Friday, April 17, 2015

Compassion requires action

Compassion is the heart of the Buddhist teachings. The Dalai Lama, head of one of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and the face of Buddhism to much of the world, says that the purpose of life is to be happy, and the way to attain that is to develop compassion.

"The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life," he says.

Compassion is listed as one of the Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abodes, along with lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity. While lovingkindness is defined as the wish for all beings -- ourselves and others -- to be happy, compassion goes a step further, seeing suffering and aspiring to end it.

Looking deeply at others' suffering may sound depressing, but the Dalai Lama says it's what gives us the ability to face our difficulties without getting swamped:
As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but every one who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind!
Thus we can strive gradually to become more compassionate, that is we can develop both genuine sympathy for others' suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.

Compassion develops on three levels: aspiring (we see others' suffering and wish it could be removed); active (we take action to alleviate the suffering); and absolute (we see no difference between ourselves and others, and every action we take is for the benefit of beings).

How do we develop compassion? We allow our hearts to be touched. Compassion is sometimes described as being tender-hearted -- it's the "aw" we feel watching cat videos on the Internet or looking at pictures of babies; the tears that fall when we hear another's pain; even the anger at injustice. (Using anger as skillful means is a topic all its own.) There are specific practices in which we imagine exchanging places with another person or taking their suffering into our own hearts and transforming it.

By developing an attitude of compassion -- of seeing suffering rather than ignoring or denying it or blaming the person who is suffering -- we behave differently in the world. That's important. That's world-changing.

The 17th Karmapa, head of another of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages, is touring the U.S. for three months and has spoken frequently about the need to act to protect the environment. Intellectual knowledge of the threat to the planet has not produced action because our heartfelt awareness, known as bodhicitta, hasn't kept pace. We care more for consumer goods than the Earth.

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa plants a tree in New Haven. (
“The weakness of our compassion, and the weakness or outright lack of our bodhicitta has placed this world in grave danger," he said. "We know this, it is all around us and we are responsible for it. And yet we lack enough compassion to care. We lack enough bodhicitta to do anything about it. We need to work on that.”

Compassion depends on a personal, felt connection. When we act from that deep level, we respect the interdependent web of existence, cherishing all life as much as our own.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Is Buddhism's rep for tolerance deserved?

A new study reports that merely reading Buddhist terms in a word puzzle -- such as dharma, Buddha, and awakening -- increased the likelihood of "prosocial" behaviors among study participants, some of them familiar with Buddhism and others not.

Testing the theory of "subliminal priming," researchers found that introducing language associated with Buddhism decreased explicit prejudice against ethnic, ideological, and moral groups other than those of the person. The results challenge the idea that religion promotes prosocial behavior among its members but prejudice toward those outside the group, the authors said. Prosocial behaviors include having compassion and empathy, along with a sense of responsibility for others.

That doesn't mean Buddhism is better, the authors stressed.

"What we really want to argue is that Buddhist concepts are associated with tolerance, across cultural groups," Magalli Clobert, a post-doctoral student at Stanford and one of the study's authors, told The Huffington Post. "It means that, at least in people's mind, there is a positive vision of Buddhism as a religion of tolerance and compassion."
My immediate reaction is to list places where that's not true, a compendium of Buddhist behaving badly. That stems, in part, from my Buddhist training -- question everything, especially blanket perceptions. Ask yourself, when those perceptions arise: Is this true? Is it always true? Are there exceptions? Is this solid and permanent? Nope.

But after holding it for a while, I've decided that it's not untrue, either.

One of the beauties of Buddhism is that the Buddha doesn't mandate tolerance. He says, look into yourself and see what makes you intolerant. What makes you uncomfortable? Examine that -- if it is because the person is different, can you find areas of similarity? You both breathe, for starters. You both want to continue breathing. You both love things, maybe different things, but that feeling of love is the same. You're both humans in a confusing world. There's a common ground to start with, and if you dislike what the other person builds on that, you've still got that starting place to come back to so you can tolerate what does not harm your or the larger community and treat the other person with respect if you engage with them over their actions.

