of the Middle Way
teachings of the Buddha are known as the Middle Way,
or the Middle Path, because they avoid the extremes
of overindulgence in the senses on the one hand, and
excessive asceticism and self-mortification on the
other. The life of the Buddha before his enlightenment,
as it is told, exemplified both of these extremes.
When he was still called Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha
lived surrounded by the glitter of sensual delights.
It is said that his parents were so concerned that
he be protected from any unhappiness that they employed
a crew of gardeners to work throughout the night in
order to pluck out any blossoms that were wilting,
so that the prince should not be troubled by the sight
of something that was imperfect.
Eventually, when Siddhartha
finally witnessed the suffering that does exist in
the world, he was compelled to pursue the truth. First
he followed a path of self-mortification that lasted
for about six years. He lived a life of exceeding
renunciation and asceticism. In India at that time,
it was believed that by torturing or humiliating the
body, one could free the spirit, enabling it to soar
beyond the confines of the material world.
The Buddha, however,
after the many years of his intense asceticism, realized
that neither the extreme of indulgence nor the extreme
of deprivation led to the goal of true liberation.
The world of indulgence
is intoxicating but hollow, and it surrounds us in
a fog that keeps us from looking for anything deeper.
Meanwhile, when we are intoxicated with the senses,
the pain of others threatens the feel-good complacency
that accompanies our self-indulgence. Thus we tend
to disregard the suffering of others, along with trying
to cover up our own inner suffering. And so we end
up living isolated from the fullness of life.
Similarly, the path
of self-mortification and asceticism only reinforces
feelings of self-deprecation and self-hatred, which
keep us separate from the love that is at the crux
of spiritual transformation. These days we might not
be very attracted to becoming ascetics and practicing
self-mortification, but we still abuse and humiliate
the body in hopes of finding happiness, as seen in
the epidemic of eating disorders in our society.
Another, perhaps more
hidden, form of self-mortification is to create tormented
relationships with our own mind, as if the abusive
force of self-judgment and self-hatred might somehow
Following the Middle
Way between these extremes does not mean taking a
little indulgence and a little self-mortification
and mixing them together. It isn't as if we say to
ourselves, "Well, I have spent the last few days
in self-indulgence; maybe it's time for some self-mortification.
If I spend an equal number of days in each, they'll
balance out." Nor is the Middle Way about being
mediocre, finding the lowest common denominator of
the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification
and simply being indolent. Rather, it is about seeing
the tension and unhappiness of each extreme and arriving
at a completely different place, one that doesn't
fall into either category. We are not drawn by these
Walking the Middle Way
is a process of continual discovery every moment.
We cannot rely on the Buddha's walking of the Middle
Way twenty-five thousand years ago, or even our own
discovery of it yesterday. Open and vulnerable and
alive, we must realize it over and over again in each
moment. Out of awareness and compassion for ourselves
and others, we uncover the place within us that is
the expression of the liberated mind.
A few years ago, in
Tucson, Arizona, the Dalai Lama gave a week-long series
of teachings on patience. Over twelve hundred people
attended the event. We all stayed in a resort hotel
outside of town, transforming what was a commercial
venue into something of a retreat center. Every morning
and afternoon, the Dalai Lama would teach, and in
the evenings, we Western Buddhist teachers would speak
on a particular aspect of patience. Sylvia Boorstein
and I were the first Western teachers scheduled to
speak. I must admit to feeling a little anxiety in
talking to such a large audience, and I wanted to
be sure to get it "right." Fortunately,
a few nights later, the Dalai Lama, in his wonderful
way, gave us all a profound teaching about what "getting
it right" is truly about.
He was explicating a
chapter of Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's
Way of Life, an eighth-century text covering the entire
path to enlightenment. Moving line by line through
the manuscript, the Dalai Lama presented his commentary
in Tibetan, and while it was being translated, he
examined the upcoming lines he would speak on next.
The Dalai Lama's English is quite good, and at one
point during a translation, he looked up from the
manuscript and said to the translator, "You're
mistaken. That's not what I said." The disagreement
that followed was about a matter of syntax; whether
Shantideva, in establishing a point about patience,
had said, "She said that to him" or He said
that to her." The translator responded by saying,
"No, Your Holiness, I did not make a mistake.
In fact the text says 'He said that to her.'"
The Dalai Lama replied, "No, it says, 'She said
that to him.'"
The translator again
disagreed, and they discussed it back and forth for
a while. The Dalai Lama then turned back the pages
of the text until he got to the disputed section.
He looked at it, then burst into loud laughter, saying
mirthfully, "Hah, hah, hah! Oh, I made a mistake."
