too, in a different way. It may sound corny, but when the Beatles sang “Love is all there is,” they were right.

How deeply they got that, I don’t know. But anyone who can grasp this thought beyond a superficial level can get that enlightenment is not the ultimate goal, and understand why bodhisattvas forfeit Nirvana. The removal of suffering is not the goal either, because sufferings are Nirvana. Mere happiness, peace of mind, or improving one’s chances for a more favorable birth in the next life, seen in this light, are likewise. These are the tools, not the purpose.

I once heard the Dalai Lama give the following guidance:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that the bodhisattva should adopt.

I’ve shared this many times. One person told me it sounded like a prescription for co-dependency. I agreed. It is, but not in the way that she meant. The clinical term “co-dependency” refers to a condition that is not based on selflessness but rather on selfishness. It is an ego-driven condition. From a Buddhist point of view, we are all co-dependent, in the sense of dependent arising (pratiya-samutpada). We are all linked together, dependent upon one another, just as in the case of the proverbial two bundles of reeds which support each other – remove one, and the other falls down.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to transform the extreme self-centeredness which neglects others. To be interested in one’s own welfare and want happiness is natural. What we’re struggling against are the negative aspects of mind that prevent us from developing deep compassion, a sense of closeness to all sentient beings, and having a real empathy with them.

The motivation for most persons to practice Buddhism is the need to feel connected to their true nature. I have never heard anyone say that they became a Buddhist because they wanted to be of benefit to others, although I’m sure someone has. Bodhicitta, the aspiration to liberate sentient beings is the motivation for those who follow the bodhisattva path.

When bodhicitta arises, all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva. This is not different from Dogen when he says that practice of meditation is not of an ordinary human beings trying to be Buddhas, but a Buddhas expressing themselves as ordinary persons.

The bodhisattva eventually cultivates maha-karuna-citta, or great compassionate mind: a big mind and a boundless heart. This great loving heart-mind is the essential nature of the bodhisattva, or better yet the subject of the path, and all living beings constitute the object. The purpose then is to transcend the duality.

And once we accomplish that, we see something that we saw before but didn’t deeply get – that the duality never existed. This is not a case where a cognizing subject can never penetrate an object, being nothing more than a “finger pointing to the moon.” Dependent arising tells us that subject and object have always penetrated each other, existing interlinked in a chain of causes and conditions. Self and other are two but not two.

We have only to realize this all the way, and then, as the Karaniya Metta Sutta states, “Cultivate for the world a boundless heart of  loving-kindness.” It’s a big job.