I saw this when I read a New York Times story about a woman who was asked to change her seat on an airplane because the man assigned to the seat next to her, an Orthodox Jew, was prohibited by his religion from sitting next to a woman who is not his wife.

I often use public transportation scenarios in equanimity meditation. I have a seat on a train. How do I feel if my BFF gets on and sits next to me? If an acquaintance I don't know much about takes that seat? If that talky, conservative co-worker gets it, or some smelly person?

My practice is about being OK with who other people are, not avoiding them. Seeing our shared humanity, even if we display it differently. Recognizing that we're all fighting our own battles and declining to escalate the war. Trying for tolerance and compassion -- and when I fail, knowing that I can keep trying, that small corrections lead to big changes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

You can't win meditation

We're entering heavy sports season here in the U.S., with the month-long college basketball championships wrapping up -- March Madness that now extends into April -- and playoffs looming for professional basketball and hockey, even as baseball opened its season Monday.

In a world where ambiguity muddies most situations, sports offer blessed certainty: Someone wins and someone loses. There's comfort in that. (Of course, if you look into the elements that go into those wins and losses, it can get fuzzy. Someone used performance-enhancing drugs. Someone violated recruiting rules.)

We'd like to be able to apply that certainty in our lives -- remember when Charlie Sheen 
popularized the "Winning" as a description of his life -- but life's not like that. You could see it as a series of games, I suppose, but there's no championship to end the season, declare a winner, and let everyone go home to rest. Life is about getting up and doing it again.

We'd really like to bring the game dynamic to our meditation practice -- we'd like a score, a quantifiable result that says we've won (or at least made the shot, hit the pitch, touched the rim).

The 17th Karmapa, who's touring the U.S. for three months, touched on this attitude in a talk over the weekend. Asked about ngondro, the preliminary practices students of Tibetan Buddhism undertake to get ready for vajrayana practices, Karmapa noted that attention tends to focus on the uncommon practices: 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 purifications mantras, 1 million or more devotional mantras. Students like to count, he said. Numbers make them feel like they've achieved something.

But in truth, it's the common practices, the ones that don't require any particular initiations, that are most important, Karmapa said. Those include contemplations of the Four Reminders that turn the mind to the dharma: Precious human birth, impermanence, karma, and the suffering inherent in all six realms of samsara.

The problem with those contemplations is that there's no way to quantify the results, Karmapa said. Your mind and your personality improve through those contemplations, he said. But there's no score, no stat line, no trophy that tells you that you've done it right or that you're the best in the league at appreciating your precious human birth, you know impermanence better than anyone. There's just you and those around you experiencing how you live your life.

We find that "boring," Karmapa said, interrupting his translator to say that precise English word. (He speaks in Tibetan, but he occasionally corrects his English translators.)

Those who play sports, who aren't just fans following the hot team, know the truth of what he says, though. Games aren't about the score -- they're about the practices, about building muscle memory so that the body knows what to do. Breanna Stewart doesn't have time in a game to think, now I'm going to block that shot by jumping up; she's well-trained and reacts. Games are about showing up for every play, being present in the moment, no matter what the score. If you're focused more on the score than on the play, you'll screw up and let the opponent win. You need, as the sports cliche says, to keep your head in the game -- and out of dreaming about the victory trip to Disney World.

In shamata meditation, each breath is the only breath. In walking meditation, each step is the only step. In ngondro, every prostration is the only one. Each day starts fresh with no score.

Maybe someday, as secular meditation becomes more popular, there will be meditation competitions and there will be a meditation champion, just as there are yoga competitions now. But there is no outside acclamation or accumulation that can tell you when you're doing it right or doing it better than everyone else.

You'll know you're winning at meditation when that no longer matters.