There he was, having
been caught in an error in front of twelve hundred
people, laughing uproariously about it. I doubt that
I would have been laughing as freely had I made a
mistake when addressing those people a few nights
He was a wonderful role
model of a non-constricted heart, of the natural ebullience
that comes when we are not defending a concept we
have of who we are.
When we try to project
a certain image, or be someone special, or be perfect
and never make a mistake, there is a tightening in
the heart. When we relax the heart, not trying to
"be" someone special, we can be who we really
are, with honesty, with perspective, and with compassion.
These qualities are the conditions of liberation,
whatever is happening. And when we are truly free,
we might, like the Dalai Lama, be able to laugh loudly
when we make a mistake.
The poet Rumi said,
"Pain will be born from that look cast inside
yourself, and this pain will make you go behind the
veil." When we clearly see the ways in which
we have hurt others, in that moment of recollection,
we experience pain. And this pain can become a tool
for our transformation. Going "behind the veil"
of illusion, we stop viewing ourselves as "bad"
and open to the suffering nature of the experience.
We know it can be terribly
painful to recall the harm we have caused others.
I have sat in meditation with a woman whose husband
sexually abused their child for years while she ignored
her intuition with the thought, "It couldn't
be true." I have sat with a man who has beaten
up women when lost in rage, and with a man on death
row who killed someone twenty years before in the
course of a robbery. And I have sat with my own painful
recollections of the harm that I have caused others.
No matter what the degree, inflicting pain on another
being inevitably results in experiencing pain ourselves.
We might think that
reviewing a harmful action over and over in our mind
with lacerating self-hatred counts as some sort of
atonement, but actually compassion is atonement.
When we are filed with
guilt, our identity collapses, and we think, "This
is who I really am, the one who ... " As our
sense of ourselves narrows in this way, we punish
ourselves repeatedly through unhappiness, disconnection,
loneliness, hopelessness. This is what we feel we
deserve. We may even hear something like the Buddha's
teaching that all living beings want to be happy and
have the full potential to be happy, but it only makes
us feel more isolated.
Many years ago, when
I was sitting in meditation during a retreat, I found
myself looking back at a difficult period of my life.
I did not enjoy recalling some of my actions, but
I found that as I began to see my behavior as part
of an interconnecting flow of events, I could more
easily view myself with understanding and forgiveness.
I could see clearly how, as each event came into being,
it created the ground for the next event to arise.
In the traditional teachings,
an analogy is used to describe such an interconnected,
causal sequence of events. When the great ocean swells
with the tide, the rivers swell; when the rivers swell,
the smaller rivers in the delta swell. When the ocean
ebbs, the rivers ebb and the smaller rivers ebb. The
moon's gravitational influence on earthly bodies of
water is such that the waters, except in rare instances,
act in concord with each other. With the arising of
one thing, there is the arising of another that is
linked to it. The existence of one event is conditioned
by another. In the same way, all the elements of our
existence - this mind and body, our internal and external
worlds - are interdependent.
During the retreat,
I saw that the events of my life, like the oceans
and the rivers, had unfolded in a logical sequence.
I saw that I had done the best I could in the circumstances
as they were. Given the conditions leading up to that
time, there wasn't much likelihood that I would have
behaved in another way. Different behavior would have
required a changed understanding that would have necessarily
been based on different information and experience.
We cannot undo what
we have done, and we cannot escape the results of
our actions. But rather than hate ourselves or dwell
in helpless shame, we can dramatically change the
field in which our karmic seeds ripen by developing
mindfulness and lovingkindness. This is the basis
of a spiritual life.
The law of karma, which
is the moral and spiritual understanding of action,
means that the intention or motivation behind an action
determines the kind of seed we plant in each moment.
This seed, given the right conditions, will bear fruit
sooner or later. But the law of karma does not operate
with mechanical rigidity. If the world were that way,
there would be nothing we could do to alter the course
of our lives. There would be no way to see the end
of suffering and no point to spiritual life.
as nature allows for a multitude of variables in the
ripening of a seed, the seed of our intention does
not exist in isolation. The fruit resulting from an
action depends not only on the seed but also on all
the characteristics of the field in which the seed
is ripening. Because we are continually re-creating
the quality of influences in our lives, the field
in which our karmic seeds are taking root or ripening
is constantly changing. Thus,
there exists the possibility of a spiritual life and
the opportunity to end suffering.
we have done something inappropriate or unwholesome,
and if our lives then become strongly influenced by
compassion, mindfulness, and lovingkindness, the field
in which our karmic seeds have been planted becomes
radically altered, and this changes everything. This
is a transformation that we can begin right now.
