Transcribed from a talk given June 12, 2007.
I think one of the concepts or Buddhist teachings that is most often heard about or read about in books is the teaching of compassion. I often am questioned why I don’t speak about compassion very often in the zendo. This is because in our tradition we understand that it is very easy to get caught up in an intellectual conceptualization of compassion; we think, “I should be compassionate.” We translate this as, “I should be nice, I should be kind, I should be forgiving, and understanding towards others.” But as soon as we engage in this conceptualization of self and other we miss compassion entirely.
There are many words in Buddhism that are translated from Sanskrit or even Japanese, and you’ll often hear me complain about the quality of the word in English which is used to translate. Compassion is not one of them, in fact, quite the opposite. I find the word compassion to be quite good. When we look at the Latin word, the Latin root, we find that com means “with” and passion means “suffer”. So when we look at the word compassion it has very little to do with being nice or being kind; it means “suffering with”. What is meant by that?
I speak about manifesting one true nature, letting go of our sense of duality, our sense of separation, our sense of being alone, outside of all other things. This realization—one true nature, oneness—is the foundation of compassion. When we come into a relationship, when we come into a situation, and we clearly experience that we are not separate, we are not outside, we are not different from this thing that we take to be other—outside, the environment, the situation—then what is happening is not happening to that thing; what’s happening is not happening to that environment; we suffer with. This is the manifestation of compassion.
Out of this realization, out of this manifestation of oneness arises prajna—wisdom. As prajna arises we manifest, we act. When we act from this position of compassion and wisdom, there is no concept of self, there is no concept of other. The appropriate action arises spontaneously out of the situation.
There is an old example of this: one master said, “it’s as if we have two hands and in each of the two hands arises the idea of self.” When one hand views the other hand as fundamentally separate form itself, we have a problem. One hand catching fire, the other hand begins to think about it, “oooh, that other hand is on fire. Should I help it? Well, if I help it I risk hurting myself. If I help it, it might cause problems for me. Hey, maybe if I don’t help it, I’ll benefit.”
When it’s put in a metaphor like this we can think it’s ridiculous; we can think it is a really odd way of looking at things. But when we step back and we understand that these two hands are part of a single body, when we understand that these two things are not separate as they have taken themselves to be, that they are fundamentally one, this doubt dissolves, this inability to act disappears, self concern evaporates, and there is simply the action of help. We are one.
This is the fundamental position of the Buddha way. But we don’t talk about it so much. What we do is ask that we open up our senses, that we deepen in our awareness and experience it.
How? We come to this formal practice, this zendo, and we are asked to sit in close proximity to one another, right beside one another; we’re asked to act as one. Harmoniously in this practice of sitting and breathing. Harmoniously in this activity of bowing and standing. Harmoniously in this activity of placing one foot in front of the other. We’re asked to act as one.
As we deepen in our awareness, as we open up our senses to what is going on around us, we begin to experience, we begin to witness for ourselves, the effect that others have on us. We begin to experience that this person moving around beside us effects our own stability. We find that in sitting still ourselves, we effect the people around us; we strengthen their ability to sit.
We find that when we don’t pay attention when we are walking, when we fall out of step or allow a gap to happen, that every person in the line behind us is affected by it. As we deepen in our sensitivity, as we increase our awareness, we begin to become aware of this, and we begin to realize that each of us has a responsibility in this formal practice, that in entering into this practice we accept a commitment to bring ourselves to bear in this practice, because we are all comfortable with coming for the support, we are all comfortable with coming to receive what we can get from this practice. But what starts to dawn on us after a little while is that we also, even at the most beginning level, have an obligation and an opportunity to apply ourselves fully, and in doing so contribute, to support.
Because regardless of whether it’s our first time or whether it’s our one-hundredth time, how we manifest in this moment effects all things. This attitude, this awareness, begins in the zendo. We can learn this through this simple activity of sitting, and walking, breathing together, bowing together, being careful and considerate of how we conduct ourselves in the context of the formal practice.
But it’s not limited by the walls of the zendo. If we take this developing awareness out into our lives, into our relationship, into our jobs, we find that there is no difference. This fundamental position that we are all one is present in all things, in all activities, in every relationship, in every situation that we find ourselves in. So as we continue through this practice, we find that more and more to engage in practice fully means to accept responsibility for our lives, to accept responsibility that in each thing that we do, in each activity that we engage in, in each choice that we make, we affect all things in this vast universe.
With each breath that we take this universe changes forever. We engage in this practice and we are encouraged by the jikijitsu, we are encouraged by our friends in the way, to focus, to keep on it, to keep in step. We are encouraged to participate, to become an active part, and aware part of this activity of life which unfolds before us. In this way, traditionally put, we can be born into this life, alive, spontaneous, meeting each moment with compassion, recognizing that we are not separate, recognizing that in each moment what effects one effects all things, not as a concept, not as a thought, not in an oh-it’s-effecting-that-it-must-be-effecting-me way.
There is no gap, there is no pause, in this realization. Immediately it’s revealed. Immediately we are able to act appropriately in the situation with wisdom, with compassion.
So as we continue into this practice, as we continue to do this practice, it’s very important that we don’t view these activities, these actions that we take, as being empty rituals. This activity of walking together, keeping in step, manifesting harmony in activity is not taken as some empty form that we just do. This activity of walking is the manifestation of one true nature—harmony. We should take it with utmost sobriety, utmost seriousness.
Fully walk. Fully sit. Fully breathe. For in the end if we are not able to do these simple activities with all of ourselves, if we are not able to fully commit to the simple activity of sitting, of breathing, of walking, how can we possibly commit fully to things like marriage, or career?
So in this activity of formal practice we must understand that even the most complex situation of our life is revealed here. The activity of engagement is no different, the content of your life is this very moment right before us—the activity which unfolds here and now. There is no activity unfolding in this moment which is insignificant. If we take it as insignificant we take our whole lives as such.
So I encourage each of you, whether you are sitting, whether you are walking, whether you are brushing your teeth or going to the toilet, to turn into this moment, to turn into this activity as the content of your life, to embrace it fully, not thinking of it as mundane or insignificant, but understanding it as the complete content of your life, the complete content of this vast universe, and realize that in truth there is nowhere else to be.