Saturday, December 29, 2018

Tough Love

Compassion isn’t for wimps. Opening your heart to the suffering of others is dangerous, high-risk business. It could cost you your peace of mind, damage your reputation, and confuse the not-so-innocent bystanders. It might even cost you your life.

            Compassion isn’t soft and fuzzy, it’s bold and tough. It’s the conviction to love no matter what the cost. Compassion sets self-interest aflame, burns down the ego, and sows seeds in the tear-soaked ashes.

            Compassion threatens institutional power, official explanations, hallowed doctrines, and traditional ideologies. Compassion might even threaten our conventional notions of law, morality, and ethics. In fact, compassion threatens all systems, because love is not a system, it’s not a thought, it’s not a concept, and it sure isn’t a doctrine – it’s a living, breathing embodiment of the eternal formless sacred here in the realm of temporal forms. It eludes our grasp, while simultaneously forming the very fabric of our being. We cannot understand compassion. We can only be compassion. In fact, we must.

            The world’s wisdom teachers and traditions have been singing this song since the beginning. The 4th century B.C.E. Chinese philosopher Mencius argued that compassion was one of the “four sprouts,” along with righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. These four virtues are innate potentials, not a fait accompli. The sprout metaphor is a lively one – like young, tender shoots our virtues must be nurtured, cultivated, and strengthened through use.

But even in the least practiced among us, the four sprouts are present. Who among us, Mencius asked, when seeing a child fall into a well, would not rush to save them? Not to gain favor from their parents, or to bolster our standing in the community, or for any other extrinsic motive, but because it is in our nature to feel deeply the suffering of others and to act on those feelings.

            Still, compassion is a tendency, not an inevitability. As Mencius taught, human beings tend toward goodness the way water tends to run downhill, and water can be blocked or diverted. Just because human beings have a benevolent nature does not prevent them from choosing indifference or worse. Far, far worse. 

In Buddhism, compassion is the natural consequence of enlightenment. Awakening from the dream of separateness, moving beyond the limits of conditioned consciousness characterized by craving and fear, the boundaries between all forms become diaphanous. Everything bleeds into one. The suffering of others is finally seen for what is it – our suffering.

            When Jesus counsels us to love our enemies and forgive them for they know not what they do, he is calling us to our compassion – to learn how to see the secret heart of our enemies and find our common humanity there. A tall order, but possible, if we allow our inner light to shine brighter than the darkness of our egotism. Agape, the Greek word the Gospels use for love, is more an act of will than a feeling. We have to choose love, especially when we don’t feel it.

             So which is it? Is compassion spontaneous or an act of the will? The mind gets caught up in the whirlwind between such paradoxes. The answer is never either/or but always both/and. Compassion is inclination, not destiny. We must first feel it, then choose it, again and again and again. And through practice, we strengthen our capacity to feel the suffering of others, thereby tempering the metal of our fiercely loving hearts.
[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the January/February issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]  

Friday, November 30, 2018

Wielding the Sword

When you take a second look at Jesus, there are always a few surprises. Just when you think he’s the guru of peace and love along comes a passage like this: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) “I have not come to bring peace.” Seriously? Just who is this sword-wielding Jesus? Now that would make a cool stained-glass window.
            Throughout the world’s wisdom traditions, spiritual teachers often resort to the image of the sword. In Vedanta philosophy, the “sword of discrimination” refers to our ability to discern reality from illusion, permanence from impermanence, and truth from lies. Wielding the sword of discrimination is an essential skill for anyone seeking liberation from the delusions of conditioned consciousness. If you have no capacity for discernment or discrimination, you remain forever trapped in an illusory realm far from the sanity, refuge, and beauty of the truth.
            The great Buddhist bodhisattva Manjurshri is depicted wielding a flaming sword, his eyes alight with the intensity of a warrior in battle. In his other hand he holds a lotus flower, the symbol of prajna, the fully-realized awareness of the enlightened state. Because you can’t have one without the other. If you want to awaken, you must cut away all that is not real.
Manjurshri, flaming sword and all, is not your soft, cuddly bodhisattva. He is not your mom. He did not come to comfort you with soft words, cookies, and cocoa. He is here to violently cut you free from the things that are holding your back – your egoic delusions of grandeur, your debilitating self-loathing, your cravings and attachments, and the lie that you have more time to waste. Sharp swords have a way of conveying urgency when gentle coddling and doe-eyed ministrations fail.
            It will hurt. You’re going to lose some things – things that you thought were important. But it turns out they weren’t. And since you were unwilling to let go of them, Manjursri came to slash them away with his sword. You made him do this. You could have let go. But you didn’t. You chose attachment. So he had to go to work.
Change is hard because we always focus on what we are losing, never on what is being born from the wreckage. As much as we say we want to be free the truth is this: we like our cages. We feel contained by them, protected even. Safe.
Safety is overrated. Looking back on our lives we realize that it was only when we took enormous risk or weathered great loss that we were rewarded with the sweetness and beauty we had been longing for.
In Daniel Ladinsky’s translation, the Sufi poet Hafiz explains it this way in his poem Looking for Trouble:

           I once had a student
Who would sit alone in his house at night
Shivering with worries and fears.

And come morning
He would often look as though
He had been raped by a ghost.

Then one day my pity
Crafted for him a knife
From my own divine sword

Since then
I have become very proud of this student.

For now, come night
Not only has he lost all his fear,
Now he goes out
Just looking for trouble.

We have all seen that “raped by a ghost” look in each other’s eyes, and even in our own. Haunted by a past we cannot change, afraid to step across the threshold of our own front doors to claim what is ours, convinced that who we really are is not what the world requires, we stay frozen in a thought-cage of limited and limiting ideas that hold us back from living our own best lives.
This is why spiritual teachers from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and everywhere else talk so much about wielding swords. That’s how tenacious negative thinking is. That’s how powerful lies are. They don’t undo themselves – they must be undone with sharp, bold, decisive action.
What happens when you run and hide from the sword of discernment? In other words, what happens when you refuse to find the courage to relinquish all of your attachments? What happens when you fail to see past the surface of things and into their depths? What happens when you deny the soft and mysteriously paradoxical nature of reality and force the fluid world into hard categories and rigid dogma? In a word, suffering. Suffering, Buddha taught, is the inevitable product of self-centered expectations. In fact, expectations are just future resentments under construction. When you foolishly think that you are in charge, the universe always has a big surprise waiting for you – the flat tire, the sudden divorce, the devastating diagnosis. In those moments the sword of Manjurshri comes crashing down with heartrending finality and in an instant we realize our utter powerlessness. But on the other side of that powerlessness is the freedom of realization, the wordless knowing that as all the forms of the embodied world rise and fall without our consent or permission we, in the eye of the hurricane, are stillness and peace. That there is wisdom in letting go, in saying Thank you for even allowing me to experience any of this. Grief and despair give way to gratitude and reverence. Even rapture.
But why wait? As we learn to wield the sword of discrimination ourselves, before it is done for and to us, we claim our rightful responsibility as stewards of our own best lives. Never stop trying to awaken. It is not new ideas we need, but freedom from all ideas. Somewhere out past all ideologies and doctrines is the wordless wisdom of inter-being, to be touched in our meditation practice, in our sacred service, in our prayers, in our humble appreciation, in our careful study, and in our sweet and innocent loving. Wisdom is not something we know, it is something we do. In this sense, it is possible to be right without having all of the answers, without, in fact, having any answers at all. We relinquish even the need to understand. We face what is, and have on our lips only the holy word yes. This is what it means to wield the sword of discernment.