start by using mindfulness and lovingkindness to look
directly at the pain we have caused others and the
pain we are experiencing ourselves. We look at our
shame, our guilt, our fear, and our sadness with understanding
and compassion. We see the difference between saying,
"I am very wrong, and that is all that I am,"
and saying, "I did something very wrong, and
I feel remorse about it." When we can experience
the flow of our feelings with clarity, equanimity,
and loving presence - not judgment and narrowness
- our minds become like a mirror reflecting all that
is arising. In the course of that process, themirrorlike
mind also reflects back its true nature: natural radiance,
purity, and luminosity. As the Buddha said, "The
mind is shining."
can discover the capacity of the mind to be aware,
to love, to begin again. Even
though we might have acted unskillfully before, we
discover the clarity and peace that are the essence
of who we truly are, rather than the greed or anger
or fear that motivated us to harm someone. It is not
as if we have to do something to deserve this essence
- it is simply natural to our being. We may have lived
separate from it all our lives, but it has not gone
away or dimmed. We may have dishonored it or violated
its promise of wholeness, but it remains unchanged
and is waiting for us to claim it.
When pain moves us to
"go behind the veil" of apparent separation,
we connect to the entirety of life and our place in
it. Life accepts us; it is only awaiting our acceptance
of ourselves. Forgiving ourselves does not mean condoning
everything we have ever done, or imagining that the
pain of recollection will simply go away. It means
understanding the large web of conditions that helped
create each action, and through that understanding,
gaining compassion for ourselves and others.
In the course of our
lives, we too often fail to stop and recollect who
we are, and the consequences are painful. As Wordsworth
wrote, "Late and soon, getting and spending,
we lay waste our powers." Not only in "getting
and spending," but in many of our actions, our
energy - our own power- is scattered and unavailable
to us. A thought arises in the mind, and we end up
subsumed in a cascade of associative thinking. When
we emerge, we may wonder how in the world we ended
up thinking longingly about Paris when the last thing
we remember is thinking longingly about lunch! At
times, nearly every feeling we have has the possibility
of overwhelming us. We might feel delighted in one
moment and stricken in the next. We run after what
we think is desirable, and we pull back from what
we think is undesirable. And so, lost in the past
or future, swept up in judgment or worried speculation,
we move onward in a state of constant reaction. Scattering
an immensity of energy into all of these distractions,
we sabotage our chance for equanimity and peace, and
truly "lay waste our powers."
Imagine gathering all
that energy back into yourself, so that it is available
again for you to expend consciously - rather than
having your mind scattered here and there. When we
live in the present moment, we develop concentration
and are reempowered. We know what we are thinking
as we are thinking it, and we know what we are feeling
as we are feeling it. We are not pulled into everything
that arises in our minds. When the mind is concentrated,
there is a sense of emotional balance. While not rejecting
or cutting off feeling, this kind of concentration,
known in Pali as smattha, brings forth an amazing
steadiness and stability of mind.
In the traditional practice
of concentration, we place the awareness on a single
object, such as the inhalation and exhalation of the
breath, or the phrases of lovingkindness, and we let
go of everything else that passes through our mental
and physical senses. There is almost a sense of cherishing
the concentration object; sometimes, it is as if we
are protecting it. But we never need to clutch it
tightly or grimly; we simply practice with a quality
of devotion. Devoted to the chosen object of our concentration,
we stay connected to it, gently letting go of whatever
distracts us from it.
Michelangelo was once
asked how he would carve an elephant. He replied,
"I would take a large piece of stone and take
away everything that was not the elephant." Developing
the force of concentration is simply seeing what is
"not the elephant" and letting it go. The
art of concentration is a continual letting go. We
let go of that which is inessential or distracting.
We let go of a thought or a feeling, not because we
are afraid of it or because we can't bear to acknowledge
it as a part of our experience, but because it is
unnecessary. When we are practicing concentration
and a thought arises in the mind - a memory, a plan,
a comparison, an inviting fantasy - we let go of it.
If anger arises, or self-judgment, or eager anticipation,
we simply let it go, calmly returning to the object
of concentration. This is what is meant by renunication.
Gandhi described his
life's mission in just three words: "Renounce
was a great refinement of the mind, not a terrible
or bitter austerity. In the same way, through the
practice of concentration, when we let go of distraction,
our feeling tone need not be one of angry rejection.
Rather, it can be an expression of our deepest motivation
for freedom. We let go with the same gracioiusness
that we might apply in offering a gift to somene.
We let go as an act of generosity. Strengthening cooncentration,
we "renounce and enjoy." We renounce that
which is inessential, and relaxing into stillness,
we become fully focused on the present moment.
