When I was just a baby Buddhist, many years ago, I really wondered what they meant by karuna, “compassion.” When you hear about the Compassion of the Buddha, or about Avelokitesvara, Kuan Ssu Yin, Kwannon, Kang Se On, the Boddhisattva of Compassion, it’s clear that Compassion is something really important. And it’s not like it’s an unusual word. Here are some definitions from the web:
- “A deep awareness of and sympathy for another’s suffering.”
- “Understanding without judgment.”
So that’s easy … but how does a Buddha do that? A Buddha’s compassion is supposed to be limitless — but how can a Buddha have compassion for Hitler, or Mao, or Josef Mengele?
I puzzled about this for a long time, until one of my teachers told me this story.
It seems when the Buddha was teaching, he’d often receive visitors in the afternoons, and answer questions. The thing was, he’d answer anyone‘s questions: a thief, a murderous warrior, an untouchable, a whore. Finally, someone asks him — maybe Sariputra, the perpetual straight man — how it is that he can be calm and not judge these people?
The World-Honored One said, “Sariputra, when I awoke, I had access to all the events of all past incarnations. Now, when I meet a warrior, I remember what it is like to be a warrior, and know that I am a human; I too have the capacity to be a warrior, if the chain of dependent causation had led to that moment in that lifetime. The casteless one, I know, is just like me except for the fact of the causes that led to his birth. So also, the prostitute and the thief. Thus, the Tathagata recognizes that those conditions are themselves dependent, and therefore empty and have no inherent meaning.”
Sariputra thanked the Buddha for his teaching, but he was clearly still troubled, so the World Honored One asked if he had a further question. “If those conditions have no inherent meaning, how can we say ‘do this,’ and ‘don’t do that’? Is it not true that then everything is permissible?”
“Ah, not so, Sariputra,” the World-Honored One said. “For when I saw through to all the events of all past incarnations, I saw that the warrior I was, in later life, lost a limb, lost his sons, and eventually died when his Kingdom was conquered by another. Thus I saw that his actions were not productive and did not lead to liberation; and so I instructed our warrior in the ways that lead to liberation from duhkha. So also, the prostitute I recall, though she became a great courtesan and immensely wealthy, found that also did not lead to liberation; thus I taught our visitor the Eightfold Path that leads to liberation. Thus also the thief; thus, also, the casteless one. All of them, every one, sickens of the same disease; their deeds arise from duhkha, which arises from attachment, and thus in understanding, I teach them that which releases them from attachment and thus that from which their deeds arise. Just as I would not judge someone who was lame for their inability to walk, so I would not judge someone whose deeds arise from the disease of attachment.”
This story came to mind again when Jesse Helms died recently. I won’t bother to link to comments about Helms, either favorable or unfavorable: you will have no trouble finding stories about Helms that express great admiration, and even love, and others that deride him. Tony Snow, Tim Russert, Osama, Obama, Hillary, Ghandiji, me — all people, all in the same world of cause and effect, of dukhka and the attachment that leads to the arising of duhkha.
The Buddha’s Compassion, then, comes from that recognition that all of us are subject to attachment, from which duhkha arises; the Buddha sees that all their deeds are simply effects of causes, and therefore empty. Hating Jesse Helms is like hating an HIV patient for their virus: unproductive, and not leading to happiness or peace, either for them or for yourself.Footnotes:
- I don’t remember which one, and frankly I even faintly remember making it up, or modifying it, for myself. If so, well, sometimes you are your own best teacher, but I hate to ake credit for it. [↩]