The more we are caught
in reactive movements of clinging and condemning,
careening toward some thoughts and feelings and away
from others, the more we suffer.
from fully experiencing our lives, we "lay waste
our powers." The practice of concentration is
a potent method of freeing ourselves from the entanglements
and limitations of this kind of instability. And so
with heartfelt devotion to our deepest intention,
we find ourselves letting go over and over and over
When I first started
practicing meditation, I assumed that it took a great
deal of laborious, grim effort to tame the mind and
develop concentration. In my first meditation retreat,
I became so frustrated with the persistent wanderings
of my attention that, in a frenzy, I declared to myself
that the next time my attention wandered I would start
to bang my head against the wall. Fortunately, the
lunch bell rang just then. Standing in the lunch line,
I over heard a conversation between two students I
did not know. One of them was asking the other how
his morning had gone. The other man replied with apparent
great lightness of spirit, "I couldn't really
concentrate strongly, but this afternoon may well
I turned around in great
shock and regarded him with disbelief. "Why isn't
he as upset as I am?" I wondered. "Doesn't
he take this stuff seriously at all?" This was
my first meeting with Joseph Goldstein. Five and a
half years later, along with Jack Kornfield and many
committed friends, we would be the founders of the
Insight Meditation Society. By that time, I had come
to understand what lay behind Joseph's lighthearted
As my practice evolved,
I learned that the conditions required for concentration
to develop were far from the kind of tormented struggle
I had engaged in. In Buddhist psychology, every wholesome
quality of mind has what is called a proximate cause.
This is the condition, or the basis, that most easily
and readily gives rise to a particular quality. For
example, the proximate cause of metta, lovingkindness,
is seeing the goodness in someone, so metta most easily
arises when we can see the good in someone.
I had expected the proximate
cause of concentration to be something like intense
zeal or valiant struggle. Instead, much to my surprise,
according to the Buddhist teachings the proximate
cause of concentration is happiness. As I had realized,
straining to keep the mind on an object does not create
the condition for concentration to most readily arise.
However, when the mind is at ease, serene, and happy,
we can more easily and naturally concentrate. Happiness
in this sense does not mean the fleeting experience
of pleasure, which inherently contains a quiet anxiety
based on knowing that the moment will pass. The kind
of happiness that is the proximate cause of concentration
is a state of tranquility in which our hearts are
calm, open, and confident. This is the fertile ground
for the growth of concentration.
But how do we arrive
at this state of happiness?
To some degree we arrive
there by having a correct perspective - the perspective
Joseph was evincing in that lunch line so many years
ago. There are always what we perceive as ups and
downs in practice. Meditation is a cyclical process
that defies analysis, but demands acceptance.
my practice developed, I found that the ability to
accept and allow for changing experience was connected
to my degree of self-respect. When
my sense of self-respect was strong, I could go through
difficult periods without being so disheartened. Difficulties
did not reflect a lack of self-worth to me. And I
could go through pleasant periods without trying to
get a death-grip on them, for fear they would change
and leave me feeling badly about myself. For me, self-respect
definitely seemed a key component in maintaining the
happiness that, in turn, helped give rise to concentration.
And it became clear that my level of self-respect
was rooted in how I behaved during the rest of my
life, when I was not sitting on the meditation cushion.
I found this truth not only in my practice, but in
the classical Buddhist teachings as well.
These teachings are
often presented in a causal sequence, which shows
how one state of mind helps create the conditions
for the arising of the next. In the Visuddhi-magga
(The Path of Purification), a famous commentarial
work of the Theravada tradition, happiness takes its
place in a logical unfolding that leads from morality
to ultimate liberation.
The text opens by telling
us that morality is considered the foundation for
the development of restraint. In Buddhism, morality
does not mean a forced or puritanical abiding by rules.
Morality means living with intentions that reflect
our love and compassion for ourselves as well as others.
the philosopher George Santayana said, "Morality
is the desire to lessen suffering in the world."
When we live in harmony with the innate truth of our
interdependence, we want to refrain from doing harmful
acts. This leads to the next mental condition of restraint.
Restraint is the foundation of the development of
the absence of remorse. When we restrain a momentary
impulse to do a harmful act, we are able to see the
impermanence and transparency of the desire that initially
arose. Having avoided harmful action, we also avoid
the guilt, fear of discovery, and the confusion and
regret that come when we forget that what we do has
The positive condition
that results from restraint is called "gladdening."
Absence of remorse is the foundation for the development
of gladdening. Gladdening is the state of lightness
and ease we find in our lives as we increasingly care
for ourselves and other beings. Because we genuinely
experience a connection to others, we let go of actions
that are hurtful and do fewer things that keep us
feeling separate from others. Thus our common, dispiriting
sense of loneliness and alienation is relieved. Gladdening
is the foundation for the development of happiness.
In this way we arrive
at happiness - the happiness of peace, composure,
This is happiness that
is not going to fracture as conditions change, as
people behave in disappointing ways, as we do not
get what we want. This is happiness based on knowing
our interconnectedness, on the integrity of acting
from our deepest values. It is based on a mind at
ease. This is self-respect.
It then follows, according
to the Visuddhi-magga, that happiness is the foundation
for the development of tranquility. Rather than the
turbulence and agitation that we experience when the
mind is full of worry, remorse, and guilt, the mind
is quieter. Because there is not a great bundle of
complexity that we need to disentangle and make amends
for, we can be more peaceful in this moment. Tranquility,
arising from happiness, is the foundation for the
development of concentration. (It was obviously this
tranquility that I was lacking in that retreat long
Concentration is steadiness
of mind, the feeling we have when we are one-pointed
and powerful in our attention. When we can concentrate,
a door opens to insight and wisdom.
Concentration is thus
the foundation for the development of correct knowledge
and vision. This means being able to see things as
they actually are, without so quickly distorting the
experience through the filter of our hopes and fears.
It is the release from these filters that leads us
personally, intimately, to trust in our own sense
of truth. Correct knowledge and vision, once firmly
a part of our lives, is the foundation for the development
Dispassion does not
mean coldness or indifference but, rather, a spaciousness
of mind in which we enjoy a sense of wholeness and
sufficiency no matter what the particular transitory
life situation. It is the equanimity in the face of
the changing circumstances we continually meet. Whether
we get what we want or not, we can see things in perspective.
We can do what needs to be done to try to alleviate
our own or others' suffering, and we can do it from
a place of inner peace. This was Joseph in the lunch
line, though at the time I thought he was frivolous
for not torturing himself, as I was doing myself.
Dispassion is the foundation
for the development of the fading away of greed and
anger. Once we are moving through life's circumstances
with more balance and the happiness of self-respect,
we are not so mechanically driven by old habits of
reaction, like desperately trying to hold on to pleasure
or flee from pain. These old habits cannot take root
in our hearts in quite the same way. Even when they
arise, there is a porous quality to them, so that
we need not be afraid of them any longer, and we can
choose not to follow their call.
The fading away of greed
and hatred is the foundation for liberation.
Liberation is "the
sure heart's release"- an understanding of the
truth so powerful that there is no turning back from
it. When we are not approaching our experience with
an agenda, trying to have it complete a sense of lack
in ourselves, we can pay careful attention to what
is arising. We can open to life and learn from it,
for our own experience reveals the truth of all of
life. When we can pay careful, unbiased attention,
we discover the cause of our suffering as well as
our freedom from suffering.
This sequence, as described
by the Visuddhi-magga - morality, restraint, gladdening,
happiness, tranquility, concentration, dispassion,
the fading away of greed and anger, liberation - is
as natural as the movement of the wind. When happiness
is seen in the context of this process, it becomes
an integral part of our spiritual life. We dedicate
our intentions to nonharming, to love and compassion,
and we are led to the prospect of freedom.
While happiness is an
end in itself, one of the fruits of meditation, it
is also the state of mind we can have right now, simply
by respecting ourselves and living a life of caring.
This is the happiness that is an essential ingredient
for the ultimate liberation of our minds from suffering.
Is a Verb
As Thich Nhat Hanh,
the Vietnamese Zen monk, points out, "Compassion
is a verb." It is not a thought or a sentimental
feeling but is rather a movement of the heart. As
classically defined in Pali, compassion is "the
trembling or the quivering of the heart." But
how do we get our hearts to do that?
How do we "do"
Compassion is born out
of lovingkindness. It is born of knowing our oneness,
not just thinking about it or wishing it were so.
It is born out of the wisdom of seeing things exactly
as they are. But compassion also arises from the practice
of inclining the mind, of refining our intention.
The Dalai Lama once said, "I don't know why people
like me so much. It must be because I try to be compassionate,
to have bodhicitta, the aspiration of compassion."
He doesn't claim success; he claims a commitment to
Is there a difference,
in quality or quantity, between the compassion any
of us might feel and the compassion of the Dalai Lama?
Is it that he experiences
more compassionate moments in a row? Or is the actual
quality of compassion different? While this can be
seen from many different perspectives, one traditional
view would say that a moment of compassion any one
of us feels is as pure, as deep, as direct as anyone
else's; but what happens is that we may lose touch
with it more often. We get distracted, we forget,
we get caught up in something else, or we confuse
another feeling for the state of compassion.
We might at times think
that we are feeling compassion when in fact what we
are feeling is fear. We may be afraid to take an action,
to confront a person or a situation, to be forceful
or to reach out. Under the guise of believing we are
being kind and compassionate, we hold back. From the
Buddhist perspective, this lack of effort to ease
our own or another's suffering is seen as lack of
courage. Because it is not easy to see lack of courage
in oneself, we prefer to think we are being compassionate
rather than afraid.
Another state of mind
that is often confused with compassion is guilt.
When we see someone
who is suffering while we are fairly happy, or if
we are happy in a way that anther person is not, we
might inwardly feel that we do not deserve our happiness,
or that we should hold back our happiness out of pity
for the other. But guilt, in Buddhist psychology,
is defined as a type of self-hatred and a form of
Certainly there are
times when we recognize that we have acted unskillfully,
and we feel concern and remorse. This kind of remorse
can be important and healing. This is in contrast
to the guilt we feel as a state of contraction, in
which we endlessly review what we might have done
or said in the past. In this state of guilt we become
center stage; rather than acting to serve others,
we act to get rid of the guilt and thus only serve
ourselves. Guilt drains our energy, whereas compassion
gives us the strength to reach out to help others.
In order to let go of
the feelings of fear and guilt, and move into true
compassion, we need to see without hesitation whatever
we may be feeling or doing. One of the virtues of
awareness is that we can simply look without judgment
at what we are actually experiencing. Not being afraid
of our fear or guilt, we can say, "Oh, yes, that's
fear, that's guilt; that's what's happening right
now." And then we can reestablish our intention
to be compassionate.
When we practice compassion,
we may make the mistake of trying to lay a veneer
of caring on top of whatever we are actually feeling:
"I mustn't feel fear, I mustn't feel guilt, I
must only feel compassion, because that is my dedication."
It is important to remember, though, that the clarity
at the heart of compassion comes from wisdom. We don't
have to struggle to be someone we are not, hating
ourselves for our confused feelings. Seeing clearly
what is happening is the ground out of which compassion
What is most important
is the mind's unshakable intention to see through
to the root of suffering. We need strength, courage,
and wisdom to be able to open so deeply. And then
the compassion can come forth.
The state of compassion
is whole and sustaining; the compassionate mind is
not broken or shattered by facing states of suffering.
It is spacious and resilient. Compassion is nourished
by the wisdom of our interconnectedness. This understanding
transcends a martyrdom in which we habitually think
only of others, never caring about ourselves. And
it transcends a self-centered caring in which we have
concern only about ourselves and never bother about
of our interconnectedness arises hand in hand with
learning to truly love ourselves. The Buddha said
that if we truly loved ourselves, we would never harm
another. For in harming another, we diminish who we
are. When we can love ourselves, we give up the idea
that we do not deserve the love and attention we are
theoretically willing to give to others.
By bringing awareness
to the truth of the present moment, and also holding
a vision of our heart's deepest wish to be loving
toward all, we establish our dedication to compassion.
Perhaps the shining manifestation of compassion in
the Dalai Lama is a reflection not only of the number
of moments he is compassionate, or of how these moments
transform the quality of his presence, but also a
reflection of his complete confidence in the possibility
and importance of being a truly loving person.
Bridge of Empathy
research shows that some individuals, when they are
in a highly agitated state of mind, are oblivious
to how they are feeling.
Their hearts may be
racing, their blood pressure climbing, and they may
be sweating profusely, yet they are not aware of being
angry or afraid or anxious. About one person in six
exhibits this pattern. Being so unaware of their own
pain, is it possible that they could understand or
empathize with what someone else may be feeling? Being
unable to empathize, how can they live complete lives?
we practice mindfulness, one of the qualities that
we are developing is empathy. As
we open to the full range of experiences within ourselves,
we become aware of what we perceive in each moment,
no longer denying some feelings while clinging to
others. By coming to know our own pain, we build a
bridge to the pain of others, which enables us to
step out of our self-absorption and offer help. And
when we actually understand how it feels to suffer
- in ourselves and in others - we are compelled to
live in a way that creates as little harm as possible.
With empathy acting
as a bridge to those around us, a true morality arises
Knowing that someone
will suffer if we perform a harmful action or say
a hurtful word, we find we do these things less and
less. It is a very simple, natural, and heart-full
response. Rather than seeing morality as a set of
rules, we find a morality that is an uncontrived reluctance
to cause suffering.
In Buddhist teachings
an image is used to reflect this quality of mind:
a feather, held near a flame, instantly curls away
from the heat. When our minds become imbued with an
understanding of how suffering feels and fills with
a compassionate urge not to cause more of it, we natural
recoil from causing harm. This happens without self-consciousness
or self-righteousness; it happens as a natural expression
of the heart. As Hannah Arendt said, "Conscience
is the one who greets you if and when you ever come
Two qualities are traditionally
attributed to this beautiful and delicate sense of
conscience that gives rise to harmlessness: in Pali
they are known as hiri and ottapha, traditionally
translated as "moral shame" and "moral
dread." The translation is somewhat misleading,
as these qualities have nothing to do with fear or
shame in the self-deprecating sense. Rather, they
have to do with that natural and complete turning
away from causing harm. Ottapah, or moral dread, comes
from feeling of disquietude at the possibility of
hurting ourselves or others. Hiri, moral shame, manifests
in the form of a reluctance to cause pain in others
because we know fully in ourselves how that feels.
this sense, opening to our own suffering can be the
source of our deep connection to others. We
open to this pain, not for the sake of getting depressed,
but for what it has to teach us: seeing things in
a different way, having the courage not to harm, recognizing
that we are not alone and could never be alone.
Sometimes we are afraid
to open ot something painful because it seems as though
it will consume us. Yet the nature of mindfulness
is that it is never overcome by whatever is the present
object of awareness. If we are mindful of a twisted
or distorted state of mind, the mindfulness is not
twisted or distorted. Even the most painful state
of mind or the most difficult feeling in the body
does not ruin mindfulness. A true opening, born of
mindfulness, is marked by spaciousness and grace.
our culture we are taught to push away, to avoid our
feelings. This kind of aversion is the action of a
mind caught in separation. Whether in the active,
fiery form of anger and rage, or in a more inward,
frozen form like fear, the primary function of these
mental states is to separate us from what we are experiencing.
But the only way that we can be free from suffering
ourselves and avoid doing harm to others is by connection
- connection to our own pain, and through awareness
and compassion, a connection to the pain of others.
We learn not to create separation from anything or
anyone. This is empathy.
- To Place the Heart Upon
The word for faith in
Pali is saddha. While sometimes translated as "confidence"
or "trust," the literal meaning of saddha
is "to place your heart upon." When we give
our hearts over to a spiritual practice, it is a sign
of confidence or trust in the path we have embarked
upon. Faith opens us to what is beyond our usual,
limited, self-centered concerns. In Buddhist psychology,
faith is called the gateway too all good things, because
it sparks our initial inspiration to practice meditation
and also sustains our ongoing efforts. Faith empowers
us to move toward compassion, lovingkindness, and
Yet the concept of faith
can be difficult for some people. Faith may be associated
with mindless belief, or it may imply the need to
proclaim allegiance to a creed r doctrine. Then we
fear being judged, by ourselves or by others, for
our degree of compliance. When we use the world faith
in Buddhist context, it is quite different from this.
And this difference is crucial.
"place the heart upon" does not at all mean
to believe in something s rigidly that we become defensive
about opening our minds to new ideas. Nor
does it mean that we use what we have faith in as
a way of feeling separate from and superior to others.
We do not need too subjugate others because of our
faith, or declare the vessel of our faith as the one
true vessel. When we talk about saddha, we are talking
about a heartfelt confidence in the possibility of
our own awakening.
Faith does not need
to be viewed as a fixed, solid thing that we either
have or don't have. We experience faith on many levels.
In a classical Buddhist text entitled the Questions
of King Milinda, a monk named Nagasena uses an allegory
to illustrate this. A group of people, gathered on
the edge of a flooding stream, want to go to the far
shore but are afraid. They do not know what to do,
until one wise person comes along, assesses the situation,
takes a running leap, and jumps to the other side.
Seeing the example of that person, the others say,
"Yes, it can be done." And then they also
In this story, the near
shore symbolizes our usual confused condition, and
the far shore is the awakened mind. Inspired by witnessing
another, we say "Yes, it can be done." This
is one level of faith. But after we have jumped ourselves,
when we say "Yes, it can be done" because
we know it from our own experience, then we have entered
into quite another level of faith.
The first instance is
an example of what is called "bright faith."
This is the kind of faith that happens when our hearts
are opened by encountering somebody or something that
moves us. Perhaps we are inspired by a person's qualities
of wisdom or kindness. Whether it is someone we know
or a historical figure, like the Buddha or another
great being, we begin to sense the possibility of
a different, happier way to live.
Bright faith is a wonderful
feeling and an important beginning, but it is also
unreliable. We might encounter one teacher one day
and another teacher another day, and be moved powerfully
by each of them, but in different directions. If we
are looking for someone outside of ourselves to sustain
our faith, we can easily become distracted by whatever
influence comes into our lives next.
The deeper level of
faith is called "verified faith," meaning
that it is grounded in our own experience. This is
a mature faith, anchored in our own sense of the truth,
centered in an understanding of the nature of the
mind and body that we come to through our own awareness.
The inspiration and confidence we feel, rather than
coming from something outside of ourselves, arises
from within, and it fuels further inquiries into our
It is a great turning
point in our lives when we move from an intellectual
appreciation of our spiritual path to the heartfelt
confidence that says, "Yes, it is possible to
awaken. I too can." A tremendous joy accompanies
this confidence. When we place our hearts upon the
practice, the teachings come alive. The turning point,
which transforms an abstract concept of a spiritual
path into our own personal path, is faith.
During my first visit
to India in 1970, I saw many shocking things. The
most shocking experience I had was when I found myself
walking down a street in Bombay where young women
were displayed in zoolike cages to be sold as prostitutes.
Many of them were children who had been sold by their
relatives to the criminal organizations who control
the sex trade in India, so that the children's families
would not starve.
The memory of that scene
is still vivid in my mind - a horrible portent of
things to come. Now, twenty-five years later, Bombay
has an estimated 100,000 prostitutes, and the ate
of HIV infection is over 32 percent. HIV is spreading
so rapidly throughout the country that the United
Nations estimates that India will soon lead the world
with the largest population of people who are infected
with the disease. The tide of suffering is already
inconceivable, and it seems certain to get worse.
The rapidity of the
spread of HIV in India is being brought about by many
factors. Pervasive poverty means that even government
hospitals frequently run shore of supplies, so that
needles and syringes are often reused at great risk
of further infection. The powerlessness of women in
the culture means that prostitutes who ask men to
use condoms might well starve, and wives who do so
might be beaten or simply put out on the street. So,
the anguish only grows.
One of the primary conditions
for the growth of suffering, in India or anywhere
else, is denial.
Shutting our minds to
the experience of pain, whether in ourselves or others,
only ensures that it will continue. Yet when we witness
immense suffering, and do not deny it or find some
way to put it out of our minds, it can seem overwhelming.
I remember walking down that street in Bombay, seeing
those girls, feeling helpless, wanting to do something
but not knowing what.
In order to do anything
about the world, we first must have the strength to
face it without turning away. By just walking down
that Bombay street, I faced a lot: the suffering of
women and children, the suffering of unimaginable
poverty and disease, the suffering of ignorance, the
suffering of being able to help only a little bit
when so very much needs to be done, and the suffering
of not know what to do.
In India there are not
as many closed doors that hide anguish, but the most
crucial door, anywhere in the world, is in the mind.
By opening to the pain we see around us with wisdom
and compassion, we start to experience the intimate
connection of our relationship with all beings. The
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said,
In a real sense, all
of life is interrelated. All persons are caught in
an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single
garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly
affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought
to be until you are what you ought to be, and you
can never be what you ought to be until I am what
I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure
When we recognize the
truth of interrelatedness, we are moved to act in
ways that can make a difference. And whatever action
we take, however insufficient it might seem, stands
as testimony to our willingness to make someone else's
yearning for release part of our own.
The truth of our interconnection
- of how our suffering and our freedom from suffering
are intimately interwoven with that of others -is
present at all times for us to see, if we are open
to it. It is present in the worldwide spread of AIDS,
a disease that knows no boundaries. The first time
I heard of AIDS, it was an exotic and rare disease
and it was unimaginable that I would ever know anybody
who would die from it. Now I have several friends
who are suffering from AIDS, and several who have
died because of it. There are few people anywhere
on the planet whose lives have not been touched in
some way by this disease.
So, in some subtle but
very real way, I see that my own suffering and freedom
from suffering are clearly interwoven with being willing
to face the pain of those caged children in Bombay,
as well as facing my own disquiet in becoming aware
of their situation. The shift in my world view to
include them - rather than ignore them or reject them
as not having anything to do with me - is the same
shift in perspective that dispels our deeply held
mirage of isolation.
the delusion of separation, we may sense an oasis
of connection to just a few people, maybe just our
families and friends. We may create a fence around
the oasis to protect and defend it, then a fort, and
ultimately a whole way of life perpetuates the illusion.
We get lost in feelings of disconnection and a sense
of the futility of caring. It is only by not denying
reality that we move into a knowledge of our interconnection
with the whole of life. When we relate with wisdom
and compassion, there we find true shelter in a community
of all beings. Opening to the suffering of others
may bring us uneasiness, but we, and potentially the
world, are transformed by that opening. We become
empowered to respond to the suffering with an unfathomable
love, rather than with fear or aversion. Only love
is big enough to hold all the pain of this world.